House of Cards [CHAPTER 9]

 


Nine


Some men never manage to live with their principles. In Westminster it helps to be seen lunching with them occasionally, but not too often, in case you find yourself mistaken for a prude.

Tuesday, June 22

O’Neill had been delighted and, at first, a little surprised to get an invitation from Urquhart to lunch at his St. James’s Street club. The Chief Whip had never shown much warmth toward the Party’s communications man in the past, but now he suggested they “celebrate the splendid work you did for us all throughout the campaign.” O’Neill took it as recognition of his rising eminence in the Party.

   It had been a damned good lunch, too, all the trimmings. O’Neill, hypertense as always, had fortified himself with a couple of mighty vodka tonics before he’d arrived, but they hadn’t been necessary. Two bottles of ChΓ’teau Talbot ’78 and a couple of large cognacs were enough, even for his Irish appetites. He had talked too much, he knew, always did, but he couldn’t help it. In the past Urquhart had made him feel nervous. It was something about the cool reserve of the man, and the fact that Urquhart had once been overheard talking about him as “a marketing johnny,” but he had proved an attentive host as the other man babbled on. Now they were sitting in the substantial cracked leather armchairs that surrounded the snooker tables in the back room at White’s. When the tables were not in use the seats offered a quiet and confidential spot for members to take their guests.

   “Tell me, Roger, what are your plans now the election is over? Are you going to stay on with the Party? We can’t afford to lose good men like you.”

   O’Neill flashed yet another winning smile, stubbed out the cigarette he was smoking in the hope that a decent Havana might be in the offing, and assured his host that he would stay on as long as the Prime Minister wanted him.

   “But how can you afford to, Roger? May I be just a little indiscreet? I know how little the Party pays its employees, and money is always tight after an election. The next couple of years are likely to be tough. Your salary will get frozen, your budget cut. It’s always the same, we politicians being our typical short-sighted selves. Aren’t you tempted by some of the more handsome offers you must be getting from outside?”

   “Well, it’s not always easy, Francis, as you’ve already guessed. It’s not so much the salary, you understand. I work in politics because I’m fascinated by it and love to play a part. But it would be a tragedy if the budget gets cut. So much work still to do.” His smile was broad, his eyes bright, but they began dancing in agitation as he considered what the other man had said. He began to fidget nervously with his glass. “We should start working for the next election now.

   Particularly with all these ridiculous rumors flooding round about splits within the Party. We need some positive publicity, and I need a budget to create it.”

   “An interesting point. Is the Chairman receptive to all this?” Urquhart raised an inquiring eyebrow.

“Are chairmen ever?”

   “Perhaps there’s something I can do about that, Roger. I would like to be able to help you. Very much. I could go in to bat with the Chairman about your budget, if you want.”

“Really? That’d be astonishingly kind of you, Francis.”

“But there is something I must ask you first, Roger. And I must be blunt.”

   The older man’s ice eyes looked directly into O’Neill’s, taking in their habitual flicker. Then O’Neill blew his nose loudly. Another habit, Urquhart knew, as was the constant tapping of the two middle fingers on his right hand. It was as if there were another life going on within O’Neill that was quite separate from the rest of the world, and that communicated itself only through O’Neill’s hyperactive mannerisms and twitching eyes.

   “Had a visit the other day, Roger, from an old acquaintance I used to know in the days when I held directorships in the City. He’s one of the financial people at the Party’s advertising agency. And he was very troubled. Very discreet, but very troubled. He said you were in the habit of asking the agency for considerable sums of cash to cover your expenses.”

   The twitching stopped for a moment. Urquhart reflected just how rarely he had ever seen O’Neill stop moving.

   “Roger, let me assure you I am not trying to trap you or trick you. This is strictly between us. But if I am to help you, I must be sure of the facts.”

   The face and the eyes started up again, as O’Neill’s ready laugh made a nervous reappearance. “Francis, let me assure you there’s nothing wrong, nothing at all. It’s silly, of course, but I’m grateful that you raised it with me. It’s simply that there are times when I incur expenses on the publicity side which are easier for the agency to meet rather than putting them through the Party machine. Like buying a drink for a journalist or taking a Party contributor out for a meal.” O’Neill was speeding on with his explanation, which showed signs of having been practiced. “You see, if I pay for them myself I have to claim back from the Party. Which takes its own sweet time writing the bloody check—two months or more. You know what they’re like, takes forever for the ink to dry. Frankly, with the way they pay me, I can’t afford it. So I charge them through the agency, I get the money back immediately while they put them through their own accounts. It’s like an interest-free loan for the Party. And in the meantime I can get on with my job. The amounts are really very small.”

   O’Neill reached for his glass while Urquhart steepled his fingers and watched the other man empty his glass.

“Like £22,300 in the last ten months small, Roger?”

   O’Neill all but choked. His face contorted as he struggled simultaneously to gulp down air and blurt out the required denial. “It’s nothing like that amount,” he protested. His jaw dropped as he debated what to say next. This part of the explanation he hadn’t practiced. O’Neill’s twitching now resembled a fly caught in a spider’s web. Urquhart spun more silken threads.

   “Roger, you have been charging regular expenses to the agency without clearly accounting for those amounts to the tune of precisely £22,300 since the beginning of September last year. What began as relatively small amounts have in recent months grown to £4,000 a month. You don’t get through that many drinks and dinners even during an election campaign.”

“I assure you, Francis, that any expenses I’ve charged have all been entirely legitimate!”

“Expensive, isn’t it? Cocaine.”

   O’Neill’s glazed eyes had frozen in horror.

   “Roger, as Chief Whip I have to become familiar with every problem known to man. I’ve had to deal with cases of wife beating, adultery, fraud, mental illness. I’ve even had a case of incest. No, it’s all right, we didn’t let him stand for re-election, of course, but there was nothing to be gained by making a public fuss. That’s why you almost never hear about them. Incest I draw the line at, Roger, but in general we don’t moralize. In my book every man is allowed one indulgence—so long as it remains a private one.”

   He paused; a flicker was returning to O’Neill’s eyes, one of desperation.

   “One of my Junior Whips is a doctor. I appointed him specifically to help me spot the signs of strain. After all, we have well over three hundred MPs to look after, all of whom are living under immense pressure. You’d be surprised, too, how many cases of drug abuse we get. There’s a charming and utterly private drying-out farm just outside Dover where we send them, sometimes for a couple of months. Most of them recover completely, one of them is even a senior Minister.” He leaned forward to close the gap between them. “But it helps to catch them early, Roger. And cocaine has become a real problem recently. They tell me it’s fashionable—whatever that means—and too damned easy to obtain. Makes a good man brilliant, so they say. Pity it’s so addictive. And expensive.”

   Urquhart hadn’t taken his eyes off O’Neill for a second during his narrative. He found something exquisite and compelling in the agony that was stripping the flesh off O’Neill. Any doubt he might have had about the diagnosis was swept aside by the trembling hands and the lips that parted but could not speak. When, at last, O’Neill found words, they came as a whimper.

“What are you saying? I am not a drug addict. I don’t do drugs!”

   “No, of course not, Roger.” Urquhart adopted his most reassuring tone. “But I think you must accept that there might be some people who could jump to the most unfortunate conclusions about you. And the Prime Minister, you know, particularly in his present mood, is not a man to take chances. Please believe me it’s not a matter of condemning a man without trial, simply of opting for a quiet life.”

   “Henry can’t believe this! You haven’t told him surely…” O’Neill gasped as if he had been butted by a charging bull.

“Of course not, Roger. I want you to regard me as a friend. But the Party Chairman…”

“Williams? What has he said?”

   “About drugs? Nothing. But I’m afraid the dear Lord isn’t one of your greatest fans. He wasn’t very helpful with the Prime Minister. Seems to think you should be blamed for the election result rather than himself.”

“What?” The word emerged as a squeak.

   “Don’t worry, Roger, I spoke up for you. There’s nothing to fear. As long as you have my support.”

   Urquhart knew what he was doing, understood full well the paranoia that grips the mind of a cocaine addict and the impact his invented story about the Chairman’s disaffection would leave on O’Neill’s tender emotions. The man had a lust for notoriety that could only be met through the continued patronage of the Prime Minister; it was something he couldn’t bear to lose. “As long as you have my support.” The words rang in O’Neill’s ears. “One slip and you are dead,” it was saying. The web of fear had closed around O’Neill. Now was the time to offer him a way out.

   “Roger, I’ve seen gossip destroy so many men. The corridors around Westminster can become a killing field. It would be a tragedy for which I could never forgive myself if you were placed upon the rack either because of Teddy Williams’s hostility toward you or simply because people misunderstood your arrangement about expenses and your—hay fever.”

“What should I do?” The voice was plaintive.

   “Do? Why, Roger, I would suggest that you trust me. You need a strong supporter in the inner circles of the Party, particularly right now. There’s a swell on the water, it’s growing, the Prime Minister’s boat is taking on water, he won’t give a second thought to throwing someone like you overboard if it might help save himself. People like that think you’re little more than ballast.”

   The words were having the desired effect. O’Neill was writhing in his chair, sipping blindly at a crystal glass that was already empty, the old leather groaning beneath him. Urquhart paused for a moment to take in every detail.

“Help me, Francis.”

“That’s why I invited you, Roger.”

The other man wept. Tears were falling down his face.

   “I will not let them push out a good man like you, Roger.” His tone was that of a vicar reading out a psalm. “Every penny of your expenses is legitimate. That is what I shall tell the agency. I shall advise them to continue with the arrangement, and keep it confidential, so as to avoid unhelpful jealousy from those within the Party who want to slash the advertising budget. But there is more to be done. We shall make sure the Prime Minister is fully informed of the good works you are doing. And I shall advise him not to drop his guard, to continue with a high level of campaigning if he’s to get through the difficult months ahead. Your budget will survive. And so will you, Roger.”

“Francis, you know I would be most grateful…” O’Neill mumbled.

“But there is something I will need in return, Roger.”

“Anything.”

“If I’m to guard your back I shall need to know everything that’s going on at Party Headquarters.”

“Of course.”

   “And in particular what the Chairman is up to. He’s a very ambitious and dangerous man, playing his own game while professing loyalty to the Prime Minister. You must be my eyes and ears, Roger, and you will have to let me know immediately of anything you hear of the Chairman’s plans. Your future could depend upon it.”

   O’Neill was drying his eyes, blowing his nose, his handkerchief an appalling mess.

   “You and I, Roger, must work together on this. You will have to help steer the Party through some difficult times ahead. Horatio at the bridge.”

“Francis, I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You will, Roger, you will.”

* * *

A door slammed. Mortima was back. She scurried up the stairs, searching for him in every room, until she found him on their roof terrace, gazing out across the London night to the Victoria Tower that stood in spot-lit splendor at the southern end of the Parliament building. The Union flag was unfurling in the gentle currents of air thrown up from the hot streets. The building seemed as though it had been carved from honeycomb. Urquhart was smoking, a rare sight.

“Francis, are you OK?”

   He turned, startled, as though surprised to see her, then went back to searching out across the rooftops of Westminster to the Victoria Tower.

   “When you called and said something had happened I thought you might be sick. You scared me and…”

   “They have Charles I’s death warrant in there, in the tower. And the Bill of Rights. Acts of Parliament dating back more than five hundred years.” He spoke as though he had not heard her or noticed her concern.

   “Something has happened.” She drew close, took his arm. His eyes seemed held by an apparition or prospect that only he could see and that lay somewhere out in the night.

“If you listen carefully, Mortima, you can hear the cries of the mob outside the gates.”

“Can you?”

“I can.”

“Francis?” Her voice still trembled with concern.

   Only then did he come back to her. He squeezed her hand. “It was kind of you to rush back. I’m so sorry if I caused you concern. No, I’m not sick, I am fine. In fact I feel better than I have for a long while.”

“I don’t understand. You were so disappointed not to have been moved.”

   “Nothing lasts. Not great empires, least of all weak prime ministers.” His voice was riddled with contempt. He held out his cigarette to her; she drew deeply on the strong vapors.

“You will need helpers,” she whispered, returning the cigarette.

“I think I may have found some.”

“That young journalist you mentioned?”

“Perhaps.”

   She didn’t reply for a while. They stood in the darkness, sharing the night, the muffled sounds of the lives that were going on beneath them, the air of conspiracy.

“Will she be loyal?”

“Loyalty among journalists?”

“You must bind her in, Francis.”

   He looked at her sharply, offered a thin smile that vanished quickly. There was no humor in it. “She is far too young, Mortima.”

   “Too young? Too beautiful? Too intelligent? Too ambitious? I think not, Francis. Not for a man like you.”

   His smile returned, warmer now. “As so often, Mortima, I am in your debt.”

   She was twelve years younger than he was, still vibrant, and wore the few extra pounds the years had put on her with elegance. She was his closest friend, the only one he allowed to dig inside him, on whom he could rely without question. They had their different lives, of course, his in Westminster and hers… Well, she loved Wagner. Never one of his enthusiasms. She would disappear for days, travel abroad, with others, to share the passions of the Ringcycle. He never questioned her loyalty, nor she his.

“This will not be easy,” he said.

“Neither is failure.”

“Are there any limits?” he asked, as gently as such a question would allow.

   She rose on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, then returned inside, leaving him with the night.






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