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A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 60


  “Jack Brotherhood can run those networks as well as we can. The head agents are genuine, they report whatever they can get hold of. All networks go moribund now and then. It’s normal.”

  “These networks only go moribund when we are not there, Sir Magnus,” Axel repeated patiently. “That is Langley’s perception. It bothers them.”

  “Then give the networks better material. Signal Prague. Tell your aristos we need a scoop.”

  Axel sadly shook his head. “You know Prague, Sir Magnus. You know my aristos. The man who is absent is the man they conspire against. I have no power to persuade them.”

  Calmly Pym contemplated the option that remained to him. Over dinner in their smart house in Georgetown, while Mary played gracious hostess, gracious English lady, gracious diplomatic geisha, Pym wondered whether it was time to persuade Poppy to cross one more frontier after all. He saw himself free of taint, a husband, son and father in good standing at last. He remembered an old Revolutionary farmhouse he and Poppy had admired in Pennsylvania, set among rolling fields and stone fences, with thoroughbred horses that loomed at them out of the sun-stained morning fog. He remembered the whitewashed churches, so sparkling and hopeful after the musty crypts of his childhood, and imagined the resettled family Pym at work and prayer there, and Axel rocking on the garden swing while he drank vodka and shelled peas for lunch.

  I shall sell Axel to Langley and buy my freedom, he thought as he dazzled a pearly-toothed matron with a witty anecdote. I shall negotiate an administrative amnesty for myself, and put the record straight.

  He never did, he never would. Axel was his keeper and his virtue, he was the altar on which Pym had laid his secrets and his life. He had become the part of Pym that was not owned by anybody else.

  Do I need to tell you, Tom, how bright and dear the world looks when we know our days are numbered? How all life swells and opens to you, and says “Come in” just when you had thought you were unwanted? What a paradise America became once Pym knew the writing was on the wall. All his childhood, rushing back to him! He took Mary to point-to-points at Winterthur in the château country and dreamed of Switzerland and of Ascot. He wandered Georgetown’s beautiful Oak Hill Cemetery and imagined he was with Dorothy at The Glades, confined to the dripping orchard where his guilty face could be hidden from the passers-by. Minnie Wilson was our letter box at Oak Hill, Tom. Our first in all America—go and take a look at her one day. She lies on a curled plinth a short way down the terraced bowl, a small dead Victorian girl in marble drapes. We left our messages in a leafy recess between Minnie’s backside and her protector, one Thomas Entwistle, who had died in later age. The doyen of the graveyard rested higher up, near the gravel sweep where Pym parked his diplomatic car. Axel found him, Axel made sure Pym found him too. He was Stefan Osusky, co-founder of the Czechoslovak Republic, died in exile, 1973. No concealed offering to Axel seemed complete without a silent prayer of greeting to our brother Stefan. After Minnie, as the volume of our business grew, we were obliged to appoint postmen nearer to the centre of the town. We selected forgotten bronze generals, mostly French, who had fought on the American side in order to annoy the British. We relished their soft hats and telescopes and horses, and the flowers in red uniform at their feet. Their battlefields were grass squares filled with lounging students, our letter boxes anything from the stubby cannon that protected them to the stunted conifers whose inner branches made convenient brown nests of pine needles. But Axel’s favourite place of all was the newly opened Air and Space Museum, where he could gaze his heart out at the Spirit of St. Louis and John Glenn’s Friendship 7, and touch the Moon Relic with his forefinger as devoutly as if he were taking water from a holy shrine. Pym never saw him do these things. He could only hear about them afterwards. The trick was to leave their packages in separate lockers in the cloakroom, and swap keys in the darkness of the Samuel P. Langley projection theatre while the audience gasped and clutched the handrails as the screen dazzled them with the thrills of flight.

  And away from the eyes and ears of Washington, Tom? What shall I give you first? Silicon Valley, perhaps, and the little Spanish village south of San Francisco where Murgo’s monks sang plainsong to us after dinner. Or the Dead Sea landscape of Palm Springs, where the golf carts had Rolls-Royce grilles, and the Mountains of Moab looked down on the pastel stucco and artificial-rock pools of our walled motel while illegal Mexicans wandered the lawns with backpacks, blowing away unsightly leaves that could offend the sensibilities of our fellow millionaires. Can you imagine Axel’s ecstasy as he beheld the outdoor air-conditioning machines that moistened the desert air and blew micro-mist over the sunbathers with faces covered in green mud? Shall I tell you of the Palm Springs Humane Society’s dog-adoption dinner we attended to celebrate Pym’s acquisition of the very latest blueprint for the nose cone of the Stealth bomber? How the dogs were led on stage groomed and ribboned, to be auctioned to humane ladies, while everybody wept as if they were Vietnamese orphans? Of the all-day Bible-thumpers’ radio channel that portrayed the Christian God as the champion of wealth, since wealth was the enemy of Communism? “God’s waiting room” is what they call Palm Springs. It has one swimming-pool for every five inhabitants, and lies a couple of hours’ drive from the biggest killing factories in the world. Its industries are charity and death. That night, unknown to the retired bandits and senile comedians who made up its geriatric court, Pym and Axel added espionage to the list of its accomplishments.

  “We shall never fly so high again, Sir Magnus,” Axel said as he reverently surveyed Pym’s offering in the silence of their six-hundred-dollar-a-night suite. “I think we may retire also.”

  Shall I give you Disneyland and another projection room, with a circular screen that showed us the American dream? Can I convince you that Pym and Axel wept sincere tears as they watched the refugees from European persecution set foot on American soil while the commentator spoke of a Nation of Nations and the Land of the Free? We believed it, Tom. And Pym believes it still. Pym never felt more free in his life until the night Rick died. Everything he still contrived to love in himself was here to love in the people round him. A willingness to open themselves to strangers. A guile that was only there to protect their innocence. A fantasy that fired but never owned them. A capacity to be swayed by everything, while still remaining sovereign. And Axel loved them too, but he was not so confident that his affection was reciprocated.

  “Wexler is setting up an investigation team, Sir Magnus,” he warned one night in Boston as they dined in the Colonial dignity of the Ritz Hotel. “Some bad defector has been telling stories. It’s time we got out.”

  Pym said nothing at all. They walked through the park and watched the swan boats on the pond. They sat in a tense, bare Irish pub that seethed with crimes the English had forgotten. But Pym still refused to speak. A few days later, however, visiting an English don at Yale who occasionally supplied the Firm with tidbits, he found himself in front of the effigy of the American hero Nathan Hale, who was hanged by the British as a spy. His hands were bound behind his back. Below him were inscribed his last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” For several weeks after this, Pym went to ground.

  Pym was talking. Pym was on the move. Pym was somewhere in the room, arms locked at his sides, palms splayed like someone wishing to fly or swim. He was sinking into his knees, rolling his shoulders against the wall. He was clutching the green cabinet and shaking it and the cabinet was hobbling in his grasp like an old grandfather clock about to flatten him with its embrace, and the burnbox was bobbing and swaying on top of it saying, “Take me.” He was swearing, all in his head. He was talking, all in his head. He wanted calm from his surroundings but they wouldn’t give it him. He was at his desk again and the sweat was patting on the paper round him. He was writing. He was calm, but the damned room still wouldn’t settle, it was interfering with his prose.

  Boston again.

  Pym has been visiting the go
lden semicircle that lies along Route 128. Welcome to America’s Technological Highway. It is a place like a crematorium without a smokestack. Discreet, low-lying factories and laboratories crouch amid shrubberies and landscaped mounds. He has picked the brains of a British delegation and taken a few forbidden photographs with a concealed camera in his briefcase. He has lunched privately at the home of a great American patriarch of industry named Bob, whom he has befriended for his indiscretion. They have sat on the verandah, they have gazed across a garden of descending lawns which a black man is sedately mowing with a triple cutter. After lunch Pym drives to Needham, where Axel is waiting for him beside a bend in the Charles River, which serves them as their local Aare. A heron skims over the blue-green rushes. Red-tailed hawks eye them from dead trees. Their path climbs deep into the woods, along a raised esker.

  “So what’s the matter?” says Axel finally.

  “Why should anything be the matter?”

  “You are tense and you are not speaking. It is reasonable to assume something is the matter.”

  “I’m always tense for a debriefing.”

  “Not tense like this.”

  “He wouldn’t talk to me.”

  “Bob wouldn’t?”

  “I asked him how the Nimitz refitting contract was going. He replied that his corporation was making great strides in Saudi Arabia. I asked him about his discussions with the Admiral of the Pacific Fleet. He asked me when I was going to bring Mary up to Maine for the weekend. His face has changed.”

  “How?”

  “He’s angry. Somebody’s warned him about me. I think he’s more angry with them than he is with me.”

  “What else?” says Axel patiently, knowing that with Pym there is always one more door.

  “I was followed to his house. A green Ford, smoked windows. There’s nowhere to hang around and American watchers don’t walk, so they left again.”

  “What else?”

  “Stop asking what else!”

  “What else?”

  Suddenly a great gulf of caution and mistrust separated them.

  “Axel,” said Pym finally.

  It was unusual for Pym to address him by name; the proprieties of espionage normally restrained him.

  “Yes, Sir Magnus.”

  “When we were in Bern together. When we were students. You weren’t, were you?”

  “Not a student?”

  “You weren’t spying on anyone. On the Ollingers. On the Cosmo. On me. You hadn’t got people running you in those days. You were just you.”

  “I was not spying. Nobody was running me. Nobody owned me.”

  “Is that true?”

  But Pym knew already that it was. He knew it by the rare glow of anger that shone in Axel’s eyes. By the solemnity and distaste in his voice.

  “It was your idea that I was a spy, Sir Magnus. It was never mine.”

  Pym watched him light a fresh cigar and noticed how the flame of the match trembled.

  “It was Jack Brotherhood’s idea,” Pym corrected him.

  Axel drew on the cigar and his shoulders slowly relaxed. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It is simply unimportant at our age.”

  “Bo’s authorised a hostile interrogation,” said Pym. “I’m flying back to London on Sunday to face the music.”

  Who should talk to Axel of interrogation? And of a hostile one at that? Who should dare compare the nocturnal posturings of a couple of the Firm’s tame barristers in a safe house in Sussex with the beatings and electric shocks and deprivations that for two decades had been Axel’s irregular fare? I blush now to think I used the word to him at all. In ’52, as I learned later, Axel had denounced Slansky and demanded the death sentence for him—not very loud because he was half dead himself.

  “But that’s terrible!” Pym had cried. “How can you serve a country that does that to you?”

  “It was not terrible at all, thank you. I should have done it earlier. I secured my survival and Slansky would have died whether I denounced him or not. Give me another vodka.”

  In ’56 he went down again: “That time it was less problematic,” he explained, lighting himself a fresh cigar. “I denounced Tito and nobody even bothered to go and kill him.”

  In the early sixties, while Pym was in Berlin, Axel had rotted for three months in a mediaeval dungeon outside Prague. What he promised that time has always been unclear to me. It was the year when the Stalinists themselves were purged, if only halfheartedly, and Slansky was declared alive again, if only posthumously. (Though he was still ruled to be guilty of his offences, you will remember, if only innocently.) In any case, Axel came back looking ten years older, and for some months had a soft “r” in his speech that was very like a stammer.

  Beside experience like this, the inquisition of Pym was watery stuff indeed. Jack Brotherhood was there to defend him. Personnel fussed over him like an old hen, assuring him it was just a matter of answering a few questions. Some chinless flunkey from Treasury kept warning my persecutors they were in danger of exceeding their brief, and my two gaolers insisted on talking to me about their children. After five days and nights of it, Pym felt as spry as if he had been taking a country holiday, and his interrogators were out on their feet.

  “Good trip, darling?” Mary asked, back in Georgetown, after a morning in bed in which Pym had temporarily slaked the tension.

  “Great,” said Pym. “And Jack sends love.”

  But on his walk to the Embassy he saw a new white arrow chalked on the brickwork of the Fayre-deal wine shop, which was Axel’s warning to attempt no contact until further notice.

  And here, Tom, it is time for me to tell you what Rick was doing, for your grandfather had one last trick to play before the end. It was his best, as you would suppose. Rick shrank. He abandoned monstrosity as a way of life, and came weeping and cringing to me like a whipped animal. And the smaller and more encompassable he became, the less secure Pym felt. It was as if the Firm and Rick were closing in on him from either side, each with his regretful, hangdog banality, and Pym, like an acrobat on the high wire between them, suddenly had nothing to support him. Pym implored him in his mind. He screamed at him: Stay bad, stay monstrous, keep your distance, don’t give up! But on Rick came, shuffling and smirking like a pauper, knowing his power was greatest now that he was weak. “I did it all for you, son. It’s thanks to me you’ve taken your place among the Highest in the Land. Got a few coppers for your old man, have you? How about a nice mixed grill, or are you ashamed to take your old pal out?”

  He struck first one Christmas Day, not six weeks after Pym had received a formal apology from Head Office. Georgetown had two feet of snow and we had asked the Lederers to lunch. Mary was putting the food on the table as the phone rang. Will Ambassador Pym accept a collect call from New Jersey? He will.

  “Hullo, old son. How’s the world using you?”

  “I’ll take this upstairs,” says Pym grimly to Mary, and everybody looks understanding, knowing that the secret world never sleeps.

  “Happy Christmas, old son,” says Rick as Pym picks up the bedroom phone.

  “And Happy Christmas to you, too, Father. What are you doing in New Jersey?”

  “God’s the twelfth man on the cricket team, son. It’s God who tells us to keep the left elbow up through life. No one else.”

  “So you always said. But it’s not the cricket season. Are you drunk?”

  “He’s umpire, judge and jury rolled into one and never you forget it. There’s no conning God. There never was. Are you glad I paid for your education, then?”

  “I’m not conning God, Father, I’m trying to celebrate with my family.”

  “Say hullo to Miriam,” says Rick, and there is muffled protest before Miriam comes on the line.

  “Hullo, Magnus,” says Miriam.

  “Hullo, Miriam,” says Pym.

  “Hullo,” says Miriam a second time.

  “They feed you all right in that Embassy of yours, son, or is it all Th
ousand Island and French fries?”

  “We have a perfectly decent canteen for the lower staff but at the moment I’m trying to eat at home.”

  “Turkey?”

  “Yes.”

  “English bread sauce?”

  “I expect so.”

  “That grandson of mine all right then, is he? He’s got the forehead, has he, the one I gave you that everybody talks about?”

  “He’s got a very good brow.”

  “Blue eyes, same as mine?”

  “Mary’s eyes.”

  “I hear she’s first class, son. I hear first-rate reports of her. They say she’s got a fine piece of property down in Dorset that’s worth a bob or two.”

  “It’s in trust,” says Pym sharply.

  But Rick has already begun drowning in the gulf of his own self-pity. He weeps, the weep becomes a howl. In the background, Miriam is weeping, too, in a high-pitched whimper, like a small dog locked in a big house.

  “But darling,” says Mary as Pym resumes his place as head of the family. “Magnus. You’re upset. What’s the matter?”

  Pym shakes his head, smiling and crying at once. He grabs his wineglass and lifts it.

  “To absent friends,” he calls out. “To all our absent friends!” And later, for a wife’s ears only: “Just an old, old Joe, darling, who managed to track me down and wish me happy bloody Yule.”

  Would you ever have supposed, Tom, that the greatest country in the world could be too small for one son and his old man? Yet that is what happened. That Rick should head for wherever he could use his son’s protection was, I suppose, only natural and after Berlin, probably inevitable. He went first, as I now know, to Canada, unwisely trusting in the bonds of Commonwealth. The Canadians quickly tired of him and when they threatened to repatriate him he made a small down payment on a Cadillac and headed south. In Chicago, my enquiries show that he succumbed to the many enticing offers from property companies to move into new developments on the edge of town and live rent-free for three months as an inducement. A Colonel Hanbury resided at Farview Gardens, a Sir William Forsyth graced Sunleigh Court, where he extended his tenancy by conducting protracted negotiations to buy the penthouse for his butler. What either of them did for liquidity is, as ever, a mystery, though no doubt there were grateful Lovelies in the background. The one clue is a prickly letter from the stewards of a local turf club, advising Sir William that his horses will be welcome when his stable fees have been settled. Pym was still only vaguely aware of these distant rumblings, and his absences from Washington gave him a false sense of protection. But in New Jersey something changed Rick for ever, and whatever it was, from then on Pym became his only industry. Was the same wind of reckoning blowing over both men simultaneously? Was Rick really ill? Or was he, like Pym, merely conscious of impending judgment? Certainly Rick thought he was ill. Certainly he thought he ought to be: “Am obliged to use strong walking-stick (twenty-nine dollars cash) at all times owing to Heart and other more sinister Ailments”—he wrote—“My doctor keeps the Worst from me and recommends that Frugal diet (plain foods and Champagne only, no Californian) could Prolong this Meagre existence and enable me to Fight back for a few more Months before I am Called.”