Monday, 28 March 2011

Out Of Office Reply - Molly Bennett, Office Of Andrew Sinclair MP.

Thank you for contacting Molly Bennett, Senior Constituency Caseworker to Andrew Sinclair, MP for Northwick East.

Molly will be out of the office on jury service as from Monday 28 March 2011, and is scheduled to return to work on Monday 11 April 2011.

During her absence, her colleague, Gregory Duke, has reluctantly agreed to help with your enquiry if - and only if - it is genuinely urgent, and does not involve any or all of the following: an inability to ensure that brides and grooms are not rendered headless in wedding photographs taken at the behest of a client; deliberate mistreatment of a horse used to pull a cart, and/or the mowing down of a Policeman carrying a speed gun, whether or not he or she is wearing a high-visibility jacket.

Mr Duke will also refuse to recommend that Mr Sinclair sign shotgun licence applications on behalf of any constituents whom he deems to be unstable. This includes (but is not restricted to) those of you who claim to see little green men in various locations, or who remain convinced that your neighbours are stealing your electricity.

Should any of the above scenarios sound at all familiar, Mr Duke suggests that you should start taking your prescribed medication again.

For those constituents with a tendency to suffer from stress-related hypertension, Mr Duke would remind you of his standard advice: that you take steps to avoid exposure to all newspapers and TV news. He places special emphasis upon avoiding The Daily Mail. (And The Economist, if you are a Labour policy-maker.)

Last, but not least, Mr Duke asks that all owners of fatmobiles check that they do not leave home to visit the seaside without having first charged their batteries, as he will be unable to spare the time to rescue stranded scooter-users while the office is short-staffed. He would also draw your attention (yet again) to the section of the Highway Code that clarifies the upper speed limits for scooting on pavements.

If, as a result of the application of the above criteria, Mr Duke should choose to designate your enquiry as non-urgent, please rest assured that Molly will deal with it as quickly as possible upon her return to work.

In the meantime, she wishes to make clear that, should you be minded to turn up at Northwick County Court in an attempt to contact her to complain about her colleague's classification system, she will not, under any circumstances, be able to discuss this with you. Not even during lunch-breaks or lulls in the court's proceedings.

She also wishes to emphasise that, should she recognise any defendant, she will immediately declare a conflict of interest to the court - thus ensuring that nothing can be gained from attempts either to bribe or intimidate members of her family or, indeed, most of her colleagues.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

On Suspecting That The World May Be More Three-Dimensional Than Was Previously Thought.

"So," I say, when Max finally wakes up this morning. "Lots and lots of love, eh? Or, rather, L - U - V."

"What?" he says. "I've no idea what you're talking about."

"This," I say, as I put his leaving card into his hand. "Hardly what you'd expect someone who's just a colleague to write, is it?"

Max doesn't even pause for thought, even though he still looks half-asleep. He's already decided how to play this one.

"Honestly, Molly," he says. "Bambi - I mean, Gemma - is just being friendly, that's all."

"Yes," I say. "And black is white, and the earth is flat."

Max glares at me, and then stays silent for the rest of the day, though I try not to admit that I've noticed. He's only trying to make me feel that I've over-reacted, and if I don't watch out, I'll start feeling guilty, or seeing shades of grey all over the place.

Displacement activity's urgently required, so I phone Greg for a chat. It's the best I can do at such short notice.

"How was the march, then?" I say. "Did you behave yourself?"

"Yes, I did - and it was really good," he says. "Apart from those bloody so-called anarchists and the negative coverage on the TV. Oh, and Ed, of course."

"Ah," I say. "I did wonder what you'd make of his speech."

Greg sighs heavily before he replies, which doesn't bode well at all.

"Ed is awful," he says. "We all left at 3:00pm when he started to speak. I'm glad we did, since I found out the rest of what he said."

Honestly, what hope has Ed got if Greg can't handle listening to a word he says? It just doesn't bear thinking about. We've got a General Election to win - sometime in the next four years.

"Didn't you say Max is always moaning about how the Party only cares about the public sector?" says Greg.

"Yes," I say. "The Party and the unions. Max says we're all completely out of touch with anyone who doesn't work for the state, or isn't on benefits."

"Hmm," says Greg, "Sometimes I think he could be right."

The drawn-out pause that follows this remark only serves to remind me how many constituents seem to share Max's views - and who claim that people only engage in vocal opposition to cuts that affect them directly, and don't give a damn about anyone else. Whatever happened to ideology, and taking a wider view of what's best for society?

Now I'm starting to sound like Dad, which is very unnerving, to say the least. He's always saying that democracy is government by the most vocal minority  - which is depressing enough in itself, but isn't half as bad as what Greg asks next:

"You read that article about the People's Policy Forum in The Economist, Mol?"

"No," I say. "Since when do you read that?"

Honestly, what is happening to everyone I know? You just can't tell who is harbouring right wing views these days. Apart from Nick Clegg, of course.

"I don't," says Greg. "Usually - but Carlotta's just emailed me the link. Hang on, I'll send it on to you."

"No need," I say, opening my in-box and scrolling through the spam. "It looks like she's already copied me in."

"Read it, then - and concentrate. It says we need to face up to unpleasant facts. I'll call you in five minutes, to give you time to take it all in."

Greg's so bossy sometimes - whereas I am far too compliant for my own good. Or for my comfortable view of the world.

I read as fast as I can, shudder a bit, and then grab my mobile and go outside for a cigarette. I may even decide to smoke two in a row.

"Hello again, Mol," says Greg, when he rings back. "Still believe the earth is flat?"

"No," I say. "Nor am I convinced that black is white, or even grey. Unfortunately for Max and a certain semi-literate faun."

Saturday, 26 March 2011

How To Distinguish A Kindly Gesture From A Bribe, And Will Ed Remember To Mention Max?

Honestly, who'd have thought a bunch of flowers could cause so much trouble? I wish The Boss had never sent the damn things now.

Greg's still sulking when he texts me this morning, though I've got a horrible feeling he may have a point.

"Seeing as I am at least as valuable an employee as you are, Molly, and I didn't get a bloody bouquet" he says, "I can only conclude that The Boss must know about your job interview. Which you stupidly decided not to attend because it only takes a few manky flowers to make you feel guilty."

Not half as guilty as Max thinks I am, though. He wouldn't know the truth if it jumped up and bit him on the arse.

"So who the hell sent those?" he says, when he walks into our bedroom this morning, and notices the vase of flowers on the dressing table. (He might have spotted it last night if he hadn't opted to sleep on the sofa to avoid me moaning about his alcohol-related snoring again, but wine obviously has far more sex appeal than me.)

"The Boss did," I say. "As a token of his gratitude for all the hard work that I do."

"For God's sake," says Max. "I have met him, you know. Can't you do better than that?"

"If you don't believe me, I'll show you the card," I say - which I will, when I can find it.

In the meantime, changing the subject seems the best option by far. I do retain some political awareness, after all.

"I feel bad we're not going on today's march against the cuts," I say. "Don't you?"

"No," says Max. "We can't afford day trips - because I'm already being cut, remember? Today's my last day at work, but I bet Ed Miliband and the unions are only going to bang on about job cuts in the public sector, as per bloody usual."

I suppose I could try and argue that it's the public sector that keeps the private one going, but with the demise of the Audit Commission, I've got a funny feeling that this no longer applies to the furniture retail trade. Or not to its luxury end, anyway. I'm pretty sure that's why Max has lost his job.

Which I'd have done well to remember, before turning down my interview, on the strength of nothing more than a floral display and a pat on the back. What the hell is wrong with me?

My bullshit detector's on the blink - which isn't going to help with next week's jury service. I wouldn't trust me to decide what I want for lunch at the moment, let alone whether someone is guilty or innocent. Apart from Max, of course.

When he finally gets home from the pub tonight, he's bearing a bunch of flowers of his own - and an over-sized card in very bad taste.

"So did Ed mention me?" he says. "In his speech about the cuts, I mean?"

"I don't think so," I say. "Though he did refer to Martin Luther King. Anyway, never mind that - let's see your card."

Max passes it over, which just goes to show how drunk he is. There are the usual bad jokes, and messages saying how sorry his colleagues are to see him go, followed by "Best Wishes" and their names.

Trust bloody Bambi to buck the trend. She sends "lots and lots of luv." Along with an excess of kisses and hugs.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The Hunchback Of Northwick Loses The Plot, And The Boss Rides Unexpectedly To The Rescue

"Something for you," says Max, when he sorts through the post this morning. There must be at least five days' worth in the pile.

"Oh, God," I say. "If it's another bill, just chuck it in the bin."

"Don't think it is," he says. "White envelope, not brown."

I take it from him, but haven't got time to open it, because I can't afford to be late for work again. Even if I haven't slept a wink all night.

Max's snoring was so bad, that I relocated to the sofa at about 4:00am, but then I was so busy worrying about how we're going to manage when his pay cheques stop arriving, that I couldn't get to sleep at all.

I'm making up for it this morning, though - seeing as I seem to be sleep-walking on my way to work. I'm probably lucky I don't get run over en route, although I'm not sure that I haven't been, when sirens start going off.

I pinch myself a few times to make sure I'm not dead, before I realise that there's a fire drill taking place. It takes ages before I can gain access to the office and, when I do, I find that Greg has been sitting at his desk throughout.

He's listening to music on his iPod and looks amazed when I pull his headphones off.

"What the hell are you playing at, Greg?" I say. "You'd have been burned to a crisp if it hadn't been a drill. And why are you already here?"

"I'm not playing at anything," he says. "Though I suppose I did have the music turned up a bit too loud. I think I've got a headache coming on. That might be a hangover, though - Pete Carew and I had a bit too much to drink last night, and I ended up sleeping on the couch in the Oprah Room."

Now why on earth didn't I think of doing that? Probably because my brain isn't functioning at the moment, and I can't keep anything in my head for more than thirty seconds at a time. I've even forgotten about the letter that arrived this morning - until Greg asks me if I've got any Paracetamol he can take.

I open my bag to look inside, and then I spot the envelope lying amidst all the other rubbish that I will insist on carrying around with me. It's no wonder I could give the Hunchback of Notre Dame a run for his money. Or a hobble, to be exact.

"What's that?" says Greg, watching me make a neat cut through the flap of the envelope, as well as right through the letter itself. Why can I never get that manoeuvre right?

"I don't know," I say, putting the two halves back together and taping them down. "Hang on. Oh, blimey. It's an interview for a job - that one at Northwick MultiMedia. And - oh, shit! - I've got to confirm if I'll be attending by the end of today."

Greg has just started trying to persuade me not to leave him to the mercy of the usual suspects when The Boss walks in, accompanied by Vicky - who's looking much more cheerful than she has for most of this week. I'd prefer not to think about what could be responsible for that.

"Ssh, Greg," I say. "Walls have ears. And so do interns. You can see them sticking out through her hair if you look. I'll tell you later when I get a chance."

It's such a manic day, though, that God knows when that'll happen. The Boss has so many radio and local TV interviews lined up that the Oprah Room's living up to its name for once, and we've also got a double surgery that's fully-booked.

I spend most of the morning running around like a headless chicken - rather than a monkey, please note - which probably accounts for why I forget to hide my letter from public view until after lunch. If Andrew or Vicky have spotted it, my "career" will soon be toast. Which is more than Mr Osborne can afford to eat.

Despite the similarity in the name, I'm not referring to our beloved Chancellor - though there'd be some justice if I was. Our Mr O has come to see The Boss for help in obtaining vouchers for use at Northwick's new food bank.

"I think you just have to take proof of receipt of benefit with you," I say. "Or a letter from your doctor or social worker, if you're unwell."

"I'm not getting any benefits at the moment," he says, looking down at his feet. "I've been depressed since I lost my job, but I've been turned down for sickness benefit and I'm still waiting for my appeal. My wife's working, though - but we can't manage on her wages, and there's nothing left for food once everything else has been paid."

The food bank. Oh, my God. It'll be Max and I queuing up there next, trying to get tins of soup to feed to Connie. If we can persuade someone to give us a voucher, that is. If not, what the hell are we going to do?

I'm getting a bit tearful now, what with worrying about whether The Boss might have seen my letter and imagining myself in Mr O's situation - but then I recall that I'm supposed to be emulating the Japanese, so I bite my lip and carry on making notes. Which look a bit like doodles, to be completely honest.

Mr Osborne's is the last appointment, thank God, so I go for a cigarette as soon as he leaves. Not that I'll be able to do that for much longer. I shall have to give up smoking as soon as Max is unemployed - and then I'm bound to become an axe-murderer in no time at all, or a constituent-killer, anyway.

I'm standing outside, making the most of the nicotine and sniffling like a very non-Japanese person, when I hear loud footsteps behind me.

"What on earth's the matter, Mol?" says The Boss, in the kindest voice I've heard in a while.

"Nothing," I say. "But thanks for asking. I've just got some ash in my eye."

"Good try," says Andrew, "but you don't fool me. Tell me everything - but hang on, I'll just light my pipe before you start."

You can tell I'm not myself because - for once - I do as he says. After I've finished, he gives me an awkward hug.

"You'll feel better after you've had next week off," he says.

"No, I won't," I say. "I'm on jury service - remember? I'll probably lose it completely and start demanding we bring back hanging and flogging."

Andrew gives me a worried look, and then pats me on the shoulder. Rather too hard, but I don't think it was intentional.

"Back in a minute," he says. "Just nipping to the shops. Hold the fort - and your nerve."

Which I do - until an hour later, when the intercom buzzes, and I'm the one who answers it.

"Delivery for a Mrs M. Bennett," says someone or other in a muffled voice.

Knowing my luck, it'll be a personalised bomb, though there's nothing for it but to go down and collect it anyway. The man says I have to sign for it myself.

"Here you are, Miss," he says, as he passes me a hand-tied posy of flowers. "These are for you."

The card says:

"Molly, thanks for all you do. I might be a miserable old bugger but that doesn't mean I'm an ungrateful one. A."

Now I'm bloody crying again. And I doubt I'll be going to that interview after all.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

*Turning Japanese, Oh Yes, I'm Turning Japanese, I Really Think So.

Honestly, no wonder Max says I've got a memory like an elephant. I'm still in a foul mood about the monkey business when I wake up this morning, and things don't get any better when I arrive at work.

"Nice outfit, Molly," says Vicky, in a very sarcastic tone.

Greg looks up from his desk, winces and looks back down again.

"Oversleep, did you?" he says.

"No," I say, although I did. "I am trying to look more Danish. Sarah Lund takes no shit."

I glare at both of them in what I hope is a suitably-intimidating fashion, storm into my office and slam the door behind me. I don't get any further forward, though, as I seem to have trapped the belt of my coat in the process.

I've got a feeling Greg notices my attempt to open the door again as quietly as I can, but I fall back on my political skills and act as if nothing at all has happened. Which I suppose it hasn't - if you don't count Connie getting sick, my being officially a monkey, and Max losing his job.

I can't even bear to think about that - not since Max added up all our bills last night while I was dozing on the sofa, just before I made an idiot of myself in front of the boys. I finally lost the will to live when he showed me how he'd set the bills against my salary, and had factored in the Budget changes, too. He's turning into a one-man IFS.

"We'll have to turn the heating off altogether," he said. "These fuel bills are way too high."

"We can't, " I said. "Not with Connie here all day, and sick in bed."

"Well, then," he said. "In that case, you'd better write to Ofgem, and persuade them to kick the power companies' arses a little bit harder."

I don't think they're likely to take any notice of me, but I didn't get the chance to say so. Max was on a roll. His next step was to inform me that we won't starve - until four weeks after his final pay cheque arrives at the end of this month.

"But there'll be nothing left in our budget for food every single month after that," he said. "Not once all the bills have been paid."

"Oh, well," I said. "I'm sure you'll find a new job before then, and everything will be all right again."

I don't believe this for a second, considering the state of the furniture retail sector - but I'm also trying to improve my acting skills. And anyway, I've still got a few job applications I'm waiting to hear about myself. In exotic places like Easemount and Silverhill. I can hardly wait.

Nor can Johnny, who emails me this lunchtime to say that he's just heard where his next posting is to be. He's off to Dubai in May, and sends photos of the houses that he and his wife are intending to view. I don't know what to say to those - apart from "Bloody, bloody, bloody hell!"

"Never mind about me - how are things with you?" he says.

No-one ever asks me that, so he catches me by surprise. Before I know it, I've told him everything that is happening in my life; and then immediately wish I hadn't. Talk about sounding like a usual suspect: I'm feeling far more sorry for myself than should be allowed.

"Christ," he says, in his reply. "You can't live hand to mouth like that, Molly. It's ridiculous, especially when I could take you away from it all."

"I think your wife might have something to say about that," I say. "And my husband certainly would. Anyway, you don't marry someone on the basis of what they can provide you with. Not materially, anyway."

Johnny sends a very brief reply:


I wish he'd never learned that bloody awful acronym, and anyway, I am being serious. In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer - I'm pretty sure that those are still the rules. And, if they're not, then they bloody well should be.

"I don't think my wife would agree with you," he says, when I point this out. "She'd be off like a shot if I were to become poor overnight."

"Well, I'm not her," I say.

Profound, I know, but nonetheless undeniably true.

I bet she is being massaged in a luxury spa right this minute, before going to Chanel to pick out a new dress for tonight's Charity Fundraising event. (I live a far more interesting fantasy life as her, than I do as myself. Though do they actually have a Chanel shop in Moscow? And do you call it a shop - or an atelier?)

I'm still mulling over this important question when Johnny signs off for the day:

"Think what our lives could be like together," he says. "Neither of us is getting any younger, and that husband of yours is never going to amount to anything, after all."

What a horrible thing to say! And it's all my fault. I've been such a pathetic whinger that now Johnny's feeling sorry for me. And criticising Max, when no-one but me is allowed to do that.

I need to get a grip, somehow. And start making up for being so bloody self-indulgent.

"Do you guys want a coffee?" I say, to Vicky and Greg.

I might as well start as I mean to go on, even if I still don't feel very charitable towards a certain intern.

"Ja, Kaffe," says Greg, staring hard at Google Translate. "Tak."

"I'm not being Danish any more," I say. "I think being Japanese is the thing to aim for, don't you? They could teach us all a thing or two about being uncomplaining. In the face of such adversity that we can't even begin to imagine it."

That's better - isn't it? I'm getting my sense of proportion back.

"But you speak even less Japanese than you do Danish," says Greg.

That may be true, but it's hardly an obstacle that can't be overcome with a bit of effort. Honour and dignity, that's what counts - and I'll aim to chuck in some stoicism too.

"I'm going to pop home during my lunch-break," I say. "I'll have a Pot Noodle and see how Connie is. Oh, and I think I might change out of this jumper, too."

"Tak and double tak for that," says Greg. "You were beginning to hurt my eyes."

I bet Johnny would think that too - though Max just says I look nice and snuggly.

*Turning Japanese - which would be no bad thing, if it taught me (and some others I could mention) to behave like the people of Japan.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Birth And Death Of The Joshua Bennett Economic Think-Tank, And The Burial Of My Self-Respect

Bloody hell, MPs' staff should be given the day off on Budget Day. How are we supposed to comment on something when we haven't had any time to read it? Let alone work out whether it's going to be worth our own while to turn up for work tomorrow morning?

I might be feeling a bit brain-dead this week, but I suppose I know the answer to that question already, now I come to think of it. I still haven't got over that whole monkeys earning peanuts thing.

"Try not to spend all your money down the pub tonight," I say to Josh, as he gets ready to go out for a drink with Robbie and the rest of the boys. "Don't forget I'm relying on you and Connie to keep me, in the style to which I'd rather like to become accustomed."

"Don't hold your breath," says Max, who is sorting through the bills again, while watching the news at the same time.

I think he's making notes of the main changes announced in George Osborne's Budget, and trying to work out what the effects on ours will be. I don't think I want to know.

"You look as if you mean business," I say, lying down on the sofa and pulling a blanket over my legs.

Max glances at me over the top of his glasses, then looks down at the calculator he's holding in his hand. He taps in some numbers, and makes a wincing noise when he sees the result.

"I do mean business" he says. "Unlike you."

There's no call for that, seeing as I'm not actually asleep. I'm just resting my eyes for a minute, that's all. Just like Ken Clarke during today's Budget speech in the House.

When I wake up again, I'm even more confused than usual. There's no sign of Troels Hartmann, and the room is full of teenage boys, all smelling strongly of after-shave, along with something else that I can't quite identify.

"Wha -?" I say, trying to sit up and look alert.

"Ssh, Mum!" says Josh. "Me and the boys are having a discussion. High finance, so you wouldn't understand."

"Why are you here, though?" I say. "I thought you were going out."

"We're economising - as per your advice."

Josh raises a can of Red Bull in a toast, as do all the other boys. Oh, and Robbie's holding a bottle of Jagermeister, too. So that's what I can smell.

"Oh, God," I say. "Do you have to do it here? I was hoping for an early night."

"Yes," says Josh. "We do. Staying in is the new going out. Now go back to sleep and don't interrupt. We're trying to sort out what to do with approximately thirty million pounds."

I'm so pleased to hear that the younger generation are taking fiscal matters seriously, that I feel it's safe to relax and close my eyes again. Then I try very hard to recapture my dream, though this proves wholly unsuccessful. Troels seems to have been replaced by a sniggering George Osborne, who is brandishing a sheaf of unpaid bills.

It's all right, though, because the boys are still working hard to restore the public finances by promoting all kinds of growth:

"I'd buy the moon," says Josh. "And make it lavishly hospitable."

"Hmm," says Robbie, approvingly. "Not a bad idea, that."

I'm quite impressed by my son's entrepreneurial thinking myself. I open my eyes, and start taking more of an interest. I could be raising the next Chancellor of the Exchequer, for all I know.

"What about an island?" says Robbie. "That'd be even better than the moon."

"Yes," I say. "Richard Branson's got one of those."

I am clearly witnessing the birth of a new entrepreneurial think-tank, with innovative ideas on how to ensure the recovery of the UK economy. I feel quite moved.

"What would you give me?" says Josh to Robbie, which confuses me a bit. "Could I have a cove all to myself?"

"Yes," says Robbie. "Though it wouldn't be as nice a one as mine."

Cove? I'm about to ask the boys for an explanation, but then Max walks into the room, so I gesture for him to sit next to me. Then I can pick his brains on the sly. All this economics jargon is leaving me behind.

"And we could have a monorail, too," says Josh. "I love a good monorail, don't you?"

"Yes - and one of those Flying Dolphins like the Russians have got," says Robbie, pouring another Jagerbomb.

"So, is this going to be some sort of tourist-based economy, then?" I say, trying to get a handle on things. "Only I think you'd need a manufacturing base to spread the risk."

All the boys look at me as if I am barking mad, which is something I'm becoming increasingly used to this week.

"Mum," says Josh, very slowly, as if speaking to a child. "What exactly do you think we're talking about?"

"A plan for economic recovery," I say. "Or to reduce the deficit and encourage growth. Or something like that, anyway."

My voice tails off as I realise that no-one has any idea what I'm going on about. Including Max.

"Mol," he says, and his voice is strangely gentle. "I think you need to go to bed and get a decent night's sleep. The boys are discussing what they'd do if -"

"If they were in charge of the country," I say. "I know that. I'm not an idiot, thank you very much. Or a monkey - even if I am paid peanuts."

"No," says Josh. "Sorry. We're deciding what we'd do if we won Euro-Millions. You know - that lottery thing?"

I nod, then shake my head and cringe. I think Josh must feel sorry for me, because he pats me on the arm and says:

"Don't worry, Mum. I've already decided I'd give half of it to you and Dad if I win."

"Only half?" says Max.

I assume he's being ironic, but Josh doesn't take it that way. I'm not the only one whose feelings are all too easily hurt.

"That's more than you'd get from Connie, Dad," he says. "She said she'd buy you and Mum a house and clear your debts, but there wasn't any point in giving you any more than that, because you're both so bloody rubbish with money."

It's lucky for Connie that she's ill in bed, though next time she wants a hot drink, she can get it herself. I'm retiring to the monkey enclosure, to curl up in a ball and dream about Troels.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A Certain Phrase It Would Behove A So-Called Socialist Not To Use, And Why Economists Never Take Any Notice Of Me

"You saw that we voted for our own pay-freeze last night, I assume?" says The Boss, when he phones first thing.

"I should think so, too," I say. "Seeing as we're all supposedly in this together."

"Well, there was some muttering behind the scenes," he says. "About how, if you pay peanuts, you're bound to get monkeys."

There are so many answers just begging to be given to this stupid remark - all of them sarcastic - that I hardly know where to begin.

It's probably safer not say anything at all so, as a precaution, I hang up on Andrew, though I make it look like an accident, of course. Thus disproving the peanuts/monkeys analogy rather neatly, as far as I'm concerned.

The private line rings again straight away, so I signal to Greg that it's his turn to answer it this time. I am otherwise occupied, climbing on to the top of my desk.

"What, Andrew?" says Greg. "Oh, yes - Molly said that you'd been cut off. What can I do for you, anyway?"

He turns his back on me for the rest of the conversation, though I can't for the life of me think why. All I'm doing is jumping up and down while scratching my armpits, after all. Though why does Vicky always arrive at the worst possible moment?

"Molly?" she says, taking a step backwards and raising her eyebrows at me. Which is the look she usually reserves for constituents she hasn't met before, while she waits for me or Greg to whisper, "sane" or "barking" in her ear.

"Sane," I say. "Just underpaid - which apparently automatically renders me rather more closely related to gorillas than even Dian Fossey believed."

"I see," says Vicky, who quite clearly doesn't. Which you wouldn't expect her to, when Mummy and Daddy pay her such a generous allowance.

Oh, yes - allowances. That's where I was meant to be going with this from the start: talking about the bloody, bloody, buggery Budget.

Excuse the language, but half this morning's calls are from constituents worried about what the changes will mean for them. I haven't a clue, as I dozed off when they were giving examples of the Budget's likely effects on the news last night.

Not through boredom, just exhaustion - though why do pundits never mention families with grown-up children who have failed to launch, when they show you what the Budget changes will do to the incomes of different groups? Max and I can't possibly be the only ones in this position. Or I bloody well hope we're not. Where on earth did we go wrong with Josh?

"Bloody hell, Mol," says Greg. "I wonder how many sole traders we're going to have left in this country by the time the recession is over."

"What d'you mean?" I say. "Oh, that late payment thing? Or whether they can pass their increased costs on to their customers without losing them to bigger competitors who can afford to absorb the losses themselves?"

"Both of those, of course," he says. "But I'd also forgotten about the penalties for filing your tax returns late. That last caller said that he can't afford to employ an accountant any longer, and he's really worried about doing it himself."

So would I be, if I were him. It's bad enough dealing with Andrew's expenses, let alone handling tax returns. I really hope Max will decide to reconsider the plan he thought up last night, which was to go self-employed.

I'm about to mention this very bad idea to Greg when the phone rings yet again, and he answers it.

"Who?" he says. "Oh, Connie - sorry, I didn't recognise your voice. Do you want to speak to your Mum?"

Cue instantaneous panic - which I had rather hoped I would have grown out of by now. Do you ever stop worrying about your kids? (I've got a horrible feeling the answer is "no.")

Greg's about to put the call through to my phone, but there's no need. I'm already half-way across the room, so I grab the receiver from his hand.

"What's the matter, Con?" I say. "Why are you calling me at work?"

"Mum," she says, though croaks might be a better word. "You know this bad throat I've had? And how I've been feeling really tired?"

"Yes," I say, wishing she didn't always have to make everything into a question. "Hurry up, Con! Just tell me what on earth is wrong. What did the doctor say? Has he got the blood tests back?"

"Yes," she says. "You were right. It is Glandular Fever, just like you thought. The doctor said he was surprised you'd realised what it was so fast."

Never underestimate the power of the internet, that's all I can say. Even though I try my level best to stop anyone else using it to self-diagnose, I am a researcher, not a hypochondriac, so I have a perfectly legitimate reason to do so - or that's what I say to Greg when he accuses me of hypocrisy, anyway.

"All right, then," he says. "If you reckon you can't be a hypochondriac because you only looked up what might be wrong with someone other than you, check out Munchausen Syndrome by proxy instead."

"I haven't got time," I say. "I have to hurry and finish work - seeing as I've got to go and pick Connie up after that. She's coming home while she's so unwell."

And I am seriously going to have words with the TV economists when I get back. I want to see exactly how much worse off I am going to be with two adult kids back at home, a redundant husband and an employer who thinks I can live on bananas. While paying me legumes.

Of course, if I had any kind of business brain, I'd take the hint my life is giving me and grasp the opportunity offered by the NHS reforms: to set up a money-making convalescent home.

Monday, 21 March 2011

A Hard Sell, In More Ways Than One.

Where did the weekend go - apart from travelling to and from Dorset, and fending off the paternal poison merchant? I'm so knackered when I wake up that I feel as if I haven't had any time off at all.

"Christ," says Greg, when I walk into the office. "You look like Night of the Living Dead."

"I know," I say. "Though there's no need to rub it in, just because you look so bright and bushy-tailed. What on earth is wrong with you?"

"I'm in love," he says. "And off the booze. Need all my wits about me when I'm with Jess if I'm to remember not to swear."

Greg's reformation is obviously part-time at best - seeing as he spends the whole morning swearing like a trooper. I can't say I blame him, as the usual suspects are out in force, accompanied by every single member of the difficult question brigade.

The phones just will not stop ringing, and by mid-afternoon both Greg and I are losing the plot - one of us slightly more than the other. Being teetotal might be lowering Greg's blood-alcohol levels, but it's doing the opposite in terms of his tolerance for being put on the spot.

"No, I'm afraid I don't know why the government is intervening in Libya while ignoring events in Yemen and Bahrain," he says, while wrapping the telephone cord several times around his neck, and then sliding dramatically on to the floor. "Nor why we've left Robert Mugabe in charge of Zimbabwe."

I'm facing a similarly tricky set of questions myself, except that Mrs Cookson - the constituent that I'm speaking to - adds a further ingredient to the mix.

"We stood by and allowed a genocide to take place in Rwanda," she says. "Our bloody foreign policy has everything to do with money and oil, and nothing whatsoever to do with what is right. No wonder Britain's reputation is being destroyed."

I have no idea what to say to any of this, given that my own musings on the subject seem to give rise to increasingly cynical answers, so I make an indeterminate noise in reply - which doesn't impress Mrs Cookson at all.

"Do you know how many day centres could be saved for the cost of a Tomahawk missile?" she says. God knows why, seeing as she obviously knows the answer already - unlike me, I'm embarrassed to say.

There's nothing for it but to let her answer her own question - which satisfies constituents more often than you'd expect. Then she rings off, having first been promised that I'll make all her views known to Liam Fox - which I plan to do in mind-numbingly microscopic detail.

It's about time Ministers had a taste of how tiring it is to be asked tricky questions, especially when you're not sure what your responses should be.

"Stop yawning, Molly," says Greg, unwrapping a Twix. "You'll set me off as well, if you're not careful. I'm bloody knackered after all that."

I say nothing, as I've got my hand over my mouth. At least I'm trying to comply.

Greg gives me a suspicious look, and then he continues:

"Honestly, sometimes I wonder if constituents realise that we aren't even in power now. I feel I'm being expected to defend Coalition policies today - don't you?"

"Yes," I say. "Though I suppose there is some pleasure to be had from the fact that we're both making such a bloody awful job of doing so."

"Hmm," he says, taking a large bite of chocolate, and then staring up at the ceiling while chewing thoughtfully. "There is always that."

Sometimes it's easy to forget that there is an upside to being in opposition, in that we're no longer responsible for Government policy. In theory, we could get away with providing no more than a sympathetic ear to complaints. Which seems to be all that Max wants from me, when I finally get home from work.

He's sitting at the dining room table, holding a piece of paper in his hand, and looking almost as tired as I do. This is really saying something.

"What's that?" I say. "Is it a letter from work?"

"Yes, he says. "Confirming in writing that I didn't get the job - my job."

He rubs his eyes, and then pinches the bridge of his nose, while he waits for me to read the HR Director's justification for the decision to choose someone else for the post.

The phrases: "more appropriate experience" and "transferable skills" are repeated several times, and "necessary" is mis-spelled more than once. "Sincerely" seems to have posed the greatest challenge.

"Bloody hell." I say. "Even The Boss can write a more literate letter than that. So do you know the person who actually got your job?"

Max nods, but that's his only response. Honestly, talk about getting blood out of a stone.

"Well, who is it, then?" I say. "And was he or she really a better candidate than you?"

"He's a young guy, called Stuart," says Max. "Though you'll never guess what his supposedly-relevant experience is in."

I shouldn't think I will - given that I could write what I know about high-end furniture, or family-run department stores, on the back of my hand. Probably with some space to spare. Max is the expert, after all. Or was, until he lost his job.

"No idea," I say. "Was he a furniture-maker, like you used to be?"

"No," says Max."He wasn't. He did three months at Leather Village or whatever it used to be called, and then he got sacked. And, before that, he spent five years selling used cars."

"Cars?" I say. "What the hell have cars got to do with furniture?"

"About as much as Leather Village has, I should think." Max's expression almost says it all. "My company's obviously decided to make a quick buck at all costs, and sod the long-term consequences to their reputation. Mary Portas would have a fit."

"She's not the only one," I say. "Constituents have been complaining about much the same thing to me all day, though admittedly they were referring to Britain and oil."

Sunday, 20 March 2011

An Excess Of Poisoning Incidents, And The Last Will And Testament Of Molly "Didn't Live Through The War" Bennett.

As if last night's journey to Dorset wasn't bad enough, now someone's trying to poison me again. And this time it's Dad, though I bet he'll deny it when the Police find the note I'm going to hide in my pocket.

He's already disinherited me for yesterday's Gary Glitter disaster, but the punishment isn't over yet. Now I have to eat a meal he's cooked.

I wouldn't be having to risk my life at all if I'd been able to drop him off at his house and drive straight back home - as per the original plan - but once we broke down about half-way there, everything went completely t*ts-up. (Metaphorically-speaking, of course. I do have some dignity left.)

I'll say this for the *RAC, though: at least they employ staff who know why it's important to be indoors by 9:00pm on a Saturday night. As soon as I'd explained that I must reach my destination by then, the operator said,

"Oh, you watching The Killing, are you? Great, isn't it?"

Now there's a woman of taste and discernment - unlike the mechanic she subsequently dispatched to the scene, who looked at the car as if it was a relic from the dark ages, and then sighed heavily and asked me to open the bonnet. He didn't look convinced that I actually could.

I still have no idea what he said the problem was, either, which didn't help. He mumbled so much that I couldn't hear him over Dad, who was still ranting about what I'd said - or rather, sung - to the Thai Bride over the phone. People's sense of humour is much more mutable than previously thought, so it's probably a good thing that the breakdown man didn't hear what Dad and I were arguing about, or not properly, anyway.

"Did you say Thai Bride?" he said to Dad. "You been to Pattaya too? Lovely girls there, aren't they? Feminine - not like women in this country."

"And they like old men, too," I said. (In my head - I still needed the car fixed, don't forget.)

Anyway, once Dad and Mr Pattaya had bonded over the attractions of Bar Girls, the repair of whatever the hell it was that was wrong with the car was completed so quickly that - without any speeding - I managed to pick up a take-away and get to Dad's house in time for The Killing to start.

Even better, Dad decided that he'd missed so much of the rugby by then, that he couldn't be bothered to argue about what we watched.

"I'm tired," he said. "I've recorded the match anyway, so I'll watch it tomorrow."

I didn't argue, so then Dad went to bed, leaving me alone with the gorgeous *Troels - though I'm starting to worry that he may have worms. All that eating, and yet he never gains weight. Unlike Dad, who's probably going to revert to eating nothing but cholesterol as soon as he's left on his own - unless I can find a way to change the habit of a lifetime. Preferably by covert means.

I don't sleep very well for wondering how I'm going to achieve this impossible objective, and am none the wiser when I get up this morning - until I start to make a cup of tea, and find that there's no milk. Dad goes next door to borrow some, and by the time he gets back, I've worked out a plan.

"I'll take you shopping before I leave," I say. "We can get some ready meals in, so you don't have to cook while you're still not well."

"Do you think I'm made of money?" says Dad, opening the freezer door and rummaging around inside. "Don't be so bloody stupid. There's plenty of food in here, and I'm perfectly capable of looking after myself. I'll even cook a Sunday lunch before you go."

He pulls out a plastic bag containing something brown that looks pretty dubious to me. We don't need to worry half as much as we do about global warming, not if the thickness of the ice covering both the inside and the outside of the packaging is anything to go by.

I mention this worrying observation to Dad, who just says,

"Global Warming? Doesn't exist. Conspiracy to send us all back to horses and carts."

Then he shakes some of the ice off the freezer bag, and peers at the label that's just been revealed.

"We'll have - um - Chilli con carne - and, um -"

He turns back to the freezer, rummages some more, and then holds up another mysterious find.

"Sprouts!" he says, triumphantly. This meal's becoming more appetising by the second.

I daren't object, though - not after the Gary Glitter incident - so I make myself useful by offering to clean the kitchen up a bit, while Dad chucks the frozen stuff into some pans. Then he turns the gas on and wanders off to watch the match, leaving me staring in horror at what I've just found.

The inside of the fridge looks like a bio-hazard, and I'm tempted to slam the door shut and evacuate the area - but someone has to protect Dad from himself. So I tie a grubby tea-towel around my nose and mouth, and put my winter gloves on my hands, before going back in for a closer look.

Why on earth would anyone keep half a slice of ancient beef - if beef is actually what it was - on a saucer with two fossilised roast potatoes? Or a minute amount of what looks like cherry pie filling, once you scrape the green mould aside?

"What the hell are you doing with that?" says Dad, who really shouldn't sneak up on people who might have inherited his high blood pressure.

He scares me so much that I almost drop the juice carton that I'm holding, while pouring its contents down the sink. Almost-clear liquid runs out, followed by the occasional plop of a fermenting lump.

"Getting rid of this," I say, trying not to breathe in at the same time. "Why?"

"That's the orange juice I have for breakfast."

"It might have been when you first opened it," I say. "But that was at least three weeks ago."

Dad elbows me out of the way, closes the fridge door and leans on it. Then he folds his arms as if to dare me to move him out of the way.

"A bit of fizziness never did anyone any harm," he says. "Now go and watch that last try. I've got the video on pause for you."

Luckily, he follows me into the sitting room, where he quickly becomes so engrossed in yelling abuse at the French that I soon manage to tiptoe back to the kitchen without him noticing. Once there, I complete the fastest cupboard search you've ever seen, and then really, really wish I hadn't.

Every single packet and tin bears a date that's expired - most of them by years, not months. It's a miracle a heart bypass is all he required.

I find a new bin bag in the cupboard underneath the oven and chuck almost everything from the cupboard into it. Then I open the freezer to check on that.

"Come on," says Dad. "Dinner's almost ready - pass me those plates and I'll dish it up."

I turn around to do as he asks, but then he spots the bin bag in my hand.

"What's that?" he says. "What are you throwing away now?"

"Food, " I say. "So out of date that I'm surprised you haven't got botulism, or something much worse."

Dad looks horrified, and snatches the bag out of my hand.

"Good God, woman," he says, as he looks inside it, and then pulls all the jars and tins back out. "Bloody wasteful, your generation. You can see you didn't live through the war."

"I'm amazed you did, if you were eating gone-off food," I say.

"Pfft," says Dad, taking the saucepans off the stove, and spooning the mush onto the plates. The sprouts have now been boiling for at least forty minutes, but that's not the worst of it. I've just had a seriously horrible thought.

While Dad is on his knees, searching in yet another cupboard for a bottle of Thai Chilli Sauce to "spice things up a bit more," I race to the freezer, yank the door open and grab the first bag that I find. Which turns out to be an exact duplicate of the one that originally held the food that I'm about to be forced to consume.

"Chilli?" it says. "June 2003."

If I should die, then I leave everything to Max and the children - except my old video recordings of Yes, Minister and my D:Ream single, both of which I leave to Greg. I request that someone advise him that the former are now much more relevant than the latter. My debts, in full, I bequeath to The Boss, with my most sincere respect and thanks.

*RAC - breakdown cover and roadside assistance - a necessity with a car as old as ours. Though I can take or leave their Thai Bride advice.
*Troels - Troels Hartmann, politician and on-off murder suspect in The Killing. You may look but do not touch. He is mine, unless I should die by my father's hand.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

How To Make Conversation Across A Cultural Divide, And Disinherit Yourself In The Process.

I'm off to Dorset to take Dad home - which is going to be fun, seeing as he isn't speaking to me.

Instead of occupying his usual position on the sofa and wielding the remote control as if it were a weapon of mass destruction, he's upstairs, throwing the last of his belongings into a suitcase. He's refusing my help, and is muttering to Max about the complete lack of support he gets from his kids. I'm assuming that he means me by that.

It all starts while I'm getting dressed this morning. I'm hopping about on one foot, trying to get the other one into the leg of my tights, when the bloody phone starts to ring. Max is no help as he's still in bed -   preparing for unemployment and Jeremy Kyle.

"Let it go to the answer-phone," he says, which seems a sensible suggestion to me.

The caller's bound to be yet another of those bloody marketing firms, so it's not as if I'll be missing anything and, anyway, I hate the phone. Unlike a certain other person who just can't resist it. Honestly - why can't the older generation let a ringing phone ring? I don't know what's the matter with them.

Dad's still on the line when I eventually make it down the stairs, even though this feat takes quite a while - I'm positive these tights are the wrong way round.

"Is that bloody Northwick Eezi Home Finance again?" I say. "Tell them to sod off and remove our number from their calling sheets. We're registered with the TPS!"

Dad scowls, while gesturing for me to leave the room - so I comply without complaint. It can't be healthy to be so mindlessly obedient. I'm already in the hallway before I remember that I don't have to do as he says, and could always listen in instead.

I overcome a rogue twinge of guilt by telling myself that he'll thank me for invading his privacy when I save him from buying something that he doesn't need. These marketing people have no scruples, and Dad's a vulnerable, lonely pensioner like Mr Edmonds - or so he'd have us all believe.

No call-centre version of Darren is going to get away with ripping my father off, so I rush back into the sitting room and take control. It's quite a buzz, for all of the five seconds it lasts.

"Give it to me," I mouth at Dad.

He shakes his head and hangs onto the phone for dear life, even though I try really hard to wrestle it from him. He's got an awfully strong grip for a man who's just had a triple bypass and is supposedly a convalescent. (I blame all the high reps he's been doing with the remote for that.)

Anyway, we're still embroiled in a tug of war when Dad suddenly changes his line of attack. He gives me a sneaky push when I'm least expecting it, and I fall backwards on to a chair. It's not the most dignified landing, but there's no need for him to look so smug. He'd do no better if he was wearing these tights.

Like Chumbawumba, I may get knocked down, but I get up again - and Dad's not the only one who can try a different approach. I shall give up this unequal physical struggle and rely on disapproval instead. It worked for Gandhi, after all.

I cross my legs into the Lotus Position - slightly modified to allow for the tights - and then I hold my hand out for the phone, while trying very hard not to blink. Dad takes absolutely no notice, beyond turning his back on me, but then it took a few years in India, too.

"My daughter," he says, into the receiver. "No, dau-ghter. Door- terr. My daughter. I think she wants to speak to you."

"Damn right I do," I say, as I attack from behind and grab the phone while I have the chance. Now I'll show Dad who's the boss.

"Molly, my dear - meet my new love," he says. "All the way from sunny Thailand."

"Hurro," says Porn-Poon. Or something like that. I'm far too traumatised for my ears to work. Or my brain.

"Hurro. Hu-rro!" she says, again.

God, she even sounds about twelve years old. And why can't I think of a thing to say? Now I know how The Boss feels during tricky surgery appointments - especially when I refuse to help him out.

"Um, hello," I say - nothing better having come to mind. "So I guess you're a fan of Gary Glitter, then?"

Why did I say that? Why? Why? It's as if I've suddenly developed Tourettes. And all I can think of to add to that exceptional opening gambit is something about the leader of the gang. Lateral thinking, I suppose.

After I've finished singing the tune, there's silence at the other end of the phone, and Dad's face has gone a very funny colour indeed. I'm going to kill him by accident if I don't get a grip. And I have to make nice, anyway - seeing as this could be Stepmother Mark IV I'm talking to. (God forbid.)

"Nice to meet you, Porn-Poon," I say.

Shit! Is that actually her name - or is it just what Dinah calls her behind Dad's back? I can't remember, and Dad's no help. He's just glaring at me as if he'd like to kill me. Which he'll probably attempt, as soon as I get off the phone - and it's not as if I don't already know which one of us would win that fight.

I need to calm down, right now, and then make normal conversation. How hard can it be? I do it all the time with mad constituents, so it's not as if I lack experience - except that they're not usually shagging my Dad.

Oh, dear God, what an image. Now I'm making it so much worse. I know - I'll ask Porn-Poon about her hobbies. I'm sure that's what self-help books for the socially-inept would suggest.

"So," I say. "Dad tells me that you like old men."

According to Dad - before he stops speaking to me altogether - this last effort isn't my worst offence. I better it with my follow up:

"Can you just explain to me why?"

Friday, 18 March 2011

The Harsh Realities Of Life, And A Complete Inability To Do Anything Useful About Them In The Absence Of Criminal Connections.

Max sounds awful when he wakes up this morning, and he takes so long getting up that I'm ready to leave before he's even dressed.

"Aren't you going in to work today?" I say.

"Don't know if I can be bloody bothered," he says. "Seeing as my skills are irrelevant. They'd probably sell more if I wasn't there, and I doubt the customers would even notice."

"Oh, I should think Mrs Bloom would," I say - before I remember that I'm not actually sure if she even exists, or whether she's just Max's cover story for the affair he may or may not be having with Annoying Ellen. Or with the homicidal faun. Life can be so confusing sometimes.

I'm not the only one struggling with the harsh realities of life here in Northwick, though - which I know are as nothing compared to the situation in Japan, but I'm trying to focus on stuff that I can actually do something about. Given that the only alternative seems to be 24-hour news-induced sleep deprivation, an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and a lower than usual tolerance for fuckwittage.

Not that I'm implying that the latter's true of poor old Mr Edmonds' behaviour - though he certainly thinks he's been an idiot, and isn't at all his usual self when he arrives for his surgery appointment. His eyes are reddened and he looks much frailer than the last time we saw him, despite the fact that he has worn a suit for the occasion. It's a bit shiny at the elbows and knees, and hangs loose upon his frame.

"I can't believe it," he says, as soon as he enters the room. "I just can't believe it."

"Please sit down," I say, helping him in to a chair. "And then you can tell us what the problem is."

"I just hope Mr Sinclair can help me," he says. "Seeing as nobody else will. They just say there's no fool like an old fool - and they might be right, an' all."

Then he makes a sound that is halfway between a hiccup and a sob, which he tries to mask by burying his face in a large white handkerchief.

"Take your time," says The Boss, while looking surreptitiously at his watch.

He hates it when constituents cry. So do I, but it's a hazard of the job, isn't it? Especially when some people view their MP as a last resort, unlike the usual bloody suspects who'd think nothing of calling us for advice on how to brush their teeth. Or something even less savoury.

I glare at Andrew, who pulls his sleeve back down and resigns himself to waiting it out until, eventually, Mr E blows his nose and marshals his thoughts.

"The Police don't believe me," he says. "Even though they must know that Darren's a wrong 'un, seeing as everybody did. Apart from me, apparently. My life savings - and they're all gone."

He goes on to explain that he still hasn't made any real friends on the estate to which he moved when his wife died a few years ago.

"You know what people are like these days," he says. "They sometimes say hello when they pass by my house, but they're all busy with their own lives, aren't they? And I'm a lot older than most of them."

This loneliness turns out to have played right into the hands of the loathsome Darren. He owns a small garage at the edge of the estate, and was one of the few people to do more than pass the time of day with Mr E - who was a mechanic in his youth, and says that he still loves cars and the smell of oil.

"We'd just chat about motors, and sometimes he'd say, 'Want a cuppa, Grandpa?' and -"

Mr Edmonds seems to lose his thread for a minute, and then he squares his shoulders and looks straight at me.

"It sounds stupid, now," he says. "But it was nice, you know, to have a friend. Or that's what I thought he was."

It turns out that Darren just happened to discover that Mr Edmonds had withdrawn all his money from the bank after the run on Northern Rock. And then - like the considerate friend he was - he decided to "advise" Mr E of the risks, though scared the shit out of him might be a better description.

"I couldn't sleep a wink after he warned me what would happen if word got around and someone broke in while I was in bed." says Mr E.

He looks so apologetic, that it's as if he's expecting us to tell him off. I'm certainly not going to, but I glance over at Andrew, just to make sure that he isn't about to give a crime prevention lecture. (He hasn't been the same since he started attending those Neighbourhood Policing events.)

Luckily, and although he's fidgeting in his seat, for once he senses when not to hold forth, and gestures for me to speak instead.

"So what did this Darren suggest you do about it?" I say, though I've got a horrible feeling I already know.

"He said he had a safe in the garage, and that my money would be much more secure in there. 'I'm here every day, or at the end of the phone,' he said. 'So you can get at it whenever you want to. I probably work longer hours than the banks!'"

Our Darren's obviously not stupid, is he? Even I'd have been tempted by that sales pitch - especially if I thought I could get a cup of tea and a friendly chat whenever I had to withdraw some cash - instead of a snotty text from the bank like the one that arrived this morning. God knows how Max and I are going to manage to clear the accidental overdraft now. We'll probably be as broke as Mr E by the end of the month, once they add those bloody awful daily charges.

But this isn't time to be thinking about me. I'm supposed to be helping someone else.

"So what happened then?" I say. "Did you give Darren the money to look after for you?"

"Yes," says Mr E. "And it was all fine, until last week when I wanted to withdraw some to pay the last instalment of my Council Tax."

Now he's crying again, but he's determined not to stop talking this time - not until he's told us everything.

"So I walked round to the garage, and asked Darren if I could get some of my money out of the safe," he says. "And he just looked at me like he didn't know me from Adam and said, "Sorry, mate - do I know you? And what money are you talking about?'"

Honestly, aren't some people shits? The Boss and I are both so livid about the whole thing that, after Mr Edmonds leaves - having been promised that I'll speak to the Police as soon as today's surgery has ended - we both take a couple of large swigs from a bottle of Igor's vodka that has mysteriously found its way into Andrew's briefcase. And then we take a couple more.

"Christ," I say. "What kind of society are we turning into?"

"I don't know," says Andrew. "But the Japanese put us to shame, don't they? There they are - short of food, water, and with death and destruction on every side - and yet they wait in line, treat each other with courtesy and barely complain. And what have we got? The Darrens of this bloody world, taking advantage of a lonely old man."

"Yes," I say. "Who really only wanted a friend."

I might be able to see that clearly but, when I start making enquiries on Mr Edmond's behalf, it turns out that it's not just Japan that I'm powerless to help. He didn't get a receipt from Darren, and so there's no proof that a crime was even committed, and nothing that the Police can do. Not while Darren continues to claim that Mr E is senile, and that there never was any agreement to "look after" his money.

"Shame none of us know a good forger," says The Boss. "Then we could create a receipt. Set a thief to catch a thief."

Which sounds much worse in the light of the expenses scandal than it might otherwise have done.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Mafia Moll, Or My Fair Lady: As You've Never Seen Her Before.

Is paranoia catching? I'm becoming as bad as the usual suspects, and I bet it's all their fault. Oh, and Johnny's, of course.

"Where've you been for the last few days?" he says in his first email of the day. "I've missed you."

"Riddled with insomnia due to 24-hour news, and being poisoned by a homicidal faun," I say. "I nearly died from that one."

"Don't be silly," says Johnny, sounding just like Max. "If anyone's out to poison you, it'll be you-know-who, because of the company you keep. And I told you not to keep taking the name of the *M-People in vain."

Talk about a lack of sympathy. I bet Shakespeare didn't behave like that to the object of his affection. Even if she did have unavoidable links to a Russian refugee with a fondness for peculiar hats.

"Romance is dead," I say to Johnny, apropos of nothing in particular.

"I know," he says. "In marriage, anyway. Not between us, though, surely?"

"I don't know that virtual sex in between your endless conference calls really counts as romance," I say.

I add a miserable *emoticon to that sentence, for effect. The young don't have an exclusive right to EMO statements, after all. We're all entitled to the odd moment of self-pity, no matter what Mum might say.

"It's pretty romantic to be besotted with each other even when we never see each other, though, isn't it?"

I don't think Johnny's being sarcastic, but you can never be too careful, so I have no idea of the correct response to this. It's probably safer to send another emoticon, just in case - though it takes me ages to decide between a smily face or a wink. In the end, I opt for both.

The more I think about it, the less I can work out why romance would have died between Johnny and his wife - if it really has. It's not as if they have money worries, annoying teenage children, or a non-existent social life, is it? Not like me and Max. And I bet they don't have a sex-mad parent staying with them either.

Just imagine Max coming home and saying,

"Darling, shall we go to the embassy ball tonight? I have a meeting with the Minister for Mafia, but the au pair can put the children to bed while you have a leisurely bath, and then I'll send the car to pick you up."

I'd feel like Eliza Doolittle if that happened to me - but gritty realism's more my scene. This evening ends up turning into a *kitchen sink drama, though I'm not sure if Max still qualifies as an angry young man. Not at his age - which seems to be the root of the problem.

When he arrives home from work, he kicks the front door shut so hard that a lump of plaster falls from the ceiling onto my head.

"Fuck it," he says. "Fuck the fucking lot of them."

Josh and I look at each other but keep quiet, and even Dad works out that now is probably not the time to turn the volume up, though I can tell he's itching to do just that. God knows what he's watching, though at least it isn't News 24.

Max says, "Fuck it," again, and then sits down on the sofa, and buries his head in his hands.

"What on earth's the matter?" I say. "Are you okay?"

"No," he says. "I didn't get the job. My job, effectively, or the one I've been doing for the last fifteen years, anyway. They felt other people's skills were more relevant, though their experience damn well wasn't."

Bloody hell. I tell you what, if I really had Mafia connections, a certain boss of a little-known furniture retail chain would be being bundled into the boot of a car right this minute. After being force-fed twenty-seven organic Scotch eggs and watching rolling news for a week without sleep.

*M-People - Johnny's code word for the Mafia, but in reality, a band from the 1990s, whose song, Moving On Up, is pretty much the polar opposite of what I've spent my life doing.
*Emoticon. A sad one; a happy one, and a winking one. The latter reminds me of someone annoying, but I can't think who.
*Kitchen Sink Drama - my life, summed up.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

A Lovelorn Intern's Innovative Approach To Population Control, Or Why Special Cases Aren't Always Special.

Blimey, does everyone watch Newsnight these days? It certainly seems like it, if all the constituents who saw last night's programme are anything to go by.

Maybe their interest was caused by the fact that 71% of us now describe ourselves as middle class, if Deborah Mattinson's to be believed. I missed the percentage of those who also consider themselves to be squeezed, but I'd hazard a guess it's 100%.

I'd be a bit better-informed if the former statistic hadn't been the only thing that I managed to pick up while the programme was on - but I couldn't hear a bloody thing. First Max went ballistic when John Denham talked about public sector job cuts, and then Dad started bellowing about why no-one was mentioning pensioners and fixed incomes.

In the end, I got so tired of them both looking at me as if I had all the answers, that I gave up and went to bed with a book. I probably should have replied to some of Johnny's most recent emails instead, but the last thing I wanted was to get into a discussion with him about what constitutes the middle class.

He'd probably have claimed that he fell into that category, too, and then I'd have lost my temper and ruined all chance of romance. Not that I'm feeling very amorous today, anyway - especially not towards an International Director of a Global Oil Company who earns more in a day than I do in a month. Or even a year.

To be honest, I still can't work out at what point the "working poor" segue into the "squeezed middle" - not that the distinction seems to bother any of the usual suspects. As far as each one of them is concerned, they're the only one to suffer.

And, God, don't they go on about it? You'd think they'd feel embarrassed to complain so much in the light of what's happening in Japan, but there's absolutely no sign of that. It's really irritating and, to make matters worse, I'm the only one having to listen to them.

Greg claims he's busy working on something "top secret" for The Boss - which doesn't seem to have anything to do with casework and is probably party political - so I end up answering the phones by myself for most of the day.

Vicky's in the office, too, but she's still in a filthy mood and spends most of her time lying on the sofa in the Oprah Room, texting her friends and reading, "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus."

"If you're looking for guidance on The Boss, I reckon you'll need to go beyond our solar system for that," says Greg. "I'd give Stephen Hawking a call, if I were you."

Vicky turns a page, while pretending she hasn't heard a thing. Which is the same approach she takes to the phone that's ringing on the table right next to where she's sitting.

"For Christ's sake," I say, when I finally manage to end yet another call complaining about the effects of the cuts on the holiday plans of someone earning £40,000 a year. "Couldn't one of you answer the phone for a change? I've had just about enough of this."

"Well, you know what the problem is, Mol," says Greg. "Everyone thinks they're a special case these days."

I nod in recognition of what is undoubtedly a universal truth, and head for the kitchen to make a cup of tea. It's thirsty work listening to constituents complain, but at least my colleagues don't moan as well. Or Greg doesn't, anyway. Interns are a different matter.

"Well, some people are special cases," says Vicky, putting her book down, and clenching her fists as if preparing to square up to anyone unwise enough to disagree. "Those of us who are childless, for a start. I hate bloody people with kids."

"What?" I say, in disbelief. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"Good job your parents didn't feel like that," says Greg, who always loves a fight. As long as it doesn't involve anything physical, of course.

Vicky glares at both of us, before launching into a sustained attack on people with children who "get all the perks", and who shouldn't expect society to help them bear the burden of their own "selfish desire to reproduce".

Greg and I listen in silence, which is usually the best tactic with a ranting constituent, and eventually she seems to run out of steam.

I'm not sure if she's worked out that the world wouldn't have lasted very long if everyone felt as she does, or whether she's simply given up trying to provoke. I don't really care, as long as she stops.

"Finished?" I say, as she looks down at her hands, then picks up her handbag and grabs her coat.

"For now," she says. "I've got to pop out. I've just broken a nail."

"Lucky for you someone else gave birth to a manicurist, then," says Greg. "Seeing as you can't fix it yourself."

"She's not a manicurist, you idiot," says Vicky. "She's a fully-qualified nail technician."

I don't know about that, but it's a joiner we'll be needing if Vicky keeps slamming the door so hard.

I go to check if it's still in its frame, while Greg waits for her to re-appear in the street below his window. Then he sticks out his tongue, puts his fingers to his ears and waggles them. He might not complain much, but I didn't say he was mature in every way.

"What the hell's got into her?" I say. "I thought she always wanted kids."

"She did," says Greg. "But maybe Andrew doesn't. He's already got some, if you recall?"

"Yes," I say. "But with his wife. Oh! Now I see what you mean."

Greg gives me an unnecessarily ironic round of applause, which I try my best to ignore by counting to ten. Out loud, or there'd be no point.

When I reach nine, he leans back in his chair and says:

"I knew you'd get there - in the end. As usual, we're not talking special case, we are talking fruit and nut."

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Be Thankful For What You've Got, Even If It Does Make You Late For Work.

Things are going from bad to worse in Japan, and I still can't sleep - thanks to my compulsion to follow every single new development on TV.

I think it might be contagious, actually. I'm watching this morning's Breakfast News, when Josh comes into the room looking like hell. It's his day off, and he's still wearing the clothes he went out in last night,  so I've no idea what he's even doing up so early. Unless he's got such a hangover that he's on a Paracetamol hunt, of course.

"In the bathroom cupboard," I say. "Help yourself. I'm busy watching this."

I wave him away, but he doesn't take any notice. Instead, he sits down next to me, and gives me a peck on the cheek. Then we both stare in silence at the latest pictures from the Fukushima reactor.

"Mol, turn the TV off now, and go and get dressed," says Max. "Otherwise we'll be late for work."

"Does it matter?" I say. "It feels inappropriate to be carrying on as normal when such terrible things are happening in another country."

"You can't let yourself think like that and, anyway, you doing nothing isn't going to help anyone, is it?"

I know Max is right but, even so, it feels almost obscene to be putting on lipstick and brushing my hair. What does it matter what I look like, when Nature can bring everything crashing down overnight?

I walk as slowly as I can to work, trying to note and appreciate all the stuff I normally take for granted. Like roads, and shops with food in them - not to mention the fact that I'm only breathing in exhaust fumes, and (hopefully) nothing worse.

This Buddhist-style process takes so long that it makes me late, and Greg isn't at all impressed when I try to explain what I was doing. He just takes one look at my face and says,

"Still staying up half the night watching News 24? You look like shit. And I think you may be going mad. Have a coffee and get a grip."

I do as I'm told, and it works - though, by lunchtime, I've drunk so much caffeine and smoked so many cigarettes that my hands are shaking, and Greg tells me that I'm talking so fast that I sound like Steve Ellington in a manic phase.

This is a bit unnerving, to say the least - but at least I'm working, and not thinking about Japan. Not until Sue Reynolds phones, anyway.

"Molly," she says. "How are you? I just wanted to check that Mr Sinclair is still planning to attend this year's welcome back party for the children?"

"Oh," I say, as I open Andrew's diary and check the date. "Yes, Sue - it's in the diary, so he'll see you next month. I might attend again, too, if you don't mind?"

"We'd love you to!" says Sue. "Look forward to it."

She seems genuinely pleased, though there's no need at all for her to sound so grateful. Not considering that all The Boss and I ever do is to turn up, talk to incredibly inspiring children and young people, and then have a weep in the car on the way home. Well, I do.

Andrew just heads for the pub to drown his sorrows, so he maintains his dignity for once - but I'm usually at the hiccuping and snorting stage by then, so I go straight home instead. I've never mastered that dignified noiseless weeping thing.

I'm getting a bit emotional now, actually, just from thinking about it. I sniff, and start hunting through my handbag for an unused tissue. Where the hell do the damn things go?

"'Bye, then, Molly," says Sue. "See you at the party. And don't forget it's the 25th Anniversary this year."

"How could I?" I say, but she's already rung off.

"There you are," says Greg. "Told you you'd feel better if you just buckled down and did some work."

I don't answer, in case my voice wobbles, so he walks up to my desk and stares at me until I look up.

"Bloody hell. Are those tears?" he says, passing me a clean handkerchief, presumably courtesy of his mum. "Who was that on the phone, and what the hell did they want if it made you cry?"

"Sue Reynolds," I say. "From Northwick Chernobyl Children's Project."

I don't say any more than that, because I still don't trust my voice, but Greg doesn't seem to need me to spell it out. Maybe male intuition really does exist?

"Ah," he says. "Now I see. Get that mascara off your nose, and then let's go and have a drink. If you like, we'll walk through the town square on the way. The fountain's not a patch on that one in Rome, but it still might be worth a try."

When we throw our coins in to the water, my instincts tell me that Greg and I make exactly the same wish: that a Fukushima Children's Project won't be required.

Monday, 14 March 2011

An Uncharacteristic Crisis Of Conscience, And The After-Effects Of Too Much Rolling News.

God, I'm tired. I've become a 24-hour news junkie, completely incapable of tearing myself away from the coverage of what's going on in Japan.

I knew I'd lost it last night when I was still sitting on the sofa at 3:30am, watching open-mouthed as reports came in about the second reactor at Fukushima having exploded. As the newsreader spoke, a red banner ran along the bottom of the screen, saying that a three-metre wave had been spotted off the North-East coast of Japan. How much more can one country take?

I just can't get my head around what I'm seeing, the scale of it, or the numbers presumed dead. And I want to slap everyone who phones today to complain about what I'd usually consider to be legitimate problems. As for those with totally imaginary ones, don't even get me started on them. It would be all too easy for me to become an axe murderer, and massacre a whole swathe of the usual suspects.

I'm not the only one, either. After a particularly pointless conversation with Mr Franklin about the "bloody unreasonable behaviour" of his GP who has apparently had the temerity to warn him about his (40 stone) weight, Greg slams the phone down and kicks Mr F's case file across the room. It doesn't go very far, though - the damn thing's much too heavy for that.

"These f*cking people," says Greg, while hopping on one foot. "I listen to them and I wonder what the hell kind of society we've created. Look at how the Japanese are behaving compared to our bunch of whingers. It's a bloody good job Mr F doesn't live there. At the first mention of a food shortage, he'd start eating passers-by. And complaining if anyone even tried to object."

"I know," I say. "When Steve Ellington just tried to tell me a tsunami joke, I wanted to kill him - very, very slowly. So now I'm going to have a cigarette."

"I'll come with you," says Greg, as he switches the answer-phone on. Which just goes to show how disaffected we feel today - seeing as we almost never turn it on, except in emergencies, or when we think the only alternative would be to resign with immediate effect.

We sit on the low wall outside the office, Greg eating Haribos as if they're going out of fashion, and me chain-smoking. It's odd how global disasters affect you that way. Instead of causing you to feel that you should do everything you can to take care of yourself and to make the most of the life you're lucky to have, they make you feel so powerless that you just don't give a sh*t about being sensible.

"Are Haribos made in Japan?" says Greg, chewing more slowly now.

I give him a filthy look - at which he raises his hands in a helpless gesture and then says,

"Sorry, Mol. I feel a bit hysterical for some reason. I can't seem to think about the bigger picture - it's just too big. How on earth do the people who have to deal with the clear-up cope?"

"I don't know," I say. "Imagine being the first on the scene in Minamisanriku. I'd just stand there, frozen. How would you even know where to begin? And, as for what's going on with the nuclear reactors, how did that happen?"

Greg stands up, ready to go back inside, but I remain sitting on the wall. I'm not capable of dealing with more constituents yet.

"What do you mean?" he says. "It's obvious. The tsunami and the quake; loss of coolant; then overheating. I thought you said you'd been watching the news 24/7?"

"I have," I say, lighting yet another cigarette. "That's not what I mean. I'm thinking about how a country that suffered so much as a result of nuclear bombs came to depend on the same process to generate their power. And what the hell has happened to my thinking on this stuff? Maybe there's such a thing as being too cynical and too bloody pragmatic by half."

Greg looks blank, but then he's entitled to. He's never read Hersey's Hiroshima or Where The Wind Blows, and he's never even heard of Protect and Survive.

He's too young for any of that - or to have any detailed recall of Chernobyl. He wasn't even born when Three Mile Island happened, and would still have been in nappies when I was wearing a beret covered in CND badges and campaigning for Northwick to become a nuclear-free zone.

The highlight of that episode was when I was promoted to sit on the regional committee of CND - which was when funny things started happening with my phone. It would ring, I would answer and, lo and behold, there'd be another committee member at the other the end of the line. So what, you might well say. That's what Alexander Graham Bell intended all along.

And you'd have a point, if it wasn't for the fact that then there would follow a confused conversation during which it would become clear that neither of us had called the other - or anyone else for that matter. Both our phones had just rung at exactly the same moment - many times, over weeks, if not months - purely by coincidence.

I know I'm starting to sound just like The Boss, what with his obsession about the office phones being bugged, but I was pretty *convinced mine really was at that time. I was also equally sure that I was near the top of the list of people the authorities intended to round up and imprison at the first sign of a nuclear war. And utterly convinced that the anti-nuclear cause was well worth fighting for.

I try to explain this to Greg, who asks how old I was when all this was taking place.

"Probably not much younger than you are now," I say. "But where the hell did that Molly go? When did I become the sort of person who reads all the bumpf we used to get sent when we were in government telling us that nuclear power was now the only way we could provide for the UK's energy needs, and just nods in acknowledgement instead of going and chaining myself to a fence somewhere?"

"Well, that stuff was true," says Greg. "We were going to run out of power if we didn't face up to the situation. And you know better than anyone that reality has a nasty way of f*cking with political principles. Even Nick Clegg's managed to grasp that concept since the General Election."

"I know," I say. "But what scares me is that I didn't even notice it happening to me."

*convinced - I was - and, to a certain extent, these fears later appeared less crazy than you might think, as per: this and this. See? I told you I wasn't as bonkers as The Boss. Not that he need have worried if he'd been an MP during that time. He'd have had his nice warm bed in a nuclear bunker guaranteed.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

A Slow Boat To Thailand. And A Pretty Bad Line, Too.

"I'm bored," says Dad, about five minutes after he gets up this morning. "I don't like being an invalid."

"We don't like it much either," I say, under my breath.

"Well, can't you take me out somewhere, or something? I'm going stir-crazy stuck in here all day."

"Not today," says Max, who's trying to work out how our latest phone bill can be so high.

It may be a coincidence, but Josh is staying well out of the way. I make a mental note to check for evidence of calls to Holly's number once Max has put the bill aside. Meanwhile, what to do with Dad?

The question becomes more pressing when Sam phones to see if he can come to stay next weekend.

"Good God," I say. "We thought you were dead."

"No, Mol," says Sam. "I was just in a relationship. Didn't you see my Facebook status?"

"Yes," I say. "But I thought you were being ironic."

Max takes the receiver from my hand before I can say anything else, pushes me out of the room and shuts the door so I can't interrupt. (I know it annoys him when I butt in, but if I didn't remind him during the conversation, he'd never remember to ask for any of the juicy details. Men are bloody hopeless sometimes.)

Anyway, I hover for a while outside the door, but I can't hear anything meaningful at all, as I'm sure Max is mumbling on purpose. So I may as well join Dad in the living room instead. I can give Connie a call while I'm there.

So much for that idea - Dad spots that I've got my mobile in my hand and, quick as a flash, turns the TV on. His operation hasn't dulled his reflexes, that's for sure. Unlike what his convalescence is doing to mine.

"Must be something on before the rugby," he says.

Honestly, there's no need to have the volume up quite so bloody high, is there? The TV's rattling so much that it'll probably explode in a minute. I'd understand it if sports commentators ever said anything that made any sense,  but they don't - so why would anyone want to listen to them shouting?

I scowl at Dad, but he just winks at me and changes channel. Several times in quick succession, until I admit defeat and go upstairs in disgust. I shall lie on the bed while I talk to Connie - which will make a very nice change, given that I haven't managed to stretch out on the sofa once since Dad arrived.

"Urm, 'ullo, Murm," says Connie. Or words to that effect. She does sound a bit peculiar. As if she's being choked, or something.

"What's the matter, Con?" I say, envisaging God knows what.

"Bad froat," she says. "Thr-oat, I mean. I feel awful. I'd have come home for the weekend if Grandad hadn't been sleeping in my bed."

As if it isn't bad enough that Josh is finding every excuse that he can to stay out of the house since Dad arrived, now Connie's sick and can't come home to be looked after. And Sam can't visit while Dad's here, either. Bloody, bloody hell - I wish we had a proper spare room.

I know I said Dad must be mad for asking when he could travel as soon as he first came round from the anaesthetic, but now I'm starting to wish he'd at least remained conscious long enough to be given a definitive answer.

I wonder how soon people are allowed to fly after they've had a heart bypass? Or to sail...  Can you get to Thailand by boat?

I'm about to go and ask Max whether he knows the answer, when I hear his footsteps coming up the stairs.

"You won't believe what just happened to me," he says. "No wonder your Dad's so desperate to get back to Thailand."

"As am I," I say. "Desperate for him to get back, I mean. Not me. Anyway, what happened to you?"

Max explains that his conversation with Sam ended rather suddenly.

"You know what's he's like," says Max. "We always get cut off when he puts the receiver under his chin to light a fag. So I didn't think anything of it when the line went dead and then the phone rang again, straight-away. I just picked it up, and waited for Sam to carry on where he'd left off."

"And?" I say. There's got to be more to this than meets the eye.

"It wasn't Sam, but some woman with a funny accent. She said something like, 'Imissoo' - but it was a bad connection so I couldn't really hear her very well. The only bit I'm sure I understood was when she said, 'When oo come back Thailand? I wuv oo, big boy.'"

"Oh, my God, Max," I say. "You've just spoken to Porn-Poon. Who's bound to become Stepmother Mark IV if Dad's gone and given her our phone number as well as his own."

Max sits down on the bed, and sighs like he always does when he thinks I'm being melodramatic. Then he raises his eyebrows, and gestures for me to go on.

"You know that's how it always works," I say. "There are Dad's temporary girlfriends - the ones Dinah and I are never allowed to speak to - and then there are the other ones, who turn into his wives. They're the ones he likes to introduce us to on the phone, when he does that thing where he says, 'Speak to your new stepmother,' and then just shoves the receiver into our hands. You must remember the last time he did it?"

Max nods at the same time as rolling his eyes - which is even less reassuring than it sounds, and much easier than patting your head while rubbing your stomach. Then he says,

"Okay - maybe you're right. So what shall I do? Do I mention it to your dad or not? She didn't say her name, just that she loved me - or wuved me, anyway - and I didn't even suspect who she was until I'd put the phone down. I told her she must have got the wrong number."

"Huh," I say. "I'm pretty sure Porn-Poon's knows every man's number off by heart. But I wouldn't tell Dad about it, if I were you. He'll only want to call her back, and God knows what that'll cost -"

For once, I manage to put two and two together and actually come up with four. So at least I'm learning something from spending all my leisure time watching Scandinavian detectives on TV.

"Oh, shit," says Max, at the same time as I say, "The phone bill."

I look up our PIN number, while Max reads the instructions on how to block international calls. Far be it from either of us to stand in the way of true love, but this is my dad we're talking about.