Read Agent Running in the Field Online

Authors: John le Carré

Agent Running in the Field (7 page)

‘Our
joint
proposal, Nat, as agreed between us. The Haven and London General
marching forward side by side.’

‘And the accredited author is who precisely?’

‘Your intrepid number two is designated as the operation’s author despite her status as a probationer, and in that capacity will make her formal presentation in accordance with traditional practice in the Operations room this coming Friday at ten-thirty a.m. sharp. Does that satisfy you?’

Not till I have it in writing,
Dom. I call Viv, who is turning out to be an ally. She emails me the formal confirmation. Dom and I to share equal billing. Florence the acknowledged author. Only now do I feel free to text Ed. Sorry for the short notice and all that, is he by any chance still up for this coming Monday?

Ed is.

*

No sweaty grey suit and bicycle clips this time, no grumbling about lorry drivers or pea-brained
employers, no imitation-leather briefcase. Just jeans, sneakers, open-necked shirt and a wide, very happy grin under the cyclist’s shell hat that he’s unbuckling. And I must say that after three solid weeks of day-and-night hard labour, that grin and the up-and-down handshake are a tonic.

‘First you chickened, then you scraped up your courage, right?’

‘Quivering in my boots,’ I agree cheerfully
as we set off at light-infantry pace for the changing room.

The game was again needle. But this time no spectators, so tension of the right kind only. As before we were neck and neck till the last few rallies, but to my vexation – but also my relief, because who wants an opponent he can beat every time? – he pipped me fair and square to the post, at which point I was even quicker than he was
to insist we move to the bar for that snoot of his. On Mondays you get only a sprinkling of members, but either out of impulse or habit I made for the traditional watcher’s corner, a tin-topped table for two set away from the swimming pool and up against the wall with a line of sight to the doorway.

And from then on, without a word from either of us, that isolated tin table became what my mother
in her German moments would have called our
Stammtisch
– or, as my
chers collègues
would have it, crime scene – whether for our regular Monday evenings, or stolen weeknights between.

*

I had not expected that first post-badminton beer to be anything more than the usual formality: loser buys first pint, winner the second if anybody wants one, trade pleasantries, fix a return date, shower, go
our ways. And since Ed was of an age where life begins at nine p.m., I assumed we’d just do the one pint and I’d cook myself an egg because Prue would be hunkered down in Southwark with her beloved
pro bono
clients.

‘You a London man then, Nat?’ Ed asks, as we settle to our pints.

I acknowledge that I am indeed such a man.

‘What sort then?’

This is further than people normally go at the Club,
but never mind.

‘Just hunting around really,’ I reply. ‘Been earning my bread abroad for a while. Now I’m back home and looking for something
to get my teeth into.’ And for good measure: ‘And meanwhile helping an old buddy straighten out his business,’ I add, in a well-tried routine. ‘How about you, Ed? Alice let slip that you were a
researcher
. Is that about right?’

He ponders my question as
if no one’s ever asked it before. He seems mildly irritated to be pegged down.

‘Researcher, yeah. That’s me.’ And after a period of reflection: ‘Research. Stuff comes in. Sort it. Push it out to the punters. Yeah.’

‘So the daily news, basically?’

‘Yeah. Whatever. Home, foreign, fake.’

‘And corporate, presumably?’ I suggest, recalling his invective against his employers.

‘Yeah. Very corporate
mindset indeed. Toe the line or you’re fucked.’

I assume he’s said all he wants to say because he has lapsed again into his own thoughts. But he goes on:

‘Still. Got a couple of years in Germany out of it, didn’t I?’ he says, consoling himself. ‘Loved the country, didn’t like the job a lot. So I came home.’

‘To the same sort of job?’

‘Yeah, well, same shit, different branch really. I thought
it might get better.’

‘But it hasn’t.’

‘Not really. Still, stick it out, I suppose. Make the best of it. Yeah.’

And that was the net sum of our exchanges about our respective occupations, which was fine by me and I assume fine by both of us, because I don’t remember either of us ever going there again, however dearly my
chers collègues
wished to believe otherwise. But I do remember as if it
were tonight how abruptly our discussion changed course once we had laid the issue of our occupations to rest.

For a while Ed had been scowling into the middle distance and, judging by his rictal grimaces, debating some weighty matter with himself.

‘Mind if I ask you a question, Nat?’ he enquires in a blurt of sudden resolve.

‘Of course I don’t,’ I say hospitably.

‘Only I respect you quite
a lot actually. Although it’s short acquaintance. It doesn’t take long to know a person once you’ve played them.’

‘Go on.’

‘Thank you. I will. It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United
States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none. And what I’m asking is: do you in broad principle agree with me, or have I offended you and would it be better if I got up and left now? Yes or no?’

Surprised by this unprompted appeal to my political sympathies from a young man I am barely beginning
to know, I preserve what Prue calls my decent silence. For a while he stares sightlessly at the people splashing in the pool, then comes back to me.

‘My point being that I would
not
wish to be sitting here with you under false pretences, given that I have admired your play, and you personally. Brexit is the most important decision facing Britain since 1939, in my opinion. People say 1945 but
I’m not at all sure why, frankly. So all I’m asking is, do you agree with me? I know I’m over-earnest. I’ve been told. Plus a lot of people don’t like me because I’m outspoken, which I am.’

‘In the workplace?’ I enquire, still buying time.

‘The workplace is a total washout as regards what I would term free speech. In the workplace it is mandatory to have no strongly held opinion on any subject.
Otherwise you’re a leper. It is therefore my policy to keep my mouth firmly shut at all times in the workplace, hence I am regarded as surly. However, I could name to you many other places where people do not like hearing the hard truth, or not from me. Even if such people profess an admiration for Western democracy, they still prefer the easy life as opposed to recognizing their duty as responsible
opponents of the encroaching fascist enemy. But I note you have still not answered my question.’

Let me say here and now, precisely as I repeated the same message
ad nauseam
to my
chers collègues
, that although the word
clusterfuck
had not so far entered my vocabulary, Brexit had long been a red rag to me. I am European born and bred, I have French, German, British and Old Russian blood in my
veins and am as much at home on the Continent of Europe as I am in Battersea. As to his larger point about the dominance of white supremacists in Trump’s America – well, there too we were not at odds, and neither were many of my
chers collègues
, however much they might later wish themselves into a more neutral posture.

All the same, I had qualms about giving him the answer he was demanding. First
question as always: is he setting me up, is he trying to draw me out or compromise me? To which with absolute confidence I could reply no: not this young man, not in a month of Sundays. So next question: do I ignore Old Fred the Swatownese barman’s hand-scrawled message stuck to the mirror behind the bar: ‘NO BREXIT TALK ALOUD’?

And finally, do I forget that I’m a civil servant, albeit a secret
one, pledged to uphold my government’s policy, assuming it has one? Or do I rather say to myself: this is a courageous and sincere young fellow – eccentric, yes, not everyone’s cup of tea
and the better for it in my opinion – whose heart is in the right place, is in need of someone to listen to him, is only seven or eight years older than my daughter – whose radical views on any known topic are
a fact of family life – and plays a very decent game of badminton?

Then add another ingredient to the mix, one that only now I am willing to admit to, although I believe it was present in me from our first improbable exchange. I am speaking of an awareness on my part that I was in the presence of something rare in the life I had so far led, and particularly in such a young man: namely true conviction,
driven not by motives of gain or envy or revenge or self-aggrandizement, but the real thing, take it or leave it.

Fred the barman pours his chilled lagers slowly and with deliberation into crested flutes, and this was the glass Ed brooded over while he prodded at its frosted sides with the tips of his long fingers, head bowed, waiting for my answer.

‘Well, Ed,’ I reply, when I have let enough
time pass to indicate due consideration. ‘Let me put it this way. Yes, Brexit is indeed an unmitigated clusterfuck, though I doubt there is much we can do now to put the clock back. Will that do for you?’

It won’t, as both of us knew. My so-called decent quiet is as nothing beside Ed’s prolonged silences that, over time, I came to regard as a natural feature of our conversations.

‘What about
President Donald Trump
then?’ he demands, enunciating the name as if it were the very devil’s. ‘Do you or do you not regard Trump, which I do, as a threat and incitement to the entire civilized world, plus he is presiding over the systematic no-holds-barred Nazification of the United States?’

I think I must have been smiling by now, but I see no answering light in Ed’s lugubrious face which is
turned at an angle to me, as if he needs my answer in sound only, without any moderating facial expression.

‘Well, if in a less fundamental way, yes, I’m with you there too, Ed, if that’s any consolation,’ I concede gently. ‘But he’s not President for ever, is he? And the Constitution is there to inhibit him, not just give him a free rein.’

But this is not enough for him:

‘What about all the
tunnel-vision fanatics he’s got round him? The fundamentalist Christians who think Jesus invented greed?
They’re
not going anywhere, are they?’

‘Ed,’ I say, making a joke of it now. ‘When Trump’s gone, these people will scatter as ash in the wind. Now for God’s sake let’s have that other pint.’

By now, I really am expecting the broad grin that washes everything away. It doesn’t come. Instead,
I get his big bony hand, reached towards me across the table.

‘Then we’re all right, aren’t we?’ he says.

And I shake his hand in return and say, yes we are, and only then does he fetch us another lager.

*

For the next dozen-odd Monday-evening games I made not the smallest effort to deny or water down anything he said to me, which meant that from our second encounter onwards – Match No. 2
in my diary – no post-badminton session at our
Stammtisch
was complete without Ed launching himself on a political soliloquy concerning some burning matter of the day.

And he got better over time. Forget his raw opening salvo. Ed was not raw. He was just deeply involved. And – easy to say it now – by being so deeply involved, obsessive. He had also, by Match No. 4 at the latest, revealed himself
as a well-informed news junkie with every twist and turn on the world political stage – be it Brexit, Trump, Syria or some other long-running disaster – such a matter of personal concern to him that it would
have been downright inconsiderate on my part not to allow him his head. The biggest gift you can give the young is time, and it was always in my mind that I hadn’t given Steff enough of it,
and perhaps Ed’s parents hadn’t been any too generous in that respect either.

My
chers collègues
wanted dearly to believe that, by granting him the time of day at all, I led him on. They pointed to our age difference and what they were pleased to call my ‘professional charm’. Sheer drivel. Once Ed had established that in his simple bestiary I was broadly a sympathetic ear, I could have been a
stranger sitting next to him on the bus. Even now I don’t recall a single occasion when my own opinions, even at their most sympathetic, made the least impression on him. He was just grateful to have found himself an audience that didn’t do shock, didn’t oppose him or simply walk away from him and talk to someone else, because I’m not sure how long he would have sustained an ideological or political
argument without losing his rag. The fact that his opinions on any given topic were predictable before he opened his mouth did not disturb me. All right, he was a single-issue man. I knew the breed. I’d recruited a few. He was geopolitically alert. He was young, highly intelligent within the margins of his fixed opinions, and – though I never had occasion to put it to the test – quick to anger
when they were opposed.

What did I personally get out of the relationship, apart from our gritty duels on the badminton court? – another question to which my
chers collègues
persistently returned. At the time of my inquisition, I had no formed answer at my fingertips. Only in its aftermath did I recall the sense of moral commitment that Ed imparted, how it acted on me like an appeal to my conscience
– followed by the broad, slightly hangdog grin that washed it all away. Added together, they gave me a sense of providing some sort of refuge for an imperilled species. And
I must have said something of this kind to Prue when I suggested I bring him home for a drink, or invite him to Sunday lunch. But Prue in her wisdom was unpersuaded:

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