The preparations had all been made. The last minute flutterings and flappings had been calmed. Their masters had retreated to the country to answer for their actions.
Sir Alec had cast his vote and had returned to the club for a rare evening with no-one asking him for favours, no-one knocking on his door, obsequious, seeking an audience. It was understood that this was Sir Alec’s Night Off.
He lit a cigar and leaned back, shrouded by the red leather of his wing chair by the fireplace, unlit on this seasonably warm spring day. Off duty, perhaps, but still holding court, Sir Alec received visitors as they passed by his throne, accepting congratulations on the smooth running of the election thus far; to ask him jokingly, since they knew he would never offer an opinion, who his master might be tomorrow morning.
He always gave the same retort,
“The politicians come, the politicians go. The Service will always be here to run the country.”
People chuckled approvingly and moved back to their small groups. Occasionally Burridge would stop by to refill his brandy balloon. One or two of his favoured inner cirlce would sit in the chair opposite and reminisce about previous election nights.
Ten o’clock rolled around and someone turned on a television that seemed not to know it could receive any signal but that of the BBC. The exit polls were making it clear that this was indeed going to be as close an election as the papers had been hinting for months. Within the hour, the first results were in from Sunderland, as usual. Sir Alec had been there, once, as a junior civil servant, watching the frenzied activity as the town struggled to hold onto its record as primoris. He could picture them now, frantically flipping through the corners of ballots, licking a finger occasionally for traction; panic and pride on the faces of the returning officer and his team.
He sipped his brandy and glanced at the television that was incongruously bolted to the wood panelling high in the corner. There was Dimbleby, as ever. Statesman-like, himself. A little like a civil servant, Sir Alec thought. We fence with them, of course, but really we are very similar. Bastions. Institutions that hold the culture of the country in our briefcases.
The clock chimed the hour, the quarter, the half, the three quarters. The mood in the room had grown somber. It was clear that the post-election day script was not going to be the familiar ushering out, ushering in, soothing, welcoming charming, and driving to the palace. This would be something, if not ‘new’ then at least ‘unfamiliar’, and Whitehall was not a place in love with ‘unfamiliar’. Phones were buzzing. People talked in hushed voice.
At five minutes to twelve, Sir Alec put down his glass and his cigar and pulled himself out of his barricaded chair. All eyes turned to him, an unspoken question in the air.
“Well,” Sir Alec said. “I think…”
The room grew, if possible, even quieter and Sir Alec would have been lying if he had pretended–in the retelling– that he had not savoured the moment a little and let it dangle a fraction longer than was strictly necessarily.
“I think,” he repeated. “That I had better have an early night.”