Monday, 28 February 2011

Playing Dead In A World Gone Madder Than Usual.

Never, ever send Greg a supposedly-amusing video, that's all I can say. The end result just isn't worth it.

"Great clip you emailed me of that dog pretending to die, Mol," he says, when he arrives this morning. "Watch this!"

Then his bones appear to turn to jelly, and he collapses on the spot. Admittedly he doesn't nail the landing, but it's a pretty impressive display, even so.

"Very good," I say. "Have you spent much time practising?"

"Hours," he says. "My blind date stood me up last night, so learning how to play dead seemed a good way to fill the time. Offers endless possibilities in the workplace, too - once I've stopped losing my spatial awareness as I go down, that is."

"Possibilities like what?" I say, before I work it out for myself: excruciatingly boring constituent - emergency collapse of caseworker. Fan-bloody-tastic.

"I'll teach you how to do it," says Greg. "For a fee. Payable in gin and general slavery."

I don't have time to learn the technique, though, as the phones are so busy - presumably because callers have realised that Recess has now finished, and that The Boss won't be answering the phone himself any more. Which would usually mean that they could realistically expect a sensible reply to their queries, but I'm not doing much better than Andrew today. There are some very tricky questions indeed.

First off, Richard Levinson wants to know why the United Nations' interpretation of urgent isn't the same as ordinary people's; and then Pete Carew calls to ask whether Andrew's going to try to make political capital from the freezing of Colonel Gaddafi's assets.

"He bloody well should," he says. "Seeing as we'd have a hard time freezing the Coalition's assets in a revolution, wouldn't we? Half the ministers have their money stashed off-shore."

"Good point," I say. "Though I don't see much sign of the UK revolting at the moment, even though some of its inhabitants undoubtedly are. Revolting, that is."

"Mol-ly," says Pete, in a warning voice that makes me feel about five years old. "Those are Andrew's constituents you're talking about."

Honestly, I have no idea what is wrong with Pete. The concept of black humour entirely escapes him - which suggests that he doesn't meet as many of the people he represents as he should.

No wonder The Boss is always complaining that local councillors pass their most difficult cases straight to us instead of first trying to deal with them themselves. If they had to manage the usual suspects, they'd soon realise it's essential to extract every shred of humour you can get from the experience - if you're to avoid going stark, staring mad yourself.

I don't say any of this to Pete, though, as he hasn't yet forgiven me for suggesting that not every single council worker is indispensable, and still refers to me as a fascist whenever he gets the chance. Or so Greg tells me, anyway - Pete doesn't say it to my face. He's a man after Peter Mandelson's heart.

Bearing this in mind, I decide I'd better adopt the precautionary principle, so I bite my lip and act professional - unlike a certain repeatedly-collapsing colleague that I can see out of the corner of my eye. I should never have sent Greg that bloody clip.

"Anything else I can help you with, Pete?" I say. "If not, I'll ring off, if you don't mind. We're rather busy today, seeing as we couldn't get much done during Recess."

"Andrew there all last week, was he?" says Pete. "You should have told him to go home and do some decorating."

"Trish has just had their whole house done up," I say. "And it looks quite nice to me. What do you think's wrong with it?"

"Well, they should have thought twice before using Osborne and Little wallpaper," he says. "Shouldn't they? Though I bet you bloody Osborne's pleased. Laughing all the way to the bank, he'll be."

Honestly, there's no end to the things that an MP needs to consider, is there? It's a mad world when your choice of wallpaper becomes a political act. (Unless you're Derry Irvine, of course - but the less said about that debacle the better. Even the word "Pugin" causes a collective Labour Party shudder.)

But it's not just wallpaper that's making it feel like a mad world today. What's really insane is that Miss Chambers actually seems to have a genuine complaint - for once.

"It's about the Council," she says, slightly more quietly than usual - though Greg can still hear her from where he's standing in the doorway between our offices. He pulls a face, scribbles something on the back of a Council Planning Committee report, and then throws it at me.

"Read it," he mouths, so I do - while also trying to listen to Miss C, who's becoming more agitated by the second.

Greg's scrawl says,

"Emergency signal. When you can't take it any more, roll your eyes, and I'll collapse. Very noisily, so you can excuse yourself and hang up."

This seems like a very good plan, so I nod at him, while Miss Chambers continues to explain that she's had enough of the Housing Department's Repairs Service.

"What exactly is the problem, then?" I say. "Are they actually refusing to do the repair?"

"No," she says. "But they won't make a bloody appointment to do it. They just turn up and, if you're not in, then they leave a card and bugger off. Then you have to report the repair all over again and wait weeks for their next visit. And they don't make an appointment for that one, either."

This doesn't seem to make any sense at all, so I double-check. This is Miss Chambers I'm talking to, after all.

"So, let me get this straight - you're saying they don't actually make any appointments; that they just turn up and expect tenants to be in, as if by magic?"

"No," says Miss C. "I mean, yes. They say that that's their system."

"Oh, for goodness' sake," I say. "That's not a system, that's a -"

I'm interrupted by a loud crash, which suggests that I am not as conscious of my involuntary facial expressions as I might have expected. Though I'm a lot more conscious than Greg is, after he hit his head on the door-frame.

Let's just say that explaining the concept of playing dead is not as much fun as it sounds. Not in A&E on a busy Monday afternoon. And definitely not when they ask for details of your injured colleague's occupation.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Hideous Kinky: Molly Bennett's Guide To Inadvisable Methods Of Follicular Camouflage And Stress Relief.

God, my hair just will not grow. Well, it will - but only on my bloody face, and not on my head where it's supposed to be. It's very depressing, and provides nothing by way of cover for the incipient beard, which doesn't seem to have heard that UK growth has gone into reverse.

Talking of depressing, Max and I spend the morning plunged in gloom at the prospect of him losing his job, and things don't get any better when we look at the receipt from last night's shopping trip. Food is so incredibly expensive!

"Those bloody people on Help Me, Gok - I've Eaten Too Much must have a far bigger income than we do," says Max. "It'd cost a fortune to get as fat as some of them."

"Hmm," I say. "Though doesn't Gillian McKeith always say that beige foods are the cheapest - as well as being the most fattening?"

"Yes, but she's an idiot, isn't she?" says Max, "You can't trust anyone who doesn't realise that jungles tend to contain a lot of insects. Anyway, with the price of food of any colour, not to mention petrol, there's no way that we can afford to go out anywhere today, so we'll just have to stay in and try not to eat too much while we're at it."

Before I can reply, he picks up a Sudoku book and a pen, and settles down on the sofa. Honestly, I'm sure he uses those damn puzzles as an anxiety-distraction technique, though I suppose my own aversion to them may explain why he's so much less of a stress-head than I am. Normally.

Puzzles don't seem to be working their magic today, though - not if the twitching muscle in Max's cheek is anything to go by. I just hope it's not the start of a tic. Richard Bloody Levinson's got loads, and they are so contagious. By the time he leaves the office, I'm always twitching and scratching like a total lunatic.

Anyway, prevention is better than cure, so I decide that there must be something that's more fun and less likely to cause muscle spasm than Sudoku seems to be, and that Max and I can do together this afternoon - mustn't there? Preferably something that doesn't cost any money, while relieving stress at the same time, if that's not too much to ask.

"Why don't we go for a walk?" I say, after ten minutes' concerted thought.

"Where to?" says Max, looking out of the window at the pouring rain, and then back at me as if I am mad.

"I don't know," I say. "Round the block. A little constitutional."

As soon as I've said it, I can see that it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, but I'm stumped for a better alternative - until I have my sudden brainwave. That's what comes of being married for aeons, I suppose: you get into such a rut that you miss possibilities that are staring you in the face.

I get there in the end, though, a bit like Gordon Brown. I just hope it brings me more joy than it brought him.

"We could always give up on today altogether, and just go back to bed," I say. "Seeing as it's raining, and there's not exactly anything better to do."

Much to my astonishment, Max agrees, and is off the sofa and up the stairs like a rat out of a trap. Which is either very complimentary, or a measure of how bored he really is. Beggars can't be choosers, anyway, so I follow him, feeling quite exhilarated by the success of my Big Idea.

This sense of achievement lasts for all of thirty seconds, until I walk past the mirror at the top of the stairs, and spot my face, spotlit by a cruel and unnecessary shaft of sunlight that's just broken through the clouds.

Oh, my God - there are even more hairs on my chin than I thought. Max'll freak out if he spots those during sex. He'll think he's in bed with a transvestite or something, and decide that Sudoku is far more appealing. I have to do something - fast - but the question is: what?

"Hurry up," says Max, who is already in bed, his clothes strewn all over the bedroom floor.

"Um, yes," I say. "Going as fast as I can."

Which is a lie, as I am actually taking my clothes off as slowly as possible, while trying to search for my tweezers on the dressing table at the same time. But there's no sign of the damned things, or of the dreaded Tweezi-wand or whatever it's called - and, anyway, I haven't got all day to start rolling that over my face. Now what, oh Brain of Britain?

I'm just about to pretend that I've suddenly developed a migraine, when I spot my salvation, lying amidst another pile of clothes and shoes in the corner of the room.

I bend down and sneakily pick it up, remove the last layer of my thermal underwear, and then crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. I curl up in a ball, with my back to Max, while I wrestle with with my beard hair disguise. I am undoubtedly the last of the great femmes fatales.

"What on earth are you doing, Mol?" says Max, trying to pull the covers away from my head, and rolling me towards him. Then he lets out an amazingly loud yell, and jumps out of bed with a horrified expression on his face.

"Are you trying to give me heart attack?" he says. "What the bloody, bloody hell is that?"

"It's a balaclava," I say. "I thought it might be kinky."

Max sits down on the side of the bed, rolls his eyes as if he's dealing with a complete lunatic, and then says, very wearily:

"That's not the word that I'd have chosen."

Saturday, 26 February 2011

How To Convince A Complete Stranger That He's Mad, Or Yet Another* Reason Why Josh Should Never Be Allowed In Car Parks

Honestly, the simplest thing is fraught with hazards in my family. Max and I decide to go shopping this evening - at the Morrisons near where Josh works, instead of at our local Sainsburys or Tesco.

I have decided that going further afield will lessen the chances of my being spotted and harassed by constituents, and save me the bother of having to wear my balaclava. Now I wish I hadn't bothered.

"We'll pick Josh up from work, and then go and do a quick shop," says Max, which sounds like a reasonable plan at the time.

The trouble starts when Josh doesn't finish work when he's supposed to and then, when he does finally get into the car, he claims that he's too tired to traipse round Morrisons.

By now, I can't face it either. I just want to get home quickly in time to watch The Killing, though I'm not expecting to want to kill my son by the time it starts. Or not yet, I'm not.

"I suppose I'll have to go in by myself, then," says Max. "While you two lazy buggers stay in the car and lounge about."

Which is fine by me, or was  - until Josh suddenly opens the car door and gets out.

"Where are you going?"I say.

"Ssh," he says, then rushes over to the Photo Booth machine situated outside the shop. I watch as he fumbles around in the slot where the photos come out, before he comes running back to the car, yanks the door open and throws himself headlong onto the back seat.

"Got it," he says.

Before I can ask what he's got, I see a man pull back the curtain of the booth and step out. He goes to the slot and removes what is presumably a strip of photos, looks down at them, and then jerks his head up and starts scanning the car park. He doesn't look very happy at all.

"Who is that man, and what's he doing, Josh?" I say.

"Shut up, Mum, and tell me when he's gone." Josh seems to be fumbling about and trying to put something into his wallet.

"What have you got there?" I say, at the same time as I make a grab for it. Call it maternal instinct, but I just know when Josh is up to something.

I turn on the interior light, to find myself looking at a photograph of the man that I can see out of the car window. A single photograph, with one neatly torn edge.

"Josh," I say. "What is this? Why have you got a photo of that man over there?"

"He's the Photo Booth repair man," says Josh. "He gives me and the lads hours of fun."

"How?" I say - though I really should know bloody better.

Josh explains that he and his friends are regulars in the Morrisons car park. Which sounds very dodgy indeed, and doesn't get any better when it becomes apparent that their target is the poor repair man.

"He comes once or twice a month," says Josh. "And he gets into the Photo Booth, starts fiddling around with the machinery and then takes some photos of himself. Then he carries on working inside the booth for a while - with the curtain still drawn across the front. When he's finished, he picks up his photos to check whether they've come out okay."

"And your involvement in this is - ?" I say, though I'm not at all sure I really want to know.

"Well, as soon as the photos come out, one of us rushes over, and grabs them out of the machine," says Josh.

"What - you steal his photos?" I say.

"Not all of them," says Josh. "We just tear one off the strip and then put the others back into the slot. Confuses the hell out of him."

"Hand it over," I say. "Now, or you're grounded."


Josh glares at me as he passes something over the back seat.

"Joshua," I say, in disbelief. "There are twelve different photos here. How long has this been going on?"

"About six months," says Josh. "He's getting crosser every time it happens."

I can no longer deny the fact that I am, quite clearly, the parent of a juvenile delinquent.

*See here for another reason why Josh should never, ever be allowed into car parks without being accompanied by his parents.

Friday, 25 February 2011

A Nasty Surprise, Though Obviously Not To The Office Of National Statistics

Blimey, I can't help feeling that the *ONS know more about our lives than they're letting on. I'm pretty sure I'd score ten out of ten for anxiety today, following the news that Max eventually decides to impart over breakfast this morning.

He's scraping burnt toast while studiously avoiding eye contact, when I decide I can't take it any longer.

"When are you going to start speaking to me again?" I say. "It's bad enough at work with The Boss giving me the silent treatment half the time, without you doing it at home as well."

Max looks at me, then chucks the piece of toast into the bin.

"Mol," he says, rather wearily. "You're the one who isn't speaking to me - ever since last night when you randomly decided that I must have been shagging someone when I was actually at a work meeting. You didn't even look away from the TV when I came in, and you've been scowling like a maniac ever since."

"That's because Question Time was on," I say. "Which effectively means that I was working while I was watching. And what you don't seem to realise is that I saw who dropped you off last night - that bloody annoying Bambi girl. So no wonder I'm scowling. I've got a damned good reason to."

I don't add that I could also smell alcohol on his breath, or that he looked pretty stressed out at the time. As you would, if you'd been cheating on your wife with an airhead whose only topic of conversation seems to be chocolate brownies. And who wears exactly the shade of lipstick that was smeared across his cheek. I am either becoming an absolute model of restraint - or a total coward.

"Correct as far as it goes," says Max. "Seeing as Bambi - bloody hell, I mean Gemma - did give me a lift home. But along with two other staff, who you surely must also have seen if you were spying on me properly."

"I wasn't spying," I say. "I was closing Josh's bedroom curtains, and I didn't even have my glasses on."

"That explains that, then," says Max.

He rolls his eyes, and I'm pretty sure he's counting to ten under his breath. You can always tell when he's concentrating. His breathing goes all funny.

"So why were you all so late, then?" I say. "It must have been a pretty important meeting if you had to work later than I do. Was there a table facing deportation, or a bunk-bed that was about to be evicted or something?"

"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, Mum," says Josh - who has appeared from nowhere as teenagers often do. "For God's sake, give Dad a chance to tell you what's going on."

There's nothing so frightening as a big build-up, is there? Better late than never, I realise that something serious must have happened, so I abandon the attempt to eat my porridge and raise my eyebrows at Max instead.

My stomach feels a bit jittery, but I try my best to ignore it by recalling Nick Clegg's brilliant faux pas yesterday, which has served to make me laugh every time I've thought about it - until now, when it no longer seems to work at all.

I can feel the anxiety mounting while I wait for Max to tell me whatever it is that is causing his agonised expression. Is he going to tell me he's leaving me for a chocoholic faun? Surely he wouldn't do that - not in front of Josh, anyway? But it must be something bad, because he obviously doesn't know where to begin.

I gesture at him to hurry up, and finally he starts to speak.

"The shop's closing," he says, as my stomach does a rather stunning Lutz, followed by what must be at least a triple toe loop. "They may transfer some of us elsewhere, but if we even want to be considered for that, we all have to re-apply for our jobs."

"Elsewhere?" I say. "Where else?" (In normal circumstances I'd be awfully chuffed with the neatness of that reversal, but these aren't normal circumstances. Not by a very long chalk.)

"Either the store in Meadowbridge, or the one in Hansford," says Max. "Either way, they're a hell of a distance from here. And that's if I get through the interview process in the first place - which, as I'm the oldest member of staff, doesn't seem very bloody likely."

I'm so shocked that I don't know what to say, but I've got a funny feeling the ONS must have seen this coming. Why else would they only want to know how happy I was yesterday?

*ONS - Office for National Statistics, charged with trying to assess the nation's happiness levels, amongst other things.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Surrealism In Action....And Not A Moustache In Sight (Except Possibly Mine).

Honestly, has everyone gone mad? Even when you disregard the usual suspects, I still don't seem to have had a conversation with a sane person all day.

"Where do I stand on *AV?" says The Boss, upon his return from the Easemount Day Centre - where he's spent lunchtime terrifying the hell out of old people by warning that the Coalition is bound to cut the services on which they depend to shreds.

"I don't know, Andrew," I say. "You'll have to make your own decision on this one. Though it would help if you could hurry up about it, seeing as I've got lots of letters from constituents who want to know exactly that."

He scowls as me as if I've said something unreasonable, then turns towards Greg, who is trying his best to ignore him by staring out of the window.

"Gregory," he says. "Don't pretend you didn't hear me: AV - for or against?"

"It's a bloody stupid system," says Greg, with an air of finality.

Andrew shakes his head, sighs heavily and then starts walking round and round in circles until he finally veers off into the kitchen and comes to a halt. You can tell he's definitely not himself when he offers to make us all a coffee. Probably because Vicky's still so annoyed that he used her as a human shield that she's rung in sick today.

"We'll have coffee and a sit down in the Oprah Room - and discuss this properly," he says. "We could even have biscuits. Mrs Arthurton gave me some Garibaldis before I left the day centre. She said she thought I still looked a bit hungry after my lunch."

So, ten minutes later, Greg and I are sitting on the sofa, sipping at the worst coffee we've ever tasted, wondering what's happened to the biscuits and wishing we were elsewhere. Meanwhile, Andrew sits in the armchair, brushes the crumbs from his beard, and looks at us both expectantly.

No-one seems to want to start the ball rolling but, as usual, I crack first. No resilience, that's my trouble - I'd make an utterly useless spy.

"I'm most bothered about the fact that AV seems to have been the only deal-breaker for the LibDems," I say. "Unlike tuition fees, or cuts to Housing Benefit, or any of the other things they've rolled over on."

"That's just bloody typical," says Greg. "They've been driven by self-interest all along."

"Yes, well," says Andrew, fidgeting a bit and looking down at the floor. "Talking of which, what do you think the effect of AV would be on me?"

"You? Total buggeration, I should think,"  says Greg. "Seeing as half your constituents are completely mad. Can you imagine the Beales brothers managing to comprehend how the AV system works? They'd end up accidentally voting for everyone except you, even if they've usually voted for you in the past. Which I rather doubt."

Andrew looks aghast for a moment, and then seems to pull himself together. He stands up, and takes the cup out of my hand.

"Right - so I'm against AV, then,"  he says. "Now that's sorted, you two can get back to work. You can't just sit around here all day."

He's right for once, as I've got lots to do if I'm to be able to leave on time this evening. Which is important, as I'm supposed to be doing the cooking for once.

It's probably a measure of how depressed Max is, that's he's even considering eating something that I've prepared, seeing as he normally doesn't trust me in the kitchen at all. But he's got an important meeting after work - or so he claims.

So I'm standing in the kitchen stirring a rather lumpy-looking sauce for Macaroni Cheese when I realise that I haven't spoken to Dad for days. Or to Connie, either.

Never try to do two things at once when one of them involves cooking, that's all I can say. By the time I've spent half an hour listening to Dad moaning about Dinah's "devil child" and what the hell is wrong with the UK when we can't fly British citizens out of Libya like "even the bloody French" have managed to do, the sauce is looking even more dubious than before.

To make matters worse, I can't get seem to get hold of Connie at all, which always makes me fret like mad. She's not answering her phone, or responding to messages or texts.

"What's up, Mum?" says Josh. "You look even more of a stress-head than usual."

When I've explained that his sister seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth, and that my concentration is therefore shot, Josh takes one look at the Macaroni Cheese, declares it ruined - "as predicted" - and suggests we go and watch Channel 4 News instead.

"We can have a mother and son bonding session while discussing world events," he says. "By which time Connie'll probably have finished showering or watching Eastenders or whatever she's doing while she's ignoring your calls, and then she'll get in touch with you."

This seems like a good plan but, although I stare dutifully at the screen, I don't really seem to be taking much in - so I haven't got a clue what leads to Josh's Big Idea to reduce the budget deficit.

"Mum," he says. "Are we still an Empire, or something?"

Sometimes I despair of comprehensive education. What sort of question is that for someone who's supposedly got GCSEs and an A-Level?

"Well, not exactly," I say. "Though there is the Commonwealth. And the Crown Territories. And -"

"Never mind about the detail. All I want to know is: do we own any other countries?"

Never mind the detail? Who does Josh think he is - an MP? I make allowances, though, on the basis that Film Studies probably isn't much use in situations such as this.

"Um, yes, I suppose so," I say. "In a manner of speaking. Why?"

"Problem solved, then," he says. "Why don't we sell one of them? We just phone up China and say, "Hey, China - do you want to buy Australia? I bet they'd jump at the chance."'

While I'm trying to think of an answer to that, my mobile beeps and - finally - there's a text from Connie. Not that it's very informative, considering I've heard nothing from her for ages.

"Mum, I'm fine," it says. "But I can't do a pull-up."

There's nothing for it but to go for a very long lie-down, until people start making sense again.

*AV - The Alternative Vote, which I have trouble understanding unless I am concentrating very hard. Which means that it'll be completely beyond the grasp of certain people I could mention...

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Battle Of Balaclava, Mafioso-Style.

I know it's pathetic to moan about this, given the terrible things that are happening in Libya and New Zealand, but, bloody hell, shopping's such a hazard when you work for an MP. Poor old Greg looks as if he's seen a ghost when he comes back from lunch.

"Christ," he says, before throwing himself onto the sofa in the Oprah Room and closing his eyes as if he's in pain.

"What on earth's the matter?" I say. "And get off there before The Boss and Vicky come back and decide you've been sleeping on the job."

"I shall just tell them that I have had a relapse of *PTSD," says Greg. "Caused by the trauma of encountering Steve Ellington at the pharmacy counter in Boots. Is it too much to expect constituents to keep their bloody distance when you're on your lunch-break and engaged in a sensitive transaction? "

I know exactly what Greg means. MPs' staff should be like teachers and live anywhere other than the town in which we work. You never know who is going to pop up and start demanding to know what the point of the United Nations is, right at the moment when you're trying to read the instructions on a bottle of Durex Play Gel - not that that's ever happened to me, of course. It's just an example I thought up off the top of my head.

"What were you buying?" I ask. "Anything embarrassing?"

"Imodium," says Greg. "I can't tell you how much fun Steve E had with that, but suffice it to say that it involved lots of increasingly-tedious references to politicians' tendency to verbal diarrhoea. So I've come up with a cunning plan to camouflage ourselves while we shop in future, and I've bought you something to help achieve that aim. Pass me that carrier bag."

I do as I'm told, and then wait while Greg rummages through endless packets of Imodium, two cans of Red Bull and three bags of Haribo Starmix. After what feels like hours, he finally says, "Got it!" and chucks something at me.

I'd be lethal in a riot as I can't help catching anything that anyone throws at me. It's automatic after years of parenting Josh, who went through a rather lengthy and dangerous stage of saying, "Catch!" at the same time as throwing hard objects straight at Connie's head.

So of course I obey Greg's instruction, and then stare in disbelief at the shapeless black thing that's landed in my hand, and which seems to be knitted from thick black wool.

"Um, thanks," I say. "It's very nice. But why are there holes in it, and what is it for?"

"It's a balaclava, you fool," says Greg. "I bought myself one, too. We just put them on whenever we leave the office - and then we can stay incognito wherever we go. Brilliant, eh? Let's try them on, and see how we look."

Which may have been a mistake, in retrospect - judging by how Andrew and Vicky react to the sight of us when they walk back into the office. Vicky starts screaming, and The Boss pulls her in front of him as if she were a riot shield.

"Who are you, and what do you want?" he says.

"Whapf?" says Greg, which is a significant achievement with a mouthful of Haribos. My teeth are so firmly stuck together that I'm incapable of making any sound at all.

The Boss drops his voice and pulls Vicky closer to him, before continuing:

"Are you the Russian Mafia? If so, I'm not the man you're looking for - but I do know where he lives."

"Nompf, youfoof - s'mee," says Greg - twice, before he gives up and removes his balaclava, and gestures at me to do the same.

Some people have no sense of humour at all. Even after Greg's pointed out that terrorists and mafioso don't usually fill the time spent lying in wait for their victims by typing letters, The Boss still can't see the funny side of the whole thing. He doesn't speak to us for the rest of the afternoon, and Vicky doesn't speak to him, either.

"Why's Vicky giving The Boss the silent treatment?" I say to Greg, when we sneak off to the Labour Party office to get away from the chilly atmosphere pervading ours.

"Didn't you hear what she said when he finally released his grip on her?" says Greg.

"No," I say. "I was still trying to pull my balaclava off, so I couldn't hear anything at all. It's a bit tight and I couldn't get it over my ears."

"Yeah, I spotted that," says Greg. "You looked a bit like Colonel Gaddafi crossed with a Meerkat who'd joined the Special Forces. Anyway, Vicky called Andrew a spineless coward for hiding behind her - so maybe she's not as daft as she looks."

Which is a lot more than can be said for  me and Greg when we're wearing our new shopping kit.

*PTSD - Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What Greg claims to be suffering from whenever he wants a day off to recover from a hangover.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Brothers In Arms, Or Comrades In Dodgy Hats, And An Inability To Think Creatively During Virtual Sex.

Oh, for God's sake. All these revolutions are even more contagious than I thought. Now Igor has decided it's time to stand up to Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. He comes marching into the office, pauses for dramatic effect, and then waves his fist in a solidarity salute.

"Good morning, dear ones," he says. "I come to tell you that freedom starts here. In this small room."

It doesn't feel that way to me, but I just smile politely and get on with typing a reply to yet another letter about cuts to library services.

"Nice hat, Igor," says Greg. "Looks exactly like the one Colonel Gaddafi was wearing last night. Bit of an odd choice for a leader of a revolution, though, isn't it?"

"A lot of body heat goes out through your head - whizz - just like that," says Igor. "And Russia is a very cold country."

The Boss nods sagely at this piece of useless information, then starts eating one of Greg's Twixes.

"Help yourself, Andrew," says Greg. "Don't mind me. What's mine is yours in the socialist state that is Northwick Constituency Office. And, Igor - seeing as Andrew doesn't like to be left out of anything, are you going to get him a hat like that, too? As an alternative to your matching fedoras?"

"Oh, yes, I do that - of course - if Comrade Andrew wishes me to," says Igor. "Then we wear them into battle when the fight begins."

Greg starts laughing, but The Boss doesn't join in. In fact, he's gone decidedly pale.

"What's the matter, Andrew?" says Greg. "Sugar rush, or have you lost your revolutionary zeal, all of a sudden?"

"No," says The Boss. "I've just got a lot on today, what with protesting against the cuts at the County Council and that visit to the Laryngectomy Club, so I'm not sure I've got time -"

"Pfft," says Igor. "There is nothing more important than freedom of people. Now we go to pub to make plans and to drink a little vodka, yes?"

Andrew looks as if he'd prefer to do anything rather than spend the afternoon with a mad Russian with a taste for extravagant millinery, but he doesn't say so. Instead, he just picks up his coat and follows Igor out of the door - making his role in the forthcoming conflict seem likely to be no more than that of camp follower.

"Fan-bloody-tastic," says Greg. "That's what I call leadership.  Igor's obviously a natural, unlike some people. And now they'll both get so pissed that we'll be free of The Boss for the rest of the day. God bless Igor, that's what I say."

"Hmm, yes," I say. "Though I can't help wondering when he's going to remember that it's the Russian Mafia that he's actually terrified of. He seems to have forgotten about them in all the excitement about Putin and Medvedev."

"Vodka-related Mafia amnesia," says Greg, which Igor might quite possibly have developed, but which Johnny certainly hasn't. He nearly bites my head off when I accidentally say the M-word while telling him about Igor's plans.

"How many times to I have to tell you not to mention those people?" he says. "If you're not careful, you'll get me thrown out of Russia."

"Well, would that be so bad?" I say. "At least it'd be easier for us to meet up if you were based in the UK instead of in bloody Moscow."

"Be careful what you wish for," he says. "I'm due to hear about my next posting fairly soon. Though if one thing's certain, it's that it definitely won't be in the UK."

Then he goes on to tell me that he's hoping for Dubai. Dubai, for God's sake. As if Russia wasn't far enough away.

"It was supposed to be Bahrain next," he says. "But that probably isn't going to come off now, with everything that's happened. I just hope I don't get Nigeria again."

I don't know what to say as I'm too busy trying to work out how I have managed not only to have a marriage which provides virtually no sex, but a virtual affair which offers even less. And with a man who lives in another country - and soon to be another continent. I am completely bloody hopeless.

"So what will happen to us if you go to Dubai, then?" I say.

"Nothing," says Johnny. "Seeing as we've botched up every attempt we've made to meet so far, I can't see it's going to make any difference. I'll still be flying back to Britain fairly regularly - just not as often as before, so we'll just have to get our act together, and not let anything bugger up our next meeting."

"Oh," I say. "I see. So what do we do in the meantime?"

"We just carry on using our imaginations. Now tell me what you're wearing, and hurry up because I've got a planning meeting in ten minutes."

"A furry hat with earflaps," I say - which is all I can think of for some strange reason.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Hello, Hello, It's Good To Be Back* - But Only If Your Name Is Gary Glitter.

Well, I wish I could say it's nice to be back, but it isn't. It's bloody horrible. Can someone please remind me why I work for an MP?

On second thoughts, don't bother. I probably wouldn't remember the answer for more than five seconds - seeing as I seem to have developed pre-senile dementia over the last fortnight. I can't believe I forgot it was Recess this week. 

"Oh, my God," I say, as I walk into the office this morning to find The Boss sitting with his feet propped up on my desk.

"Nice to see you too, Molly," he says. "How's your Dad?"

"Fantasising about the first thing he's going to do as soon as he gets back to Thailand and sees his beloved Porn-Poon," I say. "While unfortunately choosing to share that information with his daughters in rather more detail than is strictly necessary."

"And who can blame him?" says Andrew. "Any man would feel like that about seeing a hot young girlfriend - if he was lucky enough to have one."

I turn my head to look at Greg, who is clutching his throat and making retching motions, but not before I've spotted what I think is Andrew winking at Vicky. Honestly, how has it taken me all these years to work out who The Boss reminds me of? I might just as well be working for my father, the two of them are so alike.

Talking of Dad, it's a good job Dinah agreed to take over nursemaiding duties during half-term. At least I haven't got a murder charge to worry about on top of having to cope with The Boss being around all week. If she hadn't arrived when she did yesterday, I can't promise that today's Dorset Examiner wouldn't be carrying the headline, "MP's caseworker commits frenzied act of patricide."

Which would have been justifiable homicide, as far as I'm concerned, given that Dad had driven me to the verge of insanity by then. Let's just say that having a triple bypass didn't seem to have affected his ability to shout incessant orders for food and drink at full volume, or to complain that the resulting meal wasn't a patch on those prepared by Porn-Poon, which she no doubt usually serves on a bed of lettuce artfully arranged on her naked stomach.

Seeing as I was hardly going to emulate that, I was doomed to fail in the meal provision department despite putting handfuls of chillies and lime leaves into everything I cooked; and I didn't do any better when I disappointed Dad further by what he described as my typically-female lack of appreciation for Sky Sports.

It might not have been tactful to say that I'd prefer to be disinherited rather than ever to be made to watch another Rugby Sevens match, but I thought I was being cruel to be kind - on the basis that, if I annoyed Dad enough, he'd be pleased to see the back of me and wouldn't make a big fuss when the time came for me to leave. So much for best-laid plans.

Dad took one look at Dinah's kids, and started crossing himself while muttering about The Omen again. Then he refused to let me kiss him goodbye.

"Go ahead and abandon your old father, then, Molly," he said, turning his cheek away. "You rush back to your busy life, and your important job. God knows if you'll even find time to phone me this week. Not like my mate Charlie's son, who phones him every day. Every single day. But then he really loves his dad."

"That's because he's a Billy No Mates," said Dinah. "Who doesn't have any kids, or anything approaching what you'd call a life. Unlike some of us, who just have to juggle a load of balls as best we can."

I'd have been a lot more thankful for this undeniably accurate intervention, if Dinah hadn't then felt compelled to add:

"And, anyway, Molly's job isn't at all important."

Which is pretty much how I feel about it, too - once I've finished going through the supposedly-urgent messages that are waiting on my desk. Unless you count managing a bunch of lunatic constituents and a boss with an unerring instinct for saying the wrong thing as being of vital significance to the nation, that is.

*Hello, hello, it's good to be back - an unsubtle reference to Gary Glitter, which I blame on having spent the last fortnight listening to Dad going on about his Thai girlfriend.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Updated Out Of Office - Molly Bennett, Constituency Office of Andrew Sinclair MP.

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

Molly remains on leave, and will respond to your email upon her return to the office on Monday 21 February 2011. However, should your enquiry be urgent, please telephone her colleague, Gregory Duke, who will continue to pretend to be happy to help you.

Mr Duke wishes to re-emphasise that being short-staffed is leading to a delay in this office's usual ability to respond swiftly to enquiries, and therefore asks - yet again - that constituents take simple steps to minimise those problems which may lead them to feel that they have no option but to contact their MP.

The list below should hopefully serve as a reminder as to how this might be achieved, and includes some new suggestions:

1. Avoid reading newspapers, particularly The Daily TelegraphThe Daily Mail and The Sun. 
2. Avoid watching Question Time; *PMQsPanorama and Dispatches. 
3. Avoid reading LibDem campaign materials from the General Election 2010, especially those containing the word, "pledge".
4. Avoid unnecessary criminal activity.
5. If you are on prescribed medication, please take it - for once.
6. If you believe that your neighbours are stealing your electricity, please contact your supplier.
7. If you have replaced your vehicle with a horse and cart, remember to feed your horse and do not beat it in public.
8. Do not speed past the scenes of accidents, and keep a close eye out for policemen attending the scene, whether or not they are wearing high-visibility clothing.
9. If you wish to send us details showing how the world can be run using only water, please bear in mind that we already hold a large archive of such plans, none of which have yet been put into production.

*PMQs - Prime Ministers Questions. 

Saturday, 12 February 2011

A Speedy Recovery, After A Glimpse Of The Afterlife

God, I'm knackered, and it shows. I've aged ten years in the last week - unlike Dad, who appeared ten years younger by the time I left him in order to return home for a night off. Or, at least, he did until Dinah arrived with her kids to take over from me. Then he didn't look half so full of beans.

"God's sake, Molly," he said. "Don't leave me with them. Damian will be the death of me."

"Seeing as you've just had a pretty thorough MOT," I said, "I don't think that's very likely. And stop calling Jake Damian. Dinah'll hear you."

"Just have a sneaky look underneath his hair before you go," said Dad. "I'm bloody sure you'll find 666 there somewhere."

Honestly, talk about being back to his old self - you'd never believe he's just had a triple heart bypass. The first thing he did when he came round from the operation was to ask how long it'd be before he could fly to Thailand to see his girlfriend. I've never been so embarrassed in my life.

I did feel a bit sorry for him the next morning, though. He looked awfully pale when I arrived at the hospital, so I thought something must have gone wrong during the night.

"What's the matter, Dad?" I said. "You don't look too good today."

"That's because I had a near-death experience," he said. "When I went for a pee."

I couldn't see what that had to do with a heart bypass, unless the surgeon had decided to straighten Dad's willy at the same time, but apparently there was a link, albeit a pretty tangential one.

"Your father decided to walk to the toilet by himself, without asking anyone for help," said the nurse. "Because - apparentlyno self-respecting man would use a bedpan. But then when he got there, he became a bit disorientated by the painkillers and had to ring for help."

"I thought I might have died, and that I was in the afterlife," said Dad. "Which was a very disappointing prospect. You'd think Paradise would be better than Thailand, not just some bleak tiled room no bigger than a broom cupboard."

Which must have been very frightening, when you come to think of it; though Dad says it wasn't half as bad as the night before his operation.

"Jee-sus," he said. "That's when I was really scared. I had to ask for Valium to calm me down."

"Well, I told you not to google what the surgeon was going to do to you," I said. "But you wouldn't bloody listen."

Dad muttered something about knowledge being power, though God knows how I managed to refrain from pointing out that, as he was going to be out cold during the operation, it was hardly going to be of any use to anyone that he'd watched the entire procedure on YouTube - even if he had counted exactly how many ribs would have to be broken to get to his heart.

This silver surfing business is a health hazard in itself, as is taking care of those who will insist on doing it and then sharing the results with others - repeatedly, and in butt-clenching detail. If Dad so much as even tries to tell me what was done to him again tomorrow, it'll be me who has the bloody heart attack.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Out Of Office - Molly Bennett, Constituency Office of Andrew Sinclair MP.

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

Molly is currently on leave, and will respond to your email upon her return to the office on Monday 14 February 2011. However, should your enquiry be urgent, please telephone her colleague, Gregory Duke, who will be less than happy to help you.

Mr Duke wishes to point out that being short-staffed may lead to a delay in this office's usual ability to respond swiftly to enquiries, and therefore asks that constituents take simple steps to minimise those problems which may lead them to feel that they have no option but to contact their MP.

The list below gives several suggestions as to how this might be achieved, but is by no means exhaustive:

1. Avoid reading newspapers, particularly The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail and The Sun. 
2. Avoid watching Question Time; *PMQsPanorama and Dispatches.
3. Avoid reading LibDem campaign materials from the General Election 2010, especially those containing the word, "pledge."
4. Avoid unnecessary criminal activity.
5. If you are on prescribed medication, please take it - for once.

*PMQs - Prime Ministers Questions. 

The Unexpected Consequences Of Aversion Therapy, Age Gaps, And Marriage.

Oh, bloody, bloody hell. Now Dad's in hospital and I'm sure it's all Dinah's fault. (I told her her supposedly-salutary lessons never worked.)

I've just got off the phone to Richard Levinson, who's complaining about how overpaid some Council officers are, when my mobile starts ringing.

"Shit, Mol," says Dinah. "You won't believe what's happened."

"Oh, I probably will," I say. "I work for an MP, remember. Nothing much surprises me any more."

"Yeah, well," she says. "You won't have seen this one coming. Dad's got to have a heart bypass operation. First thing tomorrow morning."

Oh, dear God. I bet that's because Dinah told him that lie about Connie having a sixty-five-year-old boyfriend. The shock was obviously far too much - not that Dinah's taking any responsibility for what has happened.

"Coincidence," she says, when I ask whether she thinks her attempt at aversion therapy may have backfired. "More likely to be the effect of trying to keep up with the Thai bride that's done it. So what are we going to do? Someone'll have to go down to Dorset tonight."

Why is it that when someone says "someone", they usually mean, "you"?

"Well, who?" I say. "I've got to work."

"Yes, I know," she says, "But your kids are much older than mine, and Max will be there to keep an eye on things anyway. I am a single parent, don't forget."

Honestly, it's like a game of top trumps, which I am always doomed to lose. Maybe that's what Cameron's tax allowance proposals were designed to compensate married people for? There must be some benefits in return for all that hard labour at the coalface of marriage, but getting out of things definitely isn't one of them.

"All right," I say. "You win. I'll ask The Boss if I can take unpaid leave. That's bound to make me even more popular with him than I already am."

"But he's a socialist," says Dinah. "So he'll believe in treating his employees well."

I can't think of anything to say to that ridiculous statement, so I content myself with drawing loops of barbed wire on my notepad instead. Then I create cages around the loops. God knows what Freud would say if he ever saw my doodles.

"Maybe we were too harsh about the Thai bride," says Dinah. "Just think, if she'd been in the UK, you wouldn't have needed to go."

"If you hadn't freaked Dad out and nearly given him a heart attack, I wouldn't have had any reason to," I say, but Dinah pretends she hasn't heard, tells me to call her back when I've sorted everything out, and hangs up.

Once I've done a bit of swearing, I realise that, not only am I patently rubbish at guilt-tripping people, but I've also lost any sense of what's important. What on earth am I doing, trying to score points against Dinah and fretting about work, when I should be worrying about Dad? I need to get a grip, request emergency leave and go home to pack.

After all - it's not as if anyone ever puts "esteemed workaholic" on a headstone, is it? And, if Greg's right about the general uselessness of what we do at work, I doubt anyone will notice my absence anyway.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Playing Catch-Up, Or Why My Family Begins Every Conversation In Media Res.

Honestly, sometimes I'm not at all sure that my family isn't worse than the usual suspects. Talk about barking mad.

I've just joined Max on the sofa, in readiness for catching up with last night's episode of The Killing on iPlayer, when Dinah phones.

"Gah," she says, apropos of nothing.

No reply seems necessary, so I wait for the next instalment, which follows as soon as Dinah's taken a drag on her cigarette. She sounds as if she's turning inside out, she sucks so hard.

"What sort of man describes his Thai bride as a tomboy, for f*ck's sake?" she says.

I assume that this is a rhetorical question, until Dinah repeats it, louder than before. Oh, I see. I am expected to answer, for once.

"Dad?" I say. "When the tomboy in question is five million years younger than him? Or forty-five years, anyway."

"Exactly," says Dinah. "He still has no idea how revolting the whole thing is - so now I've bloody well proved it to him."

There's something about her tone of voice that starts alarm bells ringing, but I'm not sure that I want to know any more, so I stay quiet. Which helps me to concentrate on watching the subtitles, seeing as Max still hasn't taken any notice of my signals to pause the bloody programme.

Max might be oblivious to everything I do, but Dinah isn't - more's the pity. Sometimes I could swear she can see down a telephone line.

"Mol! I can tell you aren't concentrating. Are you even listening? I need to you to back me up on this. It's for his own good."

I doubt Dad will see it that way, whatever it is, Dinah not being known for the efficacy of her lessons in life. Even her so-called "top tips" are notorious for their general uselessness, but I suppose she has got an excuse. The stress of having a seventy-two-year-old Lothario for a father is enough to make anyone go bonkers after a while.

"Back you up on what? " I say. "What exactly have you done?"

"Well, I told Dad a bit of a white lie," says Dinah. "About Connie."

"You brought Connie into it?" I say. Very loudly, so that Max gives me a funny look and turns the TV up. God knows why, as he couldn't speak any Danish the last time I checked. Maybe he thinks it'll make the subtitles get bigger.

I glare at him, while cursing Dinah under my breath. It's one thing to mess with me, but taking my daughter's name in vain is a whole different ball-game. And what on earth has Connie got to do with Porn-Poon, anyway?

"I may have told him Connie has a new boyfriend," says Dinah. "I wanted to see how he'd feel if his grand-daughter started dating someone decades older than her."

"Oh, my God," I say. "That's not a white lie, Dinah - it's a stonking great black one. With knobs on. Oh, hang on, call waiting's beeping me."

I switch to answer the incoming call. Which turns out to be a big mistake.

"Bloody hell, Molly," says Dad, without preamble. (He's probably who Dinah gets it from.) "I've just heard about Connie's new boyfriend. If you can call a sixty-five-year-old man a boyfriend, for God's sake."

"Ah," I say. "Hmm. Yes, I see."

"I don't think you do," says Dad. "Whatever is Connie thinking of? He must be a right dirty old man."

I'm pretty sure that lack of insight is the first sign of psychosis. I just hope that's not hereditary.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Posh Golf, Get-Togethers, And The Sheer Hell Known As Small Talk.

Why do I complain about having no social life? Why? Just be careful what you wish for, that's all I can say.

"Don't forget tonight's fancy dress," says Max, while we're eating breakfast.

"What?" I say. "Fancy dress? Since when?"

Honestly, sometimes I'm sure he's got me well-insured and is trying to kill me off - though I suppose he wouldn't have attempted the Heimlich Manoeuvre if that was really the case. (Note to self: watch paranoia levels.)

Anyway, once I've finished choking on my toast, Max explains that Celia, his colleague, has decided that tonight's "little get-together" is to be themed. For God's sake.

"So what's the theme, then?" I say. "It'd better be something simple, seeing as you've left it until now to tell me about it."

"Um, no," he says. "Which is sort of why I couldn't bring myself to tell you. It's 'posh golf'."

Posh golf? What the hell is that? I suspect I become slightly hysterical at this point but, once I've stopped hyperventilating, Max admits that he has no idea what the stupid theme means either. Then he says that he's just going to to wear his suit, on the grounds that that's as posh as he ever gets.

"Oh, and we have to bring a hamper of food, as well," he says. "So we can have an indoor picnic, apparently."

I look at him as if he has lost his mind, before tearing upstairs and rifling through my wardrobe, which turns out, as expected, to contain no golf-related clothing whatsoever.

When my search area widens to encompass Josh's room, I do find an old fedora hat - which Max decides to appropriate - but, unsurprisingly, there's nothing to indicate that teenage boys have any more of a plus-four fetish than do their parents.

Meanwhile, Max has discovered, after a visit to the loft, that we don't possess anything that could pass for a hamper, either - which I could have told him if he'd asked.

Preparations are thus not going well at all, but Max won't hear of it when I suggest we tell Celia that we've suddenly gone down with the Winter Vomiting bug, not even when I point out that then we could stay in and watch The Killing on BBC4 instead - which would be a lot more fun, as far as I'm concerned. He says we have no option but to go, as this sort of socialising is unofficially required as part of his job.

So, after I've had several nervous breakdowns and have done more than my fair share of swearing, we make our way to Celia's dressed as Coco Chanel and an unidentified gangster - who is carrying a picnic in a Tesco carrier bag and doesn't even have a gun. This last may be a good thing, given that my mood is best described as murderous.

"I think we've missed the golf bit out completely," I say, as the taxi turns into Celia's road, but Max just shrugs as if it's of no consequence, which may be because he already knows we won't be the only ones. I just wish he'd told me about his bloody premonition, before I turned myself into a pearl-clad dog's dinner.

Half the guests haven't bothered to dress up at all, and even the couple who've made the most effort have missed the mark, unless they know something about golfers that I don't. They've come as a cowboy and the owner of the best little whorehouse in Northwick.

"Nice reference to Tiger Woods," says Max, who is scarily good at small talk, and obviously knows more about both golf and men's leisure activities than I do.

"Mmm," I say.

This scintillating comment is about as good as my contribution to the conversation gets. God, chit-chat is boring. And who the hell are these people? I ask Max, who says they're mainly clients, or people who work for companies related to his.

"The Beales brothers seem fascinating conversationalists, all of a sudden," I say. "I'd even be happy to see Steve Ellington walk in."

"Shut up,"  says Max, sotto voce. "This is how the cream of Northwick society amuses itself. Go and have another cigarette if you can't stand it."

I do as he suggests, and don't think anyone notices that I spend the rest of the evening in Celia's back garden but, even so, I'm pretty relieved when there's a beep outside, and Max comes to the back door to tell me that our taxi is here.

I thank Celia, (though I don't think I'm as enthusiastic about her husband's plus-fours as she would have liked), and then I attempt to do some air-kissing. Max is very good at it, and gets round all the female guests at lightning speed, but I really shouldn't have moved in to kiss the woman from the Chicken Ranch while talking at the same time.

"For God's sake, Mol," says Max, as he bundles me into the taxi. "Are you choking again?"

"Feather boa," I say. "Inhaled. Be all right in a minute."

The driver asks if I'm going to be sick, and has to be reassured that I've only had three G&Ts.

"Bit of a poor night, was it, then?" he says.

"Yes," I say. "All posh golf, Pimms, and talking about nothing. How's yours been?"

Max says I never know when to ask questions and when not to - but, honestly, the poor, poor taxi driver. It turns out that he had an awful experience with some students a few weeks ago, when he was driving them home from a night-club.

They were really drunk and made him drive them miles out of Northwick, claiming that they lived in one of the satellite villages.

"Then I felt a gun in my back, and one of them said, 'Give us all your money, now,'" he says. "I thought I was a goner."

"Oh, my God," I say. "What on earth happened then?"

"The guy started laughing, and said it was a joke. That he'd only stuck his finger between my shoulder blades. 'For a laugh,' he said it was."

Now the driver sounds as if he's the one who's choking, so I wait without saying anything. Small talk's not appropriate in every situation, after all. Then he blows his nose, clears his throat and continues as if he hadn't even paused for breath:

"Except it wasn't funny, was it?" he says. "This is the first night I've worked since then and, to be honest, I'm not at all sure I can handle it any more. Not everyone behaves like you people, and the money's not so good that it feels worth the risk of trying to handle the ones who don't."

Max leaves a big tip, which we can't afford, but he doesn't say much when we let ourselves into the house. He just goes straight to bed, leaving me downstairs, sitting on the sofa and thinking. Hard.

Why did I find the taxi driver more interesting, and easier to relate to than any of Max's colleagues? And why can't I do bloody small talk any more? I am obviously drawn to misery, and doomed to stay a caseworker forever.

Friday, 4 February 2011

A Greek God's Odyssey, And The Start Of What May Prove To Be A Seven Year Itch

Well, The Boss and Vicky are back. Which is about as bad as it sounds, although I do try to be friendly. Initially.

"How was the hotel?" I say. "As luxurious as it looked on the website?"

When there is no answer, I wonder if I failed to speak the words aloud - until I catch a glimpse of Greg's face. There's a certain amount of disgusted eye-rolling going on.

"Are we fully-booked for surgery, Gregory?" says The Boss.

"Not sure, Andrew," says Greg. "Molly has the list - as usual, since she's the one who always accompanies you."

Andrew holds out his hand in my direction until I take the hint and put the surgery folder into it. He pauses for a moment as he scans the list of names - mainly the usual suspects, as per bloody usual - and then he turns to Greg, and says,

"Well, she must have other things to be getting on with, so you can do it instead, can't you?"

If Nan had heard that, she'd have said something about she being the cat's mother but, as she isn't, I decide it's probably safer not to mention it. Not that anyone's listening to me anyway. Vicky's checking out her fingernails, The Boss is tapping his foot, and Greg looks absolutely furious.

"No, Andrew, I can't," he says. "I'm accompanying Mr Young to his Housing Benefit appeal. As his Mackechnie's friend."

"Mackenzie's," I say, but no-one reacts at all. I'm rapidly approaching the verge of an existential crisis. I turn my back, pinch myself hard, and discover it hurts - which is vaguely reassuring. So at least I know I do exist - probably.

There's a stand-off occurring when I turn back to face the others: The Boss is scowling hard at Greg, who is studiously ignoring him. After what feels like hours, Andrew re-arranges his features and looks at Vicky. I've seen less imploring Spaniels.

"You'll do it, won't you, Vicks?" he says.

Vicky just shakes her head and carries on inspecting her nails, so eventually Andrew glares in my direction, gestures for me to follow him, and off we go to the Friday torture chamber. I'm a lucky, lucky woman.

Two hours later, after a series of demented enquiries from almost every nutter on our books, there's light at the end of the tunnel. We've just begun the very last appointment - with a Mrs Boswell whom I've never met before - when The Boss' mobile rings for a pre-scheduled radio interview.

He makes his excuses to Mrs B and leaves me to it, which takes rather longer than expected. And proves to be a whole lot more bizarre, even by normal surgery standards. And a bit itchier, too.

When I finally show Mrs Boswell out, she almost bumps into Greg, who's just coming in through the front door. He stops me before I start to climb the stairs.

"Where's Andrew?" he says. "Did he speak to you at all during surgery? Bloody idiot makes me so cross when he behaves like that. Makes me feel awkward too."

"He had to go and do that interview with Radio Northwick just before the end," I say. "Not that it made much difference seeing as he was hardly talking anyway. Left me with a really weird last case, though. That woman you just passed in the doorway."

"What did she want?" says Greg, so I tell him. When I've finished, his face lights up, and he says,

"Right, Mol. Payback time. Just keep quiet and follow my lead."

I can't bear to think about what's going to happen next, but all is calm when we first enter the office. Andrew's lying on the sofa in the Oprah Room, sipping a coffee, while Vicky sits next to him, gazing at him as if he was a Greek God.

Which he isn't, unless Greek Gods look half-asleep and are in the habit of kicking off their shoes to reveal an enormous hole in one of their socks.

"Bloody hell," he says. "You took your time, Greg."

"I was talking to Molly about that last case," says Greg. "Very tricky to handle. I hope you took precautions, Andrew?"

The Boss sits up a bit straighter and says,

"Precautions? What the hell are you talking about? Of course I didn't take precautions. Against what?"

Greg looks at me, then shakes his head and sighs.

"Bed bugs," he says. "Mrs Boswell's house is infested with them. Crawling. Whole family's covered in bites."

Andrew goes pale, while Vicky laughs.

"Don't be silly," she says. "No-one gets bed bugs these days. They're like... totally last century. Aren't they?"

She probably means that they were around when I was born, but I rise above the provocation. It's quite easy, actually, as I'm starting to enjoy myself now.

"That's what Molly and I thought,"  says Greg. "But Mol's already phoned Northwick Council and they've confirmed it. They've burned all Mrs Boswell's clothes and soft furnishings but that hasn't solved the problem - so they're going to have to burn her furniture next."

"Well, how the hell did she get bed bugs in the first place?" says Andrew.

"Bedding," says Greg, before pausing in an virtuoso example of perfect comic timing. "Hotel bedding, wasn't it, Mol?"

It wasn't, but I don't admit that. I just nod - several times, for emphasis.

"Shit," says Vicky. "Oh, my God."

"Well, I wouldn't worry about it too much," I say. "What's done is done. Oh, and Andrew, here's your jacket."

"Where was it?" he says, forgetting that he's not talking to me.

"You left it on a chair," I say. "Mrs Boswell was sitting on it. Catch!"

Even a Greek God couldn't have jumped higher than The Boss. Or moved away any faster. He knocks Vicky flying as he tries to put as much distance between himself and his jacket as he can. It's the highlight of the year so far.

Greg and I are still laughing about it when we close the office - in between bouts of panic and furious scratching, of course. For once, David Cameron's right when he says we're all in it together.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Jargon, Hot Babes And Awfully Short-Lived Optimism.

I'm in a really good mood this morning, mainly due to the success of my first undercover mission.

Not only have I established that Max's company isn't hiding its profits from the Inland Revenue - mainly because it isn't actually making any - but there's another gold star in the diary. And I can confirm that the size of the company one works for doesn't necessarily relate to other things either.

In fact, I'm so full of endorphins that I don't even get upset when I receive my first list of local vacancies from Trovit Jobs, athough I can't understand what any of the job titles mean. What the hell is an Riser Analyst? Or a PHP Developer?

I don't let my ignorance phase me, though. Why should I? It's not as if not having a clue ever bothers The Boss, after all. And look how much more than me he earns - despite his moaning.

I devise a clever plan of action, which involves jotting down all the unfamiliar jargon in readiness for the next time I have to phone one of the officers at Northwick Council on behalf of a constituent. One of them will definitely be able to translate - seeing as they're the undisputed experts in incomprehensible ways to explain perfectly simple concepts.

Not that I get a chance to put my plan into action today, as all the usual suspects must have died, or something equally pleasing. They're all conspicuous by their absence, so Greg and I get loads of proper casework done for a change and, by the time we close for the day, we're both feeling quite flushed with success (as opposed to hormones or panic).

It's not even raining when I make my way home from work, so I can concentrate on sucking in my stomach while I walk, to make up for not having done any exercises since the exercise ball catastrophe. I shall be super-fit by the time Max and I earn our next gold star - which will hopefully be fairly soon, given that we've remembered that marital sex is not a complete chore.

Recalling last night's events has put a big smile on my face by the time I turn into our street and nearly get run over by a total idiot in a little red convertible, of the type that Max always calls a "hairdresser's car."

I shout something vaguely abusive and have just held up two fingers when the car pulls in and parks just beyond our house. Oops.

And double oops - as the driver's door swings open and Ellen gets out, showing far more thigh than necessary. As per bloody usual.

I peer towards her in an attempt to spot cellulite, and have just been rewarded by the sight of a dark blobby patch, when the passenger door opens and Max almost falls out onto the pavement.

"Holy shit," I say, as Ellen spots me and shouts,

"Molly! Hi! Look what I picked up on my way home." She does one of those infuriating giggles, then says, "Your husband! So I thought I'd give him a cheap thrill and take him for a spin in my hot new car. What d'you think? Isn't she a babe?"

Gah. Ga-a-ah. And why do supposedly adult women feel the need to use the words, "hot" and "babe"?

"I wouldn't know," I say, immediately sounding like a repressed introvert who never has sex. And who definitely has no sense of humour. "I don't know many hot babes with whom to make a comparison."

"Oh, you are funny, Molly," says Ellen. "You always make me laugh."

I don't ask whether she normally laughs with me, or at me. I'm too busy glaring at Max, who looks awfully red in the face, and is very windswept. He really needs to wear his glasses more often, as he obviously hasn't spotted my expression.

"God, that was fun," he says. "Great, isn't she, Mol?"

She? She? Who or what are we talking about - Ellen, or the bloody car? I'm still trying to decide when Max says goodbye to Ellen and walks towards me.

"That's the way to live, isn't it?" he says. "I'd love to get one like that."

I can't help myself. Before I know it, my good mood has evaporated and I lose control of my tongue.

"Yeah," I say. "And you could grow a pony-tail to go with it, too. Then your mid-life crisis would be complete."

Someone seriously needs to invent a gag which activates automatically when one's blood pressure hits a certain level. It might be the saving of my marriage. If that same someone could also invent a way to make nymphomaniac neighbours with more money than sense disappear via telekinesis, taking their bloody sports cars with them.

Now I feel like the Volvo of women all over again. A hot babe I am not. Apart from this bloody hot flush, which I think may be rage.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Myth Of Chocolate, Undercover Operations And Does Size Matter?

"Thanks for the photo," says Johnny, in his first email of the day. "I miss you. Though I don't much like the hat you're wearing."

"It's a political statement," I say. "I am taking on all the big tax-dodging companies."

"Oh," he says, "So I take it you won't be sleeping with me, then?"

Bugger. I hadn't thought of that. I am doomed to have no sex-life between now and death. Which sometimes can't come soon enough, especially when Miss Chambers has already phoned twice this morning. I'd quite happily pepper-spray her, now I come to think of it.

"How many millions in dirty oil money do your lot hide away, then?" I say. "Just out of interest."

"I couldn't possibly comment," says Johnny. "To quote you and your lot. But you could always go under cover and investigate me as part of your campaign. While wearing no clothes, of course. Anything less - or rather, more - would immediately make me suspicious and you'd be rumbled before you'd discovered anything at all."

Honestly, has Johnny no idea how distracting that sort of thinking is? I do wish Max would stay awake at night a bit more often. In fact, it's probably his fault I am at the mercy of a smooth-talking oil baron, so I don't need to feel quite so horribly guilty. A woman has needs, after all. And not for chocolate, either - no matter what Cadbury and Lindt may try to claim.

Anyway, first I'm a bit distracted by the image Johnny's conjured up, and then the phones go mad before I can reply to him, so my needs go unmet, as usual, while I deal with Miss Emms and her psychotic guinea pig, and Edmund Beales' rapidly-increasing obsession with all things high-visibility. I bloody well hope no *CPNs are going to be made redundant, that's all I can say.

The usual suspects take up so much of the afternoon that, by the time I send Johnny another email saying, "I'm back - where are you?", I get an Out-Of-Office reply advising me that he's now en route to an ex-Soviet Union country whose name I can't even begin to pronounce. And where woolly hats would definitely be an absolute necessity - even when naked and working undercover.

I hold that thought while Greg shuts down his computer and rushes off to a branch meeting. Then I put my hat back on, and lock up - while praying that Josh will be out for the evening, and that Max will actually stay awake for more than five minutes.

You never know, investigating his company might pay off, too. Seeing as it could also be avoiding tax - even if on a much smaller scale than Johnny's.

Talking of relative size, I wonder if the fact that Max is tall and Johnny isn't has anything to do with why one of them is so much more of a go-getter than the other? As well as signifying other, less immediately-obvious (albeit rather important) physical differences?

Maybe I'll start my revolution at home. Just until I get the hang of it.

*CPNs - Community Psychiatric Nurses. There aren't enough of them to manage the usual suspects. Not by a long chalk.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

In Which Woolly-Headed Thinking Gets Me Absolutely Nowhere Fairly Quickly.

Bugger. I thought I'd got my mojo back there for a minute, thanks in no small part to last night's Newsnight. By which I don't mean Jeremy Paxman's possibly-accidental use of the Jeremy Hunt word, either.

"What the hell are you wearing on your head?" says Greg, when I walk into the office this morning.

"A woolly hat," I say. "As must be obvious."

Honestly, sometimes I wonder about that boy. He's as blind as a bat when he wears those coloured contact lenses.

"I can see that," he says. "But why are you wearing it? It's horrible."

"Because woolly hats are what activists are wearing now," I say. "And, as of last night, I count myself among them. And, anyway, I've only borrowed this from Josh until I can learn how to knit my own."

Greg stares at me, as I pause for effect before making my surprise announcement:

"I have got my political drive back."

"Let's see how long that lasts," he says, as the phones start ringing.

Then he steals my hat and throws it on top of the bookshelves while I'm stuck listening to Richard Levinson  who, as usual, insists on reading parts of the Daily Mail aloud.

Despite this provocation, I manage to resist falling prey to cynicism until lunchtime, when Greg suggests we make an executive decision to turn the phones off and take our lunch-breaks at the same time.

"Want to go for a quick drinky-boo?" he says, before retrieving my hat and passing it to me.

I'm sure there's no need for him to hold it between thumb and forefinger, as if it is something long-dead, but Greg takes no notice whatsoever of my scowl of disapproval. He just keeps talking:

"We can wash away the general hideousness of the mad, the bad, and the criminally insane - before we have to talk to them all over again this afternoon."

"Yes," I say. "But I have to go and buy some toothpaste first, now we've finally been paid. My mouth tastes like hell. I don't think salt is half as effective as Mum claimed it was when she had to use it to clean her teeth during the war."

"Well, d'uh," says Greg. "Of course it isn't any good. Otherwise Colgate wouldn't have made all that money, would they? Anyway, you go to Boots, while I go and get the drinks in. But hurry up."

He looks incredulous when I tell him that I am not going to Boots. And even more incredulous when I ask him to remind me to call Vodafone when I get back to the office - to cancel my contract.

"Huh?" he says. "Why? You're always telling me that Vodafone is the only network that gets a signal in the depths of Easemount. How are you going to phone 999 if you run into Steve Ellington during the next public meeting there? And you love Boots and your Advantage card. You won't get points like that anywhere else, you know."

Greg pauses to let what he obviously intends to be a killer blow sink in, then continues when he sees that I remain resolutely unmoved:

"And I wanted you to pick me up one of their meal deals while you were there. Why would you want to deprive me of my lunch, Mol? Haven't I suffered enough this morning? Why would you do this to me? Why? Why?"

Oh, for God's sake. Greg sounds just like Josh when he gets going.

"Because," I say,"Boots are cheating this country out of millions or squillions of pounds in tax -"

"Allegedly," says Greg, looking around nervously. He really does lack revolutionary spirit.

"Coward," I say. "And get this: I'm sure I read somewhere that the ex-Chairman of Boots is going to be in charge of commissioning for NHS Direct. Probably thanks to Andrew Bloody Lansley. So we we can't let pensioners and young people fight this battle on our behalf - we have to join in and make our views known. Although I am a bit worried I might be allergic to CS gas, given my tendency to Miss Chambers-related urticaria."

"You're bound to be," says Greg. "You react to everything. But hang on a minute, Mol - what's with the royal 'we'? Boots are the only people who stock my hair-gel. And what about Topshop? I bet you haven't thought about that!"

Oh, bugger, I haven't. Until now. Sometimes Greg is so annoying. Where else am I going to find adult clothes that don't absolutely drown me? Marks and Sparks might claim to sell a size 8 but it'd be labelled a size 14 in Topshop. And it'd be called a one-person festival tent in Millets. There's nothing for it, but some creative thinking.

"I shall have to make all my own clothes, then," I say. "Once I learn how to sew, seeing as Mum never taught me how to do that either. I do wish she hadn't been a bloody feminist. A raised consciousness is of no practical use to anyone."

Greg looks at me as if I am insane, but then he didn't have to spend his teenage evenings waiting hand and foot on a bunch of bra-less women drinking wine and eating loads of biscuits while discussing how their lives had been blighted by their husbands and children. (The 1970s weren't half as much fun if you fell into one of those two categories.)

"Anyway," I say, getting a grip on myself. "I'll deal with Philip Green once I've found an alternative source of freakishly-small outfits, seeing as you can get arrested for not wearing any clothes. In the meantime, I'll start with Boots and Vodafone. And so should you. Sod the meal deals, and bugger your hair gel, Greg. This is time to make a stand on behalf of all the working people in this country."

Sometimes I think Pete Carew might be right when he tries to persuade me that I'd make a much better MP than The Boss. Imagine me on an extra-large soap box right this minute!

"Except all those who'll lose their jobs if UKuncut succeed in closing down the shops that employ them, of course," says Greg.

Now I've had three gins, half of Greg's (really horrible) tuna and cucumber meal deal, and the arguments for and against revolution still aren't looking any bloody clearer. Sometimes strategic thinking isn't at all what it's cracked up to be.