Gail Sheridan wife of Tommy Sheridan
Picture: Robert Perry
How Gail Sheridan coped with the accusations against her husband...
YEARS ago, when Gail Sheridan and I first met, she told this story about how she had fancied being a nun when she was a teenager. She gave the tale her best performance - she can be very funny, very theatrical, very loud - describing a school trip to a convent. Oh, the Mother Superior was so beautiful! Calm and serene. (She was, of course, fully aware of the comedic impact of choosing attributes utterly opposite to her own. Gail, wife of Scottish socialist Tommy Sheridan, is a very glamorous woman, but in Hollywood terms more Chicago than The Nun's Story.) Anyway, she's such a performer that you would never be sure where even half a grain of truth lay, but more likely the story was just a vehicle for the punchline. Forget it, Gail, her parish priest told her on the bus home, these women take a vow of silence.
It has, of course, taken on an even more ironic twist since the would-be nun became embroiled in one of Scotland's most notorious sex scandals. She certainly didn't take it quietly. In her own words, she "screamed like a banshee" for her husband to sue the Rupert Murdoch media empire, News International, after the News of the World published stories of Tommy quaffing champagne, having three-in-a-bed sex romps and indulging in cocaine and Ecstasy.
In November 2004, Tommy unexpectedly resigned as leader of the Scottish Socialist Party. Gail was newly pregnant, and Tommy claimed he wanted to spend more time at home. But rumour had it that he was soon to be exposed as the Scottish MP who had visited sex clubs with Anvar Khan, a News of the World journalist. When the headlines exploded, Tommy sued, and in July last year the case finally came to court. The newspaper put up 18 witnesses to back its story, including three MSPs from Tommy's own party - Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie and new leader Colin Fox. Tommy, as he had done all his life, challenged the establishment by sacking his entire legal team and taking over his own case. He won.
There is no doubt that Gail played a major part in that victory. She was his top-of-the-bill star witness, the final performer in court. She had the audience laughing, as she always does. What would she have done if she thought Tommy had done it? Put him at the bottom of the Clyde, she told the court, with a concrete slab tied to his neck.
I saw my wedding photo right in the middle of all this filth, these filthy women, all this filthy talk
We have grown used to MPs' wives wearily standing by their men. Usually, we remember the husband's name rather than the wife's. David Mellor, Tim Yeo, Cecil Parkinson, John Prescott, Paddy Ashdown, Mark Oaten... The women, even the 'fragrant' Mary Archer, end up with gritted teeth and a halo of humiliation. But Gail, a British Airways steward, is a more spirited political wife than we are used to, running the gauntlet of media attention outside the Court of Session each day with the composure of Posh Spice. Still, we were never in any doubt that we were watching a bravura performance. And most of us wondered what, behind the broad smile and big sunglasses, Gail was actually thinking. Did she really believe Tommy? Really, really?
FROM behind her bedroom curtains, Gail peeped down on Glasgow's Paisley Road West. It was Sunday morning, and there were journalists all round her house and up the hill opposite, where her sister Gillian lives. As soon as Tommy closed the door behind him, they swarmed after him. He hadn't seen the headlines yet. He had told Gail to stay upstairs, and he would pick up the paper and get some rolls. Then he was going for a sunbed. "See when I think about it," she laughs. "I just said, 'Aye, all right then.'"
For most of the day before, Gail had been in bed at home, an immaculate terraced house overlooking the busy main road. It was like Sauchiehall Street up in her room, chairs all round the bed. Her parents. Gillian. Tommy's mother. Tommy's sisters. Their husbands. Gail was ill and still in shock about the pregnancy. She and Tommy had wanted children, but nothing had happened, and Gail had given up. "I was 40 and I thought, 'Well, that'll be that... Too old, left it too late.' But I wasn't getting into this thing that I've watched loads of people get into, IVF and total obsession, because I thought if I went down that road I could get dead obsessed with it, you know. I had seen too many lassies do that."
She felt constantly nauseous in those early weeks and months. That's why, when Tommy resigned as party leader, she knew nothing of what was about to unfold. Politics? The party? She couldn't have cared less. But surely she knew that something was afoot when he resigned? She shakes her head. "Remember," she says, "you phoned at that time asking for an interview?" She had promised she would do it eventually, but not then because she was feeling so ill. She was preoccupied and vulnerable. If you told her she looked nice, she would cry. If you told her she looked a mess, she would cry too. "You couldn't say anything to me. So God knows what he must have been feeling. God knows."
A News of the World reporter was hanging round all that Saturday. At night, Tommy and his brother-in-law walked to the all-night garage to get the first edition. It had a story about Boris Johnson on the front page. They didn't realise that this was the English edition. Now, behind the curtain, waiting for Tommy to bring the Scottish edition, Gail watched a car pull up. It was Mrs Torretti from church. She had brought Gail a statue of St Gerard, patron saint of unborn children. Still in her pyjamas, Gail knew that she couldn't open the door. Mrs Torretti knew nothing of what was going on. Gail doubted that she even knew a paper called the News of the World existed. "I just didn't know what to do. I cry every time I think about that, because I left her standing chapping the door. She's a lovely, wonderful, pure wee woman, and that filth were looking at her. It made me feel sick. The only thing that made me cry an awful lot that day was Mrs Torretti at the door."
But not the allegations. When Tommy returned, Gail watched him run up and down the stairs with a phone in his hand, organising television appearances. He was trying not to show it, but he was like a raging bull, Gail recalls, and had gone purple. By this time, family and friends were on their way. "Don't let her read it," Tommy was told. Gail rebelled. She was a grown-up. She could handle it. But afterwards, she did fear she would miscarry. The front page drew her like a magnet. "I had my back to the wall and I just remember realising I was on the floor and thinking, 'Oh my God, have I fainted?' But I think I just slumped down against the wall. I was crouched on the floor... I can't really remember... but I saw my wedding photo right in the middle of all this filth, these filthy women, all this filthy talk."
Gail is on the sofa opposite me in her sitting-room, a light, spacious room with polished wooden floors. She meets my gaze head on when I say there must have been a time - even just a few minutes - when she believed it. "Nope," she says. Oh, come on - she reads nine pages about her husband's supposed affairs and she doesn't have one single doubt? "Never for one solitary second." She repeats the words slowly, with emphasis, her voice hard and adamant and her eyes completely unflinching. "Not for one solitary second." She must have. "Do you know, when I opened it up, the headline was... I can't remember, but something like, 'I walked on him with high heels'. And I just remember thinking, 'Pish! Ab-so-lute pish!' See him? Tommy can't stand pain. I don't think a lot of men have a high pain threshold, compared to women. And you know what your man kind of likes. Do you know what I mean? Maybe I'm Mrs Boring here, but no... I swear on the face of Jesus, I looked at it, looked at her, looked at the headlines and thought, 'Pish.'"
But as the case unfolded, as more and more women came forward, did she not start to have doubts then? "You know," she says thoughtfully, "it's funny you saying that, because it was the opposite. And the opposite of the public view that I came across. Loads of people said that as more of these women came forward, the more they realised it was just farcical. If it had just been Fiona McGuire, that would have been worse. But they couldn't have it just Fiona McGuire - the lassie was not right." McGuire, it transpired in court, had a history of mental-health problems. "She had terrible problems. He says God help her [she often refers to Tommy simply as 'he', like a deity], and he feels sorry for her, but I don't. I don't have that kind of compassion in me. I don't feel sorry for her."
Tommy's fellow MSPs, then - did she not find it hard to believe they would lie when the future of their whole party was at stake? "But they meant nothing to me. They were Tommy's work colleagues." So they lied? "In politics?" she demands incredulously. "I thought that was a prerequisite for politicians - that you can stand up, be convincing and lie. That is what you've got to be able to do. And he was warned about people like Carolyn Leckie for years. They were constantly pulling him down, slagging him off. That didn't come as a shock to me. Politicians stabbing each other in the back? Commonplace in that game."
But didn't she believe her own politician was lying? This, she says, "is probably making me sound like a diddy. And I'm not really." That much is obvious. Beneath the gallus Glasgow humour, Gail has more than her fair share of steel and determination. But there were practical reasons why she believed Tommy.
Cabin crew are used to keeping detailed diaries. She was given work schedules a month in advance and marked everything, including days off, in her diary. She doesn't understand why nobody in the case could pin down dates, but the closest was Anvar Khan, claiming that Tommy was in a Manchester sex club one Friday or Saturday night in October, November or December of 2001. "I got my diary out and I could tell you where I was and what time I was in on every one of those nights. They obviously must have thought, 'Air hostess - she's away all the time.' But I'm Glasgow-based. We don't really do night stops, certainly not at the weekend. And if we do, I swap them. If I do have to do them, it's usually in Edinburgh, and Tommy usually came and stayed with me."
The Anvar Khan night, she says, Tommy is meant to have met Khan at the airport, had sex in a flat in Ibrox, then driven to a Manchester sex club. "Tommy must have got bored with all that, because then he supposedly speaks to some woman behind the bar and says, 'We'll go back to your house,' so they all go back to a flat in Manchester, and then they all come back up the road. How long is that going to take? I take it he's supposed to come back at eight in the morning or something, and I'm supposed to say, 'Did you have a nice wee day?' Aye, right."
Fidelity is a bigger issue for some people than others, but Gail insists it is a huge one for her. If Tommy was unfaithful? I'd be interviewing her in Cornton Vale prison. And all this stuff about cocaine and Ecstasy - Tommy's too frightened to take a paracetemol, she says. You know, she says to me, about Tommy and alcohol. True, I interviewed him back in 2000, long before any of these allegation arose. He was teetotal then. If Gail has a glass of wine after work, Tommy invariably raises an eyebrow. "It's only a glass," she tells him. "It's only Tuesday," he says. "See if I found out after all these years of having to listen to that about drink that he was knocking back the champagne... If I found out he'd had three affairs in four years, that he was going to sex clubs when he knows my opinion on stuff like that..." Her voice hardens. "I wouldn't even miss a blink."
The News of the World had been after him for years, she says. Why? Because he is a socialist and it is anti-trade-union. Lots of people - some famous - warned them not to take on News International. It was too powerful. Win or lose, they would be destroyed. But she never wanted to back down. Not even that day when black cloaks were swirling round the Court of Session in chaos because Tommy had sacked his legal team. Her eyes filled with tears when Tommy told her, but he was happy. It was a Friday afternoon, and it was like being let out of school early for the weekend. Come on, he told Gail, they could pick up their baby daughter Gabrielle early.
In the car on the way to Glasgow, she kept turning to look at him. "He was a new person. He looked totally different." He had been frustrated by his legal team's refusal to ask the questions he wanted them to. Now he had control. "He just looked relieved. It was like, right, the trial begins now." She watched him getting organised at top speed. "I looked at him as he was driving and I thought, 'I am so proud of you,' to the extent that I welled up - in fact, I could well up right now thinking about it. It took my breath away. Took my breath away, the balls that he had. I just thought, 'You are so brave.'"
She didn't want to cry. "It was a bit frivolous - what was I greetin' for? But in between the 90 million phone calls, I said it to him. I said, 'Jesus, I'm dead proud of you. I really am dead proud of you.' And that kind of threw him, because we don't really talk to each other like that. 'Whatever you do,' I told him, 'I'm behind you.'" Later, she would say in court how proud she was. But this was the private moment. "It probably sums up the whole trial for me: never been more proud of Tommy, never been more in love with him."
they met at school, Lourdes Secondary, just along the road. He was called Tam back then, and what she remembers is the white streak in his hair. People thought he had dyed it blonde, but it was a birthmark. They were in the same modern studies class, but their teacher considered Gail the more dominant. Lots of girls fancied Tommy, but she didn't. He was in the football team, and she thought he was a bit cheeky. He thought she was a bit stuck up.
Once, when she was 18, he gave her a lift home from work and kissed her. But she had a long-term boyfriend. They split up briefly when she was 23, and Gail went out with Tommy, but by then he was into all that politics stuff, she says dismissively. When they were in their late 20s, she heard about Tommy being imprisoned for not paying his poll tax and started sending him cards from exotic locations. 'Hope you're having a nice time,' she wrote. The next thing she knew - and now she can't remember how it really happened - they were an item.
They still live in the same area they did as children, close to parents and siblings. Family is Gail's priority. She talks about politics with a slightly scathing indulgence. She has always admired Tommy's principles, even shares most of them. But whenever the subject of Tommy giving half his salary to the party came up, Gail always said she would prefer the money, thanks. When making tea, she pulls out a mug with Che Guevara on it. When Gabrielle sees it, she says, "Daddy!" "And I say, no," says Gail, "he just thinks he is."
She doesn't get it when people say the court case must have been the most awful thing in the world. That first day, when she and Tommy drove to Edinburgh for the trial, he said this was all going to be quite heavy, but she wouldn't listen. "Awful and terrible was when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months before my wedding. That was pure fling-yourself-in-the-Clyde. That was unbearable. When Tommy's mum was diagnosed with cancer, that was awful. I go to my work and there are young lassies who have breast cancer. That is horrible. People who are dealing with their parents dying or parents who are not well... And I can't even enter into the subject of weans. People whose weans are dying... See a court case with daft lassies coming in and saying this and that and the other, I'm afraid that's just a circus. It doesn't compare."
Maybe that's a lesson she learned before Tommy, now leader of his new party, Solidarity, did. I read her a quote from his interview with me in 2000, an interview in which he said he didn't really believe in marriage, but that he was getting married in a Catholic church for Gail's sake. Politics, he said then, would always come first, Gail knew that. Even if he had children, it would come first. "If I experienced personal tragedy in terms of my family," he continued, "I'd be extremely upset, but I feel I'd have something to hold on to in my politics. It's the constant in my life." He must surely have discovered that family, not politics, provided the rock when he needed it?
His wife, in particular. She smiled every morning for the press, deposited Tommy in court like a child in a classroom, then went into the toilet, locked the door, crouched on the floor and cried. Whatever she thought behind closed doors, the world wasn't going to know about it. Did that change Tommy? Gail considers his words from 2000. "I don't think he would totally dismiss what he said then, but I think he would say he has different priorities in the form of Gabrielle. I would say he has been dealt a blow in his politics, but not really in his beliefs. In fact, if anything, it has strengthened them, because fighting injustice was always what Tommy was about - and that's what he was doing, fighting against a conglomerate that thinks it can say what it likes about people. And you know, it can."
But not about Tommy Sheridan. The News of the World was ordered to pay £200,000 compensation. Its lawyers have appealed, but the case won't be heard until December. (The perjury investigation, too, remains ongoing.) The Sheridans haven't seen a penny, and Gail suspects News International will appeal forever rather than pay. "We never get money like that, our type." But there are few credit cards she would rather use than Rupert Murdoch's. Earlier on, in her kitchen, she had explained plans for an extension at the back of the house. If she ever does get any of that money, she's going to put a plaque up. "It will say that this extension was kindly donated by the News of the World. Gaun yersel'."