Bond and Sabrina freeze and gaze at me in terror. What happened? I feel lightheaded, everything is hazy; I feel as if I were floating above everyone. I look down, onto the steps where my body lies, Bond is panicked as Mireille tries to calm him, Sabrina is motionless, petrified; I can’t make out where the others are; I’m just lying there motionless….
I have this overwhelming urge to float away…… To follow the breeze…. Go towards the sunlight…… but something pulls me back, faint in the distance, I hear Bond’s voice “You stay awake, you come back, do you hear me”, and abruptly the floating stops and I can feel a deep pain in my abdomen and a weakening of my body.
I close my eyes; darkness comes over me, and then, unexpectedly, a flicker of light appears in the distance; I see myself; myself 6 months ago in Brussels, about to give my speech on health-care issues in the European Union and new regulations for the big pharma which have been dictating rather than following the rules lately. I’m back, back to that moment that started the chain of event that led me back here, that led me to this moment which might be my last.
6 months ago…..
I had left BA after the G20; after yet another encounter with my mysterious Argentine; after Bond; after Sabrina… when I had had enough of all of it. I came back to Brussels, went back to work as if none of it had ever happened.
"Madame, madame c’est à vous de parler. Andiamo!!! Presto!", said M Rasi, Guido I should say, the executive director of EMA, the European Medicine Agency, and my boss. So I stood up and gave my speech, like I had many times before, on the importance of unity in the face of division, on the importance of our common goals, our strife for the people of Europe, and the world, to have the highest quality of medication to preserve, improve and prolong life….yes preserve, improve and prolong life…Yes all of those values, those values I used to believe in so strongly....before I knew any better.
"Hai fatto bene, come sempre", Guido told me. "You think so? We’re planning our move from London to Amsterdam; half of Europe is no longer European, you think talking about unity makes a difference now?" I responded in an almost irritated tone. "Ah che passione!" he responded and paused as he looked directly into my eyes. I knew that look all too well, he wanted something from me, and something I wouldn't really want to do.
“My dear I need you to go to Berlin, to attend a conference next Wednesday; given by a very influential Russian genetic engineer. You’ll need to pay close attention; we think the Russians are trying to play God and are trying to create some sort of super Siberian humans along with mutated vaccines against their own new engineered biological weapons. You need to take notes, talk to people, see who is there, who is interested, make friends." He said as he gazed at the speaker’s chair at the front of the auditorium.
“Anyhow, you leave tonight, and you will spend the week in Berlin. You will stay at Hotel di Roma, in the center, near the university library. It’s the only place you can get descent pasta, I will not have you eating German food for seven days straight! No one deserves that, not even the Germans!” He said as he burst out laughing at his own joke.
“One week, why one week if the seminar is on Wednesday?” I asked with a hint of annoyment, as if I had no life of my own and could just get up and go according to everyone whims and desires. “Perche e cosi. All your things are ready, you just need to take the taxi to the airport and enjoy. Antonella packed your things and whatever is missing you can just put on your expense report. Grazie mille cara mia."
So just like that I was off to Berlin on the 7PM flight. 9PM I arrived at hotel Roma, in the heart of Berlin, on the very spot which was the scene of the very infamous 1933 Nazi book burning. No matter how much we move forward, Germany’s past will forever haunt her, like a shadow that follows you even on the sunniest of days.
“Welcome madame” said the concierge, “we are very pleased to have you with us, Pierre will escort you to our best room, on the top floor, for your stay with us", he continued.
Penthouse and a week in Berlin, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all I thought to myself, why was I complaining?
Pierre opened my door, placed my suitcase on it’s dedicated stand and handed me an envelope; “C’est pour ce soir, amusez-vous bien mademoiselle”, he said before disappearing. Why an Italian hotel in Berlin had a French speaking busboy, I wasn't sure, but it is why I love Europe and believe in her so profoundly.
The envelope contained one handwritten note: ‘Das Kaffeehaus Dallmayr and bring your shoes. Grazie mille cara mia.’
The place was 3 blocks from my hotel, the coffee house of the Communication Museum of Berlin, I could hear the music from outside, and like it always does, it drew me in, like a firefly to light.
Important update: from Mr Bond
We met at 'Monumento Al Plus Ultra' against the entrance of the Reserva Ecologica on the eastern side of Buenos Aires where land meets La Plata. Savident, Hammond, Mireille, Norm, Sabrina, and Moneypenny were waiting for me on the steps just as the afternoon temperature dropped beneath the thick canopy of Jacaranda trees that borders the reserve.
The Jose Lorda sculpted monument commemorates a hydroplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1926 from Madrid to Buenos Aires. This was a riverbank area from which over time the River Plata retreated from the popular bathing point where the statue still stands.
Maria Cristina (known as M) arrives with London's new Head of Service Sue Boothroyd; unconventionally but not unexpected from what we know of M's quirky transport choices.
It is the first time that I have encountered Ms Boothroyd, MI6's first transgender Head. She is Theresa May's last appointment before a new Prime Minister takes up residence in London's Downing Street. She is younger than I had expected, powerful, beautiful and smart, her blonde hair pulled into a pony tail. The two women walk purposefully and without urgency along the avenue towards our group. Paul Savident, Hammond and Mireille chat quietly to one side. Norm continues to snap photographs of Sabrina and Moneypenny. I stand alone against the plinth.
When they reach a point twenty metres from the monument, Ms Boothroyd stops and turns. I can hear the sound of a phone as she reaches into her hand bag to retrieve her mobile. The distance is just too far away to hear her words. Almost immediately Moneypenny's phone rings out. She steps down from the marble steps to take the call. At the same moment a shot rings out, recognisable as from a single-action semi-automatic M1911 pistol.
Moneypenny stands for an instant but the phone drops from her hand. Within a second she crumples to the ground. For what seems an eternity no-one moves.
The events that followed fall seemingly into time-lapse. Norm steps back into the shadows followed by Savident, Mireille and Hammond. I rush forward to where Moneypenny is lying. She does not move. Her breathing is feint and rattling. A pool of blood creeps across the stone and she whispers indistict words in my ear. I turn to see the steel-clad dustcart depart into Rosario Vero Penazola.
Sabrina calls 107 for an ambulance and whilst waiting with her I instinctively seize Moneypenny's phone from where it had landed in the dust. Paramedics rush down the avenue. Arriving, they attempt to stem the flow of blood whilst delivering oxygen. Departing, they say that they will go to the Hospital Britanico in Av Caseros, Constitucion, and that Sabrina should accompany them.
I remain seated on the monument steps staring at my blood-stained hands. Distant at the reserve entrance I notice the glint of sunshine on the spokes of a wheelchair as it retreats into the shadow.
That I should encounter Moneypenny in Buenos Aires would not be surprising. Visit the city and you will understand why immediately. The tiny electrical charge that surrounds all humans is somehow magnified here, and strangely transmitted. You may be walking in a crowded calle, only to have a friend or acquaintance approach or wave furiously from a passing collectivo.
But that Moneypenny should find me within two hours of touchdown was spooky. On meeting, her demeanour was even more unusual. Gone, the carefree, fun-loving tanguera; now a subdued young woman on whom her smile appeared strained.
“James, I haven’t got much time”, she said breathlessly. “Take this, it contains your instructions. Oh, and don’t be late!”
With that Moneypenny pushes a data card into my palm and disappears up the staircase into the crowds of Calle Florida.
The astute reader will recall from a previous chapter - ‘Bond Recalled to Buenos Aires’, the MI6 voice on the phone that made it perfectly clear that the Palacio Haedo apartment in Recoleta and the 1960 Bentley S2 Continental came on the condition that I should carry the department’s phone with me at all times. In one demand I was propelled from the twentieth century into the twenty first, necessitating a return to Whitehall to collect my kit.
“Bond, you here again? I thought you were retired?”, had jabbered ‘Q’ as he opened a sealed case. “Now I have something to help you with your tango”, he continued with a laugh, “ask it anything...what is an ocho?....look, it makes Siri look like a child”. “And this is where you slot in your data card. No, Bond, don’t ask why you would need one of those; all will become clear”.
With that ‘Q’ had slipped the phone into my jacket breast pocket and spun on his heel. “See Bond, I have been practicing tango too,” he joked as he chasséd from the room.
Tracked by my phone? I inserted the data card and clicked ‘read’. ‘Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sud: Martes 1500 hrs para conocer a tus amigos, saludos, ‘B’.
But why the ecology park? And who is this ‘B’?
Breakfast at the galleria seemed to lose its appeal. ‘There is no such thing as a free meal, or even a quiet one these days’, I thought to myself. It seemed no sooner than I had set foot in Buenos Aires than I was being set to work.
I enter the press of humanity in Calle Florida and continue my route north to Santa Fé, turning left before Plaza General San Martin. Ahead, Palacio Haedo is looking both tired and splendid, the last traces of repairing scaffold being removed. Behind the glass reception screen sits Diego, his eyes fixed on a television screen. “Senôr Bond, nice to see you back in Bueno Aires”, he says with a frowning smile. “Here your key”.
Thirty minutes later I return to the street to hail a radio cab. “Puerto Madero, Fuente Monumental Las Nereidas”, I say, so as not to reveal my true destination. The taxi chases along the new Paseo del Bajo cutting minutes from the journey.
For 33 years, 350 hectares of marshland has served the Portenos as their last remaining wilderness. This is the Reserva Ecologica, where rough tracks lead you past swamps skirted by large iguana, eventually to the banks of the La Plata estuary.
My phone pings. ‘Monumento Al Plus Ultra’, reads the message. I squint ahead into the sunshine. On the steps is a collection of familiar faces.
“James, good of you to join us”, calls a voice. Two groups stand informally around the monument. In one group, Savident smiles, Mireille traces a lapise on the marble flags and Richard Hammond blows a kiss in my direction. In the other, Sabrina scowls at my approach , and Norm photographs Moneypenny as she shrugs her knees. “So we are The secret seven”, I observe tallying a head count.
“No, Bond, we are the nasty nine”, says Savident authoritatively, “we have been told to wait here for M and B”.
Maria Cristina (M) runs the government’s secret service operations in South America from her hidden office in Avenida Gral. Las Heras in Buenos Aires. “But who is this B?”, I ask, glancing around at the group.
“You’ve got to be joking, Bond”, replies Savident, “or you’re seriously out of touch, old man”. “B is the new Head of MI6, appointed yesterday by Theresa May as her last political act before her escape to obscurity”.
“So, this B, where’s he from?”, I continue.
On cue, a shiny new dust cart pulls up at the end of the avenue, and from the side door descend two blonde women, M turning to lend a hand to the other as she steps down to the street.
At that moment, behind us, the haunting sound of a harmonica emanating from beneath the Jacaranda fades, as a tiny wheelchair disappears into the distance.
From the Tienda Leon bus station I can either wait for a taxi, or walk the twenty minute journey to Palacio Haedo in Santa Fe. The day is fair, and after 13 hours of long-haul flight, the stroll would be preferable to a shared taxi.
Skirting Luna Park I pace to Av Corrientes and ascend to the pedestrianised Calle Florida where I turn north. It is still early, but the street is already busy with traders. Voices call out ‘cambio, cambio’ advertising currency exchange. I tuck my leather bag firmly under my arm for security as I pass intersections and open doorways.
Crossing Lavalle, Florida 537 appears on my right, a gloomy 1960’s building designed as a mall, now accommodating but a handful of trading units. I descend the escalator (inoperable as long as I can remember) to the lower ground level, heading down the sloping ramp to Argenper’s office. Smoked glass doors give access a deserted seating area backed by screens to hide the tellers. It is early. I am a queue of one, and a voice calls ‘siguiente’.
Whilst the foreign office will arrange currency transfers, they track every transaction. So I prefer to access pesos myself, making funds transfers from my bank to the English company ‘Azimo’, who arrange for peso collection here at the Argenper kiosk.
For proof of identity I present my passport which is scanned and returned. Horacio’s eyebrows raise as I write my address, Santa Fe 690. “Isn’t that the ancient palacio? I thought it was boarded up for renovation?”
I reply that in Buenos Aires you have to get accommodation wherever you can, at which he smiles, handing me a large roll of notes that have drummed from the auto-counter and enclosed with an elastic band.
With cash tucked into my body-wallet, my mind turns to thoughts of breakfast. I know that Raul, Haedo’s caretaker, will be on his rounds, and Maria the housekeeper has Tuesdays off.
Galerias Pacifico at Florida, just before Av Cordoba is the ‘shopfront’ of the Centro Cultural Borges. Jorge Luis Borges 1889-1986 was a writer and thinker, sharing with Samuel Beckett in 1961 the first Prix International. He was an opponent of the Nazi fascism of Adolph Hitler, which he described as ‘a chaotic descent into darkness’; and of the Peronism of Juan and Evita Peron which he called ‘the lies of dictatorship...to conceal or justify sordid or atrocious realities’. He was above all else, a nationalist for Argentina, one who loved tango, writing, ‘el infinito tango me lleva hacia todo’ - ‘infinite tango takes me towards everything’. Without doubt he would have approved of ‘Escuela Argentina de tango’, the famous tango school hidden away on the top floor of the building bearing his name.
The street-side Galerias Pacifico however, is the zenith of retail, and a few steps to the lower ground level leads the visitor to the food hall where breakfast can be whatever you wish it to be. This is now my destination.
As I descend the stairs a voice calls, “Bond, esperarme...wait for me”. I glance behind me to see a young slim, fair haired figure pushing through a crowd of tourists.
“Moneypenny, what on earth are you doing here? And how did you know that I was back in Buenos Aires?”
I must interrupt the story at this point before Mireille and I disembark the Manuel Tienda Leon bus into Buenos Aires, to tell you about ‘C’.
At the mention of her name, it all became clear. For good reason, few people on the planet knew about her. For a special reason, I was one of the few. And evidently, that was why I was here.
Recruited over a decade earlier in Buenos Aires by Maria Cristina (known in the department as ‘M’) with the help of M’s assistant Paul Savident, Cecilia was to become one of the UK government’s most important South American assets. When I was informed of my first posting to Buenos Aires, it seemed just one of those random places that the Ministry insists upon. After months trapped in Whitehall, I saw it as the dream job - for climate, wine, culture, and tango. Yet very soon it became clear why I had been sent. My task was to train ‘C’, the latest, and most talented MI6 acquisition in years.
My first meeting with ‘C’ was arranged to take place at Convento San Ramon Nonato in Calle Reconquista, behind the huge Bank of Argentina in downtown Buenos Aires. The convent is an oasis in the heart of the city, with shaded pavement cafes beneath the cloisters, surrounding sun-kissed terraces. During weekdays, lunch is served by ancient waiters at linen covered tables, away from the hubbub of city sounds. In the gardens whilst the bells of the convent are silent, you can hear the vibration of hummingbird wings as they flit from flower to flower. It is the one place in the city where meeting can be discrete and unnoticed.
Our first encounter remains a vivid memory. Approaching, a woman of both beauty and bearing, Spanish waves of black hair cascading down her back. Remarkable was her gaze, her penetrating dark brown eyes displaying immediate intelligence.
Cecila had trained as a psychologist, then turned to the camera to become Buenos Aires’ most fashionable portrait photographer. It was this combination of skills that had caught Savident’s eagle-eyed attention when visiting her gallery in Plaza Serrano, Palermo. Through her work, not only did she know and photograph Argentina’s leading politicians and influencers, but she had an immediate understanding of the working of their minds, delving into innermost thoughts, like an Annie Leibovitz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, or Yousuf Karsh.
Since then years had passed and ‘C’, as expected, had risen in the ranks to be one of the most useful, effective and charismatic agents in the field. And now she had suddenly disappeared.
The alarm was raised by her friend Norm Keilty, Northern Ireland’s international photographer. His emails had gone unanswered, texts unread and phone messages ignored. That traffic, or the lack of it, was picked up by MI5, and her loss became immediately evident.
As the coach pulls into the Tienda Leon guarded station and we prepare for our transfer, Mireille looks strained. “James, I know how this looks; I should have said something earlier. You should have been told”. There follows one of Mireille’s famous French pauses, “but we needed your support and assistance. The truth is, James, we know all about you and C, and how hard this will be for you”.
“You will be joined by Norm, Hammond and Moneypenny, if we can locate her. You are the team. Savident is your handler, and Raul and I will be available if you need support. We part here. Perhaps we may meet at the new Club Gricel if you have news?”
With that, Mireille stepped down from the coach, a fifty peso note imperceptibly exchanged hands with the coach driver, and she disappeared wheeling her case into the crowds of Retiro.
BA flight 245, “We have an announcement”.
Entering Argentine airspace from Brasil, the cabin staff walk briskly down the aisles to spray DDT or perhaps less noctious insecticide. “It is required under regulation”,we are informed, “if you do not wish to inhale, cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief”.
There follows the descent into Buenos Aires. In early morning sunshine the Boeing 777 circles the city, as it turns capturing views down to Puerto Madero and the wide river Plata estuary beyond. ‘Is that La Boca Juniors stadium?’, I ask myself, seeing the morning light glinting on glass and recalling secret walks there at dusk.
It is half a kilometre from the plane to baggage reclaim, where the carousel is spinning cases through plastic strips. With my single leather bag, I pass by the feverish tourists and proceed to ‘Migraciones’. Already the queues for non-residents are snaking back towards the access routes. Unlike my arrival on the ‘Hanjin’, this time I have a UK government pre-registered visa in the name of Cpt Bond, recorded fingermarks and digital photograph. I follow aircrew along the restricted special visa lane and a surly immigration officer waves me through.
The next hurdle is the customs check. Those with special visas are shown no favour, but my bag slips easily from the scanner. Beyond is the final flight-side point before freedom, the currency exchange and taxi booking services hall.
Mireille is somehow already positioned at the Manuel Tienda Leon desk, speaking rapidly in a confusing combination of French and Spanish. “Oh, James, I’ve got your ticket. We’re getting the autobus”. Before I can complain, she pushes forward towards the electronic doors which open with a whoosh. Beyond are the familiar scents and sounds of Argentina. A press of drivers wait with cardboard signs, and families gather in groups with flasks and ‘Mate’. Children run, porters shout, and outside taxis hoot impatiently. And the heat - a wall of hot air gushes forward to melt the moment of arrival.
“Follow me, James, I really know what I am doing”, calls Mireille, without glancing behind her. Through the covered walkway, we arrive at the bus stop where she waves two tickets, logs her case and receives in exchange a raffle ticket numbered 006. “Climb aboard, James. This way we get the best entry to the Capital Federal”, she continues, as we sidle between the worn coach seats. “Slide that curtain back, James, don’t screen the sun; we don’t want to miss anything on the journey”.
The Manuel Tienda Leon coach pulls forward into a line of taxis, and jolts as it forces its way onto the departure road. A clock, which at one point told the time, hangs limply from its wires and swings against the dashboard. The driver breathes heavily and waves a fist at the driver of a pickup calling out ‘boludos’.
As we pass through the two motorway tolls, and the roofs of Boedo and Barracas stream to our right, Mireille turns abruptly in her seat.
“James, I haven’t levelled with you”. “You know I told you I was here for the change of PM. That is not true. And neither are you here for that purpose. The message M sent was simply to force your hand to come back to Buenos Aires”.
“What are you saying, Mireille? In that case, what on earth are we doing here?”
“James, we are here to find a missing agent. Our mission is called ‘Finding C’. And we are not to leave until it is done”.
Heathrow Terminal 5, the champagne bar, a plate of Balik smoked salmon, mozzarella and caviar, and glass of Lombard Grand Cru Brut Nature. At my feet, my possessions contained in one leather bag. In my lap, my trusted Panama. On the shelf to my right, the bill.
I glance at the Bremont. It has turned 2130 hours and BA flight 245 has blinked onto the overhead monitor for gate B46. I pay with notes. Now to start the long walk.
Ahead, a crowd is littered across the departure lounge. Some laze with their trainered feet across the bench; others wait expectantly as if for the arrival of some celebrity. British Airways staff trot and dive beneath barriers, preparing to perform. The countdown begins, first with wheelchairs and buggies, followed by the suits and shades, and finally the teaming public who scatter down the passenger boarding bridge as if their favoured seat depended on their earliest arrival.
Three of us remain. He, by his look, demeanour and case, must be a retired pilot. She has been motionless, but at the last minute stirs as feet clatter in the distance towards the plane. She turns and smiles. “Alors Bond, comment ça va?”
Mireille, what on earth are you doing here? I thought you were still in Buenos Aires?”.
Dear reader, you will recall that Mireille, a French Canadian agent with MI6, stowed away on the ‘Hanjin Buenos Aires’ in her bid for freedom. On board ship, for twenty two nights we had danced to old recordings from the Golden Age of tango - Canaro, Laurenz, Biagi, Troilo, Calo, d’Arienzo, Rodriguez, Fresedo, Demare. Once in Buenos Aires, she had disappeared to Palermo Soho, only to be seen from time to time dancing Argentine tango at midnight in the milongas of Canning or Villa Malcolm.
“James, they brought me back to Blighty to keep un oeil sur toi. I’m surprised that you haven’t noticed me before. I had to report your every move”. “And now, they want me back in Buenos Aires in readiness for the change of PM”.
“Does that mean that I am off the hook?”, I reply frowning at the thought that I have been followed in London for months without noticing. “Yes James, I gave you a good bill de sante with Hammond, although I definitely got grilling from his friend, that Paul Savident. He behaves like un espion, plutot que un boss!”
I look at her momentarily and say to myself, ‘yes, he most certainly is a spy. And I sense, quite a dangerous one at that’.
Mireille disappears to starboard, and I settle into my clubclass couchette with the better class of blanket. It’s ‘no’ to more champagne, but a ‘yes’ to a Martini, even if it is stirred and the olive tastes rather like plastic.
Later, trays are cleared and the lights dim. From aft, the buzz of turbofan engines. From fore, the tinny sound of the inflight movie. And then 13 hours of fitful sleep before the descent into Ezeiza Airport, Buenos Aires.
‘Well, that is an end of that’, I mutter as I glance half-spectacled over my copy of today’s Times. ‘Theresa is gone. Without Brexit; and it seems she didn’t even get the trade deal from Macri at the G20’, I continue to myself. ‘But at least she got to dance tango with Gerry and Lucia!’
Readers will gather that several months have elapsed since I escorted Theresa and Philip May to their Argentine tango lesson in Balcarce just before the Buenos Aires G20. Perhaps my services may be needed again by Boris and his children Lara, Cassia, Milo and Theodore in June? After all, Argentine tango is also popular in Japan.
My muse is interrupted by the ringing of the phone, an ancient black Bakelite rectangle with a bell and a dial - like everything else in my Ormond Yard apartment, just past the brink of redundancy. “Bond, isn’t it time you got a mobile, old chap?”, says the voice. “Sorry to interrupt your retirement, but we have another little job, and there’s no one else who will go to there at such short notice”. There follows a pause. “You will, of course, be paid, plus club class BA flight 245 rather than the ship. Oh, and we’ll give you a brand new mobile phone”, the voice teases. “What’s more, if you are really good you can have the Bentley and the grace-and-favour apartment at Santa Fe, after all they’re just catching dust since you left Buenos Aires”.
This last offer sends my mind racing back to long, lazy, sun-filled days at Palacio Haedo, the department’s almost forgotten accommodation in Argentina’s Capital Federal. Built in 1860, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Untouched since 1923, the apartment provides home from home antiquity with Ormond Yard, but with the added value of high ceilings and tall doors leading to shaded terraces tended by caretaker Raul and his cat Cleo. Somehow HM Government managed to get their hands on the top two floors in the 1950’s and despite the Malvinas, never relinquished their hold.
“So, what have you in mind?”, I ask casually, trying not to disclose my interest. “It’s the same as ever, old chap. New PM, so new trip to grab trade from Macri...or will it be Cristina’s mob if they get back in power?”.
With first rounds imminent in the Presidential campaign, former President Cristina Fernandes de Kirchner and Alberto Fernandez lead the current incumbent Mauricio Macri by four points. Here too the perennial division: whilst the West favours the economist Macri, the people remain seduced by Fernandez socialism. The only candidate that could topple both would be Evita, long dead, but always present in the Argentine heart and psyche.
“And who will I get to show around?”, I ask with a failed attempt at humour. “Will it be Johnson, Gove, Leadsom, Raab - or one of the other tailenders?”.
‘So, you’ll do it”, the voice cuts in curtly. “I’ll tell M that you’re in”, it continues. Then the phone goes dead.
I heave myself from the chair and walk to a rain-drenched window, with its ‘almost view’ over the roof-tops of distant Whitehall. ‘Now look what you’ve done, James’, I say to myself as I turn the brim of my old panama between my palms. But deep down I feel the bubble of excitement of a new challenge, a return to Buenos Aires, and of course, Argentine tango.
‘I wonder whatever happened to Moneypenny?’, I continue. And with that, a smile returns to my face for the first time since I left Buenos Aires.
Corner of Balcarce and Defensa
‘Bond is standing in front of a Bentley; the window lowers and…. I can’t believe it, but it would seem that Bond was with Theresa May!!!! She’s no doubt in town for the G20, trying to make a plea for her post-Brexit Britain, just one more amongst the other lost causes of this year’s gathering of the ‘Great forces’. The window rolls up, Bond takes a step back and the Bentley drives off.
Bonds looks up and just as I am about to cross the street to meet him, I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t run away from me again”, he says, in that unmistakable Argentine accent. “It’s you, how did you find me? I mean what are you doing here?” I utter in shear shock.
“I have a friend who lives near by, I was just leaving his apartment when I saw you standing here; I told myself I couldn’t let you get away yet again. You’ve already escaped me twice, after La Viruta and then again after Gricel last week”, he responds with a slight smile.
“You seemed in ‘good hands’ when you left Gricel”, I retort, half mockingly. I turn towards where Bond was standing only to notice that he’s disappeared. “You also seemed to be in good hands if I recall correctly”, he responds.
“I was there with a friend”, I say in a very affirmative voice. “Well so was I, with a friend”, he replies. “Really, it seemed as if you had just met her?” I continue. “Well she was a ‘new’ friend, but enough of this friend nonsense, come home with me now!” He says in a determined voice. And before I can even attempt to respond, he takes my hand and we start waking up Defensa, we turn and walk through the market, passed the coffee shops and fruit stands to Bolivar; then up Bolivar to Plaza de Mayo; we go in complete silence, a silence that matches the calmest of the city on that day.
Taking all precautions possible, president Macri has ordered a complete shut down of the city during the G20 summit. All public transport is cut, people were told to stay home, shops to keep closed, Buenos Aires is a ghost town today. Never have I experienced silence in this city before, everything else yes, but never silence. The streets are quiet, no colectivos rushing by, no one shouting, no one running, no one pushing, it’s as if we had traveled to an alternate universe.
“Come, we’ll take Avenida de Mayo and cross 9 de Julio to take a taxi to Palermo, to my apartment”, he says as it suddenly starts to drizzle. I love it when it rains here, especially this time of year, it gives one a break from the scorching heat and washes away some of the filth that accumulates with time to reveal a new, more hopeful Buenos Aires. We walk along the grand Avenida de Mayo and the drizzle now turns into rain, but neither of us seem to notice. We’re soaked but we keep walking in silence, trying not to break the meditative state of the city. 20 minutes later, we arrive at his apartment, penthouse in one of the modern buildings of Palermo. “The first thing I want to do is get you out of those wet close”, he whispers in my ear while gently fondling my neck.
I feel hopeless, he was such power over me....and then I suddenly remember that all my troubles seem to have started in the penthouse suite…..and not too far off from here come to think of it……
Guest Blog: authorised by the Foreign Office, London, United Kingdom
The Plaza Dorrego note dated 24 November
“Bond, the situation is grave, we are on the brink of war; they have managed to get vital information from the Argentine government. You must go to the rendezvous tomorrow, your local contact will meet you there as will Agent 012. Keep the girl handy, we have reason to believe she can be of use to us, but do not tell her more than she needs to know. Goodluck. M’’.
Foreign Office memo 26 November:
“Agent Moneypenny’s disclosure of the note in a public blog is highly regrettable. There is every possibility that it will be viewed as a credible leak. Our current situation and conflict with Russia following Salisbury is highly classified and should have remained confidential.”
What you may not know, dear reader, is the extent of ripples from ‘Brexit’. Until recently, the safety and security of the United Kingdom was little in doubt. To the west was ‘our special relationship’ with the USA (and Canada) under the steady, civilising leadership of Obama (and Trudeau). To the east was Europe (and Switzerland), a largely collaborative and affluent landmass, offering joint ventures for trade, defence planning and policing (with military protection to the Vatican). All of that was to change. Now, the Channel - a thin strip of murky water bearing ships and concealing submariners - is all that separates us from a hostile world.
The Foreign Office was fully aware of our risk of isolation. The ‘£350 million per week’ sign was hastily dropped from the Brexit Bus and replaced by ‘£100 billion loss by 2030’, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. The Foreign Office needed to act quickly and decisively. And there was little point in turning to Merkel and Macron.
Worryingly with the Vatican falling into Argentine hands under Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and the US Supreme Court currently headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, supported by fellow catholics Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and now Brett Kavanaugh, the world order was changing in other ways. There were even beliefs that Prince Charles, on his accession to the throne, may convert to Catholicism, Islam (or both).
I know that it troubled you, dear reader - because you have asked why ‘M’ was sent to Buenos Aires, and with her, a collection of disparate, unusual agents. Predictably, the first to arrive was 007 Bond, meeting with ‘M’ in Recoleta cemetery. Then followed Sabrina, 009 Richard Hammond and his mysterious associate Paul. Even Mireille was to depart unexpectedly on the Hanjin Buenos Aires from which Cpt Nick Compton disappeared without trace. And who is the unknown Agent 012?
It is a matter of record that Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, arrived in Buenos Aires in the early hours of 30 November. Her itinerary was tight, but before meeting Argentine President Mauricio Macri, she had a prior appointment arranged personally by ‘M’. Whilst a Presidential car and escort greeted her at Ezeiza Airport, a switch was effected when the cars left Av 25 de Mayo, diverted back down Av San Juan to the junction with Salta. The cavalcade came to a stop at Parilla Nuevo Gogy where secretly Philip May was waiting with asado con frites and a glass of Malbec. Later three radio taxis carrying the Mays and British Secret Service left for Mariposita de San Telmo at Carlos Calvo 950, the May’s boutique hotel for their visit.
Within 30 minutes a 1960 Bentley S2 Continental Standard Sedan seen to be driven by chauffeur Raul Morgado from Palacio Haedo delivers Theresa and Philip May to Calle Balcarce. Whilst the British Secret Service keep watch from the first floor of the public garage across the road, the Mays are taken between the twin lanterns of 725 and the tall double mahogany doors into Taconeando.
“Hello, Prime Minister”. The voice is Argentine, but with almost flawless English diction. The owner of the voice is a slim, striking Argentine woman, her fascinating face framed by black hair. Alongside stands her husband, a short intruiging Irishman with shining pate and winning smile.
“Prime Minister, this is the famous La Flaca Lucia and her husband Gerry. M secured the best for you. I understand this is your first time in Buenos Aires, and indeed to be your first Argentine tango lesson?”.
Philip May smiles uncomfortably as he balances on one foot to tie his shoelace. Theresa places her handbag on a chair. “Take your time, Lucia”, Theresa May announces, “Mauricio Macri can wait; after all, our Falklands misunderstanding will not be resolved in a day”.
From their position of vantage, the officers of MI6 are able to see directly into the studio. And the agents witness the start of an important transition, from a gauche dance at the Conservative Party Conference - to tanguera. Whilst Philip struggles with the embrace, Theresa launches herself into the moment, arguably the most civilising event of the G20.
An hour later, the Bentley S2 pulls away from Balcarce 725, swinging via Plaza Dorrego into Defensa. Bond looks down from the roof at Defensa 784 as they pass, muttering “her next dance with Macri and Trump will make tango seem like a walk-in-the-park”.
There are some days when Buenos Aires is so hot and humid that San Telmo streets hum with the sound of the air conditioners which deposit their contents into large plastic bottles, or drip across scorching footways. Today is one of those days. Fortunately for me, a hint of breeze brushes the terrace to cool the skin.
On Sundays the milonga at Plaza Dorrego creeps into life at 1800 hrs, but most dancers arrive after later just as it starts to cool. The organiser, ‘El Indio’ Pedro Benavente is tall, slim and athletic, with long indian hair tied back into a plait. Following him, a collection of young tangueras vie for his attention. Significant amongst the local milongueros that frequent Plaza Dorrego is Don Bernabe, the grand master of the milonga. His age, a closely guarded secret, does not prevent him from dancing, and occasionally performing to the delight of the crowds that gather there.
Now early evening, I stand on the terrace overlooking Defensa. A tiny figure wheels into view and the sound of a harmonica rises against the walls of Geza Eckstein Sanjon de Granados Sa. The apartment buzzer sounds but over the intercom I hear nothing but the noise of market traders packing away their wares. When I reach street level, the figure and his chair has evaporated amongst the crowds, but tucked close to the door is a package - a shoe box wrapped in brown paper.
Returning to the apartment I slip my Georgian silver and mother of pearl pen knife through the string to open the box. ‘Exactly right - the perfect Comme il Faut seduction’, I say to myself.
Wearing my old dance shoes, I descend again the fifty two stairs to street level and make my way across Independencia towards Plaza Dorrego. I have left everything behind, save for a handful of pesos in my pocket and my apartment key clipped to my belt - the Bremont and leather wallet stored safely at the apartment. Plaza Dorrego welcomes those that travel light, and after our exploits of last night I do not relish a repeat loss.
The square is already crowded with visitors. On Sunday evenings it acts as a magnet for tourists that line three of its four sides to watch the dancers and take photographs for their memories. El Indio has just finished his demonstration performance to Angel Villoldo’s El Choclo, his a youthful partner’s fishnets catching the light from a string of coloured bulbs that hang from a plaza tree.
Moneypenny arrives with a swirl of energy. “Bond, let’s dance right now - its Miguel Calo with Raul Iriarte”, she calls above Cuando Tallon los Recuerdos, and she pulls me from my seat on the low wall. With that, we slip into the pista and execute a fast giro whilst waiting for a knot of onlookers to retreat to the steps. Tonight, for the first time since our return to Buenos Aires, Moneypenny dances with a lightness, almost a shallow breath, her short blonde hair catching the lights.
At the cortina, we return to the wall; and from beneath a planter I retrieve the box. “Imagine that, Moneypenny, it seems someone has left a present for you”, ‘Size six if I am not mistaken”, I continue with mock surprise. Lifting the lid, she takes out the Comme il Faut bag and squeals with delight. “Oh James, how thoughtful.” “But what is this?”, she adds, a frown crossing her face as she opens a note that has been slipped inside.
“Bond, you had better read this”, she stutters. “What is it….how did this get here….what does it mean?”
I look down at the note as she holds it out in her hand. The paper bears an MI6 letterhead and below, writing in thick italic nib. I glance up with concern. As I do so, I notice a wheelchair disappear into the crowd. Simultaneously, Richard Hammond appears ominously from the other corner. The Hugo Diaz cortina dissolves into a new tanda of Pugliese. But now dancing is the last thing on my mind.
Richard ‘cabeceos’ me and before I can even react Bond says: “Go dance with him, be natural, don’t say anything, keep it casual and talk about the weather.” Richard and I embrace, the pugliese has already started so we don’t lose any time in idle chit-chat. My dancing is horrid, I can’t hold my balance and as I go into my first ocho, my left shoe strap comes loose. I notice Bond across the pista reading the note, he seems worried but not surprised.
The first Pugliese of the tanda ends, “How nice to see you my dear, we did miss you at Casa Blanca in Sucre after you left”, Richard whispers in my ear. “Yes, I had a lovely time as your guest, but I had to get back to Buenos Aires”, I respond as I break away from his embrace. His eyes are fixed on mine, “What a pity, but perhaps we will have another occasion to spend time together in the near future, I feel that we have much more to talk about Miss Moneypenny, in fact I’m rather sure we will see each other very soon”. “It sure has been hot these past few days hasn’t it?” I suddenly utter not knowing what else to say; Richard ignored my sad attempt at changing the subject and whisks me back onto the pista. The tanda continues, ‘Una noche de Luna’ plays; Bond has picked up a slim blond and is circling around the dance floor as if nothing had happened.
The tanda ends and Richard disappears just as quickly as he had appeared; “Good job old girl”, Bond says to me. “If you say so, I’m not sure what happened there”, I answer as I try to get my strap to hook on; “He knows something, or there was something about the way he spoke to me. I’m so fed up with all this mystery secrecy; what did the note say?” I ask Bond.
“See for yourself”, he responds and hands me the letter, a telegram more than a letter really, which reads:
‘Bond, the situation is grave, we are on the brink of war; they have managed to get vital information from the Argentine government. You must go to the rendez-vous point tomorrow, your local contact will meet you there as will agent 012. Keep the girl handy, we have reason to believe she can be of use to us, but do not tell her more than she needs to know. Goodluck. M ‘
“Why would you need me? This is absurd, I want no part of it”, I shout to Bond. “Lower your voice Moneypenny, everything will be alright, you just need to play along”, he responds in a calm and contained voice. “We will dance after this milonga tanda”, he casually adds. However, before the end of the tanda, the music suddenly stops as the crowd, which was just seconds ago merrily twirling about the dance floor, falls into the deathening silence. A man has collapsed, his partner kneeling over him trying to wake him.
“Alguien llame a una ambulancia!”, shouts a voice as everyone retreats to the side of the pista. Before Bond can say anything, I grab the box of shoes and run off to Sabrina’s.
“You’re sure you don’t want to join me tonight?”, shouts Sabrina while twirling in front of the large mirror ornamenting the entrance of her, and now my, apartment.
“You seem very preoccupied with how you look tonight, any special reason?”, I ask her with a smirk.
“I believe my question was about whether you wanted to join me or not. If you’re so curious about my reasons for going, why don’t you join me? You’ve been going out with that man non-stop this week, it’s time you spent your free time in better company”, she adds.
“I’d love to, but I’m tired and all I want to do with get into a hot tub, have some wine and just be alone” I tell her.
“Suit yourself, you have Damian’s number in case you change your mind”.
“And which part can Damian help me with? The alone part? The hot bath part?” I respond mockingly.
“You're too clever for your own good you know? Damian can drive you to wherever you want to go if you need, for the rest, he's a grown man who can indeed be at your service if you need anything else..... Rest well my dear” she retorts with a smile.
As she closes the door behind her, and seeing her all ready for dazzle and dancing tonight, I almost regret staying home; not to mention that I was dying to know where she was going, she had been so secretive all day, almost as if she had been trying to bait me. I stare down at the box of ‘Comme il faut’ shoes, that were delivered earlier today and wonder if I shouldn’t just run after her, but something tells me I should stay put tonight after the day I’ve had.
I stare over at the clock, it’s just before midnight, still early by porteño standard, but for some reason I’m exhausted. I let the tub fill with steaming water and start soaking my tired feet and desperately try to make sense of the events that happened to me today.
I left Bond’s this morning, after making him my specialty breakfast: coffee and burnt toast, and rushed through the Sunday market. I love Sundays in San Telmo but for some reason today nothing was quite like I wanted it to be; the fresh orange juice stand I usually go to, wasn’t there; the coffee from the market was too hot; my medialunas were too dry; it’s as if the day was trying to warn me to stay home.
I walked towards home and just before reaching the front door, I saw I Damian leaving Sabrina’s place; he no doubt spent the night here, a rare privilege for Sabrina’s lovers, they’re usually asked to leave just as quickly as they’re asked to come in, but not him. I’m not quite sure what she sees in him, but I know better than to ask Sabrina about her nightly engagements.
When I got home, Sabrina handed me a package which had been delivered earlier today; a pair of 36 silver Comme il fauts, just like the ones I lost last night and a copy of my key. The worst part was that I almost wasn’t surprised. I feel as if I’ve had no control over my own life in the past few months, that it was only natural that last night’s pickpocketing had more to it than met the eye, but why? Of what interest was I of all people to anyone? Nothing seemed random, everything seemed all planned out, like a play and I was the only one who hadn’t gotten a copy of the script.
After a few hours of telling Sabrina what happened, I stepped out to Dorrego and that’s when I realised I should have listened to the events of the day and stayed home…..
Dawn comes and goes, apartment shutters keeping out the morning light. Below, sounds of the market meld with fragments of street song from performers who arrive with gusto and depart with pesos.
Dawn comes and goes, apartment shutters keeping out the morning light. Below, sounds of the market meld with fragments of street song from performers who arrive with gusto and depart with pesos.
I turn, feeling the warmth of her back. An escaped shaft of light illuminates the curves of her shoulders, ending in a pinpoint on her calf. Her cropped hair appears translucent in suffused light. She turns. “Bond, is that you?”, she breathes with a serious expression, then smiles.
“What was wrong with the maid’s room?”, I inquire. “What was right with it?”, she retorts, “that bed is as thin as the tail of a La Boca dog, and I am sure you have put a pea under the mattress!”
“Well, that is clear then”, I reply, racking my memory for the moment that I felt a sheet turn, or noticed the softness of her breath on my neck.
“Put some coffee on, old girl”, I continue as I reach for the Bremont. “Gosh, it’s after 12 noon - how did that happen?”
“Time goes quickly when you are enjoying yourself”, she calls from the kitchen and I hear the tap run and the clink of coffee cups”. “Don’t fool yourself”, I reply, “at my age I simply don’t have the time for pleasure”.
Nevertheless, after our first night together at Palacio Haedo, when Moneypenny slept on the terrace, this feels totally different. Protectiveness, responsibility and intrigue compete together for my attention. Then I remember that I am in Buenos Aires, and it really does not need to be resolved. Instead, I close my eyes, listening to fragments of song as Moneypenny prepares breakfast.
An hour later, as I am reading yesterday’s newspaper on the terrace, Moneypenny approaches from behind, pulls back my forehead and supplants a lipstick kiss. “I am going to sort out a key. Plaza Dorrego tonight?”, she stipulates, turning quickly to leave before I can reply.
As her footsteps recede down the staircase, from my half unpacked chest, I take out some writing paper and my Parker fountain pen.
Contact Hammond and Paul. Tell them to meet us tonight (Sunday) at 8pm in Plaza Dorrego. Tell Harmonica boy to collect the size 6 in gold from Comme il Faut, and bring your tango shoes.
I can’t sleep. How did I end up in his maid’s room anyway? If he were any type of gentleman he would have given me his bed and, would himself, have slept in this sorry excuse for a room which is essentially his walk-in closet. But it seems that 'gentlemanliness' was not on Bond’s new-post MI6 menu, or was there another reason he didn’t want me in his room?
I keep replaying the night in my head; it started off so promising, a true return to New Airs, and it ended with my losing my favorite shoes, my keys and my having to spend the night feeling like Bond’s hired help. The odd thing is, I swear my shoe bag had gone missing earlier in the evening. Had someone put something in it? Had they tried to recover it by taking my bag on the bus? Had we been followed out of Gricel? Why did they reach for my shoe bag and not my purse, which I was also so evidently carrying? Or has all this secrecy and spying made me paranoid ? Could this simply be nothing more than a common act of pickpocketing? The kind that happen every day to everyone?
I get up to fetch a glass of water and try to think of something else. I start looking around Bond’s new apartment: it’s much less luxurious than the last, but I’m quite fond of it. It has a European art-nouveau ‘je ne sais quoi’ feel to it, the same type of ‘je ne sais quoi’ Buenos Aires has. I walk around the apartment, if I didn’t know any better, I would think that Bond has been living here for years; portraits of famous Argentines ornate the walls in such a way that made it seems as if they were family. At any moment Borges, Ernesto Sabado, Mussolini (ok not quite Argentine but with close ties), the handsome Gardel and even Eva Peron herself could walk in for an afternoon coffee and medialunas.
The large bookshelf in the living room is filled with books and manuscripts on the history of Argentina, dating all the way back to independence in early 19th century; they all look as if they have been read dozens of times; it’s as if Bond has recreated himself as an old Argentine gentleman in the 4 days he's lived here, complete with a very influential family tree.
I gaze at the brick walls and large windows around me; I walk about the room; the wooden floors cracks under my feet as I gently dance with the ballet of shadows cast by the swaying curtains and the moonlight peering in; I can’t quite tell if I’m dreaming or awake.
I can still smell my mysterious Porteño cologne on me, if I’m honest, it’s not really my missing shoe bag, nor my shoebox size room which are keeping me up tonight, it’s him. I can feel the tips of his fingers running down my arm and around my waist; yet I know nothing of him and that’s how I wish it would remain…mysterious men have gotten me into enough trouble lately, yet I feel myself hopelessly drawn to him.
I want to dance, I should wake Bond and make him dance with me, after all I am his guest; but perhaps we’ve already exhausted all the tango this night could offer and asking more of it would only exacerbate things.
Bond and Sabrina freeze and gaze at me in terror. What happened? I feel lightheaded, everything is hazy; I feel as if I were floati...
Mr Bond Dawn comes and goes, apartment shutters keeping out the morning light. Below, sounds of the market meld with fragments of st...
Mr Bond Heathrow Terminal 5, the champagne bar, a plate of Balik smoked salmon, mozzarella and caviar, and glass of Lombard Grand C...