All over London they are making their preparations. In the flat at above Number Eleven Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s wife is talking on the telephone to the Prime Minister’s diary secretary who is just about to talk to the Prime Minister’s driver. Across the city, the manager of Mount’s Hotel is checking on his tablet for the third time that three thousand oysters have been ordered, and that the vintage champagne is being refrigerated at precisely the desired temperature. In a hairdresser off the New King’s Road known to the cognoscenti who do not want to splash their money around, Lady Evelyn Wherewill is having her hair coloured. Sitting at his desk in the crumbling remnant of what was once a generously appointed episcopal palace, the Right Reverend Bob Butcher, Bishop of Middlesex, is wondering whether he should mention the newly vacant see of Canterbury if he encounters the Prime Minister at the party. The stout figure of Madame Po Chun is embedded in the soft black leather of her limousine as she is driven noiselessly from the Fig Leaf restaurant in Mayfair to the Kensington mansion she shares with Mr Po.
In the editor’s office of the Daily Bugle, whose centenary is about to be celebrated, Eric Doodle is listening to senior members of his staff describe the next day’s edition. His mind has begun to wander while the foreign editor makes a doomed case for ‘splashing’ with a devastating earthquake in Tibet.The Bugle does not greatly concern itself with foreign stories with no British connection, and it is most unlikely that any Britons have strayed into the mountainous regions of that unhappy country where the Almighty has elected to wreak such havoc. The dead are probably all monks. Or peasants. Doodle pats his side pocket again to feel the reassuring bulk of the speech he will deliver this evening. His proprietor, Sir Edwin Entwistle, has told him he must not exceed four and a half minutes, and he has practised his oration endlessly in front of the sometimes irritable Mrs Doodle, who has timed it to the last second. His speech has been printed out in 20-point type so that he will be able to read it easily even if there is little light. The editor of the Daily Bugle has persuaded himself that the award of the knighthood which Daphne Doodle and he have craved for so long will hang upon his short performance at Mount’s.
All over London people are making their preparations – and none more assiduously than Lady Entwistle, or Caroline as we must learn to call her, wife of the proprietor of what was once the highest-selling newspaper in the world. Caroline regards her naked body in the long mirror with approval, noting the firm outlines and pleasing contours which in her estimation are not often to be found in a forty-year-old. She smiles at herself, admiring her bleached teeth. But then the smallest look of crossness passes over her lovely face as she observes in her mirror the bulging form of her husband standing behind her, clad only in underpants of unseemly briefness, over whose elastic waistband cascade folds of white flesh. Not for the first time Caroline reflects that if she can justly claim that four decades have treated her kindly, the same cannot be said of the six decades during which Edwin Entwistle has sojourned on this earth. Nonetheless, she manages a thin smile of solidarity, which her husband takes as an expression of endearment, stepping forward to clutch her right buttock with agricultural vigour.
A grimace is rapidly converted into a smile.This is not the evening for a row with Edwin. As fervently as the Doodles long for an honour, so Caroline yearns for a life peerage to be bestowed upon her so far merely knighted husband so that she can be the consort of a peer of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. She needs him to be on top form and make the speech of his life.
All over London people are making their preparations: the Bugle’s star columnist, Adam Pride, who is regarding himself in his mirror; Mount’s hordes of waiters, who include more than a smattering of illegal immigrants – a group against which the newspaper has often fruitlessly inveighed; politicians of every persuasion; the Russian oligarch Boris Vrodsky, accompanied by a blonde lady who bears little resemblance to Mrs Vrodsky; proprietors and rival editors; Sir Archibald Merrick, City magni co and a vice-chairman of the governing party; ambassadors and diplomats, though few of them have ever read the Bugle, preferring instead the low-circulation, politically enlightened and more upmarket Chronicle; Emmanuele Botti, highly strung owner of London’s latest voguish restaurant, the Fig Leaf; Ambrose Treadle, the baingly successful City PR king; a brace of fashionable novelists; a sprinkling of film stars and starlets, all of whom have appeared at one time or another not as they might wish in the pages of the Bugle, including the veteran actor Tray Nevada, whose drug-fuelled orgies on his yacht have been somewhat misrepresented by the newspaper to his great annoyance; and those who will convey them all to Mount’s, as well as those who will photograph them as they arrive. The Bugle may not be what it was – it is scarcely making any money, and there have even been rumours that Sir Edwin is thinking of selling the paper – but it still strikes enough fear and loathing into its victims to be treated with respect.
All over the vast unfolding city people are making their preparations – except for Sam Blunt, the Bugle’s chief reporter, whose journalistic feats have included naming the original owner of a headless and legless torso found in the Thames (admittedly, with a fair degree of assistance from Detective Chief Inspector Nobby Walters of Scotland Yard) and breaking the story of Lady Evelyn Wherewill’s unfortunate adultery with Terence Glasswell, MP.
Uniquely among the hundreds of guests that evening, Sam is not making any preparations whatsoever. In an insalubrious suburb far removed from the fashionable climes occupied by our other players, he is stirring amid the ruckled sheets of a bed that is not his own. He is hardly aware of the identity of the woman whose not insubstantial body is pinning him down. If he was told her name on meeting her a few hours previously, Sam has forgotten it.
Re-entering the eager world, he senses that an important obligation lies before him, and yet cannot remember what it is. His head throbs and he is aware of a dull ache in his groin. He struggles to release an arm so that he can peer at his watch. It is nearly six o’clock. He takes a little time to consider whether it is morning or evening. Outside it is light, but that provides no evidence one way or another since it is early summer. He tries to recall the events that have brought him there, and, recollecting a drunken lunch with the woman on top of him, decides that in all probability it must be evening. In which case, what can the important engagement be?
Then the face of a senior colleague shimmers into his mind. It is not that of Eric Doodle the editor, with whom Sam has little to do, but of Trevor Yapp, the pugnacious, indeed pathologically disturbed, deputy editor. He can see Yapp’s snarling face, and hear his sneering voice. ‘I’m buggered if I know why that old idiot Entwistle invited you along with all those fucking columnists.You’ll only roll up pissed.’
Sam sits up with a start – or rather he tries to, but can scarcely move.The Bugle’s centenary party at Mount’s! He is not a man to take social engagements seriously, but his absence from such a momentous celebration might be noticed, at least by Yapp if not by Doodle, and be used against him. His position at the paper isn’t as secure as it used to be. There’s talk of Yapp taking over as editor, in which case anything could happen.
Our hero is not unchivalrous. Pressing though the matter is, he does not want to tumble the strange woman out of bed. Besides, there might be prolonged recriminations. The sound of regular snoring suggests she is still asleep. Experienced escapologist as he is, Sam succeeds in wriggling free without waking her. Once out of bed he grabs his clothes without another glance in her direction, and swiftly and silently puts them on.