In which testosterone is vanquished - for now.
She wound down the car window and flicked ash from her cigarette. A faded hotel sign marked the end of a journey.
THE WIMBURY: VACANCIES
As delegate, it had been her task to make the arrangements: three nights’ bed and breakfast; evening meal optional. It had been an exciting prospect – in theory.
In practice; the Party begrudged the price of a bus ticket, and her suggestion of pilfering the Deposit Account to finance half decent accommodation, met deaf ears and blind eyes.
The Deposit Account was Frankenstein’s Creature; fed and watered by its wardress; Treasurer Clare Butcher.
It stood at £8,000 and was regularly plumped by proceeds from the monthly meat raffle; a ‘workplace scratch card lottery’; takings from forecourt car boot sales outside the Duke and ‘rummage mornings’ in the St John’s Ambulance Hall.
It commandeered the agenda at Constituency meetings and she suspected that, like the Cumaean Sybil, it would hang in perpetuity long after she and the rest of the comrades had dissolved into dust.
The approach of her first meeting had been accompanied by rapidly alternating twinges of apprehension and terror.
Becoming a political activist was a big thing - like having sex; giving birth or entering a nunnery. She had done the first two and marriage to Paul made the third seem desirable. Now she was voluntarily embarking upon a fourth; maybe more terrible than all three combined.
Are you actually going to go to this shindig? Paul had scoffed; sliding his John Lennon specs up and down the bridge of his nose. They’ll have you basket weaving and tin rattling for the poor! I expect they think we’re filthy rich….. Oh really darling! Doesn’t Mummy look silly, Ness Ness?!!!
She looked silly and she felt silly. She had no idea what you wore when you went to a political meeting and so she had decided to play safe by donning her interview suit; a dated navy ‘two piece’ with a matching patent bag.
Mummy silly! squealed Vanessa, clapping her hands.
Well, I hope you think it’s worth getting Christine in for this. Wouldn’t you rather watch that film? And if you’re not going to watch it, why on earth did you get it out? It all costs money..
Paul’s tone was querulous. It was darts night at The Duke and he naturally expected her to babysit.
After the Tuffnall dinner, she had made a point of name-checking her forthcoming political meeting; slipping it into conversation at every opportunity and sacrificing her weekly dose of Dallas in favour of a current affairs programme.
All too often, Realpolitik concentrated upon the doings of the new MPs with Derek Kingsmill invariably one of their number.
He was completely unprepossessing; she could not imagine why he was such a fixture – although she later understood that these were the very qualities that made him indispensable to Party bosses.
One week there he would be, ankles crossed on the interview sofa; examining his fingernails; denouncing nuclear weapons and their advocates as contemptible in every respect.
Next week he would remark en passant, that really, there was something to be said for maintaining a nuclear arsenal as an international bargaining chip.
How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?
And if the party says it is not four but five, then how many?
She watched Derek’s master class in the art of the political somersault with mounting feelings of incredulity and distaste. It was despicable – surely he would be exposed and denounced? Of course he was not, and as she made methodical notes in a loose-leafed ring-binder, she sensed that she was becoming au fait with matters of greater import than the trade deficit.
Now, however, the prospect of an evening of vicarious pleasure with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice seemed deliciously inviting – or at any rate, preferable to a shot in the dark courtesy of the St John’s Ambulance Hall. She was quite simply, scared witless and was tempted to feign a sudden headache but the door opened; Christine stepped in and she was compelled to step out.
To go we know not where…
When Paul returned, she had arranged herself upon the Habitat corner chair; eating a caramel from a box of Black Magic. She sported her Dietrich-style lounging pyjamas; purchased at an exorbitant cost from the new Next shop and sipped nonchalantly from a glass of Bailey’s. The effect, she hoped, was stylish, confident; in control, and it was lost on Paul, who was mentally replaying the final darts match. One of the regulars had failed to turn up and the replacement had been unfortunate.
He was pissed as a parrot – a total bloody write off. And when we left he did a Technicolor yawn in the car park….
And how was your meeting? (in a tone both insouciant and insulting).
Darling, what on EARTH is the matter? You’re wriggling on that chair as if you’ve got piles!
Excellent, she retorted; ignoring the barb and deciding that lounging pyjamas were all very well for Marlene Dietrich but decidedly out of place on a Habitat corner seat, reduced in the sale. You’d better see how Christine’s fixed for Thursday evenings - if you’re continuing with the darts?
It had been worth it to see her husband’s habitual expression; self satisfaction mingled with wry amusement, morphing into bewilderment and something approaching vexation.
If only he knew. He did not know – and she was not going to tell him - how hateful her evening had been
The St John’s Ambulance Hall was not a hall but a hut, opposite the disused outdoor swimming complex. Its unique selling point as a meeting place was that it was cheap and lacked all creature comforts including heating. She had opened the door upon a depressing scene; eight people of disparate age sitting on wire-backed chairs; arms folded and feet lightly stamping. They were watching a portable television set and nobody smiled or spoke as she slid into the only available chair and became one of them.
The black and white picture flickered in and out of focus.
A man in a trilby hat bearing a remarkable similarity to ITV’s Reginald Molehusband was climbing stairs inside a faux tower block, itself as inauthentic as the kerb which Molehusband’s vehicle habitually scaled during the commercial break between Coronation Street and World in Action. He stopped at the top, cleared his throat and turned to camera, displaying a clipboard.
The dos and don’ts of canvassing.
As far as she could ascertain; the aim was singular: not to engage the unsuspecting house or flat holder in conversation about anything in general and politics in particular. She stole a glance at the cagoules (who had come to grief at the first hurdle when they had knocked on her door during the General Election campaign) but they were opening cans of lager and did not appear to be listening.
The aim of the exercise was to identify the vote.
Once this objective had been achieved, the canvasser’s next goal was to extricate him or herself as quickly as possible from the doorstep situation whilst simultaneously closing gates to avoid the entrance or escape of marauding animals.
Under no circumstances whatsoever was the canvasser to enter the premises and should not accept tea, coffee or comestibles from the occupants.
As a public relations exercise, it was not people–friendly, and was doubtless a contributory factor to the appalling General Election result.
Well, said a large middle aged man whom she could vaguely recall I expect that’s given us all food for thought. And (addressing her in a tone of forced jollity) we have a new member.
He looked familiar because he had stood in her kitchen only three weeks ago – in his professional capacity as the Gridchester Borough Council Rodent Officer.
She had arrived home from the usual trials at GC to find Vanessa fractious and Christine tense. Steeling herself for the worst; Christine giving notice and the prospect of finding a half competent replacement; her equilibrium had been rocked by reports of a black shape attached to a tail scurrying behind the fridge.
Paul had scoffed at her fear that the legendary infestation at Wellington Parade
(A deliciously nasty story, culminating in a whiskery rat positively preening itself at Sandra Milford) was about to be replayed in the scullery at Binley. He had purchased a set of wooden traps but when the body count (of mice) showed no sign of abating and disposal assumed its place in morning routine alongside putting out the empties ) she had called in the professionals.
Brian Pelleroe appeared decidedly under-dressed in tonight’s mustard- and sludge sartorial choices of fisherman’s jersey and corduroy trousers, but it was hard to dismiss his previous incarnation in top to toe protective clothing plus facemask and rubber over-shoes. It was also well nigh impossible to forget his encomium on domestic cleanliness; or detestable gloat when he had brandished a gloved finger, fresh from its foray behind the fridge, encrusted with crumbs, fluff and something black and sticky
They like DIRT; had been his parting shot, after priming her kitchen with poison.
You won’t find vermin in a clean house…..
And now there he stood and there she sat; inwardly sympathising with the animals chemically rotting under her floorboards as a result of his skill.
Bound to be confusing at first he had said, returning to the agenda.
But you’ll soon get the hang of it….
As she retrieved her bag from the car boot where it was wedged next to Brian’s rucksack and the tan leather holdall of Hazel and Martin Sweet (the cagoules) she supposed she had got the hang of it.
Well, of course it’s exciting! she had bragged to her parents who were holding the fort at Binley so that Paul could continue his visits to The Duke.
(He works so hard dear, it’ll be no trouble)
Her mother had been perplexed nonetheless; why would she wish to spend a weekend away from Paul and Vanessa?
Rockley-on-Sea had no redeeming features. It was a tired and charmless coastal resort in the North West, with a shingle beach and a shabby pier.
Union bosses and middle-ranking MPs had made reservations at the Conference hotel; The Pavilion Palace a four star establishment that had seen better days.
The likes of herself, Brian and the Sweets took pot luck with Wimbury-style boarding houses and the Party Leader remained purely for the duration of his speech before decamping to London in his Rover SD1. Her appointment as delegate, like her membership of the Constituency Central Committee, had been in default of other applicants. The pattern was depressingly familiar.
A vacancy would occur; nominations would be requested; none would be forthcoming; then somebody (usually staff nurse Gail Pitt) would say;
Well, I do think we ought to be sending SOMEBODY (to the Committee/Conference/Benefits Workshop etc) …. I’d really love to go, but it clashes with Vic’s fishing club and it’s Daisy’s night at Brownies... Then somebody else (possibly retired fitter, Fred Hoy) would chip in;
It should be a youngster! The Party needs new blood!
As the youngest by a decade; she was ‘elected’ unopposed and soon boasted a political CV full of sound and fury; signifying nothing because the Election fiasco had prompted a majority of comrades to bale out in favour of football; feeling the burn with Jane Fonda’s Workout or TV dinners and Trivial Pursuit.
She became Vice Chair of this and Secretary of that; different committees; same faces and always meeting in The St John’s Ambulance Hall (Thursdays) and the back room of The Duke (Tuesdays). The Duke was warmer, but a congenial temperature was offset by the deeply uncongenial task of running the meat raffle.
One for a pound and four for a fiver provided an entrée into a lottery for lamb, beef or chicken.
The road to Downing Street is paved with chipolatas Paul had laughed when she ran the gauntlet of the public bar; fleeing a drunken Fatty who had won the breakfast pack and was waggling a chipolata in the region of his groin.
I thought persuasion was your thing, said Lynne; her voice over the telephone tinged with boredom (Barbecues in St Johns Wood had little in common with breakfast packs in Binley, and the sausages were better.)
And why is it all about food?
It wasn’t about politics – or not as she understood it. But maybe food was political – and a tool in female subjugation, whether implicit (Jane Fonda’s Workout; the F Plan diet) or explicit (the Party’s Christmas Catalogue).The contents of the Catalogue were drearily predictable; replica miners’ lamps; a biography of the former Leader (remaindered in shops); seasonal greetings cards featuring the Tory Prime Minister channelling Scrooge – and a new line in kitchenware.
Now this, Treasurer Claire Butcher had asserted, is a winner – and I think we can leave it with the Women’s Section. We get a percentage on sales – and everything goes to the Deposit Account.
The gaping maw of the Deposit Account; money going in, never coming out.
I’m not sure…she had ventured hesitantly, that we should be promoting these…
Clare Butcher was a shapeless individual of middle years with a pepper’n salt feather cut and the hint of a double chin, who favoured ankle-flapping drawstring trousers in dishcloth greens and greys. She worked in the Accounts Division of the Peacock Heating Company, where her husband Ron, a burly man with springy ginger hair, was an engineer. They ruled the Central Committee and applied a permanent dampener to political campaigning. And they controlled the purse strings.
Oh? offered Clare, placing her beer glass on the table.
And why is that?
I just don’t think, she persisted, that we ought to be selling tea towels and rubber gloves featuring pictures of Emmeline Pankhurst or bread boards with line drawings of the Match Girls. It’s not the right image and I think we should complain.
Clare Butcher inclined her head:
I know you’ve only been a member for a short time, but I’m sure you’ll understand eventually that the suffragettes and Match Girls hold a very special place in our hearts. They represent women’s struggle; and we honour that sacrifice today. In everything that we do. We wouldn’t be HERE if it wasn’t for them!
She was tempted to retort that if the heroines of history had merely paved the way to The Duke and the meat raffle then the struggle had been fruitless – but ploughed on:
That’s not the point though, is it?
I think it sends out the message that a woman’s place is in the kitchen - and I don’t think that we should continue with the Women’s Section Tupperware parties either…
The Pavlovian outcry was orchestrated by a sanctimonious Clare who had much in common with the Chudleigh matrons.
In fact, she reflected; inching past anonymous knees en route to her seat; apart from geographical location; accent and income, there was little to distinguish them.
Now that two hours of unimpeded boredom stood between her and the homeward journey it was time to admit that her political journey had been a parochial dead end.
She had known it from the outset – or at least from the dying throes of her first meeting in the St Johns’ Ambulance hut. All she had got the hang of after nearly a year of unparalleled tedium was that local politics was the excuse used by an especially dreary and mean-spirited bunch to exit the house and enter the pub.
The Duke did very nicely from the hire of its back room, but the welfare of local people benefited not a jot. She had suggested a benefits campaign and a survey of public transport users, following the decommissioning of a popular bus. To no avail.
She had written a letter to The Gridchester Telegraph about vandalism in the children’s play park –only to be informed by a patronising Pelleroe that all contact with the media must be approved by the Chair.
The comrades were not comradely and she had now spent the equivalent of a mini break in a dire hole; eating unspeakable food and sharing a less than clean boarding house toilet with people she disliked and who despised her.
She had missed Dallas and The Jewel in the Crown primarily for the purpose of vexing Paul who paddled serenely on the lake of her feelings like an insensitive Canada goose. Time to admit defeat.
And they called us lesbians and urinated in the milk because we wouldn’t take the notes – well why should we? And then they tried to get us thrown off the Parliamentary list - and I don’t see why a lift to a life skills course means sex on demand for the driver and …
She was interested in spite of herself, by the outrageous tale. The speaker, Faith Tantridge representing Hambury Wells, and another woman, had paid over the odds to attend a life skills course, run by a trade union consortium in London. On arrival, they had rejected the assumption by a male participant that the women should act as secretaries.
Testosterone had fuelled aggression later that day, when her friend Sheridan had rebuffed a sexual advance by the same man and the two of them had then been subjected to ritual humiliation of such a vicious and extreme nature that they had abandoned the course in mid session.
The men had refused to apologise
Right of reply!!! bellowed a fat man (who had been dozing on the front row) following his crotch onto the stage.
No - SORRY, SISTER (elbowing the sobbing female delegate and snatching the microphone) Chair’s right of reply!
I have NEVER in all my years of coming to Conference, had to listen to such a load of DRIVEL! The BROTHERS this SISTER has abused aren’t here and can’t defend themselves. It’s the coward’s way!
If WIMMIN can’t stand the political heat; they should get back to the kitchen and COOK their Husbands’ DINNERS instead of wasting Conference time on muck like this!!
Shut up, love, and GO HOME!!
She had missed her chance in the transport debate but now her legs carried her up; past the knees, down the aisle and onto the stage. She was wearing jeans and a black leather jacket; the Ulrika Meinhof look. She did not care about her looks; Paul; Vanessa; Lynne; Chudleigh; Frances Hunt; Chester Chase; Truscotts; Tuffnalls; Butchers and Pelleroes.
Women, she cried don’t need ‘life courses’ because they are the lifeblood of this Party. They take the notes; make the cakes; run the crèches; massage the egos and sometimes OTHER PARTS of the men!
They raffle the meat; sell the Tupperware; book the rooms; sit at the polling station and deliver the leaflets. And if they were taking the floor at Westminster, instead of scrubbing it in Binley – then we’d be in Downing Street not Drayton Street, wasting our time at the seaside!
The legs propelled her off the stage; down the aisle to the door and then she heard the roar and the stamping from the people standing; smiling; clapping and cheering.
She was going home, but she had come home and was not for turning.
Not again. Not now.