She chooses him for his loyalty—that’s what Ann says afterward, when her father rages at her for selecting a man whose blood is as pure as as the Thames. In truth, she loved him in a moment of weakness, after too many months of high-handed fellows with their eyes set on the Cabinet; she likes his soft eyes, how he keeps his hands to himself—shy, pleasant, dutiful, a dry sense of humor that makes an easy launching point for her own. He is no racehorse, no blue-blooded steed, but there are enough racehorses in the world, and Ann has had half the ones in London as it is. All one needs is the means to get from point A to point B.
Ann is nonetheless surprised when George Smiley agrees to marry her; she chalks it up to the war, the dazed wonder they all feel at still being alive. George’s war was not as glamorous as her cousin Haydon’s—whose blood and service record are unimpeachable, as is his score with the other secretaries—but, again, horses. Life with George will be easy. He will float to the top of the Circus like so much detritus, a stuffed British bulldog on guard against the Russians, honor enough for them both, and she will finally be free of her duty to their country.
Their first night as man and wife he fingers her with short, sharp jabs, proficiently massaging her until she comes, and then enters her wearing a rubber. When Ann realizes this last piece, she bites her lip to keep from laughing. George nonetheless nods at her, polite as if he were passing an old woman in the street, after he finishes, pulls out, and bins it.
“Until I know when you would like children, Lady Sercombe.”
Ann raises an eyebrow. “I do not think spies do well with children.”
Something akin to relief flickers in George’s face. “Until your father grows weary of us, then.”
Ann cannot tell whether or not he is joking, not then and not three months later when, stumbling half-drunk into the parlor at midnight, smelling of the new Christ College don’s cologne, she looks up to see George on the stairwell, blinking owlishly at her.
“All is well?”
“Wickedly brilliant, George, my love.” Her tongue runs particularly quick with sherry. “Never better, cher.”
He fetches her a glass of water, massages her shoulders as she drinks until her bladder’s fit to burst. He will do that for the first five or so years, easing her back into sobriety after a night spent with another man’s fingers in her cunt. He will do this no matter how strongly she smells of cologne or sex, whether or not she’s combed her hair and reapplied her makeup. She plays anyway, one night applying lipstick so thickly she knows it’s suspicious, another coming home still wet in the knickers, testing what makes him particularly agitated—and, curiously, absurdly, nervous—around her.
One overwarm night in August 1951 Ann returns home with rug-burned knees, courtesy of an artist whose political views would charitably be described as socialist, and a cut across one shoulder thanks to a clumsy drunk woman. She’s in the process of telling George about the man’s horrid, half-baked Russian when he reaches out to touch the slit in her shoulder with fingers that are frigid despite the heat.
“He did this?”
“Who, Tommy?” She pauses for a moment before adding, as if in afterthought, “Only way he can keep the girls around him, yes?”
George’s hand against the kitchen counter is a blissfully satisfying sound, a symptom at last of emotion. “Ann, you mustn’t hang around with such—”
“Brutes? Wicked Slavic drunks with poor impulse control?”
She watches the shuttling of his eyes back and forth between her shoulder and her knees. All the fire sinks back to the floor, leaving him stony-faced. When he speaks, it’s in the half-whisper she knows best, the bloodless complaint—part statement of fact, part question, a concern that is real and yet so infuriatingly easy to brush aside—that’s at the back of her head sometimes while a man buries himself between her thighs.
“Please don’t lie about your health.”
“Ah, chivalric George, already ordering an agent to tail poor useless Tommy.” She kisses his cheek as his skin twitches. “You know brutes aren’t my type, darling; I ran out of patience for the uncultured long before they all came back from the front, champing at the bit once more.”
He heads for bed shortly thereafter, leaving Ann to drink her glass of water alone, and the sight of him dutifully asleep in his primmest pajamas, frowning into his pillow as if his wife were a mere inconvenience in his life, sends a kick of rage through her. The next afternoon, as penitence, she orders him a handsome engraved lighter for the cigarettes he so rarely smokes before ringing Tommy from the home line to ask if he has any interest in drinks once this blasted heat dies down.
“And finally: It is too quiet for the Centre.”
Haydon’s face twists in the exquisite moue handlers rarely fail to mention in their reports of him. He has grown fleshier in the year since they last met, but it only makes his face more genuine, easily folding up on itself in whatever configuration Haydon requires.
“I haven't lain in my featherbed for weeks.”
Karla trails his fingers through his pockets, brushing against their contents for the briefest kiss. Outside the hotel, horns echo from the latest bit of German impatience—similar, in all its irony, to Moscow’s own eternal twitching where the West is concerned. “I am sorry for your back.”
“It’s my women I fear for. I am too busy to fuck, the poor dears, and the Centre complains?”
“They do not have your gentle concern for the women of the world, or your patience for your countryfolk’s paranoia.”
“Control was born ill-tempered and mistrustful, but it serves him all too well in this business.” Haydon’s voice slips from jocularity to work and back again with not a slip in sight, a thing Karla would pay to have instilled so flawlessly in his other men working in Britain. “I block the best as I can—”
“Do not worry about the obvious.”
Haydon draws a cigarette from his pocket and turns it in his fingers. When he speaks, his voice is yet quieter and calmer.
Karla’s hands twitch, for a moment bound again to a table in a sweltering Delhi holding cell.
“His is the best tradecraft in Britain.”
“Couldn't convince you.”
“He is not made for Russians.” Karla draws his lighter from his pocket and rests it against a knee. “He is too soft. But so are your London fogs, and see where they slip in. He is mouldering beneath Control, is he not?”
“Never far from the old codger,” Haydon admits. He stares at the ceiling, thinking and speaking simultaneously, inserting the cigarette into his mouth. “Well poised to make any moves he might see fit.”
“Every man has his blindness.” Karla offers him the lighter. Haydon stares at it for a long moment, reading: To George from Ann, all my love.
“You too? I knew my lady cousin was ambitious, though not intercontinental.”
“Him.” Karla watches each twitch of Haydon’s face as he absorbs the engraving. “Unable to stop himself.”
The words had been pulled from Smiley as if Karla had asked him the questions: If you go back she’ll be ostracized. Think of her. Smiley’s face is lost in a haze of sweat and time now, some fifteen years on, but his voice, gentle and sensible and yearning, will never leave Karla. Karla himself had scarcely dare breathe lest he disturb the recital, unable to believe his ears, and had repeated them to himself during the long plane ride back to Moscow, where everything began again.
“Ann’s swains are force of habit for them both.” Haydon’s smile is soft as he lights his cigarette. “You want him distracted. Enraged. I am not sure he is capable of that. I hear he does a nice line in repressed British cuckold, however.”
“I want him disillusioned.” Karla extends a hand; Haydon drops the lighter back into it with a cocked eyebrow. “Tell me, his Lady Ann: she is beautiful?”
Haydon blows smoke into the air, a serpentine cloud that briefly rings his neck before dissipating. “Exquisite, for family. The liveliest China doll the British small aristocracy makes.”
“His beautiful religion, the thing he clings to despite his own better sense. The last illusion of an illusionless man.”
“And I must break her for him?”
“There is no rush. Moscow is impatient; I am not. The Circus will shake itself up, with a push.” Karla traces Ann’s name in the metal. “There are plenty of men in London to distract our dearest George and Ann.” Haydon’s shoulders shake at the sound of their given names, for only the briefest moment, and Karla locks that discomfort and distaste into his memory. “But it is you we need to cover in shit that is not Moscow made, specially wrapped for Smiley. If you can, in time—”
“Poison the well. Poison myself for him.”
He wishes sometimes that he was not blind himself, that he remembered anything beyond Smiley’s voice, the horror and desperation and sweat that had stalked them both like a fetid miasma. He with his thoughts of Moscow, barely contained fear spooling into determination the longer he listened to Smiley speak; Smiley with his cigarettes and his lighter and his own fear for himself, for the part of him that he could not control: his attachment to his wife, despite everything.
His weakness. British weakness. Capitalist weakness.
Karla gets to his feet, ignoring Haydon’s stare. They shake hands, agree on the next courier route, make no promises as to when they will meet again.
Karla leaves with the women in his own life screaming in the back of his head and, for one moment, does not have the heart to silence them.
He’s still preoccupied with Jim’s distant smile when Ann brushes past him on her way to get more punch, and for a moment his body freezes.
She does not look back over her shoulder; she is too good for that, too much Circus despite all her protestations otherwise. Bill nonetheless watches her out of the corner of his eye as she heads “to the lav, darling,” in her falsest socialite voice, the one she always used with Bill’s parents and sisters, and counts to five hundred before making his own excuses.
Ann’s face shines in the low garden light; she always looks particularly mesmerizing in the dark, when she is all shadows and edges. He cannot even open his mouth to speak before her hand slides beneath his waistband, cupping his cock.
“Marking your territory?” Bill presses his lips to the base of her throat, adding the pressure of teeth until her hand twitches against him.
“I must have joy, Bill, love.” Her voice is lower now, its falsity disappeared into the brittle December wind. “You know that. You know him. At Christmas, of all times, I cannot bear the gloom. I need life.”
He shifts, sliding to bracket the red silk of her arse with his hands, and she begins kissing him in earnest. He leaves his eyes open, repeatedly looking over her shoulder at the greyish light leaking onto them as a drunken, ironic refrain reverberates through the yard.
Partiya Lenina—sila narodnaya—
He whispers it along with them into her ear; Ann, laughing, leans back enough for him to slide a finger under the hem of her dress and along her knickers.
As he enters her, crooking a finger up inside as she gasps against his neck, Bill thinks of George wandering the Circus in search of his wife. (He’d watch, weary and glum, a greying version of the soft steely-eyed eyebrow raise Bill remembers from an evening not long after his return to London after the war, when George had entered Bill’s new office to find his mouth and nose buried in the cunt of one of the mothers.) When they all leave, hours later, Ann coming to him for a familial kiss on the cheek, George watches them together for a moment before looking away.
Bill thinks of that moment often in the coming months. He remembers it most vividly of all the night he enters Poly’s safe house and finds himself face to face with George Smiley in the dark, handgun across one knee; his immediate thought is that George has had enough, at last, of his wife’s wandering attention, that Bill and Karla’s game has actually driven him to insanity, in the mold of Control. What he gets instead is what he had half-expected for years: George’s inscrutable face watching him until he is frog-marched in silence to the Nursery.
Of course it’s George who comes to him after the inquisitors have finished, George who stands as still as Karla and twice as judgmental. His face is completely without expression as he asks after Jim, reminds Bill of all he has done there in search of something more stimulating than wan England and its many lost and emasculated Georges, and Bill feels himself floating above, observing as if from a distance, as he fights through the rush of blood in his head in order to answer.
It’s Karla that George reacts to, turning from mild curiosity to a stern half-smile as he pushes into that place within Bill where Karla’s shadow has grown for more than ten years now. George chokes on a laugh—Bill can see it in his throat—at the idea of Bill having made a mark for himself, and Bill presses himself against the concrete wall.
I’ve fleeced Britain, and yet he’s won, he tells himself as George turns to go, asking if he’s anything to pass along to Ann. Bill hasn’t seen or fingered her in months and gives up Karla’s scheme with scarcely a moment’s thought. He nonetheless refuses to tell George of the piece of their marriage Karla still holds, will not waste words saying what he suspects George already knows and will hold onto until he can rip it from Karla’s dead fingers himself. It’s years and years in the future, but he’s won.
After George leaves, Bill heads onto the porch to watch as the beautiful young men of the Circus’s future run through Sarratt’s obstacle course, wondering if Karla’s inevitable destruction one day at George’s hands will lead to his own death. He would almost rather die here, amongst his memories of the past, than bear torture in Moscow without Karla’s protection.
Every last mother in the Circus comes to George’s office in the week after Haydon’s unmasking, offering tea and biscuits and congratulations along with the paperwork George requests. Peter flirts with them, brushes aside their veiled requests for drinks or dinner, and tries to keep George’s office as calm as he can. They sit together in silence, poring over files long past midnight, neither asking the other why he does not go home.
One morning Peter returns from breakfast to find George supervising the installation of a portrait on the wall opposite his desk. The face is simultaneously stern and blank, the eyes the same shade as George’s own. Peter shivers in silence until the handyman has left.
“You needn’t brood in defeat, George. Are you really like to forget him without the pictorial reminder?”
George shrugs, turning a page in the duty officer’s logbook he’s reviewing. “It’s an old portrait Control had done some years ago for a series on Soviet officers.”
“You don’t give a damn about art.”
George looks up at him then, face soft, and Peter relents.
“Ann doesn’t give a damn about art.”
“Indeed no.” George surveys him over the tips of his fingers. “And do you, Peter?”
Most of the art in Peter’s apartment was chosen by Richard. “We did. I’ve rather lost my taste for it in the past weeks.”
They continue in silence for more than an hour, Peter losing himself and the lump at the back of his throat in more logbooks. He was not sure at first that he could reliably distinguish Karla’s fingerprints on their past, but Karla’s handwriting is Haydon’s, of course, and it was all over the pieces of his own file he had seen, Bill’s little notes on his hiring asking whether or not Peter himself was ever a Soviet sympathizer. Peter is not so foolish as to insist he never could have been; they would none of them escape the taint, no matter if George had the building fumigated for a hundred years.
“He looks like you,” Peter admits some time later, staring into Karla’s dead eyes. George sets his logbook down. “What was it you said to him? ‘Don’t you think it’s time to recognize there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?’”
“Something of that nature.”
Half a year ago Peter would have asked him if he’d meant it. He knows the answer now without question, in practice rather than merely in theory, the perfectly handsome English shape a Soviet can take, crawling into George’s own bed.
George’s face is quiet but not happy when they break for dinner. The mothers still chatter, freed of the weight of Haydon, smiling at them in the halls as they pass. One murmurs congratulations, and George’s mouth twitches. Peter grabs her shoulder and stops, watching as a mask of panic drops over her face.
“Enough,” Peter tells her, ignoring George, making his voice as stern as it will go. “We’ve had our little party to congratulate ourselves on our basic duties completed last week, have we not? I think it’s well past time we all go back to work—”
“Mr. Guillam, sir, I—”
George’s grip on his arm is crushing. He smiles at the mother as Peter’s fingers slowly unclench, freeing her. “Enjoy your evening, Belinda.”
Peter smashes a hand against the dash of the Citroen as they enter, drives in moody silence to George’s club. He apologizes over the salad.
George shakes his head. “We’ve been through rather a lot, you and I.”
The dissolution of our loves, the near-dissolution of the Circus, the fact that all of our memories belong to Karla? Peter watches George as he eats, notes the weariness at the back of his eyes that he can only show outside of the Circus. “They see only bits and pieces and think that all is well again. That we won.”
“Do we really see so much more?” George pushes a tomato with one prong of his fork. “Once blind, always blind, though at least now we know it.”
“I don’t—” Peter swallows down another lump in his throat “—I don’t want to give him anything more. And yet he already has it all, everything that was good to me. And he’ll keep it.”
George’s eyes shine over his wine glass, moist around the edges, and for half a heartbeat Peter forgets to breathe. He sits still, tingles running up and down his spine, as George gives him a watery smile before returning his attention to the tomato.
In the Citroen again, Peter feels as still as ice, his breath searing the back of his mouth with each inhale. George is silent, his eyes closed, one hand lightly on Peter’s arm as they drive through the darkness. His touch burns through Peter’s jacket.
When Peter parks a block away from the Circus and kills the engine, George tightens his grip on his arm. They sit in silence for several minutes, listening to the shaky sound of their breathing fill the air around them. Through his misty vision Peter dimly notes the tear tracks on George’s face.
“The funerals for Control, and Prideaux, and Ann, and Richard, and the Haydon of old will stop some day,” George whispers eventually, his voice steady, thin, and mournful. “And then I will end him.”
Peter squeezes his hand before they unlock their doors and step out into the bitter night.