"Five pints of Stella, please," says a man with thin lips, a square head and beady, watery eyes. No prizes for guessing which service he works for. Mysteriously he places one of the pints on an empty table (a variation on the dead-letter drop, perhaps?), and hands round the others to a group of humourless men in cheap raincoats.
"Fifteen hours and a bottle of red wine later, he had been downgraded to level six," one of them says.
"Anyone know the circumstances?"
"I've got a feeling it was messy."
"He's fairly ambiguous, genderwise."
"We're obsessed with discipline, that's our problem."
"Well, if he does get sacked, he can come over to us."
This last comment is from a younger man wearing a paisley cravat and a black leather jacket with fur-lined collar. He is tanned, well-travelled, and sports a goatee beard like the one worn by Oleg Gordievsky (maybe it's the same one and they pass it around). If "us" means MI6, it's the first evidence I see of bonhomie between the rival services.
"What grade was he?" he continues.
"Seven. Anything that was dangerous or risky he delegated. He never did removals."
Removals? Spooky. Sitting at the bar beneath a shelf of earthenware bedwarmers and 19th-century volumes of the Law Journal, a man in a trilby slowly puts a cigarette to his lips, first finger curled over the top of the stem. He is talking to a man in a Barbour.
"There's a lot coming out of the Home Office on him, but I just don't bother to intercept it all," the Barbour says.
"He's so sharp he's dangerous," says the trilby, fastening a clip on one of his tight leather gloves. "He'll walk all over you in seven-inch heels."
"Involved with Poll Tax, wasn't he?"
"Yes. I've got friends in BT - let me know if there are any problems."
Six elderly men by the door are on a jolly bender, huddled as one of them speaks quietly, then laughing together, heads thrown back. All eyebrows and pipes, they are drinking pints of Winter Warmer in glasses with handles. MI6 old guard, without doubt.
"What's the status of that particular project?" one of them says. He is wearing a woollen mustard tie and a shirt patterned like graph paper.
"Give me the name of a good translator and I'll tell you," laughs another.
"I was very suspicious about that communications contract."
"Yes. There was a colonel who knew something about that."
"I'm surprised no one's come to me. I have to make large cash payments all the time on the quiet."
Back in the MI5 corner, Oleg has left and conversation is turning to the new MI6 building (above) visible across the water, the source of much envy. MI5's own office is in the grim Thames Tower next to the Tate.
"Do you know what it reminds me of? Ceausescu's palace before he was overthrown. It's so incongruous."
"You should see inside."
"I have. Hideous."
The friendly landlady comes over for a chat. Her appearance is uncanny. If Stella Rimington, the present head of MI5, has a younger sister, she's working in a pub in south-west London. Same big eyes, pearls and unsettlingly maternal manner.
"Pint of Stella, please," I ask her later, touching my nose. She smiles at me knowingly. "And are the geese flying West tonight?"
The Morpeth Arms, 58 Millbank, SW1Reuse content