Mould was growing on the chassis. He really should have washed it months ago. Something like miniature shrubbery obstructed the window. The occasional black spore, which had once looked like isolated examples of mud, had formed an elaborate network across the roof, threatening his Audi A3 with a new and ill-considered colour scheme.
Things were not much better on the inside. A thick layer of dirt, gravel, and shredded leaves despoiled the carpeted floor. The air had a permanent smell of dried walking shoes. Water bottles were lodged under all the seats, and the glove compartment concealed a degenerate history of chocolate-bar wrappers.
Laurie parked on the street, switched off the engine, and there, in a moment of micro-consciousness, reflected on the day’s triumph. He had presided successfully over a meeting to decide whether or not bullet points should be green.
As the chair of the meeting, he had been responsible for, as far as possible, steering the conflicting opinions towards a final reconciliation, which would allow the company to act on the outcome. It was no mean feat. One of his colleagues, who was particularly fervent on the subject, showed his displeasure by announcing, five minutes before the meeting was due to come to an end, that he “had another meeting to attend”. Which was, as everyone present understood, the most candid and crushing way to signal his disdain.
Undeterred, and through the dogged art of compromise, he had managed to elicit agreement on all sides, as much as by giving each attendee the time and space to have their say as by pressing forcefully the logic of any one position. His bosses were impressed. His annual appraisal was just around the corner, and the end-of-year pay review grinned behind its back. Hints were dropped. His prospects looked good.
He unbuckled his seatbelt. A notification flashed on his iPhone.
Donald Trump denies credibility of Lexington Probe
In the flat that night, Laurie was quietly satisfied with the day’s events, and spent several minutes pacing up and down the hallway, staring at his modest collection of broken umbrellas as he plotted his next move. It was small-p politics, but, in his own parochial world, it mattered. All offices had their combustible sources of friction, and the energy they released could confer preferment on those deft enough to seize the opportunity. The next pay band was not to be sniffed at, and promotion was a very real and achievable end. He just needed to evince the right kind of tactical poise. The ‘green bullet point’ meeting had served him well, but it would not guarantee the kind of approbation he needed. Not by any means.
For the rest of the evening, he sat on his beige sofa staring at the blank screen of the television. His iPhone flashed with notifications at regular intervals.
He wasted the next opportunity. He was convinced it portended badly. The meeting had begun in the usual fashion. He had arrived early, having spent the night before rehearsing his presentation to an empty bedroom. He had loaded up his slides to the projector – he knew that the technology was unreliable, and that he would need ten minutes to set everything up.
He had greeted everyone as they arrived. Then he had sat uncomfortably in the corner, making tentative and guarded contributions to the small talk, as anxiety dismembered him from the inside.
He had convened the meeting to discuss the feasibility of recycling fingernails. The issue had come up several times over the last few months, but only latterly had it found momentum.
The presentation had gone well. That hadn’t been the problem. He had even managed to include some humorous slides in the PowerPoint presentation. But he had known the meeting would take a turn for the worse. Just as he had finished speaking, he received a notification to his phone. Those attending saw the screen illuminate, and watched him squirrel it out of sight.
Donald Trump denies denying the credibility of Lexington Probe
He had costed the proposals and set out a clear business case with a formula for return on investment. One senior manager had not been convinced. He had been kind enough to say that the presentation was coherent, even logical. Still, there were too many competing priorities, too many other shared-service schemes or innovative drives towards efficiency. Recycling fingernails, imaginative scheme though it was, would have to wait for a more opportune moment.
His line manager took it as a slight to their team.
That evening, still bobbing between peaks and troughs, his mind wandered. He sat on his sofa with a cup of peppermint tea, staring at the beige walls. He picked up a book but didn’t read it. He looked at his small open-plan living room, as it merged with the slice of kitchen appended to it. A couple of weeks ago, he had called on his neighbour for the first time in several years. His can opener had broken, so he had plucked up the courage to ask if he might borrow one. As he peered into his neighbour’s flat, he was, despite the surface flummery of decoration, struck only by how much it resembled his own.
Thinking this thought, his eye caught the last shard of daylight fading behind the blind. Then his iPhone received another notification:
Donald Trump denies marmalade is ‘a thing’
Laurie knew – everyone knew – that the team would have to do something to salvage their professional esteem and re-establish their standing. So the next day, he summoned his courage and floated a big idea. This one, if they ran with it, would leave its mark, and almost certainly incite a few hushed but excitable conversations around the coffee machine. It ran the risk of controversy, but the risk was worth taking.
His line manager’s eyes learned how to live once again. He was asked to draft a business case. They would take this one all the way to the top. He had to keep it concise, of course. The chief executive did not have an ocean of available time.
He set to work at once, and at the end of a day’s work, he was filing a paper to the chief executive’s office titled: ‘Proposal to remove the letter ‘Q’ from our corporate literature’.
Events moved swiftly. He was summoned to the head office, and told to present his paper. He would have half an hour: fifteen minutes to present, and fifteen for discussion. Most of the remaining days before the meeting, he spent with his line manager, reviewing and revising his presentation. They even role-played it. This was nerve-wracking, but nothing compared to the dread that was bulging and bursting inside him.
The day came. He hadn’t slept the night before. On the train, his mind recycled each slide, every particle of the pitch, to a point where he was convinced none of it made any sense. Then he was outside the chief executive’s office. His iPhone shook off the latest announcement from the digital ether:
Donald Trump denies transcendental unity of apperception
The meeting went well. His presentation was clear, fluent, compelling, without overstating the argument. His words came freely, with the appearance of ease and grace. The chief executive studied him quietly, with a subtle little smile. Then, when the presentation was over, he gave assent to the proposal with almost no scrutiny. They discussed a few minor details for five minutes, but Laurie’s overall package met with a resounding endorsement. The meeting seemed to conclude with the message: “This is good, sensible stuff. Let’s get on with it, shall we?”
His line manager celebrated. The team celebrated. He was patted on the back, and even his rivals, who had secretly hoped for a moment of schadenfreude, were obliged to concede the merits of his proposal and the praise it had earned.
He was told, in no uncertain terms, at his annual appraisal that the company was impressed with him. They promoted him from ‘manager’ to ‘senior manager’, with a special remit to oversee the implementation of the ‘no Q’ policy, as it had come to be known.
He sat on his sofa, at the end of the week, glowing with pride. A glass of wine, with the abstraction of an ornament, stood untouched on his coffee table. The opened bottle of wine rested on the kitchen surface. It was, and would remain, four-fifths full. The lifeless television stared back at him.
He stayed in this position until 1.30am, evacuating his mind into the evacuated room. He had decided to take a few days leave before he started the new role, so he could afford to relax a little.
Then another notification flashed on his iPhone:
Donald Trump in denial
The next day he got out of bed late. He showered, fried some egg and bacon, then made a coffee. He ate it in front of the blank television, his eyes straying about the undecorated walls. Then he drifted about his one-bedroom flat with no real purpose, occasionally peering through the blinds at the street below.
He didn’t think much about work. He never did whenever he had the opportunity.
In the early afternoon, he wandered up the hill to a coffee shop, where he read part of a novel, which was set in Ancient Rome. He found it absorbing, and only returned to his flat an hour and a half later.
He opened the fridge, looked inside, then closed it again. The doorbell rang. He went to answer it.
It was Donald Trump.
“Can I come in?” Donald asked.
“Why do you want to come in?” Laurie replied.
“I tried you before, but you must have been out. I don’t like walking around this city. It’s full of hippies. And we need to talk.”
This was a misrepresentation of the city since Laurie lived in a very middle-class, albeit politically liberal, area. Still, he didn’t say anything.
“Why do we need to talk?”
“Please, let’s just talk. You’ll find out.”
Donald followed him into his flat and then sat on the beige sofa, where he stared at the beige walls. Laurie made him a cup of English breakfast tea with a squeeze of lemon.
“So what’s going on, Donald?” he asked, “Or should I call you ‘Mr President’? I think that’s the done thing, really, isn’t it. Should I call you ‘Mr President’?”
“Let’s stick with Donald.”
Donald was a little restless. He stood up, paced about the room, then sat down again.
“I guess you know already,” he said, “but I’m trying to make America great again. Yeah?”
“That’s what I’d understood,” said Laurie, raising his eyebrows a little.
“Well, this isn’t an easy thing to say, but I’m running out of ideas. At one time I had plenty of them. You know – ‘the wall’. Stuff like that. But these days I’m drawing blanks. Maybe it’s because I’ve fired all my advisers. Maybe it’s because all you liberals hate me so much. I don’t know. Whatever. I just can’t find the creative energy or inspiration.”
“So that’s why you came to me?”
“Sure! That idea you had – removing the letter ‘U’ from the alphabet or whatever. That was swell!”
Laurie hesitated to correct the President of the United States, but with some things, no matter what the circumstance or how exalted the person, it’s important to get the facts right.
“It was actually the letter ‘Q’, and we only want to remove it from our corporate literature. That was the proposal, in any case.”
“Sure, sure,” said Donald, “it was a swell idea. You’re an ideas man, I can see. A blue-skies boffin, and no mistake! That’s why I came to you.”
Laurie leaned back against the stone-effect kitchen worktop from IKEA.
“So let me understand this correctly, you want me to come up with some ideas about how to make America great again?”
“That’s what I need. Some really super ideas.”
Laurie thought about the matter. This was a bolt from the blue. Totally unexpected. It didn’t sit comfortably with his scarcely considered, even assumed, liberal principles. But it would be a challenge, and an interesting one at that. Obviously, money was a factor.
“Whaddya say?” said Donald.
He was about to solicit a little more information from Donald about what exactly was expected, when the doorbell rang again. He went to answer it.
It was Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia.
“Hello, hello,” said Vladimir, pushing past him to get into the flat, “I double his offer! I double his offer!”
“Come in,” Laurie said.
By the time Laurie had closed the front door, Vladimir was tearing up the carpet as he paced about the living room, eyeing Donald Trump suspiciously.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Laurie asked, “We seem to be having tea.”
“Tea. No biscuit,” said Vladimir tersely.
Laurie made Vladimir a black tea with lemon and ginger, which he received with courtesy and admiration.
“Now, then,” Laurie said, “what’s this all about?”
“Russia! Russia very good place – western propaganda and ideology make it look like bad place. But let me tell you – in big scheme of things, Russia big noise! United States! Great Britain! NATO! OECD countries! Pah. Liberal capitalism in downward spiral. I know, I was intelligence officer, KGB. Very clever. Russia had Lenin and Communism. Lot of nonsense. Stolypin – you heard of him?”
Laurie shook his head while toying carefully with the pepper grinder.
“Stolypin Russian nationalist before First World War. He had right idea. ‘Make America great again’. Tsk. No, no. America has-been. On way out. Make Russia great again!”
Vladimir pointed at Donald.
“This man, fake populist. No good. Cheap and easy. You pay for prostitute. They wee on him. A strong man? I don’t think so. I … I am strong man! And Russia, strong country! Make Russia great again!”
Vladimir stopped talking. Laurie looked at Donald, who was sitting on the sofa, his blond coiffeur surfing a quizzical expression. Laurie took a moment to consider the matter.
“Am I to understand that you would like me to come up with some ideas which would help to make Russia great again?”
Vladimir was no less emphatic.
“You great brain – remove ‘Q’ from business world. Super strong genius! I pay better than tinpot liberal capitalist countries!”
Laurie thought about Vladimir’s blandishments. For all his antipathy to the recent rise of political populism – on the left and right of the political spectrum – it flattered his ego that the heads of state from two of the most powerful countries on the planet were courting his imaginative prowess.
“Ah come on!” said Donald, “You can’t take this bozo seriously! You must know a little about the balance of power in international relations – even I know that! Russia’s all bark and no bite. A bit of meddling here, a bit of rankling there. It’s effective too – I should know, believe me! But they aren’t a player. This guy’s a chancer, a schemer. Just check out his country’s GDP – I mean come on Vlad, all that spending on defence doesn’t fool anyone!”
Donald was, of course, only spelling out the obvious: Laurie was well aware that, despite the changing geopolitical weather, the United States was still very much in the lead. If he were to tender his services to the Russians it would have to be for ideological reasons rather than a matter of hard-nosed realpolitik. And, in truth, he couldn’t discern even the remnant of ideology in the machinations of Vladimir.
Laurie was about to speak his mind when the doorbell rang again.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said.
He walked to the front door and opened it.
It was Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China.
“Good afternoon, my dear friend,” he said.
“I believe you have some esteemed guests, who are seeking your paid counsel. I, too, have learned about your aptitude for strategic thinking, so I would like to compete with them. I represent a country which is building a new moon. We are a very impressive people, and will soon dominate international affairs.”
“Please come in,” said Laurie, “we’re having tea.”
Xi nodded politely to his fellow heads of state when he entered the open-plan sitting room. Putin was sitting on the two-seater sofa, and Donald was slouched on the pouffe. Diplomatically, Xi chose to stand by the window rather than sit next to Vladimir.
To Laurie’s surprise, Xi elected to have red bush tea.
“I find it refreshing,” said Xi.
“Me too,” said Laurie, “I always have a good supply of it.”
“Very wise,” said Xi.
Laurie, from the first moments, took a liking to President Xi.
The room settled into respectful silence. Vladimir crossed his legs a few times, and Donald hummed the soundtrack from Star Wars.
Laurie, for all the attention he was receiving, found his mind drifting. His gaze was drawn to the window, where it peered through the blinds, and down the street. There, his vision melted into a distant haze.
Xi stirred his tea. He took a small sip from it, skirting his upper lip over the surface of the liquid.
Then he said:
“Napoleon Bonaparte said ‘Let China sleep; when she wakes, she will shake the world.’
‘Whatever hateful abuses of power that little man may have committed, he certainly had a sense of grand strategy, and his bon mot was prescient. China is waking – indeed, she is awake, and she is only just starting to shake the world. In their heart of hearts, and despite their wilful resistance to the ineluctable forces of history, my fellow statesmen and their armies of advisers, all know that the middle kingdom is in the ascendant. In one way or another, for better or worse, our country will shape the future of the world.
‘Let’s be quite clear about the matter. We can all make bold and bombastic claims, but what about the hard facts? In terms of purchasing power, our economy overtook the US economy as long ago as 2014, making us the largest economy in the world. These days we are on course to be 20% bigger than the US. We produce more ships, steel, aluminium, furniture, clothing, textiles, mobile phones and computers than anywhere else on earth. In 2014 we built a 57-story skyscraper in 19 days! As far back as 2005, we were building the square-foot equivalent of Rome every two weeks! And, in the course of a single lifetime, we have changed from a country in which 90 out of every 100 people lived on less than $2 a day, to one in which fewer than 3 in 100 do. Between 1981 and 2004, we lifted more than half a billion people out of extreme poverty. Between 1949 and 2014 life expectancy more than doubled.
‘I could go on, but as you can see, and as I have already said, China is the future.
‘But I am not just making you an offer. I don’t want to intimidate you and buy you off, however tempting that may be for you. I want you to look hard at yourself, and at the world around you. Know thyself – isn’t that a central precept of western thought? Do you really know yourself, I wonder? Or do you shy away from looking?
‘Napoleon predicted that China would shake the world. If you will permit me to be so bold, I will make an observation: he could have said that China will wake the world. We in China may have been sleeping, but in a different kind of way, the West has been asleep too. You are sleeping. You sleep behind the protective machinery of your liberal, utilitarian way of life. But look around. Are you really here – in a place like this? It’s empty. It’s just an architect’s blueprint, which has been reproduced a thousand, a million times over. You are not really here. You are lost. Like the thousands, and millions of people like you.
‘The cheap nationalism which Mr Putin and Mr Trump represent will always fill that sort of void because human beings can’t live by the untrammelled logic of machines. In those circumstances, the tawdry caricature of national identity which these two opportunists hawk will always appeal, particularly where the economic engine of the society starts to break down. The same thing happened with Hitler in Germany, and Mussolini in Italy – in a culture which had lost sight of itself, they offered a kitsch, fast-food version of what all human beings want.
‘But what about China? China is an ancient civilisation, rooted in a culture of Confucian virtue. Its tradition and heritage transcend the short-term calculations of this or that politician. We have our eye on the big picture, on the long term. And we are prepared to wait. Our idea of strategy is to watch, listen, take our time, and then choose our moment when the circumstances are right. For us, strategy cultivates a bright and beautiful garden. China provides fertile soil in which its people know who they are, where they have come from, and where they are going. Can you say the same for yourself?”
Xi considered the effect his words had on Laurie. Then he took another sip of red bush tea.
Laurie looked back at Xi, then across to Vladimir and Donald.
His eyes turned vacantly to the vacant television screen.