The Audi R8 Spyder hugged the road magnificently as Florian, over-revving the engine yet again, executed another highly risky manoeuvre intended to impress his passenger. Bella turned her head away and looked at the scenery. She hadn’t spoken since Shepton Mallett and, although Florian would’ve liked to gee up the conversation a bit, he felt oddly shy.
He didn’t quite see why he should. After all, he was paying her by the hour, and spending more – though only slightly – on her than he was on the car. But he didn’t overthink it. This was his moment, and he was determined to live it to the full. Ten years ago Florian had been nothing. Now, at the long-awaited school reunion, he was going to prove to his peers that they’d got him wrong.
Lambourne College, where Florian Duffrey had first tasted humiliation – then feasted on it for five years – was a minor public school whose architecture was erected in worshipful imitation of Charterhouse but whose educational and social programme was closer to Dotheboys Hall. There, he had known the bogwash, the Chinese burn and the stinkfinger, the agony of ostracism and the ecstasy of his first crush. There, he had endured the weekly up-at-the-board humiliation over botched declensions at the hands of Dr “Toad” Croker.
The story was straightforward. Bella – in her vertiginous heels – was his insanely hot fiancée. The R8 was his runabout – “just a bit of fun”, he had practised saying with a bashful smile. And instead of being a junior manager at an Enfield estate agent, he was a tech-sector entrepreneur of genius – the inventor, in fact, of a piece of wizardry he’d read about called the Strawberry Euler. He didn’t understand much about technology, but this was some gizmo that cost about a fiver and was – Wikipedia had said – revolutionising computer programming for children.
It wasn’t long – silence notwithstanding – before the car rolled down Lambourne’s long, straight driveway. As it did, Florian noticed Bella make a funny gulping noise. “Looks posh,” he said, “but it’s a dump. No need to be intimidated, Gorgeous.” She fiddled with her necklace.
Soon, he and Bella – truly stunning in a strapless silk dress – were mingling in the Great Hall with glasses of prosecco. Florian was giving it loads. As he explained the Strawberry Euler to his old tormentors, he watched them wither. “Yuh, it’s essentially a philanthropic project, but” (modest bob of head) “it’s also made us lots of money. Ha ha.”
Then he was introduced to a fellow who’d been a year – two years? – below him. This was one of the few people he’d ever managed to bully. Nerdy kid he’d known only as “Squarebonce”.
“So sorry,” said Florian with lordly condescension. “I know the face, but…”
“Clement Ardagh,” said Squarebonce.
“And what do you do?” asked Florian, in a kindly way.
“I’m in the tech sector,” Squarebonce replied, looking slightly cagey, as though Florian’s face was igniting some not entirely happy memories. “You?”
Suddenly, Florian’s stomach headed for the basement. Clement Ardagh. He remembered that name. It had been all over the Strawberry Euler’s Wikipedia page. What were the chances?
“Um, um, I’m sort of in the tech world too. I do, well, I develop, well, I…”
The gods were kind. It was at exactly this point that he was offered a welcome prospect of escape. For shuffling officiously through the crowd – provoking a shiver that could have been triumph but had a flavour of the old terror in it – was old Toad himself, looking somewhat wizened, somewhat diminished. He looked, in fact, like an old man several years past retirement.
Florian pounced. “Dr Croker,” he exclaimed. “Good to see you, man.” (He’d practised this, too; he knew it would annoy the old git.) “You remember me? Florian? Florian Duffrey?”
“Eh? Dufferin?” replied Croker, blinking. “Yes, of course. I…”
Florian turned. Bella wasn’t paying attention. He snagged her by the elbow and wrenched her round. “You must meet my fiancée, Bella.”
Bella wriggled, but Florian’s grip was strong. As Toad took her in, something passed between them. Her eyes were on the floor. The old man looked devastated.
“Amy?” he said.
“Dad,” said Bella.