Monday, 2 September 2013

Best Blessings of Existence 51

Things fall apart...

Holidaying on a Greek island alongside marauding teenage booze hounds might not be cheerful, but would certainly be cheap.

She had pressed the claims of Verona and Sardinia but Paul assured her that neither met their budget:

So what do you fancy, Ayia Napa, Kos – or we could motor down and take a break in the South of France?

She didn’t fancy any of it, but faced with Paul’s preference for a traditional gite (meaning primitive, verging on filthy, with unspeakable toilets) it was no contest because Ayia Napa was out of the question.

They arrived in Kos at the beginning of August, depositing Vanessa and Richard with her parents.

The hotel was decent and so was Kos, once she had overcome an instinctive reluctance to spurn any of the sights recommended by Kathryn who had been on some tremendous digs in the vicinity of Kardamena.

Days assumed a routine; mornings meant temples and ruins; beach or pool denoted après-midi and they could be found most evenings taking dinner in one of the town tavernas.
Then it was travel Scrabble, nightcaps and bed, followed by breakfast and a repetition of the same.

Afternoons were her best time; perched on a hotel sun lounger (Paul preferred the beach, but she hated the sensation of sand under her feet) with The Bone People by Keri Hulme or Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table. Before leaving home she had packed nine holiday books and these additional treats had sidled into the suitcase; courtesy of reviews in The Sentinel on Sunday.

Reading was serious stuff and she prided herself on never judging a book by its cover.

It was a principle she had failed to observe when selecting a husband.

As he tucked into a dish of souvlaki and the inevitable Greek salad, she thought that in terms of the cover test, Paul looked decidedly dog-eared. The aquiline features of the Frank Churchill manqué (Bunters circa 1977) had been overlain by fleshiness around nose and jaw, and a pink hue that owed more to Jameson’s than sunshine.

He was not fat, but an established roll of flesh straining against the buttons of his red, white and black holiday camp shirt necessitated averting the eyes when the Full Monty was paraded to all-comers on the beach.

Of course many – even the majority - of British males en vacances looked execrable with their lurid shorts or (worse) posing pouches and sandals.
And most men who would not see thirty again were carrying a few extra pounds – Fatty for example.

But she was not married to Fatty, and the fact remained that these days, Paul looked better in a business suit than a birthday suit.

She caught her own reflection in a glass, wincing at the hint of double chin and a hairstyle that was neither Annie Lennox crop nor chin length bob. She was 34. Paul was 39.

And they were well on the way to fat and forty.

They finished the meal; paid up and walked the short distance to the hotel, where they ordered Metaxa for him, ouzo for her ,and unleashed the Travel Scrabble.
Tomorrow they would visit the Mosque of Hassan Pasha, lunch at the harbour and write postcards in ‘wish you were here' mode.

In vino veritas

Without the camouflage of children, dog, work, The Duke and the Nuttalls; she and her husband had little or nothing to say to each other.

Will Ladislaw of Bunters had become the Casaubon of Kos.

Two years earlier, circa August 1987, new starts had been the flavour of the month.
Politically, business as usual applied only to the ruling Tories.
The Party had added precisely three seats to its 1983 tally and majorities in constituencies like Lowerbridge were now wafer thin.

Poor Derek – oh damn!

cursed Sylvia who had snagged her black Wolford tights on one of the packing crates in Hazel’s front room.

I don’t know why you dislike him! He must have nightmares about getting kicked out – and he always seems less stuck up than some of them.

The thought of Derek being kicked out was truly delicious but she could not share it, and right now, the person who had received the order of the boot (metaphorically, if not literally) was Martin Sweet.

Hazel called time on the marriage shortly after the election; rented a flat above the feminist bookshop in Gridchester and was now in the process of moving.

Martin and the fish would remain in the marital home.

Hazel’s bombshell was dropped almost en passant at the end of their weekly drink at the Malmsey Head.

Martin and I are splitting; can you give me a hand with the move?

This was why they were filling packing crates and orange boxes and ferrying them to the flat in Gridchester.
It was cramped and a bit dingy, but Hazel planned to decorate it, and Poppy (who ran the bookshop as a cooperative) would be a good neighbour.

Her first thought was that as far as Martin was concerned, still waters ran deep.

Hazel’s husband was a weekend twitcher and apart from a secondary interest in tropical fish, had no other hobbies outside Party activity. Who had he met – and more importantly; where had he met her?

Twitchers were solitary by nature and added to that, Martin’s aversion to eating anything that had not been cooked at home (or scooped from one of the tins in the Sweet larder) made him an improbable philanderer.

On the other hand, they had recruited a couple of new members during the General Election campaign and Martin had been seen leafleting with one of them.
But Cheryl Smithers, who worked behind the counter at the wholefood shop, was in her fifties --- still, she was pretty trim and Hazel had let herself go.

Some men preferred older women.

However, Martin Sweet’s sexual preferences were in this instance, irrelevant.

There’s no one else: I was just dying inside,

observed Hazel cheerfully.

We haven’t had a conversation for years; we go nowhere; do nothing – and as for a sex life!

They did not ask her to elaborate, but she exchanged glances with Gail and Sylvia.

Hazel was a good ten years older than the rest of them. Her children had flown the nest; she had worked at the Council with Martin for the entire duration of her marriage and the idea of starting over at 46, to quote the late lamented John Lennon – was unthinkable.

Do you think it’s the menopause?

whispered Sylvia as soon as Hazel went to the toilet.

Although if it is, she ought to be grateful – I had another scare last month. I mean – what will she do? Do you think she’ll go berserk and wear boob tubes and short skirts and take lovers? How positively AWFUL if she does…

The thought of Hazel (thirteen stone in Evans’ smocks), doing any such thing- was grotesque, as Paul, who disliked 'Stalin’s Granny', was quick to point out.

Old Mart’s had a lucky escape! Imagine knocking on heaven’s door shackled to that!
He’ll be squiring some fit piece as soon as Granny’s packed her bloomers!

This insufferable comment, made whilst she had just spent an hour on the family ironing, prompted her to leap to Hazel’s defence – boob tubes or not.

That’s terribly unkind – and anyway, I don’t know what you’ve got against Hazel; you’re always horrible about her.

I think she’s really brave to get out of a dead-end marriage; they never go out, never go on holiday, and the bloody fish are virtually pushing her off the sofa!
I hope she gets a toy-boy – or TWO – so I can have one!

She spat the last comment, softening its impact with a smile.

Paul picked his shirts out of the pile and detached Richard’s hand from the cord of the iron.

Steady Sweetie … this little chap nearly had an accident….
Think I might pop round on Mart; maybe he’d like a jar in The Duke on darts night.

Replying was pointless.

In the short term, Hazel acquired neither gigolos nor toy boys – but changes were made. She lost weight, having renounced comfort eating, and the smocks were replaced by a rather preppy style; shirts, well cut jeans and penny loafers from Jones the Bootmaker.

Martin had kept the television, so she made do with a radio and joined a small theatre club. And she left her job and joined up instead with Poppy in the cooperative bookshop. At Party meetings she was civil to Martin; her children were too absorbed by their own love lives to fret about the potential peccadilloes of their mother, and she ditched the red cagoule.

Hazel Sweet was happy.

It’s worked out for her, admitted Gail, rather fretfully as they finished their drinks at The Malmsey Head; minus Hazel who had gone to Brussels on a Singles Weekend.

You never know, she might be swept off her feet by some gorgeous hunk. She certainly gets out enough – she’s never in!

They were officially pleased for Hazel; but privately each felt slightly peeved. because Hazel’s new life served to highlight the shortcomings of their old ones.

Sylvia’s disquiet was understandable. Brian and Lisbet Pelleroe had left the Party; whispers on the grapevine hinted that Gridchester’s Chief Rodent Officer was applying for new jobs, and Sylvia was happily spared the torment of attending meetings and encountering the repellent couple.

But the unpleasant publicity had left its mark. Shaun remained chilly and Joe was bullied by infants at his primary school who repeated their parents’ gossip without understanding the words.

Joe did not understand either; but a week of playground hounding

Ho! Ho! Your Mummy’s a Ho!

culminated in him fleeing the classroom and cowering behind the bushes at the back of the playing field, where he was discovered an hour later with wet pants and cut knees.
Sylvia attended a meeting with the Head where they agreed a school/home support programme for Joe; but his mother considered that she had been criminalised.

It was horrid; that nasty old bag kept on mentioning Social Workers and said something about children being damaged by unusual family set-ups. And nothing happened – NOTHING! Apart from slaving over a stove to make a pie that they FORCED into the carpet! I wish I’d shoved it in Lisbet’s face!

Gail’s source of unease had political rather than personal origins.

The disastrous Election results prompted renewed speculation about the Party’s ability to survive the 20th century. The Leader had fallen on his sword; but his successor, a former Ear, Nose and Throat specialist without a bedside manner, realised that a narrative (or scapegoat) must be found.

The Red Heart Sect, so destructive in Lowerbridge and elsewhere, seemed specially tailored for the role.

Battle was engaged at the 1987 Conference.

Entirely without warning, the Leader’s speech was ditched in favour of a rigorous debate about the infiltration of Red Heart at every level of the Party. She watched television highlights as delegates hailing from the length and breadth of the nation took to the podium to denounce the Sect and all its followers.

It was galling to see Derek Kingsmill in starring role; detailing the crimes and misdemeanours of Party members in Lowerbridge, including a Council Leader who had corrupted the channels of democracy, imposing extreme and revolutionary policies by bullying, intimidating and blackmailing the members.

And worst of all, they had been siphoning money from the Party into a secret slush fund held by Red Heart nationally.

Red Heart was a cancer feeding on Party flesh, but he had confidence that the new Leader; a former medical man

would whet his knife and slice it out!

Derek’s peroration assaulted her ears in a high pitched squeal (like a stuck pig) and the Leader; riding the acclamation, announced a programme of show trials to expose, expel and dispatch Red Heart and consign its followers to oblivion.

Duncan Musgrave, Norris Farmer’s replacement as Head of the Sectional Team. was a man from the same mould as the Leader ,and was determined that Gridchester North would pay for its role in scuppering the General Election.

Shortly after the Conference, Secretary Peabody received a letter outlining a root and branch investigation into the workings of the local Party.

Hearings of named individuals would be conducted on consecutive Saturdays at the St John’s Ambulance hut, and members wishing to supply information about their colleagues could be assured that this would be received in strictest confidence. If summoned for examination, colleagues (not comrades) should note that it would be in their best interests to attend.

It was all very frightening, and despite the assurances of Fred Hoy, who had replaced Brian as Chairman:

Lot of hullabaloo about nothing! It’ll blow over – it always does!

she felt extremely uneasy.

The whole thing had a whiff of 1984 and Ivan Denisovich about it and she dreaded the arrival of the post and the sight of a tell-tale envelope, adorned with the Party’s familiar franking, topping the pile on her doorstep.

Paul, by contrast, found the situation hilarious and lost no time in ringing Donald, Gillian and Eric to say so.

Bloody marvellous! I’ve half a mind to join myself so that I can denounce a ridiculous old boot called Stalin’s Granny! Can’t wait to see if this one (prodding her stomach playfully) gets called in!
Yes! (to Eric). Just like McCarthy!
I’ve asked her if she’s been selling that paper to keep her in tights!

Oh come ON darling! Just joking!

If there was a funny side, she had missed it.

It was all right for Paul. He wasn’t a member and was spared the atmosphere of mistrust and hatred that now poisoned meetings; or the shared, but unvoiced realisation that denouncing an unpleasant colleague might be the best way of getting rid of them.

Ned Pitt was an early victim.

Gail called after her hospital shift, fresh from depositing Daisy at the village hall, where she was meeting friends from The Woodcraft Folk brass-rubbing group.
Usually, Gail Pitt was renowned for a stoical cast of mind that led some to impose upon her good nature, but Ned’s interview at the hut had disturbed her equilibrium
She had not changed out of her uniform, and toyed fretfully with one of the flapjacks that Vanessa had made at school.

He’s been accused of selling the paper and giving the proceeds to Sect members in Lowerbridge!

Well – he’s been working in Lowerbridge recently; it was quite a big job installing central heating in one of those Victorian houses in Sacheveral Way. Apparently, it’s owned by the College Principal, but he doesn’t KNOW them – or if they’re in the Party. How would he?

You don’t have that sort of conversation with a client.
Musgrave refused to say who’d tipped them off – and of course, Ned had to admit he’d read the paper – well, we all have.

This was true.

Copies of Pulse, the Red Heart paper had been appearing at meetings in the back room at The Duke or in the St John’s Ambulance hut for the past year or so.
Nobody had thought anything of it. She took a second flapjack, and decided that Vanessa’s first cordon-bleu efforts had turned out really rather well.

I thought, she replied between mouthfuls

that Darren was sent them from Party HQ along with other bumph – like the NHS stuff and non-nuclear defence policy briefings.

Gail deputised for Darren when he attended football fixtures at Gridchester Wanderers instead of Party meetings at The Duke, and was adamant that this was not the case. Darren had nothing to do with the papers. They were normally in a pile at the back of the room at the start of meetings and somebody took them away at the end.

She thought (although she could not be sure) that she might have seen Chantelle Beech with one or two copies and a collection tin – but there again, from behind, the dyed hair and black roots could have belonged to Sian Norfolk.

Ned had admitted to buying a paper; if dropping a few coins into a collection tin on a table amounted to a purchase – but the destination of the tin at the end of the evening was anybody’s guess.

It’s destroying him

said Gail, in a tone of barely suppressed horror as she described how Ned had come home from the St John’s Ambulance hut and then proceeded to get completely blotto on left - over Strongbrew from Maureen’s fish and chip social.
And he doesn’t even like it!

Duncan Musgrave, who was rapidly acquiring the fearsome reputation of a Nuremberg inquisitor, had declared that he remained to be convinced that Ned had not embarked upon a course of action that could be described as prejudicial to the Party. His membership had been suspended pending further enquiries.

Although at this rate, hissed Gail angrily as she left to pick up her daughter, there won’t be anyone left to embark upon anything! Laurence has been called in next, and the Beeches have already been suspended over that car boot sale.

I feel like tearing up my card – save them the bother!

The idea that Ned Pitt, (a Party loyalist to his toes who pounded the streets come rain or shine in one of the safest Tory strongholds in the nation) could embark upon anything, whether prejudicial or not, was ludicrous.

But Lester Beech would stop at nothing, and his very existence was prejudicial to the fabric of a civilised society!

Her father would have called him a tyke ,and she winced at the thought of his drunken aggression in The Duke, when he had pushed his face so close to hers that she could smell his breath and see a food particle lodged between his two front teeth. He hated her because he knew that she knew the truth about the car boot sale.

For once the children settled for a quiet bedtime, pacified by hot chocolate and Vanessa’s flapjacks.

She pottered about aimlessly, reflecting that Paul was late again (first round of the Fairway/ St Agnes Convent debating competition), for the third time that week, and switched on the television for the nine o’clock news – to be confronted with a mug shot of Brian Pelleroe and a scenic view of the spice factory.

Duncan Musgrave, a small man, channelling a bank manager with navy blue suit and clipped moustache, was confiding to camera outside the St John’s Ambulance hut that the investigation of the Gridchester Party was progressing as well as could be expected at this stage and that no, of course it wasn’t a witch-hunt.
The Party would be strengthened when the process was complete, and members in Gridchester and elsewhere might rest assured that all and any information leading to the ejection of the rotten apples would be treated in the strictest confidence.

She turned off the set just as Paul arrived, bearing a polythene bag containing a meal for two from the Chinese takeaway.

Witch-hunts, she mused, were naturally unpleasant for the witch - but seen from the perspective of the hunter…

A letter to Duncan Musgrave might be a very good idea

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