A Spy in Exile: Chapter 57

OXFORD, FEBRUARY 16, 2015

 

After landing at Heathrow, Michael received a message that Ya’ara’s phone was still in Oxford, and a second update came in when he arrived in Oxford on a train from London’s Paddington Station. The experts at the Mossad had managed to narrow down the location to the city center. The Mossad director’s bureau chief also passed on another piece of information that left Michael momentarily stunned and breathless. “Fuck,” he said to himself out loud. “Fuck.”

The day was gray and damp, and his clothes were no match for the wet cold. He had left his suitcase in a locker at the Oxford train station; there was no point in wasting time settling into the hotel room that had been reserved for him.

He set out on foot from the train station without any fixed ideas on how to go about finding Ya’ara. He wandered aimlessly and veered off in the direction of the Covered Market, where the remains of holiday decorations still adorned some of the stores. Dead animals, hanging from hooks, stared at him. Game meat on offer at the butcher stalls. Wild boars, rabbits, deer, and pheasants with their dead heads turned to face the paved walkways. Resting on plastic leaves in the illuminated displays were wild fowl, quails, and ducks, some skinless, some adorned with a few festive feathers. He hadn’t eaten meat for a year already, and sights like the ones before him only strengthened his resolve.

He passed by the shops quickly, hoping against all odds to catch a glimpse of Ya’ara’s fair face in one of them. He went out into the open street, and a cold, murky gust of wind slammed him in the face. He walked on, his eyes scanning the street. Across from St. John’s College he spotted the Eagle and Child, the pub frequented by J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings. Or was it C. S. Lewis?

He remembered Aharon Levin, the Anglophile, telling him about it. At the center of the pub sign, the red eagle’s wings appeared proudly spread across the sky-blue backdrop. Across the street stood the rival pub, the Lamb and Flag. It was a gloomy afternoon, and both pubs were practically empty. He went into the Eagle and Child and ordered a whiskey, drinking it standing up, in one gulp. The alcohol burned his throat and made his eyes tear. He felt the warmth spreading through his chest and offered a nod of thanks to the photo hanging on the wall of Colin Dexter, the creator of the magnificent and morose Inspector Morse. This city overwhelms me, he thought, feeling a pang of sorrow and regret. He would never be a young student at Oxford. Another of those paths that might have been open to him in the past had closed, and suddenly he regretted ignoring them with such reckless abandon. Perhaps it was a matter of age that caused him to look back at the past with remorse.

Out on the street again he tightened the cashmere scarf around his neck. He thought about his good friend, Tamar, whom he affectionately called Professor de Vuitton. She really was a professor, an expert on classical studies at Tel Aviv University, but he called her de Vuitton because of the beautiful bag that formed an inseparable part of her look. It’s a modest little bag, she’d always say to him, and Michael had laughed—every time.

Tamar had studied at Oxford for five years, and he thought of her walking through the same streets, reading the age-old books in the Bodleian Library, listening to one of Bach’s fugues in the college church. If I sat down for a few hours at Blackwell’s, she had once told him, referring to the city’s huge bookshop, half the people I knew would pass by.

Michael decided to view the memory as a sign and took off in the direction of the well-known store. He was sandwiched at the store’s entrance between a woman with bags in her hands who was making a concerted effort to leave and two teenage girls dressed in school skirts, their knees blue from the cold, who were trying to get in. He climbed the spiral staircase to the second floor, and there she really was, as if she’d been waiting for him. But she wasn’t alone. With her fair hair gleaming and her neck gracefully tilted, she was sitting next to a young Arab man with bleached hair, a large cup of tea clutched between her two hands.

Fortunately for Michael, Ya’ara was focused on the young man sitting next to her and didn’t see him. He moved on, taking care not to stop abruptly, trying to mix in among the shoppers. He kept his distance. He didn’t want to approach Ya’ara in the presence of the guy she was with. They seemed to be friends, and were engaged, as far as he could tell, in a relaxed conversation, their heads tilted slightly toward each other, her hand touching his for a moment. He decided to leave the large store, find somewhere to settle down and keep an eye on the exit, and try to follow Ya’ara to a spot where he could intercept her on her own. He knew that an effort to keep track of her in such a manner was doomed to almost certain failure. All it would take would be for her to get into a car, or a taxi, or even a bus. In any event, he wouldn’t be able to get close to her without exposing himself. And if he kept his distance, chances were he’d lose her. But he didn’t have much choice, and couldn’t think of a better plan. He had been incredibly lucky to find her so easily, and he, as was his wont, was aware of his good fortune but took it for granted at the same time, too. Perhaps it would keep smiling on him.

 

  • • •

 

He waited for more than an hour for Ya’ara and her friend to leave Blackwell’s. They put on their coats and shook hands, parting ways with a slightly odd sense of formality. He turned to the left and she turned in the opposite direction, retrieving a woolen hat from one of her coat pockets and placing it on her head, covering her ears, protecting herself against the damp cold. Ya’ara then set off down the darkening street, and he followed in her wake. She was heading in the direction of the city’s central bus station when she suddenly turned sharply and entered a pub that seemed rather remote to him. He walked in a few minutes after her, expecting to see her sitting at the bar or one of the tables. But she wasn’t there. He went straight into the women’s bathroom. The doors of the two stalls were open. All he found in the men’s room was one old man, swaying and groaning over the urinal. He returned to the bar and spotted a narrow staircase, dimly lit, leading to a second floor. Black Gothic lettering on a wooden sign read “Hotel.” The stairs were covered in a faded red carpet, stained with black patches. He approached the counter and asked the publican: “Do you rent out rooms?”

“Yes, darling,” she replied, “but they’re all taken.”

“Do you have a guest, a young woman, blond . . . ?”

The publican looked at him suspiciously. She didn’t like the question.

“I suggest you go drink somewhere else,” she said. A middle-aged man, his arms covered in tattoos, approached from the far end of the bar.

“The gentleman’s leaving now,” the publican said to him. “It’s okay.”

Michael left the pub and moved away to a point from which he could still see the entrance, but wasn’t exposed to the gaze of the bartender, whose piercing eyes he had felt on his back until he closed the door behind him. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and called Ya’ara’s German number. He heard her low voice answer: “Hello.”

“Hi, Ya’ara,” he said. “It’s Michael Turgeman. Don’t panic. Everything’s okay.”

He had the feeling that nothing was okay.

Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset