/ Language: English / Genre:love_contemporary

Rivals

Jilly Cooper


Jilly Cooper

RIVALS

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A very large number of people helped me with this book. Most of them work in television and are exceptionally busy. They still found the time to talk to me and — particularly in the case of those from HTV — to entertain me with lavishness and generosity. All of them are experts in their own field. But as I was writing fiction, I only took their advice so far as it fitted my plot. The accuracy of the book in no way reflects their expertise. They were also all so nice to me that it was impossible to base any of the unpleasant characters in the story on any of them.

They include Georgina Abrahams, Rita Angel, William Beloe, Michael Blakstad, Roy Bottomley, James Bredin, Adrian Brenard, Doug Carnegie, Stephen Cole, John Corbett, Jenny Crick, Mike Davey, Geoff Druett, Ron Evans, Su Evans, James Gatward, David Glencross, Stuart Hall, Nick Handel, Tom Hartman, Barbara Hazell, Stan Hazell, Paul Heiney, Bruce Hockin, Alison Holloway, Patricia Houlihan, Bryan Izzard, Philip Jones, Barbara Kelly, Susan Kyle, Maurice Leonard, Barrie MacDonald, Billy Macqueen, George McWatters, Steve Matthews, Lesley Morgan, Malcolm Morris, Jack Patterson, Bob Simmons, Tom Walsh, Ann de Winton, Richard Whitely, Ron Wordley and Richard Wyatt.

Tragically, dear Eamonn Andrews, with whom I was privileged to work for four series on ‘What’s My Line?’, died in November, after the book was finished. His utter integrity, professionalism and gentle humour were a constant source of inspiration while I was writing it.

I should also like to thank the crews, the drivers, the make-up girls and the wardrobe staff with whom I worked over the years, who came up with endless suggestions.

I must thank the people who wrote three books which were invaluable to me in understanding the extraordinarily complicated process by which television franchises are awarded. They are Walter Butler, author of How to Win the Franchise and Influence People, Michael Leapman, author of Treachery? The Power Struggle at TV-am, and Asa Briggs and Joanna Spicer, joint authors of The Franchise Affair — Creating fortunes and failures in Independent Television.

I am also eternally grateful to Peter Cadbury, former Chairman of Westward Television, for giving me access to his autobiography which unaccountably has never been published, to Robin Currie, of the Fire and Rescue Service HQ, Cheltenham, to Toni Westall, secretary to Captain Brian Walpole, General Manager, Concorde, and to Tim and Primrose Unwin for inviting me to some excellent hunt balls.

In addition I need to thank my Bank Manager, Keith Henderson, my publishers, Paul Scherer, Mark Barty-King and Alan Earney and all their staff at Bantam Press and Corgi, and my agent Desmond Elliott, for their faith and continued encouragement.

Three brave ladies, Beryl Hill, Sue Moore and Geraldine Kilgannon, deserve thanks and praise for deciphering my ghastly handwriting and typing several chapters of the manuscript; so does my cleaner, Ann Mills, for mucking out my study once a fortnight.

Finally, once again there are no words adequate to thank Leo, my husband, my children, Felix and Emily, and my secretary, Annalise Kay, whom I regard as one of the family, and who typed ninety per cent of the manuscript. Their collective good cheer, unselfishness and comfort over the past eighteen months knew no bounds.

Bisley, Gloucestershire

1987.

‘Last Christmas’ by George Michael reprinted by kind permission of Morrison and Leahy Music.

‘The Lady in Red’ by Chris de Burgh reprinted by kind permission of Rondor Music (London) Limited.

‘I Get a Kick Out of You’. Words and music by Cole Porter © 1934 Harms Incorporated. Reproduced by permission of Chappell Music Limited, © 1934 Warner Bros. Incorporated. (Renewed). All rights reserved. Used by permission.

‘We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off’ by Narada Michael Walden and Preston Glass © 1986. Reprinted by kind permission of Carlin Music Corporation and Island Music, UK; Mighty Three Music Group and Gratitude Sky Music, USA; MCA/Gilbey and Rondor Music, Australia.

CHARACTERS IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER

JOHNNY ABRAHAMS

Head of News and Current Affairs, BBC.

GEORGIE BAINES

Sales Director, Corinium Television.

LADY BARNSLEY

A member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), late of the White Fish Authority.

BIRGITTA

A comely but bolshie nanny working for the Verekers.

HARDY BISSETT

A franchise expert. Late of the IBA.

MR AND MRS BODKIN

Rupert Campbell-Black’s couple.

SIR CEDRIC

BONNINGTON

Chairman of Mid-West Television.

HUBERT BRENTON

Bishop of Cotchester.

ANTHONY, SECOND

BARON BADDINGHAM

Chairman and Managing Director, Corinium Television.

MONICA BADDINGHAM

His wife.

ARCHIE BADDINGHAM

His elder son.

BASIL BADDINGHAM

Tony’s illegitimate brother, ace polo player, and owner of the Bar Sinister in Cotchester High Street.

SEBASTIAN BURROWS

A news reporter, Corinium Television.

DAYSEE BUTLER

A very beautiful, stupid PA, Corinium Television.

RUPERT

CAMPBELL-BLACK

Minister for Sport. Tory MP for Chalford and Bisley. Ex-member of the British show-jumping team.

MARCUS

CAMPBELL-BLACK

His son.

TABITHA

CAMPBELL-BLACK

His daughter.

CAMERON COOK

Producer/Director, NBS, New York. Later Head of Drama, Corinium Television.

CHARLES CRAWFORD

Retiring Chairman of the IBA.

JUDGE DAVEY

A member of the IBA.

OWEN DAVIES

Leader of the Opposition.

WESLEY EMERSON

Gloucester and England bowler.

SUZY ERIKSON

An American ex-girlfriend of Rupert Campbell-Black.

LADY EVESHAM

An early feminist, and non-executive Director, Corinium Television.

CHARLES FAIRBURN

Head of Religious Broadcasting, Corinium Television.

JOHNNY

FRIEDLANDER

American actor and megastar.

MARTI GLUCKSTEIN

A brilliant East End accountant.

MALISE GORDON

Ex-

chef d’équipe

of the British show-jumping team.

HELEN GORDON

His wife. Ex-wife of Rupert Campbell-Black and mother of Marcus and Tabitha.

LADY GOSLING

Chairman of the IBA.

GRACE

Declan O’Hara’s housekeeper.

CRISPIN GRAYSTOCK

Professor of English at Cotchester University and a disgusting lecher.

HENRY HAMPSHIRE

Lord-Lieutenant of Gloucestershire-a much less disgusting lecher.

SIMON HARRIS

Controller of Programmes, Corinium Television.

GEORGINA HARRISON

An undergraduate.

RONNIE HAVEGAL

Head of Co-Productions, NBS, New York.

HAZEL

A BBC make-up girl.

RALPHIE HENRIQUES

An undergraduate at Trinity Dublin.

IVOR HICKS

Corporate Development Controller, Corinium Television.

JILLY

Yet another Vereker nanny, but for once a dependable boot.

BEATTIE JOHNSON

Fleet Street columnist, ghosting Rupert Campbell-Black’s memoirs.

GINGER JOHNSON

Financial Director, Corinium Television. No relation to Beattie.

FREDDIE JONES

A multi-millionaire in electronics.

VALERIE JONES

His wife, a nightmare.

SHARON JONES

His overweight daughter.

DEIRDRE KILPATRICK

A researcher at Corinium Television.

LAVINIA

Patrick O’Hara’s girlfriend.

BILLY LLOYD-FOXE

Sports Presenter, BBC.

JANEY LLOYD-FOXE

An author and national newspaper columnist.

DERMOT MACBRIDE

A playwright and Angry Not-So-Young man.

JOYCE MADDEN

Lord Baddingham’s secretary, Corinium Television.

MRS MAKEPIECE

A ‘treasure’ who cleans for Valerie Jones and Lizzie Vereker.

KEVIN MAKEPIECE

Her son.

TRACEY MAKEPIECE

Her daughter.

SALLY MAPLES

Head of Children’s Programmes, Yorkshire Television.

MIKE MEADOWS

Head of Sport, Corinium Television.

MRS MENZIES-SCOTT

Ex-head of the Women’s Institute, a member of the IBA.

GERALD MIDDLETON

Parliamentary Private Secretary to Rupert Campbell-Black.

DECLAN O’HARA

A television megastar.

MAUD O’HARA

His ex-actress wife.

PATRICK O’HARA

His son, an undergraduate at Trinity Dublin.

AGATHA (TAGGIE)

O’HARA

His elder daughter.

CAITLIN O’HARA

His younger daughter.

ORTRUD

Yet another of the Verekers’ comely nannies.

CYRIL PEACOCK

Lord Baddingham’s PA and sometime Press Officer, Corinium Television.

THE VERY REVEREND

FERGUS PENNEY

An ex-Prebendary of the Church of England, and a member of the IBA.

PERCY

Lord Baddingham’s chauffeur.

PASCOE RAWLINGS

The most powerful theatrical agent in London.

BARTON SINCLAIR

Director of

The Merry Widow.

SKIP

A beautiful American lawyer.

LORD SMITH

An ex-Secretary of the TGWU.

DAME ENID SPINK

A distinguished composer and Professor of Music at Cotchester University.

PAUL STRATTON

Tory MP for Cotchester. An ex-Cabinet Minister.

SARAH STRATTON

His ravishing second wife and ex-secretary.

SYDNEY

Rupert’s driver.

URSULA

Declan O’Hara’s secretary.

JAMES VEREKER

Anchorman of ‘Cotswold Round-Up’, Corinium Television.

LIZZIE VEREKER

His wife, a novelist.

ELEANOR VEREKER

His daughter.

SEBASTIAN VEREKER

His son.

HAROLD WHITE

Director of Programmes, London Weekend Television.

MAURICE WOOTON

A bent Gloucestershire property millionaire.

1

Sitting in the Concorde departure lounge at Heathrow on a perfect blue June morning, Anthony, second Baron Baddingham, Chairman and Managing Director of Corinium Television, should have been perfectly happy. He was blessed with great wealth, a title, a brilliant career, a beautiful flat in Kensington, houses in Gloucestershire and Tuscany, a loyal, much-admired wife, three charming children and a somewhat demanding mistress, to whom he had just bidden a long farewell on the free telephone beside him.

He was about to fly on his favourite aeroplane, Concorde, to his favourite city, New York, to indulge in his favourite pastime — selling Corinium’s programmes to American television and raising American money to make more programmes. Tony Baddingham was a great believer in using Other People’s Money, or OPM as he called it; then if a project bombed, someone else picked up the bill.

As a final bonus, neatly folded beside him were the morning papers, which he’d already read in the Post House Hotel, and which all contained glowing reports of Corinium’s past six months’ results, announced yesterday.

Just as he had been checking out of the Post House an hour earlier, however, Tony’s perfect pleasure had been ruined by the sight of his near neighbour and long-term rival, Rupert Campbell-Black, checking in. He was scribbling his signature with one hand and holding firmly on to a rather grubby but none-the-less ravishing girl with the other.

The girl, who had chipped nail polish, wildly tangled blonde hair, mascara smudges under her eyes, and a deep suntan, had obviously just been pulled out of some other bed and was giggling hysterically.

‘Ru-pert,’ she wailed, ‘there simply isn’t time; you’ll miss the plane.’

‘It’ll wait,’ said Rupert, and, gathering up his keys, started to drag her towards the lift. As the doors closed, like curtains coming down on the first act of a play, Tony could see the two of them glued together in a passionate embrace.

A deeply competitive man, Tony had felt dizzy with jealousy. He had seldom, particularly since he had inherited the title and become Chief Executive of Corinium, had any difficulty attracting women, but he’d never attracted anything so wantonly desirable and desiring as that grubby, vaguely familiar blonde.

‘More coffee, Lord Baddingham?’ One of the beautiful attendants in the Concorde Lounge interrupted Tony’s brooding. He shook his head, comforted by the obvious admiration in her voice.

‘Shouldn’t we be boarding?’ he asked.

‘We’ll be a few minutes late. There was a slight engineering problem. They’re just doing a last-minute check.’

Tony glanced round the departure lounge, filled with businessmen and American tourists, and noticed a pale, redheaded young man in a grey pinstripe suit, who had stopped his steady flow of writing notes on a foolscap pad and was looking apprehensively at his watch.

Boarding the plane twenty minutes later, Tony found himself sitting up at the front on an inside seat with a Jap immersed in a portable computer on his right. Across the gangway next to the window sat the young man in the pinstripe suit. He was even paler now and looking distinctly put out.

‘Good morning, Lord Baddingham,’ said a stewardess, handing Tony that day’s newly-flown-in copy of the Wall Street Journal.

‘Engineering fault sorted out?’ asked Tony, as the engines started revving up.

Not quite meeting his eyes, the girl nodded brightly; then, looking out of the window, she seemed to relax as a black car raced across the tarmac. Next there was a commotion, as a light, flat, familiar drawl could be heard down the gangway:

‘Frightfully sorry to hold you all up; traffic was diabolical.’

All the stewardesses seemed to converge on the new arrival, fighting to carry his newspaper and put his hand luggage up in the locker.

‘Won’t you be needing your briefcase, Minister?’ asked a male steward, shimmying down the gangway.

Rupert Campbell-Black shook his head. ‘No thanks, sweetheart.’

‘Have a nice zizz then,’ said the male steward, going crimson with pleasure at the endearment.

As the doors slammed shut, Rupert collapsed into the seat across the gangway from Tony. Wearing a crumpled cream suit, a blue striped shirt, dark glasses and with an eighth of an inch of stubble on his chin, he looked more like a rock star than one of Her Majesty’s ministers.

‘Terribly sorry, Gerald,’ he murmured to the pale young man in the pinstripe suit. ‘There was a terrible pile-up on the M4.’

Smiling thinly, Gerald removed a blonde hair from Rupert’s lapel.

‘I really must buy you an alarm clock for Christmas, Minister. If you’d missed that lunchtime speech, we’d have been in real stück. Good of them to hold the plane.’

‘Thank Christ they did.’ Looking round, Rupert saw Tony Baddingham and grinned. ‘Why, it’s the big Baddingham wolf.’

‘Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t you?’ said Tony disapprovingly.

Both men required each other’s goodwill. Rupert, as an MP within Tony’s television company’s territory, needed the coverage, whereas Tony needed Rupert’s recommendation to the Government that he was running a respectable company. But it didn’t make either like the other any better.

‘Bloody good results you had this morning,’ said Rupert, fastening his seat belt. ‘I’d better buy some Corinium shares.’

Slightly mollified, Tony congratulated Rupert on his recent appointment as Tory Minister for Sport.

Rupert shrugged. ‘The PM’s shit-scared about football hooliganism — seems to think I can come up with some magic formula.’

‘Setting a Yobbo to catch a Yobbo perhaps,’ said Tony nastily, then regretted it.

‘I was at Thames Television yesterday,’ said Rupert icily, as the plane taxied towards the runway. ‘After the programme I had a drink with the Home Secretary and the Chairman of the IBA. They were both saying that you’d better watch out. If you don’t spend a bit more of that bloody fortune you’re coining from advertising on making some decent programmes, you’re going to lose your franchise.’

As Rupert leant forward so Tony could hear him over the engines, Tony caught a whiff of the scent the girl had been wearing in the Post House foyer earlier.

‘And you ought to spend some time in the area. How the hell can you run a television company in the Cotswolds, if you spend all your time in London, hawking your ass round the advertising companies?’

‘The shareholders wouldn’t be very pleased if I didn’t,’ said Tony, thoroughly nettled. ‘Look at our results.’

Rupert shrugged again. ‘You’re also supposed to make good programmes. As your local MP I’m just passing on what’s being said.’

‘As one of your more influential constituents,’ said Tony, furiously, ‘I don’t think you should be checking into the Post House with bimbos half your age.’

Rupert laughed. ‘That was no bimbo, that was Beattie Johnson.’

Of course! Instantly Tony remembered the girl. Beattie Johnson was one of the most scurrilous and successful women columnists — dubbed by Private Eye ‘the First not-quite-a-lady of Fleet Street’.

‘She’s ghosting my memoirs,’ added Rupert. ‘We were doing research. I always believe in laying one’s ghost.’

Below the blank stare of the dark glasses, his curved smiling mouth seemed even more insolent. As the plane revved up, both men turned to look out of the window, and Tony found himself trembling with rage. But not even the splendid, striped-silk-shirted bosom of the air hostess, which rose and fell as she showed passengers how to inflate their life jackets, could keep Rupert’s eyes open. By the time they were airborne, he was asleep.

Tony accepted a glass of champagne and tried to concentrate on the Wall Street Journal. He didn’t know which he resented most — Rupert’s habitual contempt, his ability to sleep anywhere, his effortless acquisition of women, or the obvious devotion of the palely efficient Gerald, who was now sipping Perrier and polishing the speech Rupert was to deliver to the International Olympic Committee at lunchtime.

There had hardly been a husband in Gloucestershire, indeed in the world, Tony reflected, who hadn’t cheered four years ago when Rupert’s beautiful wife, Helen, had walked out on him in the middle of the Los Angeles Olympics, running off with another rider and causing Rupert the maximum humiliation.

But, infuriatingly, Rupert had appeared outwardly unaffected and had risen to the occasion by winning a show-jumping gold medal despite a trapped shoulder nerve, and going on two years later to win the World Championship, the only prize hitherto to elude him. Then, giving up show jumping at the pinnacle of his fame, he had moved effortlessly into politics, winning the Tory seat of Chalford and Bisley with ease. Even worse, he had turned out a surprisingly good MP, being very quick on his feet, totally unfazed by the Opposition or the Prime Minister, and prepared to fight very hard for his constituency.

Although scandal had threatened eighteen months ago, when Rupert’s then mistress, Amanda Hamilton, wife of the Foreign Secretary, had withdrawn her patronage on finding out that Rupert was also sleeping with her teenage daughter, by this time, in the eyes of a doting Prime Minister, Rupert could do no wrong. Now, as Minister for Sport, with Gerald Middleton as an exceptional private secretary to do all the donkey work, Rupert was free to roam round exuding glamour, raising money for the Olympic team here, defusing a riot against a South African athlete there. Responsibility, however, hadn’t cleaned up his private life at all. Divorced from Helen, he could behave as he chose, hence his cavorting with Beattie Johnson in the Post House that morning.

Glancing at Rupert, sprawled out on the pale-grey leather seat, taking up most of Gerald’s leg room, beautiful despite the emergent stubble, Tony felt a further stab of jealousy. He couldn’t remember a time in his forty-four years when he hadn’t envied the Campbell-Blacks. For all their outlandish behaviour, they had always been looked up to in Gloucestershire. They had lived in the same beautiful house in Penscombe for generations, while Tony was brought up behind net curtains in a boring semi in the suburbs of Cheltenham. Tony also had a chip because he only went to a grammar school, where he’d been teased for being fat and short, and because his conventional colourless father (although subsequently ennobled for his work in the war) had been considered far too valuable as a munitions manufacturer to be allowed to go off and fight, unlike Rupert’s father, Eddie, who’d had a dazzling war in the Blues.

Even when Tony’s father had been given his peerage, Eddie Campbell-Black and his cronies had laughed, always referring to him dismissively as Lord Pop-Pop, as they blasted away slaughtering wild life with one of his products on their large estates.

Growing up near the Campbell-Blacks, Tony had longed to be invited to Penscombe and drawn into that rackety, exciting set. But the privilege had been bestowed on his brother Basil, who was ten years younger and who, because Tony’s father had made his pile by then, had been given a pony to ride and sent to Harrow instead of a grammar school, and had there become a friend of Rupert’s.

As a result of such imagined early deprivation, Tony had grown up indelibly competitive — not just at work, but also socially, sexually, and at all games. Spurning the family firm when he left school, he’d gone straight into advertising and specialized in buying television air time. Having learnt the form, from there he moved to the advertising side of television. A brilliant entrepreneur, who felt he was slipping unless he had a dozen calls from Tokyo and New York during Christmas dinner, by changing jobs repeatedly he had gained the plum post of Chief Executive at Corinium Television eight years ago.

Having shot up to five feet ten and lost his puppy fat in his twenties, Tony had in middle age grown very attractive in a brutal sort of way; although with his Roman nose, heavy-lidded charcoal-grey eyes, coarsely modelled mouth and springy close-cropped dark hair, he looked more like a Sicilian wide boy than an English peer. He chose to proclaim the latter, however, by wearing coronets on absolutely everything. And on the little finger on his left hand gleamed a massive gold signet ring, sporting the Baddingham crest of wrestling rams, above the motto chosen by Lord Pop-Pop: Peaceful is the country that is strongly armed.

Considerably adding to Tony’s sex appeal was a hunky bull-necked body, kept in shape by self-control and ruthless exercise, and a voice deliberately deep and smooth to eradicate any trace of a Gloucestershire accent. This only slipped when he went into one of his terrifying rages, which flattened the Corinium Television staff against the cream-hessianed walls of his vast office.

In fact, it irritated the hell out of Tony that, despite his success, his fortune and his immense power, Rupert still refused to take him seriously. He would not have been so upset by Rupert’s sniping if it had not echoed a warning last night from Charles Crawford, the rotund and retiring Chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (or IBA as they were known). The IBA’s job was to grant franchises to the fifteen independent television companies every eight years or so, monitor their programmes and generally beat them with a big stick if they stepped out of line.

After his programme with Rupert and the Home Secretary at Thames Television yesterday, Charles Crawford had gone on to the Garrick to dine with Tony.

‘As an old friend,’ said Charles, greedily pouring the cream Tony had rejected together with his own supply over his strawberries, ‘I don’t see what else we can do but give you a stinking mid-term report. You promised us Corinium would provide at least ten hours’ drama a year for the network, and all you’ve produced is one lousy cops-and-robbers two-parter, totally targeted at the American market. Why can’t you provide some decent programmes, like Patrick Dromgoole does at HTV?’

For a second Tony gritted his teeth. He was fed up with having Patrick Dromgoole and HTV held up to him as models of perfection. Then pulling himself together he filled up Charles Crawford’s glass with priceless Barsac.

‘Things are going to change,’ he said soothingly. ‘I’ve just poached Simon Harris from the BBC as Programme Controller. He’s very hot on drama, and has dreamed up a terrific idea for a thirteen-parter, a cross between James Herriot and “Animal House”.’

‘Well that’s a start,’ grumbled Charles, ‘but your regional programmes are quite awful too. Your territory — which you conveniently seem to have forgotten — stretches from Oxford to Wales, and from Southampton to Stratford. And you’re supposed to cover the whole area. That’s why we gave you the franchise.

‘We also know you’ve been spending Corinium advertising profits, which should have been spent improving your programmes, buying up. .’ Charles ticked the list off with his fat fingers, ‘a film production company, a publishing firm, a travel agency, a cinema chain, a film library, and a safari park, and what’s this I hear about plans to buy an American distribution company? American, for Christ’s sake.’

‘That’s fallen through,’ lied Tony. ‘It was only an idea.’

‘Well, keep it that way. Finally you’ve got to spend more time in your area. Many of your staff have absolutely no idea what you look like. I could understand if you had to live in the middle of Birmingham or even Manchester, but Cotchester must be the most delightfully civilized town in the country. We awarded you the franchise to reflect the region responsibly, and we’ve given you a very easy ride up till now.’

And I’ve given you some bloody good dinners, thought Tony sourly, as Charles sniffed appreciatively at a passing plate of welsh rarebit.

‘But when Lady Gosling takes over from me in the autumn, ’ went on Charles, spooning up the last drop of pink cream, ‘you’re all going to feel the chill cloud of higher education across the industry. Lady G believes in quality programmes and lots of women at the helm. Go on producing your usual crap, and you’ll be out on your ear.’

Having brooded on this conversation and on Rupert Campbell-Black’s contumely the entire flight, the only thing that managed to cheer Tony up was when the limousine that met him at Kennedy turned out to be at least three feet longer than Rupert’s and twice as plush.

2

Tony’s rule, once he got to America, was never to check what time it was in England. To compensate for such an unsatisfactory start to the day, he spent the next few hours in a heady spate of wheeling and dealing, selling the format of two sit-coms and a game show for such a large sum that it wouldn’t matter even if they bombed. It was only when he got back to the Waldorf and found three messages to ring his very demanding mistress, Alicia, and, checking the time, realized that he couldn’t because it was long after midnight and she’d be tucked up in bed with her husband, that he suddenly felt tired.

He kicked himself for agreeing to dine with Ronnie Havegal, Head of Co-Productions at NBS, particularly as Ronnie had asked if he could bring some producer called Cameron Cook.

‘Cameron’s a good friend of mine,’ Ronnie had said in his Harvard drawl. ‘Very bright, just done a documentary on debutantes, up for a Peabody award, real class; they like that sort of thing in England.’

With his royal-blue blazers, butterscotch tan, and streaked hair, Tony had often wondered about Ronnie’s sexual preferences. He didn’t want to spend an evening avoiding buying some lousy programme from one of Ronnie’s fag friends. Yanks always got class wrong anyway.

Christ, he was tired. Unable to master the taps in the shower, he shot boiling lava straight into his eyes. Then, forgetting to put the shower curtain inside the bath, he drenched the floor and his only pair of black shoes.

Tony spent a lot of money on his clothes and ever since he’d seen Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls as a teenager tended to wear dark shirts with light ties. The new dark-blue silk shirt Alicia had given him for his birthday would be wasted on two fags. He would keep it for lunch with Ali MacGraw tomorrow. Dressed, he fortified himself with a large whisky and put the presentation booklet of ‘Four Men went to Mow’, Simon Harris’s new idea for a thirteen-part series, on the glass table, together with a video of possible exteriors and interiors to give the Americans a taste of the ravishing Cotswold countryside.

He was woken by Ronnie ringing up from downstairs. But when Ronnie came through the door, Tony suddenly didn’t feel tired any more, for with him was the sexiest, most truculent-looking girl Tony had ever seen. Around twenty-six, she was wearing a straight linen dress, the colour of a New York taxi, and earrings like mini satellite dishes. She had a lean, wonderfully rapacious body, long legs, very short dark hair sleeked back from her thin face, and a clear olive skin. With her straight black brows, angry, slightly protruding amber eyes, beaky nose and predatory mouth, she reminded him of a bird of prey — beautiful, intensely ferocious and tameable only by the few. She gave out an appalling sexual energy.

She was also so rude to Ronnie, who was very much her senior, that at first Tony assumed they must be sleeping together. He soon realized she was rude to everyone.

‘This is Cameron Cook,’ said Ronnie.

Nodding angrily in Tony’s direction, Cameron set off prowling round the huge suite, looking at the large blue urn in the centre of the living-room holding agapanthus as big as footballs, the leather sofas and arm chairs, the vast double bed next door, and the six telephones (with one even in the shower).

‘Shit!’ Her voice was low and rasping. ‘This place is bigger than Buckingham Palace; no wonder you Brits need American co-production money.’

Tony, who was opening a bottle of Dom Perignon, ignored the jibe, and asked Cameron where she came from.

‘Cincinnati.’

‘City of the seven hills,’ said Tony smoothly. ‘But you must have bought those legs in New York.’

Cameron didn’t smile.

‘You don’t look like a Lord, more like a Mafia hood. What do I call you: Your Grace, Sir, my Lord, Baron, Lord Ant?’

‘You can call me Tony.’ He handed her a glass.

Cameron picked up the presentation booklet of ‘Four Men went to Mow’. Kicking off her flat black shoes, she curled up, looking very tiny on the huge pockmarked red leather sofa.

‘What’s this shit?’

‘Cameron!’ remonstrated Ronnie.

‘Corinium’s latest thirteen-parter,’ explained Tony. ‘We aim to start shooting in October.’

‘If you get American finance,’ said Cameron, sharply.

Tony nodded. ‘We’ll put it out early in the evening; should appeal to kids and adults.’

‘Dumb title. What the shit does it mean?’

‘It’s the line of an English song,’ said Tony evenly.

‘Thought it was a series about back yards.’

‘It’s about four agricultural students living in a house.’

‘I can read, thank you,’ snapped Cameron, running her eyes down the page. ‘And someone finds someone in bed with someone in the first episode. Jesus, and you’re expecting this shit to go out as wholesome family entertainment in Middle America, where we haven’t seen a nipple on the network for years.’

‘Don’t listen to Cameron,’ said Ronnie. ‘She needs a muzzle in the office to stop her savaging her colleagues.’

‘Shut up and let me read it.’

Ronnie then proceeded to update Tony on the recent changes at NBS. ‘They axed twenty people last week, good people who’ve been there fifteen years. The new business guys are running the place like a supermarket.’

But Tony wasn’t listening. He was watching this incredibly savage girl with her skirt rucked up round her thighs. Christ, he’d like to screw all that smouldering bad temper out of her.

As if aware of his scrutiny, she glanced up.

‘There’s too much air in this glass,’ she said, holding it out for a refill.

‘You’re too old for TV at twenty-five these days,’ Ronnie rattled on obsessively. ‘I work with a guy of fifty. He lives in such constant fear of his age getting out, he keeps on having his face lifted.’

Ronnie looked desperately tired. Beneath the butterscotch tan, there were new lines round the eyes. Cameron chucked the presentation booklet back on the glass table.

‘Well?’ Tony raised his eyebrows.

‘Schmaltz, schlock, shit, what d’you want me to say? It’s utterly provincial, right, but the dialogue’s far too sophisticated. If you’re going to appeal to Alabama blacks, Mexican peasants and Russian Jews in the same programme, you can’t have a vocab bigger than three hundred words. And I don’t know any of the stars.’

‘No one had heard of Tim Piggott-Smith, or Charles Dance, or Geraldine James before “Jewel”.’

‘They’d heard of Peggy Ashcroft. Your characters are so stereotyped. And you’ve got the wrong hero, Johnny’s the guy the Americans will identify with. He’s got drive, he comes from a poor home, he’s going to make it. The Hon Will’s got it already. What’s an Hon anyway?’

‘A peer’s son,’ said Tony.

‘Well, make him a Lord. Americans understand Lords. And they’re all far too wimpish. Americans are pissed off with wimps. We’ve seen too many guys crying in pinnies. You can’t wear your sensitivity on your silk shirtsleeve any more.’

Tony, who’d never done any of these things, warmed to this girl.

‘Go on,’ he said.

‘As a nation, we’re getting behind the family and the strong patriarch again. There’s a large part of the population that want men to reassert themselves, be more aggressive, more accountable, more heterosexual. And you’ve got a marvellous chance with four guys in a house together to explore friendship between men, I don’t mean faggotry; I mean comradeship. It was a great Victorian virtue, but no one associated it with being gay. Today’s man shoots first, then gets in touch with his feelings later.’

‘Is that how you like your men?’ said Tony, getting up to put the video into the machine.

‘Shit no, I’m just talking about the viewers. You’ve got one of the guys ironing the girl’s ball gown for her; yuk!’

Tony filled up her glass yet again.

‘Have a look at this.’

Up on the screen came a honey-coloured Cotswold village, an ancient church, golden cornfields, then a particularly ravishing Queen Anne house.

‘We plan to use this as Will’s father’s house,’ said Tony.

‘Bit arty-farty,’ snapped Cameron, as the camera roved lasciviously over a lime-tree avenue, waterfalls of old roses, and a lake surrounded by yellow irises.

‘Beautiful place,’ said Ronnie in awe.

‘Mine,’ said Tony smugly.

‘Don’t you have a wife who owns it as well?’ said Cameron, feminist hackles rising.

‘Of course; she’s a very good gardener.’

‘Looks like fucking Disneyland,’ said Cameron.

Switching off the video machine, Tony emptied the bottle into Cameron’s glass and said, ‘Corinium did make more than twelve million pounds last year selling programmes to America, so we’re not quite amateurs. Some of the points you made are interesting, but we do have to appeal to a slightly more sophisticated audience at home.’

‘We ought to eat soon,’ said Ronnie. ‘You must be exhausted.’

‘Not at all,’ said Tony, who was looking at Cameron, ‘must just have a pee.’

Alone in the bathroom, he whipped out his red fountain pen and in the memo page of his diary listed every criticism Cameron had made. Then he brushed his hair and, smiling at his reflection, hastily removed a honey-roast peanut from between his teeth. Fortunately he hadn’t been smiling much at that bitch.

Even in a packed restaurant swarming with celebrities Cameron turned heads. There was something about her combative unsmiling beauty, her refusal to look to left or right, that made even the vainest diners put on their spectacles to have a second glance.

Immediately they’d ordered, Ronnie went off table-hopping. ‘Nice guy,’ said Tony, fishing.

‘Very social register,’ said Cameron dismissively. ‘Watch him work the room, he makes everyone feel they’ve had a meaningful intimate conversation in ten seconds flat.’

‘Seems a bit flustered about the blood-letting at NBS.’

Cameron took a slug of Dom Perignon. ‘He needs a big success. Both the series he set up last year have bombed.’

‘Given him an ulcer too.’

Cameron looked at Tony speculatively.

‘I guess you’ve never had an ulcer, Lord Ant.’

‘No,’ said Tony smoothly. ‘I give them to other people. How do the NBS sackings affect you?’

Cameron shrugged. ‘I don’t mind the sackings or the rows, but now the money men have moved in, I figure I’ll have less freedom to make the programmes I want.’

‘How d’you get into television?’

‘My mother walked out on my father at the height of the feminist revolution, came to New York hell-bent on growth. The only thing that grew was her overdraft. She was too proud to ask for money from my father, so I went to Barnard on a scholarship, and got a reporting job in the Vac to make ends meet. After graduation, I joined the New York Times, then moved to the NBS newsroom. Last year I switched over to documentaries, as a writer/producer. At the moment I’m directing drama.’

‘Your mother must be proud of you.’

‘She thinks I’m too goal-orientated,’ said Cameron bitterly. ‘She’s never forgiven me for voting for Reagan. I don’t understand my mother’s generation. All that crap about going back to Nature, and open marriages, and communes and peace marches. Jesus.’

Tony laughed. ‘I can’t see you on a peace march. What are your generation into?’

‘Physical beauty, money, power, fame.’

‘You’ve certainly achieved the first.’

‘Sure.’ Cameron made no attempt to deny it.

‘How d’you intend to achieve the rest?’

‘I aim to be the first woman to run a Network Company.’

‘What about marriage and children?’

Cameron shook her head so violently she nearly blacked her own eyes with her satellite dish earrings.

‘Gets in the way of a career. I’ve seen too many women at NBS poised to close a deal, being interrupted by a phone call, and having to rush home because their kid’s got a temperature of 104.’

The waiter arrived with their first course. Escargots for Cameron, gulls’ eggs for Tony. Ronnie, who hadn’t ordered anything, returned to the table, buttered a roll, but didn’t eat it.

‘Anyway,’ went on Cameron angrily, ‘what’s the point of getting married? Look at the guys. New York is absolutely crammed with emotionally immature guys quite unable to make a commitment.’

‘They’re all gay,’ said Tony. He peeled a gull’s egg, dipped it in celery salt, and handed it to Cameron.

‘Bullshit,’ she said, accepting it without thanking him. ‘There are loads of heterosexuals in New York. I know at least three. And what makes it worse, with the men being so dire, is that New York is absolutely crawling with prosperous, talented, beautiful women in a state of frenzy about getting laid.’

‘Give me their telephone numbers,’ said Tony lightly.

‘Don’t be fatuous,’ snarled Cameron. ‘Guys are turned off by achieving women; they make them feel inferior. What beats me is why women are so dependent on men. You see them everywhere, with their leather briefcases, and their dressed-for-success business suits, rabbiting on about independence, yet clinging onto a thoroughly destructive relationship rather than be without a guy.’

Furiously she gouged the last of the garlic and parsley butter out of her snail shells. The lady, reflected Tony, is protesting too much.

Ronnie was off table-hopping again. The head waiter was now making a great song and dance about cooking Cameron’s steak Diane at the table, throwing mushrooms and spring onions into the sizzling butter. The champagne having got to Cameron’s tongue, she was also spitting away like the hot fat:

‘TV people have no idea what’s important. Ask them about their kids, they just tell you what private schools they’re enrolled in. That’s a very subtle way of telling you how well they’re doing. What’s the point of having kids? Just as a status symbol.’

‘You’re a bit of a puritan at heart. ’ Tony filled her glass yet again. ‘Your ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower by any chance?’

‘No, but my father was British. I’ve got a British passport.’

Better and better, thought Tony.

The head waiter was pouring Napoleon brandy over the steak now and setting fire to it. The orange purple flames flared upwards, charring the ceiling, lighting up Cameron’s hostile, predatory face. Another waiter served Tony’s red snapper, which was surrounded by tiny courgettes, sweetcorn and carrots.

‘They employ one guy here to sharpen the turnips,’ said Cameron, pinching a courgette from Tony’s plate. For a second, she looked at it. ‘Tiny,’ she added dismissively. ‘Like the average New York cock.’ And with one bite she devoured it.

Tony laughed, encouraging her in her scorn.

‘Enjoy your meal,’ said the head waiter, laying the steak in front of Cameron with a flourish.

I wonder if I’m reading her right, thought Tony; anyone that aggressive must either be desperately insecure or impossibly spoilt. Maybe her mother had felt guilty about splitting up from her father, and let Cameron get away with murder.

Ronnie’s sole was cold when he returned to the table, shaking his head. ‘I hear you had a row with Bella Wakefield this afternoon.’

Cameron raised her eyes to the charred ceiling. ‘She’s so fucking useless.’

‘She is the Vice-President’s daughter.’

‘She pisses me off. Every time she’s got a line, which is about once a year, she teeters up on her spike heels, saying, “Cameron, what’s my motivation in this scene?” So finally I flip and say: “Pay day on Friday.” She went kinda mad.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ said Ronnie disapprovingly.

The head waiter glided up. ‘Everything all right, sir?’

‘Perfect,’ said Ronnie, who hadn’t touched his sole.

‘Steak as madam likes it?’

Cameron tipped back her chair. ‘If you want the honest truth, it tastes like moderately flavoured socks.’

The smile was wiped off the waiter’s face. ‘I beg your pardon.’

‘Cameron,’ hissed Ronnie.

‘Like chewing my own laundry. I cannot figure why you waste such expensive ingredients producing something so disgusting. I’d rather drink the brandy straight.’

The head waiter looked as though he was going to cry.

‘Would madam like something else?’

‘I’ll pass,’ said Cameron, ostentatiously putting her knife and fork together. ‘It’s not even worth a doggie bag.’

3

As they came out of the restaurant, limos for Ronnie and Tony glided up. Cameron paused between the two.

‘I haven’t seen your deb programme yet,’ said Tony. ‘Why don’t we go back to the Waldorf and look at it?’

Ronnie shook his head. ‘You guys go. I’m pooped.’

Back in Tony’s suite, an almost unbearable tension developed between them. Having poured large brandies, Tony removed his coat. Despite the air conditioning, he could feel damp patches of sweat forming under his arms and trickling down his spine. In silence they watched Cameron’s tape. Within five minutes, Tony realized its outstanding quality.

The commentary was cut to a minimum; Cameron had let the debs and their mothers speak for themselves. But you could feel her fierce egalitarian scorn, in the way she had highlighted their silliness and pretension, and the compassion she displayed for the noveau riche who tried to break in, and for the wallflower who sat unfêted through ball after ball.

Despite the fact that Cameron had been vile about ‘Four Men went to Mow’, Tony knew when to be generous.

‘They’ll adore it in England,’ he said at the end. ‘I’ll ring the Film Purchasing Committee tomorrow and insist they look at it.’

‘Thanks.’ Cameron got up to rewind the tape. ‘I’d better go. I got up at six this morning, and you must be reeling from Concorde lag.’

With that sleek Eton crop, thought Tony, it’d be like making love to a boy. Putting out a hand to halt her he encountered a huge shoulder pad.

‘Sit down. I want to talk to you. You got a regular boyfriend?’

‘Until three months ago.’ She sat down on the far end of the leather sofa.

‘What did he do?’

‘He was a threat analyst. Spent all day looking at the Soviets, and saying: “They’re a threat”.’

Tony laughed, edging down the sofa.

‘I don’t need a man to look after me,’ said Cameron defensively. ‘Just someone to make the sparks fly. If I’m not having a good time, I quit. Are you happily married?’

‘Not overwhelmingly.’

‘She a dog?’

‘Not at all. It’s a marriage of extreme public convenience. We get on very well when we don’t see too much of each other. ‘

This girl is exactly what I need to wake them all up at Corinium, he was thinking. She’s superbright, ambitious, aggressive. The IBA would adore the deb programme, it had quality and universal appeal; and being a woman, Cameron would appeal to the incoming chairman, Lady Gosling. Even more important, from the way she had carved up Simon Harris’s treatment, she was capable of seeing what was wrong with a programme and subtly gearing it towards the American market without making it too bland. And finally, as she had a British passport, there wouldn’t be the usual ghastly hassle about work permits.

‘How’d you like to work in England?’

‘How much?’

‘Thirty grand.’

‘You’ve got to be joking. I’m on a hundred thousand dollars here.’

‘It’s cheaper living in England, and we could pick up a few bills.’

‘I’d have to have somewhere to live,’ said Cameron, thinking longingly of the honey-coloured houses she’d seen on the video.

‘We can arrange that.’

‘If I’m stuck in the country, I’ll need a car.’

‘Of course.’

For a minute she glared at him. ‘How soon do I get on the Board?’

‘Cameron,’ said Tony gently, ‘I’m the boss of Corinium. I decide that.’

‘I’ll kick it around,’ she said indifferently. ‘You’d better sleep with me first.’

Not by a flicker did Tony’s swarthy face betray his surprise.

‘Why? D’you think afterwards I might not want to offer you the job?’

Cameron smiled for the first time that evening. ‘No, I might not want to take it.’

Even in the bedroom she didn’t stop fighting, promptly switching on the television.

‘God is love,’ a lady in a shirtwaister, with very long royal blue eyelashes, was saying, ‘not a guy with a stick; He wants us all to enjoy ourselves.’

‘And so say all of us,’ said Cameron.

Tony turned off the television and, with remarkably steady hands, removed her huge earrings, and massaged the reddened lobes.

‘D’you get a good satellite picture from these?’

There wasn’t much else to take off. Just the yellow dress and a pair of yellow pants. Tony never dreamed that anyone with such a sinewy, well-muscled body could have such a smooth skin.

‘Those Y-fronts went out with the ark,’ said Cameron, throwing them in the wastepaper basket. ‘I’m going to buy you some boxer shorts.’

Bearing in mind that it was eight o’clock in the morning in England, Tony thought he acquitted himself with honours.

‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,’ sang Cameron as she finally climbed off him.

‘Still fighting the American War of Independence,’ murmured Tony into her shoulder.

But just as he was falling asleep, he realized she was rigid and shuddering beside him. Reaching down, he found her hand in her bush.

‘I thought you’d come as well,’ he said, outraged.

‘If you figured that, Buster, you’ve got a lot to learn.’

‘Come here, you bitch.’

Tugging away her hand, he knelt over her, kissing her navel, then very slowly progressing downwards. Lying on the floor, tangled in each other’s arms, they were interrupted much later by the telephone.

It was Corinium’s sales director, Georgie Baines.

‘I thought you’d like the monthly revenue figures, Tony. I didn’t wake you?’

‘I’ve been up for hours.’

‘You can say that again,’ said Cameron, wriggling out from under him.

‘They’re up four million on last year,’ said Georgie jubilantly. For five minutes they discussed business, then Georgie said that Percy, Tony’s chauffeur, would like a word.

‘Good morning, my Lord,’ said Percy. ‘We won the Test match by four wickets.’

Tony was almost more delighted by that than by the advertising figures. Hearing water running in the shower, he was about to jump on Cameron once more, when the telephone rang again. After that it kept ringing, ending up with a call from Alicia, Tony’s beautiful and demanding mistress.

‘Do you spend all your life on the telephone?’ she screamed.

There was a knock on the door. Tony hung up and, wrapping a towel round his waist, went to answer it. It was the breakfast he’d ordered before going out last night.

Having signed the bill, he found Cameron in the bathroom, drying her pants with the hair dryer. She was wearing Tony’s dark-blue silk birthday shirt, with one of his red paisley ties wound round her waist. Her hair was wet from the shower; she looked sensational.

‘Come back to bed.’

‘Can’t. I’ve got a breakfast meeting. Got to get there early to check the room isn’t bugged.’

The telephone rang again.

‘You answer it,’ said Tony evilly.

Cameron picked it up.

‘Someone called Alicia,’ she said.

‘Say I’m in the shower.’

‘She didn’t sound very pleased,’ said Cameron, putting down the receiver.

Scooping up the mini-bottles of shampoo, conditioner, bath gel, and cologne, she dropped them into her bag. Then, peeling the shoulder pads out of her yellow dress, she fixed them into the shoulders of Tony’s dark-blue shirt. As she went into the bedroom, she removed a strawberry as big as a cricket ball from the grapefruit on Tony’s breakfast tray.

‘What are your plans?’ asked Tony.

‘I’m in the studios from ten o’clock onwards. I should be through around eight. And you?’

‘I’ve got people to see. I’m lunching with Ali MacGraw — more my age group, sweetie.’ He kissed Cameron on the forehead. ‘And I want that shirt back.’

‘You can wear my yellow dress. If I wear it, Ronnie’ll know I haven’t been home.’ Taking a mirror from her bag, she winced at her reflection in the bright sunlight. ‘He’ll know it anyway.’

‘I’ll call you later,’ said Tony.

The moment she’d gone, he showered, dressed and, having summoned one of the secretaries from Corinium’s American office on 5th Avenue, dictated a completely new treatment for ‘Four Men went to Mow’.

In the middle, Alicia rang and demanded who had answered the telephone.

‘Your successor,’ said Tony, without a trace of compassion, and hung up.

By midday he had a new and beautifully bound presentation booklet for ‘Four Men went to Mow’, containing a character analysis of the new hero, who was now the working-class boy and not the peer’s son (who had become a lord), plus a new list of possible stars, suggested locations, story lines, and a couple of pages of simplified dialogue, all based entirely on Cameron’s recommendations.

Ronnie called up as Tony was reading it through.

‘How d’you like Cameron?’

‘Like wasn’t the operative word. What’s bugging her?’

‘More enfant than terrible,’ said Ronnie, who wanted to do business with Tony very badly, ‘but she’s too ambitious for her own good, and too upfront. There’s a streak of idealism which makes her scream and shout till she gets what she wants; and if you’re as sexy as she is you antagonize not only women but also the men who don’t get to pull you.

‘Don’t tell anyone I told you, but the programme controller’s going to axe her last documentary, and she’s been so rude to Bella Wakefield she’s being taken off the series. But she’s bright,’ Ronnie sighed. ‘Sadly they don’t give a shit about talent here any more. But that’s off the record.’

‘We haven’t spoken,’ said Tony.

‘As a quid pro quo, can we be the first people to see “Four Men went to Mow?”’ asked Ronnie. ‘I know Cameron carved it up, but it looked great to me.’

‘Of course,’ said Tony smoothly.

After an exceptionally affable lunch with Ali MacGraw, who was an old friend, to discuss a long-term project, Tony strolled down to see USBC, the deadly rivals of NBS.

At the plaza of the Seagram building tourists and office workers sat on the walls, eating sandwiches and pizza, trying to woo the blazing sun down between the office blocks on to their bare arms and legs. The flowers in the centre strip of Park Avenue wilted in the heat as Tony sauntered past General Motors and the Pan Am building with their thousand glittering windows, admiring the coloured awnings outside the houses and the beautiful, loping New York girls with their briefcases, who looked back at him with flattering interest. Maybe Cameron was right about the paucity of real New York men.

The Head of Co-Production at USBC and the Daytime Programme Controller were enchanted by the video of the honey-coloured houses and the Cotswold countryside.

‘This series,’ Tony told them, his deep, beautiful voice flowing on like vintage port glugging out of a priceless decanter, ‘will be a cross between James Herriot and “Animal House”, but in a way it’s much, much more. We intend to explore real friendship between real men; not homosexuality, but that Victorian virtue, comradeship. The hero, a poor boy from a deprived background, doesn’t inherit the earth or the girl, but he finds his integrity. The story, despite its depths, is simple enough to appeal to a Mexican peasant or to an Alabama black.’

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the extremely influential VPICDT Prog. (which stood for Vice-President In Charge of Daytime Programming) had just entered the room. Tony warmed to his subject.

‘In England,’ he went on, ‘we are sick of wimps who wear their sensitivity on their silk shirtsleeves. The guys in our story are kind to animals and women, but they shoot from the hip first and get in touch with their feelings later. Nor would they be seen dead in an apron. Let us have men as men again, and bring back dignity and chivalry to our sex.’

Thinking he’d gone slightly over the top, Tony switched briskly to finance. ‘We can do it for three-quarters of a million an hour,’ he said. ‘It’ll be thirty per cent cheaper if we make it in England; we’ll put up twenty per cent of the cost against Europe and the UK.’

Admiring the discreet blue coronet on Tony’s dark-green shirt, the VPICDT Prog., who’d just been bawled out on the phone by his wife for forgetting to collect the suit she’d had altered at Ralph Lauren, reflected that Lord B had real class. And he was right — it was high time men were men again.

‘Very interesting, Tony,’ he said. ‘We’d like to kick the idea around. You in New York for a few days?’

‘Yes,’ said Tony.

‘Showing it to other people?’

‘Of course.’

‘We’ll get back to you as soon as possible.’

Outside it had rained. The trees had taken on a deeper greenness. The city had the warm wet smell of a conservatory. Park Avenue was a solid yellow mass of honking taxis. Quivering with the excitement of wheeler-dealing, Tony knew he ought to ring Ronnie and show him the treatment. Let him sweat, he thought, let Cameron sweat. He went back to the Waldorf, checked out and, without leaving a forwarding address, flew to Los Angeles.

Cameron lived in an eleventh-floor apartment on Riverside Drive with a glorious view of the Hudson River. She got home at about nine after a hellish day, punctuated with screaming matches which had finally culminated in Bella Wakefield turning up on the set wearing two-inch false eyelashes and half a ton of purple eyeshadow to play a Victorian governess. When Cameron had ordered her to take her make-up down, Bella had stormed out, presumably to sob on the Vice-President’s already sodden shoulder.

The moment she got in, Cameron played back her recording machine, but there was no message from Tony, not even a click to show he’d rung and hung up because she wasn’t there. He hadn’t left any messages at NBS either.

Cameron, however, had done her homework. As Tony had learnt from Ronnie that she was brilliant but unbalanced, she in turn had discovered that Tony was an unprincipled shit, much more interested in making money than good programmes, masterly at board-room intrigue, and so smooth he could slide up a hill. Convinced she could handle him, Cameron wasn’t at all put out by this information, and decided to accept the job.

She’d always wanted to work in England and track down her English relations. She admired British television, and she’d bitterly envied all those rich girls at Barnard who’d travelled to Europe so effortlessly on Daddy’s income. It would also give her a chance to get away from her mother and her mother’s appalling lover, Mike. Cameron gave a shudder; she had recurrent nightmares about Mike.

She turned on the light. She would be sad to leave her apartment, which was painted white throughout, with yellow curtains and rush matting on the polished floors. Furniture in the living-room included a grand piano, a dentist’s chair upholstered in red paisley like Tony’s tie, a dartboard, and a gold toe, one foot high, which had been surreptitiously chipped from the foot of a cherub in the Metropolitan Museum. Books lined most of one wall, but half a shelf was taken up with videos of the programmes she’d made. These were her identity. Cameron only felt she truly existed when she saw her credits coming up on the screen.

And now this English lord had come along and thrown her into complete turmoil because he hadn’t called. Denied a father in her teens, Cameron was always drawn to older men. She was attracted by Tony’s utter ruthlessness, and, despite her sniping, sexually it had ended up a great night.

Then why didn’t the bastard call? Lord of the Never Rings. Collapsing on the sofa, she gazed out of the window. On the opposite bank, lights from the factories and power stations sent glittering yellow snakes across the black water. Watching the coloured Dinky cars whizzing up and down the freeway, she fell asleep.

When she woke next morning, very cold and stiff, the Hudson had turned to a sheet of white metal, with the power stations smoking dreamily in the morning mist. Perhaps Tony had only offered her a job as a ruse to get her into bed, but she didn’t think he was like that. If he’d just wanted to screw her, he’d have said so. Yet when she rang the Waldorf to accept, she was outraged to be told that Tony had checked out, leaving no forwarding address.

‘This guy’s mighty popular,’ said the operator. ‘Everyone’s been ringing him.’

Nor would Corinium’s New York office tell her where Tony had gone, and, even worse, the morning paper had a charming picture of him coming out of the Four Seasons with Ali MacGraw.

In Los Angeles, when he wasn’t spreading the word about ‘Four Men went to Mow’, or finalizing the deal to buy the American distributors, which he’d had to acquire through a holding company so as not to upset the IBA, Tony thought about Cameron.

Back in New York, two days later, ignoring the increasingly desperate messages from NBS, he went to USBC and after screwing another quarter million dollars a programme out of them on the grounds that Disney were madly interested, he closed the deal.

He returned to the Waldorf, sweating like a pig, had a shower, poured himself an enormous whisky and rang Cameron. He had to hold the telephone at arm’s length.

‘Where the fuck have you been, you bastard?’ she screamed.

‘Busy,’ said Tony and, when she started to give him an earful, very sharply told her to shut up and calm down.

‘I’ve raised the cash for “Four Men went to Mow”.’

‘Who put it up?’ demanded Cameron.

‘USBC. The lawyers are thrashing out the nuts and bolts at the moment.’

‘Poor Ronnie. NBS aren’t going to be very happy — we didn’t even get to see it.’

‘Well, there you go.’

‘He probably will, right out of the front door, and never come back after this. Ronnie’s right — you are a shit.’

‘That’s no way to address your new boss.’

Cameron’s heart was hammering so hard, her palms were suddenly so damp, that the receiver nearly slid out of her hand.

‘Hullo, hullo,’ said Tony. ‘Have you thought about that job I offered you?’

‘You just fuck off like that. How do I know I can trust you?’

‘Give me the address. I’ll be over in half an hour and we’ll talk terms.’

Yet when he arrived at Cameron’s flat, armed with a bottle of champagne, he was outraged to find an impossibly handsome young man lounging in the dentist’s chair, holding a glass that definitely didn’t contain mouthwash.

‘Who the hell’s he?’ snarled Tony.

‘This is Skip, my lawyer. He dropped by to draw up my contract of employment,’ said Cameron.

‘Why the hell’s he wearing my shirt and tie?’

Cameron laughed. ‘Since I’m moving to England, I figured he deserved a leaving present. ‘

4

On a cold Friday in February, exactly twenty months after he’d signed up Cameron Cook in New York, Tony Baddingham made an infinitely more dramatic and controversial addition to his staff. Having exchanged contracts in the utmost secrecy in the morning, he popped into the IBA headquarters in Brompton Road for a midday glass of sherry with the new chairman, Lady Gosling, to dazzle her with the secret news of his latest acquisition before setting out on the two-hour drive down to Cotchester.

Even on a raw blustery February afternoon, Cotchester’s wide streets and ancient pale gold houses gave off an air of serenity and prosperity. To the north of the town, in the market square, a statue of Charles I on his horse indicated that Cotchester had once been a Royalist stronghold. Round the plinth, pigeons pecked among the straw left by the sheep and cattle sold in the market earlier in the day. To the south soared the cathedral, its great bell only muted during rush hour, the shadow of its spire on bright days lying like a benediction over the town.

Dominating the High Street was a fine Queen Anne building, once the Corn Exchange, now the headquarters of Corinium Television. Although, over the last twenty years, the building had been considerably extended at the back to include studios, dressing-rooms, an imposing new board room, and a suite of splendid offices for the directors, nothing except pale-yellow rambler roses had been allowed to alter its imposing façade. On the roof the vast dark red letters CTV could be seen for miles around, letters topped by a splendid ram standing four-square, with a Roman nose and curly horns. Originally chosen as a symbol of the wool trade which once characterized the area, according to some of Corinium’s more uncharitable employees the ram could now be used to symbolize Tony Baddingham’s sexual excesses.

At the back of the building an entire wall of the board room consisted of a huge window looking out on to the cathedral close, water meadows and willows trailing their yellow branches in the River Fleet, a peaceful scene totally at variance with the tensions and feuds within Corinium Television itself.

These tensions had been exacerbated that particular Friday by Tony returning unexpectedly from London and calling a programme-planning meeting at three o’clock, when he knew most of his staff would be hoping to slope off early.

Tony had actually returned in an excellent mood. His meeting with Lady Gosling had been decidedly satisfactory. Simon Harris, the ex-BBC Golden Boy, and Cameron Cook had so improved Corinium programmes over the last twenty months that he was no longer seriously worried that his franchise would be taken away in mid-term. But, in case there were rival groups who might pitch for the Corinium franchise when it came up for renewal next year, he had made the decision on the way down to clean up Corinium’s act well in advance.

Until that time therefore, until Corinium were officially re-selected, he was determined not only to trail some of the most glittering names in television and the arts in front of the IBA, but also to put on some really worthy regional programmes.

It was to map out ideas for these programmes that he’d called the impromptu meeting. Unfortunately half the staff were away. The Head of News was in Munich on a freebie, the Head of Documentaries was in Rome getting a prize, the male Head of Light Entertainment and the comely female Head of Kids’ Programmes were both away with gastric flu, which caused a few raised eyebrows, as they had been seen looking perfectly healthy the day before.

Tony took the chair, but was instantly summoned to take an urgent call from Los Angeles. The only people in the room who didn’t appear terrified or at least extremely wary of him were Charles Fairburn, Head of Religious Programmes, who’d got pissed at lunchtime, and Cameron Cook, now Head of Drama.

The Head of Sport, Mike Meadows, a once-famous footballer with ginger sideboards, whose muscle-bound shoulders had grown too big for his shiny blue blazer, smoked one cigarette after another.

Simon Harris, the Controller of Programmes, who was principled and intelligent and always saw both sides of every problem, and was therefore labelled indecisive, trembled on Tony’s right. He kept his hands under the table to hide a nerve rash he had scratched raw. His thin face twitched. In an attempt to gain some kind of authority he had recently grown a straggly beard. When he took off his coat — Tony always kept the central heating tropical — you could hear the rattle of the Valium bottle, and see the great damp patches under his arms.

Beyond Simon was Tony’s PA, Cyril Peacock, DFC, Corinium’s ex-Sales Manager, once a stocky, jolly, assertive fellow, sensational at his job. The point of a PA, however, is that he should be utterly loyal. Some Chief Executives in television buy this loyalty with money, which is dangerous, because someone else can buy it with more money. Tony bought it with fear. After making Cyril his PA, and sometime publicity officer, Tony had encouraged him to invest his savings in a company that promptly went broke. Now the terror of the Luftwaffe was someone Tony hung his coat on — a poor old dodderer in his early sixties, with loss of job and pension hanging over his head like a sword of Damocles. Tony took great pleasure in making Cyril do his dirty work — he had four people for him to fire on Monday.

On Tony’s left was Miss Madden, his secretary, also in her sixties, plain, and utterly dedicated, whose chilblains were itching because of the central heating, and who never let anyone into Tony’s office without an appointment except Cameron Cook, on whom she had a love — hate crush.

Finally, down the table, opposite Cameron sat James Vereker, the impossibly good-looking, beautifully coiffeured Anchorman of the six o’clock regional news programme, ‘Cotswold Round-Up’.

James should have been in the newsroom getting ready for the evening’s programme, but, hating to miss anything, he had muscled in on the meeting and was now using Tony’s absence to rewrite the links he would have to say later on air to fit his own speech patterns.

Glancing across at Cameron, James wondered if she and Tony had rehearsed the whole meeting in bed earlier this week, turning each other on by seeing who could be the most gratuitously bloody to everyone else. He looked at Cameron’s dark-brown cashmere jersey, snugly fitting the lean body, the pale-brown suede skirt, the Charles Jourdan boots and the lascivious unmade-up face, and felt a wave of loathing. Today her short hair had been coaxed upwards in gelled spikes, like a hedgehog who’d rolled in chicken fat.

James pointedly moved the arrangement of Spring flowers left over from Wednesday’s board meeting up a couple of inches to obscure his view of her and, getting out a packet of Polos, handed one to Miss Madden, who went slightly pink as she accepted it.

James offered Polos to no one else. He knew who to suck up to. Properly courted, Miss Madden would sing his praises to Tony and admit him to the inner sanctum when necessary.

As Tony walked back into the room, everyone rose from their chairs except Cameron, who pointedly ignored him. Perhaps they’ve had a bust-up, thought James Vereker hopefully.

The good thing about Tony, reflected Charles Fairburn, Head of Religious Programmes, was that he did cut out the waffle. There was a good chance that Charles, who was going to the ballet at Covent Garden that evening, would be out of the building by five.

‘I’d like to start,’ said Tony briskly, ‘by congratulating Cameron on being nominated for a BAFTA award. As you all know, “Four Men went to Mow” has not only been a huge network success, and sold everywhere overseas, but also because of the exceptional camera work, attracted scores of tourists to the area, and last month toppled “Howard’s Way” in the ratings. We’re looking for more programmes like this that project the area into the network.’

‘Hear, hear,’ said Cyril Peacock, his false teeth rattling with nerves.

Tony’s conveniently forgotten that ‘Four Men went to Mow’ was my idea in the first place, thought Simon Harris bitterly. Cameron, still ignoring Tony, gazed sourly at the framed photograph on the wall of him smilingly assisting Princess Margaret to plant a cherry tree on the Corinium front lawn.

Christ, they have had a row, thought James.

‘I’d like to give the go-ahead for a second series,’ Tony went on. ‘We’ve got the co-production money again from USBC, but I think it would be a good idea, Cameron, if you introduced perhaps a black unmarried mother into the cottage of the agricultural students to appeal to the IBA.’

Charles Fairburn suppressed a grin. The IBA were crazy about minority groups. Cameron looked outraged.

‘Black unmarried mothers don’t become agricultural students,’ she snarled.

‘There’s always a first time,’ said Tony smoothly. ‘She could be the girlfriend of one of the four boys.’

‘For Chrissake, why not have a gay shepherdess with one leg?’ said Cameron.

‘Why not a deaf, unemployed merry peasant?’ suggested Charles Fairburn with a hiccup. ‘Or a handicapped harvester?’

‘That’s enough,’ snapped Tony.

He then went on to OK plans for an obscure Michael Tippett opera, which Cameron also scowled at, detecting Lady Baddingham’s influence (Tony’s wife was crazy about opera) and a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream as a sop to Stratford-on-Avon which was just within the Corinium boundary.

Now it was the turn of James Vereker, who, having finished rewriting his links, helped himself to a glass of Perrier and then suggested Corinium ought to show its ‘caring face, Tony’ and do a series on poverty and the aged.

‘Jesus, how turgid,’ said Cameron, glaring at him through the screen of fading daffodils. ‘Of all the boring. .’

Tony raised his hand for silence, his huge signet ring catching the light.

‘Not a bad idea. We could do a very cheap pilot to impress the IBA. We don’t have to make the series. Perhaps Cyril,’ he smiled malevolently at his PA, ‘could front it. He’s been looking rather old and poverty-stricken lately.’

Cyril Peacock cracked his twitching face, trying to smile back. Thus encouraged, James suggested they should do something ‘very strong, Tony’ on rioting and drug abuse at Cotchester University. Swiftly Cameron swooped, the falcon Tony had trained, tearing into James:

‘What a crappy awful idea,’ she screamed. ‘D’you want to antagonize the entire Tourist Board because everyone’s scared to visit Cotchester any more? No one will want to invest money here. We’re trying to boost the area for Chrissake.’

‘What about a programme on the role of women in Cotchester town hall?’ stammered Simon Harris, tugging at his straggling yellow beard.

‘And have the town halls at Bath, Southampton, Oxford, Winchester, Stratford, et cetera et cetera in an uproar because we haven’t done programmes on them,’ said Cameron crushingly.

‘I thought your idea, Tony, of interviewing the wives of celebrities living in the area looked a winner,’ said Cyril Peacock, desperate to get back into favour.

‘“Behind Every Famous Man”?’ Cameron turned on Cyril furiously. ‘That was my idea.’

‘We could start with one of our director’s wives, or perhaps,’ Cyril lumbered on, ‘even Lady Baddingham.’

Tony looked not unpleased. ‘I think that would be a bit close to home.’

‘Why not do a series on the very very rich?’ said Charles Fairburn, who had not quite sobered up, ‘They’re far more of a minority group than anyone else. We could start with you, Tony.’

He was quelled by an icy glance from Tony, who, aware that the meeting was slightly lacking in carnage, suddenly realized that his Head of Operations, whose role was to tell creative people what they could not do, was missing.

‘Where’s Victor Page?’ he said ominously.

‘Gone to his grandmother’s funeral,’ said Miss Madden, her lips tightening.

‘But he killed off two grandmothers during Wimbledon last year.’

‘This was his step-granny,’ said Miss Madden. ‘His mother married twice.’

‘No doubt his other step-grandmother will pop off during next Wimbledon,’ said Tony, making a note on his memo pad. That would be five people for Cyril to fire on Monday.

Tony then turned to the points made during his talk with Lady Gosling that morning. There was no need to let his production staff get complacent.

‘Several viewers,’ he said, ‘have complained about field mice copulating too long on our “Nature at Night” programme.’

Charles Fairburn, who had a round red face like a Dutch cheese, suppressed another smile. He’d better do his expenses. He hadn’t been anywhere this week, but he needed some cash to buy drinks for his airline-steward friend at the ballet tonight.

‘Cloakroom and gratuities £5,’ wrote Charles Fairburn. ‘Drinks with the Archdeacon £15.’ That was pushing it; the Archdeacon was teetotal, but the Accounts Department didn’t know it. They’d be shut if Tony didn’t wrap up this meeting soon.

‘On the kids’ programmes front,’ went on Tony, ‘we’ve also had complaints about too much violence in “Dorothy Dove”.’

‘What kind of violence?’ asked Simon Harris.

‘Pecking Priscilla Pigeon and pulling out all her feathers.’

James was tempted to say his children had absolutely adored that particular episode, but decided not to. The Head of Kids’ Programmes had rejected his advances at the Christmas party; he didn’t owe her any favours.

‘Dorothy Dove is supposed to be a symbol of peace,’ said Tony.

‘Peaceful is the dove that is strongly armed — or beaked in Dorothy’s case,’ murmured Charles Fairburn and regretted it.

‘There have been complaints,’ went on Tony nastily, ‘about insufficient religious content in our religious programmes. I’ll talk to you after the meeting, Charles, and the IBA are very unhappy about “Rags to Riches”.’

Simon Harris turned dark red. It was he who had bought the format for ‘Rags to Riches’ from America and adapted it for the British network.

‘But the ratings are sensational,’ he protested.

‘I know, but the IBA have pointed out that the contestants are far too glamorous and upmarket. We do need a few unemployed frumps to add a touch of reality, and please remember our ethnic minorities.’

‘You can borrow my black unmarried mother,’ said Cameron, shooting Tony a venomous look.

‘The IBA,’ went on Tony, squinting down the polished table, like a daily looking for smears, ‘also feel we should have more women on the Corinium Board. After all, Lady Evesham’s nearly sixty-five, so we must all wrack our brains for some powerful ladies.’

The men in the room exchanged glances of horror. Would Tony use this as an excuse to put the appalling Cameron Cook on the Board?

‘And,’ went on Tony swiftly, ‘they feel we still haven’t enough directors who live in the area.’

That, thought James savagely, also includes Cameron, and her exquisite Regency house on the outskirts of Cotchester.

Now Tony was saying, not without complacency, that Freddie Jones, the electronics multi-millionaire, and Rupert Campbell-Black, the Minister for Sport, who both lived in the area, would be coming in his party to the West Cotchester Hunt Ball that evening, and he would be sounding them out as possible directors.

For a second, outrage overcame the Head of Sport’s terror of Tony: ‘But Rupert Campbell-Black’s been consistently vile about our coverage,’ he spluttered. ‘You’d think it was our fault Cotchester was bottom of the Third Division.’

‘Good name on the writing paper. We’ve got to keep our local MPs sweet, with the franchise coming up,’ said Tony. ‘Anyway he’s far too tied up with football hooligans to come to more than a couple of meetings a year, so he won’t get a chance to make a nuisance of himself. ‘

‘Don’t you be too sure of it,’ spat Cameron. ‘Macho pig.’

Smug in the knowledge that he was the only member of the staff who’d been asked to join Tony’s party at the hunt ball that evening, James Vereker couldn’t resist saying, as the meeting broke up, how much he and Lizzie, his wife, were looking foward to it, and what time would Tony like them for drinks.

‘About eight,’ said Tony, gathering up his papers.

James could feel the laser beams of loathing and jealousy directed at him from all around the table, particularly from Cameron. That should rattle the stuck-up bitch, he thought. Since she’d been nominated for a BAFTA, she’d been getting much too big for her Charles Jourdan boots.

As Tony went out of the room, straightening the photograph of himself and Princess Margaret as he passed, James glanced at his watch. Four-thirty. He was on the air in an hour and a half and they would wrap up the programme by seven. If he had to drive the eleven miles home, bath and change, he’d be pushed for time. He’d better have a quick shower and blow dry his hair beforehand; then he could legitimately keep his make-up on — just bronzing gel, a bit of creme puff and dark brown mascara — for the ball. One got so pale in February.

He considered whether to wear his turquoise evening shirt, which brought out the blue-green in his eyes, or a white one with a turquoise bow-tie, then decided on the former. The gel might show up on the white shirt.

Wandering into the newsroom, he selected the secretary who was most in love with him and handed her twenty pages of longhand, entitled ‘Poverty and the Aged: A Treatment’, by James Vereker.

‘I think you’ll have rather fun with this one,’ he told her. ‘Could you centre the title in caps? I don’t need it till first thing Monday morning.’

Entirely sobered up now, Charles Fairburn followed Tony into his office. He’d never get to Covent Garden and his airline steward now. But, to his amazement, Tony greeted him warmly: ‘Ratings aren’t bad, Charles. Wheel in the Bishop of Cotchester, a few Sikhs and a woman priest next week to talk about the meaning of self-denial and Lent; that should keep Lady Gosling happy. Look, I’m reading the lesson in church on Sunday. Rather tricky phrasing, I want to get the sense right. Could you just run through it with me?’

5

James Vereker drove home in his Porsche, warmly aware that ‘my programme’, as he always referred to it, had gone well. James Vereker’s outstanding qualities, apart from his dazzling good looks, were his total egotism and chronic insecurity. In order not to miss himself on television, he had even been known to take a portable television into a restaurant. A huge local celebrity, much of whose time was spent opening fêtes and PAs’ legs, he disliked going to London, or even worse abroad, because no one recognized him. When he’d worked in radio, he used to dread some crisis blowing up in Southern Europe or the Middle East in case he couldn’t pronounce it.

Aware that he was dismissed as a popinjay by the editors, journalists and researchers who got ‘Cotswold Round-Up’ on air, and who were jealous of his inflated salary and his celebrity status, he was given to little tantrums, yet couldn’t resist seeking constant reassurance. Cameron Cook had even suggested the parrot used in Corinium’s Christmas production of Treasure Island should be given a permanent squawk-on part, telling James he was wonderful after every programme. He kept his job because he was quite good at it and because he always won the fight for viewers from the BBC.

Back at James’s house, Birgitta, the children’s curvaceous nanny, had just lovingly finished ironing both James’s white and turquoise evening shirts, and was scenting herself and putting on make-up for James’s return.

I wish Birgitta would spend slightly more time putting the children to bed, thought James’s wife, Lizzie, as they swarmed into her study demanding attention. Lizzie had had two novels published and well reviewed. A third was on the way, but it was causing a great deal of morning sickness.

She and James had been married eight years, and Lizzie had supported James on her publishing salary in the early days when he was trying to break into television. Once very pretty (she had the bright eyes and long questing nose of a vole, and the shaggy light brown hair of a clematis montana clambering over an old apple tree in winter), she had recently put on too much weight.

The Verekers lived in a large messy house with a large messy garden two miles down the valley from Rupert Campbell-Black, where the Frogsmore stream hurtled into a large reed-fringed lake. They had bought Lake House, as it was called, five years ago, just after James had got the job at Corinium, when it had seemed ridiculously cheap. Viewing it in high summer, they had only seen its romantic aspect, not realizing that for at least five months of the year it was so low in the valley that it never saw the sun and would be quite inaccessible when the snows came in winter.

This mattered little to James because he spent so much time at Corinium. When the house got snowed up, he simply didn’t come home for several days. But it was not good for Lizzie, who wrote there all day, eating too many biscuits to keep out the cold, or for the children who caught one cold after another, or for the nannies who found it dank and depressing, except when James was at home.

For Lizzie life turned on the children not getting ill, and nannies not leaving so that she had time to write. Unfortunately James couldn’t resist pulling the prettier nannies, who invariably walked out, when he moved on to someone else. Lizzie always found out the score by reading the nannies’ diaries when they were shopping in Cotchester or nearby Stroud. Birgitta, the current nanny, wrote her diary in Swedish, which Lizzie couldn’t understand. But with the aid of a Swedish dictionary she was beginning to crack the code, and the word ‘James’ appeared rather too often. In fact you only had to see the way Birgitta perked up when James came through the door. Lizzie was used to his infidelity. She realized he needed little adventures to boost his ego, but they still upset her. She would have liked an admirer herself, but felt she was too fat to attract anyone.

Lizzie nearly had a fit when she heard James banging the front door. She’d stopped writing far too late, wrestling to get at least a draft of the first chapter down on paper. Still struggling mentally with her plot, she’d spent too long washing her hair and in the bath. Then she discovered that the long low-cut black silk ball dress which she’d decided to wear was far too tight. Not even shoe horns or the disdainful tugging of Birgitta could get her into it, so she had to wear another dress, dark red velvet to match her distraught face, and calf-length so it wouldn’t conceal her ankles which had swelled up in the bath.

Finally, because she couldn’t see out, she’d cut her fringe with the kitchen scissors, not realizing that Birgitta had just used them to cut rind off the children’s bacon, so now her fringe stuck together and reeked of bacon. She was about to wash it again when James arrived. He hadn’t been home so early in months; usually he hung around the Corinium bar mopping up adulation.

‘Have a bath, darling,’ shouted Lizzie, desperately trying to tone down her face with green foundation.

‘I had a shower at the studios,’ said James, ‘so I’ve only got to change. We ought to leave in five minutes. How did you think my programme went?’

‘Wonderful,’ lied Lizzie, who hadn’t watched it, starting to panic. As it was dark outside, she couldn’t even make up in the car.

‘I’ll read you an extra story tomorrow, darlings,’ she told the children as they clung whining to her on the landing. ‘Or perhaps, Birgitta,’ she raised her voice hopefully, ‘will read you one before you go to bed.’

But Birgitta was watching James, who had decided on the white shirt after all, putting a pink carnation in his buttonhole. Poor Mr Vereker, she thought, looking so handsome in his dinner jacket, going out with such a frump. How much better would she, Birgitta, be in Lizzie’s place. James, however, hardly noticed his wife’s appearance. His was the one that mattered.

‘You look absolutely lovely, James,’ said Lizzie dutifully.

Low sepia clouds obscured the moon. As the headlamps lit up grey stone walls, acid green tree trunks and long blonde grasses, Lizzie tried abortively to apply eye liner as James described every little triumph of the planning meeting and his programme afterwards.

‘Anyone interesting in our party tonight?’ asked Lizzie as he paused for breath.

‘Rupert Campbell-Black, Beattie Johnson his mistress, Freddie Jones.’

‘Who’s he?’

‘Don’t you ever read the papers?’ said James, appalled. ‘Mr Electronics.’

Oh God, sighed Lizzie to herself. I daren’t ask what electronics are, and I bet I’m sitting next to him at dinner.

‘And Paul Stratton and his new wife.’

‘Oooh,’ squeaked Lizzie. ‘That’s exciting.’

Three years ago, just after the Conservatives won the last election, Paul Stratton, the Tory MP for Cotchester and the very upright Minister for Home Affairs, with a special brief to investigate sex education in schools, had rocked his constituency and the entire nation by walking out on Winifred, his solid dependable boot of a wife, and running off with his secretary half his age.

Not that his constituents were prudish (having Rupert Campbell-Black in the next door constituency, they were used to the erotic junketing of MPs), but as Paul Stratton had not only used his political career to feather his nest financially, but also set himself up as a pillar of respectability and uxoriousness, constantly inveighing against pornography, homosexuality, easier divorce and the general laxity of the nation’s morals, they had found it hard to stomach his hypocrisy.

‘Evidently, they’ve bought a place in Chalford,’ said James, ‘and Paul and Sarah, I think she’s called, are planning to spend weekends down here, re-establishing themselves with the local community.’

‘I suppose Tony inviting them this evening heralds the official return of the prodigal son,’ said Lizzie. ‘I wonder if she’s as beautiful as her photographs. I bet Rupert makes a pass at her. He’s always enjoyed bugging Paul.’

‘Don’t be fatuous, they’re only just back from their honeymoon,’ snapped James, steering round a sharp bend and bringing the conversation neatly back to himself.

‘I’ve got a gut feeling tonight is going to mark a turning-point in my career,’ he said importantly. ‘Tony’s been exceptionally nice to me recently. And when I popped into Madden’s office later this evening to find out exactly who was in the party, there was a confidential memo on Tony’s desk about the Autumn schedules, which I managed to read upside-down. It appears Corinium are committed to a series of prime time interviews for the Network. I didn’t dare read any more, in case Madden got suspicious, but I suspect Tony’s got me in mind, and that’s why he’s asked us this evening.’

Tony Baddingham soaked in a boiling Floris-scented bath, admiring his flat stomach. For once the cordless telephone was mute, giving him the chance to savour the prospect of the evening ahead. One of the joys of becoming hugely successful was that it gave you the opportunity to patronize those who, in the past, had patronized you. Paul Stratton, for example. It was going to be so amusing tonight extending the hand of friendship to Paul and his bimbo wife. How grateful and subservient they’d be.

Then there was Rupert. Tony was not given to fantasy, but more than anything else in the world he longed to be in a position when an abject, penitent, penniless Rupert, who’d somehow lost all his looks, was seeking Tony’s favour and friendship. The only reason Tony really wanted Rupert on his Board was in order to dazzle him with his brilliant business acumen.

In wilder fantasy, Tony dreamt of flaunting an undeniably sexy mistress, who would be impervious to Rupert’s charms.

‘Can’t you bloody understand,’ he imagined Cameron screaming at Rupert, ‘that Tony’s the only man there’ll ever be in my life?’

Tony added more boiling water to his bath to steel himself against the arctic climate of the rest of the house. There was a running battle between Tony who liked the heat, and whose office, according to Charles Fairburn, provided an excellent dress rehearsal, both physically and mentally, for hell fires, and Monica, his wife, who regarded central heating as a wanton extravagance which ate into one’s capital.

‘I still feel dreadfully guilty not telling Winifred about Paul and Sarah coming tonight,’ said Monica, when later, fully dressed, Tony went into his wife’s bedroom and found her sitting at her dressing table vigorously brushing her short fair hair. She was wearing the same emerald-green taffeta she’d worn for the last four hunt balls, which went beautifully with Tony’s diamonds, but did nothing to play down the red veins that mapped her cheeks, as a result of gardening and striding large labradors across the Gloucestershire valleys in all weathers. Yet, in a way, her rather masculine beauty, splendid on the prow of a ship or as a model for a Victorian bust of Duty, needed no enhancement.

Monica had once been head girl of her boarding school and had remained so all her life. Winifred Stratton, Paul’s ex-wife, had been her senior prefect. Together they had run the school firmly and wisely, diverting the headmistress’s attention away from a plume of cigarette smoke rising from the shrubbery, but gently reproaching the errant smoker afterwards. All the lower fourths had had crushes on Monica. Sometimes, even today, unheard by Tony who slept in a separate room, she cried, ‘Don’t talk in the passage,’ in her sleep.

Known locally as Monica of the Glen because of her noble appearance and total lack of humour, she was the only woman to whom Tony was always polite, and also a little afraid. In the icy, high-ceilinged bedroom, opera and gardening books crowded the tables on either side of the ancient crimson-curtained four-poster which Tony visited perhaps once a week. But even after eighteen years of marriage, these visits gave him an incredible sexual frisson.

On the chest of drawers, which contained no new clothes, were silver-framed photographs of their three children. With her sense of fairness, Monica would never let the other two know that she loved her elder son Archie, sixteen last week, the best. Nor that she loved her two yellow labradors, and her great passions, opera and gardening, often a great deal more than her husband.

Running Tony’s life with effortful efficiency, she never had enough time for these two passions, but if she was disappointed by the hand life had dealt her, she never showed it. She was not looking forward to this evening, which would involve talking until three o’clock in the morning to all those people Tony considered so important, but she would treat them with the same impersonal kindness whether they were Lords-Lieutenant or electronics millionaires. Always anxious to help humanity collectively (she did a huge amount for charity), Monica was not interested in people individually, or what made them tick or leap into bed with one another, but she was worried about Winifred. Even after she’d married Tony, and Winifred had married the much more brilliant, handsome and ambitious Paul Stratton, they had remained friends and gone to the opera and old school reunions together.

When Paul had run off with his secretary, in a scandal that rocked Gloucestershire almost as much as Helen Campbell-Black walking out on Rupert, Winifred had been utterly devastated, but like a building sapped by dry rot, one couldn’t initially see the damage from outside. After Winifred had moved to Spain with her two daughters in a desperate attempt to rebuild her life, Monica missed her friendship desperately, and now, to crown it, Tony had asked Paul and Sarah to join the party tonight, and she, Monica, was expected to smooth over Sarah’s first public outing in Gloucestershire.

‘I just feel it’s revoltingly disloyal to Winifred,’ repeated Monica.

She had applied Pond’s vanishing cream and face powder, and a dash of bright-red lipstick, which was the extent of her daytime make-up, and was now adding her night make-up: brown block mascara put on with a little brush.

‘I swore to Winifred I’d never have that little tramp’ — Monica spat on her mascara — ‘over the threshold.’

Tony’s brows drew together like two black caterpillars.

‘Paul is still our local MP, even if he has been booted out of the Cabinet,’ he said patiently. ‘With the franchise coming up next year, I have to entertain whatever wife he chooses. At least I waited until after they were married.’

As Tony moved forward to do up the clasp of her diamond necklace, Monica caught sight of her husband’s reflection. The red tailcoat with dove-grey facings made him look taller and thinner, and gave a distinction to his somewhat heavy good looks, but Monica hardly noticed.

‘I still ought to telephone Winifred and tell her.’

‘She’s in Spain. Let it rest. I’d better go down; they’ll be here in a minute.’

Monica glanced at her diamond watch. Lohengrin was about to start on Radio 3. If only she could stay at home and listen to it, she thought wistfully. As she slotted a three-hour blank tape into her radio cassette and pressed the record button, she called after Tony, ‘Can you tell Victor to up the proportion of orange juice in the Buck’s Fizz. We don’t want everyone arriving at the town hall plastered like last year.’

6

An hour later, downstairs in the huge dark panelled drawing-room hung with tapestries, members of the party were beginning to unthaw and retreat from the fierce red glow of the beech logs smouldering and crackling in the vast fireplace. Lizzie Vereker, sustained by at least six glasses of Buck’s Fizz, had perked up and forgotten her extra pounds and her straining red dress.

Neither Rupert nor Beattie Johnson had arrived yet, but there was plenty to gaze at. Paul Stratton’s new wife, for example, was absolutely gorgeous. She had entered the room looking little girlish and apprehensive, eyes cast down, clinging to Paul’s arm and hardly speaking. She was wearing a yellow silk dress which matched her thick piled-up gold hair, and a beautiful tobacco-brown fringed silk shawl covering her shoulders and wound high round her neck.

After replying in shy monosyllables to Tony and Monica’s questions, she had allowed herself to be introduced to James and also to Tony’s youngest brother, Bas, who was a terrific rake with black patent-leather hair, a smooth olive complexion, and a very overdeveloped little finger from twisting women round it. Now a small smile was beginning to play around Sarah’s full coral lips at Bas’s extravagant compliments, and the shawl was beginning to slip to reveal the most voluptuous golden shoulders and bosom. She and Paul must have been somewhere hot for their honeymoon, decided Lizzie.

Paul didn’t seem to have reaped the same benefit. His dark hair, which he’d once brushed straight back, had gone silver grey and been coaxed forward, almost to his eyebrows, and in little commas over his very pink ears. Sarah, being young, had obviously encouraged him into a Paisley bow-tie and a wing collar, the points of which kept being bent over by a new double chin. His once hard angular face seemed to have softened and weakened. He still, however, had the same all-embracing smile that passed over you like a lighthouse beam, and still liked the sound of his own voice. He was now talking to Freddie Jones, the electronics multi-millionaire.

‘Three million unemployed,’ he boomed, ‘is a Mickey Mouse figure. Didn’t you see that article about that factory manager who was offering people two hundred and twenty pounds a week merely to stuff mattresses, and simply couldn’t get staff? The working classes just don’t want to work. They’re shored up by moonlighting and the great feather bed of the welfare state.’

Paul made the mistake of thinking that someone with such capitalist instincts would automatically vote Tory. Freddie Jones listened to him carefully but didn’t say anything. He was plump and jolly, with rumpled red-gold curls, round, merry grey-blue eyes, a snub nose and an air that life was a tremendous adventure. Lizzie thought he looked much more fun than anyone else.

Across the room, she noticed, James had broken swiftly away from Sarah Stratton, and was now talking to a very slim woman with dimples and short brown curls tied up by a blue bow. She was wearing a pale-blue midi dress with a full skirt and a top, of which the satin lining was the strapless bodice, and the gauze over it covered her arms down to her wrists and her shoulders and tied in a pussy-cat bow at the neck. It was the most ghastly dress Lizzie had ever seen. But the woman, who Lizzie deduced must be Freddie Jones’s wife, seemed frightfully pleased with herself, and was laughing away, rolling her eyes and gazing up at James’s beautiful bronzed face with excessive admiration.

Apart from Sarah Stratton, Lizzie decided hazily, the men looked much more glamorous than the women this evening, gaudy peacocks in their different tail coats, red with grey-blue facings for the West Cotchester Hunt, red with crimson for the neighbouring Gatherham Hunt, dark blue with buff for the Beaufort. If he hadn’t been so good-looking, James in a dinner jacket would have been outclassed.

Helping herself to another Buck’s Fizz, Lizzie wandered somewhat unsteadily over to the seating plan for dinner at the Town Hall. She was sitting next to Freddie Jones. James was on Monica Baddingham’s right. Maybe his predictions about his brilliant future were about to come true.

Laughing uproariously, two handsome young bloods in red coats now rushed up and started marking the seating plan with red asterisks.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Lizzie.

‘Singling out the worst gropers,’ said one. ‘We’re starting with Bas Baddingham and Rupert Campbell-Black.’

‘Better put one beside my husband,’ said Lizzie.

‘Who’s he?’

‘James Vereker.’

‘We were just about to.’ They all collapsed with laughter.

‘Have some more fizz,’ yelled Monica Baddingham in her raucous voice, arriving with a jug which contained almost straight orange juice now. ‘I can’t think what’s happened to Rupert. We’ll have to leave in a sec, or we’ll be late for dinner.’ She drifted off.

‘Do we dare put an asterisk by Tony’s name?’ said one of the young bloods.

‘Of course,’ said the other, seizing the Pentel.

Giggling, Lizzie glanced across the room to see James beckoning imperiously.

He’s had enough of Mrs Jones, so he wants to palm her off on me and press the flesh, thought Lizzie.

Ignoring James, she turned back to the seating plan. Next minute James had crossed the room and seized her wrist.

‘May I borrow her?’ he asked coldly.

‘Of course,’ said the young bloods, ‘as long as you bring her straight back.’

James dragged Lizzie away. ‘Do pay attention when I signal.’

‘I was having a nice time.’

‘This is work,’ hissed James. ‘I want you to meet Valerie Jones. She’s opening a boutique in Cotchester next month. You must go and buy something. ‘

Never, never, thought Lizzie sulkily, if she sells dresses like that blue thing she’s wearing.

‘Lizzie writes novels,’ James told Valerie Jones, as if to explain his wife’s scruffy appearance.

‘I’d laike to wraite novels if I had the taime,’ said Valerie Jones, in an incredibly elocuted voice, ‘but Ay’m so busy with the boutique and the kids and moving in and we do have to entertain a lot. People are always saying, You should wraite a book, Mrs Jones, you’ve had such a fascinating laife.’

She screwed her face up in what she obviously thought was a fascinating smile.

Close up, Lizzie noticed that Valerie Jones had very clean nails, perfectly shaved armpits and the very white eyeballs of the non-reader and non-drinker. She was tiny and very pretty in a doll-like way, but Lizzie suddenly understood the expression: blue with cold. Valerie’s china-blue eyes were the coldest she’d ever seen. The pink and white skin also concealed the rhinoceros hide of the relentless social climber.

‘I’ll leave you girls to get acquainted,’ said James. ‘Better have a word with Paul Stratton, or he’ll think I’m avoiding him. We must have a dance later,’ he added admiringly to Valerie. ‘I bet you’re as light as thistledown.’

‘Seven stone on the scales this morning,’ simpered Valerie.

And six-and-a-half of that’s ego, thought Lizzie. ‘Where d’you live?’ she asked.

‘At Whychey,’ said Valerie.

‘Quite near us,’ said Lizzie. ‘We’re at Penscombe.’

But Valerie wasn’t remotely interested in where Lizzie lived.

‘And only quarter of an hour from the boutique, so Ay can rush down there, if there’s any craysis, or a special client comes in. They always ask for me.’ Valerie put her head on one side. ‘Ay don’t know why. Ay think Ay tell people the truth. Ay mean, what is the point of selling somebody a gown that doesn’t suit them? It’s such a bad advertisement for the boutique.’

‘Which house in Whychey?’ asked Lizzie.

‘Oh it’s lovely; Elizabethan,’ said Valerie. ‘We had to do an awful lot though, ripping out all that horrid dark panelling.’ Lizzie winced. ‘And of course we’ve completely re-landscaped the garden, but it’ll be a year or two before Green Lawns is the paradise we want.’

Lizzie looked puzzled. ‘The only Elizabethan house I know in Whychey is Bottom Hollow Court.’

‘We changed the name,’ said Valerie. ‘We thought Green Lawns sounded prettier.’

‘Where did you live before?’

‘Cheam,’ said Valerie, with the flourish of one saying Windsor Castle. ‘We never thought we’d find anywhere as perfect as Cheam. All our help broke down and crayed when we left. But Gloucestershire has so much to offer.’

At that moment Monica came up.

‘I was just saying, Monica, that Gloucestershire has so much to offer, particularly,’ Valerie raised her untouched glass, ‘on a gracious evening like tonight.’

‘Not if we don’t get any grub,’ said Monica briskly. ‘We’ve decided not to wait for Rupert. Do either of you need a loo?’

Outside it had turned bitterly cold. Valerie came out of the house smothered in an almost floor-length mink. I hope hounds get her, thought Lizzie savagely, as she watched Freddie open the door and settle Valerie in, before going round to the driving seat.

‘Isn’t she a poppet?’ said James. ‘Knew so much about my programme.’

‘Sarah Stratton?’ asked Lizzie.

‘No, Valerie Jones. I do hope Freddie joins the Board. We could do with a few caring wives like Valerie at Corinium.’

Lizzie was dumbfounded. Was James such a dreadful judge of character?

‘What did you think of Sarah Stratton?’ she asked.

‘Not a lot. Didn’t even know who I was. You’d have thought Paul would have briefed her.’

Off they set in convoy, cars with silver foxes on the bonnet skidding all over the road, rattling the cattle grids, lighting up the last grey curls of the traveller’s joy and the last red beech leaves. Flakes of snow were drifting down as they arrived at Cotchester Town Hall.

‘It’s already fetlock-deep in Stow,’ bellowed a woman who’d just driven up with a white windscreen. ‘But of course you’re a coat warmer down here.’

Cotchester Town Hall, a splendid baroque edifice, two hundred yards down on the other side of the High Street from Corinium Television, had been built in 1902 to replace the old Assembly Rooms. The huge dining-rooms on either side of the ballroom were filled with tables, packed with laughing, chattering people. But in a noisy, glamorous gathering easily the most glamorous, scrutinized table belonged to Corinium Television. The Krug was circulating (Tony was always generous when the evening was deductible) and dinner was now well underway, but Rupert and Beattie Johnson still hadn’t turned up and Sarah Stratton, who should have been on Rupert’s right, and Tony, who should have had Beattie on his left, were trying to hide their irritation and disappointment.

Lizzie Vereker, however, was having a lovely time sitting next to Freddie Jones. Totally unpompous, instinctively courteous, noisily sucking up his bortsch, rattling off remarks in a broad Cockney accent at a speed which must tax the most accomplished shorthand typist, he was also, despite a scarlet cummerbund strained double by his wide girth, curiously attractive.

‘I don’t know anything about electronics,’ confessed Lizzie, taking a belt of Krug, ‘but I know you’re very good at them. James says you’re one of the most powerful men in England.’

‘My wife doesn’t fink so,’ said Freddie. ‘It’s a fallacy women are attracted to power. No one’s fallen in love wiv me for years. I’d like to be tall like your ’usband. But I got my height from my muvver and my shoulders from my Dad, and the rest ’ad to go somewhere.’ He roared with laughter.

At the head of the table Monica listened politely to James Vereker talking about his programme and his ideas for other programmes, and surreptitiously gazed at Sarah Stratton. Her tobacco-brown shawl had slid right off her golden shoulders now. Her piled-up blonde hair emphasized her long slender neck. The seat beside her, which should have been Rupert’s, had now been taken by Bas, Tony’s wicked brother, who was chatting her up like mad.

She’s so beautiful, thought Monica. What chance could poor Winifred have stood?

She felt jolted and uneasy. She wished she were at home reading gardening books and listening to Lohengrin.

Valerie Jones had one aim in life — to rise socially. She had therefore done her homework. Knowing James was coming this evening, she had watched his programme all week so she could comment on every item. She was now sitting next to Paul Stratton, whose recent speech in the House on the proposed Cotchester by-pass she had learnt almost by heart. But Paul was less flattered by her obvious homework than James. He, like Monica, was surreptitiously watching his wife flirting with Bas, and experiencing a tightness round his heart, a jealousy never felt when he was married to Winifred.

Lizzie’s and Freddie’s conversation had noisily progressed to hunting.

‘It was Rupert who got me going,’ said Freddie. ‘Put me up on a really quiet ’orse last March. I was cubbing by August, and huntin’ by November.’

‘Weren’t you terrified?’ asked Lizzie in awe.

‘I needed three ports and lemons to get me on to the ’orse for the opening meet, I can tell you. But I reckoned if I fell orf I’d bounce anyway.’ He roared with laughter again. ‘I’m going to take up shootin’ next.’

Huge oval silver plates of roast beef were now coming round.

‘How’s Rupert getting on with Beattie Johnson?’ asked Lizzie, helping herself.

Freddie shrugged. ‘Not very well. She keeps ’earing wedding bells, and we all know Rupe’s tone-deaf. He said the other day he fort the relationship would last till Cheltenham.’

Lizzie giggled. ‘What a typically Rupert remark. Has she finished ghosting his memoirs yet?’

‘Probably providing material for the last chapter at the moment,’ said Freddie. Digging a serving spoon into a creamy mass of potato dauphinoise, he gave a big helping to Lizzie, and was just helping himself when Valerie called sharply down the table, ‘No tatties, Fred-Fred.’

‘It’s Friday,’ said Freddie, the Cockney accent wheedling, as the spoon edged towards his plate.

‘No tatties, I said.’ Valerie’s voice was pure steel.

Freddie put back the potatoes.

Looking across at Lizzie, Sarah Stratton gave her a ghost of a wink.

‘You can have my roll, Fred-Fred,’ she said, lobbing it across the table to him.

Valerie opened her rosebud mouth and shut it again. She knew one must behave like a lady at all times, and not brawl with one’s hubby in public. Then she suddenly noticed that James, who’d ground to a halt with Monica, was looking very put out.

‘What’s your programme about on Monday?’ Valerie asked him across the table.

Paul Stratton, on Monica’s left, seized his opportunity. Turning to her, he said in a low voice, ‘It’s awfully good of you to take Sarah under your wing this evening. I know how close you were to Winifred.’

Monica almost choked on her roast beef. She didn’t want to talk about Winifred.

‘It meant so much to Sarah,’ went on Paul. ‘She was so worried about coming tonight.’

She doesn’t look worried now, thought Monica, watching Sarah laughing up at Bas.

‘I felt guilty at the time,’ said Paul rather heartily. ‘But we are all sinners, are we not? What happened to Sarah and me was part of a loving relationship. All sides behaved with dignity. I feel I can now walk down Cotchester High Street with my head held high.’

Do you indeed, thought Monica furiously.

‘But one can’t destroy something that’s lasted twenty-five years over-night,’ said Paul, spearing a piece of Yorkshire pudding. ‘I still miss Win and the girls, particularly when I see old friends like you and Tony.’

He wants my sympathy, thought Monica incredulously. He’s utterly destroyed my best friend, and he wants me to feel sorry for him.

‘Do you correspond with Win?’ asked Paul.

Fortunately deliverance appeared in the form of one of the hall porters, who whispered a message in Monica’s ear.

‘Thank you so much,’ she said, and banging the table with her spoon, yelled down to Tony at the other end, ‘That was a message from Rupert. He can’t make it after all. Something urgent has come up.’

‘Probably Rupert’s cock,’ said Lizzie idly, earning herself a thunderous look of disapproval from James.

‘Pity,’ said Sarah lightly. ‘I was 50 looking forward to meeting him.’

‘There’ll be other occasions,’ said Bas, leaning back as a waitress removed his plate.

Tony, for a minute, was unable to disguise his rage.

‘Of all the fucking bad manners,’ he exploded.

Rupert’s defection put a considerable dampener on the evening. It was not until the syllabub had been handed round in tall glasses that Bas Baddingham, who was among other things a partner in a local estate agents, made an attempt to lighten the atmosphere.

‘Has anyone else heard a rumour that Declan O’Hara’s bought Penscombe Priory?’ he asked.

For a second there was a stunned silence. Then all the women acted with the frantic excitement of dogs when their leads are rattled.

‘I’m going on a crash diet tomorrow,’ squeaked Lizzie, dropping her spoon with a clatter.

‘Oh why didn’t we buy a house in Penscombe rather than Chalford?’ wailed Sarah Stratton.

‘How much did he pay for it?’ asked Valerie Jones.

‘Half a million’ said Bas.

There was a long pause as everyone did frantic sums to work out how much that now made their houses worth.

‘That’s an awful lot,’ grumbled Valerie.

‘But it’s such a romantic house,’ sighed Lizzie, ‘and that lovely wild garden.’

‘Hellishly cold,’ shuddered James.

‘And faces North,’ said Valerie.

‘So does Declan O’Hara,’ said Sarah dreamily, earning herself a sharp look from Paul.

‘Rather a lot to pay for a weekend retreat,’ said James, looking put out.

To hell with impressing Rupert with the secret he’d been hugging to himself all day, thought Tony. He had a good enough audience as it was, and it was too late for any of them to leak the story to the press tonight.

‘Declan’s going to live here,’ said Tony, looking slowly down the table. ‘He’s joining Corinium in September.’

There was a gasp of excitement, followed by another stunned silence.

Troublesome, tetchy, but monumentally talented, Declan O’Hara was simply the BBC’s hottest property. His weekly interviews with the great and very famous went out at prime time and were avidly watched and discussed by the entire nation. Nothing like the normal chat show host, he indulged in no back slapping, nor drinking in the green room, nor bandying round of Christian names before a programme. Nor did he bounce around on long pastel sofas, cosily exchanging confidences.

His victims sat facing him, and, once on air, like a Jesuit priest, he really listened to them, relentlessly probing with the most devastating questions and waiting so unbearably long for an answer that they invariably stumbled into a confession. To the intense disappointment of his armies of female fans, the camera was constantly trained on the person he was interviewing rather than on Declan himself.

Poor James, thought Lizzie, oh poor, poor James. That must be the series of networked interviews scheduled for the Autumn.

‘How the hell did you persuade Declan?’ asked Bas.

‘He’s fed up with the Beeb,’ said Tony. ‘The last straw was axing his interview with Paisley. People who saw the video said it was absolute carnage. They didn’t think Paisley would go the fifteen rounds. Then they hacked great contentious chunks out of his interview with Reagan. He wants to go out live, so this kind of thing can’t happen. He will when he joins us.’

‘You’ll never get people like Reagan coming down to Cotchester,’ said Paul Stratton.

‘You will for Declan,’ said Freddie. ‘The BBC must be as sick as a parrot.’

‘They’re not pleased,’ Tony was purring like a great leopard now, ‘but it’s not exactly our job to please the Beeb.’

Clicking their tongues, the waitresses removed the untouched syllabubs.

‘Declan’s a bit of a pinko,’ said Paul, disapprovingly.

‘That’s putting it mildly,’ said Tony, ‘but as it looks as though the socialists will be in power next year unless you lot get your act together, we can’t afford to be too right wing any more.’

Trying, for James’s sake, to curb her excitement, Lizzie turned to Monica. ‘Have you met him?’

‘They came to lunch,’ said Monica. ‘Declan seems a super chap.’

Sarah and Lizzie caught each other’s eyes again and giggled at such a totally inadequate description.

‘A bit remote,’ Monica went on, ‘probably shy. His wife is charming.’

‘Beautiful?’ asked Lizzie.

‘Oh yes, exceptional.’

‘Pity,’ sighed Sarah, earning another scowl from Paul.

‘And three utterly ravishing children,’ said Monica. ‘A boy of twenty at Trinity, Dublin, and two teenage girls about seventeen and fourteen.’

‘With Rupert living just across the valley,’ said Lizzie, shaking her shaggy head, ‘Declan must be barking. He’ll have to lock his wife and both daughters up in chastity belts.’

‘The youngest kiddy will make a friend for Sharon, although Sharon made a lot of friends at Pony Club camp. I must get them together when the O’Haras move in,’ said Valerie.

Catching Sarah’s eye yet again, Lizzie decided Sarah was definitely going to be a mate.

A group of young waitresses from other tables were now hovering, wondering if it were the right moment to ask James Vereker for his autograph. Tony was also looking at James and experiencing a glow of pure pleasure. Corinium’s most popular presenter was feeling all the pique and disquiet of a big fish who’s been basking for years in a rock pool, then suddenly sees the fin of a shark coming over the horizon. James’s exquisitely straight nose would be frightfully put out of joint by Declan’s arrival. James, Tony decided, had been getting a shade above himself recently. There was nothing Tony loved more than cutting people down to size.

As liqueurs and cigars came round, Tony moved down the table beside Freddie Jones. Now Rupert had stood him up so summarily, he was even keener to get Freddie on to the Board. With satellite television in the offing, Freddie’s millions and electronic expertise would be invaluable.

‘When Declan arrives, we’ll get him to interview you,’ said Tony.

Valerie also changed places and sat next to Monica.

‘What a lovely meal, Lady Anthony,’ she said.

‘Oh, please call me Monica.’

‘Well, thank you, Monica,’ said Valerie gratified. ‘You may, if you like, call me Mousie. That’s Fred-Fred’s pet name for me. I only allow very special friends to become members of the Mousie club.’

Oblivious of Monica’s look of amazement and Sarah’s and Lizzie’s complete hysterics, Valerie ploughed on. ‘I wanted to pick your brains, Monica, about public schools. Wayne is eleven but he’s extra bright, so we’re thinking of Winchester or even Eton, but I just wondered if you and Tony had been satisfied with Rugborough.’

‘Well, Archie’s very happy there,’ said Monica, her raucous voice softening. ‘The only problem, if one’s got a flat in London, is that Rugborough’s on the Central Line and, whenever he gets bored, Archie keeps nipping home on the tube. It drives Tony demented. Archie’s supposed to be doing his O-levels.’

‘Our problem,’ said Valerie smugly, ‘is to stop Wayne working. Not that he’s a sissy, Monica — he’s really plucky at sport — but you know how important qualifications are.’

The band was playing ‘Red Red Wine’. The brilliantly lit ballroom beckoned. The vast springy floor was now filling up with couples. Like a shaken kaleidoscope, the red coats of the men with their flying tails clashed gloriously with the stinging fuchsia pinks and electric blues of the women’s dresses.

‘I wouldn’t mind if Tony’d given me an inkling beforehand,’ said James Vereker furiously, as, oblivious for once of the admiring glances of most of the young girls in the room, he lugged Lizzie round the floor, ‘but I looked such a pratt, knowing nothing about it, and Monica actually admitted never watching my programme. Says she prefers BBC 2. What kind of a Chairman’s wife is that?’

Lizzie let him rabbit on. She felt terribly sorry for him, but it was such exciting news that Declan was moving to Corinium, and she was fascinated by what was happening on the floor.

Monica was dancing with the Lord-Lieutenant now. For someone so mad about opera, she had no sense of rhythm. Gyrating three feet apart, they looked like two ostriches on hot bricks.

‘Red red wine,’ sang the Lord-Lieutenant over and over again, which were the only words he knew.

As the tempo speeded up, Valerie took the floor with Freddie, showing off her ‘Come Dancing’ skills, fishtailing, telemarquing, reversing, correcting Freddie sharply whenever he made a mistake. Freddie, his little black shoes twinkling, laughed and took it in good part.

‘What on earth did you find to say to James Vereker’s wife?’ asked Valerie, as the band paused for a moment. ‘What a mess, can’t have combed her hair for weeks, and that fraightful gown.’

‘Nice lady,’ said Freddie firmly. ‘I liked her a lot.’

Valerie gazed at Freddie as uncomprehendingly as Lizzie had gazed at James when, earlier, he’d called Valerie ‘a poppet’.

‘And that new wife of Paul Stratton’s looks a handful,’ she went on.

Freddie refrained from saying he’d love to have his hands full of Sarah Stratton.

Paul and Sarah were dancing together now. He was holding her close, his hands moving over her flawless gold back, as if testing she were real. Perhaps she’d made a special effort to look particularly stunning tonight, thought Lizzie, knowing Winifred was such a chum of Monica’s.

Tony devoted the rest of the evening to wooing Freddie, but he allowed himself the treat of a dance with Sarah. She was really gorgeous, he decided. One could understand exactly why Paul let his heart rule his very swollen head and ditched Winifred, but would he ever hold Sarah? She had obviously fallen in love with Paul because he was powerful and unobtainable. Now his career had taken a nose dive in the party and he’d been sacked from the Cabinet, he was neither of these things. Nervous of losing his seat at the next election, he kept angling for Tony to offer him an executive directorship on the Corinium Board.

But Paul shouldn’t have patronized Tony in the past. How much more amusing, thought Tony, to employ Paul’s new wife instead. Holding her dazzlingly full and exciting body, breathing in the scent of her thickly piled-up blonde hair, trying not to gaze too openly at the beautiful gold breasts, Tony felt the stirrings of lust. If she was any good, she’d be perfect to present the new late night show. That would really put Paul in a tizz.

‘It’s terribly exciting about Declan,’ said Sarah. ‘I’m such a fan. Those programmes are like Rembrandts. Did you see the one on Placido Domingo?’

‘You must come and meet him as soon as they move in,’ said Tony. ‘You’re going to be a distinct asset to Gloucestershire.’

Suddenly Sarah looked terribly young. Even in the dim light Tony could see she was blushing.

‘It was angelic of you to ask us tonight, knowing what friends you were, particularly your wife, of Winifred’s. Paul’s friends haven’t been exactly friendly. They think I’ve screwed up Paul’s career.’

Tony gave a piratical smile. All he needs between his teeth is a cutlass, thought Sarah.

‘You’ve given Paul a cast-iron excuse not to be Prime Minister,’ he said. ‘He’d never have made it. He has neither the bottle nor the conviction.’

‘You’re speaking of the man I love,’ said Sarah.

‘I’m sorry.’ Tony didn’t sound it. ‘I’m going to tell James Vereker to interview you for our new “Behind Every Famous Man” series.’

Sarah smiled, showing very small, white, even teeth.

‘You’d do better to interview Valerie. She drives poor Fred-Fred on with a pitchfork.’

‘Probably spent half the day reading etiquette books on the correct way to hold your pitchfork,’ said Tony.

Back at the table, the waiter poured more Krug, but Tony put a hand over his glass.

‘I’m driving to London after this,’ he said. ‘We’re announcing Declan’s appointment tomorrow, so all hell’s going to break loose.’

‘The Gloucestershire poacher strikes again,’ said Lizzie, receiving a sharp kick on the ankle from James.

As everyone swarmed out into the High Street after the ‘Post Horn Gallop’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’, they found a thick layer of snow on the pavements. Down the road, high above them, the Corinium red ram was already wearing a white barrister’s wig of snow on his curly poll.

‘Drive carefully, Tony,’ called Monica, as Percy the chauffeur held open the door of the Rolls for her. ‘See you tomorrow evening.’ Happily she settled back in the grey seat. Soon she’d be home to at least an hour of Lohengrin before she fell asleep.

‘Bet the old ram’s making a Cook’s detour via Hamilton Terrace,’ said James Vereker savagely, as Tony set off for London in the BMW, waving goodbye to the last of his guests.

Tony drove towards the motorway, but, sure enough, as soon as he’d shaken everyone else off, he did a U-turn and, just as the snow started to fall again, belted back to Cotchester.

7

It was three o’clock in the morning but Cameron Cook was still working on the first story outline for the new series of ‘Four Men went to Mow’. On Monday she’d start commissioning writers. Ones that were talented and bullyable were not easy to find.

Beyond having a shower and brushing her teeth, she’d made no preparations for Tony, no satin sheets, no black silk negligées, no Fracas — the sharp, dry scent he so adored and which he brought her by the bucket — sprayed round the room. She was wearing the same brown cashmere jersey she’d worn to the office earlier, tight black trousers and no make-up. After twenty months, the one thing that held Tony was her indifference, her refusal to jump to his ringmaster’s whip.

Perhaps he wouldn’t turn up at all to punish her for being so bloody at the meeting. But she was so pissed off with him going to the Hunt Ball without her, and even worse inviting that jerk James Vereker, that she’d refused to speak to him after the meeting and stormed off home. She mustn’t drop her guard like that. Once Tony detected weakness, he stuck the knife in.

All the same her stint in England had been terrifically exciting. She remembered so well the July day she had arrived. Tony had met her at Heathrow and driven her straight down to Cotchester to the quiet Regency terrace to the honey-gold house he had bought her. It was the only time she’d ever known him nervous.

Inside, as they’d gone from room to room, as finely proportioned and delicately coloured as the eggs of a bird, primrose and Wedgwood blue, lemon-yellow and cream, pale green and white, with large sash windows, and pretty alcoves with shelves for china scooped out of the walls, Cameron hadn’t said a word. Apart from a fully equipped kitchen and a television set in the living-room, there was no furniture except a huge brass four-poster in the upstairs attic, which spread across the whole top floor.

Cameron had opened the window and gazed out at her new back yard with its pale-pink roses, and three ancient apple trees at the end. Someone had just mowed the lawn, and, as she breathed in the smell of grass cuttings, and admired the grey-gold spire of Cotchester Cathedral rising from its bright-green water meadows, she burst into tears.

Tony, who hadn’t touched her until then, thinking she hated the house, or was feeling homesick, moved forward like lightning and took her in his arms.

‘Darling, what’s the matter? We’ll find something else if you don’t like it.’

Then Cameron sobbed into his Prussian-blue silk shirt that it was the loveliest house she’d ever seen, and why didn’t they christen the bed — and their love-making turned out to be even more rapturous than it had been in New York.

But that was the last time she’d displayed weakness in his presence. From the moment she’d arrived she’d had no time to consider whether she was homesick or not. When she wasn’t producing and master-minding every detail of the thirteen episodes of ‘Four Men went to Mow’, battling with directors, designers, actors and technicians, who weren’t at all pleased to have a twenty-seven-year-old American upstart ordering them around, she was furnishing the house, driving from Southampton to Stratford, from Bath to Oxford, picking up antiques, thoroughly acquainting herself with the Cotswold area and seeking new ideas for programmes.

Otherwise her life revolved around Tony. He managed to spend several evenings a week with her; people noticed he’d started leaving official dinners and cocktail parties abnormally early. He also took her to all the big events in the television calendar: Edinburgh, Monte Carlo, Cannes, New York, New Orleans, where she’d justified her existence a hundred times over selling Corinium programmes and acquiring new ones.

But there was still the married side of Tony’s life, from which she was so ruthlessly excluded. She had only been once to his beautiful house, The Falconry, when Monica and the children were away, and that, she was sure, was because he wanted to show the place off.

Going into the drawing-room, she had exclaimed with pleasure at the Renoir over the mantelpiece.

‘Don’t touch it,’ screamed Tony, ‘or you’ll have the entire Gloucestershire constabulary on the doorstep.’

Cameron had only met Monica once or twice at office parties, or at the odd business reception. And occasionally Monica sailed into Corinium to collect Tony. The galling thing was she never recognized Cameron. In one way, Monica’s lack of interest in Tony’s job made it much easier for him to deceive her. In another, brooded Cameron, if you had a rival, you wanted her at least to be aware of your existence.

‘Lady Baddingham is a real lady,’ Miss Madden was fond of saying when she wanted to get under Cameron’s skin.

Cameron liked to think Tony only stayed with Monica because the silly old bag gave him respectability, and he didn’t want any scandal before the franchise was renewed.

Getting up from her desk, Cameron wandered round the living-room. It was the only room in the house she’d redecorated, papering the walls in scarlet with a tiny blue-grey flower pattern and adding scarlet curtains, and a blue-grey carpet, sofas and chairs. She had acquired a new piano in England, lacquered in red, but had brought with her from America the dentist’s chair upholstered in scarlet Paisley, the dartboard, the gold toe from the Metropolitan Museum, and all the videos of her NBS programmes. Beside them on the shelf were now stacked the thirteen prize-winning episodes of ‘Four Men went to Mow’ and the two documentaries Cameron had also made on All Souls’ College, Oxford, and on Anthony Trollope, who’d based Barchester on Salisbury, which was, after all, within the Corinium boundary.

On the mantelpiece was a signed photograph of the four young actors who’d starred in ‘Four Men went to Mow’, and a huge phallic cactus, given to her as an end-of-shoot present by the entire cast. ‘Darling Cameron,’ said the card, which was still propped against it, ‘You’re spikey, but you’re great.’

After all the screaming matches, it had been a great accolade.

Tony obviously wasn’t coming, Cameron decided; she’d blown it once and for all. The weekend stretched ahead, nothing but work until more work on Monday.

For consolation, she picked up that week’s copy of Broadcast, which fell open at a photograph of her cuddling a dopey looking Jersey cow. ‘Producer Cameron Cook on location during filming of her BAFTA-nominated series: “Four Men went to Mow”,’ said the caption. ‘The lucky cow is on the left.’

Going over to the window, Cameron realized it was snowing. There were already three inches on top of her car, and soft white dustsheets had been laid over the houses opposite. Snow had also filled up the cups of the winter jasmine that jostled with the Virginia creeper climbing up the front of her house. If you wanted to get to the top you had to jostle, reflected Cameron. Tony had hinted he might put her on the Board, but she knew James Vereker, Simon Harris, and all the Heads of Departments would block her appointment to the last ditch. She had interfered at all levels, criticizing every programme, and every script she could lay her hands on. She knew she was unpopular with everyone in the building. But she didn’t want popularity, she wanted power and the freedom to make the programmes she wanted without running to Tony for protection.

She was so deep in thought, she didn’t notice the BMW drawing up, nor that Tony was outside until he lobbed a snowball against the window. She wished he didn’t look so revoltingly handsome in that red coat. Cameron detested hunting, not because she felt sorry for the fox, but because of the bloody-minded arrogance of people like Tony and Rupert Campbell-Black who hunted.

‘How was it?’ she asked, getting a bottle of champagne from the fridge.

‘Great.’

Immediately her antagonism came flooding back.

‘How was Rupert?’ She knew her interest would bug Tony.

‘Bastard didn’t turn up. But Bas had heard a rumour that Declan had bought The Priory, so I told everyone he was joining Corinium. It was OK,’ he added, seeing Cameron’s look of horror. ‘It was too late for any of them to ring the papers. You should have seen James’s face.’

Cameron grinned.

‘That’s an improvement,’ said Tony. ‘Why were you so bloody bootfaced at the meeting?’

‘I had a migraine.’

They both knew she was lying. But, excited by dancing with Sarah and upsetting James, and even more by the prospect of bringing Cameron to shuddering gasping submission, Tony didn’t want a row. He soon had her undressed and into the huge brass bed, now curtained with pale-grey silk, which he or rather Corinium had paid for, just as they had paid for the whole house. The excuse was that putting up visiting VIPs in Cameron’s spare room would be cheaper than the Cotchester Arms, which served awful food and had no air conditioning.

‘Do you do this to keep your mind off your work?’ asked Tony later, as a naked Cameron straddled him in all her angry, voracious beauty.

Cameron leaned over and took a gulp of champagne.

‘Who says it takes my mind off my work? I’ve got an idea.’

‘What?’ Feeling those muscles gripping his cock, Tony wondered how he ever refused her anything.

‘I want to produce Declan when he arrives in September.’

Leaving Cameron at six o’clock, Tony drove up to London. He’d put on a jersey over his evening shirt, and planned to bath, shave and breakfast at his flat in Rutland Gate. As he was going up a deserted Kensington High Street, his car was splashed by another — some celebrity being raced the opposite way to Breakfast Television at Lime Grove, lights on in the back as he mugged up his notes.

Red coat over his arm, Tony let himself into his flat. For a second he thought he’d been burgled. Clothes littered the hall; bottles, glasses and unwashed plates covered the kitchen table. Then, going into Monica’s bedroom, Tony discovered the naked figure of his son Archie, come home once again from Rugborough on the tube, fast asleep in the arms of an extremely pretty, very young girl.

Tony’s bellow of rage nearly sent them through the double glazing. The girl dived under the flowered sheets. Archie mumbled that he was terribly sorry, but he’d thought his parents were at the Hunt Ball.

‘We were,’ snapped Tony. ‘Now I’m going to have a bath, and I want her out of here by the time I’ve finished.’

At least Archie had the manners to take the girl home, reflected Tony, as he soaked for the second time in twelve hours in a boiling bath. Pretty little thing too. He’d always been nervous Archie might turn out a bit AC/DC. Having a very dominant but adoring mother didn’t help, but he was pleased to see Archie following in his father’s footsteps. Tony was extremely fond of his elder son. He was frying eggs and bacon when Archie returned very sheepishly.

Having bawled him out for his disgraceful behaviour, Tony said, ‘Where the hell does your housemaster think you are?’

‘In bed, I suppose.’

‘But not whose. How old is she?’

‘Sixteen.’

‘Over age, thank Christ. If you ever use Mummy’s bed again, I’ll disinherit you. I hope you took precautions.’

‘We did,’ mumbled Archie. ‘I’m really sorry. We were going to change the sheets.’

‘Think how upset Mummy would have been.’

‘We don’t have to tell her, do we?’ Archie’s round face turned pale.

Thinking he would also have some very fast explaining to do if Monica discovered he hadn’t reached the flat until eight o’clock, Tony agreed that they didn’t.

‘But don’t let it happen again. You’ve bloody well got to pass your O-levels. You know how important qualifications are. Now I suppose you expect me to give you breakfast?’

8

Six months later, on the wettest August day for fifty years, Declan O’Hara moved into Penscombe Priory to the feverish excitement of the entire county. It rained so hard that on ‘Cotswold Round-Up’ James Vereker caringly warned his viewers about flooding on the Cotchester-Penscombe road. But perhaps, being Irish, reflected Lizzie Vereker the next morning, the rain made Declan and his family feel more at home.

Lizzie’s children had gone out to friends for the day; her daily Mrs Makepiece was due later; Ortrud, the nanny who had replaced Birgitta in April, was upstairs no doubt writing about James in her diary. Lizzie had a rare clear day to work. But she was halfway through and very bored with her novel. Outside the downpour had given way to brilliant sunshine and delphinium-blue skies. From her study Lizzie could see the keys on the sycamore already turning coral and yellow leaves flecking the huge weeping willow which blocked her view of the lake. There wouldn’t be many more beautiful days this year, reflected Lizzie. Overcome by restlessness and curiosity, she decided to walk up the valley and drop in on the O’Haras. As a moving-in present she would take them some bantams’ eggs and the bottle of champagne an adoring fan had given James yesterday.

The trees in the wood that marked the beginning of Rupert’s land were so blackly bowed down with rain that it was like walking through a dripping tunnel. Emerging, Lizzie wandered up the meadows closely cropped by Rupert’s horses. In the opposite direction thundered the Frogsmore stream, which ran along the bottom of the valley, hurtling over mossy stones, twisting round fallen logs, shrugging off the caress of hanging forget-me-nots and pink campion, and occasionally disappearing altogether into a cavern of bramble and briar.

Coming in the other direction was Mrs Makepiece, who worked mornings for the unspeakable Valerie Jones and who was bursting with gossip. The four Pickfords’ vans bearing the O’Haras’ belongings had nearly got stuck on Chalford Hill, she told Lizzie, and Declan’s son — well, the image of Declan, anyway — had been sighted in the village shop, asking for whisky, chocolate biscuits, toilet paper and lightbulbs, and was quite the handsomest young man anyone had seen in Penscombe since Rupert Campbell-Black was a lad.

‘Will they be bringing their own staff from London?’ asked Mrs Makepiece wistfully, thinking it would be much more fun working for Mrs O’Hara, who probably paid London prices and wouldn’t slave-drive like Valerie Jones. Lizzie said she didn’t know. Mrs Makepiece was an ace cleaner, a ‘treasure’. Even the exacting Valerie Jones admitted it. Annexing ‘treasures’ was a far worse sin in Gloucestershire than stealing somebody’s husband.

Lizzie wandered on. Having had no lunch because she was on a diet, she kept stopping to eat blackberries, which didn’t count. Up on the left, dominating the valley, Rupert’s beautiful tawny house dozed in the sunshine. The garden wasn’t as good as it had been when Rupert’s ex-wife Helen had lived there. The beeches she’d planted round the tennis court were nearly eight feet tall now. Rupert should fly a flag when he was in residence, thought Lizzie. One couldn’t help feeling excited when he was at home.

Half a mile upstream, the village of Penscombe, with its church spire and ancient ash-blond houses, lay in a cleavage of green hills like a retirement poster promising a happy future. Lizzie, however, turned right, clambering over a mossy gate into a beech wood, whose smooth grey trunks soared like the pipes of some vast organ. Following a zig-zagging path upwards, which three times crossed a waterfall hurtling down to join the Frogsmore, Lizzie finally stumbled and panted her way to the top.

Across a hundred-yard sweep of lawn, which was now almost a hayfield, rose the confusion of mediaeval chimneys, pointed gables, gothic turrets and crenellated battlements that made up Penscombe Priory. On either side with the sun behind them like a funeral cortège towered great black yew trees, cedars and wellingtonias. To the left of the lawn, where once, before the dissolution of the monasteries, the nuns must have strolled and prayed, grew a tangled rose walk.

Poor O’Haras, thought Lizzie, as she hurried along it. After divorce and death, moving house is supposed to be the most traumatic experience. But, as she skirted a large pond overgrown with water lilies, round to the front of the house which faced into the hillside for shelter, she was suddenly deafened by pop music booming out of two of the upstairs turrets, and opera, she thought it was Rheingold, pouring out of the other two.

The old oak front door, studded with nails, was open. On the sweep of gravel outside a van was still being unloaded. Peering inside, Lizzie noticed some very smeary furniture (the O’Haras would be needing a ‘treasure’ after all), a grand piano whose yellow keys seemed to be leering at her, and several tea chests full of books.

Sprawling over the front porch was an ancient clematis which acted as a curtain for the bathroom window above and covered the doorbell, which didn’t work anyway. Inside Lizzie called ‘Hullo-oo, hullo-oo,’ in a high voice.

Next minute a very plain, self-important black and white mongrel appeared, barking furiously and wagging a tightly curled tail.

Turning right down the hall into the kitchen, which was situated in the oldest, thirteenth-century part of the house, Lizzie found a woman, whom she assumed must be Declan’s wife Maud. Ravishing, but inappropriately dressed in a pink sequinned T-shirt, lime-green tracksuit bottoms, with a jewelled comb in her long red hair, she was very slowly unpacking china from a tea chest, stopping to smooth out and read each bit of paper it was wrapped in, and drinking whisky out of a tea cup.

On the window seat, training a pair of binoculars on Rupert Campbell-Black’s house, knelt a teenage girl with spiky short pink hair, a brace on her teeth and a pale, clever charming face. In her black clumpy shoes, wrinkled socks and black woolly cardigan, she looked like a tramp who’d just changed into his old clothes. Neither of them took any notice when Lizzie came in. But a very tall girl in jeans and a dark-green jersey, with a cloud of thick black hair, strange silver-grey eyes, and a smudge on her cheek, who was quickly unloading china, looked up and smiled.

‘I live down the valley,’ announced Lizzie. ‘I’ve brought you some eggs and a bottle. Don’t open it now. It’s a bit shaken up. Put it in the fridge.’

‘Oh, how really kind of you,’ said the dark girl. She had a soft deep slightly gruff voice, like a teddy bear’s growl. She looked very tired.

Maud, having finished reading her piece of newspaper, glanced up and gave Lizzie the benefit of her amazing eyes which were almond-shaped, sleepy, fringed with very thick dark red lashes, and as brilliantly green as Bristol glass. Deciding Lizzie was worthy of interest, she introduced her daughters Taggie, short for Agatha, the tall dark one, and Caitlin, the little redhead.

The sink was crammed with flowers still in cellophane. Sidling over, Lizzie noticed one lot was from Tony and Monica Baddingham, wishing the O’Haras good luck in their new house and a long and happy association with Corinium.

‘All the nation’s press tramped through here yesterday in the mud trying to interview Declan,’ grumbled Maud. ‘TV Times has been here all morning photographing us moving in. Two local papers are due this afternoon, and a man from the Electricity Board has been rabbiting on like Mr Darcy about the inferiority of our connections and says the whole place will have to be rewired. Have a drink.’

She extracted a mug wrapped in a page of New Statesman, splashed some whisky into it for Lizzie and filled up her own tea cup.

‘It’s a glorious house,’ said Lizzie, raising her mug to them. ‘Welcome. We’re all wildly excited you’ve come to live here.’

‘After yesterday’s deluge, we’ve discovered it leaks in half a dozen places,’ said Maud, ‘so we shall probably have to have a new roof as well.’

‘We’re thinking of letting our grounds to some cows,’ said Caitlin, putting down her binoculars and helping herself to a chocolate biscuit, which she proceeded to share with the black and white mongrel who was drooling on the window seat beside her.

‘Moving’s very disorientating,’ she went on. ‘Daddy’s trying to work upstairs, and he’s frantic because he’s lost his telephone book. Taggie’s lost her bra.’

‘Caitlin!’ The tall girl blushed.

‘And I’ve lost my heart,’ continued Caitlin, training her binoculars back on Rupert Campbell-Black’s house. ‘Will you introduce me?’

‘He’s not here that much,’ said Lizzie. ‘But when he is, I’m sure he’ll introduce himself.’

‘It’s not fair,’ moaned Caitlin. ‘I’m going to bloody boarding school next week, and I won’t get first crack at him. He’s bound to fall for Taggie — or even Mummy,’ she said dismissively.

There was a knock on the door and a removal man came in with a yellowing dress in a polythene bag: where did Mrs O’Hara want this put?

‘My wedding dress,’ said Maud theatrically, rising to her feet and holding it against her. ‘Just to think, twenty-one years ago.’

‘Ugh,’ said Caitlin. ‘It’s gross. How did you get Daddy in that? But I suppose he didn’t see you till he came up the aisle, and then it was too late.’

‘Caitlin, hush,’ chided Taggie, as Maud’s face tightened with anger. ‘Mummy looked beautiful; you’ve seen the photos.’

‘Oh, put it in my bedroom,’ snapped Maud, going back to the New Statesman.

‘I’m not sure I’m going to like living in the country,’ said Caitlin, fiddling with the wireless. ‘No Capital Radio, no Standard, no second post.’

‘No second post!’ Taggie’s gasp of dismay was interrupted by a knock on the door. Another removal man wanted to know where the piano was to go.

‘On the right of the front door,’ said Maud.

‘Not there,’ shrieked Caitlin. ‘Wandering Aengus is shut in there, and that stupid bugger Daddy’s let him out twice already. ‘

And there’s Daddy, the nation’s biggest megastar, thought Lizzie.

‘Aengus is our cat. He’s a bit unsettled,’ said Taggie, smiling apologetically at Lizzie.

‘Oh look,’ sighed Maud, unwrapping a baby’s bottle. ‘That was Patrick’s when he was a baby.’

Caitlin tapped the fast-emptying whisky bottle with a finger. ‘And this was Daddy’s when he was forty-two,’ she said accusingly.

‘Oh, go away,’ said Maud, shooting her another dirty look.

Peering at a pile of books in the corner, Lizzie was highly gratified to see a copy of her first novel.

‘I wrote that,’ she blurted out.

‘Did you?’ said Maud in amazement, picking up the book and examining the photograph on the inside flap.

‘When I was thinner,’ said Lizzie humbly.

‘It was really good,’ said Maud. ‘I thoroughly enjoyed it.’

At that moment a punk Lord Byron wandered into the room. He had flawless cheek bones, short dark glossy vertical hair, and an inch of violet shadow under his eyes, which were like Maud’s only darker and much more direct; obviously the son Patrick who had so dazzled the village shop.

‘Darling,’ said Maud in excitement, ‘this is Lizzie Vereker. She wrote this marvellous novel, and she lives down the valley, so perhaps Penscombe won’t be such a cultural desert after all.’

Patrick said, ‘Hullo, Lizzie,’ and announced that he’d liked the book too, and where did his mother want the piano?

‘In the big drawing-room.’

‘Too cold; you’ll never play it in there,’ said Caitlin.

‘Put it in the small sitting-room, then,’ said Maud.

‘There won’t be room for anything else in there, not even a piano stool,’ protested Patrick.

‘Oh well, you sort it out, darling, you’re so good at that sort of thing,’ said Maud.

‘And don’t let Aengus out,’ screamed Caitlin.

Patrick’s reply was drowned by a bellow of rage from outside and Declan stormed in holding a piece of paper in one hand and the cordless telephone in the other. Lizzie caught her breath. She’d never expected him to be so tall and broad in the shoulders, or quite so heroic looking. He had very thick dark hair streaked with grey, and worry and hard work had dug deep lines on either sides of his mouth and round his eyes, which were as sombre and dark as the rain-soaked yew trees outside. But even with half-moon spectacles fallen down over his broken nose, a quarter of an inch of stubble and odd socks, one had to admit his force.

‘This is Lizzie Vereker,’ announced Maud. ‘She’s brought us some eggs and a bottle of champagne, and she writes lovely books.’

Declan glared at Lizzie as though she didn’t exist.

‘I can’t find the focking A-D directory.’ His Irish accent was much more pronounced than the rest of the family. ‘I can’t find my focking telephone book. I can’t get through to Claridge’s. I can’t get any answer from directory enquiries in London. I’ve been trying for the last half-hour.’

He dialled the number again, then held out the receiver, so they could all hear the parrot screech of the unobtainable.

‘Shall I try?’ said Lizzie. ‘You have to dial 192 for London directories in the country, and then 01 before the number.’

Two minutes later she got through to Claridge’s and handed the telephone to an amazed and grateful Declan, who asked to be put through to Johnny Friedlander.

Lizzie almost fainted. Johnny Friedlander was a brilliant, madly desirable American actor, with a well-known cocaine habit, and a penchant for under-age school girls.

The Johnny Friedlander,’ she mouthed at Taggie.

Taggie nodded and smiled.

Declan was put straight through, and invited Johnny on to his first programme for Corinium next month.

‘I’d ask you to stay with us,’ Declan went on in his world-famous husky infinitely sexy smoker’s voice, ‘but we’re in shit order this end, and you’d do better in a hotel. We can have dinner after the programme. I’ll get our contract people to talk to your people. Thanks, Johnny, I can’t think of a better person to kick off the series.’

‘But he’s never given an interview ever,’ said Lizzie in wonder, as Declan came off the telephone.

‘I know. Isn’t it great?’ Declan suddenly smiled, a wide, slightly gap-toothed grin, which made him look much more like Taggie, and made Lizzie feel utterly weak at the knees. ‘And all because you know how to use a telephone,’ he went on. ‘If I’d left it any later, he’d have been looped or refused point blank. I’ll certainly read your book.’

He turned to Maud. ‘D’you hear that, darling? Johnny’s coming on the programme.’

‘That’s nice,’ said Maud, without interest. ‘Hell,’ she went on, reaching the end of another torn bit of paper, ‘this piece on Princess Michael is continued on page eight. Do see if you can find it, Taggie.’

She started frantically burrowing in the tea chest, throwing discarded bits of newspaper all over the floor. Taggie raised her eyes to heaven.

Lizzie turned to Declan: ‘What are you writing at the moment?’

‘Cheques mostly,’ said Declan.

Gazing out of the window, towards the pond, he suddenly started, and grabbed the binoculars from Caitlin, nearly garrotting her with the straps.

‘Grasshopper warbler,’ he said a second later. ‘Pretty rare for this part of the world. There are some marvellous birds round here.’

‘There could be some marvellous blokes too,’ said Caitlin, rubbing her neck and snatching back the binoculars to train them once more on Rupert’s house, ‘if they were ever at home.’

‘I’m off to the public library, darling,’ said Declan, attempting to kiss a still scrabbling Maud on the cheek.

‘But you haven’t had any breakfast or lunch,’ said Taggie in distress.

‘Trust you to push off leaving us to do all the work,’ grumbled Maud.

‘Leaving Taggie to do all the work,’ said Declan with a slight edge to his voice.

After he’d gone, and Maud and Lizzie had had some more whisky, the doorbell rang.

‘Probably the local paper, and your father’s not here,’ said Maud, who was now reading about Boy George.

But it was another bouquet of flowers, brought in by Caitlin.

‘Who are they for?’ asked Taggie, hope flaring then dying in her eyes, when Caitlin opened the envelope and read: To Declan and Maura. ‘That’s a new one, Mum.’

Seeing the flash of irritation on Maud’s face, Lizzie wondered quite how much fun it must be to be married to such a famous man. Lizzie had experienced the same thing in a smaller way being married to James, but she wasn’t stunningly beautiful like Maud. It must be awful looking like that, and having people getting your name wrong, and wanting to gawp all the time at your husband.

‘Where’s Grace?’ said Maud fretfully.

‘Not up yet,’ said Caitlin. ‘Said she couldn’t sleep because of the quiet. I suggested the removal men should drive their vans round and round hooting under her window to remind her of the juggernauts in Fulham. Grace is our so-called housekeeper,’ she explained to Lizzie. ‘Patrick says she ought to join the RSPCA, she’s so kind to spiders.’

‘I must go,’ said Lizzie regretfully.

‘Have another drink,’ said Maud, not looking up.

‘Have some lunch,’ said Taggie. ‘I was just going to make some omelettes.’

‘I must work,’ said Lizzie. ‘Thanks awfully. The children’ll be home soon; it must be nearly four.’

‘I’ll walk some of the way with you,’ said Caitlin. ‘Gertrude needs a walk. Do you want to come with us, Mummy?’ Her voice was suddenly conciliatory, as though she regretted cheeking her mother.

‘No thanks,’ said Maud vaguely. ‘I must measure up some windows for curtains.’

‘Curtains, indeed,’ muttered Caitlin as she and Lizzie left the room. ‘The only thing my mother measures with any efficiency is her length after parties. ‘Then, noticing Lizzie’s raised eyebrows, ‘I’m afraid I’m at the age when one tends to criticize one’s parents a lot. Sadly one can’t sever the umbilical cord gently. It has to be done with a razor blade and without an anaesthetic.’

Along a winding passage Caitlin opened a door into a large octagonal room, the base of one of the mediaeval turrets. Tall, narrow ecclesiastical windows with stained glass in the top panes provided the only interruption to shelves and shelves of books.

‘Daddy’s library,’ said Caitlin. ‘I thought, being a writer, you’d like it.’

‘How lovely,’ gasped Lizzie.

‘I think Daddy bought the house because it already had shelves in.’

They went out of the West door on the other side of the house, past stables and a clock tower with a roof covered in ferns and dark moss, through a vegetable garden which had been taken over by nettles, and an orchard whose stunted lichened trees grew no higher than seven feet, because of the constant blasting of the winds.

‘Patrick says it’s going to take a fleet of gardeners to keep this place in order,’ said Caitlin. ‘And what with my school fees, and the rewiring, and the new roof, and Mummy’s House and Garden fantasies, Daddy’s bloody well going to need his new salary.’

Out in the sunshine Lizzie noticed how pale and thin Caitlin was and thought a few terms playing games and eating stodge at a vigorous girls’ boarding school would do her no harm. Gertrude bounced ahead, plunging into the beech wood after rabbits. Certainly, slithering down the wood was easier than climbing up.

‘Is Rupert Campbell-Black as attractive as everyone says?’ asked Caitlin.

‘Yes,’ sighed Lizzie. ‘He seems to get more so.’

‘They say he was very wild in his youth.’

‘Well, he’s had a rather extended youth.’

‘And brainy.’

‘Well, street bright, and very sharp with money.’

‘My brother Patrick is like that. I have brains. Taggie has beauty. Patrick has both.’

‘Oh you’re going to be very beautiful,’ said Lizzie truthfully.

‘I may blossom,’ said Caitlin beadily. ‘But at present I am undernourished, and my teeth leave a lot to be desired. I had to make the dentist put this beastly brace on. My mother only believes in going to the dentist when one’s teeth hurt.’

‘And Taggie seems very efficient in the kitchen,’ said Lizzie. ‘Isn’t she bright?’

‘Not at all. She’s dyslexic, poor darling, hardly stumbles through Mills and Boon, and she has fearful trouble with recipe books, which is a pity, as she wants to be a cook. Patrick said it was ghastly when she was small, everyone thought she was retarded because she couldn’t read. Mummy shouted at her all the time, never thought of taking her to an educational psychologist.’

The wall at the bottom of the beech wood marked the end of Declan’s land. Caitlin scrambled over it and held out a hand to help Lizzie.

‘How beautiful,’ she said, gazing at the flat water meadows and the bustling little stream. ‘I can imagine mediaeval knights jousting here in the old days.’

She whistled to Gertrude who’d belted the other way, and who now rushed back, splashing and drinking in the stream.

‘The ghastly thing about having brilliant famous parents,’ Caitlin went on, ‘is you never feel the centre of the universe, because they’re so obsessed with their own lives. And if you do brilliantly at school, everyone nods sagely and says Declan’s daughter, it’s in the genes; and if you do badly like poor Tag, they just assume you’re lazy or bloody-minded. Tag’s self-confidence was in tatters when she left school.’

‘But she’s so beautiful,’ protested Lizzie.

‘I know, but she doesn’t realize it. She’s madly in love with Ralphie Henriques, one of Patrick’s even more brilliant friends. After months of pestering, he seduced Tag at a May Ball at Trinity this year. God, look at those blackberries!’ Caitlin started tearing them off the bushes with both hands and cramming them into her mouth.

‘I hoped Tag would tell me exactly what it was like. One can’t obtain one’s entire sexual education from the pages of Jackie Collins, but she just clammed up, and he never rang her again. Just one postcard from Cork, and nothing since. Can you imagine doing that to Tag? That’s why she waits for every post and jumps on every telephone. Patrick says Ralphie’s got someone else, some pert little blonde who reads Sophocles in the original. Poor Tag can’t even read English in the original.’

‘What about Patrick?’ asked Lizzie. ‘Does he like Trinity?’

‘He feels right there. He thinks my father has betrayed his roots working in England, and he also rather despises Daddy for being in television. God, these blackberries are good. Perhaps Rupert smiled at them.’

‘But your father’s a genius,’ said Lizzie, shocked. ‘Those interviews are works of art. ‘

‘I know, but Patrick thinks Daddy ought to write books. He’s been working on a biography of Yeats for years, and he used to write wonderful plays.’

‘What’s Patrick going to do when he leaves Trinity?’

‘He’ll write. He’s much more together than Daddy. I know Daddy makes pots of money, but it all gets spent, and he’s always having frightful rows at work. Patrick’s calmer. He’s a prose version of Daddy, really. And for someone with such high principles, he thinks nothing of running up the most enormous debts, which of course Mummy settles out of Daddy’s despised television earnings.’

‘Jolly easy to have principles when someone else picks up the bill,’ said Lizzie.

‘Right,’ said Caitlin. ‘Patrick’s also a bit smug because he attracts the opposite sex so effortlessly. Do you think Gertrude will get lonely in the country? Should we get her a dog friend?’

They had crossed the stream now, to the same side as Rupert’s house. Despite the lack of wind, thistledown was drifting everywhere as though a pillow had just burst. Panting up the slope, and turning in their tracks, they could just see the creepered battlements and turrets of The Priory above its ruff of beech trees, now warmed by the late afternoon sun. Climbing had also given Caitlin’s pale freckled face a tinge of colour.

‘Think of all those nuns living there in the middle ages,’ she sighed ecstatically, ‘gazing across the valley, yearning for Rupert Campbell-Black’s ancestors.’

Lizzie decided not to spoil such a romantic concept by pointing out that Rupert’s house hadn’t been built until the seventeenth century.

‘It is a romantic house, isn’t it?’ said Caitlin, still gazing at The Priory. ‘Exciting things must happen to us all — even Tag — in a place like that.’

‘I’m sure they will,’ said Lizzie.

‘I’d better go home now,’ said Caitlin. ‘Can I come and see you next time I’m back for the weekend?’

Lizzie floated home. What richness, what a fascinating afternoon. The prospect of new friends excited her these days almost as much as new boyfriends had when she was young. She was still bubbling over when James got home later than usual.

‘What did you think of my programme?’ he asked.

Lizzie had to confess she’d forgotten to watch it, because she’d dropped in and had a drink with the O’Haras.

‘Did Declan say anything about me or the programme?’ demanded James.

‘No,’ said Lizzie.

‘Didn’t you tell them you were married to me?’ said James, utterly scandalized.

‘I forgot,’ said Lizzie. ‘I’m awfully sorry, but there was so much going on, and the O’Haras are just so glamorous.’

9

Declan O’Hara had two obsessions in life: his work, and, rare in a profession that tends to regard a broken marriage as the only essential qualification, his wife.

He was born in a thatched cottage on a green hillside in the Wicklow mountains, where his father scratched a living from the land. When Declan was ten, his father broke his back falling from a tractor when drunk, and was thus rendered useless for heavy work, so the family moved back to Cork, his Protestant mother’s home town. Here his mother proceeded to bring up Declan and his three brothers by taking endless cleaning and secretarial jobs, aided by occasional handouts from her parents. Her one joy in an exhausting life was Declan, who fulfilled his promise at school by winning a history scholarship to Trinity, Dublin. Soon he was writing poetry and plays, working freelance for the Irish Times and sending money home.

One evening in his second year at Trinity, he dropped into the theatre to see The Playboy of the Western World. Maud, with her red hair and her amazing green eyes, was the toast of Dublin as Pegeen Mike. Declan went round in a daze for three days afterwards, then sat down, wrote a play for her in a month, and posted it off. Impressed by the play, Maud asked him backstage and was even more impressed by this roaring black-eyed boy with his volcanic moods and his gift for words. The theatre put on the play for a three-month run. It was an instant success, with Maud’s extra radiance being noted by all the critics. By the sixth week she was pregnant and married Declan as soon as the play came off. Although stunned with amazement and joy that this glorious creature was his, Declan soon realized there was no way he could support her and a baby by writing plays, so he junked his academic career and got a full-time job, doing profiles on the Irish Times.

There was talk of Maud returning to the stage when Patrick grew older, but then Taggie came along, and then Caitlin. Habitually strapped for cash, Declan moved to television, where, although his family in Cork thought he was joining the circus, he soon became a star. Snapped up by the BBC in London, that milker of Irish talent, in a year he was writing and fronting his own programmes, culminating in a series of interviews which had promptly climbed to the top of the ratings and remained there for two years.

For not only was Declan the most natural thing ever seen on television, but, unlike other presenters and chat show hosts, he never showed off or talked about himself, and he always did his homework. To get public figures, as a result of this quiet, sympathetic, utterly relentless probing, to reveal facets of their character never seen before made for spellbinding television.

These revelations, however, did not always please the BBC who got rattled if a Sinn Fein leader appeared too attractive or a politician too unpleasant. Known as the terror of Lime Grove because of his black glooms and his sporadic bouts of heavy drinking, Declan bitterly resented interference from above. He finally walked out because the Governors, heavily leant on by the Home Secretary, pulled his interview with Ian Paisley, and because Tony Baddingham offered to triple his salary and Declan couldn’t see any other way of paying his tax bill or ever clearing his overdraft.

After his early childhood in Wicklow, too, Declan had always yearned to live in the country. He truly believed it would be cheaper than London, that he would have more time to spend with his family, particularly Maud, and to finish his biography of Yeats.

Maud herself was lazy, egotistical and selfish. She idled her time away reading novels, and token scripts, spending money and talking. Playing second fiddle, on the other hand, is not an easy part. When she married Declan, she had been the star, pursued by half the men in Dublin, and the mistress of the Director. Then she had to watch Declan rise to international fame, while her career dwindled away through lethargy and terror of failure, on the excuse that she was always too busy with the children. Underneath, she was desperately jealous of Declan’s success, and one reason he had never become spoilt was because Maud showed no interest in his career and was constantly mobbing him up.

There was a tremendously strong erotic pull between them, but, even after twenty-one years, Declan still felt he hadn’t really won her. He was also in a Catch-22 situation. In order to support Maud’s wanton extravagance he was forced to work all hours, which meant she got bored and spent more, and, to goad him, toyed with other men. Another reason Declan had moved to the country was that last year one of her toyings had got out of hand.

A week after the O’Haras moved into The Priory, Declan started work at Corinium. He didn’t sleep at all the night before. It was a long time since February, when he’d accepted the job, but Maud had immediately started spending in the expectation of riches, culminating in a vast Farewell to Fulham party. Christ knew how he was to pay for that, or for all Maud’s re-decorating schemes.

Nor had his friends at the BBC been backward in telling him that Tony Baddingham was a shit, or that ITV, notoriously more reactionary and restrictive than the Beeb, would be far harder to work for. In the end, too, as he had been desolate to leave Ireland, he was sad to leave the BBC, particularly as so many of the staff had come out on strike when his programme on Paisley had been axed. They had then held a succession of riotous and tearful leaving parties, finally clubbing together to give him the Complete Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. But all his life Declan had walked away from the safe thing — that was his instinct.

As he lay in the huge double bed, smoking one cigarette after another, watching dawn creep through the curtainless windows, Maud slept peacefully beside him. Her red hair spilled over the rose-pink pillow case, the whole of the dark-blue duvet was wrapped round her hips, and her breasts fell sideways on to a pale-green bottom sheet. Nothing ever matched in their house, reflected Declan.

He longed to make love to her to ease the panic and tension, but there was no way she’d wake before ten o’clock. She was as obsessive about sleep as he was about work. Tony had told him to roll up at eleven, but knowing work was the only way out of his black panic, Declan decided to go in early. He was expecting a pile of Johnny Friedlander’s cuttings from America.

Thank God for Taggie, he thought, as he put on a beautifully ironed black and green checked shirt. Grace the housekeeper, who also never rose before ten, had an ability to singe or iron buttons off everything she touched.

As he went into the kitchen to pick up his car keys, Taggie came barefoot and hollow-eyed down the back stairs in her nightgown.

‘Daddy, you shouldn’t be up yet.’

‘Couldn’t sleep. Thought I might as well go in.’

‘You must have some breakfast, or at least a cup of coffee.’

When he shook his head, she put her arms round him.

‘It’ll be OK, I know it will. Remember you’re the best in the world.’

Declan reached the Corinium Television building at a quarter to eight, just as the night security man on the car park was about to go off. Seeing a pair of vaguely familiar eyes looking over the half-open window of the absolutely filthy Mini, he raised the horizontal pole, and, having waved Declan through, went back to enjoying Page Three of the Sun.

Walking through the revolving front door, absolutely sick with nerves, Declan found the place deserted except for a cleaner down the passage morosely pushing a mop, and a young man in pink trousers arranging roses on the marble-topped reception desk.

Aware that every other girl who worked in the building was at home washing her hair, putting on her prettiest clothes, and emptying scent bottles over herself in anticipation of Declan’s arrival, the receptionist had just nipped down to Make-up to re-do her eyes before the hordes started arriving at nine.

Declan therefore waited a few minutes, admired the framed awards on the wall, which seemed all to have been won by Cameron Cook, then, still finding no one at Reception, took a lift to the fifth floor, where he eventually discovered a coffee machine and an office with his name on it at the end of the passage.

It was a splendid office with a thick blue carpet, a huge bare desk with empty drawers, two empty filing cabinets, a radio cassette, two television sets, a video machine and a large bunch of red roses, which had obviously been arranged by the pink-trousered youth. Out of the window was a marvellous view of the close, and the water meadows still white with dew. But even more marvellous on the virgin sheet of pink blotting paper lay a pile of mail including two fat airmail envelopes. Lighting a cigarette, sitting down at his desk, Declan was soon totally immersed in Johnny Friedlander’s cuttings — most of them highly speculative and fictitious because Johnny never gave interviews.

The great bell of Cotchester Cathedral had tolled the hour three times when suddenly a red-faced middle-aged lady, reeking of Devon Violets, and with tightly permed hair, barged into his office, gave a squawk of amazed relief and shot out again, shrieking down the passage, ‘He’s here, Lord B, he’s here.’

Next minute Tony Baddingham erupted into the room, absolutely purple with rage. ‘Where the fuck have you been?’

Declan sat back in his chair. ‘Sitting here, since about eight o’clock.’

‘Why the hell didn’t you tell anyone?’

‘There was no one here to tell.’

With a colossal effort Tony gained control of himself and shook Declan’s hand. ‘Well, welcome anyway. Look, I’ve got most of the national press outside waiting to witness your arrival. We nearly had the police out.’

‘They said you’d left home at seven-thirty,’ said the lady reeking of Devon Violets, who was Tony’s secretary, Miss Madden. ‘We thought you might have had a car crash.’

‘Or second thoughts,’ said Charles Fairburn, Head of Religious Programmes, shimmying in and giving Declan a great kiss on both cheeks. ‘You’re not to be bloody to him on his first day, Tony. First days in an office are like birthdays. No one’s allowed to be bloody to you.’

‘Fuck off, Charles,’ snarled Tony.

‘See you later, darling,’ said Charles, whisking out again, nearly colliding with an ashen Cyril Peacock.

‘They’re getting awfully fed up, Tony. Where the hell can the stupid fucker have got to?’

‘He’s been here all the time,’ said Tony nastily. ‘You just didn’t look, Cyril. Another classical Peacock-up.’

‘Oh, hello Declan. Welcome to Corinium,’ said Cyril, his false teeth rattling even more violently with nerves. ‘Marvellous to see you. They’re all waiting for you in the car park, getting very hot.’

‘Uh-uh,’ Declan shook his head, looking mutinous. ‘I’ve got nothing to say to them.’

‘Well for a start you might like to refute that piece in the Guardian claiming you joined Corinium merely to clear your overdraft and not as a vocational choice,’ said Tony with a cold smile.

‘I interview people, I don’t give interviews,’ said Declan, not budging. ‘The press made enough fuss when we arrived at Penscombe, staking us out all bloody night.’

Tony tried a different tack. ‘It’ll be such a thrill for all the staff,’ he said suavely. ‘All we want is pictures of you driving into the car park for the first time and having a glass of champagne in the board room afterwards, and then we can all get down to work.’

Declan suddenly decided he needed a drink.

‘All right, I’ll go and get my car.’

‘You can’t do that. They’ll see you,’ said Tony.

‘Give Cyril your keys. He’ll drive it round to the front, then you can drive in again.’

‘It’s a Mini, parked in the far corner,’ said Declan.

As Declan drove his absolutely filthy Mini into the parking slot with his name on, which was between Tony’s maroon Rolls Royce with the silver Corinium ram on the bonnet, and Cameron’s green Lotus, there was absolutely no reaction from the crowd of reporters and cameramen. The next minute, however, there was a furious banging on the roof. Declan wound down the window half an inch. He could see a beaky nose, and a predatory mouth.

‘Yes?’ he said.

‘You can’t park here, asshole,’ said an enraged female voice.

‘Why not?’

‘Can’t you read, you fucking dumbass? This slot’s reserved for Declan O’Hara.’

‘Is it indeed?’ said Declan softly. ‘Then I’ve come to the right place.’

Winding up the window, he got out, towering over Cameron Cook, who gasped and stepped back as she instantly recognized the tousled black curls, the brooding dark eyes and the familiar face as battered as the Irish coastline. Shock made her even more hostile.

‘Where the fuck have you been? You should have been here at eleven. It’s nearly twenty past.’

‘So I was, crosspatch, in my office. Nobody thought to look.’

There was a shout as the press recognized Declan and surged forward, their cameras clicking away like weaving looms, hugely enjoying the contrast between Declan’s rusty banger and Tony’s gleaming Rolls. From every window female staff, their clean hair flopping, screamed and cheered with excitement. Declan grinned up at them and waved.

In the Gent’s, James lowered the Venetian blind a quarter of an inch and was delighted to see how old Declan was looking and that he was not even wearing a suit or a tie. Tony would not like that at all.

Outside there was almost a punch-up, as the Corinium camera crew battled to get the press out of the way, so they could get their own cameras in and film Declan’s arrival for the lunchtime news bulletin.

Inside the building everyone surged forward to say hullo to Declan. The corridor was swarming with Midsummer Night’s Dream fairies coming back from their mid-morning coffee-break. As Declan fought his way through them, shaking hands, Bottom took off his ass’s head to have a better look. Next minute, Titania struggled to Declan’s side, her crown askew, and kissed him on both cheeks.

‘Darling, marvellous you’ve arrived. We must lunch later in the week. Love to Maud.’

‘Wish we’d never started this fucking production,’ said Tony, punching more fairies out of the way.

Mercifully he kept the press conference short: ‘We are all absolutely delighted Declan’s joined Corinium,’ he said, when everyone had been given a glass of champagne. ‘We feel he has a tremendous contribution to make, and has just the right kind of incandescent talent to revitalize our current affairs schedule.’

Declan suppressed a yawn.

‘Why d’you move, Declan?’ asked the very young girl reporter from the Cotchester Times.

‘Well, to misquote Dr Johnson,’ said Declan, ‘we weren’t tired of life, but we were a bit tired of London.’

‘This Dr Johnson,’ persisted the reporter earnestly, ‘is he a private doctor?’

He’ll crucify her, thought Cameron, waiting for the kill.

But Declan merely laughed. ‘No, definitely National Health,’ he said.

The press conference, in fact, was affability itself, compared with the meeting that followed in Tony’s office.

As Tony, Declan and Cameron trooped past the tiny outer office where Cyril Peacock waited, grey and sweating, for Tony’s reprisals after the disaster of Declan’s arrival, they found Simon Harris, Controller of Programmes, lurking apprehensively in Miss Madden’s office.

‘I’m terribly sorry I wasn’t here when Declan arrived,’ said Simon, following Tony into his office. ‘Fiona’s had to go into hospital, so I had to take the kids to school.’

‘Couldn’t the nanny have done it?’ snapped Tony.

‘She’s had to take the baby to the clinic.’ Simon scratched at his eczema mindlessly.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Declan turned to Simon. ‘Is your wife OK?’

‘Multiple sclerosis,’ said Simon helplessly. ‘She’s in for new tests.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Declan again. ‘We met briefly at the Beeb.’ He held out his hand.

The hand that limply gripped his was wet and trembling. Christ, he’s aged, thought Declan, appalled. Simon looked awful. His eyes were unbecomingly frightened, the shoulders of his grey suit were coated in scurf.

‘Well, sit down,’ said Tony irritably, deliberately waving Cameron and Declan towards the squashy dark-green leather sofa which lined two walls of his vast office. Simon Harris had to make do with a hard straight-backed chair right in front of Tony. Despite the room’s size, the plethora of television sets, video machines, and huge shiny-green tropical plants, plus Tony’s massive empty desk and vast carved chair, made it seem unpleasantly overcrowded. A bowl of flesh-coloured orchids on Tony’s desk and, despite the warmth of the day, central heating turned up like the tropical house at the zoo, increased the jungle atmosphere. Any moment Declan expected a leopard to pad out from behind the filing cabinet. As he’d already downed a couple of glasses of champagne, he wanted to go on drinking. But it was at least half an hour until lunchtime.

‘After lunch, Declan,’ said Tony, ‘I’ll hand you over to Cameron, but I thought I’d like to be in at the kick-off.’

Declan looked at Cameron in her sleeveless orange T-shirt and her short black leather skirt. Her hair was greased back, her eyes fierce. She looks like a vulture who’s spent the morning at Vidal Sassoon, thought Declan. He loathed meetings; he wanted to get back to his Johnny Friedlander cuttings.

Furious at having made an idiot of herself in the car park, Cameron was determined to regain the whip hand and weighed straight in: ‘My goal is to give your programme more pizazz,’ she said. ‘We’ve chosen several possible signature tunes. Once we’ve decided on the right one, we can go ahead and cut a disc, which should go straight to the top of the charts with a nice profit for Corinium. But we ought to get it recorded at once. Could you listen to them this afternoon?’

Declan’s eyes, which never left the face of the person he was listening to, seemed to darken.

‘I know what tune I’m having,’ he said flatly. ‘The opening of the first movement of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony.’

‘Too up-market.’

‘The programme’s up-market. It’s a great tune, and it’s in the public domain, so we won’t have to pay copyright. All we have to do is to record a jazzed-up version and pay the arranger. ‘

‘Am I hearing you right?’ exploded Cameron. ‘This isn’t fucking Radio 3.’

‘No,’ agreed Declan. ‘But it’s what I want, so we’re having it.’

Cameron was spitting, but she particularly didn’t want to lose face in front of Tony and Simon, so she tried another tack which would certainly have worked with James Vereker.

‘I keep hearing the same complaint about your programmes.’

‘What?’ said Declan softly.

‘The viewers don’t see enough of you. We want to feature you much more in the interview, that’s why we’ve designed a terrific set with book shelves and some really good abstracts, and this jade-green sofa.’

‘No,’ interrupted Declan sharply. ‘I only interview people face to face.’

‘Confrontational TV’s kind a dated,’ taunted Cameron.

Simon Harris opened his mouth to protest and shut it again.

‘I’m not using a sofa,’ said Declan firmly.

‘Well, we’ll argue about that later,’ said Cameron.

‘We will not. We’ll decide now. I want two Charles Rennie Mackintosh chairs, facing each other six feet apart on pale steely-blue circular rostra.’

‘Steely blue?’ screeched Cameron.

‘Steely blue,’ said Declan firmly, ‘so they rise like islands from a floor of dark-blue gloss. Then carrying on the dark blue up the bottom of the cyclorama into a limitless white horizon.’

‘This is insane!’ Outraged, Cameron swung round to Tony for help. ‘Well?’

But Tony was calmly doing his expenses.

‘It’s Declan’s programme,’ he said smoothly. ‘He knows by now how to get the best out of people.’

‘How does he know until he’s tried a sofa?’

‘Sofa’s make it look like any other chat show,’ mumbled Simon.

‘No one’s asking you, dumbass,’ hissed Cameron.

She’s like a hawk not a vulture, decided Declan. She prefers her victims alive. He imagined her cruising the hillside, scanning the ground for prey, or darting down a woodland ride, scattering terrified small birds.

Squaring her shoulders, Cameron turned back to Declan. ‘And we’re scrapping the introductory package,’ she said. ‘We want you talking to camera for two or three minutes about the guest, to replace all those dreary stills and clips with a voice over.’

‘The point of those dreary stills and clips with a VO,’ said Declan, dangerously quietly, ‘is that they concentrate the viewers’ minds on the guest and set the tone of the interview. I get uptight enough as it is without having to ponce about making a long spiel on autocue. This way I can concentrate on the first questions.’

‘I must disagree on this one,’ said Tony, putting down his red fountain pen. ‘The point is, Declan, that you have immense presence. It’s you the viewers turn on for. You should open the programme talking to camera in a really decent suit,’ he added, raising a disapproving eyebrow at Declan’s scuffed leather jacket, check shirt and ancient jeans. ‘It’ll be up to Cameron to make you relax and be less uptight.’

Through half-closed eyes Declan looked at Cameron who was now pacing up and down through the rubber plants burning up the calories. No wonder she was so thin.

‘She?’ said Declan incredulously, ‘She make me relax?’

‘We’ve got to be different from the Beeb, ‘snarled Cameron, ‘or they’ll just say we’re serving up the same old garbage.’

‘Anyway we’ve got three weeks to kick the idea around,’ said Tony, ‘and to cheer you up, Declan. I know Cameron’s had a great time dreaming up people for you to interview.’

‘We’ve checked out on all their availability,’ said Cameron.

‘Well, you can just uncheck them again,’ said Declan harshly. ‘I decide who I’m going to interview.’

Cameron stopped in her tracks, glaring at him. ‘They may not be hot enough.’

Declan then stunned the three of them. He was kicking off with Johnny Friedlander on September 21, he announced, followed by Jackie Kennedy the week after.

Frantic now to keep her end up, Cameron snarled that Jackie Kennedy would just rabbit on about her boring publishing job.

‘She may indeed,’ said Declan, ‘but she’s also going to talk about her marriages, and her life as a single woman in New York.’

‘You and she should have much in common, Cameron,’ said Tony bitchily.

Cameron ignored him, but a muscle pounded in her cheek.

‘Isn’t it going to overextend your budget, flying her over?’ she demanded.

Declan suddenly relaxed and gave Cameron the benefit of the wicked gap-toothed schoolboy grin: ‘She’s coming over on a private visit, and she’ll probably stay with us,’ he said.

Fifteen love to Declan, thought Simon Harris joyfully. Then it was game and first set when Declan announced that in subsequent weeks he’d be doing the French Foreign Secretary who was in the middle of a gloriously seamy sex scandal, followed by Mick Jagger, and the most controversial of the royal Princesses.

Desperately fighting a rear-guard action, Cameron said she had lined up a couple of ace researchers, who’d better get started on Johnny Friedlander and Jackie Kennedy at once.

There was a long pause. Very slowly Declan got out a cigarette, lit it, inhaled deeply, and only just avoided blowing smoke in Cameron’s face.

‘I do my own research,’ he said softly.

‘For Chrissake,’ screamed Cameron, ‘you can’t cover subjects like this singled-handed!’

‘I have done for the past ten years. For better or worse, what you’ve bought is not my face, but my vision — what I can get out of people.’

‘It’s a team effort,’ hissed Cameron.

‘Good,’ said Declan amiably. ‘Then I suggest we put your researchers on to finding some decent footage and stills.’

‘We’ve got an excellent library,’ said Simon, tugging his beard.

‘Shut up!’ howled Cameron.

Tony was lasciviously fingering one of the flesh-coloured orchids. Glancing round, Declan tried to analyse the expression on his face. He’s enjoying it, he thought with a shudder, he’s excited by seeing her rip people apart.

Noticing the disapproval on Declan’s face, Tony looked at his watch.

‘That was a very stimulating exchange of views,’ he said, getting to his feet, ‘but I, for one, need some lunch.’ Then, deliberately excluding Simon, he added, ‘Cameron and I’ve booked a table at a little French restaurant a couple of miles outside Cotchester. We hope you’ll join us, Declan, and we can carry on the — er — discussion.’ He smiled expansively.

Declan didn’t smile back. ‘Thanks, but I’m lunching with Charles Fairburn. We worked together at the Beeb,’ he added, by way of slight mitigation.

Tony was about to order Declan to cancel, then decided there would be oodles of time later to get heavy. Besides, the clash of wills had turned him on so much he had a sudden craving to take Cameron back to Hamilton Terrace for a quickie.

‘What are your plans for the afternoon?’ Cameron asked Declan sulkily.

‘I’m going home,’ said Declan. ‘I’ve got Johnny’s cuttings and all my reference books are there.’

‘I trust you’ll do most of your research in the building and report regularly to me and Tony,’ she said. ‘This is a group effort. OK? We want to be fully briefed at all times. Cock-ups occur at Corinium when no one knows what anyone else is doing.’

As she flopped down again on the green leather sofa, Declan immediately got up, as if he couldn’t bear to share the same seating. From the depths of the sofa, he seemed to Cameron almost to touch the ceiling, his massive rugger player’s shoulders blocking out the light, his face bleak and uncompromising. She never dreamed he’d be so dauntingly self-confident.

‘I have to be left alone,’ he said, speaking only to her. ‘It’s the only way I can operate.’

‘I’m producing this programme,’ she said furiously.

‘Yes, but it’s my programme you’re producing.’

For a second they glared at each other, then a knock on the door made them start. Round it, like the rising sun, came Charles Fairburn’s red beaming face.

‘Are you through, sweeties?’ he said blithely. ‘Because I’ve come to take Declan to din-dins.’

They lunched at a very pretty pink and white restaurant off the High Street. Pretty waiters in pink jerseys and pink-and-white striped bow-ties converged on Charles.

‘We’ve got your usual table,’ they said, sweeping him and Declan off into a dark corner.

‘Good boys,’ said Charles. ‘You know how I detest windows, they show up my red veins. Now get your little asses into gear and bring me a colossal dry Martini, and my friend here would like? Whisky is it still, Declan?’

‘Bad as that, is it?’ asked Declan three minutes later, as Charles drained his dry Martini and asked the waiter for another one.

‘Well, I don’t want to slag off the company on your first day, dear boy, but things are a shade tense.’

‘Cameron Cook,’ said Declan, tearing his roll savagely apart.

‘Got it in one.’

‘What’s her position in the company?’

‘Usually prostrate. She’s Tony’s bit of crumpet. Officially she’s Head of Drama — particularly appropriate in the circs as she’s always making scenes, but she’s also got a finger up to the elbow in every other pie. That’s how she talked Tony into letting her produce your programme.’

‘Simon Harris has aged twenty years. He used to be such a whizz-kid.’

‘Well, he’s a was-kid now, and totally castrated. He’s been threatening to have a nervous breakdown since Cameron arrived. Unfortunately he can’t walk out, because he’s got a second mortgage on his house, an invalid wife, three young children, and two to support from his first marriage.’

‘Quite a burden.’

‘Makes one feel like Midas by comparison, doesn’t it?’

‘Not quite,’ said Declan, thinking of his tax bill.

‘Well, Cameron, as you no doubt observed, jackboots all over Simon and every time he or anyone else queries her behaviour she bolts straight to Tony. The food is utterly wonderful here,’ Charles went on, smiling at the prettiest waiter. ‘I’ll have liver and marmalade and radicchio salad. Ta, duckie.’

Declan, who liked his food plain, ordered steak, chips and some french beans.

‘And we’d like a bottle of No. 32, and bring us another whisky and a dry Martini while you’re about it,’ said Charles. ‘Hasn’t he got a sweet little face?’ he added, lowering his voice.

As soon as the waiter had disappeared to the bar, however, Charles returned to the subject of Corinium: ‘The entire staff are in a state of revolt. They’ve all been denied rises, and they’re forced to make utterly tedious programmes in order to retain the franchise. James Vereker’s ghastly “Round-Up” is just a wank for local councillors and Tony’s business chums; and the reason why Midsummer Night’s Dream is taking so long is that you can’t get a carpenter to build a set — they’re all up at The Falconry building an indoor swimming pool and a conservatory for Tony, when they’re not installing a multi-gym and Jacuzzi for Cameron.’

Declan grinned. Charles, he remembered from the BBC, had always had the ability to make things seem less awful.

‘Nor,’ added Charles, draining his third dry Martini and beckoning to the pretty waiter to pour out the claret, ‘are the staff overjoyed that you’ve been brought in at a vast salary — yes they all read the Guardian yesterday — to wow the IBA. Gorgeous Georgie Baines, the Sales Director, who’s stunning at his job incidentally, and whose expenses are even larger than mine, went straight in and asked Tony for a rise this morning. Tony refused, of course. Said they were paying you the market price. Depends what market you shop in, shouted Georgie, and stormed out.

‘Thank you, duck,’ he added as the waiter placed a plate of liver reverently before him.

Declan stubbed out his cigarette. Suddenly he didn’t feel remotely hungry any more.

‘Anyway,’ said Charles, cheering up as the Martinis began to take effect, ‘the staff like the idea of you, Declan. Christ, this liver is ambrosial. I’ve told them you’re a good egg.’

‘Thanks,’ said Declan dryly.

‘They all admire your work, and they can’t wait to see the fireworks when you tangle with Ms Cook.’

‘I already have,’ said Declan, watching the blood run out as he plunged the knife into his steak. ‘Tell me about Tony.’

‘Complete shit, but extremely complex. One never knows which way he’s going to jump. Believes in deride and rule, plants his spies at all levels, so really we’re all spying on each other. But he does have alarming charm, when it suits him. Because he’s so irredeemably bloody most of the time, when he’s nice it’s like a dentist stopping drilling on a raw nerve.’

‘What’s the best way to handle him?’

‘Well, he claims to like people who shout back at him like Cameron does; but, unfortunately, after a row, you and I can’t make it up with him in bed, which I bet is where he and Cameron are now. Things were so much more peaceful when he spent all his time in London, but the IBA’s warning him to spend more time in the area neatly coincided with his falling in love (though that’s hardly the word) with Ms Cook, so he’s down here making a nuisance of himself most of the time now.’

Charles suddenly looked contrite.

‘You’re not eating a thing, dear boy. Have I upset you?’

‘Yes, but I’d rather know the score.’

‘My budget has been so slashed,’ said Charles, pinching one of Declan’s chips, ‘that I intend to interview two rubber dummies in dog collars on the epilogue tonight. Not that anyone would notice.’

‘Will Tony leave Monica?’

‘I doubt it. Any scandal, even a piece in Private Eye, is the last thing he wants with the franchise coming up. The pity of it, lago, is that Ms Cook is very good at her job, once you dispense with all the crip-crap about checking out on your availability. I’ve acted as her walker at the odd dinner, when she had to take a man and didn’t want to rouse Tony’s ire. And she can be quite fun when she forgets to be insecure. If she had someone really strong to slap her down, there’d be no stopping her.’

‘There doesn’t seem much stopping her at the moment,’ said Declan gloomily.

‘If she gets on the Board, we’re all in trouble,’ said Charles, pinching another chip. ‘But we have great hopes you’re going to rout her, Declan; now let’s have another bottle and you can tell me all about poor bored Maud, and that ravishing son of yours.’

Back at Corinium, James Vereker fingered the prettiest secretary from the Newsroom with one hand as he re-read today’s fan mail for comfort with the other.

‘I do really think,’ he said petulantly, ‘Tony might have had the manners to introduce me to Declan.’

10

A fortnight after Declan started at Corinium his younger daughter, Caitlin, went back to her new boarding school in Oxfordshire, and his elder daughter, Taggie, disgraced herself by being the only member of the family to cry.

Caitlin’s last week at home coincided with her mother Maud discovering the novels of P. D. James. As a result Maud spent her days curled up on the sitting-room sofa, holding P. D. James on top of a pile of games shirts, shorts and navy-blue knickers. When anyone came into the room, she would hastily whip the clothes over her book and pretend assiduously to be sewing on name tapes. The same week Grace, the housekeeper, discovered the local pub.

As well as getting the house straight, therefore, and feeding everyone, and coping with Grace grumbling about the incessant quiet and imagined ghosts and having to drag dustbins to the end of a long drive, the task of getting Caitlin ready for school fell on Taggie.

It was not just the gathering of tuck, the buying of lacrosse sticks, laundry bags, and the New English Bible (which Declan hurled out of the window, because it was a literary abomination, and which had to be retrieved from a rose bush) and the packing of trunks which got Taggie down. Worst of all was scurrying from shop to shop in Gloucester, Cheltenham, Cotchester, Stroud and finally Bath, trying to find casual shoes and a wool dress for chapel which Caitlin didn’t think gross and the school quite unsuitable.

Caitlin spent the morning of her departure peeling glow stars off her bedroom ceiling, and sticking large photographs of Gertrude the mongrel, Wandering Aengus the cat, Rupert Campbell-Black and smaller ones of her family into a photograph album, and dressing for school. On the first day back, girls were allowed to wear home clothes. By two o’clock she was ready.

‘Are you auditioning for Waiting for Godot?’ asked Declan, as she walked in wearing slashed jeans and an old darkblue knitted jersey she’d extracted from Gertrude’s basket.

By two-thirty the car was loaded. Only then did Maud decide to wash her hair and glam herself up to impress the other parents. They finally left at four by which time Caitlin was in a frenzy they were going to be late.

‘Goodbye, my demon lover,’ she cried, blowing a kiss to Rupert Campbell-Black’s house as the rusty Mini staggered down the drive. ‘Keep yourself on ice until I come home again.’

No one spoke on the journey. Declan, with his first interview in a week’s time, could think of nothing but Johnny Friedlander. Maud was deep in P. D. James. Taggie and Caitlin sat on the back under a pile of lacrosse sticks, radios, records, teddy bears, with the trunk like a coffin behind them.

After three-quarters of an hour they reached the undulating leafy tunnels of Oxfordshire, and there, high on the hill surrounded by regiments of pine trees, rose the red-brick walls of Upland House, Caitlin’s new school.

‘My head ought to be filled with noble Enid Blyton thoughts about comradeship,’ grumbled Caitlin to herself, as they were overtaken by gleaming BMWs and Volvos bearing other girls and their belongings, but all she could think was how embarrassing it was to turn up with such famous parents in such a tatty car.

As they arrived so late, all the beds near the window in Caitlin’s dormitory had been bagged, and Caitlin had to be content with the one by the door, which meant she’d be the first to be caught reading with the huge torch that her mother had given her as a going-back present.

While Taggie, her fingers still sore from sewing on name-tapes, unpacked the trunk, Maud drifted about wafting scent and being admired by passing fathers. Declan sat on Caitlin’s bed gazing gloomily at all those glass cubes full of photographs of black labradors, ponies and double-barrelled mothers looking twenty years younger than those in the dormitory. He wondered if he’d been mad to let Maud persuade him to send Caitlin away.

He also thought how incredibly glamorous the other fourteen-year-olds looked, drifting about with their suntans and their shaggy blonde hair, and how excited they would have made Johnny Friedlander with his penchant for underage girls.

As they left, with all the girls surreptitiously gazing out of the window to catch a glimpse of Declan, Maud did nothing to endear herself to Caitlin’s housemistress by calling out, ‘Don’t worry, Caitlin darling, you can always leave if you don’t like it.’

‘’Bye Tag,’ said Caitlin cheerfully. ‘Don’t cry, Duckie. I’ll be OK. Keep your eyes skinned for Rupert. I won’t look while you drive away. It’s unlucky.’

‘She’ll be all right, sweetheart,’ said Declan, reaching back and patting Taggie’s heaving shoulders, until he had to put both hands on the wheel to negotiate the leafy tunnels once more and was soon deep in thought again.

‘Don’t be silly, Taggie,’ snapped Maud irritably. ‘I’m Caitlin’s mother. I’m the one who minds most about losing my darling baby, but I’m able to control myself,’ and she went back to P. D. James.

Going to bed that night, Taggie felt even worse. In Caitlin’s bedroom, she found a moth bashing against a window pane and the needle stuck in the middle of a Wham record, and she realized there was no one to leave the light on in the passage for any more, to ward off the ghosts and hobgoblins.

Up in her turret bedroom, which was like sleeping in a tree top, and which creaked and leaked and yielded in the high winds like an old ship, she looked across the valley and saw at long last a light on in Rupert’s house. Caitlin would have been so excited.

‘Oh please God,’ she prayed, ‘look after her, and don’t let boarding school curb her lovely merry nature.’

The O’Hara children, having been dragged up by a lot of housekeepers, and frequently neglected by their parents, were as a result absolutely devoted to one another.

Taggie, in particular, had never enjoyed an easy relationship with her mother, whom she adored but who intimidated her. Ten days late when she was born, Taggie had been a very large baby. Labour had been so long and agonizing, Maud had nearly died. Declan, insane with worry, thanked God he was a Protestant, and not faced with the painful Catholic preference for saving the baby rather than the mother. Both survived, but the doctors thought later that Taggie’s dyslexia might be due to slight brain damage sustained at birth.

Maud, shattered and weakened, never took to Taggie the same way as she had to Patrick who’d been born with such ease. As a child Taggie developed normally except that she walked and spoke very late, and even when she was four was only able to manage single syllables and might have been talking Japanese.

At school in Dublin, the staff, eagerly awaiting another dazzlingly bright pupil like Patrick, were disappointed to find that Taggie couldn’t read or write. She was also very clumsy and hopeless at dressing herself, putting shoes on the wrong foot, clothes back to front, doing up the wrong buttons and quite unable to tie her laces. Because she couldn’t tell the time, and had no sense of direction, she always ended in the wrong classroom, bringing the wrong books, and because she was so tall, people automatically assumed she was older than her age, and dismissed her as even more lazy and stupid.

Patrick, two and a half years older, was constantly fighting her battles, but he couldn’t help her in class, when the other children teased her and the teachers shouted at her, nor during those agonizing sessions at home when Maud lost her temper and screamed, but in the end got so bored that she sometimes ended up doing Taggie’s homework for her.

Patrick never forgot those pieces of homework, smudged with tears of frustration, sweaty from effort, and later peppered with red writing and crossings-out from the teachers.

Early detection of dyslexia and special teaching can quickly put a child within reach or even on a level with the rest of the class. Taggie was left to flounder, constantly losing confidence, until at eleven she came to England with the family and was about to be put in a school for backward children.

In the end it was Patrick, who got a scholarship to Westminster with ease and who, acquiring a friend there with a dyslexic older sister, persuaded his parents to have Taggie tested by an educational psychologist. He pronounced Taggie severely dyslexic and said she should be sent immediately to a special school.

Maud now felt even more ambiguous about Taggie. She never told anyone what the psychologist had said to her in that brief bitter exchange after he’d seen Taggie, nor would she ever admit that she felt desperately guilty for not seeking help for the child’s problems earlier.

Nor was there any way, once the condition was diagnosed, that Maud would ever have the patience and routine to spend each evening helping Taggie with her reading and learning of the alphabet. Declan was always too busy. So it was Patrick, and later Caitlin, who came to her rescue.

Five years of specialist teaching produced dramatic improvements. At sixteen Taggie wrote her first essay. She still wasn’t confident in the order of the alphabet, she still read slowly and hesitantly, following the text with her finger. She had never really mastered joined up writing, and punctuation was a closed book. Her spelling was atrocious and she still didn’t automatically know her left from her right, and had to think back to the kitchen in Fulham and Patrick saying: ‘Window on the right, Tag, Aga on the left.’

It still took her ages to write letters or recipes, and when they moved to The Priory it took her much longer than the others to find her way round all the rooms. She also always double-checked telephone numbers, asking people to repeat them, ever since the nightmarish day when one of Maud’s lovers had rung from America and asked if Maud could ring him back. Taggie had taken the number down wrong, and he’d never rung again. Occasionally, when she was drunk, Maud would bring this incident up: how Taggie had lost her the one great love of her life.

But at the end of her school career, although Taggie only managed O-levels in cooking and needlework, she left with an excellent final report: ‘Taggie is a dear girl,’ wrxgote her headmaster. ‘Kind, hardworking, responsible; she deserves to do very well in life.

Offered a place at a catering college, she preferred to learn the hard way, and worked in a restaurant belonging to a friend of her father’s. After two years, coinciding with the family’s move to Penscombe, he regretfully told Taggie that although he would do anything to keep her, there was nothing else he could teach her.

She cooked, he said, by instinct, by pinches, a pinch of this here, a pinch of that there. Given a barrel of self-confidence, he told Declan, Taggie could be another Escoffier.

Inspired, Taggie was longing to start her own cooking business. There must be hundreds of people in Gloucestershire who needed someone to do dinner parties, or fill up their deep freezes at Christmas or at the beginning of the school holidays. But so much of her time lately had been spent looking after the family, or crying herself to sleep at night over Ralphie Henriques. Maybe now Caitlin had gone back and Patrick was on his way to Trinity, via three weeks in France, she could get started.

The following morning did little to raise Taggie’s spirits. She missed Caitlin and her acid asides dreadfully; the morning post brought no letter from Ralphie, and when Patrick rang from France, where he was staying with Ralphie’s family, to report he had arrived safely, he made no mention of him. When Taggie finally steeled herself to ask how he was, Patrick had replied that he was fine.

‘Doing a lot of water-skiing and drinking. But honestly, duck, I think you’d do better to cut your losses and find yourself a nice rosy-cheeked Gloucestershire farmer.’

Taggie was protesting that she didn’t want a Gloucestershire farmer when Maud swanned in, enraged that Taggie hadn’t told her that it was her beloved Patrick on the line, and seized the telephone.

As the alternatives that afternoon included picking apples, making green tomato chutney, or getting on Maud’s nerves, Taggie decided to take Gertrude for a walk and explore the village. In an attempt to beat her dyslexia she tried to learn a new word every day and use it. Today’s word was ‘abhorrent’. There was certainly nothing abhorrent about Penscombe that afternoon: the wind that shook her turret bedroom last night had dropped, while the little Beatrix Potter cottages, covered in velvety purple clematis, were white in the afternoon light. A lot of Bovver boys on their motorbikes by the war memorial eyed Taggie with great interest. A nice farmer who lived down the valley asked her how they were all getting on and said they must come and have supper when the long nights began. At the village shop Mrs Banks gave her a mutton bone for Gertrude and the new TV Times with Declan’s picture on the front, and an old lady with a blue greyhound stopped outside and exhorted her to look after the badgers who lived in the sets at the top of the Priory wood.

Cheered up by their friendliness, Taggie set out for home. She could feel the heat of the road through her espadrilles, thistledown drifted idly, and the sky was brilliant blue except for a few little violet clouds on the horizon. If only Ralphie were here with his hand in hers. Turning down the drive of yews, hollies, laurels, which almost hid The Priory from the top road, she remembered her promise to keep her eyes skinned for Rupert. She glanced across the valley, then gasped with horror as she saw a huge mushroom of brown smoke rising into the sky and realized that two of Rupert’s fields on the far side of the house were on fire.

She ran down the drive to The Priory, dashed into the kitchen and unearthed the Gloucestershire telephone directory. Oh God, she must keep calm. When she panicked, her reading went to pieces, and she had even more difficulty with the alphabet.

Callan, Calvay, Cam Auto Repairs, Camamile — with agonizing slowness her finger moved down the column. There were two Campbells, one in Gloucester, another in Nailsworth, then the list moved on to Cambridge and Campden. No Campbell-Blacks. Rupert must be ex-directory, like her father.

Out of the window great clouds of smoke were belching from Rupert’s red-hot flickering fields, the flames spreading ever nearer to the house. Taggie dialled 999. All the fire engines were out, explained the man at the other end, but they’d ring Cotchester. ‘Don’t worry, my love, we’ll get one over as soon as possible. ‘

All the same, thought Taggie, she’d better rush over and warn Rupert. He might not be able to see the fire from the house, although he’d probably be able to smell it. It would be so awful if any of the horses got trapped in their stables. .

She raced across the lawn with Gertrude, slithered down the beech wood, bumping on her bottom most of the way, and ran across the water meadows; then she leapt the bustling Frogsmore, before starting the steep climb up the other side. Ripping her clothes on barbed wire, oblivious of stinging nettles and brambles tearing at her bare arms and legs, losing an espadrille on the way, she panted on, past surprised horses knee deep in lush grass, past ancient oaks and beeches, skirting the lake, tearing across Rupert’s lawn, in through the french windows into a beautiful pale-yellow drawing-room, by which time she was so puffed she couldn’t even shout ‘Fire’.

Although the front door was open, no one was about. Returning to the garden through the french windows, her breath coming in great painful gasps, Taggie was about to run towards the stables when she heard shrieks of laughter coming from the tennis court on the left of the house, which was completely hidden by a thick beech hedge. As she raced down a gravel walk putting up red admirals, gorging themselves on the white buddleia on either side, she heard another shriek of laughter.

‘I can’t hit a bloody thing. I should never have had so much to drink at lunch,’ said a girl’s voice.

‘Tit-fault. Your tits were at least six inches over the line,’ said a man’s voice, a clipped light flat, very distinctive drawl.

‘Cock fault then,’ said the girl, giggling hysterically. ‘You must be at least ten inches over the line.’

‘You flatter me,’ said the man. ‘I wouldn’t be if you didn’t excite me so much.’

‘Fire,’ gasped Taggie to the beech hedge, but no sound came out.

The man was laughing now. ‘We’ll finish this set, and then I’ll finish you off upstairs. ‘

Taggie raced round the beech hedge until she came to a gap.

‘Fire,’ she croaked.

Then, very slowly, she realized to her utter horror that a tall, blond, lean, very suntanned man, and a beautiful girl with catkin blonde hair tied up in a pink ribbon, and a golden body like distilled sunflowers, were playing tennis with no clothes on at all.

The man was serving. His body rippled with muscle as the ball scorched across the net. Dropping her racket, the girl gave a shriek and rushed to the side of the court, breasts flopping everywhere, and covered herself with a pale-pink shirt. The man proceeded to serve the second ball very hard into the far netting, then sauntered almost insolently towards the net near Taggie, over which was hanging a darkblue towel.

‘Fire,’ mumbled Taggie, clapping her hands over her eyes.

‘What did you say?’ shouted the man. ‘It’s OK. You can look now.’

Very gingerly, Taggie lowered her hands. He had wrapped the darkblue towel round his loins now. With his sleek blond hair, broad brown shoulders, and long, wickedly mocking eyes, as cornflower blue as the great expanse of sky behind him, he was quite unmistakable, from Caitlin’s photographs, as Rupert Campbell-Black.

Acutely aware of her heaving breasts and sweating red face, Taggie muttered, ‘Your fields are on fire.’

‘They’re meant to be,’ said Rupert.

‘Whatever for?’

‘Quickest way to get rid of the stubble after the harvest.’

‘But it’s the most a-a-abhorrent thing I’ve ever heard,’ whispered Taggie, utterly appalled. ‘What about the r-rabbits and voles and field mice and moles and all the poor birds?’

Rupert shrugged. ‘They’ve got legs; they can run away.’

‘Not that quickly,’ said Taggie furiously. ‘You’re a murderer.’

‘I suppose,’ snapped Rupert, thoroughly nettled, ‘that you want me to stop ploughing my fields because it’s cruel to worms, earwigs, beetles, woodlice and all the poor bugs.’ He was mimicking Taggie now. ‘Do you want me to give them a state funeral?’

The blonde girl giggled. She was very young, only a few years older than Taggie.

‘Oh shut up!’ screamed Taggie, losing her temper. ‘How would you like someone to set fire to you when you were in bed?’

Rupert nodded at the blonde. ‘She frequently does.’

‘Don’t be disgusting. You’re utterly abhorrent, the sort of person who always has to be killing something; hunting, fishing, shooting.’

At that moment, a lot of dogs, back from their walk with one of Rupert’s grooms, swarmed barking on to the court. There were Jack Russells, spaniels, a black labrador, and a beautiful shaggy blue lurcher, which bounded joyfully up to Gertrude, who bridled and curled her tail up even tighter.

Taggie pointed to the lurcher. ‘I bet you use that for coursing,’ she said furiously.

‘Why don’t you take that ugly brute back to its pigsty,’ said Rupert, picking up a green tennis ball and hurling it at Gertrude, ‘and stop interrupting other people’s innocent afternoon pleasures.’

‘Don’t you d-dare be beastly to Gertrude.’

Reaching for his racket, Rupert let his towel drop: ‘Forty love wasn’t it, darling?’

The blonde girl giggled again. But next moment the pussycat smile was wiped off her face as, with a manic jangling of bells, three fire engines roared up the drive.

‘Fucking hell!’ screamed Rupert.

Taggie gave a sob and fled back across the valley, her face flaming as much as her poor torn stung legs. Beastly, horrible, abhorrent man. Looking up in front of her she could see The Priory. Except for Declan’s twelve acres, all the land in the valley belonged to Rupert. Now, thought Taggie with a shudder, it seemed to curl round The Priory like a man trapping a woman at a party, putting his hands on the wall on either side of her, so she couldn’t escape.

Back home she found Maud sitting outside, wearing a big black hat to protect her white skin from the early evening sun, which had just crept round the side of the valley to admire her. She was drinking vodka and tonic and immersed in P. D. James.

‘I’ve just met Rupert Campbell-Black,’ said Taggie.

Maud glanced up and saw Taggie was puce in the face, with her black cloudy hair standing up on end in a tangled mess, her red dress ripped and her long legs and arms scratched and bleeding and covered with white nettle stings.

‘My God,’ said Maud, roused out of her usual languor, ‘I know he’s got a fearful reputation, but surely you didn’t let him get that far?’

11

The following Sunday Monica Baddingham gave a lunch party at The Falconry to welcome Maud and Declan to Gloucestershire and launch the new conservatory built by Corinium’s studio carpenters. Accustomed to going out to lunch in London where people seldom ate before two o’clock or even two-thirty, Maud and Declan didn’t leave home until half past one. Declan tried to persuade Taggie to come too, but she blushingly refused when she heard Rupert might be there.

‘I’m sure Monica said left at The Dog and Trumpet,’ said Maud, applying a second layer of coral gloss to a pouting bottom lip.

Declan was in a vile temper. Not only had Maud made him late yet again by washing her hair at the last moment, but he had spent all morning trying to cut their hayfield of a lawn with a mower that kept choking on Gertrude’s shredded mutton bones. Now they seemed to be driving half way round Gloucestershire.

‘Why the hell can’t you take directions down properly?’ he snarled.

‘He’s your boss. You should have taken down the directions. Anyway it was you who wanted to move to the bloody country. Let’s go home.’

‘They’re giving the focking party for us. Why the hell don’t they put names on their houses in the country?’

‘You don’t.’

‘That’s because I don’t want anyone to come and see me.’

Declan was also aware that, although his wife was looking a billion dollars in a very low-cut black silk dress, a green shawl which matched her eyes, black stockings and black high heels, with her shiny red hair piled under the big black hat, she was quite unsuitably dressed for Sunday lunch.

‘There it is,’ said Declan at last, as he drove through two lichened gate posts topped with rather newer stone rams. ‘Christ, people are leaving already.’

As a dark-green BMW passed them coming the other way, the woman who was driving wound down the window:

‘Love your progamme. Frightfully sorry, we’ve got to go to a christening. Welcome to Gloucestershire; you must come to dinner. Better hurry or there won’t be any drink left.’

‘Jesus,’ muttered Declan.

The Baddinghams’ splendid Queen Anne house lay in a hollow surrounded by lush parkland. The stable clock was always kept twenty minutes fast so that people might worry they were late, and be encouraged to leave early.

In huge gold letters against a black background above the second door of the porch was written: Peaceful is the Country that is strongly armed. In the hall, stuffed heads of deer, tiger, stag and buffalo gazed down glassily.

‘My head’ll be up there next,’ muttered Declan as Tony came out of the drawing-room, plainly in a bait.

‘Can’t you ever get the time right, Declan? We’ve been trying to have lunch for three-quarters of an hour.’

‘I’m terribly sorry,’ said Maud in her most caressing tones. ‘Declan and I are used to London hours.’

‘Well, you’d better acquire a few rural habits. The Pimm’s has run out; what d’you want to drink?’

‘Oh, there you are.’ Monica swept in wearing a blue cotton shirtwaister and open-toed sandals on her big bare feet. ‘Taggie said you were on your way; pity you didn’t bring her, I’ve got so many spare men. Have a quick drink, and then we’ll have lunch. It’s probably the last time we’ll be able to eat outside this year,’ she added wistfully, thinking how much she’d prefer to be dividing the regale lilies.

Having given Maud a drink, she led her through the vast tapestried drawing-room out to the new conservatory, which stretched the entire back of the house at ground floor level and was crammed with statues of goddesses, iron seats painted white, lilies, palms, aspidistras and plants still wrapped, which people had brought as conservatory-warming presents.

‘Beautiful,’ murmured Maud, taking a huge slug of whisky.

Everyone, gathered on the lawn, turned round and stared.

‘Come into the garden, Maud,’ bellowed Charles Fairburn, who was already tight. Mistiming his kiss, his round red shiny face cannoned off Maud’s like a billiard ball.

‘Looking beautiful as usual,’ he said, drawing her aside.

‘You’re not to monopolize her, Charles,’ said Monica bossily.

‘I promise I’ll introduce her to everyone,’ said Charles. ‘Your husband’s certainly been stirring things up at Corinium,’ he added, lowering his voice.

‘Really,’ said Maud, only mildly interested.

She’d never been wild about Charles. He knew too much about her, and with such fantastic men around she didn’t want to waste her first party on one who was both drunk and gay.

‘Is that very good-looking man over there Rupert Campbell-Black?’ she asked.

‘Unfair to Rupert,’ said Charles. ‘That’s James Vereker, Corinium’s most popular presenter, drinking Perrier and working the room. He’s fearfully put out by your husband joining Corinium.’

James was, in fact, absolutely furious. He’d arrived as late as he dared in order to make an entrance, then Declan had swanned in even later. Now he was trapped by three of Monica’s friends who ‘did an enormous amount for charity’, silly old bags who all wanted him to open their Autumn bazaars and Christmas fayres for nothing. To look at Monica’s toe nails, thought James in disgust, you’d have reckoned she weeded the garden with her feet; and Paul Stratton, who’d put on a hell of a lot of weight, looked ludicrous in those tight new jeans, and a denim shirt undone to the waist to reveal scanty grey chest hair. James, who’d nearly worn jeans and an unbuttoned blue shirt, was so glad he’d put on instead a new grey jersey with a pink elephant on the front, knitted by one of his adoring fans.

‘Come and meet Maud O’Hara, James,’ yelled Charles Fairburn.

James extracted himself from the old bags and wandered over. Maud O’Hara was certainly extraordinarily beautiful.

‘Is that pink elephant on your bosom meant to reproach the rest of us for not drinking Perrier?’ said Charles.

‘If the cap fits, Charles,’ smirked James. ‘Don’t you think it’s a nice sweater, Maud? Sent me by a fan.’ He smiled engagingly.

Charles peered at the sweater: ‘Not sure about the collar.’

‘It might look better if you wore a brooch,’ said Maud.

James suddenly decided he didn’t think Maud was beautiful at all.

‘Hullo,’ said Lizzie Vereker, coming over and hugging Maud, ‘lovely to see you, I’m so pleased you’ve met James. Thank you for all that lovely whisky the other day. Are you straight yet?’

‘Don’t ever ask me that question,’ said Charles with a shudder. ‘What’s all this about five fire engines rolling up at Rupert’s house and catching him playing nude tennis with a blonde. Talk about Wobble-don.’

Lizzie giggled: ‘Rupert’s convinced some animal rights freak called the fire brigade because she thought he was cruel to burn his stubble.’

‘Who was the blonde?’ asked Charles. ‘Beattie Johnson?’

‘No, that finished months ago. Rupert won’t say. The on dit is that she’s the girl playing Mustard Seed in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

‘Have you heard that Titania’s so petrified of getting AIDS, she’s refusing to kiss Bottom until he’s had a blood test?’ said Charles.

‘Is Rupert here?’ asked Maud, who was not interested in Corinium gossip.

‘Somewhere. Probably wandered off down one of those garden glades in which everyone except Monica behaves badly,’ said Lizzie.

‘Speak for yourself,’ said James disapprovingly.

It was certainly a beautiful garden. Rising out of a sea of lavender, roses coming up for a second pale-pink innings rampaged up the walls of the house. Pastel drifts of delphiniums, Japanese anemones, and Michaelmas daisies were sheltered from the bitter winds by yew hedges nine feet high. Two plump labradors panted on lawns as smooth as an Oxford quad. Beyond was a fish pond and a water garden, fed by the same winding River Fleet that flowed through Cotchester.

‘What are you going to do about the Priory garden?’ asked Lizzie.

‘Get a donkey to keep down the lawn,’ said Maud.

‘I hope to God we eat soon,’ said a harassed-looking man with a moth-eaten yellow beard, and a sleeping baby hanging from a baby sling. He was also hanging on to two frantically struggling children by the scruffs of their necks.

‘There is a limited amount of time one can entertain one’s kids feeding Tony’s fish,’ he added helplessly.

Lizzie introduced Simon Harris. All his skin seemed to be flaking in the open air, thought Maud.

‘How’s Fiona?’ asked Lizzie.

‘Still in hospital for another three weeks. It’s the nanny’s day off, or I’d never have brought this lot,’ said Simon, as the two hyperactive horrors strained at their collars like bull terriers after a cat. ‘If they get at Monica’s Meissen I’m finished. I just couldn’t resist a square meal,’ he added pathetically.

Lizzie opened her mouth to ask him to supper, then closed it again. Simon was so boring at the moment, and she knew James, who was convinced Simon was about to get the bullet, would think it a waste of time.

The panting labradors struggled to their feet, waving their tails as Monica appeared at the conservatory door.

‘Lunch,’ she said. ‘You stay outside with the children,’ she added firmly to Simon. ‘I’ll get someone to bring you something out. I like children normally, but Simon’s two will keep pulling the dogs’ ears, and they keep knocking over my new plants,’ she added in an undertone to Maud.

As Maud walked into the dining-room, Declan came towards her looking really happy for the first time that week: ‘Darling, you must meet Rupert. He knows Johnny very well. He’s given me some great stuff about him. It’s added a totally new dimension to his character.’

Maud caught her breath. How could I ever have mistaken James Vereker for that, she wondered.

Rupert and Declan were both tall and broad in the shoulder, but there the resemblance ended. Declan, with his heavily lined, broken-nosed, shaggy-haired splendour, was like a battle-scarred charger returning from the wars. Rupert was like a sleek capricious thoroughbred, rippling with muscle and breeding, about to win the Derby at a canter. Yet in their great fame and their intrinsic belief (despite Declan’s current self-doubts) that they were still the greatest in the world at what they did, they were the same, and therefore separate from the rest of the party. At that moment both James and Maud felt a bitter stab of envy, that Declan had been admitted so effortlessly to the same club to which Johnny Friedlander and Rupert belonged.

‘Welcome to Penscombe.’ Rupert kissed Maud on the cheek. ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t at home when you moved in, but I’ve been frantically busy.’

‘So we hear, Rupert,’ said Charles archly. ‘What’s this about fire engines and a burning bush?’

‘Fuck off, Fairburn,’ said Rupert, grinning.

‘Come on, don’t hold up the queue,’ said Monica, beckoning from behind a long white table. ‘You’re getting Coronation chicken again, I’m afraid.’

Maud stood in front of Declan and Rupert, gulping down her third glass of wine and feeling totally unnerved.

‘I know your house very well,’ Rupert told her. ‘I remember pursuing something that wasn’t a fox across your haha at one party. Ended up ripping the front of my trousers off on the barbed wire. How’s the garden?’

‘A groundsel estate, and the nettles are on the warpath,’ said Declan.

‘Better get those tackled professionally,’ said Rupert, ‘or you’ll never get rid of them. I’ve got a man who’ll do it for you.’

‘What about the wood?’ asked Declan.

‘Forestry commission’ll give you a grant for that. They’ll whip out all the dead stuff and plant you new young trees as a quid pro quo for the firewood.’

‘How wonderfully positive you are,’ murmured Maud. ‘Perhaps you can give me advice on re-decorating our bedroom?’

‘Re-decorating’s never been a priority of mine. Not in bedrooms,’ said Rupert.

‘Tuck in, Maud,’ said Monica impatiently. ‘And you haven’t met my brother-in-law, Bas. He’s dying to meet you.’

Bas was about five inches taller than Tony and decidedly attractive in a sleek, wicked, Latin way. He kissed Maud’s hand, then turned it over and buried his lips in her wrist.

‘Calêche,’ he murmured. ‘I adore it. Do you wear it all over?’

Maud laughed. ‘Are you local?’

‘Near enough as the helicopter flies. I can land on the palm of your hand. I’ve got a wine bar in Cotchester High Street,’ he went on. ‘Most of my evil brother’s staff gather there to plot against him. No doubt your famous husband will shortly join them. You must get him to bring you in one day.’

‘Don’t be silly, Bas,’ said Monica briskly. ‘You haven’t met Paul Stratton, Maud, our MP for Cotchester, nor his wife Sarah.’

She looks more like his daughter, thought Maud. With his anxious, lined, somewhat petulant face, and his brushed-forward blue-grey hair, Paul looked like one of those once-famous television personalities who eke out a middle-aged existence advising housewives to buy soap powder in television commercials.

Even Maud, who had a dismissive attitude to the charms of her own sex, had to admit that the wife was ravishing.

‘Ah, the newly-weds,’ said Bas, kissing Sarah on the mouth. ‘When are you going to start being unfaithful to Paul? We’re in Beaufort country here, you know, high fences and low morals.’

Basil,’ snapped Monica. ‘Do stop holding up the queue. And you haven’t met Freddie Jones, our electronic whizz kid have you, Maud?’

‘Oh my goodness, you are smashing,’ said Freddie in wonder. ‘I ’ear Rupert’s going to provide your ’usband with an ’orse.’

Maud felt marvellous. It was such a long time since she’d been admired by so many attractive men, so much more macho than all those wimps in London, and for once people were paying more attention to her than Declan. This dress always worked.

‘Come along, Mrs O’Hara,’ said Rupert, who, while Maud was busy fascinating, had loaded up two plates, acquired a bottle of white and two glasses, and put them on a tray. ‘D’you want to be indoors or out?’

‘Indoors,’ said Maud joyfully. ‘I freckle so easily.’

Rupert found them a window seat in the conservatory.

‘Monica’s done this rather well,’ he said, looking round. ‘I gather it’s cost Corinium even more than your husband’s first week’s salary. You want to avoid this house in winter; it’s the sort of place eskimos send their children as punishment.’

On cue, Simon Harris’s two hyperactive monsters roared past, sending an aspidistra flying. Ten seconds later they were followed by Simon Harris, with Coronation chicken all over his beard. The baby in the sling was bawling its head off.

‘Did they go this way?’ asked Simon frantically.

There was a crash from the drawing-room.

‘I’m afraid so,’ said Rupert.

Maud wrinkled her nose as he rushed out.

‘That baby needs changing.’

Rupert laughed. ‘All his children do. I’d take the lot back to Harrods if I was him.’

Rushing almost as fast in the opposite direction came Paul Stratton searching for Sarah, who was sitting on a wall giggling with Bas.

‘Paul’s jeans appear to be castrating him even more than his new wife,’ said Rupert, forking up chicken at great speed. ‘If he bends over, his eyes will pop out.’

Maud admired the length of Rupert’s pale-brown corduroyed thighs. After four large glasses of wine, she suddenly had an irresistible urge to touch one of them.

‘She’s beautiful, his wife,’ said Maud.

‘She’s a tramp,’ said Rupert, ‘and Paul’s living in Cloud Cuckold Land.’

‘What’s Bas like?’ asked Maud, putting her chicken down on the floor untouched.

‘Divine,’ said Rupert. ‘One of my best mates. Runs a phenomenally successful wine bar, dabbles in property, hunts four days a week in winter, plays polo all summer, and screws all the prettiest girls in four counties. Can’t be bad.’

‘He doesn’t look like Tony,’ said Maud.

‘They had different fathers. After twenty-three years of utter fidelity to Lord Pop-Pop, Tony’s mother fell for an Argentinian polo player. The result to everyone’s amazement was Bas. Hence the name of the wine bar — the Bar Sinister.’

Maud laughed. Many men had told her that her laugh was beautiful — low, musical, joyous.

‘Tell me about your children,’ said Rupert, who’d finished his chicken.

‘I’ve got a son, Patrick.’

‘I’m not interested in him.’

‘And a daughter of just eighteen.’ Seeing Rupert’s eyes gleam, Maud added hastily, ‘But she’s shy and retiring; doesn’t go out much. And one of fourteen, who’s madly in love with you; she’s kept her binoculars trained on your house ever since we arrived.’

‘That’s nice. They’re adorable at that age.’

‘She’s got a brace on her teeth, and going through a very plain stage,’ said Maud even more hastily. ‘Tell me about Freddie Jones.’

‘He’s a saint.’

‘Because he buys your horses?’

‘Not entirely. I’ve offered Declan a horse if ever he wants a day’s hunting.’

‘Declan rides very well,’ said Maud. ‘He grew up on a farm. Who’s that little woman who’s bending his ear at the moment, who keeps making silly faces? He looks as though he needs rescuing.’

Rupert glanced round. ‘Not by me, he doesn’t. That’s Freddie’s wife, Valerie, the Lady of the Mannerism; won’t rest till she’s Queen of England. Freddie unfortunately thinks she is already. Keeping down with the Joneses is an eternal problem round here.’

‘You’re very black and white, aren’t you?’ said Maud, noticing his long fingers and wishing they were unbuttoning her silk dress.

‘I like people or I don’t.’

Looking up, Maud gave Rupert the benefit of her most bewitching smile. The great expanse of white eyeball and the beautiful teeth (unfairly even and white after so few visits to the dentist) really did light up her face. At the same time her hair escaped from its jewelled comb and cascaded down her back.

‘I hope you like me,’ she murmured.

‘I don’t know yet,’ said Rupert slowly, looking at her mouth and then her breasts. ‘I like your husband very much, but you’re certainly too disturbing to be living across the valley.’

Glancing through the conservatory window at Maud’s pale, rapt face, Declan thought she looked far more exotic than any of Monica’s orchids and felt a sick churning jealousy. Rupert had his back turned. Maud was weaving her spells again.

You need but lift a pearl-pale hand,’ Declan quoted to himself despairingly, ‘And bind up your long hair and sigh, And all men’s hearts must burn and beat.

Oh Christ, if only he could get away from this party, and spend a few hours on his Yeats book. And in three days he’d got to interview Johnny. He’d done his duty at this party. He’d talked to the appallingly pompous Paul Stratton, and asked Simon Harris about his wife, and answered questions from fearful bone-headed locals about the famous people he’d interviewed, and listened to at least three women who had daughters reading English at University, who wanted to go into television, and now he was trapped by this monstrous dwarf.

‘It’s so wonderful to be able to stand at the bottom of one’s drive,’ said Valerie Jones, ‘and not be able to see one’s house.’

She was wearing a cricket sweater and white flannels, and rabbited relentlessly on like an obnoxious player who wouldn’t stop bowling when the umpire said Over.

‘We couldn’t be happier with Green Lawns,’ she went on smugly. ‘We looked at The Priory, you know. It was on the market for ages, but it’s awfully cold, and I really couldn’t live in a property that didn’t get sun until the evening. I must have sunshine.’

She held her silly face up to the sun. Declan longed to clout a six into it. He could see Maud was running her hand through her hair now, shaking it out. Her body was arched towards Rupert. Unnoticed by either of them, the fatter of Monica’s labradors was busy gobbling up Maud’s chicken.

‘Even Freddie was nervous about meetin’ you,’ Valerie was saying. ‘Ay said, don’t be silly, Fred-Fred. Famous folk are just like everyone else. Most of them are on drugs, and very lonely, because all their friends have deserted them.’

‘I wish some of ours would desert us,’ said Declan grimly. ‘That’s why we moved to the country.’

In the hall Tony was throwing out Simon Harris. The elder monster had just smashed a Ming bowl.

‘Was it very old?’ stammered Simon, white-lipped.

‘Only just over six hundred years,’ hissed Tony. ‘Out, OUT.’

‘I’ll pay for it.’

‘It would take you two years’ salary, which I don’t think you’d like from the way you’re always whining about money. Now, bugger off, before those little bastards break the whole place up.’

‘I must go,’ said Rupert.

‘Oh,’ said Maud, put out. She wanted the afternoon to go on for ever. It was as though the sun had gone in.

‘I’ve got to pick up my children from my ex.’

‘How old are they?’

‘Eight and ten.’

‘You must bring them over to see us. Taggie, my daughter, dotes on children. She’d keep them out of our hair. Has your ex-wife married again?’

‘Yes,’ said Rupert getting to his feet, ‘to my old chef d’équipe, Malise Gordon. He used to manage the British team when I was show jumping. Bit of a tartar, so I feel their twin rays of disapproval if I roll up late.’

At that moment Freddie Jones rolled up with two over-loaded plates of Pavlova.

‘’ullo my darlings; brought you some sweet.’

‘Not for me, I’m off,’ said Rupert.

‘How’s my horse getting on?’ said Freddie.

‘Bloody well. I think we’ll run him in a two-mile chase at Cheltenham. He’s ready for it.’

They were interrupted by frantic tapping on the window pane. Valerie Jones was glaring in: No dessert, Fred-Fred, she mouthed.

Lizzie Vereker took Valerie’s place beside Declan: ‘D’you need rescuing?’

‘I did,’ said Declan. ‘I don’t any more. She nails your feet to the floor, but I’m trained to cut across wafflers.’ He shook his head. ‘How’s the book going?’

‘Backwards,’ said Lizzie. ‘Are you nervous about your first programme?’

‘Yes. I shouldn’t be allowed out before a series starts. I get so wound up, I can’t talk to anyone.’

‘Good luck with Johnny, ‘said Rupert, pausing on his way out.

‘Come and have dinner with us after the programme,’ said Declan.

‘Can’t. I’m off to Ireland. I know we’re both hellishly pushed, but let’s get together soon. I’ll come and look at your wood. ‘Bye, darling.’ He gave Lizzie a kiss.

As he crossed the deserted hall Sarah Stratton came out of the downstairs loo, reeking of Anaïs Anaïs. Glancing back towards the garden, Rupert saw that James was nose to nose with Paul Stratton, each mistakenly assuming he was furthering his own career.

‘Come and feed the fish,’ said Rupert, taking Sarah’s hand.

He led her down a grassy ride, flanked on either side by yew hedges, to the fish pond. Stuffed to bursting by Simon Harris’s monsters, the carp didn’t even bother to ruffle the surface of the water lilies.

‘Any repercussions?’ asked Rupert.

Sarah shook her head. ‘It seems funny, belting away from your tennis court with a pink dress over my head. The entire Gloucestershire fire brigade will recognize my bush, but not my face.’

Rupert grinned, and pulled her inside the thick curtain of a weeping ash. After he’d kissed her, he said: ‘When are we going to finish the set?’

‘Very soon, please.’

Her smooth golden face was green in the gloom; she looked like a water nymph.

‘How was Maud O’Hara?’ she asked.

‘Seemed pretty unmoored to me,’ said Rupert.

‘Looks as though she’d like to tie herself to you.’

‘Were you jealous?’

Sarah nodded.

‘Pity your husband’s summer recess coincides with mine.’

‘He’s never away,’ moaned Sarah, as Rupert’s fingers moved between her legs. ‘Why don’t we nip into the gazebo?’

‘Got to pick up the children. I’m late already.’

‘When am I going to see you?’ gasped Sarah, as Rupert’s other hand slid down underneath her pants at the back.

‘Come to Ireland with me. I’m leaving on Wednesday afternoon.’

‘I can’t. My ghastly step-children are coming for a couple of weeks on a trial visit. I know who it’s going to be a trial to as well. Paul’s going to Gatwick on Tuesday to meet them.’

‘That’ll give us at least five hours. Ring me at home the minute he leaves.’

‘Hulloo,’ called a male voice.

Frantically straightening her dress, Sarah shot out through the ash tree curtain and bent once more over the fish pond to hide her flaming face.

Wiping off her pale-pink lipstick, Rupert followed in a more leisurely fashion.

‘Sarah and I were talking about horses,’ he told an apoplectic Paul. ‘If you’re going to fork out for a groom, feed and grazing for two hunters, you’re talking about at least fifteen thousand a year. Better if Sarah kept something at my yard.’

‘We’ll discuss it in our own time, thank you,’ spluttered Paul. ‘We must go, Sarah.’

Back in the conservatory, Maud was being heavily chatted up by Bas.

‘Shove off, Bas,’ Monica told him. ‘Declan wants to go and I want two minutes with Maud.’

‘I’ll come and see you,’ said Bas, blowing Maud a kiss.

He’s very attractive, thought Maud dreamily, but not in Rupert’s class.

‘I’m sure you’re a joiner,’ said Monica, who was now busily dead-heading a pale-blue plumbago growing up a whitewashed trellis.

‘No,’ said Maud, ‘I’m an actress.’

Very firmly, but charmingly, she managed to resist all Monica’s urging that she should get herself involved in any kind of charity work.

‘The children come first,’ said Maud simply.

‘But two of them are away,’ protested Monica, ‘and Taggie’s eighteen.’

‘But still dyslexic,’ sighed Maud. ‘She needs her mother, and of course Declan needs his wife.’

‘But you must do something for charity,’ persisted Monica. ‘It’s such a good way of meeting new people, and it’s awfully easy to get bored in the country.’

‘I never get bored,’ lied Maud. ‘There’s so much to do to the house. I can’t pass a traffic light at the moment without wondering whether yellow would go with red in one of the children’s bedrooms.’

Driving home, Maud put a hand on Declan’s thigh, edging it upwards. Pixillated by Rupert’s interest, and Bas’s extravagant compliments, hazy with drink, she felt wildly desirable and alive again.

‘Let’s go straight to bed.’

‘What about Taggie?’ said Declan.

‘Say we’re both tired.’

Declan curled a hand into the front of her black dress.

‘They all wanted you.’

‘Did you like that?’ whispered Maud.

‘I know how hard I’ve got to fight to keep you,’ he said harshly and felt her nipples hardening.

Back in their bedroom at The Priory, he undressed her slowly down to her suspender belt and stockings, so black against the soft white skin.

‘When did you get those bruises?’ she said sharply, as he took off his shirt.

‘This morning. The focking mowing machine kept stopping and I didn’t.’

12

Gertrude, the mongrel, was walked off her feet in the next three days. When Maud wasn’t drifting up and down the valley in a new lilac T-shirt and matching flowing skirt, hoping to bump into Rupert, Declan was striding through the woods, trying to work out what questions he would ask Johnny Friedlander and driving Cameron Cook crackers because he was never in when she wanted to talk to him.

Cameron’s patience was further taxed by her PA getting chicken-pox, and having to be replaced by Daysee Butler, easily the prettiest girl working at Corinium but also the stupidest.

‘Why d’you spell Daisy that ludicrous way?’ snarled Cameron.

‘Because it shows up more on credits,’ said Daysee simply.

Like all PAs that autumn, Daysee wandered round clutching a clipboard and a stopwatch, wearing loose trousers tucked into sawn-off suede boots, and jerseys with pictures knitted on the front.

‘It’s just like the Tit Gallery with all these pictures floating past,’ grumbled Charles Fairburn.

Programme day dawned at The Priory with Declan roaring round the house.

‘Whatever’s the matter?’ asked Taggie in alarm.

‘I have absolutely no socks. No, don’t tell me. I’ve looked behind the tank in the hot cupboard, and in all my drawers, and in the dirty clothes basket. Utterly bloody Patrick and utterly bloody Caitlin swiped all my socks when they went back, so I have none to wear.’

‘I’ll drive into Cotchester and get you some,’ said Taggie soothingly.

‘Indeed you will not,’ said Declan. ‘I’m driving into Cotchester, and I’m buying thirty pairs of socks in such a disgossting colour that none of you will ever wish to pinch them again.’

He was very tired. He hadn’t slept, panicking Johnny might roll up stoned or not at all. And yesterday he and Cameron had been closeted together for twelve hours in the edit suite, putting together the introductory package, rowing constantly over what clips and stills they should use. Daysee Butler’s inanities hadn’t helped either. Nor had Declan’s dismissing as pretentious crap an alternative script Cameron pretended one of the researchers had written, but which she in fact had toiled over all weekend. She couldn’t run to Tony, who was in an all-day meeting in London, but got her revenge while Declan was recording his own beautifully lyrical script, by making him do bits over and over again because of imagined mispronunciations or technical faults or hangings outside. They parted at the end of the day not friends.

Having bought his socks, Declan arrived at the studios around five. A game show was underway in Studio 2; the Floor Manager was flapping his hands above his head like a demented seal as a sign to the audience to applaud. Midsummer Night’s Dream had ground to a halt in Studio 1, because Cameron, dissatisfied with the rushes, had tried to impose an ‘out-of-house lighting cameraperson’ on the crew, who had promptly downed tools. The Rude Mechanicals, with no prospect of a line all day, were getting pissed in the bar.

Deferential, glad-to-be-of-use, Deirdre Kilpatrick, the researcher on ‘Cotswold Round-Up’, as dingy as Daysee Butler was radiant, was taking a famous romantic novelist to tea before being interviewed by James Vereker.

‘James will ask you your idea of the perfect romantic hero, Ashley,’ Deirdre was saying earnestly. ‘And it’d be very nice if you could say: “You are, James”, which would bring James in.’

‘I only go on TV because my agent says it sells books,’ said the romantic novelist. ‘Oooh, isn’t that Declan O’Hara? Now, he is the perfect romantic hero.’

Declan slid into his dressing-room and locked the door. A pile of good luck cards and telexes awaited him. He was particularly touched by one from his old department at the BBC saying, ‘Sock it to them.’

‘Da-glo yellow sock it to them,’ said Declan, chucking thirty pairs of socks in luminous cat-sick yellow on the bed.

There was a knock on the door. It was Wardrobe.

‘D’you want anything ironed?’

Declan peered gloomily in the mirror: ‘Only my face.’

He gave her his suit, light grey and very lightweight, as he was going to be under the hot lights for an hour. She hung up his shirt and tie, then squealed with horror at the yellow socks.

‘You can’t wear those.’

‘They won’t show,’ said Declan.

In Studio 3 two technicians were sitting in Declan’s and Johnny’s chairs, while the crew sorted out lighting and camera angles. Crispin, the set designer, whisked about in a lavender flying-suit. The set was exactly as Declan had wanted, except the Charles Rennie Mackintosh chairs had been replaced by wooden Celtic ones, with the conic back of Declan’s rising a foot above his head like a wizard’s chair: a symbol of authority and magic.

As a gesture of defiance, on the steel-blue tables which rose like mushrooms at the side of each rostrum, Crispin, the designer, had placed blue-and-red-striped glasses and carafes.

‘I want plain glasses,’ snapped Declan.

‘Oh, they’re so dreary.’ Crispin pouted.

‘I want them — and get rid of those focking flowers.’

‘Cameron ordered them specially.’

Declan picked up the bouquet threateningly.

‘Are you trying to bury me?’

‘All right, no flowers,’ said Crispin sulkily.

At six-thirty there was a very scratchy run-through.

‘Can’t you ad lib us through your line of questioning?’ asked Cameron.

‘No.’

‘You must know your first question.’

‘Depends on his mood.’

‘May be looped, you mean. Your bloody fault, asking a junkie on the first programme.’

Declan went off and shook in the men’s lavatory for half an hour. When he returned to the studio the crew were lining up their four cameras before the meal break.

‘Have you heard the latest Irish joke?’ the Senior Cameraman was saying. ‘There was this Paddy who went into a chemist for his heroin fix.’

The crew gathered round, grinning at the prospect of more Hibernian idiocy. Halfway though the story the Senior Cameraman realized he’d lost his audience. Next moment, he was grabbed by the scruff of the neck.

‘You may be the best focking cameraman in ITV,’ roared Declan, ‘but you’ll not work on my programme if you’re going to tell Irish jokes. You don’t dare tell jokes about Jews and blacks or cripples any more; why pick on the poor bloody Irish?’

With a final shake, which threw the Senior Cameraman half-way across the studio, he stalked out.

‘I’ll report you to my shop steward,’ screamed the Senior Cameraman rubbing his neck.

In the bar they were gathering to catch a glimpse of Johnny Friedlander and to support Declan by watching his programme. There was still a latent esprit de corps at Corinium. Someone had deliberately changed the colour on the bar television, so James Vereker’s face looked like a Jaffa orange.

‘What’s your idea of a romantic hero, Ashley?’ he was saying.

‘You are, James.’

‘That’s very sweet of you, Ashley.’ James smoothed his streaks. ‘What’s romantic about me?’

‘Well, you’re so caring, James, and you’ve got an inner strength like Leslie Howard.’

‘Turn the sound down,’ screamed a Rude Mechanical, hurling a handful of peanuts at the screen.

‘Anyone seen Declan?’ asked Daysee Butler, putting her top half, which had Goofy appropriately knitted on the bosom, round the door to a chorus of wolf-whistles. It was getting perilously close to transmission time.

‘In the bog,’ said Charles Fairburn. ‘I’m surprised he doesn’t move his dressing-room in there. Can’t even keep down a brandy.’

‘Declan,’ shouted the Senior Cameraman. ‘You can stop worrying. Daysee’s too embarrassed to come in ’ere, but Johnny Friedlander’s people have just phoned to say they’ve come off the M4 and they’ll be wiv us in twenty minutes.’

‘Thank Christ for that,’ groaned Declan.

‘And ’ere’s a letter for you.’ A piece of writing paper appeared under the door.

Dear Declan, it said. ‘We’re sorry we was telling Paddy jokes. We won’t any more, you was quite right.

All the crew had signed it.

PS. Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Welshman and the Scotsman?

Declan grinned, then he glanced at his watch, and nearly threw up again. He’d be on air in less than an hour.

Johnny Friedlander arrived in a black limo which seemed to stretch the length of Cotchester High Street. He was accompanied by a publicity girl and four security men. In a second limo were four lawyers. Looking at the bulges in the security men’s suits, the press allowed Johnny to be smuggled into the building without too much hassle.

From the start Johnny’s visit to Corinium went off with a bang. Taking one look at the ravishing Daysee, he pulled her into his dressing-room and locked the door. The four security men stood outside with folded arms.

‘Who’s she?’ asked Johnny’s publicity girl in horror.

‘A piece of ass,’ said one of the security men.

‘Are you quite sure she’s not a reporter?’

‘Couldn’t report a burglary,’ said Charles Fairburn, whisking past, thoroughly overexcited by so much security muscle.

In his dressing-room a pretty make-up girl with sheep in a field knitted on her bosom fussed around Declan. He wished he could lie down in her field and go to sleep.

‘At least let me paint out the dark rings and give you a bit of base; you’re so pale,’ she murmured. ‘And we’ll have to do something about the beard area. You really ought to shave.’

‘I’m shaking so much I’ll cut myself.’

‘I’ll shave you.’

Next moment Cameron stormed in.

‘Johnny Friedlander’s barricaded himself into his dressing-room with Daysee.’

‘Best place for him,’ said Declan. ‘At least if he’s having a bang, he’s not snorting coke.’

In his fifth-floor office, Tony Baddingham, even more nervous than Declan, was dispensing Krug to his special guests, who included several big advertising clients, the Mayor and Mayoress of Cotchester and Freddie and Valerie Jones. By a ghastly mischance, they had also been joined by the Reverend Fergus Penney, a former Prebendary of the Church of England. A fearful old prude constantly inveighing against sex on television, he had recently become a member of the IBA board, and was currently on a tour of the Independent television companies. Now, primly sipping Perrier, he kept peering across the corridor to the board room, where the press, assembled to watch Declan’s first programme on a big screen pulled down against the far wall, were getting drunk and stuffing their faces with quiche and chicken drumsticks.

In a corner of the board room, as disapproving as the ex-Prebendary, sat Johnny’s four lawyers, also sipping Perrier and fingering calculators at the prospect of litigation.

‘Why the fuck d’you ask so many press?’ Tony hissed to Cyril Peacock, who knew he’d have been equally roasted if only a handful had turned up.

Nor did the fact that Tony had been entirely responsible for hiring Declan stop him now blaming everything on Simon Harris. ‘You ought to be able to control Declan, Simon. That’s what you’re here for. He hasn’t even given Cameron a running order.’

‘All she needs now is a prayer sheet,’ said Charles.

‘Declan’s my favourite telly star,’ the Lady Mayoress was saying excitedly to Valerie. ‘I can’t wait to meet him later.’

‘Oh, we know him quaite well,’ said Valerie Jones, on the strength of last Sunday’s lunch party. ‘He always singles me out — because Ay tell him the truth. Ay think famous folk get so bored with flattery.’

A curious tension was building up through the building.

‘Declan’s just cut me dead,’ complained James Vereker, going into the bar. ‘Awfully uncool to get so uptight.’

Daysee came out of Johnny’s dressing-room, looking as though she’d found the Holy Grail.

‘He’s having a quick shower,’ she said. ‘Then he wants Make-up.’

‘Well, send in a boot,’ said Cameron. ‘We don’t want him banging her as well.’

It was five minutes to blast off. The four security men had taken up their positions in the studio. In the control room the production team sat at a desk like a vast dashboard, gazing at two rows of monitor screens. On four of the monitors which came direct from the studio, Cameron could see Johnny Friedlander’s carved, beautiful, degenerate face with its hollow cheek bones and Californian suntan. His fair hair was the red-gold of willows in winter, the irises of the deep-set Oxford-blue eyes were almost as dark as the pupils. Thin almost to the point of emaciation, he lounged easily in his three-thousand-dollar suit, with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. But the air of relaxation was false.

‘Why the hell did I agree to do this shit?’ he drawled.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Declan, meaning it.

‘Aw that’s OK. I just don’t feel I’ve got proper lines when they’re my own. Rupert called, by the way. He said: “You can trust this guy, he’s one of us.”’

In his earpiece Declan could hear Daysee saying: ‘The pink strapless is more dressy, but my holiday tan’s nearly gone.’

‘Can we have some level?’ asked the Floor Manager. ‘What did you have for breakfast, Johnny?’

Johnny laughed. ‘You want to get me arrested?’

On Cameron’s left, Daysee was checking different stopwatches. The moment they were on air she would forget pink strapless dresses and become as cool as a computer, timing the programme to the second.

On the right sat the vision-mixer in a red T-shirt, hands at the ready over regiments of square buttons, lit up like spangles, ready to punch up the correct picture when Cameron demanded it.

‘Good luck, everyone,’ said Cameron, crossing her fingers. ‘Stand by Studio, stand by Opening Titles, stand by Music.’

‘One minute to air,’ said Daysee, clenching her stopwatch and glaring at the leaping red number of the clock. ‘Twenty seconds, ten, five, four, three, two, one and in.’

Schubert’s Fifth Symphony started on its jolly jazzed-up course. On the screen a rocket exploded in coloured stars above a night-lit Cotchester, and then cascaded down to form the word Declan. A great cheer went up in the bar. Tony puffed on his cigar.

‘I want another gin and tonic,’ said an already drunk reporter from the Mail on Sunday.

‘Shut up,’ said Johnny’s four lawyers in unison, who were listening to the opening package like hawks, in the hope of finding something defamatory.

As Daysee cued Declan in, as a concession to Cameron, he swung round to talk directly to camera. For a moment his throat went dry. He’s forgotten his first question, thought Cameron in anguish. Then he said: ‘I welcome my first guest in this new series with the greatest humility. He is simply the best actor to come out of America in the last fifteen years. But this is the first interview you’ve ever given.’ He turned to Johnny, ‘Why?’

‘I hate publicity,’ drawled Johnny. ‘If all journalists were exterminated life would be just fine.’

Up in the board room a howl of protest went up from the press, who stopped filling up their drinks and started listening.

‘The press detest success,’ went on Johnny, ‘and they screw up your sex life. However much you try not to get fed up, it pisses you off when you read lies that your latest girlfriend’s been two-timing you with some Greek masseur. Every day, my exes are offered millions to tell all.’

‘How d’you cope?’ said Declan.

‘I don’t read press cuttings any more. I just weigh them; if they’re light I start worrying.’

‘By deliberately avoiding publicity, aren’t you actually courting it?’

‘Don’t give me that crap,’ said Johnny lightly.

And they were off, sparring, laughing, fooling about almost like two old friends discussing someone they knew and liked, but frequently disapproved of. Johnny was being absolutely outrageous now about his exploits with his leading ladies, but he drawled out his answers so honestly and engagingly that the press quickly forgave him for his earlier sniping. The lawyers were clutching their heads, but they were laughing and even the ex-Prebendary was looking moderately benign.

It’s going to be all right, thought Cameron. ‘Ten minutes to the commercial break, Declan,’ she said into his earpiece. Following a tip-off from Rupert, Declan then said, ‘And you’re about to face your greatest acting challenge. .’

Johnny raised an eyebrow.

’. . playing Hamlet at Stratford next year,’ said Declan.

Johnny looked startled. Upstairs the board room was in an uproar.

‘No one knows that,’ screamed the lawyers. ‘The god-dammed contracts haven’t been fucking exchanged yet.’

‘I figured I ought to have a crack at it,’ said Johnny. ‘Women don’t get taken seriously as actresses these days until they allow themselves to look ugly and sweaty and get raped on screen. Guys still have to play Hamlet. And I like the guy. I mean he had a stepfather problem. I don’t figure Claudius bumped off Hamlet’s father at all. That was Hamlet’s fantasy; he hated his stepfather. I hated mine.’

‘Why?’

‘He married my mother. I was jealous. He was a bass-tard.’

‘Why?’

Tony drew on his cigar; the lawyers fingered their calculators; even the press were still.

Declan paused, waiting unbearably long. On his pale-blue island in a sea of dark blue, Johnny suddenly seemed terribly vulnerable.

‘He groped my baby sister the whole time,’ he said. ‘So I quit. My stepfather called to say my mother was dying of cancer. I didn’t believe him, so I didn’t go home.’ Johnny put his head in his hands. ‘But she did die the next day. She topped herself. I ain’t never told no one that.’

‘Why did she commit suicide?’ asked Declan quietly.

Johnny looked up, his eyes cavernous. ‘She was jealous because my stepfather preferred my sister. Christ, what a mess.’

‘Out of order,’ screamed the lawyers apoplectically. The Prebendary was looking equally outraged.

‘Are you worried, being American, you won’t be taken seriously as Hamlet?’ asked Declan.

Relieved at a change of subject, Johnny fast recovered his poise. ‘He was a Dane, for Christ’s sake. He didn’t speak like Leslie Howard.’

In the bar James and the lady novelist exchanged caring smiles.

‘It’s the acting that matters,’ went on Johnny. ‘I could play him like JR.’

He launched into ‘To be or not to be’ in broad Texan; it was so funny, the cameramen could hardly keep their cameras still. Halfway through Johnny slid into Prince Charles’s accent, which was even funnier; then for the last ten lines, he played it straight and was so good that Declan felt his hair standing on end. At the end, Johnny said, ‘That’ll be five hundred pounds, please,’ in a camp Cockney accent.

‘You’ll be taken seriously,’ said Declan.

‘I can switch moods, that’s why I’m a good movie actor,’ said Johnny. ‘But to be on stage four hours, that’s something else. But then I’ve always lived dangerously. . ’

Declan took a deep breath. ‘Is that why you went back to America to face trial?’

‘That is definitely out of order,’ screamed the lawyers, positively orgasmic now at the prospect of lucrative litigation. ‘We agreed he wouldn’t talk about that.’

‘I went back because I missed the States,’ said Johnny. He still appeared relaxed, but his knuckles were white points as he gripped the arms of his chair.

‘Have you always fancied very young girls?’

‘Sure, if they’re pretty. Most men do. This one was very pretty.’

‘Did you know she was only fourteen?’

The Prebendary was about to have a seizure.

‘I think you ought to have a word with the control room,’ he spluttered to Tony.

‘Sure, I guess it was wrong, but she was so sweet, I really cared for her. I know I screwed her, but I don’t figure I screwed her up. She’s very happily married with a baby now.’

‘How d’you get on in prison?’

Johnny’s eyes were cavernous again. ‘It’s not a very nice place to be. But if you’re a famous movie star you’re trapped anyway; going to gaol is just exchanging one kind of captivity for another. And I learnt a lot. I could burglarize your place tonight, while you were in it. And I’m shit-hot at insider trading.’

Declan stretched out his legs.

‘Extraordinary coloured socks,’ said the girl from the Mail on Sunday, pouring herself another gin.

‘Did they give you a hard time inside?’ Declan asked Johnny.

‘Not really. One guy who couldn’t count — he thought the girl was four not fourteen — worked me over a bit, but I made some good friends.’

‘Have you never fancied older women?’

Johnny thought for a minute, then he smiled wickedly.

‘No, they have droopy asses. Droopy asses are so cold in bed.’

The telephone rang in the control room.

‘For Christ’s sake, get him off sex,’ yelled Tony. ‘The lawyers are going to take us to the cleaners, and Fergus Penney’s having a coronary. We’ll lose the franchise if you don’t shut him up.’

‘It’s a fucking good programme,’ said Cameron, and hung up.

Then she took the telephone off the hook.

‘Five seconds to the cue dot,’ intoned Daysee. ‘Five, four, three, two, one.’ She flicked the cue switch to warn people all over the network to get ready in sixty seconds to roll in the commercials, which were, after all, the life-blood of the station.

As the End-of-Part-One caption came up, Johnny shot out of the studio, saying he must have a leak.

‘You stay here,’ Cameron screamed at Daysee. ‘Well done, Declan.’

Johnny may not have been able to have Daysee in the break, but he had certainly taken something. In the second half he was even more outrageous, but utterly relaxed. Declan, in his wizard’s chair, had only to prompt him here, jog his memory there, and curb his amazing honesty when he looked like going over the top.

The floor manager thrust the back of his hand with splayed-out fingers towards Declan to indicate five minutes more.

‘I was on location in Texas,’ Johnny was saying as he waved his cigarette around. ‘Staying in my hotel was this glorious German girl. She gave me her room number, told me to come up in half an hour. I must have been looped. When I hotfooted upstairs later and banged on her door, someone let me in, but the room was in darkness.’

‘Oh Christ,’ thought Cameron. ‘What’s he going to say?’

‘Well, I undressed and got into bed, and I reached out, and I felt a boob, like a wrinkled fig. I figured this was odd. Then moving down I found I could play Grieg’s Piano Concerto on her ribs, so I groped for the light, and there were her teeth grinning at me from a glass beside the bed. I don’t know which of us screamed the louder. I mean, she must have been ninety, if she was a day. I mean, under-age girls are one thing, gerontophilia’s quite another.’ Johnny smiled helplessly.

‘Disgusting,’ spluttered the Prebendary and Valerie Jones in unison.

‘Anyway I shot down the bed as the security men broke in, and the old sweetie didn’t give me away. I sent her a whole roomful of flowers the next morning, and,’ Johnny paused wickedly — Oh Christ, thought Tony, as the Prebendary turned even more purple — ‘she still sends me Christmas cards.’

The floor manager was waving a couple of fingers at Declan for two minutes more.

‘Now you’re going to play Hamlet, have you got any ambitions left?’

‘I guess I’d like to make a happy marriage,’ said Johnny seriously. ‘I went to see my grandma the other day, she’s been married sixty years. Now that is achievement — like building a cathedral brick by brick, a real life’s work. I guess I won’t achieve it, but that’s what I’d like.’

‘Aaaaah,’ said Daysee Butler, so moved that she flicked the cue switch too early.

Now Declan was smiling and thanking Johnny for coming on the programme.

On came Schubert, jauntier than ever, up rolled the credits, but alas because of Daysee’s early cue, just as Cameron Cook’s name was about to come up at the end, the screen went royal blue and the Corinium television logo appeared, with the little red ram seeming to hold his horned head even higher than usual. A second later they were into the commercials.

Another great roar went up in the bar and the board room. Even the crew broke into rare spontaneous applause and crowded round Declan and Johnny. Upstairs, the press raced for the telephones.

‘I must talk to Declan about those yellow socks. I’m definitely going to do a fashion piece,’ said the girl from the Mail on Sunday, pouring herself another gin.

‘Great,’ said Freddie Jones, ‘really great. Congratulations.’

The lawyers came up and pumped Tony’s hand. ‘We were shitting bricks at the end, but Johnny came across great, a really nice guy, an attractive guy.’

Valerie Jones was nose to nose with the Prebendary.

‘Disgraceful,’ she was saying. ‘My daughter Sharon is only fourteen and when one thinks. .’

‘Screw the Prebendary,’ said Tony five minutes later, as he came off the telephone in his office. ‘Lady Gosling thought it was terrific.’

‘It was,’ said Miss Madden. ‘Declan wants a word.’

‘That was a terrific programme. Well done,’ said Tony, picking up another telephone.

‘Thanks,’ said Declan. ‘D’you mind if we don’t come up? Johnny doesn’t want to see anyone. He’s reached a stage when he might go right over the top. I’m taking him home for a quiet dinner.’

Through the door Tony could see the press and even the lawyers getting drunk. The Prebendary was still nose to nose with Valerie. Corinium had walked a tightrope that evening and got away with it.

‘Understood,’ said Tony. ‘I’ll talk to you tomorrow, but congratulations anyway.’

As Cameron went into the board room, everyone cheered. Tony even forgot himself sufficiently to march over and hug her. His eyes were blazing with triumph.

‘Lady Gosling rang to say how much she liked it. She sent special congratulations to you.’

But Cameron felt utterly drained and despairing. Not just because of her lost credit, but because she had produced and directed a programme in which she’d had no part. It had lived and fortunately not died with Declan.

13

Declan’s first programmes for Corinium were a colossal success. The press agreed that Johnny Friedlander was the best interview he’d ever done, that the ones with Jackie Kennedy and the Princess were even better, and the ones with Mick Jagger and Harold Pinter even better than that. The programmes sold everywhere abroad, and there was even talk at the Network meetings of moving the series to seven-thirty on Thursday in an attempt to knock out ‘EastEnders’. Declan sweat shirts, mugs and posters were selling faster than bikinis in June and Schubert must have looked down from heaven and been surprised but delighted to see his Fifth Symphony galloping up the charts.

Once the first programme was over Declan was much less aggressive and uptight and even drank in the bar with the crew, but he was no less intransigent about wanting his own way. Cameron smouldered and bided her time. Tony was besotted with Declan at the moment, but, knowing the nature of the two men, Cameron realized it wouldn’t last.

Meanwhile, although the flood of resignations at Corinium had been arrested by Declan’s arrival, Simon Harris was getting nearer his nervous breakdown and the staff were muttering even more mutinously into their glasses of Sancerre at the Bar Sinister that Cameron was about to be put on the Board.

But, to stop Cameron getting smug, Tony, ever the bubble-pricker, finally invited the ravishing Sarah Stratton to lunch and arranged for James Vereker to interview her in the ‘Behind Every Famous Man’ series early in November. Cameron was livid and vented her rage on the rest of the staff.

The same week Sarah was due to be interviewed, Tony summoned Declan to his office.

‘How’s your cold?’ Declan asked Miss Madden as he walked through the outer office.

‘Much better,’ said Miss Madden, flushing. ‘How amazing of you to remember. Better hurry. Cameron’s in there already.’

Cameron was lounging menacingly by the window, wearing a black polo neck, black leather trousers and spiky high heels. Declan wondered if she walked all over Tony in bed in them. The room was full of cigar smoke. Tony was drinking a brandy, but didn’t offer Declan one.

‘Sit down. Congratulations to both of you,’ he said briskly. ‘I’ve just heard off the record that we got our highest local rating ever for your interview with the Princess.’

Declan sank into one of the low squashy sofas, which, with his long legs, were desperately uncomfortable unless one was lying down.

Tony leant back in his chair: ‘Cameron and I have decided it’s time you spread your wings, Declan.’

Declan looked wary.

‘We’d like you to interview Maurice Wooton this week.’

‘He’s not big enough,’ said Declan flatly. Lord Wooton was a high-profile Cotchester property developer but of little interest nationally. ‘And I’m already doing Graham Greene this week.’

‘That’s OK,’ said Cameron. ‘Do Lord Wooton as a special after the ten o’clock news on Friday night.’

‘Why can’t James do him?’

‘James is already doing Sarah Stratton in the Famous Man slot on “Cotswold Round-Up”. Besides, we want you.’

‘I’m only contracted to do one interview a week.’

‘Don’t worry,’ said Tony. ‘We’ll pay you extra. We just want you to get really involved in the station.’

‘I don’t have the time.’ It was so hot in Tony’s office that Declan could feel his shirt drenched in sweat.

‘That’s what researchers are for,’ said Cameron, as though she was explaining to a two-year-old. ‘Deirdre Kilpatrick’s been working on Maurice Wooton all week. She’s come up with some terrific stuff. After all,’ she added tauntingly, ‘a guy as great as Henry Moore wasn’t too proud to employ studio assistants.’

Like a dog struggling out of a weed-clogged pond, Declan heaved himself up from the squashy sofa. ‘I do my own research,’ he said coldly, and walked out.

Hooray, thought Cameron, it’s begun to work.

On Thursday morning Cameron rang Declan at home. It was his official day off. He’d stayed up until four in the morning reading Graham Greene. Inspired, he was determined to spend the next two days on his Yeats biography, and here was Cameron’s horrible rasp ordering him to come into a meeting tomorrow at eleven o’clock.

‘So we can kick some ideas around about the line you might take with Maurice Wooton.’

Declan hung up on her. When he hadn’t shown up by eleven-thirty the following morning, Cameron rang The Priory in a fury. She got Maud, who said she was sorry but Declan was in bed.

‘At this hour? Is he ill?’

‘Not at all,’ said Maud. ‘He’s reading.’

‘Put him on.’

Declan told Cameron to go and jump in the River Fleet and that he’d no intention of coming in for any meeting. Tony then rang Declan and ordered him to come in that evening and interview Maurice Wooton. Declan, having just received an eighty-thousand-pound tax bill, which he had no way of ever paying unless he went on working at Corinium, said he’d be in later, but wouldn’t submit questions beforehand.

He slid into Corinium around two o’clock, when he knew Cameron and Tony would still be at lunch, and went down to the newsroom to talk to Sebastian Burrows, the youngest, brightest and therefore most frustrated of the reporters.

‘Deirdre Kilpatrick’s been working like mad on your Maurice Wooton interview,’ said Seb.

‘Deirdre Kill-Programme,’ said Declan.

Seb grinned: ‘You can say that again. Maurice is emerging as a total sweetie.’

‘You got any dirt on him?’ asked Declan.

‘He’s one of Tony’s best friends, isn’t that enough?’

‘Not quite — anything concrete?’

Sebastian’s thin face lit up. ‘I’ve got enough to send him down for ten years, but I daren’t use it.’

‘Give it to me,’ said Declan. ‘I’m going out.’

On the same Friday, Rupert Campbell-Black, having spent all week in meetings with the FA and the Club Managers trying to thrash out some suitable compromise on football hooliganism, decided he felt like a pit pony who needed a day off, and went hunting with Basil Baddingham.

Scent was very bad, however. It rained all day and the foxes sensibly decided to stay in their earths. Having re-boxed their horses, Rupert and Bas got back to Rupert’s dark-blue Aston-Martin to find the windscreen covered with leaves like parking tickets. Removing their drenched red coats and hunting ties, and putting on jerseys, they drove home through the yellow gloom.

‘Who shall we do this evening?’ said Bas, who was feeling randy.

‘No one,’ sighed Rupert. ‘I’ve got my red box to go through, and I’ve got to look in at some fund-raising drinks party.’

‘Pity,’ said Bas slyly, ‘I was going to show you the most amazing girl.’

‘That’s different,’ said Rupert. ‘Where does she live?’

‘Penscombe Priory.’

Thinking Bas meant Maud, Rupert said, ‘Isn’t she a bit long in the tooth for you?’

‘No, I’m talking about the daughter,’ said Bas. ‘She’s absolutely stunning.’

Back at The Priory, Grace, the housekeeper, who was making ridiculously slow progress sorting out the attic, stumbled on a trunk of Maud’s old clothes. Maud, who had just finished her last P. D. James and was suffering from withdrawal symptoms, wandered upstairs and started trying them on. Now she was parading round in a black-and-red-striped mini which fell just below her groin and showed off her still beautiful legs.

‘I remember walking down Grafton Street in 1968 in this,’ she said, ‘and an American clapping his hands over his eyes, and screaming: “Oh my Gard, can they go any higher?” My hair was down like this.’ Maud pulled out the combs so it cascaded down her back. ‘I was only twenty-four.’

‘You don’t look a day more than that now. Amizing,’ said Grace.

‘Oh, I adored this dress too.’ Maud tugged a sapphire-blue mini with a pie-frill collar out of the trunk. ‘I wore it to Patrick’s christening. I wonder if I can still get into it.’

‘Fits you like a glove,’ said Grace, who was trying on a maxicoat. ‘Amizing.’

As Maud admired herself in an ancient full-length mirror propped against the rafters, she heard Gertrude barking. Not displeased with her appearance, she went downstairs, then paused halfway. Below her in the hall, she could see two heads: one very dark, the other gleaming blond. Her heart missed a beat.

‘Maud,’ yelled Bas, ‘are you in?’

‘I’m up here,’ said Maud with the light behind her.

Bas looked up. ‘Caitlin,’ he said. ‘I thought you’d gone back.’

‘It’s me.’ Maud came slowly down the stairs. ‘Grice and I were being silly trying on my old clothes.’

‘How old were you when you first wore that?’

‘About twenty-one.’

‘You look about sixteen today,’ said Bas, kissing her.

‘Flattery will get you an enormous drink. I assume that’s what you’ve come for. Grice,’ Maud yelled up the stairs, ‘can you come down and fix some drinks? I’ll go and change.’

‘Don’t,’ said Rupert. ‘I bet Declan fell in love with you in that dress. I’m quite safe,’ he went on, also kissing Maud. ‘Some bloody hunt saboteur sprayed me with Anti-Mate this afternoon.’

‘Where’s Declan?’ asked Bas, as they went into the kitchen.

‘Ordered in to do an extra programme,’ said Maud, getting a bottle of whisky out of the larder.

‘My evil brother got the screws on him already?’ asked Bas. ‘Have you got anything to eat? I’m absolutely starving.’

‘There’s some chocolate cake and a quiche in the larder,’ said Maud, splashing whisky into three glasses. ‘Have a look and see what you can find.’

Rupert prowled round the room. There was a huge scrubbed table in the centre of the room, with chairs down either side. Poetry and cookery books crammed the shelves in equal proportions. A rocking-horse towered over Gertrude’s basket in the corner. Aengus the cat snored on some newly ironed shirts by the Aga. On the walls were drawings of Maud in Juno and the Paycock, and a corkboard covered with recipes and photographs of animals, cut by Taggie out of newspapers. Apart from a television set on a chest of drawers, every other available surface seemed to be littered with letters, bills, colour swatches, photographs waiting to be stuck in, dog and cat worming tablets, biros that didn’t work, newspapers and magazines.

‘Nice kitchen,’ said Rupert.

‘It’s like the room described by Somerville and Ross when they were packing up before moving,’ said Maud. ‘Under everything, there’s something.’

Valerie Jones, who dropped in half an hour later, didn’t think it was a nice kitchen at all. She was shocked to find Maud showing at least six inches of bare thigh, and Rupert and Basil with their long-booted legs up on the table, all getting tanked up on Declan’s whisky. Rupert was eating bread and bramble jelly and reading the problem page in Jackie. Bas was finishing up the remains of a mackerel mousse with a spoon. Gertrude, eyeing the remains of the quiche and the large chocolate cake, was now sitting drooling on the table on a pile of unironed sheets, which would no doubt go straight back on the beds, thought Valerie with a shudder.

Valerie herself, natty in a ginger tweed suit and a deerstalker, said she had just been to a Distressed Gentlefolk’s Committee Meeting with Lady Baddingham, and, deciding to ‘straike while the iron was hot’, had looked in to see if Maud had any jumble for the Xmas Bazaar next month.

‘Having just moved, you must have lots of old junk to throw out.’

‘Only her husband,’ said Bas, starting on the quiche.

‘Hush,’ reproved Maud softly. ‘Funnily enough, I’ve just been trying on all my old clothes. This was the dress I wore at Patrick’s christening. The priest gathered up my skirt with the christening robes by mistake and all the congregation were treated to the sight of my red pants.’

Valerie didn’t want to hear about Maud’s pants. ‘Then you must have lots of jumble,’ she said.

‘I never throw clothes away,’ said Maud.

‘Well, I’ve brought you a brochure of our Autumn range,’ said Valerie, determined to turn the visit to some advantage.

‘Kind,’ said Maud, chucking the brochure into the débris on the Welsh dresser. ‘Have a drink.’

‘Ay’m driving. Have you got anything soft?’ said Valerie.

‘Not round here, with Maud wearing that dress,’ said Rupert, cutting himself a piece of chocolate cake.

‘I’ll have a tea then,’ said Valerie, ‘and I’d love a piece of that gâteau, and those bramble preserves look quite delicious.’

‘Taggie picked the blackberries down your valley; we ought to give you a pot,’ Maud said to Rupert, as she put the kettle on. She felt wildly happy.

At that moment Grace walked in, wearing Maud’s red and black mini.

‘This is Amizing Grice,’ said Maud.

‘Amizing,’ said Grace, gazing at Rupert in wonder. ‘I’m just off to that lecture on glass-blowing at the Women’s Institute, Maud,’ she went on. ‘See you later.’

‘I didn’t know there was a WI meeting tonight,’ said Valerie, perplexed.

‘Straight up to the pub,’ explained Maud, as the front door banged.

‘It’s not a very good idea to be on Christian name terms with one’s help,’ said Valerie reprovingly. ‘We don’t really do it in Gloucestershire, you know.’

‘’Bye, Grace! Have a good evening,’ yelled Rupert.

Valerie’s small mouth tightened. Watching Maud pouring boiling water over a teabag, she hoped the mug was clean.

‘This quiche is seriously good,’ said Bas. ‘And for Christ’s sake leave some of that chocolate cake, Rupert.’

‘Did Grace make it?’ enquired Valerie. Maybe Grace was more of a treasure than she had at first appeared.

‘Grace can’t cook a thing,’ said Maud. ‘Taggie made all this. She wants to break into catering and do people’s dinner parties.’

‘She’d better come and work at the Bar Sinister,’ said Bas. ‘Darling, I wondered where you’d got to.’ He swung his feet off the table and stood up as Taggie came in.

She was very pale, with her hair in a thick black plait down her back, and wearing one of Declan’s red shirts above long, long bare legs.

‘Hullo,’ she said in delight to Bas. Then, embarrassed that he aimed straight at her mouth, turned her head slightly so he ended up kissing her hair. At that moment, over his shoulder, she saw Rupert. She gave a gasp of horror and turned as red as her shirt.

To Valerie’s equal horror, Maud removed the teabag from Valerie’s tea with her fingers. Then she introduced Taggie to everyone.

Smiling at Valerie, but totally ignoring Rupert, Taggie took a tin of baked beans out of the fridge and started to eat them with a spoon.

‘I’m sure we’ve met before,’ said Rupert, puzzled. ‘You’re not a Young Conservative, are you?’ Then, suddenly he twigged and started to laugh. ‘I remember now. It was at a tennis party.’

Taggie blushed even deeper.

‘Brilliant quiche, stunning mousse, marvellous chocolate cake,’ said Bas with his mouth full.

‘Oh, it was for Daddy’s supper,’ began Taggie, distressed, then stopped herself. Sometimes she could murder her mother. She was about to go upstairs when Bas grabbed her hand and, sitting her down beside him, tried to persuade her to work for him at the Bar Sinister.

‘It’s really kind of you,’ mumbled Taggie, ‘but I worked in a restaurant for two years. I want to branch out on my own.’

‘You can come and cook my breakfast any day of the week,’ said Rupert. She looked so different from the angry child who’d screamed at him about his stubble. ‘You were quite right,’ he added to Basil.

Again Taggie ignored him.

‘It’s very good of Bas,’ said Maud with a slight edge to her voice. ‘Most girls would leap at a job like that. I always had to de-emphasize my career for Declan,’ she added fretfully.

Taggie, however, was totally thrown. She couldn’t take in what Bas was saying. She was only conscious of this horrible monster, who’d haunted her nightmares for weeks, whom she’d last seen oiled, brown-skinned, erect in every sense of the word and as totally unselfconscious of his nakedness as a Zulu chief, and who was now drinking her father’s whisky and laughing at her across the table. Out of sheer nervousness, she leapt up and turned on the television.

‘Pratt,’ yelled Rupert, as James Vereker appeared on the screen.

Over at Corinium Television Sarah Stratton sat in Hospitality going greener (perhaps that was why it was called a green room), and wishing she’d never agreed to go on James’s programme.

The appalling Deirdre Kill-Programme (as everyone called her now) had visited her at home earlier in the week and worked out lots of questions that James could ask Sarah to promote discussion and bring in James’s caring nature.

Paul, furious that Sarah had been asked on, and not him, went on and on about how her high profile wouldn’t help his career at the moment. He was also furious that she’d spent a fortune for the occasion on a new black mohair dress with daisies embroidered on the front and huge padded shoulders, which she was not sure suited her. Thank God Rupert was at some Tory fund-raising bash at the moment, and wouldn’t watch the programme. Earlier, James had paid a fleeting visit to Hospitality to say hullo, rather like a famous surgeon in an expensive hospital, popping in before he removes half your intestine.

Ushered into the studio during the commercial break, Sarah was now sitting on the famous pale-pink sofa beside him. Catching sight of herself on the monitor, she wished she hadn’t worn the mohair; it was much too hot and the padded shoulders made her look like an American footballer. On rushed the make-up girl to tone down her flushed face.

‘Collar up, James,’ said Wardrobe.

‘I did it deliberately, Tessa,’ said James. ‘Thought it looked more casual. Remember to look at me, not the camera, Sarah.’ She was desperately nervous, which didn’t help. Glancing round at the idiot board to find out what question he was supposed to ask her first, he saw chalked in large letters: ‘James Vereker can’t do his programme without having a bonk first’.

‘Turn it over,’ hissed James, as a burst of ‘Cotswold Round-Up’ theme music signified the end of the commercial break.

Sarah, who had also seen the idiot board, screamed with laughter, and it was thus that the viewers had their first glimpse of her.

‘Sarah Stratton,’ said James, reading from the turned-over board, ‘you’ve been married to Paul Stratton, our member for Cotchester for nearly nine months now. How do you see your role as the wife of an MP, Sarah?’

Sarah straightened her face: ‘To support my husband in every possible way,’ she said, gazing straight at the camera.

In the O’Haras’ kitchen, Rupert turned up the sound.

‘Isn’t that Lizzie Vereker’s husband?’ said Maud. ‘I like Lizzie.’

‘She’s lovely,’ said Rupert. ‘If she lost three stone, I’d marry her.’

‘James is hell,’ said Basil. ‘Put him in front of a camera, you can’t get him down with a gun.’

‘Some viewers may find the following scenes disturbing,’ said Rupert. ‘Sarah’s nervous. Look at the way her eyes are darting and she’s licking her lips. Looks bloody good, though.’

Whatever she thought to the contrary, Sarah looked stunning on camera. She was now saying how hard it was falling in love with a married man.

‘I put no pressure on Paul to leave his first wife,’ she said demurely.

‘Bollocks,’ howled Bas. ‘She carried a chisel round in her bag for years, trying to chip Paul off like a barnacle.’

‘But because he did eventually leave her for me,’ went on Sarah, ‘and he made the decision, I’m branded a scarlet woman.’

‘With some justification,’ said Rupert. ‘And her husband is as mean as the grave. It’s so hard to get a drink in his house, the PM ought to make him the Minister for Drought. Which is not something anyone could accuse you of, Maud darling,’ he added, as Maud splashed the last of the whisky into his glass.

Taggie, who was ironing sheets, was as perplexed as Rupert had been earlier. ‘I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere before,’ she muttered, then once again went absolutely scarlet as she realized that Sarah was the beautiful blonde who’d been playing nude tennis with Rupert.

‘She’s quite excellent at ball play,’ said Rupert, reading Taggie’s thoughts. ‘And you’re going to burn that sheet.’

Furiously, Taggie went on ironing. Fortunately a diversion was created with Valerie asking how Caitlin was getting on at Upland House.

‘It seems more like St Trinian’s than Enid Blyton,’ said Maud. ‘Caitlin says they all smoke like chimneys and have bottles of Malibu under the floorboards. But I had a nice half-term report from her house mistress, saying Caitlin was a dear girl who’d settled in well, but was too easily satisfied.’

‘Not something her future husband is going to grumble about,’ said Rupert, who was watching Taggie. He liked making her blush.

‘Caitlin’s like Taggie,’ said Maud. ‘Watches too much television.’

‘Sharon’s only allowed to watch occasionally at weekends,’ said Valerie smugly. ‘When I was young, my sister and I made our own amusements.’

‘So did I,’ agreed Rupert, ‘until Nanny told me it would make me go blind.’

Ignoring him, Valerie thought how much more attractive was James, with his charming boyish smile, than Rupert, who was always leading Freddie astray and making risqué remarks.

James, winding up Sarah’s interview, asked her if she had any plans for a career.

‘You must know — as a very famous man yourself,’ Sarah answered admiringly, ‘that wives of famous men have to take second place.’

‘It is possible to be famous and caring, Sarah,’ said James huskily.

‘Of course,’ said Sarah. ‘I’m just saying if you marry someone who’s been married before, you’re just that little bit more anxious to make the marriage work, to not put your own career first — to prove everyone wrong who said it wouldn’t last. So you just try harder.’

Taggie was shocked. How could Sarah say that, when she was busy having an affair with Rupert? It was only after a few minutes Taggie realized that Valerie was telling her all about the boutique.

‘You must pop in some time,’ said Valerie. ‘I know it’s difficult, dressing when you’re so tall, but I’m sure I could find something lovely for you.’

‘That’s really kind,’ said Taggie gratefully.

Rupert, watching Taggie, decided she really was very beautiful. It was as though someone had taken a fine black pen and drawn lines along her lashes and round the irises of those amazing silver-grey eyes. Her nose was too large, but the curve of the soft pink mouth emphasized by the very short upper lip was adorable, and he’d like to see all that lustrous black hair spilling over a pillow. She must be nearly five foot ten, he reckoned, and most of it legs, and she had the gentle, apologetic clumsiness of an Irish wolfhound, who can’t help knocking off teacups with its tail.

Noticing Rupert observing Taggie with such lazy, almost lustful affection, Maud felt a stab of jealousy.

‘Go and get another bottle of whisky from the larder, Tag,’ she said sharply, ‘and clear away all these plates.’

‘But it’s Daddy’s last bottle,’ protested Taggie.

Furious, Maud turned on her. ‘As if your father would deny a guest a drink in his own house.’

Trembling, Taggie switched off the iron, fetched the bottle from the larder and dumped it on the table with a crash. Gertrude was whining by the back door.

‘I’ll take you out, darling,’ said Taggie, pulling on a pair of black gumboots.

‘Do wrap up warm,’ said Valerie. ‘And if you want to get on in the country, you should wear green wellies,’ she added kindly.

‘If you really want to get on in the country,’ drawled Rupert, ‘you should get that dog’s tail straightened.’

It was the final straw. Giving him a filthy look, Taggie went out, slamming the back door behind her.

‘What’s up with her?’ asked Bas.

‘In love,’ said Maud, unscrewing the bottle of whisky. ‘Some friend of Patrick’s who hardly knows she exists. You know how moody teenagers are.’

Outside it was deliciously mild. The wind was shepherding parties of orange leaves across the lawn and sighing in the wood. The stream after the recent rain was hurtling down the garden. Above, russet clouds like stretched cotton wool didn’t quite cover the sky. Every so often through a chink glittered a brilliant star. Still shaking, Taggie tramped down the rose walk that so often in the past must have been paced by nuns, like her, praying for deliverance.

‘Oh, please God, get that horrible horrible man out of the house.’

She couldn’t stop thinking of Rupert’s lean oiled body, under the dark-blue jersey and mud-spattered white breeches. It was obvious her mother was wildly attracted to him; she’d seen the rapt expression, the flushed cheeks, the wild drinking so often before. And Rupert was leading her mother on, making those beastly salacious (there, at last she’d used her word for the day) remarks, and drinking all her father’s drink, and eating all his supper.

Despite the mildness of the night, she shivered as she contemplated the rows ahead if Maud started one of her things. She, Taggie, would get dragged in to provide alibis. Well, she wouldn’t cover up for her mother this time, she wouldn’t, she wouldn’t.

Her father didn’t want hassle at the moment; he needed keeping calm. Turning towards the house, its great battlements and turrets confronting the shadowy garden with a timeless strength, she felt slightly comforted. Surely the house would look after them.

After ‘Cotswold Round-Up’, James and Sarah, both feeling rather elated, were soon cut down to size.

‘What did you think of the interview, Cameron?’ asked James.

‘I’d rather watch slugs copulate,’ snapped Cameron.

Sarah in turn rang Paul. ‘Was I OK?’ she asked eagerly.

‘You were very clear,’ said Paul. ‘Have you seen Tony?’

‘Yes,’ said Sarah sulkily.

‘Did he say anything about putting me on the Board?’

‘No,’ said Sarah.

‘Come and have a drink,’ said James, as she slammed down the receiver.

‘Yes please,’ said Sarah.

Soon after Taggie took Gertrude out, Valerie went home. Maud, Basil and Rupert carried on carousing. Going into the kitchen much later, Taggie was relieved to find only Bas and Maud.

‘Daddy’s interviewing Lord Wooton in a few minutes,’ she said.

‘My husband,’ Maud told Basil, ‘always becomes the person he’s interviewing. When he did Margaret Thatcher he spent the week wearing power suits, talking about “circum-starnces”, and calling me Denis in bed.’

Noticing Taggie’s look of disapproval, Basil patted the chair beside him and said the interview should be interesting as Tony was pulling out every stop to get Maurice Wooton to join the Corinium Board.

Rupert returned from the downstairs loo, waving the New Statesman. ‘Don’t tell me Declan reads this,’ he said in outrage.

Maud nodded. ‘And actually believes it.’

‘But he can’t be a socialist when he earns such a vast salary.’

‘I know,’ sighed Maud. ‘He’s utterly inconsistent.’

‘I expect he’d like to give some of it away,’ protested Taggie angrily, ‘if everyone didn’t spend it all.’

‘If you can’t keep a civil tongue in your head,’ snapped Maud, ‘you’d better go to bed.’ She’d never known Taggie answer back like this.

Over in Studio 3 Declan always went into himself before a programme, but he nodded when Tony came on to the floor, reeking of brandy and waving a huge cigar. Tony was in an excellent mood; two of Corinium’s news stories had been used with a by-line by ITN; he’d just had an excellent dinner with Maurice Wooton, and now he’d got his way about Declan doing this interview, it was the thin end of the wedge. Declan couldn’t refuse to do other specials now — Freddie Jones next week, perhaps.

‘Maurice is just having a pee. He’s been made-up,’ he said to Declan. ‘Give him a nice easy ride. He may have a reputation as a hatchet man, but he runs a huge empire, he’s devoted to his grandchildren and does an enormous amount for charity. He’s also delightful if you get him on to opera or his cats.’

‘Just show his caring face, Declan,’ said Cameron from the control room. ‘And Camera 2, can you try to avoid Lord Wooton’s bald patch?’

Tonight’s vision mixer, sitting in front of her row of lit-up buttons, massaged her neck and opened a Kit Kat. It had been a long day. Daysee Butler fingered her stopwatch. In his earpiece Declan could hear her talking about her boyfriend: ‘He’s cooking supper for me tonight, cod in cheese sauce out of a packet. He’s got such charisma.’

Lord Wooton was now being ushered in by the floor manager. He had plainly had too much to drink with Tony, but Make-up had toned him down with green foundation, and blacked out his greying sideboards. His revoltingly sensual face with the big red pouting lower lip was just like one of Tony’s orchids, thought Declan, as he rose to his feet to welcome him.

‘Very warm night,’ said Lord Wooton.

‘Very,’ said Declan.

The introductory package, which Cameron had written, was full of nice stills and clips of Lord Wooton romping with cats, visiting children in hospital, playing cricket with grandsons, watching the first bricks of various buildings being laid, and collecting an OBE at the Palace. He was plainly delighted.

‘Don’t know where they dug up all those old photographs,’ he said untruthfully.

‘Ten seconds to end of opening package, Declan,’ said Daysee from the control room.

Surreptitiously Declan removed his earpiece and put it in his pocket. His first question was sycophancy itself.

‘As the leading property developer in Gloucestershire, probably the whole of the West Country, you must be proud of your achievement.’

Maurice Wooton put his hands together happily.

‘One is only as good as the people who work for one, Declan,’ he said smoothly. ‘You must know that. I have first-rate people, hand-picked of course.’

‘Pity you don’t take better care of them,’ said Declan amiably.

He then proceeded to carve Maurice Wooton up, starting with one of his managers who’d been sacked while he was in hospital recovering from open-heart surgery, then proceeding to another who’d been given no compensation when he broke his back falling off some scaffolding.

Tony rang Cameron in the control box.

‘What the fuck’s going on?’ he roared. ‘Tell him to ask Maurice about his fucking grandchildren.’

‘I can’t get through to him,’ yelled Cameron. ‘He’s taken out his earpiece.’

‘Well, tell the floor manager to tell him to put it fucking back in again.’

Ignoring all Maurice Wooton’s spluttering denials, Declan moved on to illegal takeovers, shady deals, and then produced a just-published secret Town Hall report, which claimed that, despite a huge grant from the Council, his firm had built a block of flats cheap to faulty specifications.

Temporarily speechless now, Maurice Wooton was mouthing like a great purple bull frog.

‘Another even more unattractive aspect of your business career,’ went on Declan relentlessly, ‘was the way you bribed three Labour councillors in the housing department at Cotchester Town Hall to give you the contract for the tower block development on Bankside.’

‘This is preposterous,’ exploded Maurice Wooton.

‘You deny it?’

‘Of course I do.’

Out of the corner of his eye, Declan could see the floor manager making frantic signals for him to replace his earpiece.

Ignoring them, he said: ‘Why, then, do Councillor Bridie, Councillor Yallop, and Councillor Rogers have five thousand pounds entered on their bank statements, paid in by you from a Swiss bank account? Here are the photostats of the bank statements, the cheques, and your letters to them.’ Declan brandished them under Maurice Wooton’s hairy expanding crimson nostrils, then threw them down on the table. ‘Thank God there are some Town Hall officials left with integrity.’

Cameron was so insane with rage, she stubbed her cigarette out by mistake on the hand of the vision mixer, who, screaming, pressed the wrong button, which ran in telecine of a lot of very fat schoolgirls doing an eightsome reel.

‘Go back to one, take fucking one,’ screamed Cameron.

The schoolgirls disappeared in mid-dance to be replaced by Maurice Wooton, standing up and shouting at Declan that the whole thing was a trumped-up pack of lies, and he was going home to ring his lawyers. Next moment he’d stormed out, leaving the studio in uproar. Declan sat turned to stone in his chair.

To their great disappointment, Corinium’s viewers were then treated to soothing music and a film showing close-ups of Cotchester’s wild flowers, so they missed Tony roaring into the studio, so angry he could hardly get the words out.

‘I’ve spent five years courting that man,’ he spluttered. ‘He was just about to join the Board and put fifteen million into our satellite project.’

Declan rose to his feet, towering over Tony.

‘You should have given me time to research him properly,’ he said coldly. ‘I might have found something nice to ask him, but I doubt it.’ And with that, he walked out of the studio.

Back at The Priory, Rupert, wiping his eyes, turned to Maud: ‘That was the best television programme I’ve seen for years and free schoolgirls thrown in, too. After Tony Baddingham, Maurice Wooton is without doubt the biggest shit in England, and your husband is the first socialist I’ve ever really admired. The Corinium switchboard must be absolutely jammed, or “preserved”, as dear Valerie would say, with congratulatory calls.’

At that moment the telephone rang. Rupert picked it up.

‘Brilliant programme,’ said a voice. ‘It’s the Western Daily Press. Is Declan in?’

‘What did I tell you?’ said Rupert, handing the receiver to Maud. ‘Don’t look so cross,’ he added to Taggie. ‘I’ll nip home in a minute and get your father another bottle.’

After Rupert had returned with the whisky, and he and Bas had left, Taggie watched her mother go to the hall mirror, fluff up her hair on top and smooth the dress over her hips, before sitting down at the drawing-room piano. She must be very drunk, thought Taggie, judging by the number of wrong notes.

What on earth could she give her father for supper, she wondered wearily, as she started to load the washing-up machine. Perhaps she ought to accept Bas’s offer of a job, and get out and meet people. She couldn’t eat her heart out for Ralphie for ever. She heard the front door bang. Going into the hall, she saw Declan gazing into the drawing-room at Maud playing Schumann in the dress she’d worn when they were first married, living blissfully on no money in Ireland. Her hair almost touched the piano stool.

Putting his hands on her shoulder, he said, ‘Why did you put that on?’

‘Grice and I were tidying away some of my old clothes.’

‘You look beautiful.’

Schumann halted abruptly, as Declan’s hands slid under the pie-frill collar. ‘Let’s go to bed.’

As Maud walked upstairs in front of him, his hands slid up between her bare thighs:

‘Christ, you’re wet.’

Maud smiled sleepily. ‘I’ve been thinking all evening about your coming home.’

14

Tony would have sacked any other member of his staff for savaging Maurice Wooton like that. As it was he spent the weekend poring over Declan’s contract with the lawyers. Unfortunately there was no clause about not presenting his victims with unpalatable truths. So in the end Tony merely wrote Declan a sharp note accusing him of misconduct and warning him that if he stepped out of line a second and third time he’d be out on his ear.

Tony’s guns were further spiked by the Government immediately ordering an investigation into Cotchester Town Hall’s Housing policy, and by the very favourable press coverage of the programme and Corinium in particular.

Corinium show their teeth at last,’ wrote the Western Daily Press.

Corinium prove they’re no longer a Tory poodle,’ wrote the Guardian.

Hardest for Tony to take was an enthusiastic telephone call from the IBA: ‘Splendid stuff, Tony. No one can accuse you of political bias now.’

The following Wednesday there was a Corinium Board meeting. Tony’s temper was not improved when one of the non-executive directors, old Lady Evesham, Vice Chancellor of the local university, arrived on her bicycle in the pouring rain, just as Tony rolled up in the Rolls. Why did the stupid old bag always arrive an hour early and go nosing round the office, talking to staff and stirring up trouble? Hoping she’d go away, Tony cringed behind the Financial Times. Next minute she was tapping on the window. Grudgingly, Tony lowered it a few inches.

‘Congratulations,’ said Lady Evesham, thrusting her wrinkled, whiskery muzzle towards him. ‘That interview with Maurice Wooton’s the sort of thing we should be doing all the time. Routing out injustice. Man’s a rogue. I shall seek out Declan and tell him so in person.’

Tony, however, had other things on his mind. In the same telephone call praising Declan’s interview, the IBA had complained that Corinium still wasn’t giving sufficient attention to the Southampton end of the area.

‘Charles Fairburn has just finished a programme on Isaac Watts,’ Tony had countered swiftly.

‘Who’s he?’ asked the IBA’s Head of Television.

‘Famous philosopher, poet, teacher.’ Tony hastily consulted the advance programme notes. ‘Watts Square in Southampton is named after him. Wrote “Oh God, our help in ages past”.’

‘That’s not much help in ages present,’ said the IBA. ‘People in Southampton will hardly regard one hour on the Sunday Godslot as good enough. We’re talking about news coverage. There was nothing for example about HMS Princess Michael of Kent catching fire at the docks on Friday. The BBC devoted seven minutes to the story.’

‘I’ll look into it,’ said Tony.

As a result of this conversation, Tony summoned his two most valuable executive directors, who usually worked in London but who had come down for the board meeting, into his office beforehand. Known as ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Georgie Baines and Ginger Johnson looked after sales and finance respectively.

Gorgeous Georgie, who had big brown eyes and even bigger expenses, was up to every single fiddle and lived in the big advertising agencies’ pockets, which he lined as effectively as his own. He also made vast sums of money for Corinium. Ginger Johnson, the Beast, was a thug, with carroty hair and a beetroot face, like a particularly unappetizing winter salad. As Financial Director, he saw that the vast sums netted by Georgie were administered as remuneratively as possible. All the most important business on the agenda was always done by the three men before the board meeting.

Going into Tony’s office that Wednesday, Georgie and Ginger found him looking at a map of the area.

‘If we’re going to hang on to the franchise,’ said Tony, ‘we’ve got to be properly represented.’

‘So?’ said Georgie, who’d heard this all before.

‘We’re going to build a studio here.’ Tony jabbed the red dot of Southampton with his finger.

‘Cost a fortune,’ said Ginger, aghast. ‘Even a small studio’ll set us back five million. We don’t need a studio there.’

‘Nor do we want to make any more programmes,’ said Georgie. ‘Programmes cost too much money.’

‘The IBA will love the idea,’ said Tony happily. ‘More programmes, more employment, better coverage. We don’t have to actually build the fucking thing. But if we wave Board sanction and some provisional architect’s plans under the IBA’s nose, it’ll keep them quiet until the franchise is in the bag.’

‘I’m sure the Board won’t wear it, when we’re slashing budgets everywhere else,’ said Ginger.

‘Leave it to me,’ said Tony.

Tony was at his best and his most urbane at board meetings. On his right and left sat Georgie looking beautiful, and Ginger looking ugly. Beyond them sat Simon Harris, who never spoke, and Miss Madden taking the minutes. Beyond these two, down the long elm table, sat members of the Great and the Good, including an MP for Stroud, a winner at Badminton, a famous composer who lived in Oxford, an educationalist from Stratford, a bishop, a famous footballer, and several industrialists who lived in the area, and, of course, Lady Evesham.

As the meeting got under way, everyone expressed great satisfaction at the kudos Declan’s programmes had given Corinium. Resolutions were then passed, budget cuts agreed. Lady Evesham then held up the meeting for at least twenty minutes. First she handed round marmite sandwiches. Having risen at six to write her biography of Emily Pankhurst, she was very hungry. Then she raised a complaint from ‘an unnamed young woman researcher’ — actually Deirdre Kilpatrick — who’d been denied the right to breastfeed in the newsroom.

‘Oh Christ,’ thought Tony, glaring at Simon Harris.

Typically, it was Simon who had given Deirdre the go-ahead to bring her baby in, because he thought bonding was all important. Deirdre had then proceeded to whip out great grey tits all over the building. As the coup de grâce, Baby Kilpatrick had regurgitated milk into one of the newsroom word processors just as Charles Fairburn was showing the Bishop of Salisbury round the building. Charles had promptly fainted and Tony had banished the baby.

Now Tony cleared his throat: ‘I told the girl not to bring her baby in any more,’ he said to Lady Evesham. ‘It was quite old enough to go on the bottle, and she’s got a perfectly good nanny at home. It distracted my reporters in the newsroom.’

‘Surely they should be above that kind of distraction?’ said Lady Evesham frostily. ‘This is the twentieth century.’

‘If one girl is allowed to bring her baby in, they all will.’

The famous footballer, who was given to ribaldry, then said it was always the ugly old feminist boots who wanted to breastfeed in public. If the pretty ones wanted to do it, none of the blokes would mind. He received a stony glare from Lady Evesham.

Tony, who thoroughly agreed with the famous footballer, but had to pretend to look disapproving, thought it was high time Lady Evesham resigned, and Cameron, who wouldn’t stand any truck with breastfeeders, took her place on the Board.

Saying he’d look into it, Tony moved briskly on to the subject of cutting costs. He then proceeded to bore the meeting rigid with details of expenditure on stationery and calculators, and whether it was really necessary to supply the sales’ staff with portable computers. Everyone glazed as he compared the merits of endless different models.

It was two minutes to one. Hearing the chink of bottles in the director’s dining-room next door, everyone perked up. A delicious smell of boeuf Wellington drifted under the door.

‘Well, that’s all for the day,’ said Tony. Then, as everyone dived for their bags and briefcases, he added, ‘Except for one item that may not be on everyone’s agenda: the proposed new studio in Southampton. The question of our not giving sufficient attention to the Southampton end of the territory has been raised before.’

‘Hear, hear,’ said the footballer, who’d once played for the Saints.

‘You’ve all agreed the idea of a new studio in principle,’ went on Tony.

The directors scratched their heads. . Had they? They were instantly distracted by another waft of boeuf Wellington.

‘The building of the studios will create a lot of employment in the area,’ said Tony briskly. ‘We’ve got a costing which can be easily accommodated within the budget. Ginger?’ He cocked an eyebrow at Ginger Johnson.

‘Easily,’ said Ginger.

‘And you’re for it, Georgie?’

‘Very much so,’ said Georgie, who was lost in admiration.

‘Simon?’

Simon Harris had been so unnerved by the breastfeeding incident that he nodded even before Tony got his name out.

‘Oh look, it’s snowing,’ said the footballer, distracting people even further.

‘Everyone else in favour?’ Tony smiled down the table.

Lady Evesham’s was the only dissenting hand.

‘Good,’ said Tony, gathering up his papers. ‘Come and have a drink everyone and meet Declan O’Hara.’

Any further thoughts about studios evaporated as they surged next door.

There was great excitement at Corinium the following Wednesday, when Dame Nellie Finegold, a friend of Lady Evesham, and one of the last surviving suffragettes, who’d agreed to come on Declan’s programme that evening, dropped dead from a heart attack.

Even greater excitement was caused when the Prime Minister, who was in Gloucestershire opening a new hospital and later dining with the Cotchester Regiment, graciously agreed to step into Dame Nellie’s shoes to balance Declan’s extremely favourable interview with the Leader of the Opposition the previous week. The Prime Minister, appreciating the value of preaching to eighteen million viewers, thought she could handle Declan. Her one condition, which Tony leapt at, was that Declan should submit questions first, and make an undertaking not to depart from them.

‘This is our chance to nail him,’ Tony told Cameron gleefully. ‘If he submits questions today, we can insist he does the same for all future interviews. Then we can manipulate him to our own advantage. You’ve seen how lethal he can be with Maurice; just think what havoc he could cause in an election year.’

Declan looked tired and tense as he walked into Tony’s office waving a sheaf of the Prime Minister’s cuttings. Tipping back his chair, Tony stretched his legs and gazed consideringly at him for a moment.

‘This is a big day for you, Declan.’

Declan grunted. ‘I’m very much looking foward to shaking her by — ‘he paused — ‘the neck.’

‘Now, now,’ said Tony, ‘let’s keep it all sweetness and light.’

‘The PM’s only coming on the programme if she knows exactly what you’re going to ask her, and no funny business,’ said Cameron.

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ snapped Declan. ‘Why should she be treated differently to anyone else?’

‘Because she’s the PM, dumbass, and the IBA is ultimately answerable to her, so she’s got to be kept sweet.’

‘Not by me she hasn’t.’

‘Don’t be so fucking pigheaded,’ screeched Cameron.

An almighty row followed, ending in Declan flatly refusing to do the interview and walking out.

Cameron and Tony exchanged glances of joy and horror — what the hell were they going to do? The Prime Minister was already in the area. She was due at the studios at seven-forty to go on air at eight. The network had been trailing Declan’s dramatic change of guest since lunchtime.

‘James will have to do it,’ said Tony. ‘But we won’t announce the change of plan until just before transmission, or we’ll lose the audience.’

In his office, having just re-written his links for ‘Cotswold Round-Up’, James switched off the wireless because he was fed up with hearing Declan’s signature tune. Turning to his fan mail, he found a letter from Sarah Stratton thanking him for his standard letter thanking her for coming on the programme. Nice bold handwriting, thought James; he was sure those huge loops to the Ls meant something. During their drink at the bar, he’d decided she was very attractive, and wondered by what ruse he could see her again. But a second later, as Cameron burst into his office, his thoughts were only for one woman: the Prime Minister.

‘Deirdre’s working on your questions at the moment,’ said Cameron. ‘We’ve got to rush them over to the PM at Gloucester so she can look at them while she’s changing. We should be able to let you have them about five. If you’ve got any questions to add, let Deirdre know. Here’s a brief of what the PM’s been up to in the last two months, but you’re pretty well briefed anyway, aren’t you?’

James blushed. It was the first compliment Cameron had ever paid him.

‘I thought Declan was doing this interview.’

‘Declan’s sick,’ said Cameron.

‘Seriously?’ said James, trying to look suitably caring.

‘Not nearly seriously enough,’ said Cameron viciously.

As soon as she’d gone, thanking God he’d had his hair streaked last week, James rang Lizzie: ‘I’ll be late. I’ve got to interview the PM.’

‘My God! Ask her when she last got laid.’

‘Don’t be silly, this is for real. I’m sending a driver over for my blue suit, and could you put in my jade-green silk shirt, and the sapphire-blue tie. And could you phone the Strattons and ask them to record the programme.’ He wanted Sarah to witness his hour of glory. ‘I don’t trust our machine one hundred per cent.’

You mean you don’t trust me to remember, thought Lizzie.

Cameron, popping in to the studio later on her way to the control room, was nearly knocked sideways by Aramis.

‘She’s arrived. Tony’ll bring her through in a minute. Are you nervous?’

‘Not yet,’ said James, re-plumping cushions on the pastel-pink sofa.

‘Nice change from Declan,’ said Cameron. ‘Good luck.’

Perhaps he’d maligned Cameron, thought James, as he combed his hair for the hundredth time and removed the shine on his nose with Nouveau Beige creme puff. He used to use Gay Whisper, but had decided the name had rather unfortunate connotations.

The Prime Minister, like most women, had a weakness for charming, handsome men. Seeing her appearing through the black curtain, radiant in dark-blue taffeta, being guided over the cables and uneven surfaces by Tony, James leapt to his feet. For a second Diorella fought with Aramis. Aramis won easily.

‘Welcome to Cotchester, Prime Minister. I can’t tell you how privileged I feel to meet you,’ said James, giving her the benefit of his beautiful aquamarine eyes, now subtly enhanced by the jade-green shirt and the sapphire-blue tie. Then, when she offered him her hand, he bowed his streaked head and kissed it reverently.

‘Silly cunt,’ muttered the Senior Cameraman.

‘Come and sit down,’ said James.

Down came the famous bottom on the pastel-pink sofa.

‘I’ll leave you in good hands, Prime Minister,’ said Tony.

‘Indeed, Lord Baddingham,’ said the PM in her low voice.

The interview was pure Barbara Cartland. Aware no difficult questions would be forthcoming, the PM was at her most relaxed and charming, and unbent to James as she’d never done before on television.

‘Prepared only to see the steely side of your character, Prime Minister, some people make the ridiculous mistake of thinking you don’t care about the unemployed or the old and poverty-stricken.’

‘Mr Vereker — ‘the Prime Minister’s voice dropped an octave — ‘if only you could realize the sleepless nights we spend worrying about hypothermia, particularly with another winter coming on.’

‘How many more times is the stupid asshole going to use the word “caring”,’ snarled Cameron to Tony, who’d stayed with her in the Control Room.

‘Hush, she’s really unbuttoning,’ purred Tony.

During the commercial break, the PM became positively skittish.

‘They’ll be into heavy petting in a minute,’ said Cameron as James leant forward in sycophantic ecstasy.

At the end of the second half the Prime Minister even shed tears as she talked of her worries as a mother.

‘But you are a mother to all of us,’ said James, handing her his Aramis-scented handkerchief.

‘Pass me the motion discomfort bag,’ groaned Cameron.

‘It’s good,’ said Tony. ‘Should win her a lot of votes.’

‘Ten seconds to out, James,’ said Cameron, flicking on the key switch. ‘Close the programme.’

‘Thank you, Prime Minister, for showing us your caring face,’ said James, ‘and please come back to Cotchester again soon.’

As the credits went up, they could be seen laughing and joking together.

‘I’m going to frow up,’ said the Senior Cameraman.

‘Come back, Declan,’ muttered the Floor Manager, ‘nothing needed to be forgiven.’

‘I would love a tape of that programme, Mr Vereker,’ said the Prime Minister.

Outside, a second Corinium camera crew filmed her departure, lethargically cheered by a hand-picked crowd of Corinium staff.

‘I hope we get overtime for this,’ said Charles Fairburn, waving a Union Jack, as a jubilant James, Cameron and Tony accompanied the PM down the steps. Settled in her car, ready to depart to a late dinner with the Cotchester Regiment, the PM wound down her window.

‘I hope Mr O’Hara feels better soon,’ she said earnestly. ‘This flu virus can be very pulling down.’

‘About time the mighty Mr O’Hara was pulled down from his seat,’ said Cameron, as soon as she had driven off.

‘What a caring lady,’ sighed James.

He woke next morning to find himself temporarily famous. Both the BBC and ITN picked up the interview, which was fulsomely praised the next day by the Tory press. Only the Mirror and the Guardian grumbled that James had let the PM get away with murder.

By Friday the story had got out that Declan hadn’t been ill at all, but had simply refused to do the interview with the Prime Minister.

The Rows Begin Again,’ said a huge headline in the Sun.

At the BBC and around the network, people smirked knowingly. They’d known the honeymoon wouldn’t last.

15

Declan was having a row about money with Maud in the kitchen when the telephone rang.

‘Yes,’ he snapped.

‘This is Valerie Jones,’ said an ultra-refined, vaguely familiar voice.

‘Yes,’ said Declan, who was no wiser.

‘We met at Lady Monica’s buffet luncheon. I was wearing a cricket jumper.’

‘Oh yes,’ Declan twigged — the extremely silly mid-on.

‘Fred-Fred and I were wondering if you could come and dayne on December 7th, that’s tomorrow week, just a few close friends. Tony and Monica Baddingham. . ’

Declan had heard enough. He was sorry, he said, but they had a previous engagement.

Maud was absolutely furious. ‘We never go out,’ she stormed. ‘How dare you refuse for me? I might have wanted to go.’

‘It was that horrendous dwarf we met at the Baddinghams; bound to have been hell.’

‘There might have been other amusing people there. How can we ever meet anyone, if you turn down everything?’

Maud’s sulk lasted all day. Declan was trying to get to grips with the volatile, volcanic personality of John McEnroe, who was coming on the programme on Wednesday. Maud’s black mood permeated the whole house and totally sabotaged his concentration. At dusk, unable to bear it any longer, he went downstairs and apologized.

‘I’m sorry; it was selfish of me. I must work, but you go on your own. I hate it, but I’ve got to get used to it. Are you lonely?’ he went on as Maud clung to him. ‘D’you want to go back to London?’

She shook her head violently. ‘I just miss my friends. I was wondering if we could give a tiny party for Patrick’s birthday on New Year’s Eve.’

Declan’s heart sank. ‘Not really, not this Christmas. We simply can’t afford it.’

‘It’s his twenty-first,’ pleaded Maud. ‘He’s always had such lousy birthdays, having them so near Christmas. Just the tiniest party, half a dozen couples. Taggie can do the food; it’ll be good training for her. She’s not getting any response from those cards.’

Declan was about to say they still hadn’t paid for the Fulham Farewell when the telephone rang again. Taggie picked it up in the kitchen. Five minutes later she rushed, pink-faced with excitement, into the drawing-room.

‘The most p-p-prodigious —’ her word for the day — ‘thing has happened. Valerie Jones got one of my cards and she’s asked me to do her dinner party next Friday. Isn’t it prodigious?’

‘It is, indeed,’ said Declan, disentangling himself from Maud and hugging her.

‘She asked us,’ said Maud fretfully. ‘What are you going to cook for her that we won’t get?’

‘I’ve got to go over tomorrow and discuss menus,’ said Taggie.

Maud seized her chance. ‘Daddy’s agreed we can have a little party for Patrick on New Year’s Eve,’ said Maud, ignoring Declan’s look of horror, ‘so you can start thinking up some nice food for that.’

Taggie’s already euphoric face lit up even further: ‘What a prodigious idea.’

Upstairs in her turret bedroom, she clutched herself, pressing her boiling face against one of the thin, cool ecclesiastical windows. If Patrick was having a party, how could Patrick’s best friend not be there? She was going to see Ralphie again.

Cooking for Valerie’s dinner party was Taggie’s first big job, but her nerves were nothing to Valerie’s. Valerie was livid with Freddie for asking Rupert, who was coming down to Gloucestershire for a constituency meeting and to present the cup at the Cotchester — Bristol football Derby. Originally he was supposed to be bringing some French actress, but she’d got stuck on location in Scotland. So Valerie’d had to find a spare woman at the last moment. She settled for Cameron Cook who had just won an American award for a documentary about arranged marriages which she’d produced last Spring. Having talked to her briefly at Declan’s first programme, Valerie had no idea she was Tony’s mistress.

And now Valerie wouldn’t stop flapping round the kitchen tasting and criticizing everything Taggie was making — ‘A soupçon more cayenne in the cucumber sauce, Agatha —’ or fretting whether they should have cheese before pudding, or who should sit next to whom.

‘It says,’ she announced, poring over the etiquette book, ‘that the most important man should sit on my right.’

‘That’s me,’ said Freddie, roaring with laughter.

‘Don’t be silly, Fred-Fred,’ snapped Valerie, ‘and don’t pick.’

‘That fish pâté’s champion,’ said Freddie, who’d only been allowed a small salad at lunch.

‘Are you going to be all day with that dessert, Agatha?’ said Valerie, beadily looking at the huge ice cream and meringue castle, around which Taggie was curling whipped cream to simulate pounding waves. ‘The place is a fraightful mess.’

‘I promise I’ll clear up in time. Everything’s done but this.’

People were due at eight to eight-thirty to dine at nine. The pheasants, simmered with cranberries and ginger, had to go in at six forty-five.

‘You’ve still got the menus to write out, one for each end of the table,’ said Valerie. ‘It would be naice to have them in French.’

Taggie went pale. She couldn’t even spell them properly in English; she’d always had trouble with pheasant. She started to shake.

‘I’m going to check the rest of the house,’ said Valerie.

The lounge looked beautiful. She’d got florists in to provide two beautiful pink arrangements. The dining-room was also a symphony in pink, with a centrepiece of roses. Valerie adored pink; it was so feminine and went so well with her mauve velvet evening gown with the flowing skirt and the trumpet sleeves. She was glad they weren’t having soup — Freddie drank it so noisily. She’d worked out where everyone was going to sit. Now, standing at the end of the table, Valerie practised her commands:

‘Bring in the appetizer, please, Agatha. Take away the entrée, Agatha. Bring in the dessert.’

Then there was the tricky bit, catching all the women’s eyes. She glanced at alternate chairs. ‘Shall we go upstairs?’

What happened if that awful Rupert read the message wrong and followed her upstairs too? He was quite capable. For safety, she’d better say: ‘Shall we ladies go upstairs?’

‘We’ve got a right one ’ere,’ said Reg, the hired butler, who was already well stuck into the Mouton Cadet. ‘Yakking away to herself in the dining-room.’

‘What am I to do about this menu?’ said Taggie helplessly.

‘I’ll help you. I’m doing French for O-levels,’ said Sharon, the daughter of the house, who’d inherited her father’s bulk and his sweet nature. ‘I’m sure the French for pheasant is payson.

Mrs Makepiece, Valerie’s daily, who’d come to help with the washing up, was just raking the shagpile in the lounge, flicking away non-existent dust when Valerie rushed in and realigned the Tatlers and Harpers, leaving the Gloucester and Avon Life specially open at a picture of herself at the NSPCC fashion show in Cheltenham. It was seven o’clock. She’d better take a bath and change.

In the kitchen, Taggie finished the pudding and put the pheasants into the oven. She must remember to add chopped dill to the prawn sauce. She wished Valerie hadn’t wanted things quite so elaborate. Everything was going swimmingly until Valerie came down dressed, and insisted Taggie put on a maid’s black dress and a white apron which came miles above her black-stockinged knees, and then made her put her hair up. Even Taggie baulked at the white maid’s cap.

‘I expect you to answer the door,’ said Valerie, ‘supervise everything in the kitchen and wait at table.’

‘You’re in the army now,’ sung Reg, the hired butler, now on his third bottle.

‘Will you come and watch “Dynasty” with me?’ Sharon asked Taggie.

‘You’re not watching rubbish like that, Sharon. You’re to hand round nibbles and make yourself pleasant,’ snapped Valerie, nearly jumping out of her skin, as music blared out from the speakers all over the house.

‘It’s Daddy’s signature tune,’ said Taggie in delight.

‘Turn that horrible din down, Fred-Fred,’ screamed Valerie.

‘Monica loves classical music,’ said Freddie.

‘Oh well, leave it on, then.’

The doorbell rang. ‘Go and answer it, Agatha. Put the men’s coats in the downstairs toilet, and the ladies’ coats upstairs in the master bedroom, and then direct them towards the lounge, where Mr Jones and I will receive them.’

It was Paul and Sarah Stratton. For a second Taggie and Sarah stared at each other, remembering their previous encounter on Rupert’s tennis court. Then, with a wicked little smile, Sarah took off her red velvet cloak. Her tan had gone, but a black taffeta dress, off-the-shoulders and with a bustle, showed off her beautiful, opulent figure. Never having seen Paul before, Taggie thought he looked dreadfully old and careworn to be married to such a glowing over-excited young girl.

The next arrival was Cameron Cook, who Taggie recognized from Declan’s description and tried not to hate. Declan had omitted to say she was so beautiful, and wonderfully dressed this evening in a dark-red smoking jacket and black tie with a wing collar, her hair sleeked back to show off her smooth white forehead and thick black brows. She looked straight through Taggie, and, having no coat to take, stalked past her into the drawing-room.

She was shortly followed by Tony and Monica. Tony’d been away at a conference, and for once, because he was cleaning up Corinium’s act, hadn’t taken Cameron with him. Now he was unflatteringly unpleased to see her. The big smile he switched on like a light bulb switched off as though there’d been a mega powercut. He always felt twitchy when Cameron and Monica were in the same room, and, even worse, Cameron, it seemed, had been invited for Rupert, his old rival. And there was Declan’s bloody signature tune blaring out. He was still extremely off Declan, but his hopes of having a good bitch about him this evening had been foiled by the presence of Declan’s stupid daughter.

‘This music is wonderful,’ exclaimed Monica.

‘Come and see it in action,’ said Freddie, bearing her off to witness the electronic wizardry in his study.

‘Have you got any Wagner?’ said Monica.

Next moment, to Valerie’s horror. Siegfried’s funeral march pounded deafeningly through the house.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’ hissed Tony to Cameron.

‘I was asked,’ said Cameron coldly.

‘We must be very careful.’

‘Of course,’ said Cameron, holding her glass out to Reg for an instant refill. ‘We mustn’t jeopardize the franchise.’

Valerie was telling Paul about the house: ‘We replaced those dreary old mullioned windows with picture windows.’

‘How on earth did you get planning permission?’ said Paul in horror. ‘I thought this was a listed building.’

‘Grade 1,’ said Valerie smugly. ‘Fred-Fred has friends in high places.’

‘Please God, don’t let the sauce curdle,’ prayed Taggie in the kitchen as she added egg yolks and vinegar.

‘Door, love,’ said Reg, giving her a pinch on the bottom. ‘You look much the sexiest of the lot.’

It was Lizzie and James, who’d plainly had a row because of Lizzie’s catastrophic navigation. James loved making an entrance, but not arriving half an hour after his boss, who was looking bootfaced and standing as far away from Cameron as possible talking to Paul Stratton. James immediately gravitated towards Sarah and thought how nice it was to see Cameron out of her depth socially, and for once rather insecure.

Lizzie, who looked awful (she’d worked too late on her novel again and had not had time to wash her hair), had brought some bantams’ eggs for Freddie and Valerie, and was thrilled to see Taggie: ‘I know it’ll all be delicious; don’t worry.’

Valerie looked at her watch yet again: quarter past nine and no Rupert.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Freddie, filling up everyone’s glasses. ‘Nice to relax on a Friday.’

‘Freddie’s equipment is quite staggering,’ said Monica returning from the study.

Sarah caught Lizzie’s eye and giggled.

Mashing the potatoes in the kitchen, Taggie was going frantic. Everything would be ruined unless they ate soon.

‘Off you go,’ said Reg, as the doorbell rang.

Crimson with rage and embarrassment, bending her legs to make her maid’s dress look longer, Taggie answered the door. Grinning, Rupert walked into the hall. ‘Called any good fire engines lately?’

‘Would you like to take off your coat?’ said Taggie stiffly.

‘I’d much rather take off your dress,’ said Rupert. ‘You look like the object of all red-blooded men’s fantasies. I’m late. I’d better go and make my peace.’

Valerie hid her rage less well than Taggie: ‘Rupert, where have you been?’

Cameron choked on her champagne. Having never actually met Rupert and having been poisoned by Tony’s almost pathological jealousy, she’d expected him to just be another loud-mouthed, upper-class English shit. In the flesh he was glorious, and much more American-looking than English.

Having apologized to Valerie, Rupert turned to kiss Monica.

‘You haven’t met Cavendish Cook, have you, Rupert?’ said Monica.

‘How do you do, sir,’ said Rupert, admiring Cameron’s smoking jacket.

‘Cavendish works for Tony,’ went on Monica. ‘I gather you won another prize last week, Cavendish; jolly good show. I meant to watch the programme last summer, but unfortunately they were doing Meistersinger on BBC 2 the same night, and I was videoing that as well as watching it.’

James was in ecstasy — Cavendish Cook! There were some advantages in Monica’s addiction to BBC 2 after all.

Seeing Sharon sneaking through the hall towards the kitchen, Valerie gave an eldritch screech.

‘Sharon, Sharon, come in here and give Auntie Monica some nibbles. She keeps sloping off to watch “Dynasty”,’ she added to Monica. ‘I won’t have my kids watching soaps.’

‘Oh I love “Dynasty”,’ said Monica, smiling at Sharon. ‘Do tell me whether Blake and Crystal have made it up.’

Rupert walked over to James, who was still talking to Sarah.

‘That was a bloody good interview you did with the PM,’ he said. ‘And she thought you were marvellous. Asked me for your address so she could write to you.’

James, who’d always hated Rupert, melted faster than a snowball in the microwave. Then Rupert turned to Sarah, kissing her white shoulder.

‘Evening, my darling, that’s an incredibly sexy dress, I don’t know why you bother to wear any clothes at all. Bloody cold outside. I think it’s going to snow.’

‘I can never get home if it snows,’ grumbled James. ‘I’m thinking of installing a put-you-up in my office.’

Seeing Tony was still talking to Paul, Rupert said: ‘Tony Baddingham’s got a put-you-down in his office.’

Cameron laughed.

James, who was not going to be egged on to bitching about Tony in front of Cameron, said, ‘I always feel Tony is much maligned.’

‘I entirely agree,’ said Rupert, draining his whisky, ‘but not nearly enough.’

Sitting next to Rupert at dinner, Sarah found herself talking gibberish. The awful thing about adultery, she thought, was that one had to remember in public that one hadn’t heard things that one’s lover had told one in private.

‘I saw your “Behind Every Famous Man” interview with James,’ said Rupert, as he unfolded his napkin. ‘Very good. Were you nervous?’

‘Desperately,’ said Sarah, blushing.

As they had discussed the whole thing and how ghastly James had been at length in bed yesterday afternoon, and because, under the table, Rupert’s hand was already creeping up between the slit in her skirt, Sarah found it impossible not to giggle.

‘I think I’ve found you a horse,’ went on Rupert, giving her his blank, blue-eyed stare. Then he solemnly proceeded to describe it down to its last fetlock. As he’d also given her the same details yesterday, she found it even more difficult to keep a straight face, particularly as Paul, pretending to listen to Valerie, had ears on elastic trying to hear what they were saying.

Fortunately, distraction was provided by Taggie bringing round the fish mousse. Not remembering her left from her right, having served Monica, she moved backwards to serve James.

‘Clockwise,’ screeched Valerie.

There was another awful moment for Taggie when she saw Rupert and Lizzie having hysterics over the menu.

‘Gingered French peasant, cravat sauce and desert château,’ translated Rupert.

‘Our hostess’s French is slightly Stratford atte Bowe,’ whispered Lizzie.

‘What’s that?’ said Valerie sharply from the other end of the table.

For a second Lizzie caught Taggie’s anguished eye, and instantly identified the author of the menu: ‘Just saying how good your French is,’ she said to Valerie.

Valerie nodded smugly: ‘Crusty bread anyone?’ she cried waving the basket. ‘I will not have white bread in this house.’

‘I love it,’ said Freddie wistfully.

‘So do I,’ said Rupert. ‘I’ll send you a loaf for Christmas.’

Sitting opposite Tony, trying desperately not to catch his eye, Cameron longed to be able to sparkle and scintillate, but how could she with Paul Stratton on one side, watching his wife like a warder and James on the other talking about himself?

‘How’s your series on “Caring for the Elderly” getting on?’ she asked.

James brightened. ‘We think we’ve found a presenter at last — a Mrs Didbody. She’s a seventy-five-year-old coloured lady, a widow with a daughter of fifty. Which makes her a single parent,’ added James triumphantly.

‘A real franchise grabber,’ said Cameron, who was watching Rupert. He was easily the most attractive man she’d seen since she came to England, probably ever. It was a combination of elegance, deadpan arrogance, and a total inability to resist stirring things up. He was plainly having it off with Sarah Stratton.

‘What exactly are electronics?’ Monica was saying to Freddie in her piercing voice. ‘What exactly d’you do?’

Cameron saw a look of fury on Tony’s face, but Freddie seemed delighted by her interest.

‘I make everythink really: videos, televisions, synthesizers, compact disks, floppy disks, silicon chips.’

‘I always muddle up silicon with cellulite,’ said Monica.

‘With my computers,’ went on Freddie proudly, ‘scientists on the ground can place satellites in orbit. All satellites now carry my computers on board.’

‘Good heavens,’ said Monica. She could see now how useful Freddie’d be to Tony.

Tony was not enjoying himself. It was one of life’s ironies, he thought, that at dinners like this Monica always sat next to all the brilliant achieving men, who usually didn’t interest her at all (although she did seem to be having fun with Freddie), and he got stuck with their unachieving wives. Lizzie Vereker on his left looked a complete mess.

‘That was delicious,’ she said taking another piece of bread to wipe up the last vestiges of prawn sauce. ‘Did you make it?’ she asked Valerie slyly.

‘Yes,’ said Valerie, as Taggie was out of the room.

‘How’s Archie?’ Lizzie asked Tony.

‘Doing Business Studies for A-levels,’ said Tony with a grin, ‘which he thinks allows him to tell me exactly where I’m going wrong in running Corinium.’

The only time he’s nice, thought Lizzie, is when he talks about his children.

‘Sharon is doing The Dream for her O-levels,’ said Valerie, ringing a bell.

Taggie, who was chopping parsley for the courgettes, threw down the knife and ran into the dining-room, tugging down her horribly short dress.

‘Can you clear away the appetizer, Agatha,’ said Valerie.

Returning to the kitchen with the plates, Taggie found Reg the butler, very drunk now, carving the pheasants. She wished he wouldn’t cut quite such huge slices, there might not be enough to go round.

‘Tender as a woman’s kiss,’ said Reg, helping himself to a slice. ‘You’re another Mrs Beeton, Agatha.’

‘Oh, it does look yummy. Can I have a bit?’ said fat Sharon.

‘Have some later,’ said Taggie, as she poured the sauce over, and scattered parsley over the courgettes. ‘I must take it in.’

‘I’ll take round the courgettes,’ said Sharon, who wanted to gaze at Rupert.

Taggie took the pheasant round the right way this time. She noticed Rupert still had his hand inside Sarah’s slit skirt, the revolting man, but had to remove it to help himself to pheasant. Was she imagining it or was he deliberately rubbing his black elbow against her breast as he did so? When she took round the potatoes, she stood as far away as possible, arching over him like a street light. As she moved down the other side of the table, his wicked dissipated blue eyes seemed to follow her, making her even more hot and bothered. Reg was taking round the Mouton Cadet now, and had reached Valerie.

‘We had Sharon in 1972,’ she was telling Paul, ‘and we were married in, er. .’

‘Watch it,’ said Reg, giving her a great nudge.

Rupert grinned broadly. Sarah and Lizzie giggled.

Valerie, knowing one must behave with dignity at all times, ignored the innuendo. ‘That will be all, Reginald and Agatha. I’ll ring if anyone wants second helpings.’

‘We’re televising Midnight Mass at Cotchester Cathedral this year,’ said Tony as he put his knife and fork together. ‘I’m reading the first lesson. Are you reading the second?’ he asked Paul, knowing he wasn’t.

‘No,’ said Paul, looking very put out. ‘We’ll be away.’

‘I wonder who is reading it then,’ said Tony.

‘I am,’ said Rupert.

‘You said you were going skiing,’ said an unguarded Sarah. ‘I mean,’ she added, looking thoroughly flustered, ‘you said you’d be away at Christmas.’

There was an awkward pause.

‘This pheasant is wonderful,’ said Lizzie.

‘I’ll give you the recipe if you like,’ said Valerie. ‘Don’t pick your bones, Fred-Fred,’ she snapped, then stopped hastily as she saw that Rupert was picking his.

All the same, it was going wonderfully well, reflected Valerie later, as Taggie cleared away the cheese board. Everyone was talking like mad and seemed to enjoy the novelty of the men moving two places on. It was a good thing Rupert was sitting next to Cameron now, who’d seemed rather out of it earlier. In five minutes, Taggie would bring on the moated castle.

Turning to Cameron, Rupert thought how different she was to Sarah, as lean and hungry as Sarah was replete and voluptuous.

‘I’m dying to have a pee,’ he murmured, ‘just for an excuse to prowl round and see what a ghastly cock-up our hostess has made of a once-ravishing house. I used to come to children’s parties here.’

‘I can’t imagine you as a kid.’

‘I always cheated at doctors and nurses.’

Across the table, he noticed Sarah deliberately flirting with James, to make him jealous perhaps or to put Paul off the scent.

To Valerie’s disapproval Cameron got out a cigarette. Picking up a pink candle, Rupert lit it for her.

‘You hunt with the same pack as Tony?’ she asked.

‘Sometimes,’ said Rupert softly. ‘Sometimes after the same quarry.’

Looking round at his suddenly predatory, unsmiling face, she felt a quivering between her legs. Christ, she wanted him.

‘D’you want a lift home?’ he said.

‘No.’ She could have wept. ‘I brought my own car.’

‘The Lotus?’ said Rupert.

She nodded.

‘Nice Corinium perk,’ said Rupert, instantly returning to his former flippant mood. ‘I see James has finally got himself a Porsche. I’ll have to get rid of mine.’

‘I don’t know much about horses,’ murmured Cameron, frantic to hold his attention, ‘except my boss’s wife looks like one.’

‘You won’t oust her by bitching,’ said Rupert. Then, aware that Tony had suddenly stopped talking to Sarah and they were both listening, he said, ‘There are three things you need in a horse: balance, quality and courage. Same as a woman, really.’

‘I’d add intelligence,’ said Cameron.

‘I wouldn’t.’

‘Don’t you like achieving women?’

‘I don’t like ballbreakers.’

There was a chorus of oohs and aahs as Taggie came in with the moated ice cream castle. It was the last lap. Once she’d served this, and cleared away, she could relax.

‘What d’you do at Corinium?’ Rupert asked Cameron, as he idly watched Taggie moving round the table. She was bright pink in the face, her tongue clenched between her teeth in her efforts to hold the pudding steady. Any make-up had sweated off. Her dark hair was fighting the pins that held it up. But nothing could disguise the length of leg, or the long dark eyelashes, or the voluptuous swell of her breasts. She was going anti-clockwise again, but most people were too plastered to notice.

‘I produce Declan,’ said Cameron. ‘Why don’t you come on the programme?’

‘What?’ said Rupert, dragging his thoughts back from Taggie.

‘Come on the programme. I’m sure you and Declan would strike sparks off each other.’

‘I don’t want to,’ said Rupert flatly. ‘I don’t need that kind of wank, and you’d never hear any chat above the rattle of skeletons tumbling out of cupboards.’

Having just served Valerie, Taggie was moving slowly round towards him.

‘How d’you get on with Declan?’ he asked Cameron wickedly.

‘Utterly obnoxious,’ said Cameron. ‘He really pisses me off.’

Rupert watched Taggie to see if she’d rise.

‘Very pretty,’ he said, examining the pudding. ‘Feel I ought to get planning permission before I dig into this. Thanks, angel,’ he added, helping himself to a piece of battlement and a dollop of cream.

Ignoring him, Taggie moved round to his other side to serve Cameron.

‘How on earth does Declan’s wife put up with him?’ asked Cameron.

‘You’d better ask Taggie,’ said Rupert. ‘Maud’s her mother.’

Cameron paled visibly. Noticing Taggie for the first time, she tried to remember what ghastly things she’d said about Declan.

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.’

In embarrassment she helped herself to too much pudding. The whole thing swayed. Rupert could smell Taggie’s body, could feel how hot, and nervous and trembling she was. Her skirt was so short. Almost without thinking, he put a leisurely hand between her thighs.

The next moment Taggie gave a shriek and dropped the very considerable remains of the pudding all over Cameron’s seven-hundred-pound smoking jacket and black satin trousers.

‘You stupid bitch,’ screamed Cameron, forgetting herself. ‘What the fuck d’you think you’re doing?’

In tears Taggie fled to the kitchen.

Remembering one must behave with dignity at all times, Valerie swept an almost hysterical Cameron upstairs.

Lizzie turned on Rupert: ‘You bastard,’ she yelled. ‘Don’t you realize this was her first job? She’s been trying to break into catering for months. She cooked like an angel and you had to fuck it up.’

‘With looks like that,’ said Rupert, retrieving pieces of broken plate from the floor, ‘I wouldn’t have thought a career was that important.’

‘Don’t be so fucking insensitive. Didn’t you know poor darling Taggie’s dyslexic? Can’t you imagine how ghastly it is being the only unbright one in such a brilliant family?’

‘Oh Christ,’ said Rupert, truly appalled. ‘I simply didn’t know. It was entirely my fault, Freddie. I couldn’t resist goosing your cook, but really you shouldn’t have dressed her in such sexy clothes. I’d better go and apologize.’

‘Leave her bloody alone,’ said Lizzie, rushing out to the kitchen to comfort a sobbing Taggie, who was being ineffectually patted by a swaying Reg.

‘Go and get a cloth and a dustpan and brush, and clear up the mess,’ Lizzie told him, ‘and give everyone another drink.’

‘There there, duck.’ She hugged Taggie.

‘I’m so sorry. I wanted everything to be perfect for Mrs Jones,’ sobbed Taggie.

‘You mustn’t worry. It was the most marvellous food anyone’s had in years.’ Lizzie pulled off a piece of kitchen roll to dry Taggie’s eyes. ‘Rupert’s a bastard. He just can’t resist a beautiful girl.’

‘Cameron is changing into one of my ge-owns,’ said Valerie, sweeping in.

‘I’m so sorry, Mrs Jones,’ said Taggie in a choked voice.

‘I was just telling her how brilliantly she cooked,’ said Lizzie.

Valerie was livid. She’d been shown up as not doing the cooking at all.

‘Pull yourself together, Agatha,’ she said sharply. ‘Go and collect the rest of the plates, and see if Lord Baddingham and Miss Cook would like some fresh fruit, as they didn’t get any dessert.’

‘Cameron got her just dessert,’ giggled Lizzie.

‘I can’t go back in there,’ said Taggie aghast.

‘You will,’ said Valerie, ‘if you want to work for me again.’

In the dining-room James was furious with Lizzie for making such a fuss over Declan’s idiot daughter, and Sarah was furious with Rupert for so openly groping Taggie. She’d tried to be laid back about her affair with him, but now all she could feel was a red-hot lava of jealousy pouring over her.

Tony, on the other hand, was delighted by the turn of events. ‘Child’s clearly over-emotional and unbalanced like her father,’ he kept saying.

‘Bloody good cook,’ said Freddie.

And when Taggie, very tear-stained and head hanging, brought in a bowl of peaches and grapes, Monica leaned out and squeezed her hand.

‘Delicious dinner, my dear. I’ve got a girl’s lunch next week. Perhaps you’d like to help me out with that? Nothing elaborate, very cosy. I’ll ring you tomorrow.’

Gulping gratefully, Taggie said she’d love to.

Attention was then taken off her by the return of Cameron, wearing one of Valerie’s black ge-owns. It was perfectly frightful with a bow on the bum, and much too tight.

‘I prefer you as a bloke,’ said Rupert, wiping a blob of cream off her chair.

‘I’m desperately sorry,’ mumbled Taggie, as she passed Cameron, ‘I’ll pay for it.’

‘You couldn’t begin to,’ hissed Cameron.

‘Don’t be a bitch,’ said Rupert sharply. Putting a hand on Taggie’s arm, he said, ‘I’m really sorry, angel, it was all my fault.’

Taggie didn’t say anything, but seemed to shrink away.

James sidled up to Valerie.

‘One of my programmes is on in a minute. Would anyone mind if I slipped upstairs and watched it?’

‘Of course,’ said Valerie. ‘In fact I think, ladies, we’ll all go upstairs.’

Cameron got her own back by flatly refusing to go and staying to drink port with the men. Little good it did her. Tony got Freddie in a corner and persuaded him to have lunch immediately after Christmas to discuss his joining the Corinium Board, and, leaving Cameron with the frightful Paul, Rupert went off to the kitchen. Here he found Taggie loading the washing-up machine and making coffee.

‘Go away!’ she sobbed. ‘You’re the most m-m-m-malefic man I’ve ever met.’

‘’ere, ’ere,’ groaned Reg from underneath the kitchen table.

16

The following Monday Declan stormed into Cameron’s office without knocking. ‘You were at Valerie Jones’s dinner party.’

‘Right,’ said Cameron coolly. Inside she quailed, wondering if Taggie had told Declan how she’d screamed and sworn at her, and how earlier she’d bitched about Declan to Rupert.

‘I gather Taggie tipped the pudding over you. I’m sorry,’ said Declan. ‘If you can’t get the marks out, I’ll be happy to refund you.’

‘It was no big deal,’ said Cameron, absolutely weak with relief. ‘I took them along to the cleaners on Saturday, they’ll be just fine.’

‘Then we’ll pick up your cleaning bill.’

‘Rupert can bloody well do that.’

Declan’s face hardened. ‘The bastard — poor little Tag. She was distraught.’

‘She did really well,’ protested Cameron, feeling she could afford to be generous. ‘The food was terrific, and Monica asked her to do a lunch for her.’

‘I know. Monica rang on Saturday. That cheered Taggie up.’

‘It was all Rupert’s fault,’ said Cameron, deciding to put the boot in.

‘Wait till I get my hands on the bastard.’

‘Why don’t I ask him on to your programme?’ said Cameron idly. ‘That’d be a much more subtle way of burying him.’

Declan paused in his prowling and thought for a minute. It was violently against all his principles to ask someone deliberately on to the programme in order to do a hatchet job.

‘He really screwed her up,’ insisted Cameron, who wanted an excuse to ring Rupert.

‘All right,’ said Declan.

Even Tony was temporarily roused out of his anti-Declan mood. ‘Bloody good idea. If Declan does a Maurice Wooton on Rupert, I’ll double his salary.’

Cameron rang Rupert. ‘I’m just checking out on your availability over the next few months.’

‘You should have come home with me on Friday,’ said Rupert.

Because he was horrendously busy and not given to introspection and would much rather spend any spare second in Gloucestershire on constituency work, or with his children or his horses, or in bed with Sarah Stratton, Rupert then told Cameron he had no intention of going on Declan’s programme.

Cameron played her trump card. ‘I’ll tell Declan you’re too chicken.’

That nettled Rupert: ‘Don’t be silly. All right, I’ll think about it.’

And with that Cameron had to be content.

As Christmas approached Declan grew more depressed. He was totally disillusioned with Tony. He felt like a damsel in distress, who, having been rescued from the BBC by St George, had promptly been put on the game. Not a day passed without some loaded request to open Monica’s Christmas Bazaar for the Distressed Gentlefolk, or draw the raffle at the NSPCC Ball (tickets seventy-five pounds each), or take part in Corinium’s Pantomime to Help the Aged, or turn on the lights in Cotchester. Declan refused them all, which increased Tony’s animosity and enabled James Vereker to step caringly into his shoes. The implication was the same: if you bothered to make use of our excellent research team, you could pull your weight as a member of the Corinium team.

Sapped by endless rows. Declan was aware his programme was losing its edge. He was still very high in the ratings, but he knew people were beginning to turn on in the hope he’d be better this week.

Desperate for some kind of intellectual satisfaction, he was getting up at five every day to spend three or four hours on his Yeats biography, but was too drained to make any real progress. He was also grimly aware that he wasn’t paying enough attention to Maud. After a long bout of lethargy, excited about Caitlin and Patrick coming home for Christmas, she was having one of her spates of frantic energy, which invariably involved spending money. She came to the office Christmas party and charmed absolutely everyone.

Patrick arrived the next day, walking through the door slightly drunk, with four suitcases of washing.

‘Is this the Priory laundry?’

‘Why did you come by taxi?’ asked Maud, flinging her arms round his neck.

‘Because I wrote off the Golf yesterday.’

At that moment Caitlin rang from school.

‘Patrick’s home,’ said Maud in ecstasy.

‘Well he can come and collect me in the Golf, the Mini’s too shaming.’

Christmas Eve saw scenes of frantic revelry at Corinium. The whole building thrummed with lust. Seb Burrows from the newsroom scaled the front of the building when drunk, and placed Charles Fairburn’s Russian hat on one of the red horns of the Corinium ram. Another joker put rainbow condoms on the horns and tail of the bronze Corinium ram in the board room, just before Tony ushered in the local representative from the IBA for a Christmas drink. Secretaries with tinsel in their hair ran shrieking down the passage blowing squeakers. Just as James Vereker passed the board room door, carrying a pile of Christmas presents from caring fans out to his car, four shrieking secretaries converged on him and unzipped his flies. His trousers dropped, to reveal seasonal boxer shorts covered with Santas, just as Tony was ushering the IBA man out. Tony was absolutely livid, but not so livid as Cameron, who’d opted to work over Christmas for want of anything better to do, when she discovered Tony had dispatched Miss Madden to choose Christmas presents both for her and Monica.

‘I bought two diamond bracelets,’ whispered Miss Madden conspiratorially. ‘I thought you might like to choose first.’

‘I’ll take the bigger one,’ said Cameron grimly.

James was even more annoyed to find that Declan had ten times more Christmas cards than he had, and that the Christmas tree in Reception completely obscured James’s framed photograph. Declan’s photograph had been deliberately left unhidden for all to admire.

Despite being horribly broke, Declan sold a first edition of Trollope and gave everyone who worked on his programme, including Cameron, a Christmas pudding and a pep pill for Christmas. He also took them out to a splendid lunch at The Dog and Trumpet outside Cotchester, whose manager subsequently barred anyone from Corinium Television from ever crossing the threshold again.

As the Senior Cameraman pointed out, ‘You don’t need directions to go to one of Corinium’s Christmas parties — just follow the blue flashing lights.’

Afterwards they all conga-ed down Cotchester High Street back to the office, where Declan found Charles Fairburn, who was meant to be organizing the live transmission of Midnight Mass from Cotchester Cathedral that evening, drinking Cointreau and doing his expenses.

Russian hat £100, wrote Charles, dinner with Dean and Chapter £80. Dinner with Chapter £100. ‘The trouble with you, Declan,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘is that you’re not creative enough in your expenses.’

In the newsroom the Corinium weather man leant out of the window at sunset, just to check that the forecast he was about to give on air of a very fine evening was correct. Next moment he received a bucket of cold water over his newly washed hair.

‘It’s raining, you berk,’ shouted a voice from above.

Declan took a box of chocolates up to Miss Madden, who’d always been nice to him. After she’d thanked him profusely, she confided that her nephew, who was a chorister, had been chosen to sing a solo at Midnight Mass.

‘My heart felt like bursting with pride, and I wanted to cry at the same time,’ she said.

Cotchester by midnight, with the golden houses and the great cathedral floodlit, was at its most beautiful. The huge blue spruce just inside the cathedral gates, which was normally a glorious sight festooned with fairy lights at Christmas, was sadly bare this year, because the conservationists, headed by Simon Harris, had claimed the lights were harmful to it.

The church which was lit by candles, white fairy lights on the Christmas tree and television lights, was absolutely packed, with people hoping both to appear on television and to catch a glimpse of Declan O’Hara.

Tony read the first lesson and stumbled twice, to his entire staffs delight. Rupert read the second in his flat drawl, and hardly a girl in the congregation, except Taggie, didn’t long to have him in her stocking the following morning.

‘Please God, if you think it’s right, give me Ralphie,’ prayed Taggie.

Caitlin, taking communion, couldn’t stop thinking about AIDS. But she knew one had to swallow three pints of saliva before one caught it. As she clumped down the aisle in her new black suede brothel-creepers and her wildly fashionable da-glo cat-sick yellow socks, she could have sworn Rupert was looking at her. In the long wait while everyone else took communion, Patrick, also wearing wildly fashionable da-glo cat-sick yellow socks, held out a cracker and Caitlin pulled it with a loud bang.

‘I wonder if Aengus and Gertrude knelt down at midnight to honour the birth of Christ,’ said Patrick, as they drove home. Far from honouring anyone’s birth, sulking at being left behind, Aengus had knocked off and smashed several balls from the Christmas tree and Gertrude had opened three presents from underneath and also chewed the label off a small parcel for Taggie. Inside was the most beautiful silver pendant inlaid with amethysts on a silver chain. She gasped as she slowly read the note:

‘Darling Taggie, I’m sorry I’ve been such a sod. Have a lovely Christmas. See you on New Year’s Eve. All Love R.’

‘Oh it’s beautiful,’ she said with a sob, and fled upstairs, clutching herself in ecstasy.

Outside, the stars and the new moon seemed to be shining just for her. Ralphie had remembered after all, and in seven days she’d see him again.

17

By New Year’s Eve the Christmas decorations at The Priory were sagging, the evergreens had brewer’s droop, and Wandering Aengus, having smashed every coloured ball on the Christmas tree, had taken up crash-landing in the Christmas cards.

Outside, a force five gale, Hurricane Fiona, as Patrick had called her, was rampaging up the valley, rattling the windows, and howling down the chimneys. On the lawn a huge pink-and-white-striped marquee, heated by gas burners, wrestled with its moorings.

‘Perhaps we could enter it for the Americas Cup,’ said Caitlin.

‘We can line all the drunks round the bottom to hold it down,’ said Patrick, taking another slug of Moët.

‘You’ll be one of them if you don’t stop knocking back that stuff,’ said Caitlin reprovingly.

‘It’s my birthday. Everyone is entitled to behave appallingly on their birthday. Oh, I’ve got the key-hee-hee of the door, never been twenty-one before.’ He was extremely happy because, unknown to his father, his mother had given him a new Golf for his birthday.

As Maud had gone off to the hairdressers and to pick up a new dress that was being altered, Patrick and Caitlin carried on doing the seating plan she had started. Taggie had tried to write names on some of the cards, but was in such a state of excitement about Ralphie’s arrival that her spelling had gone totally to pot. Worried about the marquee coming down, she had gone off to ring the firm who’d put it up. Her arms ached from mashing the potato for a dozen enormous shepherds’ pies. She seemed to have put crosses in a million sprouts and peeled a billion grapes for the fruit salad. The garlic bread lay like a pile of silver slugs in its aluminium foil. The turkey soup only needed heating up. The kedgeree for breakfast was in four huge dishes on top of the deep freeze, with cucumber, prawns and hard-boiled eggs, ready chopped to add at the last moment. Patrick’s birthday cake, in the shape of a shamrock, rested in the fridge.

An extension lead still had to be found for the disco, a bulb was needed for the outside light, and Caitlin still hadn’t written out large cards to show people where the loos were and where to hang their coats.

But things were gradually getting under control. Taggie had never felt so tired in her life. She had cooked herself into the ground, but she kept telling herself that if she got through everything and didn’t grumble, God would reward her with Ralphie.

Back in the marquee, Caitlin was hastily rewriting new name cards for people Taggie had seriously misspelt.

‘Monknicker Baddingham,’ she giggled. ‘Do let’s leave that one. Put Monknicker on Daddy’s right.’

‘I’ll put Joanna Lumley on his left. He needs some fun,’ said Patrick, ‘although, as it’s my birthday, I ought to have her next to me.’

‘Look,’ screeched Caitlin. ‘Utterly bloody Mummy’s put Rupert Campbell-Black next to her. I’m bloody sitting next to him.’

Removing the card from Maud’s right, she bore it off and placed it reverently beside hers, three tables away and behind a huge flower arrangement, so her mother couldn’t spy.

‘In fact —’ she scribbled Rupert’s name on to a second card — ‘I’m going to put him on both sides of me so there’s no slip up.’

Looking at his place, Patrick noted that he was sitting next to Lavinia, his current girlfriend, and someone called Sarah Stratton.

‘Oh, I’ll swap her,’ said Caitlin, seizing Sarah’s card. ‘She’s ancient — at least twenty-six.’

‘I was rather excited by the sound of her,’ said Patrick. ‘Mum said she was very beautiful and voluptuous, with a rich crumbling husband. My only answer is to marry a rich wife. I wish Pa would cut me out of his will. If I inherit all his debts, I’m finished.’

‘Oh well, I’ll swap Sarah back again,’ said Caitlin. ‘I’ve put Tag next to Ralphie.’

Patrick shook his head: ‘I wouldn’t. He and Georgina Harrison have been inseparable all term. He’s bringing her tonight.’

‘Well, why did he send Tag that amethyst pendant then, and apologize for being such a sod?’

‘Sounds most unlikely. Last week he couldn’t afford to buy his mother a box of handkerchiefs for Christmas, and he still owes me fifty pounds. Are you sure it was Ralphie?’

‘Quite sure, the two-timing shit.’

‘Shut up, she’s coming.’

‘I got through to the tent man; he’s coming over. He says they’re going all round Gloucester double-checking their erections,’ said Taggie with a giggle, then turned pale as the doorbell rang.

But it was only two young pink and white Old Etonians who were doing the disco, and Maud back from the hairdressers, with her hair set in a mass of snaky curls.

‘It looks lovely, Mummy,’ said Taggie.

‘It looks gross,’ muttered Caitlin.

The telephone rang. It was Bas Baddingham.

‘Darling Maud, may I bring my new new lady?’

‘Of course,’ said Maud. ‘More the merrier. Damn,’ she added as she put down the telephone, ‘another really attractive spare man paired up. Who the hell’s going to dance with Cameron Cook?’

‘You haven’t asked her?’ said Taggie in horror, thinking of the wrecked smoking jacket. ‘Daddy can’t stand her.’

‘How many d’you reckon are coming?’ said Patrick, giving a glass of Moët to each of the pink and white Etonians, who were both staring at Taggie.

‘About two to three hundred,’ said Maud airily.

‘But we haven’t hired nearly enough plates or knives or forks or anything,’ said Taggie aghast, ‘or got anywhere to seat them.’

Maud turned to Patrick. ‘Pop across the valley to Rupert’s and borrow some,’ she said.

‘I didn’t know he was coming too,’ whispered Taggie, even more horrified. ‘I thought he was away skiing.’

‘He’s come back specially for the party,’ said Maud dreamily. ‘It was too windy for him to land the helicopter but I’ve just seen him driving through Penscombe. Well, if there’s nothing else for me to do, I’m going upstairs to paint my nails.’ As she went out, running her eyes over the table seating, she caught sight of Rupert’s cards on both sides of Caitlin.

Tearing one up in a rage, she put the other back on her right. ‘You will not sit next to Rupert, Caitlin, you’re going to sit next to Archie Baddingham and like it.’ She turned back to Taggie.

‘Has Grace made up the beds for all Patrick’s friends?’

‘Someone insulted her in the pub at lunchtime,’ said Taggie. ‘Introduced her as Declan O’Hara’s scrubber, so she’s gone to bed in a huff.’

‘Well, get her up,’ snapped Maud. ‘At least you’ve got Valerie Jones’s char and her two children and that butler Reg and his friends coming to help, but you better make up some more beds.’

‘They can all sleep in armchairs,’ said Patrick soothingly as he gathered up his new car keys. ‘I’ll go and borrow those plates from Rupert.’

‘I’ve made up a bed for Ralphie in the spare room,’ said Taggie, blushing.

At six-thirty Declan returned home having recorded an interview with the Bishop of Cotchester, which he was aware was totally lacking in sparkle. He had been wracked with increasing foreboding during the day, as one person after another — Charles Fairburn, James Vereker, Simon Harris, Daysee Butler and then, horrors, Cameron Cook and Tony Baddingham — said they’d see him this evening. Maud had obviously got tighter than he’d realized at the Corinium Christmas party. But he never expected the frantically billowing pink and white tent on the lawn or the tables laid for two hundred people, or the disco boys checking acoustics, or the three hundred bottles of Moët on ice in various baths round the house.

Roaring upstairs, he found Maud lying on the bed naked except for a face pack and an Optrex eyepad.

‘What the fuck is going on? Do you want to ruin me?’ He slammed the door behind him.

In the drawing-room below, a group of Patrick’s glamorous friends, who’d just arrived and were having a drink, could see the mistletoe hanging from the chandelier trembling beneath Declan’s demented pacing. Then they heard Maud screaming.

‘Oh dear,’ sighed Caitlin, ‘Daddy doesn’t seem in a party mood.’

Upstairs, Taggie was frantically making up beds for Patrick’s friends. Perfectly happy to sleep together in the narrowest of beds all term at Trinity Dublin, now they were sleeping in the house of one of their friend’s parents, all the girls, overcome by a fit of morality, said they wanted separate rooms.

The din was increasing in her parents’ room.

Maud was careful not to be too provocative. She didn’t want her eye blacked. Eye-shadow and mascara were more becoming.

‘Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled,’ sang Caitlin outside the door. ‘Shut up you two, you’re upsetting Gertrude.’

Taggie could hear another lot of Patrick’s friends arriving downstairs, crying: ‘Happy Birthday.’ Running to the banisters, she could see Patrick’s exquisite girlfriend, Lavinia, giving him a present. She was followed by a beautiful dark girl and behind her — Taggie caught her breath — just under the mistletoe in the hall, stood Ralphie. He seemed to have got even more beautiful with his big blue eyes and blond curls.

In a panic she rushed back into the spare room, put another log on the fire, and re-arranged the Christmas roses in the blue jug beside the bed. At least they had curtains in this room, and a really comfortable bed for Ralphie — and perhaps her. Taggie clutched herself; she must not be presumptuous. There was a knock on the door.

‘Come in,’ croaked Taggie, hanging on to the mantelpiece for support.

The beautiful dark girl she’d seen in the hall came through the door. She was very slim and tiny, not more than five foot one.

‘Oh what a lovely room,’ she said, dumping a squashy bag and a black ruched dress on the bed, ‘and a fire too. You are kind. Will I be able to have a bath?’

‘Of course,’ stammered Taggie, ‘but it may not be a hot one.’

‘You must be Taggie,’ said the girl. ‘You look just like Patrick. Oh, look at the lovely Christmas roses! You shouldn’t have bothered.’

Taggie, blushing so hard she felt she could fry an egg on her face, said, ‘Actually this is Ralphie’s room.’

‘And mine,’ said the girl happily. ‘I’m Georgina Harrison, Ralphie’s girlfriend.’

Patrick had never seen such grief. Taggie seemed almost deranged, her whole body shuddering and shuddering with sobs.

‘I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it, I love him so much.’ ‘Angel, I know you do. But really it’s not on. He’s frightfully shallow, and you’re simply not his type. It’s not anything you’ve done, you’re just too large for him. It’s like expecting a chihuahua to mate with a wolfhound. Well, not quite, but, being small, he feels daunted by tall girls. He said to me last summer, “Your sister’d be absolutely heartbreaking, if only she were tiny.”’

‘I can’t shrink.’

‘Go off and nibble a mushroom.’

‘Don’t make jokes,’ sobbed Taggie.

‘Sweetheart, you’ve got to pull yourself together and get dressed. Mum and Dad have stopped rowing, but there’s no way they can organize the grub. Mrs Makepiece has arrived with two frightful teenage children, and Grace and Reg the butler and his friends are all getting stuck into the Moët. You must go down and supervise them. Now be a good girl and dry your eyes. I’m not twenty-one every day.’

Maud had the ability to make houses look beautiful. There were no curtains on the windows, but huge fires crackled in all the downstairs rooms, which were lit by hundreds of red candles and decorated by huge banks of holly, yew and laurel. She was also totally unfazed by being a hostess, or by the frightful row she’d just had with Declan. She had certainly never looked more beautiful. The Medusa curls had dropped a little after her bath, and framed her pale face to which the heat from the fires had given a touch of colour. She was wearing a very low-cut ivy-green taffeta dress with a bustle, which brought out the witchy green of her eyes and clung to her figure. She’d lost seven pounds, hardly eating a thing over Christmas. Pearls gleamed at her wrists, her ears and her throat. If she couldn’t ensnare Rupert tonight, she never would.

‘New dress,’ snarled Declan, tying his black tie in the drawing-room mirror.

‘Oh, this old thing,’ said Maud mockingly.

‘The old thing’s in the dress,’ said Caitlin sourly.

Pinching some of her mother’s scent, she had seen the bill for the dress, and really thought her mother had overdone it this time. Why did she need to spend that much money on clothes when she’d already got a man? Caitlin was worried that her father was deliberately setting out to get drunk, and even more worried about poor old Taggie. But at least at a ball with hundreds of people, Taggie might meet someone new.

‘Pretend it’s a job, pretend it’s a job,’ Taggie told herself through gritted teeth, as she stirred the great vats of turkey soup.

‘Could you possibly ask Caitlin to make sure Aengus is locked in one of the bedrooms? I’m afraid he might get under a car,’ she said to Mrs Makepiece’s daughter, Tracey, who, dressed in the tightest of black skirts and a white tricel shirt and pearls, was upwardly mobilizing her spiky hair in the kitchen mirror. Tracey was plainly avid to have a crack at one of Patrick’s friends.

Outside, Mrs Makepiece’s punk son Kevin was directing cars into a nearby field, and coming in frequently to fortify himself against the cold with slugs of wine. Reg and his two friends were doing sterling work drinking and circulating drink. Grace was already pissed. ‘Goodness you look tired,’ she said to Taggie. ‘What ’ave you been up to?’

Gertrude grew hoarse with barking as more and more people poured in. The party was plainly a success. Maud had produced a splendid mix: lots of London friends, who were knocked out by the beauty of the house and how good Maud was looking. Many of them had brought teenage children who were borne off upstairs for Malibu and coke in Caitlin’s bedroom. Then there were Patrick’s glamorous friends from Trinity, a large contingent from Corinium Television, and all Maud and Declan’s new friends from Gloucestershire, who were thoroughly over-excited to see so many London celebs. With two hours’ hard drinking before dinner, most people were soon absolutely plastered.

Bas Baddingham stunned everyone by turning up with a most beautiful wife — somebody else’s.

‘She left Alistair on December 12th, and was out hunting the very next day,’ said Valerie Jones in a shocked voice.

Valerie could also be heard saying repeatedly that she was simply exhausted after so many parties. ‘Fred-Fred and Ay simply longed for a poached egg in front of TV tonight, but we felt we couldn’t let the O’Haras down,’ she said to Lizzie Vereker. ‘What a crush, I hope we daine soon.’

‘Did you have a good Christmas?’ Lizzie asked Freddie.

‘Amizing,’ said Freddie. ‘Got some triffic presents. The staff gave me a fireman’s helmet, cos I’m always rushin’ about, and Rupert sent me a loaf of Mother’s Pride.’

Lizzie giggled.

‘Typical,’ said Valerie, her lips tightening.

‘And those bantams’ eggs you gave us were triffic, too. You can taste the difference. I ’ad one for my breakfast this morning.’ Freddie beamed at Lizzie.

‘Nonsense, Fred-Fred,’ said Valerie with a little laugh, ‘that egg came from Tesco’s.’

James, who’d skipped lunch because he was having his roots touched up, was drinking more than usual and thinking what a lot of amazingly beautiful women there were around: Joanna Lumley over there, and Patricia Hodge, and Pamela Armstrong, and Selina Scott and Ann Diamond.

Maud was looking sensational too, and there was Sarah Stratton, not looking as good as usual. There were black rings under her eyes, but she still exuded wantonness.

Sarah was, in fact, in a foul mood. She hadn’t had any lunch either, because she’d been hunting for a dress to wear this evening. She had missed Rupert horribly over Christmas. He obviously couldn’t ring her, as Paul had been home all the time, but she hadn’t even had a postcard, and then in Nigel Dempster’s column that morning there’d been a picture of Rupert skiing, with his arm round an incredibly glamorous French actress called Nathalie Perrault. She’d kill him when she saw him.

Where the hell was he, anyway? Who could she flirt with to irritate him? The most attractive men in the room, Sarah decided, were Declan, who was already drunk, and Declan’s son, a raving beauty, who was going to be very formidable in a few years’ time when he filled out. Sarah shimmied out to the marquee and, finding Rupert’s place card, moved it next to hers. How dare the bastard dally with Nathalie Perrault? Bloody Paul had read Dempster too, and made sly little digs about it all day.

Tony, to his amazement, was thoroughly enjoying the party. Shrewd enough to appreciate his vanity, Maud was treating him as the guest of honour, keeping him constantly plied with celebrities, mostly beautiful women, and introducing him to them as: ‘Declan’s gorgeous boss. You must get him to ask you down to Corinium, darling.’ Tony was soon purring like a great leopard let loose in a goat farm.

Archie, Tony’s beloved son, was getting plastered upstairs with Caitlin’s friends. Poor fat Sharon Jones was desperately shy. Caitlin had introduced her to boy after boy, ordering them to look after her, but within seconds Sharon had waddled back to her increasingly irritated mother.

‘I told you, go and make some friends of your own age,’ hissed Valerie furiously.

Mrs Makepiece sidled up to Maud. ‘Miss Taggie says we ought to eat; everything’s ready.’

‘We can’t till Rupert arrives,’ said Maud firmly. ‘Tell her to wait ten minutes.’

The doorbell rang. Perhaps this was him. She went into the hall, but Declan got there first, and it was only Simon Harris barging in with the two hyperactive monsters, and the baby in a carrycot.

‘Hullo, Declan,’ panted Simon. ‘Sorry we’re late. Nice of you to invite the whole brood.’ Then, seeing Declan’s look of horror, he explained, ‘I talked to someone called Grace, who said it’d be quite all right.’

Looking around, deciding that this was the sort of nice messy house that wouldn’t mind children, Simon let go of the two little monsters. ‘Where shall I put the baby?’

At that moment, Rupert sauntered through the open door with snow on his dinner jacket and in his hair, the dingy grey pallor of Simon Harris throwing his Gstaad suntan into even greater relief.

‘Rupert,’ said Maud joyfully, ‘you made it.’

She looked so beautiful, glowing under the hall mistletoe, that Rupert kissed her on the mouth. ‘You look sensational,’ he said.

‘Not nearly as sensational as you,’ whispered Maud. ‘You must have had wonderful weather.’

‘I can feel the temperature dropping here,’ said Rupert, as Declan turned on his heel and stalked off towards the kitchen. ‘What’s up with him?’

‘Oh he’s just in a bait.’ Maud turned to the passing Reg. ‘Bring Mr Campbell-Black a bucket of whisky.’

Going back to the kitchen via the marquee, Caitlin put her place card back on Rupert’s right and removed Wandering Aengus who was sitting on Valerie’s plate.

‘Wonderful party,’ she said to Taggie who was grimly pouring turkey soup into bowls on trays. ‘Rupert’s arrived looking like a red Indian, so Mummy says we can eat now, and Daddy’s terribly drunk.’

‘Daddy’s not the only one,’ said Taggie. ‘You should see Reg and his friends. Both Tracey and Kev have already buggered off upstairs, and good old Grace is singing “This Joyful Eastertide”.’

18

Tony Baddingham was even happier at dinner sitting between Joanna Lumley and Sarah Stratton.

‘I know by rights you should be on my right,’ Maud had whispered in his ear, ‘but I thought you deserved a treat.’

‘Freddie and Ay’ll be leaving early,’ said Valerie as she went into dinner. ‘The West Cotchester are meeting at Green Lawns tomorrow.’

‘They’re not meeting anywhere,’ said Rupert. ‘It’s frozen solid outside, so we can all get frightfully drunk.’

He wondered what had happened to Taggie. He couldn’t find her name on the seating plan.

‘You’re over here, next to me,’ Maud called to Rupert, patting the seat beside her.

‘And next to me,’ beamed Caitlin, bolting up to the table and whipping away Cameron Cook’s place card which was on his other side.

Maud could have murdered Caitlin, but she didn’t want a scene in public.

‘You better say Grace,’ giggled Caitlin, who’d been at the Malibu, ‘and she’ll come running in singing “This Joyful Eastertide”.’

It was obvious, reflected Tony with satisfaction, that Maud and Declan had had the most frightful row — probably about money. Earlier in the day Declan had very forcibly stressed that it was a tiny party, just a few friends, but there must be at least three hundred people here and by the way the Moët was being splashed about, nothing had been stinted, which was good, because the broker Declan got, the more dependent he’d be on Corinium, and the more Tony could torment and manipulate him.

Then, looking across the room at Maud’s enraptured face turned towards Rupert, her elbows pressed together to deepen her cleavage, her turkey soup untouched, he decided it was more likely that Declan was upset because his wife had a thumping great crush on Rupert. This suited Tony even better, because it meant Declan would crucify Rupert even more when he interviewed him in the New Year.

Sarah Stratton, who’d stopped to say hullo to Rupert on the way in, was looking rather bleak as she sat down beside Tony.

‘I’m glad we’re next to each other,’ he said. ‘I wanted to talk to you.’

‘Have you made any New Year’s resolutions?’ said Sarah, picking up her soup spoon.

‘Yes,’ said Tony, his swarthy pirate’s face suddenly looking as though he was going to fight off a flotilla of rival clipper ships, ‘to keep the franchise.’

‘I’ll drink to that,’ said Sarah.

‘I wouldn’t mind,’ said Simon Harris across the room, helping himself to a seventh piece of garlic bread, ‘but Tony came roaring in today saying I’m not having fucking language like that on any fucking programme going out from my fucking station.’

‘Sorry to bother you, Mr Harris,’ said Mrs Makepiece, ‘but your baby’s crying.’

It was not surprising the baby was upset, surrounded as it was upstairs by scenes of Petronian debauchery, as teenagers smoked, drank, necked, and screamed with laughter as they opened another packet of Tampax and shot the cotton wool out like cannons.

Archie was sharing a bottle of Moët with Caitlin, who had briefly abandoned Rupert at dinner to smoke an illicit cigarette.

‘What has an Upland House girl in common with a Tampax?’ Archie asked her.

‘Dunno,’ said Caitlin.

‘They’re both stuck-up cunts.’

Caitlin screamed with laughter. ‘Have you got a girlfriend?’

‘I did,’ said Archie, ‘but she went off me because of my zits.’

‘You mustn’t worry about zits,’ said Caitlin kindly. ‘It means you’re producing lots of Testosterone and will make a wonderfully vigorous lover later. Piss off, you snotty little buggers,’ she screamed, as Simon Harris’s monsters raced up and down giggling at the necking teenagers and threatening each other with one of Rupert’s borrowed knives.

‘My father said all your family were weirdos,’ said Archie, ‘but I think you’re cool.’

Declan, whom Maud had put deliberately between Monica and Valerie, so he couldn’t make a scene, was so drunk he was in danger of seriously jeopardizing his career. He didn’t even realize Monica was talking about Otello until she got onto Iago.

‘He’s an even more evil character than Scarpia,’ she was saying.

‘Much more,’ agreed Declan. ‘Very like your husband in fact.’

‘Garlic bread, either of you?’ said Valerie, unable to believe her ears.

‘Your husband is an absolute shit,’ said Declan.

‘I know,’ said Monica calmly, as she tore off a piece of garlic bread. ‘However, I have three children and I don’t believe in divorce.’

‘Nor do I,’ said Declan, filling up both their glasses.

Valerie was absolutely livid when the farmer on her left said, ‘You live at Long Bottom Court, don’t you?’ She didn’t want to talk to him at all. She wanted to listen to what Monica was saying to Declan.

‘You won’t try and wind Tony up too much at work, will you?’ went on Monica. ‘You’re very good for Corinium. They need people with integrity. I’d like you to stay.’

‘I’m not sure your husband would.’

‘I think we’d both better stop discussing Tony, ‘said Monica gently, ‘or we might become very indiscreet. This is a very good party. Maud’s looking so beautiful.’

‘Has anyone ever told you you’re a beautiful woman?’ said Declan.

Monica went pink. ‘That’s jolly well overdoing it. You really ought to eat some of this shepherd’s pie. It’s frightfully good.’

But Declan was looking at Maud who was gazing at Rupert. ‘O heart! O heart!’ he murmured, ‘if she’d but turn her head.’

‘You’d know the folly of being comforted,’ said Monica, finishing the quotation for him. ‘Don’t worry about Rupert,’ she went on briskly. ‘Bertie Berkshire once described him as a “particularly nasty virus, that one’s wife caught sooner or later”, but we all get over it.’

Declan looked back at her, startled. ‘Even you?’

Monica sighed. ‘Even me, although Rupert had no idea. Don Giovanni must have been very like him. He can’t resist the conquest, and I think, although he won’t admit it, he still misses show-jumping desperately, and it’s a question of constantly filling the aching void.’

‘He’s usually filling other people’s wives’ aching voids,’ said Declan bitterly.

At last Maud had to stop monopolizing Rupert and turn to Declan’s old boss at the BBC, Johnny Abrahams, who was sitting on her left.

‘Lovely party, darling,’ he said. ‘Hope you can pay for it. What’s up with Declan? Not working out with Tony Baddingham? I did warn him.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Maud. ‘You know Declan always has rows wherever he is. But look at him now, getting on like a house on fire with Tony’s wife.’

‘You can talk to me now,’ said Caitlin to Rupert.

‘How d’you do? I saw you at Midnight Mass,’ said Rupert.

He liked her merry face and her bright beady eyes.

‘Tell me,’ he went on lowering his voice, ‘is your sister ever going to forgive me?’

‘Ah,’ said Caitlin, ‘well, you haven’t been very nice to her. I heard about the groping at the dinner party, which was pretty crass, and the row over the stubble burning. Taggie probably over-reacted there; she’s so soppy about animals, she spends her time prising frozen worms off the paths in this weather. What really pissed her off was that you were so unkind about Gertrude.’

‘Gertrude?’ said Rupert, bewildered.

‘Our dog. You may think Gertrude is very plain, but we’re all devoted to her. Taggie’s led such a sheltered life, she’s never left home like Patrick and me, and she and Gertrude have never been parted.’

Rupert grinned. ‘Perhaps I should have sent Gertrude a pendant instead.’

‘Oh my God,’ said Caitlin in horror, ‘it was you! Because you signed it R, we all assumed it was from Ralphie. Taggie’s mad about him, you see.’

‘Glad I gave her a happy Christmas,’ said Rupert acidly.

‘But she’s not happy now, because Ralphie’s turned up with another woman.’

‘Which is he?’

‘That blond over there. Taggie likes blonds, so if you give her time. .’

‘Caitlin,’ said Maud very sharply, ‘go and tell Taggie to clear away the fruit salad plates. We must have Patrick’s cake, or we’ll be still sitting here at midnight.’ She turned to Rupert. ‘We’ve managed to get tickets for Starlight Express the week after next. D’you want to come?’

‘Don’t talk about things that happen after I go back,’ grumbled Caitlin, getting up.

‘Taggie, Taggie,’ she squealed, racing into the kitchen, ‘Mummy wants the plates cleared, then we can have Patrick’s cake.’

‘There isn’t anyone to clear them,’ said Taggie in despair. ‘Both the Makepiece children have vanished, and I can’t find Mrs Makepiece or Grace, or Reg, or either of Reg’s friends.’

‘Never mind that now,’ said Caitlin. ‘This is far more exciting. It was Rupert who sent you that pendant, because he was sorry about goosing you at Valerie Jones’s.’

‘There’s no way we’re going to get 300 slices out of this.’ Taggie nearly dropped Patrick’s cake. ‘What did you say?’

‘Rupert sent you the pendant.’

‘He couldn’t have,’ whispered Taggie. ‘I hate him.’

‘No, you don’t. He’s really nice. Go and sit next to him. I’ll try and find Reg and his mates to carry the cake in and people can eat it on their fruit salad plates. Go on, Tag.’

‘Never, never,’ gasped Taggie. She was deathly pale now. ‘I’m going to send it back.’

Maud’s plans had gone seriously awry. She had wanted them all to be dancing and she and Rupert to be standing under one of Caitlin’s hundred bunches of mistletoe at midnight, but they were still sitting at the tables waiting for Patrick to cut his cake. Why on earth couldn’t Taggie be more efficient?

At five minutes to midnight Declan got somewhat unsteadily to his feet, and tapped the table with his knife. ‘I’m very pleased to see you all here tonight,’ he said, ‘and I’d just like to drink my son Patrick’s health. He’s a good boy and he’s given us a lot of pleasure over the years.’

‘And me too,’ piped up Patrick’s girlfriend, Lavinia, and everyone laughed and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and said ‘Speech! Speech!’ As Reg and his mates staggered in very perilously carrying the cake, Patrick stood up. Speaking in public didn’t rattle him in the least. He had all Declan’s assurance: ‘I’d like to thank my father and mother for having me,’ he said, ‘and giving me such a wonderful party, and for my sister Taggie for doing all the work, and making this wonderful cake.’ For a second Maud looked furious at the loudness of the cheers. ‘Thank you all for coming, and for all your presents, which I’ll open later when I get a moment.’

There were more loud cheers. Then, just as Caitlin finished lighting the candles, like the dark stranger coming over the threshold, Cameron Cook walked in. She was wearing an extremely tight-fitting, strapless, black suede dress, which came eight inches above her knees. Three-inch cross-laced gaps on either side from armpit to hem made it quite plain she was wearing nothing but Fracas and Mantan underneath. There was a heavy metal chain round her neck, and among the heavy silver bangles worn over her long black suede gloves gleamed Tony’s diamond bracelet.

Anyone else would have looked tarty in that dress, but Cameron, with her marvellously lean, sinuous, rapacious beauty, succeeded in looking both menacing and absolutely staggering.

‘Holy shit,’ said Patrick into the microphone.

Everyone screamed with laughter.

‘Blow out your candles,’ said Caitlin.

Still gazing at Cameron, Patrick blew them out with one puff, then turned to Declan. ‘Who the hell’s that?’

‘The biggest bitch in television,’ said Declan bleakly.

‘She may well be your future daughter-in-law,’ said Patrick.

‘Christ, I can just see her with a whip,’ muttered Bas to Rupert.

‘Perhaps that’s what gets your brother going.’

Basil turned to Daysee Butler: ‘Did you know your boss was heavily into SM?’

‘Who’s she?’ said Daysee.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ said Cameron, fighting her way through the crowd to Maud’s side. ‘We’ve had a lot of hassle at work.’

‘Lovely to see you at any time,’ said Maud. ‘Caitlin,’ she added pointedly, terrified that Caitlin might start monopolizing Rupert again, ‘will get you something to eat.’

‘She needs a drink,’ said Patrick.

Goodness, he’s pretty, thought Cameron. Like Declan, but purer-looking, somehow.

‘Aren’t you going to cut your cake?’ she said to him.

‘I’ve got to wish,’ said Patrick. Never taking his eyes off her, he slowly plunged the knife into the cake, right up to the hilt.

‘I didn’t have time to buy you a present,’ said Cameron.

‘You brought yourself,’ said Patrick, slightly mockingly. ‘Just what I wanted.’

Filling up his glass with champagne, he handed it to her.

‘Thanks.’ Taking it, Cameron drained the glass.

Just at that moment, from speakers all round the tent, Big Ben boomed out the twelve strokes of midnight. As everyone started kissing everyone else and cheering, Patrick drew Cameron into his arms and kissed her on and on and on.

At last they broke away.

‘The coup de foudre,’ said Patrick softly. ‘I’ve waited twenty-one years for this to happen.’

‘Look at Tony’s face,’ whispered Lizzie Vereker to Charles Fairburn with a shiver.

As the last notes of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ rang out, Declan could be heard saying, ‘Bloody January again.’

Plates were being cleared away, tables pushed back and the marquee cleared for dancing, as the women drifted upstairs to do their faces. Telling Cameron he wouldn’t be a second, Patrick went off to the kitchen to thank Taggie. Oblivious that Monica might be watching, Tony fought his way over to Cameron and seized her arm: ‘What the hell are you playing at?’

Cameron winced. ‘Celebrating Christmas. It hasn’t been great so far.’

‘I couldn’t get away.’

‘I guess not.’

‘That dress is deliberately provocative,’ snarled Tony.

‘Well, if it deliberately provokes you, it’s doing a great job.’

‘Why are you so fucking late?’

‘Titania’s four months gone.’

‘Shit. How d’you know?’

‘Wardrobe told me,’ said Cameron.

‘And she’s admitted it?’

‘Sure.’

‘Who’s the father?’

‘She’s not sure. It could be Bottom, or Theseus or even Peter Quince.’

‘Jesus — we’ll just have to shoot round her.’

Patrick never made it to the kitchen. Declan dragged him into the library.

‘For Christ’s sake, Cameron’s out of bounds.’

‘Why?’

‘She’s Tony Baddingham’s mistress.’

‘So. Are you frightened of losing your job?’

For a second Patrick thought Declan was going to hit him.

‘It’s not that. You’ve no idea of the evil of both of them.’

‘He may be, she’s not. She just needs someone of her own age to play with for a change.’

‘He’s taught her some very unpleasant habits,’ said Declan heavily.

‘Like arguing with you, I suppose,’ said Patrick.

‘She’s out of your league.’

‘I don’t give a fuck,’ said Patrick, walking out.

‘You don’t have to take your clothes off to have a good time, oh no,’ sang Jermaine Stewart from the disco. ‘You can dance and party all night.’

Still arguing with Tony, seeing both Monica and Patrick bearing purposefully down on her, Cameron escaped to check her face. After Patrick’s kiss, she certainly couldn’t have any lipstick left. Upstairs, in the only bedroom that didn’t seem to be inhabited by necking teenagers, she found Sarah Stratton brushing her hair.

‘Good party,’ said Sarah.

‘It seems so.’

‘I’m glad I bumped into you,’ said Sarah. ‘Tony’s offered me a job at Corinium. Ought I to take it?’

‘Sure,’ said Cameron coolly.

‘You don’t think he’s just after my body?’

‘No way,’ said Cameron, who was having difficulty applying lipstick, her hands were trembling so much.

‘I just wondered.’ Sarah dropped her head, brushing all her hair downwards. ‘Tony and Monica are an awfully weird couple, you know. Paul’s ex-wife, Winifred, used to be Monica’s best chum. I’ve often wondered if they weren’t a bit dykey.’ Sarah tossed her head back, so her hair rose, then cascaded wildly onto her shoulders.

‘Monica evidently told Winifred,’ she went on, ‘that Tony made such incredible sexual demands on her that she had to move into a separate bedroom. He wanted it two or three times every night. Now she restricts him to once a week, like church. Perhaps that’s why he’s so lecherous.’

As if in a dream, Cameron watched Sarah spray Anais Anaïs between her breasts, then behind her kneecaps and finally, pulling out her pants, on her blonde bush.

‘Did Tony make a pass at you?’ Cameron said in a frozen voice.

‘Not exactly — but he was terrifically complimentary,’ said Sarah. ‘And I must say for an older man he’s not unattractive.’

As they came downstairs James Vereker was hovering. Deliberately ignoring Cameron, he asked Sarah to dance. Oh well, thought Sarah, anything to make Rupert jealous.

‘How did you get on with Tony’s mistress?’ asked James.

‘Oh my Christ, is she?’ gasped Sarah, appalled, and she told James what had happened. ‘I’d better not take that job at Corinium after all,’ she said finally.

‘She’d certainly have it in for you,’ said James. ‘She has it in for any beautiful woman.’ (And man for that matter, he nearly added.) ‘If you came to Corinium —’ his arm tightened round her — ‘I’d look after you and show you the ropes.’

‘Isn’t television frightfully difficult?’

‘Not if you’ve got a teacher who really cares,’ said James.

I’ll kill Tony, I’ll absolutely kill him, thought Cameron as, seething with rage, she went into the marquee. Both Tony and Patrick were waiting. Patrick was quicker.

‘Come and dance,’ he said, taking her hand. ‘I’m not going to let you go for the rest of the evening, probably not for the rest of my life.’

‘D’you always move in so fast?’ said Cameron, laughing.

‘No, I wished for you when I cut my cake.’

‘You mustn’t tell wishes; they might not come true.’

‘Mine always do,’ said Patrick calmly.

Taggie was mindlessly washing up in the kitchen when Simon Harris’s little monsters returned and, saying they were hungry, broke through the clingfilm over the kedgeree and started eating it with their hands. Something finally snapped inside Taggie.

‘Bugger off, you little horrors,’ she screamed.

‘Talking to me?’ said a voice.

Rupert was standing in the doorway. He was as brown as he’d been last summer when he’d had no clothes on. Taggie went scarlet.

Rupert grinned. ‘Your mother was only telling me the other day, how much you adore children.’ Then, turning on the monsters, ‘Go on, fuck off, you little sods. Out, OUT!’

Muttering venomously, the monsters sidled out, cramming birthday cake into their mouths as they went.

‘It was the most lovely dinner,’ said Rupert gently, noticing Taggie’s reddened eyes. ‘Will you please stop playing Cinderella and come and dance.’

‘I’ve got too much to do, thank you, and thank you for the pendant. I didn’t realize.’ She stumbled on the words.

At that moment Simon Harris came in with spewed-up rusk all over his dinner jacket, carrying a bawling baby.

‘Could you possibly hold her for me while I heat up a bottle?’ he asked Taggie.

Of two evils, Taggie chose the prettier. ‘There’s a saucepan over there,’ she said and, feeling Rupert’s hand close over hers, she followed him into the marquee.

‘I’m a very, very bad dancer,’ she muttered.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Rupert. ‘We can sway in a dark corner.’

Never seen you look so lovely as you do tonight,’ sang Chris de Burgh, ‘Never seen you shine so bright.’

Taggie’s hair smelt of shepherd’s pie. As he drew her to him, Rupert could feel the substantial softness of her breasts, compared with the incredible slenderness of her waist. Her body was rigid with tension and embarrassment. She had absolutely no sense of rhythm at all. It was like a very slim elephant dancing at the circus.

‘Did you have a nice Christmas?’ asked Rupert.

‘Yes.’

‘Did you get nice presents?’

‘Yes.’

‘Come on my angel, relax.’ His hands moved over her back, gentling her as though she was one of his young horses. ‘Look! Gertrude’s followed us. She knows I’m a rotter and she won’t let you out of her sight.’

Catching Gertrude’s disapproving eye, Taggie gave a half laugh, half sob.

Rupert reached down and stroked Gertrude. ‘Good Gertrude, beautiful Gertrude. See, I am trying.’

‘Lady in red, Lady in red,’ sang everyone as they swayed round the floor, which were the only words they knew.

Rupert took Taggie’s face in his hands. She was so tall her eyes were only just below his.

‘Don’t be so sad,’ he murmured. ‘You’ll get over him.’

Taggie started. ‘How d’you know?’

‘Caitlin told me. You thought the pendant was from him. I’m sorry.’

‘It was very kind,’ said Taggie stiffly. ‘I just don’t accept presents from men.’

‘I see. Only from boys.’

As Chris de Burgh finished and Wham started, he gripped her waist, knowing she was about to bolt.

‘Last Christmas, I gave you my heart,’ sang George Michael, ‘But the very next day you gave it away.’

Across the room Taggie could see Ralphie and Georgina dancing together. He was stroking her cheek with his hand. With a low moan, Taggie tugged herself away from Rupert. Cannoning off startled couples, she fled from the marquee upstairs to the loo to cry her eyes out once again.

Patrick danced on and on with Cameron. They didn’t talk much because they were easily the best dancers in the room. Tony, grinding his teeth down to the gums, didn’t dare move in with Monica looking on.

‘That’s the best thing I’ve seen in years,’ said James Vereker, who was dancing on and on with Sarah.

‘What?’ said Sarah.

‘Cameron getting off with Declan’s son. At best it’ll screw up Tony and Cameron. At worst it’ll put Tony even more off Declan.’

Although Paul was hovering, looking thunderous, Sarah carried on dancing with James until she saw Rupert going past. Breaking away, she screamed out to him.

To keep her quiet Rupert bore her off to dance. Paul could see them rowing all the way round the floor, in that rigid-jawed way as though they’d had too many injections at the dentist.

‘Why have you been deliberately ignoring me?’

‘I haven’t. It’s just that Paul has been watching us like a Wimbledon linesman.’

‘Never put you off in the past.’

‘Did you have a good Christmas?’

‘Of course I didn’t. You obviously did, if the Daily Mail’s anything to go by. I don’t require fidelity from my husband,’ said Sarah hysterically, ‘but I do from my lover.’

‘Then you’ve picked the wrong guy, sweetheart. We’ve had a good time.’

Sarah looked up, aghast. ‘Is it over then?’

‘No, not necessarily. I’m just not prepared to offer you an exclusive.’

‘Bastard,’ hissed Sarah. ‘I thought you were serious.’

‘You were wrong, and frankly, angel, I don’t think you make a very good MP’s wife. Paul looks a shambles.’

In the kitchen, surrounded by undergraduates and dirty plates and glasses, Declan was declaiming Yeats:

And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,

Has awaked in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.

Cameron stood listening to him, her hand in Patrick’s.

‘He recites best when he’s drunk,’ whispered Patrick. ‘Loses all self-consciousness.’

‘He should do a programme on Yeats,’ marvelled Cameron.

‘Hardly of local interest.’

‘We could do it for Channel Four.’

Upstairs, Maud was arranging her breasts in the green dress, and putting scent on her hair, and applying coral blusher to her pale cheeks. Her freckles were like a sprinkling of nutmeg tonight.

‘I’m not middle-aged,’ she whispered to herself. ‘I’m still young and beautiful.’

I get no kick from champagne,’ sang the disco. ‘Pure alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all.’

The message was all in the music, thought Maud. Go forth and multiply and seek love.

Going downstairs, she could hear Declan declaiming in the kitchen. She was safe for half an hour or so. Screams and shouts were coming from the direction of Caitlin’s room.

The berries of the mistletoe gleamed brighter than her pearls under the hall light. It was three in the morning; soon Taggie would be serving kedgeree. As if in answer to her prayer, Maud heard Rupert’s voice, ‘Darling, I was looking for you.’

Taking her hand, he led her into the study where Caitlin, taking no chances, had hung more mistletoe. Rupert’s hand felt so warm and dry, and the ball of his thumb was so pudgy, noticed Maud. That was the fortune-teller’s clue to a passionate highly-sexed nature. It was certainly the only spare flesh on his body. Maud’s heart was pounding. She must try and be distant, a little mysterious. As he turned towards her, her eyes were on a level with his black tie. She longed to caress the lovely line of his jaw. It’s going to happen, she thought in ecstasy, as Rupert shut the door to blot out the screams and raucous laughter, and coming towards her, gazed deeply into her eyes.

‘Angel, I’ve been wanting to ask you something from the moment we met, certainly from the moment I came over here with Bas after hunting. You won’t be cross with me?’

‘No, no,’ whispered Maud. She was having difficulty breathing.

‘You probably think I’m the biggest shit in the world.’

‘I don’t. I don’t. I just think people misunderstand you.’

She could smell the faint lemon tang of his aftershave as he moved nearer.

‘I’m absolutely mad,’ began Rupert.

‘Go on,’ stammered Maud.

‘About little Taggie, and she can’t stand me. Could you possibly put in a good word for me?’

‘Taggie,’ said Maud in outrage, ‘TAGGIE!’

She might have been Lady Bracknell referring to the famous handbag.

‘For Christ’s sake,’ she screamed, ‘Taggie’s eighteen, you’re thirty-seven. She’s dyslexic, which makes her seem even younger. How dare you, you revolting letch, how dare you, how DARE you?’ And, bursting into tears, she fled upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom.

She couldn’t bear it, she, who’d always got anyone she wanted, being spurned under the mistletoe by the biggest rake in Gloucestershire. And for Taggie, of all people, which made it far, far worse. Almost pathologically jealous of Taggie, there was no one in the world Maud would less like to lose a man to. Was that to be her fate, growing older and less attractive, until no one wanted her?

An hour later in the kitchen Declan was still declaiming to an enraptured group.

‘Christ, I wish I wasn’t too tight to make notes,’ said Ralphie.

‘You see why he can’t go on doing crappy interviews with the Bishop of Cotchester,’ said Patrick to Cameron.

Cameron nodded.

A woman of so shining loveliness, [Declan was saying]

That men threshed corn at midnight by a tress,

A little stolen tress.

He looked up and saw Maud. ‘A little stolen tress,’ he repeated slowly.

For a minute they gazed at each other.

There is grey in your hair, [he began very softly]

Young men no longer catch their breath,

When you are passing.

Maud turned away, her face stricken.

Declan dropped his cigarette into the sink and, stepping over the enraptured seated undergraduates, caught up with Maud on the stairs. Not having had anything to drink for a couple of hours, he was sobering up.

‘What’s the matter? Did he turn you down?’

Maud nodded, tears spilling out between her eyelashes.

‘I’ve seen it coming since September. I wanted to warn you.’

‘Why didn’t you then?’

Declan sighed: ‘Has there ever been any point? He’s no good for you. He’s a traveller. It might have lasted a week, a month, then he’d have dumped you.’

He put his huge hands round her neck above the pearl choker.

‘I’m sorry,’ she mumbled. ‘He’s just so attractive.’

‘I know. Hush, hush.’ He raised his thumbs to still her quivering mouth. ‘Let’s go to bed.’

‘We can’t in the middle of a party.’

‘What better time?’

‘I’ve spent so much money.’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Declan as they went up the remaining stairs.

‘I love you,’ he said softly, ‘and I’m the only one of the lot of them who understands you.’

‘I know,’ whispered Maud.

Declan shut the bedroom door behind them.

Caitlin, going past, heard the key turn. Removing the sign outside the loo on which she had earlier written Ladies, Caitlin turned it over, wrote Do Not Disturb, Sex in Progress, and hung it on her parents’ door.

Downstairs, the party showed no signs of winding down.

‘I love yew,’ said Lizzie, looking at a dark clump of greenery in the corner, as she danced round with Freddie.

‘I love you,’ said Freddie, giving her a squeeze. ‘Honestly, on my life and at least a bottle-and-a-half of Moët.’

It was obvious that Tony wasn’t going to be able to prise Cameron away from Patrick for even a second.

‘We must go,’ he said bleakly to Monica.

‘All right,’ said Monica reluctantly. ‘I haven’t seen Archie for hours. Where is he?’

‘Upstairs, I think,’ said Caitlin.

Monica swayed up the stairs, hanging onto the banisters. She hadn’t drunk so much since she was a deb; it was really rather fun.

Finding several rooms heavily occupied by couples, she finally tracked down her elder and beloved son on a chaise-longue on the top floor, absolutely superglued to Tracey Makepiece, his hand burrowing like a ferret inside her white tricel shirt.

‘Archie,’ thundered Monica. ‘Drop!’

Archie dropped.

‘We’re leaving,’ said Monica, ‘at once.’

Downstairs, she told Tony what Archie had been up to.

‘Christ,’ exploded Tony, ‘he might put her in the club. Get him out of this bloody house as fast as possible.’

‘I don’t know where Declan and Maud are. We ought to thank them,’ said Monica, as Archie shuffled sheepishly down the stairs.

Having witnessed the incident, Valerie gave her little laugh: ‘One must learn to be democratic, Ay’m afraid these days, Monica. Sharon, of course, gets on with all classes.’

‘Evidently,’ said Caitlin, sliding down the banisters and beaming at Valerie. ‘She’s been wrapped round Kevin Makepiece for the last two hours.’

Giving a screech close to death, Valerie bolted upstairs.

Caitlin turned to Monica, Tony and Archie with a beatific smile on her face. ‘I bet Kev a pound he wouldn’t neck with Sharon. I suppose I’ll have to pay him now.’

‘Are your parents around?’ said Monica.

‘I’m afraid they’ve gone to bed,’ said Caitlin.

‘Well, if you’d just tell them how very much we all enjoyed it,’ said Monica.

‘You may have enjoyed it,’ hissed Tony, slipping on the icy drive in his haste to get to the Rolls and the frozen chauffeur, ‘but frankly it was the most bloody party I’ve ever been to, and that child Caitlin is a minx.’

‘She’s sweet,’ protested Archie with a hiccup.

‘If you have anything more to do with any of the O’Hara children I’ll disinherit you.’

About five in the morning, having behaved just as badly as everyone else, Rupert came back into the drawing-room looking for the whisky decanter, and saw a black and white tail sticking out from under the piano.

‘Gertrude,’ he said.

The tail quivered. Crouching down, Rupert found both Gertrude and Taggie.

‘What on earth are you doing?’

‘A drunk’s passed out in my bed,’ said Taggie with a sob. ‘Every other bedroom in the house is occupied; a bloody great party, including Ralphie and his blonde are in the kitchen, so I can’t wash up, the disco people haven’t been paid, Mummy and Daddy have gone to bed, and I don’t want to be a wallflower and cramp everyone’s style.’

‘You won’t cramp mine. Come on.’ Rupert dragged her out.

An empty champagne bottle rolled out at the same time.

‘You drink all that?’

‘Nearly.’

Rupert threw a couple of logs on the dying fire and then sat Taggie down on the sofa beside him. Gertrude took up her position between them.

‘It’s been a wonderful party,’ he said.

‘It hasn’t,’ said Taggie despairingly. ‘It’s been a disaster. Patrick’s got off with Lord Baddingham’s m-mistress, which’ll make Lord Baddingham go even more off Daddy. And Mummy’s got a terrific crush on someone.’ She blushed, remembering it was Rupert, and added hastily, ‘I’m not sure who, and poor Daddy’s got to pay for it all. I tried and tried to keep the cost down, but then Mummy went off and ordered all that champagne, and invited hundreds and hundreds of people.’

‘Your father must earn a good screw from Corinium,’ said Rupert reasonably.

‘He does —’ Taggie cuddled Gertrude like a terrified child clutching a teddy bear — ‘but it’s not nearly enough. He’s got a massive overdraft and we still haven’t paid for our leaving party in London, and he got another huge tax bill yesterday, and he hasn’t paid the last one yet, and Mummy and Caitlin and Patrick won’t take it seriously. They think Daddy’s a bottomless pit who’ll always provide.

‘To produce his best work,’ she went on, ‘he’s got to be kept calm. That’s why we moved to the country for some peace and for him to finish his book. And he loathes Lord Baddingham, he thinks he’s dreadfully cor — cor. .’ She blocked on the word.

‘Corrupt,’ said Rupert.

‘That’s right, and shouldn’t be running Corinium at all. Daddy’s so headstrong, I’m sure he’ll walk out if there are any more rows, and he says the BBC won’t have him back.’

Despite being drunk, Rupert appreciated it wasn’t at all an ideal set-up.

‘Of course the BBC would,’ he said. ‘Your father’s a genius. He’s got everything going for him.’

‘Except us,’ said Taggie with a sob. ‘We’re all a drain on him.’

‘You’re not,’ said Rupert.

‘I am. Ralphie doesn’t love me. No one will ever love me.’

Rupert let her cry for a few minutes, then made her laugh by putting his black tie on Gertrude.

‘I’m so sorry,’ stammered Taggie, wiping her eyes on someone’s discarded silk shawl. ‘I’m being horribly s-s-self-indulgent.’

‘You’re not.’ Suddenly Rupert felt very avuncular and protective as he did when one of his dogs cut its paw. He wished a visit to the vet and a few stitches could cure Taggie’s problems.

‘I’m going to get that drunk out of your bed and then you can go to sleep.’

‘I must pay the disco — but no one seems to want them to stop — and the Makepieces. I’ve got the money.’ She got a large wad of tenners out of the George V Coronation tin on the desk.

‘I’ll pay them,’ said Rupert, taking the money. ‘You’re going to bed.’

Up in Taggie’s turret bedroom, with some effort, Rupert lifted Charles Fairburn out of the bed and, lugging him down the winding stairs, put him on the chaise-longue recently vacated by Archie and Tracey Makepiece. As Taggie’s room was like the North Pole, he returned with a duvet he’d whipped off a fornicating couple in the spare room. Taggie had got into a red flannel nightgown and cleaned her teeth. Lady in Red, thought Rupert. She had huge black circles under her eyes. She looked about twelve.

‘Everything’ll work out all right,’ he said, tucking her in.

‘You’ve been so kind,’ stammered Taggie. ‘I’m sorry I was so rude to you before, and thank you for the pendant.’

But as Rupert put out a hand to touch her cheek, Gertrude, still in her black tie, growled fiercely.

‘You may have forgiven me,’ said Rupert, ‘but Gertrude hasn’t.’

19

At seven-thirty the disco was still pounding. All over the house Patrick’s friends, with ultra-fashionable cat-sick yellow socks over their eyes like aeroplane eye masks, had crashed out on arm chairs and sofas. Charles snored happily on his chaise-longue. In the small sitting-room, watched balefully by Gertrude still in Rupert’s black tie, Cameron and Patrick opened Patrick’s presents, throwing the wrapping paper into the fire to ignite the dying embers. Cameron had never seen such loot: gold cufflinks, Rolex watches, diamond studs, a Leica camera, a Picasso drawing, a Matthew Smith, a red-and-silver-striped silk Turnbull and Asser dressing-gown.

Patrick was like the prince in the fairy story, thought Cameron, whom each of the neighbouring kings was trying to win over with more and more extravagant presents. She thought bitterly back to her own twenty-first birthday. Neither of her parents had even bothered to send her a card.

‘You’ll never remember who gave you what. That’s neat,’ she added, as Patrick drew out a copy of The Shropshire Lad from some shiny red paper.

‘Very,’ said Patrick. ‘First edition. What have you got there?’

‘Silver hip flask, from someone called All my Love Lavinia. She’s had it engraved. Who’s she?’

‘My Ex,’ said Patrick, collapsing onto the sofa to read The Shropshire Lad.

‘How Ex?’

‘About two minutes before midnight last night. Listen: When I was one-and-twenty, I heard a wise man say, Give crowns and pounds and guineas, but not your heart away. Hope that’s not prophetic. I wish Housman hadn’t used the word “Lad” so often; so appallingly hearty. Who’s that from?’

Cameron pulled a long, dark-brown cashmere scarf from a gold envelope. ‘Georgie and Ralphie.’

‘I bet Georgie paid for it — kind of them, though.’

He got up and wound the scarf round Cameron’s neck, holding on to the two ends and slowly drawing her towards him.

‘It’s yours. Everything I have is yours,’ he said, kissing her, only breaking away from her because the telephone rang.

He grinned as he put down the receiver. It was the vicar of Penscombe asking if they could turn the disco down for an hour so he could take early service.

‘I must go,’ said Cameron.

‘You must not. I’ll tell those disco boys to go and have some breakfast and then you and I are going to watch the sun rise.’

Wearing three of Patrick’s sweaters, a pair of Taggie’s jeans, rolled over four times at the ankle, Caitlin’s gumboots, and a very smart dark-blue coat with a velvet collar left over the banisters by Bas Baddingham, Cameron set out with Patrick.

‘I’ve shaved so I won’t cut your face to ribbons,’ he said.

‘The wind’ll do that,’ grumbled Cameron.

The wind, in fact, had dropped, but a vicious frost had ermined all the fences, roughened the surface of the snow and turned the waterfall in the wood to two foot-long icicles. Gertrude charged ahead leaping into drifts, tunnelling the snow with her snout.

‘Wow, it’s beautiful,’ said Cameron, as the valley stretched out below them. ‘How much of it’s yours?’

‘To the bottom of the wood. The rest of the valley belongs to Rupert Campbell-Black.’

Christ, it’s a kingdom, thought Cameron, looking across at the white fields, the blanketed tennis court, Rupert’s golden house with its snowy roof and the bare beech wood rearing up behind like a huge spiky white hedgehog.

‘We’re trying to get him on your father’s programme.’

‘Why bother? Pa could interview him by morse code across the valley. He’s the most awful stud. Evidently resentful husbands all over Gloucestershire bear scars on their knuckles from trying to bash down bedroom doors.’

‘He was there last night,’ said Cameron.

‘Was he?’ said Patrick. ‘I only had eyes for you.’

They had reached the water meadows at the bottom of the wood. Here the snow had settled in roots of trees, in the crevices of walls, and in six-foot drifts anywhere it could find shelter from yesterday’s blizzard. The blizzard had also laid thick white tablecloths of snow fringed with icicles on either side of the stream which ran with chattering teeth down the valley. It was deathly quiet except for Rupert’s horses occasionally neighing to one another. But it was getting lighter.

‘Nice scent,’ said Patrick, burrowing his face in her neck. ‘What is it?’

‘Fracas.’

‘Very appropriate. Who gave it to you?’

‘Tony.’

‘Why hasn’t he got a neck?’ Patrick hurled a snowball into the woods. Gertrude hurtled after it. ‘You’d have thought with that much money he could have bought himself a neck.’

‘Shut up,’ said Cameron. ‘Tell me, do your mother and father always slope off to bed in the middle of their own parties?’

‘It’s a very odd marriage,’ said Patrick, pointing his new Leica at her. ‘Look towards the stream, darling. My father has always seen my mother as Maud Gonne.’

‘The woman Yeats was fixated on?’

‘Right. Yeats fell in love with her at exactly the same age my father fell in love with my mother. Look, badger tracks.’ Patrick bent down to examine them. ‘Maud Gonne was a rabid revolutionary. Yeats knew he wouldn’t impress her with poetry, so he got caught up in a political movement to unite Ireland. Then she married John MacBride, another revolutionary. Broke Yeats’s heart, but it made him write his best poetry. He claimed Maud Gonne was beyond blame, like Helen of Troy.’

‘But your mother isn’t a revolutionary, for Christ’s sake, and she hasn’t married someone else.’

‘No, but she has Maud Gonne’s tremendous beauty, and my father has an almost fatalistic acceptance that she’s above blame and will have affairs with other men.’

‘Doesn’t your mother care for him?’

‘In her way. I once asked her why she messed him about so much. She said that, with every woman in the world after him, she could only hold him by uncertainty.’

Cameron digested this.

‘But if he only loves her, and doesn’t want all these women, why can’t she stop playing games and love him back?’

‘That’s far too easy. She’s convinced that, once he’s sure of her, his obsession would evaporate. So the games go on.’

‘I wish they wouldn’t,’ said Cameron. ‘It sure makes him cranky to work with.’

She sat on a log and watched Patrick write ‘Patrick loves Cameron’ in huge letters in the snow. Then he got out his hip flask, now filled with brandy, and handed it to her.

‘You warm enough?’

Cameron nodded, taking a sip.

‘Do you have a drinking problem?’ she asked, as Patrick took a huge slug.

Patrick laughed. ‘Only if I can’t afford it. Whisky’s twelve pounds a bottle in Dublin. Will you come and stay with me at Trinity next term?’

It’s crazy, thought Cameron. He’s utterly unsuitable and eight years younger than me, but the snow had given her such a feeling of irresponsibility, she hadn’t felt so happy for years. The only unsettling thing was that he reminded her so much of Declan. They had the same arrogance, the same assumption that everyone would dance to their tune. Patrick seemed to read her thoughts.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not at all like my father. Being Capricorn, I have a very shrewd business head. I may be overexacting, but I’m also cool, calculating and calm, whereas my father is very highly strung and overemotional. Capricorns also have excellent senses of humour and make protective and loving husbands.’ He grinned at her. The violet shadows beneath the brilliant dark eyes were even more pronounced this morning, but nothing could diminish the beauty of the bone structure, the full slightly sulky curve of the mouth, or the thickness of the long dark eyelashes.

‘Not a very artistic sign, Capricorn,’ Cameron said crushingly.

‘What about Mallarme?’ said Patrick. ‘One of the bravest, most dedicated of poets. He was Capricorn. He knew what slog and self-negation is needed to produce poetry. He understood the loneliness of the writer. Look, here’s the sun.’

Hand in hand they watched the huge red sun climbing up behind the black bars of the beech copse on the top road, blushing at its inability to warm the day.

‘Looks like Charles Fairburn spending a night inside for soliciting,’ said Patrick.

‘God, I wish I had a crew,’ said Cameron. ‘D’you realize you can only afford to film sunrises in winter in this country? In summer it rises at four o’clock in the morning. That’s in golden time, when you have to pay a crew miles over the rate for working through the night. Christ, I hate the British unions.’

Patrick turned towards her. ‘I only like American-Irish unions. Let me look at you.’

Her dark hair, no longer sleeked back with water, was blown forward in black tendrils over her cheek bones, and in a thick fringe which softened the slanting yellow eyes, and the beaky nose. Her skin and her full pale lips were amber in the sunshine.

Patrick sighed and took another photograph. ‘Even the sun’s upstaged. You’re so dazzling, he’ll have to wear dark glasses to look at you.’

Cameron laughed. He’d be terribly easy to fall in love with, she was shocked to find herself thinking.

‘How many more terms have you got?’ she asked as they wandered back.

‘Two.’

‘What are your future goals?’

‘To take you to bed when we get home.’

‘Don’t be an asshole! Apart from that?’

‘Get a first, then write plays.’

‘Just like that?’

‘Just like that. I’ve started one already.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘Intimidation — by British soldiers in Ulster.’

‘You’re crazy — neither the BBC nor ITV would touch it, particularly in an election year. Nor will the West End.’

‘Broadway would, and a success there would come here.’

‘Very self-confident, aren’t you?’

‘Not particularly. I just know what I want from life.’

He moved closer, putting his hands inside the three jerseys warming them on her small breasts.

‘I want you most.’

Back at The Priory, people were beginning to surface. Bas, having put so many Alka Seltzers in a glass of water they’d fizzed over the top, was trying to find his overcoat. Caitlin was eating Alpen and reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Taggie was serving breakfast to Simon Harris’s monsters, trying to give the baby its bottle and comfort Simon Harris who was sobbing at the kitchen table with his face in his hands.

‘Oh Patrick, thank goodness you’re back,’ she said. ‘Could you possibly ring the doctor about. .’ She nodded in Simon Harris’s direction.

‘No,’ said Patrick, backing out of the kitchen. ‘Sorry, darling, I’m busy.’

‘I’m going home to call the office and get some sleep,’ said Cameron.

‘No,’ said Patrick, suddenly frantic. ‘If we go to sleep it won’t be my birthday any more and we’ll break the spell.’

He took her up the winding stairs to his bedroom in the east turret, which was painted dazzlingly white, as though the snow had fallen inside. There were no carpets or curtains, and the only furniture was a desk, a chair, a green and white sofa piled high with books, and a vast red-curtained oriental four-poster with bells hanging from the tops of the posts. The view, however, was magnificent, straight across the valley and up to Penscombe. You could see the weathercock on top of the church spire glittering in the sunlight.

A volume of Keats lay open on the bed: the pages were covered with pencilled notes. Picking it up, Cameron crawled under the duvet and tried to decipher Patrick’s writing. Looking up, she saw the ceiling was painted dove grey with little stars picked out in white.

If only she’d had a room like this when she was young, she thought bitterly. Patrick went off to get them some breakfast. He took longer than anticipated. Taggie was on the telephone ringing up some doctor about Simon Harris, but she ran after him and buttonholed him as he was going back upstairs with a tray, dragging him into the sitting-room, distraught that he had Cameron in his room.

‘She’s Tony Baddingham’s c-c-concubine.’

‘Is that your word for the day?’ said Patrick coldly.

‘No, that’s what Daddy calls her. Do you want to ruin his career?’

‘Tony B couldn’t be that petty, firing a megastar like Pa, just because I took his mistress off him.’

‘He could! He’s really evil!’

‘Well if he’s that evil, Pa shouldn’t be working for him. Now, get out of my way, sweetheart. The coffee’s getting cold.’

‘And I’ve had enough of entertaining your friends,’ Taggie screamed after him.

‘Bicker, bicker,’ said Caitlin, looking up from Lady Chatterley’s Lover. ‘Pity it isn’t Spring, then Cameron could festoon your willy with forget-me-nots. Oh my God,’ she screamed, as an ashen Daysee Butler shuffled downstairs in a white towelling dressing-gown. ‘It’s The Priory ghost.’

Upstairs, Patrick found Cameron wearing his new red and silver dressing-gown and reading Keats. The sun shining through the stained glass of one of the windows had turned her face emerald, ruby and violet like a nymph of the rainbow. Patrick felt his heart fail.

He had brought up croissants, Taggie’s bramble jelly, a bunch of green grapes, a jug of Buck’s Fizz and some very strong black coffee. Cameron, who’d had no dinner the night before, was starving and ate most of it. It was astonishing, thought Patrick, that she looked desirable even with croissant crumbs on her lips. But even the black coffee couldn’t keep her awake for long. Patrick didn’t sleep. He sat making notes on Keats, which was one of his set books, but spending more time gazing at her. In sleep her face lost all its aggression.

It was almost dark when she woke up. For a second she looked bewildered and utterly terrified.

‘It’s all right,’ said Patrick gently. ‘You’re safe now.’

She got up and looked out of the window. Orion, the swaggering voyeur, was looking in at her. The great yews and cedars were black against the snow. She could hear an unearthly strangulated croaking.

‘What’s that?’

‘Foxes barking. It’s a love call. Come here.’

‘Not till I’ve cleaned my teeth.’

Grabbing her bag she went down the landing, terrified of bumping into Declan. Instead, coming out of the bathroom she found Caitlin and Maud having a row.

‘I’m nothing like Lady Chatterley,’ Maud was screaming. ‘Good evening, Cameron. Nothing at all.’

‘You’re so lucky to have a family,’ said Cameron as she slid back under the duvet beside Patrick. He was still wearing a jersey and trousers.

‘How many times have you been home, since you came over here?’ he asked.

‘I haven’t.’

‘Why not? One must see one’s family occasionally if only to fight with them.’

The argument outside was growing more clamorous.

‘My parents are divorced. My father’s married again. My mother lives with someone. I don’t want to talk about it,’ said Cameron shrilly. Suddenly she was trembling, her teeth chattering, her eyes darting and frightened.

‘You must,’ said Patrick. ‘How can I love you properly if I don’t know everything about you?’

‘No!’ It was almost a scream.

‘Come on. It’ll help, I promise.’

They argued for some minutes before she gave in.

Suddenly he reminded her again of Declan. He had the same gentle but relentlessly probing voice, the same way of never taking his eyes off her face, and almost hypnotizing her into telling him everything.

‘My mother walked out on my father when I was fourteen,’ said Cameron tonelessly. ‘Decided she wanted to be her own person. She dabbled in a lot of things, peace marches, consciousness raising, but she wasn’t sufficiently focused and when the money ran out she moved to a female commune. Took me with her, but left my dog behind, because it was male.’ Cameron gave a bitter, choked laugh, ‘I never forgave her for that. My father got married again, and got all tied up with his new wife. Then Mom shacked up with Mike.’

‘Your step-father?’

There was a long pause.

‘You could call it that. Mike was a dyke. My mother wrote a piece about coming out in the Village Voice. All her friends thought she was real brave. My classmates just sniggered and nudged each other.’

‘You poor little baby.’ Patrick took her trembling hands.

‘Then Mike and Mom moved to Cincinnati and Mike got the job of City Editor on the local paper. I could have put up with her being gay, but she was a real bull dyke, more macho than a guy really, with a skin like the surface of the moon, and hip measurements in treble figures, and a beer-gut spilling over her leather belts.’ Cameron shuddered. ‘She had a huge motorbike and she used to take Mom on the pillion. They joined a crazy organization called “Dykes on Bikes” and roared round the country in black leather going to gay parades.’

Patrick drew her to him. He could feel the pouring sweat, the terrible fits of shivering sweeping over her.

‘Go on, darling,’ he whispered.

‘I prayed Mike would crash and kill herself. Then, as a last straw, Mom decided their union should be blessed and went off and got pregnant by AID. Mike was mad about the idea at first, strutted round as though she was the real father. Then when the baby arrived, it was a boy, poor little sod, and she got jealous. Mom was over forty. She had a terrible labour. She was in hospital for ten days. I was alone in the house with Mike. Every night she came home plastered. Then one evening I remember she spent about ten minutes getting her key into the lock. I was trying to work in my room. I can’t tell you. I’ve never told anyone this.’ She was suddenly frantic like a cat struggling and clawing to escape. Patrick held onto her. ‘It’s OK. You’ve got to trust me. Come on, sweetheart, come on.’

‘Mike yelled for me to come downstairs and fix her some supper.’ Cameron’s voice was toneless again, and so quiet Patrick could hardly hear her.

‘I was frying her eggs and bacon when suddenly she came up behind me and started to grope me, ripping my clothes off, trying to kiss me. Ugh. She was terribly strong. I swung the pan round and hit her with it. Then I ran out into the night.’

Cameron put her fingers in her hair, rubbing the ball of her hand over and over again against her forehead, as if to blot out the memory. Patrick waited.

‘I went to some neighbours. I lied that Mike had tried to beat me up. They said they’d expected it for months. They called Dad in Washington. He came the next day and took me to live with him. He’d been dying to get something on Mom and Mike and the court ruled I should stay with him.’

‘What happened then?’

‘It didn’t work,’ said Cameron wearily. ‘The honeymoon wore off. My stepmother’s a lawyer, my father’s a diplomat; they had a young baby. They’re Very Civilized People and Very Busy; they couldn’t handle a savage like me. I disrupted their lives, I made awful scenes, stayed out all night. They couldn’t see I was crying out for someone to care. I ran away from them too in the end. I got a scholarship to Barnard, worked in the Vac to support myself, got a job on the New York Times, and finally moved to television. The rest is hysterics.’ She gave her bitter mirthless laugh again.

‘You poor darling.’ Patrick pulled her back into his arms again, kissing her forehead. No wonder she was screwed up and aggressive and desperately insecure after that. He’d never felt so sorry for anyone in his life.

‘Didn’t you have a boyfriend to look after you?’

‘Oh I screwed around like crazy, just to prove I was heterosexual. Then the AIDS scare started in the States. Then Tony came along.’

‘Hardly the ideal father figure,’ said Patrick.

‘I’m not dependent on him,’ snarled Cameron too quickly. ‘I’m not dependent on anyone. The only time I feel I belong is when my credits come up on the screen.’

She was shuddering violently now, furious with herself for dropping her guard and revealing so much.

‘I guess you’ll run to Declan now and tell him the whole thing, so you can have a good laugh.’

‘Don’t be childish,’ snapped Patrick. ‘I’m going to look after you. I’ll blot out all the bad memories, even if it takes a lifetime.’

Never taking his eyes off her face, he started to unbutton his shirt.

‘It’s too soon,’ she whispered.

‘I’m not going to fuck you,’ said Patrick. ‘I’m just going to hold you close. You’ve got to learn that someone loves you for other things besides your heavenly body, and your skills as a career bitch.’

Patrick was as good as his word. Gradually the shuddering stopped and he soothed all the tension out of her. Exhausted by so much revelation, she even slept again. At midnight she insisted on going back to her house. He was very loath to let her go.

‘Let me get dressed. I’ll run you home.’

‘I’ve got my car.’

‘I want to see your house.’

‘That’s Tony’s patch.’

‘Not any more. Tony’s past history.’

Cameron sighed. ‘I guess it’s a bit more problematical than that.’

‘I feel like Demeter letting Persephone go back to the underworld,’ said Patrick as he fastened her seat belt. ‘For Christ’s sake, drive carefully. The roads are like glass. I’ll ring you tomorrow. I love you.’

Hell, thought Cameron, as she drove up to the house, I must have left the living-room light on. She glanced in the hall mirror. Not a scrap of make-up. Despite the sleep, the circles under her eyes were darker than her eyebrows. Patrick had really seen her in the raw, yet she felt strangely cleansed and at peace at having told him everything. Tomorrow they’d make love. She knew it would be wonderful. The slow lazy smile of anticipation was wiped off her face when she went into the living-room and found Tony.

The videos of her programmes lay scattered over the floor. The ashtray was filled with cigar butts. The whisky bottle, which had been half-full, was empty now. Tony was a slow drinker; he must have been there hours. Cameron shut the door and leant against it, her heart crashing. With a particularly unpleasant smile on his face, Tony picked up some papers lying on the table.

‘I’ve been looking at your contract,’ he said amiably. ‘D’you want to leave now or work out your notice?’

It was as though the last twenty-four hours had never existed. Here was reality. Her whole career, her only security, was crashing round her ears in ruins.

‘I haven’t done anything. You can’t fire me,’ she whispered in terror.

‘I don’t have to. Your contract runs out in six weeks. Such a pity you blew it.’ He examined his square, beautifully manicured fingernails. ‘I came round to tell you that Simon Harris gave in to his nervous breakdown and was carted off to a loony bin this afternoon on extended leave. But you know what I feel about unpunctuality and twenty-four hours is a little late to come home from the ball.’

‘But I never normally see you on a Sunday,’ said Cameron illogically. She seemed too stunned to take anything in.

‘That doesn’t mean I don’t expect you to be here.’

Smiling, he picked up his glass of whisky.

‘You bloody little whore,’ he said softly. The next moment he’d hurled it in her face.

For a second she was speechless, as the liquid dripped down on to the suede dress.

‘How odd,’ she said in a strained, high voice. ‘Every time I buy something new and expensive some jerk spills something all over it.’ Then she lost her temper.

‘You bastard,’ she screamed. ‘I haven’t taken a weekend off in three years. I’m always at your fucking beck and call.’

‘That’s what I pay you for,’ said Tony. His eyes were sparkling with pleasure now.

‘You bloody don’t. If you paid me golden time for the hours I put in for you, I’d be Howard Hughes by now. You frig around doing exactly what you like, expecting me to behave like a fucking nun, except when you require my services. Well, it’s not bloody good enough.’

She sprang at him, trying to claw his face, but he grabbed her wrists. He was not bull-necked and thick-armed for nothing. As his grip tightened, Cameron gasped with pain.

‘I’d put up with it,’ she said through clenched teeth, ‘if the relationship was remotely even. You raise hell if I date anyone else, but you’re quite free to take darling Sarah Stratton out to lunch and make passes at her and offer her a job.’

Tony’s eyes gleamed. ‘So that’s it. Who told you that?’

‘She did,’ yelled Cameron, desperately struggling to get away. ‘And she said you still sleep with Monica.’

Tony grinned. ‘She must have an excellent spy system.’

‘The Old Bag system. Monica told Winifred, who told Paul, who told Sarah that, as you were always pestering her, Monica restricts you to once a week. And you told me you hadn’t laid a finger on her for years. You bloody liar.’

‘It’s rather exciting sleeping with Monica,’ mused Tony. ‘There’s a rarity element about it.’

‘So that’s why you sent Madden tripping out to James Garrett on Christmas Eve to buy us both diamond bracelets. Jesus Christ!’

Starting to laugh, Tony let go of her wrists. ‘You discovered that too, did you? Poor little Cameron, you must have been festering over Christmas. Jealousy is the most destructive of emotions, you know. It hurts only oneself.’

‘I hate you,’ screamed Cameron, wrenching off the bracelet and hurling it at him. Missing him, it hit the window, slithering scratchily down the glass like a fingernail on a blackboard.

‘Get out! I’ll move out tomorrow, but leave me alone now.’ She collapsed, sobbing, on the sofa. Regurgitating her past with Patrick earlier had only underlined how terrifying it was to have no security. She was a panic-stricken sixteen-year-old again, racing through the night away from Mike with nowhere to go.

Tony poured two fingers of brandy into a glass, then moved towards her, until she could feel the solidness of his thigh against hers. She resisted the temptation to cling on to it, as a child might fling its arms around a tree for comfort.

‘You were jealous, really jealous,’ purred Tony. ‘Was that why you led that boy on?’

‘Sure.’

He caught her hair, yanking her head back. ‘Did you sleep with him?’

‘Yes,’ she muttered. Then, terrified he was going to hit her or throw the brandy into her face, ‘But not the way you think, I was so goddam tired. I hadn’t slept for nights worrying about everything. I crashed out on his bed.’

‘And nothing happened?’

‘Nothing, nothing! He’s just a kid.’ Oh please make him believe her.

‘Did Declan know you spent the night there?’

‘No, I never saw him. He never came out of the bedroom.’

With the franchise coming up this year, Tony decided, he didn’t really want to lose her, but he was going to enjoy torturing her a bit more.

‘And you promise never to see the boy again?’

‘I promise,’ said Cameron wearily. ‘But he may try to see me.’

‘We’ll have to put pressure on Declan to stop him then, won’t we?’ said Tony silkily, as he took off Cameron’s jacket.

‘That is a very disturbing dress. I’d rather you didn’t wear it in public again.’

Putting his hand under the skirt, he jabbed two fingers up inside her.

Cameron winced. ‘I can’t, Tony, not tonight. I’m really pooped.’

‘You can,’ said Tony softly, ‘if you want to be Controller of Programmes.’

Three days after Patrick’s party Taggie was gingerly testing her heart and finding that the ache for Ralphie was much less acute than she’d expected it to be when the doorbell rang.

In the doorway stood Rupert. His suntan was already beginning to fade.

‘Hullo,’ he said, soulfully gazing into her eyes. ‘Since your wonderful party, I haven’t been able to eat a thing.’

‘Oh my goodness,’ stammered Taggie, her heart beginning to thump.

Rupert grinned. ‘Could I possibly have my knives and forks and plates back?’

Taggie was used to unrequited love. Patrick, however, was not. Hopelessly spoilt by his mother, accustomed to attracting girls effortlessly, he couldn’t believe Cameron didn’t want to see him any more.

Despite Declan’s tirades and Taggie’s pleading, he continued to pester her with letters and telephone calls. Then, when these were not answered, he hung round the Corinium studios and outside her house.

Cameron, in fact, had hardly had time to think. As well as producing Declan’s programme and coping with her new job as Acting Controller of Programmes, she had to face a virtual palace revolution from a staff outraged by her appointment.

The afternoon before he was due to go back to Trinity, Patrick rang Cameron at the office. Expecting a call from Rupert about coming on Declan’s programme, Cameron unthinkingly picked up the telephone instead of leaving it to her secretary.

‘Can I speak to Cameron?’ said Patrick.

Cameron froze. Putting on a cockney accent, she said, ‘I’m afraid she’s not at her desk at the moment.’

‘Where is she?’ snapped Patrick. ‘Lying with the Managing Director under his desk.’

Cameron hung up.

The telephone was ringing again as she got home that evening. Running into the hall, she snatched up the receiver. It was Rupert answering her call.

‘We were talking about a date for you to come on Declan’s programme,’ she said with a confidence she didn’t feel. ‘I was just hoping to firm you up.’

Rupert laughed. ‘Extraordinary terminology you use in television.’

His diary was ridiculously full, but to her amazement he said he could make a Wednesday in February, which turned out to be St Valentine’s Day. He’d been so adamant he wouldn’t do the programme.

‘And in case I don’t bump into Declan beforehand, can you ask him if he’s free for dinner afterwards?’

Cameron didn’t say that after Declan had taken Rupert to the cleaners she thought it most unlikely.

‘That was a good party on New Year’s Eve,’ said Rupert. ‘I saw you bopping in your suede dress. I hoped you’d jump out of your skin.’

The next moment Cameron nearly did jump out of her skin, as she felt a kiss on the back of her neck. Patrick had walked in through the unlocked door.

‘Get out,’ hissed Cameron, clapping her hand over the receiver.

Shaking his head, Patrick sauntered into the living-room. She caught a blast of whisky as he passed.

Talking gibberish, furious at having to wind up her conversation with Rupert so abruptly, she said goodbye and went into the living-room, where she found Patrick hurling darts at the dart board.

‘Nice place you’ve got here. I can see why you wouldn’t want to give it up in a hurry.’

‘Get out,’ screamed Cameron.

‘Not until you tell me why you didn’t ring back.’

He went up to the board, and pulled out the darts. His hands were shaking, his eyes were black hollows in a deathly pale face. He must have lost pounds; he looked terrible.

‘There was no reason to call back. We had a fun day.’

‘A fun day?’ he asked incredulously. ‘Was that all it meant to you, after the sunrise, and all you told me about your mother and Mike and you falling asleep in my arms?’

‘Shut up,’ hissed Cameron, looking round in terror, expecting Tony to pop up from under the piano.

Patrick picked up a huge bunch of anemones which he’d left on the dentist’s chair.

‘I bought you these. For Christ’s sake, I love you. Can’t you understand that?’

In answer Cameron snatched the flowers from him and hurled them into the fireplace. Patrick winced and turned back to the dart board. The first dart missed, crashing into the wall, the second hit the glass in the frame of one of Cameron’s awards, the third hit a plate.

‘Pack it in,’ said Cameron more calmly. ‘If Tony turns up, he’ll kill us both.’

‘He’s a fiend. I’ve been checking up on him,’ said Patrick, sitting down at the piano. ‘He’s so avaricious,’ he went on between crashing chords, ‘even the bags under his eyes have got gold in them, and he’s corrupting you too, turning you into his pet Rottweiler to savage any of his staff he wants to reduce to jelly. You’ll never get out of the Underworld if you stay with him.’

‘Tony suits me,’ said Cameron over the din. ‘We’ve been together for three years, OK? My career’s the only thing that matters.’

‘So you agreed to drop me if he made you Controller of Programmes?’

‘You flatter yourself. What can you offer me?’

Patrick’s hands came down in a jumble of discords. ‘I, being poor,’ he said bitterly, ‘can only offer you my dreams.’

‘Stop talking like a prime-time soap.’

‘You should know, you make enough of them. Can I have a drink?’

‘You’ve had enough,’ snarled Cameron. ‘Tony’ll be here in a minute.’

‘And he’ll settle you in that dentist’s chair,’ said Patrick scornfully, ‘and say “open wide”, and then it’s Wham, bam, thank you, Mammon. My Christ.’

He slammed the piano lid down and got to his feet.

‘Don’t be obnoxious,’ hissed Cameron.

On New Year’s Day, when she’d sobbed in his arms, he’d seemed so strong. Suddenly now he looked terribly young and frightened. Cameron was too insecure herself to be drawn to frailty.

‘I’m truly sorry,’ he muttered. ‘It hurts loving you, that’s all. Look, I’ll do anything. I’ll chuck Trinity, get a job. It’ll be easy with Pa’s connections.’

‘Always fall back on Daddy, don’t you?’ taunted Cameron. ‘You bitch about his philistine programme, but you’ll bleed him white when it suits you. Well I’m not having you bleeding me white. Can’t you get it into your Neanderthal skull that I don’t want you around?’

Guilt at the way she’d treated him made her even more brutal.

‘I can’t help myself,’ said Patrick, going towards the door. ‘La Belle Dame sans merci has me totally in thrall.’

He went to the nearest pub and drank until long after closing time. The landlady felt sorry for the beautiful, obviously desolate young man sitting there quietly gazing into space.

At midnight Patrick parked his car four houses down from Cameron’s and got out. It was a punishingly cold night. Cotchester slumbered beneath her eiderdown of snow. In a sky russet from the streetlamps huge stars flickered. Icicles glittered from Cameron’s gutters. In front of the house beside Cameron’s green Lotus was parked Tony’s bloody great dark-red Rolls Royce with the Corinium ram on the bonnet. There was a light on in the top of the house — Cameron’s bedroom, guessed Patrick. He imagined Tony brutally clambering over her lovely body. The Sunday before last she’d lain in his arms, pliant as a child. He wanted to plunge one of the icicles into Tony’s heart.

Wearing only a jersey and an old pair of cords, he was shivering violently now. Then he noticed that Tony’s car keys were still in the dashboard. Trying the car door he found it open. The lecherous bugger had obviously been in such a hurry to get at Cameron he’d forgotten to lock it.

Easing open the door, pulling out the keys, Patrick chucked them into a nearby flower bed. They landed deep in a lavender bush, hardly scattering the snow.

At four o’clock in the morning Tony looked at his watch. ‘I must go.’

Cameron didn’t dissuade him. She was utterly shattered. To eradicate any memory of Patrick, Tony had recently insisted on indulging in sexual marathons. Four times that night, he thought smugly; no one could accuse him of losing his touch. Cameron daren’t complain. She was also twitchy that Patrick might do something insane to rock the boat.

Hearing Tony let himself out, she was just falling asleep when she heard a key turn in the door. It was a sound that always unnerved her, reminding her of Mike. For a wild moment of dread and longing she thought it might be Patrick.

‘Did I leave my keys here?’ shouted Tony.

By the time they’d upended the entire house, the car and the drive, screamed at each other and nearly frozen to death, the lights had come on in the houses opposite and curtains were twitching in the houses on either side. There was no way Tony could start the Rolls, or get someone to help push it out of the way. If he rang Percy, his chauffeur, it would be round the entire network in a flash, so he spent the next three hours frantically and abortively ringing round the country, trying to find another set of keys.

In the end he had to order a taxi from the station. His temper was not improved by the driver recognizing him and slyly my Lording him all the way home.

Arriving at The Falconry, he had to provide Monica with a ridiculously convoluted explanation that he’d decided to come home that night, but that his car had gone into a skid on the motorway and he’d had to abandon it. He then had to keep her in bed in the morning, so she wouldn’t drive into Cotchester and see his car parked outside Cameron’s house.

As it was, poor, loyal Cyril Peacock tracked down a key and removed the Rolls by midday, but by then almost the entire Corinium staff had seen the car on their way in to work and had had a good laugh. That afternoon, Cameron passed the staff noticeboard. Beneath the card announcing her appointment as Acting Controller of Programmes, someone had added the words: ‘and Mistress of the Rolls’.

Later that day, Patrick rang Cameron from Birmingham Airport to say goodbye.

‘Did you steal Tony’s keys?’ she shouted.

‘Tell him to look under the lavender on the left of the front door.’

Cameron let Patrick have it. ‘You stupid asshole. If Monica had come by and seen the car, you’d have landed Tony in a divorce court.’

‘I thought that’s what you wanted.’

‘Don’t be so fucking infantile.’

‘I couldn’t help it.’ Patrick’s voice faltered. ‘I can’t bear to think of that great toad in bed with you.’

‘Get out of my life,’ screamed Cameron. ‘You don’t know the rules.’

‘I love you.’ Patrick was almost crying.

‘Well, I don’t love you. You’re a fucking nuisance. Piss off and try and do something worthwhile with your life.’

She was dead scared of telling Tony about the keys, but was amazed to find that he was grimly pleased.

‘What a very silly little boy to put such a very large nail in his father’s coffin.’

20

At the end of January the IBA formally asked for applications for the new franchises. These applications, which had to be provided not only by the fifteen incumbent independent companies, but also by any rival consortium who sought to oust them, often ran to hundreds of beautifully bound pages, giving details of finance, staffing policies, plans for future programmes and proposed boards of management.

After the applications were handed in in early May, the IBA would study them and then conduct a series of public meetings around the country, attempting to find out whether the public felt well-served by their particular local television company. After private meetings between the IBA and all the individual contenders in October and November, the franchises would be finally awarded in December.

Anticipating a long year full of lobbying and hustling, Tony Baddingham’s immediate task in the New Year was to strengthen the Corinium Board. Knowing the IBA and particularly Lady Gosling’s penchant for women, he intended to make Cameron a director. But he wanted to punish her as long as possible for stepping out of line with Patrick, and, as the staff were still in a state of mutiny over her appointment, he didn’t want a strike on his hands in franchise year. The staff, however, had short memories. Cameron had found Simon Harris’s affairs in such a shambles that Tony had quite enough excuses to dispense with his services when he came out of hospital, but that would have to be done discreetly too. Then he could appoint Cameron to the Board just before the applications went in.

Tony also had his lunch with Freddie Jones, who, heavily pressured by Valerie, was poised to join the Corinium Board. His only reservation was whether, with his electronics empire and his race horses and his hunting, he would have sufficient time. If he were a director, he wanted to do some directing.

As an added incentive to Valerie, however, Tony invited Freddie shooting the last Saturday in January, and asked some extremely grand people to shoot as well. Never having shot with Freddie before, Tony issued a warning to the other guns beforehand.

‘Freddie Jones is a bit of a rough diamond, but exceptionally able. He’s going to be very useful on our board, if you know what I mean. But I’m not sure how good a shot he is, so bring your tin hat.’

In the master bedroom at Green Lawns Freddie Jones lay beside his wife in the vast suede oval bed, covered with dials for quadraphonic stereo, radio, dimmer switches, razors and vibrators which Valerie used to massage her neck. They had to leave for Tony’s about nine. It was now only six forty-five, which left plenty of time for sex, thought Freddie hopefully. They had already drunk two cups of tea from the Teasmade. Reaching across, Freddie put his hand on Valerie’s bush, fingering her clitoris from time to time as a door-to-door salesman, not very hopeful of entrance, might press a doorbell.

Valerie sighed. She knew no wife should deny her husband his conjugal rights, but one of the joys of Freddie getting up early to go hunting every Saturday meant that she could pretend to be asleep as she did every weekday when he left for work at six-thirty.

Valerie did everything to avoid sex. She had already taken back to Jolly’s of Bath the absurdly sexy black lingerie an ever-hopeful Freddie had bought her for Christmas and replaced it with some peach satin sheets for the guest bedroom. She always wore woollen nightgowns buttoned up to the neck. If only she could sew up the bottom as well! The pressing finger was getting more insistent.

‘D’you want to come, Fred-Fred?’

‘Do you?’

‘Not really. I want to be fresh for Tony and Monica.’

‘Will you help me then?’

Valerie sighed again. Kneeling, she raised the red woollen nightgown, so Freddie could admire her candy pink nipples and her neatly clipped bush. She loathed watching him, but at least it stopped her getting messy.

‘You’re so beautiful,’ sighed Freddie. ‘You’ve got the body of a little girl.’

‘Here’s some tissues. Don’t waste a clean towel, Fred-Fred.’

He had barely finished his lonely act before Valerie had reached up to press another switch on the bedhead which instantly sent boiling water gushing out of the 22-carat-gold mixer taps into the vast onyx and sepia marble double bath next door. Then, remembering she didn’t want a flushed face, Valerie twiddled another knob to lower the temperature.

Snowdrops spread in a milk-white blur on either side of Tony Baddingham’s drive. The guns, in their dung-coloured clothes, gathered outside The Falconry, pulling on gumboots and bellowing at excited dogs that whisked about lifting their legs on Monica’s aconites.

At nine-thirty, just as it stopped raining, Freddie’s freshly cleaned red Jaguar roared up the drive.

‘Oh dear,’ said Freddie, leaning out of the window and roaring with laughter at the other guns’ filthy Landrovers, ‘I forgot to chuck a bucket of mud over my car before I came out. Amizing, those snowdrops,’ he said, clambering out. ‘Just like a big fall of snow.’

He was wearing a red jersey, a Barbour and no cap on his red-gold curls. Next minute Valerie emerged from her side in a ginger knickerbocker suit, with a matching ginger cloak flung round her shoulders, and a ginger deerstalker.

‘Christ,’ muttered Tony to Sarah Stratton.

‘It’s Sherlock Lovely Homes,’ said Sarah, making no attempt not to laugh. ‘All she needs is a curved pipe and a spy glass.’

‘What’s that?’ asked Valerie gaily.

‘We were admiring your — er — outfit,’ said Sarah quickly.

‘All from my Spring range,’ said Valerie, looking smug. ‘Better hurry, it’s selling like hot cakes.’

Tony oozed forward, exuding charm.

‘You both know Sarah and Paul Stratton of course, and my brother Bas,’ he said smoothly, and when he went on to introduce Valerie to the Lord-Lieutenant Henry Hampshire, two peers and a Duke from the next county, Valerie nearly had the orgasm Freddie had so longed to give her earlier. Fred-Fred must definitely join the Corinium Board, thought Valerie. It might be a Prince, or even a King, next time.

‘Hullo, Valerie,’ said Monica, who was wearing a green sou’wester over a headscarf. ‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’

‘Naughty,’ chided Valerie, waving a tan suede finger. ‘I said you must call me Mousie, No, I won’t have a coffee, thank you.’

She didn’t want to have to go to the toilet behind a hawthorn bush mid-morning in front of all the gentry.

They were about to set off when the phone rang loudly in Freddie’s car.

‘’Ullo, Mr Ho Chin, how are fings?’ said Freddie in delight. ‘Grite, grite. Fifty million, did you say? Yeah, that seems about right. Look, ’ave a word with Alfredo and see if ‘e wants to come in too, and phone me back. Yes, I’ll be on this number all day.’

The guns exchanged looks of absolute horror, as Freddie extracted the telephone from the car, all set to bring it with him.

Tony sidled up. ‘D’you mind awfully leaving that thing behind? Might put off the pheasants.’

‘’Course not,’ said Freddie, putting it back in the car. ‘If Chin can’t get me ’ere, he’ll ring my office.’

‘D’you take your telephone hunting too?’ asked an appalled Paul.

‘Always,’ said Freddie.

They started off up an incredibly steep hill behind the house. It was one of those mild January days that give the illusion winter is over. A few dirty suds of traveller’s joy still hung from the trees. No wind ruffled the catkins. It was hellishly hard going. Valerie, wishing she hadn’t worn her long johns, tried not to pant.

As it started to rain, she put up her ginger umbrella which kept catching in the branches. On the brow of the hill the guns took up their position, which they’d drawn out of a hat earlier. Except for Freddie’s distracting red-gold curls, the flat caps along the row were absolutely parallel with the gun barrels. Shooting in the middle of the line between Tony and the Duke, Freddie jumped from foot to foot swinging his gun through the line like Ian Botham hooking.

The Duke, who had three daughters and was hoping for a son so the title wouldn’t pass to a younger brother, was not the only gun looking at Freddie with extreme trepidation.

‘I’m ’ot,’ said Freddie, shedding his Barbour. Seeing the Duke’s and Tony’s looks of horror at Freddie’s red jersey and Bas laughing like a jackass, Valerie, who’d been yakking nonstop to Sarah Stratton about puff-ball skirts, sharply told Freddie to put it back on. For once Freddie ignored her.

Suddenly the patter of rain on the flat caps was joined by the relentless swish of the beaters’ flags.

‘Come on, little birdies,’ cooed Paul, caressing the trigger.

I hate him for being him and not Rupert, thought Sarah despairingly.

A lone pheasant came into view, high over Freddie’s head.

‘Bet he misses,’ said Paul.

The Duke and Tony raised their guns in case he did.

But a shot rang out and the pheasant somersaulted like a gaudy catherine wheel and thudded to the ground.

Next moment a great swarm appeared, some steeply rising, some whirring close to the ground. There was a deafening fusillade and the air was full of feathers as birds cartwheeled and crashed into the grass.

The whistle blew; the first drive was over. Dogs shot off to retrieve the plunder. It was plain from the number of brace being amassed by Freddie’s loader that he’d shot the plus twos off everyone else.

‘Freddie Jones seems a bloody good shot,’ said Bas.

‘Beginner’s luck,’ snapped Paul, who had easily shot the least.

For the next drive the guns formed a ring round a little yellow stone farmhouse with a turquoise door and a moulting Christmas tree in the back yard.

Once more the shots rang out, once more the sky rained pheasants. To left and right, Freddie, the Duke and the Lord-Lieutenant were bringing down everything that came over. Tony fared less well. Valerie was standing behind him with Monica and her endless chatter put him off.

At the end of the drive Tony’s loader, knowing the competitive nature of his boss, pinched a brace from Bas on one side and another from the Lord-Lieutenant who was gazing admiringly at Sarah.

‘Those are mine!’ said the Lord-Lieutenant sharply.

‘Sorry,’ said Tony smoothly. ‘My loader’s very jealous of my reputation.’

‘Jealous loader, indeed,’ muttered the Lord-Lieutenant.

The next drive was a long one, with the guns dotted like waistcoat buttons down the valley. Valerie was bored. Only the birds and the chuckling of a little stream interrupted the quiet. Monica, who found shooting as boring as Corinium Television, was plugged into the Sony Walkman Archie had given her for Christmas. Now she was transfixed by the love duet from Tristan und Isolde, eyes shut, dreamily waving her hands in time to the music and tripping over bramble cables.

Sarah was equally uncommunicative. Weekends were the worst, she reflected, because, knowing Paul was at home, Rupert would never ring. She’d only come out today for something to do. Spring returns, she murmured, looking at the ruby and amethyst haze of the thickening buds, but not my Rupert. He had been so keen, but suddenly after Valerie’s dinner party he had lost interest. Was it Nathalie Perrault, or Cameron Cook, or even Maud O’Hara he was running after now? Perhaps he was just busy and would come back.

A diversion was provided by the arrival of Hermione Hampshire, the Lord-Lieutenant’s wife, who looked like a sheep, had a ringing voice and appeared to be on so many of the same committees as Monica that she even merited having the Walkman turned off.

‘Freddie’s been shooting wonderfully,’ said Monica kindly, and then started rabbiting on to Hermione Hampshire about shooting lunches.

Valerie listened to them. One could pick up lots of tips about pronunciation from the gentry. But it was confusing that Monica said ‘Eyether’ and Hermione said ‘Eether’.

In the next field she was somewhat unnerved by some black and white cows who cavorted skittishly around, startled by the gunfire. She edged closer to Monica and Hermione.

‘D’you know,’ Monica was saying, ‘I never spend less than forty minutes on a cock.’

Valerie was shocked to the core. She’d always imagined Monica was somehow above sex.

‘I agree,’ said Hermione Hampshire in her ringing voice. ‘I never spend less than thirty minutes on a hen.’

‘They’re talking about plucking,’ whispered Sarah with a giggle, ‘and I don’t think either of them have heard of rhyming slang.’

It was the last drive before lunch. Freddie, like a one-man Bofors, was bringing down pheasants with relentless accuracy.

‘Got my eye in now,’ he said, grinning at the Lord-Lieutenant.

He raised his gun as another pheasant flew towards him, then swore as it crashed prematurely to the ground.

‘Sorry,’ said Tony, who couldn’t bear being upstaged a moment longer. ‘Thought you were unloaded.’

This time it was carnage. The air was raining feathers. Dogs circled, loaders went round breaking the necks of the wounded.

Lucky things, thought Sarah. I wish someone would put me out of my misery.

‘I love your dog,’ she said to Henry Hampshire. ‘I saw a beautiful springer the other day with a long tail.’

‘Good God,’ said Henry Hampshire, appalled, and strode off leaving her in mid-sentence.

‘I thought you said you hadn’t shot before,’ said Tony as they walked back to the house.

‘Not pheasant,’ said Freddie, ‘but I was the top marksman at Bisley for two years.’

Entering the garden, they passed two yews cut in the shape of pheasants.

‘You couldn’t even hit those today, could you, Paul?’ said Tony nastily.

After so much open air and exercise, everyone fell on lunch. There was Spanish omelette cut up in small pieces on cocktail sticks, and a huge stew, with baked potatoes, and a winter salad, and plum cake steeped in brandy and Stilton, with masses of claret and sloe gin.

Freddie was in terrific form. His curls had tightened in the rain. Looking more like a naughty cherub than ever, he kept his end of the table in a roar with stories of his army career and his first catastrophic experiences out hunting.

Henry Hampshire, who had a lean face and turned-down eyes, shed his gentle paternalistic smile on everyone, even Sarah.

‘D’yer really think Springers look better with long tails?’ he asked her.

Sarah had a lot to drink at lunch. She looks like a Renoir, thought Tony, all blonde curls, huge blue eyes and languor.

‘Have you made up your mind about joining Corinium?’ he asked her.

‘Yes, I’d love to. I’ll come in and sign the contract tomorrow.’

‘Only a three months’ trial,’ said Tony, who never took chances, ‘but I think you’ll love it. This will be a very exciting year.’

Christ, I’d like to take her to bed, he thought. Cameron was being very uptight at the moment.

‘Not too worried about me getting you on the telecasting couch?’ he added, lowering his voice.

Sarah went crimson. ‘Cameron must have told you about that. I picked her brains, I didn’t realize you and she. . I’m sorry.’