House of Cards [CHAPTER 27]



 Twenty-Seven


A politician should never spend too much time thinking. It distracts attention from guarding his back.


Tuesday, October 26

The Prime Minister’s private office, his inner sanctum. Urquhart found him at his desk signing a thick pile of letters. He was wearing reading glasses, something he rarely did with others around. Even more unusual, there wasn’t a single newspaper in sight.

  “Henry, I haven’t had a chance to speak with you since yesterday. I can’t tell you how shocked—devastated I was.”

“No sympathy, Francis, no sackcloth and ashes. I feel strangely content with the situation. A burden lifted. And all those other clichΓ©s.”

“As I listened to you I felt as if I were…falling out of the sky, quite literally.”

  “Happy landings.” The Prime Minister cast his spectacles aside and rose from his desk, leading Urquhart over to two well-stuffed armchairs overlooking the park. “Anyhow I don’t have time for self-pity. Humphrey Newlands is on his way over so we can get the leadership election under way. Then I’m off to spend the rest of the day with Charlie. It’s marvelous to have time for such things.”

Urquhart was astonished to see he meant every word of it.

“You wanted a private chat, Francis?”

“Yes, Henry. Look, I know you’re not going to support any particular candidate in the election, not publicly at least…”

“It would be most improper.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t stop you taking a keen academic interest. We both know you’ve been badly let down by some of your colleagues recently.”

“The term ‘ungrateful bastards’ does somehow spring to mind.”

  “You have a right—I would argue you even have a duty—to make sure you leave the Party in safe hands. Now as Chief Whip I’m not going to stand myself, of course. Entirely neutral. But that wouldn’t stop me keeping you informed of what’s going on.”

  They both knew that a prime minister in his last days still had influence —political followers and personal friends, as well as the not inconsiderable matter of his nominations for the Resignation Honors List with its peerages and knighthoods that every retiring prime minister was allowed. For many senior members of the Party this would be their last chance to rise above the mob and achieve the social status their wives had so long aspired to.

  Collingridge scratched his chin. “You’re right, Francis. I haven’t worked all these years simply to watch someone throw everything away. So tell me, how do things look?”

  “Early days, difficult to tell. I think most of the press is right to suggest it’s an open race. But I’d expect things to develop quickly once they get going.”

“No front runners, then?”

“Well…” Urquhart wobbled his head from side to side, just as Jhabwala had done.

“Come on, Francis. Your gut feeling is good enough for me.”

“My nose tells me Michael Samuel has something of a head start.”

“Michael? Why so?”

“In a short and furious race there’s no time for developing solid arguments.

It’s all about image. Michael’s good on television.”

“A media man.”

“And inevitably he’ll have the subtle support of Teddy and Party Headquarters.”

  Collingridge’s face clouded. “Yes, I see what you mean.” He drummed his fingers loudly on the arm of his chair, weighing his words carefully. “Francis, it’s not my intention to interfere but neither can I play the innocent. If the Party is to have a free and fair contest, we can’t have Party Headquarters messing about with things. Not after their recent performance; the wretched election, all those leaks, not to mention that bloody opinion poll.” He spat out the last words. For all his protestations of contentment there was still a tempest raging inside. “And one thing above all the others I won’t forgive. You know, someone leaked the news of my visit to the Palace yesterday. I’m told that came out of the back door at Smith Square. How dare they? How did I become the clown in a media circus!” His fist smacked down on the arm of his chair.

“You were owed a little dignity, Henry.”

  “It’s not just me; it’s Sarah, too. She doesn’t deserve that.” He was breathing more strenuously, in anger. “No, I won’t bloody-well stand for it. I will not have Teddy’s merry men interfering in this fucking election!” He leaned toward Urquhart. “I don’t suppose you have much love for Teddy, either, not after he did such a hatchet job on your reshuffle proposals. I’m sure you guessed that at the time.”

Urquhart nodded, glad to have his suspicions confirmed.

“What can I do, Francis? How can I make sure this election is run properly?”

“My interests are like yours, I simply want to ensure fair play. People need time to think, not to be swept along in a rush to judgment.”

“So?”

  “So give them a little longer to make their choice. Slow the pace down. Enjoy your last few weeks in office. I’ve got nothing against Michael but you should make sure you hand over to a successor chosen by the Party, not the media.”

“And least of all by that old goat Teddy.”

“You might say that, as Prime Minister, but as Chief Whip I couldn’t possibly comment.”

  Collingridge chuckled. “I don’t want to extend the period of uncertainty any longer than necessary but I suppose an extra week or so couldn’t do any great harm.”

“Under the rules, the timing is entirely in your hands, Henry.”

  Collingridge glanced at his watch. “Look, Humphrey will be outside. Better not keep him waiting any longer. He’ll offer his advice and I shall listen to it most attentively, although I suspect his expertise is more in the area of beach resorts than leadership races. I’ll stew on it overnight, let you know in the morning what I decide. You’ll be the first to know, Francis.” He led the Chief Whip toward the door. “I’m so grateful to you. I can’t tell you how comforting it is to have someone like you around, someone with no ax to grind.”

* * *

They had come back to her apartment, kicked the door closed, laughed as they had ripped off their clothes, stumbled across the floor, hadn’t even made it as far as the bedroom. Now Mattie and Krajewski lay in a cat’s cradle of limbs. He thought he had never been happier, tangled together on her sofa; her mind was already elsewhere.

“Collingridge?” he muttered, removing his hand from her unblemished breast. She didn’t seem to notice the edge of disappointment. “I’ve been thinking, Johnnie. About Charlie Collingridge.”

“I lie sweating between your thighs and you’re thinking of another man,” he protested, half joking.

“I know he’s an alcoholic and everything,” she continued, oblivious, “and they’re often not responsible for their actions.”

“I’m not sure I am when I’m with you.”

“But it’s all too simple.”

“Does life have to be complicated?” he begged, pressing himself into the small of her back.

“I just can’t believe Charlie Collingridge was capable of it, let alone had the means.”

“There’s only one man who knows,” Krajewski muttered, “and he’s locked away in some clinic or other.”

She turned to face him. “Where?”

He sighed as he felt his passion subside. “I think it’s supposed to be a closely guarded family secret.”

“I want to find him.”

“And how does our Reporter of the Year propose to do that?”

She pushed herself away from him, wrapped herself in a blanket and disappeared into the kitchen. He went in search of his boxer shorts, found them behind the television, and reluctantly slipped into them as she returned with two glasses of wine. They arranged themselves on the rug in front of the empty fireplace.

“When was the last time anyone saw Charles Collingridge?” she asked.

“Why, er…When he was driven away from his home over a week ago.”

“Who was he with?”

“Sarah Collingridge.”

“And…?”

“A driver.”

“Exactly. So who was the driver, Johnnie?”

“Damned if I know.”

  “But it’s a place to start.” Once again she prised herself away from him and crawled over to her television, which was surrounded by a scattering of videotapes. “It’s here somewhere,” she said, making the mess still worse. She found the tape she was looking for and soon the TV screen was a blizzard of images as she fast-forwarded through a compilation of news programs. She was so engrossed that she failed to notice the blanket had slipped from her shoulders. Krajewski sat, lost in nipple awe and stretching excitement. He was considering picking up the television and throwing it out of the window when, through the blizzard, Charles Collingridge appeared, huddled in the back of the fleeing car, and the blanket was back around her shoulders.

“Look, Johnnie!”

  He moaned as she pressed yet another button to run the program back to the start. And there, for less than a second, as the car swept out into the main road, they could see the face of the driver through the windscreen. She pressed the pause button and they found themselves staring at a balding and bespectacled face.

“And who the hell is he?” Krajewski muttered.

  “Let’s figure out who he’s not,” Mattie said. “He’s not a Government driver —it’s not a Government car and the drivers’ pool is very gossipy, so we would have heard something. He’s not a political figure or we would have recognized him…” She turned from the screen and faced him, failing to recognize his scowl of disgust. “Johnnie, where were they going?”

  He felt himself torn between his own journalistic curiosity and his desire to throw himself at her. Damn, grow up, Krajewski, he scolded himself. “OK, not to Downing Street. And not to some hotel or other public place.” He pondered the options. “To the clinic, I suppose.”

“Precisely! That man is from the clinic. If we can find out who he is, we’ll know where they’ve taken Charlie!”

  “I suppose I could get a hard copy of the face off the video tape and show it around. We could try Freddie, our old staff photographer. He’s got an excellent memory for faces and he’s also an alcoholic who dried out a couple of years ago. Still goes every week to Alcoholics Anonymous. Might be able to put us on the right track. There aren’t that many treatment centers. We should be able to make some progress.”

“You’re the best, Johnnie.”

And for the first time that evening, he felt she meant it.

“I’m a mercenary bastard. I require payment,” he ventured. “Mattie, can I stay the night?”

Her eyes filled with regret, she shook her head. “Johnnie, remember our ground rules.”

“No romance. Right. Well, if you’ve got what you want from me I suppose I’d better be going,” he snapped, eaten away with what he called “nipple rage.”

  He sprang to his feet and dressed hurriedly, but as he was halfway toward the door his shoulders sagged in defeat. “Sorry, Mattie,” he said. “It’s just that… you’re someone very special for me. I live in hope.”

He was at the door. He turned. “Is there anyone else, Mattie?”

“No, Johnnie, of course there isn’t,” she said. “That’s not what this is about.”

  But as he closed the door behind him, she wondered if she was being honest with him. How could she be? She wasn’t sure she was being honest with herself.

It wasn’t the sort of conversation nice girls had.





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