THE MOMENTS WHEN THE GAME CHANGED
THE WALK IN WHO TURNED OUT NOT TO BE A RANDOM NUTTER
Of course, the moment when the game changed forever wasn't a moment at all. Instead, it was a whole summer: the never to be forgotten summer of 2024.
I suppose we all have our own set of memories of those baking months when the world changed forever. I have pictures of weather presenters. In fact, I seem to remember seeing a YouTube montage video tracking their expressions as the summer rolled along. In May they were all bubbling excitement as they joyously wittered on about day after cloudless day. The weather maps were backed up with footage from beaches from every corner of the Northern Europe. Sandcastles were built by the thousand and ice cream sales smashed all records.
Two hot weeks in May became three hot weeks in May and the North of Europe was as hot as the South of Europe. The air was filled with the smell of barbeques and beer gardens were standing room only.
By the end of May, the first flickering notes of concern started to intrude on the general giddiness. The temperatures in the south of Europe weren't just hot, they were starting to get out of hand. Forest fires raged and the vulnerable old started dying in numbers never seen before.
By the middle of June, the novelty had worn off. Lawns were baked to dust. Hospitals were filling up and reservoirs were starting to look decidedly dicey.
By the middle of July, there was barely a country in the Northern Hemisphere who wasn't water rationing. The mains supply was cut to three hours a day and governments begged their citizens to stick to no more than one shower a week. Crops died and farm animals keeled over. Food prices rocketed.
And then in August the eyes of a frightened world turned to the vastness of Siberia where the permanently frozen Tundra was no longer permanently frozen. It was defrosting and vast pockets of methane were being released from frozen captivity. Scientists predicted the Siberian wilderness was about to throw more CO2 into the atmosphere in a couple of months than mankind had managed in the whole of human history.
For a while, there were blazing rows about where the blame lay. Was this doing of mankind or was it down to a natural cycle?
Soon nobody cared much. The new climate was here to stay and mankind would have to find a way to deal with it or face decades of starvation and war and then extinction.
The rains finally came in August and they pretty much stayed all the way to October. Reservoirs filled back up and in most areas, the water rationing was finally lifted. But everyone was convinced nothing would ever be the same again.
In a way, I had an unexpected front row seat. I was a low-grade hack on the Lancashire Evening Post in the summer of 2024. I never made many friends in Blackburn and I was homesick on a more or less permanent basis. Every Friday night I would throw a bag in the boot of my car and drive back home to Edinburgh. The bones of my weekends hadn't changed much from when I was sixteen. Weekends meant me and Julie and town. Lunch. Shopping. Maybe a gig. Always a pub. More often than not a club. Joint dates. Lazy, hung over Sunday mornings. Sometimes Julie crashed at my parent's place in Morningside. Other times we would take a late night taxi to her folks’ place in Stockbridge.
I suppose I was always the sensible one. Julie was the party girl. We had been best friends forever. School. University. Adulthood. Her parents were great. Her Mum, Sheila was an unashamed hippy who ran a vegan cafe for Edinburgh's luvvies. Her dad, Angus, was my dad's best pal and had been since they were at St Andrews University together in the early 90's.
My dad is a smart guy. He got a first in law and went on to be a senior partner in one of Edinburgh's most prestigious firms of solicitors. But Angus is in a whole different league. At university, more or less everyone agreed he was basically a bone fide genius. He studied the climate and was one of the first to ring the warning bells of global warming. He did a doctorate at MIT in America and returned home to a professorship at Edinburgh.
And then he surprised everyone by ditching the academic world and starting out in business. He got himself into the renewables game and by 2014 his solar power company employed hundreds and made millions.
Then in 2014 he surprised everyone again by becoming a star turn for the 'Yes' campaign in the first Independence referendum.
He certainly converted me. I was too young to vote, but Julie and I joined him as he knocked doors and spoke to packed meetings. Brilliant times.
In 2016 he became a member of the Scottish Parliament and predictably enough became the Scottish Government's main voice on all things climatic.
By the time the second referendum was fought in 2022, Angus was front and centre. I didn't get the chance to join in as much as I would have liked. Weekdays saw me bored and miserable in Blackburn and I was only able to join the carnival of 'Yes 2' on the weekends.
Well, we all know what happened. 67% of Scots took a long hard look at the sinking ship of Brexit Britain and opted for the life boat of Independence.
God, I enjoyed writing that sentence! Nine years and the joy of the moment still hasn't worn off. The result meant I had a pretty big decision to make. Did I carry on trying to carve out my career as a journalist south of the border or should I head back home and find a niche in my newly independent homeland? I tried hard to make the move. But in the heady days of independence, jobs in the Scottish media were as rare as hen's teeth. I faced a pretty dismal choice. Going home would mean giving up on my dream of journalism.
I chose journalism and lived for the weekends.
Of course, I took a week’s worth of holiday in March 2024 to go home for Independence Day and I was in the Parliament to see Angus sworn in as the Minister for the Environment for the newest country in the world.
It was something. Really something. I was so completely proud of him.
Like the country as a whole, Angus didn't have much of a honeymoon period. Scotland had it much better than most in the long drought, but as a Minister for the Environment with a well-earned reputation as an expert in the field of climate change, you can maybe imagine how busy he was. He had a merciless schedule and when I saw him on Sunday mornings at Julie's house he seemed to age at a rate of a year a month.
The first year of Independence was predictably hard. The Government in Westminster played every trick in the book to try and drag Scotland back into its orbit. The new Scottish pound came under constant pressure and slipped in value with every passing month. The tabloid media gleefully gave over their front pages to the struggles of the new nation and predicted Scotland would soon be begging to return to the fold.
The great drought of 2024 came as a welcome distraction and the fact that Scotland received more rainfall than half the countries of Europe put together caused a rally in the value of Edinburgh's pound.
On 20th August every tap in London ran dry and they stayed dry for two whole days. It was enough to generate hysteria and many multimillion Mayfair mansions were put on the market by the off shore holding companies who owned them. This very quickly burst a property bubble which had been forty years in the making.
By the autumn it was the London pound, not the Edinburgh pound which was the target for constant attacks and by Christmas, it was worth less than a dollar.
The autumn saw an old school boom for Scotland. When the grain harvest came in, it turned out to be the best in years. The timing was perfect as the great drought had all but destroyed the crops in many of the grain basket countries. Exports of wheat, barley and potatoes brought in a hugely welcome injection of foreign currency and by Christmas, the new nation had managed to find its feet.
By now there was more grey than black in Angus Campbell's hair, but at least he still had hair. His first year in Independent office left him two stones lighter and about a thousand years wiser. For a while, I was worried he was going to make himself ill. We all did. Even Julie shed some of her party girl sparkle.
The months of constant crisis finally passed and a tentative normality started to settle in. By February Angus's schedule was brutal as opposed to suicidal. He managed his first two day weekend in a year and he actually started to seriously consider a week's holiday in the spring.
At long last life was starting to look up. On a Tuesday morning, he took a long look at himself in the mirror and risked a smile.
“Tell you what you old bastard, I reckon we might just pull this thing off.”
Then he shaved and dressed and sank a cup of coffee and read the paper on his tablet. Just normal stuff. Normal stuff on a normal Tuesday morning in February. The weather outside the kitchen window was sufficiently wet and grey for him to dump the idea of cycling to the Parliament.
He drove. He took time out to exchange pleasantries with the cops on the door and the security guys in the foyer. He chatted with a couple of colleagues and then took the lift to his office. More coffee and his parliamentary secretary took him through the schedule for the day.
And there was nothing special. Nothing of note. Nothing to write home about. Just a regulation Tuesday in February.
Except it wasn't.
Hindsight would prove this Tuesday morning was the morning when absolutely everything changed.
It changed for Angus Campbell.
And it changed for the newly independent country of Scotland.
Five miles across the city, the front door of Angus's constituency office opened and the first punter of the day walked in. Mary was on front desk duty and half way through opening up the day's snail mail.
The visitor didn't look much like a constituent. In fact, he didn't much look like anyone Mary had met before. Fair enough, she had seen his type on the tele. But only on the tele.
She took him in.
Foreign looking. Well, not Scottish born and bred. Now then Mary. Behave. He might well have been Scottish born and bred. Maybe it was his parents who came from somewhere else. Or his grandparents.
Oh, sod it. Arab maybe? Middle Eastern?
40? 45? Certainly well groomed. She was no expert on what a seriously expensive suit looked like, but she was pretty sure an expensive suit would look a lot like the one the man was wearing.
Quite tall. Very fit looking. And yes, no getting away from it. Handsome. Bloody handsome, Classy handsome.
He unzipped a dazzling smile.
“Good morning.” Crisply spoken English with no trace of any kind of accent.
“Aye. Well. Bit dreich to be fair.”
“You ken. Grey. Wet. Bloody horrible.”
The smile widened a notch.
“Ah. ' Dreich '. That is a new word for me. I like it. I will file it away.”
Smooth bastard so he was. “Can I help you?”
“I hope so. Might it be possible for me to have a quick word with Mr Campbell's secretary?”
“Well since you asked so nicely....”
Her vivid red nails clattered the intercom.
“Jean. Have you got a minute? No. No, I didn't.... just a sec..... what's your name sir?"
“I am Suleiman Al Khalidi.”
“He's Soloman Kally something. Aye. OK. Thanks hen.”
She honoured him with a lipstick framed smile. "Jean's just coming. Can you sign the book? Here. Need a pen?"
“That would be very kind.”
A couple of minutes later Jean duly collected the stranger with a quizzical sort of expression and guided him to the interview room. Should she offer coffee? Well, why not? She was ready for another cup herself.
“Please. Take a seat. Coffee?”
“Yes. That is very kind.”
“Not at all. I won't be long.”
En route to the kitchen, Jean stopped by Mary's desk.
“Who on earth is he?”
“Dinnae ken, hen. Just walked in, so he did. Good looking bugger isn't he?"
This brought a blush to Jean's face just like Mary knew it would.
“Well, I don't know about that....."
The man instinctively rose to his feet as she returned with the coffee tray and to her great annoyance, she found herself blushing again. Ridiculous.
She did the honours and sat down with coffee and notepad at the ready.
“So. I think I better start again with your name. Mary is a treasure but names are not her strongest suit.”
“I am Suleiman Al Khalidi and it is great pleasure to meet you.”
“Yes. Of course. Absolutely. And how might I help you this morning Mr Al Khalidi?”
“Well Jean, I must ask you to keep an open mind for a few minutes or so. I would guess about five minutes. You see I am fairly sure once I start saying what I am about to say, you will write me off as some sort of random nut.”
“Oh dear indeed. Now I can absolutely assure you I am not a random nut but of course, I would say that wouldn't I?"
“Well. Yes. I suppose you would.”
“So I'll just say it, OK?”
“I have some very important proposals to discuss with Mr Campbell. It is important our discussions are very private in the beginning. So here is what I would like to happen. I am staying at the Balmoral Hotel. If you can give me a slot where the minister is available, I will reserve a private meeting room and a selection of the hotel's quite excellent food. I anticipate we will need at least two hours....”
Jean's mouth was starting to form words of no. Al Khalidi stayed them with a raised hand.
“Yes, I know. Of course, I do. Such a thing is absolutely out of the question, especially as I am very much not a Scottish national. So let me see if I can change your mind. Offer a little encouragement. May I do that Jean?"
She nodded and felt half hypnotised by the smooth ultra-confident pitch.
“Good. Now I have done my research. I gather the Minister is a long term patron of an extremely worthy charity. 'Wishing Wells'. They dig wells and install pumping systems and chlorination facilities, mainly in Malawi. I presume this still the case?”
“Good. I was hoping you say that. So here is my proposal. As soon as the minister agrees to our meeting and a time and date is arranged, I will make a donation of $100,000 to 'Wishing Wells'. Here is the mobile number for my UK account manager. You are more than welcome to give her a call to confirm the funds are available and ready for transfer. With me so far Jean?”
“Excellent. Of course, you will still be pretty certain I am a random nut and the number I have given you will be a series of numbers leading to nowhere. I understand. So I have some things here which I hope will confirm my credibility. I am by nature a very private man Jean. I avoid publicity wherever possible. Unfortunately, I was forced to break cover three years ago and I had no choice but to agree to an interview with 'Newsweek.' Here. You will find the feature on page 5."
He passed a copy of the magazine across and Jean duly opened it at the appointed page.
“SULEIMAN AL KHALIDI. THE SHEIK'S MR FIX IT.”
There was a large photo of the Al Khalidi standing on a balcony with the towering buildings of New York providing a backdrop. Unquestionably the man in the photo was the also the man sitting across from her.
“May I keep this?”
“You may. I also have these. They are letters of introduction. I think the minister will find both men to be highly credible and respected. Once again, he is more than welcome to give them a call. They are expecting it.”
She took the two letters and skip read them.
Roland Grabowski, Assistant Secretary of State, State Department, Washington D.C.
Hans Fischler, Financial Director, AUDI
“Right. Well, thank you for these. I will pass them on to the minister as soon as I can."
“Finally, I think you will need this. My card.”
It was a beautifully printed business card which carried a minimum of information.
A name. A mobile number. An e mail address.
Suleiman switched his smile back on and rose to his feet. “Jean, I am so grateful for your time. Now I must wait and hope the minister will make contact. If I hear nothing in three days I will take it his answer is no.”
“Right. Yes. Of course. Absolutely.”
They wound it up. Hands were shaken and he left leaving the two women staring at the closed door with shared astonishment.
Five minutes later the phone on Angus's desk rang and his constituency secretary gave him a blow by blow description of her extra ordinary encounter with a mysterious stranger. Her breathless excitement caught his interest. The promise of a $100,000 donation to 'Wishing Wells' really caught his attention.
“Tell you what Jean, could you courier the stuff over. I'm in the office until one. I'll give it the once over. OK?”
“Absolutely. I will do it right away.”
The business card, magazine and letters duly arrived an hour later. Angus started with 'Newsweek'.
Suleiman Al Khalidi. The Qatari power broker with no title. No royal genes. A relatively modest upbringing. A superstar in school. A scholarship to the best high school the Emirate had to offer. Three years in the same class as the eldest son of the old Sheik. Rumours of a deep friendship lasting the test of time. A Philosophy First from Oxford. A law degree from Harvard. And then? Then rumours and nods and winks. When the old sheik died in 2018, his oldest son duly assumed the throne and Suleiman Al Khalidi was never far from his side. The old school pal never held any particular office. His was a roving role. He did strategy and blue sky thinking. He opened doors and whispered in ears. He glossed up the world's view of his country.
Angus rang the German referee first. Hans Fischler was indeed expecting the call. He didn't say a great deal.
But he said enough.
He waited until one o'clock to call Roland Grabowski at nine in the morning Washington DC time.
“Hey Angus, glad you called. Suleiman said you might. Can't do details buddy. Let's just say he's a helluva good guy. One of the best. I'm more than happy to give him my nod. That all good for you bud?”
He finished the call and drummed his fingers for a few seconds.
Then he dialled up the number on the business card and arranged to be at the Balmoral Hotel at 7 pm the next evening.
It hadn't turned out to be a regulation rainy Tuesday morning in February after all.
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