After seeing the film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” I was so taken with the story I went out and bought the book and then also the DVD of the 1979 television serial starring Alec Guinness.
I love the scene where an ailing Control admits to his trusted agent Jim Prideaux that “….the Russians have planted a mole in the British intelligence service, right at the top of the Circus. There's a rotten apple, Jim; we have to find it.”
A mole in the Circus eh? I’ve got a mouse in my attic, but it’s not as dramatic is it? I can’t see Rentokil’s top rodent-catcher being drawn out of retirement to hunt down the little blighter like they do in the film. Shame; I can hear him at night scampering around above my head - barely three inches long and yet he sounds like an elephant wearing hobnail boots.
Pest Control: “Were you followed Jim? Good. I want you to go to Nailsworth. This is not above board. The mouse must not know you’re coming.”
However, life imitates art as they say, and recently I found myself heading out into the dark of an autumn evening for a discreet meeting with a foreign-sounding client in a town centre café. According to my instructions she was intent solely on procuring the disposal of her husband’s body with as little ceremony or cost as possible, with ashes not to be returned.
Our office manager had taken the initial phone enquiry and told me of hearing a voice positively dripping with anger, bitterness and frustration. The deceased husband had allegedly hastened his own end, leaving his wife penniless, debt-ridden and consequently homeless, hence the café meeting.
We met in the client’s home town in another part of the county. The café was deserted save for a couple of yummy mummy’s who looked far too cheerful to be recently widowed. But no sooner had I ordered a coffee than a foreign voice sounded behind me.
We seated ourselves on stools by the large windows, well out of earshot and with a commanding view of the unforgiving normality of urban rush hour. I didn’t ask too much and my client didn’t offer very much either. But what did become abundantly clear was that her motivations were very different to what I had been led to expect.
They’d both enjoyed international careers of some kind, but for reasons undivulged the marriage had floundered and relations became strained. She hinted at her husband becoming overwhelmed by whatever travails their situation had caused, ending with his death by his own hand. From there it seemed the full extent of their financial situation unfolded and my client was thrust into a maelstrom of loss, both personal and monetary. Bruising encounters with various unsympathetic institutions and individuals followed. She ruefully recalled that another, more local funeral director and the local council were both in disgrace for insensitivity, whilst the chap at the local Job Centre Plus deserved a commendation for being so helpful and kind.
I came to realise the outpouring of anger and bitterness my office manager had initially encountered had actually been a release of deep trauma and frustration; an instinctive response to the relief of hearing an understanding, fellow female voice at the other end of the line.
So I hadn’t been summoned as some modern day George Smiley, tasked with obliterating all physical trace of another human being. Rather, I was being asked to arrange a quick, quiet laying-to-rest. My client had endured so much already that she’d decided having to hold a funeral would finally destroy whatever fragile grip she still had on her mental and emotional equilibrium.
Our meeting lasted just shy of fifteen minutes. After signing two documents and handing me a cheque funded by the generosity of friends, my client politely took her leave. Feeling humbled, yet knowing I was powerless to help her any further, I watched through the steam of my still-warm coffee as she disappeared amongst the queuing traffic and bustling pedestrians.
Percy Alleline: “I wish I could've done more, Control.”
Control: “You did all you could, Percy….a man should know when to leave the party.”