The Ex-Prime Minister - Chapter Four -- Andrew Crofts
Our fourth monthly episode in the saga of an ex-prime minister.
“This reshuffle,” one of them started the ball rolling.
“What reshuffle?” Teddy asked.
“Teddy’s been very busy working on his diaries,” Puppy explained to the room, “I haven’t wanted to bother him with political tittle tattle.”
“Tittle-tattle?” Someone let off a controlled explosion of frustration from the back of the group. “It’s the biggest balls up since …” He failed to think of a bigger balls-up that didn’t involve Teddy himself, before being shushed by his more trepidatious colleagues.
“Phillipa’s had a re-shuffle already?” Teddy was impressed yet again by his wife’s unflagging courage when it came to telling people they were being sacked. He had found reshuffles the hardest part of the job and had always put them off for as long as possible, like visits to the dentist or holidays with the children.
“Every one of them is a woman,” the voice from the back detonated again. “Every single one!”
“Every one of what?” Teddy was having trouble following proceedings and wished Puppy had briefed him a little more fully before opening the doors to them. He felt like a naughty schoolboy, dragged in front of the entire common room to explain some piffling misdemeanor or other.
“The Cabinet. She’s sacked every man and replaced him with a woman. We might as well be living in Scandinavia.”
“Crikey!” Teddy’s jaw was hanging perilously loosely. “Pretty chilly up there, I believe.”
“Hardly the point,” the spokesman at the front retook control of the bombast. “We have to get her out and we need you to step back in, Teddy. You’re the only one any of the voters likes.”
“But you have to stop making an ass of yourself on television,” another voice found its courage at the back of the room.
“It’s because he makes an ass of himself that the public like him,” Puppy chipped in. “They don’t even know who the rest of you are.”
“What do you mean ‘making an ass of myself’?” Teddy sounded genuinely offended. “Those biscuits were bloody nearly edible! I’d like to see any of you make a better job of it. Cooking stuff is a lot trickier than you might think. Hats off to all those who toil in the kitchens, day in and day out, for our delight!”
There were several snorts of derision from around the room, many of them tinged with glimmers of despair regarding the state of the world in general and the lack of good leadership alternatives in particular.
“Teddy is deeply flattered that you have come to him like this,” Puppy spoke up, seeing that Teddy was about to embark on a trip down a potentially lengthy tangent, “but don’t you think there would need to be a decent interval between him being sacked and rehired? If you keep changing your minds every few weeks about who you want to lead you, people are going to suspect that you don’t know what you are doing. Plus, the public reaction to the reshuffle has been pretty positive so far. A lot of people seem to like the idea of having a few women in charge of things for a change.”
A rumble of indignation rolled through the group, like a reluctantly retreating thunder storm.
“I would suggest you give Phillipa and her gang of Amazons enough time to make a complete cock up of everything … “
“Pah!” Now it was Teddy’s turn to go off like an improvised explosive device. “You’ve known Pippo even longer than I have, Pups! Have you ever known her to make a cock-up of anything? Marrying me was probably the only error of judgement she ever made in her life.”
“Bravo, Teddy!” None of them had noticed Becky standing in the doorway. “Do any of you idiots want coffee?”
“Good point,” Puppy shot his wife a grateful smile as the rest of them shuffled their feet like schoolboys caught smoking in the latrines. “Let’s calm things down a bit and put our thinking caps on. We need to come up with a proper campaign.”
“I’ll ring Annabel’s,” Becky said, “and get them to send some coffee over.”
“Annabel’s does takeaway?” an incredulous voice asked once Becky had left the room.
“Only for Becky,” Puppy couldn’t completely suppress a proud grin. “She has a way of getting people to do things for her.”
“Explain the concept of this show to me again,” Teddy resumed their interrupted conversation, once the delegation had had their coffee and left.
“It’s called First Dates,” Puppy said. “The producers pair people up and then film them having their first dates in this restaurant.”
“And Ding thinks I should go on one of these dates?”
“He does, and apparently the producers are really keen. They all think it is a chance for you to show some humanity and vulnerability. It’ll make the viewers think they have actually got to know the real you.”
“But I’m married. Can you imagine what Pippo would say if she found out? She made enough of a fuss about that other little incident.”
“For fuck’s sake, Teddy, she’s divorcing you. How do we get that into your thick head?”
“Oh well, she says she is,” Teddy gave a nervous chuckle, “but I’m sure she’ll come to her senses. We just have to wait for the storm to pass.”
“The lawyers are already working on the papers,” Puppy said.
“That’s just old Fliss making a point. She and Pippo are thick as thieves, always have been. Didn’t you and Fliss have a thing going at one time?”
“I can’t talk to you about this anymore. You’ll have to talk to Ding.”
“I think Ding did too.”
“Have a thing with Fliss.”
“Ding has had a thing with absolutely everyone.”
“Indeed.” Teddy’s wistful look had returned.
Teddy was late for his date, he and Ding having become embroiled with a bunch of placard-waving protestors in Piccadilly, who seemed not to wish him well. It had taken him some time to convince them that they would do better to direct their ire at Phillipa rather than himself. Eventually, after a good deal of what seemed to Teddy like pointless shouting, they took the point that annoying him was, in reality, a waste of their time and protesting energies, and removed themselves from the road. By the time he had finished furnishing them with directions as to the quickest route to Downing Street, the atmosphere had risen from quite hostile to pretty affable and the mob merrily waved them on their way with their placards. Half an hour later Ding drew up at the door to the First Dates restaurant.
“Ring me when it’s over,” he instructed, “and I’ll come and fetch you.”
“Aren’t you coming in?” Teddy felt as abandoned as he had the day his mother dropped him at boarding school for the first time.
“It’s a date,” Ding reminded him. “I’m not going to play the gooseberry.”
“A date,” Teddy nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. Of course. It’s going to be marvelous fun.”
Ding gave him one last push out of the car before indicating to the chauffeur that he should accelerate away. Teddy paused for a moment on the pavement, watching the Bentley disappear, before plunging through the door into the limelight.
If the lady waiting at the bar, under the gaze of the cameras, was annoyed by this lack of good time-keeping, her annoyance was knocked clean out of her head when she saw who her companion for the evening was. The cameras caught her look of astonishment and the producers heaved a sigh of relief when she smiled, rather than running for the door.
“You’re the prime minister!” She informed him as the maître d’ escorted him over.
“Not any more, I fear, Madam,” Teddy replied.
“Again,” he spread his most disarming smile across his lightly perspiring face, “not any more, I fear. Apparently.” He held out his hand. “Teddy. How do you do?”
The lady grabbed his hand and pulled him to her with startling force, planting a kiss on his glowing cheek. “I do very well, thank you, Teddy.”
He climbed onto the bar stool beside her and asked the barman for a bottle of champagne and two glasses.
“I’ve already ordered a drink, thank you,” she said, pointing to a glass of brightly coloured liquid, crammed with pieces of fruit.
“Ah, but the evening is young,” Teddy jested merrily.
Now he took the time to study her in more detail, he rather liked what he saw. The producers seemed to have gauged his tastes pretty well. Being used to having cameras thrust in his face, he did not find the presence of the television crew made him self-conscious, and the lady seemed equally comfortable under the lights and constant interruptions.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t catch your name in all the excitement.”
“Lovely!” Teddy took a gulp of champagne and gestured for Candy to do the same. “And what do you do, Candy?”
“I run a few businesses.”
“Marvelous. Well done, you. That’s precisely what this country needs. A good dose of entrepreneurial spirit.”
“That’s exactly what I think. The business community would be my top priority if I was prime minister.”
“Well, you should undoubtedly give politics a go. My wife would almost certainly put you in the Cabinet if you asked her. Ex-wife, I mean. Or rather soon-to-be-ex-wife. Apparently.”
“You poor thing,” Candy said, resting a cool, dramatically manicured hand on his, as it jiggled frantically up and down on his mighty thigh. “I can see you are hurting, Teddy. We are going to have to work very hard this evening to get that nasty old soon-to-be-ex-wife out of your head, aren’t we? We need to rebuild your self-esteem, so that you can get on with living your best life. What do you say?”
“Jolly good.” Teddy raised his glass in a toast to the idea of living his best life, and drained it in one gulp.
“I think it’s a really brave thing to do,” Candy said, once they had been seated at the table, had ordered their food and had filmed a few set pieces with the regular cast of restaurant manager and waiters. Everyone seated at the neighbouring tables had been instructed by the director to avert their gazes elsewhere. Now it was just the two of them, and the silently watching camera.
“What’s a really brave thing to do?” Teddy asked, through a mouth full of bread.
“Putting yourself forward to be Prime Minister. I mean that takes some balls, really. I would never have the nerve, and I’m a pretty pushy woman.”
“No, no, not at all,” he protested. “You seem perfectly delightful.” He chewed enthusiastically as he mulled over her comment. “To be honest, I’m not sure that I had much to do with it,” he said eventually, “Now I come to think about it.”
“Much to do with what?”
“Putting myself forward. It was a sort of group decision. A bit like a dare. Several of us thought it would be a pretty good wheeze, after a long night in the pub, but I was the only one of the team who was a sitting MP at the time, so I was the obvious choice. I think it was Puppy’s idea, to start with, but they all sort of egged me on.”
“Old school mate.”
“Is that his actual name?”
“No,” Teddy laughed. “At least I don’t think so. Can’t remember what his real name is now. Teddy isn’t my real name either, believe it or not. It just goes well with Bear.”
“But you must have put yourself forward to be an MP,” Candy persisted. “So that took some guts.”
“I’m not sure I even did that. I sort of inherited the seat from my old man.”
“Yes. When he went off to run the family business in Barbados.”
“Nice place to have a business.”
“Indeed. Pretty dodgy beginnings though. Sugar plantations, that sort of thing. Not a good look for an MP.”
“Do you still own it?”
“Good God, no. The old man lost the lot very quickly. Not much of a businessman. Could have done with some advice from you, no doubt!”
“Did you get on with him?”
Teddy was taken aback by the directness of the question. He stared at her quizzically for a few seconds, weighing up which of the many potential answers he should give her. He wasn’t a great one for introspection of this caliber, but she looked like she was genuinely interested in whatever he had to say. The kindness in her expression made him feel a little tearful, so he pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose with such force that several waiters assumed they were being summoned to the table, colliding noisily in their haste to be of service.
“Didn’t know him that well,” he said eventually, once order had been restored to the scene. “Bit of a shit really. Pippo, my ex, would say that he was the root of all my issues.”
“You have issues?”
“No,” he laughed, remembering the cameras. “I’m a pretty straightforward kind of a guy.”
“What did your wife mean then?”
“She had plenty of theories about me. Thought everything could be explained by the fact that I was an only child, sent off to board when I was seven.” He blew his nose again, with more caution.
“Tell me more about your wife.” Candy said, after their starters had been put in front of them.
“Pippo? She’s a great girl.”
“How did you meet?”
“She was an MP too. There was a cocktail party on the terrace at the House, overlooking the river. Pretty romantic actually.”
“So, what went wrong?”
“What went wrong?” Teddy was surprised to find that he hadn’t really thought about it in those terms. Things had just happened, one after another. “Oh, you know,” he fumbled around in his brain for a reasonable explanation. “The years pass, people change, and what have you. Then there was a bit of a hoo-ha over some video taken of me at a party, which got on line. You know the sort of thing ….” He was surprised that she genuinely didn’t seem to know the whole sad back-story. He had assumed that the entire world had seen the video by now, or at least the grainy, and modestly censored pictures on all the front pages of the tabloids. Why, he wondered, did everyone around him spend so much time worrying about what the media printed if people like Candy didn’t even read it? “Had a bit too much to drink and made a bit of a fool of myself with some youngsters on holiday.”
“Ah, you were a bit of a naughty boy, then.” She waggled a remonstrative finger at him, setting her bracelets jangling.
“Yes,” Teddy put on a face which he hoped communicated an appropriate mixture of shame and twinkly mischief, “I rather think I was.”
“I like a bit of party myself,” Candy admitted with a wink. “We all have to let our hair down a bit now and then, don’t we?”
“You are my kind of girl!” Teddy let loose a loud fart of relief and raised his glass in a toast to Candy’s party spirit.
“So,” she continued, having emptied her glass and allowed a waitress to refill it. “Are you still in love with her?”
“Love?” The look of puzzlement creased Teddy’s brow once more. “Now that’s a bit of big old question, isn’t it?”