The new Bribery Act had sent Sebastian Cholmeley into a spin. For more years than he could remember he had invited Erik Shultz, his opposite number in mergers and acquisitions in Frankfurt, to the Wimbledon finals. He would arrange for Erik and his wife, Astrid, to stay at The Connaught and then escort them to the tennis on the Sunday. Erik was eternally grateful because, while he had little interest in the sport, his wife was obsessed with it. But because of the act, a new austerity programme had been introduced by Sebastian’s bank, and “plus one” tickets were dropped.
But Erik was one of Sebastian’s major clients, and with the uncertainty over the eurozone the London financier’s annual bonus relied even more than usual on his successful dealings with Frankfurt. Sebastian’s problem was finding a social event that both he and his debonair colleague might enjoy, but that Astrid would not resent missing. And that event was, he brilliantly concluded, the London 2012 Olympic beach volleyball.
The women’s event was the hottest ticket in town (after the 100m final) and you didn’t have to like the sport – or indeed, even know anything about it – to enjoy it. The event was a sellout; there were a few who questioned the Culture, Media and Sport department’s statement that the reason the Government had bought 410 volleyball tickets compared to just 256 for athletics events was because “the volleyball events mostly take place at the weekend and so it will be more convenient for MPs’ diaries”. Nor was it likely that the rest of the 15,000 available tickets that had been quickly snapped up – mostly by the sponsors and various dignitaries – were for those intending to share in the Olympic movement’s goal to “enjoy sport practiced without discrimination of any kind”.
At the “warm-up” rehearsals the previous year, rumoured by some to have been watched by David Cameron from No 10 and by Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood from the stands, it was noted that the British Olympic team wore less material between them than was used to make the (modestly sized) Union Jack billowing over Horse Guards Parade.
This was most encouraging to Sebastian, who had made no secret of the fact that volleyball was “Baywatch with balls”, and was only worried when earlier in the year it was announced that Olympic competitors, for reasons of cultural sensitivity, would have the option to eschew the traditional bikini uniform in favour of shorts and sleeved tops. However, as the best (and arguably best-looking) teams from Brazil, the United States and Australia dismissed the idea of covering up, the tickets remained the most sought-after in London since the opening of the Windmill Theatre.
By the second week of July, 5,000 tonnes of sand had been liberally spread on the parade in preparation for the event, while news had leaked out that a handful of players would have barcodes strategically placed on the backs of their bikini bottoms so that when they were photographed on a smartphone, the snapper would be instantly directed to an online betting website. Not that this was of the faintest interest to Sebastian, as he, like almost everybody else he knew who was attending the event, hadn’t a clue as to the rules of volleyball and so had no interest in having a punt on it.
Sebastian’s tickets arrived by secure delivery at his office some days before the competition; they were signed for by his PA and then sent unopened to Erik, who had agreed to meet up at The Connaught on the day of the event.
That morning Sebastian, sporting a blazer and Panama, arrived at the hotel with a spring in his step and a grin that bordered on the lascivious. But his smile froze when he saw Erik descending the grand staircase in blue Havaianas, shorts that could only be described as snug and a dress shirt with at least one button too many undone, exposing a well-shaped, tanned physique Sebastian hadn’t noticed Erik possessed.
“You like the boys too, then,” said Erik with a wink as he handed over Sebastian’s ticket – which, on closer inspection, was not for the women’s beach volleyball but the men’s event.