They don’t look very convinced, do they?
As the Stylistics told us, first impressions are certainly lasting impressions but experience tells me that they are very rarely correct. A close friend of 20 years considered me ‘a cocky little gobshite’ on first acquaintance. It wouldn’t have worried me if I’d known because I thought he was ‘that boring, pompous accountant bloke’. As it happens, I couldn’t have been more wrong (although he was probably close to the truth, given that copious amounts of ale were no doubt involved). As a landlord, you learn that those people who enter the front door and immediately charm the staff and even begin to win over your own hardened, cynical view of humanity are the fraudsters, the fakes, the ex-cons and the Walter Mittys. Anthony and Loreen were those people.
I have no idea if these were their real names. Every attempt on the internet to find out more drew a minimal amount of information – Facebook accounts with no photos or friends, CV-less Linkedins, dubious addresses. They formed an unlikely couple – he, a poor copy of the Pilsbury dough boy, keen to remind everyone of his working-class roots but equally keen to hide any trace of an East End accent behind stock American sales-speak: ‘absolutely’, ‘you don’t say’ , ‘that’s unbelievable’. She was tall, extroverted, athletic, dynamic and very American. With a big job in IT, she travelled extensively, often bringing back expensive gifts for members of staff and customers she hardly knew. He rarely left their rented cottage before 4pm and, although he had been home all day, would arrive wanting beer at 10:50pm after everyone else had gone home. This, he explained, was to avoid infection, as he was undergoing chemotherapy for leukaemia, as was another regular. They shared a consultant and the same type of leukaemia. Mysteriously, Anthony managed to have appointments with her when she was on holiday, although he always had a back-up story to cover the time he was caught out. While our other customer went on to die, Anthony was cured of this incurable strain.
At night, his house glowed blue with flickering computer screens. By day, it lay silent. The rumours began that he was a spy. But how could he be, with so many mistakes and such a poor back-story? A former captain of industry, he had nothing. He had children in Barcelona and London but he neither visited them nor they him. He had lived in Paris for four years and once spoke fluent French but was now unable to understand the simplest of schoolboy phrases and made an obvious effort to steer clear of any French visitors.
Meanwhile, Loreen continued her extensive world tour, yet less and less of it seemed related to her power job. Instead, relatives and step-relatives all over the globe were succumbing to life-threatening diseases which involved her taking weeks away at short notice. This included three weeks with her grandmother in California. Who takes three weeks off work because their granny is sick? These relations were everywhere – North Dakota, South Africa, Amish towns, Rome, Las Vegas. She became a one-woman geography lesson. Although her lifestyle seemed unlikely, her cover stories were a lot better than his. Perhaps she really was CIA. One day, however, there was a fatal slip. Months before, she had told me that she spent a year living in China teaching English when she left college. The son of a regular returned from a similar post-uni adventure and I introduced them. Which town? he asked.
She visibly reddened and stammered, “Oh, oh I can’t remember”.
It simply didn’t ring true. You don’t do something like that and forget the name of the place. And surely a decent spy would have made somewhere up. Or just said Beijing.
The next day she compounded her error. “I’ve been trying to get hold of my girlfriend from college to see if she can remember the name of that town”. This reeked of trying too hard to cover the fact that she knew she had been caught out. It was never mentioned again.
People began to ask directly if her company were okay with her taking so much time off to nurse the dying and bury the dead. So, she quit (allegedly) to set up a pyramid selling scheme for natural beauty products. This is good spy cover.
One day she left the house with a huge trunk. He didn’t help her take it to the car. She called into the pub: “Just came to say goodbye, I’ll be away a few months this time”. Most of us never expected to see her again and we were right. One or two – wealthy but not street-wise – thought they had made a good friend but she never replied to anyone’s messages and in time, her on-line profiles disappeared. Loreen’s departure brought a side-story to the saga: the bar girls were disturbed that Anthony would be in the pub solo more often. His comments were inappropriate and creepy and none of them liked being alone with him.
Anthony never acknowledged that she had gone. He lingered on for a few more months, telling us what Loreen was up to when he ‘spoke to her today’. Like most other things, it was fantasy. Eventually, he was offered a wonder job in Seattle. Green Card instantly sorted. Great technical explanation of what the job involved, which we later discovered was taken verbatim from an internet article.
– What’s the name of the company? someone asked.
– Um, I can’t remember.
It seemed like a fairly basic piece of knowledge to be in possession of at this stage of a complex recruiting procedure.
There were no goodbyes when he left, purportedly for Seattle. We found out later that he was living between a plastic cabin cruiser on the River Cam in the summer and a caravan in a second-hand car lot in the colder months.
The people they befriended never heard from either of them again. They’re making new friends now.