The South Downs, UK, October 1987.
Julian Vermouth strode next to Suleiman over the wet grass of the South Downs. To the left at the foot of steep cliffs lay the sea, above streamed grey clouds with a dimly lit sky behind, and in front were squalls blowing off the sea, checking their progress. Vermouth's concern was developing. If the wind strength continued to increase, it could prove tough to return to Birling Gap where they had lunched, and where their transport awaited them, Suleiman's Japanese motorbike.
They had just passed Beachy Head, having climbed up steeply from Eastbourne. They were on the Seven Sisters, the seven white chalk cliffs where the South Downs join battle with the English Channel. Each of the cliffs represents a triumph for the sea, Vermouth thought, as they passed a sign warning them to keep clear of the crumbling cliff edge; and the sea held the advantage with the weather today. From up here you could not see the height of the waves eating at the cliffs, but you could guess their power from the plumes of spray, rising up the cliff face further along. Right here, all you saw was a stretch of open grass running to the left with no visible clue that there was a vertical drop of a few hundred feet just a few steps away. Beachy Head had become a popular spot for suicides since the fifties: you simply drive your car over the edge.
Vermouth turned to Suleiman, shouting above the roar of the wind, "I think this is becoming a bit more than the afternoon stroll you expected. Is it time I enquired why you invited me, I mean, other than for the stroll?"Suleiman laughed. "Julian, since I am moving into the business world now, I thought I must adopt some principles, a rule book. How am I going to stay fit and healthy, spending my days in offices, in airports and on aeroplanes?"
"Go to the gym."
"Easily said, Julian, but not so easy where I operate. No, the rule about business meetings is, whenever possible, to hold them outside taking exercise, where we can talk just as well as across a conference table. And another rule: always be ready for the unexpected. This rule is perhaps being tested right now."
"I can't fault that," said Vermouth.
"So I'm changing the game plan," Suleiman continued. "I thought we'd pump ourselves with a little exercise after that heavy - but very delicious, Julian, thank you - lunch of steak, potatoes and boiled vegetables."
"OK, OK, I get the point," Vermouth interrupted.
"No, I did enjoy it, beautiful taste, excellent fuel, just right for the weather. I was going to launch into my proposal now, on the way back, but with this wind, well, I would have to shout at you. Of course, we do that all the time in the military, but with even my limited experience of business I have recognised that we do not achieve our objectives by shouting at people, Jawohl." His posture shifted, in an instant, from that of a man, bent into the wind on the Sussex Downs, to the erect form of a World War I German officer, with a sharp click of the heels and forward inclination of the upper body.
"I can see why you need a rule book," Vermouth said, laughing at the incongruous gesture. Suleiman knew how to use humour to take the edge off a situation, and he had caught Vermouth's concern at the worsening weather.
"Now you will have to wait until we get back to the hotel."
Vermouth was not used to riding on the back of motorbikes. If the ride down had been bad, the ride back was horrendous. It was a heavy bike, but that did not help much in these weather conditions. It was already seven thirty by the time they turned into the driveway of Victoria House. The wind pushed hard against the bike as they made the turn. The gardens were obscured in the blackness of the storm, as they came up the driveway. They rode past the car park on the right up to the main entrance, parking on the gravel to the right.
"Sorry we had to stop a couple of times. I've done many things in my life, but motorcycling's not one of them. Just got my licence." Suleiman was pulling off his gauntlets and stashing them in the pannier. Vermouth said nothing, but wished he had known earlier, when he could have done something about it. "Why don't we go up to our rooms and change," Suleiman continued, "you do what ever phone calls you need to, and then let's meet in the bar in an hour. I'll book dinner for nine."
After Suleiman had made the dinner booking, the waiter came across to the girl at reception.
"So where's Emma Peel?" he asked with a laugh.
"Sorry?" She did not know what he was on about.
"I thought I just saw Dr Zhivago come in with John Stead," He explained.
"Oh, Mr Suleiman," she smiled. "He's often here. So much old world charm. I get your point: when those deep brown eyes look at me so questioningly, I do quiver. But I'm not so sure about Stead."
"I just meant the accent," he replied, returning to the bar.
The Victoria House Hotel is a beautiful country mansion, set in its own grounds. Gatwick Airport is just a few minutes away, which is why Suleiman had chosen it, convenient for him and convenient for Vermouth, who had flown in from Boston. The hotel has few bedrooms, but the public rooms have been restored to more than their original splendour. Vermouth was ready in ten minutes and came down to reception at the main entrance, to check if he had any messages, as there had been none in his room. There were none, so he had better find the bar. He looked into the doorway across from the reception desk, a large room with high ceilings, an ornate plant motif on the walls and large mirrors at either end. High windows, now curtained for the night, obviously gave onto the gardens. Beautiful, he thought, but no bar.
The receptionist watched him. She enjoyed examining the guests, categorising them. A lot of suppressed energy there, she thought. Very alert, especially the eyes. It is as if he has to check the place out, know where everything is, be ready, be in control. Vermouth saw her looking and smiled. A touch impassive in the face, though, was her final assessment as he turned and went back down the corridor. Sure enough a small bar was tucked away in a room to the right, but no Suleiman yet. He walked further down the corridor and into what was obviously the library. Books lined the walls, a chess table in one corner, various groups of chairs and an open fire blazing, everything traditional, warm, welcoming. I think we'll get our drinks and come in here, he decided.
Vermouth selected a table in the corner of the bar. It took just a couple of sips from a the second spicy Bloody Mary to recover from the motorcycle ride, and on the dot of eight thirty Suleiman was there.
"Before we go in to dinner," he said, "I want to give you an overview. I'm establishing a non-profit making organisation, but with a strong business base; that is to say, the individual businesses are intended to make profits, but these will be channelled into the organisation's central pool. So let's talk about the goal. The world is changing, Julian. It's 1987; we're approaching the end of the decade. The whole political landscape is going to change, and this time I want the Arab world to have its fair share. Last time round, with the oil price hike, we won the petrodollars but lost on the investments. The West changed the goal posts with high inflation."
"This time I plan to work behind the scenes, to work commercially. I'm nearly forty, I have modest seed capital, and I want to achieve something. But, Julian, I have profile in our world, and I am thinking big. I am thinking very big. I've established my team, in particular my finance man, but I need what I would call a commercial director. It has to be someone totally familiar with the world's financial centres, someone who speaks the language of international finance. And then it has to be someone who is on my side, our side, Julian. You understand why I have come to you: you are Julian Vermouth. I know it's a long shot. You have your career, and it's worse, because you will have to move to the Gulf; neither New York nor London will do."
"I appreciate your confidence in me. However, this is not a long shot it's a non-starter," was Vermouth's immediate response.
"I expected no other reaction, but let us talk further."
Suleiman then launched into his world geopolitical views, which continued over dinner. His arguments were based on the linking of all kinds of minor events, from which he deduced impending political change. Much of it convinced Vermouth; some was more outlandish. Completely off the wall was Suleiman's view that Russia was loosing it's grip over the Soviet Union, with the likely consequence that power, industrial assets and property would be up for grabs as early as next year. Vermouth was not surprised: he was used to the views of conspiracy theorists, mostly directed against the US.
Suleiman had decided to go up to London after dinner, despite very high winds, heavy rain and his limited motorcycling experience. After all, he had claimed, it's just a quick zip up the M23. After he had left, Vermouth mulled over what they had discussed. No way could he join Suleiman. Just four years ago he had been a bank credit officer in London on forty thousand pounds a year, worried about the cost of his season ticket. In the last three years he had made several times that in New York, and if his current bet on the stock market worked, he would be home and dry financially. He did not need to go to the Gulf.
He was very conservative when it came to markets, so if he took a big stock market position, he would always place a time limit on his exposure, and he would talk everything through with his wife. It so happened that he had just taken by far the biggest punt of his life, and his wife had suggested the deadline: the beginning of carnival, she had said. She was German, so for her this meant the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, eleven eleven on the eleventh of November. He was already sitting on a huge profit, which by early November should have doubled, the way things were going. He went upstairs to his room.
In the early hours of the morning Vermouth was awakened by a flashing light coming through the curtains. He crossed to the window and looked out. Wind was raging, trees bent almost to the ground, grey clouds were streaking through the sky at incredible speed and along the line of the horizon were flashes of light (shorted power lines torn down by the storm he was later to learn). He was fascinated but also fearful of the scale of the storm. Wide-awake by now, his anxiety prompted him to put a call through to New York, late evening there. He did not like what he heard about the state of the New York Stock Market today. He would check the market reaction in London on opening, but he was firmly resolved to close out his position and take his profit. I have made a killing and that is good enough, he thought.
After a fitful night, he finally woke at ten, which was five in the morning according to New York time and consequently to his body clock. Good timing, he thought, we'll know the state of the market by now, and he spent the next fifteen minutes failing to get through to anyone at all in the City of London. This is ridiculous; I'm going up to town, he decided. He dressed, grabbed his bag and headed down to reception.
"I'd like to check out, and could you order a taxi, please?"
"Yes to the first, but no to the second, I'm afraid. No taxis."
"They've been out with chain saws since the early hours of the morning to clear the roads for the emergency services, but they're still blocked. Railways are out. Planes have landed but aren't taking off. You're in the middle of a hurricane zone. Take a look outside."
And so it was that Vermouth made the most of a weekend in the country, witnessing a level of devastation from which the countryside would take years to recover. It was the trees that had borne the brunt. Whole forested slopes flattened, if they faced the wrong direction. Tree-lined roads now carpeted with trunks. Some of the shots on television showed acres of flattened forest, and this part of the country seemed to have been the worst hit. He would be well set for dinner party anecdotes, when he arrived back in New York on Tuesday night. He would spend Monday in the City, probably close out his investment position taking the profits, and then head out Tuesday lunchtime back to New York.
There is no doubt that the Great Storm of 1987 prevented a stock market collapse in the UK that Friday. There was no Black Friday. Instead there was a Black Monday, the next business day after the weekend. The reason is simply that insufficient stockbrokers made it to work that Friday to furnish the level of "sell" orders that a Black Friday would have required. This was just another case of Mother Nature flagrantly disregarding market sentiment. By the time Vermouth took Suleiman's call on Monday night, Vermouth had been more than wiped out. He had entered the negative equity zone in a big way.
"Hello, Julian. Quite a day, but before we get into that, any positive thoughts on my proposal?"
"Suleiman, this is for you alone, and only because I owe you an honest answer. I have been wiped out, more than wiped out. If the bank doesn't bail me out, and I don't think they will, I won't even keep my job. I'm gone, Suleiman, so forget it. Just let me say, I have appreciated knowing you."
"Where are you, Julian?"
"Park Lane, the usual place."
"So am I. Meet me in the lobby now."
Vermouth slung his Vodafone onto the bed, the battery was nearly flat anyway, grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. He took the lift down and walked out to see Suleiman, dressed in a grey pinstripe. They moved across to a quiet corner of the foyer.
"You look devastated, Julian."
"I am. I stick to the safest investments. I keep the tightest of risk profiles. In this case, I was sitting on a profits cushion that allowed me to take a position way above my normal limits. I could have closed out and taken the profit at any time. And I always set a strict deadline to avoid being caught be a falling market and losing out with the price dropping before I can sell my shares. In this case I simply couldn't deal on Friday, sell shares, no one answered the phone, and on Monday it was all just too quick."
"It's my fault," Suleiman replied. "If I hadn't petrified you on the back of the bike, you would have come up on Thursday night. Like me, you would have been one of the few to get into the City. God helps those who help themselves is from the Bible, isn't it?" Suleiman took his religion seriously, but he still liked to add a light-hearted tone to show he was in touch with the twentieth century.
"I decided that if it was the will of Allah to change the English countryside on such a scale, maybe he wanted me to do something too. I thought, if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it, bet the ranch, the whole caboodle." For the last couple of phrases he had tried out his Texan. "I was able to liquidate my seed capital, turn it all into cash and use the cash to bet on the index, he who dares wins. I remember that quote from my previous association with the SAS. So that's what I did on Friday, and today I closed out. I bet everything on the index, on the market going down on Monday, today. I bet just like on the horse races. And the result: my seed capital has a crop yield beyond the wildest dreams of any Texan oilman turned corn baron. So do you want to hear my new proposal, Julian?"
"Tell me your loss. I will cover it twice over, and that's your golden hello for joining me."
Mankind has divided the world into "squares" bounded by lines of longitude and latitude, like a giant spherical chessboard except that the "squares" are not square and diminish in size as you approach the poles. From London, go three squares down and five across, and you reach southern India and the City of Bangalore.
Dressed in an ornate green sari, she stood before her elder brother, red hair flowing across her shoulders. In her hand she held a letter, the envelope discarded on the Kashan rug, set off against a pale grey marble floor. Her eyes gleamed. Just seventeen years old and she had the chance to go to university in Moscow. The decision lay with her brother. He was thoughtful, but he would not deny her this. By the time she had graduated he would probably have married, and the next generation would be well on the way. She had her life. It was for him to continue the family line, which had reduced to just the two of them in their generation since the family left Iran in the 1979 revolution.
"We should not wait," he said. "Go now, and then your Russian will be fluent by the time your studies begin." And her excitement surged through him, as she hugged him with gratitude.