Authors: Robert Barnard
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Charlie Peace came out of the door of Blackett and Podmore, the estate agents, holding a sheaf of property descriptions. He slipped into his car, parked on the edge of the little square in the center of the village, and began to riffle through them.
Ten minutes later he got on the mobile to his wife.
“Well, there seem to be several houses here that might suit, going by the descriptions.”
“You can't,” said Felicity.
“I know. There are lies, damned lies and estate agents' brochures,” he said. “Trouble is, you only get to plumb the depths of their deceptions when you've actually lived in the places they've sold for a few months.”
“And it doesn't help that we're looking for two places rather than just one.”
Driving off on a circuit of inspections of exteriors mapped out for him by the maligned estate agents, Charlie echoed Felicity's words. His attaining the rank
of inspector some months earlier had coincided with a proposal from his father-in-law, who, on the first hint that the new job might enable Charlie and Felicity to move out of Leeds, had decided that he needed to move in with or close to them.
“Close to,” Charlie had said firmly. “Not in with.”
“Not on your life,” Felicity had agreed. “I'm not going to be his dogsbody.”
She knew her father through and through, of course. Rupert Coggenhoe had used people (notably his wife) throughout his life, and Felicity knew that old age would not change him, though she felt twinges of guilt at the thought that the only thing that would change him was by now fairly close. He had made a respectable living writing novels in a variety of genres, effortlessly shifting styles without ever becoming a complete master in any one of them. He had explained to his daughter and son-in-law that his cottageâa kind of super-cottage, with various extensions at the back, to which he had moved from Luton when he had come into a windfall legacy from a great-auntâwould fetch around four hundred thousand pounds, a tribute to the enduring appeal of the West Country. He proposed to part-finance his daughter and son-in-law's purchase of a house for their growing family. The only catch was that the house had to have a granny flat, or to be near some other, smaller property which he would purchase for himself.
“To which you will be called to cook, clean, garden and hold his awful old hand,” said Charlie, not scared
of seeming ungrateful when in his opinion so little gratitude was called for.
“Just not possible,” said Felicity complacently. “I won't be able to leave Carola and Little Fetus.”
Little Fetus was growing, but they had not tried to learn its sex, so had not given it a proper name.
“Could be Evelyn,” said Felicity. “Or Hilary or Lesley. Do for either sex.”
“Evelyn Peace,” said Charlie, turning up his nose. “Sounds like a writer of soppy verse.”
The tour around Slepton Edge, which he'd thought of as a typical small village but which probably housed about two thousand inhabitants, took nearly half an hour. He discarded the few properties with granny flats, not because they were too small, though they were, but because he didn't want his father-in-law so near. Then he started sifting through the rest, noting down the properties he would like to live in that had another, smaller property fairly near that was also for sale. His father-in-law's property in Devon was of the sort that had roses and hollyhocks peeping through its earholes, arsehole and all intermediate orifices. Charlie had taken an instant dislike to it the one time he visited it, at the time of his mother-in-law's funeral. He thought a farm-hand's two-up, two-down was not going to be suitable for the old fraud in a few years' time, so he preferred to set his sights on a modern bungalow, with or without roses and hollyhocks. It was a sensible and achievable objective, and he drove back to the center of the village with three pairs of properties he wanted to view the insides of.
He came out of Blackett and Podmore's with all the arrangements having been made: he and Felicity would view all the bungalows the next evening, since it was obviously useless to see any property on his own, especially as he was not prepared to shoulder sole responsibility if the choice proved a disaster. Felicity's more (but not particularly) domestic eye was needed to adjudicate on the pluses and minuses of all the prospective dwellings. Vital that she have her say before and not after the decision.
Something was going on in the center of Slepton Edge as he drove back into town. He had noticed a long, gangling, youngish man with a shy but eager smile busying himself there when he'd first been to the agents'. Now the young man had taken over the little central area of the square, where a monument to the Marquis of Wakefield, a local benefactor, was sited. A tiny stageâhardly more than a soapboxâhad been erected in front of the statue, and a microphone, with wires leading to a generator, was attached to its front. The gangling man was testing it as Charlie watched, helped by a pregnant woman of about his own ageâearly thirties, Charlie estimatedâand by a little group of supporters.
Perhaps more surprising, a knot of listeners was already clustering on the pavements on either side of the squareâsmiling, greeting each other, waiting for things to start. It was very unlike an election. In any case there was no general election going on, and so far as Charlie knew no by-election either: the police were always on the alert during a by-election, but particularly
since so many of the Northern ones had a candidate fielded by the British National Party with rabidly racist programs and literature. His musings were interrupted by the man's first words booming into the crowd.
“You all know there's an election on. For the first time people in this area can vote as to who should become mayor of Halifax. And I think most of you know that I'm a candidate.”
There was applauseâmore than polite, in fact decidedly warm. Charlie had got over his surprise. Elections for mayor, on the American model, had been on the cards for three or four years now, depending on the choice of the area. Presumably the peopleâor perhaps the bigwigsâof Halifax, in which Slepton Edge was situated, had decided to try having an elected mayor. As a rule the mayor was at best a useful local representative of many years' standing in local government, or at worst a party hack due for an empty honor as his reward before retirement. The good voters of Halifax or their elected representatives must have decided to go for something a bit more colorful and out of the ordinary.
“You know who I am, but the people around us, in Halifax, for example, won't know. And I won't be able to say, âI'm your Labour candidate,' or âyour Conservative candidate.' That's very useful, that is: it's like saying, âDon't vote for me, vote for my label.' We've been doing that for too long. If you vote for me you'll be voting for a person, not a label. Who am I? Well, I'm a doctor, and that's what you'll be voting for, even though I'm
not practicing at the moment. I was for seven years a consultant in ear, nose and throat complaints at a big hospital. Before that I'd been in general practice. Then I gave it all up. I thought I was taking a holiday, but in fact I was signing up for a new way of life. I was tired of what was happening in the Health Service.”
There was a smattering of applause at this, and “So are we all” came from one man.
“It wasn't a matter of money. That's part of the problem, but only a part. I was fed up with quick fixes. Is there a waiting list? Lower the average time a patient has with his specialist to five minutes. Slice one category of patients off the list. If these don't work, just fiddle the figures. Is the drug bill too high? Notice they say âdrugs,' not âmedicines.' Drugs sounds vaguely nasty, something we should avoid. All right, stop doctors prescribing the new, expensive drugs. Say certain conditions shouldn't be treated at all. Charge the patient market prices for his care. I got out because we don't have a Health Service anymore. We have a confidence trick based on the quick fix and the clever fiddle.”
Charlie was by now out of his car and listening intently. The crowd had grown, was genial, supportive and being friendly back whenever the man made a friendly move toward them. He was not an orator. Charlie had often marveled that men like Hitler and Mussolini, mediocre of mind and unprepossessing of body, could by means of that black art which is mass oratory be transformed into vehicles of destruction.
But this man just talked to his audienceâno ego trip, no mesmerism. Yet in ten minutes he had them in the palms of his hands. They admired him. In a way they seemed to love him. What a wonderful thing! And what a dangerous one!
“Think!” the man went on, clearly drawing to a conclusion. “We've had real, independent men in our Parliament since the last two elections. We need more. And we need many, many more in local government. That shouldn't be a party thing at all. We want men who consider issues, think them through, and when they've come to a conclusion work to bring a better state of affairs about. We want men who are their own men, and women who are their own women. Vote for me!”
All this was done with half a smile on his face, perhaps to show that he was serious but not too serious. When he finished there was a respectably enthusiastic cheer and a lot of applause. He got down from his improvised platform and started mingling with the small crowd. Charlie watched him curiously. It became clear that he knew almost all of them. He heard him greeting people by their Christian names. A genuinely local man, then, he guessed. And other locals were willing to stand in the chill October sunshine to listen to him, then linger around to talk to him.
Charlie got back into his car and put his key in the ignition. Then, on an impulse, he changed his mind. He waitedâwatching the people disappear to homes, shops and pubs. The man went back to the pregnant woman still beside the platform, and together, with
help from the two assistants, they began to pack up the sound equipment. Charlie waited until they were finished, then got out of the car and went over to them. The man saw him, and smiled a candidate's smile of greeting.
“I thought electioneering speeches were a thing of the past,” Charlie said.
“So were independent candidates,” said the man. “But they're making a modest comeback, and I'm trying to give an extra shove. I'm Chris Carlson, by the way.”
Charlie's glance went to the election poster on a stick which had been turned away from his car when the man was speaking.
“Or Dr. Chris Carlson,” Charlie said. The man shrugged good-humoredly.