Chapter 15: Suzanne – October 1974

Suzanne had settled into her new role at work and was enjoying the additional responsibility she held for leading a specialist team.  She was due to have a performance review and felt confidant that she would receive good feedback and may even be re-graded.  Even so she was very surprised to receive a summons for a one-to-one with one of the foreign office bigwigs.  The internal memo requested her attendance in his office the following week at 11.30 on Thursday.  Although sure she hadn’t done anything untoward Suzanne spent an anxious few days wondering what the meeting was about, it was very unusual for the senior people to bother with her level.

Mr Lewis was one of the director generals, second in command only to the permanent under-secretary.  Suzanne tapped on his door at 11.29 precisely on the appointed day.  She had made an effort with her appearance and looked professional, wearing a neat, navy skirt suit and white blouse.  She entered the outer sanctum of Mr Lewis’s office and was waved to take a seat by a monosyllabic personal assistant, who proceeded to buzz through and announce her arrival. She didn’t have to wait long.  Mr Lewis appeared in the doorway, and with a pleasant smile, indicated that she should come in.

Suzanne followed him across a wide expanse of polished floor, covered by a rather good looking Turkish rug, and sat down in a big mahogany and leather desk chair as indicated.  He took his seat at the opposite side of a vast mahogany desk that you could have played table tennis on, Suzanne thought irrelevantly.  She held her breath determined not to pre-empt his address.  Mr Lewis, she guessed, was in his late 50s.  He was tall and thin with sparse grey hair cut very short and he sported a neat moustache.  He spoke very clearly in a rather clipped accent.  The gist of his summons astonished her to the extent that she was almost lost for wards.

Suzanne’s progress had been watched by her superiors with interest, and had recently been brought to his attention.

‘I have taken it upon myself to review your background’ he indicated a manila folder on his desk as he spoke, ‘I see that you graduated from Oxford with a double first in Politics and Economics and that you have some aptitude with foreign languages.’  He glanced at her file to refresh his memory, ‘I see that you speak both French and German, are you reasonably fluent still?’ he asked.

‘I’m a bit rusty in German but I have practiced my French recently and I’m currently learning Spanish’ replied Suzanne, beginning to understand the thrust of the conversation.

‘We need young people of your calibre to join the Diplomatic Service’ continued Mr Lewis, ‘I wonder if you would consider a career that would involve some travel and possibly to undertake postings overseas?’

‘It is something that I considered when I was planning my career’ responded Suzanne, ‘and yes, I had hoped that my language skills could be used in the workplace, so I would certainly be interested in opportunities overseas.  Is there something specific you had in mind?’

‘No’ he replied, ‘I wanted to sound you out first.  We haven’t got any suitable opportunities just now and also I would like you to undergo some preparation prior to any new appointment.’  He smiled, this time engaging his eyes, ‘what I have in mind is to arrange some shadowing opportunities in the department.  That way you’ll get to network and meet some of the key people.  Are you prepared to do that on top of your not inconsiderable current duties?’

‘Yes, I would’ replied Suzanne without hesitation for she was delighted, ‘and thank you for giving me the opportunity Mr Lewis.’

‘Not at all’ he replied standing and walking around the desk towards her.  Suzanne, seeing that the interview was over, jumped to her feet.  He held out his hand and shook hers warmly; ‘I’ll be taking an interest in your career young lady’ he finished, with a charming smile.

Suzanne could barely contain her excitement for the rest of the day.  She decided to go home for the weekend as she was bursting to share her news and thought that her parents would be proud of her success.  She would go straight from work tomorrow, no point trying to call them as they were impossible to get hold of at their work places.

As Suzanne approached the house she was pleased to see a chink of light shinning between the curtains of the living room.  Someone must be home she thought, smiling as she inserted her key into the latch.  She pushed the door open calling out,

‘Hello, I’m home!’ A blast of Bach could be heard coming from the direction of the study.  Suzanne made for that room expecting to see her father.  He was seated with his back to the door and obviously did not hear her enter, as he didn’t turn around.  Suzanne tiptoed over to his chair and put her arms around to cover his eyes,

‘Guess who?’ she cried, her smile freezing as she felt the tears that were rolling down her father’s face.  ‘Whatever’s the matter Daddy?’ she asked, a lump in her throat making it difficult to speak.  Her father got to his feet swiftly wiping his eyes; he reached out to give her a hug.

‘I’m sorry, darling, I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘No, but what’s wrong?’ she insisted.

‘Let’s go to the kitchen and get a glass of something’ he suggested, ‘then I’ll tell you.’

‘Is it Mum?  Is there something wrong with her?’ Suzanne asked, really concerned as in the bright light of the kitchen she could see that her father had aged dramatically in the last couple of months.  Her father passed her a glass of red wine and poured one for himself, his hand trembling slightly.

‘Yes Annie, it’s your mother’ his face seemed to cave in as he spoke, ‘she’s not been well for sometime but she wouldn’t see anybody even though she works in the bloody hospital’ he sounded bitter, ‘she finally saw one of her colleagues, a cancer specialist.  She has cancer of the colon, and it’s in quite an advanced state.’

Suzanne’s heart clenched in fear and in the anguish of seeing her father so distressed.  She made as though to embrace him but he waved her away and turned to wipe his eyes and blow his nose.  At that moment the front door slammed and they both started as though they had been caught out in a conspiracy.  Doreen could be heard crossing the hall with her usual quick, determined step.  She entered the kitchen beaming a hello to Suzanne.

‘What a lovely surprise darling’ she embraced her daughter, ‘Ah, I see that your father has told you how things are with me’ she continued, feeling the tension in the room.  ‘Well, you’d better pour me a glass as you two have both started’ she continued, indicating the as yet untouched wine.

Suzanne was amazed and awed by her mother’s brisk sangfroid as she smiled warmly at them both and announced,

‘I’ll get us some super.  I’m sure there’s something edible in the freezer.  It’ll be nice to all sit down together for once.’  She proceeded to busy herself around the kitchen as though nothing in the world was wrong.  Suzanne and her father obediently took her lead, Jack pouring her a glass of red and Suzanne by laying up the big old kitchen table.  They were soon sitting together eating spaghetti bolognaise that Suzanne couldn’t help but notice that her mother barely touched even though she kept up a stream of lively conversation.

It was not the time to mention the possibility of an overseas posting.  Suzanne filled in all the details of Penny’s wedding and Rebecca’s new shop to keep up her side of the pretence.  When they’d finished their meal, none of them having done it justice, Doreen told her daughter the prognosis for her cancer as though she were the Doctor not the patient.  She had quite an aggressive case of colorectal cancer.  She was going into the Radcliffe on Monday and would undergo surgery and radiotherapy treatment which may alleviate the symptoms and slow the degenerative process but would not be a cure.

‘This means my darling that I may have a month to live maybe three.  I’ve had a full and happy life.  A happy marriage to your father and then blessed with you when we least expected to have a child.  I’ve also had an interesting and successful career. I want you to remember me in this way, not as I will be over the next however long it takes’ she smiled at her daughter with love shining from her eyes.  ‘It’s harder for you and Daddy than it is for me.  I know that my life is finite and I’ve made my peace with that’ she paused and closed her eyes briefly, ‘I’m tired now and I think I’ll go to bed’ she hugged and kissed Suzanne goodnight, and held her hand out to Jack to go up with her, ‘we’ll do something nice tomorrow.  I’m so glad you came home’ she finished.

In fact Doreen struggled on for just over four months, finely giving in on the second day of January 1975, she was just 65.  It was a harrowing process for Jack and Suzanne, the only positive that her illness had brought them closer together as a family.  In stark contrast to the last time that the four friends had been together, they all attended Doreen’s funeral in Oxford, sombrely dressed and low in spirits.  Suzanne was comforted by her friends’ support and tried her best to be as strong as her mother had been right to the last.

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