Like something out of a James Bond film, I was to observe and photograph a Russian agent being handed secrets. The setting, Painter’s Fairground, set up for the week on a field just out of town.
It was getting dark and I wandered between the brightly lit and gaudily painted stalls, laden with brilliantly coloured boxes containing tacky plastic toys. I inhaled the smell of electricity, petrol engines and candy floss, whilst my ears were assailed by the noise and excitement of the rides. The bumper cars careening across their conductive floor, sparks flying from the connecting rods as they moved across the roof. Crazily driven by laughing teenagers, girls made up to look ten years older, twenty-five instead of fifteen, accompanied by lanky youths in coloured tops and tight jeans.
I passed the Ghost Train, hearing the vehicle thundering through the wooden shack, children screaming in faux fright, and always, the relentless chugging of generators everywhere. I tried in vain to imagine someone designing a Ghost Train and the ‘spooky house’ it ran through. And factories manufacturing them in some godforsaken place.
“Hey, Pal, wanna try your luck?” A barker with a time-worn face and pork-pie hat addressed me from a shooting gallery where little ducks ran on rails.
“Sure.” I put two pound coins into his brown leather hand and took a rifle. It was equipped with ten .22 calibre metal pellets and unnecessarily heavy. He showed me how to load the rifle, then walked to the other end of the stall, leaving me to it, to talk to what looked to be a grandfather with his grandson, a gangly youth with thick-lensed glasses and acne.
My first shot told me that the sight was slightly out of alignment, presumably to handicap the shooter and save on prizes. Allowing for the discrepancy, there was a satisfying ‘ting’ as a slow-moving fat duck went down. Then another. I aimed at the row behind, where the ducks were smaller and moved faster, giving correspondingly higher points for a hit. My first shot missed but ‘ting,’ ‘ting,’ ‘ting,’ three in a row! I noticed the stall-holder looking at me curiously and the youth gaping with admiration. Deciding it would be prudent not to show my hand too obviously, I aimed at the back row, where the ducks were smaller and faster still, and deliberately missed three, finding my aim for the last shot. ‘Ting.’ One went down to my satisfaction.
“Well done, buddy,” the barker forced a grin. “Looks like you’ve done it before!”
I made a non-committal sound as he gestured to a shelf of prizes appropriate to my score. I selected a large soft toy – a basset hound – and handed it to a small girl nearby. She smiled shyly and ran off to her mother, pointing me out to her.
Time to move on. I walked through the noisy throng to the merry-go-round, blasting out up-tempo fairground music from what appeared to be an authentic organ engine. Rows of brightly bedecked horses rotated, moving up and down, mostly without riders, but some with smaller children. Then, to my astonishment, mounted on a gold horse with a red saddle, my ‘target’ came into view. Known simply as Oleg, he was sixty-two and a professor of linguistics. He wore a black suit, his hair matched his suit and was Brylcreemed and parted on the right, his nose was long and beaky, and his lips were thin. He looked straight through me as he passed, smiling and giving the appearance of enjoying the ride. What on Earth was he playing at, drawing attention to himself like that?
I feigned interest in a darts stall whilst waiting for him to come around again.
There was a little girl in a green dress with blonde hair I remembered, then two boys, brothers I presumed, both with curly ginger hair, then … no one. Oleg’s horse was now unoccupied! I ran around the carousel in case I was mistaken but, no, he was nowhere to be seen. How was that possible?
The information we’d got was that the switch was to be at quarter past eight. It wasn’t even eight yet. Had he met his contact earlier than planned? I started to feel worried. If I blew this assignment it would count against me and there was another agent, the arrogant Toby Mellors, younger and ex-Oxford University, vying for my role and the substantial salary it carried.
There were many people milling around still, parents and grandparents with their young and not-so-young offspring, and groups of teenagers, fooling around as teenagers are wont to do, good-naturedly swearing at each other.
I passed a mirror maze and there in the kaleidoscope of hundreds of reflections, right at the back, or what looked like the back, I thought I saw a black suit and parted, greased-down black hair.
I paid my entry money to a woman with an aged gypsy-like face and incongruous bright blonde hair and went in, feeling satisfaction at the reflection of my athletic appearance and what I hoped to be a nondescript look. Music was blasting out from a crowded, nearby Waltzer ride – Green Onions, that perennial fairground favourite.
The maze confused by having plain glass panels as well as mirrors, but by finding and sticking to a likely pattern of turns – left, left, right – I made my way towards the back, catching sight of what I perceived to be Oleg’s reflection from time to time. There was someone else too, moving around, as if playing cat and mouse with either Oleg or myself or both. I reached into my jacket pocket and reassuringly caressed a small revolver, equipped with a silencer.
The mirrors here reflected solely myself – fat, thin, even inverted. Suddenly I found myself in a small open space with two men, surrounded by a crowd in the mirrors about us, and I looked from Oleg to the other man and back with total astonishment. Oleg handed me a notebook and smiled. “Low tech,” he said, with a trace of Russian accent.
I glanced inside it. Written in English, it said ‘British Spies – Moscow, Leningrad, Saint Petersburg and environs.’ The next two pages had been torn out. The rest of the book seemed to contain a kind of journal but used some sort of code I didn’t recognise. Oleg opened his jacket to show the missing pages in a pocket and laughed, handing the book back to the other man.
I took out my revolver. “You know I could kill you both, right here?” I said.
The familiar face spoke. “I don’t think so, old man, you see, I fitted your gun with blanks this afternoon. Mine on the other hand, are the real McCoy.” He pulled out a squat black revolver, quickly screwing a silencer on and hardly flinching as I pulled the trigger of mine, producing a ‘phut,’ barely noticeable above the general fairground hubbub. He laughed and pointed the gun at my forehead. “Time to start a new life, old man, looks like I’ll be moving up in the organisation after all!”
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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