Come To Spelcheckia!
(The story so far: on a mad impulse I have returned to the small central European republic of Spelcheckia to see how some old acquaintances are getting on. I repair to the local branch of Brannigans with my companion, who is a minister in the new democratic government. Now read on...)
Trying to loll casually on a bench-seat singularly ill-suited for the purpose, I tuned out the surrounding chatter and cast my glance around the room. This had to be done with all due caution, because direct eye-contact with a stranger is always dangerous in Spelcheckia - it is seen as either a) a challenge, b) a request for a certain type of company, or c) a sign of being very drunk. Any one of these is likely to lead to your being found in an alley somewhere down in the river-side area, the only difference being the exact cause of death on the autopsy report.
The restaurant seemed to be well-populated with some of the cream of Wordoc society : even members of the titled families who had returned after the end of the Cold War were present - I could see Muriel and Rachel Peerage sitting in one corner conversing in hushed tones with...was it?...yes... it was Siān Baronet, one of the few surviving representatives of the old Spelcheckian royal family, the last reigning member of which had been liquidised in the coup d'état of 1949...
(Yes, I do mean liquidised - it was a very nasty revolution altogether).
My attention was drawn to a menacing-looking figure in the corner to the far left of me : he was dressed in a dark grey suit with a black silk tie and, despite the brim of his hat being pulled down so far as almost totally to shield his face from view, it was clear from his expression as he glowered at his Martini that this was not a man to be trifled with - indeed, he seemed to be contemplating fitting concrete overshoes to the olive in his glass. I nudged Richard.
"Who's that over there?", I whispered, nodding in the man's direction.
Richard glanced over to where I had indicated and then swiftly returned his gaze to the front with a sharp intake of breath. "Please be careful!", he hissed. "That is the notorious gangster 'Miami' Morsellino. He is not a man to be making a dessert with, at least not if you are preferring your head to be in the same town as your body tomorrow."
"What should I do?", I asked worriedly.
"Hope he does not notice you."
"And if he does?"
"One advice. If he tries to sell you national steel corporation, it best to decline politely."
"We do not have one. It was bought by Corus and closed down."
I thought it safer to concentrate on the people sitting at my own table. Opposite me to the right were a couple of the best-known TV cooks in the whole of the country, in the form of Claire Melba (inventor of the ice-cream-and-brandy delicacy which bears her name, and author of that essential guide to Spelcheckian peasant cuisine Fifty Ways With Minced Polecat; and, representing a different strand of culinary opinion altogether, the vegetarian cook Soya Davies (known as "The Linda McCartney of the Danube", although unkind critics said this was more to do with her singing than her cooking). They were engaged in an earnest dispute over the merits of a rival, the dairy-foods expert Cheese Mills.
Not being very interested in kitchen matters (except to wonder why my meal was taking so long to arrive), I tried to pick up on other conversations going on around me.
"Of course, Carol Boiled when she heard Irene Blither like that!" This was the noted ornithologist Caroline Condor speaking, somewhat heatedly, to a rather staid-looking couple sitting facing her. He was wearing a three-piece suit and rather ludicrous side-whiskers ; she was attired in a rather prim dress with a drab hat. They had been introduced to me as Robert and Caroline Edwardian, who had been so taken with Wordoc Weekend Television's showing of Upstairs, Downstairs the previous year that they had adopted the styles and manners of early-20th Century Belgravia wholesale.
Caroline went on, "And it certainly is making Helen Singe as well! And if we had not been waiting while Nicola Mellowed, it would have left even poor Julie Straggling! And then..."
My attention was drawn by the figure of a youngish man, tall and thin, staggering between the tables shouting something about a hamster. Richard nudged me.
"This is Ian", he whispered. "Do not mind him. It is being because of his job." When I looked quizzically at him, he explained. "Ian Samples the finished product at the state brewery next door. Bob" (and here he indicated a professorial-looking grey-bearded man sitting opposite him, who looked up for a moment, nodded to me with a smile, and went back to what appeared to be a complex calculation he was doing on his napkin), "Bob Gibes that Ian would be like this anyway, but I am thinking this is not fair."
"Eff it", murmured Bob, and reached for his wine-glass with a look of resignation. Ian stumbled off through the door to our right. A moment later, there was a crash of breaking glass.
Richard smiled indulgently. "Only second time this week".
A young woman was talking animatedly further down the bench. "I really do not know what I am going to be doing now he has gone." She looked down at her glass so mournfully that I assumed she had been recently bereaved.
"Who's gone?", I whispered to Richard.
"Ah! The great explorer 'Ivory' Smith, he sighed. "So sad!"
"Lost in the jungle?"
"No, lost on thirteenth hole." I looked bemused again. "He has retired", he explained patiently, as if to a small child, "to building Spelcheckia's first international-standard golf course. He was hoped to be bringing big stars of golf world to our republic : Greg Nomad, Tigger Wads, even Fred Couples if they are both available, but..." He sighed again.
"Ay, ay, ay! The truck bringing the sand from Danube delta is tipping up without waiting for him to get out of way." He sniffed. "Both members of Spelcheckia Pioneer Corps have been digging away since yesterday. So far, they are finding only his funny little cap." He blew his nose emphatically on the corner of the tablecloth.
"Is that his daughter, then?"
"No, no! That is Curio Thomas. She sold carvings of what Smith would bring back. She has biggest antiques and knick-knack shop in city."
The girl looked up angrily. "I am not selling knick-knacks, Richard Media!", she snarled. "Niknak stopped supplying me when I complained about his poor workmanship! Now I buy only Doodads!"
"Where from?"s, I asked.
"From Alison Doodad, of course!", she snapped. "I am liking her work. And", she added by way of a clincher, "Roz Whittles for her. She is very good at job."
"You told me", said the man with the moustache seated to her left, "that it was Amanda Doodads who was making them for you."
"No, I did not! I said Alison Doodad! Not same at all! Alison is very singular girl!"
"I'm sure you told me..."
Curio turned on him. "The trouble with you, Gordon Gainsay, is that you are always having to be contradicting everyone!"
A sullen, stony silence fell on the gathering at this point. I leaned back and closed my eyes. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but there was something strangely familiar about this...
(In our next installing contortment: the rōle of religion in post-Cold War Europe; and why Spelcheckians can only buy OXO cubes in plain brown wrappers).