House of Cards [CHAPTER 36]



It was once said that all political careers end in failure. That’s why politicians have a front side and a back side. It makes them easier to stack.

Friday, November 19

It had been a difficult week for Mattie. The pace of activity in the leadership race had picked up sharply yet she found herself treading water, feeling left behind by events. Nothing had come of her few job interviews. It became clear to her that she had been blacked by all the newspapers in the expanding Landless empire and none of his remaining competitors seemed particularly keen to antagonize him. The word had gotten around, she was “difficult.” And on Friday morning the mortgage rate had gone up.

  But the worst of it was her frustration with herself. While she had gathered more pieces of the jigsaw, still she could find no pattern in them. Nothing seemed to fit. It left a dull, throbbing ache in her temples that had been with her for days, so she had hauled her running gear out of the wardrobe and began pounding her way around the leaf-covered tracks and pathways of Holland Park, hoping that the much needed physical exercise would purge both body and mind. Instead it seemed only to add to her pains as her lungs and legs began to complain. She was running out of ideas, stamina, and time. The first ballot was just four days away and all she was doing was scattering squirrels.

  In the fading evening light she ran along the sweeping avenue of chestnut trees that towered magnificent and leafless above her; down Lime Tree Walk where in daylight the sparrows were as tame as house pets, past the red bricked ruins of old Holland House, burned to the ground half a century ago, leaving itself wrapped in brooding memories of past glories. In the days before London had grown into a voracious urban sprawl, Holland House had been the country seat of Charles James Fox, the legendary eighteenth century radical who had spent a lifetime pursuing revolutionary causes and plotting the downfall of the prime minister. It had always been in vain. Yet who had succeeded where he had failed?

  She went over the ground again, the field of battle on which Collingridge had fallen, the election campaign, the leaks, the scandals, and the personalities that had been sucked into the mire—not just Collingridge and his brother Charlie but Williams, O’Neill, Bearstead, McKenzie, Sir Jasper Grainger, and Landless, of course. That was it. That was all she had. So where did she go from here? As she climbed the slope toward the highest part of the wooded park, digging into the soft earth, she bounced the alternatives to see if any would fly.

“Collingridge isn’t giving interviews. Williams will only talk through his Press Office. O’Neill doesn’t seem capable of answering questions, and Landless wouldn’t stop for me on a pedestrian crossing. Which leaves…” She came to a sudden halt, scattering dead leaves. “Why, you, Mr. Kendrick.”

  She started running once more, her feet lighter as she broke the top of the hill and began stretching out on the long downhill slope that led toward her home. She felt better now. She had gotten her second wind.

Saturday, November 20

As Harold Earle clambered gently out of bed so as not to disturb his wife and headed for the shower, he felt content with his week’s work. He’d been nominated as one of the five “most likely” candidates, then watched as Samuel’s bandwagon failed to roll and McKenzie’s derailed. There was the Chief Whip’s creditable showing, of course, but Earle couldn’t believe Urquhart could succeed; he had no senior Cabinet experience of running any great Department of State, and at the end of the day experience counted. Particularly experience like Earle’s.

  He’d started his climb many years before as Maggie Thatcher’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, a post of no formal power but whose position close to the eternal flame left others in awe. His promotion to the Cabinet had been rapid and he’d held several important portfolios including, for the last two years under Collingridge, responsibility for the Government’s extensive school reforms as Secretary of State for Education. Unlike some of his predecessors he had managed to find common ground with the teaching profession, although there were those who accused him of being unable to take really tough decisions and of being a conciliator.

  But didn’t the Party in its present mood need a touch of conciliation? The infighting around Collingridge had left scars and the growing abrasiveness of the campaign for his successor was doing little but rub salt in the wounds. Woolton in particular was proving a pain with his attempts to rekindle memories of his early rough and tumble North Country political style; calling a spade a bloody shovel only antagonized the more traditional spirits in the Party. The time was right for Earle, exactly right.

  Today, Saturday, would be a big day, a rally among the party faithful in his constituency to wave the flag, a brightly decked hall packed with supporters whom he could greet on first-name terms—in front of the cameras, of course. And he would announce a major policy initiative. He and his officials had been working on it for some time and with just a little fire under their fannies they would have it ready. The Government already offered school leavers without a job a guaranteed place on a training course, but now they would have the opportunity to complete that training in another Common Market country, which would provide practical skills and language training as well.

  Earle was confident it would be well received. A speech that would glow with references to new horizons and youth opportunity and brighter futures and every other kind of cliché he could squeeze within an inch of its life.

  And the coup de grâce. He would call it that, use the French, entirely appropriate. He’d got the bureaucrats in Brussels to pay for the whole thing. He could already feel the tumultuous applause that would wash over him, carrying him all the way to Downing Street.

  A large crowd of cheering supporters was waiting for him outside the Essex village hall when he arrived. They were waving little Union Jacks and old election posters proclaiming him as “The Earle of Essex,” which had been brought out to give the occasion all the atmosphere of the campaign trail. There was even a brass band that struck up as he came through the doors of the hall, proceeding down the aisle shaking hands on all sides. The local mayor led him up onto the low wooden platform as the cameramen and lighting crews maneuvered to find the best angle. He climbed the steps, kissed his wife, gazed out over the crowd, shielded his eyes from the lights, waved to their applause even as the mayor was trying to herald him as “the man who needs no introduction, not to you—and soon not to anyone in the country!” At that moment Harold Earle felt as if he was on the brink of the greatest personal triumph of his life.

  And that was the moment he saw him. Standing in the front row, squashed between the other cheering supporters, waving and applauding with the rest of them. Simon. The one person in the world he had hoped he would never see or hear from again.

  They had met in a railway carriage, late one night as Earle had been coming back from a rally in the Northwest. They had been alone, Earle had been drunk, and Simon had been very, very friendly. And handsome. Appealed to a side of Earle he had been struggling since university to forget. As the train thundered through the night he and Simon had entered a world cut off from the bright lights and responsibilities they had just left. Earle had discovered himself committing acts that would have made him liable to a prison sentence several years before and which were still only legal between consenting adults in private and certainly not in a British Rail carriage twenty minutes out of Birmingham.

  Earle had staggered from the train at Euston, thrust two twenties into Simon’s hand, and spent the night at his club. He couldn’t face going back home.

  He hadn’t seen Simon for another six months until out of the blue he’d turned up in the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament asking the police attendants if he could see him. When the panic-stricken Minister arrived the youth hadn’t made a public fuss, had explained how he had recognized Earle from a recent party political broadcast, had asked for the money in a very gentle fashion. Earle had paid him some “expenses” for his trip to London and wished him well.

  Simon had turned up again a few weeks later and Earle knew there would be no respite. He had instructed Simon to wait. Then he had sought sanctuary in the corner of the Chamber, spent ten minutes looking over the scene he had grown to love, knowing that the youth outside threatened everything he treasured in his life. Finding no answer himself he had dragged himself to the Chief Whip’s Office and spilled the lot. There was a youth sitting in the Central Lobby blackmailing him for a brief and stupid fling they’d had many months before. He was finished.

“Bit of a bugger’s muddle,” Urquhart had suggested before apologizing for the inappropriate metaphor. “But not to worry, Harold, worse things happened on the retreat from Dunkirk, not to mention the Upper Corridor Committee Room. Just point the little shit out to me.”

  Urquhart had been as good as his word, bloody magnificent, in fact. He had introduced himself to the boy and assured him that if he were not off the premises in five minutes the police would be called and he would be arrested for blackmail. “Oh, don’t think you’re the first,” Urquhart had assured him. “Happens remarkably often. It’s simply that in such sordid cases the arrest and subsequent trial are held with desperately little publicity. No one will hear who you’ve been trying to blackmail, and very few people will even get to know how long you’ve been sent down for. Perhaps only your poor mother.”

  Without further inducement the youth had come to the conclusion he had made a terrible mistake and should vanish from the premises and from Harold Earle’s life as quickly as possible, but Urquhart had taken the precaution of taking down the details from Simon’s driving license, just in case he were to continue to cause trouble.

  And now he was back, squashed into a seat in the front row, ready to make unknown demands about which Earle’s fevered imagination could only torment itself. The torment went on throughout the speech, which ended as a considerable disappointment to his followers. The content was there, printed in large type on his small pages of recycled paper, but the fire was gone. He stumbled through his officials’ tired prose, sweat dripping from his nose even on a cold November day, his mind seeming elsewhere even as he was delivering the lines. The faithful still clapped and applauded enthusiastically when he was finished, but it didn’t help. The mayor almost had to drag him into the pit of the hall to satisfy the clamor of the crowd for one last handshake and the chance personally to wish their favorite son well. As they cheered him and pummeled him on the back he was drawn ever closer to Simon’s youthful, penetrating, knowing eyes. It was as if he were being dragged toward the gates of Hell itself. But Simon caused no scene, did nothing but shake his clammy hand and smile while toying nervously with the medallion that swung ostentatiously around his neck. Then he was gone, just another face left behind in the crowd.

* * *

When Earle arrived back home, two men were standing outside in the cold street waiting.

“Evening, Mr. Earle, Mrs. Earle. Simmonds and Peters from the Mirror. Interesting rally you had. We’ve got the press handout, the words, but we need a bit of color for our readers. Like how the audience reacted. Got anything to say about your audience, Mr. Earle?”

  He rushed inside without a word, dragging his wife and slamming the door behind him. He watched through a curtained window as they shrugged their shoulders and retreated to the estate car parked on the other side of the street. They pulled out a book and a thermos flask, and settled down for the long night ahead.





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