This is the twenty-sixth part of a fiction serial, in 764 words.
Before I returned to Helen’s house the next morning, I went into a stationery shop in town and photocopied all the documents she had let me borrow. Although I had made comprehensive notes on all of them, hard copies were going to be more useful. I stopped for coffee and a wrap, then bought her two Chelsea buns on the way back to her street. When she opened the door, she seemed very happy, and pleased to see me. Before commencing the recording, I ate the wrap and drank my coffee as she demolished both buns washed down with vodka.
“I celebrated my sixtieth birthday in that place, Martin. I told Natalia it was my birthday, and she called me Babushka, kissing me on both cheeks. The next day, she brought in an embroidered scarf wrapped in some red paper, and solemnly presented it to me as a gift. I hadn’t had a visitor from the British Consulate for some time, so it was nice to be able to talk to Natalia like a friend. We spoke about the next new year, when it would be a new millennium. She told me I should have hope for the new century, and then gave me the bad news that she was being moved to another facility, because of being promoted to supervisor. She was going to be replaced by Anna, who had volunteered for the job of being my dedicated guard”.
Helen stopped to go into the kitchen and refill her glass. When she came back, she remained standing.
“Why don’t we sit in the lounge for a change? I have never taken you in there, which is remiss of me”.
Following her back into the hallway, we went into the small living room at the front of the house. It was sparsely furnished, and had a musty, unused smell. Garishly patterned small sofas stood opposite each other, with a formica-topped coffee table in between. On a small writing desk under the window, there was a fairly modern Dell laptop, and in the original fireplace was an ancient electric convector heater. I would have preferred to have stayed in our usual spot, but sat down opposite her and set up my camera.
“I suppose you must be wondering how I ever got out, and what I am doing in this shabby little house in Hastings? Well, all will be made clear. Three years after Natalia left Penal Colony Four, Anna came to tell me I had a visitor. The parcels had still been arriving, and Anna particularly liked to see the glossy magazines that sometimes came in them. But nobody had been to see me for almost four years. That new century Natalia had gone on about wasn’t proving to be very hopeful for me. It was Barbara in the visiting room. Her hair was turning grey by then, and she had lost a lot of weight. I also had grey hair, but unlike her, I was getting fatter on the stodgy prison food and the extra parcels sent in”.
She grabbed her belly, and squeezed it, to demonstrate the fat was still there. Then she lit a cigarette, sliding a large amber glass ashtray from the centre of the coffee table.
“Barbara was going home. She needed medical treatment, and had been posted back to England. But she said she wanted to give me some encouraging news before she left, and to let me know that a man named Desmond would be coming to see me in future. I confess that I was cold to her. After being dumped and ignored, left rotting in prison for so long, I could see no point in being civil in my dealings with those minor diplomats, Martin. Anyway, she told me that the Foreign Office had submitted a formal application for my release. Of course, they didn’t mention spying, just that one of their employees had been ‘mistakenly detained’. How do you like that turn of phrase, mistakenly detained? I had been in Russian prisons for forty-one years, that’s longer than a murderer gets in England. Now my employers were trying to have it written off as some kind of administrative error. Barbara went on to say that when I was eventually released, I would receive a lump sum in back pay, help with accommodation, and a full Civil Service Pension. She seemed to think that being financially well off should make me happy”.
Pausing to drink more vodka, Helen was shaking her head.
“All I could focus on was that she had used the word ‘eventually’