The room was small and far too warm. Smiley had lost his jacket and loosened his tie, but with the walls pressed around him and the heavy headphones clamped over his ears, it was still nothing short of claustrophobic.
There seemed to be endless reels of tape to get through, and while it wasn’t the first time that Smiley had found himself with such a seemingly impossible task, it was certainly the most unpleasant. He was used to things being over by the time he did this – the operation wrapped up and just the final paperwork to forward, the listening mere confirmation of what he already knew rather than things he didn’t want to hear. In some ways that was still the case, as Smiley was well aware of the conclusions and indeed knew most of the information he was currently hearing, but at the same time this operation had always had the feel of one that would never truly be over.
He had asked for this and to his surprise no one had given him much of a fight. It was understandable now he had thought about it – after all, he was the one to debrief Karla in the first place, and he supposed that everyone thought the transcribing of the tapes should be his right. At the same time, no one had even hinted that he might need some help with the sheer volume of it all; perhaps they had known he would give them a fight. Smiley rarely gave anyone a serious fight these days, but he knew he would give them hell over this.
He wasn’t completely without help, of course. Peter Guillam was with him, taking a brief leave of duty from France in order to help him with the organisation and day to day hassles. He looked a lot more at home here, Smiley thought, which was odd – he knew he wasn’t the only one who was thrown back to the days where they had been working this closely, be it in Hong Kong or London, and the stress that came from that. Still, Guillam looked lively, with the same kind of boyish excitement that had overcome him when they had first spotted Karla making his agonisingly slow way across the bridge, and sometimes Smiley envied him. It would be much simpler to gleefully give in to triumph, he thought, rather than turn the whole operation over in his head as he found himself doing continuously. He hadn’t even started the first tape yet and he was already exhausted from the preparation.
Guillam was next to him, stuffed into a chair on what passed for the other side of the room, several files folded open on his knees. He must have felt Smiley glancing at him, because he looked up and gave him a tired but satisfied smile.
“Not too cramped for you?” he asked, and Smiley shook his head.
“Not at all.”
“You’re sure you don’t need any help transcribing? I know you’re going to say you’re fine, but I thought I’d give you one last chance.”
“Appreciated, but I’ll be fine.”
“Well,” Guillam said, gesturing to where he sat. “You know where to find me if you change your mind.”
Voices sounded different on recordings. It was something that Smiley had never quite gotten used to; the unnerving experience of hearing what he knew to be his own voice, but having it sound ever so slightly off. It wasn’t as bad with other people’s voices, but Smiley still felt as though he was hearing them from somewhere he shouldn’t – behind a door, perhaps, as though he were party to something that didn’t concern him.
He knew it would be no different with Karla, but even so, he wasn’t prepared. There was something oddly jolting about hearing the man’s voice, even though Smiley told himself he had finally gotten over the surrealism of the man speaking in the first place. At first he thought it was old habits coming back, perhaps something to do with the fact that he now had a recording of Karla’s voice, something that would be undeniable even if he started to doubt himself, but then he realised that the voice was tugging at some long-buried memories and he gave up taking notes to chase them. He could rewind the tape, but he got the feeling that if he didn’t seize his opportunity now the memories would bury themselves again and Smiley had no idea when he might get an opportunity to dig them back out.
By the time he had followed the trail to its destination, he no longer had to worry about how warm the room was. He felt suddenly cold, and it took all his effort to stop himself from reaching for his jacket. He busied his hands with pausing the tape instead, and then, unable to stand how loudly he could hear his pulse beating in his ears, he reached up and tugged the headphones off.
Smiley didn’t know how long Guillam had been watching him for, but judging from the way his face was creased with worry, it had evidently been some time.
“George?” he asked hesitantly, and Smiley swallowed, realising his mouth was suddenly dry.
“Good lord,” Smiley muttered, though mostly at himself. He cleared his throat and shook his head, and then turned to Guillan. “You know, it’s the oddest thing.”
“What?” Guillam asked, looking, if possible, even more worried. “Don’t tell me the blasted things didn’t record.”
“No, no… it recorded fine. It just reminded me of something…” Smiley trailed off, and then shook his head again. “I suppose I must have regulated it to the back of my mind. You hear so much of it in this line of work that I didn’t think it was anything special, but now that I think of it…”
Guillam gave him a small smile. “You’re losing me here, I’m afraid.”
Perhaps Smiley would have left it there, if not for the nature of the subject and everything that he and Guillam had shared in the last few months. After all, it wouldn’t necessarily be the first confession the younger man had managed to get out of him, though god only knew how he did it. Whatever the reason, Smiley was, for once, in a sharing mood, and he turned the chair slightly, his mind already tracing over the memory in clear detail, as though it had happened hours ago rather than only just having returned to him.
“It wasn’t that long after the war,” he said, and, hearing the familiar tone in his voice, Guillam closed over the files and sat up straighter. “Right as this whole mess with the Russians was really beginning to heat up. All exercises in any friendships forged over the world war had been forgotten, and things were truly getting messy. I was operating a radio in precisely the middle of nowhere, observing on a tip-off that a Soviet operative was going to be assisting in the smuggling of several new spies over the border.”
He was sitting in a corner, what little furniture remained in a semi-convenient heap around him. The radio rested on the sturdiest of the material – an old cot bed – and Smiley sat awkwardly on another one that had been sagging before he found it and sagged further with every second of work it had to do. Beside him was a small rifle slot, thankfully clear of the snow now the wind was blowing against the other wall. Out of this small slot Smiley had wired up the receivers, hoping that they would remain hidden should anyone pass by. He had managed to wire them along a natural crack in the stone, meaning he had been able to reach much higher than he had hoped, but even so the signals were coming through broken and distant. The bad weather was Smiley’s ally in some cases, but certainly not in others.
The voices that came to him spoke mostly in German, which snatches of Russian. The Russian was lost on Smiley, but he could make an educated guess from the rest, which he did understand. So far, everything was going as well as it possibly could, though experience taught Smiley that that meant nothing. For all he knew it could go perfectly until the last moment, and then he would be ambushed on his way to the pick-up point, carrying with him no end of incriminating evidence.
Still, he had to focus on the potential payoff. He had been risking his life out here for several weeks already, and one more night wouldn’t make a difference.
It was painfully cold, and quickly approaching the expected time. It couldn’t come quickly enough; Smiley was sure that someone would be able to hear his shivering if they passed by too closely. There was only so much he could hold back after so long sitting still, and every time he let himself shiver too forcefully the old metal cot bed would rattle against the wall, echoing loudly in the silent bunker. Outside, the wind howled, and Smiley used it as cover to release some of the pent-up shivering. As he expected, it didn’t do any good.
With any luck, all of his people would be in place. He had received no signals telling him otherwise, meaning all the assigned checkpoints had been reached, and no one had spotted anything unusual. He had received no instructions to deviate from the plan and none telling him to abort, so it was simply a case of patience.
The radio was temporarily silent, and Smiley allowed his mind to drift slightly as a distraction from the cold. In the moments where the wind outside briefly quietened there was not a single sound, and Smiley found it odd to think that less than a mile away from him, someone else would be hidden probably similarly to him, hunched against the cold with a radio. It was this person he heard on the radio in snatches, though the people who responded to him were unknown.
With any luck, Smiley would be meeting his mysterious companion at some point over the next few days. That much was inevitable – even if things went wrong, Smiley was sure they would still meet.
The radio crackled again, and Smiley pressed his hands down over his ears, pushing the headphones over them completely and straining to hear over the interference and the wind outside. In the static German making its way through the connections, he made out the code word he had been waiting for all night – the mission was live, and unless this was a trap (which it more than likely could be) they were so far undetected. The whole thing would likely be over in minutes.
Smiley took a deep breath and sat rigid, waiting. He was tense, but it was no longer anything to do with the cold. Part of his attention turned itself to the world beyond the stone wall of the bunker, and half waited for gunshots.
“Did you think it was a set-up?” Guillam asked. “I mean, I doubt you’d have gone through with it if there was a serious risk, but then again some of the things I’ve seen go ahead during my own career makes me believe you would have probably been sent out there anyway and everyone would have hoped for the best.”
“I thought there was a high chance that it would be legitimate,” Smiley answered. “But part of me did acknowledge the fact that it seemed rather easy. I did suspect that perhaps other issues would arise, but I admit I didn’t predict what actually happened. They were very clever, though it was a trick that only fooled me once.”
“I suppose if you learn from it, you can’t really say it was a total loss.”
“Not at all. It was typical of the Russians, really. They were always more ruthless than us.”
“Well, when I assumed that things would go wrong, I always assumed it would end with the capture of myself and the others in the area. I suppose I underestimated them.”
“I wouldn’t blame yourself,” Guillam said, giving a brief frown. “Some of the things you hear them doing, it’s unbelievable. It was probably the main thing that confused me. How can you expect loyalty from people when they live under a regime that would betray them without a second thought?”
“Fear,” Smiley said simply. “With the exception of a core group who truly believe in the cause enough that they see their own individual lives as meaningless next to it. I suppose in a country so big, there are plenty more people to replace you.”
“It doesn’t seem very efficient,” Guillam said, snorting. “Imagine how long it takes to train new recruits, then imagine you were doing that every week. Christ.”
“I suppose in this case they had at least acknowledged some kind of cost-benefit analysis. I have to admit, it served as a good introduction to what we would be dealing with for the next few decades. I think, had I not learned this as early as I did, I would have been thoroughly shaken down the line. Perhaps even irreversibly.”
“Christ,” Guillam said again. “You’re making me nervous.”
“Nothing to be nervous of, if you’re used to some old-fashioned Soviet treachery.”
A shadow flickered over Guillam’s face and for a moment he seemed to clench his jaw, as though he were physically biting something back. When he spoke again, there was no sign of it.
“I’d like to say I am, but that would be foolish.”
He had been leaning in close to the radio, listening hard to what appeared to be a final confirmation broadcast, and then suddenly there was an outbreak of other noise – scraping, something falling, a Russian word that was almost certainly a curse, and gunshots that came not just from the broadcast but from outside almost simultaneously. Another burst of static, and then, surprisingly, a voice Smiley could hear almost perfectly; it took him a moment to realise it was because the person was yelling, probably at the top of his lungs to be heard from what appeared to be some distance from the radio.
Smiley couldn’t understand the words, being unable to speak Russian, but it didn’t matter anyway. He knew whatever they meant wouldn’t change what had struck him about them – he didn’t think he had ever heard so much anger in a voice before. He wasn’t ashamed to admit to himself that, sitting there in that empty bunker with the wind and snow howling around the outside of it, he was deeply unnerved. There was an anger in the words that bordered on hatred, but not directed at anyone in particular; Smiley rather thought it sounded as though it was an attack on the entire universe rather than an individual, the kind of yell that came from someone who knew they were doomed and had known all along.
The silence that followed only amplified it. Already Smiley was forgetting the structure of the strange words, but he could still hear how they had sounded, as clearly as though they were reverberating around the empty bunker with him.
Abruptly he snapped back to reality, though he could feel his pulse fluttering against his neck and he felt slightly shaky as he stumbled to his feet, pulling the headphones off and beginning to quickly pack everything up. Things seemed to have gone as planned but Smiley wasn’t naïve enough to think that things would remain that way, and if he was going to get to the extraction point while carrying this much incriminating evidence he needed to move fast. He hauled everything back into its case and left it there momentarily, running out into the storm outside and quickly reeling in the various wires. He had forgotten to put his gloves on and the cold bit at his exposed skin, but he barely noticed. One ear was trained on the forest behind him, straining through the gusts of wind for anything that would give him a clue as to how things were progressing.
There was nothing but the storm, and Smiley tried to take it as a good sign as he fed the wires back through the slit in the concrete and hurried back inside.
Several minutes later saw him making his way unsteadily through the trees, trying to balance the weight of the radio equipment as he traversed the unsteady ground. The trees at least kept most of the driving snow from him but it did nothing for the wind, and several times Smiley had to position himself behind a large tree in order to ride out a particularly brutal gust. He couldn’t risk a light and therefore visibility was terrible, but Smiley’s memory served him well as he recognised various landmarks – fallen trees, debris from whatever battle had been fought here not so long ago, ditches and craters.
By the time he heard footsteps it was too late; a second later and he was standing feet away from the figure who had just stumbled onto what passed for a loose pathway trampled through the trees, emerging from the thicker undergrowth on Smiley’s left. His eyes had adjusted to the dark as much as they were going to, and Smiley immediately saw that he didn’t recognise the man – for a moment Smiley almost mistook him for a boy, he was so small and slight, but a second glance told him that they were similar in age, or that Smiley perhaps might be the younger.
Smiley had a gun but there was no hope of getting to it quickly while he was weighed down with the radio. Thankfully, it looked as though the man was unarmed, his dark eyes moving quickly over Smiley’s face and then to his hands as though he were checking the same thing. Smiley could see he was injured: blood covered his lower face and continued to drip from his nose, and one of his eyes already looked shadowed.
More footsteps reached them from the forest, again from the left, and the man darted out of view as quickly as he had come. Smiley vaguely registered the fact that he couldn’t hear him as he retreated through the trees: it was as though he had vanished completely.
He didn’t have too much time to think about it in any depth. Seconds later he found himself staring down the barrel of several weapons, though thankfully not for long.
“Should I get out of your way?” Smiley asked. The radio was beginning to wear on him and he was starting to face the possibility that this night might go on for longer than he had expected.
“Fucking hell, George. You’re gonna get your arse shot off, wandering around in the dark like that. You see our friend pass through here?”
“He went back off the path, straight in front of you,” Smiley answered. “Is there anyone else I should look out for?”
“Probably dozens.” The voice was gruff and resigned; Smiley accepted that things had obviously gone wrong somewhere. “We caught him, briefly. It was a ruse.”
“There are more of them. Potentially dozens. Keep an eye out and get out of here as soon as possible.”
“Noted,” Smiley said, fighting the urge to sigh. The others vanished off the path as well, leaving him alone, and Smiley tried to focus on the imminent danger rather than the frustration that was creeping through him. He adjusted the heavy case and set off again, now pausing every few steps to listen to the trees around him. It would be a long and cold walk. That much he could predict.
“I didn’t add it all together at the time,” Smiley continued. “I was too concerned with getting out, and then there was a lot of work to do. I wasn’t in charge of transcribing the tapes, so I never heard it again. I didn’t need to. I can still remember it as clearly as though it just happened.”
“So what was it?” Guillam asked, before seeming to catch himself. “Who, I mean. What happened? You said it was a ruse?”
“There was more than one group,” Smiley explained briskly. “The one that we were focused on was legitimate, but a decoy. Those involved were to be sacrificed to allow the others – better trained, better equipped, and more valuable – to sneak through undetected. Unfortunately, it worked perfectly. We managed to round up the decoys, but the radio operator got away. It was him I heard screaming.”
“Did you ever work out what he said?”
“It was translated and I found out several weeks later.”
Smiley paused for a moment, mentally bringing up the neat type-written transcript that had done no justice to how the words had sounded.
“‘You knew, you bastards, you knew’,” he eventually recited, and Guillam gave a thin smile.
“You said he got away?”
“He did. Apparently I ran into him on my way to the extraction point. He was the man running through the trees with what looked like a broken nose.”
“How do you think his bosses took that little comment? If he lived to get back to them?”
“Oh, he lived. And they can’t have taken it too badly. I get the impression he even kept his job.”
It was Smiley’s turn to give a humourless smile.
“Because I met him again many years later, in a Delhi prison.”