common occurence 


 

This is Terry Naylor’s story but before I can tell it you have to know about him.

I first met him at a job interview in 1957. I got the interview, I think, through a mistake: at least I think I did; you could never tell with Terry. It was a genuine error. I exaggerated my qualifications by telling him I had taught children who would take the Common Entrance Exam, which is for children going on to Public School. I was young and such was my inexperience that I confused it with the name of the test which children took at the end of primary school and which determined whether they were selected for Grammar or Secondary Modern schools. This was called The Selection Procedure or more commonly the Eleven Plus. I had been teaching those children. He was vastly impressed that I should be associated with the Public School system assuming that I must logically be more knowledgeable and more competent than I actually was. Of course my mistake soon came to light, mainly because I didn’t realise I had anything to conceal. You should know that his attitude towards teachers and teaching was pretty general at the time. There was a scale of esteem beginning with infant teachers who were at the bottom of the pile followed by those in the junior school, then those in prep schools and at the top were the public school teachers and of course the absolute elite of the university lecturers. Moreover teachers themselves commonly shared this assumption, infant teachers being very humble! Teaching was about conveying information and the more you knew the more you could tell the children and therefore the better qualified you were as a teacher. Infant teachers didn’t need to know much.

So Terry thought he had a catch since he was headteacher of a junior school, though in the event, when my error was revealed, it made no difference and he appointed me without fuss and made me welcome though without any description of what my duties would be. I didn’t ask because in those days a teacher’s job was pretty routine and interchangeable between schools. I assumed I would be doing the same as I had always done so it was a shock when I began the following term. More of that later. Enough to say that he was from the true spring of pure English eccentricity, fit to live alongside the splendid oddities of our past.

He was a reluctant headteacher. He had been an assistant at a small school in his delightful country town nearby when he was told to move to Lady Sackville’s to replace the previous incumbent who had died without telling anyone! Sixty years ago the authorities had wartime emergency powers which permitted them to require people to move anywhere as they thought necessary. So Terry, who had been enjoying a cosy bachelor life in the only place he had ever lived, found himself travelling daily to Lady Sackville’s, a journey of some ten miles, and that by country bus and wartime timetables.

At the beginning of the next term I joined him and his staff of five each of whom was mildly odd: all considerably older than me and all avoiding the job to which I had been appointed. I discovered on the very first morning that I would be sharing the responsibility for teaching his class, which was unusually large, because all the other classrooms in this dilapidated building were too small. He began the day, but after an hour or so of his unique style of instruction interspersed with jokes, conundrums and teasing of the girls particularly, he turned to me and said it was now my turn until playtime: he meanwhile would sit at his desk at the front of the class but behind me, getting on with his correspondence and telephone calls! So there I was stuck with a group of some fifty boys and girls giving a spontaneous lesson, very aware of his presence and the children in front all too prepared to take advantage of a young man who was in such an unconventional and embarrassing position. I survived through the confidence inspired by ignorance and eventually was promoted to a class of my own, necessarily small because the room was the size of the sitting room in my house. While I was there he was enthusing the children in Esperanto, training a group in the mysteries of hand- bell ringing, teaching others to read piano music written vertically to correspond with the fingers of the hands, playing chess and whatever occurred at the time as a good idea. The school was popular, perhaps because there was little immediate alternative and the bright children went on to the prestigious grammar school as intelligent children will, whatever happens to them at school. Most importantly, everybody, teachers and children, loved him.

But what did he look like? He was of medium height, his figure showing evidence of a sturdy appetite, controlled, if with determination and some difficulty. An example of that was that alone amongst the staff he never ate school dinners though they were excellent. These were eaten in a hall some distance from the school and since I always accompanied the children I never discovered what he did at mid-day. I suspect he ate sandwiches provided by Mrs. Scott who looked after him. He invariably wore a rumpled two-piece suit with a knitted cardigan beneath and a non-descript tie with a soft collar. He had a chuckle in his voice and  clear blue eyes which sparkled, exploring your face as if looking to see whether you had got the joke –‘What about that then?’ His receding silver hair gave him a high forehead as pink as his cheeks which were gathered in two pronounced promontories beside a prominent nose. Altogether, the first impression was of a character vaguely remembered from childhood encounters with woodcutters and fairy castles and mysterious forests in old German fairy tale: a good character nonetheless.

            Mrs. Scott looked after him. She was a widow who was of such ineffable reputation that, combined with his quite palpable indifference to anything relating to sex of either gender, she was able to defy convention and live with him in his modest semi-detached villa where she controlled all the domestic affairs. So far as I know he had one vice and this he was fortunate to share with Mrs. Scott: they loved going to the races. He was a compendium of the racecourses in this part of the country. I gathered that the bets were small; out of all proportion to the enormous pleasure they had in being part of the throng of colour, the cacophony of the betting fraternity and the elegance of the horses. To tell all I know of him, I can add that he was an enthusiastic church bell-ringer and never missed an opportunity to go with his group to visit any church that would have him: he played the violin with a band which played country dances round the circuit of village halls: and finally and perhaps most surprisingly of all, a nephew was at one time the manager of the England football team! He was, as they say, a man of many parts. 

I left for a year’s full-time course in London and afterwards got a headship so I didn’t see him until after he had retired. I can’t remember how I came to pick up on him again. Perhaps he wrote to me inviting me round because we lived close by. It was then that I discovered his chief pleasure in life. It was a miraculous, idiosyncratic survival from mediaeval times. He had inherited a piece of the town’s land. It was part of what was known as Frowzy Common and had been in his family for so long that nobody contested his ownership. He invited me to join him there for a sociable cup of tea and Jill and I went one Sunday afternoon. Though his directions were detailed, they could hardly be precise because the route took us along leafy tracks and then dwindled into footpaths. Floundering around, down one way and then another, with occasional distant views of the town between the trees, we eventually saw what we had been told to look for: a neat hedge with a white gate. Looking over the gate, there he was in a deck chair, browning in the sun, reading a book. At the sound of the gate, he scrambled from his seat, shook us warmly by the hand and disappeared to find something for us to sit on. He was instinctively hospitable, but as a bachelor whose domestic needs had been managed by Mrs. Scott, he was not entirely familiar with the social niceties nor was he dextrous with spoons, cups, saucers, plates - the usual accessories - but with some to-ing and fro-ing he managed an assorted array of mugs and cups, odd spoons and some sugar in a cup, the bowl for which having gone missing. He found some biscuits and we settled down to enjoy the blissful harmony of a warm sunny afternoon on a south facing slope of the Downs.

He said that there were restrictions upon the use he could put to the land, the main one being that he couldn’t put up a permanent building, so instead he had made a small prefabricated single story place from whatever came to hand. He would have been a good Robinson Crusoe. The effect was not as dismal as you might think. I didn’t go inside but through the open door I saw a piano and a paraffin heater so that he could entertain himself and keep warm. It seemed to be big enough to provide a bedroom, the room I glimpsed with the piano, and some sort of kitchen. What he did for washing and a lavatory I can only guess. Behind, he also had a derelict caravan, though how he manoeuvred it through all the undergrowth I can’t imagine. The glory of it all was the setting. It was on a gentle incline facing south towards a valley with a narrow lane, almost hidden in the folds of the downs, which eventually made its way to the market town which was his home. He said that his ground reached down to the lane about a hundred yards away and the same distance along the brow of the hill which ran just above where we sat. It was uncultivated, simply left to nature, which had planted wild flowers in profusion, various shrubs, some of which had grown taller than a man, and a scatter of trees, notably silver birch. The occasional car droned along the lane, but otherwise all was rural harmony.

He said he had the occasional visitor dropping in, particularly old boys from the school, but mainly he spent his time playing the piano or reading or doing a bit of maintenance. All this was conveyed in his usual banter which I found rather taxing because I felt I was expected to respond in similar vein and I’m not naturally given to witty repartee. Jill, I sensed, was ready to go: he was in any case more a friend of mine, she having come to know him more from my stories about him than from his company. So, saying I would like to drop by again before long, we left him with the glow of the summer sun glinting on the windows of his home in the woods.

I remember the occasion very well. I was doing what I often did in my spare time- looking round antique shops, and so found myself near his hideaway in the woods. On the off chance I made my way up there. It was as though I had never left him. As I approached I heard the piano accompanying his rich baritone as he sang the bottom line of one of his favourite hymns, ‘Lord Thy Word Abideth’. Though I can’t read music and my voice is only enjoyed by myself, he used to insist that I should sing along with the rest of the staff at assembly, and since they all sang in parts, I was required to sing the base line. The line of that hymn is the only one that stayed with me, so I stood behind him and we made a joyous duet! Then I sat in the afternoon summer sun on the patch of grass outside his cabin while he rustled up some biscuits and a cold drink. So there we were: I had nothing particular to say except the usual ‘How’s old so and so getting on? And Miss what’s her name?’, and he seemed to be following his own thoughts, so we sat enjoying the hum of the insects and the far- away sound of a tractor. Then he began.

“I wouldn’t tell you this, but it’s long past now and I know you won’t talk about it to anyone. Even though it’s all gone and there’s nothing more to say; well you never know, but it looks as though it’s all done with; as I say it’s all finished now, but it’s still on my mind and it’ll help me if I tell my side of the story.

It was last summer, about this time last year. I was doing a bit of clearing of brambles and weeds round the back by the caravan. I’m not a gardener, but it was getting so that you couldn’t see. It was hot and I’d made a good pile so I decided to have a rest but not waste time either. I’d have a bonfire! I love a good bonfire. You can stand and watch it send itself into the sky and keep yourself busy retrieving odd twigs that have dropped out and be resting all at the same time. It had pretty well died down and I’d just poured a bucket of water over it. I stood back and was turning to pick up my tools when I heard the faintest of sounds coming, I thought, from over there.”

He pointed to the line of the hedge which ran along the top of his land towards the far corner which was invisible to me behind the thickets of undergrowth.

“Over there, there’s a rickety little gate, right in the far corner. It leads out on to the top lane but it’s not been used for years, that is not till last year. Look, we’ll go and I’ll show you and you’ll see what I’m talking about.”

It wasn’t easy. All the way we were thrashing through the tangles and getting plenty of scratches. I began to wonder if it was worth all this trouble, but if he thought it was, and he was a lot older than me, then I would humour him. When we got there I saw a little old gate hanging on one hinge and tied with string to a chestnut post. Beyond it was the lane shimmering in the heat, running away round the corner. So was that it? I thought.

“So that’s the gate and it was me that tied the string round it. It won’t keep anyone out if they really want to come in, but then there’s not much that will is there? Now what I’m going to show you no-body’s seen before. Just come along this way and I’ll show you.”

I followed him down the slope a bit and round an old apple tree and there was a heap of white wood ash, the remains of a long-dead fire. But more intriguing than that was a skeleton of a simple but skilfully constructed shelter made from coppice timber fetched I supposed from the wood just across the lane. The framework still stood, its branches tied together from slivers of bark, and from them hung scraps of faded material hanging forlornly in tatters. There were odd pieces of broken china and an old kettle blackened by hours suspended over the fire. Nothing much besides.

“There was someone here. But now you’ve seen it we’ll go back and I’ll tell you what I know, which I’m convinced is less than someone knows,” and we stumbled back the way we’d come.

Back in our garden chairs he began. “You know me. After I heard the sounds I had to find out what was going on. Probably some lads making a camp or perhaps hoping to get some apples. Anyway, I knew I couldn’t get there quietly through all the brambles and that’s why I took you just now so that you could see for yourself. So what I did, I went back down that track there and out onto the lane the other way and then it was easy. I sneaked along to the corner and saw the gate was half open. Whoever it was had got in that way. I was going to shout because I didn’t know who it was or how many there were and I thought if I made a noise they would run away and that would be the end of it. It was a bit worrying though, because I’ve been used to being left alone, and as you know I like to sleep up here when the weather’s good. I didn’t fancy anyone poking around at night. But something stopped me. Plain nosiness I suppose. I think that’s why I didn’t shout out. I slipped through the gap and carefully picked my way towards the sound. It was the weirdest noise I’ve ever heard. If it had been night-time and me on my own I would have been terrified. Partly, it was because it wasn’t loud like a scream, but incoherent mumblings, like someone chewing words with blunt teeth. He, I could tell it was a man, seemed to be arguing with himself, his voice rising slightly and then subsiding to muttered curses, though in a language all his own. I peered between the tangles of a blackberry bush and caught a glimpse of a creature scurrying about, bent almost double, and ferreting around amongst the undergrowth. As soon as he found a stick or branch he set it aside in a pile and went back to his gathering. In a heap at the side of the clearing were bundles tied in rags or plastic bags. If I stayed he would see me so I carefully manoeuvred myself backwards until I felt safe enough to turn round and make my way back to the gate and away.

“It was early evening by then and I had to decide what I was going to do. I could go back home to Mrs. Scott and come again in the morning, but that would mean leaving all this unprotected. Mind you I was pretty certain he was unaware of this place. For a start he couldn’t see it and he was a good fifty yards away: and he’d got enough on his plate doing whatever he was doing The sensible thing would have been to call the police but knowing our constable he wouldn’t be round till it suited him and besides I wanted to know what this man was doing and for that matter what or who he was. So I opened a tin and had a snack, firmly shut the door and went to bed without putting on any lights,

“It wasn’t the best of nights but by the morning I’d decided what I was going to do. In the field beyond here there’s a brick building, a sort of winter shelter for animals and it’s where they take the sheep at lambing time. I used to go in there bird watching. There’s a gap in the roof which would be ideal for me and with my binoculars I could watch him. So I made up some sandwiches and went prepared to spend the day in my perch. I watched him on and off all that day. You could see from the methodical way he worked that he was an expert. He wasted no energy in what he was doing and the camp he was making took shape as if to a considered plan. By the middle of the day he had erected a curved roof shape covered by plastic sheeting and after a pause for a chunk of bread and apple and a drink of water from a plastic container, he set about digging a hole some distance away. I thought maybe this was for a lavatory, but when he’d finished he fetched a smallish plastic box and put it down the hole and then put his water in the container on top of the box. The remaining bundles he suspended by string from branches of trees. All this went ahead in an orderly fashion almost without pause as though the sequence had been practised many times. By this time it was late afternoon and I had had enough, so I painstakingly let myself down from the loft onto the earthy floor below and like a conspirator crept away back here again.

“The next day I was up and about when the dew was still on the grass. As soon as I’d made a few sandwiches I was away to my perch in the roof of the shelter. What would the next instalment be? It was just like watching a live Robinson Crusoe establishing himself on his island, except that I couldn’t see where his food was going to come from unless he stole it. All would be revealed! Stealthily across the rafters and up to the spy hole. He wasn’t there! Well perhaps he’d gone off on a raid to get something to eat, or maybe he had made a lavatory some distance away: that’s what an experienced camper would do. So I settled down to wait, not without a certain sense of grievance that he had eluded me and left me in an uncomfortable position with nothing to do. But I couldn’t leave my post because he might return at any moment and I would miss clues which might explain what he’d been doing. So I waited and waited and finally began to build a personal antagonism towards him for cheating me: for playing with my feelings: as though he knew I had been watching him and he was having a game with me.

“That was on the first day. But he didn’t return on the next, or the next. The day after that I’d given him up. I couldn’t bear the excruciating boredom and discomfort of my solitary station and went home to Mrs. Scott, some proper food and a decent bath. The weather the next day was sublime and what better place to be than up here, so not giving more than a passing thought to my man, I came back. He was back! I knew straight away. There was the faintest sound of chopping coming from that corner. Without a pause I went to my spy hole and there he was. I watched him as he made a hammock and slung it between two branches, clambered into it and quite unconscious of me pulled an old coat over himself and apparently went to sleep. There wasn’t going to be much happening that day I thought. He knew what he was going to do and so I would do the same. I wasn’t going to let him control my life! So once more I came back here, but I didn’t play the piano or sing, so to that extent he was influencing my decisions. I didn’t want him to take fright and run for it. But then, perhaps he wasn’t frightened. He could be a dangerous criminal on the run. That was the maddening thing about it. I knew nothing about him. Was there anything I could do to find out without losing him?

“I decided that I shouldn’t just appear in front of him. I would be alone with him and depending on what he was like it could be dangerous or that might be the last I saw of him. Perhaps I could wait to see what he did next. Maybe that would tell me a bit more about him. I gave him that day and the next to get on with his plans, if he had any, and then set off yet again to see what was going on. He wasn’t there! He was going to return, that was obvious, because he had neatly stored his gear under shelter. What was going on? My imagination constructed endless scenarios- he was a thief who went out to do robberies: he was a casual worker picking fruit: maybe he was simply unemployed and he had to go somewhere to collect his benefit. Whatever he was, it was clear that I wouldn’t find out anything by going on in the way I had been doing up to then. I knew I couldn’t just appear so what was left? The only thing I could do I thought, was to put a tempting present in a place where he couldn’t miss it and on the wrapper draw a smiley face and a big arrow pointing in my direction. And I would make as much noise as I wanted and burn a bonfire as often as possible. If he saw it and disappeared for ever it would say something about him, though I wasn’t sure what.

“Well, I banged about, lit bonfires, kept the radio on, sang and played the piano and generally made myself the worst possible neighbour, but nothing happened. Perhaps he wasn’t there. This could go on for ever but there was nothing I could do. About a fortnight later I thought I saw a movement in the bushes. It was evening and it was all I could do to carry on as if I’d seen nothing. As casually as you like I turned round but the shape had gone, but I was pretty sure something had been there. So I took a step further. I put a parcel of food just where I’d seen him, cleared all the valuables from here and went off to see Mrs. Scott leaving the door open. The idea was to see if he came in while I was away. I let Mrs. Scott look after me for a couple of days and then came back. The parcel had gone but he hadn’t been inside here. It was just like trying to catch a wild animal but I felt I was making progress, if very slowly.

“I wondered if he could read English, because of course he could be foreign, so I made a plywood notice board and in large letters wrote in white paint ‘HELLO. I’M A FRIEND. COME AND MEET ME’. Beside it I painted another smiling face. If he could understand anything he would surely understand that I put it near enough for him to see it from his hide -out but not so close that he might think I was trespassing on his privacy, and went back to my chair and waited: and waited. Nothing happened for a day or two and then I felt as much as saw a presence. How he did it I don’t know, but he had materialised on the boundary of the clearance which was much the same as it is to-day, and was standing there in a faded old coat tied round with twine, his arms hanging down and his hands together. This was my first view of the creature who had eluded me for so long. I gestured for him to come and sit with me but he stood there, hovering, apparently in an agony of indecision. I placed a chair as well as that table there half way between us with some biscuits on it. Then I withdrew again and sat down with an inane grin on my face hoping to show I was friendly. After a pause he began to shuffle forward and in a final rush as if he could no longer resist the attraction, he sat down and attacked the packet. He finished them and broke into a weak smile which might have been in gratitude or as an attempt at communication. It didn’t matter: we had broken the ice. Moving slowly as if carrying a volatile substance, I gently poured a glass of juice and keeping my eyes on him but always trying to be welcoming, I made my way back towards him again and put the drink down at the same time sitting on the other side of the table. He picked up the glass, but concentrating upon me all the while, he poured it down in one smooth movement and then slowly replaced the glass still watching me, and seemingly ready to spring away at any moment. So far so good!

“Now I could study him thoroughly. He seemed to be quite tall but that may have been because he was so thin. His face was a caricature of Father Time: a wispy beard running to his neck covered much of his face. Sharp cheekbones emphasised the cavernous hollows of his cheeks whilst from the nostrils of his aquiline nose were deep creases running down to his mouth. His fevered eyes, dark and bloodshot, never wavered from me until he seemed satisfied that he had the measure of me, then they restlessly flickered to and fro apparently following every innocent movement in the undergrowth. As he sat, with his elbows on the table and his shoulders hunched forward, his beautiful straight silver hair hung forward and down towards his hands which were now half curled, palm down in a sadly revealing gesture of exhaustion. This man, I now saw, could go no further.

“I couldn’t speak. There seemed to be nothing to say, so I just put my hands over his and left them there and our eyes met and he began to sob, very quietly. I got up and went round to him and put my arm round his shoulders and held him tight while his shoulders silently shook. He relaxed, buried his face in my chest and gradually began to breathe slowly and deeply and I realised he was on the verge of sleep. With my arm under his elbow I eased him up and led him into here, sat him down in the arm chair there, put a coat over him, and left him to sleep.

“I’d no need to worry that noise might disturb him. He slept uninterrupted until mid-morning when he might have heard me chopping wood. He appeared at the door running his hand through tousled hair and smiled an uncertain sort of smile. I waved and asked him how he’d slept. He just smiled. I went towards him shook his hand and asked how he’d slept. Again he just smiled. What did he like for breakfast? I could offer cornflakes with milk or without milk, bread with marmalade or without marmalade and tea or water or juice. I saw his lips quivering as if to speak and he said,

“English not good. Thank you.”

“So I put what I could before him. To avoid embarrassing him further I left him to it and returned to my logs. He came out to join me and watched while I sawed and chopped and stacked the logs. At one point he made a gesture with his hand to the muscles in his arm to show his appreciation of my strength but nothing was said. It was then I remembered your pulling my leg about my Esperanto. If only he could speak it! Well my French is Englishman’s French but it was better than nothing and perhaps he spoke French. It turned out that his French was a lot better than mine and I understand more than I can say, so he was able to tell me that he came from Bulgaria. He reached inside his coat and fetched out an old creased photo of a young man with a little girl standing on a bridge. The man was well dressed in a style long since vanished in this country-trilby hat, wide-bottomed trousers etc. and the girl, who was about five years old, had shoes with button-up straps, knee length stockings and a little velvet collared coat. He also had a studio portrait photo of his wife sitting before a background of an ornamental park.

“It was clear that these pictures were of a place and time long removed from now. He must have been twenty years younger and these clothes were the sort we wore before the war. Perhaps that was the fashion in Bulgaria then, or perhaps it was all they could get. Whatever the explanation, it was strange to know that this man sitting with me was the same one standing on that bridge. And what about the little girl and the lady by the lake?

“He wasn’t what you’d call a conversationalist and not just because he couldn’t speak English very well. He used to start at the most unexpected times and tell me something that wasn’t linked to what he’d been saying before. It was as if he was thinking about what he was going to say and then changing his mind before finally saying something else. So over the next three days I had gradually  to move around the bits, which it seemed he almost let drop, and make a picture for myself of this man: who he was, what he was, what he had been, where his home had been and why his here. And what about his wife and the little girl?

“As we went along the most extraordinary story took shape. I began to think only in somewhere like Bulgaria, a police state, could this have happened. He had been a biologist working in the Markov Institute in Sofia. He had been head of a department working in co-operation with Russia in the development of biological weapons. He had been married for ten years and they had one child, the girl in the photograph. As a valued member of an important department he lived a privileged life with a flat provided by the government and a place in an elite school reserved for children of the select in society. They had many acquaintances but few friends because the essential ingredient of trust was missing. There was one family however in whose company they were easily confident. He had grown up in the same village with Igor and being clever boys they had been raised by the party in its city academy and had stayed together until he had specialised in biology and Igor had gone into the state internal security on a fast tracked promotion. Those were good days and both families were able to indulge themselves in the pleasures granted to the highly valued. In particular, he enjoyed the visits abroad when he attended conferences taking his family to Russia and Western Europe, staying in first class accommodation and buying articles undreamed of at home.

“They had returned from a visit to an international congress in Paris when Igor arranged to meet him at a restaurant for a mid-day lunch. This was unusual if not unknown and he was mildly curious to know what had brought it about. As old friends, there was no beating about the bush with the usual predictable courtesies. While the waiter was fetching their drinks Igor came straight to the point.

'I have to tell you that you are in some danger. Olga has been having an affair with someone in the Ministry of Agriculture. Don’t ask how I know: I just do. She wants a separation and has persuaded him that the way to get rid of you is to implicate you in a fabricated plot to betray secrets to the French. She says you have told her that they have promised that next time you go abroad they will take care of you and your family in exchange for your co-operation. Unless we move first and fast you will be arrested. I can help you. I will get permission for you to go to Paris and you can take little Tanya with you providing you agree to spy for us while at the same time you pretend to be a defector. It’s not much for you to do because you have always told us when you have learnt something useful. Nobody will know. Not even your wife. She will just think you have escaped to the West. Everybody will be happy.’

“He said he didn’t doubt the story. It was possible that his wife was having an affair. He couldn’t ask her. She would deny it and if he did he would only alert the authorities to what he was going to do. In any case Igor was his friend and he knew that what he said was true.

“When he heard from Igor again it was to say that he should be ready to leave the day after on a flight going direct to Paris. All arrangements had been made for an unmolested flight but when he arrived there would be uproar across the diplomatic community as his defection was announced. He could feel sure that the French would pick him up after that. Accordingly his arrival at Orly was met by a discreetly anonymous car and he was driven away to a small hotel in the suburbs where he and little Tanya settled down to await events which were not long in developing. Within forty eight hours an official from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs arrived to tell him that they were delighted to see him and they would like him to pack and go with him to a safe place in the country where he would be debriefed and his future arranged.  

“He was impressed by their efficiency. No sooner was he established in his lavish quarters than the interviews began and as he expected they were meticulously thorough. They proceeded over what became several weeks with occasional intervals, when he was free to roam the estate with Tanya and even indulge in some gentle horse riding. However, as the weeks passed the tone of their questioning began to change. They implied that the knowledge he had brought with him was not impressive: they were already ahead in his field, though it was valuable to have learnt that from him. But the most devastating blow came when they told him that they had been making delicate enquiries and had established beyond doubt that Olga was not having an affair and was in fact devastated when he left. It seemed that she had kept at home to ensure his loyalty to the party! Eventually, in so many words, they told him that they were not convinced of his credentials and that in any case he had nothing to offer them. They quite understood that he would find it difficult to make a safe return to his own country, but he had arrived uninvited with subversive intentions and therefore they felt under no obligation towards him. He was welcome to leave at the first opportunity and they would advise him to do so before his government became aware of the situation because they were known to be ruthless in the pursuit of defectors.

“Which is why he came to be with me sitting here. He spent the following ten years trailing the world, hiding behind whatever identity he could contrive, living by whatever means he could contrive, always aware that his pursuers would never relax the pursuit. He was never aware of being followed but yet he sensed that he had at times been very close to capture when his end would be silent and sordid. Eventually he had come to England as a seasonal worker and found a place for Tanya as a care worker in an old peoples’ home. They had been in this country for several months. He made a point of meeting her at irregular intervals in the area but at different locations and always after dark.

            “When he had finished, with gestures and in my fractured French I offered him my caravan. It had long since been abandoned by me and as you can see it’s pretty dilapidated, but he was grateful for a roof and for the concealment that it offered. I told him he didn’t have to work while he stayed here because I would feed him and he could stay in the caravan as long as he liked. So he moved in as my next door neighbour! As time passed I contrived a rudimentary haircut for him and he returned to the habit of shaving; and with regular meals he began to recover his health and of course my French improved as did his English! Happy accident had contrived a most fortunate compound. As my French and his English improved so our friendship developed. I told him about the job I used to do and about England and he told me about growing up in Bulgaria and about his hopes for his daughter and his anxieties for his wife and I lent him books which I borrowed from the library. He still left me from time to time to meet his daughter. He described these meetings. They sometimes met in the cinema because they felt safer there. He occasionally went to the nursing home and sat with her in her bedroom and there were times when they made their way separately to a rendezvous in another town. They always agreed the next meeting place before they separated and it was never the same as the one before. After years of secrecy and concealment in many countries they had perfected their procedures and precarious as it seemed, they had settled to a life which in its own peculiar way had developed a routine.

“I too had become accustomed to this novel and rather stimulating life. I’d become more aware of the elementary precautions I had to make to protect our way of living. For instance I mentioned nothing of it to Mrs. Scott, though I knew I could absolutely rely upon her discretion, in part because I thought I shouldn’t burden her with a secret she didn’t need to know. On one occasion our local policeman called round on his bicycle. He did that from time to time: ‘Just checking’ he said, ‘to see you’re alright. Any news from your neck of the woods?’ He always said that; it was his little joke. So he came and went and I no longer worried about him. We became a couple who shared a momentous secret and enjoyed a life of predictable domestic normality, He once said that this time was the first since he left home when he could step outside in the morning, breath in the air and feel confident about the way the day would pass.

“So as to keep up an air of normality, I went to sleep in town and to get some clean clothes from Mrs. Scott. I came back in the morning and he was gone. Not unusual. As I said, this was part of life now. He didn’t come back that evening, but again there would be an explanation. He had never told me the name of the nursing home where his daughter worked, nor even the town, so I couldn’t ask for him. Not that at that time there was any need to: he would turn up. But he didn’t. There ought to be something I could do, but I felt helpless. How could I enquire after someone who had no official existence and who officially I had never met? I would have to admit to harbouring an alien and concealing him from the authorities. The consequences could be endless and probably futile.

“I continued in this state of indecision, torn between action and hoping for the best for longer than I know. The days passed in excruciating panic and it was on my conscience that I was doing nothing about it. Then I was down with Mrs. Scott one day when she said,

“Did you hear about that body they found down near Heathfield? Covered in leaves it was. Said it had been there some time. A man; middle aged. Police are treating it as suspicious” All this in the matter of fact way we do because we couldn’t survive if we felt the loss of each person left to die in alone. But he was the man I knew, who I had cared for and brought back into this world to live like the rest of us. I felt his loss deeply, maybe more than you might because I’m a bachelor and have no family.

“I read later that the police could find no explanation for the death of this fit and healthy man. Nor could they establish his identity. ‘Anyone with any information should contact the police’ I never did and I’ve heard nothing more, but no-one can tell me it was from natural causes.

That was Terry’s story and I must say he didn’t look his usual self when he’d finished. There’s not a lot to say after a story like that especially when it’s someone like Terry whose natural reticence is concealed behind a habit of jokes and flippancy. So I promised I’d see him again and somewhat awkwardly drifted off. In fact the next time I saw him was in hospital where he was beaming and assured me he would be out soon. He was. I went to his funeral and the church was packed.

 

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