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Authors: Sebastian Faulks

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A Week in December

BOOK: A Week in December
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SEBASTIAN FAULKS

A Week in
December

HUTCHINSON

LONDON

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Version 1.0

Epub ISBN 9781409099307

www.randomhouse.co.uk

Published by Hutchinson 2009

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

Copyright (c) Sebastian Faulks 2009

Sebastian Faulks has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

This is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

Grateful acknowledgement is made for permission to reproduce lines from the following:

The Second Sin
by Thomas Szasz (Copyright (c) Thomas Szasz 1973).

Reprinted by permission of A.M. Heath & Co Ltd

'Business Girls', from
Collected Poems
, by John Betjeman (c) 1955, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1968, 1970, 1979, 1981, 1982, 2001. Reproduced by permission of John Murray (Publishers)

First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Hutchinson

Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road London SW1V 2SA

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Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at:

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The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9780091794453 (Hardback)

ISBN 9780091795153 (Trade paperback)

ISBN 9780091931599 (Waterstone's exclusive edition)

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environment

Typeset in Fournier MT by Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Grangemouth, Stirlingshire

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc

For David Jones-Parry

Acknowledgements

With thanks to:

Gillon Aitken, Rachel Cugnoni, Caroline Gascoigne, Gerry Howard, Chloe Johnson-Hill, Andrew Kidd, Emma Mitchell, Gail Rebuck and Steve Rubin for helping this book to publication in various ways. On finance: Matthew Fosh, Glenn Grover, Will Hutton, John Reynolds, Paul Ruddock. On Internet 'reality' games: Tim Guest, in person, and his book
Second Lives
(Vintage). On teaching: Sabrina Broadbent, Tabitha Jay, Rebecca Terry and colleagues. On football: Giles Smith; Roy Hodgson and Jaki Stockley at Fulham FC. On the London Underground: Andy Daugherty, Ben Pennington, Donna Sarjant, Albanne Spyrou. On music, Internet and other matters: my children, William, Holly and Arthur. Also, merci to Jill Lewis.

Particular thanks on finance to Kevin Davis, a friend for over thirty years, from the Lower Fifth to the Upper West Side; and to Dr Duncan Hunter, for his patience with a frequently slow pupil. Any errors or inconsistencies of fact in the financial or other detail are entirely my responsibility.

Thanks also to my wife, Veronica, for literary and many other kindnesses.

Quotations from the Koran are from the Penguin edition, translated by N. J. Dawood.
Milestones
by Sayyid Qutb, referred to in the novel, is published by Islamic Book Service; I am also indebted to
The Crisis of Islam
by Bernard Lewis (Phoenix). Karen Armstrong writes affectingly of the eagerness of seventh-century Arabs in the Peninsula to discover a voice-hearing prophet of their own in
Islam: A Short History
.

I would like to acknowledge how much I enjoyed, and learned from, Michael Lewis's writing on finance in his book about the 1980s bond market,
Liar's Poker
, and in a November 2008
Vanity Fair
article, 'The End', on the American sub-prime loans crisis.

One of the characters in this book reflects that 'Newspaper interviews and [...] literary biographies focus[sed] almost exclusively on the extent to which the contents of a serious novelist's books [are] drawn from his own experience and the characters "based on" people known to him ...'

In view of this, it might be worth stressing more than ever that: Although reference is made to real events and people, and such reference is intended to be accurate, the characters in this book, and their actions, are invented; any similarity between any of them and any real person, living or dead, is coincidental.

S.F. London, 2005-2009.

'As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up
and dance ... We're still dancing.'
Chuck Prince, Chief Executive, Citigroup, interview,
Financial Times
, July 9, 2007
'If you talk to God, you are praying. If God talks to you,
you have schizophrenia.'
Dr Thomas Szasz, psychiatrist,
The Second Sin
, 1973

One

Sunday, December 16

I

Five o'clock and freezing. Piledrivers and jackhammers were blasting into the wasteland by the side of West Cross Route in Shepherd's Bush. With a bare ten months to the scheduled opening of Europe's largest urban shopping centre, the sand-covered site was showing only skeletal girders and joists under red cranes, though a peppermint facade had already been tacked on to the eastward side. This was not a retail park with trees and benches, but a compression of trade in a city centre, in which migrant labour was paid by foreign capital to squeeze out layers of profit from any Londoner with credit. At their new 'Emirates' Stadium, meanwhile, named for an Arab airline, Arsenal of North London were kicking off under floodlights against Chelsea from the West, while the goalkeepers - one Czech, one Spanish - jumped up and down and beat their ribs to keep warm. At nearby Upton Park, the supporters were leaving the ground after a home defeat; and only a few streets away from the Boleyn Ground, with its East End mixture of sentimentality and grievance, a solitary woman paid her respects to a grandfather - come from Lithuania some eighty years ago - as she stood by his grave in the overflowing cemetery of the East Ham Synagogue. Up the road in Victoria Park, the last of the dog-walkers dragged their mongrels back to flats in Hackney and Bow, grey high-rises marked with satellite dishes, like ears cupped to the outside world in the hope of gossip or escape; while in a minicab that nosed along Dalston Road on its way back to base, the dashboard thermometer touched minus two degrees.

In his small rooms in Chelsea, Gabriel Northwood, a barrister in his middle thirties, was reading the Koran, and shivering. He practised civil law, when he practised anything at all; this meant that he was not involved in 'getting criminals off', but in representing people in a dispute whose outcome would bring financial compensation to the claimants if they won. For a long time, and for reasons he didn't start to understand, Gabriel had received no instructions from solicitors - the branch of the legal profession he depended on for work. Then a case had landed in his lap. It was to do with a man who had thrown himself under a Tube train, and concerned the extent to which the transport provider might be deemed responsible for failing to provide adequate safety precautions. Almost immediately, a second brief had followed: from a local education authority being sued by the parents of a Muslim girl in Leicester for not allowing her to wear traditional dress to school. With little other preparatory work to do, Gabriel thought he might as well try to understand the faith whose demands he was about to encounter; and any educated person these days, he told himself, really ought to have read the Koran.

Some yards below where Gabriel sat reading was an Underground train; and in the driver's cab a young woman called Jenni Fortune switched off the interior light because she was distracted by her own reflection in the windscreen. She slowed the train with her left hand on the traction brake control and, just before she drew level with the signal, brought it to a halt. She pressed two red buttons to open the doors and fixed her eyes on the wing mirror to watch the passengers behind her getting in and out.

She had been driving on the Circle and Metropolitan lines for three years and still felt excited when she clocked in for her eight-hour shift at the Depot. She felt sorry for the poor passengers who sat and swayed behind her. Sideways on, they saw only bags and overcoats, hanging straps and worn plush under strip lights with suffocating heaters locked on max. They endured the jostle and the boredom, with occasional stabs of fear when drunken, swearing youths pushed on.

From her view, Jenni saw soothing darkness, points, a slither of crossing rails and signals that glowed like red coals. She rattled the train through the tunnels at forty miles per hour and sometimes half expected skeletons to loom out from the wall or bats to brush her face. Head-on, she saw the miracles of London engineering that no passenger would ever glimpse: the corbelled brickwork through which the tunnels had been cut or the giant steel joist that held up a five-floor building above the entry to the platform at Liverpool Street.

The week before Christmas was the worst time of year for people throwing themselves on the track. Nobody knew why. Perhaps the approaching festivity brought back memories of family or friends who'd died, without whom the turkey and the streamers seemed a gloomy echo of a world that had once been full. Or maybe the advertisements for digital cameras, aftershave and computer games reminded people how much they were in debt, how few of 'this year's must-have' presents they could afford. Guilt, thought Jenni: a sense of having failed in the competition for resources - for DVDs and body lotions - could drive them to the rails.

Books were what she was hoping to find beneath her own tree. Her favourite authors were Agatha Christie and Edith Wharton, but she read with undifferentiated glee - philosophy or airport novels. Her mother, who had come from County Cork, had barely owned a book and had been suspicious of Jenni's reading habits as a teenager. She urged her to get out and find a boyfriend, but Jenni seemed happier in her room with 600-page novels with titles in embossed gold lettering that told how a Russian pogrom had led, two generations later and after much suffering and sex, to the founding of a cosmetics dynasty in New York. Her father, who was from Trinidad, had left 'home' when Jenni was eight months old.

After her shift she would return to the novel that had won the big literary prize, the 2005 Cafe Bravo, which she was finding a bit thin. Then, after making something to eat for herself and her half-brother Tony, if he was there, she would log on to Parallax, the newest and most advanced of alternative-reality games, where she would continue to create the life of her stand-in, or 'maquette' as the game had it, Miranda Star.

Two years before, when she was still new to the job, Jenni had had a jumper. She was coming into Monument when a sudden flash of white, like a giant seagull fluttering from the platform edge, had made her brake hard. But it was too late to prevent her hitting a twenty-year-old man, whose leap had cleared the so-called suicide pit but not taken him as far as the positive rail on the far side.
Don't look at their faces
was the drivers' wisdom, and after three months' counselling and rehabilitation, Jenni had resumed her driving. The man, though seriously injured, had survived. Two months later, his parents brought a civil action against Jenni's employers, claiming negligence, because their lack of safety precautions had been responsible for the son's injuries. They lost the case, but had been granted leave to appeal, and the thought of the imminent second hearing - tomorrow there would be another meeting with the lawyer, Mr Northwood - darkened the edges of Jenni Fortune's days.

At that moment in the wealthy inner suburb of North Park, 'located', as the estate agent had it, 'between the natural advantages of Heath and Green', Sophie Topping had just made a cup of tea for herself and her husband Lance, who was working in his study. He had done this every Sunday afternoon since becoming an MP in the recent by-election. Sophie wasn't sure how he could concentrate on constituency paperwork with the football blasting out from the television in the corner and she suspected that he sometimes nodded off to the excited yet soporific commentary. For fear of discovering him slumped with his mouth open, she always knocked before taking in his tea.

'I'm just finalising the places for Saturday,' she said, handing him a blue china cup with what he called 'builders' tea' in it.

'What?' he said.

'The big dinner.'

'God, yes. I'd quite forgotten,' said Lance. 'All under control?'

'Yes, I think it'll be a night to remember.'

Sophie retired to her desk and looked at the list of names she had printed out from her computer. At first, she'd meant to have an intimate evening with a few powerful people, just so that Richard Wilbraham, the party leader, could see the sort of company Lance moved in. But when she got down to it, there seemed no end to the number of important people she and Lance knew - and wanted the leader to know they knew.

Looking down the names, Sophie began to sketch a table plan.

  • Lance and Sophie Topping. The party's newest MP and his wife. It was still good to say those words.
  • Richard and Janie Wilbraham. Richard, the dynamic PM-in-waiting, would be on her own right hand. He was nice enough, though tended to talk politics. But what could you do?
  • Len and Gillian Foxley, Lance's local agent and his tiny wife. Sophie would put Len between two women who would have to bear his halitosis, while Gillian she buried mid-table among the also-rans.
  • R. Tranter, the paid leader of discussions at Sophie's monthly book club and professional reviewer. She wasn't sure what his first name was. He signed himself 'RT' and the women in the group called him 'Mr Tranter' until he invited them to move on to RT.
  • Magnus Darke. Probably not his real name, Sophie thought. He was a newspaper columnist and therefore dangerous, obviously, but could be entertaining. He had once said nice things about Lance, called him 'the coming man' or some such. Sophie dared to put Darke next to chilly Amanda Malpasse.
  • Farooq and Nasim al-Rashid. Sophie sucked her pen. Farooq was a chutney magnate and a large private donor to party funds. He seemed a nice chap. But they both were keen 'Allah-botherers', as Clare Darnley put it. After some thought Sophie pencilled each one in next to a Wilbraham, as a mark of respect for Farooq's contributions, and made a note to put no wine glasses at their places.
  • Amanda Malpasse. Sophie had made friends with Amanda on a charity committee. She lived in a large cold house in the Chilterns and was beautiful in a dry, shut-down sort of way. Amanda already had Magnus Darke, so Sophie needed to find her someone tonier for the other side.
  • Brenda Dillon. Sophie had only ever seen her on television, where she was an argumentative education spokesman. Her husband David was said by a newspaper profile to be keen on DIY and to carry his keys on the waistband of his trousers. This was a poser.
  • Tadeusz 'Spike' Borowski. Even more ticklish, this one, thought Sophie. Borowski was a Polish footballer who had settled with a London club. Arsenal, was it? No, another one. Lance had met him when his team were turning on some Christmas street lights and had taken a liking to him. He thought it would make them look modern to have Spike there. But did he speak English? Would he behave? What did footballers like to do after dinner? 'Dogging', was it, or 'spit-roasting'? She wasn't quite sure what either of these things was.
  • Simon and Indira Porterfield. They at least were easy, and could talk charmingly to anyone. Simon was the billionaire owner of Digitime TV, whose reality shows, notably
    It's Madness
    , had saved Channel 7. Indira was a Bangaloreborn princess of eye-watering beauty; he referred to her as his 'mail-order bride', the first Mrs Porterfield having been superannuated.
  • Roger Malpasse, Amanda's husband. Sophie smiled. The thought of Roger always made her smile. He was a former corporate lawyer, now retired to farm and supervise his horses, which were trained at Lambourn. Sophie decided to put him near Spike Borowski, since, apart from dogs and horses, football was the only thing she'd ever heard Roger talk about.
  • Radley Graves. Another tricky one, she thought. Graves was a schoolteacher at the coalface who was said to have given Lance the inside line on comprehensives during the campaign. The obvious person to put him next to was Brenda Dillon, but something about Graves's demeanour made Sophie doubt that either would enjoy it.
  • Gabriel Northwood. He should be all right, Sophie thought, though it depended what mood he was in. He was a barrister, who could be melancholy and sometimes seemed to switch off from the conversation. After some consideration, Sophie placed him next to Mrs Lime Pickle, Nasim al-Rashid.
  • Clare Darnley. Another easy one. Clare was Sophie's favourite lame duck - elegant enough, but apparently condemned to loneliness. Perhaps it was because she was so outspoken and moralistic; it made people in the modern world feel uneasy to be told that certain things were 'wrong'. Clare worked in some appalling job in 'care provision'. Sophie put her on the other side of Gabriel.
  • John Veals, the unsmiling hedge-fund man, and Vanessa, his long-suffering wife, who was also in Sophie's book group. John was a tough ask, there was no doubt about that. He had no small talk and was often late or jet-lagged or both. He spoke little. It drove Vanessa mad, Sophie knew. On the other hand, his lack of grace meant he was oddly direct, if foul-mouthed. He could be interesting. Sophie gave him half Indira Porterfield, and to Vanessa, poor thing, she dealt Len Foxley.

The remaining guests were Jennifer and Mark Loader, both in finance; two women drawn from Sophie's repertory company of singles; and three other couples she'd met when their children were at school together. One, the McPhersons, had bought and sold a chain of busy coffee bars, Cafe Bravo, before diversifying into other ventures; another, the Margessons, had invented an Internet site for lonely teenagers, called YourPlace; the third, the Samuels, had bundled up and sold on other people's debts. Sophie couldn't understand who the buyers for such things were - why would you
buy
debt? - but all three couples lived nearby and she 'owed' all of them hospitality.

At her bedroom window, looking over the houses of North Park, Sophie felt a sudden shiver. She was so used to Christmas being hot and wet that the sudden Arctic winds were hard to deal with; she put on another sweater and settled herself on the bed. The novel she needed to read for her book club was a typical Jennifer Loader selection; it was set in Chile and appeared to be written with all the sentences rolled into one.

Sophie didn't care about this man Javier and his life in Central or South America, whichever one Chile was in, she wasn't sure, it was sometimes hard to remember ...

She snapped the book shut. She was sure that Jennifer had only chosen the book to impress R. Tranter, the professional reviewer; that was why she always picked books with haphazard narrators and unreliable punctuation. But, Jennifer had pointed out when her selection had been queried, this one had not only been short-listed for the Cafe Bravo and the Allied Royal Bank prizes, it had also been nominated for the Pizza Palace Book of the Year. You could barely see the photo on the jacket - a barefoot waif in a bomb site - for the prize sponsors' bright stickers. 'Hmm,' Lance had said, sniffing it briefly before tossing it back to her, 'more endorsements than your driving licence, Soph.'

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