Agent Running in the Field - John le Carre


Our meeting was not contrived. Not by me, not by Ed, not by any of the hidden hands supposedly pulling at his strings. I was not targeted. Ed was not put up to it. We were neither covertly nor aggressively observed. He issued a sporting challenge. I accepted it. We played. There was no contrivance, no conspiracy, no collusion. There are events in my life – only a few these days, it’s true – that admit of one version only. Our meeting is such an event. My telling of it never wavered in all the times they made me repeat it.

It is a Saturday evening. I am sitting in the Athleticus Club in Battersea, of which I am Honorary Secretary, a largely meaningless title, in an upholstered deckchair beside the indoor swimming pool. The clubroom is cavernous and high-raftered, part of a converted brewery, with the pool at one end and a bar at the other, and a passageway between the two that leads to the segregated changing rooms and shower areas.

In facing the pool I am at an oblique angle to the bar. Beyond the bar lies the entrance to the clubroom, then the lobby, then the doorway to the street. I am thus not in a position to see who is entering the clubroom or who is hanging around in the lobby reading notices, booking courts or putting their names on the Club ladder. The bar is doing brisk trade. Young girls and their swains splash and chatter.

I am wearing my badminton kit: shorts, sweatshirt and a new pair of ankle-friendly trainers. I bought them to fend off a niggling pain in my left ankle incurred on a ramble in the forests of Estonia a month previously. After prolonged back-to-back stints overseas I am savouring a well-deserved spell of home leave. A cloud looms over my professional life that I am doing my best to ignore. On Monday I expect to be declared redundant. Well, so be it, I keep telling myself. I am entering my forty-seventh year, I have had a good run, this was always going to be the deal, so no complaints.

All the greater therefore the consolation of knowing that, despite the advance of age and a troublesome ankle, I continue to reign supreme as Club champion, having only last Saturday secured the singles title against a talented younger field. Singles are generally regarded as the exclusive preserve of fleet-footed twenty-somethings, but thus far I have managed to hold my own. Today, in accordance with Club tradition, as newly crowned champion I have successfully acquitted myself in a friendly match against the champion of our rival club across the river in Chelsea. And here he is sitting beside me now in the afterglow of our combat, pint in hand, an aspiring and sportsmanlike young Indian barrister. I was hard pressed till the last few points, when experience and a bit of luck turned the tables in my favour. Perhaps these simple facts will go some way to explaining my charitable disposition at the moment when Ed threw down his challenge, and my feeling, however temporary, that there was life after redundancy.

My vanquished opponent and I are chatting amiably together. The topic, I remember as if it were yesterday, was our fathers. Both, it turned out, had been enthusiastic badminton players. His had been All-India runner-up. Mine for one halcyon season had been British Army champion in Singapore. As we compare notes in this amusing way I become aware of Alice, our Caribbean-born receptionist and bookkeeper, advancing on me in the company of a very tall and as yet indistinct young man. Alice is sixty years old, whimsical, portly and always a little out of wind. We are two of the longest-standing members of the Club, I as player, she as mainstay. Wherever I was stationed in the world, we never failed to send each other Christmas cards. Mine were saucy, hers were holy. When I say advancing on me, I mean that, since the two of them were attacking me from the rear with Alice leading the march, they had first to advance, then turn to face me, which comically they achieved in unison.

‘Mister Sir Nat, sir,’ Alice announces with an air of high ceremony. More often I am Lord Nat to her, but this evening I am a common knight. ‘This very handsome and polite young man needs to talk to you most privately. But he don’t want to disturb you in your moment of