SECRETS: A TRIPTYCH

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

SECRETS: GUESTS

 

‘Chloe! How are you?’

Several people looked up as Chris drawled the words out for longer than their syllables required. Most of them had heard him do that when he wanted to make an impression, particularly with women. It usually meant that he wanted, or at least believed he ought to be seen to want, to have sex with them.

Whether it worked or not was open to question. He certainly managed liaisons with some women, but whether that was because of what he imagined was his irresistible, come to bed voice, was anyone’s guess. He presumably believed it worked as he refused to cease using it. Exchange of views by those who had been on the receiving end, suggested that it was not necessarily an asset. The judgements passed in the ladies’ rooms, bars and gymnasiums of the locality concluded however, that the lounge lizard sound only added a minor degree of repulsivity to his already odious character. That he was at all successful in his seductions was probably, so the consensus went, down to his supposedly mysterious past and inability to hear the word “no”’.

How much Chloe knew of this was unknown to those present at that initial exchange of the evening. They knew she was a new section head. That she seemed energetic and engaging, keen to get to know her staff and understand the nuances of the role she had taken on, was clear. Everything else was murky. She had appeared in the job virtually unannounced. No-one had seen her turn up for interview. No-one was sure where she had been until the day she arrived. Warwick, the Royal Marine from the East German desk seemed to know her from somewhere and they appeared quite thick. But when asked where she had been recently, he shrugged and said they had lost touch. No he didn’t know what she had done in between. In another division at least. Maybe she had been on secondment somewhere?

There had been a quiet word with key personnel, suggesting staff did not ask her directly, as it would be awkward for all concerned. Senior management knew people would understand.

They did. Of course they did given the nature of the work. And given the nature of the work everybody tried that bit harder to find out where she had come from. Just not directly.

One had to admire their discretion until you realised they didn’t want to be reported and dragged in for an interview without coffee, or worse, a security appraisal.

So Chloe found herself the centre of a social whirl of invitations to dinner parties, squash evenings, drinks parties, hashing events, birthday parties, lunches, wild parties, quiz nights, boring parties, skittles evenings and more parties. She even gave some herself. Tonight was not one of hers however, and it was certainly not being given with the aim of revealing her immediate past.

Alan had decided it was time to entertain and bond his senior team a little closer. The invitation had been to anyone and everyone in the branch of course. As the venue was his house, it was understood that not all were required or even expected to attend. Section heads and above obviously cleared their diaries, and aspiring or precarious sub section heads put on a brave face and donned the smartest casuals they had. Below that level one had to be very confident of a glowing future or too dim to realise there were limits to aspiration in order to turn up. At that level one had to be content with a certain amount of low level servitude as well; serving drinks, distributing snacks, making small talk with wives, partners and seconded low ranking allies, all on an entirely voluntary basis of course.

So when Chris stood half way down the sweeping central staircase and greeted Chloe with his well developed drawl, there was a fair sized audience of mixed ranks, genders and nationalities, waiting for the response. They were intrigued as to how they knew each other. Chris had been with the office on secondment for about a year. While he had not fitted in with accepted gender equality expectations in the modern nineteen eighties government service, he had proved himself to have as sharp an analytic brain as any there. His home department would no doubt be looking forward to his return at the end of his tour. The prospect that Chloe and Chris may know each other from the latter’s exploits with his own agency was too delicious for the assembly. He was another apparent cipher without a past.

‘Hello Chris, how are you?’ Chloe’s reply came in about a quarter of the time of Chris’ greeting.

‘Darling! All the better for seeing you.’ He boomed ‘Where have you been hiding yourself dear heart?’ and with that descended to the room below.

‘I’m in Alan’s branch obviously,’ she waved her glass in a gesture encompassing the room and the members of the branch assembled.  She linked his arm and steered him into a corner of the room. The murmuring began again as the main focus shifted.

‘And what the hell are you doing here?’ she hissed.

‘Liaison old thing. Not sure I’m supposed to be at this gathering really. And why are you here?’

‘I’m a section head here now.’ She said.

Isn’t this a bit tame for you? I mean last time…’

‘I think we can leave the circumstances of our last meeting in the past where they belong, don’t you?’

‘But it was so much more fun than what happens here.’

‘Fun? You remember things differently from me.’

He leaned closer and ran a finger down Chloe’s glass.

‘Well I remember some bits being a lot of fun.’

People were edging closer, pretending to be looking elsewhere while straining to hear what was being said. Chloe ignored them.

‘Chris, I don’t want to talk about that now. No-one here knows about that and they don’t need to know. You know; security? You remember that?’

‘Why don’t we go somewhere a little quieter then? Alan’s kids have a playroom that’s off limits to these bods.’ His smile widened. ‘You know me Chloe, always up for a bit of play.’

‘Stop playing silly buggers Chris. I didn’t realise you were anywhere near here or I’d have got Alan to sort this out earlier.’

‘I’m here as general liaison capacity within the Division but I spend a lot of time in Alan’s branch and I’m hoping to spend a lot more time in parts of Alan’s branch now.’ Chloe took a half pace back.

‘Right Chris. Let’s get this straight. We weren’t friends like that. Shit, we weren’t friends. You were and are a complete arse, and while the desk pilots here may think you are some sort of Ian Fleming type, I know you’re more Captain Pugwash. So keep your mouth shut and let’s all have a nice quiet twenty minutes before you piss off. All right?’

The faces of those closest to the pair flickered and they exchanged glances as Chloe’s voice rose in volume.

‘Why wait Babe? We could go now. Your place or mine? Probably best yours, I’m in a hotel at the mo.’

‘Chris, get it in your thick head, we are not going anywhere. Certainly not together. If you must stay for form’s sake, stay away from me. Okay?

‘Come on Chlo. You mean all that time together meant nothing? All those days? All those nights?

‘We’re not talking about this here Chris.’ Chloe shook her head. ‘We’re not talking about it anytime.’ She turned to go, but Chris reached out to take her elbow.

‘Come on Chloe, that excitement wasn’t just because we were in…’

The people in the room were staring, the ones closest straining their ears to catch the revelation of where Chris had spent ‘all those nights’ with the new section head, where Chloe had disappeared to off the radar.

No-one was any longer in doubt that Chloe was aware of Chris’ approach to women. What happened next scotched the idea that her last posting had, as some unkind souls had suggested, been with freight and mails.

Chloe pivoted on her heel as Chris grasped her elbow and with the side of her free hand delicately chopped him across his throat, silencing him before he could reveal the location of their tryst. As his hand loosened on her arm she dropped the glass she was holding and smashed the heel of that hand into his nose. He sat down with a satisfying thump into the thick Axminster, sputtering the blood pouring out of what was left of his nostrils over his shirt front, gasping for breath.

‘I told you to shut up Chris. Speak about where I was again and it won’t be an informal reprimand.’ She stared down at him. ‘Understand?’

The bloodied figure on the floor nodded.

Warwick stepped forward and quietly asked Chloe if she was okay.

‘Yes, thanks.’

‘Well you aren’t going to have any insubordination problems from now on. On the other hand your social diary suddenly developed a lot of space.’ He smiled, ‘Shall we leave them to it?’

She nodded.

‘I’ll just make my apologies to Alan, and then we can go.’

 

SECRETS: CHRIS

 

Chris hated evenings like this.

He’d had to turn up of course. What was the point of a liaison officer who hated parties? And generally speaking he was up for most work related socials, from the raucous Channel Nights at sea as the ship returned to home port, to the sophisticated and measured diplomatic dances of embassy functions.

Nights like this, faux social gatherings of work colleagues, were however, mind numbingly dull. It was difficult even to enliven the affair with a liaison of the more carnal kind. Alan, the branch head was quite old fashioned about things like that and made life difficult. Not impossible, but certainly difficult.  Sometimes that made the thrill of the chase even greater, but frankly at this level of seniority the pickings were a bit outside his target age range. From his vantage point on the landing that stretched the width of the place, he surveyed the scene in what he had to admit was rather a swanky reception room.

He was trying to decide whether Hilary would be worth the candle if he could separate her from her partner, whatever his name was, or whether he should just have a few tots more and work on his career by schmoozing up to Alan. The mental coin was still spinning when a new arrival walked into the room and all his plans went on hold.

 

Chloe Macalastair! Hilary and Alan dropped right off the evening’s things to do list. There was one object in mind now. To renew his acquaintance with the delectable Chloe. True they hadn’t parted on quite the terms he would have wished for. Actually he wasn’t certain there were terms on which he wished to part from Chloe Macalastair at all. That in itself was a warning light. Chris had always had very clear moral principles on this. Never get involved with a woman who made you feel as if you might want to stay close to her for more than twenty four hours. Not that he had a problem with being with a girl for a long time, just not on consecutive days. It removed the mystery and the fun and Chris liked fun and variety. It was why, he told himself, he was a great liaison officer and a fun guy to be around. That was enough introspection he decided.

 

No harm in renewing the relationship for a bit. They had spent a lot of nights together but he had to admit not in the way he wanted to have spent them. Lurking in various safe houses, bushes, dodgy housing estates and backs of panel vans had not been the series of romantic interludes he craved with Ms Macalastair. Still, they had been very close, if only physically at work, and now was the chance to put right that rather clumsy tryst at the end of his tour. They would both, he was sure, relish the opportunity to relive that experience with a better outcome. And he had a head start on anyone else here. They had both spent months in extreme front line circumstances and it would do no harm to remind her of the dangers they had faced. Danger was always sexy.

 

He checked his look in the mirror at the top of the stairs. Perfect as always, and he timed his descent to arrive just three steps above her as she passed the foot of them.

 

‘Chloe! How are you?’ he said in his best rolling brogue. He knew women couldn’t resist his warm rich tones, it was he decided hardly fair, but then they got to be with him, so the benefits evened up in the end.

 

He saw the leap of recognition in her eyes as she looked up at him. He loved women looking up at him, such a great feeling. She played it cool of course as you would expect from a professional in such matters. You didn’t go all girly just because the mark had walked in the pub did you? Neither did Chloe. That was what made the prospect so much more fun than usual. Desk types knew the score of course but couldn’t play the game. Civilians were okay but just too easy to be worth it most of the time. Most of them didn’t ever realise there was a game being played.

‘Hello Chris, how are you?’ Chloe said, a little bit too fast Chris decided. Not quite as cool as she’d hoped for no doubt. Well if that was the way it was, no need to complicate matters, Charge!

‘Darling! All the better for seeing you.’ He said, projecting so she could hear the delight in his voice. ‘Where have you been hiding yourself dear heart?’ he concluded and glided down to greet her with a peck on the cheek. The crowd was staring at them now and well they might, the two best looking people for miles he knew. She radiated a smile at him.

 

‘I’m in Alan’s branch.’ she said indicating the onlookers who had to be here at Alan’s command. She linked arms with him and steered him somewhere more intimate out of sight of the gawping office workers who resumed their murmuring as the two beautiful people slipped from view.

‘And what are you doing here?’ she whispered.

‘Liaison old thing. Though I’m not sure why I was supposed to be here until you showed up.’

She laughed at him in that way that had always excited him when they had been up close together on surveillance. ‘And why are you here?’ he asked.

‘I’m a Section head in the branch’

‘Really? Isn’t this a bit tame for you? I mean last time…’

‘I don’t think we should discuss that here do you? I mean they don’t need to know.’

‘Not everything, but why end up here? What we had was so much more fun.’

‘Fun? You remember things differently from me.’

He leaned closer and ran a finger down Chloe’s glass.

‘I didn’t necessarily mean the work Chlo. I remember some bits of that tour being a lot of fun.’

 

Around them the people in the room were edging closer, trying to look elsewhere as they listened to what was being said.

‘Chris, I don’t want to talk about that now. No-one here knows about where I’ve been or what I did, that and they don’t need to know. It’s a security thing? You remember that?’

‘Of course I do sweetie, but we don’t have to have this reunion so publicly. Alan’s kids have a playroom that’s off limits to the hoi polloi.’ His smile widened. ‘We always did like to play didn’t we Chloe?’

Chris could see the memory made her flustered and realised that it would be difficult for her. He wondered if they should leave now and go straight back to her place. He was in hotel accommodation which was okay for some things but lacked the space and privacy he felt their reunion demanded. He realised she was saying something else.

‘… or I’d have got Alan to sort this out earlier.’

‘It’s okay Chloe. I’m general liaison to the Division head and I don’t spend a lot of time with Alan’s branch, but I’m hoping to spend a lot more time with parts of Alan’s branch in future.’

He realised she needed time to sort out in her head how this would work out in practice.

‘Right Chris. Let’s get this straight. We were friends but I need to concentrate on getting myself back into desk work for a bit. You’re some sort of Ian Fleming figure to the nerds round here and that isn’t going to help me keep a low profile. So keep your mouth shut and let’s have a nice quiet twenty minutes before we leave. All right?’

The faces of those closest to the pair flickered with increased interest as they tuned in to Chloe’s voice. Chris looked round. Could he control himself for another twenty minutes? He didn’t think so.

‘Why wait? We could go now.’

‘Chris, we aren’t going anywhere together. For form’s sake, stay away from me and we leave separately. Okay?

‘Come on Chlo. All those days together? All those nights? I don’t think I can play it cool now I’ve found you again.’

‘We’re not talking about this here Chris.’ Chloe shook her head. She turned to go, but Chris reached out to take her elbow.

‘Come on Chloe, just because we were in…’

He realised what a confused state of mind she was in, how much it must mean to her too, as she swung round in panic. The people in the room were staring now, the ones closest straining their ears to catch the revelation of where Chris and Chloe had spent ‘all those nights’. There was no way he wanted to hurt her or her career, but he suddenly knew he wanted her very much. Wanted to be with someone who actually knew what living that long on the edge was like.

 

As she pivoted to face him again, she stumbled and threw out a hand to steady herself on his firm shoulder, but he had taken a step to catch her, and her hand caught him a glancing blow in the throat instead. He coughed and choked with shock as much as anything, and staggered. Chloe dropped her glass and threw out her hand to steady him but caught him instead full in the face with her open hand. He sat down on the deep pile of the Axminster carpet blood pouring from his nose.

‘Oh Chris! I’m so sorry.’

The bloodied figure on the floor nodded as the crowd began to gather and ask if they were all right.

It must be love he thought. With that thought he could understand why she made her excuses and left with the East German desk guy. Good cover. He’d see her tomorrow and pick up where they had left off.

 

SECRETS: CHLOE

 

‘Chloe! How are you?’

She hadn’t been looking forward to this event. It wasn’t relaxing or exciting. Hanging out with the senior people from the office was never going to be either of those, but it got her out of the house. It also offered a chance to refine her knowledge of the pecking order. Coming back from such a long secondment was never going to be easy and she was way out of touch with who was on the way up, who was marking time and who was about to head to freight and mails. It wasn’t just the rankings that had changed though, the game had changed. Corporate infighting would always be bloody, but being away for so long meant you were playing by old rules. Her ‘broadening’ experience should have been a great asset and she had been assured it would be, but there was no evidence. It was all on a trust basis and anyone who trusted what HR said was mad. Not being able to talk about what she had been doing for the last few years sometimes drove her crazy anyway. She listened to the desk bound types spouting off about things she knew about from first hand experience, and had to bite her tongue instead of putting them right. It wasn’t that she wanted to go and do it again but she was beginning to wonder if she could put up with not doing it again. At least Warwick was in a nearby office. They’d done some mad stuff together in the field before he came here. Having someone who knew the score was great, that someone being Warwick was even more of a comfort, even if neither of them seemed certain where they were going.

The voice calling her name broke her train of thought and made her heart sink a little. Not Chris? Surely not here?

She scanned the crowd for the face associated with the voice. There he was. On the stairs. Posing.

Her colleagues, she could tell, were intrigued. Not even pretending they weren’t interested in how this person knew their new section head.

‘Hello Chris, how are you?’ She said, trying hard to make her voice neutral.

‘Darling! All the better for seeing you.’ He boomed ‘Where have you been hiding yourself dear heart?’

She cringed inside, but kept her game face on. As long as he didn’t want to talk about the “good old days” she might be able to keep this short and sweet.

‘I’m in the branch now.’ she waved her glass in a gesture encompassing the room and the members of the branch assembled. She could see the interest levels rising around her. She needed to stop being the centre of attention.  She linked arms with him and dragged him into the least crowded corner of the room. The crowd noise resumed its random activity as they moved from centre stage.

‘So what are you doing here tonight Chris?’

‘Liaison old thing. Not sure precisely what I’m supposed to be doing at this shindig, but I’m glad I came now.’ He smiled that smile that had annoyed for two years of ops. ‘And you?’

‘Well I’m trying to fit in, so…’ she shrugged, ‘…here I am. Being a good section head, bonding and all that.’

‘Isn’t this a bit tame for you? I mean last time I saw you, we were…’

‘I think we can leave the circumstances of our last meeting out of it, don’t you?

‘But it was so much more fun than what happens here.’

‘Fun? I think we have different memories of it then.’

She shuddered at the thought of when she had been working with Chris. She shuddered some more when Chris leaned closer and ran his finger down her glass.

‘Well I remember quite a lot of fun.’

People were edging closer, eyes slightly glazed as they nodded to each other out of synch with their conversations, straining to hear what the pair were saying. Chloe remembered holding her breath as men with guns walked around in the rooms below the roof space she was hiding in. She remembered the decanting of brains from a splintered skull, oozing like half set pink blancmange. Fun?

‘I don’t want to talk about that now.’

‘Why don’t we go somewhere a little quieter then? There’s a playroom for Alan’s kids where we could have a chat if you want to let it go?’ His smile widened. ‘That might be fun.’

She realised the fun he was thinking about wasn’t anything to do with people trying to shoot them or blow them up, but the drunken disaster of a fumble they had had near the end of her tour. She didn’t want to relive that, and she certainly didn’t want to recreate it tonight. Not ever.

‘I don’t think that would be a good idea Chris, do you? Not exactly the way to establish my place in Alan’s branch.’

‘I’m here in a general liaison capacity within the Division but I spend a lot of time in Alan’s branch. I’m hoping to spend a lot more time in parts of Alan’s branch now. I could help. You know, discreetly. Put in a good word.’ Chloe took a half pace back.

‘Let’s get this straight Chris. We weren’t friends like that. We made complete arses of ourselves that night.’ She took a deep breath. ‘People here may think you are some sort of Ian Fleming type, but we know what it’s really like. So let’s keep our mouths shut and have a nice quiet evening and one of us can leave in twenty minutes. All right?’

It was no good. She didn’t know how much Chris had had to drink or if he was just being stupid about their one fling, but he didn’t want to let it go. He’d already made her life a lot harder. Everyone here was wondering how they knew each other. As long as he didn’t mention where they had been or what they had been doing, otherwise life could get very awkward, for both of them.

‘Why wait Babe? We could go now. Your place or mine? Probably best yours, I’m in a hotel at the mo.’

‘Chris, we are not going anywhere. Certainly not together. If you want to stay for form’s sake, stay away from me and I’ll leave as soon as I’ve done the rounds. Okay?

‘Come on Chlo. You mean all that time together meant nothing? All those days? All those nights?

‘We’re not talking about this here Chris.’ Chloe shook her head. ‘We’re not talking about it anytime.’ She turned to go, but Chris reached out to take her elbow.

‘Come on Chloe, that excitement wasn’t just because we were in…’

Time seemed to expand. The stupid sod was going to say where they had been. It had taken months to adjust this much and she was damned if she was going to have to start again. Everyone was staring, straining their ears to catch the revelation of where Chris had spent ‘all those night’ with the new section head.

She knew what she was going to do. She just hoped she could cover it with a good excuse. It was in all probability going to make the sojourn in freight and mails rumour look a little hollow. Chloe heard the first syllable of the location, whether for real or in her head she was never sure, but she pivoted on her heel and with her free hand slapped at his face. The shock stopped his speech but to make sure he got the message she slapped him with the other hand, dropping her glass first so she didn’t cut him. He sat down hard and she realised his nose was bleeding. She stared down at him.

‘Sorry Chris, but I did tell you to shut up.’

Warwick appeared at her side.

‘You okay?’

‘Yes, thanks.’

‘Shall I get the car? Do you want go?’

She nodded.

‘Probably best.’ She said.

‘All right, and don’t worry, half the office has been wanting to do that. I’ll square Alan. He doesn’t need telling what a prat Chris is, but it won’t hurt to remind him.’

Chloe smiled at him. ‘I can fight my own battles you know? You get the car. I’ll be out in a minute.’

End

 

 

This story, and it is one story, albeit told three different ways, started out as an idea for submission for publication to an online magazine. It was one conventionally told story at that stage but also over the word limit. As I edited it down I realised how much I wanted to see the story from an individual perspective rather than simply telling the tale from an omniscient narrator’s point of view.

But which one?

It became clear I knew there were very different stories going on depending on the viewpoint. So why not write three of them, the two main protagonists and the composite guests views. Most of the ‘facts’ would be the same but the interpretations and memories would be vastly different.

The result is three short stories, each around 1500 words.

This isn’t a clever new idea of course – unreliable narrators and multi-stranded tales of conflicting interpretations have been done several times and I know some people dislike the idea, wanting to know which version is ‘right’. Well although not being a big fan of all postmodernism’s whacky byways I do appreciate that we all carry differing versions of the ‘truth’. Fake News or what!

So I don’t apologise for not saying which is the ‘true’ version. I know which one I believe is nearest the ‘truth’, but readers will have to decide which is the best truth for them.