A 'Present' Of Politics, Sex And Uncommon Insight

The Birthday Present
The Birthday Present
By Barbara Vine
Shaye Areheart Books
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $25

Read An Excerpt

Barbara Vine i i

Ruth Rendell, who sometime writes as Barbara Vine, is the author of the long-running Inspector Wexford series. Jerry Bauer hide caption

itoggle caption Jerry Bauer
Barbara Vine

Ruth Rendell, who sometime writes as Barbara Vine, is the author of the long-running Inspector Wexford series.

Jerry Bauer

Barbara Vine is the penname of prolific crime author and UK Labor Party peer Ruth Rendell. She once told an interviewer that she has read all of Freud — and it shows. Her novels plumb the depths of paranoia and the grip of obsession and all sorts of irrational compulsions with uncommon insight.

The Birthday Present, Vine's latest, is set in the 1990s and follows Ivor Tesham, a rising Tory politician with a secret penchant for kinky sex. Ivor arranges a mock kidnapping as a birthday present for his mistress Hebe. When the pseudo-abduction goes awry, Ivor scrambles to hide his involvement.

Told alternately by Rob, Ivor's brother-in-law, and Jane, a friend of Ivor's mistress, the narrative structure of The Birthday Present keeps the reader one step removed from events but still intimately acquainted with the characters. Rob's affection for Ivor is tinged with frustration and disgust at his dangerous and inconsiderate antics, while Jane's distant admiration is tainted with jealousy and the occasional delusion. Both are fully fleshed-out beings, psychologically compelling and poignantly believable.

A Vine thriller is not so much about events but the way characters process those events — the dark thoughts that are often more terrifying and malicious than what actually takes place. The bulk of The Birthday Present unfolds in the uneasy years following the botched kidnapping, during which Ivor blithely ignores his culpability and presses on to political stardom, Jane plots a twisted revenge and Rob tortures himself over the simmering scandal. On the surface, these characters' lives are mundane, but their inner instability keeps the plot edging forward with a delightfully rendered sense of disquiet.

The Birthday Present leans heavily on psychology, but it still has the feeling of a tightly constructed thriller, rather than an exercise in therapeutic introspection, with descriptions of the London landscape and political climate that are particularly exacting. It's no wonder that Vine has been called a mystery writer for writers. When that master of emotional depth Toni Morrison finishes writing a book, the only writer she can bear to read, she says, is Ruth Rendell.

Excerpt: 'The Birthday Present'

by Barbara Vine

The Birthday Present
By Barbara Vine
Shaye Areheart Books
Hardcover, 336 pages
List price: $25

Thirty-three is the age we shall all be when we meet in heaven because Christ was thirty-three when he died.

It's an interesting idea. One can't help thinking that the people who invent these things chose it because it's an ideal age, no longer one's first youth but not aging either. It was Sandy Caxton who told me this when I sat next to him at Ivor's birthday dinner, his thirty-third of course, and Ivor said afterward that Sandy had a store of that sort of wisdom. My own opinion is that Sandy was just changing the subject because I'd asked him if he lived in London.

"I'm awfully sorry," he said, "but I can't tell you that." And, noticing my mystified look, "I used to be the Northern Ireland Secretary, you see, and we're not supposed to tell anyone where we live."

I did see. I should have known. Ivor told me there was even a bodyguard somewhere at the party, and wherever it was that Sandy lived the police with sniffer dogs searched the local church before he went to matins. Not that it did him any good in the end. They still got him at the time they chose. But more of that later. Iris had been sitting next to Ivor's friend Jack Munro, a favorite of hers, and it was rather reluctantly that she said good-bye to him, as she and I had to leave before the others. We had a trustworthy babysitter, but we wanted to get back to Nadine. She was our first child, the first of our four, and we were both so besotted that we fretted if we were away from her for long. Even to celebrate her uncle's heavenly birthday. Even when she was in the care of one of her grandmothers.

There was one person close to Ivor (in a manner of speaking) absent from the party.

"Ivor's girlfriend wasn't there," I said as we were going up Fitzjohn's Avenue.

"She wouldn't have been asked. You know Ivor. In some ways he's living in the distant past. One doesn't invite the mistress to meet one's friends." Iris made the face she always used to make when her brother's peculiarities came up, her smile a little rueful. "Besides, having to spend an evening out with her instead of in with her he'd think a waste of time."

"It's like that, is it?"

"It's probably only like that," she said.

Mention his name and most people will say, "Who?" while the rest think for a bit and ask if he wasn't "the one who got involved in all that sleaze back in whenever it was . . ."

Necessarily, because my brother-in-law was a politician through and through, I'll have to talk about politics. But increasingly I find how ignorant I am and how much the minutiae of politics bore me. I shall gloss over a great deal of this aspect of Ivor's life, only touching on what I hope are the interesting bits and, of course, because no one could speak of this period and leave them out, the departure of Margaret Thatcher, the coming of John Major, and the general elections of 1992 and 1997.

I'm putting in Jane Atherton's diary. Not just some of it but the whole thing as it was sent to Juliet. Ivor's history and, come to that, Hebe Furnal's wouldn't be complete without it. The package arrived and then a letter under separate cover, as they say. Ivor never saw either. I don't suppose he even knew of the existence of the diary. Too much had happened to him for any more risk-taking, and he was keeping his head buried in the sand. Jane was a friend of Hebe's and about as unlike her, it seems, as two female creatures belonging to the same species and living in the same time can be unlike each other. I suppose she was of use to Hebe. Whatever else she may have done for her, apart from filling a role as foil to her particular charms, she provided her with alibis. The chances are that if she hadn't agreed to provide a certain alibi, none of this would have happened.

I never met Hebe. I never even saw her. Like the rest of the world, I saw her picture in the papers after the accident, a pretty blonde, almost beautiful, with the looks of a model. And, also like the rest of the world, I confuse her with the other pretty blonde, the one the men thought they were taking when they took her, or the police or the press thought they were taking when they took her. The mystery of which girl was the intended victim was never publicly solved. How angry it made Ivor that anyone could mistake Hebe Furnal for Kelly Mason, though it seemed at first to his advantage that they did, as the assumption made by the police (or the press) moved the spotlight away from its search for him. And that's the way I see it, as if a flashlight was held in a hand that glanced probingly over dark corners, seeking for an instigator, its light once or twice nearly touching him before it shifted away.

Hebe Furnal, twenty-seven years old, a housewife with a degree in media something or other and a two-year-old son called Justin. Wife of Gerry Furnal and mistress of Ivor Tesham, MP. "Mistress" is a bit of an archaism, but Iris used it and Ivor himself did when, a week or two after the thirtythird birthday, he asked me if I thought he should buy a flat for Hebe and visit her there. He would occasionally ask my advice, though of course he never took any notice of it. People don't, especially when they've asked for it. Anyway, Ivor had already made up his mind. "In some ways," he said, "the idea appeals. You can imagine in what ways. But I don't think I will. It's too much like some eighteenth-century rake setting up his mistress in apartments in Shepherd Market."

"You can't afford Shepherd Market," I said.

"True. But I could afford Pimlico, say. Only I won't. It would lead to other complications."

There was more of this, but I'll come back to it. As to Kelly Mason, she was the "Checkout Chick," the "Supermarket Cinderella," who had married a television mogul and was famous for doing nothing but wearing blue satin with sequins and not being kid napped. Where is she now? Rumor has it that she's in a private psychiatric hospital, but a more likely story has her and her carers in the isolated villa on the South Pacific island her husband bought for her. Whichever it is, it seems to be true that she is hidden away because she is too afraid to live in the world, and without Ivor's intervention in her life, unintentional though it was, she would be the happy occupant of a house in the Bishops Avenue and perhaps the mother of Damian Mason's children.

To introduce you to Ivor—you may not remember him from the days when he was a minister in John Major's government—I don't think I can do better than give you his entry in Dod's, the directory of Members of Parliament: Ivor Hamilton Tesham, Born January 12 1957. Son of John Hamilton Tesham and Louisa, neé Winstanley; Educated1 Eton College, Windsor; Brasenose College, Oxford (MA law); Single; Called to the Bar 1980, Lincoln's Inn; Barrister specializing in Commercial Law. Contested Overbury 1987 general election; Member for Morningford since by-election January 27 1988. Committees: Foreign Affairs, Defence; PPS in 1989 to John Teague: as Secretary of State for Defence; in 1990 Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Defence; in 1992 Minister of State for Air Power Overseas in the Department of Defence; Recreations: Theatre, music, reading; Address: House of Commons, London SW1.

I've known him since he was a small boy in Ramburgh and I was five years older. Though we moved away when I was eight, I was born in that village, as were Ivor and my wife. They look a lot alike, Ivor and Iris, and he is three years her senior. They are both tall and dark and slender. Sandy Caxton said Iris had the face of an Israelite princess, Rachel weeping for her children, though the only Jewish blood she and Ivor have came into the family in the early nineteenth century. I'm told Ivor was very good-looking, but I'm no judge of that. When he and I walked into a restaurant or a bar together I've seen women turn and look, and I'm pretty sure they weren't staring at me.

When all this happened he had been "seeing" (as he put it) Hebe Furnal for about a year. Prior to that an actress called Nicola Ross had been his girlfriend, and when the end came they parted amicably. I don't know why they did or why it was amicable, though Iris told me it had nothing to do with Hebe's coming onto the scene. She seemed to think the Nicola Ross affair wasn't exciting enough for Ivor. They were both single and unattached. Some said they were made for each other. Nicola, who he always called Nixie, was a suitable woman for an MP to be going about with, a handsome blonde with an increasingly successful career, a year or two older than he. He had even taken her to Ramburgh House to meet his parents, but he had never quite reached the point of moving in with her or asking her to move in with him. That was his way, though. He had never lived with a woman. Then came the break-up and Hebe Furnal. When he asked if he could borrow our house (for a never fully explained purpose) he told me how they had met. "It was at a reception in the Jubilee Room," he said. "I don't know if you've ever been in there. It's up a grim sort of flight of stairs at the far end of Westminster Hall. We were waiting for the seven o'clock vote and I'd nothing to do. Jack Munro said why not come along to this reception. It was being given in aid of a charity called HALT-the Heart and Lung Trust."

"I heard someone make one of those appeals for them on the radio," I said.

"Yes, well, Jack said I might as well come along and get a free drink, which means the gnat's piss which passes for Sauvignon in the Jubilee Room. Anyway, I went. The HALT fund-raiser's a man called Gerry Furnal, but I never met him. I met his wife instead."

He smiled that little reminiscent smile of his.

"Go on," I said.

"You know how these things sort of hit you. She's got the most amazing legs, as long as some women are high, if you see what I mean. And a lot of other things too. Her hair's a very pale blond and it reaches to her waist. I didn't lose any time. I went up to her and said, 'Ivor Tesham. How do you do?' and she said, 'Hebe Furnal. I do very well, thanks, a lot better than I did five minutes ago.' Here was a woman after my own heart, I thought, so I pointed to the monitor up on the wall and I said, 'You see that green screen up there? Well, in about five minutes a bell will come up on that, the word will appear in white letters and I'll have to go and vote.' 'Then I'd better give you my phone number, hadn't I?' she said. 'Have you got a good memory?' 'Marvelous,' I said, and just as she gave it to me the green bell appeared. I ran down the stairs and all the way across Westminster Hall, repeating that phone number over and over, with the division bell ringing, and I leapt up the stairs and along the corridor into the Members' Lobby. I was still saying that number in my head as I went to vote, but I picked up a bit of paper as I passed through and wrote it down.

"And that was the start of it. I phoned her next day. We manage to meet about once a fortnight and I'm going to have to do some thing about that, but meanwhile will you lend me your house for a Friday night somewhere around May seventeenth?"

"Sure," I said. "We always go to Norfolk on Fridays anyway." I hadn't hesitated. He wasn't just my brother-in-law but a great friend too. I didn't say to myself, this is a married woman living with her husband that you're encouraging Ivor to sleep with. By lending him your house you're facilitating an illicit love affair. Of course I didn't. I didn't say, you're helping to make an innocent husband unhappy and perhaps deprive a small child of his mother. One never does say things like that. I didn't even think them. Our house in Hampstead was very suitable for clandestine goings-on, ideal really.

He and Hebe Furnal usually met at his flat in Westminster. It was a long way for her to come from where she lived, somewhere up in West Hendon, the far side of the North Circular Road. The "sticks," Ivor called it and sometimes the "boondocks." I never saw her house and, for that matter, nor did he. Before she left for their meetings she had to wait for the HALT fund-raiser to get home, because someone had to be with her little boy, Justin. Ivor told me on another occasion that he and Hebe had more phone sex than actual sex, every day in fact, and even this was sabotaged-his word, his PPS to a Defence Secretary's word-by interventions from two-year-old Justin shouting, "Don't talk, Mummy, don't talk."

I've said I didn't hesitate about lending him our house, but did I approve? Did Iris? She certainly didn't and she told him so. I tried not to be judgmental, and what I felt wasn't any sort of moral condemnation but rather something that was near to physical distaste. It made me squeamish to think of this girl, this young mother-I don't know why her being a young mother should make it worse, but somehow it did-going home from Ivor to her husband in a taxi paid for by Ivor and deceiving her husband with tales of the cinema she'd been to or the meal she'd had with a girlfriend.

Going perhaps from Ivor's lovemaking to her husband's within the same few hours. And I simply didn't understand. I didn't understand why he'd want to do this or she would. I'd have understood even less if I'd known then the kind of things they did, she and Ivor, their games and dressing up and enactments. Iris, who did understand without sympathizing, explained to me, or tried to, how it was as if Ivor and she had found each other out of all the world, two people with exactly the same tastes, the same feverish desires, the same breathless greed. Love? I don't think so. I only know it was nothing like what Iris and I had and have.

For the best part of the nineteenth century, a Tesham had rep resented Morningford in Parliament. Then there was a long period of Liberal members until Ivor's grandfather had the seat from 1959, when Ivor was two, until 1974. The man who succeeded him died while at the Conservative Party Conference in 1987, Ivor stood in the consequent byelection and won by a majority of just nine thousand. He was thirty-one, young to be in Parliament, exception ally so, and very ambitious. A former president of the Oxford Union, he was something of an orator, made a memorable maiden speech, and would have been on his feet at every available opportu nity but for Sandy Caxton advising him not to speak too often. Members notice excessive eloquence and remark on it, not always favorably. In 1989 he was made PPS to the Secretary of State for Defence. In case you're like I was and don't know what that means, those letters stand for Parliamentary Private Secretary and set the holder of the office on the first rung of the ladder of political achievement. With luck and hard work, he would next be made a whip and then junior minister. Ivor played down his functions, as people in his position usually do, and said it meant dogsbody, someone who ran errands and kept himself au fait with his minister's diary, but you could see he was elated by the appointment.

The media weren't quite so intrusive or so savage as they are today, but they were watchful, especially of young Conservative hopefuls. There had been scandals and sleaze. Margaret Thatcher had been prime minister a long time and, as always when long terms seem to be endlessly protracted, coups are talked of and plots and rebellions. But you'll remember all this and whatever I'm telling you, it's not a political assessment.

It's an account of a rise and a fall.

A couple of weeks after the birthday, Ivor asked me to dinner in the Churchill Room, a Commons dining room on the ground floor off the corridor that leads to the terrace. He said no one else would be invited; he wanted to talk to me about a matter that had nothing to do with politics or the Commons. It soon emerged that my advice was to be asked about the Hebe Furnal affair.

As I've said, he'd decided against buying her a flat and to continue in the unsatisfactory way they were carrying on their illicit meetings. He had already asked to borrow our house at some time in May, which was four months ahead, and when he mentioned it again I was a bit apprehensive. I thought he might be going to ask if he could use it on a regular basis. But I soon saw that this wasn't what he wanted. He had his own flat. The difficulty was not that they had nowhere to go-he could after all have used a hotel-but that for most of the time Hebe was Justin-bound.

"It's supposed to be the way to keep a relationship from flagging," I said. "I mean, making it hard to meet and the meetings few and far between."

"I hate that word relationship," he said, looking peevish.

"Sorry, but the very sound of it puts a damper on things.

Think of meeting someone you're mad about, like I am about Hebe, and saying, 'I want to have a relationship with you.' Do you think people actually say that?"

That made me laugh. I said I didn't know, I wouldn't be surprised.

"Anyway, our affair isn't flagging. It doesn't get the chance to flag. I don't think it would if we met every day. Not that there's any prospect of that, the way things are." He paused and gave me a sidelong look. "I haven't asked her yet, but I'm thinking about it-I mean of asking her to leave Gerry Furnal."

"And move in with you?" Remembering his time with Nicola Ross, I was surprised, but it turned out that this wasn't in his mind at all.

"Not exactly," he said, looking at me and looking away.

"I've decided against buying, but I thought of renting a place for her."

"You mean she's to leave her husband and not live with you but live in a rented love nest? And what about the little boy?"

I was very child-conscious at the time; still am, but in a more level-headed way. In the spring of 1990, when Nadine was six months old, my eyes were caught by every baby and infant I passed in the street. I couldn't read about child cruelty in the papers. I couldn't look at those pictures the NSPCC put out in their publicity. Someone took Iris and me to the opera, it was Peter Grimes, and I had to go outside when it got to that bit about Grimes being at his exercise and he's beating the boys. So my mind went at once to two-year-old Justin Furnal.

"She'd bring him with her, you know," I said.

"Do you think she would?" he said. "I hadn't thought of that. It would be a bit of a drawback."

I'm very fond of Ivor, but I wasn't then. As sometimes happened, I came near to disliking him for a moment or two. I'd be aware of his charm and that sort of dashing reckless quality he had, and then he'd say something to turn it all around, almost shocking me.

"Even supposing she left her husband, and it doesn't seem to me you've any reason to think she would, what happens next? Furnal and she would get divorced surely and she'd get custody of Justin." I used his name because calling him "the child" was distasteful.

"But would she, Rob? I mean, she'd have been the one committing adultery."

I told him he was supposed to be a lawyer and hadn't he ever heard of no-fault divorce? Unless she was a criminal or a druggie she'd get custody, never mind how saintly Gerry Furnal might be.

"I hadn't thought of that," he said. "I couldn't stand having that child around. It's bad enough when we're talking on the phone." He seemed not to notice my slight recoil. I took a deep swig of my wine. "If Gerry divorced her I'd have to marry her, wouldn't I?"

"Ivor," I said, "for someone so advanced in your sexual tastes"—I remembered in time I'd better not admit to knowing what Iris had told me in confidence—"you're surprisingly old-fashioned. A mistress in a love nest, a clandestine love affair, and now you think you'd have to save her honor. Of course you wouldn't have to marry her, but I think you'd have to share your home with her. You'd have to live with her."

"I hate that word home," he said. "In that context, I mean. Ghastly Americanism. Can't you just hear some fat woman talking about her lovely home? Oh, I'm sorry, I'm a bastard."

I asked him tentatively if he'd given any thought to what the press might make of all this.

"At least you didn't say the 'print media.' " He laughed. "I may be a new PPS," he said, "but I'm still a very small fish in a huge pond. My God, I've just realized, that's what 'small fry' means, isn't it? Small fish. We live and learn. There's a pretty awful play by Barrie that Morningford Amateur Dramatic Society put on. It's called Mary Rose and of course I had to go and see it. Someone says, 'We live and learn,' and the reply is, 'We live at any rate.' It's the only good line in the play." He smiled his small half-smile. "The press isn't interested in me having a girlfriend. Prurient they may be when it suits them, but even they allow for a bit of sex in people's lives."

"When the sex involves a girlfriend who's married and living with her husband?"

"They don't know that, do they? They don't watch her house or mine. If one of them happened to be passing on the relevant evening once a fortnight, all they'd see is a beautiful blond girl coming to my block. Might be visiting anyone. Might live there."

"I don't know," I said. "I just think you ought to be careful."

In the months to come I was to remember this conversation. It made me think about the unforeseen and how we walk all the time on that thin crust that covers terrible abysses. Things might so easily have been different from what they are if a word spoken or a word withheld hadn't changed them. If Ivor, for instance, had said "no" instead of "yes" when Jack Munro asked him to that reception in the Jubilee Room.

Reprinted from The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine. Copyright © 2009. Published by Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Random House Inc.

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