Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Festive Madness, And Rash Assumptions About Possible Uses For Batteries.

Oh, dear God. Our local pound shop is selling "Sexy Santa" outfits. I've just had the most traumatic experience in there.

I'm walking around looking for where the batteries have been moved to, when I hear a familiar voice.

"Look at this!" says a man who is almost completely hidden behind a fake Christmas tree.

I'm so mindlessly obedient that I do as he tells me. Oh, Christ, it's Richard Levinson, the man who says he's too refined to live on a council estate.

"This'd put a smile on Santa's face, wouldn't it?" he says.

He's got such a carrying voice that everyone in the shop is looking in our direction by now. For one very long moment, I am convinced that Richard is talking to me, and am paralysed by horror. Has it really come to this?

I look down at the floor, and try to will myself to disappear into it. Which, as usual, doesn't work. When I look up again, Richard's still holding the packet and shaking it at everyone who walks past.

"Ooh - if I was a few years younger, I'd buy one myself," says an elderly woman, whose voice I also recognise. It's Miss Harpenden, of all people. She of the flying rat fame.

To his credit, Richard shudders but doesn't actually reply to Miss H's horrible suggestion. He's too busy waving the "Sexy Santa" set at another woman - a younger one, who seems to be trying very hard to ignore him.

By now, I'm feeling quite panicky. What the hell have I walked into? It's like a re-make of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. All we need now are Miss Chambers and Mr Beales and we'll have the full set. Of people who aren't the full set, if you see what I mean.

Whoever the younger woman is, she's having none of it. She turns her back on Richard, and says,

"For God's sake, put that down. Now. If you think I'm wearing that, you've got another bloody think coming."

So this must be Richard's elusive fiancee, the one with the nasty skin condition. I can't say I blame her for being so pissed off. Even without rampant sores, it'd be a challenge to look alluring in a red polyester bra and knickers, bizarrely topped off with fuzzy red reindeer antlers that light up. Maybe the lack of a hat is why the set is so cheap.

The woman starts to walk away but, by now, half the population of Northwick seems to be getting involved. Some people are so nosy.

"Ah, go on, love," says another man. "Make the lad's Christmas."

This receives no response whatsoever, so then Richard, who never knows when to keep quiet, says,

"Forget Christmas, I was thinking about tonight."

His fiancee looks him up and down, very slowly, then says, "You can fuck off."

With that, she abandons her basket of pan scourers and perfumed candles, and walks out of the shop. Several women start to clap, then stop as suddenly as they started.

Richard looks at his audience, makes one of those "what can you do?" gestures with his hands, then puts the Santa set back on the shelf. Although he tries to look as if he's strolling when he leaves the shop, everyone can tell that he's running.

When I get back to work, and tell Greg about my lunchtime shopping experience, I realise that, after all that, I've forgotten to buy the bloody batteries.

"Don't worry," he says. "I'm going to get a sandwich so I'll pop up there and get them for you. Then I can check the shop's not running regular day-trips from the loony bin."

When he returns, I'm busy talking to Joan, who's hassling me to choose what I want from the Christmas lunch menu of the local pub. I really don't think smearing salmon in chestnut pesto counts as festive, and everything else looks bloody horrible, but Joan's insistent that I have to choose something.

"This combined office 'do' might be the only Christmas lunch you get for work," she says. "If Andrew finds a reason to cancel your proper one again."

"Oh, I don't think he will this year," I say. "Vicky's already bought a new dress for it."

Joan pulls a face that is worth a hundred words - even better than her usual imitation of the bus driver from South Park - then advises me to order one of everything, on the grounds that The Boss will eat anything anyone else doesn't want, and probably some of what they do.

By this time, I've forgotten to ask what else was in the enormous Pound-Den carrier bag Greg was carrying, and I remain in the dark until we're locking up at the end of the day, when he passes it to me.

"Here's your batteries, Mol," he says. "Pay me back tomorrow."

"What's this?" I say, pulling out a large present encased in the tackiest Christmas gift wrap you're ever seen. Santa's nose is redder than The Boss's and alarmingly phallic.

"Just a little early Christmas or birthday present for Max," he says. "I hope it fits you."

"Oh, for God's sake, Greg. Tell me you haven't?" I say, but when I try to give the parcel back to him, he just taps his nose, and says,

"Keep an open mind, Mol. Might render those batteries redundant."

Honestly, how much humiliation can women be expected to take? And, anyway, I bet you need batteries  for glowing antlers.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Cruising, Insulation, And How To Make The Big Society Work

It's still bloody freezing, and I'm thinking about giving up shaving my legs. I need all the warmth I can get and it's not as if anyone's likely to notice, is it? Not unless I ever have to be decontaminated again. (Thank God that didn't happen during cold weather.)

It turns out that George's so-called boiler repair was a temporary fix at best, as the damned thing isn't working again today. Now he says it'll be days before the problem is solved as he needs to order a part. Greg is even more annoyed than I am.

"How do these idiots get jobs?" he says. "We need to find out, before Vicky manages to get rid of us."

"God knows," I say. "I have no idea what we could do instead. Hurry up and think of something."

Greg spends the rest of the morning trying to type while wearing insulated gloves. I can't bear to check the results, but he says it's far easier to hit all the keys at once and then delete the letters you don't want, than it is to try to hit one letter at a time.

Making coffee proves rather more of a challenge, though. There's a lot of crashing and swearing from the kitchen, before Greg comes back into the office and puts a half-empty mug on my desk.

"Sorted," he says.

"Arguable," I say. "There's hardly any coffee in here, and you've forgotten the milk."

"Couldn't risk spilling that as well," he says. "Too smelly. And, anyway, I'm not talking about the coffee. How d'you fancy cruising for a living?"

"Wouldn't be much of a living," I say. "I don't think money usually changes hands. The sex is seen as payment in itself."

This seems a reasonable assumption given that I have a less than fulfilling sex life, but Greg disregards it:

"Not that sort of cruising, Molly, you dingbat. The seafaring kind. Apparently we can do that while claiming Jobseeker's."

I look blank, until Greg starts searching through the pages of the weekend's newspapers, completely decimating them in the process. Licking the fingers of his gloves doesn't work half as well as those damp sponges they used to have in Post Offices.

Eventually he passes me a copy of this.

"I thought we could be the on-board entertainment," he says. "I could rap and you could be the joke act."

"Actually," I say, "Your rapping would cover both bases. I'd be redundant before I'd even started."

You don't always have to take insults lying down, after all.

At least the subject of cruising makes a change from talking about snow, which isn't half as interesting a topic of conversation as the Media would have you believe. Not that this stops constituents from phoning up to complain about it.

"My bloody road still hasn't been gritted," says Mr Beales. "No-one's taking any notice of what Andrew said in the paper."

He has no idea what a relief that is, but he carries on without waiting for me to respond:

"And keeping an eye on that traffic policeman's bloody impossible in this weather. I can't even get my car out of the drive."

"In some countries it's apparently the law to clear the frontage of your property yourself," I say. "Though not in the UK, of course."

This may seem irrelevant, but I do know what I'm doing. At least when I'm at work.

"Well, those Health & Safety nutters wouldn't allow that here, would they?" says Mr Beales. "But you've given me an idea - I'll do the whole cul de sac myself and let the buggers prosecute me if they dare."

Then - thank God - he rings off, very pleased with himself. I'm quite pleased with myself, too: I know I shouldn't blow my own trumpet, but sometimes I am a genius.

Mr Beales - rebel without a cause - has just proved the effectiveness of the technique I used to use on Josh and Connie when they were younger: making something unappealing seem forbidden. David Cameron should try it, if he really wants the usual suspects to become part of The Big Society.

Though if that ever happens, I think the rest of us will have to leave the country. By cruise ship if necessary.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Attempting Not To Shoot The Cigar-Smoking Messenger, And The Return Of The Russian Dream.

I'm still so annoyed about the car that I decide I've got to talk to someone else about it, so I phone David after lunch. Now I wish I hadn't.

When I've finally finished describing all the weird Ellen-related incidents there have been over the last six months, my best friend just says,

"Well, I know you've wasted your potential, Mol, but I never had you down as stupid."

"What d'you mean?" I say, trying not to sound hurt.

"It's bloody obvious what's going on. You'd be the first to say that if it was happening to someone else."

David exhales noisily. I bet he's smoking one of those stupid Cuban cigars he bought on his show-off stag week. For a moment, I hope he chokes on it, until I recall that I did ask him to give me his honest opinion. He's just wrong, that's all.

"But I haven't got any proof," I say. "And Max always goes beyond the call of duty to help people."

"Humph," says David. "If I were you, I'd come here for a visit, while you decide what to do next. Leave Max to stew."

I say I'll think about it, but I know I won't really. Leave the field clear for Ellen? That'd really make me stupid, wouldn't it? And, anyway, it's nearly bloody Christmas, I haven't got any money and David will probably be all superior and annoying if I do go. Better to stay here and confront the situation.

At least, that's what I'm planning to do, until Josh looks out of the window and says,

"Looks like Russia out there."

"It does," I say. "Pretty, isn't it?"

It's odd how much more appealing wearing a fur coat and minus ten temperatures seem, all of a sudden. I must ask Johnny whether he'd consult his wife before lending someone the family car - if it was their only one, of course. He'll have to use his imagination there.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Skinny Jeans, Neighbourly Behaviour & An Apparent Inability To Use The Phone

I am knackered after last night's stint in Casualty, though I'd really like some of their zero tolerance posters for use in the office. We could exclude at least a quarter of constituents if we implemented something similar.

Tolerance is in short supply at home today, though I'm not sure who is the grumpiest: me or Josh. He's disgusted that he has to wear a brace to support his kneecap, particularly as it won't fit under his skinny jeans.

"I don't know what you're moaning about," I say. "Wearing them was probably what caused your kneecap to dislocate in the first place. They're ridiculously tight."

"Don't be stupid, Mum," he says. "They're probably better than a brace - seeing as they cover the whole leg."

"Well, if you don't do as the doctor told you, and it dislocates again over the weekend, you'll have to hop to the hospital. I can't afford any more bloody taxis."

Max looks very uncomfortable when I say this, but he still hasn't volunteered how Ellen happens to have been lent our car without me even knowing about it. He always leaves it to me to broach contentious subjects.

It turns out that her car has broken down, and that Max offered to lend her ours so she could visit her mother this weekend.

"But why didn't you consult me first?" I say. "It is our car, after all. And I am your wife - or I was, the last time I looked."

"There wasn't time," he says. "Ellen was supposed to get to a family party by 8:00pm, and didn't realise her car was buggered until nearly 5:30pm. You weren't even home, so I couldn't ask you first."

"Ever heard of Alexander F*cking Graham Bell?" I say.

Max glares at me, before deciding to go on the offensive.

"I knew you'd be awkward about it if I asked you, anyway," he says. "I was just trying to be neighbourly."

"Being husbandly would make a nice change."

Josh says, "Oooh!" which doesn't help at all, so I stomp off into the living room.

Walking out of the house would have been preferable, but I'd be bound to bugger over in the snow and ruin my dramatic exit. There must be another way to make the same point, given some creative thinking.

I turn on the TV for inspiration. Sod my rule about never watching it in the daytime to avoid brain death: this is an emergency. Max must be able to hear it, because he comes into the room, and makes himself comfortable on the sofa. Some people just can't take a hint, can they?

When I press Play on an old recording of an episode of Swedish Wallander, he gets up and walks out again.

"Bloody subtitles," he says.

Now he knows how it feels to have trouble working out what the hell is going on.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Bratz, Back-Stabbing, And Some Significant Omissions.

The Boss spends all day going on about how the Party needs to pull together to support Ed Miliband.

"Got to stop those bloody Blairites going behind his back," he says. "Unity, that's the thing."

"Have you had some sort of revelation?" says Greg. "Thought you believed in debate. You certainly seemed to when Blair was PM."

"Different times," says Andrew. "Loyalty's what counts now."

Honestly, that man is almost as shameless as Sarah Palin.

Talking of people going behind your back, I get a nasty surprise when I open the box of Christmas cards that has just arrived from the printer.

"What the hell?" I say, as I stare in disbelief at the most hideous card I have ever seen. "This isn't the one I chose."

"Oh, Vicky didn't like that," says Andrew. "Did you, Vicks? Said it wasn't pretty enough."

So much for the only perk of my job: choosing which entry wins in The Boss' annual "Design a Christmas card" competition. It's usually the highlight of my year. To add insult to injury, the new design stinks.

Instead of the quirky, imaginative one I chose, which was drawn by an autistic child in the special unit at Easemount First School, we now have a complete travesty of a card, courtesy of a twelve-year-old pupil at Northwick High School for Girls. Which is allegedly an Arts Academy. Let's just say that you wouldn't have to go further than the Bratz counter to spot her inspiration.

I'm so cross that I take revenge by giving Vicky the responsibility for handling the rest of the process, including updating the mailing list and printing the labels. She stops smirking pretty quickly at that point - and she hasn't even had the fun of trying to get Andrew to remember to sign all the cards in time to post them yet.

At least it's Josh's night off from the cinema, so that'll cheer me up. I don't seem to have seen him for weeks, so I'm looking forward to it but, when I get home, he's running around like a lunatic getting ready to go out.

"I thought you were staying in tonight," I say.

"Nah," he says. "Don't be daft, Mum. I'm not a tragic oldie with no social life like you and Dad. I'm taking Holly for a pizza and then we're going to see a film. Might as well get some use out of all these free tickets."

Then he goes out, leaving his geriatric parents to their usual exciting Friday night, during which I contemplate the side of Max's head while he snores on the sofa. This goes on until just before 11:00pm, when Max's mobile starts ringing.

He continues to sleep while I try to work out how to answer the damned thing. (I hate bloody Nokias and late-night phone-calls always make me nervous, and clumsy.)

"Mum," says Josh. "Where's Dad?"

"Asleep," I say. "Why? Are you okay? You sound funny."

"No, I'm not," he says. "Can you get him to come and pick me up? I can't walk."

"Why? Now what's happened?" I say, trying to wake Max at the same time by prodding him with my foot. Unsuccessfully.

"I think I've dislocated my knee. Smacked it on the table when I got up, and it's bloody agony again. Just like when that skateboard ramp collapsed under me."

"Oh, for God's sake, Josh. Okay - but Dad won't be able to come. He's had too much wine to drive," I say. "Stay put 'til I get there."

Honestly, Josh is so accident-prone that we might as well get a season ticket for A&E. And it's going to be like a war zone in there at this time on a Friday night. That'll teach me to complain about doing nothing in the evenings.

I fish the keys out of Max's pocket, grab my coat and bag, and power walk to the car - but it isn't there. I run up and down our road a few times, then check the side streets in case Max has had to park further afield than usual, but there's still no sign of it anywhere. Bloody, bloody hell.

There's nothing for it but to go back home.

"Max. Max! Wake up! The car's been stolen and I need to get Josh to A&E," I say, while calling for a cab.

He finally starts to stir when I phone Josh to warn him that I'll have to pick him up in a taxi because the car is missing. By the time I've finished explaining that, the cab's outside.

"Max - you'll have to phone the Police and report the theft," I say. "I've got to go."

"Um," he says. "Yes, um."

"Yes, um, what? Hurry up - the meter's running!"

"Well, the car hasn't exactly been stolen," he says.

He won't meet my eyes when I ask what he means, so I repeat the question, rather louder this time. He's still staring very hard at the floor when he answers:

"I may have lent it to someone for the weekend."

"Who?" I say, as the taxi driver beeps his horn for about the hundredth time.

"Ellen," he says.

I slam the door so hard on my way out that I think I may have shattered the glass.

So now here I am in the hospital cafe, typing on Holly's laptop and waiting for Josh to come out of X-Ray. Maybe I should ask the Radiologist to check if my heart is broken while she's at it.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Julie Christie, And Why A Certain MP Should Avoid The Subject Of Winter.

Talk about over-compensating for my boring life. My dreams are getting more and more exciting by the minute.

I spent last night playing Lara to Johnny's Doctor Zhivago. Admittedly, Johnny did look rather more like Omar Sharif than he does in real life, and was a lot more romantic, but I did enjoy being Julie Christie. She really knows how to wear a fur coat without turning into an Ewok.

The dream is so convincing that, when I wake up, I still think I'm Julie until I look in the mirror. Then I'm distraught to find that it's not her face that looks back at me, but my usual one, incipient beard and all. Now I wish I hadn't mentioned Ewoks.

If I do manage to grow fur all over my body, though, at least I'll be better-adapted for cold weather. I'm so angry with bloody British Gas about their price rises. Seven per cent! It's a national scandal. I'd write to my MP about it, if I wouldn't have to answer my own letter.

Since the announcement of the increase, Max has become obsessed with the cost of fuel and, even though I try to adjust the thermostat when he isn't looking, he always notices and turns it down again. Then I have to blame the whole thing on Josh and the irresponsibility of youth.

God knows how the poorest are going to cope if we have a hard winter. The hospitals and mortuaries will be full of people who were too scared to turn their heating on at all. Or who have injuries caused by falling downstairs or setting themselves on fire while wearing a Slanket.

Mind you, I'm still considering buying one, despite the risks. It's too much being cold at home as well as at work. The office is freezing at the best of times, but when I arrive today, I discover that the boiler has broken down.

Greg and I are freezing our arses off, and have to keep our coats on all morning - but Vicky says that she  will "work" from home. Apparently, she can't risk low temperatures, due to her chilblains.

"Think she's confusing them with bunions," says Greg. "Caused by those stupid bloody shoes."

"She says they're a political statement," I say. "Due to the red soles."

Talking of political statements, it turns out that Andrew has been at it again - holding forth to the local press without speaking to me first. He's told them that he's going to do everything he can to ensure that Northwick County Council have enough grit this year.

You'd think he have the sense to stay schtum on the subject of winter after last year's fiasco, but he seems to have forgotten all about that. George - the boiler repair man - remembers it well enough, though.

"See your boss is going on about snow again," he says, when he arrives after lunch. "It's in the paper. I'd ha' thought he'd ha' learned his lesson, wouldn't you?"

"Indeed," I say.

There's absolutely no point denying that Andrew made some rather ill-informed comments during last winter's white-out.

"Bloody funny, that were. Talking about what a nightmare Northwick's drivers were having when it turned out he weren't even in the country at the time."

"Hmm," I say.

I do wish the bloody phone would ring. Or there'd be a fire alarm. Or something. But nothing happens to interrupt George's flow:

"It wouldn't ha' mattered, would it - not if he hadn't pretended it took him two hours to drive home from the office that night? What a twonk he must be."

Hearing Greg snort with laughter, I decide it's time to take evasive action.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" I say. "Seeing as it looks as if mending the boiler's going to be a long job."

By the time I've made it, I'm hoping that the subject of Andrew will have been dropped, but no such luck. George carries on where he left off when I return from the kitchen and pass him a mug.

"Cheers," he says. "So, tell me something, ducks. Your boss - have an opinion on everything, does he?"

"Well, I wouldn't say that. Though he does like to take an interest in anything that affects his constituents." I turn my back and pick up a pen. "Now, I really must get on with some work."

"I'll tell you what I think," he says, slurping his tea. "That man will do anything to get his name in the paper."

"Couldn't agree more," says Greg, under his breath. Which is still visible, due to the bloody cold.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The New Cold War And Strategies To Deal With It.

God, I had a terrible dream last night. I was standing outside the old Labour Party HQ in Millbank trying to hold the line against the massed troops of North Korea, who all looked like mini-Ellens. By myself, so this turned out about as well as you'd expect.

Those marching clones scare the shit out of me. I get the shivers every time I see them on the news, even when it isn't as freezing cold as it is today. They're much more frightening than the Russian soldiers who used to parade in front of Brezhnev* - probably because they look so much more focused. Like a demented band of pre-teen baton twirlers.

Anyway, my encounter with them leaves me with a sense of dread that lingers for most of the day. Mr Warner seems to be having the same problem. He comes to the office to tell me that TV Licensing still won't believe that he doesn't own a TV, and that things seems to be getting worse.

"Things are coming to a head," he says. "Everyone's out to get me now - including the bloody Council."

"Why do you think that?" I say.

"They haven't collected my rubbish for the last two months. Not since I wrote to TV Licensing and said I'd shoot anyone who tried to break into my flat. They must share information."

"Oh, I'm sure that's not the case. It's probably just a coincidence."

I make a note of the last date upon which he remembers his bin being emptied, and promise to see what I can do. Then I stand up and wait for Mr W to take the hint, but he just stays in his chair, fidgeting, and plucking at his clothing.

"Was there anything else?" I say.

Talk about a very bad move. Mr W stands up.

"Do you want to see my ulcer?" he says, as he drops his trousers.

Mr W's legs put me right off my lunch, so I donate my sandwich to the Greg winter stomach fuel fund and send Johnny an email instead. I attach a photo of my new haircut to give him a laugh.

"Wow. You look great," he says. "I'd be really proud to walk into a room with a woman who looked like that on my arm."

"Are you taking the piss?" I say. "I am already having a very bad day, so it's inadvisable."

"No. For Christ's sake, woman, can't you ever take a compliment? Thank you is the appropriate response."

Honestly - whatever must Johnny's wife look like if he thinks my haircut is okay? I apologise, anyway, and blame my grumpiness on the fact that, not only did I spend last night protecting the Labour Party from the North Koreans - singlehandedly -  but I am also freezing to death.

"What the hell are you talking about? North Koreans? And have you forgotten that I live in Russia?" he says. "Generally considered to be somewhat chillier than the UK?"

I have the last laugh on that one, though - as it turns out that it's colder here today than it is in bloody Moscow, although Johnny is quick to point out that it's much worse there in the depths of winter.

"Minus 10 is common," he says.

"Good job I don't live with you then," I say. "How on earth does your wife manage?"

"Oh, she has a mink coat."

The phones start ringing again then, so I don't manage to send my anti-fur response until after the office has closed. Johnny is completely undeterred.

"Yes, yes, PETA* and nasty fur coats - sometimes, darling, you are so predictable," he says. "But just wait until you've tried a winter here without one. You'll do a Naomi Campbell within days."

I'm not at all sure about this last comment. What's with the use of "you will" instead of "you would"? Mind you, with the Cold War that's raging at home at the moment, it's a very tempting thought.

Just imagine: instead of being Molly Bennett, overlooked wife and under-rated MP's caseworker, I could be Molly Hunter, wife of an adoring (if bossy) oil baron. I'd spend my life dancing at embassy parties and swanning around Moscow in designer clothes.

Including a fur coat which, even if I didn't object to it on moral grounds, would make me look like a Ewok. I suppose I'd better don my Primark jacket and head for home.

*Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich. For those of you too young to remember him.
*PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for whom Naomi Campbell was a spokesperson. Until she started wearing fur again.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A Particularly Ineffective Game Of Cluedo.

Max was so late home last night that it's a good job I didn't ask Joan to come home with me to do her Medusa act. She'd have been bored to death and would have probably turned me to stone to alleviate the tedium, not that it would have made much difference if she had.

I was fast asleep on the sofa when Max walked in and, then, when I woke up, my thoughts were too muddled to be able to face an argument. (I also didn't want to pick a fight while my hair was looking more capable of standing up for itself than I was, but that's a different issue.)

So the uncertainty's all still there - unresolved - when I wake up this morning. Late, so I have to tackle Max while I'm running around like a headless chicken. He is almost ready to leave, so I don't have much time to prepare.

I take a deep breath, mutter, "Be assertive" to myself, and then demand to know what happened.

"Mrs Bloom again," says Max.

"Oh, really?" I say. "Mrs Bloom. Not Mr Blunt?"

"That sounds like something out of Cluedo," says Max. "And I have no idea what you're talking about. I haven't even got a customer called Mr Blunt."

"I didn't say he was necessarily a customer. Or that she was."

"Too cryptic for this time in the morning, Mol. Got to rush, I'll see you later."

Max pats my head - as if I were a pet dog - then dashes out of the door. So then I have to go and re-build my bloody hairstyle again.

The day doesn't get any better when my hair repair results in me being five minutes late for work. Vicky looks at her watch as I walk in, says, "Tut-tut, Molly," and writes something down in her notebook. I must start reading up on voodoo - there's a wealth of her fallen hair to use for an effigy, after all.

There's no time to do any research today, though, and I just can't seem to catch up on that lost five minutes no matter how hard I try. There's still work left unfinished when I admit defeat at about 5:30pm and go home. Thanks to fretting about Max - and Korea - I can't concentrate anyway, so it's probably safer to start fresh in the morning.

Max makes me a cup of tea when I arrive, and seems in a fairly good mood, so I take a deep breath and say,

"Max, I need to talk to you about something important."

"Hmm?" he says, turning the TV on.

I turn it off again, at which point he looks slightly less good-humoured.

"Talk," I say. "You know, that thing we used to do occasionally. Along with having sex."

"Oh, you've had that sort of day, have you? Is this really a good idea, in that case?"

Max sips his coffee and stares at the blank screen. He must be able to see something that I can't, given how hard he seems to be concentrating.

"I want to know - um, well, I think I want to know - er, what is going on with Ellen."

There, I've said it. Now I feel sick.

"How would I know?" says Max. "Haven't seen her for days. Why?"

Honestly, could he make this any more difficult? I run my fingers through my hair and then regret it. You should probably look your best when questioning your husband about his other woman.

"That's not what I meant," I say. "I want to know what's going on between you and Ellen. I know there's  something."

Max starts laughing, and I glare at him until he stops. It takes a lot longer than if Joan had done it.

"You're serious?" he says. "Oh, for God's sake, Mol. If you don't know me better than that after all these years, what hope is there? Now can you please turn the TV back on?"

There's so much I want to say to that, but for some reason, I can't seem to find the words. I press "On" and go outside for a cigarette instead.

It's probably a good thing I don't have any spare artillery shells lying about, or I might become the Kim Jong-Il of Northwick. I could cheerfully lob one at the sofa right this minute.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Medusa of Northwick, Or Why One Can't Always Be Expected To Rise Above Gossip

Joan stops me in the corridor this morning. I suppose it's preferable to her usual tactic of cornering me in the loo, but not by much.

"Molly, what's going on with Andrew and Trish?" she says.

"What d'you mean? " I say.

"She picked him up from GC* on Friday night. Didn't look like he was too happy about it, either."

Joan fixes me with that look. No wonder it terrorised the kids in South Park.

"Ah," I say.

"Exactly," says Joan.

After I've dredged up several acceptable reasons why Trish might have insisted on collecting Andrew rather than leaving him to find his own way home - such as cold weather, or that she just happened to be passing - Joan gives me the look again. It really makes your bowels clench.

"Come on, Molly," she says. "There was more to it than that. I overheard them arguing in the car park."

"Ooh, did you?" I say. "What about?" One can't rise above curiosity indefinitely, after all.

"I don't know for sure. First Andrew refused to get in to the car, because he said he had another engagement to go to, and then Trish said 'The fuck you have.'"

Blimey. Trish doesn't share Andrew's penchant for swearing, so her using that sort of language is unheard-of. I wonder who the "other engagement" was with? I bet it was bloody Vicky.

"What happened then?" I say.

I know I should rise above office gossip, but I might as well get the full story - as it's not as if everyone else won't already know the gory details, after all. Joan's not known as the bush telegraph of Northwick Labour Party for nothing.

"Trish leant over, and grabbed Andrew's new pipe out of his mouth. Then she snapped it in half and threw it at him. Really hard."

I don't quite manage to hide my laugh, as Joan continues:

"He noticed me when he jumped out of the way, so then I had to get into my car and drive off. Oh, sorry - hang on, Molly." Joan's mobile is ringing.

Thank God for that. I am saved from having to comment on what she's told me by the bell. Or by her phone's massively annoying ring-tone, anyway. I make a break for it, while Joan starts a heated argument with the photocopier engineer.

When I get back to my desk, I find that Trish and I aren't the only ones whose relationships are in trouble. There are three letters from people whose "partners" have cheated on them in today's post.

They all want Andrew to report their cheating ex-loves to the DWP* for benefit fraud, and their letters provide comprehensive and detailed information - such as National Insurance numbers, places of work and car boot locations - to facilitate the process.

The Boss will never have any truck with this sort of thing, so I have to write back and make vague references to our inability to use third party data due to the Data Protection Act. No doubt I'll eventually get replies asking why the Benefits Agency's Fraud Hotline doesn't share the same scruples.

All this stuff does make you think, though - doesn't it? I may have to revise my position on talking to Max about what is going on with Ellen.

In fact, I've decided I'm going to take a leaf out of Trish's book and tackle him when I get home tonight. Perhaps Joan would like to come along and back me up with some more of her looks.

*DWP - Department for Work and Pensions, for those of you lucky enough to still have jobs.
*GC - General Committee Meeting of the local Party, as before. For those of you lucky enough never to have to go to them.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Why Erect Is Not Always A Good Thing.

Let's just say I am not having an Edith Piaf moment. I could not regret this haircut more.

I nearly have a heart attack when I spot myself in the mirror this morning.

"Holy shit," I say to Max. "What the hell happened to my hair in the night? Was I actually swirling around?"

"It's just sticking up a bit," he says.

Given the lack of gold stars, I don't know how he considers himself an expert on such matters, but I refrain from mentioning that. Instead, I start trying to resurrect my hairstyle, which takes a lot longer than you'd think.

"Brilliant," I say. "Now I'm going to have to go through all this every bloody morning."

"It does look much better short, though," says Max.

As far as I'm concerned, this is right up there with "You have a great body for your age" in terms of being a backhanded compliment. Why didn't Max tell me my longer hair looked terrible at the time?

My ostentatious sulking seems to have no effect whatsoever on anyone, though - probably because there's no-one at home to witness it. Josh and Max decide to go into town, while I go back to bed in an effort to stop the room moving.

When they arrive back home - after what appears to have been a diversion to the pub - I decide to risk returning to an upright position, and am rewarded with both good and bad news. The bad news is that lying down has made my hair stick up again, but the good news is that Dad has sent me another email.

There are more photographs attached but, yet again, there's no text to give me a clue as to the contents, so I call Josh and order him to open the files. You can't be too careful, after all.

As I put my hands over my eyes, just in case of a sudden vertigo-inducing attack of naked Thai brides or man-boobs, Josh starts double-clicking.

"Here we go," he says.

We both stare at the screen in disbelief.

"Fish," I say.

"Yes, indeed, Mother," says Josh. "Nothing gets past you."

"Very funny. But fishing? For fish?"

It's hardly a common hobby for a man with a short attention span, is it? But at least Dad's got a new interest. Maybe he'll decide to come back home now, and the Porn-Poon saga will be over. Stepmother Mark IV averted.

"Yes!" I say, and punch the air. Josh raises his eyebrows.

"Yes, what?" he says. "Since when do you like fishing?"

"I don't," I say. "But this means Dinah's right: Dad must be bored."

"He's probably just passing the time 'til he can get score some more Viagra," says Josh. "I wouldn't get your hopes up."

After yesterday's triumph of reality over optimism, this is probably good advice, but it has given me an idea: I wonder how Max would react to Viagra? You could probably extract it from my hair. That's definitely got a problem with frequent erections.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Some Things In Life Should Be Taken Much More Seriously Than They Are.

Argh, what made me do that? It's all Max's fault. He obviously likes women to look like bloody boys, as per the whole James Blunt thing.

I ask him how he thinks I should have my hair cut, before he leaves for work this morning. Admittedly, he's already running late and so doesn't have much time to look at all the pictures of hairstyles I put in front of him - but, honestly, this is a serious decision and demands careful thought.

He ignores all the photos I have put stars next to, and opts for something completely different instead. A messy crop.

"Are you sure?" I say. "I don't want to look like those women of a certain age who work on the cosmetics counters in Debenhams. Like they've jammed their fingers in the plug socket."

"It'll suit you," he says. "You're only small and longer hair drags your face down."

"That's gravity," I say, but he's already rushed out of the door.

I stagger off to the hairdresser's shortly afterwards, in the hope that a haircut will make me feel better, and I'm still feeling quite optimistic after I hand Gino the photograph.

"You'll be a new woman after this," he says.

"I do hope so," I say. "I've gone off the old version."

Things seem to be going quite smoothly until, half-way through the haircut, I have to lie down on the floor until the room stops spinning. It takes ages, and Gino seems pretty fed up by the time I can sit up again. I think I may have been lying in his way, but he didn't need to step over me with quite so much exaggeration on his way to the sink.

Anyway, he's definitely taken his revenge. Now I have no bloody hair left, and look exactly like an extra from Oliver!* You should be made to sign a declaration that you are of sound mind before changing your hairstyle.

And you should never listen to your husband, either. When I get home and take another look at the haircut in the photograph, I see that it is entitled, "For the mature woman." Thanks, Max. Why does "mature" make me think of decayed, rather than ripe?

*Oliver! - I'd rather look like Jack Wild than Mark Lester, just in case anyone's wondering. Though should a grown woman - albeit a headless childlike version - really look like either of them?

Friday, 19 November 2010

A Strategy To Produce Better MPs, By Molly Bennett, Aka The Mother Teresa Of Northwick

While I've been pole-axed by swirling rooms and trying to think philosophical thoughts, I've been mulling over the state of our politicians. Especially the one who ate my bloody sandwich this lunchtime.

It's occurred to me that MPs should be made to take sabbaticals, particularly as more and more of them seem to be becoming professional politicians before they've had any work or even life experience outside politics. Six to eight weeks a year ought to do it.

I know MPs already get months off when Parliament's in recess, but that's not what I mean. I'd make them take the same (i.e. much shorter) holidays as the rest of us (except for teachers like Ellen), then spend the rest of each Recess working at the sharp end. Under assumed identities, so they don't just get to see the bits that have been pre-gilded to impress them.

If The Boss had to spend a week or two in a hospital ward as an orderly, and then another few as a debt adviser, for example, he'd have a much better idea of the real situations his constituents face. And of the obstacles and possible solutions to their problems. Any attempt he made to influence policy formation as a result would at least have the virtue of being genuinely informed.

Andrew used to get some real-life input from constituents during surgeries, of course, but that was in the days when he was really listening. I don't know what's happened to him lately - whether he's burned-out, chronically tired, or just distracted by whatever is going on with Vicky - but he doesn't really seem to absorb what he's being told any more.

The only exception to this was the Leylandii business the other day, which is what got me started thinking about this, actually. I know his solution was completely impractical - as well as probably illegal - but at least he saw Mr and Mrs Parker's situation and really understood it, for once. And he brought it up afterwards, too. You could have knocked me down with a feather.

Maybe The Boss doesn't usually worry about the outcomes of constituents' cases because he's started to believe that his almighty power as an MP will override everything, whether it be social security regulations, or waiting lists, or even the housing shortage. Even so, it's depressing that, the longer he's been an MP, the less interest he seems to take in what happens to the people he promises we'll try to help.

I mean, it's nice that Greg and I are trusted to do a good job without any oversight, but I can't understand how Andrew can just forget about most of the constituents once they leave surgery. You'd think curiosity would kick in sometimes, if nothing else. Unless he just has a short attention span, like Dad. (And look where that's got him, not to mention me and Dinah.)

Greg and I have completely different attitudes. Even when we take annual leave, the first thing we do upon returning to work is to check what's been happening with our cases while we've been absent. That's if we haven't already phoned in during our holiday, especially if a significant deadline's been scheduled to occur while we're away.

We don't do it because it's our job - but because these people are real to us. (Too real in the case of the usual suspects, but that's a different issue.) At the risk of sounding like Mother Teresa, I wish that Andrew still seemed to care as much as we do. He was a much better MP when he did.

Anyway, I'm going off on a bit of a tangent, so I need to re-focus on the main argument - I really hope Mum's rambling Kevin Turvey thing isn't hereditary - and explain why my sabbaticals suggestion would be good for MPs in other ways, too.

When Michael Portillo spent a week living with that single mother on benefits, it didn't do him any harm, did it? Even though he didn't go undercover, it did bring him good publicity. I've had a sneaking affection for him ever since, and I bet I'm not the only one.

It also helped that, although Portillo did look completely out of his depth, he did at least seem aware that he was in deep water. I'm starting to wonder if Andrew thinks he can bloody walk on it. And as far as his political philosophy goes, well - there's more to that than smoking a pipe and wandering around trying to look like Jean-Paul Sartre, isn't there?

So, to sum up - quick, before Channel 4 News starts - if MPs really want to help anyone, and to make policies with a chance of achieving their aims, then a regular reality check would be A Bloody Good Thing.

There endeth the sermon as delivered by Molly Bennett in uncharacteristically dictatorial mode. This may be due to vertigo, but hopefully normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Right Earful, And The Shortcomings Of Georges Bloody Perec

I've given up on Perec. His bloody book's no help at all when it comes to real life. It must be the most useless user's manual ever.

He obviously never met anyone like Miss Chambers - who phones this morning to complain that someone has posted more dog poo through her letterbox. When I ask if she's reported it to the Police, she says,

"How can you be so stupid? You can't trust them an inch."

"Oh, I'm sure that's not the case," I say, but this seems to enrage her even more than usual.

"I told you they stole my teapot!" she screams. "I can't take any more of this. If I kill myself, it'll be your fault."

Oh, for God's sake. I'm not having that on my conscience. I take a deep breath, brace myself to return the phone to my ear, and then say,

"Well, if you're feeling like that, I really think you should speak to your GP and see if he or she can help."

"I haven't got a GP. My last one threw me off his list."

Then she starts screaming. No words, just a long, drawn-out sound that I can't even begin to reproduce.

The noise travels down the phone line, hurtles in through my left ear, and exits through the other one, apparently making it all the way into Greg's office, and causing him to come rushing in to mine.

I drop the phone, but Miss C has already hung up.

"What the hell?" says Greg.

"She's threatening suicide, so I suggested she go to see her GP and she just went ballistic," I say. "God, my ear hurts."

"I'm not surprised," says Greg. "Never heard anything like it. Not even from her."

"Well, it's probably your fault. Have you been posting more dog poo through her door?"

"Don't be stupid, Molly. I'm not risking that again. I value my life too much."

Greg shows me an article about a man who was killed after urinating through someone's letterbox, but I can't read it as the whole room is starting to swirl.

After about an hour, I am feeling so sick that I have to lie down on the sofa in the Oprah Room, much to Vicky's disgust, and eventually, Greg sends me home. Via my GP.

Apparently I either have Labyrinthitis - whatever that is - or damage to my eardrum. So now I'm stuck with having to lie down to stop the room moving, while I bet Miss Bloody Chambers is sitting in an armchair, happily watching TV and knitting.

Unless she's making herself a straightjacket, there is no justice.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

In Which My Brain Is Discovered To Be Deader Than Previously Thought

Oh, dear God. Things are worse than I thought. Just spent hours banging on about Sophocles, and mocking Vicky's inability to pronounce it, when all the time I meant Socrates.

Is this what is known as a senior moment? What a complete idiot. I am quite clearly no longer an intellectual. Or even vaguely competent...

An Intellectual Voice In The Wilderness, And The Shortcomings Of Marriage Guidance.

I've had a brainwave. Maybe Max and I could go to Relate. I mean, that's what they're for, isn't it? Propping up the marriages that are the foundation of social stability. I decide to phone them at lunchtime, while Vicky and Greg are out.

In the meantime, I'm going to think about ways to make myself more interesting, in between dealing with the usual suspects. I think I've turned into Mrs Dull and Boring, as well as a headless child. I used to be an intellectual!

Someone mentioned Plato the other day, and I was shocked to realise that the only thing I can remember about him is that thing in the Crito about Sophocles not standing up for himself when he was wrongly accused.

I only recalled that because it came up in a discussion I had with Connie while she was studying Philosophy and Ethics at A-level. I had a terrible time convincing her of the validity of Sophocles' claim that, if you believe in the rule of law, then - logically - you should accept your sentence even if it is unjust.

"Sod the rule of law if it means I get punished for the stuff Josh has done," she said. "I'd rather have anarchy any day."

I doubt she would, actually - Josh would be bound to come off best in that situation, but Connie got even more annoyed when I said so. I had to change the subject and ask her when R.E. became Philosophy and Ethics. I might even have been tempted to have studied it if it had been called that in my day.

Whatever, it occurs to me that the way we fight cases on behalf of constituents is quite similar to old Soph's approach: force small admissions, and build on them until we've indisputably won the whole argument. (When there is an actual argument to be won, of course. I'm not talking about Miss Bloody Chambers and Edmund Beales here.)

I mention my new theory to Greg and Vicky when they get back from lunch. They look at me as if I am mad.

"What the hell are you on about, Mol?" Greg says. "Greek philosophy has absolutely nothing to do with what we have to take from this circus of freaks."

Vicky just says, "Who's Sopholololes?"

I am a rose amongst thorns. I shall put aside Henning Mankell and start reading something intellectual as soon as I get home. I might even give Perec another go.

I need something to give me hope, as it turns out that Relate's service isn't free. Can you believe it? I have no idea what I've been donating my clothes for all these years for. Big Society, my arse.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Goodbye To All That, And The Usefulness Of Lists.

Okay, that's it with the weight gain plan. I am sick of Complan already.

It tastes like liquidised wallpaper paste, so I'm going to have to come to terms with being a headless child. And Max will just have to accept me as I am - unless he's already decided he prefers blonde James Blunts, in which case gaining a couple of stone won't help.

Anyway, I am not going to think about that today. Marriage is off the agenda, despite William and Kate's attempt to distract us all from the spending cuts. I shall bury myself in my work instead.

It's got to be preferable to sitting around stewing about my home life, even though the dreaded Vicky's back. She isn't wearing a neck collar, so I can only assume that I misdiagnosed her condition. I do have another go at finding out what's she up to, though. I haven't entirely given up on my powers of detection.

"What exactly is it that you're working on now, Vicky?" I say. Subtle is my middle name.

"Something special for Andy," she says. "Confidential."

Huh. Andy. And what a hypocrite! Vicky hasn't even been made to sign a bloody confidentiality agreement, since she complained to The Boss that my suggestion was offensive.

"Everything that goes on here is confidential," I say. "You can tell us."

She won't divulge anything else, though - so Greg's going to have to stalk her, if we're to have any chance of discovering what's going on.

I'm thinking of stalking Max, too. Maybe I'll follow him the next time he "pops to Sainsburys" and check that he isn't stopping off at Ellen's for a quickie instead. In the meantime, I could always start keeping a list of the evidence that suggests that he's having an affair.

I like lists. They're deeply reassuring. In fact, I'm sure I used to make them when I was trying to decide if a boy liked me or not. I shall get my old diaries out again tonight, and check what method I used.

When I mention this to Johnny in an email, he seems pretty pleased about it.

"Then you'll see that I was your first love," he says. "And probably The One."

"I don't believe in The One," I say. "It's only my single friends who do. And, last time I looked at my diaries, you got a mention as my first exhibitionist, but I'm sure I didn't say anything about love."

"You said you'd written Molly Loves Johnny For Ever."

"That was Luvs," I say. "Totally different thing. Fuelled by teenage hormones, too many Babychams, and The Real Thing."

Johnny spends the next few emails trying to persuade me that we all need some romance in our lives, and pointing out that my life with Max is hardly the stuff of Mills and Boon. It seems that even he is not immune to the bloody Royal Wedding.

I study Max's expression for signs of a romantic disposition while he watches TV tonight. It's hard to tell much from the side of someone's head, so I eventually give up trying to read his mind, and start flicking through the diaries instead.

I soon come across some old lists, though they're not exactly illuminating. For a start, I have no idea who half of them refer to, this one being a good example:

Kev Likes Me/ Likes Me Not. 

He looked at me when I trod on his foot while getting on the school bus.
He answered me when I asked if he was playing footie after school: "No."
He gave me his chewing gum wrapper to put into the bin.
He called me Short-arse twice.

He didn't ask me out.
He looked at Julie Firman's tits all the way home.
He called me Short-arse twice.

Who the hell was Kev? I have no idea, but he sounds a bit of an idiot.

The lists are interspersed with pages and pages of differing versions of my signature - my first name, combined with the surname of whichever boy was in favour at the time, including David Cassidy and Marc Bolan. (Neither of these two went well with Molly.)

Molly Hunter doesn't make an appearance - although it doesn't sound too bad, now I come to think of it. If I was called that, I'd probably make a brilliant stalker. And it's a definite improvement on Kate Wales.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Beware The Activities Of The Furniture Spooks.

This is probably going to be a bit garbled, as I'm not exactly thinking straight. God knows what possessed me to go to bed so early last night.

Not only did I miss the chance to snoop out of the window to see if anyone else got out of the car when Max finally arrived home, but I also missed my opportunity to phone Sam and pretend I needed to speak to Max. Now it's too late to pull that one.

I wish I could find the Valium that Dad left here. I could really do with something to calm me down. Whoever said knowledge is power was absolutely bloody right, and Max is even more uninformative than usual today.

If he worked for MI5 or 6 I'd understand it, but I can't see someone who works in the furniture industry being privy to many state secrets. Unless one of them is the exact amount by which the public sector is routinely charged over-the-odds for desks and filing cabinets.

When we get up this morning, I decide to act normal and see what I can find out that way.

"How was your weekend?" I ask.

"Oh, okay."

I wait a bit, in case Max is just pausing for breath, but when nothing else is forthcoming, I have another try:

"So what did you guys get up to?"

"Not much," he says. "Do you want to use the shower first?"

This international man of mystery stuff is so annoying. God knows whether Max was staying at Sam's, or shagging Ellen in public somewhere - I just can't tell. Which is pathetic, given how good I am at detecting when other people are lying.

I knew that Lucas North was no good right from the first episode of Spooks. In fact, Max and I had an argument about it, when I forgot my promise to stop telling him what I think's going to happen next, and now he says I ruined the rest of the series.

My honesty detector might be malfunctioning when it comes to getting a reading from my husband, but it's back on form once I arrive at the office. I know Greg's lying as soon as he says he jogged to work, for example.

"How do you know that?" he says. "You been stalking me?"

"No," I say. "Didn't need to. You must have put those on in the lobby."

I point at his feet, and Greg looks incredulous, until he notices my shoes. They are soaked, whereas his trainers are bone dry. And it's pissing down outside.

"Oh, well," he says. "It was worth a try. I wanted to encourage you to get fit in readiness for our little jaunt to check on the loonies of Florence Road. Can't afford any passengers on such a dangerous mission, and I'm the only one with youth on my side, after all."

Luckily for him, the phones start ringing before I can reply. They don't stop until mid-afternoon, when Greg rushes out to buy himself "a healthy snack." I don't have an excuse to go out as my so-called lunch is waiting for me in the staff kitchen. More's the pity.

Marie-Louise calls while I'm trying to force myself to drink yet another mug of bloody Complan.

"What is going on, Molly?" she says.

That's what I'd like to know, too - though I hope Marie and I aren't talking about the same thing. I don't think she's even met Max, although anything's possible, I suppose.

"What d'you mean?" I say.

"Why are so many appointments going missing from the diary? Andrew has given me a verbal warning this morning - or, at least, that's what I think it was. In amongst the swearing."

"I don't know, Marie. Greg and I wondered that while you were off sick. We thought it wasn't you."

"I can't prove that, though - can I? I am the Diary Secretary, after all."

Marie sounds as if she's on the verge of tears - again - although she calms down a bit when I suggest she should print a copy of the diary every time she makes a change, as a half-soaked insurance policy.

After she has promised me not to resign, and has rung off, I fill Greg in on what has happened.

"Well, there's nothing else that we can to do to help today," he says. "Seeing as our prime suspect hasn't come to work again."

"If it is Vicky, how are we going to catch her out?" I say. "Assuming she doesn't drop dead of her self-inflicted hair-flicking injury?"

"Self-inflickted. Good one," says Greg. "And, in answer to your question: slowly, slowly, catchee monkey."

God knows what he's on about, but I'm pretty sure he's attempting a Burmese accent. Aung San Suu Kyi's release has gone right to his head.

He offers me a fortune cookie.

"These are your healthy snack?" I say.

"Brain food," he says. "Maybe they'll give us a clue as to what's really going on."

"I don't think I want to risk it," I say. "Just in case the cookie thinks I'm curious about something else."

The last thing I want to know is that I'm married to the Lucas North of Northwick, after all. "Bunkbed emergency" does sound a bit like code, now I come to think of it.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Alarms Going Off All Over The Place, Including In My Head.

Gah. I haven't slept a wink. So much for having a restful weekend while Max is away. First I have a nightmare, in which I am at work and spot the number 666 tattooed on Greg's head, and then - as soon as I get back to sleep - I'm woken again by a siren going off.

It's so loud that, at first, I think it must be our burglar alarm, but then I realise I didn't switch that on, because Josh was still out clubbing when I went to bed.

He's back home and fast asleep when I stumble through to his room at about 4:00am, though.

"Josh," I say. No reaction whatsoever. And what is that smell?

"Josh! Wake up!"

"Whassat?" says Josh. Finally.

"Alarm," I say. "Not ours, though. Oh, God - unless it's the car alarm?"

"Don't be daft, Mum. The car's not here, is it? Dad's got it."

It's very annoying when your drunken teenage son is more capable of rational thought than you are.

He's not half so quick off the mark when it comes to going to investigate, though: I have to do that. I can't tell where the noise is coming from when I look out of the front door, thanks to the late-night traffic, so I go into the back garden.

Oh, shit, it's Ellen's alarm. I hope she's all right, though now I haven't a clue what to do next. Knowing someone like Steve Ellington causes a certain reluctance to confront burglars, so I just shout, "Ellen? You okay?" - over the garden wall.

There's no reply, so then I go back inside, and phone the Police. They say they'll be there as soon as they can, but that most units are currently in Northwick's nightclub quarter. (Also known as Beirut at this time of night.)

"Well, please hurry," I say. "My neighbour's a single woman and often on her own at weekends, so I'm worried about what's happening, though I don't really want to risk going into the house myself."

The alarm's still sounding when I put the phone down, so God knows why Ellen hasn't turned it off herself. Something must have happened to her.

"Stop panicking," says Josh. "She's probably come in pissed and set it off herself before passing out in a corner somewhere. Just phone her up."

But there's no answer when I call Ellen's landline, so then I find her mobile number and try that instead. I can barely hear the ringing tone - and not just because of the alarm. My heart sounds as if it's relocated to the inside of my head.

"Uh. Hello? Who is this?" says Ellen. "And do you know what time it is?"

"Oh," I say. "Ellen, it's me. Molly."

"Christ! What are you doing calling me now?" Ellen doesn't sound like someone who's in fear of her life, though maybe I should be fearing for mine, given her snotty tone.

Then she says something else, but I can't hear her properly.

"Sorry, what did you say?" I ask.

"I wasn't talking to you," she says. Oh, I see. There's someone else there.

Honestly, I don't think Ellen has any appreciation of what it takes to be a good neighbour. She barely bothers to listen while I try to explain about her alarm, then just tells me to instruct the Police to disable it.

"I'm away this weekend," she says. "Won't be back 'til this evening." I'm sure she giggles as she hangs up.

I'm not finding it half as funny as she seems to be, especially when it takes until almost 10:00am for the Police to turn up and establish that there hasn't been a break-in.

It takes even longer to switch the damned thing off, as it turns out that one of the policemen will have to force entry to gain access. I don't think Ellen is much nicer to him than she was to me when he rings to seek her permission.

"So sorry to have disturbed you, Ma'am," he says, in a very sarcastic tone of voice. He'd do well in our office. The ability to be rude via excessive politeness is an essential part of the job.

Anyway, now it's lunchtime and I'm so bloody knackered that I should think I'll be asleep well before Max gets home tonight. I wonder what time Ellen will be back from wherever it is that she's been? She'll need to get that window re-glazed as soon as she is.

It's just typical that, on the one night that there's an emergency at her house, Max is away and I have to deal with it single-handedly. Though Max will probably say that it's just an unfortunate coincidence. Not that they happen half as often as some constituents would have you believe. Oh. Bloody, bloody hell.

It can't be normal for a heartbeat to be this loud.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Learning Difficulties - (Grand)Parental Style. Hopefully Not An Omen.

Max has decided to go on a flying visit to Sam's overnight, as he says this is likely to be the last weekend off he'll be allowed before Christmas. He doesn't invite me, but when I look a bit unimpressed, he says,

"You could have come if you'd wanted to. I thought you'd like a weekend to yourself. You can catch up on all that woman stuff you don't like me to see you doing."

Is that a hint that I should have another go with the hair removal wand? Or is it just an excuse? Whichever it is, there doesn't seem much point in arguing, so I wave Max goodbye, and then decide to go for a wander around Primark.

Bloody, bloody Christmas. Why does it have to start so early? The florist I pass on my way into town still has pumpkins piled up in the window, but now they're swathed in Christmas tree lights. Talk about trying to cover all bases. I bet there'd have been hearts in there somewhere, too, if I'd stopped for a better look.

My blood pressure always goes up at the mention of the so-called festive season. Or, at least, it does these days. I didn't used to mind it when the children were young, despite the inevitable Christmas morning fight that would break out between Connie and Josh within five minutes of them waking.

This was usually about ten minutes after Max and I had gone to bed, but watching the kids open their stockings was such fun, even if Josh did get a bit stressed.

Connie's obsession with laboriously un-peeling every bit of Sellotape and folding the wrapping paper as if it were an origami masterpiece - before she even looked at the present - almost drove him into a frenzy. Josh has always been a fan of immediate gratification.

He would rip his presents open as fast as he could, then cram anything remotely edible into his mouth - including an unshelled Brazil nut that he confused with a piece of Chocolate Orange on one memorable occasion. He'd almost always need to be sick by about 10:00am. Or hospitalised. (Maybe not quite as much has changed as I thought.)

Now Christmas just isn't the same. Well, the fun's gone, though the tedious bits remain exactly as they were. I still have to write one hundred and sixty-four Christmas cards every year - another dubious benefit of having an over-extended extended family.

And why do wives automatically become responsible for buying, writing and sending cards to their husband's family too? That wasn't at all what I meant when I said, "I do." Five million years ago.

Top of the enthusiasm-killers is definitely the "Who gets which parent?" question, though. Dinah's already on the case when she phones in the evening.

"You having Gary Glitter for Christmas, if he comes back from Thailand before then?" she says. "He already sounds a bit bored."

"Well, even he probably can't have sex twenty-four hours a day," I say.

"Not without spending all his pension on Viagra, anyway. So - are you going to invite him?"

"What?" I say. "Dinah, it's not my turn. I did it last year. Why can't he come to you?"

"He's too annoying." I suppose that's undeniable, but even so...

"And he hates my kids," Dinah continues. "He will insist on calling Jake Damian."

"Damian?" I say.

"From The Omen. Dad thinks it's bloody funny, but I don't appreciate him looking through Jake's hair every five minutes, and saying he's only trying to find the number 666."

Dinah inhales, then carries on:

"And Dad always picks the remote up the moment he arrives and doesn't let it go until he leaves. He won't even let Jake watch CBeebies, for God's sake. How can you expect a four-year-old to appreciate Rugby Sevens or The Terminator?"

She's got a point there. Whenever Dad comes to stay with us, he insists on having the TV on all the time. As far as anyone can tell, there appears to be no reason for this, except to allow him to change channels. Every thirty bloody seconds.

"Yeah, what is wrong with him?" I say. "I thought Josh was going to have a coronary by Boxing Day. We didn't manage to watch a single film all the way through."

"It's ADHD," says Dinah. "As witnessed by his serial marriages."

I really hope that's not an omen. Max is easily-distracted - especially by naked women - and aren't there more divorces over Christmas than at any other time of year?

Friday, 12 November 2010

How To Turn An MP's Staffer Into A Domestic Goddess. Whether She's Willing Or Not.

The Boss is in a towering rage today, oh joy. I can only assume it's because Vicky has rung in sick. Or, rather, she says she's sick when I phone to find out where she is, though she doesn't tell me what is wrong with her. Probably a cricked neck from all that hair-flicking.

Andrew's also annoyed about the whole Phil Woolas thing. Harriet Harman's not exactly his favourite person at the moment, but he's most furious with the local Party.

"Why?" I ask. "What have Joan and the others got to do with it?"

"I told them to make a complaint about the LibDems' election expenses in Northwick, didn't I?" he says. "But the buggers wimped out. As usual."

"Well, you won anyway," I say.

"Though God knows how," says Greg, rather quietly - but Andrew still hears him. Ears like a bat, that man.

"Pair of comedians, you two, aren't you? he says. "There's no way that bastard Smithson could have afforded all those leaflets within the allowed spending. And as for how much the yellow peril paid for postage and deliveries - well, that'd have taken them miles outside the limit."

For once, The Boss may have a point. It certainly looked bad when Greg estimated the cost just after Election Day, but it's hardly worth crying over spilt milk now, is it? It's not going to help Phil Woolas. Or his staff, for that matter.

Talking of ex-MPs' staff, Jen phones after lunch and sounds really depressed. She still hasn't got a job and is finding being unemployed very difficult.

"I've done all my cleaning by 10:00am," she says. "And I've even resorted to bloody baking this week - Nigella's got nothing on me. I've got Christmas puddings coming out of my ears.'

"Shut up about Christmas," I say. "But I can't believe someone hasn't snapped you up by now. What's going on?"

"Well, I did get offered one job," she says. "But I couldn't bring myself to take it."

"What on earth was it?" Jen is nothing if not multi-skilled. And adaptable - it comes with the territory.

"The new MP phoned to ask if I'd become his office manager," she says. "For Christ's sake. Talk about crass. And he was offering a lower salary."

"Probably to cover his excess election expenses, if The Boss's theory is right."

Andrew looks up, makes an obscene gesture that he usually reserves for use when he's driving, and then returns to the important business of eating Greg's lunch. (I was right about the Complan, even though I can't bear it either.)

"So have you had any interviews at all?" I say. If Vicky manages to get rid of one of us, it may be me that's job-hunting next.

"Loads," says Jen. "Trouble is, no-one can get their heads around what MPs' staff actually do. The breadth of our remit just boggles their minds, and there's never enough time to cover everything. And I think half of them only want to meet me to see what someone who works for an MP looks like in the flesh."

Bloody hell. I'd be unemployable on that basis. Better give the Complan another try.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Two Birds, And The Usefulness Of Knowing When To Make A Quick Getaway.

God, today is stressful. First of all, Trish phones.

"Andrew's in London," I say. "Did you think it was Friday?"

Seems I'm not the only one who has no idea where my husband is half the time although, as The Boss is always in Westminster on Mondays to Fridays when Parliament is in session, you'd think Trish would have learned that by now.

"No, I know it's Thursday" she says. "I want to talk to you, Molly. Is that Victoria still there?"

Trish doesn't sound at all like her usual dynamic self. And why is she asking me?

"Um, yes," I say. "Though I'm not sure for how much longer."

"Thanks. That's all I wanted to know." Then Trish hangs up. I've got a horrible feeling that that wasn't the answer she was hoping for.

Five minutes later, Greg is reading the local paper when he says, "Shit!"

"What?" I say, as Vicky does that long-suffering sigh that denotes her disapproval of swearing. She's probably got her eye on an internship with the Pope next.

"Look at this." Greg puts the paper in front of me.

The front page says: "Man run over by neighbour in bizarre feud." Oh, for God's sake. It's Mr Meeeurghn. He's been mowed down by one of his neighbours, and is now in Northwick General. With minor injuries.

"Maybe we should have taken him more seriously," says Greg. "Seen who they've arrested?"

"Not yet," I say. "Who?"

"John Fuk-Yue. Claims he had an epileptic fit while at the wheel."

Brilliant. Just brilliant. One loony constituent ploughed down by another. Now they'll both want us to help them get justice. Talk about a conflict of interest.

Mind you, there is something very neat about two of our most nightmare constituents putting each other out of action. You might almost say "two birds with one stone." If you were that sort of person.

"Killed two birds with one stone, there," says Greg - who obviously is that kind of person. "Bloody marvellous. Though I've just realised something else. It's not just those two who live on Florence Road. Miss Chambers lives there too - and Mr Everett. The council must be building a loony ghetto."

"Well, we're still not sure Mr Everett is a loony," I say. "It might just be his head injury."

"He scared the shit out of you last time he came in. You said The Twilight Zone theme was playing at full blast."

Greg's right, actually. Despite his smart suit, and his educated and superficially polite demeanour, there is something strange about Mr Everett. If you contradict him at all, or indicate that you are checking his story with the relevant authorities, you can sense the aggression boiling away just beneath the surface.

He claims to have been the victim of a mugging but, so far, no-one seems to believe that that is the reason he was found lying unconscious in the street. Not even the woman who was his girlfriend at the time, though I haven't told him that yet. All the witnesses refer to his habitual drinking, though - when they're willing to speak about him at all, that is.

"Well, yes, " I say. "And I do wish he hadn't taken such a liking to me. I'm getting tired of him coming in every other day, but I've decided I'm not going to see him on my own again, anyway."

"I doubt he'll like that," says Greg. "Seeing as you seem to be becoming his raison d'etre."

This is a really unnerving thought, and I can feel myself go pale.

"Don't fret," says Greg. "That's why we're going to do our next CRB check on Florence Road."

"Oh, God. Do we have to do more of those?" I say. "I've had quite enough of living dangerously."

"It's more dangerous not knowing what we're up against, Mol. This time we'll just do one street. And we'll wear trainers in case we need to make a quick getaway."

"Pity Mr Meeurghn didn't think of that," I say.

Now I come to think of it, it sounds as if The Boss might need to get some running shoes, if Trish's tone was anything to go by. I can't believe I used to complain I led a boring life.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Unreal Woman, Or The Headless Child Bride.

I have got to stop The Boss eating my food. If I get any smaller, I'm going to disappear, and then all that will be left is a pile of clothing, mainly comprised of the five million layers of thermal underwear I've had to resort to now that the weather's become so much colder.

Over the last few days, I've been barely able to move my arms to type, and yesterday Greg would not shut up about Weebles.

"I didn't find that analogy funny when Max first thought of it," I said. "So you lack even the virtue of originality."

Well, you look as if you're wearing a fat suit," said Greg. "Can you even breathe with all that thermal underwear crushing your rib cage?"

"Yes, of course I can. I just have to take shallower breaths. Being skinny is no laughing matter - as you'd know if you ever went to the gym more than twice a year."

"Oooh - defensive behaviour. Another sign of burnout," said Greg. He didn't stop mocking me until I threatened to tell Miss Chambers who had put the dog poo through her letterbox.

Mind you, now I'm not sure that I wouldn't rather be a Weeble than the alternative.

When I get out of the shower this morning, I realise that I've forgotten my dressing gown - so I have to hurtle into the bedroom wrapped only in a towel. A hand towel, as Josh has used all the bigger ones.

Speed is of the essence as, not only is it bloody freezing in our house, but you never know who you're going to meet on the landing: none of Josh's friends seem to have homes to go to, if the number of bodies asleep on his bedroom floor most mornings are anything to go by.

On my way through the bedroom door, the towel catches on the handle, so by the time I'm fully inside the room, I'm totally starkers. And facing the full-length mirror. Oh, my God.

Honestly, if you chopped my head off, you'd think I was about twelve years old. Gok would have a fit if he saw me. He'd have to give up his obsession with the "real woman" thing, and find an alternative phrase. Probably "unreal."

I don't like this idea at all, so I ask Max:

"Do you think I look like a real woman?"

"What?" he says, while hopping about on one foot and trying to put a sock on the other. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, do I look like a woman - or a child?"

"Well, a woman, I suppose."

I suppose? What the hell's that supposed to mean?

"What about if you imagine me without a head?" I say.

Max rolls his eyes.

"Do I have to? Headless isn't exactly normal, is it?"

Now I've found the hand-mirror, too, and I'm twisting about trying to see my back view. Max has stopped getting dressed and is staring at me in disbelief.

"Max - stop looking at me like that! Just humour me for a minute. Woman - or child - when missing my head?"

"Well, um, child, I suppose," he says. Then he pulls a face.

"Oh, thanks," I say. "Is it that bad?"

"Well, it makes me feel like a bit of a pervert," he says. "Being married to a headless child."

So there you have it. I bet that's why we have no sex! I am going to Boots on my way home from work, and I'm going to buy up their entire stock of Complan and eat the whole lot at once. Or drink it, anyway.

I know Complan tastes disgusting, but at least it's unlikely that Andrew will want to help himself to any, so that'll help the pounds pile on. Then I won't need any thermal underwear and my body might match my bloody head for once. These real women have no idea how lucky they are.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Rainchecks, Botox and Pumpkins. And An Impending Sense Of Doom.

I'm off the hook for this Thursday. Johnny's trip to the UK has been rescheduled, so at least that gives me some more time to work out if Max is having an affair with Annoying Ellen the Botox Queen. Though God knows how, seeing as Greg's half-arsed investigations still aren't achieving anything so far.

As Max is smoking again, and is less irritable as a result, maybe I should try and talk to him about what's going on, though I'm not at all convinced that that's a good idea.

After all, lots of married women seem to opt not to voice their suspicions however sure they are that their husbands are up to something. I think it's to avoid being forced into a situation where they have no choice but to act on whatever they find out.

I do know that, if Max is guilty, then I'd definitely be entitled to have a fling - as long as said fling was metaphorical and didn't involve Johnny falling over any more stationary objects - but what then? What would happen to Connie and Josh if Max and I split up? Or to me, for that matter? It's not as if I'm sure I'd want to spend the rest of my life with Johnny - even if that was an option.

I'd never get through the oil company's wives' training course, for a start. I can barely boil an egg, let alone prepare canapes for five thousand people, and I can't even eat one of those without getting crumbs all down my front. Now I'm definitely having a hot flush.

"It's another panic attack, you muppet," says Greg. "You're losing your mind. Told you you'd been doing this job too long."

"Thanks so much," I say. "Where's your empathy gone?"

"Caseworker burnout. Well-known problem. You need some Valium."

I suppose Greg could be right, so I decide to make an appointment to see the doctor about my hormones while I'm at the surgery with Josh after work. I'm sure he's broken his hand.

He says that he didn't expect the Hallowe'en lantern to be so hard, and now regrets punching it while yelling "You know the band, the Smashing Pumpkins? Well, this is their greatest hit!"

"Do you never learn?" I say.

"Just playing it for laughs, Mum. Just for laughs. You should try it sometime," says Josh. "Unless that's what you were doing when you chose that outfit."

Honestly, what happened to respecting your elders and betters? Now Josh can tell the doctor how he got this latest injury all by himself. That'll teach him and, anyway, there's only so much embarrassment a parent can take.

So I'm sitting in the waiting room and enduring the seemingly-endless jingles that comprise ninety per cent of Radio Northwick's output, when I spot something lying amidst the old copies of People's Friend and Heat on the table. It's the surgery's newsletter, printed on bright pink paper, and giving details of flu jabs and diabetes clinics.

Good God. And Botox injections - at £150 a throw. What the bloody hell is going on? Isn't Ellen's shiny forehead depressing enough? Now even my doctor seems to be saying that I need my face paralysed in order to be healthy, or at least, to ensure that the sight of it doesn't make anyone else ill. And this is an NHS practice!

I bet Botox is compulsory for oil barons' wives, now I come to think of it. I am doomed. If Josh hadn't already smashed the pumpkin, I'd be very inclined to put it over my head.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Slavery, Unpaid Work And Daytime TV: Constituents On Reforms To The Benefit System.

Today is filled with the post-weekend moans of the usual suspects, and also lots of calls from people with an opinion on Iain Duncan-Smith's latest proposal to make the long-term unemployed do a minimum of four weeks' voluntary work.

Constituents might all be sticking to the same subject but, God, their opinions vary. Some of them are enraged that people are to be made to work unpaid, and one even bandies the word "slavery" about. (Obviously the recent criticism of Boris et al for the use of over-the-top language hasn't filtered through to everyone yet.)

Of course, Mr Beales has a completely different point of view. (Probably due to those glasses of his.)

"Why does everyone keep saying these people will be working unpaid?" he says. "Taxpayers like me are already bloody paying them - to sit on their backsides and watch daytime TV. While eating pizza."

Thank God Mr Beales rarely notices if I don't reply, and nor does Richard Levison, who wants to know why the Labour Party is objecting to the idea, given that they put something similar in place themselves. Or so he says.

Even Joan has a contribution to make, when she catches me on my way back from the loo:

"I know it's not the Party line," she says. "But I did voluntary work to get back into the jobs market once my kids were older. Sometimes it's the only way to make your CV worth anything after a big gap."

It seems that Joan has her finger on the pulse where issues are concerned, at least where young people are concerned. It must be due to her being the bus driver in South Park in a parallel universe.

A recent graduate called Jim Mackie phones and, after telling me that he's never contacted his MP before, takes Joan's point a whole lot further:

"These proposals," he says. "About time, too - though only if they make sure that the work is bloody relevant."

"Um, yes," I say. "Did you have something specific in mind?"

"I've got a degree in Molecular Biology," he says. "And I've been unemployed all year. The f*cking Jobcentre hasn't a clue where graduates are concerned."

Then he goes on to explain that, after he finished university, he got a research job with a company which quickly became a victim of the recession. So Jim had no option but to move back home to live with his parents, as he was under twenty-five and therefore only entitled to half the Housing Benefit payable to an older person.

"I've been to almost a hundred interviews since I came back to Northwick," he says. "But even though I usually make it to the second interview, I always lose out to someone older. Even for science jobs that only require GCSEs or A-levels."

"That's awful," I say. "But I'm sorry, how does it relate to the new work and benefits proposals?"

"I get turned down because I can't compete with the experience that the older candidates have. A few months ago, I was offered two short unpaid internships by a research lab and by the local university, but I wasn't allowed to take either of them to make myself more employable. My benefits would have been stopped - and, as my parents can't afford to keep me, I need the Jobseeker's Allowance to pay my share of the housekeeping."

"Oh, I see," I say.

"With all due respect, I don't think you do," says Jim. "When I was told that I couldn't do the internships, the Jobcentre said that I would be allowed to do unpaid work in the local RSPCA shop or for some other charity while claiming benefit - even though that wouldn't have helped me at all in the longer term. So it's okay to do something for charity while you're signing on - but not anything that might make you more able to get off benefits."

"Oh, now I do see." Good God, that's ridiculous. No wonder he sounds so angry. I really hope Connie's not going to have the same problem when she graduates.

"So is something going to be done to make sure that these new proposals will allow people to take useful work that might actually get them jobs in the long run? If there are any good internships left by then, because God knows the competition for them is high, too."

"I'll see what I can find out," I say. "But I really hope so."

Honestly, this stuff is so complicated, isn't it? God knows how anyone's supposed to muddle their way through it - and it's not exactly reassuring when MPs are the people making the policies that affect our lives. Not when you work for one.

If a simple thing like cycle helmets is too challenging for The Boss, what hope is there of the Government reforming something as complex as the benefits system without cocking it up even further?

Maybe I should persuade Connie to change her degree subject now, while there's still time. There seem to be publicly-funded jobs for stylists and photographers, after all. Shame the Camerons don't need a personal scientist, as I know just the man for the job.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Smoking Gun. Or Rabbit, In This Case.

Huh, so much for Max's much-vaunted self-discipline during his latest attempt to renounce smoking.

I'm sitting in the garden at lunchtime today - smoking, of course, but then I'm not the one who's claiming to have given up - when Josh comes out to complain about Connie. Apparently, she's getting too competitive while boxing on the Wii and has just whacked Josh on his unbroken arm.

"I'd take that as your punishment for the shoes incident, if I were you," I say. "And, anyway, leave me alone - I've only come out here to get away from you two arguing."

"No, you haven't," says Josh. "You're a filthy addict, unlike Dad. If he can give up - just like that - I don't see why you won't even try."

"Unlike your father, I have a genuinely stressful job," I say, "And maybe I'm not motivated by the same rewards."

Josh isn't listening. That's so typical.

"Look at that," he says, pointing towards the side of the shed. "Something's on fire."

He's right. There are clouds of white smoke, billowing around from the back of the shed wall and drifting across the garden.

"Dad. Dad!"

Honestly, I don't know why the kids always assume Max is the only person who can deal with an emergency. He doesn't even know the meaning of the word, not to mention that I am the designated fire officer at work. (There's no need for everyone to keep pointing out that I can't lift the extinguisher by myself.)

"Yes?" comes Max's voice - from the other side of the shed.

"What are you doing? Are you okay?" says Josh.

"Just feeding the rabbit, and cleaning out the hutch," says Max. "Nothing to worry about."

"But there's smoke coming from the back of the shed." Josh is getting very worried now, and is heading towards it.

"No, that's just dust from the hay. I'll be with you in a minute."

"Oh, for God's sake," says Josh, in a tone of deep disgust. "Mum, Dad's smoking a bloody cigarette. Right next to the poor old rabbit. Dust from the hay, my arse."

"Oh, honestly, Max," says Ellen, over the garden wall. "And when you were doing so well, too. "

I do wish Ellen would stop appearing from nowhere, even when she's fully-clothed - although I'm quite enjoying watching Max blustering and claiming it is "just a lapse." At least, I am until I remember that he is my husband, and yet I'm not the one he's been trying to please.

I don't say anything about it, though. Some of us are capable of genuine self-discipline.