‘A baroness? What lunatic would make you a baroness?’
‘I’ll have no aspersions cast on Her Majesty the Queen, my boy,’ said Jack Troutbeck, ‘especially now I’m about to become a pillar of the Establishment.’ The cackle that followed was so loud that even at a distance of 4,000 miles Amiss had to move the receiver away from his ear.
‘You know perfectly well what I mean. Which of your multifarious admirers decided that what the House of Lords really needed to liven it up was you?’
‘Mainly Bertie.’ ‘Bertie?’
‘My God, you’ve got so slow since you’ve been in India, Robert. Been on the hippy trail, have you? Been losing your marbles at the feet of some guru while in quest of your inner being?’
‘It’s not just that you’re out of date, Jack, it’s that you revel in it. Hippies went out when I was in kindergarten. Rachel and I’ve been around half of India on the cultural—not the mystical—trail, since before Christmas. Which is, of course, why we missed this bizarre announcement in the New Year’s Honours List. Now, who’s Bertie?’
‘The Duke of Stormerod, of course, you idiot.’ ‘You mean the Tory Party’s éminence grise?’ ‘The very one.’
‘What’s he got to do with you?’
‘Gab, gab, gab. The purpose of this phone call is to tell you to come home and help me, not to give you my life story.’
‘Listen, you old villain, if you want to get me back to par- ticipate in some foul plan or other of yours, your only chance is to coax me. Railroading is out. So is being so fucking elliptical that you leave me in more of a fog than I was when this conversation started.’
‘Oh, very well then.’ Her sigh came through the ether like a March gale. ‘When Bertie was but Lord Bertie Whittingham-Sholto, heir to the dukedom, and was in the House of Commons, he was Minister for Central Planning. Do you follow that?’
‘I even remember that, Jack.’ ‘I afforded him light relief.’ ‘You were his moll?’
‘More his hitwoman. My job was to duff up those of my colleagues who were putting bureaucratic spikes in his radical wheels.’
‘It’s a pretty poor metaphor, if you don’t mind my saying so.’
She ignored him. ‘So now he’s in the Lords he wants me to do down the forces of evil.’
‘Wets, trendies, enemies of England. You know—the usual lot.’
‘In the House of Lords?’
‘More there than you’d think, I’m sorry to say. That’s why I need you. They’re mustering for a dastardly attack on our heritage.’
‘I’ll tell you when you get here.’
‘Why should I?’ Even to his own ears Amiss sounded petulant.
‘Because you’ll have fun.’
‘Fun? Last time we collaborated…’ ‘Yes?’
‘…it involved death, disaster, trauma, temptation, capitulation, emotional upheaval, and general mayhem—all ending up in the triumph of Jack Troutbeck.’
‘Exactly,’ she trumpeted complacently. ‘It was fun.’
Amiss shrugged. ‘Well, while I’m job-hunting, I suppose I might be persuaded to help you out a bit. As long,’ he added hastily, ‘as what you’re at doesn’t offend my moral susceptibilities.’
‘Bugger your moral susceptibilities. When are you due back?’
‘In about two weeks.’
‘Ah, good timing. I’ll have done the palace by then, and you’ll be just in time for my introduction to my peers. You can help me carry my ermine. Twelve o’clock sharp, Tuesday fortnight, lobby of the House of Lords, best bib and tucker. We’ll have lunch first, and then you can watch me turn into a noblewoman. Further celebration that evening.’
‘It’s the day I get back, Jack, after an all-night, twelve-hour flight.’
The familiar words, ‘Don’t be such a wimp,’ were followed by, ‘Must fly. Enemies to swat. See you then.’
Slightly dazed but, despite himself, feeling a rush of adrenaline, Amiss rang Rachel’s office.
Rachel threw a pile of newspapers on the sofa. ‘I can’t say these reports add much to the sum of human knowledge.’
Amiss picked up the three-week-old Independent, from the front page of which Jack Troutbeck’s photograph stared out defiantly. ‘Among the predictable rewards to the party-faithful and the generous captains of industry,’ said the report sniffily, ‘was the surprise announcement of a peerage for the Mistress of St Martha’s College, Cambridge. Miss Ida “Jack” Troutbeck, CB, (61), was a Deputy Secretary in the Department of Central Planning when she retired three years ago to become Bursar of St Martha’s, where last year she succeeded as Mistress in tragic circumstances. In only a short time she has acquired a reputation in educational circles as an outspoken critic of what she terms “fatuous liberal poppycock.”’
The Telegraph noted approvingly that in her sparse Who’s Who entry, under hobbies, Miss Troutbeck had put ‘enjoying myself’. The Guardian registered concern that in a recent speech to the Annual Conference of Heads of Colleges, she had poured scorn on ‘namby-pamby ill-thought-out educational fads’. Although she would not be taking the whip, she was a Conservative Party nominee, so it was probable, observed the commentator darkly, that the Tory Party was playing its usual trick of promoting the disadvantaged only when they were extreme right-wingers. Amiss wondered how the Guardian would react if they knew that under Jack’s mistress-ship a black bisexual had been appointed to the bursarship of St Martha’s; then, reflecting on Dr Mary Lou Denslow’s opinions, he realized that it would scarcely undermine their argument.
The tabloids, of course, had got hold of what the broadsheets had been too tasteful to discuss. Although Jack Troutbeck had been relegated to page two of the Sun, with the front pages being reserved for minor decorations for a long-serving soap star (‘our Lenny’), a popular comedian (‘“No, I never” Dwayne’) and a lollipop lady (‘Toddlers’ Angel’), the new baroness had two short paragraphs describing her as having been at the centre of a ‘Highbrow Double-Murder Saga’, which led to her getting the ‘Top Job’ in a ‘Snob College’. It had also got hold of a photograph of Jack looking murderous—if not highbrow—in gown and rakishly tilted Tudor cap on the occasion of her being conferred with an honorary doctorate.
Amiss finished the last of the papers and chucked it in the bin. ‘Drink?’
Rachel nodded. ‘Gin?’
Eyes closed, she nodded again.
As he reached for a couple of glasses from the kitchen cupboard, a familiar voice said, ‘Oh, no, sahib. It is inappropriate that you should demean yourself by entering the servants’ quarters. What is it that you want?’
A few days had been enough for Amiss’ spirit to have been broken by Ravi’s contemptuous subservience, arising from his view of Amiss as a guest, and therefore privileged, while being also an immoral parasite who shared the bed of the mistress of the house without having the common decency to make an honest woman of her.
‘Two gins and tonics, Ravi, and could you put in a lot of extra ice, please? Rachel is feeling the heat.’ Ravi assumed the expression of fastidious pain suitable to a servant hearing an employer spoken of informally. Amiss affected not to notice. If Ravi got his fun out of behaving like a stereotype from the last days of the Raj, that was Ravi’s problem.
Amiss turned back. ‘Yes?’ ‘There is no ice.’
‘There has been a calamity. Laxmi, that miscreant, has left the door of the refrigerator open and it has all melted.’
‘I don’t suppose you could get some anywhere?’
‘Oh no, sahib, there will be none by now, because, you see, it will all have gone.’
Amiss already knew Ravi’s almost infinite capacity for ensuring that what he didn’t want to do couldn’t be done. He strode over to the refrigerator, extracted two lukewarm cans of beer and marched out of the kitchen, his ears ringing with imprecations about the impropriety of memsahib drinking out of anything but a glass.
‘How can I leave you to the mercies of that old fraud?’ Rachel sat up wearily and took a swig out of the open can.
‘It’s just so unfair that you’re lumbered with him.’
‘There’s no point in going on about it, Robert.’ Rachel sounded rather testy. ‘He comes with the apartment, he’s got thirty-eight dependants, he’s worked for the High Commission for twenty years, and I’m stuck here until Personnel release me.’
‘In June,’ said Amiss hopefully.
‘Maybe. Now, would you explain to me what a middle-of- the-road, well-meaning liberal like you is doing taking up arms against the future with someone who makes Margaret Thatcher seem rather left wing?’
‘It’ll fill in the time while I’m looking for a job.’
‘Don’t give me that, Robert. You could fill in the time looking for a job by looking properly for a job.’
‘Anyway, she’s really a libertarian rather than a right-winger.’ Amiss realized he sounded defensive. ‘And, for as long as I’ve known her, I’ve always found that her enemies deserve to be enemies.’
‘You just can’t resist her.’ ‘Who could?’
‘Lots of people, from all I’ve heard. All I can say is, “God help the House of Lords”.’
‘And all who sail in her,’ said Amiss gravely.
Rachel raised her beer can. ‘Let’s drink to a smooth voyage.’
‘There’s no point in wishing for the impossible. With Jack as skipper, I aspire only to disembark alive.’