Read Agent Running in the Field Online

Authors: John le Carré

Agent Running in the Field (2 page)

2

If this were an official case history, I would kick off with Ed’s full name, parents, date and place of birth, occupation, religion, racial origin, sexual orientation and all
the other vital statistics missing from Alice’s computer. As it is, I will begin with my own.

I was christened Anatoly, later anglicized to Nathaniel, Nat for short. I am five feet ten inches tall, clean-shaven, tufty hair running to grey, married to Prudence, partner for general legal matters of a compassionate nature at an old-established firm of City of London solicitors, but primarily
pro
bono
cases.

In build I am slim, Prue prefers
wiry
. I love all sport. In addition to badminton I jog, run and work out once a week in a gymnasium not open to the general public. I possess a
rugged charm
and the
accessible personality of a man of the world
. I am in appearance and manner
a British archetype
, capable of
fluent and persuasive argument in the short term
. I
adapt to circumstance
and
have
no insuperable moral scruples
. I can be
irascible
and am
not by any means immune to female charms
. I am
not naturally suited to deskwork or the sedentary life
, which is the understatement of all time. I can be
headstrong
and
do not respond naturally to discipline
. This can be
both a defect and a virtue
.

I am quoting from my late employers’ confidential reports on my performance and general
allure over the last twenty-five
years. You will also wish to know that in need I can
be relied upon
to exhibit
the required callousness
, though required by whom, and in what degree, is not stated. By contrast I have a
light touch and a welcoming nature that invites trust
.

At a more mundane level, I am a British subject of mixed birth, an only child born in Paris, my late father being at the
time of my conception an impecunious major of Scots Guards on attachment to NATO headquarters in Fontainebleau, and my mother the daughter of insignificant White Russian nobility residing in Paris. For
White Russian
read also a good dollop of German blood on her father’s side, which she alternately invoked or denied at whim. History has it that the couple first met at a reception held by the last
remnants of the self-styled Russian Government-in-Exile at a time when my mother was still calling herself an art student and my father was close on forty. By morning they were engaged to be married: or so my mother told it, and given her life passage in other areas I have little reason to doubt her word. Upon his retirement from the army – swiftly enforced, since at the time of his infatuation
my father possessed a wife and other encumbrances – the newlyweds settled in the Paris suburb of Neuilly in a pretty white house supplied by my maternal grandparents where I was soon born, thus enabling my mother to seek other diversions.

I have left till last the stately, all-wise person of my beloved language tutor, minder and de facto governess, Madame Galina, purportedly a dispossessed countess
from the Volga region of Russia with claims to Romanov blood. How she ever arrived in our fractious household remains unclear to me, my best guess being that she was the cast-off mistress of a great-uncle on my mother’s side who, after fleeing Leningrad, as it then was, and making himself a second fortune as an art dealer, devoted his life to acquiring beautiful women.

Madame Galina was fifty
if a day when she first appeared in our household, very plump but with a kittenish smile. She wore long dresses of swishy black silk and made her own hats, and lived in our two attic rooms with everything that she owned in the world: her gramophone, her icons, a pitch-dark painting of the Virgin that she insisted was by Leonardo, box upon box of old letters and photographs of grandparental princelings
and princesses surrounded by dogs and servants in the snow.

Second to my personal welfare, Madame Galina’s great passion was for languages, of which she spoke several. I had barely mastered the elements of English spelling before she was pressing Cyrillic script on me. Our bedtime readings were a rotation of the same child’s story, each night a different language. At gatherings of Paris’s fast-dwindling
community of White Russian descendants and exiles from the Soviet Union, I performed as her polyglot poster child. It is said I speak Russian with a French intonation, French with a Russian intonation, and such German as I have with a mixture of both. My English on the other hand remains for better or worse my father’s. I am told it even has his Scottish cadences, if not the alcoholic
roar that accompanied them.

In my twelfth year, my father succumbed to cancer and melancholy and with Madame Galina’s help I attended to his dying needs, my mother being otherwise engaged with the wealthiest of her admirers, a Belgian arms dealer for whom I had no regard. In the uneasy triangle that followed my father’s demise I was deemed surplus to requirements and packed off to the Scottish
Borders, to be billeted in the holidays with a dour paternal aunt, and in term time at a spartan Highlands boarding school. Despite the school’s best efforts not to educate me in any indoor subject, I obtained entry to a university in the English industrial Midlands, where I took my first awkward steps with the female sex and scraped a third-class degree in Slavonic Studies.

I have for the last
twenty-five years been a serving member of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service – to its initiated, the Office.

*

Even today my recruitment to the secret flag appears preordained, for I don’t remember contemplating any other career or wishing for one, except possibly badminton or climbing in the Cairngorms. From the moment my university tutor asked me shyly over a glass of warm white wine whether
I had ever considered doing something ‘a bit hush-hush for your country’ my heart lifted in recognition and my mind went back to a dark apartment in Saint-Germain that Madame Galina and I had frequented every Sunday until my father’s death. It was there that I had first thrilled to the buzz of anti-Bolshevik conspiracy as my half-cousins, step-uncles and wild-eyed great-aunts exchanged whispered
messages from the homeland that few of them had ever set foot in – before, waking to my presence, requiring me to be sworn to secrecy whether or not I had understood the secret I should not have overheard. There also I acquired my fascination for the Bear whose blood I shared, for his diversity, immensity and unfathomable ways.

A bland letter flutters through my letter box advising me to present
myself at a porticoed building close to Buckingham Palace. From behind a desk as big as a gun turret a retired Royal Navy admiral asks me what games I play. I tell him badminton and he is visibly moved.

‘D’you know, I played badminton with your dear father in Singapore and he absolutely trounced me?’

No, sir, I say, I didn’t know, and wonder whether I should apologize on my father’s behalf.
We must have talked of other things but I have no memory of them.

‘And where’s he
buried
, your poor chap?’ he enquires, as I rise to leave.

‘In Paris, sir.’

‘Ah, well. Good luck to you.’

I am ordered to present myself at Bodmin Parkway railway station carrying a copy of last week’s
Spectator
magazine. Having established that all unsold copies have been returned to the wholesaler, I steal one
from a local library. A man in a green trilby asks me when the next train leaves for Camborne. I reply that I am unable to advise him since I am on my way to Didcot. I follow him at a distance to the car park where a white van is waiting. After three days of inscrutable questions and stilted dinners where my social attributes and head for alcohol are tested, I am summoned before the assembled board.

‘And
so
, Nat,’ says a grey-haired lady at the centre of the table. ‘Now that we’ve asked you all about yourself, is there something you’d like to ask
us
for a change?’

‘Well, as a matter of fact there
is
,’ I reply, having first given a show of earnest reflection. ‘You’ve asked me whether you can depend on my loyalty, but can I depend on
yours
?’

She smiles, and soon everyone at the table is smiling
with her: the same sad, clever, inward smile that is the closest the Service ever gets to a flag.

Glib under pressure. Latent aggression good. Recommended.

*

In the same month that I completed my basic training course in the dark arts, I had the good fortune to meet Prudence, my future wife. Our first encounter was not auspicious. On my father’s death a regiment of skeletons had broken loose
from the family cupboard. Half-brothers and half-sisters I had never heard of were laying claim to an estate that over the last
fourteen years had been disputed, litigated and picked clean by its Scottish trustees. A friend recommended a City law firm. After five minutes of listening to my woes, the senior partner pressed a bell.

‘One of our very best young lawyers,’ he assured me.

The door
opened and a woman of my own age marched in. She was wearing a daunting black suit of the sort favoured by the legal profession, schoolmarm spectacles and heavy black military boots on very small feet. We shook hands. She gave me no second look. To the clunk of her boots she marched me to a cubicle with Ms P. Stoneway LLB on the frosted glass.

We sit down opposite each other, she sternly tucks
her chestnut hair behind her ears and produces a yellow legal pad from a drawer.

‘Your profession?’ she demands.

‘Member, HM Foreign Service,’ I reply, and for some unknown reason blush.

After that I remember best her poker back and resolute chin and a stray shaft of sunlight playing on the little hairs of her cheek as I narrate one squalid detail after another of our family saga.

‘I may call
you Nat?’ she asks at the end of our first session.

She may.

‘People call me
Prue
,’ she says, and we set a date for two weeks hence, at which, in the same impassive voice, she gives me the benefit of her researches:

‘I have to inform you, Nat, that if all the disputed assets in your late father’s estate were placed into your hands tomorrow there would not be sufficient funds even to pay my
firm’s fees, let alone settle the outstanding claims against you.
However
,’ she continues before I am able to protest that I will trouble her no further, ‘there
is
provision within the partnership for treating needy and deserving cases on a cost-free basis. And I am
happy to inform you that your case has been deemed to fall within that category.’

She needs another meeting in one week’s time,
but I am obliged to postpone it. A Latvian agent must be infiltrated into a Red Army signals base in Belarus. On my return to British shores I call Prue and invite her to dinner, only to be curtly advised that it is her firm’s policy that client relations should remain on an impersonal footing. However, she is pleased to inform me that as a result of her firm’s representations all claims against me
have been abandoned. I thank her profusely and ask her whether in that case the way is clear for her to have dinner with me. It is.

We go to Bianchi’s. She wears a low-cut summer dress, her hair has come out from behind her ears and every man and woman in the room is staring at her. I quickly realize that my usual patter doesn’t play. We have barely reached the main course before I am being treated
to a dissertation on the gap between law and justice. When the bill comes she takes possession of it, calculates her half to the last penny, adds ten per cent for service and pays me in cash from her handbag. I tell her in simulated outrage that I have never before encountered such barefaced integrity, and she nearly falls off her chair for laughter.

Six months later, with the prior consent of
my employers, I ask her whether she will consider marrying a spy. She will. Now it is the Service’s turn to take her to dinner. Two weeks later, she informs me that she has decided to put her legal career on hold and undergo the Office’s training course for spouses shortly to be posted to hostile environments. She needs me to know that she has taken the decision of her own free will and not for
love of me. She was torn, but was persuaded by her sense of national duty.

She completes the course with flying colours. A week later
I am posted to the British Embassy in Moscow as Second Secretary (Commercial), accompanied by my wife Prudence. In the event, Moscow was the only posting that we shared. The reasons for this do Prue no dishonour. I shall come to them shortly.

For more than two
decades, first with Prue, and then without her, I have served my Queen under diplomatic or consular cover in Moscow, Prague, Bucharest, Budapest, Tbilisi, Trieste, Helsinki and most recently Tallinn, recruiting and running secret agents of every stripe. I have never been invited to the high tables of policy-making, and am glad of it. The natural-born agent-runner is his own man. He may take his orders
from London, but in the field he is the master of his fate and the fate of his agents. And when his active years are done, there aren’t going to be many berths waiting for a journeyman spy in his late forties who detests deskwork and has the curriculum vitae of a middle-ranking diplomat who never made the grade.

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