George Smiley got on the bus yesterday.; or at least a tidier, more stylish version of George Smiley. George II was wearing an achingly smart Burberry that was emphatically not an Inspector Gadget trenchcoat, but light brown and simple, with an open pleat at the back. He wore it with the back of the collar turned up in an enviably uncalculated-looking way that made it stylish rather than sad. He was a masterpiece of quiet good taste, from his beautiful shoes the colour of conkers, to his thick, snowy hair (like Santa Claus, but with a better barber).
He was carrying a slim, brown leather briefcase—the kind that whispers ‘this cost somebody a lot of money’. You could imagine it under a Christmas tree in a New Town drawing room with a tasteful black ribbon bow on the handle the only signifier of its status as a present. It was just worn enough for you to know that it was under that Christmas tree at least a decade ago. Or given to him when he retired from MI6.
I could not help but contrast his beautiful head of hair with the other chaps on the bus. I don’t think that hair is of itself necessarily an advantage for men—there are quite a few gents of my acquaintance who are much more attractive bald than they ever were with hair—especially when they are losing their hair. Unfortunately, a common side-effect of the fashion for shaving heads is that, unless you are blessed with a slim neck, good bones and an attractively shaped cranium, there is an unfortunate tendency to look like an overgrown baby: all round and pink with bracelets of fat that make the neck look like a joint of meat, tied with string. Add a round-necked t-shirt and the look is all too reminiscent of a baby-gro. Team the shaved head with facial hair and you find yourself looking to see if the genie is carrying his magic lamp.
I was sitting behind George II, so naturally took an interest when he laid his briefcase on his lap and opened it. All of the pockets inside the cover—where you would normally expect to see a Blackberry, a Mont Blanc pen or two, possible a slim file or some sort—were empty.
I shifted forward ever so slightly so I could see into the body of the briefcase. At first I thought that too, was empty. I felt a moment of sharp disappointment: was George II going to turn out to be all style and no substance?
But then I noticed...there was a single sheet of paper in the bottom of the case, with one indecipherable line of letters and figures written in faint pencil. I began to think of Swiss Bank accounts and left luggage in railway stations. Disappointingly, there was no small pistol lying underneath the sheet of paper, but nevertheless it was not difficult to imagine George II on his way to explain to some baffled civil service mandarins the meaning and significance of this cryptic piece of information. He would quietly make intellectual mincemeat of them all, then go to Valvona and Crolla’s where he would buy some nice olive oil and artichokes and go home and cook an exquisite frittata. Or perhaps meet a hairless Mexican in a bar in Leith to talk about old times when they dropped dogs from planes together in Palestine (prizes to any Somerset Maugham/Aldous Huxley readers who can untangle that bit of convolution).
Or maybe it was just a phone number and a note to buy a pint of milk. Pedestrian yes, and vaguely disappointing, but at least he was carrying it with style...not to mention a full head of hair.