A Rotten Borough

As the man says, you won’t find any of the places mentioned in this story on any map, nor any of the people in any directory. In addition, the regulations for electing parish councillors may not accord with those that apply in this universe, but they do in the one in which this story is set.

The house I lived in when all this happened was at the end of a street. Beyond this, there was nothing but a common. Little remarkable about that, you might say. Well, I didn’t think so either. The town is called Thatchbury but don’t go looking for it on a map. I’ve changed the names in this story, for reasons that should become increasingly clear. I’ve moved away as well. You would have done too.

I said ‘nothing but a common’ but in fact there’s also the remains of an old cricket pavilion. I can’t think of it without being reminded of that awful day, at the start of which the pavilion had been, if not in good nick, then at least standing. I was standing then as well. I’m not now – never again.

I also say ‘at the end of the street’ but there was quite a big gap between me and my only next-door neighbour. There was no one opposite. My house was almost an afterthought.

I can see that I’m not telling the story very well. Let me try again.

The thing about my house you need to grasp is that, in the fields I mentioned, there was going to be big housing development. Greendale it was to be called, after the old farm just over the brow of the hill. I only discovered this a few weeks after I’d bought the place. I thought the vendor was being a bit easy with the price and the terms – he wanted out. I had a half-hearted go at my solicitor but she said that ‘OPP hadn’t been applied for so it didn’t show up on the search.’ I said that, as I’d later discovered, the story of the impending development had been all over the Thatchbury Gazette for months before: she said, sniffily, that she could only base searches on official records, not ‘newspaper tittle-tattle.’ I wasn’t sure where I stood with this and the moment passed. My neighbours were jealous of my vendor’s quick thinking. The road would, they promised me darkly, be turned into a roaring, mud-splattered highway for the construction traffic. As for the view – well, enjoy it while you can.

That was five years ago. The development never got off the ground. I find these things hard to follow but it seems there were two developers and they couldn’t agree on anything. The project stalled, opposition became more focussed. I signed petitions, even went to a meeting. Everyone seemed much more switched on than me, talking about ‘calling in’ and ‘HM Planning Inspectorate’ and ‘the climate emergency’ and ‘obviously, the ombudsman…’ It seemed that I had a team of strangers fighting my corner. Meanwhile, I’d got £20,000 off the asking price, some of which I spent on triple-glazing the house. Aside from that, I sat tight, waiting for the storm to break.

About six months ago I got a letter marked ‘change of ward boundary’ to which I should have paid more attention. I didn’t. Live and learn.

This story really started a couple of days after I’d got, and lost, this letter, when there was a rat-tat on the door. There was a thin, bald man in his sixties standing on the doorstep, a big smile on his face. I remembered him from the meeting. He introduced himself as Tim Gregory and he said he was one of the local Lib Dem councillors. I assumed that there was an election coming up and started to make my excuses.

“I don’t want your vote,” he said, sensing my unease. “I couldn’t have it anyway.” I pondered this paradox. “Perhaps I could come in.”

Fifteen minutes later he was finishing explaining his proposition. I wasn’t sure I had it straight. “So the parish council is the one that decides the plans? You know, for the houses?”

“No. The…”

“Oh, that’s the other one – East Brockshire.”

“Yes – but…”

“So…hang on, the MP, Linda Benson, is that right?”

“Yes, although…”

“So she runs that council, does she?”

He explained it again. I don’t have the hooks in my brain on which I can hang this kind of stuff so everything kept slipping off and getting muddled up. I was reminded of Christopher Robin explaining Brazil, Factors and Pumps to Winnie-the-Pooh; a bear of very little brain.

He grabbed a piece of paper and drew a chart. It looked like a cross between a circuit diagram and the royal family tree during the Wars of the Roses.

“Right,” I said, really trying to understand. “So the ward is where the people go to vote?”

He explained it a third time – he was a very patient man – and I finally got what he was on about. It seemed rather alarming. I said I’d think about it. He drained his tea and said he’d pop back in a couple of days.

About half an hour later there was another rat-tat on the door and a very different person was standing on the threshold: younger, more forceful and with the manner of a salesman at the end of the month who’s still several sets of brushes short of his target. His searchlight gaze locked onto mine from time to time but it seemed to be an act. He identified himself as Angus Donald, Conservative ward member for wherever, portfolio holder for this and that. He kind of backed me into my living room. Two minutes later he was sat in the chair Tim Gregory had occupied shortly before, making me an identical proposition.

He assumed I had a perfect working knowledge of municipal life and politics and so made no effort to explain anything. Fortunately, Tim’s summary was still fresh in my head so I was able to conceal my ignorance and even to ask a couple of intelligent questions. The conclusion was also identical, except that he had no tea to drain as I hadn’t offered him any. I said I’d think about it and he said he’d be in touch in a couple of days. Then he was gone.

These two unexpected and parallel conversations had shaken me out of my torpor. The situation, which I only partly understood, had given me the chance to make a difference. I felt hemmed in by destiny and could not refuse. The only real choice I seemed to have was between blue and orange. As Tim had explained things to me and Angus had not, there was only one answer to that.

So it was that, a few weeks later, I was at the Lib Dem HQ in Thatchbury, signing papers confirming that I, as the sole elector in Greendale, was nominating myself to stand in the forthcoming local council elections.

*       *      *

Tim never failed to delight in explaining to people the extraordinary circumstances which had led to my candidature. One evening in the Lamb and Flag in Thatchbury he was tracked down by Paula Garvey, a journalist from The Brockshire Gazette, based about thirty miles away, whose editor had got wind of some tangled election story and had asked her to go down to look into it. She brought back the drinks and sat down, her pen poised. “So…” she began.

It had started three years before, Tim explained, when the Greendale development still seemed like a done deal. The Boundary Commissioners has sent their usual letter to East Brockshire asking if any ward boundaries needing changing. “Well, yes,” Tim said, slipping into a drawl that was, I think, a parody of the Council’s CEO, “there is one place…”

The Commissioners had looked at the site and the planning documents and had agreed that, yes, by the time of the next election sufficient houses would have been built and occupied to justify the creation of a Greendale Ward, to which they allocated one seat in addition to the 16 that already existed in the rest of the parish.

“So, they drew up the plans and it was all passed. However,” Tim went on with relish, “about three months later the whole Greendale plan hit the buffers. That’s a different story,” he added slowly, clearly half-hoping Paula would ask him to relate it. She didn’t. “The ward business was forgotten about. It would only come up when there was an election. As it has.”

Paula made it clear from her expression that there were some dots that still needed joining up.

The point was, Tim explained, the new parish council seat assumed that the housing estate would have been built and people moved in. But it hadn’t even been started.

“Oh,” Paula said, the light starting to dawn, “so there were no electors.”

“Well, yes and no,” Tim said. “There was one.” And he clapped me on the back. I felt I should take up the story.

“There was an error on the map,” I said. “My house got put the wrong side of the boundary, in the Greendale ward. There’s a gap between me and the one next door and no one opposite. Perhaps it was the edge of a map sheet, I don’t know…”

“More incompetence from Nigel Conway, probably,” Tim muttered, referring to East Brockshire’s CEO.

I shrugged. “Perhaps…”

“Anyway, there he was. The only elector.” Tim and Paula looked at me, her with curiosity and he with something resembling fatherly pride.

“So, whoever he votes for gets in?”

“It’s even better than that,” Tim said. “The law’s changed. Now, all parish councillors have to have been resident in the parish in which they’re standing for three months before election day.”

“So…he’s the only person who can stand?”

“That’s right,” Tim said.

“Doesn’t he have to be nominated?”

“Ah ha,” Tim said, warming to her municipal knowledge. “Indeed. Fortunately, that aspect of the law was changed at the same time. You now need two nominees but only one needs to be resident in the parish.” He sat back in his chair and beamed at her.

“So, to re-cap, he’s the only person who can stand and the only person who can vote. Plus, he can nominate himself. That’s a bit odd, isn’t it? A candidate nominating themselves?”

This was the bit Tim enjoyed most, I felt. As he then explained, when the law was altered, the stipulation that a candidate could not nominate themselves had somehow got lost. “It’s been tested,” Tim went on. “About three months ago there was a by-election near Leeds. A candidate spotted this and put herself down as one of the nominees. Labour challenged it but the judge ruled that a candidate could self-nominate – the law as it stood was quite clear. If the law was changed, that would be different. Of course, it hasn’t been changed. In most cases it’s not an issue.”

“But it is here,” said Paula. “And who was the other nominee?”

“Me,” Tim said.

“In other words,” Paula said, “you two represent the entire democratic machine for the election of this possibly decisive candidate? It’s a…what’s the phrase – a rotten borough?”

Tim started backpedalling. His delight in explaining the legalistic and procedural points had allowed him, in her eyes, to stray the wrong side of a moral line. He talked of incompetence by East Brockshire, the Boundary Commissioners and parliament, the law of unintended consequences and playing by the rules as they existed. She nodded, then turned to me.

“So, how long have you been a member of the Lib Dems?” she asked.

I didn’t know the best answer. A confident “twenty years” could be disproved. “Three weeks” sounded a feeble. Then I found myself wondering if I was actually a member at all. Had I had to join in order to contest – if that was the right word – the seat? I had been given a lot things to sign without understanding what most were. Had this been one of them?

“Erm…” I said in a recollecting sort of way, looking at Tim.

“He recently confirmed his membership of the party,” he said crisply.

“So, what made you pick the Lib Dems?”

“Well…” I began.

“Were you approached by the Conservatives? I understand it’s going to be a tight contest. They must have contacted you.”

“Erm…” I said again. I sensed I was not doing very well in this latest grilling. How fortunate, therefore, that I had no voters I needed to impress; apart from myself, obviously. I wasn’t even sure I was achieving even this goal.

“I understand overtures were made…later,” Tim put in, “but wisely…”

Paula drained her pint, snapped her notebook shut and gave us both the benefit of an electrifying smile that I hadn’t previously suspected she possessed. “I’m not that interested in the political intrigue, odd though that might seem.” I could sense Tim wanting to take issue with ‘intrigue’ but deciding not to. “What gets me is the procedural stuff, the one-elector, one-candidate business. It’s probably unprecedented.”

“Almost certainly,” Tim said.

“The thing I don’t get is why this matters. I mean, you’re only a parish council.”

Tim resisted the temptation to say, as he had done to me several times before, that the one of the aims had been to pull one over on the Tories. “That’s true,” he said carefully, “but we’re about to become rather rich.”

Paula opened her notebook again. “How so?”

“There was a large development at the opposite end of the parish that was very contentious. There’ll be a significant developer contribution…”

“A CIL payment?”

“Exactly.  Most goes to East Brockshire, of course, but we’d just finished our neighbourhood development plan.” He gave me a wolfish grin. I smiled weakly back, resolving to ask him again what these things were. “As a result, we get to keep a quarter of it. There are differing ideas as to how this should be spent. Our plan, for a green energy centre, could revolutionise the way the district council thinks about this kind of thing. The Conservative majority there has been…well, luke-warm, at best. If we can make it work here, it could change policy. Here and elsewhere.” His eyes had started to glint. “For the first time, we have enough money of our own, in the parish, to do this. Whoever controls the council gets to say how it’s spent. As you say, it’s knife-edge. We can’t afford to take any chances.”

I hadn’t fully been aware of this. I wasn’t sure if I welcomed the idea that I was a pawn in a potentially game-changing event. My election could influence decisions over a far wider area than I’d ever imagined.

“What would happen if there’s no election here, in this…one-person ward?”

Tim explained that the new law had decreed that the filling of any seats left vacant because there were no candidates ‘would be as decided by the higher authority’, East Brockshire in this case, though it was unclear whether this would be made by the leader, who was political, or by the CEO, who was – nominally, Tim implied sarcastically – not. It was for that reason that this particular seat, which could hold the key to the election, was so vital. A greater good was at stake. Also, as he was quick to add, the rules and the laws were being followed by the book. The Lib Dems had struck first.

Paula thought about all of this for a moment and then shut her notebook again. “Very interesting to meet you both,” she said. She flashed a couple of cards across the table as she stood up. “If any more tangles emerge, let me know. That’s the aspect I’m most interested in.” She gave us a level stare. “However, our local democracy correspondent might want to take up the political angle.” I could see Tim slump and tense at the same time. “Particularly about…er, your affiliation,” she added to me. She stood smiling down at us. “Mind you, he’s quite busy with our election. A nasty story with a Labour candidate – depends how that plays out.”

You little tease, I thought.

“Anyway, thanks for your time.” And she swept out.

I looked at Tim. “I could do with another drink,” I said. “Then you can explain again what a neighbourhood development plan is.”

*       *      *

Tim was right when he said the election was likely to be knife-edge. For a start, it was political, which those for parish councils rarely are. The politicisation had happened about a year ago when the scale of the developer funds had become clear. The sixteen councillors, all previously apolitical, had suddenly turned into eight Conservatives, seven Lib Dems and one person who said he was independent but was later proved to be a member of the Labour Party. As a compromise which pleased neither him, nor the other councillors, nor the Labour Party, he called himself ‘Labour Independent.’ There was nothing particular for these groupings to do except growl at each other until the CIL payment was actually made: and, before that, it so happened that there needed to be an election.

This sudden polarisation attracted some local interest. Party battles were usually only fought out at the election for East Brockshire District Council and at the Town Councils of Thatchbury and Melbridge, which between them accounted for about a forty per cent of the district’s population. The rest was comprised of small town and rural parish councils which co-opted their members from those willing to stand, or able to be cajoled into doing so, and rarely managed to fill their available seats. And then there was Greendale.

*       *      *

The week before the election I met Tim, once again in the Lamb and Flag. I’d got to know him fairly well by now: well enough, certainly, to tell from his expression of nervous good humour that he had some bad news.

We circled around this during the first pint. Unless I was going to harangue myself in the bathroom mirror there was no point in campaigning so it couldn’t be about that. Eventually the conversation focussed onto the election day itself, 13 January. Tim shifted in his chair. Here it comes, I thought.

“Do you remember Angus Donald?”

“Yes, of course. The Conservative who tried to recruit me.”

Tim nodded. “A nasty piece of work. I suppose we should have expected something like this. Pure spite. Although,” he added more judiciously, “it’s all in the regulations. Maybe it’s better we know now. I’m surprised he didn’t leave it until afterwards and then shout ‘foul’. We were slow on the uptake with checking all the new rules. In fact,” he went on, now cheered up, “he’s done us a big favour.” Then his expression clouded again. “Unless it’s a trick, of course.” His brow furrowed as he tried to peer through the smoke that his opponent had possibly put up, or possibly not.

This, I thought, is why I couldn’t be a politician, or a spy, or a journalist. You had to be constantly on the lookout for snares, disinformation and double-dealing and ready to hit your enemies in the same way. This could become an end in itself, rather than pursuing whatever noble cause had led you to the profession in the first place. All too easily, the means become more important, and certainly more attainable, than the ends. Social equality, world peace or ultimate truth are impossible goals to accomplish. Luring and trapping your opponents into indiscretions or errors are not.

I waited for Tim to get to the point.

Here was the thing, he said. Angus Donald had discovered that, under the new regulations, the presiding officer had to be a resident of the parish.

“That’s me, right? So, what does he, do the presiding officer? Announce the result? I can do that now.”

“No, that’s the returning officer. The presiding officer sits in the polling station and ticks off the electors…”

“Elector, in this case.”

Tim waved his hand impatiently. I could tell he was rattled. “Ticks off the electors on the roll. He has to stay there all day, I’m afraid.”

“Oh. How long do they have to open for?”

Tim coughed. “7am to 10pm.”

“That doesn’t seem too bad. It’ll be in the Lib Dem office in Thatchbury, won’t it?”

“Well, no. It has to be in the ward.”

“But there aren’t any buildings in the ward…apart from my house.”

“It can’t be in a private house.”

It was like playing a game of twenty questions.

“So…? Is this a new regulation as well?”

“No,” Tim said. I said nothing.

“We messed up on this, I’m afraid,” Tim said at last: and with that, as so often is the way with apologies, his mood lightened. “it’s not the sort of thing you normally think about. East Brockshire Council allocates these. It was only a couple of days ago that we realised we were in a bit of a hole.” He grinned, aiming for a man-to-man expression to which I returned a neutral stare “They contacted us to ask which building in the ward we were going to be using. The same day, Angus Donald asked us the same thing.” He took a deep pull of his beer. “Impossible to believe the two things weren’t connected. EBC doesn’t want us to win this. Well, they wouldn’t, would they?” Now back in the world of political cut-and-thrust, Tim seemed more assured.

I pushed my empty glass across the table. “I think I’m going to need another one of these,” I said.

“So, where’s it going to happen?” I asked when he’d come back from the bar. A sudden surge of hope ran through me which I did my best to conceal. “Will it have to be called off?”

Tim frowned. “Oh, no – there’s far too much at stake.” With a politician’s poise he paused, daring me to object. I didn’t object. He nodded crisply, confirming my commitment. “There is a building there. The old pavilion.”

I couldn’t place this. Tim explained that about a mile from my house, right in the middle of what would have been the Greendale Estate were things to have worked out differently, there had once been a cricket pitch. Other nearby structures, mainly old farm buildings, had been demolished in the early, hopeful days of the development: but there had been a question as to whether the pavilion had some kind of historical status. it had therefore survived pending an investigation which, having being overtaken by events, never materialised. So there the pavilion still was, waiting for me.

I now remembered a picture in the Brockshire Gazette from a few years back of a derelict, haunted-looking building surrounded on three sides by windswept fields and on the fourth by the fringes of a dark and menacing wood. It might have been the lead photo for a story about a serial killer.

“So, we’ll use that.” Tim’s remark was a statement, not a suggestion.

“Does it have electricity?”

He looked at me as if I were slightly simple. “It doesn’t have anything except a bloody great lock on the door which EBC put on. The windows are all boarded up so it shouldn’t be too draughty. I’d bring some warm clothes, though. We’ll sort a table and chair out.

What the hell did I want a table and chair for? Did he think I was going to use the opportunity to start work on a novel?

“For the paperwork. You’re the presiding officer, remember. We’ll come over and bring you some food.”

“Can’t someone relieve me for an hour or so?

“Well, no, I’m afraid not. Angus Donald said he’ll drop in to check. I’m sure he will. The presiding officer or their deputy must be there at all times.”

“And the deputy…”

“Has to be a resident of the ward as well. So, there can’t be one.” Tim paused and sat back in the chair. He was now relaxed and as normal. The bad news seemed to be over. “All clear?”

I pushed my empty glass across the table at him. It was a small protest but the best I could muster.

*       *      *

At twenty to seven in the morning the following Thursday I set off across the field towards the pavilion. The air was damp and bitingly cold, suggesting a freezing and foggy day to come. The eastern sky was lit with the first signs of a pale, sickly dawn. One moment, my torch would show the flat, tussocked ground for a hundred yards ahead; the next, the mist would sweep across the landscape so the light reflected back at me as if from a fogged mirror.

I trudged on. Surely I must be there? I have a poor sense of direction and the conditions were making it worse. Had I gone past it, or was I walking round in circles? I started to shine my torch in a widening arc. Then, just when I was starting to get alarmed, I saw the pavilion on the right, about a hundred yards away. If the mist had not just then cleared I would have missed it. Without reflecting on where that might have left me – Greendale Heath is a large and featureless place – I turned towards the building. I was half-expecting to see Angus Donald lurking in the gloom, stop-watch in hand. However, I was bang on time. As I turned the keys in the padlock and in the door and stepped across the threshold, I heard the tolling of a church bell striking the hour. As the last peal of seven faded away I had the storm lantern on the desk and was applying a flame to the wick. This was the last thing that was to go right that day.

The next ten minutes were spent arranging the pointless paraphernalia of my day’s work. Tim had been keen that everything be done by the book, including fixing a “Polling Station” sign to the door. He had even arranged for a booth to be brought over. There were two folding tables, one for the impressive locked voting box sitting by the door and one for me, the presiding officer. There was a folding chair. There was a clipboard with the list of voters (or voter) and a sheet of paper listing the regulations. There was a pad of voting slips. I got all this sorted out but had at the back of my mind the sense something was missing

It was now ten past seven. I looked around me. As Tim had said, all the windows were boarded up except for one Velux in the roof. It was a dreary scene. I wondered how many people had already casted their vote and were now speeding off to a productive day’s work. My day ahead promised no such rewards.

I unpacked my backpack. It contained a thermos of black coffee, a small water bottle, a large bar of chocolate, a half bottle of scotch, a copy of Our Man in Havana (which I’d always meant to read), my fully-charged mobile, an extra jumper, a pair of gloves and a scarf. I was already wearing three layers of clothes on the top, two on the bottom and a woolly hat. They didn’t seem nearly enough. I put on the scarf and put everything else apart from the thermos and the mobile back in the bag.

I love coffee: the smell, the taste, the effect; perhaps most of all, the quiet and unvarying formalities of its preparation, much like a Catholic priest finds comfort in the rituals when making ready for the eucharist. I’d spent fifteen minutes this morning grinding Kenyan beans and drip-filtering the results, then gently bringing it back to near boiling on the stove before decanting it into the thermos. I’d so far not had a sip, just as the priest would decline a nip of the communion wine before donning his cassock: that was a pleasure to be savoured. I realised now that I needed it rather badly.

I unscrewed the thermos and inhaled the aroma. It was a moment straight from an advert, although probably no coffee advert had ever been filmed in a location like this. I put the cup down and started to pour.

The next few seconds have replayed themselves countless times in my mind, sometimes when I’m asleep. Either because of the extra weight, or because I knocked the leg, or due to some fault in the design, the right part of the table gave way and the half-full cup of coffee, and my phone, slid onto the floor. Instinctively I put the thermos down, but on a surface that was longer flat. It toppled over and boiling coffee poured over my hands. I made a grab for the flask but missed. It bounced down the reclining table and landed on the floor with the unmistakeable crack of a serious breakage. There was the faint and tantalising aroma of perfectly-brewed coffee, soon replaced by the previous smell of mildew and tom cats.

It was an ugly moment. Worse was to come. Both my hands, particularly the left, were scalded. Water was needed, but I had only the small bottle I’d brought with me. I hadn’t anticipated this emergency. I’d have to ask Tim to bring me water, quite a lot of it, as well as the lunch and dinner he’d promised. And coffee. I picked up the phone from the floor next to the thermos and pressed the on button. Nothing happened.

There were two likely reasons for this. One was that the screen was cracked from top to bottom. The second was that cold coffee was dripping out of it. I pressed the button several times, in the increasingly savage way you do. Dead as Dillinger.

Mentally, I was also pressing my mental command-Z button to undo the idiotic sequence of events: here in a polling station on election day, with me as the presiding officer. Presiding over, so far, a fiasco. I checked my watch. Not even quarter past seven. What a start.

Soon it became impossible to ignore the pain in my hands. I dug out the bottle of water and, very carefully, poured a few drops on the back of my left hand. It felt briefly better, then worse. The skin was starting to blister. I remembered that scalds carry on heating from the inside and getting the injured area cold was of first importance. The water in the bottle was at about blood temperature. There was no running water in the pavilion. Where might be cold water be found?

Of course – outside, where there must be dew. I pushed the door open and plunged my hands into any clumps of grass or weeds I could find. I had to get down on my knees, crawling from one tuft to the next. After ten minutes of this, the pain had abated a bit but I sensed I would need to do this every fifteen minutes or so. Mind you, what else did I have to do?

I went back inside. I could hardly look at the thermos and cup on the floor but eventually put them away in the backpack. This seemed a good moment to have some chocolate. I broke off a large chunk and chewed it greedily. This did not sate my appetite but stimulated it. Why had I not brought more food? I’d had one piece of toast while making the coffee. What was needed, I now saw, was several rounds of cheese sandwiches, slabs of fruit cake and shiny red apples. I had had weeks – months, in fact – to prepare for this moment. I looked in the bag. The only other thing in there was the bottle of scotch. It was not yet seven thirty in the morning but this was no ordinary day. I unscrewed the bottle and raised it to my lips.

“Hello, hello,” a familiar voice said.

I gulped. Some of the whisky spilled onto my scarf. I looked up to see Angus Donald in the doorway. He shone his torch around in an arrogantly proprietorial way, finishing with it straight into my eyes. Then he flicked it off. For a moment I could see nothing.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” he drawled.

“The only place,” I corrected him.

“Well, not quite.” He offered me a little chuckle. “You could done this at your house, you know. If there are no ‘suitable public premises’ and fewer than something like 30 electors a private house can be used. Didn’t Tim tell you that? Four-week notice period but, even so.” He turned the torch on again and flashed it around for a bit. “Anywhere would have been better than this.”

I had no way of knowing if this was true. His remarks fed the nagging feeling that Tim hadn’t looked after me as well as he might have done. It seemed safer to say nothing, not even ask him what he was doing there.

He continued to pace up and down the  room. I saw now that he had a take-away cup of coffee from which he from time to time took little sips. “Bloody cold, as well. I can see you’ve got something to keep the chill out,” he added, gesturing to the bottle.

I felt unequal to describing the sequence of events that had led to my drinking scotch at half seven in the morning.

“I think I’ll stick to coffee,” he said. He gave me a searching look. I began to wonder if he had perhaps been lurking outside and had seen the whole catastrophe through a chink in the window: perhaps filmed it. In politics, anything was possible.

“Don’t forget to vote.”

Facetiously, I indicated the clipboard, the voting slips, the booth and the ballot box. Then I realised what was missing. I had no pen or pencil. Unless it was well hidden, Tim had not provided one either.

Angus seemed to pick up on my unease. “Not sure who to vote for? I think there’s only one choice, isn’t there?”

I was about to tell him to piss off but realised I needed his help. Tim had said he would come down with some food: but he had also said he’d provide pencils and appeared to have screwed up over the venue. Could I trust him to arrive with a hot lunch? Particularly on election day, doubtless spent driving pensioners to their warm polling stations, comparing exit polls and preparing victory speeches, I could have slipped his mind. As well as food, I also needed water, coffee, something for the throbbing scalds on my hands and a pencil. My phone being bust I had no way of reaching him. Could I trust Angus to remind him? Their paths would probably cross during the day.

“Look,” I said, trying to appeal to him on a human level. “Can we forget the politics for a moment…”

“On election day?”

“It seems I have to stay here all day. Fair enough. But I need a blanket and…and stuff. Tim said he’d bring me some food at lunchtime. Could you tell him that…”

“Can’t you call him yourself?” My broken phone was still lying on the floor. Had he seen it? If so, had he seen it was broken? Would admitting something that he may or may not have known weaken or strengthen my hand? Was the human factor in any case enough, on this day of all? I realised I hadn’t answered his question.

“I…er, don’t have his number.”

Angus raised his eyebrows. The statement was obviously preposterous.

“I’ll tell him how you’re fixed,” he said ambiguously. Then he turned on his heel; which immediately disappeared as the rotten floorboard gave way. He toppled forward. For the second time that morning a spray of hot coffee arced its way across the room, missing me by a few inches. Once again I caught a faint whiff; once again, the moment didn’t last.”

In the moments that followed, I wondered if I could blame the scalds on this latest spill and use this as a way of leveraging help. However, a scream would have been needed and it was too late for that now. As Angus Donald still sprawled, grunting, on the floor, I also briefly wondered if I could, in helping him up, relieve him of his phone and, perhaps, the elegant fountain pen which I suspected people of his type kept in the breast pocket of their suit, which he was doubtless wearing under the Barbour jacket. Come to think of it, I could do with that too. In fact, if he were to have been killed or knocked out, this would present a way out of many of my immediate problems.

He was neither of these things, however. If I wasn’t going to beat him to death with my thermos I had to help him to his feet. This I did, but received no gratitude.

“Jesus,” he said. “Was that some kind of trap?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, unthinkingly admitting liability. “I think the floorboard gave way.”

“Damn right it did.” He flexed his ankle. Many people’s reaction when anything unexpected happens is to reach for their mobile so they can photograph the incident and post it on Facebook. He started to do this, then cursed. “My bloody mobile’s broken.” He glared at me. I said nothing.

It seemed he could walk. If he wasn’t going to be dead or unconscious, what I most needed was him out of here and heading back to Thatchbury. There he would hunt down Tim, if only to present him with a bill for a torn trouser leg and a new iPhone. What I didn’t need was him huddled in the corner awaiting help, with nothing between us except two busted mobiles, two spilled cups of coffee and half a bottle of scotch.

“Unsafe building,” he muttered as he limped towards the door. “Could invalidate everything.”

He might have been right for all I knew. Matters had got so badly out of control that this threat meant nothing to me. It was clear the day was to be a trial of more than just political survival.

“I would give you a hand,” I couldn’t resist saying as he stepped across the threshold. “But, as you know, I can’t leave the building.”

I was unsure if I had gone too far. Instead, he laughed. In a mad way, I felt I’d briefly gained his political respect. Then he scowled and shuffled away. I went inside and shut the door. As I did so, the church clock chimed. Eight o’clock. An hour since I had arrived. Fourteen to go.

There was nothing else to do, I poured a large shot of scotch, the main effect of which was to make me realise how badly I wanted another one: which I had. I sat down on the floor. I’d hardly slept the night before. The day had already given me more unpleasant experiences than I normally encounter in a month: and the sun had barely risen. I shut my eyes.

I awoke with a jolt and for a moment had no idea where I was. Fusty-headed, I got up and walked across the room. Even from the chinks of light coming through the cracks in the boarded-up windows I could sense something unexpected outside. I pulled open the door.

My forecast for a day of mist had been wrong. While I had slept the weather had changed. The snow was falling in every direction, including up, and  lay banked up against the side of the building up to about two feet deep. There was no movement, no sound and no light except what came from the swirling, silvery flakes, softly falling and billowing across the universe. It was impossible to discern any horizon, or even any features much further away than my own outstretched hand.

For a time I stood there, transfixed by the change. Then I stepped back inside the pulled the door shut. The pavilion, lit only by the storm lantern’s sickly, sulphurous light, now seemed even more dank and dreary. I opened the door again. This made no appreciable difference to the temperature inside. Snow fluttered in and started to settle in an arc inside the doorway but I doubted that this would do any more damage to the building than had the last five years of neglect. I wrapped myself up in all my clothes and sat there, waiting.

Waiting for what?  I realised that I was waiting for Tim to bring me my promised meal; also, that this would probably not now be happening. Somebody was coming at ten o’clock – still over eight hours away – to pick up the box but until then I was on my own. Not even Angus Donald would be venturing out again in this. The sensation was alarming and liberating in roughly equal measure.

I sat watching the snow fall: there was nothing else to look at, nothing else to do. The open doorway was directly in front of the table at which I was sitting . The classic formality of the composition – the perfect square opening filled with tumbling shards of icy light, the semi-circle of snow on the floor, the waxy glow from my lantern and the dismal, mouldy walls which, away from the entrance, faded into ever-deepening shadow – made me feel as if I were fast becoming a part of this austerely beautiful near-monochrome tableau, rather than an observer of it. I felt at peace. It was almost like being slightly drunk. Then I realised that I was in fact slightly drunk, having had nothing since I’d arrived apart from a lump of chocolate and several large slugs of scotch. I was also aware that I wasn’t feeling cold and that my scalded hands weren’t hurting. Could these, and my unexpected elation, be the first warning signs of hypothermia?

I looked at my watch. Could it really be half-past two already?

I decided to stand up but my legs were reluctant to obey. This didn’t seem like a good sign either. I lurched over to the doorway. The need to get out of this awful, depressing building was now overwhelming. I stepped across the threshold, pulling the door behind me.

I was in a world in motion. The snow whipped against my skin and seemed to be rushing at me from every direction. My footsteps crunched, the sound appearing slightly delayed in the freezing air. Then I took one more step and there was no answering noise. I was falling forwards into a void. The world was no longer brightly crystalline but dark and full of menace. A moment, or perhaps several moments, later I found myself sprawled on the ground, gasping for breath and with a sharp pain in my leg.

How long I lay here I have no idea. By the time I managed to move the sky had become darker and the snow heavier. I blundered round for a while but kept coming up against a wall of snow. It was impossible to tell if these were large drifts or the side of some kind of pit. I tried to think. How far had I fallen? Ten feet? Twenty? The accident seemed to have happened hours ago, and in slow motion. Round and round I went, all sense of direction lost. The pain in my leg was subsiding but then so too was all the feeling below my knees.

Then I saw a pale light above me. I swung round. The clouds had parted and a sickly half-moon had appeared. Just ahead, there was a gap in the mounds of snow against which I’d been stumbling. I scrambled towards it, hoping to get up onto open ground before the moon vanished. The snow was deep and slowed me down, as in a dream. I had just reached the top of the slope and could see a few bare trees silhouetted in the far distance when the clouds closed again and I was plunged back into near darkness.

A number of thoughts struck me. Firstly, why was it dark? I looked at my watch but couldn’t make out the hands. In any case, a tinkling sound as I raised it to my ear suggested it had been broken in the fall. Secondly, now that I was in the open again I realised that the snow had grown still heavier and the wind had got up. Thirdly, my clothes were soaked, on the outside with snow and on the inside from cooling sweat. My hands and feet were numb and my teeth were chattering erratically. My left leg was starting to throb. Finally, there was the matter of the pavilion. From being somewhere from which, twenty minutes or several hours ago, I had wanted to escape, it had now become a place of refuge: but where was it?

Once I accepted that I was under-dressed, injured, half-drunk and lost in the middle of a howling blizzard I began to feel genuine alarm. For the inexperienced adventurer – and if anyone qualified for this title, I did – the next station on this line is blind panic. I took a few deep breaths and tried to think rationally. As I didn’t know where I was in relation to the pavilion, it didn’t matter which way I walked. The Common was only a few square miles so, if I kept walking in the same direction for long enough, I’d eventually find a house. The trick was not to go round in circles. How I could avoid that? I didn’t know.

As my left leg was injured, it seemed best to steer slightly to the right to compensate. There was nothing else to decide. After being buffeted by a ferocious blast of snow that nearly knocked me off my feet, I set off. It was now dark although, as is the way in heavy snow, faint areas of light appeared for a few seconds here and there, mirages in the storm: maybe they were transitory reflections of some car headlight or street lamp several miles away, transmitted from flake to flake like reflections in an infinitely complex and ever-changing hall of mirrors. It was hard not to veer towards each one. Maybe I did.

Once again, time seemed to have lost its meaning. I had no idea how long this journey lasted nor how far I walked. I do recall that there came a time when the lights started to take on different hues, although none were colours I could identify. I heard strange tunes which might have been made by wind in the bare branches of trees or perhaps from the flickering figures I could see on the edge of my field of vision. Once, a huge and silent horse rushed past me, was caught by a blast of wind and vanished in a flurry of snow.

Then, without warning, these hallucinations were interrupted by the clouds parting again to reveal the moon, higher in the sky than it had been before. The pavilion was on my right. The view of it, bleak and jagged, was familiar. I was standing in almost the same place as when the mists had parted at five to seven. Odd. Then the clouds closed again.

I staggered towards the building. I half expected it to have vanished into the blizzard like so much else: but there it was. I even managed to find the door. I turned the handle but it didn’t open. Had I pulled it shut behind me when I’d left? If so, it must have locked itself. I could try to break it down but I doubted my frozen limbs had the strength. I half collapsed against the door. Finding the pavilion had been my goal, now arrived, I was little better off. The wind whipped the snow in every direction so it made no difference on which side of the building I sheltered. The thought struck me that unless I could get inside I would die.

Looking to my left, I saw a water butt against the wall. The building’s sloping roof started about six feet off the ground: and, set into the roof was a Velux window. I remembered it from the morning when it allowed a few rays of pale sunlight into the building. I could recognise it now because the snow on the rectangle of the window was an inch or two lower than that on the surrounding roof. This was, I reasoned groggily, good news as it suggested some snow had melted because the inside of the pavilion was warmer. It seemed worth giving it a go.

As I stood up, I had about two seconds of the moon which confirmed all this in am over-exposed flash photograph. Then it vanished again and I was once again alone in the high Arctic’s polar night, no more than a mile from my home.

Climbing on to the water butt was more of a challenge than I’d expected. It was less tall than it appeared as the top foot or so was snow, but vastly more slippery. Once on top, by leaning forward I was able to reach almost to the bottom edge of the window. I hoped it could be opened from the outside. First I had to get to it. I pushed myself forward.

Several things happened immediately. The first was that the water butt ripped away from whatever was fastening it to the wall and collapsed onto the snow with a dull thud. The second was that I managed to get a handhold on the lower frame of the window and pulled myself forward so I was now wholly resting on the roof. The third was that, as I did this, I more or less disappeared into snow. There was a lot more of it on the roof than I had thought. Still holding onto the frame, I hauled myself further up until I was half kneeling over the window. I started scraping away the snow to reach the glass. I shifted my position, putting most of my weight on my left knee.

The fourth thing, which was the last incident I remembered, was a loud crack followed by the realisation that I was falling. I landed, mostly on my right hand. The pain was dulled by the cold and by my body’s rush of adrenaline – it seemed amazing I had any left – but I realised it was quite serious. Then there was a rumbling, tearing sound as other things started to fall about me. Last of all there was a roar of flame and a searing heat that shot me backwards against what remained of the wall. Then something quite large hit me on the head and I toppled backwards into oblivion.

*       *      *

“So, how are you?”

I opened my eyes. I was lying in a bed in a white room: a hospital I decided. My left hand was bandaged. It felt like there was a bandage on my head. I couldn’t see my right arm at all. I started to panic.

Tim reached forward and put his hand lightly on my chest. “Relax,” he said. “You’re all in one piece, except for a toe.”

“A toe?”

Yes, one of the little ones. Frostbite.”

I thought about this for a moment. I then realised that the reason I couldn’t see my right arm was because it was suspended on a pully above me.

“What the hell am I doing here with my arms tied up like this and minus a toe?”

Tim chuckled. “For someone who’s been unconscious for two days, you’ve woken up quickly.” My expression must have caused his levity to evaporate. “Can you remember anything about what happened?”

I reflected. “Not really. The last thing I remember was Angus Donald coming over.” Tim raised his eyebrows but said nothing. “More than you did,” I added.

“There were problems,” he said.

“You’re telling me.”

“Perhaps I’d better come back when you’re…” he left the sentence unfinished. Stronger? In a better mood?

I tried to calm myself. “I’d rather you told me now. Otherwise I’m going to lie here and fret.”

“OK. I only know what I saw. The gaps you’ll have to fill in, if your memory returns.” There was a long pause. He seemed to be deciding, although he’d have had enough time to think about this, how to tell the story. He went for the deep end. “At about 9.30, we got a report that the pavilion had blown up.”

“Blown up?”

“Yes. Do you know why?”

“Not at the moment, no.”

“It seems there were some gas cylinders stored there. We didn’t know about this of course. It seemed the roof collapsed and fractured one of them. You had a storm lantern, didn’t you?”

“Yes. You knew that. In fact, I think you advised it.”

“Possibly, yes…yes, I think I did. Perfectly safe – if used properly.” I couldn’t see where this was leading.

“The doctors said,” Tim continued, “that your injuries were consistent with your having fallen through the roof.” He paused for a moment. “Were you on the roof?”

“Why should I have been on the roof?” As I said this, I had a faint flicker of a memory of my being on the roof of just such a building in a blizzard. Had it been that building? Then the recollection faded.

Tim spread his arms. “I’m asking you.”

Suddenly this seemed less like a chat between an election candidate and his agent than a police interrogation.

“So, you turned up and the building had exploded and I was lying there like…well, like this?”

“More or less,” Tim said.

I decided to leave it at that. “I’m tired,” I said. Tim left. I was fretful for a while but a nurse came in and gave me a couple of pills after which I slept.

When I woke up my mind was clearer. I had a vague memory of the events up until the time I reached the pavilion but these were slender, like a spider’s web in a hailstorm, and threatening to disintegrate if I thought about them too hard. I drifted off again. When I came to, Tim was once again sitting at my bedside.

This time he was a bit less confrontational and I was a bit stronger. We went over again the bits that he knew and I could remember. The entire story was only mine to tell but my mind had, perhaps charitably, erased several parts of it: whether permanently or not, time would tell. I sensed that the complete narrative would not show me up in a good light. Amnesia would probably be my friend.

Eventually – and it seemed impossible to avoid the subject any longer, although for passages of our conversation I had forgotten that this was why I had been there at all – I asked how the election had gone. His expression hardened again.

“We lost,” he said at last.

“Lost? How?”

“You didn’t vote. At least,” he continued in a less bitter tone, “there was no evidence from the remains of the ballot box that you had.”

I frowned to myself. Was this possible? “I’m sure I did.” As I said it, I wasn’t sure. There was something I had been missing but I couldn’t remember what. I felt my head starting to throb.

“Unfortunately,” Tim went on remorselessly, “if no valid  votes are cast then the returning officer has to decide what to do with the seat. The others were split, eight to us and eight to the Conservatives.” He paused to let this sink in. “The returning officer who is, you’ll remember, Nigel Conway, our impartial Chief Executive, decided that he would give the seat to the party which had won most votes overall across the parish.” He stopped again. I could see what was coming.

“And they did,” I said.

“Yes. By 12 votes. It was that tight. Actually, it’s hard to blame him.” Then he twisted the knife a bit further. “So, now they have control of the parish.” For a moment I couldn’t remember why this was so important. “And all the CIL money. If it’s paid,” Tim added slowly. “We’ve got a trick up our sleeves on that one. You see, I think that the developer could claim that…”

I waved my hand. My headache was getting worse; but the real reason was that I had suddenly become sickened by the political machinations in which I had played so disastrous a part. The episode belonged to a part of my life from which I had been severed. I could recall our pre-election conversations with perfect clarity but they didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. I knew then I would soon leave this town. I now had less than no reason to stay in Thatchbury. The place was dead to me: a rotten borough.

“One question,” I said. “You said you were going to come and bring me some food. Why didn’t you?”

“The weather…”

“All the more reason.”

“Well,” he added quickly, looking away from me, “I ran into Angus Donald and he said he’d been to see you and you had everything you needed.”

I could have asked why Tim believed this when he had several times said Angus was not to be trusted one inch but I let it pass. There was also something else Angus had said, that the election could have been held in my house if Tim had got his act together, but I couldn’t be bothered. I was too bored and ashamed by it all. Perhaps it was better that it had ended this way, in snow, fire and oblivion. For some reason, I remembered Enoch Powell’s famous remark that all political careers end in failure. Never did this seem so true.

Tim stood up, rather awkwardly. “I’ll come back…tomorrow,” he said. I gave him a look that must have made him realise there was nothing more to say.

He didn’t come back and I never saw or heard from him again.

*       *      *

Two weeks later I was starting to pack up my house, as well as I could with one arm in plaster, having arranged with an agent to rent it at any terms he could get while I moved back to the anonymity of London. There was a knock on the door. I opened it and found myself looking at Paula Garvey, the journalist from the Gazette.

“Hi. Do you remember me? We met in…”

“Yes. I remember you well. The stuff that happened on election day rather less well, I’m afraid. So, if you want to do a feature on that, forget it.”

“Oh no,” she said. Although I hadn’t opened a paper since, I’d been aware that the fiasco and the procedural wrangles it had produced had been widely covered. My phone and doorbell had been ringing constantly until I’d had the former disconnected and started ignoring the latter. I’m sure she had played her part in this but I bore her no ill will. It was all part of the process. I’d only opened the door now because it had all been quiet for the last few days. The meat had gone cold and started to rot, so the newshounds were hunting for fresher flesh elsewhere.

During these reflections I realised that she’d gone into the living toom and sat down. I followed her in.

“No, all that’s over with.” She gave me a look which seemed almost pitying. I shrugged. Anything was preferable to an interest in my political career. “I’ve just been at East Brockshire Council. I thought you might be interested to know what’s just been decided.”

I sat down opposite her and ran my hand through my hair. There was a lump where the beam had hit me. My right arm was still in plaster. My missing toe hurt from at times, and this was one of them. The skin on my left hand was still raw. There also seemed to be a lump of ice in the centre of my body which refused to melt so that I never felt completely warm, even in an overheated room. Apart from that, I was fine.

“I’m not sure I am,” I said slowly. “I haven’t been following local affairs since…since then. But as you’ve come over here I suppose you might as well tell me.”

She gave me a brittle smile. “There was an appeal against the CIL payment. It’s succeeded. It’s a kick in the teeth for Nigel Conway. The developers will pay a notional sum but the parish will get next to nothing. It turned out there was a problem with the way the Planning Department had handled the application, so when the developer ticked the box…”

My head was buzzing. Everything about that terrible day, or what I could remember of it, was now doubly pointless. It was possible Tim and his cronies had orchestrated this coup to create a Pyrrhic victory; or that the revenue would have melted away like faerie gold or been diverted for purposes for which it had not been intended. Paula’s pat phrases, gloating over this latest example of municipal disaster, revolted me. My experience of the political life, the details of which I could barely remember, had at least been swift. My political career had ended: there was no point in listening to anything more she had to say. I stood up.

“I’m sorry,” I said, just as she was babbling about a motion at the next Executive meeting, “but I’ve had enough of all this. Please – go.”

She stood up, surprised. This was perhaps her scoop of the year and she was sharing it with me as a gift which I had not asked for and did not want.

“But I just…”

“Yes, I know. But please – that’s it.”

She left.

I realised I couldn’t spend another hour in this town. I packed a suitcase, sent an email to the agent saying I’d make arrangements for clearing the house in the next week and then called a taxi. Half an hour later I was at Thatchbury station. On the train I spoke to a friend in Camden and agreed I could crash with him for a few nights until I’d got my head sorted out. The clickerty-clack of the train soon sent me to sleep.

It was just getting dark when we arrived at Paddington. I stood, for a moment bemused, in the centre of the concourse, trying to remember which of the two tube entrances I should head for. Then someone tapped me on the arm.

“Excuse me, sir,” a perky young man said, “are you interested in joining the Labour Party?” He thrust a leaflet towards me. In his other hand was a tablet.

I gave him a steady gaze. “All political careers end in failure,” I told him.

“No, they don’t!” He was sharper than I’d bargained for. “Look at Atlee…and, of course, at a local level, we can all make a big difference…”

“Don’t take this personally,” I said, “but piss off.”

Then I stalked away: towards the tube station; towards Camden; and towards the oblivion that all our misfortunes crave and into which all things – the laudable as well as the unworthy – eventually slide.

 

Brian Quinn

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Photo credit: https://www.freepik.com/photos/tree. Tree photo created by freepik: www.freepik.com

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