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A Perfect Spy
John le Carré
A Perfect Spy 36
“Make that two, will you, sport?” a breezy voice told the barman. “Uncle’s in the chair today. How are you? What about over there in the corner? Don’t forget your paper.”
I won’t give you much of our courtship, Jack. When two people have decided to go to bed with each other, what passes between them before the event is a matter of form rather than of content. Nor do I remember very clearly what justifications we cooked up, for Michael was a shy man who had spent most of his life at sea, and his rare snatches of philosophy came out of him like escaping steam signals while he pummelled his mouth with a check handkerchief. “Somebody’s got to dredge the drains, o’ boy—fire with fire, only way. Unless we want the buggers to steal the ship from under us, which I don’t, thank you.” This last being a tensely underplayed statement of personal faith, which he at once smothered with a swig of beer. Michael was the first of your surrogates, Jack, so let him do duty for the rest. After Michael, if I remember, came David, and after David an Alan, and after Alan I forget. Pym would see no flaw in any of them. Or if he did, he translated it at once into a fiendishly clever piece of deception. Today of course I know the poor souls for what they were: members of that large, lost family of the British unprofessional classes that seems to wander by right between the secret services, the automobile clubs and the richer private charities. Not bad men by any means. Not dishonest men. Not stupid. But men who see the threat to their class as synonymous with the threat to England and never wandered far enough to know the difference. Modest men, practical, filling in their expense accounts and collecting their salaries, and impressing their Joes with their quiet expertise beneath the banter. Yet still, in their secret hearts, nourishing themselves on the same illusions that in those days nourished Pym. And needing their Joes to help them do it. Worried men, touched with an odour of pub meals and club squash, and a habit of looking round them while they paid, as if wondering whether there was a better way to live. And Pym, as he was passed from hand to hand, did his best to honour and obey each one of them. He believed in them; he cheered them with witty stories from his ever-increasing store. He strained to give them treats and make their day exciting. And when it was time for them to go he was always careful to have saved for them some last nugget of information to take home to their parents, even if he sometimes had to make it up.
“How’s the colonel?” Pym ventured one day, belatedly recalling that Michael was still officially the stand-in for a Colonel Gaunt.
“Not a question I ever ask, personally, old boy,” said Michael and to Pym’s surprise began snapping his fingers as if he were summoning a dog.
Did Rob Gaunt exist? Pym never met him and later, when he was in a better position to ask, he could find nobody who would admit to having heard of him.
Now the brown envelopes flow in thick and fast, often two or three a week. The college porter grows so used to them he chucks them into Pym’s pigeonhole without reading the address and Pym has to gouge out the centre of another dictionary to accommodate them. Always they contain instructions, and sometimes they contain small sums of cash, which the Michaels call his hard-lying money. Better still is Pym’s float for operational expenses, which is kept at a fabulous twenty pounds: to entertaining secretary O. U. Hegelian Society, seven and ninepence . . . contribution to Peace in Korea campaign, five shillings . . . bottle of sherry for Society of Cultural Relations with the USSR get-together, fourteen shillings . . . coach trip to Cambridge for good-will visit to C.U. Branch members, plus entertainment, one pound fifteen shillings and ninepence. At first Pym is timid of these claims, fearing that by making them he is straining his masters’ indulgence. The colonel will find someone cheaper, someone richer, someone who knows that gentlemen do not count the cost. But slowly he comes to realise that, far from displeasing his masters, his expenditures are taken as evidence of his industry.
“Dear Old Friend,” wrote Michael—observing his own dictum that names must be avoided lest the enemy intercept our correspondence—
“Eleven. Thanks for your Eight safely to hand, a pearl as usual. I took the liberty of passing your rendering of the clans’ latest choral to our lord and master upstairs and I haven’t seen the old boy laugh so much since his aunt caught her left doodah in the you’ve-got-it. Brilliant and informative, dear sir, and be advised that the great man himself remarked upon your perseverance. Now to the usual shopping list.
“1. Are you certain that our distinguished clan treasurer spells his name with a Z and not an S? The Doomsday Book contains an Abraham S, mathematician, late of Manchester Grammar School who fits the bill, but definitely no Z. (Though it’s always possible of course that a gentleman of his tartan spells it both ways anyway . . .) Don’t force it, as the Bishop said, but if Lady Luck pushes the answer your way, let us know. . . .
“2. Please keep your Eversharp ear open for talk about our gallant Scottish brethren getting up a delegation to attend the Sarajevo Youth Festival in July. The powers that be are getting unaccountably miffed about gents who accept large government grants only to oil off abroad and spit on said government’s shadow.
“3. Regarding the distinguished visiting vocalist from Leeds University who is slated to address the clan on March 1st, do please keep an eye and an ear open for his faithful spouse, Magdalene (God bless us!), who by repute is quite as musical as her old man, but prefers to keep her head down owing to her delicate scientific interests. All comments gleefully received . . .”
Why did Pym do it, Tom? In the beginning was the deed. Not the motive, least of all the word. It was his own choice. It was his own life. No one forced him. Anywhere along the line, or right at the start of it, he could have yelled no and surprised himself. He never did. It took another ten university generations before he threw in the sponge, and by then the lines were drawn for good, all the lines. Why chuck away his freedom and good luck, you will ask, his good looks and good humour and good heart, just when they were coming into their own at last? Why befriend a bunch of grimy and unhappy people of alien background and mentality, press himself upon them, all smiling and obliging—because, believe me, there was no glamour to the university Left by then; Berlin and Korea had put paid to that for good—merely in order to be able to betray them? Why sit whole nights away in back rooms among sullen girls from the provinces who scowled and ate nut cutlets and took Firsts in Economics, in order to profess a view of the world that he had to learn as he went along, twisting his mind inside out, killing himself on cheap cigarettes while passionately agreeing that everything that was fun in life was a damn shame? Why do a Father Murgo on them, offering his bourgeois origins for their condemnation, abasing himself, revelling in their disapproval, yet gaining no absolution from it—only to rush off and bang the scales down the other way in a gush of embellished reports of the night’s proceedings? I should know. I have done it and I have made others do it, and I was never less than cogent in my persuasion. For England. So that the free world can sleep safely in its bed at night while the secret watchers guard her in their rugged care. For love. To be a good chap, a good soldier.
Abie Ziegler’s name, whether with a Z or an S, was written, you may be sure, in capitals on every left wing poster in every college lodge of the university. Abie was a publicity-crazed pipe-smoking sex maniac about four feet high. His one ambition in life was to be noticed and he saw the depleted Left as a fast lane to this end. There were a dozen painless ways in which Michael and his people could have found out whatever they wanted about Abie, but Pym had to be their man. The great spy would have walked all the way to Manchester just to look up Siegler or Ziegler in the phone book, such was the drive with which he had flung himself into his secret mission. This is not betrayal, he told himself when he was being the Michaels’ man; this is the real thing. These strident men and women with their college scarves and funny accents who refer to me as our bourgeois friend are my own countrymen planning to upset our social order.
For his country, or whatever he called it, Pym addressed e
nvelopes and memorised the addresses, played steward at public meetings, marched in dispirited processions, and afterwards wrote down whoever came. For his country he took any menial job going if it earned him favour. For his country or for love or for the Michaels, he stood at street corners late at night, offering unreadable Marxist pamphlets to passers-by who told him he ought to be in bed. Then dumped the surplus copies in a ditch and put his own money into the Party kitty because he was too proud to reclaim it from the Michaels. And if occasionally, as he sat up still later writing his meticulous reports on tomorrow’s revolutionists, the ghost of Axel materialised before him and Axel’s cry of “Pym you bastard where are you” whispered in his ear, Pym had only to wave him away with a combination of the Michaels’ logic and his own: “You were my country’s enemy even if you were my friend. You were unsound. You had no papers. Sorry.”
“Hell are you running with all those Reds for?” Sefton Boyd asked drowsily one day, face downward in the grass. They had driven out to Godstow in his sports car for lunch, and were lying in a meadow above the weir. “Somebody told me they’d seen you at the Cole Group. You made a piss-awful speech about the madness of war. Hell’s the Cole Group when it’s at home?”
“It’s a discussion group run by G. D. H. Cole. It explores avenues of Socialism.”
“Are they queer?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, explore somebody else’s avenue. I also saw your nasty name on a poster. College secretary of the Socialist Club. I mean, Christ, you’re supposed to be in the Grid.”
“I like to see all sides,” said Pym.
“They’re not all sides. We are. They’re one side. They’ve pinched half Europe and they’re a band of absolute shits. Take my words for it.”
“I’m doing it for my country,” Pym said. “It’s secret.”
“Bollocks,” said Sefton Boyd.
“It’s true. I get instructions from London every week. I’m in the Secret Service.”
“Like you were in the German Army at Grimble’s,” Sefton Boyd suggested. “Like you were Himmler’s aunt at Willow’s. Like you fucked Willow’s wife and your father carried messages for Winston Churchill.”
A day came, long spoken of and frequently postponed, when Michael took Pym home to meet his family. “Double First material,” Michael warned him in an advance write-up of his spouse. “Mind like a dart. No mercy.” Mrs. Michael turned out to be a ravenous, fast-fading woman in a slashed skirt and a low blouse over an unappetising chest. While her husband did things in his shed, where he appeared to live, Pym inexpertly mixed the Yorkshire pudding and fought off her embraces until he was obliged to take refuge with the children on the lawn. When it rained he marched them to the drawing-room and posted them round him in self-defence while he pushed their Dinky toys.
“Magnus, what are your father’s initials?” Mrs. Michael said bossily from the doorway. I remember her voice, querulous and interrogative, as if I had just eaten her last chocolate instead of refusing to pop upstairs with her to bed.
“R.T.,” said Pym.
She was trailing a copy of a Sunday newspaper in her hand and must have been reading it in the kitchen.
“Well, it says here that there’s an R. T. Pym standing as Liberal Candidate for Gulworth North. He’s described as a philanthropist and property broker. There can’t be two, can there?”
Pym took the paper from her. “No,” he agreed, staring at Rick’s Portrait of Self with Red Setter. “There can’t.”
“Only you could have told us. I mean you’re terribly rich and superior, I know, but a thing like that is jolly exciting if you’re people like us.”
Sick with apprehension Pym returned to Oxford and forced himself to read, if only glancingly, the last four letters from Rick that he had tossed unopened in his desk drawer, next to Axel’s copy of Grimmelshausen and other unpaid bills.
Inside his camel-hair dressing-gown Pym at fifty-three was shivering. It had come over him suddenly, as it sometimes did, a fever without a temperature. He had been writing for as long as he had been awake, which to judge by his beard was a long time. The shiver turned to a shake, which was how it went. It twisted his neck muscles and gnawed at the backs of his thighs. He started to sneeze. The first sneeze was long and speculative. The second followed it like an answering shot. They’re fighting over me, he thought: the good guys and the bad guys are shooting it out inside me. Whoops: O God receive my soul. Whoops: O Lord forgive him, for he knew not what he did. Rising, he held one hand over his mouth and with the other turned up the gas fire. Clutching himself, he began a prisoner’s tour of the room’s perimeter, dipping into his knees with each stride. From a corner of Miss Dubber’s carpet he paced ten feet, made a right angle and paced eight more. He stopped and surveyed the rectangle he had measured. How did Rick endure it? he asked himself. How did Axel? He raised his arms, comparing the cell’s breadth with his own wingspan. “Christ,” he whispered aloud. “I’ll hardly fit.”
Picking up the reinforced briefcase which he had still not opened, he carried it to the fire and sat there, brows drawn, eyes glowering at the flames while the shaking grew more violent. Rick should have died when I killed him. Pym whispered the words out loud, daring himself to hear it. “You should have died when I killed you.” He returned to his desk and took up his pen. Every line written is a line behind me. You do it once, then die. He wrote fast. And as he wrote, he began to smile again. Love is whatever you can still betray, he thought. Betrayal can only happen if you love.
Mary too was praying. She was kneeling on her school hassock with her eyes plunged into the night-time of her palms and she was praying that she was not at school any more but at their little Saxon church in Plush that went with the estate, with her father and brother kneeling protectively to either side of her and their Colonel the Reverend High Anglican vicar barking out his fire orders and rattling the incense like a mess-gong. Or that she was kneeling at her own bedside in her own room in her nightdress with her hair brushed and her bottom pushed out, praying that nobody would make her go to boarding-school again. Yet however much Mary prayed and begged, she knew that she wasn’t going anywhere but where she was: in the English church in Vienna where I come every Wednesday for early service, in common with the usual band of upwardly mobile Christians led by the British Ambassadress and the American Minister’s wife and supported by Caroline Lumsden, Bee Lederer and a heavy contingent of Dutch, Norwegians and also-rans from the German Embassy next door. Fergus and Georgie are roosting in the pew behind me without a pious thought between them, it’s Tom not me who is at boarding-school and it is Magnus not God who is all-pervasive, all-knowing yet invisible and who holds the keys to all our destinies. So Magnus you bastard, if there is any truth left in you at all, do me a favour will you and lean out of your firmament and advise me, of your infinite goodness and wisdom—just for once with no lies, evasion or decoration—what the hell I am supposed to do about your dear old friend from Corfu cricket ground who is sitting not praying in the same pew as myself just across the aisle on the bride’s side—is slender and drooping with a pepper-and-salt moustache and bottleneck shoulders, exactly as Tom described him right down to the cobwebby lines of laughter round his eyes and the grey raincoat wrapped around his shoulders like a cape. For this is neither the first appearance of your grey angel nor the second. It is the third and the most imaginative in two days, and each time that I do nothing about it I feel him draw a step nearer to me, and if you don’t come back soon and tell me what to do, you may very well find us in bed together, because after all, as you used to assure me in Berlin, you can’t beat a little sex for breaking the tension and removing social barriers.
Giles Marriott the English chaplain was inviting all those of a pure heart and humble mind to draw near with faith. Mary stood up, straightened her skirt and stepped into the aisle. Caroline Lumsden and her husband were ahead of her but the ethics of piety required that they greet one another after and not befo
re the Sacrament. Georgie and Fergus stayed firmly in their pew, too high-minded to sacrifice their agnosticism for cover. More likely they just don’t know what to do, thought Mary. Clasping her hands to her chin, she quickly ducked her head again in prayer. Oh God, oh Magnus, oh Jack, tell me what to do now! He is standing a foot behind me, I can smell his stale cigar smoke. Tom had mentioned that too. At the airport, as an afterthought: “He smoked little cigars, Mum, like Dad used to when he was giving up cigarettes!” And he has limped along his pew. He has limped into the aisle. A dozen people or more had fallen in behind Mary, including the Ambassadress, her spotty daughter and a flock of Americans. Yet a limp is a limp and good Christians stop for it and smile and let it go ahead, and there he was behind her, the privileged recipient of everybody’s charity. And still each time the queue takes a pace nearer to the altar he limps as intimately as if he were patting me on the bum. Mary had never known such an insinuating, impudent, flagrant limp in all her life. His merry eyes were burning her back, she could feel them. She could feel her neck burning and her face heating as the moment of divine consummation approached. At the altar rail Jenny Forbes, the Administration Officer’s wife, was genuflecting before retiring to her seat. As well she might, the way she’s carrying on with the new young Chancery guard. Mary stepped forward gratefully and kneeled in her place. Get off my back you creep, stay your own side. The creep did, but by then his softly murmured words were bellowing inside her head like a bullhorn. “I can help you find him. I will send a message to the house.”