The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré


It was a perfectly ordinary Friday afternoon in tropical Panama until Andrew Osnard barged into Harry Pendel’s shop, asking to be measured for a suit. When he barged in, Pendel was one person. By the time he barged out again Pendel was another. Total time elapsed: seventy-seven minutes according to the mahogany-cased clock by Samuel Collier of Eccles, one of the many historic features of the house of Pendel & Braithwaite Co., Limitada, Tailors to Royalty, formerly of Savile Row, London and presently of the Vía España, Panama City.

Or just off it. As near to the España as made no difference. And P&B for short.

The day began prompt at six when Pendel woke with a jolt to the din of bandsaws and building work and traffic in the valley and the sturdy male voice of Armed Forces Radio. ‘I wasn’t there, it was two other blokes, she hit me first and it was with her consent, Your Honour,’ he informed the morning, because he had a sense of impending punishment but couldn’t place it. Then he remembered his eight-thirty appointment with his bank manager and sprang out of bed at the same moment that his wife Louisa howled ‘No, no, no,’ and pulled the sheet over her head because mornings were her worst time.

‘Why not “yes, yes, yes,” for a change?’ he asked her in the mirror while he waited for the tap to run hot. ‘Let’s have a bit of optimism round the place, shall we, Lou?’

Louisa groaned but her corpse under the sheet didn’t stir so Pendel amused himself with a game of cocky repartee with the news reader in order to lift his spirits.

‘The Commander in charge of US Southern Command last night again insisted that the United States will honour its treaty obligations to Panama, both in the principle and in the deed,’ the news reader proclaimed with male majesty.

‘It’s a con, darling,’ Pendel retorted lathering soap onto his face. ‘If it wasn’t a con you wouldn’t go on saying it, would you, General?’

‘The Panamanian President has today arrived in Hong Kong for the start of his two-week tour of South-East Asian capitals,’ said the news reader.

‘Here we go, here’s your boss!’ Pendel called, and held out a soapy hand to command her attention.

‘He is accompanied by a team of the country’s economic and trade experts, including his Forward Planning advisor on the Panama Canal, Dr Ernesto Delgado.’

‘Well done, Ernie,’ said Pendel approvingly, with an eye to his recumbent wife.

‘On Monday the presidential party will continue to Tokyo for substantive talks aimed at increasing Japanese investment in Panama,’ said the news reader.

‘And those geishas aren’t going to know what hit them,’ said Pendel in a lower tone, as he shaved his left cheek. ‘Not with our Ernie on the prowl.’

Louisa woke up with a crash.

‘Harry, I do not wish you to speak of Ernesto in those terms even in jest, please.’

‘No, dear. Very sorry, dear. It shall not happen again. Ever,’ he promised while he navigated the difficult bit just under the nostrils.

But Louisa was not appeased.

‘Why can’t Panama invest in Panama?’ she complained, sweeping aside the sheet and sitting bolt upright in the white linen nightdress she had inherited from her mother. ‘Why do we have to have Asians do it? We’re rich enough. We’ve got one hundred and seven banks in this town alone, don’t we? Why can’t we use our own drug money to build our own factories and schools and hospitals?’

The ‘we’ was not literal. Louisa was a Zonian, raised in the Canal Zone in the days when by extortionate treaty it was United States territory for ever, even if the territory was only ten miles wide and fifty miles long and sur-rounded by despised Panamanians. Her late father was an Army engineer who, having been seconded to the Canal, took early retirement to become a servant of the Canal Company. Her late mother was a libertarian Bible teacher in one of the Zone’s segregated schools.

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Categories: LaCarre, John