It seemed that far from a quiet top-up of batteries, he was committed to another marathon shake-hands-and-smile, not this time in the chandeliered magnificence of The Sleeping Dragon’s all-purpose hall, but in much more basic space normally used as a schooling ground for five-year-olds in Hoopwestern’s outer regions.
There were kids’ attempts at pictures pinned to corkboards all around the walls, mostly thin figures with big heads and spiky hair sticking straight out like Medusa’s snakes. There were simple notices—do not run and raise your hand—all written in self-conscious lowercase letters.
Primary colors everywhere bombarded the eyesight to saturation point, and I couldn’t believe that this sort of thing had been my own educational springboard, but it had. Another world, long left behind.
There were several rows of the temporary folding chairs that grew more and more familiar to me as the days passed, and a makeshift speaker’s platform, this time with a microphone that squeaked whenever tested, and on several other occasions when switched on or off.
The lighting was of unflattering greenish-white fluorescent strips, and there weren’t enough of them to raise spirits above depression. Limbo must look like this, I thought: and the unenticing room had in fact drawn the sort of audience you could count on fingers and toes and still have enough left over for an abacus.
Mervyn Teck met us on the doorstep looking at his watch and checking, but by good luck and asking the way (less pride on my part than shame of arriving late) we had turned up on the exact minute advertised by a scatter of leaflets.
On the table on the platform, beside the temperamental microphone, there were a gavel for calling the meeting to order and two large plates of sandwiches secured by plastic wrap.
Two or three earnest lady volunteers crowded around the candidate with goodwill, but it was plain, ten minutes after start time, that apathy, and not enthusiasm, had won the evening.
I expected my father to be embarrassed by the small turnout and to hurry through the unsatisfactory proceedings, but he made a joke of it, abandoning the microphone, and sat on the edge of the platform, beckoning the sparse and scattered congregation to come forward into the first few rows, to make the meeting more coherent.
His magic worked. Everyone moved forward. He spoke to them familiarly, as if addressing a roomful of friends, and I watched him turn a disaster into a useful exercise in public relations. By the time the sandwiches had been liberated from the plastic even the few who had come to heckle had been tamed to silence.
Mervyn Teck looked both thoughtful and displeased.
“Something the matter?” I asked.
He said sourly, “Orinda would have drawn a much better house. She’d have packed the hall. They love her here: she presents prizes to the children here every term. She buys them herself.”
“I’m sure she’ll go on doing it.”
I meant it without irony, but Mervyn Teck gave me a glance of dislike and moved away. One of the lady volunteers sweetly told me that the time of the meeting had clashed with the current rave series on the television, and that even the pubs were suffering from it on Thursday nights. Tomorrow would be different, she said. Tomorrow the Town Hall will be packed.
“Er ...,” I said, “what’s happening in the Town Hall?”
“But you’re his son, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but ...”
“But you don’t know that tomorrow night your father goes face-to-face in a debate with Paul Bethune?”
I shook my head.
“Fireworks,” she said happily. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
My father, when I asked him about it on the short drive back to the center of Hoopwestern, seemed full of equal relish.
“I suppose,” I said, “there’ll be more point to it than the sort of fiasco tonight could have been.”
“Every vote counts,” he corrected me. “If I won only a few tonight, that’s fine.