1 – Got Them Ol’ Sourdough Blues

A weekend with Dora

‘Homebaked’ © 2021 Steve Williams
Friday morning, 8 am: waking Dora

Dora sits on the bench looking a little grey and flat. Not her usual bubbly, energetic self at all. Still, she’ll stop sulking when the kitchen warms up.

Funny how relationships turn out. I never thought my sourdough starter would live longer than my marriage. But there you go. Life’s full of surprises.

Maybe it seems odd to you, giving a culture of yeast and bacteria a name, but Dora and I go way back. Ten years? Eleven. Never liked calling her my sourdough ‘mother’, somehow.

When Lauren left last year, after eight years of marriage that began effervescent but soon turned acidic, Dora gave my life a structure.

Friends (the ones I still had) didn’t get it: why was a newly single, middle-aged guy baking bread once a fortnight, like he was still one half of a couple?

Be that as it may, every second weekend is sourdough weekend in my house. Like a marriage, sourdough baking requires patience. Unlike a marriage, it requires little work and only occasional attention.

I leave Dora to her own devices, while I tackle the text on Harnröhrenentzündungen bei pubertierenden Jungen for my client. ‘Urethritis in pubescent boys’ — who says the work of a translator ain’t glamorous?

Proofed and uploaded by 4 pm, just about the time the publisher of the Edinburgh journal will be arriving at work. Ah, the wonders of global publishing. ‘Russian, German and Farsi to English technical translation based in Australia’ is a useful little niche I’ve recently carved out for myself. Obscure texts translated overnight, while my European and US clients slumber in their peaceful beds.

Friday evening, 6 pm: levain and autolyse

I’m in one hell of a rush here. The gig starts at eight, but autolyse and levain will brook no delay. I mix up 500g of white and wholemeal flour for the levain with 400ml of water. Dora is frothing in anticipation. In you go, girl: work your magic.

One-and-a-half kilos of bulk flour (5 parts white; 3 parts wholemeal; 2 parts rye) now need to be mixed to a stiff dough and left to soften overnight.

I’m shaved, showered, changed and out the door with banjo case in hand by seven. Jonno, our bass player, is waiting in his car at the gate. Looks like we’re going to be a few minutes late.

Saturday morning, early

Where the hell am I? I roll off a couch on to a timber floor. The only light is the baleful green glow of a clock. A wall oven? An open-plan kitchen diner then; must be water here somewhere. My mouth tastes like a small furry mammal has died in it.

In the dark my foot connects with something soft that swears softly and rolls over. Jonno.

By the time I’ve located the tap and fumbled around gingerly to find a clean glass, Jonno’s awake. I fumble around some more for a light switch and get lucky. ‘Shit, that’s bright.’ He sits up in his sleeping bag, looking like a bleary-eyed, wild-haired caterpillar.

‘Where are we, mate?’

‘Ashleigh’s place,’ says Jonno. ‘Newtown.’

‘Ashleigh?’

‘Christ, you were trollied. Completely fuck-eyed.’

‘Apparently. Who’s Ashleigh?’

‘Singer in the support band. We came back here for an after-gig party … You really don’t remember? Nothing?’

‘Nope.’ My mind is completely blank. Although … vague recollections of a velvety blues voice, laughter and lots of hair.

‘We jammed till about two. Then the cops came.’

‘Ah.’

‘Yeah, that put a bit of a damper on proceedings, so Lex and the boys took off home. We stayed. On account of being a little under the weather, so to speak.’

Jonno’s looking at me a little strangely.

‘You really don’t remember anything about last night?’

‘Not a thing. Should I?’

‘You and Ashleigh were very … friendly. I was thinking you might be bunking down with her, but she was afraid you were going to throw up in her bed.’

‘R-i-i-i-ght.’ Sounds like a night to remember. Unfortunately, I don’t.

‘Umm, thing is, mate, I need to go. Kids have footy this morning, and I’ve got to go home and make myself presentable, then pick ’em up from the ex. She’ll hand me my balls on a platter if I’m late. Could we … ?’

No sign of alleged Ashleigh; no sound of anyone stirring upstairs. It doesn’t seem right just to toddle off, but I’m in no fit state to take decisions, so I go with the flow.

I scrawl ‘Thanks!! Jack S.’ on a scrap of paper and leave it on the table. I consider leaving my phone number, but decide against it. We tiptoe out, inasmuch as two blokes can tiptoe with a banjo and a bass guitar, and close the front door softly.

Jonno drops me at my gate forty minutes later. It’s properly light now.

Saturday morning, 11 am: bulk fermentation

After a shower, a shave, a coffee and a piece of toast, I feel more-or-less human again. Not sleep-deprived yet: that will hit me this evening.

Dora’s been a busy girl, partying with the levain. The contents of the bowl are pillowed like marshmallows and cratered with little holes where bubbles of carbon dioxide have popped.

The dough is elastic, ready to receive the levain. But first, I need to mix up a new starter from flour, water and a few frothy spoonfuls of levain. Dora gets to live on, in a new incarnation. Ever changing, ever youthful, ever Dora. I could use some of that myself.

Now for the bulk fermentation. I fold the light, silky levain into the stiffer dough with a wooden spoon, then cover the bowl. For the next six hours I’ll fold the dough every hour or so. I wash up the spoon and set it in the rack to dry. No implements from now on in: just wet hands.

The pleasant routine of sourdough bread making gives my day its rhythm, interspersed with playing music, reading and walking in the late winter sunshine. Inebriation fades away gently, without leaving a stinking hangover. Which is nice and wholly undeserved.

Getting drunk really isn’t supposed to be my thing these days. I thought I was over that. Killed enough braincells in my youth.

Damned if I can remember anything about this Ashleigh. I can only hope that I didn’t make too much of an arse of myself. If I did, I’m sure to hear all about it from Lex at next band practice. I’ll be lucky if she doesn’t write a song about me.

Saturday evening, 6 pm: loaf shaping, retardation

No kneading involved in sourdough baking: it’s a gentle process. The last folding of the dough tells me it’s ready for shaping: I’m able to scoop the whole elastic mass cleanly out of the bowl without sticking.

I plump the dough down on the floured marble worktop and let it rest while I wash and dry my hands carefully. Dry, floured hands from now on, not wet ones. With the silicone dough knife, I cut the dough into four equal portions. I shape each segment into a little chubby oval parcel and set them aside to rest for half an hour. I dig the loaf tins out of the cupboard and oil them lightly.

Billie Holiday is singing her troubled heart out in the lounge. I gently pull and fold the dough into shape and lay the loaf babies each in its metal cradle. Into the fridge you go, for twelve hours’ retardation: the secret of a good oven spring and thus a fluffy, chewy loaf, not a doorstop.

Dora goes back in the fridge as well, there to slumber until her next outing. Sweet dreams, babe.

Speaking of slumber, I’m going to hit the sack.

Sunday morning 8–9 am: bake

I turn on the oven and crank up the dial to 230˚C. While I’m waiting for it to reach temperature, I make coffee and strop the Sweeney Todd. Scoring the loaves is vital for oven spring and a crunchy crust, and for that I need a viciously sharp blade.

The oven dings. The unbaked, barely risen loaves are removed from the fridge, carefully scored and glazed with salt water. In the oven with you: make your daddy proud, babies. I set the timer for 25 minutes and hit the shower.

Emerging from the shower, I can’t resist padding up the hallway to the kitchen and having a quick peek. Fifteen minutes in, and the loaves are rising perceptibly before my eyes. Still pallid, but on track. In ten minutes I’ll turn down to 190˚C and let them bake through for another 30. It’s starting to smell like fresh-baked bread in here. If there’s a better smell, I ain’t smelled it.

I’m planning to garden today, and give the new beehive boxes a final coat of paint, so I pull on old jeans and a ragged T-shirt, grab my Aran sweater from the dirty washing pile. Down the hall I hear the timer.

That is some fine bread, if I do say so myself. I knock the loaves out on to the wire cooling racks and admire them from several angles, coming in close for a deep sniff. You bloody little beauties! Jack Shaw, you’re a baking genius. Nice teamwork, Dora.

I’m about to bumble off to the garden when the doorbell rings. That can only be Jehovah’s Witnesses — do they come on Sundays? — or old Glenda down the road, come early for her loaf.

Neither, nor. I open the door to an utterly gorgeous young woman. Dark bronze skin over high cheekbones, a dimpled grin and the biggest, brownest eyes I ever did see. Sweet, impish face surrounded by a glorious cloud of dark hair. She looks vaguely familiar. Good Lord …

‘Hello, Jack,’ says the vision. ‘Dressed up for our breakfast date, I see.’ Eyeing my stained jeans, baggy Aran sweater and thick woollen socks.

She’s wearing jeans too, but hers look as if they’ve been sprayed on, and her sweater is tight.

‘Do I get to come in, or shall we just stand here a bit?’ English accent with a slight London inflection.

I realise I’m standing in the doorway with my mouth open like a stunned mullet.

‘Ashleigh?’

‘You were drunk. But no matter. I’ve come to claim my freshly baked sourdough and home-produced honey breakfast, as a drunken banjo player promised me in the wee hours of yesterday morning. And — sniff! — that smells divine. Take me to your loaves immediately.’

Soft pillowed lips against my cheek, and she slips by me into the hallway.

2 – Flannelette and Farsi

The fight for trust 

Photo by Gideon Hezekiah on Unsplash; altered and layers added by the author in Photoshop*

‘What’s this?’ asked Ashleigh, clad in my faded flannelette shirt, holding a volume from my bookcase. ‘Arabic?’ The hem of the shirt rides higher on her hip as she extends the book to me. Only one button is done up.

There are few things sexier to a man, or at any rate this man, than seeing his lover wearing his shirt — and nothing else. It’s as if she wants to immerse herself in your scent, be wrapped up in you, claim you.

Perhaps I’m overthinking a simple act: the naked woman in my study was cold; she picked up a random garment.

‘Farsi,’ I said.

She shrugs.

‘Persian. What they speak in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The script is derived from Arabic script, but the language is different.’

‘German, Russian and Persian … And you speak all these languages. Fluently?’

‘I speak German and Russian. My Farsi is a bit rusty. I can still read it fine.’

‘How come?’

‘Well, I don’t know any Persians or Tajiks round here. There’s the Afghani bloke who runs the milk bar, but we chat in Pashto, not Farsi …’

‘No. I mean, how come you speak all these languages?’

‘Oh, I see. I learned them at uni,’ I said. Not entirely truthfully, but near enough.


Often it’s the little decisions that change our lives. Swiping right instead of left. That one time you glanced at your phone instead of the road. Taking the shortcut home across the night-time park. Sending in just one more job application before you shut down your laptop. Who knows why we do what we do?

In my case, an absence provoked my snap decision.

It was the absence of a queue, at a stand, at a careers fair, at Leeds, my dear old red-brick alma mater. I’d just popped out of the Brotherton Library for a break from my Masters dissertation. I wandered into the Graduate Careers Fair in the lofty pillared court of the Parkinson Building. There was nobody waiting to talk to the pleasant-looking young woman from Cheltenham. So I thought, ‘Hell, why not?’

I was a naïve young graduate fresh from a BA (Hons, First Class) in German and Linguistics. The prospect of learning more languages to degree level at HM Government’s expense was attractive. What did I have to lose?

By the time I learned the answer to that, I was in too deep.


Back in those Cold War days, the intelligence services preferred a clean slate. If you have no prior connections with the country, ran the argument, there’s less chance of your being a double agent – or the other side using friends and family to ‘turn’ you. So if you’re a Germanist, you won’t be working in German; if you’re a sinologist, you won’t be working in Mandarin or Cantonese.

In these less paranoid times, when even MI6 is on Facebook, they take a more pragmatic view. But that was then, not now.

The emphasis was almost entirely on receptive skills, I found. We were taught to understand the language as well as an educated native, including obscure dialects. We were taught cultural nuances, briefed in-depth on current affairs. Learned nursery rhymes and listened to pop songs. We had access to the best tutors, the best materials.

Learning productive skills — speaking and writing — was largely incidental for an intelligence language analyst. It was often considered better for your future to conceal such deviant interests from your colleagues and your section leader.

Language is about communication, and linguists live to communicate, yet in my work, communication was constrained. I learned two new languages to near-native proficiency, and acquired a working knowledge of six more, but my proficiency was lop-sided. I knew I would in all likelihood never visit the country and converse freely with its inhabitants.

After all, I had no desire to moulder for years in a Soviet or Iranian prison, a political pawn hoping faintly for a prisoner swap.


You work with the same colleagues in the same room up to ten hours a day, but you must not fall in love with them. You cannot discuss the frustrations (and occasional horrors) of work with a therapist, the mother of your children or even your dear old Gran.

Keeping yourself to yourself becomes an iron habit. Worse, it becomes a life sentence.

That isn’t the worst of the matter, though. The worst, the very worst, is losing your inborn trust in your fellow human beings. The instinct, the yearning to trust which makes human connection possible.

Is your good friend really who he seems? Your lover, isn’t she a little too young, a little too pretty, a little too in love with you? You find yourself setting traps. Watching for things that don’t add up.


Right now, standing here looking at her smiling face, I can’t believe my good fortune. This woman, this glorious young woman, has only been in my life for a week. But what a week …

What no-one has explained to my satisfaction is how I got quite that drunk, the night of the gig. ‘It’s like a switch was flipped,’ commented Lex, when I asked her. ‘A few beers, then – pow! – suddenly you were into the bourbon like Prohibition was starting tomorrow.’

And for the life of me, I don’t remember giving Ashleigh my address.


She’s still smiling, but there’s a hint of a frown.

‘Why do you hide your intelligence?’

‘Sorry?’

‘Don’t bullshit me. You know you do it. The blokey act, the bumbling expression. You’re not a bumbler, Jack.’

‘Ah … busted. I’m trying to fit in, I guess?’

‘I hate to break it to you, but it doesn’t work. You’re so obviously an odd fish. It’s what attracted me to you. You couldalways relax, and be yourself, you know. With me. Trust me.’

She’s close now. I can feel her breath on my face, my bare chest. I’m drowning in those brown eyes. She takes my hand and slides it inside the thick flannelette.

‘Trust me, Jacky Boy.’

3 – Into the Crucible

Don Quixote goes Down Under 

‘Crucible’ © 2021 Steve Williams

More oxygen. I adjust the knurled knob on the torch: the flame turns blue and narrows to a needle point. As I apply heat, the metal in the crucible glows red, then white hot. The mass collapses in on itself, becomes mercurial. I pour the molten silver into the mould. It quickly solidifies, cherry red becoming dull grey.


The therapeutic thing about silversmithing is that you don’t have to live with your mistakes. You stuff up. You swear. You sit back and rub your tired eyes. Back into the crucible the botched work goes, to be reborn from the fire. No regrets, no recriminations. No what-ifs or if-onlys.

I’m making a chain bracelet for Ashleigh. She liked the one I’d made for Alice’s 10th birthday.

It was lying on my desk, waiting to be posted up to Queensland.

‘Nice!’ Running it through her fingers. ‘Could you make me one like that? I love chunky jewellery.’

‘I could give it a try. No guarantees how it will turn out, I’m just a novice.’

‘I have faith in you, Jacky Boy.’

Who could argue with that soft voice? Say ‘no’ to that face?


The novice silversmith isn’t having a lot of luck, this Sunday morning, in the workshop under the house. I’m having trouble concentrating on the task in hand: my thoughts keep drifting. Back to 2005.


Bryony, my erstwhile mentee, later department head, regards me coolly across the sticky melamine table. The M1 traffic roars by endlessly in the drizzle. The service station coffee is thin and bitter.

‘Jack. What you need to do is fuck right off.’

‘Thanks, Bryony. It’s good to know you care.’

‘I do care. That’s why we’re having this conversation. We know exactly what you’re up to, and it will not do. Not on our patch.’

I shrug. No point in denial, and confirmation would be unwise. ‘Off the record’ is for suckers.

‘If, on the other hand, you were to take your ball and go and play elsewhere, say the Antipodes, we wouldn’t have a problem with that. It could be facilitated.’

‘So I can be ASIO’s problem, rather than MI6’s?’

‘Exactly. Lots of windmills for Don Quixote to tilt at Down Under. Giants to slay.’

‘Sounds enticing.’

‘Do be a little circumspect, though. I’d hate you to end up as shark bait.’

‘I’m touched. Truly.’


After pickling the ingot in warm hydrochloric acid, I pass it through the rolling mill time and again. Reducing the diameter, pausing periodically to anneal and pickle whenever the metal work-hardens. It’s a pleasantly mechanical, mindless task. Eventually the six-centimetre ingot is over a metre long and ready for a final annealing before extrusion.


What was a disillusioned intelligence analyst to do?

The cynicism set in early in my career. During the first Gulf War. By the time the second one came around, I had to get out or lose my sanity.

‘Military intelligence is an oxymoron,’ runs the quip.

Don’t snicker: it’s a vile slander. Military intelligence is stacked with the best and the brightest minds, the flower of our universities.

No, the problem lies elsewhere. It lies with the chancers and zealots our citizenry amuses itself by voting into office.


Extruding the elongated bar into wire takes concentration as well as brute strength. Apply too much force and you’ll weaken or snap it. Then we’re back to the crucible.


Saddam was a pig of a man. His regime was a disgusting excrescence eroding the face of humanity. What he was not: a systematic patron of Wahhabi terrorism. Behind the bluster, he was terrified of the Americans. They’d whipped him like a dog once, and he still bore the scars. And by 2001 at the latest, he had no WMDs.

Everyone who wanted to know this, knew it. Blair and Bush refused to see it.

Into Iraq, then, guns blazing. Yee-fucking-haw.


Now the silver wire must be coiled around a post, then the coils sawn and soldered to make rings. Sixteen links will be enough for her slender wrist. It’s a fiddly task.


Even without the benefit of hindsight, it was a stupid move to anyone who knew anything about Middle Eastern politics. Saddam was just a brutish peasant, shamelessly exploited over two decades by a succession of US administrations and their lickspittle British allies.

In intelligence, we knew that the Iraqi Ba’athists were being gamed by Tehran. Time after time, Saddam was shafted. It was like pitting a below-average pub draughts player against a chess Grandmaster. The poor fool didn’t stand a chance.

Plenty of terrorists coming out of Iraq these days, of course. Blood is the best fertiliser for terrorism that you can imagine.


A sailor chain looks good even if the individuals links are a little irregular. Threading them together is the fun bit. Crappy-looking bent wire suddenly becomes a heavy, strong chain.


Faced with the impossibility of dragging my sorry arse through another 20 years in service to a system I despised, I decided to do something meaningful with my skills. Carve out my own little niche.

Mining and fossil fuel multinationals have it all their own way. They control the tabloid press. They control governments. They control communities — mums and dads scared of losing their jobs in godforsaken, arse-end-of-the-world towns. Towns which survive on digging up their kids’ future and shipping it overseas. And we, the ever-consuming public, clamour for minerals and energy, for iPads and SUVs.


I survey my work, holding it up to the light. Yes, I’m pleased with that. I hope Ashleigh will be too.


Facing the bulldozers, the police dogs and the sneering press: a tiny band of skinny students and old ladies in hand-knitted beanies. A couple of desperate farmers, too proud to take the mining dollar for their grandparents’ land. Defiant but frightened Aboriginal communities, for whom a new health clinic or footy strip is inadequate recompense for 50,000 years connection to Country.

How about we balance the scales a bit? How about we add some world-class counter-intelligence to the mix? How about the fuckers-up get fucked up for a change? It was a satisfying thought.


Solder a robust catch to one end of the chain, and we’re done. I envisage the bracelet against her dark skin. Silver on bronze. Hard, chill metal on warm, soft flesh.


It’s not even difficult to dig up dirt on mining corporations. These guys are lazy and arrogant. They don’t run a tight operation and they aren’t good at hiding their indiscretions. Should specialist equipment be required, it’s remarkable what you can get through internet shopping these days. There’s no shortage of disaffected employees, either.

When you have your dossier, you can start to apply the blowtorch. Gently at first, but to tender places. Amazing how that increases a board’s willingness to compromise. To spare that old-growth forest, site that tailings dam a little further from town, back off from that defamation lawsuit.

Meanwhile, poison the wells of their intelligence. Get their police and ASIO dogs barking up an interesting variety of wrong trees. This, of all things, I am good at.

What I must do at all costs is cover my tracks. Without backup I’m exquisitely vulnerable, and so is my little family up in Queensland. Fractured and dysfunctional maybe, but it’s all I have, all I love.

A travelling muso with a bluegrass band, and a good one at that, is excellent cover for an ex-spook with mischief in mind. From logging towns in the Tassie wilderness to remote communities in the Kimberley, I get to roam the country, make connections and quietly forge alliances.


I place the bracelet in the tumbler and set the timer for 24 hours. Tomorrow morning the piece will emerge work-hardened, with a mirror finish.

4 – Queen Bee

Sweeter than honey 

‘Will Not Be Denied’ © 2021 Steve Williams

A warm, still Sunday morning in late spring. We’ve just risen after a lazy lie-in. The sun is already hot on the timber deck which overlooks my garden and the sparkling bay.

Ashleigh winds out the awning and sets the table for breakfast while I organise coffee. We’re starting to have a routine.

‘Jack, should your bees be doing that?’

‘What?’

‘Come and see.’

I bring out the coffee.

‘Oh for the love of God. Not now. You little sods …’

The big hive by the garden path has decided that its accommodation is too cramped, and today is, apparently, moving day.

Swarm. Nature will not be denied, so I can wave goodbye to the languid Sunday afternoon we had planned. Instead, it’s going to be an afternoon of hurried activity.

Still, for the moment, there’s nothing much to do but sit back and watch. It’s not as if I can push them all back into the hive and seal up the entrance. Although looking at this woman in her red silk dressing gown, I’m half-inclined to try.

‘Looks like we’ve got a ringside seat, Ash.’ Might as well put a positive spin on the matter.

‘It’s not dangerous to be out here? That’s a lot of bees.’ Last week one of my bees got caught in her hair and stung her in its desperation to escape. Bees and free-flowing manes of curly hair are not a good combination.

That really is a lot of bees, whirling around and above the hive in tight spirals. The air vibrates with the hum of 100,000 tiny wings. A deep hum which is almost a pent-up roar, as if the colony is about to open its throttle and go hell-for-leather.

A big swarm is a force of nature. After eight years of beekeeping, it still inspires awe.

Ashleigh is clearly feeling it too. Her lips are parted and her eyes sparkle, her cheeks are flushed. There’s something in this woman that responds positively to danger, likes to be a little scared.

‘No, no. They’re not aggressive when they’re swarming.’

‘According to you, your bees are never aggressive, Lover Boy.’

‘True, Sweetness. But they may get a little defensive on occasion.’

‘Hmm … Like their owner, Honey Babe?’

‘One does not own bees, Sugar Lips … It’s a bit like having a cat.’

‘Or rather, thousands of small, irritable, flying, stinging cats, my Sweet Talkin’ Man.’

‘Now there’s an image for felinophobes, Miss Nectar Nipples.’

‘My, my … We seem to be gettin’ a little hot and bothered here, Mister Big Rock Candy Mountain. Should we take this back to bed?’

‘Can’t do that … We have to watch where the swarm alights.’

‘Ah, you’re a practical, multi-tasking man, I see … I like that.’

‘You like that, too?’

‘Ohhh, yes. Indeed I do … You’re hitting the spot, there, my handy little man. Mmm … right there.’ Her voice just a throaty whisper.

Other sounds meld with the pulsating of the swarm. Other scents blend with the nectared breeze. No, nature will not be denied.

Fortunately, my garden is not overlooked.


The swarm eventually alights in the big peppercorn tree at the end of the garden. Not too high up, accessible by ladder.

Somewhere in the middle of that ball of bees is the queen, the genetic future of the colony. Her daughters will shortly fight to the death back in the hive, so that one may take up her inheritance. Scouts busily sally forth to scope potential nesting sites, but the swarm itself is calm and compact.

I should have a few hours to make up two boxes’ worth of frames, then shake the swarm into the new hive later in the afternoon. After dark, when the last bees are inside, it can be moved to its permanent location.

I bustle in my workshop, cutting beeswax sheets to make starter strips and then glueing each to a timber top bar with a bead of molten wax. Meanwhile, Ashleigh tidies up the breakfast things — although it was more like lunch in the end, due to unforeseen circumstances.


Later, she watches from a safe distance as I prepare the ladder, get suited up and approach the swarm. It’s the first time in years that I’ve had an audience for swarm catching, and I’m gratified that it all runs with military precision. It’s as if the bees are trying to make me look good.

Your patience is appreciated, girls. Thank you.


Looking at the bigger picture: this swarm is a sign that my ordered life is in disarray. I should have inspected the bees before now, noted the congestion and added another box to the hive.

To do this without harming the colony requires attention to the weather and seizing the moment. Miss the first warm, still day of spring, and you may have missed your chance.

Then you will have a swarm on your hands and, at best, another beehive to find a home for. At worst, you have your beessetting up home in an irate neighbour’s roof or their kids’ cubby house. Not good for communal harmony.

I’m getting careless.

Successful intelligence work relies on compartmentalisation, and Ashleigh is breaking down my compartments. Her working hours are irregular, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to deny her my time.

And when she has my time, she has my full attention. She’s not a woman to be fobbed off with half-hearted caresses and absent-minded replies.


After Ashleigh leaves for home, I go to tidy up the bedroom. Her scent hangs in the air, the imprint of her body is still on the bedclothes. I press my face to the rumpled sheets, decide to leave the bed just as it is for now.

When I enter my office, I notice that the laptop has been moved. The light powdering of dust on the dark wood of the desk no longer matches the footprint of the device. There is a slim strip of clean surface on one side, no more than five millimetres. The hair I slipped between the screen and keyboard is still in place, but a little less of it is showing.

5 – If You Go Down to the Woods Today

You’ll find that they’re full of spies 

‘A Walk in the Woods’ © 2021 Steve Williams

You’d be surprised to learn how many idealists there are in military intelligence.

Unfortunately, idealism is a young spy’s game, by and large. As you sail into middle life, doubt burrows into your certainties like a shipworm. Idealists react variously to this.

Some mutter to themselves ‘Ain’t happening’ and hold course, becoming fanatics and monomaniacs.

Some sour and turn disillusioned. They lose no opportunity to spread their corrosive cynicism, even as it gnaws away at their timbers.

Some become quietly sad and lost. Drifting on life’s stagnant backwaters until retirement.

Some, the pragmatic idealists, find little things to salvage from the wreck of their ideals, gather them together and build a raft that can carry them through life.

These are the ones I can work with.


The Teddybears’ Picnic was one of my better ideas. We thought about calling it The Retired Spooks’ Bushwalking Club, but that was deemed a little obvious.

It never ceases to amaze me who washes up on Australian shores. Among my circle of acquaintance, there’s lovely Maya, late of Mossad, there’s Caleb, a gentlemanly former CIA agent, and jovial little Misha, ex-KGB and SVR. Anja had the misfortune to start a career in the Stasi just before the Wall fell, but was deemed too gifted to waste, so was swiftly recruited to the BND. Madi is ex-BIN and Husan was SNB. We’re not sure about Alvaro; he’s a bit hazy on the details of his biography.

We may have been on different teams, but there’s collegial feeling. A lot of effective intelligence relies on liaison, even with nations that the tabloid-reading public might think of as the ‘enemy’. Interests converge, links are forged. The true enemy, in our jaundiced view, are the career politicians and the senior civil servants, who neither serve nor are civil.

Not that we trust each other, of course. We may be old, but we aren’t stupid.


That’s why our weekends away are always somewhere remote without mobile phone coverage. We have most of inland Australia to choose from. We fly or drive in to some Outback town, hire a bus from a local company, and head off into the bush with a rucksack and a swag. The weekend begins with a ritual bug sweep. With prizes.

We’re bound together by the knowledge that the countries we served for the best years of our lives would happily see us dead. Or failing that, far, far away. In Australia, for example.

Our weekends away happen twice yearly and are pleasant, nostalgic affairs. We spend them bushwalking; sitting around the campfire chatting, singing and playing music; sleeping in swags under the stars; laughing about the old times. Sometimes crying too, for lost comrades and lost innocence. Cooking simple, robust meals over an open fire and drinking good wine.

Many of the 30-odd Teddybears have an inkling of my little environmental hobby, and my Teddybear codename is DQ for Don Quixote. Most aren’t privy to the details, but that doesn’t prevent them being useful sources of advice and contacts.


Misha is my particular confidant and friend. I decide to tell him about Ashleigh.

He listens attentively, ruminatively as we stroll through the stringybark and red box woodland. Poking at the dry undergrowth with his walking stick. Asking occasional questions and glancing at me under his shaggy brows.

‘Jack, my brother,’ he says at length, ‘one of the advantages of getting older is that we have made many mistakes, and so we can recognise them — when we make them yet again. Does this pattern of behaviour not seem familiar to you?’

‘Ashleigh’s behaviour? How so?’

‘Your behaviour. Yours.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Yet again you are fucking up a relationship with a woman you love. By not trusting her. By setting little traps. By underestimating her intelligence and intuition. Believe me, no man ever became happy by underestimating a woman.’

‘Misha, were you not listening to me? She’s been poking around in my office.’

Misha looks at me sadly. ‘Brother, you greatly overestimate the importance of your little games. Forgive me for being so direct. But it is so. You like to picture yourself as Errol Flynn, buckling your swash and socking it to the bad guys. Yet in real life, Flynn was an ego-driven prick. Or a prick-driven ego. A drunken narcissist with a saviour complex who died of cirrhosis.’

This is a little hard to take.

‘I see I have hurt you, and I am sorry for that. However sometimes the truth must be told. You have achieved some modest good for your cause. You have given some powerless people hope, and made powerful people fear you.

‘It is not nothing. It is probably more than I have achieved in my much longer life. But the cost to you as a person is too great. Don’t be like Errol. You are a far better man.

‘If you will take some advice from your old friend, who was making an ass of himself before you were out of diapers, you will trust this young woman who apparently loves you or — in the worst-case scenario — intends to fuck you to death.’


On Monday morning, the sun is rising over the Murray as I cross the bridge at Echuca and head south for Melbourne, for home and for Ashleigh.

As I set out on the long drive, I reflect on my life and on Misha’s words. I’ve been in this game too long. Without trust, there can be no love; without love, there is nothing.

It’s time to give trust a chance.

The End

Featured image by Gideon Hezekiah on Unsplash

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