Chapter 1: Delighted to Inform you:
The vacancy would be hard to fill. Harder to fill than the impacted wisdom tooth of an angry gerbil. Harder to fill than a woollen balloon. It would, come to think of it, be like trying to fill a distant test tube by catapulting lumps of porridge from an old sock.
The ideal candidate was, as ever in the Foreign Office, a leader with a broad-vision and a microscopic attention to detail. A full-spectrum generalist with a number of deep specialisms. A gregarious introvert with a steely charm; a flexible and empowering overlord; an authentic and cunning operator with 30 years of experience as a youthful go-getter.
Opening the door to the candidates’ waiting room, Anne Hardcastle’s first thought was of the auditions for a minor eccentric character in a village pantomime. But equally, it could have been the queue for the changing rooms in a Marks and Spencer’s men’s department on a wet Tuesday afternoon in Norwich.
On the upside, there had been a broad field. Applications had been welcomed from candidates of all backgrounds, or indeed none. Granted, for many of them, the background in question was beige, but that was not in itself a bad thing. Faceless anonymity, coupled with a powerful personal magnetism, were also key requirements for the role.
You see, you have to be careful about who you appoint to be Governor of Beagle Island. There were many pitfalls awaiting the interview panel. An inexpert observer might not spot the pattern in the applications, but a veteran like Anne could immediately file them into various categories:
The fugitive: It is an inescapable reality that many people seeking to work on remote islands are running away from something. Sometimes this can be a recently failed relationship or a bereavement. On other occasions it can be the Metropolitan Police.
The Enthusiast: The role of Governor offers significant potential for leaving a mark on the island and many incumbents had their pet projects. Forest planting, election reform and pest eradication (most commonly goats, bats, rats or reindeer) were regular favourites. Cardinal Island had a half-built desalination plant (the bit that removed and piled up the salt worked perfectly; it was just the part that extracted the fresh water that was wanting), while rumours that the governor of Indigo Island had ordered a mineshaft to be drilled to test his theory that his Residence sat atop a lithium mine, remained unproven. Some of the overseas territories were at risk of collapsing into the sea under the weight of unfulfilled gubernatorial ambition.
The repentant sinner: accidents can happen. And if you happen to have been there when they did, your next appointment could be less Ferrero Rocher and more Hobnob. Among every field of applicants lurked those with the misfortune to have served a mouldy scone to a Duke, played the wrong national anthem during a state funeral, or to have accidentally included an original Constable from the government art collection in the Embassy bring-and-buy sale.
The convalescent: malaria in Malaysia? Armed assault in Abidjan? Kidnapped in Cairo? After the stresses associated with some of the places we send our people, it’s no wonder that some of those drawn to the comparative tranquility of the overseas territories are nursing some residual trauma from previous postings. This doesn’t present any obstable to their appointment – but we usually recommend that they stay indoors during firework displays.
Anne was the HR representative on the panel. Her job was to explain to its other two members why their faith in their chosen candidate was misplaced, without either offending them or letting slip any of the highly confidential and personal information which informed her view. What she said carried much weight; it was well known that within the bowels of the personnel records department lay a treasure trove of reputational dynamite, privy only to her and to a handful of other staff. For here lay countless examples of that most hallowed and unusual government document – one telling the absolute truth. There were no niceties here – no ‘minor indiscretions’ or ‘suboptimal outcomes’; just brutal write-ups of what had actually happened, as recorded diligently by Anne and her team, based on their own crack detective work.
It had long ago been decided that such a resource was a necessity. In a network of nearly 300 missions, there was otherwise simply too much scope for misdeeds either to go un-noticed entirely, or else to be slipped delicately beneath the axminster in the Ambassador’s Residence and never seen again. After all, we trained these people to be cunning, smooth-talking fixers. Is it any wonder that they were less than forthcoming when it came to confessing their sins? Left unchecked, and with staff moving around the world and to and from London, it would be chaos – there would be no way of keeping tabs on who was a prize performer with occasional strokes of bad luck, and who was a prize idiot with occasional strokes of good luck. Hence Anne and her team; who sat apart from the main HR team in a separate annex, under the benign sounding title of ‘Reports Department’. Through a combination of wit, skill, a network of moles around the world which was the envy of Mi6, the team diligently built up as complete a picture as possible of the entire complement of staff, and recorded their findings in hundreds of blue ring-binders, each bearing the name of an employee.
This particular afternoon, Anne’s expertise would be much in demand. The initial filtering stage had removed the self-evidently terrible candidates. What was left was the far more dangerous category of the superficially plausible ones; candidates whom, without her eagle eye, were at serious risk of being appointed.
The first was Henry Goodenham. A diminutive, red faced fellow, with a penchant for silvery grey suits which matched his hair, the trousers of which would often overhang his shoes in a frequently fulfilled ambition to reach the ground. He had served 6 times previously overseas, not without distinction. Unlike many of his generation, he had avoided gout (which is to the diplomat as trenchfoot is to the soldier), and was a teetotaller (thereby dodging suspicions about the cause of his ruddy features). But decades of service had nonetheless taken their toll (well, can you imagine being sober at that many receptions?). In Henry’s case this took the form of an explosive temper, which had become legendary within the chanceries of sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, the violence which accompanied his outbursts tended to target material rather than human resources, but it was a problem nonetheless. In Addis Ababa, a few broken bits of crockery had been easy enough to explain away, but the snapped ornamental elephant tusk had to be put down to a freak gust of wind (which wasn’t entirely plausible, given that it had been in a glass display cabinet at the time). Things had worsened in Lagos, with a cracked oak table (upon learning of the cancellation of a Ministerial visit), a severed banister (upon learning that it had been re-arranged), and a plantpot through one of the side windows of the Residence (upon the departure of the Minister, who had made him miss his weekly round of golf). And they had got out of hand entirely when he was Ambassador in Ghana – with a near-atomised greenhouse, the puncturing of a exclusive papier mache art installation, and – an act which led to his eventual recall to London – the unfortunate union of the flag-car with the carp-pond.
Goodenham, but not good-enough.
The next candidate was one of those unfortunate people who, were it not for one flaw, could easily have the world at their feet. Hardworking, intelligent, and universally liked by staff, Sebastian Falls would have been a shoe-in for Paris or Washington. Only one thing retarded his career.
It was a curious business, first manifesting itself at the Japanese Ambassador’s welcome reception in Khartoum a few years ago. He had been standing on the grand staircase which led from the main entrance of the Foreign Ministry up to the ceremonial rooms, waiting in line to be received by the new envoy. Ahead and behind him, other members of the diplomatic corps lined the stairs. Without any warning, he had fainted, toppling backwards and starting a domino reaction which had begun harmlessly enough with the diminutive Chilean behind him, but which quickly gained momentum when the elephantine form of the Serbian defence attache toppled like a tombstone, sending a huddle of Gulf states scattering in three different directions. The next few seconds saw closer diplomatic ties formed between some unlikely allies. Iran and Israel could be seen embracing. India and Pakistan were entangled together on the floor for some seconds, and Armenia and Azerbaijan seemed to merge into one borderless mass. Only a sturdy collection of Ambassadors from the ‘stans brough an end to the chain reaction.
Doctors were never able to find anything wrong with Fall – scans and tests invariably found him to be in the peak of health. He never fainted anywhere other than at diplomatic gatherings, leading experts to conclude that it was a combination of claustraophobia and social anxiety. But whatever the root cause, it kept happening. His head narrowly missed the podium as he swooned at the opening of Parliament, and guests at the Queen’s Birthday Party were surprised to find him lying full stretch on the lawn shortly after greeting the Prime Minister. But the most unfortunate fainting of all came at the unveiling of a portrait of the President of Sudan at the national museum. It wasn’t really Fall’s fault – he had learned by now to stand with his back to the nearest wall at events like this, and to lean backwards – slumping discreetly onto the floor rather than toppling forwards, in the event that he felt woozy. But a cluster of late arriving guests had pushed everyone forwards and Fall became dislodged from his perch between two reassuringly sturdy stone lions, and thrust towards the front. When the inevitable happened, he was positioned about 5 feet from the recently-uncurtained portrait, which was propped up on a low stand just off the floor. Being 6 foot 3, his own head, rapidly gathering momentum as it traced a long arc towards the floor, coincided almost exactly with the unsmiling features of the President on the canvas. On the plus side, the thickly-piled carpet underneath the portrait prevented him from suffering anything worse than a bruised temple. On the down-side, the actual President was left smiling even less than he had been in his picture, and there had been a mutual decision that Fall should return discreetly to London.
If the first candidate tended to break things deliberately, and the second accidentally, the third had never broken anything in her life. Emma Frome was the model of propriety and even the deepest dive into the personnel files failed to dredge up anything adverse. She interviewed confidently and even the battle-worn face of Anne Hardcastle broke into a smile during her enthusiastic concluding statement.
All the more of a shame therefore that she turned down the job offer and left the department for a job in No.10 a few days later.
Normally in such circumstances a second candidate would be held in reserve. But neither of the other two finalists were judged appointable, and so the HR department had the inenviable task of finding someone who could be ‘laterally transferred’ into the slot. Time was short, as the previous Governor had left the island in a hurry having first married and then divorced one of the islanders (who had shown their appreciation for him on departure by spelling out the words ‘Go home, immoral charlatan!’ in large letters on the windows of the airport departure lounge.
Alone at her desk afterwards, Anne considered the options. Names passed through her head, and occasionally she would wander into her inner sanctum to peruse one of the files. Thomas Bassingthwaite? No, he’d just gone to Bogota. Ralph Deighton? Blacklisted after forgetting to pick up a minor Royal from the airport. Jonathan Sarl? Ah, no. Retired last year after overdoing it in Kuwait. Barrington Farquhar? Barrington….Farquahar….
4000 miles away, a middle aged man with bushy hair was trying unsuccessfully to eat a pancake. It was a take-away pancake, which arrived in a rapidly deteriorating cardboard cone. The ice cream and chocolate filling had already seeped through the hole in the bottom and thence through the flimsy cardboard underneath. More icecream leaked from the top and sides. Whichever way Barrington turned it, the filling dribbled out onto his hands. His main concern was his linen suit. He tried using the small ice-cream spoon which the vender had thoughtfully provided, but he couldn’t eat fast enough to stop the dripping. His wife Sarah and their two children watched on ruefully as he abandoned his stool and instead adopted a wicket-keeper stance – legs wide apart and bent over forwards to allow the drips an uninterrupted passage to the concrete floor, without going via his suit, trousers or shoes. His hands were now covered in sticky melted filling, and his grip on the cone started to slip. He concluded that the best way to bring matters to a conclusion was simply to stuff as much of the pancake as possible into his mouth. Burying his face in the cone, he took most of the remaining ice-cream into his mouth, together with a generous amount of the pancake. An intense brain-freeze followed, and he looked around for a bin into which to deposit both the smouldering ruins of his late-morning snack, and the half-chewed contents of his mouth. Seeing one on the other side of the terrace, he waddled – legs still cowboy-wide – past the perplexed glances of tourists. 10 metres away…he felt the cardboard turning upside down and slipping through his hands at the same time. 5 metres…he broke into an abrupt trot – arms now stretched far in front of him like an athlete handing over a baton. And at two metres he used his findertips to propel the mass of fat, cream, chocolate, and sodden cardboard hopefully towards the centre of the bin, crouching low as though releasing a bowling ball. It missed, hitting half-way up the plastic receptacle with a slimy thud, and disintegrating dramatically on impact like a missile hitting a nuclear bunker. The splatter damage was extensive – the floor was peppered with black chocolate and white ice-cream splodges. The people at the two tables either side of the bin had a similar dalmatian coating.
Barrington himself, having gathered a kind of desperate momentum in his concluding dive towards the bin, now struggled to stop himself. Having first lunged forward, he instinctively tried to correct himself and lean the other way. But the floor was slippery and the closer he got to the bin, the slipperier it got. As usual, he was wearing shoes which offered more in elegance than they did in grip, and he felt the soles slide forward, a cushion of melted ice-cream between them the smooth floor. He scrabbled desperately around for grip. For a moment he found himself running on the spot, like a cartoon character preparing to dash forward. But he didnt dash forward, and instead toppled onto his back. The impact winded him somewhat, and his cheeks puffed out and expelled the mouthful he had taken seconds earlier first up into the air, and then down onto the middle of his white shirt.
‘Loyal, presentable, but somewhat accident prone’ said the record in Anne Hardcastle’s office. Not a bad report, even if could apply equally to a labrador puppy as to a senior diplomat, she mused. ‘Vienna, 2nd Secretary Political; London (Archive Department); Ankara (1st Secretary Trade); London (Estates Management Division); Lisbon (Deputy Ambassador); London (Accounts Division)’. Hmm, a distinct pattern – a relatively prestigious posting overseas followed by a more lowly job in London. Not a good sign, and the dates indicated that at least one of his postings had been cut short. More research was needed. She wandered across the corridor, past the typing pool and into another office. Her colleague Theodore was behind his desk, his fingers covered in ink as he tried to refill his pen. He was a squat, dishevelled man with a friendly round face, renowned only just behind Anne herself for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the organisation’s staff.
“I’m going to say a name and I want to see how you react” she said.
“Very well, I shall duly set my face to neutral” he responded, aimiably.
Theodore rolled his eyes theatrically, wailed and pretended to tear at his hair.
Anne smiled wrily. “That bad?”
“No, not at all – I was only playing. Barrington’s alright. Well, in so far as there’s nothing medically wrong with him.”
“Well that’s a start. Unfortunately the requirements for becoming a head of post are slightly more exacting than ‘may pass medical'” she replied, making quotation gestures with her hands. “What’s he really like, tell me?”
“Like I said, fine. Good egg. His heart’s in the right place” said Theodore, using a heavily inkstained handkerchief to clean his fingers.
“Yes, I think we’ve established that he’s healthy” Anne snorted, “But why was he short-toured from Vienna?”
“I think he was struggling with the language.”
“But he had German training, surely?”
“No I mean he couldn’t stop swearing. He’s got some kind of tourettes apparently. Had a bit of an outburst in the UN Chamber once while reading out a prepared statement. One of the translators had to have counselling, I gather”.
“I bet that took some smoothing over”
“Well quite, hence the short tour. But that was years ago. All treated now – he’s been clean for 15 years. You could send him to the Vatican”.
“Fortunately we’re only sending him to Beagle Island” said Anne.
“Aha, he’s going up in the world then?”
“Well, not so much up as across – you know how far away it is. 7 days in a fishing boat from Valparaiso”.
“Out of harm’s way. He could say anything he likes there and nobody would hear a thing”
“I thought you said he was cured?”
“He is, he is. The perfect man for the job. Were there many other candidates?” said Theodore, replacing his handkerchief in his breast-pocket, trying to hide the ink-marks.
“He didn’t apply actually. He’s due a move though. We had Emma Frome all lined up and then she got head-hunted by thems across the courtyard” said Anne, tossing her head moodily in the direction of Downing Street.
“It’s like they know when we’ve just appointed someone good” mused Theodore. “I swear there’s a mole in here feeding them information about appointments. Three times in the last month we’ve had candidates mysteriously drop out after interview. Someone’s waylaying them on Whitehall and luring them in”.
“Someone’s been reading too many Le Carre novels” said Anne with a chuckle, turning away from Theodore’s desk, “I’d better give Mr Farquhar the good news”.
Phone calls were made to the relevant departmental head, and by the end of the day, she was typing up a letter for him to find on his return from Crete, inviting him to make his preparations to take up the post of Governor of Beagle Island with immediate effect.