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Authors: Edwina Currie

This Honourable House

BOOK: This Honourable House
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This Honourable House

Edwina Currie

‘I wish,’ said Frank Bridges venomously, ‘that somebody would sort out the bloody cow once and for all.’

He picked up the chunky pint glass and downed the remains of his beer in a gulp. There were clucks of sympathy around him. To many of the thick-set, grizzled men seated at his table and nearby, Frank was the local hero. His successes were theirs, his worries grafted seamlessly on to their own. If Frank was upset, so were they.

The Right Honourable Frank Bridges, fifty years old, overweight, red-faced, crumple-suited and aggressive, should not have been upset. Indeed, he had considerable reason to be hugely pleased with his own situation, and with life in general. Newly elevated to the seat in the Cabinet he could once only have dreamed of, he was trusted by the public, envied by colleagues, and regarded with ragged affection by his constituents, who included the scruffy occupants of the Admiral Benbow, a run-down pub in a Bootle side-street near the now derelict docks.

Vic, Scouser, Bill the Fixer, Mad Max and others had truanted with him from the inner-city school where expectations were destroyed with the cane and sarcasm. As boys, they had scattered down alleys behind his stocky form, their pockets stuffed with illicit loot. But Frank had kept running, beyond the despair and hopelessness. None of the others had followed where he led. He had not gone to the dogs like them but had made something of himself. He had risen to the top, or close to it. Of Frank Bridges they were inordinately proud.

For Frank was a salt-of-the-earth type, the press generally agreed. A police sergeant had once challenged him to make a man of himself. Shamed, he had applied, with the sergeant’s gruff help, to join Liverpool police cadets; to his surprise and the ribbing of his mates he had been accepted. He had worked his way up through the byzantine networks of the force to national prominence, particularly during the bitter dock strike of 1982. In that prolonged struggle, he had contrived to become a solidly admired figure. While speaking in the same strong Merseyside accent as the militant strikers and displaying an understated, dignified disdain for the government of Margaret Thatcher, he had contrived to prevent conflict and bloodshed even as the nation’s trade was brought to a standstill. His erstwhile comrade Arthur Scargill had asked him how he had managed such a feat. Frank had begun to confess that he did not know that chance had played its part. Then he had thought better of it and suggested vaguely that working with the system was better than trying to destroy it, that politics might achieve more than the picket line. Scargill’s derision convinced him. Soon afterwards Frank offered himself as a parliamentary candidate. He had represented the Dockside division of the seaport ever since.

‘It’s a bummer, it is,’ came a voice, as more pints were splashed down on the sticky table top. The air hung thick and acrid with smoke. ‘Salt and vinegar okay?’

Frank nodded glumly and ripped open the packet of crisps, eating them two or three at a time. He brushed crumbs from his midriff, tugged impatiently at his tie and unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt. He was sweating, a damp line visible on the inside of his collar. ‘Mustn’t eat too many of these,’ he mumbled, indicating the crisps. He waved away a cigarette. ‘Look gross on the telly. Gotta keep a new young wife happy. An’ that’s another story.’

‘She’s a peach, your new lady,’ said Scouser respectfully. His accent was so strong that even Frank sometimes asked him to repeat himself. ‘Hazel, innit? You’re a lucky dog, you.’ An elbow was dug into Frank’s ribs.

‘I know, I know.’ Frank sighed. ‘But I could murder Gail. Really murder her. And that slob Melvyn. Spin doctor. The sanitation squad, he’s called. I’d like to sanitise
him
. Did you hear what happened? I could slaughter them both. Maybe I should arrange with some of me old mates to tie the pair of ’em together with a lump of concrete and chuck ’em in the Mersey one dark and stormy night.
They deserve it.’

‘You should’ve told Melvyn where to go,’ said Vic. He wiped a roughened fist across his mouth and flexed his biceps. Vic had tried his hand at boxing in his youth; his convictions were all for GBH. Not a man to argue with.

‘Nah, couldn’t do that.’ Frank brooded. His listeners settled happily in anticipation. They were not to be disappointed.

‘There we were,’ Frank started, ‘all packed and ready to go on holiday, in the VIP lounge at Heathrow. The luggage was checked in. Gail was excited, kept prancing around and ordering more coffee just for the sake of it. God, does she love being important! I thought to myself even then, If you’d taken more interest on the way – not moaned so much about “Where are you going, Frank, you off out again, Frank, another meeting is it, Frank?” – then I wouldn’t have minded. But she never used to lift a finger. Now she’s Lady Muck and adores every minute.’

He took a prolonged swallow of his beer. His audience sat quietly. Once Frank was embarked on a tale, he needed no prompting.

‘So the phone goes. The mobile. I’d forgotten to switch it off – you know how keen the Boss is that we keep in touch. “Oh, Frank,” she says,’ he mimicked a woman’s high-pitched voice, ‘“oh, Frank, not again. Surely not. We’re going on holiday. To the
Seychelles
.”’ He raised his voice to show that Gail was determined everyone in earshot should hear. “‘First class. Couldn’t you have left it at home for once?” Only what she didn’t know was that it was that bastard Melvyn. An’ he’s on the line to say the
News of the World
’s got a story on me and Hazel. Pictures of her coming out of my flat in Westminster. And what do I want to do?’

‘How did they get them pictures? Was it a set-up?’Vic asked.

‘Nah. Not really. She comes to my place regularly in her car, see, and parks it on a meter. So I go out in the morning when my driver comes, and I feed the meter. And there’s a journalist hanging about, and instead of pushing off when I leave, he’s curious. He knows Gail’s in Cheshire. So why’m I feeding a meter? Who’s there? And when Hazel shows and jumps in her car, his nose tells him he’s got a scoop. After that he hovers with a photographer till it happens again, and out they pop and confront her. Bob’s your uncle.’

Heads were shaken at the brazen callousness of the gutter press. ‘They don’t care,’ said Mad Max, and cracked his knuckles.

‘Bastards,’ added Vic, with menace.

‘So then we have Mr Melvyn O’Connor, spin doctor number two – number one, Mr Alistair McDonald, being on duty elsewhere – Mr Melvyn O’Connor, who’s never done a proper day’s grafting ever, calling me to say the Boss is asking which way I’ll jump. Who’s going to be on the guest list in future? Is it the wife, or the girlfriend? He’ll back my decision either way and doesn’t want to push me, but they need an answer so they can put out a statement. Would I mind deciding? Honest, right in the middle of the VIP departure lounge, with me cursing like a trooper and Gail telling me to mind my language. God.’

Frank was breathing heavily. The events he was describing had taken place barely three months before. ‘So I looked at my lovely wife, and all I could see was this mouth with big teeth in it opening and closing, and it was like no sound was coming out. And I thought, I’ve put up with enough. I don’t want to spend another minute with you. At least Hazel’s kind, and takes an interest in politics, and gives me a kiss in bed.’

Conscious perhaps that he had gone a bit far, Frank cradled his glass. His audience shifted restlessly.

‘She’s young enough to be your daughter, you old dog, you,’ came an anonymous voice from the back of the group. Laughter floated in the air, and Frank chuckled.

‘There is that,’ he agreed. ‘But the big difference with this younger generation, compared to,
say, the girls we grew up with, is they’re keen on it. Sex, I mean. Take it for granted. You don’t have to negotiate, just perform. With Gail at times, getting a fuck was like taking on the entire TUC in a triple composite motion. Between the two of them there was no contest.’

The middle-aged drinkers contemplated in mute wonder the prospect of readily available sex. Stifled sniggers came from two younger men and were quickly hushed. ‘But now,’ Vic snorted, ‘now she’s getting her own back, isn’t she? Or trying to.’

For answer Frank put his head in his hands. A groan came from the depths of his unshaven jowls. ‘She’s been on every telly programme, on all channels and cable. BBC Radio Two, Four and Five Live, twice. LBC and TalkSport. They had a field day. She’s been to see that Clifford Maxwell. He must reckon there’s mileage in it. Plus something for him. He got her out of those purple suits and costume jewellery and into a soft little cream knitted number. Taught her to keep her mouth shut in answer to questions and just look pained. She must have been practising for bleedin’ hours. I don’t remember Gail ever shutting up long enough for anyone else to get a word in edgeways. On radio she gulps as if she’s going to cry. Christ!’

‘The wronged wife,’ murmured Scouser.

‘Trying to fix you up,’ agreed Bill the Fixer.

‘A woman scorned,’ added Max, the intellectual of the group.

‘And now, to top everything, she’s going to write a book. Says she’ll lay bare the secrets of our unhappy marriage. About my drinking. My womanising, so-called. My tyrannical behaviour. How I put ambition and politics before everything else. How I made her days and nights a misery. I shouldn’t be surprised if we get the screwed-up secrets of the bedchamber, with her as the willing partner and me incapable. Huh!’

‘You’re not incapable, are you, Frank?’ Scouser asked anxiously. ‘As you get older …’

‘No, of course not,’ Frank answered brusquely. ‘Don’t talk crap. If I was, Hazel wouldn’t have stuck by me, would she? No sweat in that quarter.’

‘So your Gail’s going to say you were chasing other women but couldn’t get it up with
her
.’ A note of incredulity had entered Bill’s voice. Frank grunted.

‘You was too young, you and her. She wasn’t twenty-one when you got married.’ Vic had sat behind both Gail and Frank at Toxteth secondary modern school on those few occasions he had attended.

‘Yeah, well, she’d announced she was in the family way, hadn’t she? I couldn’t leave her in the lurch. An’ I wanted to be married, to be truthful. Them days, you wanted sex, it was tarts or the register office. I fancied the idea of having it off every night on demand, and my shirts ironed and a hot dinner on the table to boot.’ Frank grinned wryly. ‘Maybe I was always respectable at heart. Then: no baby. Said she’d lost it. Turned out no babies were possible, ever.’

‘Maybe she’d have been less of a shrew if she’d had some.’

‘Now, now. She’s not a bad woman. We were together over a quarter of a century – remember our silver wedding at the Adelphi? And we did have great times. But if she carries on like this, if she publishes this damned fantasy book she’s threatening, and doing what that sod Clifford Maxwell tells her, she’ll turn me into a laughing stock.’

‘It won’t affect your career, though, will it?’ Scouser pinched Frank’s arm, then collected the empty glasses. ‘I’ll get them in – it’s my round.’

‘Of course it bloody will,’ Frank called loudly after him. ‘Bloody squeaky clean new government, promising Nirvana on earth, got itself elected with the biggest majority for a century and plans to stay there. No more “one term and you’re out”. The Boss intends to settle in at Number Ten. The Great Project means we’re in for a generation. And that means
no mistakes
.’

The bartender slouched across, sodden cloth in hand, and made a show of wiping spills. Frank raised his head. ‘You know what else? They’re giving her a column in a women’s magazine. She’s
going to offer advice to readers who write in with their problems. Her! She couldn’t sort out her own stupid problems, let alone anybody else’s. But she’ll be the credible one in future, and I’ll be a standing joke.’

His supporters were aware of that already. In nightclubs and comedy routines up and down the country Frank’s amorous antics were the subject of much ribald comment.

‘You could do with her shutting up, then, Frank,’ came from the edge of the crowd. Others clucked again and whispered.

‘I could do with her being scared shitless,’ Frank growled. His speech was becoming slurred. ‘Never mind bloody woman scorned. I could do with somebody telling her that hell hath no bloody fury like a Cabinet minister driven to distraction. I’ve only been in the job five minutes, for heaven’s sake. Never thought I’d get this far. In the Cabinet! Hundred grand a year, chauffeur-driven Jag,
first-class
travel, all found. Everybody grovelling, yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full, sir. Worked fucking hard for it, mind you. But bloody Gail’s doing her best to spoil it. And bloody Gail’s got to go.’

‘Understood, Frank. Now don’t you upset yourself any further,’ Bill the Fixer soothed. A fistful of filled glasses was deposited on the table. ‘Drink up. Would you like a chaser?’

BOOK: This Honourable House
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