I flash a smile towards Nancy the waitress, and without a word she arrives with a second champagne glass for Moneypenny, who is now settled alongside me fiddling with her shoe strap. The convention - that men and women sit separately has long since been abandoned at Canning, but the milongueros know that I usually sit alone, so this presents a field day for wagging tongues. Fortunately, my grasp of Castillano is not sufficient to understand their remarks.
“Bond, you really must tell me what is going on. First, the cemetery, then the mansion in Peru? And who are these people - Richard, Jay and the others?”
“Whoa”, I say, “I will tell you what you need to know, but here is not the place”. “If you look behind, you will see that even the walls have ears”, I add glancing at the rows of tangueros in front of Canning’s huge wall mural.
“But I can say this, old girl”, you’re quite something. You showed your metal in following me to Recoleta, and followed it up by getting the envelope. How long did it take you to solve the riddle?”
Moneypenny smiles. “Well, old boy, I think that that must wait for a proper debrief, don’t you?”, she adds mischievously. “But Bond, are you still working for HMG, and is this something to do with that? I am right, aren’t I”? “You needed me at Peru, for some reason. You must tell me for it seems that I am being pulled into something way over my head”. “And this time you can tell me somewhere a little more salubrious than the Cafe Paulin cupboard”.
“ Alvear Palace Hotel for tea tomorrow”, I reply “and I promise I will tell you what you need to know”. With that, and a tanda of Edgardo Donato, we return to dance.
The penalty of allowing Moneypenny to pay for lunch at Cafe Paulin was the bonus of her company for afternoon tea at the Alvear. But it was clear that tea and cakes were the least important topics on her agenda. Our chat at Canning had left much unsaid, and the relative privacy of L’ Orangery at Hotel Alvear was the perfect place to say it.
Some say that the Alvear Palace is the best hotel in Buenos Aires. It is certainly one of the poshest. Mounting the steps, and slipping Jorge, my regular doorman, a crisp 500 peso note, I pass the showcases of Arita jewellery and Cartier watches in the entrance foyer, and make my way through to the lounge where we had arranged to meet.
Plush, but relaxing, this is not a casual stopping point, but a destination in itself; for it is from here that one may see the rich and the infamous as they arrive and leave. Jorge has excelled himself, for it is within moments that a tiny waiter arrives with a tray bearing a single, simple Martini - cool and shaken just as I like it.
Afternoon tea at the Alvear is an institution to be taken seriously. Moneypenny, having listened to my instructions, arrives promptly and is dressed for the occasion. Her tight black dress shows her figure as she walks towards me, and I notice that she wears new Katrinski tango shoes and a flower in her hair.
“Hola, Mr Bond”, now this is more like it”, she blurts, clearly recalling her first impressions of the ‘cupboard’ Cafe Paulin and pleased that the experience is rectified by Alvear splendour. “Right, which way for tea?”, she adds, looking around herself approvingly.
“Straight ahead if you will, old girl”, I rejoin, noticing a flash of disapproval on her face. Nevertheless, she dutifully links arms to walk along the deep carpet to L’Orangerie. Led by the waiter carrying the Martini, we pass the salon pianist in full flow, neglect the booking-in desk, and go straight to our private table. It seems, working with Jorge over the years - and the generous tip, is paying dividends.
A bonus of L’Orangerie is the huge tables that form an acre of space sufficient for ten diners, making it impossible to be overheard. But our waiter takes us to a small table just laid for two, tucked privately in the corner of the salon.
I pull out a chair for Moneypenny, and she feigns delight. “Oh, Mr Bond, how kind”, she says unconvincingly as she lowers herself with unusual elegance. I wonder to myself whether she has ever taken tea Buenos Aires style before?
“First things first, Moneypenny”, I announce, “a glass of proper champagne - not the old Canning plonk?”. “Yes please, what fun”, she replies excitedly, but with a hint of impatience. “And which tea would the old chica prefer”, I continue undeterred. For the second time her eyes flash with annoyance as she checks the list of teas, their descriptions listed page after page. “What’s this Genmaicha tea like?”, “or would you choose the rare Rose Petal for me?”, she says tersely.
“For me, it's simple old Earl Grey”, I say, and the waiter scurries off to find the sommelier with our choice of champagne.
Tea, when it arrives, is a miniature feast. Fortunately Moneypenny has taken my advice and not eaten since her breakfast of grapefruit. At first sight, the tiny trimmed sandwiches appear insufficient even for our diminutive waiter’s frame, let alone a grown man and his hungry companion. But appearances are deceptive, and it is not long before we turn to the mini pâtisserie, fresh fruit tarts, warm scones and other delicacies prepared by the hotel’s Chef Pâtissier.
As we share the specialty cakes that are always served right at the end of the meal, and the salon pianist embellishes “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’, Moneypenny leans back to search for her handbag from beneath the drop of the white linen tablecloth, returning clutching an envelope, which I immediately recognise.
“Now, Mr Bond, it’s time for reckoning. Guess what I have here?”, she says, and places the green envelope onto the table, carefully withdrawing its contents….
“I think we have some talking to do, Mr Bond; don’t you?”
Bond escorts me to his table under the gaze of Canning’s regulars, who know he always sits alone. I can only imagine the stories that will run rampant in the tango community tomorrow. Bond and I should give them something to really talk about….
The pista is crowded, ‘Orchestra Juan d’Arienzo’ is playing live tonight and that has brought more than just the usual posh tangeros, with an invasion of tourists clicking their cameras. I have little desire to dance like a sardine tonight and I have more pressing matters on my mind.
“Bond, you really must tell me what is going on”, I start. “First, the cemetery, then the mansion in Peru? And who are these people - Richard, Jay and the others?”
Bond smiles at me and tells me that this is not the time or place to discuss such matters. “ Alvear Palace tomorrow for tea and I’ll try to satisfy your curiosity”, he says as he pours me a glass of Veuve Clicquot.
“Cafe Alvear, por favor”, I tell the taxi driver. Fifteen minutes later we arrive in front of Hotel Alvear Palace, one of the city’s best examples of luxury. I have wanted to come here for ages.
I bump my head as I leave the taxi and almost lose the flower from my hair. Clicking my new Katrinskis up the steps I have a quick browse of the cases of jewellery, before the rather attentive doorman welcomes me. I’m early and Bond hasn’t arrived, so next I head towards the powder room to fix my hair. With large mirrors, a selection of perfumes to choose from and even more hair products, the washrooms are a sight in of themselves. One might even come here just for them. I fix my hair and take one last look at the black dress I borrowed from Sabrina - an Armani that she wore last year when we went to Colon. I hope Mr. Bond approves.
I go up the stairs and spot him immediately, predictably with a Martini in his hand. “Hola, Mr Bond, now this is more like it, not quite the same feel as yesterday’s lunch”, I say looking around and recalling our lunch at Paulin where Bond, as in tango, had opted for a close embrace meeting.
We walk towards our table in L’Orangerie. It’s filled with plants, almost blinding white tablecloths and sparkling silverware. It reminds me of tea at the Plaza in New York, or the Gerbaud in Budapest - the cities of my previous life.
We order our tea. Bond orders champagne, of course, for it would be inconceivable that any of our meetings would be alcohol free, even afternoon tea. Once we’re settled with tea, drinks and cakes, I pull out the envelope from my purse dramatically and place it in front of Bond.
I look into his eyes. “I think we have some talking to do, Mr Bond, don’t you? How did you know I was at the cemetery? Who were all those people at the mansion? How come Sabrina was there? Am I being used for something I might not want to be a part of? Or is this just some of tango initiation ritual?”
“Slow down old girl, you almost made me choke on my cucumber sandwich! I will tell you everything, just be patient”, he responds. “Everything?”, I ask with a hint of sarcasm knowing full well he’ll tell just enough to tease my taste buds, and claim that it is all I need to know.
“Let’s just say I’ll tell you all you need to know”, he begins, when I interrupt him. “I knew it, but go ahead anyway”, knowing it’s hopeless to get more out of him.
“Good girl! So it goes like this. Of course I knew you were in the cemetery. First, with your adorable short, blond hair you stick out like a sore thumb, not to mention that little mini-skirt number you wore yesterday. Anyone would spot your creamy white legs from miles away. Second, I knew you would follow me when I left Paulin; I purposely left mysteriously knowing it would pique your interest. You took the bait just as expected. These obvious baits might be treacherous - you’ll have to be more careful in future.”
“Wait, what future?”, I interrupt again. “Don’t interrupt me, or you’ll get no more of this story”, he retorts. “Fine!”, I lash back.
“You were meant to follow me; you were meant to find that envelope which I so obviously left in plain sight. The riddle was a test. I wasn’t sure you would decipher it but Sabrina on the other hand was sure you would. That woman does have good instinct, I can’t take that away from her. And before you get all lovey-dovey on me, yes Sabrina and I still speak occasionally, but no there is no chance us rekindling whatever it is that you think we had”.
“Oh but Bond”, I interjected, “there must still be something there!” I was beginning to sound like a teenager reading a romance novel and hopelessly waiting for the ‘and they lived happily ever after’ ending.
“Oh but Bond nothing!”, he continued, “now, about the cemetery, the woman I met there, Maria Cristina, is my contact in Buenos Aires. We worked together in the UK. She scripts the missions, no specifics, just places to be, people to meet, and I provide her with the information she seeks”.
“That was how Sabrina and I came to meet years back at one of Dr Richard Alvarez’s parties. I recruited her that night, but got more than I bargained for. Sabrina was a natural - charming, pleasing and smart as a fox. Within an hour, she could get information from Stalin himself if needed. We worked together for many years. Much like our respective countries, our relationship has been one of ups and downs, collaboration and deceit. Nonetheless, HMG has repaid her services handsomely, hence a seemingly endless supply of Manolo Blahniks and Armani dresses”.
“Anyhow, last night I wanted you to meet Richard - and more importantly his partner Jay who is the way to Richard. Who Richard may be, and why he is important matters not right now; what does matter is the information on Richard that I believe Jay will provide if given the right push. Which is where you come in, my dear”. He pauses and looks directly in my eyes.
“Me? What can I do?” I asked, intrigued. “You’re going to get that information. Maybe not you directly, you’re not ready, so we need an information mule of some kind, someone who can be disposed of once its done,” he responds.
“I have an idea that I’m sure will work”, I say triumphantly.
Dear readers have been asking me to reveal more about myself - the true Bond. They sense my reserve, and the reasons for it - historic from a lifetime's work under a spotlight, and currently from a shyness to share the vulnerability that comes with age.
Having led a rather public life - one that necessitated travel around the world - I have never really sought set down roots. The closest, I suppose, is my small apartment at Ormond Yard, St James, giving me a short walk to Downing Street, MOD Whitehall, and importantly around the corner in Duke of York Street, the Red Lion Public House.
My London apartment is where I hang the few Savile Row suits that I still possess, my handmade shoes from Jermyn Street, and a modest supply of single malt whisky from Skye. Yes, I have some books, but they are collected on one shelf where they gather dust. Perhaps I should part with them, but in moments of nostalgia they bring back memories of my youth.
London and St James seems a distant dream, now supplanted for the time being by Buenos Aires, and my ‘borrowed’ rooftop apartment here at Palacio Haedo.
When I spoke to ‘M’ of my intention to come to Buenos Aires she looked over her half glasses in a familiarly questioning way, saying nothing, neither approving or disapproving. Two days later a key was slipped under my apartment door, with a handwritten note saying, “Park on the roof, drink the fresh air, and say hello to Raul”.
My forte had been dealing with situations rather than solving problems, so here, I thought, was a task for Q.
“Why Bond, it’s obvious isn’t it”, he jabbered, inspecting the note and the key, “the fresh air’ has to be ‘Buenos Aires”; ‘the Park’ must be the Ministry of National Parks in Recoleta where Raul Ocampo is still stationed, and this double sided key, typical of Buenos Aires, almost certainly fits the door to the mothballed MOD apartment on the top terrace”.
“How the hell did you work that out so fast”, I retorted - to which he simply smiled his annoying smile and said, “Bond, get out of here...enjoy the trip and don’t come back”.
Buenos Aires came as a surprise. I was able to walk down a street without looks, stares or comments. Age brings an invisibility, but 7,000 miles from London on another continent provides an extra layer of privacy. Occasionally the observant passer-by does a double take before dismissing their questioned recognition. And, naturally, that suits me fine.
Argentine tango was altogether another thing, and arguably the most difficult mission of my life to date. No written instructions. No equipment. No support. Just me in Buenos Aires and the most daunting task in the world.
And that was when I met Moneypenny.
What you have to understand about Argentine tango is that from day one you need all the help you can get. Not simply the best teacher and a half-decent pair of shoes, but encouragement and affirmation from your tango partners. The experienced Portenas would breathe heavily with impatience and thereafter avoid my cabeceo. Not until I had spent months of practice and threatened to drop my shoes in a street skip did tango slowly start to fall into place.
Moneypenny had little idea about tango, but she did have natural rhythm and a love for the music. As a dance partner, she was perfectly formed. Recognising me and knowing of my past she was perfectly positioned. But for her youth (or maybe because of it) she was an ideal companion.
But, I have said enough about me; and maybe too much about Moneypenny. Perhaps we should get back to the story - after all, that is why you are here, isn’t it?
There’s something about how they dance together, your eyes just seem to follow them. I don’t know if it’s the romantic in me but wouldn’t it be grand if they got back together? Here, once again right under Richard’s nose?
Their tanda is finished. Bond, as always, offers his arm to escort his partner back to the table, our table in this case. Sabrina gracefully accepts but releases him just a few meters beforehand, as if she wanted to keep him away….
"You danced beautifully," I venture to say as she sat down. "How was it? Have you missed dancing with him?" "He kicked my heel in the second sacada of the left giro. That man never could do a proper sacada; can’t even pronounce sacada properly, after all these years his Spanish is still hopeless," she replies. "Go dance with him, he’s trying to get your attention," she adds, pointing towards Bond.
I get up and make my way to the pista where he stands waiting with his arm out. "The two of you were wonderful," I start saying, hoping to get something more from him than I had from Sabrina." "That woman should change her shoes for something lower, more age appropriate. She almost fell over in the giro, causing me to miss my sacada. We looked a mess! Come let’s dance!" he blurted.
I finish my tanda with Bond and before the next starts, I have four heads nodding at me; the cabeceo, you see, is how the men of tango woo their next partner; in this world, men are still the hunters and women the hunted; the reverse just isn't done...or not commonly done. Not that that’s ever stopped me from cabeceoing someone myself, or dancing in pants, or in flat shoes beneath the disapproving gaze of all of them.
Tanda after tanda I am asked to dance, I can barely get a sip of our Dom Perignon during the cortinas. Then, all of a sudden the music stops and we are told that our host, Richard, will indulge us with a song. I look around, Sabrina has disappeared without saying a word, as she always does. I catch Bond’s gaze and he nods towards the entrance hall, holding up five fingers. We make our way out the door, towards the gates, he's much faster than I am, I knock down a candle and spill wax on my shoes as I try to keep up with him. By the time I exit the gates, Bond has already hailed a taxi.
“San Telmo, then on to Recoleta, por favor" I tell the driver. as soon as I step in.
"I’m too tired for the explanation now, but you have to tell me what just happened tonight. All of it. I’ll see you at Canning, old man?" I say to Bond.
"You will, young lady. Oh and while we’re at it, I have a question for you," he continued, "Was the cat alright? It did make the most dreadful screech", he adds. Before I could say anything, we pull into the curb, I was out of the taxi and he was off on his way back to Recoleta.
My alarm goes off, it’s 9:30, PM that is of course, Buenos Aires is on the other side of the world, it’s only natural that we live upside down as well. I get dressed for Canning, my red backless dress and my silver Comme il Faut’s. I take a taxi to Palermo and 20 minutes later I arrive at the hall.
Biagi is playing as I walk in, I look around and see him sitting in the far left corner, he looks up at me and I start making my way towards him.
“Bond, you are here already?” I ask . “Moneypenny, I thought you wouldn’t arrive until midnight?” he replies. "Well here I am, shall we dance? I just need to put my shoes on’’ I add. I put my shoes on, and struggle with my left strap, the wax from yesterday has made it worse I think.
As soon as I'm ready, we dance our first tanda under the watchful, and critical, eyes of the regular tangeros. Canning is a very exclusive crowd in the tango scene, or at least they like to think of themselves that way. In my opinion most are just over the hill dancers who pine over their lost youth and create rules of decorum that make them feel important.
We finish our tanda and Bond extends his arm to escort me from the pista. "Bond, may I sit with you this evening, we still have to talk about what happened last night." I venture to say. He looks at me, "Of course you can join me, old girl" he responds.
And that is how both Moneypenny and I came to be trapped for a night at Peru 1826 - me in Sabrina’s ageing arms; and Moneypenny in the visceral clutches of Jay.
Fortunately, at 2 am Dr Richard Alvarez was called upon to sing, not a moment too late, and certainly not for the faint hearted, yet one that provided cover for our escape. Dancing the last tanda of Osvaldo Fresedo I whispered into Moneypenny’s ear “Marble entrance hall - 5 minutes”.
She was waiting there when I arrived, half hidden beneath an archway. Racing swiftly across the vestibule, pressing the door release, we exited via the courtyard, through the wrought iron gates and into the street. Within seconds I hailed a passing radio cab and we were away down Peru, through a sleepy San Telmo towards the city, bearing left into Roque Saenez Pena (Diagonal Norte) and out on 9 de Julio towards Recoleta.
Moneypenny appeared pensive but silent in the cool dawn breeze that entered from the open cab window. “We will talk about it later, old girl”, I said, to which she replied, “Right, Mr Bond, have it your own way, but we must talk soon. I need to understand. I need to know. Salon Canning tonight...I’ll see you there, old man”.
Salon Canning is in Av Raul Scalabrini Ortiz in the heart of Palermo, Buenos Aires’ leafy suburb where the smart young set tends to live. Canning, as it is abreviated, is one of my regular haunts - a milonga at which I can meet other regular milongueros and dance with their wives. Unlike La Viruta at Asociacion Cultural Armenia - at Canning I do not have to cope with the hordes of tourists, their salsas and rock-and-roll.
Nancy, my regular waitress smiles as I enter and leads me to my reserved table, central to the pista, but set back one row - for it is not my style to join the egos on the front row. “Nice to see you Señor Bond”, she adds as she takes my order for sparkling water and champagne. “Nancy, lovely to see you too, you’re looking great tonight”, I reply, to which she blushes, as always.
I wear my dance shoes from the taxi to the milonga, for there is nothing worse than seeing dancers change shoes by the pista. From my table I glance around me, looking to identify friends, especially those that dance with skill. By the time Nancy has released the champagne cork, poured a glass and returned the bottle into an ice bucket, I already have planned in my mind my initial tandas. Orlando is guest DJ tonight, so the next tanda will be Rodolfo Biagi, followed by Miguel Caló, Francisco Canaro, Angel D' Agostino, Alfredo De Angelis, Pedro Laurenz, and Ricardo Tanturi. I will cabeceo the elderly milonguera Hilda for the Biagi, for that is what I always do, and what she will expect.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice a slight figure walking briskly towards my table. “Bond, you are here already?”, she gushes. “Moneypenny, I thought you wouldn’t arrive until midnight?”, I reply feigning surprise. Why am I not surprised that she would be here from the outset?
‘Ahora no me Conoces’ rings out from the speakers suspended from the ceiling. I am too late to catch Hilda’s eye, and Moneypenny tips her pale face to one side, smiles and twirls her right forefinger. Is she is cabeceoing me? I reply with a mirada, reversing the codigo in which only the leader uses the cabeceo. Not that it matters with Moneypenny - I suspect she can barely spell the words ‘cabeceo and mirada’, let alone understand their cultural significance to the milonga. Perhaps, sometime I should sit down and educate her on the topic?
Biagi is perfect for a first tanda - it gets blood circulating and energy levels rising with its staccato beat. The floor is open, so we just walk with a long stride that extends Moneypenny’s reach, her hips moving to open with each step making our difference in height inconsequential.
The milongueros at tables along the edge of the pista look up from their conversations to admire her youthful walk and and the sway of her hips. The milongueras shift their critical stare from her dainty feet and Comme il Faut shoes to her body hugging dress and translucent shoulders.
Within the embrace I simply feel her softness and the flexibility of her movement, her simultaneous response to my lead, and warm breath on my neck. We dance the four songs of the tanda, for that is the codigo, after which I lead her to the side of the floor, as is the tradition.
“Bond, tonight do you mind if I sit at your table?”, she blurts.”We still have to have that talk, remember?”.
Intrigued to know what she has to say, and knowing of the gossip that will follow when Canning sees a new young woman at my table, I reply, “Yes, most certainly, Moneypenny, it will be my pleasure”, and escort her across an empty pista to the enquiring looks of the Canning crowd
I make my way through the gates, candles light the path to the house setting the perfect mood for a late night in Buenos Aires. As I get nearer, I hear music playing, it’s faint but I recognise it immediately - Francisco Canaro’s Corazon de Oro. It’s instrumental, without words, but every emotion is transmitted. It’s betwitching, and before I know it, I sway to it’s gentle rhythm 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 as I walk towards the mansion.
As I start going up the front stairs, the door suddenly opens: ‘Good evening señora, you are most welcome’, says a voice from the entrance hall. ‘Good evening,’’ I respond timidly looking into the darkness. ‘Please enter,’ he continues.’ As my eyes accustom to the gloom, I see a small wheelchair, in which sits the tiny figure of the boy from Recoleta. How odd to find him here, I really have no idea what I'm getting myself into...but here I am.
Following the candle light, I cross the tiled floor of the vestibule into a grand marbled entrance hall. It has all the appearance of an Italian villa with it's four floors of arched balconies; 4 large chandeliers ornate the ceiling and cast a golden hue on everything below. ‘The ballroom is to the right, señora, says a butler, pointing towards the French doors.
My shoes click as they tap the marble floors making my presence hard to conceal.
As I get closer to the ballroom, the sound of the music intensifies and I see the silhouettes of dancing couples and the orchestra; women in long dresses with sparkling jewelry, the men in black and white tuxedos. I’m greeted by smiles each way I turn, as if they’re expecting me. One figure, stands out from the rest - since he’s a foot taller than anyone else, he can’t help but stand out everywhere. He’s wearing a simple evening suit and bow tie, less formal than the general crowd, but he fits in perfectly.
Bond notices me and smiles, a light smile, almost a smirk, as if he’s amused to see me here. He raises his hand and motions for me to join him. ‘Why good evening old girl, what are you doing here?”, he says tauntingly. ‘Good evening Bond, well it was like this...’ I explain, when he interrupts, ‘Come, let me introduce you to some people. Start your evening by getting to know the right people.’
‘The man over there chatting to the women is our host Richard. Next to him is his partner, Santiago, but everyone calls him Jay’, he says, pointing out a man of smaller stature to Bond, but with a presence that seems to dominate the room, like an eagle flying over a canyon. ‘Jay is from Peru and loves to dance tango. You should indulge him old girl,’ he adds as he walks over to them.
‘This is the bright young lady I was telling you about, Jay’, Bond announces as we join them. ‘Good evening, my dear.’he responds and then adds‘You are most welcome here,’ as he kisses the hand that I had raise with the intention of shaking his.
At that moment a blond woman bustles towards us. Could this be the woman I had seen at the cemetery? If so, why the riddle? No, it can’t be her. In a turmoil my mind drifts back to cemetery, I still had no idea what I had seen there, or why it and the riddle in the green envelope had brought me here.
The blond woman smiles at Jay, then turns to pat Richard gently on the shoulder, ‘Richard, my dear, the Vanderbilts are looking for you. Be a good host and join them,’ she says in a soft, possessive voice. ‘Yes of course my dear Margarita’, he replies. As he leaves he turns to Bond saying, ‘Enjoy the night old sport, we’ll finish our discussion later in the billiard room’.
‘What is this place?’ I ask Bond. ‘Come, someone is waiting for you, or if she’s not, she’ll certainly be happy for you to fill one of the empty seats at her table’. ‘Oh, and by the way, Richard our host is Richard Alvarez’, he adds casually avoiding my question.
‘Bond!! Richard Alvarez!!! So that story you told me WAS true!! I want to meet him!’ I plead. ‘All in good time, old girl’, he says knowing full well how much I hate the expression. ‘You know sometimes I don’t know why I like you so much! Save the ‘old girl’ for your hound back home’, I say, turning my back on him. He makes me so angry sometimes.
‘Did you like his partner Jay? he continues, he’s quite a character, and unlike the Argentines he’s proud of his roots. He claims to be descended from an Inca dynasty, but actually his ancestors were Spanish renegades who traded gold with the Incas, traded or more accurately cheated but that's old history by now’.
We walk towards a table at which a woman sits alone. ‘Isn’t that Sabrina?, I ask. ‘How come she is here; why all this mystery?’ I plead again. ‘Put your shoes on and we will dance.’ he responds, again avoiding my question.
I cross to Sabrina, I notice that her classic bottle of Don Perignon and red rose lay on her table. She’s wearing her black Versace dress and her signature red Manolo Blahniks. ‘How nice to see you here - finally,’ she blurted out. Finally? I’m not even going to ask her what this place is, or how everyone seems to know that I was going to arrive. Until a few hours ago I had no idea I would be here.
‘Sit, put your shoes on and dance. This is where you were supposed to be tonight,’ she adds casually. ‘Fine, but can I ask one thing? How come you have Manolo tango shoes? I didn’t know they made them for tango,’ I say knowing that this was yet another question to which I would not get an answer.
‘They’re made for me, and only me. After all I went through these shoes are the least I should be getting. Now hurry along, he’s back,’ she adds as Bond makes his way to the table.
I put on my right shoe, struggling with the left strap as usual. When I finally look up, I see Bond and Sabrina making their way to the dance floor and ask myself, ‘Could this be the rekindling of their long lost love?’
Barracas was hit by a power outage, a regular occurrence here in Buenos Aires, leaving the barrio in darkness save for street corners touched by moonlight. The headlights illuminated the entrance beyond decorated wrought iron gates and I made my way to the door of Peru 1826 before Raul turned the Bentley, my last steps bathed in red from the stop lights and a pitiful handful of pillar candles that add an eerie glow.
The front door clicked open on a remote release catch, and I entered. From the darkness came the sound of ‘Milonga triste’, a classic tango tune made famous by Hugo Diaz.
He lowered his harmonica and looked up at me from his shrunken wheelchair. “Mr Bond, what are you doing here tonight?”, he exclaimed. “We were not expecting you after you failed to leave the envelope”. ”Didn’t you get the message?”
Knowing that Raul and the Continental were now en route back to Palacio Haedo, I had to think quickly. Should I simply spin on a heel, and leave in a cab? At that moment voices came from a room beyond, and then appeared Marguerita holding a candlestick.
“Bond, you are here”, she exclaimed, “Come and join us”, she added, swinging her skirts and large frame towards the ballroom. “Seems I am trapped HB”, I whispered, winking to the unseeing boy, now left in total darkness, and followed her.
Argentine’s - especially Portenos - love parties, in particular those that start late and finish in the early hours: these, together with tango and beautiful women, are the three main reasons that I am here in Buenos Aires. But this was not a party of Mate, empanadas and Malbec; here in the gloom of a power cut were gathered some of the city’s wealthiest people and, as it happened, the most excruciating bores. It was the sort of party that I was required to be at when working for Her Majesty's Government - and for which I was paid to attend.
Let us start with the Vanderbilts of ‘the Vanderbilts have asked us up for tea’ family fame - you remember the song...something about ‘swells? With conspicuous wealth, they had positioned themselves centre stage to attract the attention of their acolytes. Having made a fortune (some say from involvement in selling the children of the ‘disparue), they now were intent on spending it socialising with their friends, creating a form of upper class social polo game for the retired elite.
But for his wealth, extracted dubiously as a cosmetic surgeon, and the paid support of his effete Peruvian partner Jay, our host Richard Alvarez would have been a forgotten character sitting in a care home lounge. Instead, he was indulged by sycophantic ‘friends’ and, having a half-decent voice, unfortunately asked to sing. Margareta, his deposed wife bore no resentment towards her husband’s gay partner Jay. She always appeared at his parties and said that singing (and her presence) was good for his health. To outsiders, it was hard to tell which of the two was keeping him alive, and which intent on his demise. No doubt his death would bring with it a fight for his fortune.
Alone at a table bearing a candle and single rose, sat Sabrina. She was wearing Versace and the expensive Manolo tango shoes I had acquired for her twenty years earlier. For an instant I wanted to retreat from the room, feeling a tragic sense of deja vue - when one’s forgotten past becomes one’s present. She had started to bear the ravages of time, accentuated by the roots of her hair that shone silver under the chandeliers.
As the night progressed I glanced around the room. From the head upwards, the predominant colour was grey. Below, brashly expensive jewellery separated their status. With one exception - that suddenly entered the room from the hallway.
“Moneypenny, what are you doing here?” “I didn’t know that you wanted to be a part of this set?” “But how clever of you to work it out, old girl”, I added. “Now, who do you know, who don’t you know, and who do you want to meet?”
I inspected Moneypenny who looked awkward as I introduced her to some of the relics, like a filly standing for the first time, surrounded by old drays.
‘So, about the note’, I asked. “Well, it was quite simple; all I did was to….”, she replied, but was cut short by the sound of a bandoneon.
Sabrina, desperate for company, glanced in my direction with a pronounced mirada. “Go do your duty, Bond”, joked Jay, as he turned his to lavish his attention on Moneypenny.
I take the note, start to walk towards San Telmo while trying to make sense of what I had just seen. Was this a secret meeting? Was he involved in something illegal? I was expecting to catch him having a romantic rendezvous with another woman (I mean with a woman, not another woman) but instead I saw something else; something I couldn’t put together at all. Secret keys to hidden notes in crypts? None of it made sense; only a few hours earlier we were having coffee and I was teasing him about his love life, but now this?
After over an hour of walking, I reach San Telmo. I circumvent the market streets where I am bound to meet someone I know, and walk towards Sabrina’s to collect the shoes I left there this morning. I just hope I won’t have to answer too many questions.
As I reach the corner of Humberto Primo and Balcarce, I see Lucia walking directly towards me, I had forgotten all about her. She looks up, sees me and crosses the street as if to avoid me. But I won’t give her that satisfaction, so I cross over to come face-to-face with her. ‘Hola, Lucia, you seem to have recovered from last night I see. Recovered your clothes as well, I’m glad to see.’ I said. ‘Um, I… I, it was, I mean, I had a lot to drink…’ ‘she mumbled, ‘Don’t worry, I don’t really care who you play tit-for-tat with in the bathrooms, he’s really all yours...really, enjoy!’ I replied and walked off.
As I reach for my key to unlock Sabrina’s door, the handle was pulled from my grip and a woman tumbles towards me . ‘Ah, it’s you; you again,’ she exclaimed in a tone of annoyance. Adrianna, was a regular visitor to Buenos Aires and and habitué of Sabrina’s dance school. She, like so many, came here for the tango; and maybe more specifically for the tangeros. She doesn’t seem to like me very much; according to Sabrina resents the loss her youth and inevitably those who remind her of it.
At a very posh milonga last year she mistook Alvaro’s cabeceo, which he intended for me, and she still hasn’t forgiven me for being picked over her. It baffles me how it’s me and not Alvaro that she hates, but I guess that’s how ‘jealous’ combined with ‘insecurity’ works.
‘Sabrina, is out’, she continued, assuming that this was the reason for my visit. ‘No, it’s not her I want, it’s my tango shoes - I left them in her apartment earlier today’, I answered, realizing that I didn’t owe her an explanation.
She reluctantly let me in, knowing full well what Sabrina would do to her if she had refused. As she was about to step out, she turned, ‘You know I’ve been meaning to ask you, how come you’re here for so long? I mean don’t you need to work? Don’t you have a proper life somewhere else? Don’t you have obligations?,’ she asked, almost aggressively.
It was as if she desperately wanted a reason to resent me, one which was more easily justifiable than my age, my potential as dancer, the attention Alvaro gives me, or my very pretty Comme Il Faut’s. She wanted me to be a spoiled brat who had been spoon fed everything without having to lift so much as a pinky for it. This would elevate her hatred of me to more than just jealousy; she wanted something that she could openly criticize and maybe even rally others to her cause.
‘A few years ago, I started, I married a very wealthy older man, and last year I got tired of waiting for him to die, so one night I poisoned his brandy. And I’ve inherited all of his money.’ I said triumphantly. ‘We should go for coffee when you’re free, talk about the latest milonga gossip,’ I added and walked into Sabrina’s apartment before she could reply.
'Go ahead, hate me, for whatever reason you want, hate me.’ I thought to myself, ‘But if you push me, I’ll give you a real reason to hate me.’
I grab my shoes and run home to rest before deciphering what to do tonight.
As I lay in bed I take the note out of my purse:
‘Reveal yourself tonight at Our brother in arms, dweller of the skies; celebrate his liberation from the imperial shackles to which we were both bound. Speak the word of our founder and enter.’
‘At our brother in arms….’ Is it Shakespeare? Was it a play that might be playing somewhere in the city? No, that seems too predictable… and it’s not theatre season just yet. ‘Dweller of the skies’ - a Greek god? A bar named after a deity? There are thousands of bars in Buenos Aires, I’ll never find the right one before tonight…
I close my eyes and repeat the words ‘Brother in arms, Brother in arms… that Dwells in the sky…. Imperial shackles’. Bond is always speaking in riddles this must be a joke to him. He’s re-written his entire history in the form of riddles - chocolate boxes and shaken Martinis....Wait, history!! History in riddles!… Yes that’s it!!!
I glance at my watch; midnight; I’m standing in front of an iron cast gate behind which lies what appears to be an old mansion that I had never noticed before. I’m on Calle Peru - Argentina’s brother in arms during the fight for independence from the spanish crown - they fought high in the Andes, high in the sky where they dwell, against the imperial shackles of their common oppressor, Spain. 1826 Calle Peru. 1826, the year Peru officially acquired independence or liberation from their common motherland.
I ring the intercom: ‘Yes’, a low distant voice responds. ‘Yes hello, I would like to….’ I could barely get the words out when the voice says ‘No’, and hangs up. No? No to what? I hadn’t asked anything. I ring again: ‘Yes’ says the same Edgar Allan Poe-like voice, that you might imagine saying ‘The raven rapping at my chamber door’, to which this time I reply, ‘San Martin’. I hear a click and the gate opens inwards.
Buenos tardes, my dear reader - it is early evening here in Buenos Aires, and I hope whatever time it is where you are, proves the right moment for you to read the next episode.
After my meeting in Recoleta, I returned to my apartment at Haedo, to rest. ‘I’m getting too old for this pace’, I tell myself, as the last drop of evening sun catches the drapes, and a silence settles over the city. This is the moment when shop and office workers have returned home, but revellers are yet to stir.
A lifetime of secrecy makes it hard for me to share my life, events, and feelings. Suffice it to say that the meeting with Maria Cristina went according to plan. Yet where she is involved, life does become more complicated. Her role has never been to make things simple - she looks for hidden agendas and the unexpected. But that is her job and maybe this particular skill is why ‘M’ is held in such regard here in Buenos Aires.
There is that which I am not at liberty to reveal; but I can confess that our meeting created more tasks than it settled. One of them I must resolve tonight.
Raul calls from the terrace, “Senor Bond, I got your note. You want me to drive you?”, he inquires in a thick Argentine accent. “If you would be so kind, old boy”, I reply, knowing that the extra pesos of a night’s work will be of use to him. “I will bring the car round at 2200 hrs”, he replies, revealing the discipline of his former military life.
Touching his forelock, Raul and his rake disappear towards the end of the terrace, followed in hot pursuit by Cleo the cat.
Tonight calls for more than a jacket - but less than tails. Rosa the maid, has laid out an evening suit, white shirt and bow tie - the sort one ties oneself, rather than the abominations that come ready tied. I pick up a silk scarf, only to discard it as perhaps too formal for the occasion.
When I descend to street level Raul is waiting by the maroon and cream Bentley S2 Continental. It was a generous gift from ‘a good friend’, one to which I am too attached to sell, despite private motorcars being less than useful here in the capital. By habit, Raul opens the rear door, then offers a hand. “No need for that yet”, I exclaim, aware that age is catching up fast, but not that fast. I smell leather upholstery and note reflections of the street lights on the walnut. ‘I must be mad to keep her”, I say to myself, whilst simultaneously settling back into the familiar comfort of the 1960 standard sedan, the only one in CABA.
From Santa Fe we drop down to Leandro N Alem and then, via Casa Rosada, onto Paseo Colon. Our destination is Barracas, bohemian barrio of Buenos Aires.
Having turned in Martin Garcia, Raul pulls up the Bentley outside Peru 1826. With the engine running, he leaves the car momentarily to press the intercom. As a trustee, he knows the SM code. The metal gates open inward, allowing us to enter.
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