A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 40

  “When did all this happen?” says Pym.

  She tells him the dates, she tells him the day of the week and the hour of the day. She pulls a wad of letters from her handbag signed by Perce and regretting that “our Chairman, Mr. R. T. Pym, is unavailable, being absent indefinitely on a mission of national necessity,” and assuring her that “the documents relating to the Freehold of Tamar Rose are at present being processed with a view to acquiring a large Figure in your interest.” And she watches him with her mad cold eyes as he reads them by the light of a street lamp while they sit huddled on a broken bench. She takes back the letters and returns them to their envelopes lovingly, careful of the edges and the folds. As she continues talking, Pym wants to close his ears or slap a hand over her mouth. He wants to get up and run to the sea-wall and throw himself over. He wants to scream “Shut up!” But all he does is ask her, please, I beg you, if you would be so kind, don’t continue with your story.

  “Why not, pray?”

  “I don’t want to hear it. It’s not my business, this part. He robbed you. The rest doesn’t make any difference,” says Pym.

  Peggy doesn’t agree. She is flailing her Irish back with her Irish guilt and using Pym’s presence as the excuse to do it. She is talking in a gush. It is what she has been waiting to tell him best.

  “And why not—seeing as the bloody man possesses you anyway? If he’s already got his filthy arms around you sure as if he had you in his fancy bed with the frills and the fancy mirrors”—it is Rick’s bedroom in Chester Street she is describing—“seeing as he’s already got the power of life and death over you and you’re a foolish lonely woman in the world with a sickly boy to care for and a bankrupt farm to mind, and not a soul but the stupid bailiff to say nice day to for a week at a time?”

  “It’s enough to know he’s done you wrong,” Pym insists. “Please, Peggy. The rest is private.”

  “Seeing as he can beckon you up to London first-class, send the tickets, just with a flick of his fingers the moment he gets back from his national necessity, because he thinks you’re going to put the lawyers on him? Well, you go, don’t you? If you haven’t had a man for two years and more and only your own body to look at withering in the mirror every day, you go!”

  “I’m sure you do. I’m sure there was every reason,” Pym says. “Please don’t tell me any more.”

  She is doing Rick’s voice again: “‘ Let’s sort this matter out once and for all, Peggy my dear. I’m not having a sour bit of business come between us when all I ever wanted was to see you right.’ Well, you go, don’t you?” Her voice is echoing in the empty square and out over the water. “My God, you go. You pack your bag, you take your boy and lock the door because you’re off to get your money and some justice. You scurry up there bursting to have the fight of your life just the moment you set eyes on him. You leave the washing and the dishes and the milking and the penny-pinching life he’s put you to. And you tell the stupid bailiff to mind the shop for you, me and Alastair we’re going up to London. And when you arrive, instead of a business conference with Mr. Percy Loft and Mr. Bloody Muspole and the gang of them, the man buys you fine clothes in Bond Street and treats you like a princess, with the limousines and the restaurants and the fancy petticoats and silks—well you can always have your row with him later, can’t you?”

  “No,” says Pym. “You can’t. You’ve got to have it then or never.”

  “If he’s trodden you into the mud these years the least you can do is get a bit back from him, in exchange for all the misery, take him for every penny he’s robbed you of.” Yet again she does Rick’s voice: “‘ I always fancied you, Peggy, you know that. You’re a good scout, the best. Always had my eye on that pretty Irish smile of yours and not only the smile either.’ So all right, he’s got a treat prepared for the boy as well. Takes him to the Arsenal and we sit up there like gods in the special box with the lords and grandees, and dinner at Quaglino’s after, him the People’s Man, with a two-foot cake with the boy’s name written on it, you should see Alastair’s face. And next day a Harley Street specialist laid on to listen to his cough and a gold watch for the boy after, for being the brave one, with his initials on it, ‘From RTP to a fine young man.’ Come to think of it, it’s not at all unlike the one you’re wearing now—is that a gold one too? So when a man’s done all that for you and been a bastard—well you have to admit to yourself after a couple of days of it, there’s many worse bastards than him in the world. Most of them wouldn’t split their bloody Bath bun with you, let alone a two-foot cake at Quaglino’s and somebody to take the boy home to bed after, so that the grown-ups can go to a nightclub and have a bit of fun—why not if he always fancied me? There’s not many women wouldn’t put off a fight for a day or two for some of that, I suppose—so why not?”

  She is speaking as if Pym is no longer there and she is right. She has deafened him but he can still hear her. As I hear her still, an endless, needling babble of destruction. She is speaking to the derelict cattle market with its broken pens and stopped clock, but Pym is numb and dead and anywhere but here. He is in the Overflow House at his prep school and Rick’s raised voice and Lippsie’s weeping keep waking him in his sleep. He is on Dorothy’s bed at The Glades and bored to bloody death, with his head against her shoulder staring at the white sky through the window all day long. He is in an attic somewhere in Switzerland, wondering to God why he has killed his friend to please an enemy.

  She is describing Rick’s madness with her own. Her voice is a nagging, querulous torrent and he hates it to distraction. The way the man boasted. He’d not a foot on the earth when he started with his lying. How he had been Lady Mountbatten’s lover and she’d assured him he was better than Noël Coward. How they’d wanted him for Ambassador in Paris but he’d turned it down; he’d no patience with the airy-fairies. And about the stupid green filing cabinet with his rotten secrets in it, imagine the madness of a fellow who spends his hours weaving the rope they ought to hang him with! How he’d led her barefoot to it in her nightdress, look at this my child. The record, he called it. All the rights and the wrongs he’d done. All the evidence of his innocence—his bloody righteousness. How, when he was judged, as judged he would surely be, everything in this stupid cabinet would be put into the balance, rights and wrongs together, and we would see him for what he was, up alongside of the angels while us poor sinners down here bleed and starve for the glory of him. It’s what he’s put together to con the Almighty with and that’s the short of it—imagine the impertinence, and him a bloody Baptist too!

  Pym asks her how she has known where to find it. I saw the stupid thing being delivered, she says. I was keeping a watch on Searle’s hotel the first day of the campaign. The pansy Cudlove drove it up specially in his limousine, the cost alone. The bastard Loft helped him carry it to the cellar, first time he’s got his hands dirty. Rick didn’t dare leave it in London while they were all up here. “I have to put the proof on him, Magnus,” she keeps repeating as he leads her through the dawn to her miserable lodging-house, her voice whining and insisting in his ear like a machine that nobody can stop. “If he’s got the proof there like he says, I’ll have it off of him and turn it back on him, I swear I will. All right, I’ve taken a drop of money off him, it’s true. But what’s the money when he’s cheated me in love? What’s the money when he can walk down the street a grandee and there’s my John rotting in his grave? And the people in the street all clapping for him, for Rickie boy? And con his way to Heaven into the bargain? What’s the use of a poor deluded victim like me who let him have his will with her and will burn in Hell for it, if she won’t do her duty by the world and point him up for the devil that he is? Where’s the proof? I’m asking.”

  “Please stop,” said Pym. “I know what you want.”

  “Where’s the justice? If he’s got it there I’ll have it from him, thank you. I’ve no letters above a couple of procrastinators from Perce Loft, and what do they say? It’s like trying to n
ail a raindrop to the wall, I tell you.”

  “Try to be calm now,” Pym said. “Please.”

  “I took myself to that stupid Lakin, the Tory. Half a day it took of waiting but I got to him. ‘Rick Pym’s a shark,’ I tell him. What’s the good of telling that to a Tory when they’re all sharks anyway? I told the Labour but they kept saying ‘What’s he done?’ They said they’ll enquire and thank you, but what will they find, the poor innocents?”

  Mattie Searle is sweeping the courtyard. Pym is indifferent to his scrutiny. Pym carries himself with authority, using the same walk that got him to Lippsie’s bicycle and past the policeman to the Overflow House. I am authority. I am British. Will you kindly get out of my way.

  “I left something in the cellar,” he says carelessly.

  “Oh yes,” says Mattie.

  Peggy Wentworth’s bandsaw voice is cutting into his soul. What dreadful echoes has it woken in him? In what empty house of his childhood is it nagging and whining at him? Why is he so abject before its dredging insistence? She is the risen Lippsie, speaking out from the grave at last. She is the world inside my head made strident. She is the sin I can never expiate. Put your head in the basin, Pym. Hold these taps and listen to me while I explain why no punishment will ever be enough for you. Put him on bread and water, his father’s child. Why do you wet your bed, old son? Don’t you know there’s a thousand quid in cash waiting for you at the end of your first dry year? He switches on the committee-room lights, throws open the door to the cellar steps and stomps heavily down them. Cardboard boxes. Commodities. A glut to fill the shortages. The Michaels’ dividers to the fore again, better than a Swiss penknife. He trips the lock of the green cabinet and pulls out the first drawer as the glow begins to spread over him.

  Lippschitz first name Anna, two volumes only. Why Lippsie, it’s you at last, he thinks calmly. Well it was a short life, wasn’t it? No time now, but rest where you are and I’ll come back and claim you later. Watermaster Dorothy, Marital, one volume only. Well it was a short marriage too, but wait for me, Dot, for I’ve other ghosts I must attend to first. He closes the first drawer and pulls open the second. Rick, you bastard, where are you? Bankruptcy, the whole drawer full of it. He opens the third. The imminence of his discovery is setting his body on fire: the eyelids, the surfaces of his back and waist. But his fingers are light and quick and agile. This is what I was born for, if I was born at all. I am God’s detective, seeing everybody right. Wentworth, a dozen of them, tagged in Rick’s handwriting. Foremost in his mind Pym has the dates of Muspole’s letter regretting Rick’s absence for his national necessity. He remembers the Fall and Rick’s long healthy holiday while he and Dorothy were sweating out their imprisonment in The Glades. Rick you bastard where were you? “Come on, old son, we’re pals, aren’t we?” In a minute I shall hear Herr Bastl barking.

  He opens the last drawer and sees Rex versus Pym 1938, three fat files, and beside it Rex versus Pym 1944, one only. He pulls out the first of the 1938 batch, replaces it and selects the last instead. He turns to the final page first and reads the judge’s summing-up, verdict, sentence, the immediate disposal of the prisoner. In calm ecstasy he turns back to the beginning and starts again. No camera in those days. No copier, no tape-recorders. Only what you can see and hear and memorise and steal. He reads for an hour. A clock strikes eight but it means nothing to him. I am following my vocation. Divine service is in progress. You women want nothing but to drag us down.

  Mattie is still sweeping the courtyard but his outlines are blurred.

  “Find it then?” says Mattie.

  “Eventually, thanks, yes.”

  “That’s the way then,” says Mattie.

  He gains his bedroom, turns the key in the lock, pulls a chair to the washstand, starts writing at once, from the memory straight on to the paper, not a thought for style. A clock strikes again and once he hears a knock, first timid then louder. Then a soft and pessimistic “Magnus?” before the feet slowly descend the stairs. But Pym is at the heart of things, women are temporarily abhorrent to him, even Judy is irrelevant to his destiny. He hears her feet clip across the forecourt and the sound of her van driving away, slow at first, then suddenly much faster. Good riddance.

  “Dear Peggy”—he is writing—“I hope that the enclosed will be of use to you.”

  “Dear Belinda”—he is writing—“I really must own to being fascinated by this glimpse of the democratic process at work. What seems at first to be such a rough instrument turns out to be equipped with all sorts of refined checks and balances. Do let’s meet as soon as I return to London.”

  “Dearest Father”—he is writing—“Today is Sunday and in four days we shall know our fate and yours. But I do want you to know how much I have learned to admire the courage and conviction with which you have fought your arduous campaign.”

  On the dais, Rick had not moved. His flick-knife stare was still fixed on Pym. Yet he appeared quite calm. Nothing had happened behind him in the hall that could not be dealt with, apparently. His preoccupation was with his son, whom he was regarding with dangerous intensity. He was wearing his statesman’s silver tie that night and a handmade shirt of cream silk with double cuffs and the great big RTP links from Asprey’s. He had had his hair cut earlier in the day, and Pym could smell the barber’s lotion as father and son continued to face each other. Once, Rick’s gaze switched to Muspole and it was Pym’s later impression Muspole nodded to him in some signal. The silence in the hall was absolute. No coughs or creaks that Pym could hear, not even from the Old Nellies whom Rick, as always, had appointed to the front row where they could remind him of his dear mother and his beloved father who had died so many heroes’ deaths.

  At last Rick turned, and advanced towards the audience with the dutiful Goodman Pym walk that so often preceded an act of particular hypocrisy. He reached the table but did not stop. He reached the microphone and switched it off: let no machine come between us at this moment. He went on walking till he had reached the edge of the dais, at the point where it meets the fine curving staircase. He set his jaw, he looked out over the faces, he allowed his features to betray a moment’s soul-searching before he set himself to speak. Somewhere on his way between Pym and the audience he had unbuttoned his jacket. Strike me here, he was saying. Here is my heart. At last, he spoke. His voice higher than usual. Hear the emotion clenching it.

  “Would you mind repeating that question, please, Peggy? Very loudly, my dear, so that everyone can hear?”

  Peggy Wentworth did as she was bidden. But as Rick’s guest now as well as his accuser.

  “Thank you, Peggy.” Then he asked for a chair for her so that she could sit down like everybody else. It was brought by Major Blenkinsop himself. Peggy sat on it in the aisle, obediently, a child in disgrace, waiting to hear some home truths. So it seemed to Pym, and still does, for I have long believed that everything Rick did this night was prepared in advance. If they had popped a dunce’s cap on her head Pym would not have been surprised. I believe they had seen Peggy haunting them and Rick had laid out his mental defences in advance of her, as he had often done before. Muspole’s people could have snatched her for the evening. Major Blenkinsop could have been advised she was not welcome inside the hall. There were a dozen ways in the court’s book to keep a crazed and penniless little blackmailer like Peggy at bay for a crucial night. Rick used none of them. He wanted the trial, as ever. He wanted to be judged and found spotless.

  “Ladies and gentlemen. This lady’s name is Mrs. Peggy Wentworth. She is a widow whom I have known and tried to help for many years, who has been desperately wronged in life, and who blames me for her misfortune. I hope that after this meeting you will all hear whatever Peggy has to tell you, give her every indulgence at your command, show her every patience. And in your wisdom judge for yourselves where the truth may lie. I hope you will show charity to Peggy, and to me, and remember how hard it is for all of us to accept misfortune without pointing the finger of blame.”

  He placed his hands behind his back. His feet were close together.

  “Ladies and gentlemen, my old friend Peggy Wentworth is quite right.” Not even Pym, who thought he knew all the instruments in Rick’s orchestra, had heard him so straight and simple in his delivery, so bereft of rhetoric. “Many years ago, ladies and gentlemen, when I was a very young man, striving to get on in life—as we all were once, overeager, ready to cut a few corners—I found myself in the position of the office boy who had borrowed a few stamps from the till and been caught before he had a chance to put them back. I was a first offender, it is true. My mother, like Peggy Wentworth here, was a widow. I had a great father to live up to and only sisters in the family. The responsibilities that weighed upon me, I will admit, blew me across the borders of what Justice, in her blind wisdom, deemed right. Justice exacted her penalty. I paid it in full measure. As I shall pay for it all my life.”