Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Best Blessings of Existence 28

In which Emma B. reminds us that a dog always returns to its vomit.

He was also an interesting man and had spent the past 35 years in neither the City, the Army nor the Shire Counties of England.

This incontrovertible fact clinched her choice of a later train and also served as an excuse to put the length of the Sceptre Room between herself and the former inhabitants of 14a Wellington Parade.

Don’t you find, reflected Ben, between mouthfuls of chocolate fudge, that university chums have a habit of turning into their polar opposites? Take Lucy Prynne – I just had to move away – couldn’t bear any more guff about her bloody grandchildren. That voice! I suppose she needs it to intimidate the opposition at all those meetings of the ‘Friends of Orchid Common’ or whatever place she’s trying to safeguard from social housing!

Well, yes…. (taking another piece), but I’ve not really thought about how they’d turn out. We – Lynne and I - never really knew them…

Yes - Lynne!! Now why did I always think she was Maisey? Don’t know; my dear old Aunt I suppose! Something about her look. I do remember that she was always smoking – Lynne not Great Aunty Maisey. And scowling. Yes – smoking and scowling. In corners….

He was far too polite to suggest that this eccentric behaviour had not been confined to her friend and the thought of their twenty year old selves was mortifying.  She recalled Lynne’s outrage at the comments of an erstwhile student colleague when they had met again at a Taster Briefing in Lynne’s Department. Graham Pelham had been, frankly, astounded to see Lynne in role as a successful professional woman and had regaled her with the lurid rumours that had surrounded the two of them at Dorlich. The very mildest of the unspoken innuendos was that they were a lesbian couple – and from the view of anybody outside their tightly knit duo, it made perfect sense. They were a Dorlich equivalent of Pinky and Perky; at parties they scowled and smoked; enmeshed with each other in a way that must have deterred everybody else.

Apart from Sandra Milford who appeared to be the perennial deputy in the absence of one or other of the primary pairing.

The fact that they were, in reality, devising elaborate methods of entrapping Robbie Nantwich and the very Ben Bex Oliver who was at this moment, giving her such quizzical looks, was irrelevant.
They seemed as if they were founder members of the Peony Hall Gay Soc and Sandra Milford must have been the on-off lover of one, or the other, or both.

Was that why Leslie Potts (the prototype of Out and Proud and currently relishing national treasure status), had made a beeline for Sandra?

Did he think that, being lesbian herself, she would agree to be a pliant beard at work and family functions?

If so, he was a lousy judge of character, she thought, remembering Sandra’s curtain-raiser at the Briscoe party – the audition for her response to her husband’s decision to run off with the self-same Cliff Morledge who was currently plying Heather Lydgate with a plate of cheese and celery boats.

Do you keep up with Lynne - must stop thinking Maisey! said Ben Bex- Oliver, nibbling a fourth fudge square.

I saw her again some years back – her book was up for the Attenborough and she was just the same except for the smoking! The book was good - and I’m interested in that sort of thing – but she didn’t want to talk At Dorlich I think she had a much older boyfriend. Did they marry?

The light from a chandelier flickered, picking out a scar at the side of his mouth.

She was not going to tell Lynne that her template of manhood had compared her to his miserable old aunt. Nor that the template had mentally married her off to an ageing swain who teamed shorts with top hats; white socks with brogues and favoured dentures on the table rather than in the mouth whilst dining in smart restaurants.

In any case it hardly signified. Ben had moved on to an account of his life and times.  He had renounced the comforts of society along with his double barrelled surname and since 1976 had traversed the globe, living and working with primitive and tribal communities. After a spell in Malawi, at the behest of various charities, he had spent ten years in Kenya researching Maasai culture and his seminal work The Ethnogenesis of the Maasai People with a forward by Sir Leslie Potts, had been written in collaboration with his wife, Namunyak (The Lucky One), the daughter of a Maasai Chief whom he had met during the course of his research. (Fortunately, her Dad didn’t insist on the traditional herd of cows as a bride price!).

On their return, Namunyak had taken a series of university posts and Ben concentrated upon his writing – diversifying into presenting the popular films and documentaries upon which his reputation now rested. They had four children and Namunyak, the recently appointed Head of African Studies at London and Communities University was an Ambassador for UNICEF and an acknowledged world authority on female genital mutilation.

It had been, by any estimate, an exciting life.

She thought of Lynne in Surrey, pandering to the whims of Pork and Scratching and the equally tedious Greg. Had Greg Salt even read The Inuit, Man and Myth?  It was doubtful Lynne had spotted the potential in an intelligent and attractive man 35 years ago. How could they have assumed that stalking him through the highways and byways of Dorlich – sometimes on foot; sometimes in Lynne’s old Beetle and then shunning him at parties whilst grimacing in corners was cool - much less an accredited seduction technique? What had seemed sensible at the time was in retrospect, certifiable lunacy.

Robbie Nantwich, his wife Sarah and Wendy’s Press Secretary Edith Traynor were chatting to Mike Stubbs and Terence Gale. Sarah Cassidy caught her eye and the hint of a smirk, that might have been a trick of the light, was decisive.

It’s been great to catch up – but I really must go…moving towards the door – and Bill Cornish who appeared to be guarding it. He propelled her back to the drinks table, nodding to Cliff and Heather who had finished the cheese boats and were now sampling the strawberry and custard slices.

She accepted a glass of indifferent red from Bill’s outstretched hand. Gissy was right about the half-moons; he was an assiduous nail-buffer. Or perhaps he had regular manicures; in either case the Cornish nails had escaped her notice during the entire course of their professional acquaintance and now they were his most definitive feature – just as, in the case of Terence Gale………

This lurid train of thought was scotched by Clifford Morledge commandeering her attention: the Department; Fengrove – the solar energy question – did she know that he’d written the Ministerial Response to her Adjournment Debate on The Sunshine Economy on April 13th 2003?

No. She didn’t. She had completely forgotten about it. She didn’t know him either. And until five minutes ago, she was sure that he didn’t know her. And now he was treating her like the specialist subject for a Viva at Finals with Bill as examiner.

He seemed to fit with Bill in ways that Sandra, even at the 1985 Chilton Conference, had never done, He was like a rangy greyhound to Bill’s quirky Jack Russell. In fact they resembled a serious version of Morecambe and Wise and in their company Sandra would be about as comfortable as the hapless celebrity guest at the perennial Christmas Show.

Or the albatross at the wedding feast…

The Division Bell signalling imminent votes rang and then stopped and The Sceptre Room filled up with miscellaneous MPs on the scrounge for a free drink before dinner.

Isn’t this great? So good you could make it, because we were going to have that little chat, weren’t we? Mike Stubbs was a self-opinionated toad with the air of entitlement that usually went with elevation to the post of PPS to the Prime Minister at a ridiculously young age. Before she had lost her seat, he had been all too willing to listen to the poisonous bile emanating from Edgar Smith and his cohorts in the local Party. He had regarded it as a matter of duty to inform his boss that comrades would welcome a full candidate selection procedure in Fengrove because the present incumbent had ‘lost touch’.
Of course, she mused, scanning his conventional features ( less defined at the cheekbones and jaw line as early middle-age took hold), there were those who whispered that unpaid bag-carrier was not all that Mike Stubbs was to his Prime Minister.

And others who said, as they opened a second bottle of Mr Weston’s good wine, that he was not the first and would not be the last.

For he on honeydew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise……

He was the latest in a line of picture-perfect young men who had acted as factotum to Wendy. Patrick Edge; Sheridan Blake; Bryan Forster-Gill; Connor Somerton and now Mike, had carried the bags; smoothed the path; encouraged and repelled all-comers as required, whilst deputising for Freddie Runcible at dinner, the ballet and the Conference. Freddie Runcible, twenty years his wife’s senior, was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and, apart from increasingly rare appearances at official events, was rarely at her side.

There had been some near misses – notably the sudden departure from Westminster of Mike’s immediate predecessor, Connor Somerton.

In pre-Vlad days, Diarists like Peter had earned their crust with digs about high jinks in high places and supping with a very runcible spoon……..but the assiduous Edith Traynor had prevented tentative innuendo from flowering into a full- blown splash on pages 1-9 inclusive.

And then Somerton had departed – practically overnight – to a Deputy Commissionership in Europe – to be replaced by Stubbs. And life had gone on as before.

She noted, with a flash of irritation, that the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson was none too subtly monitoring her conversation with Mike. The very fact that Traynor and Stubbs had attended such a function was peculiar. Whatever it was, university reunion or political anniversary; it did not merit the patronage (for three hours) of the Prime Minister’s closest aides.

Even if Stubbs was discharging a personal debt to Derek, why should Traynor waste time, the day before the final reshuffle of the Administration, on an ill-assorted rabble with no political clout whatsoever?

Not that Edith had spoken to them – that duty had been delegated to Terence Gale and Bill Cornish. She had positioned herself diplomatically, but determinedly, at the edge of groups, listening and watching…..

It’s a lovely party isn’t it? pressed Mike.

Well, actually, Mike – I’m finding it surreal, to be honest!  My invitation had stated that Derek’s ‘do’ was all about his 25 years on the Front Bench and that he wanted to catch up with his old regional teams. I’m the only person here who has ever been in a Kingsmill team! And it’s more like a university reunion … hardly an MP in sight!

If Stubbs was discomfited by the direct approach, he was not about to show it.

Well of course – Dorlich! That’s where it began for Derek didn’t it? And you too of course? Wouldn’t you agree, Derek? --- Leslie?

Leslie Potts offered an impassive countenance.
At 14a Wellington Parade, he had been the acknowledged weed of the group; permitted to pick the toes of the gods courtesy of his money and his car. He had latched on to Derek (then in James Dean manqué phase) just as his own erstwhile girlfriend, Sandra Milford, had trailed after him, attracting commensurate ridicule.

Now, Sir Leslie was the acme of populist intellectual homosexuality.

His academic credentials had made his championing of the Government’s Equality in Marriage legislation extremely valuable and he had been a passionate defender of lead Minister Cornish when the latter was the target of a vitriolic onslaught from the religious right.

He was an Associate Professor at Oxford; visiting Reader at Yale and had fashioned a lucrative radio and television career. His latest book; Alcohol and Gender – a Gay Divide had already gone into a third reprint and its skilful combination of prurience and asceticism had been much admired.

I don’t think, he said, tapping a glass with his little finger, that I’ve had the pleasure?

Thank God for that, she thought, and I don’t think it can have been much fun for Sandra either……….

Mike Stubbs laughed nervously and draped an arm round her shoulders

Dorlich ‘76 wasn’t it Derek – flower power or was it the Sex Pistols? Procul Harum? (with a note of desperation).

Derek cleared his throat and managed a watery smile.

Don’t get your eras in a twist, Mike! And how is life treating you? (giving her the usual shifty look of barely concealed dislike).

It was a meaningless question.

Derek was repulsive. Ben Bex Oliver and Robbie Nantwich had matured into attractive late middle aged men; Derek, with his suit trousers bagging at the seat, was a wreck.

Pants Ahoy!

What pants did he wear now? Interlocking Y fronts? Boxers? Posing pouches?
Or had he meant her pants? Had she even worn them? Shoes; sometimes yes, sometimes no. But pants?

The fact that a nondescript one-night stand should have dogged her for thirty five years was ludicrous!

She recalled a different one on one with Derek, shortly after her election to Parliament, when he was indeed, her Regional Whip. He had been instructed to ‘have a word’, concerning an injudicious Motion she had tabled about increasing the availability of over the counter contraception to girls below the age of consent.

They had sat next to each other, with knees practically touching, in his tiny office in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster, clutching mugs of tepid tea.

He had listened, head cocked, as she had detailed the sexual landmines lying in wait for the unsuspecting young female; the one night stand; unprotected sex with a casual partner; the relaxation of inhibitions when under the influence of alcohol; the possibility of contracting a sexual disease…..

It had been utterly excruciating; the pants, as it were, stood between them…

She had withdrawn the Motion.

Now she understood exactly why Derek had nurtured such resentment throughout the decades. Not thwarted passion; he was as underwhelmed by her as she had been by him.

It was because of Sandra Milford; the elephant in the room then – as now.

It was Sandra’s account of the conference in the student magazine; Sandra’s written report of the debate on a possible boycott of Barclay’s Bank, proposed by Derek as the Dorlich delegate.

Sandra had described how Derek’s masterful depiction of the evils of apartheid (ably seconded by the female delegate from Dorlich), inflamed the audience until it was literally

Panting with a rage bordering upon ecstasy…..

Sandra had sold herself short with United Biscuits. She could have deputised for Peter or Vlad…….

A reply to Derek was, however, required and she gave it.

I’m keeping myself busy ….. but well done you! Congratulations!

Derek discarded his plate, glancing at Mike – and Edith.

How did you know?

Before she could speak, Mike was at hand:

The twenty fifth! – Derek’s Front Bench silver wedding!! All your old Dorlich chums! Wonderful, just wonderful!! manoeuvring her deftly into a corner with a waiter and yet another tray of drinks.

It seems as if you’ve never been away, doesn’t it? And Wendy was so grateful for your help in Fengrove with Bill – simply saving the day after the problems with Mrs Cornish …..But that’s in the past – brave new dawn – and , speaking of Dawn – did you hear on the grapevine that Dawn Jacques, our colleague from Dorlich West, is hanging up her boots this time?

Don’t want to be ageist but ( whispering ), at seventy-three Dawn’s feeling the pace, although (looking at her neck and ever the diplomat ) it’s not to say that we don’t need someone with experience in that seat. And someone who really knows the patch! Have you booked for Conference yet? It just might be fun for you to meet up with some of the comrades from Dorlich. All the best people are from Dorlich! (with a theatrical sweep of the arm)

Brilliant – that’s settled – It’s a date! …….

Belinda Briscoe, flushed from the occasion (or too much wine), burst from the throng and tugged at her sleeve.

I’m sorry, I’m sorry – but it’s Heather – I don’t know what to do!

They ran to a huddle at the back of the room where Lucinda Prynne sat on the floor, cradling the head of Heather Lydgate in her lap. The latter was propped up against a table leg, coughing and crying; legs splayed; skirt awry and gusset on show to the world.

She’s had a little accident, observed Nathaniel Bilbie who was mopping at something on the floor with his cravat.

I think it’s a combination of heat, drink and food, said Ben, loosening the pussy bow at Heather’s neck.

Now come on Heather, deep breaths – and one and two and one and two…

She’s been eating and drinking non stop…every time I looked at her she was just stuffing her face… I’m sure she’ll be ok, but she did collapse … I could run her to St Aelfric’s A&E – my car’s outside, but I think somebody else should come with her?

It was an impromptu but conclusive end to the festivities.

Details of Wendy’s ninth reshuffle seeped out from the news channels the next morning.

She wandered aimlessly from room to room. She had missed her usual train after accompanying Ben and Belinda to St Aelfric’s with Heather and had slept badly on her return. There were three missed calls from Vanessa but nothing from Gissy and Lynne.

She swallowed an aspirin to combat the after-effects of The Sceptre Room’s cheap drink.
Ensconced again in her unsellable house, she was consumed with the feelings of irritation, failure and grubbiness that had accompanied her sporadic brushes with Westminster since losing her seat in 2005.

It was always the same – and once again, she was stuck in the groove of the past.

Returning, like a dog, to its vomit…..

But now that circumstances precluded anything other than an academic interest in Wendy’s skill at butchery; she switched on the television to be confronted with the urbane and self important features of Robbie Nantwich.

The first splash was Gretchen Andrew’s return to the Backbenches amidst rumours that she had failed in an audacious bid for the Treasury. Ainsley Beadle was back, leading Business and Enterprise from the Lords; Junior Ministers were promoted – and demoted. Terence Gale stayed on as Chief Whip.

And now intoned an excited Nantwich: In what must be the story of this reshuffle, Wendy Runcible has gone for broke!

Derek Kingsmill, to many the perennial dark horse; goes to the Home Office but Bill Cornish ----who only last month was clinging to office by his fingertips after a messy split with wife Sandra – has today been appointed the new Secretary of State for Children, Families and Communities!!!

And this is truly a stunning appointment, already hailed by Sir Leslie Potts, no less, as a vote of confidence in alternative family units.

But will it be a vote winner? (shot of Bill, hand in hand with Cliff Morledge).

We’ll be back on the hour with the latest reaction to this appointment and others, but for now its goodbye from…………..


Somehow, she thought not………

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