Quel Panama - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 25. Quel Panama!

In 1885, France’s gargantuan efforts to build a sea-level canal across the Darien ended in disaster. Small and large investors of every stamp were ruined. In consequence there arose across the country the pained cry of ‘Quel Panama!’ Whether the expression has endured in the French language is doubtful, but it speaks well for my own association with that beautiful country, which began in 1947 when my father Ronnie dispatched me to Paris to collect five hundred pounds from the Panamanian Ambassador to France, one Count Mario da Bernaschina, who occupied a sweet house in one of those elegant side roads off the Elysées that smell permanently of women’s scent.

It was evening when I arrived by appointment on the ambassadorial doorstep wearing my grey school suit, my hair brushed and parted. I was sixteen years old. The Ambassador, my father had advised me, was a first-class fellow and would be happy to settle a longstanding debt of honour. I wanted very much to believe him. Earlier in the day I had undertaken a similar errand to the George V Hotel, and it had not met with success. The hotel concierge, one Anatole, another first-class fellow, was looking after Ronnie’s golf clubs. I should slip Anatole ten pounds for himself - a massive sum in those days and virtually all the money that Ronnie had given me for the trip - and in return Anatole would hand me the clubs.

But Anatole, having pocketed the ten pounds and enquired tenderly after Ronnie’s health, regretted that, dearly as he would wish to release the clubs, he was under instructions from the management to withhold them until Ronnie paid his bill. A reverse-charge phone call to London had failed to resolve the matter.

God in Heaven, son, why didn’t you send for the manager? Do they think your old man wants to diddle them, or what?

Of course not, Father.

The front door to the elegant house was opened by the most desirable woman I had ever seen. I must have been standing one step beneath her, because in my memory she is smiling down on me like my angel redeemer. She was bare-shouldered, black-haired and wore a flimsy dress in layer after layer of chiffon that failed to disguise her shape. When you are sixteen, desirable women come in all ages. From today’s vantage point I would put her at a blossoming thirty-something.

‘You are Ronnie’s son?’ she asked incredulously.

She stood back to let me brush past her. Laying a hand on each of my shoulders, she scrutinized me playfully from head to toe under the hall light and seemed to find everything to her satisfaction.

‘And you have come to see Mario,’ she said.

If that’s all right, I said.

Her hands remained on my shoulders while her eyes of many colours continued to study me.

‘And you are still a boy,’ she remarked, as a kind of memo to herself.

The Count stood in his drawing room with his back to the fireplace, like every ambassador in every movie of the time: corpulent, in a velvet jacket, hands behind him and that perfect head of greying hair they all had - marcelledwe used to call it - and the curved handshake, man to man, although I’m still a boy.

The Countess - for so I have cast her - doesn’t ask me whether I drink alcohol, let alone whether I like daiquiri. My answer to both questions would anyway have been a truthless ‘yes’. She hands me a frosted glass with a speared cherry in it, and we all sit down in soft chairs and do a bit of ambassadorial small talk. Am I enjoying the city? Do I have many friends in Paris? A girlfriend perhaps? Mischievous wink. To which I no doubt give compelling and mendacious answers that make no mention of golf clubs or concierges, until a pause in the conversation tells me it’s time for me to broach the purpose of my visit which, as experience has already taught me, is best done from the side rather than head on.

‘And my father mentioned that you and he had a small matter of business to complete, sir,’ I suggest, hearing myself from a distance on account of the daiquiri.

I should here explain the nature of that small matter of business which, unlike so many of Ronnie’s deals, was simplicity itself. As a diplomat and a top ambassador, son - I am echoing the enthusiasm with which Ronnie had briefed me for my mission - the Count was immune from such tedious irritations as taxation and import duty. The Count could import what he wished, he could export what he wished. If someone, for instance, chose to send the Count a cask of unmatured, unbranded Scotch whisky at a couple of pence a pint under diplomatic immunity, and the Count were to bottle that whisky and ship it to Panama or wherever else he chose to ship it under diplomatic immunity, that was nobody’s business but his.

Equally, if the Count chose to export the said unmatured, unbranded whisky in bottles of a certain design - akin, let us imagine, to Dimple Haig, a popular brand of the day - that too was his good right, as was the choice of label and the description of the bottle’s contents. All that need concern me was that the Count should pay up - cash, son, no monkey business. Thus provided, I should treat myself to a nice mixed grill at Ronnie’s expense, keep the receipt, catch the first ferry next morning and come straight to his grand offices in the West End of London with the balance.

‘A matter of business, David?’ the Count repeated in the tone of my school housemaster. ‘What business can that be?’

‘The five hundred pounds you owe him, sir.’

I remember his puzzled smile, so forbearing. I remember the richly draped sofas and silky cushions, old mirrors and gold glint, and my Countess with her long legs crossed inside the layers of chiffon. The Count continued to survey me with a mixture of puzzlement and concern. So did my Countess. Then they surveyed each other as if to compare notes about what they’d surveyed.

‘Well, that’s a pity, David. Because when I heard you were coming to see me I rather hoped you might be bringing me a portion of the large sum of money I have invested in your dear father’s enterprises.’

I still don’t know how I responded to this startling reply, or whether I was as startled as I should have been. I remember briefly losing my sense of time and place, and I suppose this was partly induced by the daiquiri, and partly by the recognition that I had nothing to say and no right to be sitting in their drawing room, and that the best thing I could do was make my excuses and get out. Then I realized that I was alone in the room. After a while, my host and hostess returned. The Count’s smile was genial and relaxed. The Countess looked particularly pleased.

‘So, David,’ said the Count, as if all were forgiven. ‘Why don’t we go and have dinner and talk about something more pleasant?’

They had a favourite Russian restaurant fifty yards from the house. In my memory it is a tiny place and we are the only three people in it, save for a man in a baggy white shirt who plucked at a balalaika. Over dinner, while the Count talked about something more pleasant, the Countess kicked off a shoe and caressed my leg with her stockinged toe. On the tiny dance floor she sang ‘Dark Eyes’ to me, holding the length of me against her and nibbling my earlobe while she flirted with the balalaika man and the Count looked indulgently on. On our return to the table the Count decided that we were ready for bed. The Countess, by a squeeze of my hand, seconded the motion.

My memory has spared me the excuses I made, but somehow I made them. Somehow I found myself a bench in a park, and somehow I contrived to remain the boy she had declared me to be. Decades later, finding myself alone in Paris, I tried to seek out the very street, the house, the restaurant. But by then, no reality would have done them justice.

Now I am not pretending that it was the magnetic force of the Count and Countess that half a century later drew me to Panama for the space of two novels and one movie; merely that the recollection of that sensuous, unfulfilled night remained lodged in my memory, if only as one of the near-misses of interminable adolescence. Within days of my arrival in Panama City I was enquiring after the name. Bernaschina? Nobody had heard of the fellow. A Count?From Panama? It seemed most improbable. Maybe I had dreamed the whole thing? I hadn’t.

I had come to Panama to research a novel. Unusually, it already had a title: The Night Manager. I was looking for the sort of crooks, smooth talkers and dirty deals that would brighten the life of an amoral English arms seller named Richard Onslow Roper. Roper would be a high-flyer where my father Ronnie had been a low one who frequently crashed. Ronnie had tried selling arms in Indonesia and gone to jail for it. Roper was too big to fail, until he met his destiny in the shape of a former Special Forces soldier turned hotel night manager named Jonathan Pine.

With Pine as my secret sharer, I had found a hideaway for Pine and his mistress amid the splendours of Luxor; explored the luxury hotels of Cairo and Zurich, and the forests and goldmines of northern Quebec province; thence to Miami to seek the advice of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, who assured me that there was no finer place for Roper to go about a drugs-for-arms deal than Panama’s free zone of Colón at the western gateway to the Canal. In Colón, they said, Roper could be assured of all the official inattention his project demanded.

And if Roper wished to stage an ostentatious demonstration of his wares without arousing needless interest? I asked. Panama again, they said. Go for the central mountains. Nobody asks questions up there.

In a dripping Panamanian hill forest near the Costa Rican border, an American military adviser - now retired, he insists - gives me the tour of a grisly encampment where CIA instructors once trained the Special Forces of half-a-dozen Central American countries in the days when the United States was supporting every narco-tyrant in the region in its fight against whatever passed for communism. At the tug of a wire, bullet-spattered targets, garishly painted, lurch out of the undergrowth: a Spanish colonial lady with bared breasts, toting a Kalashnikov; a bloodied pirate with tricorn and raised cutlass; a little red-haired girl, her mouth open in a scream that is supposed to say ‘Don’t shoot me, I’m a child.’ And at the forest’s edge, wooden cages for the camp’s trapped wild animals: mountain tigers, jungle cats, bucks, snakes, monkeys, all starved to death and rotting in their cells. And in a filthy aviary, the remains of parakeets, eagles, cranes, kites and vultures.

To teach the boys to be fierce, my guide explains. To teach them to be heartless.

In Panama City, a courtly Panamanian named Luis escorts me to the Palace of the Herons to meet the reigning President Endara. On our way to the Palace he regales me with the scandals of the day.

The traditional herons that I would see strutting the Palace forecourt are not the descendants of many generations of heron, as popularly supposed. They are impostors, says Luis with pretended indignation, smuggled into the Palace at dead of night. When President Jimmy Carter came to visit his Panamanian colleague, his Secret Service men had sprayed the Palace with disinfectant. By nightfall the entire flock of presidential herons lay dead in the forecourt. Substitute birds of no known provenance, netted in Colón, were flown in by passenger plane minutes before Carter’s arrival.

Endara, recently widowed, married his mistress within months of his first wife’s demise, Luis rattles on. The President is fifty-four, his bride, a student at Panama University, twenty-two. Panama’s press are making sport of the event, dubbing Endara ‘El Gordo Feliz’, or ‘Happy Fatty’.

We cross the Palace forecourt, admire the counterfeit herons, ascend the superb Spanish colonial staircase. Early photographs depict Endara as the street brawler he once was, but the Endara who receives me looks so like my Count that if it weren’t for the tail suit and red sash across the vast white waistcoat, I might in my dreams have asked him for five hundred pounds. A young woman is crouched on all fours at his feet, her shapely rump pressed into designer jeans as she wrestles with a Lego palace she is building with the President’s children.

‘Darling,’ Endara cries down to her, in English for my benefit. ‘See who is here! You have heard of …’ et cetera.

Still kneeling, the First Lady looks me cursorily up and down and resumes her building.

‘But darling, of course you have heard of him!’ the President implores her. ‘You have read his wonderful books! We both have!’

Belatedly, the former diplomat in me stirs.

‘Madame President. There is no reason on earth why you should have heard of me. But you have surely heard of Sean Connery, the actor, who was in my recent film?’

Long silence.

‘You are friend of Mr Connery?’

‘Indeed I am,’ I reply, though I scarcely know him.

‘You are very welcome in Panama,’ she says.

In the Club Union, where Panama’s rich and famous have their presence here on earth, I enquire yet again after the Count Mario da Bernaschina, Ambassador to France, putative husband to the Countess, purveyor of unbranded Scotch. Nobody remembers him, or if they do, they prefer not to. It takes an indefatigable Panamanian friend called Roberto to report, after prolonged enquiry, that the Count had not only existed, but played an insignificant role in the volatile history of his country.

The title of Count ‘came from Spain via Switzerland’, whatever that meant. He had been a friend of Arnulfo Arias, President of Panama. When Arias was toppled by Torrijos, Bernaschina had fled to the American Canal Zone, claiming to be Arias’ ex-Foreign Minister. He was nothing of the kind. Nevertheless, he lived large for several years until an evening when, dining at an American club, I like to think lavishly, he was kidnapped by Torrijos’ secret police. Incarcerated in the notorious La Modelo prison, he was charged with conspiracy against the state, treason and sedition. Three months later he was mysteriously released. Though in age he boasted of his twenty-five years as a Panamanian diplomat, he had never so much as belonged to the Panamanian foreign service. Least of all had he been Panama’s Ambassador to France. Of the Countess, if such she was, mercifully nothing: my boyhood fantasies could remain intact.

As to that cask of unbranded whisky and the unsolved matter of who, if anyone, was owed five hundred pounds, of one thing only we may be certain: when conman meets conman, both sides will end up crying foul.

Countries are characters too. After a walk-on part in The Night Manager, Panama is insisting on star billing in a new novel I am planning, although it is five years later. My hero-to-be is that much neglected denizen of the spy world, the intelligence fabricator or, as the trade jargon has it, pedlar. True, Graham Greene celebrated the fabricator’s calling in Our Man in Havana. But no sudden war resulted from poor Wormold’s fabrications. I wanted the farce to turn to tragedy. The United States had already achieved the remarkable feat of invading Panama while it still occupied the country. Then let it invade a second time, on the strength of my pedlar’s cooked-up intelligence.

But who would play the part of my pedlar? He must be socially trivial, benign, innocent, lovable, a non-player in the world’s game, but a striver for all that. He must be loyal to whatever he loves most: his wife, his children, his profession. He must be a fantasist. Intelligence services are famously susceptible to fantasists. Many of its most famous children - Allen Dulles for one - have been fantasists in their own right. He must be engaged in a service industry where he rubs shoulders with the great, the good, the influential and the credulous. A fashionable hairdresser then, a Figaro? An antique dealer? A gallery owner?

Or a tailor?

There are only two or three books of mine of which I can truthfully say, ‘This is where it began.’ The Spy Who Came in from the Cold began in London airport, when a stocky man in his forties flopped on to a bar stool beside me, delved in his raincoat pocket and poured a handful of loose change in half-a-dozen currencies on to the bar. With a fighter’s thick hands, he raked through the coins till he had enough of one currency.

‘Large Scotch,’ he ordered. ‘No bloody ice.’

It was all I ever heard him say, or so I now believe, but I fancied I caught a whiff of Irish in his voice. When his glass came, he ducked his lips to it in the practised movement of an habitual drinker and emptied it in two gulps. Then he shuffled off, looking at nobody. For all I’ll ever know he was a commercial traveller down on his luck. Whoever he was, he became my spy, Alec Leamas, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Then there was Doug.

An American friend visiting London suggests we drop in on his tailor, Doug Hayward, who has his premises in Mount Street in the West End. We are in the mid-nineties. My friend is from Hollywood. Doug Hayward dresses a lot of film stars and actors, he says. Somehow you don’t expect tailors to be sitting down, but Doug when we find him is enthroned in a winged armchair, talking on the telephone. One reason he sat a lot, he later told me, was that he was tall and didn’t want to tower over his customers.

He is talking to a woman, or I guess she’s a woman because there are a lot of dears and darlings and references to her old man. His voice is theatrical and authoritative, with the Cockney traces ironed out of it, but the cadences still there. When Doug was young, he had spent a lot of time practising his elocution so that he could talk posh in front of shop. Then the sixties came along, posh was out, regional came back in, and thanks not least to the actor Michael Caine, a client of Doug’s, Cockney was the flavour of the decade. But Doug wasn’t about to have learned his posh for nothing. So he stuck to it, while the posh blokes went off round the corner and learned how to talk common.

‘Now listen, darling,’ Doug is saying into the telephone. ‘I’m sorry to hear your old man’s playing around, because I like you both. But look at it this way. When you two got together, you were his bit on the side and he had a regular missus. Then he gets rid of his missus and he marries his bit on the side.’ Pause for effect, because by now he knows we’re listening. ‘So there’s a vacancy, isn’t there, darling?’

‘Tailoring is theatre,’ Doug tells us over lunch. ‘Nobody comes to me because they need a suit. They come for the buzz. They come to get their youth back, or have a natter. Do they know what they want? Of course they don’t. Anyone can dress a Michael Caine, but can you dress Charles Laughton? Somebody has to be in charge of a suit. I had a bloke the other day asking me why I don’t make suits like Armani. “Listen,” I told him. “Armani makes better Armani suits than I do. If you want an Armani, go down to Bond Street, save yourself six hundred quid and buy one.”’

I named my tailor Pendel, not Hayward, and called the book The Tailor of Panama, with tacit acknowledgement to Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. I gave him a half-Jewish background because, like the earliest American moviemakers, most of our tailoring families in those days were East End immigrants from middle Europe. And Pendel after the German word for pendulum, because I liked to think of him swinging back and forth between truth and fiction. All I needed now was a decadent, well-born British rascal who could recruit my Pendel and use him to line his own pocket. But for anyone who has taught at Eton, as I had, there were candidates galore.