Monday, 31 January 2011

Mad MPs, Saintly Constituents, And The All-Too Brief Career Of Professor Molly Bennett.

Ouf, I'm sure the number of constituents contacting us has already doubled since the cuts started. People are terrified of the effect the changes are having on every aspect of their lives, from health to jobs.

Talking of which, the latest spate of redundancies in Northwick doesn't augur too well for my plan to find myself a new career. Which seems even more urgent today, because The Boss has stopped speaking to me again.

This doesn't usually matter when he's in Westminster as, when he's in a sulk, he doesn't normally count conversations where he can't see my face as talking - but today he's not even willing to speak to me on the phone. Every time he calls and I answer, he hangs up on me. It's hard not to take offence after it happens for about the fifth time in the last ten minutes.

Greg looks at the phone when it next rings, then raises his eyebrows and says,

"Private line again, Mol. Want me to try answering it this time?"

"Yes, please," I say. "Maybe you can tell if it's a fault on the line and not just Andrew being an idiot."

Greg picks up the receiver, listens for a second and then says,

"Oh, yes - hi, Andrew. I'm glad it's you - we thought there was something wrong with this line. It keeps ringing and then no-one speaks."

There's another pause, and then he says, "It's the first time you've called? Well, okay - yes, I'll fax it now. Ring me back when you get it."

Greg says that the mystery hang-ups must have been due to a problem at the exchange, as Andrew sounded "fairly convincingly innocent."

So I calm down and stop swearing about passive aggression, until there's yet another call on the private line and I pick up the phone. To be met with silence, except for Marie-Louise's voice in the background saying, "Andrew, what about this?" quickly followed by the dialling tone.

"So much for blaming BT," I say to Greg. "For once, it's definitely not their fault. Andrew's just playing silly buggers again."

Greg pulls a face and sends me a link to Trovit Jobs as an admission of defeat. I register my details on the site, though I have absolutely no idea what sort of work I'm seeking. It's the same problem as with my CV - there's no neat way of summarising all the disparate stuff I do at work. Or not without sounding as if I am a psychiatric nurse, anyway.

Eventually, I just select anything and everything that could possibly be relevant, and then tick the box to confirm that I want to receive regular emails advising me of all the vacancies that might suit my (admittedly-peculiar) skill-set.

"You're learning the pointless jargon already," says Greg. "If you don't watch out, you'll soon be sounding as if you work for Northwick Council, and not for a bad-tempered MP with an unpredictable nature."

This prospect worries me so much that I decide I'd better distract myself by doing some proper work, so I phone Sheila Renshaw, to check how things are going with her.

The call quickly puts my problems into stark perspective. Sheila sounds terrible: exhausted and uncharacteristically tearful; and her usual optimism to seems to have gone completely AWOL.

"I don't think I can cope much longer," she says. "I can't bear to watch him suffer like this, and I really think he needs to be in hospital too."

Sheila's husband, Fred, is much older than she is, but there's no doubting it was - and still is - a love match. She adores him, even though she says that Alzheimers has reduced him to a shell of his former self.

"How many hours of help are you getting now?" I ask, but I can't hear Sheila's answer at all. It's obliterated by a loud, drawn-out sound. I've never heard anything like it, but it makes my stomach feel really funny.

"What on earth was that?" I say. "Did you get a dog for Christmas, or something?"

"No," says Sheila. "That's Fred. He started doing it about a month ago and - "

The rest of that sentence is also rendered impossible to hear by another of Fred's seemingly-random noises, which sound like a very protracted, "Urrrrrr."

"Does he do that all day?" I say.

"Yes," says Sheila. "And all night - the poor, poor man."

Honestly, the woman is a saint. Having to listen to that agonised sound would drive me insane with helplessness within an hour, and yet - as usual - Sheila's only thought is for her husband's pain. I have no idea how I'd cope if Max ever developed such an horrible illness, and I can't even bear to think about how long he'd be able to put up with me if I was the one affected.

Carers have been having a terrible time for years, and yet it seems that things may be about to get even worse, if the Riven Vincent case is just the tip of the iceberg, as I bet it bloody well is. What scares me the most is how the cuts are going to affect all the children caring for sick or disabled parents. They're the most frequently overlooked - and the least likely to know how or where to seek help. If there's any help left, that is - once the cuts have done their work.

It's a horrible thought and, by the time I get home from work, I'm starting to see why Josh says he hates change so much. It is a bit unnerving - and the global picture doesn't help. Events seem to be spiralling out of control everywhere, so I'm expecting Josh to object when I switch on the TV in time for Channel 4 News.

He doesn't. For once, he's viewing change as a force for good.

"Go, Egypt, go," he says, as soon as some footage of Cairo appears. Max doesn't reply, but gives me a funny look, which I return in kind.

"What are you two up to?" says Josh, who never misses anything. "The Egyptians are bringing a repressive regime to an end, and you should be cheering them on. Why are you both pulling such freaked-out faces? What is wrong with people your age? Holly's parents were acting just like you two the other night when the riots started."

"Well, we can't help thinking about the Shah of Iran," says Max, at the same time as I say,

"Ayatollah Khomeini."

Josh is quite obviously none the wiser, so then I end up giving a political lecture about the Iranian Revolution and the kind of people who can step in to fill a vacuum. I think I keep it pretty snappy  - as at least he is still awake by the time I get to the creation of the Islamic Republic, even if his father isn't.

But I don't care about Max's snoring, for once, because Josh has accidentally solved my career problem: I shall apply for a job teaching at a university, and become an esteemed expert in Recent Political History.

I spend the next half an hour signing my name on the back of an old Select Committee Report as Professor Molly Bennett  - until Josh tells me that he's checked online and that all the posts in Politics departments have already been snapped up by MPs who lost their seats.

Probably ones like The Boss, who have never even heard of Gilmour or Tawney despite the fact that both were required reading if you wanted to get a degree in Politics in the olden days. Ignorance continues to be its own reward.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

A Novel Approach To Sex Education, And The Reason Why Josh May Have Chosen Film Studies

Honestly, they should make teaching a spectator sport. It'd be so entertaining. Max thinks it's a great idea, too - but only because of what we discover while we're trying to make a democratic family decision about what to watch on TV.

Josh is flicking through all the programmes available on catch-up, none of which appeal to me in the slightest. Which may be because I am in an unaccountably bad mood: something which has nothing whatsoever to do with PMT, despite the looks Max and Josh keep giving each other, and their less-than-oblique references to the subject. Sometimes it's just like living with Richard Keys and Andy Gray.

"Not that," I say, as yet another Skins/Hollyoaks-type programme is highlighted. "Do we have to watch children's television? I am an intelligent adult, though I can't speak for you two."

"How about this, then?" says Josh, giving Max another of those bloody looks. He presses a button on the remote again, and selects The Joy of Teen Sex.

Isn't that just the most pointless programme ever created? Talk about preaching to the converted. Not to mention that I'm pretty sure that teenagers already get more "joy" than anybody else.

"No," I say. "Not that either. For God's sake."

I glare at Josh, who pulls his pseudo-innocent face.

"But, Mum," he says. "It's educational, and you're supposed to be the responsible parent."

Max raises an eyebrow at this implied criticism of his parenting skills, but otherwise stays out of it, as usual. Q.E.D. - so it seems our son can rest that case.

"Somehow, Josh," I say, "I suspect that you've already got a Ph.D in the Joy of Sex. Unlike in Maths, in which even a bloody GCSE would have been nice."

Josh looks outraged, blames the school, and goes on to claim that even the sex education classes were inadequate.

"So what did they involve, then?" I say. "And which of your teachers took the lessons, anyway? I don't think you've ever mentioned them before."

"Lesson," says Josh. "Singular. Taught by Mr Hazeldean."

Max suddenly stops looking at the TV, and re-joins the conversation. I think he's just realised that the programme's on pause.

"Oh, I always liked him," he says. "I wish my teachers had been a bit more like that. He was such a laugh at Parent's Evenings."

"Mainly because he was completely mad," I say. "Which you wouldn't find half as funny if you worked with total lunatics all week. Anyway, don't interrupt. Josh was about to tell us what he learned. Weren't you, Josh?"

I'm expecting Josh to cringe at this idea, which would serve as just retribution for all his sarky comments about PMT but, tragically, he doesn't. Sometimes I am such an idiot.

I've forgotten - again - that, while Max and I both recall our parents' attempts at giving us "the talk about sex" with absolute horror, our kids have no embarrassment threshold whatsoever . Which Greg always ascribes to what he calls Max's and my mad adherence to the Wafty Parent approach, aka treating your children as if they were your best friends. 

So, unencumbered by any sense of awkwardness, Josh launches into an explanation:

"Mr H was late that morning," he says. "Because his car had broken down. I think he said he'd had to poke one of the brake disks or something like that - I can't remember exactly. Anyway, he'd pretty much welded his finger into a stub by the time he arrived at school."

"Did you have any teachers with normal digits left in your school?" I say. (I am, of course, thinking of Mr Thumb.)

"Honestly," says Josh. "You keep going off a tangents, Mum. Do you want me to tell you what happened with Mr Hazeldean or not? "

I nod, though it occurs to me that maybe we should have raised Josh to be a little less assertive. And less impatient. He does a very ostentatious sigh before continuing:

"So, Mr H walked into class, showed us his stub and told us he couldn't stay because he needed to go straight to A&E. Then he put a porno on, and said, 'This is all you need to know.'"

I try not to laugh, while Max doesn't. He cracks up completely, then pulls himself together and says:

"Well, I reckon that was pretty quick thinking in an emergency."

"Well, yes," says Josh. "That's what we thought too. Until we realised that he must have intended to show it to us all along. Seeing as he'd brought it in with him - on VHS."

Max says later that he thinks that this formative experience may account for Josh's subsequent decision to concentrate on Film Studies at A-Level. I say it may also account for his rather Neanderthal attitude to women. And to any fluctuation in their hormone levels.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Getting On With It. Whatever IT Is.

I spend all morning ranting about The Boss, until Max snaps.

"For God's sake, Mol," he says. "You're starting to sound like one of the mad constituents you're always moaning about."

"That's because I am being driven mad," I say. "It must be contagious."

"Well, don't come too close, then. I don't want to catch it. I need all my wits about me."

In response to my raised eyebrow, he continues, rather portentously:

"Because I am going... into the loft."

Honestly, Michael MacIntyre's loft sketch couldn't be any more accurate. Max isn't getting away from me that easily, though. I follow him onto the landing, and stand underneath the ladder, kicking at the bottom rung for emphasis.

"I think I should try and get another job," I say. "Before I become completely certifiable. Or kill an elected official while the balance of my mind is disturbed."

"Geonwfttuten," says Max. Or words to that effect. What the hell is he doing up there?

"What did you say? I do wish you wouldn't mumble."

He sticks his head out of the loft, rolls his eyes at me and says:

"Get. On. With. It. Then. Before you drive me insane as well. And stop kicking the bloody ladder. You're making me nervous."

Get on with it, then - yes, thanks, Max. It's hardly a considered opinion, is it?

But I suppose he might be right - for once - so I get out my laptop, resist the temptation to chat to Connie on Facebook, and open a new document. Then I type: Molly Bennett - Curriculum Vitae at the top and stare blankly at the page for the next hour.

After a further two hours have passed, I've drafted what may qualify as the worst CV that anyone's ever seen and, to make matters worse, I haven't even finished writing about my current job yet. It's much more difficult describing what working for an MP involves than I expected it to be.

"Doing your CV, then, Mol?" says Max. "How's it going?"

He dumps several dust-covered boxes onto the table and completely buggers my concentration in the process. I put my head in my hands and groan in lieu of a reply.

"That bad, eh?" Max pats me on the back, and says, "I know you work for a politician, but you could always try just telling the truth for once."

Somehow I manage to avoid all mention of pots and kettles, and to stick to the point. God knows how. Sometimes I am a paragon of virtue.

 "I don't think saying that I deal with all the shit that happens in the Constituency Office - while pretending to be the MP - would go down too well," I say. "I'll have to ring Jen and ask for her advice. You're no help at all."

Max gives me a two-fingered salute and heads back upstairs in search of more boxes of Connie's junk. (Also known as Connie Bennett's important sentimental possessions - not to be thrown away.) I smoke a cigarette in a vain attempt to marshal my thoughts, and then dial Jen's number.

"Don't ask me," she says, as soon as I've finished explaining why I've called. "I still haven't got another job. Which makes it even harder not to punch people when they say that now they wish they'd voted Labour in the *GE."

"I know what you mean," I say. "That is annoying, isn't it? But you've had loads of interviews - so at least your CV must look good."

"Thanks," says Jen. "So the problem occurs when employers actually see me, you mean?"

Which rather goes to prove that it is definitely time for me to find another job. I have obviously lost the ability to assess the impact of an ill-chosen phrase.

"No," I say. "Sorry. I meant your CV impresses them enough to want to interview you. And you always look good anyway, Jen."

"It's irrelevant what I look like," she says. "They only ask to meet me because they want the inside track on what it's like to work for an MP, and to see what MPs staff are like in the flesh. Then - usually right at the end of the bloody interview when you think it's all gone really well - they mention the expenses scandal, and you can feel that you're buggered. Tainted by association."

Oh, God, I hadn't even thought of that. So not only is it no advantage to have worked for an MP, it's the bloody kiss of death.

I wonder if this is how George Osborne feels when people keep asking, "What's Plan B?"

*GE - General Election 2010. When some of you must have accidentally voted in some Tories and hardly any LibDems.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Grovelling, Sycophancy, And A Potential Flaw In Andrew Lansley's Plans.

Well, if today is anything to go by, there's no way these NHS Reforms are going to work. Not that I should care, given that I probably won't have a job in politics for much longer, thanks to those idiotic GPs at Silverwood Surgery. Talk about victim culture and people not wanting to take responsibility!

The Boss is already in the office when I arrive this morning, and he's opened all the mail. He hasn't managed to lose any of it, either - more's the bloody pity.

"Molly!" he shouts from the Oprah Room, as soon as he hears me enter the outer office. "Get in here - now!"

Honestly, sometimes I could swear he thinks I'm ten years old. I deliberately take my coat off as slowly as possible, and spend some time turning on my PC and finding a notepad and pen, before I finally join him. I'm trying to teach him that manners maketh man, but it's been a pretty thankless task so far.

"Yes, Andrew?" I say. "Did you want to go through something with me? Or did you just want a coffee?"

"Bloody right I want to go through something with you," he says. "And the coffee can wait for once."

He glares at me, then thrusts a piece of paper into my hand.

"Read that," he says. "Then tell me what the hell you thought you were playing at? You've only gone and upset an entire GP practice."

"What?" I say. Probably a bit tremulously, as The Boss seems so angry that I'm a bit worried about his blood pressure. I'm sure the top of his head shouldn't be that red.

Andrew says nothing, just gestures at me to read the letter, so I obey. Though I can't believe what I'm reading - which is saying something, given the total lunacy of 50% of the mail we receive on any given day.

"But, Andrew," I say. "I didn't say that to Mr Franklin. I just told him what the hospital consultant said - that if Mrs Franklin felt her bunions had worsened significantly, then she should go and see her GP, who could advise the hospital if necessary."

"Well, that's obviously not what Mr F told the GP, is it?" says The Boss. "You bloody idiot. You've pissed off every doctor in the whole practice. Look - they've all signed the letter of complaint, individually!"

My legs suddenly feel a bit wobbly, so I sit down on the sofa next to Andrew, and stare hard at the letter, as if its content is going to have altered since the first time I read it. It hasn't.

The letter still accuses me of irresponsibility, and tells Andrew that the Practice does not appreciate its doctors being made "apologists for systems created by politicians". For God's sake.

"I did explain that it's what the GP writes in the referral to the hospital that often affects the priority that a patient is given on the waiting list," I say. "Which is true, though I didn't put it in the way they're saying I did. And, anyway, seeing as they're doctors, they must be able to tell that Mr F is a total nutter, who'd tell anybody anything to get what he wants."

Andrew doesn't say anything but I can feel that he doesn't give a damn whether I'm being unjustly accused or not. He just wants the problem solved - as usual. I'm so furious that I can't let it go, though, so I carry on regardless:

"So I would have thought that someone from the Practice would have phoned to ask me what I'd actually told Mr F before they kicked off like this, if only out of professional courtesy. That's what I would have done in their place," I say. "I always check my facts before I let loose."

I'm not sure if Andrew hears me or not, as I'm feeling a bit tearful and my voice may have wobbled a bit - I do wish irritation at injustice didn't always bloody well make me cry - but what I've said doesn't change his opinion, anyway.

"I don't care what your excuse is," he says. "I can't afford to have a vocal bunch of bloody doctors against me, so you will write to them today, and apologise. Grovel, in fact. And I want to see a copy of the letter before you send it off, so I can see whether this was only a one-off cock-up, or if you're as crap at your job as I've been hearing."

"From Vicky, I suppose," I say, as I stand and walk out of the room.

I sit at my desk, and type the most nauseatingly sycophantic apology ever written, while swearing furiously under my breath. And glaring at Vicky and willing all her hair to fall out.

Greg raises his eyebrows at me, but I'm still too cross to risk speech - so I just push the letter from Silverwood surgery over to him, together with a copy of my reply. He winces as he reads the sorry saga, then sucks in air through his teeth.

He's about to say something when the phone rings so, instead, he picks up the receiver with one hand, and scribbles something on a piece of paper with the other. Then he holds the note up for me to read.

"Total f*ckers," it says. Sometimes brevity is all it takes.

Greg's analysis makes me feel a lot better, so I'm much calmer by the time The Boss walks up to my desk. He doesn't speak to me, but just holds out his hand, presumably expecting the letter of apology. I wish a number of unpleasant health conditions upon him as I dump it into his palm.

"Right," he says, once he's read it. "Get it in the next post - I don't want this hanging around 'til the end of the day. Let's just hope it does the trick. I can't be doing with a posse of bloody GPs fomenting trouble in Northwick at the moment. They're far too damned articulate at the best of times."

"Oh, I should think they'll be too busy to worry about you," I say. "Seeing as they're going to be running the entire NHS if Andrew Lansley gets his way."

"They're going to find that a bit of a challenge, aren't they?" says Greg. "Seeing as they can't even handle justifying their diagnoses to their patients."

I don't know what Andrew says in reply, as I decide that now would be a very good time to go to the loo. And then to smoke three cigarettes in quick succession.

You'd think I'd want to avoid anything that might make me ill after today's experience - but every unhealthy drag feels like sweet revenge.

Smokers' logic is seriously warped. A bit like that of some GPs.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Nights In White Satin - But Only For The Undeserving.

Honestly, can you believe it? Just when I should have been waking up next to Johnny in a luxury hotel suite after a night full of (hopefully) mad passion, here I am listening to Reg Beales bloody moaning instead.

"So, they're definitely out to get me now," he says. "Just like my brother."

I sigh, and count to ten - twice - before I reply. Just to be on the safe side.

"I think you'll find the Police and the RSPCA are two different organisations," I say. "And the Met* aren't known for taking an interest in horses that are being mis-treated. Not even when the horse is in London - which yours isn't."

"Well, they must have been following me to spot the stupid animal, though, mustn't they?" says Reg. "So our Edmund's got a point. These bloody busybodies should be made to wear high-visibility jackets at all times."

I pass Greg a note which reads:

"Play that fire alarm sound on your phone. Quick!"

Then I turn my attention back to Reg Beales.

"A horse and cart on the main road into Northwick is pretty difficult to ignore," I say. "I'm quite surprised the traffic police didn't have something to say about it as well. If I were you, I'd just apologise and say you've learned your lesson when you go to court - though, to be honest, I doubt you'll get the horse back, whatever you do."

"But how am I supposed to pull the cart without one?" says Reg, as Greg passes me his phone and a siren rings out.

"Got to go," I say. "The fire alarm's going off. 'Bye!"

This triumph of ingenuity cheers me up no end, until I spot Vicky sitting in the Oprah Room. She's filing her nails again, while looking disapprovingly at Greg and me.

"Find her something to do, for God's sake, Mol," says Greg, in a low voice. "It's like having MI5 in here with her watching everything we do or say. Or The News Of The World, anyway."

He's got a point, so I suggest to Vicky that there's a mountain of archiving to do, if she's not too busy.

"I've got to type a report up for Andy," she says. "So I can't do it this week. Sorry."

She doesn't sound it, but I give her the benefit of the doubt. People can surprise you - sometimes. Even when you've worked for an MP for far too long.

"Okay," I say. "But maybe you could make a start on it next week instead? It'd really help us out."

"Can't,"  says Vicky. "I won't be here."

I think Greg manages to mask his ecstatic - if slightly crazed - smile before Vicky notices, but I'm having trouble hiding my joy too. I can feel my lips twitching, unless I've suddenly developed a tic.

"Really?" I say. "Are you leaving us, then?"

"No," says Vicky. "I'm going to that conference with Andy. Didn't he tell you?"

"Shouldn't think he's told anyone," says Greg. "The Media would love it. MP Takes Young Intern To Luxury Hotel doesn't sound too good, does it?"

Not half as good as Oil Baron Takes MP's Possibly Middle-Aged Senior Caseworker To Luxury Hotel, that's for sure. And Saves Her From Lunatic Constituent Charged With Cruelty To His Horse, While He's At It.

I give up, I really do. Life's a bitch, and then you die.

*Met - Metropolitan Police. For some reason, Reg is now convinced that they are out to get him, despite all our attempts to convince him that they are far too busy at the moment.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Bunions, HobNobs And Fatmobiles, Or How Vicky Discovers The Joy Of Helping Others.

God, there are riots and revolutions going on all over the place, but here at work, it's Groundhog Day. Or a parallel universe.

"There's an enormously fat man on a mobility scooter stuck in the corridor outside the lift," says Vicky, when she finally turns up at about 10:00am.

Greg and I look at each other, then both say,

"Mr Franklin."

"I don't know who he is," says Vicky, "but someone needs to go and rescue him. He's already knocked over the Weeping Fig."

"So why didn't you help him?" says Greg. "While you were in the vicinity, as it were?"

"He looked really grumpy," says Vicky. "And he was a bit smelly, too."

God knows why anyone who objects to either of those traits would want to work for an MP, but Vicky obviously doesn't see it as a reasonable hazard of the job. Which is how Greg and I find ourselves trying to manoeuvre a thirty-five-stone man and his fatmobile within a very confined space.

Not only is Mr Franklin no help whatsoever, but he also refuses to tell us how he managed to get through the security doors and into the lift without anyone noticing, and demands answers to questions about Coalition policies while we struggle to turn him around.

After he's covered bankers' bonuses and VAT, he starts on the NHS. It'll be the Ambulance Service next, probably when Greg and I have to be carted off by paramedics after collapsing with exhaustion.

"What are these reforms going to mean for my wife's foot operation?" he says. "I suppose they're bound to be an improvement, seeing as your lot did nothing to speed things up."

"Oh, I don't think that's true," says Greg, jerking the scooter rather viciously.

"Ow," I say, as Mr Franklin's shopping bag falls off the handlebar and lands on my foot.

"Watch out, you idiots!" says Mr F. "My HobNobs'll be nothing but crumbs by the time you two have finished."

Greg looks as if he can't think of anything he'd like better than to crush Mr Franklin's metaphorical HobNobs - if he could find them amidst all the extraneous flesh - so I have to step in before things get completely out of hand.

"Well, has your wife been back to see her GP, as I suggested?" I ask. "I did explain that she needed to tell him if her feet had got worse, because it's usually what's written in the GP's letter of referral that signals to the hospital how urgent a patient's case is."

"Saw the doc at the end of last week," says Mr Franklin. "He said he'd see what he can do - but he told me he's going to write to your boss, as well. He didn't look very happy, so he's probably going to give you a bollocking for doing bugger all to help."

"Um, I'm sure that's not true," I say. "Because we have done something. We wrote to the hospital about your wife's bunions ages ago, if you remember? And the Consultant's reply suggested that your wife see her GP again so that any changes to her condition could be assessed. Which was why I advised you to tell her that."

"Humph," says Mr Franklin. "All you lot do is pass the buck, isn't it? My Rose's feet are giving her gyp, and now her bloody cooking's suffering too."

Greg and I look at each other for a moment, but neither of us can think of a relevant response. Or not one's that's politically-correct, anyway - so Greg settles for crossing and uncrossing his eyes while grimacing instead.

"Was that everything you wanted to talk about, then, Mr F?" he says as, with a burst of energy born of sheer desperation, we finally manage to turn the scooter around so that it's facing the lift. He doesn't wait for Mr Franklin to answer before he says:

"Yes? Oh, good. Bye, bye, then."

He gives the back of Mr Franklin's seat a congratulatory slap while I press the button to summon the lift. Then we both leg it down the corridor as fast as we're capable of moving - which isn't very fast at all, as we're both completely knackered, and one of us is gasping for breath. I must give up bloody smoking.

We've almost made it to the end when the lift goes ping, and a plaintive sound assails us:

"Hang on, you two - what do I do when I get to the ground floor? You meeting me there in case I get stuck again?"

Greg turns round, and says,

"Oh, no - don't worry. There'll be a nice girl with long brown hair coming down in a minute. Just tell her we said that she'd been sent to help you. She's much stronger than she looks."

I raise my eyebrows, but Greg just taps his nose and winks. Then, as soon as we walk back into the office, he rushes over to his desk, and hides all of today's newspapers in the bottom drawer.

"Where the hell have the papers got to?" he says, rather louder than necessary.

Vicky and I both shrug, at which point Greg blames the disappearance on someone from the Party offices, and asks Vicky to go and buy some more.

"It's an emergency, so if you could do it straightaway, that'd be great," he says, as he puts a ten pound note into her hand. "A constituent said there was a big piece about Andrew in one of them, but I'm not sure which."

"Ooh, lovely," says Vicky, for whom the word gullible occasionally seems to have been created. "Maybe there'll even be a photograph!"

"Stranger things have happened," says Greg, as Vicky heads for the stairs and her date with destiny.

She doesn't come back for a very long time and, when she does, the look on her face suggests that this is yet another of Greg's good ideas that I'm going to regret going along with. Especially when she discovers that there isn't even a single quote from The Boss in any of today's editions.

How can she still not have realised that that's something to be very, very grateful for - unlike the opportunity to get up close and personal with a certain biscuit-loving constituent who's rather challenged on the personal hygiene front?

Who appears not to realise how lucky he is that he doesn't need to set himself on fire in order to make his voice heard. Unlike some poor buggers.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Some Other Stuff I Bet Half Of You Didn't Know About Housing And Unemployment.

I know I go on about housing a lot, but honestly - there's such a lot to go on about. And it's no wonder more and more young people are needing The Boss' help.

How the hell any of them are supposed to leave home and become independent is quite beyond me - unless they come from the sort of background that Dave and Nick do, of course.

I'm sitting at my desk at lunchtime, still feeling awful about what happened in Moscow - even though it has got me off the hook about meeting Johnny tomorrow - when the intercom buzzes and a young woman called Rachel asks if she can talk to me about her housing situation.

When I go down to talk to her, it quickly becomes clear that her case is pretty complicated, so I assess whether her manner and appearance lead me to hear The Twilight Zone theme - which they don't - and then bring her back upstairs and into my office. (She isn't wearing metal-framed glasses, either.)

"I'm sorry to have to bother Mr Sinclair about this," she says, "But someone with influence really needs to understand how it is for young people, especially when more of us are unemployed than anyone else."

"Don't worry about bothering Andrew," I say. "He won't mind at all. That's what he's here for."

Honestly, sometimes I make myself feel nauseous with my blatant hypocrisy. What I should be saying is that The Boss won't even know of her existence and has bugger-all influence with anyone these days, anyway - but that wouldn't exactly be reassuring, would it?

So I carry on trying to find out about Rachel's situation - which is bloody grim, and turns out to represent yet another great big hurdle that those with permanent homes or jobs and sufficient income give no thought to whatsoever.

"So you're unemployed, then?" I say, to which Rachel shakes her head.

"Not yet, no," she says. "But my year's contract runs out in a month's time and there's no money for it to be renewed, and although I've applied for loads of jobs, and have got one interview, that isn't until a week before my existing contract ends. So even if I get the job, I'll still be unemployed for a few weeks at best."

"Oh, I do hope you will get the job," I say.

I've taken a liking to this girl - in fact, I'd employ her tomorrow - seeing as she already seems about ten times more competent than Vicky. Or The Boss, for that matter. But now I'm getting distracted, so it's back to housing. Or to the lack of it.

Rachel goes on to explain that being unemployed isn't actually her main concern. Because becoming homeless is.

"I moved to Northwick to take up my current job," she says, "so I took a lease on my flat for a year as soon as I started work. But that runs out a couple of days after my employment contract ends, and I haven't managed to find anywhere else to live yet."

"Ah, I see," I say - though when Rachel continues, it seems that actually I don't. Yet.

"I can't stay in the flat I'm living in, because it's slightly too expensive for Housing Benefit to cover the full cost of the rent while I'm still trying to get another job, but I can't find anywhere else through any of the agencies."

Rachel pauses, and corrects herself:

"Well, I have found one place that would just about be affordable," she says,"but now everything's going wrong and it looks like I'm still going to end up being homeless by the end of February."

It takes ages to get to the bottom of what is going on, partly because tears keep rolling down Rachel's face, and then she stops to apologise for crying as she scrabbles for tissues in her bag. I don't blame her, actually. If I was in her situation, I'd put my head on the desk and bawl like a baby.

It turns out that the flat Rachel's found through an agency is at a rent that is reasonable enough to be covered by Housing Benefit during the time that she's between jobs. But the trouble started when she didn't tell the agent that her current job was about to end, because she was scared that the owner of the flat wouldn't accept a tenant who might end up on benefit, for however short a period that might be.

"I asked the agent what questions they asked on the reference and credit check forms," she says. "And he said that they only want to know the start date of your current contract, and the name and address of your employer - so I thought the landlord wouldn't need to know that I might be unemployed - especially as I'm determined it won't be for long."

She looks apologetically up at me, as if she has something to be ashamed of.

"I'd probably have done the same myself," I say. "If I was in your position."

I'm not being polite either - I'd do whatever it took to avoid becoming homeless, though I'm not sure Rachel believes me. She does smile, though, and then continues with her story.

"So I decided to apply for the flat - as it was the only one I could find at such a low rent - and told the agent to start the process of checking me out to see whether I'd be approved. I had to give him £200.00 to pay for that, and then he gave me the forms to fill in and to give to my employer."

"So the £200.00 was your deposit then?" I say. "Or will you have to pay rent in advance on top of that?"

"Oh, God, yes," says Rachel. "And my bond, too. The £200.00 was only to cover the agency's fee for assessing whether I'd make a suitable tenant. I'll have to find the money for the bond and the rent in advance - before I can claim back the other bond I had to put down on my current flat. So that's one of my big problems. I only earn £13,500.00 a year anyway, so trying to find that kind of money when I first moved to Northwick was hard enough, but it's even worse having to find a second lot and more agency fees, while I'm still paying rent on the flat I'm in until the end of next month."

You can tell from the way that Rachel talks about her family that there is no chance that they can afford to help her out. She's apparently one of those bright kids who made good through working hard at school: born and brought up on a council estate, but now a graduate in one of Michael Gove's favoured academic subjects.

I bet her family thought their daughter's future would be brighter than theirs had been - until the bloody credit crunch blew that out of the water in the year she graduated. Instead of building a career, Rachel's already had one long period of unemployment since she left her Russell Group university, and she seems understandably anxious that she might be about to start another.

"I'm going on about it, aren't I?" she says. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to - but I'm just so angry that no-one in power seems to get what it's like for people in my situation, so I felt I had to come here to try and make my voice heard. I know you can't really do anything quickly enough to help me, but maybe Mr Sinclair could try and argue for changes to help other people in my situation - though I don't know what exactly. I'm having trouble thinking straight."

"Have you been approved for this new flat, then?" I say. "So at least you'll have somewhere to live by the end of next month?"

"No," says Rachel. "It turns out that the agent was wrong when he said that the application form only asked for the start date of my employment contract. It doesn't - so now I'm going to have to tell the truth: that I'll be out of a job in a month's time. And the agent thinks my application will be turned down because the landlord doesn't take tenants who are on benefit."

I don't know what to say to this. The tabloids make it sound like there are vast swathes of unscrupulous buy-to-let landlords out there, all desperately seeking the sick and unemployed as tenants, and only too happy to get their hands on Housing Benefit. Rachel's case paints a rather different picture.

I mean, let's not forget: this is a young graduate with a good degree - employed for the last year and desperate not to be unemployed again. She thinks and acts responsibly, by giving up the contract on where she lives because it's too expensive to be covered by Housing Benefit, and she knows she may have to make a short claim in between jobs.

Then she has to find hundreds of pounds for her bond and as rent in advance for the new flat, while she's still paying rent for the one she's living in, and she can't get her original deposit back in time to use it cover the one on the new flat. And to cap it all, she's made to pay £200.00 to an agent who has misinformed her about the landlord's requirements, so she may end up homeless anyway.

Given the bloody fuss that some of the usual suspects make about absolutely nothing, I'm amazed that Rachel isn't smashing the office up with frustration. But she just sits there, quietly, tearing bits of tissue between her fingers, while I try to make sense of the situation.

"So, if the worst comes to the worst, and the landlord and agent do say that you can't have the new flat because you might be on Housing Benefit for a while, you will get your £200.00 fee back, won't you?" I say.

"No," says Rachel. "It's non-refundable, so I've lost it if that happens."

I look at her in disbelief for a second, before I pull myself together and try a different tack.

"What about the Council's statutory duty to the homeless?" I say. "We could write to them on your behalf. Oh, but I suppose they say you don't fall into one of their priority groups, do they?"

"Yes," she says. "Seeing as I'm not a single parent, or anything. Or even an ex-con."

Gah. Sometimes I could bloody well scream. It's about time politicians - and probably oil barons too - started doing something to help people, especially those who want to bloody work. And preferably before I have a stroke with the rage that I feel on Rachel's behalf, which might have something to do with the fact that there but for the grace of God goes Connie, and probably me, too - if Max leaves me and I lose my job.

So now I'm going to contact everyone I can think of to see if there's anything we can do. But, if one thing's for sure, it's that Rachel  won't be the only young person in this situation.

Maybe we, Joe Public, could force those buy-to-let landlords who have mortgages through RBS or one of the other bloody banks we supposedly own, to accept responsible tenants like Rachel - without making them pay all these stupid upfront fees - even if they are forced by the economic situation to be unemployed for a while. And look again at the criteria we use for those who merit housing, too.

Perhaps I should suggest to Nick Clegg that, if his Party want to earn any credibility back with the 18-30 age group, then this is one of the issues they should focus on, if the LibDems don't want to be dead in the water at the next election? Or maybe David Cameron might like to prove that he does have a clue about what life's like for ordinary people even though Andy Coulson's no longer there to tell him about it.

Come to think of it, if Andy's got nothing on at the moment, he might fancy leading the campaign...

Monday, 24 January 2011

A Matter of Eggs And Death, And A Joke Turns Very Sour Indeed.

"Am I always right, or am I always right?" says Greg, as he walks into the office this morning.

"About what?" I say, though I'm not really paying attention.

I'm too busy trying to gauge whether the latest parcel sent by a local animal rights activist contains a bomb. (You wouldn't believe how many of them put their correct addresses on the packaging, though this is by no means a guarantee that the contents will prove to be innocuous.)

"Metal-framed glasses," says Greg. "Only ever worn by serial killers and paedophiles."

"Not always," I say, thinking of Johnny's eyewear and hoping Greg is wrong. "And anyway, you said they had to have a double bar across the nose to qualify. Now shut up for a minute - I'm trying to see if this makes a noise when I shake it."

Greg gives me a pitying look, then snatches the parcel from my hands, rushes to the doorway and says,

"Get under your desk!"

It says something about my state of mind that I do as he tells me, before realising how unwise this is. As I stand back up, I see Greg throw the parcel - overarm - as far as he can down the corridor, where Vicky trips over it as she exits the lift. She jumps, but only from surprise.

"Safe," says Greg, retrieving the package and tearing off the brown paper to reveal a video cassette. "Unlike people who wear those glasses. I knew that Tabak bloke had murdered Jo Yeates as soon as I saw his specs."

"You also knew that her landlord had done it when you saw his hair," I say. "So you'll forgive me if I don't always think you're right. Though thank God you were about that parcel. You could have blown the whole building up."

"That's because he's an idiot," says Vicky, as she pushes past Greg on her way to the Oprah Room. He sticks his tongue out at her as she slams the door, then lowers his voice and says,

"You'd already ripped the corner of the paper, Mol - so I could see the plastic casing before I threw it."

He winks, then volunteers to make the first round of coffee. Wonders will never cease, and I'm about to make a sarcastic remark to that effect when an email pops into my in-box. From Johnny, wanting to confirm when we're meeting on Wednesday, and whether I've booked my rail ticket to London yet.

"Oh, shit," I say. "Oh, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!"

"Expressive - but a bit repetitive," says Greg, putting a mug of coffee down on my desk. "Where's the thesaurus gone?"

"I told The Boss to take it with him," I say. "To find an alternative to saying he's had an 'interesting meeting' whenever he updates that wretched blog of his. Gave him the dictionary and a local map too - after he mis-spelled the names of half the parishes in his last post. And, anyway, shit is the only word that sums up what I've gone and done."

"Oh, shit," says Greg, when I've finished explaining that I've just realised that I don't have any money to get to London, or to pay for anything when I'm there. Which rather proves my point.

I bang my head on the desk several times, while Greg thinks aloud - which doesn't take long, and isn't very effective either.

"Well, Johnny's loaded," he says. "So just get him to pay for everything. He won't mind. He's maddened by lust, though God knows why. You look a mess."

"Thanks," I say. "And, anyway, I can't do that. What do you think I am?"

"Stupid," says Greg. "What's the point of having a so-called affair with an oil baron when you don't get any money out of it?"

"Or any sex," I say, before reverting to banging my head again. "Why aren't MPs' staff paid until the very last day of the bloody month?"

If I worked for Northwick Council, I'd have been paid days ago, and then this wouldn't have been such a problem. Except that actually it would, because Max has worked out we're not going to have any money even after we've both been paid. And the bank is hardly likely to lend me any, is it? Not when they've got all those bloody bonuses to pay.

"They like to make us suffer," says Greg. "And I'm broke 'til payday too, so I can't lend you any either - sorry, Mol. What are you going to do?"

"Lie," I say, because it's the only thing I can think of. "I shall have to tell Johnny I've been struck down with a mystery illness at the last minute. Or, rather, you'll have to do it for me. I'm terrible at lying."

Thank God Johnny has to come to the UK this week anyway. I'd feel even more awful about the whole thing if he was only flying over to see me but, as he isn't, I'm hoping he'll forgive me. Not that this is very likely if Greg doesn't get a grip.

He says he hasn't had this much fun in ages, and spends the next few hours drafting a series of ever more unlikely explanations, finally settling upon one in which I am to be hospitalised after opening a parcel bomb containing non-free range eggs.

"And the beauty of this idea is that you won't be able to communicate with Johnny until you're released," he says. "Because you will be deaf from the blast, and won't be able to text or type due to the fragments of eggshell that have lodged behind your eyeballs."

I look at him in amazement, which he mis-reads as approval. (Which often happens with mad constituents, too.)

"This is where my expertise in horror films comes in useful," he says.

"Or your fondness for Wallace and Gromit," I say. "Sounds about as credible as A Matter of Loaf and Death."

Greg gives me a reproachful look.

"I thought you said it was," he says. "And beggars can't be choosers. Are we going with this idea or not?"

"No," I say. "Try and think of something a little more Gromit, and a little less Wallace. The man's a bumbling idiot."

Greg sighs, as I notice that the fax machine has jammed yet again, and run over to kick it back to life.

"You really should have more respect, Molly," he says. "Both for me, and for Wallace. He is our leader, after all."

I can't help laughing, but I stop as soon as I get an email from Johnny about events at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport.

"I only meant for you to get blown up, Mol," says Greg, who has gone a very funny shade of green.

I can't think of anything at all to say in response.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

There's A Hole In My Ideology, Dear Liza, Dear Liza.

Bloody hell, what are Max and I doing wrong? Well, obviously, we're not earning enough - but why? Apart from the undeniable fact that we both have a talent for negotiating the lowest-possible payment for any job we ever do.

After today's events, Max says it must just be because we make very bad decisions - like staying married and declaring our earnings. Not that I can allow myself to listen to him - not when The Boss has already called me a fascist.

I just wish there was the occasional PLP Briefing for dealing with disaffected husbands, as well as for responding to anecdotal evidence that policies don't always work as they're intended to. Some of which we discover this afternoon.

It's getting dark and Max and I are sitting at the table sorting through the bills when Josh and Holly arrive, after what has obviously been a major Sunday shopping spree.

As usual, Josh has bought only one item - yet another bloody hat - but as it's from Northwick's premier men's designer clothes shop, it probably represents a week's wages for him. I have no idea why teenage boys are so set against Primark. Holly isn't, though: she's laden with brown paper carrier bags.

"Holly's dad's going to pick her up in a minute," says Josh. "So we thought we'd just hang out here until he arrives."

"What've you bought, then?" I say. "Come on, show me. I need some excitement."

I'm fed up with trying to make our bank statement add up and, anyway, in my job, one should never miss an opportunity to keep up with what's in fashion.

Politics doesn't exactly offer a multitude of style icons as role models, after all. (Samantha Cameron doesn't count given her clothing budget and, as for Theresa May's sartorial choices: don't even go there unless looking like a slightly deranged Vulcan is the aim.)

Josh shows me a hat that looks exactly the same as all his other ones, so it's a bit difficult to feign much enthusiasm for his purchase. Holly's are a different story, though. She smiles and tips the bags upside down, revealing a series of pretty tops, a handbag, and a really cute jacket. She holds each item up in turn for my approval.

"Bloody hell," I say. "Fantastic. Not that you wouldn't look good wearing sackcloth and ashes, Hol. But how on earth can you afford all that? You must be much better with your wages than we are, if the state of our bank account is anything to go by."

Holly shakes her head and laughs.

"Nah," she says. "I'm not. Just got my EMA, that's all."

I'm confused, but I don't like to say so. Or not to Holly, anyway. I've got no such scruples when it comes to Josh, though: so I ask him for the lowdown instead, as soon as she leaves the house.

"Joshua," I say. "Just curious: how much EMA does Holly get a week on top of what she earns from her job at her aunt's cafe?"

"£30:00, as far as I know," he says. "Why?"

"Bloody hell," says Max. "How - with both her parents working? Don't they have to earn below £10,000 or something for her to get as much EMA as that?"

I shake my head, but Max doesn't notice. He's too busy staring at Josh, who's fidgeting like mad, as if he wishes we'd both shut up.

"Well, her mum only works a few hours a week helping out at the school," he says. "And her dad doesn't work at all, of course."

"Yes, he does," says Max. "He's a bloody window-cleaner. He told me that himself."

"Well, maybe he told you," says Josh. "But that doesn't mean he tells the tax man, does it?"

Seeing Max's expression, Josh leaves the room as fast as he can, and heads upstairs to his room. I think he's probably resorted to shooting virtual nosy parents as therapy now, judging by the sound of gunshots that's coming through the ceiling. Do teenagers have to have the bass so loud on these bloody games?

Max sighs, and looks over at me. He's about to say something, when Pat sends me a text. I read it, then groan in envy.

"What is it now?" says Max, who has abandoned the bank statement and is attempting to "chat" with Connie on Facebook instead - a bit of a challenge for someone with his distinctive one-fingered typing style.

"I'm so jealous," I say. "All Holly's new clothes, and now Pat's got a new dress too - and hers is from AllSaints!"

"I know," says Max. "She's just posted it as her Facebook status too. From her new iPhone, for f*ck's sake."

I  can't think of anything to say to that, but it seems as if Max isn't expecting a reply. He's on a roll.

"Pat still unemployed, Mol?" he says.

"I think so," I say. I have a horrible feeling I know where he's going with this.

"Still doing that mobile aromatherapy service as well?"

"I don't know, Max," I say. "I always think it's better not to ask - and anyway, it's not easy for her to work in a proper job, is it? She's a single parent."

"And no doubt penniless  - just like that woman who's been bonking Lord Strathclyde."

Max rolls his eyes at me, and then shuffles all the bills and the bank statements into a pile, before throwing them into the broken filing tray I brought home from work. It's already full, so they slide straight off and onto the floor, where he decides to leave them.

"Well, at least it seems that a private education isn't the advantage everyone always thinks it is," I say. "Not if Birgit Cunningham is as destitute as she claims. Not very good publicity for Roedean, is she?"

"Maybe not," says Max. "But that's not the point. I reckon we'd better re-think our career choices. At the risk of sounding like a Sun reader: we'd be better off at the moment if I became a supposedly-unemployed window cleaner than I am while doing my bloody job. Unless you divorce me, get pregnant, and become a single, unemployed aromatherapist - if that is how Pat's still not earning her living?"

I open my mouth to say something about the Black Economy of Thatcher's 1980s, when a searing pain shoots though my tooth, and I decide that I can't be bothered. Max watches me wince, then strikes the killer blow in our newly-fascist household:

"I bet Pat's and Holly's families get free dental treatment, too," he says. "As well as that bloody Birgit woman. So you get the J-Cloths, Mol, and I'll find the bucket."

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Why I Have Nothing In Common With Anthony Blunt Or Attractive Russian Redheads.

As if toothache wasn't bad enough, now I've got hypothermia as well. And I am rubbish at keeping secrets.

There seems to be something wrong with my syntax, too - given that I didn't mean to imply that my toothache and hypothermia should only be revealed to MI5, (as well as to a dentist when I can afford to see one).  Other things, however, are supposed to be kept under wraps, but I seem to have forgotten that today. Anna Chapman I am not.

When I get up this morning, the house is freezing, and I have to add yet another thermal vest to the millions I'm already wearing. Then I can't move my arms at all, and anything resembling a waist has disappeared entirely.

I'm sitting on the sofa, talking to Max about poor old Alan Johnson and why decent people always get shafted - if that isn't an unfortunate phrase - when I notice something odd about the colour of my hands.

"What on earth's the matter with you?" he says. "Why are you shaking your arms around like that?"

"I can't feel them," I say. "At all. And my hands are blue. Am I having a heart attack?" (Max may occasionally be right when he claims that I get more like Mum by the day.)

He leans over and squeezes the tops of my arms.

"No," he says. "You're not. But the sleeves on that jumper are way too tight. What the hell have you got on underneath it? You've probably cut your circulation off."

"Five vests," I say. "One more than usual. But it's so cold that I had to put it on."

Max looks a bit shifty, and makes one of those non-committal grunting noises that are usually The Boss' speciality.

"What?" I say.

"Talking about the cold," he says. "It's because I've turned the heating off. We can't afford it at the moment."

Good God, is he mad? We only have the heating on for a couple of hours twice a day as it is, so it's not as if we're going over the top - unlike most of our friends, who just turn their thermostats up the moment it becomes too chilly to sit around wearing a t-shirt.

Maybe that's why they are always otherwise engaged when we invite them to come and stay during the winter. And why their waists are more visible than mine, and they haven't lost the use of their arms.

Anyway, now Max has really got me worried, so I give him one of my Infected looks to make it clear that anything other than The Whole Truth would be pointless, before I start questioning him.

"We both get paid within the next ten days," I say. "So surely we can have the heating on some of the time? We won't have to pay for it before then."

"Yes, well," he says. "That's sort of the point. I've just found out I'll only be getting my basic this month. Don't seem to have earned any commission, or only £20:00 anyway."

It is definitely not an exaggeration to say that you can feel it when you turn white with shock, though even that's probably a more attractive colour than the weird shade of grey that Max's face has suddenly become. He looks slightly less healthy than John Major did in Spitting Image.

"Oh, my God," I say. "Your basic? Just your basic?"

"Yes," says Max, as if that's all that needs to be said, which I suppose it should be. But I never know when to stop, as my sex-life seems to demonstrate all too clearly. Flogging a dead horse, I think they call it.

"Well, what the hell am I going to do about your birthday party, then?" I say.

"What birthday party?" says Max.

Now I see why no-one from the security services has ever tried to recruit me.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Why One Should Always Expect The Unexpected.

You learn something new every day, don't you? But I certainly wasn't expecting it to be that.

The Boss comes into the office quite early, ready for an appointment with someone called Brian Sadler, whom Andrew says he hasn't seen for years.

"He's not a constituent, then?" I ask. "The name doesn't ring any bells with me."

"No, he's not," says Andrew. "Just a very old friend, who wants me to do him a favour. I'll see him in private when he arrives. All you need to do is show him in and then bugger off and leave us alone."

The trouble with Andrew is that he can't sit still for a second, and he can't wait for anything either. So when Brian isn't here on the dot of 09:30am, Andrew gets bored and rings the local paper to offer them an interview. About the EU and herbal medicines, or something of equal concern to the population of the Easemount estate, who form the paper's main readership. He never takes his audience into account.

Anyway, he's still chuntering away on the phone when Brian arrives, so I have no option but to make a coffee and offer Brian a seat in my office while he waits for The Boss to finish.

"So how's my old mate, Andrew, then?" he says. "Still full of hot air, I see."

"Hmm," I say.

Non-committal is always best - seeing as Brian's question could all too easily be a trap. Just because Andy Coulson's finally decided to resign doesn't mean it's now safe to make unguarded comments, after all.

I wouldn't put anything past anyone these days, which is probably a very sad reflection of the world view of most MPs' staff - with the exception of Vince Cable's, of course. Who'd do well to learn from the cynics amongst us when booking their boss' surgery appointments in future.

"You'd never think Andrew used to be a Tory, would you?" says Brian.

He smiles as he waits for my reaction, but I don't say anything, as I'm too incredulous for speech. I just sit there, staring at him with my mouth wide open. (I must stop doing that: I know it makes me look gormless.)

"Don't believe me?" he says.

I shake my head, as the door to the Oprah Room opens, and The Boss comes out.

"Molly doesn't believe what?" says Andrew.

"Just some of the things you got up to when we were at college, dear boy," says Brian.

Andrew looks at his so-called friend as if he'd like to strangle him, then pulls himself together and makes some half-arsed laughing noises, though they're not exactly convincing. Then he puts his arm round Brian's shoulder and almost drags him into the Oprah Room.

As soon as Andrew slams the door, I hustle Greg into the corridor to tell him what Brian said. Away from Vicky's big ears. (This is not a metaphor: you can see them whenever she does that hair-flicking thing.)

Annoyingly, Greg isn't half as surprised by Brian's revelation as he damn well should be, which takes all the fun out of passing it on. I sulk, until he explains why he hasn't fainted with shock, as I'd been assuming he would.

"Always suspected something like that," he says. "The Boss tries far too hard to be more left-wing than anyone else. It's that 'protests too much' thing that gives it away."

"I didn't think of that," I say. "Very Shakespearean. Since when did you get to be so smart?"

"Since half the women I go to bed with try to pull the same trick," he says. "The minute they start making a racket, I always know they're putting it on."

Ha - I knew that Ellen was pretending! I must find a way to drop this pearl of wisdom into a conversation with Max - just in case he's fallen for all the yelling she does whenever she entertains, or whatever she calls it. Especially when her bloody bedroom window's open.

Mind you, even Ellen doesn't do as much yelling as The Boss does when he's in a mood, which he certainly seems to be once Brian has left. He even shouts at me a couple of times in front of constituents during surgery. I'm not sure who is more uncomfortable about it: me or them.

Andrew carries on in this vein for the rest of the day - except when he's ignoring me instead - but both options are almost equally wearing. I'm pretty fed up by 5:00pm and still have no idea why he's behaving like this, so I decide to tackle him about it before I miss my chance.

It's not easy get him in private, though, because Vicky's never far from his side; but I finally manage it by dint of following them both into the car park after work.

I hang back until they've said their goodbyes and Vicky has driven off, and then, as soon as Andrew gets into his own car, I sneak towards it under cover of some bushes. Rather like a panther, now I come to think of it.

I tap on the window, and The Boss opens it, rolling his eyes as he does so.

"Andrew, can I have a word?" I say. "It won't take long."

He says nothing, although he does pause in the act of starting the engine. Then he just glares at me and waits for me to speak.

"What on earth's the matter with you today?" I say. "You're like a bear with a sore head. And I wish you'd stop shouting at me in front of everyone. It's embarrassing, as well as not very professional."

"Let's just say I'm not comfortable with working with a fascist," says Andrew.

This seems like a non-sequitur, so I resort to the open-mouthed staring again, coupled with an excessively-raised eyebrow.

"Vicky told me what you said about Michael Gove," he says. "Seems like you're working for the wrong MP. We're supposed to be Socialists in this office, you know, Molly."

"Well, at least I've never been a member of the bloody Tory Party," I say. "Unlike you - or so I hear."

This must be the first time in my life that I've ever managed to come up with a cutting response while the person who deserved it was still present. Though, judging by The Boss' expression when he revs the engine before he drives off, I suspect it's going to cost me dear.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

A Radical Use For iPhones, And An Occasion Of Great Joy.

There's bad news and good news this morning, which is an improvement on the usual wholly-negative situation.

The phone rings almost as soon as we enter the office, and Greg loses at our version of rock, paper, scissors* so he has to answer it. Within seconds he's banging his head on the desk.

"Who is it?" I say.

Greg puts his finger to his lips, and then mouths something that looks like, "Mea mrmnghn."

Then he says,

"Well, there's nothing we can do for you now - but I do hope you're happy in your new home."

Then he slams the phone down without waiting for a reply, jumps to his feet and does a weird tribal-style dance around the office. Several times, and accompanied by a grunting chorus, which seems to involve the words, "oh yes, yes, yes."

Vicky looks appalled when she walks in and catches him at it. I think she raises her eyebrows at me but, given how exaggerated they normally look, it's rather hard to tell.

"Don't ask me what's wrong with him," I say. "He hasn't stopped whooping and dancing for the last five minutes. Though I shall trip him up when he next goes past. He's making me feel dizzy."

Greg comes to a halt, pauses for effect, and then says,

"That, my dear Molly, was our favourite constituent."

"Who?" I say. "Mr Bradley?"

"No, you idiot,"  says Greg. "Can't you spot irony when it's staring you in the face? It was the marvellous Mr Meeeurghn, the most demanding man in Northwick. As well as quite possibly the most dangerously insane."

Now it's my turn to bang my head on the desk, while making moaning noises.

"No-o-o," I say. "I was hoping he'd died. Well, maybe not died exactly, but I did think there was a chance he'd got amnesia since his accident, and had forgotten all about us. But now he's back, and I think I may be going to cry."

"Stop being so melodramatic," says Greg, who's a fine one to talk. "He's not back - that's the whole beauty of it."

I look puzzled, while Vicky just contemplates her nails. I have no idea why she finds them perennially interesting.

"The Council agreed it was too dangerous for Mr Meeeurghn to move back into his flat when he got out of hospital - seeing as it was his neighbour who ran him over."

Greg really doesn't need to speak as slowly as he is, for goodness' sake. I am not an idiot, whatever the general consensus may be.

"With me so far?" he says, adding insult to injury.

I stick two fingers up in the air, at which Vicky tuts and starts brushing her hair.

"So Mr Meeeurghn has been moved to a new flat," says Greg.

"Which is worthy of all that terrible dancing because?"

"It's not in our constituency!" says Greg. "Even better, he's moved to Northwick West, so now he's become that LibDem's problem. Couldn't happen to a nicer person."

Greg starts dancing again and, once I've stopped laughing, I join in too. Things are definitely looking up around here. One loony down, and only another 2,500 to go.

I tell Johnny the good news when I email him after lunch to discuss the arrangements for our rendezvous next week.

"You'll be pleased to hear that my half of Northwick has just become a much safer place to visit," I say.

"No, I won't," says Johnny. "I'm afraid it's irrelevant."

Oh, honestly, is he going to chicken out of our date now? I know it's usually me who does that but, at the rate we're going, we won't manage to get into bed until we're eighty, when we'll probably have to spend most of the time re-adjusting our artificial hips and re-bandaging our ulcers.

"Why?" I say. "Has your trip to the UK been cancelled?"

"No," says Johnny. "But I can't come to Northwick. You're going to have to meet me at Heathrow this time."

"We've already been through that," I say.

Honestly, talk about Mr M's amnesia - has Johnny forgotten that I haven't got a good reason to be anywhere near an airport if anyone should spot me there? Whereas he can go where he likes, as no-one has a clue who he is in the UK, anyway. Unless they mistake him for Putin - in which case they'd probably decide to keep quiet about it.

"But why?" I say. "It isn't as if anyone keeps tabs on you, seeing as you spend half your life travelling the world."

"That's where you're wrong," says Johnny. "My wife bought me an iPhone for Christmas."

He follows this sentence with one of those emoticons. I think his kids have just taught him how to use them, as his emails have been peppered with stupid faces ever since Christmas. This one's sad, but I figure they all are really.

"Nice for some," I say. "I was given a block of cheese."

A smiley face indicates that Johnny thinks I'm joking. He has no idea how the other half live.

"Very funny," he says. "But she's made me get that 4Square app for it, so that she can tell where I am at any given time. Anywhere in the bloody world."

I don't think Johnny's very happy with my reply, given that it merely asks how he thinks I could get hold of a cheap iPhone for Max. And how to persuade the Government to issue them to Mr Meeeurghn and the rest of the usual suspects too.

It would cost a lot, admittedly - but just think of the peace of mind it might bring. Unless you're Alan Johnson, of course, and you've already got Ed Balls keeping one of his (rather scary) eyes on you.

*Rock, Paper, Scissors - this is a link to the usual version, but Greg and I don't have time for that when we're deciding who has to answer the phone. So we just pump our hands once, then go for it. I always win because, unlike Greg, I listen to my instincts.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Significance Of Talking To Someone Low-Paid As If They Were A Husky.

God, my tooth hurts. I can hardly think straight - and I can't even afford to go to the dentist. Why isn't NHS dentistry free at the point of delivery, like every other form of treatment? I can never understand it.

"It won't just be dentists that we'll have to pay to see soon," says Max, in a doom-laden voice. "What with these bloody NHS reforms. Do they think we're stupid?"

"Um," I say - which is about all I'm capable of, given the pain caused by moving my jaw. Not that I'm talking to Max anyway, given the petrol fiasco.

"Do the Tories really think we've forgotten what they did to the NHS last time? It's like the bloody 80s all over again," he says.

Then he glowers at the TV, and changes channel.

"I've had enough of the news," he says. "It's not as if it's ever good these days."

"I've had enough of my job too," says Josh, as he comes into the room. "And I bloody hate the general public."

I know exactly what he means but, as he's only just started working, I probably shouldn't encourage him. Even if that does mean saying a full sentence. I am a responsible parent, after all.

"That's a bit strong, Josh," I say. "What's happened to make you feel like that?"

"Where do you want me to start?"

Josh sighs even more loudly than Max does when I moan about the amount of TV we watch, and then goes on to explain that he had to serve a really unpleasant man just before his shift finished.

Apparently the guy wanted seven ice-creams, one for each of his five children -  or snotty nosed kids, as Josh puts it  - and two more for himself and his wife.

"Well, that doesn't sound too bad," I say. "Seeing as most of the profits in cinemas are made from over-priced food and drink, aren't they?"

"Yeah," says Josh. "But he'd left it 'til about a minute before the film started, and the ice cream was frozen so hard it was almost impossible to get out. So there I am, struggling to do it as fast as I can, when the scoop breaks. You won't believe what he said to me then."

Max and I both look curious, one of us far more convincingly than the other.

"Mush," says Josh. "Mush! As if I was a bloody dog."

"Rude bugger. He sounds a right chav to me," says Max, who's genuinely paying attention now. "Though I don't know how anyone can afford to go to the cinema these days, let alone buy seven ice-creams while they're at it."

"And cokes," says Josh. "Large ones. But he wasn't short of money, Dad. He was loaded. He pulled a great wad of notes out of his pocket and made a big deal of unfolding it in front of me, while muttering 'pay peanuts, get monkeys.'"

Oh, dear God, Max is right, isn't he? Only nine months since we got a Tory government and we're already back in Thatcher's 1980s. Max looks at me and says,

"You thinking what I'm thinking, Mol?"

"Um," I say. "Loadsamoney."

*Loadsamoney: if you're lucky enough to have been too young to live through the 80s, then here's an explanation of Harry Enfield's plasterer. I may suggest Josh considers learning a trade, once I can speak properly again. I have a feeling it would be much more useful than Film Studies, and probably more lucrative too.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Spontaneity, Prime Numbers And Filibustering. Not In That Order.

Honestly, sometimes Lords of the Realm get a bit above themselves. Talk about trying to make MPs' staff feel completely worthless!

Apparently we're all supposed to be invisible now, as well as underpaid and unappreciated. Not to mention being expected to donate our lunches to any passing MP, at least one of whom is quite patently suffering from a bad case of worms.

Greg's no more amused by the whole thing than I am.

"Did Carlotta text you about what Lord Howard said in the Lords?" he says, as soon as he arrives at work this morning. "She woke me up in the middle of the night."

"Yes, me too," I say. "I couldn't believe it. What a stupid man he is - unless he was talking in his sleep, of course."

"What on earth are you two talking about?" says Vicky. "Asleep? In the House of Lords? That's what peers normally do, isn't it?"

"Yes, but not in beds with duvets," I say. "Last night they were basically filibustering the Voting System Bill. They even resorted to discussing prime numbers at one point, or so Carlotta said."

For someone who claims to be interested in politics, rather than in just flirting with susceptible backbench MPs, Vicky's awfully badly-informed sometimes.

"What's filibustering?" she says. For God's sake, where does The Boss find these people?

Anyway, once I've explained, Vicky still looks none the wiser but, to her credit, returns to the really important point:

"So what did Lord Howard say about MPs' staff that annoyed you two so much?"

"He said - and I quote - that constituents will be upset if they think that MPs' staff are dealing with their concerns," I say.

"Seems the concept of voters wanting to be told the truth hasn't quite filtered through to everyone yet," says Greg. "Unless MPs are just worried about being had up under the Trades Descriptions Act. Maybe we should re-think using Andrew's auto-signature on 'his' letters, even though it'd be obvious to anyone but a muppet that it's only printed."

I'm not sure about that, actually. Constituents aren't half as aware of how MPs' offices work as we sometimes think they are. Even perfectly sensible ones seem to think that it really is their MP who handles their cases and that we caseworkers just take notes and then pass the information along. To the intellectual giants for whom we work.

It's probably part of the same syndrome as constituents' equally unshakeable belief - which they somehow sustain even while their television screens are showing live coverage of their MP sitting in the Commons Chamber during PMQs - that he or she is in their constituency seven days a bloody week.

"Too right," says Greg, when I mention it to him. "How many of the local tuition fees protests have been held on Thursdays when the House is sitting, for God's sake? You'd think university students could work out that it's only the poor old downtrodden staff that are stuck in the constituency offices mid-week."

Exactly. Poor old us - manning the barricades and not even recognised for our contribution. I can almost hear the violins. Unless Igor's outside with his balalaika.

"We have to know our place," says Greg, and goes out to buy extra chocolate, while I decide to cheer myself up by emailing Johnny. This doesn't make me feel any less downtrodden as, as soon as I tell him all about Max's mysterious fuel purchase, he's not impressed by my intelligence either.

"You're an idiot, Molly," he says. Admittedly affectionately, as far as I can tell, but even so...

"I am not," I say. "Max did have what could have been an innocent explanation."

"Your husband is clearly having an affair with that nymphomaniac, and you know it. Which makes your reluctance to take things further with me a bit ridiculous, don't you think? "

I don't think hitting a woman when she's down is very gentlemanly, but I don't say so. And I can't deny that Johnny has got a point.

I should face facts, accept that Max is definitely cheating, and get my own back, instead of always believing daft excuses about visits to Mrs Bloom - who just happens to live near Stalborough. Or so Max claimed when I confronted him late last night.

"I'm flying in to the UK next Wednesday," says Johnny. "So let's meet up again. We've been messing about for months, and I'm losing patience. Not to mention my sanity. You can't expect a man to live on emails and out-of-focus photographs for ever, however crazy about you I am."

God, I'm such a sucker for a compliment these days. Probably due to never getting any credit for anything I do - for which thanks, Lord Howard. I blame him for what happens next, which is that I decide that my life is sadly lacking in spontaneity, as well as acts of revenge.

"Okay, then," I say. "Let's do it."

As soon as I've pressed send, my stomach starts churning, and I want to get the email back. Why can't someone hurry up and invent a computer programme for that? It would save no end of people's bacon, not least that of MPs and inexperienced staff. Not that there's much chance of it happening any time soon - not now that Steve Jobs is on medical leave again.

So, after confirming that the offending email really is showing in my sent mail, and hasn't unaccountably but fortuitously hidden itself in my drafts folder instead, I sit and re-read it. My stomach feels a bit funny, and I really don't think I should clench my teeth like that.

"Argh, argh, argh," I say, as I re-read it for a second time. The noise may have been rather louder than I intended.

"What's up?" says Greg, appearing in the doorway. "And why the hell are you pulling that agonised face?"

I can't answer as by now I'm in literal as well as psychological pain. Can you crack a back tooth just by grimacing at your own stupidity?

"What's wrong with her?" says Vicky. As if I'm not even present. She'd make a good assistant to Lord Howard, now I come to think of it.

"Mol's doing the constituency office version of filbustering," says Greg. "Stress-related filling-busting."

Ha, ha, bloody ha. I'd hit back with a crushing rejoinder if I could bear to move my jaw.

Monday, 17 January 2011

In A Dry Season: An Absence Of Saliva And Conversational Skills.

I have no idea what nonsense I've written on behalf of any of the constituents today, as I can't stop wondering where the hell Max was on Friday night. Or how I'm going to find out without causing an enormous row.

Max leaves early for work this morning, so it's as if he knows I'm about to ask a very awkward question. Sometimes male intuition is under-rated, although it doesn't seem to apply to teenage boys, unfortunately - as becomes only too apparent when I ask Josh if he knows where Max was that night.

He says that he hasn't a clue, because he was at Holly's that evening, and didn't get home much before I did.

"Dad was here when I arrived, though," he says. "And, anyway, why do you want to know?"

"No reason," I say. Probably in a totally unconvincing manner, but luckily Josh is in a hurry, so he doesn't press me for an explanation.

In retrospect, this is a wise decision: unlike male intuition, explanations are vastly over-rated, if you ask me. Seeing as I think I may have just got one.

I'm on my way home, when I hear footsteps running up behind me, and someone says,

"Hey, Molly! Wait up."

Oh, God, it's Ellen. The very last person in the universe I wanted to see while I'm trying to work out what my husband's up to. I do manage a smile, which feels like a rictus and probably doesn't look much better, but Ellen doesn't seem to notice.

"Did you hear about Susannah York?" she says. "Very sad, isn't it?"

"Yes," I say. "A great campaigner, and she was in some really good films in her day."

Ellen's fallen into step beside me, so it looks as if I'm going to have company all the way home. Just what I didn't need. I light a cigarette in an effort to cope, and refuse to think about what Nan used to say about people who smoked in the street.

"She was a beauty, too," says Ellen. "Lots of people say I look like her, you know."

"Oh, do they?" I say. "You remind me of someone famous, but I don't think it's her."

It's a good job people don't have speech bubbles coming out of their heads, or mine would be shouting: James Blunt!

"You do too," says Ellen. "Remind me of someone famous, I mean. Now who on earth is it?"

I have no idea so I just wait for Ellen to decide. It doesn't take long - more's the bloody pity.

"Lena Zavaroni!" she says. Then she sees my face. "Before she got sick, of course."

"So we both look like dead people, then." I say.

Given that Ellen is claiming to look like a sex symbol, I can't dredge up much enthusiasm for being likened to a child star who died of anorexia, so that's all I can think of to say. Not that my reticence makes any difference. The woman is oblivious to disapproval.

"Oh, we've got more in common than that, Molly," she says. "That's why we get on so well."

Then she winks at me, which is very disturbing indeed. What sort of woman winks at another, for God's sake?

I'm still considering the answer when we turn into our street. Up ahead, I can see Max, who is in our garden putting the recycling out. He looks up, spots me and Ellen, and scuttles back inside the house. Hardly the behaviour of an innocent man.

"How's the head?" says Ellen. "Did the paracetamol help? Sorry I could only lend you a few, but I had a terrible hangover on Saturday morning too, so I needed the rest of the packet myself."

"Big night, was it, then?" I say.

"Oh, not really. Just went for a meal with the man I've been seeing. At that restaurant in Stalborough that was in the paper. You know, the one that's just got the Michelin star?"

I don't reply for ages, until I realise that Ellen's starting to look a bit unnerved but, even then, I only grunt in answer to her question, as I can't seem to form any actual words. Probably because I suddenly have no saliva, and my tongue seems to be stuck.

I probably look brain-dead, too, even though my mind is racing - with the thought that Ellen was in Stalborough on Friday night. The same Stalborough that's only a couple of miles from where Max bought the petrol.

Luckily, seeing as the silence is getting embarrassing, there's not much further to walk and, when I reach our gate, I open it and hurtle up the path leaving Ellen standing on the pavement outside.

"Bye, Molly," she says. "See you for coffee soon?"

I nod, wave and let myself into the house. It's a pretty minimalistic way to say goodbye, but all my energy is concentrated on what the hell I'm going to say to Max.

"Hi, darling," he says, as I walk into the hallway. "Sorry I didn't wait outside when I spotted you, but I'm in a hurry. Got to nip out."

As he leans forward to kiss me on the cheek, I notice he's already got his coat on, and a bag in his hand.

"What?" I say. "Why? You've already finished work. Where have you got to go?"

"Mrs Bloom's," he says. "She bought a big display unit from us and it was damaged when the deliverymen unpacked it. So she's not a happy bunny and I've got to go and try to make it usable until its replacement can be made."

"What?" I say again. "Why? I mean, why now? Why not earlier?"

Repetitive and inarticulate, I know, but it's the best I can do in the circumstances. Max doesn't seem to notice, anyway, as he just jingles the car keys and says:

"She had a hospital appointment this afternoon, so she couldn't be there to let me in until now. I came home early and prepared tea, but now I've got to go. Bye!"

He's out of the house before I can say the words "petrol" or "Friday night" - so now there's nothing to do but wait for him to come back before I can ask him what on earth he's been up to.

Except to try to recall the rest of my vocabulary, I suppose. And remove my tongue from the roof of my mouth.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Multiculturalism In Action: Coming To A Car Park Near You.

God, what a day. Who'd have thought a car boot sale could turn out to be so hazardous? I could kill Max for suggesting it, though he blames me. No change there, then.

"If you hadn't got so drunk on Friday, and given yourself a two-day hangover, we wouldn't have to do a car boot to get the money to buy you Paracetamol," he says.

"Well, if Josh hadn't refused to go back to Ellen's to borrow some more, it wouldn't be an issue," I say. "I don't know why she only gave him two tablets when he asked her yesterday. She should understand a hangover better than anyone, after all."

Max rolls his eyes, as if I have no reason to dislike Ellen. Honestly - talk about a short memory!

"I'll go and ask her, then," he says, but I'm not encouraging that. The less Max sees of Ellen the better, as far as I'm concerned. Even when she is wearing clothes.

"Josh, I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you went back for more," I say. "Go and ask her. Please. I can't face a car boot at this time in the morning."

"No, I won't," says Josh. "I am not your drugs mule, and Ellen scares the pants off me. She's got a thing for toy-boys, remember? And I meet the criteria, unlike some people."

Josh looks pointedly at Max, who scowls in response and then sulks until we've finished loading the car with all the rubbish we could find during a hasty search of the loft last night.

His mood doesn't improve when we arrive at Northwick Park'n'Ride, and realise that we haven't got enough money to pay for the pitch. I have to negotiate with the man at the gate to let us in, and to come and collect our fee in an hour's time.

"Christ knows if we'll have managed to raise £7:00 by then," says Max. "Or ever, given the crap we've brought - and all the stalls that are already here. Too much competition for limited customers, by the look of it."

"Well, we'd better unpack as fast as we can, then, hadn't we?" I say. "As soon as we get set up, you can go into super salesman mode, make some money and I can finally get rid of this bloody headache."

Things never go according to plan, though - do they? The minute we open the boot of the car, four or five Eastern European guys appear from nowhere, and start rummaging through the boxes. It's like a swarm of black leather jackets and jeans worn with proper shoes.

"What are you looking for?" Max asks the apparent leader of the pack, in a weak attempt to regain control of the situation.

"Mobile phones?" says the man. "You got mobiles in here?"

As soon as I say that we don't, the men disappear - as quickly as they arrived. In fact, it's almost as if they were never there at all and, for one very disconcerting moment, I wonder if I imagined them. Maybe I've got alcohol-induced hallucinations, or something?

"For God's sake, Mol. Stop standing there and help me with this," says Max. "You look like a Guppy with your mouth open like that."

I rise above the insult and do as I'm told, but only because I can't think of a cutting rejoinder. And because I don't have a choice - though I bet a certain International Director of a Global Oil Company isn't spending his Sunday morning wrestling with a folding table and a mound of boxes in a car park.

As soon as we've got the table set up and we begin to unpack, we start arguing again. Why don't men appreciate the importance of arranging things to their best possible advantage? That's probably why they can't see the point in make-up, now I come to think of it.

"Do you have to just chuck everything on the table willy-nilly?" I say. "I'm trying to make our stock look attractive."

"It's a car boot, Molly," says Max. "At 6:00am on a Sunday morning in a car park. So I don't think window dressing is really necessary."

I decide to prove him wrong by virtue of a controlled experiment - which involves an artistic arrangement of the things on the left-hand side of the table while leaving those on the right-hand side in a total mess, to see which of us is right; but my scientific approach is ruined by the inconvenient arrival of some more customers. Honestly, why can't people ever put things back where they found them?

Now I know how the staff in Benetton used to feel when I kept unfolding jumpers and then making a crappy job of folding them back up again - back in the days when all my clothes didn't come from Primark. Not that folding's much of an issue there, is it? Maybe customers chucking everything on the floor is just a reflection of their bargain hunting mentality.

I really must get this telekinesis thing under control. No sooner have I begun thinking about bargain hunters, than our stall is suddenly surrounded by a large group of dark-haired men, again all wearing jeans but this time with trainers on their feet. They're pulling suitcases with wheels on, and their burka-clad wives follow behind, watching closely as the men pick up various items and ask us, "How much for this?"

"A pound," says Max, as one of them inspects a brand new wireless router we bought by mistake on eBay last year.

"No, no, no," says the man. "Too much. I give you ten pence."

He throws a coin onto the table and makes as if to move away, though he's still holding the router.

Max starts to say something, when he's interrupted by a booming voice from very close by. It's the guy manning the stall next door to ours.

"Tell 'em to fuck right off," he says. "Bloody load of f*cking vultures."

"Too right, George," says another man, in a horribly-familar voice. "Don't know who these people think they are. Coming over here and trying to rip off hard-working Brits like us."

Oh, dear God, what the hell is going on? And how on earth have we been caught up in a potential race riot? Max and I look at each other and squirm, but luckily everyone's forgotten about us anyway.

Our customer abandons the router as he and his friends leave our stall and head next door, where they square up to the stall-holder and his partner-in-crime. Who, incredibly, turns out to be Reg Bloody Beales. Is nowhere safe?

There follows a lot of pushing and shouting, while I take the opportunity to open the car door and to throw myself face down onto the back seat.

"What on earth d'you think you're doing?" says Max. "You can't go to sleep now. I'm not dealing with this mob by myself, even if you have still got a bloody hangover."

"Ssh," I say. "Mad constituent. Got to hide."

I'll say this for Max, he doesn't ask for details during an emergency. Instead, he walks back to the stall and carries on without me, while I lie very still and try to become invisible. I may have dozed off for a while, actually, as I nearly jump out of my skin when Max knocks on the window.

"You can come out now," he says. "They've all gone, and even the stall-holder's packed up and is about to leave."

"Oh, thank God for that," I say. "I thought there was going to be a fight. It certainly sounded like it."

"There was," says Max. "But after the guy with the blue suitcase landed the first punch, his mates pulled him away and the bloke that you know did a runner. Well, not a runner, exactly: am I imagining it, or did he ride off on a horse?"

Oh God, so Reg has replaced his lorry with a horse and cart, though I'm not sure the roads will be any safer for that. Or any public spaces, actually. And why can't I ever escape the usual suspects - even on a Sunday - no matter where I go?

Mind you, things could be worse, I suppose. I could be a diplomat. It's been like the United Nations here in Northwick Park'n'Ride today, and no-one seems to understand each other at all. Not even me and Max.

"How much money have you taken?" I say. "Can we go home yet?"

"Enough to pay for the pitch and some painkillers," he says. "As well as food for the next couple of days. So we won't starve just yet, no thanks to you."

I feel suitably guilty until Max drops me off at Sainsburys to buy some Paracetamol, but then I'm still so puzzled by how we ran out of money so quickly, that I get a mini-statement from the cash machine. Now I wish I hadn't.

It shows that the last person to make a withdrawal from the account was not me - the unjustly accusedbut Max. At a petrol station somewhere miles away; and on Friday night, while I was at the Party social and I thought he was at home.

It's going to take all my diplomatic skills to avoid mentioning it until I've had some time to assess the situation. At which point I bet Max will wish that he was the one who travelled by horse. At least they don't leave a paper trail.