Even those of us relatively unscathed by covid-19 are feeling its impacts in probably a greater way than we thought we would. I have written at length about the weird feeling of having had a front row seat, but behind plate glass, during Lockdown 1 and subsequent lockdowns, fortunate not to be putting myself in physical danger whilst being an eye witness to the carnage, despair, and sheer scale of the disaster in the UK. At the time, I thought it had left me relatively psychologically untouched – as in I was angry and sad and appalled at the way the British government mismanaged the crisis from the starts and let innumerable people die unnecessarily, but I didn’t detect a significant amount of fear in my mind because I was (we were) being extremely cautious and taking all lockdowns very seriously indeed. It was only during Lockdown 3 that I started to get an inkling of the fact that actually my head was all over the place because of it, that there was a deep-seated fear deep down which I can now tell I will struggle to get rid of, possibly for the rest of my life. Some people I’ve spoken with have this sense of agoraphobia, don’t want to leave their houses, don’t want social interaction in public (or private) spaces, because they (and I) have unlearned the ease with which we used to co-exist with people. I think that’s part of the reason I am now so nervous about going away, although I know we’re taking all possible precautions.
Life has changed immeasurably in the last two and a half years, and it will never be the same, not in my life-time anyway, even if I do live to be the hale and hearty 125-year-old I want to be (not that it feels like I will this morning in my exhausted head). And I have to remind myself that I’m one of the lucky ones, that I didn’t have to work on the front-lines, that I am not on the poverty line right now because of Brexit, because of C19, because of the cost-of-living crisis (which one of my favourite people on twitter calls the cost-of-Conservatives crisis), that I am not facing financial and physical existential crises, and that I am blessed to be who I am and where I am. It doesn’t change the rage though, and nor does it alleviate the fear right now. Breathe. My biggest struggle all my life has been the desire to be rational whilst being the most irrational and visceral person I know.
Two hours until we leave. Ten hours till we get there. I know it will be hot there, and I crave the heat, and I crave the lazy hours sitting in the shade reading new books. And I had the brainwave yesterday of converting The Mortality Code to pdf and loading it onto my Kindle so that I don’t need to take a printed partial ms with me. I’ve got three small bank notebooks in a leather binding to scribble into when I get there. Maybe I’ll finish it in the next two weeks. Maybe I won’t. I finished Tettig’s Jewels long-hand when we were in Brittany decades ago, on the back of a dream. I will get on the aeroplane later, and sleep and dream myself through the four hours of the flight, and perhaps it will be finished in my head by the time we get to where we’re going.
AGGIE’S ART OF HAPPINESS – CHAPTER 126
Anna laughs. ‘Point proven. We assassins just never think there’s anyone better than us.’
Robert coughs. ‘I don’t think there’s really time for levity,’ he says.
They follow him into the room. Martin is slumped in the chair, looking wasted and lost and defeated. Aggie walks up to him, pulls his head back. He opens his eyes, snarls at her, and she drops his head back down onto his chest.
‘Are you ready now, Martin?’ Robert says, and the sadness in his voice leaks into the room, quiets it, fills it with an intangible aching sense of loss and despair.
Martin sits up straight, tries a grin, lifts his shattered hands, bares his teeth. ‘Whatever you say, dear friend.’
‘Go on then.’
‘I am Valentine’s grandfather,’ Martin says, repeating what he told Aggie during their fight on the beach at Filey. ‘You have been nothing more than a stooge, all this time, and you willingly were one.’ He breathes in deeply as if he’s tasting the fresh air by the sea. ‘You never stopped to think or question, never asked yourself why it was that I came into your clutches so easily. You made it so easy for me, introduced me to the right people, accepted by word that I hated my mother country, that I wanted, actually wanted, the decadence, the so-called liberties of this corrupt country.’
‘You accepted the riches easily enough,’ Robert says. ‘The fine food, the fine suits, the new life, the new wife.’
Martin laughs, a bellow that’s louder than his screams from a few minutes ago. ‘It’s not difficult to show people what they want to see, is it? It’s not difficult to endure the torture of luxury compared to poverty and living on one’s wits twenty-four hours a day, always ready to pounce or be pounced on.’ He licks his lips, lingers on the dried blood, savours it, before he speaks again. ‘It’s always been a game for you English. The whole history of British diplomacy is based on hypocrisy and arrogance, on deceit and manipulation. But it’s always been from the wrong starting point, and you’ve never seen it. The English have always believed themselves to be better than anyone else, have always had this innate exceptionalism, where they think they can’t be trumped or beaten, where they take their superiority for granted. And that’s where you’ve always fallen down, because once someone gets into your system and you think you’ve persuaded them that your way is the best, you think you have them ensnared, you think you’ve turned them.’
‘It was never about that,’ Robert says. ‘It was never a political game for me.’
‘Ah, but there you’re wrong, my old friend,’ Martin says. ‘You celebrated victory as soon as you extricated me from the clutches of Mother Russia, thought I was an insignificant old man but with a certain value in the connections I may or may not have had in the past. And the few useless bits of information I gave you, you considered priceless treasures, and bought my place in your pantheon of spies with them. And all because you all thought, the damn Service…’ He laughs shrilly. ‘The damn Service thought they’d found a way in to destroying my country.’
‘It has never been about destruction,’ Robert says, as if it is only him and Martin in the room. ‘It’s been about peace.’
Martin snorts. ‘There never will be peace as long as there is more than Russia. Once the world is unified under our flag, there will be peace.’
‘And you sacrificed your first wife for this?’
‘It wasn’t a sacrifice. She was dying anyway. That first device didn’t kill her. You all just didn’t look deeply enough. She served her country even in death. And you were all too arrogant to look for the real reason for her death.’
‘So who is Valentine’s mother?’ Aggie says.
Martin shrugs. ‘That, my dear, is the six hundred million rouble question.”