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Years of training have transformed Michel Khoury into a skilled intelligence operative. A refugee whose family was murdered by extremists, he has one mission: the peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict that upended his life.
An alluring enigma, he attracts the attention of Helen, a pretty English girl who lives in the adjacent apartment. As their relationship develops, Michel is unable to tell Helen about his past — or the collection of passports and unmarked bills he’s concealed in the bathroom they share.
When Michel’s secrets turn deadly, Helen and Michel find themselves pursued through the streets of London, Berlin and the Scottish countryside, on the run from the very people they thought they could trust.
A critically celebrated novel that “recalls the cool detachment and compelling eye for ordinary detail that characterized the early thrillers of Graham Greene” (Independent on Sunday), Shake Off is that rare breed of riveting tale — of intrigue and suspense, love and betrayal — that announces a bold new voice for our increasingly global times.
[ORIGIN: Arabic intifāda lit., a shaking off, der. of fāda to shake off]
An uprising by Palestinians to protest against Israel's occupation of the West bank and the Gaza Strip.
Nobody was there to meet me. Not openly, anyway. I scanned the people waiting behind the barrier as I emerged into the arrivals hall at Heathrow, looking for familiar faces, gaits, physiques, anything that might indicate someone I'd seen before or might see again. I was traveling on a Swiss passport, with $75,000 in thousand-dollar bills taped inside a copy of The Sunday Times I'd bought at Tegel Airport before leaving West Berlin. The front-page headline read: "Kremlin in Crisis as Gorbachev Fights to Keep Control." Newspapers are my preferred way of carrying money or documents; they are easy to ditch, and you can carry one under your arm even as your bags are being searched. This is detail I was taught.
I took a taxi through a wet London to the Imperial Hotel on Russell Square, found a telephone booth in the lobby and dialed a West Berlin number. I studied the lobby as it rang and the tone of an answer machine came on.
"The meeting went well," I said in German, the code to let Abu Leila know that I had arrived without incident. I told him I'd speak to him soon. I'd just had a tref with Abu Leila in Berlin, where he'd given me the money and some documents. He called our meetings trefs because that's what East German intelligence officers called meetings with their agents, and I suppose I counted as Abu Leila's agent, although he had never used that word. I hung up but kept the receiver to my ear, using the time to scan the lobby for familiar faces from the airport. I called the speaking clock so no one could find out what number I'd dialed.
I changed out of my suit into jeans, T-shirt and tennis shoes in the hotel toilets, putting the suit in the holdall. I didn't like to look out of place; it was important to blend in. Be grey, not colorful, my trainers in Moscow had said. I always matched my shoes to my clothes. I'd heard that immigration officers checked for illegal immigrants by looking at their shoes. I ripped my plane ticket up and threw it into the toilet bowl, urinating on the scraps before flushing them away. It is easier to flush soaked paper than dry—this is detail I've picked up with experience.
From the hotel I walked to King's Cross Station and jumped onto a bus going to Kentish Town. I loved these open London buses; you could get on and off when you liked, which made it a little harder for anybody in pursuit. You should always sit at the back of the bus when you get on, because surveillance like to sit at the back to get a good view of you embarking without having to turn around. Your job is to make their job more difficult without it being plain that you know what you are doing. All this I have been taught.
I ran through my meeting with Abu Leila.
"Keep an extra eye out for the competition," he'd said. "The competition" was our name for Mossad; it was our little joke: the idea of PLO security competing with such an organization was laughable. Apparently "the competition" were trying to reassert themselves in England after recent setbacks—Mossad's station in London had been closed by Margaret Thatcher two years earlier, for having an agent in a PLO cell implicated in the shooting of a Palestinian cartoonist on a South Kensington street. But Abu Leila had another reason for his warning—he wanted to host a secret meeting in England, a meeting between Israelis and Palestinians. His warning was unnecessary; I'd been trained to be constantly alert. It was always better to be safe than sorry, even if being safe meant not being able to relax.
By the time I got to Kentish Town I had reassured myself that I was traveling alone. I walked the dark and quiet residential backstreets up to Tufnell Park, avoiding the main road. The recent rain had freshened the air and cleansed the streets. I stopped occasionally, once to do my shoelaces, twice to shift my bag to the other shoulder, always giving a quick scout behind as I crossed the road. But it was late on a Sunday and nobody else was about.
It was with some relief that I reached my road in Tufnell Park where I rented a small room—just a bed, cooker and sink in a three-story terraced house—what the English call a bedsit. Six rooms in all—occupied, as far as I could tell, by mature students or itinerant workers. It had been home for a year, and I paid the rent every month in cash. Since each of the rooms was self-contained (apart from shared bathrooms on each floor) I exchanged only greetings with the other inhabitants when passing them on the stairs, which suited me fine.
I hung up my suit and took the money from inside the newspaper. I'd spent the first fifteen years of my life in a refugee camp, so I appreciated how much money I was carrying, although Abu Leila handed it out indifferently, not even expecting me to account for it. I took no advantage though; I just lived the life of a student, as instructed. My modest monthly expenses were paid through to a UK bank account, transferred from a trust fund in Qatar ostensibly set up by my parents' executors, although I don't think my parents had ever even opened a bank account. My fees at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I was registered as a student, had been paid up front, from the same account. The last thing Abu Leila wanted was for me to look out of place. He gave me strict instructions to stay out of exiled Arab circles, and particularly to avoid the Palestinian student community and their organizations, like the General Union of Palestinian Students. Abu Leila said that Western intelligence agencies saw anyone involved in such activities as a potential threat, and that such groups were infiltrated by the competition. I wrapped the money and the Swiss passport in a towel, thinking of several ways it could be put to good use in the camp, although I didn't know what it was for, just what I had to do with it.
I saw light coming from under the bathroom door on the landing. As I turned to go back into my room, the door opened and my housemate emerged trailing steam, wrapped in a towel that reached mid-thigh, another wrapped turban-like around her head. I'd only seen her once or twice before as we passed each other on the stairs. She'd been there a month, replacing a middle-aged man who I'd never seen use the bathroom.
We shuffled awkwardly on the small landing, and she gave an embarrassed smile as she walked past me with her freshly bathed smell. The shabby but clean bathroom was still steamy. I caught the herbal aroma of her bathwater as it swirled down the plughole. She'd left a candle on the side of the bath—a thin snake of smoke emerged from the blown-out wick. I wet my forefinger and thumb and squeezed the smoking wick dead with a hiss.
The house was quiet as I checked the alignment of the screws that held the plastic side panel of the bath in place. They were as I'd last left them. Using a tiny penknife attached to my key ring, I removed the panel. Lying on my back parallel to the bath, I reached under and unhooked an A4-sized plastic package attached to a water pipe running along the wall under the tub. It was still warm from the bath. I pulled the package out. Undoing the zip-lock, I took out a Lebanese passport and replaced it with the Swiss passport and the dollars. Even in thousand-dollar bills the money was a tight fit. The zip-lock had a Greek passport and £2,600 in it, from which I removed £1,000. I closed it and replaced it on the pipe, which took some effort since I had to do it blind. Not an ideal hiding place, but you had to make use of what was around you. I never kept anything incriminating in my room—that, according to my trainers, you should never do. I screwed the bath panel back on, making sure the screw heads were aligned as before.
Back in my room I lay in bed with the lights out and the curtains open, the room lit up by the street lamps. Again I went through what little Abu Leila had told me yesterday. My job was to make sure his secret meeting went ahead smoothly, my first task being to research a venue and find somewhere for the Palestinian contingent to stay. As ever, Abu Leila had been light on detail, but then Abu Leila had his own piecemeal way of revealing information, and it wasn't my place to ask questions, not after all he'd done for me. He did say that the meeting would change the course of history and that everything—my training, my cover, the necessary lies, my exile—had been leading to this moment. I reached into the drawer in my bedside cabinet and took out a packet of codeine. I swallowed three tablets with water and lay back down on my bed. I could hear muffled voices from the adjoining room, then the sound of a creaking bed and a man groaning.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax. It was with relief that the codeine started to work and the warmth suffused my body. It was like being tucked in by Mama. It was like Esma stroking my head. I listened to the noises coming through the wall until I fell asleep.
The Lebanese passport was real, according to Abu Leila, who had given it to me when I left Beirut for Cyprus five years ago. It even had my real surname on it, Khoury, rather than Anton, the surname in the Swiss passport. Khoury is a common Arab Christian surname (meaning priest); Anton could be French or German or Swiss. I have been told that, on looks alone, I could be mistaken for either Swiss or Lebanese, and have also been mistaken for French, Italian, Greek and even an Israeli; all of which is handy when you are traveling on passports from these countries. I was born in the Sabra refugee camp in Beirut—just one of the many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians born outside Palestine who has never actually set foot there.
I'd never tested the Lebanese passport in Lebanon, because Abu Leila had forbidden me to go back. He'd clutched it tightly for a moment before letting it go, looking at me intently and saying, "From now on you are Lebanese. You were born in east Beirut, and a stray bomb killed your parents during the war."
East Beirut was mainly Maronite Christian, and we were from west Beirut, although my family was Christian—Greek Orthodox, to be precise—rather than Maronite, who are of the Catholic doctrine. The Phalangists—a neo-Nazi Lebanese group intent on Lebanon being "pure"—are Maronite Christians. It was the Phalangists who had killed my family on that black day. Abu Leila, once he had made his point, let go of the passport and relieved me of my United Nations card identifying me as a Palestinian refugee. He'd then gone through the details of my reconstructed past. Much of it was true. Abu Leila's genius was in connecting lies to the truth as much as possible. This was later reinforced during my training—if you can believe just a bit of your cover story then you can convince your listener (and even yourself ) that it is all true.
Because I'd been born and raised in the Sabra refugee camp in south-west Beirut, speaking in a Lebanese vernacular came easily, as many of the camp residents were Lebanese, united with the Palestinians in their poverty. My father had looked down on these Lebanese, because, he said, they had no excuse being there, not being subject to the same disadvantages we Palestinians were with our refugee status. Mama would tell him to shut up, saying they were just refugees within their own country, and that we were in no position to look down on anyone. Mama used to clean and cook for wealthy Lebanese families. During the summer, when the camp-based United Nations refugee school I attended was closed, I sometimes accompanied her to the more affluent areas of west Beirut and sat in large kitchens while she kept house for the owners. If they weren't present Mama allowed me to look around ("Don't touch anything!") and I was amazed that people could have so many rooms, as well as enough things to fill them all. Sometimes the woman of the house would be around and I would be restricted to studying at the kitchen table while Mama made coffee for the gossiping, freshly coiffed women who sat in the formal living room. I would take my school books with me, and it always struck me that, despite the wealth of Mama's employers, few of them had books on their ornament-filled shelves.
After the killings I wound up (via the Zionist army, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent) living with such a family. Except that they were Palestinian and Christian, and it was an eye-opener to meet Palestinians who lived outside the camp, never mind ones who had a live-in maid and ate meat every day. But before that, in the immediate aftermath, this elderly childless couple had taken me in and fed me and clothed me and sent me (at great expense) to the International School of Beirut. It was only much later, when I was no longer able to thank them, that I appreciated their generosity. Kind as they were, I didn't take to them, and my memories of them are vague. They were reserved to the point of being formal, and again it was later that I understood that my stay was only ever going to be temporary, that they never intended to let me into their hearts. No one had thought to tell me this at the time. It hadn't occurred to me, once I was settled into my new and comfortable home, to go back to the refugee camp, nor was it ever suggested by anyone. What was the point? After all, I had no one to go back to—a result not just of the efficiency of the killers who had murdered my small family—all five of them—in one fell swoop, but also because I was an only child and came from a Christian family. These things made us a minority in the camp and meant we had few real friends. Or at least my parents (mainly my father) had chosen to have few friends: he hadn't just looked down on our impoverished Lebanese neighbors, but also on our Muslim neighbors, muttering with annoyance at the daily calls to prayer and the predawn pot-banging in the streets during Ramadan. So I had no extended family, no friends to take me in, and little supporting infrastructure since the Israelis had forced the PLO out of Beirut just before the killings. I was told by the Red Crescent worker who handled my case that I should feel lucky to have found such a good foster family so quickly, that other children had ended up back in the camp with other families. She told me this as if it was a bad thing.
I kept to myself in my new alien environment, avoiding my new classmates after school, who called me "the refugee" in that offhand cruel manner that children have of picking up on any difference. I steeled myself against this rejection, determined to do well at my lessons, to show that I was as good as any of the other kids despite my schooling thus far, which in itself was cause for mockery. So I filled this family-free and friendless void with studying, principally languages, for which my teachers said I had an aptitude. And although I busied myself with school and books and study, it was at night—after I had finished reading—that I found my circumstances most difficult; that was when I had no way of deflecting my thoughts from Mama's receding screams or the dying weight of my father pressing down on me. At the time these memories were still fresh and overwhelmed me, rekindling the panic I'd felt at the time. I know that it was shameful and weak, but in those first weeks after arriving in my new home I cried every night, muffling the sound with my pillow so no one would hear me. I cried until I exhausted myself to sleep.
I worried that my new foster family would hear the nightly crying and be embarrassed that they'd adopted a fifteen-year-old cry-baby, but I learned that by rocking my head back and forth on the pillow I could displace the bad memories until sleep caught up with me. This action created a rushing sound in my head, a soothing white noise. After a few days of acquiring this new skill, Esma, the Kurdish maid who lived in the box room next to mine during the week, came into my room late one night.
"What are you doing?" she asked in a harsh whisper. "You're keeping me awake with your banging." I looked at her framed in the doorway, dressed only in her slip, and couldn't answer. She studied me, and something overcame her well-earned need for sleep, for she came in and sat on my bed and stroked my head to stop my rocking. The next night, though, imagining her sleeping on the other side of the wall, I vacillated between rocking my head in the hope that she would come in and keeping still so as not to disturb her. Sometimes I rocked my head with abandon and she would come, but on the whole she didn't, banging on the wall instead.
"I'm not your mother," she said one night, after coming into my room. She was right, she wasn't Mama. I was ashamed, and she could see that. "I work all day," she added, more softly. "I need to sleep." So I no longer tried to attract her attention, but learned that if I put my ear to the wall I could hear the steady breathing which told me she was asleep, and that became my cue to rock my head. At the weekends, when she went home to her village outside Beirut, I could start rocking as soon as I tired of reading.
When I first arrived in London a year ago, I was traveling on my Lebanese passport stamped with a twelve-month visa and papers indicating that I was registered at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I was enrolled to do a ten-month-long foundation course—essentially an advanced English language course for foreigners intending to do further study. I had graduated in English and German from the Freie Universität in West Berlin a few months before arriving in London; I didn't need the postgraduate language course, but being at SOAS was good cover and gave me time to do my real job without being burdened with too much work.
The morning after getting back from West Berlin I called in at SOAS to pick up some coursework. I received a lecture from my tutor on my lax attendance: I had been going to the minimum number of lectures required to qualify for credits. Her heart wasn't in it though, because my coursework results were excellent and I never missed an assignment. I gave her my most penitent face and she smiled and shook her head, pointing at her door. A couple of the students invited me to an end-of-course party. I told them I'd think about it—I don't think they expected me to attend and I didn't plan to.
Afterwards I stopped at a private postbox bureau in Westminster. One of the first things I had done on arriving in London was to register at three of these services using different identities. All I needed was a fake driving license and a matching utility bill. I kept a variety of these documents in a bank deposit box registered under yet another name, along with other documentation and money. Six large envelopes were in the postbox, five of which contained sales leaflets and technical documents that related to military radio equipment that I was collating for Abu Leila. The sixth envelope was one I had had couriered from West Berlin the day before yesterday, given to me by Abu Leila. I hadn't wanted to carry it, especially since I was carrying the money and didn't want the two things connected. I could perhaps explain the money, but not the money and whatever was in that envelope. I also found a letter posted from Rome. I opened it before leaving the bureau. Inside was a single sheet with a list of twelve names and addresses typed in Arabic, but no explanation of what they were. The addresses were all in towns on the West Bank; they could have been informers or potential recruits, it was not my concern. I bundled the brochures into one large envelope and posted them to a PO box in West Berlin that Abu Leila checked on a regular basis.
Thirty minutes later I entered Westminster Reference Library off Leicester Square, where there were few people at that time of day. Removing a Shorter Oxford Dictionary from a shelf, I sat at a desk and ciphered the names in the letter using a code that Abu Leila had come up with.
I had to rewrite the names in English, using an agreed transliteration of the Arabic. Western intelligence agencies had great problems processing and cross-referencing Arabic names because of the variety of ways one could spell them in English, but Abu Leila had standardized the process, adding a layer of consistency. The system involved using the Shorter Oxford to generate a reference number for a word, a combination of the line and page number. The downside was that I had to have access to the same dictionary as Abu Leila, but it couldn't be one that I kept at home, hence my use of the library. It was laborious and there were surely better and more secure ways of communicating, but we had stuck with it because we were the only ones who used it, and I liked it because I came across new words every time. When completed, I destroyed the original letter, flushing the torn and soaked remains down the public toilet in the library. I posted the coded letter to Berlin as soon as I was outside.
Back in Tufnell Park I had a bath. I thought of the girl who had lain in it the night before. I thought of the towel high on her long legs. I thought of the noises I'd heard in her room. I didn't have much to go on from last night so I thought of Kurdish Esma. I missed her for her head-stroking, but I missed her for other things too.
The last time I had been with a woman was several weeks ago, someone I'd picked up in a Berlin bar and taken to my hotel room. I couldn't remember her name or what she looked like, except that she had large breasts, thick ankles and stubbly legs. All of my sexual encounters were of this nature, as little was expected by either party beyond a certain release. I found it easier to say nothing than to lie, as getting to know someone unfortunately meant telling them about myself, letting them see beyond the façade. I'd been taught to be wary of women, especially those who initiated contact: I heard many stories (from Abu Leila and my Soviet trainers) of people falling foul of this most ancient of honey traps. An Israeli nuclear scientist had been lured from London to Rome by a Mossad agent who had picked him up in Trafalgar Square, of all places. I knew that one's ego could blur the reality of a situation: it is easier to believe that a woman finds you irresistible than that she is trying to ensnare you. So on the whole I ignored the women who started things and always made the approach myself, although I was aware of the signals that could be given out to make you initiate contact: a smile, a lingering look, someone asking for directions or a light. It was hard work, having to be alert all the time, and once or twice I had considered using a prostitute. I imagined that with a prostitute you could relax completely; a transaction was entered into. Logically it made sense, given my circumstances, and yet something, a sense of shame or pride, stopped me from going through with it.
I often wondered what it would be like to be completely honest with someone about myself, even considering asking Abu Leila whether I could be coupled with a woman in the same position. I had a recurring fantasy involving a pair of agents traveling Europe, staying in hotels and going to restaurants together (I hated eating in restaurants alone) once our business was done. It made sense from an operational point of view, as a couple attracts less attention than a person on their own. As I drained the bath I promised myself that I would bring it up with Abu Leila when I saw him next.
On the whole, my foster "auntie" and "uncle" (I could never properly think of them as surrogate parents) left me to my own devices, although they obliged me to be sociable when they had visitors. A lot of people came to the apartment in the first weeks, and it became clear that they had come to see me. Not to talk to me but to look at me, as if my tragedy might have some physical manifestation. I felt uncomfortable in their presence, sensing their curiosity and pity.
"Poor thing," the coiffed women would say to each other, as if I couldn't hear them. "Imagine, his whole family in one go!"
I would say nothing, withdrawing to my room, where I conjugated French verbs and practiced writing joined-up English in ruled notebooks. Sometimes Esma the maid would come in brandishing a duster and pretend to clean. I could not determine Esma's age beyond that she didn't seem much older than me, and I sensed that she would rather be doing anything but cleaning for this kindly but reserved couple. I would jokingly admonish her in my beginner's French, telling her not to disturb me or that she had missed dusting a shelf, and she would laugh because she couldn't understand me, covering her mouth to hide her gold-filled teeth. But by then I had caught the spark in her pitch-black eyes and would try to provoke her further.
- On Sale
- Aug 14, 2012
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Mulholland Books