“I wish to offer my resignation.”
The Japanese fighting fish, in the large, open tropical pool flittered towards the hand of the second speaker as he sprinkled food from above. “Observe, my friend.” his voice continued, as the fish brawled for food, “see them fight over these tasty morsels. Yes, they fight. Except for that clever fellow over there. He waits. He waits until the others are weakened through their exertion. And then, like G.R.I.M.A.C.E. , he strikes.”
“I still wish to offer my resignation.”
The second speaker waved him towards a deep, padded leather chair. “Sit down Buffings,” he said, and then frowned as Buffings hesitated. “Ah, don’t worry. We phased out the electric chairs some time ago. Inefficient.”
Buffings slid himself into the upholstery. “Comfy.”
The other man nodded and sat down behind his large mahogany desk. “Yes. Now, what’s all this about resignation? You’re one of our finest laser engineers. Your record since starting with us, here at G.R.I.M.A.C.E. has been exemplary. Barely a blemish on your record.”
“There was that incident with the cyanide blades in my brogues and the Russian agent, Number Two.”
“Nonsense, nonsense, forgiven and forgotten, water under the bridge, Buffings. dear fellow.” Number Two smiled affably. He slowly, with deliberation, reached beneath his desk, hands moving almost imperceptibly.
“Parma violet?” Number Two opened the small tin he had by now retrieved and pushed it across the huge desk. “I always think you should sweeten your breath before saying anything unpleasant.”
“Well, what about that time I tripped over that canister of uranium and pushed you into the shark pool?”
“Complete accident. Could have happened to anyone, dear fellow. The scars have almost healed. Fortuitous too. It made me recall I was going to replace the sharks with Japanese fighting fish.”
“Nice of you to see it that way, sir. Nevertheless, I still think I have to resign.” Buffings looked a little tearful and his bottom lip began to quiver.
“I see. Awkward, given that we’re about to extort one billion pounds from the world’s governments by threatening them with a gigantic laser. A laser which you designed, Buffings, and only you know how to operate. That would leave is in a bit of a pickle.” Number Two sighed. “And here at G.R.I.M.A.C.E. we hate pickle.”
“Do we, sir?” Buffings sniffed, “Even Branston?”
Number Two pushed the box of Kleenex to Buffings. He leant back, laced the fingers of his two hands together and steepled his forefingers, resting them on his lips thoughtfully. His eyes narrowed. “Take your time, Buffings.”
“Well, Number Two, I have committed an indiscretion.”
“Yes, Number Two. One that could bring disgrace upon our organisation.”
“I see. What indiscretion?”
“I deliberately touched someone’s knee, sir.”
“Yes, sir. And their thigh, sir.”
“Knee and thigh, eh? When was this?”
“Back in 1971, sir.”
“Knee and thigh in 1971.” Number Two moved his fingers from his lips and used them to do some quick counting. He stood up. “Wait a minute, Buffings, that was 46 years ago. 46 years? You weren’t even a member of G.R.I.M.A.C.E. 46 years ago. How the devil do you think that would matter the day before Operation Ballsthunder? You’re being stupid, man.”
“I don’t think so, sir.” Buffings also stood up and unfolded a grubby newspaper front page that had been stuffed in his trouser pocket. “Look.” He passed the crumpled paper across.
Number Two squinted, using his one good eye to scan the text. Satisfied, he looked up and tossed it disdainfully onto the desk. “Utter nonsense.”
Buffings sniffed then yanked a second Kleenex from the box on the desk. “I don’t think so, sir. Papers are full of it. People resigning for touching knees, sir.”
“Yes, sir. Particularly television celebrities, sporting stars and members of Her Majesty’s government. Historical knee touching is a capital offence these days. I don’t think there’s any alternative. I’ll have to bite the bullet. Will obviously accept any punishment G.R.I.M.A.C.E. sees fit to mete out, Number Two.”
“Now see here, Buffings,” Number Two, spoke pleasantly as he plonked himself back in the seat, “See here. You’ve never been a member of the British Government, have you? I don’t remember you excelling at any sport - quite the opposite given your aversion to exercise and hygiene. And I don’t recall seeing you on the telly. Mrs Number Two and I often watch of an evening, you know. And I honestly haven’t noticed you.”
“What are you trying to say, sir?”
“Well, not to put to fine a point on it, I’m not sure you’re important enough for the press to even bother reporting any misdemeanour you might have committed.”
“Not important, sir?” Buffings stressed the syllables of important, between sniffles.
“Well, important to us, Buffings, obviously. Important to us; goes without saying, that.” soothed Number Two, hastily. “You are sure this resignation isn’t an attempt to avoid destroying London with your giant laser, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir. I definitely touched someone’s knee, sir.”
Number Two sighed again and helped himself to another sweet from the tin of cachous. “Well, give me the details, old chap, and I’ll pass it on to Number One. Shame it wasn’t some boobs, really. I say, it wasn’t boobs, was it? You didn’t cup a gigantic handful of firm boobs, now, did you?”
“Boobs, sir? I should jolly well think not, sir. How rude would that be? Knees are bad enough, sir. If it was boobs I’d throw myself right into the pool now, sir.”
“Yes, I suppose so, Buffings.” Number Two unscrewed his pen, and pulled a pad of creamy white paper towards him wistfully. “Well?”
“It was after a game of rounders, sir. Jean told me I had poo streaks in my pants.”
“We had to do gym in our underpants.”
Number Two glanced up from his writing irritably. “Gym? Underpants? Well how old were you, Buffings, for heaven’s sake?”
“Seven, sir. It was at Abbey Junior Primary, sir. That’s what made me do the knee touching. With my fingers, sir.” Buffings hesitated, sensing that his superior was getting frustrated.
“You did what with your fingers?”
Buffings shuddered, his brow knitted in revulsion. “I wiped poo streak on Jean’s knee, sir.”
Number Two threw his pen down where it bounced off the paper and onto the floor. “Oh really, Buffings, is that all? We all did foolish things at Primary School. Now get out of my office, stop wasting time and prepare for Operation Ballsthunder. We’re at zero minus thirty. I’m expecting the President to call any second now with a grovelling apology.”
“There may have been a bottom involved, sir.”
“Bottom?” Number Two was close to snapping, “Bottom? I don’t care about bottoms, Buffings. This is a complete waste of time. Get to your position! Unless Jean presents herself here, at my desk, and puts in a formal complaint against you I’m taking no more notice of this nonsense. Honestly, Buffings,” he said, more calmly, “After 46 years, I’m reasonably certain we’ll never hear from her.”
“Yes. Jean was French. Abbey Junior Primary was a boys’ school, sir.”
Thunderstruck, Number Two slowly rose. He towered over the cringing Buffings and raised his hand as if to strike. Then lowered it. “I see. Well that puts an entirely different complexion on things, doesn’t it? Boys’ bottoms and knees are not allowed here at G.R.I.M.A.C.E. Touching such things is deemed failure. And this organisation does not tolerate failure, Buffings.
“I know, sir. Shall I throw myself in the tank, sir? Or do you want to push me?”
Number Two lips formed a sad expression. “No Buffings, you’d better chuck yourself in, my boy. I don’t think I can bring myself to do it.”
“Quite right, sir. I wouldn’t want you accidentally touching my bottom or knees, sir, in the struggle.”
“Very considerate of you, Buffings.”
And with that, Buffings walked over to the pool and jumped in amongst the fighting fish. They surrounded him, beginning to tear at flesh and shred clothes whilst Buffings bobbed stoically up and down.
Numbrer Two strode over, dabbing his eye with a tissue. “I say, Buffings?” he asked.
“If Jean was French, why didn’t you use a French accent? You know. Zzzjorn. Something like that?”
“Not very good at French accents, sir.” And with a sudden scream, Buffings was dragged under the surface and was gone.
Sometime later, Number Two, still clutching a Kleenex, tapped on a large, forbidding steel door that was across the corridor; opposite his own office. His hesitant knocking getting no response, he pressed a button in the panelling around the entrance.
“Come!” The intercom boomed, after a pause. The voice crackled harshly and the door slid sideways. Number Two entered.
At the far end, across a metal bridge that spanned a large tank of sharks, a white suited man was seated behind a bulky marble conference table. He had an aura of harsh power, but upon seeing his visitor, he rose in friendly greeting.
“Number Two! Come in my boy, come in! It’s been too long!”
Number two walked across the bridge until he stood in front of his superior. He dabbed his eyes. “I wish to offer my resignation.”
“Yes, sir. I think I’m homophobic, sir.