Authors: James Brodie
Tags: #Fiction, #spy, #swinging, #double agent, #fbi, #algeria, #train robbery, #Erotica, #espionage, #60s, #cuba, #missile, #Historical, #Thrillers, #spies, #cia, #kennedy, #profumo, #recruit, #General, #independence, #bond, #mi5, #mi6
Forsythe sat opposite. We were alone now. He was looking, he thought searchingly, into my face. Of course I knew I could be bought. It wasn’t even a question of how much. Just how many times.
“Tell me what you want me to do,” I said.
It hadn’t been a good day for me. Things had started to go wrong with my arrival at the Labour Exchange in Battersea Park Road. I’d registered there on the first day I’d moved into the flat at the tail end of August. That had been the good old days- the worst unemployment figures since the war. Four hundred and thirty thousand. It had been easy to register yourself as something slightly awkward and turn up every week for your dole money.
Now a letter dropped through my door summoning me to report to Battersea Labour Exchange; a virulent flu epidemic had completely changed the situation. When I arrived I had been offered a form of employment which I, alone, considered beneath my station. I had been forced to go to Balham to interview for a job. I had succeeded in failing the interview but had jeopardised my chances of receiving further benefit. I walked back dispirited through the side streets between Balham and Battersea.
As I passed the Duke of Cambridge, a Young’s pub just off Battersea Park, they were unbolting the doors for opening time. I went inside. It was pleasant sitting there drinking alone after the rigours of the day, looking at the head of a pint of Special, watching a regular come in with his dog and strike up a boring conversation with the landlord. Such is the stuff of the English pub. But it was soon spoiled for me by a bunch of young layabouts - office workers. They sat nearby and soon smashed my mellow mood with their jarring shouts and laughter as they selected their World eleven to play Mars at football. They had pencilled in either Pele or “Tosh” Chamberlain of Fulham to play at number eleven. I couldn’t take any more I drank up and left.
It was only just gone six o’clock but already it was dark and the chill in the air no longer had the charm of a long lost friend. I walked up towards Albert Bridge at a brisk pace, I just wanted to get back to the flat. I had settled for writing the day off. A bath, some grub, perhaps the television, and then to bed - The Modern Monk. As I drew close I looked up and got a shock, the light was on in the living room overlooking the park. I quickly crossed the road and leaned against the park fence to get a better look, but I could see no one, just a light glowing away. Then I realized it must be the owner, Nigel, back from Hong Kong for some reason. Either him or one of his family, or someone like me whom he’d given the key. What a bore. Tonight of all nights. I was even less inclined than usual to be sociable. I rang the bell to give fair warning, I didn’t want to catch some guy jerking himself off over the kitchen sink. But no one answered. I rang again then let myself in. I was gripped by a moment’s fear as I imagined someone standing behind the door about to jump out on me. Then I saw Pascale. She was sitting in the only really comfortable chair in the flat - a capacious, floral-print covered armchair. She was wearing a dress that looked like it could be high fashion, if I only knew what that was. It showed up her figure well. She looked classy, as if she might be going out for a smart informal evening. I noticed her coat, slung over the back of a chair in the corner.
“Good evening Alex, so this is where you live.”
“How did you get in?”
“Toby gave me the key a month ago. This is the first time I’ve had to use it.”
I stood there for a second really pissed off by her arrogance. So, she was a good looker, but she didn’t like me and she thought I didn’t like her. So who was she to walk into my flat as if she owned it? She caught my mood.
“Have I put you out?” she asked, but not in a troubled, soul-searching kind of way.
“Not really, I always prepare an extra portion for dinner in case someone unexpected drops in. It’s an old Polish custom.”
“Oh don’t worry, I’m not hungry.”
“Good.” We looked at each other for a while then we both did the time-honoured looking out of the window into the middle distance bit.
“That’s Battersea Park,” I said. “... Why did you come here then?”
“There was a man getting on my nerves.”
“Whfffuff,” she made a Gallic gesture of ridicule. “... No, another man. He kept bothering me, coming round my flat.”
“Wouldn’t leave you alone you mean?”
“You poor bitch.”
“You don’t like me do you Alex?”
“Ah... Like? ... No, I don’t like you. But I don’t think I dislike you. It’s more a vague feeling of antipathy. To me you’re antipatica, as they say in Italy.”
“Yes. Antipathique, as we say in France... That’s a shame. Still, nevertheless, if you don’t mind I would like to use the flat tonight.”
I shrugged my shoulders in resignation.
“This guy, he gets violent does he? Loses control?”
“It must be nice to live in a dream world Alex.... No, he doesn’t get violent. But he’s giving me a hard time just at the present, so if you don’t mind...” She lit up a cigarette and proffered me a packet of ten Olivier.
“Want one.” I took one and sat down facing her.
“Cheers..... I’ve had a hard time today myself.”
True to character she had no interest in the events of my day and so we sat there in silence. “.... Yes, really hard.” I continued, supplying for my imagination the required interrogative response. “....There’s a flu epidemic in Balham. Did you know that?..... It’s pretty tough down there.... They’re dropping like flies.... Open graves on Tooting Bec Common, shovelling them in with bulldozers.... The area’s cordoned off by the military... They’re shooting anyone who tries to break out... They’re going to let the plague burn itself out, then go in and raze everything to the ground - Start again.... People can be replaced, that’s what they were saying.... I think they’re being too harsh.... You’d think they’d let the kids out....” Clouds of cigarette smoke rose slowly to the ceiling. We watched them in silence.
“Tell me about your day Alex..” she said.
“Let’s watch television,” I said and turned on the snowstorm. A guy called Barry Bucknell was busy turning a well proportioned unspoiled end of terrace Victorian family house in Ealing into two flats. He was explaining how to conceal the panelling on the pine doors by sticking slabs of hardboard over them. After that he demonstrated how to rip out carved ornamental banisters and replace them with ranch style railings, again hardboard figured prominently. It was called progress and he was getting paid for it. I turned the set off.
“You don’t mind, do you?” I said. “Hitler could have used men like him but I can’t.”
“I never asked you to turn it on,” she said.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. She didn’t answer, but as I was very hungry I got up and went into the kitchen. I hadn’t been taking a lot of trouble to keep my larder well stocked. I looked through the torn, broken bit of the perforated zinc front to the meat safe:
Six medium eggs, about five slices of streaky bacon beginning to harden and curl, an open tin of baked beans and a packet of eight pork chipolatas.
“Did you ever read ‘Wind in the Willows’ when you were a kid?” I shouted to her.
“That’s an English story isn’t it?” she replied. It was her way of saying no.
“Yeah. It’s about a group of animals. A rat, a mole, a toad, a badger, an otter.... their adventures. But my favourite bit in the book is the part where the rat and the mole get lost and find the house where the mole used to live. And they go inside - It hasn’t been lived in for ages - and they improvise a meal out of all the things he’s got stored away. Can you imagine it - this little home, underground, all womb like, and these two little animals making themselves a feast on Christmas Eve?”
“Why do the English always have animals in their childrens’ stories? Either that or objects like railway engines. Are they that scared of reality?” She had got up and was leaning on the kitchen door.
“Shit scared,” I said. “Reality’s horrible, hadn’t you noticed? Why bring on the pains earlier than necessary. Reality’s a terminal cancer.”
“These two animals, were they both men?”
“I thought so. No wonder so many English are bent. It’s not just the public school system.”
I was getting a little irritated by this blasphemous treatment of a work of literature which I held in such reverence.
“Yeah, well the reason I mentioned it was because I think what I’ve got in this flat would make their spread look like Fortnum and Masons.”
“What have you got? I do feel rather hungry after all.” She advanced and I showed her where to look through the hole.
“It’s very nice, but I can’t see the little animal that’s meant to eat it. What did you say it was, a rat?”
I found some bread and started the fry up.
“When you do a meal like this,” I said, “... There’s a secret to enjoying it. You pretend you’re an escaped prisoner - RAF airman in the last war, Bolshevik revolutionary on the run from the Cheka... Whatever gets you going.”
“FLN freedom fighter on the run from the Paras?”
“Yeah, that’ll do.... And you haven’t eaten for three days. Then this peasant family takes you in. Needless to say they haven’t got a lot themselves, and at great risk to themselves and at great personal sacrifice they sit you down at their rough wooden table - In the middle of a forest, or the slums of Leningrad - and put this meal in front of you.” I slipped the plate onto the kitchen table in front of her.
“There you are, sit down. It’s the best meal you ever had in your life. Hold on, I’ll get the HP.”
She sat down and began to eat as if she really did believe the Paras were about to burst into the flat. It was a strange fantasy for such a fashionably dressed young lady. I made a pot of tea and got out two mugs. I gave her the Elizabeth II coronation mug to complete the effect.
“There we are. A real building site breakfast.”
She swigged at the tea like a navvy and I boiled up some more water and re-filled the pot. And as we sat and ate like pigs and swilled the lumps of egg and bacon and sausage down our throats with great draughts of hot tea, the barriers between us at last came down.
“So why are you all dressed up?” I asked between mouthfuls.
“We were going out to eat.”
“We had a row. We’re always rowing. He’ll be round my flat now.”
“Not bad for a Comrade.”
“It’s not easy to commute from the Gorbals.”
“You could try the Elephant and Castle.”
The rush hour traffic had long died away and we had finished our bean-feast, but we remained in the kitchen, the dirty plates in front of us on the Formica-topped table decorated with black specks of triangles arbitrarily spread over a white background to denote gaiety, fun, the good-life.
“Why did you get mixed up in this business Alex? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?”
“No, I didn’t know that. Is it?”
“Of course it is, Alex. That’s why Toby’s paying you.”
I chewed on this for a moment or two and must have frowned. She brushed the hair away from my eyes.
“You’re a funny boy. You’re all on the surface aren’t you? There’s nothing underneath.”
“Not very much. I find it too hard to get hold of.”
“Where are you from?”
“Nowhere really. We lived in London when I was a kid, but then we moved round the Midlands quite a bit with my father’s job. I don’t really feel anything for any place, except perhaps Cambridge, just a bit, and now London again, just a bit.”
“How old are you?”
“Hasn’t Toby told you?” I got up and got a half bottle of scotch out of a cupboard and poured a large measure into her tea and then into mine.
“Isn’t that a waste?” she said, but she drank it just the same.
“... Of course he’s told me how old you are... twenty two.”
“How old are you?”
“How old d’you think.”
“That’s right.” She could have been lying but it didn’t matter much. She was thereabouts.
“And where are you from?” I said.
“You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
She told me. I hadn’t heard of it.
“It’s a small town just outside Limoges.”
We both thought for a few seconds about our respective starting points.
“And here we are,” I said, always ready to state the obvious. Knowing where she came from was simultaneously singularly irrelevant and tantalizingly satisfying. If I’d had a map of France on the wall I’d have stuck a little flag just outside Limoges.
“How did you get from Limoges to Battersea, and don’t say the forty nine bus?”
“Have you got any more of that whisky?”
I poured some into her cup which she swilled round with the last of her tea and swallowed in one go.
“Bit more,” she said. I had a feeling it was going to be a long explanation.