“Letter for you sir.” Amanda said handing George a cream coloured heavy weighted envelope. Government issue. Specialised so nobody panicked, and the post room knew that there’d be nothing malicious within.
Well nothing that could bring CCID to its knees anyway.
“Thank you, Amanda.” George settled behind his desk wondering when he’d started making noises as he sat down. “That’ll be all.” He said dismissing the blonde secretary with a gentle smile. She’d brought the letter in on a tray of tea. He’d told her she didn’t have to, but she continued anyway. Once poured he turned his attention to the letter, turning it over in his hands. He recognised the writing.
Maria always did like to put a little flourish into her G’s.
George smiled to himself. Maria had been an asset to the Civic Criminal Investigation Department since day one. She was intelligent, well-read, engaging, and, until she smiled, she had the ability to blend into a room. That smile was like the stars against an inky night – once you noticed, you were bewitched.
Eventually she’d ended up George’s secretary. Then, after showing an adeptness for information gathering, an eidetic memory, a penchant for codebreaking and puzzle solving George made sure she was put to good use. She’d officially made Agent status after they went on an intel gathering mission to Paris and managed to unearth celluloid film that led to the capture of a small terrorist organisation.
George slid a finger under the lip of the envelope, feeling the glue give as he pressed. There were two pieces of lined letter paper inside. George knew she liked this kind because of the way it felt, the way it crinkled, the way the texture changed as it was written on. Every reply he wrote was always on this paper for that reason. Two pieces, both blue meant that there was a mixture of mission news and personal. White typed was strictly business. Light green tinge was all personal; tales of films watched, museums visited, and books discovered.
By the time you read this I’ll probably be gone. I’ve been compromised.
George stopped reading.
His heart dropped into his stomach as he dropped the letter and reached for his phone. He needed to call the right people, needed to get her out of Italy and back to English soil, at least here they could take control, here she’d be protected, even if it meant just going back to a day job. He didn’t want to think about all the things that could happen to her, all the ways she could be tortured for information.
It took them three days to locate Maria and another two for the extraction. After that she was brought battered, bruised and unconscious into the CCID medical facility where they could monitor her closely.
George finally broke down at his desk.
It started slowly. Closed eyes as he tried to keep saying to himself, he was relieved to have a friend home. Teeth clenched as he tried to stop himself from crying, squeezing at his forehead with his thumb and forefinger, maybe the pressure of them would see off the thoughts in his head. Stop what he knew was bubbling to the surface.
He’d kept a lid on it for so long. This four-letter feeling.
A sob finally escaped him. George clapped a hand to his mouth, even though he knew the room was soundproof. It was as if, if he heard his own heartbreak it would confirm it. The sound would travel down into his chest and the fragile bonds holding protective walls in place would crumble.
When had the idea he loved her first momentarily fluttered across his mind? When she was laughing in the safe house in Basildon at The Good Life on the television. Fish and chips on a cardboard table and no proper seating? When she was stood staring at the stars during one of Des’ parties, talking philosophically about men on the moon and the U.S Viking 1 landing on Mars? When she was teaching Jenny how to read sign language after Alicia came back from Dogmenton? Most likely it was just after Paris, the rough debriefing forced them both to seek escape in the comfort of an eleven o’clock showing of An Affair to Remember. He couldn’t pin-point it exactly though because it had come often, and he had battered it into submission.
He had Judith and when Judith was gone, off with her latest toyboy, George told himself he was too old for Maria. Thirteen years her senior. That he was greying, that he was past it. That he was a bad person, that he wasn’t brave enough to be in this game. He told himself over and over words Judith had drilled into him. No one else would have him. He repeated the words so much that even Maria became not only a friend but someone unattainable. Too beautiful, too intelligent, too wonderful, too full of magic and moonlight.
Even after she kissed him.
They didn’t speak about it. It was the proper thing to do. He doubted she remembered anyway.
Then Judith had come back, wanted him back and George was too old for starting a new. Then Judith left again, and George was surprised to find himself relieved, to find a weight lifted. Still he had no business asking Maria to the pub when she had her pick of men, when she deserved someone younger, someone charming, someone wittier. She deserved a face free of age and wisdom, a body free of the ravages of war and too long spent serving one’s country.
He considered telling her. In the weeks leading up to her new assignment, he considered confessing his feelings. Considered it but never seemed to garner the courage.
The letter was still on his desk, its baby blue edge poking out from under a pile of papers. It had been forgotten in the flurry and piled on top of as the days had progressed. George wiped his eyes and sucked in a breath meant to stabilise his emotions and dissuade the tears. He realised he’d never finished reading it, after the first line he’d stopped and run for help. His hands shook slightly as he pulled it from under the pile and opened it out.
By the time you read this I’ll probably be gone. I’ve been compromised.
It seems silly writing this now when you’ll probably never see me again. The romantic in me wants to think of it as brave, there’s another voice, probably Barbs, telling me that this is selfish.
Judith is a fucking idiot.
There, I said it.
I know you’ve loved her for a long time, but you don’t deserve to be treated like that. Whatever you tell yourself, however you justify her actions you don’t deserve it. You’re a good man. She’s not a good woman. Don’t chase her again George, let her go. She only comes back because she knows you’ll be there, safe and warm and waiting. You might believe that no one else would have you, she might have told you that no one else could ever love you but she’s wrong.
I know she’s wrong.
I know because I love you.
You know for a spy you’re not very smart. Most people could see it a mile away. Or maybe you did see it and you didn’t feel the same. I’m not sure I believe that though. Not after the letters.
The first time I made my feelings clear I just thought you were being polite. I thought you might be pretending to ignore the message in that letter to save my embarrassment. I knew I shouldn’t have sent it. I beat myself up for a week. You were married and there I was confessing my feelings to you in a letter like a schoolgirl.
I thought the same again the next few times. Every time Judith left you, I built up the courage and every time you ignored them.
By the time I got to the sixth declaration, whilst out in the Bahama’s, I realised you just weren’t seeing it. You weren’t seeing the code interwoven into each of those letters. It was Conan Doyle references in case you were wondering. After we spent the afternoon talking about The Lost World and The Land of Mist, I was inspired. I wrote you love letters alongside mission reports and letters to a friend. You never saw it, I know you didn’t because when I coded a message to say I was in trouble (which I wasn’t), help never arrived.
I love you George.
I realised it the night of the New Years Party. I hadn’t seen you since Christmas Eve. Judith left you on December 1st. You left for Prague on the 13th, we had a debate about whether it was unlucky and then you came back on the 23rd. I was going to do it, to tell you face to face and the New Year’s Party seemed the best place. I bought a new dress. I had a speech all planned out in my head.
And then you walked in with Judith, she was beaming from ear to ear and flirting with the barman before you’d sat down. You didn’t look very happy for a man who’d just gotten the love of his life back. I thought I could do it then. Tell you. There was a moment when we were outside, sat on that horrible concrete step with Bruce’s rocket fuel punch and a packet of fags. There was a moment too when I thought you were going to kiss me and then Barb and Peter stumbled out of the bushes and I lost my nerve. I think you lost yours too. I watched you ring in the New Year with Judith and I was jealous. I wished it was me you were kissing, holding hands with and singing Auld Lang Syne.
You deserve so much more than her. I’m not saying that must be me, but you deserve so much more than her.
You deserve to have your humour and intelligence and skills appreciated. You deserve to be told how handsome you look when you’re flustered by a crossword puzzle. You deserve to be made to feel safe, to know that someone is going to be there when you come home because they made a promise to love you. You don’t deserve to panic every time you open the door, to worry every time work takes you away that you might be heading home to an empty house and a single life. You don’t deserve to be someone’s second choice George, someone’s back up. You deserve to be someone’s first choice. They’re only choice.
You’re a good man George and you deserve a good life.
Please stop living your life for other people. Please put yourself first for once. It isn’t selfish to want happiness.
Be happy George.
After all; “We’d be fools to let happiness pass us by.”
All my love
P.S It’s from An Affair to Remember. In case you forgot.
Nine days since he’d first opened the letter, seen the first line and rushed to the phone. Three days since he’d read the whole letter and one day since he’d made a firm decision about his life, George stood in the doorway of her hospital room.
It would be wrong to say she looked beautiful. The more appropriate term would be peaceful, peaceful with a serene beauty to it. Maria wasn’t all wires and oxygen masks like he’d expected. There was a tube into her nose, an IV into her arm and a bandage or two. Swelling and bruising to her face had receded greatly.
George walked forward, put the book he’d brought down on the edge of the bed and then shrugged out of his coat, placing it over the back of the shoddy visitor’s chair. He sat down and watched, waiting for the doctors and nurses to finish wandering around before he spoke.
“You were right. Then you usually are. And I don’t want to be a fool.” He said sliding his fingers underneath her hand so he could hold it. If she were awake, she’d have noticed straight away that his wedding ring was no longer on its designated finger. “If you can paint. I can walk.”