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A Practice of Affection

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It had never been George Smiley's habit to nurture affection. In the long evenings in hospital, staring out at the London night, he had searched his mind for an explanation, a way to reconcile himself with the foreign desire to like Inspector Mendel. Collaboration was familiar to him, a sterile and professional form of interaction that he had long since perfected, carefully honing his skill in detaching himself from the realities of relationships. Though always a master of self effacement, his wife's flight to the arms of a Cuban lover had left him with the most concentrated part of himself, the deeply dispassionate core of his being that, when presented with the awkward hospitality of this thin, quietly competent Inspector, had completely and utterly betrayed him.

Ann, in a somewhat ruthless fashion, had always succeeded in finding ways to like those characters to which she found herself drawn. She formed whole lives for them out of the threads of their acquaintance, building the essential elements of her fairy tales from the pieces she liked, and discarding the rest as eccentricity. She would have liked Mendel, and that, perhaps, was the root of Smiley's discomfort. The ease of her idealism seemed to hang about the little bedroom of Mendel's house, mingling with the bitter aftertaste of the Fennan case. It dug at him, finding its way into the weary prickle of his eyes, the heaviness of his limbs.

The room was spotless, evidence of the almost religious fastidiousness of his host, a feature which was somewhat belied by his form, which seemed to be set askew from itself, all angles and awkwardness. Each corner of the bedspread lay carefully folded over the mattress, which creaked alarmingly as Smiley sat down upon it, marring the immaculate surface. He had the sense, in this spartan comfort, that he had been cut loose from his moorings and had come to rest in a place that had always been meant for him. It did not feel at all like home- it lacked the deep shadows of memory- but it did feel like a place to rest along the harrowing journey his life had become.

The kettle whistled below in the kitchen, its scream filling him with a growing alarm for, with the water boiled came tea, and with tea would come Mendel, his narrow shoulders slightly hunched as he devoted all of his attention to the two mugs in his hand. Smiley wasn't sure he was ready to face any more hospitality, certainly not from this gaunt and earnest man. Shortly after arriving at the house in Mitchum, the growing knowledge of his own aversion to being cared for had begun to fill him with a vague horror. He could never seem to escape from a role of stuffy pomposity whenever Mendel asked after him, whether he had breakfasted, done his laundry, or whether he really ought to rest after that awful beating he'd had, no matter how many times he had tried. Old habits, he supposed, were the hardest to break.

Just as he had predicted, Mendel's deliberate step sounded from below, the fifth and seventh stairs creaking as he ascended to the bedroom. When he pushed the door open, his gaze was indeed fixed on the two teacups with a single minded ferocity, as if daring them to spill even the slightest drop of their contents. He had tucked the evening edition of the times under his arm and, after he had set the cups down on the bedside table, he pulled it out and passed it to Smiley.

"Thought you might like something to read," he remarked. Smiley took the paper, stuttered words of thanks managing to pass his lips. He was grateful for the distraction, and they passed a few companionable moments of silence while he perused the headlines. His heart wasn't really in it, however, and he soon discarded the paper in favour of his tea, only to look up and see Mendel's hooded eyes gazing at him over the rim of a flowery China teacup.

"What do we do now?"

"I thought I might go to Walliston tomorrow."

"You ought to spend the day in bed. What do you want to do there?"

"See Elsa Fennan."

"You're not safe in your own; you'd better let me come. I'll sit in the car while you do the talking."

There seemed little to be said, so they sat in silence. It had not escaped Smiley that, since his release from hospital, Mendel had ceased to ask questions when it seemed likely he would not receive the answer he hoped for. It was a technique he had normally seen reserved for dogs and small children, and he was oddly charmed by its application.

"Seems an odd sort of situation, doesn't it?" Mendel said after a while. A slight frown puckered his brow.

"What does?"

"These Fennans. Wife's a bit strange. Husband seemed strange too, only in exactly the opposite direction. Makes you wonder how they got on."

"Yes, I suppose it does, at that."

To Smiley's increasing discomfort, Mendel appeared to have been struck by one of the loquacious moods that came in him every so often, and he began to expound on the nature of relationships. He had never understood them himself, he said, had always been too wrapped up in policing to find time for a wife or anything like that. Smiley said he had wondered about that, but it seemed impolite to ask. Mendel shrugged.

"Not much of politeness to it," he said. "Just the way of things. Never seemed to find the right person."

"Yes," Smiley said absently. He found himself thinking once again of Ann and suddenly missing her terribly- or perhaps only missing the idea of her, a phantasm that had only ever existed in his mind. "Yes I think I know what you mean."

"Mind you," Mendel continued, watching him thoughtfully all the while, "Never really knew what I was looking for, either." Unspoken words hung on the end of his phrase and Smiley shivered, suddenly alert. There was a crackling in the air, a kind of soft burn that seemed to dance in the dim light, raising the hair on the back of neck, and he found himself unable to keep from asking, "Do you think you'll ever know?" Question and interpretation had been his joy and his profession, in one way or another, for his whole life, and so he could not help but notice the faint bloom of colour that crept up Mendel's cheeks, and notice the answering heat in his own face. He let the silence stretch on, suddenly very afraid, though of what he couldn't say.

"I think I've been looking for someone careful," Mendel said at last, examining his teacup, "methodical. You see all sorts in policing, but you'd be surprised how many clever blokes out there would rush headfirst into anything before thinking it through. Causes all kinds of trouble, I can tell you." He still addressed his comments to the teacup and Smiley sat thinking on the use of pronouns. He didn't think it was accidental. He thought he understood, but held his realizations at arm's length, unwilling to bring them into the full light of contemplation until...until he had thought it all the way through. Half completed thoughts and implications ran through his mind like the dials of a combination lock and he let them scroll along, waiting for the rest.

"Can't say women ever interested me much," Mendel continued. His voice had grown softer, barely audible above the sound of the light rain that tapped against the windows. "Not sure why. Certainly not for lack of opportunity." Statement made, Mendel looked up, his gaze direct and terrifyingly frank. "Guess I must not be suited to that sort of thing."

The gruffness had faded from him, leaving a vulnerability that Smiley found strangely compelling. It seemed to pull a confession from him, one he had hardly dared make even to himself. "No, I've never been much of one for romance either, I'm afraid. Never seemed to get the hang of it. Not that I ever had much for opportunity."

"Except your wife."

"Yes. Except for...her." Ann's name seemed suddenly wrong in his mind, and he could not bring it to pass his lips. She had no place here, though he couldn't quite have said why. He held his mind back from the leaping dance of inference and conclusion, pretending to himself that he didn't quite know why Mendel stood then and came to sit beside him on the bed. The mattress creaked, the added weight drawing the two of them closer. Mendel raised one hand and, for a moment, terror gripped Smiley, but then he placed it very deliberately down in the comforter.

"I think I'd like an opportunity with you, Mr. Smiley." He said it so quietly that Smiley hardly heard him, yet the words seemed to settle into the base of his spine and burn away quietly to themselves. Smiley hesitated, unsure, and heard the creak of the mattress as Mendel pulled away. The movement was small, but it felt like a rug had been pulled from under him. He reached out in a rush, catching Mendel by the wrist, terrified that the moment would disappear before he had a chance to consider why the offer filled him with such a mix of fear and longing.

"I don't know if...well, it's been some time." His throat was dry, voice cracking over the words. He swallowed hard.

"Same for me," Mendel grunted, seeming reassured by Smiley's lack of refusal, "so I'm sure I won't notice the difference."

Smiley hesitated once again, then nodded quickly, before his momentary courage deserted him. It occurred to him later that he had never really been kissed. He had been touched, certainly- Ann handled people as naturally as she did everything else and with as little depth of meaning-but he had never really been kissed the way that Mendel kissed him then. Perhaps that was why it had affected him so deeply. If it hadn't been for that kiss, and all that had never come before it, nothing else might have happened. They might have gone on as they always had. But it had happened, and Smiley had felt in that brief contact something he had never known he was missing before.

In some ways, it frightened him how such a small moment could become so intimate, could awaken in him a depth of feeling that was as unknown as it was sudden. He might have panicked, terrified to be lost in this strange dark sea, if Mendel had not been there. He said little, as was always his way, but his hands were gentle and reassuring, guiding Smiley through this unfamiliar dance, peeling away layers of mistrust along with their clothing, a safety line in the fog.

"If you want me to stop, you say the word, Mr. Smiley."

Mendel's voice was rough, with a catch that made Smiley's heart leap. Strange, that this old spy's body could produce such an effect. As if through the eyes of another, he became aware of the heat in his own body, the quickness of his pulse.

"I don't-" he swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, "No, I don't think I do want you to stop."

Slowly, he reached up to remove his glasses, folding them carefully and placing them on the walnut dressing table that stood to the side of the bed. The pressure of Mendel's palm against his chest was slight, but persistent, and he yielded to it with a wondering grace.

His skin had never felt so alive as it did beneath Mendel's rough hands. To be caressed -not touched, held, or handled, but caressed- as though every part of him was sacred ground, stole his breath and left a tingling lightness in his limbs. And though to be gazed upon in the half light with such frank affection caused his heart to skip erratically, he found himself mesmerized by the evident pleasure Mendel took in his leisured exploration, unable to look away.

"You alright, sir?"

Smiley realized that he had been staring and started, recovering enough of his composure to nod. It had been an honest answer, too, though became less so as Mendel removed his trousers and crouched low over him.

Somewhere, a long time ago, there had been a feeling like this. On the streets of Germany, never certain of life, death, or the promise of success, he had felt this same heady rush, the same rising tension that threatened to overwhelm him, but the release, the floating wave of contentment that flooded his bones, caught him entirely by surprise. As did the thrill of Mendel's eyes, triumphant and heavy with desire, gazing up at him in the dim light. He shivered.

He had never been one to nurture affection, but he considered later, with Mendel's arms wrapped possessively around him under the coverlet, that something else might have found him in spite of his very best efforts.