“No. I won’t. I won’t do it.”
“You will. You can take that holiday, or you can transfer out of field division.”
Steed gritted his teeth and made a pleading glance to the heavens—or at least to his living room ceiling—as he tightened his grip on the phone receiver.
“I do not need a holiday,” he said. “I just had one—”
“Three years ago,” said the voice from the other end, an annoying voice, an official voice, the voice of Harold MacAlister, the young and newly appointed head of personnel at the Ministry, who was out to prove to all and sundry that he would cleanse what he privately thought of as the Augean Stables of the department he inherited, and that he would do it by bringing as many senior agents to heel in as short a time as was humanly possible. MacAlister had decided it would be a special, personal coup to be able to rein in John Steed. Somehow none of his predecessors had managed it, but he would.
“You know full well,” MacAlister continued, “that Ministry policy sets a maximum number of working days for field agents before a holiday becomes mandatory. Keeps you from burning yourselves out, which your lot is wont to do. Burnout leads to injuries, deaths, and those both lead to paperwork.”
“Yes, I’m perfectly aware of department policy,” said Steed, “and have been since before you started wearing long trousers. I don’t need a holiday. If you are in the mood to hound someone, why not go after Wilkerson?”
“He would have been my next call but for the fact that he is taking a holiday at the moment. In hospital. With a bullet in his shoulder. Because he was burnt out and not operating up to par. Because he hadn’t been taking his holidays as required by Ministry policy.”
Steed opened his mouth to unleash a concise but witty and scathing retort, but he closed it again without saying anything. MacAlister did rather have a point, there.
“How much time do I have?” said Steed.
“You need to take a minimum of three weeks, but you can take up to five if you like. And yes,” said MacAlister, anticipating Steed’s next question, “you have to take at least three weeks total, at one go: no breaking it up into a bunch of little holidays.”
“And will I be required to report in to the Ministry during those three weeks?” said Steed.
“No. That time is your own, although it’s considered the done thing to let us know where you’re going and leave phone numbers and whatnot in case of emergencies.”
A sly smile blossomed on Steed’s lips. So they would force him to take a holiday, eh? Gambit and Purdey were good agents. They could manage without him for a bit. A full three weeks, anywhere he liked, with no reporting in? Fine. Three weeks where they couldn’t get to him it would be. Three weeks, someplace warm and far, far away.
Steed collected his luggage from the baggage carousel: one golf bag, one large suitcase, and a knapsack. He picked up the suitcase and shouldered the golf bag and the knapsack—which clashed somewhat with his elegant suit but it, together with its contents, would be needed on some day hikes during his holiday—then stepped out into the late-morning sunshine. He gasped in surprise at the temperature. The blue skies and bright sun that he had seen from the plane and inside the terminal had belied the chill in the air. It was July, for heaven’s sake! This was California! California was supposed to be warm!
An older woman dressed in a lavender pantsuit and a pair of large spectacles that made her look like a greying owl stepped up to the taxi stand beside him and noticed his consternation. She deposited her small suitcase on the sidewalk and crossed her arms.
“First time in San Francisco, eh?” she said, not looking at Steed but rather keeping an eye out for a cab.
“Yes,” said Steed, somewhat darkly, irritated by both the surprise of the air temperature and the unwanted conversation. “It is.”
“Yep. Can always spot a first-timer, especially in summer,” said the woman. “They come here thinking that they’ll have a nice warm California vacation, and end up freezing their tuchuses off.” She turned and sized Steed up, examining his grey lightweight wool suit and dark blue fedora with interest. “Hope you packed a warm jacket. Especially if you intend to go to the beach.”
Steed did a double take and raised an eyebrow at her, but before he could reply she picked up her suitcase and got into the cab that swung up to the curb in front of them. “Enjoy your stay!” she called as she closed door and the cab pulled back into the stream of traffic.
With a final glower cast at the back of the woman’s taxi as it vanished into the traffic to his right, Steed turned to find another taxi had materialized on the curb in front of him. The driver was already getting out to help him put his suitcase and golf clubs into the boot. Luggage thus ensconced, the men got into the taxi. Steed instructed the driver to take him to the St Francis. The driver nodded, looked over his shoulder to check for oncoming cars, then accelerated smoothly into the road that fronted the airport terminals.
Steed had visited America before, but each time he had found the first day or so of walking alongside or riding in traffic that drove on the right to be disorienting. And while he never suffered badly from jet lag, this time it seemed it might be more of a burden than he expected. True, it was a much longer flight from London to San Francisco than to New York. But that wasn’t the whole of it, he knew. He didn’t like to admit it, but he hadn’t been bouncing back from things as quickly as he had done when he was younger. Maybe MacAlister was right, bless his tiny, wizened, bureaucratic little heart, thought Steed. Maybe he did need this holiday after all.
About an hour later, Steed relaxed in his hotel room having showered and wound himself into one of the plush robes provided by the hotel. He lounged on the bed, back against a nest of pillows, and ran over his plan in his mind: take it easy today, maybe have a walk up to North Beach or along the Bay, with a nice meal and an early night; a lie-in tomorrow followed by a round of golf at the Presidio, then pick up the rental car; then leave the next day for a hike and picnic lunch on Mount Tamalpais, after which he would drive north for a jaunt round the Napa and Sonoma wine country, followed by some more hiking along the coast and among the redwoods on the way back to San Francisco. He’d explore the City (odd to hear that title with its implied capitalization given to any place other than London) for the last few days of his holiday. Yes, that was a good plan.
But first, he’d close his eyes for just a moment….
Steed jolted awake some hours later to find himself still propped up on pillows on the hotel bed, still swathed in the robe, and the bedside clock stating that it was nearly four o’clock in the afternoon. Steed got up to look out the window. His hotel room was on one of the uppermost floors, and thus commanded a wide view of the city which, Steed saw, was beginning to be invaded by lacy shreds of low clouds and fog making their damp, feathery way through the Golden Gate, across the tops of buildings, and down the city streets. Evidently if he wanted to catch any of the remaining sun he needed to move quickly.
Dressed and quite refreshed after his nap, Steed left the St Francis and strode up Powell Street, where he hopped onto a cable car. He had left his umbrella in his room, having observed that apparently San Franciscans either didn’t mind getting wet or else they understood that grey skies did not prognosticate rain here, and he didn’t feel like sticking out any more than he already knew he would. Besides, he was on holiday, not hunting criminal master minds, and if anyone decided to look for trouble with him he was more than capable of dealing with it without weapons.
Steed marveled at the weather. He was an Englishman, born and bred, and therefore accustomed to damp, but even he had never seen anything like this. In the brief time between his glance out the window and leaving his hotel, the sky had gone grey and the sun had become a pale imitation of the one that had greeted him upon his arrival. And he noted that although it began to be opaque three or four stories up, at groud level this fog was something one felt more than saw, a cold, granular thing that threaded its way softly through the city like a cat weaving around the legs of a chair.
July was not a time of year he’d ever thought he’d say this, but he was glad of his conservative dress: his waistcoat and suit jacket kept out the damp chill with ease. As the cable car clanked its way through Nob Hill, he made a mental note to review the more casual clothing he had brought for hikes. He had brought a windbreaker, mostly to use as a water-resistant shell, but it might be well to augment it with a light jumper. He shook his head and raised an eyebrow at the thought, and at the memory of what the woman at the airport had said. England was not a particularly balmy place, but that he needed to be concerned about keeping warm in the middle of summer was a novel experience.
The cable car reached the end of its line near Fisherman’s Wharf. Steed walked towards the water and then ambled his way westward, taking in the ambiance of the neighborhood, the sight and sounds of the Bay, and the feel of the enveloping fog. For the next few hours he walked, first westward towards the Presidio, stopping to admire the Palace of Fine Arts and then marvelling at the gracefulness of the Golden Gate Bridge, portions of her span veiled and then temporarily revealed as the breeze off the Pacific stirred the fog and mingled with it. He then wound his way back, stopping for a hearty and very satisfying meal at an Italian bistro in North Beach where he learned that California wines were as good as he had heard; he now looked forward even more to that part of his holiday. But now it was growing dark and, sated with good food and wine and fighting off jet lag, Steed took the cable car back to the St Francis and his virtuous rest.
The title of this story is a line from the Gershwin song, “A Foggy Day in London Town.” You can listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing it here. (And I’ll explain why I chose it when that information is no longer a spoiler.)
If you would like to vicariously experience San Francisco’s famous fog, please watch “Adrift,” a beautiful video by Simon Christen.