Authors: John le Carré
‘And we’ve got to look out for crocodiles as we step ashore, but Juno’s going to carry me, aren’t you, Juno?’
‘And deprive the crocodiles of a square meal? Certainly not. We are there to preserve the wildlife.’
Steff gives a hoot of laughter and closes the door on us. Over lunch, she flashes her engagement ring round the table, but it’s mostly
for my benefit because she has bubbled everything to Prue in the kitchen.
Juno says they are waiting until Steff has graduated, which is going to take longer because she has switched to Medicine. Steff hadn’t got around to mentioning this fact to us, but Prue and I have also learned not to over-respond to such life-changing revelations.
Juno had wanted to ask me formally for her hand, but Steff
insisted that her hand was nobody’s property but her own. He asks me anyway, across the table, and I tell him it’s their decision alone, and they should take all the time they need. He promises they will. They want children – ‘Six,’ Steff cuts in – but only down the line, and meanwhile Juno would like to introduce us to his parents, who are both teachers in Mumbai, and they plan to visit England
around Christmas time. And may Juno please enquire what my profession is, because Steff has been vague and his parents are sure to want to know. Was it
service? Steff had seemed unsure.
Lounging across the table, one hand for her chin and the other for Juno, Steff waits for my answer. I had not expected her to keep our ski-lift conversation to herself and I hadn’t seen
fit to ask her to do so. But evidently she has.
all the way,’ I protest with a laugh. ‘Actually
civil. Travelling salesman for the Queen with a bit of diplomatic status thrown in about sums it up.’
‘So commercial counsellor?’ Juno enquires. ‘May I tell them British commercial counsellor?’
‘Would do fine,’ I assure him. ‘Commercial counsellor come home and put out to grass.’
To which Prue says: ‘Nonsense, darling. Nat always talks himself down.’
And Steff says: ‘He’s a loyal servant of the Crown, Juno, and a shit-hot one, aren’t you, Dad?’
When they’re gone Prue and I tell each other that maybe it was all a bit of a fairy tale, but if they split up tomorrow Steff will have turned a corner and become the girl we always knew she was. After washing up, we go to bed
early because we need to make love and I have a crack-of-dawn flight.
‘So who’ve you got tucked away in Prague then?’ Prue asks me mischievously on the doorstep.
I had told her it was Prague and a conference. I hadn’t told her it was Karlovy Vary and a walk in the woods with Arkady.
If there is one item of information from this seemingly endless period of waiting that I have left till last,
that is because at the time it occurred I attached no significance to it. On the Friday afternoon, just as the Haven was packing up for the weekend, Domestic Research section, a notoriously lethargic body, delivered itself of its findings concerning the three districts of North
London on Sergei’s list. After making a number of useless observations about common watercourses, churches, power lines,
places of historical interest and architectural note, they pointed out in a footnote that all three ‘districts under advisement’ were linked by the same bicycle route, which ran from Hoxton to Central London. For convenience they attached a large-scale map with the cycle route painted pink. I have it before me as I write.
Not much has been written, and I hope never will be, about agents who devote the best years of their lives to spying for us, take their salaries and bonuses and golden handshakes,
and without fuss, without being exposed or defecting, retire to a peaceful life in the country they have loyally betrayed, or some equally benign environment.
Such a man was Woodpecker, otherwise Arkady, one-time head of Moscow Centre’s
in Trieste, my former badminton opponent and British agent. To describe his self-recruitment to the cause of liberal democracy is to trace the turbulent
journey of an essentially decent man – my view, not everyone’s by any means – strapped from birth to the rollercoaster of contemporary Russian history.
The illegitimate street-child of a Tbilisi prostitute of Jewish origin and a Georgian Orthodox priest is secretly nurtured in the Christian faith, then spotted by his Marxist teachers as an outstanding pupil. He grows a second head and becomes
an instant convert to Marxism–Leninism.
At sixteen he is again spotted, this time by the KGB, trained as an undercover agent and tasked with the infiltration of Christian counter-revolutionary elements in northern Ossetia. As a former Christian and perhaps a present one, he is well qualified for the task. Many of those he informs on are shot.
In recognition of his good work he is appointed to
the lowest ranks of the KGB where he earns himself a reputation for obedience and ‘summary justice’. This does not prevent him from attending night school in higher Marxist dialectic or acquiring foreign languages and thereby making himself eligible for intelligence work overseas.
He is dispatched on foreign missions, lends a hand in ‘extra-legal measures’, euphemism for assassination. Before
he becomes too sullied he is recalled to Moscow to be instructed in the gentler arts of fake diplomacy. As an espionage foot soldier under diplomatic cover he serves in the
of Brussels, Berlin and Chicago, engages in field reconnaissance and counter-surveillance, services agents he never meets, fills and empties countless dead letter boxes and continues to participate in the ‘neutralization’
of real or imagined enemies of the Soviet state.
Nonetheless, with the advance of maturity no amount of patriotic zeal can prevent him from embarking on an internal re-evaluation of his life’s path, from his Jewish mother to his incomplete renunciation of Christianity to his headlong embrace of Marxism–Leninism. Yet even as the Berlin Wall comes down, his vision of a golden age of Russia-style
liberal democracy, popular capitalism and prosperity for all is rising from the rubble.
But what role will Arkady himself play in this long-delayed regeneration of the mother country? He will be what he has always been: her stalwart and protector. He will shield her from saboteurs and carpetbaggers, be they foreign or home-bred. He understands the fickleness of history. Nothing endures that is
not fought for. The KGB is no more: good. A new, idealistic spy service will protect all Russia’s people, not merely her leaders.
It takes his former comrade-in-arms Vladimir Putin to deliver the final disenchantment, first with the suppression of Chechnya’s yearnings for independence, then of his own beloved Georgia’s.
Putin had always been a fifth-rate spy. Now he was a spy turned autocrat
who interpreted all life in terms of
. Thanks to Putin and his gang of unredeemed Stalinists, Russia was not going forward to a bright future, but backwards into her dark, delusional past.
‘You are London’s man?’ he bellows into my ear in English.
We are two diplomats – technically consuls – one Russian, one English, sitting out a dance at the annual New Year’s Eve party of Trieste’s
leading sports club, where in the course of three months we have played five games of badminton. It is the winter of 2008. After the events of August, Georgia is having Moscow’s gun held to her head. The band is playing sixties hit tunes with brio. No eavesdropper or hidden microphone would stand a chance. Arkady’s driver and bodyguard, who in the past has watched our games from the balcony and
even accompanied us to the changing room, is tonight carousing with a newfound lady friend on the other side of the dance floor.
I must have said ‘yes, I am London’s man’ but I have not heard myself above the din. Ever since our third badminton session when I made my impromptu pass at him, I have been waiting for this moment. It is clear to me that Arkady has been waiting for it too.
London he is willing,’ he orders me.
He means the man he is about to become.
‘He works only to you,’ he continues, still in English. ‘He will play against you here again in four weeks with great bitterness, same time, singles only. He will challenge you officially by telephone. Tell London he will need matching racquets with hollow handles. These racquets will be exchanged at a convenient
moment in the changing room. You will arrange this for him.’
What does he want in return? I ask.
‘Liberty for his people. All people. He is not materialist. He is idealistic.’
If ever a man recruited himself more sweetly, I have yet to hear of it. After two years in Trieste we lost him to Moscow Centre while he was number two in their Northern Europe department. For as long as he was in Moscow
he refused contact. When he was posted to Belgrade under cultural cover my masters in Russia department didn’t want me to be seen following him around so they gave me Trade Consul in Budapest and I ran him from there.
It was not till the final years of his career that our analysts began to spot signs, first of exaggeration, then of outright fabrication in his reports. They made more of this than
I did. To me it was a just another case of an agent growing old and tired, losing his nerve a little, but not wanting to cut the cord. It was only after Arkady’s two masters – Moscow Centre lavishly and we rather more discreetly – had toasted him and decked him with medals in appreciation of his selfless devotion to our respective causes that we learned from other sources that, as his two careers
were approaching their close, he had been diligently laying down the foundations of a third: gathering to himself a slice of his country’s criminal wealth on a scale that neither his Russian nor his British paymasters at their most munificent could have dreamed of.
The bus from Prague plunges deeper into the darkness. The black hills to either side of us rise steadily higher against the night
sky. I am not afraid of heights but dislike depths and I am wondering what I’m doing here, and how I have talked myself into a wildcat journey that I would not willingly have undertaken ten years ago or wished on a fellow officer half my age. On field officer training courses, over a Scotch at the end of a long day, we used to address the fear factor: how to balance the
odds and measure your fear
against them, except we didn’t say fear, we said courage.
The bus fills with light. We enter the main thoroughfare of Karlovy Vary, formerly Carlsbad, beloved spa of Russia’s
since Peter the Great and today its wholly owned subsidiary. Glistening hotels, bathhouses, casinos and jewellery shops with blazing windows float sedately past on either side. Between them flows a river crossed
by a noble footbridge. Twenty years back, when I came here to meet a Chechen agent who was enjoying a well-earned holiday with his mistress, the town was still ridding itself of the drab grey paint of Soviet Communism. The grandest hotel was the Moskva and the only luxury to be found was in secluded former rest homes where a few years previously the Party’s chosen and their nymphs had disported
themselves safe from the proletarian gaze.
It is ten past nine. The bus has pulled up at the terminal. I alight and begin walking. Never look as though you don’t know where to go. Never dawdle with intent. I am a newly arrived tourist. I am a pedestrian, the lowest of the low. I am taking stock of my surroundings as any good tourist may. I have a travel bag slung over my shoulder with the handle
of my badminton racquet protruding. I am one of those silly-looking English middle-class walkers except I haven’t got a guidebook in a plastic envelope tethered round my neck. I am admiring a poster for the Karlovy Vary film festival. Perhaps I should buy a ticket? The poster next along proclaims the healing virtues of the famous baths. No poster announces that the town is also celebrated as the
watering-hole of choice for the better class of Russian organized criminal.
The couple ahead of me are unable to progress at a sensible pace. The woman behind me carries a bulky carpetbag. I have completed one side of the high street. It’s time to cross the noble
footbridge and saunter down the other side. I am an Englishman abroad who is pretending he can’t make up his mind whether to buy his
wife a Cartier gold watch or a Dior gown or a diamond necklace or a fifty-thousand-dollar suite of reproduction Imperial Russian furniture.
I have arrived in the floodlit forecourt of the Grand Hotel and Casino Pupp, formerly the Moskva. The illuminated flags of all nations undulate in the evening breeze. I am admiring the brass paving stones engraved with the names of illustrious guests from
past and present. Goethe was here! So was Sting! I am thinking it is time I caught a cab, and here is one pulling up not five yards from me.
A family of Germans clambers out. Matching tartan luggage. Two children’s bicycles, brand new. The driver nods to me. I hop in beside him and toss my travel bag on to the rear seat. Does he speak Russian? Scowl.
English? German? A smile, a shake of
the head. I have no Czech. On winding unlit roads we climb into the forested hills, then steeply descend. A lake appears on our right. A car with full headlights comes racing at us on the wrong side. My driver holds his course. The car gives way.
,’ the driver pronounces in a hiss. ‘Czech people
and at the word
, jams on the brakes and slews the car into what I
take to be a lay-by until a crossfire of security lights freezes us in their beam.
The driver lowers his window, shouts something. A blond boy of twenty-odd with a starfish scar on his cheek sticks his head through, peers at my travel bag with its British Airways label, then at me.
‘Your name, please, sir?’ he demands in English.
‘Halliday. Nick Halliday.’
‘Your firm, please?’
‘Why do you come to Karlovy Vary, please?’
‘To play badminton with a friend of mine.’
He gives an order to the driver in Czech. We drive twenty yards, pass a very old woman in a headscarf pushing her wheeler. We draw up in front of a ranch-like building with a porch of Ionic marble columns, gold carpet and grab-ropes of crimson silk. Two men in suits stand on the bottom step. I pay
off the driver, collect my bag from the rear seat and under the lifeless gaze of the two men ascend the royal gold stairway to the lobby and breathe in the aroma of human sweat, diesel oil, black tobacco and women’s scent that tells every Russian he is home.
I stand under a chandelier while an expressionless girl in a black suit examines my passport below my line of sight. Through a glass partition,
in a smoke-filled bar marked ‘Fully Booked’, an old man in a Kazakh hat is holding forth to an audience of awestruck oriental disciples, all men. The girl at the counter is looking over my shoulder. The blond boy with the scar stands behind me. He must have followed me up the gold carpet. She hands him my passport, he flips it open, compares the photograph with my face, says ‘Follow me, please,
Mr Halliday’ and leads me into a sprawling office with a fresco of naked girls and French windows looking on to the lake. I count three empty chairs at three computers, two dressing mirrors, a stack of cardboard boxes bound in pink string and two fit young men in jeans, sneakers and gold neck chains.
‘It is a formality, Mr Halliday,’ the boy says as the men move in on me. ‘We have endured certain
bad experiences. We are very sorry.’
We Arkady? Or we the Azerbaijani Mafia who, according to a Head Office file I have consulted, built the place out of the profits of human trafficking? Thirty-odd years back, according to the same file, Russia’s Mafiosi agreed among themselves
that Karlovy Vary was too nice a place to kill each other. Better to keep it a safe haven for our money, families and
The men want my travel bag. The first is holding out his hands for it, the second stands at the ready. Instinct tells me they are not Czech but Russian, probably ex-special forces. If they smile, look out. I hand over my bag. In the dressing mirror the scarred boy is younger than I thought and I guess he is only acting bold. But the two men who are examining my travel bag don’t need
to act. They have felt the lining, popped open my electric toothbrush, sniffed my shirts, squeezed the soles of my trainers. They have picked at the handle of my badminton racquet, half unwound the cloth binding, tapped it, shaken it and made a couple of swings with it. Have they been briefed to do this, or is it instinct that tells them: if it’s anywhere, it’s here, whatever