Chapter 10 – Proto-spy Experience 2 - Alexei's Big, Nice, Canary-Yellow Pen
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
My second brush with the world of cloak and dagger - and it was real this time - was perhaps not so dangerous for me, but posed very serious risk for the others involved. It probably occurred in 1970, about a year or so after the Port Sudan affair.
Among our neighbours was a Russian family, a guy called Alexei, I think he was a physics lecturer at the University of Khartoum, with his wife and daughter – the latter was about my age, maybe a year younger.
We weren't really friends, because they were Russians, but we kept good contact with them as neighbours. We used to chat over the fence and invite each other round when we had a barbecue, that sort of thing.
One afternoon, I was across visiting Alexei, well, rather more his daughter than him - he was of no real interest to me - when he invited me into his study, and asked me if I could do him a favour.
I said sure, what was it about? He said he'd heard we were going to Spain for our holidays, and was that right? I said yes, we were planning on going to Barcelona, Madrid and Malaga, maybe other places.
In that case, he said, would I be able to take a letter with me to Spain?
Well, why not? Give me the letter, I said, no problem - although I immediately began to wonder why he couldn't just go to the post office and mail it?
He went over to a draw, and took out a huge pen, about a foot long, and it was thick, thicker than my thumb.
I started to laugh. I mean, it was bright, canary yellow, had a green cap, and wrote in green, but the thing was not really practical – even if you could, in theory, write with it.
Anyway, he took the cap off the pen, and showed me that inside was a letter, several pages of thin paper, all rolled up. He then carefully glued the top back on, and, looking at me intently, said:
“I want to defect, with my family, to Britain, but I have no way to contact them directly. The embassy here is watched. I daren't go in there. So, would you take this letter to the British Embassy in Madrid for me?”
Quite why or how he trusted me, a teenager he hardly knew, with such a dangerous request– at least for him and his family – I shall never know.
But the whole idea appealed to my adventurous spirit, and I couldn't see any real risk to me, so I said yes, except I'd probably try the consulate in Barcelona, where we were going first.
He agreed, and asked me not to tell my parents and be sure that the border guards didn't take away the pen. I don't think I needed telling.
A week or so later, I packed it with books and other pens and stuff, so it wasn't obvious in the suitcase, and off we all went.
I needn't have bothered with the subterfuge. We arrived in Spain without any problems, nobody wanted to know what the hell my big pen was, and on the second day in Barcelona, I told my father I was going off for a wander in town.
Of course, having asked reception where it was, I made a beeline for the British consulate, and asked for the consul.
“I have to deliver a message from Africa,” I told the guy at the desk, who was really surprised to see me produce my nice, big, yellow pen.
And after about an hour or so, a rather distinguished looking gentleman appeared. He was in his 60s, smoking a pipe and wearing a classical tweed suit. He looked really British! He introduced himself as the consul and asked how he could help.
I told him I was Hungarian, I live in the Sudan, and I have a Russian neighbour who wants to defect to Britain, but he can't go to the embassy there, so he's asked me to deliver his message to you.
He said, ok, give it to me, please.
I said yes, but the message is in this pen - which I held up - and glued down, so could you give me a hammer or something, so I can break it open, it's very hard.
He was surprised. A hammer? I said yes, we couldn't break it, it was that hard.
Sure enough, after a few minutes, somebody brought a hammer, and I put the pen down on the doorstep.
At this point, I really had a little laugh to myself, because everybody went as far from me as possible – behind the desks and in the corners of the room, and as I knelt down, I could see the faces around me all expecting a big bang or something.
Well, there was no bang. I just broke the pen, took out the letter and gave it to the diplomat. He told me to wait, and went into his office.
After about 20 minutes he came out, and said, very seriously: “Thank you very much. You are a very brave young man. And please tell Alexei that I will send his message to the right authorities.”
Well, that was that. I left and went on with my holiday as normal. Once back home, I reported all this to Alexei, who was very happy.
I don't really know what happened to him, but the next summer, when we came back off holidays, his house was empty. Later, my mother told me she'd heard he'd gone to Britain, and was teaching in Cambridge, but how he got there, I don't know.
I never let on to my parents about this. I found it quite logical that he didn't want to go back to the Soviet Union, and I thought if this can help him, why not?
In fact, I was very proud of myself that I'd helped somebody defect from the USSR.
Editor's Note: I have made enquiries to both the British Home Office (a British euphemism for Interior Ministry) and Cambridge University in the hope of perhaps locating, or at least confirming that Alexei did win asylum in the UK. The Home Office failed to reply, and a well-placed source in Cambridge, while not excluding the possibility that he had done some sort of work at the university, assured me nobody named Alexei had ever been a faculty member in the years 1970 – 73.
CORRECTION: The Home Office did reply - apologies - but the reply contained nothing but a quotation from the law and was of no help whatsoever.