Authors: John le Carré
Christmas is approaching. My day of reckoning has come. Deep in the catacombs
of my Service’s headquarters beside the Thames, I am led to a small, airless interviewing room and received by a smiling, intelligent woman of indeterminate age. She is Moira of Human Resources. There has always been something a little alien about the Moiras of the Service. They know more about you than you know yourself but they’re not telling you what it is, or whether they like it.
,’ Moira asks keenly. ‘Has she survived her law firm’s recent merger? It was upsetting for her, I’m sure.’
Thank you, Moira, it wasn’t upsetting at all, and congratulations on doing your homework. I would expect no less.
, is she? You’re
well?’ – with a note of anxiety I choose to ignore. ‘Now that you’re safely
‘Absolutely fine, Moira. Very happily reunited,
And now kindly read me my death warrant and let’s get this over with. But Moira has her methods. Next on her list comes my daughter Stephanie.
‘And no more of those
, I trust, now that she’s safely at university?’
‘None whatever, Moira, thanks. Her tutors are over the moon,’ I reply.
But all I’m really thinking is: now tell me that a Thursday evening has been set for
my farewell knees-up because nobody likes Fridays, and would I care to take my cup of cold coffee three doors down the corridor to Resettlement section, who will offer me tantalizing openings in the arms industry, private contracting or other laying-out places for old spies such as the National Trust, the Automobile Association and private schools in search of assistant bursars. It therefore comes
as a surprise to me when she announces brightly:
‘Well, we do have
slot for you actually, Nat, assuming you’re up for it.’
Up for it? Moira, I am up for it like no one on earth. But only warily up for it, because I think I know what you’re about to offer me: a suspicion that turns to certainty when she launches on a child’s guide to the current Russian threat.
‘I don’t have to tell you
that Moscow Centre is running us absolutely
in London, as everywhere else, Nat.’
No, Moira, you don’t have to tell me. I’ve been telling Head Office the same thing for years.
‘They’re nastier than they ever were, more brazen, more meddlesome and more numerous. Would you say that was fair comment?’
I would, Moira, I would indeed. Read my end-of-tour report from sunny Estonia.
since we kicked out their
spies in bulk’ – meaning
spies with diplomatic cover, so my sort – ‘they’ve been flooding our shores with
,’ she goes on indignantly, ‘who I think you’ll agree are the most troublesome of the species
the most difficult to smell out. You have a question.’
Give it a try. Worth a shot. Nothing to lose.
‘Well, before you go any further, Moira.’
‘It just occurred to me there might be a slot for me in Russia department. They’ve got a full complement of upmarket young desk officers, we all know
. But what about an experienced visiting fireman, a seasoned, native-grade Russian-speaker such as myself who can fly anywhere at the drop of a hat and take first bite of any potential Russian defector or agent who pops up at a station where nobody
speaks a word of the language?’
Moira is already shaking her head.
‘No dice, I’m afraid, Nat. I floated you with Bryn. He’s adamant.’
There’s only one Bryn in the Office: Bryn Sykes-Jordan, to give him his full name, shortened to Bryn Jordan for common usage, ruler-for-life of Russia department and my one-time head of Station in Moscow.
‘So no dice
?’ I insist.
‘You know very well why.
Because Russia department’s average age is thirty-three, even with Bryn’s added in. Most have DPhils,
have fresh minds,
have advanced computer skills. Perfect as you are in every respect, you don’t quite meet those criteria. Well, do you, Nat?’
‘And Bryn isn’t around by any chance?’ I ask, a last-ditch appeal.
‘Bryn Jordan, even as we speak, is embedded up to his neck in Washington DC,
doing what only Bryn can do to salvage our embattled special relationship with President Trump’s intelligence community post-Brexit, and
on no account
to be disturbed,
thank you, even by you, to whom he sends his affectionate regards and condolences. Clear?’
‘However,’ she continues, brightening, ‘there is one opening for which you
eminently qualified. Even
we go. The nightmare offer I’ve seen coming from the start.
‘Sorry, Moira,’ I cut in. ‘If it’s Training section, I’m hanging up my cloak. Very good of you, very thoughtful, all the above.’
I appear to have offended her, so I say sorry again and no disrespect to the fine upstanding men and women of Training section, but it’s still thanks but no thanks, upon which her face breaks into an unexpectedly
warm if somewhat pitying smile.
Training section, actually, Nat, although I’m sure you’d do very well there. Dom is keen to have a word with you. Or should I be telling him you’re hanging up your cloak?’
‘Dominic Trench, our recently appointed head of London General. Your one-time head of Station in Budapest. He says the two of you got on like a house on fire. I’m sure you will
again. Why are you looking at me like that?’
‘Are you seriously telling me Dom Trench is head of London General?’
‘I don’t think I’d
to you, Nat.’
‘When did that happen?’
‘A month ago. While you were asleep in Tallinn not reading our newsletters. Dom will see you at ten tomorrow morning prompt. Confirm with Viv first.’
How splendid you look! The sailor home from the sea indeed. Fit as a fiddle and half your age!’ cries Dominic Trench, bounding from his directorial desk and seizing my
right hand in both of his. ‘All that hard work in the gym, no doubt. Prue well?’
‘Fighting fit, Dom, thank you. Rachel?’
‘Marvellous. I’m the luckiest man on earth. You must meet her, Nat. You and Prue. We’ll make a dinner, the four of us. You’ll love her.’
Rachel. Peeress of the realm, power in the Tory Party, second wife, recent union.
‘And the kids?’ I ask gingerly. There had been two by
his nice first wife.
‘Superb. Sarah’s doing marvellously at South Hampstead. Oxford squarely in her sights.’
‘Twilight time. He’ll be out of it soon and following in his sister’s footsteps.’
‘And Tabby, may one ask?’ Tabitha his first wife and, by the time they broke up, a neurotic wreck.
‘Doing nobly. No new man in sight so far as we know, but one lives in hope.’
It’s my guess
that there’s a Dom somewhere in everyone’s life: the man – it always seems to be a man – who takes you
aside, appoints you his only friend in the world, regales you with details of his private life you’d rather not hear, begs your advice, you give him none, he swears to follow it and next morning cuts you dead. Five years ago in Budapest he was turning thirty, and he’s turning thirty now: the
same croupier’s good looks, striped shirt, yellow braces more befitting a twenty-five-year-old, white cuffs, gold links and all-purpose smile; the same infuriating habit of placing his fingertips together in a wedding arch, leaning back and smiling judiciously at you over the top of them.
‘Well, congratulations, Dom,’ I say, gesturing at the executive armchairs and Office ceramic coffee table
for grade threes and above.
‘Thank you, Nat. You’re most kind. Took me by surprise, but when the call comes, we rally. Coffee at all? Tea?’
‘Milk? Sugar? The milk’s soy, I should add.’
‘Just black, thank you, Dom. No soy.’
Does he mean
the smart man’s version these days? He puts his head round the stippled-glass door, engages in stage banter with Viv, sits again.
‘And London General still has the same old remit?’ I enquire lightly, recalling that Bryn Jordan had once described it in my hearing as the Office’s home for lost dogs.
‘Indeed, Nat. Indeed. The same.’
‘So all London-based substations are nominally under your command.’
‘UK-wide. Not only London. The whole of Britain. Excluding Northern Ireland. And still totally autonomous, I’m pleased to say.’
‘Administratively autonomous? Or operationally too?’
‘In what sense, Nat?’ – frowning at me as if I’m out of court.
‘Can you, as head of London General, authorize your own operations?’
‘It’s a blurred line, Nat. As of now, any operation proposed by a substation must notionally be signed off by the regional department concerned. I’m fighting it, practically as we speak.’
He smiles. I smile.
Battle joined. In synchronized movements we taste our coffees with no soy and replace our cups on their saucers. Is he about to confide some unwanted intimacy about his new bride? Or explain to me why I’m here? Not yet, apparently. First we must have a jaw about old times: agents we shared, I as their handler, Dom as my useless supervisor. First on his list is Polonius, lately of the Shakespeare
network. A few months back, having Office business in Lisbon, I had gone to see old Polonius in the Algarve in an echoing new-build beside an empty golf course that we had bought for him as part of his resettlement package.
‘Doing all right, Dom, thank you,’ I say heartily. ‘No problems with his new identity. Got over his wife’s death. He’s all right, really. Yes.’
‘I hear a
in your voice,
Nat,’ he says reproachfully.
‘Well, we promised him a British passport, didn’t we, Dom, if you remember. Seems to have got lost in the wash after your return to London.’
‘I shall look into it at once’ – and a note to himself in ballpoint to prove it.
‘He’s also a bit cut up that we couldn’t get his daughter into Oxbridge. He feels all it needed was a nudge from us and we didn’t provide it.
Or you didn’t. Which is the way he sees it.’
Dom doesn’t do guilt. He does injured or he does blank. He opts for injured.
, Nat,’ he complains wearily. ‘Everyone thinks the old universities are an
. This is wrong. You have to go
from one college to the other, cap in hand. I shall chase it’ – another ballpoint note.
Second on his list of topics is Delilah, a colourful
seventy-something Hungarian woman member of parliament who took the Russian rouble then decided she preferred the British pound before it collapsed.
‘Delilah’s in great shape, Dom, thanks, just great. A bit fed up to discover my successor was a woman. She said that for as long as I was running her, she could dream that love was round the corner.’
He has a grin and a shake of the shoulders about
Delilah and her many lovers, but no laughter comes out. Sip of coffee. Return cup to saucer.
’ – plaintively.
‘I’d really thought this was going to be a flashbulb moment for you.’
‘And why would that be, Dom?’
‘Well, for heaven’s sake! I’m offering you a golden opportunity to remodel, single-handed, a home-based Russian outstation that’s been in the shade too long. With your expertise
you’ll put it right in – what? – six months max? It’s creative, it’s operational, it’s you. What more can you want at your time of life?’
‘I’m afraid I’m not with you, Dom.’
‘No. I’m not.’
‘You mean they didn’t
‘They said talk to you. I’m talking to you. That’s as far as we’ve got.’
‘You walked in here
. Sometimes I wonder what those fucking Human
Resources people think they’re up to. Was it Moira you saw?’
‘Maybe she thought it was better coming from you, Dom,
whatever it is. I think you said home-based Russian outstation that’s been in the shade too long. There’s only one I know of and it’s the Haven. It’s
an outstation, it’s a defunct substation under the aegis of London General and it’s a dumping ground for resettled defectors
of nil value and fifth-rate informants on the skids. Last heard of, the Treasury were about to wind it up. They must have forgotten. Is that what you’re seriously offering me?’
‘The Haven is
a dumping ground, Nat – far, far from it. Not on my watch. It’s got a couple of officers who are long in the tooth, I grant you. And sources still waiting to realize their potential. But there’s first-rate
material in there for the man or woman who knows where to look.
of course’ – as an afterthought – ‘it’s wide open to anyone who earns their spurs in the Haven to be considered for promotion to Russia department.’
‘So is that something you might be considering for yourself, by any chance, Dom?’ I enquire.
‘Is what, old boy?’
‘Making a career move to Russia department. On the back of the
He frowns and purses his lips in disapproval. Dom is nothing if not transparent. Russia department, preferably head of it, is his life’s dream. Not because he knows the terrain, has the experience or speaks Russian. He doesn’t do any of those things. He’s a late-entrant City boy, headhunted for reasons I suspect not even he can fathom, with no linguistic qualifications worth a damn.
‘Because if that’s what’s in your mind, Dom, I’d like to make the same journey with you, if that’s all right,’ I press on facetiously or playfully or angrily, I’m not sure which. ‘Or might you be planning to rip the labels off my reports and stick on your own, the way you did in Budapest? Just asking, Dom.’
Dom thinks about this, which means he first looks at me over his wedding-arch fingers,
then into the middle distance, then back at me again to make sure I’m still there.
‘Here’s my offer to you, Nat, take or leave. In my capacity as head of London General. I am formally offering you the opportunity to succeed Giles Wackford as head of substation Haven. For as long as I engage you on a temporary basis, you’re within my gift. You’ll be taking over Giles’s agents
his Station imprest
forthwith. Also his entertainment allowance, what’s left of it. I’m suggesting you hit the ground running and pick up on the rest of your home leave at a later date. What’s your question?’
‘Doesn’t play for me, Dom.’
‘And why would that be, pray?’
‘I have to talk this whole thing through with Prue.’
‘And when you and Prue have so talked?’
‘Our daughter Stephanie is about to celebrate her
nineteenth birthday. I’ve promised to take her and Prue for a week’s skiing before she goes back to Bristol.’
He cranes forward, frowning theatrically at a wall calendar.
‘She’s in her second semester.’
‘I am asking when you leave on your holiday.’
‘At five a.m. from Stansted on Saturday, if you’re thinking of joining us.’
‘Assuming you and Prue have talked things over by
then and come to a satisfactory conclusion, I suppose I can have Giles hold the fort at the Haven till Monday week, if he hasn’t rolled off his perch by then. Would you be happy with that, or miserable?’
Good question. Would I be happy? I’ll be in the Office, I’ll be
working on the Russia target, even if I’m living off scraps from Dom’s table.
But will Prue be happy?
The Prue of today is
not the dedicated Office spouse of more than twenty years ago. As selfless, yes, and upright. And as much fun when she lets her hair down. And as determined as ever to be of service to the world at large, just never again in a secret capacity. The impressive junior lawyer who had taken courses in counter-surveillance, safety signals and the filling and clearing of dead letter boxes had indeed accompanied
me to Moscow. For fourteen exacting months we had shared the perpetual stress of knowing that our most intimate exchanges were listened to, watched over and analysed for any hint of human weakness or lapse in security. Under the impressive guidance of our head of Station – the same Bryn Jordan who today was huddled in anxious conclave with our intelligence partners in Washington – she had
played the starring role in husband-and-wife setpiece charades scripted to deceive the opposition’s eavesdroppers.
But it was during our second back-to-back stint in Moscow that Prue discovered she was pregnant, and with pregnancy came an abrupt disenchantment with the Office and its works. A lifetime of deception no longer appealed to her, if it ever had. Neither did a foreign birthplace for
our child. We returned to England. Perhaps when the baby is born, she’ll think differently, I told myself. But that was not to know Prue. On the day Stephanie was born, Prue’s father dropped dead of a heart attack. On the strength of his bequest, she paid cash down for a Victorian house in Battersea with a large garden and an apple tree. If she had stuck a flag in the ground and said ‘Here I stay’,
not have made her intentions more clear. Our daughter Steff, as we were soon calling her, would never become the kind of diplomatic brat we had seen too many of, over-nannied and shuffled from country to country and school to school in the wake of their mothers and fathers. She would occupy her natural place in society, attend state schools, never private or boarding schools.
would Prue herself do with the rest of her life? She would take it up where she had left it. She would become a human rights lawyer, a legal champion of the oppressed. But her decision implied no sudden separation. She understood my love of Queen, country and the Service. I understood her love of law and human justice. She had given the Service her all, she could give no more. From the earliest
days of our marriage she had never been the sort of wife who can’t wait for the Chief’s Christmas party or the funerals of revered members or At Homes for junior staff and their dependants. And I for my part had never been a natural for get-togethers with Prue’s radically minded legal colleagues.
But neither of us could have foreseen that as post-Communist Russia, against all hope and expectation,
emerged as a clear and present threat to liberal democracy across the globe, one foreign posting would follow on the heels of the last and I would become a de facto absentee husband and father.
Well, now I was home from the sea, as Dom had kindly said. It hadn’t been easy for either of us, Prue particularly, and she had every reason to hope that I was back on dry land for good and looking for
a new life in what she referred to, a little too often, as the real world. A former colleague of mine had opened up an outward-bound club for disadvantaged kids in Birmingham and swore he’d never been so happy in his life. Hadn’t I once talked of doing just that?