Sunday, 6 May 2012

Best Blessings of Existence 32

in which the song remains the same, but Emma B gets engaged

The 1983 General Election was a milestone. It confirmed the Tories as ‘the Party of Government ‘for the foreseeable future. It determined suits and heels (pussy bow optional) as the uniform for women politicians; party notwithstanding. And it changed her life irrevocably.

Although she didn’t know it at the time.

By June 9th 1983, she had lived for almost a year in Binley village near Gridchester with a husband, a daughter and a dog.

‘Village’ was a misnomer for the down at heel corridor linking Gridchester and Fairway with its handful of shops, pubs and small station. It boasted a playing field for dog walking; good transport links (she could not drive) and inexpensive housing. Their Victorian terrace was a bargain – and the source of much quiet satisfaction when she needed to boost her spirits.

Which was most of the time because she was not happy.

She was not unhappy. The white heat of pain occasioned by Paul’s desertion recurred intermittently if at all, as a type of dull ache with little of its former intensity. Vanessa and Splosh made welcome replacements for Ursula, Verity, Jack and Perdita, because they were hers – and the others were not. Away from Chudleigh, the Truscotts and the Chases, Paul was tractable; most of the time. It helped that his school (although fee paying ) was not a boarding establishment with endlessly probing tentacles – and the fact that Nicola was not to be spotted rounding a corner at any hour of the day or night was a positive bonus.

But it was a grey world and as such, unsuited to a vermilion person....

She missed her job.

Since January 1983, she had worked as a temporary lecturer at Gridchester College of Further Education, although ‘lecturer,’ like ‘village’ was a misnomer. Her students had, in the main, failed at school and were repeating ‘O’ level English Language. Some were studying English alongside Music Technology and Computing Science. It was a job and helped to finance clothes, food and budget holidays It paid for Vanessa’s new nanny, Christine. It got her out of the house.

It was a job and not a career. She hated it.

GC’s base was an ugly 1960s office-style block with lots of glass and stairs and external porches where students smoked and loitered between classes.
She had a small locker in the ‘staff area’ but there was no sense of an English Department; colleagues came and went and then were not there any more. The majority had short-term contracts like her and there was no opportunity to progress beyond courteous exchanges at the beginning and end of the day.

By June 1983, the questionable pleasure of setting and marking comprehension exercises was wearing thin; when there were any to mark, because a good number of students left before the second half of term and were not replaced. An A level Literature adult education class provided some job satisfaction, but a solitary swallow makes neither a summer nor a career.

It was better than nothing –but not much.

Attitudes towards working women in northern England circa 1983 were prehistoric. Or at least, working mothers.

Her qualifications were excellent and Andrew Penn had written a superb reference, but as soon as potential Head Teachers in the vicinity of Gridchester knew that she had a baby; a career post was out of the question.

If she had given birth once, she might do it again and then there would be all the inconvenience and expense of maternity leave and (worse still) maternity pay. Far better to employ good old Joseph (married, two children, stay-at-home-wife) or Isobel (empty nester, husband a doctor).

Such qualms were irrelevant to the Principal at GC who was happy to employ yet another woman on a short term contract (and short money). No-one stayed long but vacancies were soon filled. Here today, gone tomorrow and everyone happy!

It was the battery-hen level of teaching.

Paul by contrast was, as her father observed, as happy as a pig in muck. Fairway Grammar School enjoyed a prestigious reputation and an academic record that dwarfed the social claims of Chudleigh.

It was an achievement to lead its English Department and Paul was not going to let anybody forget it – especially Donald and Gillian, who were invited to stay at the earliest opportunity. She had not been enthusiastic, but Paul was adamant and there was nothing for it but a metaphorical girding of the loins.

The weekend got off to a poor start. Donald had taken a wrong turning and they were disgruntled – especially Susan who had stuffed herself on the journey only to deposit the contents of her stomach in the downstairs toilet on arrival. After the obligatory house tour, Paul dismissed her frantic eye signals and spirited his brother off to The Duke of Clarence for a swift half.

The Duke of Clarence, Paul’s pub of choice (or necessity, because Binley boasted but two) had more in common with The Fleece at Necker’s than the Falcon at Dorlich. Her own view of The Duke matched her opinion of The Fleece, but Paul was thoroughly at home, donning greatcoat, flat cap and army boots and puffing at a briar pipe with gusto.

The patrons of the pub had nothing in common with Percy, Frances Hunt and the Truscotts; apart from a penchant for alcohol. They would have been required to use the tradesm0n’s entrance at Chudleigh - which was appropriate, because that is what they were.

Paul’s new drinking companions were refuse collectors (binners) from the Council; shop-floor workers from the local spice factory, and odd-jobbers who supplemented the dole with casual farm labouring; stints at car boot sales and back pocket cash from poaching.

They were neither salt of the earth northerners nor horny handed sons of toil.

Their female appendages supplied food, sex and cleaning and were taken to darts matches and shows at the Working Man’s Club. They earned pin money by running catalogues or childminding and sometimes encountered brick walls and sported bruises. When one left, with or without the children, a replacement was generally in situ within a fortnight.

Paul was in his element; academia and its trimmings at work; dumbing down via fancy dress and an assumed northern accent at home. He swam with ease between two social milieus. She did not.

It was small consolation to reflect that Donald, in sports jacket, neatly pressed slacks and Italian loafers would have shared her unease, shifting from buttock to buttock in The Duke; suspecting that his brother’s unsavoury companions were laughing at him. Anything would have been preferable to the kitchen chats with Gillian whilst preparing the evening meals.

The kitchen was her first Waterloo; it was little more than a scullery and could not stand comparison with Gillian’s palatial avocado-tiled glory, complete with Aga and hostess trolley.

The inadequacies of her kitchen naturally segued into the inferiority of the food cooked within its premises – the bouef bourguignon – such a wonderful dish if you don’t want to do anything too complicated and the expensive cheeses – not everyone has the time to make profiteroles, but I’m quite famous for them in Picks Norton – old habits!!

And if these and similar conversational sallies might be ignored, the fact that her Christmas present from Gillian, year on year was a variant on French Cookery for Beginners could not.

Vanessa’s presence, asleep or awake, did nothing to stem the torrent of information about Nicola and the kiddies and an unconscionable number of Donald and Gillian’s Picks Norton friends appeared to be in the throes of adultery or divorce: Terribly sad; of course Nemone was devastated and has taken him back – but he’ll never change – that sort never does…..I’m afraid she’s made her bed…..

And this was before the barbs about her little job, her weight (sometimes those pregnancy love handles are there to stay!) and Gridchester itself (it’s very NORTHERN isn’t it?).

I thought that went remarkably well said Paul, after farewell kisses had been exchanged and Donald was ensconced behind the wheel for the return journey.

Of course, Doz made a prat of himself in The Duke – they thought he was a poof because he was downing spritzers! Maybe he is a poof – what do you think?! laughing merrily en route to the hostelry.

It was easier not to…

Vanessa ate and grew and Nanny Christine who arrived on the dot of 7.30am and left at 5pm, Monday – Friday was an asset when Vanessa contracted whooping cough at 10 months. She was practical, pleasant and local with a friendly extended family and a nice boyfriend who had recently set up in business as a plumber.

Apart from a level of maintenance payments that prohibited anything other than cheap French gite holidays, Paul appeared to have forgotten the existence of Ursula, Verity, Jack and Perdita and was now father of one daughter and owner of one dog.

She had wanted him to love Vanessa and the sight of her husband holding a gurgling baby up to a Paul Klee poster in the living room: There was a fish and a dragon and a walrus! And Sinbad the sailor, IN HIS LITTLE BOAT!!!

was proof of that, surely?

But she did not like the fact that for Paul, three children in another part of the country had now ceased to exist. The thought that she did not choose to articulate was that if he could forget about Ursula, he could forget about Vanessa... She began to write letters to the children; lively, newsy epistles about the house and the dog; their father and half sister.

Conscience letters

Years later, Nicola told her that when Ursula saw by the handwriting on the envelope that the letters were from her, rather than Paul, they remained unopened.

Perhaps it was just as well…

At half term, Paul decamped to Cambridge for his regular visit to the Colleges; tweaking ‘contacts’ with the aim of opening doors for the Fairway English Literature applicants.

It was surprising what a word in the ear of an Admissions Tutor could do in advance of a candidate sitting the Entrance Examination, and she marvelled at the naivety of her own teachers, who had assumed that Oxbridge scholarships were a reward for excellence rather than a trinket in the gift of a particularly grubby type of behind scenes insider trading owing much to ‘influence’ and little to ability.

Paul, whose own Third was never mentioned outside the house (despite being one of her favourite reference points during marital arguments) organised these trips with military precision; wheedling accommodation and dinners out of a web of academic contacts. Rigorous forward planning ensured that he rarely paid the price of a drink or a meal and his assiduous name-dropping about High Table at Corpus with Professors X and Y had the salutary effect of enhancing his credentials as a guest at academic jollies on home turf.

She was never invited to accompany him.

It was, in any case, a chance to invite Lynne to stay. Lynne and Paul did not get on and, after Vanessa’s birth, the pretence that they did was quietly shelved by all. She visited Lynne on her own; Lynne returned the visit in Paul’s absence; they spoke on the telephone when Paul was at the pub – or at Fairway - or just out.

Lynne’s visit at the beginning of May 1983 coincided with the run-up to the 1983 General Election.

They slipped into the old groove easily enough, but (there was no denying it) they moved in different worlds and the shared reference point; Dorlich circa 73-77 was beginning to acquire the patina of a distant era. Christine babysat, and they spent the last day shopping in Gridchester prior to a meal in the new pizzeria, Geppetto’s.

Lynne spent the last day shopping

The overflowing carrier bags spilled into the aisle and she suppressed an unworthy desire for one of the waiters – dressed in an absurd Don Corleone costume – to trip and decorate the perky little suits from Benetton with spaghetti carbonara.

Her meal.

Lynne was picking at a light salad caprese and if she ate like that every day it was not surprising that she was a standard size eight in every shop. The white jeans and trendily distressed leather bomber jacket looked exactly right for the high flying executive with a new pixie haircut and a studio flat in Islington. Her own yellow flying suit looked exactly what it was – the adoption of a fleeting fashion trend, by a mother with weight to conceal and little to spend.

It was not fucking fair.

As usual, Lynne avoided direct mention of Paul but confessed to being ‘on the loose’ after her two year relationship with Joe had reached its natural conclusion. Not that she seemed unduly perturbed; work was consuming every waking hour and she was preparing for her Senior Civil Service Interview Board, prior to a year’s secondment to the Climate Change division of a City Insurance giant.

The thought of the English Language retake group at GC was unbearable - why oh why had she chucked the PHD place; why had she taken Paul back?

Why had she gone out with him in the first place?

And as for Sandra, continued Lynne, no – really – one piece is fine thanks
(spurning the bread basket)

She might as well be dead! Maybe she is dead!

(Although that was unlikely; Sandra Milford had a habit of recurring when least expected and in the most peculiar places).

I bet she’s still with that bloke – you know, that wet drip she works for at Biscuits? I think she screwed him on the last day of THE HOLIDAY FROM HELL – she stayed out all night – although, rather her than me; he looked as if he’d have really nasty damp hands – and after we got back I just didn’t see her. At all! Typical bloody Sandra!

It was typical of Sandra. For the duration of the Potts romance, she had been completely off radar, in geisha mode with bound feet, only to come slithering back, making a third everywhere they went, after he ditched her.

They sipped espresso, laughing nastily. The delicious dénouement of the Potts affair was always guaranteed to warm the heart.

That – and three large amarettos – after which the world seemed much friendlier and she decided not to sue for divorce after all……

Twenty four hours after Paul’s return, the divorce option was, once again, viable.

His Cambridge week had been wonderful; he had emptied the new and second hand bookshops; the dinners were to die for and he was considering applying for a schoolmaster sabbatical!

And he had bought a black fedora hat –which I must wear to The Duke – Fatty Hodges will die! kissing Vanessa and waving cheerily as he set off for the pub at a brisk trot, accompanied by an excited Splosh on the lead.

He had not bought her a present

She poured herself a glass of red – bugger the diet – what was the point? He wouldn’t notice if she dressed in one of Fatty Hodges’ bin-liners, contents included.

The door bell rang and Vanessa clapped her hands. It was a ridiculous baa baa-black- sheep chime which had seemed fun a million years ago.

She opened the door upon a middle-aged couple wearing matching red cagoules and clutching Election literature. The Election was in three weeks’ time.

Something about their earnest, hang-dog expressions and cagoules (how pathetic can you get – red waterproofs!!) irritated her, just as she always felt affronted by the unsought-for visits from Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And so she began.

Twenty minutes later, having treated them to a potted history of the Party and her family’s involvement in it since its inception in the 1890s, castigating their complete failure to make impact in Binley; the wilful arrogance of assuming that voters in her street would naturally support the Tories and the woeful performance of the national leadership, she assured them that yes, she would indeed be voting for the Party as per usual. They scuttled off down the path and she retuned to her drink, with the sensation of a job well done.

Of course, she had been economical with the actualite.

She had always voted for the Party – except for 1979 when it mattered.
The thrills and spills of her relationship with Paul had obscured the basic necessities of life – such as filling in voter registration forms. She had forgotten, and polling night 1979 found her disenfranchised; holed up at Percy’s ghastly Election bash and eating smoked salmon cornets in the midst of a nest of Tories.

Percy’s sterling qualities were obscured by his bumper blue rosette and apart from Philippa Truscott who had defiantly voted for the Liberal candidate; the guests might have been disporting themselves at the Triumph of a Roman Emperor. Every now and again, a pundit from one of the three main parties would loom into view on the giant television screen and Percy proclaimed a particularly repulsive Tory grandee to be a wonderful chap – knew him at Oxford – coming man – LOTS OF BOTTOM!!!

A major sexual scandal featuring this individual shortly after the 1983 General Election proved that he had rather too much bottom…..but that was a separate matter and the general point was that she had failed to vote in 1979 and thus considered herself to be unpleasantly implicated in the unfortunate outcome.

Once bitten, twice shy.

She began to watch the television Election coverage with a dedication bordering upon obsession – to the amusement and then irritation of Paul. Evenings followed a strict pattern:

Home from GC; feed and bath Vanessa; feed Splosh; prepare the evening meal; story for Vanessa and then bed.

ITN News; News at 6; Channel 4 News; BBC News at 9; News at 10; debates; pundit programmes – and the same again the next night, accompanied by a bottle of Rocamar and Silk Cut cigarettes from the Off Licence across the road.

The presence of the General Election in the house forced Paul to take up nightly residence in The Duke.

She did not care.

Twenty-nine years later, this General Election with its ageing Leader; the longest suicide note in history; battle buses and disastrous result, remained more real to her than her own victories and near miss defeat.

One of the television stations accompanied its Election coverage with full frontal shots of the battle buses and theme music from the series FAME.

As time ticked by; the strains of this song and shots of the Leader, looking more and more like Laurence Olivier in the TV production of King Lear, struck an increasingly tragic note.

I can catch the moon in my hands Don’t you know who I am…?

And she had a horrible shock on the eve of poll to see none other than her old bonk (boyfriend would be stretching the truth), Derek Kingsmill, being interviewed as one of a group of candidates at risk of losing formerly rock-solid seats.

Lowerbridge was about 40 miles away from Gridchester; it was weird to think that Derek Kingsmill was at present, not a million miles away from her house and even worse to discover that his intrepid regional interviewer was none other than her two nights’ stand ( boyfriend would be stretching the truth), Robbie Nantwich!

At first glimpse (and her eyes were fixed to the screen as if by indelible thread) they had not changed.

Both men were young (31) and both had fashionably collar length hair. But Robbie’s angular features were complemented beautifully by a well – cut deep maroon velvet jacket and Derek looked distinctly pudgy – as if he was recovering from mumps or toothache.

His voice was squeaky and he kept clearing his throat; erhum, erhum, in between desperate attempts to make an assertion that he expected to increase the 18,000 majority, sound credible.

And there they were, on the television. And here she was ……watching them…..

On Election Day, after her stint at GC; she came home, bathed and put on a bright red tee shirt underneath her denim dungarees. Then, leaving Vanessa with Christine, she walked to cast her vote at the Primary School turned Polling Station.

She was near to tears.

The result was going to be disastrous; her vote in Binley would be like a grain of sand in a Tory desert – whereas in Dorlich, 79, it might have made a difference. The sight of her two cagoule callers, wilting bravely amidst the over-fed, paunchy Tories was unbearable.

Why did they have to be so pathetic – and wimpish? Why did they have to lose?

She walked up to them and gave them a shortened version of her doorstep lecture. The male cagoule person looked at her and said:

Well why not join us, love? Make that ‘difference’ you’ve told us about!

And handed her a membership form.

She took, it, voted, walked home. Paul, who had voted Tory earlier in the day, was at the pub.

The Tories won a landslide, and the MP for Gridchester North increased his majority by 14,000. Derek Kingsmill entered Parliament for the first time with a majority of 1,780.

She bought Irene Cara’s version of Fame and played it obsessively:

I’m gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame

I’m gonna live forever
Baby remember my name


And she completed the membership form and posted it, using a first class stamp.

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