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Charles Parnell Cassidy – God rest his soul! – was the perfect specimen of an Irish politician. They're a migratory tribe, so you find them everywhere: Boston, New York, Chile, Vatican City, Liverpool, Peru and Sydney, Australia. They're hardy, longevitous, resistant to infection by disease or new ideas, little modified by regional influences.
The accent drifts a bit, maybe. The dialect adapts itself to the local patois: but that's a chameleon's trick: protective colouring, no more. The rest of it, the sinuous mind, the easy passion, the leery eye, the ready smile, the fine, swaggering, billycock-and-shillelagh walk, the flexible moralities, the bel canto oratory, the black bilious angers, these never change.
Charles Parnell Cassidy could have been anything, from horse-coper to Cardinal – except that he was too bright for the one and not celibate enough for the other. He wanted two things: money and power. First he became a lawyer: taxation and corporation law, what else? Then he made money. How could he fail, with the parcel of brewery shares his old man left him, and his own connections in commerce? After that it was politics – Labor politics of course. Make the loot among the privileged and then get the proletariat to protect it!
He rose like a rocket: one term on the back bench, one in Opposition. Then, with an election looming up, Caucus made him leader of the Parliamentary Party in the State of New South Wales which, as the whole world knows, was founded as a dumping ground for British felons and dispossessed Irish. With golden oratory and charisma poured out like balm in Gilead – not to mention a lot of leg-work and a lot of money spread around the depressed areas of the electorate – Cassidy led Labor to a landslide victory and a ten-year term of office.
It sounds like magic; but it wasn't. He was a natural. The game was in his genes. He was bred under the same blanket as the Kennedys and Fitzgeralds of Boston, the Moynihans of New York, the Duhigs and the Codys in the Church and the Reagan who used to act in California.
The great Brian Boru sired them all, in the old, far time which is still 'now' for the Irish. Cassidy knew them all too, had dined at their tables, corresponded with them – or their womenfolk! – learned how their precinct machines were run and how they paid their scores and exercised their patronage. Then he came back to Sydney and worked up what he had learned into a revised version of the Gospel according to Cassidy:
'Document everything. If you can't write it – don't do it. Let some other mother's son carry the honey-bucket.
'Collect all debts in kind or in tax havens. Cash in the local bank is too easy to trace.
'Never get mad, get even! Remember Shakespeare: a man can smile and smile and still be the son-of-a-bitch he wants to be!
'Never bet on cards or horses. The electors love a sporting man; they're suspicious of a gambler.
'If you need more sex than you're getting at home, stay away from the whores and find a discreet mistress. The public love a little romance; but they don't want their elected representatives turning up on pornographic postcards.
'Nominate your own Police Commissioner; but let another Minister appoint him and run him. That way you're always the clean-skin and you've still got the police in your pocket.
'Make sure you've got a good Party man in every migrant group. You'll never forgive yourself if the Croats or the Turks cost you a swinging seat.
'Get some bright women on the front benches. Let them field the curly ones, like abortion and battered wives ... A man always sounds like an idiot when he's talking about a woman's right to her own body.
'Never debate political theory. That's an exercise in futility.
'Stay clear of professional economists. They can lose you an election and still have tenure at their universities.
'The law is the ultimate instrument of power. So long as you're the lawmaker, you're the man who wields it.'
With a gospel like that, and the gall to practise it, there was no reason why Charles Parnell Cassidy couldn't have led the country. The Party tried hard to get him into the Federal bull-ring; but his ambitions stopped at the State borders.
'This is my bailiwick,' he would say in that soft, blarneying brogue. 'I know how it runs and how to run it. Why should I want to blow myself up like a great horned toad in the capital? That's a short-term lease at best – and the tenant always ends under the executioner's axe. Here' – an eloquent shrug and smile of deprecation – 'here I'll know when it's time to quit, and I'll not wait to be pushed.'
The locals cheered him for it, of course. Round the parish pump, the simpler you are, the more they love you – and Cassidy was as simple as a biblical serpent. Of course he didn't want to quit, for a long time yet; he was coining millions.
I had no idea then – though I have now, by God! – of the size of the empire he was building, through interlocking enterprises inside and outside the country. But during his lifetime the image remained unsullied. He was rich when he was elected. He was entitled to a natural increase of his substance. He wasn't venal; he wasn't gaudy. His private charities were generous. He drank little, looked fit, was always coherent. He kept the traffic running, the hospitals open, the streets as safe as they could be in a violent age. The electors felt they were getting their money's worth.
Of his home-life little was known. While Parliament was in session he lived in a harbourside apartment, cared for by a husband and wife. His hostess at official functions was a young back-bencher whom he was grooming for a junior Ministry. Mrs. Cassidy was said to be a semi-invalid, living in seclusion on their country property. There was one daughter, Patricia, married long since and residing abroad. Clearly the poor fellow had a lonely life but he was respected as a man who carried his cross bravely. The press had given up their routine attempts to ferret out a scandal.
It was all beautifully tidy and stable. Even I, who had stolen his daughter and given sanctuary to his wife when she left him, had to offer a reluctant salute. Once, in a fury, I had called him 'bog-Irish on the make, trying to buy lace curtains'. Well, he'd made it now. The bogs were generations behind. The lace curtains were long past, too. Charles Parnell Cassidy was the lawmaker, the Lord High Panjandrum, and his writ ran further than I could then imagine.
We went a long way back, Cassidy and I. He gave me my first job after I graduated. In those days he was senior partner of Cassidy, Carmody, Desmond and Gorman. I devilled for him, on the affairs of the Archdiocese of Sydney and the big Catholic Assurance groups. When he saw that I was interested in his daughter he warned me off the course. I was too old for her, he told me, too poor in money and prospects – and, besides, he didn't like fortune-hunters who expected to marry money instead of working for it.
He could have been testing or teasing, or both; but I've got some Irish in me too and I don't like people treading on the tails of my coat. I told him what he could do with his money and walked out.
A week later I had a job in the legal department of a merchant bank with connections in Switzerland, Paris and London.
Pat and I married soon after, in a civil ceremony, because we couldn't risk the local clergy forewarning Cassidy or calling the banns from the pulpit. Her mother was in the plot, but when we called to tell Cassidy the news and invite him to a reconciliation dinner, he told us he'd see us both in hell before he'd break bread or drink wine with us. If children were born they'd be bastards in the eyes of Mother Church and he'd want no part of them anyway.
It was as rough and dirty as only the Irish can make a family squabble. It got dirtier still when Clare Cassidy left him two years later and came to join Pat and me and the children in Paris, where I was working for Lazard Frères.
Cassidy, she told us, was a man driven by demons. His case-load at the office had doubled. He was out four nights a week, dining with union leaders or lobbying Party pundits or arguing in committee over strategies and speeches for his campaign. He was playing hard, too, golfing on Wednesdays, racing with the Squadron on Saturdays, hosting or guesting at Sunday barbecues, always with a gaggle of pretty women in attendance.
When Clare protested his philandering, he accused her and us of conspiring to unman him, blacken his name, tear his career to tatters. When we sent him photographs of the grandchildren – a pigeon pair, both beautiful – he handed them to Clare with a shrug and told her, 'Poor little bastards! I feel sorry for them!'
That was the straw that collapsed the fragile structure of their marriage. Clare Cassidy packed her bags and left. She briefed a roughneck lawyer who convinced Cassidy that if he wanted a fight, he would get it; but if he wanted a separation without scandal and a divorce on demand, the price would be steep, but fair. Cassidy was too bright to push his luck. He was being offered the best of both worlds: a marriage of convenience that kept him clean with the Catholics, a bachelor life-style, a reasonable bill of costs and no one to hold him to account for his later profits. He signed the agreement and trotted on down the triumphal way.
Only Pat refused to be thrust out of her father's life. Every Christmas she sent him a letter with a sheaf of photographs of the children. Every year the letter was returned unopened. She was hurt, but she took it calmly enough. Duty was done. She was holding the door open. It was up to her father to walk through it.
I believed he never would. He had turned hating into a fine art. For my own part I'd ceased to care. The children were teenagers now. They had three grandparents in working order. One black Irish curmudgeon wouldn't hurt them too much. We were living in London at that time. I had moved up in the banking hierarchy, with half a dozen well-paid directorships, good friends in the best houses and a crack at the market for the soundest floats.
Then, one bleak Tuesday in February, a note was delivered to me by special messenger. There was no address, no superscription, no 'Kind Sir, kiss-my-foot' – nothing but Cassidy's emphatic script.
I'm supposed to be in New York. I'm here in London. Except for the last rites and the last gasp, I'm a dead man. I'd like to tell my girl I'm sorry and kiss my grandchildren before I go. I'd like to shake your hand, too. If you're willing, pick me up at the Jesuit church in Mount Street at 5.30 this afternoon. I'll be sitting in the last pew – like the taxgatherer in the Gospel. If you're not there by six, I'll leave and I won't blame you. Cassidy.
I don't think I ever hated him so much as I did at that moment. Even if he were dying – and I wouldn't believe that until I saw the undertakers! – he had no right to sneak back into our lives like some errant schoolboy. Something more was called for: a letter to Pat, flowers, a phone call – some kind of prelude, for Christ's sake! And what about Clare? Was she to be included in the reconciliation? She was in Paris until Monday. I saw no reason to expose her to needless hurt.
I telephoned Pat, read her the note and asked her what she wanted to do about it. She thought, as I did, that 'the last gasp and the last rites' were at least half rhetoric. For the rest, between laughter and tears, she told me: '... He never steps out of character, does he? Of course I'm glad he's come round at last; but I'd still like to spit in his eye for all the good years he spoiled ... The children don't get out of school until the weekend, so you and I will have the worst of it over ... I'll serve a roast of beef for dinner. He'll like that. And do you have any Glenfiddich in the liquor cupboard? It's the only Scotch he'll drink ... Mother? We don't have to worry about her yet. I had a card from her today. She met an elderly American art scholar at Giverney. She likes him very much and she's going down to Aries with him ...'
Great! Mother had her scholar. The kids wouldn't be home. We'd have the old monster all to ourselves. If I thought it would help – but I knew it wouldn't – I'd pickle him in Glenfiddich and donate him to the Museum of Natural History: elephantus hibernicus malitiosus, a real rogue elephant from Ireland.
... Which shows you the tricks that memory and an angry imagination can play. When I saw him in the church, huddled in a heavy greatcoat, I was surprised how small he was. When I touched his shoulder I could feel the bones under the thick tweed. The face he turned to me was yellow and emaciated, the eyes sunk back in the skull. But he could still raise the old mocking Cassidy grin.
'Surprised, sonny boy?'
I was shocked to the marrow. My voice sounded unnaturally loud in the empty church.
'Charles! What the hell's happened to you?'
He gestured towards the sanctuary and the altar.
'One of the Almighty's little jokes. I've just been talking to Him about it; but it's cold comfort He's offering. Help me up, will you? These pews are damned hard, and there's small cover left on my backside.'
There was a briefcase on the pew beside him. As I helped him to rise he pushed it towards me. It was quite heavy. I wondered how far he had carried it.
He leaned on my arm as we walked out of the church and I had to ease him into the car like an invalid. He was shivering, so I switched on the engine and waited while the inside of the vehicle warmed up. I needed to talk to him before we got home. There was protocol we had to agree before I let him into our house. The words sounded stiff and graceless, but they were the best I could muster.
'You're welcome. I'm glad for Pat's sake that you've come. We're alone in the house just now. The children are at school until Friday, Clare's in France. So we'll have time to talk things out and get to know each other again. But there's a warning, Charles. Don't play games – with any of us. I won't stand for it.'
'Games?' He gave a small, barking laugh, with no humour in it at all. 'Games, is it? I'm under sentence of death, sonny boy. Can't you read it in my face.'
'Living or dying, Charles, the warning holds. You've caused enough hurt. So mind your manners in my house – and don't call me sonny boy ever again! My name's Martin; Martin Gregory, in case you've forgotten. Pat and our children are Gregorys too.'
'Well, now ...' The words came out in a long exhalation. 'I can't quarrel with the proposition – and I'm too tired to fight with you. Do you want to shake hands on it?'
His skin felt cold and clammy. I had the feeling that the bones were fragile and would snap if I pressed too hard. I asked him: 'What's the sickness, Charles?'
'Secondary hepatic carcinoma. The primaries are in my gut somewhere. Nothing anyone can do. I'll stay mobile as long as I can, then I'll go into a hospice. The arrangements are all made.'
'How long have you known?'
'Three weeks. My doctor in Sydney did the first scans. There was little doubt what I had. I swore him to secrecy, flew to New York and went into Sloan-Kettering for more tests. Once the diagnosis was confirmed I sent word back to Cabinet that I was taking a month's holiday in the Caribbean. Instead I came here.'
'So, nobody knows you're ill or where you are.'
'Not yet. Parliament's in recess. It's mid-summer in Australia; my Deputy Premier's holding the fort. So nobody's missing me too much. Which is just as well, because as soon as I break the news all hell's going to break loose. The heavies will be out gunning for me. With any luck, I'll be dead before they find me.'
'What in God's name is that supposed to mean?'
'Just what it says; but I'll explain it better with a couple of drinks under my belt. Can we go now?'
'In a moment. Where are you staying in London?'
'With an old and dear friend, a lady of title in Belgravia. She's got a good doctor close handy and he's promised to rush me off to St. Marks at the first signs of dissolution. Now will you get me out of this bloody weather? ... I hope you've got a decent whiskey in the house. Some of the stuff they're peddling now is like turpentine!'
'Are you sure you're allowed to drink?'
'I'm allowed to do any damn thing I choose. I'm going to be a long time dead!'
As we crawled home to Richmond through the peak-hour traffic, I told him:
'Pat's going to be very upset.'
Cassidy shrugged wearily.
'There's no way to break it gently. One look at me and she'll read it all.'
'Why didn't you get in touch before? Why did you wait so long?'
He was after me instantly; snap-snap like an old turtle.
'Because I didn't need you then. I need you now.'
'Your manners haven't improved, Charles. I hope you've got a gentler answer for Pat.'
Excerpted from "Cassidy"
Copyright © 1986 The Morris West Collection.
Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Great reading. A timeless tale