“They told me I was old enough to keep a secret”: An exclusive excerpt from Silverview, the latest novel by John Le Carré | John Le Carré
At ten o’clock on a rainy morning in London’s West End, a young woman, in a wide woolen scarf around her head, strode steadily into the storm that was blowing on South Odley Street. Her name was Lily and she was in a state of emotional anxiety that in moments turned into anger. With one glove, she shielded her eyes from the rain while glaring at the door numbers, and with the other hand she drove a plastic-covered pushchair containing her two-year-old son, Sam. Some of the houses were so big that they had no numbers at all. Others had numbers but they belonged on the wrong street.
Reaching a pretentious entrance with his number drawn unusually clearly on a pillar, she climbed the steps back, pulled the push-chair after her, smiled at the list of names beside the owners’ bell buttons, and pressed their bottom.
A gentle woman’s voice over the speaker advised her, “Just push the door, honey.”
“I need a Proctor. Lily said, straight back,” said Proctor or no one.
“Stuart is on his way now, my dear,” declared the same soothing voice, and seconds later the front door opened to reveal a bespectacled man in his mid-fifties, with a left tilt to his body, and a long-beaked head tilted in semi-humorous inquiry. At his shoulder stood a graceful woman with white hair and a cardigan.
“I’m Proctor. Do you want to help with that?” he asked, staring at the pushchair.
“How do I know it’s you?” Laila demanded a response.
“Because your esteemed mother called me last night on my private number and urged me to be here.”
“She said alone,” Lily objected, frowning at the graceful woman.
“Mary takes care of the house. She is also happy to offer any kind of spare hand if needed,” Proctor said.
The graceful woman stepped forward but Lily shook her away, and Proctor closed the door after her. In the quiet of the hallway, she rolled the plastic cover until the top of the sleeping boy’s head was revealed. His hair was curly black, and his expression was enviable.
“He’s been up all night,” Lily said, placing her hand on the child’s forehead.
“Beautiful,” said Mary.
Lily steered the push-chair down the stairs where it was darker, went into its underside and took out a large, unmarked white envelope and stood by herself before Proctor. His half smile reminded her of an elderly priest to whom she was supposed to confess her sins at a boarding school. She didn’t like school, she didn’t like the priest, and she didn’t intend to love Proctor now.
“I’m supposed to sit here and wait for you to read it,” she told him.
“Of course you are,” Proctor happily agreed, staring warply at her through his glasses. “And can I also say, I am very, very sorry?”
“If I receive a letter, I will give it to her orally,” she said. “She doesn’t want phone calls, texts, or emails. Not from the service or anyone. Including you.”
“That too sad,” Proctor remarked, after a moment of sombre contemplation, and, as if now roused by the envelope he was holding in his hand, he stabbed it with his bony fingers musing: It must be said. How many pages, do you think? “
“I do not know.”
“Home stationery?” – Still a badass – “It can’t be. Nobody has home stationery that big. I guess just plain writing paper.”
“I didn’t see inside. I told you.”
“Of course I did. Well”—with a comically little smile I temporarily disarmed her—“To work then. It seems as though I am in the process of reading a long time. Will you excuse me if I withdraw?”
In a barren sitting room across from the entrance, Lily and Mary sat facing each other in tartan chairs lumped with wooden arms. On a scratched glass table between them lay a tin tray with a coffee thermos and digestive chocolate biscuits. Lilly rejected both.
“how is she?” Mary asked.
“As might be expected, thanks. When you are dying.”
“Yes, it is all ugly of course. It always is. But how is she in her spirit?”
“You’ve got the balls, if that’s what you mean. Morphine doesn’t work, it doesn’t hold up with it. Come to dinner when you can manage.”
“And you still enjoy her food, I hope?”
Proctor’s room was small and dark, with very filthy and thick net curtains. He put himself on the far wall. Lily didn’t like his face combination
Unable to bear any more of this, Lily hurried into the hall and occupied herself with Sam until Proctor showed up. His room was smaller than the first, darker, filthy net curtains, and very thick. Keen to keep a respectful distance between them, Proctor positioned himself next to a radiator on the far wall. Lily did not like the set of his face. You are the oncologist at Ipswich Hospital, and what you will say is only to close family. She’ll tell me she’s dying, but I know that, so what’s left?
“I take it you know what your mother’s letter says,” Proctor began emphatically, no longer sounding like a priest you wouldn’t admit, but someone more real. And seeing it poised for denial: “its general orientation anyway, if not its actual content.”
Lily replied harshly: “I already told you.” “Not the general orientation or anything else. My mom didn’t tell me nor did I ask.”
It’s the game we used to play in the dormitory: How long can you stare at the other girl without blinking or smiling?
“Well, Lily, let’s look at it another way,” Proctor suggested with infuriating tolerance. “You don’t know what’s in the letter. You don’t know what it’s about. But you told this or that friend that you were coming to London to deliver it. So who did you say? Because we really need to know.”
“I haven’t told anyone a single silly word,” Lily said straight into an expressionless face across the room. “My mom said no, so I didn’t.”
“What or what?”
“I know very little of your personal circumstances. But what little I know tells me that you must have a partner of some kind. What did you say to him? Or if it was hers? You cannot simply disappear from your stricken family for a day without making an excuse of some kind. What is more humane than to say, by the way, to a friend, girlfriend, friend – even to some casual acquaintance – “Guess what? I’m heading to London to hand-deliver a super-secret letter to my mom? “
“You’re telling me this is a human? Us? To talk like this to each other? To a casual acquaintance? What is a human?” said Mom, she doesn’t want me to tell a living soul, so I didn’t. Plus I grabbed the creed. By your lot I signed up. Three years ago, they held a gun to my head and told me I was old enough to keep a secret. Plus I don’t have a partner, and I don’t have a bunch of girl girlfriends that I do.”
Stare game again.
“And I didn’t tell my dad either, if that’s what you’re asking,” she added, in a tone that sounded like a confession.
“Did your mother stipulate that you not tell him?” asked Proctor, even more acutely.
“You didn’t say I had to, so I didn’t. This is us. This is our house. We run each other. Maybe your family does the same.”
“Tell me then, if you like,” Proctor continued, leaving aside what his family did or did not do. “Just for interest. What apparent reason did you give for appearing in London today? “
“You mean what’s my cover story?”
Three years ago, they held a gun to my head and told me I was old enough to keep a secret
The gaunt face shone across the room.
“Yes, I suppose I do,” Proctor admitted, as if the cover story was a new concept to him, and somewhat fun at that.
“We are looking at a nursery in our area. Near my board in Bloomsbury. To have Sam on the list when he is three.”
“interesting. And will you actually do that? Looking at a real school? Are you Sam? to meet the staff and so on? get his name? – Proctor is now a concerned uncle, and he is very persuasive.
“It depends on Sam’s condition when I can get him out of here.”
“Please manage it if you can,” Proctor urged. “It makes it so much easier when you come back.”
“Easiest? What’s easier?” – bridle again – “Do you mean lying is easier?”
Proctor seriously corrected it: “I mean, it’s easier not to lie.” “If you say you and Sam are going to visit a school and you visit, and then you come home and say you have visited, then where is the lie? You are under enough pressure as it is. I can hardly imagine how you can bear all that.”
For an awkward moment, I knew he meant it.
‘So the question remains,’ continued Proctor, returning to work, ‘what response shall I ask of you to return to your very brave mother? For she owes one. And you shall have it.’
He paused as if hoping to get a little help from her. He received nothing, and continued.
“And like I said, it can only be oral. And you’ll have to manage it on your own. Lily, I’m really sorry. Can I start?” He started anyway. “Our answer is an immediate yes to everything. Up to three years in all. Her message has been taken seriously. Her concerns will be dealt with. All her conditions will be fully met. Can you remember all of that?”
“I can do little words.”
“And of course, a big thank you to her for her courage and loyalty. And for you too, Lily. Once again. I’m so sorry.”
“And dad? What should I tell him?” Lily student, dissatisfied
That comical smile, again, like a warning light.
“Yes, well. You can tell him all about the nursery you are going to visit, right? After all, that is why you came to London today.”
Spitting raindrops on her from the sidewalk, Lilly continued to Mount Street, where she stopped a taxi and ordered the driver to take her to Liverpool Street Station. Maybe she really meant to visit the school. You no longer know. She might have announced it last night, though she was suspicious of it, because by then she had decided she would never explain herself to anyone again. Or maybe the idea didn’t come to her until Proctor pulled it out of her. The only thing she knew was that she would not visit any bloody school for Proctor. To hell, dying mothers and their secrets, and all that.
This is an excerpt from Silverview, by John le Carré, published by Penguin Books on 14 October at £20. To support Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.