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John LeCarre - A New Collection of Three Novels Part 43

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"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 d.a.m.ned room still wouldn't settle, it was interfering with his prose.

Boston again.

Pym has been visiting the golden 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 a.s.sume 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. n.o.body was running me. n.o.body 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 Suss.e.x 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 t.i.to and n.o.body 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, a.s.suring 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 Emba.s.sy 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 encompa.s.sable 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 ba.n.a.lity, 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 Amba.s.sador 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?"

"G.o.d's the twelfth man on the cricket team, son. It's G.o.d 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 G.o.d. There never was. Are you glad I paid for your education, then?"

"I'm not conning G.o.d, Father, I'm trying to celebrate with my family."

"Say hullo to Miriam," says Rick, and there is m.u.f.fled 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 Emba.s.sy of yours, son, or is it all Thousand 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 cla.s.s, 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 winegla.s.s 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 b.l.o.o.d.y 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 succ.u.mbed 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 p.r.i.c.kly 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."Certainly he took to wearing liver-coloured spectacles like Aunt Nell. And when he fell foul of the law in Denver, the prison doctor was so impressed by him that he was released the moment Pym had paid the medical fees.

And after Denver you decided you were already dead, didn't you, and set out to haunt me with your smallness? Every town I went to, I walked in fear of your pathetic ghost. Every safe house I entered, I expected to see you waiting at the gate, parading your willed, deliberate littleness. You knew where I would be before I got there. You would con a ticket and travel five thousand miles just to show me how small you had become. And off we'd go to the best restaurant in town, and I would buy you your treat and boast to you about my diplomatic doings and listen to your boastings in return. I would shower you with all the money I could afford, praying that it would enable you to add a few more Wentworths to the green cabinet. But even while I fawned on you and exchanged radiant smiles with you and held hands with you and bolstered you in your idiotic schemes, I knew that you had pulled the best con of them all. You were nothing any more. Your mantle had pa.s.sed to me, leaving you a naked little man, and myself the biggest con I knew.

"Why don't those fellows give you your knighthood, then, old son? They tell me you ought to be Permanent Under Secretary by now. Got a skeleton in your cupboard, have you? Maybe I should slip over to London and have a word with those Personnel boys of yours."

How did he find me? How could it be that his systems of intelligence were better than those of the Agency's leash dogs who were fast becoming my regular, unwelcome companions? At first I thought he was using private detectives. I began collecting the numbers of suspicious cars, noting the times of dead-end phone calls, trying to distinguish them from Langley's. I bearded my secretary: has someone calling himself my sick father been pestering you for information? Eventually I discovered that the Emba.s.sy travel clerk had an addiction to playing English snooker at some Masonic hostel in the dirty part of town. Rick had found him there and pitched him a fatuous cover story: "I've got this d.i.c.ky heart," he'd said to the fool. "It could get me any time, you see, but don't you go telling my boy. I don't like to bother him when he's got enough on his plate as it is. What you're to do, you're to get on the blower to me and give me the wink whenever that boy of mine leaves town, so that I know where to find him when the end comes." And no doubt there was a gold watch in it somewhere. And tickets for next year's Cup Final. And seeing the boy's dear old mother right next time Rick slipped home for a drop of English air.

But my discovery had come too late. We had had San Francis...o...b.. then, and Denver, and Seattle, and Rick had homed on every one of them, weeping and shrinking before my very eyes, until all that was left of Rick was what he owned of Pym; and all that was left of Pym, it seemed to me, as I wove my lies and blandished, and perjured myself before one kangaroo court after another, was a failing con man tottering on the last legs of his credibility.

And that's how it was, Tom. Betrayal is a repet.i.tious trade and I will not bother you with more of it. We have reached the end, though it seems from here to look quite like the beginning. The Firm pulled Pym out of Washington and sent him to Vienna so that he could take back his networks and so that his growing army of accusers could draw its wretched computer pattern tighter round his neck. There was no saving him. Not in the end. Poppy knew that. So did Pym, though he would never admit it, even to himself. Just one more con, Pym kept saying to himself; one more con will see me right. Poppy pressed him, begged him, threatened him. Pym was adamant: Leave me in place, I'll win through, they love me, I've given my life to them.

But the truth is, Tom, that Pym preferred to test the limits of the tolerance of those he loved. He preferred to sit here in Miss Dubber's upper room and wait for G.o.d to come, while he looked down the gardens to the beach where the best pals ever had kicked a football from one end of the world to the other, and ridden their Harrods bicycles across the sea.

18.

It's fireworks night at Plush, thought Mary, staring into the darkness of the square. It's an unlit bonfire waiting for Tom. Through the windscreen of their parked car she gazed at the empty bandstand and pretended she saw the last of her family and retainers crammed into the old cricket pavilion. The m.u.f.fled footsteps were the footsteps of the gamekeepers as they gathered to her brother Sam, back for his last leave. She pretended she could hear her brother's voice, a little too parade-ground for her liking, still scratchy from the strain of Ireland. "Tom?" he calls. "Where's old Tom?"... Not a move. Tom is stuck inside Mary's sheepskin coat, his head jammed against her thigh and nothing short of Christmas is going to lure him out. "Come on, Tom Pym, you're the youngest!" cries Sam. "Where is he?... You'll be too old next year, you know, Tom." Then his brutal dismissal. "f.u.c.k it. Let's have someone else." Tom is shamed, the Pyms are disgraced, Sam as usual is angry that Tom has no taste for blowing up the universe. A braver child puts the match and the world ignites. Her brother's military rockets race over it in perfect salvoes. Everyone is small, looking at the night sky.

She sat at Brotherhood's side and he was holding her wrist the way the doctor held it when she was about to bear her little coward. To rea.s.sure her. To steady her. To say "I am in charge here." The car was parked in a side street and behind them stood the police van and behind the police van stood a caravan of about six hundred parked police cars and radio vans and ambulances and bomb lorries, all occupied by Sam's familiars who spoke soundlessly to one another without moving their eyes. Beside her was a shop called Sugar Novelties with a neon-lit window and a plastic gnome pushing a wheelbarrow laden with dusty sweets, and next to it a granite workhouse with "Public Library" engraved over a funereal door. Across the street stood a hideous Baptist church that told you G.o.d was no fun either. Beyond the church lay G.o.d's square and His bandstand and His monkey-puzzle trees, and between the fourth and fifth tree from the left, as she had counted twenty times, and three-quarters of the way up, hung an arched lighted window with the orange curtains drawn, which my officers advise me is where your husband's room is situated, madam, though our enquiries indicate that he is known locally by the name of Canterbury and is well liked in the community.

"He's always liked," Mary snapped.

But the superintendent was saying this to Brotherhood. He was speaking through Brotherhood's window and deferring to Brotherhood as her keeper. And Mary knew that the superintendent had been ordered to speak to her as little as possible, which came hard to him. And that Brotherhood had given himself the job of answering for her, which the superintendent seemed to accept was as near to G.o.dliness as he was likely to get without having his ears blasted off. The superintendent was a Devon man, and ponderously traditional. I'm so frightfully glad he's being arrested by a Devon man, she thought cruelly, in Caroline Lumsden's Sloane-Ranger twitter. I always think it's so much nicer to be taken prisoner by a man of the soil.

"Are you quite sure you wouldn't like to come into the Church Hall, madam?" the superintendent was saying for the hundredth time. "It's much warmer in the Church Hall and there's some quite fine company. Cosmopolitan, counting the Americans."

"She's best here," Brotherhood murmured in reply.

"Only we can't allow the gentleman to switch on the engine, you see, to be truthful, madam. And if he can't switch on the engine, well you can't have the heating, if you see what I mean."

"I'd like you to go away," Mary said.

"She's all right as she is," said Brotherhood.

"Only it could be all night, you see, madam. Could be all tomorrow too. If our friend decides to stick it out, kind of thing, to be truthful."

"We'll play it as it comes," Brotherhood said. "When you need her, this is where she'll be."

"Well I'm afraid she won't, sir, to be truthful, not when we go in, if we have to. I'm afraid she'll have to withdraw to a somewhat safer position, to be truthful, same as you. Only the rest of them are back in the Church Hall, if you follow me, sir, and the chief constable says that's where all non-combatants have got to be at that stage in the proceedings including the Americans."

"She doesn't want to be with the rest of them," said Mary before Brotherhood could speak. "And she's not American. She's his wife."

The superintendent went away and came back almost immediately. He's the go-between. They've chosen him for his bedside manner.

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John LeCarre - A New Collection of Three Novels Part 43 summary

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