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A Perfect Spy
John le Carré
A Perfect Spy 55
“You mean you wouldn’t mind getting innocent chaps chucked into prison by their own police, then? Being a bit harsh, aren’t you? Bit immoral?”
“Not if it shortens the life of the system. No, sir, I don’t think I am. And I’m not persuaded about the innocence of these men of yours either, I’m afraid.”
In life, says Proust, we end up doing whatever we do second best. What Pym might have done better, I shall never know. He accepted the Firm’s offer. He opened his Times and read with a similar detachment of his engagement to Belinda. That’s me taken care of, then, he thought. With the Firm getting one half of me and Belinda the other, I’ll never want for anything again.
Turn your eye to Pym’s first great wedding, Tom. It occurs largely without his participation, in his last months of training, in a break between silent killing and a three-day seminar entitled Know Your Enemy, led by a vibrant young tutor from the London School of Economics. Imagine Pym’s enjoyment of this unlikely preparation for his married state. The fun of it. The free-wheeling unreality! He has chased Buchan’s ghost across the moors of Argyll. He has messed about in rubber boats, made night landings on sandy shores, with hot chocolate awaiting him in the vanquished enemy’s headquarters. He has fallen out of aeroplanes, dipped into secret inks, learned Morse and tapped scatological radio signals into the bracing Scottish air. He has watched a Mosquito aeroplane glide a hundred feet above him through the darkness, dropping a boxful of boulders in place of genuine supplies. He has played secret games of fox-and-geese in the streets of Edinburgh, photographed innocent citizens without their knowledge, fired live bullets at pop-up targets in simulated drawing-rooms, and plunged his dagger into the midriff of a swinging sandbag, all for England and King Harry. In spells of quiet he has been dispatched to genteel Bath to improve his Czech at the feet of an ancient lady called Frau Kohl, who lives in a crescent house of impoverished splendour. Over tea and muffins, Frau Kohl shows him albums of her childhood in Carlsbad, now called Karlovy Vary.
“But you know Karlovy Vary very well, Mr. Sanderstead!” she cries when Pym shows off his knowledge. “You have been there, yes?”
“No,” says Pym. “But I have a friend who has.”
Then back to base camp Somewhere in Scotland to resume the red thread of violence that has been spun into every new thing he is learning. This violence is not only of the body. It is the ravishment that must be done to truth, friendship and, if need be, honour in the interest of Mother England. We are the chaps who do the dirty work so that purer souls can sleep in bed at night. Pym of course has heard these arguments before from the Michaels, but now he must hear them again, from his new employers, who make pilgrimages from London in order to warn the uncut young of the wily foreigners they will one day have to tangle with. Do you remember your own visit, Jack? A gala night it was, close to Christmas: the great Brotherhood is coming! We had streamers hanging from the rafters. You sat at the directing staff’s table in the excellent canteen, while we young ’uns craned our necks to catch a glimpse of one of the great players of the Game. After dinner we gathered round you in a half circle, clutching our subsidised port, and you told us tales of derring-do until we crept off to bed and dreamed of being like you—though alas we could never really have your lovely war, even if that was what we were rehearsing for. Do you remember how in the morning, before you left, you called on Pym while he was shaving, and congratulated him on a damn good showing so far?
“Nice girl you’re marrying, too,” you said.
“Oh, do you know her, sir?” said Pym.
“Just good reports,” you said complacently.
Then off you went, confident you had scattered a pinch more stardust in Pym’s eyes. Which you had, Jack. You had. Except that what goes up with Pym has a way of coming down, and it annoyed him to discover that his impending marriage had received the Firm’s approval while it still awaited his.
“So what exactly are you doing for a living, old boy? Don’t quite understand,” Belinda’s father asked, not for the first time, during a discussion about whom to invite.
“It’s a government-sponsored language lab, sir,” said Pym, in accordance with the Firm’s sketchy guidelines on cover. “We work out exchanges of academics from various countries and arrange courses for them.”
“Sounds more like the Secret Service to me,” said Belinda’s father, with that queer cracked laugh of his that always seemed to know too much.
To his future spouse, on the other hand, Pym told everything he knew about his work, and more. He showed her how he could break her windpipe with a single blow, and put her eyes out with two fingers easily. And how she could smash the small bones in someone’s foot if they were annoying her under the table. He told her everything that made him a secret hero of England, seeing the world right single-handed.
“So how many people have you killed?” Belinda asked him grimly, discounting those that he had merely maimed.
“I’m not allowed to say,” said Pym, and with a crisping of the jaw stared away from her towards the stark wastelands of his duty.
“Well don’t then,” Belinda said. “And don’t tell Daddy anything, or he’ll tell Mummy.”
“Dear Jemima”—Pym wrote on an off chance, a week before his great day—
“It seems so odd we are both getting married within a month of each other. I keep wondering whether we are doing the right thing. I’m sick of the boring work I’m doing, and considering a change. I love you. Magnus.”
Pym waited eagerly for the mail and scanned the moors around the training camp for a sight of her Land Rover as she dashed over the horizon to save him. But nothing came, and by the eve of his wedding he was left with himself again, walking the night streets of London, and pretending they reminded him of Karlovy Vary.
And what a husband he was, Tom! What a match was celebrated! Priests of upper-class humility, the great church famed for its permanence and previous successes, the frugal reception in a tomblike Bayswater hotel, and there at the centre of the throng, our Prince Charming himself, chatting brilliantly to the crowned heads of suburbia. Pym forgot no one’s name, was fluent and informative on the subject of government-sponsored language laboratories, vouchsafed Belinda long and tender glances. All this, at least, until somebody switched off the soundtrack, Pym’s included, and the faces of his audience turned mysteriously away from him, looking for the cause of breakdown. Suddenly the interconnecting doors at the far end of the room, until now locked, were flung open by unseen hands. And Pym knew in his toes at once, just by the timing and the pause, and by the way people parted before the empty space, that somebody had rubbed the lamp. Two waiters entered with the grace of well-tipped men, bearing trays of uncorked bubbly and chargers of smoked salmon, though Belinda’s mother had not ordered smoked salmon, and had decreed that no champagne be served before the toast to the bride and groom. After that it was the Gulworth election all over again, because first Mr. Muspole appeared, followed by a thin man with a razor slash, and each commandeered a door-post as Rick swept between them in full Ascot rig, leaning backwards and holding his arms wide, and smiling everywhere at once. “Hullo, old son! Don’t you recognise your old pal? Have this one on me, boys! Where’s that bride of his? By Jove, son, she’s a beauty! Come here, my dear. Give your old father-in-law a kiss! My God, there’s some flesh here, son. Where have you been hiding her all these years?”
One on each arm, Rick marched the nuptial pair to the hotel forecourt, where a brand-new Jaguar car, painted Liberal yellow, stood parked in everybody’s way, with white wedding ribbons tied to the bonnet, and a mile-high bunch of Harrods gardenias crammed into the passenger seat, and Mr. Cudlove at the wheel with a carnation in his mulberry buttonhole.
“Seen one of those before then, son? Know what it is? It’s your old man’s gift to both of you and nobody will ever take it away from you as long as I’m spared. Cuddie’s going to drive you wherever you want to go and leave it with you, aren’t you, Cuddie?”
nbsp; “I wish you both all good fortune in your chosen walk of life, sir,” Mr. Cudlove said, his loyal eyes filling with tears.
Of Rick’s long speech, I remember only that it was beautiful and modest, and free of all hyperbole, and rested upon the theme that when two young people love each other, us old ’uns who have had our day should stand aside, because if anyone has deserved it, they have.
Pym never saw the car again, and it was a long while before he saw Rick either, because when they went back outside Mr. Cudlove and the yellow Jaguar had vanished, and two very obvious plainclothes police detectives were talking in low tones to the confused hotel manager. But I have to tell you, Tom, that it was the best of our wedding presents, barring perhaps the posy of red poppies, thrust into Pym’s arms, without a card of explanation, by a man in a Polish-looking Burberry raincoat as Pym and Belinda rode into the sunset for a week at Eastbourne.
“Put him into the field while he’s unsullied,” says Personnel, who has a way of speaking about people as if they weren’t seated across the desk from him.
Pym is trained. Pym is complete. Pym is armed and ready and only one question remains. What mantle shall he wear? What disguise shall cover the secret frame of his maturity? In a series of unconsummated interviews reminiscent of the Oxford Appointments Board, Personnel unlocks a bedlam of possibilities. Pym will be a freelance writer. But can he write and will Fleet Street have him? With disarming openness Pym is marched through the offices of most of our great national newspapers, whose editors inanely pretend they do not know where he has come from, or why, though henceforth they will know him for ever as a creature of the Firm, and he them. He is already halfway to stardom with the Telegraph when a Fifth Floor genius has a better plan: “Look here, how would you like to join up with the Corns again, trade on your old allegiances, get yourself a billet in the international left wing set? We’ve always wanted to chuck a stone into that pond.”
“It sounds fascinating,” says Pym as he sees himself selling Marxism Today on street corners for the rest of his life.
A more ambitious plan is to get him into Parliament where he can keep an eye on some of these fellow-travelling M.P.s: “Any particular preference as to party, or aren’t we fussy?” asks Personnel, still in tweeds from his weekend in Wiltshire.
“I’d rather prefer it not to be the Liberals if it’s all the same to you,” says Pym.
But nothing lasts long in politics and a week later Pym is destined for one of the private banks whose directors wander in and out of the Firm’s Head Office all day long, moaning about Russian gold and the need to protect our trade routes from the Bolsheviks. At the Institute of Directors, Pym is lunched by a succession of captains of finance who think they may have an opening.
“I knew a Pym,” says one, over a second brandy or a third. “Kept a dirty great office in Mount Street somewhere. Best man at his job I ever knew.”
“What was his job, sir?” Pym asks politely.
“Con man,” says his host with a horsy laugh. “Any relation?”
“Must be my distant wicked uncle,” says Pym, laughing also, and hurries back to the sanctuary of the Firm.
On goes the dance, how seriously I’ll never know, for Pym is not yet privy to these backstage deliberations, though it isn’t for want of peeking into a few desk drawers and locked steel cupboards. Then suddenly the mood changes.
“Look here,” says Personnel, trying to hide his aggravation. “Why the devil didn’t you remind us you spoke Czech?”
Within a month, Pym is attached to an electrical-engineering company in Gloucester as a management trainee, no previous experience necessary. The managing director, to his lasting regret, was at school with the Firm’s reigning Chief, and has made the mistake of accepting a series of valuable government contracts at a time when he needed them. Pym is given to the exports department, charged with opening up the East European market. His first mission is nearly his last.
“Well, why don’t you just sort of take a general swing through Czecho and test the market?” says Pym’s notional employer wanly. And beneath his breath: “And do please remember that whatever else you get up to is nothing to do with us, will you?”
“A quick in and out,” Pym’s controller tells him gaily, in the safe house in Camberwell where cub agents receive their operational briefing before cutting their milk-teeth. He hands Pym a portable typewriter with hidden cavities in the carriage.
“I know it seems silly,” says Pym, “but I can’t actually type.”
“Everyone can type a bit,” says Pym’s controller. “Practise over the weekend.”
Pym flies to Vienna. Memories, memories. Pym hires a car. Pym crosses the border without the smallest difficulty, expecting to see Axel waiting for him the other side.
The countryside was Austrian and beautiful. Many barns lay beside many lakes. In Plzeň Pym toured a despondent factory in the company of square-faced men. In the evening he kept the safety of his hotel, watched by a pair of secret policemen who drank one coffee apiece until he went to bed. His next calls were in the north. On the road to Ústí he saw army lorries and memorised their unit insignia. To the east of Ústí lay a factory that the Firm suspected of producing isotope containers. Pym was unclear what an isotope was, or what it should be contained in, but he drew a sketch of the main buildings and hid it in his typewriter. Next day he continued to Prague and at the arranged hour sat himself in the famous Tyn church, which has a window looking into Kafka’s old apartment. Tourists and officials wandered about unsmiling.
“So K. began to move off slowly,” Pym read as he sat in the south aisle, third row from the altar, pretending to study his guidebook. “K. felt forlorn and isolated as he advanced between the rows of empty pews, with the priest’s eyes fixed on him for all he knew. . . .”
Needing a rest, Pym knelt down and prayed. With a grunt and a puff, a heavy man shuffled in beside him and sat down. Pym smelt garlic and thought of Sergeant Pavel. Through a crack in his fingers, he identified the recognition signals: smear of white paint on left fingernail, splash of blue on left cuff, a mass of disgraceful black hair, black coat. My contact is an artist, he realised. Why didn’t I think of that before? But Pym did not sit back, he did not ease the little package from his pocket as a prelude to laying it between them on the pew. He remained kneeling and soon discovered why he had done so. The sound of trained feet was crunching towards him down the aisle. The footsteps stopped. A male voice said, “Come with us, please,” in Czech. With a sigh of resignation, Pym’s neighbour clambered wearily to his feet and followed them out.
“Sheer coincidence,” Pym’s controller assured him, much amused, when he got back. “He’s already been on to us. They were pulling him in for a routine questioning. He comes up for one every six weeks. Never even crossed their minds he might be making a clandestine pickup. Let alone with a chap your age.”
“You don’t think he’s—well, told them?” Pym said.
“Old Kyril? Blown you? You must be joking. Don’t worry. We’ll give you another shot in a few weeks’ time.”
Rick was not pleased to hear of Pym’s contribution to the British export drive, and told him so on one of his secret visits from Ireland, where he had established his winter quarters while he cleared up certain misunderstandings with Scotland Yard, and fought his way into the crowded new profession of West End property evictions.
“Working as a commercial traveller—my own boy?” he exclaimed, to the alarm of the adjoining tables. “Selling electric shavers to a bunch of foreign Communists? We did all that, son. It’s over. What did I pay your education for? Where’s your patriotism?”
“They’re not electric shavers, Father. I sell alternators, oscillators and sparking plugs. How’s your glass?”
Hostility towards Rick was a new and giddying notion for Pym. He vented it cautiously, but with growing excitement. If they ate a meal, he insisted on paying in order to savour Rick’s disapproval at seeing his own boy put down good mon
ey where a signature would have done the trick.
“You’re not mixed up with some racket out there, are you?” said Rick. “The doors of tolerance only open a certain distance, you know, son. Even for you. What are you up to? Tell us.”
The pressure on Pym’s arm was suddenly dangerous. He made a joke of it, smiling broadly. “Hey, Father, that hurts,” he said, awfully amused. It was Rick’s thumbnail that he was most aware of, boring into an artery. “Could you possibly stop doing that, Father?” he said. “It really is uncomfortable.” Rick was too busy pursing his lips and shaking his head. He was saying it was a damned shame when a father who had given up everything for his own son was treated like a “poor ayah.” He meant pariah but the notion had never properly formed in him. Placing his elbow on the table, Pym relaxed his whole arm and let it ride about with Rick’s pressure—flop one way, flop the other. Then abruptly stiffened it and, exactly as he had been taught, smacked the fat of Rick’s knuckles on to the table-edge, causing the glasses to jump and the cutlery to dance and slide off the table. Taking back his bruised hand, Rick turned away to bestow a resigned smile on his subjects feasting around him. Then with his good hand he lightly pinged the edge of his Drambuie glass to indicate that he required another nice touch. Just as, by unlacing his shoes, he used to let it be known that somebody should fetch his bedroom slippers. Or by rolling on to his back, after a lengthy banquet, and spreading his knees, he declared a carnal appetite.
Yet, as ever, nothing is one thing for long with Pym, and soon a strange calm begins to replace his early nervousness as he continues his secret missions. The silent, unlit country that at first sight appeared so threatening to him becomes a secret womb where he can hide himself, rather than a place of dread. He has only to cross the border for the walls of his English prisons to fall away: no Belinda, no Rick—and very nearly no Firm either. I am the travelling executive of an electronic company. I am Sir Magnus, roving free. His solitary nights in unpeopled provincial towns, where at first the yapping of a dog had been enough to bring him sweating to his window, now inspire him with a sense of protection. The air of universal oppression that hangs over the entire country enfolds him in its mysterious embrace. Not even the prison walls of his public school had given him such a sense of security. On car and train rides through river valleys, over hills capped by Bohemian castles, he drifts through realms of such inner contentment that the very cattle seem to be his friends. I shall settle here, he decides. This is my true home. How foolish of me to have supposed that Axel could ever leave it for another! He begins to relish his stilted conversations with officials. His heart leaps when he unlocks a smile from their faces. He takes pride in his slowly filling order book, feels a fatherly responsibility for his oppressors. Even his operational detours, when he is not blocking them from his mind, can be squeezed beneath the broad umbrella of his munificence: “I am a champion of the middle ground,” he tells himself, using an old phrase of Axel’s, as he prises a loose stone from a wall, fishes out one package and replaces it with another. “I am giving succour to a wounded land.”