The heart of it

*

You enter the maze. You have a simple choice. Right or left?

*

Kristina had a father and a mother. She survived a middle class upbringing and like the majority of middle class kids, despite media reports, lived with both her parents. Her father was the one who had upgraded from working class to middle class.

Kristina’s father was carried to London in 1917 by his parents who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution. People described him as a self-made man, but that’s not what he said. He was always conscious of those who contributed to his success, not least his two maths teachers. It wasn’t the maths that made the difference – it was the money.

The two teachers truly believed that intelligent children deserved a chance to make the most of themselves, even if they came from poor backgrounds. Kristina’s father was the beneficiary of their belief and went to grammar school because of their generosity, and of course, his own intelligence.

Grammar school opened possibilities for Kristina’s father that none of his working class neighbours ever glimpsed. With the help of scholarships, hard work, lucky connections and perfect timing, he navigated into the working class exclusion zone of medical school and ultimately became a doctor.

Perhaps Kristina learnt enough anatomy from him to locate the heart on Sunday 7th March. But there is no evidence of it and Kristina did not follow her father into a career in medicine, or make any contribution to the treatment of heart disease.

*

After two turns you hit a dead end.
You retrace your steps back.
You could leave, but you want to know what’s at the heart of the maze.

*

If genetics and upbringing caused Kristina to act like she did, then Kristina’s mother must have been responsible. Typically for women of her generation, she took almost exclusive responsibility for the home and the child rearing. She was the one covered in vomit while holding Kristina in a tight, loving embrace. She was also the one who cleared up the vomit once Kristina had succumbed to sleep.

She provided the anchor in Kristina’s life. She encouraged and challenged, modelled socially acceptable behaviour, instilled moral values and insisted that Kristina spoke Russian as well as English.

*

You come to a fork in the path.
You could continue in the same direction
or turn onto a new track

*

Kristina hid her fluency in Russian and like her father spoke English with a British accent, although hers was more refined than his. It was only as she approached the end of her schooling that she developed an interest in her grandparent’s homeland.

Her interest led her to enrol at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, a small independent college of the University of London.  Most of the college’s one hundred students were ex-forces men who had learnt Russian as part of their military service. The college also had a sprinkling of students like Kristina who were descendents of émigrés from Slavic countries.

During her three years of study she became fluent in Polish and Hungarian. These were not subjects on her syllabus but the mother-tongues of two young men whom she shared rooms with and whom she taught to dance.

Her love of languages didn’t make any difference on Sunday 7th March.

*

The path opens into a small square.
For a moment you think you have reached the heart of the maze
but you realise this is a staging post
and randomly choose one of the many paths.

*

The 1960s were the era of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crises happened in 1962.

At Kristina’s home, and her college, Russia was admired as a place of literature and poetry. It wasn’t admired as a country and neither was its ideology. Kristina began to view Russia as a broken vessel in need of repair.

She met Harry Redbrook at one of the many college dances. He was a friend of Peter, the social secretary and, although not at the college himself, was responsible for the collection and delivery of the barrels of beer. He was also an excellent dancer.

It wasn’t long before Harry and Kristina’s passion for dancing led to them meeting at various venues across London. Harry lifted Kristina on the dance floor and their relationship also lifted her social connections out of lower middle class and in to the upper echelons. Harry had been to Eton and Cambridge. He’d also been on the programme to train Russian translators and interpreters known as the Joint Services School for Linguists which was linked to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His knowledge of Russian words and phrases was extensive but Kristina found that the flavour of his Russian was always slightly awry.

Harry and Kristina married, socialised, scandalised and divorced within three years. Harry Redbrook barely registered as a footnote on her life, except that her marriage to Harry brought her onto the radar of the political elite.

*

After many twists and turns you find yourself back in the small square.
You make another choice and quickly leave.

*

The 1960s were the era of the Cold War. Kristina’s language skills were seen as a potential tool, or weapon, but her heritage dampened enthusiasm for using her talents and delayed any job offers.

By 1966 Government Communication Headquarters directly employed about 8,000 people. Most worked at its main Cheltenham base but there was also a small office in London. At the age of thirty, Kristina’s talents finally led to her recruitment to translate and interpret messages intercepted by special signal units based in West Berlin.

The marriage bar that prohibited married women from joining the Foreign Civil Service was still in place until 1973. For once, being divorced was an advantage and a year after starting at GCHQ she had moved to the British Embassy in Russia.

*

You feel that you must be getting close after so much exploring.
You have a choice between a path leading towards the centre
or one leading directly away.
You head away as you know that the maze will not be simple. 

*

Kristina flourished at the embassy. Her linguistic skills were adequate for secret interpreting. Her linguistics skills combined with her grace on the dance floor and short skirts were more than adequate for other, even more secretive work.

Kristina’s children know only that she was a secretary in the Civil Service and that because she was multi-lingual she undertook secretarial work in several countries. They imagined her typing letters in English, Russian, Polish and Hungarian.

Family for Kristina meant her second marriage. Paul Ashcroft also worked for the Civil Service and also spoke Russian. However, it was their private language that they never passed on to their children. Mark, their middle child, eventually learnt enough Russian to disturb their privacy but by then it was too late to discover what they had been saying about the 10-year old Mark at the kitchen table. If he’d had a time machine he’d have discovered that most of the talk was political not domestic.

He would also have been surprised if he had been able to eavesdrop when his parents watched films; especially thrillers and murder mysteries. If he had been able to understand Russian he would have been intrigued as to why his parents found many of the most dramatic scenes oddly amusing.

*

You arrive.
Your path has been crooked and you are unsure what to expect.
But finally you will discover what is at the heart of the maze.

*

On Sunday 7th March, Kristina walked up the steps from the riverside to London Bridge and her eighty-year old body protested that she’d done too much. It took her a moment to realise that something was happening. People were running with such panic that they bumped her and knocked her off balance.

Kristina clutched the stone balustrade and turned her fall into a controlled slump. Once on the floor she pulled her legs in out of the way.

The flow of people dwindled. She had a clear view along the bridge and saw one solitary man. She immediately knew this man was the cause of the panic. She could see that he wielded something in each hand. She also knew that she would not be able to get back to her feet before he reached her.

Kristina opened her handbag and quickly looked through; keys, purse, lipstick, eyeliner, compact mirror, retractable umbrella, perfume bottle, hairbrush, hairspray, cigarette lighter, cigarettes and a mobile phone.

She thought about phoning her daughter to tell things that were never told. There wouldn’t be time. Kristina was sure the police would come. She didn’t think it would be soon enough.

Time. She needed more of it. No one was going to give her more so she’d have to make some.

Extracting the umbrella was taking too long. She tipped the entire contents of her bag onto the pavement next to her. She grabbed the hairspray and pushed hard on the trigger to release as much spray as she could, into and over the furled umbrella.

She took her compact mirror and smashed it on the ground. She picked up a broken shard and forced it into her lipstick. She unclipped the strap from her bag and clipped one end to her heavy bunch of keys.

The man arrived. He looked at Kristina, sprawled in the debris of her life. Kristina thought he’d pass her by, but then she saw the way he looked, the way his arm flexed back with the long knife ready to strike.

She thanked God that her lighter struck first click. She touched the flame to the hairspray soaked umbrella and pressed the umbrella release button while thrusting up towards the knife-man’s face.

The umbrella ignited in a ball of flame and flung burning drops at the man. Kristina didn’t watch.

She concentrated on swinging the key-laden strap around the man’s legs. As soon as the strap had encircled the legs Kristina pulled hard. The man toppled. Kristina hoped he’d land on his own knife but she wasn’t so lucky. The flame and fall were enough to disorientate him.

Kristina was not disorientated. She aimed precisely at the spot on the man’s chest that she knew covered his heart and slammed the mirror-bladed lipstick with all her might. The shard cut through his bulky jacket and sunk significantly.

Kristina leaned back against the balustrade and started to shake. The shock wouldn’t let her feel relief.

She started to close her eyes but then noticed the man move his arm. He pulled open his jacket and Kristina saw the explosives. The police were approaching but not soon enough.

Kristina crawled across and flopped onto the man pinning his arm under her. The first rifle shot went through them both.

*

It is time to leave the maze
You are confident of the initial direction
but soon find that the outward journey is as complicated as the inward.

*

Kristina manages to avoid direct media contact by virtue of being in hospital. But the media onslaught is relentless.

The big question is where did Kristina learn to do what she did? The media speculate wildly and rake over Kristina’s past. Her family are no help as they themselves have no idea.

Finally Kristina relents and admits that she has always been a fan of action movies, thrillers and spy movies and that she has always imagined herself taking out the villain. What she did was simply something she had made up in her head over many years while watching the films.

The media dub her double-o-eighty and as soon as she is well enough she collects her George Cross medal for bravery.

Only Mark understands the words she says under her breath, but he isn’t sure that his translation is accurate. He can’t understand why his mother would say, “At least this time I don’t have to keep it secret.”

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