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the mystery of the tamam shud

the slip of paper

In Totum.

~ ~ ~

The rubaiyat was a small book, soft in the pocket, almost built to throw away when age and overuse rendered it hard to read. The paper was soft as well, particularly the editions printed in India. They took to moisture quickly, and the cheaper staples soon rusted and discoloured the paper.

But there were always plenty more available.

The Russians printed their own.


A one-time code pad was considered bothersome in the field because of its flimsy nature and loseable size. This exceptionally fragile piece of paper, or miniature book was made to be destroyed immediately after use. Like the five-second burn in a sink of the Bad Grankulla hotel in Helsinki in November 1939, made necessary by the Russian air raids, and done immediately after sending a coded thirty-five word message to London saying the ship was to be immediately abandoned.

The Russian rubaiyat was printed in an edition of two, or should I say, every version of the more durable Russian one-time code pad was only printed twice. They had established a secret protocol where the code was inserted in particular places throughout the verses, and only a man familiar with the rubaiyat would be able to detect that the changes were not due to yet another interpretation, and were placed there for another purpose.

Russia Motherland kept one copy, always, the other they sent away to its country of singular purpose, in this case Australia. For this they used a courier.

A courier who would come ashore somewhere, Adelaide say, by sea or air, and leave the code book in a predetermined place. The hollow of a particular tree in a city park, under a cricket pavilion scoreboard, or behind a loose brick in a hidden wall on a quiet street.

Once that was done the courier would leave a mark close-by, a tell, so that the Russian embassy man who had been alerted and who was waiting for the package, would see the mark as he strolled by on either his customary morning or evening walk, and when he saw the mark, he would know that his package had arrived, and where it was.

A chalk mark in blue, or red. Yellow. Blue for the tree, red for the pavilion, yellow for the loose brick.

The code-pad was then to be taken from its hiding place and delivered by hand to Canberra, to the Russian Embassy. There they would use the one-time code supplied within the seventy or so quatrains to write up a 0,000+ word message that contained the concise of a large tranche of secret, and current diplomatic cables that had flowed between the US and Great Britain. All of them emanating out of their Canberra embassies. Taken and photographed and put back.

Then the embassy was under instruction to destroy the one-time pad and to send the coded message home. But before the rubaiyat was destroyed they were to tear out a small slip of paper from the last page. The piece that had Tamam Shud printed on it, and then send this small slip of paper, together with the message back to Motherland Russia, by courier.

A few sheets of thin paper, possibly six to ten leaves of fine hand-written code, and sown into the courier’s coat.


The Tamam Shud. 

The Russians printed it in the upper right-hand quarter of the last page. This made the phrase easier to tear out, it being quicker by half to rip two sides rather than four. It also made the confirmation procedure simple for the Homeland Russians, they just overlaid the torn slip that arrived with the coded cables onto the last page of their copy.

A physical fit on the two uncut sides, and a true shadow-match of the dedicated font-type and the font size. All in symmetry. This is their sign that the Australian message has come unchanged from its source.


The courier’s package was picked up by the Americans under the cricket pavilion. The weather had been severe for the past three days and when all three men returned to the car their shoes were muddied and their cuffs splashed.

They had it, and then they had replaced it with a copy.


They had the photographer first, and now they had a package. An English language copy of the rubaiyat.

They found the photographer working his trade in one of the Allied embassy offices; one hand fully engaged with a small camera and the other flicking over a table full of diplomatic cables with the speed and skill of a card-player. Flick and click. Flick and click. He made the quiet noise of a small cricket trapped in a room.

Flick and click, then a footstep.

The photographer was taken away without any fuss and privately engaged, and he was asked many, many questions. Every American in the country must have walked by that night he thought, there had been so many. And a tubby little man from Britain, quiet like an owl, and blinking like an owl caught in daylight. His questions seemed entirely innocuous, almost apologetic, and he seemed to run the show.

Mr Lorrimer. No rank.

Mr Lorrimer convinced the photographer to deliver his film, as arranged, and continue with his employment until told to cease, only then would he be able to fly himself and his young family out of the country. His source material however immediately underwent some material changes.

Mr Lorrimer later advised the Board, that given that the photographer had been found preparing a product; ie., a film containing a tranche of secret diplomatic cables – he would expect that the Canberra recipients of such a treasure of information would hasten to have it away to their employers in the time-honoured way. Hidden in code, and hidden on a person. A courier then.

And that, in turn, would set into motion the delivery of another code-pad from the Home country. This was what Mr Lorrimer advised the Board, because this is how the business of spying was transacted. Thank you for what you have given me, now go and get me some more. Again and again. Turnover.

And never two codes the same.

Australia is the easiest of the Allies to infiltrate, this emigration nation, their intelligence apparatus is modeled on a provincial city’s police force. This is what Mr Lorrimer advised the Board, softly-spoken and hesitant in his delivery, yet every sentence he uttered was without a wasted word.

Nobody asked if anyone had a pair of ears and eyes in the Russian embassy, that would be as silly as asking any of the grim-faced men around the table if they had money in their pockets. But they were asked to alert their insiders, to watch for a courier coming out, on any of the routes to Moscow.


The Russian embassy sent a courier on a BOAC flight to Calcutta where he waited a day before picking up a Moscow flight, and the Board sat a woman three seats behind him for the first leg; she said he was reading a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam throughout, and it was an English version, soft covered, which she noted because she saw him slip it into his coat pocket. She recognised the book cover immediately because, and not unusually for the time, she had a copy of her own at home. An early Fitzgerald, thumbed through and read a hundred times.

Nobody could answer Lorrimer’s last question though, and that was why a Russian would prefer to read an English version.


The same courier, the man who had preferred to read an English version of a book written in رباعیات عمر خیام‎ (Persian) on the outward leg of his journey, set off from Moscow within a week on a return voyage, and after a call to the Board he was joined on the BOAC connection in Calcutta by an approved staff member of the local American embassy.

The embassy man could only walk past him three or four times during the flight without over-doing it, and on two of those occasions he observed that the incoming courier was reading from a book: origin unknown, cover un-sited, language English, and they waited and watched this man until he landed at Essenden airport in Melbourne. Then they travelled with him on the overnight train to Adelaide, albeit some carriages distant.

Everyone in our industry is being watched, said Lorrimer, and it must be our primary and best skill to be able to watch, and be able to avoid being watched at the same time. Because it is the Devil to be spotted watching one of them, by one of them.

Then everything will become undone.

They watched him leave the train in Adelaide and take a room in the city, he stayed at the Strathmore. He was carrying one suitcase.

They continued to watch him for the next three days as he walked about the town, taking a few bus rides to the beach. A man without a purpose, and the Board’s accountant reminded everybody of the limited budget, and asked that they prepare to send all but one watcher home to Canberra. Lorrimer requested that his entire troupe stay for another day, and that was the day the courier was observed purchasing a small box of coloured chalk.

Lorrimer turned to his assistant, Peter, and asked if he had been successful in buying more than one Fitzgerald edition of the rubaiyat. ‘We have three,’ Peter replied with relish, ‘and quite good reading.’

Lorrimer smiled  like a hawk, the owl having fled.

‘ You’d best have the printers ready then, we will have no more than twelve hours between the drop-off and pick-up if we manage it properly. Time enough to print and staple one copy of the original do you think? With your collection to guide them they shouldn’t have too much trouble making it look like the real thing. The reds will never know the difference.’

Peter nodded, the printers already had the cover, flyleaf and back done, all they needed now  was the content.


The courier left his package and made his mark that same morning, and one of Lorrimer’s men waited until he had gone before he retrieved the package and obliterated the chalk mark. Red chalk, just the one swipe.

Three hours later a package was returned to the same place, and the red chalk swipe re-instituted. Two hours after that an embassy man strolled into the park.


The Russian embassy in Australia didn’t leave any midnight lights burning, the book was found to be a substitution within seconds of it being opened by the Secretary, and there was no need of confirmation from anyone else sitting in the room.

So they smoked up a fog, and a Stalinist thunder gathered in its wreaths. The photographer’s handler was called in and ordered to produce more films, more cables. Tomorrow. The courier was to be retained. Business was to look as usual.

The Secretary had been slowly leafing the book through, page by page, stopping frequently to read a line as if he knew where to find it, and he found what he was looking for every time.

Every page of the original verse had been copied. The codes were on the correct pages and on the correct line on that page, and on the correctly numbered alternate letter on that page.

They would pretend that business was as usual, and use the substituted pad once they had another film of diplomatic cables, which would no doubt be worthless.

The Secretary turned to the last page, and using his thumbnail and forefinger he delicately cut away part of the tamam shud.

‘One thing,’ he said suddenly and loudly, and he slammed the rubaiyat down onto the table with a vehemence, only to pick it up and wave it at them, like an accusation, ‘leave the courier with this one thing,’ he demanded, and he held the open book up with its back page part torn away,

‘and take his life for it.’


Lorrimer completed the story some years later, in an interview with an author yet to sell a book. He said it ended badly.

‘What was the message George?’ The author and Lorrimer were on first names, had been for centuries.

‘The rolled slip of paper, the tamam shud found in his fob pocket. And just in case they thought that we didn’t get that, they tossed the book, our book, into an open car just up the bloody street from where they left him to die.’

‘George, the message?’

‘Our Fitzgerald copies had Tamam Shud printed pretty much dead-centre on the last page, the Russians had printed it elsewhere. As soon as they saw it they knew.’

‘It was as simple as that?’

‘No, the silly buggers in the red embassy didn’t destroy the code books as instructed, everybody in the embassy knew that the courier had a bee in his bonnet for it, so they obliged him. Especially the women.

He had a collection of rubaiyats in his suitcase you know, all Russian jobs. He’d done at least seven trips, kept every one. Except the last. We still have that.

George waved over the steward and asked for two coffees, ‘Just as well we got to the suitcase before the local plod started their advertising campaign Peter, and by the way, what did the T stand for?

Tom, or Terry?’

a tomsbytwo special event, for the day

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