Authors: John le Carré
For the rest of the week leading up to our crack-of-dawn departure from Stansted I affected for reasons of family harmony to be mulling over whether to accept the
I had been offered by the Office, or make the clean break Prue had long advocated. She was content to wait. Steff professed herself unbothered either way. As far as she was concerned I was just a middle-order bureaucrat who was never going to make the grade whatever he did. She loved me, but from a height.
‘Let’s face it, sport, they’re not going to appoint us ambassador to Beijing or give
us a knighthood, are they?’ she reminded me cheerfully when the question came up over dinner. As usual, I took it on the chin. For as long as I was a diplomat abroad, I at least had status. Back in the mother country, I was part of the grey mass.
It was not till our second evening in the mountains, while Steff was out gallivanting with a bunch of Italian kids who were staying in our hotel, and
Prue and I were enjoying a quiet cheese fondue and a couple of glasses of kirsch at Marcel’s, that I was seized with the urge to come clean to Prue about my job offer at the Office – really clean – not tiptoe around as I had been planning, not another cover story, but tell it to her from the heart, which was the least she deserved after all I’d put her through over the years. Her air of quiet resignation
told me she
had already sensed that I was a long way from opening that outward-bound club for disadvantaged kids.
‘It’s one of those run-down London substations that’s been resting on its laurels since the glory days of the Cold War and not producing anything worth a damn,’ I say grimly. ‘It’s a Mickey Mouse outfit, light miles from the mainstream, and my job will be either to get it on its feet
or speed it on its way to the graveyard.’
With Prue, on the rare occasions we get to talk in relaxed terms about the Office, I never know whether I’m swimming against the tide or with it, so I tend to do a bit of both.
‘I thought you always said you didn’t want a command post,’ she objects lightly. ‘You preferred to be second man, not bean-counting and bossing other people around.’
isn’t really a
post, Prue,’ I assure her warily. ‘I’ll still be second man.’
‘Well, that’s all right then, isn’t it?’ she says, brightening. ‘You’ll have Bryn to keep you on the rails. You always admired Bryn. We both did’ – gallantly setting aside her own scruples.
We exchange nostalgic smiles as we recall our short-lived honeymoon as Moscow spies, with Station head Bryn our ever-watchful
guide and mentor.
‘Well, I won’t be under Bryn
, Prue. Bryn’s Czar of All the Russias these days. A sideshow like the Haven’s a bit below his pay grade.’
‘So who’s the lucky person who’s going to be in charge of you?’ she enquires.
This is no longer the kind of full disclosure I had in mind. Dom is anathema to Prue. She met him when she came out to visit me in Budapest with Steff, took
one look at Dom’s distraught wife and children and read the signs.
‘Well, officially I’ll be under what’s called
,’ I explain. ‘But of course in reality, if it’s anything
it trickles up the pyramid to Bryn. It’s just for as long as they need me, Prue. Not a day longer,’ I add by way of consolation, though which of us I’m consoling is not clear to either of us.
takes a forkful of fondue, a sip of wine, a sip of kirsch and, thus fortified, reaches both her hands across the table and grasps mine. Does she
Dom? Does she
him? Prue’s near-psychic insights can verge on the disturbing.
‘Well, I’ll tell you what, Nat,’ she says after due reflection. ‘I think it’s your good right to do exactly what you want to do, for as long as you want to do it,
and bugger the rest. And I’ll do the same. And it’s my turn to pay the bill, so there. The whole of it this time. I owe it to my barefaced integrity,’ she adds, in a joke that never pales.
And it was on this happy note, while we’re lying in bed and I’m thanking her for her generosity of spirit over the years and she is telling me sweet things about myself in return, and Steff is dancing the night
away, or so we hope, that I come up with the notion that now is the ideal opportunity to make a clean breast to our daughter about the true nature of her father’s work, or as clean as Head Office allows. It was high time she knew, I reasoned, and far better she hear it from me than from anyone else. I might have added, but didn’t, that since my return to hearth and home I was becoming increasingly
irked by her light-hearted disdain for me, and by her practice, left over from adolescence, of either tolerating me as a necessary domestic encumbrance or plonking herself on my lap as if I were some kind of fuddy-duddy in the evening of his life, usually for the benefit of her latest admirer. I was also irked, if I am being cruelly honest, by the way Prue’s much deserved eminence as a human
rights lawyer encouraged Steff in her belief that I had been left standing.
At first the lawyer-mother in Prue is wary. How much
did I propose to tell her? Presumably there were limits. What
were they precisely? Who set them? The Office or me? And how did I intend to handle follow-up questions, should there be any, had I thought about
? And how could I be sure of not getting carried
away? We both knew Steff’s reactions were never predictable, and Steff and I wound each other up too easily. We had form in this respect. And so on.
And Prue’s warning words were, as ever, eminently sound and well founded. Steff’s early adolescence had been a bit of a living nightmare, as Prue didn’t need to remind me. Boys, drugs, screaming matches – all the usual modern-age problems, you might
say, but Steff had turned them into an art form. While I was gravitating between overseas stations, Prue had spent every spare hour reasoning with head teachers and form teachers, attending parents’ evenings, ploughing through books and newspaper articles and trawling advisory services on the internet for guidance on how best to handle your hell-bent daughter, and blaming herself for all of it.
And I for my part had done my humble best to share the load, flying home for weekends, sitting in conclave with psychiatrists and psychologists and every other kind of
. The only thing they seemed to agree on was that Steff was hyper-intelligent – no great surprise to us – was bored stiff by her peer group, rejected discipline as an existential threat, found her teachers insufferably tedious,
and what she really needed was a challenging intellectual environment that was up to her speed: a statement, as far as I was concerned, of the blindingly obvious, but not so to Prue, who has rather more faith than I have in expert opinion.
Well, now Steff had her challenging intellectual environment. At Bristol University. Mathematics and Philosophy. And she was entering her second semester of
So tell her.
‘You don’t think you’d make a better job of it, darling?’ I
suggest to Prue, keeper of the family wisdom, in a weak moment.
‘No, darling. Since you’re determined to do it, it will be
better coming from you. Just remember you
quick-tempered, and don’t on any account do self-deprecation. Self-deprecation will drive her straight round the bend.’
Having run my eye over
possible locations, rather in the way I’d calculate a risky approach to a potential source, I concluded that the best setting and the most natural must surely be the little-used ski-lift for slalom practice running up the north slope of the Grand Terrain. It had a T-bar of the old type: you went up side by side, no need for eye contact, nobody within earshot, pine forest to the left, steep drop
to the valley on the right. A short sharp descent to the bottom of the one and only lift, so no fear of losing touch, obligatory cut-off point at the top, any follow-up questions to be dealt with on the next ascent.
It’s a sparkling winter’s morning, perfect snow. Prue has pleaded fictional tummy trouble and taken herself shopping. Steff had been out on the tiles with her young Italians till
God knows what hour, but seemed none the worse for it, and pleased to be getting some alone-time with Dad. Obviously there was no way I could go into detail about my shady past beyond explaining that I’d never been a real diplomat, just a pretend one, which was the reason why I’d never landed a knighthood or an ambassadorship to Beijing, so maybe she could leave that one out now that I’d come home
because it was seriously getting on my nerves.
to have told her why I’d failed to phone her on her fourteenth birthday, because I knew it still rankled. I’d
to have explained that I had been sitting on the Estonian side of
the Russian border in thick snow praying to God my agent would make it through the lines under a pile of sawn timber. I’d
to have given her some idea of
how it had felt for her mother and me to live together under non-stop surveillance as members of the Office’s Station in Moscow where it could take ten days to clear or fill a dead letter box, knowing that, if you put a foot out of place, your agent is likely to die in hell. But Prue had insisted that our Moscow tour was the part of her life she did not want revisited, adding in her usual forthright
‘And I don’t think she needs to know we fucked for the Russian cameras either, darling’ – relishing our rediscovered sex life.
Steff and I grab a T-bar and away we go. First time up, we chat about my homecoming and how little I know of the old country I’ve been serving half my life, so a lot to learn, Steff, a lot to get used to, as I’m sure you understand.
‘Like no more lovely tax-free
booze when we come to visit you!’ she wails, and we share a hearty father–daughter laugh.
Time to uncouple, and down the mountain we sail, Steff leading. So a really good soft opening to our tête-à-tête.
disgrace to serving your country in
capacity, darling’ – Prue’s counsel ringing in my memory’s ear – ‘you and I may have differing views on patriotism, but Steff sees it
as a curse on mankind, second only to religion. And keep the humour down. Humour at serious moments is simply an escape route as far as Steff’s concerned.’
We hook up a second time and set off up the hill.
. No jokes, no self-deprecation, no apology. And stick to the brief that Prue and I thrashed out together, no deviations. Staring hard ahead of me, I select a serious but not portentous
‘Steff, there’s something about me that your mother and I feel it’s time you knew.’
‘I’m illegitimate,’ she says eagerly.
‘No, but I’m a spy.’
She too is staring ahead of her. This wasn’t quite how I meant it to begin. Never mind. I say my piece as drafted, she listens. No eye contact so no stress. I keep it short and cool. So there you are, Steff, now you have it. I’ve been living a
necessary lie, and that’s all I’m allowed to tell you. I may look like a failure, but I do have a certain status in my own Service. She doesn’t say anything. We reach the top, uncouple and set off down the hill, still nothing said. She’s faster than I am, or likes to think she is, so I let her have her head. We meet up again at the bottom of the lift.
Standing in the queue we don’t speak to each
other and she doesn’t look in my direction, but that doesn’t disconcert me. Steff lives in her world, well now she knows I live in mine too, and it’s not some knacker’s yard for Foreign Office low-flyers. She’s in front of me so she grabs the T-bar first. We have barely set off before she asks in a matter-of-fact voice whether I’ve ever killed anyone. I chuckle, say no, Steff, absolutely not,
thank God, which is true. Others have, if only indirectly, but I haven’t. Not even arm’s length or third flag, not even as the Office calls it,
‘Well if you
killed anyone, what’s the
-worst thing you’ve done as a spy?’ – in the same casual tone.
‘Well, Steff, I suppose the
worst I’ve done is persuade chaps to do things they might not have done if I hadn’t
talked them into it, so to speak.’
‘Arguably. Depends which side of the fence you’re on.’
‘Such as what, for instance?’
‘Well, betray their country for starters.’
‘And you persuaded them to do that?’
‘If they hadn’t persuaded themselves already, yes.’
, or did you persuade
chaps too?’ – which if you’d heard Steff on the subject of feminism is not as light-hearted
as it might otherwise sound.
‘Largely male chaps, Steff. Yes, men, overwhelmingly men,’ I assure her.
We have reached the top. We again uncouple and descend, Steff streaking ahead. Once more we meet at the bottom of the lift. No queue. Until now she has pushed her goggles up on to her forehead for the ride. This time she leaves them in place. They’re the mirrored kind that you can’t see into.