I must have been 10. I think she thought it would be a good press opportunity to meet someone who was also the offspring of a greengrocer. It was an election year after all; that's when politicians agree to do an endless succession of things they don't want to do such as meet people, and then meet more people.
On this warm day in May, it was my turn to have my cheek pinched by the formidable finger and thumb of Britain's Most Non-Man. Before she arrived, I was briefed by a gentleman in his forties with slicked-back hair, square glasses and a spherical belly that made it look like he was concealing a space-hopper. "You know who you're going to meet today, don't you?" he asked in a patronising, patriarchal tone that suggested he didn't trust children and thought John Craven a dangerous subversive. "Yes," I said. "Right, so you might want to think about relinquishing your figurine to your father." I didn't know what he meant. Luckily, my dad was close by to take my Hulk from me.
According to Hopper-Belly, I was to greet her at the front of the shop, lead her through the main aisle, present her with a jar of our beetroot and then take her out into the backyard to show her our big freezer. It sounded simple to me. I wasn't intimidated by her visit at all. As a 10-year-old, my knowledge of her was limited to a frozen face encased in a box graphic above Michael Buerk's shoulder. But the nervous exhilaration emanating from the wobbly throng surrounding my dad's shop was enough to power the No.62 to Chadwell Heath and back again.
No one here today was going to throw an egg or a shoe. It was 1987. Unemployment was high but it was falling. Thanks to some great blokes in the City who talked into bricks and only had to twang their red braces to adjust the interest rate, the new made-up economy was booming. Saatchi and Saatchi had made some excellent posters. The Conservatives' political broadcast had a fluttering Union Jack in it. Thanks to the ingenuous reporting of the unblemished tabloid press, the Labour movement was still an unprincipled menace led by a spineless communist who looked like a rasher of bacon. The small plastic flags were out in full force here in this little pocket of Essex.
By the time we'd reached the backyard, everyone was relaxed. The beetroot presentation had gone down well. Even the PM was looking comfortable with proceedings."Let's go into the big freezer!" she said, enthusiastically. Her advisers looked at each other, unsure of how to advise. By the time they had formulated a plan, I took her dainty hand and led her into the Spicers' dark, cold box of seasonal produce. As we perused a row of enticing green icebergs, I heard a metallic clunk. This was followed by a collection of raised but mumbled voices. The thick freezer door had closed on us. One of her advisers had accidentally leaned on the door and locked us in. Only we could open it from the inside. I let go of her hand and walked over to the door to open it again but was stopped in my tracks. The dainty hand had returned to my shoulder. I turned round to look at her. "Not yet," she said.
The voices continued to rumble from beyond the box, interspersed with thumps on the door and the odd cry of "Prime Minister? P...Prime Minister?" She sat on a sack of Maris Pipers and sighed, staring at her inward-pointing shoes. I stood opposite her, awkwardly. "Is there something wrong, Prime Minister?" I asked. She raised her head and looked at me like I imagine she looked at her own children. Or her dogs, if she had dogs. I'm not going to Google that.
A thousand thoughts seemed to build inside her coiffured head as she continued to lock my gaze. For that moment, I felt an indescribable bond with her. We were as one. She wasn't the Prime Minister in here. She was the child of a greengrocer just like me. And in our own ways, we both went on to change the country of our birth - she, via free markets and privatisation, me, via irregular blogs on the Huffington Post.
My question remained unanswered. Nothing was said between us. Well, she did say one thing. She said "Open the door, it's bloody freezing in here."
And with that, our moment had vanished into the temperature-controlled air. She was PM again. And as she threw me a dismissive wave and disappeared into the Essex swarm, I couldn't help but wonder what made her want to stay in there with me. What was going through her mind? Did I see the real woman in that freezer? Did I see someone who needed just a few minutes to deal with the burden of the decisions she had made? The lives she had changed? Perhaps. Perhaps, she just had sore feet.
I found my dad again and reclaimed my Hulk. I made my bright green, angry figurine perform several dramatic leaps over the display of loose carrots. Up until then, my mind had been preoccupied with trying to understand this complex and divisive personality, but my uncharacteristic concern soon departed with her official car as it rejoined the A12.
It has yet to return.
A sketch by Michael Spicer:
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