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A Week in December
Sunday, December 16
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 center, the sand-covered sitewas 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 center, in which migrant laborwas 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, whilethe 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 ofsentimentality 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 dogwalkers dragged their mongrels back to flats in Hackney and Bow, gray 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, thedashboard 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 practiced civil law, when he practiced anything at all; this meant that he was not involved in "getting criminals off," but inrepresenting 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 professionhe 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 hemight 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 withher 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 onlybags 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 orbats to brush her face. Head-on, she saw the miracles of London engineering that no passenger would ever glimpse: the corbeled brickwork through which the tunnels had been cut or the giant steel joist that held up a five-floor building above the entry to theplatform 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 seemeda 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 favorite 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 owneda 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, twogenerations 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 herhitting 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' counseling and rehabilitation, Jenni hadresumed 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 sometimesnodded 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 finalizing 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 companyLance 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 midtable 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 toRT.
* 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 toput 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 penciled eachone 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 tonierfor 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 streetlightsand 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 ofthese 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, no_tably It's Madness, had saved Channel 7. Indira was a Bangalore-born princess of eye-wateringbeauty; 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 somethingabout Graves's demeanor 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 nextto Mrs. Lime Pickle, Nasim al-Rashid.
* Clare Darnley. Another easy one. Clare was Sophie's favorite 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 thatcertain 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 foulmouthed. 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 chainof 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'tunderstand 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. Thebook 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.
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