Cell Wars Opening Chapter

Bill needed a holiday.

Well, the word needed was probably a little strong. Deserved? Hardly. He wasn’t lazy and he wasn’t what you might call industrious. But he did his job whenever it needed doing. In his own time.

The head of any department should have a holiday whenever he bloody well pleases, thought Bill and, to emphasise the point he had just made to himself, put his bone china teacup a little too firmly on its saucer.

Startled, the cat leapt from his lap and disappeared behind Bill’s untidy desk. The cat had no name and, apparently, no fixed abode. It wasn’t his but he occasionally fed it with a digestive biscuit, an act of kindness for which the cat gave no appreciation.

Freed from the unwanted encumbrance, Bill heaved himself out of his armchair and shrugged himself into his faithful tweed jacket, absently noting that the leather elbow patches were wearing thin and only the top button of three remained.

Perhaps a little tatty for the Head of Immigration and Foreign Object Office.

Bill preferred the full title but everyone, including the Chief, referred to the department as IFOO, pronounced if-foo, which invariably prompted a po-faced ‘Bless You’ in response.

Disrespectful and unbecoming of such a well-organised and successful department.

He promised himself that the only work he would do during his holiday would be to think of a completely new and hopefully snappier title for his department. Move with the times. Something with ‘Agency’ in the title. Foreign Agency maybe, let them try to mess with that.

It wasn’t far to the Chief’s office. Next door in fact.

 

Imelda was a large woman whose flowery dresses, Bill suspected, covered the evidence of time. He tried not to think of the dimpled, sagging posterior or the grey elasticated knickers concealed by acres of pleated rayon. Adorned with the strangest mix of roses and gladioli.

It was difficult not to look at the expanse of bottom as The Chief balanced precariously on her antique desk while flapping at an offending fly with a rolled up copy of last week’s Liver Central report. Best use for it, Bill thought mischievously.

He cleared his throat.

‘Ah, Bill,’ said Imelda without taking her eye off the insect. ‘Be a love and throw something at that fly. It’s rather distracting, can’t follow my train of thought.’

Imelda’s train of thought was her most beautiful attribute, in Bill’s opinion. Rarely relevant thoughts, at least as far as The Host was concerned, but beautiful thoughts nonetheless.

He removed a shoe and threw it in the general direction of the fly, missing. But the fly saw sense in beating a hasty retreat when a size eleven is hurled, and disappeared through the office door that Bill had left open.

‘There,’ said Bill, retrieving his shoe if only to cover the hole in his sock through which a yellowing toenail poked menacingly.

‘Thank you poppet.’ Imelda lowered her bottom onto the desk and slid without grace and dignity to firmer ground. She smiled – another appealing characteristic. ‘Now then, what can I do for you, Bill?’

‘Well, I…’ Bill was not one for getting straight to the point.

‘You’re still worried about The Host, aren’t you?’

‘Hmmm. The Host is 63. He’s getting old. He’s been lucky and so have we–’

‘You mean we’ve had an easy life?’ Imelda sounded indignant.

‘We’ve had no crises. No big operations, no sudden heart attacks, only that time when–’

‘When The Host choked on a peanut? Lordy, that was scary…’

Bill wrung his hands and looked thoughtful. ‘Don’t you think, I mean… shouldn’t we–’

‘Be doing more?’ Imelda interrupted, her eyebrows almost meeting.

‘Yes.’

‘Like what? We haven’t had any warning lights in the control room, have we?’

‘No, but…’

‘But what? Come on Bill, what’s this about?’

‘Well, I was thinking…’ Bill had a habit of not finishing his sentences.

Imelda stared at him, challenging him to complete a simple function that seemed beyond most men.

Bill obliged.

‘Well, I was thinking that I might take a short holiday.’

Imelda looked as though she was about to burst into sudden, uncontrolled laughter but she bit her lip and looked straight into Bill’s eyes.

‘Bill, we are talking about your concerns over The Host’s age and all that goes with it, liver disease, prostate problems, getting up in the night to pee, his inability to remember even the most basic things of yesteryear – why, he even forgot the vicar’s name at the tea party yesterday! And now you are asking me to sign a holiday chit so you can swan off somewhere when all hell could be about to break loose?’

‘Yes,’ said Bill, then coughed because he thought his voice had too squeaky a timbre. ‘Yes, yes indeed, but it will be a working holiday. I’ll go south, straight past Liver Central and check things out.’

‘I see.’

‘But please don’t ask me to check the… the, er, you know… the functional bits. I really couldn’t face that on holiday.’

Imelda blushed.

‘I mean, Liver Central is bad enough with all that bile and stuff they produce down there, and I don’t think that home brew has done The Host any good at all…’

‘All right.’

‘And those curries he’s taken a shine to…’

‘I said all right, Bill.’

‘You mean…’

‘Yes, Bill, you haven’t had a holiday in… well ever I suppose. I don’t imagine you’ve even got a pair of shorts. Wouldn’t want to bare those unseemly knees…’

It was Bill’s turn to blush. His knees were of the knobbliest kind, and his legs were embarrassingly thin. No one but Bill himself had ever seen them as far as he could recall.

‘Right then,’ he mumbled. ‘I’ll be off then.’

‘Before you go, be a darling and fix this monitor. It’s the link from Liver Central. On the blink.’

Bill looked at the monitor. It was lifeless, and he knew that where matters of technology were concerned, his brain was just as useless.

‘Tell you what,’ he blustered, turning for the still open door to follow the fly from Imelda’s lair, ‘I’ll be there tomorrow, and I’ll come straight back if I find any, er, problems.’

‘Right. You do that. Waste Management Needs You.’

It was a joke, the best Imelda could manage, but Bill was gone without so much as the expected chuckle.

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