'How long have we been sitting here?' I said. I picked up the field glasses and studied the bored young American soldier in his glass-sided box.
'Nearly a quarter of a century,' said Werner Volkmann. His arms were resting on the steering wheel and his head was slumped on them. That GI wasn't even born when we first sat here waiting for the dogs to bark.'
Barking dogs, in their compound behind the remains of the Hotel Adlon, were usually the first sign of something happening on the other side. The dogs sensed any unusual happenings long before the handlers came to get them. That's why we kept the windows open; that's why we were frozen nearly to death.
'That American soldier wasn't born, the spy thriller he's reading wasn't written, and we both thought the Wall would be demolished within a few days. We were stupid kids but it was better then, wasn't it, Bernie?'
'It's always better when you're young, Werner,' I said.
This side of Checkpoint Charlie had not changed. There never was much there; just one small hut and some signs warning you about leaving the Western Sector. But the East German side had grown far more elaborate. Walls and fences, gates and barriers, endless white lines to mark out the traffic lanes. Most recently they'd built a huge walled compound where the tourist buses were searched and tapped, and scrutinized by gloomy men who pushed wheeled mirrors under every vehicle lest one of their fellow-countrymen was clinging there.
The checkpoint is never silent. The great concentration of lights that illuminate the East German side produces a steady hum like a field of insects on a hot summer's day. Werner raised his head from his arms and shifted his weight. We both had sponge-rubber cushions under us; that was one thing we'd learned in a quarter of a century. That and taping the door switch so that the interior light didn't come on every time the car door opened. 'I wish I knew how long Zena will stay in Munich,' said Werner.
'Can't stand Munich,' I told him. 'Can't stand those bloody Bavarians, to tell you the truth.'
'I was only there once,' said Werner. 'It was a rush job for the Americans. One of our people was badly beaten and the local cops were no help at all.' Even Werner's English was spoken with the strong Berlin accent that I'd known since we were at school. Now Werner Volkmann was forty years old, thickset, with black bushy hair, black moustache, and sleepy eyes that made it possible to mistake him for one of Berlin's Turkish population. He wiped a spyhole of clear glass in the windscreen so that he could see into the glare of fluorescent lighting. Beyond the silhouette of Checkpoint Charlie, Friedrichstrasse in the East Sector shone as bright as day. 'No,' he said. 'I don't like Munich at all.'
The night before, Werner, after many drinks, had confided to me the story of his wife, Zena, running off with a man who drove a truck for the Coca-Cola company. For the previous three nights he'd provided me with a place on a lumpy sofa in his smart apartment in Dahlem, right on the edge of Grunewald. But sober, we kept up the pretence that his wife was visiting a relative. 'There's something coming now,' I said.
Werner did not bother to move his head from where it rested on the seatback. 'It's a tan-coloured Ford. It will come through the checkpoint, park over there while the men inside have a coffee and hotdog, then they'll go back in to the East Sector just after midnight.'
I watched. As he'd predicted, it was a tan-coloured Ford, a panel truck, unmarked, with West Berlin registration.
'We're in the place they usually park,' said Werner. 'They're Turks who have girlfriends in the East. The regulations say you have to be out before midnight. They go back there again after midnight.'
They must be some girls!' I said.
'A handful of Westmarks goes a long way over there,' said Werner. 'You know that, Bernie.' A police car with two cops in it cruised past very slowly. They recognized Werner's Audi and one of the cops raised a hand in a weary salutation. After the police car moved away, I used my field glasses to see right through the barrier to where an East German border guard was stamping his feet to restore circulation. It was bitterly cold.
Werner said, 'Are you sure he'll cross here, rather than at the Bornholmerstrasse or Prinzenstrasse checkpoints?'
'You've asked me that four times, Werner.'
'Remember when we first started working for intelligence. Your dad was in charge then - things were very different. Remember Mr Gaunt - the fat man who could sing all those funny Berlin cabaret songs - betting me fifty marks it would never go up . . . the Wall, I mean. He must be getting old now. I was only eighteen or nineteen, and fifty marks was a lot of money in those days.'
'Silas Gaunt, that was. He'd been reading too many of those 'guidance reports' from London,' I said. 'For a time he convinced me you were wrong about everything, including the Wall.'
'But you didn't make any bets,' said Werner. He poured some black coffee from his Thermos into a paper cup and passed it to me.
'But I volunteered to go over there that night they closed the sector boundaries. I was no brighter than old Silas. It was just that I didn't have fifty marks to spare for betting.'
The cabdrivers were the first to know. About two o'clock in the morning, the radio cabs were complaining about the way they were being stopped and questioned each time they crossed. The dispatcher in the downtown taxi office told his drivers not to take anyone else across to the East Sector, and then he phoned me to tell me about it.'
'And you stopped me from going,' I said.
'Your dad told me not to take you.'
'But you went over there, Werner. And old Silas went with you.' So my father had prevented my going over there the night they sealed the sector. I didn't know until now.
'We went across about four-thirty that morning. There were Russian trucks, and lots of soldiers dumping rolls of barbed wire outside the Charité Hospital. We came back quite soon. Silas said the Americans would send in tanks and tear the wire down. Your dad said the same thing, didn't he?'
'The people in Washington were too bloody frightened, Werner. The stupid bastards at the top thought the Russkies were going to move this way and take over the Western Sector of the city. They were relieved to see a wall going up.'
'Maybe they know things we don't know,' said Werner.
'You're right,' I said. They know that the service is run by idiots. But the word is leaking out.'
Werner permitted himself a slight smile. 'And then, about six in the morning, you heard the sound of the heavy trucks and construction cranes. Remember going on the back of my motorcycle to see them stringing the barbed wire across Potsdamerplatz? I knew it would happen eventually. It was the easiest fifty marks I ever earned. I can't think why Mr Gaunt took my bet.'
'He was new to Berlin,' I said. 'He'd just finished a year at Oxford, lecturing on political science and all that statistical bullshit the new kids start handing out the moment they arrive.'
'Maybe you should go and lecture there,' said Werner with just a trace of sarcasm. 'You didn't go to university did you, Bernie?' It was a rhetorical question. 'Neither did I. But you've done well without it.'
I didn't answer, but Werner was in the mood to talk now. 'Do you ever see Mr Gaunt? What beautiful German he spoke. Not like yours and mine - Hochdeutsch, beautiful.'
Werner, who seemed to be doing better than I was, with his export loan business, looked at me expecting a reply. 'I married his niece,' I said.
'I forgot that old Silas Gaunt was related to Fiona. I hear she is very important in the Department nowadays.'
'She's done well,' I said. 'But she works too hard. We don't have enough time together with the kids.'
'You must be making a pot of money,' said Werner. 'Two of you senior staff, with you on field allowances. . . . But Fiona has money of her own, doesn't she? Isn't her father some kind of tycoon? Couldn't he find a nice soft job for you in his office? Better than sitting out here freezing to death in a Berlin side street.'
'He's not going to come,' I said after watching the barrier descend again and the border guard go back into his hut. The windscreen had misted over again so that the lights of the checkpoint became a fairyland of bright blobs.
Werner didn't answer. I had not confided to him anything about what we were doing in his car at Checkpoint Charlie, with a tape recorder wired into the car battery and a mike taped behind the sun visor and a borrowed revolver making an uncomfortable bulge under my arm. After a few minutes he reached forward and wiped a clear spot again. 'The office doesn't know you're using me,' he said.
He was hoping like hell I'd say Berlin Station had forgiven him for his past failings. 'They wouldn't mind too much,' I lied.
'They have a long memory,' complained Werner.
'Give them time,' I said. The truth was that Werner was on the computer as 'non-critical employment only', a classification that prevented anyone employing him at all. In this job everything was 'critical'.
'They didn't okay me, then?' Werner said, suddenly guessing at the truth: that I'd come into town without even telling Berlin Station that I'd arrived.
'What do you care?' I said. 'You're making good money, aren't you?'
'I could be useful to them, and the Department could help me more. I told you all that.'
'I'll talk to the people in London,' I said. 'I'll see what I can do.'
Werner was unmoved by my promise. 'They'll just refer it to the Berlin office, and you know what the answer will be.'
'Your wife,' I said. 'Is she a Berliner?'
'She's only twenty-two,' said Werner wistfully. 'The family was from East Prussia. . . .' He reached inside his coat as if searching for cigarettes, but he knew I wouldn't permit it - cigarettes and lighters are too damned conspicuous after dark - and he closed his coat again. 'You probably saw her photo on the sideboard - a small, very pretty girl with long black hair.'
'So that's her,' I said, although in fact I'd not noticed the photo. At least I'd changed the subject. I didn't want Werner quizzing me about the office. He should have known better than that.
Poor Werner. Why does the betrayed husband always cut such a ridiculous figure? Why isn't the unfaithful partner the comical one? It was all so unfair; no wonder Werner pretended his wife was visiting relatives. He was staring ahead, his big black eyebrows lowered as he concentrated on the checkpoint. 'I hope he wasn't trying to come through with forged papers. They put everything under the ultraviolet lights nowadays, and they change the markings every week. Even the Americans have given up using forged papers - it's suicide.'
'I don't know anything about that,' I told him. 'My job is just to pick him up and debrief him before the office sends him to wherever he has to go.'
Werner turned his head; the bushy black hair and dark skin made his white teeth flash like a toothpaste commercial. 'London wouldn't send you over here for that kind of circus, Bernie. For that kind of task they send office boys, people like me.'
'We'll go and get something to eat and drink, Werner,' I said. 'Do you know some quiet restaurant where they have sausage and potatoes and good Berlin beer?'
'I know just the place, Bernie. Straight up Friedrichstrasse, under the railway bridge at the S-Bahn station and it's on the left. On the bank of the Spree: Weinrestaurant Ganymed.'
'Very funny,' I said. Between us and the Ganymed there was a wall, machine guns, barbed wire, and two battalions of gun-toting bureaucrats. 'Turn this jalopy round and let's get out of here.'
He switched on the ignition and started up. 'I'm happier with her away,' he said. 'Who wants to have a woman waiting at home to ask you where you've been and why you're back so late?'
'You're right, Werner,' I said.
'She's too young for me. I should never have married her.' He waited a moment while the heater cleared the glass a little. 'Try again tomorrow, then?'
'No further contact, Werner. This was the last try for him. I'm going back to London tomorrow. I'll be sleeping in my own bed.'
'Your wife . . . Fiona. She was nice to me that time when I had to work inside for a couple of months.'
'I remember that,' I said. Werner had been thrown out of a window by two East German agents he'd discovered in his apartment. His leg was broken in three places and it took ages for him to recover fully.
'And you tell Mr Gaunt I remember him. He's long ago retired, I know, but I suppose you still see him from time to time. You tell him any time he wants another bet on what the Ivans are up to, he calls me up first.'
'I'll see him next weekend,' I said. 'I'll tell him that.'
'I thought you must have missed the plane,' said my wife as she switched on the bedside light. She'd not yet got to sleep; her long hair was hardly disarranged and the frilly nightdress was not rumpled. She'd gone to bed early by the look of it. There was a lighted cigarette on the ashtray. She must have been lying there in the dark, smoking and thinking about her work. On the side table there were thick volumes from the office library and a thin blue Report from the Select Committee on Science and Technology, with notebook and pencil and the necessary supply of Benson & Hedges cigarettes, a considerable number of which were now only butts packed tightly in the big cut-glass ashtray she'd brought from the sitting room. She lived a different sort of life when I was away; now it was like going into a different house and a different bedroom, to a different woman.
'Some bloody strike at the airport,' I explained. There was a tumbler containing whisky balanced on the clock-radio. I sipped it; the ice cubes had long since melted to make a warm weak mixture. It was typical of her to prepare a treat so carefully - with linen napkin, stirrer and some cheese straws - and then forget about it.
'London Airport?' She noticed her half-smoked cigarette and stubbed it out and waved away the smoke.
'Where else do they go on strike every day?' I said irritably.
'There was nothing about it on the news.'
'Strikes are not news any more,' I said. She obviously thought that I had not come directly from the airport, and her failure to commiserate with me over three wasted hours there did not improve my bad temper.
'Did it go all right?'
'Werner sends his best wishes. He told me that story about your Uncle Silas betting him fifty marks about the building of the Wall.'
'Not again,' said Fiona. 'Is he ever going to forget that bloody bet?'
'He likes you,' I said. 'He sent his best wishes.' It wasn't exactly true, but I wanted her to like him as I did. 'And his wife has left him.'
'Poor Werner,' she said. Fiona was very beautiful, especially when she smiled that sort of smile that women save for men who have lost their woman. 'Did she go off with another man?'
'No,' I said untruthfully, 'She couldn't stand Werner's endless affairs with other women.'
'Werner!' said my wife, and laughed. She didn't believe that Werner had affairs with lots of other women. I wondered how she could guess so correctly. Werner seemed an attractive sort of guy to my masculine eyes. I suppose I will never understand women. The trouble is that they all understand me; they understand me too damned well. I took off my coat and put it on a hanger. 'Don't put your overcoat in the wardrobe,' said Fiona. 'It needs cleaning. I'll take it in tomorrow.' As casually as she could, she added, 'I tried to get you at the Steigerberger Hotel. Then I tried the duty officer at Olympia but no one knew where you were. Billy's throat was swollen. I thought it might be mumps.'
'I wasn't there,' I said.
'You asked the office to book you there. You said it's the best hotel in Berlin. You said I could leave a message there.'
'I stayed with Werner. He's got a spare room now that his wife's gone.'
'And shared all those women of his?' said Fiona. She laughed again. 'Is it all part of a plan to make me jealous?'
I leaned over and kissed her. 'I've missed you, darling. I really have. Is Billy okay?'
'Billy's fine. But that damned man at the garage gave me a bill for sixty pounds!'
'He's written it all down. I told him you'd see about it.'
'But he let you have the car?'
'I had to collect Billy from school. He knew that before he did the service on it. So I shouted at him and he let me take it.'
'You're a wonderful wife,' I said. I undressed and went into the bathroom to wash and to brush my teeth.
'And it went well?' she called.
I looked at myself in the long mirror. It was just as well that I was tall, for I was getting fatter, and that Berlin beer hadn't helped matters. 'I did what I was told,' I said, and finished brushing my teeth.
'Not you, darling,' said Fiona. I switched on the Water-Pik and above its chugging sound I heard her add, 'You never do what you are told, you know that.'
I went back into the bedroom. She'd combed her hair and smoothed the sheet on my side of the bed. She'd put my pyjamas on the pillow. They consisted of a plain red jacket and paisley-pattern trousers. 'Are these mine?'
'The laundry didn't come back this week. I phoned them. The driver is ill. . . so what can you say?'
'I didn't check into the Berlin office at all, if that's what's eating you,' I admitted. They're all young kids in there, don't know their arse from a hole in the ground. I feel safer with one of the old-timers like Werner.'
'Suppose something happened? Suppose there was trouble and the duty officer didn't even know you were in Berlin? Can't you see how silly it is not to give them some sort of perfunctory call?'
'I don't know any of those Olympia Stadion people any more, darling. It's all changed since Frank Harrington took over. They are youngsters, kids with no field experience and lots and lots of theories from the training school.'
'But your man turned up?'
'You spent three days there for nothing?'
'I suppose I did.'
'They'll send you in to get him. You realize that, don't you?'
I got into bed. 'Nonsense. They'll use one of the West Berlin people.'
'It's the oldest trick in the book, darling. They send you over there to wait . . . for all you know, he wasn't even in contact. Now you'll go back and report a failed contact and you'll be the one they send in to get him. My God, Bernie, you are a fool at times.'
I hadn't looked at it like that, but there was more than a grain of truth in Fiona's cynical viewpoint. 'Well, they can find someone else,' I said angrily. 'Let one of the local people go over to get him. My face is too well known there.'
'They'll say they're all kids without experience, just what you yourself said.'
The way she said it was annoying. 'The postwar network names are specially chosen to have no identifiable nationality,' I said. 'And the number four man in the Brahms network once saved my life. He's the one who got me out of Weimar.'
'He's the one who is kept so damned secret. Yes, I know. Why do you think they sent you? And now do you see why they are going to make you go in and get him?' Beside the bed, my photo stared back at me from its silver frame. Bernard Samson, a serious young man with baby face, wavy hair and horn-rimmed glasses looked nothing like the wrinkled old fool I shaved every morning.
'I was in a spot. He could have kept going. He didn't have to come back all the way to Weimar.' I settled into my pillow. 'How long ago was that - eighteen years, maybe twenty?'
'Go to sleep,' said Fiona. 'I'll phone the office in the morning and say you are not well. It will give you time to think.'
'You should see the pile of work on my desk.'
'I took Billy and Sally to the Greek restaurant for his birthday. The waiters sang happy birthday and cheered him when he blew the candles out. It was sweet of them. I wish you'd been there.'
'I won't go. I'll tell the old man in the morning. I can't do that kind of thing any more.'
'And there was a phone call from Mr Moore at the bank. He wants to talk with you. He said there's no hurry.'
'And we both know what that means,' I said. 'It means phone me back immediately or else!' I was close to her now and I could smell perfume. Had she put it on just for me, I wondered.
'Harry Moore isn't like that. At Christmas we were nearly seven hundred overdrawn, and when we saw him at my sister's party he said not to worry.'
'Brahms Four took me to the house of a man named Busch - Karl Busch - who had this empty room in Weimar. . . .'It was all coming back to me. 'We stayed there three days and afterwards Karl Busch went back there. They took Busch up to the security barracks in Leipzig. He was never seen again.'
'You're senior staff now, darling,' she said sleepily. 'You don't have to go anywhere you don't want to.'
'I phoned you last night,' I said. 'It was two o'clock in the morning but there was no reply.'
'I was here, asleep,' she said. She was awake and alert now. I could tell by the tone of her voice.
'I let it ring for ages,' I said. 'I tried twice. Finally I got the operator to dial it.'
'Then it must be the damned phone acting up again. I tried to phone here for Nanny yesterday afternoon and there was no reply. I'll tell the engineers tomorrow.'
Richard Cruyer was the German Stations Controller, the man to whom I reported. He was younger than I was by two years and his apologies for this fact gave him opportunities for reminding himself of his fast promotion in a service that was not noted for its fast promotions.
Dicky Cruyer had curly hair and liked to wear open-neck shirts and faded jeans, and be the Wunderkind amongst all the dark suits and Eton ties. But under all the trendy jargon and casual airs, he was the most pompous stuffed shirt in the whole Department.
'They think it's a cushy number in here, Bernard,' he said while stirring his coffee. 'They don't realize the way I have the Deputy Controller (Europe) breathing down my neck and endless meetings with every damned committee in the building.'
Even Cruyer's complaints were contrived to show the world how important he was. But he smiled to let me know how well he endured his troubles. He had his coffee served in a fine Spode china cup and saucer, and he stirred it with a silver spoon. On the mahogany tray there was another Spode cup and saucer, a matching sugar bowl, and a silver creamer fashioned in the shape of a cow. It was a valuable antique - Dicky had told me that many times - and at night it was locked in the secure filing cabinet, together with the log and the current carbons of the mail. 'They think it's all lunches at the Mirabelle and a fine with the boss.'
Dicky always said fine rather than brandy or cognac. Fiona told me he'd been saying it ever since he was president of the Oxford University Food and Wine Society as an undergraduate. Dicky's image as a gourmet was not easy to reconcile with his figure, for he was a thin man, with thin arms, thin legs and thin bony hands and fingers, with one of which he continually touched his thin bloodless lips. It was a nervous gesture, provoked, said some people, by the hostility around him. This was nonsense of course, but I did dislike the little creep, I will admit that.
He sipped his coffee and then tasted it carefully, moving his lips while staring at me as if I might have come to sell him the year's crop. 'It's just a shade bitter, don't you think, Bernard?'