Old School

parliament

… disadvantaged politician who might just have wider appeal as Prime Minister than any narrow-based public schoolboy?

Chapter One 

1 February 2016

Pembrokeshire, home to the wild cliffs of west Wales and castles from the time of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn…’ Deirdre Fairbrother snapped the radio button off. She’d heard too many wonderful Pembrokeshire stories, if it was so wonderful, why didn’t more people live there.

Outside, the morning light which could often be fickle was clear and luminous. It shone into her artist’s studio. She liked days like this for she was alone with her oils and canvas with nothing on her agenda except a visit to her aged mother later in the afternoon. Loading her horsehair brush with a mixture of chrome yellow and magenta previously stirred on her palette, she touched the canvas again, and again more strongly, before standing back to observe the subtle change in her summer landscape. The season was well past now, but as usual she worked with care at her rediscovered joy. Bit by bit, she was starting to rekindle her original love of painting which she had foolishly set aside when she and Peter had started their family thirty-six years ago.

The shrill sound of the telephone disturbed her painting. She put the brush on the easel, walked out of the studio down a cold corridor to the hall and picked it up. Half past nine on a Monday was an odd time for a call. The words ‘West Albion Care Home’ were enough. She knew what they were going to say and her knees weakened. As she listened to the caller say, ‘I’m sorry, your mother has died,’ she put her hand behind her onto a chair and lowered herself, still holding the receiver. Mute with shock, she was unable to reply. Her ninety-two-year-old mother had been hanging on for weeks, but nothing could ever prepare one for the actual moment when someone announces that one’s mother is dead.

Hello, hello, are you still there?’

Yes, yes,’ sobbed Deirdre. ‘Give me a moment please.’

Deirdre composed herself and, a minute or so later, said, ‘I’ll be there to see her in about thirty minutes.’

Whatever we can do, we will. I’m so sorry, Mrs Fairbrother.’

In a trance-like state, Deirdre replaced the phone. She sobbed in the silent and empty house. Her mother was gone. She was all alone now.

Gwyneth had few local friends, and so the funeral would be a quiet affair at Narberth Crematorium. Accompanied by her husband Peter, who had managed to get a day off from his political merry-go-round in Parliament, Deirdre travelled in a polished black funeral Jaguar. It followed the hearse along Pembrokeshire’s twisting narrow roads from their Wiston home.

Peter and Deirdre had been together since their days at university in Bristol and had shared so much. They had raised two fine children; they had been a team. But like a ship at sea with a navigation error of one degree, as their voyage through life progressed so did their divergence.

They said little, for their marriage had over the last two or three years become one of convenience. Any love had drained away, slowly and inexorably to be replaced by tolerable indifference.

The car snaked along the country lanes. Frosted white grass lined the route and the bare trees stood gaunt against a clear sky. Deirdre was glad the weather was dry, it would make the proceedings that little bit easier. It wasn’t far from her Wiston home to the Narberth crematorium.

Sitting next to Deirdre, Peter adjusted his black tie and dusted an imaginary hair from the lapel of his grey herringbone Crombie. ‘She had a good life,’ he said, ‘thanks to your constant care and attention at the end.’ He sounded as though he cared. He had developed the politician’s ability to appear to care, but deep down it was just another soothing platitude and meaningless comment.

I’m glad you could come,’ said Deirdre, thinking that he had not bothered to bring a black coat. ‘I don’t see much of you these days.’ She turned her full face to Peter. Her red lips tight and her stare cold. They transmitted a message of grief and anger.

Peter opened his mouth in surprise. ‘It’s not that bad, is it?’ he protested.

Let’s not argue, not today.’

But Dee, what can I do?’

Deirdre saw his expressionless eyes give nothing away, but neither did they give the warmth and compassion any wife had the right to expect on such a day as this. Nor did he make any comforting gesture.

Nothing. Just be nice to everyone.’

Their Jaguar slowed to a halt behind the hearse. February is a cruel month. There were no flowers in the Garden of Remembrance to brighten the gloom, and only a biting westerly wind to welcome them as they stepped out of the limousine. Deirdre, dressed all in black, pulled her coat a little tighter around her and then cast the black muslin veil over her face.

The ushers in black wheeled her mother’s body into the chapel of rest. A small group of mourners stood by the door waiting for them to enter. Although it would probably be unseen, Deirdre smiled at the hardy souls who had braved the cold weather. With Peter beside her and the organ playing a medley of funereal pieces, she inched her way down the aisle to the front row of the chapel. Together on this rare occasion, Peter stepped equally slowly alongside her. She glanced at him, and he smiled, but said nothing.

Behind followed her thirty-six-year old son, Zachary, with his usually long black hair cut neatly, such a shame Grandma wouldn’t see it. Next to him was his new wife, Evelyne, dressed demurely in black. When Deirdre had given him the news on the telephone, he had, she suspected, sobbed as his voice altered and words came with difficulty for a few moments. He had such fond memories of “Granny” and her ice cream treats when he was a young boy. It was a comfort to Deirdre that he instantly agreed to fly over for the funeral despite his heavy workload. They had stayed overnight by Cardiff airport due to the late arrival of their plane.

Behind Zachary came his younger sister Rosemary with her fair hair tucked beneath a small black pillbox hat and her husband Leonard in a dark suit with a neatly tied black tie. Deirdre’s two grandchildren twelve-year-old Michael and ten-year-old Tobias, who managed through good manners and the brooding presence of their lugubrious father to remain silent throughout the proceedings, looked like cherubs with their dark curly hair and chubby cheeks.

After a silent acknowledgement of grief, they all sat facing the pale pine coffin on the bier. Deirdre threw back her black veil.

Into the small Chapel of Rest followed five of Gwyneth’s old lady friends from the care home accompanied by Wilma. Her black nurse wore a royal blue uniform. She was acting as a representative of the home. Deirdre raised her veil and, half turning, gave a smile of acknowledgement as Gwyneth’s principal long term carer took her seat behind her. Wilma offered her hand in sympathy. It always amazed Deirdre how warm her hand felt. Speaking in her Caribbean sing-song tones, which despite thirty years in Wales had never left her, Wilma confirmed that Gwyneth had died peacefully. ‘She didn’t suffer, Mrs Fairbrother. I will miss her.’

It was a small and welcome reassurance.

In silence, Deirdre looked at the bare walls and the single stained glass window with a halo emanating from the head of Christ. Peter in his grey overcoat with large buttons sat erect like a Blues and Royals guardsman and stretched out a comforting hand, which Deirdre gratefully accepted.

As the preacher was about to start, the door at the back opened and, turning her head, Deirdre saw her old school friend Pamela enter sheepishly in a camel-hair coat. She stepped inside with a look of embarrassment on her face.

Twenty minutes was all it took to summarize ninety-two years of life and reflect on the love and influence Gwyneth Carys Evans had shed upon her family and friends. Her husband, Norman, had died seven years earlier.

No one hung about in the cold wind and everyone retired to the warmth of the nearby Slebech Hotel for a snack and a drink. It could hardly be called a wake, there was so little atmosphere.

Dark-haired Pamela stood alone by the log fire in the large room with a vaulted ceiling, wearing an elegant black dress with discreet butterfly motifs which emphasised her svelte figure. She looked demure if a little lost. Deirdre, who even as a schoolgirl had envied Pamela’s dress sense, approached carrying her black handbag which was far too big for the occasion. It was nearly as big as a shopping bag. Already she was wishing she had worn something other than her dark black dress with long sleeves. As she stared at Pamela, her own dress seemed to be cut too low around the neck. It stood out as did her bare neck. Deirdre looked jealously at Pamela with her single row of pearls, over a high-necked and understated black dress with occasional flashes of silver and a matching handbag of an acceptable dimension.

Pam,’ she said, ‘I’m so pleased you could come, thank you so much. I’m sure Mum would have thanked you, too.’

How lovely to hear from you after, what is it six or seven years since your dad died? Your mum meant a lot to me when we were younger.’ With her head slightly tilted backwards, Pamela looked around at the room and the few guests with a supercilious air. ‘How are you? You’re looking good.’

Oh I’m fine, bearing up, you know. But, thanks for coming. Oh…’ Deirdre stopped herself from babbling inanely.

Do you remember,’ said Pamela, calmingly, ‘when we went camping in the Lake District up the Langdale valley and the storm washed our tent away. We had to telephone your mum from that red phone box by the George and Dragon and she turned up in the old Morris Minor at eleven o’clock at night and took us home. I’ll never forget that.’

Deirdre appreciated the subtle transition to the happy days of long ago. She felt at ease with Pamela. How right had that English poet been, long ago, to invent a name contrived from two Greek words meaning all and honey. It described her friend ideally at that moment and Deirdre felt her mental anguish ease.

Oh, how stupid we were then,’ said Deirdre, relieved to speak about something fresh and fun that reminded her of Mum and her childhood days in Manchester. It pushed any dark and sombre thoughts to the back of her mind. ‘And I was so glad that you chose Bristol, like me. I felt comfortable right from the start of my graduate career. What was it you studied, Spanish?’

French and Spanish. Never forget the French, I say.’ Pamela chuckled at her own little joke.

What’s happened since those wonderful days with lovely people?’ said Deirdre with maudlin self-pity for her university days. She needed to push away the sterility of her present life and remember happy times.

Do you still see any of our old friends, Isabella, Zoe, or Angela?’ asked Deirdre.

Haven’t seen Isabella or Zoe in years, but I keep in regular touch with Angela. Angela Buxton that is.’

Yes, Angela Buxton, did she ever get married?’

And divorced and remarried and now separated. She’s quite a character. She lives alone now in London doing a bit of acting and arty things, you know. Whenever I go up I always call on her.’

I’d love to catch up with her. She was so much fun.’

Here, I’ll give your her contact number. She’d love to hear from you, I’m sure.’

Come and meet Peter again,’ said Deirdre who noticed him speaking earnestly to Rosemary and three of the old ladies from the care home.

No, he looks busy,’ said Pamela.

Peter did look engrossed in conversation so Deirdre, seeing Zachary and Evelyne standing alone, suggested Pamela come and meet them.

This is my son, Zachary, and his wife, Evelyne,’ said Deirdre with pride. ‘Pamela used to live in Manchester and knew Granny.’

How do you do?’ said Zachary, and thanks to his urbane manner and the charm of Evelyne’s French accent, they were soon all chatting as though they had known each other for years.

I wish Mother,’ said Deirdre at one point, ‘had moved to Pembrokeshire straight after Father’s death. Instead, she stayed in Manchester until three years ago. At least, I was able to visit her almost daily in her last few years.’

If Gran had moved earlier she might have made more new friends in Pembrokeshire and not have been such a burden on you,’ said Zachary. ‘That’s the problem of being an only child, Mum.’

So right, reflected Deirdre wistfully.

The guests gossiped for a while and ate a few sandwiches, but it was a dull affair. With a few neighbours, Gwyneth’s old friends from the care home and no other family except Peter’s brother Arthur, the wake passed quickly.

Pembrokeshire’s changeable weather meant it was the turn of heavy rain to fall from the louring afternoon sky as the first group stood under the porch ready to depart to their various homes. Deirdre thanked her neighbours from Wiston for coming.

Deirdre went back inside to Pamela, and Peter joined them with a smile as wide as the new Humber bridge. ‘Hello, Pam,’ he said. ‘How lovely to see you. I’d forgotten you knew Deirdre’s mother as a child.’

Pamela reddened unaccountably and mumbled something that sounded like, ‘Oh, Peter.’

The three of them had barely exchanged a few words before Wilma, Gwyneth’s nurse, interrupted with a discreet cough. ‘I’ll be getting back to the home with my ladies now, Mrs Fairbrother. ’

Thank you so much for coming, Wilma.’

She was a lovely lady, your mum. We’ll miss her.’

Wilma and Deirdre helped Gwyneth’s five friends into the small minibus. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll be seeing you any more, but thanks for everything. Your presence lightened Mum’s final days,’ said Deirdre. She clasped Wilma’s hand as a final tangible thank you gesture.

Soon only her family, Arthur, Peter’s rather boring brother who lived in Brighton, and Pamela were left.

Well I must be going, too,’ said Pamela. She gave a wave to the family and pecked Deirdre on the cheek. ‘Take care.’

It’s been lovely seeing you again, Pam, let’s keep in touch.’

Deirdre escorted her to the door and watched her get into her red Mazda sports car.

Let’s meet up sometime,’ Pamela called out of the car’s window and then tooted as she left.

Arthur took his leave too. He was so unlike his brother. Taciturn to an embarrassing degree, it was so difficult to get any conversation out of him, but Deirdre had always felt that his lack of words was compensated by the feeling of love and companionship he exuded. He said he couldn’t stay any longer otherwise he would miss his connection at Cardiff. He had a long journey by train back to Brighton.

Deirdre and Peter led their son Zachary and his wife, and Rosemary and her family back home to Wiston for a final night together before the demands of life, work and everything else would once again take priority.

The next morning, Deirdre cheerfully catered for the extended family who had stayed overnight in the large home. The two grandchildren were already seated at the table with bowls of cornflakes and requests for toast, fried eggs and bacon. They had turned the radio on and pop music blared out.

One by one the older family members came down to breakfast.

What do you want for breakfast, Zac?’ said Deirdre, ‘Are you still eating croissants? I bought a nice batch from the baker yesterday. They are warming in the oven, there.’

Oh you know all my weaknesses, Mum. It’s lovely to be back. I am sorry we can’t stay longer, work, you know. But we’d love to come over in the summer for a few days.’

Rosemary bounced in all smiles with her fair hair freshly blow-dried.

Sleep alright?’ asked Deirdre.

Like a log, Mum, and so did the kids, didn’t you.’ She ruffled the hair of Michael and kissed the top of Toby’s head. She turned to Zachary who was pouring himself some coffee. ‘Just like old times. Why do you never come to Durham? That wife of yours has you well trained, I suppose.’

We’d love to come, but you have such a small house where could we stay?’

They do have hotels in Durham, you know.’

OK, I’ll promise.’

Promise what, Darling?’ Evelyne entered, dressed in a colourful top with flowers in primary colours and periwinkle trousers.

I was just saying to Rosemary that her house is so small. No room for us,’ said Zachary

But don’t let that stop us. Yes, we’d love to come to Durham.’

Lovely Cathedral, nice shops,’ said Rosemary. ‘Just give us some notice.’

Peter came in with his white shirt adorned by a neatly knotted blue tie with a decoration of rope knots. ‘Smells good. Croissants.’

Help yourself, Darling, they are in the oven,’ said Deirdre.

Can we have the news on?’ Peter asked.

No granddad, we want Radio One,’ the boys said in unison.

A family breakfast, almost like old times. Deirdre was happy that at least everyone had an enjoyable stay, but with breakfast over she soon found herself on the front step waving a lone arm to and fro on each occasion as a car swung out of the drive on its way eastwards to London or Durham or Cardiff airport.

Each time a little pang of regret of something passing never to return flickered across her consciousness. And her mood? She counted herself reasonably adept at monitoring it, naming it, and controlling it, but with the passage of each car, she detected a significant shift towards the oncoming loneliness of a life without a purpose now that her mother had finally passed away.

The family departed, back to Brussels for Zachary and Evelyne, school for Leonard and Rosemary’s children and politics, always politics for Peter. He had a Defence Select Committee meeting in the House that afternoon and had been mumbling all over breakfast about the expenditure on some new carrier, or was it an aircraft? Deirdre had forgotten which, and he took a bundle of papers into the ever-reliable Evans’ taxi to the railway station at Swansea and thereafter the fast train to London.

Before the funeral, the ministering to her mother had papered over the cracks of an increasingly empty life, but now her almost daily visits to the West Albion Care Home were over. All she had was her painting and the once a week Thursday class. She had been locked in an unreal world in which her dying mother had loomed so large it blotted out almost all other aspects of her daily life. She could only think of her dying mother. But her mother was dead and she must struggle to bring herself to think that word, dead. She had to get on with life. She no longer had the excuse: ‘I’d love to but I can’t because I have to look after my mother.’

Earlier that day when she had awoken to a house filled, as in the olden days, with a husband and two children and with the addition of a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren, she knew things had changed irrevocably and for ever. From that moment on and for every day henceforth, her life was firmly in her hands and hers alone. No more obligations, ‘Got to go and see Mum‘, no more concern about the long-gone children, nor about her husband who was more worried about the constituents of Hull (South) and the power brokers at Westminster than her.

A week later, Angharad Rees, her daily help, said it would rain. Deirdre had laughed at her, there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky all morning. By lunchtime, however, dark clouds driven before the Atlantic Westerlies appeared. Over the Preseli hills, they loomed ever blacker and threatening, but that was typical of Deirdre, unable to anticipate change or see into the future. Her life was like that too. She hadn’t seen the mire of loneliness coming and never believed it would happen but bit by bit it had and now she was in it. The fun had gone out of her life. With her mother gone, she was alone.

Angharad switched on the lunchtime television. ‘During a tumultuous political career,’ the presenter Andrew Nelmes announced in his pugnacious manner. Tqhere was a hint in his voice of the clipped Scots of privileged Edinburgh private schools. ‘Peter Fairbrother has called for the reinstatement of the death penalty, championed Euro-scepticism, been a shadow Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and defied his party leader by opposing the nuclear deterrent and is now Minister of State for Europe and the Americas at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Welcome, Minister.’

He’s on again,’ called Angharad. Deirdre entered and there was her husband smiling inanely at the camera. She disliked him when he seemed to hold that self-satisfied smirk on a face that had, in the last few weeks, become recognisable across the nation. No sooner had Angharad spoken than the rain started, pummelling vertically into the ground. Rather like in Deirdre’s life, the rain took the joy out of life, turning everything that stood upon the earth wet and limp, bedraggled and cold.

Quick, we’d better get the washing in,’ said Deirdre, ‘and switch that off, please.’

They ran out into the courtyard and stripped the line of Deirdre’s clothes. Angharad pulled the thick woollen skirts, sensible white blouses, black knickers and stripy towels from the line. She flung them into the wicker basket carried by Deirdre who had never lost her common touch, despite having a home help.

Back indoors, the young woman shook her long blond hair free of the rain.

Deirdre brushed her hand across her short black hair with its streaks of grey. ‘Oh, it’s that horrible weather again. Do you fancy a cup of tea?’

Oh thank you, Mrs Fairbrother, but I’ve got to pick up Giles from school now to take him to the doctor’s.’

Is he alright?’

Yes, it’s only for an injection. I’ll do the ironing on Friday, if that’s OK.’

That’s fine, see you Friday, bye.’

Angharad left and Deirdre stared at the full basket of clothes in the kitchen. With Peter somewhere in London after his studio appearance and her two children gone, making their own lives now in Durham and Brussels, the bedraggled and damp mess of clothes would be her only company for the evening and following day. She turned her back on them and sought the warmth of the living room.

Rising from her deep armchair in front of the log fire, Deirdre crossed the room. She stopped by the floor-to-ceiling bookcase that lined one wall and looked out of the window. It was raining hard. She stared vacantly over the lawn which stretched nearly a hundred yards down to the gates and the country road to Clarbeston. Once again, she was bored. The house might be grand and spacious but it was lonely and empty. She had nothing to do on a wet late afternoon.

The phone disturbed her maudlin thoughts. It was Peter. ‘Dee,’ he said with excitement in his voice, ‘The PM’s finally caved in.’

Peter, it’s raining here.’

It’s all hush hush at present but there’s going to be a referendum.’

And it’s cold.’

He’ll announce it formally on Saturday. It’ll be a free for all, no collective cabinet responsibility. This is it, our big chance to exit the European Union. I’ve been busy with a small group of Leave campaigners, but I’m coming home this weekend. Oh, how are you?’

I’m fine.’

I look forward to seeing you on Friday. Bye, love you.’

Deirdre put the phone down. She had just been blitzed by a lightning strike from her husband who could see nothing on his radar except politics and opportunity. Her insignificant blip had vanished from his screen.

Deirdre liked to paint first thing in the mornings. Painting gave her a relaxed start to the day and put her in a mood of contentment. She could usually do an hour’s work before she felt guilty for neglecting some duty like visiting her mother or attending to any correspondence which had been misdirected to Peter’s home instead of Parliament. Her studio looked west to views out over the Preseli hills, but today they were covered in scudding low clouds. Nevertheless, having breakfasted an hour earlier, she was working at her canvas with the gentle rain pattering at the windows when the telephone rang.

Deirdre!’

Pam?’

I saw Peter on the TV yesterday. He’s busy, and I thought of you. It’s been so long since we last spoke and we had hardly any time at your mum’s funeral.’

Yes, I saw him, but turned it off.’

Why?’

Pam, I’m fed up and lonely.’

Oh dear, but that’s natural after losing someone so close.’

It’s that, of course, but I wonder where my life is heading now she has gone. The kids have their own lives and somehow down here on a wet miserable February day, it makes the emptiness worse.’

But you were always such an optimist, I remember.’

Things have slipped away from me, Pam, and Peter’s always in London wrapped up in politics with no time for me.’

Can’t be that bad, surely?’

It is. If it he’s not running around in the latest beauty parade in the party of who-will-get-what in Prime Minister’s next reshuffle, then it’s all this referendum talk. And he doesn’t involve me at all. Twenty-nine years ago it was fun. Then, I was proud to be a new MP’s wife, we were a team down here in Wales. But time wears you down and he seems to need me less and less, just like the kids. Everyone’s fine, except me. I need something new in my life.’

Oh dear, is it that bad?’ said Pamela in that empathetic tone that had always endeared her to Deirdre. ‘I suppose he can be quite selfish and inconsiderate, but you must take the reins and sort your life out.’ If Pamela had been present in the room at that moment, Deirdre felt Pamela would be hugging Deirdre’s shoulders and suggesting they have a cup of tea.

Deirdre blurted out, ‘I’m so unhappy, Pam. Sometimes we don’t even speak on the phone for days. And if he even does come home, he often sleeps in the spare bedroom. What did I do wrong?’

Why don’t you come down to Cheltenham and stay with me and Simon for a few days? Think of it as a pick-you-up break?

What good would that do? It won’t change anything between me and Peter.’

There was a pause on the line. With a hesitancy out of keeping with Pamela’s previous firm, almost hectoring, tone she said, ‘What about trying to meet someone new to share life with?’

Who do your suggest?’ said Deirdre indignantly.

Oh, don’t be like that. Surely there must be someone who might like your attention.’

Down here?’

Pamela made no comment.

It’s such a small community; tongues would wag, even if I could find someone,’ said Deirdre as if to justify her loneliness.

Have you ever thought about internet dating? They tell me it’s fun and you decide just how far you want to go. That might liven things up. I wish I was closer because we could go out, but Cheltenham to Wiston is such a long way.’

Internet dating? I hadn’t thought of that.’

Why not give it a try, my friend Amanda was a bit down and she gave it a whirl. She met a nice chap and they seem to be getting on fine, too well if you ask me, for she’s going to have to come clean soon or break it off. But so far so good.’

Well, I suppose, I could give it a try,’ said Deirdre without enthusiasm in a manner designed to satisfy Pam rather than herself. She was too reserved to consider such an outrageous departure from her life style. She retreated from the window back to the warming fire glowing red in the grate and sat back in the armchair still listening to Pamela.

Go on,’ urged Pamela, ‘What have you to lose? And don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work first time. Just think if you were house-hunting, would you expect to find the perfect home on the first inspection? How many houses might you inspect before you buy?’

‘That’s the best bit about house buying, looking at the options,’ said Deirdre warming to Pamela’s argument and encouragement.

Exactly. Well, dating is the same. Even if the first half a dozen are useless, what have you lost?’ Pamela continued to give Deirdre so much advice and background to internet dating that she wondered if Pamela had tried it herself, but she didn’t dare ask.

Finally, Deirdre gave in and said, ‘Sounds good, I’ll give it a try. Do you know which agency Amanda used?’

Singles Over Fifty.’

But I’m not single.’

Nor are many of them.’ Pamela laughed and Deirdre could imagine her old friend enjoying their conversation.

Thanks.’

Keep in touch, now.’

I will, bye.’

Friday morning broke so wet and miserable again that she couldn’t even see the Preseli hills for low cloud. Angharad came in wet from the rain and moaning about her husband. She shook the raindrops from her coat and hair like a dog emerging from a lake. ‘We had a blazing row last night, Mrs Fairbrother.’

Who’s we?’

My husband and me. He came in drunk after he’s been out drinking with rugby lads. I told him he’d better change his ways. Woke up Giles too, he did.’

Oh dear, what did he say?’

Say? What could he say? I gave him what for and told him he’d better not come home like that again. “Go to your mum’s next time,” I said and he was such a lamb. I think that rocket woke him up. I don’t think he’ll be doing that again.’ She gave a small laugh.

Deirdre admired the forthright bluntness of Angharad’s approach. If Angharad could control her life and tell her husband what was and wasn’t acceptable, why couldn’t she take control of hers? But, with a streak of naughtiness and a frisson of devil-may-care, she decided unlike Angharad she wouldn’t tell her husband what to do, rather she would give internet dating a try.

Angharad disappeared to do the ironing and, with a mug of coffee beside her, Deirdre logged at nine fifty on Friday, nineteenth February.

Singlesoverfifty.com didn’t sound like the best name for a site, but with no previous experience Deirdre typed in the domain name. A picture of happy smiling men and women over fifty, although some looked younger, greeted her along with a request for name, address, date of birth, gender, and the relationship she was seeking, companionship or new partner.

Remembering Pamela’s words of advice to take baby steps and not feel she had to plunge straight into full-on dating, she took her time. Scrolling around the screens, she learned that she would have to pay a registration fee and post a profile along with a photo.

Deirdre stepped back from the computer. Did she really want to give her credit card number and have the site bill her for contacts? She looked outside; February was cold and wet. What did she have to do this week? Nothing. She took a deep breath and pressed the buttons which enrolled her for forty pounds.

The profile page was difficult. Pamela had said that no one puts their real age up online, so she lied and took two years off her real age of sixty-four. She also selected a photo taken three years ago on a trip with Peter (not in the photo) to London. It showed her best side and her hair had been recently dyed black so no grey streaks. But what should she say about herself, where did one start? School -a disappointment- seemed too early, while university – Economics Degree, first class – might be too scary for many. So she started with: ex-Bristol University graduate, former bank employee, (she decided not to define her work of five years with Bank of England policy unit, 1973 -78), retired. That was enough of the serious stuff, then, on a more personal theme, she added, two adult children (33, 36) lover of art, travel and painting. ‘Lover’ that sounded a most attractive word, surely that should bring some interest.

Her finger hovered over the ‘Send’ key. Should she go ahead? Wild thoughts for and against the enrolment rushed around her febrile mind. Was she being disloyal? Could she endure this isolation for the rest of her life? No. get a grip, it’s your life, go for it. Pamela had warned her many men might well want sex quickly but Deirdre decided she’d cross that bridge when she came to it. It was Pamela’s final words: ‘Be careful to make sure they are who they say they are. If someone chats you up, gets you into bed but is never around at weekends, he is probably already married.’ That spurred her on. Yes, I’m going to live a little. She took a deep breath and pressed the ‘Send’ key and the screen said, ‘Thank you for joining Singles Over Fifty.’ A large love heart surrounded by roses appeared.

Peter arrived home that night with a bundle of papers in his bulging briefcase and a scowl on his face about the long train journey. His mood did not lighten when he looked at Deirdre who had put on her new patterned gold and yellow dress with a row of freshwater pearls around her neck. In fact, he acted as though she hadn’t made any special effort with her attire and never said any words of compliment or encouragement.

Over dinner, Peter started the conversation. ‘The PM said in cabinet the other day…’

Can’t you leave the politics in London?’ said Deirdre rather testily. ‘Did you know that Toby has been picked in the school football team?’

No, Rosemary hasn’t called me. ’

Well, I called Rosemary yesterday and Toby’s over the moon.’

Peter grunted approvingly. I played in the school team once, you know. We played rugby and I broke my arm, never played again.’

Oh dear, was it painful?

Can’t recall, but I remember all the class wrote messages on my plaster cast.’

And Zachary’s got a new assistant, a German who seems to know everything. Gunter, he’s called.’

Well, well. He seems to doing well then.’

He is.’

They resumed eating in silence, but after a short while Peter returned to politics. He told her that the referendum to decide Britain’s future with Europe would be a big opportunity to turn the country’s fortunes around. However, he didn’t take the weekend as an opportunity to steer the marriage’s fortunes away from the low water rocks.

Years ago as a young man, he had inspired Deirdre with his energy and verve at Bristol University and she knew he believed that leaving the European Union would be a victory for the common man over the Brussels machine that wanted to control things more and more. That night, as Deirdre listened to him, she could feel Peter’s grandfather’s bloody-minded streak coming through. In ‘36, he had walked in the Jarrow Crusade from Hull to London in protest over unemployment and poverty. He had been strong-willed and single-minded. And that was the furnace in which Peter’s political convictions had been forged. So it was little surprise that he decided to stand in his grandfather’s town of Hull in ‘92 when they redrew the constituency boundaries to eliminate Pembrokeshire North. No, he couldn’t find a nearer constituency and, yes, he felt as if he would be coming back home if he represented Hull (South).

To her, Hull signalled the gentle start of her increasing isolation in Wiston. Even his vocabulary added the odd word to indicate that he had shifted from Wiston to Hull. She imagined him saying, ‘Not that Wiston was a terrible place, mind,’ – they added that word ‘mind’ to the end of so many sentences up there. And, ‘You know, pet,’ another word Peter had started to slip in his conversation as a result of his exposure to the Yorkshire dialect.

At dinner on Saturday night in the chic restaurant, Number Thirty Nine, in Narberth, they had lost the art of personal conversation.

Peter, can we talk about us?’ said Deirdre over her chicken chasseur, ‘All I have here is a small circle of friends and my painting and you seem to be universally preoccupied with work.’

What’s so bad about that?’ He put his knife and fork across the plate with the half finished tournedos Rossini and broccoli and took a sip of his wine.

Nothing, but it’s not that good, either.’

Dee, there’s bound to be a lot of upheaval with this referendum. It’ll split the party and turmoil represents opportunity. With twenty-nine years behind me, my moment is now. I’m going to fight like hell to win the arguments, and who knows, win an even greater prize.’

And me? And us? We have hardly shared anything in ages. I sit down here with my artwork and you don’t take the slightest interest in it and you are away all over the place, I can’t follow all your moves. If I look back, I have just been a mother and a footnote to a politician who never quite made it?’

Most politicians never quite make,’ said Peter, ‘if it is their ambition to be Prime Minister, but if a politician can make just one little improvement to people’s lives, then he has made it.’

Great words, but I think no one cares about you… or me,’ Deirdre said in a spiteful way.

Well, I’m going to keep on trying.’

That was Peter, always wanting the last word as well. And that was the weekend, a weekend together, but apart.

They had no gossipy titbits about their life together or common friends – they had increasingly few – it was all about his contacts and what such and such an MP or private advisor was saying or doing. They had become two ships passing in the night.

When he left on Monday morning, Deirdre felt a pang of abandonment and simultaneously gave a sigh of relief. It wasn’t that he abused her, he just seemed too much involved in his own life.

On each new day of the week, Deirdre checked her e-mails with hope, but nothing came on Monday, nor Tuesday or Wednesday.

Peter called and was, as usual, “unavoidably” stuck in London for the weekend. Over coffee on Thursday morning, she checked the e-mail. Four gentlemen had responded. After a four-day drought, a deluge. Excited yet wary, Deirdre pressed the Print button and laid the four sheets of paper in front of her for comparison. Yes, it was like house buying in a way. Each “applicant” had a picture and each listed attributes, hobbies and what they sought in a partner.

John looked handsome, but his moustache put Deirdre off.

Benjamin was black, and despite all the equality stuff, Deirdre couldn’t imagine going out with a black man.

Rupert came from Birmingham and was a good age, sixty, fair hair and a former reporter. He looked interesting.

Despite being the oldest at sixty-eight, Harold looked the best, by far. A former bank manager and active tennis player, there was something about his face she liked. Not only did he look kind but he also had a cleft chin and a symmetrically central aquiline nose.

But you couldn’t tell from a few words and a photo, you had to have a conversation and then a meeting and then … And it had to be fun. And she had to be interesting to the prospective Mr Right.

At dinner alone in the house, she could think of nothing else but the four suitors. Over coffee, she took her time making her notes. Heavens, she felt nervous like she was going to the headmaster’s study. How do you call up a possible date when such a thought has barely crossed your mind in so many years? How do you sound casual yet interested? How can you convince someone of your honesty – when you are hiding the biggest lie that you are still married?

The briefest dalliance thirty-two years ago with an ardent Joe Splitz, an American executive at Coca-Cola, who looked like Adonis and behaved like Casanova flitted across her mind. She had pulled back at the last moment to test him and found him wanting. Yes, he had been successful, without being earth shattering. A current under-secretary at the American Embassy in London probably counts for a lot. It must be a prestigious and well-paid position, but he was on his fourth wife (and so much younger than him) Deirdre had noticed from a newspaper report six months ago.

In the silent house without a light anywhere outside, the phone rang. She had been so absorbed in her own thoughts, her heart jumped in shock. Was one of them calling already?

It was Peter and a relieved Deirdre glanced at the clock, half past ten. His regular, irregular, call home. She laughed silently at the idea that Peter would still call Wales his home.

Dee, love, how are you?’ Peter’s use of ‘Love’ did little to make Deirdre glad he was calling, at least he hadn’t said ‘Pet’. ‘Love’, the hangover from his upbringing and his London accent still lingered despite the years of modulating his diction to be more in keeping with the powerful ranks of public schoolboys who constituted so many of the influential Conservative MPs.

Fine, it’s raining here,’ she replied, wondering if he had caught the significance of her oxymoron. Their usual meaningless conversation meandered, neither really listened to the other. It was like a truce, no hostile actions but little re-engagement or reconciliation.

Got a big week, I’m afraid,’ Without pausing to allow Deirdre to comment that it was nothing new, he proceeded to say, ‘I hear a whisper on the grapevine that Foreign Secretary could be on the cards. There are some rumours of, let us say, indiscretions by the current incumbent Bernard Norris. They may cause him to fall. The PM has a few options but my grapevine suggests I have as good a chance as anyone, especially after my good showing as a leading advocate of more free trade outside the European Union. A seat on the front bench, one I should have taken years ago, remember?’

How could I forget your machinations over whether or not to take up a front bench position?’ said Deirdre without a hint of sympathy. He had been treading water after being passed over at the highest level before. He wasn’t old school, never would be.

Did you see me on TV the other day?’ said Peter without responding to Deirdre’s barbed comment. ‘I thought I handled old Nelmes, pretty well, didn’t you?‘

Yes,’ said Deirdre mechanically, thinking how could an MP for a Hull constituency be Foreign Secretary? But how did any of them have any qualifications for the posts they filled. It was all about who you knew and what leverage you could exert.

I hope I can make it home this Friday…You OK?’ It was an afterthought, nothing new, and confirmed that she was not important. She put the phone down and looked back at the sheet of aspiring Lotharios. She had to decide how to respond.

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