The Sweets kept tropical fish in an enormous glass tank in their living room.
She did not particularly like fish and suspected that Hazel could also take or leave the guppies, puffers and loaches gliding inanely back and forth. They were a quirk of Martin’s, along with his passion for corned beef and tinned potato salad; intractable hostility to holidaying abroad; and refusal to move house. Hazel fancied a change (something a bit larger and more in the country…) but Martin clung to their Pendle Street semi like a turtle to its shell and only death or divorce would shift him.
The Sweets had offered her a lift to an emergency executive meeting at the St John’s Ambulance hut and as Martin revved the engine of the green Renault she decided that it was perhaps wise not to pry into the secrets of other people’s marriages.
Gone were the pre-Paul days when she and Lynne would burn the midnight oil, draining the last of Lynne’s home-made wine and subjecting the relationships of their friends and enemies to forensic scrutiny. Marriage to Paul had made her extremely accommodating towards the choices of others.Hazel and Martin had virtually nothing in common apart from two teenage children, the Party and hatred of the Butchers – but what of it?After sexual attraction had waned, she suspected that most couples chose to lump it. And divorce would be so disruptive.
I can’t think why you agreed to it….you’ve just played into Clare’s hands!
Hazel’s voice had an irritated tone and remonstration was pointless. The meeting had been called to discuss the astronomical costs incurred by the team overseeing the Laceybrook by-election – in particular the hiring of a photographer at an extortionate sum for a day’s work ‘on location’; two glossy leaflets and unaccountable bills submitted for restaurant meals and expensive bottles of wine.
During the course of an election, all monies were at the disposal of the Agent – and Dickon had been disposing with a vengeance.
Martin reversed into the hut car park and said nothing, but his back in its grey elephant cord jacket heaved resentfully.They entered the room in silence.
The hut had been the venue for her first Party meeting and as she looked at the comrades, poring over her leaflets and handing round receipts, she wished that it had been her last. Everyone was there, from the Butchers to Gail Pitt and even the elusive Darren Peabody was clutching his bic pen with an air of authority.
Everyone -- except Dickon Cleave.
They were out in force for a witch hunt.
Two hours later, the Sweets dropped her off at home and for once she was delighted that Paul was entertaining John and Kathryn Nuttall to his latest favourite tipple – Highland Park single malt whisky – a Christmas present from Eric who had brought back a case after a recent trip to the Orkneys.
For once, the sight of her husband, pipe in one hand, whisky tumbler in the other, holding forth to the Nuttalls from the vantage point of the wheel-backed chair failed to provoke more than a twinge of the customary irritation. It was a relief to be home and if the sight of Kathryn Nuttall; pale and earnest in a cream shift dress and Birkenstock sandals was provoking, then at least she was not Clare Butcher. Or Ron Butcher. Or any of the loathsome people that, after this election, she was determined never to set eyes upon again.
Brian Pelleroe, twitching uneasily in yet another red fisherman’s jumper (how many did her have?) had chaired the meeting, but the real inquisitor was Clare Butcher; imperious and foreboding in a shapeless black boiler suit.
In the absence of the Election Agent, it was only fair that the candidate be asked to justify the enormous amount of money that had been lavished upon a completely unwinnable by-election in a Tory stronghold.
She should make it plain from the outset (glaring at the comrades; daring them to dissent) that the Party had absolutely no intention of reimbursing either the candidate or the Agent for a quite astonishing display of utterly capitalist gluttony.
Of course neither were expected to campaign on an empty stomach – but tea and sandwiches should have sufficed instead of champagne and turbot.
Dickon could have taken the photographs himself instead of hiring the most expensive photographer in Gridchester whose promotional material included a Harpers and Queen shoot with Penelope Tree.
And on the topic of leaflets...
Each member of the committee had been supplied with copies of her literature – the introductory Lady Loves Laceybrook -- and the second.
The Lady Loves Laceybrook came in for criticism; it was thin on policy (Ron Butcher) and expensive – should have taken a tip from Derek Kingsmill (Fred Hoy).
The second leaflet was greeted with unanimous opprobrium.
Twenty-three years later she could see why. Even then it had been hard to defend the four-page A4 glossy colour collation of photographs under the umbrella headline
Laceybrook - A Bird’s Eye View!
The good burghers of Laceybrook were invited to cast their own eyes on the candidate leaning dreamily over the bridge of the brook (in a wet-look T-shirt)
caressing the arch of a country church (causing her skirt to ride up her thighs) and sitting on a pony (in a skirt).
Amongst other unspeakable poses….
The photographs were captioned with her name, an injunction to vote and contact details of her Agent.The Party was mentioned in small print at the bottom of a page.
I think she offered hesitantly
that Dickon was aiming for a more modern take on the traditional leaflet – something to make them sit up and take notice….
Oh they’ll do that all right, retorted Clare. And so will the rest of the world if the Tories have got any sense and pass this muck straight to The Crier.
There had been more – in fact, much more in the same vein and when even Gail Pitt had queried the expense combined with the absence of a canvassing schedule
(vetoed by Dickon as an invasion of privacy), she had become desperate.
It was all she could do to stop herself crying and when she had excused herself from Paul and the Nuttalls, pleading a headache, that was exactly what she did.
The next few days were infused with a sense of impending doom – exacerbated by the fact that Dickon – so attentive over the turbot – had suddenly decamped to London, pleading an alteration to his lecture schedule at the Courtauld.
She had telephoned his home, expecting sympathy after her ordeal in the hut only to be informed of a change in his plans by Jessamy. Had she imagined it, or was the intrepid Greenham feminist slightly chilly – even abrupt?
Of course, she swings both ways, commented Hazel when they convened with Sylvia and Gail for a girls’ night out the day before the election.
But then she’s had a lot to put up with over the years and maybe women are less threatening?
They were sitting at a corner table in The Balti Bowl, Gridchester’s cheap and cheerful curry house, sharing the contents of the popadom pickle tray. The meal was Hazel’s idea; partly , she suspected, to break the ice and repair the friendship after the terrible emergency meeting - and also as an excuse to skip corned beef hash at home with Martin and the fish.
It was a step up from corned beef hash, but certainly not haute cuisine, nor fine dining with its mandatory posh crockery and exorbitant prices.
It was all right.
It was a night out with food and she ought to enjoy it, but neither the rubbery king prawns nor the conversation were to her taste.
She was not sure that she wanted to know what Jessamy had been forced to put up with over the years, or that Dickon had conducted a rake’s progress the length and breadth of the nation with such Hogarthian gusto that no female over the age of consent was safe from his clutches. He was apparently Byronic in more ways than one...
I mean (said Hazel between mouthfuls of sag aloo and lamb korma)
He even had a go at ME (looking at Gail and Sylvia for confirmation) at Maureen Booth’s fish n’ chip supper!
With the best will in the world , the idea of Dickon engaging in rampant coitus with the 13-stone Hazel, complete with curly perm and a dress sense best described as mumsy was a step too far. But if her friend could only stomach sex with Martin by summoning up an imagined grope with Dickon over fish and chips at a Party fundraiser – then who was she to object?
I thought you liked him she said as she paid her part of the bill and rummaged in her purse for a tip.
Well, he’s wonderful of course retorted Hazel smugly, but his sort should come with the warning ‘Look but don’t touch!’
The day of the Laceybrook by-election remained stubbornly in her memory, much as she had tried to erase it over the years.
She had woken early; pressed and rejected two suits and a sleeveless red body top and finally settled upon a white linen dress sprigged with rosebuds. Red shoes and matching bag completed the outfit and as she applied lipstick and pinned on her rosette, she felt, albeit briefly, like a candidate.
Paul finished his coffee, patted the children and Splosh and stated that he had asked Christine to babysit. For one glorious moment, she thought that this meant that her husband would be by her side at the count and said so.
Oh really darling! You’ll have to imagine I’m Trotsky; airbrushed out of the picture! You can’t expect me to hang around some godforsaken church hall or wherever they have these things, on handbag duty?! Isn’t Mummy silly, Ness Ness?
Vanessa chortled, Richard beamed and Paul kissed her for luck before grabbing his briefcase and making his exit. He was hosting a departmental dinner; she was not to wait up…
Dickon had offered to give her a lift – but for some reason, she declined and made her way to Laceybrook on public transport; a train journey followed by two bus trips. Apart from a handful of assorted pensioners and mums-with- toddlers, she travelled in splendid isolation and it was surely only a matter of time before the bus routes were scrapped on economic grounds.
However, when the mind is free, the body’s delicate and as the bus traversed the country lanes, she contemplated the day ahead with mounting horror. What did you do, as a candidate on an election day? Whatever it was, she would be doing it solo because as far as she could ascertain, the comrades would be voting with their feet and staying at home.
The leaflet row had supplied the perfect excuse.
She spent the day drinking coffee in high street cafes; rosette stuffed firmly in her handbag, hoping nobody would guess who she was; debating how long she could reasonably stay in one location without being suspected of loitering with intent.
By 5 pm, she had exhausted every respectable outlet and when the roar of an engine announced the presence of the MG roadster, she felt a remarkable kinship with Captain Oates.
Comparisons with the failed Antarctic expedition were brought sharply into focus at the count.
The venue, a village hall that had seen better days, was unfortunately situated next to the church where she had posed so provocatively, and the barely suppressed mirth from the eminently respectable group surrounding the Tory candidate suggested that they too had made the connection.
Sir Emrys Bowcher’s successor, Stanley Dexter- Leppard; portly, balding and aged seventy plus, suited the place, its tea-rooms and its stifling rurality to perfection.
Judging by the 1,960 people who had voted for him, Laceybrook agreed.
She had won the allegiance of just twenty-three people.
And I bet they were all perverts! (She thought)
She was sitting with Dickon in a pub on the outskirts of Gridchester. She had cried; angry tears of humiliation and now she was drinking. Too much. She did not want to go home. She did not want to face Paul, the children, the Party or even the dog.
She wanted to die.
Dickon, by contrast displayed a remarkable equanimity in face of adversity. And of course, he looked remarkable in his stone coloured Calvin Klein jeans, crisp white shirt with a green thread and tailored black jacket. Indeed, the only extenuating factor about the whole abortive business was being seen in public in the company of such an attractive man.
The attractive man who now seized her hand, telling her that the only reason he had volunteered to be Agent for such a lost cause was the chance to spend time with her.
So it had been worth it - all twenty- three votes of it - and why didn’t they go on spending time together?
He parked in a lay-by on the way home.
For the next four days, she performed domestic and work duties in a mist; jumping to attention at the sound of the telephone and taking Splosh on lengthy walks. In the bedroom, she repelled sexual advances with a series of excuses and did not care whether they were plausible or not.
Four days became seven and then fourteen. After three weeks, sensations of misery had replaced the tremors of excitement she had nurtured during the dog-walks as certain events came insistently to mind.
She snapped at Paul and the children and left without saying goodbye before taking the familiar walk, past the spice factory, to The Duke for the Party meeting.
The back room was suffused with air of more than usual gloom – and there was something else – akin to the type of shared horror that gripped a nation when the enormity of Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes was made public.
How could she justify raiding the Deposit Account – lovingly accrued after many a meat auction, fish n’ chip supper, car boot sale, church hall rummage, cake stall and Tupperware Party for a paltry 23 votes? She looked for Dickon, who was absent, and then, raising her eyes from her shoes said:
Well, I think we all are said Brian Pelleroe, who had unaccountably abandoned his fisherman’s jersey for a funereal lounge suit.
But the question is what do we DO about it? You missed the earlier discussion. Vince (with a nod to the trade union delegates) and the majority of comrades feel that calling in the police would damage the Party – but I have to say (his voice rising angrily) as far as I’m concerned it goes against the grain..
She glanced at Hazel who looked away - and gripped her chair as the room and everyone in it spun before her eyes.
The police? For 23 votes? She had to get out – anywhere – away from there.
Ned Pitt blocked her exit and shouted angrily:
You see? THIS is the damage! THIS is what happens if we brush it under the carpet and do a whitewash - sorry Vince but it’s got to be said! Bright, new members will jump off board like rats leaving a sinking ship! And if you haven’t got the guts to ring the police about Ron Butcher then I will!
Sylvia brought the drinks to their table at the Malmsey Head and she wished that the landlord would do something about the jukebox.
I’m on Fire by Bruce Springsteen was on its third outing in an hour and she didn’t think she could take much more of With or Without You from The Joshua Tree album either. In fact, the insistent music was extremely irritating and perhaps it was time for a change of venue.
You can never tell what goes on behind other people’s closed doors opined Gail, whose long-suffering nature induced her to see the best in everyone.
Poor Clare – that Deposit Account was her LIFE – I’m sure she’s more upset about that than the loss of Ron – bastard that he is.
Ron Butcher, husband of Clare; custodian of Party principle; self-righteous bully and hairy ginger prig had left his wife and his job at the Peacock Heating Company and had run off to live with a customer in Lowerbridge.
The week beforehand, he had made a fulsome speech at a friend’s wedding, praising the joys of married life with particular reference to Clare.
And he had stolen the contents of the Deposit Account to finance his new love nest.
The Laceybrook by election and her ignominious role in it had been totally eclipsed by the Butcher affair and the impending court action. Ron had been tracked down swiftly and could expect a brief custodial sentence; Clare had not been seen in public and was not answering the telephone and the local paper had splashed the story.
Bastard is too good for him pronounced Hazel, tucking into smoky bacon crisps with a relish that forecast the failure of her recent enrolment at Weight Watchers.
But – men are all the same – the only difference between Ron Butcher and, say, Dickon Cleave is that Dickon’s got more opportunity for obvious reasons.
The mention of Dickon Cleave found her rummaging in her bag and hoping that nobody had noticed that she was breathing more quickly.
And of course Jessamy’s been left holding the baby again – or not, in this case!
I mean we all knew he put it about – but getting a student pregnant!! He might lose his job!
He’s certainly losing his touch, said Sylvia sagely.
Since I’ve known him he’s gone through virtually all the available women in the Party and some of the not so available – but I thought he knew how to use a condom! They don’t always. That’s why I went back to the pill after Ida.
But getting back to Dickon – I doubt we’ll see him again. How did you get on with him (taking one of Hazels’ crisps) at that by-election? We all wondered if he’d have a go - especially as you’re new. Bit of a challenge I expect!
She decided that it would be wise to have an early night in view of a heavy teaching schedule tomorrow at Gridchester and told Hazel that she would take the bus home.
And as for Dickon Cleave – nothing could be farther from the truth.
I don’t think I’m his type, she said.