names and went up to the Communications Centre to get on the teleprinter to Station Z.

M would have preferred to live by the sea, near Plymouth perhaps or Bristol - anywhere where he could see the stuff whenever he wanted to and could listen to it at night. As it was, and since he had to be within easy call of London, he had chosen the next best thing to water, trees, and had found a small Regency manor-house on the edge of Windsor Forest. This was on Crown Lands, and Bond had always suspected that an ounce of'Grace and Favour' had found its way into M's lease. The head of the Secret Service earned £5,000 a year, with the use of an ancient Rolls Royce and driver thrown in. M's naval pay (as a Vice-Admiral on the retired list) would add perhaps another £1,500. After taxes, he would have about £4,000 to spend. His London life would probably take at least half of that. Only if his rent and rates came to no more than £500, would he be able to keep a house in the country, and a beautiful small Regency house at that.

These thoughts ran again through Bond's mind as he swung the clapper of the brass ship's-bell of some former HMS Repulse, the last of whose line, a battle-cruiser, had been M's final sea-going appointment. Hammond, M's Chief Petty Officer in that ship, who had followed M into retirement, greeted Bond as an old friend, and he was shown into M's study.

M had one of the stock bachelor's hobbies. He painted in water-colour. He painted only the wild orchids of England, in the meticulous but uninspired fashion of the naturalists of the nineteenth century. He was now at his painting-table up against the window, his broad back hunched over his drawing-board, with, in front of him, an extremely dim little flower in a tooth-glass full of water. When Bond came in and closed the door, M gave the flower one last piercingly inquisitive glance. He got to his feet with obvious reluctance. But he gave Bond one of his rare smiles and said, 'Afternoon,

James.' (He had the sailor's meticulous observance of the exact midday.) 'Happy Christmas and all that. Take a chair.' M himself went behind his desk and sat down. He was about to come on duty. Bond automatically took his traditional place across the desk from his Chief.

M began to fill a pipe. 'What the devil's the name of that fat American detective who's always fiddling about with orchids, those obscene hybrids from Venezuela and so forth? Then he comes sweating out of his orchid house, eats a gigantic meal of some foreign muck and solves the murder. What's he called?'

'Nero Wolfe, sir. They're written by a chap called Rex Stout. I like them.'

'They're readable,' condescended M. 'But I was thinking of the orchid stuff in them. How in hell can a man like those disgusting flowers? Why, they're damned near animals, and their colours, all those pinks and mauves and the blotchy yellow tongues, are positively hideous! Now that' - M waved at the meagre little bloom in the tooth-glass -'that's the real thing. That's an Autumn Lady's Tresses - spiranthes spiralis, not that I care particularly. Flowers in England as late as October and should be under the ground by now. But I got this forced-late specimen from a man I know - assistant to a chap called Summerhayes who's the orchid king at Kew. My friend's experimenting with cultures of a fungus which oddly enough is a parasite on a lot of orchids, but, at the same time, gets eaten by the orchid and acts as its staple diet. Mycorhiza it's called.' M gave another of his rare smiles. 'But you needn't write it down. Just wanted to take a leaf out of this fellow Nero Wolfe's book. However' - M brushed the topic aside - 'can't expect you to get excited about these things. Now then.' He settled back. 'What the devil have you been up to?' The grey eyes regarded Bond keenly. 'Looks as if you haven't been getting much sleep. Pretty gay these winter sport places, they tell me.'

Bond smiled. He reached into his inside pocket and took out the pinned sheets of paper. 'This one provided plenty of miscellaneous entertainment, sir. Perhaps you'd like to have a look at my report first. 'Fraid it's only a draft. There wasn't much time. But I can fill in anything that isn't clear.'

M reached across for the papers, adjusted his spectacles, and began reading.

Soft rain scratched at the windows. A big log fell in the grate. The silence was soft and comfortable. Bond looked round the walls at M's treasured collection of naval prints. Everywhere there were mountainous seas, crashing cannon, bellying sails, tattered battle pennants - the fury of ancient engagements, the memories of ancient enemies, the French, the Dutch, the Spaniards, even the Americans. All gone, all friends now with one another. Not a sign of the enemies of today. Who was backing Blofeld, for instance, in the inscrutable conspiracy in which he was now certainly engaged? The Russians? The Chinese? Or was it an independent job, as Thunderball had been? And what was the conspiracy? What was the job for the protection of which six or seven of Blofeld's men had died within less than a week? Would M read anything into the evidence? Would the experts who were coming that afternoon? Bond lifted his left wrist. Remembered that he no longer had a watch. That he would certainly be allowed on expenses. He would get another one as soon as the shops opened after Boxing Day. Another Rolex? Probably. They were on the heavy side, but they worked. And at least you could see the time in the dark with those big phosphorus numerals. Somewhere in the hall, a clock struck the half-hour. 1.30. Twelve hours before, he must have just set up the trap that killed the three men in the Mercedes. Self-defence, but the hell of a way to celebrate Christmas!

M threw the papers down on his desk. His pipe had gone out and he now slowly lit it again. He tossed the spent match accurately over his shoulder into the fire. He put his hands fiat on the desk and said - and there was an unusual kindness in his voice - 'Well, you were pretty lucky to get out of that one, James. Didn't know you could ski.'

'I only just managed to stay upright, sir. Wouldn't like to try it again.'

'No. And I see you say you can't come to any conclusions about what Blofeld is up to?'

'That's right, sir. Haven't got a clue.'

'Well, nor have I. I just don't understand any part of it. Perhaps the professors'll help us out this afternoon. But you're obviously right that it's SPECTRE all over again. By the way, your tip about Pontresina was a good one. He was a Bulgar. Can't remember his name, but Interpol turned him up for us. Plastic explosives expert. Worked for KBG in Turkey. If it's true that the U2 that fellow Powers was piloting was brought down by delayed charges and not by rockets, it may be this man was implicated. He was on the list of suspects. Then he turned free-lance. Went into business on his own. That's probably when SPECTRE picked him up. We were doubtful about your identification of Blofeld. The Pontresina lead helped a lot. You're absolutely sure of him, are you? He certainly seems to have done a good job on his face and stomach. Better set him up on the Identicast when you get back this evening. We'll have a look at him and get the views of the medical gentry.'

'I think it must be him, sir. I was really getting the authentic smell of him on the last day - yesterday, that is. It seems a long time ago already.'

'You were lucky to run into this girl. Who is she? Some old flame of yours?' M's mouth turned down at the corners.

'More or less, sir. She came into my report on the first news we got that Blofeld was in Switzerland. Daughter of this man Draco, head of the Union Corse. Her mother was an English governess.'

'Hm. Interesting breeding. Now then. Time for lunch. I told Hammond we weren't to be disturbed.' M got up and pressed the bell by the fire-place. "Fraid we've got to go through the turkey and plum pudding routine. Mrs Hammond's been brooding over her pots and pans for weeks. Damned sentimental rubbish.'

Hammond appeared at the door, and Bond followed M through and into the small dining-room beyond the hall whose walls glittered with M's other hobby, the evolution of the naval cutlass. They sat down. M said, with mock ferocity, to Hammond, 'All right, Chief Petty Officer Hammond. Do your worst.' And then, with real vehemence, 'What in hell are those things doing here?' He pointed at the centre of the table.

'Crackers, sir," said Hammond stolidly. 'Mrs Hammond thought that seeing as you have company...'

'Throw them out. Give 'em to the schoolchildren. I'll go so far with Mrs Hammond, but I'm damned if I'm going to have my dining-room turned into a nursery.'

Hammond smiled. He said, 'Aye, aye, sir,' gathered up the shimmering crackers and departed.

Bond was aching for a drink. He got a small glass of very old Marsala and most of a bottle of very bad Algerian wine.

M treated his two glasses as if they had been Chateau Lafitte. 'Good old “Infuriator”. Staple drink for the fleet in the Mediterranean. Got real guts to it. I remember an old shipmate of mine, McLachlan, my Chief Gunnery Officer at the time, betting he could get down six bottles of the stuff. Damn fool. Measured his length on the wardroom floor after only three. Drink up, James! Drink up!'

At last the plum pudding arrived, flaming traditionally. Mrs Hammond had implanted several cheap silver gewgaws in it and M nearly broke a tooth on the miniature horseshoe. Bond got the bachelor's button. He thought of Tracy. It should have been the ring!


The Man from Ag, and Fish.

THEY HAD coffee in M's study and smoked the thin black cheroots of which M allowed himself two a day. Bond burnt his tongue on his. M continued with his stories about the Navy which Bond could listen to all day - stories of battles, tornadoes, bizarre happenings, narrow shaves, courts martial, eccentric officers, neatly-worded signals, as when Admiral Somerville, commanding the battleship Queen Elizabeth, had passed the liner Queen Elizabeth in mid-Atlantic and had signalled the one word 'SNAP'! Perhaps it was all just the stuff of boys' adventure books, but it was all true and it was about a great navy that was no more and a great breed of officers and seamen that would never be seen again.

It was three o'clock. A car's wheels scrunched on the gravel outside. Dusk was already creeping into the room. M got up and switched on the lights and Bond arranged two more chairs up against the desk. M said, 'That'll be 501. You'll have come across him. Head of the Scientific Research Section. And a man called Franklin from the Ministry of Agriculture. 501 says he's the top on his subject - Pest Control. Don't know why Ag. and Fish, chose to send him in particular, but the Minister told me they've got a bit of trouble on their hands, wouldn't tell even me what it is, and they think you may have run into something pretty big. We'll let them have a look at your report and see what they make of it. All right?"

'Yes, sir.'

The door opened and the two men came in.

Number 501 of the Secret Service, whose name Bond remembered was Leathers, was a big-boned, rangy man with the stoop and thick spectacles of the stage scientist. He had a pleasant, vague smile and no deference, but only politeness, towards M. He was appropriately dressed in shaggy tweeds and his knitted woollen tie didn't cover his collar stud. The other man was small and brisk and keen-looking, with darting, amused eyes. As became a senior representative of a Ministry who had received his orders from his Minister in person and who knew nothing of Secret Services, he had put on a neat dark-blue pin-stripe and a stiff white collar. His black shoes gleamed efficiently. So did the leather of his fat brief-case. His greeting was reserved, neutral. He wasn't quite sure where he was or what this was all about. He was going to smell his way carefully in this business, be wary of what he said and how far he committed his Ministry. Of such, Bond reflected, is 'Government'. Copyright 2016 - 2023