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The Usurped Throne

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“It's that damned chair,” snapped Fawn as soon as the door to Smiley's office closed and they were out of earshot.

Peter concurred. Throughout the 20-minute meeting, most of which was a bizarre charade for the last of Haydon's bugs, George Smiley had fidgeted. The constant shifting and twisting had put Peter himself on edge.

The damned chair in question had been Percy Alleline's, of course, when he had occupied that same office just a few weeks earlier. For a moment Peter entertained the romantic fancy that the apparent lower back pain stemmed from the very fact of Alleline's toppling from power. Could a throne taken from another man ever be truly comfortable?

Not when the two men were of such exceedingly different builds, noted his more practical side.

“I'll get onto Supply...”

Fawn's eyebrows lifted just a fraction.

Peter sighed. “... who will have a fit of the ab-dabs at the idea of approving anything larger than a pencil eraser and insist on His signature.”

“He wouldn't sign for it,” said Fawn. “Comfort not a priority right now.”

“It damn well will be a priority when he's stuck flat on his back with lumbago while the whole Circus goes to hell. So, any idea where we can find a spare chair?”

Fawn glanced over at Peter's own desk, now located convenient strides away from Smiley's door, just as Smiley himself had once guarded Control. If only it could be so simple. But the chair there now was of a similar vintage to Percy's and was additionally blessed with over-enthusiastic castors, which frequently sent Peter careening across the office at the slightest movement.

“All right. He's going to need me for something or other any minute now,” added Peter. “But can you put out feelers? Ask around the old hands – where's George Smiley's old desk chair gone? Someone must be using it. And if they won't part with it easily, I'm sure we can come up with a trade.”

>>

At 2pm, Fawn dropped a faded photograph onto Peter's desk. It was a shot of two of the Mothers holding champagne flutes, but more relevantly, it had been taken in the very area where he was now sitting, five years earlier, according to the desk calendar visible in one corner. Also visible was the green leather-upholstered, brass-studded chair behind the desk.

Not too long ago, these old-fashioned chairs had been found all over the building, Peter remembered. But at some point while he had been abroad, they had all vanished, victims of Supply's brief fad for the exciting new science of ergonomics.

“Janitors say they were all chucked in a skip,” reported Fawn.

This was discouraging news, although Fawn did not look especially discouraged. Peter pictured the chairs, flung out as rubbish, a terrible waste of solid, useful furniture. Oh! They wouldn't have stayed in that skip for long. Junior Circus staff were both poorly paid and resourceful.

“We're after someone's home furnishings then,” he said, and Fawn gave him a thin conspiratorial smile.

>>

After a brief dash to Patisserie Maison Bertaux in nearby Greek Street, Peter gathered his neglected piles of receipts and took himself off to the Housekeepers. Patricia and Susan chided him over the unclaimed expenses and pounced on the éclairs, which he offered with a contrite, “Sorry to drop all of these on you at once. It's been a little hectic.”

“Nonsense Peter love,” said Susan. “He's keeping you the busiest person in the whole place. Some sections have ground to a halt entirely since you-know-what and they still don't do their claims on time.”

He chatted with them for a while about usual Circus grumbles, the roadworks on New Oxford Street, whether anyone had tried the new Thai restaurant yet, whether anyone who'd spent time out East had given it the nod of approval.

Finally he dropped a casual question about what had become of the old office furniture.

“All chucked out love. And thank goodness, my stockings used to snag something rotten on those brass studs. These stitched black ones are much nicer.”

“So they're furnishing some Lamplighters' front rooms them,” said Peter with a chuckle.

“I'm not sure about that. But Tom and Tony – the younger lads from Nuts and Bolts you know? They share a flat somewhere over Notting Hill way? They certainly grabbed a few.”

Bingo.

“Well, better get back to the grindstone then.” He gave them a rueful smile and left them to finish their cake.

>>

He took a more direct approach with Tom and Tony.

“Gentlemen!” he said, brandishing a sheaf of blueprints as he entered the workshop. The two engineers, who had been huddled over a circuit board, sprang apart at the interruption. Flatmates? wondered Peter, or something more? Imagining their cosy pad, furnished with Circus cast-offs and scattered with coffee cups and half-baked inventions, he felt a pang of irrational jealousy.

“Mr Guillam, sir,” said the one he understood to be Tony. “Please say you've got some work for us. We're going half-barmy with boredom down here.”

“So I can tell,” said Peter, who had just finished browsing through the design proposals most recently sent up to the fifth floor. “I'm rather hoping for plans for a secret base in a hollowed out Caribbean island to turn up on my desk next.”

“You want space rockets or submarines?” asked Tom, dead-pan.

“Sadly neither. But I should at least be able to get the suitcase project approved.” It was by far the cheapest thing they'd put forward in the past month and it did look like something that would be useful to field agents. “However, there's something I need from you first.”

“Sure, we can soup up your motor, Mr Guillam,” said Tony. “Any time.”

“Not a chance! No, I'm told you might have some of the old office chairs. No, no, it's not a problem if you took them. It's just, we need one on the fifth floor for a pr... er, a project. So if you could bring one back.”

“Practical jokes upstairs eh!” laughed Tony. “Who'd have thought? Sure we can bring you one. In fact...” He paused and headed for a cluttered corner of the workshop, where he shifted a traffic cone and a deckchair to one side. “Well, look at that. There's one right here.”

“Brilliant,” said Peter, warming to the practical joke legend. “Can you clean it up? As soon as the coast is clear, I'll send someone down to collect it. And I'll get you clearance for the suitcase budget in the next couple of days.”

“Thanks Mr Guillam. And any time you want the car doing...”

No way, thought Peter as he headed for the stairs. He wasn't ever letting Nuts and Bolts tinker with the Citroën.

>>

Having access to the diary was an advantage, of course, but even so, Peter was relieved when Smiley did indeed set off for the 5pm meeting scheduled with the Cousins and did not request his presence.

Five minutes after Smiley departed, Fawn pushed the chair through the door with great ceremony. Tom and Tony had not merely cleaned it up but polished both the wood and every metal stud to a high shine. As they installed the chair behind Smiley's desk together, Peter caught Fawn's eye, daring him to laugh at the ridiculousness of what they were doing. But Fawn had simply fixed Alleline's chair with a look of deep loathing.

>>

Seconds ticked by. The suspense was ludicrous. He had waited in darkened radio rooms for coded success signals with fewer butterflies than he was currently experiencing. At last the telephone on his desk jangled.

“Yes?”

“We appear to have had a visit from the furniture fairies Peter. Would you know anything about this?”

“The chair?” asked Peter. “Oh yes. It was going spare downstairs and since the Ferrets said they need to rip the upholstery off the one that was in there, I nabbed it so you'd still have somewhere to sit.”

This was the practical excuse he had agreed with Fawn. No need for their master to know they'd spent the better part of the day on this absurd quest. For a long moment he worried that he'd over-egged the casual tone. Then Smiley said, “Ah. Very good.”

“Is it...” Peter hesitated. “Is it suitable?”

There was another pause, in which Peter imagined he could hear Smiley testing the swivel of the chair, leaning back and then sitting forward to scribble notes. However, given the thorough oiling the engineers had given the bearings before handing it over, if any of that really was happening, Peter would not have heard a squeak.

Nevertheless, the chair must have passed some kind of test, as Smiley eventually replied, “Oh yes. Thoroughly suitable.”