Excerpt from A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Spy by Nature

A Novel

By Charles Cumming

A Spy by Nature
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2007,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2008,
    368 pages.

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Print Excerpt


He taps his jaw with the bulbous fountain pen.

“And it’s entirely funded by private individuals? There’s no grant from the EC?”

“That’s right.”

“Who runs it?”

“Nikolas Jarolmek. A Pole. His family have lived in Britain since the war.”

“And how did you get the job?”

“Through the Guardian. I responded to an advertisement.”

“Against how many other candidates?”

“I couldn’t say. I was told about a hundred and fifty.”

“Could you describe an average day at the office?”

“Broadly speaking, I act in an advisory capacity, either by speaking to people on the telephone and answering any questions they may have about setting up in business in the UK or by writing letters in response to written queries. I’m also responsible for editing our quarterly magazine, the Central European Business Review. That lists a number of crucial contact organizations that might prove useful to small businesses that are just starting out. It also gives details of tax arrangements in this country, language schools, that kind of thing.”

“I see. It would be helpful if you could send me a copy.”

“Of course.”

To explain why I am here.

The interview was set up on the recommendation of a man I barely know, a retired diplomat named Michael Hawkes. Six weeks ago I was staying at my mother’s house in Somerset for the weekend, and he came to dinner. He was, she informed me, an old university friend of my father’s.

Until that night I had never met Hawkes, had never heard my mother mention his name. She said that he had spent a lot of time with her and Dad when they were first married in the 1960s. But when the Foreign Office posted him to Moscow, the three of them had lost touch. All this was before I was born.

Hawkes retired from the Diplomatic Service earlier this year to take up a directorship at a British oil company called Abnex. I don’t know how Mum tracked down his phone number, but he showed up for dinner alone, no wife, on the stroke of eight o’clock.

There were other guests there that night, bankers and insurance brokers in bulletproof tweeds, but Hawkes was a thing apart. He had a blue silk cravat slung around his neck like a noose and a pair of velvet loafers embroidered on the toe with an elaborate coat of arms. There was nothing ostentatiously debonair about any of this, nothing vain; it just looked as if he hadn’t taken them off in twenty years. He was wearing a washed-out blue shirt with fraying collar and cuffs and stained silver cuff links that looked as though they had been in his family since the Opium Wars. In short, we got on. We sat next to each other at dinner and talked for close on three hours about everything from politics to infidelity. Three days after the party my mother told me that she had spotted Hawkes in her local supermarket, stocking up on Stolichnaya and tomato juice. Almost immediately, like a task, he asked her if I had ever thought of “going in for the Foreign Office.” My mother said that she didn’t know.

“Ask him to give me a ring if he’s interested.”

So on the telephone that night my mother did what mothers are supposed to do.

“You remember Michael, who came to dinner?”

“Yes,” I said, stubbing out a cigarette.

“He likes you. Thinks you should try out for the Foreign Office.”

“He does?”

“What an opportunity, Alec. To serve Queen and Country.”

I nearly laughed at this, but checked it out of respect for her old-fashioned convictions.

“Mum,” I said, “an ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for the good of his country.”

Copyright © 2001 by Charles Cumming. All rights reserved.

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