In which Emma B. enters a little hell, and we encounter Philippa Truscott.
She rang Lynne to discuss the meeting with Sandra and the conversation was stilted, probably because she had vetoed Sunday lunch in Surrey. Lynne would be on home turf. Sandra would be put to the minor inconvenience of a country drive. But she would be forced to negotiate three train changes, a coach and a taxi. The pets were a pain; Greg was a bore and she was damned if she would spend in excess of £120 for the sake of Sandra Milford.
Eventually a compromise was reached: early evening drinks at The Fifth Column in Soho, a week on Wednesday.
She fished out Leisure and Tourism: the Billington Unitary Plan. It would take her roughly six hours to edit this tedious Local Government Document. No-one would read it, which was a very good thing, because it was specious nonsense, tricked out in the usual jargon; fit for purpose; going forward ;hearts and minds and hard-working families.
It was rote work for a mediocre salary.
Not for the first time, she compared herself with Lynne. They had both missed Firsts; Lynne had begun a Civil Service career in London and she had stayed in Dorlich for the MA. She had rejected a PHD offer at York because it was easier (safer?) to join the Postgraduate Teaching course in Dorlich. She was living with Paul and commuting would have been tedious. Or so she had told herself. It had nothing to do with Paul’s wandering eye – and wandering hands.
She had caught him in a clinch with Philippa Truscott at a New Year’s Eve party. Philippa, obscenely drunk on Cherry B, had wilfully misinterpreted his intentions. He’d explained that somebody had to look after poor Philippa, whose own husband was having an on-off affair with the locum doctor…….
After a year with the MOD, Lynne had transferred to Environment and moved swiftly through the ranks. She met Greg Salt from The Lyndhurst Chambers when he advised the Department on a planning matter and they married six months later. It was a calculated risk to branch out with her own consultancy but she had held her nerve, cushioned by Greg’s income. Now their assets included the house in Surrey, a studio in Seville and a pied a terre in Pimlico. Lynne’s book; The Inuit: Man and Myth was runner up for the 2009 Attenborough prize. In the absence of children, dogs reigned supreme. Pork and Scratching were the latest in a line of pampered animals and Lynne in particular was a canine enthusiast, quite insufferable on the topic since Scratching carried off the Bitch Challenge Certificate at Crufts.
In contrast, she had spent eighteen years teaching and eight at Westminster, where she had specialised in suing for libel. She had lost her seat in 2005, and subsequent jobs had been of the Billington type.
We are where we are…………
She had married in 1979, a month after Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minster.
They had both changed their status and Mrs Thatcher was blooming.
After the triumph and novelty of the wedding, her own life was the same except that parts of it were distinctly worse. She suspected that for Mrs Thatcher the opposite applied.
Becoming a teacher was easy; becoming a wife was not. With marriage came responsibilities; cooking; cleaning; doing the washing; entertaining – and frolicking in suspenders whenever required.
There had been gruesome attempts at washing by hand to save money; finally abandoned after Paul noticed his shoes erupting with soap bubbles during a performance review with his Headmaster. She cleaned the cooker, the bath and the toilet; fiercely defensive about all three, and averted culinary humiliation via copious reference to Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson.
Chudleigh College, where Paul was employed as Deputy Head of English, squatted spider-like at the centre of everything. It was a minor public school, with major aspirations, and the Stepford wives would have quailed at the aura of the Chudleigh matrons. She had nothing in common with these wives of Paul’s colleagues, whose conversations began with Chudleigh and concluded with natural childbirth, breastfeeding, toilet training and sibling envy.
During the interminable House Suppers and Bridge Fours she controlled the urge to rip off her knickers and scream, and ended up discussing the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and lamenting the Prince of Wales had yet to find the love of a good woman.
Everyone simply adored Nicola and said so.
It was a little hell.
To be fair to Paul, his tolerance level for these events pretty much matched her own, and they began revisiting her old haunts. The Bear and The Bat and Belfry remained solidly student pubs but The Falcon and Bunter’s Restaurant catered for a more cosmopolitan clientele. They began to assemble a social set; one or two of the more bearable Chudleigh couples; her former MA tutor; Percy the law lecturer; Denny and Kay from the BBC, and, naturally, the Truscotts.
Philippa and Roy were in their late thirties and both teachers, although in the state sector rather than Chudleigh. Roy taught Religious Knowledge and had bonded with Paul over rugby. He had been capped for Wales. Once. But Paul was impressed and they established a routine of midweek squash on the Chudleigh courts, followed by drinks in The Falcon with herself and Philippa.
Philippa taught English at an 11-16 Girls’ Secondary Modern School. She was thirty-six, with long blonde Joni Mitchell hair which she wore with a centre parting and a selection of hats. Black velvet trousers and silk shirts completed the look, but the Woodstock effect was at odds with a size 16 figure and a decided double chin. They had a nine year old son who appeared to be toilet trained and weaned. ……..
They began to see a lot of the Truscotts.
But a little went a long way………….
The Truscotts drank, and left a trail of mayhem, usually in other peoples’ houses and marriages, typified by her own dinner party on one of Lynne’s infrequent visits. Paul disliked Lynne and usually spent the 48 hours between her arrival and departure in the pub. But this time, they were hosting a dinner party. The company of David and Betty from Chudleigh and the Truscotts would offset the froideur between Lynne and Paul. That was the plan.
She opened the Sancerre whilst stuffing ramekins with garlic mushrooms and coating a salmon in puff pastry. Desert was crème brulee, and she was enjoying a cosy reminisce with Lynne, when Paul announced that he was joining Philippa and Roy for a pre-dinner drink at The Falcon.
The worm had entered the bud.
Lynne’s voice buzzed like a fly. Ben Bex-Oliver, fieldwork in Malawi; Natalie Strich, dead in a car crash; Derek Kingsmill, Labour candidate at the Election .
DEREK KINGSMILL -- didn’t you bonk him at a conference?
In another life.
In the here and now, it was 8 pm; David and Betty had arrived and Paul had gone AWOL with the Truscotts. They arrived at 9.15, by which time the mushrooms were crusty and half the wine had been drunk. Not that it mattered. Philippa and Roy came armed with two litres of red which dwarfed the good bottle of Cotes de Rhône supplied by David and Betty.
The mushrooms were eaten, succeeded by a decidedly dry salmon – but the food was not centre stage. That spot had been commandeered by Philippa, whose mission for the evening appeared to be a public character assassination of her husband, intensifying in virulence as glasses were recharged. Roy maintained an initial composure as Philippa traversed familiar territory; he was disliked by Daddy; drank too much; had no ambition; was a negligent father to Neil and had forced them to holiday in Magaluf when she had wanted to try Ibiza.
David and Betty watched as Philippa emphasised her points by applying a series of illustrative pats to Paul. But a line had been crossed when she accused Roy of having sex with the locum doctor during after-hours surgery.
He erupted and extinguished his cigarette in the remains of the crème brulee. Philippa was a dirty bitch, who was wetting her knickers for Paul. "Although I wouldn’t bother, mate. It turns me off when she goes to bed with them still round her ankles after she’s been to the toilet." He then reared up from the table and ran outside, where he proceeded to kick the door of his new Ford Fiesta, denting the side and chipping the paint.
Philippa was by now, nose and make-up streaming, sobbing in the arms of Paul:
"I can’t go on – and Neil is suffering. He’s started to wet the bed. I chucked a scholarship to The Slade because of THAT MAN."
She then slammed The Pretenders on the turntable, selecting Private Lives and scratching the other tracks in the process. After fifteen minutes, David slipped out and managed to persuade Roy to desist from attacking his own property. He then departed with Betty, and the Truscotts were poured into a taxi, after Philippa had promised to "call straight away if he gets violent".
Paul finished the wine and went to bed.
Lynne said nothing.
She herself lay awake all night rehearsing the essential apology call to David and Betty. At 7.30am. Any later and the evening’s events would be accompanying the muesli at the Chudleigh breakfast tables. David and Betty were about the only decent couple at Chudleigh and had asked them to make up a four on a French camping holiday.
She expected the invitation to be politely withdrawn.
"Oh for God's sake, darling, stop being so provincial. It was the best fun they’d had in ages" said Paul.
She was not convinced.
A week later, they had popped into The Falcon to find Philippa and Roy regaling a delighted crowd with a blow-by-blow account of the dinner party:
And then I said – and then he said!
And he kicked the car!
And I talked about her KNICKERS!!!!!
And life, for the moment, followed its usual pattern. ……….