‘Are you still out of work, Robert?’
‘Yes I am,’ said Amiss blackly. ‘Things aren’t looking up.’ ‘Oh good,’ said Ellis Pooley. And then, hastily recollecting himself, ‘Sorry, Robert. Of course I didn’t mean that. I just meant, oh good, that means you’re likely to be free for lunch today.’
‘Are you sure that’s all you mean? You wouldn’t by any chance be coming up with job suggestions for me again, would you?’
‘Don’t be so suspicious, Robert,’ said Pooley firmly. ‘A friend should be able to ask you to lunch without his motives being impugned.’
Amiss snorted. ‘Not when that friend is Sergeant Pooley of the CID. However, if you’re paying, yes, I am free for lunch today. When and where?’
‘One o’clock at the Repeal Club.’
‘The Repeal Club? Blimey! What’s a nice young policeperson doing in a place like that?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with the Repeal Club.’ Pooley sounded slightly offended. ‘My father put me up for it when I came down from Cambridge. It’s really terribly economical and convenient. Of course if you’d prefer me to invite you to the snack bar in the police canteen…?’
‘No, no,’ said Amiss hastily. ‘Incidentally, what’s it trying to repeal?’
‘The Corn Laws.’
‘Weren’t they repealed in the mid-nineteenth century?’ ‘Indeed they were.’ Pooley’s patience seemed to be wearing thin. ‘However, we’re still celebrating. Now, Robert, I’ll see you at lunch-time. Oh, and please wear a jacket and tie.’
‘Where is this place anyway?’
‘At the Regent Street end of Pall Mall opposite the Travellers’ and the Reform. See you.’ Pooley put the phone down firmly.
Thankfully abandoning the application forms he had been filling in half-heartedly, Amiss wandered into his bedroom to begin the process of changing himself into something resembling a gentleman. He felt cheered by this break in his demoralising daily routine. A momentary fear struck him that Pooley might be in the austere mood that characterised so many people at lunch-times in these puritanical days. Would it be the cheerless litre of mineral water and grudging offer of a single glass of wine? He shook the notion off as unworthy. Gentlemen didn’t behave like that—especially when entertaining the indigent.
‘Once a toff always a toff,’ observed Amiss as he settled back in his high-backed leather armchair and accepted graciously the glass of champagne Pooley had satisfyingly pressed on him.
‘Meaning only a toff would assume that I’d know the whereabouts of the Travellers’ and the Reform.’
‘Well you mixed with toffs when you were in the Civil Service,’ said Pooley.
‘You sound defensive, Ellis. Yes, I did indeed. But they didn’t take striplings to their clubs. They were places for the sere—the men of gravitas, those bowed from selflessly bearing the heat and burden of mismanaging the country. Nor can I remember any civil servants whose fathers were in a position to put them down for clubs when they were twenty-one. But then, the Department of Conservation was perhaps a touch plebeian.’
‘Stop talking nonsense,’ said Pooley good-humouredly. ‘Anyway you got here, and on time.’
‘Well yes, but I had to investigate swanky buildings randomly because none of them had their names on the door.’
‘I think,’ said Pooley, ‘that the principle is that if a chap doesn’t know where a club is, he shouldn’t be allowed into it.’
‘There’s no arguing with that logic. Anyway, since I was early I threw myself into the spirit of things and peered into several clubs along here. I’m sorry to have to tell you that this club is the least imposing of them. I think I’d go for that Grecian pile at the corner myself.’
‘Ah, the Athenaeum,’ said Pooley. ‘You’d hate it. It’s crammed full of bishops.’
‘Well, what about that Italian palace across the road?’
‘The Reform? Too many economists, civil servants and PR men.’
‘Well, the slightly smaller Italian palace to its left?’ ‘The Travellers’? Wall-to-wall Foreign Office.’
‘Very well then. You’ve made your point.’ Amiss sipped his champagne appreciatively. ‘So what’s this joint full of?’
‘I suppose mostly people who can’t stick consorting with civil servants, diplomats, bishops or economists. It’s an amiable outfit full of people from no particular walk of life with no particular principles.’
‘But surely if you’re founded in order to repeal the Corn Laws you must be anti-protectionist, internationalist and all that kind of thing?’
‘No, no, no. Certainly not. We were invented by a few people who couldn’t get on with the worthy people who had set up the Reform and wanted a reasonably respectable excuse to set up a club of their own. By adopting a faintly serious cause just when it was won, they were free not to have to care about anything ever afterwards. That’s why my father became a member. You don’t think he’d have anything to do with a high-minded, outward-looking or forward-looking organisation?’
Amiss reflected on what he’d heard from his friend about the politics of Lord Pooley and nodded comprehendingly.
‘Does he come here much, your old man?’
‘Good Lord, no. I wouldn’t be here if he did. He’s an enthusiastic member of the Carlton, Boodle’s and the Cavalry Club, all of them jam-packed with people just like himself. He keeps up his membership here as a nostalgic gesture to his raffish, radical youth.’
Amiss grinned as he looked around at the busts and portraits of the early Victorians classified by Lord Pooley as dangerous radicals—the deadly serious Manchester traders who had fought for free-trade principles and the profits they believed would go along with them.
‘If this place ran on any kind of rational principles,’ he observed, ‘it would be sprinkled with new heroes all the time— fearless negotiators for free trade within the EC, leading lights of the GATT talks…smugglers.’
‘Fortunately, this place is not run on rational principles.’ Pooley suddenly leaned forward. ‘I’ve just realised what’s odd about you. You aren’t smoking. What’s happened? Have you given up again?’
‘I am not smoking at the moment. Note the cautious turn of phrase. I invested some of my overdraft in a course to help me stop and have learned all sorts of wheezes to assist the process. I could bore on about it for hours, but only a smoker or ex-smoker could find the subject interesting.’
‘Well done, Robert. I’m delighted. It wasn’t doing you any good.’
‘Ellis, I am extremely fond of you, but sometimes you try me sorely. There are two things that make me desperately want to reach for a cigarette. One is someone saying the kind of thing you’ve just said. The other is the persecution of smokers by sanctimonious fascist twats—among whom, I hasten to add, I don’t number you: you’ve always been tolerant—anxious, health-conscious, but tolerant. Whereas those buggers who ban smoking from their houses, bellyache about passive smoking at work and demand that smokers be excluded from the National Health Service drive me crazy.’ Amiss was sitting bolt upright, quivering with indignation.
‘I think it’s time for lunch,’ said Pooley.
# # #
Amiss was both grateful and suspicious when Pooley ordered a fine bottle of claret.
‘Have you taken a half day, Ellis?’
‘Yes, I have, Robert. You know I don’t drink when I’m on duty. Now try this. Our wine cellar really is one of the best things about us.’
‘Yum, yum,’ said Amiss. ‘The same, however, cannot be said for your chef, if you’ll forgive my saying so. Clearly a man of simple traditional values, unsullied by nasty foreign notions.’
‘If you think our chef is bad, you should experience some of the others. In some clubs our menu would be considered positively outré. Anyway, come on, that’s a perfectly decent pâté. The vegetables—although they will be frozen—will not be tinned, and if you look at the puddings you will see that in addition to apple tart and bread and butter pudding there are such delicacies as crème caramel and fresh fruit salad. You don’t know when you’re well off.’
‘Sorry, Ellis. All those visits to Paris to see Rachel have spoilt me. In fact, latterly I’ve been eating far too well for an unemployed chap with no capital and few prospects.’
‘What’s going on?’ Pooley looked concerned. ‘Isn’t the plan still as it was when we last met, i.e., Rachel comes back any day now, you set up home together and you maybe go back into the Civil Service?’
Amiss emitted a loud snort, snatched up his wine-glass, took an unmannerly large mouthful, swallowed it with a little difficulty and said, ‘Hah. What’s gone wrong? The fucking Foreign Office, that’s what’s gone wrong. In fact, now that you’ve tipped me off that the Travellers’ Club is awash with the buggers, I might go and set fire to it after lunch.’
‘Well, go on. What’s happened?’
‘Well, as you rightly remember, Rachel, after quite a long time in Paris, was due to come back to London for a home posting of two to three years. We would live together, I would go into a relatively serious job, and we would be ready at the end of her term here to make decisions about whether she stayed in the Foreign Office and I travelled with her, or she took a job here—that sort of thing. But three weeks before she’s due back, she’s informed that the second secretary at the High Commission in India has cracked up and it’s her duty as a loyal and single person to step into his shoes immediately. If she resists she’ll get labelled “insufficiently dedicated to the Service and to the nation as a whole” or some such crap. So she’s going. She doesn’t really think she’s got much choice, it will help the promotion prospects and it’s a fascinating job. Therefore, on many scores, it’s an offer she can’t refuse.’
‘How long will she have to stay there?’
‘Probably only about six months if she’s there as a stopgap. Maybe a whole two years. Nobody’s clear at the moment. Depends on whether this chap recovers.’
‘What’s wrong with him anyway?’
‘A lot. Delhi belly, malaria, dysentery, the whole shagging lot—everything short of the bubonic plague as far as I can gather. He’s going to be spending quite some time in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases.’
‘I thought no one got those sort of things any more, what with vaccinations and all the other wonders of modern medicine.’
‘Well, so did I, but whether he forgot to take his pills or drank the water or what happened to him I don’t know and I couldn’t care less. What I do know is that it’s screwed up everything good and proper as far as our short-term future is concerned.’
He shoved his plate away as the waiter arrived bearing the Steaks Repeal—the club speciality that Pooley had urged him to try. Amiss looked incredulously at his, which was smothered in a sauce in which sweetcorn featured prominently.
‘Repeal—Corn Laws—geddit?’ Pooley was pleased with his joke.
‘I don’t think a sense of humour is any advantage whatsoever in a chef,’ said Amiss sourly, after he had tasted the dish and scraped all the sauce off the meat. ‘Nor, on this occasion, in a host. However, the claret is so good that I can forgive practical jokes.’
‘So why don’t you go with her?’ asked Pooley.
‘Well, I might in a few weeks—maybe,’ said Amiss. ‘But I don’t know, and I don’t know whether it’s wise to give up the chance of getting a sensible job, and I don’t know what it will be like out there, and I don’t know what the accommodation is like, and I don’t know if local sensibilities would require us to get married, and I don’t know anything. So it’s impossible for us to make up our minds until she’s been there for a few weeks and finds out how the land lies. At the moment I don’t even have the bloody airfare, and I’ve no idea whether I could get any kind of work out there.’
‘So a temporary job would fit the bill really, wouldn’t it?’ said Pooley thoughtfully.
‘Oh yes. In fact I’ve been back doing some bartending. It’s better than being on the dole, even if not much better paid.’
‘I have something in mind that might suit you, Robert.’ Pooley saw Amiss looking at him with an expression of the deepest distrust. ‘Let’s not talk about it now. Let’s just finish our lunch and catch up on other news and afterwards, over coffee, I’ll try my idea out on you.’
‘Before I listen to another one of your ideas, Ellis, I’m going to require you to buy me the best brandy this club can offer.’
‘You’re only saying that because you expect to make me so drunk that I’ll agree to go down the salt-mines, infiltrate the Pentagon, become a Beefeater, or go wherever you are minded to install me as a copper’s nark. That’s what you’re up to, isn’t it?’ ‘Broadly,’ said Pooley. ‘Now how about some cheese? And do let me refill your glass. There’s still some claret left.’