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Authors: John le Carré

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‘And of course everything goes through me, Percy,’ says Dom, and we both say, yes, Dom, of course.

Three days later, Percy calls me on my Office mobile. Looks like there’s a bit of slack coming up, Nat. Could be worth a punt. Thanks, Percy, I say, I’ll pass the word on to Dom as appropriate, by which I mean as late as possible or not at all.

Florence’s cubbyhole is one step from my office. From now on, I inform her, she will spend as much quality time as needed with Orson’s disenchanted mistress, codename Astra. She will take her for country drives, escort her on her shopping expeditions and have girly lunches with her at Fortnum’s, Astra’s favourite. She will also up her cultivation of the night porter at the target building. Disregarding
Dom, I authorize a sweetener of five hundred pounds to that end. Under my guidance Florence will also draft a formal application for a first covert reconnaissance of the interior of Orson’s duplex to be conducted by a stealth team from Operations Directorate. By involving the Directorate at this early stage, we are signalling serious intent.

*

My initial instinct has been to enjoy Florence with
caution: one of those upper-class girls who’ve grown up with ponies and you never quite know what’s going on inside. Steff would loathe her on sight, Prue would worry. Her eyes are large, brown and unsmiling. To cover her shape in the workplace she favours baggy woollen skirts, flat shoes, no make-up. According to her file, she lives with her parents in Pimlico and has no designated partner. Her
sexual orientation is by her own wish
undeclared
.
As what I take to be a keep-out sign, she sports a man’s gold signet ring on her wedding finger. She has a long stride and a slight lilt with every step. The same lilt is replicated in her voice, which is pure Cheltenham Ladies’ College laced with bricklayers’ expletives. My first experience of this unlikely pairing occurs during a discussion of
Operation Rosebud. We are five: Dom, Percy Price and myself, a pompous Office burglar named Eric and Florence, probationer. The issue of the moment is whether a power cut might usefully be staged as a diversion while Eric’s boys and girls are conducting their reconnaissance inside Orson’s duplex. Florence, who until now has remained quiescent, springs to life:

‘But
Eric
,’ she objects. ‘Whatever
do we think Orson’s computers run on? Fucking torch batteries?’

An urgent problem awaiting me is to excise the note of moral outrage that permeates her draft submission to Operations Directorate. I may not be the Office’s uncrowned king of paperwork – my personal reports suggest the opposite – but I do know what raises the hackles of our dear planners. When I tell her this in plain English she
flares. Is this Steff I’m dealing with, or my number two?

‘Oh
Jesus
,’ she sighs. ‘You’re about to tell me you’ve got a thing about adverbs.’

‘I’m telling you nothing of the kind. I’m telling you that it’s a matter of embuggerance, as you would say, to Ops Directorate
and
Russia department whether Orson is the most debased man on the planet or a paragon of the virtues. We therefore delete all
references to just causes and obscene sums of money stolen from the world’s oppressed. We do intent, dividend, risk level and deniability and we make bloody sure the Haven’s symbol is watermarked on every page and not mysteriously replaced by anyone else’s.’

‘Such as Dom’s?’

‘Such as anybody’s.’

She stalks back to her cubbyhole and slams the door. No wonder Giles fell in love with her: he hasn’t
got a daughter. I call Percy, tell him the Rosebud draft proposal is in the pipeline. When all my excuses for delay have run out, I give Dom a full and frank account of our progress to date – by which I mean, enough to keep him quiet. On the Monday evening, with a pardonable sense of self-satisfaction, I wish goodnight to the Haven and set course for the Athleticus and my long-delayed badminton
encounter with Edward Stanley Shannon, researcher.

5

According to my engagements diary, which has never in its life contained information I would not be prepared to leave on a bus or at home, Ed and I played in all fifteen games
of badminton at the Athleticus, mainly but not always on Mondays, and sometimes twice weekly, fourteen before the Fall, one after it. My use of
Fall
is arbitrary. It has nothing to do with the autumn season or Adam and Eve. I’m not sure the word covers the case but I have looked in vain for a better.

If I am approaching the Athleticus from the north, it is my pleasure to cover the last lap with
a crisp walk across Battersea Park. If I am coming directly from my house, I have only a five-hundred-yard walk. The Athleticus has been my unlikely club and away-from-it-all for a large chunk of my adult life. Prue calls it my playpen. When I was abroad I kept my membership going and used my spells of home leave to stay on the ladder. Whenever the Office hauled me back for an operational meeting,
I’d find time to grab a game. In the Athleticus I’m Nat to the world and its brother, nobody gives a hoot what I or anyone else does for a living and nobody asks. Chinese and other Asian members outnumber us Caucasians three to one. Steff has refused to play ever since she learned to say ‘no’, but there was a time when I’d cart her along for an ice cream and a swim. Prue as a good sport will turn
to if asked, but only on sufferance
and latterly, what with her
pro bono
work and the class actions her partnership gets embroiled in, not at all.

We have an ageless insomniac Swatownese barman called Fred. We do a junior membership that is wildly uneconomic, but only until age twenty-two. After that it’s two hundred and fifty smackers a year and a hefty joining fee. And we’d have had to put
up shop or raise the ante still higher if a Chinese member named Arthur hadn’t made an anonymous donation of a hundred thousand euros out of the blue, and thereby hangs a tale. As Hon. Club Secretary I was one of the few who were allowed to thank Arthur for his generosity. One evening I was told he was sitting in the bar. He was my age but already white-haired, wearing a smart suit and tie and staring
ahead of him. No drink.

‘Arthur,’ I say, sitting down beside him, ‘we don’t know how to thank you.’

I wait for him to turn his head, but his gaze stays fixed on the middle distance.

‘It’s for my boy,’ he replies after an age.

‘So is your boy with us here tonight?’ I ask, observing a group of Chinese kids hanging round the pool.

‘No more,’ he replies, still without turning his head.

No more?
What did that mean?

I mount a discreet search. Chinese names are tricky. There was a junior member who seemed to have the same surname as our donor, but his annual membership was six months overdue and he’d ignored the usual string of reminders. It took Alice to make the connection. Kim, she remembered. That eager, skinny little lad. Sweet as pie, gave his age as sixteen but looked sixty. A Chinese
woman, she came along with him, very polite, could have been his mother, or maybe nurse. Bought a six-lesson start-up course for cash outright but that boy, he couldn’t connect with the shuttle, not even dolly shots. The coach now, he suggested he give it a try at home, just hand–eye, shuttle on racquet, and
come back like in a few weeks. That boy, he never did. The nurse neither. We guessed he’d
given up or gone home to China. Oh dear Jesus, don’t say it. Well, God bless that poor Kim.

I’m not sure why I recount this episode in such detail except that I love the place and what it has been to me over the years, and it’s the place where I played my fifteen games with Ed and enjoyed all but the last one.

*

Our first appointed Monday did not exactly get off to the rollicking start the
record suggests. I am a punctual man – Steff says anally so. For our date, made a full three weeks previously, he arrived out of breath with less than three minutes to spare wearing a rumpled town suit and bicycle clips round his ankles. He was armed with a brown imitation-leather briefcase, and he was in a filthy temper.

Bear in mind now that I had seen him only the once in badminton gear. Bear
in mind further that he was a good twenty years my junior, had issued me with a challenge under the gaze of my fellow members, and I had accepted his challenge not least to save his face. Further bear in mind that not only was I Club champion, I had spent the morning conducting back-to-back handover meetings with two of Giles’s least promising and least productive agents, both women as it happened,
and both resenting their change of handler for obvious reasons; my lunch hour soothing Prue’s feelings after she had received a hurtful email from Steff demanding that her mobile phone, which she had left on the hall table, be sent by registered mail to an unfamiliar address c/o Juno – who the hell is Juno? – and my afternoon weeding out yet more gratuitous statements about Orson’s disgraceful
lifestyle, after I had twice instructed Florence to remove them.

Bear in mind finally that by the time Ed charges into the
changing room, giving a good imitation of a man on the run, I have been hanging around fretting in full badminton rig for all of ten minutes watching the clock. Starting to undress himself he grumbles half intelligibly about some ‘fucking cycle-hating lorry driver’ who did
unfriendly things to him at the traffic lights, and his employers who ‘kept me late for no fucking reason’, to all of which I can only reply ‘poor you’, then settle down on the bench to observe the rest of his chaotic progress in the mirror.

If I am a less relaxed man than the one he met a couple of weeks back, so the Ed before me bears little resemblance to the shy man-boy who needed Alice’s
assistance to approach me. Freed of his jacket, he makes a downward swoop of his upper body without bending his knees, slams open his locker, fishes out a tube of shuttles and a couple of racquets, then a rolled-up bundle containing shirt, shorts, socks and sneakers.

Big feet, I’m noting. Could be slow on them. And even while I’m thinking this, he’s slung his brown briefcase into the locker and
turned the key on it
. Why? The man’s halfway through changing into his badminton kit. In thirty seconds he’ll be loading his day clothes into the self-same locker at the same frenzied pace with which he’s currently tearing them off. So why lock it
now
, only to have to
unlock
it half a minute later? Is he afraid somebody’s going to nick his briefcase while his back’s turned?

I don’t make a conscious
effort to think like this. It’s my
déformation professionnelle
. It’s what I’ve been taught to do and have done all my working life, whether the object of my interest is Prue doing her face at her dressing table in Battersea or the middle-aged couple in the corner of a café who’ve been sitting there too long, who talk to each other with too much earnestness and never look in my direction.

He has
hauled his shirt over his head and is displaying his naked torso. Good physique, a bit bony, no tattoos, no scars, no other distinguishing marks, and from where I sit very, very tall.
He removes his spectacles, unlocks the locker, tosses them in and
relocks
it. He pulls on a T-shirt, then the same long shorts he was wearing when he first accosted me, and a pair of ankle socks, originally white.

His knees are now in line with my face. Without spectacles his face is bare and even younger-looking than when he first approached me. Twenty-five at most. He leans over me, peers into the wall mirror. He’s fitting his contact lenses. He blinks his eyes clear. I am also noticing that throughout these contortions he has still not once bent his knees. Everything hinges from the waist, whether he’s
fastening his shoelaces or craning to fix his contacts. So despite his height, maybe problems with reach when it comes to low and wide. Yet again he unlocks his locker, stuffs his suit, shirt and shoes into it, slams the door shut, turns the key, removes it, peers at it as it lies in the palm of his hand, shrugs, unpicks the ribbon attached to it, kicks open the trash bin at his feet, chucks the
ribbon in and stows the key in the right-hand pocket of his long shorts.

‘All set then?’ he demands, as if I, not he, had kept us waiting.

We head for the court, Ed stalking in front of me twiddling his racquet and still fuming to himself, either about his cycle-hating lorry driver or his pea-brained employers or some other irritation yet to be revealed. He knows his way. He’s been furtively
practising here, I’ll bet he has, probably ever since he challenged me. My work requires me to get along with people I wouldn’t normally entertain in the woodshed, but this young man is putting a strain on my tolerance and the badminton court is the place to put that right.

*

We played seven bitter games that first evening. Championships included, I don’t remember being more stretched or more
determined to put a young opponent in his place. I won the four, but only by the skin of my teeth. He was good, but mercifully inconsistent, which gave me the edge. Despite his youth, I reckoned he was as good as he was ever going to be, bearing in mind that he had the reach on me by six or seven inches. And concentration variable, thank God. For a dozen points he’d charge, smash, lunge, lob, drop-shot,
retrieve, and force his body into every unlikely angle, and I’d be struggling to keep up. Then for the next three or four rallies he’d switch off and winning didn’t seem to matter to him any more. Then he’d come alive again, but by then it was too late.

And from the first to the last rally not a word between us, bar his punctilious enunciation of the score, a responsibility he arrogated to himself
from the first point, and the occasional
shit!
when he fluffed. We must have picked up a dozen spectators by the time we’d reached the deciding game and there was even a smattering of applause at the end. And yes, he was heavy on his feet. And yes, his low-angle shots were frenetic, a bit last-minute-ish, despite his superior height.

But, after all that, I had to say he played and lost with unexpected
grace, without contesting a single line decision or demanding a replay, not by any means always the case at the Athleticus or anywhere else. And as soon as the game was over he managed a broad grin, the first I’d seen from him since the day he approached me – chagrined, but genuinely sporting and all the better for being unexpected.

‘That was a really, really good game, Nat, best ever, yeah,’
he assures me sincerely, grabbing my hand and pumping it up and down. ‘Got time for a quick snoot? On me?’

Snoot?
I’ve been away from England too long. Or
snort
? The absurd thought crosses my mind that he is offering me cocaine out of his brown briefcase. Then I realize he is simply suggesting we share a civilized drink in the bar, so I say not tonight I’m
afraid, Ed, thanks, I’m tied up, which
was true: I’d got yet another late-night handover, this time with Giles’s one remaining female agent, codename Starlight, an absolute pain of a woman and to my mind patently untrustworthy, but Giles is convinced he has the measure of her.

‘How’s about a revenge match next week then?’ Ed urges with the perseverance I am learning to expect of him. ‘No sweat if one of us has to cancel. I’ll book
anyway. Are you up for that?’

To which I reply, truthfully again, that I’m a bit under the whip so let’s take a rain check. And anyway, I’ll do the booking, it’s my shout. Followed by another of those weird up-and-down handshakes of his. The last I see of him after we’ve parted, he’s bent double with his bicycle clips on, unlocking the chain of his antediluvian bicycle. Somebody is telling him
it’s blocking the pavement and he’s telling them to fuck off.

In the event I had to text him, cancelling next Monday because of Rosebud, which, thanks to Florence’s reluctant acquiescence in toning down the moral outrage, and some backstairs lobbying on my part, was acquiring serious legs. He proposed the Wednesday instead, but I had to tell him I was under the whip all week. And when the following
Monday came up, we were still hanging by a thread and with due apologies I had to cancel yet again, and the rest of the week didn’t look at all good either. I felt badly to have messed him about and was all the more relieved on each occasion to receive a courteous ‘no problem’. By the third Friday evening I was still uncertain whether I was going to be able to make the coming Monday or any
other day, which would have meant three cancellations on the trot.

It’s past closing time. The Haven duty shift is already moving in for the weekend. Little Ilya has again volunteered. He needs the money. My Office line rings. It’s Dom. I’m half inclined to let it go on ringing, but relent.

‘I have some rather gratifying news for you, Nat,’ he announces
in his public-meeting voice. ‘A certain
lady by the name of Rosebud has found favour with our lords of Russia department. They have forwarded our proposal to Operations Directorate for a conclusive determination and action. I wish you a good weekend. You’ve deserved it, if you’ll allow me to say so.’


Our
proposal, Dom? Or just London General’s proposal?’

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