House of Cards [CHAPTER 23]



Twenty-Three


The dust of exploded ambition makes for a fine sunset. And I love walking out in the evening.


Sunday, October 24

Weekend Watch. An entire nation watching. Lions and Christians—or one Christian, at least. Collingridge was beginning to relax as the program unfolded. He had rehearsed hard for the previous two days and the questions were much as expected, giving him an opportunity to talk with genuine vigor about the next few years. He had insisted that the questions about Charlie and the Observer allegations be kept until the end—he didn’t want those whores in the production gallery welching on their promise to keep that to ten minutes. Anyway, he wanted to be well into his stride. After forty-five minutes discussing the national interest and its bright future, surely any fair-minded man would find the questions simply mean and irrelevant?

  Sarah was smiling encouragingly from a seat at the edge of the studio floor as they went into the final commercial break. He blew a kiss at her as the floor manager waved his arms to let them know they were about to go back on air.

“Prime Minister, for the final few minutes of our program, I’d like to turn to the allegations printed in the Observer last week about your brother, Charles, and the implication of possible improper share dealing.”

  Collingridge nodded, his face serious, unflinching.

“I understand that earlier this week Downing Street issued a statement denying that your family had any connection with the matter, and suggesting that there may have been a case of mistaken identity. Is that correct?”

  “No connection, no. Not at all. There may have been some confusion with another Charles Collingridge for all I know, but I’m really not in a position to explain the extraordinary Observer story. All I can tell you is that none of my family has had anything whatsoever to do with Renox shares. You have my word of honor on that.” He spoke the words slowly, leaning forward, looking directly at the presenter.

“I understand that your brother denies ever having opened an accommodation address in a Paddington tobacconist’s.”

“Absolutely,” Collingridge confirmed. “It’s well known he’s not in the best of shape right now but—”

  “Forgive me for interrupting, Prime Minister, our time is very short. Earlier this week one of our reporters addressed an envelope to himself, care of Charles Collingridge, at the same address in Paddington used to open the bank account. It was a vivid red envelope to make sure it stood out clearly. Then yesterday he went to reclaim it. We filmed him. I’d like you to look at the monitor. I apologize for the poor quality but I’m afraid we had to use a concealed camera because the proprietor of the shop seemed very reluctant to cooperate.”

  The presenter swiveled his chair so that he, along with the audience, could see the grainy but still discernible video that was being shown on the large screen behind him. Collingridge flashed a look of concern at Sarah before cautiously turning his own chair. He watched as the reporter approached the counter, pulled out various pieces of plastic and paper from his wallet to identify himself, and explained to the shopkeeper that a letter was waiting for him in the care of Charles Collingridge who used this address for his own post. The shopkeeper, the same overweight and habitually offensive man who had served Penny several months before, explained that he wasn’t going to release letters except to someone who could produce a proper receipt. “Lots of important letters come here,” he sniffed. “Can’t go handing them out to just anyone.”

“But look, it’s there. The red envelope. I can see it from here.”

  With a scratch at his belly and a frown of uncertainty, the shopkeeper turned and extracted the envelopes from a numbered pigeonhole behind him. There were three of them. He placed the red envelope on the counter in front of the reporter, with the other two envelopes to one side. He was trying to confirm that the name on the envelope, c/o Charles Collingridge, matched that of the reporter’s identity cards, when the camera zoomed in on the other envelopes. It took a few seconds to focus before the markings on the envelopes came clearly into view. Both were addressed to Charles Collingridge. One bore the imprint of the Union Bank of Turkey. The other had been sent from the Party’s Sales and Literature Office at Smith Square.

  The presenter turned once more to his adversary. The Christian had been cornered.

  “The first envelope from the Union Bank of Turkey seems to confirm that this address was used to buy and sell shares in the Renox Chemical Company. But we were puzzled about the letter from your own Party Headquarters. So we called your Sales and Literature Office, pretending to be a supplier with an order for Charles Collingridge but with an indecipherable address.”

  Collingridge knew what he must do. He must stop this rape of his brother’s reputation and denounce the immoral and underhand methods used by the program, but his mouth had turned to desert sand and, while he struggled to find the words, the studio filled to the recorded sound of the telephone call.

“…so could you just confirm what address we should have for Mr. Collingridge and then we can get the goods off to him straight away.”

“Just one minute, please,” an eager young voice said. “I’ll call it up on the screen.”

There was the sound of a keyboard being tapped.

“Ah, here it is. Charles Collingridge, 216 Praed Street, Paddington, London W2.”

“Thank you. Very much indeed. You have been most helpful.”

  The presenter turned once again to Collingridge. “Do you want to comment, Prime Minister?”

  The Prime Minister stared, silent, wondering if this was the moment he should walk out from the studio.

“Of course, we took seriously your explanation that it might be a case of mistaken identity, of confusion with another Charles Collingridge.”

  Collingridge wanted to shout that it wasn’t his explanation, that it was nothing more than an off-hand remark made without prejudice by his press secretary, but already the presenter was continuing, cutting off any route of escape.

“Do you know how many other Charles Collingridges there are listed in the London telephone directory, Prime Minister?”

Collingridge offered no response, but sat looking grim and ashen faced.

  “I wonder if you’d be interested to know that there are no other Charles Collingridges listed in the London telephone directory. In fact, sources at British Telecom tell us that there is only one Charles Collingridge listed throughout the United Kingdom. And that’s your brother, Prime Minister.”

Again a pause, inviting a response, but none was offered.

  “Since this appears to be an abuse of insider information, we asked both the Renox Chemical Company and the Department of Health if they had a Mr. Charles Collingridge working for them. Renox tells us that neither they, nor their subsidiaries, have any Collingridge among their employees. The Department of Health’s Press Office was rather more cagey, promising to get back to us but they never did. However, their trade union office was much more cooperative. They, too, confirmed that there is no Collingridge listed as working at any of the Department’s 508 offices throughout the country.” The presenter shuffled his notes. “Apparently they did have a Minnie Collingridge who worked at their Coventry office until two years ago, but she went back to Jamaica.” The lion smiled as he closed his jaws.

  At the side of the stage Collingridge could see Sarah. Tears were running down her cheeks.

“Prime Minister, we’ve almost come to the end of our program. Is there anything you wish to say?”

  Collingridge sat staring at Sarah, wanting to run to her and embrace her and lie to her that there was no need for tears, that everything would be all right. He was still sitting motionless in his chair as the eerie silence that had settled in the studio was broken by the program’s theme music.

It was the end.

* * *

On his return to Downing Street Collingridge went straight to the Cabinet Room. He entered stiffly, looking slowly and with an exhausted eye around the room. He walked slowly around the Cabinet table, so eloquently shaped like a coffin, trailing his fingers on the brown baize cloth, stopping at its far end, where he had first sat as the Cabinet’s most junior member. It seemed so much longer than ten years ago, almost another lifetime.

  When he reached his own chair, in the middle of the room, beneath the gaze of that great survivor Walpole, he reached for the single telephone that stood beside his blotter. The Downing Street switchboard was a legendary institution, simply known as “Switch,” its female operators seeming to be endowed with powers of witchcraft that enabled them to reach anyone at any time. “Get me the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Please.”

It took less than a minute before the Chancellor was on the line.

“Colin, did you see it? How badly will the markets react?”

The Chancellor gave an embarrassed but honest opinion.

“Bloody, eh? Well, we’ll see. I’ll be in touch.”

Collingridge then spoke to the Foreign Secretary. “What damage, Patrick?”

“What’s not damaged, Henry? We’ve been trying to stuff our brothers in Brussels for years. Now they’re laughing at us.”

“Is it recoverable?”

Collingridge got a prolonged silence in answer.

“Bad as that, eh?”

“Sorry, Henry.”

And, for a fleeting moment, Collingridge thought the other man meant it.

  Next it was the turn of the Party Chairman. Williams was ancient, filled with experience, had seen sad times before. He knew such occasions were best dressed in formality rather than friendship. “Prime Minister,” he began, because he was speaking to the office rather than the man, “within the last hour I have had calls from seven of our eleven regional chairmen. Without exception, I am sorry to say, they believe the situation is quite disastrous for the Party. They feel that we are beyond the point of no return.”

“No, Teddy,” Collingridge contradicted wearily, “they feel that I am beyond the point of no return. There’s a difference.”

  He made one more phone call. It was to his private secretary asking him to seek an appointment at the Palace around lunchtime the following day. The secretary rang back four minutes later to say Her Majesty would be available to see him at one o’clock.

And with that it was done.

  He was supposed to feel relieved, a great burden lifted from his shoulders, but every muscle in his body hurt, as though he’d been kicked for hours by soccer thugs. He gazed up into the stern features of Walpole. “Oh, yes, you’d have fought the bastards, to the very end. You’d probably have won. But this office has already ruined my brother and now it is ruining me. I won’t let it ruin Sarah’s happiness, too,” he whispered. “Better let her know.”

A little while later he left the room in search of his wife, after he had dried his face.






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