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History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
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Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
A Perfect Spy
John le Carré
A Perfect Spy 48
Needing suddenly to tend his outward appearance, Pym smoothed his hair back in a reflective gesture he was working on. “But you are still proposing to come over to us—assuming that we can offer you the right sort of terms of course?” he asked, with hard-edged courtesy.
Axel waved away such a stupid idea. “I’ve paid my ticket same as you. So it’s not perfect but it’s my country. I’ve crossed my last frontier. They’ve got to put up with me.”
Pym had a sensation of dangerous disconnection. “Then why are you here—if you don’t want to defect—if I may ask.”
“I heard about you. The great Lieutenant Pym of Div. Int., more latterly of Graz. Linguist. Hero. Lover. I was so excited to think of you spying on me. And me spying on you. It was so beautiful to think we were back in our old attic together, just that little thin wall between us—knock, knock! ‘I’ve got to get in touch with this fellow,’ I thought. Shake his hand. Give him a drink. Maybe we can set the world to rights, same as we used to in the old days.”
“I see,” said Pym. “Great.”
“ ‘Maybe we can put our heads together. We are reasonable men. Maybe he doesn’t want to fight any more wars. Maybe I don’t. Maybe we are tired of being heroes. Good men are scarce,’ I thought. ‘How many people in the world have shaken hands with Thomas Mann?’”
“Nobody but me,” said Pym with a burst of real laughter and they drank again.
“I owe you so much, Sir Magnus. You were so generous. I never knew a better heart. I yelled at you, cursed you. What did you do? Held my head when I threw up. Cooked me tea, cleaned the vomit and the shit off me, fetched me books—back and forth to the library—read to me all night. I owe this man, I thought. I owe this man a step or two forward in his career. I should make him a gesture that is painful to me. If I can help him achieve a position of influence in the world, that’s rare, that’s already good. For the world as well as for him. Not many good men achieve a position of influence today. So I’ll play a little trick and go and see him. And shake his hand. And say, thank you, Sir Magnus. And take him a gift to pay my debt to him and help him in his career, I thought. Because I love this man, do you hear?”
He had brought no straw hat filled with coloured packages but from the briefcase at his side he drew a folder and handed it to Pym across the table.
“You have landed a great coup, Sir Magnus,” he declared proudly as Pym lifted the cover. “Took me a lot of spying to get it for you. A lot of risks. Never mind. It’s better than Grimmelshausen, I think. If they ever find out what I’ve done, I can bring you my balls as well.”
Pym closes his eyes and opens them again, but it is the same night in the same barn. “I’m a little fat Czech sergeant who loves his vodka,” Axel is explaining while Pym continues in a dream to turn the pages of his gift. “I’m a good soldier Schweik. Did we read that book? My name is Pavel. Hear me? Pavel.”
“Of course we read it. It was great. Is this genuine, Axel? It isn’t a joke or anything?”
“You think fat Pavel takes a risk like this to bring you a joke? He has a wife who beats him, kids who hate him, Russian bosses who treat him worse than a dog. Are you listening?”
With half his head, yes, Pym is listening. He is reading too.
“Your good friend Axel H, he doesn’t exist. You never met him tonight. In Bern long ago, sure, you met a sickly German soldier who was writing a great book and maybe his name was Axel, what’s a name? But Axel vanished. Some bad guy informed against him, you never knew what happened. Tonight you are meeting fat Sergeant Pavel of Czech Army Intelligence who likes garlic and screwing and betraying his superiors. He speaks Czech and German, and the Russians use him as a dogsbody because they don’t trust the Austrians. One week he’s hanging around their headquarters in Wiener Neustadt playing messenger boy and interpreter, the next he’s freezing his arse off on the zonal border looking for small spies. The week after that he’s back in his garrison in Southern Czecho being kicked around by more Russians.” Axel is tapping Pym’s arm. “See this? Pay attention. Here’s a copy of his paybook. Look at it, Sir Magnus. Concentrate. He brought it for you because he doesn’t expect anybody ever to believe anything he says unless it is accompanied by Unterlagen. You remember Unterlagen? Papers? They are what I didn’t have in Bern. Take it with you. Show it to Membury.”
Reluctantly Pym lifts his eyes from his reading long enough to notice the wad of glossy paper Axel is holding up for him to admire. A photocopy in those days is a big matter: plate photographs, tied into a looseleaf book with bootlaces through the holes. Axel presses it upon Pym and again rouses him sufficiently from the material in the folder to make him study the portrait of the bearer: a piggy, part-shaven little man with puffy eyes and a pout.
“That is me, Sir Magnus,” Axel says, and bangs Pym on the shoulder quite hard to assure his attention, exactly as he used to in Bern. “Look at him, will you? He’s a greedy, grubby fellow. Farts a lot, scratches his head, steals his Commandant’s chickens. But he doesn’t like his country to be occupied by a bunch of sweating Ivans who swagger round the streets of Prague and tell him he’s a stinking little Czech, and he doesn’t like being packed down to Austria at somebody’s whim to play toady to a lot of drunk Cossacks. So he’s brave too, you follow me? He’s a brave little greasy coward.”
Pym again pauses in his reading, this time to register a bureaucratic complaint which later causes him some shame. “It’s all very well inventing this delightful character, Axel, but what am I to do with him?” he reasons in an aggrieved tone. “I’m supposed to produce a defector, not a paybook. They want a warm body back there in Graz. I haven’t got one, have I?”
“You idiot!” cries Axel, pretending to be exasperated by Pym’s obtuseness. “You guileless English baby! Have you never heard of a defector in place? Pavel is a defector! He’s defecting but staying where he is. In three weeks’ time he’ll come here again, bring you more material. He’ll defect not just once but if you are sensible twenty times, a hundred. He’s an intelligence clerk, a courier, a low-grade fieldman, a bottlewasher, a coding sergeant and a pimp. Don’t you understand what that means in terms of access? He will bring you wonderful intelligence again and again. His friends in the frontier unit will help him cross. Next time we meet you will have Vienna’s questions for him. You will be at the centre of a fantastic industry : ‘Can you get us this, Pavel? What does this mean, Pavel?’ If you’re polite to him, if you come alone, bring him a nice present, maybe he’ll answer them.”
“And will it be you—will I see you?”
“You will see Pavel.”
“And will you be Pavel?”
“Sir Magnus. Listen.” Pushing aside the briefcase that lay between them, Axel bangs his glass beside Pym’s and yanks his chair so close that his shoulder is nudging against Pym’s shoulder and his mouth is at Pym’s ear. “Are you being very, very attentive now?”
“Of course I am.”
“Because I think you are so fantastically stupid you better not play this game at all. Listen.” Pym is grinning exactly as he used to grin when Axel was explaining why he was a Trottel for not understanding Kant. “What Axel is doing for you tonight, he can never undo in his whole life. I am risking my bloody neck for you. Like Sabina gave you her brother, Axel gives you Axel. Do you understand? Or are you too shit-stupid to recognise that I am putting my future in your hands?”
“I don’t want it, Axel. I’d rather give it back.”
“It’s too late. I have stolen the papers, I have come over, you have seen them, you know what they contain. Pandora’s box cannot be closed again. Your nice Major Membury—those clever aristos in Div. Int.—none of them ever saw such information. Do you follow this?”
Pym nods, Pym shakes his head. Pym frowns, smiles, and tries to look in every way he can the worthy and mature custodian of Axel’s destiny.
“In return, you must swear me one thing. I told you earlier you must not promise. Now I tell you you must. To me, Axel, y
ou must promise loyalty. Sergeant Pavel, he’s a different matter. Sergeant Pavel you can betray and invent as much as you like—he is an invention anyway. But I, Axel—this Axel here—look at me—I do not exist. Not for Membury, not for Sabina, not even for yourself. Even when you are lonely and bored and you need to impress somebody or buy somebody or sell somebody, I am not a creature in your game. If your own people threaten you, if they torture you, you must still deny me. If they put you on the cross in fifty years from now, will you lie for me? Answer.”
Pym finds time to marvel that after energetically denying Axel’s existence for so long he should be promising him to deny it for still longer. And that it must be a very rare thing indeed to be offered a second chance to prove one’s loyalty after failing so miserably at the first attempt.
“I will,” says Pym.
“What will you?”
“I will keep you secret. I’ll lock you in my memory and give you the key.”
“For always. Sabina’s brother Jan also?”
“For always. Jan too. That’s the whole Soviet Order of Battle in Czechoslovakia you’ve given me,” says Pym in a trance. “If it’s genuine.”
“It’s a little bit old, but you British know how to value antiquity. Your maps in Vienna and Graz are older. And they are not so genuine. You like Membury?”
“I think so. Why?”
“Me too. You are interested in fish? You are helping him to restock the lake?”
“That’s important work. Do it with him. Help him. It’s a lousy world, Sir Magnus. A few happy fish will make it better.”
It was six in the morning when Pym left. Kaufmann had long ago put himself to bed in the jeep. Pym could see his boots sticking over the tailboard. Pym and Axel walked as far as the white stone, Axel leaning on his arm the way he used to when they walked beside the Aare. As they reached it Axel stooped and picked a harvest poppy and handed it to Pym. Then he picked another for himself which on reflection he handed to Pym also.
“There is one of me and one of you, Sir Magnus. There will never be another of either of us. You are the keeper of our friendship. Give my love to Sabina. Tell her that Sergeant Pavel sends her a special kiss to thank her for her help.”
A man with a highly regarded source is an admired man and a well-fed one, Tom, as Pym quickly discovered in the next few weeks. Visiting Very Senior Officers from Vienna take him to dinner just for the touch of him and the vicarious feel of his achievement. Membury comes too, a grinning, loping Caesar dwarfing his Antony, hauling on his ear, dreaming of fish and smiling at the wrong people. Other officers less senior but still substantial alter their opinion of Pym overnight and send him swarmy notes by interzonal bag. “Marlene sends her love and is so sad that you had to leave Vienna without saying goodbye to her. It looked for a moment as if I might become your C.O. but fate decreed otherwise. M and I hope to be engaged as soon as we get clearance from the War Office.” He is a cult of one and to know him is to be an insider: “The fantastic work young Pym is doing—if I had my way, I’d give him a third pip, national serviceman or not.” “You should have heard London on the scrambler, they’re sending it to the top.” On London’s orders, no less, Sergeant Pavel receives the codename Greensleeves and Pym a commendation. Voluptuous Czech interpreters are proud of him, and demonstrate their pleasure in refined ways.
“You must never tell me what happened, it is a rule,” Sabina ordered him, biting him half to death between her deep sad lips.
“I never will.”
“He is handsome, Jan’s friend? He is beautiful? Like you? I would love him immediately, yes?”
“He is tall and beautiful and very intelligent.”
“Hommsexual like you?”
The description pleased her in some deep and satisfying way.
“You are good man, Magnus,” she assured him. “You have good taste that you protect this man like my brother.”
The due day came round when Sergeant Pavel was to make his second appearance. As Axel had predicted, Vienna had prepared a dense crop of follow-up questions for him concerning his first offering. Pym arrived with them written out in a shorthand notebook. He also brought brown smoked-salmon sandwiches and an excellent Sancerre from Membury. He brought cigarettes and Naafi mint chocolates and everything else the gastronomic experts of Div. Int. could think of to fill the tummy of a brave defector in place. While they ate the smoked salmon and drank vodka, they cleared up the outstanding points.
“So what have you got for me this time round?” Pym enquired cheerfully when they had reached a natural break in the proceedings.
“Nothing,” Axel replied comfortably, helping himself to more vodka. “We let them starve a little. Gives them a better appetite next time.”
“Pavel’s having a crisis of conscience,” Pym reported next day to Membury, obeying Axel’s instructions to the letter. “He’s having wife trouble and his daughter is going to bed with a no-good Russian officer every time Pavel is sent down to Austria. I didn’t press him. I told him we were there and he could trust us and we’re not adding to his pressures. I believe in the long run he’s going to thank us for that. But I did ask him our questions about the concentrated armour east of Prague and he was interesting.”
A visiting colonel from Vienna was sitting in. “What did he say?” asked the colonel, following Pym closely.
“He said he thinks it’s guarding something.”
“Any idea what?”
“Weaponry of some sort. Could be rockets.”
“Stay with him,” the colonel advised, and Membury puffed out his cheeks and looked like the proud father he had become.
At their third meeting source Greensleeves solved the mystery of the concentrated armour and produced in addition a breakdown of the total Soviet air strength in Czechoslovakia as of November last. Or nearly total. Vienna was in any case amazed, and London authorised the payment of two small gold bars on condition that the British assay marks first be removed for reasons of deniability. Sergeant Pavel was thus characterised as a greedy man which made everybody feel easier. For several months after this Pym scampered back and forth between Axel and Membury like a butler serving two masters. Membury wondered whether he should meet Greensleeves in person: Vienna seemed to think it would be a good idea. Pym tried for him but came back with the sad news that he would treat only with Pym. Membury resigned himself. It was the breeding season for trout. Vienna summoned Pym and dined him. Colonels, air commodores, and naval persons vied to stake their claim to him. But it was Axel, as it turned out, who was his true proprietor and parent company.
“Sir Magnus,” Axel whispered. “Something very terrible has happened.” His smile had lost its bounce. His eyes were haunted and there were heavy shadows under them. Pym had brought any number of Naafi delicacies but he refused them all. “You have to help me, Sir Magnus,” he said, darting scared looks towards the barn door. “You’re my only hope. Help me, for Christ’s sake. Do you know what they do to people like me? Don’t look at me like that! Think of something for a change! It’s your turn!”
I am in the barn at this moment, Tom. I have lived there these thirty and more years. Miss Dubber’s stippled ceiling has rolled away, leaving the old rafters and the upside-down bats dangling from the roof. I can smell his cigar smoke as I sit here and I can see the holes of his dark eyes in the lamplight as he whispers Pym’s name like the invalid he used to be: get me music, get me painting, get me bread, get me secrets. But there is no self-pity in his voice, no supplication or regret. That was never Axel’s way. He demands. His voice is sometimes soft, it is true. But it is never less than powerful. He is his man, as ever. He is Axel, he is owed. He has crossed frontiers and been beaten. Of myself I am thinking nothing at all. Not now, not then.
“They are arresting my friends back home, did you hear? Two of our group were dragged from t
heir beds yesterday morning in Prague. Another vanished on his way to work. I had to tell them about us. It was the only way.”
The import of this statement takes a moment to penetrate Pym’s worried understanding. Even when it has done so, his voice remains mystified: “About us? Me? What did you say? Who to, Axel?”
“Not in detail. In principle. Nothing bad. Not your name. It’s okay, just more complicated, takes more handling. I’ve been more cunning than the others. In the end it may be better.”
“But what did you tell them about us?”
“Nothing. Listen. For me it’s different. The others, they work in factories, in the universities, they’ve no back door. When they’re tortured they tell the truth and the truth kills them. But me, I’m a big spy, I’ve got a strong position, same as you. ‘Sure,’ I say to them. ‘I go over the border. That’s my job. I collect intelligence, remember?’ . . . I act indignant, I demand to see my senior officer. He’s not bad, this senior officer. Not a hundred percent, maybe sixty. But he hates the Ivans too. ‘I’m cultivating a British traitor,’ I tell him. ‘He’s a big fish. An army officer. I have kept it secret from you because of the many Titoists inside our organisation. Get the secret police off my back and you can share his product with me when I put the heat on him.’”
Pym has given up speech by now. He doesn’t bother to ask what the senior officer says in reply, or to what extent the real life of Axel may be compared with the fictitious life of Sergeant Pavel. The cells are dying all over him, in his head, his groin, his bone marrow. His loving thoughts about Sabina are as old as childhood memories to him. There is only Pym and Axel and disaster in the world. He is changing into an old man even while he listens. The ignorance of ages is descending on him.
“He says I’ve got to bring him proof,” says Axel a second time.
“Proof?” Pym mumbles. “What sort of proof? Proof? I don’t follow you.”