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He stared at me, slowly waking. "I had to give it back to Sergei. 'When we're in Moscow, Cyril,' he said, 'you shall have it hanging on your wall and framed in gold. Not here. I wouldn't put you in the danger.'
He'd thought of everything, Sergei had, and he was quite right, what with you and your HQ snooping on me night and day."
I allowed no pause, no alteration in my voice, not even in the direction of casualness. I lowered my eyes again and dug once more in my inside pocket. I was his candidate as Sergei's replacement, and he was courting me. He was showing me his tricks and asking me to take him on. Instinct told me to make him work harder for me. I addressed myself to the notebook again, and I spoke exactly as if I were asking him the name of his maternal grandfather.
"So when did you start giving Sergei all these great British secrets?" I said. "Well, what we call secrets, anyway. Obviously what was secret a few years ago is not going to be the same as what's secret today, is it? We didn't win the Cold War by secrecy, did we? We won it with the openness. The glasnost. " It was the second time I had mentioned pa.s.sing over secrets, but on this occasion, when I crossed the Rubicon for him, he came with me. Yet he seemed not even to notice he was on the other side.
"Correct. That's how we won it. And Sergei didn't even want the secrets at first, either. 'Secrets, Cyril, they're unimportant to me,' he said. 'Secrets, Cyril, in the changing world in which we live, I'm pleased to say, they're a drug on the market,' he said. 'I'd rather keep our friendship on a non-official basis. However, if I do require something in that line, you may count on me to let you know.'
In the meantime, he said, it would be quite sufficient if I wrote him a few unofficial reports on the quality of Radio Moscow's programmes just to keep his bosses happy. Whether the reception was good enough, for example. You'd think they'd know that, really, but they don't. You never know with Russians where you're going to strike the ignorance in them, to be frank. That's not a criticism, it's a fact. He'd like my opinion of the course as well, he said, the standard of instruction generally, any suggestions I might have for Boris and Olga in the future, me being somewhat of an unusual pupil in my own right."
"So what changed it?"
"Changed what? Be lucid, please, Ned. I'm not n.o.body, you know. I'm not Mr. Nemo. I'm Cyril."
"What changed Sergei's reluctance to take secrets from you?" I said.
"His Emba.s.sy did. The diehards. The barbarians. They always do. They prevailed on him. They declined to recognise the course of history; they preferred to remain total troglodytes in their caves and continue with their ridiculous Cold War."
I said I did not understand him. I said he was a bit above my head.
"Yes, well I'm not surprised. I'll put it this way. There was a lot of them in that Emba.s.sy didn't like the time given, over to cultural friendship, for a start. There was this internal rivalry going on between the camps. I was an impotent spectator. The doves, they were in favour of the culture, naturally, and above all they were in favour of the glasnost. They saw culture filling the vacuum left behind by the withdrawal of hostilities. Sergei explained that to me.
But the hawks - including the Amba.s.sador, I regret to say - wanted Sergei concentrating more on the continuation of old att.i.tudes, what's left of them, gathering intelligence and generally acting in an aggressive and conspiratorial manner regardless of the changes in the world climate. The Emba.s.sy diehards didn't care about Sergei being an idealist, not at all. Well, they wouldn't, would they, any more than what Gorst does. Sergei had to tread a highly precarious path, frankly, a bit for one side, then a bit for the other. So did I, it was duty. We'd do our culture together, a bit of language, a bit of art or music; then we'd do some secrets to satisfy the hawks. We had to justify ourselves to all parties, same as you with your HQ and me with the Tank."
He was fading, I was losing him. I had to use the whip. "So when?' I asked impatiently.
"Don't be clever with me, Cyril, do you mind? I've got to get this down. Look at the time. When did you start giving Sergei Modrian information, what did you give him, what for, how mucb for, when did it stop, and why, when it could perfectly well have continued? I'd like a weekend, Cyril, if you don't mind. So would my wife. I'd like to put my feet up in front of the telly. I'm not paid overtime, you know. It's strictly piecework, what they offer. One candidate's the same as another, when it comes to payday. We're living in a time of cost effectiveness, in case you haven't noticed. They tell me we could be privatised if we're not careful."
He didn't hear me. He didn't want to. He was wandering, in his body and in his mind, looking for distraction, for somewhere to hide. My anger was not all simulated. I was beginning to hate Modrian. I was angry about how much we depended on the credulity of the innocent in order to survive. It was sickening me that a trickster like Modrian had contrived to turn Frewin's loneliness to treachery. I felt threatened by the notion of love as the ant.i.thesis of duty.
I stood up smartly, anger still my ally. Frewin was perched listlessly on the edge of a carved Arthurian stool with the Royal Navy's ensign st.i.tched into the seat.
"Show me your toys," I ordered him.
"What toys? I'm a man, if you don't mind, not an infant. It's my house. Don't tell me what to do."
I was remembering Modrian's tradecraft, the stuff he used, the way he equipped his agents. I was remembering my own tradecraft, from the days when I had run Frewin's counterparts against the Soviet target, even if they were not quite as mad. as Frewin. I was imagining how I would have handled a high-access walk-in like Frewin, living on borrowed sanity.
"I want to see your camera, don't I?" I said petulantly. "Your high-speed transmitter, right, Cyril? Your signals plan. Your onetime codepads. Your crystals. Your white carbons for your secret writing. Your concealment devices. I want to see them, Cyril, I want to put them in my briefcase for Monday; then I want to go home and watch a.r.s.enal against United. That may not be your taste, but it happens to be mine. So can we move this along a bit and cut out the bulls.h.i.t, please?"
The madness was running out, I could feel it. He was drained and so was I. He sat head down and knees spread, staring dully at his hands. I could sense the end beginning in him-the moment when the penitent grows tired of his confession and of the emotions that compelled it.
"Cyril, I'm getting a bit edgy," I said.
And when he still didn't respond, I strode to his telephone, the same one that Monty's fake engineer had made permanently live. I dialled Burr's direct line and heard his fancy secretary the other end, the same one who hadn't known my name.
I said. "I'm going to be about another hour, if I'm lucky. I've got a slow one. Yes, all right, I know, I'm sorry. Well, I said I'm sorry. Yes, of course."
I rang off and stared at him accusingly. He climbed slowly to his feet and led me upstairs. His attic was a spare bedroom, roof high. His radio receiver stood on a table in the corner-German, just as Monty had said. I switched it on while he watched me, and we heard an accented female Russian voice talking indignantly about Moscow's criminal mafia.
"Why do they do that?" Frewin burst out at me, as if I were responsible. "The Russians. Why do they run down their own country all the time? They never used to. They were proud. I was proud too. All the cornfields, the cla.s.slessness, the chess, the cosmonauts, the ballet, the athletes. It was paradise till they started running it down. They've forgotten the good in themselves. It's b.l.o.o.d.y disgraceful. That's what I told Sergei."
"Then why do you still listen to them?" I said.
He was almost weeping, but I pretended not to notice.
"For the message, don't I?"
"Make it snappy, will you, Cyril!"
"Telling me I'm reactivated. That I'm wanted again. 'Come back, Cyril. All is forgiven, love, Sergei.'
That's all I need to hear."
"How would they say that?"
" 'There's white paint on the dog, Olga .' . . . 'We need a spot of white paint on the bookshelf, Boris.' . . . 'Oh dear, oh dear, Olga, look at the cat, someone has dipped her tail in white paint. I hate cruelty,' says Boris. Why don't they say it when I'm listening?"
"Let's just stick to the method, can we? All right, you hear the message. On the radio. Olga or Boris says 'white paint.'
Or they both do. Then what do you do?"
"Look in my signals plan."
I held out my hand, commanding him with my snapping fingers. "Hurry!" I said.
He hurried. He found a wooden hairbrush. Pulling the bristles from the casing, he shoved his big fingers into the gap and hauled out a piece of soft, flammable paper with times of the day and wavebands printed in parallel. He offered it to me, hoping it would satisfy. I took it from him without pleasure and snapped it into my notebook, glancing at my watch at the same moment.
"Thanks," I said curtly. "More, please, Cyril. I need a codebook and a transmitter. Don't tell me you haven't got them, I'm not in the mood."
He was grappling with a tin of talc.u.m powder, tugging at the base, trying desperately to please me. He talked nervously while he shook the powder into the handbasin.
"I was respected, you see, Ned, you don't get that a lot. There's three of these. Olga and Boris tell me which to use, like with the white paint except it was the composers. Tchaikovsky was number three, Beethoven was number two, Bach was one. They did them alphabetical to help me remember. You get the glimpses but you don't get the friends, not normally, do you? Not unless you meet Sergci or one of his lot."
The powder was all poured away. Three radio crystals lay in his palm, together with a tiny codepad and an eye-gla.s.s to enlarge it.
"He had all I'd got, Sergei did. I gave it to him. He'd tell me a thing, I'd add it to my life. I'd have a mood, he'd get me straight again. He understood. He could see right into me. It gave me a feeling of being known, which I liked. It's gone now. It's been posted back to Moscow."
His rambling was scaring me. So was his feverish desire to pacify me. If I had been his hangman, he would have been gratefully loosening his tie.
"Your transmitter," I snapped. "What the h.e.l.l's the good of a crystal and a codepad if you can't send!"
At the same terrible pace, he bent his swelled body to the floor and rolled back a corner of the tufted Wilton carpet.
"I haven't got a knife actually, Ned," he confessed.
Neither had I, but I dared not leave him, I dared not break my command over him. I crouched beside him. He was peering vaguely at a loose floorboard, trying to raise it with his thick fingertips. Clenching my fist, I punched one end of the board, and had the satisfaction of seeing the other end lift.
"Help yourself," I said.
It was old stuff, I could have guessed, nothing they cared about any more - a rig of grey boxes, a squash transmitter, a lash-up to be fitted to his receiver. Yet he handed it to me proudly, in its tangled mess.
A terrible anxiety had entered his eyes. "All I am now, you see, Ned, I'm a hole," he explained. "I don't mean to be morbid, do I, but I don't exist. This house isn't anything either. I used to love it. It looked after me, same as I looked after it. We'd have been nothing without each other, this house and me. It's hard for you to understand that, I dare say, if you have a wife, what a house is. She'd come between you. You and the house, I mean. Your wife. You and him. Modrian. I loved him, Ned. I was infatuated. 'You're too much, Cyril,' he used to say. 'Cool down. Relax. Take a holiday. You're hallucinating.' I couldn't. Sergei was my holiday."
"Camera," I ordered.
He didn't read me at once. He was obsessed with Modrian. He looked at me, but it was Modrian he saw.
"Don't be like that," he said, not understanding.
"Camera!" I yelled. "For Christ's sake, Cyril, don't you ever have a weekend?"
He stood at his wardrobe. Camelot sword blades carved on oak doors. "Camera!"
I shouted louder as he still hesitated. "How can you slip film to a good friend at the opera if you haven't photographed your files in the first place?"
"Take it easy, Ned. Cool down, will you? Please."
Grinning in a superior way, he reached a hand into the wardrobe. But his eyes were ogling me, saying "Now watch this."
He groped in the wardrobe, smiling at me mysteriously. He pulled out a pair of opera gla.s.ses and trained them on me, first the right way, then back to front. Then he handed them to me so that I could do the same to him. I took them in my hands and felt their unnatural weight at once. I turned the central dial until it clicked. He was nodding at me, encouraging me, saying "Yes, Ned, that's the way."
He grabbed a book from the bookshelf and opened it at the centre, All the World's Dancers, ill.u.s.trated. A young girl was doing a pas de chat. Sally too had been at ballet school. He unbuckled the neck strap and I saw that the short end did duty as a measuring chain. He took the binoculars from me and trained them on the book, measured the distance and turned the dial till it clicked.
"See?" he said proudly. "Comprenez, do you? They made it specially. For me. For opera nights. Sergei designed it personally. There's a lot of idleness in Russia, but Sergei had to have the best. I'd stay in late at the Tank. I'd photograph the whole weekly float for him if I felt like it, then give him the film while we were sitting in the stalls. I'd give it to him in one of the arias, usually - it was a sort of joke between us."
He handed the binoculars back to me and drifted down the room, scrabbling his fingertips on his bare scalp as if he had a full head of hair. Then he held out his hands like someone testing the atmosphere for rain.
"Sergei had the best of me, Ned, and he's gone. C'est la vie, I say. Now it's up to you. Have you got the courage? Have you got the wit? That's why I wrote to you. I had to. I was empty. I didn't know you, but I needed you. I wanted a good man who understood me. A man I could trust again. It's up to you, Ned. Now's your chance. Jump out of yourself and live, I say, while there is yet time. That wife of yours is a bit of a bully, by the sound of her. You'd be well advised to tell her to live her own life instead of yours. I should have advertised, shouldn't I?"
A terrible smile, which he turned full upon me. "Single man, non-smoker, fond of music and wit. I peruse those columns sometimes-who doesn't? I contemplate replying sometimes, except I'd never know how to break it off if I wasn't suited. So I wrote you a letter, didn't I? It was like writing to G.o.d in a way, till you came along in your shabby coat and asked a lot of spotty questions, no doubt drafted by HQ It's time you stood on your own feet, Ned, same as me. You're cowed, that's your trouble. Your wife is partly to blame, in my opinion. I listened to your voice while you were apologising and I was not impressed. You won't reach out to take. Still, I reckon I could make something of you, and you could make something of me, too. You could help me dig my pool. I could show you music. That's evens, right? n.o.body's impervious to music. I only did it because of Gorst." His voice leapt in horror. "Ned! Leave that alone, do you mind! Take your thieving hands off my property, Ned. Now!" I was fingering his Markus typewriter. It was in the wardrobe where he kept his opera gla.s.ses, stowed under a few shirts. Signed A. Patriot, I thought. "A" standing for Anyone's, I thought. Anyone who loved him. I'd guessed already and he'd told me already, but the sight of it had excited both of us with a sense of ending.
"So why did you break it off with Sergei?" I asked him, still fingering the keys.
But this time he didn't rise to my flattery. "I didn't break it off. He did. I haven't ended it now, not if you're stepping into his shoes. Put that away. Cover it over the way you found it, thank you."
I did as he asked. I hid the evidence of the typewriter.
"What did he say?" I asked carelessly. "How did he break it to you? Or did he write and run?"
I was thinking of Sally again.
"Not a lot. You don't need a lot of words when someone's stuck in London and you're in Moscow. The silence speaks for itself."
He wandered over to his radio and sat before it. I followed close on his heels, ready to restrain him.
"Let's plug her in, shall we, have a nice listen. I could still get a 'Come back, Cyril,' you never know."
I watched him set up his transmitter, then fling open the leaded window and toss out the hairline-aerial, which was like a fishing line with a lead sinker but no hook. I watched him peer at his signals plan and type out SOS and his callsign on his squash recorder. Then he linked the recorder to the transmitter and, with a whizz, sent it into the ether. He did this several times before he switched over to receive, but nothing came and he didn't expect it to; he was showing me that it never would again.
"He did tell me it was over," he said, staring at the dials. "I'm not accusing him. He did say."
"What was over? Spying?"
"Oh no, not spying, that'll go on for ever, won't it? Communism, really. He said Communism was just another minority religion these days, but we hadn't woken up to the fact. 'Time to hang up your boots, Cyril. Better not come to Russia if you're rumbled, Cyril. You'd be a bit of an embarra.s.sment to the new climate. We might have to give you back as a gesture. We're out of date, you see, you and me. Moscow Centre's decided. It's hard currency that talks to Moscow these days. They need all the pounds and dollars they can get. So I'm afraid we're on the shelf, you and me, we're de trop and slightly deja vu, not to say a rather large embarra.s.sment to all concerned. Moscow can't afford to be seen running Foreign Office cypher clerks with access to top secret and above, and they rather regard you and me as more of a liability than an a.s.set, which is the reason why they're calling me home. My advice to you, Cyril, therefore, is to take a nice long holiday, see a doctor and get some sun and rest, because between you and me you're showing signs of being slightly barking. We'd like to do right by you but we're a bit strapped for hard currency, to be frank. If you'd like a modest couple of thousand, I'm sure we can do you a small something in a Swiss bank, but the larger sums are unavailable till further notice.'
He was like a different person talking to me, to be honest, Ned," he continued, in a tone of valiant incomprehension. "We'd been these great friends and he didn't want me any more. 'Don't take life so hard, Cyril,' he says. He keeps telling me I'm under strain, too many people inside my head. He's right really, I suppose. I lived the wrong life, that's all. You don't know till it's too late, though, do you, sometimes? You think you're one person, you turn out to be another, same as opera. Still, not to worry, I say. Fight another day. Say not the struggle naught availeth. All grist to the mill. Yes."
He had pulled back his soft shoulders and inflated himself somehow, seeing himself as a person superior to events. "Right, then," he said, and we returned spryly to the drawing room.
We had finished. All that remained was to mop up the missing answers and obtain an inventory of what he had betrayed.
We had finished, but it was I, not Frewin, who was resisting the final step. Sitting on the arm of the sofa, he turned his head away from me, smiling over-brightly and offering me his long neck for the knife. But he was waiting for a strike that I was refusing to deliver. His round bald head was craned tensely upward while he leaned away from me as if saying, "Do it now, hit me here."
But I couldn't do it. I made no move towards him. I had the notebook in my hand, and enough written down for him to sign and destroy. himself. But I didn't move. I was on his stupid side, not theirs. Yet what side was that? Was love an ideology? Was loyalty a political party? Or had we, in our rush to divide the world, divided it the wrong way, failing to notice that the real battle lay between those who were still searching, and those who, in order to prevail, had reduced their vulnerability to the lowest common factor of indifference? I was on the brink of destroying a man for love. I had led him to the steps of his own scaffold, pretending we were taking a Sunday stroll together.
I had to repeat his name.
"What is it?"
"I'm supposed to take a signed statement from you."
"You can tell HQ that I was furthering understanding between great nations," he said helpfully. I had the feeling that if he had been able, he would have told them for me. "Tell them I was putting an end to the mindless and incredible hostility I had observed for many years in the Tank. That should keep them quiet."
"Well, they did guess it would be something like that," I said. "It's just that there's a bit more to it than you understand."
"Also, put in that I wish for a posting. I should like to leave the Tank forthwith and earn out my retirement in a non-cla.s.sified appointment. I'll accept demotion, I've decided. I'm not short of a bob or two. I'm not proud. A change of work is better than a holiday, I say. Where are you going, Ned? The facilities are the other way."
I was heading for the door. I was heading for sanity and escape. It was as if my world had reduced itself to this dreadful room. "Just back to the office, Cyril. For an hour or so. I can't produce your statement out of a hat for you, you know. It's got to be properly drawn up on the right forms and so forth. Never mind about the weekend. I never like weekends anyway, to be truthful. Holes in the universe, if you want my secret opinion, weekends are."
Why was I speaking with his cadences? "Not to worry, Cyril. I'll see myself out. You get some rest."
I wanted to escape before they came. Looking past Frewin's head to the window, I could see Monty and two of his boys climbing out of their van, and a black police car pulling up outside the house-for the Service, thank G.o.d, has no powers of arrest.
But Frewin was talking again, the way the dying go on talking after you think they're dead.
"I can't be left alone, Ned, you see. Not any more. I can't explain it to a stranger, Ned, what I've done, not all over again, no one can."