Richard Granger plunged down the steps two at a time. Collar up, head down, fists rammed into the pockets of his navy overcoat, he crossed the pavement and stepped into the slushy road without a sideways glance.
A shorter man hurried after him with more care and less rage. Safety fought with concern. Concern won and he caught hold of the other’s rigid arm halfway across.
Granger’s dark head swung round and he stopped mid-stride. Behind him, a taxi struggling uphill to circumnavigate City Hall though the weather and lunchtime exodus stood on its brakes. It aquaplaned gracefully into the gutter. Inside the warm, glazed cabin, the driver shook his fist and freely expressed his opinion. Not a syllable escaped. The parody of a muted television soap was so ludicrous that at any other time Granger would have dissolved into mirth. But not today.
‘The bastard’, he said. ‘The lying, conniving bastard.’
‘Richard, for God’s sake,’ the shorter man said. ‘Don’t let it get to you. You know it’ll take years before anything happens.’
‘No it won’t.’ Granger allowed himself to be pulled to safety. ‘This is hot political stuff. Our master has spoken; so be it!’
They reached the pavement, minus the taxi driver’s charity, and walked down the steps to the promenade that overlooked the market. Below them, the striped awnings sloped down in corrugated ridges of red, white and green to the Christmas lights in the shops on Gentleman’s Walk. Steam filtered up from a group of stalls, wafting the gross smell of hot dogs into the air.
Richard stopped by one ornate lamppost. His shoulders slouched. He looked down and pushed at the slush-covered ground with the side of one foot. For a few moments there was silence, then he looked up.
‘I’m not having it, Michael. That’s no place to dump a load of immigrants, illegal or not. They’ve left the bloody deserts to come here. What’s the point of stuffing them in an old aerodrome in the middle of Norfolk? The wind comes straight down from the Artic for God‘s sake. They’ll freeze their bloody bollocks off in a week.’
‘I know that. We all know that.’ Michael Dunston shrugged. ‘It’s a stupid idea.’
‘I wouldn’t put my pigs in those decrepit old buildings, let alone a human. And they won’t keep them in unless they stick up a ten-foot fence. It’ll be a bloody concentration camp in the middle of the fields. Excellent bloody strategy.’
Michael shrugged again. ‘There’s not a lot you can do about it.’
Richard set off down the market steps. ‘I’ll think of something. I’m not having that lying bastard announce one thing then finesse it into something different.’
A hundred and ten miles further south, the lying bastard picked his way delicately across paving from which every trace of snow had been swept and stepped into the waiting car. He folded his lips but the smile leaked out of his eyes. ‘That went well,’ he said to the graceful young man climbing in beside him.
‘Excellently, Prime Minister. There’s no way the Opposition can counter that idea.’
The day’s assigned detective pushed the door gently shut and took his seat beside the driver. The Right Honourable Julian Palter, MP, PC, LSE, Matlock Comprehensive and bar, extended the seat belt to its maximum and clicked it into place.
‘Left them floundering,’ he said. ‘Floundering.’ His chin came up and the corners of his mouth lifted.
The younger man in the discreet suit fielded his cue neatly. ‘It certainly did. Now they can’t challenge us on not locking up illegals. Nor can they challenge us on giving them council housing either. And renovating that base will push up the local employment figures too. It’s a perfect win-win for you all round.’
Palter’s smile freed itself and escaped across his thin jowls. He settled his shoulders against the cream leather. Up front, the driver let in the clutch and slid out of the Palace of Westminster in the wake of two outriders with impressive-looking motorbikes slung between their legs. They took the corner of the square at speed, flashing past police in luminous jackets who were holding back the traffic across the bridge and beside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The car flexed on its suspension and crossed into Parliament Street. Palter looked out of the window. A bigger smile, entirely without charity, creased his face. Better in here than waiting like a pleb on a cold winter’s day.
The gates at Downing Street swayed open before him, towering over the car. They were not as imposing as the ones at Buck House, true, but here was where the real power lay, not amongst the gilding and pomp at the end of the Mall. Palter smiled again. Much good all that excess did the king. He was hardly ever there these days. More likely to be gibbering in Windsor Castle, or out at Sandringham, with the fiercely-protective queen bee hovering round him and forbidding all mention of Alzheimer’s.
The car door opened. Palter watched his hand unfasten the seatbelt. There was the power. In that hand. For a second he gripped the buckle hard. Nobody was going to take it from him. None of it. Not the Opposition with their flaccid leader, nor Steven Vincent, panting and hungry in the wings. Nor Vincent’s allies, seeking support in corridors and tearooms, or on the Member’s Terrace by the murky waters of the Thames. Palter smiled. The corridors of impotence. Vincent would have to carry on gritting his teeth and doing as he was told; waiting his time as Palter had done. And his time was not here yet, not by a long way. The Prime Minister climbed out of the car, nodded to the cluster of duty-men and went through the opened door to his longhaired, long-limbed, long-witted wife.
Margaret Chesterton crossed the ten yards everyone else was leaving clear around Steven Vincent and came to a stand beside him. She looked down at the icy Thames. Waves of interest from the surrounding MPs eddied up to her fine-boned ankles and crept up her flanks and spine to her sleekly-styled hair. She balanced on the cold stone in her killer heels and kept her back to the antennae oscillating on the head of every other person on the Terrace.
‘Well?’ she asked.
‘Not very,’ Vincent replied. ‘But keep it to yourself.’
‘You should have done what I suggested.’ She slid one hand under her jacket and hugged it to her side. Her fingertips struck chill through the pink cashmere. ‘If you persist in leaving him an opening, he’ll find a way to dump on you.’
‘Thank you. That’s very helpful.’
‘But right, just the same.’
They stood in silence and watched a boat of river police chop unevenly past. The wind was testing its muscles.
‘I’m going inside,’ she said. ‘Are you coming or do you need some more cold air before you can wring out a smile?’
Vincent looked round at her. The fury slid off his jaw; she was quite an eyeful. Tall as he in those ridiculous heels she always wore. She made the most of her thirty-six years and defied anyone to patronise her. On anyone else, mid-brown hair would be a statement of failure; on her, it was a mark of moderation, a defining element of her calm and ordered approach to the relentless progression of Steven Vincent to the ultimate position.
‘Come to bed,’ he said.
She shook her head.
‘This is no time for self-indulgence. We’ve got to find a way round this issue.’
He gave a brief snort. ‘If ever I lose my grip, you’ll know how to recharge it.’ He looked at her. ‘I wouldn’t want you for an enemy.’ A small smile crinkled his eyes. ‘Nor a wife. We’re too alike. What I want and what you want coincide for the time being. When it doesn’t, one of us had better watch out.’
The briefest hint of humour crossed her face. ‘There have never been any illusions between us. In or out of bed.’
‘Come inside,’ he said. ‘It’s bloody cold out here.’
They set off towards the warmth, step for step. At the threshold, a couple of reforming smokers were failing to keep up their resolve. As Vincent and Margaret approached, the fattest one said ‘Interesting few minutes, I thought.’
Vincent smiled. ‘Indeed it was. I thought the PM pulled the rug from under Lacey’s feet very effectively.’
The pair laughed more than was necessary.
Vincent smiled some more and followed Margaret inside. As soon as they were out of earshot, he muttered ‘What a pillock. How he ever managed to make it to Junior Minister, I’ll never know. Even allowing for his wife’s buddy-buddy act with Palter’s missus.’
‘Old alliances bring old debts.’ Margaret shrugged her shoulders. ‘At least he can’t do much harm. Not in Culture. Not that he has much to offer anyway.’
They walked on to his office, discussing nothing of any importance but unwilling to be seen in a silence which would occasion more gossip.
Vincent opened the door. Inside, a middle-aged woman, short and plump and sharp-eyed was standing by a cabinet easing files into an open drawer. Her sandy hair fell forward. She freed a hand and curved one side of it behind her ear.
‘Take ten minutes, Audrey, if you wouldn’t mind.’
She smiled. ‘Of course not, Steven. I’ll nip along and see if Gillian’s managed to sort out the Christmas lunch yet.’
She put the remaining files on top of the cabinet and left the room, closing the door behind her. Vincent took off his jacket and slung it round his chair. He sat down. A frown replaced the public smile.
‘Right. Well, there’s no way I can profit from this latest move on asylum seekers. I’ll just have to work on the next step.’
Margaret walked over to the window. ‘He’s weak on pre-school stuff. Handing out largess where it’s not needed. There’s room for us there.’
‘Dodgy ground. Start messing with the young and innocent and we’ll have every old-fashioned liberal of every description lining up to take pot shots at us. Anyway it’s too obvious.’
A delicately coloured eyebrow rose.
Vincent spread his hands. ‘Well it is.’ He sucked at a tooth. ‘There’s room for manoeuvre in the grey vote.’
‘True, but which way? They’re a large group and growing larger. Threaten their standard of living and you’ll alienate the very people who actually turn out to vote.’
‘But they know their kids aren’t going to have it so good,’ he said. ‘We could appeal to their parental instincts.’
‘Too many of their kids have already appealed to their instincts. For housing deposits or university fees. They’re being put on too much. Take any more and various camel-haired backs are going to break.’
‘All right then, we don’t bleed them, we promise them something. Conform to their ideas. Play on their nostalgia.’
‘Now you’re back to Victorian values and all that rubbish.’
‘Find a new angle then,’ he told her. ‘Something different that will pull them in. What gets them all united?’
‘Cutting taxes. That unites everyone.’
‘That’s like stopping immigration. Or re-opening village post offices. You name it, it’s been done. Someone somewhere has painted it on a banner and hoisted it up the barricade.’
Margaret moved from the window and perched on the corner of the desk, looking down at him. ‘We’ll have to sleep on it.’
Vincent raised his eyes. He lifted his hand slowly and placed it on the designer skirt. His fingers slid along her thigh.
She shifted her knees slightly. Her lids and mouth drooped.
‘Later,’ he said.