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The Spy Who Liked Me II*
The second time I lived in New York was from the late 90s into the early 2000s, and one winter night in early 1997 I went to a party high above the city. The apartment was like a large hotel suite, the host an English woman in her late 30s, so about ten years older than I was, named Jane. Jane was gracious, charismatic, an earnest and attentive listener who also laughed a lot. Recent and more rigorous study of history has called for some interrogation of my Anglophilia but it can’t be denied Jane excelled at things English people often excel at, which are saying amusing things, and having a point of view. When I said the apartment was nice, for example, she replied, “I have grown fond of how it manages to be glamorous and bland at the same time. I prefer my flat back home, which is small but quite devastating.”
We talked on and off that night and made a plan for the next week and soon we were hanging out a lot. She was always cheerful but never foolish. I don’t remember a single awkward or dull second in her company. She worked at a large international agency, which, at the time, I held in a sort of unconscious esteem. Whenever I asked how work was, she either waved it away or said she’d spent all day “tolerating pointless meetings.” I assumed her job was fancy and she didn’t want to make too much of it since mine was not.
Jane was cryptic about everything but it just seemed to be her nature. One night she told me to meet her in a bar and to keep the evening free and to not wear jeans. Then, knowing I liked opera in an extremely amateurish way, she revealed that we were going to see Turandot, with Jane Eaglen and Luciano Pavarotti. We had great seats.
Another night we went to see Jules and Jim. We both hated it. As she belted herself into a trench coat of notable quality she suggested we go to Billy’s, an old steakhouse on First Avenue, no longer there. It was pouring, and on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street a young woman tried to steal the taxi I hailed. We exchanged words, then I physically removed her from the taxi and deposited her on the sidewalk. I was a little worried that Jane would be horrified, but she said, “That was fantastic,” and smiled the whole way uptown.
A year or so after we met Jane told me she was moving to a large city in Asia where there is a great deal of conflict. It was so beautiful, she said, I had to come visit.
Our emails were rare and short. After several years in the beautiful city, she moved back to England, and said now I really had to come visit her. At this point I lived in California and was broke, so I did not see myself jetting off to Europe or anywhere, but I said I would try.
Lo and behold, an American friend of mine with an English husband was having a wedding reception in London after getting married in the states. None of her friends were going to be there, would I come, she would get me a ticket. And so I flew to England for five days, with three hundred dollars in the bank and fingers crossed that I had no outstanding checks. I wrote Jane from the airport. She wrote back right away and said she was busy but not too busy, and could I possibly see her tomorrow night?
I didn’t want to be rude to my hosts and they happened to be free so I brought them along to the pub Jane had recommended. It was a cozy dark place in North London, close to both her flat and their palatial home. We sat in a booth. It was as much of a treat to see Jane as ever. I have no idea what we talked about but it was an easy, fun night, and Jane was invited to the reception/party in a flurry of “really, I don’t want to intrudes” and “we’d be thrilled to have yous.” I was pleased that my two good friends had liked each other, and that my friend’s husband had seemed at least marginally satisfied with the company. “Isn’t Jane great!?” I enthused as we walked home.
They agreed that she was and then my friend said, “It’s so interesting that she used to work for [the large international organization.]”
My friend’s husband snorted. “Are you joking?” he said.
My friend’s husband turned out to be a sort of epically empty person, rich and handsome beyond all reason, pleasant enough, but a true snob, baffled by all notions of empathy, and in proud possession of an eloquence that seemed rehearsed and got more creepily repetitive with each passing year.
But at the time I thought he was all right.
“I’m not joking,” my friend said. “What do you mean?”
He snorted again, and I was curious but not upset because I didn’t really know him well. But his wife, my friend, was beginning to. She stopped walking and grabbed his arm. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Why are you snorting? Tell us. Jesus Christ, just stop snorting and tell us.”
“Are you two complete idiots?” I thought this was funny, because I didn’t yet know that he actually thought we both were. “Jane is a spy.”
“No, no,” I said. “No!” I explained, even though she had said it all, obviously, how she worked for the international organization, and had just moved back from the beautiful city, in Asia, always in the news, because she now worked as a consultant for a large energy company, here in London.
“You seem to believe we’re having some sort of debate,” he said. “Your friend is a spy, end of.”
“But how do you know this?” my friend pleaded.
“Yes,” I cried, “How do you know?”
“It’s really extraordinary that the two of you happened to meet,” my friend’s husband said, shaking his head at me and his wife. ‘You were just made for each other.”
The night of the party I got lost on a walk and was running late for its 6 p.m. start. I hurried to get ready, not wanting Jane to have to fend for herself with strangers, but when I came down at around quarter past, Jane was standing near one of the long windows, in a tasteful black dress, deep in conversation with two suited men. My friend’s husband was opening wine and I approached, saying, “I hurried down to make sure Jane was all right, but she’s already made friends. Amazing!”
All snorted out, my friend’s husband merely smirked. “Yes, amazing,” he said with obvious sarcasm. He took a bottle of Montrachet out of an ice bucket and wiped the bottom with a napkin. “White wine?” he said.
“Please,” I said. “And what do you mean?”
He poured, looking right into my eyes. He really was a handsome bastard, and at his best during low-stakes competition, when his cruelty could masquerade as teasing, and his mild delight in victory could hide his essentially annihilative nature. “She already knew those guys,” he said. “They’re old friends.”
“Oh!” I said. “How?”
His eyes grew large with exasperation. He set the bottle back in the bucket and hissed, “Because they’re fucking spies.”
I didn’t say anything to Jane that night. I did try to talk to her friends, but they managed to avoid me, which I’m sure had less to do with potentially being spies and more to do with not wanting to talk to an American woman with no obvious status or wealth who wasn’t even young anymore. I spent much of the evening talking to the next-door neighbor, a dentist who told me that I had good teeth but they were slightly too masculine, and then brainstormed ways to file them so as to increase my beauty. This might sound awful but I was entertained.
After Jane left I can’t say I quite imagined her heading to Victoria Station with a poisoned umbrella hidden inside the Financial Times. Much is made of the fact that spying is mostly drudgery, and I understood this, but I also understood that if her job was indeed to help keep England England, then she was in fact in the death business.
I went to her flat the night before I returned to California and it was devastating, spotlessly clean, and full of antiques with perfect lines, spare rather than fussy. We sat in matching chairs near her tiny fireplace and drank whiskey. After my second, I went for it. “Jane, are you a spy?”
She did not look surprised, and she didn’t ask why I asked. “Well, Sarah,” she said, with a slight prickliness that was entirely new to me, “Do you think I’m a spy?”
I said I didn’t know and quickly we were talking about something else. I walked back to my friend’s future ex-husband’s enormous house in a spy-friendly mist, clutching the Oyster card and forty pounds I had to get me from this moment to the plane. I thought this might be our last meeting, not because I knew something, but because I’d dared to ask, or maybe for another reason entirely, and I was right.
I am Sarah Miller, this is The Real Sarah Miller, where I write about …whatever I want. Last week I wrote about nude natural hot springs and people I punched, semi-related to current events but also just for fun. A few weeks ago I wrote about people who order food slowly. I do a podcast with Joshua Clover called Didn’t See It, Don’t Need To, where we review movies we haven’t seen.
*There is a 2013 article in the New Yorker THE SPY WHO LIKED ME, by John le Carré himself.