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gazing on the pilot-stars

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In the flurry of activity after Haydon’s assassination, Smiley requisitioned all of the surveillance recorded during his internment, and no one so much as blinked at the request. Naturally not: Smiley was Control now, and Control naturally saw everything, heard everything, reviewed everything.

A Nursery dogsbody delivered the reels and cassettes—audio and CCTV video, respectively. Smiley began by playing at organizing them. He selected all the reels for days when Haydon had received a visitor—any visitor, including himself—then divided that pile into those from the days of Bill’s interrogation versus the days when he’d had other visitors. Finally, he plucked the reel for the day of Prideaux’s visit from the latter stack and held it in two hands, considering.

He was curious, of course. No one entered the intelligence services lacking an innate and driving curiosity. But upon turning the reel over in his hands—once, twice, thrice—Smiley found that he didn’t need to listen to it. He already knew the essentials: Haydon and Prideaux’s relationship (“the inseparables,” putting it rather politely, especially for Connie), Haydon’s betrayal, Prideaux’s accidental tip off, when Control had sent him out on a mole hunt and Prideaux had warned Haydon, warned the bloody mole himself. Perhaps there was one unknown: had Prideaux really not suspected at all? Smiley certainly hadn’t, until his own search was on, but Prideaux knew Haydon better—intimately.

Then again, a history of intimacy is not a guarantee of understanding or privileged knowledge in any sense, Smiley thought to himself. He had no need to solve that mystery either, Haydon’s affair with Ann. Haydon’s explanation at their concluding interview had seemed honest enough: all a feint, ordered by Karla, to distract Smiley from where his suspicions would have been more fruitfully cast.

Thus it was that Smiley felt reasonably certain that the reel in his hands would contain no solutions to unsolved problems. Listening would fill in some gaps, enhance the quality of some impressions, transform certain hypotheses into established facts, but it wasn’t necessary. And that made it, somewhat paradoxically, all the more compelling. Precisely because Smiley could choose to slip the reel into his briefcase, later to be destroyed as he’d promised; precisely because Smiley had that choice, he chose not to exercise it.

The reel existed in the first place because Haydon had asked for Prideaux, when Smiley had offered him a final request. He’d meant for a meal, before Haydon’s flight to Moscow, and Haydon had known that but asked for Prideaux anyway. Smiley hadn’t bothered to explain that Prideaux had eaten the lotus, that the request would be a disturbance to his nascent teaching career. Haydon knew, even if he didn’t know the details, and simply—selfishly—didn’t care.

Smiley checked the tape’s alignment twice before he switched on the player.

Haydon’s was the first voice, naturally: “Thank you for coming,” he said.

Prideaux grunted, and Smiley knew that it meant, “Smiley gave me no choice.” Prideaux never used two words where one would do, never one where a nonverbal response would communicate enough—or more.

The silence stretched, long enough that Smiley checked the tape, but it turned on, and finally Prideaux’s voice came through.

“Smiley told me he has charge of your affairs. I’d thank you for that, but you couldn’t be certain I’d visit. It was necessity, not courtesy.”

“Jim–“ A faint tremor in Bill’s voice, unless Smiley was imagining it. A shuffle of feet, impossible to tell whose. “I wouldn’t have asked you to handle them. Not you.”

“Why not me?”

“They didn’t matter!”

“And I do?” This softer, and Smiley found himself leaning forward over the tape deck—uselessly, given the headphones.

“Of course you bloody matter. All of this is for you!”

“This,” Prideaux intoned flatly. “Tell me more about this, please, and how it’s for me. But wait, before you do. Let me tell you about my side of this. Did you know that in the mornings, most mornings, the pain is so bad I can hardly breathe? And that’s if I’ve slept, which means a lucky night, because it’s only vodka or Valium that put me to sleep, and if it’s the former than the nightmares are top notch. It’s nice to have a constant refresher course on just why I don’t ever want to end up in one of Karla’s interrogation camps again. But of course I won’t anyway, as I’m to live out my days in the country, teaching schoolboys French. But of course all this is for me. Tell me more about how I’m supposed to be satisfied with this: the only man I chose to love nearly cost me my life—and did cost me my profession—for an aesthetic choice.”

“I got you back, didn’t I?”

“At what cost, Bill? I’ve eaten the lotus, and you’ll be settling in Mother Russia soon enough.”

“Dying of overwork or starvation in a gulag, more like.”

“Oh, will Karla be upset with you, do you think?”

A silence again. Smiley watched the gears in the tape deck turn, and every circuit round intensified his awareness of the line he’d crossed setting the tape to play in the first place, but it was a done thing, he told himself. Couldn’t be undone.

The sound of sniffling on the tape broke Smiley from his thoughts, then the muffled sounds of quiet sobbing. Haydon didn’t tell Prideaux it was just an ‘emotional reaction.’

Christ–“ Jim again. “Turn around.”

A zip drawn down, then another. Smiley’s face grew hot; he glanced at the stack of video cassettes, though it was difficult to tear his eyes from watching the tape turn. He wouldn’t watch the video too, not now that he knew this was on there.

Haydon—it was Haydon, Smiley was sure—moaned softly, then whimpered. The source of the breathing sounds was impossible to identify, but if Prideaux was behind Haydon, then–

Smiley could almost see it anyway, when Haydon said, “It’s not enough, Jim,” then begged, “Please.” The sound of spitting, twice, then a sharp cry from Haydon immediately muffled, though by Bill’s own hand and efforts or Jim’s, it was impossible to know. Smiley’s face burned with the shame of listening to what followed: the unmistakable rhythmic skin slapping sounds of fucking, punctuated by the occasional grunt, whimper, harsh inhalation, or punched-out exhalation. The moment of climax was an absence of sound and only noticeable after it had passed, when it was followed by the sounds of clothing again. Two zips, the rustles of two pairs of trousers.

A scuffle, briefly, then the first sounds of kissing. Something in Smiley’s stomach curled in shame, and he looked away despite the futility of the action.

Someone groaned on the tape. Then Bill—Haydon, Smiley corrected himself—whispered, desperate, “Don’t–“

The tape rolled through five minutes of near silence with Smiley perched at the end of his chair, struggling to interpret every whisper of skin on skin, every breath, every shuffle of oxfords on the bare concrete floor.

A long sigh. From Haydon, apparently, because he spoke immediately following: “I don’t want to die in a gulag, Jim.”

“You won’t.”

“Promise me.”

Prideaux inhaled, exhaled. Paused for a beat. “I promise, Bill,” he said, “you won’t.”

Jim kissed Bill for the last time, and left.

Smiley startled when the reel reached its end and the player clicked off. He watched as if from the corner of the room while his hands removed the reels and started pulling the tape off, piling it in a tangle on the table. The empty reels he tucked into his briefcase, and the tangle of tape he fed into the inside pocket of his greatcoat. It compressed easily, without making a bulge. He added the video cassette containing Prideaux’s visit to his briefcase, then set the briefcase aside and watched three cassettes before he left the Nursery, calling for a tea between the first and second, a tea which the same dogsbody delivered.

At home, George lit a fire in the parlour and threw the tangle of audio tape into the flames immediately. The tape burned briefly—a vivid, chemical green shot through with streaks of purple.

Smiley made himself supper and washed it down with a bottle of Spanish red that he’d tucked away, long ago, because Ann had once expressed a preference for it. Two fingers of whisky were his companion by the fire. The house was too cold, but the whisky was enough, and preferable to getting up to turn on the heating. His briefcase was still open on the opposite chair, the empty reel (he’d ask Peter to get rid of it, however he liked) and the cassette visible.

Two more fingers joined the first two, and Smiley added another log to the fire.

The foul taste in his mouth was the first thing Smiley was cognizant of, when he woke. The throbbing at his temples was the second, and the acrid smell of burnt plastic the third. A once-molten, once-rectangular black lump resided in the middle of a pile of ash in the fireplace, and Smiley recognized it immediately as the video cassette. Images rushed across his mind’s eye—images from memory, though later, after he’d asked Peter to get rid of the remaining evidence, he would find himself able to believe that they’d come from his imagination alone.

Jim fucking into Bill from behind, Jim’s hand muffling Bill’s mouth, Bill’s front pressed to the wall, trousers around his ankles. Bill’s eyes were closed tightly and still raw-red all around, but the curve in his lower spine lifting his arse was unnatural and unforced.

Jim pulling his spent prick out, muffling his mouth in the skin behind Bill’s ear and in the hair at his nape. Him reaching around, and Bill almost doubling over, the expression on Bill’s face racing through peaceful satisfaction to pained anticipation to ecstatic release.

Bill turning the tables on Jim, pinning Jim to the wall by his wrists above his head and attacking Jim’s mouth in a brutal kiss.

The shape of Bill’s mouth forming the words, “Promise me,” and Jim answering with lips nearly touching Bill’s mouth before he kissed Bill for the last time.

Bill’s hand floating to rest gently on the back of Jim’s neck, then pulling Jim’s head down so that Bill could press his lips to the cup of Jim’s left eye as he untangled Jim’s fingers from the hem of his shirt and prepared to push Jim away.

Peter grumbled about getting ash on his suit, and then all evidence was gone. Smiley made himself a cup of tea and sat by the phone to drink it, but he lifted the handset, paused in consideration, then replaced it. He wouldn’t call Connie today.