Authors: John le Carré
exactly?’ she resumes as soon as we set off.
‘Well, we’re not talking
, Steff,’ I reply, which is pilot error on my part:
Humour at serious moments is simply an escape route as far as Steff’s concerned.
‘So how?’ she persists, gnawing at the subject of persuasion.
‘Well, Steff, a lot of people will do a lot of things for
and a lot of people will do things for
. There are also people who do things for an
, and wouldn’t take your money if you shoved it down their throats.’
‘And what ideal would that be exactly,
?’ – from behind the shiny goggles. It’s the first time for weeks that she’s called me Dad. Also I notice that she is not swearing, which with Steff can be a bit of a red warning light.
‘Well, let’s say, just for instance,
somebody has an idealistic vision of England as the mother of all democracies. Or they love our dear Queen with an unexplained fervour. It may not be an England that exists for
any more, if it ever did, but they think it does, so go with it.’
think it does?’
‘Well, who wouldn’t have, for Christ’s sake?’ I reply, stung
by the suggestion
that I’ve somehow failed to notice that the country’s in free fall. ‘A minority Tory cabinet of tenth-raters. A pig-ignorant foreign secretary who I’m supposed to be serving. Labour no better. The sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit’ – I break off. I have feelings too. Let my indignant silence say the rest.
have serious reservations?’ she insists in her purest tone. ‘Even very serious.
Too late I realize I have left myself wide open, but perhaps that was what I wanted to achieve all along: to give her the victory, acknowledge I’m not up to the standards of her brilliant professors, and then we can all go back to being who we were.
‘So if I’ve got this right,’ she resumes, as we embark on our next ascent, ‘for the sake of a country that you have serious reservations about,
serious, you persuade
nationals to betray their
countries.’ And as an afterthought: ‘The reason being that
don’t share the same reservations that
country, whereas they
have reservations about their own country. Yes?’
At which I let out a merry exclamation that accepts honourable defeat while simultaneously asking for mitigation:
‘But they’re not
innocent lambs, Steff! They
Or most of them do. And we look after them. We welfare them. If it’s money they’re after, we give them a pot of it. If they’re into God, we do God with them. It’s whatever works, Steff. We’re their friends. They trust us. We provide for their needs. They provide for ours. It’s the way of the world.’
But she’s not interested in the way of the world. She’s
interested in mine, as becomes apparent on the next ride up:
‘When you were telling
people who to be, did you ever consider who
‘I just knew I was on the right side, Steff,’ I reply, as my gall begins to rise despite Prue’s best injunctions.
‘And what side’s that?’
‘My Service. My country. And yours too, actually.’
And on our absolutely last ride up, after I have composed
‘Did you have
while you were abroad?’
‘Did your mother say I did?’
‘Then why the hell don’t you mind your own bloody business?’ I snap before I can stop myself.
‘Because I’m not my bloody mother,’ she yells back with equal force.
On which unhappy note we uncouple for the last time and make our separate ways down to
the village. Come evening, she declines all offers to blow the walls out with her Italian buddies, insisting that she needs to go to bed. Which she duly does, after drinking a bottle of red burgundy.
And I, after a decent interval, relay our conversation in broad-brush to Prue, omitting for both our sakes Steff’s gratuitous parting question. I even try to convince us both that our little talk
was mission accomplished, but Prue knows me too well. On the flight back to London next morning Steff seats herself on the other side of the aisle. Next day – the eve of her return to Bristol – she and Prue have the most godawful bust-up. Steff’s fury, it emerges, is directed not at her father for being a spy, or even for persuading other chaps to be spies, male or female, but at her own long-suffering
mother for keeping such a monumental secret from her own daughter, thereby violating the most sacred trust of womanhood.
And when Prue gently points out that the secret was not hers
to divulge but mine, and probably not mine either but the Office’s, Steff flounces out of the house, goes to ground at her boyfriend’s place and travels alone to Bristol, arriving two days late for the start of term
after sending the boyfriend to collect her luggage.
Does Ed put in a guest appearance anywhere in this family soap opera? Of course he doesn’t. How could he? He never left the island. Yet there was a moment – a mistaken one, but memorable nonetheless – when a young fellow walked in on Prue and myself while we were enjoying a
croûtes au fromage
and carafe of white in the Trois Sommets ski hut
that overlooks the whole terrain, and he could have been Ed’s double. In the flesh. Not an effigy, but himself.
Steff was having a lie-in. Prue and I had skied early and were planning a gentle teeter down the hill and bed. And lo and behold in walked this Ed-like figure in a bobble hat – same height, same air of being alone, aggrieved and slightly lost – stubbornly stamping the snow off his boots
in the doorway while he held everyone up, then yanking off his goggles and blinking round the room as if he’d mislaid his specs. I had even flung up my arm halfway in greeting before stopping myself.
But Prue, quick as ever, intercepted the gesture. And, when for reasons that still elude me I demurred, she demanded a full and frank explanation. So I gave her a capsule version: there was this
boy at the Athleticus who wouldn’t leave me alone till I’d agreed to give him a game. But Prue needed more. What had struck me so deeply about him on such brief acquaintance? Why had I reacted so spontaneously to his lookalike – not my style at all?
To which it seems I reeled off a string of answers that, being
Prue, she remembers better than I do: an oddball, I seem to have said, something courageous
about him; and how, when a rowdy bunch at the bar had tried to take the mickey out of him, he’d gone on hammering away at me till he’d got what he wanted and, implicitly telling them to go screw themselves, pushed off.
If you love mountains as much as I do, coming down from them is always going to be depressing, but the sight of a run-down three-storey red-brick eyesore in a Camden back street
at nine a.m. on a rain-drenched Monday when you haven’t got the least idea of what you’ll do with it when you get inside takes some beating.
How any substation came to finish up in this neck of the woods was a mystery in itself. How it had acquired the ironic sobriquet of
was another. There was a theory the place had been used as a safe house for captured German spies in the ’39–’45
war; another that a former Chief had kept his mistress here; and yet another that Head Office, in one of its endless policy lurches, had decreed that security was best served by scattering its substations across London, and the Haven by its sheer insignificance had got overlooked when the policy was scrapped.
I mount the three cracked steps. The peeling front door opens before I have a chance
to insert my aged Yale key. Directly in front of me stands the once redoubtable Giles Wackford, overweight and leaky-eyed, but in his day one of the smartest agent-runners in the Office stable, and just three years older than myself.
‘My dear fellow,’ he declares huskily through last night’s whisky fumes. ‘Punctilious to the minute as ever! My warmest salaams to you, sir. What an honour! Can’t
think of a better chap to succeed me.’
Then meet his team, which is dispersed in two-man outposts up and down a narrow wooden staircase:
, depressed sixty-five-year-old Lithuanian, one-time controller of the best Cold War Balkan network the Office ever ran, now reduced to handling a stable of tame office cleaners, doormen and typists employed by soft foreign embassies.
reputed Estonian lover, widow of a retired Office agent who died in Petersburg when it was still Leningrad.
, a tubby, feisty, Russian-speaking Scottish daughter of part-Norwegian parents.
And last little
, a sharp-eyed Russian-speaking Anglo-Finnish boy I had recruited as a double agent in Helsinki five years ago. He had gone on to work for my successor on the promise of resettlement
in the UK. At first Head Office wouldn’t go near him. It was only after my repeated representations to Bryn Jordan that they agreed to take him on as a member of the lowest form of secret life: junior clerical assistant cleared to Grade C. With cries of Finnish joy, he seizes me in a Russian-style embrace.
And on a top floor condemned to eternal darkness, my ragtag support staff of clerical assistants
with bicultural backgrounds and elementary operational training.
Only after we have seemingly completed our grand tour and I am beginning to wonder whether my promised number two exists at all does Giles rap ceremoniously on a stippled-glass door that leads from his own musty office, and there in what I suspect was once a maid’s room I have my first sight of the youthful, bold-faced, stately
figure of Florence, fluent Russian-speaker, second-year probationer, latest addition to substation Haven and, according to Dom, its white hope.
‘Then why hasn’t she gone straight to Russia department?’ I had asked him.
‘Because we deemed her a trifle
, Nat,’ Dom had replied loftily in his borrowed speak, implying that he had been at the
centre of the decision. ‘Talented yes, but we thought
we should give her another year to settle.’
Talented but needs to settle
. I had asked Moira for a sight of her personal file. True to form, Dom had filched the best line.
Suddenly everything the Haven undertakes is Florence-driven. Or so it is in my memory. There may have been other deserving projects, but from the moment my eye lighted on draft
it was the only show in our
very small town, and Florence was its only star.
On her own initiative she had recruited the disaffected mistress of a London-based Ukrainian oligarch codenamed Orson who had well-documented links to both Moscow Centre and pro-Putin elements in the Ukrainian Government.
Her ambitious plan, luridly overstated, called for a Head Office stealth team to break into Orson’s £75 million Park Lane duplex,
bug it to the rafters and make constructive adjustments to a bank of computers installed behind a steel door halfway up the marble staircase leading to the panoramic lounge.
As currently presented, Rosebud’s chances of getting the green light from Operations Directorate were in my judgement zero. Illegal break-ins were a highly competitive field. Stealth teams were gold dust. Rosebud in its present
state would be just one more unheard voice in a noisy marketplace. Yet the further I delved into Florence’s presentation, the more convinced I became that, with ruthless editing and smart timing, Rosebud could deliver actionable high-grade intelligence. And in Florence, as Giles was at pains to inform me over a nocturnal bottle of Talisker whisky in the back kitchen of the Haven, Rosebud had
found an implacable if obsessive champion:
her own shoe-leather work,
paperwork. From the day she dug Orson out of the files she’s been living and dreaming the bugger. I said to her: you got a vendetta against this fellow? Didn’t even laugh. Said he was a blight on humanity and needed flushing out.’
Long pull of whisky.
‘Girl doesn’t just cosy up to Astra and make
her a friend for life’ –
being the codename of Orson’s disenchanted mistress – ‘she stitches up the night porter of the target building into the bargain. Spins the fellow this yarn that she’s working undercover for the
doing a feature on the lifestyle of London’s oligarchs. Night porter falls in love with her, believes every word she says. Any time she wants to take a look inside
the lion’s cage, five thousand quid out of the
’s reptile fund and it’s hers for the asking.
, my arse. Balls like an elephant’s.’
I organize a quiet lunch with Percy Price, all-powerful head of Surveillance, an empire to itself. Protocol requires that I invite Dom along. It is quickly evident that Percy and Dom are not made for each other, but Percy and I go back a long
way. He is a gaunt and taciturn ex-policeman in his fifties. Ten years ago, with the assistance of one of his stealth teams and an agent I was running, we stole a prototype missile from the Russian exhibition stand at an international arms fair.
‘My boys and girls keep bumping into this Orson fellow,’ he complains thoughtfully. ‘Every time we turn over a shifty billionaire with his finger in
the Russian pie, Orson pops up. We’re not case officers, we’re watchers. We watch what we’re told to watch. But I’m very glad somebody’s decided to go after him at last, because him and his lot have been bothering me for a very long time.’
Percy will see if he can give us a window. It will be touch-and-go, mind, Nat. If Ops Directorate decide at the eleventh hour that another bid is stronger,
there’s nothing Percy or anyone else can do about it.