Unsuccessful diplomat Angus Fairfax and his wife – and boss – Carolyn have finished their lunch in “The Laughing Halibut”. Carolyn has told Angus he has lost her respect and hinted that unless he can improve his performance both at work and as a father to their two young children, both his job and his marriage to Carolyn may be over. Angus has returned to his office.
Sex and the Summit: A Novel By Robert Pimm: Episode 2
The afternoon went by in a blur. How can you focus when your boss’s boss’s boss has told you you’re a waste of space? And you’re married to her? And if you don’t buck up, your family may be finished? Had she said that? I wasn’t sure. What about Emily and Ned? A rupture between me and Carolyn would tear their lives apart. How could I prevent it? Save the summit, Carolyn had said. Based on this morning’s performance, I had more chance of learning Japanese in the next ten days. Of course, Carolyn spoke Japanese already.
I sat paralysed at my desk. E-mails pinged into my in-box. Should I chase up German positions on European Fertilisation and Embryology Agency financing through our embassy in Berlin? Or work out what had gone wrong with my life?
I was on the line to Downing Street when I saw Sarah slit her throat with her finger. Kill it.
‘The Prime Minister has a window for the French President at 8.30 tonight,’ No. 10 was saying. ‘We need your brief in half an hour tops.’
‘It’ll be ready.’ I saw Sarah waving her phone and grinning like a maniac. More cutting of that beautiful throat.
‘Try to get it right first time,’ No. 10 said. ‘You’d be amazed, the crap we get from some departments.’
‘This brief will be Nobel Prize material. Trust me.’
‘Half an hour.’ The line went dead.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ I said to Sarah. ‘No.10 are in meltdown.’
‘No.10 are calm,’ Sarah covered the mouthpiece of her phone. ‘It’s you who’s melting down. There’s another sexy-sounding woman on the line for you. Don’t panic, it’s not Jayne.’ She took her hand away. ‘I’m putting you through.’
My phone rang. The hand-set was festooned with yellow stickers. Call Madrid. EFEA: costs? Hamster food.
‘Chrissie, hi. I was told to expect a sexy-sounding woman.’
‘Who was that answering the phone?’
‘That’s Sarah. She’s our tame economist.’
‘What’s she doing rating callers? Scarlett Johansson, is she?’
‘She’s an economist. Listen, I have to brief the Prime Minister. What is it?’
‘I must talk to you. Is Carolyn in this evening?’
‘She’s in Brussels tonight.’
‘Perfect. What time shall I come?’
‘Not before ten. We’re all chained to our desks until the summit’s over.’
As I rang off, Sarah peered round her terminal, cocking her head so her hair hung down straight.
‘So,’ she said, ‘how many ex-girlfriends have you got? One out-of-breath female ringing you at work might be an isolated incident. Two seems like a pattern.’
‘Chris is Carolyn’s sister. Listen, I have to write a brief for No.10 and I haven’t the foggiest where to start.’
‘Is that a cry for help?’
‘I’m throwing myself at your mercy.’
‘French President, is it?’ Sarah was back behind her monitor, typing. ‘I might have something here.’
‘I’ll be your slave forever.’
‘That won’t be necessary. I just want to make sure you’re home in time for this so-called sister-in-law.’
Sarah was as good as her word. I emerged from the Foreign Office as Big Ben was chiming 9.45. It was drizzling in King Charles Street, a canyon of calm since parking had been banned to make life harder for terrorists. The hum of distant traffic was comforting. Millions of people, going about their lives, threatened by neither divorce nor dismissal. I pulled out my phone.
‘That was a great time to call,’ I said to Wayne. ‘I was with the Foreign Secretary.’
‘Bad day at work, is it?’
‘It’s Carolyn. Told me what she thinks of me today.’
There was a pause as Wayne spoke to someone in his office. ‘Something upset her, did it?’
‘Just my being totally useless.’
‘Relax. That’s why she likes you. Or can you think of any other reason? ‘
‘I’ve never heard her like this before.’
‘So go home and put your feet up.’
‘Put my feet up? It’s nearly ten.’
‘My whole team’s still here. Bid documents for the China Mobile deal.’
‘But you get paid to work all night.’
In St James’s Park, the trees were lit by up-lights which steamed in the rain, each surrounded by a miniature jungle of glistening grass blades. Across the lake, I could see the royal standard floodlit on top of Buck House, the original self-assertion. I am here. I am the monarch. Obscured by darkness, ducks were splashing in the water. It was always tempting to imagine how straightforward life would be if you were a duck.
‘So tell me something nice which happened today,’ Wayne said.
‘There was one good moment. Carolyn’s sister phoned and my brilliant co-worker Sarah thought it was a woman, I mean, not just a sister-in-law. The way Sarah looked at me.’
‘That’s it? Some tart in your office looked at you?’
‘Sarah’s got a double-first from the LSE and looks like an Indian princess. She was implying I’m the sort of guy women phone up.’
‘No wonder, with the sofa surfer calling you every five minutes.’
‘Jayne? That’s different.’
‘So you should be fancying yourself, not moping about Carolyn.’
‘Meanwhile Chris, the sister-in-law, asked who was answering my phone. Like I’m surrounded by women.’
Perhaps I was. Sarah was spectacular by any standard. Chris had the striking blonde quality cameras focus on in a crowd. Jayne was dynamic and curvaceous. Half the men in the Foreign Office fancied Carolyn, for that matter.
‘You’re a happily married father,’ Wayne said. ‘How are Emily and Ned?’
‘Exquisite. I’m hoping they won’t be asleep yet.’
‘I miss my girls like hell.’
‘See? You’re not happy, for all your millions.’
‘Don’t get divorced, Angus. It’s not worth it.’
‘I’ve no plans to get divorced.’
‘Neither did I.’ He rang off.
I crossed Vauxhall Bridge Road. Ahead lay the tree-lined, traffic-calmed streets of Pimlico. A few minutes later I descended the stairs to our front door.
Carolyn and I couldn’t afford to live in Warwick Square. But we’d bought when prices were rock-bottom, and it was a basement flat, and no-one had spotted the secret garden until one day Emily said ‘where does that door go?’ So we’d been lucky.
I’d been a lucky guy all round. Up to now.
When I opened the front door Amy materialised in the hall, putting on her shoes. She was wearing a green sweater and a crucifix which hung between her breasts.
‘Good evening, sir.’
‘No need to call me sir, Amy. How are the children?’
‘Both asleep, sir. How are you, sir?’
‘Did Emily finish writing her story?’
‘Very good story, sir. In her school bag. Blue one, sir.’
Amy had lined up Emily and Ned’s school bags by the front door.
‘Thanks, Amy. Shall I pay you for tonight?’
‘Better Madam pay me, sir. No mix-up.’ She giggled and covered her mouth.
‘Good night, Amy.’
‘Good night, sir.’
She was so petite it was like watching one of the children walk out of the front door. I’d need to be quick if I wanted to kiss the kids good night before Chris arrived. To breathe in their scent as they nestled in the darkness amidst duvets and soft toys was the best thing in my life.
What had Carolyn said? All I want is a man I can take seriously. What was the alternative? Answer: nothing which could harm my children. Losing Carolyn wasn’t an option.
At ten-thirty Chris walked in. I held up the kettle.
‘Fancy a coffee?’
‘I brought some wine.’ She leaned against the sink, looking even taller than usual in Caterpillar boots and a long, voluminous coat.
‘Let’s drink it. If the rain’s stopped we could go outside.’
Chris followed me along the narrow corridor which led past the children’s bedrooms. At the end was a titchy wooden door, secured by the kind of massive cast-iron bolts you find in old country churches. Ned said the door had been used by smugglers. Beyond, as if by a miracle, was the outside of the house: the end of one of the six-storey, stucco-fronted Victorian terraces which flank Warwick Square.
Outside, there was a smell of damp earth. Chris kicked half a brick across the path to hold the door open.
‘How come the garden’s always empty?’ she said. ‘I thought it was communal.’
‘Whichever cowboy architect did the conversion never thought about access. The only other way in is through Bernadette White’s French windows.’
‘The Padre Pio fan in the ground floor flat?’
‘Yep. She orders these devotional products which sit in the hall upstairs. I don’t even know what she looks like.’
Above, streetlamp-orange clouds drifted eastwards. An old candle stood on the wooden table, its wick protected from the elements by an inverted toy tea-cup. Chris lit the candle then a cigarette and blew smoke into the sky.
We drank in silence.
‘So what’s your news?’ I said.
‘You don’t mind, do you? Most of my friends are either motormouths or in advertising. Both, mostly.’
‘My lips are sealed.’
‘Well, remember Michael?’
‘American bloke. You lusted after his body.’
‘This week I engineered a trip to New York to see him.’
‘Do your shareholders know about this?’
‘I just had to persuade Anthony, my boss, to take me. Anthony’s married, two kids, Volvo. You know, game over.’
‘I’ve got two kids.’
Chris shrugged. ‘So when we get to New York, at first, Michael’s acting like we’ve never met. But after the wash-up, when we’re in the lobby, this girl comes up and gives me an envelope. Inside is a card for a restaurant, “The Pierre”, and a time, and a question mark. Cool, or what?’
‘He’s cool. In fact, I’m beginning to dislike him.’
‘But when I get to the restaurant, he’s not there.’
‘Now that is cool.’
‘When he turns up, he says he had to fix something, which he’ll tell me over coffee. So throughout the meal I’m wondering what it is.’
‘I hate him.’
‘At last he says he’s borrowed a friend’s house at Fire Island and if I want he’ll drive me there. So we set off. And being totally jet-lagged I fall asleep in the car.’
‘While Mr Who Dares Wins drives through the starlit darkness.’
‘We arrive at this wooden house in the dunes above the beach, you can see the ocean glittering.’ Chris wrapped her coat around herself. ‘By now I’m so exhausted I can hardly speak. I see right away there’s only one bedroom, with a huge double bed. It was weird, I’d fancied the guy for months, but where I came from it was 5 a.m. Next thing I know it’s light, there’s sunshine blazing in.’
‘If he brings you a fantastic breakfast in bed I’ll have to kill him.’
‘He’s toast.’ Chris has a nice laugh, like Carolyn’s, but you hear it more. ‘Melon, papaya, mango, some kind of granola stuff, a bottle of Champagne, obviously, and some croissants. I sit up in bed – ‘
‘You sit up…’
‘And I’m naked. He’s undressed me in the night.’
‘Bad or good?’
‘First thing I think is, what’s he done while I’m asleep? But I feel OK, I’d know if he’d done, well, much.’
‘Must be a man of steel.’
‘It made me feel wonderful. Sexy. Turned-on. Knowing he’d cared for me. Seen me naked. Respected me. But this becomes academic fast, because he puts the tray down and pours me a glass of Champagne. Then he pours himself one and sits on the edge of the bed, still holding the glass in one hand and the bottle in the other, like he’s saying “no hands”. That was exciting too, because I didn’t have a free hand either, we could only touch at the lips. Awesome kissing. It makes my mouth tingle to think about it.’
That was it. Michael had enjoyed fabulous sex with my sister-in-law. Chris toddled off into the night aglow with happiness and Rioja.
I was aglow too, and not because the bottle was empty. So what if Carolyn didn’t respect me? No-one ever came round to drink wine and confide in Carolyn. She was always either working or asleep.
I pictured Chris sitting up in bed, naked. Lucky Michael. Once I’d been like that, constantly on heat, enjoying my freedom to explore the world of women. I’m older now. Wiser, maybe. Married, certainly. And yet… those phone calls and talking to Sarah at work had set my pulse racing. Then Chris and her love life had taken my breath away. All within a few sweet hours. It was enough to give a saint a stiffie.
And I hadn’t had sex with Carolyn for two years.
Tuesday 29 January
Next morning I woke up with a hard-on, a sore head, a bad throat and Ned standing by the bed. Normal morning, in other words. Except for the throat, which was Chris and the cold and the late night. She’d be waking up on her own too this morning, with her tingling, sex-starved lips. What a waste.
‘I’d like some breakfast, please,’ Ned said.
‘That’s bloody polite, if you don’t mind me saying.’
Ned giggled. ‘Where’s Mummy?’
Mummy. Nul points.
‘She’s at work. In Brussels. Might bring us some chocolates, I suppose.’
The hard-on was history already. Did a prick of steel each morning make me virile? Weak-bladdered, Carolyn said.
Emily appeared. She wore her uniform, bright blue. ‘Come on, Daddy. We’ll be late for school.’
‘It makes me tired just looking at you two. I’m going back to bed.’
‘That’s fine. We can go on our own,’ Emily said. ‘We’ll cross the road on red and ask a strange man the way. Come on, Ned.’ They headed for the kitchen.
For a moment I sat smiling at my feet. Then I remembered. Save the summit. Today was the first day of my brilliant new career. Seizing control of my destiny. Astonishing Carolyn. What did all that boil down to? My task for the day: putting advice to the Foreign Secretary on how to finance the new cloning agency. A job I hadn’t even started yet.
I was in the kitchen eight minutes later.
‘What’s wrong, Daddy?’ Emily said.
‘Nothing. I stubbed my toe on the bathroom scales.’
‘It looks like someone hit you.’
‘Really?’ I touched my hand to my face and it came away covered in blood. ‘Oh, no. Look, we’re in an awful hurry. Eat up.’
‘We’ve already finished,’ Ned said. ‘It’s you that’s slow.’
With the help of the bathroom mirror I cleaned the shaving cut. Carolyn had bought me a little can of spray-on plaster for this very purpose. But there was blood on my shirt collar.
‘Come on, Daddy.’
‘I’m changing my shirt.’
‘We’ll be late.’ Emily was in the hall, waiting with Ned.
‘I’m coming. Has anyone seen my house keys?’
‘Look in your pockets.’
When we went outside the cold seemed to pour into me, scouring my throat and numbing my brain. I’d forgotten my gloves.
‘You should be wearing a hat,’ Emily said as we set off. We were holding hands in a line of three, with me in the middle.
‘No he shouldn’t,’ Ned said.
‘But it’s brass monkeys,’ Emily said.
‘Do you know where that expression comes from?’ I said. ‘Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey?’
‘Daddy,’ Emily said, ‘what if life’s a dream, and when you dream, you wake up?’
‘But you don’t always dream,’ said Ned.
‘I always have dreams,’ said Emily.
‘No you don’t,’ said Ned.
We walked through Vincent Square, past the Westminster School playing fields. A pale sun made the wet pavements shine. Thinking of Chris and her tingling mouth reminded me of an encounter I’d once had with a girl in Venice. The flavour of the Italian girl lapped around my consciousness as we homed in on the din of the school playground.
We’d got talking at San Marco watching a midnight firework display, dazzling barges mirrored in the lagoon. She was 17 and with some friends. I was 19 and alone. The two of us hooked up: a glance in a crowd, that was all it took in those days. She invited me to a party at the Lido. We first kissed standing on the vaporetto in a crowd of people: she took my lower lip in her teeth and rolled it between them. As my lips pulsed and swelled with blood I imagined everyone would see.
She had burnt-cream skin and these beautiful blue knickers, making her the first girl I ever met who thought underwear was meant to look good. She took me to a spot between some bathing huts and at one point offered to take the blue knickers off too. But somehow they stayed on, a single garment between the two of us, it didn’t matter. It was magic in the half-light on the cool, damp sand with the sounds of the party on the beach behind us. She seemed as happy as I felt.
Part of me was still in Venice as I kissed Ned and Emily goodbye and threaded my way through the playground towards work. In my mind I caressed the Italian girl, one of the army of ghost women, sleeping in my memory like King Arthur’s knights in their cave. In the past they’d been a lively lot, the memories of my old girlfriends and lovers: they’d given me much pleasure. But as the years went by they seemed to sleep more soundly: it had taken Jayne and Sarah and Chris to raise my Italian girl from her slumbers. Her round, firm thighs rubbed against mine as I waited to cross Victoria Street at New Scotland Yard. Her soft shoulders glistened as I descended Cockpit Steps and crossed St James’s Park. Only when I started climbing the octagonal staircase towards my office did the impending catastrophe of my day at work chase her back into my cave of memory.
Sarah was on the phone when I walked in.
‘Ja, klar,’ she was saying. ‘Klar.’
I sat down, logged on and felt my heart sink. Fertilisation and Embryology Agency financing. Carolyn. Saving the summit. Since the Foreign Secretary’s meeting the day before, three-quarters of the 24 hours available to produce advice on how to get money out of the Germans had vanished without trace. During the night, hundreds more e-mails from around the world had poured into my in-box. Who actually read all this stuff?
I clicked on the press summary. It seemed to consist entirely of articles about the futility of efforts to regulate human reproductive issues at international level and why the Prime Minister’s efforts to achieve this were doomed to failure.
There was a round of applause. Two personal e-mails had pinged into my system.
They were from Jayne Garcia.
As I moved to double-click, I became conscious of the aura of stale tobacco which presaged Tim Cowling. Jayne’s e-mail was open. I minimised it as Tim appeared. Sarah went on talking on the phone.
‘Just checking my e-mails,’ I said.
‘Any replies yet?’
I looked at him. ‘Quite a few of them are replies.’
‘Angus. You’re aware of the importance of the advice we have to submit to the Foreign Secretary today. So I’m full of optimism that after our meeting yesterday, you at once set out to establish the views of your friends in No.10, the Treasury and the Berlin embassy on what we’re going to do about the Germans and EFEA financing.’
‘I sent some e-mails. I’ll chase ’em up now.’
‘Have you perused the press this morning?’
‘I know, it’s all about how useless the Prime Minister is.’
‘Correct. Failure at Cologne will be a failure for the British government. And whom do you imagine the PM might blame for that?’
‘Us, I suppose. The FCO.’
‘Yes. The department for dealing with foreigners, as our own Lord Norfolk might put it.’ Cowling paused. ‘So could you possibly get your advice to me by lunchtime?’
‘Lunchtime.’ The e-mail was winking up at me, provocatively minimised. ‘Jayne Ga… ‘ I nodded.
‘Good.’ Cowling ran his hand over his bald head as if smoothing back an imaginary growth of hair. ‘I think you’ll find, Angus, that adherence to deadlines is a habit of inestimable worth. Remember what the sage said. There is no sock so taut that it cannot be pulled up further.’
‘Einen Moment,’ Sarah said to her unseen interlocutor. She turned to Cowling. ‘That’s a bit sexist, isn’t it? Hell of a boy-ish image, pulling your socks up.’
Cowling smiled. ‘I should have thought socks were worn by both sexes.’
‘But equal opportunities legislation prohibits conditions of employment which can be satisfied by a higher proportion of one sex than the other. Like being over six feet tall. I think you’ll find that a higher proportion of men wear socks than women.’
‘I haven’t got time for this now,’ Cowling said. ‘Lunchtime, Angus.’ He left.
I watched Sarah ring off. ‘So it’s true, women can’t resist a chance to help someone.’
Her glossy lips twisted into a smile. ‘Lucky he didn’t notice it was all bullshit. Speaking of which, you haven’t done anything at all yet, have you?’
‘No. Remember, I’m the guy who missed the first session of the time management seminar.’
‘You’re kidding! I thought that was an urban myth.’
‘Nope. It was one of Tim’s Angus-improvement strategies. For a joke, I turned up 10 minutes late, only to find I was the first person there, everyone else was even later. Then it turned out I was in the wrong building. When I eventually made it, this class of supposedly disorganised types was half-way through their coffee-break.’
‘I have an idea for how you can spice up your options paper for the Foreign Secretary.’
‘Hang on while I read this e-mail. It’s from Jayne.’
‘On behalf of Jayne Garcia,’ it started. Nice way to show off your PA. The copy list was long enough to need a side-bar. ‘Hi everyone! Houston beckons! I’m going, so please please please come to see me off tonight, 6.30 ’til late at Champs Champagne Bar, High Holborn. Positively your last chance to see!‘
I opened the second e-mail.
I know you don’t want to talk to me. But tonight really is your last chance. I leave tomorrow. Free Champagne. Love to see you. Bring a friend if you want.
Sarah was watching me. ‘Let me guess. She’s invited you for a farewell drink.’
‘So when did you do the psychic powers training?’
‘She’s invited me, too.’
I looked at the copy list again. There she was: email@example.com.
‘But she’s never met you.’
‘We’re practically best friends, the number of times I’ve told her you’re not here. But I don’t fancy going on my own.’
‘Well, I’m not going.’
‘OK.’ Sarah sat back. ‘Good luck with your paper.’
‘What is this? Blackmail?’
‘But if I screw up on this advice I’m dead.’
Sarah was looking at me as if I’d gone mad. How could I tell her? If I can’t show Carolyn I’m not a loser she’ll fire me and divorce me and my children’s lives will be destroyed.
‘You know I’ve been trying to avoid talking to Jayne. How can I go to her party?’
‘Because I want you to. I’m dying to see this ex-girlfriend you’re so scared of. I’m sure Carolyn won’t mind.’
‘I don’t need Carolyn’s bloody permission.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
It was a good question. There would be a crowd of colleagues, tearful farewells, and Jayne would jet off to Boston. What could go wrong? Plus I’d have Sarah with me. The thought of spending time with such a beautiful, brilliant woman gave me a glow of pleasure. She was right. All Carolyn cared about was her reputation as the world’s leading diplomat. She wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I went out for drinks with a hundred ex-girlfriends. Maybe I should try it.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘Let’s go. Together.’
‘What’s your idea for the brief?’
‘Right. Why not go to Berlin this week? Talk to the German Finance Ministry? You could get the embassy to fix you a call on Koch, to discuss his eponymous EU financing plan. You know, the Finanzkraftdifferenzbezogener Realhaushaltszahlungsausgleichs-Trägerfunktionsmechanismus.‘
‘Yeah, the Saving Germany Money Plan. I guess it might help fund the EFEA. But Koch is too senior for me, he’s Carolyn’s level. And the Treasury are bound to muscle in.’
‘Koch doesn’t speak English, and the Treasury hate paying for interpreters. Plus, they don’t give a damn whether the summit succeeds or not. Tim’s right. If we leave this to the Treasury and No.10, it’s the Foreign Office who’ll get dumped on. You could call on the Federal Chancellor’s office while you’re there. A week before Cologne, the timing’s perfect.’
‘It is. If I go on Friday, I can spend the weekend in Berlin. I’ve always wanted to see the Wall.’
‘The Wall’s gone. You missed it.’
‘But the place where it used to be is still there.’
‘OK. Now, I’m not going to make a habit of this, but for Champagne and a night out I’ll do anything. Let’s brainstorm on your submission.’
P.S. to enjoy regular doses of fresh writing, sign up for e-mail updates (top right – the “click here” blue button). Or check out all the writing on this site via the sitemap and guide.
I hope you liked this second excerpt from “Sex and the Summit”. Comments welcome.
If you’re a publisher or film producer and want to get in touch, that’s OK. I have a fully worked-up film treatment for “Sex and the Summit” ready to go.