Authors: J.M. Gregson
© J. M. Gregson, 2014
J. M. Gregson has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Canada, Ltd in 1997.
This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
‘Of course there are things wrong with the country,’ said Raymond Keane. A winning frankness was one of his strongest cards in friendly company, and he reckoned they didn’t come much friendlier than the lady with the elaborate blue hat and the little smear of cream on her upper lip.
You mean people sleeping in cardboard boxes and so on?’ she said, anxious not to miss her cue, determined to keep her MP with her for a little longer before he moved on, as she knew he must, to the next smiling listener, to the next vol-au-vent and warm white wine.
watched the patch of cream bobbing as she spoke, like a white horse on a choppy sea. ‘That, of course,’ he said. ‘Though I think we could agree that most of the people who clutter our city streets have chosen their own fate. I was thinking more of the way we have to look under our cars in the Commons park for bombs before we drive away.’ Middle-aged ladies in Gloucestershire liked a little frisson of vicarious fear, he knew that from experience. It was years now since he had checked for bombs, but the danger card was still one to play to build up a little sympathy.
gathering was going well. The conservatory of the big house, Victorian in its proportions as well as its design, made the crisp winter day outside seem warmer than it actually was: only the leafless trees and the bright red stems of the dogwoods beyond the wide green lawns revealed that the bright blue sky beyond the double glazing was in fact a winter one.
Keane had his professional equipment in good working order. The smile was practised but the brown eyes remained earnest, never setting into the enamelled mask he had seen in less able Westminster men. No one knew better than he the benefits of a safe Conservative seat, especially now that what had once seemed comfortable majorities were under threat in many parts of the country. In this part of Gloucestershire, where the Beaufort rode regularly and royal estates were discreetly hidden behind ancient trees, his support might be diminished but the seat was rock-solid safe.
managed a substantial gulp of his Muscadet as he moved on to converse with a local squire. He was well used to these functions after five years in the seat; he thought he managed better than anyone else in the room the manipulation of a plate of food and a glass of wine, a process which clearly needed three hands but had to be managed with two. Thirty feet away, over the head of a lumpy girl and two more of the hats, he caught Zoe Renwick’s eye.
held his only fleetingly: he was happy to see again how discreet she was, what a good politician’s wife she would make, in due course. Her look said, ‘How soon can we get away?’ but there was no urgency, no impatience in the question. More important, the man who was reaching for another brown-bread square of smoked salmon was not even aware of her swift glance over his shoulder. He resumed the tidal flow of his views on immigration without even a suspicion that he had lost the attention of his bright young listener for a vital instant.
began to move unhurriedly towards the door, chatting to a succession of supporters as he made his circuitous way towards escape. The chairman of the local association, as practised as he was in reading the hidden agendas of gatherings like this, edged equally imperceptibly towards the wide double oak doors from the other side of the room, until this slow-motion pavane culminated in a meeting of the two on the polished parquet near the exit.
grey-haired chairman said softly, ‘Time you were on your way, Raymond?’ He was tactful enough to suggest a crowded schedule rather than a simple wish to be finished with a necessary evil of constituency politics. His MP had earned his corn, if that wasn’t too crude a phrase for such a decorous gathering. Keane had done all that was required, with a graceful little speech to set this fundraising exercise in motion, a couple of gentle jokes about the contrast between this get-together and that being attended at this moment by his Labour ‘pair’ in a northern working-men’s club. He had turned a nice compliment to the ladies who had worked so hard to set up today’s function, keeping it light but thoughtful; all these things made it easier to raise enthusiasm and volunteers for the next function at Easter.
chairman surveyed the animated heads in the now cheerfully noisy conservatory. A few people had already left. The MP must not be first away, but neither should he stay too long, for that might suggest that he was desperate for support, or not as busy as his publicity always suggested. The chairman said in a low voice, ‘I shouldn’t bother to say any goodbyes, or it’ll take you half an hour to get out. Just melt away discreetly. I shall do the same myself in another ten minutes.’
needed no further encouragement to do what he had always intended to do at this point. In twenty minutes, he was back in the cottage with Zoe. In another five, they were in bed together, making relaxed, unhurried love, their clothes dropped by the bed like snakes’ discarded skins, the public personas they had assumed for the lunchtime assembly of the party faithful abandoned just as eagerly.
Zoe lay back, fixing her brilliant blue eyes on the moulding in the centre of the old ceiling, stretching her arms above her head and clasping her hands beneath the masses of dark blonde hair. ‘Well, do you think they approved of me?’ she said.
caught the intoxicating mixture of fresh sweat and expensive perfume from the armpit near his face, then nuzzled recklessly into it, making her giggle as she clasped an arm lightly across his head. ‘You were great,’ he said in a muffled voice. Then, lifting his head and shifting a little to look down into her face, he said, ‘I thought you were quite good at the wine and cheese, too!’
I wasn’t looking forward to it, you know,’ she said. But she was relaxed now, staring contentedly from her lover’s face to the ceiling, knowing within herself that she had carried it off well, this inspection by the pearls-and-cashmere set and the local landowners.
You were fine, darling,’ Raymond said contentedly. ‘But I always knew you would be.’ Secretly, he was relieved. A new fiancée was always a risky step for a divorced politician, even though the constituency liked to see you with a wife at election time. He had pretended to her in advance that today was more trivial than he had felt it to be.
he needn’t have worried. Zoe had handled it as if she had been bred for it, treating the elderly women with just enough deference, showing just enough spirit to win over susceptible husbands without raising their wives’ hackles. He would take her to all the Party functions from now on. A month from now, they would announce the date of their wedding. By the time of the next election, Zoe would be snugly established as one of the most photogenic of parliamentary wives. Perhaps, in due course, of ministerial wives ... But he was in no hurry about that. At forty-one, time was still on his side in these things.
It was all a bit too smooth for me.’ Zoe’s voice, suddenly serious, pulled him abruptly back to reality. ‘I thought politics was about getting things done. We seemed a long way from the problems of the country when we were exchanging pleasantries at Darnley Court today.’
was true. He had forgotten how divorced from reality these things could seem to an outsider. Which Zoe still was, essentially. ‘We
a long way from any problem-solving today. Those gatherings are a necessary evil, if you like—keeping faith with the people who form the hard core of Party membership, reassuring them that they still matter in a world that’s changing too fast for some of them to understand. And raising useful funds, of course. But I agree: nothing to do with politics, in the sense of getting things done. That happens at Westminster. And even there, more in the committees than in the public debates in the House, most of the time.’
I just feel that twenty-eight thousand voted for you, and the vast majority of them have lives which have no connection with those of most of the people I spoke to this afternoon.’
That’s true enough. Perhaps you should come along to the constituency clinics sometimes, once we’re officially a team. That’s where you’ll feel in touch with real life. Where you can even help people, sometimes.’
I’d like that. Only when we’re officially united, though. I wouldn’t want people to feel I was just there as a voyeur.’
was right, as usual. People in distress wanted to see only their MP, and even then they lost faith pretty quickly if you weren’t able to offer real help. He told her about the woman whose husband was in real pain, but had been told he had to wait another three months for a gallstones operation, of the woman whose daughter had disappeared who could get no sympathy from the police, of the couple trying to bring up children in a street where prostitutes patrolled for four hours each night. And of the questions he planned to ask in the right bureaucratic places to get something done for these people.
recital of these glimpses of an MP’s working life cheered him. Beneath his enjoyment of the trappings of power and his love of the good things in life, Raymond Keane genuinely wanted to use politics to improve the state of his country and the fortunes of the people he represented, and it was good to remind himself of it. But he was still enough in love with Zoe to be afraid of appearing pompous when he spoke of serious things. ‘That’s enough about work,’ he said firmly. ‘The rest of the weekend is ours. And I know how I intend to spend the first part of it!’
threw his arm around the slim shoulders beside him and drew her body against his. ‘Does Muscadet always make old men so ambitious?’ she said as he slid beneath her. ‘I must remember to order a couple of cases!’
was much later, when the early winter twilight had dropped upon the room and they lay in pleasant exhaustion on their own sides of the big bed, that Raymond said, ‘I trust that chap who threatened to kill me at the constituency clinic won’t come back again.’
first, she thought he was joking, and in a way he was. ‘Oh, it’s nothing to get upset about,’ he reassured her when she pressed him. ‘Every MP will tell you that he has his quota of nutters who threaten violence. It’s a way of letting off steam for them to threaten the nearest person they feel has any real power. Nothing ever comes of it.’
was a phrase that was to nag at her for many of the strange days which followed that weekend.
Police wives do not mix with each other as much as outsiders might expect. This is not so much because of considerations of rank; the police hierarchy is not as rigid as that which operates in army married quarters, where officers’ wives find it difficult to meet on equal terms with the wives of lower ranks, and even the sergeants’ mess sets up its own social barricades.
the sorority of police wives is not as intense as might be imagined. Policemen themselves do not encourage it, for one thing. There is almost a freemasonry within the force about the unwritten rules and taboos of conduct, and most policemen are still chauvinist enough not to wish to share the code with their spouses. Every policeman, from the humblest beat copper to the CID superintendent, has things in his career he would rather not discuss, things he has often not confided even to his wife.
men—and the ethos of the force is still overwhelmingly male—gossip, at least as much as women. The gossiping female and her tight-lipped husband are a pair set up by male propagandists over the years. The same copper who remains tight-lipped about his own conduct when speaking to his wife gossips to her about the weaknesses of his colleagues. And he knows that those same colleagues will certainly have prattled about his own weaknesses to their partners. Hence he is not anxious that wives should be able to compare notes too often.