The afternoon was bright in early May. Corbyn dozed in his deck chair at the top of his allotment, his bucket hat pulled over his eyes. The radio buzzed, and he half listened, drifting between sleep and the spring air.
‘The Labour Party has won Britain’s General Election of 2015, becoming the biggest party in parliament; not quite with an outright majority, but is expected to form a government with the twelve seats won by the Green party, who recorded their best ever result in a General Election.
‘We now cross over to the Rose Garden in Downing Street where Ed Miliband is about to make his first announcement to the media following his party’s victory.’
The radio crackled over its frequency, and one could hear the hollow tub-tub of a microphone. Then the unmistakably earnest, nasal voice of the leader pleaded across the airwaves:
‘The people of Britain have elected me as their leader, and the Labour Party as their party, for a fairer Britain, rejecting austerity, that puts the young first and is no longer prepared to accept the cost-of-living crisis.’
He went on to make the usual tributes to his wife and children, his parents, the people of Doncaster and of Britain. A joke about a new cat was made, and he paid tribute to the plucky political cub scout activists who made Labour’s victory possible, and who asked not for reward, nor influence, nor respect, but who lived only to do a good turn.
But then he said something Corbyn did not expect:
‘I would also like to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, those who were unable to win their seat this time round. I would like to mention in particular a very special MP who the Parliamentary Labour Party of 2015 will be poorer for having lost. One of our longest-serving parliamentarians, a man close to my father and who was, until last night, the representative in my own London residence. A man who epitomises the grassroots activism at the heart of our movement. That man, as you know, is Jeremy Corbyn.’
Corbyn turned in his deck chair as respectful clapping followed. The new Prime Minister continued:
‘Jeremy did not make the journey with us last night, his Islington seat being lost to our new partners, the Green Party. For years a stalwart of the Left, one of the first MPs to speak out against Blair’s shameful oil wars, and a campaigner for the oppressed everywhere; from the communities of Islington, to the Miners, to the Print workers, to his courageous stand against the Poll Tax, the Chagos Islanders, the disappeared student teachers of Ayotzinapa, and many, many more. It is for these reasons that the loss of Jeremy Corbyn is a loss to Parliament, to the labour movement, and to the national interest.
‘Although I am certain that Jeremy would not accept a place in the House of Lords, I hope to speak to him soon to see how he can continue to work alongside the new government in an advisory capacity. I look forward to working with our new partners in repairing the damage done by five years of brutal austerity.’
Corbyn rolled from side to side and woke abruptly with a snort.
The newsreader murmured the afternoon news, reciting the names of various party leaders caught en route to the polling booths that morning, partners outfitted in hand. He had done no such thing. His rag-tag bunch of local party members had traipsed the streets of Islington late into the previous evening, trawling estates and balancing door steps, requesting and suggesting and counting on votes. Afterwards, they had all gone for fish and chips, and that morning had risen early to do it all again. Now he was decamped in his allotment for some time alone.
The usual roll of clouds had come in off the sea and carried away the morning-blue sky. Finally off his feet, his back ached and ankles throbbed and into his bucket hat he had slowly slipped, until his dreams had stirred him.
He reached for his flask and poured green tea into his Labour Party mug with its locally sourced slogan:
“Controls on Immigration”
A dozen of the horrid things gathered dust in his shed, a gift from party HQ. He had potted them with cacti.
Before him his little strip of garden sloped down to a stream running along the back of the allotments and consisted of a set of perfectly arranged oblongs, marked within a greater rectangle. Nearest him stood the cane around which his red currants grew. Behind them, the potato patch, sprouting green shoots from beneath the earth, and recovering well after last year’s plague of aphids. Then came the rhubarb in its robust ranks, rowdy leaves densely packed and always overstepping the mark. He was quite taken with their unruly vigour and found pleasure in their curtailment. Next grew fledgling blocks of Indian Summer sweetcorn; little golden cobs speckled red and purple and grey-green. In the autumn he and Laura would make corn bread out of them. After that was the neatly heaped compost, well contained within thick wooden planks. Each of the garden’s cells ran at right-angles to the strip of turf that allowed Corbyn to walk from the tool shed at the top, to the greenhouse beside the bank of the stream. Inside the greenhouse was a stone floor he and his sons had laid together many years ago, and in which grew his tomatoes and begonias and various potted plants. Leaning against the glass house, a single sturdy apple tree branched not far from the ground.
It was his little Versailles, perfectly perpendicular to a blade, and to tend it was his satisfied distraction. Into his kingdom came birds to sing, and an Englishman’s peace prevailed among the vegetables that gradually transformed the earth and sun into the foundations of human culture. From his seat he marvelled at his speckled sweetcorn and the gradual, steady march of evolution.
As he surveyed his land, his attention became slowly drawn to something moving in the far corner of his eye. Beside the greenhouse on the bank of the stream, a bundle of clothes was flapping in the breeze.
Rising from his deck chair, he took a few steps down the strip of lawn and saw that the bundle was a man squatted on the flats of his heels, the back of his head rising and falling and arms flaying from side to side. Corbyn moved closer. He wrenched the pitchfork, stuck at an angle in the compost heap, and his back wrenched with it. He really had overdone the doorsteps that morning.
He halted at the greenhouse and straightened himself as best he could. The afternoon breeze moved through the leaves, flapping his untucked shirt. He pulled back his bucket hat and called out:
‘Hello, there. Do I know you?’ said Corbyn, standing tall. The bundled man said nothing and continued to throw his sticks. Corbyn stepped closer and, on inspection, saw that the man was old, perhaps of a similar age; and that he was not raving, but throwing twigs and stones into the river.
‘Hello. Who are you?’ He poised his pitchfork, but with no intention of using it. The man stopped what he was doing and Corbyn went tense. Then, he rolled off his haunches and stretched out on the grassy bank.
‘Hello old friend,’ he said. ‘Don’t you know me?’ He wore a relaxed smile and was remarkably similar to Corbyn in appearance; the same rough-spun white beard; slighter of build and seemingly younger, which perhaps accounted for the easiness of his face.
‘Jeremy!’ said Corbyn, relieved, pushing the pitchfork back into the compost heap. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Where else would I find you on a fine day like this?’ said Jeremy.
Corbyn squinted. ‘Well, I’m afraid I don’t get up here very often,’ he said, somewhat defensively. ‘You know how work always gets in the way.’
‘Is that so? I rather got the impression you get up here as often as you liked.’
‘I haven’t seen you for quite a while.’
‘Well, today I thought you might be in need of me.’
Did you indeed. Corbyn held his tongue. Jeremy continued to flick stones in the stream. Plunk!
‘Say, do you remember when we were boys and we used to go butterfly hunting?’
‘I remember when I used to go butterfly hunting,’ said Corbyn.
‘Well, I think I just saw an Adonis Blue, fluttering above the stream.’
‘Oh, yes?’ said Corbyn, with apparent disinterest. ‘That species is in decline, owing to the destruction of its natural habitat.’ He took a furtive peek at the stream below.
‘You’d have been impressed. It was a brilliant bright blue with white trim … But then you called out, and it disappeared.’
His childhood with Jeremy had been made up of great butterfly hunts, across the fields in the light of the morning that rose gently behind the family home. For Jeremy it had just been an excuse to go down to the river and play stepping-stones. Corbyn had always wanted a butterfly collection, but Jeremy just wanted to splash his feet in the cold flow of the stream. That was what it had been like between them as children: Jeremy plunging headfirst into the flow, but not always with the most productive of outcomes; Corbyn some way behind, treading water. Although, now that he recalled it, his childhood dreams of desiccated insects were no longer as appealing as the thought of placing his poor trodden feet in the icy cold stream.
‘Did you know they drink crocodile tears?’
‘Butterflies. They drink crocodile tears. Something about the salt, I seem to recall.’
‘Staying long this time?’ said Corbyn. He had no time for one of Jeremy’s tangents. ‘It’s always a pleasure, as you know, but I do have work to be getting on with. You can make yourself useful if you like.’
He turned back to his rectangles and meandered among them, feigning concern for his potatoes. His only plan that afternoon had been to snooze amid the polling station treacle that smeared over the hourly bulletin. He pottered over to the big plastic barrel that collected rain water from the shed gutter. On tiptoes he peered over the oily surface where the dead leaves floated.
Squatting, Corbyn poured his watering can and swept the potato-invading aphids away. He held a glistening leaf between his fingers. Jeremy stood over him.
‘You can wash away the mites, but they’ll be in your rhubarb by morning.’
‘Maybe so,’ said Corbyn, straining at a weed. ‘But gardens need to be maintained. Hedgerows need to be cut back, vines need to be pruned. Otherwise, you’ll end up in a mess.’
‘Quite right, old boy,’ said Jeremy. Ignoring his tone, Corbyn dug down to the root.
‘Do you know what a brush fire is?’ asked Jeremy.
‘Yes, I know what a brush fire is, thank you very much.’ He could feel Jeremy’s tangent about to launch. He pulled the root free.
‘In places like Canada and Australia they’ve always favoured preventing brush fires by discouraging people from smoking in the woods, and lighting campfires outside designated areas, that sort of thing. And the fire services are really on the case.’
‘Right,’ said Corbyn, scanning the dirt with the tips of his fingers.
‘Well, it turns out, precisely because of the success they’ve had over the years, the forest floor has collected so much fallen dead wood – so much combustible material – that they are inadvertently creating the conditions for what is termed a “forest super fire”.’
Corbyn looked up at him. ‘Then they need more firefighters, more resources, better regulations.’
‘Before man intervened, the fires fertilised the forest with the ash they left behind, and pinecones opened in the heat, releasing their seeds into the soil.’
‘So you’re saying, what, exactly? That the rangers should start forest fires to clear away the dead wood?’
‘No, I’m not saying that, although that is what the article I was reading proposed: “Occasional forest fires prevent cataclysms further down the road.” Not sure it would work, though. Controlling nature allows you to potter around on this allotment – but then it ups the stakes.’
‘So, that’s your solution is it, to do nothing? You’ve certainly changed your tune,’ said Corbyn.
‘Well, there isn’t a solution, is there? I mean, in the complete sense of the word. No final conclusion where we all get up and go home; only growing understanding. The forest will light up whether we like it or not, be it by a discarded cigarette or bolt of lightning. Far better to understand nature, in order to intervene in it, not let it take us by surprise. That’s what I understood by it, anyway.’
‘But we’re part of nature,’ said Corbyn. ‘And it’s perfectly natural to put out a fire when it leaps up and singes your whiskers.’
‘Nature isn’t conscious. It doesn’t plan in advance, only we do that. We’re part of nature, yes, but we’re also apart from it.’
‘You’re either part of it or you aren’t,’ said Corbyn. He looked down toward the stream and his feet ached more than ever. Then he wiped his brow and looked at Jeremy. He wondered how his tomatoes were getting on.
‘We can see things that don’t yet exist,’ said Jeremy. ‘We can imagine things in our heads and then plan them on paper and set about to make that plan real.’
‘Just as the spider spins his web.’
‘But the spider always spins the same web.’
‘And the great tear it up,’ said Corbyn. They exchanged a smile and Corbyn felt genuine warmth for him for the first time that afternoon. He may talk a lot of nonsense, but it isn’t so bad. Not after such a long time.
‘Well,’ said Jeremy, ‘I don’t suppose we’re under any threat of super-fires on this little patch. Not any time soon. Our English rain would soon dampen your combustible material.’
Standing, he was slightly taller than Jeremy. It was typical of him to appear today, of all days, he thought. He would have put good money on it.
‘Talking of which, this election isn’t looking half as tidy as your allotment,’ said Jeremy. Corbyn sauntered to the greenhouse. ‘Particularly in Scotland, wouldn’t you say? The party looks a bit, well… ragged?’
‘No – I wouldn’t say so. The Nationalists lost, and now that’s over and done with. Now they need a party of government. The British people are known for their common sense, Scots included. We might take a few hits, here and there, but we’ll hang on to the lion’s share. Scotland has always been Labour.’
‘Well, I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. But I think you’d be wrong to underestimate what’s taken place. The independence referendum had the highest turnout this country has ever seen. Doesn’t that tell you something?’
‘Yes, that it was a freak.’
‘I’m not so sure. Look, what’s been solved? Scotland is still in Britain, meaning it’s still ruled at present by a bunch of shrill Etonians hell-bent on austerity. It might as well be a foreign occupation!’
‘Don’t exaggerate. You think the Scots don’t feel part of Britain? That they would be better off under the nationalists? I must say, Jeremy, you sound more and more desperate each time I see you.’
‘That’s not the point. All I’m saying is that people responded to a call for change – “anything but Westminster”, and the austerity that goes with it. And all the while, where were we? With the Tories, waving the Union Jack.’
‘So it’s “We”, is it?’ teased Corbyn. He fed his begonias a little water. ‘You have a point, tactically speaking. Jumping into bed with those hooligan Tories was not in our best interests. We should have had our own campaign, on a class basis, against dividing the British workers. Not all this “Better Together” nonsense.’
‘What’s a little flag-waving between the sheets, when we’ve been “better together” with them on the councils carrying out the cuts for the last five years?’
‘Well, yes, but come on,’ said Corbyn. ‘I think you need to be realistic. We all know that we couldn’t just oppose the cuts on every single council. We’d have been lynched by the press. And the Tories would have just overruled us from central government anyway. Then we would have looked foolish! And they would have taken it out on ordinary, decent, hard-working people with severer cuts – ground-zero kind of stuff. Which makes sense, from their point of view: make an example of any council that gets out of line. Believe me, the Tories are vicious. Far better to throw up the Labour shield, to soften the blow – kinder cuts. Yes, we’ve worked with the Tories, but only to hold them back. It demonstrates the benefits, in practice, of voting Labour.’
‘I always thought you’d be an outstanding hostage negotiator, did I ever tell you?’
‘Scotland was a blip,’ said Corbyn, beginning to feel a little cross.
‘A blip on the seismometer! The British working class was very nearly split in two. And it would have been all Labour’s fault,’ said Jeremy.
‘Not “We” anymore?’
‘If we had spent our time fighting the cuts, and not carrying them out with the Tories, then the Scottish workers wouldn’t have a reason to look elsewhere for a solution.’
‘It’s a nice idea, Jeremy, but Labour isn’t in that line of work anymore, don’t you know? Defending workers! Where have you been for the last twenty-five years?’
‘That can change. It has to. What about the SNP? It was never a working-class party, but now I’m not so sure… Its trade union section is bigger than the entire Scottish Labour Party. All Labour had to do was dock ship and ask those workers aboard, but it didn’t. And now they’re on board with the SNP instead. What happened in Scotland can happen in the rest of the country. Did you know it’s the biggest party in the world now, as a proportion of the population?’ He admitted he did not.
Corbyn reflected on his prior allotted peace with renewed appreciation. He bore Jeremy no particular ill-will – he was a part of him in many ways – but he did possess a profound propensity for transforming perfectly sensible topics of conversation into the most arrant nonsense.
He would talk about the masses, and the inevitability of their struggle, and even interpret things in quite an original way – you had to give him that – but it was always symptomatic of some great impending change. And if there was one thing Corbyn knew, it was that things did not change. Not really, not fundamentally. One might make a small difference here, win a little victory there, and, who knows? Eventually, in the passage of time, those incremental adjustments might just add up to something. Of course, everything did change, just not as impatiently as Jeremy demanded. Change was something that took place gradually, imperceptibly, under tremendous geothermal pressures and over vast geological expanses.
‘You know, the French have a saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s something that’s held me in good stead over the years. You’d do well to remember it.’ Jeremy rolled his eyes.
‘You are right, of course,’ Corbyn continued, ‘we all want change. But how? That’s the question. What exactly is it that you propose? What you say might be fine talk among learned professors in their seminars, but people are afraid, you know? The change you talk of means a leap into the dark. People want change they can see, they can touch, they can feel. I’m not sure it’s something you’ve ever truly understood.’ He looked at Jeremy for a reaction, but he offered none.
‘To serve the community and to represent their interests; small changes, little kindnesses; it all adds up you know. You’d find it very rewarding. News soon spreads of the chap who has done this, who fixed that, who took a stand against the other. You might offer bright ideas, but they’re always dependent on one thing: The Movement. The Movement, The Movement, and once again, The Movement,’ said Corbyn, moving his hands like a conductor waving a baton.
‘And if I have learned one positive, irrefutable truth these past five years, something I should have learned long ago is that – as if to carve it upon my nose – in the very moment when it should have become an absolute blinding necessity: your movement of the masses – where is it? It’s nowhere to be seen. Why? Because it belongs to a bygone era. Where are the strikes? Where are the mass demonstrations?’ Jeremy tried to interject, but Corbyn was in full flow.
‘While my poorest constituents have been turfed out of their homes because they use an extra room to store equipment for a disability; while the hospitals are cut to the bone; while a number of my constituents have actually died after being declared fit to go on a wild goose chase down the job centre; while even people with jobs now need to go to food banks: where is this so-called movement, beyond a few spindly protests? General strike kicked into the long grass. Unions surrendering their bloc-vote. Where’s the pressure from below? There isn’t any. People don’t care. We’ve become a society of individuals who walk by, on the other side, when they see someone begging in the street. I’m sorry, but Thatcher burned away any revolutionary spirit this country had when she beat the miners. And Blair poured white-wash over their charred embers.’
‘You know your problem?’ said Jeremy. ‘You think the world would be a better place if only we would all just sit down togather at the table with a nice cup of tea. You think the lion and the crocodile can sit on the riverbank and discuss their differences. It’s so… shallow.’ He felt mean for saying it, but there it was.
Corbyn had heard it all before. It was Jeremy’s understanding of reality that had little depth, and faith in the masses was a religious idea. Yes, he knew they moved, but to say when and in what manner was an article of faith.
The lower layers from time to time seemed to flare up; that much was apparent. But who could have predicted the London riots? More besides, what good were they? The masses simply could not be divined, and even if they could, what would be the use?
Perhaps in other countries there was a genuine working-class movement, even in Scotland one could seemingly argue, and he might concede the point. But fifty million Englishers? They were too many, they were too heterogeneous, and they lacked the Celtic flame of the Scots. The English workers of today were warmed in sturdy, three-walled partitions, answering telephones between comfort breaks and team-building exercises. A miner would have given his right arm for that kind of life.
He was not seeking a confrontation with Jeremy. That never got them anywhere. He attempted to steer the conversation back onto polite terrain.
‘You know, before you arrived, I dozed off for a moment and had a funny dream. It was tomorrow and we’d won. Ed was giving a speech to the press in Downing Street. He was announcing a coalition with the Greens. Can you imagine…?’ He turned to Jeremy with a smile, but it went unrequited.
‘The funny thing was that in the middle of it all, Ed declared that despite the victory, Jeremy Corbyn had lost his seat in Islington, and what a tragedy it was for the party! I rather think they’d be popping the champagne corks if they got that into the bargain! ’
Jeremy smiled, regarding his friend curiously. ‘And what would you think of that?’ he said, leaning against the greenhouse door.
Funnily enough I felt quite comfortable with the whole idea. It’s been a hell of a stint, though it hardly feels like thirty years. And I’ve done it in my own way, not cowered to the buggers, stood my ground. It’s been a lot easier since John came on the scene, as you know.’
He pressed his hand against the small of his back and the ache eased a little.
‘I can see myself retiring, after this next parliament, perhaps. Come up to the allotment more, begin making red currant jam.’
‘A charming idea, old boy, I reckon I’ve heard you say it before. But who would champion the people of Islington North?’
Corbyn fiddled his trowel around the tomato stalks. ‘Oh, I’m sure some young left could be found to take up the mantle, perhaps even a local. I could still participate in my CLP as a local activist. I used to be quite good at the sort of thing, if you remember?’
‘Yes, you’ve always been the organised one… But why not just pack it all in then? It’s not as if you’ve much to look forward to, other than being ignored by the leadership for another five years.’
‘Bit late now. Ask me again in five years’ time,’ he said, exiting the greenhouse and making his way back to the tool shed. Jeremy followed.
‘Or, announce you’re going tonight! You’ll make an interesting little footnote in the all-night coverage.’
‘Very amusing. And what if it came down to one seat?’
‘Imagine their faces,’ Jeremy laughed. ‘Well, whatever you decide, I’ll be there for you, as always.’
The radio still buzzed as Corbyn sat back in his deck chair. He looked over his land and poured another green tea into his locally sourced mug. Jeremy sat down on the grass beside him. They were silent for a moment. Corbyn sometimes found that if he was quiet long enough, Jeremy would tend to go off and find other things to amuse himself with.
But he was not so bad, Corbyn considered. A friend has to challenge you. Keep you on your toes. He’s always done that. Even when he’s away, he never really goes away. He’s always asking those questions.
‘Well, here’s to my defeat,’ said Corbyn, raising his mug.
‘Victory in defeat,’ smiled Jeremy, holding an invisible cup in return.
Later on, Corbyn made his way to the polling station. It was on the cusp of evening by the time he met Geraldine, the local party treasurer, at the gates of the community centre.
A mole-ish librarian in her mid-thirties, Geraldine came from that thinned ring of party members who had survived their weaning during the primacy of Blair. A BBC-checked inoffensiveness dominated her, and she rarely wagered a point of view. Invariably her contributions at meetings were prefaced by: ‘I thought a woman should speak, so…’ and were always administrative in nature.
From the gate, Corbyn had already spotted three Greens; an earthy gentleman in sandals and a grey ponytail, and alongside him, two fresh-faced students. Enviously he admired them straddling his path. He had always found the Greens to be thoroughly decent people, and their local candidate was ever such an agreeable young lady.
He improvised a non-toxic joke with Geraldine to put himself at ease. A few members of the public were filtering in after work. Far better to vote now, and be seen by them and the local party, than early in the morning when the place was deserted.
As they approached the entrance he was relieved to spot some party members, beyond the bright Green youth. He was about to greet them when he was accosted:
‘When are you going to join us then, Jeremy?’ said a young woman, handing him a leaflet. The other Greens lingered nearby. Geraldine grasped her wrist and scowled at the younger woman.
‘Oh! Not quite just yet, thanks,’ said Jeremy, a broken laugh catching in his throat.
‘You’d be much more at home in our party than Labour, Jeremy. We’re against nuclear weapons, against privatisation and against austerity.’ He loathed getting caught up in conversations like this.
‘Well, I have a lot of respect for Caroline. I’m always trying to convince her to join Labour,’ he said, and hurried on as politely as he could.
‘But Jeremy, how can you be in the same party as Blair? The party that invaded Iraq?’ He stopped mid-step.
‘You’re absolutely right; I don’t know how I do it either.’ Geraldine looked at her feet. ‘But the point I always make to Caroline is, Labour is a broad church, and we need to bring in more progressive types like her – and you guys. It’s all very well protesting from the side-lines, but we need a party that can form a government in order to have things like a proper environmental policy. It’s as simple as that, really. You should join us!’ Then he smiled and walked off as briskly as he could.
‘We’re the future,’ she called after him. ‘Biggest youth group in the country!’ Her words unsettled him. He who has the youth has the future, Jeremy always said.
He had become damp around the neck and happily fell into the arms of the nearest member along the path; a local Labour rank-and-file activist named Bob, an old revolutionary socialist, or something like that. Nevertheless, he was someone who could be relied upon to support the party, come rain or shine.
‘Bob! Hello, Bob,’ cried Corbyn, and Geraldine chafed at the enthusiasm given to the irksome old-timer. He was even more worn than Corbyn.
A former athlete, Bob went everywhere by bike, which had the effect of naturally moulding his white hair into an aerodynamic wisp. He wore aviator sunglasses over his pink face and a bright yellow hi-visibility jacket all year round, and his hands were splashed with sovereign rings. No one, not least Corbyn, could forget Bob. Nor did Corbyn forget to avoid eye contact with the Revolutionary Newspaper Bob held against his chest.
‘Fruit and veg giving you bother, Jeremy?’
‘Oh, only trying to recruit me,’ said Corbyn, shaking a sparkling hand.
‘Cheeky buggers. I’ll go over there and give them a salad dressing, if you like.’ Corbyn appreciated the solidarity, but hoped no one overheard. ‘Got some good policies, mind. Could do with some of that in Labour,’ said Bob.
‘That’s what we were just discuss… by the way, Jeremy, have you met our new comrade, Amalia?’ He gestured to the young woman beside him helping to hand out Labour leaflets and sell the Revolutionary Newspaper.
‘One of our bright young members in Islington North. From Greece…’ he made sure to add.
Corbyn had heard mention of the young Greek girl from the local university who had shown up at the CLP. For an enthusiastic youth to join and attend a party meeting was quite an event. To come back a second time, and then actually to become involved; this alone made her exotic.
She was quite beautiful, as Mediterranean women often are to dilated English eyes. He reached to shake her hand. Tangles of baked clay kelp fell swinging as she made an awkward half-curtsy.
He glimpsed the freckles that swept over her Hellenic nose, tracing the plumose hair beneath her ears, past her neck, fading as they approached the sternum. Corbyn swallowed. He felt stripped of decency around beautiful young women, and tried to maintain eye contact.
Further along, he and Geraldine passed a dejected looking Liberal Democrat handing out his party’s leaflet, but they saw no Tories or UKIPers.
Inside, the little queue stirred on his arrival. He greeted politely all those he knew, and a little old lady squeezed his hand and blessed him. A man he believed was a long-standing member half-joked, half-argued with him as to why he should not vote UKIP. The conversation finished with Corbyn unsure as to whether the man was joking at all.
After five minutes he was shown to a booth. His hand hovered rebelliously over the Green box for a heartbeat. He had half expected Jeremy to turn up. Then he marked Labour and made his way out of the centre, and home.
It was well past midnight, and the results were soon to be announced. The hall roared, masking the tense, mundane, giddy observations that had entwined and became poisoned. The brick walls absorbed them all, drowning each in the raucous anonymity of a public pool.
Corbyn ached from his neck to the small of his back to his knees.
Alone under the bright lights, eyeing the stage and twiddling his watch strap, a parliament of little old ladies had swooped down and surrounded him. They blinked through thick glasses, and the ringleader demanded he taste her cake.
‘Mmm… yes, I must say Mrs Barnett,’ said Corbyn in mouthfuls, eyes scouring the hall for his wife.
‘I really don’t know what Islington Labour Party meetings would be like without…’
A shaky arm guided another spoonful toward his face, layering crumbs upon his white whiskers.
‘Mmm… I just don’t know what we’d do without your sponge cake.’
‘It’s Lemon Drizzle,’ said an unamused Mrs Barnett, and the old ladies broke into a back-fence twitter. The lemon must be homeopathic.
As they cooed, he slipped free of the knitted scrimmage. Sneaking to the far end of the hall, he disappeared behind the stage.
Once alone, he surrendered to his weary shoulders and mopped the back of his neck with his handkerchief. He propped himself against the scaffolding under the shade of the stage and pressed the cold metal piping across the wet patch that had spread from shirt to jacket.
At his feet plastic sacks were strewn across the floor. Earlier they had been carried to the hall and emptied of their content. Now the secret will of Islington North was being sifted by a tiding of volunteers, who broadly speaking divided into two social types: There were the rare young people, so taken with politics that they hoped to make a living by it. More common were the doughty guardians of democracy who, between elections, could be found raging against the yellow lines, or the fouling of the dog.
Piled beside the sacks was an untidy heap of blue crash-mats, weighed down with dust. Corbyn imagined himself falling backwards into them with a cavernous thud…
He screwed his eyes and refocused. Fishing out his glasses and a little brown note book, he thumbed the pages of his speech. He had prepared a few simple notes on the expectation that he would win, and Labour would win the country. But at Ten o’clock he and Laura sat astonished in the living room as Dimbleby threw their expectations overboard:
‘Here it is. Ten o’clock. And we are saying the Conservatives are the largest party.’
Big Ben groaned in despair.
‘And here are the figures… quite remarkable this exit poll. The conservatives on three-hundred and sixteen, that’s up nine since the last election in 2010.
‘Ed Miliband for Labour – seventy-seven behind on two-hundred and thirty-nine, down nineteen on the last election.’
Elections filled him with dread even when they were a sure thing. Now he had to re-write his whole speech at a moment’s notice. He picked his white beard and scratched his throat and struck out his ode to Ed with his little IKEA pencil. Laura brought them back in handfuls after each outing. Officially Corbyn disapproved, but it did not stop her, and he had not pushed the matter as they were rather convenient.
He had never been pleased with his dedication to the leader, yet resented far more its redaction. It had taken many hours to arrive at the perfectly balanced weak-lemon tribute.
Ed had been far kinder to him than the other lot. Nevertheless, one could hardly say that his stewardship had been inspiring. Bewildering was nearer the mark.
The tabloids had picked up on the cruel physicality of that fact; the gormless awkwardness and vulnerability of the kid who tries to run with the big boys in the school playground. Corbyn pitied him.
Something positive. Thank you, etc., etc., thanks to Laura my wife, thanks to the local party, the public… He had done it a thousand times, unknowingly resenting the routine of it all.
It was at this point that he heard the light tapping of Jeremy’s voice at the threshold of his thoughts. He wondered what he would say about all this. Then Corbyn turned to find that he was beside himself.
‘Say what’s on your mind,’ said Jeremy, his elbow resting on the scaffolding, one hand splayed in his hair.
‘And what’s that?’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Jeremy. ‘Something like: “If Miliband loses it’ll be because he was too much of a pathetic little jellyfish to stand up against the cuts.” How’s that?’
‘Shall I make that the opener…? Don’t be so preposterous,’ said Corbyn. He turned his back on Jeremy and mined the speeches of his memory for suitable combinations.
‘The Labour Party. The Labour Party is… the people’s party.’
‘The party of the working class,’ said Jeremy.
‘The party of the poor, the party of the oppressed, the party of – the community.’
Corbyn scribbled it in his little brown notebook.
‘Write this: “Without organisation, we are nothing but raw material for exploitation.”’
‘Too risqué – you do realise there are little old ladies out there, don’t you? How about:
‘“Without community, we are helpless individuals in the face of Tory austerity?”’
‘Yes, but it’s not just the Tories – they’re just the errand boys. You give them too much credit. Call them what they are:
‘“…in the face of austerity, carried out by the hired thugs of the bosses.”’
‘That’s far too complicated,’ said Corbyn, thinking of the little old ladies.
‘“In the face of austerity, carried out by the bankers and their… hired representatives”.’
Corbyn scribbled it down. ‘Nobody likes the bankers.’ They continued to wrestle over the script:
“For many years, some might argue, our party has been hijacked by big business lost its way. Many might have said we had come to resemble the enemy we were built to defeat stopped representing those in need. Certainly among the leadership. Who can deny it? And they might have had a point. But the Labour Party has deep, deep roots in society. In our community. New Labour may have left a bitter taste in some people’s mouths. Mine included. ‘Understandably, many Some looked elsewhere, to other parties, which say they are more Labour than the Labour Party. But I say to them: stop complaining; stop fiddling on the fringes, stop moaning from the side-lines. If you don’t like the Blairites then join us in Labour to take the party back!”
This time it was Jeremy who thought the tone too much, but he agreed with the sentiment. He proposed an alternative:
“But I say to them: We must unite! All the anti-austerity forces, whatever tomorrow’s outcome, let’s come together in a united, working-class front to fight to overthrow what’s at the bottom of austerity: Capitalism. That means fighting for a socialist society!”
‘Steady on, old boy,’ said Corbyn, lifting his head from his notebook.
‘You’re always asking people to join Labour, and it’s always to fight austerity, to fight the Tories,’ said Jeremy.
‘Reasonable enough… but if you don’t offer a raised horizon or two it doesn’t mean anything. Why don’t you talk about what we’re fighting for?
‘That young Green put you on the spot earlier, didn’t she? Well, the Greens and the SNP can say they’re the anti-austerity parties, but they don’t say anything about socialism. That’s our tradition, and you should tap into it. God knows no one else does.’
‘Yes, because it’s entirely abstract,’ said Corbyn. He struck a line through the passage. But he so desperately wanted to appeal to the Greens and their bright young people, although few of them were present in the hall at that late hour.
‘Let’s just say: “And may I just congratulate…” what was her name again?
‘“May I just congratulate what’s-her-face and the Greens for conducting a very moral, very decent campaign that raised many important issues.
‘“I think we both agree that there is much that unites our two parties, not least the question of protecting our environment.”
‘There, how’s that for reaching out?’
‘Congratulating the Greens? That’ll piss off Geraldine…’
‘What, and your way wouldn’t?’ Corbyn kept it. ‘Differentiate Labour and the Greens from the rest, appeal to the Green youth on the basis of unity. They had twice the youngsters we had knocking on doors. Can’t praise them too much though, most of their ideas are ours.’
‘They were,’ said Jeremy.
‘Where was I?’ said Corbyn. ‘Something about the Tories…’
“The Tories are the servants of the capitalist system. They handed over our money to the banks.”
‘Wait – Labour did that,’ said Jeremy.
‘People know what I mean.’
“These Tories in Labour’s clothing They bailed out capitalism the banks. Any worker hard-working family understands that when one of us gets into debt, we have to pay for it. But when the Tories’ rich friends in the city get into the same trouble – it’s us again who have to pay for it. Double standards. Taxpayers’ money went to bail out the capitalist system, but it cannot be repaired. Yyou only have to look at history; the merry-go-round always ends in tears. And as night follows day, the rich make the poor pay.
Don’t forget the Liberal Democrats,’ said Jeremy.
“These people are the reason why hospitals are closing. Why our schools are being run into the ground.”
‘This is very good stuff,’ said Jeremy, barely concealing his pleasure. When it came to his friend, he knew when to take his winnings and leave the table.
‘You don’t think it’s… too much?’ said Corbyn. He had been so rushed, and he was so tired by this late hour, that he no longer trusted his judgement.
‘Not at all! I must say, I’m a little impressed – even with the edits. You have my full backing. Best thing you’ve produced in years. ’
Corbyn hesitated at the thought of going back out, preferring the shade of the stage to the throng and the members and Mrs Barnett’s bland drizzle.
The ranks were far more daunting than the careerists he side-stepped in Westminster; always talking about how ‘courageous’ he was. It was not false modesty that made him cringe, but the debt with which these sincere souls saddled him. It was a debt he had no confidence in paying back. In his lowest moments he wondered if he was not merely a repository for their grievances, for their poverty-stricken fantasies. Was he just someone to be whined at? Someone to delegate responsibility for their life to? It was not his strength, but their weakness, that maintained him in office.
‘Who wins if Labour wins?’ he asked the plastic sacks. If they knew, they kept it to themselves. The workers had been deserting since the 1980s, while he and a bloody-minded few had hung on by their fingernails. Many had tried to trim them, leaders had come and gone, but they were not clipped.
‘Yeremy!’ The voice of his wife broke his thoughts. Laura was at the side of the stage, her loud Mexican whisper more insistent than usual.
‘Dees is where you have been? Dare announcing deh results!’ She swung on her little black heels and threw her handbag over her shoulder. ‘Come on!’ she said, tilting her head toward the hall.
Corbyn returned his glasses to their green leather case and placed them in his shirt. Unhurried, he patted his pockets and started after his wife.
The hall no longer roared, but had settled into a serious murmur. Eyes were falling on him, causing him to become self-conscious in his walk.
He kept his eyes on Laura. She looked back at him and stopped. His beautiful companion: petite, coal black hair and eyes. He drifted to her like a dog and smiled and waited for the blessing of her kiss, before the ceremonial tribulations took him.
But she did not bless him, and instead her big dark eyes grew wide in alarm.
‘What is that on your mouth? Cake?’ With a licked thumb she wiped his white beard clean of Mrs Barnett’s drizzle. ‘And where is your rosette?’ she said, jutting her chin in the direction of his chest and tugging at a bare lapel. Jeremy looked down and then twisted back toward the stage.
‘Maybe it came off backstay…’
Laura re-entered his field of vision from behind, heels clacking on the wooden floor, shoulders small hills of irritation.
He untwisted and, inches from his face, found himself confronted by Simi, the local party Chair.
Simi was another graduate of Geraldine’s thin dry ring, only a few years younger. Corbyn disliked her, considering her rather juvenile.
‘So it looks like five mins yeah, Jeh-Ray-Me…’ she said, drawing out his name, which he found it most irritating. ‘I think we’re doing fine, no murmurs from the counting table; Mrs Barnett’s girls are circling. Everyone’s gathered over there,’ she pointed to a stackable table close to the stage, where a small troop of hardened members had collected. ‘Perhaps a few final words before you go up?’ she said. He did not feel as if he was being asked.
‘Speak to the young ones Yeremy, day look up to you,’ said Laura, returned and re-fastening his rosette.
All Corbyn saw were a few old ladies and Bob and Geraldine. They were all sending him burdensome smiles. His shoulders pinched.
‘Do we really have the time?’ he said, a little bit of himself sinking into his blood stream.
Then he saw, beside Bob and his brood, the young Greek comrade he had been introduced to earlier – and she was speaking with Jeremy!
‘Alright, let’s go,’ he said. But just as he had begun to walk over, he was cut short. A stout bingo-caller took the stage and the microphone thudded.
‘Could candidates make their way, please?’
‘Oh, well, here we go…’ he said, with regretful relief. He looked over at his knot of supporters and saw Jeremy and the Greek comrade waving at him with open smiles. Laura brushed him for crumbs one last time and straightened his rosette and gave him his kiss.
The last to ascend the stage, Corbyn perused his rivals. It had certainly been an extraordinary campaign – the most unusual in his memory. The usual two-way tug-of-war had become a sight more tricky. When you included the SNP, it resembled a six-way game of musical chairs.
At the opposite end from Corbyn stood the UKIP candidate.
Local. Young for UKIP. Eyes don’t swivel. He suspected a used-car salesman. He must be a pretty twisted creature to have survived in Islington among all the blacks and Asians and bleeding-heart lefties. Unreformed Thatcherite. Hopefully chipped away at the Tory support, though.
A trickle of sweat beaded past the Liberal Democrat’s ear. His Adam’s apple protruded, and his face matched the colour of his rosette. He seemed a nice fellow, Corbyn thought, but the Liberals appeared to have far lower expectations of themselves than the Tories, all things considered.
He reminded himself to make a point of being friendly to the Green candidate before the night was out.
The Tory next to him was young and handsome, with a rugby smile and hands folded in front of him. He pretended to pay no notice to Corbyn. British Psycho.
The winner was announced. Corbyn’s mind went blank. Down at the table his members moved like a fizzy watercolour. He heard their whistles and cheers in the distance. What had he meant to say?
He glimpsed the pages of his notebook, but it was just a jumble of crossed scribbles. The cheers of the local party lifted his arm automatically, and his smile defaulted, and then he was shaking his Tory’s hand.
He steadied the microphone between gloves of sweat. Looking over the hall, the concentrated knot of delight set their attention at his feet, as the fragments of the other parties went peeling into the night.
He had forgotten what he wanted to say.