6. The Battle of Tindall’s Knob

Baz had needed to clear his head. The feeling of unease that had suffused every waking moment (and a good many of his sleeping ones) had not diminished. He had decided to join OG and Hamilton on their early morning walk across the heath. Just three miles in and Hamilton was already almost out of sight, heading off to his favourite rabbit warren while OG sprinted across through the bracken in a hopeless effort to keep up with the Scottish deerhound. It was one of those simple constancies of life at Fumblings that brought comfort to Baz during these turbulent times.

They were about a mile from the house as the crow flies. Baz paused to lean against the ancient folly that had been constructed just a few metres from the drystone wall that formed the boundary between his land and that of neighbouring Elrington Priory. Tindall’s Knob had been completed in 1922 by Sir Alexander Seville, a previous owner of the house. Seville had been a member of the outer circle of Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist. Seville’s arrival at the great Georgian manor just after the First World War had caused great consternation among many of his neighbours, especially the deeply conservative Benedictines who still lived at the Priory. To be fair, not all of the locals had been hostile and many members of the county set had participated enthusiastically in Seville’s lavish summer solstice celebrations (the North Cotswoldshire Naturist Association chartering a regular omnibus service right up to the outbreak of the Second World War).

The year before the Knob was built, on midsummer’s day in 1921, after their numerous attempts to persuade the authorities to intervene had failed, the monks decided to take matters into their own hands. As the sun began to emerge over Thorley Hill the brothers, some thirty of them, had marched towards the edge of the heath chanting an ethereal Te Deum. It was almost enough to drown out the satanic incantation that was being performed at the time by the celebrated Welsh baritone, Mr Jonathan Davies. Fortunately for Mr Davies and his fellow celebrants, the monks’ efforts were thwarted as Miss Prunella Nagle-Taylor, a stalwart of the North Cotswoldshire Hunt and secretary of the Winchcombe Snake-keepers Society, moved to the front of the assembly, removed her robes and performed a series of ancient rites with two feisty young boa constrictors she had been training for months in preparation for the ceremony. Most of the monks had turned their heads in shock and stumbled back as fast as they could towards the Priory. Just one young novice, Brother William, had stayed to watch the rest of the ceremony, later renouncing his vows and travelling to Weimar Berlin (where he became a popular figure on the emerging cabaret circuit).

That autumn, Sir Michael Tindall FRS, a friend of Seville (and a man tipped to be the next Astronomer Royal), had presented his patron with the designs for a new observatory on the site of the boundary overlooking Thorley Hill. “I want it to have an enormous dome,” Sir Alexander had informed his friend. An enormous dome is exactly what Tindall delivered. It was constructed just in time for the following summer’s celebrations. Such was Sir Michael’s standing in the scientific community, the then Duke of York was persuaded to travel to North Cotswoldshire to perform the opening ceremony.  The formal event took place the evening before the solstice and was followed by a great banquet (with the comely Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon being smuggled through the servants’ passage into the Duke’s rooms, cunningly disguised as a semi-naked Aztec priestess). The royal couple agreed to stay on to witness the following morning’s ritual, which was performed once again by the capable Miss Nagle-Taylor. As the ceremony came to its climax and Nagle-Taylor, dressed only in a fetching coat of woad, wrestled her two boa constrictors to the ground and began to perform the rites which were thought necessary to secure that year’s harvest, Lady Elizabeth found herself suddenly overcome with emotion and rushed to join in the sacred rite. The royal couple are said never to have referred to their midsummer visit to Fumblings (the diary page for that weekend appears to have gone missing from the Royal Archives) and the Duke never managed to rid himself of the debilitating stammer he seemed to have acquired during that “lost weekend”.

The much-anticipated telescope was never commissioned. Sir Alexander seemed content that the tall circular building with its enormous dome should remain unoccupied, though it became the custom on May Day for local girls to climb to the edge of the dome with long ladders taken from the house. At the top they would garland the rim with wildflowers gathered from the surrounding meadows.  They would descend into the arms of the local youths who were steadying the ladders then run off into nearby Twelvetrees Copse to celebrate the coming season of fertility. No one knows when the building became known as “Tindall’s Knob”, but Sir Alexander hadn’t seemed to mind too much when he had heard the locals refer to it in that way.

Unfortunately, Sir Michael Tindall later perished aboard the SS Lilly Allen in 1925 during sea trials when he was configuring the new navigation system he had developed for the Holland-America Line. Lloyd’s Register records that the unfortunate vessel collided with a large unidentified object off the coast of Margate (an episode captured by local artist Tracy Emin in her 2015 installation at the Saatchi Gallery, “The Bloody Pier’s Shut Again”). Eventually the eponymous Tindall’s Knob was to become better known as the centre of dispute in several lengthy and ruinous cases in the Court of Chancery and his Knob was to become more famous than the great astronomer himself.

Baz stared out towards Thorley Hill, to the weak autumn sun that was trying to break through the glowering clouds. He had gone to check on the gate installed into the wall just below Tindall’s Knob that connected the meadow to the Cotswold Way that ran just beyond the drystone wall. It allowed walkers access to the meadow, where he had also erected a picnic table and a firepit at his own expense. It was one of Baz’s great pleasures in the summer months to come and see ramblers or family groups enjoying the meadow and its carpet of wildflowers while small children gazed up in wonder at the old observatory and its enormous dome. Now, in November, the meadow was just tussocky grass and visitors were confined to those hardy souls who were trudging through the mud, traversing the Cotswold Way.

Grey clouds clung to the horizon and the crows cawed their murderous welcome to the coming winter, beckoning it to do its worst. As the crows reached their crescendo one of their number in human form seemed to emerge from the small hillocks in the field below the drystone wall, its arms akimbo like great black wings trying to find its balance on the undulating ground. It threw itself onto top of the wall, exhausted by the clamber to the top. Baz groaned inwardly to himself. It was Prior Allen.

Once the old monk had found his breath he pointed a thin gnarled finger at Baz. “You sir,” he sputtered, “You are a disgrace to this fine and ancient county of North Cotswoldshire. Your presence is a stain. This thing…” there was a tremor in his voice as he pointed up at the old observatory, “is an great carbuncle on the landscape and an abhorrence in the sight of God! If you had any integrity, if you had any respect for our Christian traditions, you would tear it down. The land on which this, this… thing is built is an ancient Benedictine property, as well you know. We owned every acre for as far as the eye could see. This…this…object!..” He allowed himself a moment to catch his breath, “Is an insult to generations of my faithful brethren!”

Baz gave a rueful smile. “If you’ve got a problem with that, you’d better take it up with Thomas Cromwell. No doubt you’ll be meeting up with him at some point.”

“And you have encouraged people to worship at this pagan monstrosity!” spat the Prior. “But I prophesy that by this time tomorrow, the forces of light will avenge themselves.”

Baz’s phone rang. He glanced at the screen and held up a finger to the Prior, signalling that the conversation was over. “Smirkey, this is a rare pleasure…”

The puce-faced Prior expostulated pointlessly as Baz turned on his heels and headed back towards the house.

***

The next morning Baz looked down from the drystone wall. Dawn was just beginning to rise beyond Thorley Hill casting a faint grey shadow over the Priory buildings below. OG had hammered a large iron stake into the ground through a heavy steel chain, which was attached to Hamilton’s studded leather collar.  Baz turned and nodded to OG, who in turn flashed a thumbs up to show he was ready. Below them Baz thought he spotted something. He lifted his Bazsoft-designed night-sight and handed the instrument to OG “Here they come.” Crossing the small bridge at the bottom of the stream appeared to be a small parliament of rooks, around thirty in all, armed variously with sledgehammers, pick-axes and long jemmies. At their head OG could see the Prior, urging his men on with great sweeps of his voluminous sleeves. OG could hear his heart pounding. In the briefing Baz had couldn’t have been clearer. “Wait until they are no more than 20 metres in front of you before you unleash it.” OG allowed his index finger to hover over the button on the large black box next to him. Baz raised his right arm. When he dropped it again, that was the signal for OG to swing into action.

OG could hear the Prior’s brittle voice now, urging his monks up the hill. The Prior himself was going to be first over the top. He flourished the jemmy at the monks like a swagger stick. “Come on brothers, we shall turn to rubble this insult to our ancient and noble house!”

OG heard the squeak of the hinges on the little kissing gate and then glimpsed the whites of the Prior’s hollow eyes beneath his cowl. Baz suddenly dropped his arm and OG felt for the button on the black box, found it and pressed. From one of the speakers came the regular rhythm of a base intro. The monks seemed not to hear it, but at his side OG felt Hamilton give an almighty heave on the chain. OG whispered to him, “Sorry old thing, but there’s no running away from this one.”

Another twelve bars of the bass and there was note from a synth. Hamilton bared his fangs and gave a deep low guttural snarl.   Then Bono’s vocals came in on cue.

“See the stone set in your eyes,

See the thorn twist in your side”

Hamilton would never describe himself as a music-lover, but he knew what he liked, and what he really didn’t like at all, not one tiny bit. As regimental mascots deerhounds had been specially bred to endure the terrible skirl of the pipes, but for Hamilton having U2 piped into his supersensitive ears was like someone drilling into his skull with a rusty six inch nail..

Hamilton howled like Cerberus, the hound-dog from hell.  The valley had not reverberated to that volume of sound since General Narraway ordered his Parliamentary troops to begin their bombardment of the ancient town walls of Tavis Knoyle in 1646. The monks clamped their hands to their ears in agony. Some found that their noses had started to bleed. They cast aside their tools and weapons and stumbled back down the hill to the Priory, determined to get as far away as possible from that terrible howling.

OG pressed the button on the black box and Hamilton’s howl diminished into a whimper.  The loyal amanuensis poked his fingers into his ears and removed the two small devices that Baz had given to him that morning. OG pointed to the little electronic buds in his palm. “These are quite amazing! I couldn’t hear a thing.”

Baz fished his own buds from under his Scott Lawson ski hat. “What’s that you say OG?”

“I said these are remarkable. Are you going to go into production with them?”

Baz grinned. “I had a hundred prototypes made up and distributed them to season ticket holders in the lower tier of P section in the Mira as my contribution to Mental Health Week. They’re all wearing them except for two of the regulars, who seem blissfully ignorant that no one is listening to a word they are saying.”   

“Everyone’s happy then”

It seems so. “We’ve just an order in for another 600 from the House of Commons, now that Geoffrey Cox has decided to remove his well-padded trousers from the Virgin Islands.”

***

Baz was sitting at the back of the antiquated tea-room in Broadway. He looked at his watch. Ten minutes late already. When he looked up again there was the familiar pudgy face with the gold-rimmed glasses sitting in the seat opposite. Baz hadn’t seen or heard him arrive.

“Smirkey? I didn’t hear you… Can I get you a cup of tea?”

A fierce looking middle-aged woman in a black dress and stained frilly white apron appeared next to their table. The old spymaster polished his spectacles on his tie. “Do you think I might have a pot of Lapsang Souchong?” he asked courteously.

At his cultivated tones, the fierceness immediately evaporated and the waitress nearly curtsied. “Of course, sir, Right away.”

Baz poured himself another tepid cup of Builders’ Brew. “You wanted to see me?”

Smirkey allowed himself a polite smile. “Yes, I did rather. I understand that you have been having some conversations with our old friend Dimitrov and his young lieutenant. Very attractive young woman by all accounts.”

“The old Smirkey jungle drums are as well informed as ever.”

“Well, I fear Baz, that our Russian friends may not have been altogether forthcoming with the actualité. What did they tell you?”

Baz began to feel stirrings of discomfort. He hesitated.  “Well, they tell me that Karla is holed up somewhere in the Forest of Dean and is trying to foment some kind of local uprising.”

Smirkey gave a weak smile. “Seems rather unlikely don’t you think?  Let me proffer a slightly more plausible narrative? Let’s say, and this is purely hypothetical of course, but let’s say Karla had managed to get himself to London on a scheduled flight and was reaching out to some of our people, offering to defect, when the heavies from, the Russian  embassy step in. Karla panics and takes refuge in the most impenetrable and most inhospitable part of this country, The Forest of Dean.”

Baz sat back on his cane chair and nodded. It’s plausible.”

Smirkey continued, “And after all that business in Salisbury, the last thing the Russians need is another assassination scandal on their hands. At least, they can’t be seen to have anything to do with it directly. So, they find someone from this country, one of the few people still alive who can be certain as to what he looks like, someone who has a really strong motivation in seeing Karla dead.”

Baz nodded. ”And you think I might have been set up to do it?”

Smirkey gave his glasses another polish. “I rather think you might have. This Lieutenant Gotovtsev, I presume she is very attractive?”

Baz flushed slightly, “Well, you know I wouldn’t clamber over her and all that… but if the Russians wanted to obscure their involvement in Karla’s assassination, why would they involve her?”

Smirkey popped his glasses back on. “I should have thought it is obvious. She is there simply to tidy up, to ensure….”

The old spymaster let his words  hang in the air. Baz completed the sentence for him, “To ensure that no one is around to tell the truth of the matter.”

“I rather fear that might be the case. Renegade retired British agent takes his revenge on his greatest enemy, rather than letting him fall into the protective custody of the dear old MI6 – the same people against whom he bears a lifelong grudge for abandoning him to his fate on the Czech border. It all fits rather neatly don’t you think?”

Baz pushed back his cup of tea. “What do you want of me Smirkey.”

“Bring him back Baz. Bring Karla in from the cold. Don’t fall into Dimitrov’s trap.”

Baz thought of the slim, leggy girl with the blonde curls. ”And what I am I supposed to do with Lieutenant Gotovtsev?”

Smirkey gave a sad smile. “She has orders to eliminate you Baz.” Smirkey stood up and pushed his chair neatly under the table. “Your licence to kill has been reinstated, temporarily of course.”

* * *

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