To the casual passer-by, if they lifted their eyes from their phones, Sadie would have looked like any old woman sitting on a park bench and not worth a second glance.
To the regulars in the park, – the mothers exiting the Play Group, the elderly dog walkers, Sadie, being another regular, merited a nod, smile or even a ‘good morning’.
I say ‘park’ but really it was no more than a irregular rectangular municipal garden in the angle between the High Street and Station Road, and it’s diagonal path between the station Road entrance near both train and bus stations, and the High Street, made for a busy short cut. The other diagonal path from the traffic lights at the junction led to a small playground for the tiny children. The area was surrounded by a fence and well-maintained bushes.
Sadie sat on a bench where the diagonal paths crossed in the middle of the park, where there was a central flower bed. She arrived, come rain or shine at 10.30 am and left punctually at 12.30. If it was raining she produced a very large umbrella emblazoned with the words ‘Ryder Cup 1995’ so it was at least 15 years old.
She wore an eclectic array of clothing, in summer a faded print dress and a heavy knit cardigan in beige. In winter this was supplemented by a tweed coat. On her feet she always wore those black ankle boots with a zip up the front. But Sadie loved scarves, and always wore one, or possibly two, carelessly thrown around her neck. She carried a huge old brown leather bag from which she produced packets of seed she fed to the waiting pigeons and any other bird able to muscle their way in.
Nothing exceptional in that. Sadie could have been any one of thousands of lonely old ladies who enjoyed a little outing to the local park in the hopes someone might stop and speak to them. But Sadie had a secret that very few people knew about. In fact, I think Jane and I were the only people to know. Jane lived next door to Sadie and I lived next door to Jane in the row of Victorian workmen’s houses which were just behind the park in Chapel Lane. Jane got to know Sadie one very cold winter, when she went round to make sure Sadie was OK, and that her pipes hadn’t frozen. Sadie had invited her in for a cup of tea – the pipes were not frozen – and Jane said the interior of the cottage was amazing. Jane invited Sadie round a couple of weeks later, and I came along too. Jane and I are incorrigible nosey, and we were both fascinated by Sadie, and Jane’s report of the amazing interior.
A few days later we were both round there one afternoon, and Jane saw a beautiful icon on the mantelpiece.
“Surely that is Russian?” she asked Sadie.
“Oh yes, I bought that when I was in Russia” Sadie replied.
“Are you Russian, then? “ I asked, jumping in with both feet, as usual.
“No, I was born in the Ukraine, but I worked for a Russian company, and went to Moscow quite frequently.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Russia” said Jane, but I haven’t made it yet!”
“Tourists never see the real Russia” said Sadie. “The Government makes sure that they only see what the Government wants them to see”.
Jane and I didn’t like to seem nosey, so we stopped asking questions, and just admired some of the Russian ornaments Sadie had. But over the weeks, Sadie let drop a few things, and we pieced them together, and decided that whatever Sadie had been doing when the Communist Government was in power, come Perestroika, she was persona non grata. One afternoon it became clear that Sadie worked in a Ukrainian Company on behalf of the Russian Government. Sadie was, in fact, a spy.
“! was not one of those Hollywood style spies, or like James Bond” she laughed, when Jane actually asked her if she had been a spy. “I would photograph documents and plans that the Russians were interested in and pass them on to my contact indirectly”.
Jane and I looked at each other. Sadie had worked for the Communists! How come she was living in England when spies like Guy Burgess had had to live the rest of their lives in Russia?
We decided it didn’t make any difference now. Sadie was very friendly, and made the most gorgeous Russian cakes. And she was our neighbour. We would treat her like we would treat any other friendly neighbour, especiallyone who made those Russian pastries!
Gradually we found out more about Sadie. She had been born Ekaterina Bublik, in East Ukraine. She wanted to go to University, but family finances were too precarious, and as the oldest child, she had to start work. Her family were very pro-Russia, and against the independence movement that was popular in West Ukraine, and she soon found a way of making more money, both for herself and for her family.
When the Communist Government fell, those who had been working for them were in a precarious position. It was decided to ship Sadie out, and she found herself on a journey across the Bosphorous to Instanbul. Here she was given a ‘husband’, an Englishman called Michael Davidson, and a European passport in the name of Sara Davidson, born in Germany as Sara Weber. They travelled together to England, where Michael promptly left her, and Sadie (she said she didn’t like the name Sara, too Biblical) was quietly given the keys to the cottage in Chapel Lane which, Jane said, had been on the market for some time, at a ridiculous price.
And there it would have ended, apart from two events, or happenings.
I had been rather curious about Sadie’s punctuality in her visits to the park, and the fact she was there whatever the weather. So I took to a bit of detective work, and watched Sadie for most days for a couple of weeks or so from where she couldn’t see me.
An elderly man used to come in the park every day, with a large old bag in his left hand. He would walk down the path to the circular bed, and then take the path in front of whichever bench Sadie had chosen to sit on. Occasionally he would stop in front of Sadie to light a cigarette, and quick as a flash, in a movement even a camera would have been hard to catch, Sadie slipped something in his bag. He made no acknowledgement, and Sadie never looked at him.
It suddenly dawned on me that this only happened when Sadie was wearing her bright pink scarf with the red roses on. What was going on? Was Sadie still a spy, and who for?
The second event was the shock result of the Referendum on leaving Europe. I know Sadie was worried as to her position. She still had her false passport, but had never used it, having stayed in Britain since her arrival. Jane and I had spoken to her about it, trying to help her to stop worrying, though we ourselves really didn’t know how it would affect her.
And then, one morning, she simply wasn’t there. The house was shut up, and later that week a ‘For Sale’ notice appeared. But both Jane and I had small parcels on our doorsteps. Jane’s contained the icon she had seen, and a Faberge Egg she had always admired. Mine contained another Faberge Egg, and one of those Russian dolls with little dolls inside.
And that was it. The house was taken by a young couple who both worked and were out all day, and Jane and I were still incorrigibly nosey, and often thought about Sadie.
But the next Christmas Jane received a Christmas card with a Russian stamp. Inside it said ‘To Jane and Molly, with love and thanks.
© Gillian Peall