Read Agent Running in the Field Online

Authors: John le Carré

Agent Running in the Field (8 page)

‘It sounds to me as if you’re doing each other a power,
darling. Keep him to yourself and don’t let me get in the way.’

So I gladly took her advice, and kept him to myself. Our routine never varied, even at the end. We would play our hearts out on the court, collect our jackets, maybe fling a scarf round our necks and set course for our
Stammtisch
, loser makes straight for the bar. We’d exchange a few pleasantries – maybe relive a point or two. He’d
ask vaguely after my family, I’d ask him whether he’d had a good weekend, and we’d both give bland answers. Then there’d be a kind of expectant silence on his part which I quickly learned not to fill, and he’d launch on his dissertation of the day. And I’d be agreeing with him, part-agreeing with him or at the most saying woah, Ed, steady now, and giving him the older-wiser man’s chuckle. Only
rarely, and in the mildest of tones, did I question his more salty assertions – but always with circumspection, because my instinctive knowledge of Ed from the outset was that he was fragile.

Sometimes it was as if someone else was talking out of him. His voice, which was a good one when it was just being itself, would go up an octave, hit a level and stick there on one didactic note, not for
long, but long enough for me to think: hullo, I know this register, and Steff’s got one too. It’s the one you can’t argue with because it just rolls on as if you’re not there, so best nod him along and wait till it’s run its course.

The substance? In a sense, each time the mixture as before. Brexit is self-immolation. The British public is being marched over a cliff by a bunch of rich elitist
carpetbaggers posing as men of the people. Trump is Antichrist, Putin another. For Trump, the draft-dodging rich boy brought up in a great if
flawed democracy, there is no redemption in this world or the next. For Putin, who has never known democracy, there is a shimmer. Thus Ed, whose Nonconformist background has become by stages a notable feature of these outpourings.

Was there progress, Nat?
my
chers collègues
asked me. Did his views
advance
? Did you have a feeling that he was heading for some sort of absolute resolution? Again I could offer them no comfort. Maybe he grew freer and more outspoken once he felt more confident of his audience: me. Maybe I became a more congenial audience for him with time, though I don’t remember ever being particularly
un
congenial.

But I’ll accept
that Ed and I had a few sessions at the
Stammtisch
when I wasn’t worrying overmuch – about Steff, or Prue, or some newly acquired agent who was acting up, or the flu epidemic that took half our handlers off the road for a couple of weeks – and I was giving him near enough my full attention. On such occasions I might feel moved to join issue with one or other of his more radical outpourings, not
so much to challenge the argument as to temper the assertiveness with which he delivered it. So in that sense: well, if not progress, a growing familiarity on my side, and on Ed’s a willingness, if only reluctantly, to laugh at himself now and then.

But bear in mind this simple plea, which is one not of self-exculpation but of fact: I didn’t always listen very carefully, and sometimes I switched
off altogether. If I was under pressure at the Haven – which happened increasingly to be the case – I would make sure I had my Office mobile in my back pocket before we repaired to the
Stammtisch
, and I would furtively consult it while he banged on.

And from time to time, when his monologues in all their youthful innocence and assertiveness got under my skin, then rather than head straight home
to Prue after our final up-and-down handshake, I would take the longer route home
through the park in order to give my thoughts a chance to settle.

*

One last word about what the game of badminton meant to Ed and for that matter means to me. For unbelievers, badminton is a namby-pamby version of squash for overweight men afraid of heart attacks. For true believers there is no other sport. Squash
is slash and burn. Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush while the shuttle describes its leisurely arc. Unlike squash, badminton knows no social distinctions. It is not public school. It has nothing of the outdoor allure of tennis or five-a-side football. It does not reward a beautiful swing. It offers no forgiveness, spares the
knees, is said to be terrible for hips. Yet, as a matter of proven fact, it requires faster reactions than squash. There is little natural conviviality between us players, who tend on the whole to be a lonely lot. To fellow athletes, we’re a bit weird, a bit friendless.

My father played badminton in Singapore when he was stationed there. Singles only. He played it for the army before his decline.
He played it with me. In summer holidays on Normandy beaches. In the garden in Neuilly over a washing line for a net, clutching a mahogany tumbler of Scotch in his spare hand. Badminton was the best of him. When I was packed off to Scotland to his godawful school I played badminton there, as he had, and afterwards for my Midlands university. When I was hanging round the Office waiting for my
first overseas posting, I rustled up a bunch of my fellow trainees and under the cover name of
the Irregulars
we took on all comers.

And Ed? How did
he
become a convert to the game of games? We’re sitting at the
Stammtisch
. He is crystal-gazing into his
lager, the way he did when he was solving the world’s problems or beating his brains about what was wrong with his backhand, or simply not talking
at all but brooding. No question was ever simple once you’d put it to him. Everything needed tracking down to source.

‘There was this gym teacher we had at my Grammar,’ he says at last. Broad grin. ‘Took a couple of us over to her club one evening. That was it really. Her with her short skirt and shiny white thighs. Yeah.’

6

Here, for the edification of my
chers collègues
, is the sum total of whatever I had happened to pick up of Ed’s life away from the badminton court by the time of the Fall.
Now that I come to write it down, the extent of it would surprise me were it not for the fact that I am a listener and a rememberer by training and habit.

He was one of two children born ten years apart into an old Methodist family of North Country miners. His grandfather had come over from Ireland in his twenties. When the mines closed, his dad became a merchant seaman:

Didn’t see a lot of
him after that, not really. Came home and got cancer like it was waiting for him –
Ed.

His father was also an old-style Communist who had burned his Party card in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. I suspect Ed nursed him on his deathbed.

After his father’s death the family moved to somewhere near Doncaster. Ed won a place at grammar school, don’t ask me which one. His mother
spent whatever free time she had from work at adult education classes until they were cut:

Mum’s got more brain than what she was ever allowed to use, plus she’d got Laura to look after
– Ed.

Laura being his younger sister who has learning difficulties and is partially disabled.

At the age of eighteen, he renounced his Christian faith in favour of what he called ‘all-inclusive humanism’ which
I took to be Nonconformism without God, but out of tact I refrained from suggesting this to him.

From grammar school he went to a ‘new’ university, I am not sure which. Computer Sciences, German an optional extra. Class of degree not specified, so I suspect middling,
new
being his own disparaging term.

As regards girls – always a delicate area where Ed was concerned, and not one I would have
entered uninvited – either they didn’t like him, or he didn’t like them. I suspect that his urgent preoccupation with world affairs and other mild eccentricities made a demanding life-companion of him. I also suspect he didn’t know his own attraction.

And of men friends, the people he should be hanging out with in the gym, or sorting the world with, or jogging, cycling, pubbing? Ed never mentioned
a single such person to me, and I question whether they existed in his life. Deep down, I suspect, he wore his isolation as a badge of honour.

He had heard about me on the badminton grapevine and had secured me for his regular opponent. I was his prize. He had no wish to share me.

When I had reason to ask him what had prompted him to take a job in the media if he loathed it so much, he was at
first evasive:

Saw an ad somewhere, interviewed for it. They set a sort of exam paper, said all right, come on in. That’s about it. Yeah
– Ed.

But when I asked him whether he had congenial colleagues in his workplace he merely shook his head as if the question were irrelevant.

And the good news in Ed’s otherwise solitary universe as far as I could read it? Germany. And again Germany.

Ed had
the German bug in a big way. I suppose I have it myself,
if only from the reluctant German lurking in my mother. He’d spent a study year in Tübingen and two years in Berlin working for his media outfit. Germany was the cat’s whiskers. Its citizens were simply the best Europeans ever.
No other nation holds a candle to Germans, not when it comes to understanding what European union is all about
– Ed on his high horse. He’d considered chucking everything and making a new life there, but it hadn’t worked out with the girl, a research student at Berlin University. It was thanks to her, so far as I could gather, that he had made some sort of study of the rise of German nationalism in the nineteen twenties, which seems to have been her subject. What is certain is that on the strength of such
arbitrary studies he felt empowered to draw disturbing parallels between the rise of Europe’s dictators and the rise of Donald Trump. Get him on this subject, and you got Ed at his most overbearing.

In Ed’s world there was no dividing line between Brexit fanatics and Trump fanatics. Both were racist and xenophobic. Both worshipped at the same shrine of nostalgic imperialism. Once embarked on
this theme, he lost all objectivity. The Trumpists and the Brexiteers were conspiring to deprive him of his European birthright. Solitary as he might be in other ways, on Europe he showed no compunction in declaring that he spoke for his generation or in pointing the finger at mine.

There was an occasion when we were seated, temporarily exhausted, in the Athleticus changing room after our usual
hard-fought game. Diving into his locker to retrieve his smartphone, he insisted on showing me video footage of Trump’s inner cabinet gathered round a table as each in turn protests his undying loyalty to his dear leader.

‘They’re taking the bloody Führer’s oath,’ he confides to me in a breathless voice. ‘It’s a replay, Nat. Watch.’

I dutifully watched. And yes, it was emetic.

I never asked
him, but I think it was Germany’s atonement
for its past sins that spoke most forcefully to his secularized Methodist soul: the thought that a great nation that had run amok should repent its crimes to the world. What other country had ever done such a thing? he demanded to know. Had Turkey apologized for slaughtering the Armenians and Kurds? Had America apologized to the Vietnamese people? Had
the Brits atoned for colonizing three-quarters of the globe and enslaving numberless of its citizens?

The up-and-down handshake? He never told me, but my guess was he’d picked it up while he was lodged in Berlin with the girl’s Prussian family, and out of some weird sense of loyalty had stuck to the habit.

7

It’s ten o’clock on a sun-drenched Friday morning in spring and the birds all know it, as Florence and I, having met for an early coffee, I from Battersea and she, I assume,
from Pimlico, step out along the Thames Embankment towards Head Office. In the past, returning from distant outstations for Office parleys or home leave, I have occasionally felt daunted by our over-conspicuous, many-towered Camelot with its whispering lifts, hospital-bright corridors and tourists gawping from the bridge.

Not today.

In half an hour’s time Florence will be presenting London General’s
first full-blown special operation in three years and it will bear the Haven’s imprimatur. She sports a smart trouser suit and just a hint of make-up. If she has stage fright she betrays no sign of it. For the last three weeks we have been night owls together, sitting head to head into the small hours at the rickety trestle table in the Haven’s windowless Operations room, poring over street
maps, surveillance reports, phone and email intercepts, and the latest word from Orson’s disenchanted mistress, Astra.

It was Astra who first reported that Orson was about to use his Park Lane duplex to impress a duo of Cyprus-based, Moscow-friendly money-launderers of Slovakian descent with a private bank in Nicosia and an affiliate in the City of London. Both are fully identified members of
a Kremlin-approved crime syndicate
operating out of Odessa. On receiving word of their arrival, Orson ordered an electronic sweep of his duplex. No devices were discovered. It was now up to Percy Price’s intrusion team to remedy that omission.

With the consent of its absent director, Bryn Jordan, Russia department has also taken a couple of its own steps into the water. One of its officers has
posed as Florence’s
Daily Mail
news editor and clinched the deal with the night porter. The gas company supplying energy to Orson’s duplex has been prevailed on to report a leak. A three-man team of burglars under the pompous Eric has reconnoitred the duplex in the guise of the company’s engineers and photographed the locks on the reinforced steel door leading to the computer room. The British
lockmakers have provided duplicate keys and guidance on the unscrambling of the combination.

Now all that remains is for Rosebud to be officially green-lit by a plenum of Head Office’s big beasts, known collectively as Operations Directorate.

*

If the relationship between Florence and myself is emphatically non-tactile, with each of us going to elaborate lengths not to brush hands or otherwise
make physical contact, it is nonetheless close. It turns out that our lives overlap in more ways than we might have expected, given the difference in our ages. Her father the ex-diplomat had done two successive stints at the British Embassy in Moscow, taking with him his wife and three children of whom Florence was the eldest. Prue and I had missed them by six months.

While attending International
School in Moscow she had embraced the Russian muse with all the zeal of youth. She even had a Madame Galina in her life: the widow of an
‘approved’ poet from Soviet times with a tumbledown
dacha
in the old artists’ colony of Peredelkino. By the time Florence was ready to attend English boarding school the Service’s talent spotters were keeping an eye on her. When she sat her A-level exams, they
dispatched their own Russian linguist to assess her language skills. She was awarded the highest grade available to non-Russians, and approached when she was just nineteen.

At university she continued her studies under the Office’s supervision and spent part of each vacation on low-grade training runs: Belgrade, Petersburg and most recently Tallinn, where once again we might have met had she
not been living her cover as a forestry student and I as a diplomat. She loved to run, as I do: I in Battersea Park, she to my surprise on Hampstead Heath. When I pointed out to her that Hampstead was a long way from Pimlico, she replied without hesitation that there was a bus that took her from door to door. In an idle moment I checked, and it was true: the 24 went all the way.

What more did
I know of her? That she had a consuming sense of natural justice that put me in mind of Prue. That she loved the spice of operational work, and had a talent for it that went beyond the normal. That the Office frequently exasperated her. That she was reticent, even guarded, about her private life. And there was an evening, after a long day’s work, when I caught sight of her crouched in her cubicle
with fists clenched and tears running down her cheeks. One thing I have learned the hard way from Steff:
never
ask what’s wrong, just give her space. I gave her space, didn’t ask, and the cause of her tears remained her own.

But today she hasn’t a care in the world beyond Operation Rosebud.

*

There is a dreamlike quality to my recollection of that morning’s gathering of the Office’s finest,
a sense of what might have been and a remembrance of last things: the top-floor conference room with its sunlit skylights and honey-coloured panelling, the intelligent, listening faces turned to Florence and myself seated shoulder to shoulder at the suitors’ end of the table. Every member of our audience was known to me from past lives, and each in his or her different way deserving of my respect:
Ghita Marsden, my former head of Station in Trieste and the first woman of colour to make it to the top floor; Percy Price, head of the Service’s ever-expanding surveillance arm. The list goes on. Guy Brammel, the portly, wily, fifty-five-year-old head of Russian Requirements presently standing in for Bryn Jordan stranded in Washington. Marion, a senior-ranking member of our sister Service, on attachment.
Then two of Guy Brammel’s most valued female colleagues, Beth (North Caucasus) and Lizzie (Russian Ukraine). And last and emphatically least, Dom Trench, as head of London General, who makes a point of not entering until everyone else is settled, for fear of being shown to a lesser seat.


Florence
,’ says Guy Brammel indulgently down the table. ‘Let’s have your pitch, shall we?’

And suddenly
there she is, no longer at my side but standing six feet from me in her trouser suit: Florence, my talented if temperamental second-year probationer, speaking wisdom to her elders while our own little Ilya from the Haven squats elf-like in the projection booth with a cue sheet, accompanying her with his slideshow.

There’s no passionate throb to Florence’s voice today, no hint of the inner fires
that have been raging in her over the last months, or the special place reserved for Orson in her private inferno. I have warned her to keep her emotions down and language clean. Percy Price, our head watcher, is a keen
churchman and no friend of Anglo-Saxon expletives. Neither I suspect is Ghita, tolerant though she is of our infidel ways.

And thus far Florence has stayed on message. In reading
out Orson’s charge sheet she is neither indignant nor declamatory – she can be both at the drop of a hat – but as self-composed as Prue on the occasions when I pop into court for ten minutes just for the pleasure of hearing her tear the opposition into courteous shreds.

First she gives us Orson’s unexplained wealth – massive, offshore, administered from Guernsey and the City of London, where
else? – then Orson’s other overseas properties, in Madeira, Miami, Zermatt and on the Black Sea, then his unexplained presence at a reception held at the Russian Embassy in London for leading Brexiteers, and his million-pound contribution to an arm’s-length fighting fund for Leavers. She describes a covert meeting that Orson attended in Brussels with six Russian cyber experts suspected of wide-scale
hacking into Western democratic forums. All this and more without a tremor of emotion.

Only when she comes to the proposed positioning of hidden microphones in the target duplex does her cool desert her. Ilya’s slideshow is giving us a dozen of them, each marked with its own red spot. Marion begs to interrupt:

‘Florence,’ she says severely, ‘I fail to understand why you are proposing to deploy
special facilities against under-age children.’

I don’t think I’d seen Florence struck mute till now. As her substation head I hasten to her assistance.

‘I think Marion must be referring to our recommendation that
all
rooms in Orson’s duplex should be covered regardless of who occupies them,’ I murmur to her in a stage aside.

But Marion is not to be mollified.

‘I am questioning the ethics
of installing audio
and
visual facilities in a child’s nursery. Also in the nanny’s bedroom, which
I find equally questionable, if not more so. Or are we to suppose that Orson’s children
and
the nanny are of intelligence interest?’

Florence has by now collected herself. Or, if you know her as I do, readied herself for combat. She takes a breath and puts on her sweetest Cheltenham Ladies’ College
voice.

‘The
nursery
, Marion, is where Orson takes his business friends when he’s got something especially secret to tell them. The
nanny’s
room is where he screws his hookers when the kids are in Sochi having a seaside holiday with Nanny and his wife’s out buying jewellery at Cartier’s. Source Astra tells us that Orson likes to boast to his women about his clever deals while he screws them. We
thought we should hear him do that.’

But it’s all right. Everyone’s laughing, Guy Brammel loudest; even Marion is laughing. Dom is laughing, which is to say he’s shaking and smiling, even if no laughter is coming out. We stand, little groups form at the coffee table. Ghita is offering Florence sisterly congratulations. An unseen hand closes on my upper arm, a thing I don’t take kindly to at the
best of times.

‘Nat.
Such
a good meeting. A credit to London General, a credit to the Haven, a credit to you personally.’

‘Glad you enjoyed it, Dom. Florence is a promising officer. Nice to have her authorship recognized. So easy for these things to slip by.’

‘And always that moderating voice of yours in the background,’ Dom returns, affecting not to hear my little sally. ‘I could practically
hear it: that fatherly touch of yours.’

‘Well, thank you, Dom. Thank you,’ I reply handsomely, and wonder what he’s got up his sleeve.

*

In the afterglow of a job well done, Florence and I amble back along the river footpath in the sunshine, remarking to each
other – but mostly Florence doing the remarking – that if Rosebud yields only a quarter of the dividend we’re predicting, one thing we
can be reasonably sure of is it will be curtains for Orson’s role as Russia’s stooge in London and curtains – her most devout wish – for his stockpiles of filthy money stashed around the southern hemisphere by the City of London’s ever-rotating laundromat.

Then, because we haven’t eaten and time is anyway a little unreal after all the night hours we have invested in this moment, we put off taking
the tube, dive into a pub, find an alcove to ourselves and over fish pies and a bottle of red burgundy – also Steff’s tipple, as I can’t resist telling her, and both of them fish fanatics – we review in suitably oblique language the morning’s proceedings, which were actually a lot longer and more technical than I’ve given here, with contributions from Percy Price and Eric the pompous burglar
about such matters as the marking and monitoring of surveillance targets, impregnating the target’s shoes or clothing, the use of a helicopter or drone, and what will happen in the event of an unscheduled return by Orson and his entourage to the target duplex while the stealth team is still inside. Answer, they will be politely informed by a uniformed police officer that intruders have been reported
in the building, so will the good ladies and gentlemen kindly avail themselves of the police van and enjoy a nice cup of hot tea while investigations proceed?

‘So that’s really it, is it?’ Florence muses over her second or maybe third glass of red. ‘We’re home and dry. Citizen Kane, your day has finally come.’

‘Not till the fat lady sings,’ I warn her.

‘Who the fuck’s she?’

‘A Treasury sub-committee
has to give its blessing.’

‘Consisting of?’

‘One mandarin apiece from Treasury, Foreign Office, Home
Office and Defence. Plus a couple of co-opted parliamentarians who can be trusted to do what they’re told.’

‘Which is what?’

‘Rubber-stamp the op and pass it back to Head Office for action.’

‘Bloody waste of time, if you ask me.’

We return by tube to the Haven to discover that Ilya has raced
ahead of us to report a great victory with Florence as heroine of the hour. Even grumpy Igor, the sixty-five-year-old Lithuanian, emerges from his den to shake her hand and – though he secretly suspects that any replacement of Giles must be a Russian plot – mine also. I escape to my office, sling my tie and jacket over a chair and am in the act of closing down my computer when the family mobile
phone croaks at me. Assuming it’s Prue and hoping it’s Steff at long last, I delve in my jacket pocket. It’s Ed, sounding dire.

‘That you, Nat?’

‘Amazingly, it is. And you must be Ed,’ I reply frivolously.

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