If you’re into all that meta thing of real and fictional characters becoming indistinguishable in the story, I can thoroughly recommend my friend Kirsti Wishart’s latest novel, The Projectionist. Meantime here’s a skit on a recent trip I did, although it probably owes more to the excellent Mick Herron novel I read in the course of it than to Ian Fleming.
Our Man in Ljubljana
Bond didn’t think much of M’s new offices. Hanging somewhere off the fag end of Leith, it had none of the charm of his former London quarters.
Victoria Quay, the Scottish Government HQ: Bond liked to call it the Black Lubianka, although with its grey concrete bulk it resembled nothing as much as a battleship, albeit one that had somehow become mired in the estuary mud, and with no apparent difference between prow and stern, so that it was impossible to tell in which direction it was heading when it became stuck. Which was, Bond felt, more than a little appropriate.
Leith, too. Not a part of Edinburgh Bond had frequented often in his Fettes days, apart from one formative experience. It was probably some sort of Levelling Up initiative by the current politician in charge – what was his name again? Boris? Bond suppressed an internal shudder at the origins of that name. Their old enemies at Smersh, hiding in plain sight?
However, one had to increasingly turn a blind eye on Her Majesty’s Secret Service these days. Bond was just glad to be back in the game again, after his third enforced bout of gardening leave, brought about by a little misunderstanding with a female agent half his age, but still old enough to know better.
‘Bond. Jamesh Bond,’ he told the security wallah at the front desk (could one even call them wallahs these days? Well at least in one’s own head – for now, Bond reflected with a semi-raised eyebrow).
‘Oh aye? We were warned you were a bit of a card, Mr Ferguson,’ the front desk man replied, reaching for a plastic pass that said ‘Unescorted.’ Of course. His nom de plume these days, although with any luck a nom de guerre soon enough. Bond chafed for action: to be away from all these Health and Safety types and Inhumane Resources, in the field, where he belonged, for goodness’ sake.
‘Morning Moneypenny,’ he said as he threw his hat in the general direction of the coat stand that had disappeared in the last round of austerity measures. ‘Looking shimply shuperb thish morning.’
‘Oh, Andrew, you’re such a card,’ Moneypenny responded, a patient smile on her lips. ‘Jim is waiting for you.’
Jim? ‘Ah, yesh,’ Bond said, striding up the open plan – even his old spy chief didn’t have his own office these days. ‘Morning M,’ he said, breezily. ‘You have a new mishion for me?’
‘It’s Jim,’ M said, a trifle testily. Of course – it was one of his fasting days. The old M, the one Bond knew best, hadn’t done any fasting, or if he had, he’d kept it quiet. And no first names in those days. Still, at least it wasn’t that Jackson woman any more. Not that Bond had a problem with women in positions of power. Not since his Equalities Training Module, anyway.
‘You’re needed in Ljubljana,’ M told him. ‘How’s your Slovenian these days?’
‘Pashable,’ Bond said. ‘Spravim se.’ He absorbed the brief at a single glance: posing as a semi-retired local government consultant, one Andrew Ferguson, he was to attend a transport conference – a perfect cover for the exchange of crucial coded information, using transportation acronyms with secret meanings. Bond left the offices with a spring in his step, eager to be back in the field.
It was clear almost from the start of the mission that Smersh agents were set on sabotage. A lack of baggage handlers at Edinburgh (fellow passengers muttered darkly about Brexit, although Bond knew better) meant the connection to Ljubljana had already gone by the time Bond arrived at Charles de Gaulle. A sympathetic Air France agent (clearly briefed on who she was dealing with) issued him with a meal box, his boarding pass for the next day’s flight, and two chittys: one for an airport hotel and one for the shuttle to it.
After a bewildering journey through the many level Dante’s Inferno that was Charles de Gaulle airport these days, Bond found himself in Room 318 of the Campanile hotel, wondering how his career had brought him there.
To be fair, Bond had stayed in worse places than this, some even this side of the Curtain. The monastic cell at the retreat Inhumane Resources had sent him on his second bout of gardening leave sprang to mind, although at least then the double locked window had offered a view of green fields and distant woodlands.
His rumbling stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten properly since lunchtime – the Edinburgh flight didn’t offer Chateaubriand as he’d remembered, but instead a half-sandwich of unspecified cheese forming the glue that held the soggy bread and tomato together.
He turned his attention to the meal box but, again, either the opposition had been at work and switched the box with proper French cuisine meant for him at the last moment, or it was some form of Gallic joke, because it contained a tin of what appeared to be salmon paste, a tub of some form of grain combined stickily with something that might have once grown in a field of peas, and a couple of sticks of Ryvita under a foreign flag. Bond ate the lot, aware that he was probably being watched, and determined not to show weakness.
The next day, after a breakfast that again made him pine for the simple austerity of the monastic retreat, Bond found his French returning, at least enough to pass the code word ‘trois cent dix-huit‘ to the shuttle driver to enable his safe transport to the airport.
The flight, inevitably, was slightly delayed – Smersh at work again, surely – but the midday flight touched down in Ljubljana only half an hour late. Bond had expected to be met, of course, but initially walked past his man, forgetting for a moment his assumed identity. Remembering, he made a point of asking the driver for a photo, pretending that it was so unusual for him to be met by a man with his name on a sign that he wanted a souvenir of it.
In reality, of course, if the driver turned out to be a Smersh hitman, and in the unlikely event of him besting Bond, at least he could be recognised in future. Bond posted the photo on Ferguson’s Instagram account, where the Service would pick it up.
Arriving at the hotel for only the last half hour of the conference, Bond was suprised to hear Ferguson’s name called out.
‘Sho. I shupposhe you exshpect me to talk,’ he said languidly, reaching for a non-existent cigarette.
‘Only if you want to – I mean, you’ve had a very difficult journey,’ Bond’s contact said. It wasn’t the answer Bond was expecting, but he went along with the fake narrative about arrangements for an Edinburgh conference in September. Later, an exchange of emails – heavily coded of course – confirmed that this discussion of ‘arrangements’ was exactly what his superiors had been expecting. Mission accomplished, he and his contacts set about enjoying the excellent hospitality Ljubljana had to offer.
It was no surprise to Bond that the flight from Ljubljana to Frankfurt was delayed: the agents of Smersh were everywhere, even among the baggage handlers and ground crew of major airlines like Lufthansa.
But then his luck turned. Even Smersh had its admin errors, it seemed, for the connecting flight to Edinburgh was also delayed.
Released like a pack of hounds from the inevitable bus shuttle that had crawled across the tarmac to the wrong end of the terminal, Bond and his fellow travellers sprinted the length of Frankfurt’s extensive departure area, a sprint broken briefly but anxiously by a few moments in front of a suspicious policeman at Passport Control – did Bond recognise him? Perhaps his father, at the Berlin Gate – then down in a lift, back up stairs, dodging the extended families and their wagon trains of baggage, the Edinburgh departure time and gate changing even as they ran, lungs bursting –
straight into a desultory queue comprised roughly 50/50 of disgruntled muggles and over-excited Italian schoolkids; if the phrase ‘desultory queue’ was ever meant to mean a heaving flock of seagulls descending on a trawler’s newly hauled catch.
After that, there was only the inevitable shuffle on board, the stowing of his own compact rucksack amongst everyone else’s oversized baggage, and a safety demonstration by a flight attendant who bore more than a passing resemblance to Bond’s old sparring partner Rosa Klebb.
But none of this could bring Bond back down to earth, for he had finally found love – not for a Slovenian woman, stunning as they were, but Ljubljana herself, a city that wore her history lightly amidst a mad dream of spires and minarets, looped chains of cafes and restaurants hugging the waterside; gently rising streets of more of the same, shops and houses; and the castle above them all, like the sleeping dragon of the local myth.
And as he felt the bullet of affection ricochet round his heart’s empty, cold stone chambers, Bond reflected that life was not so bad. Late stage capitalism might be metastasising, rent asunder by populist politicians and a pandemic cooked up in a hostile power’s laboratories. The old uncertainties had become the new certainties, and vice versa. It was no longer possible to order a vodka martini on the scheduled flight of a national airline, even if you told them who you really were. The coatstand had gone in the last round of budget cuts.
But there was still work to be done, even if the transport acronyms of his deep cover identity at times befuddled him; and enchanting places like Ljubljana to be sent on missions to, no matter that the meltdown of air travel made getting there like a game of Russian roulette with two bullets in the chamber.
He just had to remember to call M Jim. Especially on Tuesdays.