A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 41

  Then the jaw went up and the thick hands untied themselves, and one arm struck out towards the Old Nellies in the front while his eyes and voice reached into the darkness at the back.

  “My friends—Peggy, my dear, I still count you as one too—my loyal friends of Gulworth North, I see among you here tonight men and women still young enough to be impulsive. I see others with the experience of life upon them, whose children and grandchildren have gone out into the world to follow their impulses, to strive and make mistakes and overcome them. I want to ask you older people this. If one of these young people—children, grandchildren, or if this son of mine who sits behind me here, poised to collect some of the highest prizes the law of this country can offer—if one of them should ever make a mistake, and pay the price that society exacts, and come home and say, ‘Mum, it’s me. Dad, it’s me’—which one of you sitting here among us tonight is going to slam the door in his face?”

  They were standing. They were calling his name. “Rickie—good old Rickie—you get our vote, Rickie boy.” On the dais behind him we were standing too, and Pym saw through his own tears that Syd and Morrie were embracing each other. For once Rick did not acknowledge the applause. He was casting round theatrically for Pym and calling “Magnus, where are you, son?” though he knew perfectly well where he was. Affecting to find him he seized his arm, raised it and drew him forward, almost lifting him off the ground even as he offered him as champion to the jubilant crowd, shouting “Here’s one, here’s one!” I suppose he meant a penitent who has paid the price and come home, though I’ll never be certain because of the roar, and perhaps he said, “Here’s my son.” As to Pym, he could no longer contain himself. He had never adored Rick more. He was choking and clapping, he was shaking Rick’s hand for them with both of his, bear-hugging him and patting his great shoulder for them and telling him he was crackerjack. As he did so, he thought he saw Judy’s pale face and big pale eyes behind their serious spectacles, watching him from the centre of the crowd. My father needed me, he wanted to explain to her. I forgot where the bus stop was. I lost your phone number. I did it for my country. The Bentley was waiting at the front steps, Cudlove at the door. Riding away at Rick’s side, Pym imagined he heard Judy calling out his name: “Pym. You bastard. Where are you?”

  It was dawn. Unshaven, Pym sat at his desk, not wanting the daylight. Chin in hand he stared at the last page he had written. Change nothing. Don’t look back, don’t look forward. You do it once, then die. A miserable vision assailed him of the women in his life vainly waiting at every bus stop along his chaotic path. Rising quickly he mixed himself a Nescafé and drank it while it was still too hot for him. Then took up his stapler and marker pen and set himself busily to work—I am a clerk, that is all I am—stapling his cuttings and cross-indexing the helpful references.

  Extracts from Gulworth Mercury and Evening Star reporting Liberal Candidate’s fighting stand on Eve of Poll night in the Town Hall. For libel reasons writers omit direct reference to Peggy Wentworth’s accusations, referring only to Candidate’s spirited self-defence against personal attack. Enter at 21a. Bloody stapler doesn’t work. This sea air rusts everything.

  Cutting from London Times giving results of Gulworth North by-election:McKechnie (Labour) 17,970

  Lakin (Cons.) 15,711

  Pym (Lib.) 6,404.

  Semi-literate leader ascribes victory to “miscalculated intervention” of Liberals. Enter at 22a.

  Extract from Oxford University Gazette notifying waiting world that Magnus Richard Pym has been awarded a B.A. Hons. degree in Modern Languages, Class I. No reference to night hours spent studying previous examination papers, or informal exploration of tutor’s desk drawers with the aid of the Michaels’ ever-handy steel dividers. Entered at 23a.

  But actually not entered at all, for in the act of marking this cutting, Pym set it down before him and stared at it, head in hands, with an expression of revulsion.

  Rick knew. The bastard knew. His head still between his hands, Pym returns himself to Gulworth later the same night. Father and son are riding in the Bentley, their favourite place. The Town Hall lies behind them, Mrs. Searle’s Temperance Rest is approaching. The tumult of the crowd still rings in their ears. It will be another twenty-four hours before the world will learn the name of the winning candidate, but Rick knows it already. He has been judged and applauded for all his life till now.

  “Let me tell you something, old son,” he says in his mellowest and kindest voice. The passing streetlights are switching his wise features on and off, making his triumph appear intermittent. “Never lie, son. I told them the truth. God heard me. He always does.”

  “It was fantastic,” says Pym. “Could you possibly let go of my arm, please?”

  “No Pym was ever a liar, son.”

  “I know,” says Pym, taking back his arm anyway.

  “Why couldn’t you have come to me, son? ‘Father,’ you could have said—‘Rickie’ if you like; you’re old enough—‘I’m not reading law any more. I’m building up my languages because I want the gift of tongues. I want to go out into the world like my best pal, and be heard wherever men gather regardless of colour, race or creed.’ Because do you know what I’d have answered if you’d come to me and said that to your old man?”

  Pym is too mad, too dead to care.

  “You’d have been super,” he says.

  “I’d have said: ‘Son, you’re grown up now. You take your own decisions. All your old man can do is play wicket-keeper while Magnus here bats and God does the bowling.’” He grasps Pym’s hand, nearly breaking the fingers. “Don’t shrink away from me like that, old son. I’m not angry with you. We’re pals, remember? We don’t have to tiptoe round each other looking in one another’s pockets, poking in drawers, talking to misguided women in hotel cellars. We come out with it straight. On the table. Now dry those old peepers of yours and give your old pal a hug.”

  With his monogrammed silk handkerchief the great statesman magnanimously wipes away the tears of Pym’s rage and impotence.

  “Want a good English steak tonight, son?”

  “Not much.”

  “Old Mattie’s cooking us one with onions. You can invite Judy if you like. We’ll all have a game of chemmy afterwards. She’d like that.”

  Raising his head, Pym recovered his marker pen and went back to work.

  Extract of Branch minutes of Oxford University Communist Party regretting departure of Comrade M. Pym, tireless worker on behalf of cause. Fraternal thanks for his tremendous efforts. Entered at 24a.

  Pained letter from Bursar of Pym’s college enclosing his cheque for his last term’s battles, marked “Refer to Drawer.” Similar letters and cheques from Messrs. Blackwell, Parker (Booksellers), and Hall Brothers (Tailors), entered at 24c.

  Pained letter from Pym’s bank manager regretting that following return of cheque drawn in Pym’s favour by the Magnus Dynamic & Astral Company (Bahamas) Ltd., in the sum of two hundred and fifty pounds, he has had no alternative but to refer to drawer the cheques as at 24c.

  Extract from London Gazette dated March 29, 1951, appointing official receiver in yet another petition for bankruptcy of R.T.P. and eighty-three associated companies.

  Letter from Director of Public Prosecutions inviting Pym to present himself for interview on named date in order to explain his relationship with above companies. Entered at 36a.

  Military call-up papers offering Pym sanctuary. Grabbed with both hands.

  “If I could just sit with you for a bit, Miss D,” said Pym, softly pushing open her kitchen door.

  But her chair was empty and the fire out. It was not evening as he had thought, but dawn.


  It was the same dawn. It was time minus ten minutes. It was the moment Brotherhood had lain wakeful and alone for in his rotten flat that was becoming a solitary cell for him, staring at the images of his past in the restless London sky. It was an outdoor game being played by indoor people who didn’t know
they were awake. How many times had he sat like this, in rubber boats, on arctic hillsides, pressing the headphones into his ears with kapok mittens to catch the whisper that meant life was not extinct? Here in the communications room on the top floor of the Head Office there were no headphones, no subzero winds to rip through sodden clothing and freeze the operator’s fingers off, no bicycle generator that some poor bastard had to pump at till his legs failed. No aerial that collapsed on you when you most needed it. No two-ton suitcase to be cached in iron-hard soil while the Huns were breathing down your neck. Up here we have dimpled grey-green boxes freshly dusted, with pretty pin-lights and shiny switches. And tuners and amplifiers. And dials to cut out atmospherics. And comfortable chairs for the barons here assembled to rest their candy arses on. And a mysterious compression of the air that clenches your scalp while you watch the green numerals sliding through their prison window as quickly as the later years of life: now I am forty, now I am forty-five, now I am seventy, now I am ten minutes to being dead.

  On the raised platform two boys in headphones were patrolling the dials. They’ll never know what it was like, thought Brotherhood. They’ll go to their graves thinking life came out of a packet. Bo Brammel and Nigel sat below them like producers at a preview. Behind them a dozen shadows that Brotherhood had barely bothered with. He noticed Lorimer, Head of Operations. He saw Kate and thought thank heaven she’s alive. At the edge of the stage, Frankel was lugubriously reporting a string of failures. His mid-European accent has thickened.

  “Nine-twenty yesterday morning local time, Prague Station has its chief cut-out dial the Watchman household from a callbox, Bo,” he said. “Number engaged. He makes five calls in two hours from round town. Still engaged. He tries Conger. Number out of order. Everybody vanished, everybody out of touch. Midday the Station sends a little girl they own to the canteen where Conger’s daughter goes for lunch. Conger’s daughter is conscious so maybe she knows where her father is. Our little girl is a sixteen-year-old kid, very small, very hardy. She hangs around two hours, checks both sittings, checks the queue. No daughter. She checks the attendance sheets at the factory gate, tells the guards she is the daughter’s room-mate. She’s so innocent they let her. Conger’s daughter is not reported present, is not reported sicklisted. Vanished.”

  In the tension nobody spoke to anybody. Everyone spoke to himself. The room was still filling up. How many people does it take to give a network a decent burial? thought Brotherhood. Eight minutes to go.

  Frankel continued his dirge. “Seven o’clock yesterday morning local time, Gdansk Station puts two of their local boys to mend a telegraph pole at the end of the street where Merryman lives. His house is in a cul-de-sac. He’s got no other way out. Every day normally he goes to work by car, leaves his house seven-twenty. But yesterday his car is not outside his house. Every other day it is parked outside his house. Not yesterday. From where the boys work they can see his front door. The front door stays closed. No Merryman, nobody at all leaves or enters that house by that door. Downstairs is curtained, no lights, no fresh tracks in the drive. Merryman’s good friend is an architect. Merryman likes to take a coffee with him sometimes on his way to work. This architect is not a Joe, he is not whitelisted.”

  “Wenzel,” said Brotherhood.

  “Wenzel is the architect’s name, Jack. One of the boys calls up Mr. Wenzel and tells him Merryman’s mother is ill. ‘Where can I get hold of him to give him this bad news?’ he says. Mr. Wenzel says try the laboratory, how ill? The boy says she’s maybe dying, Merryman ought to get to her fast. ‘Give him this message,’ the boy says. ‘Tell him please that Maximilian says he better get to his mother’s bedside fast.’ Maximilian, that’s the codeword for it’s all over. Maximilian means abort, means run, means get the hell out by any known means, don’t bother with customary procedures, run. The boy is resourceful. When he has ceased to speak to Mr. Wenzel, he calls the laboratory where Merryman works. ‘This is Mr. Maximilian. Where’s Merryman? It’s urgent. Tell him Maximilian got to speak to him about his mother.’ Merryman don’t come in today, they tell him. Merryman got a conference in Warsaw.”

  Brotherhood was already objecting. “They wouldn’t say that,” he growled. “The labs don’t give out details of staff movements. They’re a top-secret installation, for Christ’s sake. Somebody’s playing games with us.”

  “Sure, Jack. My own reaction entirely. You want I go on?”

  A couple of heads turned to locate Brotherhood at the back of the room.

  “When the line to Merryman went dead we instructed Warsaw to try to reach Voltaire direct,” Frankel continued. He paused. “Voltaire is sick.”

  Brotherhood let out an angry laugh. “Voltaire? He hasn’t had a day’s sickness in his life.”

  “His Ministry says he’s sick, Jack, his wife says he’s sick, his mistress says he’s sick. He ate some bad mushrooms, gone to hospital. He’s sick. Official. They all say the same.”

  “I’ll say it’s official.”

  “What do you want me to do, Jack? Tell me something I should do that you would do yourself and I have not done. Okay? It’s a blackout, Jack. Like a silence everywhere. Like a bomb fell.”

  “You said you’d keep filling the letter boxes,” Brotherhood said.

  “We filled for Merryman yesterday. Money and instructions. We filled.”

  “So what happened?”

  “Still there. Money and instructions so much he want. Fresh papers, maps, you name it. For Conger we put up two visuals, one for call us, one for evacuate. One curtain on a first floor, one light in a basement window. Is that correct, Jack? Does that accord with the agreed procedures?”

  “It accords.”

  “Okay. So he doesn’t answer. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write, he doesn’t run.”

  For five minutes there was no sound but the sounds of waiting: the sighing of soft chairs, the striking of lights and matches and the squeaky-soled footsteps of the boys. Kate glanced at Brotherhood and he smiled confidence back. Bo said, “We’re thinking of you, Jack,” but Brotherhood did not reply and he was certainly not thinking of Bo. A bell rang. From the platform a boy said, “Conger, sir, on schedule,” and trimmed some dials. A white pin-light winked above his head. The second boy dropped a switch. Nobody clapped, nobody got to his feet or cried, “they’re alive!”

  “Conger operator’s come in and say he’s ready to send, Bo,” Frankel said gratuitously. Behind him, the boys were moving automatically, deaf to everything outside their headphones. “Now we make our first transmission. We use all tape, no handwriting. Conger does the same. Accelerated Morse, we unroll it both ends. Transmission takes maybe one and a half minutes, two. Unroll and decode takes maybe five.... See that? . . . ‘We are ready to receive you. Talk.’—this is what we say to him. Now Conger is talking again. Watch the red light left, please. It burns, he’s talking—he’s finished.”

  “Wasn’t very long, was it?” Lorimer drawled, not to anyone in particular. Lorimer had buried agents before.

  “Now we wait for the decode,” Frankel told his audience a little too brightly. “Three minutes, maybe five. Time to smoke a cigarette, okay? Everybody relax. Conger’s alive and well.”

  The boys were transferring spools, resetting instruments.

  “Let’s just be grateful he’s alive,” said Kate, and several heads turned sharply, remarking this unaccustomed display of feeling from a Fifth Floor lady.

  The grey spools were rolling, one on to the other. For a moment they heard the unrhythmic piping of Morse code. It stopped.

  “Hey,” said Lorimer softly.

  “Run it through again,” said Brotherhood.

  “What’s happened?” said Kate.

  The boys rewound the spools and switched again to forward. The Morse resumed and stopped as before.

  “Could it be a fault the other end?” Lorimer asked.

  “Sure,” Frankel said. “Possible his winder’s on the blink, possible he hit some bad iono
sphere. In a minute he comes through again. No problem.”

  The taller of the two boys was pulling off his headphones. “Mind if we decode, Mr. Frankel?” he said. “Sometimes when they’ve got a hitch they tell us about it in the message.”

  On a nod from Frankel he shifted a spool to a machine at the far end of the bank. The printer began chattering immediately. Nigel and Lorimer moved quickly towards the platform. The printer stopped. Nigel magisterially ripped out the sheet and held it for Lorimer and himself to read. Brotherhood was already striding down the aisle. Mounting the platform, he snatched the script from their unresisting hands.

  “Jack, don’t,” said Kate under her breath.

  “Don’t what?” Brotherhood said, suddenly out of patience with her. “Don’t care about my agents? Don’t do what exactly?”

  “Tell them to print another copy, will you, Frankel?” Nigel said smoothly. “Then we can all look at it together without shoving.”

  Brotherhood was holding the sheet before him. Nigel and Lorimer had meekly arranged themselves to either side of him and were reading it over his shoulder.

  “Routine intelligence report, Bo,” Nigel announced reading aloud. “Promised length, three hundred and seven groups. Actual length so far forty-one. Subject, restationing of Soviet missile bases in mountains north of Pilsen. Subsource Mirabeau reporting ten days ago. Mirabeau in turn reporting her Soviet Army boyfriend codename Leo—Leo’s done us rather well in the past, I seem to remember. Message reads as follows: Subsource Talleyrand confirms empty low-loaders leaving area—message ends in midsentence. Obviously the winder. Unless, as you say, his signal hit freak conditions.”