At the still small point of the turning world …..there the dance is.
Forty-eight hours after her return from Westminster and the announcement of the Government reshuffle; she did not feel like dancing. Nothing had happened in The Sceptre Room to damage her personally and she had not damaged herself. She had mislaid neither handbag nor knickers; it had been Heather Lydgate’s gusset on show to the world and not hers.
She had not disported herself like a hoyden (those were the days and Ben Bex Oliver should have been the man).
And yet …..
Turning to Ponia’s Picks; The Crier’s Guide to the Re-shuffle; she experienced a stomach twinge from days past; the never forgotten no-nonsense announcement combined with the chimes of Big Ben, that it was 5pm, Thursday at Westminster – the worst time of the week.
Over the years her PA, Ida, contrived to arrange the diary so that this spot of time found her at Bill Committee; Backbench Committee; entertaining constituents or speaking in the Chamber. Anything to forbid her the office between 4.30 -5.30pm when she would be beyond the control of man or beast.
Five pm Thursday, was the slot when the Chief Whip’s Assistant, ( deputising for Blind Pew), would commence the weekly ‘ring-round’; the terrifying summons to ‘make yourself available’ at a given time to be presented with charges as yet undisclosed, from accusers yet to be specified. At 5 30 pm, regardless of whether she or Gissy had been dealt the black spot or avoided its deadly stain; repairing to the Regular Suite ( Westminster’s Admiral Benbow ) for the purposes of commiseration or celebration, completed the process.
It was a rite of passage familiar to all and mentioned by none.
It was always the same…
Chief Whip’s Assistant: Hello – am I speaking to XMP?
MP’s PA: Oh (laughing cheerily; sipping a decaff) I’m afraid she’s just popped out! (with finger on lips and glaring at MP who has refused, despite blandishments, to vacate the office ).
No – I’m afraid I don’t know - I suspect she may have pulled up stumps for the day; she was planning to spend a few hours in the library working on the Corporation Tax…..
No – yes – Tuesday – was that eleven? Eleven thirty? Right you are! And can I tell her what it’s about?
No, I see, – of course not – he’ll tell her himself. Yes, yes, of course. I’ll pass the message on (replacing receiver).
Well – (rueful smile at MP, by now the whitest shade of pale; rooting around for cigarette and ‘saucer - as – ashtray’; the office being a smoke-free zone)
as I expect you gathered, that was Terrence Gale’s office. He wants to see you on Tuesday.
Hello – yes it is. Who is that please? Gissy? Oh yes. Where?
(puts hand over phone). Gissy Wicks for you – and can you meet her now before the vote, in The Regular Suite?
But Ida was speaking to thin air. She had already left.
Ten minutes later, they would be hunched at a corner table gripping (large) glasses of Sancerre and grimacing at the Chamber Monitoring Screen beside the bar:
Time for one more I think … Cornish has only just started to wind up …
Oh – definitely! (Gissy - lighting up; flicking ash dextrously onto the green Pugin carpet). I am so thoroughly pissed off about this – now no bloody weekend; eating fags; throwing up --- and I can’t think what the FUCK it’s about! And Gale – you know he enjoys this? WANKER!!! Last time, he kept me waiting outside his office while he chatted to an intern about his Christmas card list and when I finally got in I was pissing myself. Almost. And it was that bastard Ralph again! He’d phoned the Whips’ Office bleating that I’d missed the last four Party meetings in a row and that two Grove Ward pensioners said I’d been ‘abrasive’ at the ‘coffee ‘n cakes’.
It was reliably and unvaryingly grotesque; a Whips’ nark was tasked to tip off the press and it would surface in a Diary to be used by Constituency Party enemies so the whole miserable cycle would begin again. With a phone call on Thursday.
Of course, it must have been worse for Gissy with the backdrop of the Polaris affair. Gale must have adored making her squirm – although not in the way he had originally intended.
How loathsome it all was; what a wretched job in fact and why oh why hadn’t she used her talents on something else? She could have been an actress; an academic; a journalist – and of course it was all Paul’s fault because if she hadn’t met him she would have done all of that, probably ALL AT ONCE and she was just getting into the mental swing of coulda been a contender when the phone rang.
She closed the, as yet, unread Crier and picked up the receiver:
Yes – yes it is. Oh ---hello – Terrence!
‘Terry’ please! I think we’ve known each other long enough for that?
After twenty years without so much as sharing a tension-free tea with the Chief Whip, the idea of venturing anything as intimate as abbreviated Christian names was unthinkable – and slightly obscene. ‘Terrence’ felt like a liberty too far; she was sure that for preference, it would have been ‘Mr Gale’, if not ‘Sir’ with a curtsey.
She breathed deeply, aware of a hand tremor.
How truly ridiculous!
She had lost her seat nearly ten years ago; Macey Cline was the new Fengrove candidate; Gale in role as Tin Pot General could neither help her nor harm her….
And yet…. (lighting a half-smoked and therefore serviceable cigarette and smoothing her skirt)
Yes – ‘Terry’ of course! (girlish half chuckle) – how can I help you?
There was a slight but unmistakable pause – Gale knew his power. She conjured him up in his wood-panelled office; shirt-sleeves rolled; leg looped over chair arm. Tapping a desk leg with a brogue.
Just wanted to say how VERY nice we ALL thought it was to see you at Derek’s little party – Edith mentioned it to Wendy…. now did you get home safely after that dreadful business with poor Mrs Aspinall? You’ll excuse an old lag his pastoral duties – once a member of my flock and all that!!!
‘Edith’ …. As if Edith Traynor was her friend!
She had first met the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson at a Candidates’ Training course circa 1989. They were lying on their backs, flexing and un-flexing their knees; Head to Head and Toe to Toe…..
The big idea was to equip them with relaxation techniques to re-charge batteries on the campaign trail but the session was not relaxing. In fact, it was a detestably stressful gym-kit contest with comrades like Wendy Kaye channelling Diana at the Harbour Club and Edith Traynor at the other end of the spectrum, reprising Sweaty Betty, puffing and blowing in an orange leotard.
The plump nonentity who stuck like gum to the trainers of a then unelected and unmarried future Prime Minister was unrecognisable as the sleek and sinuous aide who had crafted the persona of Wendy Runcible from the raw and not obviously promising clay of Ms Wendy Kaye.
The price that either woman had paid for Wendy’s tenure at No 10 had long been and would continue to be – the subject of desultory but consistent speculation.
But Gale’s mention of Traynor was as deliberate and purposeful as everything that now typified the Official Spokesperson herself.
They meant business – and business with her.
And I’m so glad that you managed to have that little chat with Mike (continued Terrence) Sylvie – not now!! – Sorry, never a dull moment at No 12 as you know! Now where were – yes, Dawn Grainger! Finally going - and I can’t tell you what a relief…very forgetful; voted with the Tories in the Budget Debate THREE TIMES but what can you do?
Short of contract killing – any attempt at deselection is just not a runner. The comrades in D West adore her - of course, that’s to be applauded – dear old Dawn! But it means that we couldn’t haul her to the knackers – had to sit tight...
BUT - God’s in his heaven!! She’s accepted Wendy’s offer of a kick upstairs – I think her son had something to do with it! He thinks he’ll get the seat! Dream on Billy!! Ha!! ‘The Other Place’ – our very own nursing home!! I know that the changes have lowered the average age, but God – doesn’t it still stink in there – all the widdle pads!! So yes! – DW is up and YOU ARE THAT WOMAN!
Dorlich – perfect!! I’ve booked your hotel at Conference; The Berriman as usual; all you have to do is charm the comrades… It’ll be easy – the line is - YES to re nationalising everything; republic after the demise of Her Maj; mega defence cuts with proceeds straight into benefits - and unions to be consulted on all policies!
And once you’re in, of course you never said any of it and the idiots who said you did are Tory MOLES!!!
A response was neither expected nor requested and the subject was changed.
As Terrence segued with aplomb from the Election; through Welfare to Poole flaunting humble origins by staging a photo shoot at the Pound Shop …she flicked her kitchen blinds. The green wood had cost a fortune in 2001 but was now badly chipped and should be replaced. Should be, but wouldn’t be because she couldn’t afford it.
Her glass dining table; achingly trendy in 1999, was now sporting a hairline crack as was the plaster in the kitchen and third bedroom. It looked like subsidence but wasn’t. It was a standard and minor case of outer wall weakening with a repair tag of £7,000. As £7,000 ( like £700) was out of the question, there it remained; mimicking subsidence and repelling potential buyers – along with a basement needing re-tanking at a very reasonable, but for her, completely prohibitive £16,000…
She couldn’t afford any of it – let alone the ‘quick lick of paint’ to refurbish the bathroom that Fran at the Estate Agent considered advisable ‘to net the price’.
And so there she would remain; year on year and her only reprieve would be via a six- foot box on a mission of no return.
….perhaps seeing Bill brought back bad memories of Mrs C – don’t you think? Terrence had back-tracked to Derek’s party.
She was pressed to affirm that Heather Lydgate Aspinall had been upset by Sandra Milford Cornish who had not been there.
Well, no, I don’t think so…
Unless the thought of Sandra had forced Heather to stuff her face with everything edible, showing a catholic disregard for flavour or texture and washing it down with anything she could get her hands on of an even remotely alcoholic nature.
Does she always drink like this? the Registrar at St Aelfric’s had murmured. Amazing – it’s normally the under-25swho are the hardened booze hounds…Did you tie her up (loosening the pussy bow) and pour it down her throat? (laughing).
Oh I think you’ll find, retorted Terrence, that she was…
And he was off; citing Heather’s quotes in Maurice Cantor’s Desperate HOUSEwife hatchet-job on Sandra. The former Ms Milford had driven her student colleague to a nervous breakdown; paving the way for a lifetime’s servitude at the counter of successive country Chemists’.
No, she said – I don’t think it was like that. I think Cantor got it wrong.
Sandra had, naturally, gloated when Heather’s breakdown had gifted her Darwin Science Prize on a plate - but she had not caused the breakdown. She had not forced Heather to trash her bedroom; to devastate her kitchen and to boycott Finals.
Indeed, judging from Mrs Aspinall’s recent performance, it was likely - even probable, that the events of 37 years ago were the first manifestation of what had since become a deep- seated psychological problem associated with food and drink.
Heather had trashed the kitchen and her own bedroom – what would an analyst make of that?! Would a woman in command of her own psyche have behaved in such a spectacular fashion on her first visit to the House of Commons? And where for that matter, was Mr Aspinall?!!
She did not voice these thoughts, but the Chief Whip was unaccustomed to contradiction:
Hmm, well, Mrs Cornish – bit of a disruptive force - some of your old crew at Dorlich …. Mrs Lambton, Sir Leslie……yourself and dear old Derek – now, now, you really are MUCH too kind – always making allowances for people! It doesn’t do you know! Could be viewed as a FAULT…..
Sylvie – yes, coming! (rueful laugh) I’m so sorry, but I really must fly; Opposition Day Debate and I doubt we’ll get the numbers….have a think about DW ----- of course, Billy Grainger would be a very popular choice and really very smart – excellent candidate; but if you’re serious about a return we MAY be able….. I’ll call you in a week or so….
And he was gone.
What was required now was the haven of The Regular Suite and Gissy as confidante, but in the absence of both, the fridge and a large glass of Chardonnay would suffice.
She did not feel well.
The horrific certainty that Terrence must KNOW about Pants Ahoy and had been making veiled, but purposeful, references to it, had induced the symptoms of an entire menopausal cycle in one go as a hot flush was succeeded by a cold sweat and back again.
Why on earth would Derek tell anybody, least of all, the Government Chief Whip that, thirty seven years ago, he had indulged in drunken and profoundly unsatisfactory, sexual congress with a woman who, many years later, pitched up in the work place as a colleague?
And that the uniquely embarrassing romp had, unbeknownst to the two principles, been conducted in the presence of a third party – who had herself pitched up, many years later as the wife ( now discarded) of a Cabinet colleague?
Or that the said party had advertised the baleful bonk in an article purporting to be about a debate on Barclay’s Bank, couched in incriminating and salacious language, in a student magazine?
She finished her drink without tasting it.
Had Terrence been privy to this excruciating information during the entire course of her Parliamentary career? Had he experienced mental flashes of the pants, so to speak, every time he had reprimanded her for a minor misdemeanour or refused her request to be appointed to a Bill Committee?
She thought not. It was equally discomfiting for Derek, who could scarcely bear to speak to her and who had avoided her as usual, in The Sceptre Room two days ago.
Why had she been invited to the party at all?
Why had Terrence phoned today?
He was not a friend; she had never believed that he esteemed her talents.
But at first he had been pleasant – and helpful. Her office was spacious; she had been one of the first of the new intake to be appointed to a Select Committee. Ralph Egg had written a puffy piece somewhere or other.
Del Kemp had praised her Maiden Speech – in which she had bid for a super hospital pilot in Fengrove with the piece de resistance being a cleverly crafted hint that her Tory predecessor had been personally responsible for an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.
This had led to a barnstorming performance on Mid-week Medley; the popular television magazine - style slot - a mix of anecdote, report and debate.
It was rare for a Backbencher to feature, but she had deputised for Junior Minister, Gretchen Andrew at short notice and had defended Wendy’s proposed cut in free school dinners with a passion that had earned her praise from Terrence at the late vote.
So far, so surprisingly good – and then treading water for eight years; abandoned to the mercies of Edgar Smith and his constituency henchmen and sinking as planned, stone-like, at the election before last.
How did she get from there to here? (here, sitting solo in a dressing gown, drinking wine before midday at a cracked table in an unsellable house with bits and bobs of jobs? ).
Her eye caught a footnote in The Crier, below the, as yet unread, Ponia’s Picks.
Back With a Bang - Wicks Snuffs Out Deselection Threat.
It was a late cut ‘n paste from a News Agency and would certainly be developed in succeeding days - but the good news was that Gissy had seen off the challenge from Valerie Pringle! It had gone to the edge (as usual with Gissy) and the sitting MP had triumphed on the toss of a coin after recorded votes had produced a dead heat between the candidates.
The bad news was that Gissy’s lover, Westminster PC Pete, had celebrated the victory by letting off a few fireworks on the balcony of their apartment; police had been called and Pete was now being ‘investigated’. In a brief statement, Gissy had pronounced herself pleased to have vanquished Pringle and confident that Pete would not face charges.
Paul absconding with a tart called Meriel, two weeks after her election; leaving his trademark slime of devastation had not been an ideal start to a Parliamentary career.
The news had spread quickly; but Westminster was not Chudleigh and at Westminster, Paul was nobody. And he and not she had been the transgressor….
What had Terrence said today? – that she had always made allowances for people and that it could be considered a fault?
She recalled an incident shortly after her television debut; a one to one with Terrence. It was a Whips’ initiative (quickly dropped) of holding appraisal interviews with MPs. Everything had gone well; she had settled in the Chamber and the feed-back from her Select Committee Chair was good.
But if you’ll take a tip, Terrence had whispered as she left the office, you’ll choose your friends carefully…..
Later that evening, she joined Gissy in the Regular Suite as they waited for the Division Bell and final votes on the Second Reading of the Defence Bill.
Gissy was bursting with tales from her first Select Committee trip to Montreal.
Perry Dryesdale; the Shire Counties’ Tory who had opposed the repeal of Section 28 with a speech of the most graphic sexual content ever to be recorded in Hansard, had been spotted by the Committee Clerk, entering a gay lap dancing club! He had begged the Clerk not to inform the Committee Chair (who was related to his wife) and had spent the remainder of the trip confined to his room with a stomach bug.
Successive glasses of wine had turned an amusing anecdote into knicker-wetting hilarity, and as the Monitor boomed forth with Haydon Groat’s concluding remarks on Polaris, Terrence Gale peered round the door to summon the troops to vote.
They greeted him with squeals and whoops. Gissy was practically crying.
He must have thought they were laughing at him…..
She got through the remainder of the day – somehow.
The noxious certainty that her entire Parliamentary career had been pole-axed at the outset because the Chief Whip thought (wrongly) that she had been let into the secret of a friend’s abortive non- sexual encounter with him (before she had met Gissy Wicks) was more unbearable than the persecution she had endured at the hands of Edgar Smith and the local Party beasts; worse even than her defeat and subsequent difficulties in making financial ends meet.
Year on year, she had sat in the office at re-huffle time, listening to Ida’s consolatory homilies:
In my view, it counts more with the voters if you’re a good constituency MP - too many of the Ministers never even visit their own patches!
knowing that she had about as much chance as a flying penguin of placing a flipper upon even the lowest rung of the promotional ladder – and watching the likes of the hapless and ability-challenged Alice Patterson scale the incline from PPS to Junior Minister, to Minister of State to ----Cabinet.
There, staring from the rogues gallery of Ponia’s Picks was a mug shot of Alice – to the right of Haydon Groat and behind Bill Cornish.
Ponia had composed a form sheet about the refreshed Cabinet’s runners'n'riders – the select few predicted to, in the words of Elizabeth Windsor to the Prince of Wales on his marriage to Camilla Parker- Bowles : overcome Becher’s Brook and the Chair and all kinds of other obstacles to attain the Holy Grail of political success.
Ainsley Beadle afforded the motley crew a patina of respectability; the political veteran could have deputised for Betty Kenward of the late lamented Jennifer’s Diary in each and every circumstance - a hurricane, a tsunami or a military coup, bolstered by graded pearls and never a hair astray.
As for Alice, The Crier had chosen the most unflattering image it could find, begging the question – where had they found it and in what circumstances…..?
Patterson, charged by Wendy to lead the new Department of Consumer Affairs, appeared to be executing a cross between a wink and a leer to camera and the black roots of her blonde hair owed more to accident than design.
The deshabillee effect was ill-fitting for Westminster; perfect for Shepherd’s Market; and entirely in keeping with the tone of Ponia’s commentary:
Alice Patterson; Wendy Runcible’s new consumers’ champion, is the first politician to hold a post of this nature since Shirley Williams carried all before her as Minister for Consumer Protection. And MPs say the cap fits!
‘Spot on!’ commented a Cabinet colleague who wished to remain nameless. ‘No-one knows more about the doctrine of Conspicuous Consumption than Alice!’
Ms Patterson has held the rock- solid seat of Hegworth Central since bursting onto the national scene as a candidate in 2001 after trouncing two former MPs and the Leader of Hegworth District Council at a controversial selection conference. She is a vocal supporter of her geographical neighbour, Chief Whip Terrence Gale and a convivial figure on the Westminster scene.
As she smarted from the back story of her own inglorious career; Alice Patterson’s meteoric rise was abundantly clear:
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
But Alice had not been a fool. She had shown exemplary acuity and must have been showing it with commendable regularity ever since the pre 1997 Election rally at Silvercliffe when she had adorned the lounge of a rented apartment with vomit after consuming copious amounts of Mr Weston’s good wine at a Scottish ceilidh.
She had locked herself in the bathroom alongside the clothes of Terrence Gale, who had vacated the premises without them, following his rebuff in the kitchen at the hands of candidate, Gissy Wicks. .
Gale could not have been certain what, if anything, Alice Patterson knew about the matter and must have moved swiftly to disarm and doubtless, disrobe her, in interests of evading tabloid exposure and preserving his marriage and career. And a safe seat and Cabinet post in return for favours in kind was a price that neither of them minded paying.
So far, so clear, she mused, opening a packet of Mr Kipling’s Cakes, but she was still no wiser about why she had been invited to the Westminster party of a man who had loathed her for 37 years; or why a Chief Whip who had been thrilled to see the back of her – had telephoned, bearing gifts.
But had he?
Terrence Gale had scarcely spoken to her in The Sceptre Room – although now that she thought about it, he had certainly glanced her way more than once.
Of course, her eyes had been blinded by Ben Bex-Oliver…..
Terrence’s call earlier in the day had been a peculiar mixture of effusiveness and evasion – on the one hand seeming to assure her that the candidacy of Dorlich West was hers for the taking - and at the end of the conversation appearing to resile from that position with praise for Billy Grainger and a tepid promise to call again.
In the words of Emma Woodhouse:
It was a jumble without taste or truth. Who could have seen through such thick-headed nonsense?
One thing, however, was not open to interpretation.
Until about just over a month ago, she had heard nothing whatsoever from Terrence, Derek or indeed any of her former Parliamentary colleagues –for nearly ten years!!
There were times when they could have made their presence felt – not least in the run – up to the Fengrove Constituency Party’s selection of Macey Cline as her successor.
Spiteful comments about her had abounded on Vlad – the most printable being words to the effect that whatever Cline did, short of being arraigned as a serial killer in the style of Aileen Wuornos; she must be an improvement on the former MP, who had shamed the very initials of the post.
Milder commentary in the same strain had popped up in the papers with not-so veiled references to her notoriety as former drinking companion of Radical Raven, Gissy Wicks with a suggestion that supplies of wine in The Regular Suite lasted much longer now that Gissy was forced to drink on her own instead of forming one of the notorious Parliamentary Glimmer Twins.
Had Gale, Cornish, Beadle, Groat ……indeed any of them , come to her defence?
THEY HAD NOT
So what was different now?
Why was a former Parliamentary pariah now being courted by all and sundry?
The weasel blandishments of Mike Stubbs came to mind, not to mention, the carefully calibrated references to Traynor – even Wendy herself?
They were all singing from the same hymn sheet and the selection of hymn had mysteriously coincided with the abandonment of Sandra Milford by her husband Bill Cornish, who had set up home with gay lover, Clifford Morledge.
The phone was ringing – and had been for at least a minute.
She found it hard to concentrate upon what her daughter was saying; the line was bad and to be honest, her mind was buzzing with Westminster ---in the way that it had been when Vanessa had called her at the office, more often than not, about a school matter – or a friendship crisis – or a new pair of trainers ---- during her eight year tenure as the MP for Fengrove.
Vanessa was saying something about Paul and his Will --- and OH GOD -- she had completely forgotten that her daughter had been invited to the reading of the Will of Vanessa’s father who was also her own ex-husband. It was bound to be a horrible and traumatic experience; it was taking place NEXT WEEK; Vanessa was driving down a few days in advance and had been contacted by Nicky Jellicoe ( Nicola) asking if she’d like to meet up?
She attempted to cover for the fact that she had totally forgotten about the approach of what was sure to be the most memorable event of her daughter’s life to date.
And that Vanessa would be exposed to the casual ( and deliberate in Gillian’s case) cruelty of all Paul’s horrible relatives – not to mention the sanctimonious Ursula who, as a six-year-old, had angrily insisted that Tiny Tears did poos as well as wees, whatever the evidence to the contrary.
She had let Vanessa down and stood, for the entire world, like Helen Burns on the stool at Lowood in Jane Eyre with the placard saying Slattern around her neck.
In her case it would have been the Not Good Enough Mother...
Well – I’ll call you when I’m back – if you’re interested….snapped Vanessa and ended the call.
And as she sat at her cracked glass table with Mr Kipling’s Cakes; Ponia’s Picks and a wine glass containing the dregs of her consumed, but untasted, glass of Chardonnay, the church bells of the nearby St Michael and All Souls announced the evening service.
She crept into the wheel-backed chair and remembered the Oxbridge set and Paul ordering her to search for a missing book.
Sweetie – we need the Annotated Donne – didn’t you use it recently?
Paul; Derek; Terrence; Bill; Vanessa; Lynne; Sandra; Gissy…..
Ask not for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee
Perchance I may think myself better than I am