Audrey: From Hull with Love

My name was Audrey Applebottom and on a cold Tuesday morning I woke up to the screech of my alarm. It sounded more like someone had hit the self-destruct button in a secret missile facility in Newport, South Wales, than a normal alarm. Not that I, a poor old woman, would know anything about that.

My husband, Alf, rolled over with a groan and went back to sleep. It was amazing how such a racket hardly phased him, but if the floorboard creaked he was awake in a flash. I got out of bed, shook my head and climbed into the wardrobe. Despite appearances, this was not a strange thing to do. Forty two years ago, when Alf and I had been young and in love, we moved into this house with its little front garden full of roses and I had had a secret room installed in the back of our wardrobe. It was the closest thing to Narnia I’d ever come to, except instead of a single lamppost there was a huge television screen, and instead of the lovely Mr Tumnus I was greeted by a creature that was half man, half toad.

Without the constant calls from HQ I would have been stuck knitting or, God forbid, watching Deal or No Deal. I still have nightmares about Noel’s shirts from when Alf made me watch it with him. My job got me out of the house a lot, which was just as well because I don’t think I could stand all that day-time TV, or Alf’s gripping conversation. Even when I wasn’t working I could take refuge in my secret room and play Angry Birds on the phone my Grandson had taught me to use. Granted, it wasn’t always like this. Sometimes Alf would go out, I think he went fishing but I didn’t pay much attention to him, and I would watch re-runs of ‘Allo ‘Allo on Gold. Once or twice we’d gone out together, either for a meal or to the pictures to watch that god-awful Twilight film. The two of us hadn’t been to the cinema since. But this would not be a day of hiding in the wardrobe playing Angry Birds, because at seven o’clock that Tuesday morning I got the screeching call from HQ that would change my life.

Know now that what you are about to read from here may seem unlikely, or even impossible, the secret fantasy of a senile old woman, but I swear to you that every word is true. You see, my name was Audrey Applebottom and I was a spy.

I entered my secret room, closing the door behind me, and settled into the reclining armchair that faced the huge television screen opposite the door. I didn’t have a lot of technical gizmos and gadgets where I could do background checks or hack into top secret government facilities. I had people for that. All I had in this most secret of rooms was an armchair, a TV and a big, red, flashing button which I pressed and it went off. The huge screen flashed on and I was greeted by my stupid boss’ stupid face. His name was Brian Maxwell, or B as we were meant to call him, and he thought he knew everything. I only ever called him B to his face. Brian had a huge, sad mouth, bulging eyes, about six chins and the sight of him crying was just one of those things that you can never unsee. To everyone else he was the great Baron Greenback, Dangermouse’s toad faced arch enemy who sounded like he’d been permanently winded.

“It’s good to see you, Agent A,” Greenback rasped. “We have a lead on Mr. Spider’s drug operation.”

“It’s about time,” I said. “I’ll be at HQ in about half an hour and you can fill me in. Put on some breakfast too. Nothing fancy maybe just some Cheerios.”

Then something extraordinary happened, something that in my forty eight years of being a spy had never happened before. Greenback’s eyes bulged out of their sockets and at first I hoped he was having a heart attack. Then I heard Alf.

“By ‘eck, what’s all this?”

I groaned. In our forty two years of marriage we’d had a good system, me and Alf. I went out on secret missions for the government and Alf stayed at home watching Bargain Hunt, utterly oblivious to my double life. And now it was ruined. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I could have just drugged Alf and told him it was all a dream, but I wasn’t supposed to be married. I hoped this sudden revelation was the shock he needed to have that long awaited heart attack, but once again my hopes were dashed.

“Agent A, who is this?” asked Greenback.

“Who am I?” Alf squeaked. “I’m ‘er ‘usband. Who are you, you great toad!”

For that I almost fell in love with Alf all over again. Greenback’s eyes bulged and his chins inflated until I thought he would burst and his eyes would pop out. If he thought this was bad he was going to explode when he found out I had a daughter in York and that our best informant was my own grandson. I made a mental note to tell him while he was in mid rant so that he might burst a blood vessel.

“We will deal with this at HQ, Audrey,” Greenback said. “You’d better have a very good explanation for this.”

I did not have a very good explanation for this at all. I didn’t even have a poor explanation. And then, Greenback was gone. I was in trouble. On two fronts, at that. I stared at the giant screen where Greenback’s face had been stretched moments ago and I saw Alf’s reflection staring at me.

“What’s going on, love?” he asked. “What’s all this agent and HQ business?”

I had nothing to say. Truth be told, I was a little bit angry, just a tiny bit mind you. I should have known it was going to happen sooner or later and I should have had a plan for just such an occasion, but I had made the mistake of underestimating Alf’s stupidity.

“Audrey?”

I stood up and looked at Alf, the man who thought he had broken the TV when he accidently pressed mute, and decided it was finally time for the truth.

“I love you, Alf,” I said. “And I’m sorry, but I’m a spy in Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

I turned slowly in my armchair, failing to hide my smirk of glee. I had always wanted to do this.

” Now I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with me.”

The location of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Hull Division, is top secret and it would be quite treasonous of me to tell you where Alf and I went that day. So instead, I will tell you that it was definitely not located in the Mecca Bingo on Clough Road. We entered the secret location in silence. Alf looked as though he half expected me to sit down and start playing, as though, perhaps, this whole thing was a clever joke. Some of the players looked up and waved at me.

“Sixty-four, Audrey at the door.”

I cackled and waved at Mac, the bingo caller, as the players began searching their cards for number sixty-four. As I marched Alf towards the back room I felt oddly calm. On the way to HQ I’d had a horrible feeling that Greenback would simply murder me and Alf and bury us in the back garden, like the parrot Alf had forgotten to feed for the three weeks I was in Brussels. But now I realised that Greenback couldn’t just kill me off. Spies and new recruits were few and far between around here. Our technical assistant, Keith, was the closest thing we had to another spy and he was in a wheelchair. It was almost sad that the Hull Division consisted of a fat prat, a wheelchair bound geek and an elderly woman… until you remember that elderly woman was me and I was fabulous.

Alf wasn’t really a problem either. We’d just wipe his memory with a gas or a white light. If the Men in Black had gadgets like that I was sure we would. It would be a normal day. Alf would be at home, Greenback would shout, maybe explode into a big gooey mess and I’d go on a mission. Nice and normal. My optimism knew no bounds. The thing about optimism, though, is that you only ever get nasty surprises, like when everyone was optimistic about Twilight. Let’s just say that I was in for a whole lot of nasty surprises, the first of which met me in the back room.

When I opened the door I was greeted by that most unpleasant of beings, our very own Baron Greenback. He inhaled deeply, his six chins inflating into one. I wrinkled my nose and entered the small room. It seemed even smaller than usual with Greenback taking up at least half the space and oxygen.

“B,” I acknowledged. “I believe you’ve met my husband, Alf.”

Neither Alf nor Greenback said a word. Greenback slid the panel off the light switch and punched the code into the keypad behind it. I was amazed at how his sausage fingers dealt with such small keys. The room lurched and we began to descend. Greenback glared at me across the six inches that separated us.

“You have gone too far this time, Audrey, too far,” he wheezed. “Heads will roll for this and I’ll be damned if I let you drag me down with you.”

I snorted and tried to glance around the room, but my gaze was drawn back to his protruding stomach, like when you see someone with a hairy mole. I began to wonder when he had last seen his toes, or if he had ever seen them at all. My musings were cut short as the room lurched again and came to an abrupt halt. I reached back and opened the door, unable, or unwilling, to turn my back on Greenback in such a confined space. I reversed out of the door, keeping my eyes on the fat man I called my boss and barely noticing the smirk that flashed across Alf’s face as he saw my Headquarters for the first time. It was a large underground structure with shelves stretching from wall to wall. It was dark. The only light source was a huge television screen on the opposite side of the room from us. It was a long walk through the shelves of dusty archives, but it was one I had gotten used to. I stayed behind Greenback at all times, my ears straining to hear the click of wheels.

“What’s wrong, Audrey?” Greenback sneered. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Not really, but that’s nothing new,” I smiled sweetly. “I just don’t want to start my day with a knife in the back. Can you blame me?”

Greenback grunted, but didn’t look at me. I was tense and he knew it. Alf was silent beside me, his squinted eyes taking in every detail with unusual curiosity.

“You know you’re safe, Audrey,” Greenback said. “We just can’t be rid of you, more’s the pity. As for your husband, I can assure you that no harm will come to him. The powers that be have a ‘better’ idea. Apparently my protests have gone unheard.”

I knew what he was getting at before he even said it. I was the only spy left in Hull. There were no recruits to take my place and Mr Spider had his fingers in more pies than one old lady could toss out. So instead of getting off their arses and recruiting some young blood, the powers that be wanted an old man with two brain cells to be a spy. Pardon my French, but what a sodding joke. But I would humour them for now and, if I got lucky, I would kill the idiots later.

“Splendid,” I said. “They must have read my letter to Father Christmas.”

Greenback grunted in annoyance as we stepped into the glow of the television. Hunched over a large desk beneath the TV sat Keith. Keith had ‘had an accident’ a couple of years ago and had lost the use of his legs. The doctors were confident that, through the magic of physiotherapy, Keith would one day walk again. I wasn’t so sure. That baseball bat had really done a number on his entire body. On the brighter side of things, he had become much more gentlemanly and hadn’t tried to grab my arse since.

Keith had the appearance of a praying mantis that had had its legs broken, so had to use a wheelchair. His arms and hands were seemingly stuck in the typing position, although with the amount of time he spent tapping away on that keyboard, his posture didn’t surprise me. When he wasn’t hacking security systems, or collecting intelligence, Keith liked to play. They were called ‘role playing games’ and he played them on the big TV. I didn’t really understand those games like Keith did. They were all the same to me, whether it was World of Runecraft or Warscape or whatever. He also had this delusion that he was a ladies’ man and he flirted with all the bingo women and, unfortunately, me. I was pretty sure he was still a virgin, but he begged to differ. His attempted ‘exploits’ got him into plenty of trouble, most recently his little accident with a disgruntled baseball bat.

I noticed that Keith didn’t pay me any mind when we approached his station. In fact, no one said a word. Even Greenback was unusually quiet. No one wanted to say what they’d been ordered to say. No one wanted to speak to Alf.

“So,” I said. “Anyone care to fill me in?”

Keith spun around in his wheelchair, a stupid grin on his face. It was his innuendo face and I knew it all too well. I glared at him and he quickly turned back to his computer. Greenback folded his arms across his large stomach and stared at Alf as though this was somehow his fault. Well, in a way it was.

“After a lengthy debate with the Agency head, it is to my great displeasure that we must ask him to join our department,” Greenback said.

Greenback looked like he was going to cry. Alf looked as gormless as ever and at first I wasn’t sure he even understood the question, but there was a twinkle in his eye that I hadn’t seen since the day I married him.

“You want an old fella like me to be a spy?” Alf asked.

“No,” Greenback said. “I certainly do not. But my superiors have deemed it necessary for our division to have more than just Audrey. They foolishly thought you might fit the bill. But orders are orders. You will accompany Audrey on a simple mission and when you fail, and you will, I shall prove to the Agency head that you are unfit for duty. Audrey!”

I jumped about a foot in the air as Greenback’s voice echoed around the room. I was used to being shouted at, it happened nearly every day, but for a second I’d thought I was in the clear. Once again I was thwarted by optimism.

“What?” I yelled back.

“We have received intel that Mr Spider will be heading a drug deal today at 2.00 pm,” Greenback said. “So far we can assume that Mr Spider will be there himself. If he is I want him dead or alive! If not, question those involved. We need to find Mr Spider at any cost. He’s run rings around us for long enough. Keith! Give her the details!”

And with that, Greenback strode off into some dark corner of our Headquarters, presumably to cool off by eating a pie or something. I knew he had a little hidey-hole between some shelves, but I had no desire to go searching for it. You never knew when a giant frog-man was going to loom out of the dark labyrinth of shelves. The thought was enough to give me nightmares, in fact it had. I watched Greenback go with a shudder, hating not knowing where he was. Keith turned his wheelchair to me, a plastic tray balanced awkwardly on his lap.

“By ‘eck!” Alf said. “We get gadgets an’ all? It’s like being James Bond.”

“I get gadgets, Alf,” I said. “You get to not touch anything. What goodies have you got for me today, Keith?”

Keith offered up the tray and its contents were far less exciting when they were up close. I was disappointed, but it wasn’t Keith’s fault, for once.

“Our funds have been a bit low lately, so I’m afraid they’re not really up to scratch,” Keith said. “I managed to convert one of my old phones into a recording device and I ripped apart the headset to make a bug. Get it onto Mr Spider if you can.”

He fell silent as I stared at the meagre offerings on the tray. The phone looked as though someone had played hockey with it, then dropped it out of a second floor window. I wasn’t even sure it would switch on. The bug was at least inconspicuous, provided Mr Spider had taken to wearing black suits instead of his usual white. There was something else next to the bug. Something small and silver and barely visible on the grey tray.

“What’s that?” I asked hopefully.

“It’s a paperclip,” said Keith. “I found it on some old files and thought ‘Hey, we can pick some locks with that’.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Keith said. “Government cuts have rendered us essentially helpless.”

“Forty years service and all I get is a smashed phone and a paperclip?” I said. “James Bond wouldn’t stand for this!”

“Well, there is one more thing,” Keith said. “I managed to hack into the Agency and have them send us this.”

He produce a small handgun from under the tray. It was black and shiny, the newest thing in our entire division. It was a thing of beauty and it was mine. I didn’t have a license to carry a weapon. I hadn’t needed to for several years now, but the gun was so small it could be perfectly concealed in my handbag. Besides, no one ever suspects an old lady. I picked up the gun – it was light – and stashed it way in my bag along with the phone, bug and paperclip which I was sure I would lose.

“Now, you and Alf have a film to see,” Keith said. “It’s a two o’clock showing at the Vue in Princes Quay. Be sure to get your tickets before then.”

“What are we goin’ to see?” Alf asked.

Keith looked at me and my heart sank. I knew exactly what he was going to say and it made me feel sick.

“It’s Breaking Dawn, Part Two,” he said.

I knew then that my attention would be focused directly and desperately on the mission at hand.

© Jessica Wiles, 2013

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