Munich Nights Chapter 17: “Bella Is Attacked, And Receives An Award At The Russian Embassy”
Through a colleague in the parliamentary members’ office was a man who was always very sympathetic to any soviet cause, Bella had learned with great interest that the young man had a birthday approaching in several days time.
She then instructed Ninotchka to post to her a brightly coloured birthday card. She herself would then proudly display it on her desk. She herself rarely bothered with birthdays, to her they were simply one more year near to approaching the arrival of death. She certainly hoped this subterfuge would delight and surprise him in that they both shared a birthday. Some days later when he arrived to research an important trade deal with the French government he was surprised to see that they both shared a birthday by noticing the card prominently placed on her crowded desk.
Also as part of her plan was the addition of a birthday cake. He would most certainly be offered a large slice with a kiss planted on his cheeks from her as she offered him the plate. Later as planned earlier in her office they both laughingly extinguished the spluttering twisted coloured candles together.
Then he suggested they make a silent birthday request. She was startled by this request but complied anyway.
There was a moment that slightly alarmed her when he turned and declared they both shared the same birthday sign.
“How amazing that we both share the same zodiac sign” he gushed excitedly.
She had no idea of course to which he referred to and adroitly changed the subject. But she was skilfully reeling him slowly into her net rather akin to a bloated trout. And it was going well.
Within days her welcoming tone had somehow distracted him from all his work and making daily decisions. Now his mind was occupied with her and her alluring image alone.
She had become so very quickly the epicentre of this once empty world of this young man. Soon he accepted all that she offered to him. He required nothing but only to be with her and bask in her beauty. He was aware that his life had finally started with her unexpected arrival into his own empty existence.
He even much to her surprise presented to her as a birthday gift a set of silver emperor wind chimes purchased from Selfridges. They revived forgotten memories of her own youth long ago. Growing up in the remote village in the Siberian forests near Omsk, with her loving mother simply saying that these musical chimes prevented the hungry wolves from entering their door. And for years afterwards, she had really believed her! Ah, dear mama of happy times how she still missed her after all this time. In truth, she had actually killed the she-wolf with her father’s hunting knife when she was only ten years old. Needless to say, the suspicious villagers were naturally guarded around the young Bella when she approached them. She doubted that the little village of only seventy-two inhabitants had survived. She neither knew nor cared. She had revolted against its restrictive confines a long time ago. Now London was her temporary world and for as long as it took to gain those secret government navy plans as instructed.
Early in their growing relationship, a nervous invitation to accompany him to the Old Vic theatre was joyfully accepted. Later an arranged day trip to Oxford allowed him to accompany and show her proudly Exeter college circa 1314 his own alma master. Later with an afternoon’s boating trip on the river completed the day’s excursion to this historic town of his student years.
Earlier as Bella lay reclining in the punt her long manicured fingers trailing through the cool ochre water, she watched Alex, aware sadly that his days were numbered. But life, of course, is a mystery and that we are all on the road to death from birth, remarked Koba to her years before and none can alter its predicted course he had added.
She now slowly dozed as the Oxford countryside paraded past in panorama of green. Laughing undergraduates could be heard and seen unaware of what the future had in store for them.
Unbeknownst to Alex as he navigated the swirling currents, was that he himself would never witness the gleaming spires or the unique charm of Oxford again.
But now happily for the first time in his life, he had someone he could share his hopes and ambitions with. It also raised his expectations that she might hopefully feel an emotional attachment for him.
All of this wearisome play-acting and silly sightseeing as far as Bella was concerned was tiresome, but was necessary for her to finally acquire those important requested naval documents. Then for her to be allowed she hoped, by Moscow, to continue her search or quest for the murderer of her brother Leon. All the rest was a useful camouflage to be used in her loyalty to serve the party and promote its political ambitions from which she had never shirked.
One late evening as he escorted her towards a nearby taxi rank after an evening at the ballet Reuse, suddenly one of the hired embassy assassins had approached Bella from a darkened alley and roughly dragged her towards an empty shop doorway. He cupped her face tightly saying something inaudible. Alex had quickly and bravely attempted and tried to intervene only to be rebuked with a skilled aimed punch into his solar plexus.
A licensed taxi driver altered to the sounds and shouts attempted to intervene but retreated quickly when he noticed the determined look on the assailant’s pockmarked face. He jumped into his cab and dispatched it and himself into the waiting nightlights of the West End forgetting even to switch on his car headlights.
“Last warning lady” the man sneered at her saying through nicotine teeth. “GET those plans or your brother will lose both ears. Understand?”
He then pushed her onto the ground shouting, “DO YOU”? She silently nodded at his demanded question. Then he quickly disappeared into the city’s darkness.
Alex climbed to his feet gasping for breath and assisted Bella to her feet. She was now silently weeping and gripped his hand pleading to him: “Please take me home Alex I’m so frightened. I don’t know what to do.” They both held on to each other and left the now deserted street.
A passing taxi was hailed with Bella informing him of her address. During the journey there she sat silently rocking forward her arms clasped about her shaking body. Alex still shocked himself placed a protective arm around her shoulders. She did not resist and rested her head onto his shoulder.
However not a word was uttered between them and only a passing glance of gratitude was witnessed by Alex from Bella.
After settling the fare he aided her into her apartment and placed her into a chair then ignited the gas fire. She then gazed up at him thankfully and whispered through tear-stained eyes: “Oh Alex what am I going to do… I’m so frightened.” She then suppressed more sobs. He then sat next to her still very concerned at her pitiful condition. She leaned over onto his chest to seek comfort. They then sat in silence for several minutes then he politely enquired: “Where is the kitchen? I’m going to make us both a hot drink. I think it will help us both” he whispered squeezing her hand. She weakly pointed to an open door then he stood and departed her side.
And he felt slightly humbled that she had allowed and trusted him into the sanctuary of this the enclosure of her home.
Bella smiled to herself watching him go in search of refreshments. Knowing that she had planned this strategy to obtain the government plans almost to perfection. In fact, the choreographed charade with the thug had played out much better than she had hoped.
She then reached for a small pocket mirror and examined her face. There were still very noticeable heavy finger indentations on her cheeks where Ivan her assailant had placed his fingers just a little bit too heavy than she had cared for. She would deal with him later.
“Don’t touch my face” she had warned him the previous day in the embassy gymnasium. Just hold me under the chin. Understand??” Bella rarely warned anybody twice. Once was enough!
“Always spare the face to avoid any bruising.” Her academy instructor had drilled this advice into her and other recruits in the science of interrogation years before.
She stood up and walked over to the chesterfield couch sat down and began preparing herself for his concern which she expected to be imminent.
She noticed there was no sign of Oscar. Her newly adopted feline friend seemed to have deserted her.
Alex returned full of concern with two china cups of drinking chocolate placed on a Windsor Castle commemorative tray. She herself detested chocolate, much preferring a refreshing cup of tea. But she said nothing just smiled sweetly at him. He sat down pulled over a small table and placed the cups on two Windsor Castle table coasters. He then enquired about what had happened, but she cut short his question by speaking slowly through tears: “Oh, I’m so sorry Alex you had to get involved in this sordid affair.”
“Bella who was that awful man and why are you so frightened of him? Does he want money? I have some small savings if that could help?”
Poor lamb she thought, he looks so concerned and confused. She asked him to switch off the ceiling light and instead switch one of the small table lights. Then as he sat next to her she began speaking her prepared words. They always sounded better in the half-light.
“Oh, it’s not money they want … it’s much more dangerous than that Alex, it’s just… I don’t know what to do?”
She accepted a fresh handkerchief and wiped her eyes then composed herself running a quivering hand through her dishevelled hair mainly for effect
He had reached out to her and took her untouched chocolate cup from her shaking hands saying with concern: “Bella it’s no secret that I’ve grown very fond of you as you have probably noticed, and I want to help but you have to confide in me. Please.” He reached out and held both of her shaking hands.
“Oh if only it were that simple” she replied”…..I just don’t know or who to turn to” she leaned over and kissed his cheek.” But I don’t…I mustn’t get you involved in my family problems.You’ve be been too kind to me already.” She paused to see how he would respond.
“Bella I’ve come to care very much for you and If I can help… well I will” he looked enquiringly at her.
She reclined into the chair a look of pain etched onto her face as she bit down onto her lower lip. She now spoke with softness almost as a whisper. She began her rehearsed words slowly seeking both of his hands: “Some months ago my younger brother Maurice was taken as a birthday treat with a so-called friend to a well known London gaming casino. And as usual it seems he enjoyed a so-called run of good luck. It seems newcomers usually do.”
“Unbeknownst to me, he started to return more frequently when time allowed, many times afterwards. And as you have guessed he started to amass debts which had escalated to dangerous proportions.”
She prepared herself for her next acting role employing a favoured ruse she had performed many times before. It had been told to her under duress by a famous Russian film director she had once interrogated for sedition. She slowly forced her sharpened fingernails into the open soft palm of her hand and as expected this procedure forced her to grimace in pain as she now spoke in short sobs saying: “And Maurice can you believe he owes thousands of pounds to a notorious south London criminal syndicate. Then after talking to him and warning him that if he did not pay up, the consequences would be very serious for both of us! Then Maurice foolishly informed them perhaps through fear that I worked in the Commons library.”
“Then three men drove him to a deserted house in the country, tied him to a chair a questioned him even more about me and my supposed access to government Ministers private papers. Maybe they slyly suggested this debt he owed could be settled by obtaining some information supplied by me?”
She suddenly collapsed into tears saying as she desperately clutched his jacket: “Then … they extracted two of his fingernails one from each hand with the remark that they will grow again! Oh, poor Maurice.”
Alex grimaced in shock at the image of what her brother had being subjected to. But his immediate concern was for poor Bella. So innocent of her brother’s foolish addiction. And why should she have to suffer? Poor Bella she had come to mean so much to him. He had to help her somehow. He listened as she spoke about the incident earlier in the street.
“Tonight that awful man hinted that something else might just happen, with maybe his ears being surgically removed”.
She collapsed in more torrents of tears aided by her fingernails planted into soft flesh.
Then composing herself she announced: “If the debt was delayed in being paid or not being honoured, well…” She let this new suggestion settle into his mind. She almost lost her composure as she glanced over his shoulder at the sudden sight of Oscar surveying them both through the window with great interest.
Alex had certainly listened in anger but tempered with tenderness for her safety. Now a deeper awareness touched his heart. He had to aid her and remove the suffering and shame she had been falsely subjected to on that deserted street.
“Alex, have you ever heard of something known as UMB 8? It seems that papers concerning this are what they are after.”
She now peered at him rather akin to a frightened child after having experienced a bad dream and seeking comfort. She hoped she had not overdone her play-acting.
He nodded slowly replying: “I think I have heard of it or mentioned somewhere and it does sound familiar maybe a government secret project?” He paused to think saying: “Or future war plans? I don’t of course have full access to naval clearance authority but….” She waited to watch him now, pressing her lacquered nails deeper into her unresisting flesh. Tears were now trawling down her face leaving uneven trails. Most men she had learned could not resist any woman weeping and especially this one. She hoped HE was not the exception.
He quickly stood up looked down at her and said with conviction: “I will if possible obtain them for you…somehow.”
He leaned over kissed her and departed saying: “Don’t worry Bella.”
Then outside he started to feel faint and leaned on the closed front door. The excitement, as well as this brutal unexpected assault upon him, had left him feeling weakened and dizzy. He reached into his pocket and removed a small initialled silver pillbox and then selected a ‘digoxin’ pill which he quickly swallowed. Since childhood, he had suffered from rheumatic heart disease. Although he had now partially recovered, his heart still remained in a fragile condition. He had been repeatedly advised by his personal doctor to avoid any unnecessary exertion to the strained and damaged arteries.
He waited a few minutes as he regained his composure as welcoming strength flowed through his body to revive him. Then he walked thoughtfully back to the London Road. Once there he flagged down a passing taxi and on entering the rear of the car he felt now still exhausted but exhilarated. He now had a mission to somehow obtain those plans for his Bella, who had so happily unexpectedly entered his lonely world. And soon he had now decided he would approach her and request her to become his future wife hoping she would accept!
Meanwhile, inside her shaded bedroom where she had now returned after rinsing her face, Bella had paused by kicking off her shoes and curling her toes underneath herself. She then smiled and leaned back onto her soft pillows. She was certainly pleased and reasoned with herself that within days hopefully those requested plans would be secured into her waiting hands when she would then depart to pastures new.
She cleaned her teeth, climbed between the waiting comforting sheets and promptly descended into slumber. Sometime in the night, an excruciating toothache had disturbed her reverie. She usual reclined soundly with never a cable of conscience capturing her nightly nocturnal slumber.
Early the next morning she searched and fortunately located a dentist actually in the adjoining avenue. Later in the waiting room, a travel brochure for Ireland was on display and inside was an article with photographs capturing of the charm and beauty of Co. Sligo with photographs of a quaint old village called Cloongoonagh. ‘A village steeped in old-world charm and civility and where chirpy magpies cascaded through darkened forests, then to land unconcerned onto uncut grass oblivious it seems to any approaching danger,’ a travel writer by the name of E.E. Foyle B.A had joyfully proclaimed to his faithful readers. And from the photographic views to Bella, it looked delightful and rural. Perhaps one day she would arrange a visit to this undiscovered corner of Ireland? It somehow rather reminded her of her own Siberian hamlet that she doubted no longer existed.
On her way out of the dentist, she searched for the familiar red telephone boxes that always adorned London. She then telephoned the House of Commons that morning and explained why she would be unable to be in the library today.
“No problem Bella” the kind deputy Speaker informed her when she explained why then added: “The House in on Easter recess anyway, with most Members I hope, busy in their constituencies. Maybe some school parties may be arriving for a tour? So get well soon Bella”. She then replaced the phone thinking that all was proceeding very well.
She returned to her address and selected some suitable clothing for an unannounced visit to the Russian Embassy. She was looking forward to keeping the staff on their toes. People always became so complacent in their daily chores.
Several hours later she approached the imposing embassy gates in Kensington Palace Gardens. She was now unrecognisable as the so obliging Bella and so adored in the House of Commons tea rooms. She had certainly made an impression on the gullible Members of Parliament.
Now dressed in a long, heavy, drab, shapeless brown dress with laced up brown brogue shoes her hair was concealed under a floppy hat and her face revealed no hint of makeup. After informing the police officer at the gates in very broken English that she was going home to Moscow because her father was very sick she was waved through to the front entrance. Once inside she approached a middle-aged man seated behind a formidable desk. He was reading a creased copy of The Daily Mirror. He glanced up looked her up and down with disinterest asking: “Yes, what do you want?”
Then removing her slouch hat and shaking her hair free she announced with authority: “I am here to see the Charge d’affaires. Inform him immediately that Major Stavisky of the NKVD is here.” And stand up you oaf when you address an officer.”
Like a coiled spring, the man jumped to attention and was full of apologies and in the process upset a cup and saucer of tea over his lap. She followed him to the elevator her eyes boring into the rolls of fat seen around his neck.
She followed him along an empty corridor when framed portraits of Marx and Engles gazed down at them with distaste it seemed. Then after a nervous knock on the door by the hall porter, it was quickly opened by a large overdressed man with a heavily scarred face but with remarkably clear blue eyes wearing a blue serge civilian suit walked towards her dismissed the man and held her at arm’s length for inspection.
“Welcome, dear Bella it’s been far too long,” then appraising her attire he remarked with a laugh.” I assume you are in disguise?” he laughed pointing at her clothes.
As always in his company, there was an air of sangfroid about his character. Perhaps she had thought years before, this was why he had climbed so quickly up the greasy political pole of ambition.
“Of course and wonderful to see you as ever Leonard.”
Then they embraced. They were after all old friends from the Leningrad Police department. Always a sanguine man in spite of his heavy workload nothing seemed to daunt him. Then seated in his spacious offices and as her embassy contact, he immediately requested a full update concerning Project UM8. Later Brazilian coffee would be requested which a waiter brought and later served with her expected confirmation that the requested plans would be secured in the embassy safe to be later dispatched in the diplomatic bag to Moscow, the two then departed from their official business to discuss other topics. She mentioned young Ninotchka.
“Do you know” he replied proudly” she was first in her class in self-defence specialising in garrotting!” Then Serge’s name was cautiously mentioned.
“Yes it was all very sad when they came to arrest him and I warned him many times that those expensive Harrods dinners would be the death of him and sadly from what I’m hearing that is what has happened.”
She enquired if any personal mail from Moscow had been despatched in the diplomatic bag.” Nada” he replied using the slang vernacular of which she was learning herself how to use.
“But first my dear Bella” he announced taking her rather by surprise and not an emotion she was used to experiencing. Then removing her empty coffee cup saying with a secretive smile: “I am instructed to accompany you to his excellency’s the Ambassador’s office. But first Bella let me escort you to our excellent wardrobe rooms where you will find all ranks of uniforms and an assisted dresser to help you chose one suitable for this special occasion. It is not every day you are requested to attend an audience with Ambassador Maisky” he said with mock solemnity. He was the newly commissioned London Ambassador. Bella had never encountered him before but was aware of his confidence from Comrade Stalin and according to some sources she had heard about his reputation. During his eleven-year tenure in London, he enjoyed the friendship of five British Prime Ministers, as well as socialising with H.G.Wells, Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb. Amazingly during the war, he would be present for all full Foreign Office daily briefings in London. Some political commentators referred to him as the communist cosmopolite or the little weasel.
On entering first the dressing room, she was welcomed by a small lady elderly lady with almost bird-like features. Her head was adorned with a soft purple hat, a silk scarf tied loosely around her scrawny neck depicting soulful scenes of pre-war Monte Carlo. A lighted cigarette dangled from her pursed lips. She welcomed Bella using her full military title. Around her neck, several tape measures were hanging as well as a fixed pin cushion secured to her left wrist. Dozens of different sized pins awaited to be put to work at the command of her nimble fingers. She then led Bella into the robbing room marked ‘Private.’
Before her was a large windowless room with dozens of racks of assorted uniforms from all the Russian military forces. An oscillating fan helped cool the room’s atmosphere. Racks of boots and caps as well leather holsters somehow created an intimate bazaar effect. Centre of attention was a fully decorated Marshall uniform secured in a glass case. Two ceiling fixed spotlights beamed down upon the glass cabinet. This Bella was proudly informed was Marshall Stalin’s own full dress uniform prepared and to be ready at all times for when he arrived one day to take afternoon tea with the King and Queen. “Comrade Stalin is a great admirer of the British royal family you know, so everything for a surprise visit has to be prepared and ready” the dresser informed her in almost reverence at the mention of his ‘hallowed’ name.
Madam Olga for that was her stage name, selected an appropriate size uniform from a crowded rack and passed it through the heavy curtain of the changing room where Bella now stood waiting. When she emerged fully dressed minutes later the tunic only needed some small alterations which the dresser performed using needles and threads from a soft pad attached to her left wrist. Bella was now ready for the awaiting Ambassadorial award. A pair of black comfortable knee-high boots were polished to perfection and finally completed her transformation. Then Olga accompanied Bella to a large oak cabinet of many drawers with the brass handles engraved with the hammer and sickle. She then pulled out several drawers for inspection. Bella noticed assorted polished Soviet medals with attached coloured ribbons all set on a soft red velvet cushions.
Madam then slowly removed a small envelope from her housecoat and consulted its written words saying: “I see you have already been awarded last year ‘the Order of Lenin’ and naturally the distinguished NKVD badge.”
She looked enquiringly at Bella to confirm these written details. Bella nodded. The woman then praised her for her patriotism, then she carefully pinned on the two duplicates onto the left side of her uniform. They would be returned later with the uniform, she informed Bella slightly dusting away the fallen cigarette ash from her coat.
She then led Bella into a smaller dressing room with a large illuminated mirror. Placed before it was assorted coloured pots of powders and creams and cosmetics, with assorted fine mascara brushes as well as powder puffs and assorted tubes of facial foundation to complete the transformation of Bella for her appointment with the Ambassador.
She motioned for Bella to be seated then placed a sheet around her shoulders. She then stood behind her and decided what she had to do to make up Bella’s face to perfection.
As Bella searched her own face in the illuminated glass she knew that every promotion offered her was due to her loyalty whatever the sacrifice or cost. Those who served the State would always be rewarded and those who dared to be critical of it would be disciplined. This was the fear and understanding of the system and this knowledge had never failed her. In all, she pursued the existence and survival of Soviet Russia in these dangerous times.
“Our nation is like a ship steaming through shark-infested waters” (her brother Leon had frequently reminded her of this) and with Comrade Stalin at the helm who would dare try to sink or torpedo this majestic ship of state.” She thought once more of those words and again speculated as to where Leon was or what had happened to him.
By now Madam Olga had relighted a new Sobranie Turkish cigarette from the expiring stub. Then she prepared to glamorise Bella’s face. Previously her cigarette had dangled precariously from her lips now with it was pushed up by her bottom lip until it was almost level with her eyes which were squinting as she stroked blusher onto her willing clients exposed cheekbones.
“Did you know my dear that I was once employed in working for our great cinematographic director Sergei Eisenstein? And from him, I mastered many skills in the art of cinematography and in its deception” she laughed “of the masses.”
She chuckled at her witticism but Bella did not respond just smiled ruefully because there was something about this woman she did not care for or trust. Then she began to skilfully complete her brushwork on Bella’s naked face. Complimenting her on her fine bone structure saying as she worked her facial artistry. But she had never been introspective about her appearance and took minimum interest of how her finished face would be transformed by Madam Olga!
“It is not every day one is permitted to meet our illustrious ambassador you know” she announced inspecting her finished handiwork in the mirror and lowering her voice conspiratorially as she slowly confided to Bella saying: “In fact, Comrade Molotov and his wife my dear friend Polina arranged this London position for me when I suffered a minor heart ailment some months ago. ‘Olga he said ‘you have served the Soviet film industry with exemption. Now you are to travel to England and be the resident wardrobe mistress in our London Embassy. And more importantly to keep a watchful eye on that Comrade Maisky of course and report back to me personally if anything seems amiss.’
She then instantly regretted sharing this secret with Bella. No one could ever be too careful in these dangerous days of who was a friend and who was a foe. She quickly reached for a new cigarette packet to calm her anxiety and noticed annoyingly that she had smoked them all. She discarded the empty one excused herself and went in search for a new unopened packet. Maybe it was for another reason Bella speculated.
She had been trained at the academy to always listen to gossip requested or not. And to report any information that others unknowingly shared with her. What she had just heard from this woman would be no exception and would be stored away to be used later. Bella never dismissed any iota whether seen or heard or any face friendly or otherwise.
When Bella was ready to survey her finished figure in the full-length mirror, she now witnessed a proud woman in full perfect NKVD uniform. Her hair was shining like rays of sunlight and her skin looked radiant. A soldier of her country that she was ready and always proud to serve. She also speculated as well as to why Ambassador Maisky had summoned her and for what reason?
She then finally thanked Madam Olga for her expertise and would later return as requested to return her borrowed uniform with her later leaving wearing her dowdy street clothes. She departed the dressing room and waiting to escort her was Leonard, who really did need a shave she noticed as she examined his stubble with distaste, as well as noticing an arm of his glasses had somehow splintered.
She followed him along a deep carpeted hallway with framed photographs lining the wall depicting workers toiling in the fields and factories and all under the red hammer and sickle emblem.
Leonard knocked and dutifully entered. She then followed him into a busy outer office. There three women were attacking raised typewriters and with pleasure, it seemed. Telephones were also heard announcing incoming calls. A proud ticker-tape machine stood in the corner regurgitating long paper strips into a waste paper bin.
Leonard approached an elderly lady whose desk was set slightly apart from the other busy typists and piled with crested headed papers secured in wire baskets. She peered at him with annoyance, then turned to see Bella.
Leonard whispered something into her ear and she slowly stood up, turned and knocked on a nearby door, gently waited for a summons, then entered.
A minute later she opened the door and gestured silently to them both to enter with a feeble wave of her hand. Bella took a deep breath then followed Leonard into Ambassador Maisky’s spacious study. A large picture window she noticed overlooked a suburban park with a gushing fountain surrounded by blue cornflowers. A deserted children’s carousel could also be seen which she noticed was certainly in need of a refreshing coat of gloss paint.
It has been claimed possibly by the late Polish philosopher Eduardo Serkin that a man should always be surrounded if at all possible by his prized possessions and loved ones. The ambassador was no exception to this rumoured rule it seemed.
As she entered the room and then waited for Leonard to confer with the ambassador, an important cable was passed to him by one of the office staff. He pushed his spectacles over his forehead and read it slowly with interest offering her a unique opportunity to evaluate her surroundings.
Whilst waiting her professional trained eye searched the surrounding room recording everything she viewed. A large oaken beamed ceiling captured her eyes before she moved down and noticed a partly cluttered desk of scattered papers, fountain pens, sharpened pencils and assorted sized paper clips. This must be perhaps the evidence of a man who did not care for order it seemed! What had she been taught at the academy ‘a tidy desk means a tidy mind’. Maybe not in his case she suspected. Alongside the dented oak-panelled desk was a long dining table now piled with numerous daily international newspapers and periodicals. A lighted fire was slowly expiring in the hearth. And surprisingly the casement doors of the study were partially open allowing any captured heat to escape. The garden that she could see, looked deserted and sadly neglected. Maybe it was the gardener’s week away or was sick. Thick Moorish carpets were noticed as well as an unfortunate full size slaughtered Kodiak bear standing stoically by an Adams fireplace. Two mounted globes were situated on either side of a table. One featured atlas was heavily coloured in red, this depicting the Soviet Union and its borders. Two ancient rotary dialled telephones one white, one black were displayed on his desk. And with a small wall mounted internal ‘phone’ maybe to the kitchens behind his desk?
On the wide marble fireplace were assorted silver-framed photographs of this man’s family. Some single and some posed in awkwardly arranged groups as well of several of the ambassador with Comrade Stalin. Both showed the men probably taken at Stalin’s country dacha.
Secured high above the fine fireplace were two lethal harpoons, probably a souvenir from when he had resided as a diplomat in Helsinki. Several antique clocks were noticed and none seemed to be functioning. ‘Robbers of time and youth’ she had once read somewhere. A heavy fossil stone pestle & mortar perched precariously on the stone mantelpiece. For what purpose it served she did not know nor would she later enquire.
Three large lithograph prints were displayed on the walls. They depicted a splendid designed Japanese temple with assorted sized bells. Also, a foreboding Finish landscape and three signed Daniel MacLise pen portraits of popular Dickens characters.
Two King Charles spaniels watched the proceedings with canine compliance from under their master’s desk.
Then Leonard smartly turned towards her and gestured for her to step forward to be introduced to Ambassador Ivan Maisky himself.
She later learned that his name was a Non-de Guerre which was used for security purposes. The son of a Jewish doctor he was a late arrival it seemed to the Bolshevik party. Now, this diplomat historian was Joseph Stalin’s personal representative at the Royal Court of St James’s in London. But now her eyes turned from his cluttered study décor to this man himself for inspection. Rather ordinary, she thought he rather resembled a small town country doctor or an orthodox Rabbi but with a welcoming smile. Yet he had gathered many jealous enemies in the past some hoping to engineer his future disgrace and ruin and always to their own advantages.
Now it seemed an invited ensemble of the embassy staff had quietly assembled to observe this special in-house award ceremony. Madam Maisky had also eagerly joined her husband and beamed at Bella with open pride. Alongside her stood the ambassador’s personal secretary now clutching a small box placed on a green cushion. The ambassador cleared his throat stepped forward requested silence then began speaking slowly from a small typed card: “Major Bella Stavisky by the Supreme authority of the Order of the All Russian Central Executive committee and signed personally by Comrade Stalin himself, it is my privilege and pleasure to award you with the Order of the Red Banner.”
He turned to his aide, accepted the box, opened it and pinned it proudly upon her uniform. Then with applause erupting in the room he leaned over and said quietly: “My only regret is that your brave brother Leon could not be present this morning to share in this celebration.” He smiled kindly at her.
His wife then stepped forward saying as she held both of Bella’s hands: “Well done my dear you deserved this. You and your brother have performed so much to protect our country from its many enemies” she then kissed Bella’s roughed cheek.
She returned to her husband’s side as he began reading from his card: “It is also my honour that promotion from Major to acting Lieutenant Colonel should come in to effect from today and again signed by Comrade Stalin.” He then presented her with a rolled scroll with her designated military title.
Then she shook hands and thanked those for this unexpected honour with a brief acceptance speech. Several chilled bottles of Georgian apricot brandy were being opened by a standing waiter, who then poured out measured drinks offering them to the assembled guests for a toast. Later as she sipped her drink she found its flavour far too sweet for her taste and didn’t alcohol usually in any amount, leave her later with depression and insomnia? Really a dangerous cocktail at any time.
She then slowly placed the glass beside the desk hoping her hosts hoped wouldn’t notice. However, one of the inquisitive spaniels arose and came over to sniff and investigate the content then turned away to resume his slumber. Leonard sided up to her and said quietly: “Congratulations Bella this promotion was well overdue if I may say so … And if those requested naval plans are delivered to the embassy, very soon, then I am informed that you will automatically be promoted to full Colonel.” She confirmed to him that all was arranged and that the initial planning was proceeding perfectly.
Later both the Maiskies invited her into the garden for a photograph. Now viewed without any obstruction as she walked through the French windows, she noticed that a densely foliaged hedge offered a screen of privacy perhaps between the house and the next garden.
A small pond came into her sight with a life-sized wooden sculpture by the Russian artist Pomeronski, of a heron with outstretched wings that had been placed within the swirling water. The colourful Koi carp swam around its secured base. Sections of the garden seemed to have recently been landscaped, the rest, however, seemed to have been neglected.
They then after the posed photographs had been taken settled themselves with their drinks seated at a wrought iron table beneath an imposing ancient oak tree, which emanated its ancient heritage and attraction to Bella. The ambassador noticed she was admiring its appearance as many others had before. He offered an explanation of its recorded ancestry.
“I’m reliably informed Bella that Colonel Oliver Cromwell himself sat under its very branches on this very lawn at a large table with his annotated maps and briefed his nervous but loyal Generals before the Battle of Gainsborough in 1643. A decisive battle where he apparently distinguished himself” he announced with pride.
“My husband is a great admirer of Oliver Cromwell” interjected his wife” and has spent many happy hours researching his life haven’t you dear? And even motoring out to visit the many landmarks of his interesting life.”
She laughed at something then remarked to her husband: “Do you remember dear when we drove out to Cambridge to view his head … very gruesome!” She paused then said with a smile: “And then we sustained a puncture on the way there and when we finally arrived at the building only to discover it was closed for annual repairs.” They both laughed at the memory.
“…and on our way back would you believe we suffered another puncture.” They both shook their heads at that distant memory. Both seemed so suited to each other she noticed. And in an unusual way, Bella slightly envied them both for their marital happiness. It would be an experience she herself would never know. But still a rare gem in an uncertain world she had to admit watching this couples’ devotion and friendship towards each other.
Madam Maisky then leaned forward and held Bella’s hand saying gently, but then into Bella’s peripheral vision the two spaniels had arrived and comfortably placed themselves obediently at her feet: “Both my husband and myself” Madam Maisky whispered “were very upset to hear of the disappearance of your brother Leon. In the past, both in Tokyo and Helsinki he had performed an important mission in solving an awkward family problem for us. So our thoughts are with you and I know both Comrade Molotov and Stalin are taking a personal interest in finding out what has happened to Leon…” She paused waiting for a response which quickly arrived.
“Thank you, madam, for your kind concern but I fear Leon is no longer alive and that something dangerous happened in Germany… maybe in Munich … but who knows ?” Her voice trailed away into frustration and sadness.
“He was on government business was he not?” enquired the ambassador solicitously joining the conversation although he knew the answer.
“On the orders of Comrade Stalin himself,” she replied with a certain amount of pride in her voice but filled with desolation.
They conversed for a few more minutes before standing up to return to the study. The ambassador offered her his card saying quietly: “Ring me at any time, Bella, if I can be of any assistance.” His wife seconded this gesture saying: “Yes please do my dear and again many congratulations you deserved it.”
She then leaned over and embraced Bella and then departed with her husband her arm placed protectively through his.
Before Bella followed the couple into the building she decided to wander over to the pond to examine the fish. And they now seemed to be swimming rather erratically she noticed. And with that sinister shadow of this predator bird towering over them like a statue she was not surprised at their alarm.
She herself had suffered fear and inflicted it upon others too often and would continue to do so to any enemies of the state. Yet for this, her ordered London mission she was beginning to experience an uncomfortable feeling that things might just go awry in acquiring those sought after advanced naval plans … but at what personal cost? She could never imagine how events would unfold in the following days.
To be continued…
(C) Copyright G. Patrick Battell