House of Cards [CHAPTER 12]

 


Twelve


A life of extended credit, Indian cooking, and English boys is never likely to keep a man comfortable for long. But of all those three, I would recommend extended credit.

Wickedness. Was that what he was up to? Yes, it probably was, Urquhart decided as he continued up the stairs. He leaned against the wall and laughed out loud, much to the consternation of two passing colleagues who scurried past, shaking their heads. Eventually he found himself at the Strangers’ Gallery, where members of the public squeeze themselves into rows of narrow benches to view the proceedings of the House below them. He caught the eye of a small and impeccably dressed Indian gentleman for whom he had obtained a seat in the Gallery, and signaled to him. The man struggled to extract himself from the packed public benches, squeezing past knees, mouthing apologies as he went, until he found himself standing before his host. Urquhart motioned him to silence and led him toward the small hallway behind the Gallery.

   “Mr. Urquhart, sir, it has been a most exciting and highly educational ninety minutes. I am deeply indebted to you for assisting me to obtain such a comfortable position.” The man’s accent was thick with the subcontinent and his head weaved from side to side in the mannered Indian way as he spoke.

   Urquhart knew this was balderdash, that even small Indian gentlemen such as Firdaus Jhabwala found the seating arrangement acutely uncomfortable, but he nodded in gratitude. They chatted politely while Jhabwala secured the release of his black hide attaché case from the attendant’s desk. When he had arrived he had firmly refused to hand it over until told that his entry to the Gallery would be forbidden unless he lodged it with the security desk.

  “I am so glad that we British can still trust ordinary working chaps with our possessions,” he stated very seriously, patting the case for comfort.

  “Quite,” replied Urquhart, who trusted neither the ordinary working chap nor Jhabwala. Still, he was a constituent who seemed to have various flourishing local businesses and had provided a £500 donation toward his campaign expenses, asking for nothing in return except a personal interview in the House of Commons. “Not in the constituency,” he had explained to Urquhart’s secretary on the phone. “It’s a national rather than local matter.”

  At £500 for a cup of tea it seemed a bargain. As Urquhart led the way he gave his guest a short tour—the glorious Pugin mosaics of Central Lobby, the frescoes of St. Stephen’s Chapel, the vaulted oak ceiling of Westminster Hall that soared so high and so dark it was almost lost to view. Those rafters were a thousand years old, the most ancient part of the palace. It was here that Jhabwala asked to stand for a while. “I would be grateful for a silent moment in this spot where King Charles was condemned and Winston Churchill lay in state.”

  The Chief Whip arched his brow in surprise.

  “Mr. Urquhart, please do not think me pretentious,” the Indian insisted. “My family associations with British institutions go back nearly two hundred and fifty years to the days of the Honorable East India Company and Lord Clive, whom my ancestors advised and to whom they loaned considerable funds. Both before that time and since my family has occupied prestigious positions in the judicial and administrative branches of Indian government.” There was no mistaking the pride, but, even as the words rang out in Jhabwala’s trilling voice, the eyes lowered in sadness. “Yet since Independence, Mr. Urquhart, that once great subcontinent has slowly crumbled into a new dark age. The modern Gandhi dynasty has shown itself to be far more corrupt than any my family ever served in colonial days. I am a Parsee, a cultural minority which has found little comfort under the new Raj. That is why I moved to Great Britain. My dear Mr. Urquhart, please believe me when I tell you that I feel more a part of this country and its culture than ever I could back in modern India. I wake up grateful every day that I can call myself a British citizen and educate my children in British universities.”

  “That is…so touching,” responded Urquhart, who had never been particularly keen on foreigners taking up places at British universities and had said so on several public occasions. He hurried his guest on toward the interview rooms beneath the Great Hall, their shoes clipping across the worn flagstones as the sun slanted through the ancient windows and staircases of light reached down to the floor.

  “And what precisely is it that you do, Mr. Jhabwala?” asked Urquhart hesitantly, afraid his inquiry might spark another monologue.

  “I, sir, am a trader, not an educated man, not like my sons. I left behind any hope of that during the great turmoil of Indian Independence. I have therefore had to find my way not with my brain but by diligence and hard work. I am happy to say that I have been moderately successful.”

“What sort of trade?”

  “I have several business interests, Mr. Urquhart. Property. Wholesaling. A little local finance. But I am no narrow-minded capitalist. I am well aware of my duty to the community. It is about that I wished to speak with you.”

  They had arrived at the interview room and, at Urquhart’s invitation, Jhabwala seated himself in one of the green chairs, his fingers running with delight over the gold embossed portcullis that embellished the upright leather back.

“So, Mr. Jhabwala, how might I help you?” Urquhart began.

“But no, my dear Mr. Urquhart, it is I who wish to help you.”

A furrow of puzzlement planted itself on Urquhart’s forehead.

  “Mr. Urquhart, I was not born in this country. That means that of necessity I am required to work particularly hard to gain respectability in the community. So I try. The local Rotary Club, various charities. And, as you know, I am a most enthusiastic supporter of the Prime Minister.”

“I’m afraid you did not see him to best advantage this afternoon.”

“Then I suspect he needs his friends and supporters more than ever,” Jhabwala declared, slapping the palm of his hand on the hide case that lay on the table in front of him.

  The furrows deepened on Urquhart’s brow as he struggled to find the meaning and direction behind his guest’s remarks.

“Mr. Urquhart. You know that I have great admiration for you.”

“Ye-e-e-s,” Urquhart said cautiously.

  “I was happy to assist in a modest way with your election appeal and would be happy to do so again. For you, Mr. Urquhart. And our Prime Minister!”

“You wish…to make…a donation?”

  The head was wobbling from side to side once more. Urquhart found it disconcerting.

  “Election campaigns must be so very expensive, my dear Mr. Urquhart. I wonder, would it be permissible for me to make a small donation? To replenish the coffers?”

  When it came to donations from foreign sources, Urquhart was well outside his comfort zone. Time and again such matters had dragged politicians into trouble, sometimes even into jail. “Well, I’m sure that…As you say, such things are costly…I believe we could…” For pity’s sake, Urquhart, pull yourself together! “Mr. Jhabwala, could I ask how much you were thinking of giving?”

  In reply Jhabwala twirled the combination lock on his case and flipped the two brass catches. The lid sprang open and he turned the case to face Urquhart.

“Would £50,000 be an acceptable gesture of support?”

  Urquhart resisted the ferocious temptation to pick up one of the bundles of notes and start counting. He noticed that all the wads were of used £20 notes and were tied with rubber bands rather than bank wrappers. He had little doubt that none of this money had passed through formal accounts.

  “This is…most generous, Mr. Jhabwala. Yes, certainly, as I say, most very generous. But…it is a little unusual, for such a large donation to the Party, to come—in cash.”

  “My dear Mr. Urquhart, you will understand that during the civil war in India my family lost everything. Our house and business were destroyed, we only narrowly escaped with our lives. A mob burned my local bank to the ground—with all its deposits and records. The bank’s head office apologized, of course, but without any records they could only provide my father with their regrets rather than the funds he had deposited with them. It may seem a little old fashioned of me, I know, but I still prefer to trust cash rather than cashiers.”

  The businessman’s teeth sparkled in reassurance. Urquhart was convinced this was trouble. He took a deep breath. “May I be blunt, Mr. Jhabwala?”

“But of course.”

  “It is sometimes the case with first-time donors that they believe there is something the Party can do for them, when in reality our powers are very limited…”

   Jhabwala nodded in understanding even as his head weaved from side to side. “There is nothing I wish to do other than to be a firm supporter of the Prime Minister. And yourself, Mr. Urquhart. You will understand as a local MP that my business interests occasionally bring me into most friendly contact with local authorities on matters such as planning permission or tendering for contracts. I may at some point ask for your advice but I assure you I am looking for no favors. I want nothing in exchange. Absolutely nothing, no, no! Except, perhaps, to request that I and my wife have the honor of meeting with the Prime Minister at some suitable time, particularly if he should ever come to the constituency. Might that be acceptable? It would mean a very great deal to my wife.”

  £500 for a cup of tea, £50,000 for a photograph. The man struck a generous bargain.

  “I am sure that could be arranged. Perhaps you and your wife would like to attend a reception at Downing Street.”

  “It would be an honor, of course, and perhaps to be able to have just a few private words with him, to express my great personal enthusiasm?”

  A little more than a mere photograph, then, but that was only to be expected. “You will understand that the Prime Minister himself couldn’t personally accept your donation. It would not be—how should I put it?—delicate for him to be involved with such matters.”

  “Of course, of course, Mr. Urquhart. Which is why I want you to accept the money on his behalf.”

  “I’m afraid I can only give you a rudimentary receipt. Perhaps it would be better if you delivered the money directly to the Party treasurers.”

  Jhabwala threw up his hands in horror. “Mr. Urquhart, sir, I do not require a receipt. Not from you. You are my friend. I have even taken the liberty of engraving your initials on this case. Look, Mr. Urquhart.” He tapped the initials with his fingertip. FU stood out in bold capitals of gold. “It is a small gesture which I hope you will accept for all your wonderful work in Surrey.”

  You crafty, ingratiating little sod, thought Urquhart, all the while returning Jhabwala’s broad smile and wondering how long it would be before he got the first call about planning permission. He should have thrown the Indian out but instead he reached across the table and shook Jhabwala’s hand warmly. An idea was forming in his mind. This man and his money were undoubtedly trouble, of that there was no longer a shred of doubt. The question was, trouble for whom?






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