‘Mary. Mary. Mary.’ Three hail Mary’s! Des, I’m not deaf. What is it?
‘I heard you the first time.’
‘Now listen,’ Oh huh! I know what’s coming—the sermon, ‘I’m really pissed off about this.’ About what? You’re always going on about some incomprehensible thing or another. You’re like that character in One Foot in the Grave. What’s his name again? We’re meant to be a married couple and, you know, Des, communicate with your wife when you talk to her.
‘The Royal Warrant. We discussed it some months ago, remember?’ Oh, that. I thought you’d dropped the idea.
‘I’ve been turned down. Told the business wasn’t suitable.’ He gestured in the air. ‘It makes me mad.’
‘Would a Royal Warrant really make such a difference?’ Well, after the wedding, I can see it gets the crowds out. But for plumbing?
‘Of course. Who wouldn’t be impressed by the fact the Queen—or the Prince of Wales, or whoever, that new couple now are—uses our services at Bucks Palace?’
‘I don’t know.’ Why should I know about your business Des, when I’ve a country to run? Pyle’s Plumbers to the Queen. It sounds like a joke, Des.
‘That, Mary, is because you’re not in the plumbing business.’ By the grace of God! But then I had to marry a plumber. What was I thinking?
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ I have to listen to your blethering on about some new regulation or whatever…
‘Plumbing is like no other business on earth…’ Oh, here we go again. I think I’ve heard this at least two hundred times, Des. You’re like some old cracked record. Can we move on, please?
‘Can we discuss this some other time?’
‘There’s never some other time. It’s like you’ve been avoiding me.’ After a day’s work, all I want to do is sleep. You should know that. Every day is exhausting, what with Brexit, the backbenchers, Cotton and Labour and the press, you’ve no idea.
‘I’ve been busy of late. Look, with the way the Cabinet is split on our future relations with Europe after Brexit, I’ve got my hands full. Look how they completely rejected my Customs Partnership. I’ve got a lot to do; you should understand that.’
‘To get what you want, you’ve got to think like a plumber.’ What plug a leak? That’s the least of my worries.
‘Come again?’ He’s gone and snapped his cockhole cover. Should I be calling the men in white coats?
‘When things are bad, and you’ve got water shooting out of a broken pipe, no one wants a long explanation or an exhaustive diagram of the technical options. What they want is a competent plumber who can be trusted to fix the problem. As in plumbing, so in politics. At least that’s what I read in The Sun.’ Of course, a leader that inspires confidence; a leader who will put things right; a leader—me!—who will make a success of Brexit. My Brexit! Des, you should be my special advisor.
‘Des, that’s just so helpful.’
‘As I told you, plumbing is special.’ He came towards her. ‘Now, about that Royal Warrant…’ No don’t start on that again.
There was a knock. Saved! Des stopped and turned to gaze at the door.
Aiden entered. ‘You asked for me PM.’ Perfect timing, Aiden. Perhaps I’ll keep you on after all.
‘Yes, of course.’ She turned to Des. ‘We’ll have to continue our discussion some other time, I need to talk to Aiden here about policy matters.’
‘Well, I really need that Warrant. That’s also government business.’ Just drop it, Des. I can’t give it to you.
‘We’ll talk about it later.’ After Brexit.
‘Just as long as we do.’ Des headed out the door, closing it noisily behind him. Aiden jumped as the door slammed. He looked guiltily at her.
‘Have you heard from Andrew?’
‘Indeed, PM, I went to see him. He’s at home and convalescing. Apparently, the knife went into his arm muscle, so there’s no real harm done. He should be back soon.’
‘I understand it was his girlfriend who assaulted him.’
‘Yes. They had a row. He told me it was because they were splitting up. She lost her temper. It’s a shame really.’
‘She attacked him with a knife. She could have killed him.’ What’s London coming to? People are getting stabbed left and right. There’s a knifing epidemic—and shootings. If I was still Home Secretary… ‘She deserves to go to jail.’
‘Oh, I hope not. I’ve met her, and she seems a decent sort. I’m sure she’s wasn’t intending to hurt Andrew. Besides, he’s not sure he wants to press charges. He says it was partly his fault.’
‘Well the police are involved and I’m sure they’ll see it goes to court. Seems an open and shut case. If she is guilty of assault with a knife, there is a mandatory prison sentence.’ I should know, I insisted on it. ‘Now what have you got for me?’
‘I have carried out the analysis you wanted.’ Well, at least someone around here is doing what I want them to. See that Ganash? You think I’m only good for holding the reins. When I want something to happen--it happens. Put that in your column.
‘Well, tell me about it.’
‘The principal conclusion is as you suspected. Barnard is trying to pull a fast one in the negotiations. Northern Ireland is his “sticking point” and he is using that to wring concessions from us. The whole thing is designed to leave the EU with a better deal than we have.’
‘That’s fairly obvious. Everyone seems to think they’ve got us licked. I need something to give us some leverage.’ That is, the Europhile Remoaner press.
‘That’s where putting it into game theory terms helps you, PM.’ Game theory? Isn’t it more about playing the game?
‘We are in a non-zero-sum game. If Brexit is handled right, both sides can be better off. To get the best for the country, you need to mix cooperation with competition and make commitments both as promises but also threats.’ Her eyes caught the portrait of the stern lady on the wall. Ah, Margaret, you were so good at this.
‘Why should we threaten the EU? Somehow, I don’t think that will improve the atmosphere of the negotiations.’
‘Well, any threat would need to be credible. Not simply petulance.’ He paused. You may speak the unpalatable, young man. She smiled at him. ‘If you started planning for a hard Brexit, then the EU might get very worried. Quite apart from the loss of the money that would go with a deal and the disruption to trade, there is the very real threat of a large economy on their doorstep which is free to engage in competitive trade practices. They have more to lose than we do. That’s why they’re trying to keep us in the negotiations.’
‘If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that we should be signalling we aren’t interested in a deal in order to get one.’
‘That’s about it.’ How do I sell this to my Cabinet? The Brexiters will be fine; it’s the Remoaners, they’ll go ape-shit if I even mention the possibility of walking away from an agreement that somehow doesn’t preserve the status quo.
‘I think I’ll need to do some plumbing.’ We’ve got to have a flood or something similar. But how?
‘Excuse me, PM?’
‘I was just thinking aloud.’
* * *
A string quartet was playing as, arm-in-arm with Dancy, Quinn entered the large hall. It was crowded. She looked at the assembled industrialists and financiers. Hah! The great and the good. Now where’s Daddy? She searched around having a good intuition as to where her father would be. There he is, in that crowd. Oh well, better go tell him we’re here. ‘This way, Darling.’ She half pulled Dancy towards a tightly packed group near a giant fireplace. They seemed engaged in an earnest discussion.
She pushed through the outer ring before getting stuck behind a wall of dinner-jacketed men who were listening intently to what her father was saying. Nothing for it. We’ll have to wait until he’s finished. She filtered out what he was saying.
Startled, Quinn turned to find a waitress at her side dispensing flutes to all and sundry. ‘Why thank you.’ She took one and passed it to Dancy before serving herself another. She took a small sip.
Her father finished and a few of the men in the crowd drifted away, opening a gap in the wall in front of her.
‘There you are Quinn!’ Yes Daddy. Your dutiful daughter is here. Obeying your instruction, as you made it absolutely clear you wanted me and Dancy to attend your reception—or else. ‘Gentlemen, may I introduce you to Quinn, my daughter.’ He gave her a perfunctory hug and a kiss on the cheek. ‘She’s currently working at Number Ten and from what I have heard, she’s making quite a mark.’ He patted her shoulder as if she was a pet to be stroked. Don’t! There was a murmur from those present. That’s it, Daddy, build me up as your “successful” daughter residing in the seat of power. It makes me want to scream you’re exploiting me like this. “Of course, my daughter is working with the Prime Minister…” Argh!
‘I’ve only been there a few months. It’s all very new.’ There, Daddy, I hope my platitude is what you want. He smiled benignly at her.
‘And this is her boyfriend, Dancy O’Donnell. He works for SilverRock Partners, the US hedge fund.’ Her father gently slapped Dancy on the shoulder. ‘How’s it going?’ Is that Dancy and me or the hedge fund? Or all three?
‘We’re having a good quarter.’ Is that true in our case, Dancy? On what evidence?
‘Splendid, splendid.’ He steered Dancy across the floor. I suppose I’m just supposed to follow along like a puppy on a lead. Quinn did her best to tail them but was intercepted by a portly, greasy-haired man holding a large beer glass, three-quarters empty.
‘Miss Harcourt-Smithers…’ What do you want? She tried to identify him but without success. ‘…working as you do in the Cabinet Office, you must often meet the PM.’
‘Yes, yes, of course I do.’ She has taken a special interest in me. But only because I’m the daughter of the chairman of the party. She wouldn’t give a toss for me otherwise. I bet she thinks I’m there to spy on her. So, what’s it to you?
‘Would you be able to arrange for me to have a private meeting with her?’ He pulled his business card out of his pocket and passed it over. Arthur Dent, CEO, XLYNG PLC. ‘Sir Andrew—your father—and I have talked on this matter and he said you would be willing to help.’ He did, did he? Thanks, Daddy. Couldn’t you have asked me my views on this? Am I to facilitate meetings with the PM so you can benefit? Is that why I’m at Number Ten? Pith.
‘I’m not sure, but I’ll see what I can do.’ Why should I help you, you fat fraud? She put the card in her handbag. ‘If you’ll excuse me, I need to join my boyfriend.’
‘Of course.’ Dent stepped aside. ‘You won’t forget, will you?’ I won’t forget to toss your damn card into the nearest bin.
She moved past him all the while searching around for Dancy and her father. She couldn’t spot them anywhere. OK, where have you vanished to?
‘Hello darling.’ Uh? A balding man had come up alongside her.
‘Yes? Do I know you?’ Why is it that I seem to be attracting a bunch of fat old men tonight?
He put a hand on her bottom and stroked it. What? She was too shocked at his gesture to immediately flick the offending hand away. ‘You know, those heels you’re wearing today are really sexy. Some of the others and I were talking about it earlier.’ You slime ball. You disgust me.
‘Get your hands off me.’ How dare you!
‘Oh, come on, darling, we both know why you’re here.’ You have no idea. Get lost.
‘What are you talking about?’ You’re revolting.
‘Come now, don’t be shy. I’m only after a bit of the boppin’ squiddles.’
She pushed him away. Filth.
‘That’s not the way to tell me you’re already paid for.’ So that’s it? You think I’m a harlot.
‘You’re repulsive, that’s what you are.’ She almost spat at him. This is…this is…it’s harassment.
Seeing her reaction, he stepped back and then turned away, muttering. Yes, piss off, you dirty old man.
Quinn let out her breath. What a shite.
Regaining her composure, she started looking again. She winkled her way between two groups of men involved in earnest discussion. She could still feel her heart beating. That was appalling behaviour.
As she moved around the room looking, she spotted, sprinkled among the dinner jacketed guests, young women in expensive and revealing dresses. They were conversing intimately with men old enough to be their fathers. It was not just one or two. She counted at least twelve before she gave up. The place’s crawling with these women. She looked down at her dress. I don’t look any different, do I?
‘Quinn!’ She turned to see who had called her. Marcia!
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I was going to ask you the same question.’
‘I’m here because Daddy told me to be. And you?’
She gestured around at the crowd of senior executives. ‘Hunting.’ What, as in fox hunting?
‘You’ve got me.’
She leaned close. ‘For a husband.’ Here? You’re crazy.
‘This place is full of old men.’ With dirty minds.
‘Correction. Old, but rich men. That’s what counts.’ You’re a gold digger! Marcia! What about all that “I’m going to live my life differently” stuff you said at uni?
‘You’re kidding me.’
‘No. I’m serious about this.’ She gestured at the assembly. ‘These men are looking for young trophy wives.’ She giggled. ‘You should consider it. Immediate wealth. A big house. Fancy holidays. Getting to meet the rich and famous. Then after a few years,’ she snapped her fingers, ‘divorce and it’s all yours.’ That’s just so…so…I’m at a loss of words for what you’re proposing.
‘They’ll see through you.’ It’s prostitution that’s what it is. You’re no better than these other hotties here getting paid to be laid.
‘Will they?’ She winked. ‘Look at me. Young. Nubile. Desirable. A real trophy. When men get middle aged they look for the elixir of youth. Some start riding Harleys, these,’ and she gestured at the nearest group of movers and shakers, ‘these find a young wife. Look at Donald Trump. How old is he?’ He’s 71, Marcia. ‘His wife must be less than half his age.’ She’s 48, not 22 like you are. She tried to guess the ages of the men nearest her. Fifties, sixties. About the same age gap then. Really! Marcia! How could you?