Hide away in Cairo with this spy thriller masterpiece
Hide away in Cairo with this spy thriller masterpiece
Jonathan is driving and Sophie’s pulped face is partly hidden by a headscarf and dark glasses. Cairo is not yet awake. The red of dawn is colouring the dusty sky. To smuggle her out of the hotel and into his car, the undercover soldier had taken every precaution. He set out for the pyramids, not knowing she had a different spectacle in mind. ‘No,’ she says. ‘Go that way.’ A fetid oozing pillow of filth hangs over the crumbling tombs of Cairo’s city cemetery. On a moonscape of smoking cinders amid shanties of plastic bags and tin cans, the wretched of the earth are crouched like technicolour vultures picking through the garbage. He parks the car on a sand verge. Lorries thunder past them on their way to and from the rubbish dump, leaving stink in their wake.
‘This is where I brought him,’ she says. One side of her mouth is ridiculously swollen. She speaks through a hole in the other side.
‘Why?’ says Jonathan – meaning, why are you now bringing me?
‘“Look at these people, Freddie,” I told him. “Each time someone sells weapons to another tinpot Arab tyrant, these people starve a little more. Do you know the reason? Listen to me, Freddie. Because it is more fun to have a pretty army than to feed the starving. You are an Arab, Freddie. Never mind that we Egyptians say we are not Arabs. We are Arabs. Is it right that your Arab brothers should be the flesh to pay for your dreams?”’
‘I see,’ says Jonathan, with the embarrassment of an Englishman when faced with political emotion.
‘We do not need leaders,” I said. “The next great Arab will be a humble craftsman. He will make things work, and give the people dignity instead of war. He will be an administrator, not a warrior. He will be like you, Freddie, as you could be if you grew up.”’
‘What did Freddie say?’ says Jonathan. Her smashed features accuse him every time he looks at them. The bruises round her eyes are turning to blue and yellow.
‘He told me to mind my own business.’ He catches the choke of fury in her voice and his heart sinks further. ‘I told him it was my business! Life and death are my business! Arabs are my business! He was my business!
And you warned him, he thinks, sickened. You let him know you were a force to be reckoned with, not a weak woman to be discarded at his whim. You let him guess that you too had your secret weapon and you threatened to do what I did, without knowing I’d done it already.
‘The Egyptian authorities will not touch him,’ she says. ‘He bribes them and they keep their distance.’
‘Leave town,’ Jonathan tells her. ‘You know what the Hamids are like. Get out.’
‘The Hamids can have me killed as easily in Paris as in Cairo.’
‘Tell Freddie he must help you. Make him stick up for you against his brothers.’
‘Freddie is frightened of me. When he is not being brave he is a coward. Why are you staring at the traffic?’
Because it’s all there is to stare at apart from you and the wretched of the earth.
But she does not wait for an answer. Perhaps deep down this student of male weakness understands his shame.
‘I should like some coffee, please. Egyptian.’ And the brave smile that hurts him more than all the recrimination in the world.
He gives her coffee in a street market and drives her back to the hotel car park. He telephones the Ogilveys’ house and gets the maid. ‘Him out,’ she shouts. What about Mrs Ogilvey? ‘Him not there.’ He telephones the Embassy. Him not there either. Him gone to Alexandria for regatta.
He telephones the yacht club to leave a message. A drugged male voice says there is no regatta today.
Jonathan telephones an American friend named Larry Kermody in Luxor – Larry, is that guest suite of yours empty?
He telephones Sophie. ‘An archaeologist friend of mine in Luxor has a spare flat,’ he says. ‘It’s in a place called the Chicago House. You’re welcome to use it for a week or two.’ He searches for humour in the silence. ‘It’s a kind of monk’s cell for visiting academics, stuck onto the back of the house, with its own bit of rooftop. Nobody need even know you’re there.’
‘Will you come also, Mr Pine?’
Jonathan does not allow himself a moment’s hesitation. ‘Can you dump your bodyguard?’
‘He has already dumped himself. Freddie has apparently decided I am not worth protecting.’
He telephones a travel agent who does business with the hotel, a beery-voiced Englishwoman called Stella. ‘Stella, listen. Two VIP guests, incognito, want to fly to Luxor tonight, expense no object. I know the whole place is shut up. I know there are no planes. What can you do?’
A long silence. Stella is psychic. Stella has been in Cairo too long: ‘Well, I know you’re very important, darling, but who’s the girl?’ And she gives a foul, wheezing laugh that chokes and whistles in Jonathan’s ear long after he has rung off.
The author's novels topped global bestseller lists in each decade from the 1960s onwards. He won widespread international acclaim as a humanitarian, as well as a literary giant, winning the Olof Palme Prize in 2020.
Published on October 17 2019, Agent Running in the Field will be le Carré’s 25th novel.
Alongside Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Shannon, Florence Pugh stars in The Little Drummer Girl, the latest adaptation of John le Carré’s thrilling novel of espionage and betrayal. Here she reads le Carré’s description of the character that she herself plays in the BBC series.