A saga of everyday life in the Big L and a wry look at contemporary life
There was a knock at the door. Mary looked up from reading the paper in front of her. She was annoyed. Who dared intrude on her work? I had specifically asked not to be interrupted. ‘Come in.’
Quinn poked her head around the door. ‘I’m not disturbing you, am I?’
Mary opened her mouth to point out she was doing just that.
Before she could utter a word, Quinn scuttled in, shutting the door behind her.
Mary was inwardly furious and tried, not entirely successfully, to stop herself showing her annoyance. This was not how it was supposed to go! What was the point in being Prime Minister if no one bothered to obey you? She desperately rearranged her countenance into her best party convention expression. ‘What is it?’
‘Well, Daddy, just phoned. He’s has had results from the latest private polls. I’m afraid they don’t look good. I thought you might like to know before it gets out.’
Mary inwardly sighed. Bad news. Again. I should have been expecting it. Ever since Cotton took over the Labour party, my ratings have plummeted. What was it with the man? He was unkempt, dressed as if he had slept in his suit—when he wore one—and had the intelligence of a newt. How can anyone could see him as future PM material? I, on the other hand,…
She noticed Quinn looking at her questionably. She waved at the seat in front of her desk. ‘Now you’re here, I suppose you’d better tell me.’
Quinn minced across the room and sat down opposite her. It grated on Mary to see the young woman behave as if she owned the place. Bad enough, to be lumbered with the girl because her father was Chairman of the party. Even so, I shouldn’t have to put up with her exhibitionism. There are limits. And the way she manipulates everyone by fluttering her eyes! She was far too attractive. And how come she is always appearing in the glossies with that boyfriend of hers? What was his name again? Dancy, that was it. She had an epiphany. It’s Quinn’s legs and her long blonde hair; they make her stand out in a crowd. No, she corrected herself, in photographs. Recent pictures of herself in the papers came to mind. It was remarkable the number that—somehow—included Quinn in the background. It could not be a coincidence. At the Home Office she might have used a little suasion to get the practice stopped. The matter had gone on long enough. She would have a word with Powell. I’ll do it after the next cabinet meeting, she decided. She made a mental note to have a word with her Home Secretary.
‘…then there is the huge drop in your rating with the LGBTQIA community.’
Mary realised she had not been listening. ‘A huge drop you say? How big?’
‘Sixty-five per cent.’
‘That’s not good.’
Mary got up and went to inspect the framed headline that had appeared in The Times when she had been made Tory leader. It screamed out in bold “PYLE PRIME MINISTER”. She had had it framed and placed in her office to remind all and sundry that she, Mary Pyle, the northern grammar school girl, was now the PM. Not that wet blanket Carrington. They now respond to her. Me. The Right Honourable Mary Pile, PM. It was her crowning achievement. And now it was threatened by Cotton and his rabble and a backbencher cabal of Remoaners intent on stopping Brexit. My Brexit. It was all so unfair. She was sure Carrington, when he had been PM, had not had to suffer like she did. The man went happily home every night to that wife of his and his family. He had been bone idle, she seemed to recall; not like her at all. She glanced at the clock on the mantlepiece. Twenty-thirty. And here I am, still working. Why? She turned to see Quinn observing her. It brought her back to her, her immediate concerns. My ratings. ‘Something must be done about it.’
Quinn looked at her expectantly. ‘What do you have in mind?’
Mary was not sure. ‘What we need to do is get the ratings up with the LGB…and whatever.’ She could not remember the acronym.
‘May I be blunt?’
Mary looked at her personal assistant. When have you been anything but blunt? Quinn had put forward her ideas like a chatterbox since coming to Number 10. A product of her student politics days, no doubt. Mary briefly remembered her time at Oxford. She had been busy, busy. But now? It was too late in the day to enter a sparring match with the girl. ‘Tell me what you have in mind.’
‘Well, there’s a rumour going around Westminster that the Labour party is thinking of introducing a bill making it a criminal offense to questions someone’s gender. They expect you to oppose it. It’s all a ruse to make us look uncaring.’ Quinn’s voice became quite agitated. ‘PM, why don’t you announce that the government is bringing forward a bill to safeguard gender self-identification? It will catch Labour off guard and the tables would be turned.’
Mary went back to her desk and sat down. She rubbed at her eyes. Would it work? She remembered Carrington’s same sex marriage proposal. Had it made a difference? She could not remember. Do I have a choice? I need better ratings. Every other day, there’s that talk with Andrew—she glanced at Quinn, yes, your father—about some new plot to dethrone her. Maybe Quinn was right, attack was the best form of defence. What had Foch said when all seemed lost? “My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking.” It was her favourite aphorism. She smiled wickedly. “Quinn, I have a job for you.’
‘That’s what I’m here for.’
‘I want you to prepare a full briefing on a gender self-identification bill for the cabinet by Monday.’ Mary noticed Quinn squirm. Perhaps the girl did not like hard work. If she wasn’t prepared to sweat a bit, she shouldn’t have come to work here in the inner sanctum of government. She smiled inwardly. Do her good to see what real work was like. Mary knew she had had a pampered upbringing. Unlike me. Am I jealous? She was not sure.
‘I’ll try.’ Quinn’s voice betrayed the hesitation behind the words.
‘I’ll expect it first thing on Monday morning then.’ This was more like it. Mary felt exultant. This is what power feels like. And I can be Machiavellian in achieving my aims. Quinn’s failure to deliver would mean I can get rid of her without antagonising her father. She also liked the idea of flipping the trap Cotton was weaving. She looked up. Quinn was still sitting opposite her. ‘Hadn’t you better get started?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Quinn got up and went to the door. She looked back at Mary before opening it and going out. It hardly swung to before it reopened.
‘What now?’ She immediately regretted her outburst. Des? What are you doing barging in like this? Don’t you know I have work to do?
‘Not pleased to see me?’ Desmond strutted into the room. ‘It’s getting late.’ He sat down on the sofa and gave her an approving look. ‘I’ve been thinking.’ Mary said nothing, so he continued. ‘The business ain’t what it could be.’
‘So’s I need an edge—a competitive edge.’
‘Why are you discussing this with me? What about that advertising man you use? What’s his name…?’ Couldn’t he see I’m busy?
‘Yes, him. Can’t he help?’
Desmond shifted position. He moved an arm to the back of the sofa. ‘Hear me out.’ He patted the seat beside him with his other hand, invitingly.
Mary recognised the signal. Be the good, loving wife. She remained firmly planted behind her desk. Her eyes wandered to the fireplace. How did all the great statesmen and one woman who had worked here handled their partners? Their shades hung heavily on the room. ‘I don’t think that is a good idea. Not here.’
‘If not here, where then?’ Desmond righted himself. ‘Very well.’ He leaned forward, as if anticipating catching a ball. ‘I think Pyle’s Plumbers deserves a Royal Warrant.’
‘You know, the “By appointment to Her Majesty The Queen” thingy.’
‘You can’t be serious?’
‘Do I jest about the business?’ He straightened himself. ‘I’ve already applied. I was hoping you might drop a few hints with the panel.’ He gave her a sly wink. ‘Might make all the difference.’
‘But that would be nepotism.’ Mary was appalled. What would the papers say? I can just imagine Cotton’s barbs at Prime Minister’s Question Time. It was out of the question.
Desmond guffawed. ‘Isn’t that why you’re here?’ He patted the seat again. ‘Come, let’s talk about it, husband to wife.’
‘No, no, no, you don’t understand. I have to be above probity—like Caesar’s wife.’
‘And I’m Caesar’s husband.’ Anger ran through his reply.
Mary felt she should explain. ‘It’s politics, honey, don’t you understand? My enemies are out to get me. I only need to make a simple mistake and, bam, I’m out. There is so much going on…’
Desmond leapt to his feet. ‘Well if you feel that way.’ He stomped over to the door, yanked it open and charged out. Mary crumpled in her seat. Why, oh why, did he feel that the only reason I’m PM is to help his business? It was not as if plumbing was “that” important.
She took a deep breath and picked up the paper she had been reading before she had been distracted. Mary scanned the page. It did not seem to make sense to her. She put it down. She was tired. Too tired to read policy papers. She would fall asleep at her desk. It was time to retire. Then she remembered Desmond’s look as he left. She sighed. It was going to be one of those nights. Her eyes wandered around the office taking in the fireplace, sofa and the armchairs, and the pictures on the wall. It was a beautiful room, wasn’t it? Like the rest of the building, she realised. But what was it with Downing Street? Everyone was behaving so strangely. Was it cursed, or something? Perhaps I should call in an exorcist.
There was a knock at the door.
‘Come in.’ Mary hoped it was Desmond coming back to apologise. Her secretary poked his head around the door. ‘What is it, Andrew?’
Mary was initially confused. Ah! Trump. She had found it hard to get used to the Foreign Office’s code word for a Trump tweet. Given her northern roots, rhyming slang was still an unfamiliar language. Nellie, as in Nellie the Elephant. Elephants had trumps. So, a message from the President was a Nellie. It did not make sense to her to call his messages “nellies”.
‘Should I be surprised?’ Mary gestured for him to come in. No, there are no surprises with the POTUS. From his condescending grin to his bone crushing handshake, everything was Trump. Donald Trump. It was fitting, wasn’t it? He took on the Republican Party and That Woman and won. He trumped them all. Yes, he was an elephant. Even a circus one.
Andrew entered, closed the door, pattered over to her desk and sat down in front of her. She looked at him. Always the optimist, aren’t you, even amid Armageddon. ‘So, what’s he said this time?’
Andrew looked like a child confessing to having taken a sweet from the counter at the corner shop. ‘North Korea again, I’m afraid.’ Mary looked at him. How had the lad—he looked still wet behind the ears—managed to make it into the Civil Service? Had they been forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel? It wouldn’t surprise me. He coughed. ‘The POTUS is threatening to bomb Kim Jong-un back to the stone age.’
‘And what have the North Koreans said?’
‘Oh, the usual. Death and destruction to America, that sort of thing.’
‘Have they mentioned us?’
‘Well, then, shall we leave this to the two biggest egos on the planet?’ Andrew looked aghast. ‘It’s probably best if we don’t get involved.’ She felt small. She did not have the stature to be in the same office her idol, the almighty Margaret Thatcher, had once occupied, so brilliantly. What would she have done? Then she recalled she had had to deal with The Ronald. He seemed a piece of cake compared to The Donald. I really didn’t have a handbag big enough to thump him with. That’s what Margaret would have done. She groaned.
‘Are you feeling alright, Prime Minister?’
She gave him a withering look. He visibly shrank. ‘I am fine, thank you.’ She rose to her feet. ‘I am retiring.’ She waved him away.
As if it was on fire, Andrew leapt out of his seat and scuttled to the door. He held it open for her. She gave him an imperious glance as she strode past. She headed for the stairs.
As she climbed up, she became quite cheerful. She was pleased. I’ve survived one more day as PM. She had, she realised, to endure another day tomorrow. It punctured her new found optimism. What dreads lay in store? She shivered at the thought.
* * *
When Quinn emerged from Angel tube station, she glanced at the clock. 22:56 I’m late!
Cars whizzed along the High Street. She looked around at the row of parked vehicles in front of her to see if she could spot Dancy’s Bentley. There was the usual collection of Ubers and taxis. But no sign of his motor. Then she heard footsteps.
‘There you are.’
Dancy was striding purposefully towards her, his overcoat open. He still wore his pinstripe suit. Was he ever out of it? She was pleased to see he had at least removed his tie.
‘I couldn’t spot your car.’ He came up close. They pecked fleetingly. There was no passion in it. It reminded her of her father’s goodnight kisses. Why did that trouble me? She shook her head. I must be tired.
‘Come.’ He took her hand and led her towards City Road. ‘It’s around the back.’
As they turned and headed along the pavement, several cars, followed by a motorbike, sped by trying to catch the lights at the junction. One honked. Quinn glanced at the speeding vehicles. This was just like the bustle at Number Ten. Everyone’s in a rush.
‘Here we are.’ He opened the door to the car. She got in. He went around to the driver’s seat. ‘You worked late tonight.’
‘The PM had some important business and it kept me. I’ve been given a report to write.’ Should I tell him about it? She quickly dismissed the thought. He wouldn’t understand.
Dancy started the motor, revved the engine and pulled out into the street. They travelled some distance in silence. Eventually, Quinn could stand it no more. ‘What’s happened?’
Dancy turned a corner and headed up a side street. ‘I’ve___’
The car’s lights caught a cat crossing the street.
There was a squeal as the Bentley skidded to a halt.
‘Is it alright?’
Dancy just looked at her. ‘It’s only a cat.’
Why is he such a douche? Quinn got out to check. There was no sign of the cat. She got back in.
Dancy accelerated and swerved around a bend and then slowed. ‘Blast!’ Quinn could see there were no parking places. As he peered ahead seeking a space, she looked at his profile. Isn’t it typical that he worries more about parking his Bentley than the cat he has just nearly run over. Is this what I want in a man?
They turned a corner. ‘There.’ Ahead was a gap between a row of cars. It far too small, surely. Dancy stopped the car and pressed the park button. The Bentayga gently glided into the space. The engine stopped. Dancy turned to her. ‘You are being very distant tonight.’
‘I could say the same about you.’ You’re an emotional retard. Do you know that?
He got out and came around and opened her door. ‘We need to talk.’ Quinn had heard him say this before. It had been when he had asked her to move in with him. Dancy, what has happened today? She was about to ask him but thought better of it.
She followed him to his apartment. He looked at her. She fumbled in her handbag and found the key, unlocked the door and went in. Dancy closed the door behind them. Pharaoh, her Sphynx cat, meowed a hello. Quinn reached down to pick it up. It ran away. Not you too? Dancy strode off into the kitchen. She heard his voice in the distance. ‘Drink?’
‘I could do with a coffee.’
She followed him into the kitchen. He smiled at her. ‘I have work to do.’ His expression soured. She recognised the countenance. ‘What is it?’
‘I have to go to Dubai early tomorrow morning.’ He gave her an expectant look. ‘I had hoped that we might…’ he left the rest unsaid.
For some reason she found hard to pin down, she was pleased he wouldn’t be around for a few days. ‘How long?’
‘I might be gone two weeks. There’s the possibility of getting a big investor on board. Rocco wants me there to showcase our tricks.’ He gave her a sheepish grin. ‘Shall we?’
Quinn wasn’t in the mood. She didn’t respond to his overture. She didn’t want to be selfish, but she had report to write. She wanted to get on with it straightaway. Couldn’t he wait? ‘I don’t feel like it; I’ve had a busy day. Besides I must work on the report. It’s due on Monday.’
‘Well, yes, now.’ She felt peeved. ‘You put in late nights when you’re working on a deal.’ Why shouldn’t she?
‘But that’s different. I’m being paid to do it.’
‘So, I suppose the fact I’m an intern and don’t earn anything makes it different?’ She was livid. How dare he? This had come from the Prime Minister herself!
In a fit of rage, she stormed out and headed for the spare bedroom, which doubled as their study. She slammed the door behind her. There on the table, her laptop beckoned. She pulled open the screen and set to work.
She glanced at the clock. 01:30. Is it already that late? Where has all the time gone? She was annoyed with herself. She had hardly made any inroads on her task. Then the thought struck her. Dancy was going away for a few days! She felt guilty. She now half regretted ignoring the earlier noises and the gentle tapping at the door. The thought made her pause. When was the last time he had gone away and left her by herself? She couldn’t remember.
Getting up, she headed for the bathroom and changed into a nightie.
Dancy was gently snoring when she went into the bedroom. Typical, now I won’t be able to get to sleep. She climbed in beside him. He shifted. His snoring got louder. Should I prod him? He might wake up? What then?
To be continued…