Westminster (England 1993)
18+ "Madam Speaker, I —" Baxter groaned and lifted the pen. He stuck the end in his mouth and sucked on it, searching for a better opening line. He crossed out the first words and started again. "Madam Speaker, the —" His pen froze again. "Damn it," he cursed under his breath, "why won't the words flow?" Baxter turned the pen on its side and stared fondly at the inscription: Oxford, 1969. So many years ago, so many memories, yet it seemed like only yesterday.
"Come along, Baxter," he chided himself aloud, "focus on the task at hand." He moved to cross out the opening line again, then tore the page from the pad, screwed it into a ball and tossed it into the waste paper basket with his other failed attempts. Writer's block! Baxter shook his head. Who would have thought he should suffer such a common affliction? He rose to his feet and began pacing his office. Perhaps movement would shake up the creative juices?
"Madam Speaker, there —" Baxter paused by the window and gazed out at the glimpses of Big Ben and the Towers of Westminster. It'll be spring soon, he reflected. The parks and gardens will bloom with daffodils, tulips and crocuses, and the gloomy spirit of the country will lift with the lengthening days and rising temperatures. The public's attention will turn to cricket, Wimbledon and summer holidays. Oh, why couldn't this have waited until the summer? Reluctantly, Baxter moved away from the window and returned to his desk.
"... there have been rumours, scurrilous rumours, echoing within the corridors of Westminster, to the effect that I —" Baxter lifted his pen again. Prepared speeches were not his forte. His rising reputation in the House was for sharp, witty rebuttals and putdowns of the other side and off-the-cuff interviews which navigated safe passages through the minefields set by journalists. Baxter looked at the inscription on his pen once more and smiled. Even back in his debating days, he hadn't needed to prepare speeches. "A gift with words," everyone had said, "Baxter's bound to go far." He sighed and lowered his pen back onto the page.
"... to the effect that I have been guilty of an —" Oh, it was no good. Baxter tore the page from his pad and threw it in the waste paper basket. He needed the words in his head before putting them on paper. Baxter stood and paced the office again. This time he stopped in front of the portrait photograph of his wife and children. How would they cope with the public humiliation? His eyes lost their focus, and he stared through his family at his reflection in the glass. Not bad for fifty. His wife had reassured him the grey around his temples gave him a distinguished air, though Baxter prayed his hairline would halt its rapid retreat.
Churchill was bald, he reminded himself, and there were rumours of an affair. Baxter shook the thought from his head and resumed his pacing. He paused by the window again and again thought of spring.
"Spring, spring, sprung," he intoned aloud. From below, Baxter heard cars, cabs and buses snaking their way along London's busy streets. The sound of little people, he thought, going about their bland lives, reading their tabloids, smirking over someone else's misfortune. Would they care to endure late-night sittings in a near-empty House only to come home to a cold empty flat? A chorus of horns mocked Baxter.
He turned from the window and faced the portrait of the Prime Minister behind his desk. He straightened his back and cleared his throat. "... that I have been guilty of nothing more than an ... an indiscretion."
Baxter felt immense relief at having spoken the shameful word. It cleared his mind, like unblocking a drain. At last, his thoughts could flow freely. He headed back to his desk but froze when he passed his family portrait. Baxter's thoughts went blank again.
He cursed himself and turned for inspiration to the aerial photograph of the largest town in his constituency. How pleasant things look from a distance, he thought. The stark glass and aluminium business parks and shopping centres barely blemished the green and pleasant patchwork of the surrounding farmland. Even the motorway cutting through the shabbier end of town had a rustic charm. From 10,000 feet it could be mistaken for a river. Albeit manmade, without bends and loops.
Yes, how pleasant things look from a distance. As a boy, Baxter's parents had told him his destiny was to achieve high office. He had sensed it, too. It wasn't vanity, though he admitted to being prone to that vice. ("But then, who isn't?" he joked with friends at Oxford.) No, Baxter's destiny was a gut thing, instinctive. At boarding school, he was always top of his form, and at Oxford, he had earned distinctions.
Ah, the debating society, the evenings of fierce intellectual arguments, far more stimulating than the stale speeches in the House. Though we were naive and idealistic back then, Baxter reminded himself with a chuckle. And after Oxford, a career in the City, a good marriage, a respectable fortune amassed, and now public service. Oh, how close he had come to fulfilling his boyhood promise. His parents would have been so proud.
Baxter felt the blood boil in his veins. "Damn it," he spat, "I will not resign!" He strode to his desk and took up his pen. "An indiscretion of sniggering, schoolboy interest to the less than honourable members opposite. But which has not affected my duty to the government, my party, nor my constituents."
His blood went off the boil. How had the press found out? Was it a leak? A rival? It must have been someone at the Conference. There were only party delegates at that fringe meeting. It had been a gut thing, instinctive. The attraction had been immediate, mutual and overpowering. And Baxter had succumbed to it, at the Conference and then afterwards, a few times. Neither of them had wanted to hurt their families. They just both worked late nights and went home to cold empty flats. They had been foolish. Lonely.
Baxter stood and began another circuit of his office. There were so many late nights in the House. Oh, he had worked long, hard hours in the City. But somehow, he had always managed to get home to tuck in the children, even if they were sound asleep. And then he would tell his wife of the day's business, though often, she would be in bed reading. But they always made time to talk before going to sleep. Of course, that was before he entered politics, and they moved north to live in his new constituency, and the distance between his work and home became too great to commute.
Outside the window, the sun was setting on the Thames. Big Ben sounded four o'clock. Soon it would be time to make his speech. Baxter stopped pacing and stared across the office at his family. The faces of his wife and children were a blur, and he had to squint to bring them into sharper focus.
"John Major wears glasses," he consoled himself aloud. "Bugger!"
© 1994, 2019 Robert Fairhead
Sydney, NSW, Australia.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is an editor and a writer for Tall And True and blogs at RobertFairhead.com. He enjoys reading, writing, playing the guitar, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Footy with his son. Robert has worked as an electrician, sales and marketing rep, computer programmer, dog trainer and (wanna-be) writer. He also had a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.
Footnote: As I blogged on Tall And True in November 2019, I started working on Both Sides of the Story in February 1994. It was my third submission to the then annual Ian St James Awards, at the time the UK's biggest fiction prize for unpublished writers.
The idea for the story came to me while working out in a gym. The news at the time was full of stories about people for whom the public (including me) had little sympathy. Phil Collins was singing Both Sides of the Story on MTV in the gym, and the music video set me thinking: Could I show both sides in a short story?
So I started writing Both Sides of the Story, as a five-part short story. Westminster, Bosnia, A Council Flat, and The Gym are four standalone vignettes. And Bad News is the fifth and final part, which links and resolves the story.
Please note, my intention in writing this short story twenty-five years ago was not to be an apologist for my characters or their actions. Then, as now, my goal was to follow Phil Collins' lead and try to imagine both sides of the story.