The day was already fourteen hours old. The hour hand on his watch hadn't even reached 6pm yet and there were a great many hours for him still to be awake. But, for now, Paul Wolston had done all he could on the campaign trail. He was in the back of the van, Solomon sat beside him, his PA working through another batch of emails. Out of the window they passed the steel and glass buildings of Canary Wharf, with Billingsgate Market spread out at the foot of the Barclays building. They were still a few minutes away from the airport and the evening flight to Manchester. He closed his eyes, aware only of the rumble of tyres on the road and the muted chatter between Liam and Heather sat in the row in front.
He opened his eyes at the sound of the car door sliding back, to discover that they weren't at London City Airport, but at the front entrance of Queen's College, a place he hadn't set foot in since he graduated. Liam was grinning through the headrests.
"Wakey wakey, Pauly. Time to meet up with an old friend."
"You are fucking joking me!" hissed Paul, going from asleep to incandescent in seconds. He turned to Solomon. "I thought I said no to this?"
"You did," said Solomon with a shrug. "But, Liam wasn't having it. He wants a photo of you with Professor Backhouse."
"Mate," Liam pressed. "You're old Uni pals and we could really do with his environmental endorsement."
"I don't want his fucking endorsement!" said Paul. "Aren't we supposed to be catching a flight?"
"We are, but we left a bit earlier. Look, it's just fifteen minutes. Go in, do some handshakes, have a couple of minutes to chat about the old days, a few clicky, clicky snap, snaps with the press, then back in the car and off we go." He slapped Paul's arm. "Come on, we're here now."
Paul climbed out of the car. "Does he know I'm here?"
"Uh… no," admitted Liam, shrugging on his suit jacket.
Wolston ran a hand through his hair. "This could be interesting, then," he muttered, as he trailed them inside.
The directions to the new Strathmore Environmental Research Institute were well signposted on bright green arrows, as they walked down corridors. Heather dropped back, scrolling through messages on her phone.
"Alia tried to find some old photos of you at Uni for the piece she did, but nobody on the Facebook alumni groups has any."
"Good," said Paul. "I've no desire to expose my late 90s haircuts and taste in clothes to public ridicule."
"Were you actually here?" she asked.
"Course I bloody was!" he frowned. "Just because you can't find a photo of me doesn't mean I wasn't here. Some of us didn't spend our time being photographed."
The corridors were lined with sports team and graduation photos from the college archives. Paul didn't stop to find out if his year cohort was one of them.
"You've not seen Colin since graduation?" asked Heather.
"I saw him briefly at a friend's memorial service several years ago. We didn't have a lot to say then and I can't imagine we're going to have a lot to say now."
"I think it would be nice to get a picture with Dame Elizabeth, too. Wasn't she Principal in your time?"
"Fitzgerald? God, is she still here? She must wash in formaldehyde."
The group arrived in the entrance of the new research institute. What had been a tired-looking 1950s building was now stripped out and re-purposed as the new research institute. Beneath Paul's feet the aroma of new, dark green carpet tiles mingled with the smell of fresh paint, while all around him were enormous pots of pampas grass, lit by rotating colours.
"Christ, what did he do," muttered Paul surveying the Professor's new fiefdom, "rent the Eden Project?" but he was grudgingly impressed. "How the hell has Colin managed to wangle all this? More to the point, how the fuck's he got away with calling it the Strathmore?"
Heather opened a file. "I guess you didn't read what came with the invitation you were sent?"
"Let's assume not."
Heather ignored him. "It's a unique facility that will collect, analyse, publish and store all geological and environmental data for the UK." She turned over the information sheet. "The name comes from…"
"Don't tell me," said Paul with a roll of his eyes. "It's in memory of James Strathmore?"
"Yes, it is. His daughter is guest of honour this evening."
Paul stopped dead. Heather walked on until she realised he was no longer with her. She turned back.
"What's the matter?" she asked, returning to the party leader who was going increasingly red in the face.
Paul straightened up. "Well, at least I know what I'll be talking to the bastard about! A word of warning. This isn't going to be polite!"
In his office, Professor Colin Backhouse was trying to work out how he agreed to this hell. A large measure of single malt in a coffee mug acknowledged that the only way out was to go through with it. He had won the battle with Elizabeth to stage it on the evening of the General Election but lost at her insistence to invite Paul Wolston. He'd checked frequently with Tariq on the acceptances, but there hadn't been one from the Common Ground offices. Privately, Backhouse was surprised that Paul hadn't been in touch. Regardless of it being the General Election, he thought the name of the Institute would be enough to have Mount Wolston crashing down onto his head.
Still, even without the likely future Prime Minister, the next ninety minutes would be some of the toughest of his life. Beyond the rigmarole of having to get dressed up and meet people, there was Eleanor to contend with. At the time, inviting her down was logical – after all, he was naming the facility after her father. But now she was here, Colin was questioning his judgement.
The last time he had seen her had been a bitterly cold January day in the tiny graveyard in Glendurie, three weeks after the accident which claimed her father's life. She was five and her gloved hand was folded into that of her grandmother. The little girl had cast frequent glances across to her mother, who was a mix of grief and alcohol and being held upright by her brother-in-law, Alec and his wife, Rebecca.
Years later, when family and friends came together again to mark Caroline's passing, at an empty grave dug beside her husband, there had been no sign of Eleanor and the only comment from Mollie was that 'things were difficult.'
Caroline's memorial was the last time he'd seen Paul Wolston. Even then, he was aware that his University housemate had suspicions that the circumstances surrounding James' death didn't quite add up. Even if Wolston didn't say much, his face told Colin that he had questions.
There was a knock on the door. Event organiser Tariq Khan pushed it open.
"We're ready for you, Professor," he said. "Miss Strathmore's arrived."
"Thank you, Tariq. I'll be with you, shortly."
The young man had proved himself adept, not just as an organiser, but as a buffer between the outlandish expectations of Dame Elizabeth and his own desire to simply have a few colleagues over, a crate of beer and a few bowls of Pringles. Colin Backhouse hated fuss, but Dame Elizabeth was not spending millions of pounds creating a world-class environmental research facility if she couldn't launch it with a decent party. One at which there would be absolutely no beer or crisps.
Colin finished the whisky, poured himself another and pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk. He reached down, rummaging under files to draw out a stained, white envelope which had the imprint of someone's boot tread stamped across it. Taking another sip of whisky, he opened it and pulled out a small rectangle of paper. He unfolded it and laid it on his desk. The print was fading, although most of the information was still legible. He closed his eyes, the memories of the day he'd been given the envelope coming readily to mind and still painful after all these years.
The sudden voice of Dame Elizabeth prompted quick folding and he slid his drawer shut just as the Principal threw open the door. She was never one to knock.
"You're missing your own party, Colin. Guess who's here?"
"Sir David Attenborough?"
"Well… yes, of course. But guess who else?"
Colin looked at her, his face blank.
The Principal was undeterred. "Who did you repeatedly tell me wouldn't come? Well, he's here! I'll leave you both to have a chat."
In his veins, Colin's blood slowly turned to ice as Elizabeth stepped back and a slim, light-haired man dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and purple tie appeared in the doorway.
"Paul," said the Professor, rising to his feet, his voice doing a passable impression of being surprised.
"Col," said Wolston walking towards the desk. "Thought it would be nice to have a catch up." He undid the button of his jacket and settled himself in a chair across from Colin.
The Professor resumed his seat, picking up the coffee cup and draining the whisky. His face tried to form itself into a smile.
"I'm so glad you could come," he said. "You must be frantically busy."
Wolston looked at him but did not reply, his steady gaze displaying the calm demeanour he'd become known for.
"Surprised you're not rushing back to Lancashire."
There was still no reply. Finally, Wolston shifted in his seat and leaned forward.
"Why's Eleanor here?"
Colin laughed and gestured at the bank of storage files that had all been badged up with the new name and logo. "I think that's self-explanatory, don't you?"
"To everyone else it might be, but they didn't share a house with you for three years."
The rock-steady brown eyes of Paul Wolston felt like they were pinning him to the chair. The politician's voice dropped to a whisper.
"Tell me, Col, does Eleanor know why she's really here?"