The Puppeteers’ Plan
The room stinks. Yellow sweat leaching through starched white cotton shirts, sour breath steaming from hungry throats doing too much talking. They were hungry alright; hungry for food, hungry for a solution. And without the solution came the fear. The desperation. Nothing reeks more than fear and desperation.
As sleepy Canberra slipped into late night, the crowding darkness seeps through the office walls into the bones of the men in the room.
McTernan, the brusque Scotsman with a filthy mouth and a filthier soul, the man’s heart carved from granite. He rode the chair like a champion, the high leather back leaning against one wall, pudgy shoeless feet in dirty grey socks hard up against the long mahogany table edge. If you breathed in too much you could taste the sweat from those feet at the back of your throat.
Howes loomed over the food cart, shirtless, corpulence swelling and bloating through the waffle weave singlet. He was stuffing canapés from the night’s Parliamentary dinner into his mouth at the same time as he was speaking: it was a grotesque sight, folds of ricotta dripping around those labial lips to fall back to the cart.
“Fuck, it’ll work, I’m telling you,” he sprayed.
Shorten was not convinced. His eyes were wide, the childlike cowlick at the front rankled everyone in the room. “I don’t get it,”
A toe curling curse boiled from McTernan. Shorten jumped, thick eyes darting to the dark presence hovering nearby. From a low chair near the window, blinds shut tight, the little figure of Dastyari cackled.
The old man raised his hand, thick liverspots wide and brown, even darker with the tanned skin. “Wait, wait, let’s go through it again,” Crean said, his avuncular voice cutting through the air like a lance.
It took them another hour to flesh it out: but by the end of it they had a plan. A more Machiavellian plan had rarely been devised.
“Are we sure this will work,” Crean prodded from his spot. He still had his jacket on, the only sign of their labours throughout the evening was the undone top button, the ubiquitous red tie ever so slightly askew. But now they had cracked it. Now, they had The Plan.
McTernan smiled, jaw jutting out over uneven teeth like a hyena in the jungle undergrowth. “Fucking right it’ll work, it’s bloody genius,”
“OK,” Crean nodded, a rare thing; a sign of his final acceptance of even the most infinitesimal minutiae of the plot. “Let’s go see The Red Queen,”
Howes and Dastyari laughed. It was the name they’d given Gillard the night they had orchestrated the knifing that got her the job. Shorten’s head twisted from one man to the next. “I don’t get it,” he said again.
“Of course you fucking don’t,” McTernan snarled at him with a withering look not of contempt, more the confused abhorrence that such a creature could continue to function in the world much beyond birth.
In single file they went along the wide, echoing corridors, just as they had three years ago. But unlike three years ago they had taken the journey to end one Prime Minister, tonight they were going to save another. It was time to lay Banquo’s ghost to rest, once and for all.
They could hear her presence before they reached the two stout rose wood doors of the office, each emblazoned with one half of the coat of arms in silver, gold, ruby and jade. A small, willowy woman in her late sixties emerged, dwarfed by the immense size of the door.
“She’s a little tense,” the assistant’s voice quavered.
From beyond the door the cursing of a fish monger’s wife was a nursery rhyme compared to what was going on in that room. Something brittle shattered loudly.
“Get out of the way, woman,” McTernan trundled forward, little Scottish trotters powering past the woman, pushing the door wide.
The Red Queen stood, tree-trunk legs spread wide, bare calloused feet rooted into the thick carpet. She glared at them, stabbing a sharp finger at them. “You geniuses better have a fucking plan,” she demanded in a voice that could curdle yoghurt. Then she turned, the knife edged keel of her nose cutting its way across the room. Behind the massive oak desk the nose continued to stab at each of them whenever those tiny dark shark eyes fixed them with a chilling, lifeless stare.
They told her The Plan.
McTernan started, with Howes interrupting to explode some detail, and while Dastyari giggled, Shorten continued to look dazed. Crean sat silent, an Easter Island statue, void of anything but sheer presence in an isolated, desolate landscape.
The Red Queen was smart. She asked a few questions to quiz some finer, arbitrary point, then began to laugh. It was not the laugh of joy, or even sudden relief, it was that nerve rasping laugh of the vainglorious victor reveling over the steaming cadaver of the conquered.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Crean asked, ending the gloating laughter and shark-tooth smiles all round.
Gillard fixed a steely eye his way. “Are you sure you want to do this, Simon?” she said. It was barely a whisper, the droning accent replaced by razor edged crystalline precision.
Crean tucked his chin in deep, as was his way when confronted with a dilemma where he could only one way out. “I am, Prime Minister,”
And The Red Queen smiled. For a moment he knew, and maybe for the first time really understood, that the Red Queen was savouring not just the demise of her enemy, but his as well.
The Plan was afoot.
On Thursday the mood was typical; the media lickspittles hovered and whispered about, lingering at the faintest edges of the truly powerful, jaw jacking into cameras or busy making comical notes into iPhone or tiny digital recorders. Crean watched out the window of his office over the media courtyard, the world tinged nauseously green through the thick, ballistic glass. McTernan burst through the closed door, befouling the air with his breath and the faint, persistent odour wafting from those feet, even bound in tight, cheap leather.
“I hope you’ve been sharpening that fucking sword of yours,” McTernan brogued. Crean’s gaze was like ice. “Let’s do this before you grow a set of balls and man out of this little charade.”
The vile little Scotsman thundered away in a hail of expletives aimed at whatever hapless flunky got too near, as Crean took the stairs down, through the steel and glass door out into the courtyard where the media waited, salivating and jostling for the smallest tidbit the omnipotent cast their way.
Each footstep was heavier than the last. They would rend and tear until only the bones remained. It was his job to be wounded by the blood frenzy, but that was part of it all. He was ready.
“Good morning,” Crean began, only a quick smile of welcome to the assembled media, “I would just like to start this morning by saying…” he said, setting The Plan into motion. The TV, radio and print folks were fixed on him, he was bringing them food. Hell, he was bringing them a feast: would they ask him questions that could derail The Plan? Would someone spill? Had someone leaked?
No. He could see it in their eyes. They were hungry, demanding food. And they were not about to bight the hand that feeds them so, so well.
Back in McTernan’s office Crean sat, staring at the whiskey the Scot had thrust into one shaking hand. McTernan was beaming, wide smile displaying impossibly little yellow crooked teeth. “Fucking brilliant,” he crowed, tipping his own whiskey Crean’s way.
But the old man felt too tired to even lift his glass. He looked away, hoping the weakness would not show; he could feel McTernan’s eyes on him.
“You think they bought it?” Crean asked as he stared out the window, at the clouds in the sky beyond.
“Bought it? They’ve taken it home, shagged it, and now they’re buying it fucking breakfast,” the Scot laughed.
McTernan could see through the man before him, as though he was as thin as air. It made McTernan’s stomach churn a little, seeing the weakness in people. It had always been this way with him, since he was a kid, when the other kids picked on him for being too little, or too dull, or too poor.
Crean’s eyes turned to his, and there was a fire there. Deep inside the Scot a frisson of what might be called enjoyment slithered around his innards. There was still some life in the fossil yet, he considered.
“You and Cameron,” Crean spoke slowly, his lip curling ever so slightly. “What is it that makes the Scottish such awful human beings?”
The laugh was unbidden, but it came anyway. “That’s simple,” McTernan rasped, “do you know what it’s like living in a place so cold it makes your testicles turn blue nine months of the year? Where you get boils because you can’t sweat properly, boils as big as your fucking fist right in the crack of your arse? Where the fucking air makes your nostrils sting?”
Crean shook his head.
“It’s a fucking abysmal place. And then there’s the fucking English, with their fucking posh accents and their fucking schools and fucking universities? Do you know what that’s like?”
The old man shook again.
“It makes you angry, Simon, it makes you fucking angry. So angry it makes you shit razor blades and piss blood, every fucking day.”
Crean studied McTernan. Realisation came, a silent epiphany stealing its way into his thoughts. He was not regarding at a man, or even a Scot. He was looking at a specimen.
“I thought bloody Michelle Grattan had me when she asked about whether I’d spoken to Rudd,” Crean changed subjects.
McTernan was nodding, “Yeah, she had me scared there. But she didn’t press hard, so we’re safe.”
“It could all come apart so easily,” Crean considered aloud.
“Those idiots out there,” the Scot jabbed one angry finger toward the window “are only a whisker on a cat’s arse away from being fucking retarded. If we stick to The Plan they will just lap up whatever we fucking feed them. By the end of today, that fucking silver haired cockhead Rudd will be sent back to whatever fucking rathole he crawled out of,” there was no mistaking the malevolence behind the words.
McTernan glanced at his watch. “You’d better get ready, you’ve got to call a presser for one. Do it from your office.”
In the corridor Fitzgibbon almost careened straight into him. For a moment they stared, rheumy fear in the Chief Whip’s eye, a bead of thick sweat on his top lip.
“What the fuck is going on, Simon,” he asked, voice trembling, maybe with anger, maybe with fear. Maybe both.
“What has to happen, Joel,” Crean says, “for the good of the Party.”
The one o’clock presser went as expected, the only hiccup from an over zealous reporter getting up into Crean’s face. “It’s done,” Crean called to tell McTernan from his office phone.
“Good,” McTernan flat’s voice returned.
“Simon, before you go,” the adviser interjected before Crean could sign off. “I’ve been talking with the Red Queen. We need you to sit on the back bench during Question Time.”
There was no helping the old man’s sharp intake of breath. “I didn’t think…”
“I know, it’s sooner than we thought, we’re just moving the timetable ahead a wee bit. It’ll be good drama for the Gallery.”
Then Crean was talking back to a dial tone. He slowly set the receiver back in its cradle.
A few minutes later he could hear the internal pager going off. His secretary appeared at the door. “It’s Kevin,” she intoned, “line three.”
Beads of sweat bristled in Crean’s palm as he leaned forward, stopping for a few deep breaths, then picked up the phone.
“Kevin,” his voice raised a few octaves, “it’s Simon.”
“What the hell are you up to, Crean,” came Rudd’s sibilant tones. Even today it made Crean’s skin crawl.
Crean drew a deep breath. “Here’s your chance, Kevin, take it,”
There was a long silence at the other end, only Rudd’s breathing coming through strong and clear. “Will you back me, this time?”
Crean cleared his throat. “No, Kevin. I won’t be backing you.”
“But you just fucking said at that fucking presser-”
“Kevin,” Crean’s voice sliced through the ex-PM’s rising crescendo, “Kevin, I know what I said in the presser. I’m telling you, privately, you won’t have my vote if you go to a spill.”
The breathing was sharp and angry now, but the voice cracked, soft. Forsaken. “You know we don’t have the numbers without your bloc,” Rudd sighed.
“I know,” Crean answered. He hung up.
The old man looked over at the large clock hanging on the wall, the red second hand marking each moment with a dull click. Gillard would call the spill later today. Rudd could not contest, he did not have the numbers. The Red Queen could force a spill, topple those that were plotting against her without the media jumping up and down. Hell, she’d have their support! What else was she going to do, they’d editorialise.
Crean called his secretary into his office. “Get our Ministry papers together, we’re headed for the back bench. We’ll need to get them organised for the next guy in the chair.”
His sword was sharp, and The Plan had worked.
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