ACHILLES HEEL

By John Steele


 


Date: 13/11/14

Excerpt of transcript: Police interview with Tilda Barret (redacted)

 

TB:      Charles Harvey is a gentleman and a patriot. Not like that Irish animal, and that northern lout and his Polish girlfriend. No, Charles is a true Englishman.

PC:      I was under the impression Mr Harvey is Scottish.

TB:      Well…yes. Charles was born in Scotland but he left Dundee for university and never looked back. He told me he worked very hard to lose his accent and pick up a more cultivated, English one. Said it made him more acceptable in that world: helped him to move up through the ranks. He was Royal Navy at first, some sort of engineer. Then he met some guy on a submarine who worked for the intelligence services and he changed course to that place.

PC:      For the record, could you state what place you are referring to?

TB:      You know, GCHQ. Our listening service. Sometimes Charles would have visits from Carla Brunetti, his opposite number in the NSA. Superior cow. But Charles: such a tall, strapping man and so suave, he loves his tailoring, and his fine scotch, and his evenings in the New Club. He’s a man out of time really, an Edwardian gent. Not like the rest of those sordid, curtain-twitching little anoraks at GCHQ, listening in on everyone. Even decent Brits.

PC:      How did you com to meet and work for Mr Harvey?

TB:      I’ve worked for Charles for nine years now. I went to his house for the interview, a big Georgian mansion with columns and engravings and all-sorts. Inside was like something from a period drama. My position is live-in as he had to travel quite a bit on business and didn’t want to leave the house empty. He retired last year but he’s still away quite a lot.


* * *

 

15/05/13
Statement of Alida Buida, Hungarian national


He is a little weak, but no more than the rest of the English.

The English are all weak. Everyone has an – what do you say? – Achilles Heel, and in Hungary that is expected and accepted. The English think it is a weakness, and hide behind aggression and false bravado and pride. 

I stayed with Stephen Rainey because he was quite good to me, and he was clean: no drugs. I didn’t love him, although I think maybe I wanted to. Did I know he was a criminal? When I met him, he wasn’t. Neither was I.

My name is Alida Buida. I was born and raised in the city of Győr near the border with Austria. I grew up with western Europe next door and Russia on the doorstep: my father was of the generation who spoke Hungarian and Russian. He always swore in Russian: дерьмо, байстрюк, ебать. I picked up his habit.

I am a computer programmer. I came to the UK to make more money, but the work in Sheffield was shit. The people are okay, but bosses are better in Hungary. And many English think, ‘You are a foreigner, you are lazy. You take our jobs.’

Or they think Hungarians are the same as Czechs, or Polish. One time the British ruled the world, yet they are so ignorant of life outside their island.

Stephen said he was tired of living with little money: ‘existing’ he said. There was more opportunity in the south, so we left Yorkshire.

Why Cheltenham? Stephen had a friend there: Michael. The Irish man. The Irish, they have their weaknesses too. They drink, they are too romantic and they live in the past. They do not accept their failings; they embrace them and let them define them. Many of them are good people, but they are hopeless people.

Michael was not good.

I found a job with a home security company. There are many old, rich people in Cheltenham with big houses and bigger paranoia. That means there are many alarm systems, so business for this company was good. But Stephen could not find a job in Cheltenham.

Stephen wanted money and thought the south of England kept it all from the north. Michael wanted money and believed the English were keeping it from the Irish.

And of course, I want money. Who doesn’t?

Near Győr is Pannonhalma, a small village with a huge abbey and grammar school. But this school is only for boys, so girls in my hometown can only have education in a lesser school. Maybe I believe the Benedictines are keeping money from me.

Michael said it was a ‘guaranteed pay day’.

The old man had some kind of live-in secretary: just two of them in that huge old house – it looked like a giant mausoleum. Michael knew a guy who did some odd jobs around the house: the handyman. This man knew the make of the security system – it was one of ours – and had seen the secretary punch in the security code. This man couldn’t go with us on the burglary because he was on parole, but he could brief us on the security and lay-out. I should go to re-program the alarm after it was disabled.

It was enough for Stephen. Living in this town, Cheltenham, changed him. Before, he was ambitious beyond his abilities but harmless. Living here he saw money like never before, and so few have it. The money lives in its own kerületek: districts. Montpellier and Leckhampton. But Cheltenham is a small town and the money lives next to those who do not have any. You walk on the Promenade  and everyone is drinking expensive coffee or shopping for jewellry, or driving their Bentleys. You walk on the High Street, you think no one has a job. Everyone looks lost and pale and broken, and smokes too much. Somewhere in the middle are the people who go to work and pay real taxes to support the other two groups.

Stephen couldn’t find work. He was angry. Half my salary went on rent for a small flat we couldn’t afford to heat.

These are not excuses. Like I said, in Hungary we are oknyomozó –  pragmatists.

I understood Stephen; I did not love him, but I understood him, his feelings. And I thought the burglary might work.

I forgot an old Hungarian proverb: A fösvény anélkül is szűkölködik, amije van, anélkül is, amije nincs.

‘The covetous man is good to none and worst to himself’.

 

* * *

 

TB:      I was making a little nightcap in the kitchen when I heard a commotion and opened the kitchen door and found the Irish one standing in front of me with a gun. He punched Charles – an elderly man! – and I threw my drink in the Paddy’s face, which just incensed the animal. He was very violent toward me. Me, a respectable Englishwoman. Not even safe from these foreign criminals in my own home.

PC:      But it wasn’t your home.

TB:       Yes, I know it isn’t strictly my home, but you understand my point.

            The Paddy was wearing a balaclava – typical! – and the quiet one had a Tony Blair mask on. They were both in black jeans and jackets, and the Paddy wore gloves. They both had guns. Then there was the girl, some eastern European slapper, probably Polish. She had dark, shadowed eyes that kind of burned into you. They were more striking because her lower face was covered with a scarf like an old outlaw. Or one of them muslims. And she was slim. Her jeans could have been painted on.  She was wearing her hair tied up under a baseball cap, but I could see from a few loose strands it was very dark.

PC:      Was she also armed?

TB:      No, she didn’t have a gun. So they herded us into Charles’s den and the Irish one    ordered us to stand against the far wall, opposite the door. I stood under the portrait of Nelson – Charles was in the Royal Navy, you see – and Charles stood with his back to a bookcase containing his volumes on the British Empire from 1583-1914.

 

* * *

 

The house was a monument to money. It was next to Pittville Park, but there was no view from the ground floor windows because of a high wall with cameras. The house had two floors and a Roman style front with great pillars, but it was the height of a normal four-storey house. The windows were so tall, but they were színezett...tinted on the outside.

It was close to midnight and very quiet. The area is full of big houses and rich people are sealed in tight after dark.

Entry was easy and we moved very quietly. Stephen and Michael had replica pistols, but we didn’t expect to have much trouble. I had a scarf and baseball cap on to cover my face and hair, Stephen wore a Halloween mask – Tony Blair – and Michael wore a balaclava. They laughed about this because Michael is Irish, but I did not understand the joke.

We moved through the hallway past a large, curved staircase and toward the back of the house and the old man’s office. Stephen was sweating and he was worried because he had forgotten to wear gloves. His hands were slick and shining like the plastic of his toy gun. Michael took the lead with Stephen close behind him and me following last. There was a clock somewhere, big like everything else in the house, keeping a steady beat as we crept down the hall, a tunnel with high walls and big paintings of angry-looking old men.

There were two doors at the end of the hallway. The left led into the kitchen. The right opened into the office. The handyman had told us this door sealed shut very tightly, and was padded with leather on the inside. We reached the door and Michael took hold of the handle, very gently.

He held it very tight – his arm looked rigid – and let out a soft, slow breath. I was frozen, staring at the gloved hand on the brass handle.

So I didn’t see Stephen drop the gun.

It was the sweat. The plastic clattered on the wooden floor and I yelped. Stephen swore. Michael stepped back into the centre of the hall as the kitchen door opened.

A woman stood in the doorway. The best way I can describe her is...lumpen. Native speakers do not use many of the best English words anymore: lumpen is one example. We all stood in silence for a moment, and in that moment the door opposite, the door to the office, opened and a warm light swept across the hallway.

The old man had been up late in his office, the solid, sealed door blocking all light. The tinted windows had concealed the light from outside. The woman had a mug in her hand. I could smell alcohol. Then Michael pushed the old man back into the room and shouted at the woman to move into the office. She jumped and spilled her drink, some of it splashing on Michael.

Stephen picked up the replica pistol.

I swore – ’ дерьмо!’ – under my breath.

  

* * *

  

TB:      The Irish lout was ranting in the middle of the room and the quiet one wearing the Tony Blair mask was next to him. That Polish cow was hovering next to the desk looking from us to them and back. Charles was magnificent. ‘Stiff upper lip’, and all that. That’s what they’ll never get, these foreigners. Only us Brits can understand that: being so composed in the face of hardship. Charles wasn’t going to be frightened by a motley crew of northern scroungers and foreign thugs. I was staying strong too, for him. Then the northerner said the Irishman’s name – Michael – and the Paddy thug punched him in the face. I’d say the northerner was from Yorkshire, maybe Lancashire. The Polish slag flinched at the punch. I could see her start from the hard slap that bounced off the walls.

            And what did the Yorkshireman do? What did the northerner do?

            Nothing. Imagine, an Englishman, northern or not, punched by a bloody bog-trotter and he just stands there and takes it.

PC:      What were you doing while this was happening?

TB:      All that time, my fingers were searching the wall for the switch. I found it just as the Paddy started yelling at Charles about a safe. I think Charles could see that, apart from the Irishman, they didn’t really know what they were doing. The Paddy started yelling at the foreign tart to start searching the computer drive and I heard a tiny breath escape from Charles. I’ve heard this before when he’s stressed, and once when he was threatened by some benefit-scrounger’s bull terrier in the park.

And then the northerner started crying. Kind of moaning and whining really, and it all sounded distorted because it was muffled by the grin on Tony Blair’s face. He couldn’t have been more different to Charles, who stood proud and erect beside me, but he did us a favour, really. The girl stared at him, the Paddy was so incensed I thought he would shoot him, and we both had precious, unobserved seconds to find what we were groping for.

 

 * * *

  

Stephen said, ‘Shit, Michael, what are we going to do?’

 Michael said, ‘We’re not going to use real names, for a start,’ and punched him once, hard in the face. It made an angry, wet, dull sound, between a slap and a crack. I winced.  It was a very real, very decisive moment because it introduced violence into the situation when, previously, it had been quite benign. That is another good word: benign.

Michael was dominating the room like a boxer in a ring, and told me to start looking through the computer hard drive.

The old man was in front of a book case and the lumpen woman was against the wall under a portrait of an angry looking man in a uniform with crazy side-burns.

Michael said to the old man, ‘Where’s your safe?’

The old man was tall and his chest was broad, but his shoulders were shrunken with age and his hair looked like strands of spider web stuck to his scalp. But he was not afraid, and I knew that this man had lived a life not like other people.

‘I don’t have a safe,’ he said, and his voice was thick and warm with a soft hiss at the beginning of the final word.

Michael said, ‘The fuck you don’t,’ and took a step toward the old man.

 

* * *

 

TB:      No, I didn’t know Charles had a gun in the house and I’m not sure I’d have approved if I did. I don’t know why he had it, to be honest. Maybe it was a memento from his naval days or something. The GCHQ lot are pretty paranoid about security. You would be, wouldn’t you, when you’re listening in on all those foreign threats, not to mention your friends, family and neighbours. Nobody likes to have people probe their secrets, even if it is for the greater good. So the spooks, they think that makes them all a target; maybe it’s a guilty conscience, I don’t know.

  C:      What actually happened when Mr Harvey produced the gun?

TB:      So, what happened is this:

            The Paddy went to beat the northerner with his pistol; Charles produced a gun from the bookcase behind him and shot the Paddy; the Polish cow screamed something in goobledygook; Charles shouted back at her in gibberish; the northerner started struggling with the mask and raised his pistol; Charles shot him as I triggered the panic room switch and shoved Charles through the hidden doorway and out of harm’s way.

 PC:      What was Mr Harvey’s reaction?

 TB:      Funnily enough, he didn’t seem all that pleased. In fact Charles was a might testy about the whole episode. The door of the panic room wouldn’t budge when we tried to open it: I suppose the foreign slag had locked us in somehow. Charles kept saying he’d had things under control and now we were stuck until the police turned up and God knew what she was up to out there.

            I said, ‘She isn’t going to hang about, is she?’ I mean, she’s a criminal so I thought she’d be fleeing the scene post-haste.

           ‘You don’t understand how these people work,’ he said.

            I told him I didn’t think I wanted to, quite frankly. And what’s more, a ‘thank you’ didn’t seem too much to ask. Of course, I regret speaking to him like that now. We used the phone in the panic room to call the police, which gave him something to do. Still, I kept hearing him emit that tiny little breath every once in a while as we sat there in the gloom.

 

 * * *

  

I got to work on the computer and kept my eyes on the screen, especially when I heard a low sobbing sound. Michael began to scream – ‘Stop fucking crying! I’ll give you something to cry about you soft English bastard!’

I have learned English for many years and I had never heard a female called bastard, so I glanced at the lumpen woman. She was standing with her hands pressed flat to the wall at her sides, butchering Michael with her eyes.

Then I realised it was Stephen who was crying. Michael was waving his arms madly, inches from Tony Blair’s smiling face, which hung in misery.  Michael raised his arm to bring the replica gun down hard on Stephen’s head. I took my hand from the mouse on the desk and resolved to stand, walk to the door and leave before things got worse.

Then the old man brought a pistol from the bookshelf behind him and levelled it at Michael.

The old man’s gun was real.

He shouted, ‘Rebel fucker!’ and pulled the trigger and a deafening roar filled the room. It was as though all the air was sucked out of the place and Michael sagged, like a puppet cut from its strings, and collapsed on the spot, just as silent as the shot had been loud.

I swore,дерьмо! ебать, что он мертв!’

The old man shouted something, difficult to make out in the noise and confusion as the woman had begun wailing.

Stephen began struggling with his mask, his right hand tangled with the rubber grin. His left hand raised the plastic pistol pointlessly. The woman took her hand from the wall, which had caved inwards, and hauled the old man through the hidden doorway that appeared under the painting just as he fired again. Tony Blair’s nose and right eye disappeared and a red, shining flower appeared in their place. He collapsed next to Michael. I still sat at the computer.

The police arrived soon after.

 

* * * 

TB:      I could tell he was getting frantic, but when he started muttering in that gibberish I knew he was losing control. It was like he wasn’t himself, like he was playing a character. Or had been playing a character all those years and now the real Charles Harvey was making an appearance. It’s awful how the mind can just disintegrate like that, even a keen mind like his.

           The gibberish turned to a whimper. Then he just exploded, yelling God knows what, like he was speaking in tongues, and turned a deep burgundy colour under the dim lighting. It was a terrible din and the yelling was bouncing all around the bare walls, like there were four of him all screaming at each other.

           Then he stopped, stared at the wall, folded up like an old piece of paper, and dropped to the floor.

            I screamed, first out of fear and then for help. I don’t know if that Polish bitch was still in the office or not, but she’d hardly have helped anyway, would she? It’s not in their nature; not like us Brits. It was quiet for what seemed like a terribly long time. I thought I was in there with a corpse. Then I heard men’s voices through the wall, and I thought I heard someone shout, ‘Police!’

            Finally, the door opened. That cow had done something to the programming of the lock, so it took them a while to open it. When they checked Charles over, they found he was still breathing, thank God. And that’s it, really. They brought me here, gave me a cup of tea and then you came in and started asking me questions.

            But really, can you imagine if Charles had actually been dead? I’d have had to live in that huge old house on my own until someone bought it. And all of the paperwork, and lawyers, not to mention the stigma of being there with Charles when he passed. Such an ignoble passing for such a great man. A real gentleman.

            And a real patriot. A gentleman and a patriot.

            A great British hero, he is.

 

Interview terminated at 17.01
Gloucestershire Police Constabulary
County Police Headquarters
Gloucester

 

* * *

  

I did not see the police arrive at the house – I was already several streets away and heading for our overpriced little flat to pick up my belongings – but I heard the sirens.

I do not know if Michael or Stephen are dead. Michael, I think, is. He was very still after he was shot. Stephen: probably. The blood on his face…it looked very bad. I locked the old man and the short fat woman in their hiding place in the wall. I could hear him shouting for a short time, although what he was saying I do not know. The wall was quite thick, I think. Then the woman screamed and then I was gone.

I learned English for a long time, but never better than when I lived with Stephen. Listening to the British mangle their own language improves the comprehension tremendously. Also, I learned Russian to a lesser degree, through my father. I have not spoken or listened to that language – except swearing – for at least ten years. But now I realise what the old man shouted at me in that room.

товарищ! Величие Родины в ваших славных дел!’: ‘Comrade! Greatness of Motherland in your glorious deeds!’

The Russian GRU Intelligence Service was not well known in the world when they terrorised Hungary in the last century, but we knew them well. I heard many stories from my father, and others who lived through those years.

And I know their motto, which the old man shouted.

So I continued to copy, then encrypt, the files I had found on the old man’s computer, and wiped it when I had finished; these secret files must have been created by him alone, and it was not difficult to do this. There is much to see there, with many acronyms throughout: GCHQ, MI5, MI6, NSA, CIA. FSB, GRU. And references to Canadian, Australian and New Zealand agencies.

So here is our deal.

You get the files, with many British, Russian and American secrets.

I get Hong Kong. A flat, some money, and opportunity in a place that has many, many people to get lost among.

That is my deal. I know it is…another good English word…devious, but what can I say? I have a need to get away from this country, a hunger for a new life, and a weakness for money. I can accept that. It is my Achilles Heel.

 

声明结束

华人民共和国驻大不列颠及北爱尔兰联合王国大使馆

国家安全部只眼

Statement ends
Embassy of the Peoples’ Republic of China in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,
Ministry of State Security (MSS) eyes only

 


John Steele was born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland and has lived wherever theyd take him ever since. He writes mystery and thriller fiction and currently lives in England with his wife and baby daughter. He is currently working on a second novel while several publishers in the UK and Ireland read and consider his debut, Ravenhill.

His short story The Parting Glass was published on omdb! in December, 2014 and Setagaya Junction was published in June, 2014. 


Copyright © 2015 John Steele. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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