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Comeuppance

September 17, 2014

“Excellent!” The Right Honourable Harold Purcell, MP, placed his plump ministerial hands on his beautiful mahogany ministerial desk. “Now that’s settled, you can start leaking it to the press.”

    Douglas, his keen young SPAD, looked startled. “Shouldn’t we run it past the Treasury first?” he queried.

    “Not at all!” Harold insisted. “This one’s a real vote-catcher. If it goes through it’ll be down to Harry Purcell, the people’s champion – and if it doesn’t, it’ll be the miserable bean counters and bureaucrats who blocked it.” He jerked his two podgy thumbs towards his own chest. “Heads I win, tails I win. Now, is there anything else?”

    He was impatient to end the meeting – his new researcher was a nubile young thing, and had already demonstrated how willing she was to accommodate her boss.

    “Well, just one.” Douglas held out a sheaf of papers. “It’s your expenses. As you know, there’s a new procedure. You have to get them signed off by the DD at the PSC before submitting them to the SEO at the OFA.”

    Harold sighed, snatching the papers from Douglas. “Damned stupid,” he snarled impatiently. “I’m a Cabinet Minister, for goodness' sake, and I can’t be trusted to buy packet of envelopes for my secretary without having to trot to some snotty little clerk to ask for permission?”

    “I can deal with it if you like?” Douglas offered.

    “No, no, leave it with me,” Harold assured him quickly. “I’ll sort it out.”

 

Alone in his office, Harold stuffed the expenses forms into his briefcase. Damn the PM – he was weak, weak, caving in so easily to pressure from the opposition and the media. But his days were numbered – already there were murmurings of discontent on the backbenches. They were looking for a fresh start, a strong hand at the helm - someone with backbone, who wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed in.

    He drew himself up straight and proud. Henry Purcell, Prime Minister. It had a good ring to it. Sir Henry Purcell. And then, finally retiring after many years of service to his country, Lord Purcell of Avonbury. Trimming the old expenses for a while might be a small price to pay for that.

    He pulled the forms out of his briefcase again, and glanced down the list. It could be a bit of a problem, getting the gold taps for the bathroom and the extension to the Orangery past the petty pen-pushers of the Standards Commission. Maybe he should cross them off…?

    No; he shook his head sharply – why cave in to them? Better a little old-fashioned persuasion – a mention of a juicy post coming up in his own department, perhaps? A hint of the value of being on the right side of the potential next PM?

    The intercom on his desk buzzed. “Miss Channing is here, Sir.”

    Tossing the papers back into his briefcase, he straightened his tie. “Very well, send her in,” he responded, his tone carefully businesslike. “And Jennifer, hold my calls for the next hour – I don’t want to be disturbed. We have some… highly important matters to discuss.”

 

After a long and rather dull sitting in the house, enlivened only by memories of the romp on his office floor with the enthusiastic Miss Channing, Henry sighed with contentment as his comfortable Ministerial limousine pulled up the ramp from the House of Commons car park and turned onto Parliament Square.

    Opening his briefcase to retrieve the flask of brandy he always kept in it, his eye was caught by his expenses form.

    Dammit, he had forgotten about that – Miss Channing’s charms had lured him into lingering, and he had had to rush to catch the division bell. It was far too late now – everyone would have gone home hours ago. And tomorrow he would be too pushed for time – he was giving an important speech to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

    Maybe he could just copy the chap’s signature? Couldn’t be too difficult. What was his name? Baggins? No, Biggins. He was sure he had a note from him somewhere over his signature. It would never be noticed, among all the piles of paperwork the civil service seemed to insist on generating.

    He sat back in his seat, sipping brandy as the limousine sailed smoothly past Admiralty Arch. Yes, he’d just copy the signature. Problem solved.

 

“So Fordham’s for it, then?”

    “Looks that way. Bit much to call the police in on it, though – the PM's really lost it this time, if you ask me.”

    “What’s up with Fordham?” Harold enquired, taking his place at the line of urinals in the Member’s washroom.

    “You haven’t heard? Got caught forging the signature on his expenses form. They’re going through them all with a toothcomb now… Oh, I say, careful there – you’ve splashed my shoes!”

 

Harold could feel the panic rising in his throat as he strode down the darkened corridor to Douglas’s office. The grand building that housed the Ministry of Commerce was mostly deserted at this time of night, apart from a few cleaners. What time was the internal post collected?

    Reaching the office, he slipped inside quickly, not bothering to turn on the lights - he knew the layout of the room well enough, and he didn’t want to attract any attention. The post was left in two wire trays on the credenza beside the window – one for internal, one for external.

    Thank goodness – both were still piled high with papers and envelopes. Harold felt his panic ebbing away. He took a moment to draw in a few deep, soothing breaths, rubbing his palms down his trousers – he hadn’t realised how much they were sweating.

    But now it was all going to be all right after all. Stepping over to the credenza he rifled quickly through the jumbled heap of papers in the internal tray, and pulled out his expenses form, with that stupid pink approval sheet attached to the front…

    With a click like a detonator the lights went on. Harold clapped his hand to his chest, gasping in shock.

    “Oh, it’s you Sir,” a slow, placid voice came from behind him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I didn’t realise anyone was in here.”

    “Ah… Oh…” It was just the elderly night porter on his rounds, wheeling the trolley to collect the post – he had been just in time.

    The porter trundled his trolley over to the trays and began loading it with the pile of waiting papers, then turned to Harold. “Ah, that was lucky, Sir,” he said. “Another moment and you’d have missed me. That your expenses, Sir? Ah, I see you’ve got your pink form all signed up proper. You wouldn’t believe how some of them have grumbled about that – good that you’re setting an example, as Minister. Here you are – just pop it in this here envelope along o' all the others, and it’ll be there in the morning.”

    He held out a thick envelope which was stuffed with a wad of forms. Harold was still struggling to regain his breath as the porter plucked the form from his numb fingers and dropped it in with the others. 

    “There we are, Sir. Well, I’ll be wishing you goodnight.”

    Harold at last found his voice. “No! Umm… I mean…”

    The porter paused and looked back over his shoulder, an expression of polite query on his wrinkled face. 

    What could he say? What excuse could he give for demanding the form back, when he’d apparently come in here explicitly to catch the post with it? “Wait. I… just need to check that I’ve put the right date on it.”

    Ponderously the porter picked up the envelope, and drew the form part way out. “Oh yes, Sir – the date’s right,” he confirmed, beaming. “And you’ve got all the signatures in the right place.” He pushed the form back into the envelope. “Goodnight again, Sir.”

    Harold was feeling almost dizzy with panic as his whole golden future began to trundle out of the door in that damned wire trolley. If he insisted on taking the form back now, the old duffer would just get curious – there’d be whispers, gossip. And gossip would play into the hands of his rivals for Number 10.

    Stumbling back against the desk, his hand fell on the heavy brass paper-weight. It didn’t even need a second thought. He would be PM - he should be PM! He swung the paperweight, and it landed with a satisfying thwack on the back of the porter’s head. He fell to the floor, one hand still on the trolley. A last rasping breath rattled from his throat, and he was silent.

    Quick – it would be better if the body wasn’t found in Douglas’s office. It was surprisingly heavy for a thin old man, but Harold managed to manoeuvre it out into the corridor, and a few yards down so that it was nearer the water-cooler.

    Back in the office he used his handkerchief to carefully wipe the paperweight clean of blood and fingerprints, and replaced it on the desk. Then still using the handkerchief to avoid putting fingerprints on the envelope he retrieved his expenses form, and pushed the trolley out to leave it beside the body, closing the door carefully behind him.

    He used the stairs again rather than risk waiting for the lift – the worst thing would be if someone came along. But he saw no-one. Once out in the clear evening air he drew in a long deep breath, and set off for the short walk to his club.

    There would be a murder enquiry, of course, but who would ever suspect a Cabinet Minister of killing an elderly porter? Maybe he’d get Douglas to send a wreath to the old man’s funeral – nice touch, that. And in a few weeks, with a little of the old Purcell luck, he’d be moving into Number 10. Problem solved.

 

Meanwhile, upstairs in Douglas’s office, the little red light on the CCTV camera in the corner of the ceiling – installed throughout the building at the Minister’s own insistence during the recent very expensive office refurbishment he had ordered – continued to wink, recording a freeze-frame of the room every five seconds.

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