Etc. Magazine Sketches

Flann at the Pub

Our correspondent, Flann O’Brien, tours Westminster, bringing us news, views, and change from a twenty, depending on your round.

an intriguing proposition

‘The thing would be simple enough’ said Mark Francois, unfurling a map and sliding it in my direction. We sat huddled in a quiet corner of the Red Lion, a premier Westminster sot-house for the discerning scrutineer. Having detected my Hibernian brogue at a Spectator Food Guide luncheon earlier in the week, he had scribbled on my cuff that he had a working solution to the ‘border issue’, and a proclivity to share it, should I stand him some porter come Friday.

‘You understand’ he explained, with a furtive gravitas known to even the most hardened Territorials, ‘I was last in this establishment on army manoeuvres, and it would be imprudent for me to be recognised at the bar.’ I had heard of his impressive service – three decades hence – and one glance toward the environ of such a serious customer sufficed to bear those tales out. He jostled with the cuffs of his trench coat and shifted in his seat, withdrawing only momentarily the newspaper he held before his face, which had been ingeniously customised with two eyeholes, fashioned so as to allow my cautious friend to converse without detection.

caution costs nothing

When I returned from the bar, his newspaper had been stowed but his vigilance remained undimmed, and I found the steadfast military man addressing me now beneath a broad-brimmed hat and that unstinting friend of discretion, a pair of oversized spectacles.

‘The man may leave the wariness of the brotherhood’ he continued, upending his stout. ‘But it never quite leaves him’. He tapped the document in front of me, where some high ranking army brass had clearly written in biro super top secret. It showed a topographical map of Ireland with a series of concentric circles galloping around its northernmost perimeters.

‘Do I see before me a technical solution?’ I asked, admiringly, as he tore into a second stout, still not having troubled the stitching on his wallet on the evening.

‘You do’
‘Not that’
‘Robot dogs?’
‘Never in life!’
‘Smart sensors?’
‘Hoho, you’re far off yet’

mobilising the troops

‘This is fancy talk’ said I, ‘but would you be mortally wounded if I asked you to extend upon this matter a more detailed explanation?’

‘Well’ he ventured, shaking his fist and laughing in an easy-going kind of way, ‘The border of course is only a border in the sense that it stops, whereas were one to ditch its line…’

He here pronounced line so that only an anarchist would have failed to hold it in their mind as a synonym for all that is unbecoming of the current century.

‘…and instead opt for an endlessly recursive and unpredictable sequence of moving boundaries.’

This last word was delivered with a freshness suggestive of summer lawns and Sicilian cream.

‘You speak, kiss my hand, of a mobile border?’

‘The very man’ was his reply. ‘We randomise the position of the border depending on an algorithmic calculation of its least likely position each evening, and mobilise our men to occupy its new frontiers on an ad-hoc basis. There are mechanisms known to science which would enable a pop-up border; one that could be assembled and torn down in every such way, indoor and out, as and when required.’

‘How’ I asked, as he tapped his empty glass and winked at my purse, ‘would people know where the border was on any given Thursday?’

‘Simple’ he snorted, as I placed a third in front of him. ‘We give details of the new border each evening on the nightly news, allowing the information to those locals who wish to travel, while frustrating those slippery migrants who will not be sufficiently local to catch the segment. I refer here, of course, to those travelling. Any of those more immediately affected will be aware of the new border long before its location is broadcast.’

‘How’ said I, ‘in the name of Christ?’

‘Even the most gentle-minded Ulsterman’ he proffered between slurps, ‘would surely notice the temporary repopulation of a favourite shed, now occupied by eighteen cheerful squaddies, dogs, sandbags and rifles. Additionally, so as to avoid any chance they might go undetected, we insist all men are uniformly lacking in discretion when it comes to knocking through walls and requesting refreshments. Actually while we pass that subject – could you oblige me at the bar?’

He here paused to rub his belly in a gesture of thirst and lick the last drop from the outside of the glass.

for another glass

’What of matters relating to currency?’

‘A jar by the bed would see the thing done’

‘Border crossings?’

‘A stirring lottery to relieve the boredom of the daytime driver’

‘Have the eu had their say?’

‘For one glass more I’ll email them for you now’

Having garnered enough scoop for this dispatch, I made it plain I might retire for the evening, but wondered aloud why it had fallen on me to me to stand his rounds, considering his friend had been sitting, silent, beside him all evening, and could have easily chanced being seen at the bar.

‘Oh, I’d love to’ mumbled Gavin Williamson behind a balaclava, ‘but money’s been tight these past few weeks and, in any case, a soldier knows never to take the risk.’

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