About the Author
Magnus Macintyre grew up in suburban Oxford and rural Argyll, and then studied history at Jesus College, Cambridge. He has been a serial entrepreneur in UK magazine publishing, film, television, and wind farming, with varying degrees of success. Only once has he had a proper job, as managing director of the New Statesman. He now lives in Somerset with his wife, Lucie, and their two children, and writes full time. Whirligig is his first novel.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
With Death comes honesty.
The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
Pink’s, like many of the white-stuccoed buildings of St James’s, is a private members’ club. Some regard these clubs as not so much ‘private’ as ‘secret’, and certainly there are only two facts about Pink’s which appear in the public domain. The first is that the club has recently inherited the bulk of the estate of the artist James Hoogstratten, R.A. This ran into millions, and the club’s members have voted not to take the £30,000 each that they were due by the club’s constitution. Instead, they ploughed the entire windfall into boosting the quality and size of Pink’s wine cellar, and in acquiring van Gogh’s The Beech Tree, which now hangs modestly at the bottom of the main staircase. The second fact that is known about Pink’s is its strict dress code.
Wearing a suit and tie, in most lines of work these days, is a clear sign of a lack of seniority. But few men make the mistake of turning up at Pink’s without the requisite garb. If they did they would be subjected to the special torture of being forced to wear something the club provided. This would be a jacket that bordered on fancy dress, and a tie of such luridness and unfashionability that it could only be worn by a fringe comedian, or a castaway looking to be seen from 35,000 feet.
There are many rules in Pink’s. Many similar clubs have banned the use of mobile telephones, but Pink’s also bans trousers without a crease, soft shoes, collarless shirts, children, personal computers, and the wearing of hats and swords beyond the cloakroom. Pink’s considers itself rather avant-garde for having lifted – over ten years ago – its 240-year ban on women becoming members. But judging by the members present on the average hazy August afternoon, this happy news seems not yet to have been passed on to any actual women.
Peregrine MacGilp of MacGilp, one such member on one such afternoon, was perpetually irritated to have to smoke his cigarettes while standing in the street. But he used his time in the smoggy sunshine productively by simultaneously puffing and conducting an exchange of text messages with his niece. They had business to discuss.
‘Lawyer phoned,’ said the first incoming text. ‘We only have a week. GC is realistically our last chance.’
Peregrine replied, thumbing the buttons on his phone with hesitancy, hindered by long-sightedness and lack of expertise. ‘WILCO. REMINT ME WHAT WE NKOW OF GC?’
A minute later, his phone buzzed with another message. ‘Rumour is he sold biz for big ££. Some sort of tech/media thing.’
Peregrine decided to tease his niece. ‘GOLD-LOOKING, IS HE? ALL YOUR FRIENDS ARE. TALL TOO, I SUPPORT.’
‘Haven’t seen him since we were kids,’ replied the niece, ignoring the predictive text problems. ‘Might be Scottish?’
Peregrine texted back. ‘SOUND LIKE A MATTER OF THE UNIVERSE TYPE. BUSINESSMEN LIKE STRAIGHT TANKING. SHALL JUST BE MYSELF.’
It was just twenty seconds before the final communication.
‘Strongly advise you not to.’
Smiling, but with a wrinkled brow, Peregrine tucked his phone away in a well-tailored pocket. He did not generally meet high-powered entrepreneurs, and was unaccustomed to business meetings in which he was not the one being sold to. He inhaled deeply on the remainder of his cigarette. But Peregrine would deal with this challenge as he did all others in life, by assuming that things would probably work out for the best. They always did. So he went back inside his club, there to order a pot of Russian Caravan, and put to the back of his mind the feeling that he would rather his niece were joining him for this meeting on which his fate, and the fate of many others, would be determined.
As Peregrine waited patiently for his tea, the man he was due to meet was standing just a hundred yards away on Piccadilly, sweating at his reflection in the broad window of an expensive shop.
Gordon Claypole was tubby, and only in the thorax. His short legs and arms, over which he had only limited control, were thin and weak. He was not ‘a large man’. He was a fat man. This saddened him not just because of its genetic inevitability and the echo of his long-dead father, but because, having been a fat child, he had briefly been a normal-shaped young adult. At thirty-five, he was once again an egg with tentacles, and wished that he had never known what it was like to look anything other than odd. There was always something in his reflection to admonish, and inflict the persistent pain that, he supposed, dogs all people who are physically inadequate. He stared more closely at his reflection. Sometimes it was the beetroot bags under his eyes that struck him as ugly, sometimes the reddening bulb of a nose, or the collection of grey-green chins that hung from his jaw like stuffed shopping bags. Today, though, it was his oyster eyes and their network of scarlet veins that disgusted him. He also found time to loathe the dyed black hair that was losing the battle for influence over his huge potato of a head. And in these clothes – black suit, white shirt, black tie – he thought the entire ensemble gave him the appearance of a ghoulish and hard-living undertaker.
‘Fuck it,’ he burbled idly to his reflection as he stumbled on from the shop front and felt an ache in his chest.
Claypole was familiar with the other kind of private members’ club. The sort that spring up like dandelions, and very often disappear again as quickly, from the streets of Soho. A short stroll from St James’s, but a world away, the most octane-fuelled of the capital’s media workers and their hangers-on collide in these other haunts on weeknights, bitching, bragging, gossiping and flirting, getting quickly drunk and lording it shrilly over the waiting staff. The older ones are tired and lonely, with the resources to destroy careers, egos or emotions as they choose. The younger ones fight among themselves for position, or fame, or money, and possess the joint characteristics of overconfidence and desperation, a combination only otherwise found in lesser-league football. Only the lucky few, for all the talk, find a decent price for their souls.
So, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice trying to adjust to a new world, Claypole rubbed his eyes as he stepped through the small eighteenth-century door to Pink’s. The size of the entrance belied the club’s vast interior. It was stunning, too, in a faded sort of way. Like an ancient screen actress, it had former glory as an all-pervading memory, and it could not but impress even if it gave the impression that it no longer cared to do so. Shifting silently about, the members were, like the cool dark interior, old and rich. These men, in their fine suits, had never doubted their position and never wanted for anything. If these souls were for sale at all, they would be very expensive.
Claret-coloured and puffing from the walk, Claypole announced his presence to the moustachioed and liveried man at the front desk. Clearly ex-military, the man gave Claypole the same look of disdain bordering on disgust he gave all non-members. This was the look that allowed the club to charge its members a thousand pounds a year in membership fees. They didn’t want ever to receive that look again. They wanted the other look the ex-military man gave, to members only: a slight but intensely respectful nod.
Moving slowly behind the ex-military gent into the main library, Claypole stiffened. He was trying to give himself the same air of unfettered, world-owning confidence he could feel coming from the members as they flicked through the pages of the Daily Telegraph, or coughed discreetly into a Scotch and soda. But he did not feel at home. A thousand pounds was what it cost you to belong, although it was a fee you got to pay only if you already belonged.
Using the arm of the old leather sofa for leverage, Peregrine MacGilp rose to an imposing six foot two. His silver hair, just a little long and fuzzy at the back but with a thick and immaculate quiff at the front, topped a remarkably unlined and square-set face. He looked like a Serbian war criminal in a burgundy corduroy suit and navy-blue sweater, but with boyishly excited eyes. Peregrine was the sort of old man – seventy, maybe, but with the gait of a fifty-year-old – that could grace a luxury yacht brochure until he was ninety. Claypole would become the other kind of old man – a structureless, cushiony wheezer with a baked-bean head. Claypole, should he still be alive at seventy, might look at home in the ticket booth of a funfair.
‘My dear fellow,’ said Peregrine in an immense baritone, stretching out a muscular arm and bristling with welcome.
‘Hi,’ said Claypole, and shook the old man’s hand, but held his gaze for only the briefest of moments.
‘Gordon, isn’t it?’ asked Peregrine.
‘Just Claypole,’ muttered Claypole, and gave him a challenging look. Peregrine smiled.
‘Gosh. You mean you don’t use your first name?’
‘People just call me Claypole.’
‘Oh... how marvellous!’ Peregrine clapped his hands with delight. ‘Like that left-wing chap with the dark glasses. What’s his name? Bonzo.’
‘Bono. Yeah,’ said Claypole, narrowing his eyes.
‘That’s the fellow,’ said Peregrine gaily, clicking his fingers. ‘Or Plato, I suppose. He’s only got one name, hasn’t he? Or Liberace.’ He smiled at Claypole with icy grey eyes, and added with unselfconscious non sequitur, ‘What fun.’
‘Brr.’ Claypole cleared his throat, as he did habitually in company, like a man who has swallowed a sizeable fly but doesn’t want anyone to know about it.
‘Do have a pew,’ said Peregrine, looking pleased and preparing to sit down. ‘Do you fancy some tea?’
They both looked at a prissy brilliantined midget in a white mess jacket, who had appeared at Claypole’s elbow.
‘No, thanks,’ said Claypole.
‘Really? Or some sandwiches? Or something else? They have pretty much anything here... It was at that table over there that my grandfather once ate a record number of oysters, but, ah... A snorter, perhaps? Bit early to start opening the pipes, but be my guest if you...’
Claypole watched a nearby codger in a light-blue blazer being served something lurid involving prawns, avocado and aspic.
‘Nah. Brr. Let’s get on with it,’ said Claypole, and barrelled himself into a red leather sofa opposite Peregrine. His intention – to make a proprietory gesture – was undermined somewhat by the fact that he bounced perilously on the unexpectedly well-sprung seat. Peregrine sat slowly, still smiling magnificently. They exchanged small talk as Claypole rehearsed to himself the chain of events that had led him to this place at this time.
Claypole had thirty-four Facebook friends. So when Peregrine’s niece, Coky Viveksananda, who had 196 Facebook friends, requested to become number 35 some months previously, he was in no position to turn her down. She assured him in her message that their parents had known each other many years ago, and that they had met as children. He accepted her request and replied that indeed he remembered her, which he did not, and then examined her Facebook profile. There was a picture of a petite girl in shades, possibly of southern Asian origin, sitting on a lawn somewhere and smiling shyly. Her friends had names like Max von Strum and Felicia Hungerford and appeared to Claypole to be either smug or vacuous. But she listed her hobbies as ‘necromancy and darts’, and her job as ‘Brigadier-General of Starfleet Command’, and gave no other personal details, showing an amused disdain for the social networking medium that Claypole admired but could not bring himself to exhibit. No other communication had occurred between them until three days previously. Coky wondered – in a pleasantly un-pushy message – if he would be interested in meeting her uncle in regard to a business opportunity. So here he was, sitting opposite the laird of a desolate estate on the west coast of Scotland consisting of a bleak and bulky Gothic revival house, a few chilly cottages and a considerable chunk of... apparently nothing very much, according to its squire.
‘Bugger all. It’s useless,’ said Peregrine, with simple sincerity. ‘The Loch Garvach estate is some of the worst land in Europe. Three thousand acres of good-for-nothing floating bog.’
Claypole was surprised. He thought everywhere was used for something.
‘Oh yes, indeed,’ added Peregrine, driving home the point. ‘You can’t even walk on most of it.’
‘Brr.’ This was Claypole giving his usual cough, but this time it was nearly a laugh. Peregrine himself laughed unashamedly. It was loud, deep and used his full throat, even a bit of tongue.
‘So what have you been up to, then? What keeps Gordon – sorry, Claypole – out of the alehouses?’
Claypole seemed to study his hands for a moment before speaking.
‘I’ve been in the pre-school entertainment biz. Brr. Multimedia...’ Claypole drummed the fingers of one hand on the other. ‘I realised that phone Apps was the way to go. It’s happened in everything. And I had this bunch of content – movies and text – which I converted to a kick-ass App. Content’s about communities and fans these days, not...’
Peregrine was looking at him with bewilderment. ‘By “movies”, do you mean films?’
‘No, just films. Cartoons,’ said Claypole, blushing. ‘Cathy the Cow, then Colin the Calf.’
Peregrine squinted. ‘And by “text”, you mean books?’
‘Babies, in fact?’
‘Right-oh...’ Peregrine’s incomprehension was not reduced. ‘I have a mobile telephone, of course. But – and call me a Luddite if you must – I want it to... well, be a phone. Not another blasted computer!’ Peregrine chuckled.
Claypole beheld the older man, eyeing him intensely. Here was the grinning MacGilp of MacGilp (for what possible reason could a man need the same name twice?), completely contented, and utterly comfortable. Clearly he had been given the best that being British can offer. White, male and probably Protestant, yes. But also extremely privileged, classically educated, landed and moneyed, with the teeth of an Arab stallion. He seemed to be oblivious to modernity and more or less indifferent to the opinion of others. You couldn’t learn to be like that, thought Claypole. You had to be born in the right place at the right time, and to the right people.
‘Anyway,’ Claypole concluded. ‘Brr. I sold the company a month ago.’
‘So you’re free?’ asked Peregrine.
Claypole sat back in his chair, and did his best Cheshire Cat.
‘Well done,’ said Peregrine, in a matter-of-fact way. ‘I had a job in the City once, but I didn’t understand it. Ballsed it up. If I hadn’t inherited a fair chunk of lolly, God knows where I’d be.’
‘Thanks,’ muttered Claypole, chewing his jaw.
‘Shall I talk a little about my proposition?’ asked Peregrine freshly.
‘Sure,’ said Claypole. ‘It’s... er, making electricity from wind, right?’ He watched the midget in the mess jacket glide past and regretted that he had not ordered a plate of cakes, or a pie. Peregrine leaned forward and explained the history of wind farming at Loch Garvach.
Two years previously, a company called Aeolectricity had paid Peregrine a small amount of money in the expectation that when the wind farm received approval from the planning authorities and was subsequently built and generating electricity, they would pay him a handsome annual rent. The gamble for Aeolec...
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