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UMBRA

by on August 21, 2022

UMBRA

by Marco M. Pardi

Untold Stories of Tonio

Only the spoon knows the pot’s sorrows.” Corsican proverb, quoted by Daniel Silva

All comments are welcome and will receive a response. All previous posts are open for comment.

In mid-summer of 1982 Tonio sat comfortably behind his desk, a Beretta 92A1 in the central drawer before him and his full spectrum Short Wave Telefunken receiver tuned to a British classical station nearby. Over a year had passed since he left his previous career and dropped from sight. Now the owner of a fine art and rare book store he had bought outright as a visible source of income, he enjoyed the leisure of dealing with mostly normal people, though each likely had stories to tell if given the chance. His previous work had provided free time, numerous breaks during the calendar year and the choice of entire summers off. But sudden absences could produce serious problems. And he was prone to sudden absences. Now, when that need arose, Maartje, his partner in every way would step in and run the store. The most recent such event had quickly followed a sudden drop-in visit from a MOSSAD colleague he had not seen in years.

As the birthday of his only child drew near Tonio mused over how different things would have been had he stayed married to his ex-wife. A woman, “white-blonde” from head to foot with ice water eyes, she seemed to disappear in bright sunlight. Not particularly given to romance, and having several candidates to choose from, most especially a wonderful young woman in England, Tonio had chosen to engage in marriage with her at least partly because he felt her family background prepared her to understand and accept his primary vocation and all that went with it. Her father, deceased before Tonio could meet him, had been a clandestine officer with the Swedish Security Service, Rikspolisstyrelsens säkerhetsavdelning, orRPS/Säk. (In 1989 it became Säkerhetspolisen, or SAPO.) Tonio had often shuttled from Sweden to Norway, her family having branched out generations previously.

Keeping secrets came naturally to Tonio. As a child he was clearly excluded from family discussions. In each of the six schools he attended to complete his first 12 years of education he was judged far more by his physique than by his mind. So, he developed his own internal community: the 1950’s radio programs The Shadow and Tarzan were favorites. He could live within them. But the television program Ozzie and Harriet, a series about a close knit family, shut him out completely. He had no way to understand it.

That background likely formed him into a ”natural” for the clandestine world. But it also made him privately recoil in disgust when people pressed him to ”share” himself with them. At the same time he rejected, as much as possible, any temptation to create a false persona that would satisfy others. When he could, he simply cut off connections with people who persisted. But in time his life experiences, perception, intellect, and ”spooky” memory flowered into a personality with many petals, allowing him to quickly assess what would please others and to grant them some time with a petal or two. Thus, satisfied that they knew him, they left him in peace. And always, he watched them from behind a veil.

However much he may have seemed suited for the clandestine world, he was himself convinced of some drawbacks. He felt he was not enough of a subject matter or area expert to function well as a headquarters based analyst. And, as with his military experience, he did not want to commute to work and sit behind a desk. The other choice was the better known embassy based case officer role. And here he knew he simply could not long tolerate seducing and subverting people into betraying their own countries. He discussed these concerns with a close friend, a retired former Chief of Station and executive rank officer. Thus, over ten years ago it turned out there might be a solution. And, of course, it called for a sudden absence. That time, however, to a section of Washington D.C.

Three days and two nights as a guest in a senior agency executive’s historic North Georgetown home brought Tonio into a new world, one which had nothing to do with paneled libraries filled with floor to ceiling bookshelves, thick Persian and Afghan rugs, and meals stretching for hours. No, nothing had changed in this new world except the rules which had been assumed to protect even American citizens from ”executive action”. Tonio’s passport into this world was his well documented military and agency history and the vetting done quietly for an undisclosed number of months.

Contrary to their Hollywood image, intelligence officers are under orders to fully report, in detail, any and all intimate contacts, even approaches. Failure to do so usually results in immediate termination of the officer. And, the contact is quietly investigated. Officers considered to be unduly sexually active are immediately dismissed from service. One is left living like a monk. On the other hand, certain departments in the intelligence community have the highest divorce rates in government service.

Of necessity, the vetting had later included Maartje when she came into his life. There were some concerns about Maartje, but the arrangement could proceed so long as Tonio strictly adhered to the principle of ”right and need” to know.

But Tonio was not a person who could let matters stand. He had soon realized that Maartje was the only person with whom he could open his mind and his heart and discuss anything. Her knowledge was encyclopedic, but her understanding was deeper and broader than could be put into volumes, no matter the number. She ”saw” him, as no one else ever had. And so, he never doubted that she knew what he was, what he did, and likely how he felt about it. Committed to each other more deeply than official papers or metal rings could ever bring them, she had the right to know, but not the need to know. Oh, yes, there were issues of her future should he not return from a trip, or return too disabled to continue working. But arrangements were made for her continued financial security, and she was a powerful artist fully capable of returning to a solitary life. She also displayed the potential to fill any void left by Tonio.

Nonetheless, Tonio wondered about people who entered into ”sacred” matrimonial relationships, exchanging ritualized vows often with little to no idea of how and when those vows would be tested. He had been to several weddings, and had never seen an exchange of vows in which one or both partners had fingers crossed behind their backs. But he was convinced there was always a shadow over the couple, if for no other reason than ignorance on the part of each as to what one or the other may be susceptible to, or capable of. He was not a ”trusting soul”. The famous author Jorge Luis Borges once said, ”To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god”.

Tonio felt that what he and Maartje had was beyond mere love; it was discovery, the discovery that they had always been one, no matter what they had lived through, who they had lived with, or who they may have thought they were. Those were only details, petals fallen from the bloom. Severe laws kept Tonio from discussing details with Maartje; a breath taking depth of understanding kept her from asking.

Another day was ending. Evening would be spent considering birthday presents for his child. And, of course, steady viewing of BBC favorites on television. That is, unless the secure phone rang.

9 Comments
  1. Dana permalink

    Marco, this is another terrific entry and you have me thinking about marriage and other “romantic” relationships. While “partner” might not sound like a very romantic word, in my mind it also describes people who consider themselves equals. What you have written about Tonio and Maartje describes a partnership that I have never witnessed in any relationship – not even my own. Today I feel we should never settle for anything less than that if possible.

    The “secure phone” mention reminded me of The Americans, when Phillip and Elizabeth would settle in for an evening with their children. Then the phone would ring, resulting in a sudden absence. While Hollywood movies glamorize the clandestine world, very little is shown about the day-to-day existence outside of the career, or the consequences thereof. Or about the inner lives, as you are writing about Tonio.

    I’m curious about your definition or reason for “UMBRA” for the title of this post.

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    • Thank you, Dana. The partnership was/is so complete that, once it “ended” as I might discuss later, Tonio often thought it would never be fair to anyone following after.

      Hollywood does a miserable job of portraying certain realities. For example, excessive drinking was long “overlooked”, until recently. And, officers are routinely “fluttered” – polygraphed, though that should not imply suspicion of wrong doing. Amorous, or just plain sexual contacts are rightly considered “honey traps” as they have been and are used the world over to compromise officers. They are also used to compromise a person into becoming an agent.

      The Latin word UMBRA refers to the twilight effect when the moon totally eclipses the sun. My meaning here is that the reader is entering a shadow world, in which the full and genuine light is filtered for the unsuspecting viewer.

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      • Dana permalink

        Thanks for the explanations, Marco. The shadow world is a fascinating one, but the humanity about which you are writing is the most interesting facet.

        Like

  2. Tilly permalink

    Another very enjoyable installment in the story of Tonio! One idea struck me as particularly interesting. When you wrote of Tonio presenting just enough of himself so that people would feel they knew him and would then leave him alone, you used a flower analogy. Granting someone time with “a petal or two”. Then later on you wrote of Tonio & Maartje being as one and also made mention of the flower. Everything else before the point of discovery being merely details…”petals fallen from the bloom”. I thought on this for a while. I like the idea of the flower either opening or closing signifying the willingness to either allow someone to truly know you or not.
    Thanks again for this most recent piece of writing Marco!

    Like

    • Thank you, Tilly. I have always thought the picking of flowers to put into a vase and watch them die is truly sad, and disturbing. Our lives flower in so many ways.

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  3. Even within the comments, I find things with which I agree. I have long considered cut flowers to be already dead, and while feng shui considers artificial flowers to contain bad energy, I prefer their eternal falsehood to watching true beauty die.

    This is not my first encounter with the concept of umbra. It was Poe who suggested that life was just a dream within a dream. I think on one level that we all live within the Umbra, preferring to see life as we would like it to be, rather than face the reality that it all too often contains.

    Your mention of the woman in England brings quickly to mind a story you once told me of a young woman who asked you to “knock her up” at a designated hour the following morning. Your response (allegedly) was that you hadn’t been put on a schedule before, but you would try. The memory brings the same smile as the original telling. It seems you have been entertaining me with some form of “tales of Tonio” for as long as we have known each other, and while the fine details have sometimes been altered from one telling to the next, those stories continue to bring me happiness.

    Thank you for the petals.

    Like

    • I agree on the Umbra. And the way we structure time prevents us from seeing the Oneness.

      Your memory is absolutely stunning. Yes, I clearly remember how startled I was, and that was my response. It took her a moment to realize what had happened. But we got that, and other things, sorted out.

      Like

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