The Journal of Lynton Charles, Deputy Minister without Portfolio

Monday I am sitting at my desk, penning a note to Zero Anstiss, apologising for having reluctantly decided that the office cannot justify the expense of sending us both to Minnesota (the Margaret Cook book having driven all thought of dalliance right off the agenda), when there is a familiar creak in the wall behind me.

Before I have time to turn round and see what's happening, a pair of cool hands have been slipped over my eyes, a discreet but sensual perfume invades my nostrils, and a silky voice whispers, "Guess who!"

"Zero!" I gasp (for who else can it be?), "I was just jotting you a . . ."

But a man's laugh cuts me off, and - as the hands are removed - I find myself looking into the lean, laughing features of none other than M. "Sshhh!" he warns, putting a lean finger to his lips. "I've been having one of my discreet little tete-a-tetes with The Master - honestly I spend more time with him now than I did when I was in the cabinet - and I thought I'd round off my visit with a latte chez toi. Ring for that splendid Starbuck personage (such talent, even better than I was at that age), ask for some refreshment, and then tell me all the latest. The Master never has time for the really juicy stuff, and he hates talking about sex. These neo-Catholics: guilt, guilt, guilt."

Simon is dispatched, and M and I settle down. He looks surprisingly well. There is no flesh sagging dispiritedly from a demoralised frame, no sallowness, no sour smell of defeat about him. I compliment him.

"Well, Lynton darling, I shan't pretend that the days leading up to my departure were fun. But once I had resolved myself in favour of - as the bard puts it - self-slaughter, the rest became like another, particularly intriguing, campaign. Could I manage to leave in such a way as to be able to return? And I think I have.

"What has helped immensely," he continues, his eyes twinkling, "is the way that just about everybody else has got it in the neck in the days since I was forced to walk the plank. Except The Master, of course. Ah, Simon," he addresses a startled Starbuck, who has entered bearing refreshment, "sit down. Listen. Absorb. Learn. Where was I? Oh yes," he sips his latte and goes on. "First, Alfie J Pratt departs to spend more time digging his allotment, or whatever working-class heroes do these days when their spinning careers are over. Then poor Robin is exposed as being the sort of dwarf that would have got into bed with Snow White. Rather sad, that. Last week Tony Tankard's nasty little biog of me was published to, I believe, considerably less than critical acclaim. And finally, this morning, I peruse my newspapers to discover tales of Dr Jack's imperial splendour. Tell me, Lynton, is it true about the cut flowers, picked daily to adorn his office?" I nod. "The trips on Concorde, undertaken at vast expense, so as to hurry him back to his never-quite-onerous ministerial duties?" I assent again. "The Brussels hotel rooms, the champagne, the lunching?" I agree to all three.

"I'm not saying that I'm happy about what has happened to Dr Jack, despite the fact that he was rather - how shall I put it? - over-enthusiastic about the speed of my departure. But it does make you wonder," says M, staring ruminatively at a pain au chocolat, "who is next. Will we awake to discover that the sainted Mo, par exemple, was once marooned on an island during a school trip, with several classmates and no food, and was driven to cannibalism? Or that the Steward once assaulted a lascar with a belaying pin during a heavy squall off Dogger? Whatever that is.

"These are flighty times, Lynton. And now my latte is finished, and so am I. Remember me!" The bookcase slides away, and this remarkable man disappears once more, where none may follow.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage