Perhaps the best known secret at any British university that mattered was the fabled tap on the shoulder, but despite this it still came as a genuine surprise to Bill when it happened. Not because he didn’t think he was suited for the job, and not because he just didn’t think he was the “type”, but more because of the fact that at the time he received such a suggestion he was also well known about campus for being, as Fan worded it during their initial meeting, “a raging commie”.
Months later, and they were still having much the same discussion.
“Don’t you think it would be a bit of a conflict of interests?” Bill asked, despite the fact that he had asked the question in many different ways that evening, and approached it from all angles.
“I understand it’s a rather attractive idea, Bill,” said Fan, who must have really been desperate to win him over that night because he had finally stopped insisting on “William”. “But you have to understand that it’s not exactly a viable option. I’ve been teaching for many years and I’ve seen countless student fads come and go. It’s fun, while you’re experimenting and finding your place in the world. But you have to look to the future. You’re going to be graduating soon, and you need to have something lined up. I’m afraid sitting on the committee of the campus Communist Party doesn’t pay much once you’re no longer a student.”
“It would seem incredibly inappropriate to start work right in the middle of the bloody government after everything I’ve been saying,” Bill said, frowning. “I don’t know. It doesn’t sit right with me. You know it doesn’t.”
“The fact is, Bill, that right now Britain isn’t a communist country and it doesn’t seem to be taking steps towards it any time soon. Surely if you really wanted this to be a possibility, you’d want to be involved with the government? The best way to influence things are from within, after all.”
“But you don’t think that’s ever going to happen,” Bill said, giving a thin smile. “You’ve said as much.”
“I have,” Fan admitted, which was something that Bill appreciated about him – his opinion on matters never changed, despite what a risk he might be taking sticking to them. “But just because I don’t think it’ll ever happen doesn’t mean I can look down on you for thinking that it will. But there does come a time where you have to make a choice.”
“And what,” Bill asked, “in layman’s terms, is my choice?”
“You can choose to proceed with this avenue,” Fan said, shrugging. “Something you wholly believe in, of course, but not exactly leading to many opportunities, which would be a damn shame for someone like you. Or you can put it on the backburner for a while, go for something that will challenge you, and see where you end up. If it all comes together again, the better for you. You’ll have your cake and eat it. If it doesn’t, you can at least rest safe in the knowledge that you didn’t throw your life away.”
“And what if it goes wrong the other way?” Bill demanded. “What if I bloody hate the intelligence service? What then?”
“Have you hated it so far?” Fan asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m not – it’s not official,” Bill said, spluttering over the words slightly. He slumped back in his seat, glaring at the oak bookshelves lining the walls of Fan’s office.
“It is,” Fan said patiently.
“It’s not –”
“You’re not full time, is that what you mean?”
“I haven’t – all I do is pass on bloody names!” Bill snapped, not knowing where his sudden temper was coming from. “You do the rest, you and your friends lurking in god knows where. I don’t do anything important.”
“You have a good eye for it, Bill,” Fan said simply.
“Do I? So how many?”
“How many actually made the cut?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Of course you can’t.”
“But,” Fan said, a sudden glint in his eye. “If you came on board full time, I’m sure you’d soon find out which ones were yours.”
Bill drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, his thoughts racing. He needed to slow down before he spoke; needed to measure what he was going to say or he knew it would all come tumbling out in an incoherent rush. He could feel the beginnings of a headache and he wished he had longer to mull it over – this wasn’t a decision that he could make by himself, after all. Suddenly his thoughts cleared, and he managed to look back at Fan, feeling suddenly calmer.
“Let me make one condition,” he said, and Fan leaned back in his own chair, studying Bill and waiting for him to continue. “You don’t expect an answer from me now. Let me think about it. Until this round of examinations are over. Then I’ll come back and tell you, as soon as I’m done with my last one.”
“That seems fair,” Fan said, nodding. “Think about it carefully, though, Bill. I know what you’re like. Your idealism is very endearing most days, but your future isn’t exactly the place for it right now.”
“You really think I’ll be good at this, don’t you?” Bill asked, and the look Fan gave him was something Bill had never seen from him before. Something deadly serious was present there, something that made Bill feel suddenly like a child hauled into his headmaster’s study.
“I’m not the only one, William,” Fan said, and dismissed him.
Jim sat down next to Bill with a smile as he said the words, though the smile Bill gave in return didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Top of the class, again. I think you do it to show everyone else up.”
“I doubt Cunningham even read the bloody thing,” Bill said, and there was enough venom in his words that Jim realised he was serious.
“What makes you say that?” he asked. “He loves you.”
“Exactly,” Bill said, closing his book with a snap. “He loves me too much, I think. He knows my father. They’re old chums. I don’t think I could fail his class if I tried.”
“Ah,” Jim said, and usually such a response would have annoyed Bill but with Jim it didn’t. Perhaps it was the look he could see in Jim’s eyes – the look that told him that, somehow, Jim understood.
“I could probably write a whole load of drivel,” Bill continued, Jim’s understanding not quite dousing his frustration. “But I don’t, because I have some self-respect. Still, what’s the point if no one really reads it? Sometimes I wonder what the bloody hell I’m doing here.”
“So you can graduate with a first just to say you did,” Jim said, smiling again. “You’ll have the pick of wherever you want to work.”
“I would have that anyway,” Bill said, and it was meant to be a grumble but it came out sounding so hollow and dejected that he saw Jim’s face briefly cloud over with concern. “Oh, don’t give me that look. You don’t have to listen to this crap. I suppose it’s all the same thing, isn’t it? A rich kid moaning about all his many opportunities.”
“But what good are opportunities if you don’t feel you’ve earned them?” Jim asked, and Bill looked at him then, really looked at him, and dared to hope that he really might understand.
“I suppose that’s a good point,” he admitted.
“I know that’s what bothers you, Bill,” Jim said, leaning back and stretching out his long legs. “You’re not the type to go around bemoaning how rich you are. In fact, I’ve never actually heard you complain about the money aspect of the whole thing. It’s just how everyone’s up your arse.”
Bill spluttered with laughter.
“I’m serious,” Jim said, shrugging. “Maybe it’s vulgar, but Christ. I’ve seen so many people that far up there they should be paying you rent. I don’t know how you stand it.”
“I don’t,” Bill said. “I’m bitter and awful about the whole thing.”
“Yeah, but you haven’t murdered anyone out of sheer frustration yet, which is more than could be said for me if I was in the same situation.”
“I suppose you have the opposite problem, do you?”
“Oh, of course. I have to work twice as hard and all that. As if winning a scholarship wasn’t impressive enough. No, it’s all about where you’re born, isn’t it?”
They looked at one another, and Bill wondered if Jim ever experienced the same kind of envy that he did when they took a moment to think about their differences. Bill was more than aware that he was seeing things with a rose-tinted view, but sometimes it seemed as though it would be so much simpler to be Jim Prideaux. He, at the very least, didn’t have his legacy written right into his DNA, visible on his very face to all those who knew what they were looking for.
Bill swallowed, the look having gone on for too long.
“Do me a favour,” he said quietly. Jim raised an eyebrow, and Bill dropped his voice lower. “Take me back to your room. Make an unholy mess of me.”
Bill felt Jim’s voice rumble in his chest where he rested his head against it; propping himself up, he looked at the other man through the half-light, trying to work out what might be on his face. Jim looked mostly neutral, and if Bill hadn’t known him as well as he did he would have thought that was all there was. Instead, he saw the slightest furrow of Jim’s eyebrows, and knew that wasn’t the case.
“The only thing I’m worried about right now is how I’m going to cover all these marks up by tomorrow morning,” Bill said, knowing that Jim would spot the lie but not having the energy to think of anything even remotely plausible.
“Since when did you care?” Jim asked, the corner of his mouth quirking up in a smile.
“Since I was given a nudge by the professor and told to maybe tone it down a little for appearance’s sake,” Bill said, which wasn’t a lie. “Bloody prude. He never allows me any fun.”
“He’s probably wondering where you manage to find all these loose girls,” Jim said, snorting, and Bill smiled and dropped his head back down against Jim’s chest.
Perhaps he dozed for a while, because for a long time he was only vaguely aware of Jim’s chest rising and falling beneath his head, and of all the aches and marks over his body where Jim had been not long before. He knew they would ache even more in the morning, the nail marks at his hips right where he knew his trousers would rub all day. The thought was a satisfying one; he always preferred it when he had reminders the next day, and he usually ensured he did. Still, there was something on the edge of his thoughts that stopped him falling asleep properly, something that swirled around and gradually made his chest that little bit too tight.
It was ridiculous, really. He couldn’t change what he was, despite how much he might look at Jim with envy. But that didn’t stop him from wanting to. And it certainly didn’t stop him from thinking that maybe, there was a chance. A slim one, and one that he could never share with anyone, not even to talk it through… but one all the same.
It was a protocol he had been taught over and over but that he hadn’t had to use until now – perhaps that was why he already thought he knew what the answer to his letter’s question would be. He had thought he would be prepared for the moment it became inevitable, but he could feel the anger beginning to twist inside him despite his earlier epiphany with Jim. It took everything in his power to not break into a jog as he followed the route they had planned, and he almost drove himself into an obvious state as he had nursed a drink in a pub along the route, sitting at a small table near the first window facing out onto the street. He sipped his drink and took his time and kept a frequent but not excessive eye on the street outside, until he finally saw what he knew had been coming all along.
The glimpse was brief but told him all he needed to know: one small man in a long coat, wrapped around him against the rain that was beginning to spit. Despite this he wore no hat, and Bill’s attention was drawn to his left hand and he brought it out of his pocket, pausing quickly to flick the lighter held there to the tip of the cigarette held between his lips. As quickly as he had appeared he had vanished again, and Bill waited for five minutes exactly before he drained the last of his drink, exchanged some brief farewell pleasantries with the barmaid, and stepped out into the street after him.
Despite what he was saying Bill found that he was laughing, though any humour that should have been present was unaccounted for, and any attempts at playing it off as disbelief were betrayed by the way that Bill was pacing up and down the mostly empty room, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. He was on the verge of shaking, a panic threatening to overwhelm him at any moment, which was the worst possible outcome he could think of and the one he had been trying most desperately to avoid.
He had been rambling incoherently without realising, and whatever he had been saying abruptly left his mind the second he realised he had been doing it. He stopped suddenly in all manner of the word, his hands frozen in fists by his sides, his movement around the room ceasing, his words now only a memory of something that he knew had occurred, but with no further context than that. Throughout it all, his companion had watched him wordlessly, the haze of smoke floating around his face the only movement from his corner of the room. Bill searched his face for any clues as to what he might be thinking, but as always, he came up with nothing.
“This is… exactly what I was trying to avoid,” Bill eventually said, lowering his voice and trying his best to have it sound even, to match his change of tactic. “It’s the main reason I like what we have going on so much. You know you’re the first bloody person on this earth who’s ever made me work for anything?”
Movement then, as the other man gave the smallest of smiles, looking genuinely amused. He seemed to ponder on the question for a moment before he spoke, his words measured but delivered in the leisurely way typical of men used to being listened to.
“This does not surprise me.”
“Then you must understand!” Bill burst out, already forgetting his brief attempt to stay calm. “Karla –”
“And what do you propose you do otherwise?” Karla asked, cutting Bill off with ease though he hadn’t raised his voice at all. “You will be graduating soon. You will have no end to the jobs being offered to you. With or without your consent, they will fall into your lap because of who you are, and you will rise up their ranks for much the same reason. Why not go with the choice that will provide you with the most challenge, while also being of the most use to me?”
Bill wanted desperately to argue, but truth be told he had already thought in detail about the proposal, and had concluded with much the same points as Karla had just outlined. Still, there was a boyish rebelliousness in him that wanted to continue to argue, and he probably would have done had he been standing opposite anyone else. Karla had never once been moved by any form of dramatics, and so Bill had never bothered putting on anything that didn’t come naturally to him.
“What do you mean, ‘provide me with the most challenge’?” he asked instead, filled with the need to at least nitpick something.
“Do you really believe they let mediocre performers play out their little dramas using the intelligence services as a backdrop?” Karla asked. “The ill-suited are quickly regulated to terrible jobs. Laughable, most of them. It is very easy to see who has talent, and who is there because it would be too socially provocative to remove them.”
“So what you’re saying is avoid desk jobs,” Bill said with a smirk.
“For the time being. I have no doubt that when you do end up with a desk job, it will be a very important desk.”
Bill tried not to think too much about the swell of pride he felt, but he knew that it was useless. Despite what he always considered his best efforts, Karla always managed to see the ghost of whatever he had killed on his face, and Bill didn’t know if he loved it or hated it. However he might feel, he never found himself surprised. Karla seemed to read people easily; indeed, he seemed to have instantly spotted in Bill things that no one else had spotted before. How he drew those things out and cultivated them so precisely without others suddenly picking up on them as well, Bill didn’t know. Privately, he hoped he might one day learn.
“You still have misgivings,” Karla said, breaking the silence that had descended as he lit a fresh cigarette. They were American branded, Bill noticed, and he wondered how on earth Karla managed to find so many of them.
“Of course I do,” Bill said. He realised his fists were still clenched and loosened them, flexing his numbed fingers.
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know how I’m going to stand all the arselicking,” Bill said bluntly, and that flicker of amusement reappeared in Karla’s eyes.
“It pays to know which ones are worth licking,” he said, and managed to deliver the line with such guiding weight that Bill laughed, genuinely this time, something loosening inside of him.
“And you would know that first hand, would you?” he asked. “Oh, to hell with it. I’m sure you would have to know what you’re talking about by this point.”
“Most importantly, I know what it is you want,” Karla said, and Bill paused for a moment, wondering if he should take the words ominously or not.
He decided against it. There was a warmth in Karla’s dark eyes that he didn’t want to corrupt.
In more relevant news, my other interests are interacting well. I did wonder if it would be a drag trying to juggle them together without letting any of the pieces fall, but you were right (as always) and I’ve found that everything is falling into place. I think the most difficult part of all this is the fact that I do find it somewhat of a betrayal re: the others in the Party, because you and I both know where my sympathies lie. Still, I suppose it is all for the bigger picture, isn’t it? If I can get my foot in bigger doors, I’m sure I will make up for it tenfold.
My recruiting has slowed down thanks to more examinations, but I have enclosed a copy of the list I passed to my tutor. I’m not sure how many of the names will ever become relevant, but it would be worth keeping an eye on them. I don’t mean to sound arrogant but I do have rather a good eye for this kind of thing and I do think that most, if not all, will be successful. I think the one to watch most closely would be the chap by the name of PRIDEAUX, who I have grown to know quite well over the last few weeks. For a while I did wonder about trying to recruit him for our cause instead, but I quickly realised it wouldn’t be worth trying. He’s a very sturdy chap and he’s very set in his views. I don’t think even subtle persuasion would settle on him, and I’ll have to ask you to trust me on this and not ask that I try anyway.
Which brings me finally to another point – I know I have said it many times before but I would much like to have it in writing. I do greatly appreciate the faith that you have in me, and while I’m still not entirely sure what it is about me that has lead you to place this trust in me I do wish for you to understand that it will not be misplaced. Without getting overly sentimental, I have been waiting my whole life for someone to put me through my paces, and you consistently do that and more. I would even say that I love you for it.