Her predicted outcomes for Donald and Gillian’s whistle-stop were pretty accurate.
Someone had vomited, but not a child. Gillian had compensated for mediocre prawn balls, sesame toasts and a particularly greasy dish of beef and water chestnuts by drinking too much.
Cheap merlot rather than food poisoning was the cause of her confinement in the downstairs toilet and subsequent ill humour.
Vanessa had wet her bed; David had snapped the neck off Richard’s favourite brontosaurus and Paul, in inimitable style had escaped the resultant wailing and gnashing of teeth by whisking Donald off to the Duke.
She could see that they must have been ensconced for some time with Kev, Suez Mick and Fatty, whose sludge-coloured low slung trousers left little to the imagination. As usual the latter was unshaven and presented as a caricature of the horny-handed sons of toil that the Party in the adjoining tap-room was supposed to represent.
Horny-handed or not, Fatty was a horrible, drunken oaf who sponged off his parents, Edna and Stan; spent his wages on booze and had been known to treat his women to a smack around the chops when popped up.
He did not merit representation.
Donald, in Harris Tweed jacket and brogues polished to perfection with an assiduous attention to detail honed in the corps of his alma mater, seemed ill at ease. He was betraying familiar signs of discomfort such as clearing his throat and picking at his cuticles. But Eric’s financial outlay on a Waverley education had not gone amiss.
Paul’s brother waved his wallet and she suspected that Donald had borne the financial burden of the evening’s jollities.
Her husband had teamed his army greatcoat with the flat cap and Hunter’s wellingtons that were his sartorial pick when fraternising with Binley regulars. It was a type of fancy dress at a distinct remove from the tailored suits and understated cufflinks that typified his garb when visiting Oxbridge colleges.
He gave Dickon Cleave the quizzical smile that he reserved for the lower orders, and glanced at Jessamy’s ample bosom, inclining his head.
Well – if you’re offering? Mine’s a double grouse…
Donald and Gillian left with the lark the next day.
As she sat in her staff cubby hole at GC, sipping instant coffee and wading through execrable essays on The Crucible, she mused about the last 24 hours. An evening of undiluted Gillian had been exchanged – for what? A murderous headache (unlike Paul, she could not sleep whilst her toddler screamed) and laundering wet sheets at 4am. Paul had been perky; walking Splosh, and doing men’s things with the Spong coffee grinder before bounding off to work with a parting sally:
Back late – Lower Sixth play – and you’d better postpone the revolution because Christine’s visiting her mother!
The revolution was the least of her problems.
She did not enjoy teaching at GC. The mid-sixties brick and glass block was an unappealing work space and the less-motivated teenagers had forsaken - school regime for ‘college’ with its informal dress code and licence to smoke cigarettes ( and possibly cannabis) outside the entrance lobby.
The majority of staff members were on ‘rolling’ contracts and insecurity of tenure bred an inevitable lack of commitment to the institution and its students.
She was part of the Humanities team, led (if that was the word) by Selma Blaine, whose curly perm and spray-on emerald jeans made her a cross between Jane Fonda in Work Out mode and Breakfast Television’s very own Green Goddess, Diana Moran.
Or that was the idea.
In reality, the lumps and bumps of a post-menopausal figure should have necessitated a ruthless cull of all things lycra from the wardrobe but Selma, oblivious to the sniggers of her students, collected her salary, perfected her timetabling and ensured that student numbers remained stable .
If she knew that her nickname was ‘Mutton’, she betrayed no hint.
Lecturers were required to turn up; maintain a modicum of control and be seen to set and mark work. Usually she fulfilled the criteria – but today, the hamster-on-wheel routine was unbearable.She could have done the job performing cartwheels with a carnation stuck up her nose. Had nights of relentless swotting at Dorlich been a curtain raiser for this?
As she caught the bus for the homeward journey, she reflected that it was not as if domestic life offered any compensation.She had not wanted to move, and while Paul went from strength to strength at Fairway, she remained dissatisfied, bored and friendless.
Hazel and the girls were fun – but what did she really share with them?
When they had exhausted television soaps, the latest Ruth Rendell, kids, clothes, marital sex and the perfidy of the Butchers all that remained was a cultural desert the size of the Sahara
She was losing the language to communicate with Lynne, who was mixing in increasingly sophisticated London circles and had attended the champagne preview of Anthony and Cleopatra at the National.
While she had attended a political equivalent of Dad’s Army in the Duke…
She got off the bus and marched into the off-licence near thome, paying more than usual for two bottles of decent Frascati.
Things had got to change, and if it was going to take alcohol and French knickers to convince Paul that it was time for her career opportunities to take priority then so be it.
With any luck, she had a couple of hours’ pampering in the bathroom before he returned from the play rehearsal. She would team Next knickers with a front-fasten Wonderbra and don the grey jersey sheath and black patent stilettos with the bar straps. Vanessa had swimming at school tomorrow and could be persuaded into bed after tea and Richard could overdose on Thomas the Tank Engine and Rainbow.
After Paul had been bewitched by the vision of feminine sexiness adorning his hearth and home she might tactfully propose a move to Oxford or Cambridge. There would be an abundance of opportunities for him – and she might study for a PhD!
The children would thrive; lose their grotesque Gridchester accents and in the spirit of brave new worlds, she would call Brian Pelleroe and resign as candidate for the ridiculous Laceybrook by-election.
The sight of the mustard family Peugeot in the car port at the back of her house necessitated a rethink.
Paul must have cancelled his rehearsal, and the idea of captivating him unawares in guise of a 20th century Primavera was a non-starter. She walked up the path wondering what on earth had possessed her to buy the horrible brown cord button through skirt she was wearing and to complete the ensemble with a lumberjack- style checked shirt and American Tan tights.
When she had met Paul on that fateful night ten years ago in Bunters, she had been virtually bursting out of her maxi dress, a seductive vision of curves, lipstick and tumbling blonde hair. The words ripe and peach came to mind, and in one of his amorous flights of fancy, Paul had compared her charms to those of Tess, milking her herd at Talbothay’s Dairy.
As she entered her scullery kitchen Tessy dearest was back in her novel and the reflection greeting her from the kitchen mirror was a dead ringer for Patricia Hayes in Edna the Inebriate Woman.
She had let herself go, and if Paul were to succumb to a Gridchester version of Frances Hunt – then who could blame him?
In the dining room, Vanessa and Richard were busying themselves with the Fisher Price garage and she could see that tears from one or both were a probability. The three years separating them in age meant that Richard was incapable of being a satisfying playmate to a serious five year old who had started school and was learning to read.
This did not stop him following her like a dog; attempting to join in her games and invariably spoiling them. She caught his hand instinctively as he was about to hurl a car at his sister and braced herself for the inevitable wails. She had wanted two children. When would they start to like each other?
Well, I think that’s her now….
Paul’s voice came from the lounge and sounded tense. He had company and the thought that she might be expected to entertain the Nuttalls was unbearable.
She turned the lounge door handle, and was leapt upon by Splosh with such vigour that she dropped the wine, tripped and landed unceremoniously in the lap of Dickon Cleave.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts he said.
The next hour; embarrassing for her and perceptibly irritating for Paul, did little to ruffle the composure of their unexpected guest. Dickon lounged on the sofa, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was grubby and covered in dog hairs. He had the type of angular physique that would have looked good in a sack, but the jeans, granddad shirt with a delicate blue stripe and soft brown leather boots conveyed a casual elegance that was neither cheap nor casual. It took time and money to look that good, she thought, horribly conscious of her matronly court shoes and “in between” length hairstyle.
Similarly, Paul in his shapeless grey school suit and black shoes with side buckle looked hopelessly dated. Dickon had the effect of making them staid, middle-aged and boring and she wanted him to finish his drink and go.
He showed no signs of doing so, because he had come to visit his candidate.
An hour later, her plans for a romantic evening had departed as her Election Agent sped away in his MG roadster and her husband decamped to the Duke. The children were in bed and nothing had changed – but everything was different. Paul returned after closing time and went straight to bed. He was unusually taciturn and she did not feel talkative. They slept fitfully, back to back.
When she remembered that time from the distance brought by 26 years, the sequence of events had perforce blurred, but the atmosphere was light, bright and sparkling. GC, her home and everything in it seemed suddenly Lilliputian and as she looked at her husband and children, the words from Status Quo pounded insistently:
When I look up to the skies
I see your eyes a funny kind of yellow
I rush home to bed I soak my head
I see your face underneath my pillow
I wake next morning, tired, still yawning
See your face come peeping through my window
Pictures of matchstick men and you
Mirages of matchstick men and you
All I ever see is them and you
She was seeing a lot of Dickon Cleave.
Her Agent was vibrant, witty, resourceful, charming, and possessed of unequalled enthusiasm both for the election and the candidate. As they sat, night after night, huddled in the darkest corner of the Duke’s tap room, pouring over voting trends and compiling canvassing schedules, she had never felt happier.
Years later, she realised that she had not been happy, but excited, and the rush of blood to the head had nothing to do with the prospect of fighting her first election as candidate (in an utterly unwinnable seat) and everything to do with the sensations occasioned by close proximity to an incredibly attractive man.
When she lost her parliamentary seat and made a bonfire of press cuttings and leaflets; the history of her rollercoaster ride in politics - she was dumbfounded when she unearthed her first ever election leaflet.
There she was; a cornucopia of blonde hair and red lipstick, clad in a diaphanous white shirt and pale blue jeans, arms aloft, sitting on a swing. Her smile was arch and the caption read: The Lady LOVES Laceybrook.
It was verging on soft porn and how could she ever have sanctioned it?
At the time, Dickon’s insistence on hiring he most extortionate photographer in Gridchester for a day’s shoot on location and then raiding the deposit account for the cost of a full colour leaflet seemed only right and proper. The fact that Derek Kingsmill’s humble (and winning) General Election leaflet in neighbouring Lowerbridge would have cost a fraction of the amount was entirely irrelevant.
He always was a cheapskate
And they had spent such a wonderful day; roaring off on Saturday in the nippy MG; lunch at a cunning little restaurant beside the brook of ‘Laceybrook’ with its luxuriant countryside backdrop complemented exquisitely by the Kir Royales that Dickon had insisted they drink before tucking into plates of turbot on a bed of wilted greens.
The photoshoot was a joy; choreographed by Dickon while Greville from Photo Fanatic snapped her in a variety of settings and costumes (she had packed a small suitcase). Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin had a rival!
In the end, it had been a toss-up between the swing and jeans picture and another one in which she had posed on the grass with her back to a tree, wearing a black velvet skirt and knee length boots. That one was Dickon’s choice – vetoed by her on account of showing too much leg.
Greville left early and they drove back in leisurely style, stopping at another country pub to discuss the campaign. She arrived home at 9 pm, exuding euphoria.
Paul was sitting in the wheel-back chair, smoking his pipe and listening to Ravel’s Bolero.
It jarred unpleasantly with her mood, as did the incessant yapping of Splosh, whose empty bowl indicated that Paul had omitted to feed him.
Paul was crotchety; sniping that she had said that she would be back four hours ago. “I’ve had Jessamy Neape on the phone. They were supposed to be meeting her daughter at Geppetto’s - she waited as long as she could but then had to go on ahead. And the kids have had alphabet animals and burgers AGAIN – there was nothing else in the freezer!”
She looked at her husband’s baggy old jeans and frayed shirt,his habitual weekend loafing clothes, and wondered why he felt it appropriate to channel Saville Row when visiting the Oxbridge colleges and emulate a bin man when spending time with his family.
Well, why didn’t you buy them something else? she returned as they began the low-level bickering that was becoming a staple of their relationship. She was conscious of prolonging it to avoid the imposition of sex, and her strategy worked, as Paul slammed the door and went to bed alone.
She poured herself a glass of wine and smoked a cigarette, trying to recapture the magic of the day, but he had ruined it … by mentioning Jessamy Neape.
Now, try as she may, images of herself and Dickon, eating a deux in Laceybrook were overlaid with images of Dickon and Jessamy in their house, with their family and even in their bed.
It was repulsive.
Paul had spoiled her day. Paul spoiled ----- everything.