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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 III: The Smokehouse

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.

The Smokehouse

I

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.

 

 

II

 

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.

 

 

III

 

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.

 

 

IV

 

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.

 

 

V

 

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.”

 

He did.

 

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.

END

 

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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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Publish Or Be Damned

The Fourth Largest Rock In Latvia?

A rock in Latvia, yesterday.

The day that the winner of the Booker Prize is announced seems as good a time as any to publish something.

The something in question is a short essay I wrote earlier this year on the subject of my seemingly eternally ‘forthcoming’ novel The Fourth Largest Rock In Latvia, the importance of satire as a genre and the writing process in general.

Regarding the publishing date for the book itself… well, if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity in publishing. The final, proofed manuscript was supplied to the publishers seven months ago. Since then little if no progress appears to have been made with the contracted translation into Latvian, selection of a format, design of a cover, marketing plan etc. etc. and my repeated attempts to contact them proved fruitless until last week, just as I was about to contact Interpol.

They reiterated their desire to put the book out, albeit in terms that made it sound like I was offering to extract their wisdom teeth with a half-dose of anaesthetic.

My contract with the publisher expires at the end of December. Hopefully they can discover a hitherto hidden Stakhanovite streak before then and actually deliver on the contract they signed, which would make me so happy I’ll send them a Christmas card.

If not, well, I’ll put the bloody thing out myself and write in rather more detail here about the whole affair.

In fact the essay below was intended to be used as part of the publicity materials for the book. Maybe it still will be used, but rather than let it rot in a drawer any longer, it had might as well be brought out to bring you to a fever pitch of anticipation for the novel itself…

NOTES ON THE FOURTH ROCK

With publication day approaching for my book The Fourth-Largest Rock In Latvia (4LRL), I feel it is worth outlining the reasons why I wrote it in the first place. That’s not from a sense that I am about to make a major contribution to world literature (I would much rather make a minor contribution to Latvian literature) but because it will be good to get my answers prepared for the questions I know will be fired my way from some people with very red faces.

I shall skip the period of 20 years during which I repeated to myself the thoughts familiar to all ‘writers’ who have never actually written anything. Long ago I fulfilled a childhood promise to make my living from the pen, and as is usually the case with dreams that come true, it happens in an ironic way. Hence, I found myself churning out miles of appalling text for tedious magazines, most of it directed at readers with whom I had almost nothing in common.

Like all such frustrated hacks, I boiled and re-boiled ideas for a book in my mind until they evaporated entirely. The book was always going to be started tomorrow. Once or twice I did actually produce a few pages of ‘creative writing’, but it was all either dull, derivative or both dull and derivative.

Deep down I knew it, too. In addition it became obvious that what can seem like a “great idea for a book” usually turns out to be a great idea for a couple of pages.

But then in early 2011, salvation came. On a visit to the Robert’s Books second-hand bookshop in Riga, the helpful owner diagnosed me with a case of Eastern European angst and recommended that I read The File On H by the esteemed Albanian writer Ismael Kadare. It had a fantastic premise – two American linguists visit rural Albania in the 1920s to capture the last remnants of Homeric language before it disappears forever. There are back stories involving a small-town governor, his sexually repressed wife, the secret police, and Serbian-Albanian national rivalry. A sticker on the front cover of the book said it had won the prestigious Booker Prize, while the back cover had rave reviews from French academicians.

As I turned the pages, The File On H completely eluded my expectations. It took a while to convince myself that another book, perhaps a pastiche, had not been substituted between the covers by mistake. This was probably the worst book I had ever read. Every dramatic situation was botched, every detail that might require explanation was papered over and every character managed to be both absolutely tedious and completely unbelievable. Matters weren’t helped by what must rank as one – possibly two – of the worst translation jobs ever commissioned (it was translated from Albanian to French and then from French to English).

I finally gained confidence that the novel really was as awful as it seemed when I encountered a line which was immediately seared into my memory: “Crumbs, thought the governor.”

“‘Crumbs, thought the governor,” was the moment of my literary liberation. Here was a highly successful, critically acclaimed and prize-winning little novel. And it was absolute tripe. It was with a sort of ecstasy I realised that instead of worrying if the book I wrote would be any good, I could now be confident that however dreadful it was, however cliched and unimaginative, no matter how clunky the dialogue and plot, no matter how illogical or disappointing the final page, it could never be as bad as this. I could write something merely quite bad and it would still be better than a Booker Prize-winner.

I may be unfair to Mr Kadare who may indeed be a very fine writer. For obvious reasons I have never read any of his other works in order to confirm this. In a way, it would be a shame if I did find one of his books I quite liked, as it might retrospectively soften the overwhelming drop-kick delivered to my literary backside by the awfulness of The File On H.

From “Crumbs, thought the governor” onwards I have no longer been scared of writing badly and realised that it was better to enjoy writing, albeit with the chance of writing badly, than to be so worried about writing well that I never put pen to paper.

If one form of frustration had to be overcome in order write, another had to be actively cultivated. The other major inspiration for The Fourth Largest Rock came from my day job as a foreign correspondent in Latvia. The route by which I came to be a Baltic foreign correspondent is best left for another time, but like most forms of journalism it involves its fair share of hanging around waiting for things to happen, talking to people for the sake of talking to them and asking inane questions in the hope of a predictable answer.

Far worse than the daily grind of cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions – which do provide ample scope for daydreaming – are the big conferences and summits. Sometimes one does encounter entertaining and informative speakers at these events. But these sainted speakers are in a very small minority amongst the droning ranks of experts.

The particular conference that sticks in my mind as far as 4LRL is concerned was one in Riga in 2008 about defence. One can almost forgive economics conferences for being dull. Generally they are only enlivened by the bitchy competitiveness of economists and bankers who view it as far more important to get one over on their colleagues and rivals than to communicate anything stimulating.

It is difficult to be tedious when talking about guns, tanks and fighter aircraft. Except of course, at defence conferences the talk is never about ammunition, equipment and training. It is about strategic threats, theoretical scenarios and potential flashpoints. Soldiers are rarely asked for their views, probably because they are busy patrolling, training and soldiering. Instead, experts from a slew of think-tanks and bits of one government department attached to another puff out their chests and talk about countering this with that or investing over here in order to save future expenditure over there.

This particular conference was happening at the same time as the Russia-Georgia conflict which gave all participants a bit of extra swagger. Yet as one red-faced, overweight, middle-aged academic after another tottered up on stage to give us his insight, I felt a sense of vague nausea mixed with a sort of knotted rage in the pit of my stomach. While men were crawling in the dirt, bleeding, dying, committing terrible acts and witnessing the terrible acts of others, these puffed up Blimps had all the answers.

At the end of the day they gave it more jaw-jaw over canapes and champagne before sliding into an all-expenses paid hotel room while the poor bastards in the field – the statistics in their presentations – were slumping into holes they had scratched in the ground. The unlucky ones would never get out again, let alone receive a soothing wake-up call.

Of course it comes as no surprise that the well educated elite has it a bit better than the foot-sloggers who joined the military because it offered a rare opportunity to better themselves, but that doesn’t make the contrast or the airy way with which these people were able to hypothesise about the destinies of other men any more palatable. I’m sure not all of the people at the conference lacked a sense of the tenuous nature of human existence or appreciated the distance between what they recommended and the actions necessary to implement their plans, but a fair number of them gave that precise impression.

But as well as being disturbing, I have to admit it was also entertaining, in much the same way that my later encounter with The File On H would be entertaining. It had a grand guignol element in which things are so appalling they become darkly comic. Surely it wasn’t just me who was thinking this whole thing was ridiculous? There must be others, perhaps many others, yet instead of standing up and laughing at these lunatics we were sitting quietly, nodding and occasionally asking questions designed to show how clever we were, too.

One speaker in particular held my attention, the way a drag queen might hold the attention in a Weimar cabaret hall. He was a looming mass of affected mannerisms from the way he perched his half-moon spectacles on his head to his snorts of derision when he encountered any opinion that did not tally with his own. Most noticeable of all was the fact that his thinning, formless hair was dyed a bizarre claret colour, a sign of vanity that suggested his own self-image was somewhat removed from the lumpy figure he actually presented. He was billed as a leading expert in his field and not a session of the conference passed in which he was not involved either as speaker, commentator or inquisitor.

I became fascinated with this entirely unattractive figure who somehow seemed like the most important man in the room. A little digging into his background suggested he must practically live on a never-ending circuit of events similar to this one, punctuated by the odd publication for a think tank. I wondered what sort of man could lead such a life and how seductive it could be, while at the same time how easy it would be to gradually lose any sense of connection to the world beyond, and finally to lose even one’s own sense of a personal biography. It seemed to me he was not so much a person as a set of self-perpetuating drives: to be cleverer, more erudite, better informed, better respected than anyone else in the same secluded orbit.

Then I wondered what would happen if such a man was suddenly wrenched away from his accustomed life by absurd circumstance. What if he was forced to interact with the sort of people in the sort of places he would never usually consider as existing – the world in which no-one cares about potential flashpoints or energy security because they are too busy worrying about what they will eat or when they will be warm again. Thus my central character Viktor Draaks was born.

I had originally intended to be cruel to Viktor. I wanted to create a completely nihilistic character who stubbornly refused to learn anything from his ‘inferiors’, who obstinately stuck to his own prejudices and who rejected any form of friendship or love offered to him. I wanted the reader to feel startled that anyone could be so intransigent. That Viktor would have reached the end of the book just the same as he had started it. He would have been a sort of monster.

To my initial disappointment but eventual pleasure, Viktor did not let me do that to him. As he proceeded he did learn things and develop – not, it must be admitted, in any dramatic way, but enough I feel to make him a slightly more attractive and hopeful character by the end of the book than when he sets out on his strange Latvian odyssey.

The book is also in part a conscious reaction against received images of the Baltic states in general and Latvia in particular. Mention the word ‘Baltic’ to most outsiders and – to those who manage to avoid getting it confused with ‘Balkan’ – it conjures up an image of a cold, grey post-industrial wasteland populated by depressives, drunks, prostitutes and suicides who sit around in filthy bars drinking vodka and talking some sort of Slavic dialect.

The locals hate to be told this and refuse to believe it, as they would like ‘Baltic’ to represent folk dancing, log farmsteads, brave struggles for freedom and massed choirs. But it doesn’t. In fact this is not even what they think of the place themselves, but it is what they would like others to think of it. Ironically, anyone who points out quite how ill-informed and dismissive most foreigners are can expect some stiff criticism from the locals.

Sadly, the idea of the Baltics as a depressing place full of people moping around bemoaning their lot in life, history and geography is not helped by much of the contemporary culture that does make it to Western Europe and North America. The few arthouse films that get made tend to dwell on questions of existential angst with long scenes in which actors stare meaningfully into each others’ watery eyes. These are the sort of films that in truth are tedious to watch but which you feel obliged to say are “interesting” because you appreciate how difficult it is to get anything made at all.

It is worth noting an exception for Baltic children’s films which are vibrant, charming, clever and well-made, but sadly they never get seen in a West dominated by billion dollar kiddie franchises.

In 4LRL I wanted to show that Latvia is just as colourful, varied and silly as anywhere else; that all manner of people live here and that they are by no means uniform, grey or bereft of ideas. Latvians in my opinion have a temperament that has a natural affinity with farce (whereas I think the Lithuanians prefer slapstick and the Estonians irony) which makes the almost total lack of comic literature in the national canon all the more puzzling. Perhaps it comes from a fear of not being taken seriously. This is a counter-productive fear. Look at Dead Souls or Don Quixote for examples of comic literature that underpin rather than weaken national identity.

I hasten to add that I’m not suggesting my book stands even the remotest comparison with those masterpieces which along with The Good Soldier Schweik are probably my three favourite works of fiction. The elements 4LRL shares with (or steals from, if you prefer) all three of those works are obvious enough and in fact an idea I kept in mind throughout the writing was a sort of modern, Latvian Dead Souls. Initially I even made the central character a foreign property speculator travelling from farm to farm buying up cheap land during the boom years.

My main intention is to inject some comedy into Latvian culture. Yet despite my best efforts at levity, I expect the whole thing will be treated with extreme seriousness. Some commentators may say I am mocking the country or various individuals. I can only remind them that 4LRL is a work of fiction and that the foreigners in the book come out of it far worse than any of the Latvians. I am the one who should be offended.

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Eesti Eden

I’ve just finished Justin Petrone’s My Estonia. It’s an enjoyable read, and not quite what I expected.

Justin "hearts" Estonia

Justin is probably the most consistently readable and interesting blogger in the Baltic states, but his book shows he is also a talented and endearingly honest writer.

The book covers Justin’s first encounters with Estonia and early years as a sometime-illegal resident of the country.

Early chapters deal with his initial encounter with Epp, his future wife, on a trip to Finland for budding foreign correspondents. Though necessary to set up what follows, I feel this is the weakest part of the book. There are broad hints that Justin has been suffering from depression of some sort, but not really enough to make it clear what frame of mind he is in. Other characters flit in and out too quickly and with too little differentiation and a brief three-week stay in London is slightly overplayed as a sort of vie Boheme in miniature.

But once Justin actually sets foot in Estonia the book begins. It may be an account of a man lacking confidence at first, but Justin’s writing immediately gains confidence. It’s clever the way he communicates bewilderment and frustration in such a measured and authoritative way. One senses that whatever Justin was looking for (my own opinion would be a place to put his overflowing love) he found it in Estonia and in Epp.

Yet despite the amount of text dedicated to Epp (some commentators have suggsted the book should really be called My Epp, and they have a point), she remains the most elusive figure in the book. The terms used to describe her in Justin’s conversational, Kerouac-influenced style (“crazy”, etc) simply don’t offer enough information as to her motivations and reasoning. But with a second volume promised it’s likely Epp’s evolution will continue.

What’s not in doubt is that Justin and Epp come as close to the definition of star-crossed lovers as is possible without descending into sentimentality. Indeed Justin’s honesty about his own feelings and frequent insecurities makes for some of the strongest passages.

His guilt and guilty pleasure noticing that he finds other women attractive despite his devotion to Epp is a particularly honest observation. The terrified euphoria of learning he is to become father and subsequent fear that he will be a bad one will be familiar to any man who has ever heard the words: “We’re having a baby.”

In another well-told episode he and Epp have a rare quarrel, to which Justin responds by throwing his bag at the nearest available wall. I would very much like to see this adopted worldwide as a gesture of overwhelming, inexpressible frustration.

If Epp remains enigmatic, the incidental characters including mischievous niece Simona, “family drunk” Toivo, Toomas the magician and Vaiko the rock star are deftly described once Justin’s Estonian Odyssey is underway. And despite occasional suggestions that Justin may lapse into Bill Bryson territory and start describing family members as caricatures (“crazy” once again) his honesty stops him doing so. While Justin’s new family may seem a little eccentric to the sort of reader who would find a dry toilet shocking, they seem pretty typical of this part of the world to me.

My Estonia also makes an interesting companion piece to Vello Vikerkaar’s recently-published Inherit The Family. Whereas Vello’s stance is that of an Estonian who should fit in but somehow never seems to quite do so, Justin’s is conversely that of a foreigner who shouldn’t fit in at all but somehow does.

My Estonia also forms one of a series of “My…” books published by Justin and Epp’s company Petrone Print. Concentrating on personal impressions of various countries by mainly Estonian writers, they should also be worth investigating to get a view away from the “party line” provided by Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and the like.

My Estonia is available to order from Amazon.

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