I was working for the government
Washington, D.C., July 29th, 1952
When Francis returned from Baxter’s office, the Lodeynoye files were no longer on his desk. He poked at the few papers that remained, just in case the files had somehow shrunk themselves and hidden there, and then, resigning himself to the ritual humiliation, limped back to Judy Lewis’ desk at the front of the authentication section, in the best position by the door. As he approached, she ducked her head down, frowning at her typewriter as she stabbed each key. Francis had to clear his throat twice before she looked up.
“Has anyone – “
“Section Chief Goldman's compliments,” Judy said, and slammed the carriage return across. “He says to remind you of departmental security protocols. Again.”
“It was only twenty minutes,” Francis said. His voice sounded weak in his own ears.
Judy didn’t bother to look up again. Her dark hair was clipped back, falling to the side in neat pin curls; the tilt of her head said more than enough.
“All right,” Francis said. "Sorry."
As he made his way back out to the main corridor, he saw Macdonald uncurl himself from behind his desk and saunter over to Judy’s. He muttered something to her, too low for Francis to hear, and as he left the office they were both snickering.
Macdonald routinely left level 2 files on his desk over lunch; but then, Macdonald was a real agent, not a jumped-up cripple with a college degree. Macdonald could probably also saunter into the archives, and with a nod and a wink, collect whatever he needed. Francis, in contrast, would have to go back through the layers of protocol and explain yet again why this particular file could be relevant to proving – or disproving – the testimony he was currently working on. Francis sighed.
He signed in at the main archive desk and waited for the guard to scrutinize and hand back his ID. The section he needed was in an annex to the main building, one of the many extra buildings, the “tempos” the CIA spilled over into. It was not originally intended as an archive; it was brutally humid in the summer, bitingly cold in the winter, and reserved for less crucial files and junior agents who had been less than successful in their last posts. Filing his request there in person should at least prevent any further lost paperwork or misunderstandings.
Much to his surprise, though, the annex was unattended. The files here were ordered on shelves that ran around the sides and back, a U shape with the agent in charge at the front. Three floor-to-ceiling double-backed tiers ran through the middle, lit by intermittent hanging bulbs. Someone could be working at the back, unseen; but when Francis took a few hesitant steps into the room and called out, no one answered.
If Goldman had come here himself - Francis glanced around the desk, and, then at the filing cabinets at the front of each line of free shelving. The furthest one had a wire basket on the top, with a stack of waiting folders. Francis limped over.
L-091298A, B and C. Francis picked them up, one-handed, and pulled another three files from the nearest shelf to replace them in the basket. He was just straightening up the folders when he heard footsteps and voices, approaching outside. Someone who sounded vaguely familiar was apologizing for the inconvenience, and another man speaking English with an Eastern European accent said that it was no bother.
There was no other exit. Francis lurched down the line of shelving and flung himself around the end, where he couldn’t be seen from the front. He leant back against the shelves, files clasped to his chest, and tried to breathe without making a sound.
Footsteps, entering. A key turned, and a filing cabinet drawer slid open.
“Here we are - uh. M-29338C - that’ll be over there, down the back. Just give me a moment -“
“I can find it,” the foreigner said, confidently, and then equally assured footsteps were striding over towards Francis, and started down the same aisle he’d taken. Francis edged sideways, and slid around to the opposite side of the shelving, staying out of sight.
The footsteps on the other side slowed and stopped. Francis could hear a file being pulled out and flipped through, and felt a surge of relief. He shut his eyes.
More footsteps. They moved, not back to the main entrance, but towards the back of the room, around the end of the row, and along to where Francis was huddled against the shelving. Unable to retreat further without alerting the clerk as well, Francis opened his eyes. The stranger – stocky, brown-haired, about Francis’ age and a little shorter, a file tucked under one arm – studied him, mouth twisted a little in apparent amusement.
“You need to dust more often,” the stranger said, pitching his voice to carry to the agent at the front.
“Do you need help? I’ve got the other two.”
The man shook his head, still watching Francis. “No, thank you.”
He reached out towards Francis and tugged gently at the files clutched in his hands. The stranger pulled the first folder free, just far enough to read the serial number, and then pushed it back into Francis’ loose grasp, fingertips cool against his skin.
“I have it now,” the man said.
He moved past Francis and back to the clerk, making small talk with him while completing paperwork, before asking for assistance in finding his way back to the main archive. When they were both gone, Francis finally moved. The cardboard covers of the Lodeynoye files had crumpled under the pressure of his grip, and were damp with sweat.
Francis hesitated, and then shifted to cut across the flow of people.
“Hello,” Francis said, when he got close enough. “I owe you a favor.”
The man tipped his head back and contemplated Francis.
“Tuesday. In the annex,” Francis said. “You didn’t rat on me. Thanks.” He held out his hand. “Francis Cartwright,” he said. “Plans Department.”
The man took it, and held on when Francis would have let go. “So you do work here.“
Francis coughed, startled. “Oh. Yes, I do. There was a mix-up, and those files got put back before I’d finished, and I didn’t know if they’d let me have them again, but hiding like that was dumb. I would have gotten into a lot of trouble if you’d said something.” He paused. “Who did you think I was?”
The man let go. “Stanisław Woźniak. Seconded from British Intelligence,” he said, ignoring Francis’ question. “I am disappointed.”
“Sorry,” Francis said. “Was it something I said? “
The man – Stanisław – laughed, a short exhalation of amusement, and put his fedora on, tipping it over his right eye. “I hoped you were a spy.” He picked up the briefcase that had been resting between his feet. “My first week here. Catching one would be an excellent start."
His enthusiasm was difficult to fault. “My apologies,” Francis said.
Stanisław shrugged. “If you are truly sorry,” he said, “you will buy me a drink.”
He seemed sincere. “I suppose,” Francis said, feeling his way cautiously. “It would make it easier to interrogate you.”
Stanisław slapped him on the back with a shout of approval. Francis, not expecting it, staggered, and Stanisław caught him under one arm, steadying him, a firm warm presence. Francis stepped back and brushed at his suit jacket.
He was indicating Francis’s bad leg. “Polio when I was ten,” Francis answered. “Less exciting.”
Stanisław swung his briefcase, obviously waiting for Francis to start moving. “Not all wars are in battlefields,” he said, following Francis down the stairs. “You are fighting now, correct?”
“Me? Oh. Us. Yes, I guess. But not here.”
A streetcar clanged in the distance. Francis checked his watch. If he hadn’t stopped to talk to Stanisław, he would be halfway home by now.
"Much tidier this way," Stanisław said with approval, and before Francis could ask whether he meant Korea or Washington DC, or perhaps even Francis, Stanisław was studying him again, intent gaze and that half-smile he'd had in the archives. Far too intimate. Francis shook himself mentally. The man was a foreigner. He couldn't be expected to behave the same way as other men Francis had - been acquainted with. Not and have it mean the same thing.
"So," Stanisław said. "I have heard terrible things about American beer from my British colleagues."
"Really," Francis said.
"Neither will be as good as Polish," Stanisław assured him. "Now. Where?"
He looked at Francis expectantly. Francis, whose plans for the evening had involved washing his socks in the sink and listening to the Nats game on the radio, thought briefly about objecting, and gave in. He could have a few beers, and eat cheese sandwiches instead of steak that weekend.
"Mac's is all right," he said, pointing.
He had not realized how stifled his life had become, working in a department where he was resented and looked down on, and anything he said was as likely to be ignored as ridiculed. Stanisław, an outsider who seemed perfectly happy being so (and, from what little he'd said, had a glittering intelligence career in Britain to return to, once he'd finished enlightening the locals), was a breath of fresh air, and being with him was seductive.
Seductive in too many ways. Francis was aware that he was beginning to analyze every interaction he had with the man, playing back what he'd said, where he'd looked, how close he'd been standing, the way he'd touched Francis as if he had a right to do so – in the annex, on the stairs, a hand on his thigh at the bar when Stanisław had been trying to persuade him into another round – all of it far too tempting and impossible. It was ridiculous. Stanisław was foreign, and in a strange city, and probably far more open than he would be in his homeland, and after all, men kissed each other in France all the time, apparently. Maybe in Poland, too. He was lonely and looking for a friend, nothing more.
Two Saturdays later Stanisław followed Francis into the bathroom on the second floor of the Natural History Museum, pushed him up against the wall and kissed him, mouth hot and tasting of the cheap hamburgers he'd insisted they try for lunch, and Francis was forced to reconsider his assessment.
"Better than your beer," Stanisław said, pulling back but keeping his hands on Francis' shoulders. He was half a head shorter than Francis, but it didn't make Francis feel any more in control, feet unsteady on the worn lino. Stanisław was grinning. He leaned in again, but Francis got one hand up on his chest to keep him back, despite the twist in his stomach that wanted more.
"You can't just do that," he said.
"No," Stanisław agreed. "I can do much more."
“Not – ” Francis wriggled free, and Stanisław let him go. “I mean you can’t just kiss people – other men. Me.”
Stanisław shrugged. He wandered over to the sinks and contemplated himself in the polished metal mirror.
“I have seen you looking at me,” he said. He twisted the faucet, and put his hands into the flow of water.
Francis licked his lips. They tasted unfamiliar, not like the person he was now. “Yes,” he said finally. “I was.”
He took a step forward. Stanisław, hands still in the water, looked up and their eyes met in the mirror’s reflection.
The door pushed open, and a man in his fifties in a neat bowler hat trotted in, heading for a stall. Francis backed away, uncertain, and the moment was gone.
Outside the museum, it had only gotten hotter, and the small white clouds Francis had seen earlier were boiling up into thunderheads. Stanisław was looking out across the park again, the trees starting to bend under the building winds. He was bareheaded, as he’d been the first day Francis had spoken to him.
“Come back to my place,” Francis said and, before Stanisław could turn in response, “I’ll look at you there.”
The temperature began to drop before they were halfway home, and by the time Francis held open the main tenement door, fat drops of rain were leaving dark spots on the sidewalk. There was no-one standing in the doorway this time as Francis fumbled the key, Stanisław having chosen that moment to crowd up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder, pulling back Francis’ suit jacket to mouth gently at his neck.
Francis had never brought anyone home before to his one-room apartment, not for sex. Bathrooms, yes, although more commonly he’d gone to the sort of clubs you needed to know someone to join, evenings in private houses with enough dark places for more private entertainment. He’d also never picked anyone up from work.
He shoved the door open and reached back to pull Stanisław inside, shrugging his jacket the rest of the way off and letting it fall to the floor. He didn’t bother with the light, and Stanisław’s eyes gleamed in the dimness. He had shed his jacket and hat as well, and was starting on his shirt buttons, still breathing heavily from their rush up the stairs. He wasn’t wearing an undershirt, and Francis stopped halfway through his own undressing, mesmerized by the sight of Stanisław’s muscles moving under pale skin and sparse chest hair.
“You can touch, too,” Stanisław said, his voice low and husky.
Francis swallowed. “Yes.”
His hands shook as he reached out, but he forced himself to make contact, resting his fingertips on Stanisław’s torso and then, gaining confidence, run them lightly down his sides. Stanisław shivered at the touch. Francis moved one hand down to Stanisław’s belt buckle, skin-warm, and pulled the belt through.
He wasn’t quite brave enough to go further, and Stanisław took the decision out of his hands, pushing him gently back towards the bed, a sagging box spring shoved under the window. Francis sat on it. He leaned down to unlace his shoes, toed them off, and then, before he could think about it in any detail, stood up to shed the rest of his clothes and sat again. His bare feet felt the thin patches in the carpet, and the metal of his knee brace looked like he felt, awkward and out-of-place.
The bed creaked beside him, and a weight settled at his side. When he looked up again Stanisław was there, naked, and this time Francis managed to reach for him without trembling.
He’d said he’d look at Stanisław, but it was Stanisław who kept watching him, gaze sharp and invading, not giving Francis any chance to hide. Stanisław pulled him up when he would have slid down the bed to take Stanisław in his mouth, whispered, “Not yet,” in his ear and then pulled Francis on top of him and settled back on to the bed, its worn springs creaking.
Francis, astride Stanisław, could feel Stanisław’s erection firm against the back of his thigh. He let his bad leg slide off of the side of the bed, toe just touching the floor and Stanisław seemed to take the movement as an invitation, reaching out to put one firm hand on Francis’ groin and trace up the line of his cock with his thumb, warm and assured.
“Circumcised,” Stanisław said, and rubbed the exposed glans thoughtfully. Francis gasped. “You Americans are so hygienic. Does it taste better?”
Francis had to put one hand down to keep his balance. “I’ll- I’ll let you know,” he said, and then he had to put the other hand down, his fingers clenching at the edge of the sheets, as Stanisław’s hand gripped him firmly, just past the edge of comfort.
“You can take notes,” Stanisław told him, and then began stroking him in a steady, building rhythm, still a little bit too tight. Francis shuddered. He felt exposed in this position but also hopelessly turned-on, at the mercy of whatever Stanisław decided to do to him, the tension inside him mounting rapidly. He wasn’t going to last, and he turned his head to try and warn Stanisław.
Stanisław was looking down, intent on what his hand was doing, and as Francis opened his mouth Stanisław slipped his other hand under to stroke lightly at his testicles, almost tickling, and Francis came with a moan, unable to stop himself and embarrassingly quick. He fell forward onto Stanisław as well, all support gone from his arms, and for a moment just lay there, his nose against Stanisław’s chest and his whole body tingling. Stanisław had managed to get his hands out of the way, and was holding Francis against him, his chest rising and falling evenly.
“Sorry,” Francis said, voice half-muffled. “You can fuck me, if you like.” He would have to get back to Stanisław on the taste question when he could feel his limbs.
Stanisław’s hands didn’t move. “There’s a storm outside,” he said.
Francis rolled off him with an effort, and the realization that he was going to have to get a washcloth. He fell on the side away from his bad leg, and blinked. The room was even darker now, although it couldn’t be much past four, and now that Stanisław had mentioned it, there was the low growl of thunder outside. The sweat on his body was cooling down rapidly and the windowsill next to them was damp, as was the edge of the bed.
“I’ll shut the window,” Francis said, and struggled up to do so. He forced himself to get off the bed and grab a washcloth and also, considering, the tin of Vaseline he kept under the sink, and limped back to the bed.
“Can you take off the brace?” Stanisław asked, accepting Francis’ generous offer of first use of the washcloth.
“My leg’s not all that pretty,” Francis warned. A flash of lightning lit the room, making Stanisław’s grin a menacing leer, and Francis blinked hard to clear his vision.
“You decide,” Stanisław said, not obviously concerned, and shifted over a little to make space.
Francis felt emptied out, clarified. He let Stanisław arrange him on the bed, pulling Francis back against his chest. Francis watched the lightning hit again, casting sharp-edged shadows across the apartment wall, heard Stanisław opening the Vaseline and muttering to him, something low and possibly not in English, and felt Stanisław push inside him, first with a finger and then with the thick head of his cock. He shut his eyes, and the next flash lit everything blood-red. He felt his own breathing accelerate, almost to gasping, as Stanisław fucked him, as steady and controlled as his hands had been, his mouth biting at Francis’ neck again, light and sharp, until Stanisław’s rhythm broke into rapid heavy shoves, breaking Francis apart as Stanisław bit down hard.
Stanisław had one hand on Francis’ hip, his thumb rubbing in small circles: comforting, but holding him from the sleep he could feel waiting.
“You don’t like the people you work with,” Stanisław said.
It wasn’t really a question, but Francis answered anyway.
“They don’t like me.”
The fact that he even had to ask – Francis pushed that away. “I’m not a real agent,” he said. “I’m a cripple. I’m not married, not normal – “
“Not a real agent?”
“I have a degree in archeology,” Francis said. He knew he sounded angry and bitter, and that Stanisław didn’t deserve either. “Materials conservation. I can tell if the documents they’re given are real or faked. Where they’re made, sometimes.”
The thumb kept moving against him. “How?” Stanisław said, his voice lazily curious.
Francis snorted. “Paper quality, ink, the settings on typewriters…” he said. “The Soviets don’t have enough stainless steel, and all their staples are cheap metal. If it’s rusted, it’s not one of ours.”
Stanisław made an amused sound.
“But that’s not what they want,” Francis said. “I haven’t been in the field. I haven’t fought in a war. I haven’t killed anyone.”
The thumb stopped. “I have,” Stanisław said, evenly. “I think you’re better off with staples.”
Appalled, Francis shifted to face him. “I’m sorry,” he said. He wanted to reach out, but Stanisław suddenly seemed very far away.
“Did you –“ Francis began, but Stanisław talked over him.
“They don’t listen to me, either,” he said. “I was invited here, for my expertise – “ he gave the term a vicious twist – “but they don’t think much of British Intelligence, after Burgess and Maclean defected, and they think even less of a Polack telling them what to do.”
He sounded more resigned than angry, as if he hadn’t expected anything more.
“And now they’ve locked down my security access,” Stanisław said.
It had gotten cooler again. Francis shivered, and reached down to pull the sheet over them both. He stared up at the ceiling, dim and distant.
“You know I don’t have much access,” Francis said. “But if you need something…”
Outside, someone must have left a window open, and it was banging in the wind, irregular shuddering slams that were felt as much as heard.
“I wouldn’t ask you to do that,” Stanisław said, eventually.
“You didn’t,” said Francis.
“Dry cleaners,” Francis said, wiping his mouth again and watching Stanisław study his suit jacket with a disappointed expression. “Don’t they have them in Poland? Or England?”
“I have only the one suit,” Stanisław said absently.
Francis watched him, enjoying his slight dishevelment
“Oh,” he said, remembering. “I brought you my notes on the Lodeynoye airbase. Was that what you wanted?”
Stanisław lowered his jacket. “You shouldn’t.”
“It’s not even the file,” Francis assured him, and scrambled to his feet. He put a hand on Stanisław’s arm. “Just notes.” He leaned in, enjoying the freedom to do this, and kissed Stanisław on the mouth.
They met regularly that fall, around the National Mall and beyond, going back to Francis’ place more often than not – Stanisław was in a boarding house with rules about visitors – and although Francis’ apartment was unheated, an increasing problem as the winter approached, keeping warm was not difficult. Francis kept to himself at work, allowing the usual slights and insults to fall on him without impact, and hugged his secret safe. The Office was steady, only a standard memo about the inadvisability of I Like Ike paraphernalia to suggest any outer disturbances; still, Francis found it easy enough to edge around the borders of his responsibilities, and track down information for Stanisław. Eisenhower sailed into power in November, four days after the US successfully tested the first hydrogen bomb. The Office was more obviously pleased with the latter achievement.
Stanisław’s time in Washington had been extended, he told Francis, from three months to six, and now twelve. He seemed unhappy about this decision – he had, occasionally, mentioned family, a brother in Britain, a sister somewhere in Europe – but shook his head when Francis asked about visiting. Francis could not bring himself to ask if Stanisław would be happy to leave him behind. Francis knew how he himself felt, and that would have to be enough. He focused on finding out what Stanisław wanted, and did his job without complaining. He went home to Idaho for Christmas, at his uncle’s as usual with throngs of hearty relations, and told his mother again about his boring job as a patent clerk.
Stanisław himself told Francis, more than once, not to bring him any information, but he always took it, and usually would mention, later in the conversation, if there was anything else he needed. Francis assured him that it was fine, that he wouldn’t get caught, (“You’re the only one who can catch me,” he said on one occasion, as they were sitting up in Francis’ bed arguing, cups of coffee going cold on the floor beside them. “Don’t you remember?”). Whole files were impossible, but single sheets could easily slip free even from American staples, and when Francis was given a project on ship movements in the Baltic, information pooled from numerous contradictory sources in half a dozen languages and blueprints of submarine plans, a few pieces of microfilm fell, unnoticed, into his jacket pockets.
This seemed to be the last crucial piece Stanisław needed. When they met next, midmorning outside the Capitol, both wrapped up in coats, scarves and hats, he refused to give Francis any more leads.
“No,” he said. “I should not have asked for this.” He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets, avoiding – unusually for him – Francis’ concerned gaze. “No more.”
Francis nodded, reluctantly. “All right,” he said, and felt a twitch of excitement. “My place?”
Stanisław looked at him then, and his expression was bleak. “There have been – questions,” he said. “About my absences.”
Cold, internal rather than external, sank into Francis. “Questions.”
“I go back to England in a week,” Stanisław said. “After a few interviews.”
He took one gloved hand out of his pocket, as if he couldn’t help himself, and stroked the edge of Francis’ cheek, the wool soft against his skin.
“I’m sorry,” Francis said. He put his own hand up, his fingertips to Stanisław’s, two layers of cloth between them.
“Not everything is your fault,” Stanisław said. He took his hand back.
“I need the microfilm,” Francis said, dropping his voice. “To put it back.”
The park was ice and snow around them, a few other huddled figures moving swiftly in the distance against the white. No one was near them.
“Tomorrow,” Stanisław said. “Here, the same time. I’ll bring it.”
Francis nodded. He wanted to say something, but Stanisław left before he could put words together, walking faster than Francis could ever manage in these conditions, becoming another lone figure in the snow.
At the same time the next day Francis sat in Baxter’s office, where the central heating was cranked up to a sauna-level temperature, while a plainclothes police officer in Francis’ coat and scarf climbed slowly and with an assumed limp up the Capitol steps to meet and arrest Stanisław, and confirm his possession of stolen intelligence. Francis signed the last of his reports mechanically, not bothering to check their accuracy. He pushed the papers across to his handler and looked up.
“Not bad,” Baxter said. “He had his hooks into a few other staff, nothing too serious, but you really pushed him into the open. The British have been suspicious of him for a while, but couldn’t pin anything on him.”
“Yes,” Francis said. He felt hollow, dried-out from the inside.
“When can I move on?” he said, speaking over whatever Baxter said next.
Baxter, a thin, gray-faced man who’d been running Francis for two years, ever since he’d left college and proven to be a useful weak point for enemies looking for a vulnerable target, looked at him in disapproval.
“As I was saying,” he said eventually. “This outcome has been satisfactory. Your work, however – “
“The authentication?” Francis said, incredulous.
Baxter spread his hands out on the desk. “The President has made it quite clear,” he said, “that he does not want anyone working for any branch of the State whose lifestyle could put them at risk of blackmail. I believe an Executive Order is currently being drafted.”
A part of Francis had been expecting this. He’d known men pushed out in 1950 by Roy Cohn, in the Lavender Scares. But he knew Baxter, too, and he thought the man was leaving him a narrow escape route.
“Oh, that’s fine,” he said, shifting back in his chair. “It was just for the job. Nothing more.” He hadn’t slept with any of his other contacts. He could write this off as an aberration, he told himself, and deliberately didn’t think of Stanisław, and how empty his bed had felt last night without him.
Baxter eyed him, obviously considering his ability to carry this off. “It’s still a potential for compromise,” he said. “Marriage would present a powerful counterattack.”
“Marriage,” Francis said blankly.
“Select someone appropriate,” Baxter advised.
Francis glanced at his watch. It would all be over by now; Stanisław arrested, on his way to interrogation. Somewhere out there, someone else would be checking the accuracy of his testimony. Job done, he thought, and felt the ghost of a touch on the side of his face.
“All right,” he said.
The man in the photos – front on and profile – clipped to the top page was almost unrecognizable. Stanisław, with a black eye, a split lip and blood in his hair and leaking from his ear, his expression dazed and unfocussed. Francis, heart sinking, skimmed the text, and clenched his fists under the desk to stop his hands from shaking. Chunks were blacked out for security reasons. Resisting arrest was clear enough, although Francis suspected shooting a cop had been the main problem; he still had no idea why Stanisław had even been carrying a gun. Suspect refused to answer questions. Declined medical attention. No solicitor. Transferred to British Embassy as of 1900 hours, current whereabouts unknown.
“All sorted,” Baxter said, taking back the file. “Now. Your next assignment?”
Francis swallowed. This was what he’d wanted. “Yes,” he said, his voice rusty in his throat.
“And the other?” Baxter pressed.
“I’m.” It didn’t, he thought, get any easier. “I’m considering engagement. Sir.”
Baxter smiled. “Don’t wait too long,” he said, pleasantly, and then swiveled round to consult the stack of documents next to him.
They were suspicious of where your loyalties lay
Stanisław Woźniak was born in Kraków on the 18th of August, 1924, the third of five children. His father, Michał, a second lieutenant in the Polish cavalry, served with distinction against the Soviets in the Battle of the Niemen. When Stanisław was growing up, however, his father taught economics at the College of Commerce, and his sabre hung unused over the mantel. Stanisław’s older brothers, Andrzej and Jan, fought over who got to help Papa clean it every Saturday, and for the chance to strike a dramatic pose with the blade. Stanisław, younger and smaller, had no objection to fighting but no fondness for it either, and although he started the cadet corps with the rest of his classmates, he hoped for something more interesting on its completion.
Two weeks after Stanisław’s fifteenth birthday, the weather still summer warm, the Germans invaded, and it no longer mattered what he hoped for. Andrzej was in the north, fighting, and Jan was with the air force as a mechanic. The class ahead of Stanisław was called up, and Stanisław helped his mother bury the silver in the garden, arguing with her in hissed whispers about whether he could lie about his age and enlist. Not three weeks later, Soviet troops marched across the eastern border.
Jan returned home at two in the morning, battering on the door loud enough to wake the whole household. Stanisław scrambled downstairs to find his pajama-clad father gripping his sabre with shaking hands, and then, after opening the door, clutching at his eldest son in gratitude. His mother Anna was weeping, and scolding Jan for waking the “baby”, four-year old Elżbieta, who was fascinated by the excitement and thrilled to have her elder brother Janek back.
“You have to leave,” Jan said. “I’m going to France. They have other pilots there, we can regroup. I’ll take you with me, but it has to be tonight.”
“Leave?” Stanisław said, at once startled and excited, but his father overrode him.
“This is our home.”
Jan snarled, an incoherent noise of anger and frustration, and then started talking again, his father speaking almost simultaneously. Both were convinced they were correct and both were unwilling to budge an inch. Anna took Elżbieta back to bed, kissing Jan goodnight and telling him firmly that she would see him in the morning. Krystyna, hanging over the bannisters in her nightgown, just shook her head at her mother’s request that she also go to sleep. In a pause in the discussion Jan looked round at the familiar room and stopped at Stanisław.
“Staszek,” he said, voice suddenly quiet. “You’ll come with me, won’t you?”
It was, in the end, the final compromise. Michał was convinced the British and French would still come to Poland’s aid as they’d promised, Jan equally convinced they wouldn’t, but unable to persuade the rest of his family to flee across the border to the possible safety of Roumania, especially given his lack of clear plans for getting from there to France. “There’ll be boats,” he said, when challenged, and his father pointed out that their mother got violently seasick on even the flattest lake. No one except Stanisław wanted him to fight. Before sunrise Stanisław was stuffing an assortment of clothes into his haversack. He kissed his remaining relatives and followed Jan out the door into the gray pre-dawn.
The train they caught was targeted by enemy aircraft. Stanisław, lying in the ditch next to it, saw one of the planes veer off and, with deliberate malice, machine gun the cows – and their farmer – in a neighboring field. It was the first time he’d seen someone killed. Jan went over, when the plane finally left, and came back with cheese, bread, and a little dried meat. Stanisław stayed, fretting the train would leave, and wondering guiltily if he had made the right decision.
They spent six weeks in Roumania in a camp with other Poles, the whole area rife with malaria, and then they were crammed on a seemingly endless series of boats that zigzagged across the Mediterranean, hugging the African coast for relative safety. All the news was bad. Warsaw had surrendered before they’d left Roumania, and the Reich had set up a General Government based in Kraków. Mass arrests of teachers, academics, doctors, and other potential leaders took place daily. Stanisław had pestered the Polish embassy in Bucharest before they left, desperate for any news of their family, but with no luck.
They were docked in Alexandria for Stanisław’s name day. Jan bought him vodka from one of the other Poles on the boat and forced it down his throat, rough and burning, until Stanisław stopped thinking of all his earlier celebrations and the family he’d shared them with.
A month later they arrived in Marseilles, where Jan managed to find a few of his squadron and got work reconditioning aircraft engines. Stanisław hung around the base, practicing his French and taking messages for whoever asked. One of the French radio operators he delivered to offered to teach him Morse Code, and, in quiet moments would let Stanisław send dummy messages. Stanisław counted in his head as he tapped, listening for the operator behind him to “tss” sharply to at an incorrect sequence. When he got his first full run correct, the man said, “Bon,” in his ear, and gripped his shoulders to turn him around.
“Quel âge as-tu?”
“Dix-huit ans,” Stanisław answered confidently, adding three years.
The man snorted. “Want to fuck?” he said, in Polish.
Stanisław had half-expected this, and had no objections as well as a certain amount of anticipation. The man was perhaps a little older than his brother, not unattractive, and he hadn’t made his teaching of Stanisław conditional on the offer. He nodded. The operator proved to be as proficient at teaching sex as he was with Morse Code, blunt but not unkind. Stanisław mentioned the code to his brother and kept silent on the rest.
In April a card arrived to say Andrzej was a prisoner of war, and they finally received confirmation of their father’s death. He had been executed along with his whole department. Both of them got drunk that night. Stanisław’s tutor rotated to another base, leaving him an old codebook with a scribbled note about the importance of practice. France was losing ground daily, and the rumors on the base were that the Poles were to be transferred to England. Stanisław borrowed an English textbook from the base library.
That September, they crossed the Channel; by the beginning of 1941, Stanisław, with code skills and a carefully aged up ID, was recruited by British Intelligence for intensive training in languages, more radio work and sabotage to go back into France with the resistance. A week before his first mission a letter from their mother, written nearly six months earlier, the ink faded by travel and parts excised by the censor, in which she and their sisters were all still alive, even if she did not say in what condition. And trapped. It was the last contact either Jan or Stanisław would have with any of them for nearly ten years.
The District was different from London. The streets were wider, the weather warmer; there was no rationing, and the shops held more things than he could ever want. The dentist he went to when he cracked a tooth was a Negro who lectured him on dental hygiene in much the same way as his driver had indicated the sights. Stanisław rolled his eyes and agreed to everything. The long muggy evenings were full of noises, music from clubs and bars, and the low the rumble of engines from the large cars cruising slowly through the streets.
He would be under scrutiny from the Americans, the Soviets and MI5 here, and it gave him the sort of rush he’d used to have working in occupied territories. He asked obvious questions, poked round, made reports, and watched for weaknesses. It was easier than he’d feared. Where in London they had taken enough recent knocks to be suspicious, the Americans were confident. He followed up on early leads, a senior agent with a possible gambling problem, a mail boy with a sister in the Communist Party. Then, Stanisław talked himself into an archive and saw something move at the end of a row of files. He followed it around to find a dark-haired man with a thin, intelligent face backed up against the shelf, with files clutched to his chest. Stanisław smiled, and felt something click into place.
When the man opened his eyes they were bright blue, and his gaze fastened helplessly on Stanisław. Stanisław called to the agent at the front, to stop any interruption, and reached out to check the numbers on the file the man held. The man’s pupils dilated as Stanisław’s hand moved closer, and Stanisław could hear his breath catch.
More weaknesses than one. Stanisław distracted the agent in charge long enough to check the file sign-out records. A week ago the L series files had been signed out to a Francis Cartwright, although they’d been signed back in by Albert Goldman, whom Stanisław had already met. Polite enquiries later confirmed that it had been Cartwright in the archives, and earned Stanisław details of Cartwright’s position (useful if not ideal), the general opinion of him (unflattering) and some idea of his daily routine from a helpful secretary. No one mentioned that he might be queer, but Stanisław had already discovered that such things were less likely to be discussed in this part of the world. He missed Cartwright Thursday morning, arriving too late, but caught him that evening.
At the bar that night he put a hand on Cartwright’s – Francis’ – thigh, as if bracing himself while reaching for another handful of salted peanuts, and said, “One more for the road? Or is it for the sidewalk?”
“No car,” Francis said. His posture had relaxed throughout the evening, but he was tense now under Stanisław’s hand. “Do you have one? In England?”
“I have a bicycle,” Stanisław said. He kept his hand there.
For some reason, this statement made Francis snicker. “With a bell? And a basket on the handlebars?”
“It is very practical,” Stanisław said, repressively.
Francis tried to suppress a smile and failed. Stanisław, suddenly guilty for a reason he couldn’t identify, took his hand away.
“I really do have to go,” Francis said. He sounded genuinely regretful.
Liking your sources meant nothing, Stanisław knew, in the same way that disliking your handlers meant nothing; trust and dependence didn’t require fondness, and you could use someone and still find them pleasant to be with. He could not, however, stop a small part hoping that Francis would say no to him.
He knew how easy it was to find a lever and pull. He had insisted on photographs of his sister Krystyna, not just letters, before he agreed to the Soviet offer, but he had known he was lost from the first hint that she was alive. He made his initial approach to Francis after they fucked for the first time, and Francis’ response was just as predictable.
Stanisław left his information at one of three dead drops, most commonly in a small branch library in the shelf behind the reference section. What Francis gave him initially was not that important, and he focused on developing his other contacts – the senior agent had confessed all to his superiors and been moved on, unfortunately, but the mail boy was promising, and another officer was having an ill-advised affair with a Party sympathizer. Then Francis shifted projects.
Francis was fiddling with the coffee percolator, his back turned, having moved away as soon as he handed over the latest papers. Stanisław flipped through them again more slowly, confirming his opinion of their importance.
“Don’t worry about coffee,” he said.
“Maybe you don’t want any,” he started, but Stanisław had taken the two strides necessary to cross the small apartment and was kissing him, pulling the coffee tin out of Francis’ grip and setting it down on the bench. Francis made a muffled squeak.
“On the bed,” Stanisław muttered, but when Francis started to obey Stanisław stopped him, tugging at his pants and stripping him from the waist down before pushing Francis gently to sit on the edge of the bed. Stanisław went to his knees, and when he looked up Francis was staring back at him, dazed, his lower lip wet and swollen.
“Hold on,” Stanisław advised. He pushed Francis’ thighs apart firmly, settling in between them, and pulled Francis’ braced leg up to rest over his shoulder. Francis was already most of the way hard. When Stanisław breathed over the tip of his erection, close and warm, Francis cursed him, voice choked. Stanisław grinned, inwardly, and sucked the whole head into his mouth, enjoying the way the muscles in Francis’ thigh jumped under his thumb. Francis said something incoherent, and as Stanisław licked him in slow circles, he felt Francis’ hand touching his head, tentative at first, and then sliding back to grip at the base of his skull.
Francis still seemed to need or want to be told to what to do in bed, and Stanisław had yet to coax Francis into fucking him. He wondered, as he pulled off to lick down Francis’ shaft in short, teasing strokes, whether he would get a chance to persuade him before this all fell apart. Francis shuddered, fingers tightening in Stanisław’s hair, and Stanisław moved his free hand to press his thumb into the base of Francis’ cock, wanting to draw this out as long as possible. He shifted his attention to Francis’ balls, wetting them thoroughly with his tongue, and settled Francis’ leg more firmly on his shoulder.
“Wait.” Francis tugged at his hair. Stanisław stopped reluctantly, and looked up.
“Take my brace off,” Francis said. He looked nervous but determined.
Stanisław sat back on his heels, letting Francis’ leg slip free. He reached for the topmost leather strap and unbuckled it. Francis shivered, but didn’t tell him to stop.
The brace was heavier than Stanisław expected. The leg underneath was thin and twisted below the knee, the skin pale from lack of sun. Stanisław ran his hand from knee to ankle, smoothing out the marks the brace had left.
Francis didn’t say anything as Stanisław settled back between his thighs. He put both hands on Stanisław’s head this time when Stanisław went down on him, and Stanisław smiled as best as he could with his mouth around Francis’ cock. Stanisław pulled back, flicking the tip of Francis’ erection with his tongue to make him gasp, and licked his own palm before wrapping it firmly around Francis’ shaft and moving it up and down with increasing speed. Francis’ hands clenched into fists. Stanisław ignored the discomfort to push himself forward, taking as much of Francis into his mouth as he could, and heard Francis cry out as he came. Stanisław kept his mouth there, swallowing until the hands on his head relaxed.
“Don’t bring me any more.” Stanisław said again, when he left that evening. Francis leant against the doorframe, a bite mark visible on his neck through his half-open shirt collar. Stanisław resisted the urge to touch him again. “It’s too dangerous for you,” he said.
Francis blinked. “I understand.”
Stanisław knew it wasn’t agreement. He nodded a goodnight and walked towards the stairs, heart clenching in his chest.
He had to choose his sister; that was, after all, how he’d ended up here. And yet he couldn’t help thinking of Jan, with his wife, three children and a fourth on the way, and how upset and disappointed they would be if Uncle Staszek were revealed as a traitor. Or disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, because he had no hope of getting Krystyna out without going there himself, and little enough if he did.
They would probably be even more disappointed if they found out he was queer, although Stanisław often suspected his brother of deliberate blindness in that regard.
He came up with half a dozen increasingly unlikely plans and discarded them all. Winter was setting in, and he no longer knew who was behind his extended stay – the Soviets, hoping for more information? The English, letting him run just that little bit further? The Americans, either convinced by his helpfulness or equally suspicious, allowing him enough rope to make a noose? (Though it was the electric chair that the Rosenbergs were facing now, another appeal denied.) Stanisław answered a classified ad in the daily paper and handed over thirty dollars for a Browning HP 9mm pistol, unwanted after an earlier war. He wished, momentarily, for a more definite enemy.
And then he was summoned to his superior’s office and told he was returning in just over a week, and there was no more time.
It was so different from when he’d arrived. Stanisław stood at the top of the Capitol’s steps, watching a figure in familiar hat and coat detach itself from the cluster of people below and make his way slowly toward him.
Stanisław had brought the microfilm with him, tucked safely into his breast pocket. The Browning was heavy against his thigh. He stamped his feet against the cold and waited for Francis to climb the steps. He would give him back the microfilm and convince Francis to tell everything, threaten him if necessary, and then seek refuge himself in the Russian Embassy. (“I wish you and Janek had taken me with you,” Krystyna wrote in her first letter, the one that told him of the deaths of their mother and sister. He couldn’t leave her behind again.) He should go now, instead of waiting here, where either the English or American forces could take the chance to pick him up, but he hadn’t been able to stop himself from saying goodbye.
“Francis,” Stanisław said as the figure limped up the last step, but when the man looked up it was a stranger’s face. Stanisław took a step back, hand slipping into his coat pocket.
“I’m arresting you,” the man said, “on suspicion of treason –“
Stanisław pulled out the Browning, slipping off the safety, and the man fell silent. Stanisław held the weapon steady. “Where is he?”
“You’re surrounded,” the man answered. “If you give up now – “
“I should have given up years ago,” Stanisław said, bitter and dark, and lifted the gun to put it to his own head. He never knew whether the man’s desperate, fatal lunge was intended to save Stanisław’s life or his own.
“You should have thought of our family,” he said in Polish, his eyes streaming.
“I did,” Stanisław said. He’d tried to explain about Krystyna, but Jan wasn’t having any of it.
“There must have been another way to get to her,” he said. “Our father died rather than betray his country.”
“He was shot in the head by Nazi thugs who never gave him the choice,” Stanisław snapped back, his own nerves shot by the long hours of questioning, the grinding guilt, and the beating the police had been kind enough to provide him with. “Maybe he’d rather be alive.” He regretted it when Jan went white.
Jan stood up. “He would not.” He shook his head and plodded heavily towards the door, knocking to be let out.
“Janek,” Stanisław said, pleading, but Jan just waited there, head down, and when the door swung open, he walked out without looking back.
The English swapped Stanisław for two captured British agents, an exchange which left no one particularly happy. Stanisław was transferred to the Russian embassy in Vienna. There was some internal political problem with his original handler, rumors of yet another purge in the Politburo, and no-one seemed to quite know what to do with him. He had written letters to Krystyna but heard nothing back. He had started letters to his brother but not sent any of them, and he tried not to think about Francis. This was made more difficult by the embassy’s Rezident persistently asking about Stanisław’s Washington contacts, with the sort of detail that suggested they were thinking of trying again with another agent. Stanisław was as unhelpful as he thought he could get away with. He assumed Francis had been caught over the microfilm. If he had turned Stanislaw over voluntarily, though, Stanislaw didn’t want him used again.
It was a bright day in early March, the sun still too distant to give much warmth. Stanisław borrowed half a packet of cigarettes from the embassy guard and stood on the front steps to smoke them, looking out over Reisnerstrasse though the gaps in the surrounding metal fence. Someone came running out from the embassy, shoes clattering on the marble. The guard snapped to attention, and Stanisław turned round in a more leisurely fashion.
The embassy’s KGB senior lieutenant was standing there, mouth open and gaping like a fish. “Our dear Father is dead.”
Stanisław felt a wrenching stab of familiar grief before he realized the man meant Stalin.
“Your Washington contact,” the Rezident said, after the social preliminaries. “He’s here in Vienna.”
“Whom do you mean?” Stanisław said, after a pause. “The European Intelligence agent?”
The Rezident chuckled in a particularly annoying fashion. “No, no,” he said. “Your cripple. I suggested he might be able to help me with a certain matter.”
Stanisław felt cold right through. “What would that be?” he said.
“You’re potentially useful,” the Rezident said. “Too dangerous to trust, obviously. I have orders to have you shot.”
Stanisław said nothing.
“They arrived the day our leader passed on,” the Rezident said. “Things are changing everyday now, and it is possible that these orders might have changed with them. A work camp may offer you a chance to redeem yourself.”
“At the very least, it would save you a bullet,” Stanisław said.
“Your contact seems – fond of you.” The Rezident went on. “I gave him a price. He has until eight a.m. tomorrow.”
Stanisław had heard about the Rezident’s expensive mistress, and assumed any price would be considerable. He still felt three steps behind in this conversation, completely thrown by this news.
“You may go,” the Rezident added, when Stanisław showed no signs of responding.
He hadn’t. Someone was walking down the pavement on the other side of the fence, the halting rhythm of his steps familiar. He was wearing a familiar coat as well. Stanisław’s voice froze in his throat, remembering a colder day and the wrong face.
The footsteps stopped.
“I hoped I’d see you,” Francis said in a near whisper. He looked older and thinner in the face, more worn, but he was biting his lip as he’d done before, as if trying not to smile.
“I only found out yesterday,” Stanisław answered in the same low tone. “Thank you.”
Francis shrugged. “I owed you.”
“You owed me?” Stanisław said, incredulous.
A shadow came over Francis’ face. “I set you up,” he said abruptly. “I knew who you were when we first met. I was reporting back the whole time.” His shoulders were tensed, as if expecting a blow, but he kept his eyes steady and fixed on Stanisław.
It had been a bad twenty-four hours for surprises. Stanisław thought about what Francis had said. He should, he supposed, be angry. “You did an excellent job,” he said, instead. “I should have asked you for tips.”
Francis half-opened his mouth and shut it again. “Why did you shoot that man?” he said eventually.
“I didn’t think he was you,” Stanisław said drily. “He grabbed the gun.”
Francis looked away. “I didn’t try to get to you in Washington, after the arrest,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Hurting Francis was only making Stanislaw feel worse. Neither of them had been honest. At least, not on the job.
Stanisław waved the apology away with one hand, and Francis looked back at the movement. “You’re here now,” Stanislaw said. “How –“
Improbably, Francis laughed. “Someone played me a tape,” he said. “Over the phone. I routinely checked my apartment for bugs, it couldn’t have been there, but from – um, the content, I think we must have been in the park. I told the guy my bosses knew already, but then he upped the offer by mentioning you. I should have asked for a copy as part of the deal.”
Stanisław hadn’t known about any tapes, but he had notified his contact of any exterior meeting places. He supposed he should have expected it. He found himself grinning at Francis, who was starting to flush.
“It’s good to see you,” Francis said. He pulled off his glove and pushed his hand between the narrow bars. “Really.”
Stanisław hadn’t bothered with gloves. He reached out to take Francis’ hand between both of his.
“I’m being sent to a work camp,” he said. Francis’s fingers slid to interlock with his. “Are you all right?”
“At the Office?” Francis asked. He was leaning as close as he could to the bars, his lips only a few inches away. “Yes. I’m married now. Respectable.”
Stanisław lifted his eyebrows.
“She knows, “ Francis said. “There’s a woman boarding with us who teaches in town, and the two of them share a bed. Not with me.”
Stanisław looked down at Francis’ hand between his own, the fingers warm and familiar. The clock had already struck eight. He couldn’t stay.
He lifted their combined hands and put his lips to Francis’ skin, his eyes on Francis.
“If you’d asked,” Francis said in a whisper, “I would have told you.”
“I’m the only one who can catch you,” Stanisław said. His words were barely more than air against Francis’ skin.
“Yes,” said Francis.
Washington D.C., December 7th, 1956
Francis woke on the edge of a scream, jaw locked and rigid. He sat up, blinking, and fumbled for the bedside lamp, almost knocking over the extension phone. His heart was still racing.
Nothing was out of the ordinary in the bedroom. Francis pushed his hands back through his hair and grimaced. It was damp with sweat, as were his pajamas, and there was no way he’d be able to go back to sleep. His watch, when he picked it off of the bedside table, informed him it was only just after 3 am. He got up, stripped out of his pajama top and made his way to the kitchen, staggering without his knee brace.
It had all been quite clear. He was on the edge of a forest under a grey sky, looking down at a newly dug trench. A truck pulled in, canvas sides flapping, and the driver jumped out to open the passenger door. The man who emerged looked to be in his fifties, heavy-set and solid in his thick great coat.
Soldiers, all armed, were getting out of the back of the truck one by one. The last two pulled another man between them, hands bound in front of him; he stumbled and went to one knee as they hauled him out, and when he looked up from the ground Francis recognized Stanisław under the dirt and bruises. The soldiers yanked him to his feet. Stanisław was wearing the British army uniform he’d had on in the file photo Baxter had first given Francis, although he looked significantly older.
The man in the great coat, obviously in charge, jerked his head at the others. They spread out around Stanisław in a loose half-circle, and one of them prodded him in the back with a rifle barrel to make him walk. Stanisław was forced to kneel at the far edge of the trench, on the opposite side from Francis.
Francis couldn’t move. He was trying to move, to scream, anything, but all he could do was watch. He couldn’t even close his eyes.
Stanisław raised his hands at another prod, clasping them behind his head, and looked up directly at Francis, gaze piercingly familiar. Francis, unable to look away, stared back. Stanisław was just beginning to smile when the man in the great coat put his pistol to the base of Stanisław’s skull and blew his brains out.
Francis drank another cup of coffee and then a third. The dream refused to fade.
He had lost track of Stanisław almost immediately after Vienna, despite his best efforts, and Francis still had no idea whether the bargain he’d struck had been kept or not. Baxter, irate at Francis’ use of his Vienna mission for “personal reasons”, pulled him from the field, and it took Francis a long time to earn his way back. When he did, it was in the Far Eastern Bureau, and all his European contacts were long gone. He had spent six of the last twelve months in Singapore, building up his credentials. But last night Francis had dined with a senior operations officer who was gravely disappointed at the lack of UN and American action in response to the Soviets’ brutal repression of the revolt in Hungary. (“It’s Poland, all over again,” he’d said, shaking his head. “No one learns.”)
Perhaps the reminder of Poland in World War 2 had been enough to prompt the dream. Francis spread his hands out in front of him on the formica bench top, and watched his fingers tremble. He could still feel the horror of the dream inside him, waiting to reclaim him once he closed his eyes.
No one learns.
Caroline found him in the kitchen at 5.30, a notepad open in front of him, and a collection of half-crossed out drafts piling up on one side.
“What are you doing?”
Francis tipped his head back to look at her. She and Laura had stayed behind while he was in Singapore. Francis had passed off his wife’s absence as due to some unmentionable health problem, which was accepted; his return, however, had disrupted their new household routines, and Francis kept putting things in the wrong places.
“Writing my resignation,” he said.
Caroline sat down. “Your resignation?” she said blankly.
Francis pushed the coffee pot over towards her. “I can’t stay in Intelligence.”
“What?” Caroline said. She shook her head at the offer of coffee. “Are you all right?”
She sounded genuinely concerned. He hadn’t been particularly fair to her, either, even if she had agreed to his proposition. He hadn’t kept all of his part of the bargain either. She’d wanted children, but their single attempt to have sex had been a humiliating failure on Francis’ part.
“When I leave,” he said, “I’ll give you a divorce. If you want.”
This made her reach for the coffee, although she only poured herself half a cup. “Where will you go?”
“Europe, probably,” Francis answered, and let her draw her own conclusions.
Admitting what he wanted would only make the impossibility of it certain. But Francis knew now what he didn't want.
Berlin, August 12th, 1961
Someone jostled his shoulder and Stanisław snapped awake, blinking in the smoke-filled room. “Yes?” he said, irritated.
“Reinickendorf,” Kunze said, holding out his car keys. “Want it?”
Reinickendorf was in the French sector, and Stanisław knew one of the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint guards. “Fine,” he said, taking the keys and the scribbled job chit, and unfolding himself from his chair. Kunze flopped down into it, eyes already closing. Most of the other drivers were also napping, although the radio dispatcher was still awake, studying an obscene magazine left behind by an American GI.
“Don’t wait up,” Stanisław said to Kunze.
It was nearly 4 in the morning and the city was finally cool and quiet, the street noise barely a faint hum. Stanisław glanced at the chit, found Kunze’s cab and drove down Oranienburger Strasse before picking his way through familiar side streets to the checkpoint.
He’d ended up in East Berlin because there seemed to be nowhere else for him to go. The work camp he was in closed suddenly in 1956, when Khrushchev had decided the old ways were no longer the best, and it had taken him almost a year to get back to Poland and find Krystyna. She was happy to see him and introduce him to her husband (who eyed Stanisław distrustingly) and their two well-behaved children, but staying with them was stifling. Krystyna loved him as an idealized older brother, mixing him and Jan and Andrzej together in her rosy-tinged memories. She didn’t want to talk about anything to do with Stanisław’s time in the West or her own past, and didn’t understand why Stanisław didn’t want to settle down and forget, preferably with a nice Polish girl. But he’d been away too long to be comfortable even if girls were an option, and although the Provisional Government was far more relaxed now, according to most of the Poles he spoke to, Stanisław could feel the iron underneath. On the day he left Kraków he lit a candle, placed it in a small jar on his mother’s grave, and knelt for a moment in prayer. He knew it was more a deliberate defiance of the Communists than an expression of any inner faith, but he still thought his parents would have approved.
The skills Stanisław had acquired made him well suited to the thriving black economy, and he dealt in that for a while; making contacts, trading, identifying weaknesses. He drifted through Eastern Europe, all his liaisons purely temporary – he had learnt his lesson there – but nothing changed. He wrote dutiful letters to Krystyna to let her know he was still alive, and wondered if both of them were pretending that they cared.
East Berlin woke him up, the tensions between the four countries sharing it electric and revitalizing. Stanisław had not intended to stay once he delivered his cargo, having little fondness for Germans, but the butcher he’d delivered to had just lost his last assistant to the West, and after another few months Stanisław picked up the taxi job, splitting fares 20/80 for drivers who wanted to sleep or pass their time in other, less legitimate ways. He did not think the West would welcome him back, but travelling through it, talking his way through checkpoints and handing over folded mark notes with his papers, was a game he could enjoy.
The next afternoon he was travelling through Schöneberg with Engel, one of the drivers Stanisław knew was deeply enmeshed in the local black market. Engel had given Stanisław his son’s papers in case of trouble, and kept snapping at him whenever he did anything other than sit there motionless in the passenger seat. He’d even forbidden Stanisław to wind down the window, although both of them were sweating like pigs.
Stanisław opened the door for air as soon as Engel went in to discuss business with their fare. He could, Stanisław supposed, run for it. But he did not think the West would welcome him once they knew his past. He stamped down all thoughts about one person who might. He hadn’t earned that.
They were going back down Dessauerstrasse, the fare sitting upright and tense in the back, when Stanisław saw two men coming out of an antiquarian bookshop on the right. The one on the far left had dark hair, greying at the temples, and the few steps he took on to the pavement were with a familiar limp.
He got the window half-open and his hand out before Engel dragged him back, hissing viciously at him to sit down, shut up, did he want to get them all killed? Outside, both men had stopped, the closer one staring at the taxi in surprise, blocking Stanisław’s view of the man behind him. Stanisław would have kept struggling, but the fare behind him put a hand on his shoulder, and something cold and sharp to his throat. He froze. Engel rounded the corner, a half-block from the checkpoint, and slowed the taxi.
“Keep going,” the fare ordered, and Engel accelerated.
The blade of the knife dug a little deeper. “Hand over your papers at the checkpoint and smile,” the man behind Stanisław said. It wasn’t a request. Engel slowed the car again, this time at the checkpoint. The blade slid down to rest against Stanisław’s side, only disappearing when the guard was a few steps away.
Engel kicked Stanisław out of the taxi when they made it back to the depot, cursing him loudly enough to bring a few of the other drivers out.
“I thought I saw someone I knew,” Stanisław said, holding one hand up to fend Engel off, unable to care about fighting back. He was already doubting himself. He’d been thinking of Francis, so had convinced himself he’d seen him. Even if it were him, what difference would it make?
“I don’t care if you saw the Pope himself,” Engel snarled. “You’re finished here.”
He hit Stanisław again, a blow to the ear that stung rather than hurt, and yanked the identity papers from him.
Most of the watching drivers would sympathize with Engel. Not looking for a fight, Stanisław started walking back to the butcher’s, where he had the use of a rough bed in the outside shed.
He couldn’t get through the border on foot. He would need a taxi and a lax guard, or some very good identity papers. Kunze should be working again that night, which would get Stanisław one of these three.
Stanisław ignored all the sensible inner voices that said there was still nothing for him in the West except more trouble, and went to sleep.
It took him an hour of waiting to find someone who would tell him. Lockdown, the man said. No taxis anywhere out of Sector. Trucks on the Soviet side, and guards everywhere.
Stanisław slipped him the agreed bribe and started walking. Kunze still hadn’t shown, and by now it might already be too late. By the time he reached the end of the block he could hear the rumble of trucks in the distance, and he broke into a run.
There were coils of barbed wire unrolled all along Invalidenstrasse, and stony-faced armed Soviet guards standing shoulder-to-shoulder alongside it. Other civilians were out on the street, in the same silent clusters there had been in the depot, watching as their only way out was sealed shut across the whole city. Stanisław worked his way along to the Brandenburg gate, following rumors of a few streets still open, and found nothing.
It was, perhaps, finally time to give up.
Stanisław was walking back to the butcher’s, head down, when a car swerved across the road to pull up next to him. He stopped.
Kunze rolled down the window. “You should have punched Engel,” he said, by way of introduction, and offered Stanisław a silver hip flask. The smell of brandy in the car suggested he’d already made it through most of the contents.
Stanisław shook his head. “Do you know if there’s any way out?”
Kunze shrugged and took another swig from the flask. “If you ask the guards nicely they might just shoot you once,” he said. He seemed untroubled.
“Useful,” Stanisław said. He’d been over there just yesterday, in the French and American sectors. If only he’d stayed.
The French sector. With a friendly guard at Bornholmer Strasse, sometimes stationed there and sometimes on Bernauer Strasse, a guard whom Stanisław had backed into the wall of one of the apartment buildings there and sucked off in exchange for less attention to duty. There had been windows above them. He was sure of it.
“Is the north barrier along Bernauer?” he demanded. When Kunze nodded, Stanisław opened the door and pushed him over into the passenger seat before getting in himself.
“Do you want to come with me?” Stanisław said, swinging the car back onto the correct side of the road and turning north.
Kunze contemplated this for so long that Stanisław thought he’d fallen asleep. “No,” he said, finally. “Can’t leave the wife.”
Stanisław had met Kunze shortly after he’d arrived in Berlin, and he’d never mentioned a wife before. He nodded and kept driving, pulling over one block from Bernauer Strasse.
“You punch Engel for me,” Stanisław advised, and left him most of the way asleep in the cab, keys in his lap.
He kicked in the apartment’s main door and went up the stairs, light and fast. Two flights, and then a third, and then he banged on doors until an old woman opened one, wearing a thick blue housecoat and with a face that suggested there was nothing more he could do to her.
“I need to use your window,” Stanisław said. “Please.”
She considered him. “Polish?”
Stanisław could hear at least one door opening behind him. He didn’t want to make too much noise, but maybe he still had time if she refused.
“Yes,” he said.
She moved aside. “Take what you want,” she said, and waved him in.
The old woman hadn’t turned on the lights, and more importantly, she kept the window frame oiled. Stanisław slid it open and looked down at the soldiers standing below, barbed wire running across the pavement at the back of the apartment. Bernauer Street itself was French, and if he could get there without breaking his neck or being shot, he was in the West.
The old woman was watching.
“Do you have a sheet?” he said. “Something dark?”
She brought him a worn navy blanket, possibly the only one she had for the winter. Stanisław felt through his pockets and put the last of his cash down on her table.
“Thanks,” he said, and climbed up into the window frame to sit there, the blanket up to hide his face. He counted to three, pulled himself back to get enough momentum to carry him over the wire and jumped.
When he hit the ground he rolled, and flung the blanket away from him to confuse any shooters before breaking into a run for the streets beyond. He’d wrenched his knee and banged his shoulder, and he counted five shots before he got to safety, the last hitting close enough to chip the stone on the building next to him and send fragments spraying against his cheek, but he was free.
He had no money, Polish identity papers, and no idea if there was anyone on this side who would do anything other than turn him over to the relevant authorities. Stanisław walked through the streets and ended up in a small park remarkably similar to those in the East, where he sat on a bench to watch the sun rise and fell asleep.
He was wandering down Dessauerstrasse, looking for the bookshop, when he heard familiar footsteps. Stanisław waited for them to catch up.
“I knew it was you,” Francis said.
When the Wall fell, they were still together.