A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 45

  “Where’s Gunner Pym?” the colonel barked one day, in the middle of a lecture on the battle of Corunna, and looked up angrily as if someone else had spoken. Every sergeant in the drill hall screamed Pym’s name until he stood.

  “Are you Pym?”


  “See me after this lecture.”


  Company Headquarters lay on the other side of the parade ground. Pym marched there and saluted. The colonel’s aide-de-camp left the room.

  “At ease, Pym. Sit down.”

  The colonel spoke carefully, with a soldier’s mistrust of words. He had a soft honey-coloured moustache and the limpid gaze of an entirely stupid man.

  “It has been put to me by certain people that, assuming you are commissioned, you would do well to attend a certain training course at a certain establishment, Pym.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “I am therefore to submit a personal report on you.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Which I shall do. Favourable, as a matter of fact.”

  “Thank you, sir.”

  “You are keen. You are not cynical. You are not marred, Pym, by the luxuries of peace. You are somebody this country needs.”

  “Thank you, sir.”


  “Yes, sir.”

  “If ever those people you’re mixed up with happen to be looking for a rather fit retired army colonel with a certain amount of je ne sais quoi, I trust you to remember me. I speak some French. I ride decently. I know my wines. Tell them that.”

  “I shall, sir. Thank you, sir.”

  Possessing little in the way of memory, the colonel had a habit of returning to conversations as if they were new to him.


  “Yes, sir.”

  “Pick your moment. Don’t rush in with it. They don’t like that. Be subtle. That’s an order.”

  “I will, sir.”

  “You know my name?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Spell it.”

  Pym did.

  “I’ll change it if they want. They’ve only to let me know. I hear you took a First, Pym.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Carry on.”

  In the evenings, seated beside lonely men, Pym the ever-willing obliged by dictating letters of love to their girlfriends. Where the physical feat of writing eluded them, he acted as their amanuensis, adding personalised endearments to their specification. Sometimes, fired by his own rhetoric, he would burst into song on his own account, in the lyrical style of a Blunden or a Sassoon:“Dearest Belinda,

  “I cannot tell you what fun and simple human goodness are to be found among one’s working-class comrades. Yesterday—great excitement—we drove our twenty-five-pounders to a remote firing range Somewhere in England for our first Shoot, embussing before dawn and not reaching the r.v. till eleven. The slatted seats of a fifteen-hundredweight are designed to split the spine in several places. We had no cushions and only iron rations to munch. Yet the chaps whistled and sang in tremendous spirits all the way, acquitted themselves superbly and endured the journey back with only the most cheerful grumbles. I felt privileged to be one of them and am seriously considering refusing a commission. . . .”

  When a commission came his way, however, Pym contrived without difficulty to accept it, as witness the erogenous hillocks of khaki thread backed on green cloth, one to each shoulder of his battledress, whose existence he covertly confirms whenever the train enters another tunnel. The bare breasts of the peasant girls are his first since the election. With each new valley, he strains his disapproving gaze to see more of them and is seldom disappointed. “We’ll send you to Vienna first,” his commanding officer at the Intelligence Depot had said. “Chance to get the feel of the place before you’re pushed out into the field.”

  “It sounds ideal, sir,” said Pym.

  Austria in those days was a different country from the one we have come to love, Tom, and Vienna was a divided city like Berlin or your father. A few years later to everyone’s lasting amazement the diplomats agreed they wouldn’t bother with a sideshow while there was Germany to squabble over, so the occupying powers signed a treaty and went home, thus notching up the British Foreign Office’s one positive achievement in my lifetime. But in Pym’s day the sideshow was going great guns. The Americans had Salzburg as their capital, the French Innsbruck and the Brits Graz, and everyone had a piece of Vienna to play with. At Christmastime the Russians gave us wooden buckets of caviar and we gave the Russians plum puddings, and there was a story still going the rounds when Pym arrived that when the caviar was served to the men as a prelude to their dinner, a corporal of Argylls complained to the duty officer that the jam tasted of fish. The brains of British Vienna was a sprawling villa called Div. Int., and that was where Second Lieutenant Pym was launched upon his duties, which consisted of reading reports on the movements of everything from Soviet mobile laundries to Hungarian horse cavalry, and pushing coloured pins into maps. His most exciting map showed the Soviet Zone of Austria which began a mere twenty minutes’ drive from where he worked. Pym had only to look at its borders to feel intrigue and danger prickle on his skin. At other times, when he was tired or forgot himself, his eye would lift to the western tip of Czechoslovakia, to Karlovy Vary formerly Carlsbad, the charming eighteenth-century spa once favoured by Brahms and Beethoven. But he knew of no personal connection with the place and his interest was purely historical.

  He lived an odd life those first months, for his destiny did not lie in Vienna, and it seems to me in fanciful moments now that the capital was itself waiting to release him to the sterner laws of nature. Too lowly to be taken seriously by his brother officers, prevented by protocol from mixing with the Other Ranks, too poor to revel in the swagman’s restaurants and nightclubs, Pym floated between his commandeered hotel room and his maps, much as he had floated round Bern in the days of his illegality. And I will admit now but never then that, more than once, listening to the Viennese chattering their zany German on the pavements, or taking himself to one of the struggling small theatres that were cropping up in cellars and bombed houses, he had a pang of nostalgic longing to turn his head and discover a good friend limping at his side. But he knew of none. It is merely my German soul reviving, he told himself; it is the German nature to feel incomplete. On other nights, the great secret agent would take himself on reconnaissance through the Soviet Sector disguised in a green Tyrolean hat he had bought specially for the purpose, to observe from beneath its brim the stubby Russian sentries with their submachine guns posted outside the Soviet headquarters at twenty-yard intervals down the street. If they challenged him Pym had only to show his military pass for their Tartar faces to crack in friendly recognition as they took a pace back in their soft leather boots and tossed up a grey-gloved hand in salute.

  “English good.”

  “But Russian good too,” Pym would insist with a laugh. “Russian very good, honestly.”


  “Tovarich. Kamarad,” the great internationalist responded.

  He would offer a cigarette and take one. He would light them with his big-flamed American Zippo lighter obtained from one of the many clandestine merchants operating inside Div. Int. He would let it glow on the sentry’s features and his own. Then Pym in his goodheartedness had half an urge, though fortunately not the language, to explain that although he had spied on the Communists at Oxford, and was spying on them again in Vienna, he was still a Communist at heart and cared more for the snows and cornfields of Russia than ever he did for the musical cocktail cabinets and roulette wheels of Ascot.

  And sometimes, very late, returning through empty squares to his monkish little bedroom with its army fire extinguisher and photograph of Rick, he would pause, and drink the clean night air in gusts until he was elated, and gaze down misted cobble streets, and pretend that he saw Lippsie walking towards him through the lamplight in her refugee’s headscarf, carryi
ng her cardboard suitcase. And he would smile at her and valiantly congratulate himself that, whatever his outward longings, he was still living in the world inside his head.

  He had been in Vienna three months when Marlene asked him for his protection. Marlene was a Czech interpreter and celebrated beauty.

  “You are Mr. Pym?” she enquired one evening with a civilian’s delightful shyness as he descended the great staircase behind a bevy of high-ranking officers. She wore a baggy mackintosh nipped at the waist and a hat with little horns.

  Pym confessed that he was.

  “You are walking to the Weichsel Hotel?”

  Pym said that he did so every evening.

  “You allow I walk with you, please, once? Yesterday a man tried to rape me. You will guide me to my door? I am not trouble?”

  Soon the intrepid Pym was guiding Marlene to her door each evening and collecting her from it in the mornings. His day unfolded between these radiant interludes. But when he invited her to have dinner with him after payday, he was summoned by a furious captain of Fusiliers who had charge of new arrivals.

  “You are a lecherous little swine, do you hear?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Div. Int. subalterns do not, repeat not, fraternise in public with civilian personnel. Not unless they’ve put a lot more service in than you have. D’you hear?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Do you know what a shit is?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “No, you don’t. A shit, Pym, is an officer whose tie is of a lighter khaki than his shirt. Have you seen your tie recently?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Have you seen your shirt?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Compare them, Pym. And ask yourself what sort of young officer you are. That woman isn’t even cleared above restricted.”

  It’s all training, thought Pym, as he changed his tie. I’m being hardened for the field. Nevertheless it worried him that Marlene had asked him so many questions about himself and he wished that he had not been quite so frank in his replies.

  Not long after this, Pym was mercifully deemed to have got the feel of the place. Before departing he was again summoned by the captain who showed him two photographs. One depicted a pretty young man with soft lips, the other a chubby drunk with a sneer.

  “If you see either of these men you will report that information to a senior officer immediately, do you hear?”

  “Who are they?”

  “Hasn’t anyone taught you not to ask questions? If you can’t find a senior officer, arrest them yourself.”


  “Use your authority. Be courteous but firm. ‘You men are under arrest.’ Then bring them to the nearest senior officer.”

  Their names, Pym learned a few days later from the Daily Express, were Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean and they were members of the British Foreign Service. For several weeks, he continued to look for them everywhere, but he never found them because they had already defected to Moscow.

  So which of us is responsible, Tom, tell me? Is it Pym’s wistful soul or God’s wry humour that contrives to deal him a spell of Paradise before every Fall? I told you of the Ollingers in Bern that it was given to us once only in a lifetime to know a truly happy family, but I had forgotten Major Harrison Membury, formerly of the British Library in Nairobi and one-time officer in the Education Corps, who had strayed by a delicious caprice of military logic into the ragtag ranks of Field Security. I had forgotten his beautiful wife and their many grimy daughters who were Fräulein Ollingers in the making, except that they kept goats and a boisterous piglet in preference to making music, which made mayhem of their military hiring, to the rage of the garrison Administration officer, who was powerless because the Memburys were Intelligence and immune. I had forgotten Number 6 Field Interrogation Unit, Graz, a pink baroque villa in a wooded cleft of hills a mile from the city’s edge. Bunches of telephone cable led into it, aerials desecrated the spired roof. It had a gateway with a gatehouse and a wild-eyed blond mess waiter called Wolfgang who rushed down the steps in a pressed white coat to hand you out of your jeep. But the best thing about it as far as Membury was concerned was the lake, which he spent his days stocking, for he was mad on fish and lavished a sizable part of our secret imprest on encouraging rare breeds of trout. You must imagine a big, genial man, quite strengthless, with the elegant gestures of an invalid. And of a dreamy religious eye and disposition. A civilian to his soft fingertips if ever I met one, yet when I see him now it is always in army battledress with worn suède boots and a webbing belt either above his belly or below it, standing amid the dragonflies at the edge of his beloved lake in the heat of a scorching afternoon, exactly as Pym discovered him on the day he reported for duty, poking a thing like a shrimping net into the water while he muttered shy imprecations against a marauding pike.

  “Oh my goodness. You’re Pym. Yes, well, so glad you’ve come. Look here, I’m going to clear away the weed and drag the whole bed to see exactly what we’ve got. What do you think of that?”

  “It sounds great, sir,” said Pym.

  “I’m so glad. Are you married?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Marvellous. Then you’ll be free at weekends.”

  And I think of him for some reason as one of a pair of brothers, though I don’t recall ever hearing he had a brother. His home-based staff consisted of a sergeant whom I barely remember and a cockney driver called Kaufmann who had a degree in Economics at Cambridge. His second in command was a pink-cheeked young banker named Lieutenant McLaird who was returning to the City. In the cellars, dutiful Austrian clerks tapped telephones, steamed open mail and dumped their unread product in a row of army dustbins which were emptied by the Graz authorities punctiliously once a week because it was a nightmare of Membury’s that some fish-hating vandal would tip them in the lake. On the ground floor he kept his stable of locally recruited lady interpreters who ranged from the maternal to the nubile, and Membury, when he remembered their existence, admired them all. And finally he had his wife Hannah, a painter of trees, and Hannah, as is so often the way with the wives of very large men, was as fragile as a wisp. Hannah made painting attractive to me, and I remember her best seated at her easel in a low white dress while the girls roll shrieking down a grass bank and Membury and myself in bathing costumes toil in the brown water. Even today it is impossible to imagine her as the mother of all those daughters.

  The rest of Pym’s life could scarcely have been more to his liking. For commodities he had Naafi whisky at seven shillings a bottle and cigarettes at twelve shillings a hundred. He could barter or, if he preferred, convert them without effort into the local currency, though it was safest to rely on the services of an elderly Hungarian Rittmeister who sat around Registry reading secret files and gazing lovingly at Wolfgang, much as Mr. Cudlove liked to gaze at Ollie. All of it was familiar, all of it was necessary to Pym for the continuation of his unlived orthodox childhood. On Sundays, he escorted the Memburys to mass and over lunch looked down the front of Hannah’s dress. Membury is a genius, Pym exulted as he moved his desk into the great man’s ante-room. Membury is Renaissance Man made spy. Within weeks he had his own imprest. Within a few more he had a second pip for Wolfgang to sew on his shoulder, for Membury said he looked silly with only one.

  And he had his Joes.

  “This is Pepi,” McLaird explained with a droll smile, over a discreet dinner out of town. “Pepi fought the Reds for the Germans and now he’s fighting them for us. You’re a fanatic anti-Communist, aren’t you, Pepi? That’s why he takes his motorbike into the Zone and sells pornographic photographs to the Russian soldiery. Four hundred Players Medium a month. In arrears.”

  “This is Elsa,” McLaird said, presenting a dumpy Carinthian housewife with four children, in the grill-room of the Blue Rose. “Her boyfriend runs a café in St. Pölten. Sends her the registration numbers and insignia of the Russian lorries that go past his window, doesn’t he, Els
a? All in secret writing on the back of his love letters. Three kilos of medium-roast coffee a month. In arrears.”

  There were a dozen of them and Pym set to work immediately to develop and welfare them in every way he knew. Today when I play them through my memory they are as fine a bunch of neverwozzers as ever came the way of an aspiring spymaster. But to Pym they were simply the best scouts ever and he would see them right if it killed him.

  And I have left till last Sabina, Jack, who like her friend Marlene in Vienna was an interpreter, and like Marlene was the most beautiful girl in the world, plucked straight from the pages of Amor and Rococo Woman. She was small like E. Weber, with broad, fluid hips and intense demanding eyes. Her breasts in summer or winter were high and very strong and, like her buttocks, pushed their way through the most workaday clothes, insistently demanding Pym’s attention. Her features were those of a gloomy Slav elf haunted by sadness and superstition but capable of amazing bursts of sweetness, and if Lippsie had been reincarnated and made twenty-three again, she could have done a great deal worse than take Sabina’s form.

  “Marlene says you are respectable,” she informed Pym with contempt as she clambered aboard Corporal Kaufmann’s jeep, not bothering to conceal her Rococo legs.