Don’t Answer


Annette is intelligent, so much so she knows the grinding loneliness only the super-intelligent suffer.

To always be several … dozens … of moves above and beyond the minds of other people is a curse.

But even the less intelligent can produce work, albeit at a snail’s pace, that she is able to admire. She loves music, poetry, choreography, invention – and she loves puzzles.

The puzzle currently on her screen is the best she’s ever come across. Like many online pieces it’s long enough to take days or weeks. It’s all about subtleties, the varied use of commas from which you can draw numbers that relate to other pages, to dates, to historical events, to atomic weights and meteorological data. Quotes, misquotes, clues hidden in pictures, lead to further clues, dead-ends and red herrings. Every branch of human activity is included, from using an abacus to Darwin’s zoological notes. Written in several languages, it’s a story, a maze, it’s a… She freezes, staring at the screen, hating herself for being such a fool.

So, she thinks, puzzles can be treacherous…

The curtain in the bay window flaps. Sunlight glows through the fabric. Despite it being only the beginning of September, Annette shivers, pushes her swivel chair back and walks to the window.

Wrens, disturbed by her movement, dart into safety, a swathe of ivy she lets grow over her rockery precisely because she likes wrens.

Closing the window, she turns and walks back to the desk. Pulling a shawl tighter around her shoulders, she tugs free some long silver hairs that became trapped.

Lifting and drinking the cooled remains of chamomile tea from a bone china cup, she wonders if there is a way out of her predicament. Replacing the cup gently in its scalloped saucer, she taps her screen with a bony gnarled finger, the loose red-blotched skin a testament to her advanced years.

She gets the next part of the puzzle wrong, tries and fails repeatedly to solve it. She thinks it’s probably not worth the effort and that she’s irrevocably snared.

I’m old, she thinks, but not ready to die yet. What’s more, I didn’t want to know when it would happen. At least I don’t have a husband, any children or grandchildren. This is the first time that has been a blessing: I’ve no one they can threaten.

Contact is not made until the next day. A call. “Ms Shepherd. My name is George Spencer and I work for…”

She interrupts, “No it isn’t and no you don’t. Do not contact me ever again – you or any of your colleagues: I expressly forbid it.” She cuts the call and, for what it’s worth, blocks the number. Poor man, she muses, trapped and forced to trap others. Or is it excitement? Can someone enjoy living like that? Maybe there’s some illusion of power, of responsibility … a pawn thinking he’s a knight.

Nothing happens for days until she enters a tea shop, her favourite one, by the river in Ely. Before the door swings closed behind her, a man snatches her handbag, tearing it from her grasp and racing into the street. His theft is foiled by another man, slim and gracile, who performs a perfect rugby tackle. The bag hits the pavement, bursts open and scatters the contents over paving slabs or into the gutter. The screech of vehicle brakes causes head to turn. The thief flees amongst traffic.

Scooping cards, hair grips, a notebook, a purse and other objects up, the tackler puts them back in the bag and approaches Annette. Sweeping sandy locks from his forehead, he smiles and holds the bag for her to take. “Hi, the strap’s broken but I got all your stuff. The name’s Andy, by the way.”

No it’s not.” She turns away. “God knows what you’ve put in my bag. And it’s not my stuff, as you put it. I own nothing and nothing owns me. Tell your people I’ll have nothing to do with them.” Relaxing a little, shoulders sagging in despair, she turns back to him. “You’re too young. Don’t let them do this to you. Now, please go. And sorry if I was too sharp with you.” Annette ignores the bag and leaves him speechless, looking from it to her. She wonders if the images of his surprise and confusion will ever fade from her memory.

Minutes later, and sipping grapefruit-infused oolong, Annette wonders when and how the moment will come. She hopes it’ll be painless.

Three days pass and afternoon sun warms her garden. The parasol above Annette’s chair shades her, tassels swaying in a zephyr. On the white-painted wrought iron table sit a tray and tea set. Annette’s expecting her gardener to take tea and receive his weekly pay, always in cash.

She looks up as a noise makes the wrens dash for cover. The young man, sans handbag, closes the gate and strides across the lawn.

Annette has rarely seen a grin quite so ingenuously sheepish and happy at the same time. She says, “Well, this is a surprise. I never thought I’d see you again. Take a seat and pour yourself tea. You don’t need to warn me about what’s going to happen.” She squints up at him, sunlight dazzling his hair. “Or is it you that’s going to do it, whatever your real name is?”

I’m Jez … James … whatever. No I’m not here to kill you. I walked out; haven’t been in the office for days. But I would like a cup of tea.”

They’ll have to kill me some time. They think they’re intelligent but they’re hopelessly predictable and as thick as an asses’ excrement – if you’ll pardon the expression.”

Jez sits, the wicker chair creaking. Reaching for the teapot he says, “Yes, we tracked the progress of every person that tried the puzzle. It was the speed, the unbelievable speed, you went through it. Then you made mistakes – most of us suspected you’d sussed out what was going on and were trying to fool us. The attribute the agency admires most is intelligence: but it is also the thing it is most terrified of. You’re right, the way they see it, if you don’t work for them you could be tempted or made to work for another organisation, another country: an enemy even.” Darjeeling flows from the spout and into a porcelain cup. “I’ve never seen those on…” he nods at the tea set’s design, “What do you call those birds?”

Wrens. Back to the subject, young man. I assume they will kill you too.”

Yup, I know too much even though I’m at the lowest level. It took you, two days’ of binge drinking and a hot shower to work out that the only tool they ultimately had over me was fear. Fear of demotion, lack of promotion, death … whatever. I’m a free man now. A real man. Nobody owns me. I came here to thank you.”

How long have we got?”

Hopefully long enough to drink this. Ooh, biscuits.”

You like ginger snaps? Be my guest.”

©Gary Bonn, 2017