Ellen had passed those first months after Emily’s death cocooned in the Bayswater mansion, listening to The Archers, chain-smoking Silk Cut and fighting the urge to submerge her days in Johnnie Walker. The post lay unopened, the cleaner continued to polish the silver, and the children somehow got themselves to school, fed themselves and did their homework around her.
She lay on the sofa in the lounge, listening to the slow ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall and felt completely empty. She was transported from a life where she never seemed to have enough time to herself to one where she was alone all the time, whether people were present or not. They skirted round her like a museum exhibit in a glass case. Nobody knew what to say. There was nothing to say. She was as dead as Emily.
Ellen had given up on Joe and changed the locks. She wasn’t going to shred his suits or deface the papers on his desk. She’d have done that many times before if she was the sort, and anyway, he didn’t seem to be interested in retrieving anything from Bayswater once he’d shifted into Maria’s place in Putney.
Emily was the eldest of their three girls, and she was the apple of Joe’s eye when she was small. Ellen hardly got a look in. Not that Joe was around much to appreciate Emily. When she was born, he’d just been re-elected, despite Labour’s drubbing, and was appointed to the shadow cabinet. He took rooms in Westminster, and attended every late-night vote, looking to prove a point or keep Michael happy or because he couldn’t stand home life.
Ellen had inherited her parents’ house when her father died. He’d been a banker when it was all about what you heard on the grapevine, and he’d cashed in on some great mergers to buy the stucco monstrosity. When he died, they all moved in with Ellen’s mother, with room to spare. It was only a short cab-ride from the Commons, but Joe was engrossed in power struggles, and already showing scant interest in family life. It was Ellen who looked after the children, brought them up, dealt with their accidents and growing pains.
She’d met Joe while canvassing for Labour in ‘79, and he’d been her constituency candidate. She’d just graduated with a first in PPE from Oxford, and she was enthralled with politics. She’d grown up in Essex, in a comfortable, conservative home, listening to her father’s city talk, and traipsing round after a mother who spent more time in the church than at home. Ellen was far from flirtatious, and had only dated boys her own age at college, so it was a huge surprise when Joe picked her out of a line-up in the constituency office a few weeks before the election. He was so worldly and sophisticated, and she knew he was almost thirty.
“It’s Ellen isn’t it? Ellen, can you come out with me today?” Jo smiled broadly at her, while several of his long-standing canvassers stood by with their mouths open. Joe was very popular with the women who helped in the office, and his reputation for flirting unashamedly helped to keep volunteer numbers up.
“Yes, no problem, Mr. Weiner,” Ellen blushed.
“Call me Joe, please.”
Joe was smooth, pleasant and amusing.
“How do you think I’m doing?” he said when they’d taken a break in a small café. “Do you think I should be defending our industrial relations record more, or is that a red rag to a bull?” Joe seemed genuinely to want to know what Ellen thought. He was staring into her eyes and she found it difficult to concentrate on the question.
“Can I be blunt?” Ellen found herself wanting to impress him with her forthright views.
“I don’t see how we can defend Labour’s recent performance on that front. Callaghan has been a bit of an embarrassment, and most of the older working people we’ve met want to see Harold Wilson back in the job, though God knows what they think he could do now. What about housing? That’s got to be a front-runner.” They finished their tea, and stood to leave. Ellen found herself up against to Joe by the table and he made no effort to avoid being so close. He put a hand on her upper arm, resting it there, without embarrassment.
“You make a lot of sense, Ellen. I like your politics. Maybe we can hammer out a more detailed list of priorities this evening, if you’ve time, after we finish up. I’d like to hear more.”
They barely talked shop over dinner, and Joe seemed happy enough just listening to her stories of college life. And it was that easy. After dinner, they went back to his hotel room, and for the remaining three weeks before the election, she stayed with him most nights. They worked hard together, and everyone in the office got used to them being an item. When Joe took the seat on the third count, there was uproar, and as he was being hoisted onto the shoulders of his constituency manager and some burley supports, he reached out to Ellen, leant down and told her he loved her.
When she first found out Joe had slept with someone else, Ellen was shocked, but he flatly denied it and seemed unmoved by her anger and tears. She had no-one to ask advice from, and within a few weeks, she had put the whole thing to the back of her mind. As it became a repetitive issue, she began to turn a blind eye, but each infidelity took a piece of their relationship away, until there was nothing left between them except the children and the trappings of their marriage. They were seen together at functions and on TV, and she grew used to not voicing her opinions.
When Emily died, she tried to find something in Joe to hold on to, but she felt exhausted and hadn’t the strength for him. She quickly came to realize that if he was grieving, it was something happening deep inside him, and he wasn’t going to turn to her to share it.
Within a few weeks, though, the bile began to rise, and Ellen felt strong enough to insist Joe stay in his rooms in Westminster. In fact he moved out to Maria’s flat in Putney, and failed to see the children once in next three months, even though the House broke for summer recess and he could easily have taken them to a film or a play or something. Ellen’s devastation at Emily’s death, as well as her desperate efforts to support Rachel and Chloe, had left her drained, but she was by then beginning to harden, building her own walls around her, which her upbringing and the last twenty years had taught her to do, and which allowed her slowly to learn how to function again. She took to walking the streets of West London in the cool evenings, renewed contact with her closest women friends and cut down on the drink and cigarettes. She no longer supported Joe when asked how he was coping, and only spoke to him when she needed money or documents signing. She refused to attend the functions he asked her to, leaving him to find himself someone else to do his bidding, someone who “didn’t know what purgatory it was to dress up and smile for the cameras while accompanying the dead.”
Rachel had accepted a place at Oxford Brookes, and was working in London. She’d moved in with her boyfriend of the time, so Ellen packed Chloe, and herself off to the cottage in Dorset, dropping in to her solicitor on the way out of London to set in motion the divorce. Chloe could attend the local sixth form college while the house was being sold, and if Ellen could buy her own place in London before the year was out, Chloe could re-join her school friends at Latimer, and Joe could foot the fees as part of the divorce settlement. For Ellen, while she had no feelings of happiness, this gave her a sense of hope and allowed her to begin to look forwards rather than feeling herself to be drowning and having nothing to hold on to.
Leaving Joe had been incidental, almost. The flow of her life permanently dammed, while his gushed on. Ellen had ‘stood by her husband’ over his affairs, and various government scandals during his rise to power, despite her knowing that he wouldn’t be there for her if she needed him.
But she’d have given all that back for a chance to feel close to him when the world was falling down around her. All she craved then was the reassurance that he loved her, and that his suffering and hers could be shared. Instead she met with his wall, his busyness, his team of assistants and entourage of manipulators. He closed his door, locked himself in and continued fucking his secretary. Ellen tried to compare her contribution to their marriage with his, in a meaningless equation that she knew could never add up.