It was going to be a cinch M had said.
‘Just pop down to Weton on the Hill, say a few words about the happiest days of your life, shake hands with the Head, have a cup of tea with a couple of parents and go home.’
‘Okay.’ Bond said, rose from the desk, sneering at the tacky pottery bulldog wearing a Union Jack waistcoat, currently being used as a paper weight. He had picked the dog up once while waiting for a briefing. The sticker underneath said “Made in China”. Bond wondered again about the new M.
After leaving M’s office he took the lift to the basement. He walked the length of the subterranean corridor. At the end was a door, which as he approached, slid into the wall, and stuck half way open.
‘Just kick the wall at the bottom.’ Q’s voice said from somewhere in the half of the room Bond couldn’t see. He did as directed and put a hole in the plaster.
‘No, about six inches higher, and not as…’ The door staggered fully open as more plaster dropped onto the carpet. Q sighed. ‘Hello Bond, what can I do for you?’
‘Hello Q.’ Bond said looking round at the technicians in the workshop. He lowered his voice. ‘I believe you have some new toys for me.’
Q tapped the keyboard in front of him and frowned as the screenwash lit his face in an unflattering green light. ‘Er, no Bond, nothing on file.’
‘But I’m going…’ he paused and watched a beautiful young Eurasian woman walk past.
‘007, we’ve talked about inappropriate workplace behaviour. Didn’t Moneypenny send you on a course?’
‘She did.’ Bond smirked. ‘But it wasn’t my appreciation of the female, sorry, whatever the appropriate term for that sexy, curvy form is, that made me pause. Have you noticed, there are a lot of Asian operatives around?’
‘Bond, there’s no place for lazy gender, sexual orientation or racist stereotypes in Six these days.’
‘But aren’t they…’
‘There’s no ‘they’ Bond. I haven’t got anything for you, you’re ‘on leave’ after that Bar Mitzvah incident, so you shouldn’t be here at all. Good day.’
Bond walked out onto the Albert Embankment. South of the river. It was going to be a bugger getting to Weton on the Hill on public transport.
Bond sat in the first class carriage of an old diesel heading north. He thought it a little petty of M to have removed his access to the Six garage. He hadn’t had his own car in years. What was the point in London? If you needed a car Six had a whole fleet of supercars armed to the teeth with machine guns, missiles and radar. All because he’d driven the wrong way down a one way street. At sixty. Past a Mosque. How was he to know that crowd was a Baraat? Who arrives at a wedding on a horse these days? Nobody died anyway. Not immediately.
The train juddered to a halt and Bond retrieved his attaché case from the overhead rack. It had the notes for his speech and one or two items Q had believed lost over several previous missions. One last look round the carriage and he stepped down onto the platform. Two carriages down Bond noticed a large oriental gentleman in a bowler hat descend from the train. Was ‘oriental’ okay Bond wondered? He searched his memory for hints from the awareness course he’d been on. East Asian perhaps? Or better yet no stereotypes. Okay big guy…gender presumption? Big person in male gender attire with bowler hat. Okay. No problem. Bond left the station.
The school looked as it always had, and the sight sent a shudder of something down Bond’s spine. A boy, sorry, young person, greeted Bond and ushered him to the Head. It was the same Head who had tried to tame Bond as a child before the unfortunate incident with the maid. They shook hands.
‘The name’s Bond, James Bond.’ Somewhere beyond a line of trees a band struck up a faintly familiar theme. The head smiled.
‘I know James, I invited you. We spoke at the Old Boys dinner in town last month?’
In the background the band stopped playing. Bond smiled a cold, ruthless smile.
‘I get invited to a lot of things.’
‘I’m sure you do James. As one of Her Majesty’s Food Inspectors for the Ministry of Ag and Fish, you must attend a lot of functions. Thank you for making the time to return once again to your alma mater.’ The Head turned to a slight figure at his shoulder,’ Miss Li could you make sure Mr Bond here has everything he needs and take him to the top table, we’re almost ready. James this is my secretary Miss Li, Miss Li, James Bond.’
‘The name’s Bond, James Bond.’ Bond said taking the woman’s hand and staring into her eyes. This time the band struck up the same tune with vigour as more guests assembled on Big Field behind the trees. The Head raised his eyes heavenward and left. Miss Li shook Bond’s hand and removed hers from his grip before he could raise it to his lips.
‘Yes Mr Bond, the Head just said.’
‘And you are the delectable Miss Li. What exotic pearl of the orient do you hail from my dear?’
‘Around and about, here and there, citizen of the world.’ He affected a tired, world weary smile.
‘It says Glasgow in your school record.’
‘You can’t always believe everything you read.’ Bond said, his face hard, eyes like flints.
‘I’ve read quite a bit about you Mr Bond.’ Li smiled, ‘Ministry of Ag and Fish? You sure? It changed to MAFF in 1955. Dissolved 2002. Would you like to freshen up before the proceedings begin?’
‘Legacy department.’ He replied through gritted teeth.
Bond washed his face in a basin in the masters’ washroom. The last time he’d been in here had not been a pleasant time. He shook the water from his hands and grabbed a towel. He’d sorted that out shortly after. Wilkins had had to retire early from teaching PE after that meeting. Had to retire from everything. Bond smirked at the memory of the trip to the bell tower and Wilkins’ sudden realisation that Bond had a very different end to the evening in mind to the one he’d planned. Unfortunate accident the police had said. Wilkins would survive. All hushed up of course.
Bond finished drying his face. During his reverie another visitor had entered the washroom. It was the large person from the platform. The man nodded to Bond and removed his bowler hat.
‘Good afternoon Mr Bond.’
Bond knocked him to floor with the tackle which had got him sent off in three rugger matches in a row during his last spring term. High, hard, swinging arm.
‘But Sir, he had to be stopped.’ He’d pleaded to the housemaster who’d pointed silently to the touchline.
‘Bond, you’re a psychopath’ the Head had said as he trudged off the field. ‘See me in my study after the match.’ Where he’d given Bond not his marching orders but the number of someone in Whitehall who had a use for people like him apparently. For jobs like this, Bond thought as he pinned the stunned man’s arm behind his back and ground his nose into the less that salubrious tiling on the floor.
‘How do you know my name? Why are you following me?’
A mumbled bleating came back.
‘Oh sorry!’ Bond said and raised the man’s head so he could speak.
‘We know each other! Johnny Chan? We were at school together. I used to fag for you.’
‘Oh yes!’ Bond got off him and let go of his arm. ‘Chancer Chan! How are you?’
Chan pulled himself to his feet and leaned against the washbasins.
‘Good. Apart from being savagely attacked in the master’s washroom. Not a first for you I hear.’ He dabbed at the trickle of blood coming from his nose.
‘Sorry about that Chancer. You shouldn’t sneak up on people.’ Bond said, offering Chan a silk handkerchief.
‘I didn’t sneak, I just walked in.’ He waved a hand down his ample frame. ‘I’m not built for sneaking.’
‘No, you have filled out haven’t you? What were you doing on the train?’
‘I own it. I run the company that has the franchise for this region. Like to travel as an ordinary passenger now and again to see how we are doing.’ He offered the blood stained hankie back to Bond who declined, leaving Chan clutching it.
‘And why are you here?’
‘To listen to you giving the old boy’s address, and then to give the Governors’ speech.’
Bond’s eyes widened and his eyebrows nearly merged with his hairline.
‘You? You’re a governor?’
‘Chair actually. Since last December.’
‘What happened to Whittington?’
‘Cat attacked him. Ignored it. Too embarrassed to go to A&E for cat scratches and bites. Sepsis. Died a week later. So Mr Woo, the coroner said.’
‘Right. Well. Sorry about earlier Chancer. Good to catch up. See you on the dais eh?’ Bond pointed at the handkerchief in Chan’s hand. ‘Don’t bother having it washed eh, just stick it over there.’ He waved at the paper towel bin, grabbed his case and left.
The Head introduced the people on the dais and welcomed them and all the guests. There were a couple of Princes, a plethora of aristocracy from a Duke down to minor European types who would hardly have troubled the Almanac de Gotha and untold Oligarchs, Entrepreneurs and some artistic types hoping to buy connections for their offspring. First there was a homily from the Chaplain. As the Chaplain began Miss Li moved to Chan’s side. Bond noticed her slip him something compact and shiny, small with what looked like a short barrel. A Beretta perhaps? More likely an H&K VP 9mm. It was what all the cool kids were shooting people with these days.
Cool kids! All of a sudden it hit him. The Bar Mitzvah had been a mistake. He’d got a lead on the missing Freeze Ray from NATO development HQ. Now he realised his target Lee Chan Woo wasn’t Jewish, and wasn’t even one person. Miss Li, Chancer Chan, Coroner Woo! It was three evil geniuses and two of them were here!
Bond let his mind drift away from the Chaplain’s drone and his hand slide to the attaché case. As a result he missed his cue and he became aware of the Head, Miss Li and the entire audience staring at him leaning sideways to reach inside his case. The Head caught his eye and nodded imperceptibly towards the microphone. Bond pulled the notes from his case and carried both to the speaker’s position. He put the notes on the lectern and opened the case on the small side table. He poured himself a drink of water.
‘Good afternoon, your Highnesses, your Grace, my Lords Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great honour to be asked to return to this ancient seat of learning. I was a boy when I entered these gates for the first time and though a man today I feel once again like that little boy as I think of the centuries of…’ A helicopter swooped over the trees at the bottom of Big Field drowning out even the amplified words of Commander Bond. The craft flared into a landing at the side of the reception marquee. Bond put his hand over the microphone and turned to the Head. ‘Are you expecting that?’ The Head nodded.
‘Yes, it’s our Governors’ legal advisor. Mr Woo.’
‘Oh! You know him then?’
‘No, but I think we should be better acquainted.’
With that Bond reached into the case and pulled out a black box, antennae sprouting from it. He pressed a red button and threw it overarm towards the helicopter that was still twenty feet in the air. The box emitted a loud “Beep” and all of a sudden all the electronic watches, the amplifier and a couple of pacemakers in the crowd ceased working. The helicopter’s electronics also died and the machine autorotated into the ground at speed.
In the crowd people were trying to calm those suddenly suffering from massive arrhythmias, and call ambulances, but no phones were working. Bond reached once more into the case and pulled a rather fetching Silencero Maxim 9 from the interior. Johnny Chan took one look and fainted, dropping the asthma inhaler Miss Li had given him, while Miss LI said ‘Ag and fish eh? Too slippery by half.’
Bond leapt from the dais and hurdled the rope surrounding the seating. He arrived at the helicopter just as the two pilots freed themselves from the wreckage and staggered out. The first one reached for a pouch on his belt and Bond shot him neatly in the chest. No fancy shooting James he told himself, aim for the biggest mass. Screams followed him as he rushed the next man and clubbed him to the ground. Woo was cowering in the rear of the machine. Bond grabbed him and hauled him through the shattered doorway.
‘Okay Woo. Where is it? Tell me now or there won’t be any more Limehouse Chinese Laundry Blues for you!’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Woo whimpered.
‘Okay want o play it that way huh?’ Bond raised the gun just as he sensed rather than saw something rushing towards his head.
The Head came over and stepping over Bond’s unconscious form, patted Miss Li on the shoulder.
‘Oh well done Sara! What on earth was James doing?’
She shook her head.
‘I don’t know exactly Headmaster but he needs some help I think.’
‘Ministry of Ag and Fish? Yeah I know.’ She fished a plastic card from a pocket and showed the Head. ‘Loretta Chen MI5 Psychiatric evaluation. We’ve had an eye on him for years. He’s completely unstable.’ She looked the Head in the eye. ‘You should know, you recruited him for Six. I’ve read your letter of introduction. And he’s been getting worse lately’ She stepped over to the pilot who was getting to his feet, fumbling for the mobile in his belt pouch. ‘Ballistic vest works then?’ she smiled.
‘Bloody hell that hurt! Thank God he didn’t go for a head shot.’
‘Have you read his marksmanship scores? He probably was going for your head.’
The man stared at her.
‘You didn’t say that in the briefing.’
‘A Commander Bond moment Miss Li, er Chen?’
‘My psychiatric profile is fine thanks Headmaster.’ She pointed at Bond,’ But I think even Six will have to agree that maybe he’d be better off dealing with Cod quotas now.’ She found Bond’s black box and turned off the jamming device.
‘Time to make a call I think’.
‘Lotus Eating’ grew organically from the basic premiss of following a genre character out of that genre. It began as pure fun, to amuse myself on a slow morning. I wrote it pretty much as you see it on the page/screen, with minimal redrafting as an antidote to my recent weeks of slash and burn rewriting. (“And we can tell” I hear you shout) Although it is pretty much stream of consciousness I did have some basic criteria I tried to stick to. I wanted it to make me smile, but I desperately wanted to avoid whimsy and quaintness. It also had to have some recognisably Bond tropes without being Bond tropes if that makes sense.
The first Bond film I saw in the cinema was ‘Goldfinger’ and the character of ‘Oddjob’ made an impression on me such that he popped into mind almost immediately when wondering who might turn up to Bond’s school open day. Chan’s first appearance, with his suit and bowler hat is a nod towards Oddjob, although Chan is Chinese British whereas Oddjob was supposed to be Korean, and played by a Japanese actor in the film. (Oddjob’s hat is also not a bowler in the book, and if you look carefully at it in the film it is a hybrid flat topped thing that may or may not be a Sandringham, but who cares about hats these days?).
I wondered about using a British East Asian as the trigger for Bond’s paranoia lest anyone wonder if I were endorsing the lazy racial stereotype rather than gently chiding it. I decided to rather lean into British pre war culture to make my position clear, and build on Bond’s prewar upbringing rather than avoid it. Mr Woo of course is from Jack Cotterill’s song ‘Chinese Laundry Blues’ associated with music hall and film comedian George Formby. Limehouse, in the docklands area of the East End, was full of sailors and migrants and became London’s ‘Chinatown’ in the nineteenth century.
At one level Bond’s paranoia embodies current British intelligence concerns about China’s global intentions. The activities of the Chinese Communist Party (Communist now in name only, but still aimed at global control) are the basis of legitimate concerns among western intelligence. The rest is a hangover from Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu as much as any rational assessment of the threat. Bond’s latent paranoia bursts out at the end as coincidences and a lack of impulse control leads to near disaster. Fortunately for everyone, Miss Li, the only sane and competent character in the story, and MI5 have had their eye on Bond’s behaviour for some time.
In ‘real life’ of course Bond would be (although Fleming gave no date of birth for his hero) over a hundred, and beyond any of the shenanigans outlined here, but the franchise rolls on, so age becomes rather fuzzy and his attitudes brought slowly more in line with current expectations.
Of course if you insist Bond has his WWII and Cold War experience and yet still goes on active duty we may be looking at other genre slips, from weird science, to vampire, to time travel. But the character Fleming wanted to create was supposed to be dull and uninteresting outside of his work. Maybe he should have just opened the School’s Open Day, had a round of golf with Chan and gone home. But where’s the fun in that?
The ending scene perhaps, in my head at least owes more to the end of Lindsay Anderson’s If (based on Crusaders script by Sherwin and Howlitt) than any Bond film or book. Which as a shift to the school story genre is as it should be. Poor 007, time for the retirement home.