Part 1 December 23 rd
On the afternoon and early evening of December 23rd, three events occurred, seemingly unconnected and, in distance, three thousand miles apart. One was a telephone call, over closely guarded circuits, from the President of the United States to the Prime Minister of Canada; the conversation lasted almost an hour and was sombre. The second event was an official reception at the Ottawa residence of Her Majesty's Governor General; the third, the berthing of a ship at Vancouver on the Canadian West coast.
The telephone call came first. It originated in the President's study of the White House and was taken by the Prime Minister in his East Block office on Parliament Hill.
Next was the berthing of the ship. It was the Motor Vessel Vastervik, 10,000 tons, Liberian registry, its master Captain Sigurd Jaabeck, a Norwegian. It made fast at La Pointe Pier, on the south and city side of Burrard Inlet Harbour at three o'clock.
Just an hour later in Ottawa where, because of a three-hour time difference it was already evening, the early reception guests began arriving at Government House. The reception was a smallish one: an annual pre-Christmas affair their Excellencies gave cabinet members and their wives.
Only two of the party guests – the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State for External Affairs – had knowledge of the US President's call. Not one of the guests had ever heard of the MV Vastervik, nor in the scheme of things was it likely that they would.
And yet, irrevocably and inextricably, the three occurrences were destined to intertwine, like planets and their nebulae whose orbits, in strange mysterious fashion, impinge and share a moment's scintillation.
Part 2 The Prime Minister
The Ottawa night was crisp and cold, with clouding skies holding promise of snow before morning. The nation's capital – so the experts said – was in for a white Christmas.
In the rear of a black, chauffeur-driven Oldsmobile, Margaret Howden, wife of the Prime Minister of Canada, touched her husband's hand. 'Jamie,' she said, 'you look tired.'
The Right Honourable James McCallum Howden, PC, LLB, QC, MP, had closed his eyes, relaxing in the car's warmth. Now he opened them. 'Not really.' He hated to admit to tiredness at any time. 'Just unwinding a little. The past forty-eight hours…' He checked himself, glancing towards the chauffeur's broad back. The glass between was raised, but even so it paid to be cautious.
A light from outside touched the glass and he could see his own reflection: the heavy, hawklike face, eagle-beak nose and jutting chin.
Beside him, his wife said amusedly, 'Stop looking at yourself or you'll develop… what's that psychiatry thing?'
'Narcissism.' Her husband smiled, his heavy-lidded eyes crinkling. 'But I've had it for years. In politics it's an occupational norm.'
There was a pause, then they were serious again.
'Something's happened, hasn't it?' Margaret said softly. 'Something important.' She had turned towards him, her face troubled, and preoccupied as he was, he could perceive the classic shapeliness of her features. Margaret was still a lovely woman, he thought, and heads had always turned when they came into a room together.
'Yes,' he acknowledged. For an instant he was tempted to confide in Margaret; to tell her everything that had occurred so swiftly, beginning with the secret telephone call from the White House, coming across the border two days earlier; the second call this afternoon. Then he decided: this was not the time.
Beside him Margaret said, 'There have been so many things lately, and so few moments we've had alone.' 'I know.' He reached out and held her hand. As if the gesture had unleashed words held back: 'Is it worth it all? Haven't you done enough?' Margaret Howden spoke quickly, aware of the journey's shortness, knowing that it was a few minutes drive only between their own house and the Governor General's residence. In a minute or two more this moment of warmth and closeness would be gone. 'We've been married forty-two years, Jamie, and most of that time I've had just a part of you. There isn't all that much of life that's left.'
'It hasn't been easy for you, has it?' He spoke quietly, genuinely. Margaret's words had moved him.
'No; not always.' There was a note of uncertainty. It was an entangled subject, something they spoke of rarely.
'There will be time, I promise you. If other things…' He stopped, remembering the imponderables about the future which the past two days had brought.
'What other things?'
'There's one more task. Perhaps the biggest I've had.'
She withdrew her hand. 'Why does it have to be you?'
It was impossible to answer. Even to Margaret, privy to so many of his thoughts, he could never mouth his innermost conviction: because there is no one else; no other with my stature, with intellect and foresight to make the great decisions soon to come.
'Why you?' Margaret said again.
They had entered the grounds of Government House. Rubber crunched on gravel. In the darkness, parkland rolled away on either side.
Momentarily he had a sharp sense of guilt about his relationship with Margaret. She had always accepted political life loyally, even though never enjoying it as he did himself. But he had long sensed her hope that one day he would abandon politics so that they could become closer again, as in the early years.
On the other hand he had been a good husband. There had been no other woman in his life… except for the one occasion years before: the love affair that had begun, and had lasted almost a year until he had ended it resolutely, before his marriage could be imperilled. But sometimes guilt nudged him there… nervousness, too, that Margaret should ever learn the truth.
'We'll talk tonight,' he said placatingly. 'When we get back.'
The car stopped and the near-side door was opened. A Mountie in scarlet dress uniform saluted smartly as the Prime Minister and his wife alighted. James Howden smiled an acknowledgement, shook hands with the policeman, and introduced Margaret. It was the sort of thing Howden always did gracefully and without condescension. At the same time he was well aware that the Mountie would talk about the incident afterwards, and it was surprising how far the ripples could extend from a simple gesture of that kind.
As they entered Government House an aide-de-camp – a youngish lieutenant of the Royal Canadian Navy – stepped smartly forward. The aide's gold-trimmed dress uniform looked uncomfortably tight; probably, Howden thought, the result of too much time at a desk in Ottawa and too little at sea. Officers had to wait their turn for sea duty now that the Navy was just a token force – in some ways a joke, though a costly one for taxpayers.
They were led from the high pillared entrance hall up a rich red-carpeted marble stairway, through a wide, tapestried corridor and into the Long Drawing Room where small receptions such as tonight's were usually held. A big, elongated, shoe-box shaped room, high ceilinged, with crossbeams plastered over, it had the intimacy of a hotel lobby, though with rather more comfort. So far, however, the invitingly grouped chairs and settees, upholstered in soft shades of turquoise and daffodil yellow, were unoccupied, the sixty or so guests standing, chatting in informal knots. From above their heads, a full-length portrait of the Queen stared unsmilingly across the room at window draperies, now drawn, of rich gold brocade. At the far end, festooned lights on a decorated Christmas tree flashed on and off. The buzz of conversation lessened perceptibly as the Prime Minister and his wife entered, Margaret Howden in a ball gown of pale mauve lace, above the gown her shoulders bare.
Still preceding, the naval lieutenant led the way directly to a point near a blazing log fire where the Governor General had been receiving. The aide announced: 'The Prime Minister and Mrs Howden.'
His Excellency, the Right Honourable Air Marshal Sheldon Griffiths, VC, DFC, RCAF (retired). Her Majesty's Governor General in the Dominion of Canada, extended his hand. 'Good evening. Prime Minister.' Then, inclining his head courteously, 'Margaret.'
Margaret Howden curtsied expertly, her smile including Natalie Griffiths at her husband's side.
'Good evening. Your Excellency,' James Howden said. 'You're looking extremely well.'
The Governor General, silver-haired, ruddy, and militarily erect despite his years, was wearing faultless evening dress with a long impressive row of medals and decorations. He leaned forward confidentially. 'I feel as if my damn tailplane's burning up.' Gesturing to the fireplace. 'Now you're here, let's move away from this inferno.'
Together the four strolled through the room, the Governor General a courteous, friendly host.
'I saw your new Karsh portrait,' he told Melissa Tayne, serene and gracious wife of Dr Borden Tayne, the Health and Welfare Minister. 'It's very beautiful and almost does you justice.' Her husband, alongside, flushed with pleasure.
Next to them Daisy Cawston, lumpish, motherly, and not caring, burbled, 'I've been trying to persuade my husband to sit for Karsh, Your Excellency, at least while Stuart has some hair left.' Beside her, Stuart Cawston, Finance Minister, and known to friends and adversaries as 'Smiling Stu', grinned good-naturedly.
Soberly the Governor General inspected Cawston's rapidly balding scalp. 'Better take your wife's advice, old chap. Not much time left, I'd say.' His tone robbed the words of any offence and there was a chorus of laughter in which the Finance Minister joined.
Now, as the viceregal group moved on, James Howden dropped back. He caught the eye of Arthur Lexington, the External Affairs Minister, several groups away with his wife Susan, and nodded imperceptibly. Casually Lexington excused himself and strolled over- a short cherubic figure in his late fifties whose easy-going, avuncular ways concealed one of the sharpest minds in international politics.
'Good evening. Prime Minister,' Arthur Lexington said. Without changing his expression he lowered his voice. 'Everything's teed.'
'You've talked with Angry?' Howden asked crisply. His Excellency Phillip B. Angrove, 'Angry' to his friends, was the US Ambassador to Canada.
Lexington nodded. He said softly, 'Your meeting with the President is set for January second. Washington, of course. That gives us ten days.'
'We'll need all of it.'
'Have you discussed procedure?'
'Not in detail. There'll be a state banquet for you the first day – all the usual folderol – then the private meeting, just four of us, the following day. I suppose that's when we get down to business.'
'How about an announcement?'
Lexington nodded warningly, and the Prime Minister followed his eyes. A manservant was approaching with a tray of drinks. Among them was a single glass of grape juice, the latter a beverage which James Howden – a teetotaller – was believed to favour. Noncommittally he accepted the drink.
As the manservant left, Lexington sipping rye and water, Aaron Gold, Postmaster General and only Jewish member of the Cabinet, joined them. 'My feet are killing me,' he announced. 'Couldn't you drop a word to His Ex, Prime Minister – ask him for God's sake sit down, so the rest of us can get the weight off.'
'Never known you in a hurry to get off your feet, Aaron.' Arthur Lexington grinned. 'Not judging by your speeches.'
Stuart Cawston, nearby, had overheard. He called across:
'Why the tired feet, Aaron? Been delivering Christmas mail?'
'I should get humorists,' the Postmaster General said gloomily, 'when all I need is tenderness.'
'It was my understanding you had that already,' Howden said amusedly. The idiot counterpoint, he thought: comic dialogue on side-stage to Macbeth. Perhaps it was needed, though. The issues which had suddenly loomed ahead, touching the very existence of Canada, were formidable enough. How many in this room besides Lexington and himself had any idea… Now the others moved away.