This is another fictional short story, of just over 2000 words.
Oliver had always known that one day he might read the message. He checked the personal column every morning, and it was never there. On the few occasions when he had not been able to get a copy of The Times, or had been unavoidably distracted, there was always that nagging worry in the back of his mind that this might have been the day.
Well today had been the day. He checked it over and over. One line, in bold type, something he had never actually believed would happen, staring back at him from the page crammed with text. It had to be for him, there was no chance that it was a coincidence. It was obvious to anyone who understood the way things like this worked, that was certain. But they wouldn’t know it was him. Not yet, anyway. He had some time, but he would have to hurry. As he stood up from the desk, he checked one last time. There was no mistake. It clearly read, Mishka, Call home.
He used the phone box on the Embankment. It was one that he felt safe enough to walk to, away from prying eyes. He had told Janet that he was just popping out for a while. She checked the diary as he walked past her desk. “Next meeting at 11.30”, she reminded him. He waved as he left the office. There would be no more meetings for him, and Janet would never see him again. The note was where he had expected it to be. There would be one in each of his three phone boxes, and the other two would be removed later, by someone he had never met. He scanned the familiar code, then tore the note into pieces, and dropped them into the river as he walked toward the bus stop. No taxi, that could be checked. Underground trains were no good, too easily trapped. A bus would be best. His mind was racing, he only had three hours, but that should be long enough.
Oliver came from what was called a ‘good family.’ He was bright, and learning was something that came easily to him. A good school, followed by one of the lesser Oxford colleges, studying languages. Things were very different back then. The world seemed to be in turmoil, and some of that was reflected inside Oliver’s mind. His comfortable parents, sipping gin and tonic as they watched the Vietnam War on the news. Vacuous girls pretending to be feminists, but working on a good marriage behind the scenes. Everything was crumbling, and he lived in a place that still talked of Empire, where people dressed for dinner, and holidayed in Tuscany. Workers trying to get decent pay and conditions were vilified in the press, and Macmillan’s cry of ‘We never had it so good’ fifteen years earlier only seemed to Oliver to apply to those who had always had it good. He was ashamed of it all, and of himself.
Nobody would have understood him though, so he kept quiet, and played the game as expected. A surprisingly good degree, and family contacts, secured a place in the Foreign Office. He wore the right clothes, said the right things, and slowly made his way up the ladder, making sure not to attract undue attention. He knew that the approach would be made, and it was. Over drinks at Sir Gerald’s club, he was asked how he felt about a move to the security services. He had served his time in the current job, and his languages would be very useful, especially his fluent Russian and German. He accepted the post, and started the following month.
It was nothing like he had expected. We watched them, they watched us, everyone seemed to know everyone else, and the constant flow of movement reports, contacts met, and telephone conversations made for repetitive reading. He checked the original recordings against the translations, looking for anomalies that might suggest codes or ciphers. That wasn’t really his area, but if he was at all suspicious, he sent it off to another office, where it was checked again. The daily meetings went over the same old stuff. Persons of interest were assigned ridiculous code names, and their comings and goings explored in minute detail. A field officer would stand in front of a row of photographs, reading from his notes. “Plato went to the usual place in Bayswater, where he met with Julius for forty minutes. Later on, he returned to the legation, and did not leave.” Oliver’s boss and the others from the office would listen intently, as similar snippets were read out over the next hour. Day after day, the same meaningless routine. There had to be more to it, surely? And there was.
Once he was established, things happened fast. His marriage to Diana was a formality really. They had been introduced at a country house party. She came from old money, and had a name that could be traced back to the Normans. She had been to all the right places, knew how to behave in company, and how to give a good dinner party. After a year of occasional meetings, and trips to the theatre and ballet, the date was announced, and the wedding was held in Westminster’s Caxton Hall. Oliver moved from his comfortable flat in Pimlico into their new family home in Hampstead, a gift from his in-laws. As soon as he was married and deemed to be settled, Sir Gerald summoned him once more. He was going up in the world, and would finally be allowed to become a major player in the organisation. He would manage his own team, and control a sizable network of double agents. In the new office, he met Janet. She would be his secretary, as well as personal assistant, and help him through the transition. He looked at the files on his desk, recognising many of the code names and faces from the photographs. Most of those people followed and monitored so closely in his previous job actually worked for us, he had been told. It was his job to collect their information, and pass it on to those who could make use of it.
Contacting the other side had been ridiculously easy. Using the same network as the rogue agents under their control, he had supplied them with a few names, offering these small sacrifices just to prove his goodwill, and to verify his position of importance. He would balance things out, he told himself. Give the so-called ‘opposition’ a fighting chance to stay in the race. When Diana had the twins, she got in both a nurse, and a nanny. With a housekeeper, and an occasional cook, the Hampstead house, large as it was, felt crowded now. Oliver managed to get out more, using work as an excuse. He was able to arrange encounters with his new controller, although he never met anyone else, just Alex. These chance meetings might have appeared random, but the system worked, and was well-rehearsed. He gave them names, and in return, received names back. People disappeared, new people arrived to replace them, and it all started over again. His boss was ecstatic, and Sir Gerald even proposed him for membership of his club. Behind closed doors, in rooms filled with cigar smoke, they congratulated themselves. Oliver had been a good choice. He was definitely the right man for the job.
Then it all started to go wrong. Gorbachev was making overtures to the West, and the rules were changing fast. One fateful night, Oliver heard that the Berlin Wall was down. People were flooding across the border, and the DDR was as good as gone. He made contact with Alex, who told him not to worry. “Keep calm, my friend. Things will stay the same, believe me.” He sounded certain, but Oliver was edgy. In the office, there was a party atmosphere, a sense of triumph. To the others, it seemed that they had won, and all the hard work since 1945 had proved worthwhile. The week that followed unsettled Alex even more. The changes in the Eastern Bloc brought in a flood of information, much more than they could ever deal with. Name after name dropped onto desks all over the building, as all the former members of both circles sought to gain prestige and position. Alex remained unruffled. “Nothing to worry about”, was the only message that Oliver received.
But Alex was wrong. And ten days later, the advertisement was in the personal column.
The exit strategy had been one of the first things discussed. He should leave the newspaper on his desk, and walk out, taking nothing but his coat. Act casual, tell his secretary when he would return, and go straight to one of his message drops. On no account was he to go to his house, contact his wife, or any family member or friend. He didn’t have to worry about a passport, as he wouldn’t need one. Money would be supplied too, so no banks. Buy nothing, go into no shop, or public building. Go straight to the destination on the message, and meet the contact described. It sounded easy enough. Walking away from your home, your wife and children, everyone you have ever known, and a country that you can never return to. The alternative was unthinkable though. Shame, prison, perhaps worse. No big moment in court, no brave speeches to stir the hearts of sympathisers. Months of interrogation followed by an ignominious death, and all traces of you removed from history. Not an option.
The bus took him east, and he stayed on until the terminus. There was no time to wait for more buses, so he took an unlicensed cab from the premises on the nearby High Street. He asked how much it would cost, making sure that he had enough cash in his wallet. At the docks, he showed his identity card to the security guard to gain access. It was a gamble he was willing to take, and the man didn’t note anything down anyway. He was used to these characters moving around the ships, and it made him feel part of something important. He found the freighter easily enough. He checked the Cyrillic letters at the stern. Gorky, named after the city, not the writer. The seaman was where he was supposed to be, and the well-dressed Englishman had been equally easy to spot as he approached. After handshakes with the captain, he was shown to a tiny cabin below deck, where he would stay for the duration of the voyage.
The trip from Murmansk to Leningrad had been uneventful. His new best friend, Anatoly, treated him like visiting royalty, and enjoyed practicing his English during hours of mindless chatter. At the ministry, he was welcomed officially, and photographed beside rows of old men with too many medals on their chests. A young woman introduced herself as Katya. She was only about twenty-five years old, but managed to look as if there was little or nothing feminine about her. She went through some details with him. He would be taken to his apartment soon, and settled in. Everything he needed would be there, and as well as clothing and toiletries, there was also a telephone and a TV. As he now had the rank of a major in the KGB, he would receive a salary, and that would all be explained later. He would be collected tomorrow morning, for a flight to Moscow. There would be a press conference, and an interview on state television. She would discuss the itinerary during the trip.
That evening Oliver looked around the tiny apartment. The bed was in the sitting-room, and the tiny kitchen only separated from that by a flimsy partition. The bathroom was damp and musty, and the central location meant that noise from the street was intrusive. Tomorrow, it would all be out. They would be searching the house, Diana and the girls would be in tears, and heads would be rolling in his department. He opened the large window, and looked across at the grey waters of the Neva River. It felt like snow would arrive soon, and he wrapped his cashmere overcoat around his body.
He had never felt so cold in his life.