Inside the Party's election headquarters, chaos reigns. Papers are stacked to the damp ceilings and cascade from desks, tables, chairs. Staffers dart through the tiny corridors and in and out of rooms with expressions varyingly panic-laced, sleep-deprived, and stoic. The lights on the second floor flicker, but no one complains, because everyone knows they barely have enough money to cover the electric bills.
Being a Cabinet Minister and ostensibly part of the Party's 'inner circle', or whatever the fuck the press likes to refer to it as these days, Nicola has spent enough time in the dingy place to develop her own metaphors for it, of labyrinths, mazes, underground tunnels and bunkers during the War, fire stations and A&E's.
But right now, as she's standing in Malcolm's office, all she can think of are spiderwebs.
Malcolm has one hand splayed on a stack of memos. Twisting the top sheet carefully from side to side, he says, "It's not the best situation."
Oh, but how Nicola hates when he doesn't even bother to be offensive, when things are too fucking dire even for the usual unpleasantries. "Not the best-I'm seven points back!"
Malcolm slowly nods. "Yes."
"How-okay." Nicola covers her face for a moment. "Okay. It's-it's one week's numbers, right? There's room for development there, I mean, three weeks? That's plenty of time."
"Nicola," he says quietly, cutting her off, and her heart drops into her stomach. Malcolm looks worse than she's ever seen him, about twice as tired and thrice as vampiric, holding the entire campaign together from his office with nothing but sheer force of will. Nicola feels as though she could put out a hand and shatter the whole delicate operation, swipe it away like gossamer.
He taps a pen twice on his blotter. "This is what's going to happen." He pauses. "Go home."
Nicola blinks. "What?"
"I'm going to put this very simply, yeah? You are now a fucking liability to this campaign. I don’t know why your numbers are lower than an eighty-year-old's tits right now, but you need to toddle off back to your constituency and fucking fix it. And until you do, you are not doing press for this party, all right? In fact, if a camera comes anywhere near you, I want you to run in the fucking opposite direction. Are we clear?"
There is a long pause. Nicola bites her lip, so angry the air in the office is practically thrumming around her. "Okay," she says, quietly. "I get it. You're chucking me off the raft."
"No, no, I understand, 'She's weak, let's toss her overboard for the sharks and maybe we'll survive'. I take it you're cutting off my funding as well?"
Malcolm's face wears the locked down, blank expression saved for when she's figured out something he didn't want or expect her to know. "Your initial allotment is not being touched."
"My initial allotment," says Nicola, her voice beginning to rise. "My initial allotment is nowhere near substantial enough for a fucking local council race, and you expect me to-" She cuts herself off, a new thought coming to her head. "Or you don't expect me to. Is that it? Is this your fucking revenge for not backing you up against Fleming?"
"Nicola, don't make this fucking personal."
"Maybe I shouldn't even try, then," she continues, not hearing him at all, "if the only thing waiting for me's fucking humiliation. Maybe I should just walk away now, like," she laughs mirthlessly, "like I was going to, Malcolm, before you fucking asked me to stay!"
Malcolm is silent. "Look," he says finally. "You have a choice here."
"Oh, Christ, Malcolm," she says. "When do I ever?"
"You have a choice," he repeats. "You can walk away. Cite family responsibilities, your husband's massive coke problem, whatever. We'll find someone else for your seat, we'll probably lose it but we're probably going to fucking lose it anyway, so that's a wash." He makes a dismissive gesture with one hand, and she wants to kill him.
"Or," he continues, "you stay in it." Malcolm pushes his chair back and starts looking through a pile of manila folders. Apparently the meeting is over. "You have until tonight," he says.
Nicola takes a breath, then nods stiffly. "Tonight, then." He doesn't look at her as she picks up her briefcase and leaves.
She gets about five feet away from his office before she slams her fist into the wall, in full view of the entire Communications department.
The next thing she knows, Glenn and Ollie have hustled her into the men's toilet, where Glenn is gently examining her hand and Ollie is being not at all helpful.
"You really are fucking screwed," he's saying. "I mean, honestly, how does he expect you to talk to voters? Get up on the roof of your house with a fucking megaphone and-"
"Yes, all right, thank you," snaps Nicola, her voice echoing off the tile. "Glenn, stop fussing, it isn't broken."
"Shame you didn't punch Malcolm," says Glenn, handing her a bunch of paper towels. "Or the PM. That probably would've won you some support."
Nicola blows her nose. "Yes, well," she says. "It's not as though I can run against the government that I'm a fucking part of, it is? Even if I'm getting," she ticks off on one hand, "no media support, no money, and the two of you off doing…whatever the fuck it is you're doing for Malcolm." Her two aides exchange looks.
Ollie says, hesitantly, "He didn't say why you're seven points back, did he?"
"No, no." She sighs, lowering her head. "And I don't understand it. I mean, I honestly thought I was okay, I mean, we're fucking screwed, but I was-there's been nothing in the polling data to suggest otherwise, has there? And you've seen the little twerp they've got standing against me?"
"I thought for sure they'd get someone a bit more substantial," says Ollie. "He's sort of…tweedy."
"And Etonian," adds Glenn.
A staffer pokes his head in the door, realizes there's a meeting going on, and vanishes again.
Nicola is perched on the tile counter next to the sink. She's quiet for a few moments, then pushes herself onto her feet. "Right. Well, I'm off to...do something. Go hand out leaflets, or maybe stab myself. Have just a lovely three weeks, the two of you."
"Nicola," says Glenn. "Are you-you're quite sure you're all right?"
She's really not, but she manages to smile. "Thanks for the-" she says, and holds up the paper towels.
It's only after she leaves the building she realizes she may never step inside it again.
Nicola gets home and is immediately swept up in a million domestic things: Katie needs the piano tuner in, Ella and Annie are having a massive row about something about a boy, William has built a fort out of picture books in the study and then knocked it over, they're out of milk, no one can find the cat. Two hours later, her mother shows up to watch the children, and Nicola remembers the party that she and James are meant to be attending that night.
She hasn't said a word about the fact that she seems, today, to have lost an election. As ever, she's barely had time to think about it.
The party was James's idea, and is filled with mostly his friends. Which makes the whole thing a bit pointless from her perspective, given that most of them wouldn't vote for anyone to the left of Hitler. Nicola makes polite conversation, amuses herself by gently steering the discussions so that her partners make transparent allusions to their various deplorable political opinions, and keeps an eye on her husband, waiting for a chance to make an exit.
She's getting herself a drink when she overhears James talking with one of the thirty-six investment bankers in the room about Steve Fleming.
"-and it was your wife's department in the middle of the whole scandal!" the banker is saying. "That can't be good for her image, mate."
James chuckles. "My wife isn't exactly playing power politics over there, if you catch my meaning. And the Fleming affair, I can't imagine she knew anything about that."
"Oh, you are so lucky I've already punched something today," Nicola says, under her breath, though it's nothing she hasn't heard before. James is nowhere near intelligent enough to understand that what goes into the papers isn't the whole story, she thinks wryly, or perhaps he simply doesn't have the imagination. Always in love with the surfaces of things, with the way things look. The tosser.
In the middle of pouring a glass of wine, Nicola startles herself by realizing that there are very few people who know more about 'the Fleming affair' than her. And the snap election...she'd been the first of the Cabinet to know about that, hadn't she?
Strange, she thinks, but of course it means nothing. Just something to wonder about once she's finished being sacked by her constituents, she supposes, a mark of her unfortunate ability to be in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. She absently weighs the wineglass in her hand, the one that doesn't currently ache. Knowledge isn't power, not unless you can use it for something.
It's two in the morning before Nicola, sitting in her study with a lukewarm cup of tea, starts seriously thinking about her options. They are few, and terrible, and she wishes she were somewhere very, very far away. Like America.
She sighs. The house is dead quiet, and for once she doesn't feel as though she's being crowded in from all sides.
Politics is a pendulum game, and Nicola knows there are precious few stories in her business that don't end eventually in defeat, resignation, pain. A car accident is frankly one of the least ignominious career endings one could hope for, and to leave quietly, and be forgotten, a mercy.
Her Blackberry sits on the desk. One message, and she can walk away, euthanize her political career instead of watching it get shot in the back of the head by a tweedy Etonian.
But as she thinks about doing it, when she starts composing a text to Malcolm that begins, "You fucking bastard, enjoy your loss, shame I won't be around to see it," she stops. She can't.
It would be easier to pretend that none of this ever mattered to her, but she's never been particularly good at lying, not even to herself. A terrible trait for a politician to have.
Nicola remembers setting up her exit strategy, the job in America, in a manic rush of activity and phone calls, not giving herself any time to think about it, not admitting that running away would be a defeat, even if it would make her happier, even if she might do more good elsewhere, even if without Malcolm there she stood about as much chance as a sapling in a hurricane. On to better and brighter things, no harm done and no one to miss her once she'd gone.
But then Malcolm had returned, like some grey-suited fucking Lazarus, and had cornered her, forced her to stop and think. And even though nothing had really changed, she'd said yes, okay, I'll stay.
And, sod the Foreign Office, she had fucking meant it.
Nicola sets down her cup. Reaching into her desk, she pulls out a street map, heavily marked with highlights and scribbled notes. She unfolds it, weighs it down with her empty cup and a box of tissues, and looks at her constituency.
She supposes this is something like a choice.
She texts Malcolm. I'm still in, she types, but you knew that.
His reply is nearly instant: See you on the other side, Nicola. And put some fucking ice on that hand.