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  • Writer's pictureDavid Mathews

The Whatnot Opening

Arthur phoned, Sir Arthur Whatnot, to tell me that he is thinking of retiring from psychiatry.

‘But what will you do, Arthur, apart from regaling us with more examples of the sad state of the world over a glass of something vintage?’

‘Play chess,’ Arthur said.

My old friend spent some years in Russia, during Yeltsin’s time, helping update Russian psychiatry from Soviet ideology-based practice. While there, he played chess. He made the acquaintance of a grand-master or two.

Would he go to Russia at the moment, I asked him, to play with his chums?

‘Now? Not unless I want to be teased for our dreadful opening gambit.’

‘Our gambit?’

‘Look, my boy, we fancy ourselves a clever nation, versed in the arts of diplomacy and spying. Am I right? We may not be what we were, but even now I would have thought we have some bright people in the foreign office and our intelligence agencies.’

I hoped so.

‘What are they doing, then? Have they handed over to the Mail or the Express?’

When it all went off in Salisbury, Arthur wanted to know, why didn’t we wrong-foot the Russians by asking them to help in the investigation? They would have had their own agenda, of course. They might cheat and lie in the process. But they would either have had to take part or refuse to do so. A poser for them. If they took part, on the basis that once upon a time their Soviet predecessors had experience of nerve agents like this, they would either have to tell us what they knew or give it away by feigned ignorance.

A chess game in which we moved first, in Arthur’s calculation.

‘Instead we have this bloody shouting match that makes our politicians feel good – started prematurely by Johnson waving his arms about. Frankly, it alarms our citizens a good deal more than it does the Russians. Send a gunboat! Don’t go to the world cup. Confiscate their luncheon vouchers.’

And Russia demanding a sample of the poison?

Arthur was livid. ‘Getting them to look at the poison should have been our move,’ he said. ‘I think we sacrificed at least a bishop there.’

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