House of Cards [CHAPTER 22]

 


Twenty-Two


Politics. The word is taken from the Ancient Greek. “Poly” means “many.”

And ticks are tiny, bloodsucking insects.


Monday, October 18—Friday, October 22

Sterling began to be marked down heavily as soon as the Tokyo financial markets opened. It was shortly before midnight in London. By 9:00 a.m. and with all the Monday newspapers screaming about the challenge to Collingridge, the FT All Share Index was down 63 points. It fell a further 44 points by lunchtime. The money men don’t like surprises.

  The Prime Minister wasn’t feeling on top form, either. He hadn’t slept and had scarcely talked since Saturday evening, gripped by a strong depression. Rather than allow him to return to Downing Street that morning, Sarah kept him at Chequers and called the doctor. Dr. Wynne-Jones, Collingridge’s loyal and highly experienced physician, prescribed a sedative and rest. The sedative gave some immediate release; Collingridge had his first lengthy spell of sleep since the start of the Party conference a week earlier, but his wife could still detect the tension fluttering behind his closed eyelids. Even as he slept, his fingers remained firmly clamped onto the bedclothes.

  Late on Monday afternoon, after he had emerged from his drugged sleep, he instructed the besieged Downing Street Press Office to make it known that, of course, he would be contesting the leadership election and was confident of victory, that he was too busy getting on with Government business to give any interviews but would have something to say later in the week. Charlie wasn’t giving any interviews, either. He still wasn’t making a word of sense about the shares, and the resulting official “No comment” was never going to be enough to steady the family boat.

  Over at Party Headquarters Lord Williams ordered some more polling, and in a hurry. He wanted to know what the country really thought. The rest of the Party machinery moved less quickly. The rules for a contested leadership election were dusted off and found to be less than straightforward. The process was under the control of the Chairman of the Parliamentary Party’s Backbench Committee, Sir Humphrey Newlands, while the choice of timing was left in the hands of the Party Leader. The confusion only grew when it emerged that Sir Humphrey, displaying an acutely poor sense of timing, had left the previous weekend for a holiday on a private island in the West Indies and was proving extraordinarily difficult to contact. This resulted in a flurry of speculation among the scribblers that he was deliberately keeping his head low, playing for time while the awesome powers of the Party hierarchy were mobilized to persuade “the Lion of Leicester,” as Bearstead had been dubbed, to withdraw. By Wednesday, however, theSun had discovered Sir Humphrey on a silver stretch of beach somewhere near St. Lucia along with several friends, including at least three scantily clad young women who were obviously nearly half a century younger than he. It was announced that he would be returning to London as soon as flights could be arranged. Like Charlie Collingridge, his wife was offering no public comment.

  In such a stormy sea Henry Collingridge began to find himself drifting, cut off from the advice of his wise and wily Party Chairman. He had no specific reason to distrust Williams, of course, but the constant media prattle of a growing gulf between the two began to make a reality of what previously had been little more than irresponsible gossip. Distrust is a matter of mind, not fact. The proud and aging Party Chairman felt he couldn’t offer advice without being asked, while Collingridge took his silence as evidence of disloyalty.

  Sarah went to visit Charlie and came back late and very depressed. “He looks awful, Henry. I never realized quite how ill he was making himself. So much alcohol. The doctors say he was close to killing himself.”

“I blame myself,” Henry muttered. “I could have stopped him. If only I hadn’t been so preoccupied…Did he say anything about the shares?”

“He’s scarcely coherent; he just kept saying ‘£50,000? What £50,000?’ He swore he’d never been anywhere near a Turkish bank.”

“Bugger!”

“Darling…” She was biting her lip, struggling with the words. “Is it possible…?”

“That he’s guilty? I simply don’t know. But what choice do I have? He has to be innocent because if he did buy those shares, then who but a total fool is going to believe that I didn’t tell him to do so. If Charlie is guilty, I’m going down, too.”

  She gripped his arm in alarm. “Couldn’t you say that Charlie was ill, didn’t know what he was doing, that he somehow…found the information without your knowing…” Her excuse faded away. Even she couldn’t believe it.

  He took her in his arms, surrounding her, reassuring her with his body in a way that his words could not. He kissed her forehead and felt the warmth of tears on his chest. He knew he was close to tears, too, and felt no shame in it.

“Sarah, I’m not going to be the one to finish off Charlie. God knows he’s been trying hard enough to do that himself, but I am still his brother. Will always be that. On this one we’ll either survive, or sink if we must. But, whatever happens, we’ll do it as a family. Together.”

* * *

The party conference season had been six weeks of sleep deprivation and sweat, and it had been Mattie’s intention to take a little time off to recover. A long weekend had been enough. No matter how much exotic Chilean wine she drank or how many old films she watched, her thoughts kept straying back to her job. And Collingridge. And Urquhart. And Preston. Particularly Preston. She picked up several sheets of sandpaper and began rubbing down the woodwork of her Victorian apartment, but it didn’t help, no matter how much she attacked the old paint. She was still mad as hell with her editor.

  The following morning at 9:30 she found herself back in the office, rooted to the leather armchair in front of Preston’s desk, laying siege. He wasn’t going to put the phone down on her this time. But it didn’t help.

  She’d been there nearly an hour when his secretary peered apologetically round the door. “Sorry, Matts, the Big Man’s just called to say he’s got an outside appointment and won’t be in until after lunch.”

  The world was conspiring against Mattie, spreading sauce on her shirt. She wanted to scream and was building up to do so. It wasn’t brilliant timing, therefore, when John Krajewski chose that moment to come looking for his editor.

“I didn’t know you were in, Mattie.”

“I’m not. At least, not for much longer.” She stood up to go.

  Krajewski stood ill at ease; he often was in her company, liked her just a shade too much for comfort. “Look, Mattie, I’ve picked up the phone a dozen times to call you since last week, but…”

“But what?” she snapped.

“I guess I couldn’t be bothered getting my head bitten off.”

“Then you were…” She hesitated, about to snap and suggest he was correct in his assumption, but she bit it back. It wasn’t his fault. “You were wise,” she said, her voice softening.

  Since his wife had died in a traffic accident two years earlier, Krajewski had lost much of his self-confidence, both about women and about his professional abilities. He was able, had survived, but the protective shell he had built around himself was only slowly cracking. Several women had tried, attracted by his tall, slightly gangly frame and sad eyes, but he wanted more than their sympathy and a mercy fuck. He wanted something—someone—to shake him up and kick-start his life once again. He wanted Mattie.

“You want to talk about it, Mattie? Over dinner, maybe? Away from all this?” He made an irritated gesture in the direction of the editor’s desk.

“Are you putting the squeeze on me?” The slightest trace of a smile began to appear at the corners of her mouth.

“A gentle tickle, perhaps.”

  She grabbed her bag and swung it over her shoulder. “Eight o’clock. The Ganges,” she instructed, trying in vain to look severe as she walked past him and out of the office.

“I’ll be there,” he shouted after her. “I must be a masochist, but I’ll be there.”

  And he was. In fact he got there ten minutes early in order to get a beer down him before she arrived, five minutes late. He knew he would need a little artificial courage. The Ganges, just around the corner from Mattie’s flat in Notting Hill, was a tiny Bangladeshi restaurant with a big clay oven and a proprietor who ran an excellent kitchen during the time he allowed himself away from trying to overthrow the Government back home. When Mattie arrived she ordered a beer and kept pace with Krajewski until the last of the tikka had been scraped from the plate. She pushed it away from her, as though clearing space.

“I think I’ve made a terrible mistake, Johnnie.”

“Too much garlic in the naan?”

“I want to be a journalist. A good journalist. Deep down I think I have the makings of a great journalist. But it’s not going to happen with an arsehole as an editor, is it?”

“Grev does have his less attractive side, I suppose.”

“I gave up a lot to come down to London.”

“Funny, we blokes from Essex always think of it as coming up to London.”

“I’ve decided. Made up my mind. I’m not taking any more of Greville Preston’s crap. I’m quitting.”

  He looked deep into her eyes, saw the turmoil. He reached out and took her hand. “Don’t rush it, Mattie. The political world is falling apart, you need a job, a ringside seat, to be part of the action. Don’t jump before you’re ready.”

“Johnnie, you surprise me. That’s not the impassioned plea to stay on as part of the team that I was expecting from my deputy editor.”

“I’m not speaking as the deputy editor, Mattie.” He squeezed her hand.

“Anyway, you’re right. Grev is a shit. His only redeeming factor is that he’s totally uncomplicated about being a shit. Never lets you down. You know, the other night…”

“Tell me before I rip your balls off.”

The waiter arrived with yet another round of beers. He took the head off his before he replied.

“OK, newsroom shortly before the first edition deadline. A quiet night, not much late breaking news. Grev’s holding forth, spinning us some yarn about how he’d been drinking with Denis Thatcher the night of the Brighton bomb. No one believed it; DT wouldn’t be seen dead with Grev Preston, let alone drinking with him, and Lorraine in Features swears she was shagging him in Hove at the time. Anyway, he’s halfway through his pitch when his secretary shouts at him. A phone call. So he disappears into his office to take it. Ten minutes later he’s back in the newsroom and very flustered. Someone’s lit a fire under him. ‘Hold everything,’ he shouts. ‘We’re going to change the front page.’ We all think, Jesus, they must have shot the President, because he’s in a real state, nervous. Then he asks for your story to be put up on one of the screens and announces that we’re going to lead with it. But we’re going to have to beef it up.”

“It doesn’t make sense. The reason he spiked it in the first place was because he said it was too strong!” she protested.

  “Shut up and listen. It gets better. So there he is, looking over the shoulder of one of our general reporters who’s sitting at the screen, dictating changes directly to him. Twisting it, hyping it, turning everything into a personal attack on Collingridge. ‘We’ve got to make the bastard squirm,’ he says. And you remember the quotes from senior Cabinet sources on which the whole rewrite was based? I think he made them up, on the spot. Every single one of them. Didn’t have notes, just dictated them straight onto the screen. Fiction from beginning to end. Mattie, believe me, you should be over the bloody moon your name wasn’t on it.”

  “But why? Why on earth invent a story like that? What made him change his mind in such a hurry? Who made him change? Who was he talking to on the phone? Who was this so-called source in Bournemouth?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, but I think I do,” she whispered. “It has to be. Could only be. Benjamin Bloody Landless.”

“We don’t work for a newspaper anymore; it’s little more than a lynch mob run for the personal amusement of our proprietor.”

They both went back to their beers for a moment as they tried to drown their miseries.

“Oh, but it’s not just Landless, is it?” Mattie said, as though the beer had refreshed her mind.

“Isn’t it?” Krajewski had taken the opportunity of diving into his drink to run his eye yet again across Mattie. He was growing distracted, while she was growing more intent.

“Look, Grev couldn’t have concocted that article without my copy, and I couldn’t have written it without the leaked opinion poll. Believe in coincidence if you want, but there’s somebody else, someone on the inside of the Party who’s leaking polls and pulling strings.”

“What, leaking all that other material since the election, too?”

“Of course!” She finished the rest of her beer in triumph. The adrenalin was pouring into her veins. This was going to make the best story of all. It was what she had come south for.

“Johnnie, you’re right!”

“Am I?” he said, bewildered. He’d lost track of this one a couple of beers ago.

“This is definitely not the time to throw in the towel and resign. I’m going to get to the bottom of this even if I have to kill someone. Will you help me?”

“If that’s what you want—of course.”

“Don’t sound so bloody despondent.”

“It’s just that…” Oh, to hell with hesitation. “You remember you said you’d rip my balls off if I didn’t tell you everything.”

“But you have.”

“Could you do it all the same?”

“You mean…” Yes, he did, she could see it in his eyes. “Johnnie, I don’t do office romances.”

“Romance? Who’s talking romance? We’ve both had far too much beer for that. I’d be quite happy with a good old fashioned shag for now.”

She laughed.

“I think we both deserve it,” he insisted.

She was still laughing as they left the restaurant hand in hand.

* * *

The Downing Street statement—or briefing, in fact, because it wasn’t issued in the form of a press release but through the words of the press secretary, Freddie Redfern—was simple. “The Prime Minister has never provided his brother with any form of commercially sensitive Government information. He has never discussed any aspect of Renox Chemicals with him. The Prime Minister’s brother is extremely ill and is currently under medical supervision. His doctors have stated that he is not in a fit state to give interviews or answer questions. However, I can assure you that he categorically denies purchasing any Renox shares, having a false address in Paddington, or being involved in this matter in any way whatsoever. That’s all I can tell you at the moment. And that’s all you’re getting on the record.”

“Come on, Freddie,” one of the assembled correspondents carped, “you can’t get away with just that. How on earth do you explain the Observer story if the Collingridges are innocent?”

“I can’t. Mistaken identity, getting confused with another Charles Collingridge, how do I know? But I’ve known Henry Collingridge for many years, just as you’ve known me, and I know he’s incapable of stooping to such sordid depths. My man is innocent. You have my word on that!”

  He spoke with the vehemence of a professional placing his own reputation on the line along with that of his boss, and the lobby’s respect for one of their former colleagues swung the day for Collingridge—just.

“WE’RE INNOCENT!” bawled the front page of the Daily Mail the following day. Since no one had been able to unearth any fresh incriminating evidence, most of the other newspapers followed a similar line. For the moment.

* * *

“Francis, you’re the only smiling face I see at the moment.”

“Henry, it will improve. I promise. The hounds will scatter once they lose the scent.”

They were sitting together in the Cabinet Room, newspapers scattered across the brown cloth.

“Thank you for your loyalty, Francis. It means a great deal to me right now.”

“The storm clouds are passing.”

  But the Prime Minister was shaking his head. “I wish that were so, but you and I know this is only a breathing space.” He sighed. “I don’t know how much firm support I still have among colleagues.”

  Urquhart didn’t contest the point.

“I can’t afford to run away. I have to give them something to hold onto, show I’ve nothing to hide. It’s time to take the initiative once again.”

“What do you intend to do?”

  The Prime Minister sat quietly at his place, chewing the end of his pen. He glanced up at the towering oil painting of Robert Walpole, his longest-serving predecessor, that stood above the marble fireplace. “How many scandals and crises did he survive, Francis?”

“More than you will ever have to.”

“Or be able to,” Collingridge whispered, searching the dark, too clever eyes for inspiration. Suddenly he was distracted as the sun burst through the gray autumn skies, flooding the room with light. It seemed to give him hope. Life would go on.

“I’ve had an invitation from those bastards at Weekend Watch. They want me to appear this Sunday and put my own case—to restore the balance.”

“I trust them like I do a nest of adders.”

“Nevertheless, I think I must do it—and do it damned well! They’ve promised no more than ten minutes on the Observer nonsense, the rest on broad policy and our ambitions for the fourth term. Raising sights, lifting the argument out of the gutter. What do you think?”

“Me, think, Prime Minister? But I’m the Chief Whip, you don’t pay me to think.”

“I know I disappointed you, Francis, but right now I couldn’t ask for a better man than you at my side. After this is over, I promise—you’ll get what you want.”

Urquhart nodded his head slowly in gratitude.

“Would you do it? If you were standing in my shoes?” Collingridge pressed.

“Freddie Redfern says it’s too dangerous.”

“There are also dangers in doing nothing.”

“So?”

“At times like these, with so much at stake, I believe a man must follow his

heart.”

“Excellent!” Collingridge exclaimed, clapping his hands. “I’m glad you think that way. Because I’ve already accepted.”

  Urquhart nodded in approval, yet suddenly the Prime Minister swore. He was staring at his hands. The pen had leaked. His hands were filthy, he was covered in ink.

* * *

Penny Guy had been expecting a call from Patrick Woolton. Somehow he’d found the direct line number and had been using it, trying to invite her out once again. He’d been persistent but she had been adamant. It was a party conference thing, nothing more, although she had to admit that he had been fun and remarkably athletic for his age. A mistake, but a memory that hadn’t hurt anyone. Yet the call, when it came, was from Urquhart wanting to speak to her boss. She put the call through and a few seconds later the door to his office was carefully closed.

  It was some minutes later that Penny heard the sound of O’Neill’s raised voice, although she couldn’t decipher what he was shouting about. And when the light on the extension phone flashed off to indicate the call was finished, there was no sound of any kind from O’Neill’s office. She hesitated for another few minutes but, pressed on by a mixture of curiosity and concern, she knocked gently on his door and opened it cautiously.

  O’Neill was sitting on the floor in the corner of the room, propped up by the angle of two walls. His head was in his hands.

“Rog…?”

  He looked up, startled, his eyes full of chaos and pain. His voice croaked and his speech was disjointed.

“He…threatened me, Pen. Fucking…threatened me. Said if I don’t he would…I’ve got to alter the file…”

  She knelt down beside him, his head on her breast. She had never seen him like this. “What file, Rog? What have you got to do?”

  He tried to shake his head, wouldn’t answer.

“Let me help you, Rog. Please.”

His head jerked up, his expression wild. “No one can help me!”

“Let me take you home,” she said, trying to lift him.

  He shoved her away. “Get away from me!” he snarled. “Don’t touch me!” Then he saw the look of pain in her eyes and some of the fire inside him seemed to die. He collapsed in the corner, like a little boy, hiding his head in shame.

“I’m fucked, you see. Totally fucked. Nothing you can do. Anyone can do. Go away.”

“No, Rog—”

  But he pushed her away again, so savagely that she fell over backwards. “Fuck off, you little slut! Just…leave.”

  In tearful confusion she climbed to her feet. He was hiding his head from her again, wouldn’t talk. She left. She heard the door slam behind her and the sound of it being locked from the inside.






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