A slight departure now, and the point at which anyone looking for information about Baltic current affairs will probably want to change channels.
Over the last few months I have written a dozen short stories, of varying lengths. They have come partly as a result of wanting to keep on writing while waiting for the novel to be published but also as experiments in their own right and inevtably as a result of reading lots of short stories by other writers. As well as the matchless Chekhov who remains the undisputed master of the form, I’ve been immersed in Turgenev’s sketches, science fiction by Stanislaw Lem and Ray Bradbury and latterly, some shorter works by Conrad.
It is strange that a couple of years ago I tried tackling Conrad properly and got nowhere, yet in the last few weeks I have been completely enthralled by such works as the well-known Youth: A Narrative and the remarkable Il Conde, which is an undoubted masterpiece.
It’s also interesting that both Conrad and Chekhov produced works that defy the common idea of the short story as a work of up to around 20 pages by producing tales that sit somewhere between short story and novella. For this reason alone they seem to have been almost forgotten, yet in fact contain much of the complexity of a novel with the economy of a short story or sketch. A couple of such “long short stories” will appear here in coming weeks.
I am going to publish one story each week on this website, then in the new year I may put them out as a collection. I hope they provide you with some sort of enjoyment or at least, diversion…
THE GOVERNOR’S LAUGH
The call from the central bank was completely unexpected. My relationship with them had always been tenuous at best and probably merited the description ‘bad’ after my piece appeared mocking the Governor for buying his oversized luxury apartment just as the housing market peaked.
The week after he moved in the real estate market collapsed, leaving him paying through the nose for a property that was suddenly worth half its original value – and this was the man supposedly with his finger pressed against the pulse of the economy.
He had even described me as “economically illiterate” during one particularly tenebrous press conference, which was ironic as that was essentially the same thing I was implying about him.
So when his press officer called me, I assumed he would be passing on the Governor’s pedantic comments regarding something else I had written. Maybe I had got a long-term forecast wrong by 0.1% or confused the long-term and medium term overnight rates the central bank was offering (and which none of the retail banks used anyway, making the whole thing rather academic).
Instead, the press officer invited me to lunch with the Governor. I was tempted to refuse on the spot. The Governor is a vain, arrogant, humourless and cold man. Lunch with him would be like lunch with a great white shark – you could never be entirely sure that you were not the dish of the day.
Perhaps sensing my lack of enthusiasm for grub with the guv’nor, the press officer reassured me that the great man was in good humour and would not be picking me up on any errors, perceived or real. In fact, he had a proposition for me that might prove lucrative as well as giving us a chance for “a fresh start in our relationship.” I wasn’t entirely sure that the Governor was the sort of person (if indeed he was even human rather than some form of advanced counting machine) with whom I wanted I wanted any sort of relationship at all, but the final sweetener came with the name “Renoir’s,” one of the top restaurants in the Old Town. Which hack journalist has ever been known to turn down a free lunch? It would be a disgrace if my colleagues ever discovered I had done so, therefore I accepted with good grace and wondered if I needed to iron a shirt for the occasion.
The Governor arrived on time and so, for once, did I. I should explain that the account of what followed may seem on the surface to be unremarkable, banal even. What needs to be understood is that the Governor is a man of such intense self-obsession that every sentence he utters, and sometimes every individual word, is preceded by a long pause during which he gives the impression of holding the fate of an empire in the palm of his hand and deciding whether or not he can be bothered to crush it.
In this way conversations with him are more like consultations with the Delphic oracle: ask a question and you are condemned to decades of hanging around for a response which when it does eventually arrive is at best cryptic and at worst completely unrelated to the enquiry you made in the first place.
In conversation with the Governor, the most innocent question is interpreted as merely the prelude to a lengthy chain of probable subsequent enquiries which all have to be anticipated, catalogued, weighed up and have their own preparatory responses prepared before an answer can be given to the original question. In most cases this thought precess will result in him giving what he believes to be a diplomatic or cautious answer when in fact it is just monumentally dull or tragically predictable.
Perhaps this tendency towards conversational ultra-conservatism came from his job. Flattered by the idea that his least utterance could “move the market” he took to hoarding his words in miserly fashion, firmly believing that by under-supplying the market, the value of his thoughts would correspondingly increase to blue-chip status.
So even dinner table chit-chat gained an epic quality. There is a reason no-one reads epic poetry any more, and a conversation with the Governor makes that reason crystal clear: while intermittently illuminating it is barely worth the vast spans of time that it demands be invested in order to reveal those minor revelations. Therefore the account that follows has been condensed in order to avoid the destruction of the last remaining rainforests.
After a few minutes of staring at each other across the table, the Kraken awoke.
“Shall we order?” the Governor sighed, in a manner that suggested we were in eternal limbo rather than a renowned restaurant, “I have a very busy afternoon ahead of me.”
Despite being exactly the sort of thing I expected from him, I couldn’t help being extremely annoyed by his opening gambit. After all it was he who had invited me, not vice versa.
“Well, shall we do it another time? I mean, if you have more pressing things…”
True to form he failed to pick up on my sarcasm.
“No, let’s… just… eat,” he said, waving languidly to a waiter like someone in a trance attempting to swat a fly.
I was starting to lose my appetite despite starving myself at breakfast in order to make the most of the central bank’s expense account.
The Governor made some vague gestures towards the menu which suggested he didn’t much care what was placed in front of him, whereas I made a point of ordering pate de foie gras, followed by duck with truffles and asparagus. Sadly the Governor intervened before I could make inroads into the wine list, mumbling something about bank policy not permitting alcohol except at official functions. It seemed a false economy as the jug of water that arrived was very nearly as expensive as a modest Cotes du Rhone.
“So this little shindig is not classed as official business?” I asked in a desperate bid to establish a line of communication.
After a trademark pause during which the chef completed most of the preparatory work on my duck, the Governor leaned across the table in conspiratorial manner.
“Indeed,” he said with all the consideraable gravitas a man in his position can muster. To my surprise, a few seconds later he carried on with the sentence, “it is very definitely unofficial. And I very much expect it will stay… unofficial.” He drew his fingers across his mouth zipper-fashion to emphasise the point. How I wished he had been equipped with a real zipper.
“I will not waste any more time,” the Governor said, making it clear he was referring to his valuable time and not my cheap variety. “In one week’s time I need to make an extremely important address at the European Central Bankers’ Annual Meeting in Frankfurt. All of my colleagues from Europe will be there as well as lots of other central bankers, Nobel economists, political leaders, the best journalists…”
At this point I got the distinct impression he was looking at me through his nose.
“It is impossible to underestimate the importance of this speech,” he said. I toyed with the idea of suggesting it could hardly be more important than “I have a dream” or “We will fight on the beaches”.
“It will be a defining moment of my career,” the Governor continued. “It is not often that one has the opportunity to address this global elite on equal terms, as one of them. Therefore it is imperative – imperative – that it goes well. And not just goes well, but goes extraordinarily well. It is important for the prestige of the country.”
Probably more important for the prestige of the Governor though, I thought to myself, remembering that his term was up soon. It sounded to me like he was trying to put himself in the shop window for a nice cushy position advising an investment bank or, more likely, being invited into some semi-official thinktank in Brussels.
“Well congratulations on that,” I smiled. “I’m sure you’ll get a round of applause at the end. I think I can smell my duck.”
The Governor closed his eyes as if a narcolepsy had just descended from the small chandelier over our heads. When they opened again I felt like a fuzzy mould being examined in a particularly well-appointed Petri dish.
“The reason I invited you here today was not social,” the Governor said. “The fact is that I need help writing my speech.”
“From me? But I’m economically illiterate, remember…”
“Yes, that is an established fact,” he said, though it was noting of the sort. “You will be as pleased as I am to learn that I will not be asking you to perform any economic analysis for the bank now or in fact ever.”
“That is a relief.”
“…however, I have noticed in previous years that there is a tendency at the Central Bankers’ Meeting to give a speech that is… funny.”
“Funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” the Governor deadpanned. “You are a very poor journalist. We both know I have a low – a very, very low – opinion of your coverage of the central bank’s business. But I am told that you also write in an… amusing manner.”
The word “amusing” was pronounced through clenched teeth, as if it caused him physical pain to enunciate.
“I want you to take my analysis of the country’s path through the economic downturn and its successful application of the internal devaluation principle via public sector cost cutting and financial sector restructuring and make it… funny.”
It was my turn to indulge in a long and exceedingly pregnant pause. It took a considerable effort of will not to burst out laughing in his smug, condescending face. It was the most ridiculous brief I had ever been given. So ridiculous in fact that it was immediately appealing. But I decided to have a little fun before accepting.
“Let me get this straight. You want me to take your usual bar graphs, pie charts and stat tables – forgive me but I have seen your standard presentation probably fifty times in the last two years – you want me to take that and make it into a side-splitting comedy?”
He sighed before replying.
“Essentially, yes. In recent years I have noticed a general tendency towards the amusing in the bankers’ presentations. Apparently it is regarded as a way of smuggling information in a memorable way. All those who have delivered the funniest presentations have gone on to higher positions. Those who gave a better but less lighthearted analysis have been passed over. It is an unfortunate development but one that we must take into account. You will be paid whatever is a reasonable rate for such a job. But it must be the sort of humour that would appeal to central bankers.”
I savoured this last sentence. If he couldn’t see how funny it was, he really did need help.
“Then I am happy to accept the brief, Governor! It will be an honour to serve you, I mean, serve the central bank.” I toasted him with a glass of the finest carbonated and re-bottled tap water. “To help me in my task, can you give me a few pointers on what you would class as central banker humour? I mean, when you kick back and drink a few beers after a hard day’s central banking, deciding not to change interest rates or intervene in the foreign currency markets, what do you all talk about? Girls with big hooters? Ice hockey enforcers? Fifteen percent fluctuation bands? Tell me a central banker-type joke.”
The Governor fixed me with a death’s head stare. Then, realising that objectionable though he found the thought, he did actually need me, his face softened with all the warmth of an Arctic ice sheet collapsing.
“I have been thinking about that. Here is a joke our lecturer used to tell in economics school,” he began, as the starters materialised in front of us. “It was very amusing.”
The word “amusing” started a small alarm bell ringing in my head as if someone had just tried to walk out of the depository with a couple of hundred-lat notes tucked in their socks. Anything described as “amusing” invariably is nothing of the sort. When Queen Victoria said “We are not amused” she didn’t realise what a close escape she had had.
Nevertheless, I settled into my seat to savour not only the aroma of the foie gras and freshly ground pepper which the waiter sprinkled over it but my first ever encounter with central bank comedy.
“Three economists die in a car crash and go to heaven,” the Governor began.
I made a mental note not to start any of my gags with mass fatalities.
“They arrive at the pearly gates where St Peter meets them,” he continued, warming to his task. “In order to enter heaven you must tell me your IQ and your job.”
I nodded, brushing aside some minor concerns about theological orthodoxy.
“The first one says I have an IQ of 150 and I am an econometrician. St Peter opens the gate and he goes in. The second one says I have an IQ of 100 and I am a public finance economist. St Peter considers for a moment then opens the gate and lets him in too. The last one says I have an IQ of 50. Before he can finish, St Peter says I know, I know, you are a foreign exchange economist!”
Something approximating a smile flashed briefly on the Governor’s face, flickered and died. My own physiog remained as stony as an Easter Island statue save for an involuntary widening of the eyes. The joke – though it hardly merited the name – was atrocious, the delivery even more so. On a technical level it simply didn’t work. The classic Pearly Gates set-up was completely redundant in this context as it requires some sort of good or bad deed to play a part in whether or not one can gain admission to heaven. Making the comparison between the three candidates their IQ was nonsensical.
On top of that, St Peter’s knowledge that the stupid one would be a forex economist is pointless as he doesn’t even deliver a variation on the standard “You’re not coming in here” that is usually the climax of this type of set-up.
In short, the gag had clearly been made up by someone who knew nothing about how to structure a laugh and possessed an underdeveloped sense of humour. Someone who had perhaps once heard a proper Pearly Gates joke and had hit on the bright idea of adapting it to refer to members of his own profession – an economist, in other words.
Being essentially optimistic in nature I pondered that though I would certainly have my work cut out to turn such material into something halfway smileable at least I would no longer feel any pangs of guilt at submitting a grossly inflated invoice. If the central bank was willing to pay for my professional services, which clearly were desperately needed, I would have no qualms about charging them accordingly, particularly as I had only one week in which to work my rib-tickling magic.
All of this passed through my mind before I remembered somewhat belately to react to the Governor’s elusive approximation of a punchline. For an instant I pondered the possibility of summoning up a false laugh, or perhaps just a smile from the very depths of my soul, but one look at those watery fish eyes ogling me across the foie gras was enough to tell me that fakery would be wasted.
I resolved that honesty would be the best policy.
“That was perhaps the worst attempt at telling a joke I have ever heard,” I told the basking shark on the other side of the table.
I needn’t have been worried about offending him. You cannot offend a predator.
“That is why we are employing you,” he stated matter-of-factly and turned to his starter, which only now did I see was prawn cocktail. Ordering that was the funniest thing he had done all day, possibly all week.
The rest of the meal passed without major incident, which is to say in almost perfect silence. Having established the reason for our meeting the Governor saw no reason to hang around and fled back to his vault midway through the main course, leaving his trout in a state of what I considered criminal neglect.
Speaking of neglect, the worst was yet to come. Thanks to the Governor’s early exit and the lack of foresight that had always been a hallmark of the central bank from top to bottom, I was left to pay the bill, which I was able to do only by the tiniest of margins using a current account which vacillated between existence and nothingness like a long-term coma. I consoled myself by swearing to add at least one, and possibly two, more zeros to the invoice I would eventually present to my dining companion with even more relish than I had displayed devouring the duck.
When the press officer called that evening to congratulate me on what he evidently judged to have been a successful summit, I vented not only my spleen but a generous selection of other organs in his direction.
I will not pretend that the next six days were easy. Almost as trying as creating the misleading impression that the Governor was not only human but actually something of a card was the regularity with which he and his assorted underlings would assail me with requests to update them on my progress. This I steadfastly refused to do, urging them to place their faith in the Lord, the Fates or, failing that, my professionalism and speechifying ability, none of which seemed to reassure them much.
My strategy for achieving the most artificial personality transformation since Frankenstein flipped the switch on his ersatz son changed over the course of those six days. I started off trying to insert a few humanising one-liners into the existing text but they stood out like randy camels at a Bar Mitvah.
The second strategy involved stripping away all but the most essential data and stitching together a more coherent narrative that illustrated it using some observational points about how the actions of the central bank could affect everyday transactions. I was quite proud of this effort and may well revive it one day. However, as I read through the draft it became abundantly clear that it could only be delivered by someone with a well-developed sense of irony able to indulge in self-deprecating humour. That ruled the Governor out.
Something more radical was required – something that would be shocking but not so shocking that the Governor would realise he was being shocking. I realised I had to use his own inherent, if not immediately apparent, comic potential instead of trying to make him deliver a speech that was out of character. What was required was an even more extreme form of this already extreme character – a character so extreme in fact that his audience would assume they were witnessing a performance of some grotesque, not a simple depiction of a man who was himself a grotesque.
In effect, what I needed to do was write a speech with two entirely separate audiences: first, the governor himself who would believe he was reciting something perfectly reasonable, second the actual audience who might begin by thinking that this was just another central bank speech but who must come to realise that it was in fact something else entirely.
During a long walk along the banks of the river, inspiration seized me at last. I had wandered onto a patch of wasteland that had been earmarked for development during the pre-crash era. The only evidence of that long-lost boom was a large hole in the ground, a vast quantity of garbage deposited in it, and the tattered remnants of an advertising hoarding on which a few suggestive words such as “exclusive”, “luxury” and “investment” flapped listlessly in the breeze. Seagulls loitered overhead while on the few straggly bushes that had grown since the site was razed, delinquent blue tits fought over the remains of a burger wrapper. I had the feeling I was being watched by a wide selection of rodents and other feral creatures.
That dump was where I got the idea to be presented in Brussels to the pink-faced, bespoke tailored central bankers of Europe. I hurried home and without even pausing to wipe the sludge from my boots sat at my desk and began typing the Governor’s speech. It took all of that evening and the next few days as well.
Then like another well-known creator of the improbable, I rested on the seventh day, because that was when the Governor was due to fly to Brussels to deliver his eulogy.
I had made sure that the speech was delivered to him at the last possible moment with strict instructions that it would only work if he did not read it in advance. Of course I did not expect him to keep this promise – a man of such overpowering vanity and risk-aversion would never risk his reputation on being spontaneous – but I also knew he would not deign to give the text close scrutiny as he regarded reading my hackwork as beneath his dignity. Therefore the speech was written in such a way that it might satisfy a cursory inspection of the first few pages without suffering on the nib of the Governor’s Mont Blanc pen, which I happened to know he had received as a gift when signing the country up to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism but had never actually declared to the taxman.
On the day of the speech I was probably more nervous than the Governor. His unshakeable belief in his own omnipotence would see him through, but I knew that if for some reason the speech failed in its purpose, I would be held solely responsible. More importantly, the bank might get awkward about paying my invoice.
The conference was being broadcast via a live internet stream but as is often the way with these things, technical problems meant that the first half hour or so of proceedings were missed as I desperately installed a series of upgrades and applications that would allow me to watch it. By the time a working connection was finally made and pixels slowly coalesced into the lugubrious features of the Governor – I couldn’t help noticing how well digitisation suited him – he was already half way through his speech, at roughly the point at which he and his audience’s ideas of what was happening should diverge. The fact that he was still speaking was a good omen. If he was going to react to what I had written or try to change the direction of his recital, he would probably have done so before now.
“As we predicted, inflation continued to drop in the first months of the year,” the Governor said, wearing his best expression of calm self-assurance and nodding his head slightly as if this piece of successful prophecy was only to be expected coming from such a source.
“Ongoing political tensions in the oil producing regions of the Middle East cannot be disregarded as topical risk factors for price rises in the next quarter,” he continued, “while we must also bear in mind that in our skies the spring migration will be in full flow as winter’s ice recedes. We particularly look forward to welcoming back populations of geese, storks, swans, duck and cranes in April and May when up to 50 million birds may cross to the Eastern littoral of the Baltic.”
There was a decent laugh from the unseen audience that could be heard even on the live stream. That meant the earlier birding references must have been picked up on too, for now it was a laugh of anticipation fulfilled rather than the more nervous laughter of bemusement. The strategy of supplying information about the birds, migrations and habitats of Baltic birdlife interspersed among the economic data was working. I had introduced the feathered facts sparingly at first, but as the speech progressed their frequency and size increased until they pushed the figures about money supply, exchange rates and currency reserves aside entirely. The audience would end up rather better informed about the lakes favoured by crested grebes and the differences between barnacle and greylag geese than anything else.
“Following what will hopefully be a quiet summer during which work will continue to reduce structural employment and introduce tax reforms to stimulate entrepreneurial spirit, the major autumn migration cycle of cranes will begin in mid-August and conclude at the end of September,” the Governor said.
By now he was actually getting big laughs from the other central bankers. They had ‘got it’ even if he had not. But this did not bother him at all. He had commissioned me to get laughs and he was getting laughs – more laughs than anyone else. That rated as mission accomplished in his view. He concluded his speech with a return to the oil theme with a touching appeal for reduced levels of maritime pollution in the Baltic Sea to benefit the populations of black-bellied plover and – intentionally his last words – “the bar-tailed godwit” to rapturous applause.
As I looked at his familiar face on my computer screen, I thought I detected even the tiniest hint of a genuine smile struggling to establish itself on his thin-lipped features. He would definitely be the toast of the conference. Another step up the central bank ladder beckoned.
I was happy, too. I had the writerly satisfaction of knowing that the speech I had written had worked as intended. Better still, I could present an even bigger invoice than I had estimated. But best of all, I knew that the Governor, that most arrogant and selfish of men, was now utterly dependent upon me.