Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Best Blessings of Existence, 38

In which Emma B makes a welcome return, and a male dining companion is found to have increased in girth.

La Porte-Jarretelles was a minx of a restaurant and like most minxes, kept its secrets. She was early, and fidgeted in her seat, having failed, as usual, to achieve the fashionably late arrival, accompanied by a skittering of heels and swish of outer garments. In the event, she made an entrance with about 20 minutes in hand, and was conveyed by a brusque waiter to the very worst table in the room; adjacent to a spiral staircase that led unceremoniously to Hommes and Femmes.

Nobody saw her come in – and - short of commanding attention by plunging head first down the spiral staircase; she was all but invisible. It was extremely annoying and she began to resent the price of her train ticket and the taxi she had hailed in preference to economising on the tube. If this was the best that Maurice could do then he must be losing his touch.

She had started the day in high spirits; buoyed by the prospect of an excellent lunch in the company of a successful and entertaining man.

Maurice’s call had been an unexpected reprieve from the gloom that had descended when she realised that not only was her daughter about to reprise Daniel in a lion’s den populated by Donald and Gillian plus Nicola and the grown up kiddies and grandchildren; but that her entire political career had been hobbled from the outset because of an alcohol-drenched one-night stand in student days 36 years ago.

Maurice was cheery and upbeat (How the bloody hell ARE you?!!) and within less than five minutes she agreed to join him at Le Porte the next day. Within a minute, she determined that her entire wardrobe was grotesque and therefore a shopping trip, armed with credit cards was essential.

It was a predictably unsatisfactory afternoon; coursing the shabby indoor retail park that had epitomised Fengrove Fizz; the city’s 1980s television ad campaign.  25 years on, it was as bubbly as flat sparkling wine, with nothing to tickle the palate.  

Not a shop disgorged a bewitching little number bearing its label as depicted in The Crier’s Sunday supplement, because Fengrove outlets were not flagship stores. 
And there was clearly a gap in the market for fashionable women who just so happened to have left their twenties (and thirties and forties) behind. 

When she and Gissy had broached the Westminster citadel  in 1997, they had been spoiled for choice – or rather, spared the burden of it, because uniform for the forty something female MP was the coat suit  or the coat suit - whether of  trouser, dress or skirt  variety.                                                                                                 

It had been practicable to go for the triple; and she had spent many a day in The Fengrove Centre, lurching from shop to shop, laden with more and more                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             packages until sated (and slightly sickened ) lurching  into a taxi for the drive home. 

When she lost her seat; the suits remained; wedged in the wardrobe like brislings in a tin, until she had bundled them into black sacks in preparation for their final destination – the Oxfam shop. 

Now, after a  demoralising afternoon during the course of which she had been compelled to admit that the size-ten-to-twelve   was now a resolute  size fourteen and don’t attempt the  trousers;  she bought  a red Patsy Seddon dress; black patent belt  and boyfriend-style jacket.

Teamed with skyscraper heels and a grey ankle length wool and cashmere coat, she did not equal the triumph of the white sharkskin suit, her sartorial pick for the 2001 Queen’s Speech – but surely she merited more than a table directly above the restaurant’s pissoir? 

It was after the Queen’s Speech 2001 that she had first patronised  La Porte – with Gissy, Ralph Egg and his Sentinel colleague; today’s lunch date, Maurice Cantor.

As Queen’s Speeches go, they could take it or leave it and had, in fact, left it; eschewing the crush at the door of The Lords for the  more congenial surroundings of The Regular Suite whilst tracking  proceedings on the Monitor, cushioned by two bumper glasses of white rioja.

The rioja was medicinal because their victories at General Election 2001 did not presage a step change on the career ladder; merely continuance in the world’s best paid dead-end job (her phrase) whilst Alice Patterson (does she wash, do you think? – Gissy) had been unaccountably selected to second the Loyal Address only days after her election as the MP for Hegworth Central. 

The despicable Gretchen Andrew from the 1997 intake was now Minister of State (with responsibility for Africa) at the Foreign Office and Drusilla Grange, who had taken a year to make her Maiden Speech, was a Junior Whip. It was totally insufferable; so just for once, the Queen would have to cope without their physical presence to cheer her on.

The Sentinel’s Parliamentary Sketch writer (Egg) and Chief Political Correspondent (Cantor) were clearly of the same mind and were downing shots of whisky at a side table; whilst scribbling in notebooks with one eye on the Monitor. 

If female MPs had been caught in a bar; absconding from the Queen’s Speech by any other Lobby journalists, cyanide pills and pearl grey revolvers would have been a prerequisite.As it was, with these two they were on (relatively) safe ground because Maurice Cantor and Ralph Egg were (up to a point), friends.

And in any case, the  Editor of their then  paper; the fearsome Graham Field   had recently decreed that Sentinel journalists  were to avoid the Westminster bars in favour of pre-packaged Prêt a Manger in the office. So blackmail could work both ways.

But there was no need to mention Field, because Cantor set the tone by re-charging their glasses and proposing: A spot of late lunch in the sexiest nosh shop in town.
Refusal was unthinkable and ten minutes later, they were sharing a taxi to La Porte – Jarretelles with two of the most feared hacks on the Westminster circuit.

It was perhaps time for Her Majesty to experience the ordeal of reading out a speech written by somebody else, without their enthusiastic and fanatically loyal presence….. 

The friendship with Cantor and Egg had not been a natural accident; rather a determined back-shielding operation by two women MPs who had managed to attract a spate of unfortunate publicity in pre Vlad days.

Predictably, the reason for their notoriety and failure to attain promotion had extremely logical origins. Paul’s spectacular abandonment of ship (or desertion of the MP for Fengrove two weeks after her 1997 election) had made her a national newspaper staple for all the wrong reasons. It had been but a hop, skip and a jump from there to being forced to endure a constant barrage of sniping whenever she surfaced in the Chamber or on national television and radio.

She did not fluff her lines in debates; so diarists such as Peter honed in on the sneering hand gestures and whispers of her own colleagues as she prosecuted her arguments. Peter, sensing he had stumbled  upon Diary gold dust; invited constituents from Fengrove or acquaintances from her former life to write in with tit bits about The eagle that has flopped.

In Gissy’s case, her radical politics; waist-length raven tresses and observation  in The House Magazine that: There isn’t a man in Westminster worth a whisker of my Rampant Rabbit -  mixed  with rumours  that she had bedded  a minor scion of the Royal family, led to her own permanent status in the Peter Diary.

Cantor and Egg were regulars in The Regular Suite and if she and Gissy  were not to be pilloried as candidates for early demise  due to cirrhosis, it was sensible to befriend these gentlemen of the press  – which they did via snippets of bitchery involving their political enemies – and, when necessary  – their friends. 

The mission was neither unpleasant not impossible; what they failed to reap in the promotion stakes, they gained in column inches – and there was a certain quiet satisfaction in Gretchen Andrew’s distress when every topic  from her lovers to her bikini wax was served up for the delectation of the nation as it consumed its granola and semi-skimmed milk. 

Cantor and Egg were also witty; liberal with cigarettes and alcohol and simply great fun to be with in preference to skulking about with the colleagues in the Member’s Cafeteria. 

They were like flip sides of the same coin. Maurice Cantor had a famously hectic and doomed love-life; always involving wildly unsuitable young women from lobbying organisations – and a penchant for one more scotch on the rocks than was strictly wise. Yet it was Ralph Egg who went unaccountably missing ( a nine-month drying-out spell in Cornflower Abbey ) and then returned to the press pack having divorced his wife and replaced her with a retired pole dancer from the column- worthy night club; Gentleman’s Relish.  

The sexiest  nosh-shop in town was none other than La Porte-Jarretelles; nestling at the end of a Belgravia Terrace where it had been coining its mix of Gallic charm and bohemian rhapsody  for over a quarter of a century.

It was nothing to look at from the outside; indeed, its faded hanging baskets of wilting posies were redolent of the very worst type of Routier. 

Inside, the décor was shabby; the tables ill-lit and the food average at best. 
But the atmosphere was such that even to enter its portals engendered a rush of blood to the head and a frisson of self-consequence unrivalled by sensations induced by all but the most barn-storming Commons performance. 

They were Jarretelles junkies and proud of it - but as she sat, solo, above the pissoir in 2010; its magic seemed as stale as the bread in the basket beside her.
She hailed a waiter and ordered a drink

Queen’s Speech 2001; their first trip to La Porte had been memorable.
Boozing alfresco during a hallowed event in the parliamentary calendar merited a spectacular story and they had paid for lunch by recounting the sexually bi-dextrous love life of Haydon Groat.

Nothing could be verified, but everything implied – which was pitch perfect for future spiteful journalistic forays. Maurice and Ralph felt justified in their investment and she and Gissy felt – justified.

LaPorte modelled itself upon Langan’s Brasserie prior to Langan’s demise.
Michel Albert, the proprietor, was similarly surly and guests were offered a stark choice of meat/fish/ legumes. What turned up was always pronounced delish whether it was or not – and wine came by the litre; bottled by the house.

The joy was always the observation of fellow diners. In 2001, Maurice and Ralph had escorted them to the best table in the room – bang in the middle of the central aisle; behind the luncheon party of Porphyria Crabbe ( founder of the Beach Poetry Prize)  and opposite the female guests of business and media tycoon, Barabbas Poole.

 The Crabbe table maintained an admirable decorum; but Barabbas Poole and guests were engagingly fractious. Ralph’s scoop – that Poole relied on supplies of Viagra that did not work, earned him a pay rise from Field and she and Gissy enjoyed a sense of achievement. If they had not been the occasion of the lunch etc etc …..

Today, chez pissoir, she experienced very different emotions. She had failed to be fashionably late – but Maurice was insultingly tardy.  This was infuriating behaviour in itself; detestably rude conduct from the person who had invited her to lunch and there was also an additional drawback. She had been sticking to a diet in an attempt to regain her size-ten-to-twelve status but sitting solo had reduced her to comfort eating. 

When Maurice Cantor arrived – 35 minutes late – she had consumed the entire contents of a basket of stale bread designed for two.

It was the first time she had seen Cantor, (now Political Editor of The Sentinel), since losing her seat in 2005 and he was less than easy on the eye. Never a rival to David Beckham in the pecs stakes; he was now positively portly or, to be strictly truthful – fat -  and she considered that by consuming their table’s bread  quotient she had done him a favour.

One of Michel’s minions served up the starter; an undistinguished assembly of green leaves drenched in what passed for watery vinaigrette and it was not until they had embarked upon the steak frites ( garnished with tinned escargots) and a third glass of rather rough merlot that Maurice really spoke to her.

Conversation had been halting; demonstrating that if a week is a long time in politics, five years is an aeon.

There was a limit to the amount of times that she could hope to raise a smile by referring to the indiscretions of ex Speaker Tench (now liberated from this mortal coil) or even the classic event in The Gallery restaurant when Tory grandee, Sir Romilly Peabody; emboldened by their joint experience of  a Select Committee trip to Turkey, had offered Gissy £50 for a flash of her knickers.

Maurice gobbled his food; guzzled his wine and barely bothered to maintain the polite fiction that he was lunching with the most desirable woman in the room until; on return from a visit to Hommes he suddenly shifted gear.

She looked amazing; stunning - and Wendy had been a complete idiot not to promote her – there were so few women on the Government benches with real talent.

But of course, a little bird had told him that he was looking at the future MP for Dorlich West  and how delightful to have the opportunity to represent  the alma  mater of such unbridled talent; Derek; Sir Leslie; Robbie Nantwich even if it had also nurtured the deviance of Sandra Milford……


I don’t think, she interjected, that Sandra was deviant ….

After one litre of wine and a full glass from its replacement; she could not remember how they had got on to the topic of Sandra Cornish nee Milford; but once broached it appeared to engage Maurice like no other.

Surely she could recall (as he replenished her glass), Sandra’s frightening and psychotic episodes at Dorlich; culminating in a frenzied attack upon Heather Lydgate at a 21st birthday party? 

And wasn’t it true that she had been completely unable to distinguish fact from fiction targeting well known pillars of the gay community such as the youthful Leslie Potts for unbridled sexual attentions? Hadn’t she even leapt upon two virginal young Moroccan males in the Majorelle Gardens under the very nose of her then boss at United Biscuits, a certain Bill Cornish?  

No, she replied. It wasn’t like that at all. None of it. 

But Maurice was telling her that, Yes, of course it was. Very much so. 
Sandra Milford was a dangerous liar; rivalling the likes of Beverly Allitt and Rose West as his profile in The Sentinel would reveal. He had hoped that she would like to add her own few words …. as did Wendy Runcible; Terrence Gale; Edith Traynor; Mike Stubbs and the selection committee at Dorlich West. Especially the selection committee at Dorlich West…. 

She thought that the extra weight he was carrying did not do Maurice any favours – in fact, she had obliged him by eating the contents of the bread basket.
He was also remarkably boring – how on earth could she and Gissy have wasted so much time in The Regular Suite with Maurice  and his dreary friend, Ralph something? 
No wonder Gissy had failed to gain promotion if she was still toying with these two instead of toiling in the Commons Library.

And (lurching to her feet and grasping the table leg in the interests of stability) WTF was she doing lunching with a man who esteemed her at the level of a restaurant table above a pissoir?

She held on to her coat and what remained of her dignity and walked towards the door; past the more prestigious tables packed with libel lawyers; clothes designers and the odd TV soap star; repeating again that she did not want to contribute to a tissue of lies about  Sandra Milford.
She did not care if she never saw Maurice Cantor again.

The next day she woke late; cradling the nastiest hangover she could remember and reflected that it was a miracle that she had managed to get on a train; get off it at the right station and get home without losing her bag, her keys or her credit cards.

Two cups of black coffee later  (and  three Nurofen  tablets  ) she found that  her memory of the lunch was  distinctly hazy  and hoped that she had not called Maurice a fat slob although that was most certainly what he was.

He was also unpardonably rude and had caused her to waste a fortune on clothes and travel without even pretending to be pleased to see her. 

In fact, he had scarcely bothered to conceal his boredom (as she left the house in search of a newsagent and a newspaper) only becoming animated when he was obsessing about Sandra Milford.

Sandra – whose ravaged face glared balefully from the front page of The Crier flanked by smaller mug shots of journalists Jessica Trotter and Ponia Tindall. 


Sandra; from whom there was now no escape as she was heading the news bulletins on the hour every hour – until she was superseded by Bill Cornish; Clifford Morledge; Sir Leslie Potts and Derek Kingsmill, whose computers had been impounded whilst they assisted police with their enquiries at various police stations nationwide. 

The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson had yet to comment; a statement was expected shortly but it was now exceedingly unlikely that Wendy would call the Election this side of Christmas.

On her sixth attempt; Lynne picked up the phone.


Fuck Sandra. It’s Greg. He’s left me. 



Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but this is more than tedious. Ok, the period details may be accurate, if sprinkled rather too liberally, but the main character is just not interesting (far less sympathetic). The whole thing needs a good editor.

Anonymous said...

Dearie me.