Miss Williams’s accommodations resembled a hotel room rather than an apartment, and a middle-market one at that. Its attraction was location, location, location rather than size, furnishings and decor. That location was the seventh floor of Hood house in Pimlico’s Dolphin Square complex. My location was a couple of steps ahead of her, having taken the lead after we’d arrived at a front door that she was certain had been forced. Who am I to contradict female intuition? The door opened to a front room cum studio, bedroom, living room, study. My firearm was drawn but raised. My elbow bent, the gun pointed safely at the ceiling.
While I took in as much as I could in one glance, she made for the built-in wardrobe. After sliding it open, she crouched down and moved two pairs of shoes to one side to reveal a safe. Never mind checking it hadn’t been interfered with, Natasha had to make sure it was actually still there. Above her, trendy tight jeans hung on rails. Brightly coloured fashionable tops sat in neatly folded piles. Was that a wig? Perhaps she wasn’t as dowdy as her reputation. Did she lead a second life, or even share the flat with another girl? Beneath a bookshelf, next to her a phone and telephone directory, a single bed was jammed into a corner. For once, I wished I was in charge of the loathsome task (presently dumped on poor Natasha), of vetting colleagues.
My job was to vet the other rooms, not a big ask. Natasha was correct. Her apartment had been entered and it was obvious why. An unopened envelope sat on her desk. Beyond which, a short hallway led to her tiny bathroom and kitchen. Compact, bijou and cramped went with the location. After pushing the bathroom door open with my gun clenching fist, I realised it was only a shower room. The basin, toilet and cubicle were dated but immaculately clean. A fresh pink towel was draped across a heated rail, matched by a used pink towel discarded on the lino floor. A bare minimum of toiletries lined a glass shelf below a yellowing mirror. No sign of an intruder. Kitchen? Sparse, windowless, an extractor fan where a small window might have been. Ingredients had been arranged on a cracked worktop. Sat in anticipation since breakfast time, they told of a boarding school NCO’s daughter’s meticulous routine. A meal for one, but a bulging vegetable rack next to the half-sized fridge might stretch it to meal for both of us. First, my luck had to change and second, the evening’s excitement had to make the girl too frightened to be on her own.
I borrowed the kitchen stool. I had a use for it. I swung it into the front room barking, “Clear,” while holstering my gun into the pocket which concealed my exhibit ‘A’ newspaper cutting. Natasha was sat at her desk which itself sat at right-angles to her window. Reassuringly, she was as nosey as me. When working in her modest rooms, Natasha looked out over a quadrangle surrounded by several hundred other flats. She stared at the reason for all of this. Instead of taking something, the intruder had left something, the white envelope placed on her desk. A corner was embossed with the text, “On Her Majesty’s Service”. In the middle of its middle, an impossibly neat hand had written ‘To Miss Natasha Williams’, followed on a line below by, ‘For your eyes only’.
“Could have put in your pigeonhole downstairs,” I suggested, standing over her, trying to sound sympathetic.
“Must be important,” she replied.
“Or given it to you at work?”
“Must be controversial, dividing opinion in our department, or even every department,” she suggested, too easily and too confidently. Did she realise already? Had she been tipped off?
“Could have been pushed under your door?”
“Draft excluder,” she said. “You should invest in one. Your man-sized room’s drafty and cold. My small one’s cosy and warm, mister provider.” Her voice wavered but only slightly. She’d been rattled by having a stranger in her flat but not so frightened that she couldn’t tease me about my bigger room and its accompanying bigger salary. Gentlemen’s remuneration was greater than a lady’s as, eventually, we were expected to provide for a family. It was the eighties.
“Sorry, mister provider, I can’t get used to calling you Mr Worth.” She continued her tease, this time about my new identity, the old one having recently bitten the dust in Ulster. I walked to the door. The draft excluder had a name. He was Sydney the stuffed woollen python. He lay squashed to one side, oblivious to the intrigue.
“If only he could talk,” I wondered aloud. I picked him up and held him to my ear. “Sidney wonders why MI5’s Z branch have to terrify the girlies when delivering the mail? He says the standard’s dropped and I should be grateful they passed me over.”
I dropped him to the floor and kicked him back into his place. While in the locale, I pushed the bolt closed and added the door chain to its latch.
“But you would never have joined my department,” she added, as if this had been a blessing for Queen, country, myself and Natasha.
I swung the kitchen stool to the floor and sat opposite her. With some difficulty, I found my exhibit ‘A’ cutting inside my jacket, taking great care not to shoot myself with my holstered gun during the fiddle. I placed the cutting face down between us. She’d taken off her hand-me-down coat and hung it over the back of her chair. Underneath, she was wearing an office blouse, buttoned up to her neck, showing her figure rather than her flesh. She wore no rings or earrings but a single piece of jewellery, a thin silver chain around her neck which held a charm above her blouse’s top button.
I wore a silver chain too. Bulkier and holding a crucifix, it stayed underneath my white shirt, hidden next to my skin, just in case. In Northern Ireland, it had nearly got me killed by not having a little man on it. Attention to detail, attention to detail, attention to detail. Opposite me, Natasha played with the envelope while looking out of the window. She wondered whether the curtains should be closed against the dark.
“Everybody can see us,” she said.
“And we can see them,” I reminded her.
“People might think we’re a couple.”
“So? If you’ve got a crush, it’ll make him jealous. And it might stop you from being pestered by weirdos and pervs.”
“Likewise,” she said. The curtains stayed open.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” I told her, tapping my cutting with a middle finger.
She opened her envelope, unfolded its sheets of typed paper and began by reading out one of our little office mottos. Like a schoolchild, she put her finger on each word in turn, speaking them in her soft valley’s Welsh.
“What you are about to read is propriety and top secret. It is for your eyes and your eyes alone, do not make notes.”
“You and your can be plural,” I interrupted, in case she thought a confidence was being betrayed.
“In the interests of national security, your safety and your family’s safety,” she continued, “do not repeat anything you are about to read.”
“So far so good,” she ad-libbed.
She ruffled through the papers.
“Oh guess what?” She exclaimed. “Your ball’s rolling fast. They’ve accepted your proposition and rolled it in my direction.” Scowling in accusation she continued, “I’ve got too much to do, thank you. You do realise that?” Before adding, “And a name.”
She stood and addressed the bookshelf above her bed, finding a small dictionary and flicking towards its back third. I peered outside at the rows and columns of windows opposite. Between there and here were gardens, centred by a gravel circle containing a statue of intertwined leaping dolphins. All was topped by a dark London sky.
Natasha read out a definition, “Swaling. Melting wax down the edge of a candle. What the hell are you up to?”
“Swaling means something else as a country word,” I reassured her. “A cleansing burning of the old crop. Which is what we have to do to the aforementioned, difficult to shift, pervs and weirdos.”
She sat down again.
“I hope you enjoy yourself. I’m not helping. I’ve got enough to do, and you do realise it won’t make any difference? Brick, wall, hit,” she announced with a flourish, pushing the proposition papers in front of me, her parts still unsigned.
I’d seen hers, now she had to see mine. I hoped it would change her mind. I turned over my exhibit ‘A’ and pointed to its bottom right-hand corner. To the place where all effective propaganda keeps its motivating ‘action’ ending.
To be continued….
© Always Worth Saying 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file