The Prime Minister didn’t look around. “Not now, Beth. Can’t you see I’m having my hair done?”
“Yes, Prime Minister, but I thought you’d want to look it over before you meet President Trump.”
Janet wondered how many sentences she’d started with that construction.
Yes, Mr Member of Parliament for the bottom left corner of Nowhereshire, but…
Yes, Minister, but…
Yes, Prime Minister, but…
It must be in the tens of thousands.
The hell with it, she had her retirement date now so her pension was safe. “And it’s Janet. Beth’s on maternity leave.”
“Ah yes, of course she is. Hope it’s not one of mine.”
The hairdresser joined the Prime Minister’s chuckle, but he didn’t look up. He was picking his way through the Prime Minister’s yellow hair in a way that reminded Janet of a documentary of chimpanzees grooming each other for lice.
“Well look here, Jane, it took me more than nine months to get Beth’s priorities straight. I know you civil servants gestate your babies faster than you take my hints, but perhaps you can be the exception.”
The Prime Minister sighed. “Apparently not. That was a hint, you see. Well, I’ll explain. Air Force One is landing in two hours, at which point I’ll be shaking hands with the best coiffed president in American history. I’ll be broadcast from Birmingham to Beijing, and what people need to see is Good Old Boris. Not a tangle of greying roots blithering on about North Korea. That’s what foreign secretaries are for.”
“You’ll look fabulous, dearie,” said the hairdresser. “There won’t be a heart in Birmingham that isn’t a-flutter. Or Beijing.”
Janet glared at him. He winked, letting her know that among the concentric circles surrounding the Prime Minister, a private hairdresser inhabited zone one while a private secretary’s priorities had to commute in from zone four or five.
“As you’re here, Jilly, make yourself useful and tell me something useful about the president. Do MI6 know anything I don’t, or do they get their information from Twitter like the rest of us?”
Janet kept her face carefully neutral. The Prime Minister might not be looking at her, but the hairdresser would love a chance to slip the knife in when she wasn’t in the room. “Yes Prime Minister, but you didn’t request a report.”
“Didn’t I? Oh well, you’re all civil servants, aren’t you? I’m sure you all gossip together. From where I’m sitting, the whole civil service looks like an extended version of Brasenose College. They were always the first to hear what was up. What they know, I’m sure you know.”
“That’s because you’re looking in a mirror. As usual.” Janet spoke under her breath.
Not far enough under her breath. The hairdresser glared.
“What’s that? Speak up,” said the Prime Minister.
“I said I don’t know what MI6 know about the president, Prime Minister.”
“Well what do you think? The civil service always likes to be seen as omniscient. Now’s your chance to prove it. What’s your opinion?”
“Yes Prime Minister, but knowing something is different to having an opinion on it. Civil Servants don’t have those. Not after the first five years or so, anyway.”
The hairdresser tutted.
“Tell you what, Jean,” said the Prime Minister. “You tell me your opinion and I’ll read the briefing on North Korea. Deal?”
Oh what the hell, thought Janet. It wasn’t as if civil service gossip was exactly classified. It was just dangerous to give ministers any information until you’d satisfied yourself it wouldn’t inspire any ideas. “We know he’s a man who felt the need to build a skyscraper and write his name on it, and that he felt the need to bring up the size of his opponent’s hands during the Primaries. I have no opinion on that, but others may draw their own conclusions.”
“They may?” asked the Prime Minister.
“Oh believe me, we do. Take it from a connoisseur.” The hairdresser wiggled his pinkie. “Plenty have before.”
The Prime Minister snorted with laughter. It took Janet a moment to realise the ‘plenty have’ referred to who had taken it. It was like being in conversation with Kenneth Williams. She wouldn’t have blamed Beth if she’d got herself pregnant just to get away from it.
“So that’s what the civil service talks about in the ladies’ loos,” said the Prime Minister.
Janet tried to force a smile. Perhaps she managed to lift one corner of her mouth, but she wouldn’t have put money on it.
“It’s not bad, but I don’t see that it helps,” said the Prime Minister. “I wasn’t going to invite him to compare. Though now you bring it up -” The Prime Minister bit off what he was about to say. Janet doubted he cared about the propriety of it, so he must have realised what conclusions the hairdresser would draw if he continued down that route. “Well if he asks for a companion, make sure she’s briefed not to laugh.”
The hairdresser wagged his eyebrows at Janet. She managed not to roll her eyes.
“Are you going to say it or shall I?” He asked her.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She put all the authority of her decades in the civil service into her tone.
All four of them bounced off the hairdresser. “Come along, don’t be coy. You say a little more than that about him in the ladies’ loos, don’t you? Don’t keep us in suspense. Leak it, dearie, leak it.”
The Prime Minister guffawed, once again alerting Janet to the double-entendre that had passed her by.
She said nothing, leaving the floor to the hairdresser. He seized it like a veteran understudy hearing Hamlet had sprained a vocal chord. “What the lovely lady is too delicate to say is that a string of very public relationships with tall blonde models invites the same delicious conclusions in the ladies’ loos as it does in my favourite nightclub.”
Janet bit her lip. She’d already said too much for a seasoned civil servant. “I really think you should look at the briefing on North Korea, Prime Minister.”
“Sod North Korea, that’s what we’re renewing Trident for. I want to know what you two are saying about the president. Sometime before Air Force One lands, if it’s not too much to ask.”
Janet wondered how a man who saw double-entendres everywhere could be so slow on the uptake. To her relief, the hairdresser was enjoying the role of amateur intelligence analyst too much to want to relinquish it. “It’s what we call trying too hard. Oh my dears, I can’t see a man like that without wanting to give him what he really wants. Generous to a fault, that’s me.”
“Well bugger me!”
“I wouldn’t put it past him to try.”
“Well that’s marvellous. We’ve got him! Janice, get on the phone to MI5 quick smart. I want pictures and sound.”
“I’m sorry, Prime Minister, are you suggesting…”
“No I’m not suggesting, I’m ordering. And you know perfectly well what I’m ordering. It’s hardly as if no one’s ever done it before. How d’you think I passed my A-levels?”
“I knew it, dearie,” said the hairdresser. “You’re a brilliant man.”
The Prime Minister swelled with the praise. “I’m a devious sort, I’ve never denied it. Except in public, of course. Now I know we didn’t have to deal with the Secret Service at Eton, but that’s what we pay MI5 for. He’s not going to want his minders to know, is he? So he can be persuaded to give them the slip. On the phone, Jasmine, on the phone.”
“Yes, Prime Minister, but -”
“How’s the hair?” the Prime Minister asked the hairdresser.
“Perfect, dearie. Prime Ministerial and sexy all in one package.”
“Let us to it pell mell, then. And be clear with the spooks, Jackie. Pictures and sound. I want him in the palm of my hand.”
“It’s Janet, Prime Minister.”
He left without taking the briefing.