House of Cards [CHAPTER 42]



 Forty-Two


Cruelty of any kind is unforgivable. That’s why there is no point at all in being cruel in half-measure.

Wednesday, November 24

The letters and newspapers arrived almost simultaneously with a dull thud on Woolton’s Chelsea doormat. Hearing the early-morning clatter, he came downstairs in his dressing gown and gathered them up, spreading the newspapers across the kitchen table while he left the post on a small antique bench in the hallway. He received more than three hundred letters a week from his constituents and other correspondents and had long since given up trying to read them all. So he left them for his wife, who was also his constituency secretary and for whom he got a generous secretarial allowance from the parliamentary authorities to supplement his Cabinet minister’s stipend.

  Inevitably, the newspapers were dominated by the leadership election. The headlines seemed to have been written by journalists moonlighting from the Sporting Life and phrases such as “Neck and Neck,” “Three Horse Race,” and “Photo Finish” were splashed across the front pages. Inside, the less feverish commentaries explained that it was difficult to predict which of the three leading contenders was now best placed. He bent over the analysis in the Guardian, not normally his first port of call. It often hopped around uselessly on its left leg but, since it wouldn’t end up supporting any of the candidates at the next election, it was arguably more measured and objective about the outcome.

  The Party is now presented with a clear choice. Michael Samuel is by far the most popular and polished of the three, with a clear record of being able to pursue a political career without throwing out his social conscience. The fact that he has been attacked by some elements of the Party as being “too liberal by half” is a badge he should wear with pride.

  Patrick Woolton is an altogether different politician. Immensely proud of his Northern origins, he poses as a man who could unite the two halves of the country. Whether his robust style of politics could unite the two halves of his own Party is altogether more debatable. Despite his time in the Foreign Office, he professes to have little patience with diplomacy and plays his politics as if he were still hooking for his old rugby league club. The Leader of the Opposition once described him as a man wandering the streets of Westminster in search of a fight, and not particularly bothered with whom.

  Woolton let out a muffled roar of appreciation, demolished half a slice of toast and rustled the paper once more.

Francis Urquhart is more difficult to assess. The least experienced and well known of the three, nevertheless his performance in the first round ballot was remarkable. Three reasons seem to explain his success. First, as Chief Whip he knows the Parliamentary Party extremely well, and they him. Since it is his colleagues in the Parliamentary Party and not the electorate at large who will decide this election, his low public profile is less of a disadvantage than many perhaps assumed.

  Second, he has conducted his campaign in a dignified style which sets him apart from the verbal fisticuffs and misfortunes of the other contenders. What is known of his politics suggests he holds firm to the traditionalist line, somewhat patrician and authoritarian perhaps, but sufficiently ill-defined for him not to have antagonized either wing of the Party.

  Finally, perhaps his greatest asset is that he is neither of the other two. Many MPs have certainly supported him in the first round rather than commit themselves to one of the more contentious candidates. He is the obvious choice for those who wish to sit on the fence. But it is that which could ultimately derail his campaign. As the pressure for a clear decision grows, Urquhart is the candidate who could suffer most.

  So the choice is clear. Those who wish to air their social consciences will support Samuel. Those who thirst for blood-and-thunder politics will support Woolton. Those who cannot make up their minds have an obvious choice in Urquhart. Whichever way they decide, they will inevitably deserve what they get.

  Woolton chuckled as he finished off the last of the toast and his wife arrived to join him, her arms laden with the morning’s post.

“What do they say?” she said, nodding at the newspapers.

“That I’m Maggie Thatcher without the tits,” he said. “Home and bloody dry.”

  She replenished his mug of tea and sighed as she sat beside the pile of mail and began sifting through it. She had gotten the process down to a fine art. Her word processor was carefully programmed with a series of standard responses that, with only the barest brush of a keyboard, would make a reply seem personalized. Then they would be signed with the help of a little autograph machine he had brought back from the States. Even though many of the letters were from the usual bunch of discontents, lobbyists, professional whingers, and nutters who wrote in green ink, they would all get an answer. She wouldn’t risk losing her husband even a single vote by failing to offer some form of reply even to the most abusive.

  She left the padded brown envelope until last. It had been hand-delivered and was firmly stapled down; she had to struggle to open it, risking her manicure in the process. As she pulled out the last tenacious staple a cassette tape fell into her lap. There was nothing else in the envelope, no letter, no compliments slip, no label on the tape to indicate where it had come from or what it contained.

“Fools. How on earth do they expect us to reply to that?”

“It’s probably a recording of last weekend’s speech or a tape of a recent interview,” he suggested distractedly, not bothering to look up from his newspaper. “Give us some more tea, lass, and let’s give it a whirl.” He waved broadly in the general direction of the stereo unit.

  His wife, dutiful as ever, did as he bade. He was slurping his tea, his attention fixed to the editorial in the Sun, when with a burst of red light the playback meter on the tape deck began to show it was reading something. There was a series of low hisses and crackles, it was clearly not a professional recording.

“Turn the bloody thing up, then, love,” he instructed, “let the fox hear the chicken.”

  The sound of a girl’s laughter filled the room. It was followed, moments later, by her low, deep gasp. The noise hypnotized the Wooltons, rooting them to the spot. No tea was supped and no paper turned for several minutes as through the speakers came many noises: heavy breaths, low curses, a complaining mattress, a grunt of happiness, the rhythmic banging of a headboard against a wall. The tape left little to the imagination. The woman’s sighs became shorter and more shrill, only pausing to gasp for breath before they climbed ever higher.

  Then, with mutual cries of ascension and fulfillment, it was done. A woman’s giggles mixed with the deep bass panting of her companion.

“Oh, my, that was bloody marvelous,” the man gasped.

“Not bad for an oldie.”

“That’s what you get with age. Stamina!”

“Can we do it again, then?”

“Not if you’re going to wake up the whole of bloody Bournemouth,” an unmistakable Lancashire accent said.

  Neither Woolton nor his wife had moved since the tape had begun but now she stepped slowly across the room and switched it off. A soft, gentle tear fell down one cheek as she turned to look at her husband. He couldn’t return her gaze.

“What can I say? I’m sorry, love,” he whispered. “I’ll not lie and tell you it’s bogus. But I am sorry, truly. I never meant to hurt you.”

She made no reply. The look of sorrow on her face cut him far more deeply than any angry word.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked gently.

  She turned on him, her face flooded with pain. She had to dig her nails deep into her palm to retain control. “Pat, I have turned many a blind eye over the last twenty-three years and I’m not so stupid as to think this is the only time. You could at least have had the decency to keep it away from me and to make sure my face wasn’t rubbed in it. You owed me that.”

He hung his head. She let her anger sink into him before she continued.

“But one thing my pride will not tolerate is having a tart like that trying to break up my marriage and make a fool of me. I’ll not stand for it. Find out whatever the blackmailing little bitch wants, buy her off or go to the police if necessary. But get rid of her. And get rid of this!” She flung the tape at him; it bounced off his chest. “It doesn’t belong in my house. And neither will you if I have to listen to that filth again!”

  He looked at her with tears in his own eyes. “I’ll sort it out. I promise. You’ll hear no more about it.”





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