The voice was the last one he wanted to hear and Straker stabbed the intercom with an impatient finger. ‘Whatever it is Jackson, it’ll have to wait. I’m supposed to have left ninety minutes ago and Henderson’s phoned twice already, asking where I’ve got to.’ He closed the link and strode out, trying not to look around the Control room, trying not to get distracted yet again by lights and sounds and voices. Not that there was a problem, far from it, but somehow it seemed disloyal to walk out when everyone else was working the late shift. He glanced up as Alec approached. ‘Call me if anything happens. Got that?’
Freeman folded his arms and leaned against the wall. ‘For the tenth time. Stop worrying. Go and enjoy the evening.’
Straker sighed. ‘Enjoy? It’s Christmas Eve and Henderson’s expecting me to join him at his social event tonight. A strange idea of celebrating Christmas Eve. Want to change places?’ He raised a single expressive eyebrow. ‘Thought not. Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow at noon. Everything set?’
‘Commander?’ Jackson again, the quick tapping of feet, the drawl with more than a hint of annoyance. ‘You are going to the IAC event? At Mansford House?’
‘Yes. I’m on my way now.’ He looked at his watch again, hoping that perhaps he had made a mistake, but no. It was well past nine o’clock. He was going to be late. Appallingly, rudely, unconscionably late. He hated the thought almost as much as he hated the idea of spending the evening in some distant country mansion with a group of delegates and their wives. He suspected he was not the only one either.
‘Excellent. General Henderson asked that I drive us both, no doubt in order to ensure your attendance at some stage this evening. I trust you have no objections? I will, of course, be happy to drop you back here afterwards, or drive you home should that be more convenient.’
A rare moment indeed. Ed Straker standing in the control room, lost for words, mouth open as if he was about to speak but nothing happening. In the end he did the only thing he could think of; he nodded and followed the psychologist out in silence, aware of Alec and indeed the rest of the staff watching with discreet amusement.
Jackson led the way to the far end of the car park and an elderly Ford Fiesta, and Straker gave a regretful glance at his own spacious car with all its refinements and gull-wing doors and room to stretch his legs. Jackson’s choice of car was singularly unattractive as well as small and Straker was forced to push the seat back to its limit. Even then his feet were squashed in the footwell, his ankles cramped and twisted.
An uncomfortable journey, the suspension rough and the clutch jerking so that by the time they had got outside the city and on the quiet country roads Straker was clinging onto the door handle with every change of gear and need to brake.
‘Another five miles, I believe.’ The first words Jackson had said since starting the car. ‘I hope the weather holds out. The forecast was not encouraging for this evening.’ And as if they had been waiting for just that announcement, the first flakes of snow descended from the sullen sky, thick and fast and silent, blotting out the road and the distant lights in the valley below. Straker hunched down, bending his legs in an attempt to ease the aching. The car was cold, he was cold and the weather was threatening to trap him here. With Jackson.
He held onto a vain hope that somehow the blizzard would stop and they could carry on, but the creaking of the windscreen wipers became slower and more painful until there was one last shudder and they stopped altogether, no longer able to withstand the onslaught from above. Jackson muttered something in a foreign language, a curse from the sound of it, and the car slithered to a halt, slewing across the road to come to a sudden halt at a sharp angle as if the front nearside wheel had dropped down. The Fiesta groaned and then the windscreen cracked under the strain, letting bitter winter air slicing through the small cracks. The dashboard lights flickered and the engine died.
He should have come in his own car. Telephone, emergency alert. GPS tracker. Instead he was miles from anywhere and with no way to contact Headquarters. The only comfort was that Henderson expected them to arrive soon, and once they failed to make an appearance then someone would come looking for them. Surely.
The snow was still falling, iciness insinuating itself through the gaps in the windscreen, Jackson trying to get the engine to start with no success and Straker unfastened his seatbelt and opened his door. It swung downwards with a grating shudder and he saw the ditch alongside, the front wheel hanging in mid-air. No chance of driving out of here now, and the snow too deep to hope that any other driver might come this way.
Snow filled the car, clogging his eyelashes and tickling his cheeks and he pulled the door closed again, a difficult task, then turned on the interior light. He could see Jackson pushing at his own door, but the angle was too steep for it to open. The chassis groaned again, shattering the passenger window and the situation changed from mild inconvenience to something grim and menacing as the wind scoured any remaining warmth from the interior. The only thing to do was to find some shelter and wait it out. He couldn’t remember snow as thick as this, not in England at any rate.
‘Any idea where we are?’ He brushed fat snowflakes from his face.
‘About three miles from our destination.’ Jackson gave up and sat back, wrapping his arms round himself, shivering.
‘We can’t stay here. Not without way to stay warm.’ He refused to contemplate the SHADO survival manual’s guidelines: huddling together and sharing warmth inside the vehicle until rescue arrived. Even that wouldn’t be sufficient. The wind chill was enough to freeze them. There had to be somewhere nearby they could find shelter: a house, a hotel, even a cabin. He shook his head and busied himself searching the glove box, rooting through service documents in a plastic folder, a notebook and biro, a handful of coins and a half-eaten tube of Polo mints, the silver wrapper twisted at the top to seal the contents. Useless. He stuffed them back and hunched down again, aware of the cold rising up his legs, the car shuddering, Jackson’s silence.
Then, with a suddenness that startled him, the blizzard moved on, leaving them in darkness. A last gentle flurry and then nothing. He’d always imagined falling snow to be soundless, but now he became aware of true silence outside, all noise deadened, the air still for a moment, even the sounds of his companion - the soft intake of breath, the shuffle of a body against the seat, the rustle of leather gloves rubbing against each other – all these were stilled in the vast emptiness. It was beautiful. And on any other night, with any other person, he might have sat there in the cold, cramped car and enjoyed it. But not now.
He let the door fall open again and lurched out, holding himself upright on the door frame and unable to prevent his feet dropping into the thicker snow in the ditch. It was a struggle to make his way to the back of the vehicle and then up onto the hidden tarmac of the road, slipping to his knees twice before he managed to stand on the firm surface, shoes hidden in the snow which soaked his trousers halfway to his knees. Too late to change his mind. If he got back in the car now he would be frozen within minutes. There had to be somewhere they could shelter, or if not, he would set off walking. Someone might come this way, another late arrival to the party perhaps? Though it was doubtful.
The voice sounded excited, if Jackson could ever experience that emotion.
‘What is it?’
‘A building. In the field on your right.’
He could see Jackson scrabbling across the passenger seat to get out. The sky had cleared; the heavy clouds having dropped their burden and disappeared to leave nothing ragged tatters that pulled apart for a moment to reveal a gibbous moon. He stared across the field. A dark shape, but there again, all shapes were dark in the thin light. But it had a look of squareness and solidity, and it was about fifty yards away, and anything was better than staying out here. The wind had picked up again by the time he had managed to haul the other man out of the ditch and he set off, looking for a gate.
Jackson was busy opening the boot and lifting out a suitcase. No. Not a case, a box. Cardboard, and heavy from the look of it. Straker ignored him and busied himself climbing over the gate and setting off for the building, only for Jackson to call him back. ‘Would you take this, please?’
It was tempting to refuse, but what the hell. He grabbed the box while Jackson clambered over to stand there, smiling, as if he was not miles from anywhere and facing the prospect of freezing to death.
‘Snow. A good omen, don’t you think Commander?’ He took the box again. ‘You don’t like snow?’
‘Not on a night like this.’ His feet were sodden now, and painful. He led the way, aware of the harsh breaths behind him as his unwelcome companion struggled with the box. In the end he turned round and, without comment, lifted it from Jackson’s arms and carried on towards the building. For building it was; not a house, or a hotel but a low barn, stone built and sturdy. It would suffice.
He let Jackson force the wooden door open, just enough for them to squeeze though. The interior was warm, or perhaps it was just that they were out of the icy breeze at last and he could feel the weight ease. He lowered the box to the floor and rubbed his hands together, aware of the tingle as frozen fingers warmed, and aware of Jackson feeling his way around the perimeter of the walls, scuffling through what had to be straw or hay. There was a faint and not-unpleasant smell of dung. He took a couple of cautious steps, tripped over what turned out to be a bale of straw, and sat on it, tugging off ruined shoes and socks, and rubbing his bare feet with equally bare hands. His trousers were no better, the sodden wool flapping against his skin, and he rolled them up to mid-calf.
‘What now?’ His own voice was harsh in comparison, the tone angry and he regretted the words as soon as he had uttered them.
‘Do you have a match on you, Commander, or perhaps a lighter?’
‘Give me a minute.’ He should have thought of that sooner, but it had been such a relief to get out of the coldness. He fumbled to undo the buttons of his overcoat, fingers reluctant to do his bidding, but his lighter was there, inside his jacket. He clicked it, a tiny flame illuminating the immediate area to reveal straw scattered on a rough flagged floor, a battered wooden partition dividing the interior into stalls large enough for cattle or horses, Jackson standing there in front of him. The flame died and he held out the lighter, fingers meeting as the other man cast about to make contact.
‘Thank you. I will be a moment.’
He tucked his feet up on the bale of straw, wrapping them under the length of his overcoat in a futile attempt to get some warmth into them. A crackle of flame and a small, but brilliant light in one corner, and he saw Jackson twisting straw into knots before adding them to the tiny fire.
‘Is that safe?’ He stayed where he was.
‘I have cleared the immediate area of anything flammable, and there is a crack in the wall near the roof, allowing smoke to escape. There is no chance of the fire dispersing beyond these stones, and even if there was,’ Jackson spread his hands wide. ‘We need to get warm if we are to survive the night.’
Warm. He’d forgotten the feeling. The flags were icy cold under his feet but he went across, hunching down in front of the small fire, stretching his hands out, relishing the sensation. ‘What can I do to help?’
Jackson hesitated and held out his own hands, all slender fingers and delicate wrists. ‘We need something better to burn than straw,’ he said glancing over at the wooden planks that formed the partition.
The old planks splintered easily enough, and by the time and Straker had finished breaking the longer ones over his knee and stacking them next to the fire, he was warmer and the small blaze was now fierce enough to allow him to unfasten his overcoat and sit down on one of the bales Jackson had dragged over. He put his shoes nearer, draping both sodden socks next to them in the hope that they would dry out. Jackson had removed his own footwear and was doing the same, stretching his feet out to the warmth with a sigh.
A gust of wind rattled the barn door, a flurry of snow fell from the crack in the roof and melted in a sparkle of droplets, Jackson found a length of wood and added it to the flames before sitting back and folding his arms. ‘Snow on Christmas Eve is considered good luck in Poland. I still hold to that belief even though it is years since I saw my home country.’
‘How old were you when you left?’
‘Thirteen. We made our way here when things became difficult; my parents and my siblings and I. My grandparents remained behind, to keep the pretence that we were still living there. I did not see them again.’ He shivered. ‘Perhaps I should have gone back when I was older, but it was never the right time and when the opportunity finally arrived it was too late.’
Straker’s socks were steaming and he turned them over to dry the other side. ‘Your siblings. Where are they now?’
‘America. The Promised Land. Both of them successful and with families of their own. My parents went out to join them years ago, so I am the only one of our family here to keep the customs alive.’ He stood up and went to collect the box. ‘Do you keep any traditions Commander?’
‘Ed. Not Commander. Not tonight. And no. No I don’t. Not now.’
‘Very well.’ The box was sturdy, the tape ripping off with a sound of tearing silk. ‘Here.’
A white cloth. He laid it to one side. More boxes, smaller and sealed. He took each in silence and put them on the bales, then added a few more pieces of wood to the fire and waited, not knowing what, if anything to say.
Jackson reached out for his own socks and shoes, pulling them on with a grimace. ‘Not ideal, but it has to be done. Would you join me outside please? As my guest this evening?’
Wet socks on cold feet, squeaky sodden leather, trouser legs rolled down again and sticking to his skin. He ignored the unpleasant sensations and followed Jackson to the door. Snow soaked his feet again, undoing all the warmth of the fire.
Jackson took a few paces away from the building, turning on the spot and staring up at the dark sky. And then he pointed. ‘There.’
He recognised that sound, a soft and drawn out sigh of satisfaction, and, curious, Straker followed the pointing hand. A star, nothing special. He recognised it. Merope. One of the Pleiades.
‘First star I have seen tonight. Now we can begin.’ Jackson hurried back to the barn, leaving Straker alone to gaze at the stars. It was not often that he saw the night sky with such clarity, but his feet began complaining and he followed the other man back to the stone walls and wide arched door.
The interior of the barn welcomed them, and he pushed the door shut, barricading it with a couple of straw bales. He had no idea what was happening tonight, whether Jackson was playing games with him, or if there was some real purpose to these random activities; perhaps an experiment to ascertain his fitness for command. There was nothing he could do apart from go along with it all and then walk out of here in the morning.
Shoes and socks laid out at the edge of the fire, next to Jackson’s. More bales dragged across and stacked one on top of each other to form a high barrier behind them, a mound of hay collected from inside the stalls and spread out in front of seats made by more bales. The fragrance of warm hay began to fill the space, sparks rose from the burning wood, flickering for a moment and then fading. This close to the fire, the flagstones were warm underfoot and he stretched his legs out, relishing the heat and the smell of smoke.
‘Tonight is Wigilia.’
‘Sorry?’ He’d been half-asleep, leaning back against the bales, listening to Jackson puttering about nearby, boxes being opened, the chink of glass and rattle of metal. He straightened up and looked around.
The white cloth now covered one of the bales and Jackson was busy opening a packet. ‘Wigilia. Christmas Eve. For more years than I care to remember I have eaten the traditional supper alone, but tonight, for the first time, I am honoured to have an unexpected guest join me.’ He held a thin wafer in his hands, and he broke it and passed one piece across. ‘Welcome, Ed. I wish you every happiness and good fortune in the coming year.’
Not a medical assessment then. He could see the sincerity in Jackson’s expression, the sense that tonight was something different and his own words came easily, and yet with surprising honesty. ‘Thank you for allowing me to share this evening. And I wish you happiness as well.’ The wafer tasted of nothing, a cloying dryness on his tongue reminiscent of communion wafers in church, but he finished his portion and then sat there, waiting, as Jackson finished laying the contents of the boxes out on the simple table.
Candles and plates, a loaf of bread with fruit, more cartons revealing a jar of roll-mop herrings and one of dried fruit, a box filled with nuts and candies, biscuits, the chink of glass as a bottle appeared.
‘You do this all ..’ Straker didn’t finish the sentence. They were one and the same. Keeping up the old traditions even though no one else was around, though Straker’s traditions were personal rather than cultural. A new bauble for the tree, a slice of shop-bought Christmas cake and glass of sherry left out on Christmas Eve although Father Christmas had not visited for a long time, and a shared meal with friends, even if it was in the staff lounge tomorrow with all the others who were working. Friends. And, year after year, Doug Jackson had kept the faith, spreading out a tablecloth like this and preparing the supper, knowing he would eat alone.
‘By myself? How else could I do it?’ Jackson opened the jar of roll mops. ‘I regret the lack of a proper table but I had not intended to crash my vehicle, or be stranded here.’ A smile transformed his thin face. ‘But perhaps this was meant to be? After all, without the General’s intervention you would have travelled in your own car and I …’ He shrugged. ‘I would be setting a place for an unexpected traveller as always, knowing full well that no one would appear. But, the tradition would have continued. Over one hundred years now. And tonight is the first time anyone else has joined my supper.’ He unscrewed the bottle and poured a small amount into thick tumblers.
‘Every Christmas Eve?’ Straker sipped the drink and paused, relishing the sweetness. ‘This is…?’
‘Krupnik. Honeyed vodka. My family’s recipe. And yes, I have done this every Christmas Eve since my parents moved away. I am the oldest son. It is my duty.’ He looked around the barn. ‘Though it is usually in more comfortable surroundings.’
Straker picked out one of the roll mops with delicate fingers. ‘I used to eat these when I was younger.’ He took a small bite and winced. ‘So all this – ,’ he waved the hand that wasn’t dripping vinegar on the stone flags underfoot. ‘Where did you intend doing it, tonight?’
Jackson exhaled. ‘To be honest, I had no idea. When the General ordered me to drive you tonight, I hoped the opportunity would arise. It usually does. A few minutes is all that is required: a star in the sky, a white tablecloth with a few pieces of straw or hay underneath. Breaking the wafer and wishing family good fortune, even if they are miles away. Asking forgiveness for any misunderstandings, and promise to do better next year. But sharing with you, tonight, exceeds all my hopes.’ He sipped his own drink and pulled a shred of herring from the roll. ‘Rollmops. Somehow they never taste the same when one is an adult.’
‘Nothing does, really. Everything changes as we grow older.’ He tossed the scraps of herring into the flames as Jackson tore a corner from the loaf and passed it over.
‘Ed Straker, a philosopher? I always thought you were a scientist at heart.’
The bread was soft and sweet and rich with fruit, bringing with it memories of home-made mince pies. ‘Just personal experience.’ He took another piece. The fire was dying down and, although they were warm enough sitting here, protected from the chill by the bales behind, they would need more wood if they were to stay warm. He reached for his shoes, flinching as wet leather rubbed bare toes.
Personal experience. Everything changing, the loss of childhood and the disenchantment of adulthood. Childish hopes for the future fading into insignificance under the realities of life. He tore into another section of the partitions, splintering the bone-dry and ancient planks before carrying them back to stack beside the fire. ‘Should do us for a few hours. As long as we’re careful.’
They sat, a comfortable silence, sharing the last of the bread and then handfuls of the dried fruit, breaking walnuts and hazelnuts under a stone and picking the pieces out. Straker scooped the broken shells up and tossed them into the flames, finished his glass of honeyed vodka and held it out to be refilled. The planks crackled and spat as they burned, showering the nearby flagstones with sparks. ‘We used to roast chestnuts when I was a child. On an open fire. One of those Christmas traditions I suppose, I just hadn’t thought about it until now.’
Jackson gave a short bark of laughter; a strange sound from someone so secretive and contained. Or slippery, as Alec commented not so long ago. ‘Had I known what was going to happen tonight, I would have brought some with me.’ He bent to pick another walnut, cracking it open and handing Straker a perfect, undamaged half to eat. ‘I will remember, next year, but for now, these will have to suffice.’
The last of the nuts eaten, the candied fruit finished, the biscuits reduced to mere crumbs. Straker brushed them from his coat with regret and busied himself examining the socks spread out in front of the fire. They were dry and he passed the dark woollen ones across and pulled on his own, relishing the warmth on his toes.
Jackson hunched up, staring at the fire, fingers wrapped around his tumbler. ‘It will be midnight soon. Christmas Day.’
‘What else do you do? On Christmas Day?’ A rather intrusive question, but he was curious, and also concerned for this secretive man, whose life had been a mystery until earlier tonight.
‘One is supposed to spend the day with family and friends.’
The words hung there, unanswerable.
‘Henderson will be wondering where you are.’ Straker poked at the fire with a length of wood.
‘I doubt it. The General has other priorities. Your absence, however, will be noted. He is under some considerable pressure to justify the current levels of spending by the IAC, and he was hoping to talk to you tonight.’
‘I doubt that as well.’ Sparks rose from the burning timber as it was disturbed.
‘That is what he informed me earlier, and I have always found him to be an honourable man, though somewhat difficult to work for.’
‘So why do you? Work for him, that is?’
‘The reason is quite simple. I believe in what you are doing, and working for Henderson is as close as I can get to being a part of that effort. And, of course, I know about SHADO. That in itself is sufficient to ensure my loyalty.’
‘To Henderson? Or SHADO?’ Straker leaned forward; a piece of wood had slithered out of the fire and he pushed it back into the flames with the makeshift poker, before scratching random patterns on the flagstones with the charred end of the stick.
‘Either. Both. Does it matter? I do the job - whatever it may involve and however much I may despise it - to the best of my ability. Is that not enough?’ He put the glass down. ‘And regardless of what you think, or other people say about me, I will always do my best.’ His voice was softer now. ‘If I didn’t, then it would be the worst kind of betrayal.’
‘I see.’ Straker rolled his shoulders, wincing at the creaking of stiff joints. The fire was soporific and he shifted position, trying to stay awake. ‘Looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a while. Henderson will have to make do without me tonight. I’m sure he won’t object.’
‘He will have a difficult evening Commander. Those in control above him are pressing for budget cuts, for better results, for an explanation of where the money goes. Trying to justify the expense.’ Jackson stood up, brushing straw from his trousers. ‘And although he can be…’ a shrug, a sideways glance, ‘… should we say, difficult to work with on occasions, he is fully aware of the immense debt SHADO, and indeed Earth, owe you.’
‘I didn’t know.’ Or perhaps he hadn’t considered it. There had been too much conflict between the two of them in past months. And whose fault was that? But Jackson’s words explained much about the General: the stubbornness, the constant arguments about cutting the budget, the seemingly unreasonable demands. He scratched another line. ‘We seem to do little else other than argue. Perhaps I should speak to him, apologise for any – ,’ he broke off. ‘What was it you said earlier? Misunderstandings?’
‘It would be a kindness. He, too, feels the loss of family and friends at this time.’ Another pause as if Jackson was considering his words with care. ‘As no doubt many of us do.’
The stick juddered across the flagstones, leaving a jagged trail in its path before splintering, and Straker leaned forward, tossing the pieces into the fire where they disappeared without trace. The woodpile needed replenishing and he pulled on ruined shoes once more, aware of the chill air surrounding the small enclave and grateful that they had been guided to this sanctuary. A miracle? No. He didn’t believe in those. Not even at this time of year. But it had been fortuitous, and for that he said a short thanks. To whoever. Or whatever.
He was trying to break a particularly intractable length of wood over his knee when he heard a voice outside, muffled but familiar.
He pulled the bales of straw away and dragged the barn door open just enough to make sure.
Someone flashed a torch in his face. ‘Ed? Wondered where you’d got to. Had me worried for a while.’ Henderson, sounding more than a little relieved and stamping compacted snow from his boots.
‘It’s fine. We’re both okay, cold feet more than anything.’ He stepped aside to let him inside with a touch of regret and a flurry of snowflakes.
‘Having a party of your own?’
Was that a hint of envy? Straker looked at back his companion sitting by the fire. ‘Dr. Jackson was kind enough to share some of his provisions with me. It’s been a very pleasant evening actually.’ He nodded at Henderson. ‘My apologies for missing your gathering, General. I assure you it was unintentional.’
‘No need for apologies. I didn’t think you were doing it deliberately. Never crossed my mind in fact.’ The older man looked around the barn. ‘A good place to shelter and I have to admit, I’d rather have been here with you both. It’s been a difficult evening, and then when I realised both of you were missing –,’ He shook his head. ‘I didn’t like to think what might have happened. My car’s outside on the road, so I’ll give you both a lift when you’re ready.’
Jackson stepped forward, smiling. ‘But first, General, now that you are here, perhaps you would care for a drink to celebrate the evening? I am sure the Commander will not object to staying for few minutes longer?’ He picked up the bottle and rummaged in the box again, bringing out yet another glass. ‘As you can see, I am prepared for unexpected visitors.’
A third glass. Straker kept quiet, wondering how many secrets this man held, how much thought had gone into packing for tonight. It was easier to just hold out his own tumbler, raising it in response to Jackson’s toast.
‘Unexpected visitors. May they always find a welcome and a place ready for them at the table.’
Henderson sat on one of the bales, heedless of straw sticking to his fine cashmere coat. ‘Always enjoyed camp-fires. Something about them.’ He shrugged and finished the last of his drink. ‘Seems a shame to put it out but you must be wanting to get home, Ed.’
Straker shrugged. ‘I’m in no rush. And anyway,’ he took a breath, wondering how to start. ‘I wanted a word with you, before midnight. To apologise….’
Perhaps it was the alcohol, or the warmth from the small fire, or even the memory of a more than pleasant evening, but it was easier to talk to James Henderson than it had been for longer than he could remember. And, when the fire had died down to little more than glowing embers, he stood and offered his hand in friendship, aware of Jackson watching with something more than approval. Relief perhaps? The Christmas traditions upheld for another year?
They both helped pack the remains away, the empty bottle, the jars and packages, Jackson folding the tablecloth with care and putting it in the large box on top of everything else. And then they were done: the fire covered with snow to extinguish the last white-hot ashes, the bales back where they belonged, the door pushed shut from the outside and barred. Snow crunching underfoot as they made their way to the road.
Henderson’s car was parked behind the ruined Fiesta. ‘I saw Doug’s car then realised where you were so I called Colonel Freeman. He said to go home and he’ll finish sorting things out for tomorrow?’
‘Staff Christmas lunch at midday. Alec’s organising it this year.’ Straker took a deep breath. ‘Would both of you like to join us? You’d be more than welcome.’
Henderson was driving with due care, eyes on the road and keeping the car in the centre of the road, avoiding any hidden ditches, but he glanced up, once, to meet Straker’s eyes. ‘Thank you Ed. I was thinking of going to my club for lunch, but a meal with you and your staff sounds far more inviting.’
Jackson was sitting there in the darkness of the interior, silent since getting into the vehicle and fastening his seatbelt and Straker turned to him. ‘What about you Jackson? I can’t promise pickled herrings, but there’ll be mince pies.’
A long pause. He could see the slender man look out of the window, the glass reflecting a face devoid of any emotion, the voice cool and detached. ‘Perhaps it would be unwise. I have not made myself popular with certain members of staff recently and my presence might be undesirable. But thank you anyway.’
‘If you change your mind, you’ll be more than welcome. I’ve enjoyed tonight, despite the snow, and would like to repay the kindness.’ There was no point in pressing the matter. He had done his best. But he would have a word with Alec in the morning and look at getting Jackson more involved in SHADO’s operations. The doctor would make a good member of the team and it was obvious that his talents were wasted working for Henderson. Straker leaned back and closed his eyes.
The table looked splendid, as usual: heavy linen tablecloths and napkins, gleaming cutlery, crackers providing a splash of colour against the whiteness. Straker ran an appreciative hand over the cloth. Fifteen places for the Control Room staff, another three for the emergency medical team; a skeleton staff today although his instincts railed against the idea. Even now he was on edge, every sense razor sharp, as if anticipating an alert from Moonbase. But Alec had persuaded him, and after all, it was only for an hour and he knew full well the automated alarms would notify them in plenty of time, should there be any problems. It was just that computers didn’t have the ability to decipher the faintest of readings on a screen, or the capacity to look outside the box for solutions. He looked round at the staff as they filtered in. His staff. Good men and women. All of them.
They were beginning to seat themselves now, relaxing as if this was a family meal at home, the room filling with the clatter of plates and snap of crackers, the aroma of gravy and turkey and stuffing, silverware glinting in the flickering light of candles, glasses frothing with non-alcoholic champagne. Henderson, a couple of places further down the table, was talking to Ayshea and Ford and enjoying himself, and then Jackson appeared, standing in the doorway, hesitant and about to turn away.
‘Dr. Jackson?’ Straker stood, waving one hand at the empty place beside his. ‘Your place is here.’
‘I wasn’t sure if …’ Jackson picked up the place name card. ‘Douglas Jackson? You knew I was going to come? How did … ?'
‘The unexpected guest.’ Straker shrugged. ‘I took a chance, hoped you’d change your mind. I’m glad you did; I want to talk about you working for SHADO full time. I cleared it with Henderson and he agreed you’d be a welcome and valuable asset to the organisation. Interested? There’s a place ready and waiting for you. ’ He poured a drink and held it out, aware of a bright gleam of hope in Jackson’s eyes. ‘Happy Christmas, Doug.’