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A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 49


  “Intelligence.” Axel rubs his finger against his thumb, exactly as E. Weber once did. “Pinka-pinka. Product. Money. Something a British traitor like you could give me when I blackmailed him. It doesn’t have to be the secrets of the atom bomb but it has to be good. Good enough to keep him quiet. No junk, you understand? He’s got senior officers too.” Axel smiles, though it is not a smile I care to recollect even now. “There’s always one guy higher up the ladder, isn’t there, Sir Magnus? Even when you think you’re at the top. Then when you reach the top, there they are again below you, swinging on your boots. That’s how it is in a system like ours. ‘No fabrication,’ he says to me. ‘Whatever it is, it’s got to have quality. Then we can fix it.’ Steal for me, Sir Magnus. As you love my freedom, get me something wonderful.”

  “You look as though you’ve been seeing things,” Corporal Kaufmann says as Pym returns to the jeep.

  “It’s my stomach,” says Pym.

  But on the journey back to Graz he began to feel better. Life is duty, he reflected. It’s just a question of establishing which creditor is asking loudest. Life is paying. Life is seeing people right if it kills you.

  There were half a dozen reconstructed Pyms wandering the streets of Graz that night, Tom, and there isn’t one of them I need now feel ashamed of, or wouldn’t happily embrace as a long-lost son who had paid his debt to society and come home, if he knocked on Miss Dubber’s door at this moment and said, Father, it’s me. I don’t think there was a night in his life when he thought less about himself and more about his obligation to others than when he was patrolling his city kingdom under the shadows of crumbling Hapsburg glories, pausing now at the leafy gates of Membury’s spacious married quarters, now at the doorway to Sabina’s unprepossessing apartment house, while he made his plan and flashed them reassuring promises. “Don’t worry about a thing,” he told Membury in his heart. “You will suffer no humiliation, your lake will continue to be stocked and your post will be safe for as long as you care to adorn it. The Highest in the Land will continue to respect you as the presiding genius of the Greensleeves operation.” “Your secrets are in my hands,” he whispered to Sabina’s unlit window. “Your employment by the British, your heroic brother Jan, your exalted opinion of your lover Pym are all secure. I shall cherish them as I cherish your soft warm body sleeping its troubled sleep.”

  He took no decisions because he had no doubts. The lone crusader had identified his mission, the skilled spy would take care of the detail, the loyal attacher would never again betray his friend in exchange for the illusion of being a servant of national necessity. His loves, his duties and allegiances had never been clearer. Axel, I owe you. Together we can change the world. I will bring you gifts as you brought gifts to me. I will never again send you to the camps. If he contemplated alternatives, then it was only to reject them as disastrous. Over the last months the inventive Pym had built Sergeant Pavel into a figure of joy and admiration in the secret corridors of Graz, Vienna and Whitehall. Under his skilful hand the choleric little hero’s drinking, womanising and quixotic bursts of courage had become a legend. Even if Pym were prepared to break Axel’s trust a second time, how could he go to Membury and say: “Sir. Sergeant Pavel does not exist. Greensleeves is my friend Axel, who requires that we give him genuine British secrets”? Membury’s kindly eyes would pop open, his innocent face would collapse in lines of sadness and despair. His trust in Pym would wither, his reputation with it: Membury to the lantern, sack Membury; Membury, his wife and all his daughters, go home. An even worse disaster would result if Pym were to strike a compromise by visiting Axel’s dilemma upon the fictitious Sergeant Pavel. He had played that scene, too, in his imagination: “Sir. Sergeant Pavel’s frontier-crossings have been noticed. He has told the Czech secret police that he has a British agent in play. We must therefore give him chickenfeed to back his story.” Div. Int. had no mandate to run double agents. Graz even less so. Even a defector in place was stretching things. Only Greensleeves’ insistence on being handled by Pym personally had prevented a takeover by London long ago, and there was already a lot of earnest talk going on about who would get Pavel when Pym’s military service expired. To place Sergeant Pavel in the position of a double agent would unloose a string of immediate consequences, all frightful : Membury would lose Greensleeves to London; Pym’s successor would discover the deception in five minutes; Axel would once more be betrayed and his chances of survival forfeit ; the Memburys would be posted to Siberia.

  No, Tom. As Pym walked the momentous night away under a canopy of unreachable ideals, eschewing Sabina’s bed in his purity of soul, he was not tormenting himself over great choices. He was not examining his immortal spirit in anticipation of what purists might call a treasonable act. He did not consider that tomorrow was the day set for his irrevocable execution—the day on which all hope for Pym would die and your father would be born. He was watching the dawn rise on a day of beauty and harmony. A day when a bad record could be put straight, when the fate of everyone he was responsible for rested in his care, when the electors of his secret constituency would go down on their knees and thank Pym and his Maker that he had been born to see them right. He was glowing and exulting. He was letting his goodwill and self-faith fill him up with courage. The secret crusader had placed his sword upon the altar and was transmitting fraternal messages to the God of Battles.

  “Axel, come over!” Pym had begged him. “Forget about Sergeant Pavel. You can be an ordinary defector. I’ll look after you. I’ll get you everything you need. I promise.”

  But Axel was as fearless as he was determined. “Do not advise me to betray my friends, Sir Magnus. I am the only one who can save them. Did I not tell you I have crossed my last frontier? If you help me, we can win a great victory. Be here on Wednesday at the same time.”

  Briefcase in hand Pym makes quickly for the top floor of the villa and unlocks the door to his office. I am a morning man, it is known of me. Pym is an early riser, Pym is keen, Pym has done a day’s work while most of us are still shaving. Membury’s office is linked to his own by a pair of grand doors. Pushing them open, Pym steps inside. As he does so, his sense of well-being becomes unbearable: a dizzying blend of resolution, rightness and release. I am blessed. Membury’s tin desk is no Reichstag desk. It has an old tin back and Pym’s Swiss Army penknife knows the four screws well. In the third drawer down, on the left side, Membury keeps his basic works of reference : standing orders for the unit, Brown Fish of the World, classified telephone directory, Lakes and Waterways of Austria, Order of Battle of Military Intelligence in London, a list of leading aquaria and a chart for Div. Int., Vienna, showing units and their functions but no names. Pym reaches a hand in. Not an invasion. Not a retribution. No initials are being carved into the panelling. I am here to administer a caress. Folders, loose-leaf manuals. Signals instructions marked “Top Secret, Guard” which Pym has never seen. I am here to borrow, not to steal. Opening his briefcase he extracts an army-issue Agfa camera with a one-foot measuring chain fastened to the lens front. It is the same camera that he uses when Axel brings out raw material and Pym has to photograph it on the spot. He cocks it and sets it on the desk. This is what I was born for, he thinks, not for the first time. In the beginning was the spy.

  From a file with the word “Vertebrates” crossed out on the cover, he selects the Order of Battle of Div. Int. Axel knows it anyway, he reasons. Nevertheless, there are impressive “Top Secret” stamps at top and bottom, and a distribution stamp to guarantee authenticity. As you love my freedom, get me something wonderful. He photographs it once, then again, and is left with a feeling of anticlimax. There are thirty-six frames on this film. Why do I cheesepare and give him only two? I could do something for our mutual understanding. Axel, you deserve better. He remembers a recent War Office assessment of the Soviet threat. If they will read that, they’ll read anything. It is in the top drawer, beside A Handbook of Water Mammals, and begins with a summary of conclusions. He photo
graphs each page and finishes the film nicely. Axel, I’ve done it! We’re free. We’ve put the world to rights, exactly as you said we would! We are men of the middle ground—we have founded our own country with a population of two!

  “Promise you will never bring me anything so good again, Sir Magnus,” said Axel at their next meeting. “If you do, they will make me a general and we shall not be able to meet any more.”

  “Dear Father”—Pym wrote to the Majestic Hotel, Karachi, where Rick appeared to be living for his health—“Thanks for your two letters. I am so glad to hear you are hitting it off with the Aga Khan. I believe I am doing good work out here and you would be proud of me.”

  14

  When Mary Pym at the age of sixteen decided it was time to lose her virginity she faked a heavy dose of adolescent vapours and had herself put to bed by Matron instead of playing hockey. There she lay in the sick wing staring at the wall till the three-o’clock bell rang, telling her that Matron was off duty until five. She waited five more minutes exactly by her Confirmation watch, held her breath for thirty seconds which always helped to get her courage up, then tiptoed down the stone back stairs past the kitchens and the laundry and across a bit of sour grass to an old brick potting shed where the under-gardener had made a provisional bed of blankets and old sacking. The results were more spectacular than she had reason to hope, but what she relished afterwards was not the event so much as the anticipation of it: the lying boldly in the bed with her skirt rucked round her waist knowing nothing was going to stop her now she had made up her mind; the sense of freedom as she took herself across the border into a state of sin.

  And that was the feeling she had now, sitting demurely in the centre row in Caroline Lumsden’s overfurnished drawing-room, with her hideous Thai tables and her garish Chinese paintings and her shelf full of factory-made Buddhas, listening to Caroline trying to sound like the Queen as she moaned out the minutes of the last meeting of the Vienna Branch of the Diplomatic Wives Association in her plummy swansong. I’ll do it, Mary told herself, dead calm. If it doesn’t work one way, I’ll make it work another. She glanced to the window. In their hired Mercedes across the street, Georgie and Fergus were sitting with their heads together, two lovers pretending to study a street map while they kept an eye on the front door and her Rover parked in Caroline’s drive. I’ll take the back way out. It worked then, it’ll work now.

  “It was therefore unanimously agreed,” Caroline was lamenting, “that the Foreign Office Inspectors’ report on the local cost of living was both distorted and unfair, and that a Finance subcommittee would be formed immediately, headed, I am pleased to say, by Mrs. McCormick”—respectful hush. Ruth McCormick was the wife of the Economic Minister and therefore a financial genius. Nobody mentioned that she was screwing the Dutch military attaché. “The subcommittee will itemise all our points and, having done so, submit a written objection to our association in London for submission through the proper channels to the Head of the Inspectorate himself.”

  Patter of soprano applause from fourteen pairs of female hands, Mary’s included. Great, Caroline, great. In another life, it will be your turn to be the rising young diplomat and your husband’s to stay home and imitate you.

  Caroline had turned to Any Other Business. “Next Monday, our weekly transatlantic lunch at Manzi’s. Twelve-thirty sharp and four hundred schillings a head, cash, please, to include two glasses of wine, and please don’t be late as Herr Manzi took an awful lot of persuading to give us a private room.” Pause. Say it, you fool, Mary urged her. Caroline didn’t. Not yet. “Then on Friday, one week today, please, Marjory de Weever will be giving her really fascinating lantern lecture here on aerobics which she taught very successfully to an all-ranks class in the Sudan where her husband was second man. Right, Marjory?”

  “Well, chargé really,” Marjory roared from the front row. “The Ambassador was only there for three months out of fourteen. Not that Brian got paid for it but that’s beside the point.”

  For pity’s sake! thought Mary furiously. Now! But she had forgotten about Penny Sharlow’s bloody husband landing a medal.

  “And I’m sure we’d all like to congratulate Penny on the fantastic support she’s given to James over the years, without which I’ll bet he wouldn’t have got anything at all.”

  This was apparently a joke because there was hysterical laughter by too few voices, which Caroline quelled with a mournful stare into the middle distance. She put on her Official Mourning voice.

  “And Mary darling—you did say you wouldn’t mind if I mentioned it.” Mary looked hastily downward to her lap. “I’m sure everyone would like me to say how sorry we are about the death of your father-in-law. We know Magnus has been hit very hard and we do hope he will get over it soon, and be back among us in his usual high spirits that we all find so refreshing.”

  Sympathetic murmurs. Mary whispered “Thank you” and keeled forward not too far. She sensed the anxious pause while everyone waited for her head to come up, but it didn’t. She began to shake and was impressed to see real tears flopping on to her clenched hands. She let out a little choke and from her willed darkness heard cheerful Mrs. Simpson, wife of the Chancery guard, say “Come here, lovey,” as she put an enormous arm round Mary’s back. She choked again, pushed Mrs. Simpson half heartedly away and struggled to her feet, tears everywhere: tears for Tom, tears for Magnus, tears for being deflowered in the potting shed and I bet I’m pregnant. She let Mrs. Simpson take her arm, she shook her head and stammered “I’m fine.” She reached the hall to find that Caroline Lumsden had followed her out. “No thanks . . . really I don’t want to lie down. Far rather just take a walk . . . get my coat, please? . . . Blue with a foul fur collar . . . Rather be alone if you don’t mind.... You’ve been so kind. Oh Christ, I’m going to cry again. . . .”

  Once in the Lumsdens’ long back garden, she wandered, still hunched, along the path until it dropped out of sight behind the trees. Then she moved fast. Training, she thought gratefully, as she unlatched the back gate; nothing quite like it for cooling the blood. She headed quickly for the bus stop. There was one every fourteen minutes. She had looked them up.

  “How terribly good of them!” cried Mrs. Membury, with the greatest satisfaction, as she topped up Brotherhood’s glass with her homemade elderflower wine. “Oh I do think that’s farsighted and sensible. I’d never supposed the War Office would have half the wit. Would you, Harrison? Not deaf,” she explained to Brotherhood while they waited. “Just slow-thinking. Would you, darling?”

  Harrison Membury had come up from the stream at the end of the garden where he had been cutting reeds, and he was still wearing his waders. He was large and loping and at seventy still boyish, with pink immature cheeks and silk white hair. He sat at the far end of the table washing down homemade cake with tea from a huge pottery mug with “Gramps” written on it. He moved, Brotherhood reckoned, at exactly half his wife’s pace and spoke at half the volume.

  “Oh I don’t know,” he said when everyone else had forgotten the question. “There were some quite clever chaps scattered around the place. Here and there.”

  “Ask him about fish and you’ll get a far quicker answer,” said Mrs. Membury, hurtling off to the corner of the room and pulling out some albums from among the collected works of Evelyn Waugh. “How are the trout, Harrison?”

  “Oh they’re all right,” said Membury with a grin.

  “We’re not allowed to eat them, you know. Only the pike can do that. Now would it be fun to look at my photographs? I mean is it going to be an illustrated history? Don’t tell me. It doubles the cost. It said so in the Observer. Pictures double the cost of a book. But then I do think they double the attractiveness too. Specially with biographies. I can’t be doing with biography if I can’t look at the people who are being biogged. Harrison can. He’s cerebral. I’m visual. Which are you?”

  “I think I must be more your way,” said Brotherhood with a smile, playing his ponderous rôle
.

  The village was one of those half-urbanised Georgian settlements on the edge of Bath where English Catholics of a certain standing have elected to gather in their exile. The cottage lay at the country end of it, a tiny sandstone mansion with a steep narrow garden descending to a stretch of river, and they sat in the cluttered kitchen on wheelback chairs, surrounded by washing-up, and vaguely votive bric-a-brac: a cracked ceramic plaque of the Virgin Mary from Lourdes; a disintegrating rush cross jammed behind the cooker; a child’s paper mobile of angels rotating in the draught; a photograph of Ronald Knox. While they talked, filthy grandchildren wandered in and stared at them before tall mothers swept them off. It was a household in permanent and benevolent disorder, pervaded by the gentle thrill of religious persecution. A white morning sun was poking through the Bath mist. There was a sound of slow water dripping in the gutters.

  “You an academic chap?” Membury enquired suddenly, from the end of the table.

  “Darling, I told you. He’s an historian.”

  “Well, more a retired trooper, I suppose, sir, to be honest,” Brotherhood replied. “I was lucky to get the job. I’d have been on the shelf by now, if this hadn’t come along.”

  “Now when will it come out?” Mrs. Membury shouted, as if everyone were deaf. “I’ve got to know months in advance so that I can put my name down with Mrs. Lanyon. Tristram, don’t tug. We have a mobile library here, you know. Magda darling, do something about Tristram, he’s trying to tear a page out of history. They come once a week and they’re an absolute godsend as long as you don’t mind waiting. Now this is Harrison’s villa where he had his office and everyone worked for him. The main bit’s 1680, the wing’s new. Well nineteenth. This is his pond. He stocked it from scratch. The Gestapo had thrown grenades into it and blown up all the fish. They would. Pigs.”