This is the fourth part of a fiction serial, in 774 words.
One thing Helen was surely right about was her ability to consume copious amounts of vodka with no apparent effect. She left the room briefly to return with a second bottle, not bothering to ask if I wanted any refreshments. It seemed that her only option for hospitality was vodka or nothing.
“Where was I? Oh yes, John. I rang him once I returned to the two-bed flat near Battersea Park that I shared with my parents. My mother was ill in bed when I came home from Oxford, but daddy assured me it was nothing serious. He was trying for a job with the education authority, keen to become involved with the new syllabuses. It slipped his mind to ask if I was going back for my Masters, so I rang John. The meeting was arranged outside the Foreign Office in King Charles Street, but when I got there, he walked me to Carteret Street, and we went into a nondescript building, then up to a large office on the first floor”.
She topped up her tumbler from the new bottle, and lit another cigarette in her holder. I had given up my game of counting how many she smoked.
“In that office he told me he worked for Military Intelligence, and that if I refused hs offer of a job, he would deny the conversation ever happened. To be honest, he made it sound very exciting. Very cloak and dagger. Do they still say that, I wonder? I was twenty-one years old, it was nineteen-sixty. We had teenagers, jazz music, even coffee bars in London. And I was still a virgin. The thought of returning to Oxford for more years of study didn’t appeal. John spoke of my linguistic abilities, but he was also very interested in my father. Being a known Communist and advocate of the Soviet Union, my position as his daughter would make me a very credible double-agent, John told me”.
I had to stop there to ask to use her toilet. Though once in there, I had cause to regret that necessity. It didn’t appear to have been cleaned since before I was born. So I did my pee, and got out quickly. She was eager to continue.
“I had few questions for Holdsworth at the time, as he laid it all out very clearly. As far as anyone was concerned, I would be working for the Foreign Office as a translator in Russian and Bulgarian. Although both countries were firmly behind the Iron Curtain, as Churchill had called it, there were still trade deals to be done, as well as many requirements from the Diplomatic Service. I would be sent to both Moscow and Sofia, ostensibly working as a translator. Meanwhile, I would be flagged as a possible recruit by the so-called enemy, because of my father’s connections. There would be training of course, and it would be in Scotland, at a facility used by the SOE during the war. If I said yes, I would be on the Civil Service payroll immediately, with a high grade and good salary. But I would have to leave for Scotland the following Monday. John left the room, to make a phone call. When he got back, I said yes.”
Looking at my watch, and feeling a yawn coming on. I stopped the recording and told Helen I was calling it a night. Her reaction was to refill her glass, and light another cigarette.
“Young people today just don’t have the stamina, do they? God forbid you would have to fight off the Nazis and the Japanese, let alone manage all those desperate years of the Cold War. Okay then, come back tomorrow. But not early, mind. I refuse to be presentable before eleven these days, as I need my rest”.
Her remark amused her, and she started laughing. That resulted in a hacking cough, which she tried to cure by drinking more vodka, and puffing on her cigarette. Once I was out of the house, the fresh sea air felt wonderful. I spent some time wandering around before returning to my room.
The next morning, I shared my breakfast table with two travelling salesmen who were trying to outdo each other by boasting about how many sales leads they were following up that day. After a mediocre, rather greasy full English, I went outside and phoned my boss, Magee. I left a message when he didn’t answer. It went something like this.
“I need to stay on in Hastings. Helen Renton is completely genuine, and I need more time with her. I’m sure we have a real spy story here”.