Questions by Alexander Starritt
Crompton was about to be assaulted with questions like the one that had undone his predecessor. Someone had asked why there weren’t enough helicopters to provide air cover for the boys in Helmand. He hadn’t found an answer and Crompton had taken his job. The thought of it unnerved and irritated him. A man like that, with every virtue one could expect in a politician and extraordinarily few of the usual vices, gracelessly slung out over a question about helicopters.
Crompton spread his palms on the desk and shifted his weight onto them. Old hands; thickened blue veins bumped and hobbled over the exposed machinery of fragile bones and fraying tendons holding them in place. They ached and cracked, worn out by decades spent wielding a pen and then a keyboard. While the rest of him was as yet still soft and fleshy, his hands had aged prematurely, like an athlete’s knee, and had already reached the stage of desiccation.
His back sloped forward from hunching over a succession of desks. His shoulders squeaked when he moved, and straightening up felt so different that he dared do it only occasionally. This posture pushed his rib cage down onto his belly, squeezing it out ever further under his shirt as though it were a boulder on which his frame was leant. Palpitations were the price of coffee, grey skin and sagging eyes the price of wine. He had sacrificed his health to the job, and to some unexpressed ideas that went beyond that. He was a public servant.
He had sacrificed, and was now to be attacked with pointed questions, glistening like bayonets among the cameras and notebooks. In an hour, he would have to face them again, standing alone and exposed behind a thin lectern while they were thrust up at him. One mistake and, as they loved to say, heads would roll. He should be able to escape as long as Mather didn’t come knocking beforehand.
Even now they must be thinking up new booby-traps: how can the Defence Secretary not know how many jeeps there are in Iraq? Or not recognise the name of a dead soldier? Or not know whether engine filters designed for the desert work in the snow?
Crompton froze. Was the percentage increase on flight time in the refitted helicopters 84 or 48? 84%. Surely. Flipping open one of the folders on his desk, he checked a report. Yes, 84%.
He hadn’t stopped working in six months. There might not be a blackout at the Guardian, but Britain was at war on two fronts and he – Crompton – was responsible for making sure that she won. The journalists, who had never worked for anything but their own careers, didn’t understand the enormity of that task: that there were thousands of other questions, important questions, which needed not answers but decisions, any of which could mean a shortage, an accident, a death.
The P.M. had promised the house that military expenditure would not exceed its budget and the terrible choices all fell to Crompton: better flak jackets or armoured jeeps, more ammunition or long-range radios, high-quality recruiting videos or rip-proof body-bags. You chose flak jackets and a jeep blew up, you chose ammunition and they couldn’t find the enemy. There was a file of letters somewhere in this office, each saying, “My son died because you couldn’t even…” As though remedying whatever killed him was the first thing anyone would do. He suspected that jeeps were going to become his helicopters.
Crompton pushed himself to his feet. He had to calm down. If he was angry, he would make a mistake. Pushing his chair back with his clumsy frame, he tried to rub the soreness out of his hands. No wedding ring; something else he had sacrificed.
He went over to look at the view. It was the only thing about his office that did not discomfit him. The carpet had been worn away by famous boots and the heavy mahogany desk had been used to sign countless declarations; the ornately framed pictures showed the morally questionable heroes of British foreign policy sanctified with paint and immortalised in noble attitudes. Even the room’s dimensions made him uneasy: it was so large and so box-like in its outdated squareness, his desk was so far from the walls and the ceiling so far above his head, that sitting there made him feel like a museum exhibit. A particularly lifelike waxwork with the lumpen ugliness of the olden days, seen here signing papers.
He scuttled back to his desk. Yes, it Amir Muhammed Akhundzada who was proposed as governor by Karzai and former governor Sher Muhammed Akhundzada who was now on the National Assembly. A relief.
From his window, however, he could look at the top half of a huge and delicately spoked Ferris wheel – the London Eye – dawning above the regimented buildings of Whitehall. It dispersed above the Churchill Museum and the matt-black metal statues to the glorious dead a sulphurous whiff of the absurd, as though Whitehall and all its machinations were no more than a sideshow in an immense funfair. The tension eased momentarily in his scrunched-up back, his shoulders retreated from his neck, and he imagined he could hear the Horse Guards playing Entrance of the Gladiators.
Then he remembered the questions that were being sharpened downstairs like stakes in a deadfall. When will our mission be complete? And how will we known when we’ve won? It was like looking up the victory conditions in an obscure variant of Risk: capture 34 provinces, impose a functioning democracy and limit the number of IEDs to one per week or day or kilometre. And if he managed to get through all of that without accidentally committing the government to anything, they would ask “What is it that we’re actually doing there?”
Crompton’s answer to that was banned. Instead, he would defend the government position, facetiously jawing on about hospitals and roads and working together with the Afghan people to build a stable future until the press conference was over.
No wonder they were after him. A general election was coming up and the power the ministers held was seeping across to the press. They tempted you to befriend them, to step out of line and exchange a few candid remarks for an exit strategy from the collapse of the Labour government. The temptation to save yourself, to align yourself with the current good guys, was strong. Particularly because the P.M. might sacrifice him; he had heard that rumour. All the party’s sins would be heaped onto him, and the party would distance itself from him and them, and his political life would be over. The axe waiting for him was labelled like a wristband: “What would the public think?”
There was a quick tap at the door and Mather, Crompton’s permanent private secretary, eased his way into the room. He had been here longer than Crompton could hope to stay and was almost exactly as Crompton had imagined him: facelessly posh, understated suits with correct shoes. He sometimes pretended to be unsure whether to call him “Minister” or “Mr Crompton”. It tended to depend on what he was about to say.
“I do apologise for barging in on you, but you ought to know that someone’s just been killed in Helmand.”
Crompton looked at his watch. Twenty minutes. Without speaking, he went over to his desk and heaved himself back into his chair. He adopted his familiar posture; discomfort was in all the usual places. He was ready to make notes.
“Name and rank?”
“Private John Niven.”
Crompton thumped the desk.
He rubbed his hand and continued.
“How did it happen?”
“His watch had broken and he found a stall in the bazaar which could perform the repairs. When he came to collect it, he was shot in the back of the neck. Death was practically instant. The perpetrator hasn’t been found, but it appears the pistol used was American issue.”
Crompton pushed his fingers into his eyes in exasperation.
“No jeeps though?”
He carried on making notes while he still had time.
“It is my sad duty to inform you that a British soldier has been killed in the line of duty in the Nad-e Ali area of Helmand Province. Private John Niven of the Royal Highland Regiment has laid down his life for his country. The Ministry of Defence is deeply saddened by this news and my thoughts, condolences and sympathies are with his family, loved ones and colleagues, who must be feeling his death more keenly than anyone else. His dedication to duty, personal pride in soldiering and selfless commitment to his comrades are an inspiration to us all. He has honoured his chosen profession, and shown us all the true meaning of courage and self-sacrifice.
“There will be more casualties. The death of John Niven has shown us that even the best kit and equipment, with which we provide our troops on the ground, does not – sadly – make them invulnerable. But we cannot allow that to weaken the resolve of the international combat capability in Afghanistan. If we are to defeat this vicious insurgency, it will be step by step, and lest John Niven will have died in vain, we owe it to the dead to offer our unconditional support to the continuing operations in Afghanistan.
“Those not directly involved in combating the insurgency do not see much evidence of it here on the streets of Britain: they live free from terror. But they would do well to remember that that freedom is bought with British lives. They shame us, the glorious dead, they shame all of us who live easily behind their protection. Those who give their lives to the service of their country are – sadly – under-appreciated and those who have only ever served themselves make snide remarks and clever comments. But let those who question or undermine the efforts of our troops remember that when John Niven, nineteen years of age, made the ultimate sacrifice, he made it for them. Let those who question and doubt those who serve their country be ashamed, when all around them are such heroic examples of duty and self-sacrifice.”
Nobody spoke. The journalists realised that the minister had outmanoeuvred them for today. Their editors would want pieces on the dead man’s girlfriend. One hand went up.
“No, Richard,” said the minister. “This is not the time.”
And the next morning in a butcher’s in Middlesbrough, Mrs Niven went straight to the head of the queue.