“Paris Spring” by James Naughtie

“Paris Spring” by James Naughtie (click on the cover for more details)

 

‘I’ve seen you somewhere before.’

Will Flemyng turned his head a little to the left to look at him.

‘Who knows?’ he said. ‘Paris may not be as big as it seems.’

He had watched the man come into the carriage at Solférino metro station and move directly to a place beside him, taking a moment or two to settle. It was Flemyng’s usual hour, and he recognized that his companion, who hadn’t turned towards him to follow his own question, was not a regular. He could be certain, because the man was memo- rable. His left shoe seemed to have been built up, he wore old man’s trousers and an unlit pipe was pushed into his breast pocket, stem outwards so that it spewed unlit tobacco over his clothes. His navy blazer glistened with age, completing the picture of someone who might be expected to have a decade or two on Flemyng, and he seemed stiff with weariness. Yet his face was that of a youngish man, despite his greying hair, and a signet ring on the little finger of his left hand was incongruous, a f leck of gold in the dust. The effect was unsettling, a portrait split in two.

It produced pleasure in Flemyng. He waited for the follow-up, which came as the train slowed down for the next station, the man having turned to face him.

‘It may have been at the Salle Pleyel last month. Did you attend the concert with the Gewandhaus? And perhaps the reception afterwards?’ His English was accented but accurate and f lowing, the words delivered at a practised pace, and his gaze was direct. Flemyng shook his head.

At the next stop the carriage thinned out quickly. The National Assembly was somewhere above. ‘So many civil servants,’ Flemyng said, and smiled. No reply.

They reached Concorde, and Flemyng rose. ‘Someone else, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘But, who knows, we may see each other again on the metro. It’s like that, don’t you find?’ The man nodded as Flemyng stepped on to the platform, and he gently tipped a hand from his knee to say goodbye.

On most mornings, Flemyng stopped for a coffee at a corner café on rue du Faubourg St-Honoré but today he walked directly to his office. The last days of April held the promise of summer and a stirring breeze with the dampness of coming rain seemed to brighten the streets. The sweepers had left pavements clean, and the trickle of water in the road- side gutters was a clear stream. Flemyng savoured the natural smells and sounds of the city. Bread from the café, the faint scent of blossom drifting from the trees over the wall, long trails of cigarette smoke from the workmen outside the apartments across the way and always the horns blaring down the street. Paris appeared content. But as the high wooden gate opened for him and he turned from the pavement into the embassy courtyard, he could see the security barricades being hauled into place at the Élysée Palace, a hundred yards away. The guard had been doubled at every entrance.

May Day promised thunderstorms.

Within five minutes he had reached his eyrie on the third f loor, and before going to his desk he pushed open Craven’s door, giving a light knock as he stuck his head inside. ‘Freddy – can I see you, in ten minutes or so?’

The room was filled with smoke, with yellowing curls on the ceiling, and through the fog a warm and gravelly voice welcomed him. It was quiet, and musical. ‘Be my guest, but give me a hint. A little clue, my boy?’

Flemyng leaned forward through the doorway. ‘Well, I’ve just been picked up.’

Wilfred Craven ran a merry ship. Although his office reeked and the walls were drab, the one painting hanging askew, he contrived to give it spirit. A place for confessions and stories, a centre of operations that was also a hidey-hole from the world. A boys’ room. Freddy was a joker who rationed the high seriousness in his life, and made a stand against office tedium in the hope of keeping the f lame of good humour burning. As an emblem of his regime he’d placed in one corner of his small room a mechanical wooden doll, half life-size – a grinning black figure with lurid painted lips, striped trousers and a patchwork jacket of many colours, who raised his bowler hat with one jerky hand when a glass was removed from the other, in Freddy’s case usually filled with Scotch and soda.

His last ambassador, in Vienna, had ordered it out of the embassy, and for a while Craven secreted it in the garage with the rest of his fabled collection of ephemera. There were Victorian theatre bills, shiny boxing gloves from long-gone title fights, a model of HMS Victory made from matchsticks because he was a navy man, and the silk stockings of a music-hall star. Even a black ballot box he’d bought in a backstreet in Chicago to remind him of shenanigans, and the doll fitted in. He had brought it out of retirement for the entertainment of his boys in Paris, because they understood his need for the absurd.

Taste didn’t come into it. Freddy Craven never wanted to forget the ludicrous things he’d known, sometimes the ones he’d done. He had spotted the doll in a small-town auction in North Carolina and knew that some day it would be a grotesque antique. So he took it home, and it still made him smile.

Flemyng had been picked up. The young man, whom Craven had steered through his first secret forays in the streets of Berlin, had a quick eye and, precociously, the tender touch of a veteran. He would handle the contact delicately. Craven made a rough pile of the books scattered across his desk, crumpled yesterday’s newspaper into the bin and split the foil on a new packet of cigarettes. He lay back in his chair, grey waterspout hair f lopping behind him and a country-check shirt tight over his belly, which was starting to shrink like the rest of him. With an effort, he put his feet on his desk and stretched out. Flemyng.

The good-looking boy had arrived in Vienna green and eager, and with an advantage. Craven came of West Country farming stock and preferred the few youngsters who knew something of rural ways, taking them under his wing. Flemyng’s family was a little different, having an estate in Perthshire that covered forest and hill, but there was still a bond. Even as he felt the shadow of illness coming on, Craven found in Flemyng a listener and an outlet for old enthusiasms lived out on the front line, and often in the darkness beyond. They would talk for long nights, Flemyng drinking from the well of stories that Freddy wanted to pass on before they disappeared with him and became folklore. And it was on the orders of Freddy in Vienna that Flemyng had taken to the lanes behind St Stephen’s Cathedral on a November night five years before and crawled back to the embassy slashed from neck to right breast with a knife wound that nearly killed him.

Craven was coughing when Flemyng knocked on his door a few minutes later, and took a moment to recover.

‘Apologies, my boy. One of my bad days, I can tell.’ He smiled.

‘I’m sorry, Freddy. Water?’

He shook his head. ‘I want to hear it all.’

Flemyng sat between him and the window. He was dark-haired and slim, dressed without ostentation and with natural style. His shoes were polished but his hair cut longer than anyone in the embassy except Craven, who was past all that. On this morning his shirt was white, and his tie was a soft green. The jacket of his grey suit hung over the chair, and he put his hands behind his head.

‘I was spoken to, on the metro.’

‘Did you get on at your usual station?’

‘Yes. Rue du Bac, at my regular time.’

‘A man?’

Flemyng said, ‘East German, pretty sure. Not Russian anyway. We spoke in English. He mentioned the Leipzig orchestra and wondered if we’d encountered each other before, maybe at a party after a concert. I said no, which was true, and that was all.’

But more than enough, said Craven, who promised to get an up-to-date book of photographs from the library so that they could look for a match. ‘Did you get the feeling that he wanted a meeting?’

‘No doubt of it,’ Flemyng said. ‘There was hardly any pretence.’ Craven was making circles with both hands on the desk, tracing

patterns on the leather. ‘Let’s consider, just for the sake of it, the possi- bility that it was a genuine inquiry, that came to him from a chance collision – that he did think he’d seen you somewhere before.’

‘Come on,’ said Flemyng. ‘He knew what he was doing, and I felt it. He was staring straight ahead when he started the conversation, and he’ll have known that I understood his purpose.’

Freddy Craven smiled. ‘So?’

‘I’ll make sure I meet him again. I said we might bump into each other on the metro, and he’ll know what I meant. I wanted to put it to you so that we play by the rules without misunderstandings. Advice?’

It took Craven some effort to stand up, and he edged round the desk, leaning on one hand for support. ‘The timing’s interesting, wouldn’t you say?’

He looked through the window, with a hand on the back of Flemyng’s chair. ‘We know this place is heading for trouble. Wemyss was murmuring at the ambassador’s last night about revolution, although I’m not sure I believe in that any more. The Movement of 22 March – come on. Sounds like some South American fandango, and I’ve seen many a f lop in my time. But you tell me the Sorbonne’s boiling. The unions can get everybody on the streets in May if they want to, as we know. They think the old man will panic.’ He waved towards the gardens of the Élysée beyond the walls, the high trees dipping in the wind. ‘I don’t, but they probably think it’s worth a try. Do you?’

‘There’s stirring,’ Flemyng said. ‘They think that if students can do it in Poland, they can do it here. Warsaw, Prague, why not Paris? They’re terribly serious, and I think there’s something else. The London demonstration. They think they’re more anti-war than we are, and it embarrassed them. They hadn’t thought they’d see police horses charging in London. They think they can do better.’

‘Maybe they will, maybe they will,’ Freddy Craven said.

He put a hand on Flemyng’s shoulder and spoke quietly. ‘So why is now a good moment to make a play at you?’

Flemyng said, ‘It depends on whether or not I’m a target. Is he a buyer or a seller?’

‘Exactly,’ said Craven. ‘And there’s only one way to find out.’ Flemyng said he still lived by one of Freddy’s first pieces of advice in

Vienna – ‘never rush, unless you’re on the run’.

So he would do nothing on the next day, and come to work by a different route. The following day, a repeat performance by another way. But on the third day, he’d catch the metro at his usual time at rue du Bac and sit in the same carriage, as near as possible to the seat he’d occupied that morning. ‘And we’ll let things take their course.’

Craven said he’d have the photographs called down from the attic archive for the afternoon, so they should rendezvous for tea. ‘I have a little lunch lined up in the 7th and I’ll take a stroll through the Sorbonne afterwards.’

Flemyng watched him struggle to the desk, putting all his weight on one hand as he swivelled round, and a gust of sadness swept over him. Freddy should have been in retirement by now, and the Paris posting was an indulgence all round. A long-service medal, with wine list attached. He was loved, could still run a sure-footed operation from his desk, and represented a story that Flemyng’s masters wanted to keep alive, against the odds. Because Craven was dying, and everyone knew it. He concealed as many of the signs as he could, but the decline had been obvious since illness had taken hold in Vienna. First his complexion had darkened to a deeper red, sounding the first alarm bell, and then, in the course of a few months, he’d whitened and started to wither. He still mounted displays of his old, irreverent style – he’d worn sandals at a reception for a parliamentary delegation the previous week, and been the happy talk of the embassy for three days – but these moments were throwbacks, no longer the real thing. His days were on the wane.

‘I can see the old reaper getting his hood on,’ he’d told Flemyng the previous week. ‘He’s wondering when to come for me.’ Like so many of his jokes, it was half true.

But when they sat together that afternoon to look at the picture books, Craven was sparkling. There was a game on. ‘Let’s forget the Soviets. You say he was German, so I’ve got them here. Lined up in all their grey glory.’

It took Flemyng only five minutes to trawl through the gallery of faces, some from the mugshots squirrelled out of the East German trade mission in a shared operation with the Americans the year before, and others snatched by Craven’s own favourite photographer at public events and gatherings of the diplomatic corps where the expressions were more cheerful, thanks to drink. But none of them reminded Flemyng in any way of the strange young man on the train, his youthful face imprisoned in the body and the garb of a much older man. ‘He’s not here.’

They looked at the pages of Czechs and Poles, and Craven insisted they checked the Russians. A run through the West Germans in case Flemyng had misunderstood. Nothing.

‘He’s new,’ said Craven. ‘Which gives us another interesting ques- tion. Has he been sent here with you in mind?’

They couldn’t know, he said, and it would be a waste of time to theo- rize. So why didn’t they have a drink? They did, Craven playing his trick with the dumb waiter and Flemyng reminding himself that there was no chance of the bowler-hatted doll surviving Freddy, because no one else would take it on. Might he need to save the thing, and have it for his own? He could hide it at home in Scotland, and no one would know. The thought had a hallucinatory effect. Flemyng found himself drifting away.

‘I’ll be here all day on Friday.’ Craven was talking. ‘I’ll wait as long as it takes, but come to me as soon as you can.’ He was smiling, a glass in his hand and the light back in his eyes. ‘My last game, Will, who knows?’ When Flemyng had left the room, and he was alone, the old man

slapped his desk with delight.

On the platform for Line 12 at rue du Bac, Flemyng recognized a number of regulars who took the metro just before nine o’clock each day, and stood in his usual place. He took a seat in the third carriage from the front, as he had three days earlier. When the train slowed down for Solférino, Flemyng became aware of his nerves for the first time. He felt his stomach muscles twitch and he was surprised at the way his grip tightened on the briefcase on his lap, which he had emptied for the journey to work. Inside himself he was aware of a hollowness like the rush of vertigo in his legs on the edge of a drop.

The train stopped, and the fourth man to enter the train was the

German.

He took a seat next to a window, diagonally across from Flemyng in a set of four, and their knees touched for a moment as he eased into his place and put his black felt hat on his lap. The carriage was full, and smoky. Flemyng smiled, aware that the other man’s nerves were likely to be in the same state as his own. He lived for such moments, and knew the tension they brought with them.

The man read his newspaper and his expression showed nothing. He didn’t speak. As they approached Concorde, he glanced up at Flemyng and held his eye for the first time. Stay on the train.

For the next ten minutes, Flemyng watched him closely. He wore the same clothes, he’d stretched the foot in front of him as far as he could and, once again, he’d stuck his pipe upside down in his pocket. Strands of tobacco poked out and there were streaks of soot on his blazer. His trousers were grey and baggy, and too long, with deep turn-ups that seemed to have picked up litter along the way. He was now looking away again. Flemyng knew the inspection would come later.

They sat silently until the train reached Pigalle and, without fuss, the man stood and took three steps towards the sliding doors, revealing the hint of a limp. Flemyng stood behind him and they left the train in step. He slowed down to let a gap open up between them and followed him along Boulevard de Clichy, checking as he walked that no one else was in their wake. Nothing. Two young women, roughly painted and bored, got up from an iron bench as they passed and one of them spread her arms in a fake stretch, but they were alert enough to know that there was no business on offer. Flemyng nodded easily at them, as if to suggest that on another day it might have been different, and the younger of the two waved cheerfully over her shoulder as they turned away. The German entered a café on the next corner without looking back, and Flemyng followed, ducking under a ragged parasol at the door and approaching his table against the far wall with no word of explanation, pulling back a chair and sitting down. He slipped his jacket off.

‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘We meet again.’

For the first time, the man smiled. ‘As I knew we would. I am pleased to see you, Mr Flemyng. My name is Kristof.’

As they shook hands, Flemyng thought how Freddy would enjoy the absurdity of their politeness.

‘Which of us asked for this meeting?’ said Kristof, smiling.

‘An interesting question.’

‘Let me take responsibility.’ He laughed. His face lightened and his eyes were bright. For the first time, he seemed in charge. His head was up, his hands high in a gesture of welcome. The years fell away.

Flemyng said, ‘Why?’ Once again he felt a hollowness in his legs, a tightening in his gut. Fear, his familiar companion and friend.

‘That is quite simple,’ Kristof said, as he prepared his thunderbolt. ‘I can tell you something very interesting about your brother.’

 

 

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