3. No More Naked

I WOKE EARLY, DISTURBED and angry after my familiar dream – the dream where I’m dead and I’m watching Jochen cope with life without me – usually perfectly and completely happily. I started to have this dream after he began to talk and I resent my subconscious mind drawing this deep worry, this sick neurosis, to my attention every now and then. Why am I dreaming of my own death? I never dream of Jochen’s death, though sometimes I think about it, rarely, for a second or two before I banish it – shocked – from my mind. I’m almost sure that everyone does this about the people they love – it’s a grim corollary of truly loving someone: you find yourself compelled to imagine your world without them and have to contemplate its awfulness and dread for a second or two. A peer through the crack to the emptiness, the big silence beyond. We can’t help it – I can’t help it, anyway, and I tell myself guiltily that everybody must do it, that it’s a very human reaction to the human condition. I hope I’m right.

I slipped out of bed and padded through to his bedroom, to check on him. He was sitting up in bed, colouring in his colouring book, a fritter of pencils and wax crayons around him.

I gave him a kiss and asked him what he was drawing.

‘A sunset,’ he said, and showed me the lurid page, all flaming orange and yellow, capped with bruised brooding purples and greys.

‘It’s a bit sad,’ I said, my mood still influenced by my dream.

‘No it’s not, it’s meant to be beautiful.’

‘What would you like for breakfast?’ I asked him.

‘Crispy bacon, please.’

I opened the door to Hamid – he wasn’t wearing his new leather jacket, I noticed, just his black jeans and a white short-sleeved shirt, very crisp, like an airline pilot. Normally I’d have teased him about this but I thought that after my faux pas of the day before and the fact that Ludger was in the kitchen behind me it would be best to be pleasant and kind.

‘Hamid, hello! Beautiful morning!’ I said, my voice full of special cheer.

‘The sun is shining again,’ he said in a monotone.

‘So it is, so it is.’

I turned and showed him in. Ludger was sitting there at the kitchen table in T-shirt and shorts, spooning cornflakes into his mouth. I could tell what Hamid was thinking – his insincere smile, his stiffness – but there was no possibility of explaining the reality behind this situation with Ludger in the room, so I opted for a simple introduction.

‘Hamid, this is Ludger, a friend of mine from Germany. Ludger – Hamid.’

I had not introduced them the day before. I had gone down to the front door, brought Ludger up to the flat, installed him in the sitting-room and continued – with some difficulty – with Hamid’s lesson. After Hamid was finished and gone I went to find Ludger – he was stretched out on the sofa, asleep.

Now Ludger raised his clenched fist and said, ‘Allahu Akbar.’

‘You remember Ludger,’ I said, brightly. ‘He came yesterday, during our lesson.’

Hamid’s face registered no emotion. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said.

‘Shall we go through?’ I said.

‘Please, yes, after you, Ruth.’

I led him through to the study. He seemed very unlike his usual self: solemn, almost agonised in some way. I noticed he had had his beard trimmed – it made him look younger.

‘So,’ I said, continuing with the false breeziness, sitting down at my desk, ‘I wonder what the Ambersons are up to today.’

He ignored me. ‘This Ludger man,’ he said, ‘is he the father of Jochen?’

‘No! Good God, no. What made you think that? No – he’s the brother of Jochen’s father, the younger brother of Karl-Heinz. No, no, absolutely no.’ I laughed, with nervous relief, realising I’d said ‘no’ six times. No denial could have been more underscored.

Hamid tried to disguise how happy he was at this news, but failed. His grin was almost stupid.

‘Oh. All right. No, I thought he…’ he paused, held up both his hands in apology. ‘Forgive me, I should not induct like this.’

‘Deduce.’

‘Deduce. So: he is Jochen’s uncle.’

This was true, but I had to admit I had never thought of Ludger Kleist in this way (he didn’t seem remotely avuncular – the words ‘Uncle Ludger’ conjoined appeared creepily antithetical) and, indeed, I had also introduced Ludger to Jochen as ‘a friend from Germany’ – and they had had no time to become better acquainted as I had to take Jochen to a birthday party. Ludger said he would go ‘to a pub’ and by the time he returned that evening Jochen was in bed. The uncle-revelation would have to wait.

Ludger was dossing down on a mattress on the floor of a room in the flat we called the Dining Room – in honour of the one dinner party I had given there since we had moved in. It was, in fact, and in theory, the room where I wrote my thesis. Its oval table was stacked with books and notes and drafts of my various chapters. I allowed myself to believe, contrary to the dusty evidence, that this was the room where I worked on my thesis – its very existence, its designation and compartmentalisation seemed to make my wishes somehow real, or more real: this was where my calm, scholarly, intellectual life took place – my messy disorganised real life occupied the rest of the flat. The Dining Room was my discrete little cell of mental endeavour. I dispelled the illusion quickly: we pushed the table to the wall; we laid down Ludger’s inflatable mattress on the carpet – it had become a spare room again – one Ludger professed himself to be very comfortable in.

‘If you could see where I have been sleeping,’ he said, pulling down the bottom eyelid of his right eye with a finger, as if to exemplify a basilisk stare. ‘Jesus Christ, Ruth, this is the Ritz.’ And then he gave his crazy shrill laugh that I remembered better than I wished.

Hamid and I settled down with the Ambersons. Keith Amberson couldn’t get his car started and the family were about to go on holiday to Dorset. Lots of conditional-perfect verbs. I could hear Ludger moving from the kitchen through the flat.

‘Is Ludger staying long?’ Hamid asked. Clearly Ludger was on both our minds.

‘I don’t think so,’ I said, realising that in fact I had still to ask.

‘You said you thought he was dead. Was it in an accident?’

I decided to tell Hamid the truth. ‘I was told that he had been shot by the West German police. But obviously not.’

‘Shot by police? Is he a gangster, a criminal?’

‘Let’s say he’s a radical. A kind of anarchist.’

‘So why is he staying here?’

‘He’ll be going in a couple of days,’ I lied.

‘Is it because of Jochen’s father?’

‘So many questions, Hamid.’

‘I apologise.’

‘Yes – I suppose I am letting him stay here for a couple of days because he is the brother of Jochen’s father… Look, shall we continue? Will Keith get his car fixed? What should Keith have done?’

‘Are you still in love with Jochen’s father?’

I looked stupidly at Hamid. His brown-eyed gaze was intense, candid. He had never asked me questions like this before.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Of course not. I left him nearly two years ago. That’s why I brought Jochen back to Oxford.’

‘Good,’ he said, smiling, relaxing. ‘I just had to know.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I would like to invite you to have dinner with me. In a restaurant.’

Veronica agreed to take Jochen home for supper and I drove out to Middle Ashton to talk with my mother. When I arrived she was in the garden on her knees, cutting the lawn with shears. She repudiated lawn mowers, she said; she abominated lawn mowers; lawn mowers had signalled the death of the English garden as it had existed for centuries. Capability Brown and Gilbert White had no need of lawn mowers: grass should only be cropped by sheep or be scythed in the true English garden – and as she didn’t possess or know how to wield a scythe she was perfectly happy to get down on her knees once a fortnight with her shears. The contemporary English lawn was a ghastly anachronism – striped, shaved grass was a hideous modern invention. And so on, and so on. I was very familiar with the argument and never bothered to try to refute it (she was quite happy to use her motor car to go shopping, I noticed, rather than acquire a pony and trap, as old Capability or Gilbert would have done). Her lawn was therefore shaggy and unkempt, full of daisies and other weeds: this was what a cottage garden lawn was meant to look like, she would pontificate, given half a chance.

‘How’s the back?’ I said, looking down on her.

‘Bit better today,’ she said, ‘though I might ask you to wheel me down to the pub later.’

We went to sit in the kitchen and she poured me a glass of wine and an apple juice for herself. She didn’t drink, my mother: I’d never seen her so much as sip a sherry.

‘Let’s have a cigarette,’ she said, so we both lit up, puffed away and made small talk for a while putting off the big conversation she knew we were going to have.

‘Feeling more relaxed, now?’ she asked. ‘I could tell you were tense. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on. Is it Jochen?’

‘No, it’s you, for heaven’s sake. You and “Eva Delectorskaya”. I can’t get a grip on all this, Sal. Think what it’s like for me – out of the blue like this, with never so much of a hint. I’m worried.’

She shrugged. ‘Only to be expected. It’s a shock, I know. If I were you I’d be a bit shocked, true, a bit unsettled.’ She looked at me in a strange way, I thought: coldly, analytically, as if I were someone she’d just met. ‘You don’t really believe me. Do you?’ she said. ‘You think I’m crackers.’

‘I do believe you, of course I do – how could I not? It’s just hard to take it on board: all at once. Everything being so different – everything I’d blithely taken for granted all my life gone in a second.’ I paused, daring myself: ‘Go on, say something in Russian.’

She spoke for two minutes in Russian, getting angrier as she did so, pointing her finger at me, jabbing it.

I was wholly surprised and taken aback – it was like some form of possession, speaking in tongues. It left me short of breath.

‘My God,’ I said. ‘What was that all about?’

‘It was about the disappointment I feel about my daughter. My daughter, who’s an intelligent and stubborn young woman but who, if she’d spent just a little of her considerable brain power thinking logically about what I have told her, would have realised in about thirty seconds that I’d never play such a wicked trick on her. So there.’

I finished off my wine.

‘So what happened next?’ I asked. ‘Did you go to Belgium? Why are you called “Sally” Gilmartin? What happened to my grandfather, Sergei, and my step-grandmother, Irene?’

She stood up, a little triumphantly, I thought, and moved to the door.

‘One thing at a time. You’ll find out everything. You’ll have the answers to every question you could ask. I just want you to read my story carefully – use your brain. Your powerful brain. I’ll have questions for you, also. Lots of questions. There’s things I’m not sure even I understand…’ This thought seemed to upset her and she frowned, then she left the room. I poured myself another glass of wine and then thought about breathalysers – careful. My mother came back and handed me another folder. I felt a spasm of irritation: I knew she was doing this deliberately – feeding me her story in instalments, like a serial. She wanted to keep me drawn in, to make the revelations endure so that it wouldn’t be over in one great emotional earthquake. A series of small tremors was what she was after – to keep me on my toes.

‘Why don’t you just give me the whole bloody thing,’ I said, more petulantly than I wanted.

‘I’m still polishing it,’ she said, unperturbed, ‘making small changes all the time. I want it to be as good as possible.’

‘When did you write all this?’

‘Over the last year or two. You can see I keep adding, crossing out, rewriting. Trying to make it read clearly. I want it to seem consistent. You can tidy it up if you want – you’re a much better writer than I am.’

She came over to me and squeezed my arm – consolingly, I thought, with some feeling: my mother was not a great one for physical contact therefore it was hard to read the subtext of her rare affective gestures.

‘Don’t look so perplexed,’ she said. ‘We all have secrets. No one knows even half the truth about anybody else, however close or intimate they are. I’m sure you’ve got secrets from me. Hundreds, thousands. Look at you – you didn’t even tell me about Jochen for months.’ She reached out and smoothed my hair – this was very unusual. ‘That’s all I’m doing, Ruth, believe me. I’m just telling you my secrets. You’ll understand why I had to wait until now.’

‘Did Dad know?’

She paused. ‘No, he didn’t. He didn’t know anything.’

I thought about this for a while; thought about my parents and how I had always regarded them. Wipe that slate clean, I said to myself.

‘Didn’t he suspect?’ I said. ‘Suspect anything?’

‘I don’t think so. We were very happy, that’s all that mattered.’

‘So why have you decided to tell me all this? Tell me your secrets, all of a sudden?’

She sighed, looked about her, fluttered her hands aimlessly, ran them through her hair, then drummed her fingers on the table.

‘Because,’ she said, finally, ‘because I think someone is trying to kill me.’

I drove home, thoughtfully, slowly, carefully. I was a little wiser, I suppose, but I was beginning to worry more about my mother’s paranoia than what I had to accept as the truth about her strange, duplicitous past. Sally Gilmartin was – and this I had to come to terms with – Eva Delectorskaya. But, by the same token, why would anyone want to kill a 66-year-old woman, a grandmother, living in a remote Oxfordshire village? I thought I could just about live with Eva Delectorskaya but I found the murder issue much harder to accept.

I collected Jochen from Veronica’s and we walked homewards through Summertown to Moreton Road. The summer night was heavy, humid, and the leaves on the trees looked tired and limp. A whole summer’s heat in three weeks and summer had just begun. Jochen said he was hot, so I slipped his T-shirt off him and we walked home, hand in hand, not talking, each of us lost in our thoughts.

At the gate, he said: ‘Is Ludger still here?’

‘Yes. He’s staying for a few days.’

‘Is Ludger my daddy?’

‘No! God, no. Definitely not. I told you – your father’s called Karl-Heinz. Ludger’s his brother.’

‘Oh.’

‘Why did you think he was?’

‘He’s from Germany. I was born in Germany, you said.’

‘So you were.’

I crouched down and looked him in the face, took his two hands.

‘He isn’t your father. I would never lie to you about that, darling. I’ll always tell you the truth.’

He looked pleased.

‘Give me a hug,’ I said, and he put his arms around my neck and kissed me on the cheek. I picked him up and carried him down the alleyway towards our stairs. As I set him down on the top landing I looked through the kitchen’s glass door to see Ludger emerge from the bathroom and wander towards us down the corridor, heading for the dining-room. He was naked.

‘Stay there,’ I said to Jochen and strode quickly through the kitchen to intercept him. Ludger was drying his hair with a towel and humming to himself as he walked towards me – his cock was swaying to and fro as he rubbed his hair.

‘Ludger.’

‘Oh. Hi, Ruth,’ he said, taking his time to cover himself up.

‘Do you mind not doing that, Ludger. Please. In my house.’

‘Sorry. I thought you were out.’

‘Students come to the back door at all hours. They can see in. It’s a glass door.’

He gave his sleazy grin. ‘A nice surprise for them. But you don’t mind.’

‘Yes, I do mind. Please don’t walk around naked.’ I turned and went back to let Jochen in.

‘Forgive me, Ruth,’ he called plaintively after me: he could tell how cross I was. ‘It was because I was in porno. I never think. No more naked, I promise.’

The Story of Eva Delectorskaya

Belgium . 1939

EVA DELECTORSKAYA WOKE EARLY, remembered she was alone in the flat and took her time washing and dressing. She made coffee and took it to the small balcony – there was a watery sun shining – where she had a view across the railway line to the Parc Marie-Henriette, its trees largely bare now, but she saw, to her vague surprise, that there was a solitary couple out on the lake, the man heaving on the oars as if he were in a race, showing off, the woman clinging on to the sides of the rowing boat for fear of falling in.

She decided to walk to work. The sun had persisted and, even though it was November, there was something invigorating about the cold air and the sharp slanting shadows. She put on her hat and her coat and wrapped her scarf around her neck. She double-locked the flat as she left, carefully placing her small square of yellow paper under the doorjamb, so that it was just visible. When Sylvia returned she’d replace it with a blue square. Eva knew that there was a war on but, in sleepy Ostend, such precautions seemed almost absurd: who, for instance, was going to break into their flat? But Romer wanted everyone in the unit to be ‘operational’ – to establish good habits and procedures, to make them second nature.

She strolled down the rue Leffinge and turned left on the Chauss?e de Thourout, lifting her face to the mild sun, deliberately not thinking about the day ahead, trying to pretend she was a young Belgian woman – like the other young Belgian women she saw on the street about her – a young Belgian woman going about her business in a small town in a small country in a world that made some sort of sense.

She turned right at the clock tower and crossed the small square towards the Cafe de Paris. She thought about stopping for a coffee but realised that Sylvia would be waiting impatiently to be relieved from the night shift and so strode briskly onwards. At the tram depot she saw on the billboards the fading posters from last summer’s races – Le Grand Prix Internationale d’Ostende 1939 – strange reminders from a world that was then at peace. She turned left at the post office into the rue d’Yser and immediately saw the new sign Romer had had installed. Royal blue on lemon yellow: Agence d’Information Nadal – or, as Romer preferred to call it: ‘The Rumour Factory’.

The building was a 1920s three-storey rectilinear office block, with a curved, pillared porte-cochere over the main entrance, in austere Streamline Moderne style, an effect which was rather undermined by the decorative pseudo-Egyptian frieze that ran under the simple cornice of the top floor. On the roof was a thirty-foot wireless transmitter tower, like a mini-Tour Eiffel, painted red and white. It was this, rather than any architectural pretensions, that made the odd passer-by offer the building a second glance.

Eva walked in, nodded to the receptionist, and climbed the stairs to the top floor. The Agence d’Information Nadal was a small news agency, a minnow compared to the giants like Reuters, Agence Havas or Associated Press but which did, essentially, the same job – namely sell news and information to various customers unprepared or unable to gather that news and information themselves. A.I. Nadal serviced some 137 local newspapers and radio stations in Belgium, Holland and northern France and made a modest but steady profit. Romer had bought it in 1938 from its founder Pierre-Henri Nadal, a spruce white-haired old gent who wore co-respondent shoes and a boater in summer and who occasionally popped in to the office to see how his child was progressing under the new foster-parents. Romer had kept the essentials and discreetly added the modifications he required. The radio tower was heightened and made more powerful. The original staff, some dozen Belgian journalists, were retained but quartered on the second floor, where they continued to sift and disseminate the local news from this small corner of northern Europe – livestock sales, village fetes, bicycle races, high and low tides, closing prices from the Brussels bourse and so on – duly passing their copy down to the telegraphists on the ground floor, who transformed the information into Morse code and telegraphed it to the agency’s 137 subscribers.

Romer’s unit occupied the third floor. A small team of five who spent their days reading every European and relevant foreign newspaper they could find, and who, after due process of consultation and discussion, would insert, from time to time, a particular Romer-story into the mass of trivia beamed out from the innocuous building on the rue d’Yser.

Apart from Romer and Eva the other four members of Romer’s ‘team’ were Morris Devereux – Romer’s number two – an elegant and suave ex-Cambridge don; Angus Woolf, a former Fleet Street journalist who was severely crippled by some congenital deformation of his spine; Sylvia Rhys-Meyer – Eva’s flatmate – a lively woman in her late thirties, married and divorced three times and an ex-Foreign Office linguist and translator; and Alfie Blytheswood – who had nothing to do with the material that came out of the agency but was responsible for the maintenance and smooth running of the powerful transmitters and the occasional wireless encryptions. This was AAS in its entirety, Eva came to realise, very quickly: Romer’s team was small and tight-knit – apart from her everyone seemed to have been working for him for several years, Morris Devereux even longer.

Eva hung her coat and hat on her usual hook and made for her desk. Sylvia was still there, flicking through yesterday’s Swedish newspapers. The ashtray in front of her was brimful of cigarette butts.

‘Busy night?’

Sylvia arched her back and eased her shoulders to simulate fatigue. She looked like a stout, no-nonsense county wife, the wife of the local GP or a gentleman farmer, bosomy and broad-hipped, who wore well-cut suits and expensive accessories – except that everything else about Sylvia Rhys-Meyer contradicted that initial assessment.

‘Fucking boring, fucking dull boring, boring dull fucking, dull fucking boring,’ she said, standing up to allow Eva to take her seat.

‘Oh, yes,’ Sylvia added. ‘Your dead-sailors piece has been picked up all over the place.’ She opened and pointed to a page in the Svenska Dagbladet. ‘And it’s in The Times and in Le Monde. Congratulations. His nibs will be very pleased.’

Eva looked at the Swedish text, recognising certain words. It was a story she had suggested at conference a few days before: the idea of twenty Icelandic sailors washed up in a remote Norwegian fjord, alleging that their fishing boat had sailed into heavily mined waters off the port of Narvik. Eva knew at once that it was the sort of story Romer loved. It had already provoked an official denial by the British War Office (Norwegian territorial waters had not been mined by British ships) – more to the point, as Romer would say, it was loose intelligence: a fishing boat sunk by a mine – where? – and it was information useful to the enemy. Any further denials would be either disbelieved or be too late – the news was out there in the world doing its dirty work. German intelligence officials monitoring the world’s media would note the alleged presence of mines off the Norwegian coast. This would be conveyed to the navy; maps would be taken out, amended, altered. It was, in essence, the ideal illustration of how Romer’s unit and A.I. Nadal was meant to work. Information wasn’t neutral, Romer constantly repeated: if it was believed or even half believed, then everything began subtly to change as a result – the ripple effect could have consequences no one could foresee. Eva had had previous small successes during the four months she’d been in Ostend – news of imaginary bridges being planned for, of Dutch flood defences reinforced, of trains being re-routed in northern France because of new military manoeuvres – but this was the first time the international press had picked up one of her stories. Romer’s idea, like all good ideas, was very simple: false information can be just as useful, influential, as telling, transforming or as damaging as true information. In a world where A.I. Nadal fed 137 news outlets, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, how could you tell what was genuine and what was the product of a clever, devious and determined mind?

Eva took her seat, still warm from Sylvia’s generous buttocks, and pulled a pile of Russian and French newspapers towards her. She assumed that someone high up in the British Secret Service had seen the merit in Romer’s idea and that this explained the strange autonomy he seemed to possess. It was the British taxpayer, she surmised, who had bought the Agence d’Information Nadal (and thereby ensured Pierre-Henri Nadal a very comfortable retirement) and was now funding its development as part of its Political Warfare department. Romer and his ‘unit’ were involved in feeding careful and clever false information out into the world – through the bona-fide medium of a small Belgian press agency – and nobody really knew what the effect might be. No one could tell if the German high command was taking note, but the unit always counted it a success if their stories were picked up (and paid for) by other newspapers and radio stations. However, Romer seemed to want the stories they sent out to conform to some kind of plan to which only he had the key. In conference, he would sometimes demand stories about rumours of potential resignations of this or that minister, or scandals undermining this or that government; or he would say, suddenly: we need something on Spanish neutrality; or else call immediately for statistics about the increase in sheet-metal production in French foundries. The lies had to be constructed with all the scrupulousness of truth. Instant plausibility was the key concern – and the team laboured to supply it. But it was all somewhat vague and all – to tell the truth as Eva saw it – something of a parlour game. They never knew the consequences of their clever little fibs: it was as if the individual members of the unit were players in an orchestra, sequestered in soundproof rooms – only Romer was able to make out the harmonies of the tune they were playing.

Sylvia came back to the desk, her coat on and a smart felt hat with a feather jammed on her head.

‘Supper in tonight?’ she said. ‘Let’s have steak and red wine.’

“Fraid not,’ a man’s voice said.

They both turned to see Morris Devereux standing there. He was a lean, acerbic, sharp-featured young man with prematurely grey hair which he brushed sleekly back from his brow without a parting. He took care over his clothes: today he was wearing a dark navy suit and an azure bow tie. Some days he wore brilliant scarlet shirts.

‘We’re off to Brussels,’ he said to Eva. ‘Press conference, foreign ministry.’

‘What about this lot?’ Eva said pointing to her pile of newspapers.

‘You can relax,’ Morris said. ‘Your dead sailors have been picked up by Associated Press. Nice cheque for us and you’ll be all over America tomorrow.’

Sylvia grunted, said goodbye and left. Morris fetched Eva’s coat and hat.

‘We have our master’s motor,’ he said. ‘He’s been summoned to London. I think a rather nice luncheon is on the cards.’

They drove to Brussels, passing swiftly through Bruges with no delay but at Ghent they were obliged to detour on to minor roads to Audenarde as their way was blocked by a convoy of military vehicles, lorries filled with soldiers and small tanks on low-loaders and, strangely, what seemed to be an entire division of cavalry, horses and riders milling about the road and its verges for all the world as if preparing to advance on a nineteenth-century battlefield.

In Brussels they parked near the Gare du Nord and, as they were late for lunch, they took a taxi direct to the restaurant Morris had already booked, the Filet de Boeuf in the rue Gr?try. The press conference was at the h?tel de ville at 3.30. They had plenty of time, Morris thought, though perhaps they should pass on dessert.

They were shown to their table and ordered an aperitif as they scanned the menus. Eva looked about her at the other clients: the businessmen, the lawyers, the politicians, she supposed – eating, smoking, drinking, talking – and at the elderly waiters bustling importantly to and fro with the orders and she realised she was the only woman in the room. It was a Wednesday: perhaps Belgian women didn’t go out to eat until the weekend, she suggested to Morris – who was summoning the sommelier.

‘Who knows? But your refulgent femininity more than compensates for the preponderance of males, my dear.’

She ordered museau de porc and turbot.

‘It’s very strange, this war,’ she said. ‘I keep having to remind myself it’s going on.’

‘Ah, but we’re in a neutral country,’ Morris said. ‘Don’t forget.’

‘What’s Romer doing in London?’

‘Ours not to reason why. Probably talking to Mr X.’

‘Who’s Mr X?’

‘Mr X is Romer’s… what? Romer’s Cardinal Richelieu. A very powerful man who allows Lucas Romer to do pretty much what he wants.’

Eva looked at Morris as he cut his foie gras into neat little squares.

‘Why isn’t the Agence in Brussels?’ she asked. ‘Why are we in Ostend?’

‘So it’ll be easier for us to flee when the Germans invade.’

‘Oh yes? And when will that be?’

‘Spring of next year, according to our boss. He doesn’t want to be trapped in Brussels.’

Their main courses arrived and a bottle of claret. Eva watched Morris do the whole sniffing, glass held to the light, wine rolled around the mouth performance with aplomb.

‘We’d eat and drink better in Brussels,’ Eva said. ‘Anyway, why am I on this trip? You’re the Belgian expert.’

‘Romer insisted. You do have your identification with you, I hope.’

She assured him she had and they ate on, chatting about their colleagues and the deficiencies and disadvantages of life in Ostend, but Eva found herself wondering as they talked, and not for the first time, about what tiny part she was playing in an invisible grander plan that only Romer really understood. Her recruitment, her training, her posting all seemed to betoken some form of logical progression – but she could not discern where it was leading. She could not see the Eva Delectorskaya cog in the big machine – she could not even see the big machine, she realised. Ours not to reason why, Morris had said, and she ruefully conceded that he was right, as she carved off a square inch of turbot and popped it in her mouth – delicious. It was a pleasure to be in Brussels, away from her French and Russian newspapers, lunching with a cultured and amusing young man – don’t rock the boat looking for answers; don’t make waves.

The press conference was held by a junior minister and was designed to outline the Belgian government’s position with regard to Russia ‘s recent invasion of Finland. Eva’s name and details were taken at the door and she and Morris joined about forty other journalists and listened to the junior minister’s speech for a minute or two before her mind began to wander. She found herself thinking of her father, whom she had last seen in Paris in August for a few days while she was on leave and before she moved to Ostend. He had looked much frailer, thinner, the wattles under his chin more pronounced and she noticed also how both his hands trembled in repose. The most disturbing tic was his constant licking of his lips. She asked him if he was thirsty and he said, no, not at all, why? She wondered if it were a side-effect of the drugs he had been given to stimulate his heart but she could not lie to herself any more: her father had embarked on a slow form of terminal decline – doughty old age was behind him, now he was entering the final fraught struggle of his time on earth. She thought he had aged ten years in the few months she had been away.

Irene was cool and incurious about her new life in England and said, when Eva asked about her father’s health, that he was doing very nicely, thank you, all the doctors were very pleased. When her father asked her about her job she said she was working in ‘signals’ and that she was now an expert in Morse code. ‘Who would have thought it?’ he exclaimed, something of his old vigour returning for a moment or two, putting his trembling hand on her arm and adding, in a low voice so Irene couldn’t hear, ‘You did the right thing, my dear. Good girl.’

Morris tapped on her elbow, jerking her out of her reverie, and passed her a piece of paper. It was a question in French. She looked at it incomprehensibly.

‘Romer wants you to ask it,’ Morris said.

‘Why?’

‘I think it’s meant to confer respectability on us.’

Therefore, when the junior minister had finished his speech and the moderator of the press conference asked for questions, Eva allowed four or five to take place before she raised her hand. She was spotted, pointed at – ‘ La Mademoiselle, l? – and stood up.

‘Eve Dalton,’ she said, ‘Agence d’Information Nadal.’ She saw the moderator write her name in a ledger in front of him and then, at his nod, she asked her question – she had no real idea of its import – something to do with a minority party in parliament, the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, and their policy of ‘La neutralit? rigoureuse’. It caused some consternation: the junior minister’s reply was brusque and dismissive but she noticed another half-dozen hands being raised for follow-up questions. She sat down and Morris gave her a covert smile of congratulation. After five more minutes he signalled that they should leave and they crept out, leaving by a side entrance and crossing the Grand Place at a half-run through an angled, spitting rain towards a caf?. They sat indoors and smoked a cigarette and drank tea, looking out through the windows at the ornate cliff faces of the buildings round the massive square, their sense of absolute confidence and prosperity still ringing out across the centuries. The rain was growing heavier and the flower sellers were packing up their stalls when they caught a taxi to the station and then drove back steadily and without delays or diversions towards Ostend.

There were no military convoys on the road at Ghent and they made good time, reaching Ostend by seven o’clock in the evening. On the journey back they talked casually but guardedly – as did all Romer’s employees, Eva now realised. There was a sense of solidarity that they shared, of being in a small elite team – that was undeniable – but it was really only a veneer: no one was ever truly open or candid; they tried to restrict their conversation to frivolous observations, bland generalities – specific times and places in their past, pre-Romer lives were never identified.

Morris said to her: ‘Your French is excellent. First class.’

And Eva said: ‘Yes, I lived in Paris for a while.’

In her turn she asked Morris how long he had known Romer. ‘Oh, a good few years now,’ he said and she knew from the tone of his voice that it would not only be wrong to ask for a more precise answer but that it would also be suspicious. Morris called her ‘Eve’ and the thought came to her suddenly that perhaps ‘Morris Devereux’ was no more his real name than ‘Eve Dalton’ was hers. She glanced over at him as they motored towards the coast and saw his fine features lit from below by the dashboard lights and felt, not for the first time, a dull pang of regret: how this curious job they were doing – regardless of how they were working towards the same end – consistently managed to leave them essentially divided and solitary.

Morris dropped her at her flat; she said good-night and climbed the stairs to her landing. There she saw Sylvia’s blue square of card protruding just beyond the doorjamb. She slipped her key into the lock and was just about to turn it when it was opened from the inside. Romer stood there, smiling at her somewhat frostily, she thought, and at the same time she noticed Sylvia standing in the hall behind him, making vague panic gestures that Eva couldn’t quite decipher.

‘You’ve been a while,’ he said. ‘Didn’t you take the car?’

‘Yes, we did,’ Eva said, moving through to their small sitting-room. ‘It was raining on the way back. I thought you were meant to be in London.’

‘I was. And what I learned there has brought me immediately back. Air travel, wonderful invention.’ He moved to the window where he had left his bag.

‘He’s been here two hours,’ Sylvia whispered, making a gruesome face, as Romer crouched down and rummaged in his grip and then belted it closed. He stood up.

‘Pack an overnight bag,’ he said. ‘You and I are going to Holland.’

Prenslo was a nondescript small village on the frontier between Holland and Germany. Eva and Romer had found the journey there surprisingly tiring and taxing. They took a train from Ostend to Brussels, where they changed and caught another train to The Hague. At the main station in The Hague a man from the British Embassy was waiting with a car. Romer then drove them east towards the German border, except that he lost his way twice when he had to leave the main road to head crosscountry for Prenslo, and they spent half an hour or so doubling back before they found their way. They arrived in Prenslo at 4.00 a.m. to discover that the hotel that Romer had booked – the Hotel Willems – was locked shut and completely dark with no one prepared to respond to their bell-ringing, their shouts or peremptory knocking. So they sat in their car in the car-park until seven when a sleepy lad in a dressing gown unlocked the hotel’s front door and they were finally, grumpily, admitted.

Eva had spoken little during the journey to Prenslo, deliberately, and Romer had seemed more than usually self-absorbed and taciturn. She felt there was something about Romer’s attitude that irked her – as if she was being indulged, spoilt, that she should feel unusually privileged to be on this mysterious night journey with the ‘boss’ – and so she behaved dutifully and uncomplainingly. But the three-hour wait in the Hotel Willems’s car-park and their enforced proximity had made Romer more relaxed and he had told her in more detail what they were doing in Prenslo.

On his brief trip to London Romer had learned that there was an SIS mission due to take place the next day in Prenslo. A senior German general in the Wehrmacht high command wanted to sound out the British position and response in the event of an army-led coup against Hitler. Apparently there was no question of deposing Hitler – he would maintain his role as chancellor – but he would be under the absolute control of the mutinous generals. After several preliminary encounters – to check security, to verify details – a unit of the British Secret Service based in The Hague had set up this first meeting with the general himself in a cafe at Prenslo. Prenslo was chosen because of the ease with which the general and his collaborators could slip to and fro across the border unremarked. The cafe in question was a hundred yards from the frontier.

Eva listened to all this attentively, with about three dozen questions clustering in her head. She knew she probably shouldn’t air them but she didn’t really care: she was both tired and mystified.

‘Why do you need me for this?’ she asked.

‘Because my face is known to the SIS men. One of them is Head of Station in Holland – I’ve met him half a dozen times.’ Romer stretched, his elbow bumping Eva’s shoulder. ‘Sorry – you’ll be my eyes and ears, Eva. I need to know exactly what’s going on.’ He smiled tiredly, having to explain. ‘It would look very odd to this fellow if he spotted me poking around.’

Another question had to be asked: ‘But why are we poking around? Aren’t we all “Secret Intelligence Service” people, at the end of the day?’ She found the whole thing faintly ridiculous, obviously the result of some inter-departmental squabble – all of which meant she was wasting her time sitting in a car in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Romer suggested they take a turn around the car-park, stretch their legs – they did so. Romer lit a cigarette, not offering her one, and they walked in silence a full circuit before returning to their car.

‘We are not really SIS, to be precise,’ he said. ‘My team – AAS – is officially part of GC amp;GS.’ He explained. ‘The Government Code and Cipher School. GC ampersand GS. We have a… a somewhat different role to play.’

‘Though we’re all on the same side.’

‘Are you trying to be clever?’

They sat in silence for a while before he spoke again. ‘You’ve seen the stories we’ve been putting out through the Agence about disaffection in the upper ranks of the German army.’

Eva said yes: she remembered items about the threatened resignation of this or that high-ranking officer; denials that this or that high-ranking officer was being posted to a provincial command and so on.

Romer continued: ‘I think this Prenslo encounter is all as a result of our stories from the Agence. It’s only right that I should see what happens. I should have been informed from the outset.’ In a gesture of his irritation he flicked away his cigarette into the bushes – a bit foolhardily, Eva thought, then remembered that at this time of the year the bushes would be damp and incombustible. He was angry, Eva realised, somebody was going to steal his credit.

‘Does SIS know we’re here in Prenslo?’

‘I very much assume and hope not.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Good.’

Once the sleepy lad had shown them to their rooms Eva was called into Romer’s. He was on the top floor and had a good view down Prenslo’s only significant street. Romer handed her a pair of binoculars and pointed out the key details in the panorama: there was the German border crossing with its striped black and white barrier; there was the railway line; there, a hundred yards back, was the Dutch custom-house, occupied only in summer months. Opposite was the cafe, the Cafe Backus, a large two-storey modern building with two petrol pumps and a glassed-in veranda with distinctive striped awnings – chocolate brown and orange – to cast shade. A new hedge and some tethered saplings had been planted around the gravelled forecourt; behind the cafe was a larger unpaved car-park, with swings and a see-saw at one side, and beyond it a pinewood into which the railway line ran and disappeared. The Cafe Backus effectively marked the end of Prenslo before Germany began. The rest of the village stretched back from it – houses and shops, a post office, a small town hall with a large clock and, of course, the Hotel Willems.

‘I want you to go to the cafe and order breakfast,’ Romer said. ‘Speak French, if you have to speak English make it very accented and broken. Ask if you can get a room for the night, or something. Get a sense of the place, dither, poke around – say you’ll be back for lunch. Have a look and report back to me in an hour or so.’

Eva had felt tired as she had scanned Prenslo through Romer’s binoculars – she’d had a busy twenty-four hours, after all – but now, as she walked down Prenslo’s main street towards the Cafe Backus, she suddenly felt her body taut and alive with adrenalin. She looked casually about her, noting the people out on the street, a lorry loaded with milk churns passing by, a file of schoolchildren in forest-green uniforms. She pushed open the door of the Cafe Backus.

She ordered her breakfast – coffee, two boiled eggs, bread and ham – and ate it alone in the large ground-floor dining-room that gave on to the glassed-in veranda. A young girl served her, who spoke no French. Eva could hear a clatter of plates and conversation from the kitchen. Then two young men came out of a double door to one side and stepped out on to the forecourt. They were young but one was bald and the other had very cropped hair in a military style. They were wearing suits and ties. They hung around the petrol pumps for a while, staring up the road at the custom post’s barrier. Then they re-entered, glancing incuriously at Eva, who was having her coffee-cup refilled by the waitress. The double doors swung closed behind them.

Eva asked to see a room but was told that the rooms were only let in the summer. She asked where the lavatory was and, deliberately mishearing the directions, pushed through the double doors. There was a large conference room behind with tables ranged in a square. The bald man was all sharp angles, elbows and knees jutting, sitting on a chair looking at something on the sole of his shoe; the other man was practising a tennis serve with an invisible racquet. They looked slowly round and she backed out. The waitress pointed Eva in the right direction and she walked quickly down the corridor she should have taken to the lavatory.

There, she unlatched, shoved and wrenched open the small frosted-glass window to reveal a view of the unpaved car-park, the swings and the see-saw and the pinewoods beyond. She closed the window, leaving it unlatched.

She went back to the Hotel Willems and told Romer about the two men and the conference room. I couldn’t tell their nationality, she said, I didn’t hear them speaking – perhaps German or Dutch, certainly not English. While she had been away Romer had made some telephone calls: the meeting with the general was due to take place at.2.30 that afternoon. There would also be a Dutch intelligence officer with the two British agents – his name was Lt. Joos; he was expecting Eva to make contact with him. Romer gave her a slip of paper with the double passwords written on it, then he took it back from her and tore it up.

‘Why should I make contact with Lt. Joos?’

‘So he knows you’re on his side.’

‘Will it be dangerous?’

‘You’ll have been in the cafe some hours before him. You’ll be able to tell him anything suspicious you might have seen. He’s coming to this rendezvous cold – they’re very happy to think you’ll have been there.’

‘Right.’

‘He might not even ask you anything. They seem very relaxed about the whole show. But just watch, watch everything very closely, and then come back and tell me every detail.’ Romer yawned. ‘I’m going to get some sleep now, if you don’t mind.’

Eva tried to doze herself but her brain was working too energetically. She felt, also, a strange excitement in her: this was new, more to the point this was real – Dutch and British agents, a conspiracy with a German general – it was a far cry from losing shadows in Princes Street.

At one o’clock she retraced her steps up Prenslo’s main road to the Cafe Backus, where she ordered lunch. Three other elderly couples were already installed in the veranda area, their meals well under way. Eva sat in the back, across from the double doors and ordered a full menu though she wasn’t in the least hungry. There was more bustle about the cafe: cars were stopping for petrol and in the reflection of the window Eva could see the black and white barrier of the frontier rising and falling as cars and lorries passed to and fro. There was no sign of the two young men but when she went to the lavatory she noticed a black Mercedes-Benz now parked behind the cafe by the swings and the see-saw.

Then, just after she had ordered her dessert, a tall young man with receding hair in a tightly waisted dark suit came into the cafe and, after talking to the ma?tre d’, went through the double doors into the meeting room. She wondered if this was Lt. Joos; he had not even glanced at her as he walked by.

A few moments later two other men arrived; the British agents, Eva guessed at once. One was portly, in a blazer; the other was dapper with a small moustache and wearing a tweed suit. Now Joos came out of the room and spoke with the two men: some consternation and irritation was evident and there was much looking at watches. Joos went back into the meeting room and emerged with the bald young man, a short conversation ensued and the two British accompanied him back through the double doors to the meeting room. Joos hovered outside like a major-domo or a doorman at a night-club.

By now only one couple was left on the veranda finishing their meal, the wife spooning out the coffee grounds and sugar from the base of her coffee cup, the husband smoking a small cigar with all the histrionic relish of a large one. Eva approached Joos with an unlit cigarette and said, in English as programmed, ‘Do you smoke, may I trouble you for a light?’ Joos replied, as programmed, ‘Indeed I do smoke.’ Then he duly lit her cigarette with his lighter. He was quite a handsome man, lean with a fine straight nose, his good looks spoilt by a cast in his left eye: it seemed to be looking over the top of her head. Then Eva asked him: ‘Do you know where I can buy any French cigarettes?’ Joos thought for a bit and then said, ‘ Amsterdam?’ Eva smiled, shrugged and went back to her table. She paid her bill as quickly as possible and went to the ladies’ lavatory. She opened the window to its full extent, climbed on the lavatory and squeezed out. Her heel caught on the latch and she dropped to the ground awkwardly. Standing up and dusting herself down, she saw two cars speed through the border crossing from the German side and heard them pull up at the front, with much spraying gravel, outside the cafe. She moved round to catch sight of them and was in time to see half a dozen men run inside.

Eva walked quickly across the car-park, past the swings and the see-saw, and into the fringe of the pinewoods. After a minute, or less, a rear door of the cafe opened and she saw the two British agents, flanked by a man on each side, being marched over to the parked Mercedes. Then, suddenly, from around the front of the cafe, Joos came running. There was a series of flat abrupt cracks, like branches splitting, and she realised that Joos was shooting as he ran – he had a revolver in his hand. The British and their guards went down, taking cover behind the car. One of Joos’s bullets hit the windscreen and there was a small bright scatter of glass.

Joos was running towards the wood, not directly at Eva, but to one side, to her right. By now the guards were standing up, their own pistols drawn and were firing back at Joos. Two more men came out of the cafe and started running after him, also firing. Eva noticed that Joos ran well, agilely, even in his tight-cut suit, like a boy, and he almost made the cover of the pine trees when he seemed to stumble, then stagger a bit, then the two men running after him fired again at closer range – ‘Pan! Pan! Pan!’ it sounded like – and he fell quickly and limply to the ground, not moving anymore. The men each grabbed him under his arms and dragged him back towards the car. The two British were pushed inside and Joos’s body was lugged in after them. Then the car was started and driven out of the car-park and round the Cafe Backus at speed. The other men trotted after it, pushing their revolvers under their jackets.

Eva saw the black and white barrier at the frontier rise up and watched first one, then the two other cars cross safely over the border to Germany.

Eva sat still behind her tree for a while, emptying her mind as she had been trained: there was no need to move, better to pause rather than do anything sudden or rash, storing away the details of what she had seen, going back over the sequence of events, making sure she had them correct, reminding herself exactly of the words she and Lt. Joos had said to each other.

She found a path through the wood and walked slowly along it until she came to a forester’s dirt track which led her in time to a metalled road. She was two kilometres from Prenslo, the first signpost she came to informed her. She walked slowly down the road towards the village, her mind full of noisy and competing interpretations of everything she had witnessed. When she reached the Hotel Willems she was told that the other gentleman had already left.

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