Have you ever noticed how trees look their most beautiful in the Autumn? When the low sun catches them just right, they seem not quite of this world. That moment just before Winter is when they seem most alive as if this is their statement, their moment to mark their existence. The oranges, yellows and reds, so vibrant and bold like nature's fireworks just as they slip beyond this life. Not all trees of course, as not all people, show this flourish, but those that do are special and to be marked.
She sat on a park bench slowly unpacking her tiffin from a small silver tin. The same ritual every day. Open the thermos, pour the chai, leave it to cool on the arm of the bench. Place the napkin on her lap. Eat two samosas as a starter - a simple food to eat, so she can sit back and gaze at the people. Take the lid off the dal. Open the foil and tear the jupati to dip in the dal, a spoonful of rice and peas. When she has eaten, she will drink her sweet chai, cupped in her hands for warmth as she watches the people. She loves watching people. That strange man with the trilby and umbrella who always charged through the park at double-time, constantly late for something. The woman with the poodle who always seemed to get tangled in the leash while she talks animatedly on the phone. The young girl who roller-skates with massive headphones on her head and dances her way through the park. When she zig-zags backwards crisscrossing her skates, there is a constant fear she will fall. Oh to be young again.
As she watches the people, a workman covered head to toe in paint splashes and sploshes comes and sits on the other end of the bench. She is careful not to glance at him - mustn’t give the wrong impression. She hears him open his foil-wrapped sandwiches, a hiss as a can of soda opens and he focuses on the crossword in his paper. He’s only there ten minutes before he’s gone, leaving his paper on the bench and heading out of the park.
She waits, watching the people, packs away her lunch, back into its silver tin. Then rises, picking up the newspaper as she leaves the bench.
Such a beautifully ordinary little scene. A scene which happens every day in English parks up and down the country, different people granted, but the same scene. Ordinary people enjoying a few ordinary minutes of peace. The simple pleasures of life. Free for all.
What will not be noticed is that the answers written so neatly in capital letters and numbers in the little white boxes of the crossword do not correspond to the questions posed...
Sunita has worked at the Embassy for twenty-five years. She has seen all the Ambassadors in that time and outlasted them all. The young keen ones, the older entitled ones, the serious, the jovial. All men of course. And during all those years she has performed her duties to perfection or so she likes to think.
She is central to the function of this small part of the world of diplomacy, of that she is sure. Her role, the oil that keeps the diplomatic machine rolling forward. No special parking spaces for her or exclusion from congestion or parking charges, yet critical to the mission.
Twenty-five years. It’s a long time. She has always carefully saved her pension every month. Always maximised her contribution, doubled by the Embassy, prudent, careful. So the phone call to her pension company three weeks ago had come as something of a shock. She doesn’t earn millions, but she expected a comfortable retirement. It seems in the time since she started working at the Embassy her employment benefits had changed, the Embassy had stopped paying in as agreed or so the advisor explained. Her destined retirement would not be anywhere near as comfortable as she had planned. Poor Raj, her ever-loving husband, sat quietly in his wheelchair, would be appalled if he found out, they were relying on her pension. They often spent their evenings discussing what they planned to do when she retired. There is an expectation that Indian people might want to retire back to India. While that might have been true when they first arrived, several holidays back had shown that they no longer belonged there. They were too used to Western comforts ...and politeness, disabled ramps and parking spaces. She’s been shocked the last time she went to Delhi how rude the people could be. Taking your chairs without asking at weddings, leaving their rubbish on your table without a second thought. Ignoring poor Raj as a second class citizen. There was much beauty too, but no, she could not live there. She was too used to.. well, civilisation.
So once the realisation of her pension paucity hit home she began to think. After twenty-five years she knew the embassy inside and out. She knew it’s secret. She was always welcome as she walked the corridors. Everyone always greeted her with a smile and a joke. She would often be asked to carry confidential files from one section to another on her rounds.
Sunita was, you see, the Tea Lady or what they call the Chai Lady in the old country. A very important job which kept the embassy ticking along and well oiled. This important institution has been done away with, out-outsourced, in many government buildings but in the Embassy, a bastion of the old world, the institution survived and thrived. Ambassadors sometimes arrived with plans to cut costs and make changes but they soon realised how indispensable Sunita was to morale and when they understood that no one back home worried about the expense of the Tea Lady hidden among the admin accounts they soon dropped the idea while sipping a fresh cuppa and munching a cream custard. Questions might be asked about the Ascot, Henley or Wembley tickets but no one seemed concerned about the admin charges. So on Sunita clattered with her trolley around the Embassy, dispensing hot drinks, biscuits and thoughtful advice.
But now was the time for pension planning. Sunita had suddenly realised that she better put some thought into her retirement planning as her advisor had recommended.
This, when she looked back, was the beginning of her plan.
When the ambassador said he needed the storerooms painted, she had suggested Gazza, the son of a good friend who had done some painting at her own home. Gazza was charging twice what he normally did and the Embassy was paying half what they normally paid. Everyone was happy, especially Sunita.
The Embassy was old school in much that it did. Computerising the nearly 200 embassies and consulates had just not been a priority, so for now, one aspect of embassy life remained decidedly mechanical and that was their Top Secret code machine. Codes were still sent by physical courier briefcases chained to wrists, encoded by this magical machine to be decoded at the other end. It was as she made the courier his tea that Sunita saw her opportunity. They didn’t always use couriers, for more mundane, commercial or urgent messages that couldn’t wait, they emailed or faxed the codes... those could be intercepted.
Years before an Ambassador, long gone, had put a second, backup code machine in storage in the basement and the embassy had now forgotten that it even existed. Gazza painting the basement had access to all the door codes to get through to the room it was kept in. These codes he had neatly pencilled in the crossword puzzle in the newspaper Sunita had so innocently picked up.
Sunita had done her research; Moscow rules, dead letter boxes, chalk marks and flower pots, the old school spying techniques. She had made contact a week ago. ‘Would Her Majesty's Government be interested in a code machine for a rapidly growing BRIC nation which might well give them access to said country’s diplomatic secrets worldwide?’
The answer when she retrieved it, from the nook behind a loose brick of the toilets on Ealing Common, was one word. ‘YES’ scrawled in large capital letters in blue crayon.
There were now two problems a) getting the machine out and b) getting paid as much as possible for it, retirement wasn’t cheap - the advisor had been clear about that.
Everyone always imagines Secret Agents as James Bond types, all suave and slick, abseiling from the roof and avoiding lasers and pressure pads. She smiles as she queues in Tescos, ‘What would her two sons think, if they knew their ordinary mum was a Secret Agent?’. This older Asian lady, all about routines and regularity, leading a secret life, working with MI5? No license to kill. Just a battered silver trolley, instead of a silver Austin Martin, with a tea urn as her weapons of choice.
A million pounds used to be a lot of money but she had come to realise that for ordinary people, such as herself, it wasn’t really. It wouldn’t deliver the life-changing experience she was looking for. She’d therefore asked for £10million. Now that might sound like a lot, but she was used to the traders in Ealing Market and knew full well that the buyer would haggle, so she might as well start high and be willing to negotiate.
‘I require £10milion in BitCoin. Paid in two instalments of £5million each. Once the money has arrived I will deliver the machine. I enclose a picture as proof. Payment to account #teafortwo’. That day’s newspaper lay next to the machine in the photo, just so they knew it was a recent photo, Moscow Rules.
‘OK’ was the two-letter response in Blue Crayon.
The game was on. No haggling. To be honest, she was amazed they had agreed to £10 million right up front but then she supposed the machine could make the UK economy millions of pounds by helping secure deals on the most favourable terms. The spooks would know what other bidders were bidding for example or know what the minimum acceptable price would be ahead of time. This could be very useful. She could see that. She understood the value.
She didn’t really know much about BitCoin, she’d just heard about it on TV. Supposed to be the best way to get money secretly. Drug dealers and arms dealers were using the currency for black market deals, it was supposed to be secure, encrypted and untraceable. Sunita felt it would therefore suit her needs perfectly. So it was something of a surprise when her crypto wallet pinged with a £5 million down payment.Suddenly this crazy scheme had got ...very real.
When Sunita entered the embassy it seemed like a foreign embassy. She wandered the corridors distributing her precious cargo but her palms were sweaty and she had to keep wiping her brow.
“Are you ok Sunita? You don’t look yourself?” The Embassy Security team, two sugars, strong white and black/nothing, asked.
“Oh it’s nothing, I think maybe I’m just going through ‘the change’. You know?”
She rattles and clanks down the corridor, takes the lift as always and when she reaches the basement offices parks her trolley outside the ladies and slips quickly through the three locked wire gates. There is the machine, a ray of sunlight shines through a high window to illuminate this magical machine of secrets, she feels like Indiana Jones rescuing some relic. She carefully lifts it from his resting place and places it on to the lower shelf of her trolly with an empty biscuit box inverted to cover the machine and pulls the tablecloth down over the trolly once again to hide its precious cargo. Then she nips back into the store and grabs a couple of items to replace the machine and covers the resultant shape with a dust sheet so a cursory glance will suggest the machine is still where it should be, but now covered against the vagaries of time ...and any errant paint splashes.
Then Sunita is back pounding the corridors of power, dispensing liquid refreshment to the tired and underpaid staff at the embassy. When she finally finishes her round she heads to the kitchen, always at the back of the building in the worst space, as she reverses through the double doors of the corridor outside the kitchen, she sees an identical trolley, with tea urn and biscuits being pushed the other way by Gazza still covered in paint. She keeps pushing her trolley straight out of the back doors and into the painter’s van which Gazza has thoughtfully reversed to the loading bay, once the trolley is inside and doors closed, Sunita turns and passes Gazza heading for the van with a wink. Sunita pushes back through the doors and is back pushing her trolly is no more than a minute.
“More tea Chef?” Weak, White and two.
“You read my mind Sunita! And have you got a couple of those bourbon biscuits?”
“Most definitely. ...Ok, that’s me done. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And Sunita did see everyone for two weeks more, before ‘the change’ got the better of her and she decided reluctantly that she would need to step aside and let someone new delivery tea for the Embassy. Coincidentally, two weeks corresponded exactly with Gazza finishing his painting, the time it took MI5’s mechanical team to copy the machine, cog for cog, return the original to her and for Sunita to replace it in the storeroom as if it had never been on its little holiday.
It was heartwarming to see the care with which the Embassy marked her passing in the Autumn of her years. She, like a sycamore seed, spun slowly, floating earthbound carrying the kernel of a new life filled with new possibilities. Sunita realised that while the leaves may fall, the tree remains, ready to grow again in the spring with a whole new persona.
She smiles as she reflects on the lovely party the Embassy threw for her. She turns to Raj and clinks champagne flutes as they lay on their sunloungers gazing out at the cool turquoise sea and watching the ordinary people bustling past below.