In the autumn of his life Sir Richard Sheringham stood one late October morning in the garden of his very beautiful, albeit modest, Queen Anne house on the banks of the River Itchen in Hampshire. The Itchen, with the Test, is one of the finest chalk streams in England, though both are suffering from degradation.
His shoulders were now, at the age of 85, a little stooped, though not through the burdens of responsibility he had borne through his life, one of of them as Chief Whip to the Conservative Government in the 1970s. He had always willingly borne responsibility. Responsibility to Richard Sheringham was not a burden. It was an opportunity to exercise pragmatism, at which he was adept. His record as a soldier in war, as a businessman, as a reforming officer for the United Nations in Africa, as a politician, was without blemish.
There was that morning, though little warmth, the clear but tapering thread of light that had made the summer so benign. The dew was in the grass, scent still fresh enough for Maisie, his Cocker spaniel, to nose through the verdant borders of fern, bamboo and plants he did not recognise by name but dearly loved, put in by his first wife, Mary. He had a second wife now, had done for 15 years. She was in the kitchen. Mary, he supposed, was in London.
Sir Richard had beside him on that limpid morning a deck chair that had served its purpose, the colours faded, the struts discoloured and untrustworthy, and on the seat he had placed six black notebooks, well-thumbed. Before him he had started a small bonfire which he poked with a good stick, and had to one hand firewood to furnish the blaze.
He took up the first of the books. They had been his vade mecums during his years in office as Chief Whip, in which he diligently noted the events and names, actions and reactions, that had marked the careers of others and which he was wont to open when he needed to twist an arm. There were many MPs who were alarmed when the Sheringham black book was opened, or even terrified. Some of the events he recorded were sordid, some foolish, but all of them served him well when he wanted to apply pressure.
He had long ago as a young man made it a habit to record the everyday occurrences of his life so as perhaps to illuminate the circumstances of that life, but somehow his careful script did little to illuminate anything except to jog his memory. He knew well enough that Mary, his first wife, had leafed through them sometime before she had left him, and that very probably his second wife had too. There had been earlier entries to be extracted from his first notebooks, as a soldier and in Africa, which he had attempted to reconstruct as a light-hearted memoire, but the manuscript failed to attract the attention of a publisher. He remembered that Mary had been solicitous, unusually so. It wasn’t long before they had parted. But he doubted that that had anything to do with the cessation of their marriage.
His second wife, who he had married when he was 70 and she was 15 years younger, had troubled him for nothing in their years together. She had been faithfully discreet in the bedroom, with none of the torrid flagrance of Mary, always wearing a nightdress and gown and impeccably aware of the demarcations of her bathroom and their bed. Sometimes he wondered, unsettlingly, whether she might be the more intelligent of them, but was easily diverted by Maisie, her quick brown eyes and loyalty, when he was able to realise such thoughts were irrelevant to his life. He also had a comforting habit in those moments of being able to think of a painting or a book, even a poem, although he couldn’t think how or why, and didn’t want to.
He thumbed through the pages of the black notebook. His eye caught the name of Norman Piggott, which he had written in capitals. Who was Norman Piggott? He read a little more, and remembered. Norman Piggott had been the MP for Chelmsford, about 45, when he had asked to see the Chief Whip. He had entered Sir Richard’s office with a little too much braggadocio, too much cuff and, to Sir Richard’s disconcertion, scent or powerful aftershave. He also appeared to be wearing an Italian suit.
“There’s been a misunderstanding,” said Piggott.
“I see,” said Sir Richard.
He distrusted Piggott. Earlier that year, for reasons he could not understand, Piggott had been given a junior position in the Home Office and had sought to underline his new status by making an entirely unauthorised statement on housing that had momentarily jeopardised the Conservative move to the centre ground. Sir Richard had not rebuked him at the time. He had waited, and allowed his displeasure to be dispersed in the Commons bar. Now his patience might very well be rewarded.
“Yes,” said Piggott. “There’s been a ridiculous mistake.”
“I see,” said Sir Richard.
With elegant timing he moved his fountain pen from the left side of his writing pad to the right, though forbore to unscrew the top. He was well versed in this manoeuvre. Then, unhurriedly, he unlocked the top right-hand drawer of his desk and took out his black notebook, which he placed on his writing pad. Piggott was not comfortable. He rearranged his legs.
“Unwarrantedly… “ he began.
“Unwarrantedly?” said Sir Richard. A little ray of sunshine had pervaded the gloom of his office. “Unwarrantedly?”
“Yes,” said Piggott. “Unwarrantedly.” His voice had the tone of a man repeating a deeply depressing mantra. Sir Richard took no pleasure in these interviews. There were occasions when he was bewildered by the pathetic badness of the MPs who came before him, by their utter stupidity, lack of decorum, by their ambition and cunning. It was a world he had no wish to be part of, yet he had been provided with the office and mechanics to provide order. This was his role and he would serve it well and honourably, as he had all others without question.
He was astute enough to recognise that he did not care for Piggott, and that he was on the verge of humiliating him. It was a disagreeable feeling.
“We’ve had a phone call from the Wimbledon Police,” he said at last, reminding himself to thank the station sergeant. “It seems they met you on the Common on Tuesday night.”
“Yes, yes, I was taking a walk.”
“Of course you were.” He paused. “And your London lodgings are in Hammersmith, I see, several miles away.”
Sir Richard opened the black notebook, unscrewed his pen, and wrote carefully for a few moments. The smell of scent was unpleasant. Perhaps sweat exacerbated it. He put down his pen.
“Thank you for coming to see me. You needn’t concern yourself with this affair again. It has been noted, and will be dealt with. Do not speak to the police again. They will not contact you. I, on the other hand, may very well speak to you again.”
Piggott was an unhappy sight in his chair. He had slumped without dignity, and Sir Richard saw that he was wearing pink socks. For some reason he was outraged at this limp and flaccid creature before him. He raised his voice, a fine voice.
“And if you are caught again pilfering bottoms on fucking Wimbledon Common I’ll murder you. Leave the room.”
Piggott hadn’t lasted long, remembered Sir Richard in his dewy garden, but the government had struggled on ineffectually. The glory days were yet to come, and he had been no part of it. Standing before the fire he closed the book, fondled it, and then tossed it on the fire where it squirmed and lit.
Now there were others who wanted to read his black books. He had been alerted the evening before of the possibility of a Public Inquiry, nothing to do with the idiot Piggott of course, but of something far more serious which he had duly noted at the time but not fully recognised its significance. He did very quickly after. He knew when he had written the notes that he was party to something which he had rather not been au fait with, which had had constitutional significance. It had been, indeed, an affair of state, of deceit and hypocrisy that no amount of sexual deviance, buggery, paedophilia, bald theft or dishonesty, the commonplace of his black books, could overshadow.
It made him uncomfortable now, ill at ease, though at the time he had been dutiful. He wasn’t uncomfortable that he had been cognisant then, collecting his information like a warden crow, but that now his principles might be questioned in rooms far from the banks of the Itchen and his garden. He had no defence.
Maisie trotted by and glanced at the sudden flare. A voice carried across the garden.
This was about as irritating as he could imagine. He looked at Maisie, one foot half held as she was alert to his heft. He had nothing to say to her.
“Right ho,” he called back with no enthusiasm.
This was very hard work.
His second wife walked across the lawn towards him. She was carrying a tray, with a teapot, cup, milk and what looked like a glass of apple juice.
“What’s that?” he asked accusingly.
She glanced at the fire.
“Roasting chestnuts?” She set the tray down on the grass. “It’s a stiff whisky. There’s salad and cold meat in the fridge. I’m off to the college for the day. Don’t get gloomy.”
Sir Richard was disarmed. He sat down on the remaining five books on the deckchair and heard the canvas tear, though not break.
“Did you fart?” asked his second wife.
“Oh, shut up,” said Sir Richard. “Peers don’t fart. Their wives do.”
She looked at him sharply.
“Sorry,” he said. “That was uncalled for. I’m in a difficult mood.”
“So I see,” she said. She turned away. “Ta ta.”
He was left to stare at the flames and felt oddly alone. His dog, his certitude, the mellow brick of the house, the sylvan garden, did little to alleviate the feeling of the loss of his powers. He knew they would not return. He reached down for the whisky and uncomfortably withdrew another black book from underneath him, which went the way of the first. It, too, flickered and burst. On the whole, he thought to himself, this was the most sensible thing to do. Whether it was right or not did not trouble him, nor did the secrets that were being immolated. It was the loss that disturbed him, like a defeated general, still confused by the battle and walking amongst his shattered men.