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Authors: Francis Bennett

Secret Kingdom

BOOK: Secret Kingdom
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FRANCIS BENNETT

Secret Kingdom

To My Father

He dreams that Soviet tanks are racing through Budapest, along Androssy Street, across Heroes Square, down Kossoth Lajos past a burning tram towards the Erzebet Bridge, their shells blasting holes in the walls of buildings. Bricks and mortar pour into the street like waterfalls, a lethal storm of shattered glass raining down on the pavement, stonework exploding into fragments under the force of shrapnel and bullets. Fires burn out of control; there is smoke everywhere. He smells the burning and the diesel, the dust and the cordite. He sees barricades set up across streets: overturned carts, lorries, ancient bedsteads, broken sofas, old tyres, barrels and the red, white and green flag of Hungary, the Soviet hammer and sickle torn from its centre, fluttering from a makeshift pole.

In his dream, men stand in doorways or crouch behind parked cars, firing up at Soviet snipers concealed high above in occupied buildings; young people run out to throw Molotov cocktails under the tracks of the oncoming tanks, bullets racing after them as they regain the safety of doorways they left only seconds before. All around him is the noise of indiscriminate destruction, shells exploding, the insistent crack of bullets as machine guns spray the streets, a muffled roar as another building collapses, shouts of command, sudden cries of warning, cheers when a tank explodes, engulfed in a sheet of flame, and screams as the soldiers try to escape the inferno. And all the time he hears the cries of the wounded and dying, begging for release from their agony.

He watches the stretcher-bearers run forward to collect the injured and bring them to safety. He counts the bodies of the dead brought in from the streets, and hears the heartbreaking cries of recognition as relatives identify the corpses of husband, brother, son, wife, sister or daughter. Over the sounds of the battle raging around him, in the midst of the toppled icons of the Soviet occupation – red stars
dragged from the roofs of public buildings, the broken statue of Stalin in City Park, shattered Soviet war memorials, torn and burning flags – he hears the single unifying cry: ‘Whoever is Hungarian is with us', as the people take to the streets to rid their country of its oppressor.

Then he dreams that Eva's body is brought in on a stretcher, her face white in death, blood soaking through her dress. That is when he starts to weep.

1

‘Press the bell when you want to be released.’

The heavy steel door closes. The key turns in the lock. She is alone in a dimly lit underground chamber. Rows of boxes and files tightly packed on metal shelves stretch endlessly before her. Each file is indexed, the only surviving record of the thousands who have vanished into thin air, their lives brought to an end before their time for invented and unproven crimes. Inside these archives lies evidence which, if there were any justice in the world, would hang the guilty. In this madhouse, the guilty hold the key to the door, while the innocent disappear and die.

The self-control she has exercised for so long crumbles. A nerve under her eye starts to hammer against her cheek. She has no right to be here. She is trespassing on closely guarded secrets. Carrying through this deception is madness. Perhaps, on the other side of the steel door, alerted by her nervous manner, the archivist who let her in is examining her forged permission, telephoning his superior at the Ministry, asking for checks to be made, authorities confirmed. How can she ever have imagined she could get away with it? Her instinct is to press the buzzer and run as far as she can from this hateful place before she too becomes a number on a file.

With an effort of will she reminds herself that she has set herself a task and that she must find the courage to complete it. The hammering nerve slackens its assault.

Row M/977B. The numbers are hard to read in the half-light. She walks slowly past the metal racks. Row E. Row G. Row M. She reaches for a box on a high shelf. How light it is. Is this what our lives reduce to, a few sheets of paper in what looks like an old shoebox?

Julia’s
file.

It should be a moment of triumph. After weeks of anxious preparation she has in her hands the document that will tell her how Julia died. She is overcome with apprehension. The moment brings with it no elation, no sense of triumph, only trepidation. Never once has she imagined opening the file and examining its contents. Maybe she will learn things she doesn’t want to know. Maybe illusions she has cherished will be destroyed. Has she the strength to confront the truth of what happened to Julia? To return the file to its box unread would be to side with the betrayers and leave their victims unredeemed. That is why she has risked so much to be here. She must keep faith with the missing and the murdered.

She opens the file that documents the final weeks in the life of Julia Kovacs.

Date of birth: 27 May 1921

Age: 34

Place of birth: Vesprem

Profession: interpreter (English/Russian)

Marital status: widowed

None
of
this
is
true.
She reads on with mounting horror, the nerve in her cheek beating as fast as her heart. How can this be Julia’s file? She checks the name on the cover to make sure she has not made a mistake.
Julia
Kovacs.

She
was born on 27 May. Julia’s birthday is in December, and she is eighteen months older than Eva. Vesprem is
her
home town. Julia was born in Budapest.
She
is an interpreter. Julia taught Russian in primary school. She was married once, briefly, though she doesn’t think of it as a marriage; it is hardly a memory, existing only as a record on a file somewhere. Julia never married.

She can barely read the poorly typed page because of her tears. She wipes her eyes, her fingers leaving wet dust marks on her cheeks. This is not Julia’s life she is reading about.
It
is
her
own.
The names have been switched. Eva Balassi has become Julia Kovacs. She is alive and Julia, her Julia, is dead. For reasons she can neither explain nor understand, someone has decreed that Julia, her closest friend, should die in her place.

Overwhelmed by what she has discovered, she presses the bell to be released from this chamber of horrors and hears its echo sound in her head, like an alarm.

2

Martineau opened his eyes in time to see the stork swoop elegantly over the garden, the feathers at the tips of its wings modulating gently in the warm swirl of summer air. Its movement was like the sweep of a painter’s brush, a single mark across the sky, perfect in its natural simplicity. He reached for his binoculars, went into the house and climbed the ancient ladder into the loft. From this vantage point he could see everything without being seen. That was what he loved – to be alone up here, watching birds. How many hours of his childhood had he spent on the Norfolk marshes spying on gulls, tern and red-clawed oystercatchers through his father’s Zeiss binoculars?

He swept the viewfinder down the hillside and trawled the milky green surface of the lake, past the steamer making its sedate way across the water, the sails of boats hardly moving in the still morning air. There, on the far side, stood the menacing columns of smoke pouring out from the tall factory chimneys (the horrors of Soviet-inspired industrialization). He lifted the binoculars back up again towards the grey hills in the distance.

Nothing.

The bird had vanished, a vision of beauty and grace that had come and gone in an instant, like so much else in his life. Glimpsed, but not possessed. Never quite his. What an epitaph.

He stopped. There below, on the lower slopes of the hill, he could see through his binoculars two bodies, naked, sunbathing in a garden. He was transfixed. Two women, lying on their stomachs, side by side on a red rug, one of them younger than the other (her body was thinner, less developed). A mother and daughter. It was the mother’s body that attracted him. Brown all over – her back, her rounded bottom, her strong thighs, her calves, all a uniform tan – she had a full body that was used to lying naked in the sun.

Suddenly they were on their feet, waving their arms in wild windmill gestures, dancing round each other. He could see their lips moving, silent shouts as they beat off an invisible winged creature. Then a scream. Could he really hear its faint echo, or was it his imagination? The mother bent backwards, holding the top of her thigh with her hand and hopping in pain. She had been stung. The
daughter laughed. The mother slapped her face with her free hand. The daughter screamed. The mother ran indoors. The daughter followed, sulkily. The garden was suddenly empty, but the imprint of that tanned body fixed itself in his mind.

Two transient images of perfection in one day. Not bad going.

3

‘How long do you say your son’s been missing, Mrs Leman?’

‘Four weeks.’

‘In that time you’ve had no letters? No telephone calls? No messages from friends?’

‘No.’

‘No communication of any kind?’

‘Nothing. No.’

Why were these English so afraid to look you in the eye? His glance never met hers, not once. He’d smiled when she came into the room because he had been taught that was what you did when you greeted someone, but he hadn’t noticed her and he hadn’t looked at her again. If she met him in the street tomorrow, he wouldn’t have the first idea who she was.

‘Where was your son going?’

‘To Vienna.’

‘Do you know if he got there?’

Light blue eyes, white face, long yellow hair. His appearance was so pale he hardly made a mark. He was younger than her dark-haired Joe, too young to conceal his indifference.

‘After he leave London we don’t hear from him again. He disappear.’

He didn’t believe her. No one believed her. She was an old woman making trouble. Manny had as good as said that when he’d refused to accompany her to this building filled with these superior people. ‘I don’t know how to speak to them, do I?’ He’d made light of her anxiety about Joe in order, she imagined, to conceal his own. Manny was never one to face the realities he feared.

‘I have here, Mrs Leman,’ the young man was saying, ‘a list of all the British citizens who have had some call on the Viennese police in the last three months. This is a list of all Britons admitted
to any hospital in Vienna during the same period. Your son’s name is not to be found on either of them.’

‘What does that mean?’ she asked, knowing before he said it what he would tell her.

‘It means, Mrs Leman, that we’ve done all we can and have drawn a blank.’

Something had happened to Joe, that’s what her instinct told her. The difficulty was, without evidence to support what she knew in her heart to be true, no one would do anything that lay outside the strict rules by which they worked.

‘We’ve exhausted all the formal avenues open to us,’ the young man was saying. ‘I’ll alert our people in Vienna and ask them to keep a lookout. That’s about it, really.’ He smiled his brief obligatory smile but avoided her eyes. ‘I’m sorry I can’t do more.’

‘Maybe Joe in some other city?’

That’s why they’d heard nothing. They were looking in the wrong place.

‘What other city did you have in mind?’

Vienna to Budapest. How far was that?

‘Budapest maybe.’

‘Budapest is in a communist country, Mrs Leman.’ She could see she was trying the young man’s patience. ‘You need a visa to travel behind the Iron Curtain. I have here a list of all Britons who have requested visas to travel to the Soviet bloc since the beginning of the year. I’m sorry to disappoint you again, but your son’s name is not among them. If he was in Budapest without a visa, he would be there illegally. The Hungarian authorities wouldn’t waste much time in making sure we knew all about that.’

Give it up, that’s what he was telling her. You’re fussing about nothing.

‘We have a saying in this country, Mrs Leman,’ he said. ‘No news is good news. Usually in these cases,’ he added with a thin smile, ‘there is a rational explanation. All ends happily. I am sure it will in your case. You’ll be the first to know if we hear anything.’

4

‘Bloody Sovs,’ Martineau said as he burst in through the door. ‘The bastards are up to something, I’m sure of it.’ He stopped and looked at Hart. ‘Hello, we’ve not met. I’m Bobby Martineau, but you’d probably guessed that.’

‘Hugh Hart.’

‘Welcome to Budapest.’

They shook hands.

‘Would you believe it?’ Martineau said breathlessly. ‘Unscheduled Aeroflot flight arrives early this morning. Soviet embassy cars lined up on the tarmac like tarts on a street corner. Police everywhere. Some Kremlin bigwig steps out and is whisked away before I can get a snap of him. Now my Borises are chasing their tails trying to find out who the hell’s come into town.’

The man was nervous, unsure of himself. Talking too fast and not standing still. Not at all what he’d expected.

‘We’ve had too many Kremlin bods popping in and out in the last few weeks for my liking. Unscheduled arrivals invariably spell trouble.’

‘What kind of trouble?’

The question appeared to catch Martineau on the hop, as if he was not used to anyone interrupting the flow of his thoughts. ‘I ought to give you a briefing, oughtn’t I? That’s what you’re expecting. Park yourself somewhere and I’ll tell you what I know.’

He took out a cigarette and lit it, his hand shaking, while Hart found somewhere to sit. ‘I’m sorry. Do you?’

Hart shook his head. Martineau blew out smoke and for the first time smiled. He was not as tall as Hart had been led to expect, regular if unremarkable features except for a thatch of unruly white hair and striking dark blue eyes. Middle to late fifties, probably, but fit, not much spare flesh on him. Hart could imagine him on the squash court or behind the wicket, a quick mover, nervously alert, never still for a moment.

There were growing signs of unrest in the country, Martineau was saying, public anger against the excesses of the government barely suppressed. ‘You probably boned up on all this before you left,’ he added, suddenly apologetic. ‘So I’m not telling you anything new.’

‘No, no, please go on,’ Hart said. Merton House hadn’t been as rich in information on Hungary as he’d expected.

‘The prime minister’s clamped down on what the Soviet-inspired press here called the “rightist opportunism” of the previous regime, much-needed reforms put in place by his predecessor. Rakosi is Moscow’s man and Moscow supported his ousting of Nagy. In his enthusiasm to please his bosses in the Kremlin he’s pushing up against the limits of what his own people will tolerate, and that’s dangerous.’

‘Any chance he’ll back down?’ Hart asked.

‘God knows. But if someone doesn’t take some avoiding action soon, there’s bound to be a collision, probably before the end of the summer. That’s what the hairs on the back of my neck tell me. If I’m right, it won’t be a pretty sight to watch.’

‘What will happen?’

‘My guess is, the people will take to the streets, demand their freedom from Soviet control and the removal of Rakosi.’

‘Will they succeed?’

‘Bare Hungarian hands against the firepower of the Soviet military? Not much doubt about who’d come out on top.’

‘Would the Kremlin risk a bloodbath?’

‘What’s the alternative? The Soviet system operates on the simple code of total control. It can’t allow secession. If you let one satellite go, you risk letting them all go. The word for tolerance doesn’t exist in their vocabulary. Their need to keep Hungary within the borders of their empire will justify any means they care to use. I’m sorry to be so pessimistic on your first day, but I believe we’re heading towards a crisis here.’

He got up, stubbed out his cigarette and his mood changed.

‘I’m clearing a space for you. This is your desk. I’ve emptied drawers, found a chair and got it mended – though treat it with care, it’s an old faithful, not long for this life, I fear.’

‘What did my predecessor sit on?’ Hart asked out of curiosity.

Martineau grinned. ‘You don’t have a predecessor. You’re my first and only assistant. I’m delighted to have you here, though; I must confess your presence is probably as great a surprise to you as it is to me. All I can assume is that I must have done something right for once, and you’re my reward.’

5

Anna didn’t bother to look for the key because Joe never kept anything locked. Sure enough, his briefcase opened at her touch. She tipped the contents out on to the bed and searched through old copies of
Commentary,
cuttings from newspapers, some unpaid bills (she put those on one side to be dealt with later), bus tickets, his membership card to the London Library, a brown-covered Penguin of E. V. Rieu’s translation of the
Iliad,
two pencils and an unused reporter’s notebook.

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