Chapter One of The Churchill Memorandum by Sean Gabb


Chapter One

“Of course,” he said, dropping his voice so it could be heard only half way down the queue, “the Americans have never changed over. They still call today March 6th 1959. Their custom is to put the month before the day. It makes good sense, as the month is more significant than the day.” As if looking for support, the old bore pointed up at the calendar that hung just beside the concrete statue of the President. It was a wasted gesture. The departures hall of Anslinger International may have its excellences. If so, these didn’t extend to its calendar. Through dust-covered glass, it was still showing a date from January.

“Next!” the check-in clerk snapped. The New York accent is never friendly. New York bureaucrats, I’d long since found, go out of their way not to sound friendly. Somebody muttered, from a few places behind me, about the interminable wait. We shuffled forward another eighteen inches. One of my coloured porters strained with his box. Since the others didn’t think it worth the effort of moving theirs, he scraped it an inch or so across the uneven floor, then went back to sitting on it. I took a new standing position as I came to my own halt. It didn’t do to scratch in public. Even so, my left buttock was itching again like mad. Had I been bitten by something? I wondered. I’d been told you might pick up some nasty things in America.

“Mind you,” the bore struck up again beside me, “the computer chappies go one step further. They put the year in front of it all. They write today as ‘59-03-06’. That lets them put dates into a numbered list where they follow each other in fully logical sequence—most significant number first. Just before I retired in ‘56, we had a new computer fitted in Calcutta. The Marconi people had shipped it out in pieces for fitting together in situ. Big thing, it was—needed its own building, you know.” He took out his pocket handkerchief and, holding it in his left hand, blew his nose hard enough to start an echo round the cavernous dump where we’d all been shivering half the afternoon. I was one place from the check-in desk, and I saw the clerk look up disapprovingly from her inspection of yet another exit visa. Unimpressed—or perhaps unaware—the bore sniffed loudly and rearranged the very large and very white moustaches that covered his very large and very red face.

“I did ask the boy in charge,” he went on, “what would happen when the century number changed—what would he do when ’00 came after ’99? Gave me a fishy look, the little blighter, and muttered something that boiled down to ‘sufficient unto the day’.” He chuckled. Would he drift into recollections of his Indian days?

I could have kicked myself. Buttonholed—and even before check in—by the voyage bore is bad enough. Buttonholed by a bore who’d served in India was surely as bad as things could get. Unless I was to spend the next three days locked in my cabin, all my thoughts of a pleasant flight home were looking decidedly iffy. I looked again at his tie to see if it gave any indication of what he’d been doing before he retired. But the nearest fluorescent lighting was on the blink, and I couldn’t see the details of its pattern.

There was a loud crash behind us. Fifty bored, impatient faces turned to see who’d got the double doors unlocked that led back out into one of the less ghastly areas of New York. It was whole squad of Republican Guards. In their regulation fedoras and trench coats, they paused at the entrance and looked round. Most carried hand guns. A couple had sawn-off shot guns. One of them pointed in my direction and held up a folded sheet of paper. Coming at a brisk march, they set out across the fifty yards that separated us.

I fought to keep a blank face. Even so, I could feel my guts turn to vinegar. Forget voyage bores. Things had just gone horribly to the worse. And this wouldn’t be the end of it. For what it might be worth, I put a hand up to reach for my passport.

“Hands out of pockets, dear boy,” the bore breathed into my neck. His voice had a soft urgency wholly different from his calendar monologue. He was right. I’d been here long enough to know the drill. Trying to control their trembling, I stretched out my fingers and pressed my hands against the fabric of my trousers. Looking neither to right nor left, on the men came through the now silent hall. I thought of the permit I’d bribed out of the Repository Office in Chicago. Would it mean anything against these people? I prepared to clear my throat, and tried for an easy smile.

But it wasn’t me they were after. They stopped beside me. But it was the man right at the front of the queue they were surrounding.

“Alan Greenspan?” their officer snarled. He unfolded his sheet of paper. It was covered in typewriting, and there was a photograph in its top right hand corner. “You are Alan Greenspan—enemy of the people!” The little Jew in front of me cowered backwards and got out a few words in the sort of English accent you hear in Hollywood films from the old days. The officer laughed unpleasantly and took up the British passport the clerk had been in the process of stamping. Holding it in his left hand, he rubbed one of the pages between the thumb and forefinger of his right. He sniffed at his fingers and held them out to show how blue they’d turned. “Take him down,” he said to one of his men. The man’s face took on a gloating look as he put a hand on the Jew’s collar.

“I’m a British subject,” Greenspan squealed in an accent that now said he clearly wasn’t. He looked at me as if for confirmation. I forced myself not to step backwards, and looked steadily down at the floor. “You can’t touch me,” he cried again, desperation in his voice. “I’m a British subject.” A hard poke in the stomach sent him to his knees. The officer turned to face the flight representative who was hurrying over to protest.

“He’s none of your concern,” he said in the cold voice of authority. “He’s not a British national.” He put a hand on the holster that bulged through his trench coat. The young representative opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of saying anything at all. It was now that Greenspan found his own proper voice.

“Free Ayn Rand!” he shrilled quickly. “She’s been in solitary for a year now. They’re killing her with neglect.” He was taking in breath for another slogan. But a knee in his face sent him straight down on the floor. The officer snapped an order to his men. They pulled Greenspan to his feet and three of them began dragging him back towards the doors. “Restore the Constitution!” he managed to shout. “Anslinger’s a tyrant!” But that was it. With a last despairing wail of “A is A!” from Greenspan, the doors closed behind him and his keepers, leaving the rest of us in total silence.

“I can smell a Jew at five yards,” the officer said, now looking directly at me. He smiled and flexed backwards, showing still more prominently the bulge of the metal in his pocket. “And I can smell subversion. You were beside him. You were with him?”

I wanted to tell the man very smartly I’d never seen Greenspan before in my life. It was the truth. He’d pushed in front of me not half an hour before, and had been giving me funny, sideways looks ever since. I thought of claiming friends in high places. Instead of all this, though, I opened my mouth and found that I couldn’t even breathe out. The officer was looking triumphant. Already, I could fear, he was turning to give orders to more of his men. Before I could open my mouth and try for gibbering, the bore had an arm on my shoulder.

“My dear fellow,” he said to the officer, “you’ll find this young man really is a British subject. He had nothing to do with your felon.” The officer’s face turned a kind of puce. I thought for a moment he’d pull out his gun and try some pistol whipping. But he controlled himself. He took the bore’s offered passport and looked long and closely at it, comparing face with photograph.

 “Stanhope,” he said at length to the bore, separating the syllables into Stan Hope, a slight emphasis on the second syllable. He twisted his thin face into an apology for a smile. “Reginald Stanhope. Do your friends in England call you Reggie?”

“They call me Major Stanhope,” came the reply in a tone that avoided all hint of rebuke. The officer turned the pages of the passport.

“Well, Major Stanhope,” he said, now mockingly, it says here you’re subject to Imperial immigration control. You sure don’t look like no nigger.”

“British bred,” came the now breezy reply, “though born in Cyprus. The law is very strict, you know—doesn’t just apply to Her Majesty’s coloured subjects. One law for all and all that.” The officer continued looking at the much-stamped pages.

“What was the purpose of your visit?” he asked with a lapse into the official. He pointed at the dense mass of previous visa stamps. “Is it family business?”

“Not in so many words, dear boy,” Stanhope said with a wave. “But there’s a brotherhood among those of us who served in the War that’s very like blood.” I tried not to look at the black glove that covered the stillness of his right hand. He saw my attempt and laughed softly and held the hand up. “I got this on the fourth day at Paschendaele,” he said. “Jerry machine gun bullet—went in through the knuckles, lodged in the elbow. Whole lower arm had to come off in the end.” He waved the artificial limb and looked the officer in the face. “You might say I was lucky. Whatever the case, life goes on. You learn to get by with the other hand. I can’t complain.

“I sit on the Veterans’ Relief Board in London,” he said, pulling himself back to the main subject. “Not many Americans in the War, of course—came in too late for that. But they took quite a few casualties. All old men now, those still with us—some older than me. But American war pensions don’t buy much with all this inflation. We do what we can. You’d be surprised the difference a few shillings a week can make between want and dignity.”

“They fought in England’s war,” the officer said with quiet contempt. “It’s only right that England should look after them now.” He gave Stanhope back his passport and now took mine. “Anthony Markham,” he said with the same division of syllables. “Born in Rei-gate, January 17th 1930?” I nodded and managed a feeble smile. I wondered if Stanhope was laughing inwardly at the unconscious reversal of the dates. I could feel the sweat running down my back. “And the purpose of your visit?”

“I’m an historian,” I said, trying and failing to match Stanhope’s easy assurance. “I’m researching a biography of Winston Churchill. You—you may have heard of him. He was half-American—his mother’s side. He left all his later papers to Harvard. I was out here to consult them. I—I…” The officer had lost interest, and I trailed off. Avoiding his face, I looked up at the statue of Anslinger. It had been cast in the early days when he was modelling himself on Mussolini, and there was still black paint on areas of the uniform. Somehow, the artists had got a smile on the man’s face. He was looking down at the little girl he held in his arms. She looked back adoringly. I tried to think of something flattering to say about my trip.

Just then, though, the sound of a gunshot came though the doors. Stanhope raised his eyebrows. “Well, really!” someone said from far along the queue behind me. All about, there was a buzz of quiet outrage. I looked past the President’s statue, though the single sheet of plate glass that gave a view over the landing field and the huge body of the airship that quivered two hundred feet up in the breeze. The cabin was painted in the Imperial Airways colours, and had a Union Flag at each end.

I felt a hard bump in my chest. It was the officer handing back my passport. Before I could gather any words for thanks, he and his men were already heading back for the doors.

“Next,” the clerk grated. It was my turn. Still trembling, I put my passport on her desk and pulled out the paper copy of my exit visa. She ignored the documents and pointed at the five wooden boxes my coloureds were still attending. “There’s a forty pound weight limit for non-stowed luggage,” she said. I pointed at the handwritten amendment on my ticket. She waved it aside. “There’s a forty pound weight limit for non-stowed luggage,” she repeated in exactly the same tone. I stared up at the ceiling and tried to pull myself together.

“I am a personal friend of the British Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan,” I said with an attempt at firmness. “These boxes contain papers for a project in which he has taken an interest.” She gave me the dead look that only officials in a down at heel police state can give.

“There’s a forty pound weight limit for non-stowed luggage,” she replied, for all the world as if there were a gramophone record in place of her mind, and the needle had stuck in a groove. I smiled weakly. Normally, I’d have called the representative over and got him to explain things. Now, I was even willing to leave the boxes behind. For all they meant to me, the safety of that cabin hovering in the sky outside meant more.

“If I might be so bold, Dr Markham,” Stanhope whispered conspiratorially from behind, “I would suggest the offer of a supplemental fare. £2 should do the trick.” I swallowed and reached into my pocket. There was obviously no point offering any of the thousand dollar bills that still bulked out the paper section. Instead, I took out one and two half sovereigns, and pushed them quietly across the desk. The clerk stared at them. She took up one of the smaller coins and bit into the gold. She covered all three coins with a sheet of paper. Without another word, she stamped my documents. Well she might. That must have been a month’s salary for her.

“Next,” she cried. I glanced at my coloureds and pointed at the boxes. There were hours still to go till boarding. But I could at least get out of this bloody queue.

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4 responses to “Chapter One of The Churchill Memorandum by Sean Gabb

  1. That is brilliant. But I would be sad to see America descend to this sort of cesspit. I do not share your (what shall I call it?) dislike (that’ll do) of what you think the USA has become.

    Perhaps I still put some faith in the ability of what condescending stalinists call “rednecks” to stop it happening. I do hope that what you portray, as a warning to the Americans, does not come true.

  2. Looks like it’s a good read.

  3. An enjoyable read Sean, though I fear your alternate history may not be popular with American readers… :)

  4. Far more capturing than the title would lead you to believe. Nice work.