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Authors: John le Carré

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‘Yeah, well.’ Long pause. ‘Only it’s about Laura, you see. On Monday.’

Laura, the sister who has learning difficulties.

‘That’s all right, Ed. If you’re tied up with Laura, forget it. We’ll
play another time. Just say the word and I’ll see when I’m free.’

This is not the reason he called, however. There’s something else going on. With Ed there always is. Wait long enough, he’ll tell you.

‘Only she wants a four, you see.’

‘Laura does?’

‘At badminton. Yeah.’

‘Ah. At badminton.’

‘She’s a demon for it when she’s in the mood. No good, mind. I mean, sort of
really
no good. But, you
know. Enthusiastic.’

‘Of course. That sounds fine. So what kind of four?’

‘Well, mixed, you know. With a woman. Maybe your wife.’ He knows Prue’s name but seems unable to speak it. I say
Prue
for him and he says, ‘Yeah, Prue.’

‘Prue can’t, Ed, I’m afraid. I don’t even have to ask her. Mondays are surgery night for hard-luck clients, remember? Haven’t you got somebody in your shop?’

‘Not really.
Not that I can ask. Laura’s
really
bad. Yeah.’

By this time my eye has travelled to the stippled-glass door that separates me from Florence’s cubbyhole. She’s at her desk with her back to me, also closing down her computer. But something gets to her. I’ve stopped talking but I haven’t rung off. She turns, peers at me, then stands, opens the glass door and shoves her head round.

‘You needing
me?’ she asks.

‘Yes. Do you play
really bad badminton
?’

8

It’s the Sunday evening before the planned Monday foursome with Ed, Laura and Florence. Prue and I are enjoying one of our absolute best weekends since my return from Tallinn.
The reality of having me around the house as a permanency is still new to us, and we are both aware that it needs careful work. Prue loves her garden. I am up for the mowing and heavy lifting, but otherwise my finest moment is when I take the gin and tonic out to her on the stroke of six. Her law firm’s engagement in a class action against Big Pharma is shaping well and we are both happy about
that. I am slightly less happy to find our Sunday mornings given over to ‘working brunches’ of her dedicated legal team who, from the little I hear of their deliberations, sound more like anarchist plotters than seasoned lawyers. When I say this to Prue, she gives a hoot of laughter and says, ‘But that’s exactly what we are, darling!’

In the afternoon, we went to a movie – I forget what we saw
except that we enjoyed it. When we got home Prue decreed that we should make a cheese soufflé together, which Steff assures us is the gastronomic equivalent of old-time dancing, but we love it. So I grate the cheese and she whizzes the eggs while we listen to Fischer-Dieskau at full volume, which is why neither of us hears the peep-peep of my Office mobile until Prue takes her thumb off the mixer.

‘Dom,’ I tell her, and she pulls a face.

I remove myself to the living room and close the door because we have an understanding that, if it’s Office stuff, Prue prefers not to know about it.


Nat
. Forgive my outrageous Sunday intrusion.’

I forgive him, if tersely. I’m assuming from his benign tone that he’s about to tell me we’ve got the Treasury’s green light for Rosebud, information that
could perfectly well have waited till Monday. But we haven’t:

‘No, not strictly in yet, I’m afraid, Nat. Any minute now, no doubt.’

Not
strictly
? What does that mean? Like
not strictly
pregnant? But this isn’t why he called.


Nat
’ – this recently developed
Nat
at the start of every other sentence, summoning me to arms – ‘can I
possibly
prevail on you for an
enormous
favour? Are you by
any
chance
free tomorrow? I know Mondays are always tricky, but just this
once
?’

‘To do what?’

‘Slip down to Northwood for me. Multinational headquarters. Have you been there before?’

‘No.’

‘Well, now’s your once-in-a-lifetime chance. Our German friends have acquired a hot new live source on Moscow’s hybrid warfare programme. They’ve put together an audience of NATO professionals. I thought it was just
up your street.’

‘You want me to
contribute
or what?’

‘No, no, no.
Far
better not. The wrong climate entirely. It’s strictly pan-European so the British voice will not be well received. The good news is, I’ve authorized a car for you. Grade one, chauffeur-driven. He’ll take you there, wait for however long it lasts, and drive you home to Battersea afterwards.’

‘This is Russia department stuff,
Dom,’ I protest irritably,
‘not London General. And certainly not the Haven, for Christ’s sake. That’s like sending the help.’


Nat
. Guy Brammel has seen the material and assured me
personally
that Russia department does not see a role for itself at the meeting. Which means in effect you’ll be representing not only London General but Russia department in one fell swoop. I thought you’d like that.
It’s a double honour.’

It’s not an honour at all; it’s a bloody bore. Nevertheless, like it or not, I am Dom’s to command, and there comes a point.

‘All right, Dom. Don’t bother about a car. I’ll take my own. I presume they provide parking in Northwood?’

‘Utter nonsense, Nat! I insist. This is a class European gathering. The Office must show the flag. I made the point very strongly to the transport
pool.’

I go back to the kitchen. Prue is sitting at the table with her glasses on, reading the
Guardian
while she waits for our soufflé to rise.

*

It’s Monday evening at last, it’s badminton night with Ed, it’s our benefit foursome for his sister Laura, which I have to say in my own way I’m rather looking forward to. I have spent a dismal day incarcerated in an underground fortress in Northwood
pretending to listen to a string of German statistics. Between sessions I have stood like a flunky at the buffet table apologizing for Brexit to an assortment of European intelligence professionals. Having been deprived of my mobile phone on arrival, it’s not till I’m riding home in my chauffeur-driven limousine in pelting rain that I am able to call Viv – Dom himself being ‘unavailable’, a new
trend – to be told that the Treasury sub-committee’s decision on Rosebud is ‘temporarily on hold’.
In the normal way, I wouldn’t have been unduly bothered, but Dom’s ‘not strictly in yet’ won’t go away.

It’s rush hour in the rain, and there’s a hold-up at Battersea Bridge. I tell the driver to take me straight to the Athleticus. We pull up in time to see Florence, shrouded in a plastic cape,
disappearing up the porch steps.

I need to log carefully what happened from now on.

*

I leap out of the Office limousine and am about to yell after Florence when I remember that in the flurry of fixing our foursome she and I failed to agree our cover stories. Who were we, how did we meet and how did we happen to be in the same room when Ed rang? All to resolve, so grab a moment as soon as we
can.

Ed and Laura are waiting for us in the lobby, Ed is grinning broadly in an antiquated oilskin coat and shallow hat that I attribute to his nautical father. Laura is hiding behind his skirts and tugging at his leg, not willing to come out. She is small and sturdy with a cap of frizzy brown hair, a radiant smile and a blue dirndl dress. I am still deciding how to greet her – stand back and
wave cheerfully or reach round Ed’s body to shake her hand – when Florence bounces up to her with ‘Wow, Laura, love the dress! Is it new?’ at which Laura beams and says ‘Ed bought it. In
Germany
’ – in a deep, husky voice and gazes adoringly up at her brother.

‘Only place in the world to buy one,’ Florence pronounces and grabbing Laura’s hand marches her off to the women’s changing room with a
‘see you guys shortly’ over her shoulder while Ed and I stare after her.

‘Where the hell did you find
her
?’ Ed grumbles, masking what is evidently a keen interest, and I have no option but to
deliver my half of a makeshift cover story yet to be agreed with Florence.

‘Somebody’s high-powered assistant is all I know,’ I reply vaguely, and set course for the men’s changing room before he can ply
me with more questions.

But in the changing room to my relief he prefers to loose off about Trump’s abrogation of Obama’s nuclear treaty with Iran.

‘America’s word is herewith and henceforth officially declared null and void,’ he announces. ‘Agreed?’

‘Agreed,’ I reply – and please just keep going until I’ve had a chance to nobble Florence, which I’m determined to do as soon as possible because
the thought that Ed might take it into his head that I’m something other than a semi-employed businessman is beginning to get to me.


And
as to what he just did in
Ottawa
’ – still on the subject of Trump while he hauls up his long shorts – ‘know what?’

‘What?’

‘He actually made Russia look good on Iran, which must be a first for anybody’s bloody money,’ he says with grim satisfaction.

‘Outrageous,’
I agree, thinking the sooner Florence and I are out on court the happier I’ll be – and maybe she’s heard something about Rosebud that I haven’t, so ask her that too.


And
us Brits so desperate for free trade with America that we’ll be saying
yes
Donald,
no
Donald, kiss-your-arse-please Donald all the way to Armageddon’ – raising his head to give me the full, unblinking stare. ‘Well, won’t we,
Nat? Go on.’

So I agree for the second or is it the third time, noting only that he doesn’t usually start setting the world to rights until we’re sitting over our lagers at the
Stammtisch
. But he isn’t done yet, which happens to suit me fine:

‘The man’s a pure hater. Hates Europe, he’s said so. Hates Iran, hates Canada, hates treaties. Who does he love?’

‘How about golf?’ I suggest.

Court
three is draughty and run down. It occupies its own shed at the back of the Club, so no spectators, no passers-by, which I assumed was why Ed had booked it. This was Laura’s treat, and he didn’t want anyone staring. We hang around waiting for the girls. Here again Ed might have raised the thorny question of how Florence and I came to know each other, but I encourage him to keep on about Iran.

The women’s changing-room door is opened from inside. Alone in her finery Laura strides unevenly on to the catwalk: brand-new shorts, spotless chequered trainers, Che Guevara T-shirt, professional-standard racquet still in its wrapping.

Now enter Florence, not in office fatigues, not in presentational trouser suit or rain-drenched leathers: just a liberated, slender, self-assured young woman with
short skirt and the shiny white thighs of Ed’s adolescence. I steal a look at him. Rather than appear impressed, he has put on his most uninterested face. My own reaction is one of humorous indignation: Florence, you are not supposed to look like that. Then I get hold of myself and become a responsible home-based husband and father again.

We pair off the only way that makes sense. Laura and Ed
versus Florence and Nat. In practice this means Laura stands with her nose in the net and whacks at anything that comes her way, and Ed retrieves whatever she doesn’t fluff. It also means that between rallies Florence and I have ample opportunity for a covert word.

‘You’re somebody’s high-powered assistant,’ I tell her, as she scoops up a shuttle from the back of the court. ‘That’s all I know
about you. I’m a friend of your boss. Fake it from there.’

No response, none expected. Good girl. Ed is doing some repair work on one of Laura’s trainers that has come undone, or she says it has, because Ed’s attention means everything to her.

‘We bumped into each other in a pal of mine’s office,’ I go on. ‘You were sitting at your computer, I walked in. Otherwise we don’t know each other from
Adam.’ And very softly, as an afterthought: ‘Have you had anything on Rosebud while I was in Northwood?’

To all of which I get not a flicker of a response.

We have a threesome knock-up, bypassing Laura at the net. Florence is one of God’s athletes: effortless timing and reactions, agile as a gazelle and too graceful for her own good. Ed does his usual leaping and lunging but keeps his eyes hard
down between rallies. I suspect that his studied lack of interest in Florence is for Laura’s benefit: he doesn’t want his little sister to get upset.

Another rally between the three of us until Laura wails that she is being left out and it’s no fun any more. We pause everything while Ed drops to his knees to console her. This is the ideal moment for Florence and me to stand casually face to face
with our hands on our hips and wrap up our cover story.

‘My friend your employer is a commodity trader and you’re a high-class temporary.’

But instead of acknowledging my story, she decides to become aware of Laura’s distress and Ed’s attempts to cheer her up. With a cry of ‘Hey, you two, break that up at once!’ she bounds to the net and decrees that we will change partners forthwith and it
will be the men versus the women in mortal combat, the best of three games and she will serve first. She is on her way to the opposite court when I touch her bare arm.

‘You’re all right with that? You heard me. Yes?’

She swings round and stares at me.

‘I don’t feel like fucking lying any more,’ she snaps full voiced, eyes blazing. ‘Not to him or anybody else. Got that?’

I got it, but did Ed?
Mercifully he shows no sign of having done so. Striding to the other side of the net, she prises Laura’s
hand from Ed’s and commands him to join me. We play our epic match, the world’s men versus the world’s women. Florence savages every shuttle that comes her way. With a lot of help from us men, the women achieve their supremacy over us and, racquets held high, process in triumph to their changing
room and Ed and I process to ours.

Is it her love life? I am asking myself. Those lonely tears I saw but didn’t remark on? Or are we dealing with a case of what the Office shrinks are pleased to call camel’s-back syndrome, when the things you’re not allowed to talk about suddenly outweigh the things that you are, and you go down temporarily under the strain?

Extracting my Office mobile phone
from my locker I step into the corridor, press for Florence and get an electronic voice telling me this line is disconnected. I try a couple of times more, still no joy. I go back to the changing room. Ed has showered and is sitting on the slatted bench with a towel round his neck.

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