My Mum is a Spy by Saoirse Fitzallen

My Mum is a spy. She has maintained her cover of innocent abroad for over forty years. It was during the mass grief for Hope left in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination that she first signed the Official Secrets Act. This is why she hadn’t discussed it with me. She has great integrity and respect for Queen and Country.

No-one, on seeing my fluffy Mother, resplendent in floral T-shirts, spangled skirts and pink plimsolls would imagine that such fervour bubbled behind her tortoiseshell specs.

She honed her craft, dressed exactly like Audrey Hepburn, in Paris. She was courted by German, Polish and Russian Diplomats , watched by American and British Intelligence. She lived in an apartment block in the seizieme arrondissement almost entirely populated by prostitutes.

“Such lovely, sociable girls”, she joked,  “Their friends are always dropping in for coffee”

She had been brought up by nuns, fiercely Catholic, in a small town in Southern Ireland. Her unworldliness and naivete charmed everyone. No-one would have imagined in their wildest dreams that those delicate, white-gloved fingers could take guns apart in the blink of an eye. No-one watching that serene face in prayer could conceive of her swift brutality, her expertise with carbon-fibre knives.

She told me the other day. We sat together outside a riverfront cafe watching my Daughter dabbling her toes in the muddy water. The sun beat down on us. Other families sat about , slowly wasting the day, conversation desultory in the heat. She wants to retire. She’s had enough of killing. Her love for the gadgetry of spying is waning.

It turns out that espionage in its various forms has been a family tradition. Generations of women have risked their lives by trading in secrets. They survived the mundanity of housewifery and Motherhood by escaping to a world we only enjoy through films and novels. She wants me to train in the family business. This will be my daughter’s inheritance. I am still reeling. I truly believed she was going away on Women’s Institute conferences.Turns out she’s never made jam in her life. All at once the sun didn’t seem so hot anymore. Did Dad know?

I suddenly remembered a fading, slightly crumpled picture of my Grandmother amongst the rubble of Ypres. Clearly she was not just sight-seeing. She was very slim, her long elegant legs encased in white stockings, her face very fine, her sleek hair just visible beneath her cloche hat. Later, during the Second World War, it was easy for her to travel the country. Usually, she was the distressed Mother visiting her lost, evacuated children. Under the cover of the darkness of the blackout she went about her work.

To the untrained eye she was just an ordinary, unexceptional woman but to those who knew her professionally she was a woman to be feared and much admired. The inevitable restrictions of old age must have been unbearable but maybe her secrets glowed within her.

During the cold war when all feared the nuclear threat in the atmosphere of change and occasional free love, Mum donned the uniform of the hippy to complete her missions. Long curly hair and tie-dyed sarongs were the order of the day. She would move from squat to commune, to demo, to University, to festival with equanimity. The far-out Purple-heart popping girl would never be confused for the suited woman walking with such authority down Whitehall.

“Well I don’t know what you’re looking so shocked about” She looked at me as if genuinely perplexed.

“You killed people. Does Daddy know? Who looked after us? Why didn’t we notice?”

“I stepped back when you were small. I lost my way for a while”

It seems that the Vietnam War had left her disillusioned. No-one knew what they were fighting for. It wasn’t about saving their families or preserving tradition. It was death and destruction for nothing.

It was only when holidaying on a small island in the South Atlantic that she was thrust back into the world of Espionage.

“Bloody sheep”.

My Daughter came to demand ice-cream. We acquiesced and the moment was lost. I had so many questions. Did she sense a certain malaise in me? Did she feel I wasn’t living up to my potential? Could she see what was coming?

Why was I afraid to ask? Was it because I felt a sudden thrill at the thought of  foreign adventure, of pitting my wits against wily adversaries and dealing with greater challenges than the school run? Didn’t I actually long to be more than my husbands’ wife and my Daughter’s mother?

Don’t we all?