I blogged recently that I had a new, full-length comedy, Sex and the Summit, on the shelf; but no plans to publish it.
I have, however, published a couple of excerpts from Sex and the Summit. Here is the first.
Sex and the Summit: A Novel By Robert Pimm
Prologue: Sixteen years earlier
She was dancing alone. She had a glass of wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other and breasts moving visibly under a creamy white blouse. The music was the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like An Eagle.
A fine ambition.
I, on the other hand, had my coat on for the last bus home.
Wayne tightened his grip on my arm. ‘It’s hopeless. I might as well be a monk. Or a eunuch.’
‘Try the eunuch thing. Who wouldn’t want a job in a harem?’ I tried to prise loose his fingers. ‘Look, I have to go.’
‘You can sleep on the floor.’
‘Thanks. Have you seen your carpet?’
‘I have to be a millionaire by the time I’m twenty-five. Otherwise no woman will ever want to sleep with me.’ Wayne gestured at the woman in the white blouse. ‘Look at her. She’s gorgeous. But I might as well be invisible.’
‘She is gorgeous.’
‘It’s my party and I’m dying a virgin.’ His face was pale. ‘Go on, Angus. You’re good at this. You try.’
I looked again at the woman. She was moving between her hips and her shoulders with a languorous power that made it easy to forget to breathe.
The carpet under her feet was crunchy with fag-ends, spilled drinks, food fragments and wine-glass slivers.
Wayne released my arm and clutched his stomach. ‘I think I’ll go to bed. Or throw up. Or both.’ He walked off.
I pictured the last bus.
I felt the music.
I studied the carpet.
I watched the woman.
I slipped off my coat.
The music had switched to a 1950s rumba number with a driving want-more beat. The volume was all-enveloping. I flipped a prayer to the god of play-lists and began to dance.
The party had peaked around 11 p.m. with more than a hundred people crammed into the lounge, kitchen and three tiny bedrooms which Wayne shared with a churn of friends, acquaintances and total strangers in the wilds of north London. Now the cast had contracted to less than twenty, of whom six were still dancing.
Close up, I could see the woman in the white blouse had pale, clear skin with freckles that lent her face an appealing and possibly misleading hint of vulnerability. Dark, curly hair cascaded over her shoulders. Most of the other dancers seemed to know each other; but she kept on chugging her wine and moving with a gentle, easy sway, happy in her own space.
No point in crowding her.
It’s a delicate business, gaining the attention of a woman you desire but haven’t met. It’s harder when she’s dancing. A woman is unlikely to warm to a man staring hungrily at her, or rubbing his pelvis against any part of her anatomy (if the roles are reversed, of course, these tactics will work brilliantly). All you can do is show you’re there; display a polite degree of appreciation; and hope.
Unfortunately, the woman in the white blouse seemed unaware of my existence.
I danced; and waited; and hoped.
After about an hour, I Love Rock’n’Roll by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts came on. It’s not exactly a romantic song, though the lyrics are in their way a best-practice guide to achieving the precise result I was hoping for. But it is the kind of gutsy rock number that lets you strut your stuff with whatever degree of irony or energy you fancy.
I was stretching one arm towards the ceiling and singing or possibly yelling the words I Love Rock & Roll when our eyes met for the first time. She smiled, took a step towards me, and spoke.
The music was so loud I couldn’t hear a word.
I leaned in so close that her dense, frizzy hair tickled my lips. Close enough to smell her: a warm bouquet of sweat and a perfume so unfamiliar it occurred to me for the first time she might be foreign.
‘You’ll have to speak up. Or come closer,’ I said.
This time her smile was a full-on blast of complicity and exuberance.
But she didn’t speak up. Nor did she come closer.
Instead, she threw herself into I Love Rock’n’Roll with a manic energy.
Maybe she hadn’t heard me, either.
When the song segued into something more forgettable, I thought we might share a post-climactic glance or even take our glasses into the sticky-floored kitchen for a top-up and introductions.
Instead, she stepped back into her private dance space and resumed her policy of behaving as if I didn’t exist.
The distance between us was an arm’s length. I might as well have been on Mars.
I knew nothing. Her name, her nationality, even what language she spoke. Only that she loved to dance and smelled good and that for almost three minutes of Joan Jett & The Blackhearts I’d thought she cared I existed.
Obviously I’d been wrong.
I should have taken that bus.
At around two a.m. the number of people still dancing, including myself, fell to four.
The woman in the white blouse was still moving languidly, her gaze fixed on a point in the air about three feet in front of her.
I gave up.
When I left the room to explore potential spots to crash, I glanced back to see if she might react to my exit.
She was dancing from her hips to her shoulders, staring straight ahead.
Exploring accommodation options didn’t take long. Upstairs, the bedroom doors were closed. A short corridor connecting them looked promising; but two people were already lying in sleeping bags along one side, head-to-head. To occupy the remaining floor-space would mean being trampled by anyone exiting the small but sumptuously filthy bathroom, which I visited briefly.
When I returned to the lounge, the dancing had stopped. Someone with foresight had draped a sleeping bag, unzipped to make a blanket, over the fake-leather sofa. Two other people with less foresight than the sofa-sleeper but with more foresight than me had scavenged enough cushions and coats to make a nest on the carpet. The condition of the latter was unspeakable.
The woman in the white blouse was gone.
I closed my eyes. Could I afford a taxi home? Could I survive a night on the scuzzy carpet without bedding? How could I have let my longing for love, lust or some indefinable closeness leave me in this fix?
‘Hey! You! Hot English guy!’
The voice was American with a Carolina twang.
I looked around. Was she in the kitchen?
‘You’re not just deaf, you’re blind. And cute as hell. Get under here.’
She was lying on the sofa, under the sleeping bag unzipped to make a blanket. When she lifted up the side I saw she was naked.
Hot English guy.
I took a step towards the sofa. Should I strip off too? I didn’t want her to think I was a sex-crazed cuddle-junky, though of course I was.
If I climbed under the sleeping bag half-clothed, on the other hand, that would seem conservative to the point of kinkiness.
I glanced at the two people nestling among the soft furnishings on the floor. Were they watching? Did I care?
‘What’s that song?’ Her twang, again. ‘An Englishman needs time. That’s it.’
When she laughed, her breasts shook. Her body was full and beautiful.
‘Not this one,’ I said. ‘Unless you want it that way.’
Her name was Jayne.
In the morning I couldn’t find my pants.
Sixteen years later: Monday 28 January
There were many things I didn’t know, the morning Jayne phoned me at the Foreign Office for the sixth time in two days. I didn’t even know why she was calling me.
But I knew one thing. I didn’t want to talk to her.
‘Tell her I’m on the other line,’ I said to Sarah.
‘Sorry, Jayne, he’s on the other line.’ Sarah rolled her eyes. ‘I know. Men. I’ll say you called.’
I tugged back the bomb-curtain and looked out at Downing Street. The narrow road was black with bullet-proof limousines waiting to collect the German Federal Chancellor from the pre-summit call on the Prime Minister. Amidst the bustle, the lone bobby at the door of No.10 seemed a reassuring presence, even in these days of suicide bombers and killer drones. At the Whitehall end of the street anti-cloning demonstrators were peering through the steel gates, perhaps wondering who pulled the levers of power these days. Little did they realise it was people like me. Trouble was, whenever I had a go, the levers tended to come off in my hand.
Sarah put the phone down. ‘Why won’t you talk to her? She sounds lovely.’
‘She is lovely. That’s why I don’t want to talk to her.’ Back at my desk, I stared at the ocean of e-mails sloshing around my screen.
Sarah wound her long dark hair around her fingers. ‘Angus. How long have you had a past, exactly?’
‘Longer than you.’
‘Come on. Spit it out.’
‘Well, I went out with Jayne sixteen years ago.’
‘Just because you were still at school.’
‘I met her at a party. Shared flat in Dalston.’
‘And?’ Sarah’s fingers were still in her hair.
‘After a while she went back to the States.’
‘But now she’s in London.’
‘Now, I have Carolyn. And Emily and Ned.’
‘Jayne came back two years ago. She knew about Carolyn. She e-mailed to say there was no need to be in touch if I didn’t think it would be right.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I wasn’t sure what to do. I mean, how much should you see of your old girlfriends?’
‘I bet Carolyn was sure.’
‘I asked her in the end. She said “why not?” So we had Jayne round for dinner. It was a disaster. One of the other guests brought these twin baby girls with colic. Jayne left at 10.30.’
‘Have you seen her since?’
I hesitated. Sarah’s phone rang and she began chatting away in Italian. Her voice echoed around the room, which was populated with the sort of office furniture you find outside second-hand shops in Kentish Town. A film of dust marked the workstation of Tracey, our office assistant or A1, who’d resigned months before. All around us in the European Union directorate of the Foreign Office, eager young diplomats were assembling briefing for the Genetic Futures Summit in Cologne. In the next ten days careers would be made, ministerial egos massaged and, if all went well, the future of the human race clarified, if not actually resolved. So why was I sitting in my office, staring at the high white ceiling and doing precisely nothing?
Because if I had to choose between work and day-dreaming about Jayne Garcia, there was no contest.
I’d known when Jayne came round for dinner that night that I still fancied her like crazy. Now she was calling me.
When confronted by a moral dilemma I sometimes imagine myself appearing in a court of law, accused of bringing about the worst possible consequence of whatever decision I’m mulling. What was the worst which could happen if I didn’t speak to Jayne? Suicide? Not like Jayne: deeply improbable. But not impossible.
So I pictured myself trying to convince the jury, and a courtroom studded with horrified friends and acquaintances, that when I hadn’t taken Jayne’s call – an action which had led directly to her death – my motives had been honourable. It was hard to know, I’d say, what was right and wrong in sex and love and friendship. I hadn’t wanted to hurt Jayne. But what about Emily and Ned? Surely the prosecution wasn’t saying it would have been right for me, the adoring father of two vulnerable young children, to risk emotional entanglement with an ex-girlfriend I’d seen once in a decade? The jury would be nodding: the girl in the cashmere sweater, who’d sat down thinking ‘selfish bastard’, was thinking ‘poor guy. Tough call.’
Behind me the door to the corridor burst open.
‘Angus. Come.’ It was Tim Cowling’s cracked-drain rasp, accompanied by a whiff of stale tobacco. My boss appeared, bald head gleaming, hands thrust into the pockets of his crumpled suit. ‘We’re summoned to the Foreign Secretary.’
‘I’ve got a hell of a lot on.’ Already my mouth was dry.
‘It’s on EFEA financing. Your subject.’
‘It is.’ My throat was tight.
‘Come along, Angus. It’ll be good for you.’
The grandeur of the corridor, with its bright tiles and soaring ceilings, felt worlds away from the squalor of my office. As we approached the ministerial zone the decoration grew more sumptuous and the smell of wood polish stronger. Beyond the gilt- and marble-clad opulence of the Grand Staircase the entrance doors to the Foreign Secretary’s suite loomed, so preposterously high they seemed constructed for a vanished race of giants or stilt-walking enthusiasts.
When we entered the Private Office, the Assistant Private Secretary barred our way.
‘You can’t go in yet,’ he said. ‘She’s got someone with her.’
Cowling peered through the open door. ‘It’s your missus,’ he said. ‘And Lord Norfolk.’
Beyond acres of oak flooring, the Foreign Secretary was standing with her back to the fireplace. Lord Norfolk, the Minister for Europe, towered over her. Carolyn was nearby, head lowered as she watched the politicians through narrowed eyes. The two ministers seemed to be arguing. Ann Brown, the Principal Private Secretary, was sitting at the conference table with a phone to her ear.
‘Carolyn’s done well, hasn’t she?’ Cowling said. ‘She looks younger than either of them.’
‘She is younger. She’s two years younger than me.’
Cowling cleared his throat. The Foreign Secretary glanced up.
‘Tim, come in,’ she said. ‘Sorry to keep you waiting.’ She looked at me.
‘This is Angus Fairfax,’ Cowling said. ‘Desk officer for EU Financing. He’s the man who knows how we might finance a new European Fertilisation and Embryology Agency.’
‘Hello Angus.’ The Foreign Secretary’s cheeks were red. She gestured towards Lord Norfolk. ‘This is Geoff Mace, the Minister for Europe. I suppose you know Carolyn Lewis, your Director General.’
‘Yes,’ I said. Carolyn said nothing.
We took our places opposite a dull brown carriage clock rumoured to be worth several thousand pounds. I was at the bottom of the table, on the lee side of Tim Cowling. Carolyn was at the top, next to the Foreign Secretary, her watch lying face upwards on the dark wood. She said it helped keep meetings short if there was a timepiece on the table. On the other side of the Foreign Secretary sat Ann Brown and Lord Norfolk. From my seat I could see tourists milling about on Horse Guards Parade.
‘Take us through it, would you Geoff?’ the Foreign Secretary said.
Lord Norfolk placed one big hand flat on the table. ‘What’s at stake,’ he said, ‘is whether we can secure common international rules on the use of genetic research, gene therapy and, in theory, human cloning. All member states of the European Union agree the policy. The US are ready to sign a treaty: the President is coming to Cologne next week. But the EU can’t sign unless they agree financing for the new European Fertilisation and Embryology Agency. There’s no money. And with respect, Foreign Secretary, there’s not the slightest chance we can sort this out in time for next week’s summit.’
‘But the Prime Minister wants it sorted.’ The Foreign Secretary’s cheeks were reddening again. She looked down the table and smiled. ‘So, Angus, what’s the problem with the money?’
What was the problem? A blank panic white-out swept across my consciousness. I licked my lips and opened my mouth. Nothing. Lord Norfolk’s nostrils flared. The Foreign Secretary nodded encouragingly. Still no words came out. Everyone was looking at me except Carolyn, who was writing on her pad. The clock ticked.
‘Most enlightening,’ Lord Norfolk muttered.
‘Tim?’ the Foreign Secretary said.
‘The Germans won’t pay for it,’ Tim Cowling said. ‘They want the EFEA in Paris as much as us or the French. But they say it’s too expensive.’
‘Without German money, the Embryology Agency will be stillborn, as it were.’ Carolyn’s voice was rich with authority.
‘So. How are we going to win them round?’ the Foreign Secretary said.
Cowling cleared his throat. ‘According to our embassy in Berlin – ‘
His intervention was interrupted by an ear-splitting rendition of the James Bond theme. No-one moved. The sound seemed to be coming from our end of the table. I looked at Tim Cowling. He shrugged.
I became aware of a vibration around my left nipple. It was my phone. Emily must have programmed in a new ring-tone.
I stood up to leave the room, and knocked my chair over. The heavy antique furniture crashed to the floor. The phone’s display said Wayne.
‘Perhaps it can wait, Angus?’ Cowling said.
Unconstrained by clothing, the ring-tone racket precluded all conversation. At last I managed to switch it off.
‘About bloody time,’ Lord Norfolk said.
‘Thank you,’ the Foreign Secretary said. ‘Tim?’
‘The Germans are key,’ Cowling said. ‘They won’t agree to paying more. Unless there’s something else they want.’
‘My question was,’ the Foreign Secretary said, ‘how do we win them round?’
No-one spoke. Carolyn was staring at me. I kept my eyes on the carriage clock.
‘I’m afraid, m’dear,’ Lord Norfolk said, ‘that if you expect the Foreign Office to tell you how to get what you want out of Johnny Bloody Foreigner, you’re on a hiding to nothing.’
‘Thank you, Geoff.’ The Foreign Secretary rubbed her temples. ‘Could you let me have something please, Carolyn? On how we get the money out of the Germans?’
‘Certainly,’ Carolyn said. ‘We’ll take the views of No.10 and the Treasury and put up advice in the next 24 hours.’
‘Thank you.’ The Foreign Secretary stood. ‘We don’t have much time before Cologne.’
The meeting was over. And I hadn’t said a word.
Carolyn and I had instituted regular Monday lunches when she was promoted to Director General for European Affairs twelve months before. ‘You must be in the diary,’ she’d said. ‘Otherwise, I’ll never see you.’
She’d been right. These days, most of our conversations seemed to take place in the Laughing Halibut in Strutton Ground.
Strutton Ground was a curious street. Ten minutes from the Foreign Office and five from the Palace of Westminster, it felt as if it had been transplanted whole from the depths of the East End. In low-rise parades of shops, shoe discounters jostled with dodgy cafes. On week-days hand-drawn barrows materialised on the cobbled carriageway, selling cheap batteries, wet fish, and miracle devices for cleaning both sides of window panes. At one end, sandwiched between a bookmaker’s and a charity shop, the Laughing Halibut sold the best fish and chips in central London.
I found Carolyn sitting at a Formica-topped table reading the Financial Times. It seemed to take her ages to fold the paper away.
‘Have you ordered yet?’ I said.
‘No. I was waiting for you.’
‘I thought I was pretty on-time.’
One of the Italian waiters who’d been working in the Laughing Halibut since records began came to take our order. When I said I’d have the battered sausage and chips, ‘because I feel a bit like a battered sausage today’, Carolyn didn’t smile. Nor did the waiter.
‘You can’t go through life avoiding all sources of fat.’ I grinned. ‘Anyhow, Ned was telling me about this tribe in the Amazon which eats nothing but battered sausage and chips. And they all live to be a hundred.’
‘Angus,’ Carolyn said. That was all.
‘We can’t go on like this.’
I blinked. ‘How do you mean?’
‘I’m worried about you. Whatever happened to that thrusting young second secretary I fell in love with in Paris?’
‘You never told me about him.’
Still Carolyn did not smile. ‘You were full of energy in those days. What’s gone wrong?’
The waiter dropped two plates of chips and battered objects onto the table. Suddenly I didn’t feel hungry. Something extraordinary was happening.
‘Gone wrong? What do you mean?’
‘You haven’t been promoted for a decade.’ Carolyn lowered her voice, as if the assembled crowd of office workers and taxi drivers could possibly overhear us above the din of the deep-fat friers, or would care if they could. ‘When you get a chance to show what you can do, it’s a disaster. Why didn’t you say anything this morning?’
‘I hadn’t had a chance to prepare.’
‘Do you know what the Foreign Secretary said after today’s performance? She said, ‘Who on earth is that man?”
I shook my head. ‘It’s not really me, is it? It’s your bloody reputation you’re worried about. Well, sorry if I’m embarrassing you.’
‘That’s not fair. ‘ Carolyn raised her hand as if to jab a finger at me, then lowered it. ‘OK, so nul points isn’t every woman’s dream. Oh, for heaven’s sake.’ She sat back and folded her arms. ‘I used to admire you, Angus. Now I’m not sure if I respect you. That’s all. And what kind of role model do you think you are for the children?’
A passing waiter examined our untouched plates.
‘Finished?’ he said.
‘Not yet, thanks.’ Carolyn popped a chip in her mouth and smiled up at him as though this were a lunch like any other.
‘I don’t see why you’re dragging the kids into this,’ I said. ‘Anyhow, I’m a brilliant role model. How many dads take three years off work so their wife can pursue her glittering career as head of chancery in Moscow? Don’t forget all the times I was wrestling with a double-buggy in the slush on the ring-road while you were drinking Champagne at the Kremlin. No wonder I’m three grades below you.’
‘Don’t start on about your so-called sacrifice. It was you who wanted to take time off to get to know the children better, and learn Russian. Remember?’
I said nothing. It was all true.
Carolyn leaned forward and took off her glasses. She always looked immaculate at work; but her eyes were bloodshot. ‘Angus. I know what you’re capable of. I just wish you’d take control of your life. Do something extraordinary. Save the summit. Will you try that for me? Please?’
‘Or else what? What did you mean, we can’t go on like this? Are you talking about the family? Our future?’
‘All I want is a man I can take seriously.’
‘Thanks very much.’ Inside the batter, my sausage was bright pink.
‘I’m sorry. But sometimes it’s better to get these things out in the open.’
‘No,’ Carolyn said. ‘I’m quite sure it is.’
Excerpt ends [Second excerpt]
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