The day after the Party’s defeat in 1983; its elderly Leader exchanged the hurly burly of Westminster for the deep, deep peace of his library. He was replaced by a forty-something trade unionist and faded into obscurity where he remained, until his death, 20 years later, reminded the nation of his existence.
Just like Betty Stove.
Who could forget Betty? There she had stood; garlanded with bouquets on Centre Court; prior to the 1977 Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles Final. She was about to do combat with God (her opponent was an Archdeacon’s daughter) and State (Elizabeth Windsor in Silver Jubilee year) as well as Virginia Wade.
Three sets later; Virginia cradled the Venus Rosewater trophy, whilst her bulky opponent merely shed an unfortunate shadow upon the champion’s pink cardigan. The Dutchwoman departed to a collective sigh of relief.
That it should come to this…
She deposited the plates (and the remains of chicken liver pate and Melba toast) in
the kitchen, and took a slug of wine.
The kitchen was really far too small for dinner party cooking and when deciding between buying a hostess trolley and a dishwasher, it had been an uncontested win for the trolley. So dirty pans and pristine table -ware mingled on the draining board, and ramekins of chocolate mousse thawed gently on the top of the fridge.
The pate starter; glossy with gherkins and black peppercorns, was a Lilias speciality. It was far too rich, and in her opinion, ruined by the obligatory quarter bottle of cognac that appeared to be the key ingredient in all of the inherited Lilias recipes; but Paul had insisted.
She felt herself to be on surer ground with the lamb; a veritable glory of turmeric; prunes and spices from The Good Housekeeping Dinner Party Guide, an initially spurned but now cherished ‘stocking-filler’ from her mother at Christmas.
Paul looks as if he needs feeding up! There’s nothing wrong with a sherry trifle!
She had taken a personal vow never to serve trifle and the theatrical squeals of delight with which Paul unvaryingly greeted the sight of one; spilling from the confines of its Waterford Crystal bowl in the midst of her mother’s table, led to painful recall of his acerbic judgement:
Do they ever stop eating? – I mean, terribly sweet, but you know, jumped up working class?
Over the years, this humble dessert had become a symbol for all her feelings of shame and embarrassment, and the very sight of one was enough to inspire murderous ambitions.
She suspected that Paul knew this and exploited it; effusively lauding her mother on the precise mix of cream, sponge biscuits and tinned strawberries and recklessly indulging in multiple helpings until she felt obliged to make an elaborate show of leaving the table; denouncing desserts en masse and cutting herself a bumper slice of consolatory cheese.
In fact, she dreaded eating any meal at her parents’ home in the company of Paul and became alternately surly and snappish; curtailing conversation and pushing food around the plate in mulish fashion.
Behaving like a spoilt child
Paul by contrast, was charm personified, playfully joshing her mother; implying that at home he rarely sampled the delights of a proper cooked dinner with gravy that sticks to your ribs! And there she sat, hearing her mother’s happy rejoinders – and knowing full well that only last month, Paul had responded to Eric’s predictable enquiry as to her parents’ well-being with:
Positively thriving – the eighth wonder of the world when you consider that they live on pudding; vegetable sludge and burnt meat!
(slicing steak and dabbling a fork in the blood stained juices).
But of course they’re SO good-hearted - salt of the earth aren’t they darling? Although I wish Florence would USE some salt - and as for a spice….!
With such a back story, she was less than thrilled when the Dinner Party Guide was unveiled; nestling on its bed of Christmas wrapping and it was a full two months before she could bring herself to open it. But when she did, its clever adaptation of sophisticated recipes; using cheaper cuts of meat to create that definitive Langan’s Brasserie effect was a revelation!
She was instantly convinced that her mother had not turned a page before making the purchase because there was a distinct absence of roast beef and gravy; apple tart and custard and sherry trifle and a preponderance of intricate little confections with a jus here and a soupcon there.
It was, in fact, a godsend and had been her first recourse when Paul had bounded through the door two days ago, announcing that he had invited his Departmental Deputy, John Nuttall and wife Kathryn, to dinner.
Could be an ally – needs buttering up. Apparently she’s a fruitcake - something to do with their kid -- but you’ll wave your wand, won’t you darling?
Pinny on – trot trot!
And he kissed the air; patted Vanessa and Splosh and decamped to the Duke.
Initial discomfiture was soon succeeded by optimism.
She had no friends at work; Lynne might as well be on another continent and the female partners of Fatty Hodges and his consiglieres were unspeakable.
It was enforced limbo; a life in abeyance between the end of Dorlich and the start of something else – although they had lived in Binley for thirteen months and if there was anything round the corner it was remarkably coy about taking centre stage.
The excitement of the General Election and her decision to join a political party had acquired the familiar hallmarks of a false dawn.
A glimpse of the Primary School cum Polling Station en route to the shops stirred a flicker of election fever, but it was hard to maintain interest in face of the deafening silence that had greeted her membership application.
Days became weeks and she fancied that local Party members, typified by one of the cagoules crossing the road outside the chemist (to avoid her?) were acting upon instructions from nameless officials. Paranoia set in with evening shadows when Paul was at The Duke and she sat at home;,fortified by off-licence Rocamar and Mommie Dearest from the video rental. Had they unearthed her failure to vote in 1979? Or election to Union Council in ’75, courtesy of gullible overseas students?
Or (horror) had Derek said something?
He was an ‘almost local MP’ -- could they know about Pants Ahoy?!!!
God knows what you find to do, drinking on your own and watching that crap!
Paul would observe as he crossed the threshold semi-sober; ejecting the film; sliding his hash stash from behind the paperback spine of Mother Courage and embarking upon the serious business of rolling a joint.
This time-hallowed art involved shaping a square of cardboard from a packet of Silk Cut into a filter; mixing grains of drug with strands of tobacco; using a selected book as a work bench ( today, Bacon’s Essays ) and fashioning a functioning cigarette from the whole.
It was all discharged with an attention to detail deserving of a wider audience and she reflected that it was really rather a shame that the illegality of the process precluded public display.
Why don’t you get Christine in? She’d be glad of the extra. He took Blood on the Tracks from its sleeve, placed it on the turntable and flicked the switch.
Staying at home drinking cheap wine while her husband drank at the pub was hardly to be recommended, because it relegated her to the level of a baby-minding
cook with sexual services available on request. Occasionally, Nanny Christine would stay late and they drove into Gridchester for pizza at Geppetto’s or bouillabaisse at the fish restaurant overlooking Floribunda Gardens. It was good food in pleasant surroundings – but conversation was strained because they neither worked nor socialised together and therefore had few points of mutual reference.
She knew that Paul resented the fact that she rarely accompanied him to The Duke of Clarence and that within his drinking circle, she had become ‘Er at home’ a stuck up killjoy; forever phoning the pub to say that dinner was on the table and would soon be in the dog unless Paul returned to eat it.
But there was no solution.
It was fruitless to explain that spending her salary from GC on babysitter fees in order to join her husband for an evening’s drinking with Fatty; Mick the builder; Kev from the caravan site and their wives or girlfriends was out of the question.
Clodagh and Suze wore stilettos minus tights. Suze ran a catalogue crammed with repulsive tat at exorbitant prices. Clodagh frequented the pub in furred mule slippers and she was damned if she was going to grace an Ann Summers party in pursuit of a black rubber passion tickler or a pair of crotchless panties. And if Fatty, Mick and Kev became rampant animals when ambushed by these wares in the bedroom, she neither knew nor cared.
Your problem, sweetie, offered Paul, inhaling deeply and tapping his clog to the music
Is that you are a teensy weensy bit snobbish!
And your problem, she thought but did not say, is that you are a loathsome, selfish pig and I wish that you would stop smoking your horrible drugs anywhere near me, my dog or my daughter.
He was indeed as happy as a pig in muck, she reflected whilst hoovering the lounge; plumping the cushions and lighting a scented candle from the craft shop in preparation for the Nuttalls. He was fond of the house, the baby, the dog and the pub.
The Duke, like The Fleece at Necker’s, meant dumbing down; dressing up (flat cap, big boots, flapping greatcoat) and mimicking the local accent.
He do the police in different voices.
He was popular with Fatty’s gang. They were like his former ‘friends’, Reuben and Young George. But he would never have introduced them to Eric. They would have jarred with the Elgar; the single malt and the fine cigars because for Paul, they were not real people. They were amusing, sub-human grotesques.
Like Florence and Arthur - her parents.
His real life; Fairway Grammar; academic dinners; the occasional by-line in a teaching journal – was elsewhere. Women? She thought not –or not yet.
Oh why are we waiting?! shouted Paul cheerily as she stood in the kitchen with Splosh. The scullery kitchen was far too small for dinner party paraphernalia, a hostess trolley and a dog, but Splosh was there for the duration because had tried to mount Kathryn Nuttall’s leg under the table.
Kathryn Nuttall had not liked it although Paul had quipped:
As Twain says, the dog is a gentleman. I hope to go to his heaven not man’s!’
It was difficult to ascertain what Kathryn Nuttall might like, but the list of her dislikes was catholic and included pate and gherkins; The Eurhythmics; Dory Previn’s Mythical Kings and Iguanas; cigarette smoke; dogs; and lamb in turmeric.
I’m really sorry – is there anything else I can get you? (piling Paul’s plate pyramid –style and sawing baguette furiously).
Oh really darling – I’m covered in crumbs – and steady with the sauce - on the plate NOT IN THE LAP (dabbing at his jeans with a black napkin).
No, no – this is splendid, really!
John Nuttall, a big, bluff man, patted his wife; worrying at his beard with his fingers.
Kathryn hasn’t been WELL, but this is all just wonderful, isn’t it Kathie – and such an interesting house – such character…
His wife was silent as he filled her plate with rice and prunes from the lamb dish.
She was thin with high cheekbones; no make up and dull blonde hair caught back in an Alice band. She wore a calf length taupe shift dress and black sandals, and did not shave her legs.
Joni Mitchell without the glow
Instinctively, she reached for Blue and consigned Annie Lennox to the discard pile, then immediately regretted it. Conversation was stilted because Kathryn repelled each and every attempt at conversation by answering questions and asking none.
By the time the lamb was finished, it had emerged that she had a degree in Ancient History; a four year old called Barnaby and had taken indefinite sick leave from her job as an archivist at Fairway Museum. She had met John in their last year at Graymail University and until her illness they had spent at least a month of every year on archaeological digs, the last one in Carthage.
And she despised her husband and did not care who knew it.
Her methods were crude and included none too subtle put-downs , such as the hint that he had exaggerated by claiming that their Carthage dig had uncovered the tomb of one of the ancient city’s founders; or that the Ephesus expedition had led them to the Temple of Diana:
Unproven ….. digs attract some extremely gullible people…
We absolutely love the theatre – and that guy who played Othello at Fairway Royal was as good as Branagh.
If you closed your eyes and stopped you ears (sighing languidly)
And scarcely suppressed irritation:
What do you mean; ‘we’ are sticking with the State system for Barnaby? I haven’t decided ---- lots of kids love boarding…
It was embarrassing and had the effect of making John laugh louder and talk more in a fruitless quest to win a smile, whilst simultaneously attempting to win Brownie points with Paul.
Fairway’s new Head of Department was a breath of fresh air that had blown away the cobwebs; it was great to be a foot soldier in his team.
Paul stroked his lapel, basking in the adulation like a cat on a cushion, until an abrupt mood switch was occasioned by Kathryn scraping her chair; leaving the table and making off in the direction of the bathroom.
The dining room, poky at the best of times, now felt cavernous.
Joni Mitchell had stopped singing.
John drained his glass and helped himself to another; pouring white into the dregs of the red and creating rose. He spoke hurriedly with one eye on the door.
He was sorry; it was too soon; she was still unwell ; the food was lovely, really, they had been so kind; he was so sorry she was still unwell …..
Kathryn Nuttall had a depressive illness that may or may not have been the cause of an eating disorder. She had been twice the size (taking out a battered picture from his wallet of a round-cheeked girl with her hair in plaits) but everything had fallen apart after Barnaby’s birth.
She had been listless; not eating; uninterested in him or the baby – and then police had hauled him out of lessons to say that Kathryn was in custody because someone had reported that she had abandoned a baby in a pram outside the post office and had been seen running down the street at breakneck pace.
The alarm had been raised; she had been captured within the hour and discovered by a female Officer, curled into a ball beneath the duvet of a retro-style four poster bed on the fourth floor of Macready’s Department Store in the High Street.
Baby Barnaby was safe, but hungry and covered from top to toe in urine and faeces. His mother had expressed no interest in his whereabouts or welfare and would eat no food although the pockets of her coat were stuffed with half eaten bars of Kit Kat in various stages of decay.
It had been touch and go as to whether charges would be brought; but they were not, on condition that she underwent an intensive hospital treatment programme for suspected postnatal depression. Barnaby had been cared for by John’s parents ,who had moved from Scotland to a bungalow in Fairway to be near their son and grandchild.
And Kathryn had come home – eventually – as had Barnaby - and she was improving with the help of a Community Psychiatric Nurse. But she still had issues to address relating to food and childcare and had not yet returned to work.
And hated her husband because he was her jailor….
Well, onwards and upwards! proclaimed Paul, clapping John on the back and opening a bottle of Bordeaux.
And pud!!! Snap to it darling!
She moved robotically into the kitchen. The ramekins of chocolate mousse were on the floor; two half eaten by Splosh who was licking a third. The fourth lay on its side.
Making them and waiting for them to set had occupied the best part of her afternoon while Vanessa had watched from her playpen.
Vanessa – who was upstairs in her bedroom next to the bathroom … on the same floor as a woman who ….
For God’s sake! -----
She shoved Paul; nearly tripping over John Nuttall and leapt up the stairs two at a time until she reached the landing and the closed door to her baby’s bedroom.
Vanessa had pulled off her nappy and had thrown it into a corner alongside her feeding cup; musical panda and a chewed copy of Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Alhberg. Some talcum powder had spilled onto the carpet.
But the baby was sleeping and snuffling and making her usual contented Vanessa noises.
So where was? ….
The bathroom door was closed and she opened it to reveal - everything in its usual place; towels; dressing gown; laundry basket.
The toilet was clean.
She crept downstairs to find Paul, John and Kathryn, sitting at the table. The men were eating stilton and Kathryn – was eating the fourth chocolate mousse – licked or unlicked by Splosh who remained a prisoner in the kitchen. She muttered something about checking on the baby who had been feverish, and finished her wine.
They left soon afterwards.
Brilliant evening – went like clockwork, said Paul, tweaking her left nipple and heading for the bathroom. He had been especially frisky in bed, although her own passion was faked, as so often these days.
She dressed in silence and went downstairs to make a start on clearing the debris; collecting empty bottles; feeding the dog. Vanessa was still asleep.
It was Sunday.
Although I think, you were perfectly beastly to Kathie – or was I the only one who sussed that you were on the point of calling the police and getting her locked up? What did you think she was doing upstairs - ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires,’ as the blessed William would have it?’
He took Songs of Innocence and Experience from the bookshelf and unwrapped what was left of the hash stash.
She wasn’t having that.
That woman was unhinged. John seems a nice guy and she’s driving him mad – which has to be his choice --- but I don’t want her around my kid OR IN MY HOUSE!!!
Paul smirked; sipping real coffee, freshly ground using the SPONG machine, and took a drag on the joint. He was wearing his new granddad shirt and contemplated his forearms (which were one of his best features) with considerable satisfaction.
John, my love, is a silly old woman who is enough to drive anyone mental! And I should know – he hasn’t got an original thought in his head and I don’t blame her getting pissed off with him. He follows me round like a sheep at school.
She needs a good fuck – or a passion tickler!! Hey --- why not get her one from Suze?!
There was no answer to that. There was no answer to anything.
She walked into the hall and picked up the neglected post. Electricity bill; letter from her mother (later), gardening catalogue with a special offer for winter crocuses…and something addressed to her in a faint, typewritten envelope.
She opened it, pulled out a sheet of paper and read Agenda; Apologies; Minutes of the Meeting; Matters Arising….
And what, said Paul is that?
It’s an invitation to a Party Branch Meeting next Thursday at the St John’s Ambulance Hall behind the level crossing, she replied, feeling the faint stirrings of unmistakable triumph. And it starts at 7. 30, so you’ll have to look after Vanessa – or make arrangements with Christine…
It’s darts at the Duke.
So call Christine…
And a wail from afar announced that Vanessa was awake and required bathing and changing as usual, before breakfast.