House of Cards [CHAPTER 14]





I once won second prize at school. I got a Bible, bound in leather. A note inside the cover, written in copperplate, said it was a prize for achievement.

   Achievement? For coming second?

   I read that Bible from cover to cover. I noticed that St. Luke said that we should forgive our enemies. I read the rest of his words, and the words of all the saints, truly I did. Nowhere did any of them mention a thing about forgiving our friends.


A time of respite, of pushing cares to one side, of summer showers and freshness, of ice cream and strawberries and lollipops and laughter, of remembering all those things that life should be about. Except the newspapers during August were bloody dreadful.

   With politicians and the main political correspondents all away, second-string lobby correspondents struggled to fill the vacuum and cement their careers. So they chased every passing whisper. What was on Tuesday only a minor piece of speculation on page five had by Friday sometimes led the paper. The August crowd wanted to make their mark, and the mark they chose all too frequently to make was on the reputation of Henry Collingridge. Backbenchers who had been left to molder and whom time had forgotten suddenly were honored with significant pieces describing them as “senior party figures,” those who were new to the game were called “up and coming,” and they were all given space so long as their views were salacious and spiced. Rumors about the Prime Minister’s distrust of his Cabinet colleagues abounded, as did reports of their dissatisfaction with him, and since there was no one around to authoritatively deny the rumors the silence was taken as authoritative consent. The speculation fed on itself and ran riot.

  Mattie’s report sparked rumors about an “official inquisition” into Cabinet leaks. Soon after, they had grown into predictions that there would after all be a reshuffle in the autumn. The word around Westminster had it that Henry Collingridge’s temper was getting increasingly erratic, even though he was enjoying a secluded holiday on a private estate many hundreds of miles away near Cannes.

  It was during these dog days of August that the Prime Minister’s brother also became the subject of a spate of press stories, mostly in the gossip columns. The Downing Street Press Office was repeatedly called upon to comment on suggestions that the Prime Minister was bailing out “dear old Charlie” from the increasingly close attentions of his creditors, including the Inland Revenue. Of course, Downing Street wouldn’t offer any comment—it was personal, not official—so the formal “no comment” that was given to the most fanciful of accusations was recorded in the news coverage, usually with a twist and innuendo that left it bathed in the most damaging light.

   August tied the Prime Minister ever more closely to his impecunious brother. Not that Charlie was saying anything stupid; he had the common sense to keep well out of the way. But an anonymous telephone call to one of the sensationalist Sunday newspapers helped track him down to a cheap hotel in rural Bordeaux. A reporter was sent to pour enough wine down him to encourage a few vintage “Charlie-isms,” but instead succeeded only in making Charlie violently sick over the reporter and his notebook. Then he passed out. The reporter promptly paid £50 to a big-busted girl to lean over the slumbering form while a photographer captured the tender moment for posterity and the newspaper’s eleven million readers.

   “‘I’M BROKE AND BUSTED,’ SAYS CHARLIE,” the headline screamed while the copy beneath it reported that the Prime Minister’s brother was nearly destitute and cracking under the pressure of a failed marriage and a famous brother. In the circumstances Downing Street’s “absolutely no comment” seemed even more uncaring than usual.

   The next weekend the same photograph was run alongside one of the Prime Minister holidaying in considerable comfort in the South of France—to English eyes a mere stone’s throw from his ailing brother. The implication was clear. Henry couldn’t be bothered to leave his poolside to help. The fact that the same newspaper a week earlier had been reporting how deeply Henry was involved in sorting out Charlie’s financial affairs seemed to have been forgotten—until the Downing Street Press Office called the editor to complain.

   “What the hell do you expect?” came the reply. “We always give both sides of the story. We backed him warts and all through the election campaign. Now it’s time to restore the balance a bit.”

  Yes, the newspapers during August were dreadful. Truly bloody dreadful.


It got worse. As the new month of September opened, the Leader of the Opposition announced he was resigning to make way for “a stronger arm with which to hold our banner aloft.” He had always been a little too verbose for his own good, that was one of the reasons why he’d been pushed—that, and losing the election, of course. He was killed off by the younger men around him who had more energy and more ambition, who made their moves quietly, almost without his knowing until it was too late. He announced his intention to resign in an emotional late-night interview from his constituency in the heartland of Wales, but by the weekend almost seemed to have changed his mind under pressure from his still intensely ambitious wife, until he discovered that he could no longer rely on a single vote in his Shadow Cabinet. Yet, once he had gone, they were eloquent in praise of their fallen leader. His death united his party more effectively than anything he had achieved in office.

  The arrival of a new political leader electrified the media and gave them raw meat on which to feast. It wasn’t enough to satisfy them, of course. It did nothing but whet their appetite for more. One down, more to follow?

  When Mattie received her summons to hurry back to the office she was with her mother in the kitchen of the old stone cottage outside Catterick.

“But you’ve only just got here, love,” her widowed mother protested.

“They can’t do without me,” Mattie replied.

  It seemed to mollify her mother. “Your da would be so proud of you,” she said as Mattie scraped charcoal from the slice of toast she had just scorched.

“You sure there’s not a young man you’re missing?” she added gaily, teasing.

“It’s work, Mum.”

  “But…Is there anyone you’ve found in London, caught your eye, sort of thing?” her mother pressed, eying her daughter with curiosity as she served up a plate of bacon and eggs fresh from the pan. Mattie had been remarkably quiet since she’d arrived a couple of days earlier. Something was going on. “I were so worried for you when you broke up with Whassisname.”

“Tony, Mum. He has a name. Tony.”

“Not since he was silly enough to give up on you.”

I gave up on him, Mum, you know that.” Not a bad sort, Tony, far from it, but no ambition to go South, not even with Mattie.

“So,” her mother muttered, wiping her hands on a tea towel, “is there anyone? In London?”

  Mattie didn’t speak. She stared out of the window, ignored the breakfast. It was answer enough for her mother.

  “Early days, is it, pet? Well, that’s good. You know, I was so worried when you went down to London. Such a lonely, unfriendly place. But if you’ve found your bit of happiness then that’s all right wi’ me.” She stirred a spoonful of sugar into her mug of tea. “Perhaps it’s not fair for me to say, but you know what your da thought about you. Nothing would’ve given him greater pleasure than to be around to watch you settle down.”

“I know, Mum.”

“Does he have a name?”

Mattie shook her head. “It’s not like that, Mum.”

  But her mother knew better, could see it in her face, in the way her daughter’s thoughts had been elsewhere, back in London, ever since she’d arrived. She put her hand on Mattie’s shoulder.

“All in good time. Your da would be ever so proud of you, pet.”

  Would he? Mattie doubted that. She’d done no more than touch the sleeve of this man but had spent the weeks since then fixated with him, lying awake, jumping when the phone rang, hoping it was him. Conjuring up thoughts she should never have about someone who was three years older than her father would have been. No, her dad would never have understood, least of all approved. Mattie didn’t understand it, either. So she said nothing and went back to her plate of cooling breakfast.





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