At Her Majesty’s Pleasure
‘Comrades! Comrades!’ Klaus seemed particularly pleased with himself as he walked into our office that morning. ‘I have news. Exciting news.’
We all looked up from our desks. Klaus beamed with the satisfaction of a man ready to tease.
‘It seems we have been harbouring in our midst a very important person. Someone with impeccable connections to the very cream of society. You might know him as a mild-mannered if somewhat exotic new co-worker. But in reality, he is is something quite different.’
He paused, and looked around at us all with a grin.
‘It seems our young colleague from the kingdom across the sea,’ he said pointedly, ‘has friends in extremely high places.’
I turned in my chair to face him.
‘What nonsense are you talking, Klaus?’
‘Nonsense? It’s not nonsense. I have documentary proof.’ And with that he produced, with considerable flourish, a letter. ‘Delivered this very day to these humble premises.’
He handed the envelope to me. It did indeed have my name on it. It showed a Berlin postmark and an East German stamp, but otherwise it seemed quite out of place. The paper was heavy and of the highest quality, and I felt a little perplexed when I saw the return address.
‘Do you know what’s in it?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘But I could give it a good guess, given where it’s come from.’
‘But how do they even know I’m here?’
‘Bist du sechs Jahre alt? How do you think they know? Now open it.’
I did as I was told, and took an embossed card out of the envelope. I gazed at it for a full minute.
‘Read it out,’ said Klaus finally, clearly impatient. ‘Come on. Read it out. Don’t keep us in suspense.’
I stared again at the elaborate crest on the card, then I cleared my throat.
‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to the German Democratic Republic requests the pleasure of the company of Dafydd Foster Evans, Esq, for dinner at the Ambassador’s residence.’
It named a date at the beginning of December, some three weeks away.
‘I knew it,’ cried Hanna from the desk behind me. ‘You’re a spy. Your handlers are calling you in.’
‘Oh,’ exclaimed Manfred, another colleague, ‘the tentacles of MI-6 have reached even into our little sanctuary here.’
‘Oh, stop it, stop it,’ I protested, laughing a little too self-consciously. ‘This would be the stupidest move by a spy agency ever — writing to their agent at his work address.’
‘Stupid, or very, very clever.’
‘Whatever you do,’ said Klaus, ‘don’t betray us. Tell them nothing.’
I scoffed. ‘Of course I’ll tell them nothing. That won’t be hard. Because I’m not going.’
‘What do you mean?’ cried Klaus. ‘Not going? How can you not go?’
‘Simple. By just not going.’
‘Why on earth would you not go?’
‘They can’t make me. They have no hold over me. What have I got to say to these people? What is the British government to me? Nothing.’
‘You’d be making a big mistake,’ said Klaus.
‘No I wouldn’t,’ I replied. ‘I didn’t come to live in the GDR just to make small talk over canapés with overpaid upperclass bureaucrats from London.’
‘Stop there,’ Klaus interrupted me more seriously. ‘You’re not quite as humble as you once were, are you? You need to calm down a little with your rhetoric.’
‘I’m not going,’ I repeated sulkily.
Klaus rapped my desk with his knuckles.
‘Listen, young man. You are going to dinner at the Ambassador’s. You will make perfect small talk over canapés. You will entertain us all afterwards with tales of what happened. And that’s an order.’
Snow was falling lightly as my feet crunched up the gravel driveway towards the Ambassador’s residence. I had shown my invitation to the guard at the gate, and had been let through with a curt ‘bitte schön’.
The area was quite unlike any I had visited before in the city. Sedate detached houses presided over tree-lined streets creating the atmosphere of a fine costume drama rather than that of the communist East.
I adjusted the knot of the tie on my rather ill-fitting shirt before I rang the bell. I felt horribly young and more nervous than I had since arriving at Checkpoint Charlie three months before.
The door was answered swiftly by a man dressed in an impeccable dinner jacket with tails. Assuming this was my host, I held out my hand and introduced myself, thanking him effusively for the invitation. He shook his head almost imperceptibly.
‘Let me take your coat, sir. I will let the Ambassador know you’ve arrived.’
For a few seconds I was left alone in the entrance hall. Opposite me was a full length portrait of the Queen in evening dress. I almost couldn’t believe it was real.
I was still staring at it agog when a side door opened and out strode a middle-aged man — tall, handsome, healthy, and somehow so overwhelmingly British it quite took me aback.
‘Welcome, welcome,’ he said. ‘You must be Dafydd. We are so pleased you could come.’ He shook me vigorously by the hand. ‘Come through. You’re the last to arrive. Let me introduce you to everyone.’
He took me into what he described as the drawing room, and the shock of it was almost greater than that of crossing the Wall. Comfortable sofas in a Laura Ashley floral print, Staffordshire china, Constable reproductions, a huge roaring fire, a copy of the Daily Telegraph on a table. I wasn’t just back in the West; I was in a Home Counties villa. I had never in my life been anywhere quite so English.
The other guests looked round when I entered. I had not known what to expect, but was still shocked to see that there would be only six of us at dinner. The Ambassador; a professor of international politics at an East German university; their two wives; and a large florid gentleman whose name I did not catch but who turned out to be Deputy Secretary at an East German Ministry. And me. I was the youngest by what looked like about forty years.
I was handed a glass of champagne and stood awkwardly and rather resentfully, feeling a pang of longing for the comfortable familiarity of my spartan office, my copy of Neues Deutschland and my severe communist texts for translation. This all seemed so frivolous.
I found myself standing next to the Ambassador’s wife and the professor.
‘Oh yes,’ she was saying, ‘Sunningdale is a wonderful place to live. There are some charming villages around it too. All in all, I do find Berkshire to be one of the most attractive counties in the South of England.’
‘I agree,’ said the professor, his English immaculate. ‘Helen and I like to travel out of London whenever we’re in England. Some of the places we’ve been to are quite lovely.’
I marvelled at the implication of easy foreign travel for an East German academic and his wife. They must have had clearance from some very high authority.
I drank more champagne and felt some confidence returning.
‘If you are visiting in the summer,’ continued the Ambassador’s wife, ‘I would suggest you try getting to Scotland. Edinburgh is magnificent. And then of course the Highlands. I know some amazing hotels.’
I felt a teenage truculence rise in me. This entire conversation seemed so false. They talked of the best places for shopping, whether Paris was all it was cracked up to be, and how difficult it was to choose boarding schools for diplomats’ children. On and on they went. My glass was refilled.
Finally, there was a pause, and the Ambassador’s wife turned to me, smiling.
‘So, Dafydd,’ she said in a rather motherly fashion, ‘how did you find your way to us tonight?’
‘I took the tram,’ I replied.
‘Oh,’ she smiled, ‘you poor thing.’
‘Well,’ I said barely hiding my sarcasm, ‘today is the chauffeur’s day off so I had to make do.’
I saw my words sink in with her, and she gave a rather embarrassed little laugh. I felt a pang of shame and regret at my rudeness. Is this what I had become? But it was all so ridiculous.
‘Well now. What’s this?’ the Ambassador had walked over to join us. ‘It appears we have a young student revolutionary with us tonight all set to storm the barricades.’
I reddened and looked at the floor. They all chuckled patronisingly. Luckily, I was spared from having to reply by the announcement that dinner was served.
‘Sie sprechen deutsch?’
The Deputy Secretary, sitting next to me at the large dining table, leaned over to whisper.
‘Yes, I do,’ I replied.
‘Excellent. It’s just that my English — it is not always good enough to keep up. You will help me if I need it?’
‘Of course,’ I said.
A delicate mushroom soup was followed by a resplendent Beef Wellington. The wine was red and heavy and delicious, and I began to relax a little. The Ambassador was holding forth at the end of the table, and I marvelled at how he directed the conversation, how he introduced one subject smoothly after another, how he involved his guests to just the right degree. This was a skilled operator at work, so skilled you could hardly see the effort it must be taking. I realised that I was admiring the performance and was just a little envious of it.
Topics ranged far and wide. We talked about how in just six months’ time Mrs Thatcher would mark 10 years in Downing Street and what a historic achievement that would be. We discussed the reforms underway in the Soviet Union and whether Mr Gorbachev would manage to drag his country out of the economic difficulties it was facing. We speculated on the significance of George Bush’s victory in the previous month’s US presidential election and whether he would succeed in further easing tensions between East and West.
I say ‘we’, but my contribution to the discussion was limited mostly to monosyllables and nods. It was not just that I was still smarting from my immature interjection earlier. I also felt like a child that had been allowed to stay up late to listen to the grown-ups talk, and I was conscious that this comparison was not all that far from the truth. I revelled in what was being said, and that I was able to hear it. But my confidence did not stretch as far as adding any of my own words of wisdom.
Finally, dessert arrived. A poached pear with a tuile and a jaunty spiral of spun sugar. The Deputy Secretary stared at it blankly, before turning to me rather tipsily.
‘Well,’ he said with a confused smile. ‘How on earth am I supposed to eat this?’
The two women had found an excuse to leave for another room. I had declined the cigar that had been offered me — the embarrassment of doing so was less than the embarrassment of having to actually smoke it — and was now feeling the unaccustomed burn of some excellent cognac at the back of my throat.
The Ambassador had loosened his tie and pushed his chair away from the table. Through the haze of cigar smoke, he seemed very content with how his evening had panned out.
‘Now, Dafydd,’ he turned to me with a benevolent smile, ‘I’d like to hear a bit more of your story. Tell us. What is it like to move from the farthest reaches of rural Wales to the very heart of a socialist state?’
‘I also,’ interjected the Deputy Secretary. ‘I also would be very much interested. What a young person like yourself thinks of our Republic.’
I felt the two men’s eyes on me, and felt strongly the tension they represented. My own country, and the country I had chosen to live in.
‘It’s been quite amazing,’ I said slowly, trying to be both truthful and careful. ‘It is very strange to come here and experience a system so utterly different to what I’m used to — even though I’m not old enough to really know what working life is like back in Britain. But everyone at the office has been wonderful to me, and I’m very much enjoying myself. I’ve to got to see that the world is a lot more complicated than I thought it was and that there are good people everywhere. The GDR is a much more varied and interesting place than I had expected. But, of course, I still miss home.’
The Deputy Secretary nodded at my pablum with evident satisfaction. The Ambassador smiled.
‘What an excellent answer,’ he said. Was that a hint of mocking irony in his voice? ‘You seem adept at negotiating the intricacies of the situation. I’ve no doubt this will stand you in good stead for the future.’
He then turned away to talk to the professor next to him.
‘Was hat er gesagt?’ the Deputy Secretary asked me.
I reflected for a few seconds before replying: ‘To be honest, I really have no idea.’
‘So glad you could come. So glad.’
The Ambassador shook my hand almost too warmly on the icy doorstep.
‘I can just imagine how intoxicating it must be for you,’ he continued. ‘Living in a foreign culture. Especially in a culture as foreign as this.’
‘It is, yes,’ I replied, unsure exactly as to what he was getting at.
‘Just make sure you don’t end up with too much of a hangover.’
‘Of course,’ I said rather awkwardly.
He gave me a card.
‘The Embassy contact details. We’re here to help. Don’t forget. If anything should happen.’
‘Best of course if nothing does happen, don’t you think?’
‘Safe journey home then,’ he smiled. ‘Even if it is by tram.’
‘Well, how was it?’ Klaus asked me the next morning.
‘Oh, it was pleasant,’ I replied.
‘Pleasant? Is that it?’
‘What did they want from you?’
‘From me? Nothing.’
‘Nothing? Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?’
‘Yes, Klaus. I’m absolutely sure.’