If the was one fault I had, it was prevarication.
For a long time, I had always been afraid of making a mistake, after I had done exactly that. They said our mistakes didn’t define us, but that one had. I had lost the trust of everyone, from my parents to my friends.
It was only a small lie, or so I told myself, but it had far-reaching ramifications, and almost cost someone their life. But whilst I believed it was not all that bad, and the police had agreed that anyone who had been put in the same position would have done the same, there were those who didn’t agree.
It was a moment in time I often relived in my mind, over and over, and eventually led to several outcomes.
First, I left home, the town where up till then I’d lived all of my life, walking away from family and those who used to be friends, knowing that what they said and what they felt were two entirely different things. For all concerned, it was better that I left, cutting all ties, and making a fresh start, away from those whom I knew would never forget, even though they forgave me.
The second, and most dire, I changed my name, and my history, even how I looked. Today, I was a very different person from that thirty years ago.
Third, I moved to another country and vowed never to return, always looking constantly over my shoulder, expecting someone from the past to find me. I instinctively knew that I would never escape, that one day a stark reminder would come back and destroy everything.
I picked the one occupation that would keep me both occupied and invisible.
I had started at the bottom, literally writing death notices, and worked my way up to what is ubiquitously known as ‘foreign correspondent’, going to places where no one else would go, those hotbeds of unrest, and war zones, reporting from both sides.
Perhaps it could say I had a death wish, a statement my editor had once said when he came to see me in hospital back in London after I’d been caught up in a rocket attack and repatriated. He had come to offer me a job back home, to tell me my tour was over.
I declined the opportunity, and he left, shaking his head.
But that was not the only visitor that came to the hospital that day. The other visitor was an elderly man, immaculately dressed in a pinstripe suit and bowler hat. It screamed public servant, and the moment I saw him wandering up the passage, a chill ran down my spine.
Although he looked like he was looking for someone else, I knew he would eventually finish up in my doorway.
Five minutes after I first saw him.
When he appeared at the door, I thought about ignoring him, but realized that wasn’t going to change anything. Besides that, I guess I wanted to know why he would want to see me.
“Would it make any difference if I said no?” Well, it didn’t mean I couldn’t spar with him, just a little. “Who are you.”
“Do you mind if I come in?”
I got the impression he would do it anyway, irrespective of what I said. I said no, and as I suspected he came in anyway, closing the door behind him, then took a minute or two to make himself comfortable in the visitor’s chair, which was an impossible task.
Then, settled, he said, “I understand you have just been repatriated from Syria.”
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
It wasn’t common knowledge where I’d come from, so this person knew something about me, which was an immediate cause for concern.
“The bane of a reporter trying to cover a dangerous situation,” he said, with just the right amount of levity in his tone. “I get it, by the way. I once had that devil-may-care attitude you need to get the story. I was chasing a Pulitzer, believe it or not, and used a few of those nine lives in the process. Which one are you up to?”
I was going to say that awards didn’t matter but among those who made up the press pack in those God-forsaken places, there was an unwritten desire to be rewarded other than by pay. For me, though, it was not a defining factor.
“Lost count. But why would that interest you, or whoever it is you represent? By the way, just who do you represent?”
Second attempt at finding out who this man was. If he was dodging and weaving, it would suggest a clandestine organization.
“People who would like to use your unique talent in getting into trouble spots around the world. We’re not asking you to come work for us exclusively, but rather piggyback on the job that you already do so well.”
An unnamed man from an unnamed organization. What he was offering wasn’t unheard of, and I had been warned, more than once, that jobs, like he was suggesting, were more often than not offered to people like me. With that came one line of advice, turn around and run like hell.
But, with nothing to amuse me in the hospital, I was curious. “Doing what exactly?”
The fact his expression changed indicated my response had taken him by surprise. Perhaps he was used to being told where to go. Not yet. I had this fanciful notion in the back of my mind that what he might offer might get me closer to the story.
“Keeping your eyes and ears open. We’ll tell you what to look for, all you’ll be doing is looking for evidence. There will be no need to go looking for trouble, if there’s evidence we ask you to report it, if not, no harm done.”
Not so hard. If that was all it was. The trouble was, if something sounds simple, which that did, but inevitably, it was going to be anything but. I’d heard stories and the consequences.
“You’re presuming that my editor will send me back. He just offered me a job at home.”
“I think both of us know you’re not interested in domesticity. If he isn’t willing to adhere to your wishes, I’m sure we could find someone else who would be willing to take you on. You have had several offers recently, have you not?”
So, without a doubt, he knew a lot about me, especially if he asked around. I had had several offers, but I was happy where I was. I liked the no questions about your past that my current employer had promised.
Yes, looking at the determination on this man’s face, I had no doubt they or he could do what he said. No one comes to a meeting like this without holding all the cards. Also, not that I wanted it to be so, It told me that my agreement was not necessarily going to be optional.
But I was happy to dither and find out. “Since I’m not sure when the hospital is going to discharge me, and the fact I’m not exactly very mobile at the moment, can I consider the proposal. Right now, as you can imagine, getting back to work is not exactly a priority.”
“Of course.” He took a card out of his coat pocket and put it on the bedside table. “By all means. Call me on that number when you’ve decided.”
He stood. “It will be a great opportunity. Thank you for your time.”
Of course, the two impressions I was left with were, one, he had me mixed up with someone else, and two, that I would never see him again.
It was an impossible task, for me at least, because I did not have a poker face, and could barely carry a lie. I would be the last person they’d want for the job.
And thinking that, I rolled over, put it out of my mind, and went back to sleep.
© Charles Heath 2021