The man who owns the open-all-hours newsagent just round the corner is, as tradition would have it, in the centre of the community. He knows and treats his customers very well. Indeed, he makes a point of greeting us all individually either by first name, by title (Doctor, Professor), or by nickname (in my case Mr. le Monde). He is smiling, attentive, polite, nosy – and a chatterbox. You may have noticed that my list of his qualities did not include the word ‘discrete’. Ask him if he knows of anyone who could help with gardening or some-such task and within days someone’s contact details will be furnished.
Normally, our conversation consists of platitudes, but on one particular day there was more – an altogether surprising aspect was revealed about another life. It was April 1, the day after the French local elections. As usual I went early, at daybreak to be precise, to collect my copy of le Monde. To my surprise, its place on the shelf was empty. The newsagent explained that another of his regulars had already been in and, instead of buying his usual single copy had bought four, with neither warning nor explanation!
Reading my quizzical, possibly even annoyed, expression, he explained that this particular customer was a very nice man, indeed a real gentleman, who was once the head of a large City bank. Irked by this gentleman’s behaviour, I responded by saying that with a job like that he was more likely to be a crook than someone nice! He quickly came to the man’s defence, adding that the customer was also very old, very trustworthy and very polite.
His assertions puzzled me and while I was in no position to doubt the man’s age, nabbing my paper was certainly not a ‘polite’ gesture. But what about his trustworthiness? How could my informant possibly know? Two adages from my youth immediately came to mind: “Never trust a man who wears a hat while driving a car” and “Never believe someone whose eyebrows meet in the middle”. In the light of recent experience, I would now add that you should never trust a man who nabs your copy of Le Monde.
I don’t know whether he read my disparaging thoughts but he quickly changed the subject and sought safer ground, adopting a subject which, as it transpired, would confirm that his capacity to make judgements was indeed reliable. He asked, “Do you know that in the six years since taking over this shop, I have discovered that four of my customers were spies?”
“That’s interesting, but how did know that they are spies?”
“It is easy – they each met five simple criteria. Spies always use a PO-box delivery service for their mail rather than giving out details of their addresses; they keep changing the number plates of their cars; they frequently change their telephone numbers – with mobile phones that means a new SIM card every fortnight; they have foreign accents and finally, they spend unusual amounts of time abroad.” At this point, and with my mind unable to take any more, I left.
Despite a busy day, my newsagent’s spy-detecting criteria kept surfacing, and on my way home I returned to his shop to ask some carefully prepared questions. “Tell me, what do you do when you discover a spy, and how did you learn your five criteria for detecting spies in the first place?”
He smiled. “In answer to your first question, I reported the most recent person to MI5. I haven’t seen her for months now! As to your second, I was once a spy myself. The profession runs in my family – my brother works for Interpol and my cousin is a spy at home.”
There was little more to be said. For my part I was left thinking how only a spy, or a counter spy, could or would discover so many personal details about his customers. I also wondered what he knew about me!
But perhaps I am spared. After all, as far as he is concerned I am still simply Mr. le Monde.