House of Cards [CHAPTER 3]

 


Three


Jesus told us to forgive our enemies, and who am I to second-guess the Almighty? But in his infinite wisdom he didn’t mention a damned thing about forgiving our friends, and least of all our families. I’m happy to take his advice on the matter. In any case, when it comes to it, I find it much easier to forgive myself.

It was the Number 88 bus thundering past and rattling the apartment windows that eventually caused Charles Collingridge to wake up. The small one-bedroom flat above the travel agency in Clapham was not what most people would have expected of the Prime Minister’s brother, but reduced needs must. Since he had run out of money at the pub he had come home to regroup. Now he lay slumped in the armchair, still in his crumpled suit, although his tie was now completely missing.

   He looked at his old wristwatch and cursed. He’d been asleep for hours yet still he felt exhausted. He’d miss the party if he didn’t hurry, but first he needed a drink to pick himself up. He poured himself a large measure of vodka, not even Smirnoff any more, just the local supermarket brand. Still, it didn’t hang on the breath or smell when you spilled it.

   He took his glass to the bathroom and soaked in the tub, giving the hot water time to work its wonders on those tired limbs. Nowadays they often seemed to belong to an entirely different person. He must be getting old, he told himself.

   He stood in front of the mirror, trying to repair the damage of his latest binge. He saw his father’s face, reproachful as ever, urging him on to goals that were always just beyond him, demanding to know why he never managed to do things quite like his younger brother Henry. They both had the same advantages, went to the same school, but somehow Hal always had the edge, and gradually had overshadowed him in his career and his marriage. Charles didn’t feel bitter about it, was a generous soul, far too generous, and indulgent. But Hal had always been there to help when he needed it, to offer advice and to give him a shoulder to cry on after Mary had left him. Yes, particularly when Mary had left him. But hadn’t even she thrown Hal’s success in his face? “You’re not up to it. Not up to anything!” And Hal had much less time to worry about any other chap’s problems since he had gone to Downing Street.

   As young boys they had shared everything; as young men they still shared much, even an occasional girlfriend or two. And a car, one of the early Minis, before Charlie had driven it into a ditch, staggering away, persuading the young policeman it was shock and bruising rather than alcohol that made him so unsteady. But these days there was little room left in Hal’s life for his younger brother, and Charlie felt—what did he feel, deep down, when he allowed himself to be honest? Angry, stinking bloody one-bottle-a-time furious—not with Hal, of course, but with life. It hadn’t worked out for him, and he didn’t understand why.

   He guided the razor past the old cuts on his baggy face and began putting the pieces back together. The hair brushed over the thinning pate, the fresh shirt, and a new, clean tie. He would be ready soon for the election night festivities to which his family links still gave him passage. A tea towel over his shoes gave them back a little shine, and he was almost ready. Another glance at the wristwatch. Oh, it was all right after all. Just time for one more drink.

* * *

North of the river a taxi was stuck in traffic on the outskirts of Soho. It was always a bottleneck and election night seemed to have brought an additional throng of revelers onto the streets. In the back of the taxi Roger O’Neill cracked his knuckles in impatience, watching helplessly as bikes and pedestrians flashed past. He was growing agitated, he didn’t have much time. He’d had his instructions. “Get over here quick, Rog,” they had said. “We can’t wait all fucking night, not even for you. And we ain’t back till Tuesday.”

   O’Neill neither expected nor received preferential treatment, he’d never tried to pull rank. He was the Party’s Director of Publicity but he hoped to Christ they knew nothing of that. There were times when he thought they must have recognized him, seen his photo in the papers, but when he was less paranoid he realized they probably never read a newspaper, let alone voted. What did politics matter to these people? Bloody Hitler could take over for all they cared. What did it matter who was in government when there was so much loose tax-free money to make?

   The taxi at last managed to make it across Shaftesbury Avenue and into Wardour Street, only to be met by another wall of solid traffic. Shit, he would miss them. He flung open the door.

   “I’ll walk,” he shouted at the driver.

   “Sorry, mate. It’s not my fault. Costs me a fortune stuck in jams like this,” the driver replied, hoping that his passenger’s impatience wouldn’t lead him to forget a tip.

   O’Neill jumped out into the road, jammed a note into the driver’s hand, and dodged another motorcyclist as he made his way past the endless huddle of peep shows and Chinese restaurants into a narrow, Dickensian alley piled high with rubbish. He squeezed past the plastic bin liners and cardboard boxes and broke into a run. He wasn’t fit and it hurt, but he didn’t have far to go. As he reached Dean Street he turned left, and a hundred yards further down ducked into the narrow opening to one of those Soho mews which most people miss as they concentrate on finding fun and dodging traffic. Off the main street the mews opened out into a small yard, surrounded on all sides by workshops and garages that had been carved out of the old Victorian warehouses. The yard was empty and the shadows deep. His footsteps rang out on the cobbles as he hurried toward a small green door set in the far, gloomiest corner of the yard. He stopped only to look around once before entering. He didn’t knock.

   It took less than three minutes before he re-emerged. Without glancing to either side he hurried back into the crowds of Dean Street. Whatever he had come for, it evidently hadn’t been sex.

* * *

Behind the brick faรงade of Party Headquarters in Smith Square, opposite the limestone towers of St. John’s, the atmosphere was strangely subdued. For the past weeks this had been a place of ceaseless activity, but on election day itself most of the troops had disappeared, heading for the constituencies, those far outposts of the political world where they had tried to drum up the last few converts for the cause. By this hour most of those who remained were taking an early supper at nearby restaurants or clubs, trying to exude confidence but lapsing repeatedly into insecure discussion of the latest rumors about voter turnout and exit polls and critical seats. Few of them had much appetite and they soon began drifting back, pushing their way through the ever-growing crowds of spectators, beyond the cordons of police and past the mounting piles of scorched moths.

   During the last month these offices had grown overcrowded, overheated, and impossibly cluttered, but tomorrow everything would be different. Elections are a time of change, and of human sacrifice. By the weekend, no matter what the result, many of them would be out of a job, but almost all of them would be back for more, sucking at the nipple of power. For now they settled in for what would seem an interminable wait.

   Big Ben struck ten o’clock. It was over. The polling booths had closed and no further appeal, explanation, attack, insinuation, libel, or god-awful cock-up could now affect the outcome. As the final chime of the old clock tower faded into the night air a few of the Party workers shook each other’s hand in silent reassurance and respect for the job well done. Just how well done they would discover very shortly. As on so many previous evenings, like a religious ritual they turned their attention to the news screens and the familiar voice of Sir Alastair Burnet. He appeared like a latter-day Moses, with his reassuring tones and ruddy cheeks, his flowing silver hair with just enough backlighting to give him a halo effect.

   “Good evening,” he began in a voice like a gently flowing stream. “The election campaign is over. Just seconds ago thousands of polling booths across the country closed their doors, and now we await the people’s verdict. The first result is expected in just forty-five minutes. We shall shortly be going over live for interviews with the Prime Minister, Henry Collingridge, in his Warwickshire constituency and the Opposition leader in South Wales. But, first, ITN’s exclusive exit poll conducted by Harris Research International outside one hundred and fifty-three polling booths across the country during today’s voting. It gives the following prediction…”

   The country’s most senior newsreader opened a large envelope in front of him, as reverently as if the A4 manila contained his own death certificate. He extracted a large card from within the envelope, and glanced at it. Not too quickly, not too slowly he raised his eyes once more to the cameras, holding his congregation of thirty million in the palm of his hand, teasing them gently. He was entitled to his moment. After twenty-eight years and nine general elections as a television broadcaster, he had already announced that this was to be his last.

   “ITN’s exclusive exit poll forecast—and I emphasize this is a forecast, not a result—is…” He glanced once more at the card, just to check he hadn’t misread it.

   “Get on with it, you old sod!” a voice was heard to cry from somewhere within the Smith Square complex; from elsewhere came the sound of a champagne cork being loosened in premature celebration, but for the most part they stood in profound silence. History was being made and they were part of it. Sir Alastair stared at them, kept them waiting a heartbeat longer. 

   “…that the Government will be re-elected with a majority of thirty-four.”

   The building itself seemed to tremble as a roar of triumph mixed with relief erupted from within. Thirty-bloody-four! It was victory, and when you are in a game to the death it’s really only the winning that matters, not how the game has been played or how close the result. Time enough later for sober reflection, for history to reach its verdict, but to hell with history—for the moment it was enough to have survived. In every corner there were tears of joy, of exhaustion, and of release that many found almost as good as orgasm and, in the view of a few old hands, considerably better.

   The screen divided briefly between mute shots of the Party leaders taking in the prediction. Collingridge was seen nodding, in acceptance, his smile thinner than satisfaction, while the broad grin and shake of his opponent’s head left viewers in no doubt that the Opposition had yet to concede. “Wait and see,” he was mouthing, in triumph. Then his lips moved again, saying something that lip readers later thought had been in Welsh. Two words, both very inappropriate.

* * *

“Bollocks!” Preston was shouting, his hair falling into his eyes, revealing the secrets of the shiny scalp beneath. “What the fuck have they done?” He looked at the ruins of his first edition and began furiously scribbling on his notepad. “Government Majority Slashed!” he tried. It was hurled into the bin.

   “‘Too close to call,’” Mattie suggested, trying to hide any hint of satisfaction.

   “‘Collingridge squeaks in,’” the editor tried once more.

 They all ended up in the bin.

 He looked around desperately for some help and inspiration.

“Let’s wait,” Mattie advised. “It’s only thirty minutes to the first result.”





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