He was miserable. A hopeless kind of miserable. Like the flavour of misery you might detect in the tears of a Remainer locked in a room with a buoyant Brexiteer: an overwhelming and distinct bitter. Embittered by life, embittered by company, embittered by solitude, to the exclusion of everything and everyone. This sort of misery loved no one's company, not even his own, and by 10am Francis Edwin Probert had been alone in his windowless Special Branch office for almost two hours. The room would have been in total darkness except for a weak table lamp that emitted a tired grey light, and seemed bare of furniture except for his cluttered desk and the tattered chair in which he was quite motionlessly perched.
His hair had not been cut for some time. It drooped across his forehead without any style, sometimes covered his eyes and partially blocked his view. This didn’t bother Francis though: if he couldn’t see what he had no interest in seeing, then it didn’t much matter to him. Though behind this veil he maintained a sense of being occupied, Francis had not been productive. He was at that moment (and had been for sometime) in the grip of a deep malaise. His senses took in stimuli from the world around him, but it was the exception to the rule that his mind made any move to interpret, store, or use that information.
During the unproductive hours at his desk that morning, he had slowly and unconsciously slumped deeper into his chair, until he was almost horizontal. Surrounding this slump, scattered around his desk, were loose papers arranged in unordered piles: statements, intelligence reports, and case summaries, strewn amongst other matters of undigested significance.
One sheet was marked ‘SECRET’ in red bold font, and bore a blue emblem, to the right of which were the words:
Francis had been holding it in front of him for ten minutes, but was yet to register who it was written by, or what it related to. Instead, he’d been principally concerned with how heavy it felt, how it ached his arms to hold it, and pained his neck to hold his head in the position required to attend to it. When vague consideration of these physical hardships passed, they were replaced by a shallow meditation on the dust that, caught in the low light, drifted around in front of the page. His eyes flitted amongst specks, and followed their progress as they floated and bobbed. He paid attention to how they sometimes settled on the page and how they occasionally bounced off, resumed their fluttering, then floated off to invisibility. After a time his eyes abandoned this study and stared, uncommitted, pointing themselves in the vague direction of the sheet. Then, with a jolt, in a spontaneous and surprising effort, his eyes traced the page’s title, and he began to read:
INTERIM INVESTIGATION REPORT - OPERATION ELIJAH
As he read the words he became aware of a humming sound. A fly had taken flight, and it whizzed past his ear into his peripheral vision. His eyes seized on the movement and brightened as they diverted from the page, tracking the creature’s erratic right-angled darts about the still air of his office. He felt discomfort. It was as though, by its comparative verve, the creature was highlighting his idleness with its darts and dives. His eyes stayed with the creature, and before long its dynamism affected him in a different, yet still uncomfortable, way. He felt his breathing quicken, and the blood pump through his veins. He felt it being squeezed, pushed through into his capillaries, causing an anticipative tingling in his fingertips.
The insect’s rapid movement changed to an idle drift, then it swooped and settled on the dusty grey film that covered a pine bookshelf adjacent to the door. His eyes stayed with the insect in its quiescent state, until after a few moments a disappointment set in. The glimmer in his eyes faded, his heart reverted to a dull unhurried beat, his breathing slowed, and all sensibility left him. After a few languid moments his gaze fell back to the page and, with his attention free, he re-approached the paper. Having not assimilated much during his previous pass, he started from the beginning.
INTERIM INVESTIGATION REPORT - OPERATION ELIJAH
As he read the words he developed a vague sense of conversation in the corridor outside his office. Two, perhaps three people, hanging off the words of one other, then laughter.
“Mead, you’re riding your luck, how’d you get away with it?” said one.
“It’s that smile,” said another. “Gets him away with murder.”
“Careful. You know there’s growing sentiment around all that. It’s a sensitive issue.”
“Yeah. Griggs is on the warpath, better keep out his way.”
“I’ll see what the boss here thinks,” Mead said, motioning to Francis’s office door. “He’ll know what to suggest.”
Bellyfuls of laughter rang out.
“Good one, Mead.”
A slapping chorus of high fives filled the corridor, causing Francis to startle. Just for a moment his eyes looked up from the page, before sinking back.
“Funny thing is, lads, I could actually use top cover on this. Like you say, it’s getting political.”
Footsteps carried away the voices, a few moments of silence passed, and then a sharp knock at the door. It creaked open and a man entered, flooding the room with bright white light from the corridor. A voice uttered, “Morning, sir,” in a low whisper, and Francis looked up from the page to see one of his detectives, Jonathan Mead, standing meekly in the doorway with his face tentatively broadened to a half-smile.
Things that Francis said were always said distractedly and rarely made sense. On this occasion he maintained his repose and mustered a strained, “Yes.”
He was conscious of a reply but then became distracted by the fly, which had retaken flight and resumed its energetic path about the office.
Mead was a tall man, and he loomed over Francis’s almost prostrate figure, speaking at length, Francis presumed, concerning the right path to take in one of his cases. Francis thought he discerned something about Damascus, or some other such place, and something about a link to Israel, or was it his mail (he wondered), but soon any will to keep up his attention left him. He responded to Mead’s now enthusiastically driven points by way of absent nods and inappropriately timed groans. This was in itself distracting, but Mead found himself further put off by Francis’s eyes, which repeatedly changed from a vacant gaze to darting off around the room for no apparent reason. After a minute or two he found himself crestfallen. He tripped over his words and lost his train of thought. His mind became fuzzy, and within a short time he was at the point of forgetting why he was talking to Francis at all. He stood in a stupor, all his geniality faded, his smile inverted to a grimace; his tall frame became hunched, and the two of them became suspended in fixed silence. Francis’s wandering attention stumbled back, and he noticed the man standing in front of him with no apparent purpose. He joined in with the empty stare for a few moments, then addressed Mead in a dry tone.
“Good. I’ll be sure to give you a mention at the next briefing.”
Mead drew back his head, bewildered. He let out a deep breath, left, and as the door creaked shut behind him, the room returned to darkness.
Although it tormented his legs to stand, with great effort Francis rose for the first time that morning, stretched his stiff body, and fanned his shirt collar. His uncomfortable encounter with Mead had left him feeling hot and disorientated. It struck him that the air in his office seemed dry, almost desert-like. He laboured over to inspect the air conditioning unit, which seemed to be groaning and straining under the pressure of its task.
Floorboards creaked with every step, until he reached it and placed a hand in front of a dusty vent. At best it was giving off a soft whimper of air. A frustrated thought, For the love of God, passed across his mind, then drifted away.
His attention flitted to his right, where a terebinth bonsai tree stood on the crooked shelf by the door. All the leaves had long fallen away and it was now a sorry, dry husk. He dragged his feet toward it, then stood with a blank expression, as though it were the first time he’d set eyes on the thing. He moved it a little to the left, looked at it again, then moved it back. His attention then flitted further to his right. He reached out to the office door, grasped the handle, and opened it. It creaked. He shut it and it creaked again. Troubled by the noise, he repeated the exercise several times, then noticed in his peripheral vision a dark figure standing silhouetted in the corridor outside.
“What the hell are you doing, Probert?”
Francis let go of the door, turned to face the source of aggression, and saw Detective Chief Inspector Griggs staring at him with a stern and puzzled expression. Griggs was a short, ill-favoured, oily little man. Francis stared silently at the shock of sweeping white hair which perched atop the man’s fat head. His eyes fell down to a heavy jowl that wobbled furiously as the man shook his head and muttered something. There was an awkward moment of silence, and when Griggs was confident he’d get no response, he broke it in a dissatisfied and angry tone.
“Have you seen Mead this morning?”
Francis maintained his stare, which by this point was no longer startled, but had evolved into something quite expressionless.
“Well, if you see him, tell him to get to my bloody office, so he can explain what’s going on with that case of his.”
Francis indicated by a movement of his head that he understood the instruction.
Griggs rippled on about something, all the while his face burning to darker shades of red. A vein that meandered across his temple throbbed incessantly. “Are you playing Candy Crush?”
Francis was no longer looking at Griggs. He had taken his phone from his pocket, and bright coloured shapes were moving about the screen.
Griggs began to shout, the vein continued to throb, and his face transitioned from red to purple. Finally, he threw his hands up in exasperated fury, made a sharp turn, and shuffled down the hallway, muttering to himself as his jowl wobbled.
Francis returned his phone to his pocket, walked leaden-footed back to his chair, sat down, and looked listlessly around his desk for the next item on his agenda.
He stumbled across the Op Elijah report, strained as he picked it up and his eyes dropped back to the page. Within moments he heard a commotion in the corridor. More than one set of footsteps, accompanied by a single voice getting gradually louder and more discernible as it neared.
“…and that’s what I told him the last time, you see. You think it’s going to be sunny just because it was the day before, so you leave your brolly at home, then of course, what happens? It’s torrential. I get bloody soaked. This country, honestly. What I wouldn’t give for a little consistency. Like with breakfast. I know what I had yesterday — Bran Flakes. I know what I had this morning — Bran Flakes, and I know what I’ll be having tomorrow — porridge, because it’s Friday of course. You know, the good thing about Fridays, I always find is — Oh that reminds me, I must remember my neighbour’s cat. Where was I? — Fridays yes, the good thing about Fridays…”
Francis let the paper fall from his hands, and while he was vaguely aware of the continuing drone, his attention was drawn to the small, slight frame of Cyril Perkins, another of his detectives, retreating backwards past his office door. As the little man disappeared, his form was replaced by that of Conrad Bagpot, another member of his team and apparent source of the droning. Bagpot stopped at the threshold, looked in at Francis, then propped himself against the architrave. The sound of scurrying footsteps were audible, like those of a panicked field mouse, as Perkins fled down the corridor.
Francis’s years in this lethargic condition had heavy consequences. Not paying attention to the world around him left him defenceless against the malicious and the unscrupulous. Not that Francis knew it, but this man had developed the selfish habit of spending up to an hour each day straddling the threshold of his office and bleating on about whatever happened to be passing across his mind. This was one such time. Bagpot came in, closed the door, and talked at him about something pointless or foolish. Francis sat oblivious to the assault, while thoughts strayed through his own mind.
As far as Bagpot was concerned Francis was his perfect victim.
Never tried to escape, never asked him to leave, nor did he ever interrupt him with unimportant thoughts of his own.
The full hour passed, and with Bagpot still prattling, Francis developed a vague awareness of raised voices beyond the closed door.
“Listen, Mead. Tell Griggs to keep his beak out, cantankerous old bastard. He shouldn't be interfering in your case just because top brass is cosied up to the suspects. He should know better.”
“Easier said than done. If that idiot in there was only a little use... All I need —”
“Leave it to me. He’s got to get over himself sometime.”
“I’ve tried. We all have. He’s been like this for years. He may as well be asleep or dead sitting at his desk like that. Smells like a brewery in there. Wait, what are you going to say?”
Francis, who had heard but not digested this exchange, became aware of the door flinging open, light flooding into the room, Bagpot being knocked off-balance, and a burly shape appearing in the threshold.
“Piss off, Bagpot, you pest. Go prey on someone else.”
Francis watched Bagpot make some parting gesture, as though he had just satisfied a great thirst, then leave. Barry Holden, another of Francis’s detectives, stood there, agitated, with his hands drawn into half-clenched fists. He stepped inside, and the light from the corridor continued to flood in behind him, rendering him just a shadow to Francis’s eyes.
“Are you busy, sir?”
By this point Francis had reassumed his repose, and only his head and chest were visible to Holden from behind the desk. He shunted himself up, responding to some momentary discomfort, which Holden took as a welcoming gesture. He came fully into the room, sat on a chair facing Francis beneath the bonsai, and began to bluster. His legs were wide open, his upper body leaned forward, his toes rhythmically struck the ground as he spoke, and his arms swung back and forth conducting whatever it was he was saying. Francis watched Holden talking and throwing himself about, but was thinking about something quite separate. If anyone had asked him what he was thinking about, of course, he wouldn’t have been able to tell them.
By the time his attention was back in the room, Barry Holden had gone and he was alone. He’d no idea when he had left, nor whether he had afforded him the same courtesies on his departure as he had Mead, or the others.
During the working day the twinge of basic need was all that coaxed Francis from his office, or indeed ever motivated him to perform the act of standing. He stood, moved to the door, aware such a twinge was upon him, but unsure exactly what it meant. He drifted into the corridor, peering into offices as he went by. The first door was closed. Through its netted window, he saw Mead standing upright, Griggs’s spittle washing over him and a chubby finger jabbing at his face. For the briefest moment he felt the need to enter the room and find out what all the trouble was, but the urge faded. A few paces further, and he passed another office. The door was propped open and through it he was able glimpse the Domestic Extremism Team, huddled in a corner with Bagpot leaning over them.
“So I don’t usually remember my dreams, but this one last night was really strange. So it was me, but it wasn’t me, but it was me, and…”
As Francis mooched absently on, his line of sight changed and he saw a panel of confused, angry faces.
“Here,” one of them said. “I thought this was supposed to be about the rise in Far Right sentiment. How it’s creeping into mainstream politics, not your bloody…”
Onwards, and he passed a kitchen, looked in, saw it empty, and went inside. He began to make himself a cup of tea, when he noticed a silver tabby cat staring at him superciliously. The creature held its pose with such an air of superiority that Francis stepped back. He steadied himself, stepped closer, and began to examine the thing. The two were locked in a stare that might never have ended until a woman entered. The cat broke it off first, and looked at the newcomer.
“Oh, I see you’ve met Moggy, Inspector Probert.”
Francis turned to the woman and stared at her instead of the cat.
“I’m Veronica, nice to meet you. My friends call me Vee. I’m the new cleaner.” She reached out a hand, grabbed his and shook it. “I can make that for you,” she said, and stepped close to him, grabbing the box of teabags from his hand. “I brought him in as the new station cat, hope you don’t mind. I’ve looked after him since he was a kitten.” She reached up, grabbed a mug, popped a teabag inside, and put it under the hot tap. “From a litter of five he was, ever such a precious thing. Him and my other one just had a litter themselves, six of the little darlings. I’ve just not got the room for him now, you see.”
Her attention moved from the task of tea-making, back to Francis. She stood staring at him, waiting for a response, but Francis was now locked in another stare with the cat. As the stand-off went on, he became overwhelmed with a sense that there was something uniquely awful about the creature, something instantly detestable. After what seemed like an age, the cat’s expression transitioned subtly from simple hatred towards something resembling annoyance. The creature's mouth opened slightly, and a loud clicking noise came from it.
“Don’t you tut at Inspector Probert,” Veronica said sternly. As she spoke, instant regret washed over her face. She abandoned the tea, went straight to the cat, and bent down to stroke it with dutiful affection.
Francis watched the cat’s now boastful face for a moment, before his attention turned to the box of teabags on the side.
Veronica looked up briefly, then continued to stroke frantically. Francis made his own tea, picked it up, and made to leave. Veronica broke off the stroking. As she stood, the cat glared at her and walked off.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Inspector Probert. I was going to make that for you.”
Francis didn’t break stride.
“Hang on, you’ve left the one I made on the side. I only need to add…”
He left the kitchen, wandered down the corridor, and found himself unintentionally following the cat. It strutted haughtily some twenty yards or so, before veering off left towards some stairs that led down to the CID office. Francis watched it descend, then continued to his office, tea in hand. Once there, he placed the mug on his desk, reclined into his chair, and stared forward as the tea went cold. The day carried on around him, typical, in that this was how Francis spent each day. Broken off from mankind. Occupied with indolence. Engaged in futility.