This is all 35 parts of a fiction serial. It is a long read, at 27,337 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.
We looked each other up and down before she spoke. “Martin Green, I presume. Come in”. Her voice was more like I expected. Channeling Keira Knightley in a Jane Austen period film. English upper-class, beautiful enunciation in just six words.
Her appearance was more Miriam Margolyes. Bra-less pendulous breasts that seemed likely to drop out the bottom of a too-short t-shirt that was stained with what I was sure was egg yolk. A creased denim mini-skirt that was about forty years too young for her, and thick navy blue tights with the left little toe peeping out through a hole in the foot.
Despite no other apparent make-up, she had a swathe of scarlet lipstick covering her lips that resembled the result when a little girl has been at her mother’s make-up bag. The thick dove-grey hair appeared to have been cut by placing a bowl on her head, and hacking off whatever was protruding. And the aroma of the woman was far from perfumed, unless anyone counts tobacco as a perfume.
I followed her down a narrow hallway into a back froom that my grandmother would have called a scullery. An original fireplace, two small archairs either side of a circular coffee table, and a kitchen beyond that looked just large enough for one person to stand in. It also appeared to lack any modern appliances on first glance, though I could see a large pile of unwashed pots and dishes in the small sink.
The room had one window to the side, firmly closed. Cigarette smoke had stained every wall, and the small ceiling too. There was nothing personal in there. No framed photos, no pictures on the wall, no clock or knick-knacks on the wide mantlepiece. The two-bar electric fire in the hearth was like a museum piece, and the rug covering the black-painted wooden floorboards was threadbare.
“Sit yourself down, and I will get us something to drink”. She returned with a bottle of vodka and two tumblers. I had been expecting tea. As I prepared my phone and notebook, she took a cigarette from a soft paper packet, and inserted it into a short plastic holder with a tortoiseshell design. Although I had never smoked, I did notice that there was no filter on it. Her lighter was one of those flip-top ones that you see in American films. A dull metal casing that reeked of petrol as she opened it. She made no offer of a cigarette to me, instinctively knowing I was a non-smoker, I suspect.
Next, she filled her tumbler to the brim with vodka. As she leaned over to me with the bottle, I put my hand over the glass. She shrugged. “All the more for me then”. The whole tumbler of alcohol went down in one large gulp, and she refilled it before speaking again. “Now I expect you are thinking I am an alcoholic. Perhaps I am, but you get used to vodka when you are in Russia for as long as I was. It doesn’t even get me drunk any longer”.
The only thing on my mind at that moment was avoiding the clouds of smoke she exhaled every few seconds. Though her remark did make me think about the book I had escaped from translating, and its alcoholic rehab centre in Arkhangelsk. I was wondering if she had ever been to that city.
“Let’s get started, then you can take me for dinner. I’m betting you are not on expenses for this trip, but don’t worry, I’m a cheap date”. I switched my phone onto record, and opened my notebook. She was already speaking before I had reached for my pen.
“It all began with my father. He was born in nineteen-o-five. Too young for fighting in the first war, but old enough to know why his father never came home from Belgium. My grandfather was from Scotland originally, moved south for a good job and better pay. Daddy’s name was Oliver Renton. Have you ever heard of him?” I shook my head and noted down the name.
“He had some books published; non-fiction history, political, that kind of thing. Didn’t make any money from those of course, which is why he stayed on as an English teacher. Then nineteen thirty-six happened. The civil war in Spain. He wasn’t married at the time, and considered himself to be something of a Socialist. So when they formed the International Brigades, off he went as a volunteer”.
Helen downed the second vodka, then sat forward. “I’m too hungry to talk any longer just now. Let’s go and eat, and we can do more after”.
To the relief of my wallet, Helen walked me the short distance to a seafront fish and chip shop that had some rickety tables outside. We went in and she ordered for both of us. “Cod and Chips twice, two large pickled onions, and two cups of tea. We will be eating outside, and the gentleman is paying”. As I waited for the food, she went and sat outside. Reaching into the pocket of her worn-out padded jacket for her cigarettes and lighter, she turned and called out to me.
“Just salt on mine, no vinegar. Tell them now, as they always splash it on without asking”. The tired-looking woman behind the counter smiled at me. She had heard Helen. The food was handed over to me in polystyrene boxes, with a plastic knife and fork balanced on top of each. They were added to a paper-thin tray with the plastic cups of tea.
Not waiting until she had finished her cigarette, my companion tucked into the food as if she had been starving for days, pausing only to puff on the cigarette between bites. Dinner table conversation was limited.
“Are you going to eat that onion? If not, give it here”.
It was much tastier than I had expected it to be, and I found myself joining her in eating far too quickly. When we had both finished, she didn’t waste time. “Right, let’s get back and continue”.
A tumbler was filled with vodka as she made sure my recording was running, then she carried on as if we hadn’t been out.
“Daddy was involved in the fighting around Madrid University. He hadn’t been in the country very long before he was wounded there, shot in the thigh. He did get good medical treatment, but his left leg was never right after that. Still, being wounded meant he was evacuated out of the city, and eventually found his way to Barcelona with a different unit. Then in thiry-seven trouble broke out in that city. The Anarchists and union militias ended up fighting the government, and the International Brigades were used against them. He thought the different factions should have been united against Franco, and all the in-fighting cost them any hope of victory. He went to Spain with Socialist ideals, and came back a Communist, and a firm supporter of the Soviet Union. Sorry, I need the lavatory”.
She was out there a long time, in the bathroom built on the back of the house. I doubted the original property would have had more than an outside toilet. When she returned, she downed what was left of the vodka, refilled the tumbler, and lit a cigarette.
“Before he came home to England, he visited Moscow with some others who had served in Spain. In thirty-nine, he returned not only with his political convictions set in stone, but also with a pregnant Russian wife. My mother, Liliya, who luckily had a decent command of English. Then the second world war broke out, and he left us to go and fight the Nazis, this time in the British Army. If he came home on leave, I don’t remember, I was only five when it was all over. I do remember him coming back from Berlin though. The forty year-old father I had never known. By then I had already started to speak both Russian and English, and he adored me. He got a job as a teacher again, very keen on the idea of all the changes happening to make education more equal”.
My phone needed to be put on charge, and she finished her drink as I plugged it in next to a side lamp.
“So you see, Martin. My father’s choice of wife led me to become fluent in Russian. And once I had mastered the Cyrillic alphabet, I quickly learned how to speak Bulgarian, helped by my mother. There was never any doubt that I would go to university, or that I would study Russian when I got there. My father was keen on me applying to Cambridge, but I had a preference for Oxford. That included Russian history and culture of course, but the usual trips students would take to that country were not so easy back then. Given my almost unfair advantage, I was in the top group, and received an oustanding degree. Daddy wanted me to stay on for a Masters, then do a PhD. My college friends threw a party after the formal graduation, and I was introduced to a man. Not in that way, you understand, he was quite obviously queer. He told me his name was John Holdsworth, and that he worked for the government. When he was leaving, he gave me his card, and stared into my eyes. I can still see him now, as he spoke these words”.
Her gaze left me, as she saw that moment in her mind.
“Come and see me in London, Helen. I have just the job for you”.
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”.
After breakfast, I headed into the shopping centre. Finding a branch of a chain of electrical retailers, I bought the cheapest video camera and tripod they had for sale. A basic model that I got the young salesman to show me how to use. While there, I bought enough memory cards to last me the week, perhaps longer. I had decided my phone wasn’t going to cut it. The recordings didn’t last long enough, and I had insufficient memory to store the hours of talking I was expecting to hear from Helen.
Besides, I wanted to get her speaking about it on some decent video footage. Watching her was going to be more convincing than listening to her.
On my salary, it was an unwelcome expense, but I had already decided that if Magee refused her book offer, I would write it anyway, and hopefully submit the video to a documentary company too. All I had to do now was to get her to agree to be filmed. Walking back to her house, I stopped off and bought some pastries, and a cup of black coffee for myself. It seemed pointless taking any hot drinks for her, as she only seemed to drink vodka.
Timing it to the second, I knocked on her door at exactly eleven o’clock. I was surprised that she answered almost immediately.
“Come in, Martin. What have you got there? Cakes? Oh good. I hope that coffee isn’t for me, can’t stand the stuff these days”.
She wandered off, trailng smoke from her cigarette. I was not expecting her to have suddenly dressed up nicely, but the sight of her in a pink dressing gown, barefoot and hair standing up, confirmed that she really was not bothered about what she looked like. Some damp strands of hair at least suggested she had showered, but I wasn’t completely sure about that.
Once we were sat in the two chairs, and her tumbler was filled with vodka, I showed her the video camera and tripod, asking for permission to film her. “I don’t care. To be honest, I had expected you to bring a cameraman or photographer from the start. Can I have that Cinnamon Twist? I love those”. I pushed the bag of cakes over as I set up the camera. She had eaten three of the four before I was ready to begin. I had to keep averting my eyes, after discovering that she was naked under the ill-fitting dressing gown, which kept gaping across her chest.
“Scotland. I think we had got to Scotland, right? Well, I had expected some secret agent stuff. Guns and things. Demolition charges, hand-to-hand-combat, Judo. You know, all the things you see in the films about spies being trained during the war. The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was the only woman, in a class of ten. We had two instructors, one was a military type, and the other one looked like a friendly bank manager. Both of them had been agents in France during the war, but you would never have known that from looking at them. John Holdsworth didn’t appear. I didn’t see him again for a long time”.
I wanted to ask her more about the training, but didn’t need to. She told me anyway.
“It was mostly about how you acted. You had to learn to be nonchalant, pretending you were over there to do your job, and knew nothing about spying. One day, they took us into the nearest town, and we had to follow each other in pairs, trying not to be spotted. Then we would swap, and try to avoid being followed. At the end of the day, the instructors told us what we had done wrong, and showed us how to do it better, with a role-play exercise in the grounds of the training centre.
Can I have that Belgian Bun if you are not going to eat it?”
Having to go hungry wasn’t a hardship. After all, I had eaten a big breakfast. I nodded, and paused the recording as she wolfed down the bun. That was followed by a vodka refill, and another cigarette.
“The spy bit mainly concerned microfilm. We were shown how to use the tiny cameras involved, and we had to do lots of practice at dead-letter drops. That could involve anything from using a newspaper left on a park bench, to passing a bank-note with a microfilm folded into the crease. But they were obsessed with following, and being followed. We had to do that over and over, until we could easily spot someone following us. Not that we did anything once we noticed them. We just had to know, you see?”
When she left to use the bathroom. I reviewed the video footage on the flip-out screen. It was great stuff.
“Being the only woman, I was also taken to one side and told how to act over there. I was to be amenable to flirting, but not to instigate any. There was a lot of talk about diplomatic receptions, formal dinners, attending exhibitions, and important meetings. I was to act like an interpreter at all times, be in the background, unassertive. They brought in a female former spy to talk to me about it, and I was amazed to discover that she had been operating in Paris all through the war. Her name was Letitia, and she had a lovely air of faded elegance about her. She had spent almost five years pretending to be a French noblewoman, entertaining German generals, and feeding back information though the network. I was impressed. If I could do a quarter as well as her, I would consider that to be an achievement”.
Helen paused to scratch her head violently, taking the opportunity to light another cigarette, and top up her glass of vodka.
“The day before I left Scotland for home, a young woman came to my room. She told me what I should buy in England before taking the flight to Moscow. I would need lots of pairs of stockings, as there were almost none to be found there except for awful woolen things. Sanitary products were essential too, as they were still in the dark ages where periods were concerned, apparently. Any decent underwear should be taken with me, unless I wanted to end up in a vest top and bloomers. And shoes. She suggested lots of pairs of shoes. According to her, women’s shoes in Moscow were clumpy affairs, and mostly made from fake leather at best. I would be travelling on a Diplomatic Passport, with some other Embassy staff who were changing over with those already in post. I would be allowed two good sized suitcases, and there would be no baggage checks at either end. I started to feel a bit special, Martin. Do you see that?”
I nodded to agree that I understood.
“The aircraft was a De Havilland Comet, very swish, and there were only sixteen of us on board. When we arrived in Moscow, we were met by a delegation who shook our hands and kissed our cheeks very firmly. It was a big deal for the Soviets, and one of the officials made a long speech, which I have to tell you was badly translated by his interpreter. They ushered us through into the terminal, to a function room laid out with delicacies and lots of drink. I was nibbling on caviar canapes and drinking vodka from large glasses, before being whisked away onto a coach with the others by one of the Embassy bores. They were not much fun those types, believe me. I ended up in a small apartment block over the road from the Embassy, the whole of which was rented by the British government. My so-called apartment was one room, a double bed, two chairs, a small table, and a basic kitchenette in the corner. A door led off that into a bathroom that had a shower over the toilet, and a basin that was so close to the toilet bowl, I had to pee sitting sideways. These days, they would call it bijou, or a studio flat, I suppose”.
She got up again, and returned with a packet of Jacob’s Cream Crackers, starting to eat them with no cheese or butter on them.
“At least it was bigger than my room in my parents’ flat, and I was so tired I slept soundly all night, even with no dinner. I had instructions to report to the Embassy the next morning at nine, and ask for a Mister Whittaker. George Whittaker took my fancy at first sight. Tall, smartly dressed, and with dark hair. He had an urbane manner, and reminded me somewhat of the actor Cary Grant, except that George had a rather large moustache. He told me he was a military attache, a euphemism I understood from training. I sat in his office giving him the glad eye as he ran through the list of my supposed official duties for the next month. Then he told me the reality, which that I was to go on all these interpreting jobs and keep my fngers crossed that I was approached by a Soviet spymaster. Once that happened, he would begin to feed me just enough genuine information to get them interested”.
Pausing to wash down a mouthful of cracker crumbs with half a tumbler of vodka, she smiled.
“Then he told me to go to GUM and buy a very warm coat and hat. He said, it is going to get very cold here, young lady”.
Helen shivered, as if remembering the cold of a Moscow winter.
“George was right about the cold of course, and I was grateful for his advice about buying a coat and hat. I bought some felt-lined boots later too, you wouldn’t believe how cold it gets over there”. I didn’t bother to tell her I had visited Russia many times. The least she knew about me, the better. I wanted her to talk about her past, not mine.
“I spent a few more days with George, on and off. I knew he was married, but I set my cap at him, fair and square. Do they still say that, set my cap? It meant I flirted with him, let him know I wanted him. I wasn’t always as you see me now, Martin. I was a curvy young woman, dark auburn hair, buxom, and desirable. It wasn’t for lack of offers that I had remained a virgin, believe me. I decided that George would be the one. His wife and family were still in England, so that meant there would be no complications. I didn’t want to fall in love with him, and certainly didn’t want him to fall for me and talk about leaving his family. So whenever we were alone, I flashed him a bit of stocking top, dipped my shoe off my foot, leaned forward too close to him when he lit my cigarette, that sort of thing”.
She sat back, and from the look on her face, she was reminiscing about some sexual encounter.
“Eventually, he just went for it in his office. It was all very fast and passionate, but he thankfully remembered to use a rubber. Do you even know what a rubber is? They call them condoms now, so I have noticed”. The second time was in his nice apartment, and that time I slept over. He was keen to discuss something, and once the sex was out of the way, he poured some drinks and told me about my first really important task. Shall we have an early dinner? Then I will tell you about that. I have something in the fridge, no need to go out”.
With Helen doing something in the kitchen, I took the time to insert a fresh memory card into the video camera, and put it on charge to boost the battery. She returned around thirty minutes later, carrying two plastic containers on separate plates. I took mine to discover it was a shop-bought lasagna, a portion big enough for a family, with an old dessert spoon plonked in it. I put it down and got the camera running. She had started talking already, between mouthfuls.
“What George had in mind was for me to make myself known to Vasily Semenov. He was a diplomat who spoke some English, and usually turned up at any important meetings. George was convinced he was a KGB bigwig, and he wanted me to become involved with the man, in the hope that he would approach me to be one of his agents. He showed me a series of photos of Semenov, mostly taken close to KBG headquarters. So the next time I accompanied the British Ambassador to a bone-dry dull meeting about trade regulations, I wandered over in a refreshment break and asked Semenov for a light for my cigarette”.
She stopped to shovel down a quarter of her meal in one gulp, then polished off half a tumbler of vodka.
“The thing that surpised me most was that Vasily knew who I was. He was very charming too. He introduced himself, speaking to me in Russian at all times. He knew my name, my father’s name, and was even able to quote some of the titles of daddy’s books. I didn’t let that throw me though. When the meeting was over I was free to go home, as the ambassador was being collected by his driver. Vasily touched my arm as we approached the stairwell, and invited me to dinner. Usually, embassy staff would not be asked, as they would have declined. But I was no ordinary staff member”.
Although the food was tasty enough, I could only manage half. When I put my spoon down and sat back, Helen grabbed my dish and ate the rest of it while still talking.
“I was wined and dined, ended up in his bed, and the next morning he told me he had a job for me, if I wanted it”.
As if sensing I had a question ready, Helen answered it.
“I was uneasy about Vasily’s offer. I acted shocked, and said I didn’t know what he was talking about when he asked me if I could gain access to top secret documents. I might have been a real rookie in the spying game, but I knew he was acting too quickly, and far too confidently. I told him I was just an interpreter, and he apologised. But his apology came with a smile that was so knowing, I immediately concluded that there must already be a spy in the embassy. When I told George the next day, he just chuckled. He said ‘You did the right thing, old girl. He was just chancing his arm. If you had said yes immediately, he would have suspected you were a plant straight off. No harm done though, now he will work harder on you’. Although I was giving George my best glad eye, he didn’t bite. After that, he never bit again. I had the sense that he had been breaking me in for Vasily, or anyone else he had in mind. Actually, I don’t feel so good, and I badly need the lavatory. Perhaps we can call it a night, Martin.”
Considering all that she had eaten, including the one and a half family sized lasagnas, I wasn’t surprised that she felt Ill. I tidied up my things and got out of there before she had a chance to dash off to the bathroom to expel her excess consumption.
Back at the pub, I sat in the bar writing a letter to Magee, my boss. I told him that everything was going well, that it was all down on video and my notes, and it would be a nice retro piece about Cold War spying. I didn’t use any names Helen had given me, and kept it short. Then I had an early night, although I had trouble sleeping, for some reason. The next morning, I breakfasted alone, as the only person appearing to be renting a room. As it was too early, I wandered along the seafront for a while, trying to imagine Norman soldiers making their way from Pevensey Bay, in 1066.
She opened the door on the second knock, and I was amazed to see her in full make-up, hair combed, and wearing a checked dress.
“I’ve been shopping, Martin. Got some milk, tea bags, and sugar while I was out. It dawned on me I haven’t been a very good host, so would you like a cup of tea?” I told her I would, and set up the video camera while she made it. I hadn’t expected her to join me with tea, and I had been right. When she put down a teacup with no saucer in front of me, she had a tumbler of vodka on her side of the table. After lighting a cigarette, she sat back, smiling. “Right then, let’s get going”.
Once the camera was focused and operating, I gave her the thumbs up.
“As it turned out, Vasily fobbed me off to one of his minions. His name was Andrei, and he was much younger. I quite fancied him, to be honest. It had been a couple of months since Vasily had made his clumsy offer, when Andrei walked up to me as I sat in a park, feeding the pigeons. He stopped in front of me, then smiled. He said he knew me as an interpreter, from meetings with the ambassador. I had never seen him before, but I pretended I had. He sat on the bench next to me, and told me that he was so sad that former allies had become enemies. His take on it was that each side posturing in the military sense, and all those issues about atomic bombs, were destroying the trust we had from forty-one to forty-five. I gave him a few nods of agreement, and mentioned that my father was of the same mind. Then Andrei asked if I would accompany him for tea and cakes in a place he knew nearby, and I agreed. Do you want a bacon sandwich, Martin? I’m going to have one”.
Declining the bacon sandwich, I waited while she made her one, listening to the bacon sizzling fiercely in the frying pan. When she came back and started to eat it, tomato ketchup dripped down her dress, apparently unnoticed by her.
“So that’s how Andrei became my KGB handler. And before you ask, I didn’t sleep with him”.
Helen’s face lit up as she continued.
“My first real job as a spy was to Leningrad. Such a marvellous city, have you been?” She didn’t wait for me to reply before continuing. “Colder than a witch’s tit, but simply breathtaking. The Winter Palace, The Peter and Paul Fortress, the inland waterways crossing the city. They used to call it the Venice of the north you know. I was supposed to be doing some interpreting for a visiting government minister, and George thought it was the perfect opportunity to lose my spying virginity. He passed me some tiny film negatives concerning British nuclear submarine plans. He said he had a good idea that the soviets already knew what was in the photographed documents, but my handing them over would show good faith”.
She lit a cigarette, and there was a long pause as she took a trip down her personal Memory Lane.
“The hotel was close to the River Neva, and I had the chance to wander around before the interpreting job the next day. It felt like a place I would loved to have lived in, the grand buildings reminded me of the time when it was built in the seventeen hundreds. Even all the soviet iconography couldn’t detract from the sheer grandeur. Of course, the outskirts had the usual dismal-looking housing, tower blocks stretching for miles, and queues outside shops, but the centre! Oh, that was just wonderful. The meeting I interpreted at was dull, but I spotted Andrei sitting at the back of the soviet delegation, pretending not to notice me. When it was over, I asked to walk back to the hotel in the twilight, and it was not difficult to realise he was following me”.
Realising her vodka glass was empty, Helen held up a hand and stood up to get a fresh bottle from the kitchen. That was my signal to pause the recording.
“I stopped walking near the Finland Station, pretending to fiddle with one of my fur-lined boots. From inside the top, I removed a wrapper from a stick of chewing gum. The microfilm negative was inside it. Carrying on without looking back, I discarded it casually. I knew that if Andrei knew his stuff, he would pick it up. Two days later, I was back in Moscow, a delighted George full of praise for my work. That was it you see, Martin. No shootouts, no drama, no street-light chases on shadowy cobbled streets. I dropped a piece of paper on a street in Leningrad, and became an accomplished spy. A child could have done it. Within a month, I had made five more drops. Leave your coat in a theatre cloakroom with the microfilm in one of the pocket linings. Collect your coat after watching The Bolshoi Ballet perform, and it had gone. Make a visit to the Moscow State Circus, use a coin to release the opera glasses in the seat in front of you. After the show, you replace the tiny binoculars with the negative on the stand. Simple, you see?”
I had questions, but she wanted to keep talking.
“Andrei didn’t make any effort to contact me during that time, though I saw him sometimes. Like the night at the Bolshoi, when he was in a nearby box with a glamorous dyed blonde. One weekend, I was wandering around window shopping and I spotted him standing by the entrance to a Metro station. He smiled at me, and when he was sure I had seen him, he turned and walked down the stairs. I presumed this was some indication I should follow him, and I was right. He led me a merry dance, changing lines, swapping platforms. It was all I could do to stay on the same train. Then in a station well outside of the centre, he got off and walked out onto the street. I followed him to a small park, children were playing on some ancient playground equipment, mothers wrapped up against the cold as they sat and watched their little darlings. He stopped next to a bench, pretending to tie his shoelace, then he took off his fur hat and wiped his head with his hand. As he walked away, I saw a small envelope on the ground and hurried over to pick it up. It contained ten American one-hundred dollar bills, a thousand dollars, Martin. That was a lot of money then, I can tell you”.
Inhaling her cigarette in what seemed to be the wrong way, there followed a fit of coughing that seemed to go on for some minutes.
“I had been paid for spying. That was my first payment!”
“Can you imagine my disappointment the next day? I had shown George the envelope full of money, and he took it off me and put it in the safe. He said, ‘we don’t get to keep the cash, old love. That wouldn’t be cricket now, would it. Unless you want to become a real double agent, and risk life in jail back in England’. I don’t know why it hadn’t occured to me that I couldn’t keep it, but when George said that, it made sense. Maybe we could end it there for today? I feel an early night coming on. There will be lots more to come tomorrow, and for some time after that”.
At my hotel, I had a message to ring Magee. He was not in the best mood when I finally got him at his home number.
“You sure about this old girl, Martin? I hope she’s not spinning you a line. I will give you a week, and want to hear something definite that convinces me she’s the real thing”.
The next morning, there was no reply at Helen’s house. After a few tries, I walked down to the seafront. It had turned chilly, and I wasn’t dressed for the cold wind. Deciding to give it another try at Helen’s I walked back that way. She finally opened the door, looking bleary-eyed and wearing a near transparent nightdress that left nothing to the imagination. “Come in, Martin. Sorry, I overslept this morning”. I followed her in, averting my eyes and hoping she was about to go upstairs and put on some underwear and clothes.
When she plonked down heavily into her armchair and lit a cigarette, I concluded that was not her intention. I hardly had time to get the camera running before she was speaking.
“Yes, the money. It kept arriving from Andrei, and George was still putting it in his safe. I had started to become obsessed with the idea that he was going to keep it, and that thought made me really irritated. Things were getting tense, because of the situation in Berlin. It was sixty-one, and the Soviets and East Germans were building a wall to divide the city. The gossip was that this was all some precursor to military action of some kind. George was whisked off to Berlin at a moment’s notice, and Andrei disappeared too, probably to the same place. That was when they decided to send me to Bulgaria. I was too new for the dramas in Berlin of course, and although I could speak and understand a lot of German, I wasn’t up to interpreting there. My Russian would be useless in that city, as the Soviets were not talking to anyone. I need a drink and something to eat, do you want tea?”
I nodded my agreement for tea, and took her time of absence to change the memory card. She returned with my tea, a tumbler full of vodka, and four slices of bread thickly spread with a good half-inch of strawberry jam. My scrambled eggs on toast for breakfast was looking like a decidedly healthy option at that point. She started eating, and carried on talking as she chewed the bread, sipped the vodka, and puffed on what was left of her cigarette.
“Oh, how I loved Bulgaria, Martin. It was warm, sunny, and so relaxed after Moscow. Sofia felt like a Mediterranean city, but the focus of our mission was on Burgas, a seaport and naval base in the east, on the Black Sea. In Sofia, I was shown in to meet Clive Hendricks. He was the equivalent of George in Bulgaria, the head of Security at the embassy, and one of the MI6 operatives concerned with the Black Sea. The Soviet Union was just across the Black Sea from Bulgaria, which had a direct sea route to Odessa. There was also a land corridor through Romania, which of course was friendly to the Soviets back then. Clive had established some kind of false trade delegation over at Burgas, and asked me if I would go there to be an interpreter and see what I could find out about Soviet naval deployments around the larger Black Sea ports. He attached me to his almost non-existent trade delegation, which was only made up of a couple of Foreign Office staffers who didn’t really have a clue what was going on. I went by train, and was shown to their office above a shop in the city of Burgas. They fixed me up with a one-bed flat, and told me to come back the next day to interpret”.
Standing up to reveal herself in all her faded splendour through the nightgown, Helen smiled.
“I need more food. I won’t be a second, I’m just going to get a bowl of cornfflakes”.
When Helen returned with a large soup bowl full of cornflakes, I was pleased to see that she had got dressed. Well, not exactly dressed, but she was wearing a knee-length cable-knit cardigan buttoned up, and some thick socks that reached her knees.
“I had these drying in the bathroom, Martin. Sorry about earlier. Now, on with Bulgaria. My target, according to Clive, was a Bulgarian interpreter named Desislava Todorov. She had come to notice at some meetings in Sofia, and Clive had information that she was interested in living in the West. As she could speak Russian and English, she had been used in many meetings, and she was going to take part in the trumped-up trade talks in Burgas that summer. Hendricks was sure she would be privvy to lots of information about naval activity on The Black Sea. Do you want to take your coat off?”
It was cold in the house that morning, and I had left my topcoat on after sitting down. I shook my head.
“Oh well, up to you. Anyway, I got to know Burgas before the sheduled meetings, and Clive had given me some information about Todorov. She was almost forty years old, divorced with no children, and during her time in Sofia she had been something of a socialite, appearing at functions, and being seen in clubs around the city. Due to meetings being rescheduled, I didn’t get to meet her until the end of August. It was a fiercely hot day, and the meeting room was only cooled by two fans. I was sweating like a racehorse before the Bulgarian delegation arrived. Then I looked up and there she was. Cool, calm, collected, and stunningly attractive”.
When she paused to spoon in four huge mouthfuls of cornflakes, I watched as the milk dribbled down her chin and onto the cardigan. She carried on without bothering to wipe her face, and the remaining cornflakes swirled around in her mouth like washing in a spin-drier as she spoke.
“It was hard to concentrate on my translation that afternoon. Every time I looked across the table, Desislava was staring at me. When she caught my eye, she smiled, and that made me feel a bit silly and girly. By the time the meeting was over, I had a big crush on her, believe me. On the way out, she put a hand on my shoulder. She said she was pleased to meet me, was looking forward to the next two days of negotiations, and that I should call her Desi. That night, my head was in a whirl. I had never been attracted to a woman in that way before, and it confused me totally”.
Then Helen raised the bowl to her mouth and tipped it up, to get the last of the remaining milk and cornflakes. Before speaking again, she let out a loud belch, and rubbed her chest.
“Sorry about that. For the next two days, I felt like I was in a dream. Desi and I kept grinning at each other across the table, and she was playing a game of not interpreting exactly what was being said by our side. I did some of that too, and it became our shared secret. Both of us knew that it was all nonsense anyway, as the whole pointless exercise had been set up to get us to meet each other. During the afternoon break on the Friday, Desi was outside speaking to me as we smoked cigarettes. She said that one of the Bulgarian men had asked her about me, and told her he wanted to take me on a date. That made us laugh, as the man in question was well over sixty, and weighed about twenty stones. Then she suggested I meet her that evening, and she would take me to a jazz club in a run-down part of Burgas. Of course, I agreed immediately”.
Standing up and carrying her bowl back into the kitchen, she asked if I wanted anything. I told her no, and put the charging cable into the camera to make sure the battery didn’t die on me. She came back with a tumbler full of vodka, and a fresh packet of cigarettes.
“We had such fun at the club. It was mostly outside because of the heat. Only the bar and toilets were in the small inner room. A couple of dozen others were sitting around at the tables, and records being played inside were audible on a speaker fixed to the wall outside. I got a bit drunk, and Desi got me up to dance with her”. Helen paused to light a cigarette, then gave me a knowing look.
“Luckily for me, they played a slow song”.
“After that dance, we walked back to my flat. Desi pulled me into a small alleyway and kissed me passionately. To this very day, that was my best kiss, ever. But she left me at the door, saying she had things to do the next day and had to get home to bed. As she walked away, she stopped and turned. She said she was going to take a week’s holiday in Sozopol, from the following Monday. If I could get the time off, she would love it if I could accompany her. She said it was a beach resort on the coast, popular with influential Bulgarians, East Germans, and Russians. She had already booked a room in a modest hotel away from all the grand places. Then she took a pen from her handbag and wrote her phone number on my bare arm, before saying ‘let me know soon, sweetie’. Early the next morning, I got the Foreign Office types to send Hendricks in Burgas a coded message. I think they were using short-wave radio, but I cannot be sure. Would you like anything, Martin? I am a poor hostess”.
I said I would have a cup of tea, and she returned carrying a small tray. It contained my cup of tea, a plate of Garibaldi biscuits, and a refilled tumbler of vodka. When I didn’t pick up any of the biscuits, she leaned forward. “If you aren’t going to eat those, I might as well have them”. She proceeded to demolish the whole plate of currant biscuits, each one washed down with sips of vodka.
“Hendricks was keen for me to go. He replied that I should quiz her about anything to do with naval movements, and promise to extricate her from Sofia. It was a four-hour drive from the Bulgarian capital to the border with Greece. They would conceal her in the boot of a diplomatic car that couldn’t be searched, and take her to Athens. From there, they would fly her back to England on a military flight, and give her a new identity. I was excited. I was going to be involved in repatriating my first foreign spy, and it didn’t hurt that I was crazy about her, into the bargain. I phoned Desi, and told her I would go to Sozopol with her. She picked me up in her tiny car on the Monday morning. It was a Fiat 500, with an open roof at the top. There was just room in the back seat for my case, and she kissed me openly before we set off. It was only a thirty-minute drive, but the roads were terrible. Full of potholes, and clogged with slow-moving trucks. It took over an hour, but then she stopped the car in front of a lovely small hotel overlooking the beach. Would you like anything, Martin? I am going to finish the rest of the packet of Garibaldis”.
I shook my head, making some notes as she went to get the biscuits.
“Of course, the room had a double bed. But in those days, nobody thought anything of two women sharing. We had a deal for bed and breakfast, and Desi assured me that she knew great places to eat in the evenings. She said we would fill up on a big breakfast, skip lunch, rest in the heat of the afternoon, then enjoy dinner and drinks when it cooled down in the evening. As you might imagine, there wasn’t too much resting for us in the afternoons. I won’t go into detail, but the love-making was nothing less than spectacular. That first evening, we went to the beach for a swim before changing for dinner. Desi was cagey. She said we had to keep our backs to the town at all times, and look at the sea. She said they used lip-readers with telescopes to see what we were saying. And we had to avoid any families with cine-cameras. They would appear to be filming their wives and children, but would really be filming us. Shaking her head, she said, ‘This town is full of KGB and Bulgarian Security Services, Helen. Don’t forget Bulgaria fought with the German Nazis in the war. They don’t trust us, those Russkies’.
I was making some more notes as she carried on speaking.
“To be honest, I was past caring. I knew I was in love with her by then”.
“For the next three mornings, we sat in the shallows, to get out of the heat on the beach. With our backs to the town, we chatted constantly. Like me, Desi was not just an interpreter, but a trained spy in the Bulgarian Secret Service. Clive had been completely right about that. She had been expected to not only spy on behalf of the Russians, but to spy on the Russians for the Bulgarians. I didn’t let on about my training at first, but when I needed to talk about her defecting to England through Greece, she guessed my full involvement. In my rather silly, infatuated state, I had conversations with her about us possibly living together in London, or another city back home. I would ask for a transfer to duties in England, wait until Desi had been debriefed, and see what happened. She was less convinced that MI6 would ever let that happen, but agreed it was a nice idea, and it was good to have a goal”.
Helen stood up to go and get something, returning with some paperwork.
“I thought I should show you these before continuing, Martin. I don’t want you to have the slightest idea that this is all bullshit on my part”.
Scanning the faded documents, I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck. As I translated them from Russian in my head, I made a decision. I told Helen that I was finishing for the day. But I assured her I would be back tomorrow, and every day after, for as long as it took. Taking my leave, I returned to the hotel. I stopped on the way, and made a phone call on my mobile. It took a while to get through to my boss, Colin Magee, and I soon shut him up as he started moaning. I told him I was quitting, effective immediately. He could keep my outstanding salary against what the hotel and expenses had cost him. Before he could splutter his outrage, I had hung up.
The next morning at eleven, I went back to Helen’s house with the video camera fully charged, a bag containing six pastries, and a black coffee for myself. When she opened the door, she looked the best I had seen her so far. Her cotton dress was a fetching dark green, her hair combed, make-up applied to her face, and she was wearing some tan-coloured tights and brown court shoes. It was as if we both sensed that we had turned a corner, and it was finally becoming serious. Despite her age and clothing, I finally had a distant glimpse of the young attractive woman she had once been.
Once I had sat down and started the camera, Helen ate two cinnamon whirls washed down with vodka, then lit a cigarette.
“Okay, let’s get started, Martin. Most evenings in Sozopol, we had been going to the same restaurant. It was a cellar bar that served food, and played Jazz music. Desi loved it there, and told me that on our last night that Saturday, she would treat me to a special Bulgarian banquet. During the day on that Saturday, we went to the harbour. There were some Bulgarian patrol boats anchored there, and a larger warship flying the Soviet flag. Desi had a Zorki camera, a rangefinder model, and she took lots of photos of me at the harbour, with that warship in the background. On the way to the meal at the restaurant, she mumbled that the Soviets were planning to site nuclear bombs in Cuba, and that it might cause a world war. She said she needed to get out of Bulgaria as soon as possible, and had lots more to tell us once she got to England. I was excited, as that meant she wanted to defect sooner, rather than later”.
She stopped to pick up two custard slices, holding one in her hand as she ate the other one.
When we got to the cellar bar that night, Desi greeted the owner, and we sat in a small booth. He produced various small courses that were all delicious, and we washed them down with red wine. As the night went on, and many customers had left, we started drinking Plum Rakia, the owner filling our glasses then smiling at us from behind the bar. Close to midnight, I needed the lavatory, and left Desi chatting with the friendly host”.
Lighting another cigarette, Helen leaned forward.
“When I came back from the toilet, Desi was lying on the floor with her throat cut, and the owner nowhere to be seen. Then the lights went out”.
“Something heavy hit me from behind, knocking me face first across Desi’s legs. I realised it was a man, his heavy weight knocking the breath out of me. He laid on me so I couldn’t move at all. In the total darkness, I was aware of someone else in front of me. He grabbed my head, pushed it sideways, and I felt a sharp pain in my neck. Whatever they injected me with knocked me unconscious instantaneously. When I woke up, I could tell by the motion that I was on board a ship. I must have been low down inside it, as I could feel the vibration of the propellers, and there was an overwhelming smell of oil or fuel of some kind. My head was pounding, my mouth dry, and I had wet myself. Taking of which, I need a pee Martin”.
I quickly made some notes during her absence. She returned with a refilled tumbler of vodka, and a family-size packet of Cheesy Wotsits. Before she started speaking agian, I had to sit patiently listening to her crunch her way through half the packet. When she put them down, her mouth was covered in the orange dust used to flavour them.
“An hour passed, maybe more. With no idea how long I had been asleep or where I was going, I felt disorientated. Then the upset of Desi’s death kicked in, and I started crying like a baby. When the metal door opened, it made me jump, and the lights in the corridor seemed dazzling, though they were actually dim. A man stood in the doorway, grinning. He looked Chinese, but when he started speaking to me in Russian, I presumed he was Mongolian. His accent was so thick, I hardly caught much of what he was saying, but I did recognise the words ‘keep quiet’. Then he plonked a metal bucket down by the door, making a squatting motion, and laughing. His teeth were almost all black, and his breath had a terrible smell, like meat that has gone off. He handed me two thick chunks of black bread, and a metal flask containing water that tasted lukewarm when I drank some. Then he slammed the door and left.”
Helen lit a cigarette, swallowed half of the vodka, then wiped her mouth using the back of her hand.
“There was no toilet paper, so when I had to use the bucket, I just had to use my knickers instead. It was impossible to get comfortable on the metal floor of whatever sort of room I was in. There wasn’t enough room to stretch out, so I presumed it had been something like a broom cupboard. I was too scared to be bored at first, but after what must have been twelve hours, the door opened again and a different man delivered the two slices of bread and flask of water. I was so hungry and thirsty, I wolfed down the bread,and had to force myself to save some of the water for later. That man didn’t speak, but he was wearing a uniform of the Soviet Navy. And the lights were off along the corridor, so I guessed it was daytime. I had wanted to ask him to empty the bucket, but he hardly glanced at me. After eating the bread, I must have managed to drift off to sleep, because I was woken up by the ship changing course, and the motion made me seasick. I had no alternative but to use the bucket.
Keen to keep going while Helen was in full flow, I raised my hand and paused the camera. I needed to use the toilet, and I was amazed to find it clean and shiny. Her contact with outsiders at long last must have provoked some embarrassment at her living conditions. When I got back, she was finishing the last of the Cheesy Wotsits, tipping the bag to get every last crumb in her mouth.
“Have you ever been seasick, Martin? Well, it was a first for me. I lost all track of time, and spent hours clutching that fetid bucket as I brought everything up. The next thing I remember, the door flew open, and there were two navy men there in smart uniforms. They shouted at me in Russian. ‘Get up, bitch!’ ‘Move when I tell you, English whore!’ ‘Hurry! Hurry!’. They dragged me up on my feet, and pulled me along the corridor then up metal steps like ladders, yelling all the time. I was in a huge port, probably early evening, as there were street lights on. My feet hurt on the deck as I had no shoes on, and when they pushed me down a wooden walkway attached to the ship, I almost fell over the side into the water”.
She blew out a cloud of smoke, aiming it at the ceiling.
“On the dock was a black-painted van. The sailors threw me into the back of it and slammed the doors. I looked up at a man who was sitting on a seat at the side. He was wearing rimless glasses, and his hair was cropped so short he appeared to be bald. Looking down at me, he smiled quite sweetly before speaking to me in English”.
She swallowed the rest of the vodka.
“Good evening Miss Renton. Welcome to Odessa”.
With Helen’s revelation that she had been captured and taken to Odessa, then part of the Soviet Union, I called it a day on the interview. I wanted to get back to my room, then go and get a decent meal. I told her I would be back the next day, but before I left, she produced another document. It was all in Russian, and dated in nineteen sixty-two. Years of carrying it around tightly folded had made it very fragile, but the typewritten form was easy enough to read. When I handed it back, Helen smiled.
“My transfer papers from Odessa to Moscow. They gave me a copy when I was moved. One thing the Soviets were very good at, record keeping and bureaucracy”.
I told her I would be back the next day at eleven, and took my leave.
The next morning I made the mistake of arriving fifteen minutes early, and was greeted by her answering the door wearing only some large white knickers, and with one arm across her bare breasts. “You caught me still getting dressed, Martin. Come in and set up while I go and finish getting ready, then I will make you some tea”.
She came back with my tea, and a tumbler of vodka for her. Her supposed ‘getting ready’ had consisted of putting a dressing gown on, and she hadn’t even bothered to secure it correctly. But I was used to her by then, and ignored the unwanted view as she carried on.
“The man with the rimless glasses took me to a prison in Odessa. It looked very forbidding with barbed wire on the walls, and searchlights sweeping the whole area. Inside, he handed me over to some female guards who looked at me as if they wanted to kill me. He smiled as he left, talking to me in English. ‘See you tomorrow, Miss Renton. Sleep well’. The guards frog-marched me along a corridor and into a shower and toilet block at the end. One ripped off my dress and bra, and the other told me to get under one of the showers. She handed me a bar of greasy soap that felt like a lump of lard, then turned on the shower, which was freezing cold. They kept telling me I had to wash harder, and they didn’t turn off the water until they were satisfied. Then I was given a skimpy towel, and about one minute to get dry. After that they pushed me along another corridor to a small room where they gave me a pullover dress that felt like it was made of sacking, some big felt slippers two sizes too big, and some knickers that almost came up to my armpits”.
Helen stopped to light a cigarette, then downed two large gulps of vodka.
“The older guard checked a clipboard and said ‘Solitary’ to the other one, who nodded. She told me to follow her, and led me to a cell with a narrow metal door which she opened with a key from a bunch hanging from a chain on her wrist. She jerked her head, shouting ‘Yours, bitch’. Inside was a bucket with a lid, and a new packet of toilet paper. They didn’t have rolls much then, just crinkly stuff in packets that felt like thin wallpaper. There was a blanket on the small bed, and one pillow covered in hessian material. On the window ledge below the high opaque window was a water jug and metal cup. The second guard appeared carrying a bowl containing a watery soup with bits of cabbage and some pork fat floating in it. She put that on the window ledge with a thin slice of black bread, then they both walked out and the door slammed shut. I had to drink the soup from the bowl, no spoon or anything. It didn’t actually taste that bad, except for being very salty. Which reminds me, I must get myself some breakfast”.
There was the noise of the microwave operating in the kitchen, followed by the ping as it finished. She came back carrying a large bowl full of scrambled eggs, and a fork. The bowl was obviously hot, as she had it wrapped in a hand towel. I asked if she had been afraid that first night.
“Not really. During training, we are told that torture or execution rarely happens to foreign spies, only their own ones. It is better to keep us alive, and to use us in spy exchanges later, when one of theirs is captured. I knew they would ask me lots of questions of course, and they might attempt to turn me, get them to spy for them. But if I kept my head and stayed focused, it should only be a matter of time before I was released during some negotiation or other. It was different for Desi. She was one of theirs, looking to defect. Once they found that out, her fate was sealed”.
Chewing a big mouthful of eggs, Helen seemed to be remembering Desi.
Helen was subdued the next day, but she was dressed and ready when I got there, and wearing make-up too. I had extended my stay at the pub indefinitely, settling the bill up to that date as requested. They considered me to be one of their regulars now, as I sometimes ate in the bar in the evening. Despite considering more comfortable accommodation, I stayed there because it was so close to Helen’s house. There was no tea offered that morning, and it seemed she had already been hitting the vodka hard before I got there. As soon as I was set up, she lit a cigarette and started talking.
“The next morning I was taken from my cell. No breakfast, no hot drink, just marched up a flight of stairs, and into a room. Seated behind a large desk was the man with rimless glasses, and a stern-faced woman who turned out to be the prison governor. Both speaking in Russian, they read out charges against me of spying for Britain against the Soviet Union. Then they added spying for Bulgaria against the Soviet Union. I said it was all nonsense. I was an interpreter, a Foreign Office employee. I demanded to see someone from the British Embassy, or at least be allowed to speak to them on the phone. Glasses man opened an envelope and laid out some photos on the desk. Me at Sozopol, with the Soviet warship in the background. Desi in the same spot, photographed by me. He said Desi was a double-agent, working for the KGB and also the Bulgarians. He accused me of trying to arrange her defection, put the photos back in the envelope, and shook his head. He said there would be no trial, and the British Government would not even be informed of my capture. For the first time since I had left England, I was really scared”.
Helen poured the last dregs of a bottle of vodka into her tumbler, and downed it in one.
“He went on to say that I was small fry, but as things were getting very dangerous over the Cuban issue, I might have my uses later, if exchanges took place. I was to be detained in Odessa until arrangements could be made for my transfer to Moscow. That was about it, Martin. No interrogation, no torture. But in many ways, that felt worse to me. I had vanished from Sozopol. My colleagues in Burgas, maybe even those from London, would guess what had happened. But what of my parents? The government would never tell them the truth, and as far as they knew, I had gone missing in Bulgaria for my own reasons. Whatever else happened, nobody would be looking for me in Odessa or Moscow. Sorry, I forgot to offer tea, I will get you some”.
She wandered off into the kitchen, looking all of her seventy-six years. Slightly stooped, and her skin pallid and wrinkled. I almost felt sorry for her at that moment. When she came back with my tea, she was carrying a bottle of vodka in the other hand. It was the first time I hadn’t seen her eating anything.
“They established a routine with me in that prison in Odessa. I was segregated from the Russian prisoners because I was fluent in Russian and they didn’t want me talking to them. For fifteen minutes a day, I was allowed to walk around the yard, but with no coat provided, that was awful once the weather turned. Once a day, they brought me a bowl of the cabbage and pork fat soup with one slice of black bread. Before I was allowed to eat it, I had to take my bucket to the shower room and empty it into the toilet, then wash it out in a big sink. By the time I got back it was lukewarm, but I devoured it out of hunger. I had a shower once a week, on my own once the other prisoners had left. No shampoo for my hair, just the greasy soap. No razors allowed for shaving my legs or under my arms, and when I had my period, they gave me a huge swathe of beige cloth and some strings to tie it on with. I was not allowed to read any books, or associate with anyone else. It was the complete definition of solitary confinement, Martin”.
She paused there, appearing to be upset as she remembered.
“After three months I was so depressed, I was contemplating suicide. I was always hungry, desperate for a cigarette, and I had lost so much weight I had stopped wearing my knickers as they fell down all the time”.
The tears came after that, and I sat there feeling awkward.
When Helen had stopped crying and regained her composure, I suggested she might want to eat something. But she shook her head and continued talking.
“I lost track of time. At first I kept pace with the weeks, using the routine of the shower to mark them. Later, I became confused, so had to use the changes in the weather out on the exercise yard to guess the time of year. For months and months, I had no conversation, so ended up having nonsenical conversations with myself. I had tried speaking in Russian to the guards, but they ignored anything I said. Then I began to find it hard to recollect faces of people I knew. Desi was first, and all I could remember was her mass of dark hair. When I started to forget what my parents looked like, I feared I might lose my mind, Martin”.
She poured more vodka, and lit another cigarette.
“Then one morning, they came to get me. I was taken to the warden’s office and given that form I showed you. It was my transfer to Moscow. I must have been in Odessa almost a year, as it was rather warm outside, and sunny too. Two soldiers appeared in the doorway, and the warden told me i was being taken to the railway station to be put on a train to Moscow. I was handcuffed to one of the men, and marched along corridors to a door leading to the outside where their black van was parked. On the train, I was surprised to discover we had a private compartment at the back of the train, in the last carriage. Blinds were pulled down at the window, so nobody could see me sitting there. The guards spoke to each other, but not to me. I asked the one handcuffed to me how long it would take, and all he would say was ‘We’ll be there tomorrow’. When I asked to use the toilet, he came with me, stood outside, and told me to leave the door open. Thankfully, he turned his back. When we had been travelling for about four hours, the other guard left the compartment and returned with a tray of hot sweet tea and three sandwiches. I had to eat and drink still handcuffed, but I didn’t care”.
Helen stopped to swallow half the tumbler of vodka.
“After the food, they lit cigarettes. I asked if I could have one but they just laughed at me. The one handcuffed to me blew smoke in my face. Then the other one stretched out across the long seat opposite, pulled his cap down over his face, and went to sleep. I wanted a cigarette so badly, I even considered offering some sexual favour to the soldier next to me. But why would he have wanted that? I hadn’t had a shower for almost a week, and I must have looked awful. I had not been able to see myself in a mirror since the day I was captured in Bulgaria. There were none in the shower block, and they hadn’t given me a toothbrush or toothpaste either. Can you imagine not brushing your teeth for almost a year, Martin? I had got used to the taste in my mouth, but my breath must have been foul. I had no hairbrush, and my hair had become tangled and matted, as well as growing so long it covered my breasts. Oh, I forgot, I have more papers to show you”.
She came back with some more documents in Russian, and I read through them as she drank more vodka and lit another cigarette. I was sure she might pass out, as she had eaten nothing, but she carried on as usual, with very little sign of the effects of alcohol.
“The man opposite sat up after about five hours. He went down the corridor to use the toilet, and when he returned, they swapped over, changing the handcuffs to his wrist. Then the original soldier lay down on the seat, faced the back cushions, and went to sleep. When he was snoring loudly, the man handcuffed to me turned and gave me a cigarette. I thanked him as he lit it, then I swooned as the nicotine coursed through my system, making me light-headed. That was one of the best cigarettes I ever smoked, Martin. Then I must have drifted off myself, and woke up needing to pee. The kinder soldier took my handcuff off, and didn’t make me leave the door open. Two hours later, the train pulled into a station, and I saw the signs on the platform. Moscow”.
“This time, there was no closed van. They had a lorry backed onto the end of the platform, one of those army-type trucks with a canvas cover over the open back. I had to wait until everyone had left the train, then they hurried me up to the lorry and helped me into the back. One guard got in front with the driver, and the one handcuffed to me sat on the bare foor in the back with me. I was expecting the Lubyanka of course. We had all heard about the KGB headquarters, with the fearsome prison attached to it. I had walked past it on more than one occasion when I had been working in Moscow. But they drove me south-west, past the State University, and out into the suburbs. Pause there please, I need the lavatory”.
Helen was gone for some time, long enough for me to consider knocking on the door to see if she was okay. But as I stood up to do that, she came back.
“That was a part of Moscow I didn’t know. Some light industry, run-down housing, and then we suddenly turned left. I didn’t see the prison until they told me to get down from the lorry. It looked like a prison in London. Large walls surrounding a structure that was probably built before the turn of the century. The soldiers took me though a side gate, handed over some papers to a man behind a screen, then unlocked the handcuffs. The man behind the screen told me not to move, and to look at the floor. Then as the soldiers left, he picked up a telephone and said something I couldn’t hear. I fiddled with the transfer document which was in the apron pocket of my shapeless dress, hoping they would give me something to eat and drink once I got inside the prison. But that was not to happen for a long time that day”.
She lit a cigarette, then poured some more vodka from the bottle. I noticed the label was in Russian, and read ‘Gorlovka’. It was a litre bottle, though I had seen Helen pouring from half-litre bottles previously. I noted that down in my notebook, as I was sure it was not readily available in Britain in twenty-fifteen.
“They put me through the induction procedure. I was taken to the showers, though this time they were hot. The soap was the same though. Then I had to have all my hair cut off. They used clippers, Martin. When I struggled at the sight of them, one of the female guards slapped me so hard it made my nose bleed. After they almost shaved my head, I had to strip for a medical examination by a nurse who was smoking a cigarette as she fiddled with me. And I mean fiddled with me, Martin. In any way of looking at it, it was sexual assault. Squeezing my breasts, fingers inside me front and back, and all the time leering at me, to let me know she was enjoying it. Then the guard gave me a new uniform. No bra was offered, but I got three dresses, three pairs of pants, some rubber shoes, and a scarf for my head. I was overjoyed when they issued me with a toothbrush, tooth powder, toilet paper, and my own bar of greasy soap. Have you ever used tooth powder, Martin? Of course you haven’t. It is abrasive, pink in colour, and tastes awful. But the thought of being able to clean my teeth excited me. How crazy was that? They gave me a towel too, and told me I would get two showers a week, with the towel changed every other week”.
She stopped for a moment to light another cigarette, she was chain-smoking now.
“One of the guards took me to my cell. It was still a bucket in the corner, and I was told that I could not associate with the female Russian prisoners. Fifteen minutes in the exercise yard every day, and I was allowed to choose one book a month from a trolley that was wheeled round. I cannot begin to express my joy at being told I could read a book, Martin. That guard also told me that I had to eat in my cell, and food would be brought to me. Before she had finished speaking, another guard arrived with a big glass of sweet tea, and a plate containing stuffed cabbage leaves covered in some sort of yoghurt, accompanied by three thin slices of rye bread. Hard to believe now, but I thought I was dining at the Ritz that night”.
She sat thinking for a moment before continuing. I had a feeling that she was deciding whether or not to add a detail. Then she did.
“The guard winked at me as she locked me in, and she said this. ‘The nurse likes you a lot. If I were you, I would ask to see her again”.
When I went to her house the next morning, Helen was back on form. She answered the door holding half of a bacon sandwich, with tomato ketchup smeared around her face like a toddler.
“Come in, I’ll make you some tea. I got up early and went shopping. Would you like a bacon sandwich, Martin?”
Saying no thanks to the sandwich, I set up as she made my tea. She came back in the room with two more bacon sandwiches on a plate, both leaking the red ketchup.
“The guards in that prison were more talkative. One who usually brought my food told me her name was Alina. She explained that I was on that corridor all on my own, and the guards all knew I could speak Russian and that I was a foreign spy. I denied that of course, and Alina laughed and shook her head at me, telling me not to lie. I asked her if I could have a hairbrush for when my hair grew back, and if there was some way of getting some fresh fruit, and cigarettes. She said that anything was possible, as long as I had something to offer in return. Of course, I had nothing of value, so gave up asking. Then on the fourth day, a guard called Olga came into my cell to take me to see the governor. As we walked to the office, she mumbled that she could get me cigarettes, but she wanted me to teach her English. I agreed of course, and she winked at me as we stopped outside the room”.
Helen paused to eat three more halves of her sandwiches before continuing, washing them down with her usual beverage of choice, vodka.
“Governor Makarova was an attractive woman in her thirties. Her uniform looked tailored and well fitting. She wore her hair in a bun, and had lots of make-up on. I had to stand in front of her desk, with Olga next to me as she spoke. She said that I was going to be detained indefinitely in that women’s prison, with no association allowed. I would be given a padded jacket for the winter, allowed books, and provided with one main meal a day, and one snack. Two cups of hot tea, and one flask of water daily would be all I was allowed to drink. I was expected to only speak when asked a question, and to behave impeccably, following any instructions from the guards. Failure to cooperate would result in being moved to a solitary cell, and dry rations. She said that proper medical care would be provided, and I could ask a guard if I wanted to see the nurse. Then she made me sign a document that I understood the conditions of my imprisonment, and handed me a copy. On the way back to my cell Olga whispered that she would bring cigarettes when she was next on night duty. But if I told anyone, she would say I attacked her and that would be very bad for me”.
Downing the vodka, Helen finished the last bit of her sandwiches, and slid her plate onto the small table. She refilled the glass from a bottle next to her chair. There had been no mention of how much longer her story would last, and she hadn’t asked how I had managed to stay on longer than arranged. I had bought extra clothes, and used a laundry service through the hotel. But none of that had seemed to enter Helen’s head. She had not asked one single question about me, my life, or my family.
“Before Olga rostered around to night duty, I got a bad toothache one night. Hardly surprising, after so long without a toothbrush, and existing on a diet containing almost no vitamins whatsoever. I asked Alina if I could see a dentist, and had to wait until late afternoon before she came to take me to what was a small hospital wing on the other part of the prison. They had obviously locked up all the regular criminal prisoners, as I walked there without seeing anyone. The dentist was a woman, and she looked like someone’s old granny. She had no assistant, and the chair and equipment looked like as if it hadn’t been updated since the nineteen-twenties. After a lot of painful scraping around accompanied by various profanities, the dentist put a rubber mask over my face, and knocked me unconscious with gas”.
Letting out a big sigh, and looking up to the ceiling, Helen suddenly leaned forward, and there was hatred in her eyes.
“When I woke up, that bitch had removed nine of my teeth, and scraped the others so badly, I couldn’t eat my dinner that night”.
Helen relaxed and sat back. She watched as I finished my almost cold tea, then continued.
“By the time Olga came around to her month of night duty, the weather was turning cold in Moscow. I was issued a padded coat, and a pair of big boots made of compressed felt. They are called Valenki, and are really warm. Mine were so big, I could wear the rubber shoes inside them and they still flopped around on my feet. But when I went out for exercise, I was grateful for everything, including the headscarf. Olga came into my cell around ten that first night, after turning on the light from outside. She sat next to me on my bed and gave me a flat packet containing eighteen cigarettes, and a small book of matches with a white cover. She said I should only smoke them at night, then hide them inside my underwear at other times. She also told me that if I tried to use the matches to start a fire in my cell I would spend months on the solitary block. The she opened a notebook and told me to teach her English. I started by translating the Cyrillic alphabet, and by the time she had to leave, I had taught her a couple of dozen basic words. It was getting light when she went, and she reached into one of her pockets and gave me a small bar of cheap chocolate. I broke off a piece and sucked it, but the sugar hurt my teeth so I stashed the rest under my mattress until my mouth had healed. Telling you that has given me a fancy, hang on”.
She came back in the room with a box of Mint Matchmakers. I shook my head when she offered some to me. Then she crammed a few into her mouth and was mumbling as she carried on.
“Olga was bright enough, though she struggled with her accent, which made some words unintelligible. But I persevered, and she was happy to keep going. During that month, I got lots more cigarettes, some dry biscuits, and a carton of pulpy orange juice. She also allowed me two books from the trolley instead of one. When I asked her for some fresh fruit, oranges or apples, she just laughed at me. She said I should know better, that there would be nothing like that in the shops until the end of next summer, and then the queues for them would be so long she would never have time to wait in them. Not for the first time, she said I should ask to see the nurse. She grinned as she told me, ‘she likes you, she will be a good friend for you in here”. The next morning, I asked Alina to arrange for me to see the nurse, and she didn’t even ask why. She did pull a grumpy face though, as everyone else had to be locked in before I could be taken to the medical block”.
More Matchmakers went into her mouth, and she filled a tumbler full of vodka to drink with them.
“It was around four in the afternoon when Alina took me to see the nurse. The woman told Alina to wait outside, then told me to get undressed. When I was naked, she produced a safety razor from a drawer and told me to use the sink in the room to shave my legs. She said I looked like a monkey. No, a chimpanzee, that’s what she said. I used the bar of soap on the sink, and managed to completely shave my legs. I didn’t bother about under my arms. Then she told me to run fresh water, and to wash myself. I’m talking about between my legs Martin, just to clarify. When I had done that she said I should lie on the examination couch. I suppose the best description I can give you of what followed is that she played with me for around fifteen minutes. Then she took off her uniform, swapped places, and told me to do what she had done. When that was over, she asked me what I needed. I told her cigarettes, matches, and fruit. She was very affectionate, and actually kissed me before I left, telling me to ask to see her the day after tomorrow”.
She lit a cigarette, and grinned at me.
“And that is exactly what I did”.
“Well Martin, you don’t want a day to day account, I am sure. Bascially, life in that prison continued much the same for many years. Olga began to be able to have a conversation in English, albeit quite basic stuff. She also confided in me, telling me things about the prison, and occasional insights into her personal life. It transpired that I was the only inhabitant of a twenty-cell block. Regarded as a special prisoner, the guards assigned to me were the more experienced ones, and those considered to be less inclined to be interested in the temptations of life in the West. Olga had been a Young Communist, and was still a party member. She admired Krushchev, as he had been at Stalingrad during the war. She never really understood the Cold War, as we had been allies when the Nazis had been defeated. Like most of the others I met, she blamed America for maintaining the bad feeling against the Soviet Union, and told me she thought that Britain was just an ‘American Puppet’. I was left wondering why she even wanted to bother to learn English, but never asked her”.
Helen lit a cigarette, waiting for me to finish some written notes.
“I became accustomed to the routine. Between the guards and the nurse, I was well-supplied with cigarettes, occasional extra rations, and personal items like tampons, a hairbrush and comb, and small bottles of very strong-smelling shampoo that I used sparingly. But I never got any fruit, and fresh vegetables were rare, also usually overcooked to extinction. They told me they just didn’t have time to queue for the fruit, and in winter it was almost non-existent anyway. And despite the extra slices of bread now and again, I was always hungry, and continued to lose weight. After I had been there for five years, an anniversary confirmed by Alina, my teeth were giving me so much trouble I pulled one of them out with my own fingers, rather than ask to visit that butcher of a dentist. Brezhnev had taken over after Krushchev died, and I was coming up to my thirtieth birthday. I was so much a part of the furniture in that place, they only locked my door at night, just before lights out. After all, even if I escaped, how far would I get?”
She suddenly looked down at her shoes, and there was an awkward silence that dragged on for some time.
“One afternoon, Olga brought a mirror to my cell. She said I couldn’t keep it in case I broke the glass and cut my wrists, but I could look at it for a few minutes while she was with me. I had asked for a mirror for ages, but they had always told me it wasn’t possible. When I looked at myself in that mirror, I felt the tears start to stream down my face. Very soon, I was sobbing uncontrollably, and Olga must have felt uncomfortable, as she took the mirror out of my hand, and left the cell. If it’s okay with you, I think I will leave it there for today”.
That evening as I waited for my dinner in the bar of the pub, I read through my notes. The documents she had already shown me were completely authentic, I was sure of that. Soviet paperwork of the period was usually typed on cheap paper stock, and all the stamp-marks and phrases used were typical of that era. Helen’s sometimes detailed recollection of small details might be hard to believe after such a long time, but if I had spent that long in Soviet prisons with little else to think about, I was in no doubt I would have remembered such things too. The hardest thing to swallow was her naive faith that the British government and her spymaster colleagues would be in the least bit bothered about her, and would have been trying to secure her release in clandestine meetings. But placing that in the context of the times, I understood her thought process completely. Part of me was beginning to warm to her, but I had to try my best to remain detached from the emotions surrounding her life history.
The next morning, I decided to treat her to two real cream eclairs from the baker’s shop, and I even bought her a small bunch of flowers.
When she opened the door and saw the flowers, she wept.
I followed Helen inside as she clasped the flowers, then sat down to set up as she went into the kitchen with them. She returned with the small bunch wobbling precariously inside one of her vodka tumblers. As I had heard the tap running, I was satisfied the flowers were not resting in vodka.
“Sorry about that emotional outburst, Martin. But you see, I have never received flowers before, not from anyone. I don’t even have a vase, as I never expected to get any. My mum always said that a lady should never buy her own flowers, so I never have. It was a lovely gesture. Anyway, on with the story”.
She lit a cigarette and picked up the vodka glass that was already on the table.
“Four days after my birthday, I was taken to see the governor. I asked Alina what it was about, but she just shrugged. The governor was her usual businesslike self. She told me there had been a communication from the Foreign Office, asking after me. It contained the information that my mother had died three months ago, from cancer. That was it. No details, no mention of what type of cancer. Makarova said they had not confirmed my detention to the diplomat, but had agreed amongst themselves to pass on the message. I was too shocked to cry, and ashamed that I could hardly recall my mother’s face after so long away from England. Then Alina took me back to my cell”.
Helen paused to drink some vodka.
“Later on, it dawned on me that the diplomats must have been aware that I was imprisoned in Russia, and not dead in Bulgaria. Otherwise why would they send the communication to the Soviet Authorities? So they knew, and had left me stewing there. That made me so furious, I asked Alina for another meeting with the governor to request a visit from someone at the British Embassy. That was turned down flat, with Alina advising me not to antagonise the governor if I knew what was good for me. ‘She likes you, Renton. Don’t upset her’. So I was left thinking about my father. Dad was not the most romantic man, but he and mum had a real unspoken bond. First I disappear, then mum dies. I imagined he would be lost and alone in London. I need some breakfast. Let’s go out for a change, my treat”.
After getting her handbag and putting on her shoes and coat, Helen held my arm and walked me down to a cafe on the seafront. She ordered a full English with extra sausage, toast and fried bread. I settled for scrambled eggs on toast. Before the food came she went outside to smoke. I watched her walking back and forth, a wide ladder at the back of her nylons, and a black cardigan that had been washed out to dark grey. It was hard to picture the vivacious young woman on a Bulgarian beach, making plans with her lover. The food was demolished as if she was in an eating contest, and her lukewarm tea gulped down at the same speed. Five minutes later, we were back in our chairs.
“They wouldn’t even let me send a letter to my father. Of course, that was obvious, as that would mean admitting they had me in detention in Moscow. After staying so positive for so long, the next few years were not so good. I went the other way in my thoughts, imagining I would die in prison after spending the bigger part of my life stuck in there, being ignored and disregarded. I was simply a minor inconvenience to them. I also had a vision of them tiring of the expense of keeping me alive, and just taking me into some woodland one day and shooting me in the head. These days, we live in a world of twenty-four hour news. Breaking news, headlines, reporters in every country where anything happens. Christ almighty, even that Trump guy is running for President next year, and his face is never off the headlines. Try to imagine knowing nothing, Martin. In all those years up to then, all I had ever been told was that something was happening in Cuba, and Kruschev had died. I had no idea that there had almost been an atomic war because of Cuba, and the whole Vietnam thing was never mentioned once. I was news-starved, and nobody would tell me anything”.
She left the room to fetch another bottle of vodka, filled up her glass, and shook her head.
“By the time I was thirty-five, I think I had gone a little bit mad.”
I had received a message as I ate breakfast that morning. Helen had telephoned the pub and told them to tell me not to go to her house that day, but to come as normal the next day. The manager’s wife brought the message, and she was polite enough not to ask who Helen was. To say the least, I was curious. She had never asked for a day off from being interviewed before, but the fact she had said to go back tomorrow as normal implied it was nothing serious.
With a lot of unexpected free time, I took the opportunity to collate my notes into some order, then got into the town centre before the shops closed to buy some more memory cards and notebooks. I was back at the pub in time to receive my laundry delivery, and to reserve a table for one at six-thirty for dinner.
At eleven sharp the next morning, Helen opened the door, smiling. I could hardly recognise the woman infront of me. Her hair was dyed light blonde, she had flawless make-up on her face, her nails were painted, and she smelled fresh and perfumed, dressed in a smart two-piece with some pearls around her neck. She saw my surprise.
“I smartened myself up, as you can see. About time too. Come in, I have just made you some tea”.
The beauty treatment had taken years off her, as least ten years. She looked more like a sixty-five year old recent retiree, than a woman of seventy-six. But some things had not changed. She brought her tumbler of vodka through with my tea, and lit a cigarette as I set up for recording.
“So, Martin. Today, we are about to do some time-travelling. We are going forward into an uncertain future, and leaving Moscow behind. Get your notebook ready, as I am raring to go. As you know, and so do I now, in nineteen ninety-one the Soviet Union ceased to exist. At the time I had no idea. I had celebrated my fortieth birthday in prison, then my fiftieth. I had been almost insane, then recovered my wits. I was fifty-two years old, and had gone through the menopause while incarcerated. Olga had retired from being a prison guard, and Alina only had a few years left to do. Governor Makarova had been replaced by a younger model, and I had been a prisoner for almost thirty years. I had started to think in Russian, as it was so long since I had spoken English, except for the short spell of teaching Olga. Then one cold December morning, two guards I had never seen before came into my cell. They told me to pack up my stuff, and gave me a canvas bag to carry it in. I asked them what was going on, but they refused to reply”.
Helen seemed to be in a good mood that morning. Her voice was lighter than usual, and she was very keen, speaking quickly. She downed most of the vodka, lit another cigarette, and continued.
“Alina was at the back gate when they took me out. She handed me a transfer document, then gave me a gentle hug. No tears, but there was something genuine in her farewell. The female guards handed me over to two soldiers who walked me to a black car. No handcuffs, a seat in the back next to one soldier, the other driving. I looked at the document on the way, having to hold it at arm’s length as my eyesight was failing for reading. I could make out the main headings, and saw Penal Colony 4 written there. Also Sankt Peterburg, which surpised me. I had only ever known that city as Leningrad. Back then, I presumed it was some kind of administrative error. We were going by train, and I was pleased to have my coat and Valenki, as it was so cold. At the station, the soldiers handed me over to two female soldiers. Again, no handcuffs, though we did have a private compartment on the train. The two young women chatted during the journey, though not to me. But they did let me smoke, and one of them brought me hot tea with sugar already in it. It was less than four hours on the train, and when I asked to use the toilet, one woman just nodded. She didn’t even walk there with me and stand outside. As I sat there peeing, I realised that I was no longer considered to be anyone worth bothering about. And that made me cry”.
Refilling the vodka in the tumbler, Helen shook her head as she reflected.
“From that moment, I just presumed that I was going to die in prison”.
“Martin, I have to tell you I was worried. We drove some way out of the city of St. Petersburg, and I was concerned about the name of where I was going. Penal Colony Four. But on arrival, my fears proved groundless. Spies are not subject to hard or forced labour, and I was quickly housed in a cell on my own, in a small block of six, away from the main camp. That was a row of long huts, which reminded me of the wartime concentration camps. But my accommodation was reasonably modern. I had a sink and a metal flush toilet in my cell, which was as warm as toast inside, heated by steam through radiators. I suppose by modern British standards now, we would call it an Open Prison. But not for me of course. I was the forgotten spy from a Cold War that had ceased to exist”.
Helen poured more vodka, and ate the second eclair before continuing.
“Even the guards were friendly, and I had a personal guard, Natalia. She was allocated to me as she lived in. I was shocked to discover that she lived in a similar cell at the end of my small block, and only went home to see her family once a month. When she was away for three days, I had another Olga. That Olga was very interested in me. She actually asked for my autograph. Can you believe that, Martin? She could also speak some English, and was quick to let me know that I could contact the British Consulate to obtain what she called ‘luxuries’. She was my conduit with the prison governor, who had so far never summoned me to her office. Between Olga and Natalia, I managed to ask for a visit from the diplomat who ran our consulate there. You can only imagine my surprise when someone showed up one day, and Natalia told me I had a visitor”.
It was time for Helen to light another cigarette, and to show me one of the many documents she had saved from that time. It was in Russian of course, telling her that she had a visitor at three in the afternoon, and she had to agree to see him.
“Of course, I agreed, and as you can see, I signed the visitor’s order. I wanted to give whoever showed up a piece of my mind. As it turned out, I spent most of the allotted thirty minutes in a state of shock. When he left, I was crying, and it took weeks for me to get over what I had heard. In the visitor’s room, I was on my own, with Natalia looking on from the corner. I had a good idea that they would record the visit, probably on film, as well as sound. A young man entered, very British, wearing a blue serge suit and a cashmere overcoat. He introduced himself as John Holdsworth. I told him that John Holdsworth would be at least my age, probably older. He winked at me. Winked at me, Martin! He said that they were all called John Holdsworth, and he wanted to know what I needed. I wasn’t dim-witted, even then. He was the new version of a John Holdsworth that was probably long dead. He produced a notebook before carrying on”.
Helen had a severe coughing fit at that stage, serious enough for me to rush into the kitchen and get her a glass of water. But she waved that away and refilled her tumbler with vodka instead.
“I told him I wanted to go home. But meanwhile I wanted books, cosmetics, toiletries, vodka, cigarettes, better food, and some acknowledgement of my situation in an official capacity. He smiled at me like I was some old girl in a care home. ‘Oh, I can easily get you the five everyday things you need, but I am afraid we cannot get you home just yet, and there is no possibility of you being acknowleged officially. Not now, not ever, you must realise that’. Martin, if I had been strong enough, I would have strangled that jumped up bastard. But I was so fixated on a better life in prison, I told him to get me all I needed as soon as he could. Then he left. It took a ridiculously short time. Three days later, I had British paperback books, cartons of cigarettes, chocolate, fruit, and loaves of bread coming in. I had so much, I gave some things away to Natalia and Olga”.
She paused to fill her vodka glass, and down the whole tumbler in one gulp.
But it was too late for my teeth. With so few vitamins after so many years, the following week, they were all removed under anaesthetic”.
Helen paused to go into the kitchen and get something. She came back with three hot sausage rolls on a plate, each one already smeared with tomato ketchup. Not bothering with cutlery, she picked one up and bit the end off of it, then waved the other hand over her mouth.
“These are hot. I probably left them in the oven too long. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the teeth. The thing was, medical attention in that camp was good. A doctor would come to my cell accompanied by a nurse, so that I was chaperoned when he examined me. Even the dental treatment had been suggested, not forced on me. I had agreed to the extractions as toothache was starting to plague me on a daily basis. Besides, I was of an age where any vanity I had left had started to well and truly slip away”.
Picking up the half-eaten suasage roll, she blew on it a few times, stuffed the rest into her mouth, licked her fingers, and lit a cigarette.
“My small cell block was surrounded by a wire-fenced compound, and when the weather improved, my cell was unlocked so I was free to walk around outside if I wanted. I could see the long lines of other prisoners walking to and from whatever work they had to do. Men and women were separated, and it was always a single sex group that went past. None of them ever turned to look at me, no doubt they knew I was a special prisoner, a foreign spy. The food was much the same. I would get some black bread with sweet jam of some kind in the morning, then an evening meal of pork and vegetable soup one day, followed by rolled cabbage leaves the next. I depended more and more on the parcels sent in from the British Consulate, although they were always opened by security, and many items stolen before the parcel arrived at my cell. I made sure to give something to Olga and Natalia every time a parcel came, and that kept them interested in being kind to me”.
She stopped and stood up, to take her plate out. Returning with a bottle of vodka and a tumbler, she asked if I wanted anything. I shook my head. Once she had filled her glass and swallowed half of it, she carried on.
“I had been there almost a year when I had another visitor. It was getting very cold again, and had been snowing hard that day. I was surprised to see a woman waiting for me. She told me her name was Barbara, and that John Holdsworth had been reassigned. From a big bag next to her chair she produced an assortment of colour magazines in English, a carton of English Benson and Hedges cigarettes, and four bars of Cadbury’s chocolate. I was very happy to see the familiar cigarettes and chocolate, but not so pleased with what she had to say. ‘I have to give you some bad news. Four weeks ago, your father died from a brain haemorrhage in Saint Thomas’s Hospital. We are looking into his will, and meanwhile he has been cremated at public expense, his ashes scattered on the shoreline near Westminster Bridge. It seems the lease had expired on his flat, and he was in negotiations to try to get an extension. Now he has died, that is unlikely to happen. I am so sorry for your loss’. With that, she got up to leave, telling me she would come and see me when she had time to do so. I was stunned. I knew my dad was old, but now he had died without ever knowing what had happened to me. And with the flat gone, I was technically homeless back in England. When I got back to my cell, I gave Natalia and Olga a bar of chocolate each, and sat smoking a cigarette. I told them what had happened, and that evening they brought me a fifty-centilitre bottle of cheap vodka to drown my sorrows”.
Sitting in thought for a moment, Helen let her cigarette burn down. She stubbed it out, and lit another one.
“Now I had nobody left who cared for me. I drank all the vodka in twenty minutes, straight from the bottle. I was too self-obsessed to even cry for my dad, and I did love him so much, Martin”.
With that, I closed the interview for the day, and told her I was leaving.
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’
“Well it turned out eventually was going to mean never. I got very down when nobody came from the British Consulate. The parcels stil arrived, but I only kept the cigarettes, exchanging everything else for vodka, which Anna managed to smuggle in for me. I still hadn’t seen the Chief Warden of the camp, and two years after Barbara’s last visit, I made a formal application to do just that. Anna told me it would be at the start of the next week, and she would have to handcuff me to take me to the administration block. On the day, she was very apologetic, telling me she thought it was so silly to have to put an old lady into restraints. I was surprised how far away the offices were, as we had to walk for at least ten minutes, possibly almost fifteen. That walk made me realise just how vast the camp was. I could only imagine how many prisoners were held there. Outside the Warden’s office, Anna warned me to speak softly, and not to become angry”.
Helen leaned forward, lit a cigarette, then blew the smoke away from me, up at the low ceiling. I had started to become genunely concerned about passive smoking, after all the hours I had spent with her.
“In the office, a surprisingly young man sat behind a small desk covered in files. He had one open in front of him, which I presumed was mine. I had to stand in front of him, looking respectful. He asked me if there was anything I needed, so I said I desperately needed glasses so I could read properly. Even holding books as far as my arms would reach, I had started to give up after one chapter. He made a note in the file, and asked me if there was something else. His tone was kind, so I chanced saying what I was really there for. I mentioned what Barbara had said, the formal application for my release from detention. I respectfully suggested that it was taking a long time to arrange, and that I would appreciate his help in making that happen. He looked very confused, Martin. Flicking through the file, he raised his eyebrows. I can never forget what he said next.
“You appear to be misinformed, prisoner Renton. If fact, it was the Russian Federation that contacted the British Consulate, asking them to arrange for your collection from this facility as we no longer had any need to keep you here. I have the name of the person we spoke to, a Mister John Holdsworth. He is listed as one of your visitors. You understand these things have to be formally arranged. We cannot very well just open the gate and say farewell. Documents have to be signed, and you have to be handed over officially”.
She paused as I sat taking that in.
“I was in shock, Martin. They had lied to me, pretending that the Russians were causing the delay. Then after they were notified and realised they had just forgotten me, they were paying me off with food parcels and cigarettes, leaving me hoping that release was a real option. You cannot imagine how much I hated them that day. I thanked the Warden, and agreed that I would raise the matter with the next visitor from the Consulate. On the way back to my block, my legs felt like jelly, and Anna had to hold me to stop me from falling over. I asked her to get me some extra vodka, and I would make sure she had everything from my next parcel. She came to my cell after dinner, and produced two bottles, telling me to try not to be too sad”.
Talking about the vodka must have jogged her memory that her glass was empty, and she left me in the room as she went to fill it up.
“That night I got roaring drunk, and I swore that one day I would get my own back by telling my story. The next day I felt awfully hungover, but had to act sober when an optician came with equipment to test my eyes. Three days later, I received two pairs of metal-framed glasses. Anna let me look at myself in a small mirror she had in her bag, and we both laughed when she said I looked like a college professor. Everything had snapped into focus, but I had to take them off unless I was reading, or they made me dizzy. Shall we call it a day now, Martin?”
After getting my stuff together, I walked down to the seafront to read through my notes in the fresh air.
Helen was ready for me the next morning, reasonably well dressed, showered, and wearing some make-up. But she was clutching a glass of vodka as she opened the door, and I felt sure she had been drinking for some time before I arrived. She led me into the back room, obviously happier there than in her rarely-used small lounge. She had already smoked one cigarette by the time I set up, and lit another one before starting to relate her story.
“So, there was no contact from the Consulate. No visit from the never-seen Desmond, and only the parcels of food and luxuries denoted that they still knew I existed. Anna stuck by me, making sure I didn’t descend into a mental black hole, and treating me like I was an extra grandmother. On her days off, Olga was not so friendly. I got the feeling she had long ago tired of having to babysit me when my special guard was off duty. Nothing changed for me, nothing at all, though I was grateful for the reading glasses which enabled me to read the books sent in every month. The night before my seventieth birthday, Anna brought me a present. Ten years together, and she never forgot a birthday. It was a Matryoshka nesting doll, a very nice example in black laquer with different designs on each of the seven dolls. She told me that it showed love of family, respect for elders, and was traditional. I cried at her thoughtful gift, and she hugged me until I regained my composure”.
She poured more vodka, and as she hadn’t mentioned food, I was concerned that she might get drunk. But there was no sign of that as she carried on.
“It was two thousand and nine, Martin, six years ago this month. I had been shut away in Russia for almost fifty years. Even now that is hard for me to take in. I had never married, never had children, not even the chance of love with Desi. My parents were long dead, I had no living relatives, and any friends I had from the old days were either dead, or had forgotten me. I hope you never have to experience that feeling of complete loneliness, where your only friend in the world is a woman paid to guard you and keep you locked up. I contemplated suicide all the time, I really did. Do you want some toast? I’m having some”.
I shook my head as I made notes, and she came back later with four slices of toast smothered in what looked like strawberry jam. Two of them were eaten in seconds, before she started talking again.
“So I did something unusual, at least as far as their prison sytem was concerned. Obtaining some plain paper and a propelling pencil from Anna, I started to send notes to the Warden. Anna told me it was the same man, and I addressed them respectfully. With no envelopes, I wrote his name and designation on the outside of the folded paper. Each note was a variation on the previous one. Had he heard any more about my release papers? Would he possibly have a chance to contact the Consulate and ask them to expedite the necessary documents? That kind of thing. Anna said nobody ever did that, but she delivered them to his office for me. I never got a reply, and didn’t expect one, but I sent one every week, and nobody ever told me to stop. I did that for a year, Martin. My seventy-first birthday came and went, and still I sent those notes”.
Helen stopped to eat the other two slices of toast, then she lit a cigarette, and swallowed half a tumbler of vodka.
“Then one morning, Anna came through the open door of my cell. She appeared to have been crying, and she told me to smarten myself up as I was being taken to see the Warden. That time, there were no handcuffs, and on the way, Anna wouldn’t answer my questions about why we were being summoned. She only shook her head in reply to each one. Inside the office the Warden smiled at me. He applied a rubber stamp to a document, and handed me the top copy. I had to find my glasses in my uniform apron pocket to read it. But I didn’t get past the first line, which said ‘Prisoner release’, before the tears were flowing down my face. The Warden was grinning, Anna was standing by the door openly weeping, and he said this to me”. ‘Pack your personal belongings, prisoner Renton. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken by car to the British Consulate. We have heard nothing from them, but no longer wish to detain you in our custody. As of tomorrow, you are a British problem, no longer a Russian one. Just read and sign this form, and I wish you good luck’. The form was basically a statement that I had been treated well, never subjected to physical or psychological torture, and that I agreed to leave custody at nine the next morning”.
Before she spoke again, Helen looked up across at the small window, as if remembering something.
“The hardest thing was leaving Anna. On the way back to my cell, she broke down and told me she would miss me”.
“One regret was that Anna was not working the next morning. Olga came with another guard, handed me a canvas holdall and told me to pack my things. I took just my cigarettes and matches, a hairbrush, and the doll Anna had given me, along with all the paperwork I had accumulated over the years. The documents you have seen, Martin. I had to wear my prison uniform and rubber shoes, no outdoor clothes were provided. Olga accompanied me in the car, which was driven by a soldier who said nothing on the way. When they arrived at the small Consulate office, Olga turned and said. ‘This is where you get out, Renton. And you are not allowed to return to the Russian Federation, ever’. She handed me a large brown envelope containing my original and long-expired passport, along with my Foreign Office identity credentials. The photo on those was taken when I was twenty-one, and I didn’t recognise the young woman looking out at me”.
Helen stopped for the usual refill of vodka and lit another cigarette.
“The car drove off, leaving me standing alone in the street. I was free to go anywhere, but had no money, no valid passport, and I was hungry, as they had not given me breakfast after my shower. I walked up to the office door and pushed a button on the side. I was surprised when someone spoke to me on a speaker above. I had never seen such a contraption. I said I was Helen Renton, and wanted to talk to someone called Desmond. I was surprised when the door clicked open. That seemed very futuristic to me, Martin. I had to walk upstairs, and at a desk at the top sat a suspicious-looking young man who asked me what I wanted. I told him I had been in prison for just over fifty years, I was a Foreign Office employee, and a British Citizen. I added that I had to talk to someone called Desmond. then showed him my old passport and credentials, and he asked me to sit on a chair at the side, as he seemed to have taken me seriously”.
More vodka drinking followed, and I sat waiting for her to speak again.
“Five minutes later, he returned with a middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Nicola Desmond. She looked embarrassed, as well she should have. She asked me to follow her through to her office, and once I had sat down, she asked me what she could do for me. Can you believe that, Martin? Well I can tell you, I gave her a piece of my mind. I did nothing less than ranting, for a good thirty minutes. To give her a little credit, she didn’t interrupt me. When I had finished, I lit a cigarette, and she said, ‘Sorry, there is no smoking here’. I told her to go and F herself, I don’t mind admitting. She left to make some phone calls, then returned with a sickly smile. She said that they were going to put me up in a hotel, find me some decent clothes, and make sure I had all I needed. Then in two days, she would be accompanying me to England on an aircraft, where I would be ‘fully debriefed’. If my mouth had not been so dry, I would have spat in her face, Martin”.
It was obvious that recalling that meeting was upsetting her. I waited as she lit another cigarette, obviously remembering her encounter with Ms Desmond.
“I was driven to a decent hotel, and not long after I arrived in the twin-bedded room, Nicola arrived with a weekend case. She was staying with me until we flew, and produced a far too large dress, and a pair of shoes that were too tight. She was apologetic, telling me she hadn’t been expecting me, and knew almost nothing about my situation. She said that we would be flying back to the military base at Brize Norton, and when we arrived, I would be handed over to John Holdsworth”.
At that point, Helen began coughing heavily. It was some time before the cough calmed down, and she was ready to carry on. Before speaking, she swallowed more vodka, and lit a cigarette. I was tempted to ask her if both were good for her, but said nothing.
“Another John Holdsworth, Martin. I asked Nicola how many there had been, and she smiled”.
At that point, I said I was finished for the day, and started to gather up my notes.
That evening, I spent a lot of time going through my notes. It seemed Helen was getting close to the end of her story now, so I began writing them up in some semblance of order. Then I made sure the camera was fully charged and had a new memory card, ready for the next day. Next morning, I had a light breakfast before returning to my room to go through all the papers I had copied. I was convinced that they were all genuine, one hundred percent. When I approached her door later, she opened it before I knocked. Once again very presentable, she seemed to be in a very good mood.
“In you come, Martin. I am keen to get on and tell you what happened when I got back to England”.
As usual, she drank vodka and smoked as I set up.
“Nicola and I were the only two people on the RAF flight to Brize Norton. There was no passport control or immigration check, and our baggage went through as diplomatic. Inside the aircraft, I was amazed that nobody elese was in the medium-sized passenger jet, and suspected that they didn’t want me to be seen by any other staff who might normally fly home using that service. Less than four hours later we landed, and when we walked down the steps our bags were ready for collection. There was a fancy-looking car waiting at the edge of the runway, and a well-dressed man standing next to it. He approached and shook my hand, saying ‘Welcome home, Helen, I am John Holdsworth’. Another one of course, not my one. He was close to fifty, politely spoken, and so obviously security service. I got in the back of the car with him and Nicola put my canvas holdall on the front seat then walked in the direction of the airport buildings, wheeling her small case. She didn’t say goodbye, didn’t even look at me. Then we left for London, and I soon found myself travelling eastbound on the A40”.
Helen stopped for a moment, and she seemed to be deciding whether or not to add something.
“Holdsworth didn’t say much at first, and I sat gawping at the changed surroundings. So many cars, so much new housing. And as we got closer to London, the amount of high-rise developments took my breath away. Once we were held up by gridlocked traffic in the suburbs, Holdsworth became chatty. He spoke about things that would be new to me. When I had left England, we were not in the EU. Now I was back, we were on the verge of trying to get out of it. Decimal currency would be new to me, as would multi-channel colour television, buses and tube trains no longer taking cash, and so much more that I would have to get used to. One thing I had forgotten was how much warmer it was, and when I tried to open the car window, I couldn’t find a handle. He smiled, and told the driver to switch on the air-conditioning. In seconds, i could feel the cold air refreshing me. I wasn’t allowed to smoke in the car, and that was making me edgy. Then when Holdworth told me that I was going to be debriefed for six weeks, I got plain angry. Pause there, Martin, I need something to eat”.
She had obviously been out that morning, as she came back from the kitchen with two large pork pies still in the shop’s bag. After muching her way through one, she carried on.
“Once we were at Paddington, I started to recognise some streets. But there was a huge new hospital, and many more tower blocks and skyscrapers. London felt closed in and oppressive, so different to when I had lived there. We turned off before Baker Street, and I could tell we were going north. Twenty minutes later, the driver turned into a quiet road near Swiss Cottage, and stopped the car outside a double-fronted house with tall gates across the driveway. The gates opened by themselves, and we walked from the car to the front door. It was already open, and a stern-looking woman was standing there. Holdsworth introduced her to me as Mrs Lee, then without another word, he turned and walked back to the car. I followed the woman inside into a large hallway, and she turned and said ‘Welcome, Miss Renton. This will be your temporary home’. ”
Helen paused at that point, and ate the second pork pie.
“Mrs Lee was nicer than she looked, but wouldn’t call me Helen, or tell me her first name. I had a lovely room on the first floor with a comfortable double bed, my own small bathroom, and a view over the garden. I was only allowed to smoke in the conservatory, so as you can imagine I spent most of my time there, Martin. For the first week, Mrs Lee went through the things I needed to know about in everyday life. She showed me how to use the Internet, and gave me a laptop to keep. The same one you saw in my lounge. I thought it was like a magic trick, and spent hours sitting in the conservatory looking at historical sites so I could find out what had been happening while I was in prison. There were lots of practical things too, like bank cards and PIN numbers. She told me nobody used cheques any longer, or carried more than a few pounds in cash. I had to create one of those PIN numbers for security, so used the first four numbers from my Soviet prison number. Nobody would ever guess that. Back in a minute”.
Helen returned with a plate of cream biscuits and a refilled vodka tumbler.
“On the Saturday morning, Mrs Lee took me by bus to the shops in Oxford Street. She showed me how to take money out of those wall-mounted machines, and we went into John Lewis so I could buy new clothes and underwear. They had set me up a new bank account, and were paying the Civil Service pension into it monthly. There was also a lump sum payment of twenty thousand pounds, so I felt incredibly rich. Mind you, I was determined to have a word with someone about that, as it didn’t really seem enough compensation for all the years I had been locked away. With so many bags of clothes, toiletries, shoes, and some assorted luxuries, we took a taxi back to the house. Mrs Lee appeared with a camera, and took a photo of me that was going to be used on a new passport. Although I had no intention of ever leaving England again, she said it would be useful as a form of identification. She also gave me a copy of my Birth Certificate and a new Medical Card, saying I should register with a doctor once I had moved into my permanent home. Then she suggested that I should think about how much I was eating, as it wasn’t good for my health. I was a bit snappy with her, and told her to try to imagine eating almost the same two things for dinner every day for nearly fifty years”.
As if to confirm Mrs Lee’s fears, Helen stopped to cram two cream biscuits into her mouth, holding a third ready for when she had made room.
“Once I had decent clothes lots of cigarettes, and I felt almost normal again, I asked about getting some Gorlovka Vodka. There was some Smirnoff in the house, but it wasn’t to my taste, nowhere near strong enough. She said she would pass on my request, but it took a week until a case of twelve bottles arrived. Mrs Lee cooked a nice meal every evening, but I was always hungry, so used to help myself to things from her huge fridge after she had gone to bed. She only sat with me when she had to, and i tended to eat, drink, and of course smoke in the conservatory. I spent my time looking at the laptop and reading the news from the last fifty years. I had no interest in television, so she used to sit in the large living room to watch her favourite programmes. For the first two weeks I was in the house, I never heard a phone ring, and there were no visitors except deliveries made from a white van. When I asked if there was a phone in the house, she showed me a mobile phone, telling me I would be provided with one when I left and shown how to use it. I smiled and said I no longer had anyone to ring, but it might be useful in an emergency”.
Three more biscuits descended down her gullet before she looked across at me again.
“Then on the Monday of the third week, two men arrived. Mrs Lee said they had come to interview me”.
“I told Mrs Lee I would talk to the men in the conservatory, so I could smoke. I also took a bottle of vodka and a glass through there, as I was sure I was going to need fortifying. They intoduced themselves as Richard and Quentin, no surnames. Stuffy, pallid-skin types, with dead eyes. It seemed Quentin was the main man, as he kicked off the conversation by telling me that I was still subject to my signing of the Official Secrets Act back when I joined. As Richard took notes in a large folder, he added that there was no statute of limitations on that, and I was not to speak to anyone about anything unless they worked for MI6. Before he could say anything else, I let him have both barrels. I screamed at him about how I had been ignored and disposed of, and how they hadn’t even bothered to reply when the Russians had asked them to agree to my release. For what must have been at least an hour, I swore like a trooper at them, and asked them to explain how I had come to be dumped in Odessa, then Moscow, then Leningrad, without any intervention on their part. Why had I never been exchanged, when I knew full well that such exchanges were frequent? And how dare they scatter my dad’s ashes on some muddy bank on the Thames. I went on for so long, Mrs Lee brought a pot of tea in for them, and they had long finished that before I stopped talking”.
Helen saw me taking notes, and paused until I looked back at her.
“Quentin told me it was unfortunate that things had turned out the way they had. I just hadn’t been important enough to exchange, and until they heard from the Russians that I was in St Peterburg, they had no real idea where I was. He went on to say that I would be given a house to live in free of charge on the south coast, that all my bills would be paid, and my pension would be paid until my death, with another fifty thousand lump sum to be deposited in my account once I had moved to Hastings. Unfortunate, that was the word he used, Martin. My life written off with that simple word, unfortunate. Then he passed me a card with a phone number written on it, telling me that I could order anything I wanted by ringing that number, including my cigarettes and favourite vodka. I would only need to spend money on clothing, personal items, and any food I decided to buy in addition to my order. It would be delivered in seventy-two hours, stocks permitting. I had to break for the toilet, and while I was up there, I decided I would get nowhere with those two, so I would appear to play their game, bide my time, and publish my own story later to shame them. Talking of which, I do need the toilet. Won’t be long”.
She settled back in her chair, lit a cigarette, and started smiling as she remembered that day.
“When I came back, Quentin started asking me lots of questions about my time over there. He wanted names that I could remember, wanted to know what they had asked me, and more importantly, what I had told them. He seemed perplexed when I told him there had been no interrogation, very few questions, and that I had stuck to my story about being a Foreign Office translator throughout. He obviously didn’t believe me, and exchanged a look with Richard that said more than words. Then he changed tack, asking me to describe the prisons I had been kept in, the appearance and names of the Wardens, anything I could remember about locations. I gave him crumbs, Martin. Bits and pieces of incomplete details, pretending not to remember much after fifty years. That was all those bastards deserved, after leaving me to rot for most of my life. Quentin knew about the parcels that had been sent in, and tried to justify those as ‘taking care’ of me. He asserted that I knew what I was getting into when I completed the training course in Scotland, and that it was all just a part of ‘The Great Game’. I had heard that phrase used before, and I didn’t accept it as an excuse. Then they suddenly stood up, and said they would be back on Tuesday morning”.
As she lit a cigarette, I sensed she was pausing for effect.
“But they never came back, Martin. Not ever”.
Helen was keen to work late that day. She suggested ordering a Chinese meal from the restaurant in the next street, and said I could go and collect it. I agreed, knowing I would be too late for bar food if I didn’t eat then. When I got back, she had even found two very clean bowls, along with some cutlery that looked like it had never been used. I had bought myself a beer in the restaurant, knowing she would only have vodka to offer. When we had both finished eating, she lit a cigarette and continued talking, not bothering to clear the table.
“The day after the men left, Mrs Lee gave me a mobile phone, and showed me how to use it. It wasn’t one of those fancy phones connected to the Internet, it could just make calls and send text messages. She told me the number I had to ring for deliveries was the first one in the contacts list. I didn’t have to pay the bill for using it, as it was on government contract. That told me I would be monitored every time I used it. I still have it, it’s the one I used to ring in the food order. Then she told me I would have to pack, as the next day we were leaving for Hastings to get me settled into my house. Three suitcases were provided for me, rather old and battered ones, I have to say. The following morning, a man was parked in the driveway in a very large car, what they used to call station wagons when I was young. He loaded the cases into the back, and I could see the name of the car, a Volvo. The drive took over three hours, and I wasn’t allowed to smoke. I asked the driver to stop so I could use the toilet. He stopped at a service area, but I didn’t need the toilet. I just stood outside the car and smoked two cigarettes, one after the other, much to the obvious annoyance of Mrs Lee.”
Chuckling as she remembered that morning, Helen refilled her glass with vodka.
“When I saw this house as the car stopped, I have to say I was very disappointed. I certainly hadn’t expected anything fancy, but would have liked something more modern, perhaps a smart flat with a balcony facing the sea. The driver took the car to a public car park to wait for Mrs Lee, and she came inside to show me where everything was. When I asked her how long I would be expected to live there, she said I sounded ungrateful, and that houses like this one were very sought after on the south coast. Then she said I would be expected to live there for the rest of my life, and it had once been a popular MI6 safe house, used long before the last war, and as recently as the year before they gave it over to me. Reaching into her handbag, she gave me a small sheet of paper. There was the name of a local doctor on it, as well as a dentist, then a third number that she said I should call for any general repairs or failure of equipment like the washing machine or cooker. Then she suggested I walk around the town later, to locate the nearby shops and buy some food and provisions. After that, she gave me one hundred pounds in cash, wished me luck, and left. That was that, Martin. I haven’t seen or heard from any of them since”.
I had a few questions for her, but before I could even think about asking them, she started again.
“That afternoon, I went out and found a Post Office. I bought some notepaper and envelopes, and four books of postage stamps. Then in a newsagent’s, I purchased a copy of every newspaper they had for sale. I had something to eat while I was out, then came home and logged onto the laptop, using the password for the wi-fi that Mrs Lee had written on a card for me. I looked up every major publishing house still in business, and made a note of their names and addresses. I was determined to start trying to get my story told, and made up my mind to write to all of them, starting the next morning”.
She started coughing, and I decided it was getting late for her. I began to pack away my things, telling her I should leave. She nodded, waiting until the coughing had subsided before adding the last statement that night.
“And that’s just what I did. I wrote to all of them. It took all day”.
The next morning I told Helen I would be completing the interview that day, and would stay as long as was needed. I mentioned that I woud pop back the following day with papers for her to sign that gave me permission to ghost-write her book, and I would have credit as co-writer. She was happy about that, and settled straight in to the conclusion of her story.
“Very soon, I learned the reality, Martin. I received more replies than I had expected, but I could tell from some that they thought I was either a charlatan, or a crazy old woman. A couple of the newspapers took me more seriously and said someone would be in touch. When someone phoned to ask me to talk him through the story, he said that there was no chance it would be printed. The government would issue a D-Notice to stop publication, and by cooperating with someone breaking the Official Secrets Act, the newspaper could find itself in court. As for the book publishers, their replies varied. Most wanted me to have an agent to use as an intermediary, others asked for three full chapters, a synopsis, and a personal biography before they would even pass it to an editor. I didn’t feel up to that, Martin. It’s one thing sitting and talking about it, quite another getting it down on paper as something coherent and interesting. I will make you some tea”.
Helen came back with the tea, and the usual full glass of vodka for herself.
“They were also wary about me not asking for any money. I tried to explain that I was unlikely to be long for this world after a lifetime of poor diet, heavy smoking, and copious amounts of vodka down my neck. I wanted to leave my story as a legacy, hopefully see it hit the headlines before I died. But I wasn’t doing it for gain, I just wanted to shame the Establishment. As for the literary agents, they showed no interest whatsoever. Only four replied, and all wanted to see some examples of my writing. I wondered if they had even read my letter, in which I clearly stated I would need someone else to help me. So I let it go, thinking I might just eventually get around to writing my own story. But of course I never did that, or you wouldn’t be here”.
She was answering most of the questions I had wanted to ask the previous night, but I still had one needing an answer. So I asked how she came to contact Colin Magee.
“Some months back, I forget exactly when now, I received a parcel one morning. Someone at the Foreign Office had sent it to me at my old address. Shows how lax they were at updating records. Whoever lives in that south London flat now refused to accept it, and it had languished back at the Foreign Office until someone asked some questions. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect some MI6 mole found out about it, and arranged to have it sent on to me here. There was no note or covering letter. It contained my late father’s personal effects, well some of them. His wedding ring, his very old watch, and six copies of books he had published after I had disappeared. They were dry stuff, I’m sad to say. Justifications of Stalin, memoirs of his travels in the Soviet Union before world war two, and one about why he believed Marxist theory would be the best way to educate children in schools. He was very old when they were writen, and I doubt anyone ever bought a copy. But the publisher was Colin Magee. So I thought if he had bothered to try to sell my dad’s books, he might do the same for me. I think they call that serendipity, Martin, and it seems to have worked”.
How her letter had arrived on Magee’s desk had long worried me. Now I knew why. I told Helen that it would take at least three months for me to get the draft to an editor. Then there would be the usual re-write after that, choosing a title, and sorting out a cover photo. But that would all come in time. Meanwhile, I would be back with the paperwork the next day, then return to my flat and begin the first draft. I would contact her by telephone if I needed to ask any questions. As for the chance of a documentary, that would take longer. I would need to get all the hours of camera footage to someone who knew what they were doing, and that would have to be tied in with any book launch. She seemed happy as I left.
“Okay, I will see you tomorrow. Don’t even think about using a photo of me on the cover though. I look bloody awful”.
To: Quentin Hughes. MI6 London
From: Field Operative Martin Green-Tompkins
Subject: Helen Renton. MI6 (Retired)
Sir, I would like to thank you for this opportunity. After so long monitoring Russian interest publications at Magee Press, it was rewarding to be back in the field. Enclosed is my full report, including all relevant original papers, sound and video recordings, along with my claim for out of pocket expenses. (Receipts attached)
As for the last day, Renton was welcoming and hopeful. I went back over our long sessions together, perpetuating the idea that I would be writing her book and that it would be published. I showed her some notes I had made, including ficticious names of documentary makers, film producers, and publishers who might show an interest. She was very bullish about who should play her in any film adaptation, so I noted her suggestions.
Once you have read the report in its entirety, you will see that she was unlikely to stay quiet about her experience. She was aware of self-publishing online, and blogging too. I suspect she would have eventually got something published on a conspiracy website, and she had even spoken briefly about approaching Russian organisations such as Russia Today TV to offer them her story. There would no doubt have been much embarrassment, and questions to answer.
It seems we have little to learn from my extensive interviews with her. She told nobody anything during her detention, and I believe that.
Once I was convinced that she had nothing hidden away, I went ahead with the agreed arrangement.
The bottle of Gorlovka Vodka I took along was a nice touch, as she was happy to toast the forthcoming book by swallowing a large glassful from the bottle I offered her. The Potassium Cyanide worked very quickly, probably because of her poor health. She expired without a word, and I left her slumped in her chair. Once I had waited long enough to be sure she was dead, I carried out an extensive search of the house, including the loft. All the original papers, the Russian doll, her mobile phone and her laptop are in the box accompanying this report.
Naturally, I wiped all surfaces before leaving. Even though my fingerprints are not on record, I left little trace of my presence, short of some DNA on her furniture that will be of no consequence. As when her body is eventually found, it will certainly be judged to be the suicide of a lonely old woman with poor health, and nothing to live for.
No doubt by now you have cancelled her bank account, and her Foreign Office records and pension. So in most respects, Helen Renton never existed.
As you know, I resigned from Magee’s as planned, and now await your next instructions.
Martin Green Tompkins.