2008 National Short Story Prize Shortlist
Make it unreservedly clear, as an elected member of the European Parliament, that nothing shameful could possibly have taken place. Rumours must be dismissed as unfounded and malicious, as per approved guidelines for measures to cope with disgraceful and other events.
You could, for example, deny using your office expense allowance to set up a Russian citizen with no work permit in a studio apartment on the Quai Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg (which does not, because you have never been there, smell intensely of incense and pillows). You have never slipped across the river between midday resolutions and an afternoon meeting of the All-Party Committee Against Corruption. If necessary, you can swear this on your wife and children. Hugh, I believe, who is six, and four-year old Madeleine with her collection of Brittannia zoo animals.
Your family isn’t perfect, deny that too. Always deny perfection. Hugh didn’t get on with his school in Brussels, so Georgia took the children back to Kensington the Vale in London, where thirty years ago she wore precisely the same brown uniform and straw hat with ribbon. In a family context, you can sometimes be unreasonable. ‘Nobody leaves this house until I find my sock!’ That was one of yours – the gang in the van had a good laugh at that one – but you public figures are often baffled at home. Nevertheless, you would not knowingly jeopardise the muddled rough-and-tumble of normal domestic life. Deny it.
You are, however, a politician. You can see every side. You can see that your enemies and the opposition and your father-in-law and the press would love any accusation of this kind to be true, which of course it isn’t. Especially just now, with your eyes on a seat at the big boys’ table at Westminster.
Seven years ago, in your first week in Brussels as a Euro MP, the leader of the Socialist group Lars Knudsen took you aside. He wanted to offer advice, to show that he knew best. He taught you how to reserve the better tables at Comme Chez Soi, and how to get selected by BBC 24 for interviews in the lobby. Useful stuff, and you humoured Herr Knudsen, didn’t you? Cosy up in the Members’ bar and talk about absolutely everything. Women and ambition.
‘This is no place to be weak, Simon.’
That was the only warning he had for you, and you laughed at him behind his back. Second-rater. Wouldn’t be in Brussels otherwise, but in Copenhagen. Just like you thought you ought to be in London. It was a shame about Knudsen though. I’m not sure he deserved to be sent home in disgrace, not simply for putting his personal dentist on the Weights and Measures payroll.
Procedures have been tightening up, as you know. This is probably not the best time to be seeing a young lady called Eva Kuznetsova, who is undoubtedly pretty but has no visible means of support. You should deny that you share her flat for the four days a month the Parliament sits in Strasbourg, and state firmly that you do not skim your living allowance to put Eva on the direct train to Brussels at least once a week at all other times. This is a damaging and false accusation likely to hurt your career, your wife, and your children.
Unfortunately, Denial may fail to contain events. For this measure to work, you will need a spotless reputation. You should never have associated with parliamentarians already disgraced, nor have failed to declare a non-executive directorship with a Black Sea mining company. There should be no blokey stories, however amusing, about you and female delegates in the days when you were president of the Union of European Students. Even if you yourself encouraged these stories because that was long before you were married, and in any case the girls were foreign and total Euro stun-guns. Your very own words, Simon, I do believe.
You are a politician. Denial is precarious. Most people with whom you interact, including journalists, other politicians and occasionally your own wife, are a cynical bunch who will assume that the opposite of what you say may well be true. Before risking a straight denial, you should explore other possible measures.
2. CONCEALEMENT/CONTINUED DECEPTION
This often appears an attractive solution; it worked well enough until now. It is a legitimate way of coping with an event that might otherwise become disgraceful, like Eva Kuznetsova on the Quai Rouget de Lisle, who since last Thursday thinks she might be pregnant.
Cunning will be required. Continued deception demands a cleverness that gets increasingly stretched as time goes by. Imagine hiding a mistress and her baby. Your baby. A second family.
It was a junior minister in the Lord Chancellor’s Department, on a recent visit to the Commissioner in Brussels, who singled you out at lunch and said:
‘You are a very clever operator, Simon. I like that in a young man. We enjoy the way you work.’
So busy, so committed, talking shop and stopping overnight in Rome, Barcelona, Dublin, Amsterdam, every destination by happy coincidence also served by Ryanair from the Baden Airpark near Strasbourg. If you say you’re going to Rome, Simon, just as you have until now, you should go, where your wife and your agent and the BBC and the whips can ring you on a genuine Rome number. If it happens that Eva is also in Rome on a 0.01 euro Ryanair flight, on the same weekend, in the same hotel, in the same room, then truly the light doth shine. As with any lie, make most of it true. Do some business. Talk to at least one German civil servant – they’re impeccable as alibis. Easy. Easy-peasy for a slick cocksure bastard like you. Pardon my French.
Here’s a favourite of yours – a sly technique you should retain. Buy open-ended air tickets and then monitor the flights back to London or Brussels. Find one that’s cancelled and then immediately e-mail your wife (cc the secretary) to say this is the flight you booked. They should check the arrival time on the Internet. A little later, when they make the urgent call to tell you the bad news, and you’re lying in your towelling robe on a king-size bed in the Hotel Barbarini on the Via Rasella, it’s clear that a delay like this is going to be hell for everybody.
Sport is good, golf best. Off for 18 holes at the Royal Waterloo or the Kempferhof but only play nine. Swimming has good margins for creative time-keeping; triathlon training is almost foolproof.
The problem with strategies and deception, as you know, is cash-flow. It costs to be clever, and for these purposes you can hardly get cash from Georgia. She and her family have always been most generous, but there are limits, even for the English upper classes.
So the cash, the cash, oh where to get the lolly?
From a Russian energy consortium perhaps. One that wants to deregulate the gas market to allow Russian supplies free access to Western Europe.
The money, the money. The flat, the furniture, Eva. You were even clever with the furniture, avoiding a paper-trail of receipts and Visa statements by buying for cash from trading magazines. Good thinking, but for so much effort you have to be sure she’s worth it.
There’s the sex. You’re nearly forty. For a while, sex hadn’t been what it was, not for an oversexed individual like yourself. That’s how you think of yourself, isn’t it? Proud of the forceful urge, a kind of badge of the profession, proof you belong where the sap always rises. You have drive, energy. You get impassioned, then blocked at every turn. You need outlets. I can understand that.
Eva is sex like it used to be in the beautiful days, way back in Cambridge out on the Backs with Miranda Gadding. Christ yes. The pumping heart, the shimmer. Life did burst then.
Though you express it differently now. With Eva, in your ‘bright red speechless intimacy’, you two are apparently ‘bridging the gap between man and woman, dissolving.’ Needed to write it down, watermarked paper inside a licked envelope, even though she has barely enough English to understand. The letters were a way of writing to yourself. A mistake, Simon. Not so clever.
But Eva is life, is living, that’s how you see it, don’t you? She protects you from the fear that one year might become much like the next, impossible to remember for itself. An adolescent terror, I think you’ll admit, but no less compelling for that. Eva is worth it because she keeps life new, and if life is new, you must be young. That’s the sequence, the logic behind the love-story, am I right?
Continuing in secret, however, is to live every day with the risk of disclosure, leading to disgrace and certain downfall. Is this then the right option for London MEP Simon Vindolanda? Let me, just for a moment, play devil’s advocate.
Why keep the situation as it is when neither your marriage nor your mistress is perfect? I have recorded five separate occasions on which you’ve joked to political contacts that yours was an arranged marriage. Georgia arranged it. Down to the last detail. But as the details included a marquee and 400 guests and champagne on the lawn of her parents’ house near Romsey in Hampshire, it was an arrangement you decided you could live with.
And even though you’d prefer life to be bursting, Eva isn’t perfect either. On her trips to Brussels for ‘shopping’, whenever you snatch twenty minutes together in the Hotel du Congrès, room number 319 (16 minutes 23 seconds the shortest we’ve put on file), you go in fear for your professional life. When you’re in there you rarely talk. Eva’s English is not strong, except for the very basic grammar she’s learnt by heart, the dog English you’ve taught her, a doggerel of love. How does it go?
Love you, you say.
Love you more, she says.
Love you most, you say.
Sweet. Quick. That’s your regular shtick, isn’t it? Love you most but have to dash. Check your flies, peck on the cheek, check your flies, dash. It can be so miserable.
When you were first elected, representing half a million Londoners, of whom perhaps 200 know you by name, you felt so self-important that you wandered the Euro corridors determined not to fall in love with any girl from Europe who said hello. You did well. Not bad at all after ten years of marriage and out of the house among attractive European women who wear stockings. Though you never picked up the knack of not looking, did you? Can never keep your eyes from flicking down, especially from behind when you think no-one’s watching. Usually someone is, Simon. It was five years of politics before Eva came along, and by then you were so disillusioned she didn’t even have to speak, just sit behind the Russian trade envoy, shuffle a few papers, cross her legs, occasionally make eyes at you above her low-cut square-framed glasses.
At the beginning it was so simple, a perk on Parliament expenses. Dinner-cruises on the Rhine, long drives through Northern France with stop-offs for VIP tours of the cellars in Champagne. Eva loved it. You shrugged. That’s the kind of guy I am.
In return she went to bed with you, barely out of her teens. You like her to shower first so you can smell her in the flesh, comforting and young like warm plastic beakers. Is that what really gets you going? Is that what set you off the time against a tree in the Orangerie gardens when you came immediately and laughed and said: ‘At least it’s not raining. Ha ha.’
It started raining. Remember? You wrapped her in your arms, inside your fawn-coloured raincoat, the collar up over her little head as the two of you ran for cover. Hard to keep secrets these days.
But let’s not go back, even though the problem with Eva is that it was always perfect yesterday, because you made it through yesterday without being found out. Today is always a risk, and therefore much less enjoyable until it’s safely over. And a baby as well. That’s going to be tough, nothing but trouble. Trouble doubled.
Which makes #2 Continued Deception hard to recommend, in your case, as a dependable measure for avoiding disgrace. How long can you keep up this charade? Your landscape of danger is increasing, but how much pleasure do you get from stratagems and survival, from travelling everywhere with cash money, a concealed mobile phone and toothbrush? Is that how you want to live, how to get where you want to go? When you first met Eva you were so confident you’d soon have a seat in the House you promised to set her up in London near Madame Tussaud’s. It was the only landmark she knew, and she was thrilled. You were so sure, in the good old days.
If your secret life is exposed, it’s back to #1 and the drawing board. If you want to avoid the public risk of Denial, and you instinctively understand that in the long run Continued Deception is unsustainable, you might like to consider some further measures we’ve explored in some detail on your behalf.
3. REPARATION/MAKING AMENDS
This may be painful. It is not by any means the easy option. You would have to make a decision.
Decide what is the right thing to do, and then do it.
If it is right to stay married to Georgia, and to bring up your children in a stable loving home, then this is a chance to get things right. Before anyone finds out. If you act quickly. And if they do find out, the damage can be minimised by this demonstration of good faith. Voluntarily, under no pressure at all, you’d already decided to do the decent thing.
You do love your wife, you sometimes think. It’s so inconvenient to see her unhappy. Georgia is a kind of habit, an attraction easily renewed because you’ve always loved your English posh. The haughty but naughty, the kind of crisp excitable girls you first met off the meat wagons that came to your boys’ school on dance nights. The private boarding school your Mum ruined her health to pay for. Then at Cambridge you couldn’t resist those fine-grained voices, every rounded vowel a childhood of fresh fruit and Malvern water. The voices you adored, and also the weekends away at houses with tennis courts.
Your girlfriends before Georgia were bumpy and blonde. Georgia was dark though well-built, serious, nice face but thick ankles, not a trophy. She believed that all people were born equal, as had her grandfather the Minister of Munitions, whose portraits lined the stairs of the family home. You looked at them closely just once, the first time you faced her parents’ dismay and were given your own room. Each night you lay there quite happily alone (after some giggly relief from Georgia in one of the bathrooms), listening to the ancient house and loving the sheets, so stiff and clean.
This is what your Mum and Dad had scrimped for, sold all those ice-creams for, to put you in a ‘drawing-room’ with a girl like Georgia, who you’d met at the University of Cambridge and who between gin and tonics and dinner was impossible not to love. Your Mum said she just wanted you to be happy, but you followed your Dad’s script and for him it was a weepy: the heights you might one day reach routinely trembled his lip. Georgia was duly written in and you wouldn’t want to give her up now, nor the town-house in Pimlico, or the cottage near Marlborough, wouldn’t want to make Dad cry again. He cries easily, your Dad.
It’s not too late. Don’t be a bastard husband all your life, thinking a happy marriage means she’s reliable at social events. Remember what’s good about Georgia, and why you loved her in the first place. You could make her laugh, remember, and enflame her with your socialist principles; being young and poor you had to use your personality. No VIP trips, no expenses, that’s not the kind of guy you were.
Or if not in the first place, later when she was pregnant. You were surprised by how beautiful she became, and you held her hand more tightly than you should, more tightly than you had before. Oh the fun before Hugh was born, remember that? The two of you keeping the anxiety at bay by larking around, and in the last days before birth saying ‘fuck’ as often as possible. Fuck this, fuck that, her in her high crystal tones, Lawdy! These fucking false contractions can fuck the fuck off! As much swearing as possible, while you still could, before the baby came and you were on your best behaviour, supposedly for the rest of your lives.
Hugh Walter Vindolanda, soon followed by Madeleine Federica Vindolanda. For the first time in your life you had something of your own to lose. Think of that now, of the kids, those poor privileged children. You have to work at marriage, make it a long-life proposition. Throw in some additives, some colouring, some white lies and foreign holidays, and accept it for what it is: a processed, preserved love, less tasty maybe but also less perishable.
This is the way back for you, Simon. Do the right thing, stop seeing Eva, and then look forward to years of buying back your soul. This will be your penance, and it will do you good. I mean it. You’ve acted badly. Now find out if there’s a way back to a better person you were. Be ambitious closer to home, work at a future for you and Georgia and the children. Vow to make things right and act your age, for the years will become indistinguishable. That’s how you will survive with Georgia. She will block the light, she will provide shade. What more do you want?
Forget Eva. Enjoy the postponed approval of Georgia’s parents, of your Dad, of your dear departed Mum (god rest her soul). Be pragmatic. Divorce is unthinkable, not because of the children but the grandparents. Enjoy what marriage has brought you, and pity those poor fools who married for love. Looking back, wondering how it happened, they must feel very embarrassed if love was the one good reason.
Besides, it was Georgia’s cousin the Right Honourable Member for Andover who first mooted that safe Westminster seat. Between men, keeping it in the family, he offered you a word to the wise:
‘You do understand, Simon, if you have any muck they will find it. Clean out the stables, old boy.’
As for Eva, you need to deconjugate your flimsy little grammar of love. Agreeable though she may have been, regrettable though it is to break such shattering news, Eva has been a fling. Making her, at this critical stage of coping with potential disgrace, the something flung.
Face facts: you’ve wilfully ignored her past, even though you know that no-one comes all new. You have the basics. She’s 23, dress-size 6, shoe-size 4. But you don’t want to uncover more awkward truths it’s difficult to shop for. A perky little number like Eva. In a studio flat so ideal for the European Institutions. In a town you only visit seriously four days in every month. Is it likely that you’re the one and only candidate for father of Eva’s child?
Forgive me. You’ve often thought of giving Eva up and going back to your wife. Most men in your position do, and wish the process were easier. Unfortunately, Eva may not go quietly. It might take cash you don’t have. You like Eva. You live for those twenty minute at a times. And so, unable to make a decision, you hum and you ha. You shilly and shally and before you can do the right thing someone finds you out. Funny that. And then you’re thrown back on #1, Denial.
As I think I’ve already mentioned, no-one’s going to believe you.
More modern, even radical. Confront the situation. Confess right left and centre. You have a family you love and a mistress you need. Tell the world and your wife that this is the way it is and the way you want it to stay. We can work it out. All you need is love. It’s the twenty-first century.
A tricky measure to pull off, this one, but if it’s truly what you want, truly, truly, you might find the courage to give it a try. Why be ashamed? Where the disgrace? Go back to Georgia and live a full life with Eva. If you’re man enough then this is the bold, honest approach. And there’s no disgrace in that.
Honesty will put a lump in your throat, and it may bring a tear to your eye. But remember what your boarding school education taught you from such an early age (eight! Sent away from home at eight years old!). If it doesn’t feel tough and tearful, like going back to school, it isn’t life at all. It’s just the holidays.
You can do this, a man like you. The wife and mistress muddle is commonplace for a very good reason. Social expectations are outdated and at fault. Individuals of energy and drive need more than one lover, and politicians of our European partner nations fully understand this. We should make an effort to integrate and to understand it too. There is no dishonour! No need for reproach. It’s only natural.
You are highly sexed (always have been), you are driven, you have needs. Explain this gently to Georgia.
You love your loyal wife and you love your little children. Explain this to Eva.
Proactive and honest, you may well be applauded for your openness and your ability to control events. You have the sap rising, no question (23 years old!), but you are also responsible and transparent. The way you have managed your affairs is original and refreshing, in this day and age plain and morally right, and such an audacious step could be the making of a maverick and his limitless political destiny. The biographers will eat this up. Twice the man, you managed a pair of families, brought stability to a federacy of nations.
You should, however, exercise caution. If you choose this means of coping, neither #1 Denial or #2 Continued Deception will ever be feasible again. You have to be certain that this wife and this mistress are the ones with whom you’ll make your stand.
Eva is special, you sometimes think. She can make you hate yourself for the time you wasted before you knew her. That’s a good start, and the thrill of the Strasbourg apartment is yet to fade. In session, always in the afternoon while the Spanish delegates sleep, you let the Venetian blind drop and block out the river, and every time it falls it makes a sound as hopeful and exciting as a fishing reel. With Eva, as you turn your back to the black and blinded window, you never know what you’re going to get, though you always get something.
It’s such a relief, isn’t it, such a change? All that talking in the vast Parliament chamber, to get almost nothing done. Then the tiny spaces of the flat and the not talking, and getting everything done.
Frankly, in my considered opinion, owning up honestly to your needs has a better chance of success than #3 Making Amends. Doing the right thing under duress, like a duty, is a kind of imprisonment, as if perhaps it wasn’t the right thing to do after all. Think of it. London and Georgia, and finding conversation for the next twenty years to use up time before you die. How does it go? In the drawing room with her parents, or over cocktails with friends; the uses of homeopathy, or astronomy, the legitimacy of fish-knives or Scottish tartans. House-prices.
Keep Georgia, but keep Eva too. Nurture that vague, vain idea of love as peace and charity, as constant forgiveness. Give it a chance and it might come true.
If this seems far-fetched, think back to how far-fetched marriage once seemed, before you were actually married. Remember how hard and shiny were the white-gold wedding bands when you got them back from the jewellers. You tried them both on, and yours felt loose on your finger. It had room to grow into, as if the South Kensington jeweller assumed marriage must automatically make a man plumper, more conceited. Hers, on your little finger, felt a little tight as you wandered blinged up in your underpants around your best man’s flat, but then it wasn’t designed for you to wear.
Georgia might come round to this new arrangement, like she did to dirty nappies and sleepless nights and the fit of her wedding ring. You’ve both adapted before now – no more swearing, long periods apart, waiting for Westminster. Adapt again.
If she screams at you when you suggest this measure, attacks you physically or reacts in any other violent or extreme manner, all to the good. Rage and fury prove your relationship is still alive, so think of this as a ripple in the expanse of a golden fifty-year marriage. A storm in a tea-cup. Though do remember, while it rages, to pretend that the storm is more important than the cup.
No? Not for you? Even after seven years in the parliament you don’t feel sufficiently European. You don’t see this as a measure that’s likely to work. Not face to face, man to mistress, husband to wife. You’re not bold or honest enough. If you were, you wouldn’t so often be in touch with your blackmailers.
Which effectively rules out #4 Confession/Confrontation. Fair enough. Your call. It was always a long shot, but you mustn’t forget that doing nothing is not for you an option.
5. BLAME SOMEONE ELSE
It will come to light eventually, even if:
Georgia will find out, and the party machine will find out, and your Dad and your in-laws and your children will find out. Why? Because Eva, and the people it now seems she works for, are threatening to reveal the full story with intimate details and photographs.
It’s the secrecy that makes you vulnerable. Whether you like it or not, you’ve become the balancing act in a standard conditional sentence:
‘If you do not . . ., we will . . .’
And each time you do, they always seem to find something new and ungainly to fill the fresh and empty pan on your sorry side of the scales. On theirs, the weight remains always the same.
Or we will expose your affair with Eva Kuznetsova.
If you do not lobby for an amendment to the bill on gas deregulation.
If you do not vote against anti-corruption clause 3f (Business and Gift Addendum).
If you do not introduce visiting businessman Sergei A to visiting minister Sir Adrian B.
If you do not, within the next twenty-four hours, acquire three family passes to EuroDisney for a specific date in December.
If you do not.
We will expose your affair with Eva Kuznetsova, and also the fact that she’s carrying your child.
You have gone along with this for a while, but the demands will get bigger, or smaller. Either way, disgrace looms. You have to come clean, find a way of coping with the situation, escape with some integrity and a shot at the future intact.
Blame other people.
Try and lever some sympathy: you are trapped among vipers. Oh yes you are.
Georgia, for a start. What was she thinking of, dividing her time between London and Brussels when you were so often in Strasbourg? She should have kept a closer eye on you, stifled your fantasies at birth, including, most unkindly, your fantasy of happiness with another woman. You and Georgia still have sex, we know that, but she’s impossible to trust, especially when she wriggles and moans. The signals say she’s having a good time, but as she has her eyes closed and her head ricked back she can’t see you looking her over and wondering. Not whether she’s faking. You know she is. But is she faking it because she wants you to be happy, or because she wants to hurry you up?
No wonder you looked elsewhere, and Eva used sex to trap you, a lonely public servant far from home suffering for a tottering continent. And what gratitude did you get for that? Blame the European parliament and the European people. You wouldn’t have got into this mess in London, not if you were a regular British MP at Westminster, because this kind of thing has become unworkable. The tabloids, the public relations; at least back home someone cares.
Georgia’s parents. They knew you weren’t the right kind of husband for their daughter, and her father would often say so. Way outside the acceptable gene pool. By capitulating, just because it was what Georgia wanted, they also gave you the contacts and confidence to follow up in politics. And now stop and look at the car crash. Feel the strain and the stress. It’s very fashionable these days, is stress, very excusable, very usable. Now that I think of it, you could bring up some previous, like the time after the sock incident when Georgia suggested you see a psychiatrist.
‘I know what we’d talk about,’ you said.
She should have forced the issue. It was her conjugal duty. Instead, she trod softly: ‘So why don’t you go?’
‘Don’t want to talk about it.’
It was your parents’ fault, who never showed you enough affection. Your Mum died, quite selfishly really, and Dad was only interested in social mobility, keeping you on course at boarding school where you started at the age of eight. Eight years old! You met some of the better people and were very cold at night and received a thoroughly English education, with the live-in teachers never in danger of anthropomorphising the children. You took on board the absence of love and the rules of cricket, which require a firm grasp of what cricket is not.
You discovered a talent for what cricket is not. This, and the fact that your parents sold ice-creams, led to variable self esteem. You needed to prove yourself, and you’re now facing disgrace.
At a stretch, this is also Hugh and Madeleine’s fault. Let’s not leave anyone out. Kids are so demanding. At the beginning, they stopped you from doing what you wanted. Now, they give Georgia an excuse for not wanting to do anything at all. Stuck, going nowhere, terrified of the same old shoeshine, you took unilateral action. Under the circumstances, who could possibly blame you?
6. RUNNING AWAY
Otherwise known as resigning your elected post to spend more time with your family. This can be combined with #3 Making Amends, but the two measures are often unconnected.
It will be apparent to you that our measures to cope with disgraceful and other events are becoming more extreme. Alas, so is your predicament. Eva’s people have decided that you may be of more use to them in London, especially if you agitate for a junior ministerial position in the Department of Trade and Industry. I believe this is where your good friend Georgia’s cousin works. It is early days, but it seems we all know you’re about to be offered the safe constituency of Sheffield West. You are being encouraged and congratulated on all sides. This means more people than ever stand to be disappointed, or so is the opinion of that nice young woman from MI6 who phoned to invite you to tea. She said her name was Higgins.
Before your life gets totally out of hand, why not postpone just about everything?
Go back to London, live off Georgia’s trust-fund, spend more time with the children. Everyone seems to agree that success is poison, so why the big rush? Disappear, take a break. It doesn’t have to be with the family, because whoever you end up with, the time comes when you see how selfish they are, in the sense that they’re not always thinking about you, just as you’re not thinking about them.
Of course not. You’re thinking about yourself.
Take this one last chance, alone and free, to find out who you are. Go to the seaside. You love the seaside. Stay in a guest-house and study the waves. Walk along the shore and build sandcastles, because it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Play some of that golf you’ve been pretending to play.
Life outside the spotlight could be better than you’ve ever dared expect. Somewhere in the English provinces you could reinvent yourself, forgetting your ancestors and your second generation Dad. Be no-one’s son or father or husband or lover, but whoever you alone want to be. It can be done.
It doesn’t have to be beside the seaside. You could blot yourself into some sunny corner of Europe where the wine trees grow. Live wherever the foreign language makes you an idiot, where you understand nothing and squeeze the nearest tube and put hair-gel on your toothbrush. Regress, stop, start again. Choose another life, another career. Off the top of your head: wood turner.
Turn wood and drink wine and wait. Will there be sex? Like asking will there be sky. Romantic love that surges and ring-a-ding-dings, outside in summertime and skirts, ripe and obvious like silver trumpets. You will simply cease to subscribe to the doctrines of effort and repentance. You will kick back. Disgrace will have no dominion.
Untroubled, a craggy old rogue, you’ll evolve into a close enough copy of your grandfather. You’ll spend a great deal of time in a garage with the door swung up, safe among the smell of onions and garlic drying on hooks. You too will have your rows of oiled tools on hooks on the walls, and creped stacks of chamois leathers, and days of grace slowly told and gravy for lunch. Remember what he used to say?
We are all very small, Simon, and time goes by. So calm down.
That’s what he used to say. I know that because you passed it on as pillow-talk to Eva, who I don’t believe was listening.
If you run away, Georgia will be fine. Her sense of family doesn’t always include you as it is. And once the kids move up and she’s on the school run, she’ll probably meet a dozen suitable husbands every weekday morning. Private school, of course. Like yours. Only better.
Her parents will pay. No need to think twice. Look at your finger, man, you never did grow into that wedding ring. Marriage never set free that fat contented fellow the jeweller imagined inside you. Nobody knows who you are, not really. So go ahead and escape while you still can. Run away. Run.
Now. Alone. Where. How much stuff to take and who to tell and what about money. Is this temporary or long term?
It’s a cry for help, Simon.
But you can’t run away, not you. You know in your bones that politics is all life and your career is a very real treasure in times of need. The sun orbits Westminster. If you run, you’re finished, as surely as if you issue a denial. They will assume disgrace, even if they don’t have the facts. They may not even bother to find you.
A man of honour, a true English gentleman, might have come to this conclusion sooner. The pills and the booze, the blade in the bath. No place to be weak, Simon, no place to be weak.
You wonder how strong you are. Better to deal in certainties, and it’s quite certain you never became the man you were meaning to become. Can’t argue with that. Feel sorry for yourself, get angry. Be astonished by your own superficiality, how poorly you’ve lived, how little you’ve cared for the light and the truth. A part of you, still fighting on, protests you left no stone unturned, hence young Eva. You wanted to know if there was something better, and then when the blackmail cut in you weren’t sure it was any worse pretending that Europe needed Russian gas than pretending the European Parliament was just the place for an ambitious young politico like you. Working for money, marrying for money, helping one country, helping another, the lines all blurred.
Most of them, Simon, not all. You were always on the same track, interested in nothing much except your own esteem, the comfort of your inflated sense of self. In your quest for the meaning of life, at which you only get the one go, you have indeed left no stone unturned. Ha. Except for any of the heavy ones.
You disgust yourself. You have nowhere left to turn.
The blade in the bath and then you’re done. No more falling on your feet. No more falling.
The trouble with suicide is that it gives so much value to life. If you conclude that life is so utterly pointless that it’s not worth living, then life is not really worth not living, either. Makes little difference either way.
I don’t see you as a suicide, not you, Simon. You couldn’t do it. Not to yourself.
This idea came from the unemotional, almost inhuman mind of Miss Higgins, or so one day you will allow yourself to believe.
But it’s also true that you get bored with the idea of disgrace, both its inevitability and how mundane it seems. The hidden mistress is such a tawdry and common way to fail.
Higgins sips her tea, puts the cup delicately back in the saucer, shrugs. Higgins says no Eva equals no problems with your wife. The Russians who have been such close friends to Eva think the same thing, now they want you in London. As it happens, Higgins too wants the Russians to want you in London. She suggests, in your nearest café Le Roi et Son Fou, while dissecting a blood-red linzertorte with a cake-fork, that you could be of assistance by reporting back on what the Russians want from you (three family passes to Legoland and the projected subsidies for nuclear fuel).
Or we will expose your affair with Eva Kuznetsnova.
Who will? They will. We will. Holy Moses. Everyone will.
To accept the kind of arrangement offered by young Miss Higgins is surely an elegant way for Euro MP and future parliamentary high-flyer Simon Vindolanda to avoid disgrace. Your ruination simply won’t be allowed to happen, or not now, not yet. You will be looked after and cared for, just as you have been shepherded for some time now without your knowledge. We have been listening and watching. You are now being offered the unusual opportunity to submit to higher forces who understand you because they know you, we know everything there is to know about you. Such is life, under her Majesty’s wing.
Unfortunately, in this scheme of things, Eva has to go. Higgins is not an impulsive character, but was perhaps ahead of you when she politely suggested that Eva is in a very dangerous profession.
‘What?’ You pretended not to hear or understand her, I rather think the latter. ‘Former assistant to the Russian trade envoy at the Strasbourg European Parliament?’
‘Whore,’ Higgins said.
Don’t feign such shock. We’re much alike, you, me, young Miss Higgins. We all like to think things through to the deadest end, and on this occasion here is where the thinking leads. Higgins showed you the photographs of Eva in leather leaning against a crash barrier on the underpass beneath the A49 to Colmar. That was before she met you. It isn’t difficult for the Russians to find recruits in this part of the world. At the underpass, waiting for the German-plated cars, nearly all the girls are Russian.
Higgins will have told you we don’t actually have to act. In fact we should do nothing, except wait and watch. The Russians will take care of Eva in their own time, in their own way, but you weren’t happy with that, were you, Simon? Not happy at all. Even if the Russians are careful with Eva, late at night in the cold-flowing river, drunk on vodka I should think, poor lost and careless lass, then you’ll still know what really happened. So will Higgins. We’ll all be accomplices to murder. Which is true, and don’t forget the Russians will know that you know. Probably make sure of it, more weight on their side of the blackmail balance. And although Higgins also knows, the Russians don’t know about Higgins.
Exciting, isn’t it? No two years will ever be the same again.
Leave Brussels and Strasbourg behind. Move on to Westminster where you always wanted to be, no-one the wiser. That’s what Higgins said. Exact words, and we can play them back to you as many times as we like, as so much else:
‘I won’t do it.’
‘What is more disgraceful?’ That’s Higgins again, using her sensible tea-time voice, ‘this, a chance to help your country, or the inevitability of failing at your job and sinking into obscurity as a disgraced Euro MP? Not even a very memorable scandal, to tell the truth.’
You’ll get tired of Eva, you know. Name of the game. It’s hard, and for your own peace of mind I appreciate that you’d prefer to tire of other people before they tire of you. Nothing’s perfect. But in our line of work Evas come and go, and I have a feeling you’re going to last at this. You have an eventful career ahead of you. You’ve already proved yourself adept at the hole-in-the-wallery, so why not the cloak-and-the-daggery?
I wouldn’t want Higgins to have to withdraw her offers of protection and assistance. The Russians won’t be very happy with you. They’ll call in the balance of the conditional. A few well-placed rumours. You and Eva. The imminent happy event. Then what?
‘I won’t stand by while somebody gets killed!’
Your voice became quite high-pitched at this point, despite the nobility of the sentiment. From the video footage I can see in your eyes that you believe it, for the time being.
‘For Christ sake she’s pregnant. Have some heart.’
‘Is alleged to be pregnant,’ Higgins corrected you. Then she left, without deadlines or ultimatums. She did not leave her details. Even her, Simon, even Higgins, you watched her closely as she walked away. Just as we were watching you.
We can see it in your eyes, Simon. You’re not ready to take advice. Not yet, not on this cycle.
But what else can you possibly do?
As you stand up in front of the microphones and cameras you’ll have a lump like uncooked pastry in your throat. It will feel bad, wrong, horribly self-destructive. It will feel like going back to school, like real life.
Reading from a prepared statement, you will say that you simply do not accept the unfounded and malicious allegations that have been made against you. You have no idea why or how they originated. You have never been in contact with any inappropriate individuals or organisations and wish only to continue with your life as a family man and an active member of the European Parliament. You trust that from now on you and your family will be left alone.
No-one believes it, not even you.
2. CONCEALEMENT/CONTINUED DECEPTION
Come on, Simon, jump ahead. We both know where this is going.