A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 11

  “The electricity’s broken and Lippsie’s scared and the police have come and they’re in the garden arresting Mr. Roley,” Pym told Rick in one breath.

  He said this several times, louder each time, because of the great moment of his message. But Rick wouldn’t hear him. He was rushing between the papers and the cabinet, loading up the drawers. So Pym went to him and punched him hard on the upper arm, as hard as he could on the soft bit just above the steel spring he wore to keep his silk shirt sleeve straight, and Rick flung round on him and his hand went back to strike him, and his face looked like Mr. Roley’s when he was about to make a huge last heave at a log to split it: red and strained and damp. Then he dropped into a crouch and seized Pym by each shoulder with his thick cupped hands. And his face worried Pym much more than the axe-heave, because his eyes were scared and crying without the rest of his face knowing it and his voice was smooth and holy.

  “Don’t ever hit me again, son. When I’m judged, as judged we shall all be, God will judge me on how I treated you, make no bones about it.”

  “Why are the police here?” said Pym.

  “Your old man’s got a temporary problem of liquidity. Now clear a way to that cupboard and open the door for us like a good chap. Quick.”

  The cupboard was in a corner behind a pile of old clothes and attic junk. Somehow Pym fought his way to the door and hauled it open. With a series of crashes Rick was slamming shut the drawers of the filing cabinet. He turned the lock, grabbed Pym by the arm and poked the key deep into his trouser pocket, which was small and woolly and only big enough for a key and a small bag of sweets.

  “You give that to Mr. Muspole, do you hear, son? Nobody but Muspole. Then you show him where this cabinet is. You bring him here and you show him. No one else. Do you love your old man?”


  “Well then.”

  Proud as a sentry, Pym held back the door while Rick swivelled and rolled the cabinet past him on its castors into the cupboard, then into the dark wainscotting beyond. Then he threw in a lot of junk after it, which hid it completely.

  “See where it went, son?”


  “Close the door.”

  Pym did so, then stomped downstairs with his chest out because he wanted to take another look at the police cars. Dorothy was in the kitchen dressed in her new fur coat and her new fluffy bedroom slippers, stirring a tin of tomato soup. She had one of those bubbles over her mouth that people get when they are too choked to speak. Pym loathed tomato soup, so did Rick.

  “Rick’s mending the water-pipes,” he announced grandly, in order to keep his secret intact. This was the only meaning he could place on Rick’s reference to liquidity. Yelling even louder for Lippsie he charged into the corridor, straight into the path of two policemen labouring under the weight of a great desk that was Rick’s office when he was at home.

  “That’s my dad’s,” he said aggressively, putting a hand over the pocket where he had the key.

  The first policeman is the only one I remember. He was kindly and had a white moustache like TP’s, and he was taller than God.

  “Yes, well, I’m afraid it’s ours now, lad. Hold open that door for us, will you, and mind your toes.”

  Pym the official door-holder obliged.

  “Your dad got any more desks, has he?” the tall policeman asked.


  “Cupboards? Anywhere he keeps his papers?”

  “They’re all in there,” said Pym, pointing firmly at the desk while he kept his other hand over the pocket.

  “Do you want a wee then?”


  “Where’s some rope?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Yes you do.”

  “It’s in the stable. On a big saddle hook next to the new mower. It’s a halter.”

  “What’s your name?”

  “Magnus. Where’s Lippsie?”

  “Who’s Lippsie?”

  “She’s a lady.”

  “She work for your dad?”


  “Slip and fetch the rope for us, will you, Magnus, there’s a lad. Me and my friends here we’re going to take your dad on a working holiday for a bit and we need his papers or nobody can work.”

  Pym raced off to the shed which was across the other side of the grounds between the pony paddock and Mr. Roley’s cottage. On the shelf stood a green tea-tin where Mr. Roley kept his nails. Pym put the key into it, thinking: green tin, green filing cabinet. By the time he returned with the halter Rick was standing between two men in brown raincoats. And I picture it still exactly: Rick so pale that not all the holidays in the world would see him right, commanding loyalty of me with his eyes. And the tall policeman letting Pym try his flat cap on and push the button that made the silver bell ring under the hood of the black Wolseley. And Dorothy looking as though she needed a holiday even more than Rick did, not choking any more, but standing still as an effigy with her white hands folded across her fur coat.

  Memory is a great temptress, Tom. Paint the tragic tableau. The little group, the winter’s day, Christmas in the air. The convoy of Wolseleys bumping away down the lane that Pym has spent so long patrolling with his new Harrods six-shooter. Rick’s desk lashed to the last car with the aid of the halter from the stable. Motionless they stare after the cortège as it vanishes into the tunnel of the trees, taking our one Provider to Lord knows where. Mrs. Roley weeping. Cookie howling in Irish. Pym’s little head pressed against his mother’s bosom. A thousand violins playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?”—there is no limit to the pathos I could squeeze out of that lemon if I worked on it. Yet the truth, when I make the effort to recall it, is different. With the departure of Rick a great calm descended over Pym. He felt refreshed and freed of an intolerable burden. He watched the cars leave, Rick’s desk last. And he continued to stare anxiously after them, but only for fear that Rick would talk them into turning back. As he watched, Lippsie stepped out of the woods wearing her headscarf and struggled towards him weighed down by the cardboard suitcase that contained her life’s possessions. The sight of her made Pym even more furious than he’d been when he’d found Dorothy making soup. You hid, he accused her in the secret dialogue he constantly conducted with her. You were so scared you hid in the woods and missed the fun. I realise now, of course, but could not at the time, that Lippsie had seen people taken away before: her brother Aaron and the architect her father, to mention only two. But Pym in common with the rest of the world cared little about pogroms in those days and all he could feel was a deep resentment that his life’s love had failed to rise to a historic moment.

  Muspole came that evening. He arrived at the side door with a cooked chicken for us and a rhubarb pie and thick custard and a thermos of hot tea, and he said he was making arrangements for us and everything would be fine tomorrow. To get him on his own, Pym said, “Come and see my Hornby” and at once Dorothy cried because by then there was no Hornby: the distraining bailiffs had fought a pitched battle with the repossessing shopkeepers and the Hornby had been one of the first things to go. But Mr. Muspole went with Pym anyway and Pym took him to the shed and gave him the key, then led him to the attic and showed him the secret. And everybody watched again while Mr. Roley and Mr. Muspole heaved and puffed and loaded the cabinet on to Mr. Muspole’s car. And waved again when Mr. Muspole drove into the twilight in his hat.

  After the Fall came, very properly, Purgatory, and Purgatory possessed no Lippsies—I guess she was trying to make one of her breaks from me, using Rick’s absence to cut herself off. Purgatory was where Dorothy and I served out our sentence, Tom, and Purgatory is just over the hill from here, a few of Rick’s fare-stages along the coast, though the new time-share apartments have removed much of its sting. Purgatory was the same wooded hollow of clefts and chines and dripping laurels where Pym had been conceived, with red windswept beaches always out of season, and creaking swings and sodden sandpits that were closed to enjoym
ent on the sabbath and for Pym on any other day as well. Purgatory was Makepeace Watermaster’s great sad house, The Glades, where Pym was forbidden to leave the walled orchard if it was dry or enter the main rooms if it was raining. Purgatory was the Tabernacle with the Night School Boys written clean out of the history books; and Makepeace Watermaster’s frightful sermons; and Mr. Philpott’s sermons; and sermons from every aunt, cousin and neighbourhood philosopher who felt moved to words by Rick’s misfortune and saw the young criminal as the proper person to address.

  Purgatory possessed no cocktail cabinets, television sets, jockeys, Bentleys or neverwozzers, and served bread and margarine instead of buttered toast. When we sang, we droned, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” and never “Underneath the Arches” or one of Lippsie’s Lieder. Contemporary photographs show a grinning toothy child, well grown and well looking enough, but stooped as if from living under low ceilings. All are out of focus; all have a furtive, stolen look about them, and I try to love them only because I believe Dorothy must have taken them, though it was Lippsie whom Pym was missing. In a couple the child is tugging at the arm of whatever mother happens to attend him, probably trying to persuade her to come away with him. In one he is wearing sloppy white gloves like puppets’ hands, so I suppose he suffered from some skin disease, unless Makepeace was worried about fingerprints. Or perhaps he was intending to become a waiter.

  The mothers, all large, all dressed in the same strict uniform, have such an air of the wardress about them that I seriously wonder whether Makepeace obtained them from an agency specialising in the care of delinquents. One wears a medal like an Iron Cross. I do not mean they are without kindness. Their smiles are alight with pious optimism. But there is something in their glance that assures me they are alert at all times to the latent criminality of their charge. Lippsie is not featured, and my poor Dorothy, Pym’s one cellmate in the dark rear wing to which the two of them were confined, was even more useless than before. If Pym was thrashed, Dorothy would dress his wounds but never question the need for them. If he was put into shameful nappies as a punishment for wetting his bed, Dorothy would urge him not to drink in the second part of the day. And if he was denied tea altogether, Dorothy would save him her biscuits and pass them to him in the privacy of their upper room, poking them one by one between the invisible bars. In Paradise on good days Pym and Dorothy had managed to share the occasional joke together. Now the guilty silence of her house reclaimed her. Each day drove her further into herself and though he told her his best jokes and did his best acts for her, and painted the best pictures for her that he knew, nothing he could do was able to wake her smile for long. At night she moaned and ground her teeth and when she switched the light on, Pym lay awake beside her, thinking of Lippsie and watching Dorothy’s unblinking eyes staring up at the parchment star of Bethlehem that was their lampshade.

  If Dorothy had been dying Pym could have gone on nursing her for ever, no question. But she wasn’t so he resented her instead. In fact soon he began to weary of her altogether and wonder whether the wrong parent had gone on holiday, and whether Lippsie was his real mother and he had made an awful mistake, the one that accounted for everything. When war broke out Dorothy was incapable of rejoicing at the marvellous news. Makepeace turned on the wireless and Pym heard a solemn man saying he had done everything he could to prevent it. Makepeace turned off the wireless and Mr. Philpott, who had come for tea, asked mournfully where, oh where, would the battlefield be? Makepeace, never at a loss, replied that God would decide. But Pym, spilling over with excitement, for once presumed to question him.

  “But Uncle Makepeace! If God can decide where the battlefield is, why doesn’t He stop the battle altogether? He doesn’t want to. He could if He wanted to, easy. He doesn’t!” Even to this day, I do not know which was the greater sin: to question Makepeace or to question God. In either case the remedy was the same: put him on bread and water like his father.

  But the worst monster in The Glades was not rubbery Uncle Makepeace with his little rose ears, but mad Aunt Nell in her liver-coloured spectacles, who chased after Pym with no reason, waving her stick at him and calling him “my little canary” because of the yellow pullover Dorothy had managed to knit him while she wept. Aunt Nell had a white stick for seeing with and a brown stick for walking with. She could see perfectly well, except when she carried her white stick.

  “Aunt Nell gets her wobblies out of a bottle,” Pym told Dorothy one day, thinking it might make her smile. “I’ve seen. She’s got a bottle hidden in the greenhouse.”

  Dorothy did not smile but became very frightened, and made him swear never to say such a thing again. Aunt Nell was ill, she said. Her illness was a secret and she took secret medicine for it, and nobody must ever know or Aunt Nell would die and God would be very angry. For weeks afterwards Pym carried this wonderful knowledge round with him much as, briefly, he had carried Rick’s, but this was better and more disgraceful. It was like the first money he had ever owned, his first piece of power. Who to spend it on? he wondered. Who to share it with? Shall I let Aunt Nell live or shall I kill her for calling me her little canary? He decided on Mrs. Bannister, the cook. “Aunt Nell gets her wobblies out of a bottle,” he told Mrs. Bannister, careful to use exactly the form of words that had so appalled Dorothy. But Aunt Nell did not die, and Mrs. Bannister knew about the bottle already and cuffed him for his forwardness. Worse still, she must have taken his story to Uncle Makepeace who that night made a rare visit to the prison wing, swaying and roaring and sweating and pointing at Pym while he talked about the Devil who was Rick. When he had gone Pym made his bed across the door in case Makepeace decided to come back and do some more roaring, but he never did. Nevertheless the burgeoning spy had acquired an early lesson in the dangerous business of intelligence: everybody talks.

  His next lesson was no less instructive and concerned the perils of communication in occupied territory. By now Pym was writing to Lippsie daily and posting his letters in a box that stood at the rear gate of the house. They contained to his later shame priceless information, almost none of it in code. How to break into The Glades at night. His hours of exercise. Maps. The character of his persecutors. The money he had saved. The precise location of the German guards. The route to be followed through the back garden and where the kitchen key was kept. “I have been kidnapped to a dangerous house, please get me quick,” he wrote, and enclosed a drawing of Aunt Nell with canaries coming out of her mouth as a further warning of the hazards that surrounded him. But there was a snag. Having no address for Lippsie, Pym could only hope that somebody at the post office would know where she was to be found. His confidence was misplaced. One day the postman delivered the whole top-secret bundle to Makepeace personally, who summoned the prevailing mother, who summoned Pym, and led him like the convict he was to Makepeace for chastisement, though he simpered and begged and blandished him for all he was worth, for Pym somewhat unsportingly hated the lash and was seldom gallant about receiving it. After that he contented himself with looking for Lippsie on buses and, where he could do so deniably, asking people who happened to be passing the rear gate whether they had seen her. Particularly he asked policemen, whom he now smiled at richly wherever he found them.

  “My father’s got an old green box with secrets in,” he told a constable one day, strolling in the memorial gardens with a mother.

  “Has he then, son? Well, thanks for telling us,” said the constable and pretended to write in his notebook.

  Meanwhile word of Rick, though not of Lippsie, reached Pym like the unfinished whispers of a distant radio transmitter. Your father is well. His holiday is doing him good. He has lost weight, lots of good food, we’re not to worry, he’s getting exercise, reading his law books, he’s gone back to school. The source of these priceless snippets was the Other House, which lay in a poorer part of Purgatory down by the coking station and must never be mentioned in front of Uncle Makepeace, since it was the house that had spawned Rick and bro
ught disgrace on the great family of Watermaster, not to mention the memory of TP. Hand in hand, Dorothy and Pym rode there in fireside darkness, sticky mesh against bomb blast on the windows of the trolley-bus, and the lights inside burning blue to baffle German pilots. At the Other House, a steadfast little Irish lady with a rock jaw gave Pym half-a-crown out of a ginger jar and squeezed his arm muscles approvingly and called him “son” like Rick, and on the wall hung a copy of the same tinted photograph of TP, framed not in gold but in coffin wood. Jolly-faced aunts made sweets for Pym out of their sugar ration, and hugged and wept and treated Dorothy like the royalty she once had been, and hooted when Pym did his funny voices and clapped when he sang “Underneath the Arches.” “Go on, Magnus, give us Sir Makepeace then!” But Pym dared not for fear of God’s anger, which he knew from the Aunt Nell affair to be swift and awful.

  The aunt he loved most was Bess. “Tell us, Magnus,” whispered Aunt Bess to him, alone in the scullery, drawing his head close to her own. “Is it true your dad ever owned a racehorse called Prince Magnus, after you?”

  “It’s not true,” said Pym without a second’s thought, remembering the excitement as he sat beside Lippsie on her bed, listening to the commentary of Prince Magnus coming nowhere. “It is a lie made up by Uncle Makepeace to hurt my father.”

  Aunt Bess kissed him and laughed and wept in relief, and held him even tighter. “Never say I asked you. Promise.”

  “I promise,” said Pym. “God’s honour.”

  The same Aunt Bess, one glorious night, smuggled Pym out of The Glades and into the Theatre Pier, where they saw Max Miller and a row of girls with long bare legs like Lippsie’s. On the trolley-bus back, brimming over with gratitude, Pym told her everything he knew in the world, and made up whatever he didn’t. He said he had written a book by Shakespeare and it was in a green box in a secret house. One day he would find and print it and make a lot of money. He said he would be a policeman and an actor and a jockey, and drive a Bentley like Rick, and marry Lippsie and have six children all called TP like his granddad. This pleased Bess enormously, except for the bit about the jockey, and sent her home saying Magnus was a card, which was what he wanted most. His gratification was short-lived. This time Pym had made God very angry indeed, and as usual He was not slow to do something about it. On the very next day before breakfast the police came and took away his Dorothy for ever, though the reigning mother said they were only ambulance.