House of Cards [CHAPTER 40]


 

Forty


Political friendships are only impressions, easily rubbed away.

Urquhart’s office was overflowing with colleagues and alcohol. Celebration was in full swing. It was one of the finest offices available to a Member with a gracious window offering a fine view across the river to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ancient Gothic palace at Lambeth. “Different sides,” as he would occasionally reflect. He stood dispensing drinks as still more newcomers pressed his hand and offered their congratulations. It was the first time during the campaign he had seen some of these faces but that did not matter. New faces were new votes.

“Quite splendid, Francis. Absolutely excellent result. Do you think you can go on to win?” inquired one of his senior parliamentary colleagues.

“I believe so,” Urquhart responded with quiet confidence. “I have as good a chance as anyone.”

“I think you’re right, you know,” his colleague said, gushing as he quenched some inner fire with a huge gulp of something white. “Young Samuel may be ahead but his campaign is going backwards. It’s between the experienced hands now, you and Patrick. And, Francis, I want you to know you have my wholehearted support.”

  Which, of course, you will want me to remember when I have my hands on all that Prime Ministerial patronage, Urquhart thought to himself, chuckling as he offered his gratitude and Mortima, who was gliding seraphically around the room despite the crush, refreshed the depleted glass and offered an endearing smile.

  One of his younger supporters had produced a box of lapel badges and was pushing his way through the room sticking them on jackets. The badges simply proclaimed “FU.” The young politician, who was Napoleonic in stature and flushed in face, found himself standing in front of Mortima. Excitedly he thrust one of the badges in the general direction of her chest. His eyes were endearing but, as his hand approached her bosom, increasingly uncertain. Then they met hers and he blanched as though whipped. “Oh, God. Sorry. I think this belongs elsewhere,” he blurted and disappeared back into the crowd.

“Where do you get these people from?” she whispered in mock awe into her husband’s ears.

“When he grows up he might be a great man.”

“If he grows up, send him to me. I’ll let you know.”

New arrivals were still pouring into the room.

“Where have they all come from?” Mortima asked, worried they might run out of refreshment.

  “Oh, some of them have been very busy,” he replied. “They’ll already have made brief but prominent appearances at both Samuel’s and Woolton’s receptions, on the basis that we can never be too sure. And you can’t, can you, my dear? Be too sure?”

“I like to know where I stand with those around me, Francis.”

“Of course, my dear. That’s why I have a friendly Whip in both Michael’s and Patrick’s parties, counting heads, collecting faces. Making sure.”

  They stared into each other’s face, oblivious for the moment of the crush around them.

“Whatever it takes, Francis.”

“Will you want to know?”

  She shook her head. “No, any more than you want to know, my love.” She turned and pressed on with her duties.

  In the background the telephone had been ringing persistently with messages of congratulation and inquiry. Urquhart’s secretary had been fielding the calls in between opening bottles and providing small talk, yet now she was at Urquhart’s side, a frown creasing her face. “It’s for you,” she whispered urgently. “Roger O’Neill.”

“Tell him I’m busy and that I will call him later,” he instructed.

“But he called earlier. He sounds very anxious. Asked me to tell you it was

‘very bloody hot,’ to quote his exact words.”

  With an impatient curse he withdrew from his guests to the window, where his desk gave him a little shelter from the press of celebration. “Roger?” His tone was gentle as he cast a bright face around the room at his guests, not wanting them to know the irritation he felt inside. “Is this really necessary? I’ve got a room full of people.”

“She’s on to us, Francis. That bloody bitch—she knows, I’m sure. She knows it’s me and she’ll be on to you next, the cow. I haven’t told her a thing but she’s got hold of it and God knows how but…”

“Roger, listen carefully. Pull yourself together.” Urquhart’s tone remained controlled but he turned to the window, away from lip readers.

  But O’Neill was gabbling, his conversation running away like a driverless express. 

  Urquhart interrupted, “Roger, tell me slowly and clearly what all this is about.”

  Yet the gabbling began again and Urquhart was forced to listen, trying to make sense of the chaotic mixture of words, splutters and sneezes. “She came over to see me, the cow from the press lobby. I don’t know how, Francis, it’s not me and I told her nothing. I fobbed her off—think she went away happy. But somehow she’s got onto it. Everything, Francis. The Paddington address, the computer. Even that bloody leaked opinion poll. And that bastard Kendrick must’ve shot his mouth off. Jesus, Francis. I mean, what if she doesn’t believe me?”

“Hold your tongue for a second,” Urquhart seethed as he smiled. “Who, Roger? Who are we talking about?”

“Storin. Mattie Storin. And she said…”

“Did she have any firm evidence? Or is she just guessing?” O’Neill paused for the briefest of moments. “Nothing firm, I think. Just guesswork. Except…”

“Except what?”

“She’s been told I had something to do with opening that Paddington address.”

“How on earth—?”

“I don’t know, Francis, I don’t bloody know. But it’s all right, no need to worry, she thinks I did it for Collingridge.”

“Roger I could happily—”

“Look, it’s me who’s done all the dirty jobs for you, taken all the risks.

  You’ve got nothing to worry about while I’m in it up to my neck. Oh, Francis, I need help, I’m scared! I’ve done too many things for you that I shouldn’t have touched, but I didn’t ask questions and just did what you said. You’ve got to get me out of this, I can’t take much more—and I won’t take much more. You’ve got to protect me, Francis. Do you hear? Oh, God, please, you’ve got to help me!”

  “Roger, calm yourself,” he said quietly into the receiver, cupping it with both hands. “She has absolutely no proof and you have nothing to fear. We are in this together, you understand? And we shall get through it together, all the way to Downing Street.”

  Nothing but uncontrollable sobbing came from the other end of the phone.

“I want you to do two things, Roger. I want you to keep remembering that knighthood. It’s just a few days away now.”

  Urquhart thought he could detect a stumbling expression of gratitude.

“And in the meantime, Roger, I want you to keep well away from Miss Storin. Do you understand?”

“But—”

“Keep away!”

“Whatever you say, Francis.”

“I will deal with her,” Urquhart whispered and cut the connection.

  He stood, his shoulders braced, looking out of the window, letting his emotions wash over him. From behind him came the hubbub of the powerful men who would propel him into Downing Street. To the front he gazed across the centuries-old view of the river that had inspired so many great men. And he had just put the phone down on the only man who could ruin it all for him.






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