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La Vita Nuova

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Hong Kong.


"Mum," Mary says, "she's here!"

"Just a minute," Beatrice says, frowning at the screen, her fingers tapping away.

"I said, she's here," Mary growls.  "Can't you put that thing down, you know I can't bear being alone with her."

"You've borne it for nearly twenty years."  Beatrice looks up from the iPad, pursing her lips at Mary's frustration.  "Darling, I'm almost finished.  Just another paragraph or so."

"Then write it tonight.  Or tomorrow.  The lecture isn't even until Tuesday.  You're—" Mary's eyes narrow.  "You're hiding."

She can't let that accusation stand, and Mary knows it.  Beatrice sighs, sets the iPad down, and says, "The day I hide from Celia is the day you may put me in my grave."

Mary gives her a wry smile, so evocative of Reginald.  "Then let's go."  From the sitting room, Beatrice hears Sophie say, "Come in, Grandmama!"

"Good morning, good morning, Sophia," Celia replies in her plummy tones.  "Although it's nearly good afternoon, isn't it?  Hello, Imogene.  Where is your mother?"

"She's just gone into the office to fetch Gran," Jeannie says.

"Oh!" Celia says, too brightly.  "She's visiting today, is she?"

Beatrice and Mary exchange conspiratorial smiles as they leave the office and head for the sitting room.  "Indeed I am," Beatrice says when they arrive.  "How lovely to see you, Celia."

Celia's smile is rather tightly fixed.  Beatrice pretends not to notice as they exchange air kisses. 

"Why don't you all sit down?" Mary suggests.  "What can I get for you, Celia?"  One of the greatest benefits to Beatrice's presence, she'd once explained, is that she no longer has to call Celia 'Mother.' 

"Just tea with a splash—"

"—of milk.  Of course.  Anyone else?" 

"I'll have green tea, if you've got some already made," Beatrice says.  Mary almost always has green tea already made.

"Not green tea for me," Celia says hastily. 

"Oh, no," Beatrice says before Mary can reply.  "Don't fret, I remembered.  I brought Mary some of the most lovely Yunnan."  She smiles and adds, "They call it 'Golden Monkey'." 

"It's very nice," Jeannie agrees. 

"Well," Celia says.  "I'm sure I don't know why you bother when you can get Twinings."

"I'll help Mum," Sophie says, and she and Mary vanish into the kitchen.  Beatrice gives Jeannie a brief, pointed look, and Jeannie sits on the sofa next to her other grandmother, who gives her a pleased pat on the knee.  Beatrice takes an armchair. 

Celia's etiquette system is positively Victorian, and so she turns to Beatrice rather than Jeannie to begin the conversation, even though she'd obviously rather open a vein.  "Well, Beatrice," she says.  "It has been a while!"

"Oh, indeed," says Beatrice, who makes every effort to keep their visits from coinciding, unless Mary actually begs.  "You're looking well.  Impeccable as always."

"Well, thank you."  Celia tugs self-consciously at her sleeve.  Her clothes come from expensive boutiques, her accessories are painstakingly chosen to match, and she must spend at least an hour on her hair and makeup every morning.  Beatrice knows she would have spent longer if she'd known the company she'd be facing for lunch.

"What have you been up to?" she asks.  "Crochet coming along?"

Jeannie coughs behind her hand.  Celia frowns.  "Imogene, I do hope you're not coming down with something.  And yes, thank you, I've just finished another piece.  A shawl.  I'm giving it to the women's bazaar.  Charity, you know.  You should be involved, why don't you let me introduce you to some of the ladies?"

"Oh, how kind of you.  But I'm terribly busy."

"Doing what?" Celia demands.

Jeannie jumps in.  "Gran's lecturing at the university on Tuesday.  She's still writing it.  What's it about, again?"

"The Second Convention of Peking.  It's part of a series I'm doing."

"A series?" Celia asks.

"Yes, about Hong Kong's colonial history.  I gave the first lecture last month.  It was well enough received that they asked me back to do a few more."

"They want her to write a book," Jeannie says. 

"A book?" Celia asks, as if she cannot imagine anything more outlandish.  "My dear Beatrice, I had no idea you were such an historian."

"I will not be writing a book," Beatrice says firmly.  She is under no illusions about her talent as an author, and besides, the number of hoops she'd have to jump through just to get every single word through a security clearance… "And I am certainly not a historian."

She ignores the small voice inside her that whispers A relic, perhaps and instead focuses on the memory of trouncing all over some bloody idiot in the audience who fancied himself an expert on foreign policy just because he had his doctorate.  She hadn't had so much fun in ages.

"No, but you did work for the Service, didn't you," Celia says, her voice burdening the word 'work' with all her customary contempt, and perhaps a smidgen of pity for the Beatrice she imagines—someone who couldn't rely on a husband with a good position. 

Beatrice looks at Jeannie on the sofa, listens to Sophie bustling around with Mary in the kitchen, and once again congratulates herself on arriving just in time.  Their father, Robert, is a good man, a good provider, even if work often takes him away.  But he's learned too much from his mother.  Beatrice has other lessons to teach.

There are many different kinds of history.

"I did," she tells Celia now.  "For quite some time.  In the Foreign Office."  As far as the world is concerned, in fact, she did.  If anyone ever goes poking about through the records, trying to follow the trail of Beatrice Masters's professional life, they're going to end up in a very boring place.  The only excitement came from that unfortunate incident in Whitehall, when she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It could have happened to anyone.  Thus is the past erased.

"Oh, yes," Celia says.  "I forgot." 

Of course Celia has not forgotten.  Her only redeeming feature is that she's never known quite what to make of Beatrice.  A retired civil servant who, somehow, gets her clothes hand-tailored and flown in from London; who attends the occasional Embassy function closed to ordinary dignitaries; who speaks four Chinese dialects without the trace of an accent, is fluent in four other languages besides, and can read in eight more; who cares nothing for the women's bazaar—what sort of person is her son's wife's mother, anyway? 

Celia condescends to her, Celia yearns to impress her, Celia avoids her at all costs.  Really, when she thinks of it like that, Beatrice finds her company almost enjoyable.

Mary and Sophie return to the room carrying the tea-tray.  They set it down as Celia asks, "So how many lectures are you going to give?"

"Ah, she's been telling you about that, has she," Mary says.

"Positively boasting," Beatrice says, taking her teacup from Sophie with a smile.  Sophie grins back.  She got all the beauty, this one.  "My life as a celebrity."

"They did send a car for you," Jeannie interjects, and Beatrice almost winces.  Jeannie got all the brains—indeed, Beatrice plans to steer her youngest grandchild towards a more interesting career than her mother would prefer—but she still has something to learn about discretion.

"Four lectures in total," she says quickly. 

"Ah.  Colonial history, you said?" Celia inquires.  "Then I expect the last will be about the handover, won't it?  Yes, bound to be.  What a disastrous idea that was."

Beatrice pauses before she takes a sip of longjing.  Then she says, "Mistakes were made, certainly."

"You don't have to tell me!  I remember well—"

"But on the whole, I strongly believe that everyone did what they had to do.  What they felt was right at the time.  It is not your place to judge that."  She pauses a deliberate instant before adding, "Or mine, or anyone else's."

The temperature in the room drops by several degrees.  Celia's face goes stony.  Mary's promises dire retribution.  Sophie looks uncomfortable.  Jeannie looks thoughtful.

"But we've got to ask questions about history, don't we, Gran?" she asks.  "We can't just say nobody ever made any mistakes."

"Oh, of course, dear," Beatrice says.  "I would never argue that.  Only that it's difficult to put yourself in somebody else's shoes, to try and imagine making the choices they had to."

"Difficult!  I should say, impossible," Mary says with a forced laugh.  "I just turn on the television, and realise I have no idea what our elected officials can possibly be thinking."

"I never think about politics," Celia says coolly.  "One never should, I feel.  What's the use of it?  Don't you agree?"

"I don't understand politics at all," Sophie confesses. 

"Well, perhaps if you did watch the news instead of always looking at your phone…" Mary says.

"I can get news on my phone," Sophie protests.

"Oh yes, all the latest news about actors and musicians.  You should pay attention to the world, love.  How often do you check the Times on your phone?"

Sophie replies, with uncharacteristic cunning, "Well, Grandmama did just say there's no use."

Beatrice watches as every other person in the room opens her mouth at the same time.  Fortunately, just then, there is a knock at the door.

"Oh, now who can that be?" Mary mutters, rising to her feet and leaving the room.  "Excuse me, I won't be a moment." 

"Seconds, Grandmama?" Jeannie asks.

"No, thank you.  I can't get on with this…what did you call it?  The monkey tea.  Though I do think it is very courageous of you to try new things, Beatrice, at your time of life."

"My dear Celia, I've been drinking Chinese tea for years," Beatrice says sweetly.  "It's even older than we are."

Footsteps sound in the hallway.  Mary arrives first in the sitting room, with a pinched look on her face.  She gives Beatrice a glare even more lethal than the one she levelled at her a few moments before.  But her voice is cheery enough when she says, "Mother, look who's popped round to see you."

James Bond steps into view behind her, dressed in a bespoke suit, his expression almost insultingly polite. 

"Well," Beatrice says.  "This is a surprise."

"Good afternoon, ma'am," Bond says.  "I'm sorry to intrude.  I was just in town and thought I'd pay my respects." 

His eyes gleam at her.  Over on the sofa, both Sophie and Jeannie squirm uncomfortably.  They do not like Bond.  He frightens them.  This is because Beatrice told him on his first visit—in no uncertain terms—that if he ever smiles at either of her granddaughters, she will make him sincerely regret it.  So he glowers at them instead.

"I see.  And how long are you in town?" she asks.

"Only a day," he says, as always. 

"And where are you staying?"

"The Peninsula," he replies, which is what he's called her flat from the first moment he saw it. 

"The Peninsula?" Mary says, giving him an incredulous look.

"Well, perhaps.  I'm afraid I didn't call ahead, Mrs. Bolling."  Around her family, Bond uses his very best public school manners.  They never convince.  "I hope they've got a room available."

Mary glares.

"They might do, they might not," Beatrice says, rising to her feet.  "That's the problem when you don't plan ahead properly."

Celia clears her throat.  She is the only person Beatrice knows, in fact, who actually says "Ahem, ahem."

"Ah."  Beatrice gestures between the two of them.  "Celia, permit me to introduce James Bond.  Mr. Bond, this is my daughter's mother-in-law, Celia Bolling."

For a moment, Bond's eyes light up with infernal glee.  Oh, God, of course he's never forgotten anything.  Luckily for him, all he says is, "A pleasure, ma'am."  Then he gives Celia the smile he never gives the girls.

Celia blushes.  "Oh.  Well.  Hello.  Beatrice, a friend of yours?"

"We worked together once.  He stops by from time to time, don't you, Mr. Bond?" 

"Every five or six months," Mary answers for him, crossing her arms.  "Like clockwork."  Beatrice will have to speak to her about this later, but she cannot deny a secret delight in being disapproved of by a younger generation.

"But why did he stop by here?" Celia asks blankly.

"Good question," Mary replies.

"Well, if you've only got a day, Mr. Bond, don't let's waste time," Beatrice says.  "Oh, I am sorry to rush off, everyone.  Extenuating circumstances." 

"Right," Mary sighs. 

"But can't he stay for lunch?" Celia says, looking at Bond with downright atavistic hunger.  "Mary always makes too much food."

Oh dear.  Beatrice can tell, by the look on Bond's face, that he has not prepared himself for this possibility.  It's no more than he'd deserve, of course.

But there's no sense in cutting off her nose to spite her face, so she just says, "He wouldn't dream of imposing.  Would you, Mr. Bond?"

"Never," he says, and offers Mary his hand.  "Thank you all the same."

Beatrice stops by the office to collect her bag and wrap.  Mary follows her.  "How does he know?" she hisses.  "How does he always know?

She gives her only child a smile and a kiss on the cheek.  "He's moderately talented."

"You didn't tell him you'd be here, did you?  This isn't you getting out of lunch, is it?"

"No," Beatrice says, not bothering to hide her annoyance.  "I told you, I didn't know he was coming.  I never do."

"Creepy, is what I call it," Mary says. 

"Call it what you like," Beatrice sighs.  "We're off."

"You know what you would have told me, once?  Not to let a man take you for granted."

Beatrice laughs before she can help it, loud and full.  It echoes round the whole flat.  She kisses Mary again, impulsively, and says, "You know, love, he might be the only man who never has."

Bond manages to hold his tongue until they're on the lift to the ground floor.  Then he says, "Your daughter'll never like me, will she?"

Beatrice has a rein on herself now, and sounds appropriately prim when she replies, "Not so long as you just pop up like you do."

"I didn't 'pop' anywhere.  You told me to knock at her front door.  I remember quite clearly."

So does she.  Three years on, and she still thinks of that moment in Heathrow more often than she would like—but then again, perhaps that makes sense, because things have not unfolded quite like she'd expected they would.  She'd resigned herself to the divergence of their lives for good.  He'd waited five months, and then she'd come home to find him at her dining room table, reading a novel she was half done with. 

"Are bees' lives really all that secret?" he'd asked her, looking at the cover.

"It's rubbish," she'd said, her throat as thick as if she'd stuffed cotton into it.  "Every page."

"Just as well.  I think I've lost your place."

Mary's wrong about one thing.  He's not like clockwork.  Not at all.  Beatrice never knows.  She never saw him coming, and she never will.

Besides.  It could always be the last time.  He could get shot or drowned or poisoned or killed in a bloody plane crash, and she'll never know it unless, in five or six months, he doesn't show up, and then keeps on not showing up.

"She worries," Beatrice says.  "That I haven't let go of the old life, of my old work."

"How much does she really know about what you did?"

"More than Celia," Beatrice mutters.  "And perhaps too much for our mutual peace of mind."  The lift stops and they step out into the lobby of the posh building where Mary and her family live.  The doorman tips his hat.  "I'm curious to know how you got in."

"Are you really?"

"No," she admits.  "What would you like to do?"

"I've been on a plane for fourteen hours.  So anything but that."

"Walk about, then."

"Can your knees take it?"

"Go to hell!" she snaps.

"I probably will, if there is one, which there isn't." 

She knows when she's being baited.  "Did you come here just to be difficult?"

He grins.  "The waterfront?"

They walk for nearly thirty minutes before he gets to the point: "They want to promote me."

She braces herself for battle, knowing it's futile.  "Good.  Let them."

"I'm going to." 

In all their time together, he has never said anything so shocking.  She actually stops in her tracks and looks up at him with her mouth hanging open.  He raises a challenging eyebrow.

"Good," she says again, scrambling to get her ground back.  "You're closer to fifty than forty and you have no business jumping around on rooftops."

She can see him preparing to point out that forty-seven is not fifty, even if she is right on technical grounds, but then—just as shockingly—he gives it up.  "I know that."

It can't be this easy.  Bond, moving on from double-oh, after he'd bearded Mallory in his lair three years ago to get it back?  Something must be wrong.  "Have you been injured?"

"No more than in the usual line."  He shrugs and looks up at the cloudy sky.  "Mallory's offering me head of counter-espionage in—"

"Don't tell me."

He glares.  "—in Section T." 

Turkey.  She'd nearly killed him in Istanbul.  "With discretion like this, it's a wonder you haven't already taken Mallory's job!"

"That's the plan," he says.

She looks at him, breathless with astonishment.  He looks back, even and steady.  "How long have you been thinking about this?" she asks.  "You never said…"

"I can do it," he tells her.  "Or, I will be able to.  M—" He stops, shakes his head, but does not apologise for the slip.  "I've got to do something, I've got to have something.  I can't stop moving.  You understand."

She does.  They have always burned with the same fire. 

Her fire, though, is banked now.  Oh, she's got her days, of course.  Days that seem to lack purpose compared to those that came before, when she influenced the affairs of nations.  Compared to that, spending a morning with a good book seems beyond inconsequential: it seems like an insult, a humiliating defeat. 

But more often, and surprisingly, she wakes up and realises that she doesn't have to send anybody out to die today.  She doesn't have to kiss anybody's arse.  She doesn't have to look at a sea of faces in MI6 and watch them losing faith in her as matters go farther and farther downhill.  Her mistakes are not likely to destroy any part of the free world. 

That is what he's facing.  That is what he wants.

Bond's got the most intense eyes of anyone she's ever met.  And never more so than right now, when he says, "Tell me you think I can do it."

He doesn't want empty reassurance, not from her.  The stakes are too high for that, in any case.  She has to think about this.  She steps back, looking him up and down, assessing him.  Can she picture it?  Would it work?

James Bond behind a desk, on the phone, instead of bursting into a room with a gun in his hand.  That's almost an impossible vision all on its own, so what about the rest? 

Well, he's got an excellent brain when he chooses to employ it.  She'd match him against foreign spymasters without a qualm, she'd trust him to keep the right people around him.  She knows that he can harden his heart—perhaps he can send people to their deaths, write their obituaries, talk about ultimate sacrifices.  But can he put aside his ego enough to be raked over the coals by bureaucrats and officials, subordinating his sense of self almost entirely for the sake of a larger cause?  That's a better question.

Only time will answer it.  She says frankly, "Section T will be your first test, Bond.  Not I.  But if you don't seize this opportunity for all it's worth, you're a damned fool."

He takes this in, purses his lips, and nods.  It's as good an affirmation as he's going to get from her.  She certainly hopes he didn't expect anything effusive.

Nevertheless…she finds that she wants to touch him, put her hand on his arm, something.  She hasn't done anything like that since Heathrow. 

Then her stomach growls audibly, reminding her that she skipped lunch.  The moment breaks and he gives her the usual half-smile.  She says, "We'll discuss this more over food."  Then she considers.  "The Peninsula, I think.  You'll make a curry." 

His half-smile grows into the grin of a much younger man.  "That suits.  My bag's already in the second bedroom."

God, but he's got a bloody cheek.  "I'm sure it is," she says.  "Let's go." 

They don't walk off immediately, though.  She keeps looking up into his eyes.  Once, they embraced.  Once, only once, they kissed.  He would like her, she knows, to touch him again.  Put her hand on his arm.  Perhaps, in a moment, she will.



You brought me out from the cold.
Now how I long, how I long to grow old.
Don't let your heart grow cold,
I will call you by name,
I will share your road.
I will learn to love the skies I'm under.

-Mumford and Sons, "Hopeless Wanderer"