In which Emma B. shares with us tussles with the media and being enfolded in the gayest of embraces.
Tectonic plates were moving. The Estate Agent rang, bringing an offer on her house (low, but an opening gambit) and the post included a card from Vanessa: Chilling; thinking – take care, Vx
Suitably buoyed, she resolved to check out a pair of brown leather trousers, temptingly displayed in the window of Fengrove’s sole boutique and was half way out of the door when her eye caught a copy of The Sentinel ; freshly delivered and lying on the mat:
Desperate HOUSEwife or Devoted Doormat? YOU DECIDE!
The Sentinel’s Chief Political Correspondent, Maurice Cantor, profiles Sandra Cornish, as the Environment Minister’s wife contemplates the wreck of her marriage… A double paged spread – and as bad as it could possibly be. No question of ‘deciding’ about it, this was pure, unadulterated vilification. Cantor opened with a column of sycophantic drivel about Bill. He was personable; talented; always on top of his brief (when he keeps them on, she mused); and a possible successor to Wendy (another one). He had been cruelly trapped by an unscrupulous blackmailer, on the payroll of a down-market newspaper that had set its face against the Equality in Marriage Act (2009). Bill had led for the Government at Committee Stage, deftly swatting objections from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Mothers’ Brigade. His performance had been universally acclaimed as masterful.
As a result, the former Civil Partnerships Act had been upgraded to provision for full marriage, and Bill’s reward had been a place in the Cabinet as Environment Secretary. From here, he had gone from strength to strength, gaining plaudits in equal measure from The Prince of Wales, The Real Earth Trust, and the National Hunting League. He had never used prostitutes of either gender, but was glad that he now had the opportunity to embrace his true nature. He would be seeking a divorce from Sandra and taking advantage of the new legislation to marry his Special Adviser and male partner, Clifford Morledge. There was no reason whatsoever for him to slink away in disgrace. He enjoyed the support of his constituents, his Prime Minister and his children.
BUT NOT HIS WIFE.
Sandra Cornish, by contrast, had disgraced her Party, family and friends by her refusal to accept the end of her marriage with good grace and move on. Her grotesque homophobia had been advertised to the nation when she had alerted press to view the shameful spectacle of Bill’s worldly goods, piled upon the pavement outside their London residence, topped off by a copy of Green and Gay and six pairs of boxer shorts (picture attached). She had changed the locks and Bill was temporarily bunking down in his office.
There was a mawkish statement from the Cornish children:
Daddy is still Daddy and there are lots of rainbow families in our world today. We want a relationship with Daddy, Mummy and Cliff – and hope that Mummy will check into Cornflower Abbey so that she can have a rest and get the help she needs.
Maurice Cantor suggested that Sandra herself might have collaborated with the rival paper to expose the secret life of her husband. She was castigated as an old fashioned stay at home Westminster Wife who had been only too happy to ditch a career at United Biscuits that was less than stellar, to cling to the coat-tails of her talented spouse. ( Inset, photographs of Sandra scrutinising organic parsnips with the Prince of Wales and personnel from The Real Earth Trust; Sandra and Bill at the BAFTA awards and an excerpt from The Crier’s At Home with Sandra Cornish ).
Then, to her horror, the article re-visited long-lost Dorlich days, with anonymous University friends bearing witness to a nature both contemptible and vindictive. The Sentinel had dredged up Heather Lydgate (now Aspinall), Sandra’s old rival for The Darwin Science Prize: "Sandra stole my notes and claimed credit for my molecular research findings. Three years of working with her as lead seminar partner completely destroyed my confidence, precipitating my breakdown and Aegrotat degree instead of a Congratulatory First. I’ve never recovered, not really. It hurts when you are just a counter assistant at the chemist and Sandra is a guest at Highgrove."
An anonymous tutor dismissed Sandra as a second-class intellect. But the coup de grace was delivered by Belinda Lambton (nee Briscoe), who had gone on the record with devastating commentary about the ill-fated Potts affair: I didn’t keep up with Sandra when we left Dorlich; I don’t think she had many close friends, and I’m saddened but not surprised by her disgusting homophobia. She had a very brief relationship with the geneticist Sir Leslie Potts when we were at Dorlich, but her behaviour after he came out was just incredible! She literally chased him all over the city, hanging outside lectures and crying and completely ruined my twentieth birthday party. And then, she behaved like a sort of female Dr Mengele, offering to accompany him to the student Medical Centre for ‘aversion therapy’!! I’ve never met Bill, but he seems like a nice guy and a fantastic Minister. But Sandra needs locking up.
The article concluded with a close-up of Sandra, eyes bulging and hair awry and the comment: The Prime Minister is determined to hang onto Bill Cornish, one of the few Cabinet Members capable of landing a punch on a resurgent Tory Party. But his wife is a dangerous loose cannon and could yet succeed in destroying not only the man who has deserted her but the Government of which he is a part.
She felt sick.
Sandra had her faults – lots of them – but this was totally unfair. The Sentinel was the Government’s House Journal and Wendy’s fingerprints were all over the piece. The whole affair was indicative of two things: one that the Party would go to the wire for Bill and two that Sandra was causing real problems. The article, nasty as it was, was a shot across the bows, designed to frighten her and stop her doing whatever it was that they were worried about.
The Dorlich stuff could only have been provided by Derek Kingsmill. He must have kept up with Leslie Potts and Belinda Briscoe over the years – or at least known where they could be located. Leslie was easy of course – he had been knighted in the New Year Honours in 2007 and had been an influential supporter of the Equality in Marriage Act. Heather Lydgate, working in a village chemist, must have been a lucky bonus. She left the house and walked towards the centre of Fengrove, still thinking about Sandra Milford.
The meeting in Soho next week would now be excruciating. Sandra would suspect that she herself had tipped off Derek; indeed it would seem the obvious assumption, especially as they had been colleagues for eight years in the House. The fact that Derek had never acknowledged a shared Dorlich experience – not to mention their fateful encounter at the student conference - would seem frankly incredible.
She winced as the phrase Pants Ahoy flitted across her thoughts. Maurice Cantor was also unpardonable for writing the article. He had been one of the few journalists considered ‘decent’ by herself and her best friend at Westminster, Giselle (Gissy) Wicks. They had often joined him and his colleague Ralph Egg for drinks (sometimes dinner), in the Press Bar and had been shoulders to cry on when Maurice failed to win a coveted promotion after a marathon drinking session in The Regular Suite culminating in vomiting over the new shoes of the Government Chief Whip.
She and Gissy had experienced their own tussles with the press, but never The Sentinel. Gissy maintained that if the opportunity presented itself, neither Maurice nor Ralph would hesitate: They’re journalists, its called A JOB…
But perhaps that was just Gissy. She certainly approached everything in her own unique way. Dubbed The Radical Raven because of her waist-length jet-black hair; Gissy had never married and when last heard of, had embarked upon yet another live-in relationship, this time with a Westminster police officer. She was irredeemably left wing (I’m a socialist and proud of it), and remained supremely indifferent to the machinations of either the Party or the Whips Office. Her biggest coup had been the way she had dealt with a potential revolt in her Constituency Party; briefing a journalist ( whilst sailing up the Nile on a Foreign Affairs Select Committee trip), that she intended to join Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Party and force a by-election. She had headlined every news bulletin for a weekend and then returned to Westminster to find that the Constituency Party revolt had mysteriously fizzled out and things were back to normal. She had retained her seat at the last Election with a majority of 26.
These thoughts and others preoccupied her as Porlock Square gave way to Bilton Road. A crowd appeared to have assembled in front of the Angel Top Nursery; recently refurbished with a new mother and baby crèche. Shouts; flashbulbs and then, to her utter dismay, Bill Cornish was walking towards her, accompanied by the Fengrove Director of Children’s Services, Jennet Armstrong. Before she had time to gasp, she was swept into a heady embrace by Bill, stinking of Allure aftershave and pumping her hand:
One of my dearest ex-colleagues, he enthused to reporters on The Fengrove Express and BBC Regional Television. She’s made Fengrove the wonderful place it is and we can’t wait to have back in the House where she belongs! A woman’s place is in the House, you know!!
Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed the angry grimace of Edgar Smith, Chair of the local Party who had tried and failed to get her deselected over the entire course of her Parliamentary career. But he was powerless to protest as Bill gripped of her arm and propelled her into the nursery; chatting and smiling as if he had rediscovered his closest friend. In fact, he had studiously ignored her during her time at Westminster and had now spoken to her more in twenty minutes than in an entire eight years. She snapped back into MP mode; asked the right questions; met the parents; smiled at babies and chatted to Jennet. A final kiss from Bill and it was over. She had no heart for the brown leather trousers now.
Back at home, she switched on the early evening news to see the sickening shots of herself and Bill, with commentary by the Regional Presenter who hailed her as Bill Cornish’s most loyal supporter in his fight to hang onto a Cabinet job. She hoped, vainly, that media coverage might be confined to the Western Region, but was quickly disabused by an email from Wendy’s PPS, Mike Stubbs:
Brilliant work today – and long time no see! Wendy says you’re naughty to hide yourself away! I don’t think you’d fancy fighting Fengrove again (who would!) – but there are lots of possibilities! Why not pop into the House and we can look at the options if you’re still keen…
And this from the poisonous beast who had conspired with Edgar Smith to make her life as Fengrove’s MP as difficult as possible. It was proof positive, if ever she had doubted it, that all’s fair in love and politics and yesterday’s enemy is today’s ally.
She put the kettle on, and then thought better of it, pouring a stiff vodka and tonic.
Gissy would laugh; Lynne would be angry and think she had walked into it – Sandra would be horrified.
She picked up Vanessa’s postcard with its instruction to take care.