cover

About the Book

For amiable City trader Jimmy Corby, money was the new Rock n’ Roll. His whole life was a party, adrenalin-charged and cocaine-fuelled. If he hadn’t met Monica he would probably have ended up either dead or in rehab.

But Jimmy was as lucky in love as he was at betting on dodgy derivatives, so instead of burning out, his star just burned brighter than ever. Rich, pampered and successful, Jimmy, Monica and their friends lived the dream, bringing up their children with an army of domestic helps.

But then it all comes crashing down. And when the global financial crisis hits, Jimmy discovers that anyone can handle success. It’s how you handle failure that really matters.

Contents

Cover

About the Book

Title Page

Good and thick

Tired and broke

A nice little earner

But what do you actually do?

The new occupant

The price of love

Over the Rainbow

A drink and a lifeline

Useless old bugger

Lovely, lovely things

A loan secured

Lucky Jimmy

An essential hairdryer

Money is the new Rock ’n’ Roll

Thank God for Monica

The phone rings

A worm in the Big Apple

Late call

The price of praise

There’s always somebody worse off than yourself

The Labour Party is the new Tory Party

The grandpa project

Luck or judgement?

Nappy economics

Underfloor parking

Off road, on road

Having it both ways

A farewell piss-up

What an honour

Robbo’s last bumble

A bankers’ gathering

School leaver

A quiet sleep

The price of everything

Socks full of food

Street owning man

What goes around

It has to be private

Loss adjustment at a funeral

Giving money away

Squeezed BlackBerry

First choose your school

Every man for himself

A negotiated settlement

Into the abyss

Ten. Nine. None

All perfectly legal

Making a plan

Ending in tears

Downsizing

A major beneficiary of the parliamentary crisis

Control-crying

Too sad to care

Art imitating life

Coping

Slippery customer

Teacher training

Taking back what’s theirs

Crusty Nimbys

A matter of pride

Two phone calls

Sifting through the embers

Grilling the lord

Truth less strange than fiction

Scrap metal

The Radish Club

Lucky punt

About the Author

Also by Ben Elton

Copyright

images

Good and thick

Jimmy Corby graduated from Sussex in 1993. He celebrated with five friends: Rupert, David, Henry, Robbo and Lizzie.

These six were to remain friends throughout the nineties and for most of the noughties.

Mates. Proper mates.

Through good and bad.

Through thick and thin.

Except that there never really was any bad.

And there wasn’t an awful lot of thin either.

Apart from Rupert’s Amanda. And Henry’s Jane. And David’s Laura. They were all very thin. But by choice.

Good and thick. That’s how the times had been.

Jimmy and his friends stuck together through good and thick.

Tired and broke

Jimmy scarcely noticed being tired any more; it had become as much a part of his life as eating or breathing. Of course he’d been tired sometimes in his old life. His fantasy life.

Seriously knackered, or so in his innocence he had believed. When shouting himself hoarse during an all-nighter with the Tokyo Exchange or pissed up at 5am in a pub with some of the guys, watching a live fight from Vegas. Or enjoying his second straight dawn, loved up on a beach in Ibiza with a bottle of Krug between his knees and a gap-year holiday-hippy chick on either side. Yes. He’d been tired. But not really tired. Tired to his core, tired in his blood. Tired to the point where he doubted his sanity. Tired until his mind dislocated itself from his body and just sort of floated a few feet above it as he went through the motions of being alive.

These days that was how tired Jimmy felt all the time. And there would be no respite, not for years.

He could hear the screaming long before he opened the front door. The screaming never seemed to stop. They could have recorded his life and used it as the soundtrack for a slasher movie. Both of the younger ones had clearly gone off at the same time and were competing to see who could drive their mother insane first. Jimmy knew exactly the sort of night that awaited him. Because it would be the same as last night. And the night before. The same as every night since that tearful moment when Jodie, the rock, the treasure, the person without whom they simply could not do, had left.

Jimmy thought about taking a last turn round the block. Of grabbing a few moments more of stumbling, agonized, half-conscious, semi-zombieficated peace before entering the maelstrom that was his home (or the bank’s home since he had been forced to mortgage his entire equity in a failed effort to get on top of his mounting debts). But Jimmy was an honourable bloke. He loved Monica. He might have failed her utterly like the sad swine that he was, but he loved her and he knew she needed him, if only to give her three minutes’ respite to pop to the loo.

One by one he unlocked the four beautifully tooled Chubb deadlocks set perfectly along the rich, shiny edge of the huge bright-red front door of which he had once been so proud. Despite its great weight the door swung open smoothly. Of course it did, it was so expertly hung. Hung on its eight big brass hinges. Such a full, heavy, clunkingly satisfying movement. A Romanian guy had done it; they still understood wood in Eastern Europe. Jimmy had admired the guy at the time but now he envied him. He envied him so much. To have a trade. To be able to actually do something. A real, palpable, physical skill that you could offer for hire. How good would that be? Particularly now that the market for aggressive, cocky wankers shouting themselves hoarse into a telephone had so comprehensively dried up.

The marble-clad hall was empty, of course. Empty and echoing as the red door shooshed and clunked shut behind him. No welcoming cocktail served by a lovely, eager, semi-posh girl with a degree in Fine Food and Catering, fresh-faced, chef-coated and anxious to explain the details of that evening’s menu.

‘Hi, Jimmy. Cool day? Wicked. Hope you’re in the mood for Chinese duck? I’ve been marinating it since two and my black bean sauce is awesome.’

No. That was history. Jessica had gone the way of Jodie. Her fabulous catering and hospitality skills were now being wasted at a Garfunkel’s while she searched for a new private chef’s position, along with all the other drifting Jessicas for whom the supply of mega-rich employers was so rapidly shrinking.

She was gone and the big marble hall was empty and cold. The only thing in it besides Jimmy was screams. Blood-curdling, brain-mashing, life-sapping screams.

The volume ramped up massively as, head bowed with exhaustion, he made his way down into the basement. As he went, he noted that only one of the little lights that had once glowed so subtly beneath the thick frosted glass of the stairs was still working. How long had Monica agonized over the lighting? It had seemed so important at the time. She had had a pile of catalogues and magazines. A pile. All devoted exclusively to internal lighting.

Now there was just a single working bulb left. One by one the others had all gone out. Monica would probably see it as a metaphor for their vanished hopes and dreams. Or was it a simile? Jimmy wasn’t sure; he wasn’t bright that way, like Monica.

On the other hand, what had they been dreaming of in the first place, illuminating the steps of their basement staircase internally? It seemed rather a strange idea now, viewed from his new perspective. Now that his dreams involved feeding his children. But it really had seemed important at the time.

He would have liked to replace those bulbs. As a gesture of defiance, to prove to himself that he was still good for something. That he might be down but at least he could make the discreet interior lighting hidden in his basement stairs work. But he couldn’t even do that. He didn’t know if they had any spare bulbs. If they did have, he didn’t know where they were kept, and anyway he wouldn’t have known how to take the frosted glass off the stairs to get rid of the dead ones. Someone had always sorted that kind of stuff out for them.

Those were the days, when they had somebody to sort out their kids and somebody to sort out their light bulbs.

A nice little earner

The stairs had shone and twinkled like Piccadilly Circus a year earlier, looking as bright and jolly as Jimmy did himself as he perused the stock market on the gleaming new seventeen-inch MacBook that nestled on the breakfast bar among the cereal boxes.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Whatever you’re getting Rupert for Christmas, it isn’t enough.’

Monica looked up from the couch on which she was languishing, her pyjama top pulled up over her huge tummy. She was rubbing coconut oil into it in a futile attempt to ward off stretch marks.

‘Why? What’s he done?’

‘Only saved us about a hundred grand.’

‘Jimmy, shh!’ Monica admonished.

She didn’t like him talking about money in front of their son Toby, or in front of Jodie the nanny for that matter. Particularly not such ridiculous sums. She said it just felt wrong somehow.

If Jodie had heard she certainly didn’t let on. She and Toby were happily engaged in making an advent calendar for school. Constructing little cardboard doors that open requires concentration, even from a bright seven-year-old and a totally focused and almost insanely enthusiastic Australian girl with a degree in pre-school care and a Bondi Beach gold life-saving medal.

‘ ’Nother cup of fruit tea, Monica,’ Jodie asked, laying aside the scissors and the Pritt Stick, ‘before I get Toby in the car?’

‘Go on then, let’s go crazy,’ Monica replied.

Jodie leaped to her feet, leaving Toby to his cutting and pasting.

‘Strawberry Zinger? Lemon Pick-Me-Up?’ she said, sifting through the various boxes.

‘I don’t know why you bother asking,’ Jimmy said, still staring intently at his screen. ‘None of them taste of anything at all.’

‘Yes, it is weird,’ Monica agreed, ‘how anything that can smell so strong can taste of so little.’

‘You might as well sniff a fruit pastille and drink a cup of hot water,’ Jimmy suggested, trowelling butter on to his toast.

‘Don’t spoil her few pleasures, Jim,’ Jodie said with a laugh. ‘These things are about the only luxuries a preggers mum is still allowed.’

‘They’re only luxuries because they cost so much,’ Jim said through a mouthful of toast. ‘Work it out, it’s 50p a shot for the smell of a raspberry. Insane. My dad would simply not believe it.’

‘Five pounds fifty when I have one at the patisserie,’ Monica admitted.

‘Five pounds fifty for having a fruit tea in a patisserie in Notting Hill, dahhhling!’ Jodie joked. ‘Can’t put a price on class, can ya?’

Having made Monica a Blackcurrant Booster, Jodie gathered up Toby’s things, brushed his hair, sorted out his lunch money, assembled his sports kit, slipped a pack of Kleenex into his pocket because he had a sniffle and with her usual huge, cheery smile bundled him off to school.

‘Come on, Tobes mate,’ she said as they left. ‘We’ll play some more AC/DC in the car. This boy loves his full-on Aussie rock. He has to, I’m indoctrinating him.’

Toby spun round happily, sticking out his tongue and making the ‘devil’s horns’ finger sign.

‘For those about to rock,’ the boy shouted, ‘we salute you!’

‘Right on!’ Jimmy shouted back, punching the air. ‘School is the new Rock ’n’ Roll.’

‘Do you want me to take Cressida as well?’ Jodie asked Monica. ‘She likes a bit of rock herself.’

Cressida, Jimmy and Monica’s two-and-a-half-year-old, was currently exploring ‘her’ pan cupboard. The cupboard had been one of Jodie’s many brilliant ideas.

‘Leave ’em one cupboard they can open,’ she had suggested, ‘but don’t tell them it’s theirs. Fill it with plastic stuff and wooden spoons and let them find it themselves, then tell them they’re very naughty when they do. Hopefully after that they’ll never go looking for the knives and power drills.’

It had worked a treat.

‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!’ Jodie called across at Cressida.

‘Oi, oi, oi!’ Cressida responded dutifully, waving a plastic spatula.

‘No, she’s happy, let’s leave her here,’ Monica said. ‘I’ll watch her.’

‘Okey-doke.’ Jodie and Toby disappeared through the door.

‘She’s truly wonderful, isn’t she?’ Monica said after they’d gone.

‘No better,’ Jimmy agreed, eyeing with some suspicion the exquisite bowl of fruit salad that Jessica had prepared last thing the previous evening and left in the fridge. ‘I suppose I ought to have some of this to make up for the toast and half a pack of butter. Want a flat tum for my new tatt.’

Jimmy had four tattoos: a Maori bracelet design round an ankle, a Gaelic cross on his right shoulder and the names of his two children in gothic script on each inner forearm. Having run out of arms, he had decided to locate the name of his third child beneath his navel in the manner of a number of premier league football players he admired.

‘Yes, stretched tatt’s not a good look,’ Monica admitted, eyeing ruefully the cooing love doves she had had inked in above her right hip. ‘Our wedding logo’s starting to look like a couple of fat pigeons having a fight.’

‘Looks good to me.’ Jimmy smiled. ‘I find preg birds sexy.’

‘Hmm,’ Monica replied. ‘I seem to recall you don’t find post-preg birds quite such a turn-on.’

‘All I ever said,’ Jimmy insisted, ‘was that if you’re going to spend five grand a year on gym membership you should use it occasionally, that’s all.’

‘Yeah. Right.’

‘It was a financial observation, not an aesthetic one.’

‘Oh absolutely,’ Monica smiled, ‘which is why you’ve decided to save the five grand by spending a quarter of a million sticking an entire flipping health club on the second floor of our house.’

‘That’s right.’ Jimmy smiled disarmingly.

‘Not very subtle, Jim.’

‘I’m just saying if you want to use it, it’s there. No pressure.’

‘I’ll think about it,’ Monica said.

‘And in the meantime Jodie can use it for her kick-boxing.’

‘Speaking of whom, we’ll have to give Jodie a raise when this one arrives, you know.’ Monica patted her stomach.

‘Do you think she’ll be all right looking after three, or should we get another girl?’

‘Don’t even breathe it! Jodie would go mental. Can you imagine two girls trying to divide the childcare? How would it work? One and a half kids each? No. Jodie will want the lot and I don’t even think she’d expect to be paid extra, but of course we would.’

‘Oh for sure. Gotta be another third. Don’t know what it is with these Aussie girls, they’re just so positive.’

‘It’s because they know they’re only doing it for a few years before they go and climb Everest for charity then marry a cricketer.’

‘Well, she definitely gets a raise.’

‘Amanda says we’re insane what we pay. She says it isn’t only workers that get exploited. It can happen to employers too. She says if you pay people too much it distorts the market and in the long run everybody suffers. Like the seventies car industry.’

‘Amanda is a Nazi.’

Monica sipped her fruit tea. ‘Yes, a nice Nazi but a Nazi nonetheless. We should certainly offer Jodie a raise. Everybody always seems to have an excuse for acting badly. It’s like with recycling. Amanda says we’re mad to bother because it’s all a con and it gets shoved in landfills just the same. Or exported to China where they shove it in landfills. But how does she know that? It’s a convenient theory because it means you never have to rinse out any bottles. But how does she know?’

Jimmy shook his head. ‘We’ll bloody double Jodie’s cash and Amanda can stuff her distorted market up her cosmetically whitened rectum!’

Monica spluttered into her drink. ‘God, Jim, I didn’t tell you about that, did I?’

‘Yes you did and I wish you hadn’t. The image lives with me still.’

‘She swore me to secrecy. I must have been a bit pissed.’

‘You were.’

‘God, I’m awful. Poor Lillie.’ Monica caressed her bump.

‘Don’t worry, you get drunk on a sniff of the cork at the moment, you’re so hormonal.’

‘I shouldn’t have told you though.’ Monica giggled. ‘Mand said she was just getting Botoxed and they offered it up. I said God, Rupert doesn’t bother you round there, does he? She said certainly not and that she did it for herself.’

‘Let’s not go there.’ Jimmy grimaced.

‘Speaking of Rupert, how did he save us so much money?’

Jimmy looked up from his fruit salad. He was doing his naughty grin. He put his finger to his lips and gave her a little wink. Jimmy could get away with winking. It never looked arch or smug with him, just naughty. He was blessed with a twinkle in his eye.

‘What?’ Monica insisted. ‘Don’t do your bloody little boy thing with me.’

‘Which, incidentally, you love.’

‘Which I do not love. I may have said I loved it, once, early on. But I do not love it. Now come on. What’s Rupert done?’

‘You don’t want to know.’

‘I do want to know.’

Jimmy grimaced as if he was about to confess to stealing the last biscuit.

‘You know Gordon Brown’s co-opted Rupert on to this Financial Services Advisory Board?’

‘No, I didn’t know actually,’ Monica replied, ‘or if I did I forgot somewhere between guzzling Gaviscon for my reflux and trying not to pee involuntarily on the sofa.’

‘Well, he has, and consequently Rupert hears all sorts of stuff. He gave me the heads-up yesterday morning to say Caledonian Granite was going to hit the wall.’

‘You mean the building society? It was all over Radio 4 this morning, I was listening in my bath. They wouldn’t shut up about it and all I wanted to know was if Britney had been allowed access to her kids. It’s collapsed or something, hasn’t it?’

‘Big time. First run on a Brit bank in centuries. Monumental balls-up, turns out they were giving mortgages away like loyalty points and now they’re fucked. We owned fifty thousand shares.’

‘Owned?’ Monica asked with a tiny touch of suspicion.

‘Part of a portfolio I put together a couple of years ago. Bought at 98p, yesterday morning they were at £2.02 and now  . . .’

‘They’re worth one and a half pence, according to Radio 4.’

‘Exactly. Bloody disaster for some.’

‘But not us?’

‘No. Thankfully. We got out.’

‘So you sold up yesterday?’

‘Well, it would have been pretty stupid not to, what with Rupert telling me they’d gone tits up. Nice of him to think of me really. I suppose he was feeling guilty because he’d suggested I buy in the first place.’

Jimmy returned to his fruit salad, searching about among the mango and star fruit for the last strawberry. He was avoiding Monica’s eye.

‘Jimmy  . . .’ She did not sound happy.

‘Mmm?’ Jimmy affected an innocent look. The same doe-eyed, open-hearted expression that prior to Monica’s entry into his life had persuaded so many girls that when he said, ‘You know, just for a last coffee,’ he actually meant it.

‘Don’t look at me that way, Jim,’ Monica said. ‘Are you seriously telling me you acted on a tip-off? You sold shares on the basis of a tip-off?’

‘Oh come on, Monica!’ Jim smiled. ‘What was I supposed to do? Sit there and watch us lose a hundred grand? That would be insane.’

‘Rupert should never have told you.’

‘But he did tell me. That’s not my fault, is it? But once he had told me, I was stuck, wasn’t I?’

Jimmy crossed over and took his wife’s empty mug from her hand, fishing out the dead tea bag and flicking an expert slamdunk into the waste-disposal unit installed in the third of the three massive stainless-steel sinks.

‘Jimmy, you shouldn’t have done it.’

‘Oh come on, why not?’

‘Well, for a start it’s hardly fair, is it?’

Jimmy frowned slightly and sprinkled grated chocolate on to his coffee while he thought for a moment.

‘I don’t really think fair’s got anything to do with it,’ he said finally. ‘I mean money’s a yo-yo, isn’t it? Everybody’s trying to guess the bounce.’

‘Yes, but not everybody has access to government information, do they? Jimmy, I really think it’s  . . . it’s  . . .’

Monica glanced at the illuminated stairway as if wondering whether somebody might be at the top of it, listening to their conversation.

‘Is the baby listener on?’ she asked.

‘Monica, it’s not a walkie-talkie, it doesn’t work both ways, besides which there’s nobody upstairs.’

‘Turn it off anyway.’

Jimmy sighed and did as he was told.

‘There’s no one but me, you and Cressie in the bloody house,’ he assured her. ‘What’s on your mind?’

‘I really think,’ she said with a face that was suddenly very serious, ‘that you selling those shares after Rupert told you what he told you could be construed as insider trading.’

Jimmy was quite taken aback, not least because it was so unlike Monica to show an interest in that sort of thing. They always divided the Sunday paper with perfect equanimity. She took the review section and he took the business bit and they never swapped back.

‘God, Mon,’ Jimmy said, ‘what do you know about insider trading?’

‘I know that it’s against the law.’

Jimmy tried to shrug in a nonchalant manner, but in truth he was slightly thrown.

‘Well, I don’t think it’s insider trading,’ he said finally. ‘I mean, surely Rupert wouldn’t have suggested it if  . . . I mean, it’s just like gossip, isn’t it? A tip at the races or something like that. A bloke gets wind of something, he tells a mate. You take your luck where you find it.’

‘That American friend of Lizzie’s went to prison, didn’t she? Martha Stewart. She just took a tip-off.’

‘Gossip, Mon. Not a tip-off as such.’

‘Jimmy, Rupert wasn’t passing on gossip so much as facts. He’s a government adviser. He’s actually in the loop.’

‘Well yes, but  . . . I mean insider trading is like when you run a company and you know everything about it and then you make trades using information, privileged information that isn’t available to the public. That’s why it’s illegal.’

‘Exactly  . . . and?’

‘Well, Rupert doesn’t own or run Caledonian Granite and nor do I. Neither of us has any association with it at all, so how can we be insiders?  . . . It’s fine. I know it’s fine.’

‘It does sort of seem like insider trading.’

‘But inside what? I don’t know anyone who works for Granite and nor, I imagine, does Roop.’

Monica didn’t reply and Jimmy stared into his fruit salad for a moment. Insider trading? The thought had not even entered his head. Money just flowed towards him and he grabbed it, that was all. That was how it had always been for him. It wasn’t as if he’d mugged anyone or put his hand in a till.

‘Look,’ he continued, ‘I know it’s a leeetle bit Dodgy Brothers, babes. I’ll admit that, not saying it isn’t. But that’s the way things work. Knowledge, information. It’s the petrol in the engine. Everybody does it. Sometimes you get lucky and pick up a tip, sometimes you don’t. This morning we got lucky. Nobody died. The world’s still turning. Yee-ha! That’s Rock ’n’ Roll. Don’t knock it, dahhhhlin’.’

He could always make her laugh and she laughed now, but he could see that she wasn’t convinced.

‘I think you should give the money to charity,’ she said suddenly.

Jimmy stared at her.

‘Give it to charity?’ he repeated. ‘A hundred grand?’

‘Yes.’

‘We give loads to charity.’

‘Not that much, and anyway we should give more,’ Monica said. ‘After all, that hundred K isn’t really our money, is it?’

‘What do you mean it’s not our money? Of course it’s our bloody money. Whose else is it?’

‘If Rupert hadn’t tipped you off you’d never have sold those shares and they’d now be worth as little as everyone else’s. The money never would have existed.’

‘But he did tip me off, Mon, and the money does exist.’

‘Keep your initial investment then,’ Monica said, ‘and give away the profit. That’s fair, surely.’

‘Fair? Fair to who? We’d still be giving away over fifty grand.’

‘I know,’ Monica insisted, stroking her stomach, ‘but we have another baby coming.’

‘What, may I ask,’ Jimmy said firmly, ‘has that got to do with anything?’

‘I just think it would be good karma. That’s all.’

‘Good karma!’ Jimmy laughed. ‘Giving away fifty grand! I can’t do it.’

‘Jimmy, I want you to do it.’

Jimmy could see that it was pointless to argue. Monica had her superstitious side and it was clear to him that after making the connection between a charitable act and her unborn baby she was going to stick to her guns.

‘Give it away,’ she said firmly, ‘or I will.’

‘Oh all-bloody-right,’ Jimmy said. ‘But I’m not going to just give it. That’s too painful and boring. I’ve gotta make it interesting. You know, something fun.’

‘O-kaaay.’ Monica sounded suspicious. ‘And how will you do that?’

Jimmy thought for a moment while spooning a glob of neat Nutella into his mouth.

‘Tell you what, I’ll stick it on a horse!’

‘Tell you what back,’ Monica said, ‘no!’

But now Jimmy was off on one, his imagination fired up with exactly the sort of idea that appealed to the eternal adolescent in him.

‘I mean it,’ he said. ‘That’s what we’ll do. Some real long-shot bet. If it loses then nobody’s any worse off, but if it wins  . . . Now that will be a contribution worth making.’

‘Fifty thousand pounds is a contribution worth making!’ Monica exclaimed. ‘I slave for months to raise that sort of money with my appeals.’

Monica worked very hard on her charity appeals. In fact people had no idea how hard she worked on them, something which Monica found just a little bit hurtful.

She always suspected that because she didn’t actually have a proper job, her career-minded friends thought that she did nothing at all. They thought that she was a ‘lady who lunched’. That really her ‘charity work’ was as much an excuse for social networking, meeting celebrities and having lovely meals in the restaurant at Harvey Nichols as it was for making a difference.

But Monica felt that she did make a difference. And she knew what a difference fifty thousand pounds could make too. She was a fundraiser for Asylum Action, a charity that attempted to bring aid and support to the crowds of desperate refugees who, having fled the violence and misery of their war-ravaged homelands, found themselves caught up in the violence and misery of a massive transit camp on the French Channel coast. Those people needed medical care, legal advice and access to interpreters. Fifty grand could help a lot.

‘You can’t do it,’ she insisted. ‘You can’t bet that amount. It’s bloody stupid.’

‘Why is it stupid? We got the money speculating.’

‘You got the money cheating, Jim.’

‘Don’t be such a square, babe! Life is a speculation, let’s speculate a bit more. It’ll be fun. We’ll make a party out of it. Next year’s Grand National! Or maybe the Alabama Derby! I’ve always wanted to see that race and if we give the gang enough notice we could all go over together. I’ll put the money in gilts with my bookie and when the book opens he can put it on the longest shot on the slate.’

‘Jimmy!’ Monica tried once more to protest but Jimmy headed her off.

‘It’s a brilliant idea!’ He stuck his fist into a box of Toby’s Frosties and drew out a handful. ‘If we go in at, say, twenty to one we could be looking at over a million for Asylum Action. The committee will go crazy!’

‘Or nineteen chances of nothing at all.’

‘Can’t accumulate if you don’t speculate, babes. Gotta be in it to win it.’ Jimmy punched up the cappuccino machine. ‘It is after all well known,’ he added, ‘that charity is the new Rock ’n’ Roll.’

But what do you actually do?

it wasn’t as if Jimmy had ever expected to be insanely rich. He was the son of a bank manager. Provenance more solid and comfortable than a Sunday-night television drama serial. DNA-wise, Jimmy’s kids should have been called Pipe and Slippers, not Toby and Cressida and the recently added Lillie.

Of course he hadn’t expected it (the money, that is, not Lillie, who had been very much wanted), how could he have? As Jimmy was fond of saying about the size of his bonus, ‘You couldn’t make it up.’ The sums would have seemed like pure fantasy to any previous generation working in the City.

When Jimmy was a kid, nobody except rock stars had made the sort of money he had ended up making. Then suddenly Jimmy was a rock star. Well, he’d certainly bought his London house from a rock star and he’d paid an extra million for the kudos. He didn’t care what it cost. He wanted a big house in Notting Hill and he got one. ‘A house is worth what you pay for it,’ he used to say. Now he was discovering that in fact a house was worth what you could sell it for.

Of course, he hadn’t planned to be as rich as he had become. That would have been like planning on winning the lottery or being plucked from the dance troupe to marry Madonna. It had been fate, that was all. Right place, right time. Jimmy had just got lucky. The same thing as being in on the beginning of a gold rush. Yee-ha! California, 1848. First wagon over the Rockies. ‘There’s GOLD in them thar hills!’ You just grabbed a shovel and ran for it.

Nobody resented them. Nobody resented Klondike Pete and his best gal Sal the way people had suddenly come to resent Jimmy and his pals. Nobody called Klondike Pete a greedy, irresponsible bastard because he bent down and picked up lumps of gold when he found them lying around on the ground. As any fool would.

Despite what people might now claim.

No, Pete and Sal had been pioneers. Gritty chancers who created the wealth on which a great nation could be built. When their mines failed or the bottom dropped out of the price of gold, nobody said they deserved it. Nobody said, ‘Oh, they should have been more prudent, those pioneers. They should have asked themselves how long they could all keep digging up gold before the price went down. They should have put down their picks for a moment and considered self-regulation.’

And hadn’t Jimmy been a pioneer in his way? A gritty chancer? A wealth creator? And wasn’t that a good thing? Gold wasn’t anything in itself, was it? It was worth what people believed it was worth. Just like the pixelated numbers that had whirred across Jimmy’s computer screens for fifteen years. As long as people believed they meant something, everything had been fine.

‘Why are people being so mean now?’ Monica had wailed after a particularly unpleasant encounter with a window cleaner. He had turned up to do his regular job and Monica had been forced to tell him that sadly, due to the downturn, his contract was being terminated. ‘The man shouted at me,’ she cried. ‘He actually stood on the doorstep and shouted at me. He said that his trade was all buggered because of the likes of me. As if I’d created the bloody recession myself, deliberately, to spite him!’

Jimmy had got lucky, that was all. Unlike other men who had made many millions, he had not set out to do so. He had not been one of those guys who wrote little lists of goals while they were at university, saying things like ‘Millionaire by 25. Prime Minister by 40.’

If Jimmy had written one of those lists he probably would have put down things like ‘See Oasis live, date Kylie and try to avoid becoming an alcoholic.’

Jimmy didn’t really understand how he had got to be so rich, not in any detail. He certainly wasn’t very good at explaining it.

‘But what do you actually do?’ his parents were always asking.

It was a reasonable question and one which Jimmy had got used to dodging. He sort of got what he did when he was actually doing it, but when he thought about it, when he tried to put into words the abstract concept of spending one’s working days in a marketplace that would not actually materialize for years (if ever), of trading in products that might never be made or grown, his imaginative and descriptive powers deserted him.

‘Sounds like you’re Alice and you live in Wonderland,’ Jimmy’s father would say. ‘You’ve discovered a magic bottle that says “Drink me,” except it’s not you that’s getting bigger but your bank account.’

‘That sounds about right, Dad,’ Jimmy agreed.

But then he’d never really got Alice in Wonderland either, not even the Disney version.

Jimmy’s father was genuinely baffled by his son’s enormous success and also, if truth were told, slightly irritated by it. Derek Corby had dealt in the business of money all his life, he understood it, and yet here was his son, who clearly didn’t understand it, making sacks of the stuff every day.

‘You’re just jealous, Derek,’ his wife always teased when Jimmy and his dad locked horns. ‘I think you should be delighted. Imagine if he was still pinching money out of my purse like he used to when he was a student.’

There was some truth in what Nora said, but it wasn’t just jealousy. Jimmy’s wealth made his father uneasy. As a bank manager he knew about financial probity. It was the watchword on which his life had been built.

‘The rules of banking are very clear, Jimmy,’ Derek tried to explain when the Corbys were out together on one of their fishing Sundays, which Jimmy sometimes attended right up until the day he met Monica. ‘The amount of money I am able to lend is dependent on the amount of capital I have in my—’

‘Yeah, right, Dad, for sure,’ Jimmy interrupted. ‘Can we start the picnic yet, Mum?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Nora replied. ‘Not until we’ve caught at least one fish.’

‘What is more,’ Derek pressed on, ‘and you need to hear this, Jim, the security on which I lend that money must be sufficient to cover the debt, should the borrower default.’

‘Stop sniffing, Jimmy,’ Nora scolded, handing her son a loo roll from the basket. ‘You never stop sniffing these days. Are you looking after yourself? You seem to have a constant cold.’

‘I’m fine, Mum,’ Jimmy replied, rubbing his nose, a nose which his mother would have been shocked to hear was currently costing Jimmy almost as much a week to cater for as her husband earned at the bank.

‘And I always, always remember,’ Derek continued, so used to having his lectures ignored that he no longer seemed to notice, ‘that the money I lend is not mine. It’s not even the bank’s. It belongs to the savers.’

‘Got one!’ Nora exclaimed, pulling a minnow from the water.

‘Great!’ Jimmy replied, digging into the hamper and going straight for the cherry Bakewells.

Derek sighed. There was no common ground between the financial world in which he operated and that of his son.

‘I think the point is, Dad,’ Jimmy suggested, his mouth full of cake, ‘that money used to be a trade, and now it’s an art.’

Derek Corby harrumphed. He didn’t think money had any business being an art.

‘You were always terrible at art,’ Mr Corby senior pointed out testily. ‘Your soldiers never had necks.’

The new occupant

Jimmy’s position was pretty desperate but it could have been worse. People didn’t cross the street to avoid him as he shuffled up the street. He didn’t stink of piss and his hair wasn’t horrendously knotted and matted with filth. He didn’t have a beard that was alive with vermin or running sores all over his dirt-blackened skin. Not like the wretched wreck of a man who was shuffling up Webb Street, past all the houses that Jimmy had briefly believed he owned.

The man’s name was Bob, not that it mattered. He didn’t need a name because nobody spoke to him now. Sometimes he nearly forgot it himself. Except it was hanging round his neck on the ID that the people who ran the Big Issue had sorted out for him a year or two before. That had been during a brief period when some charity worker had tried to get him together; they tried occasionally, those charity workers, although Bob doubted that they ever would again. He was too far gone now, even for the freshest and most evangelical of do-gooders. He still wore the ID, even though it was at least a year since he’d been together enough to sell a magazine. It was useful when trying to get a bed for the night. The hostels always needed a name and ID. For their forms. But he didn’t stay in hostels now either: they were too crowded, crowded with people better able to argue their way into a bed than he. A whole different breed from what he was used to. IT consultants and estate agents. Estate agents becoming homeless? That was funny.

Bob had seen them all. He was first-generation street. A pioneer. A survivor from that time in the eighties when suddenly towns had become flooded by young people sitting in doorways. Some people didn’t remember now, but if you were over forty-five or fifty you might recall that there had been a time when there were virtually no homeless people on the streets of Britain and begging was almost unknown.

Begging? Unknown in Britain? The thought actually made Bob laugh. But it was true, when he was a kid that was how it had been. It had all changed when Mrs Thatcher made it so young people could no longer claim housing benefit if they’d left home voluntarily. Overnight, it seemed, every abused kid in the country was on the street.

Getting abused.

Bob had been one of them and he’d been on the street ever since. He’d seen the doorway population change from almost exclusively young runaways in the eighties to the poverty-trapped underclass that emerged in the nineties through the boom years of the squeegie merchants to the shawled, shuffling Eastern European women of the early noughties with their drugged babies and sad little notes on bits of torn-up cardboard saying, ‘Hungre. Plese help.’

Now it seemed to Bob that things were coming a weird full circle as the very yuppies who had tossed him coins when he first hit the streets more than twenty years before were joining him in the doorways. ‘What was all that about?’ he asked himself through a methylated, petrol-scented haze.

No, Bob didn’t apply for hostels now. He was just too screwed up. Mentally and physically. His sores festered, his mind raged with whatever drug, drink or solvent he could push at it and nobody went within ten feet of him. He was literally dying as he walked. But it was taking a while. He marvelled at how his body kept on keeping on. And wondered why it bothered.

That night Bob found himself in Hackney. In Webb Street. A semi-derelict and entirely abandoned property development that had run out of cash. At one end of the street some of the properties had been nearly renovated. These desirable billets had been squatted by smart, savvy class-war warriors with dreadlocks and posh accents who changed locks and sorted out the leccy.

The other end of the street had not been touched, and the houses were almost as rotten and forlorn as Bob himself. It was into one of these that Bob managed to creep with his shot of meth and the remains of a hamburger that he’d found in a bin. The door had been boarded up but kids had long since kicked that in. He decided not to trust the stairs. His bones were brittle and thin and Bob knew that if he were to put his foot through a rotten floorboard he would probably leave it there. Turning into the first room he found, a room which had once been an elegant reception area and more recently home to a whole family of Somalis, Bob lay down on the boards and went to sleep.

Bob was not quite the new occupant that Jimmy Corby, the nominal owner and developer of Webb Street, had had in mind when he began his development project. But then, as Bob often muttered to himself, it was a funny old world.

The price of love

Jimmy had never thought of his lovely Notting Hill home as a big house. And certainly not absurdly big, as he now knew it to be. Now that winter was pretty much upon them and he had to find a way to heat it while he tried to find a way to sell it.

How could he have not noticed how big it was? But the thought had never even occurred to him. It was just a decent-sized town house, that was all. In fact, it hadn’t really been big enough. Not with a live-in nanny who expected her own kitchenette. Not with three day staff cluttering up the place. Not if you wanted to put in a gym and spa. A fully equipped Nautilus gym plus steam room, solarium and massive whirlpool plunger that you could almost swim in. The weight of the water had meant putting in new joists to support the floor. An entire health club at home! It seemed crazy now but it hadn’t seemed that way a year before, when all he was thinking about was Monica getting her figure back. Then it had seemed  . . . well, essential.

‘We’ve got to have a gym,’ he’d said. ‘We’re far too busy to get it together to visit the local sweaty jock strap.’ And he’d sort of believed it.

Jimmy went down to the basement, a vast knock-through space encompassing a fabulous kitchen and family play area. Monica was there, of course. She was always there when one of the kids was going off because the beautiful polished slate floor afforded the most room in which to push a buggy in a figure of eight while trying to rock a child to sleep. Monica was doing just that with Cressida and trying to suckle Lillie on the hoof. She was wearing a nightie that Jimmy had put in her Christmas stocking the year before. It was pure silk and had cost three hundred pounds. A gorgeous little filler along with some sweet Cartier ear studs, some piccolos of Laurent Perrier and a brace of tickets for the Orient Express (while Jodie took the kids to Euro Disney). Now one strap of that lovely delicate silk was hanging down off her shoulder, exposing one breast, while the other side was dark and sodden with copious let-downs. The nightie was a short one, more of a slip really, designed to show a maximum amount of leg, legs that Monica had always been rather proud of but which were currently encased in varicose-vein-suppression stockings that had fallen down around her ankles.

‘I was trying to go to the loo!’ was the first thing she said. ‘But Cressida was making such a row I thought she was dying. Take this one, I’m desperate!’

‘Love you,’ Jimmy said as he took hold of the buggy.

‘Love you,’ Monica replied as she hopped and shuffled towards the open toilet door with Lillie still at her breast.

Jimmy sighed a deep sigh. Ever since Jodie and the chef had left, Monica had been in a constant state of trying to get to the loo. Before that, neither of them had had any idea that fitting in one’s own bodily functions with the needs of a baby and toddler would present such a never-ending series of challenges.

‘The moment you want to go,’ Monica observed, ‘the toddler falls down the stairs and the baby’s sick.’ She was convinced that before they invented Thomas the Tank Engine to hypnotize children, mothers without nannies must have crapped on the carpet.

Jimmy picked Cressida up out of the buggy and the child began to calm down a little. Usually the buggy would have been enough to shut her up in the first place but tonight, probably sensing that Monica was alone and hence extra-vulnerable to persecution, Cressida had refused to be mollified.

A few moments later Monica re-emerged.

‘Hi,’ he said.

‘Hi,’ Monica replied. ‘I have to get a clean nightie, this one’s soaked up half a boob’s worth and now I feel guilty because Lillie won’t get the milk. If you’d been here I could have expressed it. Cressida just wouldn’t let me do a thing.’

‘I had to go to Webb Street. I was meeting David.’

Tired though she was, Monica knew how difficult that must have been. David, like everyone involved in Jimmy’s failed property development, had not been paid. And David was a mate.

‘Oh, right,’ she said. ‘God, to have Jodie back. Just for a day.’

Jimmy carried on comforting Cressida. There was nothing to say on that score because there was no chance whatsoever of getting Jodie back, not unless she agreed to work for nothing and bring her own food.

For a moment they were silent, each holding a child, tiny bombs, either of which, if put down even for an instant, would immediately explode. Jimmy felt himself swaying slightly, fatigue enveloping him. For a moment he thought he was falling over, then he managed to blink himself back into focus.

‘How’s Toby?’ he asked.

‘Asleep. He misses Jodie.’

‘Well, I suppose that’s to be expected. She was with him all his life.’

Suddenly Monica’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I really do think  . . .’ she started, ‘I mean, she might have found a way to  . . . I thought she loved him. He feels so deserted.’

‘Mon, of course she loved him. In a way. Like a nanny. But what do you expect her to do? We can’t pay her.’

‘I know, but  . . .’

But there were no buts. Jodie was as much a victim of the downturn as they were. She had been lucky to be offered a job at half the money (and no board) at a Shepherds Bush backpacker pub and she’d grabbed it.

‘If she hadn’t taken that job,’ Jimmy said, ‘she’d have been as stuck as we are.’

‘Perhaps not quite as stuck,’ Monica said, and for a moment she couldn’t help smiling.

Jimmy smiled too.

After all, Jodie might be poor and having to pull pints for pissed-up surfer dudes doing a year in London plus all the Aussie nannies who hadn’t lost their jobs. But at least she had managed to avoid the added burden of an enormous property portfolio negatively mortgaged to the tune of whatever horror story the Evening Standard was publishing that day.

Jodie had done her best to soften the blow, ignoring the painful and sudden reduction in her own circumstances and trying to be kind and positive about Jimmy and Monica’s. She had dropped back to see them twice in the first week of separation but it had all been too awkward. What was her position? Should she leap up and sort out the children’s laundry as she had been doing for years? Should she sit on the rug and engage Toby in some brilliant game before settling down on a bean bag to read him something fun but improving while the adults ignored them both and sipped wine? Or should she sit on the couch and drink her coffee with Monica like some newly discovered friend, politely but firmly declining all Toby’s demands to do all the stuff with him that she used to do? On her second visit Jodie had given in and done some painting with Toby, partly out of habit and partly out of sympathy. After half an hour she had realized that Monica had fallen back into old habits too and gone off to catch up on phone calls and emails. Jodie had had to disengage herself from a bewildered Toby and call to Monica that she needed to be getting back for her bar shift.

After that, Jodie didn’t visit again. She and Jimmy and Monica all understood that the situation was mutually upsetting and unworkable. The only person who didn’t understand was Toby, who simply found that somebody who’d always told him she loved him and who had seemed genuinely committed to his education in the finer points of Australian hard rock was now rejecting him, leaving not so much as a Cold Chisel album in the glove compartment of the Discovery.

‘How was it with David?’ Monica asked.

‘Pretty tense, as you’d expect,’ Jimmy replied. ‘His firm want paying, of course. Why wouldn’t they? They blame David for the bad debt, which is understandable as it was him who brought in our commission. Poor old Dave’s pretty stressed out in general now that his precious Rainbow Project has gone tits up too.’

‘Yes, that’s gone pretty sour, hasn’t it?’ Monica seemed to seize on the opportunity to talk about other people’s troubles. ‘It was even on the news. It looked so pathetic, two ridiculous-looking concrete spikes pointing at each other.’

‘Yeah, it was in the Standard too. It’s being used as a symbol of corporate excess. Hubris gone berserk. The headline was Two Fingers to Caution, which didn’t really work because they don’t look remotely like fingers. Of course, as originating architect David’s name’s all over it, so he’s seriously shagged.’

Together they walked their two younger children around the kitchen for a while, Cressida back in the buggy, Lillie in Monica’s arms.

‘It’s like some Greek tragedy, isn’t it?’ Monica said, breaking the silence.

‘It’s certainly some sort of bloody tragedy,’ Jimmy replied, once more finding it in himself to smile.

‘No, it’s Greek,’ Monica insisted, smiling too. ‘Greek tragedies aren’t just any tragedies. They need a fall.’

Monica had taken Theatre Studies as a subsidiary to her English degree and therefore knew her stuff. She had even been slated to play the king’s mother in a third-year production of Oedipus until the student director had informed her that in his vision of the play she would be expected to allow the actor playing Oedipus to suckle her breasts.

‘You mean actually get my tits out?’ Monica had exclaimed in a voice that turned heads in the union canteen.

‘Yes,’ the earnest (and clearly very horny) young director had replied.

‘And let a post-grad engineering student suck them?’

‘He’s mother-fixated. That’s the point of the play.’

And that had been the end of Monica’s acting career. Now she was playing a suckling mother for real.