We are in the sitting room. I am on the sofa with my notebook as Simon briefs me on what’s ‘going on’ with Fiona and General Smith. “I can’t give you details on the nature of the investigation but it is serious. I need you to keep an eye on them during the week. What you’re looking for, as with any threat, is an absence of the normal, a presence of the abnormal.” Simon puffs his chest out as he lectures me. He just needs a pointing stick, overhead projector and he could be giving one of his signature PowerPoint presentations ‘on why men fight.’ (which are meant to be riveting, by the way).
Me: “Right. So…”
Si: “I’ll take questions at the end.”
Si: “We have eyes on them but any extra information you can give us may prove vitally important.”
And then I remember something. “Are you taking questions now?’
“Yes. Girl in the blue,” he laughs. We are the only ones in the room. He is such an arse but I can’t help giggle.
“We saw her – Fiona – on our Girls’ Night Out. She was at the bar on the Embankment, talking to a hot younger man, taking notes. We all decided she was moonlighting as a dominatrix. She didn’t look happy but then she never does. She sort of waved in our general direction and raised her glass. But then he was questioning her, he looked like the one in control.”
Simon is playing around on his iPhone. “Did you hear anything I just said?” He doesn’t reply, still absorbed by his phone. “Si?”
“What? Yes. Sorry, just trying to find the dictaphone app. Got it. Right, can you tell everything you just told me now? Just waiting for the app to download… And ready.”
I am peering around Sienna’s curtain, from where I have the best vantage point of the Smiths’ house. Vita’s napping, Sienna’s at Nursery. Simon still won’t tell me what’s going on but I am beginning to put some fragments together. He almost told me something important in Italy and it’s driving me nuts.
So here’s what we know so far:
- Simon started doing ‘some digging’ on General Smith after being made to rebuild his wall (which he didn’t knock down)
- The General started causing trouble for Si after I stormed a live-firing exercise that Si was commanding on Salisbury Plain (to rescue Bunny, Tiggy and Taggy – the children’s favourite toys. A low moment for me.)
- Si tries to tell me in Italy that, with help from an Mi5 contact, he’s uncovered something about General Smith (but we are interrupted by local musicians and waiters). He says it ‘goes all the way to the top’.
- I try to question Si further when we are touring Amalfi in our Citroen 2CV but he won’t talk about it. All he says is The General “could go to jail”. Si is then ‘taken out’ by a wasp. (Or was it a tiny killer robot sent by the people who killed David Kelly, the Iraq sexed-up dossier guy? OMG. Go away thought. Shooo. And breathe, Nessa. Breathe. Oh my god. I can’t feel my face.)
I take a series of deep breaths and continue to jot things down in my journal. What else?
- General Jeremy Smith and Fiona, his wife, are under covert investigation but we don’t know why.
- They live opposite us on the Married Patch in Greater London.
- They have one daughter, Fenella, aged 7 and an incontinent Dachshund, called Basil.
- The General works in Whitehall as a Chief of Staff.
- Fiona is a government PR manager, also working in Whitehall. (And how she got that job in the first place is a bloody mystery.)
- Humphery, post heart attack, turns up to go for drinks at the A&E Club in Shepherd’s Market. (I googled it and there is no record of the club)
- Fiona asks Humphery to sign papers giving her and The General alibis – one for last summer and one for December.
- In return, she will do Humphery ‘a favour’. Undoubtedly sexual, although could be money?
- He allegedly fakes a heart attack, doesn’t sign the papers and escapes in an ambulance.
- She follows in her car with the papers. Does he sign them at the hospital?
- They are involved in an elderly swinging-ring or circle.
- Humphery has a frosted blue ‘glans’ or tip of penis. Fact.
I have a quick look through the curtains. 11.02am, no movement. I duck down with another jigsaw piece to note down.
- Humphery has 100k in his safe from a Filipino polo ‘patron’. I write down, MONEY LAUNDERING??
“So, let’s look at the possible crimes,” I say out-loud. 1) Money laundering 2) Soliciting or prostitution 3) Fraud.
They’re not fiddling the school fees because they live here all the time – that’s a classic one for nice military families. In fact, Fiona’s causing problems most of the time, remember the nursery school teacher? I peek over the windowsill this time using Simon’ military issue binoculars I found in the cupboard. I scan the Close. Fuck, Fiona’s car’s gone!
I note down: 11.06 Smith’s BMW estate gone, didn’t see person leave.
The fact I missed Fiona’s car irks me for the rest of the day. I need something to report back to Si. I serve the kids’ lunch outside, even though it’s like an oven and one of the hottest summers on record. I repeat the exercise at tea time, ignoring Sienna’s pleas to ‘eat in the cool of the kitchen’ which is merely on plate warming temperature, instead of full broil mode outside. Dr Nick and his brood join us for our Death Valley style kids’ tea.
Dr Nick: “This is great acclimatisation training. East Africa, here I come!”
Dr Nick: “I deploy in two weeks.”
Me: “No. Poor you. Poor Anna.”
Dr Nick: “It’s only a four-monther.”
Me: “I guess, that’s not too bad.”
Dr Nick: “You don’t know where I’m going!”
When someone on the Patch deploys it brings it home that your husband or partner could be next. Si’s last tour (when we met) was in Afghanistan in 2010. He lost his best friend and 10 soldiers. I don’t want him going anywhere dangerous anytime soon.
Fiona returns in her car. Thankfully the children are still at the table and therefore safe. She swings the car past the cherry tree and puts into reverse, backing up fast. She gets out. I try not to make eye contact but she’s walking over; she wants to talk. I try not to blush but my ‘rosacea’ or liver wind or whatever is making me beetroot with the guilt of spying weighing heavily on my conscience. I am a crap spy. Dr Nick – who doesn’t miss a trick – looks at me and then at Fiona, curiously.
Fiona: “Hi, hi. I need a favour.” I try not to nod but do it anyway. “Can you take Basil?”
Fiona: “For a few days?”
Me: “A few days?”
Fiona: “Yes. I’ll pay you.”
Me: (lying) “I don’t need money.”
Dr Nick: “‘I’ll do it for money.”
Me: “You’re a doctor – you’ve got loads of wonga”.
Dr Nick: “That’s GPs”.
Fiona: “For god’s sake, will one of you do it?”
Dr Nick looks at me. I look at him. I can’t take her dog it will compromise my surveillance operation.
Dr Nick: “No can do, we’re off to ‘Shenter Parcks Amshterdam’ for a week before I deploy.”
I sigh and say as authentically as I can, “We’d love to have Basil, wouldn’t we kids? How’s Humphery?”
Fiona: “Not great thanks to you but he’ll live.”
Me: “He’s not answering my texts.”
Fiona: “You surprise me. He had to stay in for two extra days to get over the concussion.”
I put my hands over my eyes. “What did you do?” Asks the doctor.
Fiona: “She KO’ed Humphery just after his second heart attack.”
Fiona brings her poor dachshund over and plonks it on my lap. She walks off again returning with his cage, bowl and lead and barks instructions about feeding and walks. She then races off with a wave and a bang of her front door.
Dr Nick: “Lovely to see you too, Fiona. Always a pleasure. What a total and utter bitch.”
I raise my cup of tea to Nick. “I wish they were sending her to East Africa instead of you.” Basil pees on my lap. I grab a handful of wet wipes and clean my kaftan, unfazed.
Dr Nick: “Why did you K.O the old guy? I thought you liked him.”
Mandy walks over with Arthur and Mia who’s she’s picked up from Nursery. “Prosecco?” Nick and I nod. As Mandy pours the fizz, Fiona gets in her car and I speedily round up our feral children on all manner of scooters and bikes before she can run them over. She disappears around the corner in fifth. I covertly note down the time she leaves, clink glasses with my friends and that’s when we notice a strong smell of smoke.
Five minutes later we can see the smoke too, coming from Fiona’s back garden. This is a presence of the abnormal. I take the decision to enter Fiona’s garden for safety reasons, by scaling the fence using strong Mummy arms and know-how from a misspent youth. Dr Nick opens the gate by reaching over and unbolting it – he raises an eyebrow at me. There is a small bonfire blazing – a combination of garden waste and documents. I grab a bean pole and start flushing out the papers. Dr Nick turns on the hosepipe and douses the flames.
I fetch a bin bag from my house and shove as many papers into it as I can, I take it to our garage throw it to the back, behind the dusty boogie-boards and diving equipment. I wander back to the scene and there, standing with Dr Nick, is General Smith, wanting to know why the doctor’s in his garden. Nick casually explains that the bonfire is too close to the fence and, given the hot weather has made everything tinder-dry, he decided to put it out. The General is unimpressed. The doctor calmly suggests The General might like to Google the local authority’s guidelines on bonfires and smoke control. Nick looks at his phone and reads: “Avoid burning at weekends, public holidays and on sunny days when people are outside enjoying their gardens.” He points at the sun without a cloud in the sky and over to The Close, where children are playing like a 1950s suburban idyll.
The General mutters something, marches inside and I sit at my picnic bench, coolly sipping prosecco with Mandy, texting Si. <<Have an important update on ‘Operation Pampas Grass’ and evidence in our garage.>>