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A Perfect Spy
John le Carré
A Perfect Spy 30
“When do we ever get to read it?” Pym had asked him once shyly in the days when they were close.
“If I ever finish it, and the publisher ever publishes it.”
“Why can’t I read it now?”
“Because you will take the cream off it for me, and leave me with the curds.”
“What’s it about?”
“Mysteries, Sir Magnus, and if they are spoken aloud they will never be written down.”
He’s writing his Wilhelm Meister autobiography, thought Pym indignantly. That was my idea, not his.
He could tell when Axel could not sleep by the striking of his matches as he lit his cigars. He could tell when his body was driving him mad. He told it by the altered rhythm of his movements and the determined gaiety of his singing as he clomped the wooden corridor to crouch for hours in their shared lavatory with its porcelain footprints. After several nights had passed that way Pym was able to loathe Axel for his incontinence. Why doesn’t he go back to hospital? “He sings German marching songs,” he wrote to Brotherhood in his notebook. “Tonight he sang the whole Horst Wessel Lied in the lavatory.” On the third night, long after Pym had gone to bed, his door suddenly flew open and there stood Axel wrapped in Herr Ollinger’s dressing-gown.
“Well? Have you forgiven me yet?”
“What have I got to forgive you for?” Pym replied, discreetly pushing his secret logbook under the bedclothes.
Axel stayed in the doorway. The dressing-gown was ridiculously large for him. Sweat had made black fangs of his moustache. “Give me some of your priest’s whisky,” he said.
After that Pym couldn’t let Axel go until he had wiped the shadows of suspicion from his face. The weeks passed and spring began and Pym knew that nothing was happening, and that he had never betrayed Axel in the first place, because if he had they would have done something long ago. Occasionally Brotherhood asked a couple of follow-up questions but they had the ring of routine. Once he asked, “Can you tell me an evening when you know for certain he will be out?” But Pym was able to answer that there were no certainties in Axel’s life. “Well look here. Why don’t you take him out to a slap-up dinner at our expense?” said Brotherhood. One night Pym tried. He told Axel he had had a windfall from his father and wouldn’t it be fun to put on disguise again like the time they called on Thomas Mann? Axel shook his head with a wisdom Pym dared not explore. After that Pym studied and strove for Axel in every way he knew, now denying to himself that Brotherhood existed anywhere but in his mind, now congratulating himself on Axel’s continued survival, which was owed entirely to Pym’s nimble manipulation of irresistible forces.
They came in the small hours of a spring morning, just when we fear them most: when we want to live the longest and are most afraid of dying. Soon, unless I make their journey unnecessary, they will come for me in the same way. If so, I trust I shall see the justice of it and relish the circularity of life. They had acquired a key to the front door and some method of detaching Herr Ollinger’s chains which were not unlike Miss Dubber’s. They knew the house inside out because they had been watching it for months, photographing our visitors, sending in their bogus meter men and window cleaners, delaying the mail while they read it and no doubt listening to Herr Ollinger’s forlorn telephone conversations with his creditors and lame ducks. Pym knew there were three of them because he could count their stealthy Father Christmas footsteps on the squeaky top stair. They looked in the lavatory before they placed themselves outside Axel’s door. Pym knew this because he heard the lavatory door squeak and stay open. He also heard a rattle as they removed the lavatory-door key in case their desperate criminal should attempt to lock himself inside. But Pym could do nothing personally because at the time he lay deeply dreaming in all the scared beds of his childhood. He dreamt about Lippsie and her brother Aaron and how he and Aaron together had pushed her off the rooftop at Mr. Grimble’s school. He dreamt that an ambulance was waiting outside the house like the one that called at The Glades for Dorothy, and that Herr Ollinger was trying to stop the men coming up the stairs but was being ordered back to his quarters in a fury of Swiss dialect. He dreamt that he heard a shout of “Pym, you bastard, where are you?” from the direction of Axel’s room and directly afterwards the awful brief thundering noise of a man with uneven legs struggling against three healthy intruders and the furious opposition of Bastl whom Axel had once accused of being his Faustian Devil. But when he lifted his head from the pillow and listened to the real world, there was silence and everything was absolutely fine.
I held it against you, Jack, I confess. I argued with you in my head for years, uphill, downhill, and long after I had joined the Firm. Why had you done it to him? He wasn’t English, he wasn’t a Communist, he wasn’t the war criminal the Americans claimed he was. He was nothing to do with you. His only crimes were his poverty, his illegal presence and his lameness—plus a certain freedom in his way of thinking, which in the eyes of some is what we are there to protect. But I did nurse a grudge and I’m sorry. Because now of course I know you hardly gave it a thought. Axel was another bit of barter material. You wrote him up; he came back into your in-tray looking formidable and sinister in Wendy’s flawless type. You lit your pipe and admired your handiwork, and you thought: Hullo, I’ll bet the old Swissies will like a smell of this one; I’ll pop it down to them and earn myself a Brownie point. You made a phone call or two and invited some contact in the Swiss Security Service to join you for an extended luncheon at your favourite restaurant. Over the coffee and the schnapps you slipped him an anonymous brown envelope. As an afterthought you slipped a copy to your American colleague too, because if you’re going to earn one favour, why not earn a second while you’re about it? After all, it was the Yanks who put him in the cooler, even if they got his record wrong.
You were junior then, too, weren’t you? You had your way to make. As we all have. Maturer now, both of us. Sorry to be so lengthy in the remembering, but the episode took me rather a long time to forget. I’ve got it straight now. Served me right for having a friend outside the service.
“Mr. Canterbury! Mr. Canterbury! You’ve got a man!”
Pym had put down his pen. He had not looked towards the door. Almost before he was aware of it, he had leapt to his slippered feet and was flying across the room to where the metal-lined black briefcase, still locked, stood against the wall. Dropping to a crouch beside it, he inserted the complicated key in the first lock and sprung it. Then the second: anti-clockwise or it fires.
“What man’s that, Miss D?” he said in his softest and most reassuring tone, one hand already in the case.
“With a cabinet, Mr. Canterbury,” Miss Dubber replied with disapproval through the keyhole. “You’ve never had a cabinet before. You’ve never had anything. You’ve never locked your door either. What’s wrong?”
Pym laughed. “Nothing’s wrong. It’s just a cabinet. I ordered it. How many of them are there?”
Taking the briefcase with him, he tiptoed to the window and squared his back against the wall while he squinted cautiously through the gap in the curtain.
“Just one—isn’t that enough? A great green ugly one made of iron. If you’d wanted a cabinet why didn’t you tell me? You could have had Mrs. Tutton’s cupboard from room two.”
“I meant how many men?”
It was daylight. A yellow taxi-truck was parked outside the house, the driver at the wheel. He glanced round the rest of the square. Fast. Checking everything. Then slowly. Checking everything again.
“What does it matter how many men, Mr. Canterbury? Why do we have to count the men when it’s a cabinet?”
Relaxing, Pym replaced the briefcase in its corner and relocked it. Clockwise or it fires. He returned the keys to his pocket. He opened the door.
“Sorry, Miss D. I think I must have been dozing.”
She watched him down the stairs, then went after him and watched again as he looked first at the two men, then shyly at the green cabinet, l
ightly touching its chipped paintwork, up and down, tugging at each drawer in turn.
“It’s a bloody weight, governor, I’ll tell you,” said the first.
“Who’s it got in it then?” said the second.
She watched him lead the men up to his room, the cabinet between them, and lead them down again. She watched him pay their bill in cash from his back pocket, and give them an extra five pounds for themselves.
“Sorry about that, Miss D,” he said as they drove off. “Some old Ministry archives I’m working on. Here. This is for you.” He handed her a travel brochure he had brought down with him from his room. There was a whiff of Rick about the capitals. “Discover Tunisia in the Luxury of our air-conditioned Coach. Seniors a Speciality. Shades of the East in the Mediterranean. Enough to make your mouth Water.”
But Miss Dubber would not accept the brochure. “Toby and I aren’t going anywhere any more, Mr. Canterbury,” she said. “Whatever’s troubling you won’t go away with us. That’s for sure.”
Brotherhood had bathed and shaved and cut himself and put on a suit. He had listened to the news on the BBC and afterwards tuned to the Deutsche Welle because sometimes the foreign press got hold of stories while Fleet Street was still obediently suppressing them. But he had heard no lighthearted mention of a senior officer of the British Secret Service going walkabout or turning up in Moscow. He had eaten a piece of toast and marmalade, he had made a few phone calls but six till eight of an English morning were the dead hours when nobody except himself was about. On a normal day he would have walked across the park to Head Office and given himself a couple of hours at his desk reading the night’s crop of Station reports and preparing himself for the ten-o’clock prayer session in Bo’s sanctum. “So how’s our Eastern Front this rainy morning, Jack?” Bo would say in a tone of jokey veneration, when Brotherhood’s turn came round. And a respectful quiet would follow while the great Jack Brotherhood gave his chief the score. “Some quite nice stuff from Conger on the Comecon trading figures for last year, Bo. We’ve sent it up to Treasury by special bag. Otherwise it’s the silly season. Joes are on holiday, so’s the opposition.”
But this was not a normal day and Brotherhood was no longer the grand old man of covert operations that Bo cracked him up to be when he introduced him to visiting firemen from Western liaison services. He was the latest unperson in the latest looming scandal and, as he stepped into the street below his flat, his quick gaze was more than usually vigilant. It was eight-thirty. First he headed south across Green Park, walking as fast as ever and perhaps a little faster, so that Nigel’s watchers, if they were on him, would either have to gallop or radio for somebody to get ahead of him. The night’s rain had stopped. Warm, unhealthy mist hung over the ponds and willows. Reaching the Mall he hailed a cab and told the driver Tottenham Court Road. He walked again and took a second cab to Kentish Town. His destination was a grey hillside of Victorian villas. The lower reaches were still run down, their windows plugged with corrugated iron against squatters. But higher up Volvo estate cars and teak-framed dormer windows testified to the safe arrival of the middle classes, and the long gardens boasted coloured climbing frames and half-made dinghies. Here Brotherhood was no longer in a hurry. He trudged up the hill slowly, noting everything at his leisure: this is the pace I have earned in life, this is the smile. A pretty girl passed him on her way to work and he greeted her indulgently. She winked pertly back at him, proving for all time that she was not a watcher. At number 18 he paused and in the manner of a prospective purchaser stood back and surveyed the house. Bach and a smell of breakfast issued from the ground-floor kitchen. A wooden arrow marked “18A” pointed down the basement steps. A man’s bicycle was chained against the railings, a poster for the Social Democratic Party hung in the bay window. He pressed the bell. A girl in a blazer opened the door to him. At thirteen she already wore an air of superiority.
“I’ll get Mummy,” she said before he could speak, and turned sharply so that he could watch her skirt swing. “Mummy. It’s a man. For you,” she said and, sweeping past him down the steps, set off for her decent school.
“Hullo, Belinda,” Brotherhood said. “It’s me.”
Coming out of the kitchen, Belinda paused at the foot of the stairs, drew a breath and yelled up them at a closed door. “Paul! Come down at once, please. Jack Brotherhood is here. I assume he wants something.”
Which more or less was what he knew she’d shout—though not quite so loud—because Belinda had always reacted badly first and put it right rather sweetly later.
They sat in a pine drawing-room on low basketwork chairs that creaked like swings when you moved. A gigantic lampshade of white paper rocked crookedly above them. Belinda had made coffee in hand-thrown mugs and sweetened it with natural sugar. Her Bach still played defiantly in the kitchen. She was dark-eyed and angry about something in her childhood—at fifty her face was still set ready for another quarrel with her mother. She had greying hair bound in a sensible bun and wore a necklace of what looked like nutmeg. When she walked, she waded through her kaftan as if she hated it. When she sat, she spread her knees and scraped at the knuckles of one hand. Yet her beauty clung to her like an identity she was trying to deny and her plainness kept slipping like a bad disguise.
“They’ve already been here in case you don’t know, Jack,” she said. “At ten at night as a matter of fact. They were waiting for us on the doorstep when we got back from the cottage.”
“Nigel. Lorimer. Two more I didn’t know. All men, of course.”
“What did they say they were here for?” Brotherhood asked, but Paul stopped him.
You could never be angry with Paul. He smiled so wisely through his pipe smoke even when he was being rude. “What is this actually, Jack?” he said, taking his pipe from his mouth and lowering it until it became a hand microphone. “Interrogations about interrogations? You people have no constitutional position, you know, Jack. You’re only a chartered body even under this government, I’m afraid.”
“You probably don’t know it, but Paul has written extensively on the rise and rise of the para-military services under the Tories,” Belinda said in a voice that struggled to be harsh. “You’d know if you’d bother to read The Guardian, but you don’t. They gave him a whole page for the last one.”
“So screw you actually, Jack,” said Paul just as pleasantly.
Brotherhood smiled. Paul smiled. An old English sheepdog wandered in and settled at Brotherhood’s feet.
“Do you want to smoke, by the way?” said Paul, ever sensitive to people’s needs. “I’m afraid Belinda draws the line at fags but I can offer you a nifty little brown one if you’re pushed.”
Brotherhood pulled out a packet of his foul cigarettes and lit one. “Screw you too, Paul,” he said equably.
Paul had peaked early in life. Twenty years ago he had written promising plays for fringe theatres. He wrote them still. He was tall but reassuringly unathletic. Twice, to Brotherhood’s knowledge, he had applied to join the Firm. Each time he had been turned down flat, even without Brotherhood’s intervention.
“They came here because they were vetting Magnus for a top appointment, if you want to know,” Belinda said all in one breath. “They were in a hurry because they wanted to promote him immediately so that he could get on with the job.”
“Nigel?” Brotherhood echoed with an incredulous laugh. “Nigel and Lorimer plus two other men? Doing their own vetting at ten o’clock at night? You’ve got half the brass of secret Whitehall on your doorstep there, Bel. Not a vetting team of old crocks on half pay.”
“It’s a senior appointment so he has to be vetted by senior people,” Belinda retorted, blushing scarlet.
“Did Nigel tell you that?”
“Yes, he did!” said Belinda.
“Did you believe it?”
But Paul had decided it was time to show his mettle. “Actually, fuck off will you, Jack?” h
e said. “Get out of the house. Now. Darling, don’t answer him. It’s all too theatrical and stupid for words. Come on, Jack. Out. You’re welcome for a drink any time, as long as you phone first. But not for this nonsense. Sorry. Out.”
He had opened the door and was flapping his big soft hand as if scooping water but neither Brotherhood nor the sheepdog stirred.
“Magnus has jumped ship,” Brotherhood explained to Belinda, while Paul put on his I-can-be-violent glower. “Nigel and Lorimer sold you a load of cock. Magnus has bolted and gone into hiding while they cook up a case against him as the big traitor of the Western world. I’m his boss so I’m not quite as enthusiastic as they are. I think he’s strayed but not lost and I’d like to get to him first and talk to him.” Addressing Paul, he didn’t even bother to turn his head. He just lifted it far enough to make the difference. “They’ve put a muzzle on your editor for the time being, same as everybody else, Paul. But if Nigel has his way, in a few days’ time your colleagues will be plastering Belinda’s previous marriage all over their nasty little columns and taking your picture every time you go to the launderette. So you’d better start thinking about how to get your act together. In the meantime, fetch us some more coffee and leave us in peace for an hour.”