(first published in Cabinet of Heed, Issue 25, Oct 19th 2019)
Some said that Alwyn Wyckham-Smith M.P. had suffered ‘a mid-life crisis.’ Some said it was ‘a secret sorrow.’ Some said it was Brexit. But no-one really knew what happened…
The M.P. held two constituency ‘surgeries’ in his West Barsetshire constituency every month, one in Barchester and one twenty miles away in Blister. He would have preferred to have held them all in Barchester, where his constituency office was, along with the constituency secretary. But at the selection meeting, six years ago, the officers of the constituency party had enquired closely whether Wyckham-Smith would keep on the Blister surgery, if he was selected. Naturally, he’d laid great stress, in his reply, on the importance of ensuring that the elderly and infirm of Blister should continue to have easy access to their elected representative. So, as he told himself, looking in vain for a parking space and cruising wearily round Blister market square for the third time, he’d once more succeeded in being the agent of his own suffering.
Eventually, he found a space by the device of motorised shadowing: driving slowly behind (and alarming) an old lady, tottering over to her battered Nissan Micra with her shopping. Running late, he jogged across the square to the Mason’s Arms Hotel, where the surgery was to be held in a rented back room. He handed the list of appointments to the hotel receptionist, apologised to the first appointee (a local builder), opened up the room, and got down to work.
It was dispiriting stuff. The builder was complaining about the local council turning down his planning application to build next to a famed beauty spot. A Sikh constituent was complaining about his brother-in-law’s niece being held in an immigration detention centre. The chair of the local civic society wanted to know why there was still no start-date for the anticipated Blister By-Pass. One local activist demanded to know why the government were shilly-shallying over Brexit. Another local activist demanded action to prevent the post-Brexit sale of Britain’s wonderful National Health Service to the Americans…
Two-and-a-half hours of hopeless cases and of impossible demands, and Wyckham-Smith’s polite smile was wearing thin. The last name on the appointments list was vaguely familiar, Mr A. Burton. In response to the knock on the door, Wyckham-Smith suppressed a yawn and gave out a faux-hearty ‘Come In!’ A thin, pale, hesitant person entered, smoothing down what little was left of his thin, pale hair.
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Burton. Won’t you take a seat? What can I do for you?’
‘Actually, it’s Reverend Burton. Not an appellation I insist upon, but in this case it’s really rather reverend, I mean relevant…’ (spoken in a sibilant whisper).
‘Good grief, it’s “Gone” isn’t it? Old Gone-for-a-Burton?’
‘Sorry. I’m being disrespectful: I’m afraid you took me by surprise. Er… Do you remember me perhaps?’
‘Indeed yes, you were Head of School. Although then, you were just “Alwyn Smith”.’
‘Ah, yes. Under the terms of grandfather’s will, I was required to add the “Wyckham” bit… Families, eh? So, you’re a churchman – jolly good. You know, although you took me by surprise just now, I’m not actually surprised that you joined the clergy. Haha.’
The Reverend Burton smiled and looked down at his hands. ‘Odd you should mention occupational choices Mr Wyckham-Smith. I was remembering…’
‘Call me Alwyn please, old chap. May I still call you “Gone”?’
‘If you wish, er, Alwyn. I was remembering a conversation we once had, waiting to go into the Chemistry Lab. You turned to me and said, rather out of the blue, “My father’s a Weights and Measures Inspector. He says that’s a good job. I don’t think that’s a good job, do you?’
‘Crickey. Did I really say that? And you remembered it after all these years, eh Gone? Well, well.’
‘Mmm. I suppose I remembered it because it was a rather odd conversation. And because you were confiding in me. After the incident in the school play, I’m afraid I was rather shunned by my fellow classmates.’
‘The school play?’
‘Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. You played Caesar and I played The Soothsayer. It was when I had to repeat my warning about the Ides of March…’
‘Ah yeeesss, I remember! You were The Soothsayer… I’m sitting on my dais-thingy and Tank Thompson, the Roman Soldier, throws you at my feet. I say, “Well Soothsayer, the Ides of March are come.” And you’re supposed to answer…’
‘Yes, I was supposed to answer, ‘Aye Caesar, but not gone.’
‘Mmm. And we were all looking forward to it: to Gone saying “not gone.” Schoolboy humour eh?’
‘Yes, but I didn’t answer.’
‘That’s right, you didn’t.’
‘I didn’t answer because Tank Thompson threw me too hard. I tripped on my robe and cracked my head on the corner of your dais.’
‘Mmm. You were out cold, old chap. The English teacher kept whispering your line from the wings. But there wasn’t a cheep from you. Eventually, the English teacher and The Roman Soldier (aka Tank Thompson) carried you off into the wings. An unexpected humorous episode like that could’ve made you a school hero. What rather spoilt it for you was…’
‘What rather spoilt it for me was my mother erupting from the third row, and shouting “Let me through. That’s my son.”’
‘Well. Yes, it did rather. Schoolboys can be very cruel, eh?’
Both parties reflected for a moment or two on the terrifying mob-rule of schoolboy societies. Wyckham-Smith, weary as he was, made an effort to lift the mood. ‘Y’know Gone, it could’ve been worse. My cousin, Roderick Colin Stevens, had the initials “R.C.” So he was known throughout his schooldays as Arsie Stevens.’ The Reverend Burton merely nodded.
There was another pause and Wyckham-Smith asked what it was that had decided Gone to make an appointment for the constituency surgery.
‘It’s about my mother. She’s 92 and she’s being evicted from her flat by her new landlord.’
The story came out in dribs and drabs. His mother retired to Blister when Gone Burton was appointed the vicar of St Alkmund’s on Blister’s shambolic Summerleys Estate. She had a comfortable ground-floor flat in one of Blister’s last remaining Georgian terraces. But the whole block had been sold to a hotel chain for conversion to a boutique hotel. Planning permission had already been granted.
Wyckham-Smith knew about the hotel development. The exasperated owner of the Mason’s Arms (where they were currently seated) had been bending his ear about it for the last eighteen months. Sadly for Mrs Burton, it was a done deal.
‘Couldn’t your mother stay with you in the vicarage, Gone?’
‘On the Summerleys Estate?? I’ve had three break-ins in the last nine months. There was a stabbing in the bus queue last week. The only shop that’s not boarded up is the betting shop. My mother’s terrified of the place.’ Gone paused and muttered, ‘So am I.’
‘Well, technically, if the eviction was served, your mother would be classed as homeless and eligible for rented accommodation from the council…’
‘Yes, she’d be offered one of the hard-to-let flats on the Summerleys Estate.’
Wyckham-Smith had canvassed on the Estate during his first election campaign. He had experienced first-hand the discomfort of the genteel, forced by circumstances into proximity with the poor. How had it happened to his country, this apartheid of the poor? He wondered how the Reverend Burton coped on a daily basis – the empty church, the stares of the children, and the sniggers of the teenagers – each morning’s fragile hopes shattered in the dirt and the spittle of each evening.
His constituent seemed to intuit the M.P.s unspoken thought. ‘I have had two great consolations in my life: the power of prayer and the love of my mother. Cleaning the mess in the church porch last week, I found the local paper with your picture on the cover… So I thought, perhaps…’ His voice was cracking. ‘I fear I’m losing my soul-mate. And I fear I’m losing my soul. You’re my last hope… Alwyn?’
* * *
Trudging through the rain to his BMW, afterwards, Wyckham-Smith, reflected back on his schooldays alongside Gone Burton and the others. He remembered the morning school assemblies when he’d thought the words of the hymns they sang were meant for him. ‘Onward Christian soldiers,’ and the rest of them. What was left of the idealism he’d felt when he was elected to Parliament? He paused, squinted up at the louring sky and muttered, ‘I fear I’m losing my soul too.’
The electronic car-lock clicked.