The Two Ps
[ fiction - july 12 ]THE TWO P’S
Mid-afternoon and a suburban train leaves Waterloo. In a carriage two elderly women sit side by side; one not quite (but nearly) to the manor born, chirpily vocal, sharp and upright; the other, stockier, a little Peggy Mount in stature, a fleeting image of a Holloway warden in her neat, functional grey suit.
The Nearly Manor Born is Penelope, and the Watchful Warden is Peggy: the Two Ps.
Penelope is first to speak: ‘It’s not as if it’ll be any good. We don’t do things like it well; it’ll be ghastly, tasteless, tacky...’
‘What will?’ asks Peggy.
‘The opening ceremony, Peggy, the Olympic opening ceremony. Not only will it be tasteless, it’ll be boring. They’ll probably have that Will Young, the wet looking one who sings like a girl, or someone useless like him singing something terrible, and it’ll be a complete waste of money.’
Peggy looks blank.
‘Well, you must agree.’
‘If you say so.’
‘Well, you must, Peggy. It’s the taxpayer’s money, yours and mine. You surely must agree, don’t you?’
‘In a recession! Though I blame the French and Germans for that. But in a recession, any recession, whoever is to blame, though I would add some of the bankers and their bonuses to a list of blame, then I’m not sure it’s the right thing to be spending money, our money on. And Gordon Brown, though sometimes I think he had no choice. No, it’s definitely not the right thing to be...’
‘You’re right about the Germans.’
‘I’m surprised they don’t get Simon Cowell to do it.’
‘Can’t bear him.’
‘No, he’s so arrogant and so vulgar. I mean I don’t watch it, but then again you can’t avoid it either: half of them can’t sing and they all look so awful. What’s the appeal, I ask you?’
‘Don’t ask me.’
‘No of course you don’t like it either, Peggy. Probably never even watched it.’
‘Well, there’s nothing else much on a Saturday night, and as I said you can’t really avoid it. I used to watch the dancing until Bruce Forsyth became embarrassing. He should retire or be retired.’
‘Like a Nazi rally.’
‘What is, Peggy?’
‘The X Factor.’
‘I know what you mean. I do.’
Penelope studies Peggy quizzically for a moment and smiles. Peggy looks blank.
Penelope starts up again: ‘I expect that creep, Cameron will be there milking it for all its worth.’
‘Can’t bear him.’
‘No, of course you can’t. How did he get to be our leader? I mean he’s so ugly with his angry schoolboy eyes and puffed out cheeks. He’ll be preening like a gerbil and taking all the credit for the medals... if we get any, which I doubt... say what you will about Blair.’
‘Couldn’t bear him either.’
‘No, I never voted for him, not really, but at least he was a man of conviction, of faith. I genuinely feel he was following his beliefs when he went to war with Iraq. Not that there were any...’
‘The wife was ugly.’
‘Oh yes, completely awful, Peggy. Vulgar and money-grabbing too, and her father in that awful Alf Garnett, what did he call him?’
‘You were about to say “not that there were any weapons of mass destruction”.’
‘Shirley Temple, Peggy! He called him Shirley Temple. Quite funny really. But Blair thought there were weapons; that is my point.’ Penelope looks lost in reverie for a moment and then continues: ‘And the Olympics; that was my original point. The French, The Italians know how to do it better, the Continentals, all that joie de vivre, know how to put on a stylish big show, don’t they?’
‘Not keen on the French or the Italians. And when did they last host the Olympics?’
‘Well, I’m talking more about continentals doing certain ceremonial things with class. I mean look at the beautiful fireworks and all that wonderful dancing in Australia and China.’
‘The Chinese and the Australians? Not exactly Continental. Or classy.’
‘I’m not talking about the ordinary people or Aborigines, Peggy. I mean the authorities, the people who organise this kind of thing. I’m merely pointing out the French and the Italians know how to put on a good show.’ Penelope continues with a triumphant look in her eyes: ‘Ah yes, Peggy, what about the three tenors? I know you liked them, I bought you the CD and we even watched the video together. Many times.’
‘That was for the World Cup. Football; not Athletics.’
‘But it was in Rome, Italy! You must agree that was better than we...’
‘What about the Royal Wedding?’
‘Well, that’s different. Kate and William are different.’
‘They are, aren’t they, Peggy? Kate is so pretty.’
‘Oh, I know, but with her it’s natural; tall with small, lighter than average, bones.’
‘How do you know?’
Penelope closes her eyes: ‘Let’s pray that she won’t end up like dear Diana, God rest the silly mixed-up thing. How she got herself in such a mess, not all of her own making, is anyone’s guess. But if your husband sleeps with another woman on your honeymoon, then things can’t be easy. I did feel sorry for her, didn’t you?’
‘But William and Kate, well, they cheered me up no end. So obviously in love... that lovely kiss for all of US... I hope the Press give them space... and the Queen, she’s not getting any younger, I hope she’s not expected to stand around all day waiting to light a torch.’
‘What are you talking about now?’
‘The Olympic torch! I mean however marvellous she is, and God knows she is, she is in her late eighties. And he’s 90-odd and beginning to stoop. He shouldn’t be standing there stooping all day, especially in the sun. It’ll be July, it’s tantamount to murder, they shouldn’t be...’
‘Muhammad Ali managed it.’
‘The Duke has been marvellous, Peggy, so supportive of her reign, he’s always put her and us first, and now they’ll expect him to droop in the heat like...’
‘There will be seats for them after the urine infection and I doubt they’ll be lighting anything anyway.’
‘No, it’ll probably be that boy Beckham in his underpants showing us his tattoos. I’d rather have the Duke any day. I mean I know he’s said the odd silly thing but then who hasn’t? No he’s been a real man, a war hero and a...’
‘Oh, I don’t think you can say that.’
‘Yes I can. He’s a racist like his mother-in-law.’
Penelope is rendered speechless for a moment, breathing hard to take in the enormity of what’s just been said. Then she rallies: ‘Oh, Peggy, that’s wicked. Even for you, that’s wicked. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about the Queen Mother. And I’ve never heard anyone, not anyone, even terrorists, call her racist. Never.’
A long pause follows and they look away from each other.
Then Peggy turns: ‘so have you seen your grand-daughter yet?’
‘What? No, Sophie hasn’t formally asked me to visit. So I haven’t met with their little Sunshine... I don’t know why children have such odd names these days either. No, our dear Sophie hasn’t invited me. Sunshine will be three months old on Monday and I haven’t seen her, let alone picked her up and talked to her. All the babygrows I’ve bought will be too small by the time I get to meet her. I’d have been better off buying her a school uniform. They only live in Thames Ditton, you know.’
‘That’s not far.’
‘Three miles! I’ve seen pictures of course. She’s a poppet, and luckily she has her father’s eyes and mouth. But apparently Sophie is booked up at weekends for three months. So she’s pencilled me in for after then but I’ll only go now if she writes and invites me properly.’
‘Why don’t you ring Robin and ask him to invite you?’
‘We don’t talk on the phone anymore; second wife syndrome, he’s besotted and completely under her thumb. Well, if you marry your secretary, then you won’t really arrange anything for yourself or anyone anymore, will you? I mean the first wife, Rachel, was tough, more convincing breeding though (no-one could ever really criticise her on that level), but at least she let me see my grandchildren.’
‘When did you last see them?’
‘Not since Robin married again. I thought it best.’
‘Best for who?’
Penelope takes out a pretty hanky from her handbag and starts to dab at her tears.
‘Stop asking so many questions, Peggy. I don’t know who it’s best for. All I know is I’d like to see my grandchildren and give my granddaughter the clothes and toys I’ve brought her.
‘I’d just turn up at their door and put them through the letterbox’, says Peggy.
‘You probably would do that, yes you probably would, but I’m not like that.’
A longer silence than before follows and they look away from each other again. Peggy pops an Everton Mint into her mouth and vigorously sucks, while Penelope straightens herself via the reflection in the carriage window.
The train stops at Kingston station and an automated message announces that the next stop is Hampton Wick.
As the train pulls away to cross the Thames, a major landmark is revealed: ‘Ah, John Lewis,’ says Penelope. ‘I could have brought the grows with me today and exchanged them for something bigger.’
‘Like a school uniform?’
‘Peggy Monkton, I do not know why you are like this with me. It’s almost as if you don’t want to see me.’
Peggy sucks on her mint.
‘Well, do you want to see me?’
Peggy sucks on.
‘I mean it’s always me who rings, and then half the time you never pick up the phone; more than half the time.’
‘Don’t ring then.’
‘I know you don’t mean that.’
‘It’s just your way, your strange way. You’re not as cruel as you think you are. At school you were the same: little Crabby Peggy Monkton. Well, I saw through all that then and I see through all that now.’
Peggy smiles (for the first time).
‘Crabby Peggy! And I was Lady P!’
Peggy is still smiling: ‘Yes, I remember.’
‘Two Ps in a pod!’
Penelope stands up as the train arrives at Hampton Wick
‘So, Peggy, shall I ring you tomorrow to arrange next week?’
‘If you want to, Pen.’
‘And you will pick up? I promise I won’t ring during the News, Midsomer Murders or Coronation Street. I know the drill.’
Penelope leaves the train and then stands on the platform looking back at her friend. She goes into loud announcer mode: ‘Goodbye, then. Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen.’ And then she laughs before continuing: ‘No need to reply, Peggy, but I’ll be ringing you tomorrow at 7.15.’
Penelope waves, turns and briskly walks away as the train moves off. Peggy smiles a little and pops another mint into her mouth.