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Everyone in England worth saving

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Not for Guy Burgess a quiet little dacha in the country. Not for Guy Burgess the planned suburbs where concrete apartment block after concrete apartment block marched off towards the horizon in relentless lockstep, forward to Socialism. Guy Burgess lived in the Moskva Hotel, just a stone's throw from Red Square, where he managed his misery on a scale that was familiar to him.

"It's rather like the Cadogan in that regard," he commented as he ushered his guests in over the threshold.

Peter Pears stood carefully unwinding the long scarf from around his neck, then hung his companion's coat and his own on the coatrack. It drooped to one side but remained resolutely upright.

"I shouldn't try to emulate Oscar Wilde," said Benjamin Britten.

"One hardly has to try," replied Guy with a wave of the hand. "Come through, come through."

He led them into a small sitting room which was crowded with furniture slightly too large for its modest dimensions. Books and pictures lined its walls, the coziness of clutter just on the verge of falling across the boundary into disorder. Uncompromising December sun slanted through the tall windows, picking out the dust and the empty glasses that covered the tabletops. Outside the windows there were rooftops and brightly coloured spires. The drapes were half closed.

Guy went immediately to the sideboard, where he collected two wine glasses of dubious cleanliness and provenance, then downed the dregs from a third. He began to open a bottle without being asked.

"How is she then?" he said, fumbling with the corkscrew.

"She?" echoed Peter.

"My dying mother."

Peter shook his head in faint confusion.

"England," said Guy. "England, my dear fellow."

He poured the wine with a casual insouciance that almost--but not quite--disguised the fact that his hands were shaking.

"Much the same as when you left, I expect," said Peter. "Except that rationing is gone for good and it's perfectly legal to buy oneself a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover."

Guy snorted. "Not what I would have chosen to make legal."

"Quite," said Peter.

He accepted the glass that Guy offered him. Ben followed suit.

"Not yet noon," said Guy, taking a seat on the settee. His belated glance at the wall clock seemed to tell him only what he already knew. "But I think one can be permitted to drink to the arrival of an old friend or two."

He paused.

"To England," he said, raising his glass.

"To England," said Peter and Ben in easy unison.

Guy had put on weight since his London days. Even as a cherubic young man he'd had incipient jowls; now they were unmistakeable, and his cardigan rode up over his belly as he leaned back on the settee, wine glass in hand. He seemed both enlarged and somehow diminished, as if all that was inside him was nothing more than so much stuffing. One half expected to see wisps of wool showing, a grown man coming apart at the seams like a teddy bear who had been thrown aside and never mended.

Yet his expression was winsome and charming, an incongruous one on the face of an aging and drink-sodden exile. He might have been, for that one moment, still the dashing man-about-town of the 'thirties. Perhaps in his own mind he always had been.

"Tell me all about Jacky," he said.

"I beg your pardon?" said Ben.

"Jack Hewit," said Peter suddenly, as if excavating a long-buried memory.

Guy raised an ironic glass. "Who else? Old friend of yours, isn't he?"

"Haven't seen him in years."

"I should have thought that a pair of ex-chorus boys like you would stick together."

"Nothing so very 'ex' about me, I'm afraid," said Peter, chuckling.

"He's too modest," said Ben.

"No doubt," said Guy. "We hear of you even here in benighted Siberia. You and your concert tour and your compositions and all the rest of it."

"It's hardly Siberia," said Peter.

"It's hardly Siberia," Guy echoed in a mocking tone. He downed the rest of his wine. "Tell me that when you're entering your second decade in the gulag and the wolves are beginning to howl outside."

Politely they ignored this indiscretion, as they would have ignored raised voices at a cocktail party. There was only the slightest glance between Ben and Peter to indicate their shared doubts about Guy Burgess's stability.

"I can't say that I knew Jack particularly well," continued Peter evenly, as if the previous conversational interlude had never occurred.

"That's not what I heard." Guy poured himself more wine, his tremor slightly calmed. "Not what I heard at all."

"Oh?" said Ben, drawn despite himself.

"Let me paint you a picture. Further, let me explain it to you, acting as art historian and curator in the absence of my esteemed colleague Sir Anthony, who remains in London, living in fucking luxury at the fucking Courtauld Institute. The scene is Waterloo Station, in the closing years of the nineteen thirties. A small group of artistic and bohemian young people--accompanied by one rather handsome Geordie lad on the make--gather to see two of their own off to America. Christopher and Wystan exit stage left. Jacky Hewit bursts into floods of tears, bereft at having been left at the altar, as it were, by a chap who never cared a fig for him. And you, brave strong man that you are, take him home under guise of sympathy and consolation and come up behind him in the kitchen just as he's putting sugar in his tea. Isn't youth wonderful?"

"That seems a slight misinterpretation of events," said Peter.

Guy chuckled. "That's what they all say, duckie."

"Who told that to you?"

"He did," said Guy. "He used to spy for me, you know."

"Let's not discuss that," said Ben.

"Spy. Doesn't sound so bad, does it? Spy, spy, spy. One gets used to the word eventually. Usually it's all I hear from visitors."

"We're not that sort of visitor," said Peter.

Guy leaned forward, his hands wrapped around his wine glass. He raised his dark, heavy eyebrows significantly.

"What sort of visitor are you, my dear?"

"Not that sort either," said Ben.

"What other kind is there?" said Guy. "More wine?"

"Yes, please," said Peter with a note of relief.

Guy took a drink from his own glass before refilling the other two and passing them around.

"What a remiss host you must think me," he said. "I haven't yet said how very kind it was of you to visit me here."

Peter inclined his head in a gracious gesture.

Guy snorted. "How very kind of you to visit me here," he repeated. "It makes it sound as if one were in hospital with a broken foot and not immured in Moscow for all eternity."

"I can think of worse places to be immured," said Peter. "The art is splendid."

"If only Anthony were here to appreciate it," said Guy. He paused. "Perhaps one day he will be."

His laugh accreted bitterness until he drowned it in more wine.

With no answer to make to this enigmatic comment, Ben and Peter gazed awkwardly about the room. Though charmingly furnished with prints and antiques that could have--and probably had--been bought in Mayfair, it still had a queer, unsettled air. It was as if the furnishings were as much exiles as Guy himself.

"How nice that you managed to escape your minders for the morning," said Guy, apropos of nothing. "Mine lives with me, you know. So convenient for all concerned."

"Does he?" said Peter.

"Only in a manner of speaking." Guy looked to the door of the sitting room. "Tolya?" he called. "Where are the bloody zakuski?"

There was silence.

"Tolya!"

Through the door came a blond and handsome young man carrying a large platter. He stooped to lay it on a table in front of them, revealing a selection of limp sliced tomatoes augmented by cloves of garlic, and then quickly withdrew from the room. Both Ben and Peter looked dubiously at this offering and neither reached out to help themselves.

"They offered to find me a boyfriend, you know," said Guy. "Suppose you never realized that the glorious Soviet Union would stoop to acting as homosexual pimp. Such was my exalted status at the time I arrived that I suppose they thought it was worth it. Keeping me happy. Happy? Naturally I told them to go screw themselves. Or to find someone to do it for them, if they were so keen. And I struck out on my own and came to Tolya." He stopped for a swig of wine. "But he may be one of them too, there's no way of knowing. Isn't that right, Tolya?"

The young man stuck his head around the door, his expression puzzled. Guy waved a dismissive hand at him and he withdrew once more.

"He doesn't speak a word of English. Apart from the ones that have to do with fucking; he's quite good at those."

"One might argue that those are the important ones," commented Peter.

"One might."

Guy smiled a wan smile, one which was not echoed by Ben.

"But you can't imagine," he continued, "some days, how much I long to hear English over the breakfast table. Something, anything. The shipping forecast. The court circular being read aloud. In short, my taste for the English language has become just as catholic as my taste for boys ever was."

Tolya entered with another plate of zakuski, placing it on the table and then leaving discreetly once again. Rather less discreetly, Peter watched him go.

"Do you like the look of him? He's very biddable."

"Spoken for, I'm afraid," mumbled Peter.

"He isn't."

"I am."

As if to remind himself of the fact, Peter gave a sidelong touch to Ben's spare, splayed hand where it lay on the arm of his chair.

Guy looked ostentatiously away. Even more ostentatiously he got to his feet and stretched until his rumpled shirttails came entirely untucked from his trousers. Then he sank back into the settee. It was permanently hollowed where he sat and it received him with a wheeze of ancient springs. Picking up his wine glass once again, he resumed the conversation as if there had been no pause.

"And I suppose he's still with Anthony, tucked in just where I left him?"

"Who?" said Peter.

"Jacky, of course."

"We don't keep up with your circle, Guy," said Ben in chilling tones.

"My circle? Spies, you mean? You certainly keep in with enough queers."

"We don't--" said Peter.

"Incidentally, Peter, and purely to satisfy my prurient curiosity, did you ever have him?"

"I beg your pardon?"

Guy's voice had long ago become sodden in wine. It was slurred and remarkably loud.

"I said," he repeated, "did you ever have him? Anthony did. And you certainly wanted to. Most people did, which was remarkably convenient. Both for him and, as it happened, for MI5."

"As it happened?"

"You wouldn't want to know," said Guy, waving his glass in the air, a touch of the old raconteur emerging. "Wait until I write my memoirs. Devastating revelations. High-placed diplomats running for cover. You'll see. They'll all see."

Picking up a sheaf of typewritten pages from a nearby credenza, he brandished them. They slipped from his nicotine-stained fingertips, scattering on the floor. He bent to pick them up, then thought better of it. He kicked at them viciously.

"Rubbish," he said. "It's all rubbish. Maunderings."

"I've never thrown away a note I've written," said Ben suddenly.

"Bully for you," said Guy. "I've had a lifetime of practice throwing things away. Another bottle of wine?"

"Better not," said Peter.

Guy ignored him. "Very good wine," he said, dragging himself to his feet with a shuffling weariness. "Georgian. Only thing one gets here that is good. Shame not to take advantage of it."

He opened another bottle of wine and began to pour himself a glass. Then he thought better of it and drank straight from the bottle.

"Don't suppose you mind if I smoke," he said.

"I do, as it happens," said Peter.

"And I don't much care."

He lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply, then expelled a concealing cloud of smoke. There was a long silence.

"Oscar Wilde never fled abroad," said Ben.

"Didn't he?" replied Guy airily.

"No. He didn't."

"Not until after his trials," Peter corrected. Ben frowned.

"How foolish of him," said Guy. "I've always thought that the idea of suffering for one's ideals was a terrible bore."

"I can't think that you've ever believed that," said Peter.

"Can't you?" Guy let the ash drop from the end of his cigarette onto the Armenian carpet and gestured around the cluttered room. "If you seek my monument, my dear, look around you. I am suffering for my ideals, as it turns out, and it is a terrible bore."

"How awful for you," said Ben acidly.

"You wouldn't understand."

"You would be surprised."

They stared at one another. Ben did not blink.

"We should go," said Peter.

"So easy for you," said Guy. "So very impossible for me."

It was stalemate.

"We should go," Peter repeated.

"Stay," said Guy, roughly reaching out a hand to arrest Peter as he started to rise from his chair. Guy leaned forward, his alcohol-laden breath heavy on the air. "Stay."

"People will be wondering where we are."

"People! Let them wonder! Let them wonder for an hour, for a day, for a moment or two before you go back to blessed England and leave me here to rot. Probably they'll see you off at the airport with wreaths and laurels and Young Pioneers singing inspiring songs."

"Possibly not the Young Pioneers," said Peter.

"Though it would be very pleasant," said Ben.

Guy threw himself back full length on the settee. It was a tragic pose and obviously intended to be so, though perhaps it would have been more aesthetic if performed by a man of fewer years and smaller girth.

"It's not fair, you know. It's not bloody fair."

"What isn't?" said Peter.

"When Christopher and Wystan left for the States, half of London turned out. Do you remember? You were there; I wasn't. I only heard about it afterwards."

"You could have come," said Ben. "That Hewit boy came."

"That's not what was unfair. That's not… it wasn't... this is what's unfair." Guy fortified himself with another sloppy swig of wine. "All of England that mattered was weeping on the platform at Waterloo. What was it they said? 'Everyone in England worth saving.' Everyone in England worth bloody saving. More than a decade I've rotted in this miserable place and I think I could have borne it if only someone had come to say goodbye."

His face had gone pale and blotchy. A muscle in his cheek twitched.

"Remember me when you are gone into that pleasant land," he said. "Remember me to England. That's all I ask." He took a deep breath. "That and an occasional hamper from Harrods."

Automatically he got to his feet as his guests rose to go, but there was nothing left to say.

"Remember me to Anthony," said Guy convulsively as the door swung closed. He sank down onto the sagging couch, half-empty glass lolling in his hand. "Remember me to anyone. Remember me at all."

Early snow began to fall outside, drifting gently and remorselessly from the sky. Not a flake could be seen on the muddy ground.