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The Ball

I saw her across the dance-floor, petite and perfect.  I held the glance just too long and she looked across at me, the bow lips she was making at some fellow broadening out in a smile.  He was just the sort the ladies fall for, I thought, strong-jawed and with a thin, well kept, mustache, and he glanced over.  I could see his eyebrow rising, and he leaned over to her, saying something sardonic and funny evidently, because she laughed, her blonde wavy hair shaking with amusement, but she didn’t break eye contact and I was smitten.

The dress she had on was atypical, black velvet cut down to here in front and there in the back, thin straps clinging to her pale shoulders.  She walked like a cat, the long skirt sweeping around her, straight across the dance floor, completely ignoring all the people shuffling around her in a semblance of rhythm.  She kept her own smooth march towards me as the dancers shifted out of her path without volition and she came into my arms without a word.

I have two left feet, but we were dancing as smoothly and effortlessly as if we’d known each other since the beginning of time.  I led but by a magic I have never been able to fathom she showed me what she wanted, a spin, a dip, it was flawless.  She displayed in a few movements and athleticism I had never encountered, and she smiled all the while as if I was saying something vastly witty, but in truth, I was barely in control of my own body and I could do nothing but smile foolishly at her, like some sort of fop.

The music came to a brief halt and some polite clapping followed before the band struck up again., and during this time she slipped out of my arms and walked over the dancefloor again.  Every part of her aroused and interested me, I wanted to know what was in her mind.  Her dress left simultaneously everything and nothing to the imagination, and I found my imagination to be very, broad.  I realised where my gaze had rested when I saw her hip stop and thrust out as she turned.  Thus far she hadn’t said a word.

Now the next thing that happened I wasn’t expecting.  A woman like that, she demands, she commands.  I have been with women, I know their tricks and proclivities, but she was something else, someone else.  She turned her head, but not her whole body and she stuck her hand out behind her as if I were meant to be holding it, like a partner, a lover.  It wasn’t the imperious command she could so clearly call upon, but a different kind of entreaty and I began to make my way over.

My journey was not as smooth has hers, dancers passed in front of me as if I were invisible, apologies in passing, slight critical verbiage, (“I say old man!”), and I felt impeded at every turn.  She tapped a heel impatiently, and the resistance flowed away as water flowing down a hill.  As clumsy as I am, the path was clear and I held her hand in an instant.  It surprised me because I had already built an image of her that was ten feet tall in my mind and her hand was tiny compared to my great mittens.

She walked me to her friends, they all had to look up me, even the good-looking feller.  Looking at me, she seemed to divine something, and said simply,

“I’m going to introduce you now.”

My God!  Her voice!  I could never have been ready, for it was silk bedsheets, milk and honey.  Clearly contralto, she still had the high smooth tones of someone with a range all the way up to a soprano.  The words flowed forth from her as if rehearsed for a talkie, but any actress would be put to shame by her.  I was barely able to bring my thoughts together, as if a charm had been laid upon me, and I daresay, dear reader, that one might divine that such had happened, for I was already in thrall to her, and her friends were engaging with waiters and such while they politely waited for me to recover from this bliss.  Eventually, after some sort of epoch had passed, I coughed slightly.

“Ah!”  She said, “My friends, Miss Buffy Pinkerton, Miss Cecelia Concordat, Mrs Hope McGill, Miss Julia Tatworthy, Mr Foster, Mr Kenneth Forster, and Mr James St. John-Smythe Fortheringill.”  This last was the handsome man she had been talking to before.  I greeted each one in turn and turned to her again, “and I am Catherine St. John-Smythe Fortheringill.”  I shook her hand in a kind of shock as the world crystallised about me.

“Don’t tease the man, darling.”  Fortheringill said kindly, “Catty is my sister.”  I was still pumping her hand up and down mechanically and stopped mid pump, which gave her the opportunity to disengage.

“I’m so sorry dear!  I couldn’t resist.”  Neither could I.  “Won’t you tell the people your name so we can all be familiar with each other?”  She had changed her grip to one around my elbow at this point and swung coquettishly around this pivot while looking up at me with her baby blues.

I felt old.

The one thing about my tradecraft is that I rarely give away who I really am.  In some way, I am usually playing a role, and I suspect all other people of doing so to some extent, and so I looked away for one, brief, second to give myself a chance to think about what I was going to say.  C always advised to have somewhere to run to, and some cover story if we were in any doubt at all, and at this point, I had nowhere to run, and I couldn’t possibly hide from this woman.  In addition, I couldn’t think straight, not in her presence, and not with her hanging on my arm and my word like this.

“Smith,”  I said.  It had this single virtue, it was the truth.  “John Smith.”  Another round of handshakes with time accompanied with “How do you do, Mr Smith.”

The brother, and I could not help thinking of him at this time as the brother, handed me a glass.

“Thank you.”  Catherine, Miss Fortheringill, Catty, snuggled up to my arm.

“Do tell them what you do darling.”  I was at a loss at this point because I hadn’t had a conversation with any of the group, or Catherine, before this meeting, and I knew I had not been followed or shadowed.  I’m expert enough to know this.  So, I came out with the cover story.

“I’m rather something in the city, brokerage, bonds, that sort of thing.”  I took a sip of what I immediately assumed was some sort of flamethrower fuel or poison, but the gentlemen seemed to be drinking it, so I kept a straight face and watched carefully in case any of them dropped dead on the floor.

“Oh, Dah-ling!” Catherine drawled.  “Tell them really.”  The band broke for a moment and we all clapped again.  My black tie began to feel somewhat tight.

“Whatever do you mean?”  She took a step away, still holding my hand, and looked exasperated.  It was the sweetest, most endearing, most piercing look of exasperation I had ever seen or ever will.  I looked around in what I now think must have been the most obvious way possible, since I was the tallest person in the room, and sighed.

“I am a spy for His Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service, Section D, actually.”  I couldn’t quite believe the words coming out of my mouth.  You couldn’t have got these words out of me under torture, but I gave myself and the Service up willingly to this young woman and her friends.  Mentally I knew I would have to report to C and give myself for court martial.  “I think I need a bit of a sit-down.”

“What a good idea,” said Fortheringill.  “let’s go to the table.”

The tables were big, round and exquisitely set with cutlery and accoutrements for at least four courses.  As soon as the group sat down, most of the crowd dissipated to the other tables.

“Bunny, would you mind my dear?”  Fortheringill said as we sat down.  She nodded briefly and closed her eyes for a second.  A butler appeared at my side.  He was not elderly, but something about him seemed old as if he had seen much, as he might have, he had the straight bearing of someone military.

“Miss St. John-Smythe Fortheringill requests that you take a seat we have just prepared next to her if you would be so good, sir; and advises that your confidentiality is maintained while you are in her company at the table but not beyond it.”  I must have gaped a little because the man gestured to a seat around the table.  Catherine was sitting in the next seat and patting the place setting, at which another Butler was placing a card.  “I am Ponsonby, Sir.”  Said the man standing by me.  “If you would.”  I finally moved in the indicated direction, he held the chair out for me and I mumbled some ungracious thanks.

“Don’t worry about old Ponsonby,” Catherine said, “He’s one of us, and you’re going to be too, so he’ll look after you, isn’t that right Pons?”

“Ponsonby, Miss, and yes, naturally I shall do my utmost to look after Mr Smith’s well-being.”  And without further explanation, he retired to perform some other duties.  I was feeling out of my depth, and I smiled uncertainly, catching my own visage in one of the mirrors dotted around the room.

I always appear anomalous, even to myself, and yet, apart from the scar I am non-descript.  It runs down the right side of my face, missing my eye entirely, but passing above and below it.  In all other ways, apart from height, I am “about”.  People will say I am about six feet four, but they’re unable to pinpoint it.  They’ll say I have a have a beard, or not; what I have is heavy five o’clock shadow at all times, in the Navy I was required to have a beard.  The scar is easily disguised, I have become a master of that, and peeling that same disguise off to mark me out as someone else; but in regular company, I am not a handsome man, a bit too rough-hewn for the civilised and highbrow.  I know what they know, but I cannot be what they are, not with a name like John Smith.  When I tore myself away from my internal contemplations, Catherine was looking up at me.

“I know who you are, Smith John Smith.”  She said seriously.

“Are we in some sort of bad novel, Miss Fortheringill?”  She laughed like a bell ringing.

“You’re terribly formal, John.  Call me Catty, everyone does!”  She reached for a glass and a waiter promptly arrived to fill it.  He did not wait for her to approve but filled the glass a third full before she pulled it away and took a swig.  To me, she looked like she was dancing ballet on pointe, a faerie fluttering in the wind.

“I shall do no such thing, Miss Fortheringill,”  I said.  She clasped the glass to her, curling her hand around it like a snake around a tree.  I looked at her more closely, something was different.  Her hair, it had been bright blonde with ringlets, and now, somehow, she was sporting a black straight bob, cut short in the style of ten years previously.

“’I shall do no such thing Miss Fortheringill.’  At least call me Cathy.  You and I don’t need all that formality.”  I reached out to the table for my wine glass, it was empty, but before I could even begin to draw a sigh, Ponsonby was there, holding a bottle out for my inspection.  Seeing this, Catherine turned to her neighbour, Mrs Hope McGill, and began waving her hands animatedly with Mrs McGill, but the conversation was lost in my attention to the Butler, of whom I remembered once more that Catherine had said he was ‘one of us.’

I nodded my approval of the bottle, known to be a rather nice twenty-nine Bordeaux, and let him pour a little for my further approval.  Knowing I had his undivided attention, I let my hand slip down the stem of the glass and instead of raising it asked,

“Ponsonby, man-to-man, what’s going on here?”  I could see him composing a carefully neutral face, but there was some little tension in it before he answered.

“I am not entirely at liberty to say, sir, but I can tell you that you are being recruited.”  I looked closely at him.  “It will seem peculiar, sir if you do not try the wine at this time.”  I glanced over the room briefly and raised the glass to my lips.  The wine was good, well aged and rich, St. Emilion.  A harvest under the highest sun, and predicted not to last well, but as usual, time had proved the pundits to be sadly mistaken, and I could not help but be distracted by the vintage for a brief moment.  I rolled it around and nodded my approval, and while Ponsonby poured the glass two-thirds full, thereby marking me out a serious drinker, he continued.

“The, ah, company, you are presently in is blessed with some unconventional abilities, but I should assure you that they operate with the knowledge and consent, largely, of His Majesty’s Government.  Miss Fortheringill has become somewhat enamoured of you, I think she did not expect you to be so,” he paused, obviously looking for a diplomatic word, “accomplished.  In person.”  He stood up straight.  “The first course will be along shortly, sir.  Can I be of further service?”  I shook my head, thanked him, and he glided off to perform some further flunky work somewhere else in the room.  Fortunately, he’d left the bottle.  Catherine’s attention quickly returned to me.

“Has dear Ponsby explained everything dear?”  She asked.

“Ponsonby.” He stated smoothly walking past and away again.  She darted at a look at his back and stuck her tongue out at him, I recited some few mantras I had prepared to help me keep calm and, er, unaroused.  I almost jumped out of my seat when she let had hand casually touch my knee.

“Has he explained everything?”  She asked again.

“Almost nothing.”  I was surprised to hear myself stammering.  “I could stand to hear a few more details. Ah!” I started, and moved her hand firmly from my leg, we’ll say, to hers.  “perhaps we should pay attention to the table?”  She laughed that tinkling sound again, and I bit my lip in an effort to control my feelings and other, things.  The soup came.

Now that I could see the table with a partially clear mind, I began to absorb other little details.  Mrs McGill, sitting on the other side of Catherine only when no-one in the room was looking at her, as far as I could determine.  Miss Concordat ate with her knife and fork with the opposite hands, and in the American style, cutting and eating as she went.  It was like watching some sort of factory process.

Miss Pinkerton was entirely normal in the matter of eating, but she maintained her hat upon her head, unlike all other ladies in the room, and very occasionally there would be a slight movement as if it were not pinned into her head correctly.  Mr Foster ate nothing at all, but drained each wine glass as it was brought to him, and seemed perfectly sober, whereas Mr Kenneth Forster ate each and everything with gusto and considerable relish.  He was dressed in the formal military uniform of a sergeant in the US Army.  Miss Tatworthy ate and drank normally, and it took me some time to work out what was going on, but then I realised that nothing came within one-thirty-second of an inch of touching her skin.

Fortheringill caught me looking across the table at him, and I realised I had been doing so somewhat intently, he was also blonde, as was Catherine when first I had caught her eye, or she had caught mine, and I felt a lesser movement of feeling for the man.

I am well aware of those gentlemen who prefer the company of other gentlemen in, we shall say, more intimate circumstances that might be customarily acknowledged in polite society, although I have determined that polite society accepts such things more readily, if more discreetly, than the commons.  I am not one of those gentlemen, and I am not accustomed to having feelings such as I encountered that evening for my fellow man.  He smiled some more.

“Don’t worry old man, it’s all make believe.”  He tapped his finger to his temple.  “Catherine and I don’t normally keep relaxed company, and everyone else here is used to us or oblivious, so we let ourselves off the leash a bit.  Here I’ll…” and he frowned for a brief moment.  Everyone looked at me, all at once.

It hadn’t struck me until that point that although they were nodding and smiling, acknowledging as if in deep conversation, not one of them had spoken since we sat down, except for any interaction that involved me.

I stood up abruptly and realised that I was about to make a scene.

“If you’ll excuse me for a moment,” I said, bowing slightly and placing my napkin carefully by my plate.  A waiter was by my elbow.  “I’ve finished with the soup, my good man,”  I said.  It sounded incongruous coming from my mouth.  Fleeing, I visited the gentlemen’s facilities.  It gave me a moment to think.  I knew that for whatever reason, I could not give up Catherine, Cathy, so I would not, could not, leave; but by the same token, I was being drawn into something I could not understand.  A fellow was looking at me in the mirror.  I recognised him immediately, it was C, the head of my service.  He was washing his hands industriously.

“Looks like you missed something there, old chap.”  he said, pointing at my hands.  “best not leave it eh?”  I took the point and switched both of my taps on.  He leaned over and said in my ear, “They’re not my lot, but they can be trusted.  If you go with them then we’re not going to see you again, so best of luck.”  He turned off his taps without waiting for a reply and went to dry his hands on the towel waiting with a Butler by the door.  “Windy night out, what?”  He said rather more loudly.  “still, shake it off, eh?”

“Quite right.”  I replied, acknowledging the phrase, “and turn your collar up.”  He paused infinitesimally.

“Exactly.  Good evening.” And he walked out.  The butler handed me a towel and I dried my hands.

I don’t know exactly why I said what I said next, but I put it down to an involuntary desire to acknowledge my old life and my old boss.

“Good man, that.”  The Butler clearly didn’t know what to make of this.  He ignored it for a second, and then bent down to look under the stall doors.  Obviously, this was unusual and I waited for him to straighten up again, but when he did so his feature and clothing were all reshaping in the most horrible way, re-flowing and moving like molten lead; when the hideous transformation had stopped I was looking at Mrs Hope McGill.  I must have looked horrified because she barked at me.

“Snap out of it, man!”  Quite unlike the genteel looking woman she had seemed at the table.  “Obviously we weren’t going to leave you unsupervised.  You’re new on the team, we don’t know who might get at you.”  She wheezed a bit.  “Damn that was too quick, check the coast is clear man!”

“But…”

“Door, quick, before some clown walks in.”  I checked and we were in the clear.  We exited and she quickly assumed an air of ‘being accompanied’ as we made our way back to the table, where the fish course was arriving, salmon or trout and some sort of strongly flavoured sauce.  Unusual.

I was looking around the room and absentmindedly arrived back at my own seating, but there was a little cough, and I whipped around and held the chair in Mrs McGill’s place for her.  Acknowledging this with a nod and a smile she seated herself, though I wasn’t about the designation at this point, and I returned to my seat.  Catherine was waiting for me.

“I’m so sorry dear, this must be vexing for you, and I have fallen in love with you, I truly have, but it’s my job see?  It lets us truly vet you, do you see?”

I think that is when my heart broke, and I knew these strange people could see it.  I kept a straight face, but inside, I was in a turmoil.  I performed a calming exercise and steeled myself for what was to come, but even that wasn’t as expected.

“But it’s more than that darling Smith John Smith, I know you’ve lost your heart to me, and I never do this, but I’ve lost mine to you too.”  She clasped my arm.

“None of you are human,”  I said, thickly.

“Oh, we are!” she cried.  “Honestly and cross my heart hope to die!”  she continued, “we’re human, all of us, even Mrs McGill, really!”  She had big tears in her eyes, and now her hair was red and curly, tight against her head, and if anything, she was paler than before, contrasting sharply against the black of her dress.  “Please, John, I didn’t think you’d leave for a second, but we weren’t finished and we didn’t want to lose touch.  John, please!”

“No-one else can hear or see us, can they?”  I said flatly.

“Oh, they can, perfectly, if they pay attention, but there are so many distractions, we can keep them busy between us.”

“What are you?”  I thought of another question before she could answer.  “Why me?”

“Oh John, it’s because we can’t control you.  You’re so valuable because you have a mind of your own.  You can always act under your own volition.  So, we needed you onside.  We know what’s coming.”

I could see it.  The Black Shirts, Fascism, Germany in the grip of that madman, the Russians.  C was working tirelessly against it.  We were not doing well, and now it seemed that he had thrown his lot in with these people, assuming he knew his own mind.

“He does dear, I promise.  Oh!”  I went to rise, but I could not, muscles locked; no, not locked, I could not command them, I remained seated despite my will to move.

“Oh please!”  she cried out to the table.  “Please persuade him.”

I felt as though a million voices were in my head, all pleading and arguing for the group and for Catherine.  They persuaded and argued, and in the million there was one, only one, threat; that I would live out my days alone while this group were the silent and unacknowledged heroes of what was to come.

I do not take kindly to threats, however well intentioned.

I gripped my being in the one hand and my courage in the other; and I stood up.  The voices stopped, and I heard only the wailing of my beloved’s broken heart.

Her brother showed me the future, and I finally realised that his power was not that of speaking to me in my mind, that was Catherine’s; she kept the group linked together, but it was his talent to see the future, to know what was to come.  I gathered as she released me from the group that he had predicted this too, and as always, he was right.

Miss Pinkerton makes people forget, Mr Foster reduces distance and time, Miss Concordat enforces peace, Miss Tatworthy remembers everything, exactly, Mrs McGill changes shape, and Mr Forster is able to become as a ghost.

When the war is over, no-one will remember them, there will no parade, no medals, no homecoming.  The knowledge of what comes forth from their victories, well, Mr St. John-Smythe Fortheringill knows, and he is not forthcoming to the group, but he let it slip to me.

It isn’t pretty, and it happens at the hand of a young queen’s government when the peace finally comes.  She doesn’t know about the group, and the experiments take them one by one.

Miss Pinkerton has betrayed king and country this day, because I’ve had an hour or two to write this up, this account, and then it will be gone from my mind, and I will know only an ache where Catherine belongs.  I will never love another and believe she has died in a war.  I last a long time, and you dear reader, you can find me, I’m sure, in your distant future, but I shall know nothing.

I got up from the table, as I say, took her hand and bowed over it.  She rose to accept my parting almost automatically.

“I cannot join you beloved,” I said.  “I cannot know that I am not betraying my kind and my country when I cannot know that even C has not been compromised by your power, and no word or deed can persuade me to risk my beloved England.”  I took a deep breath and turned the knife of my words into my own breast and hers.  “If you love me as you say, and if my mind is truly my own, then you must let me go to serve my country, for it is this that I choose, and choose freely.”

I could speak no more, for there was a lump in my throat, and giving a deep bow to her, and a bow to the group, I turned and left my only love, broken, and alone.

 

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