After the loss of her seat in 2005, all reminders of her political career became linked in her mind with a one way ticket to the Dignitas clinic.
(These fragments I have shored against my ruins)
Yet memories of the Rockley-on-Sea conference lingered, like a progressively intangible pipe dream:
A single green light, minute and faraway that might have been the end of a dock.
Things could have been different … perhaps.
The illusion was pervasive because she had nourished and nurtured it with a diligence usually lavished upon exotic pot plants (coulda been a contender…).
Gatsby style, she was ambushed and overwhelmed, by the seductive brew of cheers and smiles; pats and promises. There she had been; the toast of the town - and the downturn resembled a plate of toast; momentarily filling and ultimately ruinous.
Her return from Rockley demonstrated that superficially, nothing had changed despite the fact that she had spent a long weekend away from home with persons other than her husband.
The house, garden, child and dog were much as she had left them, although all had clearly benefitted from her mother’s standards of housekeeping and seemed somehow less grubby.
Even Paul emanated the type of sleek satisfaction that only a daily routine sandwiched, as it were, between sausages, eggs, bacon, mushrooms and fried bread and pork pie slices, cheese and pickles - can bring.
In Binley, her parents had held the fort with their customary aplomb. Paul had returned from Fairway each day and had visited the Duke each night, fortified by good square meals, and nobody seemed remotely interested in the fact that she had attended a political conference and made a speech:
Fancy that, said her mother, cutting her off whilst folding a pair of Vanessa’s training pants:
You know I think the quality of these things has definitely deteriorated.
The rubber at the side has perished – see?
Her father busied himself with fixing the shelf in the scullery.
She anticipated at least regaling the comrades with edited highlights of her speech but again, the waters had closed and no ripple disturbed the relentless tedium of Party meetings at the St John’s Ambulance Hut and The Duke. The deposit account reigned supreme and the Butchers were as surly as ever.
But there were subtle changes.
Brian Pelleroe gave the Conference Report – during the course of which he was compelled to admit that the Transport Motion had fallen at the first hurdle.
She quailed and contemplated her feet.
However, he continued, with a smile and nod in her direction
I think that we made our mark…
There were other developments; the most notable being that Hazel Sweet, the female cagoule, made increasingly sociable overtures and after the birth of Richard, she found herself finally at the centre of group of individuals meriting the collective description of friends.
At first, this meant that she had company, instead of retaining pariah status, like a cruise missile at Greenham.
Chatting to Hazel invariably meant swapping pleasantries with Hazel’s friends, Gail Pitt and Sylvia Mills, and she slipped into irregular and then more frequent girls’ nights out at The Malmsey Head pub in Gridchester.
These jaunts always took place on one side or the other of scheduled Party meetings so that the participants could at some stage in proceedings a: plot the downfall of the Butchers and b: evaluate progress made in achieving the goal
They also analysed men; diets; holidays; Dallas/Dynasty; the latest Ruth Rendell and sex.
It was different – at least it was preferable to ‘home alone with wine and a video.’
Paul monitored the change in her habits with a blend of amusement and irritation, initially belittling her new companions:
Darling – are they really your type? I mean, what can you find to talk about with Hazel Sweet when you’ve exhausted the workers and the revolution?
Then flaunting the guilt card:
Off again? Richie will forget what Mummy looks like won’t you Munchkin? (scooping baby from playpen; brandishing him like a grenade)
and finally wielding the financial stick:
If you’re painting the town red with Stalin’s Grannies, then I hope you’ll be paying Christine ---- we’re not MADE OF MONEY.
Remonstrance was fruitless; Paul observed one rule for himself and another for everybody else and usually she resisted the temptation to counter with his visits to
The Duke; drinks after work with John Nuttall; exorbitant purchases from antiquarian book shops (pristine copy of Evelina – pages uncut …. absolute bargain) and trips to the Oxbridge colleges.
Occasionally, if it had been a vexatious day at GC; if she felt fat; or had received a gloating postcard from Lynne (Cartagena is so overrated…) she rose to the bait; voices would rise and children would cry.
But it was generally best to leave it, and she did.
The girls, as she began to think of them, were at a far remove from the likes of Belinda Briscoe and Lucinda Prynne - and bore no resemblance to Philippa Truscott and Dorian Chase.
But neither were they soul sisters of the Lynne variety; although she had to admit that she and her oldest friend were traversing increasingly different paths (are you still specialising in flogging prepacked food at that pub?) and Lynne’s latest letter, detailing a lecture tour in Wisconsin during the course of which she had held forth on the methodology of winter crop rotation, was a far cry from babysitting the English Language Remedial Group at GC.
The girls most closely resembled Betty; wife of David, Paul’s colleague at Chudleigh.
Betty would never set the world on fire - but then again, did not wish to. She had been kind and sympathetic and a tactful shoulder to cry on in the aftermath of Paul’s dalliance with Frances Hunt. She had also been a bulwark against the patronising excesses of the Chudleigh matrons which made her a friend in need and deed.
Hazel Sweet was the self-appointed queen bee of the group and arranged the Malmsey Head evenings, phoning around and acting as chauffeur in her green Renault 5.
She worked in the Planning Department at Gridchester Borough Council, whilst husband Martin, as Head of Environmental Services, controlled everything from parkland to waste disposal – which technically made him the boss of Fatty Hodges.
The Sweets’ involvement in the Party meant that I can never get away from him as Hazel put it - and matching red cagoules symbolised a joint routine that was a source of increasing irritation to the female half of the partnership.
Staff nurse Gail Pitt was glad to slough off responsibility for ferrying nine-year-old Daisy to Brownies/Gym Club/ String and Wind Group; or auditing accounts for husband Vic’s plumbing firm after days spent amidst incontinent geriatrics at Royal Fairway Hospital.
Their group was completed by Sylvia Mills, mother to Joe, Ida and Neil, who unleashed terror in the homes of friends and neighbours whenever they accompanied their parent on her numerous impromptu ‘visits.’
It was terrible; she burst in with the ‘Tornadoes’ - in the middle of a bloody dinner party – just as I was dishing up and simply refused to take the hint!
Within an hour the twins had painted the bathroom with Pond’s Cold Cream and Neil had decapitated two of Carrie’s Sindys!
Shaun Mills was an amiable taxi driver whose job precluded regular attendance at political meetings, and in his absence Sylvia trailed in the wake of Brian Pelleroe, her ‘not so secret’ crush:
(She’s mad – he stinks of that rodent exterminating stuff)
Pelleroe of the crumpled jerseys and antiseptic aura, was a decidedly unromantic figure, but Sylvia, sporting stretch jeans and make-up in The Malmsey Head, was a changed creature from her alter ego as harassed mother of The Tornadoes.
She was a valued member of the girls.
The Malmsey Head, situated beside a petrol station, had little in common with The Falcon, The Bear and The Trade Winds Wine Bar and its only link with Horseferry Road’s Purple Rhombus was that they were both purveyors of alcohol.
But it was not Neckers or the Duke; its bumper glasses of wine were remarkably cheap, and a juke box pouring forth Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley had something for everyone.
Evenings followed a formula; dieting triumphs; failed attempts to moderate drinking and smoking; new clothes/books/ films; the grossness of the Party, with specific reference to the Butchers; trials at work; worries about kids; men and sex, with particular reference to husbands.
She got into the groove with gusto – but maintained a studied reticence when alcohol loosened tongues on the latter topic.
Ned Pitt’s frustrating reliance upon the missionary position and Shaun Mills’ penchant for talking dirty after a chicken madras takeaway were fresh perspectives upon individuals who could bore for England on the sale of council houses, but she balked at regaling the girls with her own boudoir secrets - or worse still, the degrading details of the Frances Hunt affair.
As a consequence, she was widely perceived to be a fortunate wife in a blissful marriage – which was fine as long as she could keep Paul away from anyone and everyone in the Party.
She usually could.
Paul had little or no interest in politics and rarely evinced more than a passing curiosity about her friends or work colleagues.
He cheerfully detested Lynne, but the antipathy was mutual and anyway, Lynne could stand up for herself.
Eddie Furness, her old departmental colleague at Oaks Haven, palpably could not, and she winced when she recalled his humiliation at Paul’s hands during the course of an ill -fated jaunt to Necker’s Gorge.
The unsuspecting Eddie had been encouraged to drink to excess, with unfortunate consequences, and was now dismissed by her husband as that drunk who pissed himself at Necker’s.
It was a friendship nipped in the bud…
They had attended the Sweets’ Christmas party; a modest bring a bottle affair replete with mulled wine, mice pies and generous slices of a rather heavy Christmas cake.
Paul ate, drank and smoked but said little; confirming when they left early, the settled opinion that he was the quiet type.
What a bunch of God-awful nerds!
made her reject dinner party invitations from similar sources and she was happy to foster the myth that her husband was shy...
She had no intention of curtailing her own activities, however, and her free time was taken up with a committee here and a day school there, including the Chilton ‘Energy Post Coal’ conference when she had been astounded to encounter Sandra Milford - now in role as wife to an up and coming MP.
Lynne was all ears, but Paul had not known Sandra so had little or no interest in the fact that she was channelling Princess Diana and that Leslie Potts had finally been supplanted in her affections by husband Bill Cornish.
By contrast, Hazel and the girls were impressed by her brush with fame by proxy and when she confessed that she had been at university with both Derek Kingsmill and the edgy television presenter, Robbie Nantwich, her political standing scaled new heights.
She was vague about the precise nature of her connection with them, which was probably wise, but did not demur when she was introduced as their friend to a new couple at the monthly Duke meeting.
She had not intended to go. Ron Butcher had distributed a paper on mid-term voting trends; a veiled argument for failing to select a candidate at a forthcoming by-election.
The real reason was that neither he nor his wife could bear to raid the deposit account, and the prospect of two and a half hours of procrastination on the topic was hideous.
When she arrived home from GC, via a detour in Benetton, she peered through the window and changed her mind.
Donald and Gillian.
Why the fuck didn’t you tell me? she hissed whilst her in-laws fetched cases from the car.
But I did, sniffed her husband sounding more than usually smug
It’s been booked for ages.
You knew that Doz and Gilly were staying on the way to Bertrand’s retirement bash; Ness is sharing with Susan; David has Richie’s room and Rich can bunk up with us. See?
He closed the door, leaving her to make beds, change sheets and magic clean towels from the depths of the laundry basket.
As she heard the dulcet tones of Susan;
Why does Richie cry all the time, Uncle Paul?
(He doesn’t; he just hates being thrown out of his room and deprived of his dinosaur toys for a spoiled brat like you!)
she saw only too well.
What lay ahead was an evening of cooking, serving drinks and soothing kids; deflecting the bitchy barbs of Gillian until Paul and Donald returned from the Duke to eat whatever she had contrived to rustle up.
One of the children would vomit; Gillian would intimate that Vanessa, Richard or both were retarded; that Susan and David were members of Junior Mensa and that they had recently been visited by Nicola and the kiddies who were blooming like a rose garden.
They had attended Royal Ascot; had booked a holiday in the Bahamas and were buying a house with a park, a paddock and a pool.
And didn’t she look tired and she supposed that it must be very difficult teaching young offenders at GC…
Shall I phone Christine and see if she can babysit?
she offered just as Paul interjected that he and Doz were just popping out for a snifter at the Duke - what time are you serving up, Puss?
There was a pregnant pause which she filled by saying that it was dreadfully inconvenient, but she had a meeting that it was quite impossible to miss and that if Christine wasn’t available then there was cottage pie in the freezer; fish fingers and baked beans for the kids and the Chinese takeaway was reasonable – as long as you avoided the crispy duck because it wasn’t…….
And without pausing for breath, she put on her coat and left them to it…