Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
Chapter 30 – So what about some Espionage?
After all this news about passports, police registration, jobs, mother's hysterical outbursts, new homes, women and sex, you may be wondering what exactly was going on with the real job in hand, ie good old, cloak and dagger espionage?
And the answer is simple: not much.
Not that anything was expected from me: my instructions had been clear. I was to hunker down, get myself settled, maybe a degree and move seamlessly into a strategic ministry and wait. Perhaps 10, perhaps 15 years. Perhaps for ever.
I wanted to tell you about my first attempt to contact the Americans, but I've remembered there is one more episode that made me ponder a little deeper about the job I'd taken on.
I think it was Mrs Szöllősi on that trip to hand in my passport who minded me to report to the army recruitment office to register for compulsory military service, as required by all Magyar males over the age of 18.
So it was probably in my first week back that I turned up at the 'hadkiegészítő parancsnokság' which was in the northern suburb of Újpest, if I recall correctly.
There was some sort of junior rank at reception, who took my ID card. It immediately raised a red flag.
“How is it possible that you got your first ID card aged 19?” he enquired, looking at me in disbelief.
I explained my stay in Khartoum, which only added to suspicions. He went off to find a superior officer, going behind some cupboards for discussions. Two or three officers then popped their heads out from the cover of the cupboards to look at me.
The receptionist returned, and said they'd put me on a list of future enrolments. “We'll give you a call up when necessary,” he said, handing me the khaki-coloured military ID booklet that proved I'd reported for service.
“OK, when will that be?” I asked.
“When it becomes necessary,” he said, staring at me to stress the point.
“I understand, but when will that be?”
“It's none of your business! When we consider it necessary,” he glowered, emphasising the 'we', “Then we will call you up!”
It was quickly becoming apparent that once officialdom people discovered I'd been abroad, it unnerved them, and I became immediately suspicious. Like the local police, they didn't feel easy with me, and the feeling was mutual.
It was also a feeling that did not go away with time: the mistrust was part of, inherent to, the system. Over time, it made me realise how difficult the challenge was ahead of me.
At the time, however, this was yet to fully sink in, and perhaps towards the end of September, I began to think about reporting to the Americans. I felt much better about that.
In truth, I had no vital information to pass on, and there was the embarrassing confession about the lost camera to be conveyed. That was a difficult one. How to admit that I had been such a fool to allow the camera to be stolen before I'd even got to Hungary?
But it was also true that I'd started hearing things from here and there – political gossip about this and that, and the mood of the people. It made me curious, and I thought the Americans might like to know.
I think I just felt like communicating with them, tell them I'd got a job, that my parents had come home from Germany - rather than defect - and that I was now living in a flat of my own. I also wanted to try out how the drop-site and mail box worked: this was somehow exciting.
The first message had to be brief, because I couldn't put more than five or six paper sheets together. The problem was the drop site where I left my messages was an electrical junction box, on a corner of Jókai utca, near the Opera. It was on the wall, and I had to stick the message with a magnet to the bottom of this box. If the letter was too thick or too large, it could be seen too easily.
A couple of weeks later, I saw my pre-arranged signal, on the wall, opposite the Kárpátia Restaurant, and then I knew that on the coming week, on a Tuesday I think it was, I had to go to the drop site and pick up their answer.
Their drop site was out in Hűvösvölgy, in the leafy western suburbs of Buda, near the US ambassador's residence. I guess my contact, whoever left these messages, was an embassy official who regularly visited the ambassador, and maybe tossed the container from their car, because the site was about two metres off the road, by the base of a tree.
In their first message they asked me to write more about my girlfriend, who is she, and how much does she know about what I'm doing? Of course, they hope she knows nothing at all.
Well, it all worked fine. Bravo!
They even sent me money to pay for a new camera. I couldn't buy a Pentax in Budapest in those days, it would have cost a fortune – if one were available. So I bought a Praktika, an East German camera of dubious quality, but it had a Zeiss lense, so that was good. In fact, the only thing really good in it was the lens.
In practice, I was never able to use it for the Americans: it was too big and clunky for any covert photographic work, and its use would have invited instant arrest at any site of strategic or military importance.
I know one shouldn't cry over spilt milk, as the English proverb goes, but I've been doubly angry with myself ever since losing the Pentax in Bulgaria. Indeed, the new camera was to become a millstone around my neck.