A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 16

  “Know something?” He kissed her hand again and held it against his cheek. “Nothing goes away in life.” To her surprise she felt moisture in his stubble and realised he was weeping. “I’m in Constitution Square, right? Coming out of the Grande Bretagne bar. Minding my own business. What happens? I walk straight into the arms of a Czech Joe I used to run. Real tough egg, fabricator, caused us a lot of problems. Holds my arm like this. ‘Colonel Manchester! Colonel Manchester!’ Threatens to call the police, expose me as a British spy if I don’t give him money. Says I’m the only friend he’s got left in the world. ‘Come and drink with me, Colonel Manchester. Like we used to.’ So I did. Drank him right under the table. Then gave him the slip. I’m afraid I got a bit pissed myself. Line of duty. Let’s go to bed.”

  And they do. And make love. The desperate screwing of strangers while Tom reads fantasy next door. And two days later they leave for Hydra, but Hydra is too cramped, too ominous, there is suddenly nowhere to go but Spetsai: at this time of year we’ll have no problem. Tom asks if Becky can join them, Magnus says no she absolutely can’t because they’ll all want to come and he’s not going to have a pride of Lederers sitting on his head while he’s trying to write. Otherwise, apart from his drinking, Magnus has never been more caring and polite than now.

  She had stopped. Like standing back from a painting halfway. Studying the story so far. She drank some whisky, lit a cigarette.

  “Christ,” said Brotherhood softly. Then nothing.

  Nigel had found a bit of dead skin on the back of one undersized finger and was picking it off meticulously.

  It is Lesbos again, it is another dawn but the same Greek bed and Plomari is once more waking up though Mary is praying it will go back to sleep again, that the sounds will fade and the sun flop behind the rooftops where it came from, because it is Monday and yesterday Tom went back to school. Mary has the evidence under her pillow where she promised to put the rabbitskin he gave her to keep her safe—and as if she needed it to strengthen her resolve—the terrible memory of his last words to her before he left. Mary and Magnus have driven him to the airport, weighed him in for yet another departure. Tom and Mary are standing about unable to touch each other while they wait for the flight to be called, Magnus is at the bar buying Tom a bag of pistachios for the journey and an ouzo for himself while he’s about it. Mary has six times confirmed that Tom has his passport and his money and his letter to Matron about his shrimp rash, and his letter to Granny to be handed to her the moment you meet her at London Airport, darling, so that you don’t forget. But Tom is even more than usually distracted; he is looking back to the main entrance, watching the people going through the swing doors, and there is something desperate in his face, so desperate that Mary really wonders whether he is thinking of making a dash for it.

  “Mums?” Sometimes, when he is distracted, he still calls her that.

  “Yes, darling.”

  “They’re here, Mums.”

  “Who are?”

  “Those two campers from Plomari. They’re sitting in the airport carpark on their motorbike, watching Dad.”

  “Now darling just stop,” Mary retorts firmly, determined to drive away these shadows, one and all. “Just completely stop, okay?”

  “Only I’ve recognised them, you see. I worked it out this morning. I remembered. They’re the men who drove the car round the outside of the cricket ground at Corfu while Dad’s friend tried to make him come for a drive.”

  For a moment, though Mary has been through this agonising procedure a dozen times before, she wants to scream out: “Stay—don’t go—I don’t care a damn about your bloody education—stay with me!” But instead the fool waves him through the barrier and saves her tears for the journey back while Magnus is absolutely sweet to her as ever. And now it is next morning, Tom is just about arriving at his school, and Mary is staring at the prison bars of Kyria Katina’s rotting shutters while the sky remorselessly whitens through the cracks and she is trying not to hear the clanking of the water-pipes beneath her and the rush of water free-falling onto the flagstones as Magnus celebrates his morning shower.

  “Wowee! Christ! You awake, girl? It’s brass monkeys down here, believe me!”

  Believe you, she repeats to herself and draws deeper into the bedclothes. In fifteen years he never called me girl till here. Now suddenly she is girl all day as if he has woken to her gender. A single width of floorboard separates her from him and if she dares look over the bedside she will glimpse his stranger’s naked body through the gaps between the planks. Receiving no reply from her, Pym starts singing his one piece of Gilbert and Sullivan while he sloshes water.

  “‘ Rising early in the morning, We proceed to light the fire . . .’ How’m I doing?” he calls when he has sung all he knows.

  Mary in another life has a small reputation for her music. In Plush she led a passable group in madrigals. When she was doing her stint at Head Office she sang solo in the Firm choir. It’s just that nobody’s ever played records for you, she used to tell him in a veiled criticism of his first wife, Belinda. One day your singing voice will be as good as your spoken one, darling.

  She summons her breath. “Better than Caruso!” she shouts.

  The exchange is accomplished, Magnus can resume his showering.

  “It went well, Mabs. Really well. Seven pages of deathless prose. Undercoat but good.”


  He has started shaving. She can hear him empty the kettle into the plastic washing-up bowl. Contour blades, she thinks: oh God, I forgot to buy him his bloody Contour blades. All the way to the airport and back she had known there was something she had forgotten, for little things are as dreadful to her as big things these days. Now I will buy cheese for lunch. Now I will buy bread to go with the cheese. She closes her eyes and takes another enormous breath.

  “Did you sleep?” she asks.

  “Like the dead. Didn’t you notice?”

  Yes, I noticed. I noticed how you slipped out of bed at two in the morning and crept downstairs to your workroom. How you paced and stopped pacing. I heard the creak of your chair and the whisper of your felt-tipped pen as you began to write. Who to? In what voice? Which one?

  A boom of music drowns the sound of his shaving. He has switched on his clever radio for the BBC World News. Magnus knows the time to the minute, all through the day and night. If he looks at his watch it is only to confirm the schedules in his brain. She listens numbly to a recitation of events no one is able to control. A bomb has gone off in Beirut. A town has been wiped out in El Salvador. The pound has fallen. Or risen. The Russians are out of the next Olympics—or into them after all. Magnus follows politics like a gambler who is too wise to bet. The noise grows steadily louder as Magnus carries the radio upstairs, slop, slop, naked except for his sandals. He bends over her and she smells his shaving soap and the flat Greek cigarettes he has taken to smoking while he writes.

  “Still sleepy?”

  “A bit.”

  “How’s Rat?”

  Mary has been tending a half-eviscerated rat she found in the garden. It is lying in a straw box in Tom’s room.

  “I haven’t looked,” she says.

  He kisses her close to the ear, an explosion, and starts to fondle her breast as a sign to her to take him, but she grunts an awkward “Later” and rolls over. She hears him slop to the wardrobe, she hears the old door resist and jolt open. If he chooses shorts he’s going for a walk. If he chooses jeans he’s going into town to drink with the deadbeats. Colonel call-me-Parkie Parker, with my Greek fancy-boy and my Sea-lyham dog that I hold on the lead like a teapot. Elsie and Ethel, retired dyke schoolteachers from Liverpool. Jock somebody, I’ve a wee business in Dundee. Magnus pulls out a shirt and slips it on. She hears him fastening his shorts.

  “Where are you going?” she says.

  “For a walk.”

  “Wait for me. I’ll come with you. You can tell me about it.”

  Who was this speaking
out of her suddenly—this mature straight-to-the-point woman?

  Magnus is as surprised as she is: “About what, for heaven’s sake?”

  “Whatever it is that’s worrying you, darling. I don’t mind. Just tell me, whatever it is, so that I don’t have to . . .”

  “Don’t have to what?”

  “Bottle it up. Look away.”

  “Nonsense. Everything’s fine. We’re just both a bit blue without Tom.” He comes to her and lays her back on the pillow as if she were an invalid. “You sleep it off, I’ll walk it off. See you at the taverna round three.”

  Only Magnus can make Kyria Katina’s front door close so softly.

  Suddenly Mary is strong. His departure has released her. Breathe. She goes to the north window, everything planned. She has done these things before and remembers now that she is good at them, often steadier than the men. In Berlin when Jack needed a spare girl Mary had kept watch, gulled room keys out of concierges, replaced stolen documents in dangerous desks, driven scared Joes to safe flats. I knew the game better than I realised, she thought. Jack used to praise my coolness and my sharp eye. From the window she sees the new tarmac road winding into the hills. Sometimes he goes that way, but not today. Opening the window, she leans out as if savouring the place and morning. That witch Katina has milked her goats early; that means she’s gone to market. Only one fleeting glance does Mary allow herself towards the dried-up river bed where, in the shadow of the stone footbridge, the same two boys are tinkering with their German-registered motorbike. If they had appeared outside the house in Vienna like this, Mary would have been on to Magnus in an instant—phoned him if need be at the Embassy. “Looks like the angels are flying rather low today,” she’d have said. And Magnus would have done whatever he did—alerted the diplomatic patrol, sent his people down to check them out. But now in their separated lives it is as if they have agreed between them that angels, even suspected ones, are not to be remarked upon.

  His workroom is on the ground floor. He does not lock the door on her but there is an ethic between them that she does not enter except at his specific beckoning. She turns the handle and steps inside. The shutters are closed but they do not cover the upper window panes and there is light for her to see by. Tread heavily, she tells herself, remembering her training. If you have to make a noise, make a bold one. The room is sparse, which is what Magnus likes. A desk, a chair, a single bed to crash on between bursts of creative matrix-writing. She pulls back the chair and sends a bottle of vodka skidding. The desk is covered with books and papers but she touches nothing. His old buckram-bound copy of Simplicissimus occupies pride of place as usual. His mascot. His something. It is a source of permanent offence to Mary that he will never let her bind it. Because I like it the way it is, he says stubbornly. That’s how it was given to me. By some woman no doubt. “For Sir Magnus who will never be my enemy” reads the inscription in German. Screw her. And screw fancy nicknames.

  Brotherhood had again interrupted.

  “Where’s it now, this book?”

  With difficulty and a slight resentment Mary returned to time present.

  But Brotherhood insisted: “It’s not in his desk downstairs. I didn’t see it lying about in the drawing-room either. It’s not in the bedroom or in Tom’s room. Where is it?”

  “I told you,” she said. “He takes it everywhere.”

  “You didn’t, but thank you,” Brotherhood retorted.

  She is wearing a pair of cotton gloves against sweat and grime marks. He’ll use a trick. He does those things instinctively. His old briefcase lies on the floor, wide open, but she doesn’t touch that either. Other books are strewn like paperweights to hold down the manuscript and seemingly at random. She reads a title. It is in German: Freedom and Conscience by someone she has never heard of. Beside it, a copy of Madox Ford’s Good Soldier, which Magnus reads incessantly these days; it has become his Bible. Beside this again, an old photograph album. Gently she lifts the unfamiliar cover and without moving it turns a few pages. Magnus aged eight in football gear, a team group. Magnus aged five in alpine setting holding a toboggan. Magnus at Tom’s age already with his overwilling smile, inviting you in but not expecting to be invited. Magnus on honeymoon with Belinda, neither of them looking more than about twelve years old. She has not seen these photographs before. Letting the cover fall, Mary steps back and again surveys the arrangement on the desk. As she does so his bit of tradecraft becomes apparent to her. Each of the three books, lying seemingly haphazardly across the papers, is aligned to the point of the paper scissors at their centre. Going to the kitchen Mary grabs the tablecloth, comes back and lays it on the floor beside the desk, then measures the distances between each object on the desk with her gloved hand. As gently as if she is lifting bandages from a wound she lays them in the same pattern on the tablecloth. The papers on the desk now lie free for her inspection. She has not reckoned with so much dust. Just by crossing the floor she has set up clouds of it. I’m a tomb robber, she thinks, as the dust burns her throat. She is gazing at a wad of handwritten manuscript. The top page is dark with crossings-out. She picks up the wad, leaving everything else lying. She takes it to the little bed, sits down. At Plush when she was a girl they had called it “Kim’s Game” and played it every New Year’s Eve along with acting games and Murder and reels. At the training house, when she was supposed to be adult, they called it Observation and played it round the sleepy villages of Dedham, Manningtree and Bergholt: who’s had their door painted this week, pruned their roses, bought a new car; how many bottles of milk did No. 18 have on its doorstep? But wherever they play it Mary always comes top by miles; she is cursed with a snapshot memory from which very little ever goes away.

  Bits of novel, she told Brotherhood, all beginnings.

  A dozen Chapter Ones, some typed and some in longhand, all stiff with crossings-out. Mostly they told about the orphan childhood of a boy called Ben.

  Doodles. Drawings of an arm stretched out to steal. A woman’s crotch.

  Notes to himself, all abusive: “sentimental crap” . . . “rewrite or destroy” . . . “You’ve missed the curse we pass from man to child” . . . “One day a Wentworth will get us all.”

  A pink folder marked “Random Passages.” Ben gives himself up to the authorities. Ben discovers there is another, real Secret Service, and joins it in the nick of time. A blue folder marked “Final Scenes,” several of them addressed to “Poppy, dear bloody Poppy.” A sheet of cartridge paper stolen from her sketch block on which Magnus has drawn a pattern of linked think-bubbles to form a flow chart of his ideas, exactly as Tom is taught to prepare his essays at school. Bubble: “If all Nature abhors a vacuum, how does a vacuum feel about all Nature?” Bubble: “Duplicity is when you please one person at the expense of another.” Bubble: “We are patriots because we are afraid to be cosmopolitan, cosmopolitan because we are afraid to be patriots.”

  There was a tapping at the door but Brotherhood shook his head at Georgie, telling her to ignore it.

  “It wasn’t his true writing,” Mary said. “It was all spiky. It ran for a while then seized up. It seemed to hurt him to go on.”

  Brotherhood didn’t give a damn whom it hurt.

  “More,” he said. “More. Hurry.”

  “It’s me, sir,” Fergus called through the door. “Urgent message, sir. Very.”

  “I said wait,” Brotherhood ordered.

  “‘ The systems of Ben’s life are all collapsing,’” Mary continued. “‘ All his life he’s been inventing versions of himself that are untrue. Now the truth is coming to get him and he is on the run. His Wentworth is standing at the door.’”

  “More,” said Brotherhood, towering over her.

  “‘ Rick invented me, Rick is dying. What will happen when Rick drops his end of the string?’”

  “Keep going.”

  “A quotation from Saint Luke. I never saw him open a Bible in his life. ‘He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in mu


  “‘He who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.’ He’d illuminated the edges of the page for hours on end. Different inks.”


  “‘ Wentworth was Rick’s Nemesis. Poppy was mine. We each spent our lives trying to put right what we’d done to them.’”

  “And again!”

  “‘ Now everyone’s after me. The Firm’s after me, the Americans are after me, you’re after me. Even poor Mary is after me, and she doesn’t know you exist.’”

  “You being who? Who’s you in this poem?”

  “‘ Poppy. My destiny. Dearest Poppy, best of best friends, get your bloody dogs off my doorstep.’”

  “Poppy like the flowers,” Brotherhood suggested, shoving away Georgie’s microphone as he knelt beside her. “Like the flowers in the chimney. But singular. One Poppy.”


  “And Wentworth like the place. Sunny Wentworth, in tasteful Surrey?”


  “Know him—her—anyone of that name?”


  “Or Poppy?”



  “There was a Chapter Eight,” she said. “Out of the blue. No Two to Seven, but this Chapter Eight, all in his own handwriting and without a crossing-out. Titled ‘Overdue Bills,’ whereas the Chapter Ones were untitled. Describing a day when Ben revolts against all his promises. Slipping from third to first person and staying there, whereas the Chapter Ones were ‘he’ and ‘Ben.’ ‘The creditors are beating at the door, Wentworth to the fore, but Ben doesn’t give a damn. I lower my head and lift my shoulders, I wade at them, I punch and flail and butt them while they smash my face in. But even with no face left I am doing what I should have done thirty-five years ago, to Jack and Rick and all the mothers and fathers, for stealing my life off my plate while I watched you do it. Poppy, Jack, the rest of you, driving me into a lifetime’s—a lifetime’s—a lifetime’s—’”