London, April 2013
The clear glass table meant that I had to work extra hard to stop my knee from jerking up and down. It was not a time to show nervousness. Maxine was on one side of the table. I was on the other.
‘You are twenty-one, Holly. Correct?’ She started simply, but her use of my first name was a warning. She had only ever called me by my surname.
‘Do you have many friends?’
‘A few good ones.’
She nodded. I had never seen her nod before. Nodding is a gesture that suggests interest, and that wasn’t something she normally allowed herself to show.
‘It’s good to be selective.’ She smiled. I hadn’t seen her do that before either.
‘I’m glad you think so.’
‘And your grandmother raised you?’
‘That’s sad about your parents. What a thing to happen.’
‘It was a long time ago.’
‘You were two?’
She’d got it wrong on purpose. I was certain of it. ‘Three.’ Was I right to correct her? Should I have let it go? What was the best response? I needed to quit second-guessing what she wanted to hear and just say what was true.
‘It was a car crash?’ Maxine didn’t have any notes. She didn’t need any notes. She was in command of my ‘facts’ without having to write them down.
‘Yes.’ It was crucial to keep it brief.
‘I apologise for the personal nature of some of the questions I have to ask you.’ Had she really used the word ‘apologise’? Maxine?
The lights in the room were unnaturally bright. The wall behind me was extremely white. But the wall behind Maxine, which I was facing, was a mirror of glass. It was a safe bet that it was one-way glass, and my performance was being assessed from the other side of it, in a darkened room. I imagined Maxine’s boss, Martin, behind the glass, enjoying the peep show but appearing bored.
‘You’ve known the Hargraves family for how long?’
‘Since I was four. Most of my life.’ I felt my lips trembling. My body was not under my control. I was losing it. Why did this woman scare me so much?
‘Tell me about them.’ Maxine settled in her chair, ready to be entertained.
‘Peggy is the mother, James is the father. They have a daughter.’
There was that smile again. The indulgent kind you give to a difficult child. ‘And the daughter has a name, I presume?’
‘Sorry. Yes. Milly.’ Maxine knew this already, despite the pretence. I’d given permission for them to interview friends and family. I’d had to, though there weren’t many. Peggy, James, and Milly. My list of three, because my grandmother hardly knew what day of the week she was living any more.
‘You and Milly are very close, aren’t you? Best friends, as they say.’
‘I’d never tell her’ – I flapped around for the right phrase – ‘anything I shouldn’t.’
‘Of course you wouldn’t. Milly’s family moved next door when you were four?’
‘Yes.’ Elaboration was not my friend.The seemingly innocuous warm-up questions to lull me into the false sense of security that would get me to mess up and reveal every vulnerability I’d ever had.
I reminded myself that these were the easy questions. The seemingly innocuous warm-up questions to lull me into the false sense of security that would get me to mess up and reveal every vulnerability I’d ever had. My stomach knotted, and I tried not to let myself panic about what might be coming.
‘And you moved in when?’
‘I was born in that house. My grandmother moved in to look after me when my parents died. Milly’s family bought the house next door just before the two of us started school – she and I are the same age.’
‘Your grandmother was quite old when she became your guardian, wasn’t she?’
Maxine smiled again, and I shivered so hard it must have been visible on the other side of the one-way glass. ‘That can’t have been much fun for a small child.’
I tried to think of what to say to this, but I took too long, so Maxine went on. ‘You are close to Milly’s mother? Peggy, you said?’
‘Peggy must have seen you as a poor little neglected orphan.’ Maxine was a combination of effortful glamour and mess. Her hair was bottle-blonde but lank. Pieces of different lengths hung in front of her face, as if she’d hacked at them herself.
‘I think she probably did, yes.’
‘Tell me more, Holly.’ That jagged curtain of hair was one of Maxine’s tactics for hiding, though I managed a glimpse of hooded eyes that were grey that day but could easily be changed with contact lenses.
‘I think Peggy wanted – she still wants – to protect me. To mother me, even.’ I was saying too much when I needed to be spare in my answers. Part of what Maxine was testing was that I could be reserved, even under pressure.
‘And Peggy’s husband is around – James Hargraves. What is he like?’ Maxine pushed her hair behind her ears. Not a Maxine gesture. Her mascara and eyeliner were heavy. She had gone for her usual indigo. No ordinary black for her. The foundation was caked on. Maxine was a woman of many faces.
‘He runs the town pharmacy.’
‘James is very kind, but he doesn’t say much.’
I didn’t explain that it was as if Peggy had such a lot to say there was nothing left for James – and they both seemed to like it that way.
‘Very kind? That’s mild. You aren’t damming by faint praise?’
‘There is a lot to be said for real kindness.’ As soon as the words were out, I wanted to take them back – she was going to think I was judging her, that I was rebuking her.
‘I agree,’ she said, but this didn’t make me relax. ‘And your grandmother is fond of the Hargraves family? As fond as you clearly are?’
‘My grandmother hates pretty much everybody.’
Maxine laughed, something I hadn’t seen her do even once during the residential phase of the recruitment process, which she was leading. Along with the other aspiring intelligence officers, I watched Maxine as if she were a superstar.
‘But she worships James,’ I said.
‘You are admirably loyal, Holly, aren’t you? Am I correct in thinking that you gave up your place at Exeter University to look after your grandmother? You were going to read Modern Languages?’
‘I couldn’t leave my grandmother alone. I’d been trying to delay putting her in a nursing home, so I enrolled on a BA in English at Falmouth instead of the Exeter course – I can commute to Falmouth pretty easily from our house. I’m due to graduate this summer.’
‘You’re predicted a first.’
‘Yes. And I took every evening course they offered in French, Spanish and German, to try to compensate for not being able to do Modern Languages. I’m fluent in all three – I studied them in school too.’
‘You got As for all three at A level, and an A in English Literature. Correct?’
‘Yes. And I can get by in Italian. I’ve been working towards a career in the Security Service for as long as I can remember.’I had been obsessed with spies since I was a very little girl.
I had been obsessed with spies since I was a very little girl. My grandmother told me that my father used to play ‘I Spy’ with me, using the game to show me the world. I liked to imagine him in his blue-grey RAF uniform, pointing into the night, where he would soon be flying.
I Spy with my little eye, something far up in the sky . . .
. . . Moon.
When I was five, I tiptoed into the sitting room and hid behind my grandmother’s brown-velvet wingback chair to peek at a film she was watching. I sat, cross-legged, on her scratchy brown carpet, so perfectly still and quiet she never knew I was there. To this day I don’t know what the film was called. Only that it was about a spy who pretended to his family he was a boring businessman. Then, a bad spy injected him with truth serum, and this made him confess to his wife about his double life as an intelligence officer.
With the reasoning of a five-year-old, I decided to make my own truth serum and administer it to my grandmother, using the best available laboratory facilities. While she was cooking dinner, I sneaked into her bedroom and scooped out tiny spoonfuls of the lotions and scents on her dressing table, then stirred them into the moisturising cream she rubbed onto her face each night. My fantasy was that the serum would force my grandmother into revealing the secrets I was certain she was keeping about my parents.
When I was ready to begin the interrogation, I noticed that she had a bright-red and extremely bumpy rash on her cheeks. She never imagined the cause, and I crept back into her room to steal the cream away and dispose of it at the bottom of the kitchen rubbish so she would never use it again. I was frightened that I’d mortally injured her, but she seemed to recover quickly.
On my eighth birthday, Harriet the Spy appeared in my Christmas stocking, and Harriet became my absolute hero.
She carried her spy notebook everywhere, so I did too, writing little observations about everything I saw. I made things up as well. It was only later that I learned that spies were supposed to keep to what was true, and were trained to be cautious about what they put on paper – two principles I wasn’t very good at heeding.
‘I can see that you have been commendably strategic and goal-driven in wanting to join us.’ Maxine gave me another of those intimate nods. ‘But in this line of work, how far would you push it? You’re very attractive.’ Despite the appeasing gestures, Maxine shifted the subject with the suddenness of a window exploding in a storm. ‘You know that.’
I blinked at this new Maxine. She was being kind but firm, friendly but still clearly the one with the power.
She pushed at me again. ‘Where does the line come, Holly?’
I realised I was biting the side of my lower lip, a sign of the anxiety I wanted to hide. ‘Emotional. Emotional involvement. That’s the line I wouldn’t cross.’
Maxine was in full-friend mode, pretending that the two of us were just ordinary women exchanging confidences. ‘So as long as it isn’t emotional . . .’ her voice was gentle, understanding ‘. . . physical involvement is okay – to – a – point.’ She tapped the table’s bevelled edge with her index finger, picking it up and setting it down again a few centimetres further along with her last three words, as if counting.
‘Are you asking – if I would sleep with someone for the role?’ I imagined Martin on the other side of the one-way glass, controlling any impulse to sit up straighter or open his mouth wide. He wouldn’t react at all.
‘Now that you mention it.’
I thought I was saying the right thing, but I pictured Martin, no longer able to disguise his interest, sticking his feet out and crossing them at the ankles, leaning back in his chair and shaking his head. Because he could see that I was a fish being reeled in. ‘No, No I wouldn’t.’
‘Are you sure?’ Maxine said this as if she were trying to help me, trying to tell me I had given the wrong answer and should flip it.
‘That would be like prostituting myself for the country. So no.’ My shoe was tapping wildly against the white-tiled floor. I froze, and the absence of noise from it was too noticeable.
‘Even if it was the only way to save your life and the lives of hundreds of others?’
I was flailing, trying to guess what she wanted to hear rather than saying what I thought. Which was the worst thing I could do. ‘If it was for the role. I would be happy to – to go as far as I needed to for the role.’
Maxine’s usual un-reactiveness was gone. She tilted her head, a questioning gesture of moral disgust, as if in disbelief that she’d heard me right. ‘What if you had a boyfriend?’
‘I would go – ahead – and tell him afterwards.’ I was bobbing my head up and down, trying to signal that I meant what I said, that I was trustworthy.
Maxine’s girlfriend pretence had vanished. ‘So you’d cheat to get information.’
I had wanted the job with MI5 more than I ever wanted anything, and I had got so far and so close after multiple tests of my situational judgement and core skills. But it was rushing away from me faster than water down a drain.
Maxine shook her head. She said the most important thing she ever said to me. The thing I would replay all the time.
‘You know, a physical relationship is not acceptable. You are making yourself vulnerable. It’s all about using this.’ She almost smiled. She placed a hand on each side of her head without actually touching it. ‘Rather than that’ – she lowered her hands from her breasts to her hips, again without touching herself – ‘to get what you need.’
There was nothing left for me to do. I knew the implications of what I had said, and that there was no recovering from it.
‘I think,’ said Maxine, ‘that this brings your interview to an end.’
When I was very little, my grandmother often chose my bedtime stories from Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children. Her favourite had a huge mouthful of a title. ‘Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death.’ This was probably because my grandmother hated my mother, and my mother’s name was Matilda. It didn’t occur to my grandmother that having a heroine who was my mother’s namesake would only make me love her more.
Plus, my grandmother could never convince me that Matilda was really dead. ‘It was a trick,’ I would say. ‘Matilda hid in a fireproof cellar but the story forgot to tell us.’ I didn’t confess to my grandmother that I often dreamed my parents were still alive, and it had all been a mistake. I never believed in the words ‘The End’ when my grandmother finished and snapped the book closed. I was convinced the characters continued on somewhere, and I would try to imagine the next phase of their lives for myself.
All in all, the effect of my grandmother’s cautionary tales was not what she intended. They just gave me ideas about the interesting things I could do, and alerted me to potential disasters so I could try to figure out how to avoid them, though I didn’t always succeed.
My grandmother was forever muttering about listeners at keyholes being vexed, and eavesdroppers never hearing good of themselves. ‘That is what you must reflect upon, Holly,’ she would say.
The best response to this, like most of the things my grandmother said, was the word, ‘Yes,’ usually accompanied by a solemn nod. But in truth, the only thing I reflected upon was how to avoid detection.
Soon after they moved into the house next door, Peggy discovered me lying like a tiger along a high branch of my grandmother’s apple tree. It was the end of summer, and I was watching Peggy play with Milly on the other side of the fence that ran between our houses, while James manned the barbeque.
Peggy thought that this incident was an aberration. She saw me as a sweet little girl whose loneliness and longing for family had put her in danger, though it was Peggy’s own startled screech at seeing me in the tree that almost made me fall out of it. But my spying was no aberration. I simply made sure Peggy never caught me at it again.
Peggy was in the habit of leaving the laundry room window open so she could dangle out the hose that vented the hot air from her tumble dryer. The laundry room was Peggy’s favourite place for private conversations. I could peek from my father’s dusty first-floor study and see right into that laundry room.
I loved my father’s study, where I often hunted for clues about my parents, though I only ever found one thing. A photograph of them on their wedding day, hidden in his copy of A Tale of Two Cities. I liked to sit and read in my father’s old armchair, which was covered in green leather. I’d dragged it near the window. From there, I could monitor what was happening at Peggy’s. If her washing machine and tumble dryer were off, then listening in was no challenge. In fact, I regarded such a circumstance as an invitation.
And that is how I came to hear Peggy and Milly talking together when I was back home in St Ives, two months after my disastrous final MI5 interview. As soon as I saw that the laundry room light was on and Peggy and Milly had gone in, I ran downstairs, slipped into the garden, squeezed through the rip in the fence Milly and I always used as a not-very-secret passage, and flattened myself against a tangle of Peggy’s honeysuckle.
‘She’s so deflated,’ Peggy was saying, ‘since she’s come home. I think she’s embarrassed about the reason – she can’t bear to look your father in the eye.’
I’d had to say something about why MI5 didn’t give me the job, because Peggy and James and Milly knew I’d got to the final stage of the recruitment process. There was no disguising the outcome.
‘She was brave to tell us, Mum,’ Milly said. ‘And fucking stupid.’
‘You don’t need to use that language, Milly.’I had been stupid to reveal the truth about the nature of the way I’d messed up. What had possessed me to give them the details?
But Milly was right. I had been stupid to reveal the truth about the nature of the way I’d messed up. What had possessed me to give them the details? Perhaps I did it because it was the most un-spy-like action I could take, a kind of embracing of my failure. It was an act of self-sabotage I decided never to repeat.
‘Sorry.’ Milly didn’t sound at all sorry. ‘People say all sorts of shit.’
‘Honestly, Milly,’ Peggy said.
‘She wanted us to see her real self,’ said Milly. ‘To see her at her worst and still love her. She knows she’s not going to save the world by fucking someone.’
I imagined Peggy rolling her eyes in weariness at Milly’s continued swearing. ‘She’d never have actually done it,’ Peggy said. ‘Those recruiters were fools to believe she would.’
The scent of honeysuckle was choking me, mixed with the nearby roses I had been trying not to stab myself with. Somehow, though, a thorn caught my finger and my eyes welled up as I sucked away the blood and hoped that Peggy was right.
Five and a half years later
Bath, Tuesday, 25 December 2018
I know the day is going to be bad as soon as I see the kingfisher. He is so perfect, captured beneath the surface of the ice. He stops me in my run as if I have slammed into an invisible wall. Just like him.
I peer over the railings of the small bridge at the frozen water below, for a closer look. He must have been fishing, when the water thickened and trapped him. The vivid blue of his tail, and the dots on the top of his head, are clear beneath the thin layer above him. He is beautifully preserved in his ice cube. There is no sign he fought it, with those wings cupping his body so peacefully, his beak closed and pointed straight ahead.
I cannot bear to look any more, and if I don’t get going I will be late for my visit to my grandmother at the nursing home. So I tear my eyes away and resume my run, trying to tell myself it isn’t a bad omen, but knowing deep down that it must be.
• • •
My grandmother has refused to get out of bed today, so Katarina takes me upstairs to her room. The door is open a crack, but not wide enough for me to see in. The sharp scent of lemon disinfectant makes the inside of my nose prickle.
‘Who’s that!’ my grandmother says.
I push the door wide open. ‘It’s me, Grandma.’
‘Who are you? I don’t know you.’ My grandmother rattles the safety rails of her bed like an angry child. ‘You’re not Princess Anne.’
‘No. Sorry. It’s just me. Just Holly.’ It isn’t possible for my grandmother to call me anything else. I moved her from the nursing home in St Ives to this one in Bath twenty months ago, and I told Katarina and the others who look after her here that Holly has always been my grandmother’s nickname for me, but that my actual name is Helen.
‘Go away. Go get Princess Anne.’
‘After I’ve spent a little time with you.’ I bend to kiss my grandmother’s cheek. She is wearing the lilac nightdress and matching bed jacket that I asked Katarina to put under the tree for her. Katarina has arranged the pillows so that my grandmother is sitting up.
I move a slippery vinyl chair closer to the bed. I lift one of her hands. The skin is loose, and so thin it tears when she bruises. The surface is a jungle of liver spots and protruding green veins. Her fingers are bent as the gnarled branches of a weathered tree. ‘Happy Christmas, Grandma.’
‘Is it Christmas?’
‘Is that why you’re wearing that ridiculous red hat?’
‘Yes. Katarina gave it to me. There’s going to be a lovely party downstairs. Will you let me help you dress? We can go together.’
‘I had a feeling something was happening today.’ She grimaces.
‘It’s also my birthday, Grandma.’
‘How old are you then?’
‘Have you seen my Christmas present?’
‘You’re wearing it. It’s a pretty colour on you.’
She examines her sleeve as if it were covered in bird poo. ‘Not this.’ She stresses this to make her disgust clear. ‘My new photograph.’
The frame sits on her bedside table, beside a plastic jug of water with a matching tumbler in an unfortunate shade of urine-yellow. Almost immediately, my grandmother blocks it from my view, lurching her upper body to the side to try to grab at the photograph with her arthritic fingers. There is a crash, and a cry. ‘Blast! Oh, oh oh!’ She is screaming in frustration.
‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’ I am out of my chair and rushing to the other side of the bed. Water has sloshed everywhere. The jug has bounced onto the linoleum floor.
‘Don’t be upset.’ I am already in her efficient wet room with its accessible shower and toilet and sink, grabbing a vinegar-smelling towel. I retrieve the frame from beneath the bed where it landed, and wrap it in the towel.
‘Is Princess Anne all right?’ my grandmother says.
I can feel my face creasing in puzzlement as I sweep the towel over the floor with a foot. I study the image inside the frame. ‘Oh my God.’
‘Don’t talk that way. You’re a heathen – you cannot be my granddaughter.’
‘But it really is Princess Anne.’
‘Of course it is. Kindly answer my question, please.’ My grandmother makes the words kindly and please sound like insults. ‘I asked if Princess Anne is all right.’
‘I didn’t hear you.’
Her ears are still as sharp as the wolf ’s, but I repeat the word. ‘Yes.’
‘Not even a hairline fracture.’ I cannot tear my eyes from the picture, which has been cut from an article that appeared in a local newspaper last September. Three whole months ago. All that time, I was living my poor imitation of a normal life, not knowing this was out there.
Princess Anne’s skirt and jacket are sewn from maroon and navy tartan. My grandmother is wearing her favourite dress. A background of dried earth, sprinkled with flowers the shade of wet mud. This is an adventurous pattern and pallet for my grandmother. Her white wisps of hair look lit from within.
My grandmother is standing, a wooden walking stick shaped like a candy cane in each hand, and care workers on both sides, ready to catch her if she crumbles. I think of my grandmother as tall, but she is stooped and tiny in front of Princess Anne, and looking up at her with a slant eye. My grandmother is not trying to please. My grandmother is never trying to please. Princess Anne bends towards her. The princess’s back is straight and perfect and in line with her neck and head. Only the hinge of her waist moves. The impression is that she is paying homage to my grandmother, rather than the reverse, as you would expect. This is exactly how my grandmother thinks things should be.
My grandmother says, ‘Will Princess Anne be coming to see me again soon, Holly?’ Despite my shock, and my fear, a small part of me registers that at least my grandmother has remembered my name. ‘As soon as she gets a chance, Grandma.’
I am not much of a royal follower. But staring at the photograph, I recall Princess Anne’s visit, and the excitement it occasioned in the residents and staff at the care home. I was working that day, and happy to miss it.
Katarina hurries in, wearing a red Santa hat with a white pom-pom that matches the one she put on my head when I arrived. She has on a tinsel bracelet and necklace, too. ‘Everything okay?’
‘Just a water spill. All dry now.’ I hold out the photograph. ‘How thoughtful,’ I say to Katarina. ‘Is this from you?’
She nods. ‘I think Mrs Lawrence likes it.’
‘She does. That was so kind of you.’ I am trying to seem pleased when I am anything but. But the damage is done. However I seem, it will make no difference now.
There is a tagline beneath the photograph. The Princess Royal talks to Oaks resident Beatrice Lawrence, 93.
It is the sight of my grandmother’s name in print that makes my breath catch in a blend of fear and nausea.
All the things I have done. All the measures I have taken. Except for this photograph. This is what I missed. What I didn’t foresee. A tiny thing that might make all the difference. The chance is small, but I know better than anybody that I must prepare for the possibility that this will lead him straight to me.