House of Cards [CHAPTER 39]


 

Thirty-Nine


Those who wish to climb the tallest trees must accept the consequence that it is likely to expose their most vulnerable parts.


Tuesday, November 23

They were still there the following morning, waiting for him. Earle had no emotional resources left. He sat weeping gently in an armchair in the study, his fingernails, or what was left of them, buried deep into the arm. He had worked so hard, deserved so much, yet it had all come to this.

  He knew he must finish it. There was no point in going on. He no longer believed in himself and knew he had forfeited the right to have others believe in him. Through misty eyes he reached into the drawer of his desk, fumbled as he took out his private phone book. He touched the numbers on the phone as if he were dipping his fingers in the cruelest acid. He fought hard to control his voice throughout the brief conversation. Then it was finished, and he could weep again.

* * *

The news that Earle had pulled out of the race left everyone aghast as it flashed through Westminster later on Tuesday morning. It had happened so unexpectedly that there was no time to alter the printed ballot papers except with an ignominious scratching through of his name with a pen. Sir Humphrey was not best pleased that his carefully laid preparations should have been thrown into chaos at the last minute and had rough words to use for anyone who was willing to listen, but on the stroke of 10:00 a.m. Committee Room Number 14, which had been set aside for the ballot, opened its doors and the first of the 335 Government MPs who were going to vote began to file through. There would be two prominent absentees—the Prime Minister, who had announced he would not vote, and Harold Earle.

  Mattie’s intention had been to spend the day at the House of Commons chatting to MPs and gauging their sentiment. Most appeared to think that Earle’s withdrawal would tend to help Samuel: “the conciliators tend to stick with the conscience merchants,” one old buffer had explained, “so Earle’s supporters will drift toward young Disraeli. They haven’t got the imagination to do anything more positive.” Disraeli. The Jew. The campaign was taking a more unpleasant personal edge.

  She was in the press gallery cafeteria spilling coffee with other correspondents when the Tannoy system announced there was a call for her. She hoped it might be a job offer, that someone had changed their mind; she deserted her coffee and went to the nearest phone. The shock that hit her when she heard the voice was even greater than the news of Earle’s withdrawal.

“Hello, Mattie. I understand you were looking for me last week. Sorry you missed me, I was out of the office. Touch of gastric flu. Do you still want to get together?”

  Roger O’Neill’s voice sounded so friendly and enthusiastic that she had trouble connecting it with the voice she had heard dribbling down the phone a few days earlier. It sounded like a completely different man.

“If you’re still interested, why not come across to Smith Square later today?” he offered.

  It left Mattie wondering what chaotic circus ride O’Neill was on. Yet her reaction was nothing compared to that of Urquhart a little earlier. He had telephoned to instruct O’Neill to make the appropriate arrangements for Simon to attend Earle’s weekend meeting, and also to ensure that the Mirrorwas anonymously informed about the connections between the two men. Instead, like Mattie and Penny, he had discovered O’Neill sliding steadily into his cocaine-induced oblivion and losing touch with events outside his increasingly narrow, kaleidoscopic world. There had been a confrontation. Urquhart couldn’t afford to lose O’Neill’s services, but neither could he afford to have loose ends unraveling.

“One week, Roger, one more week and you can take a break, forget all of this for a while. Come back to that knighthood you’ve always wanted. It will change everything for you. With a ‘K’ they’ll never be able to look down their noses at you again. And I can arrange it, you know I can. But you let me down now, you lose control, and by God I’ll make sure you regret it for the rest of your life. Damn you, get a grip on yourself. You’ve got nothing to fear. Just hold on for a few more days!”

  O’Neill wasn’t entirely sure what Urquhart was going on about. Hold on? Of course he could hold on. To be sure he’d been a little unwell but his befuddled brain was in denial and still refused to accept there was any major problem with his behavior. He could handle it. Everything. There was no room in his life for doubts, especially about himself. He could cope with it all, particularly with a little more help, just a little…Only a few more days, pull a few strings, a few more sidesteps, and wipe the condescending smiles off their faces. Arise, Sir Roger! It would be worth a little extra effort.

“Of course, Francis. Not a problem. I promise.”

“Don’t get this wrong, Roger. Don’t you dare.” 

And O’Neill had laughed, even as his eyes flowed and his nose dribbled like an old man’s on a windy day.

  When at last he had wiped himself down sufficiently to return to his office, Penny had told him of Mattie’s visit, that she was asking questions about the Paddington accommodation address.

“No worries, Pen. I’ll deal with it,” he exclaimed, burying the instantaneous flicker of alarm, falling back on the swaggering confidence of years of salesmanship. Why, hadn’t they said that he could sell snow to Siberia, that old ladies would cross the street to be kissed by him? All it needed was passion, a little self-belief. Mattie was nothing but a witless woman, no heavy shit.

  So when she arrived in his office after lunch, he was bright, alert, those strange eyes of his still amazingly animated but seemingly anxious to help.

“It was just a stomach upset,” he explained. “Sorry I had to stand you up but whatever it was the doctor gave me really got to me, gave me a right kicking.”

  He smiled, so full of Irish charm. “Better now. So Pen tells me you were asking about Mr. Collingridge’s accommodation address.”

“That’s right. It was Charles Collingridge’s address?”

“Sure it was.”

“But he didn’t open it himself.”

  O’Neill’s eyes were in a renewed frenzy, like objects trying to escape the pull of gravity, but the confident smile remained fixed. And Mattie was desperate to cover her source, Penny, so she invented on the spot.

“The shopkeeper has never met Collingridge, doesn’t recognize his photograph, swears he’s never been in the shop,” she continued.

“A friend, then,” O’Neill said, scrabbling for a cigarette.

“Who?”

“Well, it certainly wasn’t bloody me!” O’Neill chortled, emerging from beneath a haze of tobacco smoke. “Look, Mattie, if you’re looking for something on the record, you know I’ll have to say that Mr. Collingridge’s personal affairs are his own, and there won’t be any point in your staying even to finish your tea.” He leaned closer to her, across his desk. “But if you want to talk, off the record, not for reporting…”

“I’m enjoying the tea,” she replied.

  He lit the cigarette, drew on it deep, filling his lungs, swelling his confidence. “OK. Even off the record you’ll know there’s a limit to how much I can say, but you know how unwell Charlie has been recently. He’s not been—how can I put it?—‘fully responsible’ for his actions.” He curled his fingers to emphasize the quotation marks. “It would be a terrible pity if you were to go out of your way to rake through all this and punish him still further. His life is in ruins. Whatever he’s done wrong, hasn’t he suffered enough? For pity’s sake, Mattie, give the man a chance to rebuild his life.”

  Mattie’s humor began to curdle inside as she watched the passing of guilt onto innocent shoulders dressed up as selfless charity, but nevertheless she smiled encouragingly. “Fair enough, Roger. Nothing to be gained from further harassment. So let me turn to a different point.”

  And she saw his eyes grow steady for a second, the smile relax. He thought he’d won. Beaten this simple girl at her own game. Another sidestep, another swerve, and he was free. God, Roger, you’re good!

“Let’s talk about leaks,” she continued. “So many of them in recent months.

The Prime Minister is supposed to blame Smith Square for much of his troubles.”

“I doubt whether that is fair, but it is not a state secret that relations between him and the Party Chairman have been very strained.”

“Strained enough for that opinion poll we published during party conference to have been deliberately leaked from inside Party Headquarters?”

  The eyes began wobbling once again. “People always want someone to blame. Someone else. I guess that’s partly what we’re here for.” He laughed in self-mockery. “It’s so easy to point the finger but I think that assumption is very difficult to justify. Apart from the Party Chairman there are only—what, five people in this building who get sent those full opinion polls. I’m one of those five, and I can tell you we take their confidentiality damned seriously.” He lit another cigarette. Time to think. “But they also get sent to every Cabinet minister, all twenty-two of them, either at the House of Commons where they might first go through the hands of a gossipy secretary, or to their departments, and they’re often a nest of vipers, civil servants who have no love for this Government. If you’re looking for leaks, they’re the obvious places to start.”

“OK, but the papers were leaked at the headquarters hotel in Bournemouth. Secretaries or unfriendly civil servants don’t go to the Party conference or roam around the headquarters hotel.”

“Well, who knows, Mattie? It’s still much more likely to have come from a source like that. For the love of God, can you imagine Lord Williams down on his hands and knees outside hotel room doors?”

  He laughed loudly to show how ridiculous it was, and Mattie joined him. But O’Neill had just admitted he knew the manner in which the opinion poll had been leaked. He could only have known that for one reason. His overconfidence was tightening like a noose around his neck.

“Let me turn to another leak, then, the one on the hospital scheme. I’m told that you were planning a major publicity drive that had to be scrapped at the last minute because of the change of plan.”

“Really? Who on earth told you that?” O’Neill asked, his mind in hyper-drive and coming to settle on his old friend Kendrick. Stupid bastard, always had a weakness for a pretty woman. “Never mind, I won’t push you, I know you won’t reveal your sources. But they sound exaggerated to me. The Publicity Department here is always ready to support Government policy, that’s what we do. If the scheme had gone ahead then certainly we’d have wanted to help promote it, for sure, but we had no specific campaign in mind.”

“I was told you had to scrap a big publicity push which had been carefully planned and was ready to go.”

  The limp ash from his cigarette gave up its struggle to defy the laws of gravity and cascaded down his tie; O’Neill ignored it, his brows knitted in concentration. “If that’s what you’ve heard, Mattie, you’ve been misinformed. Sounds to me like someone with his own ax to grind. Are you sure he’s in a position to know all the facts? Maybe he’s got his own angle to sell?”

  With a broad grin, O’Neill tried to smother Kendrick as a reliable source. The smile grew more rigid when he realized he’d talked about the source as “he,” but there was no way this slip of a girl could have picked up on such a gentle stumble. Yet she was asking too many questions; O’Neill was beginning to feel uncomfortable. He felt a gut-wrenching need for more substantial support than a cigarette could give him, no matter what Urquhart had said.

“Mattie, I’ve got a busy day, what with the result of the ballot later this evening and everything. Could we finish it here?”

“Thanks for your time, Roger. I’ve found it immensely helpful.”

“I haven’t told you anything.”

“But you do it so persuasively.”

“Any time I can help,” he said as he guided her toward the door. As they did so, they passed by the computer terminal stationed in the corner of his crowded office. She bent down to inspect it and her blouse fell forward a couple of inches. He drew closer, delighted at the excuse.

“Your Party is well ahead of the others in the technology game. I suppose all the terminals in this building are linked through the central computer?”

  He straightened, alarm bells ringing from somewhere deep inside and loud enough to distract him for the curve of her breasts. “I…guess so,” he said. He placed a hand in the small of her back and pushed her gently toward the door.

“I’m afraid I’m a bit of a moron with computers. Maybe sometime you could give me a few lessons, Roger.”

“You’d have to be desperate to ask me,” he joked.

“You seem like a man who could handle most things.”

“We all get put through a training course but I’m scarcely capable of switching the wretched thing on,” he said. “Barely use it myself. Just for internal mail, that sort of thing.” His eyes were flickering violently, he was no longer in control. “Sorry, got to rush,” he muttered, and fled from his own office.

* * *

At 5:00 p.m. the doors to Commons Committee Room 14 were ceremoniously shut to bar any further attempts to lodge votes. The gesture was an entirely empty one because the last of the 335 votes had been cast ten minutes earlier. Behind the locked doors and beneath huge oil paintings and flock wallpaper of the deepest hue, Sir Humphrey and his small team of scrutineers gathered, content that the day had gone smoothly in spite of the appalling start given to their preparations by Earle. A bottle of whiskey did the rounds while they fortified themselves for the count. In different rooms within the Palace, the eight candidates waited in various states of excitement and sobriety for the summons that would change their lives.

  Big Ben had struck the quarter after six before the call went out, by half past six the doors to the committee room were unlocked and a swarm of MPs swept in to witness a moment of history. There were too many of them to be accommodated on the long school-like desks and even in standing room, so the doors were left open and the throng spilled into the corridor outside. Substantial sums were being wagered as Members made last-minute calculations as to the likely outcome; in the corridor among the overspill, the men from the media tried to soak up every whisper.

  Sir Humphrey was enjoying his moment. He was in the twilight of his career, long since past his parliamentary heyday, and even the small misunderstanding over his holiday in the West Indies had helped bring him greater recognition around the Westminster circuit than he’d enjoyed for many years. “’Tis an ill wind that blows up no skirt,” he had been heard quipping in the Smoking Room. Now he sat on the raised dais of the Committee Room flanked by his lieutenants, smoothing his mustache and calling the meeting to order.

“Since there has been such an unprecedentedly large number of names on the ballot paper, I propose to read the results out in alphabetical order,” he began.

  This was unwelcome news for David Adams, the foppish former Leader of the House who had been banished to exile on the backbenches by Collingridge’s first reshuffle after claiming too publicly that he spent more time with the Queen than did the Prime Minister. He had hoped for a respectable showing in order to establish his claim for a return to Cabinet. His silk pocket handkerchief seemed to droop in dismay as Newlands announced he had received only twelve votes. He’d been promised much more as he had poured decent claret down so many of his colleagues’ throats. “Bitches!” he was heard to mumble.

  Sir Humphrey continued with his roll call. None of the next four names, including McKenzie’s, could muster more than twenty of their colleagues. Paul Goddard, the maverick Catholic who had stood on the single issue of banning all forms of legalized abortion, received but three. He shook his head defiantly; his rewards were not to be of the earthly kind.

  Sir Humphrey had only three more names to announce—Samuel, Urquhart, and Woolton—and a total of 281 votes to distribute. The level of tension in the packed room soared. A minimum of 169 votes was required for success on the first ballot. A couple of huge side bets were hurriedly concluded in one corner as two Honorable Members wagered whether there would, after all, be a result on the first round.

“Michael Samuel,” intoned the chairman, gazing round the room like a Hamlet at the grave. “Ninety-nine votes.”

  The room was in dead silence until a tug on its way up the Thames blew its klaxon three times. A ripple of amusement covered the tension and Samuel muttered that it was a pity tug masters didn’t have a vote. He was clearly disappointed to be such a long way from the winning line.

“Francis Urquhart—ninety-one votes.”

  He had been given a seat on one of the long desks at the front; he offered a silent nod of gratitude.

“Patrick Woolton—ninety-one votes.”

  And it was done. The room erupted. No one was paying attention to Newlands any longer. He tried to struggle through. “Since no candidate has been elected, there will be a second round a week today. I would remind everyone that those wishing to offer themselves for the second ballot must resubmit their nominations to me by Thursday. I declare this meeting closed!”

  But no one was paying the slightest attention to him any longer.






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