“Are you sure we can do this here?” asked Sacha, his huge frown betraying doubt.
“Yes yes, just pull the curtain round, like that, and bring that other little footstool from over there. It’s Visitors’: they won’t come and bother me for anything right now.”
Verity got out of bed, pulled on her dressing gown and lowered the over-bed table.
“Then all we need is this one, and put the little table here...”
They knelt. In an instant they stood on the steps of Verity’s Mind Palace, overlooking the garden.
Autumn had arrived. The skyscape was low, dark and monotone. Orange leaves stood out like frozen flames. Most of the plants in the beds had long since lost their green pulse of life and collapsed, brown and greasy, on the soil.
“Hey, the layout’s changed!”
No more ornamental octagonal expanses of flowers: instead, regimented raised beds of winter root vegetables, lined up for inspection.
“It looks like at the Dacha.”
“It looks like ‘Dig for Victory’. Anyone’d think I’d gone on a diet!”
They turned round to go in.
“Oh God, the lights are out_”
“No, there are heavy curtains_”
“Blackout blinds! Heck it looks grim.”
“Grim oop North.” Sacha smiled.
“Put that bloody light out!” Verity joked.
There were no chandeliers in the hallway: just bare bulbs with black metal hats. A wall blocked the right-hand half of the enfilade. On a dark wooden door whose cross-wired, frosted window had been curtained off from the inside were posted the words:
Ministry of Conversation
Verity tried the handle. The door opened.
They stepped through onto dusty worn parquet. The room stretched before them for at least twenty paces. Cold gloss walls, dark green to a brown strip at dado height and cream above, faded to indistinct colours towards the far end as the dust and soot in the air did their work.
A huge wooden desk stood near the side wall to the left, with a formation of chairs around it. Verity noticed the design: ‘Utility’, from the middle of last century.
A black stove squatted beyond the desk. Though throwing out heat, it showed no flames and didn’t seem up to the task of warming the room. A coal bucket stood next to it.
A small table near the stove held tea-making things: a black kettle, a large pale blue enamelled-metal teapot and a flotilla of cups and saucers of a light green, triangular design that Verity remembered from her grandparents’ house. On the blackboard over the table someone had written:
When in doubt, brew up.
Against the far wall they could make out a stark, bare table and two chairs. A black-shaded lamp hung low over the table. Near this arrangement sat what appeared to be a huge set of some type of audio equipment. Verity walked over to investigate it.
“Hey, it’s Russian! Look! Made in Leningrad: like you!”
Sacha’s confidence working it took Verity aback: he wasn’t usually the practical sort. When he fired it up it replayed, verbatim, the entire conversation she had had with the Colonel in his Mind Palace.
Verity found a sheaf of papers on top of it: technical drawings. She recognised the shapes of all the pieces the Colonel had shown her in the attaché case. She turned to Sacha and leaned on his shoulder,
“You must have come and sat by me, when I was visiting the Colonel’s mind. Without your help, there’s no way I’d ever have been able to memorise all the stuff he told me...”
“Oh, what’s this?”
It looked like an oscilloscope. Verity fired it up.
A perfect sinewave showed on the screen and a single tone filled the room.
Verity’s face lit up.
“That’s the jamming frequency! The Colonel told me, how to defend against the sort of mind-reading he does. He was showing off like a twazzock. He forgot I have perfect pitch: I can remember it!”
She went to sit in the chair behind the large desk, and absentmindedly tried its top drawer. The drawer opened. In it lay two notebooks: one dog-eared and bound in pale green, one brand new and bound in black. She waved the green booklet,
“It’s a ration book!”
And opened it,
“It’s...words! Conversation! Like conversation’s on the ration!”
“Well, you don’t like to say much now because of that_”
“Blimey, so it is on the ration. And it even has a Ministry. To administer it. That’s...weird.”
Sacha came over, picked up the black book and opened it.
“Let’s have tea” he said slowly.
“Oh, good idea! There’s_”
“No, I mean, that’s what it says in here, look.”
Verity looked. There were only two sentences typed on the first page. The second read:
“Let’s talk in the kitchen, where no-one can hear us.”
“What an odd pair of sentences.”
“We’re an odd pair of sentences.” said Sacha, putting an arm around Verity.
Verity giggled. “Yes I suppose we are. D’you remember when we had to do that? Use the kitchen to_”
“It’s a code book.”
“That’s what we said, and that’s what it meant.” Sacha indicated the two sentences as he spoke.
“So it is!”
Verity flicked through the rest of the pages in the book. All were blank. She noticed a pencil in the desk drawer.
“Shall we fill it in, then? Make up a code?”
Sacha looked once more in the desk drawer. Another little book, and a second pencil, had materialised there.
“I think it’s trying to tell us something.” grinned Verity.