« 76 - Checking The Pipeline | Main | Daylight Saving Time »

Black Ice: Chapter 30

‘It was an Englishman who wrote that no man is an island.'

‘Just because someone wrote it and everyone keeps saying it doesn't make it true.' He really had hit on one of my favourites this time. So I presented him with my slightly more pragmatic version: 'Send not to inquire for whom the bell tolls, because it's only someone else.

Journalist/spy Sam Craven philosophises with and receives information from Icelandic policeman Peter Perersson.

Colin Dunne continues his Cold War spy novel for grownups. To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/black_ice/

After a blow like that - raindrops on your hat - it wasn't easy to settle him down. But, with Hulda's ministrations, he made a fairly good recovery.

She obviously knew him well, and there was a good deal of affection mingled with her respect. She bore off his precious hat and coat to a place, presumably, beyond the reach of acts of God. She then placed him in her own rug-wrapped rocking-chair, with a table and ashtray at hand.

While she was making coffee, I told him what had happened in Gardastraeti earlier that day. That was why he'd come. Or so he said. At the end of it, to my surprise, he was happy with my conclusion that Palli hadn't handed out the beating himself.

'He's going back, by the way.'

'Who - Palli?'

'Yes. Back to the US. He's decided he's not an Icelander
after all.'

'For this we should be very grateful. I am a policeman and to me he only means trouble. Even so, I look at him and at those Vietnamese children down in the town and I think it is strange that the human wreckage of a war on the other side of the world years ago should be washed up here. Strange, and sad. What do you think about Palli Olafsson, Hulda?'

She'd just come in with a tray of coffee and some volcanic biscuits. She placed it on the table and began to pour the coffee. As she did, she recited with great emphasis a couple of short bursts of Icelandic.

To me she said: 'That is an old saying which means that we cannot save those who are doomed to die and we cannot send to hell those who must live.'

It sounded sinister, delivered by this spry little woman in her darkened room cluttered with the past. The twentieth century seemed a long long way away. With a small bow of her head, she left the room. Petursson eased the atmosphere with a gentle laugh.

'You must not make the mistake of thinking we are like you central Europeans,' he explained. 'For centuries life up here has been ruled by storm and fire. People - the older ones especially - do have some strange beliefs.'

Too many books and long dark nights,' I said.

He looked at the stacked shelves and the heavy drapes which she'd drawn against the light and laughed again. Then, to my surprise, he asked me to call him Pete. That was what his friends in London had called him.

I was happy enough to go along with that. Quite instinct-ively, I liked him. He had none of the cop bully-boy about him. With small twinkling eyes in his solid face, and his fastidious patience, there was something elephantine about him. He didn't get going too easily, but I bet he took a lot of stopping.

'Of course,' he said, sipping from an elfin-sized cup with some difficulty, 'you are a man with no past yourself, aren't you? Wasn't it Barnardo's?'

To my own surprise, I went and told him about it. And that is unusual. There aren't three people who've heard that story.

'Does this mean you love the Americans or you hate them,

It was a shrewd question. I'd spent quite a few hours with that myself.

'Neither. It doesn't matter. Parents don't matter. Where you come from doesn't matter.'

'What? None of it?'

'No. You go from birth to seventy or whatever, you try to avoid pushing old ladies under buses, you try not to slip under too many yourself, and that's it.'

I wasn't quite sure whether he was appalled or fascinated. He sounded about half and half.

'That is a most unusual view. But what about collective responsibility? As a member of a family, or your country, or the human race?'

'Baloney. They're just so many clubs peoplejoin to light fires against the dark and the cold, but they don't mean anything.
You're still alone.'

'So when the nuclear holocaust ..."

'And the whole of mankind is wiped? That proves what I'm saying. If you die with a million people in a nuclear war, for the individual it's exactly the same as stepping off Beachy Head. Your own individual death's the only one that matters. To you.'

'You're not serious, surely. It was an Englishman who wrote that no man is an island.'

'Just because someone wrote it and everyone keeps saying it doesn't make it true.' He really had hit on one of my favourites this time. So I presented him with my slightly more pragmatic version: 'Send not to inquire for whom the bell tolls, because it's only someone else.'

He gave a shocked laugh, and they're quite hard to extract from policemen.

'You teach all this to your little girl?'

'Do you have children?'

'A son. He is grown up now, of course.'

'Seriously, did you teach him anything at all? Did your advice and example really influence him in the long term?'

He sat staring into his coffee cup. Then he raised his head. 'I'm not sure, maybe not, how can you say . . .'

'There you are. No. I don't try to teach my daughter
anything. I love her. I try to help her. I try to make her laugh. But in the end what happens to her life is down to her.'

I sat back smugly and looked at him. I was pleased with my plough-a-lonely-furrow philosophy. What I liked about it was that it didn't accept any religion or political philosophy or social system so far devised by man. Really, it was incompatible with almost anything right down to joining a book club, but I was prepared to cheat over things like that. One thing, it had certainly silenced old Pete Petursson.

'Do you still remember the address?' he asked, after a while.

'What address?'

'The address of the grandmother who wrote to you.'

'Oh, that. Since you ask, I can actually remember it. It was in Chelmsford.'

He rose ponderously and brought the coffee-pot over to me. 'A refill? Yes, of course, that explains it. But it is still unusual.'

'Explains what?' I was getting a bit annoyed about this sudden change of tack he'd pulled on me.

'Why you should go to such lengths to erect an explanation for the fact that you were afraid to go to that address. You were afraid to face your past. That is why you and Palli understand each other. Isn't that so?'

No, it was not bloody so, I told him, and I said so several times and at some length. It didn't do any good of course. If what I was saying had about the same philosophical value as a dustbin full of old fishheads (which was what I sometimes privately believed) then he'd just emptied the lot over my head.

On the other hand, if it was all true (which was also what I privately believed, and sometimes at the same time), then he'd got me.

I was glad to steer the conversation back to Solrun. I was glad, too, to see that Pete — after the first two or three times, the name came easily — wasn't too worried about her. At first, he said, they thought she might have been abducted. Now they were almost certain she was in hiding and he thought that was no bad thing.

After what had happened to her mother and to her boyfriend, I was inclined to agree. It was why she'd gone to ground that was bothering me more than where.

'You know who this Kirillina is?' Pete was giving me one of his searching looks as he lit up another of those small cigars.

'A Russian. One of her boyfriends?'

'You do not know, I see. That was also why I came tonight. I will tell you.'

And he did. He once again did that trick of moving the cigar on a notch to avoid nicotine stains and he began to talk about the Russian as though he knew and loved him. In a way, I suppose he did.

'He was a bright boy, Nikolai. He was spotted at seventeen and selected for officer training. He went to the Frunze Higher Naval School in Leningrad — do you know of it? I'm sorry. No, I'm not trying to catch you out. Sometimes I forget what you know and what you don't know. He went to the Frunze which many people would say is the best of them. All the rest of it is quite normal. First he went to a ship as a lieutenant. He did the four jobs that a Soviet naval officer usually does — a group head, a department head, first lieutenant and then CO, all on the same ship. I forget which one. All I remember is that it was a Krivak class frigate. And here he is as a captain, third rank, and in effect an assistant naval attache at the Russian Embassy here. You understand they do not have military attaches, because Iceland does not have any military. But that would be his speciality.'

'He's a talented boy, isn't he?'

Petursson concentrated as he held the cigar over the heavy brown glass ashtray and knocked the ash off with his finger. Then he sat back again and resumed the story of Captain Kirillina.

'He is, Sam. Because he has a talent that is worth much more than his brains to the Soviet Union. Much much more.'

'What's that?'

'In a woman you would call it allure. I don't know what you would say for a man.'

'Charm, maybe?'

'Charm, certainly. But charm combined with looks and with personal magnetism - social graces, too. These qualities are unusual anywhere but in the Soviet Union they are like gold.'

He let that sink in. It did. I remembered the photograph and
my first reaction to it. He was a hell of a good-looking man and if I'd noticed, it was a reasonable bet that one or two women had. You could see, even in that picture, the composure of the man.

'He turns up here in the Russian Embassy. You know the building, you were there today. The Russians attach so much importance to their Iceland embassy that they have eighty people here — three times as many as the Americans. And no non-Soviet ever gets inside. They even have their own plumbers and joiners.'

'What's that got to do with our dashing buccaneer?' I asked. I tasted my coffee. I'd been listening so keenly it had gone cold. I put it back on the table.

'I tell you that to show you how reclusive these Soviet diplomats are. They live in their own ghetto. They are secretive. Not only do they not mix, they positively shun any offers of friendship.'

'So how does Nikolai administer his fatal charm at that distance? By satellite?' I must admit I was being a bit waspish. Male A does not usually wish to hear about the irresistible charms of Male B, particularly when Male B has been known to knock off Male A's girl.

Pete reached over and touched my arm with his hand. 'It isn't personal. That is what I am showing you. We are talking about a highly professional man.'

'He was in the diplomatic ghetto . . .'

'No. That's the point. He never was. He rented a beautiful flat over in the west of the city, facing the sea. It was beautiful — I went there a few times myself. We have some rich people here, but there are very few apartments here that were so lavishly furnished. For the most, in excellent taste. He had been well taught.'

'Apart from the plastic sputnik.'

First his face registered astonishment, then amusement and he sat laughing at the thought of it. 'You know about that? Sometimes I do wonder about you, Sam. You are quite right. There, in a cabinet filled with beautiful silver and porcelain, is a model of the first sputnik. The Russians never get it quite right.'

'Now you're going to tell me that he gave parties like Gatsby
and the women fell at his feet.'

The Icelander flapped a big hand at the cloud of cigar smoke which was building up around him. A single beam of light through the curtains laid a gold bar across his silver hair.

'Of course. It is so obvious. Wonderful food, wonderful drink, wonderful company, too. He was immensely popular. With men as much as women.'

'You don't mean. . . ?'

He held his hands up in horror at the idea. 'Certainly not. He was a professional, I tell you. You are right, women did go for him. And he was — what shall we say — associated with three or four.'

'Associated?' He'd picked that word very carefully.

'Yes. He took them out. Oh, I forgot to tell you, he had a beautiful car too. An English sports car, a Morgan I believe. Can you imagine - a Soviet diplomat driving around in a Morgan? Sorry, where was I? Yes, these other women. Girls is perhaps more accurate. He took them out, went to parties, went skiing and skating, and bought them lovely presents. But he did not go to bed with any of them.'

'Perhaps they said no.'

He pulled a face at that. 'Sam, our girls do not suffer from fake modesty. He didn't ask them, that is the truth. If he had, the answer would have been yes.'

'If they were like the Icelandic girls I know, they must have asked him.'

'They did, naturally. He declined.'

'Ungrateful Commie rat,' I said just to show where my sympathies lay.

'Politely, he declined. Can you imagine the effect this had on our girls? We are only a little country, gossip travels very fast. Here was this man who looked and lived like a film star and who insisted on sleeping alone. They were like bees around a honeypot, I can tell you.'

'Perhaps,' I said, because of course I could see very well where his narrative was leading, 'perhaps you're wrong. Perhaps he was an impotent Russian naval diplomat of private means?'

He allowed himself a small smile, and began to push himself to and fro in the rocker. He was enjoying this.

i'Obviously - I need not say this I am sure - the extrovert Soviet diplomats are invariably attempting to penetrate the skin of the society in which they are living. There are also two other tests that invariably apply.'

He grabbed the index finger of his left hand with his right hand. 'One: at some point in their careers they must have received training. After his command of the frigate, and before he surfaced in diplomatic life, Kirillina disappeared for two years. He was not in any naval institution. He was not in any diplomatic institution.'

'I warn you, Pete,' I said. 'I have a very high resistance to overworked initials like KGB.'

In a soft voice he replied: 'Then perhaps it is as well it was the GRU.'

'GRU? Who the hell are they?'

'Much the same sort of thing. And two,' he grabbed the second finger, 'they are the only Soviet diplomats who criticise the regime. Kirillina did so several times. With people he had got to know a little. He would say that the Eastern Bloc countries were too backward, and they could learn a lot from the West. "Communism has never learned to live with fun," he used to say. And his impotence very rapidly disappeared when he encountered Solrun.'

'Gosh, I am glad to hear that,' I said.

There are times when I astonish myself with my generosity, I truly do.

He looked at his watch. 'Good heavens, it is so late. I apologise. I had so many things to tell you I forgot the time.' As he got to his feet with the nimbleness I'd noted before, Hulda came zipping into the room with his coat folded in her arms so that his hat rested on it, like the Crown Jewels on their cushion. If he was worried about her listening, he didn't show it. For some reason I liked him better for that.

And because of that I was nattered when he asked me to have dinner at his flat the following evening. I had this feeling he didn't throw a lot of invitations around. 'It will be pleasant to talk about London again,' was his explanation.

We were on the door-step before I asked the question that had been niggling at me all night.


'Why what?' He put his hand out to make sure it wasn't raining: then he put his hat on.

'I'm glad you have told me so much. I'm grateful you've taken me into your confidence, but why me? Why tell me anything?'

'We must all follow instincts, I think. My instinct is that you are here for a purpose, and that purpose has yet to be disclosed. In the meantime I would like you to understand how I see these things in case one day you can help me.' He turned his face towards me. 'Are there things you could tell me that would help?'

The Oscar Murphy story — both of them — was on the tip of my tongue. Just as I was going to tell him, I had this alarming vision of the elusive Oscar turning up to find the place ringed with police.

'I'll think about it,' I said, feebly.

'I would be most grateful. We have some very powerful people playing games in my country and I would welcome any help. I am, as I'm sure the Americans will tell you, very Mickey Mouse.'

I watched him walk down the street and almost called him back to tell him about Oscar. Never mind, I thought, it'll keep until tomorrow.

It didn't keep, of course. And if I had told him I could have saved at least one life.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.