Read polls apart epub format

Authors: Clare Stephen-Johnston

polls apart

1
Lloyd’s Murderess Role “Could Throw Election Campaign”

F
riday, 13
th March,
2009
, UK Newswire – Anna Lloyd, wife of
SDP
leader Richard Williams, today faced further criticism over her decision to appear nude in a controversial
TV
drama, to be screened just weeks before a widely expected general election.

In the
ITV
thriller, Dancing With Danger, Lloyd plays a serial killer who cuts the throats of her clients while performing for them in private at a lap-dancing club.

The thirty-seven-year-old actress’s decision to appear in the show, to be screened at the end of the month, has angered many in the Social Democratic Party who fear the controversy could throw their campaign off course before it has even begun.

Mr Williams has yet to comment on his wife’s role, but sources close to the Opposition leader say he is concerned about the public’s possible reaction to her performance which comes as Prime Minister Kelvin Davis looks set to call a
6
th May general election.

Joy Gooding, spokesperson for Lloyd, dismissed the controversy as “nothing but a storm in a teacup” and said the actress was “hugely proud of the production and of her performance”.

Anna held her hand up protectively in front of her as she battled her way through the throng of reporters, photographers and
TV
crews all jostling to get close. Her
PR
agent, Joy Gooding, walked directly ahead and tried valiantly to get the crowd to clear a path. One particularly persistent
TV
reporter kept thrusting her microphone under Anna’s chin whilst repeating the same question over and over: “Are you hampering your husband’s bid to become Prime Minister, Ms Lloyd?”

Anna hated people getting too close and she felt panic rise within as she struggled to dodge the reporter’s microphone only to stumble into the path of a photographer. She tried to correct her footing, but her left ankle twisted under her and within seconds she was heading for the ground. She gasped and thrust her hands out to break her fall, but the seemingly inevitable thump against the pavement was prevented by a sudden firm grip around her left arm. She looked up into the face of the man pulling her to her feet. He was staring intently and mouthing words she couldn’t make out above the sound of the crowd and the blood rushing around her head. His eyes were a piercing, icy blue that cut straight into her, drawing out a sickening mix of emotions she hadn’t experienced in twenty years. It couldn’t be, she thought. He was dead. But the man clasping her arm and staring at her in confusion was a terrible reminder of him.

She flailed momentarily then pulled herself sharply from the man’s grasp, unable even to offer a simple “thank you”.

“Don’t mention it,” she heard him call after her but she didn’t look back – she wanted to get as far away from him, and the memory he evoked, as possible. No doubt he would think her rude. After all, it wasn’t his fault he happened to bear an uncanny resemblance, but it was too late to make amends now.

She saw Joy holding the car door open and quickly climbed inside.

With the door now shut behind them, Anna closed her eyes and began the breathing exercises taught to her by her acting coach.

Joy sat quietly next to her, aware she shouldn’t interrupt the ritual.

Anna tried to focus only on the sound of her breath and to put the afternoon behind her. She had been helping launch a new homeless charity initiative which Joy had promised would take “under an hour” but had, in fact, ended up running to more than three times that. By the time she’d toured the women’s hostel, met some of the volunteers and residents, posed for pictures inside and out and generally been shoved around, all she wanted to do was go home, relax and leave the exhausting public persona outside. Her jaws ached from smiling and her head throbbed from the sheer effort of constantly having to talk and listen.

The breathing was beginning to work its magic and she felt a sense of inner calm return. She drifted into a semi-sleep only to be brought back to reality seconds later by a tugging on her sleeve.

Anna opened her eyes and turned to look sharply at her friend and
PR
representative.

“It’s Richard,” Joy said, waving her mobile phone in front of her. “Did you not hear your phone ringing?”

“I was trying to relax.” She flashed Joy an annoyed glance as she reached out to take her phone, hoping she would get the hint that she hadn’t appreciated the extended outing.

Anna hastily answered the call, confident Richard would be calling to praise her on the hostel trip.

“Hi Richard,” she answered breezily.

“Happy now?” he barked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard.”

“Richard,” Anna answered calmly, no stranger to his stress-induced rants. “I’m in the car with Joy at the moment. Can I call you back later?”

“No you bloody can’t call me back, Anna. I have two minutes before I have to go into yet another planning meeting which will more than likely last hours. Top of the agenda is sure to be my actress wife grabbing the headlines again and threatening to overshadow every ounce of effort I’ve spent the last two years putting in to winning this damn election.”

Anna turned to look at Joy and rolled her eyes. She knew her assistant had become used to overhearing her spats with Richard. Privately she was embarrassed that their rows were so frequently overheard, whilst publicly she would make light of them.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Richard. It’s only a
TV
role – how could that possibly throw your campaign off track?” Anna winked at Joy again, indicating she felt she had the upper hand in the argument.

“Because, who I’m married to and what they do matters, Anna. Everything you do, I have to defend. Today, instead of answering questions on our new Young and Working initiative, I had to explain why my wife would be appearing nude as a psychotic lap dancer before millions of
TV
viewers.”

Deep down, Anna could see that her latest role didn’t exactly fit with the straight-and-narrow persona the Social Democrats expected from a leader’s wife, but she’d done it now and she wasn’t going to let Joy hear her backing down to Richard again. She cleared her throat and prepared to strike back. “Well, you should be grateful you finally had something interesting to talk about, Richard. Look, I’ll never be Barbara Bush, okay? Twin set and pearls are not my style. I’m an actress, not a nun. And anyway, I’ve just spent the whole afternoon in a refuge for the homeless; my every blink picked up by the cameras. That’s bound to make up for any negative coverage today.” Anna smiled again, satisfied she’d done enough to win Richard over; but her husband was not for turning.

“Nice idea, but you have to do a lot more than hang out in a homeless hostel for a couple of hours to win over a sceptical electorate. I have to go. See you tonight.”

“Okay,” said Anna, with more than a hint of meekness. “Richard …”

“Yes.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, darling. I’m just bloody stressed to the eyeballs.”

Anna tossed her mobile phone into her handbag before leaning back against the headrest and letting out a long, frustrated sigh.

“Take it Richard’s having another bad day?” Joy asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Richard is always having a bad day at the moment, and I usually seem to be at the centre of it. I blame Henry Morton, personally.”

“Yes, he is a total shit, isn’t he,” agreed Joy, her New York accent still strong despite fifteen years in the UK.

“Why are you married to him then?”

“Gotta have someone to split the mortgage with, haven’t you,” Joy laughed. “Course, you won’t have that problem when you’re living at Number
10
.”

“No, but even more than now I’ll be expected to keep my mouth shut and swap Dolce and Gabbana for Country bloody Casuals.”

“Is Country Casuals still on the go?”

“Well, if it isn’t, it’ll be back in business by the time I’m out of Downing Street. Henry has already warned me about my “alternative look”. In his view, I’m expected to look “uncomplicated”, keep my mouth shut and do whatever I’m told.”

“Just stick to who you are, Anna, and you’ll be fine. You’ve got a terrific career in your own right, and Richard should count himself damned lucky to have you by his side. The best celebrity endorsement poor old Kelvin can come up with is a half-extinct
Dad’s Army
star. I wouldn’t swap you for that.”

“Thanks, Joy,” Anna smiled. “That’s good to know.”

Anna poured herself a large glass of red and happily sank into her favourite leather armchair while she waited for Richard to get home and berate her further. On the rare evenings he was in they would often share a bottle of wine and pick over that day’s controversy, sometimes involving them but more often – and which was more fun – involving Kelvin and the Alliance Party.

That was what she relished about her relationship with Richard most – the fact that, despite all the pressure, they could still laugh together. She glanced at the antique clock proudly taking centre stage on their mantelpiece. It was nearly nine o’clock, so she guessed Richard would have already eaten on his way home from his constituency, or wherever he was tonight – she rarely asked any more. At least it’s a Friday, she thought. Although Richard never really stopped working, thankfully he was mainly based at home on weekends.

She sat back and tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair as she waited, before suddenly springing upright again to study an enormous cobweb she’d just noticed was taking up the corner of her ceiling. Anna made a mental note to ask Joanna the cleaner to get rid of it when she came in the morning. As her eyes trailed around the rest of the room, she felt a pang of sadness at the thought they would more than likely have to leave their house in Highgate soon to live in Downing Street. They had bought their home together when they married six years ago. Anna had decorated each room herself, choosing traditional styles, splashing out on thick, heavy curtains, luxurious merino throws, Persian rugs and fine furnishings. Not very
SDP
, she realised, but then she had paid for most of it herself. Tonight, she took an extra moment to appreciate her handiwork.

She heard Richard’s key in the lock and waited as he hung up his coat in the hallway. When he finally appeared in the doorway to the lounge he looked as soaked from the rain as he did frazzled.

“I’m guessing you could use one of these,” Anna said, dangling her glass in front of her.

“I need more than one.”

“Help yourself,” she said, pointing to the glass and bottle she’d left for him on the coffee table.

“Thanks.” He quickly poured his drink and sat back against the luxurious mass of cushions that lined the back of their sofa. Anna could tell by the way he was staring blankly at the ceiling that he was stewing on something.

“Is it all my fault today then?” she enquired.

“Mostly you, if I’m honest.”

“What. All over a bloody acting job?”

“Not just that, no.” He turned to look at her. “You’re increasingly being seen as a liability. It’s very difficult to paint a picture of a man firmly in control of his party – and, soon, country – when I don’t appear to be able to get a grip on my own wife.”

“Get a grip on me. What does
that
mean?”

“It means you never stop to think how your behaviour might reflect on me. You run around taking any acting job you like and are too busy attending showbusiness gatherings with Joy to come to official functions with me.”

“Oh, this is just Henry talking now,” Anna said, flapping her hand as though batting his criticism away.

“No, Anna. This is not Henry talking. This is me talking.”

Richard leant forwards and stared into his wine glass which he now clasped firmly between his hands, the vein at the top of his temple pulsing as it always did when he became highly agitated. “What are you going to do when we get to Downing Street, Anna? Have you thought about that?”

Anna watched Richard take several large gulps from his glass before running his right hand through his increasingly thinning hair. Although he was only forty-four, she noticed the last two years of party leadership had not been kind to his once youthful looks. He’d given up the gym several months earlier when his timetable could no longer afford it, with the direct consequence that his previously lean and solid frame had now settled for just lean. The greys sprouting through his jet-black hair were strengthening in number and quickening their march across his scalp.

Anna, on the other hand, was faring considerably better at thirty-seven, and was still frequently cast as a woman ten years younger. Regular visits to her hairdresser, Torquin Sellars, ensured no one need ever know she too was harbouring greys among her once-natural blonde locks. And she was still clinging on to her place in the top ten of the annual “most beautiful women” polls – though she knew those days were numbered. While critics had regularly questioned her acting ability, none had ever questioned her looks and she frequently wondered – feared – her face and figure were the sole reasons she’d ever got anywhere in life. To many she appeared as the vacuous, trophy wife with the easy life. But she knew the truth: life was anything but easy when you had a destructive secret boring its way a little further into your soul with every passing day. The burden of tortured days left behind, but never forgotten.

She turned to look at Richard who was by now staring intently at her, awaiting an answer to his last question which she desperately tried to remember. But it didn’t take her long to work it out considering it was a question he’d repeated almost daily in the last few weeks: How would she behave when they reached Number
10
?

“I don’t know what I’ll do, Richard,” she sighed. “I guess it’ll just have to be whatever I’m told.”

Richard woke early with a knot of worry firmly embedded in the pit of his stomach. It was all going too damn well. It was just a bit too easy. He spoke, people applauded; he made a suggestion, everyone agreed. Even the old dinosaurs who lined the back benches were singing his praises. It can’t last, Richard fretted. Somehow he had to keep the good headlines going until the election. Kelvin looked almost certain to call a May vote because he’d been warned that the polls were only going one way, and if he left it to September he’d be lucky to beat the also-rans.

Richard knew if he could just keep things at a level, maintaining both the country’s favour and the sense of confidence amongst the party, then an election win was all but guaranteed. Still, the pressure was often gut-wrenchingly intense. It just took one very public slip-up and the pendulum could swing again. Kelvin had a reputation as a political bruiser who would stop at nothing to take out an opponent – a fact that left Richard feeling very unsettled as he wondered when the first major blow would land.

He stretched his arms above his head and turned to look at Anna peacefully sleeping next to him. She never looked more beautiful or more innocent than when she was out for the count, silent and unable to create trouble. He admired once again the smooth skin, carefully groomed eyebrows and pursed, angelic lips that had given rise to so many column inches on the beauty pages. The fragile features and tiny frame that belied a more defiant nature, carved out by the years of suffering about which they rarely now spoke. He just needed her to toe the line for a few weeks until they made it past the election. She was volatile, he knew, but surely she could do this for him. The knot in his stomach further tightened when he thought of how hard he’d worked, first to become an
MP
when he won Bristol South eight years ago, and then to beat the odds – and the party hardliners – to become
SDP
leader. It was hard to accept that beyond Kelvin Davis and the Alliance Party, his own wife could be the greatest threat as he prepared for his biggest political battle.

The tension between them now was in sharp contrast to their early romance when they had talked endlessly of their shared dreams. Curled up in bed, staring into each other’s eyes, Anna would smile excitedly as he told her of all the wrongs he wanted to put right in society. How he would face down the toughest of challenges in a job he believed he was born to do. She had believed it too. And, before the headiness of fame and adulation had set in, she too had spoken passionately of trying to help those who had shared her past pain of poverty and neglect. He reached out and lightly touched her arm as he remembered their closeness, their complete devotion.

Somehow he had to try and convince her to get behind him again – both metaphorically and literally. This could only work if they shared the vision once so vivid in their minds. But how to win her over, Richard just didn’t know.

He sighed, tossed the covers back and headed for the shower.

Anna bristled as, for yet another Saturday, she had to endure Henry’s signature doorbell ring – finger solidly on the buzzer until the occupant answered. Today’s was even more aggravating than usual as she realised he would almost certainly have a go at her over yesterday’s coverage in the tabloids.
Actress in Gritty TV Role Shock
– hardly the news story of the century, but her every move was under scrutiny at the moment and the natural rebel in Anna just wanted to kick out.

Richard made it to the front door first, dressed for the weekend in his open-neck shirt and crisply ironed jeans. Casual, Anna thought, but never relaxed.

As Anna followed Richard down the stairs she spotted Joy standing sheepishly behind Henry, all too aware that his buzzer antics would have riled her hosts.

“Good morning,” Richard greeted them with typical enthusiasm.

“Morning Dicky,” Henry boomed in reply before quickly making his way past Richard, almost managing to flatten him against the wall with the enormous pile of newspapers he was carrying under his left arm. He was typically dressed in a crumpled shirt and jeans – a look that was only marginally upgraded in the week when he would wear chinos instead and add an ill-matched tie. It was a style that only he could carry off in the
SDP
circle, where he was regarded as something of an overindulged schoolboy, his foppish hair and gentrified good looks offsetting his scruffy attire.

Richard shook his head as he watched his guests make their way towards the living area. No matter how many times he told Henry not to call him Dicky, he still insisted on doing it – unless in public. At least Richard had that to be thankful for.

Anna reached the bottom of the stairs in time to kiss Joy on the cheek before escorting her to the sofas.

“Coffee all round then,” Anna called as she made her way towards the kitchen area.

“Actually, I’ll have a tea,” said Joy, “it’s just dawned on me that my years of insomnia might actually be down to the fact I’ve been drinking up to ten cups of coffee a day.”

“Yes. Might just be something in that,” Richard laughed.

“You can’t sleep because of your relentless desire for me,” quipped Henry.

“That must be it dear. Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier?” she replied, adding a sarcastic smirk.

Anna raised her eyebrows at Joy in a silent show of comradeship whilst carefully piling cups and saucers on the tray with one hand and pouring hot water into the coffee pot with the other. Joy was a vision in a cerise-pink wool dress, matching pink lipstick and black stiletto boots. Anna often wondered what brought her and Henry together as, style-wise, they were such polar opposites, but she figured that was part of the attraction. Like Henry, Joy took a no-nonsense approach to life and called things as she saw them, which often made for lively conversation between the four of them.

“What are the papers saying today then, Henry?” asked Richard.

“Better than yesterday, but not much.” Henry sniffed as he spread the array of mastheads out on the coffee table between them. Joy was perched attentively in an armchair next to her husband while Richard leant forwards on the sofa opposite.

“Anna comes in for further criticism over her career choices, and even her fashion sense is questioned in this feature,” he triumphantly waved the highlighted article in front of Richard. “An expert describes your style as ‘rebellious’ Anna. They say it’s a ‘public statement of your refusal to conform to the more traditional style demanded of a leader’s spouse”.”

“Is that right?” Anna said scathingly as she abruptly set the coffee tray down on the table. “To think that someone actually gets paid to come up with that crap.”

“You dress the way you’ve always dressed,” Joy chipped in, “and you’ve not always been a politician’s wife.”

“As hard as that is to believe now,” sighed Anna.

“Maybe they’ve got a point, Anna.” Henry fixed his target with a meaningful glare. “I know an excellent stylist who could work with your tastes but mould them into something that sits better with the press and public.”

“You mean the press and politicians, Henry. Let’s face it.” Anna returned his glare, thrusting his cup of coffee towards him and sending the liquid sloshing into the saucer.

“Now, now children,” smiled Richard. “Let’s not fall out over a choice of blouse. It wouldn’t do any harm for you to meet with a stylist, Anna. We’re only talking about a few weeks until the election.”

“There’s nothing wrong with the way Anna looks,” Joy said firmly. “The public love her for who she is and the press are just looking for something to write, so let’s drop this.”

“All right,” said Henry, a steely glint suddenly coming into his eyes. “In that case why don’t we talk about the phone-call I took last night from Damian Blunt of the
Sunday Echo
asking me exactly how and when you two met?”

“What about how we met?” asked Richard, furiously stirring his coffee.

“That’s what I can’t work out. Why would the editor of a Sunday paper suddenly start asking me about that?” Henry’s eyes darted between Richard and Anna as he searched for clues.

“Well did you ask him?” Anna asked impatiently.

“Yes, Anna. And he said he was considering doing a warm, cuddly feature on how this public partnership first came into being.”

“What’s wrong with that?” asked Joy.

“What’s wrong is that the
Sunday Echo
don’t do warm and cuddly. There’s something up but I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Don’t be so bloody dramatic, Henry,” said Joy. “They met at an awards ceremony seven years ago, it’s hardly earth-shattering is it?”

“No,” Henry pulled at his closely shaven chin. “But when Damian Blunt starts asking unusual questions it’s time to worry.”

“Well, you certainly know how to cheer up a rainy Saturday morning, don’t you” Anna frowned at Henry as she reached for a biscuit to dip in her coffee.

“Just trying to stay ahead and prevent us getting eaten alive by the wolves.”

“You’re paranoid, Henry,” Joy laughed, instantly riling her husband.

“Oh, I know that in the la-la land of showbusiness all publicity is good publicity, Joy,” he hissed, “but in the world of politics – where the stakes are genuinely high – we tend to take muck-raking a little more seriously.”

Anna cringed as she watched her
PR
’s mouth fall open in shock at the vitriol behind her husband’s harsh remark. Joy looked over helplessly, her eyes signalling for back-up. But to confront Henry now would only make things worse between her and Richard so Anna opted for the coward’s way out; she averted her gaze and stood up to get a refill of coffee.

Richard coughed and shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. “Pass the sports section will you, Henry?” he asked, nodding towards the object of his desire on the coffee table. “I want to find out what’s going on in the real world.”

“All yours, Dicky,” Henry said, thrusting the supplement in his hand.

As Anna stopped to pour herself another cup she chanced a glance in Joy’s direction, then wished she hadn’t. For in the few seconds that she studied her friend’s face she had caught a mixture of hurt, humiliation and isolation. Anna knew all three emotions like old companions. She guessed she’d let her friend down by not stepping in to defend her. But Joy would get over it, she thought. She wasn’t the type to hold a grudge.

2
Downing Street Won’t Change Me, Insists Lloyd

F
riday, 20
th March,
2009
, UK Newswire – Anna Lloyd, the actress wife of Social Democrat leader Richard Williams, today declared her husband’s dream of becoming Prime Minister a fait accompli as she spoke of her future life in Downing Street.

Talking at a press conference ahead of tomorrow night’s I
TV
screening of the controversial thriller
Dancing with Danger
in which she stars, Lloyd told reporters that a spell at Number
10
wouldn’t change her.

“I am who I am,” she said. “Some people don’t see me as the traditional Prime Minister’s wife, but that doesn’t bother me. I won’t change just because of a new address.”

Asked whether her husband shared her open-mindedness when it came to public image, Lloyd replied: “Richard and I are two separate people, united in one goal; to see each other live our dreams and fulfil our potential as human beings.”

And the thirty-seven-year-old actress refused to be drawn on suggestions that she had been rowing with her husband over her decision to play a serial-killing lap dancer in her latest
TV
project, saying only: “My husband is as supportive of my career as I am his.”

But Lloyd did little to appease her critics today who accused her of arrogance in her apparent assumption that she would be living at Number
10
after the next election.

Alliance Party backbencher Lizzie Ancroft said the actress was “living with her head in the clouds”.

“Both Anna Lloyd and her husband have a long way to go to
convince
the public they belong in Downing Street,” the
MP
added. “She is clearly already planning where to put the furniture, but the British voters are now seeing what some of us at Westminster have known for a long time – that, as on screen, this actress can only ever pretend to be something she’s not.”

Henry drummed his fingers, furiously studying the press clippings laid out over the meeting desk in Richard’s office, positioned on the top floor of the
SDP
’s Victoria
HQ
. Richard was meanwhile left to exchange expectant glances with Sandra Mackenzie, senior policy advisor, and his campaign organiser and deputy party leader Ray Molsley. After a few moments’ deliberation, Henry looked up towards the ceiling as he first inhaled and then exhaled a long, troubled breath. They had called the meeting to run through some changes to their manifesto but, instead of talking politics, he had again been forced to put Richard’s wife at the top of their agenda.

Turning to his colleagues, his long frown let it be known that he was not happy.

“We have a handful of days to go before we’re into this campaign and, once again, I’m spending my every waking moment defending this party against the flippant remarks and behaviour of one person.”

“And there’s no prizes for guessing who he’s talking about,” Sandra chuckled, her Scots accent never stronger than when she was at her sarcastic best.

“Well, quite.” Henry turned in his chair to look directly at the man seated next to him – his boss. “I’m at a loss, Richard. We keep ending up in the same place and nothing or no one seems to be able to rein her in.”

“Well, we could start with your wife, Henry, if we’re going to get personal.” Richard clasped his hands together and leant forwards to show poise – something that was essential in trying to gain the political upper hand. His old friend and head of communications was beginning to rise above his station and Richard knew the rest of the shadow cabinet were baying for him to be brought under control. “Joy is supposed to be Anna’s
PR
advisor, yet she continues to preside over one public-relations disaster after another. So perhaps you should be directing the criticism closer to home, Henry.”

“Might I make a point?” Ray Molsley’s thick Cockney accent always commanded silence from an audience, an attribute that, along with his portly frame and no-nonsense manner, ensured even the least tameable
MP
s found it hard to refuse his orders when they were cornered. “Anna has her own successful career and isn’t the least bit bothered about being the wife of a Prime Minister.”

“And?” asked Richard.

“And I just wonder if we gave her an incentive to become more involved with the campaign, whether that might just make the difference?” Ray rested smugly back into his seat and watched as the pennies dropped around him. At fifty-eight, he’d been in the game of politics long enough to tell a winning idea from a lame one – and he had a reputation for backing political winners.

“What kind of incentive did you have in mind Ray?” Henry enquired nonchalantly, briefly glancing at the clock to indicate time was at a premium.

“She happened to mention to me one evening that she had always wanted to work with the director Don Monteith but, although her agent had put her forwards many times for roles in his films, he had never once even as much as asked her to audition. It ‘eats away at her’ she said.” Ray dramatically raised his right eyebrow to emphasise his point.

“What
are
you getting at Ray?” Sandra piped up with typical forthrightness. She had been a loyal friend and follower of Richard’s for several years and always jumped to his defence. As an attractive woman in her early-forties, Sandra had managed to intimidate most of the predominantly male shadow cabinet, but Ray’s thick skin and enormous ego meant he was scared of no one and so he continued unabated.

“Don Monteith has just today become a major supporter of the Social Democratic Party , which he has vowed he will help win the next general election in any way he can.”

“Why the hell didn’t you mention this earlier?” snapped Henry.

“I’ve only just got the chance. But it’s turning out to be a real coup. He’s prepared to do a press conference, and he’s up for appearing alongside Richard at a couple of campaign events.”

“That’s fantastic news,” Richard beamed. “At last something to celebrate.”

“Indeed,” said Ray, pausing further to bask in the glory of his idea. “I like to think I was pretty instrumental in getting him on board…” Sandra interrupted his blatant gloating with a loud groan, prompting Ray to cut to the chase. “And I think Anna will be quite excited about the idea of getting behind this campaign now don’t you think? She can have special responsibility for hosting Don on the campaign trail.”

“You’re smarter than you look Ray,” chuckled Richard.

“Bloody smug with it though,” joked Henry, winning collective laughter from around the table.

“Come in here a minute will you, Marie?” Damian barked into the telephone receiver before slamming it back into the cradle. He looked once again over the small piece of notepaper gripped in his hands, bearing only a name and telephone number. He carefully placed it down on the desk in front of him and continued to pore over it as he weighed up the pros and cons of running a story such as this. It would, of course, strike a major blow to the Social Democrats – which would please the paper’s staunch Alliance-supporting owner, Victor Nemov, no end – but would also mean if, as likely, Williams won the election, they would be all but blacklisted when it came to briefings. Damian, however, knew he had to do what would please his owner and shift copies off the newstands – and this story would certainly do both. In these tough times for the newspaper industry, that alone would be worth ticking off Henry and his mob. They weren’t going to blacklist a national Sunday newspaper for long no matter how pissed off they were. In fact, the more Damian thought about it he couldn’t see a down side. As long as the story was true. And that was where Marie would come in. She would have to get her facts straight and, even then, they’d need to get it direct from the horse’s mouth. That would involve a carefully crafted phone call to Anna Lloyd that could not go wrong. Marie was fairly new to his team, having moved from another Sunday tabloid just three months ago, but Damian had no doubt she was the right woman for the job. He had hired her based on the reputation she’d earned for getting a story between her teeth and refusing to let it go if there was an ounce of mileage in it. That was what he needed here. Someone with enough pluck and tenacity to pull this thing off.

“You wanted to see me, Damian?” Marie stood smiling in the doorway wearing a bright-red halter-neck top, black cardigan and what looked to Damian to be some kind of rah-rah skirt – the kind he hadn’t seen since the Eighties. As he took in the petite vision standing before him, notepad clutched in her left hand, ready for business, Damian momentarily lost track of what he was about to say.

“Yes…” he beamed broadly, showing his nicotine-stained teeth in their full glory. “Come in, Marie. I’ve got a job-and-a-half for you, so why don’t you take a seat and make a few notes because this one could be a career changer.”

Anna carefully applied a second layer of lipstick and smoothed her hair over for the final time. Her hairdresser, Torquin, had left only minutes earlier, having spent more than an hour and a half styling her shoulder-length locks. Tonight was the
Sunday Echo
’s much-heralded “Great Britons” awards ceremony and Anna was fully aware how much scrutiny both she and Richard would be under. They were jointly presenting an award tonight – something Henry had hailed as a terrific idea – until the last couple of weeks when tensions over her “behaviour” had reached new heights. Richard paced the floor behind her, fervently reciting the few introductory lines he had planned for his time in the spotlight.

“Tonight is so much more than just an awards ceremony,” he murmured. “It’s a celebration of all that is good in British society…”

Anna deliberately zoned out, choosing instead to focus on squeezing her feet into the three-inch stilettos that Henry’s newly appointed stylist had chosen for her. Much to Henry’s dismay – as Anna felt sure he hoped the two women would be at each other’s throats – the stylist, Camilla, had actually proved a popular addition to Richard and Anna’s rapidly growing advisory team, having picked out some particularly stunning outfits, including tonight’s silk Amanda Wakeley dress.

Things were looking up, thought Anna.

“Are you ready yet?” Richard asked nervously.

“Yes. I’ve been ready for the past five minutes.”

“You’ve only just put your shoes on.”

“Well, I wasn’t rushing because it looked like you were about to practise your introduction for the fiftieth time.” Anna flashed a sarcastic grin.

Richard sighed. “Let’s go then. The car’s waiting outside.”

Anna sensed Richard’s tension growing steadily throughout the twenty-minute journey to the studios in Southbank where the ceremony was being held.

He had spent the first ten minutes staring at his notes until Anna could bear the silence no longer.

“What’s the matter, Richard? You seem incredibly nervous.”

“I just need tonight to go well, that’s all. We’re pretty damn sure Davis is going to the Palace tomorrow to call the election so all eyes are on us. This thing gets a big
TV
audience and it’s a tough one to judge. I don’t want to come across like a stuffed shirt, but then I’m not Russell Brand either.”

“Well, that’s true.” Anna laughed, before adopting a more sympathetic approach. “Look, you’re incredibly good with people, Richard. That’s why you’re leading the Democrats, so just be yourself and act like you do when we’re hosting guests in our own home. Be open, friendly but respectful.”

Richard finally looked up from the crumpled notepaper in his hands to give Anna his full attention.

“Thank you, darling.” He touched her cheek softly. “I’m glad you’re by my side tonight. I’m hoping you’ll be able to do a lot more of this over the coming weeks, just until we’re through the campaign.”

“I’ll try,” Anna said, gently patting Richard’s hand.

He looked back down at his notes for a moment before folding them up and putting them in his pocket. “We had some good news today.”

“That’s good, darling,” Anna replied vaguely as she turned her focus to polishing a tiny mark on the front of her stiletto with her finger.

“Yes, Don Monteith, has publicly pledged his support to the
SDP
.”

Anna quickly sat up again, her eyes wide with sudden interest.

“Don Monteith the film director?”

“Yes. Henry’s even lined him up to do a couple of appearances with me out on the road.”

“Well that’s fantastic, darling. Perhaps I could help there?”

“What do you mean?” Richard asked, feigning confusion whilst privately celebrating the obvious success of Ray’s plan.

“I mean,” Anna gushed, “if I’m going to be out campaigning with you, then I should definitely help organise the appearances with Don Monteith because I understand his world and how he operates.”

“Oh, so you will be campaigning with me?”

“Of course I will, Richard. When have I ever said anything to the contrary?”

Flashlights lit up the night sky as Richard and Anna slowly made their way along the red carpet, well-rehearsed grins fixed on their faces. The strobe effect of the camera flashes created a surreal world in which they were half-blinded and thrown into slow motion.

Anna was used to photographers, but even she hadn’t encountered anything like this before. She beamed from the inside out as she realised she was finally tasting what world-class movie stars now took for granted. Suddenly another flashbulb lit up; this time in her head. This is it, she thought. This is the big time.

Once inside, the studio throbbed with celebrities all clambering to be seen with the small and frightened group of award winners who were being treated to a glass of champagne to loosen them up before they were paraded in front of the cameras. As Richard made his way through the predominantly celebrity guests who were standing around the dining tables set out in front of the stage, he took care to hold Anna’s hand tightly. He was afraid that, if left to her own devices, she would stop and talk to every second “industry” person they passed. Along the way he overheard one busty actress he was sure he’d seen on a soap, eulogising about a previously unsung hero whom she “just adored”.