The Kingdom of Grey
by Davin Ireland
“That will be far enough, driver.”
The gleaming Bentley pulled off the road and rolled to a stop beneath a leisurely sweep of trees near the summit of a low hill. Gravel crunched loudly in the quiet country air. The Permanent Secretary, who had not spoken a word since leaving the capital at six o’clock sharp that morning, turned to face his guest with an obvious degree of reluctance.
“Surprise me and tell me you know exactly where we are,” he invited.
Julia Digby, the newly elected member for Putnum East, cleared her throat and shifted uneasily in her seat. According to the road signs, the Permanent Secretary’s private vehicle had just pulled up on the outskirts of the Purbeck Hills, South Dorset. Something told Julia this was not the response Sir Michael Weldon was looking for.
“Judging by the anonymity of the surroundings,” she ventured, “I’d suggest this is somewhere pretty important.”
After a suitable pause, the Permanent Secretary tilted his head slightly to the left — a sign of admiration, some claimed. The rumour was, the greater the degree of tilt, the greater the impression made.
“Not a bad answer, all things considered,” he allowed, waiting another moment before opening the Bentley’s door and stepping out onto the gravel shoulder. “Care to find out more?”
Julia opened her mouth to reply, but the door slammed shut with an air of finality that demonstrated, quite succinctly, just what her opinion was worth.
“The land was compulsory purchased by the Ministry of Defence back in forty-three,” Sir Michael was telling her, “around the time a German invasion seemed inevitable.”
They were clambering down a wooded slope that ended in a dry river-bed strewn with greenish stones and boulders the size of armchairs. The incline was so steep that Julia had to grab hold of birch trunks and low-hanging ash branches to keep from falling over. The Permanent Secretary, on the other hand, encountered no such difficulties, negotiating the bumps and hollows of the hillside with an ease that indicated a marked level of familiarity.
“It’s off-limits to the public now, of course,” he added, jogging to a halt at the river-bed’s edge. Julia lurched the last few feet of the way, grabbed Sir Michael’s hand when it was offered. They broke when she had steadied herself, took a brief moment to get their bearings.
“Quite a trip, wouldn’t you say?”
Julia nodded, still a little out of breath, and did her best to conceal her unease at the secluded location. She had met the Permanent Secretary only twice since her election to Parliament — once in the lobby outside an important committee meeting, the other time at a cocktail party for freshman MPs — and on both occasions had been struck by the intense loyalty and respect he instilled in those around him. But since being offered the Subrural Affairs portfolio, a junior ministerial post she had never even heard of, Sir Michael’s name had been cropping up more and more often. Then came the phone call in the early hours of this morning, a direct line from the Deputy Prime Minister’s office.
Dress warmly and wear flat shoes, the voice had told her. Confirmation arrived in the form of an official memo, hand-delivered by motorcycle courier, twenty minutes later. But this was getting ridiculous.
“Now, if you’ll just follow me for the next few hundred yards,” the Permanent Secretary requested, and turned to lead the way. It was only then that the combination of muddy hiking boots and hand-stitched Saville Row suit caught her eye. It was enough to draw the weakest of smiles from Julia, though when she caught a glimpse of Sir Michael’s own expression — strained, expectant, daunted, even — all of the humour went out of the situation. That was when she started getting scared.
THIS IS A PROHIBITED PLACE WITHIN THE MEANING OF
THE OFFICIAL SECRETS ACT. UNAUTHORISED PERSONS
ENTERING THE AREA MAY BE ARRESTED AND
The free-standing sign was located at the dead-centre of the meandering river bed, and the Permanent Secretary passed it without so much as a sideways glance. The pace he set had been brisk, and he showed little appetite for letting it slip, even when they passed a second sign, this one hammered to a dead oak that squatted decrepitly on the river bank.
Julia knew what this was all about. They were going to teach her a lesson. On accepting the Subrural Affairs brief, she had decided that becoming an outstanding future minister entailed being an exemplary junior minister first. And that meant a lot of hard work. Conscientiousness was nearly enough, as was a healthy dose of charisma. But above all else, the thing that distinguished a damn good politician from a truly great one, was knowledge.
And to that end, Julia Digby, the Honourable Member for Putnum East, had set to work. Case files, policy documents, internal memos, cabinet minutes, white papers, green papers, manifestos, she scrutinised them all relentlessly, studying, cross-referencing, tirelessly combing for detail. And when she had exhausted the most readily available source documents, Julia had moved on to the archives. The stacks and basements. The trunks. Material of a sensitive nature, stuff that had been buried so deep it would not see the light of day again in this century or any other. And what she found had outraged — and in some cases, horrified — her.
A thirty-year longitudinal study by a team of Norwegian scientists that offered conclusive proof of the link between electricity pylons and child leukaemia clusters. The case of the Norfolk farmer who had, with tacit government approval, secretly raised genetically modified crops and livestock for two whole decades before official permission was granted. There were human genes in his trout, scorpion genes in his wheat, and some of the farm’s prize-winning cattle were treated to regular doses of a gene found exclusively in the venom of the Sumatran spitting cobra. A quarter-century on and the family’s three youngest children were becoming a problem. Two exhibited a double row of perfectly-formed nipples down their abdomens, and at the age of twelve the oldest seemed to prefer walking on all fours to standing upright.
It was more than Julia could take. She had been unable to confide in her husband because she couldn’t afford to have him implicated in any future scandal. But at the same time, she needed to unburden herself to someone she trusted. And so in the end she had taken tea with her sister at a café in their home town. Dulcie Digby was every bit as clever as her sibling, but retained none of the ambition. She did, however, possess a withering set of principles, and her position had remained constant since learning of the grotesqueries concealed within the guts of Subrural Affairs.
“Sit on it for now,” she had advised, delicately sipping on her Lemon Lift. “Blowing the whistle any time soon will only end your career. Wait till you have real power, then expose the bastards for what they are.”
Dulcie’s argument had made perfect sense, of course, but Julia had needed to hear it from someone else before making a decision. Unfortunately, the Permanent Secretary seemed to have heard it from someone else too. At least, that was her suspicion.
The landscape was changing, and not for the better. The trees grew thicker and closer together, like armies amassing on the river banks. In places, the woods were so dense they shut out the light altogether, creating impenetrable walls of darkness on either side of the two lonely hikers tracking through their midst. As a consequence, the hazy blue of the sky fast narrowed to an overcast squiggle that mirrored the coils of the river-bed unfolding beneath it.
For the first time that day, Julia felt a distinct nip in the air. Up ahead, Sir Michael had stopped moving. He stood astride a large rock, gazing upstream at a point beyond the final bend in the river. “Here we are,” he said, when Julia caught up, “Felton Terrace.” He stepped down from the rock, led her the final hundred feet in pointed silence. He only released her arm when they were standing directly before their destination.
“Well, now, what do you make of this?”
Julia honestly didn’t know what to say. The river-bed was wider here, the shores broader and rockier than before — so broad, in fact, that the eastern shoreline encroached upon a quartet of narrow Victorian gardens that showed signs of repeated flood damage. Each was overgrown and in an advanced state of disrepair. Broken fences swooned drunkenly between the properties, blurring demarcation lines already confused by rampant weeds. Islands of rust emerged from the undergrowth at various points, islands that might once have been the wrecks of cars or discarded washing machines. Insects jumped and chittered among the long grasses, and there were wooden cages on stilts that looked as if whatever had occupied them had probably died in them too.
But the land was as nothing compared to the houses rising from it. If the gardens were in an advanced state of disrepair, the homes beyond teetered on the brink of total collapse. The four scrofulous heaps of brick and slate known collectively as Felton Terrace shared not a single unbroken window between them. Roofs sagged, doors hung, blackish mould festered on the interior walls. The place exuded a vile stink, even from distance.
“I don’t know what to say,” Julia admitted. “Come to think of it, I don’t even know what buildings like this are doing out in the countryside. These are urban dwellings, not cottages.”
Sir Michael nodded sagely, but showed little sign of helping her out. “Carry on.”
“Let’s see,” she said, suddenly relieved at the chance to demonstrate her grasp of an unexpected situation, however absurd. “The other aspect that springs to mind is the precise location. Irrespective of era, no builder worth his salt would erect a home this close to the water, it’s plain foolishness. And as for the immediate surroundings, I see no access roads, no amenities of any kind bar the river. A complete folly, in my view. I take it they’re unoccupied?”
Sir Michael chose to ignore the question. “Would you care to comment on the house numbers?”
The question caught Julia off-guard. She took a moment to walk the length of the stubby terrace, squinting as her eyes sought the required information.
“That is odd,” she said, presently returning to Sir Michael’s side. “Numbers three, five, three and seventeen. Two number threes.”
That strained expression was back on the Permanent Secretary’s face. “You recall my comments on the area’s history?”
Julia said that she did. “Compulsory purchase,” she recalled, “nineteen forty-three. The land was–”
“The land was surveyed, appropriated and forgotten, to put it bluntly. None of the houses you see before you appeared on that survey, neither do they exist on any government record. As far as we can tell, they seem to have materialised, quite spontaneously one day in the summer of nineteen seventy-four, more or less in their current state. But here’s something else for you to think about,” Sir Michael added, colouring slightly as he spoke, “a Felton Terrace in similar condition to this one was demolished in Plumstead that very year. Some claim they are one and the same.”
Julia let out a breath. “You’re asking me to believe the impossible, Sir Michael.”
The Permanent Secretary was unfazed. He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and wandered a few feet along the river-bed, kicking pebbles onto the shore as he went. He returned, a thoughtful look on his face. “Julia Beatrice Digby,” he declared, “thirty-four years of age, mother of two, judo black belt, second dan, I believe. The government’s youngest debutante MP and one of its brighter prospects for the future.” He paused, kicked another stone for good measure. “Junior Ministers are often earmarked for success at an early stage of their careers, Julia,” he said, “but they are also headstrong, ardent, and all too willing to take risks when prudence might be better advised. One calls it unbridled ambition.”
Sensing that the denouement was near, Julia was unable to keep her own counsel any longer. “If this is your way of warning me off something, Permanent Secretary, I’d prefer it if you came right out and said it.”
But Sir Michael would not be drawn. “The trouble is, they all too often see things in black and white, in terms of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, with nothing in between. This little trip constitutes your introduction to the kingdom of grey, Ms. Digby, and I suggest you take it in the spirit it is given. Should you wish to continue, I would further suggest you enter the end house marked number three at your convenience.” He offered her a wan smile. “Take a look around inside and tell me what you find.”
Now that the purpose of their trip had been revealed to be a rather pathetic test, one designed to spook some loyalty into her, Julia’s residual fear was soon overwhelmed by a burning resentment. How dare the old coot try to scare her into doing as she was told. By God, this whole thing was tantamount to intimidation. She was being menaced by the very person tasked with guarding her interests.
Unwilling to dignify the request with words, she banged through the gate of the first house marked number three, quite unaware that she had used enough force to knock its hinges out of alignment, and marched up the garden path, careful to give a lopsided ferret cage a wide berth. Instantly the sour stench of mould entered her nostrils. Beneath it hung the rank odour of wet rot and decaying vegetable matter. But worst of all, the slippery darkness gathered within seemed to intensify as she approached. No matter. This little game had imbued her with enough anger to ride out any challenge.
She crossed the threshold, easing past the half-open door without touching it. The interior bore little resemblance to a modern house. It’s tight little spaces and cold stone floor spoke of hardship and poverty as eloquently as any book or newspaper article of the time. The few remaining items of furniture had been smashed to smithereens and burnt in the grate. In the places where the collapsed ceiling didn’t obscure the view of the walls, great fleshy colonies of toadstools sprouted from wallpaper long turned to mush. Black, orange and blue mould covered everything in a scabrous swathe.
Julia was fascinated and disgusted all at once. She was also leaving right now. She turned on her heel and marched for the door.
The lopsided cage was standing in a different place. That was the first thing Julia noticed on exiting the house. The cage had moved from one side of the garden to the other, and had multiplied. There were now three lopsided cages on display, all standing in a row. Each was tacked to a fencepost, and each leaned further askew the more the fence itself sagged towards the ground.
Gripped by an awesomely unpleasant sense of dislocation, Julia took another few steps before encountering the rusted heap of an old Norton motorcycle straddling the pathway. Her heart began to thump in her chest. Whereas the cage had moved and somehow grown a pair of identical siblings, the motorcycle had appeared out of nowhere. Julia suppressed the urge to run. Sir Michael was now standing on the opposite bank of the river, leisurely smoking a cigarette. There was no way he could have put that motorcycle there, especially not in the time available to him.
It hit her as she stepped over the busted remains of the old garden gate, a gate different in all its particulars to the one she had used scarcely a minute before. The house she was now leaving was not the one she had entered. This time it took a supreme effort on Julia Digby’s part not to succumb to the worst kind of panic. She stopped in mid-stride, turned to face the house. Number three, all right, but a different number three, the other number three, the one in the middle. Reality yawned in front of her, the world seeming to open up beneath her feet. Only the faces of her children, surfacing briefly in her mind, helped steady Julia’s feet.
Behind her, Sir Michael Weldon continued to smoke his cigarette.
Okay, so this really was a test, just not the one she’d envisioned. Bracing herself for an experience she’d rather forego entirely, Julia navigated her way back around the oxidised wreck of the motorcycle, and approached this number three Felton Terrace for the first time. Crossing the threshold was a tad less comfortable than before, but nothing she couldn’t handle. As was to be expected, the inside was pretty much a repeat in generalities, if not detail, of the first house — although the ceiling only drooped this time, sagging in the middle like a rain-filled awning. Julia about-faced, made for the door, emerged for the second time. The motorcycle was gone. The single lopsided cage was restored to its former position. The middle house had once again become the end house.
Julia emitted a sound that comprised equal parts chuckle, moan and sob — then she was dashing for the river, the sound of a woman’s petrified screams reaching her from distance.
“No, one more,” commanded the Permanent Secretary, pushing the silver hip flask back at her with gentle insistence. “A single tot is never enough in a situation like this.”
Julia was inclined to disagree with him on that. As a life-long tea-totaller, vintage brandy was hardly her refreshment of choice. Still, it steadied the nerves. And right now that was what she needed more than anything. The screams had been her own, of course — the sensation of distance only being created by the speed with which she left them behind. And almost fainting hadn’t helped matters, either. Now, after teetering on the verge of unconsciousness for the last fifteen minutes or so, the world was finally starting to settle down.
“Can you stand?”
Julia handed back the flask and took the Permanent Secretary’s arm. Once on her feet, she started to feel in control again.
“The Ministry launched an investigation into the matter during the autumn of seventy-four,” Sir Michael told her, “after a series of apparently random disappearances. Soldiers, civilians, members of the local council. Even a young boy out walking his dog one morning. The Felton Terrace anomaly seemed to be at the heart of the mystery, and so those in charge were forced to consider its presence as something more than a beguiling conundrum.
“They lost eleven men that first year, two dozen primates, a whole slew of cats and dogs. Nobody who entered numbers five or seventeen were ever seen or heard of again. It didn’t matter what precautions were taken — oxygen masks and full body armour, mobile Racal outfits festooned with transmission devices, even an inflatable astronaut’s suit similar to the ones used on the Apollo 11 mission — the result was the same. Once the premises were entered, all communication ceased. Then somebody had a bright idea.”
Sir Michael screwed the cap onto his flask with thoughtful slowness, and returned it to its hiding place beneath his jacket. All of a sudden he looked old, as if the very memory of the incident had aged him somehow.
“The Ministry inventoried the former residents of the original Felton Terrace, the one in Plumstead that had made way for a new industrial estate. They weren’t quite sure what they were looking for until a young lad of twenty-seven, the owner of the old Norton motorcycle you see standing over there, volunteered his help. Obviously, he didn’t know what was going on at the time, but he was bright enough and willing to learn, and when offered the chance to revisit his former home, albeit in a manifestly different setting, curiosity got the better of him. The Ministry was clever this time. It dispensed with all of the hi-tech stuff, and simply tied a rope around the poor lad’s waist.”
The Permanent Secretary frowned, face still etched with the weight of unpleasant recollection. “They nearly didn’t get him out. The rope was frayed to the point of disintegration by the time he reappeared, and his clothes were matted with slime. He was unconscious, naturally. When he finally emerged from coma six weeks later, he remembered nothing. Fortunately, the operation wasn’t a complete loss. The young man in question entered the civil service shortly afterwards, and has been closely associated with the project ever since. Needless to say, his efforts have been handsomely rewarded by Her Majesty’s government. They even gave him a knighthood.”
Julia was struggling to take all of this in.
“Are you telling me that the two number threes displace those who enter, whereas the remaining houses eat visitors up?”
The Permanent Secretary shrugged. “There are as many names for this place as there are theories to explain it,” he sighed, “all of them needlessly melodramatic. Wormhole, mousetrap, inter-dimensional gateway. Me, I tend to think of it as a loophole in a complex piece of legislation — something we can’t quite close without drawing attention to ourselves … and I don’t mean from this side.”
Julia shuddered at this last confession. “I think I’d like to go now,” she said.
“By all means, you’ve seen quite enough for one day. But before we leave, Julia, I’d like to impress upon you the following point. This world of ours is a far less predictable and organised place than many of us might care to admit. When and if you attain high office — and there are those in government already keeping a close eye on your progress — try to keep in mind that few issues are wholly cut-and-dried. We tend to find that this place illustrates the point quite neatly. Few ever forget it, to be sure.”
Julia tried to force a smile, then gave up. “I believe you,” she said, and prepared to leave. “Just one more thing,” she added, realising that this might be her first and last shot at asking the question that had been plaguing her for months. “I know this might sound presumptuous, but what is it you are actually Permanent Secretary of,” she asked. “I’ve never been able to work it out.”
The Permanent Secretary smiled evasively. “That I am not at liberty to divulge,” he confided, “but I will tell you this. My career in the civil service has lasted well over thirty years now, and in all of that time my efforts have been handsomely rewarded by Her Majesty’s government.” He allowed the smile to widen briefly into the ghost of a grin. “Shall we go?”