Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Best Blessings of Existence 52

In which things look up for Emma B, but marital tennis is not played well.

Littlebury always got a good write up in the Best Places to Live features favoured by journalists (alongside items about celebrities with cellulite) in the August news graveyard. It won points for being quiet; unspoilt; surrounded by stunning scenery and at the same time thirty minutes from London on a fast train.

Local pubs and restaurants had character; the village green sported a charming duck pond that dried up in summer ,and Littlebury School enjoyed a national and international reputation.

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

John of Gaunt would have approved.

It was just the place to retire, acquire an education, or spend your husband’s money and as she fell into none of these categories, it was prison. Gridchester, by contrast, (and especially when memories were fuelled by a second glass of amaretto) became her Atlantis; a land of milk, honey, opportunity and like that island – utterly mythical.

But there was an element of truth.

Since graduating, her experience had been that when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions but as1988 began, good fortune, unlike lightning, struck twice.

At GC, she found herself the unexpected beneficiary of Selma Blaine’s breast cancer and early retirement.

The Principal; a skinflint of repute, calculated that it would make financial sense to pay her the extra allowance to lead Humanities. The Department would be one lecturer short – but no matter – they could all teach extra classes!

And I think you’ll find, said Alec Coverley, offering her the job, that everyone will be happy!

They weren’t; but after a month of wildcat strikes when she had to cross a makeshift picket line to get to her office, everything returned to normal; except that the extra money and additional responsibility was not normal at all.

It was utterly abnormal and she had never been happier. Perhaps she was a contender at last!

Paul’s enthusiasm was muted.

I worry, he confided to her mother, between mouthfuls of Victoria sandwich, that it’s going to be too much. She gets terribly tired as it is – isn’t that true Darling? The place is virtually a reformatory – VERY difficult kids – and then all that politicking in the evenings – something’s got to give and I fear (shooting her mother a doleful glance) that it’s going to be our two. Only yesterday Ness Ness said that she never sees Mummy (ruffling his daughter’s hair).

Oh dear, fretted her mother.

Now I don’t like the sound of that at all. No wonder Richie’s having so many tantrums. You’re never at home with him. I think you ought to work part time – at least until he starts school. Well, Paul – what about a jam tart?

This was rich coming from her mother; a woman who had returned to work as soon as was humanly possible, putting her only daughter into nursery a full term before the legal age. But Mother had morphed into Grandma and her ambition for that daughter had died with the birth of Vanessa.

She eyed the Victoria sandwich; stifling a desire to remove it from its cut glass cake stand and deposit it firmly in the middle of her husband’s face.

Her father cleared his throat and stood up from the table, brushing cake crumbs from his lap.

Very nice Flo – cake perfectly risen, eh Paul? And as for the job, let her take it (giving her a wink). At least there’s a salary – not like all that free teaching she did to help you out at Chudleigh! Now... just in time for A Question of Sport!

And he switched on the television; having launched a custard pie of the metaphorical variety at Paul and rescued the Victoria sandwich from possible annihilation. She helped her mother to wash up.

Paul did not like her new job; but apart from a few scathing comments to his family and the Nuttalls, could say little against it. Family finances were healthier; she paid a couple of the domestic bills and he had more money to squander in second hand bookshops and The Duke.
A holiday that was not to be endured in the company of mice and unspeakable insects in a French gite became a distinct possibility.

Her political fortunes likewise, were in the ascendant.

Following her letter to Duncan Musgrave, expressing serious concerns about the conduct of the Beech family, she was invited to attend for interview at The St John’s Ambulance hut.

Musgrave, flanked by two male assistants, similarly booted and suited, was an impassive figure with a hint of menace.

With no good reason, she formed the view that he disliked her and plunged into a stumbling (and she feared, unconvincing) account of Beech perfidy; the treatment of Clare Butcher – thus spawning a Tory MP in the making; the abusive drunken lunge in The Duke; the suspected black market trading and wheedling money from members to finance the nefarious operations of Red Heart.

As she was making these allegations, staring fixedly at a cracked window pane and avoiding the penetrating Musgrave stare, she became uncomfortably aware that apart from the treatment of Clare Butcher and aggression towards herself, it was just a jumble of supposition and conjecture that would never have withstood scrutiny in a court of law.

But this was not a court of law; it was a kangaroo court and her instinct was to destroy Lester Beech before he destroyed her.

Musgrave was non-committal; posed a few questions as to the precise location of the collection tin and the identity of the persons in closest proximity to it, thanked her for attending and then, by turning away and signalling to his colleagues, indicated that the interview was over.

It had been profoundly disconcerting and she reflected that on balance, writing the letter had been a mistake.

A Party meeting at The Duke was to prove pivotal.

She arrived with Gail, minus Hazel (whose attendance had declined since her separation from Martin) and Sylvia who, with husband Shaun, was suffering from shingles.

Perhaps they’re re-bonding after that Pelleroe business? suggested Gail optimistically.

She could not see that being confined to barracks, scratching sporadically next to a similarly afflicted spouse was the ideal new start for Sylvia and her husband, but nodded assent as they took their seats at a corner table.

The atmosphere matched landlady Pat’s funereal back room décor, and she noted that Duncan Musgrave was sitting at the top table, flanked by one of his Team inquisitors and a nervously twitching Fred Hoy.

A male voice bellowing swear words was audible from the main bar and she wondered which of the pub regulars had gone on a bender. Could it be Fatty? She fervently hoped that he would be banned.

It was not Fatty.

Duncan Musgrave apologised for the fact that Lester Beech had created a disturbance after being refused entrance. The assistance of the police had been necessary but (opening the door and peering round tentatively) he could say that the matter had now been dealt with.

After all, the Beech family were no longer members of the Party and could not be allowed to attend meetings.

He trusted that business would now be conducted in an open and transparent manner, after a successful Inquiry that had rooted out the rotten apples in Gridchester and elsewhere. Members who had assisted this process had performed a great service to the Party and their contribution to our politics would not be forgotten.

Fancy – Chair of the Party! enthused Sylvia.

And Gail the proper Secretary instead of pencil-sharpening for Peabody. This is a feminist revolution!

They were waiting to be served in the new vegetarian restaurant at The Jasmine Bay hotel after an invigorating sauna in the adjoining health club. The Malmsey Head evenings had been replaced by more varied pursuits at Hazel’s insistence; swimming; the odd yoga class (a disaster – whatever the lotus position was, it was a stretch too far); a women only book club at the cooperative, and now this.

Hazel had purchased tickets for next month’s all – female production of Macbeth (from a radical lesbian perspective) and everything was very different and uniquely dull. Since dispensing with Martin, the fish and the weight, she had become a fully paid up member of the Health Police and their outings had turned into a contest to see who could manage to sneak an extra glass of wine without incurring a disapproving lecture.

As Sylvia said:

Hazel was more fun when she was fat.

The strictures of Hazel Sweet (now Kendall; Hazel had reverted to her maiden name) notwithstanding; her own new role as Chair of the Gridchester North Party had come as a fait accompli.

After the Beech purges, Fred Hoy resigned and Duncan Musgrave gave a strong hint that the local Party (as evinced by the shocking abuse of Clare Butcher) was less than woman-friendly.

As Musgrave stressed ( tapping a flip chart by way of illustration), the socio economic priorities of Gridchester Girl were the key to electoral success; but the female component of the Gridchester Party was decidedly out of sync with the voting sisters.

This was a firm steer to elect a woman Chair; but the entrenched Party culture had attracted involvement from the wrong sort of women.

Maureen Booth and Cheryl Smithers were more suited to parties of the Tupperware variety and when Sian Norfolk (a student at GC) proposed her as Chair, there were no objections. Gail became Secretary; Hazel; Women’s Officer and Laurence Fernyclough Treasurer and token male.

The flower of manhood had been vanquished by the petticoat revolution

Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Paul greeted her elevated status with the usual irony and took to dubbing her Madame Mao; but many a true word is spoken in jest and the next six months ushered in a cultural revolution for the Gridchester Party.

We must start as we mean to go on!

pronounced Hazel, opening her briefcase and propping up the menu with a filofax.

And I’d recommend the falafel and adzuki bean salad – filling but not fattening if you get my drift!

Unfortunately, they did; exchanging glances and yearning for The Balti Bowl and its pickle tray. Freed from the shackles of pandering to Martin’s limited palate, Hazel might have been expected to embark upon a gastronomic splurge of gargantuan proportions – but had merely replaced the austerity of corned beef and tinned vegetables with dried pulses and all things wholemeal.

She had ordered a new range of vegetarian cookery books for the cooperative and the collected works of Rose Elliot had replaced the familiar tomes of Linda McCartney with their trademark vegetarian sausages. It was all very worthy and Hazel certainly looked good on it, but her heart was with Sylvia who commented trenchantly:

Life is too short to soak a chickpea; anything longer than five minutes under the grill and the kids create mayhem.

There was nothing for it but a secret binge on Geppetto’s pasta Alfredo with extra cream when Hazel left for work at the bookshop. The consumption of a second plate of garlic bread induced predictable feelings of guilt and when they left (after a very decent Chianti) each was a passionate advocate of The Kendall Plan to re-shape the Gridchester Party.

Paul initially balked at her proposed financial outlay on a word processor and answerphone and, not for the first time, she resented their joint bank account.

The necessity of destroying the monthly statement before her husband could deplore her regular expenditure at Next, Laura Ashley and Benetton was wearing – especially when such strictures did not apply to his own indulgence at antiquarian bookshops and visits to the Oxbridge colleges.

She also resented the expenditure from pooled finances that did not appear in any official document – on his secret stash – purchased from some source in Fairway and indulged, like a Victorian with snuff; at the end of an evening.

It was time to resort to desperate measures via a quick revision of The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort, but reprieve came in the unexpected form of her father in law.
Eric had signed a lucrative contract to write for The Gas; a sell-out paper, known contemptuously as The Comic by everyone from its Editor to the tea lady.

However, despite a decided aversion to words of more than one syllable, The Gas demanded a phenomenal work rate and Deirdre’s daisy-wheel typewriter was no longer fit for purpose.
So Eric embraced the technological revolution and became, at the age of 69, the proud possessor of a word processor and a cordless telephone system with separate answering machine.

Paul followed suit a week later.

Persuading the comrades to relinquish the St John’s Ambulance hut and The Duke for the women and children friendly environs of the Gridchester Community Centre was more difficult.

The union contingent – and even Shaun Mills and Ned Pitt - craved their pint in The Duke – and the proximity of The Duke for their pint - after meetings in the hut.
Neither was there a general clamour for the gender balanced child minding rota to enable women to attend meetings; or the insistence that crèche facilities be a pre-requisite of any venue booked for a special event.

But by far the most venom was directed at the new Women’s Society hosted by Hazel in her flat above the cooperative bookshop. Here, women members met to devise women-friendly policies; support potential women candidates for Party positions and local elections and recruit more women members.

It was a far remove from the Tupperware culture.

Duncan Musgrave was a fan.

The other men were not – including her husband.

Paul was not a Party member, but he was Chair, Secretary and Treasurer of the Lord and Master Federation - an organisation that required wives to grace the bedroom, kitchen and nursery instead of abandoning the hearth in favour of numerous meetings both professional and personal.

Matters came to a head in March 1989 when a week dominated by evening GC Management meetings concluded with a Saturday Women’s Training Conference at the Community Centre, addressed by Shadow Minister Alma Blenkinsopp and the ubiquitous Duncan Musgrave from the Sectional Team.

As she walked up the pathway to her house, her approach heralded as usual by a yapping Splosh, she reflected that they had pulled it off – just. The Conference was the first real test for the new women leadership team and had been dogged by difficulties from the outset.

Firstly, they had been forced to compromise over the crèche; due to male Party members (whose numbers included Ned Pit and Shaun Mills) discovering that previous engagements prevented them from staffing the rota.

Women’s Officer, Hazel was adamant that no female member should be deprived of even a minute of the programme because of the burden of childcare:

(They like the fun of MAKING them and that’s about the sum of it!)

but the men voted with their feet and they were forced to engage the services of a childcare agency worker at an exorbitant cost.

Secondly, the speaker, Alma Blenkinsopp MP was a less than ideal choice for such a groundbreaking occasion.

At 65, Mrs Blenkinsopp was coming to the end of her tenure in frontline politics; had supported local residents in their campaign to evict the Greenham women on grounds of poor hygiene and general rowdiness, and had opposed the national Party campaign against sexist language:

(I am a Chairwoman – not a CHAIR).

But beggars could not be choosers, and only Alma Blenkinsopp had agreed to waste a Saturday in a Tory stronghold – on the understanding that there would be full press coverage, including television.

The attendance register was similarly underwhelming. Female members of the Booth / Smithers variety, trickled in, and Mrs Blenkinsopp’s irritation at spreading her pearls before a sprinkling of 20

(I thought we’d have to haul them in off the streets!)

was considerably augmented as the scheduled press conference came and went without a single representative from the Third Estate crossing the threshold.

But then the hand of fate intervened by way of a horrific crash involving a black saloon car and two motorbikes 100 yards from the Community Centre. The media then miraculously emerged – as did Alma Blenkinsopp who secured her television coverage; bewailing the dangers of Tory city traffic management and pledging to raise the issue in the House.

So it had been a success - of sorts - but not in the way envisaged.

As she entered the hallway, a familiar, sweet smell assailed her nostrils, and her ears were assaulted by the mingled wailing of Richard, Vanessa and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.

Paul and Martin Sweet were listening to the latter; Richard and Vanessa were squabbling over the contents of the Fisher Price house and the source of the smell was unmistakable.

Paul, and Hazel’s ex husband, were indulging in the secret stash at 6pm in full view of her children, who were tired, hungry and fractious. She scooped them up and shooed them into the dining room where she fed them pizza slices and a tray of oven chips.

The fall-out, later that evening, with the children in bed and her lounge finally free of a worse-for wear Martin Sweet, was predictable.

She had accused Paul of corrupting their children by exposing them to illegal drugs:

Vanessa’s seven – not seven months.

He had countered with charges of child neglect:

Why did you want kids if you didn’t want to look after them? Out FOUR times this week and the whole of Saturday!

She had attacked the Nuttalls; he had vilified Hazel:

Poor bloody Mart! Letting his hair down for the first time in years! Granny fed him on corned beef and potato salad – no wonder he needs a joint though you can see he’s not used to it – stoned on the first puff!

Love fifteen. Fifteen all. Fifteen thirty. The tennis match of their marriage.

Still later, when Paul had retired to bed, she finished off the dregs of a bottle of un-chilled Sancerre whilst watching the regional television news; shots of the crash and Alma Blenkinsopp speaking to camera. At the side of the screen, she caught a glimpse of herself in her grey linen skirt suit; clutching her new business briefcase- all buckles and gilt. She looked porky beside the diminutive Blenkinsopp and Hazel, whiplash thin in a trouser suit and brogues.

Hazel – who phoned excitedly – how fantastic was that?!

Not especially, against the backdrop of domestic mayhem; to include tending to Richard who had woken from a nightmare – and had covered his Batman duvet with vomit

A passive victim of secret stash fumes?

She did not tell Hazel about Martin. Hazel had sloughed off the domestic coil and it was fairer not to.

At the end of that year, in Littlebury; the warm glow attendant upon a third glass of amaretto did not shield her from the fact that she had certainly not shaken off hers. 

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