cyphomandra: boats in Auckland Harbour. Blue, blocky, cheerful (boats)
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Somehow (12887 words) by Cyphomandra
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: The Bagman's Gambit - The Decemberists
Rating: Explicit
Warning: Graphic Depictions Of Violence
Relationships: Narrator/Secret Agent, Francis Cartwright/Stanisław Woźniak
Characters: secret agent - Character, Narrator, Francis Cartwright, Stanisław Woźniak

"The golden rule is to help those we love to escape from us"

Friedrich von Hügel, Letters to my Niece, 1852

This year I wrote Somehow, for The Decemberists’ song The Bagman’s Gambit. I did so with the help of three fabulous betas, whom I can now name – [personal profile] china_shop and [identity profile] encouraged me through the whole thing and sent me very helpful feedback (next time I write a story I am giving [personal profile] china_shop all my commas in advance, so she doesn’t have to rearrange them later) and [personal profile] lightgetsin did an heroic last minute American beta and readthrough in response to my pathetic appeal less than 48 hours before the collection opened. Thanks again to you all for your extremely necessary assistance.

So. This is the first Yuletide fic I’ve done that’s not based on a book. I have tried to write fic based on songs before, actually, but the stories have tended to get extremely long and, um, diverge slightly from their source material (I wrote about half of a fic based on Bob Geldof’s Beat of the Night once, a rather portentous true crime song, but after 15 000-odd words on backbiting academics snowbound in a cabin with insufficient supplies and a dodgy time-machine I realised something had gone wrong somewhere). And it’s best not to ask about the Midnight Oil’s Bedlam Bridge piece.) This time, though, conceptualising the song as the spine of the story – and setting out to twist reader/listener interpretation and expectations – worked really well for keeping me on track, and using the song’s structure meant that I couldn’t spend too long in covering each verse.

The song also gives a number of key specifics that I could work with, while being usefully vague on plenty of other key things (there is also, as far as I know, no official song video, which was also very freeing). My recipient wanted slash, which was certainly how I’d interpreted the song (although there are heated arguments on on-line lyrics sites for a pure heterosexual love), and the geographical setting is clearly Washington, D.C. The time period isn’t clear at all, other than during the Cold War. I’m not sure why I went for the time I did, but it was early 50s pretty much from when I started doing research (originally 1953 and then I pushed it a year earlier to get some key events in). Similarly, although the two main characters didn’t pick up names until after I’d come up with four or five beginnings that were subsequently discarded, one of them was Polish pretty much from the start. Ditto Francis’ having had polio, although I think there was a bit of a push here to make him more sympathetic to the readers.

Other things – I wanted a happy ending going in as well. This meant that Francis had to be betraying Stanisław as well as vice versa, as otherwise it wouldn’t work on an emotional level, and once I realised this I finally got a beginning I could work with. This also gave me the first big twist in the story – as well as a secondary one for me, as I wrote the final scene with Baxter in Francis’ section and had the marriage thing come out of nowhere. I sent this first chunk off to my betas with promises of an ultimate happy ending and a rather worried curiosity as to how I was going to do it.

Stanisław’s sections involved rather a lot of research, and I should credit for helping me get him and Jan out of the country (also, thanks to Polish anons on ffa for advice on the names!). I hadn’t been aware of how truly appalling things were for the Polish people under first the Nazis and then the Soviets, and in particular how many times they’d been let down by their supposed allies. The 1940 Katyn massacre, where the Soviet NKVD murdered ~22 000 Polish officers, doctors, academics, lawyers, and other people they thought might present a challenge to their invasion, isn’t specifically mentioned in the story, although this is what happened to Andrzej – I was a bit unsure what would and wouldn’t be known at the time, as information about it was almost totally repressed in Poland. I also couldn’t work out whether British Intelligence would have been able to get agents back into Poland while writing, which is why Stanislaw ends up with the French Resistance. Obviously on Christmas Day I was at my parents' place and picked up a biography of Christine Granville (Krystyna Skarbek), who worked for the SIS in WWII and managed it at least once (she was also dropped by the British as soon as the war was over).

The shooting of a plain clothes officer on the steps of the Capitol was a song event that I had trouble fitting into the world (and characters) I’d built up, and I’m still not entirely happy with the believability of it. The section with Francis at the embassy, in contrast, was something I worried about but that actually came out much more smoothly, and I like it a lot. Making the “strangled cry” into a sex tape is possibly one of those things that appeals to me more than it should. In my head Francis doesn’t even have a phone in his apartment (nor a bathroom – just a sink, and a shared bathroom down the hall). I had quite a lot of Francis backstory that didn’t make it in; I tried to tweak what I could in the time I had, but I agree with one of my betas that Francis does get somewhat short-changed in terms of his development. I considered adding another scene on to the dream sequence, but couldn’t get the right one – I didn’t want Baxter again, and a formal resignation, and I didn’t want Europe in any more details yet, either. I was fiddling round with a coda in Francis’ voice, an introduction to one of his books or a letter to his ex-wife (or his widowed mother), but ran out of time and couldn’t get the right angle.

The day before Christmas I was sitting at work glaring at my computer, and giving myself pep talks about how all I had to do was get Stanisław over the Berlin Wall and then I could go home. Fortunately this worked. I also managed a very targeted hour and a half of Christmas shopping.

What else. This has the first explicit m/m scenes I’ve written. I ended up parking myself in the corner of a rather posh café with my laptop (turned so only I could see it) and ordering sequential pots of tea until I finally got through it. The first time I had a lot of trouble getting everyone’s clothes off, and I also left the climax out of the sex scene in Stanislaw’s pov . These are only two of the many reasons why I depend on betas.

I also depend on research. I read John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold before starting this piece – it’s an excellent book, tight and tense and relentless, as well as being rather depressing – and then I switched to non-fiction and the internet. Amongst others, the following titles were helpful: Poland in World War II: an illustrated military history, by Andrew Hempel, andSpy Handler: memoir of a KGB officer, by Victor Cherkashin with Gregory Feifer. The information on the inferiority of staples in the Soviet Union comes from Edward Lucas’ Deception: spies, lies and how Russia dupes the West. There’s a black & white youtube video going through one of the Katyn massacre mass graves that I don’t need to link to, as well a Soviet execution video that I almost certainly didn’t need to watch. Also, I mentioned Krystyna Skarbek above, as a Pole who worked for British Intelligence. Another Pole who deserves more recognition is Witold Pilecki, who was with the Polish resistance and deliberately got imprisoned at Auschwitz to organise an underground there and send information to Britain, and successfully broke out again; he fought in the (unsuccessful) Warsaw uprising, collected information on Soviet atrocities briefly after the war, and was ultimately arrested, tortured, put through a show trial and executed.

As mentioned in the story notes, I took the idea of taxi drivers the night the Wall went up from Len Deighton’s Berlin Game - there, though, the taxi drivers are based in the West (there is also a disappointing lack of setting). Information about Wall crossings, border stations etc is taken from various official websites, and a very useful Google map. I have made up everything about CIA security and archiving procedures, although they were indeed using temporary buildings along the National Mall at this time period. And, also as mentioned, I took the summary quote from another John le Carrré book. The synchronicity of it being written 100 years before the start of my story was great, but more importantly it said exactly what I needed it to say.


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March 2019

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