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LONDON—I met a British spy on the train.
He was taking the 9:15 express in from Cambridge to do a 24-hour stint in a London hotel room, waiting. “If the government needs me, they’ll call,” he said.
I met him because the train was crowded, and it was either sit next to the man with glasses and an unbuttoned khaki coat and a bit of Bill Nighy in his face, or sit next to the toilet.
“I like to do word codes and crosswords,” he said, waving a little black notebook and a pencil.
Somehow we found ourselves discussing his youthful military service in British Guiana. He described—in stark and somewhat unsavory terms—the racial tensions the troops were sent to quell, tensions that after returning home he studied in depth. He used to travel a lot. He used to specialize in Russia.
“I’m old now,” he said. “I work part-time. I put on my pajamas, and if they don’t call me, I sleep.”
I asked him what part of the government he worked for, exactly.
He paused. “The Foreign Service. Sort of.”
A few days earlier, at a rural English bus stop, I’d met a high-school dropout spouting manically about “urban menace.” It occurred to me that I should have probably found him less frightening than the bespectacled man now leaning eagerly across the little train table, telling me that he had long advised Britain not to be too quick in confronting Assad, because who knew what would come next, and now look what had.
Later, at the hostel, I tried to find my “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” online. I read about shady MI6 recruitment at Cambridge University and British military support of covert political manipulation in 1960s Guiana, but the spy evaded me. Spies may be the only ones these days who wriggle free from the Internet’s invisible spider web.
I suppose I could have shaken his hand and said, “My name’s Julia Ostmann,” and perhaps he would have reciprocated with a “Charmed, my name’s ————.” But then again, he was a spy. Perhaps he would have responded just as he did: “Sorry to have bored you. Safe travels.”
I swear he disembarked the train just seconds ahead of me, but when I looked for him on the platform, he had vanished.
Julia F. P. Ostmann ’15, a Crimson FM editor, is a history and science concentrator living in Quincy House.
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