Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Best Blessings of Existence 49

in which Emma B speaks of rats, and of what was always going to happen

Brian Pelleroe was selected to fight the Party’s corner in Gridchester North at the 1987 General Election. Sixty seven people turned up to a dingy Little Theatre auditorium on a wet Saturday afternoon in February to question the candidates and cast their votes.

The venue had seen better days but was never short of custom. When an indifferent travelling repertory company was not using it as the base for a summer comedy (The Importance of Being Earnest or Absurd Person Singular) it was an automatic choice for school Speech Days.

At General Elections, it became a whistle-stop in Week Three of the Tory Prime Minister’s nationwide tour when its pillars, seats and balconies were festooned with Union Jack paraphernalia.

Now it presented au naturel; save for a Party banner, hastily rigged up and draped over a podium on the stage.

The programme of events offered little to startle and amaze.
Austin Cox, perhaps surmising that he was unlikely to get a second chance to redeem his unfortunate 1983 result, had withdrawn from the contest and Party members voted on a ratio of roughly two to one, for their Chairman.

The two candidates were underwhelming; their relative strengths and weaknesses finely balanced.

Brian was blessed with an intimate knowledge of Gridchester (perhaps too intimate for the squeamish) but his knowledge of wider policy was limited.
Leonora knew nothing about Gridchester and everything about the radical feminist politics of London boroughs.
She had some support.

Chantelle and Lester Chase imagined that she might encourage her society connections to befriend their wastrel son Darren – but they were fighting a lost cause.

It was always going to be Brian, observed number one fan, Sylvia Mills when her hero triumphed.

And it was.

She had attended the Selection Conference because of her role as Applications Secretary, but spoiled her ballot paper and went straight home, spurning Sylvia’s offer of a celebratory drink.
The house was empty. Paul had taken children and dog to the park and she fussed around in the kitchen, mincing lamb in the Kenwood and dicing carrots for a shepherd’s pie. She had nobody to talk to about the performance in the Little Theatre and her husband’s jaunty comment on his return:

So who won – the Duchess or the Rat Catcher?

was not intended to start a conversation.

Rat Catcher, she replied, dishing up the dinner.

She did not add that she had voted for Clare Butcher.

Over the next few months, her enthusiasm for Party activity waned, and
encounters with the girls became tense.

Evenings at The Malmsey Head or watching a video chez Sweet were not the acme of social entertainment, but they were fun and she looked forward to them. Now, the atmosphere was soured because Hazel, Gail and Sylvia were on one side of the Butcher divide and she was on the other.

I just don’t get it! Hazel had said, voicing the collective view.

You KNOW how awful the Butchers are – Ron’s a criminal; we’ve had week after week of bad publicity and it’s not as if you owe Clare any favours!
If Ron hadn’t made off with the Deposit Account, she’d have hung you out to dry over Laceybrook!

There was more of the same from Sylvia, overlain with added barbs about disloyalty to Brian. Gail as usual, was quiet, but her nods and sniffs were eloquent.

She had tried.

It was not that she liked Clare – in fact she remained extremely critical about the way that the Butchers had trampled over what passed for democracy to preserve a vice-like grip on the Party.

But Clare, unlike Ron, had been convicted of nothing and to keep her off a shortlist because of the crimes and misdemeanours of her errant husband was unfair and despicable.

Clare Butcher had suffered discrimination in her professional ambition because she had the misfortune to have married the wrong man and if this was to set a precedent for ALL women who had picked a less than perfect husband….

She was unwilling to pursue that train of thought to its logical conclusion, but the gulf was insurmountable. It was best to leave it.
Life minus the intrigues and distractions of the Grichester Party continued as normal – at least for the rest of her family.

Vanessa was now a firmly established member of the Reception Class at school; the proud owner of a My Little Pony lunch box and best friend to a burgeoning number of small girls. Richard’s name was on a waiting list for playgroup, and terry training pants rather than disposable nappies were now the predominant fixture in his wardrobe.

Paul had a full social diary. If he was not carousing in The Duke with Fatty’s gang he was attending Schoolmasters’ Convention representing Independent Day Schools. John Nuttall was openly acknowledged as his closest colleague and she had to endure many evenings en famille; either slaving in her own kitchen, or eating burnt offerings from Kathryn’s.
In May, The Family Court’s decision to award Nicola an increase in maintenance, sounded the death knell to holiday plans, but Lynne’s postcard was the clincher.

Lynne had been seconded on a year’s contract to Toronto as a senior advisor on city-wide climate change measures. A spacious bay and gable house in Little Italy was part of the package and the nightlife was incredible.

The General Election was set for June.

She was back on board.

Initial indicators were promising. Lester Beech had offered to manage campaign finances (as a small businessman) but she was delighted that his itchy palm was firmly rejected in preference to Gail Pitt’s safe pair of hands.

After all, she said, stacking election leaflets into piles of fifty

the only difference between him and Ron Butcher is that Butcher got caught.

She was sitting with the girls at Sylvia’s kitchen table, surrounded by leaflets, A4 boxes and the Tornadoes, Sylvia’s less than placid offspring. Christine was babysitting which was fortunate because when she had taken Sylvia at her word:

Bring the kids – they can play with mine

it ended in tears and a dash to Accident and Emergency after Ida had poked Richard’s eye with a pencil.

Paul was vicious; accusing her of child neglect if not outright abuse and it was easier not to retort that all and any accidents would have been avoided if just for once, he had shared the burden of childcare.

The campaign in Gridchester was a haphazard affair, unlike the machine politics powering Derek Kingsmill’s battle in Lowerbridge. Shadow Cabinet Ministers visiting factories, nurseries and council estates with Derek in their wake were constantly popping up in The Gridchester Post and she had stopped watching the regional television news because the constant presence of Derek in her lounge was distasteful.

Her enjoyment of national programmes was soured for the same reason.

If it was not Derek, musing on the responsibility of defending a little red island in a sea of blue it was Robbie Nantwich treating the great and good to his ironic delivery and lip curls and sometimes Robbie Nantwich interviewing Derek.

For once she was happy to acquiesce when Paul assaulted her ears with the latest Bartok album.

Anything was preferable to Derek.

As expected, Norris Farmer and his Sectional Team colleagues left Gridchester well alone. Honour had been satisfied by the selection of a candidate and they neither knew nor cared about the fate of that candidate.

The various stages of the campaign proceeded in their accustomed fashion.
Leaflet delivery was better than expected, but, as usual, there was a shortage of canvassers. Party members were unwilling to risk life and limb by knocking on the doors of strangers in such a hopeless cause.

And I do think, said Sylvia waspishly, opening a litre bottle of supermarket chardonnay,

that Lisbet should set an example. People WANT to know that the candidate is a nice rounded person with a family, just like theirs. She’s never there. Poor Brian has to go round all on his own.

Gail coughed, the unspoken sign between the rest of them that Sylvia was yet again indulging in her favourite pursuit; obsessing about Brian and bad-mouthing his wife.

It was as unfair as blaming Clare Butcher for the crimes of the Peacock Heating Thief – and where were these ideal families to be found except in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel?

She became part of Brian’s select (small) canvassing team and found the experience intensely depressing.

Hazel and Martin had been shocked when (as The Cagoules) they had turned up on her doorstep in 1983, because she had arraigned them, when all she was supposed to do was to speak one of two words when asked which way she would vote.

The same weakness bedevilled her as a canvasser.

She wanted to talk to people and it felt unspeakably rude to throw metaphorical cold water in the friendly faces of the few who were pleased to see them.

We don’t care what they think; we need to know how they’ll vote, instructed Martin, in long-suffering tones – but she was a lost cause and in the absence of others, would have to do.

From time to time, they met the Tory team (or squadron) headed by their captain, candidate Borthwick Prosser.

Prosser was what her father would have termed an oik; all slicked back hair and Aramis aftershave; loud striped shirts, patterned braces and gold plated cufflinks.
He and his glossy posse swept, in Hermes, down the streets like a plague of marauding locusts, armed to the hilt with clipboards, badges and leaflets taunting I SPY REDS UNDER THE BEDS whenever they happened to collide with Brian’s team.

Hazel was right; he was detestable – but she could also see that he was effective in a way that Brian was not.

Starting with matters sartorial…

Unlike retiring MP, Hedley Mount, Prosser was not a client of Saville Row and in comparison with the elegant MP (whose wardrobe channelled that of HRH the Prince of Wales); his style might be deemed vulgar.

But Brian had no style at all.

Come rain or shine, he sported his lucky canvassing coat; an unfortunate cross between a donkey jacket and quilted Gannex in a depressing sludge colour.
Similarly, his speciality fisherman’s jerseys, trousers best known as slacks with sag at the seat and knee and footwear akin to hiking boots were not designed to inspire confidence.

Worst of all, in place of Aramis was the ever present and overpowering odour arising from the chemicals he worked with as a Rodent Officer.

Requiring a 46-year-old man to ditch the habits of a lifetime and invest in a total makeover was obviously a step too far – but she did think he could do something about the smell.

It isn’t as if it’s that antiseptic carbolic smell, she whispered to the girls when Sylvia was out of the room

It’s got a hint of raw sewage and every time I’m on a doorstep with Brian, I’m wondering if people have noticed --- it’s downright anti social turning up and STINKING at the voters like that….

Hazel and Gail agreed; but as the prospect of broaching matters of personal hygiene with the candidate was out of the question, suggested addressing the matter by wearing extra strong perfume.

It was a solution – of sorts.

Of equal concern was Brian’s canvassing strategy.

He had won the selection on the grounds of

Knowing every inch of Gridchester like the back of my hand

but he knew some areas better than others; including a large run-down estate on the edge of the city. The Nye Estate, built cheaply and hastily at the beginning of the 60s, was home to petty criminals, one-parent families, the jobless and work-shy – and was fertile ground for social workers police officers and, as Brian had discovered in a professional capacity, rats.

The run-down houses and junk-filled gardens bestrewn with refuse were unlikely to contain Borthwick voters; Brian was right about that.

But she felt that he was wrong to assume that such an estate might be packed to the gills with Pelleroe fans – after all, why would people who had been visited by Brian as Chief Rodent Officer to eliminate the vermin that their lifestyle had encouraged wish to elect him as their MP?

The majority of people on the Nye Estate were unlikely to vote at all, and it would be more worthwhile to visit the professional households in the Fleetwood Triangle who were worried about the cost of living and the decline of the NHS.

Brian, however, backed by Sylvia and the Vince O’Reilly trade union gang, knew better and the candidate spent his entire campaign revisiting the sites of previous infestations and setting up work for the future, although not of a parliamentary kind..

The last week of the campaign kicked off with a live candidate question and answer session in St Francis and All Saints church hall.

Paul, who had watched her efforts from the sidelines, decided to accompany her and Christine was engaged to babysit.

His presence was something of a relief.

There had been knowing looks and whispers in some quarters about the fact that her husband did not join her at Party events and she fancied that she had caught the name Dickon Cleave on the lips of enemies such as the Beeches after she had dared to stand up for Clare Butcher.

It was satisfying to sit in the front row next to Lisbet Pelleroe and her own well- dressed husband. Paul had not changed out of his work suit and she was wearing a new red dress from Benetton.

They were a smart couple.

The hall was packed; largely by supporters of the candidates. Members of the public had submitted questions in advance and debate then widened, with impromptu supplementary queries from the floor, fielded by Vicar Bottomley.

Radio Gridchester was recording the session with links to national broadcasts and Philip Twill from The Gridchester Post was the duty reporter. It was all rather exciting.

Brian versus Prosser was not such a one-sided contest as she had expected. Any Pelleroe weaknesses on national issues paled into insignificance beside the gross ignorance of Hayley Jones the Liberal candidate who began every answer with

As a wife and mother…

Also, Borthwick Prosser, to the unbiased eye, could be described as overly cocky.
Brian stood no chance of winning, but he might pick up a few more votes than Austin Cox in ’83 – which would be a good return for all the thankless work.

She looked at her watch. Time for one or at the most two, more questions.

Could I ask, offered a pompous voice coming from behind her

the candidates to say a little about nature and nurture?
From an environmental point of view?

Is it only possible to promote recycling, composting and bottle banks, for example in affluent areas? How can we ensure that the green message is universal and universally observed?

She looked over her shoulder at the speaker; the unmistakeable and seasoned Ernest Cummings, Tory Agent for the region, who had been present at the count for the Laceybrook by-election.

It was a trick question – and Prosser was well-prepared, judging by the ease in which he launched into a spiel about all things environmental and nothing of specific relevance.

Brian cleared his throat and paused.

I’m not quite sure, he faltered, what is the point of Mr Cummings’ question?

It’s simple! shouted Paul merrily.

He means, are poor people more likely to have their homes infested with rats?!

Well, yes, if you…. began Brian, but his words were drowned by the riot and in the interests of safety, he was removed by the police.

No comments: