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A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 9


  “A newspaper,” she repeated. “Just a newspaper. What of it?”

  “Which newspaper?”

  “The Presse.”

  “That’s a daily.”

  “Correct. Die Presse is a daily.”

  “A local daily newspaper. And Magnus took it with him. To read in the dark. Dressed in his dancing pumps. Tell me about it.”

  “I just did, Jack.”

  “No, you didn’t. And you’re going to have to, Mary, because when we get the heavy guns here you’re going to need all the help you can get.”

  She had perfect recall. Magnus was standing by the door, a step from where Brotherhood stood now. He was pale and untouchable, the dufflecoat flung crookedly over his shoulders while he glared round in stiff phases: fireplace, wife, clock, books. She heard herself telling him the things she had already recounted to Brotherhood, but more of them. For God’s sake, Magnus, stay. Don’t get the blacks, stay. Don’t sink into one of your moods. Stay. Make love. Get drunk. If you want company, I’ll get Grant and Bee back, or we’ll go there. She saw him smile his rigid, bright-lit smile. She heard him put on his awfully easy voice. His Lesbos voice. And she heard herself repeat his words exactly, to Brotherhood, now.

  “He said, ‘Mabs, where’s the bloody paper, darling?’ I thought he meant The Times for looking at the Scottish property market, so I said, ‘Wherever you put it when you brought it back from the Embassy.’”

  “But he didn’t mean The Times,” said Brotherhood.

  “He went over to the rack—there—” She looked at it but didn’t point, because she was terrified of giving too much importance to the gesture. “And helped himself. To Die Presse. From the rack, where the Presse is kept. Till the end of each week. He likes me to keep the back numbers. Then he walked out,” she ended, making it all sound perfectly normal, which of course it was.

  “Did he look at it at all when he took it out?”

  “Just the date. To check.”

  “What did you suppose he wanted it for?”

  “Maybe there was a late-night film.” Magnus had never gone to a late-night film in his life. “Maybe he wanted something to read in the café.” With no money on him, she thought, as she filled the void of Brotherhood’s silence. “Maybe he was looking for distraction. As we all might be. Have been. Anyone might when they’re bereaved.”

  “Or free,” Brotherhood suggested. But he did not otherwise help her.

  “Anyway, he was so upset he took the wrong day’s,” she said brightly, clinching the matter.

  “You looked, did you, dear?”

  “Only when I was throwing away.”

  “When were you doing that?”

  “Yesterday.”

  “Which one did he take?”

  “Monday’s. It was all of three days old. So I mean obviously he was in considerable shock.”

  “Obviously.”

  “All right, his father wasn’t the great love of his life. But he was still dead. Nobody’s rational when a thing like that happens. Not even Magnus.”

  “So what did he do next? After he’d looked at the date and taken the wrong day’s?”

  “He went out. As I told you. For a walk. You don’t listen. You never did.”

  “Did he fold it?”

  “Really, Jack! What does it matter how somebody carries a newspaper?”

  “Just tuck in your ego a minute and answer. What did he do with it?”

  “Rolled it.”

  “And then?”

  “Nothing. He carried it. In his hand.”

  “Did he carry it back again?”

  “Here to the house? No.”

  “How do you know he didn’t?”

  “I was waiting for him in the hall.”

  “And you noticed: no newspaper. No rolled newspaper, you said to yourself.”

  “Purely incidentally, yes.”

  “Incidentally nothing, Mary. You had it in your mind to look. You knew he’d gone out with it and you spotted at once he’d come back without it. That’s not incidental. That’s spying on him.”

  “Please yourself.”

  He was angry. “It’s you who’s going to have to do the pleasing, Mary,” he said, loud and slow. “You’re going to have to please Brother Nigel in about five minutes from now. They’re in spasm, Mary. They can see the ground opening up at their feet again and they do not know what to do. They literally do not know what to do.” His anger passed. Jack could do that. “And later—as soon as you had a chance—you incidentally searched his pockets. And it wasn’t there.”

  “I didn’t look for it, I simply noticed it was missing. And yes, it wasn’t there.”

  “Does he often go out with old newspapers?”

  “When he needs to keep abreast—for his work—he’s a conscientious officer—he takes a newspaper with him.”

  “Rolled up?”

  “Sometimes.”

  “Bring them back ever?”

  “Not that I remember.”

  “Ever remark on it to him?”

  “No.”

  “He to you?”

  “Jack. It’s a habit he has. Look, I’m not going to have a marital row with you!”

  “We’re not married.”

  “He rolls up a newspaper and walks with it. The way a child carries a stick or something. As a comforter or something. Like his Polos. There. He had Polos in his pocket. It’s the same thing.”

  “Always the wrong date?”

  “Not always—don’t make so much of everything!”

  “And always loses it?”

  “Jack, stop. Just stop. Okay?”

  “Does he do it on any special occasion? Full moon? Last Wednesday of the month? Or only when his father dies? Have you noticed a pattern to it? Go on, Mary, you have!”

  Beat me, she thought. Grab me. Anything is better than that ice-cold stare.

  “It’s sometimes when he meets P,” she said, trying to sound as if she were pacifying a spoilt child. “Jack, for God’s sake, he runs Joes, he lives that life, you trained him! I don’t ask him what his tricks are, what he’s doing with who. I’m trained too!”

  “And when he came back—how was he?”

  “He was absolutely fine. Calm, completely calm. He’d walked it out of himself, I could feel. He was absolutely fine in every way.”

  “No phone calls while he was out?”

  “No.”

  “None after?”

  “One. Very late. But we didn’t answer it.”

  It was not often she had seen Jack surprised. Now he almost was. “You didn’t answer it?”

  “Why should we?”

  “Why shouldn’t you? It’s his job, as you said. His father had just died. Why shouldn’t you answer the phone?”

  “Magnus said don’t.”

  “Why did he say don’t?”

  “We were making love!” she said, and felt like the worst whore ever.

  Harry was looming in the doorway again. He was wearing blue overalls and had a red face from his exertions. He was holding a long screwdriver in his hand and he looked shamefully joyful.

  “Care to pop upstairs a jiffy, Mr. Brotherhood?” he said.

  It’s like our bedroom before the Diplomatic Wives’ jumble sale, with our cast-off clothes all over the bed, she thought. “Magnus, darling, do you really need three worn-out cardigans ?” Clothes over the chairs. Over the dressing-table and the towel-horse. My summer blazer that I haven’t worn since Berlin. Magnus’s dinner-jacket hung from the cheval mirror like a drying hide. There was nothing on the floor because there was no floor. Fergus and Georgie had removed the carpet and most of the floorboards underneath it, and stacked them like sandwiches beneath the window, leaving the joists and the odd plank for a walkway. They had taken the bedside lamps to pieces and the bedside furniture and the telephone and the wake-up wireless. In the bathroom, it was the floor again, and the panel to the bath, and the medicine chest, and the sloped attic door that led to the sloped attic wher
e Tom had hidden for a whole half hour last Christmas playing Murder, and nearly died of fright from being so brave. At the basin, Georgie was working her way through Mary’s things. Her face-cream. Her diaphragm.

  “What’s yours is his, for them, dear, and vice versa,” said Brotherhood as they paused to stare in from the doorless doorway. “There’s no his and hers, not for them—there can’t be.”

  “Not for you either,” she said.

  Tom’s bedroom was across the corridor from theirs. His luminous Superman lay sprawled over the bed, together with his thirty-one Smurfs and three Tiggers. Her father’s campaign table was folded against the wall. The toy chest had been pulled to the centre of the floor, revealing the marble fireplace behind. It was a fine fireplace. Works Department had wanted to board it over to reduce draughts but Magnus hadn’t let them. Instead he had bought this old chest to put across the opening, leaving the mantel visible over it, so that Tom could have a bit of old Vienna all his own. Now the fireplace stood free and the girl Georgie knelt respectfully before it in her fifty-guinea freedom fighter’s tunic. And before Georgie lay a white shoe box with its lid off, and inside the shoe box was a rag bundle, then several smaller bundles around it.

  “We found it on the ledge up above the grate, sir,” said Fergus. “Where it joins the main flue.”

  “Not a speck of dust on it,” said Georgie.

  “Reach up and it’s there,” said Fergus. “Dead handy.”

  “You don’t even have to shove the chest out really, once you get the knack,” said Georgie.

  “Seen it before?” Brotherhood asked.

  “It’s obviously something of Tom’s,” said Mary. “Children will hide anything.”

  “Seen it before?” Brotherhood repeated.

  “No.”

  “Know what’s in it?”

  “How could I if I haven’t seen it?”

  “Easily.”

  Brotherhood did not stoop but held his arms out. Georgie passed the box up to him and Brotherhood took it to the table where Tom did his Spirograph and his Lego and his endless drawings of German aeroplanes being shot down against a Plush sunset, with family in the background, everybody waving, everybody absolutely fine. Brotherhood picked out the biggest bundle first and they looked on while he started to unwrap it and changed his mind.

  “Here,” he said, handing it to Georgie. “Woman’s fingers.”

  She’s one of his mistresses, Mary suddenly realised. She wondered why on earth it hadn’t dawned on her before.

  Georgie rose elegantly to her full height, one leg, other leg, and having fixed her straight hair behind her ears, applied her woman’s fingers to unwinding the strips of bedsheet that Magnus had said he wanted for the car, revealing at last a small, clever-looking camera with a clever steel harness round it. And after the camera a thing like a telescope with a bracket on it which, when you pulled it to its full length, made a stand that you could screw the camera to, face downwards and at a fixed distance, for photographing documents on your father-in-law’s campaign table. After the telescope came a succession of films and lenses and filters and rings and other bits of equipment she could not identify offhand. And underneath these a pad of flimsy cloth-paper with columns of numbers on the top sheet and thickly rubberised edges so that you could only see the top page. Mary knew the type of paper. She had worked on it in Berlin. It shrivelled into fern the moment you put a match near it. The pad was half used. Underneath the pad again, an aged cardboard-backed military jotting pad marked “W.D. Property,” standing for War Department and consisting of unwritten-on lined paper of blotchy wartime quality. And inside it, when Brotherhood continued searching, two pressed red flowers of great age, poppies, but just possibly roses, she was not entirely certain, and anyway by then she was shouting.

  “It’s for the Firm! It’s for his work for you!”

  “Of course it is. I’ll tell Nigel. No problem.”

  “Just because he didn’t tell me about it, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong! It’s for in case he gets landed with documents in the house! At weekends!” And then, realising what she had said: “It’s for his Joes—if they bring him documents, you fool! If Grant does, and he’s got to turn them round at short notice! What’s so fucking sinister about that?”

  Fergus was fingering the half-used pad, turning it over and over, tilting it in the beam of Tom’s Anglepoise lamp.

  “Looks more like your Czech, sir, frankly,” said Fergus, tilting the pad to the light. “It could be Russian but I think Czech’s more likely, frankly. Yes,” he said pleasantly as his eye caught some unexplained feature of the rubber edge. “That’s it. Czech. Mind you, that’s only where they’re made. Who’s dishing them out is another matter. Specially these days.”

  Brotherhood was more interested in the pressed flowers. He had laid them on his palm and was staring at them as if they told his future.

  “I think you’re a bad girl, Mary,” he said deliberately. “I think you know a lot more than you told me. I don’t think he’s in Ireland or the bloody Bahamas. I think that was a lot of smoke. I think he’s a bad man and I’m wondering whether you’re bad together.”

  All constraint left her. She screamed “You shit!” and hit at him with her open hand but he blocked her. He put an arm round her and swung her off the ground as if she had no legs left. He carted her across the corridor to Frau Bauer’s bedroom which was the only room that hadn’t so far been ripped apart. He dumped her on the bed and whisked her shoes off exactly as he used to in the squalid safe flat where he did his screwing. He rolled her into the eiderdown, making a straitjacket of it. Then he lay on her, grappling her into submission while Georgie and Fergus looked on. But somehow, amazingly, throughout all these antics and dramatics, Jack Brotherhood had still contrived to keep hold of the two pressed poppies in his left fist, and kept hold of them even when the doorbell went again, one long peal for authority.

  4

  “To be above the fray,” Pym wrot to himself on a separate sheet of paper. “A writer is King. He should look down with love upon his subject, even when the subject is himself.”

  Life began with Lippsie, Tom, and Lippsie happened long before you came along or anyone else did, and long before Pym was what the Firm calls of marriageable age. Before Lippsie all Pym remembered was an aimless trek through different-coloured houses and a lot of shouting. After her everything seemed to flow in the one unstoppable direction and all he had to do was sit in his boat and let the current carry him. From Lippsie to Poppy, from Rick to Jack, it was all one jolly stream, however much it wriggled and divided itself along the way. And not only life but death began with her as well, for it was actually Lippsie’s dead body that got Pym going, though he never saw it. Others saw it, and Pym could have made the journey because it was in the bell yard and no one covered it for ages. But the little fellow was going through a squeamish and self-centred period at the time and had a notion that if he didn’t see it she might not be dead after all, but pretending. Or that her death was a judgment upon himself for taking part in the recent killing of a squirrel in the empty swimming-pool. The hunt had been led by a wall-eyed maths master called Corbo the Crow. When the squirrel was safely trapped, Corbo sent three boys down the pool ladder with hockey sticks, and Pym was one. “On you go, Pymmie. Give it to him!” Corbo urged. Pym had watched the crippled creature limp towards him. Scared by its pain he had caught it a great swipe, harder than he meant. He had seen it catapult to the next player and lie still. “Good man, Pymmie! Good shot.”

  His other thought was that the Sefton Boyd gang had made the whole thing up to tease him, always possible. So as a stopgap Pym gave himself the desk job of gathering descriptions and forming, in that first rush before the school went silent, a mind’s picture of her that was probably as clear as anybody’s. She lay in a running position, sideways on the flagstones, her forward hand punched towards the finishing line and her rear foot pointing the wrong way. Sefton Boyd, who made the original sightin
g and alerted the Headmaster during school breakfast, actually thought she was running, he said, until he saw the wonky foot. He thought she was doing a special exercise on her side, a sort of kicking, bicycling exercise. And he thought the blood round her was a cape or a towel that she was lying on until he noticed how the old chestnut leaves stuck to it and wouldn’t blow away. He didn’t go close because bell yard was out of bounds, even to sixth-formers, on account of the dangerous roof above it. And he didn’t throw up, he boasted, because us Sefton Boyds own simply masses of land and I’ve done a lot of shooting with my father and I’m accustomed to seeing blood and innards all the time. But he did run up sixth-form staircase to the tower window, which the police said later was where she had fallen from; she must have been leaning out to do something. And it must have been something urgent and important she was leaning out for because she had been wearing her nightdress, having bicycled up the mile-long drive from the Overflow House in the middle of the night. Her bicycle with its tartan cover on the saddle was still leaning against the dustbin shed behind the kitchens.

  Sefton Boyd’s theory, excitedly culled from his father’s life-style, was that she was drunk. Except that he didn’t call her “she” but “Shitlips,” which was his gang’s witty play on Lippschitz. But then again, as he had been suggesting for some time, Shitlips may have been a German spy who had slipped up the tower to send messages after blackout, sir. Because from tower window you can see right the way across the valley to the Brace of Partridges, so it would be a wizard place for signalling to German bombers, sir. The trouble was she had no light with her except her bike lamp, which was still securely on the handlebars. So perhaps she had hidden it in her vagina, which Sefton Boyd claimed to have seen clearly because the fall had ripped her nightdress off.

  Thus the stories went round that morning while Pym stood on the fine wood seat of the staff lavatory which he had made his safe house after the first furore, and held his breath and blushed and turned white in front of the mirror in a series of puzzled efforts to make his face appropriate to his grief. Using the Swiss Army penknife from his pocket, he had sawn off a bit of his forelock as a sort of useless tribute, then loitered, fiddling with the taps and hoping someone was looking for him. Where’s Pym? Pym’s run away! Pym’s dead, too! But Pym hadn’t run away, nor was he dead, and in the chaos of having Lippsie’s body lying in bell yard and ambulance and police arriving, nobody was looking for anybody, least of all in the staff lavatory which was the most out-of-bounds place in the school, so forbidden that Sefton Boyd himself was in awe of it. Classes were cancelled and what you were supposed to do after all the shouting and the clamour was go quietly to your form room and revise—unless, like Pym, you were in the second form which overlooked bell yard, in which case you were to go to the arts hall. This was the converted Nissen hut built by Canadian soldiers where Lippsie taught music and painting and drama and held remedial exercises for boys with flat feet. It was also where she did her typing and paperwork in her capacity as school dogsbody: collecting school fees, paying school bills for the Bursar, ordering taxis for boys in confirmation class and, as such people do, just about running the place single-handed and unthanked. But Pym wouldn’t go to the arts hall either, though he had a half-finished balsa model of a Dornier to work on with his penknife, as well as a half-made plan to copy out some obscure poems from an old book there and claim they were his own. What he had to do, when he found his courage and the moment, was get back to the Overflow House where he had lived till now with Lippsie and the eleven other Overflow Boys. Until he had done that and done something about the letters, he daren’t go anywhere because Rick would go back to prison.