Chapter 3 - An Independent Candidate
“Why do you hate politicians?”
It was a typically logical question from Scott, and although it had taken him a few minutes to ask it, I would have been lying if I'd said I hadn't expected him to. After the shock he had suffered as a result of Davey's announcement, he had been oddly silent. He had suggested we break for a short period to smoke the cigarettes we had rolled earlier, however, but he had done so without speaking. It was fortunate that after so many years of friendship, the act of holding one's cigarette into the air to prompt such a break had become a widely understood and commonly used gesture. Davey and I had been in favour of the motion, regardless, and after donning our coats, the three of us had headed out into the cold winter air of The Crooked Jaw's beer garden.
“I don't hate politicians, Scott.”
“Yes you do,” Davey argued, “politicians, and all things political.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. Davey believed he had found a way to defend the notion that opening his club would be a good idea. If he could undermine my credibility in any way, and make it appear as if my reasons for being in opposition to the club were not due to its potential viability, he was going to do it.
“In fact,” Davey continued, “thinking about it, you haven't had a positive thing to say about either since we gatecrashed the vote count at the civic centre during the last general election.”
We all smiled at the memory, but Scott most of all. It had been his idea for us to watch the election results come in live that night. Roughly four years ago, if memory served. Once the pubs had closed on polling day, Scott had sold the outing to us with the promise that there would be an all night bar in which we could continue to drink, perhaps meeting a few people of higher social standing along the way. Most of us had been so drunk that night, that it had sounded like a good plan.
And, to be honest, in the end, it had made for a good night. The uncertainty of not knowing whether a group of pissed-up twenty-somethings would even be allowed into such an important event, had made it an exciting prospect, and the resulting adrenaline had surely contributed to it becoming a fun and memorable adventure. There hadn't been an all night bar, but we hadn't cared; the copious amounts of tea and coffee we'd indulged in at the taxpayers' expense had more than made up for it. Admittedly, the unprecedented levels of caffeine in our systems, on top of the adrenaline already present, had prevented most of us from sleeping that night, but on the plus side, none of us had been hungover the next day when we probably should have been.
“I'll bet it all stems from that event, doesn't it?” Davey contended. “You met one political figure that you didn't like, and you've tarred them all with the same brush ever since.”
“That slap in the face you got must have affected you more than I realised,” Davey exclaimed with delight.
Scott studied us curiously, the curl of his lip suggesting that although he was amused, he didn't fully understand the basis of the conversation. I found it hard to believe, though, that he could have missed out on what had surely become the most talked about part of the evening.
“Slap?” Scott said. “What slap?”
Davey looked at him in utter disbelief.
“You must know about Pete's slap in the face, Scott, surely?” he said, going on to describe the setting. “Just as the results were about to be read out... when the crowd started to gather in front of the stage...”
Apparently, Scott didn't remember. He was shaking his head.
“I can't believe you don't know this, Scott,” Davey went on. “I thought everyone knew about Pete being slapped in the face by a member of the Conservative Party.”
Scott almost choked on his drink.
As it had turned out, the mayoress had been quite affable about the misunderstanding regarding her breasts, and had even joked that if she had been a few years younger, she would have probably made the most of that gold chain by wearing a blouse with a lower neck line. The slap had occurred later.
“You were assaulted by a member of the Conservative Party?” Scott exclaimed, turning to me in horror.
Unfortunately, when Scott had suggested going to the civic centre that night, he hadn't accounted for the fact that a group of inebriates would be inclined, especially whilst mingling with people in a political setting, to share a few opinions on politically related issues. I had been slapped in the face for expressing one of mine.
“It happened as the candidates were lining up on stage,” Davey said. “I think you'd already started making your way to the front of the crowd by then - for a better view, probably - we were further back.”
Davey paused for a moment, taking a drag on his cigarette, still shaking his head in disbelief that Scott didn't know all this.
“As the Tory candidate walked up onto the stage, Pete said something about him looking like a chicken...”
“A turkey,” I interjected, accurately recounting the observation I had made.
“...and an overzealous member of the die hard Conservative collective we were standing next to, must have overheard - span Pete around by the shoulder and gave him a big old slap in the face.”
Scott laughed a hearty laugh at the unexpected turn of events, and Davey and I couldn't help but join him. In hindsight, the incident had been so absurd that it was hard not to look back and smile. I hadn't found the situation funny at the time, however.
The Conservative candidate that year had looked like a turkey. The skin under his long neck had hung down, he was balding on top, and rotund in the middle. His head had even bobbed back and forth as he had climbed the stairs to the stage. I had almost been able to hear him gobble... gobble... gobble... My observation had never been meant maliciously, of course, but had simply been the result of a few too many beers and an inability, therefore, to keep my thoughts to myself. There was no way I could have known that the person behind me would take offence to it.
In my drunken state, I had assumed at the time that the assault on my person had been playful, and of mock outrage, even though the sting of the slap had remained with me for some while. It wasn't until the following day, when a bruise had emerged on my cheek in the shape of a hand, that I had regretted not having retaliated in kind. Bewildered, and in disbelief, I had barely managed to swear at my attacker at the time. Looking back, it was probably a good thing; I was certain I would have been arrested if I'd punched the bastard in the face live on national television.
“Did he look like a turkey?” Scott asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
Davey looked at me comically in way that suggested he wasn't impressed with the immaturity of my answer, the way I imagined a parent would.
“Well he did,” I stated, recalling the image of the man to mind.
In a bizarre echo of the night in question, Davey held up his free hand as if to strike me, mimicking the reaction of the Conservative zealot to my comment. Thinking back, it had only been when I had restated my opinion, quoting my right to free speech when asked to withdraw my statement, that I had been slapped. I had asked for it. But even though I doubted Davey would slap me now, his smile suggested that this was a memory he thoroughly enjoyed recounting, perhaps even enough that he might be tempted to re-enact it.
“Well, avian in appearance or not, the Tories lost the election,” Scott reminded us. “I should think that that Conservative Party member simply misinterpreted your comment. When you said his candidate looked like a turkey, he probably thought that you were using the word metaphorically, and that you were implying he was destined to lose, a born failure, completely inept at his job.”
I shook my head in disagreement.
“Not possible,” I said. “He couldn't have known that they'd lost at the time. He slapped me before the results had been announced.”
“Still,” Scott reasoned, “he probably would have known that a loss could be on the cards. Your comment was probably just the straw that broke the camel's back after weeks of campaigning and nervous energy in the run up to the election. I mean, for such a safe seat, the independent candidate that year gave the Conservatives a hell of a run for their money.”
The independent candidate Scott was referring to was a man named Gordon Roberts.
The constituency of Rochford and Southend East had been a Conservative stronghold, as far as I was aware, from the moment the word constituency had first been coined. The Conservative Party had lost the seat that year, for the first time, after attempting to move their regular candidate to another constituency in a bid to swing control there away from the Labour Party. That regular candidate, three times Conservative MP for the area, had been Gordon Roberts, and he hadn't liked the idea of relocating. Not one bit.
In Rochford and Southend East, as a Conservative candidate, Roberts would have been assured of victory come polling day, and presumably enjoying the minimal effort required to hold the seat in the House of Commons, he had decided that if he was going to have to fight an election, he would do it on his own terms. Roberts left his party in protest, and instead ran against his former Conservative colleagues as an independent candidate. The resulting election campaign had attracted national media attention, and even though Roberts had gone on to win, it had been a close race right up until the end. Even so, I didn't think it justified the levels of anxiety that would have been needed for me to have been slapped in the face by one of the Turkey's disappointed cronies.
“You know, I still can't believe that Southend East is an independent seat,” Scott announced. “Just think, of all the elections to gatecrash, we chose that one. We, were present at the dawn of a new age in local government.”
Scott preferred to romanticise the election results that year. In reality, the constituents of Rochford and Southend East were not fans of change; they exercised their right to have a say by voting the way their parents, and their parents' parents did. The newly independent candidate, Gordon Roberts, despite being the former Conservative MP for the area, well known and admired, had been voted into office in error.
By the time the election came around, most of the electorate had either forgotten about Roberts' defection from his party or simply weren't sure it had ever happened. This was due in no small part to the fact that, at the time of the election, he was still, technically, the Conservative MP for the area, and was widely reported in the local press, known for its lax standards of journalism, as being so. Of the people that actually bothered to visit a polling station on election day, the majority, unsurprisingly, had voted Conservative. But on that particular day, the Conservative voters fell into two camps; those that didn't read the local newspapers, and those that did. The first group simply placed a cross next to the picture they would normally put a cross next to. The second group, who read the names of the candidates on the ballot, made their decisions based upon the familiarity of those names and the stories associated with them in the local news. Ironically, that second group of people, by voting for the well known Conservative MP, Gordon Roberts, and assuming that they were voting just as they had always done, lost their favoured party one of the safest seats in the country. In one of the greatest cases of electorate confusion to date, Gordon Roberts passed the post to win by thirty-seven votes.
“I don't know about being present at the dawn of a new age in local government, Scott,” I said, “but I know we were definitely present at dawn. I didn't get home until about six o'clock.”
“Well, you only have yourself to blame for that, Pete,” Davey laughed. “If you hadn't been so intent on debating the physical attributes of poultry with whoever would listen, we could have left earlier.”
That was probably true. After being slapped, I had made it my mission to find someone who shared my opinion about the Conservative candidate's appearance.
“The caretaker agreed with me,” I said.
“That may be so,” Davey explained, “but did you ever stop to think that the only reason he did, was because he wanted you to leave him alone? You could tell by his face that he wanted us out - probably wanted to get on with cleaning up the mess left behind by all those politicians.”
It was a valid point.
“But, even if there was one other person in that room that agreed with you,” Davey continued, “and even if the Tory candidate that night did look like a turkey, it still doesn't change the fact that you were slapped for voicing an opinion in a political forum.”
Davey paused to puff on his cigarette, and then proceeded to sip from his beer to relieve the resulting dryness.
“The reason you're against opening this private club is the same reason you hate politicians - because of that slap. Whenever you think of politics now, it's the first thing that comes to mind. After years of laying awake at night and reliving that moment, you've started to associate the world of politics with a sharp stinging pain, and you've developed a phobia of it as a result.”
“I'm not scared of politics,” I stated flatly.
“Oh really?” Davey said. ̶0Then what say you put your money where your mouth is? I'll bet you a hundred pounds that you haven't voted since that slap in the face.”
The only elections held in Southend since that day, had been for seats on the local council. In my opinion, it didn't really make much of a difference who sat in those seats, and so I hadn't bothered to vote. But apathy had been my burden - not fear. As far as I could tell, the only thing that seemed to be affected by local council elections was how many traffic calming measures would be introduced in the following year. Southend was full of them. It was impressive how a speed bump or two could help to justify a budget when it came up for review.
Davey grinned when he realised that I wasn't going to take him up on his wager, holding out his hand as if to say pay up, and taking a celebratory sip of his pint.
“Deep rooted psychological neuroses aside,” Scott said, turning to direct his comment at Davey, “I find it very unlikely that being slapped by a member of the Conservative Party would cause Pete to hate politicians.”
I looked up from my pint, pleased to hear that at last Scott's common sense seemed to be rearing its head and coming to my aid.
“Distrust them, perhaps,” he went on, “but not hate them.”
He paused to smoke, contemplating the matter further. It was only a matter of time, I thought, until Scott had torn apart Davey's theory that my opposition to his club was down to me being phobic of political figures.
“And it's not like Pete would be the first person to have harboured a distrust of politicians,” Scott added.
“Exactly,” I said defiantly, looking at Davey.
“After all, it's only natural to be wary of groups of individuals that have caused harm to you in the past. It's a survival mechanism, honed over millions of years of evolution.”
So much for logic and reason, I thought.
“Scott,” I said, “I don't distrust politicians because of an evolutionary survival instinct, I distrust them because they're untrustworthy.”
Davey's eyes lit up as he suddenly reprised the expression of smugness he had worn earlier.
“But you do admit to distrusting them,” he said.
Clearly, I had walked into a carefully baited trap. I rolled my eyes and sighed again, taking a long drag on my cigarette in despair.
“Fine, yes, I'll concede to distrusting them,” I said, eventually. “But I'm not phobic of them.”
Davey just laughed.
“If you say so, Pete.”
For a moment, the two of us remained silent, smoking our cigarettes and occasionally sipping our beers in the cold winter air, me, in defeat, and Davey, celebrating the small victory he had won having coerced the truth out of me. Scott was pondering the matter more deeply, however, applying the new information he had learned to the overall context of our conversation. Unfortunately, that meant he would probably reach the same conclusions that Davey had.
“So it is true then?” he asked. “You are against opening this private club because of a concern that it would cater for a group of people you consider to be untrustworthy?”
I shook my head.
“No, Scott. Whatever Davey might say, I'm against opening it because I think it's a terrible idea. But you're right about it catering for politicians; a club like the one you're proposing would draw them in like moths to a flame. As you said earlier, the main selling point and benefit of your membership package would be the discretion it provided. Everything that happened in your club would be kept a closely guarded secret. And if there's one thing that'd be sure to attract an untrustworthy politician or two, it'd be that. Before you knew it, you'd be proprietors of a love nest, with them coming in to conduct their affairs, renting rooms with your secret passwords to bonk their mistresses, safe in the knowledge that for x amount of pounds per month, they could guarantee your silence.”
I almost laughed as the horror dawned on me.
“I mean, come on, an extremely private and exclusive club like that, barely an hour from London on the train? - it wouldn't surprise me if you had the whole of parliament signing up. Lords included.”
Davey hadn't considered that.
“I told you we were onto a winner, didn't I?” he joked.
“Can you imagine it?” Scott added. “We'd be at the heart of British politics.”
The logical mindset that had temporarily revealed itself earlier had clearly gone back into hiding. Scott had slipped back into his daydream, managing his club and mingling with the people that kept the country and economy ticking over.
“You'd be at the heart of a scandal waiting to happen,” I corrected him. “Politicians are bad enough as it is - they're always fiddling with something, be it their taxes, expenses... mistresses - and that's without them being encouraged by a blanket policy of discretion. In your club, it'd only be a matter of time before one of them behaved badly enough to jeopardise it's confidentiality, and as soon as that happened, it'd be game over. No more secret titty bar. Countless members' true activities exposed. Careers and marriages ruined. You'd be out of business.”
It was my turn to take a celebratory mouthful of beer. I had just realised, after failing to make Davey and Scott see sense so far this evening, that I had finally stumbled upon a line of argument which they might be willing to listen to. A case study, if you will, with which I could demonstrate why their club, beyond being totally ridiculous, would be destined to failure. And if my friends were of the opinion that I was only against opening their club because of a phobic distrust of its potential patrons, I would play along. I would explain exactly what those patrons would be capable of doing.