She’d put it down to getting older, or perhaps it was the slow process of adjusting to being on her own? Whatever it was, it was deeply unsettling.
The garden gate swung shut with a familiar click as Julie stepped out into the lane. There had been a time when she might have driven into the village. She’d done a lot of driving in the last few years. In some ways it had been a lot like being a young mother again, with a helpless, dependent human to bundle into the car, his eyes somehow pleading, even as his face was blank. Since Ronnie’s death there had been relief, even a guilty feeling of transgression, in leaving the car on the drive, and walking.
He’d been the oldest Young Conservative in the local association when she’d first joined. Joining the YCs had been her mother’s suggestion. ‘You’ll meet nice young people there, dear!’ And it had been true. Tall, confident, with dark hair, and slightly racy sideburns, Ronnie stood out from many of the other young men. He hadn’t been to university, which was definitely a plus in Julie’s view. Those Federation of Conservative Students chaps were a bore, always talking politics. Ronnie was in the family firm, and preferred tennis and golf to earnest discussions of Sir Keith Joseph’s ideas on birth control. That said, he was very clear about one thing. Maggie. Wouldn’t have a word said against her.
Julie could hear a noisy buzzing as she rounded the corner. A gardener in a hard hat and ear defenders was up a ladder, trimming a huge hedge. Julie crossed the road to avoid the tumbling clippings. The Johnson’s used to live in that house. When Ronnie was still working, and the children were at school, Julie had sometimes taken tea with Lucinda in their ramshackle orangery. But Ronnie had never taken to them. There was just something about their William Morris wallpaper, and the untidy piles of books around the house that irritated him. He called them ‘Guardian readers’, though he knew very well that they took The Times.
But that was then. Now the house looked very different, the orangery replaced by a modernist glass extension, the gardens sculpted to hotel standards. An Indian family lived there. At least they looked Indian. Julie had never spoken to them.
The pavement grew more substantial, and street lamps rose beside the kerb as she neared the village. This was no casual walk in the spring sunshine. Julie had made a decision that morning, and now she planned to act upon it.
It was not exactly a snap decision. To change a habit of forty years takes rather more than a moment’s thought. Julie’s disquiet had been building for some time, she now realised.
Ronnie had been Chairman of the local association. It had become his ambition after he sold his company to a German multinational. He could have had a conventional retirement, but that wouldn’t have been enough, Julie could see that. Ronnie needed to be in a position of leadership, and authority. He was that sort of man. He’d worked very hard to attain the role, as had Julie. The plotting, and schmoozing, the dinner parties and the rounds of golf, all had been undertaken as teamwork. He’d been chairman for almost ten years at the time of his stroke.
Their friends in the association couldn’t have been kinder, but Ronnie’s recovery had been slow, and very incomplete. For nearly three years, until his death just before Christmas, they had been unable to participate in the events that had marked their years together up until that time. AGMs, fundraising dinners, the summer garden party, all those invitations still arrived in the post, and sat on the bureau in the hall, but Ronnie was in no state to attend, and in any case, Julie had had no appetite for their friends’ pity.
Nonetheless, they still paid their subs. Ronnie had insisted on that. He would be a Conservative from the cradle to the grave.
The children rallied around after their father’s death, visiting her more often, and taking her out for Sunday lunches, but in truth Julie felt relief more strongly than grief. Ronnie’s life had slipped away long before his body finally failed, his personality imprisoned by his physical inertia. He didn’t need words for Julie to know his moods, for they were focused on her. Sometimes she would lie next to him on his bed, and his eyes were full of fondness, but more often there was helplessness, resentment, and anger.
Julie only changed little things after Ronnie’s death. She cancelled the Sky contract, stopped watching the news, and started going to museums and galleries, the sorts of places that bored Ronnie, but where a woman of a certain age could venture alone. Her daughter had suggested going to a gym, or learning a language, but she wasn’t yet ready to be so adventurous.
It hadn’t occurred to Julie that she could now resume active membership of the Conservative association. In any case, her activity had always been to support Ronnie. She had canvassed for him when he stood as a local councillor, and she had acted as his secretary when he was chairman. The thought of attending meetings on her own seemed slightly absurd.
So when Carol Barlow had telephoned a few days ago, Julie had been surprised. Obviously they had known Carol, but she’d never been a friend. Not that she was unfriendly, but she was the sort of woman who made Ronnie bristle, and Julie feel uncomfortable. Carol spoke the language of men, confident and imperative, deferring to no one. She ran her own business, the sort of business that Julie didn’t understand. Ronnie’s firm had made things. Carol, by contrast, ran a consultancy. She sold ‘services’, whatever that meant. It was evidently successful, but how and why was a mystery to Julie. So Carol’s call had initially made Julie wary. What was the woman up to?
‘You remember the selection meeting for Graham?’ Carol had said. ‘How keen Ronnie was that we chose someone with gravitas and dignity, rather than that brash fellow who ran an abattoir?’
Julie did remember. She also knew that ‘the brash fellow’ was now in the Cabinet, and being talked about as a potential leader of the party.
‘Well, Graham’s coming under a lot of pressure.’
Julie wasn’t sure why she agreed to it, but Carol had somehow talked her into going along to an extraordinary general meeting of the association last night to support their MP in a confidence motion.
She’d been feeling a little nervous as contemplated what to wear. Trousers and a sweater with a string of pearls seemed appropriate, but should she wear the Barbour jacket, or her good cashmere coat? Would a little lipstick be too ‘merry widow’?
Driving to the hotel where the association was meeting, Julie pondered other issues. There would be people there she hadn’t seen since the funeral, even some she hadn’t seen for years, people she had never seen in the absence of Ronnie. She remembered how his presence somehow took the pressure off her. He was there to glad-hand, and back-slap, leaving her to the small talk with which she was comfortable. She even feared that some people would be embarrassed to see her alone, and not know what to say to her. It would have taken very little to make her turn back, go home, and settle down in front of the television.
‘So pleased you could make it,’ said Carol Barlow, who was walking across the car park as Julie locked her car. ‘I’ve done my best to bring out the long-standing members, but I’m not sure it’s going to be enough.’
The room where the meeting was to be held was a lot bigger than they usually used for AGMs, thought Julie, but it was filling up fast. Far from avoiding pitying gazes, Julie struggled to find faces she could recognise. She could see the Henshaws seated near the front, and was that Sally and Martin’s son, what was he called? But most faces were unknown to her. Somehow they didn’t look like the sort of people who should be at a meeting of the Conservative association, though she would have been hard pressed to put her finger on quite why. Perhaps it was the low rumble of anticipation in the room, a sense of barely restrained excitement. It was difficult to imagine Ronnie chairing a meeting like this.
It was a relief to see their MP slip into the room. But as he walked towards the platform, the noise level in the room rose such that it sounded to Julie’s ears almost like a growl. Graham was a barrister, a fine public speaker and a dignified man with real presence. That he looked diminished in this company troubled Julie. She was ostensibly back in a world in which she had spent her whole life, and yet she didn’t recognise it.
Julie said nothing in the meeting. She sat, scarcely breathing at times, willing herself to be unnoticed, except, perhaps, by one of the few familiar faces. But even some of those faces, of people she had known, whose dinner parties she had attended, whose children had been at school with her own, seemed contorted with the barely suppressed rage that gripped the room. After the vote, Julie had rushed to her car, anxious to return to the sanctuary of her home.
She’d had a troubled night. The gin and tonic she’d downed when she got home hadn’t gifted her a night’s sleep. Julie had twisted anxiously in her bed, lettIng not only the uncomfortable evening, but much else beside into her mind. Ronnie had gone, and the decisions she had once left to her husband were now her responsibility alone.
When she woke, unrested, that morning, she walked as always towards the front door to pick up the copy of The Daily Telegraph that they had always had delivered. She’d scarcely read it for years. When Ronnie was in need of constant help, she had neither time nor inclination, and since his death she had flicked through it in a desultory manner. But this time she looked at it, lying on the floor in the hallway, noting the headline, noting Graham’s photograph, noting its echo of the unpleasantness in the room last night.
So she strode into the village newsagent with a clear purpose. She had a subscription to cancel.