House of Cards [CHAPTER 33]



 Thirty-Three


The higher up the tree a cat climbs, the farther it will fall. It’s the same for politicians, except politicians don’t bounce.


Tuesday, November 16

Would he? Wouldn’t he? The following day’s news was dominated by speculation about whether Urquhart would run. The media had excited themselves to the point where they would feel badly let down if he didn’t, yet by mid-afternoon he was still keeping his own counsel.

  So was Roger O’Neill. The previous day Mattie had telephoned Party Headquarters wanting to get an official view about computers, literature sales, and accounting procedures, only to discover that Spence had been absolutely right about the ban on staff contact with the media for the duration of the campaign. She could talk only with the Press Office, yet no one in the Press Office seemed capable or willing to talk to her.

  “Sounds as if you’re investigating our expenses,” a voice down the phone had suggested. “Literature sales? We’re a bit busy drowning right now, Mattie. Call back in a couple of weeks.”

So she had asked for O’Neill’s office and been put through to Penny Guy.

“Hi, it’s Mattie Storin, from the Chronicle,” she said, feeling only a twinge of dishonesty. “We met a couple of times, at the conference, remember?”

“Yes, Mattie. How can I help?”

“I was wondering—I know it’s short notice and everything—but I was wondering if I could come over tomorrow morning sometime and have a quick word with Roger.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mattie, but he likes to keep his mornings free to clear his paperwork and for internal meetings.” It was a lie, and one she was increasingly forced to use as O’Neill’s timekeeping had become spectacularly erratic. He rarely came into the office before 1:00 p.m. nowadays.

“Damn, I was really hoping…”

“What’s it about?”

“I’ve got some ideas I want to bounce off him. About Charles Collingridge’s sudden love of political literature. And the Praed Street address.”

There was a pause, a distraction, as if Penny might have dropped the phone.

“I’ll call you back,” she said and cut the connection.

* * *

Penny had expected her alarm at Mattie’s call to be converted into a volcano of panic when she phoned O’Neill, yet he seemed surprisingly confident. “She’s got nothing, Pen,” he insisted. “I hear she’s in trouble with her newspaper anyway. It’s not a problem.”

“But what does she know, Rog?”

“How the fuck should I know? Let’s get her in and find out.”

“Rog?”

“You think I can’t still do my old body swerve, Pen? She’s only a bloody girl!”

  She had tried to insist that it was foolish, he should be cautious, but he didn’t do caution. Neither did he do mornings anymore, so Mattie had been invited to see him the following afternoon.

  Penny loved O’Neill but her feelings brought her too close to him. She thought he was stressed, working too hard, suffering; she didn’t comprehend the mind-pulverizing effects of cocaine. It kept O’Neill hyperactive into the small hours, unable to sleep until a cascade of depressant drugs gradually overwhelmed the cocaine and forced him into an oblivion from which he rarely emerged before midday, or sometimes later. So she grew increasingly confused and embarrassed as Mattie sat waiting for O’Neill. He had promised he would be on time but as the clock on his wall ticked on remorselessly, Penny’s ability to invent new excuses began to vanish beneath her bewilderment about his public bravado and his private remorse, his inexplicable behavior and the irrational outbursts. She brought Mattie yet another cup of coffee.

“Let me give him a call at home,” she suggested. “Perhaps he’s had to go back there. Something he forgot, or not feeling too well…”

  She went into his office to make the call, away from Mattie. She sat on the corner of his desk, picked up the phone and punched the numbers. With some embarrassment she greeted Roger on the phone, explaining in a whispered voice that Mattie had been waiting for more than half an hour and…Out of sight of Mattie her face gradually began to crumple in concern as she listened. She tried to interrupt but it was useless. Her lip began to tremble; she bit it hard, until the point came when she couldn’t stand it any longer. She dropped the phone and fled from the office, past Mattie, in tears.

  Mattie’s first instinct was to run after the distressed Penny; her second and stronger instinct was to find out what had upset her. The receiver was still swinging beside the desk where it had been abandoned. She put it to her ear.

  The voice that was still coming out of the phone was unrecognizable as Roger O’Neill. The words were incoherent, indecipherable, slowed and slurred to the point where it sounded like a doll with the batteries almost dead. There were gasps, moans, long pauses, the sound of tears falling, the mad music of a man in emotional agony and tearing himself apart. She replaced the receiver gently in the cradle.

* * *

Mattie found Penny in the washroom, choking into a paper towel. Mattie touched her consolingly on the shoulder. Penny turned in alarm, as though slapped, her eyes raw and swollen.

“How long has he been like that, Penny?”

“I can’t say anything!” she blurted, her confusion mixed with excruciating pain.

“Look, Penny, he’s obviously in a very bad way. I’m not going to print any of this, for goodness’ sake. I think he needs help. I think maybe you need a hug.”

Mattie stretched out her arms and Penny fell into them as though she were the loneliest woman on the planet. She stayed there, locked in Mattie’s arms, until there were no more tears left. When she had recovered sufficiently to escape, she and Mattie went for a walk in nearby Victoria Gardens to refresh themselves in the crisp air blowing off the Thames, and where they could talk without interruption. The fight had gone from Penny. She asked Mattie for an assurance that none of what she said would be printed, and when Mattie agreed, it began to pour forth. She told of how the Prime Minister’s resignation had put O’Neill in turmoil, how he had always been a little “emotionally extravagant” but had been growing worse. “I think the resignation had really brought him close to a breakdown.”

“But why, Penny? Surely they weren’t that close?”

“He liked to think he was close to the whole Collingridge family. He was always arranging for flowers and special photographs to be sent to Mrs. Collingridge, doing little favors whenever he could. He loved it all.”

Mattie sighed, took in the cold air, the same wind that had blown her grandfather on his journey across the sea. How would he have felt about what she was doing? She felt guilty; she knew she wasn’t being simply a friend to Penny, but hadn’t her grandfather left all his friends behind, even his family, for what he knew was right? She, like him, had to press on. “Roger’s in trouble, isn’t he? We both heard him just now, Penny. Something has really got to Roger, something that’s eating away at him from the inside.”

“I…I think he blamed himself so badly over the shares.”

“The shares? You mean the Renox shares?” Mattie pressed, trying to hide a flush of alarm.

“Charlie Collingridge asked him to open the accommodation address because he wanted somewhere for his private mail. Roger and I went to Paddington in a taxi and he sent me in to do the paperwork. I knew he felt uneasy at the time, I think he sensed there was something wrong. And when he realized what it had been used for and how much trouble it had caused, he just began going to pieces.”

“Why did Charlie Collingridge ask Roger to open the address and not do it himself?”

“I’ve no idea, it was just a silly favor Rog agreed to do for him. Perhaps Charlie felt guilty because of what he was going to use it for. Fiddling the shares.”

They were leaning on the parapet, staring out over the gray, sluggish river. A seagull landed beside them and stared with menacing yellow eyes, hoping for food. Mattie stared back and the bird flapped its wings and disappeared, crying out in disappointment.

“I’m sure it was something like that,” Penny continued, “something Charlie was ashamed of. He took advantage of us. Roger just breezed into the office one day and said he’d got this little job to do, that it was terribly confidential and I had to keep quiet about it. As silent as if I were sucking a bishop, he said. You know Rog. Tries to be an Irish poet. Thinks he has a way with words.”

“So you never saw Charlie Collingridge yourself?”

“No. I’ve never met him. Rog likes to handle all the important people himself.”

“But you are sure it was Charlie Collingridge?”

“Of course, Rog said so. And who else could it have been?” A burst of November air sent dead autumn leaves scurrying around their ankles like rats and Penny shivered. “Oh, God, it’s all such an awful mess.”

“Penny, relax! It’ll be all right. These things sort themselves out.” Mattie linked her arm through Penny’s and they began to walk on. “Why don’t you take a couple of days off? Roger can survive without you for a little while.”

“Can he? I wonder.”

“He can’t be that useless. Knows how to make tea and use the office computer, doesn’t he?”

“He’s strictly a coffee man and types with one finger.”

“Slow but sure.”

“No, just slow.”

It made sense to Mattie. Whoever messed with the computer file was no expert. O’Neill was no expert. It didn’t make them one and the same but it made sense. So many fingers were pointing at O’Neill. They had arrived back at Smith Square in the shadow of the church.

“You know, they still use gaslight in this square,” Mattie said, pointing to the ornate street lamp above their heads.

“Do they?” Penny looked up and shook her head in surprise. “You know, I’ve walked around this square every day and never noticed. You have a sharp eye.”

“I try.”

They were outside the headquarters building. Penny heaved a sigh as she contemplated going back inside to everything that waited for her there. She squeezed Mattie’s hand. “I love him, you know. That’s the problem.”

“Love should never be a problem.”

“And there was me thinking how wise you were!” Penny laughed, her strength having returned. “Thanks for listening. It’s been great just to be able to talk.”

“Call me. Any time. And take care of yourself.”

“You, too.”

Mattie walked slowly the few hundred yards back to the House of Commons, oblivious of the chill, warmed by thoughts that were on fire with impatience, and with one thought burning brighter than all the others. Why the hell had Roger O’Neill framed Charles and Henry Collingridge?






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