Saturday, 31 July 2010

Annoying Ellen's Birthday Party. May She Rot In Hell.

Gah. It's Annoying Ellen's birthday party tonight. I don't know why I don't just find the courage to tell her that I can't stand her, and then refuse to go. I guess I'm probably afraid of falling out with her because I seem to spend half of my working life trying to stop the suffering caused by neighbour disputes. I don't want to find her kicking the side of our car in, or throwing dog poo over the garden wall.

So, as usual, I keep the peace, and now I'm in a state of total panic as to what to wear to compete with Ellen. Unless I wear a balaclava, this is an entirely unrealistic aim, as Ellen's blindingly high-shine forehead is a testament to what can only be achieved via repeated injections of Botox. I decide that I will just have to rely on finding something flattering to wear.

I feel as if I have hit the jackpot when Max spots me posing in front of the mirror in a dress that could be described as body-con - had it not been from the early 80s, before that phrase was even thought of.

"You still have a great body for a woman of your age," he says.

Wow. Wow! Did my husband really just say that? I am lost in transports of joy for all of five minutes, until I realise that he was being rather specific. Why didn't he just say, "You look great for a woman of your age?" Or even, "You look great?" I'll tell you why. Because my body might look good, but my face doesn't. Aargh. I need Botox, right now. Maybe if I put a bag over my head and blunder around the house wearing that, Max might actually fancy me enough to consider having sex with me more than twice a year.

So I am already feeling very low-spirited by the time we walk round to Ellen's, with Connie in tow. I have decided to take her with us, in the hope that she can poach one of Ellen's toyboys to fill the less than yawning gap left by Russ's departure. It doesn't really help. Connie thinks all the toyboys present look dead from the neck up, and insists on staying close to me instead. I almost mention that Russ was hardly a rocket scientist, but am distracted by trying to see what Max is up to.

Connie sticking to me like an Elastoplast has freed him to wander off unsupervised, which is never a good thing. He still hasn't accepted that he cannot keep up with Ellen and her friends' drinking habits. It doesn't matter how many times I tell him not to even bother trying - he always ignores that the reason that they can each drink a whole case of beer is because of the vast quantities of coke they are shoving up their noses. I'm sure Max has already had about six beers and a whole bottle of wine, and he's found a second bottle that he's carrying around with him. This is not going to end well.

I seem to be the only married woman Ellen knows. All the others here are divorced. They are highly-vocal about their sex-starved status - huh! - and are all wearing very shiny tops to match their shiny foreheads. What is it with women of our age? They seem to have a uniform for parties, which basically involves wearing jeans, paired with strappy tops which reveal too much low-slung cleavage. I bet all that bloody beaded decoration was stitched on by starving children in sweatshops. I feel like a visitor from another planet in my little black dress, and my alienation is not helped by the fact that, every time I spot Max, one or other of the shiny women is staring into his eyes, and giving a very good impression of hanging onto his every word.

Connie and I end up sitting in the garden for most of the evening - where I smoke fit to bust, and Connie nags me about my filthy habit. That's when she's not going on about her amazement at the behaviour of some of Ellen's friends - who turn out to be teachers at Josh's school. No wonder Josh is like he is. Then one of the toyboys suggests a game of poker and, after checking that we're not talking about strip poker, I persuade Connie that we should both join in. I am bored enough to play snap by then, so poker seems a much better option. I suddenly realise that Max is seated at the other end of the long table, next to Ellen. She has obviously just been upstairs for another snort, and is displaying an irritating amount of energy. I do hope she doesn't supply coke to her students. Or Josh, for that matter.

Unfortunately, Max is not displaying anything other than the fact that he is totally obliterated by now. I decide make him a coffee, but get a mouthful of abuse when I take it over to him, so I retire back to my place at the other end of the table, where I then have the dubious pleasure of watching my husband gradually slipping sideways on his chair. I'm just considering whether to ride to his rescue, when I realise that he is slipping towards Ellen, whilst wearing a beatific smile. As if in slow-motion, he moves in towards her neck, upon which he plants a long, slow kiss. Suddenly, the room falls quiet, and I feel as if I have been paralysed.

"What the hell are you doing, Dad?" Connie breaks the spell, thank God.

She stands and goes to pull Max off his chair, pushing past Ellen, who just sits there giggling. I am so angry and humiliated that I can't move, until Connie gestures at me to help her. Even with our combined efforts, we still can't get Max to his feet, so we have to draft in help - in the shape of two of the toyboys, who hoist Max up, and then half-carry, half-drag him back to our house. Connie walks behind, carrying Max's jacket, while I storm ahead wielding my keys as if they were a weapon.

In the hallway, Max shakes off the toyboys and lurches into the living room, laughing like a lunatic. Connie throws a blanket over him and then looks at me in disbelief. I have no words, which is most unlike me. As soon as Connie's gone to bed, I am going to email Johnny and say that I've changed my mind. Marriott County Hall, here I come. As soon as bloody possible.

Welfare Reform Proposals

In the light of so many comments about Housing Benefit and Welfare Reform, here's the link to the WR proposals.

Friday, 30 July 2010

A Depressing Tale of the Shambles that is Housing Benefit.

Today's surgery seems to be all about Housing Benefit. The whole system is a shambles. For every Somali family living in million-pound luxury in the West End, there are God knows how many other people struggling to keep even the most modest roof over their heads.

Today we have two such enquiries. The first is from Mr & Mrs Farrow, a nice couple in their late fifties. Mrs Farrow is chronically sick and can't work, and Mr Farrow recently got made redundant. They have been forced to claim Housing Benefit for their two-bedroomed council bungalow. So what, you might say - their housing costs are being covered, aren't they? Well, yes, except that the Farrow children are grown up and have moved away. So the Council have decided that they are under-occupying their house, and will only pay a proportion of their rent as Housing Benefit.

Mr & Mrs Farrow have no income with which to make up the shortfall and with her health problems and his age and lack of IT skills, I can't see this being resolved by either of them finding employment any time soon. They are terrified that they will fall into arrears with their rent, and end up being evicted. They've been told that they could always seek an exchange to a one-bedroomed house - but they haven't got the money to pay removal expenses, even if they could find someone to swap with.

Not only that, but they've already had to bail out one of their sons by allowing him to move back home on more than one occasion, and this wouldn't even have been posible had they not had the other bedroom. There seems to be no option but for them to try to "find" the additional rent from Mr Farrow's Jobseeeker's Allowance. The Boss agrees to write to the Council and beg them to use their discretion, but I'm not optimistic about the result.

The business about the Farrow's son is thrown into sharp relief later on in surgery, when Gemma McKeown comes in to see The Boss. It's unusual for someone as young as Gemma to even visit their MP - she's only twenty-three, but has been self-supporting for some five years after a breakdown in relations with her family. She's also recently lost her job, and it looks as if she will soon be homeless too.

I am shocked to hear that young people under the age of 25 are only entitled to approximately 50% of the Housing Benefit payable to people over that age. How stupid is that? Their landlords don't charge them less just because they are younger. The amount of Housing Benefit Gemma receives isn't even enough to cover the cost of her room in a shared house in one of Northwick's grottiest areas, and homelessness is a very real threat if something isn't done. She doesn't have parents like Mr & Mrs Farrow who will take her in.

Her chances of employment don't seem much better than the Farrows' either, as the only jobs she's been qualified to apply for so far have all been on contracts which guarantee only between zero and four hours a week. Nothing like enough hours to reassure her that she will be able to earn enough to pay her rent, even if she succeeds in getting one of the jobs. God knows what we can do to help her, but I'm going to try bloody hard to think of something.

My head hurts by the end of surgery, and even Andrew is uncharacteristically quiet. I think it's dawned on him that he can't blame this Housing Benefit fiasco on the coalition, and he was even sensitive enough  - for once - to avoid adding to the constituents' misery by scare-mongering as to what the ConDems' proposed changes to Housing Benefit might do to make matters worse.

All I can think of is that Connie and Josh could find themselves in Gemma's situation, if Max and I were ever to split up, and become unable to provide a roof over their heads in an emergency. I am going to turn Johnny down. Any transient pleasure he might be able to provide would be as nothing compared to how shitty I would feel if I contributed to making my children homeless. I might be capable of low cunning in the face of the long Recess, but I am fundamentally a good person. At least, I hope I am. Who knows - I might even still be a socialist at heart?

Thursday, 29 July 2010

An Asperger's Eye View of Flexi-Time.

Connie's done it again. I've been wondering what she was up to - she seems to have been going into work later and later each day, but coming home earlier. This evening, I ask her what she's playing at.

"What d'you mean, what am I playing at?"

"Going into work so late, and coming home so early," I say. "Doesn't your boss mind that you're working so few hours?"

"No," says Connie, looking at me as if I am mad. "Why should he?"

"Well," I say. "You are contracted for thirty-seven hours a week, and you can't be working more than twenty-eight -"

"Yeah, I know, stupid!" says Connie. "But I'm on flexi-time, aren't I?"

It turns out that Connie hasn't quite grasped the concept of flexible hours. She thinks that it means that you work as many hours as you like, and that that's okay - as long as you're honest about filling in your timesheet so you're not being overpaid. The fact that her contract is for a specified number of hours a week seems to have bypassed her synapses. I explain. Slowly.

"Con, flexi-time doesn't mean you work as many hours as you like. It means you work thirty-seven hours, but at times to suit you!"

"Oh," says Connie.

Max nearly wets himself when I tell him about it. Connie has a brain the size of a planet, but she must be the most literal person in the world. Josh just rolls his eyes and says,

"I always knew she was stupid as well as fugly."

"What does fugly mean?" says Max. He never learns.

"F*cking ugly," says Josh, the words dripping with sibling rivalry.

I wish I was on flexi-time. In fact, I wish it was so flexible that it didn't involve any hours at all per week.  Then I recall how miserable Jen sounded, and feel guilty about wishing for unemployment. But I could really use a holiday. Trouble is, I've used up nearly all my leave, thanks to The Boss. While he didn't exactly insist that I take almost all my leave for this year during the election campaign, he did suggest I might want to consider taking it at that particular time, and then "volunteering" to help out.

There was no doubting the meaningful way in which he said that he was "always grateful" for a show of support. If he hadn't have made enemies of almost all the Party activists, I'd have ignored him - but his approved campaign team ended up being made up of a core group comprising only me, Greg, and Trish, Andrew's wife - who didn't seem entirely committed to the effort herself. What was that famous quote? Behind every successful man stands an incredulous woman. And a couple of coerced members of staff.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Creative Thinking in the Face of an Emergency.

It's that hellish time of year again - Parliamentary Recess, when MPs return to their constituencies, and wander around like lost souls, irritating the hell out of constituency staff and making work for its own sake. The Boss is worse than most. He thinks he's so indispensable that he cannot take even a single day off, and that we need him to open the mail and answer the phones, despite the fact that these things get done every day whilst he's at Westminster - as if by magic.

I wouldn't mind so much if he'd just go and sit in a coffee bar somewhere and take his laptop with him, but he says he likes to be "in the thick of it", and takes over my desk and my computer instead. Then he decides that I need him to dictate incoherent replies to all the letters he has already opened, or at least, those that he hasn't already misplaced.

This means that I am forced to waste time writing down notes that I have absolutely no intention of making any reference to in the replies that I will eventually write, once he's not looking. To make matters even worse, he seems compulsively driven to start swearing whenever I am on the phone to a constituent - which is really embarrassing. I have to keep explaining it away by pretending that he's the boiler repair man, and has no sense of decorum.

The Boss has also adopted his usual Recess practice of sneaking into the office early so that, by the time Greg and I arrive, he's already rifled through our desk drawers, and the fridge. The most outrageous aspect of this - at least as far as Greg's concerned - is that Andrew has helped himself to Greg's entire secret stash of Twixes, and has used up all the milk.

Greg gestures for me to join him in the corridor for an emergency meeting.

"God almighty, haven't you arranged anything for him to do?" he says.

"I tried," I say, "But bloody Carlotta wouldn't play ball. She even cleared space in his diary so he could spend more time in the office with us."

"Bloody woman. Wasn't winning the sodding World Cup enough for her?"

Greg is pacing up and down the corridor like a caged animal, and I am desperate for a cigarette. Already.

"Well, you've got to do something. I can't stand this. I may have to kill him if you don't get rid of him soon." Greg almost looks capable of murder. He has an unhealthy dependency on chocolate.

Far be it from me to boast, but I do have an extraordinary ability to think creatively in an emergency.

"Go and find yesterday's local paper, then search through it for mentions of local organisations that are complaining about something, like lack of funding," I say.

"And?" Greg looks unimpressed.

"Then phone them up, and say The Boss has read about their plight, and is very interested in the valuable work they are doing in his constituency.


"Say that he would very much like to come and see it for himself, and could he pop over today?"

"Brilliant!" says Greg, and sneaks off into the Party office to use their phone for his vital secret mission.

Half an hour later, he comes back, gives me the thumbs up, and says,

"Andrew, aren't you supposed to be at your meeting now?"

"What meeting?" Andrew finishes my sandwich in one very over-ambitious mouthful.

"The Phoenix Project in Easemount," says Greg. "Molly, didn't you tell him?"

"God, no. I forgot. Greg has the details, Andrew. Shall I call you a taxi?"

"No, I can drive," he says. "Just put their number into my mobile in case I get lost."

Whether The Boss can drive is a moot point, but the fact that he has the option must mean that he has finally talked Trish into letting him have the car keys back. (She is a very creative individual herself. You probably have to be to survive being married to Andrew.) A few weeks ago, she developed a well-founded fear that Andrew was going to get caught drink-driving and, mindful of the negative Press coverage that would ensue, she decided to take direct action.

While he was engaged in a medicinal drinking session after a particularly hostile GC*, she sneaked into the car park, and drove his car away. She texted me to tell me what she'd done, but I didn't tell him as I wanted to see what would happen when he went to drive home after the meeting. I expected him to come roaring back into the bar, shouting that his car had been stolen. But he didn't.

It turned out that he just looked around the car park for a bit, then gave up and took a taxi home. He obviously assumed that he was just too drunk to recall where he'd left the car, and that he'd remember once he sobered up. The whole story came out the next morning when, staggering downstairs on a quest for coffee and ibuprofen, he spotted the car parked in the driveway of his house. At that moment, he really didn't have a leg to stand on when Trish refused to give him the keys back. God knows how he's persuaded her to reinstate his driving privileges now.

So, due to my low cunning, we are blissfully Andrew-free for the next few hours, which means that I can finally get round to writing proper replies to today's letters, and Greg can spend his time arranging visits to other local organisations. By the end of the afternoon,The Boss is booked up for a good chunk of the rest of this week, and half of the next one too - thank God.

Just before I leave the office, Mrs Cowan phones to apologise that her husband hasn't yet got round to signing his Data Protection form. She says she'll make sure he does it tonight, and that she'll drop it off to me tomorrow morning. Then she bursts into tears, and says that they are now being chased for mortgage arrears, as it appears that their bank hasn't even been honouring those payments.

Honestly, those bankers are such shits.  Not that I'm in any position to criticise - spending all my time fretting about not being able to afford a hotel room for a dirty weekend. I need a slap.

*GC - General Committee meeting, as usual.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Questions of Identity, and Other Thorny Issues.

God, people really aren't careful enough about protecting their identities. Today I get a visit from Mrs Cowan, who is completely distraught, the poor woman. She has no access to money, can't pay her mortgage, and her bank are doing nothing to help. Her husband has been a victim of identity fraud but, instead of closing down their joint account and letting the couple start afresh, Mrs Cowan says that the bank are simply refusing to help at all, and are only interested in making charges for the unauthorised borrowing. This really fires me up - especially having spent the last three days being lectured about capitalism. Bloody banks. I am ready to fight to the death over this case.

Mrs Cowan signs the Data Protection forms, and authorises me to apply for a credit report on her behalf. She takes another set of forms home for her husband to sign, so that I can then obtain a copy of his credit report too. In the meantime, I write a terse note to the bank, advising them that The Boss has been asked to take up the case, and that he would appreciate a full explanation as to why it is that nothing appears to be being done to help Mr & Mrs Cowan. I enclose a copy of Mrs C's Data Protection form, and say that I will fax Mr C's through, as soon as he has signed and returned it to me.

I phone Mum, Connie and Josh, and lecture them all on the necessity to shred all their old letters and bank statements. I don't think they'll take any notice, but I for one am going to spend tonight shredding everything in sight. I also delete all Johnny's emails, except for today's.

I am still agitated about his suggestion that we spend a night together at the Marriott County Hall. How could I have forgotten how hideous last weekend was? After the bill for that, I can't afford to stay in a bloody Premier Inn, let alone in a five star hotel at over £300 a night. And even if I could, how would I explain the entry on the bank statement to Max? Maybe only having a joint account wasn't such a good idea - though I've always thought that a commitment to that degree of trust is a necessary part of marriage.

All our divorced friends insisted on keeping their own bank accounts throughout their marriages - as an insurance policy, I suppose. I've always taken the view that the opposite is the case, i.e. that a joint bank account is the most effective way to insure your marriage. Now I suppose I am actually proving my point, much to my frustration. Being right all the time isn't all it's cracked up to be.

I email Johnny, and say that I'd love to meet up with him, but that I just can't get away with it, as there is no way to hide the bill from Max. I can only assume that Johnny will have no such difficulty with his spouse - even if he hasn't killed her off, though I don't say this to him. Having a job as an International Director of a Global Oil Company, and being required to travel all the time, seems to offer the chance to shag your way round the world on expenses, as far as I can see. Though Johnny has never cheated on his wife before. Or so he says.

He emails me straight back and says,

"For God's sake, woman - it's my treat! Yes or no?"

Christ. This is even worse. Does he intend to book one room, or two? And even if he books two, what if he's repulsive in the flesh? (I know there must have been something about him which persuaded me to to get up to what we did behind the Science block, but I'd probably had one too many Babychams at the time.) If he's paying all that money for my room, all because he wants to get me into bed, how easy is it going to be to say, "Thanks, but no thanks," if I can't go through with it?

The answer is obvious. It's going to be impossible, and I shall end up effectively acting like a prostitute. Only worse, because I will be cheating on my husband, and encouraging Johnny to cheat on his wife as well. God knows what Dinah would say. She's quite rude enough on the subject of Thai brides. I need to go home and have a quiet lie-down on the sofa. Sod the shredding.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Another Attempt To Convert Me To Capitalism.

The day starts off okay, as at least The Boss has gone back to London. Then I get a call from the Jobcentre, saying that we may start getting complaints about access to their building later today, as they have been temporarily forced to close it to the public. Apparently Mr Meeurghn has kicked off again, and sent them into total lock-down mode. Something to do with him being turned down for a payment from the Social Fund. I wish someone would just pay for forged documents to get him back into his own country - especially now that I know that not even the combined might of the Jobcentre's security staff can manage him. Greg needs to get down the gym and bulk himself up asap - before Mr M turns up here to complain about being excluded from the Jobcentre.

Talking of the gym, I wish I could afford to join one. Johnny is pushing for a meeting in London during his next trip back to the UK. He suggests we meet here, for Godsake, on the basis that sipping cocktails in the London Marriott will serve as a form of therapy for me. He argues that it will enable me to contemplate the House of Commons at close quarters, while pretending that I am not just a poor relation from the constituencies, but instead someone at the heart of where the action is. In case this isn't enough to convince me, he says that the experience will also illustrate that capitalism is better than socialism by reminding me of the building's previous and less glamorous incarnation as County Hall. (Has he been talking to David?)

I am thrilled by the idea, despite its supposedly educational purpose, until I recall that Johnny does have a wife. I am turning into a bloody hypocrite, ranting about the crazed, sexual attention-seeking of single women like Annoying Ellen and their penchant for inappropriate flirting with married men - or with Max, anyway. And all the time, here I am doing the same thing with someone else's husband! I'm turning into that Boden-wearing, horse-faced woman from the other night. I can't look at myself in the mirror when I next go to the loo.

I blame Johnny, as I suddenly realise that he hasn't actually mentioned his wife for weeks. I'd forgotten all about her. I re-read his latest email, and discover that he has somehow managed to describe a night at the opera, the trip there and back in his chauffered car, and a meal afterwards - all without saying "we" once. She has ceased to exist - written out of his life without a trace. This starts me fretting about whether he really could be a serial killer. His glasses don't have the double bar, but they are metal-framed, after all....

I sit and stare at his photo. The resemblance to Vladimir Putin is unnerving, apart from the fact that Vlad doesn't wear glasses. Am I being doubly hypocrital? As if it's not bad enough to be considering having an affair with a married man, am I also turned on by power? I've always assumed that I am impervious to it, and mocked those who aren't - but then it's a bit of a stretch to think that The Boss actually has any power anyway.

I am going to have to think about this. Very carefully. Mind you, if Johnny gets sent to the States in return for Tony Hayward being sent to Russia, looking like Putin will probably cease to be advantageous, and he'll have to start trying to look like Obama instead. (This might be too challenging, even for a man of Johnny's undoubted abilities.)

In the evening, I finally get an email from Dad. From a new Hotmail account, and sent from Thailand. It's astonishing how adept he has become at using a computer in such a short time - though Dinah ascribes this purely to his having spent hours each day cruising porn sites. He certainly doesn't spend hours communicating with his daughters. The email simply contains one word: "Hot." I really hope this is referring to the weather, and not to any of his Thai Facebook "friends."

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A Seat At The Best Table.

Things don't get any better this morning. Max stubs his toe while trying to get past Josh in the queue for the bathroom, and almost faints. I think he may have broken it, but there's no time to do anything about it as we're almost late for the vow ceremony as it is. Josh is sulking because he has to wear a suit, and Connie has refused to wear anything formal, and is dressed as if for a night out in her university's LCR.*

The ceremony passes off okay - unsurprisingly, as it's only five years since the original, so David and Susie are hardly out of practice. It's actually quite moving, and I find myself wondering whether something similar would work for Max and I. He's looking rather attractive today - and he really does have a firmer chin than most of the men present. I probably would marry him again. If he asked.

As usual, nothing good lasts, though. The "wedding breakfast" is a farce. When we find our names on the seating plan outside the function room, we discover we might as well have been seated in Siberia. We are quite obviously on the Payback table. On my right is the headmaster of David's old school - the one who expelled David on the grounds that he "saw every school rule as a deliberate infringement of his personal liberty." On Max's left is the man who sacked David from his first job. The numbers are made up by various ex-wives and husbands of those more successful individuals who are seated next to the top table, along with their new trophy partners.

And how could I forget to mention the photographer? God knows where David and Susie found him, but they've dumped him on our table too. He holds forth  - throughout the entire meal - about his last job taking pictures of a greyhound racing stadium. This is about as interesting as you would imagine. On the odd occasion that he pauses for breath, he pokes at each course as if he has never seen food before, and doesn't trust it. Then he pounces and suddenly hurls a vast quantity of it into his mouth, which he kindly leaves open while he chews. He eats everything - including a whole load of mussels which have remained closed, but which he determinedly prises open. I can't be bothered to advise him not to, as I think he'd probably stab his fork into my hand and accuse me of trying to shaft him.

By the time the band arrive for the evening's entertainment, the photographer is nowhere to be seen. As Max and I approach to say our goodbyes, David is shouting into his mobile phone.

"What d'you mean you think you've got food poisoning? You ate the same as everyone else!" He pauses and then says, "Well, if I don't have a record of this evening, you'll be hearing from my solicitor."

"Problems?" I ask, trying to resist giving way to schadenfreude.

"Muppet photographer says he's got food poisoning. Reckons he can't stop throwing up. So now I've got to find someone else to take pictures of the dancing. I'm not flying in a ten-piece band from Cuba to end up with no bloody record of it." David's eyes are scanning the room as he speaks. Then he spots Max's digital camera.

"Max, my old mate -"

"Sorry, David - can't." Max hides his pleasure well. "We've just come to say goodbye. Got to head back now."

'Oh, that's right. Our Molly can't have a day off from saving the world from capitalists."

I smile sweetly, and say,

"Don't worry. I'm sure one of your entrepreneurial mates can rig you up a pinhole camera."

David laughs, so I forgive him. As usual. He is my oldest friend, after all - though I bet I'd have been much further up the bloody table hierarchy if I'd married Johnny. In fact, Johnny probably wouldn't be seen dead in the company of someone as poor as David. But Johnny's not here, and anyway, I'm really looking forward to getting home, snuggling up to Max on the couch, and listening to him snore. I'm not cut out for a glittering social life. My best underwear is from Primark, after all.

*LCR - Lower Common Room.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Unexpected Generosity, and its Unfortunate Consequences.

At the risk of sounding even more like Victor Meldrew than I usually do, I don't believe it! The perfect end to a perfect day, I don't think. Honestly, why do the rich have all the luck?

I left it far too late to pack last night, so am tired and grumpy when I wake up after only a few hours' sleep. If Max and I didn't have to spend all our money on this stupid hotel room for David and Susie's renewal of their wedding vows, we could have had a bloody mini-break or something, and that might have renewed our relationship. We couldn't even afford to book a room with breakfast thrown in, and Connie and Josh are furious that they will have to share our family room. I'm not any keener on the idea than they are. Bang goes any chance of marital relations. No pun intended.

The journey to the Midlands is bloody awful too. Gone are the days when we could distract the kids with nursery rhyme tapes, or by playing I-Spy. No, now we have to listen to Josh's horrendous Screamo music, in an attempt to drown out the constant bickering between him and Connie. When we finally drive up to the restored priory, it looks like an episode of Footballer's Wives on the forecourt, and a press pack is crowded round a couple whose weekly dentistry bill is probably more than my yearly salary. Josh informs me that the groom plays for a premiership team, and that his new bride is a "Z-list celebrity."

I'm feeling very Z-list myself, and am so humiliated when we have to sneak through the crowd, while trying to hide the Tescos carrier bag containing our breakfast supplies.

"You could've at least gone to Waitrose," I say to Max, but he's too busy gawking at an Aston Martin that has just pulled up.

Things don't improve when we get to our room. I've just finished stashing the milk and orange juice in the mini-bar, and hiding the Tupperware container of cereal at the back of the wardrobe, when David phones from his room.

"I've booked a table for 8:00pm in the restaurant downstairs," he says. "We're all meeting there, as everyone should have arrived by then."

Oh God. I gesture frantically at Max, who is staring out of the window at the Aston Martin and doesn't notice.

"Um, David - can I call you back in a minute?" I say. "I've just got out of the shower."

Max, to his credit, realises the seriousness of the situation immediately, once I explain. He's uncharacteristically decisive.

"Phone him back and tell him Connie and Josh are fussy eaters," he says. "Say we've promised them a takeaway and we'll join everyone for drinks after they've finished their meal."

So at 7:30pm, we are still hunting for a takeaway in an unknown town miles from the rural idyll of the priory. In fact, we'd still be searching now, if it wasn't for one of Josh's more useful iPhone apps which finds us the nearest fish and chip shop. We gobble down pale, sweaty chips - with the added luxury of fishcakes for the kids - and then race back to the hotel, where Max and I try to make Primark look convincingly like Prada. I doubt it works, plus I'm sure I still smell of vinegar when we finally make it downstairs and into the restaurant.

All the other guests are already well-oiled. They've wiped out four courses and are still eating pudding. There are empty wine bottles everywhere, and I have a sudden panic that, at the end of the evening, Max and I will get caught up in that nightmare scenario where the richest person in the room - who has inevitably eaten and drunk the most - decides it would be a good idea to "split the bill," and won't remember that we haven't even eaten anything.

Max seems to be enjoying himself despite this, and is attracting rather too much attention from the wife of David's business partner. She looks rather like a horse clad in Boden. Admittedly, her husband is a chinless wonder, and I'd turn him down despite his millions, but I still think she's going too far when she tries to sit on Max's lap. Maybe she thinks he's a "bit of rough." Not rough enough, in my opinion, as he doesn't throw her off, but just puts up with it, looking bemused but also a bit flattered.

I get my own back by paying close attention to a gorgeous man on my left, who resembles the Milk Tray Man, but with the benefit of conversational skills. I have no idea what he does for a living beyond "working in the City," but I must be holding my end up pretty well as, during a lull in the general conversation, he says in a rather carrying voice,

"God, Molly. You are so articulate. What d'you do for a living?"

Quick as a flash, David's in there.

"She one of those socialists, Miles. Never grew out of it. Takes pride in abject failure."

I will not rise to it. I will not. Who needs enemies with friends like David? Has he forgotten that we used to share a flat, back in the days when he was also broke?

"Aren't you going to call me a fascist, Mol, and defend what you believe in?" Honestly, he never gives up.

"After the week I've had, I have no idea what I believe in," I say, but luckily he's asking for the bill and isn't listening to me. I breathe a sigh of relief, but as usual, nothing good lasts for long.

David delivers the coup de grace. As all the rich kids start scrabbling for their platinum cards, he says,

"Don't worry, this one's on me, guys."

I cannot believe it. I can't. David has never picked up a tab in a restaurant in all the years I've known him - and my family ate chips in the car because we couldn't afford to join them all for dinner! I didn't even get a bloody fishcake. David is right: my life really is a walking bloody disaster.

Max just keeps repeating, "This one's on me, guys," all the way back to our room. The only good thing is that Connie and Josh seem to have bonded over the general uselessness of their parents, and so there is no bickering as we all get ready for bed - but I think I'd feel better if there was. Sometimes silence can be far louder than words.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Burkas, Crash Helmets, Hoodies & Other Blurry Issues.

God, I get more confused with each day that passes. I used to be so full of certainty - about pretty much everything, but especially political ideology. Now I'm like a rabbit in the headlights. Today's surgery makes things even worse. No wonder The Boss is losing the plot.

We haven't had much comment from constituents on Philip Hollobone MP's recent attempt to ban the burka, or the niqab. Until now. I must admit I hadn't thought much about it myself, my knee-jerk reaction being that of course we can't ban it, and that it seems a bit arrogant to assume that all women who wear it are doing so under pressure from men. But then along comes Mrs Jewson.

"I want to talk about this burka thing," she says.

"Ah," says The Boss. His catchphrase.

"Well, I'm getting a bit fed up with the double standards in this country. My son wears a hoodie, like all the youngsters, and he got made to take it off in the Mall yesterday. By the security guards."

"I see," says The Boss. He looks sideways at me. I keep my head down, and write "hoodie" ten times on my notes.

"Well, if he can't wear a hoodie, why can these women wear bloody burkas, or whatever those things are called that cover their whole faces?"

"Well, I think that's rather different," says The Boss.

"Why is it different?" Mrs Jewson doesn't wait for a reply. She's on a roll now. "Do you know why my son likes to keep his hood up?"

"No-o." Andrew's looking a bit twitchy. I'm still leaving him to it. Serves him right for ignoring Joan again this morning.

"He's deaf! And if he doesn't keep his hood up, then all the young 'uns take the piss out of his hearing aid."

Andrew's given up saying anything. He just looks expectantly at Mrs Jewson, as do I. It's obvious she hasn't finished yet.

"So what I want to know is - say he got a teacher who wanted to wear one of these things, and he couldn't lipread her because he couldn't see her face, whose rights would the bloody Government decide were the most important then?"

I have no idea of the answer to this question. Neither does The Boss. He looks optimistically at me, but in the absence of any response, is left with no option but to say,

"I will be happy to take this up on your behalf. Molly will let you know when we receive a reply."

He even remembers that thing about standing up and walking to the door, to give Mrs J the message that her time is up. She complies but, as she's going out of the door, she has one last rejoinder:

"And don't even get me started on that woman who worked for BA who had to take her cross off. Or all that nonsense about Fiona Bruce's cross on the news."

Of course, after Mrs Jewson's gone, Andrew's furious with me. Again.

"You are less and less bloody help with every week that passes," he says.

"Well, I don't know all the answers anymore," I say. "Same as you."

He obviously doesn't agree, as he storms off, leaving the security doors open. I am gathering up the papers, when I am suddenly confronted by a man wearing a crash helmet. He leans aggressively across the table, and nearly gives me a heart attack. A rush of something hot travels up my body, which I don't think is a hot flush - though who can tell. I have got them to look forward to at some point, after all.

After what seems like an hour, the man finally speaks.

"Getting bloody sick of waiting for my wife's operation," he says. "What the hell are you lot doing about it?"

Thank God. It's only Mr Beales. I am torn between relief and fury.

"You know full well that the hospital won't operate until she's lost that eight stone," I say. "Has she?"

"Well, how's she supposed to do that, when she can't exercise until her bloody hip's fixed?" he says.

I have no more patience this week.

"By eating less, I presume."

While Mr Beales' mouth is still hanging open in astonishment at my uncharacteristically forthright response, I add:

"And I would appreciate it if you would never - ever - walk into this building again with your crash helmet still on. It's a security risk."

It's only when I get back to my desk that I realise the implications of this. For God's sake, how is anyone ever supposed to know where they stand on anything? Every bit of the warm glow left over from Johnny's "massage" last night has dissipated. I spend the rest of the afternoon trying to work out exactly how many ministerial departments I will have to write to in order to get a proper answer to Mrs Jewson's enquiry. I may even mention the crash helmet. It'd be nice if someone could restore my sense of certainty. Unless Johnny really means it when he offers to "take me away from all this."

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Animal Magic & The Unseen Postcode Lottery: An Impression of a Mad Constituent.

Thank God today is fairly quiet. The usual stuff about dog poo, violence on television and rejected lovers wanting their exes reported for tax or benefit fraud. The highlight is Miss Emms, who writes in to say this:

Dear Mr Sinclair,
I am writing to you to complain about my irresponsible and inconsiderate neighbours, who live in the flat beneath mine. They are always smoking cannabis, and the smoke seeps into my flat and is causing serious problems. I have eight guinea pigs, and exposure to this drug is affecting them psychologically. I don't know where else to turn, as my Housing Officer doesn't seem to be taking any notice, and the RSPCA aren't interested either.
Can you please do something to help my poor, defenceless animals?
Yours hopefully,
Janice Emms (Miss)

Greg spends an inordinate amount of time trying to emulate a psychotic guinea pig, and then tries to persuade me to write back and ask Miss Emms for further details. I don't want to encourage the poor woman, but he says he has decided to re-train as a guinea pig whisperer if The Boss ever sacks him, or fails to get re-elected next time around. I hand him Miss Emms' letter and tell him to do whatever he thinks best.

Apart from that, there are quite a few calls about Nick Clegg's series of ill-advised comments at PMQs* yesterday, including one person who wants to get PMQs repeated, this time "with someone who is authorised to speak on behalf of the Government at the dispatch box." No-one is more pleased about the Deputy PM's cock-ups than The Boss, who prefaces every call he makes to us today with "I'm speaking in a personal capacity." This quickly ceases to be amusing, and eventually I give up bothering to even pretend to be laughing. Not that that ever bothers him. He's just like Dad.

In the afternoon, Jen phones. It's the first time I've spoken to her in weeks, as she's been busy winding up*  her MP's office, as he lost his seat at the General Election. She sounds pretty low, and says that when she went to sign on for the first time, she was confronted by one of her office's usual suspects as soon as she walked into the Jobcentre. He was working there - as a security guard, for God's sake. She says he was one of their most violent and unpredictable constituents.

Jen's MP was replaced by a young guy with no experience of anything much, and she's already absolutely sick to death of receiving letters from constituents whose cases she used to handle, saying that they wrote to their new MP months ago and haven't had anything other than a holding reply since. It turns out that he hasn't even interviewed any prospective staff for his constituency office yet, and so the casework has just been piling up since May. Some of the cases are really urgent too - with pressing deadlines - and Jen says she can't help wondering if constituents would have been half so keen to elect a fresh face if they'd realised that this might mean that they had no effective advocate for the next few months. Meanwhile, there's nothing she can to do to help the people who'd come to depend on her and her old boss.

This starts me thinking about what the public expect from their MPs. It seems to me that the quality and type of service that constituents get is far more varied than they probably realise. If you went to any other agency operating in the public sector, you could at least be fairly sure that they they were all required to aim to deliver a broadly similar service - but, in the case of MPs, there really is a postcode lottery in operation. I've dealt with loads of different constituency offices over the years, whenever I've had to hand over or take up a case of a constituent who has moved area, and I've met a large number of staff at training courses too. I'm always amazed by the wide variations, both in the calibre of MPs' staff, and in what their MPs expect of them.

Some MPs' offices still seem to be staffed by their spouses, or other family members, or even their election agents - regardless of whether any of them have the necessary skills and experience to be effective as caseworkers. Other MPs provide as many highly-qualified staff as their staffing budget will allow.

There are the MPs who don't even bother to have a constituency office, but instead expect their constituents to phone them long-distance whenever they wish to raise an issue. Others won't even stoop to having a residence in their constituencies. And then there are those "caseworkers" who aren't anything of the sort, but are instead activists, illicitly being paid by the unwitting taxpayer to do party political work under cover of a non-political job title.

Even when an MP agrees to take up a constituent's case, the variations continue. How hard your MP fights on your behalf isn't only down to whether your case is perceived as valid or bonkers, but is also affected by what each MP has decided is an appropriate level of service to provide to his or her constituents. For example, if you live in X, you'll receive a copy of any letter your MP has written on your behalf, so that you can check what has been said about you and your case, and correct any errors. If you live in Y, you'll just be told that your MP has "raised the matter on your behalf." You'll have no idea whether he summarised your case accurately, or whether he even indicated that it was urgent.

Then, when the reply eventually arrives from the ministerial department, or the relevant agency, it's often quite dismissive in the first instance. If you live in Y, you'll probably just get sent a copy with a compliment slip, and that'll be the end of your MP's caseworker's efforts on your behalf. If you live in X, though, your caseworker will have taken the time to study the details of your case at the outset, will have decided what is achievable and will immediately recognise an unsatisfactory response. He or she will continue to argue your case for as long as it takes to reach a successful outcome. I am one of the X types - not that you'd know it from my pay packet - and so is Greg, even though he can be such a f*ckwit. I am quite sure that our X status has something to do with The Boss' otherwise mysterious ability to keep bucking electoral predictions and getting re-elected.

As if all that inconsistency isn't quite bad enough, there is no set frequency for surgeries, no standard time for dealing with constituents' enquiries, and the chaos in some offices has to be seen to be believed. One MP's office manager told me recently - and with apparent pride - that her office deals with all correspondence in "strict date order." She seemed to think this was praiseworthy in its egalitarian idealism, and had no idea how to respond when I asked her how on earth this affected constituents whose problems were urgent or subject to deadlines. God knows how often the worst is already happening to some constituents while she and her staff are still sorting out dog poo and psychologically-damaged guinea pigs for the others. I have a recurring vision of letters bearing the HOC* crest dropping onto the doormats of empty houses whose occupants have been deported, evicted or murdered by their dangerous spouses, all because of smug dingbats like her.

I rant about this for so long this afternoon that first Greg says that I have officially turned into a mad constituent, and then he suggests that I contact Working For An MP to suggest that they employ me to tour the country training all the new MPs and their staff. He's joking, but I think it's a pretty good idea - especially if I could go on tour during Recess.

I am so distracted by this very attractive notion that, before I know it, it's time to go home - before I've even replied to Johnny's latest email, which offers a virtual massage amongst other equally-pleasant suggestions. Having just woken up from a drool-inducing snooze on the sofa, I plan to watch Question Time, and then to take him up on his offer - if Max doesn't offer a real-world alternative, of course.

*PMQs - Prime Minister's Questions, as usual - except that this one was taken by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick "Calamity" Clegg.
*HOC - House of Commons, also as usual.
*Winding Up - Period allowed for the business of closing down an MP's office after he or she has failed to be returned at a General Election.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Greg's Helpful Contribution to International Relations

I was too cross about what happened when Greg and I went out last night to write about it at the time, not to mention too tired. I'm still really pissed off with him, though he is looking a bit shamefaced this morning, not to mention very hungover.

I feel surprisingly alert, though, which I can only ascribe to the adrenalin that went pounding through my body while we were being thrown out of the restaurant.

Suffice to say that now we are banned from The Star of India because Greg decided it would be funny to order an "Osama Balti" and a "Semtex Surprise."

God knows how we escaped with our lives. I was so embarrassed - and that's my favourite Indian too. Now I can't ever go there again, thanks to bloody Greg, who spent the rest of last night in a collapsed state on the couch in our living room, demanding to know how "any ordinary, educated, hardworking family" like mine could manage without Imodium in the medicine cabinet.

Luckily, Max was finding Greg funny. I wasn't, which is why I went to bed in disgust. I knew we shouldn't have had all that gin before we arrived at the restaurant.

Greg's being no help at all today, either, even though we're so behind on our work now, that it's going to be a nightmare trying to catch up. I do wish that would acknowledge that, sometimes, delays in responding to constituents are unavoidable. Recording our response times is so horribly unforgiving.

Maybe I'll write to them and suggest that they start taking account of some of the challenges we face before they give us our ratings. After all, I bet even they couldn't write letters while being hosed down in a public place.

Honestly, I can't believe I thought this week was going to be bearable. It was next week I was dreading, when the full horror of Recess will be upon us but, now, joining Mr Ellis in a sky-dive is becoming more and more appealing - if he ever gets round to throwing himself off the multi-storey car park, that is.

Come to think of it, I probably should have suggested that he try a practice run while the bouncy castle was still there to provide a nice soft landing. Which is more than Greg got when the owner of The Star Of India pushed him out of the door last night.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

After This Evening's Celebration of Life - An Update....

The rest of the day is spent trying to find ways to explain to the usual suspects why we couldn't answer the phones yesterday. We can't tell them the truth, because that'd just give them ideas, and I don't ever want to have to go through that again. We just say that there was an "emergency" in the building and try to leave it at that. This works, until late afternoon, when Mr Beales rings back.

"You lot can't keep nothin' from me," he says, apropos of nothing in particular.

"Excuse me?" Now what?

"It's in the paper. 'Terrorist fears spark full-scale evacuation of local office.'"

Does he have to sound quite so smug about it?  Mind you, I am impressed he can read such long words. Then follows the verbal equivalent of a particularly ungraceful fencing match, as I try to side-step Mr Beales' attempts to extract the juicy details. By the time I've got him off the phone, I'm as keen to get drunk as Greg is. We decide to go straight to the pub from work, and then on to The Star of India.

This proves to be an exceedingly unwise decision, but now it's very late and I'm far too distraught to even write about what's just happened, so it'll have to wait until I'm calmer. We could've sparked an international incident, for f*ck's sake. Thank God that poor waiter has no idea who we work for, or that'd be all over tomorrow's bloody paper.

Fall-Out, Preventative Measures and Unforeseen Hazards.

Bloody hell, I don't even get a lie-in this morning. Am hoping the office will have to stay closed all day so I can lounge around relaxing - as far as it is possible to relax while waiting to hear if you're going to die - but instead I get a call about 9:30am saying I can re-open the office, oh joy. The results are back from Porton Down, and it turns out the powder wasn't harmful to breathe in - though it was potentially explosive. At least we don't have to keep taking the tablets now.

Then Fiona phones to say she's changed her mind about working here since hearing about what happened yesterday, so that's another intern we've managed to lose within their first week. Can't say I blame her for being nervous as, when I see today's mail sitting on my desk, I don't actually want to open it. I consider sticking it all in one of the big grey plastic HOC* envelopes and sending it to the girls in the Westminster office, so that, by the time they send it back to me, it'll at least have passed through the scanners at the House of Commons. But then I realise that this will slow down our turnaround time, and The Boss won't tolerate that. Not for the first time, I wish death and destruction on both him and

So there is nothing for it but to open the bloody post myself. I hold each envelope out in front of me as if it was a bomb, then poke a letter opener into one corner before turning my back and ripping the blade through the top of each one. This achieves the dubious benefit of making me feel better while I'm doing it, but the results then irritate the hell out of me, because I seem to have cut through the top third of every letter in the process. I have to get Greg to stick all of them back together before we can even start to reply to them.

Greg says that he is so traumatised by having had to expose his body to a "bunch of gym-toned civil servants in a public place" that we are going out tonight to get drunk, in order to obliterate the memory. This seems like a good idea. At the time. When will I ever learn?

*HOC - House of Commons, as usual

Monday, 19 July 2010

Not Exactly A Good Start To The Week

Today I have to strip naked in a multi-storey car park. Then I am hosed down by some guy wearing head to toe plastic. For God's sake, this is all getting too much. It all starts before the new intern has even arrived for her first day on the job.

I am opening an envelope when white powder starts flying everywhere. Greg and I just sit and look at each other for what seems like five minutes, then he yells, "Start panicking!" and runs around pointlessly for a bit, while I try to work out who we should call for help. First a police officer turns up, and then the decontamination unit arrives, along with three fire engines and two ambulances. They evacuate everyone, including all those who work in the neighbouring offices. We're going to be even more popular with them than we already were after the Mr Humphries debacle, thanks to this.

All the officials are wearing full decontamination suits and breathing apparatus, and they set up some sort of bouncy castle-type decontamination thing in the car park. Greg and I (as well as the hapless police officer) are ordered to strip and change into white suits like those in CSI. So not a good look. Then we're scrubbed down with Fairy liquid, which does nothing for my new haircut, before being taken to the hospital for check-ups.

After we've seen the doctors, we're discharged, having been prescribed medication to take in case the powder was anthrax. Even the journey home is embarrassing as God knows when we'll get our clothes back. I'm particularly cross that I was wearing my favourite pair of shoes at the time. I have to go home in a plastic suit and a pair of fireman's trainers, which must be a size nine at least.

Meanwhile the office is to stay closed until the exact nature of the powder is established, and the Police are posting officers there overnight. Bloody marvellous. The usual suspects are going to be leaving so many abusive messages about us not answering their calls that the answer-phone will probably explode.

So now we just have to wait for Porton Down to tell us whether and when we're going to die horrible deaths. Max is furious. He phones The Boss in Westminster, and shouts at him about how he is failing to protect his staff. Andrew goes on about being a "man of the people" and "accessibility" and eventually, Max gets so cross that he has to do my trick of pretending that they've been cut off, as otherwise he says he might have resigned on my behalf, and then where would we be? (Max is not at all himself since his company started talking about redundancies.)

I am too discomfited to do anything for the rest of the day, except sit at home and stew about why The Boss won't let us have all our constituency mail sent to the House of Commons in the first instance, like so many other MPs do. At least then the bloody letters would be put through their scanners before I am expected to open the damned things. The Boss leads such a charmed life - this sort of thing never seems to occur when he's here. If it did, maybe he'd learn his lesson, instead of always claiming that we exaggerate what happens, or blaming us for somehow causing the events.

I'm almost as upset that Andrew has escaped again, as I am by the public humiliation, though that was awful - I didn't even have my new underwear on, as I've been saving it just in case I ever do go on a date with Johnny. Mind you, I wasn't as embarrassed as Greg, who kept muttering, "Bit of weight left over from Christmas. Just joined a gym," for the benefit of the onlookers. I suppose now I'd better check whether my life assurance covers me for acts of terrorism, especially if Max is going to lose his job.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

First Love, Last Rites - With Apologies to Ian McEwan*.

Josh's mad ideas are getting beyond a joke. Max and I decide to do a big clean-up of the house today, instead of simply lying around doing nothing. I am not exactly enthusiastic about the idea, but am hoping that his drive to carry out a late spring-clean may eventually be extended to encompass our relationship. He volunteers to dust all the high surfaces, while I am tasked with the hoovering. All okay so far, until I go to the cupboard to get the hoover, only to find it missing. Max has no idea where it is, and neither has Connie, though she starts giggling when I mention it.

"Con?" I use my best interrogation voice, coupled with an almost Botox-worthy raised eyebrow.

"What?" She's still laughing.

"Where is the bloody hoover?"

"Josh took it." Connie collapses in hysterics.

"Took it where?" For God's sake, now what?

"I don't know. He just said to tell you he was just popping round to Silver Hill with the lads."

I look at Max and he looks back at me. Then we move swiftly to the door, in that wordless synchronisation that comes of years of parenting a complete lunatic. We jog to the end of our road, turn the corner onto Silver Hill, and look down the slope. Half way down, there are Josh and Robbie, accompanied by various other members of their motley crew. Josh is standing on our hoover and Robbie is pushing him. Silver Hill is not some idyllic rural slope, as its name would imply, but one of the busiest roads in Northwick.

"What the f*ck do you think you're doing?" Max breaks into a run, as Josh starts rolling away from him, thankfully not at any significant speed.

"Extreme hoovering*," Robbie says, as Max catches them up.

"Extreme what?" Max is almost incoherent with rage. "Give me that - now!"

He yanks the hoover away from Josh, who never knows when to keep quiet.

"It's rubbish anyway," he says. "Wheels are crap."

Max gets him by the ear, pushes past me, and heads back up the hill, the hoover in one hand and Josh in the other. Robbie and the others shuffle about looking embarrassed - as they damn well should. I glare at them, then run to catch up with Max. Josh is really going to get it this time.

When we arrive back at the house, Connie is in a crumpled heap on the sofa, still shaking with what I initially assume is laughter, but which is quickly revealed to be tears.

"What on earth's the matter, Con?" I sit down next to her and try to cuddle her, but she shakes me off.

"," she says, hiccuping between each word. "Because I made him look a prat in front of those boys."

"Huh," says Josh. "Made himself look a prat if you ask me."

"You're in no bloody position to comment," says Max. "Con, I'm going to cook you a lovely dinner to cheer you up."

Max's usual solution doesn't work. Connie is too heartbroken to eat. I can't bear to see it, especially as Russ was a bit of an arsehole anyway - but she seems to have forgotten that, and just cries all the more when I mention it. She doesn't even laugh when Josh offers to go round to Russ' house in the middle of the night, take his boy racer car to bits, and lay all the pieces out neatly on his front lawn, though I think it's a stroke of genius.

For the rest of the evening, Connie only wants to talk to Max, as she says that he "understands first love." She sits next to him on the couch, and they just sit there cuddled up in front of the TV. Oddly, this does seem to calm her, and I am jealous that I'm not the one who has been able to help. Max doesn't even look triumphant about it, which I probably would have done in his place. Seeing this does remind me that he used to be able to calm me down too, just by being there. Now he's more likely to be the one causing me to cry.

I can't even remember my first love - though I'm sure it wasn't Johnny, whatever he may now claim.

*First Love, Last Rites - Ian McEwan's first collection of short stories. Almost as odd as my life appears to be becoming.
*Extreme hoovering turns out to be an actual "sport" - see here. Madness.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

A Sentimental Promenade, A Mugging and a Very Bad Face Day.

God, do I never learn? Spend the morning going through Connie's hair magazines in an attempt to find a photo of a haircut that will make me look less like a corpse. Finally find a good one of Kylie sporting a cute shaggy bob. I take it with me when I go into town, and present it to my hairdresser who, after looking me up and down without comment, puts the picture face down on the counter and wields her scissors. I am very excited, as this may be the moment at which I finally recapture my youthful good looks.

An hour later, I am forced to accept that, while my hair does now resemble Kylie's, my face does not. I have therefore wasted my money, and am doomed to keep on being pole-axed with horror whenever I catch sight of myself in shop windows and unexpected mirrors. I walk home, lacking the enthusiasm to even pick my feet up properly, and thus have three embarrassing moments of the catch toe on paving slab, stagger, pick self up and pretend nothing happened type. (This happens quite frequently, due to my  insistence on keeping my head down whenever I am in the town centre, in order to avoid having to make eye contact with any of the usual suspects who might be passing by.)

When I walk into the house, I find a uniformed policeman sitting on the sofa in the living room.

"What's Josh done now?" I say. It's all too much. Or too little, actually.

"Josh?" says the policeman. "Did you know the muggers?" He's addressing Connie. And Russ.

"No, of course we didn't know them," says Connie, glaring at me.

I am too busy freaking out to care.

"Muggers? Muggers? What's happened?" Are all my family destined to be regularly set upon by madmen?

"Tell you later, Mum," says Connie, pushing me back out into the hallway, and closing the door in my face.

After Connie and Russ have finished looking through mug-shot albums, in which Connie spots quite a few ex-classmates, but fails to identify the perpetrators, the policeman leaves, and I finally discover what has happened. It turns out that Connie and Russ decided to go for a supposedly romantic walk at lunchtime - down the newly-created "Green Walkway," which is sited on an unused section of railway track that runs from Easemount into the centre of Northwick. What complete idiots. As with most regeneration projects, the planners ignored the fact that its location might as well be bloody Beirut.

They'd just passed the first bend, thus positioning them out of sight of the road, when they were confronted by three youths. (These were men, according to Russ, but boys, according to Connie.) They surrounded Josh and Connie, and then just stood there swaggering and looking like "prats" (again according to Connie), or "thugs" (according to Russ). Then they demanded that Russ empty his pockets. He complied but only had a couple of quid.

At this point, Connie insists that the muggers were about to give up and move away - until Russ said, "But she's got money!" and pointed at her. Russ denies this and says that Connie assaulted him with her umbrella in an unprovoked attack, which he ascribes to the stress of the moment. Connie responds that it was the stress of having such a chicken-shit boyfriend that made her lose her temper, and ends the discussion by pointing out that, by the time she'd finished hitting Russ, the muggers had disappeared.

Josh nods in atypical approbation of his sister.

"Good one, Con. That's what I told you!" he says, giving her the thumbs-up.

"What is what you told her?" I am incredulous that Connie would listen to Josh's advice on any subject.

'Best way to avoid being mugged in the street is to behave like a mad person," says Josh. "You should try it at work, Mum.

Friday, 16 July 2010

The Pros and Cons of Alcohol, and the Need for Self-Help.

God, this is getting so embarrassing. Joan comes in from the Party offices this morning to check something about The Boss' GC* Report. He refuses to even look at her, let alone acknowledge her "Morning, Andrew!" Then he gives me a bollocking after she's gone, for being "too friendly" towards her.

Later, when he's gone out somewhere, she comes back to formally complain about his treatment of her. As she's the person largely responsible for drafting in all the activists to help out in his campaigns; not to mention putting his monthly "newsletters" together, printing them and organising their distribution, this just can't go on. But how the hell am I supposed to calm the situation down, when The Boss is still insisting that everyone in the Party is out to get him? Cannot bear it. What I wouldn't give for a break right about now - but lunches are a thing of the past on Fridays, ever since Andrew declared that "lunch is for wimps." I think he sees himself as Michael Bloody Douglas. I have got to put my foot down about this before Recess starts, or we'll never get a break.

Andrew's edict doesn't seem to apply to liquid lunches, though - and it's obvious he's indulged in one when he gets back, just in time for surgery. For Godsake, has he learned nothing from the Mark Reckless incident? I am almost paralysed with nerves before we start, but actually it passes off okay - until the last appointment. Mr and Mrs Stafford have come in to complain about the inadequacies of the care home in which Mr Stafford's father now lives. The Boss keeps it together, and politely explains that we will take up their concerns with Social Services, and with the management of the home.

So far, so good, and I am just pushing my chair back with a sigh of relief, and intending to show Mr & Mrs Stafford out - but they aren't having any of it. They're not finished. Mr Stafford launches into a diatribe about how outrageous it is that his father's house may have to be sold to cover the costs of his place in the care home.

The Boss leans forward and says, horribly slowly and with great emphasis,

"Ah, so now we get to what you really care about. Your inheritance."

I can't believe it. It's one thing to think it, but quite another to say so. There's nothing for it, but to phone Andrew's mobile from mine, under cover of the table. As soon as it starts ringing, I say,

"That's that very urgent call you need to take, Andrew. You'd better go and answer it."

He goes off very obediently, while I am left to apologise on his behalf; to say that I'm sure that that isn't what he meant, and that he does sometimes have a "wacky" sense of humour. The Staffords look pretty unconvinced, but it was the best I could do at short notice. When I finally return to my desk, after a sneaky cigarette outside, The Boss yells at me that there was nobody on the line, that the number was mine, and what the hell did I think I was playing at?

"Saving your bacon, as per bloody usual," I say. Talk about ingratitude. Sometimes my working life seems utterly, utterly pointless.

Just as I am leaving work, I get an email from Johnny. He's "missing me," he says, and asks again when he's going to get to do "wonderful things" to me. He proceeds to describe these things which, I have to admit, do sound pretty damn good. I am most impressed that he has set his imaginary scenario in my office, rather than his, which seems to suggest that he - unlike most bloody constituents - thinks that I am rather more than just a secretary-cum-plaything. Unless he thinks I am a dominatrix? Oh God, I could not handle leading him around on a leash - I have to do more than enough of that with The Boss. Metaphorically-speaking, of course.

Mid-evening, Max arrives home and is very affectionate. I am much more thrown by this, than if he'd been frosty. Just cannot decide if the Germany trip debacle was a genuine error, or if he's just furiously over-compensating to throw me off the scent. Mind you, he complains that the group were only given one bottle of red and one of white, at each meal - between ten of them. Maybe this enforced sobriety accounts for him having apparently been far better behaved this time?

He says he has photos, too - and uploads them without my having to nag him. They are almost all of the single bed in his hotel room, except for a few items of furniture in a showroom. God, I'm confused. I'm almost tempted to go and buy one of those damned self-help books myself. What was that thing about men being from Mars?

*GC - General Committee, as before

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Dangers of Reading the Telegraph and Other Cautionary Tales.

I wish Richard Bloody Levinson would stop reading The Telegraph. It just encourages him. No wonder his Housing Officer has gone off on long-term sick leave. She emailed me minutes before she left her desk in despair, to tell me that just the sight of his name in the sender line of yet another email had become sufficient to give her severe palpitations.

This afternoon, he sends me seventeen emails, all with this link attached. In the first one, he wants to know why he can't get a housing transfer when "these bloody Somalis can get away with a million pound house on benefits, just because they've got so many children?" He obviously hasn't even registered that the Somalis in question are apparently housed in private accommodation. Dingbat. Northwick Council's own HQ probably isn't worth a million pounds!

Then he reiterates his long-standing complaint about why he and his girlfriend can't be expected to stay in their lovely two-bedroomed council flat in East Cross, because of the stress caused by "living amidst the common herd." He says that his girlfriend has now developed "a nasty skin condition" as a result. The other sixteen emails have no text, but simply a series of photos attached, all showing evidence of said nasty skin condition. On every part of the body you can imagine. And probably parts you can't - all in unrelenting close-up. Repulsive. The man must have a ten-pixel camera at the very least. I wonder if Richard's girlfriend realises that it's more likely to be the stress of living with someone as pompous as he is that's causing her rash?

I have hundreds of genuinely-needy constituents on the waiting list for housing who would kill to have his flat, but Richard claims he needs "a three-bedroomed house in the country, to avoid the need to live close to uncouth neighbours." Up 'til now, I've always relied upon the argument that, as Richard doesn't have any kids, he doesn't actually need a three bedroomed council house but, thanks to the bloody Telegraph, any such comment is now likely to infuriate him even further. I am sorely tempted to fake an out-of-office reply, referring enquiries to Greg - who is even more annoyed by this story than is Richard. But that would only lead to disaster. I end up replying that I will forward his enquiry to the Housing Department, but that I regret that his attachments were too large to open. Hopefully that'll stop him sending me any more vile skinflicks.

In the evening, I have nothing whatsoever to do, after I have cooked and eaten beans on burnt toast. I have no company either, as both Connie and Josh are out. I am at such a loose end that I decide to phone Dad. I haven't spoken to him for a while anyway.

"Ah, Molly. Glad I caught you," he says. Does he really not know that I phoned him?

"Why?" I say.

"Well, I'm off tomorrow morning," he says, as if I should have known.

"Off where?"


There is a long silence, and then Dad steps in to fill it.

"I told you," he says.

"Er, no - you didn't."

"Well, I don't really want to go," says Dad.

"Oh, yeah?" Does he really think I am that stupid?

"No. It's my mate, see. He booked it, and he doesn't want to go by himself. I can't really afford it, but I don't like to let him down."

The trouble with Dad is that he's like The Boss. He actually believes the stuff he says. This renders arguing with him entirely pointless, even when you can prove he's talking out of his arse.

"Got to go," says Dad. "Haven't finished packing yet. Take care of yourself. Byee!"

Before I know it, I am listening to a dialling tone. Good God. Wonder if Dinah knows? I'm not telling her. More to the point, does Mum know? Thank God Question Time's on in a minute. Politics seems more appealing than real life, all of a sudden.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Joshua "Irma Kurtz" Bennett Comes to the Rescue.

Max leaves to drive to the airport before I go to work. He makes a great show of checking that I have the itinerary and know that he has written the name of his hotel in the diary. I grunt, but then panic. What if his plane crashed, and the very last thing I'd said to him was "humph"? This is how he and the kids get away with so much, as I'm sure they all know that I am insanely convinced that, should any of us part on an argument, that'll be the last time we ever see each other. I may well qualify as a mad constituent myself.

So I give Max a kiss, which he turns into a proper one. This is extremely weird, and very disturbing - because if there's one thing married people don't do, it's kiss as if they were in love. Even if they do still have a sex-life. It's oddly easier to shag someone whilst resenting them at the same time, than it is to kiss them with any degree of conviction. Maybe that's why prostitutes don't kiss their clients.

I am miserable all day at work, and also very grumpy. Then bloody Nadhim Sahawi* draws more attention to the Somali family's million pound house during PMQs, which really doesn't help, as this sets all the usual suspects off on a series of virtually-identical rants. I have no idea how to defend a system that allows this sort of thing to happen, and by the time I've managed to get Mr Beales off the phone, my mood is even worse. This means that I actually walk off before Joan has finished telling me about the latest fiasco with her Tax Credit overpayment. I have never been so rude to anyone before, but I do wish she wouldn't lie in wait for me in the ladies' loo. Drives me mad,  and is enough to give me Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Thinking about IBS reminds me that I have to arrange for another intern to replace the one who ran away in fear of his life. The list The Boss gave me seems to consist purely of sixteen-year-old schoolgirls, one of whom is the daughter of the local Tory Party chairman. Does Andrew not realise this? I phone to enquire.

"Um, Andrew - this Fiona girl you've got on the interns list - "

"Lovely girl," says The Boss. "Pretty as a picture."

"Well, that's all very nice, but are you aware that she's George Thompson's daughter?"

"Oh. That." The Boss doesn't sound concerned. "The local Tories are less threat to me than those bastards in my own party. Just be nice to her."

What can you do? I phone Fiona, and she agrees to start next Monday. She does actually sound capable of an intelligent conversation, and is reasonably assertive, so at least that's promising. Greg's quite cheerful about it too. Then he admits that he met her at a local Council function, when she was accompanying her dad. He starts to twitch when I ask him exactly how attractive she is.

"Well, she looks a bit like my ex-girlfriend," he says, with what sounds like a stifled sob. (Greg is more sensitive emotionally than might appear to be the case. His heart has been broken several times.)

On the subject of matters of the heart, Max phones me four times in the evening. Four times! First to tell me he's arrrived, then to tell me that he's in his room, which is "nice, but a basic single." Call three is to tell me he's going out for dinner with "the group." The fourth call is to tell me that he's back from dinner, that the food was rubbish compared to that on the German trip, and that he's going to bed now as "this actually seems as if it's going to be a working trip." Unlike the German one?!

I know I should be glad that Max has actually remembered that I exist this time, and is doing his utmost to reassure me - but I can't help feeling he's overdoing it a bit. Josh tells me not to be an idiot, and that while "Dad can be a prat, he's not a cheating prat." Such filial respect  - and yet I am oddly comforted. Who'd have thought a teenager could demonstrate such wisdom?

*Nadhim Sahawi - MP for Stratford on Avon. A Tory.
*PMQs - Prime Minister's Questions, as usual.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Builders, Kebabs, and a Death in the Family

A builder whistled at me at lunchtime today. At least, I think it was at me. I looked all around and couldn't see anyone younger in the vicinity. Now I'm just hoping he wasn't taking the piss. It's so long since that happened - so long, that I can't even remember when it did last happen. Depressingly grateful - funny how you view wolf-whistling builders with contempt when you're young and then, when they stop doing it on a regular basis, you end up pathetically grateful for their increasingly infrequent attention. Am still not positive that he wasn't taking the piss, but then he was pretty hideous himself. Not that that small detail ever seems to bother men.

Max is feeling a bit old and worn-out himself in the evening. Think it's the heat. Oh, and Josh. Max decides that he can't face cooking, so he goes off to get a pizza for Connie and I, and kebabs for him and Josh. He comes back outraged.

"Where's Josh?" he shouts, dropping the bags of food in the hallway.

I am not at all used to Max yelling, as it's uncharacteristically energetic, so I just stand there, shocked.

"Where is that little shit?" Max pushes past me, and heads up the stairs, two at a time, shouting, "Josh, get out here now!" I decide that this calls for a cigarette, so I go outside. Connie refuses to join me, blaming her aversion to smoke. She has a highly-developed instinct for impending trouble - when it involves her brother. She loiters in the hallway instead, hoping to hear every word of Josh being given a bollocking.

After half an hour of incomprehensible but very loud shouting, Max re-appears - with Josh in tow. Josh actually looks chastened, which is quite possibly a first.

"Do you know what your son did?"

I have no idea, but the use of the phrase, "your son" is a pretty accurate indicator that it isn't likely to be anything good.

Max continues, "I go into the kebab shop, and the guy behind the counter reels backwards when he sees me, in shock. Like he's seen a ghost."

"Why?" I am still none the wiser, though Josh's lips are starting to twitch.

"Because he thought I was dead!" Max tries to light a cigarette, but his hands are trembling, so I have to help him.

"Why the hell did he think that?" I say.

"Because that f*cking comedian told him I was!" Max looks accusingly at Josh, who averts his head. I am sure he is giggling.

"You what?" I say to Josh. He's still trying not to laugh.

"He's been getting a free can of coke with every kebab for months," says Max. "As a gesture of sympathy."

"Oh, my God." What else is there to say? I just wish Josh would put that creative intelligence to respectable use for once. Much more of this, and Max's blood pressure will kill him. I forget to ask Josh what he said Max died of.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Stones, Glass Houses, and Reckless Behaviour.

Get into work this morning to find The Boss has been in over the weekend, and has left his supermarket surgery "notes" on my desk. (It also looks as if he's searched all the drawers, but that's another story.) I wish he'd told me he was going to do this, as at least then I wouldn't have had to spend Sunday boiling to death at home, with all the windows and curtains closed.

I pass the notes straight to Greg, as it's his job to do this lot of surgery letters, now that he's finally started to take his turn to accompany Andrew to the damn things. He looks incredulous when he sees The Boss' notes.

"These aren't from Saturday's surgery," he says.

"How can you tell?" Surely there hasn't been enough time for him to decipher Andrew's handwriting yet.

"Says 'Asda' at the top," says Greg. "We were at f*cking Tesco, for Godsake."

"Read on." I can't really be bothered with this, as I am ploughing through the weekend's emails, and still have the crazed answer-phone messages to tackle.

"Oh, wait - yeah, I recognise some of these names. But look at this!" Greg shoves a handful of A5 sheets of paper at me. All bear the House of Commons crest, and are covered in hieroglyphics.

"What the f*ck?" The Boss has obviously lost his mind. He has decided to draft the follow-up letters himself, presumably because he has forgotten our long-standing - and very necessary - agreement that only Greg or I write letters. Not Andrew. Ever. The drafts make The Boss appear semi-literate, or as if he has absolutely no idea of what the constituents were talking about. This is emphasised further by the fact that they bear virtually no relation to Greg's comprehensive notes from the same surgery.

"Just ignore them, and write your own," I say. "It is our duty to stop him making an idiot of himself, after all." I refrain from mentioning that I will still have to check Greg's versions before they are posted. I might as well do everything myself!

The Boss phones shortly afterwards to check we've received his notes. Don't know why he'd think we hadn't, as he'd left them right on top of my keyboard, but I humour him.

"Yes, thanks," I say.

"Got the drafts, too?" Andrew is clearly bursting with pride at his achievement. "Cases were so straightforward, thought I'd help you guys out."

This is hardly an accurate reflection of the truth, but I let it pass.

"Hear about Mark Reckless? F*cking idiot." The Boss can hardly contain his delight. "So pissed he couldn't vote. Typical bloody Tory. Lightweights. I can vote no matter how much I've had."

"Yes, Andrew, but you have occasionally forgotten how you intended to vote," I say.

"Not 'cause I was drunk! The bastards change the wording of Bills and add amendments to catch you out. I can't always be expected to notice that."

"Well, the Press and the Whips don't appear to have any trouble keeping up with it," I say. "And I am really, really hoping that it wasn't you The Mail quoted bragging about old-timers being able to handle their drink?"

"Anything else you need me for?" he says. "No? Got to go then. My mobile will be off for a bit."

Can't help feeling that the whole thing with these drunken newbie MPs was an accident waiting to happen. Half of them haven't got round to appointing their staff yet, and those who have probably used the jobs as rewards for their keenest campaigners, or the most-fanciable members of their local parties. They'll live and learn. Even The Boss admitted that he realised quite quickly that he needed staff who would tell him the brutal truth - that's how I got my job. Mind you, he still doesn't seem to have worked out that he also needs a minder in Parliament. I spend half my life trying to get Carlotta and Marie-Louise to tell me exactly what interviews he's giving during the week, what else he's up to, and whether he's been properly briefed. Worryingly, they rarely know. That's when they actually answer the damned phone.

One good thing about a heatwave is that most of the usual suspects don't seem to have the energy to phone us today, despite all the ammunition they've been handed by the Sunday papers. Though that doesn't mean that I am spared from listening to demented moaning, as Greg spends the rest of the day ranting about his taxes funding the subsidised alcohol in the House of Commons bars. If his personal taxes stretch to single-handedly funding everything that he claims they do, he must be earning more than the bloody bankers. He wants us both to get blind drunk before work on Friday, and then challenge The Boss to fire us for gross misconduct when we are incapable of doing our jobs, and have to lie down in the Oprah room for the rest of the day.

He prints the Daily Mail article out and sticks it on the wall, then gets distracted by the comment in it about the Sloane Rangers that the Tories are alleged to have brought in as their Parliamentary researchers. He can't see how Sloane Rangers are any less qualified for the job than any of The Boss' long line of researchers have been. If you collated their photographs, it'd look like a line-up for Miss World, with almost every nation represented, if not every shape of leg.

Now I have to go home and decide whether I am speaking to Max or not. Shame he doesn't have a minder, as I am not at all convinced by that itinerary. The French looks positively schoolboy. Or schoolgirl.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Some Like It Hot

Why on earth did I tell The Boss we were going out for the day? Sam thinks I am a madwoman, as I insist that we keep the curtains in the front room closed all day, and that Max moves the car from its usual parking spot - just in case Andrew decides to cruise by "on the off chance." (It has been known.)

Both Max and Sam are very hungover, so there is a lot of groaning and excessive ibuprofen usage before they are even worth conversing with. Max also thinks he may have pulled his back by sleeping on the couch all night. I am somewhat less than sympathetic - because I am still sulking about his failure to follow through on last night's brief lust-filled moment.

Sam leaves mid-afternoon and I consider doing the family phone calls, but decide I am too grumpy to manage to avoid an argument with one or other of the parents. Anyway, we have Connie's boyfriend coming for dinner. We've been putting this off, as he's not the easiest person to talk to - but Connie's getting upset about it now. She keeps pointing out that Josh has had Holly here for a meal on numerous occasions, whereas we haven't invited Russ at all - so we have no option but to comply.

The evening proves to be much more fun than we'd expected, though not for Connie. Max has cooked a Thai meal, and Russ has never tried Thai food.

"It's chilli-hot," says Max.

The mention of chillies turns Russ from a monosyllabic introvert into a gushing fool. For almost two hours, he tells story after story - all of them about hazardous encounters he has had with chillies. These have all apparently been entirely self-inflicted, and carried out as a test of manhood. Each story is identical to the last, except for the number of chillies consumed, which increases with every version. So does the number of pints of water that had to be drunk as a result. Max and I can't even look at each other, and Connie is squirming. She already thinks we can't stand Russ.

I dread to think how long the whole thing would have gone on, had Josh not completely lost it. He interrupts Russ firmly, saying,

"I once ate a chilli the size of my head."

Russ looks non-plussed, and then Josh continues,

"And I had to drink 37 litres of water before I could talk, or even swallow. Was wild, man."

Russ nods, lost in admiration.

Connie's had enough.

"It's getting late, Russ. I think you'd better be going now as we've all got to work in the morning."

She glares at us as she shows Russ out. When she comes back, Josh says,

"Wow, Con - where've you been hiding him? I LOVE Russ. Love him. Almost as much as he loves his chillies."

"Fuck you," says Connie, and flounces off to bed.

Not for the first time this weekend, Max and I congratulate ourselves on our extraordinary good fortune in having married each other. A dislike for sub-titles is a small price to pay for avoiding a chilli fetish.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Agonised Faces, Shared Interests & Marital Hubris.

Greg's finally taking his turn at doing supermarket surgery, so I am looking forward to a very long lie-in. This proves to be impossible. Greg likes to share the joy, so I awake to a barrage of texts in which he uses every bit of punctuation available on his mobile to denote various agonised faces. He doesn't add any actual words. At 09:45am I give up the attempt to sleep, and get up.

Over brunch, cooked as usual by Max - who is far more competent in the kitchen than me - Sam updates us on the progress of his internet dating. This does not seem to be without its pitfalls. The last woman to contact him sounded perfect, and after a series of increasingly flirtatious and innuendo-laden texts and phone calls, Sam arranged to meet her in a National Park somewhere out in the wilds. (The location alone would have given me pause for thought, but then I am constitutionally mistrustful - comes with the job.)

Anyway, Sam drove up to the parking spot and saw what looked to be a very butch Park Ranger standing near a picnic table. Apparently she'd have made a convincing prop forward. Sam panicked, turned the car around and drove off again, hoping she hadn't seen him. Now he's blocked her calls and changed his email address. God knows what he expects when he will keep insisting that any prospective girlfriend shares his interests. I really doubt Kate Moss likes rugby and hill-walking.

The Boss phones mid-afternoon to tell me that he will drop off his surgery notes sometime tomorrow, so that I can "get on with them." Tomorrow is Sunday! I try to find a subtle way to explain that Andrew's so-called notes will be worse than useless, and that Greg will have taken his own, far more coherent ones, but Andrew never takes a hint. In the end, I have to resort to saying that Max and I are going out for the day and that it would be far too hazardous to leave the notes with Josh or Connie, as they cannot be trusted with sensitive information. Both look up reproachfully as I say this, but luckily don't start moaning until after I have hung up. If I have learned one thing about handling The Boss, it is never to agree to do anything he claims will be a one-off, unless it is a genuine emergency - as otherwise he will expect it to become a regular fixture thereafter.

Later, Max and I have a discussion about what we would have looked for in a husband or wife, if we'd had to advertise for one. Max says that he would have sought someone who loved cooking and travel; whereas I would have wanted a partner who enjoyed foreign-language films and reading. Instead, Max got a travel-phobic who can't competently boil an egg, and I got a dyslexic who can't follow subtitles. Both of us therefore question the need for a woman to share Sam's interests quite as fully as he seems to think necessary.

Max and I feel oddly-bonded for the rest of the night, and sit there exchanging smug, affectionate glances while Sam explains how all he wants is to be "as happy as you guys." I don't mention Johnny Hunter and Max doesn't mention the business trips. Or his soft spot for Annoying Ellen. By the time we've polished off three bottles of wine between us, Max and I are madly in lust. By the time he and Sam have drunk another bottle, Max is asleep. The gold stars remain in the drawer.