Her house was back on the market with the original estate agent. Since she had decided to abandon Fengrove to its indigenous population, all attempts at escape had been fruitless. .Sole agency, multiple agency or auction – the result was the same. She had something to sell that nobody wanted to buy. What they wanted at this price range was a neat modern, faux Georgian box, in the middle of the new township, overlooking an ‘as real’ lake stocked with a flock of Canada geese. They did not want a Victorian edifice in the city centre with water inside the premises, courtesy of a temperamental cellar, rather than outside, care of a man-made lake.
Of course, pre Paul, she had been oblivious to house styles and tastes. She had lived with her parents and then in various student residences. You woke up in houses and returned to them after you had engaged in the principal activity of going out. The only time she and Lynne had taken a vacuum cleaner to their flat in Dorlich had been prior to a parental visit. She had decorated her room in the shared student house with posters, and possessed nothing apart from books, clothes and records. Here she was at odds with Paul, who wanted them to find their own place. He had nowhere to put his wheel backed chair and Welsh dresser, currently in the custody of Nicola, whom he suspected of attempting to hang on to them. His enforced separation from these items, together with his book collection and Perdita, the Norwegian Forest cat, rankled and it was essential to acquire a residence in which they could be appropriately accommodated. Perdita had been standoffish when he had visited the children; he suspected Nicola of influencing the cat against him and he dreaded forfeiting a relationship forged when he had rescued her as a kitten from the elderly homosexual manager of a second hand bookshop in Cambridge.
Paul had regarded this adorable animal (and a first edition of The Letters of Edward Thomas) as an acceptable exchange for a fumble but now felt short-changed by his part of the bargain. So they rented an unfurnished flat in Conyham Crescent, with a garden and a cat flap, round the corner from Nicola in Wellington Parade. Baskets and bowls and catnip were bought and Perdita could visit at leisure, sometimes - and sometimes not – accompanied by the children. The flat was large and gloomy and when they moved in, she discovered a wig covered with fluff lodged behind the toilet cistern. But Paul was content – for the moment.
The memory of their first visit to her childhood home still ambushed her in weak moments – notably during lunch with Lynne when the waiter had brandished sherry trifle as the special of the day. Likewise, at Westminster, she had avoided debates about The Open University and remained profoundly grateful that, outside Germany, she was unlikely to encounter Liebfraumilch at the table.
Her parents owned a modern four bedroomed detached house in a small Midlands village. It was her mother’s pride and joy, symbolising a generational journey from a miner’s cottage with an outside toilet, to membership of the professional classes courtesy of Primary School teaching posts. An L–shaped living room contained an upright piano; a wood panelled wall was decorated with family photographs and souvenir trinkets and the kitchen opened into a handkerchief garden, filled with runner beans and her father’s roses. In the bathroom, her mother’s shower cap hung on a hook behind the door and a spare toilet roll was concealed beneath a pink crochet cover.
Seeing it through Paul’s eyes, she had spent the entire weekend in a paroxysm of rage and embarrassment.
He had swooped on the bookshelves, tapping the spines of Lark Rise to Candleford (abridged) and The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady with a questing finger. Then he had turned to the records: The Singing Nun; All Kinds of Everything by Dana; The Best of Nana Mouskouri and A Selection from The Nutcracker Suite.
She said little as they consumed roast beef, roast potatoes, carrots and sprouts followed by home made sherry trifle with double cream. The delicate scoop of pudding on a frosted glass platter she had enjoyed at the bistro with Lynne here metamorphosed into its ghostly ancestor – a pink and yellow glory, cosy amidst a mass of glace cherries and chocolate buttons.
Her mother had talked books with Paul and had attempted to interest him in her Open University assignment on Ted Hughes. And her father had opened the Liebfraumilch whilst discussing the football season and asking Paul if he followed a team. Not really my game – I went to a rugger school . And then Cambridge of course…
The next day they had lunched at a carvery where you queued for your food and the evening’s entertainment had been television, with a ‘supper’ of sandwiches, crisps and individual pork pies served on a nest of tables.
Back home in Dorlich, Paul passed verdict: Darling, you must be a changeling!! How did you stand it? I mean – terribly sweet but, you know - jumped up working class! And do they ever stop eating? After ‘tea’ or whatever they call it, your mother practically force fed me with chocolates!
He viewed her parents as Dickensian grotesques – and she hated them for it.
Eric, by contrast, owned a thirties lodge in the South of England. It came with ‘grounds’, a gardener, a ‘handyman’ and a cleaner. The latter, a husband and wife team, were considered 'quaint’. But Dick and Rona were also the recipients of generous Christmas bonuses and the odd obligatory enquiry about their ‘brood’. Paul’s mother, Lilias, was not there ,because she was dead. She had died of a coronary thrombosis at the Royal Opera House in 1967, during the premiere of the Roland Petit ballet, Paradise Lost. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull were in the audience, though Paul and his mother were not of their party. Lilias had attended in her capacity as Drama Critic for the London Sentinel and Paul was her escort, as so often on these occasions.
She had not returned from the Ladies’ Powder Room and Paul had become concerned. Of course it was highly likely, not to say probable, that she was keeping a tryst with a lover, leaving Paul to take notes on the performance and write the requisite copy. But the sight of a foot in a kitten-heeled sandal protruding from a cubicle had necessitated investigation, and she was discovered in a foetal position at the base of a toilet pedestal. Death had been instantaneous, and presumably painless.
Life had continued the same, but calmer. Lilias had been known to drink, and, when drunk, to scream. She was now pinioned for eternity within a photograph; wielding a golf club and bearing a remarkable resemblance to Nicol
Eric did not eat trifle, and his cellar bore no trace of Liebfraumilch. He served smoked salmon, crowns of lamb and braces of pheasant, accompanied by petits pois and wine from ‘a good case of red’. Paul was in charge of the music – Monteverdi with dinner and Dave Brubeck with the single malt and cigars that concluded the evening. Cigarette smoking was not encouraged.
On occasion, Eric’s assistant Deirdre and her husband Bobo completed the party. Nicola had retained their affections and Paul received gifts for her and toys for the kiddies. They would discuss Donald’s career and the pretensions of Gillian; the shortcomings of Jim Callaghan and the new Ercol table. And they drank real coffee at the hearth of an open log fire.
Of course, with the hindsight of thirty years, the words of Edward Thomas: If we could see all, all might seem good (As the Team’s Head Brass) could not be applied to Paul’s family.
His wrist retained the scar, livid in winter, from the time he had smashed it through the French windows after surprising Eric and Deirdre wrestling on the carpet. He had returned early from prep school and Lilias was working in London.
Aged thirteen, he had acted as companion to his mother, pouring her drink, lighting her cigarette and making up a third in wine bars and restaurants with Uncle John, Uncle Julian and Uncle Jeff. He sneered at Eric’s career as a cricket commentator but wilted under his father’s settled opinion that Waverley and Cambridge should have opened the door to something better than schoolmastering.
And Bobo seemed to promote his wife’s continuing affair with Eric, joining them on holidays and the golf course and operating the cine camera show of the pair enjoying some ‘down time’ after the West Indies Test match – with Deirdre in bikini bottoms without a top. There was something distasteful about it all.
But she became perversely all the more determined to keep Paul. She would consign Nicola to history - she would not be dismissed as the type of person who would eat an individual pork pie on a nest of tables in a modern four bedroom detached house.
After the death of her father, she had sold her family home at a profit, retaining some cuttings from the rose bushes. The proceeds had been a lifeline when she had lost her Parliamentary seat. Not for the first time, she wished her Fengrove base had been a customised, new build flat. The estate agents had sold three of those last week. So what if their owners ate trifle?
It was a free country.
The last laugh had clearly gone to Paul.