She stands at the stove, a strand of black hair lacquered to a sweating face, stirring a saucepan of bubbling strawberries, like boiling flesh she thinks. Behind her, on a scrubbed pine table, is a row of blue-white glass jars, each with a silver teaspoon at a slope. She lifts the wooden spoon and inverts it to see if it is ready. A glistening pink strand edges down, as a spider will lower itself seeking purchase. She turns it over, raises it to her mouth and sticks out a kitten pink tongue, recoiling too quickly to taste, too slowly to avoid a burn. She reaches for the sugar which sifts down as the packet folds in on itself. Staring ahead, she stirs automatically before lifting the saucepan off the stove.
It is heavier than she had thought, or she is frailer. It needs two hands to pour the sweet slurry of summer into the jars. Finally, with the last one filled, it is light enough to hold in one hand as she scrapes the fruit out, the pan already crusting with sugar. When she is done she sits and looks ahead blankly. Years, she thinks, years. And what do they add up to?
How long has it been? She knows, of course, to the day. They had had twenty-four hours short of two weeks, a fortnight of passion and terror. The network was blown by one of their own. Nearly a hundred captured and a few turned. A very few, but enough. At the other end they had missed all the signals, made allowances, assumed what they called operator forgetfulness as if they would forget what they had been trained to remember. So agents were sent over long after the game was over, herself among them, except that she escaped, was allowed to escape. Who knew then? Who cared later?
It is time for the next task. The jars will take a while to cool enough to be handled so she steps from the kitchen into the garden where the sun has shrunk the shadows and everything is in place, as it should be. She holds the honeycomb frame up, entranced as ever to see the living geometry. She no longer wears gloves, having been stung enough not to worry. The hat, though, is another matter. She has been stung in her mouth and the corner of her eye and remembers what that felt like. People say the pain of childbirth is quickly forgotten, or why would anyone choose that a second time. She knows nothing of that but the stings she remembers.
She shakes the frame and a tumble of dazed bees fall onto the grass, righting themselves quickly and crawling blindly around. It is nearly ready. She slides it back and gives them another puff of smoke, dulling their defences, slowing time. Above, a plane is circling low. She shades her eyes and looks up. There was a time when that would have meant something but now she is content it should be part of the day’s tableau. When she looks down she catches a movement. It is a car pulling up at her gate. Seldom bothered by visitors, she is puzzled though not alarmed, she notes, as once she might have been. Nobody gets out. Perhaps it is a stranger who has taken a wrong turn, except that she is at the end of a lane and who would have chosen a rutted path strewn with stones?
It is hot inside the hat and for once there are no clouds in the sky. The plane swoops low suddenly and then banks away. She watches it go. It is not only stings that are etched in the memory. At last the car door opens. A man gets out slowly, as though doubtful he can have arrived at his destination. He looks across at her, his hand extended across the black roof. And that is where he stays. Then she knows who it must be. There had been a letter. All those years to forget and now a letter could undo her.
Everything about her is precise. The books on her shelf are neat and ordered. The fire irons are lined up on the hearth as though ready for inspection. She has no telephone. Nothing here can disturb her. She is better now, has been for many years. The drink is under control. Not gone, just under control. She no longer weeps when they play music from the war, or not often. Something has broken inside her. Meanwhile, the thing to do is hang on. One thing at a time and everything in its place.
She has been back to France once. That was what they had told her to do. Go back and see it all again and understand it is over. So she had gone and even stood in the field but it was impossible to imagine, as it had been impossible to forget. Which was she supposed to do, after all? She had even met the farmer who had sheltered them. The barn was still there, with the muddy lane leading to it. He had not recognised her, of course. Why should he? She recognised him, though, even if he had shrunk. Then he did. She saw his eyes light up. He had dropped his bucket, milk flooding over her shoes. And Madame? He shrugged. She asked with her eyes and he replied the same way. What was to be said?
If it had been meant to cure her it had done the reverse. She has no memory of the return journey, of the ferry, of making her way back across two seas and then to this cottage, with its neatness, bottles in the pantry, sitting at night in the dark listening for something, unsure what it might be unless the echo of another time.
There were others who had no problems. She had met two of them by arrangement. It was ‘part of the therapy,’ he had explained. But they had simply looked at her oddly when she tried to explain what had happened. She had trained with one of them – Molly, brilliant in her way but no good in the field. She was too pretty. Still was. You couldn’t afford to be pretty unless that was why they chose you knowing you would be prepared to do things that Molly wouldn’t. Being in the same service meant nothing at all. Juliette had served. She had never been picked up. She worked in another part of the country. No one betrayed them. They had not done very much, as she heard, but she had made it through. So she would never understand. She had put her hand on her shoulder and patted her like a dog. What a waste that had been. In the end she was the only company she needed. This way everything was under control and from time to time she convinced herself she was happy. Now this. Now him.
She reaches for her hat but he must have misunderstood the gesture for he raises his hand as though in response. She pulls the hat off and feels the coolness of the breeze on her face. A bee lands on her cheek. She takes it between thumb and finger and lifts it off, releasing it to its duties. Again, he evidently mistakes her for her waves again but makes no move to open her gate or even leave the car. He is too far away for her to see his face. She is unsure, anyway, whether she will recognise him, though forty years earlier it was not a face she had thought she would forget. And so they stand, the sun pressing them down, the breeze dying, the plane returning as though looking for some lost soul.
At last he closes the door and comes around the car. She takes a step back. She had never replied to the letter, had not refused to see him or invited him to come. The letter was sufficient to disturb her. Perhaps she thought he would have the discretion to leave her alone with her pain, though whether he would have suspected she still suffered from such was beyond her imagining. Having struggled to forget, she was past wondering what he might think, past believing he was still alive to come and torture her.
His hand is on the gate now, but once again he stops. She drops the hat and steps back into the shade where the sun will no longer dazzle. Then she runs inside, without ever deciding to, as it seems to her. She closes the door and leans back on it before realising the foolishness of her action. She turns and opens the door again, a slice of bright sunlight cutting across the wall of the hall. He evidently takes it as an invitation. The gate squeaks and he is walking towards her, favouring his left side, limping as he had done those years before. He is wearing a hat and with the sun behind him she cannot make out his face until at last he stands before her. He could have been a salesman. He has, it strikes her, that air of someone about to sell her something. Well, she is not buying. And so they stand facing one another.
‘Shall I come in?’
She stared into his face.
‘Shall I come in?’
‘That’s what I’m trying to decide.’
‘It was a long time ago.’
‘That makes it right?’
‘It makes it a long time ago.’
Still she hesitates, as if to agree would be to acquiesce in so much more. Then, with a clock behind her chiming the hour, she steps aside. He moves into the hallway and stops, unsure what to do with his hat. After a second he places it on a polished table, alongside a vase of forget-me-nots. She lets him into the small front room. Again they stand awkwardly before, grudgingly, she nods towards a chair, not noticing, it seems, the ginger cat curled up on it, tail flicking gently. He hesitates a moment and then sweeps it up and sits, the cat now held out in front of him. She takes it from him, careful their hands should not touch.
‘I don’t have lemon.’
‘As it is, then.’
‘As it is.’
She disappears into the kitchen and fills the kettle, her eyes blurred with tears. She takes two cups from a shelf and puts them on a small tray. Her hand moves to the biscuit barrel but then stops. Why these courtesies? How could she be having tea in an Irish cottage with a man who has haunted her dreams? The whistle on the kettle begins to simper. She fills the cups, suddenly remembering that she does have a lemon in the fridge. She opens the door and takes it out before stopping again. She cuts a thin slice and slides it into the cup. When she goes through he is standing again. He has retrieved his hat.
She hands him the cup and sits down.
‘You’re alone?’ he asks, stirring his tea.
‘Why would I not be?’
‘I meant you …’
‘No. There didn’t seem any point. When you’ve been betrayed once you don’t want to try it again. Are you going to sit down?’
‘You were thinking of standing?’
‘I thought …’
‘Don’t make yourself at home, though.’
‘I was found innocent, you know.’
‘No, you weren’t. They just lost the will to go on. We live in a new world. Let bygones … There was no question of innocence.’
‘Look, I’ll be going.’
‘If you like. It wasn’t my idea.’
‘I just thought the time had come.’
‘After all these years.’
‘It makes a difference?’
‘I read your book.’
‘I’ll add you to the list. I think I know them all by now.’
‘It’s not true, you know. What you say there. I don’t feel you got it right.’
‘You think not? I presume you mean what I say about you.’
‘That, yes, but more.’
‘You think? Well, that’s the way it is these days. No reality, just opinions. “I don’t feel that’s right.” What have fucking feelings got to do with anything? We left feelings behind a long time ago. Why didn’t you sue?’
‘Sue you? What good would that have done? Besides, nobody cares any more.’
‘No. They don’t, do they. And incidentally I resent you asking if I married. But that’s only part of what I resent. You’ve got over it, I presume. Forgotten everything?’
‘I’ve forgotten nothing.’
‘We’re all responsible, you know. But that isn’t what you believe, of course.’
‘I was in America once, in Washington. I took a cab to the airport. The driver was black. As we pulled away I could see his hands were shaking. He wasn’t looking where he was going. Kept glancing back at me. Then he turns around, swerving from one lane to another, and says, “You know what happened to me last night?” I said, “No,” hoping he would face forward and look where he was going. “I fell in love,” he said. Then he turned around again. “Do you know who with?” How the hell would I know so I just said, “No.” And then he pointed upward through the roof of the cab and said, “With God.” Did you know that cab driving is an entry profession in New York. Russians driving around with a mental map of Omsk.’
‘I’m sure you have a fund of stories about taxis but I don’t see the point.’
‘The point is that we give ourselves over to others, assume they know where they are going, that they are altogether sane. I was in thick fog once and followed the car in front, kept so I was close enough to see its brake lights glowing red. Ended up at a gay bar in Finchley when I was tying to get to Tower Bridge.’
‘And the point of this is?’
‘It’s what we did. We just followed because we thought they knew what they were about, but they were simply in love with an idea.’
‘So you thought you could go off and do what you wanted? Betray everyone.’
‘I didn’t betray anyone, except you perhaps, and even you not in the way you think. We were on the same side. It’s simply that there were others who knew why they were doing what they were.’
‘And we didn’t? We were fighting to survive.’
‘You think we were on different sides, but we weren’t, ever.’
‘You destroyed everyone.’
‘I did not. That’s not what they found.’
‘No? You say that but they didn’t.’
‘If it had gone ahead they would have done. It’s just that it was all over and why should they spend their time exonerating me.’
‘What have you got against cats?’
‘My cat. You held her out as though you wished you were on top of a cliff. I don’t remember you hating cats.’
‘I don’t. I didn’t. There wasn’t a cat then. And what are you doing here?’
‘In my house?’
‘In your house, on this island. In Ireland. You hated Ireland. Bunch of traitors you used to say. Working with the Germans.’
‘I forgave them. It’s easier to forgive countries than people. Why have you come here?’
‘Why? Because I’m getting old and because we loved each other once and because the past seems more important the older I get.’
‘If that’s true then that is another reason you shouldn’t be here.’
‘Have you considered you could be wrong?’
‘For years I did nothing else. Now I know I was right. But I don’t want to go back. Go ahead. Live your life. What do you care what I think?’
‘You know why I care. That’s why I’m here. Have you got a drink?’
‘You want a drink?’
‘I didn’t. Now I do.’
She looks at him steadily. What is the point, she thinks? Everyone is dead. What does it matter any more? There is no one left to care and she is no longer sure she cares herself. Once she would have shot him. But once, she knows, she had loved him so what is there to be done.
‘You used to drink.’
‘We all used to drink. We had good reason to.’
She stands up and looks down at him for a second, then walks into the kitchen.
‘I’ve brought you something to look at,’ he calls out.
She does not reply, opening the larder, unsure where she would have left the bottle, if bottle she has. There is nothing but some Spanish brandy she used for Christmas puddings, she having dumped her liquor three weeks before in a gesture that was supposed to mark the end of something. She reaches in past a bowl of indistinguishable brown paste with bubbles of blue mould. How has she forgotten that who wants everything in place, nothing to disturb?
She puts the bottle on the table, along with two glasses and sits down. Why the second glass unless she has decided on confederacy?
‘It’s brandy. Spanish. It’s all I’ve got.’
‘We drank worse.’
So they had. He is determined, it seems, to take her back there when it was back there he had betrayed her. ‘You pour,’ she says, aware that her hands are shaking.
‘The bees,’ he says.
‘What about them?’
‘Years. I like them. They’re honest.’
‘Bees are?’ He up-ends the bottle and fills both glasses, holding it up to see if there is any left.
‘They do their job. I don’t drink much.’
‘You used to.’
‘There were a lot of things I did then I don’t do now. Like kill people.’
‘We both did that. We were soldiers.’
They sit back with glasses in their hands but she is no longer in her cottage talking about bees. So how did I switch loyalties, she asks herself now, the sun edging down. One moment it was André, the man I had slept with for a year in France, with danger around every corner, the next it was the man who would destroy us all. Yet for those few weeks I was lost and happy to be so.
‘You believe it was me.’
‘Betrayed the network.’
‘Of course it was you.’
‘You got back safely.’
‘And I have you to thank for that?’
‘I betrayed no one.’
‘You were the only one who survived.’
‘Apart from you.’
‘Right. I survived. But I didn’t hand anyone over…’
‘How do I know that?’
‘Because you did.’
‘No. I did not. That’s why I’m here. There are papers.’
‘I know about your papers. Who do you think you are talking to? We all had papers and they were as authentic as a piece of the true cross.’
‘I should be going.’
‘Yes, you should.’
‘It is unfinished business. I’m ill.’
‘Not too long. Less than a year probably.’
‘So it’s absolution you are after.’
‘Well you came to the wrong place.’
‘You are wrong, you know, but I see you’ll never admit it. I’ll be going.’
‘If not you, then who?’
‘André! You’re right. It’s time you went.’
‘It’s in the papers. The German archives. I’ll leave them for you.’
‘What are you trying to do? André was the best of us. And he died. He was shot.’
‘Yes, he was. A mistake. They shot their own man.’
‘You must think I’m simple.’
‘Not simple, just deceived. Like the rest of us.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘As you wish. I’ll leave the papers. You deserve the truth.’
‘I have the truth.’
‘No. You don’t. It was good to see you again.’
‘I don’t believe you. He was shot.’
‘A thorough people, the Germans. In fact, I doubt it was a mistake. Loose ends. I’ll be going. One more thing, though.’
‘There’s something else?’
‘I loved you.’
‘And I love you still.’
‘You can only sell something once. The second time it’s fraud.’
She puts her glass down slowly and looks at him, across the years as much as across the table, and in that moment sees the truth of him and of herself.
‘No,’ she says softly, as much to herself as to him.
‘Yes. Always and forever. Until my dying day.’
‘Did you read that somewhere? There is no always and forever.’
He stands awkwardly and reaches for his hat. The cat uncurls itself in its sleep and he steps around her. For a second he makes to turn back but it is no more than a moment’s hesitation. Perhaps, indeed, it is a sudden stiffness for he reaches out a hand to steady himself.
She watches him walk along the path back to his car. High above, the plane turns in the sky leaving a con trail as others had long ago. He steps to one side to open the gate, then pulls it to behind him. He stops for a second by the car, shading his eyes as he looks back at her. He raises one hand. She feels her own rise involuntarily. Then he is in the car and reversing back along the lane.
She stands as the shadows lengthen and scarcely notices as a bee lands gently on her arm. A breeze has sprung up, sending a handful of leaves spiralling upwards. High above, the con trail has begun to spread outwards until it is no more than a cloud thinning to transparency. The bee takes off, heavy with pollen, obedient to instinct. Finally, she turns and goes slowly into the house that was to have been her protection against the past, against memory, against the truth.
For a moment she is no longer standing in the doorway of a place that was to have freed her of a sense of loss she could never name for what it was. Once again she hears the buzz of the Lysander stirring birds into life, a roost of crows beginning a rasping chorus even as the plane cut across the stars guided only by the pinprick light of torches twenty feet apart. She had been alive then as never before or since and yet love and betrayal had walked hand in hand. Perhaps love itself was a betrayal after all when heart and mind should have served another cause. Or maybe love has betrayal built into it as it matters more to one than another and will one day end in a desertion that is absolute, with no appeal.
Then she is back again in a place whose irrelevance was its principal attraction. She picks up the two glasses and empty bottle and takes them through into the kitchen. She looks at the row of jam jars now surely cool to the touch, ready to be placed in neat rows in the pantry. Her eyes fill with tears as she closes the door and leans her back against it for a second. The low sun suddenly floods the room with a crimson light as she begins to sob, for what, after all, is that tightening in the throat, that sense of confusion she feels, if not a sudden and bewildering stab of love? But for whom?
Later, as she lies in bed, on the very edge of sleep, one hand tracing back and forth across the linen sheet, she worries suddenly that she might have run out of coffee, for coffee is André’s favourite drink. What if he comes and she has nothing to offer? She is confident he will not arrive by car but riding the old woman’s bicycle he had used as they travelled the back lanes together, for safety’s sake, for love’s sake, before he had left her, under orders he explained, but gone nonetheless. Is there bread enough for toast and honey she wonders, or for the strawberry jam even now on a slate shelf in the pantry below? And then there he is, as young and eager as ever, smiling at her as she drifts away thinking one last thought: I would die for you.
Outside, a thousand bees are dozing in their hives, never knowing what their true function might be. A fox pauses and looks up at the white haze of stars whose light was born before the planet itself came into being, an irrecoverable and unimaginable past yet ineluctably present as if time itself is an illusion, yesterday ever a part of today. Then it is on its way, looking for a life to end to feed its young that in turn will look up, their soft heartbeats lost in the general murmur of the universe.