House of Cards [CHAPTER 25]

 


Twenty-Five



All members of a Cabinet are referred to as Right Honorable Gentlemen. There are only three things wrong with such a title…


Urquhart sat at the end of the Cabinet table transfixed. As the murmuring and gasps of surprise broke out around him he would not, could not, join in. He gazed for a long time at the Prime Minister’s empty chair.

  He had done this. Alone. Had destroyed the most powerful man in the country. While the others around the table erupted in a babble of confusion, his mind turned to a memory forty years old, when as a raw military recruit he had prepared to make his first parachute jump 2,500 feet above the fields of Lincolnshire. Sitting in the open hatchway of a twin engine Islander, his feet dangling in the slipstream, gazing down at the landscape a million miles below. Jumping was an act of faith, of trust in one’s destiny, showing contempt for acts that terrified others. But the view from up there had been worth the danger. As he and the others had jumped the wind had picked up, knocking them aside; one had broken a leg, another a shoulder, but Urquhart had wanted to go straight back up and do it all over again.

  Now, as he gazed at the empty chair, he felt just the same. He gave an inner cry of joy while contriving outwardly to look as shocked as those around him.

* * *

While others lingered, milling around in confusion, Urquhart walked the few yards back to the Chief Whip’s office in 12 Downing Street. He locked himself in his private room and by 10:20 a.m. he had made two phone calls.

  Ten minutes later Roger O’Neill called a meeting of the entire Press Office at Party Headquarters. “You guys are going to have to cancel all your lunch arrangements today. I’ve had word that shortly after one o’clock this afternoon we can expect a very important statement from Downing Street. It’s absolutely confidential, I can’t tell you what it’s about, but we have to be ready to handle it. Push everything else aside.”

  Within the hour five lobby correspondents had been contacted with apologies to cancel lunch. Two of them were sworn to secrecy and told that “something big was going on in Downing Street.” It didn’t take a Brain of Britain winner to conclude that it was likely to have something to do with “the Collingridge Affair.”

  One of those facing the prospect of a canceled lunch was the PA’s Manny Goodchild. Instead of twiddling his thumbs, he used the formidable range of contacts and favors he had built up over the years to ascertain that every single member of the Cabinet had canceled engagements in order to be at Downing Street that morning, although the Number Ten Press Office refused to confirm it. He was a wise and experienced old hound and he smelled blood, so on a hunch he phoned the Buckingham Palace Press Office. That, too, like Downing Street, had nothing to say—at least officially. But the deputy press secretary had worked with Goodchild many years before on the ManchesterEvening News and confirmed, entirely off the record and totally unattributably, that Collingridge had asked for an audience at 1:00 p.m.

  By 11:25 a.m. the PA tape was carrying the story of the secret Cabinet meeting and the unscheduled audience expected to take place at the Palace. It was an entirely factual report. By midday IRN was feeding local radio with a sensationalized lead item that the Prime Minister “will soon be on his way for a secret meeting with Her Majesty the Queen. Speculation has exploded in Westminster during the last hour that either he’s going to sack several of his leading Ministers and inform the Queen of a major Cabinet reshuffle, or he’s going to admit his guilt to recent charges of insider trading with his brother. There are even rumors that she has been advised to exercise her constitutional prerogative and sack him.”

  Downing Street filled with the press pack, jostling, eager. The far side of the street from the famous black door became obscured by a forest of cameras and hastily erected television lights. At 12:45 Collingridge walked out onto the doorstep of Number Ten. He knew the presence of the crowd denoted treachery. Someone had betrayed him, again. He felt as though nails had been driven through his feet. He ignored the screams of the press corps, didn’t look up, wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. He drove off into Whitehall, pursued by camera cars. Overhead he could hear a helicopter hovering, pursuing. Another crowd of photographers was waiting outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. His attempt at a dignified resignation had turned into a public crucifixion.

* * *

The Prime Minister had asked not to be disturbed unless it was absolutely necessary. After returning from the Palace he had retired to the private apartment above Downing Street, wanting to be alone with his wife for a few hours, yet once again his wishes counted for nothing.

“I’m terribly sorry, Prime Minister,” his private secretary apologized, “but it’s Dr. Christian. He says it’s important.”

The phone buzzed gently as the call was put through.

“Dr. Christian. How can I help you? And how is Charlie?”

  “I’m afraid we have a problem,” the doctor began, his tone apologetic. “You know we try to keep him isolated, away from the newspapers so that he won’t be disturbed by all these allegations that are being thrown around. Normally we switch his television off and find something to divert him during news programs but…The fact is, we weren’t expecting the unscheduled reports about your resignation. I’m so deeply sorry you’ve had to resign, Prime Minister, but Charles is my priority. I have to put his interests first, you understand.”

“I do understand, Dr. Christian, and you have your priorities absolutely right.”

  “This morning he’s heard everything. All these allegations about shares. And your resignation. He’s deeply upset, it’s come as a great shock. He believes he’s to blame for all that’s happened and I’m sorry to tell you but he’s talking about doing harm to himself. I’d hoped we were on the verge of making real progress with him, but now I fear we’re on the brink of a real crisis. I don’t wish to alarm you unduly but he needs your help. Very badly.”

  Sarah saw the look of anguish that had stretched across her husband’s face. She sat beside him and held his hand. It was trembling.

“Doctor, what can I do? I’ll do anything, anything you want.”

“We need to find some way of reassuring him. He’s desperately confused.”

“May I talk to him, doctor? Now? Before this thing goes any further.”

  There was a wait of several minutes as his brother was brought to the telephone. Collingridge could hear the sound of protest and gentle confusion down the line.

“Charlie, how are you old boy?” Henry said softly.

“Hal, what have I done?”

“Nothing, Charlie, absolutely nothing.”

“I’ve ruined you, destroyed everything!” The voice sounded strangely old, hoarse with panic.

“Charlie, it’s not you who’s hurt me.”

  “But I’ve seen it on the television. You going off to the Queen to resign. They said it was because of me and some shares. I don’t understand it, Hal, I’ve screwed everything up. I don’t deserve to be your brother. There’s no point in anything anymore.” There was a huge, gulping sob on the end of the phone.

“Charlie, I want you to listen to me very carefully. Are you listening?”

Another sob filled with mucus and tears and grief.

“You have no need to ask my pardon. I’m the one who should be down on my knees begging for forgiveness. From you, Charlie.”

“Don’t be stupid—”

  “No, you listen, Charlie! We’ve always got through our problems together, as family. Remember when I was running the business—the year we nearly went bust? We were going down, Charlie, and it was my fault. Too tied up in my politics. And who brought in that new client, that order which saved us? Oh, I know it wasn’t the biggest order we’d ever had but it couldn’t have come at a more vital time. You saved the company, Charlie, and you saved me. Just like you did when I was a bloody fool and got caught drink-driving that Christmas.”

“I didn’t do anything really…”

  “The local police sergeant, the one who was a golfing friend of yours, somehow you persuaded him to fix the breath test at the station. If I’d lost my license I’d never have been selected for my constituency. I’d never have set foot in Downing Street. Don’t you see, you silly bugger, far from ruining it for me you made it all possible. You and me, we’ve always faced things together. And that’s just how it’s going to stay.”

“I don’t deserve—”

  “No, you don’t deserve, Charlie, not a brother like me. You were always around when I needed help but what did I do in return? I got too busy for you. When Mary left, I knew how much you were hurting. I should’ve been there, of course I should. You needed me but there always seemed other things to do. I was always going to come and see you tomorrow. Always tomorrow, Charlie, always tomorrow.” The emotion was cracking Collingridge’s voice. “I’ve had my moment of glory, I’ve done the things that I wanted to do. While I watched you become an alcoholic and practically kill yourself.”

  It was the first time that either of them had spoken that truth. Charles had always been under the weather, or overtired, or suffering from nerves—never uncontrollably, alcoholically drunk. There were no secrets any longer, no going back.

  “You know something, Charlie? I’ll walk out of Downing Street and be able to say bloody good riddance, screw the lot of them—if only I know I still have my brother. I’m just terrified that it’s too late, that I’ve neglected you too badly to be able to ask for your forgiveness—that you’ve been alone so long you don’t see the point in getting better.”

  There were tears of exquisite anguish at both ends of the phone. Sarah was hugging her husband as though he were about to be swept overboard by the storm.

“Charlie, unless you can forgive me, what’s been the bloody point? It will all have been for nothing.”

There was silence.

“Say something, Charlie!” he said in desperation.

“Bloody idiot, you are,” Charlie blurted. “You’re the best bruv any man could

have.”

“I’ll come and see you tomorrow. Promise. We’ll both have a lot more time for each other now, eh?”

“Sorry about all the fuss.”

“To tell you the truth, I haven’t felt this good in years.”






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