It was eight o’clock on Monday morning and downstairs line two, the line reserved for constituents, was buzzing. This was not unusual.

‘You answer.’ Will was thick with sleep. He hunched over in the bed and dragged the duvet round his shoulders. Go away, world. He did that rather well.

I had pulled on my jeans but not yet reached the jumper stage. The morning chill brushed my cheeks as I padded downstairs. Many things were required of me but dealing with a constituent before I was dressed was not at the top of the list.

‘Mrs Savage…’ The voice was familiar.

‘Hallo, Mr Tucker. Where are you phoning from?’

‘From Number Nine Heaven.’

Mr Tucker changed his locations according to which medication he had been taking. ‘Mr Tucker, are you alone?’

‘You’re never alone, Mrs Savage. I want to complain about the lack of angels in Stanwinton.’

This seemed a rather admirable complaint. ‘Do you remember, Mr Tucker? We dealt with that one last week.’

Voices in the background urged Mr Tucker to put down the phone and come along. ‘Goodbye, Mr Tucker. It was nice to talk to you.’

Mr Tucker resided on a planet of his own but, as Will argued, a vote was a vote. ‘You mean, the staff taking care of Mr Tucker will vote for you,’ I said. ‘“That nice man Mr Savage… never too busy…”’

‘Exactly. Anyway, an MP should listen to the dotty as well as the sane,’ he pointed out.

‘Well, that sheds a new light on Parliament,’ I said.

In the hall, cleaning materials were distributed over the floor, which indicated that Maleeka had come in early. Maleeka was my angel and my saviour, and other wives – especially my friends – hated me for her. I see the point. One can envy another woman’s beauty, or her mind, but you only truly hate her if her house is clean and shining. Of distant Arabian extraction, hence her name, Maleeka was a Bosnian refugee who had appeared in Will’s surgery and begged for work. Will had a habit of forwarding problems to me, and did so on this occasion. ‘Mrs Savage, I have two daughters and four grandchildrens to make food for,’ she said. What could I say?

During the first week of her regime, she smashed two china figurines and dropped bleach on to the landing carpet. The navy blue pile now sported three almost perfect white circles. ‘Look on them as symbols,’ I told Will, ‘of our commitment.’ Will had been a little slow to see the point, a reminder that he dealt with theory so much that the practical was often beyond him. Not so for Maleeka: she made it her business to absorb herself into my household, and had turned up faithfully twice a week for ten years to impose order on the piles of laundry, remove tidemarks from the bath and the encrustations that decorated the taps, dust from the landing window-sill and the strange marks that inexplicably appeared in the fridge. If grime, disorder and mess flickered through the rooms like marsh gas or plague, Maleeka maintained a firm perspective on the family chaos that made me catch my breath: ‘Izt safe here,’ she said. ‘Good.’

I picked my way through a flotsam of bleach, polish and dusters, and tracked their source to the kitchen, where she was kneeling with her head in the oven – a position not a few political wives (any wife?) had, from time to time, considered. ‘Izt bad, Mrs Savage.’ Her voice was muffled. ‘Very bad.’

She meant the oven but the remark had a portmanteau ring to it.

I boiled the kettle and made toast. ‘Come and eat, Maleeka.’

She hauled herself upright and sat down. I gave her coffee and two thick slices of toast: I knew she went short of food so that the rest of the family had enough. Tengo famiglia, as Alfredo, my Italian father, would say. ‘Hold the family safe, Francesca. We may be sinners and failures but that is the one thing we must do.’ On that point, Maleeka and my father were perfectly matched. Not that Maleeka talked about it much – she was ashamed of her transient status and deeply homesick.

‘Have you heard from your husband?’

Poitr had been left in Bosnia to fight. Or, at least, to guard the family house. Not that Maleeka minded the separation. ‘Pouf, the man izt bad.’ Yet, there was no question of divorce. ‘He izt my husband. Finish.’

She was eating a third piece of toast when a fresh, shining Will appeared. However late we had been, he always managed to look new-minted and ready… to tackle the theory at any rate. Maleeka crammed the remainder of the toast into her mouth and leapt to her feet. ‘Mornings, Mr Savage. I get on.’

Will did not fail at many things, but he had failed in his attempt to make Maleeka call him Will. ‘Mr Savage’ pricked at his principles and made him feel uneasy. Or so he said.

He ate his breakfast rapidly and efficiently, and worked through the papers. Afterwards we did a final check of our respective diaries. Of course, his was full. ‘Can you make drinks for the European and Commonwealth finance ministers’ convention on the seventeenth?’ he asked. ‘And on the twenty-first, there’s a dinner for the same people. Much smaller, more intimate. I’ll count on you, Fanny’

I turned over the pages. For all sorts of reasons, the convention was important, not least because Will was spearheading the UK end of a controversial European initiative to impose a tax on anyone who owned a second car. Naturally everyone was up in arms: the car lobby, the country dweller, the salesman and anyone who had to endure public transport. But Will believed in it because, as he explained, it was right to tax those who enjoyed a standard of living that permitted them to have a second car. ‘We would be setting an example to the world,’ he said. ‘We should do that. We must do that.’

I stabbed my finger on the seventeenth. ‘I’ve got a homeless-persons meeting in the morning. Afterwards, if the traffic’s OK, I can hop into our second car and make a dash for it.’

Will tried not to smile. ‘Don’t be nasty. Will you target Antonio Pasquale? Use your dazzling Italian. I need to make sure that he’s on board. But you will go carefully?’

‘Will, look at me. What do you see?’

He leant over and cupped my chin with a hand. ‘You, of course.’ He wore his busy-busy expression but his eyes were soft and, as usual, I melted.

What did I see? His hair was shorter now than it had been when I’d first met him, but he had a much better haircut. His jaw line was rather tauter than his waistline these days… but no, I won’t go into that. And those dark eyes still lit up, from time to time, with a combination of idealism and a hint of vulnerability that he was careful only to show to those he loved.

Much the same.

‘How long have I been on the circuit for you?’ He had the honesty to look a little discomfited. ‘I do have some idea, Will.’

‘Yes, but… I want to be sure you understand’. Will retrieved his hand and launched into an explanation of the whys and wherefores of the tax scheme, which, to be fair, were tricky.

I listened, as I had many times before. On the one hand Will was right: it would strike a blow for a better, greener world and bring in more money for useful projects. On the other, ordinary families would struggle, the bus queues would snake out of sight, jobs might be at risk. Will’s smile turned into that of the professional debater and his voice swooped up and down, brightened, sharpened, drove home the points. He leant back in his chair, an embodiment of clear thinking, authority, given edge by his weight of experience, and he knew it.

And I wanted to be there with him – but increasingly I sensed I had lost the almost mystical sense of mission, and the capacity to believe in it. Being married to an idealist was different from being one. I had become dulled by the glue of routine and domesticity, and diverted by the equally passionate imperatives of motherhood.

‘So you see,’ said Will, and smiled at me.

Not bad, I thought appreciatively. Over the years Will had shed a certain innocence. But so had I – so had everyone. We were warier, more realistic, pathetically grateful for the small triumphs of a policy implemented, a constituent satisfied. We knew our limitations better – oh, much, much better. We knew, too, for we had discussed it, that as that innocence slipped away, personal ambition had grown in direct proportion.

There was a pause.

‘What’s best for those living in a rural area?’ I asked, because this side of the argument should have an

Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату