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John LeCarre - A New Collection of Three Novels Part 42

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There was resolution in Dollendorf's voice as well as embarrassment, however, and his sergeant was peering sharply up and down the stairwell. "The Herr Kommandant assures me that everything can be arranged discreetly, Herr Pym. He wishes at this stage to be delicate. He has made no approach to your superiors," Dollendorf insisted, as Pym still hesitated. "The Kommandant has high respect for you, Herr Pym."

"I have to dress."

"But quickly, if you are so kind, Herr Pym. The Kommandant would like the matter dealt with before he has to hand it over to the day shift."

Pym turned and walked carefully to his bedroom. He waited to hear the policemen following him, or a barked order, but they preferred to remain in the hall, looking at the Cries of London prints, courtesy of the Firm's accommodation section.

"May I use your telephone, Herr Pym?"

"Go ahead."

He dressed with the door open, hoping to overhear the conversation. But all he heard was: "Everything in order, Herr Kommandant. Our man is coming immediately."

They walked down the broad stairs three abreast, to a parked police car with its light flashing. Nothing behind it, no late-night loiterers in the street. How typical of the Germans to disinfect the entire area before arresting him. Pym sat in the front with Dollendorf. The sergeant sat tensely behind. It was raining and two in the morning. A red sky was seething with black cloud. Nobody spoke any more.

And at the police station Jack will be waiting, thought Pym. Or the Military Police. Or God.

The Kommandant rose to receive him. Dollendorf and his sergeant had faded away. The Kommandant considered himself a man of supernatural subtlety. He was tall and grey and hollow-backed, with staring eyes and a narrow rattling mouth that operated at self-destructive speed. He leaned back in his chair and put his fingertips together. He spoke in an anguished monotone to an etching of his birthplace in East Prussia that was hanging on the wall above Pym's head. He spoke, in Pym's calm estimation, for about six hours without a break and without appearing to draw breath, which for the Kommandant was the equivalent of a quick warm-up before they got down to a serious discussion. The Kommandant said that he was a man of the world and a family man, conversant with what he called the "intimate sphere." Pym said he respected this. The Kommandant said he was not didactic, he was not political, though he was a Christian Democrat. He was Evangelical but Pym could rest assured that he had no quarrel with Roman Catholics. Pym said he would have expected no less. The Kommandant said that misdeeds were a spectrum that ran between pardonable human error and calculated crime. Pym agreed, and heard a footfall in the corridor. The Kommandant begged Pym to bear in mind that foreigners in a strange country frequently felt a sense of false security when contemplating what might strictly be regarded as a felonious act.

"I may speak frankly, Herr Pym?"

"Please do," said Pym, in whom by now a fearful premonition was beginning to form that it was Axel, not himself, who was under arrest.

"When they brought him to me, I looked at him. I listened to him. I said, 'No, this cannot be. Not Herr Pym. The man is an impostor,' I said. 'He is trading upon a distinguished connection.' However as I continued to listen to him, I detected a sense of, shall I say, vision? There is an energy here, an intelligence, I may say also a charm. Possibly, I thought, this man is who he says he is. Only Herr Pym can tell us, I thought." He pressed a button on his desk. "I may confront him with you, Herr Pym?"

An old turnkey appeared, and waddled ahead of them down a painted brick corridor that stank of carbolic. He unlocked a grille and closed it behind them. He unlocked another. It was the first time I had seen Rick in prison, Tom, and I have made sure ever since that it was the last. In future times, Pym sent him food, clothes, cigars, and, in Ireland, Drambuie. Pym emptied his bank account for him, and if he had been a millionaire he would have bankrupted himself rather than see him there again, even in his mind's eye. Rick sat in the corner and Pym knew at once that he did this in order to give himself a bagger view of the cell, for ever since I had known him he always needed more space than God had given him. He sat with his great head tipped forward, scowling with a convict's sullenness, and I swear he had closed off his hearing with his thinking and hadn't heard us coming.

"Father," said Pym. "It's me."

Rick came to the bars and put a hand each side and his face between. He stared first at Pym, then at the Kommandant and the turnkey, not understanding Pym's position. His expression was sleepy and bad-tempered.

"So they got you too, did they, son?" he said--not, I thought, without a certain satisfaction. "I always thought you were up to something. You should have read your law like I told you." Slowly the truth began to dawn on him. The turnkey unlocked his door, the good Kommandant said, "Please, Herr Pym," and stood aside for Pym to enter. Pym went to Rick, and put his arms round him, but delicately, in case they had been beating him and he was sore. Gradually the puff began to fill Rick up again.

"God in heaven, old son, what the devil are they doing to me? Can't an honest fellow do a bit of business in this country? Have you seen the food they give you here, these German sausages? What do we pay our taxes for? What did we fight the war for? What's the good of a son who's head of the Foreign Office if he can't keep these German thugs away from his old man?"

But by then Pym was bear-hugging Rick, slapping his shoulders and saying it was good to see him in whatever circumstances. So Rick took to weeping also, and the Kommandant delicately removed himself to another room while, reunited, each pal celebrated the other as his saviour.

I don't mean to disappoint you, Tom, but I do honestly forget, perhaps deliberately, the details of Rick's Berlin transactions. Pym was expecting his own judgment at the time, not Rick's. I remember two sisters and that they were of noble Prussian stock and lived in an old house in Charlottenburg, because Pym called on them to pay them off for the usual missing paintings Rick was selling for them, and the diamond brooch he was getting cleaned for them, and the fur coats that were being remodelled by a first-rate tailor friend of his in London who would do it free because he thought the world of Rick. And I remember the sisters had a bent nephew who was involved in a shady arms racket, and that somewhere in the story Rick had an aeroplane for sale, the finest, best-preserved fighter-bomber you could wish for, in mint condition inside and out. And for all I know it was being painted by those lifelong Liberals, Balham's of Brinkley, and guaranteed to fly everyone to Heaven.

It was in Berlin also that Pym courted your mother, Tom, and took her away from his boss and hers, Jack Brotherhood. I am not sure that you or anybody else has a natural right to know what accident conceived you, but I'll try to help you as best I can. There was mischief in Pym's motive, I won't deny it. The love, what there was of it, came later.

"Jack Brotherhood and I seem to be sharing the same woman," Pym remarked impishly to Axel one day, during a callbox-to-callbox conversation.

Axel required to know immediately who she was.

"An aristo," said Pym, still teasing him. "One of ours. Church and spy Establishment, if that means anything to you. Her family's connections with the Firm go back to William the Conqueror."

"Is she married?"

"You know I don't sleep with married women unless they absolutely insist."

"Is she amusing?"

"Axel, we are talking of a lady."

"I mean is she social?" Axel demanded impatiently. "Is she what you call diplomatic geisha? Is she bourgeois? Would Americans like her?"

"She's a top Martha, Axel. I keep telling you. She's beautiful and rich and frightfully British."

"Then maybe she is the ticket that will get us to Washington," said Axel, who had recently been expressing anxieties about the number of random women drifting through Pym's life.

Soon afterwards, Pym received similar advice from your Uncle Jack.

"Mary has told me what's going on between you, Magnus," he said, taking him aside in his most avuncular manner. "And if you ask me you could travel further and fare a damned sight worse. She's one of the best girls we've got, and it's time you looked a little less disreputable."

So Pym, with both his mentors pushing in the same direction, followed their advice and took Mary, your mother, to be his truly wedded partner at the High Table of the Anglo-American alliance. And really, after all that he had given away already, it seemed a very reasonable sacrifice."Hold his hand, Jack"--Pym wrote--"He's the dearest thing I had."

"Mabs, forgive"--Pym wrote--"Dear, dear Mabs, forgive. If love is whatever we can still betray, remember that I betrayed you on a lot of days."He began a note to Kate and tore it up. He scribbled "Dearest Belinda" and stopped, scared by the silence around him. He looked sharply at his watch. Five o'clock. Why hasn't the clock chimed? I've gone deaf. I'm dead. I'm in a padded cell. From across the square the first chime sounded. One. Two. I can stop it any time I want, he thought. I can stop it at one, at two, at three. I can take any part of any hour and stop it dead. What I cannot do is make it chime midnight at one o'clock. That's God's trick, not mine.

A shocked stillness had descended over Pym and it was the literal stillness of death. He was standing at the window once more, watching the leaves drift across the empty square. An ominous inactivity marked everything he saw. Not a head in a window, not an open doorway. Not a dog or cat or squirrel or a single squawking child. They have taken to the hills. They are waiting for the raiders from the sea. But in his head he is standing in the cellar flat of a run-down office block in Cheapside, watching the two faded Lovelies on their knees as they tear open the last of Rick's files and lick their crabbed fingertips to speed them in their paperchase. Paper lies in growing mounds around them, it flutters through the air like swirling petals as they rummage and discard what they have vainly plundered: bank statements written in blood, invoices, furious solicitors' letters, warrants, summonses, love letters dripping with reproach. The dust of them is filling Pym's nostrils as he watches, the clang of the steel drawers is like the clang of his prison grilles, but the Lovelies heed nothing; they are avid widows ransacking Rick's record. At the centre of the debris, drawers and cupboard askew, stands Rick's last Reichskanzlei desk, its serpents twining themselves round its bombe legs like gilded garters. On the wall hangs the last photograph of the great TP in mayoral regalia and on the chimney piece, above a grate stuffed with false coals and the last of Rick's cigar butts, stands the bronze bust of your Founder and Managing Director himself, beaming out the last of his integrity. On the open door at Pym's back hangs the memorial tablet to Rick's last dozen companies, but a sign beside the bell reads "Press here for attention," because when Rick has not been saving his nation's faltering economy, he has been working as night porter for the block.

"What time did he die?" says Pym, before remembering that he knows.

"Evening, dearie. The pubs was just opening," says one of the Lovelies through her cigarette as she heaves another batch of paper on to the rubbish heap.

"He was having a nice drop next door," says the other, who like the first has-not for one moment relaxed her labours.

"What's next door?" says Pym.

"Bedroom," says the first Lovely, tossing aside another spent file.

"So who was with him?" Pym asks. "Were you with him? Who was with him, please?"

"We both were, dearie," says the second. "We was having a little cuddle, if you want to know. Your dad loved a drink and it always made him amorous. We'd had a nice tea early because of his commitments, steak with onion, and he'd had a bit of a barney on the blower with the telephone exchange about a cheque that was in the post to them. He was depressed, wasn't he, Vi?"

The first Lovely, if reluctantly, suspends her researches. The second does likewise. Suddenly they are decent London women, with kindly faces and puffed, overworked bodies.

"It was over for him, dearie," she says, pushing away a hank of hair with her chubby wrist.

"What was?"

"He said if he couldn't have that phone no more, he'd have to go. He said that phone was his lifeline and if he couldn't have it, it was a judgment on him, how would he do his business without a blower and a clean shirt?"

Mistaking Pym's silence for rebuke, her companion flares at him. "Don't look at us like that, darling. He'd had all we've got long ago. We done the gas, we done the electric, we cooked his dinners, didn't we, Vi?"

"We done all we could," says Vi. "And given him the comfort, too."

"We pulled tricks for him more than was natural, didn't we, Vi? Three a day for him, sometimes."

"More," says Vi.

"He was very lucky to have you," says Pym sincerely. "Thank you very much for looking after him."

This pleases them, and they smile shyly.

"You haven't got a nice bottle in that big black briefcase of yours, I suppose, dearie?"

"I'm afraid not."

Vi goes to the bedroom. Through the open doorway Pym sees the great imperial bed from Chester Street, its upholstery ripped and stained with use. Rick's silk pyjamas lie sprawled across the coverlet. He smells Rick's body lotion and Rick's hair oil. Vi returns with a bottle of Drambuie.

"Did he talk about me at all, in the last days?" says Pym while they drink.

"He was proud of you, dear," says Vi's friend. "Very proud." But she seems dissatisfied with her reply. "He was going to catch you up, mind. That was nearly his last words, wasn't it, Vi?"

"We was holding him," says Vi, with a sniff. "You could see he was going from the breathing. 'Tell them I forgive them at the telephone exchange,' he says. 'And tell my boy Magnus we'll both be ambassadors soon.'"

"And after that?" says Pym.

"'Give us another touch of the Napoleon, Vi,'" says Vi's friend, now weeping also. "It wasn't Napoleon though, it was the Drambuie. Then he says: 'There's enough in those files, girls, to see you right till you join me.'"

"He just nodded off really," says Vi, into her handkerchief. "He mightn't have been dead at all, if it hadn't been for his heart."

There is a rustle at the door. Three knocks. Vi opens it an inch, then all the way, then stands back disapprovingly to admit Ollie and Mr. Cudlove, armed with buckets of ice. The years have not been kind to Ollie's nerves, and the tears at the corners of his eyes are stained with mascara. But Mr. Cudlove is unchanged, down to his chauffeur's black tie. Transferring the bucket to his left side, Mr. Cudlove seizes Pym's right hand in a manly grip. Pym follows them down a narrow corridor lined with photographs of neverwozzers. Rick is lying in the bath with a towel round his middle, his marbled feet crossed over each other as if in accordance with some Oriental ritual. His hands are curled and cupped in readiness to harangue his Maker.

"It's just that there wasn't the funds, sir," Mr. Cudlove murmurs while Ollie pours in the ice. "Not a penny piece anywhere, to be frank, sir. I think those ladies may have taken a liberty."

"Why didn't you close his eyes?" says Pym.

"We did, sir, to be frank, but they would open again, and it didn't seem respectful."

On one knee before his father, Pym writes out a cheque for two hundred pounds, and nearly makes it dollars by mistake.

Pym drives to Chester Street. The house has been in other hands for years but tonight it stands in darkness, as if once more waiting for the Distraining Bailiffs. Pym approaches gingerly. On the doorstep, a nightlight burns despite the rain. Beside it like a dead animal lies an old boa in the mauve of half mourning, similar to the one belonging to Aunt Nell that he had used to block the lavatory at The Glades so long ago. Is it Dorothy's? Or Peggy Wentworth's? Is it some child's game? Is it put there by Lippsie's ghost? No card attaches to its dew-soaked feathers. No sequestrator has pinned his claim to it. The only clue is the one word "Yes," scrawled in trembling chalklines on the door, like a safety signal in a target town.

Turning his back on the deserted square Pym strode angrily to the bathroom and opened the skylight that years ago he had daubed with green paint for Miss Dubber's greater decency. Through a gun slit, he examined the gardens at the side of the house and concluded that they too were unnaturally empty. No Stanley, the Alsatian, tethered to the rain tub of number 8. No Mrs. Aitken, the butcher's wife, who spends every waking hour at her roses. Closing the skylight with a bang, he stooped over the basin and sluiced water in his face, then glowered at his reflection till it gave him a false and brilliant smile. Rick's smile, put on to taunt him, the one that is too happy even to blink. The one that cuddles up against you and presses into you like a thrilled child. The one Pym hated most.

"Fireworks, old son," said Pym, mimicking Rick's cadences at their holy worst. "Remember how you loved a firework? Remember dear old Guy Fawkes night, and the great setpiece there, with your old man's initials on it, RTF, going up in lights all over Ascot? Well then."

Well then, Pym echoed in his soul.

Pym is writing again. Joyously. No pen can take the strain of this. Reckless free letters are careering over the paper. Light-paths, rocket tails, stars and stripes are zipping above his head. The music of a thousand transistor radios plays around him; the bright faces of strangers laugh into his own, and he is laughing back at them. It is July 4th. It is Washington's night of nights. The diplomatic Pyms have arrived a week ago to take up his appointment as Deputy Head of Station. The island of Berlin is sunk at last. They have a spell in Prague behind them, Stockholm, London. The path to America was never easy, but Pym has gone the distance, Pym has made it, he is assumed and almost risen into the reddened dark that is repeatedly blasted into whiteness by the floodlights, fireworks and searchlights. The crowd is bobbing round him and he is part of it, the free people of the earth have taken him among them. He is one with all these grown-up happy children celebrating their independence of things that never held them. The Marine Band, the Breckenridge Boys Choir and the Metropolitan Area Symposium Choral Group have wooed and won him unopposed. At party after party Magnus and Mary have been celebrated by half the intelligence aristos of Georgetown, have eaten swordfish by candlelight in red-brick yards, chatted under lights strung in overhanging branches, have embraced and been embraced, shaken hands and filled their heads with names and gossip and champagne. Heard a lot about you, Magnus--Magnus, welcome aboard! Jesus, is that your wife? That's criminal! Till Mary, worried about Tom--the fireworks have over excited him--is determined to go home and Bee Lederer has gone with her.

"I'll join you soon, darling," Pym murmurs as she leaves. "Must pop in on the Wexlers or they'll think I'm cutting them."

Where am I? In the Mall? On the Hill? Pym has no idea. The bare arms and thighs and unhampered breasts of young American womanhood are brushing contentedly against him. Friendly hands make space for him to pass; laughter, potsmoke, din pack the scalding night. "What's your name, man?" "You British? Here, let's shake your hand--take a swig of this." Pym adds a mouthful of bourbon to the impressive mixture he has already taken in. He is climbing a slope, whether of grass or tarmac he cannot determine. The White House glistens below him. Before it, erect and floodlit, the white needle of the Washington Monument cuts its light-path to the unreachable stars. Jefferson and Lincoln, each in his eternal patch of Rome, lie to either side of him. Pym loves them both. All the patriarchs and founding fathers of America are mine. He crests the slope. A black man offers him popcorn. It is salt and hot like his own sweat. Further up the valley, the harmless battles of other firework shows boom and splash into the sky. The crowd is denser up here but still they smile at him and part for him while they ooh and aah at the fireworks, call friendship to each other, break into patriotic song. A pretty girl is teasing him. "Hey, man, why won't you dance?" "Well, thank you, I will with pleasure but just let me take off my coat," Pym replies. His answer is too woody, she has found another partner. He is shouting. At first he does not hear himself but as he enters a quieter place his own voice bursts on him with startling distinctness. "Poppy! Poppy! Where are you?" Helpfully, the good people round him take up the cry. "Hurry on over, Poppy, your boyfriend's here!" "Come on, Poppy, you bad bitch, where you bin?" Behind and above him the rockets become a ceaseless fountain against the swirling crimson clouds. Before him a gold umbrella opens, embracing the whole white mountain and lighting the emptying street. Instructions are ringing remotely in Pym's head. He is reading the numbers of the streets and doorways. He finds the door and with a final surge of joy feels the familiar bony hand close round his wrist and the familiar voice admonishing him.

"Your friend Poppy cannot come tonight, Sir Magnus," says Axel softly. "So will you please stop shouting her name?"

Shoulder to shoulder the two men sit on the steps of the Capitol, gazing down into the Mall on the uncountable thousands they have taken into their protection. Axel has a basket containing a thermos flask of ice-cold vodka, and the best gherkins and brown bread America can supply.

"We made it, Sir Magnus," he breathes. "We are home at last.""My dearest Father, "I am very pleased to be able to tell you of my new appointment. Cultural Counsellor may not sound much to you, but it is a post that commands a deal of respect among the highest circles here, and even gets me into the White House. I am also the proud owner of what is called a Cosmic Pass, which means literally that no doors are closed to me any more."

17.

Oh my heaven, Tom, the fun we had! The glorious freewheeling last honeymoon, even as the clouds gathered!

You would be pardoned for thinking that the duties of a Deputy Head of Station, though elevated, are inferior to those of his boss. Not so. The Head of Station in Washington floats in the upper air of intelligence diplomacy. His task is to massage the corpse of the Special Relationship and convince everybody, including himself, that it is alive and well. Every morning, poor Hal Tresider rose early, put on his old Shirburnian tie and sweat-patched tropical suit, and pedalled his pushbike earnestly away to the sodden dreamland of the committee rooms, leaving your father free to ransack the Station Registry, supervise the outstations in San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago, or dart off to welfare a field agent in transit to Central America, China, or Japan. Another chore was shepherding grey-faced British boffins through the battery farms of American high technology, where the scientific secrets that are traded in Washington have their artificial conception. Dining the poor souls, Tom, where others would have left them mouldering in their motels. Consoling them in their womanless, under-financed foreign exile. Chatting hastily memorised jargon at them, about nose cones, turning radius, underwater communication and captive-carry. Borrowing their working documents from them to give back in the morning. "Hullo--that looks interesting. Mind if I sneak a sight of that for our Naval Attache? He's been badgering the Pentagon about that one for years, but they've been holding out on him."

The Naval Attache had a sight, London had a sight, Prague had a sight. For what use is a Cosmic Pass without a Cosmic readership?

Poor stolid, worthy Hal! How meticulously Pym misused your trust and torpedoed your innocent ambitions! Never mind. If the National Trust won't have you, you can always count on the Royal Automobile Club or a favoured City company.

"I say, Pymmie, there's some ghastly group of physicists visiting the Livermore weapons laboratory next month," you would say, all apology and diffidence. "You don't think you could pop down there and feed and water a few of them and see they don't blow their noses on the tablecloth, could you? Why on earth this service has to behave like a lot of flat-footed security officers these days, I really don't know. I've a good mind to do a letter to London about it, if I can squeeze a moment."

No country was ever easier to spy on, Tom, no nation so open-hearted with its secrets, so quick to air them, share them, confide them, or consign them too early to the junk heap of planned American obsolescence. I am too young to know whether there was a time when Americans were able to restrain their admirable passion to communicate, but I doubt it. Certainly the path has been downhill since 1945, for it was quickly apparent that information which ten years ago would have cost Axel's service thousands of dollars in precious hard currency could by the mid-seventies be had for a few coppers from the Washington Post. We could have resented this sometimes, if we had been smaller natures, for there are few things more vexing in the spy world than landing a great scoop for Prague and London one week, only to read the same material in Aviation Weekly the next. But we did not complain. In the great fruit garden of American technology, there were pickings enough for everyone and none of us need ever want for anything again.

Cameos, Tom, little tiles for your mosaic are all I need to give you now. See the two friends romping under a darkening sky, catching the last rays of the sunlight before the game is . over. See them thieving like children, knowing the police are round the comer. Pym did not take to America in a night, not in a month, for all the splendid fireworks of the Fourth. His love of the place grew with Axel's. Without Axel he might never have seen the light. Pym set out, believe it or not, determined to disapprove of everything he saw. He found no holding point, no stern judgment to revolt against. These vulgar pleasure-seeking people, so frank and clamorous, were too uninhibited for his shielded and involuted life. They loved their prosperity too obviously, were too flexible and mobile, too little the slaves of place, origin and class. They had no sense of that hush which all Pym's life had been the background music of his inhibition. In committee, it was true, they reverted soon enough to type, and became the warring princelings of the European countries they had left behind. They could run you up a cabal that would make mediaeval Venice blush. They could be Dutch and stubborn, Scandinavian and gloomy, Balkan and murderous and tribal. But when they mixed with one another they were American and loquacious and disarming, and Pym was hard put to find a centre to betray.

Why had they done him no harm? Why had they not cramped him, frightened him, forced his limbs into impossible positions from the cradle up? He found himself longing for the empty, darkened streets of Prague and the reassuring embrace of chains. He wanted his dreadful schools back. He wanted anything but the marvellous horizons that led to lives he had not lived. He wanted to spy upon hope itself, look through keyholes at the sunrise and deny the possibilities he had missed. And all this time, ironically, Europe was coming to get him. He knew that. So did Axel. Not a year had passed before the first insidious whispers of suspicion began to reach their ears. Yet it was this very intimation of mortality that shook Pym out of his reluctance, and inspired him to take the upper hand in their relationship just as Axel was saying, "End it, get out." A mysterious gratitude for America the Just and her impending retribution seized him as, like a ponderous, puzzled giant, she bore steadily down on him, clutching in her great soft fist the multiplying evidence of his duplicity.

"Certain aristos in Langley and London are getting worried about our Czecho networks, Sir Magnus," Axel warned him in his stiff, dry English at a crash meeting at the carpark of the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. "They have begun to discern certain unfortunate patterns."

"What patterns? There are no patterns."

"They have noticed that the Czecho networks provide better intelligence when we are running them and almost nothing when we are not. That is the pattern. They have computers these days. It takes them five minutes to turn everything upside down and wonder what is the right way up. We have been careless, Sir Magnus. We were too greedy. Our parents were right. If you want a thing done well, you must do it yourself."

"Jack Brotherhood can run those networks as well as we can. The head agents are genuine, they report whatever they can get hold of. All networks go moribund now and then. It's normal."

"These networks only go moribund when we are not there, Sir Magnus," Axel repeated patiently. "That is Lang-ley's perception. It bothers them."

"Then give the networks better material. Signal Prague. Tell your aristos we need a scoop."

Axel sadly shook his head. "You know Prague, Sir Magnus. You know my aristos. The man who is absent is the man they conspire against. I have no power to persuade them."

Calmly Pym contemplated the option that remained to him. Over dinner in their smart house in Georgetown, while Mary played gracious hostess, gracious English lady, gracious diplomatic geisha, Pym wondered whether it was time to persuade Poppy to cross one more frontier after all. He saw himself free of taint, a husband, son and father in good standing at last. He remembered an old Revolutionary farmhouse he and Poppy had admired in Pennsylvania, set among rolling fields and stone fences, with thoroughbred horses that loomed at them out of the sun-stained morning fog. He remembered the whitewashed churches, so sparkling and hopeful after the musty crypts of his childhood, and imagined the resettled family Pym at work and prayer there, and Axel rocking on the garden swing while he drank vodka and shelled peas for lunch.

I shall sell Axel to Langley and buy my freedom, he thought as he dazzled a pearly-toothed matron with a witty anecdote. I shall negotiate an administrative amnesty for myself, and put the record straight.

He never did, he never would. Axel was his keeper and his virtue, he was the altar on which Pym had laid his secrets and his life. He had become the part of Pym that was not owned by anybody else.

Do I need to tell you, Tom, how bright and dear the world looks when we know our days are numbered? How all life swells and opens to you, and says "Come in" just when you had thought you were unwanted? What a paradise America became once Pym knew the writing was on the wall. All his childhood, rushing back to him! He took Mary to point-to-points at Winterthur in the chateau country and dreamed of Switzerland and of Ascot. He wandered Georgetown's beautiful Oak Hill Cemetery and imagined he was with Dorothy at The Glades, confined to the dripping orchard where his guilty face could be hidden from the passers-by. Minnie Wilson was our letter box at Oak Hill, Tom. Our first in all America--go and take a look at her one day. She lies on a curled plinth a short way down the terraced bowl, a small dead Victorian girl in marble drapes. We left our messages in a leafy recess between Minnie's backside and her protector, one Thomas Entwistle, who had died in later age. The doyen of the graveyard rested higher up, near the gravel sweep where Pym parked his diplomatic car. Axel found him, Axel made sure Pym found him too. He was Stefan Osusky, co-founder of the Czechoslovak Republic, died in exile, 1973. No concealed offering to Axel seemed complete without a silent prayer of greeting to our brother Stefan. After Minnie, as the volume of our business grew, we were obliged to appoint postmen nearer to the centre of the town. We selected forgotten bronze generals, mostly French, who had fought on the American side in order to annoy the British. We relished their soft hats and telescopes and horses, and the flowers in red uniform at their feet. Their battlefields were grass squares filled with lounging students, our letter boxes anything from the stubby cannon that protected them to the stunted conifers whose inner branches made convenient brown nests of pine needles. But Axel's favourite place of all was the newly opened Air and Space Museum, where he could gaze his heart out at the Spirit of St. Louis and John Glenn's Friendship 7, and touch the Moon Relic with his forefinger as devoutly as if he were taking water from a holy shrine. Pym never saw him do these things. He could only hear about them afterwards. The trick was to leave their packages in separate lockers in the cloakroom, and swap keys in the darkness of the Samuel P. Langley projection theatre while the audience gasped and clutched the handrails as the screen dazzled them with the thrills of flight.

And away from the eyes and ears of Washington, Tom? What shall I give you first? Silicon Valley, perhaps, and the little Spanish village south of San Francisco where Murgo's monks sang plainsong to us after dinner. Or the Dead Sea landscape of Palm Springs, where the golf carts had Rolls-Royce grilles, and the Mountains of Moab looked down on the pastel stucco and artificial-rock pools of our walled motel while illegal Mexicans wandered the lawns with backpacks, blowing away unsightly leaves that could offend the sensibilities of our fellow millionaires. Can you imagine Axel's ecstasy as he beheld the outdoor air-conditioning machines that moistened the desert air and blew micro-mist over the sunbathers with faces covered in green mud? Shall I tell you of the Palm Springs Humane Society's dog-adoption dinner we attended to celebrate Pym's acquisition of the very latest blueprint for the nose cone of the Stealth bomber? How the dogs were led on stage groomed and ribboned, to be auctioned to humane ladies, while everybody wept as if they were Vietnamese orphans? Of the all-day Bible-thumpers' radio channel that portrayed the Christian God as the champion of wealth, since wealth was the enemy of Communism? "God's waiting room" is what they call Palm Springs. It has one swimming-pool for every five inhabitants, and lies a couple of hours' drive from the biggest killing factories in the world. Its industries are charity and death. That night, unknown to the retired bandits and senile comedians who made up its geriatric court, Pym and Axel added espionage to the list of its accomplishments.

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