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Short Stories V: New Year

I’ll bring this little sequence of stories to an end here. This story was written almost exaactly a year ago – the first written after the completion of my novel, about which there will hopefully be more news in coming weeks. I wish you a very happy new year.

NEW YEAR

The Number 10 tram rattled through the last night of the year. August sat in the cab, his hand pushing the drive lever forward automatically. He was so used to the distances between the stops, the angles of the turns and the small variations in gradient that it no longer required any conscious effort to drive the tram.

It was good to leave the end of the line at Bisumuiza. There was always a wait involved before you could set off – the Number 10s may be the oldest and noisiest trams on the whole Riga transport network, but they had always been the most punctual as they traced their unusual route from the forgotten suburb of Bisumuiza with its abandoned manor house in a weed-tangled wood, through the other untidy suburbs on the left bank of the river before crossing the Stone Bridge and looping around to return at the vast Zeppelin hangars of the central market.

Right by the tiny wooden hut where the drivers drank tea while they waited for the precise minute to begin their runs was a small shop which the small number of local residents would sidle into to buy their supplies of vodka and – for tonight only – cheap, sweet “Riga champagne” with which to see in the new year.

Sick of sitting at home with relatives who had barely moved from the sofa since Christmas, a small huddle of drinkers had gathered on the stone steps into the shop, doing their best to look as if they would set off home at any moment while simultaneously making sure the raucous conversation never flagged so that they could remain chatting for hours.

Looking over at them through the dark window of the hut, August was reminded why he always worked on new year’s eve. It was not the first time August had volunteered to be on the drivers’ roster. The money was slightly better than on a regular night, and it helped morale in the depot if people weren’t conscripted to work when they would rather be celebrating, but the real reason August worked the night of December 31 was that he had never enjoyed new year’s eve parties.

He had nothing against the revellers, but for some reason always felt uneasy in the midst of a large group of people drinking, shouting and behaving in ways that they normally would not, all for the sake of celebrating something that was, after all, an inevitability. And there was the false friendship that went along with it – people who had abused and insulted you all year insisting on shaking you by the hand and telling you that they hadn’t meant it, as if they were making a magnanimous gesture for which you should be grateful. It would come as no surprise when a few days later, the same people would be whispering behind their hands as you waited in line at the depot canteen and a few weeks later their unimaginative insinuations would eventually reach your ears.

Looking at the drinkers with their broad grins and explosions of laughter, August wondered what sort of schemes and vindictive little tricks they would begin playing against each other as soon as their hangovers began to recede tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps they would remember odd excerpts of the very conversations they were now having, playing them back and taking offence at some comment they had interpreted differently at the time. Or perhaps as the vodka overpowered their minds completely, the whole of this friendship on the steps would simply be erased, their reconciliations and promises of neighbourly help forgotten as if they had never even happened.

He picked up the small bag he carried to work every day which contained his sandwiches, reading glasses, a bad, old Russian detective novel he had found lying beside the road one day plus a few other small items and climbed into the cab. After a quick check of the instruments and restarting the computer that announced the stops along the way, he started his final shift of the year.

As the tram rolled down the hill next to Arkadija park with the high, uneven outlines of empty textile mills on the other side of the tracks, the electrical connector that joined it to the overhead wires slipped out of place with a burst of white light like a flashbulb. The two carriages were plunged into darkness and the tram came to a silent halt. This happened two or three times a day, though for some unknown reason certain drivers seemed more prone to these sudden de-couplings than others. August was generally among the least affected by this phenomenon as a result of the smooth, steady driving style he took pride in and which was one of the reasons his fellow drivers nicknamed him “the Old Woman”. He always regarded losing his connector as a cause of embarrassment and his cheeks flushed slightly as he reached for the thick rubber-and-leather gloves that hung from a steel peg behind him in the cab like two partridges shot by a hunter.

The gloves gave his sensitive hands a clumsy, stupid feeling, like the hands of the Soviet Soldiers clutching their sub-machine guns over at the ugly Victory memorial which the tram would pass between the next two stops. August skipped down out of the cab – despite his age he remained slim and was more agile than most of the drivers twenty years his junior thanks to the long hours he had spent studying dance during his own youth. He stood with poise and walked in a way that seemed somehow to possess more clarity of direction than the messy shuffling and over-wound clockwork of the pedestrians the tram bisected when it glided past the stops and bus shelters of Riga.

The air outside the cab was fairly cold but was made to seem even colder by contrast with the temperature inside the tram cab where the air was supercharged by a heater that remained stuck on throughout the winter months. It was good to get outside and as well as the slight embarrassment of losing his connector, August always felt that these incidents happened for a reason, or rather that they offered some opportunity that would not otherwise be evident. This might be something as trivial as seeing a certain place at a certain time he had never before experienced. It did not have to be anything dramatic or beautiful, just different.

His breath curled up in front of him like rolls of white birch bark shrinking from a fire. A few dark shapes loomed through the windows of the two carriages as passengers took a half-hearted interest in what was happening. Most of them would have seen this process almost as often as August as they rode ceaselessly between Bisumuiza and the Central Market.

Stopped as they were halfway down the hill, it looked as if the usual painterly perspective had been skewed. Combined with the already angular lines of the old Soviet-era tram machinery and the silvery steel of the twin sets of tracks shining in a mixture of moonlight and sodium bulbs, the scene had a peculiar, almost constructivist atmosphere. It was very dark in the park opposite, apart from two tiny orange traces that glowed like beastly eyes. People must be sitting on the benches, smoking and drinking while they debated whose house to drop by unannounced next. no cars could be heard but somewhere in the shunting yards on the other side of the park the deep bass note of a diesel locomotive complained about having to move trucks on new year’s eve.

August gave a sudden start as he moved past the grimy windows toward the back of the tram. A large dog jumped over the connector between the carriages, landing within a few inches of him. Instinctively he jumped back with his dancer’s grace, raising the ugly work gloves to his face. The dog looked half feral and had lost one eye which now resembled a white marble but it took no notice of August and disappeared through a gap in the wire fence outside one of the old textile mills. A young voice laughed from inside the rear carriage. August did not look to see where it came from and still regaining his composure, reached up to grasp the length of rope which hung from the side of the connector, checking first as all the drivers did, to make sure he was not standing on the tram rail.

He pulled the long, spindly connector arm down and swung it around and back towards its place on the overhead wire. It looked like an articulated leg pulled from some enormous insect trapped on a long spider’s web of electric cabling. The diesel locomotive’s engine had faded to nothing. There was no sign of the dog and the cigarette ends in the black park were no longer visible.

August walked back to the cab, his rubber soles squealing quietly with every step. As he climbed back into the seat which smelled of other drivers’ stale cigarettes despite the woollen blanket he always draped over it he thought he could hear heavy footsteps approaching down the hill. It was possible someone was running from the Tornakalns Station tram stop to try and get on board. Drivers were strictly forbidden from picking up anyone between stops, on pain of dismissal. In any case, the people who ran more than a few yards to get onto a bus or tram were often trouble – it was a fact well known amongst the drivers.

Even though he disliked new year’s eve, August thought for a second about letting the unseen runner climb on board. It was supposed to be a season of goodwill, after all, no matter how insincere. He pressed the orange button which opened the rearmost set of doors, then thought better of his act of charity and pressed it again almost immediately to close them.

A dial showed the current was flowing properly and the lights in the carriages had returned with their yellow glow. August pushed the drive level forward and the tram responded with its usual sigh, picking up speed quickly as it reached the bottom of the hill and turned right towards Victory Park.

He applied the brakes as he rolled onto the Stone Bridge, seeing the blue lights of a police car ahead. The tram stopped ten metres from the police car, beside which a couple of officers were stopping all traffic in both directions. The walkway on the left side of the bridge was thick with people standing and looking out across the river and sometimes the outlines of people in ones and twos would flit across the road and the tram tracks from the other side of the bridge. The police had closed it to prevent an accident until after midnight struck.

Circles of friends passed bottles to each other, young children perched on their fathers’ shoulders and their older brothers and sisters peered between the iron railings as the reflections of the city lights shimmered up at them.

Another tram – the Number 2 from Agenskalns – pulled up right behind August’s Number 10. The driver, who was only slightly younger than August and wore a thick brown moustache tinged with yellow above his thick lips, climbed slowly out and lit a cigarette as he paced back and forward, then began talking on a mobile ‘phone.

August vaguely recognised him but while he wondered about getting out and making small talk, there was a huge red explosion a hundred metres to his left. Almost immediately it was followed by a crack of sound and a gasp from the crowd of people, who leaned forward over the edge of the bridge as one.

The fireworks followed one then another with increasing speed, ripping the purplish sky open with blooms of green, white and orange. August watched the municipal display, which was joined by dozens of smaller explosions from private parties along the banks of the River Daugava in both directions. The cheaper firecrackers of the teenagers ignited with hollow snaps along the walkways, while wealthier residents of Riga displayed their largesse via skyrockets that rivalled the city’s own display.

Somehow it was the fireworks furthest away that seemed more interesting to August. Down behind the docks towards Sarkandaugava the detonations could barely make it over the horizon and appeared silently, like roses tossed by the wind in a distant field. In the other direction, rockets surged towards the freedom of the skies from the tall, uneven buildings of Maskatchka, pleased to die away from the cramped apartments and dark alleyways. Further away still, the fireballs launched from square suburban gardens in Katlakalns and Kekava were tiny, like berries being crushed.

The main display finished with a final huge explosion, as if the moon had been punctured with a pin and a small ripple of applause moved through the onlookers like an echo as they drifted away from the railings and back towards the end of the bridge.

August waited in his cab, counting off the seconds of the new year and wondering by how much the delay on the bridge would make him late. Probably he would have no time for a cup of tea when he returned to Bisumuiza and would have to take the tram straight out again for his final loop of the shift.

The police waved him on. He moved the drive lever forward again and the tram eased ahead, with the impatient Number 2 almost touching the back of the second carriage. Why do that? It was not as if he could overtake. August was glad he hadn’t talked to the other driver and concentrated on keeping a close watch for any revellers loitering near the tracks, clearing them away with a short blast of his bell which sounded like the wake-up call of a worn-out alarm clock.

Hardly anyone got on board at the Central Market and it was with an almost empty tram that Augusts started the final loop which would finish not at Bisumuiza but the depot on Typography Street. Before leaving the Central Market he propped a sign up in the windshield saying “To the Depot”.

As he passed the spot going up the hill beside Arkadija Park at which the tram had come uncoupled, he slowed down even more than usual. There didn’t seem to be any slackness in the wires or a branch fallen from one of the tall lime trees at the edge of the park that could sometimes cause that sort of thing to happen.

A few seconds later he halted at the Tornakalns Station stop and opened the doors. He glanced in the mirror that gave him a clear view down the side of the tram with the doors but no-one was getting out. Just has he was about to press the orange button to close the doors, he heard the sound of running footsteps. It sent a chill up his spine and he seemed to be standing outside again in the clumsy gloves, breathing the cold night air. Feeling uneasy, as quickly as he could he pressed the orange button and accelerated away from the stop with a speed even of one of his younger colleagues would have considered rapid.

For some reason it seemed important to get away from that spot but up ahead the lights at the corner of Freelander Street and Ulmanis Avenue showed red. He slowed down but kept the wheels rolling until the last possible moment and he was forced to stop. His ears strained and though there was no sound of footsteps, he was afraid he might hear them approaching from the distance at any moment. Thankfully the ligts turned green at last and he sped across the carriageway of the main road, even overshooting the next stop slightly, an unheard-of indiscretion.

Twenty minutes later he was climbing out of the cab and handing his control box back to the duty manager who smelled of beer and wished him a cursory new year greeting. With his bag slung over his back he walked not in his usual direction towards his small flat in Ziepniekalns. He had made sure the cats had plenty to eat before he left. They would be fine and in any case a party was probably taking place somewhere in the building that would keep him awake anyway.

Instead he headed down the hill beside the Island Bridge that stretched away across the river in a long charcoal line. The concrete sidewalls always made the cars seem louder than they really were, an effect doubled by the fact that everything else was so quiet. By the time he had looped beneath the bridge’s crumbling grey legs and made his way slowly along the broken road of Lucavsala island, taking care not to twist his ankle in the deep potholes opened up by years of ice and cars too heavy for the old surface, the first intimation of sunrise was edging the eastern horizon in a deep crimson.

Soon he reached the river’s edge next to a children’s playground with a broken swing. The sand pit was strewn with empty bottles of cheap champagne and the crows had already picked their way through the bins to spread the remains of wrappers and boxes across the frosty grass. Cardboard discs and fragments of coloured tube showed where fireworks had been let off.

August breathed in the fresh morning air deeply and looked up at the soaring tripod of the television tower on the next island across the river. The sun arrived, timidly touching the top of the antenna before sliding quickly down the structure to the bottom of its curved legs. It was a nice morning with just a thin film of ice formed along the water’s edge, much less than last year then the whole scene had been white.

He placed his pack on a wooden bench that sloped where one of its legs had given way. Undoing the buckle, he pulled out a rolled-up towel, a small bottle of Riga Black Balzam and a thick-walled vodka glass. He unrolled the towel and extracted a pair of swimming trunks from its rough cotton, then peeled off his coat, sweater, trousers, underpants and socks, stacking them neatly inside the bag so they would retain at least some warmth.

Augusts looked at the bottle of Balzam as he stood there in only his swimming trunks and wondered if he should take a shot beforehand, to fortify himself. But then he remembered all the times he had swum before. He had never taken a drink first.

Nodding approval at his correct decision he turned towards the river and walked slowly and silently into the cold waters on the first morning of the year.

BEIGAS

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Short Stories IV: November

It’s been a couple of weeks as I knew it would take you a while to work through the last story. You’ll be pleased to hear this one is much shorter. The last day of the month seems like a good time to publish it. I hope you enjoy it.

NOVEMBER

WHEN conversation turned to their hard lives, Janis always joined in with the complaints even though he didn’t share the pessimism of his work mates. The wages were tiny, the work hard, uncomfortable and usually long. But he liked it, or rather, he liked it better than any of the viable alternatives. At 40 it was in any case already too late to change his profession.

Every day the work got a degree more strenuous and his body, still hard as iron-oak, began to bend and crack as age buffeted him like a gale of eternally increasing force. Picking up the one beer bottle at the end of the day that was his tradition, he felt a tightness running from half-way up his thumb to half-way up his index finger.

Similar aching bands were patched across his back, ribs and knees of a sort he hadn’t felt for more than 20 years, since the days when hard labour was still new to him and it seemed impossible to follow one day of strain and stiffness immediately with another. The sinews which had proven so resilient were starting to lose their elasticity.

The knots would now only get tighter each time they were strained, just like a properly-tied log hitch. Still they weren’t pain exactly, and still bore testimony to the fact that he could do a real day’s work among much younger men, as much as they gave a warning of waning strength and diminishing resilience.

Every time the sun caught the back of his neck as he worked, the ray finding its way through an impossible lattice-work of branches, every time he felt the cold air around a snow pile still ignored by the season in late spring, it outweighed a week’s worth of standing in a ditch in wet mist, which could also have its own beauty until it outstayed its welcome.

Whenever the sun struck him in this special way, Janis would say, sometimes to himself, sometimes to his fellow workers: “Remember this in November!” They would laugh bitterly, thinking him ironic when in fact he was being sincere. For this reason they called him “November”.

Janis knew how to fell any tree in any direction. More importantly he knew which trees not to touch. The others sniggered at him when he warned them against touching this oak or that birch, but they always took his advice even if it meant leaving a single tree standing nakedly in the middle of a bare clearing. He took the felling of a “wrong ash” particularly seriously. Once, he had walked away from a job rather than carry out the felling of such a tree. His work colleagues inhaled nervously as he walked slowly away. They sensed the foreman, who did a badly botched job in anger himself, would meet a bad end.

Men who hope for future good luck will do nothing to jeopardise their chances even if it means telling a landowner to try and find someone willing to risk Janis’ prediction of “bad luck”. Likewise, the owners sensed there might be something in his strange logic and more often than not a tree spared by Janis’ axe and saw was left alone for years.

There was nothing unusual in all this to Janis and he never bothered to explain the language by which the trees communicated. It was natural, just as some people can light a strong and compliant fire while others will always struggle to get it ablaze and then fight to maintain control of its rebellious impulses for hours. Other people are good at finding water sources or lucky in avoiding rocks when they drove the tractor. Most probably everyone had some special sense and Janis assumed that those not at home in the forest might be gifted with music or in the kitchen. Not being competent in either of these areas, he could not be sure.

Occasionally some over-eager new recruit to a work gang or a student passing through for a season would say something that hinted Janis was a bit “simple”. They were mistaken, but Janis took no offence at such mistakes and usually after a few weeks they grew to like him. If he felt so, Janis would tell them during a lunch taken sitting on piled logs and dying stumps about his travels after leaving school at 15 when he had spent five years roving as far as he could, from Romania to Siberia. He had met all manner of people, still remembered the phrases he had learned in many languages and could describe the remarkable landscapes of steppe, tundra, desert and mountain in the tiniest detail from the poppy fields of Crimea that blazed their image into the middle of your eyes, to the doom-grey glaciers of Irkutsk which could blunt a pickaxe in three blows.

He remembered the women he had known back then in the same detail and with the same fondness, but he never talked about them, and left the younger men to their crude and improbable fantasies of the female sex. Sometimes he still enjoyed the company of ladies – who always liked him – but he had no desire for a domestic life. To be out among the forest with the thought that real life was waiting somewhere 20 kilometres away in a small room with a kitchen attached was not to be wished for, but neither was it to be disliked if it made others content.

“As soon as you have brought down a tree older than yourself, you know about things. Or at least you should,” Janis told his friend. Being a farmer of similar age, his friend nodded and passed a cigarette.

Work was intermittent but came along regularly enough. When things got very tight there were things to catch, trap and gather that tasted better than from the shop and were easy to cook even for someone with no culinary skills. Every night he could, Janis spent sleeping outdoors, even if only on the hammock that swung under the porch of his shack. Rainy nights were best because it kept the mosquitoes away.

He woke up colder and more frequently than he used to, and needed to piss in the night, for which purpose he kept a plastic bottle within reach. But he also slept more soundly than he had as a young man when he was still not accustomed to the very particular sounds of the forest at night which seemed to have accepted him. Years passed.

Nothing came along to provide a serious disruption to his life, though the work got harder. Then one day his back went, not when he was lifting a log or straining at a trunk, but when he bent over to re-tie a lace that had been pulled open by a wild cranberry. He knew as soon as it happened that he would never work again and tried not to show the pain to his work mates.

He died a few months later and was found swinging gently in his hammock one morning by his friend the farmer. The few people who came to his funeral paid for it themselves and agreed he had been a good man. They buried him and planted an ash for him. Someone had remembered he particularly liked ash trees.

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Short Stories II: A Blood Decoy

Here’s the second short story of the series. Short and not particularly sweet…

 

A BLOOD DECOY

It was humiliating living in another man’s bath-house. The owner probably hadn’t intended it to be so – he would not have given enough thought to the matter to even notice it – but that was the way it was.

The arrangement wasn’t permanent. Madis was allowed to live there while he carried out the renovation of the bath-house itself and a few of the other, small outbuildings at the residential complex where the owner lived. After that he would be back in his shack which though nearly as small, colder and less comfortable than the bath house at least didn’t make him feel like such a serf.

Madis started the work in mid-May. It involved laying new lawns, putting on a fresh roof and repointing the chimney, plus similar treatment for the woodshed and garage. The job could have been done in a month but Madis figured he could string it out to two or three months without too much trouble, while still giving the impression that he was always busy.

But creating this extra time to sit on the steps into the bath-house chewing on sunflower seeds and spitting out the husks, or smoking a cigarette, just gave him more opportunity to dwell on his humiliation and each time he thought about it, he grew a little more disgusted. A lust for revenge grew within him. His arms and neck throbbed faintly from mosquito bites.

The steps were still curing after being laid the previous week, but he was no longer prepared to squat on the grass or lean against a tree. How could a man have nowhere to sit in the open air? A wrought iron table and four chairs sat fifty metres away in the middle of the growing lawn but he was not allowed to use them – even though no-one else did either. They were chairs as useless as pieces of sculpture.

They proved the owner of the property could afford real wrought-iron chairs instead of the plastic things most people made do with, which looked bad enough when you bought them and then faded in sunlight and rain to look old and ugly before the frosts weakened and warped the legs when you forgot to bring them inside in autumn or more likely didn’t think such ugly items deserved to be given space inside. They would fend for themselves outside for a few years and eventually crack or give way when some fat relative paid an unexpected visit.

The refuse collectors would spurn them and in the end you would have to dump them somewhere. Then you would buy some more at the end of summer when they were going cheap because that’s all you could afford and a man must have somewhere he can sit outside.

Madis took another handful of roasted sunflower seeds in much the same way the original owner of the property, a minor Baltic German nobleman of the nineteenth century, would have taken a pinch of the snuff he had specially imported from Munich four times a year. The nutty flavour of the seeds filled his mouth, then he began spitting out the husks in a little cloud of straw.

Some of the pieces of husk fell to the ground beside the body of a dead honey bee next to the bottom step. It was half squashed. Madis must have trodden on it without noticing. It reminded him of the insects of the night before, ravenous agents of his deep humiliation.

The cook had approached him the previous afternoon. She was the only person on the domestic staff who was prepared to talk to him. His foreman, the man actually contracted to do the renovation work would drop in every couple of days to check on progress, give him a packet of cigarettes and tell him to keep working. Apart from that he had no human contact.

She had summoned him across to the main building from the window, waving her arm irritably. He wandered over to see what she wanted, making the short journey last longer than strictly necessary as it clearly annoyed her that he wasn’t running at double speed.

He lit a cigarette while she made the offer. He didn’t listen too carefully except when she mentioned money. She offered 15 lats. On principle he said 25 lats. She complained and offered 20 but as he dropped the cigarette butt to the floor and turned to leave she agreed to 25, as he knew she would. It wasn’t her money anyway. She would probably tell her boss they had agreed 40 and the difference would be quietly tucked into the pocket of her apron.

In theory it was money for nothing. All he had to do was sit in the shadows, perhaps 10 metres from where the dinner party was taking place al fresco. The owner was there sitting at the head of the wrought iron table, speaking a mixture of Latvian, Russian and various foreign languages to his guests. The women looked beautiful in elegant dresses. The men mainly looked silly, middle-aged businessmen dressed like college students twenty years their junior. The food was served in small portions but smelled good.

The one rule was that he was not allowed to move, let alone speak. He had thought that after a long day on the roof he would quickly fall asleep, making it the easiest money he had ever earned. But it didn’t turn out like that with the smell of the food, the uncomfortable plastic seat and above all, the braying voice of the owner all keeping him awake.

Once or twice he caught the guests looking at him. The women seemed unsure what a large man was doing sitting close to them, completely immobile and ignored by everyone else, even the waiting staff. The owner was pleased to explain.

He had been in Africa on a business trip when he had been told about blood decoys. They were young boys or old men given a few coins to sit near a chief or other important person. Their role was to draw mosquitoes by offering a ready meal and no resistance. The owner had been struck by the sight of an old man covered from head to toe in buzzing insects, his eyes, trance-like, staring passively ahead while all the business was conducted in comfort around him.

Most remarkable of all, the owner said, was that the blood decoys actually seemed to work. Having been plagued by flies all through his trip thanks to his pale European skin, on this occasion the flies paid him barely any attention. So naturally when he decided to hold this little dinner party in the open air he had decided it would be amusing to see if a blood decoy would work as well on a white Baltic night as it had in the dark continent.

The experiment was only partially successful. Madis was bitten sure enough, but so were the others. Before the dessert was served they had all disappeared inside, forgetting his existence. But Madis stayed there, motionless, under the eye of the cook. Only when the table had been completely cleared, the candles lining the pathways extinguished and the vases of flowers smuggled away to the cook’s own lodgings did she dismiss him, making no effort to conceal her contempt.

As he expelled another little eruption of sunflower husks he felt a sharp pain between his two lower front teeth, like a pin stuck into the gums. He moved his tongue to the spot which only caused the pain to intensify, involuntarily making his eyes water. He swore but his half-filled mouth turned the word into a stupid grunt.

Reaching his thick fingers into his mouth he pulled out a few gobbets of half-chewed seed and husk, throwing them angrily away onto the grass. He fiddled around his front teeth, his fingers clumsily attempting a task far too delicate for them and causing fresh pricks of pain to be injected into his gum, travelling along his jawline and up his neck right to the base of his skull. At last he pulled out a long, thin shard of sunflower seed husk, looking like the curved needle a trawlerman would use to fix his nets. Pink blood glistened on its tip and on his fingers. He could smell the iron taste of blood in his mouth and on his tongue, too.

Madis spat blood onto the ground and rose to his feet, fists clenched. He marched towards the main house, his dirty boots thudding on the lawn. As he passed the wrought iron table he kicked one of the chairs which waltzed onto one leg then toppled sideways onto the grass. He disappeared around the corner of the main building. The mosquitoes were starting to emerge.

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Short Stories I: The Governor’s Laugh

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?”

“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.”

“Funny?”

“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.

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