This is the first part of a fiction serial, in 768 words.
As usual, I was wading through some translation when the owner made an unexpected appearance at the opening of my tiny cubicle. “Er… Martin, isn’t it? I have a job for you, Martin. Get some money from petty cash, you’re going to Hastings. You will need to go home first and pack some things for a couple of days, come and see me when you have finished whatever you are doing now”.
Colin Magee rarely surfaced in the general office. The only times I could remember seeing him were when he interviewed me for the job, and when he gathered everyone together to tell us we were not going to get a pay rise for two years. Small publishers like ours were fast-becoming a thing of the past, and finance was almost impossible to come by, according to him at the time.
Still, I was pleased to get a break from translating what was possibly the world’s most boring Russian novel, something about an alcoholic rehab centre in Arkhangelsk. If anyone had ever bought an English language copy of that in hardback, I would have eaten all those unsold. In his office, Magee showed more of his tightwad nature.
“You will purchase a return train ticket with the petty cash money, and get a receipt. You have been booked into a pub in the old town. We will pay the bill directly, so just breakfast and evening meal for you. No extras on the bill please, and any drinks have to be paid for. You can walk to the address from the station, no need to get a taxi. I take it you have a phone that records speech and video, so make sure it is charged up and take your charger. I need this job recorded”.
I was still standing in front of his untidy desk when he picked up a piece of paper and scanned it quickly.
“We have received a letter from an elderly lady. She says she has something for us, a story that will make a good book. She doesn’t want to write it though, so there is no manuscript. Apparently she was a British spy, back in the Cold War days. Spent most of her life as a prisoner of the Soviets before being released long after Perestroika. She has papers that prove it, according to her, and many of them are in Russian, hence why you have to go and interview her. If you think it’s worthwhile, you get the job of writing the book, and your name will be on the cover. Luckily, she doesn’t want any money for her story, so it won’t cost us much to see if it’s worth working on. You had better get going, she’s expecting you late afternoon”.
After four years in my dusty office, the thought of a trip to the seaside to interview a spy was the equivalent of excitement for me. I forked out for a cab home, so I could get my stuff together and be on time for the 12:24 from London Bridge Station. On the way, I started to wonder what the hell I was going to ask her. I began to jot down some relevant questions, realising the importance of proving that what she claimed was actually true.
Reading her handwritten letter for the tenth time, I tried to imagine what Helen Renton was going to be like. Female spies were rare enough in our secret service, at least I couldn’t remember any. I wondered if she had ever known the famous spies of the Cambridge Five. It would be great if she had met them, adding another dimension to the story.
Magee had been right about not needing a taxi. It was a ten-minute walk to the pub, and I left my case in the dismal single room after asking directions to her address. It was literally on the next corner, the last in a row of clapboard cottages fronting the sea that were fast-becoming desirable residences in this previously run-down part of Sussex. But not her one, that was far from desirable. I could only guess at the last time any new pale blue paint had been applied to the wood, and the windows didn’t look as if they had been cleaned since it was built. Net curtains inside them were dingy and threadbare, and there were no decorative boxes or planters outside, as on the neighbouring houses.
Three loud knocks on the cast iron knocker eventually brought someone to the door. But the woman who opened it looked nothing like a spy.
Nothing at all.