She received, in short order, four texts and an email.
Gas bill ready for viewing online; Lizzie’s new website address; confirmation of agreed reduction in the sale price of her house; Vanessa was staying with friends until the start of rehearsals.
And an email from Lynne saying she’d been called by Sandra Milford – I mean Cornish - who wants to meet. Can’t face it solo – are you free next week?
It was a shame about the house – but the alternative was arson and a claim on the insurance. Which would mean prison. She had bought it ten years ago at the height of the boom – and had spent as much again on the basement and a loft conversion. It was an elegant Victorian town house in the city centre, adjacent to an award-winning park and had doubled its value in the first five years.
Then she had lost her seat; the economy had nose-dived and she was at risk of negative equity. She had no wish to remain in Fengrove and her work as a proof reader was entirely portable. But now, like Sisyphus – she lingered in infernal motion as the former MP - a Ghost of Christmas Past without the salary.
Vanessa’s text was welcome.
They would have to discuss Paul – but thankfully, not yet. And surely not even Vanessa could go from a ten year estrangement to a three month vigil – and then a burial - without taking stock. Of something. Although she had no idea what it was.
She had not met Paul since their divorce, by which time the overriding emotion was relief that she would not have to begin the Millennium yoked to him.
She had changed her name and nursed disproportionate feelings of resentment towards those who persisted in calling her by her original style – namely Government Whips and the Diary columnist of The Crier who delighted in goading her.
When he re-christened her with a four-barrelled surname – each a progressively obscene variant of the original – she had finally conceded defeat.
Meriel had converted from mistress to wife – but she herself had remained single, more from accident than design. And for Gillian, Donald, Nicola and the kiddies – the waters had closed over their head. Until the phone call on Sunday afternoon, nearly four months ago.
Muted; tentative. She had telephoned the switchboard at Westminster but they had refused to release contact details for ex Members. Then she had no joy with a couple of Vanessa’s old numbers. Finally, she had called the Party office in Fengrove and had struck lucky with the Membership Officer. Paul was in hospital. She thought Vanessa and Richard should know. He had been admitted a week ago, after being removed from the house by police, in response to a 999 call. They had made a forced entrance by smashing the French windows and had found him on the floor; phone in hand, beneath a ten volume set of The Collected Works of Thomas de Quincy.
He had collapsed at the door of the study and had crawled the length of the room, clawing himself to desk height by grabbing the bookcase shelves. With a Herculean effort, he had wrenched the phone from its cradle and had dialled Emergency Services before crashing to the ground and waiting for rescue.
Meriel had returned later that evening from her French Conversation class to a carpet of glass; a houseful of smoke and the corpse of a boeuf bourguignon with Lyonnaise potatoes. She assumed that they had been burgled, that Paul had absconded to the pub leaving the cooker at full tilt, and that the assailants, who had been watching the house, had seized their opportunity. It seemed strange that they had demolished an entire French window without troubling the neighbours – but it was a singularly unsociable cul de sac. Then she had looked at her phone – on silent mode during French Conversation, and had picked up the messages. Paul was undergoing tests on Men’s Surgical and would be detained for observation.
Nicola would not be visiting, but Ursula had driven from Dorlich and Donald and Gillian were already ensconced. He was stable.
And then Nicola was gone and calls must be made.
Alone in her house, she drank a vodka and tonic – and then another and a third, re-visiting unbridled mixed feelings. Not because of Paul – she had nothing left for him. Because of Nicola.
They were both ex wives; rejected by Paul. But Nicola had managed it better. Cast adrift in Brittany, she had returned to Dorlich where she had removed her footprint from the spacious accommodation that accompanied Paul’s job. She delivered the baby, secured an excellent maintenance deal and purchased an attractive flat at the unfashionable end of Wellington Parade with the lump sum from her divorce settlement.
A valued sister-in-law to Donald and Gillian, she was Dear Aunty to David and Susan and an adored daughter-in –law to Eric. Tears were shed in private – if at all.
Her own position – after twice as long with the same man - was decidedly different.
She was favoured by neither his friends nor his family and had finally severed links when Ursula had married without letting her know. Paul had divested himself of his wives in remarkably similar style.
Nicola had been cashiered in France and she had received the coup de grace after her election to Parliament, on the day of the Queen’s Speech. But whilst Nicola’s restraint had won plaudits, her own outbursts had evoked ridicule, contempt – and reams of derisive newsprint. The stink from this especial fish and chip paper had been pervasive and total, consigning her to the career equivalent of Siberia. And now here was Nicola – having the last laugh.
Except that she wasn’t. She had been as pleasant and reasonable as ever. In a world without Paul – and to a lesser extent, Ursula - the two would no doubt have been friends.
And that, she thought, was the worst thing of all.