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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
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Mystery & Detective
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A Perfect Spy
John le Carré
A Perfect Spy 57
And I remember that touch always. I can see it any time by looking into my own palm: dry and decent and forgiving. And the laughter: from the heart as it always was, once he had ceased to be tactical and become my friend again.
How appropriate, Tom, that looking back over all the years that follow our meeting in the Czech summerhouse, I see nothing but America, America, her golden shores glittering on the horizon like the promise of freedom after the repressions of our troubled Europe, then leaping towards us in the summer joy of our attainment! Pym still has more than a quarter of a century in which to serve his two houses according to the best standards of his omnivorous loyalty. The trained, married, case-hardened, elderly adolescent has still to become a man, though who will ever break the genetic code of when a middle-class Englishman’s adolescence ends and his manhood takes over? Half a dozen dangerous European cities, from Prague to Berlin to Stockholm to the occupied capital of his native England, lie between the two friends and their goal. Yet it seems to me now they were no more than staging places where we could provision and refurbish and watch the stars in preparation for our journey. And consider for a moment the dreadful alternative, Tom: the fear of failure that blew like a Siberian wind on our unprotected backs. Consider what it would have meant, to two men such as ourselves, to have lived out our lives as spies without ever having spied on America!
It must be said quickly, lest there is any doubt of it left in your mind, that after the summerhouse, Pym’s path was set for life. He had renewed his vow and in the terms your Uncle Jack and I have always lived by, Tom, there was no way out. Pym was owned and hooked and pledged. Finish. After the barn in Austria, well, yes, there had been a little latitude still, though never any prospect of redemption. And you have seen how, if feebly, he did try to jump clear of the secret world and brave the hazards of the real one. Not with any conviction, true. But he made a stab at it, even if he knew he would be about as much use out there as a beached fish dying of too much oxygen. But after the summerhouse, God’s brief to Pym was clear: no more dithering; stay put in your proper station, in the element to which nature has appointed you. Pym needed no third telling.
“Make a clean breast of it,” I hear you cry, Tom. “Hurry home to London, go to Personnel, pay the penalty, begin again!” Well now, Pym thought of that, naturally he did. On the drive back to Vienna, on the aeroplane home, on the bus to London from Heathrow, Pym did a lot of energetic agonising along those lines, for it was one of the occasions when the whole of his life was pinned up in a vivid strip cartoon inside his skull. Begin where? he asked himself, not unreasonably. With Lippsie, whose death, in his gloomier hours, he was still determined to take upon himself? With Sefton Boyd’s initials? With poor Dorothy whom he had driven off her head? With Peggy Wentworth, screaming her dirt at him, another victim for sure? Or with the day he first picked the locks of Rick’s green cabinet or Membury’s desk? How many of the systems of his life exactly are you proposing that he bare to the guilt-bestowing gaze of his admirers?
“Then resign! Bolt to Murgo! Take the teaching job at Willow’s.” Pym thought of that too. He thought of half a dozen dark holes where he could bury his leftover life and hide his guilty charm. Not one of them attracted him for five minutes.
Would Axel’s people really have exposed Pym if he had cut and run? I doubt it, but that isn’t the point. The point is, Pym quite frequently loved the Firm as much as he loved Axel. He adored its rough, uncomprehending trust in him, its misuse of him, its tweedy bear-hugs, flawed romanticism and cock-eyed integrity. He smiled to himself each time he stepped inside its Reichskanzleis and safe palaces, accepted the unsmiling salute of its vigilant janitors. The Firm was home and school and court to him, even when he was betraying it. He really felt he had a lot to give it, just as he had a lot to give to Axel. In his imagination, he saw himself with cellars full of nylons and black-market chocolate, enough to see everybody right in every shortage—and intelligence is nothing if not an institutionalised black market in perishable commodities. And this time Pym himself was the hero of the fable. No Membury stood between himself and the fraternity.
“Suppose that on a lonely drive to Plzeň, Sir Magnus, you stopped your car to give a lift to a couple of workmen on their way to work. You would do that?” Axel had suggested, in the small hours of the morning in the summerhouse, when he had put Pym back together again.
Pym conceded that he might.
“And suppose, Sir Magnus, that as simple fellows will, they had confided to you, as you drove along, their fears about handling radioactive material without sufficient protective clothing. You would prick up your ears?”
Pym laughed and agreed that he would.
“And suppose also that as a great operator and a generous spirit, Sir Magnus, you had written down their names and addresses and promised to bring them a pound or two of good English coffee next time you visited their region?”
Pym said he would certainly have done this.
“And suppose,” Axel continued, “that having driven these fellows to the outer perimeter of the protected area where they work, you had the courage, and the initiative, and the officer qualities—as you assuredly have—to park your car in a discreet spot and climb this hill.” Axel was indicating the very hill on a military map he happened to have brought along with him and spread over the iron table. “And from its apex you photographed the factory, using the convenient protection of a thicket of lime trees whose lower branches are later discovered to have slightly marked the pictures? Your aristos would admire your enterprise? They would applaud the great Sir Magnus? They would instruct him to recruit the two loquacious workmen and obtain further details of the factory’s output and purpose?”
“They surely would,” said Pym vigorously.
“Congratulations, Sir Magnus.”
Axel drops the very film into Pym’s waiting palm. The Firm’s own issue. Wrapped in anonymous green. Pym secretes it in his typewriter. Pym hands it to his masters. The wonder does not stop there. When the product is rushed to the Whitehall analysts, the factory turns out to be the very plant recently photographed from the air by an American overflight! With a show of reluctance, Pym supplies the personal particulars of his two innocent and, thus far, fictitious informants. The names are filed, carded, checked, processed and bandied round the senior officers’ bar. Until finally, under the divine laws of bureaucracy, they are the subject of a special committee.
“Look here, young Pym, what makes you think these chaps aren’t going to turn you in next time you show up on their doorstep?”
But Pym is in interview mode, he has a large audience and is invincible: “It’s a hunch, sir, that’s all.” Count two slowly. “I think they trusted me. I think they’re keeping their mouths shut and hoping I’ll show up one evening exactly as I said I would.”
And events prove him right, as they would, wouldn’t they, Jack? Braving all, our hero returns to Czecho and repairs, regardless of risk, to their very doorsteps—how can he fail to, since he is escorted there by Axel, who makes the introductions? For this time there will be no Sergeant Pavels. A loyal, bright-eyed repertory company of actors has been born, Axel is its producer and these are its founder-members. Painfully and dangerously, the network is built upon. By Pym, a cool number if ever we knew one. Pym, the latest hero of the corridors, the chap who put Conger together.
The Firm’s system of natural selection, accelerated by Jack Brotherhood’s promptings, can no longer be resisted.
“Joined the Foreign Office?” Belinda’s father echoes, in heavy, artificial mystification. “Posted it to Prague? How do you do that from a dead-beat electronics firm? Well, well, I must say.”
“It’s a contract appointment. They need Czech speakers,” says Pym.
“He’s boosting British trade, Daddy. You wouldn’t understand. You’re just a stockbroker,” says Belinda.
“Well they might at least give him a decent cover story, mightn’t they?” says Bel
inda’s father, laughing his infuriating laugh.
In the Firm’s newest and most secret safe flat in Prague, Pym and Axel drink to Pym’s instatement as Second Secretary Commercial and Visa Officer at the British Embassy. Axel has fattened, Pym observes with pleasure. The lines of suffering are clearing from his haggard features.
“To the land of the free, Sir Magnus.”
“To America,” says Pym.
“My dearest Father,
“I am so glad you approve of my appointment. Unfortunately, I am not yet in a position to persuade Pandit Nehru to grant you an audience so that you can put your football pool scheme to him, though I can well imagine the boost it might give to the struggling Indian economy.”
So were there no genuine Joes at all? I hear you asking, Tom, in a tone of disappointment. Were they all pretend? Indeed there were genuine Joes. Never fear! And very good they were too, the best. And every one of them profited from Pym’s improved tradecraft, and looked up to Pym as he looked up to Axel. And Pym and Axel looked up to the genuine Joes also, in their fashion, regarding them as the unwitting ambassadors of the operation, testifying to its smooth running and integrity. And used their good offices to shield and advance them, arguing that every improvement in their circumstances brought glory to the networks. And smuggled them to Austria for clandestine training and rehabilitation. The genuine Joes were our mascots, Tom. Our stars. We made sure they would never want for anything again, so long as Pym and Axel were there to see them right. Which, as a matter of fact, is how it all went wrong. But later.
I wish I could adequately describe to you, Jack, the pleasure of being really well run. Of jealousy, of ideology, nothing. Axel was as keen for Pym to love England as he was to direct him at America, and it was part of his genius throughout our partnership to praise the freedoms of the West while tacitly implying that Pym had it within his reach, if not his duty as a free man, to bring some of this freedom to the East. Oh, you may laugh, Jack! And you may shake your grey hairs at the depths of Pym’s innocence! But can you not imagine how easily it came to Pym to take a tiny, impoverished country into his protection, when his own was so favoured, so victorious and wellborn? And, from where he saw it, so absurd? To love poor Czecho like a rich protector through all her terrible vicissitudes, for Axel’s sake? To forgive her lapses in advance? And blame them on the many betrayals that his parent England had perpetrated against her? Does it honestly amaze you that Pym, by making bonds with the forbidden, should be once more escaping from what held him? That he who had loved his way across so many borders should now be loving his way across another, with Axel there to show him how to walk and where to cross?
“I’m sorry, Bel,” Pym would say to Belinda as he abandoned her yet again to the Scrabble board in their dark apartment in Prague’s diplomatic ghetto. “Got to go up country. May be a day or two. Come on, Bel. Kiss-kiss. You wouldn’t rather be married to a nine-till-five man, would you?”
“I can’t find The Times,” she said, shaking him aside. “I suppose you left it at the bloody Embassy again.”
But however frayed Pym’s nerves when he arrived at the rendezvous, Axel reclaimed him every time they met. He was never hasty, never importunate. He was never anything but respectful of the pains and sensibilities of his agent. It was not stasis one side and all movement the other either, Tom, far from it. Axel’s ambitions were for himself as well as Pym. Was not Pym his ricebowl, his fortune in all its meanings, his passport to the privileges and status of a paid-up Party aristo? Oh, how he studied Pym! Such obsessive, flattering concentration on a single man! How delicately he coaxed and gentled him! How meticulous he was, always to put on the clothes Pym needed him to wear—now the mantle of the wise and steady father Pym had never had, now the bloody rags of suffering that were the uniform of his authority, now the soutane of Pym’s one confessor, his Murgo absolute. He had to learn Pym’s codes and evasions. He had to read Pym faster than ever he could read himself. He had to scold and forgive him like the parents who would never slam the door in his face, laugh where Pym was melancholy and keep the flame of all Pym’s faiths alive when he was down and saying, I can’t, I’m lonely and afraid.
Above all, he had to keep his agent’s wits constantly alert against the seemingly limitless tolerance of the Firm, for how could we ever dare believe, either of us, that the dear, dead wood of England was not a cladding for some masterly game being played inside? Imagine the headaches Axel had, as Pym went on producing his mountains of intelligence material, to persuade his masters they were not the victims of some grand imperialist deception! The Czechs admired you so much, Jack. The old ones knew you from the war. They knew your skills and respected them. They knew the dangers, every day, of underestimating their wily adversary. Axel had to fight toe to toe with them, more than once. He had to argue with the very henchmen who had tortured him, in order to prevent them from pulling Pym out of the field and giving him a little of the medicine they periodically dished out to one another, on the off chance of extracting a true confession from him: “Yes, I am Brotherhood’s man!” they wanted him to scream. “Yes, I am here to plant disinformation on you. To distract your eye from our anti-Socialist operations. And yes, Axel is my accomplice. Take me, hang me, anything but this.” But Axel prevailed. He begged and bullied and slammed the table, and when still more purges were planned to explain the chaos left behind by the last ones, he scared his enemies into silence by threatening to expose them for their insufficient appreciation of the historically inevitable imperialist decay. And Pym helped him every inch of the distance. Sat again at his sickbed—if only metaphorically—gave him nourishment and courage, held up his spirits. Ransacked the Station files. Armed him with outrageous examples of the Firm’s incompetence worldwide. Until, fighting thus for their mutual survival, Pym and Axel drew still closer together, each laying the irrational burdens of his country at the other’s feet.
And once in a while, when a battle was over and won, or a great scoop had been achieved on one side or the other, Axel would put on the play clothes of the libertine and arrange a midnight dash to his frugal equivalent of St. Moritz, which was a small white castle in the Giant Mountains, set aside by his service for people they thought the world of. The first time they went there was for an anniversary celebration, in a limousine with blackened windows. Pym had been in Prague two years.
“I have decided to present you with an excellent new agent, Sir Magnus,” Axel announced as they zigzagged contentedly up the gravel road. “The Watchman network is lamentably short of industrial intelligence. The Americans are pledged to the collapse of our economy, but the Firm is providing nothing to support their optimism. How would you regard a middle executive from our great National Bank of Czechoslovakia, with access to some of our most serious mismanagements?”
“Where am I supposed to have found him?” Pym countered cautiously, for these were delicate decisions, requiring lengthy correspondence with Head Office before the approach to a new potential source was licensed.
The dinner table was laid for three, the candelabra lit. The two men had taken a long, slow walk in the forest and now they were drinking an apéritif before the fire, waiting for their guest.
“How is Belinda?” said Axel.
This was not a subject they often discussed, for Axel had little patience with unsatisfactory relationships.
“Fine, thank you, as always.”
“That’s not what our microphones tell us. They say you fight like two dogs day and night. Our listeners are becoming thoroughly depressed by you both.”
“Tell them we’ll mend our ways,” said Pym with a rare flash of bitterness.
A car was coming up the hill. They heard the footsteps of the old servant crossing the hall, and the rattle of bolts.
“Meet your new agent,” Axel said.
The door banged open and Sabina marched in. A little more matronly, perhaps, at the hips: one or two hard lines of officialdom around the jaw; but his delicious Sabina all
the same. She was wearing a stern black dress with a white collar, and clumpy black court shoes that must have been her pride, for they had green brilliants on the straps and the sheen of imitation suède. Seeing Pym, she drew up sharply and scowled at him in suspicion. For a moment, her manner reflected the most radical disapproval. Then to his delight she burst out laughing her crazy Slav laugh, and ran to cover him with her body, much as she had done in Graz when he took his first faltering lessons in Czech.
And so it was, Jack. Sabina rose and rose until she became the head agent of the Watchman network, and the darling of her successive British case officers, though you knew her either as Watchman One or as the intrepid Olga Kravitsky, secretary to the Prague Internal Committee on Economic Affairs. We retired her, if you remember, when she was expecting her third baby by her fourth husband, at a special dinner for her in West Berlin while she was attending her last conference of Comecon bankers in Potsdam. Axel kept her on a little longer, before he decided to follow your example.
“I’ve been posted to Berlin,” Pym told Belinda, in the safety of a public park, at the end of his second tour in Prague.
“Why are you telling me?” said Belinda.
“I wondered whether you’d like to come,” Pym replied, and Belinda began coughing again, her long unquenchable cough that she must have picked up from the climate.