Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Mr. Meadowes and Mr. Cork
"Why don't you get out and walk? I would if I was your age. Quicker than sitting with this scum."
"I'll be all right," said Cork, the albino cypher clerk, and looked anxiously at the older man in the driving seat beside him. "We'll just have to hurry slowly," he added in his most conciliatory tone. Cork was a cockney, bright as paint, and it worried him to see Meadowes all het up. "We'll just have to let it happen to us, won't we, Arthur?"
"I'd like to throw the whole bloody lot of them in the Rhine."
"You know you wouldn't really."
It was Saturday morning, nine o'clock. The road from Friesdorf to the Embassy was packed tight with protesting cars, the pavements lined with photographs of the Movement's leader, and the banners were stretched across the road like advertisements at a rally: "The West has deceived us; Germans can look East without shame." "End the Coca-Cola culture now!" At the very centre of the long column sat Cork and Meadowes, becalmed while the clamour of horns rose all round them in unceasing concert. Sometimes they sounded in series starting at the front and working slowly back, so that their roar passed overhead like an aeroplane sometimes in unison, dash dot dash, K for Karfeld our elected leader; and sometimes they just had a free for all, tuning for the symphony.
"What the hell do they want with it then? All the screaming? Bloody good haircut, that's what half of them need, a good hiding and back to school."
"It's the farmers," Cork said, "I told you, they're picketing the Bundestag."
"Farmers? This lot? They'd die if they got their feet wet, half ofthem. Kids. Look at that crowd there then. Disgusting, that's what I call it."
To their right, in a red Volkswagen, sat three students, two boys and a girl. The driver wore a leather jacket and very long hair, and he was gazing intently through his windscreen at the car in front, his slim palm poised over the steering wheel, waiting for the signal to blow his horn. His two companions, intertwined, were kissing deeply.
"They're the supporting cast," Cork said. "It's a lark for them. You know the students' slogan: 'Freedom's only real when you're fighting for it.' It's not so different from what's going on at home, is it? Hear what they did in Grosvenor Square last night?" Cork asked, attempting once again to shift the ground. "If that's education, I'll stick to ignorance."
But Meadowes would not be distracted.
"They ought to bring in the National Service," he declared, glaring at the Volkswagen. "That would sort them out."
"They've got it already. They've had it twenty years or more." Sensing that Meadowes was preparing to relent, Cork chose the subject most likely to encourage him. "Here, how did Myra's birthday party go, then? Good show was it? I'll bet she had a lovely time."
But for some reason the question only cast Meadowes into even deeper gloom, and after that Cork chose silence as the wiser course. He had tried everything, and to no effect. Meadowes was a decent, churchy sort of bloke, the kind they didn't make any more, and worth a good deal of anybody's time; but there was a limit even to Cork's filial devotion. He'd tried the new Rover which Meadowes had bought for his retirement, tax free and at a ten per cent discount. He'd admired its build, its comfort and its fittings until he was blue in the face, and all he'd got for his trouble was a grunt. He'd tried the Exiles Motoring Club, of which Meadowes was a keen supporter; he'd tried the Commonwealth Children's Sports which they hoped to run that afternoon in the Embassy gardens. And now he had even tried last night's big party, which they hadn't liked to attend because of Janet's baby being so near; and as far as Cork was concerned, that was the whole menu and Meadowes could lump it. Short of a holiday, Cork decided, short of a long, sunny holiday away from Karfeld and the Brussels negotiations, and away from his daughter Myra, Arthur Meadowes was heading for the bend.
"Here," said Cork trying one more throw, "Dutch Shell's up another bob."
"And Guest Keen are down three."
Cork had resolutely invested in non-British stock, but Meadowes preferred to pay the price of patriotism.
"They'll go up again after Brussels, don't you worry."
"Who are you kidding? The talks are as good as dead aren't they? I may not have your intelligence but I can read, you know."
Meadowes, as Cork was the very first to concede, had every excuse for melancholy, quite apart from his investments in British steel. He'd come with hardly a break from four years in Warsaw which was enough to make anyone jumpy. He was on his last posting and facing retirement in the autumn, and in Cork's experience they got worse, not better, the nearer the day came. Not to mention having a nervous wreck for a daughter: Myra Meadowes was on the road to recovery, true enough, but if one half of what they said of her was to be believed, she'd got a long way to go yet.
Add to that the responsibilities of Chancery Registrar of handling, that is, a political archive in the hottest crisis any of them could remember and you had more than your work cut out. Even Cork, tucked away in Cyphers, had felt the draught a bit, what with the extra traffic, and the extra hours, and Janet's baby coming on, and the do-this-by-yesterday that you got from most of Chancery; and his own experience, as he well knew, was nothing beside what old Arthur had had to cope with. It was the coming from all directions, Cork decided, that threw you these days. You never knew where it would happen next. One minute you'd be getting off a Reply Immediate on the Bremen riots, or tomorrow's jamboree in Hanover, the next they'd be coming back at you with the gold rush, or Brussels, or raising another few hundred millions in Frankfurt and Zurich; and if it was tough in Cyphers, it was tougher still for those who had to track down the files, enter up the loose papers, mark in the new entries and get them back into circulation again...which reminded him, for some reason, that he must telephone his accountant. If the Krupp labour front was going on like this, he might take a little look at Swedish steel, just an in-and-outer for the baby's bank account...
"Hullo," said Cork brightening. "Going to have a scrap, are we?"
Two policemen had stepped off the kerb to remonstrate with a large agricultural man in a Mercedes Diesel. First he lowered the window and shouted at them; now he opened the door and shouted at them again. Quite suddenly, the police withdrew. Cork yawned in disappointment.
Once upon a time, Cork remembered wistfully, panics came singly. You had a scream on the Berlin corridor, Russian helicopters teasing up the border, an up-and-downer with the Four Power Steering Committee in Washington. Or there was intrigue: suspected German diplomatic initiative in Moscow that had to be nipped in the bud, a suspected fiddle on the Rhodesian embargo, hushing up a Rhine Army riot in Minden. And that was that. You bolted your food, opened shop, and stayed till the job was done; and you went home a free man. That was that; that was what life was made of; that was Bonn. Whether you were a dip like de Lisle, or a non-dip behind the green baize door, the scene was the same; a bit of drama, a lot of hot air, then tickle up the stocks and shares a bit, back to boredom and roll on your next posting.
Until Karfeld. Cork gazed disconsolately at the posters. Until Karfeld came along. Nine months, he reflected the vast features were plump and lifeless, the expression one of flatulent sincerity nine months since Arthur Meadowes had come bustling through the connecting door from Registry with the news of the Kiel demonstrations, the surprise nomination, the student sit-in, and the little bit of violence they had gradually learnt to expect. Who caught it that time? Some Socialist counter-demonstrators. One beaten to death, one stoned...it used to shock them in the old days. They were green then. Christ, he thought, it might have been ten years ago; but Cork could date it almost to the hour.
Kiel was the morning the Embassy doctor announced that Janet was expecting. From that day on, nothing had ever been the same.
The horns broke wildly into song again; the convoy jerked forward and stopped abruptly, clanging and screeching all different notes.
"Any luck with those files then?" Cork enquired, his mind lighting upon the suspected cause of Meadowes' anxiety.
"Trolley hasn't turned up?"
"No, the trolley has not turned up."
Ball-bearings, Cork thought suddenly: some nice little Swedish outfit with a get-up-and-go approach, a firm capable of moving in fast...two hundred quid's worth and away we all go...
"Come on Arthur, don't let it get you down. It's not Warsaw you know: you're in Bonn now. Look: know how many cups they're shy of in the canteen, just on the last six weeks alone? Not broken, mind, just lost: twenty-four."
Meadowes was unimpressed.
"Now who wants to pinch an Embassy cup? No one. People are absent-minded. They're involved. It's the crisis, see. It's happening everywhere. It's the same with files."
"Cups aren't secret, that's the difference."
"Nor's file trolleys," Cork pleaded, "if it comes to that. Nor's the two-bar electric fire from the conference room which Admin are doing their nut about. Nor's the long-carriage typewriter from the Pool, nor listen Arthur, you can't be blamed, not with so much going on; how can you? You know what dips are when they get to drafting telegrams. Look at de Lisle, look at Gaveston: dreamers. I'm not saying they aren't geniuses but they don't know where they are half the time, their heads are in the clouds. You can't be blamed for that."
"I can be blamed. I'm responsible."
"All right, torture yourself," Cork snapped, his last patience gone. "Anyway it's Bradfield's responsibility, not yours. He's Head of Chancery; he's responsible for security."
With this parting comment, Cork once more fell to surveying the unprepossessing scene about him. In more ways than one, he decided, Karfeld had a lot to answer for.
The prospect which presented itself to Cork would have offered little comfort to any man, whatever his preoccupation. The weather was wretched. A blank Rhineland mist, like breath upon a mirror, lay over the whole developed wilderness of bureaucratic Bonn. Giant buildings, still unfinished, rose glumly out of the untilled fields. Ahead of him the British Embassy, all its windows lit, stood on its brown heathland like a makeshift hospital in the twilight of the battle. At the front gate, the Union Jack, mysteriously at half mast, drooped sadly over a cluster of German policemen.
The very choice of Bonn as the waiting house for Berlin has long been an anomaly; it is now an abuse. Perhaps only the Germans, having elected a Chancellor, would have brought their capital city to his door. To accommodate the immigration of diplomats, politicians and government servants which attended this unlooked for honour and also to keep them at a distance the townspeople have built a complete suburb outside their city walls. It was through the southern end of this that the traffic was now attempting to pass: a jumble of stodgy towers and lowflung contemporary hutments which stretched along the dual carriageway almost as far as the amiable sanatorium settlement of Bad Godesberg, whose principal industry, having once been bottled water, is now diplomacy. True, some Ministries have been admitted to Bonn itself, and have added their fake masonry to the cobble courtyards; true, some Embassies are in Bad Godesberg; but the seat of Federal Government and the great majority of the ninety odd Foreign Missions accredited to it, not to mention the lobbyists, the press, the political parties, the refugee organisations, the official residences of Federal Dignitaries, the Kuratorium for Indivisible Germany, and the whole bureaucratic superstructure of West Germany's provisional capital, are to be found to either side of this one arterial carriageway between the former seat of the Bishop of Cologne and the Victorian villas of a Rhineland spa.
Of this unnatural capital village, of this island state, which lacks both political identity and social hinterland, and is permanently committed to the condition of impermanence, the British Embassy is an inseparable part. Imagine a sprawling factory block of no merit, the kind of building you see in dozens on the Western by-pass, usually with a symbol of its product set out on the roof; paint about it a sullen Rhenish sky, add an indefinable hint of Nazi architecture, just a breath, no more, and erect in the rough ground behind it two fading goalposts for the recreation of the unwashed, and you have portrayed with fair accuracy the mind and force of England in the Federal Republic. With one sprawling limb it holds down the past, with another it smoothes the present; while a third searches anxiously in the wet Rhenish earth to find what is buried for the future. Built as the Occupation drew to its premature end, it catches precisely that mood of graceless renunciation; a stone face turned towards a former foe, a grey smile offered to the present ally. To Cork's left, as they finally entered its gates, lay the headquarters of the Red Cross, to his right a Mercedes factory; behind him, across the road, the Social Democrats and a Coca-Cola depot. The Embassy is cut off from these improbable neighbours by a strip of waste land which, strewn with sorrel and bare clay, runs flatly to the neglected Rhine. This field is known as Bonn's green belt and is an object of great pride to the city's planners.
One day, perhaps, they will move to Berlin; the contingency, even in Bonn, is occasionally spoken of. One day, perhaps, the whole grey mountain will slip down the autobahn and silently take its place in the wet car parks of the gutted Reichstag; until that happens, these concrete tents will remain, discreetly temporary in deference to the dream, discreetly permanent in deference to reality; they will remain, multiply, and grow; for in Bonn, movement has replaced progress, and whatever will not grow must die.
Parking the car in his customary place behind the canteen, Meadowes walked slowly round it, as he always did after a journey, testing the handles and checking the coachwork for the marks of an errant pebble. Still deep in thought he crossed the forecourt to the front porch where two British military policemen, a sergeant and a corporal, were examining passes. Cork, still offended, followed at a distance, so that by the time he reached the front door Meadowes was already deep in conversation with the sentries.
"Who are you then?" the sergeant was wanting to know.
"Meadowes of Registry. He works for me." Meadowes tried to look over the sergeant's shoulder, but the sergeant drew back the list against his tunic. "He's been off sick you see. I wanted to enquire."
"Then why's he under Ground Floor?"
"He has a room there. He has two functions. Two different jobs. One with me, one on the ground floor."
"Zero," said the sergeant, looking at the list again. A bunch of typists, their skirts as short as the Ambassadress permitted, came fluttering up the steps behind them.
Meadowes lingered, still unconvinced. "You mean he's not come in?" he asked with tenderness which longs for contradiction.
"That's what I do mean. Zero. He's not come in. He's not here. Right?"
They followed the girls into the lobby. Cork took his arm and drew him back into the shadow of the basement grille.
"What's going on, Arthur? What's your problem? It's not just the missing files, is it? What's eating you up?"
"Nothing's eating me."
"Then what's all that about Leo being ill? He hasn't had a day's illness in his life."
Meadowes did not reply.
"What's Leo been up to?" Cork demanded with deep suspicion.
"Then why did you ask about him? You can't have lost him as well! Blimey, they've been trying to lose Leo for twenty years."
Cork felt the decent hesitation in Meadowes, the proximity of revelation and the reluctant drawing back.
"You can't be responsible for Leo. Nobody can. You can't be everyone's father, Arthur. He's probably out flogging a few petrol coupons."
The words were barely spoken before Meadows rounded on him, very angry indeed.
"Don't you talk like that, d'you hear? Don't you dare! Leo's not like that; it's a shocking thing to say of anyone; flogging petrol coupons. Just because he's a temporary."
Cork's expression, as he followed Meadowes at a safe distance up the open-tread staircase to the first floor, spoke for itself. If that was what age did for you, retirement at sixty didn't come a day too early. Cork's own retirement would be from it to a Greek island. Crete, he thought; Spetsai. I could swing it at forty if those ball-bearings come home. Well, forty-five anyway.
A step along the corridor from Registry lay the cypher room and a step beyond that, the small, bright office occupied by Peter de Lisle. Chancery means no more than political section; its young men are the elite. It is here, if anywhere, that the popular dream of the brilliant English diplomat may be realised; and in no one more nearly than Peter de Lisle. He was an elegant, willowy, almost beautiful person, whose youth had persisted obstinately into his early forties, and his manner was languid to the point of lethargy. This lethargy was not affected, but simply deceptive. De Lisle's family tree had been disastrously pruned by two wars, and further depleted by a succession of small but violent catastrophes. A brother had died in a car accident; an uncle had committed suicide; a second brother was drowned on holiday in Penzance. Thus by degrees de Lisle himself had acquired both the energies and the duties of an improbable survivor. He had much rather not been called at all, his manner implied; but since that was the way of things, he had no alternative but to wear the mantle.
As Meadowes and Cork entered their separate estates, de Lisle was on the point of gathering together the sheets of blue draft paper which lay scattered in artistic confusion on his desk. Having shuffled them casually into order, he buttoned his waistcoat, stretched, cast a wistful look at the picture of Lake Windermere, issued by the Ministry of Works with the kind permission of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, and drifted contentedly on to the landing to greet the new day. Lingering at the long window, he peered downward for a moment at the spines of the farmers' black cars and the small islands of blue where the police lights flashed.
"They have this passion for steel," he observed to Mickie Crabbe, a ragged, leaky-eyed man permanently crippled by a hangover. Crabbe was slowly ascending the stairs, one hand reassuringly upon the banister, his thin shoulders hunched protectively. "I'd quite forgotten. I'd remembered the blood, but forgotten the steel."
"Rather," Crabbe muttered, "Rather," and his voice trailed after him like the shreds of his own life. Only his hair had not aged; it grew dark and luxuriant on his little head, as if fertilised by alcohol.
"Sports," Crabbe cried, making an unscheduled halt. "Bloody marquee isn't up."
"It'll come," de Lisle assured him kindly. "It's been held up by the Peasants' Revolt."
"Back way empty as a church on the other road; bloody Huns," Crabbe added vaguely as if it were a greeting, and continued painfully down his appointed track.
Slowly following him along the passage, de Lisle pushed open door after door, peering inside to call a name or a greeting, until he arrived by degrees at the Head of Chancery's room; and here he knocked hard, and leaned in.
"All present, Rawley," he said. "Ready when you are."
"I'm ready now."
"I say, you haven't pinched my electric fan by any chance, have you? It's absolutely vanished."
"Fortunately I am not a kleptomaniac."
"Ludwig Siebkron's asking for a meeting at four o'clock," de Lisle added quietly, "at the Ministry of the Interior. He won't say why. I pressed him and he got shirty. He just said he wanted to discuss our security arrangements."
"Our arrangements are perfectly adequate as they stand. We discussed them with him last week; he is dining with me on Tuesday. I cannot imagine we need to do any more. The place is crawling with police as it is. I refuse to let him make a fortress of us."
The voice was austere and self sufficient, an academic voice, yet military; a voice which held much in reserve; a voice which guarded its secrets and its sovereignty, drawled out but bitten short.
Taking a step into the room, de Lisle closed the door and dropped the latch.
"How did it go last night?"
"Adequately. You may read the minute if you wish. Meadowes is taking it to the Ambassador."
"I imagined that was what Siebkron was ringing about."
"I am not obliged to report to Siebkron; nor do I intend to. And I have no idea why he telephoned at this hour, nor why he should call a meeting. Your imagination is ahead of my own."
"All the same, I accepted for you. It seemed wise."
"At what time are we bidden?"
"Four o'clock. He's sending transport."
Bradfield frowned in disapproval.
"He's worried about the traffic. He thinks an escort would make things easier," de Lisle explained.
"I see. I thought for a moment he was saving us the expense."
It was a joke they shared in silence.
Copyright © 1968 by le Carré Productions
Copyright © 1996 by David Cornwell