Ebenezer Grayling sat busy in his counting house. It was a cold, bleak day at the Department for Transport. Big Ben had only just struck three but it was getting dark already and the lights were going on in the grand buildings of Whitehall.
Grayling stared down at the papers in front of him. He had to make these figures add up before he could go home to his constituency for the holidays. The document was headed ‘HS2 — Overspend; Compensation’, and it made for depressing reading.
Because his boss, Mrs May, had backed a previous Labour plan to build a mightily expensive high speed railway through the English countryside, Ebenezer Grayling was having to grapple with a project that now ran billions over budget. And what was worse, hundreds of families whose homes had been made worthless by the blight of the railway were beating down his door for compensation.
Some of these householders his department had agreed to compensate, if only to shut them up, and that was true of the case he was staring dismally at now, the case of one Tiny Kite, daughter of Mr and Mrs Kite of Cratchit Crescent in the town of Kenilworth in Warwickshire.
Ebenezer Grayling knew Tiny Kite. He had met her when she was working at Westminster as a reporter and he was an up-and- coming minister. She had interviewed him, and they had dined together at party conferences.
But things were different now. Tiny Kite had made trouble for his government, winning a long battle for compensation and forcing them to buy her parents’ three-bedroom semi which was right next to the route of the railway.
Where was Kenilworth anyway? Somewhere north of Surrey. He lived in Epsom, as well as in Pimlico, as the press never tired of reminding him. Yes, he had done well for himself. Why should he feel guilty about Tiny Kite’s family, who claimed they needed the equity in their home to survive in retirement?
Ebenezer Grayling sighed. Another sob story. If this railway was going to get built they would need to cut these buy-out deals. His advisers had worked out that if they slashed thousands off each payout they could just about make it work.
So a letter had been sent to Tiny Kite’s parents, just as the sale was about to go through, informing them of some important and baffling bureaucratic matters and telling them that the Department for Transport was not, after all, going to give them the sum of money they had agreed between their lawyers. Instead, it was going to give them thousands less.
What could they possibly do about it? They had months ago had an offer accepted on a smaller property so they could do their downsizing. The family living in this property had also found a new house. The parties were about to exchange. The chain was arranging to move before Christmas.
Tiny Kite’s parents had packed up the beloved home in which they had lived for 50 years. They had sold or given away a lot of their furniture. They were sitting on boxes surrounded by boxes as Christmas approached.
Of course, Ebenezer Grayling was not proud of the fact that such a letter had been sent at that point, effectively reneging on the government’s offer and making a worse one. But it had to be done.
In this letter, it was explained to Tiny Kite’s parents that the government had to get value for money for the taxpayer. Oh yes. That was only right and proper.
No matter that Tiny Kite’s parents had cleared their house right down to the coal bunker, so there was not even a fire in the grate. And that, given the money being taken from them to save the railway, it was not prudent for them to splash out on a turkey, or presents.
In the house they were waiting to move to, a pregnant lady sat on boxes too. Her husband became so angry he rang the government and begged them to desist.
Tiny Kite sent her own letter, telling the HS2 lawyers that her mother, who was suffering from several stress-related conditions, had been rushed to hospital twice.
‘Bah humbug!’ was the only reply she expected…
Ebenezer Grayling stared at the documents. The figures made his head spin. Then he realised that staring back up at him was not the cheery logo of HS2 but a grey, thin, transparent face.
‘Adonis?’ said Grayling, shaking with fear, for it was the ghost of transport secretaries past. ‘Why?’ demanded Grayling, ‘Why did you want a £56 billion railway to cut the journey time from London to Birmingham by 20 minutes?’
Lord Adonis glared back, and a smile spread across his shadowy features:
‘My train set!’ he exclaimed. ‘My shiny new train set!’