x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Expatriate games

Amid the dhows and high-rise towers of Dubai, a group of diplomats is quietly acting on Her Majesty's public service.

He sat for a long time in the car park, reluctant to leave the comfort of the air conditioning and staring through the windscreen at the forbidding white walls of the embassy compound. He watched the familiar flag, stirring reproachfully in the warm breeze that blew in off the creek, and despite himself - despite everything that had happened - he felt something stir deep inside.

In the rearview mirror he could see the gaudily decorated pleasure dhows moored at the quay. He despised the tourists for whom they represented the quintessential holiday experience, but right now he could think of nothing he would rather be doing than setting off for a sail in their company.

He found the wish transforming itself into something else and quickly cut it off. For a moment, he had almost forgotten himself; there could be no more making deals with Him.  "I hate you," he whispered the old mantra. "I hate you as though you actually exist."

After Berlin, Havana and Panama he had known there could be no going back and, like others before, he had sought the anonymity of a bustling, cosmopolitan city far from home. Dubai had swallowed him readily enough but in his heart he had always known this day would come and, now that it had, the blow had fallen as a welcome coup de grâce. There was no outrunning the past. Escape to a desert, as his old Cambridge tutor used to say, and the silence shouts in your ear.

He had lived expecting the worst - a traffic accident; a 3am knock on the door; something evil detaching itself from the shadows in a lonely back street. His life had been lived braced for any or all of these things, but the apparently innocuous invitation had taken him by surprise.

He had pored over it endlessly, looking for clues, struggling to mobilise his once spritely but now arthritic skills.

"The Consul General would like to invite you to a morning tea at the Embassy..."

Morning tea? He frowned. Any Englishman worth his lapsang souchong knew perfectly well that tea was an afternoon affair.

With that thought, distracting fragments of a half-remembered poem floated up from where his soul had once been. "Would I were in Grantchester... Stands the church clock at 10 to three? And is there honey still for tea?"

He stifled the painful image, forcing himself to concentrate.

"The focus of this event will be a presentation on 'A Day in the Life of a Consular Officer', which will give an insight into the types of difficulties that British nationals can get into in Dubai and what you can do to help keep you and your family safe ... "

He had to smile. It was a little heavy-handed, but old Smiley's people hadn't lost their touch. But what, after all this time, did they want from him? Were they offering redemption behind those walls - or something altogether more deserved?

Taking a deep breath and casting a lingering glance back towards the carefree creek, he strolled with false conviction towards the unmarked metal gate. It was already slightly open, as though he were expected, and he stepped inside. Immediately, a suffocating sensation he thought he had left behind on the Templehof runway flooded back. Not for the first time since he had run away from the Circus, he missed the comforting bulge of the Walther PPK, with its promise of a "delivery like a brick through a plate-glass window".

Instinctively, he looked around for cover, noted possible lines of retreat and scanned the rooftops of the embassy buildings, but when he saw the two smiling women sitting at a table set up across the path ahead he knew there was now no going back.

"Here's your badge," said one breezily, after the other had checked his passport and found his name on a list. "Oh, and don't forget to collect your fun quiz sheet!"

Quiz? A wry smile played on his lips. So that's what they were calling Control's little "chats" these days.

He scanned the first few questions and "Fun" didn't seem to come into it. "Which of the following can you be arrested for in the UAE… How many years is the minimum sentence for possession of illegal drugs… If you are arrested in the UAE, which three of the following can Consular staff do for you?"

Still, he mused; give them the answers they were looking for and he might even win a 16GB iPad.

The path led to a garden at the back of the consular section and he found himself stumbling into what appeared to be a church fête. Instantly he was transported to a long-ago summer's day at the vicarage in Berkhamsted. Men in blazers and women in floral dresses stood around in the sunlight, sipping tea from HM china cups, scattering crumbs of carrot cake on the lush lawn and chatting to the smattering of dark-suited bright-eyed Foreign Office types who moved smoothly among them.

All that was missing were the hats and the bash-the-rat stall.

Patriotic Englishmen, he sneered to himself; been here for years. But which of them was our man in Dubai? He scanned the crowd as people began moving towards the seats that had been set out on the grass in front of a daïs and a microphone.  Suddenly, a voice boomed out from the loudspeakers.

"Hello, my name's Guy Warrington," said a cheerful, stocky man in a grey suit. He seemed affable enough, but looked as though he could handle himself in a scrum. "I'm the consul-general here and I'd like to welcome you all to this event."

Good trade-craft. Anyone watching the gates would register a lone visitor. Invite a couple of hundred and suddenly everyone's invisible.

"The reason you've all been invited is because you have registered with the British Embassy; please encourage all your fellow Brits to do the same and they too may get an invitation.

"We are," Warrington continued, "also looking at the way we communicate with the British community. At the moment we do it by means of e-mail - and if you've not been getting our regular newsletter, please tell us - but we're also starting to look at other forms of communication and social media, such as Facebook…"

Dead-drops too much trouble these days, he supposed. It was one way to bring a chap in from the cold, but it would have taken rather more than an e-mail and a couple of tweets to have got Alec Leamas back up and over that wall.

The objective of today, Warrington was saying, was "to explain our consular services, what we can and cannot do, because sometimes I think it's not clear to everybody… and to talk to you about some of the difficulties British nationals have got into in the UAE,  and how to avoid them..."

Fat lot of good consular services had done old Leamas. He wandered away, heading for the tea stall, but before he could reach it a woman appeared from nowhere, cutting him off from the plate of chocolate fudge cake he had had his eye on. Here it comes, he thought. The punchline.

"Hello," she said, brightly. "This is for you."

In her outstretched hand she was holding what appeared to be a jute shopping bag, which on one side bore the legend "British Embassy Dubai" in large letters. A little obvious, he felt. Then she turned the bag over and he finally got the message.

"Do respect local laws and customs," it said. "Do 'Know Before You Go'. Do research your destination." And there was more: "Don't dress or behave inappropriately. Don't drink and drive. Don't do drugs."

All sound advice - if only he'd been given it before that unpleasantness on Albrecht-Dürer-Strasse. Still, he'd been young, and it was the Sixties.

Out on the street, he tried not to look back as he walked steadily towards the car. It was only February but already the first breaths of summer were wafting in from the desert. It had been stifling in the embassy garden and he was grateful to be able to slip off his jacket, start the engine and feel the air-conditioning come to life.

It was, in fact, good to be back in the cold.