Celebrated espionage novelist John le Carré is the pen name of David Cornwall, who drew on his experiences as a spy for British intelligence services to write more than two dozen thrillers, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). Cornwall adopted the pseudonym because intelligence officers weren’t allowed to use their actual names. When The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) became an international bestseller, he quit his day job to focus on writing full time, publishing more than two-dozen thrillers.
In the ancient German city of Lübeck there was no finer grocer than Herr Koorp. He lived with his narrow wife in a narrow street where gables touched like inquisitive noses. His shop smelled of spices and good traditions, of smoked ham and reverent prosperity. At Christmas he put marzipan pigs in the window, and, at Easter, wheaten cakes and a loaf of bread thickly varnished with egg yolk. On Saturdays he walked up the narrow street from his shop to his new aluminum garage; there, with a soft leather, he would clean his fine Mercedes car.
It was a Mercedes of unusual build — a Mercedes with a wooden back like a cupboard. He used it to deliver groceries to all the fine people in Lübeck: to the senators, the mayor, to the lawyers and merchants, and they recognized his worth because he had a fine Mercedes.
On Sunday mornings he wore a black hat with the brim turned up all around, and he floated to church on his wife’s thin arm. On Sunday evenings he drove to the soccer match or to the meeting of refugees from the lost territories of the East. He was a fat, glossy, tidy man, quite nimble. His hands, when not in use, curled lightly inward, thumb and middle finger touching as if they were holding a needle. When they wrapped your coffee they deftly flicked the package round and round, and you wondered at the delicacy of such a large man.
Sometimes — once or twice a year, perhaps — he would make a speech to a gathering of refugees in Lübeck. He would stand alone on the big Gothic platform between the electric candles, while his wife, her thin body pressed into the white ruffs and stiff lace of her Silesian costume, sat below him, as in church, with the leading citizens of Lübeck.
His speech never varied. First (with indignation) he referred to the loss of his homeland; then (with discernible grief) to the plight of his father and his sister, who still lived in the East. Did not his sister write weekly begging for good Western coffee and the comfort of a warm coat? Had not his father applied innumerable times to be united with his fortunate son in Lübeck? Herr Koorp’s protest over, he made (with ominous vigor) his claim. He was demanding, he would say, for all German people what was already the right of the most minor African tribe: self-determination. And the German people, he would have them know, was no mere African tribe. When he sat down, the leading citizens of Lübeck applauded, and his wife’s narrow face brightened with color, and her eyes shone as if from the cold. Herr Koorp was making his mark.
He was a meticulous man: meticulous as he took his knife and beheaded his egg at twenty minutes past eight that morning in early January; meticulous as he put down his spoon and with surgical precision slit open the letter from Mohndorf with the picture of Ulbricht on the stamp.
“It’s from your sister,” his wife said.
“Begging, I suppose,” Herr Koorp replied. He read a line.
“They’re never afraid of asking,” his wife said.
“It’s about Father,” he said.
“I suppose he’s ill,” his wife said. Her father-in-law was capable of almost any act of inconsideration.
Herr Koorp laid the letter beside the open egg. “He’s dead,” Herr Koorp said, and glanced on the commercial calendar hanging on the newly papered wall. “He’s been dead three days.”
On Sunday mornings he wore a black hat with the brim turned up all around, and he floated to church on his wife’s thin arm.
He began crying, little-boy tears, holding the letter away from him. There were several pages, and he had not even finished the first. Frau Koorp took the letter from him and read it. She read it once slowly, as if she were checking figures, then suspiciously, as if it were a devious legal document, then a third time, but distractedly, as an aid to other thoughts. “He wants to be buried over here,” she said. “In Lübeck,” she added. “He wants us to do it.” She took a sip of coffee. “He wants a grave in Western soil. It was his dying wish.”
She looked out of the window at the tall roofs of Lübeck. Standing up, Herr Koorp wiped his chin and walked into his shop. “It’s a tragedy,” he said. Beside the till was a rack of ties, a special line he had recently introduced as an experiment. Such things were often worth a try at Christmas. They were priced at twelve marks eighty. He selected a black one, counted the money from his purse into the till (for he was a meticulous man who liked everything in order), and returned to the dining room. “From now on,” he said, “we’re in mourning.” He might have been launching a ship.
“He wants to be buried here,” his wife said again. Herr Koorp sat down limply, his thoughts upon his youth.
“He wants to be buried here,” she repeated.
“It would never be allowed,” Herr Koorp replied, hearing her for the first time. “Too many formalities.” He shook his head. “It’s too late.”
She said nothing.
“Winter transport is unreliable. The train would be delayed at the border,” he said, and she, his ally for once, echoed, “A train would be most unreliable.”
“We must send some flowers,” Herr Koorp declared, making an end of the matter, and with a sigh returned to his egg before it was entirely cold.
“He could come by car,” Frau Koorp suggested.
“Never get permission. It would take weeks to get permission. Poor man.” He swallowed some egg, mournfully, filled with a sense of loss. “It wouldn’t be legal,” he said, for Herr Koorp was a meticulous man and valued the law highly.
“If we had the funeral in Lübeck,” Frau Koorp continued with a musing, reminiscent expression much softer than her usual scowl, “everyone would come.” Her eyes were on the roofs of Lübeck. “The senate. The mayor. The corporations. The societies. All the refugees would come. It would be a patriotic duty. They’d have flags,” she said. “They’d have a band. All Lübeck would come. Your father would be treated as a hero, do you realize that? And so would you,” she said, “if you went and fetched him.”
“Fetch him? Fetch him from Mohndorf?” Herr Koorp had shaken off his grief. “You’re mad!” he said. “You’re absolutely mad!”
She would not help him that morning. She left him to rant alone, to goad himself, her back turned to him while she studied the roofs of Lübeck.
“You’re off your head,” Herr Koorp said. “You know nothing. I told you: They’d have to apply! You know nothing of conditions over there! Take the car to Mohndorf? The Mercedes? The authorities would never give permission.”
“Your sister suggests it. Your sister writes it in the letter. She’s made the application.”
“Made an application? Christina made an application without my knowledge? She expects me to drive. … Who does she think she is?” he shouted, and banged his flat hand on the table. “Ordering me about; making applications in my name? Three hundred kilometers on rotten roads? On icy, rotten roads? In January? For a body? Has she forgotten we are free over here?”
“No one is free,” his wife replied, “when duty is involved.” She stabbed the letter with her finger. “Duty to the dead,” she said, and whispered to the roofs: “They make a wreath. I’ve seen them. Two or three meters high. From all the refugees. They come in costume,” she said. “I can wear my costume. Everyone comes.” She turned to face him. “You go and get him,” she said with absolute assurance. “Bring him here to me. In the Mercedes. You go today.”
“But the permission!” Herr Koorp screamed, taunted beyond bearing by the sheer romantic folly of a woman. “Do you not hear me? Permission has to be granted! By the Eastern authorities! It could take weeks! Months!”
“They’ve already granted it. Your sister says so in the letter.”
After a very long time Herr Koorp said, “Who’ll look after the shop?” The bluster had quite gone.
“Close it,” she said. “Out of respect. Respect for the dead. You said it yourself: We’re in mourning.”
It was nightfall when Herr Koorp arrived in Mohndorf. The town where his childhood was had not changed for thirty years. He reversed along the cobblestone street and parked in the familiar alley. As he got out of the Mercedes he looked at the house and the one light burning in the upstairs window, where his father’s bedroom was. They had draped the entrance to the house with bunting, blackout material from the war. The alley was quiet as a field. The people might have been forbidden the streets, but he felt the eyes of his neighbors upon him and guessed the secret faces looking out.
They’ve probably never seen a Mercedes, he thought.
He should have brought things for the family. He should have brought them coffee and chocolate and soap and all the things that had mattered in the war and mattered still in this shabby, backward town. The journey had gone far better than he had dared expect. It was relaxing with so little traffic. Especially in the Mercedes. Nor was he as frightened as he thought he’d be — so rich among the poor.
He pressed the bell and heard nothing, so he banged the knocker. The paint was peeling from the door; as he knocked, flakes settled like snow on the steps. It’s a disgrace, he thought — my own front door. That was his sister. Christina: sloppy, no sense of order.
He heard her footsteps coming toward the door. I’ll take him tonight, he thought. I’m not going to sleep in this place; it’s certain to be damp. Open shop tomorrow; can’t afford to lose trade. That’s what he’d tell her, not that she’d understand. Christina had never given a damn for money. No respect for property, that was her trouble. She’s just like a Communist, he thought. No wish to better herself. But it wasn’t Christina who opened the door.
He knelt beside the bed, the tears breaking, and bowed his head to the smooth linen sheet.
It was Dr. Sandel, Klaus Sandel. The same thoughtful child he’d sat with at school, the same baby face and unruly hair. “Well done,” the doctor said, keeping his voice low. “Well done,” he repeated, shaking Koorp’s wet hand and closing the door quickly to keep the cold away. “Did you have difficulty?” he asked. He helped Koorp out of his coat, stroking the lapel enviously with his hand. “No trouble at the border?” he asked.
“No trouble,” Koorp replied. The hall, the parlor, the kitchen — all were in darkness.
“Where is she?”
“Upstairs,” the doctor said. “She doesn’t like to leave him.”
“There three days?” asked Koorp. “She’s been with him three days?”
“All the time,” the doctor said, and led the way upstairs.
Three days, Koorp thought. She’d never shown her father that much respect before. They stopped in front of the closed door; a single light burned over the landing.
“What about you?” Koorp said suddenly.
“I?” Doctor Sandel asked.
“What are you doing here?”
“Helping,” Doctor Sandel said. “As any friend would.”
“Have you been here three days too?”
“Off and on.”
“You ought to marry her,” Koorp said. “It isn’t respectable after all this time. Was it his heart?” Koorp himself suffered from passing pains in the chest.
“His heart was always bad,” the doctor replied.
“Did you know he was dying?”
“Of course,” the doctor said.
“How else would he have told us about the funeral?” He was not looking at Koorp anymore, but at his own hand upon the handle of the door.
“You ought to marry her,” Koorp repeated. “You owe it to her.”
Sandel opened the door.
The candles were at the head of the bed, one on each side of the old man. He was dressed in his black suit, the suit he wore for weddings. His hands were on his breast, like an effigy. They must have shaved him, Koorp thought; his face is all smooth, like a child’s. Christina was in the rocking chair beside the window. She was wearing her everyday clothes, an old khaki dress and long, ribbed socks like a schoolgirl’s. “If it isn’t Dietrich.” she said. She had never grown up, of course.
He knelt beside the bed, the tears breaking, and bowed his head to the smooth linen sheet. I’ve deserved this, he thought. I treated him badly. I was selfish and mean, and I shall be next if the pains in my chest get worse. He felt a resentment that he had ever been born. He was frightened and moved. The tears were running on his knuckles; his heart was thumping against his ribs. I’m dying, he thought. It could be now. Tonight.
He heard Christina getting up and shuffling across the room. She never prayed like this, he thought, Christina and her atheist lover. He turned to look at her. She was standing beside Sandel, arm in arm. They were grinning, grinning at a stricken son who kneels at the body of his father. “You can laugh,” he said. “You never loved him.” As he spoke, he felt the movement of the bed and the sliding of the linen, and heard the creaking of the springs as his father sat up.
He saw it in fragments: the black trouser legs splayed on the white sheet, the stupid mouth half open, the stupid eyes alight. He felt it in fragments: the embrace, the soapy baby cheek, the clumsy hands caressing Koorp’s ample back, the tremble of the old frail body. He heard it in fragments: Christina’s laugh, then Sandel’s, then Christina again, and the old man’s wheeze like a tremble on a faulty piano wire. They had always laughed at Koorp; laughed at his cowardice and his precision, laughed at the cautious way he had preserved his clothes and polished his shoes and brushed his hair, and wrapped himself against the winter’s cold. They had laughed at his early dignity and his attachment to the law, laughed at his monetary caution. Laughing still, they guided and pushed him down the dark staircase, Christina running ahead with the candles to set them on the table for the feast.
And such a feast it was. He did not know that they could get such food. A whole ham, as good as any he had tasted in Lübeck. As good as any he had sold. Butter! God, how many times had they complained they had no butter? And the bread. It was sour, certainly, blacker than he cared for himself, but for the East more than adequate. They must have been buying on the black market especially for the occasion. They must have spent a fortune.
And how pleased they were with themselves; how cleverly they had worked out their plan! It was the old man who had thought of it; apparently thought of it all by himself. It must have been the first clever idea his stupid brain had ever conceived. It was so simple, he explained. Sandel had issued a death certificate. (And Sandel is the best doctor in the town! If Sandel says you are dead, you are certainly dead!) Christina had obtained an export license and a health certificate. “You see?” the old man said. “It was done all the time in the war. All sorts of things were smuggled in coffins. No one likes to look in a coffin.”
Koorp sat there, letting them talk.
“Why are you so gloomy?” the old man asked. “Would you rather have me dead?” The table shook to their laughter, and the candles flickered in the chill air.
“Don’t you want to take me back to Lübeck?”
“Of course he doesn’t,” Christina said. “It isn’t legal.”
“But he will,” Sandel said. Koorp remembered now: Sandel was a very arrogant young man. “He’s got to. They let him in to get a body. He can’t go home without one.”
“They’d say he was a spy.”
“An American saboteur!” Sandel said. They had drunk quite a lot by then. “It’s the only way out, Dietrich.”
“After all, Dietrich put us up to it, didn’t he?” Christina said. “That’s what they’re bound to say. They always do.” She poured out the wine, a half-glass only for her father because he was so fragile. “The wicked Westerner,” she said, “with his Mercedes. He put us up to it.”
The coffin fitted very nicely. They laid it with the head forward by the driving seat. “I want to be near the engine!” the old man had said. It was after midnight.
“You’ll have to open the coffin every half-hour,” Sandel said. “To let him breathe. You’ve got a screwdriver?”
No lights were burning in the town as Herr Koorp set off along the Western route. He didn’t see another car for hours.
The day broke gray and dark. Herr Koorp drove slowly at first, distrusting the night frost upon the cobblestones, then gradually increased his speed as his confidence returned. The Mercedes was running beautifully, sleek and straight despite the pitted surface, as if glad of the journey and the morning air, and glad of that bit of extra weight that kept the back wheels down. He had the heater on full.
“What’s the price of coffee over there?” the old man shouted from the coffin.
“Be quiet,” said Koorp. “You’ll run out of breath.”
“How much?” the old man shouted. “Brazil, Kenya — all blends, I hear! How much?”
“Be quiet,” Koorp repeated, and turned on the radio.
“It’s a beautiful box,” the old man said. “Lined with felt. And such a car! My son,” he shouted through the coffin, “and driving such a car!”
Yes, it was a fine car, Koorp thought. A credit to him, this car was. Unlike his father.
“I’ll get a hat,” the old man called. “One of those sailor’s caps with a shining peak, the kind they wear along the coast!”
And you’ll hang about, thought Koorp, turning up the radio. You’ll hang about the shop and make your common jokes, and tell the Frau Bürgermeister how I wet my diapers. You’ll drool down the alleys with your low-class ways and boast to the senators about your marvelous escape. And they’ll watch you: How you cut your potatoes with a knife, how you belch over your food, how there’s not an ounce of dignity or respect to your whole unwashed body. And you’ll be there. You’ll be there and alive, day and night, until you’re a hundred, drinking my drink; there for all of them to point at and say, “That’s Koorp Senior — the son runs the shop, you know. Young Koorp.” You’ll be there to laugh at my speeches and jeer at my indignation, to applaud when the others have stopped, to prod your own chest and say, “My boy! They’re clapping for my boy!” And God Almighty, he thought, veering on the road, what will my wife say?
“Have we stopped?” the old man asked.
“I want to look at the documents.”
“Turn the radio down. I can’t hear!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Koorp said, and drew from the glove compartment the folder of documents which Christina had carefully assembled. Health certificate, death certificate, export permit, letter of consent, receipt for personal papers. They’d done a thorough job. Good.
He felt fresh now. Acute. He wasn’t afraid. He felt fit, ready for orders, as in the war; he wanted to please someone, if only himself. He put the papers back.
“Sandel said you must open the lid.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Koorp said, and turned the radio up still louder.
“Dietrich, I’m too hot! It’s the heater, Dietrich. Turn off the heater!” And then: “Why do you make the music so loud?”
“What music?” Koorp said on an impulse. “I hear no music. What music?” he repeated, putting his face close to the coffin. “You old fool!” he shouted. “You’re hearing angels!”
He waited for an answer, but for a long time none came.
“Why don’t you open the lid?” the old man asked. His voice had lost its confidence. “Why are we waiting here?”
“I was having a rest,” Koorp said. “Before the border.”
A man must overcome his past, Koorp thought. He must improve himself, otherwise he’s a Communist. He would take a mistress when he got back. There was that girl at the riggingmaker’s shop, the plump one. He’d take her. He started the Mercedes.
God, what a car; she ran like a dream. A dream. She really liked the weight; she really liked the work.
“Dietrich, turn the heater off!”
There was a rest area short of the border. He’d stopped there on the way in, to recover his nerve after the checkpoint. Perhaps he might pull up there, listen to the radio. He turned off the headlights. It was bright now. A good day.
“For Christ’s sake, Dietrich!”
He drove in third gear for a while, the heater full on. This cold can be treacherous, he thought, if one isn’t used to it. He liked the music. That was the thing about the East: They played damn good music, military music, tunes he remembered. A soldier was somebody over here; Koorp would admit that. Even those frontier guards on the way in; there was no getting round them. Boys, of course, lads, but remote. You felt the authority. There was no taking them lightly, not like the Bundeswehr. As a matter of fact he rather admired those boys who’d checked his pass. Politics apart, of course. Here: He’d marched to this one. Tra–lum–da–da.
He slowed down, changed into second, and continued for four kilometers until he came to the rest area. He wouldn’t cross over. Not yet. Have a nice rest and a think. It does you good, a rest. There was no one else about. No traffic. Thirty-one kilometers to the border. There would be the first check as he entered the strip, and the second as he actually came to the border. One thing you could say about those frontier guards. They knew their job. They weren’t going to make any mistakes or be fooled, for instance, by a wartime ruse.
He wiped the sweat from his face. The heater was really going now, with the blower on maximum. He’d take off his coat. His thick, silky coat that Sandel had admired so. Where could he put it, now? Put it so that it didn’t crease or spoil or lie on the floor? He spread it carefully over the coffin. Yes, that was the place. He set off again but kept the car in second. The heat was hard to bear. But he needed the heat, of course, on such a cold day, now that he’d taken off his coat to lend to his old father. Dietrich, indeed! Dieter — that’s what his important friends in Lübeck called him — Dieter Koorp, man of substance, grocer of our city, orator of our agony, owner of a Mercedes. A man must shake off his heritage, overcome his past. Dietrich? Who called him Dietrich these days? Who would have the gall to do a thing like that? Somebody a long way off. Somebody the wrong side of the border. Somebody who ought to be dead.
The frontier guards were quite courteous as they checked his papers: health certificate, death certificate, export permit, letter of consent. “We ought to look inside,” the young one said.
“Leave him alone,” said the corporal. But the young one was a sergeant, and he fetched a screwdriver.
“God, the screws are tight,” the young one said.
“It’s to keep the air out,” Koorp explained. “He’s four days dead already.”
The sergeant touched the old man. “He’s still warm,” he said.
“It’s the heater,” Koorp explained. “The Mercedes has a wonderful heater. He’s been dead these four days already.”
They looked at the papers and then at the body once more. They had authority, those frontier guards, although the sergeant was so young. “You wouldn’t have thought he’d look so fresh,” the sergeant muttered, “after four full days.”
Herr Koorp did not reply. The tears were running down his cheeks again. A man feels for his father.
—January 28, 1967
Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of The Estate of John le Carré. Copyright © John le Carré 1967
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