It was the tigers that, looking back on the whole thing, really marked the turning point. The Pleasings had been in the interiors business for four generations, since Ernest Pleasing Snr worked as a master joiner in the first years of the 20th century. His two sons had expanded the company into interior design, and Ernest Jnr’s fondness for sailors had served to nudge the enterprise, as it were, offshore.
For half a century, Pleasing & Sons had been the foremost fitters of bespoke nautical decor in the world. The shells of the vessels – 400ft and up – were made by large boatbuilders, but if you wanted an LED-encrusted aluminium chandelier in your ballroom, or a 35ft bar made from a single slab of mahogany and shaped like a treble clef, it was Pleasings that, for the right fee, would oblige.
Henry Pleasing was nearing retirement and could remember when his work was still fun. When clients had a little more of what, had he been American, he would have called class. Fittings had been the cream leather not of a pimp’s limo but of Grace Kelly’s driving gloves, trimmed in nautical blue, with polished brass at the portholes, long, smooth, wooden decks and a racing profile. Some even had sails. They called them “gin palaces” – back when people drank gin and “palace” had some meaning. Now they were Cristal castles and rum redoubts. They weren’t just yachts, they were “luxury” – how Henry shuddered to hear that word used as an attributive adjective – yachts, megayachts, superyachts, ultrayachts, gigayachts.
That was the 1960s. Then there had come the 1970s – oil money, and a lot of it. The 1980s brought rock stars and more oil money. The 1990s brought rap stars and more oil money, and Russians. The noughties brought – he no longer knew the names for the music – entertainment stars of some sort, more oil money and the Chinese.
Pleasing & Sons had once turned down one of Gaddafi’s sons – the boat he had been building at the time of his father’s overthrow was to have had a 120-ton shark aquarium. But times and tastes were changing and the company could no longer afford to be picky: the glass-floored nightclubs, the nine-hole golf-courses... One sultan’s mirrored megayacht – six decks of reflective one-way glass – had nearly cost its boatyard supervisor his sight.
Henry still winced when he recalled the Renaissance-style putti installed in the cabins of one celebrity-owned vessel – each holding a silver salver and blowing a trumpet that could also be used to “take snuff”, so the manifest had it. Not to mention the “dungeon” that might have been a playroom and might – when he thought about it – actually have been a dungeon.
Now, the new commission, for a client whose name the broker refused to reveal. The master bedroom – outfitted in a lustrous golden palette – was to contain a cage suitable for housing a pair of white Bengal tigers.
Henry sighed. He felt, all of a sudden, very old. But a job was a job.
An hour after Henry had conducted his final tour of inspection and had left the boat satisfied that every detail was in order, the launch of the Democratia from its German dockyard went without a hitch. A skeleton crew was on board to convey it to the small South American statelet of Liberdad, on the east coast between Argentina and Uruguay.
South American despots either hang on for years, or come and go with brutal rapidity. Liberdad’s tradition was the latter, so the death of president-for-life Arturo Vaz, four months later, would ordinarily barely have made the news. Only the manner of his demise – mauled by tigers in international waters – bumped it up the agenda.
Henry, on seeing the brief report in the Financial Times, allowed his eyebrows to rise. Then he retrieved his passport, descended into the mews and hailed a taxi.
Forty-eight hours later, he was drinking a gin and tonic on the terrace of a considerable house, looking out over the blue-black glitter of the South Atlantic. The air was clear and the sun hot. He was well rested.
A tall young man in a camouflage shirt walked out onto the terrace.
“Pleasing,” said the former president-for-life’s eldest son.
“Yes,” said Henry. “Very.”