A MOST POLITE COUP

in fiction •  last year

There are few men that deserve a snapshot of themselves being written, but I feel a complex individual like this man deserves it.

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The old man struggled down the stairs that led from his study to the ground floor of his beloved house. Almost every step led to a sharp stabbing pain in his left side, and he knew instinctively that he would be in an incredible amount of pain tonight as he laid in bed – the sort of pain that even a few glasses of Johnnie Walker would fail to dislodge, and which would instead linger on through the long hours of the night. The sort of nights when the hound would visit him, its charcoal-black paws gently padding up and down the carpet, its great weight an almost physical presence. But how could he resist another look at his masterpiece? The first volume of the work that would fully anchor his place in history, and tell the story of how this great country had fought – and won – the most devastating conflict it had ever experienced.

After all, who else but he could actually marshal the resources – mentally and physically – to accomplish such an achievement? He had the facts at his fingertips, including the Cabinet papers that he had taken with him after that damnable election result, and he had assembled a great team of scholars and military men to assist him in the endeavour. Should he instead let the Socialist currently occupying No.10 and his dreary grey bureaucrats try and tell the story – or the man from Missouri? Or, God forbid, that detestable Frenchman? No. The pain was worth it, and his doctors assured him that it would eventually get better – although privately he had his doubts.

Damn Moran, and double-damn that old fool Dunhill. “A simple operation” that would only take an hour, and then straight back to the galleys. Instead it had all gone wrong on the operating table, and he remembered little of the next few weeks. Shivering in a hospital bed, all manner of tubes stuck into him and beeping machines. A whole team of surgeons and doctors constantly gathered around the bed, making room occasionally for his family to enter and worry around him. He only later found out the rest – the crowds that gathered outside the hospital for days on end, until it was certain he would recover; the endless mail sacks full of cards, telegrams, letters; and the emergency Cabinet meetings, chaired by the pacifist Home Secretary, that hurriedly planned a State Funeral.

The last few steps were always particularly painful, and he was grateful to see his wife standing at the bottom, one arm crooked to offer him a supporting elbow. He managed a smile as she took some of his weight, which she returned; he knew that theirs was a distant sort of love in many ways, but he still could not imagine life without her. He could think of few others who would stand him – and up to him – and still remain so loyal. One, perhaps, but he was hardly likely to marry him.

Step by step, they made their way to the largest of the reception rooms at the front of the house. It was one of his favourites, with a splendid view of the gardens and the water garden where he loved to sit and feed the fish. He would need to draw upon the view, and the pleasant memories associated with it, for the trial that would come in the next few hours. He settled into one of the armchairs, irritably shooing away Clemmie as she tried to arrange pillows and cushions to make him more comfortable, and reached for the glass of whisky and soda on the side table. He sipped at it, more to take comfort from the familiar taste than for the alcohol content; despite what his many enemies, domestic and foreign, had tried to insinuate over the years he was no nearer to becoming an alcoholic than when he had first acquired a taste for the stuff in India.

Placing the tumbler down, he turned to survey the room, observing it as if it were a battlefield, the action taking him back briefly to the mud of Ploegsteert all those years ago. Blood would not be shed during this particular fight, but there was certainly the likelihood of sweat, and even tears. The men in grey would soon come, and he would need to marshal all of the forces at his disposal to achieve even a partial victory. At his right-hand side sat his wife, hands folded in her lap, ready to serve once again as his most trusted advisor. To his left stood his son, or rather paced, constitutionally unable to stand still even during the tensest of moments; he gestured wildly with his hands and uttered oaths and threats against the men who had assembled against his father, and it was only the calming presence of the old man’s son-in-law that stopped the younger man from flying into one of his rages. On the wings were arrayed his daughters, there to provide moral support, and finally Moran, who lurked at the very outskirts of the room. His relationship with the old man was recovering as slowly as his patient’s health, and it was only the potential threat that this meeting represented to the latter that had resulted in his appearance.

The skies darkened slightly as time passed, shadows moving across the room, but eventually a distant bell rang stridently to mark the beginning of the campaign. The men in grey were led into the room by Sawyer, the old statesman’s valet, and took up position in the chairs that had been arranged opposite. They two sides faced each other like two of the armies that had rampaged across Europe, sometimes led by his venerable ancestor; this was definitely his Blenheim, but he feared that he was in the role of Tallard rather than Marlborough.

Perhaps Waterloo was a better metaphor. One last throw of the dice to try and regain the power that he had lost while in exile. That made him Napoleon – he had always regretted not writing a biography of that great man – but if that was so then he failed to recognise any of the men facing him as having any of the qualities possessed by the Iron Duke. He stared at them, each one in turn, trying to guess what was going on in their minds. He noticed that none of them could look him in the eyes for more than a second before looking elsewhere; obviously they each realised the magnitude of the task before them, and the rank treachery that it entailed. There were five of them in total, though of course they commanded a far greater number of men scattered around the country. On the left flank sat the Chairman, the man who controlled the vital committee of backbenchers whose support the men in grey would need to achieve their goal. Next to him sat the Controller, whose ingratitude particularly rankled; the son-in-law of a Nazi sympathiser, he had been cast out into the wilderness when the old man had finally taken office, and it was only by his good graces that his career had been rescued, first being put in charge of coordinating the dirty work of strategic deception, and then being brought back into Cabinet with the Colonies portfolio.

On the right-hand flank sat the two younger men. Nearest to the centre was the Appeaser, one of dear Neville’s most prominent supporters during the lead up to the war, and one of Halifax’s during the tumultuous hours when a new Prime Minister was being sought. He was a plotter and a backstabber, and frankly the old man would have been surprised if he had not been present. Sitting on the man’s right was the Tanned Man, who had quickly and quietly risen through the ranks of the Party during the war. To his surprise the old man realised he felt no real rancour towards the man, especially as he could see the pained look clearly etched on his face. Perhaps he would reach the highest office in the land one day, although Cartland also seemed a likely choice and had the advantage of remaining single and therefore free of gossip about marriages.

And finally, taking up position in the centre, was the most treacherous member of all of his visitors. The man whose career he had nourished for years on end, who had been his acolyte, his protégé, and now his Judas. He sat in the chair directly opposite, his face betraying nothing apart from the occasional twitch of the carefully-groomed moustache. All of this was his doing, suddenly moving to take advantage of his mentor’s ill-health with the goal of taking away the old man’s greatest and fondest wish: to be elected as Prime Minister, as his dear father should have been, and not just assuming power at the time of his country’s darkest hour. He knew that he still had some allies in Westminster; a letter from Leo had arrived only yesterday, flatly stating that he would have no part in any manoeuvres against him; and he cherished the letters he had received from Barbara Cartland and her brother in which they had angrily denounced any attempt to replace him. But they were few and far between, and many who might have supported him had been lost to him during his convalescence by threats and promises from those who now faced him.

After a few more moments of awkward silence, the men in grey made their opening move, with the Appeaser remarking on how well the old man looked compared to when they had last seen him just after his last operation. The other men hastily chimed in with praise and blandishments: well-rested, good to see you back on your feet, the whole country wishes you well. There were further pleasantries and banalities that lasted for a few minutes, praise being lavished on the old man and his numerous achievements, especially during the war years. And then came the first probe to test his defences, from the Chairman. Had the old man considered the state of his health, and how being Leader might affect it? The stress, the strain and so forth. Perhaps he needed more time to rest – they could easily arrange for the briefing papers to be stopped for a few days, a few weeks…a few months. Randolph sallied out in response, flatly stating that his father’s health was improving with every day – in his youth, the old man would have called such a statement a terminological inexactitude.

The grey men retreated quickly, the Appeaser attempting to smooth things over with a few more pointless comments, but they soon rallied again. This time the Controller spoke, his voice almost dripping with honeyed words. How was his magnum opus coming along? He hoped the old man realised, as did everyone in the country, that he was the only one who could write the story of the war. Why, it was practically a duty! One that the Party was honoured to be part of. Hardly immune to praise and flattery, especially when it came to his writing, the old man nodded a few times, made a few noises of gratitude. Speech from both sides tailed off, and the old man sensed that these had only been probes, to test his defences: now would come the vital strike, the attempted coup de main.

It came, as he knew it inevitably would, from Judas. There was, he said, a delicate matter to now consider. They were all glad that the old man had survived – dying from an infected hernia would have been a terrible way to go for the saviour of Country and Empire – but the Party – the Party – had to consider its position. The Socialists were beginning to flag, their policies becoming more and more controversial to the public, and it would only need a few more things to go against them to tip the balance in the Party’s favour come 1950. Changes, Judas said, were needed. Both within the Party and at the top. Changes. Even for him the language was circumspect, but the old man had known his acolyte for years and could read him easily. He wanted to be Leader – to be the man who toppled the Lion from his position of dominance. The old man railed at this, finally unleashing some of the bitterness and anger that had been building up since being hospitalised. He was fine, his health was fine, he would show them all. He could still campaign, still make a better speech in his current condition than any of them could at their peak, still hit the Socialists where it hurt.

He was pleased to see that some of the old fire was still with him, and all of the men in grey seemed to flinch or turn away slightly at this. But they would not be deterred – obviously this has been planned for some time – and the attacks continued, becoming more blatant and threatening now. The Committee had been sounded out – not officially, of course, but there had been enough talks in private over drinks and dinner to suggest broad support for their position. The old man laughed at this – the backbenchers would follow whoever was Leader, he retorted. Perhaps, Appeaser agreed, but only a Leader who they could be confident would have a chance of toppling their opponents in three years’ time. That struck a blow: for the first time, the old man faltered. Randolph sallied out again in another bid to save his father, launching a blistering attack that hurled forth accusations that included phrases like disloyalty and treachery, which ended in him fleeing the field in a blaze of barely-controlled anger and pursued by his brother-in-law.

Used to the mercurial behaviour of the old man’s son, Judas only paused long enough for the shouting and oaths to fade away before renewing the argument. First had come the stick, and now the carrot: if the old man were to stand down – in the name of Party Unit of course, and remaining as one of its most senior and important figures, then any portfolio short of the premiership was his for the asking. Chancellor again, or perhaps the Home Office? Or even, queried the Tanned Man, the Foreign Office? That tempted the old man, if only for a second: residency in Carlton Gardens had been the only major Cabinet position that he had held in his long career, and as such had a certain glamour to it. He turned slightly to look at his wife, querying her with one of those looks that can only evolve over a long and intimate relationship with someone. He could see the fire in her eyes and took heart from it, rallying slightly.

He rallied and made a last-ditch charge, one final attempt to win the day and drive his opponents from the field. His voice rose as he spoke, one arm and then the other thumping down on the armrests of the chair: the annual Party Conference was coming up soon. He would demand a vote of confidence in him – see how many of these back-room deals stood up in the bright light of day. Sweat beaded on his brow as he finished delivering his ultimatum, and to his surprise had to be helped back into his seat by wife and daughters. He realised, sadly, that the gambit had failed when he saw the looks that were quickly exchanged between Judas, Appeaser and Chairman. The latter cleared his throat and then spoke, quietly but with conviction: as Leader, that was of course his right. But, he suspected that such a vote would not necessarily go in the direction that the old man would hope for; and furthermore, it would provide no end of ammunition for the Socialists, particularly if – when – it failed.

The old man continued to look defiant, shooting angry glances at the lesser men arrayed before him, but he was sweating profusely from the effort of arguing, and he could see Moran in the corner of his eye, obviously agitated. A sudden wave of numbness came over him, and he realised that this was, indeed, his Waterloo; there would be no triumphant march on Paris, only lonely exile to St. Helena, surrounded by sycophants and those waiting for him to pass. Never again would he enter Downing Street, except as an honoured guest. His plans for his premiership, so carefully devised, would never come to pass – no grand conference that would resolve the issues that threatened to engulf the entire world in unceasing fire.

Lost in melancholy, he was only dimly aware that others were talking. Focusing, he could hear Clemmie tearing into Judas in that calm, polite but needle-sharp voice he knew so well, demanding to know how they could be so disloyal to a man who had done so much for the Party and indeed the whole country. Pulling himself out of the chair, the old man gently waved a hand to call for silence. Slowly, painfully, he drew himself up to his full height and turned to look at the men who had succeeded in their goal. Later on he would find it difficult to remember exactly what he had said, but whatever the phrasing, it had only one meaning: acquiescence. He would announce his resignation as Leader after the weekend had passed, citing his health. The men in grey at least had the grace to look abashed as he spoke, and once again the air was full of empty phrases spoken in his honour. He waved them away, turning to leave the room, trying to keep the pinpricks of tears in his eyes from pouring down his face.

It was over.


Winston Churchill slowly, painfully, made his way up the stairs that led to his study. The men in grey had gone, as had everyone but Clemmie, who had decided to retire to bed. He knew he should do the same, take the pills and potions prescribed by Moran, but he was too stubborn: he had something else he wanted to do first. Finally making it to the landing, he walked over to the desks which held the numerous galleys, manuscripts and piles of loose papers that formed the first volume in his history of the war: The Gathering Storm.

Picking his way expertly through the paperwork, after some minutes he found what he wanted: the proofs for Chapter XIV: Mr Eden at the Foreign Office, His Resignation. He paused for a moment, taking in the words printed on the pages, and then picked up a fountain pen that had been left nearby.

Very well then. They had succeeded in denying him his final dream, the crowning achievement of his career. That was a grievous wound to him, there was no denying it. But, he reflected as the pen began to scratch on paper, there were other achievements still to come.

History would be kind to him – for he was writing it.

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