‘What in hell’s going on here, Helen?’ shouted Martin Freeman down the phone to the Provost. ‘If any of the shit I’ve just read in the New Paddington Sentinel is true, the whole damn university should be closed down. And where’s the blasted President when I need him?’
Having never known the Chairman of the Board of Trustees even to raise his voice, let alone swear, Helen Fortier-Pritchardson, Provost of Freeman State University, was unable to emit more than a series of little panic-stricken cries.
‘Say something, will you, Goddammit? What is going on?’
As her shaking hand knocked over her cup and coffee spread over her toast, the Provost recollected that one of her unique selling propositions was that she was supposed to be calm in a crisis. ‘I’m sorry, Martin. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Freeman took a couple of deep breaths. ‘In that case, Madam Provost, you’d better find out fast. Get hold of the Sentinel, read its exposé, and call me. Oh, and set the wheels in motion for an emergency board meeting.’ This normally considerate, polite man slammed down the phone without even saying goodbye.
The Provost, who had taken one look at the Sentinel when she first took up her job and had dismissed it as a pathetic little small-town rag, abandoned her coffee, ran from her house to her car, and drove wildly towards the nearest supermarket. When stopped for speeding, she burst into tears.
# # #
‘They’ve got a group of students who’ve given them stuff anonymously,’ she told President Dickinson, when she finally tracked him down in New York. ‘They call themselves the VRC.’
‘No idea.’ ‘How bad is it?’
‘Terrible. The headline is: Violence, Sex and dumbing down: Freeman goeS to Pot. There’s a lot on alcohol and drug abuse and sex orgies and violent hazing at the frat houses.’
‘So fucking what!’
‘And stuff on what the jocks do to cheerleaders that’ll drive parents crazy.’
‘Fuck ’em,’ said Dickinson. ‘There’s nothing new here. Happens everywhere. We just deny everything and repeat our zero-tolerance of any kind of initiation involving bodily, mental, or emotional harm.’
‘You don’t understand, Henry. The students are alleging we’re complete hypocrites who issue high-sounding statements of policy but ignore depravity because we think about nothing but money.’
‘Shit,’ said the President. ‘That’s more difficult.’
‘And they’re saying that mission statement about intellectual excellence is fraudulent, that we overlook plagiarism and collaborate with lazy, stupid students if they’re rich or jocks…’
‘Evidence?’ asked Dickinson sharply.
‘There’s a story based on tapes of classes last semester in the sociology and education departments.’
There was a pause. ‘That’s serious,’ said Dickinson.
‘And they’ve got stuff on the row over transgendered bath- rooms that makes us look ridiculous. And plenty about most of the faculty being intolerant left-wingers, and accusations of censorship of ideas and language in contravention of the First Amendment, and allegations about us persecuting dissidents.’
‘We’re no worse than most other campuses.’ The Provost said nothing.
‘Well, not much worse. Depending on what they’ve got.’ ‘There’s some stuff about how Brendan Martial and Lindy Dubois got tossed out.’
‘Any details?’ asked the President. He sounded edgy.
‘No. But they say that intimidation is rampant and they were made an example of to terrify critics into silence.’
‘Those pains in the butt had it coming. And they haven’t sued.’ He snorted. ‘Is that it?’
‘The editorial also reminds readers of the mysterious circumstances surrounding Provost Haringey’s death.’
The President’s voice was hard. ‘It was judged accidental, Helen, and there’ll never be any evidence to the contrary. We’ll ride this shit out. I wonder what’s got into the Sentinel.’
‘Can’t imagine. Maybe there’s a new editor that has it in for us. I’ll make enquiries. The editorial says this is only the first instalment. The VRC say their mission is to get rid of us. That’s you and me and Ethan for starters.’
‘We’ll see about that,’ said Dickinson grimly. ‘Listen, Helen, we’ve got to buy time and find out who these little sneaks are. Get Gonzales on to it and tell him as well that I said he was to stop shit happening off-campus and that he’s to be ruthless.’
‘Ruthless? Ethan?’ The Provost uttered a mirthless laugh. ‘What do you want him to do this time? Thumbscrews?’
‘Quit the crap, Helen. Tell Martin anything that’ll calm him down for now, draft a statement reaffirming all our commitments to whatever is necessary and regretting that embittered and failing students should show such ingratitude to a great Indiana school that has made diversity and excellence a byword. Throw in all the bullshit. E-mail it to me for approval as soon as you’re done. We’ll talk then about how we search for and destroy the VRC crowd, if they exist at all. Could just be one little jerk with an agenda.’
‘I don’t know if I can hold Martin back.’
‘You have to. There’s a lot riding on this, Helen, as you very well know.’
‘But the timing is awful. The Distinguished Visiting Professors are on their way. What are they going to think?’
‘Stop them seeing the Sentinel for one thing. Then start the process of getting them on our side. Hold your nerve, Helen. I have to go. I think this guy’s ready to sign the cheque. Talk to you later.’ He rang off.
The Provost took a deep breath, and dialled Martin Freeman’s number.
‘It was bad enough when my parents hijacked our wedding,’ wailed Rachel, as Amiss closed the front door and came into the living-room. ‘Now Jack wants to hijack our honeymoon.’
Amiss took off his coat and threw it towards an armchair, engulfing the cat he had overlooked. An enraged Plutarch sprang up with a yowl, and coat and cat fell to the floor in a heaving mass. It took a couple of fraught minutes for Amiss to disentangle them, staunch the blood from his new scratch, and embrace his distressed fiancée. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, darling, but Jack can’t hijack our honeymoon. It’s ours. She’s got a college to run and a nuisance to make of herself in the House of Lords, and besides, she wouldn’t fit in our camper van.’
‘For God’s sake stop being facetious, Robert. This is serious.’ ‘Sorry, darling. But I’m right. Whatever this is about, it’s nonsense. No one’s going to hijack anything.’
Rachel began to pace distractedly. ‘But that’s exactly what we said about parents and weddings. Don’t you remember how firm I was when Mum first mooted synagogue rather than registry office? “You must be crazy,” I said. “Robert’s a goy,” I said. “What’s more we’re both atheists,” I said, “so it would be absurd to have any kind of religious ceremony, let alone a Jewish one.” I said all that and look where that got us. Landed with a big fat Jewish wedding, that’s where.’
Through Amiss’s mind went a whirlwind of random memories of angst-ridden debates about whose wedding it was anyway, screaming matches between Rachel and her mother, the moment when after a man-to-man conversation with Rachel’s father—a proponent of the quiet life at all costs—he had (foolishly and cravenly, he realised too late) persuaded Rachel that it would be easier and kinder to give in, the compromise on having the ceremony at the parental home rather than the synagogue, the anguish of the daily reports of the frantic hunt for a rabbi who would accept intermarriage, the consequential arguments about how candid the happy couple should be with him about whether their children would be brought up Jewish, the painful conversations with Amiss’s bewildered Yorkshire parents who could not grasp why their only child—whom they had tried (even less successfully than they realised) to set on a course of prudence, uncompromising truthfulness, and low-church Christianity—was involved in what to them seemed like an exercise in staggering hypocrisy, and the horrors of recent weeks, as Rachel’s mother achieved complete dominance, the wedding plans became ever more elaborate and extravagant and Rachel ever more upset. At times, the rational, humorous woman he loved seemed to have metamorphosed into a touchy hysteric liable to throw a fit at the slightest provocation.
Still standing uncertainly in the middle of the room sucking his wound, Amiss shuddered at the memory of the rage and the tears that had followed Mrs. Simon’s proud announcement that the embroidered velvet canopy she had selected for the ceremony would be the finest seen in north London in a month of Sabbaths. To Rachel’s anguished protests that she was not a Jewish princess, that she had never been a Jewish princess, and that she was too old to become one now, her mother had reacted with alternating indifference, scorn, and noisy weeping about the pain of a daughter’s ingratitude. Amiss thought, as he had thought a thousand times in recent weeks, of how weddings seemingly brought out not just the worst but the stereotype in everyone.
With a familiar pang of nostalgia for the carefree days before their impulsive decision to marry—a time when he had seen Hannah Simon as a warm-hearted, clever, and entertaining addition to his life rather than the nightmare Jewish mother to end all nightmare Jewish mothers who was driving her adored child crazy in the name of mother-love—he wrenched his mind back to the new crisis.
Plutarch had reoccupied the armchair, from which she glared at him balefully, so Amiss sat down on the sofa. ‘OK, Rachel. Back to basics. What’s this about Jack and the honeymoon?’
‘Mary Lou says Jack wants us to spend several weeks with her in Indiana.’
‘Indiana? Indiana in the U.S. of A.? What in hell has Indiana got to do with anything?’
Rachel stopped pacing, collapsed beside him and burst into tears. ‘I’m sorry, Robert,’ she sobbed, ‘I know I’m being hopeless, but I had a conversation with Mum today about canapés that you wouldn’t believe…’
‘Oh, I would, I would,’ said Amiss with feeling, as he put his arms around her. ‘I’d believe it if you told me she was searching for a new rabbi because Miller’s refused to have his nose hairs clipped.’
‘And what Mary Lou told me just finished me off.’ ‘And that was?’
‘What I said. That Jack’s going to Indiana for three months and wants us to do a detour and visit her there for several weeks.’
‘A detour from central Europe to Indiana,’ said Amiss. ‘That makes perfect sense. Any idea why she’s going to Indiana?’
‘Mary Lou said she was going to spend a semester there as a visiting professor of something or other and she thought she’d like company.’
‘I don’t understand any of this,’ said Amiss. ‘Why would she…?’
‘It’s no good asking me questions, Robert,’ said Rachel, sitting up and mopping her eyes. ‘What Mary Lou was saying was pretty garbled.’
The intellectual fog that was engulfing Amiss grew thicker. Garbled prose was not what he associated with his friend Mary Lou Denslow. ‘What was wrong with Mary Lou? Why was she garbling?’
‘Because she and Ellis are having a hell of a time with their wedding, of course. It’s not just all that upheaval in Ellis’s ancestral home…’
‘His father training the peasants to tug their forelocks and shout “God bless the second son” and all that kind of thing, you mean?’
‘Spare heir, surely?’ offered Rachel, with a watery smile. ‘Anyway, you know she’s had all that family drama because they were pissed off that she’s getting married in England instead of America and even though they’ve forgiven her none of her family’s ever flown that far and they’re apprehensive. And surely you remember her parents were upset anyway that she’d given up a safe and respectable academic job for the sinful world of television? And they’re none too pleased she’s marrying a white. And, what’s more, being Baptists, they think the Church of England’s too high-church and her mother is in a state about what they all should wear and where the aunties and cousins will stay, and now…’
‘Enough already,’ said Amiss. ‘Thank God there isn’t long to go or we’d all be sectioned before we ever reached our respective canopy and altar. I can’t believe it’s only three months since we told Ellis and Mary Lou we’d decided we too would get married and we indulged in that orgy of mutual congratulation about how we’d keep everything simple…’
‘Have a joint wedding in a registry office…’ ‘No fuss…’
‘Just immediate family and a few friends…’
‘And a decent pleasantly boozy lunch in a jolly Italian restaurant before we went off on our happy and separate honeymoons.’
They sighed heavily as they contemplated what might have been. ‘Anyway,’ said Rachel, ‘the Jack business just seemed too much on top of everything else, but I was so overwrought as a result of Mum’s insistence that I help micro-manage the caterers that I didn’t take much in. Give Mary Lou a ring and she will—if she’s calmed down—be able to tell you the worst.’
Amiss patted her on the head and went over to the phone. ‘You’re having a tough time too, I gather,’ he said when Mary Lou answered.
‘You bet your ass I am,’ said his uncharacteristically edgy-sounding friend. ‘Yes, I know Ellis’s dad means well—just like Rachel’s mom does. And I see why he wants to show the local gentry that though his son has ended up a cop and I’m black, he’s proud of us.’
‘Just as my mother-in-law-to-be is trying to show she’s not ashamed that Rachel has been involved in a scandal, has abandoned a glittering career, is currently unemployed and is marrying a wastrel with a chequered background and no fixed income.’
‘You’re rather industrious for a wastrel, Robert. But anyway, yes, Ellis’s family have gone as over the top as Rachel’s and it gets worse every day as my family get more and more jittery. Ellis has been working almost round-the-clock on a gangland shooting, I’m presenting a TV arts special tomorrow night that still needs a lot of homework, and there are floods of e-mails from Minnesota asking things like will there be hairdryers where they’re staying and should they call Ellis’s dad Your Lordship or Sir even though I’ve told them all to call him Reggie.’
‘Not very egalitarian for Americans, are they?’
‘You know better than that, Robert. Yanks are thundering snobs. Why else would we look up to rich dynasties like the Bushes and the Kennedys and the Rockefellers? It’s because we love titles that Jack’s being offered such a ridiculous deal to sit on her fanny for a few months at the University of Hicksville, Indiana.’
‘Ah yes. Jack. What in hell is all this about?’
‘Lust for one thing. I was at St. Martha’s yesterday showing my face in case they forget I’m still a Fellow and helping the new Bursar make sense of things and when I was having a preprandial drink in Jack’s room she took a call that made her go all croony. You know the scene.’
‘She was either being told an enemy had bitten the dust or was being flattered shamelessly.’
‘You got it. This time it was the latter, the ass-kisser being Helen Fortier-Pritchardson, Provost of Freeman University, New Paddington, Indiana, whom, it turned out, Jack had met a couple of days previously at some Cambridge shindig. Helen yakked and yakked seductively, told Jack how much she admired her achievements as a radical reformer and a feminist role model….’
‘What! She called Jack a reformer and a feminist and lived?’ ‘Robert, Jack thinks Helen is hot. That’s not the way she put it, of course. I think she said pulchritudinous. But the point is she fancied her chances with Helen enough to look favourably at her invitation, which seems to involve plenty of attention, very little work, and shitloads of money. So by the end of the call, she’d agreed in principle, subject to her being able to ensure St. Martha’s doesn’t fall apart in her absence. She’s already been promised dedicated conference-call facilities, an unlimited supply of first-class plane tickets to fly her out for crucial meetings and fly others in, and excellent accommodation for her and any guests she wants at the main hotel where she’ll be pitching camp. Oh, and she’s making a big issue about taking Horace: Provost Pritchardson has been put in charge of investigating the rules about importing parrots.’
‘But the mid-West, Mary Lou! What’s she going to do at a provincial university in the mid-West? What’s in Indiana, for heaven’s sake?’
‘Nothing, really. It’s what you drive through on the way to or from New York and Chicago. But Jack’s off in fantasy land, Robert. She’s never been anywhere in the States except New York and she’s gone tripping down memory lane to the cowboy movies of her youth and happy days when men were men and John Wayne was in his prime. She’s probably hoping she’ll meet someone just like him at Freeman. Helen told her Cole Porter had been born just up the road so she came off the phone in a romantic haze singing ‘Night and Day’ badly and noisily.’
Amiss winced in recognition.
‘Of course I’ve told her the town will be deadly dull, the faculty full of knee-jerk lefties, the students mostly retards, independent thought and speech will be stiffed by political correctness and, even more seriously for her, the food will be hideous.’
‘That should have given her pause.’
‘Nope. She brushed it aside along with everything else, told me my trouble was I had rotted my brain reading innumerable crap novels for my course on modern American fiction, that I had forgotten how wonderful my country was and that I must stop exaggerating—and then began speculating lubriciously on what the cheerleaders might look like. I made the mistake of describing today’s cheerleaders as sluts, and she said she liked sluts. And when I begged her at least to read Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons just to get the flavour of a modern American campus, she reminded me that she didn’t voluntarily read books less than forty years old and that she was certainly in no mood to volunteer to do so now.’
‘What’s got into her? You’ve described Jack’s idea of hell and she knows perfectly well that you tend to under-rather than over-state.’
‘I guess now I’ve left St. Martha’s and the four of us are embarking on something new, she’s in need of an adventure herself. She hasn’t had one since China. And this fell from the skies.’
‘How will Myles feel about being deserted?’
‘They don’t have much time together at the best of times, Robert, and nothing fazes Myles. And he knows perfectly well that she has dalliances on the side. As he does, I guess. In any case, he’s part of the problem, since he’s abandoning her too as he’s off for a few months to do something undercover in Iraq with some old SAS pals. And from what I’ve picked up, he did that unexpectedly and without qualms. I’ve a feeling Myles thinks Jack takes him for granted.’
‘She takes everyone for granted.’
‘As she would say, that’s the way she is. Anyway, since St. Martha’s runs itself these days and nothing is particularly engaging her in the Lords, in the absence of any other challenge, trying to get Provost Pritchardson into bed is about as good as it gets. Anyway, you will hardly have forgotten that once Jack has made up her mind, she’s obstinate.’
‘So where does messing up Rachel’s and my honeymoon come into it?’
‘My fault, I’m afraid. After I repeated some of my scarier warnings over dinner, she took in enough to realise that the Indiana locals might pall, whereupon she hit on the idea of importing good company from the old country. Ellis and I are non-starters because of our jobs, but Rachel’s still resting and you’re freelance so you’re fair game.’
‘We are not going to Indiana. Read my lips. That is, metaphorically read my lips. We are not going to Indiana.’
‘I told her you wouldn’t, but you know Jack. She always thinks she’ll get her own way.’
‘I may sometimes be a pushover, Mary Lou. I admit that in the past I’ve succumbed to wheedling, bullying or blackmail from Jack and indeed Ellis to do absurd and dangerous things. I’ve even on occasion played Watson to Jack’s Holmes, Hastings to her Poirot or Archie Goodwin to her Nero Wolfe, but I’m damned if, after all Rachel and I have been through, I’ll contemplate for one minute messing up our leisurely perambulation around Europe to keep Jack Troutbeck company in the middle of a prairie. This time I’ll be implacable.’
‘And even if you crack, I certainly won’t,’ shouted Rachel from the sofa.
‘And even if I crack, Rachel certainly won’t,’ added Amiss. ‘Not that I will.’
‘Sure, Robert,’ said Mary Lou, in a tone of the utmost sincerity. ‘You’ll be implacable. Of course you will. I don’t doubt it. Not one little bit.’