the Sceptre Room at the top of the stone staircase reminded her of Jenny Wren’s rooftop garden in Our Mutual Friend.
Peering through its high lead- paned windows at the world below, she thought of
The clouds rushing on above the narrow streets ... the golden arrows pointing at the mountains in the sky from which the wind comes
Come up and be dead she said to Belinda.
But if the latter had any recollection of Professor Newbolt’s lecture on Les Fleurs du Mal: a Dickensian Vision; she gave no sign and headed, like a bloodhound, to the drinks table.
Glasses of red and white wine in serried ranks (not champagne) were tended by hospitality staff in their new smart/casual uniforms. Waiters circled with honey glazed cocktail sausages studded with sesame seeds; party pickles; asparagus wheels (cut price catering) and she took a gherkin in preference to a sticky, sweet sausage.
And was your husband an MP too? enquired Belinda.
No, she replied He’s dead – I mean he is, but we divorced a long time ago.
As she accepted the standard words of condolence, she remembered that Belinda had never known Paul and would be incapable of differentiating a Truscott from a Chase.
She belonged to that earlier world of Peony Hall with Lionel Kerridge in role as scourge of Jane Daventry rather than bond slave to an ageing Blanche du Bois.
Although of course, continued Belinda, between sips; we all expected you and Derek to tie the knot ------ Oh gosh – there’s Heather! Isn’t this wonderful?
Belinda Briscoe had not distinguished herself at Dorlich.
Her solid 2.2 was as predictable as her footwear (desert boots regardless of climate or occasion); her membership of the Pip’n Jay Country Ramblers and her captaincy of the Peony Hall lacrosse team.
After Dorlich, she had worked as a Hospital Administrator before sinking into marriage and children with Giles Lambton, an earnest mathematician. They had been joined at the hip since Fresher’s week and he was doubtless her first and last lover.
In fact the only interesting thing about Belinda Briscoe was the fact that Sandra Milford had ruined her party in 1975.
The thought of spending the entire reception with Belinda was intolerable and the approach of a stout woman who must be Heather Lydgate clinched it.
With a smile both polite and preoccupied, she waved at Heather, made her excuses and crept decorously into a corner.
Derek was regaling a small group of guests at an adjoining table.
He was swaying to and fro; flicking his thumbs in his waistband, and patting a settled paunch. She observed that his complexion was blotchy and suspected an untoward reliance upon Mr Weston’s good wine.
As she sipped the unpleasantly warm wine on offer, she reflected with annoyance that a man with the income of Derek could have spent more on the refreshments. He had exposed himself as an out and out cheapskate and she marvelled at Belinda’s astounding presumption that the Pants Ahoy escapade had been a serious ‘affair’.
Of course anyone who had responded to an examination question on Jane Austen’s presentation of courtship in Emma with a robust defence of Harriet Smith’s delusions about Mr Elton:
(Did you read the novel before writing the essay, Miss Briscoe?)
must be cursed by a permanent impairment of judgement.
But had Belinda communicated these opinions to others?
And was she doing it now?
She suppressed a frisson of anger at the absent Sandra Milford who had regaled the details of her skirmish with Derek to their entire social circle and shot a surreptitious glance in the direction of the drinks table. The two women seemed to be working their way through its contents with neither discrimination nor taste – but they were certainly communicating something to an avid audience.
The composition of the audience was disconcerting if not downright eccentric.
She had been invited to a reception in The Sceptre Room to commemorate a former colleague’s 25th anniversary of unbroken service on the Front Bench and the handwritten note from his researcher had stated that Derek had particularly wished to reconnect with all his old Regional teams.
On her arrival at Westminster in 1997, she had been disconcerted to discover that Derek Kingsmill was her first Regional Whip. After six months, the groups were changed and she found herself under the supervision of the late Pete Dent, but Derek had continued as a Whip; rising in seniority before his subsequent Ministerial posts at Education, Trade and Industry and International Affairs.
She had not been a long-standing member of Derek’s flock. But now she appeared to be the only former member of a Kingsmill ‘Regional team’
in the room.
Indeed, if you discounted Chief Whip Terence Gale (who was ensconced in conversation with Heather Lydgate) and Gretchen Andrew (who always attended everything with the purpose of burnishing her leadership credentials); there were very few MPs from any team or none – in the room.
Except Bill Cornish…
Derek’s reception was a Dorlich Reunion, circa 1976. It would have been ideally situated in the University’s Gloriana Suite but to assemble such a gathering in the Sceptre Room at the House of Commons was bizarre. Gissy had not been excluded because she had been consigned to the Westminster equivalent of Siberia - but because she was an MP.
This was not a reception for MPs.
She consumed a bite sized Yorkshire pudding topped with slivers of beef and horseradish and surveyed the scene.
The distinctive figure of internationally renowned geneticist Sir Leslie Potts had now joined the Lydgate group alongside Sandra’s love rival, Clifford Morledge and they were both chatting in animated style to none other than Hamish Underhill; Lucinda Prynne; Jocasta Sharp and Nathaniel Bilbie.
Sarah Cassidy and her husband, TV presenter Robbie Nantwich, formed a separate group, near to the door with Terence Gale and a late arrival; the distinguished anthropologist Ben Bex-Oliver.
To the right of the Gale coterie were some faces that were vaguely familiar from Derek’s set in the Social Sciences Department amidst a sprinkling of Sandra’s undergraduate contemporaries from Chemistry and some who must have studied Biology with Leslie and Classics with Ben.
The issue was no longer the whereabouts of Gissy, but the absence of Lynne; an impermeable conundrum. She adjusted her coat and walked towards the exit – to find her way blocked by the substantial figure of Terence Gale.
An hour later, she had spent longer in enforced association with the former residents of 14a Wellington Parade than in her entire university career.
Terence Gale and Wendy’s PPS Mike Stubbs appeared to be monitoring the conversation; plying the group with wine and canapés - or preventing anyone from leaving?
Bill Cornish greeted her with an effusive embrace and Derek Kingsmill ignored her as usual.
So why had he invited her?
She felt increasingly ill at ease; took another drink and scanned his guests.
Nathaniel Bilbie of the pink crotchless panties and green sombrero was debating Bulls and Bears with Major Hamish (Spliffy) Underhill of the Rifles. Lucinda Prynne was a grandmother and Jocasta Sharp whose unbridled love life had propelled her to the Out Patient Department at the Dorlich Special Clinic for Sexually Transmitted Diseases, had recently assumed a posting as Lord Lieutenant of Chervil County.
The beautiful and the damned of Dorlich……..
Who had, in reality, been neither.
They had been good looking, rich and young and as such, had donned fancy dress for three years prior to embracing the shades of the prison house in the City, the Army and the Shire Counties of England.
They were no longer trailing clouds of glory and she had absolutely nothing to say to them about anything.
But then, she and Lynne had never had anything to say to them…
I can’t for the life of me think why I’ve been invited!
It’s not as though I’ve seen any of the crowd for years – except Leslie because our professional paths cross – sort of…
But he rang up last week and practically dragooned me into attending! I’m not a political guy! As for Derek – I could have walked past him in the street and not known him from Adam --- and what about you?
Weren’t you a friend of a girl called Maisey in my Classics set?
Ben Bex-Oliver was a remarkably handsome man; the wine was, after all, palatable and perhaps a chocolate strawberry might suffice…
She refreshed her glass.