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A Period Home

Gas CookerOne hundred days after the cataclysmic sea-change in British political life which saw Mr. Blair into office, and Jonathan Matthews was still in a state of almost vegetative shock.

He had allowed his name to go forward to please Helen, as much as anything, and when he was chosen by the constituency as an archetypal ‘New Labour’ candidate, he didn’t worry too much about being actually elected, not in one of the safest Tory seats in the North of England.

But it was Tony’s hour, and Helen had campaigned as though her life depended on it, and somehow Jonathan had overthrown poor old Sir Gordon’s majority of eighteen thousand, and turned it into one of twelve hundred for himself. The horror of the moment when the returning officer read out the results would stay with him always.

And now here he was, wandering the corridors of the Palace of Westminster like a little lost lamb, with no idea of what he was supposed to do, or where he was supposed to go, or even, if was honest, what he was supposed to believe. He could no longer even remember the moment when he had stopped being a Conservative, and had joined the Labour Party. He was scared and confused.

Except in the evenings, when he got home to Helen. Helen sorted everything out. Jonathan was Helen’s career. She had engineered their engagement, arranged the wedding, masterminded Jonathan’s rise through the ranks of KPMG, planned the children and dispatched them both to decent schools, had made beautiful the Tudor house in the constituency which Jonathan had been naive enough to think of as ‘home’; and now, three months after Jonathan had been plunged into the brackish waters of backbench existence, she was busy sorting out the flat that she had found in Battersea.

The flat was a penthouse, the top deck in a block which had been designed in the 1930’s to look like the Queen Mary, beached besides the river. It was a striking building still; it had been startling in its day. There was a bas-relief by Eric Gill in the vestibule, and Deco panelling in the lifts. In the frenzied months since they had moved down to London, Helen had devoted her not inconsiderable energy to bringing the flat up to scratch.

Thankfully, no one had ever meddled with the bathroom, which was still in trim 1933 order, with it’s original tiles and fitments, but everything else had been mauled about in the sixties and seventies, and Helen had had a lot of work in front of her. Her plan was that everything in the flat should be ‘in period’; should all be from the thirties. The furniture: sofas, carpets, dining room suite, bedroom furnishings, and a wonderful walnut veneer Gillow desk for Jonathan’s study, had been relatively easy to find, though heart-stoppingly expensive, especially the matching Lalique uplighters that she had unearthed at a dealers in Brighton’s Lanes. A piece of the original wallpaper, echoing the nautical theme of the flats, had been uncovered by the decorators as they scraped off the ghastly woodchip in the hall; Helen had commissioned a firm of printers who specialised in such work to run her off a couple of dozen rolls, and now stylised deco dolphins and steamships sported merrily over the walls.

Helen’s real problems had started with the appliances. From somewhere, she had found a 1932 Army and Navy Stores catalogue displaying all the latest home making equipment, and now nothing would do but that she find authentic period white goods. She had scoured auction rooms and scrap dealers and architectural antique dealers, and she had uncovered a treasure trove of early electrical appliances – a fantastic electric fire shaped like a butterfly, a clunking old refrigerator, big enough to hold a side of venison, an amusing original Hoover in good working order, and several old radios. At Jonathan’s insistence, she had even managed to find a flickering old pre-war TV. She felt it was wrong to have one at all, but Jonathan pointed out that he was going to have to watch ‘Newsnight’ now he was an MP, and so she yielded.

‘Compromise, Jonathan’, said Helen. ‘I don’t like it, but sometimes needs must where the devil drives.’

It was some compensation to her that the black and white picture was barely watchable, and that the ancient speaker made Paxman sound like a Dalek. It was easier for Jonathan just to listen to Helen outline her plans, he found, rather than try to watch the dreadful little set, especially since the project was so near completion. All she needed to finish the whole thing was a cooker, a real 1930’s cooker, and then her happiness would be complete.

Jonathan usually left the flat at about 8, and put in a couple of hours at KPMG in the City. He had been made a partner a few years ago, based in the Leeds office; now he had been transferred to HQ, where he acted as a ‘Parliamentary consultant’. Once a week, Jonathan had to attend a board meeting in this capacity, which was interesting enough, but he missed the hurly-burly of day to day accountancy. In the afternoon he sat in the House, frankly bewildered as to what was going on. The thought of making his maiden speech filled him with horror. He knew that if all these new women about the place had their way, his mornings would disappear, but for now, at least, he managed to fit everything in, just about, though the constituency stuff was piling up, and he did not feel equipped to deal with it. He sat in the tiny office he shared with three other tyro Members, and stared in despair at a letter from a Mrs. Legge, who was complaining about the state of her drains, when Helen rang.

‘Darling! Marvellous news! I think I’ve found the very thing for the kitchen! Straight out of the Army and Navy! It’s a gas-range, a huge thing, terribly authentic. The only problem is, it’s at Breen’s scrapyard in the constituency. It’s your surgery this weekend, yes?’

‘Er… yes.’

‘Good. I’ve arranged for you to pick it up on Sunday morning. I’m fairly certain it will fit into the back of the Volvo. You don’t mind, do you?’
‘Well…’

‘Good. I’ll phone dear little Mr. Breen now, and tell him you’ll be there. See you later.’

Jonathan had planned to catch the train up on Friday night. Only that morning a memorandum had come round from bloody John Prescott demanding that Government MP’s use public transport wherever possible, and Jonathan had rather looked forward to sitting in First, and getting a taxi from Leeds out to the constituency, all expenses paid. Now it seemed that he was to drive, after a full days work. No matter – in a straight fight between Prescott’s super-ministry and Helen, Helen won every time, hands down, no question.

So, on Friday night, he drove the two hundred and fifty miles North. Helen packed his things and waved him off.

He was exhausted by the time the Volvo crunched up the drive of the darkened constituency house; it took him a while to find the keys, and when he got in the house was freezing; Mrs. Armistead had not kept her promise to do a little shop and to turn on the central heating, so he fell hungry and fully-clothed into bed, wishing that Helen was there to sort things out.
His Saturday surgery was a nightmare. He only had two callers: Mrs. Legge, who demonstrated by means of an elaborate mime the inconvenience caused by her stinking drains, and poor old Sir Gordon, his defeated rival, who had popped by to garner House gossip, and to pass on sage advice about life as a back-bencher, which Jonathan couldn’t quite understand. He sat in the empty office till 5, ate his dinner at a Happy Eater on the bypass, and went home to watch TV, widescreen, Nicam digital stereo.. The Tudor’s didn’t have TV, thought Jonathan with some bitterness, so how come we can have a proper telly here, but not in London? Just as ‘Match of the Day’ started, Helen rang in great excitement.

“Darling, guess what? Period Homes want to do a piece on the flat when it’s done. And ‘World of Interiors’ have hinted they might be interested. Isn’t it exciting?”

“Yes.”

“Do try and sound interested, Jonathan. This is just the kind of high profile media interest that might make them sit up at Millbank. That might get you considered as a PPS, or even an under-secretary. So listen…”

Helen ran through the arrangements for collecting the gas-range, again, while Jonathan tried to remember what a PPS was. By the time she had finished, so had ‘Match of the Day’, and Jonathan went to bed where he fell asleep over Chapter One of “The State We’re In” for the nth time.

The morning broke and so did the Pennine rain, with the promise in the west of much more to come. As Jonathan folded down the backseats of the Volvo, a trickle of rain ran down his neck. Helen had neglected to send his raincoat, and he was soaked through. His mobile rang – it was Helen.

“Jon, what’s the weather like?”

“Wet.”

“Well, please put your foot down a little, darling. The range is outside at Mr. Breen’s yard. It’ll rust away.”

On his way to the scrapyard, Jonathan ran out of petrol. Helen had neglected to remind him to get some. He stood for some time at the side of the road until a Young Farmer in a blood-red Subaru Impreza happened by and gave Jonathan a lift to the garage at the price of demonstrating ‘what this baby can do in the wet.” It was 11 ‘o’clock by the time a terrified Jonathan was dropped back by his car. He took a couple of pulls from his hip-flask to calm his nerves. It was almost midday before he pulled into Mr. Breen’s scrapyard.

“You’ll be MP for t’ gas range.”, said Mr. Breen.

“That’s right.”

“Well, there she is.” Mr. Breen pointed at a great hulking enamelled monster, turquoise, double ovened with eight great cast iron rings on top.

“Does it work?”

“Does it work? That ole bugger? That works a treat, that does. Tell yer what though, do you yer think it’ll fit in yer motor?”

“I hope so.”

“Ow yer goin ter get er in then?”

“Er… I was rather hoping you were going to give me a hand.”

“Ee, with my back? You must be joking!”

“Well, what do you suggest? I don’t think I can manage it on my own.”

“Tell yer what. If you slip ’em a couple of quid, my lads’ll give yer a hand.”

“Oh, that’s great. Thank you.”

“When they get back from chapel.”

“Oh. When will that be?”

“About two”

“Oh. Er. I don’t know if I can wait that long.”

“Well, yer buggered then, aren’t yer?”

“Oh dear. My wife won’t be at all pleased.”

“Tell yer what we’ll do. It’s raining anyway. Why don’t you and me go down pub for a couple of pints and a bite of lunch, and by the time we’re done, the lads’ll be back from chapel, and you can be on yer way. Whaddya think?”

Jonathan seemed to have little choice, so he drove the old man to the pub where he washed down a spongy pie with 3 pints of fizzy beer while Mr. Breen told him about his neighbours drains.

“Somethin terrible, they are. Poor Mrs. Legge. She’s frantic with worry. Someone ought to do something.”

At 2.30, Jonathan drove Mr. Breen back to the yard, where his lads sat in the hut, sheltering from the rain, drinking tea, and clicking their tongues with disapproval.

“Drinking ale again, Father?”, they said. “And on the Sabbath, an all.”

“Shut yer mitherin yer sanctimonious layabouts, and give MP a lift wi’ his range.”

The three lads looked unsure.

“I’ll give you ten pounds. Each.”

“Oh, we can’t do that. Not on the Lord’s Day.”

“Twenty.”

The lads shook their heads.

“Very strict on working on Lords Day is the old pastor. Mother would turn in her grave. Come back int mornin.”

“Fifty.”

“Yer on!”

Somehow, the Breen boys and Jonathan manoeuvred the range into the Volvo, with Breen senior shouting encouragement from the shelter of his hut. Despite their collective best efforts, the door would not close.

“It’s too bloody big”, said the brightest of Mr Breen’s boys.

“Bit of rope’ll hold that shut.” said Mr. Breen, and half an hour later Jonathan was bumping thankfully down the track away from Breen’s yard, the rear door of the Volvo held shut by a piece of frayed rope that the Breen’s had dug out from the hut. The wind was blowing from behind: rain blew through the car and onto Jonathan’s already soaked back. He thought of going home to change, but a quick phone call to Helen showed him that this would be a mistake. He turned the car south onto the motorway.

Sopping wet and frozen to the bone, he stopped at Watford Gap services for ‘Today’s special – a delicious whortleberry compote donut with a large freshly filtered coffee, only £4.99’. Pulling out again onto the motorway, he was stopped on the slip-road by two officious young policemen in a Jaguar.

“This yours, sir?” they asked, nodding at the range.

“Yes. I’m… I’m an MP!”

The policemen looked at one another.

“Just blow into this bag, if you would sir.”

Alas, the service station coffee had not purged the lunchtime beer from Jonathan’s system, and the policemen invited him to spend the night in the cells at Northampton Police Station, and, furthermore, to attend a hearing at Northampton Magistrates court a fortnight on Wednesday. It was freezing in the cells, especially since under bloody Jack Straw’s new policy, ‘The Cold Sharp Shock’, blanket rights had been withdrawn from prisoners being held in police custody. Jonathan slept poorly – in his dreams Helen was pouring buckets of cold water over his head.

He was awoken at 6 by an officer who brought him a luke warm mug of weak tea and a slice of cold margerined toast. The desk sergeant gave him his keys, and told him where to find the car in the pound. A photographer from ‘The Northampton Echo’ snapped at him as he made his way to the Volvo, tipped off, Jonathan supposed, by the police. The driver’s seat was still sodden. By the time he arrived back at the flat, after crawling through the rush hour traffic, it was almost ten, and Helen was incandescent with rage.
“For Christ’s sake, Jonathan! The gasmen are here already, and ‘Period Homes’ are due this afternoon! What were you thinking of? Couldn’t you have waited for a drink until you got home? You stupid man! Here, give me the bloody keys.”

“Shouldn’t you get it checked over?”

“There isn’t time, thanks to you, you halfwit. Besides, Mr. Breen assured me that it worked a treat. Now for God’s sake have a shower and get off to the office out of my sight.”
Jonathan did as he was told; luckily it was one of his quiet mornings, so he dozed across his desk with his head on his arms until his secretary buzzed him to say it was 2.30, and shouldn’t he be making his way to the House?

In the taxi, Jonathan tried to raise Helen on the phone at the flat. The line was dead. He tried her mobile. Line busy.

In the House, he sat dutifully through the first reading of the Drains and Sewers (Enabling) Bill until 5, when he tried phoning again. Worried by Helen’s continued lack of response, he took a cab back across the river to the flat.

The Fire Brigade were still in attendance. There was nothing that anyone could have done, they said. A gas explosion like that could have been much worse, they said, and it was lucky that only Helen and the photographer from ‘Period Homes’ had been killed.

At the funeral in the constituency everyone was very kind, especially poor old Sir Gordon. Tears coursed down his wrinkled cheeks. Mr. Breen, very dignified in black, said he was “Terribly sorry but that the range had been in perfect working order when it left his yard, and it must have been some poncey London gas-fitter who had cocked it up”

Mrs. Legge said her drains always put her in mind of a funeral, and that it was very sad. Afterwards, at home, Jonathan made himself a sandwich, and watched ‘Sportsnight’ in glorious colour, the sound turned up high.

Jonathan has settled down in the House now. He finds the atmosphere very clubbable, just as advertised, and that life there is ideally suited to the easy rhythms of widowerhood. In a free vote, Jonathan and his allies successfully opposed the introduction of family friendly working hours into the House, so now, after a busy morning in the City and a packed legislative programme in the afternoons, he likes to sit in the Member’s Bar of an evening, drinking subsidised beer and listening to the gossip.

He has even grasped the intricacies of the working of Parliament, so much so that he has recently been asked to chair the committee stage of the ‘Gas Appliances Safety Regulations Bill 1999’, and he is only too happy to bring his expertise to bear on this tricky and sadly overlooked topic.