In which Emma B. lets us know that a confession has, at last, been mad
Lunch at The Fifth Column had been disastrous whichever way you looked at it.
Initially she hadn’t wanted to look at it. Or think about it. Or own that she was in any way associated with it at all.
Three women of late middle age (56, not 36), had voluntarily exposed themselves to scorn in a London club/restaurant. One had gone completely berserk; alcohol had been involved, and two of the capital’s nastiest journalistic cats had enjoyed the benefits of a ringside seat.
The days immediately following the lunch had taken a predictable course; miserably familiar during her Westminster career. It consisted of an aversion to the telephone; a terror of the email and a reluctance to open national newspapers.
In the years since she had lost her seat, an insidious new type of torture had gained credence in the form of the malicious internet blogs (notably Vlad the Impaler; he drinks at the fount of corruption), that had largely superseded print Diarists such as Peeping Peter.
The onward march of technology was a mixed blessing depending upon your perspective.
On the one hand, Vlad enjoyed a licence denied to The Crier’s Peter, whose activities were curbed by the libel laws governing print journalism.
Only last week, Conservative By-Election victor, Delphine Power, had put a Question to the Prime Minister, knowing full well that the theme of Vlad’s latest post was her victory party in the Select Bar, during the course of which she had been forcibly removed by her Pairing Whip after mounting a table; vomiting into a colleague’s handbag and treating the Terrace to a unique rendition of It's Raining Men.
However, this escapade, immortalised in the ether, would not prove to be as damaging in itself as Peter’s insistent inclusion of the words tired and emotional when writing about everything she did from then onwards, whether hosting a children’s tea party or giving a disquisition on the packaging industry. Four years later, Peter’s persistence was rewarded when Delphine secured her own footnote in history as the first Conservative woman MP to be deselected on the grounds of alcoholism.
Neither the malice of the internet nor the whimsy of Fleet Street had troubled itself with the former MP for Fengrove for a full six years - until the Bill Cornish affair had inspired Ponia Tindall to reprise the worst of the old cuttings. Now the full force of Ponia’s piece in The Crier returned with a vengeance, and she berated herself for insisting upon The Fifth Column as a lunch venue.
The combination of nostalgia and vanity that had inspired the choice had been wildly misplaced and she, Lynne and Sandra must have been an unforeseen gratuity for Jessica and Ponia – who would not have visited The Fifth Column
for the primary purpose of sampling its seared monkfish with a crabmeat timbale.
However, day one was succeeded by days two and then three and neither The Crier nor the internet made mention of the lunch. Maybe Sandra had recovered her dignity along with her bearings; unlikely, but possible, and in the absence of information to the contrary, it served as an acceptable fantasy.
What she could not escape was a growing conviction that perhaps it was time for friendships established nearly forty years ago to be quietly put to rest.
She busied herself with work – specifically the proofs of Linstead County Council’s Charter for Social Care, and enjoyed a rare lunch with Richard who was attending a Food and Beverage fair at the Bohemia Bay Golf and Country Club fifteen miles south of Fengrove.
The atmosphere was cordial; until she enquired whether or not he had spoken to Vanessa about her invitation to the reading of Paul’s Will:
No – and I’ve no intention of doing so. Frankly, Ma, you should ask her those questions yourself - or better still, MOVE ON with your life. I won’t be dragged back into that whole scene; Uncle Donald, Aunty Gillian, David, Susan – Ursula and her kids – just leave me out of it. Now must dash – eighty miles on the motorway and I’m interviewing tomorrow for new bar staff.
He was right, of course – but she was plagued by sporadic thoughts of Paul and his malign shade:
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors and issues……..
which she dismissed as the fractious thoughts of a woman nearly old, with too much time on her hands.
Beyond her front garden with its For Sale sign that, like the owner of the property, had seen better days, life moved on.
The Fengrove Gazette lauded the selection of the Party’s new candidate for her old Parliamentary seat; Human Rights lawyer, Macey Cline.
Ms Cline, who is known to be close to beleaguered PM, Wendy Runcible, was the overwhelming choice of Party members, beating off competition from three local councillors. Party Chairman, Edgar Smith said:
Macey will be an MP to make Fengrove and the Party proud. She will be an outstanding tribune for the city and its residents.
The article was accompanied by a picture of Macey, in red silk shift with matching bag and heels in the vice –like grip of Edgar Smith with his characteristic crocodile smile. She had never met Macey but wished her the joy of her new Party colleagues – and all the inevitable soul-searching when she discovered that they were impossible to please; impervious to persuasion and intent upon deselection should she succeed in wresting the seat from its present incumbent, Tory MP Baxter Welch.
On the national scene, with barely a year before a probable General Election, the Party’s prospects could scarcely have been worse. Informed opinion placed the Tories on course for a majority of at least thirty seats and Baxter Welch could anticipate a further term as the MP for Fengrove.
Wendy Runcible had been a charismatic vote winner; indeed, the first woman Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher had proved herself to be a formidable politician.
But a stagnant economy; a disastrous foreign policy initiative against a rogue African state and protracted disputes with telecommunications workers had eroded public confidence. The new Tory Leader, Colin Poole,who had risen from the depths of a humble Housing Association estate, was seen as an attractive alternative to Oxbridge and Yale-educated Wendy.
The Crier, The Courier and even the loyal Sentinel lampooned a tired team; reliant upon the likes of Bill Cornish, Terence Gale and Derek Kingsmill in place of former titans like Ainsley Beadle and Del Kemp.
And there had been problems with ‘personnel’ – traditionally the hallmark of a fading regime.
Last year’s Speaker scandal was one for the Tories; Hugh Waverley Tench was a Cabinet Minister in the old Conservative Government.
But Deputy Speaker Mackay (a former Government Whip) presided over business accompanied by persistent murmurs of Scotch on the rocks and this corrosive display of disrespect on behalf of the House was available to all in Vlad if not in Hansard.
As the years had passed, a vibrant Wendy had acquired a rather unappealing and worldly cynicism, and her office behind the Speaker’s Chair, once accessible to all MPs following Prime Minister’s Questions, was now a repository for Assistants and Assistants to the Assistant. Wendy remained at Number 10 with a coterie of ‘advisers’, who were at a remove from the Party, let alone the people, and restive colleagues were alternately courted by Haydn Groat with his union backers or the populist Gretchen Andrew.
Potentially vexatious matters such as the Cornish affair and the Wicks selection conference were landmines waiting to happen…
This was the political backdrop for Derek Kingsmill’s party in Westminster Hall’s Sceptre Room in honour of 25 years' unbroken service on the Front Bench.
Derek had fought the solidly Conservative Vale of Oakshire in 1979, after completing his D. Phil and becoming an Executive Housing Officer on Dorlich Borough Council.
It was an undistinguished electoral outing, because he lost his deposit. However a subsequent transfer to the northern city of Lowerbridge as Director of Housing coincided with the retirement of the sitting Party MP and Derek’s instalment as candidate. He scraped home in the 1983 General Election with a greatly reduced share of the vote.
It was his darkest hour, because Derek Kingsmill took to the House of Commons as a duck takes to water. For no discernible reason, apart from a talent for expediency akin to that of a chameleon, he was a fixture on the Front Bench from 1986 onwards. His credentials as a possible successor to Wendy were further enhanced by marriage to his amiable Constituency Assistant Lois, and the production of three charming children.
The invitation on her doormat (a cream card with gilt edging, encased in an envelope lined with green tissue), was a bolt from the blue.
Despite, or probably because, of their shared experience at the long-gone student conference, she had spent eight years at Westminster having little or nothing to do with Derek Kingsmill.
Even during his brief tenure as her Regional Whip, he had relied upon pager message or email in preference to personal contact, and to all intents and purposes had avoided her – even eschewing a courtesy nod in the Division Lobby or the Committee Corridor.
The scrawled note from his researcher to the effect that Derek was hoping to reconnect with all his old Regional teams did not convince.
However, she was hardly awash with invitations and in such circumstances, curiosity trumped prudence.
She wrote a polite acceptance; emailed Gissy, and calculated that if she worked tonight as well as tomorrow, she would have discharged her duty to Linstead County Council and could therefore enter The Sceptre Room with an unspotted conscience.
The Sceptre Room, in Westminster Hall at the top of a stone staircase, was the venue for promotional launches and some private parties.
Businesses, Non-Governmental Organisations and Charities who could cover the cost used it to corral MPs who had time to spare between votes.
In return for free comestibles, most Honourable Members were happy to while away half an hour listening to presentations on renewable fuels, breast cancer or the pharmaceutical industry and might then be persuaded to champion the cause in the House.
As a general rule, the quality and style of refreshments was a determinant in the calibre of attendees. Red and white wine and basic canapés would attract a good range of Backbenchers; champagne, hot and cold platters and deserts could tempt a sprinkling of Lords and Cabinet Ministers – and a reception offering tea, coffee, sandwiches and biscuits was a deplorable waste of resources because no self respecting politician would be seen dead at it.
Recently, all parliamentarians had been more discerning in their consideration of such invitations after Vlad posted an account of a stellar turn out at a reception hosted by the manufacturers of surgical stockings.
It was standing room only and Wendy herself had been forced to listen to proceedings from the outside staircase – whilst inside, colleagues of varying ages and degrees of seniority, jostled each other to get at the foie gras, pure black truffle, piedmont hazelnut chocolates and champagne.
According to Vlad, it was Westminster’s unique interpretation of the cliché: snouts in the trough - but it played badly in the constituencies and thereafter, MPs with slender majorities exercised an uncharacteristic degree of restraint.
Unfortunately, Gissy was not on Derek’s guest list, so they met for aperitifs in The Golden Cockerel, opposite Westminster tube station.
This haunt of choice for interns, researchers and some journalists was experiencing a lull in trade at that time and they repaired to the cellar bar for two glasses of chardonnay.
She had not spoken to Gissy since the press revelations, but the latter was showing the strain. Her nail polish was chipped; she had neglected to retouch her roots and, toyboy or not, she looked what she was; a fifty-seven-year-old woman at risk of redundancy.
She was aggrieved that colleagues like Derek, who assumed that her deselection was a formality, were treating her as a pariah.
It’s not as if Valerie Pringle is a cross between the Virgin Mary and Mother Theresa!
‘Clean living’ my arse!
I suppose you’d better be ‘clean living’, if you’d served eighteen months in a female Young Offenders’ institution twenty three years ago for master-minding a pre-pubescent shop-lifting squad! And she punched her grandmother while under the influence of drugs, although that was hushed up.
I’ve never even had a parking ticket – well, if I could drive I wouldn’t have had one - and its just so FUCKING UNFAIR!!
So opined the woman who had championed a Health Select Committee decision to add a Loire Valley wine-tasting weekend to an investigation into French methods of combating alcoholism on grounds of strengthening the Entente Cordiale……
More to the point, her raised voice was unwise because the Cockerel’s employees were frequently prey to the blandishments of the journalists who formed the bulk of their regular clientele – and who were now beginning to drift through the door….
She suggested that Gissy should combat the Pringle threat by planting a spoiler in The Sentinel, courtesy of Maurice Cantor, and then relay the information about Valerie to Chief Whip Terence Gale.
Gissy was a serial rebel in the Division Lobby, but Pringle was an ex-convict. In the pre-Election period, there could be no contest.
Gissy had faced far worse. She was losing her touch.
At the mention of Gale, Gissy shuffled her jade winkle picker shoes and lit another cigarette. It then came to mind that if she herself had barely spoken to Derek Kingsmill during the course of eight years – she had never seen Gissy exchange as much as a single word with Terence Gale……
Oh Gissy – you didn’t! Not with Gale? You couldn’t?!!
At least in the case of Derek, it would have been impossible to predict that the James Dean manqué of Dorlich would become the paunchy individual of today, complete with slip on shoes.
Shoes or no shoes (and Terence Gale had always favoured a lace - up brogue) the Chief Whip could have earned a crust as a Harry Secombe double, regardless of age.
There was no accounting for taste – but taste could not have entered the equation. If preferment was the aim, then why was Gissy hovering on the brink of deselection?
Gissy retorted that NO SHE HAD NOT – and that was precisely the problem.
She had first met Terence Gale three months before the 1997 General Election at a three day Spring Conference in the coastal town of Silvercliffe.
It was a Pre-Election Rally and her original accommodation had fallen through, so she had been allocated a room with two other women delegates in an apartment inconveniently located out of town.
Norma Shelby (who entered Parliament in 2005) was pleasant, but Alice Patterson must have cancelled because she was conspicuous by her absence for the entire weekend.
On the final night, Gissy attended the Conference Social and found herself in the midst of a group of union delegates who were harrying the Shadow Defence Minister about his abandonment of a Non-Nuclear Defence Policy.
Terence Gale wanted to flee and CND stalwart Gissy was astounded when he offered her a lift in his taxi – more so when it emerged that the Sheldrake Apartments were some distance out of his way.
It was late and raining. Terence Gale insisted on shepherding her across the threshold and into the small kitchen where he stood rather too close for comfort as he requested a coffee:
Before braving the elements.
It seemed churlish to refuse.
She located cups, milk, sugar and coffee and boiled a kettle whilst Terence visited the bathroom.
Some unmusical noises emanated from the living room; Gissy suspected a faulty radiator and was about to investigate when she was ambushed at the door by Terence Gale, swathed from top to toe in a grubby beige bath towel.
It was as if I was drowning – I could see my whole life flashing in front of me –
And then he whipped off the towel, swirled it round his head and yelled:
How’s this for POLARIS?!
and I just pushed him….
From his position on the floor, anger having succeeded ardour, the Shadow Defence Minister wished for nothing but escape.
Unfortunately, apart from a raincoat and brogues in the hallway, his clothes were in the bathroom and the door was locked.
And when I looked in the living room, it was covered, literally covered in vomit.
I found out next day that it was Alice Patterson; she got drunk at a Scottish ceilidh, threw up in the lounge and then locked herself in the bathroom. We had to pay extra to cover the cost of the cleaning. The sofa was completely ruined.
Marooned; cast adrift from his clothes, Terence had no choice but to vacate the apartment, in brogues, raincoat and nothing else, hoping that a friendly taxi driver would deposit him at his hotel rather than the nearest hospital or police station.
She was amazed that Gissy had never mentioned this initial encounter with the man who, in the post of Chief Whip, was feared and respected in equal measure.
Because if I had, every time we’d seen him, you’d have collapsed in hysterics – as you’re doing now, in fact…
It was true, she would – and was. They left the Cockerel and Gissy headed towards her office.
She was sorry, but the thought of Terence Gale en deshabille, apart from trusty brogues and raincoat, was so delicious that she scarcely noticed herself entering Westminster Hall and mounting the stone staircase. Outside The Sceptre Room, she was accosted by a small woman in a lavender suit who was certainly not an MP.
I wonder, is this the Sceptre Room? I’ve been invited to the private party of an MP called Derek Kingsmill.
The years had left their trace; the red hair now owed more to artifice than nature – but in essence, Belinda Lambton, nee Briscoe, was unchanged.
They experienced the shock of recognition and then entered a room together for the first time since they had walked into The Persimann Hall on the occasion of their graduation, thirty-five years ago.