The 1980s: the CIA has groomed Tyler to be a spy, carefully seasoning his diplomatic career with drinking in public and generally acting burnt out. He is sent to Prague, where his confidential file is leaked to the Soviet Embassy and the Czech Intelligence Service. Eight weeks later Tyler is approached at a bar by Jarmila:
“What made you suspicious? His supervisor, Ed Marshall, asked Tyler later in a dawn meeting back at the embassy. “You’re a good-looking guy. It could have been real.”
“No. She looked a lot like a girl I went out with in college. When I first saw her, I really thought it was her for a second. There’s a picture of us in the yearbook, kissing at a hockey game, and the little tattoo on her neck, you could see it in the picture, but not its shape. It was a heart.”
“And your new friend, this –” Ed examined his notes – “this Jarmila, has a tattoo on her neck?”
“And the same haircut. But her tattoo’s a flower. My guess is they guessed from her blotchy picture.”
“The sweet scent of nostalgia,” said Ed Marshall. “The stimulant effect of coincidence.”
, a woman who resembles one of Tyler’s college girlfriends (she even has the same sort of tattoo on the back of her neck). As she is clearly a Soviet spy, he pretends to be a potential mole for the Soviets.
He pretends to be a potential mole for the Soviets, and thus their relationship starts. The crux of the story isn’t so much the spy-vs-spy antics, though there is plenty of Tyler leaking utterly inessential documents, with a major theme of huge amounts of effort being wasted on such things. The focus is on how Tyler and Jarmila feel, playing out this fake relationship, carefully choreographed by the handlers of both sides, minutely scrutinising the slightest action of the other.
And when the Velvet Revolution begins and the spying becomes redundant, they start to worry what will happen when their handlers leave them. They have acted their relationship for so long, the question becomes whether there is anything to keep them together.
Wenceslas Square by Arthur Phillips
Availability: abridged audio free online, print
Word count: 11,500
First published: Wild East, edited by Boris Fishman, 2003, Justin, Charles & Co
Where else to find it: an abridged audio version appeared on This American Life, which can be found here