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A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 35


  University was a conventional sort of place in those days, Tom. You would have a good laugh at the way we dressed and talked and the things we put up with, though we were the blessed of the earth. They shut us in at night and let us out in the morning. They gave us girls for tea but not for dinner and God knows not for breakfast. The college scouts doubled as the Dean’s Joes and ratted on us if we broke the rules. Our parents had won the war—or most people’s had—and since we couldn’t beat them our best revenge was to imitate them. Some of us had done National Service. The rest of us dressed like officers anyway, hoping no one would notice the difference. With his first cheque, Pym bought a dark blue blazer with brass buttons. With his second, a pair of cavalry twill trousers and a blue tie with crowns that radiated patriotism. After that there was a moratorium because the third cheque took a month to clear. Pym polished his brown shoes, sported a handkerchief in his sleeve, and groomed his hair like a gentleman’s. And when Sefton Boyd, who was a year ahead of him, feasted him in the exalted Gridiron Club, Pym made such strides with the language that in no time he was talking it like a native, referring to his inferiors as Charlies, and to our own lot as the Chaps, and pronouncing bad things Harry Awful, and vulgar things Poggy, and good things Fairly Decent.

  “Where did you pick up that Vincent’s tie, by the by?” Sefton Boyd asked him kindly enough as they sauntered down the Broad for a game of shove-ha’penny with some Charlies at the Trinity pub. “Didn’t know you were a boxing blue in your spare time.”

  Pym said he had admired it in the window of a shop called Hall Brothers in the High Street.

  “Well, put it on ice for a bit, I should. You can always get it out again when they elect you.” Carelessly he put a hand on Pym’s shoulder. “And while you’re about it, get your scout to sew some ordinary buttons on that jacket. Don’t want people thinking you’re the Pretender to the Hungarian throne, do we?”

  Once more Pym embraced everything, loved everything, stretched every sinew to excel. He joined the societies, paid more subscriptions than there were clubs, became college secretary of everything from the Philatelists to the Euthanasians. He wrote sensitive articles for university journals, lobbied distinguished speakers, met them at the railway station, dined them at the society’s expense and brought them safely to empty lecture halls. He played college rugger, college cricket, rowed in his college eight, got drunk in college bar and was by turn rootlessly cynical towards society and stalwartly British and protective of it, depending on whom he happened to be with. He threw himself afresh upon the German muse and scarcely faltered when he discovered that at Oxford she was about five hundred years older than she had been in Bern, and that anything written within living memory was unsound. But he quickly overcame his disappointment. This is quality, he reasoned. This is academia. In no time he was immersing himself in the garbled texts of mediaeval minstrels with the same energy that, in an earlier life, he had bestowed on Thomas Mann. By the end of his first term he was an enthusiastic student of Middle and Old High German. By the end of his second he could recite the Hildebrandslied and intone Bishop Ulfila’s Gothic translation of the Bible in his college bar to the delight of his modest court. By the middle of his third he was romping in the Parnassian fields of comparative and putative philology, where youthful creativity has ever had its fling. And when he found himself briefly transported into the perilous modernisms of the seventeenth century, he was pleased to be able to report, in a twenty-page assault on the upstart Grimmelshausen, that the poet had marred his work with popular moralising and undermined his validity by fighting on both sides in the Thirty Years’ War. As a final swipe he suggested that Grimmelshausen’s obsession with false names cast doubt upon his authorship.

  I shall stay here for ever, he decided. I shall become a don and be hero to my pupils. To entrench this ambition he worked up a selective stammer and a self-denying smile, and at night sat long hours at his desk keeping himself awake on Nescafé. When daylight came he ventured downstairs unshaven so that all might see the lines of study etched upon his eager face. It was on one such morning that he was surprised to find a case of vintage port waiting for him, accompanied by a note from the Regius Professor of Law:“Dear Mr. Pym,

  “Yesterday, Messrs. Harrods delivered the enclosed to me, together with a charming letter from your father which appears to commend you to me as my pupil. While it is not my habit to turn away such generosity, I fear that the gesture is better directed to my colleague in the Modern Languages school, since I understand from your Senior Tutor that you are reading German.”

  For half the day, Pym did not know where to put himself. He turned up his collar, wandered miserably in Christ Church Meadows, cut his tutorial for fear of being arrested and wrote letters to Belinda who was working as an unpaid secretary to a London charity. In the afternoon he sat in a dark cinema. In the evening, still in despair, he carted his guilty parcel to Balliol, determined to tell Sefton Boyd the whole story. But by the time he got there he had thought of a better version.

  “Some rich shit in Merton is trying to get me to go to bed with him,” he protested, in the tone of healthy exasperation he had been practising all the way to the gates. “He sent me a Harry great case of port to buy me over.”

  If Sefton Boyd doubted him he did not let it show. Between them they carried their booty to the Gridiron Club where six of them drank it at a sitting, fitfully toasting Pym’s virginity till morning. A few days later Pym was elected a member. When the vacation came he took a job selling carpets at a shop in Watford. A lawyers’ vacation course, he told Rick. Similar to the holiday seminars he had attended in Switzerland. In reply Rick sent him a five-page homily, warning him against airy-fairy intellectuals, and a cheque for fifty pounds that bounced.

  A summer term was devoted entirely to women. Pym had never been so in love. He swore his love to every girl he met, he was so anxious to overcome what he assumed would be their poor opinion of him. In intimate cafés, on park benches or strolling beside the Isis on glorious afternoons, Pym held their hands and stared into their puzzled eyes and told them everything he had ever dreamed of hearing. If he felt awkward today with the one, he swore he would feel better tomorrow with the next, for women of his own age and intelligence were a novelty to him and he became disconcerted when they did not assume a subordinate position. If he felt awkward with all of them he wrote to Belinda, who never failed to reply. His love-talk was never duplicated; he was not a cynic. To one he spoke of his ambitions to return to the Swiss stage, where he had been such a runaway success. She should learn German and come with him, he said; they would act together. To another he painted himself as a poet of the futile and described his persecution at the hands of the murderous Swiss police.

  “But I thought they were so terrifically neutral and humane!” she cried, appalled by his descriptions of the beatings he had received before being marched over the border into Austria.

  “Not if you’re different,” Pym said grimly. “Not if you refuse to conform with the bourgeois norm. Those Swissies have two laws that really matter out there. Thou shalt not be poor and thou shalt not be foreign. I was both.”

  “You’ve really been through it,” she said. “It’s fantastic. I haven’t done anything at all.”

  And to a third he portrayed himself as a novelist of the tortured life, with work that he had yet to show his publishers, all stashed away in an old filing cabinet at home.

  One day Jemima came. Her mother had sent her to an Oxford secretarial college to learn typing and go to dances. She was long-legged and distraught like someone always late. She was more beautiful than ever.

  “I love you,” Pym told her, handing her bits of fruitcake in his room. “Wherever I was, whatever I was having to endure, I loved you all the time.”

  “But what were you having to endure?” Jemima asked.

  For Jemima an extra kind of specialness was needed. Pym’s reply took him by surprise. Afterwards, he decided that it had been lying in
wait inside him and leapt out before he could prevent it. “It was for England,” he said. “I’m lucky to be alive. If I tell anyone about it they’ll kill me.”

  “Why ever will they do that?”

  “It’s secret. I swore never to tell.”

  “Then why are you telling me?”

  “I love you. I had to do awful things to people. You can’t imagine what it’s like, carrying secrets like that alone.”

  As Pym heard himself saying this he remembered something that Axel had told him shortly before the end: There is no such thing as a life that does not return.

  The next time he met Jemima, he described a brave girl he had worked with when he was doing his terribly secret work. He had in mind one of those muddy war photographs of beautiful women who win George Medals for being parachuted weekly into France.

  “Her name was Wendy. We did secret missions into Russia together. We became partners.”

  “Did you do it with her?”

  “It wasn’t that kind of relationship. It was professional.”

  Jemima was fascinated. “You mean she was a tart?”

  “Of course she wasn’t. She was a secret agent like me.”

  “Have you ever done it with a tart?”

  “No.”

  “Kenneth has. He’s done it with two. One each end.”

  Each end of what? thought Pym, in rampant indignation. Me a secret hero, and she talks to me about sex! In his despair he wrote Belinda a twelve-pager about his platonic love for her, but by the time her reply came he had forgotten the context of his feelings. Sometimes Jemima came uninvited, wearing no make-up and her hair shoved behind her ears. She lay on the bed and read Jane Austen on her tummy, while she kicked a bare leg in the air or yawned.

  “You can put your hand up my skirt if you like,” she said.

  “I’m fine, thanks,” said Pym.

  Too polite to disturb her further he sat in the chair and read A Handbook of Old High German Literature till she made a grimace and left. For a while after that, she didn’t visit him. He kept glimpsing her in cinemas of which there were seven so he got round them nicely in a week. Always she was with another man and once, like her brother, she had two. Once during this same period Belinda came to stay with her, but told Pym she should keep away from him because it wasn’t fair on Jem. Pym’s need to impress Jemima now took on wild dimensions. He ate his meals alone and looked haunted, but she still didn’t come to him. One evening, passing a brick wall, he deliberately dashed his knuckles against it until they bled, then hurried to her expensive lodgings in Merton Street, where he found her drying her long hair before the electric fire.

  “Who’ve you been fighting?” she asked as she dabbed on iodine.

  “I can’t talk about it. Some things never go away.”

  Laying the fire on its back she cooked him toast while she went on brushing her hair and watching him through the strands.

  “If I were a man,” she said, “I wouldn’t waste my energy hitting anybody. I wouldn’t play rugger, I wouldn’t box, I wouldn’t spy for people. I wouldn’t even ride. I’d save everything I had for fucking, again and again and again.”

  Pym departed, once more smouldering at the frivolity of those who failed to perceive his higher calling.

  “Dearest Bel,

  “Is there nothing you can do for Jemima? I simply cannot bear to see her go to the devil like this.”

  Did Pym know that he had tempted God? Certainly I know it now, this blowy night beside the sea as I try to write it so many years later. Whom else but his Maker was he provoking as he spun his stupid stories? Pym was calling down his fate on himself as surely as if he had begged for it by name in his prayers, and God dealt him the favour as God often did. Pym’s fantasy version of himself waited out there like a decoy that no celestial eye could overlook, and the divine response was lying in his cubbyhole in the porter’s lodge not twenty-four hours later when he came down to see who loved him this Saturday morning before breakfast. Ah! A letter! Blue in colour! Can it be perhaps from Jemima? Or is it from the virtuous Belinda, Jemima’s friend? Is it from Lalage, perhaps—or Polly, or Prudence, or Anne? The answer, Jack, was none of them. It came, like so many bad things, from you. You were writing to Pym from Oman, care of the Trucial-Oman Scouts, though the stamp was true-blue British and the postmark Whitehall, because it had come to England by bag.

  “My dear Magnus,

  “As you will see from the letter heading, I have abandoned the fleshpots of Bern for harsher fare and am presently attached to the Military Mission here, where life is certainly a little more exciting! I still do the odd spot of church work, and I must say some of these Arabs sing pretty nicely. The purpose of my letter is twofold.

  “1. To wish you all the best with your studies and to repeat my interest in your progress.

  “2. To tell you that I have passed your name to our sister church back in the old country, since I gather they are a bit short of tenors in your region. So if you should chance to hear from a chap called Rob Gaunt, who tells you he is a friend of mine, I trust you will allow him to buy you a meal on my behalf, and make sure he does you proud! Incidentally, he is a Lieutenant Colonel, nominally a Gunner.”

  Pym had not long to wait, though every minute seemed a year. On the following Tuesday, returning from a testing tutorial on the theory of Ablaut, he found a second envelope waiting for him. This one was brown and of exceptional thickness, of a type I never saw in later years. Faint lines ran across it, giving it the appearance of corrugated cardboard though the texture was oily and smooth. There was no crest on the back, no address of sender. Even the manufacturer was secret. Yet Pym’s name and address were immaculately typed, the stamp perfectly centred, and when he probed at the flap in the safety of his room, he discovered that it was stuck down with a rubberised bonding, which smelt of acid drops and parted in sticky threads like chewing gum. Inside lay a single sheet of thick white paper that was not so much folded as ironed. Prising it open the great spy observed at once the absence of a watermark. The type was large, as if for the partially sighted, the alignment faultless:Box 777

  The War Office

  Whitehall S.W.I

  My dear Pym,

  Our mutual friend Jack tells me excellent things about you and I would greatly like the opportunity to get to know you, as there are important matters of mutual interest that you might help us out with. Unfortunately I have a full programme at the moment, and shall be abroad by the time you receive this letter. I wonder therefore whether as an interim measure you would care to have a conversation with a colleague of mine who will be down your way on Monday of next week. If you are willing, why not take the bus to Burford and be in the saloon bar of the Monmouth Arms a little before midday? For ease of recognition he will be carrying a copy of Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, and I suggest you provide yourself with a Financial Times, which has a distinctive pink. His name is Michael and, like Jack, he had a valuable war. I have no doubt the two of you will hit it off famously.

  With all good wishes,

  Yours sincerely,

  R. Gaunt

  (Lt. Col., R.A., ret.)

  For the next five days Pym abandoned work. He paced the back streets of the city, turning in his tracks to see who was following him. He bought a sheath knife and practised throwing it at trees until the blade broke. He wrote a Will and sent it to Belinda. When he entered his rooms he did so with circumspection, never descending or climbing his staircase without first listening for unfamiliar sounds. Where should he hide the secret letters? They were far too precious to throw away. Remembering something he had read, he gouged out the centre of his brand-new copy of Kluge’s Etymological Dictionary to make a nest for them. From then on, his eviscerated Kluge became the first thing his eye fell upon when he returned from his sorties. To buy his copy of the Financial Times without attracting notice, he walked all the way to Littlemore but the village post office had never heard of it. By the time he returned to Oxford e
verything was shut. After a sleepless night he made a dawn raid on the Junior Common Room before anyone was up, and stole a back number from the racks.

  Two buses went to Burford on weekday mornings but the second left him only twenty minutes to find the Monmouth Arms, so he took the first and got there at nine-forty, only to discover that the bus dropped him at the door. In his overalert condition the inn sign with its bold lettering struck him as a breach of national security and he strode past it with averted eyes. The rest of the morning crawled by on feet of lead. By eleven o’clock his notebook was already crammed with the number of every parked car in Burford, as well as copious notes on suspicious passers-by. By two minutes to twelve, duly seated in the saloon bar of the Monmouth Arms, he was seized by panic. Was he in the Monmouth Arms or the Golden Pheasant ? Had Colonel Gaunt said the Horn of Plenty? In the furnace of Pym’s mind these possibilities fused themselves into a brilliant and appalling alloy. He stepped into the forecourt and covertly reread the inn sign before hastening to the outdoor gentlemen’s to throw cold water in his face. Standing at a stall he heard the sound of wind breaking and divined a bulky figure in a navy-blue mackintosh standing at his side. The body was tilted backwards and sideways, the eyes were cast upward in agony. For a frightful moment Pym feared the man was shot, until he realised that these contortions were caused by the difficulties of retaining a thick volume wedged under his armpit. Unable to perform, Pym buttoned himself, hurried back to the saloon and, laying Financial Times on the bar, ordered himself a bitter.