In Balzac’s The Finger of God, our favourite accident-prone French realist recounts how he watches from a Paris bridge while a jealous seven-year old girl pushes her little brother into the Bièvre River, drowning him. As the mother realises what has happened (but not necessarily who has perpetrated it) we leap forward an untold number of years. The mother and her remaining children have just come back from the theatre, downcast. All go their separate ways except the youngest son, a bawling baby at the time of the accident, who stays and recounts to a family friend how they had all fallen silent upon witnessing a scene of the play where a man drowns his son. The mother and daughter then re-enter the room and the girl flashes her mother a frightened glance, worried that ‘these remarks would aggravate the punishment hanging over her’. It is a mischievously ambiguous phrase. Punishment for the current embarrassment, or punishment for the long-ago events? Has she never been punished? Does her mother even know of her guilt? Intriguingly, as time passes, is the potential punishment increasing or decreasing?
I thought of this moment of fearful anticipation today as I read about the fate of Sir Peter Viggers, MP for the constituency of Gosport since 1974. A few days ago it was gleefully reported in the press that he claimed on his MP expense allowance £1,645 for a duck island in an act utterly within spirit and legislature of the rules as they existed at the time, and yet he has subsequently been forced to retire. That the rules need to change goes without saying; what struck me was that this bombshell came fourteen days into the series of revelations. I wonder what the last fortnight of Sir Peter’s life have been like?