The role of Applications Secretary was less onerous that she had feared, because Gridchester North proved to be predictably unappealing to ambitious Party hopefuls.
The seat had been advertised locally, regionally and in national communications, but her letterbox was of interest to no one but Splosh, who enjoyed impersonating a Rottweiler at a set time on a daily basis.
In vain she explained that the family dog was a softie with ideas above his station, but the postman was not to be dissuaded and took to leaving his wares in a neat pile on the doorstep.
It did not contain a wealth of applications for Gridchester North.
With two days before shut-down, only three intrepid individuals had thrown their hats into the ring.
The first, as expected, was the 1983 candidate, Austin Cox. Cox was a perfectly acceptable and respectable barrister; specialising in company law with chambers in London.
In his mid sixties, he was a solid Party man (and donor) who had no wish to leave a lucrative career for the ignominious life of a backbencher.
He was however keen to do his bit, by flying the Party flag in an unwinnable seat.
Rhiannon Knight was his polar opposite.
Aged 26, she was really Lady Rhiannon Knight, but studying at the LSE had led her to sacrifice a life of privilege (excepting, of course, her monthly parental allowance and Trust Fund) for dedication to the struggle.
She now served on one of the London loony left bodies and had persuaded the Education Authority to proscribe the teaching of the novels of DH Lawrence and Conrad on grounds of overt racist and sexist content.
The third applicant was Brian Pelleroe.
It was an underwhelming list; a ringing endorsement of Norris Farmer’s pessimism.
The stage was therefore set for a brief Selection Committee meeting to shortlist all applicants and determine arrangements for a Hustings Conference when party members would have the opportunity of listening to and voting for, the candidates of their choice.
The candidate who obtained 50% of the vote plus one would be duly anointed as the Party’s champion in Gridchester North.
The Selection Committee meeting was convened and Christine had been booked to babysit from 8.30pm onwards because it was her wedding anniversary.
Paul had secured a table for two at the trendy fish restaurant overlooking the Floribunda Gardens in Gridchester and she was looking forward to it.
The Secret Shell with its funky décor and crashing wave sound effects was expensive; usually beyond their budget, but worth every penny. The Dover sole was superb and she had never tasted such exquisite skate outside France.
Also, she and Paul had survived their rocky patch and were now sailing in much calmer marital waters.
Since the Nuttalls’ party sounded the last hurrah for the Fairway sixth form play, home life had been remarkably harmonious.
Paul’s initiative in reporting the peculiar telephone calls to the supplier had borne fruit and they were spending more time together as a family.Once again, a romantic break a deux was on the cards, and the heavy silver bracelet that she had received from her husband as an anniversary gift was both unexpected and tasteful
He had even thought to arrange a hand-made card from Vanessa and a bunch of flowers from Richard!
But as she picked out a becoming black cotton shift dress (acceptable for the meeting and yet smart enough for the restaurant) she had a sense of foreboding that for once, was nothing to do with her husband.
Paul had made the children their favourite tea; peanut butter sandwiches followed by chocolate Angel Delight, and had officiated at Richard’s bath time: successfully, judging from the laughter floating down the stairs.
She had no complaints on that score.
Her unease was due to a last-minute application for the Gridchester North seat that she wished had got lost in the post.
She walked through the door of the St John’s Ambulance hut to find Norris Farmer preparing to chair the Selection meeting.
He had no interest in Gridchester North or its candidate and every reason to hope that the short-listing process would be a rubber-stamping affair. Short of condoning a convicted criminal, he would have approved any candidate currently resident in the United Kingdom who was literate and numerate. A name on the ballot paper was required; a name would be supplied. Job done.
Far more worrying was the situation in Lowerbridge, where the troublesome Red Heart sect had infiltrated the local Party and was threatening to unseat Derek Kingsmill.
In fact, there was a potentially explosive Party meeting in Lowerbridge later that evening, and his presence was essential to head off a vote of No Confidence in the MP.
Time wasted on Gridchester was time stolen from Lowerbridge and his peremptory clicking noises signalled that comrades should come to attention.
As she took the vacant seat between Hazel and Martin Sweet, she noticed that the usual suspects had been augmented by two less familiar faces. She had met Lester and Chantelle Beech at one of Maureen Booth’s fundraising events.
Maureen was the widow of Melvin; a miner and staunch trade unionist, one of the Grichester party’s folk heroes and a former constituency official.
Prior to her husband’s death from lung cancer, Mrs Booth had been content to stay in the background, offering support at the polling station on election days but had now re-invented herself as a fund-raiser.
Her efforts were not lavish; a fish'n'chip supper here, a quiz evening there – but they paid the bills and the bric-a-brac car boot sale outside The Duke was intended to finance an introductory leaflet for the Gridchester North parliamentary candidate.
Paul had absolutely refused to load the boot of his car with tat and attempt to sell it to Duke regulars like Fatty and Mick, so she joined Hazel and Martin who had loaded their car with half-decent junk from the garage.
The Beeches and their son Darren occupied the slot next to the green Renault and she noticed that their van, emblazoned on the door with the slogan:
YOU CAN’T BEAT BEECH
followed by contact details of the family electrical business, contained wares of a very specific nature.
Sony stereo systems; Matsushita video recorders and popular films to play on the system that were not yet available for sale or rent, typified the goods on offer, and all appeared to be new rather than second-hand.
Not surprisingly, the crowds surrounding the Beech van ignored the likes of Hazel’s perfectly pleasant willow-pattern china teapot, and after four hours of dogged endurance, it was decided that the tally of precisely £22.65 would have to do.
The Beeches, by contrast, left with an empty van –having disposed of its entire contents in the space of two hours.
It was a surprise to discover at the next Party meeting that the total profit from the car boot sale had been a disappointing £172. 98.
Those video recorders might have had wings the way they were flying out of the van! she observed to Gail who was now deputising as Treasurer for the absent Clare Butcher.
Were they giving them away?
I doubt it very much, replied Gail.
They donated precisely £50 of their takings, saying that the rest of the money covered the costs of ‘Our Darren’ rigging up a sound system and paying the band for the Christmas disco.
It’s all lies – they’ve just used the Party for a car boot slot to flog ‘back of a lorry’ stuff. But what can we do? We’ve only just got over Ron Butcher!
The idea that the Party been exploited by three of its members as cover for the sale of stolen goods was deplorable, and when she was informed that the path of least resistance was chosen because Lester Beech was suspected of having at least one spent conviction for violence and could get nasty, she was simply appalled.
And here were the Beeches, sitting at the right hand of Norris Farmer on the Selection Committee, smirking and winking smugly.
It was detestable.
Norris, who was determined to wind up business as soon as possible, rattled through the section of the Rule Book entitled: The Selection of Parliamentary Candidates, suggested that Gridchester Little Theatre would be an appropriate venue for the Hustings and final vote and proposed that all three candidates be invited to attend on a date to be decided, one month from today.
And that should be all, he pronounced, rising to his feet and no doubt musing that the determination of a candidate shortlist in 12 minutes flat, was something of a personal record.
She looked at her feet and coughed. It was now or never.
There has been, she said, producing a brown A4 envelope
another application. It came before noon on the cut-off day, so it has to be considered – and it’s a woman so that would mean two men and two women in terms of gender balance? (Looking hopefully around the table).
I knew it! shouted Fred Hoy, throwing his cap into the air and glaring triumphantly at Norris Farmer.
I said we were being defeatist! I KNEW that this would be just the right launch pad for a future Prime Minister!
And who (turning to her and smiling)
Is the brave young lady?
She took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes.
Clare Butcher, she replied.
Norris Farmer did not to get to the Lowerbridge meeting and Derek Kingsmill had to beat off a spirited challenge from Red Heart without his assistance.
She did not enjoy an anniversary dinner at The Secret Shell and suspected that the fragile green shoots of marital recovery withered and died when she telephoned her husband from the public bar in The Duke where they had repaired after the meeting to inform him that something had come up and it was totally impossible for her to get away.
She sat beside Hazel and the girls in a corner, sipping wine in her dinner dress and experiencing sensations of utter misery ;wondering (not for the first time ) whether the Party really was an organisation that she wished to belong to, support, or even vote for.
Twenty-three years later, including her eight years as an MP, the question remained the same.
She still wanted an answer.