This week’s tale is one of the longer ones, which at one point looked like it might develop into something longer still. But then I decided to keep it fairly compact, and by the end you can pretty much see where the story might head in the future. I hope you enjoy it, and even if you don’t, you are at least getting value for money on a per word basis.
If they had let me keep my smokehouse, I would never have gone into politics. All I wanted to do was smoke a few fish, something which everyone else does. From spring to autumn the whole coast from Kolka to Lapmezciems smells of delicious smoked herring, sprats, flounder, trout, salmon… if it swims, it smokes.
But the wise men of the council told me to pull down my smokehouse – really no more than a few old crates lashed together using washed-up fishing nets – and to add insult they even quoted European Union regulations at me to justify their decision, as if they had the slightest idea of what an EU directive was let alone the slightest intention of applying one or even conforming to it themselves. That really was what sealed their fate and the fate of the continent.
Of course I knew even at the time that if I had given one of them as little as 10 lats the question of my ramshackle smokery would never even have been raised. I would like to say the reason I did not do so was a matter of principle or respect for the even-handedness of the law but of course that would be a lie. no, the reason I didn’t hand over 10 lats to those grubby little idiots was quite simple: I didn’t have 10 lats. If I did, I would not have been trying to cobble together a smokehouse out of driftwood in order to earn a few lats from one of the very few skills I possessed: smoking food.
Even that skill I owe more to chance than any application. As a young boy I used to follow my grandfather around simply because he looked like a freakish character with his long beard, corn cob pipe and one leg. It had been crushed between two trawlers – probably when he was drunk – and one of his fellow crew members, whom I was forced to call Uncle Modris despite the fact that he was no relation, had had to cut of grandfather’s leg with his filleting knife. Grandfather loved him for this and seeing Uncle Modris at the gate would always shout at me: “Here comes that thief Modris – go and ask him when he’s going to bring back my bloody leg!” Both of them would collapse with laughter when I did as I was instructed and made enquiries after the missing limb.
Both grandfather and uncle Modris smelled permanently of fish. Modris smelled of unsmoked fish, which was unpleasant as if he had been sleeping among the slop buckets outside the canning factory, which was a distinct possibility, particularly after a quart of vodka. Grandfather on the other hand smelled equally strongly but much more pleasantly of smoked fish thanks to the little smoke tower at the bottom of the garden he had inherited from his father and which was permanently in service with one rack of sprats after another slotting into place. To my childish eyes they looked as if they went into the smokestack made of silver and came out made of gold, lending grandfather something of the air of a wizard or alchemist.
Without even realising it, I picked up all of his knowledge regarding how to clean and prepare the racks, which woods to use for which flavours, whether to use shavings, powder or dust, how to add herbs and which marinades would enhance, mask or destroy the tastes of which particular fish. On the rare occasions we caught the bus to Riga, the big city seemed doubly strange as there was no smell of fish or woodsmoke in the air, just the smell of pine resin from the vast pyramids of timber seasoning in the docks and the heavier more acrid smell of smoke coming from stone chimneys that were not cleaned as often as they should be.
Grandfather was long dead and buried by the time I was refused permission for my smokestack, though given the amount of smoke to which he had been exposed both externally and internally during his lifetime, I doubt his body has yet started to decompose. But I was still living in the same old fisherman’s shack without a job, without a family to speak of and without much prospect of changing either of those facts.
It was my luck that they decided to make an example of me in order to curry favour with the Eurocrats from western Europe who needed some persuasion that their diligent tax payments were being spent properly in the lawless east. So when that fat fool Leiskalns from the local council showed up at the gate looking even more drunk than Uncle Modris, I was just about ready to kick him in his flabby arse.
Flanking Leiskalns were two other figures. One was a dessicated-looking woman in her forties who looked like she hadn’t had a good night in the sack for years. Nevertheless I felt a bit sorry for her. She looked smart, like she came from a very clean city and wasn’t used to walking down muddy lanes or through puddles. She kept looking around as if she had never seen a shack, a garden with some dunes behind it and a few crates forming a smoke stack. Even the seagulls wasting time on the landward breeze seemed novel to her, as she kept looking up at them distrustfully, as if she expected them to swoop down and seize the little camera she was carrying in one hand.
In orbit on the other side of Leiskalns’ flabby equator was a much more interesting young woman whom I immediately liked. Grandfather would have said she was the sort it was worth ditching a net for, with long, straight, brown hair, green eyes, a smooth, pale forehead and – I could not help noticing – a really outstanding couple of bouncers beneath her pale blue sweater. She was carrying a notebook and recording what Leiskalns said as he leered in towards her – obviously I was not the only one who had noticed her curves – then she would in turn lean behind the fat councillor’s back and mumble something in English to the other woman.
They weren’t the only ones on the road though – perhaps forty metres further back, near the junction where the dusty track joined the main coast road, two policemen were smoking cigarettes beside their car, casting occasional glances in my direction.
“Hello Leiskalns,” I said with a sarcastic smile, “How’s the diet going? You look like you’ve lost weight!”
The nice-looking young woman suppressed a giggle and started translating to the older woman but Leiskalns waved her efforts aside irritably.
“That’s enough from you!” Leiskalns blustered, puffing out his chest in the most ridiculous fashion. “I am here on official business to inform you that that building over there has to go!” he said, gesturing towards the smokestack. It is an eyesore and it has been constructed without a permit within the bounds of a designated national park and European Protested Biosphere Zone.”
“What building?” I said with fake naivety. “And what’s all this talk of European Protest Zones? If you want to protest on my land you need permission from the local council! Oh, that’s you isn’t it?”
“Stop your jabbering, you’re as filthy as a gypsy!” Leiskalns said, his face turning the colour of a nicely-cooked langoustine.
The smart old woman recoiled visibly when the translation of this particular pearl of wisdom hit her ears. “Really, Mr Leiskalns, I must object in the strongest terms!” she said. “As the European Union’s representative in Latvia I will not tolerate discrimination against any minority group. As I understood it we are here to enforce an environmental protection order. From what you were saying on the way here I expected some serious pollution event here. All I see is a cottage in need of repair and you start using the most offensive language…”
While all of this was being translated back into Latvian for the benefit of Leiskalns, I hit upon a nice idea. Catching the delicious young woman’s eye while she was speaking, I flashed her my best rogue’s wink as if to say “Look out, here it comes!”
In Latvian I began, in a wheedling, vulnerable sort of voice: “Leiskalns, you really are the sweatiest, ugliest fat fucker it has ever been my bad luck to meet. Not only are you full of shit but you stink like a hog in season. Most of the fish hanging in that stack have more brains than you, so I can hardly blame your wife for hanging around down the yacht club as much as she does. Is she still having sailing lessons from that young instructor? She must be a slow learner because she’s never at the tiller when they come back after a couple of hours on Wednesday afternoons when you’re in town spouting more drivel with your party buddies…”
It had the desired effect. Leiskalns exploded. Naturally none of my speech had been translated, so the European Union was reduced to saying “What did he say? What did he say?” as Leiskalns surged towards me with his hands in a strangling position like a huge wave of whale blubber.
Now I switched into broken English (I pretended to speak it much less fluently than I do, playing the role of the simple peasant to maximum effect) as Leiskalns closed in on me: “But I simple man… all I have is little smoke house… I not hurt anyone…” I bleated as his hammy hands wrapped around my throat and started throttling me. I could easily have thrown the fat oaf off at any moment if I had wanted to. His hands were soft and weak from pushing paper around his desk and tucking folded banknotes into his top pocket. In fact he was wheezing so much from the exertion of charging at me that for a moment I was worried in case he had a heart attack and robbed me of my sympathy.
“Police! Police!” screamed the European woman. They came charging up the road. You could tell they thought it was serious because they even threw their cigarettes away as they got to the fence. One of them pulled Leiskalns off me. He rolled around on the floor for a few minutes like a randy walrus before regaining his feet unsteadily.
The other cop gave me a kick in the stomach on the assumption that I must have attacked Leiskalns, which brought another scream from the European woman. “Stop it, stop it!” she shouted, “Mein Gott, the poor man!”
“Is this democracy of Europe?” I sobbed in her direction. I was rather proud of myself for remembering to get the grammar wrong in the right way, as the cop’s boot had certainly been a hard one.
By now Leiskalns was on his feet and being physically restrained by the two policemen. The woman from the EU had finally got the idea to record the whole thing on her little camera – which would prove useful later – and the babe in blue was scribbling into her notebook and giving the odd glance in my direction. I liked her more and more by the minute. She could tell what was going on alright. She understood just what sort of man I am and she liked it.
Leiskalns raved for a bit in terms even more descriptive than the ones I had selected for his benefit. I wanted to laugh but instead looked as miserable and put-upon as possible, not forgetting to grasp my neck and gasp for breath at regular intervals.
“That stack is coming down,” Leiskalns shouted. “Don’t think you can embarrass me in from of these people. We’ll be back tomorrow and we’ll sort you out properly,” he sneered.
He would have done too, had I not continued to seize the initiative. “Okay, good Mr Leiskalns,” I said, speaking good and slow to make sure the European woman could hear me and take a few more pictures. “I obey orders of European Union. I just one man. European Union cannot be stop.”
It was pure theatre. All of them – the policemen, Leiskalns, Madame Europe and the girl in the tight top watched me as I trudged towards my smokestack, looked it up and down a couple of times, aid my hand on its rough, splintered surface and wiped an imaginary tear from the corner of my eye with my sleeve. Then, with all the reverence of an Aztec priest overseeing ritual sacrifice at the foot of some huge stepped pyramid, I pulled my cigarette lighter form my pocket and set the smokestack ablaze.
It went up like a Roman candle, the dry, seasoned wood catching in an instant. There were gasps of horror and surprise from the witnesses as I walked back towards them, making sure to keep the inferno nicely in shot behind me as I approached.
“All done now. Europe is happy. Environment is safe,” I deadpanned as the flames soared up into the sky and the seagulls decided it would be best to fly a little higher than usual.
The European woman looked horrified and clutched her hands over her thin, dry mouth. The policemen scratched their heads for a while and discussed whether it was worth calling the fire brigade who apparently did not like to be bothered at lunchtime unless it was really urgent. Leiskalns, who had calmed down but was perspiring heavily from the heat of the flames took them to one side and told them to call the fire brigade only when they were sure the smokestack was beyond saving. He thought about slipping them a note but remembered he had witnesses and clapped them on the back instead.
“Don’t think I will forget this,” Leiskalns called over his shoulder as they left. “You’re not so clever as you think.”
Well, maybe I’m not. But I am certainly cleverer than he thought I was, and if there is one thing the last few years have taught me it is the benefit of appearing to be more stupid than you really are.
I waved goodbye to them, went back into my shack and opened a beer. I walked out and stood as close to the flames of grandfather’s smoke stack as the heat would allow. I toasted the old man, throwing a bit of beer into the flames to mark the occasion. I even wondered if I should get some sausages and cook them on the flames but discounted the idea on the grounds that the meat might get tainted by the flavour of the fish inside the pyre that were currently being given the ultimate hotsmoke treatment.
When I turned around, the girl in the tight blue jumper was standing behind me. I passed her the beer bottle and she took a long drink. I could tell we would get on.
Considering this whole episode was portrayed as a great scandal and the use of an EU legislative sledgehammer to crush a poor Latvian nut (myself), it is funny to think that at the time I considered it to be one the luckiest days of my life. As well as providing me with a huge amount of satisfaction in getting one over on Leiskalns, the girl in the blue sweater and I hit it off in no uncertain terms.
By the time we cracked open a second bottle and were sitting facing each other on the grass while the fire crew lazily put out the few remaining timbers of the stack, I had learned that her name was Biruta, she was 21 years old and a junior reporter on one of the Riga newspapers. She had been given the job of accompanying the EU representative on what was supposed to be a dull job, seeing an environmental hazard disposed of, that would enable the EU to tell everyone how effective it was being in protecting the Baltic Sea from pollution and how its local representatives were active on the ground, not just sitting in their nice air conditioned offices all day reading dictats from Brussels. Biruta suspected there had been a mistranslation of ‘smokery’ at some point, which resulted in them showing up to witness the destruction not of some Soviet-era industrial chimney but my ad hoc collection of crates and kippers.
Biruta had already filed a story about the affair and had even got permission from Madame EU to use her photographs and film clips – provided the tale was told in such a way that she was portrayed defending me against the unreasonableness of Leiskalns and the local council. It was a wriggle I would have been proud of myself and was perhaps the first indication that the Euopean Union and I were made for each other in that we we are both opportunistic, as slippery as eels and in it for ourselves; but ultimately with fairly good intentions.
Miraculously, some of the fish inside the smokery had avoided total immolation so we munched on a few as we knocked back the beer and even gave a bucketful to the firecrew to take back tot he station. Being local boys, they knew my fish were always worth a nibble and they left with a promise to bring me some old wooden crates they had in storage so I could build a new smokehouse.
During all this time Biruta was fielding calls on her mobile phone, occasionally asking me for a quote to pad out the developing story which had apparently been picked up by the international newswires. Between mouthfuls of seared fish washed down with my favourite Bauska beer I dreamed up some choice phrases such as: “That smokery was all I had. Now I will starve” and “All my fish was environmentally friendly using sustainably-sourced fish and wood from certified renewable forests.”
This was a downright lie of course – the fish was generally given me at knock-down rates or for payment in kind by captains who had exceeded their quotas and the wood was “sourced” from wherever I found a decent enough tree in the forest. In my defence I did prefer deadfall when it was available but I won’t pretend I never cut down a living birch or alder if it smelled like it would make particularly aromatic wood smoke. I’d never cut down an oak – though maybe I would take the odd branch if I had asked its permission…
Biruta’s questions turned into an interview for the following day, then turned into a little bt of a roll on the grass and finally a more intimate tete-a-tete inside my cabin. I think we were all happy with our day’s work. I had had fun at Leiskalns’ expense and made the acquaintance of what lay under Biruta’s jumper. She had found a story that got bigger by the minute and I like to think had also been interested in What Lies Beneath. The European representative had managed to salvage a situation that could have been very damaging to her reputation by positioning herself as defender of the oppressed rather than oppressor. Only Leiskalns had lost out, but that wasn’t something I was about to lose sleep over. No, I had much better reasons for losing sleep that night.
At this point I should explain why Leiskalns had such intense dislike for me. He would say it was something to do with me being a work-shy layabout from a notorious family that lowered the tone of the neighbourhood. To which I would respond that whatever appearances were, when necessary I worked harder than he could ever dream of and when I didn’t need to work I made sure I enjoyed life. As to being from a criminal family, well, I admit we had had our fair share of legal entanglements over the years. But to be on the wrong side of the law during the Soviet era was a badge of honour as far as we were concerned. It showed our spirit had not been manacled by our occupiers even if they were able to control every aspect of our lives. My Uncle Kaspars (this one was a real relative, Grandfather’s younger brother) had spent a couple of years enjoying life in a Siberian labour camp as a result of the heinous crime of climbing up the town hall building in the night and placing the claret and white flag of Latvia among the silly standards of the Latvian Soviet Republic. There were many more than the usual number of pedestrians passing in front of the building the following day, and it wasn’t until the evening that the apparatchiks inside noticed te outrage.
Naturally, Uncle Kaspars had spent a good deal of the day quietly celebrating his boldness and had become a bit loose-lipped as a result. Which of his drinking companions ratted on him has remained an open question in the many years since, and it may be worth noting that a member of the Leiskalns family paid a brief visit to our property that day too and enjoyed Grandfather’s hospitality without complaint. Whether he was the snitch or not I cannot say with any certainty. If he wasn’t, I apologise for casting aspertions. If he was, I’m sure Uncle Kaspars is settling his score in the afterlife.
Sure enough more recently there had been the odd drunken incident, but nothing more serious than some late-night singing, a bit of poaching and the occasional bar room brawl which in any case invariably ended up with the combatants – myself included – swearing eternal friendship and insisting on buying the drinks, which was ironic as the brawls usually resulted from a suspicion that someone was ducking out of their round.
But all of that was small fry, to use Grandfather’s analogy. The real reason Leiskalns hated me was nothing to do with low-level delinquency or ancient blood feuds. The real reason he couldn’t stand my guts and was so delighted to have a chance to destroy the smoke stack was this: our family home, despite being just a shack with a couple of hectares attached, lay on the Linija 1 – the road running parallel with and closest to the sea shore itself.
A hundred metres further inland and it would have been worth next to nothing but comprising part of the Baltic coastline itself it was prime real estate. Most plots along the coast had been sold by the original owners (who themselves had only regained possession after the Soviets went home) at prices that seemed like fortunes in newly-independent Latvia but can now be seen as chicken feed. Leiskalns and his family were among the most active buyers and in turn sold many of the plots on to developers or private individuals who built increasingly grand weekend homes for the Riga elite.
Meanwhile we lived on in our weatherboard palace which let you listen to the waves breaking on the shore while you lay in bed, so big were the cracks and holes in its fabric. Another plus was that at any time of the day or night you could keep your nose attuned to the latest goings-on in the smokery so that the fish could be removed at precisely the right moment, even if that moment happened to be four o’clock in the morning.
Our plot was one of very few remaining that Leiskalns and his friends hadn’t managed to buy, steal, bluff or threaten their way into their own ownership and it lay in perhaps the prettiest location of all with a gentle dune of sea heather, sawgrass and gorse bushes giving us just enough shelter from the wind while maintaining that healthy sense that you were always in the immediate presence of the sea’s living soul.
We were bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood and more importantly bringing down the price of the neighbouring real estate, all of which Leiskalns owned. He had tried every trick in the book to kick us out and had failed, so when the happy chance came to crush us in the machinery of the mighty European Union, he had not hesitated to nominate us as the most pressing redevelopment site in the parish which, given its profusion of abandoned collective farms and former missile bases was clearly a choice motivated by something other than logic.
Biruta returned the next day, and not only for a repeat dose of what had already passed between us. Apparently the story of the smoke stack outrage was continuing to whirl around the continent and, being an entrepreneurial sort of girl, she had managed to win commissions from at least four different agencies for “exclusive” interviews with me. Naturally our interview passed very agreeably, though I would describe it more as a collaboration that gave us mutual satisfaction than the sort of notebook-across-the-table encounter I have got use to since then.
I think it was as we lay together smiling at the cobwebs in the roof of my shack that I had my first intimation of the power of the press. When she told me how much she was being paid for the interviews I was astounded, perhaps in the same way that the owners of the other seashore properties had been astounded by the riches offered to them by Leiskalns. In reality the fees were not that big – but in the context of a small Latvian newspaper they seemed so.
My admiration of Biruta grew from the merely physical to something else. As I had known from that very first glance at the gate, she was made from the same sort of material as myself, so it did not seem much of a risk to ask what came out of my mouth next.
“So what’s in this for me?” I said, lighting a cigarette and exhaling in the direction of a spider.
“Isn’t fame enough?” she parried.
“I would prefer fortune.”
She gave me a surprisingly forceful dig in the ribs. We both lay there thinking for a few minutes. I noticed the sound of the sea.
“You can’t make any money out of this,” Biruta pondered as she took the cigarette out of my mouth and had a drag of her own. “But you could do something else. You could stand against Leiskalns in the elections.”
There, in the blue-grey smoke of a cheap Russian cigarette from a packet smuggled in the spare tyre of a car that had crossed the border from Belarus a week earlier, my fate was decided.
I had to admit is was a brilliant idea, and I knew with my inherent talent for political prediction that it would work. Everyone hated Leiskalns, though until now they had been too scared to say so. That had all changed with the international fuss created by torching my smokery. The name of the town – of the whole country even – had been tainted by his action, and people would want to distance themselves from him in a clear and serious way. Leiskalns relied on fear and apathy to secure his seat on the local council. People were no longer fearful and no longer apathetic, not necesarily because they had any great regard for me but because they wanted to put clear space between themselves and Leiskalns.
“I could mention it to one of the opposition parties, if you like,” Biruta said. “In fact you could probably choose whatever party you wanted. Of course you’d need to have a shower and a haircut to make yourself look less like a tramp, but I think that can be arranged…”
The strange thing is that even by then I was already scheming. Her words had been intended as a joke, but some sort of new connection had been made in my brain. It was as if I had always had a political circuit in my head that had never been powered up before. Suddenly a current had been applied and it was coming to life quickly.
“A shower yes, a haircut no,” I said. “That’s part of my appeal. I have character. I don’t look like a dull politician, I look like a normal person thrust into an abnormal situation. In any case I will need to look like I do on the TV and the internet otherwise people will get confused and think I am someone else.”
Biruta turned to look at me with a mixture of fascination and maybe a little uncertainty as if she couldn’t tell if I was being serious or not. She realised I was.
“As for parties, I will need to think about it,” I continued. “They are all a pretty sorry bunch. There are one or two decent people I suppose, but they are all surrounded by idiots just as bad as Leiskalns.”
“That’s why they will be so keen to get you on board,” Biruta said. “You would be a very useful symbol.”
“Symbols are nice to look at but they don’t do much,” I thought out loud. “If I am going to stand, I want to do something. I want to have some fun!” I concluded and rolled back on top of Biruta.
In the afternoon, a Swedish television crew arrived. The ever resourceful Biruta was acting as their fixer, of course. They looked a little disappointed that there was nothing left of the smokery to film, so we engaged in a little beachcombing, picked up a fair stack of driftwood (the cameraman was built like a Viking and I suspected one of his ancestors had probably pillaged the Courland coast a thousand years earlier) and set fire to it in the place where the orignal smoke stack had stood. We let it die down to a highly photogenic mass of smouldering, charred wood before conducting yet another interview in which I waxed lyrical on the iniquities of EU law being used against such a miserable individual as myself.
I was becoming quite adept by now at tailoring my account to suit the audience. In this I was helped by the Swedes suggesting a few choice angles before the interview started and I realised that in much the same way as Biruta they weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say as much as hearing what they expected me to say. So that’s what I said, playing up the sort of things that would give any Swede worth the name conniptions, such as incorrect use of procedure, not having the right paperwork and causing environmental damage to “their” Baltic sea (not that the film crew had expressed any qualms about releasing carbon dioxide via our little beach bonfire).
In short it was a very productive afternoon and I was amazed at how simple the whole process was. Even before they left they they had assembled a rough cut of the item that would broadcast on Swedish national television just a few hours later. I almost felt outraged on my own behalf, it was so persuasive. Moreover I enjoyed it. And like all enjoyable things I craved more. Biruta was still there.
If it had been anyone other than the Swedes, probably here would not have been such a fuss. But with their reputation for impartiality and fair-mindedness, how could anyone fail to see their point that a terrible injustice had been committed that while not on a huge scale was nevertheless symptomatic of where the entire European Union project was going wrong? The Swedes felt considerably more outraged on my behalf than any Latvian would ever have bothered with. Even so it came as quite a surprise when the Swedish embassy called me to say that their foreign minister wanted to pay me a visit during a visit to Latvia the following week.
Word of his imminent arrival must have got out because before he arrived I was subject to the sort of wooing even a beautiful girl like Biruta must have envied. One by one members of the local political parties invited me to meet them in Riga and when I declined they graciously deigned to visit me at home instead.
In an amazing turn of events I was even approached by the party of which Leiskalns was an oh-so-loyal member, the Northern Farmers’ and Fishermen’s Party or ZZZ. They sent one of their smoothest operators to see me, a veteran MP by the name of Brinkmanis who veritably oozed chummy reassurance. He was the sort of man Grandfather would have said could change the oil in his engine without getting his hands dirty.
To give him credit, Brinkmanis was a lot better turned-out than some of them, I can tell you. It may be surprising to hear from someone renowned – in those days at least – for being scruffy, but my unkempt appearance was just as carefully studied as Brinkmanis’ unflashy smartness and I appreciated that here was a man who had found his true niche in life as a cunning, slippery political backstabber. Despite my total aversion to his crooked party and its grubby little schemes, I rather liked the fellow.
I made him stand in his polished Oxfords right on the edge of the black ring of scorched earth that had formerly been the location of my smokery. He did a fine job of talking about “unfortunate misunderstandings” and “communication breakdowns” while admitting – in strictest confidence, naturally – that though Leiskalns was a long-standing member of the party he had never been renowned for his intellect and had received a stiff talking to behind closed doors at party HQ. It was all so much soft soap, but I made Brinkmanis run through his whole routine for the purposes of entertainment and study as much as anything else.
I nodded and mumbled the occasional response, giving the clear impression that I probably wasn’t possessed of the greatest intellect myself and letting him think that he would certainly walk away from my humble home having achieved some sort of victory.
Then, as even Brinkmanis’ fluid conversation dried up, I looked him straight in his neat little square-framed spectacles, smiled broadly and said: “That’s great, Brinkmanis. Listen – if I stand for your party in the elections, will you can Leiskalns?”
“Can?” he asked.
“Expel. Eject. Kick out. Consign to the dustbin,” I clarified.
He pursed his lips as he realised perhaps I wasn’t quite the idiot he had taken me for. I could see him wondering if he should have tried a different strategy with me, that of the hard-nosed negotiator. Someone else back at party headquarters – hopefully Leiskalns again – would get another rollocking for an inaccurate briefing that portrayed me as a dumb peasant.
“That is a matter that would require discussion at the highest level,” he said diplomatically. “If it is a serious offer you are proposing, we could…”
“Don’t bother!” I cut him off. “You had your chance. They should have sent someone capable of making a decision. Thanks for coming, nice to make your acquaintance. ‘Bye.”
He left, but not before giving me a serious look, like a botanist wondering whether he had stumbled upon some new form of moss and whether it merited further study.
Brinkmanis was followed by representatives of the other social clubs and self-help groups that pass for political parties in my country. They each had their little variations, appealing to my venality, my bravery, my simplicity or my “grass-roots understanding” but they all wanted essentially the same thing – my name on their ballot papers. Each of them got pretty much the same treatment as Brinkmanis, to which they responded with varying degrees of incredulity, as if I had just turned down a free pass to the best nightclub in Monte Carlo.
Consequently, Brinkmanis rose considerably in my estimation as he was the only one who had managed a degree of sang froid when faced with my sudden confrontation. I decided that we should definitely conduct business in the future.
Biruta hadn’t been over for a couple of days, but by the end of the week her nerve cracked and she showed up at the gate. I was glad to see her, though did my best to look as if I hadn’t been secretly pining for her in my kennel. She was hot to trot but I decided it would be a lot more fun to make her wait for her next turn around the paddock and made the unprecedented suggestion that we might walk to a bar for a drink and a bite to eat – provided she was willing to pay, using the money she had made off me. She agreed at once and we set out together on a pleasant evening in early summer walking along the beach while I talked about nothing and Biruta responded to messages on her mobile phone that beeped with annoying regularity. I told her to switch the damn thing off, to which she responded that it was more than her job was worth and that a meteorite might land on her patch at any given moment.
The bar was called the Red Herring and I was well known there if not exactly a regular. Despite my reputation and the enjoyment I have always had from being in bars and studying the specimens that that are washed up, in truth I have never been a big drinker. It’s a common misconception – ironically enough among non-drinkers – to assume that people hang around bars for the drinks. That is rarely the case. The drinks are just an economic justification for the existence of the place. Bad drinks can be tolerated in a good bar, but in a bad bar even the finest champagne tastes disgusting.
The Red Herring was popular with the trawler fisherman, a fact which generally kept most other people away as they imagined it must be the sort of place where tattooed deck hands slashed at each other with cutlasses on a regular basis. In fact quite the opposite was true. The atmosphere was remarkably tranquil and conversation generally took a rather philosophical course compared to other bars. If you doubt the fact, set sail at 4 in the morning some day, work a 12-hour shift in a rough sea and then see if you feel like jumping around shouting when you get back to dry land.
No, what you want is a quiet place with good food and a relaxing drink to help you sleep before you start the whole thing again in a few hours’ time, and if some fool starts misbehaving it’s a safe bet he won’t last very long before you and all the other normal types tell him to clear off or face some collective persuasion.
The bar itself was a fairly small wooden structure perched on a concrete slab just outside the perimeter fence of the fishermens’ port cooperative. It was painted a different colour each year for reasons no-one could remember and was currently an attractive sky blue which was a great improvement on the slightly sickly yellow of the previous year which had only looked good at sunset.
Even better than the unspoiled nature of this watering hole however was the menu. Unsurprisingly, the seafood was the best in the country. Fish stew was the only unchanging item and was made in small enough quantities that you had to eat by 7 pm to be sure of avoiding disappointment. The rest of the menu generally consisted of just one other dish according to what seemed particularly good or plentiful in the nets that day. There was a unique a la carte option too, which consisted of a trawlerman entering the bar toting a specific fish and demanding that it be cooked to his own personal taste or – if he was feeling generous and had snagged a turbot – for the general pleasure of all patrons, in which case he would not have to buy a drink all evening. It was not for nothing that turbot are known as “gold bars” by fishermen.
Sadly there was no such marine Midases in residence on the evening Biruta and I showed up but there were a few familiar, friendly faces who exchanged greetings with us (and a couple of wolf-whistles that I doubt were directed in my direction, though where sailors are concerned you can never be one hundred percent sure).
We sat at a table by the window, discovered we were in luck as far as the fish soup was concerned and Biruta updated me on the progress of my unlikely tale while we waited for it to arrive. Interest had subsided in my story at last, though it had sparked some limited interest in other instances of abuse of European Union powers by low-ranking officials in Spain, Cyprus and the Czech Republic.
“Well, here’s to my Spanish, Czech and Greek – or Turkish Cypriot – counterparts. I’m glad to have helped them all,” I said as we clinked glasses in their honour.
At that moment, as if summoned by a bell, the door of the bar opened and in walked none other than Brinkmanis. Trailing behind him like a puppy that had just had its nose pressed into its own mess was the vast lump of Leiskalns.
Brinkmanis fixed me with a look of recognition that somehow reminded me of the one Biruta had given me across the gate at our first acquaintance, smiled and politely acknowledged Biruta as well, whom he seemed to know already. With impeccable manners he enquired if the pair of them might join us – all this, mark you, as if he had just happened to be passing on his way home and our meeting was a happy coincidence.
Suddenly Biruta’s enthusiasm for mobile communication made sense. I picked up her phone which lay between us on the table and with a few clicks confirmed that she had been sending details of our whereabouts to Brinkmanis. It wasn’t necessary to say anything – I just looked at her and she shot me a “So what?” shrug, which I returned in kind without bothering to feign outrage.
Brinkmanis seemed amused by our exchange and took the initiative.
“Let’s not fall out, you know we would have got together sooner or later,” he said. I couldn’t argue with that and asked if he fancied a beer.
“Do they have wine?” he repsonded. “I have nothing against Latvian beer, best in the world and all that, but I am a martyr to dyspepsia. My physician says unless I go easy I will develop an ulcer if I haven’t already. Stress-related, he says.”
“I never realised politics was so dangerous,” I replied. “I must remember to avoid getting mixed up in it. Actually they do have a decent house white if you ask nicely. Goes well with fish.”
Turning to Leiskalns I added: “I would offer you a drink as well, but now I am concerned about your health.” He muttered something under his breath which probably wasn’t entirely complimentary and carried on sitting there with a humiliating lack of anything to drink in his hand.
A glass of house white appeared with almost magical rapidity on the table next to Brinkmanis. More significantly it was accompanied by a large smile and the words “on the house” by the proprietor, who was generally a man with all the good humour of a bull walrus sitting on a lobster.
It provided a timely reminder that though his party might be of questionable honesty, with an insatiable appetite for bribery and back-handers, riven by the worst forms of cliquery and possessed of a tendency to advocate the most outrageously populist promises, in order to suck up an extra few votes, it did nevertheless retain a loyal following amongst its eponymous Farmers and Fishermen. In fact form the approving looks Brinkmanis elicited from the other esteemed patrons (I did not entertain the notion that they could have been directed at Leiskalns or myself, though Biruta was another matter), it looked like he was even more popular than the dish of the day.
“Shall we get down to business?” Brinkmanis said, pulling his chair closer to the table and straightening the creases on his trousers. “Leiskalns, perhaps you would like to take Biruta outside for a moment and tell her all about our exciting plans to develop the harbour and add a marina for pleasure craft that will create dozens of much needed jobs?”
“Plans? What plans?” Leiskalns flapped.
Brinkmanis shot me the same “So what?” glance Biruta had given a minute before.
“Come on Leiskalns,” Biruta chipped in, dragging the heavyweight towards the door. “How about I tell you what my sources have leaked to me and you can deny you know anything about it. You might even be telling the truth!” she giggled.
“Excellent!” Brinkmanis commented as he sipped his wine then held it up to the evening light coming from the window in a manner that surprisingly did not seem at all pretentious, “Who would have thought that such an acceptable vintage would be found in such unexpected surroundings?” After the briefest of pauses he continued: “Which brings us rather neatly to you. Who would have thought such an acceptable candidate would be found in such unexpected surroundings?”
I acknowledged him with my glass.
“I know I missed my chance to recruit you, so I won’t embarass both of us by begging. I just came to let you know that there are no hard feelings and that my friend Mr Leiskalns will not be bothering you any more.”
“That’s very decent of you. But I don’t need your help or anyone else’s to deal with people like him.”
“Of course, of course, that’s understood. The funny thing is that I had a word with the central committee – on a purely theoretical basis, you understand – about… what was the word you used? ‘Canning’ him? They didn’t raise much in the way of objections. So if you had been interested in our friendly discussion, it would not have been an obstacle after all. Amusing, no?” He took another sip of wine, his grey eyes fixed on me above the thin line of his lip on the rim of the glass which made him look like a snake.
“Okay Brinkmanis, I’ll stand for you,” I said. Before he could say anything else I added: “But on one condition – Leiskalns stays.”
“Intriguing,” was his one word response.
As ever my reasoning was more instinctive than anything else. I had a sort of premonition that here was an opportunity that would not be repeated. If reasoning did play a part it was based on the principle that an utterly corrupt party would be easier to control (and more understandable to me) than one kidding itself that it was acting on principle. As for Leiskalns, well, it would have been doing him a favour to cut him adrift. I had plans for him. They say revenge, like herring, is a dish best served cold. It’s also much tastier if you wave it around the kitchen for a while first.
We clinked glasses and again it had the magical effect of summoning Leiskalns from his cave. The door swung open and in he came with Biruta.
“Perfect timing!” Brinkmanis exclaimed, turning in his chair so that the whole bar could hear what he was saying. “Leiskalns… friends… I am proud to announce the new ZZZ candidate for mayor of this fine town!” He put his glass down, rose from his chair and began clapping in my direction. Everyone in the bar joined in, with a general murmur of surprise followed by one of approval. They would have thought the notion was insane coming from anyone else of course, but from someone as smooth and reassuring as Brinkmanis it seemed perfectly natural.
I acknowledged my potential constituents with a cheery wave. Biruta clapped her hands and jumped around. I could see that power, or even the future promise of it, really did have aphrodisiac properties and the bedsprings would be in for a particularly gruelling night. Meanwhile Leiskalns looked like a volcano seconds away from cataclysm.
“Drinks all round!” shouted Brinkmanis, slapping a 50-lat note on the bar and switching instantaneously from political heavyweight to congenial host. I was in.
In case you were wondering, yes, I did consider standing as an independent. While I would still probably have won, it would have taken an awful lot of hard work and thinking out some sort of principle on which I was standing. I suppose that was possible, but how much easier it was simply to make use of the political apparatus ZZZ had in place already and let their minions do all the hard work.
It wasn’t as if I had many people to win over anyway. I was well known about town and the endorsement of Brinkmanis and (somewhat reluctantly) Leiskalns was enough to win over all but the most independent-minded voters who quite rightly regarded me as the worst sort of turncoat. Incidentally, Leiskalns was mollified by the offer of the mayorship of Polga, a town a little further along the coast which had a slightly larger harbour, a slightly larger mayoral office and a slightly larger opportunity for creaming money off the top of municipal and private real estate deals as it was the weekend retreat of choice for the political and diplomatic elite.
The official line was that he had done such a bang-up job in Zivrags he was being sent to Polga to repeat the trick. No-one but Leiskalns believed this of course, but it served its purpose and he was sure to let me know that he would be happy to return to our home town after I had screwed everything up and ruined my reputation. He believed he was now a big shot. He was half right.
The details of my debut election campaign are barely worth recording. I continued my series of interviews with Biruta, which were duly printed in the newspapers and a few party leaflets. The fact that the text of both was identical shows the standard of media coverage.
The only debates worth the name took place in the Red Herring when I agreed with whatever the person sitting on the other side of the table was saying, which was usually what brick Brinkmanis was, as he had placed another 50 lat note behind the bar to fuel the political process.
My first election gave me the impression which I retain to this day through all subsequent ballots that the result one achieved was generally inversely proportional to the amount of effort put into the campaign. All that doorstepping and loitering outside supermarkets to show what a regular guy you are is really just insurance so that when you lose you don’t feel it was through lack of effort. I had no need to prove what a regular guy I was so there was no point making a show of it.
Election day itself was spent mainly reconstructing my smokery using various crates and pallets I scrounged from the party and – in a piece of symbolism that was not lost of me – some pine ballot boxes from town hall that the election commission was replacing with new, flimsy plastic ones. These sturdy old cubes proved to be excellent material for construction of the new smokery. It was fitting that these receptacles of the people’s democratic will should enjoy their retirement years in the service of the man who was about to be elected to public office for the first time. Moderates, extremists, agrarians, libertarians, nationalists and radicals would at last be united in the pungent but pleasant aroma of applewood and birch shavings, the smoke flitting past the places in which their ballot papers had piled up and escaping up into the ether in just the same way that their legislative expectations had done.
The polls closed at 8 pm after which I sauntered towards the counting station. Within minutes the counters were telling me, off the record, that I had won by a fairly comfortable margin. The other candidates looked so miserable I thought it only decent to go over and offer them my condolences. I felt almost guilty winning an election about which I cared so little and which clearly meant so much to them.
Brinkmanis showed up soon afterwards with a couple of other party bigwigs in tow. Evidently my victory was going to be the story of the night and with ZZZ not expected to do particularly well away from its ‘coast and crop’ heartland, they wanted to make sure they were in some photographs depicting a victory. With the practised ease that spoke of countless such occasions in the past, Brinkmanis issued his instructions regarding who should stand where and what sort of expressions they should make available to the cameras: “Enthusiastically happy without any hint of triumphalism, switching after about thirty seconds to a determination to get down to work,” were his precise words, followed swiftly by: “…and don’t make any promises!”
My election saw a brief revival in interest in me as media were able to re-use all their old footage in their accounts of how this poor downtrodden peasant had seized the initiative to win a democratic mandate. For once all sides were equally happy with the outcome. For the EU people it provided the best evidence that they were not after all part of a vast supranational oppression machine but something vaguely to do with grass-roots democracy. Similarly, the Latvian authorities were delighted to point out that oligarchs and business interests did not hold sway as was commonly supposed. If a wrong was committed, the rule of law, the constitution and the flimsy plastic ballot box provided the means of recompense.
Perhaps the biggest winner was the ZZZ. With me on board Brinkmanis had succesfully changed the party’s image from bad guys to good guys, left all their land-grabbing, money-making schemes intact and found someone more capable than ninety percent of their council members and MPs who tended to be the sort of people you would dread being sat next to at a country wedding.
Over those days I got a lot of advice form a lot of people. I listened to all of it and believed almost none of it. Instead I developed a game that has proven to be extremely useful to me in my political career ever since: I put myself in the position of the person talking to me, first to ascertain what it was they were really trying to say and second to see if I would have taken a different approach, based on what I knew about myself.
Without wanting to sound like a bighead, I have always been a pretty good judge of character. I can see what makes people tick, so it came as something of a surprise when I realised how truly awful many other people are as judges of character. Some people talked to me in the most inappropriate ways that made me want to seize them by the lapels and say: “You are talking to me under the assumption that I come from the same village as you!” or “I do not share your prejudice against Jews to please do not address me in this manner!” or tell them outright: “You never get anything done, because you are not a likeable person!”
Brinkmanis was an exception of course. He clearly was as much of a connoisseur of character as myself, so that our conversations always possessed a sparring quality. We were both scheming, it was just a matter of who would make his play first and to what end. Being the young pretender, of course it was me that moved first. Brinkmanis could have waited until the crack of doom before playing his hand if necessary.
It came at the very first council meeting I chaired. Contrary to the expectations of my fellow councillors, all of whom assumed I was a semi-literate puppet who could be manipulated with ease and ignored at will, I made it clear from the offset that I was fully in control. I arrived for the meeting before anyone else. In fact, I was the only one who arrived for the scheduled start and informed every subsequent attendee precisely how late they were and that this should all be recorded in the minutes.
A small group of spectators, including Biruta, another member of the press and at least one spy for Brinkmanis (who seemed redundant given Biruta’s presence – maybe he suspected divided loyalties) was in attendance too and from their reaction they clearly enjoyed seeing their democratically elected representatives told off like naughty schoolchildren. But as every schoolmaster knows, carrot is needed as well as stick, so during the main body of the meeting, after we had dealt with some standard requests for new gateposts, grass to be cut and potholes to be filled in, I revealed my own king sized carrot.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your cooperation thus far. Despite our slightly tardy start, we have actually got through a reasonable amount of business, which is, after all, one of the reasons we were elected. But that is not the only reason we were elected. We were also elected to develop our town, to move it forwards and make it a more prosperous, attractive and safe place to live. But I ask you, in all sincerity, how can we do that when we are totally restricted and rstrained by what happens at county level over in Polga? We have already had to pass on decisions for road repairs that have been refused co-funding from our ‘friends’ over there in Polga who seem to think we are some vassal state of theirs. Where is all the money being spent? Polga. Why? Because that’s where the Riga elite go to their holiday homes. It doesn’t matter if the trucks carrying the economic lifeblood of the county have to drive along roads that would shame a banana republic provided they don’t get bumped in their Mercedes and Porsches on their way to Polga!
“I for one am not going to stand for this any longer. I will not stand by and let the people of Zivrags who pay the taxes that pay for those nice smooth roads, be discriminated against! There is no time to waste. It is a disgrace that my predecessor did nothing – absolutely nothing! – to fight against this blatant corruption. Action is needed now because it should have taken place years ago! Therefore I am proposing that with immediate effect we launch the necessary legal measures to leave Poga county and form our own authority of Zivrags county. All those in favour?”
You could see the fear in their eyes as I asked. The councillors were completely unprepared, torn between wanting to seem enthusiastic and not wanting to make what might be big mistake.
“All those in favour… of putting Zivrags first!” I said with an authority that surprised even me.
“First one, then another hand went up. As soon as that happened, the rest of them shot up like rockets, sensing that there was safety in numbers, or at least that the blame would be more evenly distributed.”
“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I knew I could rely on you!” I beamed, then went around the table and shook each of their hands individually. It was a nice touch and had something of the mafioso bestowing ‘made man’ status upon a capo, I felt. That was pretty much all it took to win their loyalty. We all went home feeling good about ourselves and dreaming dreams of a golden age for Zivrags.
Biruta arrived soon after I reached home. She didn’t have Brinkmanis with her in body but that made little difference as he spoke to me over her telephone instead.
“You certainly didn’t waste any time,” Brinkmanis said. “Don’t you feel you might have acted a little prematurely? It would have been nice to be consulted before such a dramatic move.”
“Sorry about that,” I said. “I suppose the intoxication of democracy got the better of me. But now the process has been set in motion and everyone is feeling so upbeat it would be a shame to stop it. After all, my job is to do my best for Zivrags.”
“What a quaint idea,” Brinkmanis replied. “Your job is to do your best for the party. See me in my office tomorrow at ten. I will send a car to pick you up.”
The most interesting thing about Brinkmanis’ office was that it did not have the feel of a place in which he spent any time at all. The desk was a cheap catalogue-bought effort completely devoid of papers or personalisation. The pictures on the walls were hackneyed photographs of castles and riverscapes that could have come from any tourism brochure.
Only the seat was notable, a high-backed creation of steel and black leather like a sort of post-digital revolution Barcelona chair. It looked expensive and must have cost at least ten times more than the standard conference chairs on which the party minions in the outer offices were shifting their backsides. It suggested Brinkmanis valued comfort highly – so highly that even a chair for occasional use needed to be absolutely perfect. That chair provided one more note in the mental dossier I was amassing on Brinkmanis.
Now I am sitting in it.