‘I think you ought to be more tolerant of people who are boring. Then you could move to being supportive.’ Carole interrupted my rant, and her novel approach did make me stop short.
She spoke on as I sat in silence. ‘After all, Dennis, being a bore is a real affliction. It’s like bad breath or obesity. You wouldn’t be so harsh if you were being held up by someone who was blind, or in a wheel chair.’
‘OK.’ I said, ‘I do try to be considerate about the blind. But bad breath is caused by poor oral hygiene; obesity is caused by lack of exercise; and being a bore is caused poor mental hygiene and lack of reading. Those are things you can control.”
And then I smiled, a little ruefully, and dropped the topic. I shouldn’t have taken my frustration out on her. Carole’s good at tact: she often uses her wit to defuse my anger.
I’d had a dreadful day in the Town Hall: eight hours at a private meeting of the ruling group to discuss the draft budget. It was the same every year. A full day of argument, lots of effing and blinding, but they never alter my draft budget because they haven’t the brains to come up with practical ideas. It was a long day, sitting in seats designed to be agony for anyone as tall as me.
Lunch had been delayed by almost half an hour with a discussion of ‘contingencies’ – the budget item allowing for unforeseen circumstances. For years I’d included ‘contingencies’ and no one commented. Last year Councillor Kenneth Broadfold had objected: ‘it’s a long word and the public won’t know what it means.’ I explained that it was just money added into the budget to allow for unforeseen events. ‘Then why not call it that?’
This year we called it ‘unforeseen circumstances’ and Broadfold now demanded ‘exactly what are these unforeseen circumstances?’
I gave him a couple of examples: ‘Last year we had an unexpected rise in fuel costs, and the old market hall was damaged in an exceptional gale.’
‘I know that,’ Broadfold had said, ‘but what I want is a real example from next year. That’s when the budget will be spent. Every inch an accountant and yet you can’t give me an example?’
Mercifully this started a squabble between those who had misunderstood the papers and those who had not read them. Why hadn’t I used the same wording as last year? This year’s words were actually longer. Why couldn’t the amount be smaller, or bigger? If the events couldn’t be foreseen, how did I know this was the right amount? I was spared from thinking up an answer. Eventually the Leader shouted them into silence and the lunch was brought in.
It was the usual, awful food, from a greasy eating-house run by the party secretary. I can never eat while a meeting is going on, surrounded by political bedlam. I knew the evening would be taken up with the council’s Annual Dinner. Why couldn’t someone have foreseen the clash? It was sheer cruelty that this one-day marathon would be followed by the Annual Dinner.
The whole day had been noisy, boring and tiring. I had to work hard to focus all the time: at any moment one of the sods might turn on me and ask a question. They didn’t understand simple book-keeping, and yet they were like hawks in debate and could spot the slightest lapse in my concentration.
Oddly, they had made one tiny amendment. They had refused to make a cut in support for the Valley Heritage Trust. That surprised me. The cut had been recommended by the party’s own working group on savings – chaired by Councillor Kenneth Broadfold – and it would have enraged the opposition leader who was a trustee at Valley Heritage.
Broadfold tried to protest, saying it would ‘throw the whole budget out of balance and it makes my working group pointless.’
The Leader cut him off: ‘Pipe down, Ken! We’ll just reduce some of the unforeseen circumstances. You know what that cut would mean, don’t you.’ Broadfold, uncharacteristically, had quickly piped down.
I was puzzled. What did ‘that cut’ mean?
Eventually the meeting broke up and the budget was settled for another year. It was sure to be passed by Council next month: the Leader didn’t allow unforeseen circumstances in Council meetings.
Usually, after a bad meeting, I work off the anger by going for a run. Today there wasn’t time. I stood in the kitchen, leaning against the freezer, drinking a quick coffee with Carole. Once she had cut my ranting, there would be just enough time to relax a little before getting dressed for dinner. The children had been sent to their grandparents for a sleep-over.
‘Better get ready,’ I said. ‘We have an evening of boredom to deal with and I can’t miss a moment of it. Perhaps I could claim boredom as an industrial injury? Would your solicitor skills help with that?’
‘I’m afraid it’s just an occupational hazard,’ said Carole. ‘Lawyers suffer from it too. Even a lawyer as brilliant as myself couldn’t get the millions your sufferings merit and which make you such a lovely, grumpy bear.’
We went upstairs to get ready. I started to take my smoke-filled day-clothes off.
Carole picked up my discarded shirt, a white shirt with a faint grid of blue-grey squares. ‘Look at you,’ she said, ‘every inch an accountant. Even your shirt is made of graph paper. But if they could see you now, Dennis, wearing nothing but your Dennis the Menace boxer shorts and your Snoopy socks.’
She came close, blocking my path to the shower. ‘And they don’t know that Dennis is another word for Dionysus, do they,?’ She gently stroked my boxer shorts. ‘There’s some inches here that aren’t at all within budget.’
‘We have to go, Carole. You know I hate to be late.’
‘Oh, go on. These dinners always start late. We can still have a bit of contingency before we go.’
‘Get off me!’ I made for the shower, but she kept on stroking.
‘Surely the priority is to deal with the bottom line. Besides, you’re still angry. You need to relax. You’ve missed your run. Some exercise will do you good.’
We were almost the last to arrive at the dinner.
The shabby hall was full of noise. There were Tories in dinner jackets and ball gowns, Labour in sweaters and jeans. The small set of senior Officers also wore dinner jackets, at the Chief’s insistence, even though it made us look like part of the Tory camp. There was a school jazz band, playing Glenn Miller numbers relentlessly. Later there would be a deafening disco of golden oldies.
As we walked in, still a little hot and bothered, the Chief Executive greeted us: ‘I was getting worried, Dennis. It’s not like you to be late.’
Carole quickly spoke up: ‘My fault, Mike. Something came up on the family front and it just had to be dealt with. Really, really sorry!’ And, apologies given, she plunged into the chattering throng.
My face burned scarlet as the Chief turned back to me. (Why do I have to be such a blushing schoolboy?) The Chief looked up at me and chuckled. ‘Well, Dennis. You found time to fit a bit in, eh? Unforeseen circumstances made you come late? You’re a lucky chap, and luck is just what I need in a Treasurer.’
The usual meal: tepid slices of tough beef with tortoise-shell potatoes, parsnips boiled to a pulp and a pungent paste as thick as glue for gravy, followed by treacle tart and watery custard.
The Mayor’s speech was witty. (It was written by the Chief nearly every year.) It was, for a change, competently delivered. It included a clever, but kindly joke against me: ‘Our Treasurer is every inch an accountant. He has a new whiteboard in his office with a rack for six pens. Every single pen is black. He likes to keep out of the red.’ (This was true, but only because the purchasing section had ordered the wrong pack of pens. I’d asked for plenty of colour.)
The talking point of the evening was Ken Broadfold’s new bird. He had arrived for the dinner with a very young companion: his ‘researcher’. Broadfold was notorious for his philandering but this time he had excelled himself. The couple wore matching earrings: heavy, piratical rings of gold.
Broadfold is as tall as me but bigger – a rugby forward rather than a runner. His girl had made an attempt at glamour: long purple nails with rhinestones, a flowing low-cut dress to show off her top-heavy figure. More Mandy the Model than Minnie the Minx.
Throughout the evening the couple were a target for comments. Some were celebratory: ‘Hey, Ken, haven’t you done well.’ Others were harsh and critical: ‘How can he bring her and leave poor Debbie behind.’ Few were discreet. For once the division didn’t follow party lines – for some he was a hero but, for the older councillors, a scandal.
As the evening wore on his girl looked more and more embarrassed. Within ten minutes she looked as hot as Carole and I had been on arrival. After an hour she was red and verging on tearful. Oblivious to her discomfort, Broadfold’s grin and swagger grew as he guzzled pints.
‘Just look at him.’ whispered Carole, ‘Mutton dressed as Ram.’
Speeches over, the Mayor held up a plastic bucket daubed with glitter and began to draw the tickets for the raffle.
The first ticket, and top prize, was for a romantic candle-lit dinner for two. It was Broadfold’s ticket. A babble of cheers, jeers and sneers greeted his win.
‘It’s a fix!’
‘Who will you take Ken? The new bird or the old boiler?’
‘Make sure you get your money’s worth.’
It was the last straw for Ken’s new bird. She grabbed her fancy shawl and headed for the Ladies Room. We didn’t see her again. Broadfold stayed late and went home alone.
Later the Leader came over for a ‘quiet’ word with me. He had to shout for me to hear, but we were still private amid the disco din.
‘Dennis, I’m sorry about dropping the cut to the Valley Heritage Trust. You see, Broadfold’s missus has an admin job at the Trust. Part-time, but it’s the only work she has. He’s obviously going to sack her as a wife, so making her lose her job as well would be the unkindest of cuts.’
I shouted back, quietly. ‘It’s OK, it’ll be hidden in contingencies. At least I understand now what that cut would have meant.’
‘Mind you,’ I thought, ‘by the look of that girl there may be some unforeseen circumstances for Ken to deal with in the morning.’