shley Barson-Garland had written seventy letters that morning. Seventy calm, placating andthough he said it himselfbeautifully expressed letters. Letters to old ladies unable to understand the changes to the law on pensions, letters to unemployed layabouts who chose to blame the government for their lack of self-respect, letters from delirious fascists who thought Sir Charles Maddstone was Soft On Crime and letters from transcendently sad individuals who were determined to tell the MP about Christ.
Between the two sounds of the front door opening and the front door closing Ashley had swiftly returned the diary to his briefcase, opened a copy of Hansard and begun copying one of Sir Charles's speeches into a notebook.
He heard the sounds of people moving up the stairs and wondered if his not coming halfway to greet them would look strange. Could he pretend not to have heard their arrival? He decided not.
'Ned?' he called over his shoulder from his desk. 'Ned, is that you?'
Ashley was standing shyly at the desk with a look of pleased surprise on his face as Ned entered the room in the company of a girl and boy of about the same age, both darkly handsome and deeply tanned.
'This is Portia. Actually you've met.'
'How do you do?' said Ashley, with becoming gravity. 'We have indeed met. The Hard Rock Café, although you won't remember meyour eyes I think were elsewhere.'
'Of course I remember. Hi!'
Portia shook his hand. Ashley had not had time to wipe it against his trousers and he looked at her closely to see if she reacted to what he knew was the unusually moist clamminess of his palms.
'And this is Gordon, Portia's cousin.'
'How do you do?' said Gordon. Ashley registered with amusement the fact that English Portia had made do with 'Hi' while American Gordon preferred a formal 'How do you do?' It always amused him when people presented themselves as the opposite of what they were.
'Surprised?' said Ned, biffing Ashley clumsily on the shoulder. He too was tanned, but in that lightly golden style of the fair-skinned, as if anything more would be foreign and in poor taste.
'Well, your father did say that you wouldn't be back until tomorrow.'
'The trip, er, ended early in fact,' Ned's face looked troubled for a moment. 'We all decided to take the night train from Glasgow.'
'Really?' said Ashley, who knew this perfectly well.
'Anyway,' said Ned brightening. 'I was in London in time to meet the Fendemans off their plane at Heathrow. Not bad, eh?'
'What a pleasant surprise for them,' said Ashley.
Gordon was looking awkwardly around the room. Ashley had the feeling that he felt out of place. Indeed, the electrical sparks that crackled between Ned and Portia were little short of embarrassing even for Ashley.
'The old man been keeping you busy?' said Ned tearing himself away with an effort from Portia's smile.
'It's been fascinating. Truly fascinating.'
'You work for Ned's dad, right?' said Gordon.
'That's right. In fact I ought really...well, actually, here's an idea I don't suppose you'd like to come with me? I've got to go over to the House now. Maybe I could show you round?'
'Of Commons. Parliament. Of course, only if it would interest youÉ'
'Sure. That sounds great.'
'What a brilliant idea!' Ned grinned with pleasure. 'Ash, that's completely decent of you. I bet Gordon would love to see where it all goes on. The cradle of democracy and all that.'
'Very well then. I'll just get my briefcase,' said Ashley, prickling with annoyance at Ned's fatuous remark. 'Cradle of democracy' indeed. Did he not know that Americans regard Washington as the cradle of democracy, just as the French did Paris and the Greeks Athens, and no doubt the Icelanders Reykjavik, each with as much reason? Such typically casual arrogance.
'Er, we'll stay here, if that's okay,' Ned was saying. 'Portia has to be at a job interview at four. The Knightsbridge College. Thought I'd...you know, take her there.'
'It sounds grand but it just means teaching foreigners how to say "This tomato is too expensive",' Portia said. 'It does pay better than the Hard Rock Café, though.'
She and Ned were holding hands now. It was apparent that every second out of each other's arms was agony to them. Ashley supposed that much of the agony came from a traditional lovers' quandary that they were too dull-witted to interpret. They wanted to conceal their passion but they couldn't understand why they also wanted desperately to show it off.
Ashley felt an intense desire to be violently sick.
'Thought it best to leave them to it,' he said, closing the front door and looking up at the top-floor window with what he trusted was a reasonable approximation of laddish worldliness. 'They'll be at it like knives before we've taken two steps.'
Gordon did not respond, but looked down at the ground with pursed lips. Ashley watched him curiously, was this American puritanism or something deeper?
Good God! The instant the possibility struck Ashley he knew it to be right. He could have laughed aloud at his perception. Cousin Gordon is in love with Portia, he told himself with absolute assurance.
The essential truth that people always failed to understand about intelligence, Ashley believed, was that it allowed its possessor deeper intuition and keener instincts than those granted to others. Stupid people liked to delude themselves that while they may not be clever, they were at least able to compensate with feelings and insights denied to the intellectual. Drivel, Ashley thought. It was precisely this kind of false belief that made stupid people so stupid. The truth was that clever people had infinitely more resources from which to make the leaps of connection that the world called intuition. What was 'intelligence' after all, but the ability to read into things? The Romans, as so often, knew better than the Britons.
They turned and walked along Catherine Street towards Westminster. Perhaps feeling that his silence was brutish, Gordon began to talk. He confided to Ashley that at the airport his aunt and uncle had more or less forced him onto Ned and Portia.
'Why don't you guys take the bus into town together?' Hillary had said. 'Have a bite to eat somewhere. Maybe take in a movie. We'll take care of the luggage.'
Pete had slipped Gordon ten pounds and patted him on the shoulder while Portia bit her lip petulantly and Ned had done his best to look pleased.
'Just as well we did the tactful thing, then,' said Ashley. 'You really don't have to come to the House of Commons if you don't feel like it, by the way. It's most people's idea of hell. I'd quite understand.'
'Will they let an American in?'
'I just have to wave this,' said Ashley, flourishing his pass and trying not to look proud about it.
'You gonna be a politician?'
'Ned's gonna follow his father, right?'
'I hardly think so,' said Ashley, amused. An image came to him of Ned Maddstone in grass-stained cricket whites, flicking the golden flop out of his eyes and rising to speak from the government benches on the subject of currency fluctuations and interest rates. 'Politics and Ned don't quite go together.'
'Really? Only that's not what Portia said to me.'
'What do you mean exactly?'
'She said Ned had told her he was going to follow his father into Parliament one day.'
'Well, maybe he will,' Ashley said casually, while something inside him snapped with a familiar fury. Did Ned seriously imagine political seats could be passed on from father to son, like writing-desks and shooting-sticks? Well, perhaps they could, he reflected bitterly; this is, after all, England. Meanwhile of course, Ned's summer was too precious to him for it to be wasted on politics: too much fucking and cricket and fucking and sailing and fucking and fucking to be done, so why not let Ashley the Manchester carthorse do the secretarial work this year, eh, Pa old thing? Plenty of time for catching up after Oxford, don't you think, Daddy darling? And one day, when I'm 'ready to settle down' I could send for good old Ashley and have him for a political assistant. Poor Ashley would be so grateful...in fact, why not get him in training for it now? Give him a bit of experience? Just the thing! We'll invite him along for dinner and put it to him, he'll be so grateful. It'll get that nasty business of reading his embarrassing diary off my conscience, too. We'll give him the old oil and have him typing letters and licking envelopes before you can say Arrogant Cunting Upper Fucking Class Arseholes...
'You all right?'
'Mm? Yes, fine, fine...miles away,' Ashley smiled vaguely at Gordon as if emerging from a gently eccentric daydream. 'So,' he said brightly. 'First time you've met the great Ned then?'
Gordon nodded cautiously. 'The Great Ned?'
'Forgive the promptings of a sarcastic heart,' said Ashley. 'He's very popular of course. Very talented, but...oh, you don't want to listen to me. None of my business.'
'Hey, if he's dating my cousin, I want to know everything there is to know,' said Gordon. 'Portia thinks his shit don't stink. But you're in school with the guy. You've known him longer than she has.'
'Well, let's just say I wouldn't like my cousin going out with him,' said Ashley. 'It's hard to define. Most people think he's charming and honest and everything that could ever be appealing in a man. Personally, I find him cold and arrogant and deceitful. Ah...' Ashley looked up as Big Ben began to chime the half hour. 'Twelve-thirty. If it's all right with you, we might stop off at that pub round the corner. Said I would meet a friend there for lunch. If we feel like it we can go on to the House afterwards.'
'Hey, look, if I'm in the way...'
'Not at all. You'll like Rufus. And he'll like you. Well, he'll like your ten pounds. You can buy a lot drink with ten pounds.'
'Oh well, if...'
'I'm joking. He's as rich as God. And I'm sure you'll find that you have a great deal in common.'
Excerpted from Revenge by Stephen Fry. Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Fry. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.