Authors: John le Carré
The Registrar is a munificent lady, stern in a good cause. She has a pile of blonde hair and marries for a living, year in year out, you can tell by the patient rhythm of her voice. When she goes home to her husband in the evening he says, ‘How many today then, darling?’ and she says ‘Round the clock, Ted’
or George, or whatever his name is, and they settle to the television.
We have reached the high point of the wedding ceremony. There are two sorts of bride in my experience: those who whisper their lines inaudibly and those who belt them out for all the world to hear. Florence belongs to the latter school. Ed takes his cue from her and blurts too, clutching her hand and staring straight into her face in close-up.
The Registrar is displeased. Her eye is
on the clock above the door. Ed is fumbling. He can’t remember which pocket of his new suit he put the ring in and he’s muttering ‘shit’. The Registrar’s displeasure turns to an understanding smile. Got it! – right-hand pocket of his new trousers, same place he keeps his locker key while he’s beating me at badminton, yeah.
They’re exchanging rings. Prue moves to Florence’s left side. The Registrar
is adding her very personal well-wishes. She adds them twenty times a day. Jingle bells are ringing out the glad news of their joining. A second door opens before us. We’re done.
A corridor to our left, another to our right. We are descending the stairwell to the third floor, everyone at a gallop except Florence who is hanging back. Has she changed her mind? The chartered accountants’ receptionist
grins at our approach.
‘I looked it up,’ she says proudly. ‘It’s got red roofs. Tallinn has.’
‘It has indeed, and Mr Bailey assured me we were welcome to use the footbridge any time,’ I tell her.
‘No problem,’ she sings, and presses a yellow button at her side. The electric doors judder and swing slowly apart, and as slowly close behind us.
‘Where are we going?’ Ed asks.
says Prue as we scamper across the Venice-style footbridge with Prue leading and cars passing beneath us.
I’m jogging ahead down the lighthouse stairwell, two steps
at a time. Ed and Florence are level behind me, Prue is bringing up the tail. But what I still don’t know as we enter the underground car park is whether Percy’s people are coming after us, or is it just the clatter of our footsteps
following us down? The hire car is a black hybrid VW Golf. Prue parked it here an hour ago. She has unlocked it and is sitting in the driver’s seat. I am holding the back door open for the bride and groom.
‘Come on, Ed dear. Surprise,’ says Prue smartly.
Ed is uncertain, looks at Florence. Florence skips past me on to the back seat and slaps the empty place beside her.
‘Come on, husband. Don’t
spoil it. We’re off.’
Ed clambers in beside her, I into the front passenger seat. Ed is sitting sideways with his long legs. Prue touches the central locking, drives us as far as the exit and feeds her parking ticket into the machine. The boom shudders upwards. The wing mirrors are so far clear: no car, no motorbike. But none of that means much if Percy’s people have marked Ed’s shoes, or his
new suit, or whatever else they mark.
Prue has pre-entered London City Airport into the satnav and it’s showing as our destination. Damn. Should have thought of it. Didn’t. Florence and Ed are busy necking, but it’s not long before Ed cranes forward and stares at the satnav, then back at Florence:
‘What goes on?’ he asks. And when nobody answers: ‘What’s up, Flo? Tell me. Don’t muck me about.
I don’t want you to.’
‘We’re going abroad,’ she says.
‘We can’t. We haven’t got any luggage. What about all the people we’ve asked to the pub? We haven’t got our bloody passports. It’s crazy.’
‘I’ve got our passports. We’ll get luggage later. Buy some.’
‘Nat and Prue have given us some money.’
Then each with his own silence: Prue beside me, Ed and Florence in the mirror,
sitting wide apart and staring at each other.
‘Because they know, Ed,’ Florence replies at last.
‘Know what?’ Ed demands.
And again we’re just driving along.
‘They know you did what your conscience told you to do,’ she says. ‘They caught you at it and they’re pissed off.’
?’ Ed demands.
‘Your own Service. And Nat’s.’
Service? Nat hasn’t got a Service. He’s Nat.’
Service. He’s one of them. It’s not his fault. So you and me are going abroad for a bit with Nat and Prue’s help. Otherwise it’s jail for both of us.’
‘Is that true about you, Nat?’ Ed asks.
‘I’m afraid it is, Ed,’ I reply.
After that, everything went like a dream. Operationally, about as sweet an exfiltration as you could wish for. I’d done a few in my time, just never from my own country.
No ructions when Prue bought last-minute Club Class tickets to Vienna using her own credit card. No calling of names over loudspeakers at check-in. No come-this-way-please as Prue and I wave the happy couple through the departure gate into Security. True, they didn’t wave back, but then they’d only been married a couple of hours.
True, from the moment Florence blew my cover, Ed didn’t speak to
me, even to say goodbye. He was fine with Prue, muttered ‘Cheers, Prue’ and even managed to plant a peck on her cheek. But when my turn came round, he just peered at me through his big spectacles, then looked away as if he’d seen more than he could take. I had wanted to tell him I was a decent man, but it was too late.
My sincere thanks to the small band of loyal friends and advance readers, some of whom prefer not to be named, who waded through early drafts of this book and were lavish with their time, advice and encouragement. I may mention Hamish MacGibbon, John Goldsmith, Nicholas Shakespeare, Carrie and Anthony Rowell and Bernhard Docke. For what must be half a century, Marie Ingram, the
family’s literary doyenne, has never failed us in her erudition or enthusiasm. The author and journalist Misha Glenny gave me unstintingly of his expertise on matters Russian and Czech. Sometimes I wonder whether my novels stumble deliberately into the labyrinth of English legal practice for the sheer pleasure of having Philippe Sands, writer and Queen’s Counsel, dig me out. He has done so again
this time, while applying his magisterial eye to my textual infelicities. For the poetry of badminton I am indebted to my son, Timothy. To my longstanding assistant, Vicki Phillips, my heartfelt gratitude for her diligence, multiple skills and never-failing smile.
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First published 2019
Copyright © David Cornwell, 2019
The moral right of the author has been asserted
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, companies, events or places is entirely coincidental
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