in which Emma B. treats of matters spiritual. And profane.
She had never been religious, although Religious Knowledge had been her best subject at school and she had modelled her classroom persona upon that of her own teacher, Judy Parkin. Miss Parkin had terrified the juniors; thawing a fraction each year, until the apotheosis of the Sixth Form, when lessons had been conducted in the coffee bar and always included fascinating digressions on men and sex. Judy was an atheist, and she suspected that her own atheism had been the key to a string of stunning examination triumphs, unequalled before or since at Loxley Green Grammar School.
Whilst the likes of Marilyn Tester, (who probably prayed before going to the toilet), refused point blank to offer alternative explanations for the disappearance of the body in the tomb (failing the subject at O level with the lowest possible grade), she had excelled in devising ever more imaginative possibilities, including the theory that Joseph of Arimathea and Pontius Pilate were one and the same person and had decamped with the body to an unknown location in Corinth. Despite a lack of personal belief, she was something of a Religious Knowledge snob, taking pleasure in humiliating the earnest Jehovah’s witnesses who came slithering to the door on Thursday mornings, inviting her to be saved. She would listen intently and wait for them to quote a text; smug in the knowledge that they would naturally assume that she had never beheld a copy of the New Testament.
And then she would pounce; quoting; interpreting and disputing with a vengeance (the Pauline Epistles were her speciality), until the poor Witness fled from the door in terror, no doubt fearing that the Last Trump and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were alive and well and residing in Fengrove. She detested any tampering with, or divergence from, the exact words and phrasing of The King James 1st version of the Bible, and had her own deeply personal likes and dislikes amongst hymns and prayers. When she attempted, as now, to find a common strain amongst her preferences, peace and quiet was certainly up there.
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind made the cut because of the line: Oh still small voice of calm, and Lord of all Hopefulness would be on her desert island because of your peace in our hearts Lord at the end of the day. But where did that leave her all time favourite line – And I did sit and eat (munching a Crunchie) from Herbert? Not for the first time, she wished she had kept up with Judy Parkin….
Religion of itself, she decided was not the problem. She felt she had its measure.
However, she considered that it should be proscribed because of its deleterious effect upon others. Following her unexpected (unwanted) brush with Bill Cornish, the consequent media storm failed to materialise. There had been the predictable regional television slot at 6pm, repeated in scaled-down version later that day. Then nothing. For six days. On the seventh, unable to contain itself further, The Crier sprang into action, attacking the puff for Bill that had formed the thrust of The Sentinel’s crucifixion of Sandra; waxing in stentorian tones about family values; gross moral turpitude and a consequent breakdown in society, promoted by the Wendy Runcible Government.
This was as it should be.
What was not acceptable was the fevered speculation about her own position.
During her stint at Westminster, The Crier could be relied upon to portray her in one of two ways. Either she was Wendy Runcible’s most loyal MP; sickening in her indefatigable, buttock-clenching sycophancy to all things Government. Or she was an unbridled, venal joy-rider; roistering wherever free champagne and canapés were to hand.
Ponia Tindall’s article struck an unfortunate balance between the two. Yes, her presence at Bill’s side in a notoriously tricky marginal had probably tipped the fall-out from the sex scandal in his favour. Sacking was not an issue; unsavoury publicity had not detracted from his winning skills as a Minister - he was even a hit with the former MP. On the other hand, did the rumours, currently engulfing Westminster, that she herself was being lined up for the next halfway decent marginal, indicate that Wendy Runcible was now unfit to govern?
Having posed the question, Ponia then developed the argument by means of every single unfavourable scrap of coverage about the former MP for Fengrove that had reached the public domain since the election of the latter in 1997. If a tenth of these canards were true, this person would have been confined to house arrest, or at the very least, a padded cell in Cornflower Abbey. Indeed, a public representative who would rush to a vote straight from a Brazilian waxing table, wearing nothing but a cerise bra and knicker set and a pair of gumboots was at very the least misguidedly loyal, if not criminally insane…
She had scarcely decided whether she was angry, amused or desperately upset and humiliated when the phone rang. It was not Ponia from The Crier, but Lynne from Surrey. Sandra had turned up; devastated by a public betrayal at the hands of one of her oldest friends who had united with her evil pervert of a husband for the ignoble purpose of vainglorious ambition. Lynne had spent an hour deploying her considerable powers of appeasement, but this unwelcome distraction was in danger of engulfing next week’s lunch at The Fifth Column. Sandra had been so hysterical that Lynne had been forced to miss a rehearsal of her church choral group. Stainer’s Crucifixion was a challenging piece and the performance was on Sunday. I suppose you just couldn’t resist Bill’s blandishments – but I hope you’re not being used AGAIN. Anyway - Sandra’s in full Potts-mode – so stand warned!
Then an email from Richard. He was concerned; protective – but was there a trace of Paul as he mentioned that Lizzie had been embarrassed? Although there was nothing to link her to you… Whatever he had intended, the direct result was that she accepted Gissy’s long-standing offer of lunch and made arrangements to meet her at the House the following day. The Palace of Westminster was essentially unchanged from its aspect when she had left it for the last time in April 2005, prior to defeat at the General Election. The Lobby; Westminster Hall – time had not withered them, nor custom staled their infinite variety; but the security process at St Stephen’s was new.
As she waited for Gissy, she noted an increase in the number of police officers and a decrease in their average age. In her day, duty at Westminster had been the career lot of officers whose best days were behind them. This had been painfully evident in January 2000, when the House had been besieged by a troop of police officers hailing from the four corners of the country who had turned up to lobby their MP about changes to pay and conditions in the 2000 Police and Criminal Justice White Paper. They were all tricked out in a type of off-duty uniform; plaid shirts, grey hoods, blue jeans and Dr Marten boots, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the criminals they pursued during the course of a working day. Assuming the aspect of escaped zoo animals, many had indulged in the proffered hospitality of their MP hosts. They were certainly intoxicated by something, and had suddenly stampeded towards the Members’ Lobby like a herd of marauding bison, intent on storming the Chamber in the middle of the Home Secretary’s Statement to the House.
The indigenous Westminster police officers had attempted to head off an incident - but were impeded by age and levels of fitness. Disaster had been averted by the prompt action of the Serjeant at Arms, who had wielded his ceremonial sword with decision and dexterity, but it had been a close shave. Now, as she observed the athletic young officers who had replaced the likes of dear old Wilf, she wondered which one of them was moonlighting as Gissy’s live in lover. No wonder she had looked peaky on Politics Profile….. And then Gissy was there – in a swish of perfume, bracelets and bangles, wearing a pink suede skirt and six inch heels.
They took drinks on the Terrace and lunch in The Gallery café/restaurant.
In essence, the House was unchanged.
The Regular Suite was now The Select Bar; the staff in penguin kit had been replaced by youngsters in T-shirts and portcullis-emblazoned deck shoes; everywhere had benefited from a coat of paint. But the third toilet cubicle in the Ladies was still equipped with a faulty latch; the gift shop still sold tired looking teddies and golf balls in a set of three and the food was as terrible as ever.
She ordered potted shrimps with capers and Lancashire hotpot. The shrimps were tolerable, but the hotpot was drenched in a type of grey dishwater-style gravy which barely alleviated the true awfulness of the gristle-and-meat and the chill of the petit pois and baby carrots. This brought back memories of the many excruciating lunches she had hosted for constituency worthies; the Director of this and the Chief Executive of that. She had been embarrassed both by the quality of the food and the degrees of abasement to which her guests would descend whilst eating it. It was The Emperor’s New Clothes – Westminster-style.
They would push inedible portions of beef around their plates and conceal lumpen creamed potato beneath stringy cabbage leaves whilst drinking like fish to deaden the taste. But back in Fengrove, lunch at the House was discussed in reverential tones by those who had endured it: The steak was like velvet; and that spotted dick! I just love those old nursery puds! Oh for the dear departed Editor of the Fengrove Gazette who had responded to her obligatory Is the food all right? with No – its total CRAP. Grab your coat – I’ll stand you a burger. But Alex was the exception. As she surveyed the serried tables of pinioned diners – all guests of an MP, their neglected but suspiciously piled plates were proof that the old traditions were inviolable.
Gissy exuded the benefits of a favourable profile in The Courier; a rampant sex life with a constable and a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape. Pete, the police officer, was refreshing the parts that others had been unable to reach and the details could be enjoyed by all within hearing distance of their table. As her part of the bargain, Gissy had agreed to accompany Pete to the Westminster Alpha Course, located in Large Meeting Room 3, off Westminster Hall. In the thirteen years of their acquaintance, Gissy had never displayed the slightest interest in religion, either Christian or comparative. They had attended the Speaker’s Annual Carol Service with scrupulous regularity – but that was because of the superior canapés and four types of champagne. Penance had been exacted by an equally scrupulous attendance at the Westminster Atkins Diet Seminars in Small Meeting Room 2 - because neither could stomach the gym. They had also attended the Westminster Memorial Service for Conservative grandee, Sir Elmer Dumpster, but that was to annoy the Whips, who had detested his filibustering operation during the Third Reading of the European Enlargement Bill 2003. Gissy who could speak six languages, had been keen to serve on the Committee Stage of the Bill, but had been blacklisted by the Chief Whip, Terence Gale, because she had voted against the Government 73 times in the Parliamentary session. She started to justify the Alpha course in terms of 21st century socialism, but the wine loosened her tongue:
Oh bugger it – he’s a good screw. I’m forty-seven – oh, all right, fifty-six – I’m stuck here from 7.30am until 10pm for three days of the week and past midnight on Mondays. Where am I going to meet men? It’s not as if there was much to choose from here (waving at a table of colleagues). If Paris was worth a mass, then Pete is worth an Alpha Course.
Well, what would you do?
Good question. Moving swiftly on, she diverted the conversation to the matter of Sandra and Bill. Gissy, unencumbered by Christian sympathy, Alpha Course notwithstanding, was scathing: She should have known – of course she should. I mean, Bill Cornish. Would you? With him? He buffs his nails. Have you seen his half moons? She then instanced the shocking saga of the previous Speaker, Hugh Waverley Tench who had been exposed entertaining escort girls (and the odd gullible backbencher) in the Speaker’s Apartments on Thursday afternoons during Opposition Day debates. His wife was absent from home on these days, working as an interpreter at the Westminster hospital, and debates were overseen by various Deputy Speakers. The horrific truth had emerged when Deputy Speaker Rene Mackay had been taken ill in the Chair after a Press Gallery lunch. An Officer of the House had gone in search of the Speaker. The truth of the matter, that Deputy Speaker Mackay was drunk in the Chair, was obscured by news of a bigger scandal – Speaker Tench supine in the arms of a vice girl, wearing the loin cloth of a sumo wrestler whilst she, clad in the Speaker’s stockings, garters and black buckled shoes, applied the spare mace to his buttocks whilst nibbling from a platter of quails eggs and oysters.
This had supplied fodder for The Crier for the remainder of the year. Deputy Speaker Mackay had enjoyed a narrow escape and so had the Government.
But April Tench was a source of collective embarrassment until she departed the House and took up residence with her mother and great aunt in Liverpool.
Well – she must have known – I mean, you do, don’t you?
She said goodbye to Gissy and pondered the question on her return to Fengate. Maybe Gissy and Lynne were somehow blessed with a sixth sense about these matters due to their heightened contact with things spiritual. But that would not account for Mary Hadleigh at Oaks Haven.
The School Secretary, a woman in her fifties, was the wife of the Reverend Arthur Hadleigh, who combined a curacy at St Swithin’s with a teaching post at the school. He was a bore of the first order; unpopular with staff and pupils, and Oaks Haven had been overwhelmed by a wave of guilt when it was announced that he had died suddenly overnight. But it had not been a lonely suicide. Reports of the Inquest ( in all of the local papers and some of the nationals), revealed that Arthur Hadleigh had been discovered on the afternoon of Shrove Tuesday by Mary, who had returned home unexpectedly, due to a sore throat.
He was hanging from the banisters in a noose fashioned from the belt of his trousers, on the third floor of their three storey home. The surrounding stairs were carpeted with pornographic material and appliances of an unspeakable nature. He had been dead for several hours……….
After six months, Mrs Hadleigh returned to her post beside the Banda machine and the rubber plant and continued her duties as usual. She did not speak about her husband and Arthur Hadleigh’s name was airbrushed from school history.
Was she ignorant?
Did she know about her husband’s practices and offer her pain to God as a spiritual sacrifice? Did she know but choose not to see? Mary Hadleigh had been dead herself for many years and would not be providing an answer. But the question remained; stubborn and insistent.
Do you always know?
Had she herself known the truth about Paul all along?
And after such knowledge what forgiveness?
She had no answer to that.