You hesitate for only a moment, for the merest fraction of a fatal second, but it is enough and he notices. How could he not? He has done the same. You face one another, knowing. How alike you are! How could you fail to recognise one another, fail see beneath the disguise the mask worn so long, so perfectly moulded to the skin that you wonder, were you to take it off, what there would be left beneath.
Who is he, in the ridiculous uniform with the oak leaves at the collar and riding breeches who has never sat a horse in his life? But there is neither defiance nor apology in his eyes, no acknowledgement of the possibility of being anything other than what he seems. He is good, very, very good, at this. You’d tip your hat to him, were you wearing one. A fine profile, too. If things don’t work out for him back home Hollywood will be knocking at his door.
You’re only passing through, but seeing him sitting in the office as if minding his own business, as if until only half a minute ago those professional hands hadn’t been running through the desk, you know he’s in it for the long haul. You can afford to take the risk better than he.
‘Excuse me, Standartenführer. I have come to collect the Friedrichs file.’
‘It has already been sent to the Gestapo.’
A sympathetic shrug, a shared front of resignation. Such bureaucratic inefficiency.
‘I am sorry to have troubled you.’
‘It’s no trouble.’ He lights a cigarette without offering you one. Why should he? He is a Standartenführer, while you – humble functionary should cover it, and you climbed in through a window.
‘Perhaps,’ his free hand reaches inside his coat and you ready yourself, but he withdraws only a sheaf of paper, ‘this would serve instead?’
Identification papers: if not the real thing they are real enough to pass at any checkpoint. He’s quite something, this one.
‘Thank you, Standartenführer. Heil Hitler!’
You’re into the hallway, out of the window, on your way home. Ten miles outside the city you stop for a breather and think how much it would amuse his lordship. But something holds you back and you never do tell him.
Until it’s 1951 and you’re at a Foreign Office reception. Or rather his lordship is, and you’re supervising the silver service and earwigging what they have to say, British and continentals alike, around servants they assume can’t speak German. You’d think the FO types wouldn’t be so stupid, but it seems not. That’s when you see him, ten years older, but the sleek hair, high forehead, and sad smile are still the same, the perfect image of a Standartenführer, six years too late, in the terrible tailoring that signifies the GDR. He gives no indication that he’s seen you, but of course he wouldn’t.
‘MGB?’ asks his lordship, nodding. ‘What gave him away? Not that I don’t believe you, Bunter old thing, but if that chap’s got a cover story it’s a thing of beauty and a joy forever.’
‘I met him in ’40. He was surprisingly helpful.’
‘Catch each other out, did you?’ says his lordship, whom age cannot wither. ‘All right, I won’t give that away. I don’t suppose he’d be interested in a little job for us?’
‘I very much doubt it.’
‘An honourable retirement, then. He sounds like he deserves it.’