She met Bartlett in the Costa Coffee at Victoria underground. She was extremely nervous about the meeting and saw him inside. She went to shake his hand, but he hugged her and led her towards a quiet part of the café, well away from the counter and entrance.
“Would you like something to eat, Afarin?”
“No thank you, Alan. Could I have a green tea, please?”
She unbuttoned her coat and sat down at a table, while he went to get the drinks. When he came back, he sat down and smiled sadly at her.
“Afarin, I sense you’ve come to a decision.”
“Yes, I have. Alan, would you please hear what I’ve got to say. I’ve been rehearsing it on the train. Then say your piece. I promise I’ll listen.”
“OK. Let me have both barrels.”
“It’s nothing like that,” she told him. She sighed, composing herself, “Firstly, I’m really sorry that you have been upset by me. That was never my attention. At our last meeting I felt raw and betrayed. I had expected to be captured as part of the training. I’ve done SERE and the resistance phase was being stripped, hosed down and threatened with a cattle prod. They gave us the odd jolt on the muscles of the legs. They loved their stress positions as well, loads of them, muscle tearing and very unpleasant.
“But his was so different. We were captured in the West Bank by Fatah police and taken to this place. I managed to get a look at it from under the hood. They took me down to this cell and kept asking me stupid questions. Stripped me and tied me to a board, my legs elevated. I was waterboarded, which is a euphemism for being drowned.
“I began to suspect that something was not quite right. They had never heard of our Muslim ritual of Sunan al-Fitra where all your body hair should be removed every eight weeks.”
“I must admit, I’ve never heard of it.”
“But you are not an Arab like these guys were supposed to be. It makes sense in a hot climate like the Middle East. It keeps you cool and clean.
“Then they took me to another cell and showed me my dear friend being tortured and asked me if I knew her. If I said yes, they would stop hurting her. I denied her, which was one of the worst moments, that, and the electric shocks.
“We were “rescued” by Israeli YAMAM commandos who stormed the building and after a doctor examined me, I went outside and cadged a cigarette from one of the commandos. I recognised the building next door was the Fatah interrogation centre. One of the guys who tortured me, smoked aromatic Turkish of Russian cigarettes and I smelled someone smoking one outside, talking to one of the YAMAM guys. I went for him and hit him several times.”
Bartlett nodded slowly. Being hit by Afarin was not an experience he would want to feel.
“As he went down, one of those Jewish skull caps, a kippah fell off his head. The commando dragged me off him, because otherwise I would have killed the bastard. The whole thing was an Israeli set-up. The worst thing about the whole thing wasn’t the pain or humiliation, it was finding out the Israelis were using us in a training exercise and that you sanctioned it to happen to me. It felt like betrayal.”
She took a drink of tea and smiled nervously, “Thank you for listening to me.”
Bartlett was quiet and thoughtful for at least a couple of minutes. Finally, he spoke.
“Afarin, I am so sorry for the pain you were in and the humiliation. I thought that this training would give you the best chance of surviving capture and would give you a chance and an idea of what to expect. I knew that it wouldn’t be a walk in the park because the Israelis explained to me how brutal it was compared with our SERE course. I hadn’t realised just how brutal and for that, I’m sorry.
“If you have lost confidence in me, then rather than handing you over to another officer to run, I think we should cut our ties and you return to the SRR full time. The relationship between the agent and his or her handler, is a difficult balancing act. This relationship can become very intense. It is not uncommon for the handler and agent to have a very close relationship, including a sexual connection, not ideal but human lives are messy and complex.
“You have done more than your fair share in service of this country and whatever your choice, I will always admire your dedication and bravery. I must confess that your leaving will leave a hole in my life, but the important thing is that you are happy with your decision. Good luck, my dear, courageous friend.”
But he didn’t tell her the real reason why he had sanctioned it. He was worried she was going to be sucked into a world that would ultimately kill her. He strove to give her a wake-up call, hence the capture and “interrogation” by the Israeli counter-terrorist team. It was flawed logic and if anything, it made her more determined to carry on. It was one of his poorer ideas that had totally backfired.
He expected tears, but she remained looking at him, staring into his eyes.
“Have you lost confidence in me, Alan?”
He looked at a couple having a domestic in the window of the coffee shop, “No. None of us have. Have you lost your trust of me?”
There was no pause while she thought about the question, “No.”
He nodded, “Do you want to carry on with me?”
“Are you prepared to work with MI5? I know you had a bad time after the Stockwell shooting.”
“I would prefer not to, but I will, providing you keep an eye on me,” she agreed.
“I will. You will be working with somebody from an undercover police unit.”
“I would prefer to work alone.”
“He is an extremely interesting individual and I think you’re going to like him.”
“Why MI5 and some undercover plod?” she asked Bartlett.
“Because this is an operation that will be mounted on British soil. You are aware that MI6 has no jurisdiction in this country, although we provided the lead. Why don’t you come to the briefing at this hotel next Tuesday? You can meet your new partner in crime and the handlers. I will introduce you and then disappear. I can be contacted on my phone any time.”
She smiled wanly at him. Looked at the card and nodded. She took a drink of her tea and looked at him.
“I have to say, Afarin, you are handling this very well, because I know you don’t like change.”
“You have Jean-Claude to thank for that. He threatened to leave me if I didn’t stop using emotions as a weapon.”
“Did he? Did he mean it?”
“Yes, because he was so pissed off with me.”
“Afarin, are you and Jean-Claude, how should I put this, les amoureux?”
“Do you mean, are we in love?” she asked.
“Yes, although “are you lovers” would be a more accurate translation.
She thought about it, “No although I love him. He is kind, gentle and looks after me, but as for him being in love with me, he is so difficult to read.”
“Has he ever told you about Inés?”
“Do you mean the woman from the French Embassy in Moldova. He said that he was posted away from their Embassy and never saw her again.”
“That’s not strictly true,” Bartlett told her, “He asked to be sent home. You see, Inés was attending a French Embassy function one night. The standard of driving is appalling in Moldova. She was driving across a junction, she had right of way, and she was hit by a lorry on the driver’s side. The lorry had no lights, was speeding and she was killed instantly. He hasn’t got over it yet, which is why he is reluctant to commit to somebody else.”
“The boss of his department on King Charles Street phoned me. Jean-Claude had scored very highly in the intelligence aptitude tests before he was posted to Moldova. He asked to meet me. He told me that Jean-Claude was running the Guinea-Bissau desk because nothing ever happens there, and it was all they could trust him with. He was drinking himself to death.”
Afarin had turned side on as though trying to hide. The tears were streaming down her face and a man carrying coffees to another table looked at her with concern.
“What can I do. How can I make his pain go away?”
“You can’t do anything as such,” Bartlett told her, “But you can love him, be patient and wait. Please don’t mention our conversation. He will commit to you when the ghost of Inés has gone. That’s up to him.”
“So, it’s Alan Bartlett’s spy department for the emotional cripples?”
“He has turned into the best officer in my department. I believe in taking a risk. With Eva’s help, he stopped drinking and become fully engaged.”
“What sort of help?” she asked, suddenly feeling jealous.
“He moved in with her while he bought his own place. I don’t know what else and I won’t pry.”
“And yet you asked if we were lovers.”
“Afarin, Jean-Claude isn’t the only one who needs emotional support.”
“Me? Are you saying that I’m a basket case?”
“When you are on operations, nobody can deny your commitment and courage. But I often forget just how young you are. I don’t know what goes on inside your head, but I don’t want to see you burned out with post-traumatic stress. Jean-Claude gives you something else, someone to care for and someone to care for you.”
She looked down at her tea, which was nearly cold and played with a sachet of sugar. The background nose of the café was merely a gentle hum as she was lost in her thoughts. What a strange, brutal. bittersweet life she led.
They both seemed lost in their thoughts, Bartlett watched the people in the café and those passing the large, glass windows. He knew how she must feel. Perhaps he had made a bad judgement call and he didn’t blame her for being so angry with him. But she seemed like a different person, calm, rational and not at all bitter.
“Will you be at the hotel next Tuesday?”
“Yes, Alan. You want me to, and I will.”
“And you won’t mention what I’ve told you, to Jean-Claude?”
“No. But I will try to make him love me.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to try too hard. Are you going home to Wiltshire?”
“I’m staying with Jean-Claude, but you already knew that didn’t you, George Smiley?”
“Very droll. See you next Tuesday,” he stood up, patted her shoulder and then he was gone, lost in the London crowds.
She walked to the District Line and got on the train to Ealing Broadway to Turnham Green to change for Richmond. As the tube rattled under and through the London suburbs, her heart was breaking. She had totally forgotten her woes and thought about Jean-Claude. Mother killed in a car crash, father died of a broken heart and then his love killed in a lorry crash. She didn’t know how he could bear it without going mad. Perhaps that was what Bartlett planned, distraction technique, but she knew he could never be that cynical, could he?
Leaving the tube, she walked past Richmond Green. She could tell it was getting colder as autumn gave way to winter. Did she want to work with MI5? Not really, but she knew she would. In truth, she wanted to spend the rest of the winter with him, looking after him. She let herself into his flat and slumped on the sofa. She looked at her watch and it would be at least a couple of hours before he got in from work. She changed into some old clothes and started to clean the flat, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and changed his bedclothes.
It would be after six by the time he came in from work, so when she had finished cleaning, she had a shower and read a book. He came in at six an went straight for a shower, to get rid of the smell of commuter traffic. He came out smiling.
“Did you see Alan today?”
“Yes. He said he had a job and asked me to be in it.”
“Will you?” he asked with a slightly worried tone.
And that was it. One of the first things she learned when working with SIS was not to ask questions on planned or ongoing operations. He respected her silence. “You’ve been cleaning the flat. I thought it was clean.”
“It was clean in a man’s way, not a woman’s. When was the last time you dusted the skirting boards?”
“What are they? Do you know what’s nice?” he asked, “To have a nice meal on the table, when you come in after a hard day’s paper shuffling.”
“I’m sorry, Jean-Claude. I’m just not a very good cook.”
“No worries. We’ll go for something simple tonight, mushroom risotto. I take it mushrooms won’t offend your religious sensitives?”
“No, as long as they’re Halal mushrooms, picked by you before dawn.”
He sat down next to her and kissed her, then put some arborio rice in a wide skillet. He chopped up some baby tomatoes, spring onions and garlic and started to sweat the rice. She watched him.
“Arborio rice is different to the rice you eat. It has a stickiness like pudding rice,” He added chicken stock, a little at a time, then added the vegetables, constantly stirring it as it cooked, “Normally you would add a glass of white wine, but we’ll omit that.”
Afarin realised this was a very simple dish, that even she could knock up. He warmed some ciabatta bread in the oven and served it in a wicker bowl. She laid the table and put a tumbler down for her and a glass down for him, slightly worried having heard about his seeking solace in the bottle. He warmed two plates in the oven now it had been turned off, using the last of the stock to finish cooking the rice.
“And there you go. Easy-peasy, so make sure you get some arborio rice for your pantry, and of course, pasta.”
They enjoyed the meal and she watched him to make sure he wasn’t drinking too much wine. This has got to stop! If you can’t trust him, you have nothing!
“I’ll do the dishes tomorrow. Let’s go to bed.”
He looked at her body as she took off the Norwegian shirt, beautiful and flawless. Not corrupted with tattoos, smooth skin and so, so beautiful. He knew that the SRR would not allow people to join if they had prominent tattoos, and even removed small ones with laser surgery, which left scars. They snuggled together in the bed and he ran his hands over her back. It was like feeling silk.
“Afarin. You will be gone after Tuesday, and I don’t know when we will see each other again. We have a long weekend coming up to make the most of one another. Have you ever been to Scotland?”
“Only once when I was doing SRR training.”
“So, you’ve never been to the Highlands?”
“Good. Pack your outdoor kit. We’ll fly up to Aberdeen first thing tomorrow and stay in a hotel near Aviemore.”
“We’ll never book flights or a hotel in time,” she told him.
“They’re already booked.”
She sat astride him, “That’s a bit presumptuous, don’t you think?”
“Take it or leave it. I could always go with someone else.”
She dug her thumbs into his clavicles, “Like who?”
“Oww. Like the hundreds of women who work at Vauxhall Bridge.”
“You really are a bastard, Jean-Claude.”
He ran his hands down her thighs.
“I have another area that needs attention,” she said, so he attended to it…
She watched him carefully moving up the burn in his camouflaged ghillie suit, moving slowly and deliberately, crouched down to minimise his profile. Every so often he would pause to check the wind direction. She was on the edge of a wood, face covered with a face veil, watching his progress through binoculars. He had a camera with a long telephoto lens slung on his side and she moved gently to look at his targets.
The small herd of red deer was gently grazing on the slopes, the large male patrolling the periphery of the herd, constantly alert and looking for any potential trouble. It was coming to the end of the rutting season, but the stag was still alert, guarding his legacy. By the time he went to ground and slowly crawled up from the burn where he could watch up the brae and the deer, Afarin was absolutely convinced that he had done this before, but not with a camera.
He took a large number of photographs with the artificial shutter noise off. Most of them well composed and nicely framed. He took a few of the stag, magnificent with his spread of antlers and his harem of does. The does were much timider, watching over the fawns and constantly scanning the landscape around the herd.
The afternoon skies darkened as the first flakes of snow tumbled gently from the gunmetal skies. One of the does looked up suddenly and bolted towards the woods above the brae. The rest of the herd followed and disappeared into the woods. Jean-Claude wondered just what had spooked them. The last to disappear was the stag, with a last look down the hill, his rump vanished into the wood.
He stood up and moved down to the burn, crossing it and heading down the valley. She came out of cover and moved down to join him. The snow was getting heavier and her head was down.
“Cheer up,” he said.
“I don’t fancy getting stuck in this and having to spend the night in the bothy. You haven’t got a map or a compass.”
Jean-Claude delved into his pocket and pulled out a mobile phone, “The wonders of modern technology, I give you GPS.”
“Oh,” she said.
“Afarin, what is wrong with you? You’ve been subdued ever since we got up this morning.”
She was silent for what seemed like ages and finally she told him, “I don’t want to go away. You have been wonderful to me, and I will miss you more than you could imagine. And look, I’m not using my emotions as a weapon. Just stating the facts.”
He hugged her closely to him, “You’ll be back and I’ll be waiting. This time you’ll be a lot safer, operating from home.”
She nodded and followed him down the glen, to where he had parked his BMW. By now the snow had covered the road and the car was thinly coated with snow. They dumped their outdoor clothes on the back seat and waited while the heater fan cleared the interior windows. Jean-Claude engaged four-wheel-drive because the car could lose its back end on the slippery roads.
While they waited, Afarin asked him: “Jean-Claude, where did you learn to stalk pray like that? Have you been hunting in the past?”
He looked at her with surprise, “No. I know that the deer population needs to be culled, but I couldn’t do it, it’s cruel in my opinion.”
“So where then?”
“A weekend “bonding” with other members of the team, Thetford Forest as I recall.”
“Oh, that sounds like fun.” You bloody liar.
“The days have gone so quickly. Fly back tomorrow.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Afarin, you’ll be fine. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“I’ll need some gentle loving tonight.”
“There’s a plus side of your being away for a few months,” he told her.
“I get the chance of having a rest…”
© Blown Periphery 2022