Friday 14 July 2023

The Mystery Man by Michael Barrington, a double espresso

 He always sat in the same place, or waited until it was vacated, almost at the same time, and almost every day. Sunday was the one day he was absent, duly noted by the three female staff of the Beatrix Potter Café just off the main street in Ambleside. Unbeknown to himself he’d become an integral part of their lives, a daily topic of hushed conversations and romantic speculation. They assumed he went to church somewhere, as did most Godfearing folk in this area. They couldn’t have been more wrong! After suddenly appearing in the café nine months ago, he’d almost become a fixture, part of the furniture so to speak. Now he didn’t even have to place an order. It was a barely imperceptible nod of the head towards the ladies as he entered, oblivious to the squabbling as to who should serve him. The issue finally resolved, he was quickly brought a large espresso coffee accompanied by a homemade scone with locally made blueberry jam, served on a small plate containing a design of Peter Rabbit. It wasn’t by accident the owners had named the café after the local writer and animator of the amazing children’s books, Beatrix Potter. Her characters were everywhere, and on everything visible: cups, saucers, plates, notice boards, and of course menu lists. Even on the wallpaper.

They watched in eager anticipation as he went through his ritual. Having found his corner table with a view from the window facing Loughrigg Fell, he deliberately placed his backpack on a chair and after extracting his laptop, which he laid down precisely with the open edge facing his chosen seat, carefully plugged it into the power socket in the wall. Only then did he bend down and remove the one bicycle clip holding up the trouser leg on his right ankle, sliding it carefully into the right-hand pocket of his Burberry trench coat which he then hung on the back of the vacant chair. Staff knew what he was wearing underneath; his favorite, well-worn, pure wool, white Setesdal sweater, locally referred to in Norway as a ‘Lice Jacket,’ with its traditional black pattern. At least they assumed it must have been his favorite, since its cuffs were frayed and there was a small hole at one elbow. They’d discussed several times among themselves who should ask him if they could repair it, but none of them had the audacity to approach him. They’d no way of knowing that he didn’t possess any other, or at least any sweater that would provide him such comfort and warmth.

Each day they watched him with eager anticipation as if in a movie theater waiting for the lights to go down and the show to begin when he opened his laptop, and appeared to scroll through or read or examine documents of some kind. He then proceeded to slowly type while occasionally sipping his coffee. They were unable to tell what he was writing since he sat with his back to the wall and if anyone came too close, he inevitably closed the cover.

They wagered with each other how long it would be before he touched his scone, knowing that on average it would be about three minutes and thirty-five seconds. Stopping what he was doing, the man picked up the knife neatly wrapped in a Beatrix Potter paper napkin lying parallel to the tri-angular shaped scone, and with surgeon-like skill meticulously separate the top from the bottom. For a few seconds, he stared at it as if smitten by some masterpiece, a work of art, then used the knife to carefully spread the jam evenly over both pieces making sure to cover each of the corners. Finally, he cut off a small portion, slowly placed it in his mouth, then with eyes closed, appeared lost in a trance of unutterable satisfaction.

They watched silently, entranced, as if observing some exotic religious ceremony, knowing that in exactly forty-five minutes he would nod for a refill of his espresso, sending them again into a tizzy of competition as to who would serve him. They were also aware that in two hours and twenty-five minutes exactly, he would close his laptop, a signal that he wanted the check. Provided the shop was quiet, they liked to stand together near the door just observing as he reversed his arrival process in exactly the same order. He would nod to them with almost no eye contact as he exited the café. Once outside taking the bicycle clip from his pocket he fixed it around the cuff of his right trouser leg, took up his bicycle that was leaning against the window, and rode off down the hill towards Lake Windermere.

No longer needing to whisper to each other, the staff almost broke out into uncontrollable laughter, a kind of catharsis after a traumatic event, but this one was not painful, just exciting and strange. It was as if his odd, silent presence radiated and commanded an aura of peace and calm that nobody should disturb, especially customers. As if the café belonged to him. Like some hallowed ground, a church perhaps, or some ancient college library where communication took place only in hushed tones. They asked each other the same questions they’d been posing every day since he first arrived. Who is this silent man, what does he do, where does he live?

They could never have known why he walked with a slight limp, although they quickly reached a consensus that it was a disability from birth. They’d discussed many times why he sported a full beard and commented about how handsome he looked. If only he wasn’t almost bald. At six feet two inches he was an imposing figure, athletic looking, with striking, deep-set blue eyes and noticeable crow’s feet. His craggy face looked as if it had been outdoors a great deal. What they did talk about frequently were his hands, especially his fingers; long and slender they could have been those of a concert pianist or a surgeon. And they wondered, but couldn’t agree.

What they didn’t know, it was the first time in his life he’d grown a beard. It now covered a scar with eleven double suture punctures, extending from below his left ear almost to the center of his chin. 

They could never have known, nor would they ever discover that his limp resulted from a gunshot in the thigh, and that it was fairly recent.

They would never discover his real name even though they referred to him as Mr. James from the name on his credit card, full name James R. Hatfield. If in the unlikely event that a person had the sophisticated technology or ability to trace him through his card, they would find that it belonged to a nonexistent inmate in Her Majesty’s Maximum-Security Prison in the town of March, Cambridgeshire.

What the staff did not know was that he wasn’t reading or preparing documents, he was actually writing a novel. It was his personal form of therapy as well as something he’d wanted to do for some time. His renting a remote cottage high up on Loughrigg Fell, served to give him the isolation and quiet that he craved for, that he knew would feed his creative spirit. His daily bicycling to Ambleside and his long hikes up the steep and physically demanding Langdale Pikes were helping him regain his strength and mental toughness. If truth be told, he wasn’t sure whether he ever wanted to get back into the ‘Service’ again. In his last conversation with his boss, Sammy Alden-Smythe, generally just referred to in-house as SAS, he’d made it clear that his future within the Service was doubtful at best. That he needed an extended ‘time out’ to think things through, to recuperate, to explore other options. Perhaps, to become a writer.

What the café staff would never know was that his real name was Simon Greenfield, an expert in oriental languages who could speak, read, and write Arabic, Amharic, and Farsi. His hearing was so acute and sensitive that it was claimed by others who had worked with him, that after hearing a foreigner speak English for just a few sentences, he could identify the country the person was from and possibly the region. He was also completely fluent in French and Spanish.

What the ladies would never discover was that he was forty-two years old, divorced, had worked for the government for the past thirteen years, and until recently, spent seven of those years in Ethiopia as a senior regional intelligence officer.

What the ladies did not know was that their assumptions of his attending church on Sunday were kind and Christian but far from the truth. Simon was a practicing Buddhist. Always having wanted to fly fish, but never in a position to do so, he was now taking lessons every Sunday with an instructor on Ghyll Head reservoir, an 11-acre sheltered fishery nestled in a small, elevated valley overlooking Lake Windermere. It was the perfect place to learn.

What the ladies would never understand, was that the true-life men and women who worked inside the sandstone and emerald-colored headquarters at Vauxhall Cross on the banks of the River Thames, were not secret agents; they were intelligence officers. The actual agents were the people they recruited and persuaded to spy for them.

What the ladies could never have guessed, was that he was employed by M16 and on extended leave after being caught up and seriously wounded in a bungled Mukhabarat (Egyptian Secret Service) operation in Cairo, some months previously. And that as a result had promised himself he would never, under any circumstances work with a woman again.

What the ladies would never discover was that the Service rated Simon Greenfield as a top-ranked, highly respected senior intelligence officer. The ‘Brass’ urgently needed him back in London.


About the author

Michael Barrington, is an international writer specializing in historical novels: Let the Peacock Sing, The Ethiopian Affair, Becoming Anya, The Baron of Bengal Street, No Room for Heroes. His 40 short stories and articles have been published in the USA & UK. He also blogs on his website:


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