Pauline Massey - Winner

Competition: Cliffhanger Short Story Competition

Pauline Massey enjoys entering WM competitions most months as they provide a good challenge to write in different ways, and on diverse themes. She has won three, and been a runner-up twice. Last year she had three stories published in an anthology and her short play, Go for it, Girl!, will be produced by Living the Drama, Oxford, in autumn. She completed her first middle-grade novel for children, which is currently looking for an audience. When not writing she enjoys travelling, especially to out of the way places, which she considers ‘very similar to the “adventure” of writing’.

Pauline Massey


I am here, in a railway carriage with two men I do not trust. And that is sugar-coating the situation. I’m here, on a train which is stranded somewhere in the countryside because of heavy snow. There are only three of us in this carriage, me and two men. And these two men know who I am. And I fear they may dispatch me before the wait is over. If I move they will make their move. Someone must have blown my cover.
To look at me you would not guess what I do for a living. In fact, you might think I’m retired. I’ve been made to look that way with my grey hair and glasses, my stooped look. I can blend in, you see. No-one sees older women. They become ‘invisible’. And that’s just the way it suits me, and the service.
Who would believe that the little old lady sitting on the park bench is watching you? She fiddles in her big bag, she pulls out an old newspaper. She’s just passing the time. Probably because she lives on her own and is lonely. She comes to the park where she can see people and feel part of life again. Only, it isn’t like that at all.
She’s got you in her sights. Yes, we do this old-fashioned surveillance still. And I love it.
They are travelling with rucksacks. We know their destination. But what we didn’t expect was the weather. The trouble with England is that it grinds to a halt when there’s snow. Scotland can manage snow. Why can’t we? And this wasn’t factored in to operational details. My job was one I like. To follow, to observe. To keep the target always in sight. I’ve followed my remit. We were due at our destination over an hour ago. And I’m sitting, alone in this railway carriage, with the two targets in front of me. Every so often they turn and look.
It’s pretty outside the train window. Snow has covered trees and dusted the fields with icing sugar. I think back to my younger days, and especially to the day when they came to me.
‘We’d like a word. Maybe we could offer you something you might be interested in.’
I was at Cambridge. That’s how they did things in those days. Just picked you out as potential fodder for the service. I was a linguist, still am, I suppose, except that most of my operations are in this country nowadays. Never get to use my Russian. Because the threat has changed. I was fast-tracked for Arabic but even that isn’t much use. What really matters is my ability to fade into the background. An old lady, minding her own business.
These targets are crucial. They could lead to a big breakthrough. I’ve been on their tail for over a month. Now this whole operation could go up in smoke. Because I didn’t expect to be stranded in this railway carriage with two potential killers. They’re due to meet their contacts at our destination but maybe the contacts won’t wait. They can’t do anything which might jeopardise their cover. And I don’t like the way these two keep looking at me.
We’ve been playing it softly, softly. What we want is to find more than just these two. We want the whole shebang. Potentially a whole cell, lurking, biding their time. We know they’re planning a big one. There’s been lots of chatter on the internet. I don’t deal with that side of things. Technology isn’t my bag. I prefer the human element, the watching and waiting.
What I always wondered was, why did they pick me at Cambridge? What made me stand out? Because I’m not one for standing out. Even when I was young I hugged the shadows. Was that what made them interested in me? The way I could lurk, merge, be watchful? And I was bright. A working-class child but somehow I managed to get into a top-class university.
I loved languages. I had good teachers at my state school. Not that I believe in selection. My grammar school was full of kids from the middle classes. Is that another reason why the service chose me? My accent. I’m just an ordinary woman, not posh, not privileged. In those days I could pass myself off as a housewife with a part-time job. I used to tell my friends I had an office job, and that’s all they needed to know. I liked that. The fact that I had a secret life.
But I’m older now. And I admit it, I’m scared. No-one foresaw this meteorological hitch. It was supposed to be a full train, and I would just merge amongst the other passengers. But many got out at the last station because they’re weren’t sure the train would be able to continue. Did steam engines give up when there was a bit of snow, I wonder?
So, I didn’t expect to be left alone with these two. And because there are no guards these days there’s no-one to walk through and update us. We had a message from the driver saying he couldn’t say when we’d be able to get moving, and something about free refreshments, but I’ve seen no sign of them yet. I shouldn’t be feeling like this. Maybe it’s time I lived up to my outward image and retired.
Good rewards, that’s what they told me, we give good rewards. For serving your country in this way, for doing your bit. They made me feel special. Not every graduate gets offered this job. It’s only for those with special gifts. What they promised was a life of travel, a good salary, decent pension. What they promised which appealed was the adventure, the not knowing what the next day might bring.
I love observing. The pleasure of not being seen but knowing what’s going on. The double life. What I really enjoyed was playing the part of the perfect housewife in the suburbs. Only what my neighbours didn’t realise was my ‘husband’ wasn’t that at all, but another operative. We shared the house, we shared the drive to work, sometimes we shared an office. But that’s all we were – house-mates, if you like. Henry had his posh friends and a gay lover, and I had my working-class pals and the house-wives round about. It worked.
‘What is this office job of yours, Jenny?’ one of these housewives asked me once. ‘Did you learn shorthand and typing?’
‘Oh yes.’ At least that part was true.
My pals were impressed.
‘I wish I’d gone to college and learned shorthand and typing,’ Jenny said to me.
In those days it was a step up to be a man’s subordinate in an office. If only I could have told them the truth. I do the same job as a man. I’m as bright as they are. I do dangerous work – for my country. But of course, I couldn’t. And that was part of the attraction, like I said, the secret life. I was a woman from a poor background who had made good, but I couldn’t share it with anyone.
There’s been a leak. That’s the only thing I can think of. So now, with this time on my hands, I need to know who it is. Because I’m convinced of it; these two guys know who I really am. Can’t prove it of course. Just a gut instinct. You develop that early on, the gut instinct. It tells you more sometimes than the intelligence reports which deal solely in facts.
If this train doesn’t get going soon the service are going to have one defunct operative on their hands. But what is more worrying is the fact that whoever has blown my cover must have also tipped off the contacts waiting at the other end. We have a serious issue with the department. Someone knows and has let them know. I need to get to the loo and phone but I’m scared to make a move.
My last five years with the service have been good ones. I found the love of my life, a bit late I know, but we understand each other. We do the same job, we know how it works. I’ve moved from the area where I lived with Henry so I don’t see that group of housewives anymore. Where I live neighbours don’t mix in the same way. It’s just off to work and back again, and a quick hello in passing.
He’s from the Middle East, my husband. He tries to teach me his Arab dialect. It’s difficult. He’s been through a lot. The service were lucky to recruit him. He has insider knowledge. We’re not allowed to work on the same projects together, and we’re not allowed to discuss what we’re doing with each other.
This is where I may have made my mistake. I told him before I left this morning.
‘I’m hoping to be home tonight, darling, but don’t wait up if I’m not.’
As simple as that. If he knew about the plot and was waiting to tip off my targets then he could have guessed from that simple sentence. What I should have done was waited until it was all over and phoned him then to say I wouldn’t be home. A simple error and now it looks as though I’m going to pay for it. And not just me. The sting won’t happen. We won’t know where the rest of the cell is. I didn’t expect my career to end like this. And, I confess, I’m scared. The love of my life has betrayed me. 

Judges Comments

In Pauline Massey's Betrayed, the winner in our Cliffhanger Short Story competition, there are two tightly wrapped strands: a tense account of espionage and betrayal, and an intimate insight into the hidden life of a woman who is not what she seems to be. The thriller element of Betrayed is effectively taut and tense, but it's the intriguing story of Jenny's secret life that gives Pauline's story its winning edge.

The story hooks in its reader from the first line, and then piles on the tension so that by the end of the introductory paragraph the sense of threat is palpable. But in the second paragraph, with the cliffhanger firnly established, Pauline directs the reader's attention elsewhere: to the narrator herself. It's a fantastic bit of sleight of hand that allows Pauline to flick with ease between the two strands of her story. The tension of the cliffhanger situation never lessens while our understanding of the narrator and her predicament deepens. It's both a fine twist on the traditional spy thriller and an imaginative, slightly subversive imagining of the hidden life of an old woman ('No-one sees older women. They become 'invsible'.) that busts clichéd expectations of genteel old age. Behind her veneer of unexceptional respectability, Pauline's narrator revels not just in her hidden life, but in the deception of concealing her real identity. She is so far beyond the boundaries of conventional life that at a time when the people she is deceiving are settling down into companionable old age, she has found the love of my life.

This, though is her undoing, and the sting in Pauline's story: the woman whose entire life has involved an act of deceit has been deceived, and because of her job, the betrayal has resonances way beyond the personal. Every tragedy needs a fatal flaw, in Betrayed it's that Jenny trusted her lover. Even the title, Betrayed, has a double meaning in this clever, tightly woven story – Jenny has been betrayed not just by her lover, but by herself.



Runner-up in the Cliffhanger Short Story Competition was Dominic Bell, Hull, whose story is published on Also shortlisted were: Michael Callaghan, Glasgow; Lance Clarke, Upper Quentin, Warwickshire; Charlie Hannah, Smethwick, West Midlands; HC Heywood, Lower Cambourne, Cambridgeshire; Andrew Hutchcraft, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire; Ronnie Karadjov, Remuera, Auckland, New Zealand; Ali Luke, Garforth, West Yorkshire; Lesley Middleton, Retford, Nottinghamshire; Mary Thompson, Streatham, London SW16

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