"They've asked me to consider standing as the next candidate."
Helena Merrick stepped back and dusted off her floury hands. "You? A Member of Parliament?"
Her husband reddened, hands fisted behind his back, knowing that if he could cope with Helena, the voters, hustings and debates would be a doddle. "Why not?" he asked, trying to hide the defensiveness he felt, while knowing his chin was now too jowly to jut upwards defiantly.
Helena didn't make eye contact, intent on pulling clegs of pastry from between her fingers. 'You'd have way too many young researchers to boff', was both too crude and too heartbreaking. 'But you're a yes man, all happy to agree with your wealthier jumped-up wide-boy mates, who climb onto your family's history to make themselves respectable, whilst you've been relying on their injections into your failing business' - too nasty. 'You're just another mediocre middle-aged Tory running to seed, who thinks he knows everything worth knowing, and God knows we don't need any more of them in Parliament' - too true, but Anthony, bless him, was hardly likely to see that as much of a problem.
She was rescued from the need to answer immediately by Anthony's next comment, the light tone failing to hide that he clearly knew it was a clincher: "We'd need to move back to London, of course."
Helena put her hands down, pastry be damned, and smiled at her Anthony. He was offering her a chance to escape; the ability for her to return to a social life revolving around politicians, academics, artists - anyone really, not just the same old country folk talking about the same old country things. Yes, Anthony probably would be tempted again by another blonde girl, all bright and quick and eager to please - probably exactly how that young Ginty Marlow would be in a few years' time - but at least London would have sufficient anonymity that she wouldn't have to know that everyone knew. That was all that bothered her, really, all the people carefully not saying, how much she must mind. Because, really, she didn't.
In fact, given the scope of London, she realised guiltily that she might not be immune to a pretty young thing herself. In so realising, she further relaxed towards her husband.
"Well. It's a shock. Would they put you up for April, then?"
"That's the idea," Anthony spoke easily, understanding that if Helena wasn't picking at the plan, she was sold. Both of them knew that Forrestshire South was a true blue constituency - 'they'd elect a donkey round here as 'ad a blue rosette on it,' as the locals put it, so if his friends in the fairly inert local Party decided to support him to become the Conservative Party Candidate, it was good as done.
"In that case, darling, that should work. I suppose we'd have to rent a pied-à-terre somewhere. Pimlico or Kensington?" She sighed. "I wonder how Patrick will take it." Patrick was so quiet and withdrawn, she worried about him so, yet realised she was never going to be the one he opened up to.
"He'll be fine. It won't affect him much, really - he'll be at a school in term time and we can still come here for most of the holidays, showing our faces, all that."
The prospect of yet another summer in Meriot Chase, in splendid isolation from the villagers, indeed anyone, depressed her. On the other hand, with frequent trips back to London - looking for a house, sorting out the house, needing to buy things for the house - it might feel more like a pleasant countryside break? Jon Marlow's family would be there in the summers, after all, and Jon himself always seemed to be a good influence on Patrick, encouraging him outside, back onto horses, and having friendly conversations like a normal human being, which, if his starchy housemaster was to be believed, was something Patrick avoided as much as possible at school.
"That's true. Yes; why not? You'd be a perfectly good MP." Good in the sense of being a trusty backside occupying one of the back benches - carefully non-descript, another body maintaining the Establishment and ideals of Merrie England. She smiled at him, put her arm round him, reminiscent of a time-honoured, much loved, cuddly teddy bear. "Let me get this pie in the oven, and we'll have forty minutes to go upstairs? Shame young Pat isn't back boarding yet..."
Anthony didn't want to embark on that argument yet again. Patrick had boarded from age eight, having moved from a tiny pre-prep day school to a large, boarding prep like most of his peers, and they'd had no concerns, but upon reaching the senior school, his son had changed more than they'd expected, and Anthony couldn't shake the feeling that it was more than ordinary puberty causing him to be near-silent and withdrawn, particularly as holidays neared their end. In the back of his mind, he couldn't reconcile Patrick's reckless accident on the cliffs with his previously-content boy, and couldn't help blaming his months of worried nights on that school. He'd remained relaxed about Patrick's eighteen months of limited education, arguing it would be best not to push to return for the summer term, while Helena, reluctantly accepting three more months of recuperation, insisted boarding school should be the making of a shy youth into a hearty man. Anthony had long recognised his son would never be 'hearty', but over the last year had come to accept that as not necessarily a bad thing, given the scares Giles Marlow, for example, had given his family growing up. Returning his mind to pleasanter things, he followed his wife's brisk, efficient trot up the back stairs, remembering why he'd fallen for her in the first place, in a friend's university digs in London.
Later, over dinner, or supper as Helena preferred to call it when she cooked herself, seeing as they'd been economising on the number of days Susan came since they'd had to move permanently into Meriot Chase, Anthony mentioned the plan to Patrick.
"Why not?" Strangely, Anthony felt more aggrieved at the question from his sullen fourteen-year-old than when his wife had queried him with even more disbelief. He wondered what Patrick would say.
"S'pose no reason. Why d'you want to, though?" MPs were a baying mob according to the papers, useless cowards according to Jon, a bunch of bores, his father had always said previously. He knew his father had been meeting his - friends? Business contacts? at the Conservative Club in town, but couldn't see why - unless his father was being a puppet for someone else, maybe? A respectable front?
"It's a job," was the unexpected reply. "Not to be sniffed at, seeing as land isn't the business it used to be. A job that needs contacts, which as the genteely but increasingly impoverished Lord of the Manor, I've got. Needs someone to do it, and ideally someone who won't just vote along party lines, though obviously I'd have to most of the time, at least to start with, but I hope I could stand up and count where it mattered. Maybe," Anthony looked shy at this, "I don't want to sound pompous, but maybe even do some good?" He shook his shoulders, ghost-walking-over-the-grave. "Of course some chaps say it's impossible to do any good in Parliament, but I'd like to know for sure, for myself."
Patrick, starting to curl up with his knees to his chin, heels on his chair in that horrible habit that made Helena so cross, nodded. "Go for it, Pa."
This sign of near-enthusiasm caught Anthony by surprise. "Really?"
Patrick nodded, and hastily returned his feet to the floor before his mother could use her resigned, sad voice on him. "Sure. Like you say, someone's got to do it and you'd be better than many. And..." He hesitated to say 'and you're a good person,' recognising dimly that wasn't quite true, but - "you'd try to be good. 'Dispose of power responsibly', that's it."
Having made the longest speech his parents had heard in the last couple years, since that accident that had left them so nervous - no, he was pulling away, withdrawing into himself even before that, when he was still at school, Anthony realised, and saw, vividly, that it had been the prospect of returning to school that had worried Patrick more than the chance of not walking again - Patrick asked to fetch the pudding, and returned with the pie his mother had created earlier.
While he was out of the room, Anthony leaned over the table to his wife. "No. Not boarding school again. He can go to a London day school, and that's final." He prevented himself from thumping the table with an effort.
Helena Merrick had expected something like this, but the sudden, rare, firmness in Anthony's tone was a reminder of how he used to be, back when he'd had money and confidence.
"All right, then," she replied equably. "You'd best tell him now, though, otherwise he'll think it's the odd lesson from the curate forever." She still felt that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and that Patrick would be best back at school, but Anthony had lost faith in such simple truisms - clearly, many things could nearly kill, and leave one crippled or weakened, both in reality and as a metaphor. He wondered if his marriage was one such.
Patrick returned, bearing a large ceramic pie-dish. Mrs Merrick sliced the pie, and inexpertly served a crumbly slice to each of them.
No, no custard Pat. I didn't have time.” She went faintly pink, recalling why that had been so.
"Though there's some cream still, isn't there? Jon Marlow brought it round, when he brought those books for Pat."
Patrick nipped out and returned in a flash, ceramic jug held aloft in triumph. "Ta-da!"
His parents laughed, a bit rustily, united in enjoying seeing Patrick capable of being childish – a rare thing since the accident.
"Also, if I were elected, then we'd need somewhere in London for term-time. So you'd go to a school in London."
Patrick went pale. "Boarding school? And... leave here?"
"No! And no," his father responded quickly. "We'd be back here for the holidays, and school - we really think, even though you're practically as strong as ever, your mother and I both think, a day school would be better. Starting in September, to make it easier to find a place."
Patrick relaxed, his whole body having coiled like a spring - for a good two years, probably. "OK Pa. Make it so. Can I have another slice of pie?" He munched happily, suddenly really looking forward to the whole summer messing about with his hawks, Jon Marlow and his plane, and the rest of the Marlows when they came for the summer. School was a blot on the horizon, but a day school would only be a smudge of tedium, bearable, not that claustrophobic terror for months on end. He grinned at his parents, not so frosty after all, decided asking for thirds would be deemed cheeky rather than a compliment to his mother's baking, and asked to leave the table.
He'd miss the hawks, Jael in particular. Still, Jon would be keeping an eye - it would all be fine. Meanwhile, back in the oak-panelled dining room, Helena Merrick reached for her husband's hand and said words most precious to Anthony's wobbly confidence: "You were right about Patrick, darling."
"... and I hereby declare that the said Anthony Patrick Merrick is duly elected..." The returning officer's words were lost in applause.
Behind him, Helena and Patrick sleepily nodded-and-smiled while hands were shaken vigorously all round them and the clique of men in grey suits congratulated Anthony. The phone call received shortly before their result had given the pollsters' view that the by-election was a mere formality, but the comfortable six-thousand majority was a relief to all three of them. It was all systems go; they'd find a flat in London, he'd deal with call-me-Alan and all the way-too-friendly teachers but inoffensive-enough boys in September. A family photo for the Echo - yuk - and, sooner than he'd steeled himself for, Patrick and his parents headed for the car and home.