At 10 a.m. on a rain-lashed morning in London’s West End, a young woman in a loose-fitting anorak and a woolen scarf wrapped around her head stepped purposefully into the storm raging down South Audley Street. Her name was Lily and she was in a state of emotional anxiety that at times turned to outrage. With one gloved hand she shielded her eyes from the rain as she scowled at the door numbers, and with the other she steered a plastic-covered stroller that contained her two-year-old son, Sam. Some houses were so big that they had no numbers. Others had numbers but they belonged to the wrong street.
Arriving at a pretentious door with her number painted with unusual clarity on a pillar, she climbed the steps back, dragging the stroller behind her, frowned at a list of names next to the owners’ bell buttons, and pressed the lowest.
“Just give the door a shove, my dear,” a gentle female voice advised over the speaker.
“I need Proctor. Said Proctor or no one, ”Lily said, back.
“Stewart’s on his way now, dear,” the same reassuring voice announced, and seconds later the front door swung open to reveal a burly, bespectacled man in his 50s, with a left lean body and a head long and sloping beak. in a semi-humorous investigation. A matronly woman with white hair and a cardigan stood at her shoulder.
I am Proctor. Do you want a hand with that? he asked, looking into the stroller.
“How do I know it’s you?” Lily demanded in response.
“Because his revered mother called me last night on my private number and urged me to be here.”
“She said alone,” Lily objected, frowning at the matron.
“Marie takes care of the house. She is also happy to give any kind of spare hand if needed, ”Proctor said.
The matron took a step forward, but Lily shrugged and Proctor closed the door behind her. In the silence of the entrance hall, he removed the plastic cover until the top of the sleeping boy’s head was revealed. His hair was black and curly, his expression enviable contented.
“He was up all night,” Lily said, putting a hand on the boy’s forehead.
“Beautiful,” said the Marie woman.
Steering the stroller down the stairway where it was darkest, Lily reached down to its bottom and pulled out a large unmarked white envelope and stood before Proctor. His half smile reminded her of an elderly priest to whom he was supposed to confess his sins at boarding school. He had not liked the school and he had not liked the priest and he had no intention of liking Proctor now.
“I’m supposed to sit here and wait while you read it,” he informed her.
“Of course you are,” Proctor agreed kindly, looking at her crookedly through his glasses. “And can I also say that I am very, very sorry?”
“If you get a message back, I’ll give it by mouth,” he said. “She doesn’t want phone calls, texts or emails. Not from the Service or anyone else. Including you. “
“That is very sad too,” Proctor remarked after a moment of gloomy reflection, and, as if only now realizing the envelope in his hand, he speculatively touched it with his bony fingers: “Quite an opus, I must say. How many pages do you think? “
“I dont know.”
“Home stationery?” – still clicking – “It can’t be. Nobody has stationery this size. Just plain typing paper, I guess. “
“I have not seen the inside. I told you.”
“Of course I do. Well,” with a comical smirk that momentarily disarmed her, “to work, then. Looks like a long read awaits me. Will you excuse me if I withdraw?
In a desolate living room across the entry hall, Lily and Marie sat across from each other in bulky tartan chairs with wooden arms. On a striped glass table between them was a tin tray with a thermos of coffee and chocolate digestive biscuits. Lily had rejected both of them.
“So how is she doing?” Marie asked.
“As well as can be expected, thank you. When you are dying. “
“Yes, everything is horrible, of course. It is always. But in her spirit, how is she?
It has its marbles, if that’s what you mean. He doesn’t take morphine, he can’t stand it. He comes to dinner when he can. “
“And you still enjoy your food I hope?”
Proctor’s room was small and dark, with filthy, very thick mesh curtains. It was placed on the back wall. Lily didn’t like the expression on his face.
Unable to bear any more of this, Lily marched into the hallway and took care of Sam until Proctor appeared. Her room was smaller than the first and darker, with filthy, very thick net curtains. Worried about maintaining a respectful distance between them, Proctor stood by a radiator on the far wall. Lily didn’t like the expression on his face. You are the oncologist at Ipswich Hospital and what you are going to say is only for close relatives. You’re going to tell me he’s dying, but I know, what’s left?
“I’m assuming you know what your mother’s letter says,” Proctor began flatly, sounding no longer like the priest he wouldn’t confess to, but like someone much more real. And watching her prepare for denial: “Your general impulse anyway, if not its actual content.”
“I already told you,” Lily snapped. “Not his general drive or anything else. Mom didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask. “
It’s the game we used to play in the bedroom: how long can you stare at the other girl without blinking or smiling?
“All right, Lily, let’s look at it another way,” Proctor suggested with outrageous indulgence. “You don’t know what is in the letter. You don’t know what it is about. But you have told this or that friend that you were coming to London to deliver it. So who did you tell? Because we really need to know. “
“I haven’t said a single damn word to anyone,” Lily said, straight to the blank face across the room. “Mom said no, so I didn’t.”
“I know very little about your personal circumstances. But what little I do know tells me that you must have a partner of some kind. What did you say to him? Or if it’s her, for her? You can’t just disappear from your affected home for a day without offering an excuse of some kind. What more humane to say, by the way, to a boyfriend, girlfriend, friend, even some casual acquaintance, ‘Guess what? Am I going to London to personally deliver a super secret letter to my mother?
“Are you telling me that this is human? For us? Talk to each other like that? A casual acquaintance? What’s human is that Mom said she didn’t want me to tell a living soul, so I didn’t. Also, I am indoctrinated. By your luck. I am registered. Three years ago they pointed a gun at my head and told me I was old enough to keep a secret. Also, I don’t have a partner and I don’t have a ton of friends to talk to. “
The game of looks again.
“And I didn’t tell my dad, if that’s what you’re asking,” he added, in a tone that sounded more like a confession.
“Did your mother stipulate that you shouldn’t tell her?” Proctor asked, rather harshly.
“She didn’t say I should, so I didn’t. That’s us. That is our house. We surround ourselves on tiptoe. Maybe your home will do the same. “
“Then tell me if you like,” Proctor continued, putting aside what his family did or did not do. “Just for interest. What apparent reason did you give for coming to London today?
“You mean what my cover story is?”
Three years ago they pointed a gun at my head and told me I was old enough to keep a secret.
The gaunt face across the room lit up.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Proctor conceded, as if the cover story was a new concept to him, and quite funny too.
“We are looking for a nursery school in our area. Near my house in Bloomsbury. To put Sam on the list by the time he’s three. “
“Admirable. And are you really going to do that? Looking at a real school? You and Sam? Know the staff and so on? Jot down his name? Proctor, the concerned guy now, and quite convincing.”
“Depends on how Sam is when I can get him out of here.”
“Please manage it if you can,” urged Proctor. “Makes it so much easier when I get back.”
“Easier? What’s easier? – joking again -” You mean it’s easier to lie?
“I mean, it’s easier not to lie,” Proctor corrected seriously. “If you say that you and Sam are going to visit a school and visit it, and then you go home and say that you have visited, where is the lie? You’re already under enough stress. I can hardly imagine how you put up with it all. “
For a disconcerting moment, she knew he meant it.
“So the question remains,” Proctor continued, getting back to the point, “what answer should I ask you to give your extremely brave mom? Because you owe him one. And you must have it. “
He paused as if expecting a little help from her. Not receiving any, he continued.
“And, like you said, it can only be orally. And you will have to manage it alone. Lily, I’m so sorry. I can start? It started anyway. “Our answer is an immediate yes to everything. So three yeses in all. Your message has been taken seriously. Your concerns will be acted upon. All its conditions will be fulfilled in their entirety. Can you remember all that?
“I can do the little words.”
And of course, thank you very much for your courage and loyalty. And for yours too, Lily. Again. Very sorry.”
“What about my father? What am I supposed to tell him?” Lily demanded, not appeased.
That comical smile, once again, like a warning light.
“Yes, hm. You can tell him all about the nursery you’re going to visit, right? After all, that’s why you came to London today. “
With raindrops spitting her off the sidewalk, Lily continued to drive up Mount Street, where she hailed a taxi and ordered the driver to take her to Liverpool Street Station. Perhaps he really did intend to visit the school. She no longer knew. Perhaps he had announced it last night, although he doubted it, because by then he had already decided that he would not explain to anyone again. Or maybe the idea hadn’t occurred to him until Proctor squeezed it out of him. All he knew was that he wasn’t going to visit any goddamn schools for Proctor’s sake. To hell with that, and dying mothers and their secrets, and all that.
This is an excerpt from Silverview, by John le Carré, published by Penguin Books on October 14 at £ 20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.