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Authors: Brian Freemantle

Goodbye to an Old Friend

BOOK: Goodbye to an Old Friend
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Goodbye to an Old Friend

Brian Freemantle

Only Maureen knows what I mean by ‘friend'.

So this is her book.

Cowards have small possibilities.

Fame is not won through silence

and cowards

out of caution

Are at times obliged to show courage.

Thus adders hustle to be hawks:

sensing the way the wind is blowing,

they adapt themselves to courage

just as they had adapted themselves to lies.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, ‘Cowards

Have Small Possibilities', 1959.

Chapter One

In everything that Viktor Pavel did, there had to be a formula, a recognizable plan he could follow, and so, a week before the trip, he had prepared a list of articles he intended taking with him.

Now it lay on the bed, alongside the suitcase, which was scruffy and chipped by age and travel, but retained against a replacement because a new one would be cardboard and the one he had was leather.

Pavel had travelled to the West before. He knew the comparisons at airline terminals and the professional assessments of hotel porters. Leather – even battered leather – earned respect. And Pavel had come to enjoy respect.

Against each item on his list was a tick, confirming its place in the suitcase. He made one final, careful check, then folded the list neatly before discarding it in the wastepaper basket. He closed the case, checking each lock and strap, and placed it near the door, then turned back to the room, inscribing its detail in his mind.

The children smiled at him from the double-framed photograph. Georgi had a shy, almost embarrassed look on his face, aware that the army uniform didn't fit properly and that the bagging collar would annoy his meticulous father.

Two thousand miles away, thought Pavel. Two thousand miles from the safety of Moscow, hedged by its missile complex, way down near the Chinese border at Alma Ata, the tension area, the most dangerous place to be. If trouble came it would be there, sweeping across the border. What was it Lin Piao had said? – ‘We could fight upon the bodies of three million comrades and still win.' Something like that. Now Lin Piao had gone, but the Chinese attitude remained.

Pavel shuddered. Georgi would be there, if it happened, fear destroying that smile. It wouldn't matter then whether the uniform fitted or not. He picked the frame up, rubbing his thumb across his son's image, wiping away imagined dust.

Valentina, named after her mother, looked selfconsciously at him from the adjoining frame, her face plump from the Russian diet, the expression an artificial grimace before the camera lens she had been unable to forget. He recognized the dress, the white starched cuffs, the severe black skirt.

He had been to the academy that day and watched her play, stiff with pride, and accepted the praises of her teachers and bought her champagne in celebration afterwards in the chandeliered dining-room of the Hotel Metropole and almost cried when she had said with the intense, easily bruised sincerity of an eighteen-year-old, ‘I'll be as famous as you, one day, Daddy. One day I'll make you proud of me.'

Impulsively he kissed both photographs and then, although it hadn't been on the list and Valentina would miss it that night, he unlocked his case and slipped the picture folder into the protective wrapping of his other suit.

‘Only another thirty minutes.'

He turned at his wife's warning. They had been married for nearly thirty years and she knew to be late upset him and made him snap irritably at the chauffeur.

He smiled, recognizing the protection in her voice. Darling Valentina … too much love … too much trust. He felt inadequate, unworthy of her devotion and the emotion began building up until he had to squeeze his eyes shut, his hands gripped tightly at his sides as he fought for control. He couldn't afford emotion like that, not for a long time.

‘Better hurry,' she prompted.

He began walking to the door, pausing at the glass-fronted cabinet where she had displayed his awards, the meaningless pieces of metal she dusted with so much pride each day, the minor decorations he had forgotten lying like pebbles on a beach, his twice-given Order of Lenin, the certificate of the Hero of the Soviet Union. Rubbish, he thought. Worthless tin rubbish.

He took the case out into the lounge of their apartment, a rambling collection of rooms, where, because of his position and prestige, they lived alone, spared the difficulty of sharing their flat with another family, like other Muscovites.

She stood waiting with his raincoat and held on while he shrugged to get it comfortable, like he always did, a familiar, intimate ritual.

Valentina Pavel was quite short, barely reaching her husband's shoulder, and like many middle-aged Russian women, her figure had begun to overflow into fatness. She wore her greying hair strained back in a bun and very rarely used makeup, only when she had to attend official functions with Viktor. Valentina Pavel liked attending receptions and banquets with her husband. Sometimes, at the end of an evening in which everyone, even the President and the First Secretary and occasionally a foreign ambassador, had stopped to exchange a few words, each showing respect and deference to his genius, she felt blown up with pride, like a balloon. It became their own, special joke that she needed the corset into which she had to force herself to contain her pride, not her figure. Always she made the joke and always they laughed together, like children with a familiar secret.

She was utterly sure of her husband and his love for her and her awareness of the envy of others was her only conceit.

From her husband, Valentina Pavel had only one secret. She wanted to die before him because she knew she could never endure the loneliness of not having him. It was the only selfish thought she had ever had and occasionally she felt guilty about it. But she still hoped it would happen.

She saw the wetness of his eyes now and thought she recognized the reason and was grateful.

‘Be careful,' she said.

‘Of course.'

‘Write.'

‘You know I will.'

‘Do be careful,' she said again.

He kissed her, unable to reply.

‘And …'

‘What?'

‘Oh, nothing,' she said.

They were silent for a moment, then she said, ‘Come back safely …'

The pause was heavy, artificial almost.

‘… and quickly.'

The bell rang and Pavel admitted his driver, nodding towards the single case. As the man left, Pavel reached out and stood for several seconds, his hand gripping her arm until his fingers were white, the pressure bruising her.

‘My darling,' he said. And then turned away, abruptly, sweeping from the apartment without looking back. He was quite composed by the time he stepped into the black Zil that was drawn up in its reserved place at the kerbside.

They drove northwards parallel with the river, past the secretly gossiping barbushka at their street brooms. Pavel sat gazing out at the city. It had rained during the night and everything looked clean and freshly washed, like a nine o'clock schoolboy. My city, he thought. My home.

The car was recognized as an official one and the other traffic gave way as they swept over the Kammeni Bridge and then on past the Kremlin. Pavel looked back over the Alexander Gardens at the massive government block, high on its hill. ‘There is nothing above Moscow except the Kremlin and nothing above the Kremlin except Heaven.' He recalled the proverb he had learned from his father on the farm near Kiev. I haven't heard that for a long time, he thought. Perhaps people didn't say it any more.

The car cleared the city and picked up speed along the tree-lined route to Sheremetyevo airport.

Dymshits, the Jewish aerodynamicist who had not been abroad before, was allotted the seat next to him on the Ilyushin.

‘Paris!' the younger man exclaimed as the plane lifted off, nudging Pavel's arm in his excitement. ‘How about that? The women, the food. Wine. Aren't you excited?'

Pavel took several moments to reply, as if the answer needed consideration. ‘Yes,' he agreed, finally. ‘Yes, excited.' There was even further thought. ‘And nervous, too.'

But Dymshits was staring from the aircraft and didn't hear him.

Keeping the habit of the past two weeks, Adrian Dodds went immediately to the single window overlooking one of the innumerable, anonymous Whitehall quadrangles, looking for the pigeon with the broken beak.

The window-sill was empty, like an airstrip with no planes. Adrian sighed, disappointed. No one stayed long, not even pigeons.

He turned back into his office and began his day. He arranged his jacket on a hanger, stored it in the cupboard over the tea-making things and then unlocked his desk drawer. From it he took the felt cushion that protected his trousers from becoming shiny and placed it carefully on his seat, then lifted out his tray containing pens, pencils, paper clips and ink and set it in position at the head of the blotter. My Maginot Line, he thought. Behind the tray, I'm safe.

He was a slight, nondescript man, the sort of person that crowds are made of. He had begun losing his hair when he was twenty-one and still at Oxford and now it receded so much that he was almost bald. It worried him and he combed what little there was left forward, like the senators of ancient Rome. He had considered being fitted with a hairpiece, but then realized that his few acquaintances knew he was bald; they would recognize the wig and laugh at him and he preferred baldness to laughter.

Sometimes, on buses and tubes, he tried to identify people with artificial hair. It was his own, secret game and one that no one else knew about. Occasionally the fixation disturbed him.

Adrian Dodds was a man of no hobbies and little personality who always thought of crushing replies long after he had lost arguments in tongue-tied embarrassment. His genuine kindness was nearly always misinterpreted as lack of character, and consequently he was constantly imposed upon. But, because of his kindness, he rarely protested.

He was proud of one thing, his unrivalled ability to perform an unusual job.

Apart from that, he did not respect himself and knew few others did, either. He had thought of suicide on several occasions and even decided on the method. He would use gas because it would be just like going to sleep and there wouldn't be any pain. That was important.

Adrian didn't like pain of any sort, particularly mental pain. That, he felt, was far worse than physical pain, although apart from visits to the dentist and an appendicitis operation when he was seventeen, he had had little experience of physical pain.

He felt he was an expert at the other sort.

Miss Aimes suddenly bustled into the room. Her entry always reminded Adrian of a bird landing for scraps, alert, head to one side, immediately expecting danger. But not a pigeon. Miss Aimes wasn't a pigeon. A sparrow, perhaps.

She was her customary thirty minutes late and as she did every morning, she said, ‘Sorry I'm late.'

And as he did every morning, Adrian replied, ‘That's all right, Miss Aimes,' and he knew she wasn't sorry and she knew it wasn't all right. They both accepted that she would be late the following morning and that he would not protest.

‘Has he come back?' his secretary asked, primping her grey hair into its rigid ruts over her head. Adrian watched her, convinced it was a wig and that she was really bald. A bald sparrow. Very rare. He really would have to curb this mania about baldness. It was almost unhealthy.

‘No,' he said.

‘Oh.'

‘It's been two weeks. I don't think it will. It probably couldn't survive with a broken beak … couldn't get enough food.'

‘Probably not.'

Adrian knew she didn't care and despised her for it.

‘We'll hear about the report today,' said Miss Aimes.

‘Yes,' he said. The reminder was unnecessary. Sir Jocelyn Binns, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, always took two days to consider final debriefing reports, so today was consultation day. Adrian had worn his other suit, the one with the waistcoat.

BOOK: Goodbye to an Old Friend
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