THE PRIME MINISTER'S CONFERENCE room is dominated by a long table down the center of the surprisingly long and narrow room. If it were a dining table, there would be room for at least 40 settings. The Prime Minister usually sits halfway down the rear side, facing the windows with the table between him and any guests. He is an impatient man, with a tendency to lash out at his enemies, seen and unseen, and rather than shooting his own dog, he invariably farms out the dirty work to others. The theft of the Marbles was exercising another of his faults, the deep desire for revenge. He rocked nervously back and forth, his corpulent body imparting a pendulous motion to the chair. His jowls were working overtime, yet he wasn't chewing on anything other than his own frustrations. He brushed back a few errant strands of thin, gray hair, and blinked furtively from one to the other of his two quite different guests.
Sir Robert Mansfield, head of the British Intelligence Service, MI5, was sitting quietly opposite. He was nattily dressed, and all body movements were both assured and quick. He had preserved his 50 year-old body in the pink of health and fitness through a program of rigorous exercise and clean living. His perfectly-shaped skull was one of the few that could get away with the Yul Brenner no-hair style, and a myriad of reflections from the overhead lights danced about his pate as his animated head movements punctuated every word he spoke. Was this his form of "gravitas"? Many thought so, including this Prime Minister, who always felt somewhat intimidated in his presence. Needless to say, this was precisely what Sir Robert hoped for and strove to achieve when dealing with the mandarins of government. With his staff he exhibited a different persona--that of a severe but impeccably fair leader--and in exchange in most cases received extraordinarily dedicated and loyal service without the need to force it. He was certain that this was the way to control his own destiny, rather than having it imposed or undermined.
Mansfield's yellow-green eyes drilled into the dark black raisins of his opposite number until the latter broke off eye contact. It was the old game, the Chief of State needing support, his man one who could be relied on in matters both open and clandestine. Sir Robert flashed a fleeting, narrow smile, the dimple in his chin appearing and vanishing in synchrony. His aquiline nose twitched in anticipation of yet another favor, and matching credit to be entered in his ledger. It was a long column, and the thought entered his mind that he would have to think of ways to collect before his debtor disappeared--likely sooner rather than later as he saw it--into the political oblivion he so richly deserved.
Robert Goodwin was pacing peripatetically up and down the room. Nevertheless he held his usual geniality intact, round blue eyes flashing. He knew that his position politically was far more secure than his modest portfolio might otherwise suggest. He was a popular politician, and knew it. His "Honestly Bob" column in one of the London tabloids was read by millions in all walks of life, delighting in his regular puncturing of the Pooh-Bahs and the civil service. Now just turned 52 he felt that his time was coming. He well understood the swings of the political pendulum. The country had recently had the benefit of a strong and effective leadership. This had been followed, as such always are, by the present "easygoing" administration. The electorate eventually tires of the "mover and shaker" types, and needs a rest. The third cycle is often the populist, the "common man" who will find a balance between the two. Bring in some reforms of course, but mainly to clarify the "soup" rather than either thicken or muddy it. He was the archetypical populist, the most visible and successful in some time. His use of suitable punishments "of the pen", for some of the more unpopular figures in public life, had endeared him to a far wider constituency than that normally available from his low-level position in the cabinet as minister of Culture and Sport. The Prime Minister and others who frequented the cabinet rooms of Number Ten should have taken note, but for the most part they had not.
Goodwin paused with hands splayed on the table. "No, with respect, Prime Minister, I am certain that the Times editorial is right. We should be magnanimous in defeat on the Marbles. The Greeks are now eager to please us. We can achieve much through expanded cultural exchanges in compensation. And as you yourself said at the time you were fighting to turn their aircraft back with what we thought were the originals aboard: 'They are just dusty old stones that everyone is fighting over like school children.'"
The Prime Minister didn't like being reminded of ancient history, particularly when it had come out of his own mouth, and then proved wrong. He was also making the mistake of underestimating Goodwin, and waved him off with a dismissive hand.
The British Prime Minister began signing a stack of forms, each with a flourish. "There, that does it for them. Now go get them."
Sir Robert Mansfield scooped up the papers, and left the office with a determined and satisfied look on his face.
Robert Goodwin was shaking his head. "Sir, I will take my counsel for a day or two, as you have wisely recommended, but I must say to you that I do not believe I can continue to hold my portfolio in your cabinet under these circumstances."
"You will have to do as you see fit, Robert." The use of his first name with this tone of voice did not bode well for his future on the front bench in this government. He would discuss it with his perceptive wife, but was certain she would agree with him and support his decision.
The foreign minister had also privately advised against issuing these arrest warrants, and had also provided the Prime Minister with a copy of the Times editorial, to no avail. This Prime Minister did not view Greece with favor, and while this was understandable, his foreign minister had told him that attempting retribution in these circumstances would not be popular at home or in the Union.
The Prime Minister was not listening. It was not the first time in this affair that he had lost his political ear, but it could well be the last if it went "south".