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Penitent impenitent

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He never said exactly how he had been recruited, what manner of persuasion had turned him to the cause.

Perhaps it could have been said that Cambridge itself had seduced him. But how slowly, how slowly. Becoming an Apostle in his second year merely marked the beginning of the transformation, the university seeping into his bones.

What he remembered most of all was fall fading into winter, tattered leaves hanging over the river. Faint organ music from Evensong. Foggy, frosted twilight. Laughter mixed with the smell of wet wool as friends shed their gowns and gathered around the fire. Aesthetically cheap, he told himself in later years, to be seduced by such things.

It was only as a young don that he could clearly see the beauty of the undergraduate existence. It was only as a young don that he first met Guy Burgess.

He was, he knew, one of those phlegmatic men who is fated to spend his life warming himself by the fire of another man's soul. In later years he regretted many things, but not that. Never that choice.

Never Guy.

***

He never said what he truly believed.

His belief in the establishment was assumed. Marlborough, Cambridge, a research fellowship, MI5, the Courtauld Institute, the royal family. What other conclusion could be drawn by the sensible, blinkered mind? Tacitly, he allowed it to be assumed.

His belief in Communism was obvious. So it seemed in those heady days of the Thirties. His public writings betrayed a Marxism so vulgar that, in later years, he was shocked to discover that he had ever assumed such a mantle. Even afterwards, for those who knew, the signs were not so difficult to discern.

(Students at the Courtauld whispered, casually and with the amusement of the young, that he had once been a spy.)

Yet he had labored hours over the memoir that his handlers required him to write, hours that he could have been spending with the Old Masters, feeling as clumsy and inadequate as a schoolboy clutching his pen. It was for others to live and breathe ideology, others to shape their lives around the Cause and come out changed by it. Anthony was not like that. Behind the mask of his tortured and clotted prose, he revealed nothing of his soul and nothing of his heart.

For his belief in friendship was, in so many ways, unspeakable.

***

He never told his students about his other life. Any of his other lives.

He never introduced them to the untidy, uncouth, mysterious man who at regular intervals would come bursting into his flat in the middle of tutorials demanding clean shirts and abusing Anthony's taste in ties. In the midst of a carefully crafted sentence on the merits of Poussin, Anthony would simply rise to his feet, long and uncompromising and spare in his elegance, and drift resistlessly in Guy's wake.

He straightened Guy's borrowed tie as simply and as naturally as he would straighten his own.

Those budding young art historians whom he was teaching would tip curious glances at one another, listening to the sound of raised voices from the next room. They would sketch out odd fragments in the margins of their sober notes. They would sip once again from teacups that were already empty. They would speculate but they never knew.

If they ever heard the name of Guy Burgess, it was not from Anthony Blunt.

***

He never let anyone know that it was he who had planned the defection. Pressed the ferry tickets into Guy's hand, tucked them finally into the inner pocket of a new Turnbull and Asser overcoat where they could not be ignored.

It was he, and not Guy Burgess, who believed in salvation through sacrifice and renunciation. It was he who sent his best friend into exile. Insisted upon it. Insisted upon it. Go with Donald as far as Saint-Malo. It's got too hot for him. You can always come back.

From the comfort of his bed he thought of a windswept, rainy dock in Southampton, and shivered. His pillow was damp with the thought of it. That night he slept not at all.

And yet the next morning was bright and clear and apparently unstained by betrayal. He rose from bed. He gazed at himself in the mirror as he tied his tie. And calmly, calmly, he walked to the Courtauld.

(Why did he feel as if he wore a scarlet letter? The tie he had chosen still had the smell of Guy lingering on it, cologne and spilt whisky.)

By the time that he took the half-hysterical call from Jacky that evening, he had convinced himself that he was the one who had been abandoned.

***

He never said that he was sorry. Not truly.

One might have thought he had said it. During the dark days of 1979 he was forced into the glare of the television spotlights to give a lecture that he had long prepared. He straightened his notes with infinite care, caressed them with aging fingers. His hands hardly shook. He bolstered his courage with whisky. Until the final moment he told himself that he was speaking on William Blake, on Poussin, on Mansart, on anything but the ruin of a life's reputation.

If he had chosen to lecture on art, perhaps his audience would have learned more.

He was asked much, answered little, preserved his stoic facade. His regrets were muted. He said that he had followed his conscience. He said that he had never had a relationship with Guy Burgess.

That denial hurt him more than any other denial. That regret hurt him more than any other regret.

*****

1946

One January night he came home very late from the Reform Club. It was cold. His numbed fingers fumbled the key in the lock. The door knocker swung stiffly, a series of hollow taps that made him think of Dickens, and loneliness, and the silence of London all around.

Frost blurred the windowpanes in the sitting room. Streetlights cast squares of wavering gold across the Persian carpet. And one bar of the gas fire was quietly burning.

In the darkness of the room it was a few moments before he noticed the figure passed out on the settee. A slightly tarnished angel, breathing with the snuffled and congested breath of winter and still wrapped round with a knitted scarf. It was Guy Burgess.

If it had been a painting it would have stopped him in his tracks, suspended in discreet, restrained ecstasy on the tiled floor of the National Gallery. He would have studied its dim outlines until the museum closed around him and he was left alone, with a single light burning like a halo overhead.

Guy's tie was loosened, laying bare the hollow at the base of his throat. His curls were dark and tousled. His trailing hand rested on the carpet, palm up as if in supplication. Anthony's heart fluttered, released from its chill.

He leaned forward to brush his lips against that faintly furrowed, sweat-damp brow. Guy was shockingly warm, all the heat and passion of the world coalesced into his compact form.

"I do love you," whispered Anthony.

It was the truest thing that he had ever said.