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A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 37


  In choral unison the questions were shrieking inside Mary’s head. Send how? A message saying what? To instruct her in the causes of her disloyalty? To explain to her why, as she was leaving yesterday’s International Ladies’ bunfight, she had not flung out an accusing arm at him as he smiled at her from across the street? Why she had not screamed “Arrest that man!” to Georgie and Fergus who were parked not forty feet from the doorway he emerged from—jauntily, no hood was ever like that? Or again when he appeared not six yards from her at Swab’s supermarket?

  Giles Marriott was gazing down at her in puzzlement, offering her for the second time the body of Christ which was given for her. Hastily Mary placed her hands as she had been taught since childhood—right over left and make a cross with them. He laid the wafer on her palm. She raised it to her lips and felt it stick, then lie like a log on her dry tongue. No, I am not worthy, she thought wretchedly as she waited for the chalice. It’s true. I am not worthy to come to this Thy table or anybody else’s table either. Every moment I fail to denounce him is another moment of disloyalty. He is tempting me and I am hearing him for all I am worth. He is drawing me to him and I am saying yes please. I am saying, “I will come to you for the sake of Magnus and my child.” I am saying, “I will come to you if you are clarity, even if you are evil. Because I am searching for a light, any light at all, and going half off my head in the darkness. I will come to you because you are the other half of Magnus, and therefore the other half of me.”

  As she walked back to her seat she caught Bee Lederer’s eye. They exchanged pious smiles.

  11

  There was never a by-election like it, Tom, there was never an election like it. We are born, we get married, we divorce, we die. But somewhere along the way, if we get the chance, we should also stand as Liberal Candidate for the ancient fishing and weaving constituency of Gulworth North situated in the remoter fens of East Anglia in the unlit post-war years before television replaced the Temperance Hall, and communications were such that a man’s character could be born again by removing it a hundred and fifty miles north-east of London. If we do not have the luck to stand ourselves, then the least we can do is drop everything from crypto-Communism to unconsummated sexual exploration and, forgetting the later Minnesänger, hasten to our father’s side in the Hour of his Greatest Test to shiver on icy doorsteps for him, and charm votes out of old ladies in the manner in which he has instructed us, and see them right if it kills us, and tell the world by loudspeaker what a crackerjack fellow he is, and that they will never want for anything again, and promise ourselves, and mean it, that as soon as polling day is over we will forsake all other lives and take our place among the working classes where our hearts and origins have always been, as witness our clandestine espousal of the workers’ cause during the formative years of our studentship.

  It was deep winter when Pym arrived and it is winter still, for I have never been back, I never dared. The same snow lies over the fens and marshes and freezes Quixote’s windmills to a standstill against the cindery Flemish sky. The same steepled towns dangle from the sea’s horizon, the Brueghel faces of our electorate are as pink with zeal as they were those three decades ago. Our Candidate’s convoy, led by the lifelong Liberal Mr. Cudlove and his precious cargo, still bears the message from chalky schoolroom to paraffin-heated hall, skidding and cursing over country lanes while Our Candidate broods and downs another wet, and Sylvia and Major Maxwell-Cavendish fight in undertones over the Ordnance Survey map. In my memory our campaign is a drama tour of the theatre of the politically absurd as we advance across snow and marshland upon Gulworth’s majestic Town Hall itself—hired against all advice from those who said we’d never fill it, but we did—for Our Candidate’s Positively Last Appearance. There suddenly the comedy stops dead. The masks and fools’ bells come clattering to the stage as God in one simple question presents us with His bill for all our fun till here.

  Evidence, Tom. Facts.

  Here is Rick’s rosette of yellow silk that he wore for his great night. It was run up for him by the same luckless tailor who made his racing colours. Here is the centre-page spread from the Gulworth Mercury next day. Read all about it for yourself. CANDIDATE DEFENDS HIS HONOUR. SAYS LET GULWORTH NORTH BE THE JUDGE. See the picture of the podium with its illuminated organ pipes and curving staircase? All we need is Makepeace Watermaster. See your grandfather, Tom, centre stage, hacking at the speckled beams of the spotlights, and your father peeking coyly from behind him, forelock at the slope? Hear the thunder of the great saint’s piety rising into the wagon roof, do you? Pym knows every word of Rick’s speech by heart, every hammy gesture and inflection. Rick is describing himself as an honest trader who will devote “my life for as long as I am spared, and as long as you deem in your wisdom that you require me,” to the service of the constituency, and he’s about five seconds from making a swipe with his left forearm to cut off the heads of the Unbelievers. Fingers closed and slightly curled as ever. He is telling us that he’s a humble Christian and a father and a straight dealer, and he’s going to rid Gulworth North of the twin heresies of High Toryism and Low Socialism, though sometimes in his teetotal fervour he gets them the wrong way round. He also hates excess. It really churns him up. Now comes the good news. You can hear it from the faith in his voice. With Rick as its Member of Parliament, Gulworth North will undergo a Renaissance beyond its dreams. Its moribund herring trade shall rise from its bed and walk. Its decaying textile industry shall bring forth milk and honey. Its farms shall be freed of Socialist bureaucracy and become the envy of the world. Its crumbling railways and canals shall be miraculously cut loose from the toils of the Industrial Revolution. Its streets shall run with liquidity. Its aged shall have their savings protected against Confiscation by the State, its menfolk shall be spared the ignominies of conscription. Pay-As-You-Earn taxation shall go and so shall all the other iniquities that are featured in the Liberal Manifesto which Rick has partly read but believes in totally.

  So far so good, but tonight is our final curtain and Rick has worked up something special. Daringly he turns his back to the punters and addresses his faithful supporters ranged behind him on the dais. He is about to thank us. Watch. “First my darling Sylvia, without whom nothing could have been accomplished—thank you, Sylvia, thank you! Let’s have a big hand for Sylvia my Queen!” The punters oblige with enthusiasm. Sylvia pulls the gracious smile for which she is retained. Pym is expecting to be called next but he is not. Rick’s blue gaze has steel in it tonight, the glow is on him. More voice and less breath to his bombast. Shorter sentences but the champ throws them harder. He thanks the Chairman of the Gulworth Liberal Party and his very lovely lady wife—Marjory, my dear, don’t be shy, where are you?—He thanks our miserable Liberal agent, an unbeliever called Donald Somebody, see the caption, who since the court’s arrival on his territory has retired into a fuming sulk from which he has only tonight emerged. He thanks our transport lady whom Mr. Muspole claims to have favoured in the snooker room, and a Miss Somebody Else who made sure Your Candidate was never once late for a meeting—laughter—though Morrie Washington swears she isn’t safe to be sat with in the back. He passes “to these other gallant and faithful helpers of mine.” Morrie and Syd leer like a pair of reprieved murderers from the back row, Mr. Muspole and Major Maxwell-Cavendish prefer to scowl. It is there in the photograph, Tom, look for yourself. Next to Morrie roosts an inebriated radio comedian whose failing reputation Rick has contrived to harness to our campaign, just as in the last weeks he has wheeled in witless cricketers and titled owners of hotel chains and other so-called Liberal personalities, marching them through town like prisoners and tossing them back to London when they have served their brief span of usefulness.

  Now take another look at Magnus seated on the right hand of his maker. Rick arrives at him last and every word he shouts at him is replete with secret knowledge and reproach. “He won’t tell you himself so I will. He’s too modest. This boy of mine here is o
ne of the finest students of law this country has yet seen and not only this country either. He could hold this speech in five different languages and do it better than I can in any one of them.” Laughter. Cries of “Shame!” and “No, no.” “But that never stopped him from working his feet off for his old man throughout this campaign. Magnus, you’ve been crackerjack, old son, and your old man’s best pal. Here’s to you!”

  But the dinning ovation does nothing to alleviate Pym’s anguish. In the lonely reality of being Pym and listening to Rick resume his speech, his heart is beating in terror while he counts off the clichés and waits for the explosion that will destroy the candidate and his bold tissue of deceptions forevermore. It will blow the wagon roof and its gilded bearings into the night sky. It will smash the very stars that provide the grand finale of Rick’s speech.

  “People will say to you,” cries Rick, on a note of ever-mounting humility, “and they’ve said it to me—they’ve stopped me in the street—touched my arm—‘Rick,’ they say, ‘what is Liberalism except a package of ideals? We can’t eat ideals, Rick,’ they say. ‘Ideals don’t buy us a cup of tea or a nice touch of English lamb chop, Rick, old boy. We can’t put our ideals in the collection box. We can’t pay for our son’s education with ideals. We can’t send him out into the world to take his place in the highest law courts of the land with nothing but a few ideals in his pocket. So what’s the point, Rick?’ they say to me, ‘in this modern world of ours, of a party of ideals?’” The voice drops. The hand, till now so agitated, reaches out palm downward to cup the head of an invisible child. “And I say to them, good people of Gulworth, and I say to you too!” The same hand flies upward and points to Heaven as Pym in his sickly apprehension sees the ghost of Makepeace Watermaster leap from its pulpit and fill the Town Hall with a dismal glow. “I say this. Ideals are like the stars. We cannot reach them, but we profit by their presence!”

  Rick has never been better, more passionate, more sincere. The applause rises like an angry sea, the faithful rise with it. Pym rises with the faithful, pummelling his hands together loudest of us all. Rick weeps. Pym is on the brink. The good people have their Messiah, the Liberals of Gulworth North have too long been a flock without a shepherd; no Liberal candidate has stood here since the war. At Rick’s side our local Liberal Party Chairman is smacking his yeoman’s paws together and rhubarbing ecstatically into Rick’s ear. At Rick’s back, the whole court is following Pym’s example, standing, clapping, rah-rahing “Rick for Gulworth!” Thus reminded, Rick turns to them yet again and, taking his cue from any number of the variety shows he loves, indicates the court to the people, saying: “You owe it to them, not to me.” But once more his blue eyes are on Pym, saying, “Judas, patricide, murderer of your best pal.”

  Or so it seems to Pym.

  For this is exactly the moment, this is exactly where everyone is standing and beaming and clapping, when the bomb that Pym has planted goes off: Rick with his back to the enemy, his face upon Pym and his beloved helpers, half ready, I think, to break into a rousing song. Not “Underneath the Arches,” it is too secular, but “Onward, Christian Soldiers” will be first rate. When suddenly the din takes sick and dies on its feet in front of us, and a freezing silence slips in after it as if somebody has flung open the great doors of the Town Hall and let in the vengeful angels of the past.

  Someone unreliable has spoken from under the minstrel gallery where the press sits. At first the acoustics are so lousy they do not allow us more than a few querulous notes, but already the notes are subversive. The speaker tries again but louder. She is not a person yet, merely a damned woman, with the kind of piping, strident Irish voice that menfolk instinctively detest, wheedling you with its impotence in the same breath as its cause. A man shouts “Silence, woman,” then “Be quiet,” and then “Shut up, you bitch!” Pym recognises the port-fed voice of Major Blenkinsop. The major is a Free-Trader and a rural Fascist from the embarrassing Right of our great movement. But the scratchy Irish voice prevails like a door squeak that will not go away, and no amount of slamming or oiling seems able to silence it. Some tiresome Home-Ruler probably. Ah good, somebody has got hold of her. It is the major again—see his bald head and yellow rosette of office. He is calling her “My good madame,” of all things, and manhandling her towards the door. But the freedom of the press prevents him. The hacks are leaning over the balcony shouting “What’s your name, miss?” and even “Yell it at him again!” Major Blenkinsop is suddenly neither a gentleman nor an officer but an upper-class lout with a screaming Irishwoman on his hands. Other women are yelling “Leave her be!” and “Get your hands off her, you dirty swine.” Somebody shouts “Black and Tan bastard!”

  Then we hear her, then we see her, both clearly. She is small and furious in black, a widowed shrew. She wears a pill-box hat. A bit of black veil hangs from it by a corner, ripped aside by herself or someone else. With the perversity of a crowd, everybody wants to hear her. She begins her question for perhaps the third time. Her brogue comes from the front of the mouth and appears to be spoken through a smile, but Pym knows it is no smile but the grimace of a hatred too powerful to be kept inside her. She speaks each word as she has learned it, in the order she has arranged them. The formulation is offensive in its clarity.

  “I wish to know please—whether it is true—if you would be so kind, sir—that the Liberal Parliamentary Candidate for the Constituency of Gulworth North—has served a prison sentence for swindle and embezzlement. Thank you very much for your consideration.”

  And Rick’s face on Pym while her arrow shoots him in the back. Rick’s blue eyes opening wide on impact, but still steady on Pym—exactly as they were five days ago, when he lay in his ice-bath with his feet crossed and his eyes open, saying, “Killing me is not enough, old son.”

  Come back ten days with me, Tom. The excited Pym has arrived from Oxford light of heart, determined as a protector of the nation to throw his changeful weight behind the democratic process and have some fun in the snow. The campaign is in full cry but the trains to Gulworth have a way of petering out at Norwich. It is weekend and God has ruled that English by-elections be held on Thursdays, even if He has long forgotten why. It is evening: the Candidate and his cohorts are on the stomp. But as Pym alights bag in hand at Norwich’s imposing railway station, there stands faithful Syd Lemon at the barrier with a campaign car plastered with the Pym regalia waiting to whisk him to the main meeting of the evening, scheduled for nine o’clock in the village of Little Chedworth-on-the-Water, where according to Syd the last missionary was eaten for tea. The car’s windows are darkened with posters saying “PYM THE PEOPLE’S MAN.” Rick’s great head—the one, as I now know, that he had quite likely sold—is pasted to the boot. A loudspeaker bigger than a ship’s cannon is wired to the roof. A full moon is up. Snow covers the fields and Paradise is all around.

  “Let’s drive to St. Moritz,” Pym says as Syd hands him one of Meg’s meat pies, and Syd laughs and musses Pym’s hair. Syd is not an attentive driver but the lanes are empty and the snow is kind. He has brought a ginger ale bottle filled with whisky. As they meander between the laden hedges they swallow big mouthfuls. Thus fortified, Syd briefs Pym on the state of the battle.

  “We favour free worship, Titch, and we’re mustard for Home Ownership for All with Less Red Tape.”

  “We always were,” says Pym, and Syd gives him the hairy eyeball in case he’s being cheeky.

  “We take a poor view of ubiquitous High Toryism in all its forms—”

  “Iniquitous,” Pym corrects him, sipping again from the ginger ale bottle.

  “Our Candidate is proud of his record as an English Patriot and Churchman. He’s a Merchantman of England who has fought for his country, Liberalism being the only right road for Britain. He’s been educated in the University of the World, he’s never touched a drop of the hard stuff in his life, nor have you, and don’t forget it.” He grabbed back the ginger ale bottle and took a long, teetotal draught.
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  “But will he win?” said Pym.

  “Listen. If you’d have come in here with ready money on the day your dad announced his intention, you could have had fifty to one. By the time me and Lord Muspole showed up he was down to twenty-fives and we took a ton each. Next morning after he done his adoption you couldn’t get tens. He’s nine to two now and shrinking and I’ll have a small wager with you that come polling day he’s evens. Now ask me whether he’ll win.”

  “What’s the competition?”

  “There isn’t any. The Labour boy’s a Scottish schoolmaster from Glasgow. Got a red beard. Small bloke. Looks like a mouse peering out of a red bear’s backside. Old Muspole sent a couple of the lads round the other night to cheer up one of his meetings. Put them in kilts and gave them football rattles and had them roaring round the streets till morning. Gulworth doesn’t hold with rowdiness, Titch. They take a very poor view of the Labour Candidate’s drunken friends singing ‘Little Nellie of the Glen’ at three in the morning on the church steps.”

  The car slides gracefully towards a windmill. Syd rights it and they proceed.

  “And the Tory?”

  “The Tory is everything a Tory candidate should be with knobs on. He’s a landed pukka sahib who toils one day a week in the City, rides to hounds, gives beads to the natives and wants to bring back the thumbscrew for first offenders. His wife opens garden fêtes with her teeth.”

  “But who’s our traditional mainstay?” asks Pym, remembering his social history.

  “The God-thumpers are solid for him, so’s the Masons, so’s the Old Nellies. The teetotallers are a Cakewalk, so’s the anti-betting league so long as they don’t read the form books and I’ll thank you not to mention the neverwozzers, Titch, they’ve been put out to grass for the duration. The rest are a pig in a poke. The sitting member was a Red but he’s dead. The last election gave him five thousand majority on a straight race with the Tory, but look at the Tory. The total poll was thirty-five thousand but since then another five thousand juvenile delinquents have been enfranchised and two thousand geriatrics have passed on to a better life. The farmers are nasty, the fishermen are broke and the hoi polloi don’t know their willies from their elbows.”