Following is an excerpt from Maralinga, the latest novel from the bestselling author of Floodtime.
‘Maralinga,’ Harold announced. ‘They’re calling it Maralinga - means ‘fields of thunder’ in some sort of native lingo, I believe.’ He gave a hoot of delighted laughter. ‘Rather apt for a nuclear bomb test site, what?’
‘It’s certainly colourful,’ his wife agreed. ‘Who came up with the idea?’
‘The Australian Chief Defence Scientist, so I’m told, a chappie by the name of Butement. Never met the fellow myself, but then I haven’t bumped into any of the Australian contingent as yet.’
Harold took a sip of the second cup of tea his wife had just poured him and, discovering it not warm enough for his liking, decided to ring for a fresh pot. He rose from his cosy armchair beside the open fireplace and crossed to the French windows. ‘Bound to meet up with them shortly, of course, now that I’m officially on board,’ he said, giving the bell sash two brisk tugs. ‘I shall be going down there any tick of the clock, I imagine.’
He looked out at the serenity of the landscape, where the elm tree cradled its burden of snow in the comfortable crooks of its giant limbs, and the white-laced hedgerow wound its elegant way down the slope which led to the brook. He did so love winter. The romantic in him particularly loved a white Christmas, and, the cold snap having well and truly set in, this Christmas of 1955 held every promise of being white.
‘Probably just in time for a stinking hot, desert Christmas,’ he added, ‘blast my luck.’
‘How does the Australian public feel about this Maralinga business?’ Lavinia asked.
‘I don’t think they know.’
‘Really? How extraordinary. One would assume such drastic action would lead to immensely strong public opinion. What a strange breed they must be.’
‘No, no, my love, you misunderstand. The majority of them don’t know what’s going on. Well, not yet, anyway. Their government’s keeping the news pretty much to itself – at least until the site’s established, and even then they’ll let the populace know only the barest minimum. In fact, if we have our way, the Australians will know only what we tell them they can know.’
‘Dear me,’ Lavinia tut-tutted, ‘and they’ll accept that, will they? The British public wouldn’t take kindly to being so ill-informed...’
She stopped abruptly. A light tap on the door was a precursor to the maid’s appearance, and she knew better than to discuss her husband’s business in front of the servants. Indeed, Lavinia felt privileged that Harold, in his position as deputy director of MI6, should see fit to share so much of his work with her. She was aware there was material which he did not offer up for discussion, and she never posed a query without his encouragement, but she enjoyed the degree of trust he placed in her. It meant that she could share at least a proportion of the huge burden of responsibility his job entailed. And that, in Lavinia’s opinion was a wife’s bounden duty.
‘We need a fresh pot,’ Harold called to the maid from his position by the windows.
‘Yes m’lord.’ The girl bobbed a curtsy and, leaving the double doors open, crossed to the large circular coffee table and picked up the tray.
‘And perhaps one or two of Freda’s scones?’ Lavinia directed the question at her husband rather than the maid.
‘Oh by jove, yes,’ Harold readily agreed.
‘Jam and clotted cream, please Bessie.’
‘Very good, m’lady.’ Another bob, and Bessie left, placing the heavy silver tray briefly on the hall table outside as she pulled the drawing room doors closed behind her.
Lavinia waited several seconds before continuing.
‘So it’s to our advantage that the Australians are so gullible.’
‘Dear me, yes.’ Harold returned to his armchair beside the fire. ‘And we have their prime minister well and truly in our pocket,’ he said as he sat opposite her. ‘Several years back when Menzies agreed to our nuclear weapon testing off the coast of Western Australia, he didn’t even inform his own cabinet.’
‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, Harold, that can’t be true.’
‘But it is my love - heard it directly from the Old Man himself.’ Harold had just returned to his country estate in Sussex following his London meeting with Prime Minister Churchill. ‘Winston told me that in 1950 Atlee sent a top-secret personal request to Menzies regarding the use of the Monte Bello Islands,’ he explained, in response to his wife’s obvious disbelief. ‘Menzies agreed immediately in principle to the nuclear testing, and according to Winston, there’s never been any record whatsoever of the man having consulted a single one of his cabinet colleagues on the matter.’
‘Goodness gracious.’ The impeccable arch of Lavinia Dartleigh’s brow furrowed ever so slightly. ‘Isn’t that somewhat irregular?’
Harold laughed. He adored his wife’s talent for understatement. Lavinia was the quintessential upper class Englishwoman. Still beautiful in her early forties, she was the epitome of elegance, highly intelligent, and at all times unruffled. Harold valued her greatly. She was the perfect wife for a man in his position.
‘Yes, my love, it is somewhat irregular.’
‘You mentioned the desert,’ Lavinia prompted. ‘I presume one’s not to know precisely which desert, or where?’ She only ever raised queries when the way had been paved for her, and in this case it had. She found the subject of Maralinga most interesting.
‘Quite right, my love, all very hush-hush, mum’s the word.’
‘Naturally. My guess is, nevertheless, South Australia. Wasn’t that the location of Emu Field?’ she asked innocently.
Harold chortled. He did so delight in his wife’s intellect. ‘How the deuce did you know about Emu Field?’
‘I saw a brief report in the cinema last year…’ Lavinia’s reply was a mixture of apology and criticism, ‘…in a Pathe Pictorial I’m afraid. Hardly hush-hush.’
‘Ah. Well…’ Harold’s smile faded. ‘…Maralinga will most certainly be hush-hush, at least for as long as we can keep such a place a secret. Once we start detonating of course the whole world will know, but by then we’ll have the site thoroughly secure and be able to monitor how much information we feed to the press. It’s one thing for the Monte Bello and Emu Field sites to be made public, but we’re talking about the establishment of a permanent nuclear testing ground, my love. All the more reason for MI6 to be running the show, and that’s exactly what I told Churchill. Our department should have been brought in right from the start.’
Harold enjoyed having a wife in whom he could confide and was aware of how highly Lavinia valued his trust.
‘Winston and I are in agreement that it’s a bit of a worry giving the boffins free reign,’ he continued, ‘they can be a sloppy bunch at the best of times. Scientists care about nothing but the results of their experiments, which leaves the gates wide open for breaches of security.’
‘But the military will be running Maralinga, surely.’
‘The day to day operations, yes, but William Penney’s been put in charge of the tests - and all things relative to them - which is a bit of a worry, in my opinion. The fellow’s a physicist for God’s sake.’
‘He’s also one of the world’s leading authorities on nuclear weapons and he’s been in charge of the British nuclear programme for years.’
‘Well done, my love.’ Slinging one leg languidly over the other, Harold lolled back in his armchair and gave her a round of applause. ‘Pathe Pictorial?’ he queried.
‘No. ‘The Times’.’ Lavina smiled, unfazed by her husband’s blatant mockery. ‘And it’s Sir William now, by the way – he was knighted three years ago.’
‘Ah yes, so he was, it had slipped my mind.’ It hadn’t at all – a further mockery. ‘Poor old Penney,’ Harold sighed, ‘he’s going to hate my guts more than ever when he hears I’m running the show.’
‘Why ‘more than ever’?’
‘He didn’t much like me at Cambridge, I’m afraid, and he won’t take kindly to this turn of events. In fact my personal involvement in the Maralinga project will be thoroughly irksome to him…’
Lavinia was faintly surprised. She’d known the two had attended Trinity College at the same time, but Harold had never mentioned any antipathy. The matter was clearly of no concern, however, as he sailed on.
‘…But the fellow will just have to put up with me I’m afraid. MI6’s presence in Australia is essential. The last thing we need is another Fuchs episode.’
Harold was referring to the highly publicised conviction of the British physicist, Klaus Fuchs, five years previously. A German born British citizen, Fuchs had been a key figure in the atomic bomb developmental programme devised by the Americans during the war and early post war years. ‘The Manhattan Project’, as the programme was code-named, had been largely dependent upon American resources and personnel, but a number of British scientists had been involved, and the shocking discovery that one of the most high-ranking amongst them had been a Soviet spy for years, had reverberated around the world.
‘One can hardly blame the Americans for closing shop on us,’ Harold said. Then, dropping the flippant façade, he leaned forward, steel-grey eyes gleaming with the familiar intensity which his colleagues at times found disturbing. ‘We cannot afford to be slack in the nuclear stakes, Lavinia. There’s a Cold War in progress and the Russians have proved their ability to infiltrate the most seemingly inaccessible...’
Another tap at the door announced the maid’s imminent arrival.
‘I do hope you won’t be called away for Christmas, dear,’ Lavinia said as the drawing room doors opened and Bessie appeared.