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The Diplomat's Wife by Michael Ridpath

 

Overview: TO LOVE, HONOUR, AND BETRAY...

1936: Devastated by the death of her beloved brother Hugh, Emma seeks to keep his memory alive by wholeheartedly embracing his dreams of a communist revolution. But when she marries an ambitious diplomat, she must leave her ideals behind and live within the confines of embassy life in Paris and Nazi Berlin. Then one of Hugh's old comrades reappears, asking her to report on her philandering husband, and her loyalties are torn.1979: Emma's grandson, Phil, dreams of a gap-year tour of Cold War Europe, but is nowhere near being able to fund it. So when his beloved grandmother determines to make one last trip to the places she lived as a young diplomatic wife, and to try to solve a mystery that has haunted her since the war, he jumps at the chance to accompany her. But their journey takes them to darker, more dangerous places than either of them could ever have imagined...

 

The Diplomat's Wife by Michael Ridpath Book Chapter One

 

June 1979, Buckinghamshire, England


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‘Mean bastard!’ Phil muttered as he reread the first page of what had over the last six months become his favourite book:


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The thing is that the road takes you. You can’t dictate to the road. If you do you might as well be in a train. Hitch-hiking is the art of wondering what will happen to you between your starting point and your destination and taking from everything that does happen everything that you can.


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He pitched the already tatty paperback on to the floor next to his bed and stared down at the cover. The words Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Europe stood proud above an enticing red rucksack with bulges containing maps, a sleeping bag and clever survival tools, its fabric scattered with colourful stickers that were almost legible.

He glanced across the floor at his own brand-new rucksack, green, with a small Union Jack poorly sewn on to its centre.

This had been Phil’s bedroom since the age of four. He was a bit of a hoarder, and a sucker for teenage nostalgia of lost childhood. He liked the random objects which traced his life dotted around the room: a Matchbox Ford Zephyr, a platoon of plastic Afrika Korps soldiers, an Airfix model of HMS Victory. Arsenal’s Liam Brady crossed a football from one wall towards the stick figures of Lowry’s satanic mills on the other. Phil’s bookshelf traced a similar path, beginning with Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome and Biggles, moving through a row of war comics, on to Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, John le Carré and Georges Simenon.

The bottom right-hand corner of the bookshelf was devoted to the eclectic gifts from his grandmother over the years: Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia, The Communist Manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, Njál’s Saga and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as well as his eighteenth-birthday present, a copy in French of Zola’s Germinal, a bleak story of coal miners in Northern France. He had read them all. That shelf was where the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide lived. Grams had given it to him for Christmas when he had told her of his plans to spend the summer holiday between school and university Interrailing around Europe with his friend Mike.

Phil loved the book. It was subtitled How to See Europe by the Skin of Your Teeth and it was full of tips for ways to travel around the Continent on as little money as possible. Everything about the book excited him. Phil was always hungry, and the Guide was like the menu of the biggest buffet Phil had ever seen. He could gorge himself on so many of the marvels of Europe in just a month: the impressionist paintings in Paris one week, the canals of Venice another, the sands of a Greek island the week after that.

But the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide also told of freedom. The freedom of the open road. The freedom from a plan. The freedom to wake up in the morning and not know where he would spend that night. The freedom to sleep on a beach, under a tree or in a hostel. The freedom to talk to other travellers from other countries, and to the random generous strangers who would give him lifts. The freedom to eat a meal of bread, cheese and wine on the banks of the Seine, or on the stone bench of a Roman amphitheatre.

The freedom to escape Wittingcombe, the village wedged into a fold of the Chiltern Hills in which he had spent the whole of his life.

Mike had shared Phil’s enthusiasm; they had decided to ditch the Interrail idea and hitch-hike instead.

They were leaving the following Saturday, taking the train to Sevenoaks in Kent and then hitching to the Channel from there. They had allowed themselves five weeks and three hundred pounds each, three hundred pounds that they had both saved toiling on a building site during the Christmas and Easter holidays.

Except now they weren’t going. Or at least Phil wasn’t going.

The mean bastard in question, Phil’s dad, had seen to that.

‘Phil! Grams is here!’

His mother’s voice snaked up the stairs and through his closed bedroom door.

It was Sunday, and Phil’s grandmother was dropping in for lunch before going on to London. She lived in Cornwall; Wittingcombe was on the way.

For a moment Phil considered staying in his room and sulking. But that wasn’t his style. Plus he always wanted to see his grandmother.

Plus, he was hungry and the roast beef smelled really good.

‘Coming!’


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‘So, when are you off on your adventure, Philip?’

‘It looks like I’m not going,’ said Phil as neutrally as possible. He was too proud to sound sulky or angry, even if that was exactly how he felt.

There were five of them around the gleaming dining table: Phil’s parents, his grandmother and his sixteen-year-old sister, Mel.

‘Oh. What have you done?’

Grams had realized immediately that Phil must have done something wrong. She was looking at him in that all-too-familiar way she had. Not exactly enquiring, more interrogating. She wanted to know the answer.

Grams always wanted to know the answer.

She was young for the grandmother of an eighteen-year-old – in her mid sixties, Phil believed. Nor did she really look like a granny: she was tall and long-limbed, and her thick short hair was still dark with only the odd strand of grey. Her voice was husky, clipped and old-fashioned, like something out of a black-and-white movie. She couldn’t say her ‘r’s, a trait that had skipped a generation to her granddaughter, much to Mel’s frustration. Grams’s deep brown eyes, almost black, latched on to you over her large, imperious nose, and once they had fixed on you, they wouldn’t let go until you had answered her question.

‘I crashed Dad’s car last week.’

‘Oh dear. Was it your fault?’

‘The insurance company thinks so,’ said Phil’s father.

‘What do you think?’ asked Grams.

Phil had borrowed his father’s Rover to drive a couple of mates from school on a mini pub crawl around the best village pubs in the area. Phil had only drunk one pint at the first pub, the Three Castles in Wittingcombe, and that was going to be his lot for the evening. They were celebrating the end of A-levels and Elvis Costello was ‘Watching the Detectives’ as loud as the car’s tape deck would allow. Phil was turning right off a main road into a narrow lane to the second pub. The driver of a Marina had slowed and signalled for him to go ahead, but as he turned, a Bedford van sped out of nowhere and caught the rear of the Rover, spinning it off the road and into a wall. No one was hurt, Phil passed the inevitable breathalyser test, the van was scarcely damaged, but the Rover was a write-off.

He recalled the woman in the Marina who had urged him on. He hadn’t seen the van coming and perhaps he should have done. But wasn’t it driving too fast?

‘I don’t know,’ he said, honestly.

‘Phil hasn’t had much driving experience yet,’ said his father. ‘He only passed his test in February.’

‘So it wasn’t his fault?’ Grams said.

‘Oh, it was his fault all right.’

‘And you won’t let him go to Europe as a punishment, Caroline?’ Grams directed the question at her daughter, Phil’s mum.

‘It’s not that,’ said Mum.

‘We need him to pay for a new car,’ said her husband.

‘It’s all my savings,’ said Phil. ‘I can’t afford the trip now.’

‘I see,’ said Grams.

She popped a chunk of roast potato in her mouth and chewed it thoughtfully. Grams’s inquisitions could be uncomfortable. Phil’s mother, a small, slight figure a good five inches shorter than Grams, had learned in the course of her forty-two years how to defy her own mother. Phil’s father, an affable man with a sweep of fair hair, a strong chin and a pliant character, had more difficulty. But Phil knew that this was an issue on which he was prepared to stand his ground.

Phil’s father wasn’t usually a mean bastard. David Dewar was a kind, eminently reasonable, reliable husband and father. But he didn’t like risk; he was a little afraid of life. He had been unhappy when Phil had decided to hitch-hike rather than take the train. He had been disappointed when Phil had turned down the chance to work in an insurance company in London over the summer. Dad saw this as a great opportunity for Phil to see what the insurance business – his world – was like, and to secure the all-important bottom rung on a sturdy career ladder. Phil thought, feared even, that he would end up spending most of the rest of his life in an office and he didn’t want to start now.

The replacement for the Rover was going to cost £550, in addition to the insurance money, and the previous evening Dad had informed Phil that Phil would have to pay. Three hundred now and the remaining £250 when he had earned it over the summer.

Phil had argued; he had pleaded. He had almost burst into tears.

But Dad had loved his brown Rover. He believed, deeply and passionately, in financial accountability. Phil would have to pay.

Now Phil wouldn’t have the money to go to Europe. Not only that, he would have to go back to the building site to earn the £250 he was short – if there was still a job for him.

Grams fixed her son-in-law with those interrogating eyes. ‘Didn’t you insure the car, David?’

‘Of course I did, Emma,’ said Dad. ‘You have to; it’s the law. But with Phil on the policy, the premiums were high, so I took a five-hundred-and-fifty-pound excess. It always makes sense to do that if you can afford it, you know.’

‘If you can afford it?’ said Grams. ‘Not if Phil can afford it?’

‘I’m the one paying the premium.’

‘Yes, I see that. But apparently Phil is the one paying the excess. And he demonstrably cannot afford it.’

One–nil to Grams! Phil did his best not to chuckle into his Yorkshire pudding. A quick glance at his father’s reddening face told him two things. Dad immediately understood his mother-in-law’s point. And he hadn’t thought of it himself. Which, as the insurance executive, he should have done.

A glimmer of hope flared. Maybe Dad would admit defeat? Maybe he would pay the excess? Maybe Phil was still going to Europe?

Dad bit back whatever he was going to say and took a sip from his small wine glass.

‘Phil has to learn financial responsibility at some point, and eighteen is the right age.’ Dad’s voice was uncharacteristically firm. Phil realized he had been backed into a corner; there was no way out to save face apart from sticking to his guns. He glanced at his son. ‘I’m sorry, Phil, that’s just the way it is.’

‘Caroline? What do you think?’

‘I think David’s absolutely right, Mother.’ Mum was sticking by Dad, as she always would in any argument with Grams. Reluctantly, Phil acknowledged the score was now two–one to his father.

Grams seemed about to argue, but then she threw in the towel. ‘I do hope I can come and see you when you get to Edinburgh?’ she said.

‘If I get to Edinburgh,’ said Phil. ‘I’ve got to get my grades first. But, yes, I’d love to see you.’

‘Anything for free food,’ said Mum in an attempt to lighten the mood. Phil couldn’t bring himself to smile. In fact, he almost didn’t ask for seconds, to make the point that he was very unhappy. But the beef was very good. And so were the roast potatoes.

The conversation flowed as the three adults coped well with the grumpy teenager, however justified his grumps. Mel kept her head down until Emma questioned her on a new musical form she had read about in The Times, something called ‘2 Tone ska’. Phil had barely heard of it, but Mel was an avid reader of the New Musical Express, and was able to fill her grandmother in, while Grams told Mel all about Jamaican ska in the 1960s.

Not for the first time, Phil found himself wondering how the hell does she know that? He was sure his parents were asking themselves the same thing.

Phil was finishing his second helping of his mother’s excellent Eve’s pudding and custard when his grandmother took a sip of her wine.

‘You know, David, I might have something for Philip.’

‘Something?’ said Dad.

‘Yes. A job. A way for him to earn his two hundred and fifty pounds. Possibly a bit more.’

‘Oh yes?’ Dad was guarded. Phil was all ears.

‘Of course, he might not want to do it.’

Dad looked pleased at this.

Grams glanced at Phil. ‘For a while now, I have been thinking of driving around Europe myself. Visiting some of my old haunts from before the war. You know – Paris, Berlin, places Roland was posted.’

Roland was Phil’s late grandfather, a former diplomat.

‘I really thought this would be the summer to do it. In fact, I was intending to perhaps meet you and your friend and take you out to dinner in Paris or somewhere.’

Phil’s father’s brows knitted in a frown.

‘I don’t want to go by myself. And now it looks as if I will need a driver. So I wonder if you would oblige, Philip? I would pay for all your meals and accommodation, naturally. And perhaps three hundred pounds?’

‘Why will you need a driver?’ asked Mum.

‘Philip isn’t the only one in trouble, I’m afraid. I’m due for a visit to the magistrates’ court on Tuesday. I was caught over the limit on the road to St Austell. Most embarrassing. We’ll see, but I suspect I will lose my licence for a year. So I could do with a chauffeur. And the company.’

She smiled at Phil. It was an extraordinarily sweet, innocent smile, all the more affecting for its rarity.

‘Mother!’ Caroline looked shocked.

‘I know. I won’t do it again, I promise.’

‘And you’re planning to go in the Triumph?’ Dad asked. ‘Are you sure you are happy with Phil driving it?’

Grams’s sleek green TR6 was visible through the dining-room window, a fine-looking two-seater convertible that Phil had long admired.

‘That was my intention. Don’t worry, David, I will make sure it’s insured properly. But what do you think, Philip? I know it will be frightfully dull for you, carting an old woman around. Nothing like hitch-hiking with your friend.’

Phil grinned. ‘I think that would be great, Grams. Thank you so much!’

Dad’s frown deepened. ‘I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Emma.’

‘Oh come now, David. Philip’s eighteen. He owes money. He needs a job. He’s found a job. There’s nothing more financially responsible than that.’

Dad glanced at Mum. The score was now three–two to Grams. Dad let the final whistle blow. ‘Your grandmother is right, Phil. It’s your choice.’

‘When do we leave?’ Phil asked.

‘Next weekend all right for you?’
 

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