Come To Spelcheckia!
(The story so far: in a bar up a side-alley in Wordoc, the capital city of the Republic of Spelcheckia, I am just about to be subjected to the work of the infamous performance poet (and lush) "Rhymes" Hophead, when my friends, more familiar with his oeuvre, advise me that, wonderful as his performance might be, it would be even more wonderful to miss it. Now read on, if you can be bothered...)
After we had put what my friends judged to be a safe distance between ourselves and the bar, in accordance with the theory that a poet who reads his own work in public may have other unsavoury habits, we found ourselves standing on the eastern side of Democracy Square (formerly Forward-With-The-Five-Year-Plan-With-The-Wholehearted-Support-Of-The-Proletariat Square).
"I am so sorry", said Richard Media. "I had forgotten it was him tonight. It is a great shame. If you were being here last week, you could have been hearing one of our great cultural treasures!"
This brought hums of agreement from the others.
"Who's that?", I asked.
"Ah!", said Caroline Condor. "Our fine singer Pat Linnet!"
Another hum of approval. "A true songbird!", added Robert Edwardian.
"Backed by great instrumentalist, too", added Bob.
"Mm, Brian Harp", concurred Caroline.
There was a thoughtful silence, accompanied by some stamping of feet to keep warm.
A man appeared out of the shadows and shambled over to us. He was wearing a large green coat and a rather untidy beard. He went up to Richard. "Excuse, citizen, have you time please?"
Richard glanced at his watch. "It is just shorting of twenty-two", he said sharply. "Now please to be making water!"
"Ah!", said the stranger forlornly. "Then I am in the biggest trouble!"
"Why?", I asked.
He sighed. "The mother-of-my-children will be angry! Excuse, please, or no plate in communal kitchen will be left unbroken!" He departed, still shambling, albeit a little faster.
"Who was he?", I asked as he trudged off up The Avenue Of The Velcro Revolution.
"That is Jeff Sponger", replied Richard. He looked towards the retreating figure with ill-disguised distaste. "I am surprised that the time is all he was asking for."
There was another long silence. Then Gordon Gainsay, naturally disputatious in any case, but more so now since he had been at the Pinot Noir de Gdansk all evening, suddenly looked at Richard with a malicious gleam in his eye and said:
"What is difference between television executive and whore in Navy dockyard?"
There was a silence which was as icy as the wind, which was coming straight out of the Urals. Then Richard said slowly and through clenched teeth, "I do not know. What is difference?"
Gordon gave a short laugh. "None! They are both only wanting to chase ratings!" He collapsed, roaring, against the base of a statue which appeared to be dedicated to the Unknown Philistine.
The others looked away, embarrassed, and so did not see Richard stride over to Gordon, grab him by his collar and haul him back to his feet.
"Listen, you artist of urination!", he snarled, "Am I not providing people of Spelcheckia with quality television? Who was it who brought The Price Is Right to this country, with its fabulous new goods..."
"Except in England it was called Antiques Roadshow", murmured Soya.
"...Who was it who used half of whole Culture Ministry budget to buy sixty-seven shows by The Krankies? And, tell me, who produced Spelcheckian version of The Golden Shot? Eh? Be answering me!"
"But Richard", protested Curio, "that was taken off air after only thirty seconds!"
"Only because caption writer couldn't spell! It last time I am using work-experience trainee from Brynski Alynski Technical Academy!"
He seemed to be in the sort of mood to do some damage to Gordon, whose face was turning blue in any case, so I put my hand on Richard's shoulder. "I think it'd be best to drop it", I said quietly.
He smiled evilly. "You are right", he said and let go of Gordon, who thudded to the ground. "The night is still child, yes? Now, where can we go?"
"How about Wisitors Velcome Club?", suggested Caroline.
"Where's that?", I asked.
"Just over there, on corner of Collective-Farm Boulevard, next to.." She was interrupted by loud tutting from Clare Melba.
"No, no, Caroline! That is old thinking! You are knowing well it is now called Mercedes 320SL Boulevard! This is new world, no?"
"You spend too much time in country looking at birds", said Richard, not unkindly.
Gordon stirred. "And Richard is spending too much time in city looking at...Owww!" He looked up mournfully. "I am hitting my head on artist formerly known as Plinth."
"Enough!", said Clare. "Let us go!"
We crossed the Square, passing the fountains which had been renovated with the financial assistance of the Coca-Cola Corporation, as a result of which the fine white marble of the original was now stained an unwholesome-looking browny-purple colour.
Two doors down the street which led off the far side of the Square there was a short flight of stone steps leading up to imposing-looking wooden double doors. The place didn't seem to have a name, except for a dingy-looking unpolished brass plate to the right of the doors, which said:
Richard, being the big cheese amongst us (deodorants not being widely available here yet), was the one who knocked on the door. Twice. Three times. After the third attempt, a sash window above the door opened with a groan. The groan came from the head which poked out.
"Who is attempting to damage the varnish?", it said in peeved, Eeyore-like tones.
"Aha!", cried Richard in triumph. "Do not be in ignorance, Stuart Goodwill! If you are velcoming wisitors, it is not done not to be opening doors! Come, we are eager to be welcomed!"
The window would have shut as abruptly as it opened, except that it jammed, and there was a minute of indistinct cursing before it finally closed. We were left to stamp our feet again.
"What is this place?", I asked Soya.
"It is club where visitors from outside Spelcheckia meet to be eating and talking together."
"Mostly complaining", added Gordon, who was now nearly vertical again.
"Everything!", he replied emphatically. "The weather, our economy, everything! It is not as if they are not doing well out of us. They are all here to be making money. Not like you" (and here he put his hand on my shoulder) "who come to be eyeing-up old friends."
He seemed to be about to burst into tears, but at that moment the doors opened and we hurried inside. Not that we need have bothered; the entrance hall seemed at least as cold as the street. We were led up a gloomy flight of what must once have been quite a grand staircase, but which now creaked as if haunted by the ghosts of the old régime.
Along a dingy corridor, then, the threadbare carpet being held together, it seemed, only by the dust-mites holding hands. And then in through a pair of off-white-painted wooden doors to a drawing-room-type affair, where a number of armchairs and small tables were arranged cosily around a flame-effect gas fire. Some of the chairs were already occupied.
I was introduced to their occupants in turn, and I realised that Welsh people might feel quite at ease in this company. Memories of my father returned to me, of hearing him refer to colleagues and friends such as Bill Till, John South Wales, and the works foreman Dai Balloon (so called because he used to plead with his charges not to let him down).
Here was the Belgian knitwear consultant Brenda Bruges; the Balkans' top conflict advisor Leanne Bosnian; and some from nearer home: the Scottish landscaping expert Dean Lowlands; Bet Llanelli, the kitchenware magnate (saucepans - small and large - a speciality) ; and Sue Mersey, who was there to advise the Spelcheckian government on starting a ship-building industry (a risky venture given that the country is landlocked).
Introductions made, we sat around and chatted. It was small-talk mostly, but I couldn't help noticing that Gordon had had a point ; they did complain a lot, about the country and its people, and they went on in such a way that it reminded me of nothing so much as the British in India at the time of the Raj, complaining about the very people who had, in truth, little cause to be grateful to them.
So it was a relief to glance at my watch and see that midnight was fast approaching. I knew that my hotel locked its doors at twelve, more out of boredom and saving electricity than with any nonsense about morality. I got to my feet and announced, with as much regret as I could comfortably fake, that I had to be going.
"But you are coming back soon, yes?", said Richard. "It will be Christmas soon, and Wordoc is looking most pretty with tinselling, and sometimes you might be getting balls of snow if it is cold enough!"
"And you must see Christmas pageant!", added Clare excitedly. "Centrepiece is tableau by our friend Myrrh Jones.She climbs to top of tree in Democracy Square with flaming torch! She is most lit-up fairy!"
I promised that I would try to return for the festivities, and took my leave of them.
I walked back down Reagent Street, on the other side this time, and passed the darkened windows of other locally-owned shops, of a variety no longer found in our own towns, where it seems that all you needed to be a big wheel in the High Street was to invent a shoe-shaped mobile phone which was also edible.
Here in Spelcheckia, the little shops seemed comfortably solid and real, unlike the multi-coloured mirages back home, which seem to appear and disappear as frequently and rapidly as a deranged comet in the night sky: here was a small electrical goods emporium with a sign which read S & D Coils and, underneath, Proprietor : Sue Wattmeter; Carol Drape the haberdasher next to Irene Clog's shoe shop; and, right at the end of the row, Julie Fudge's sweet shop. All somehow reassuring me that these were real shops run by real people selling real things. Ah! But for how much longer? This genie, too, was out of its bottle, and who could say whether it had three wishes or three curses to grant to those who had uncorked it?
I was walking slowly towards the Pest House, musing sadly on how there is no progress, only change, when I felt a hand on my shoulder again.
"Excuse, citizen", said a voice. "I would be very grateful if you are explaining why you are out so late on such a cold night."
I turned around slowly to face a tall, imposing figure in the dark-blue uniform of the Polite.
Despite not having done anything which might draw the attention of even the most desperate promotion-chaser, I immediately began to feel shifty, and could barely dare to look him in the eye.
"I-I'm sorry", I said. "I'm just going back to my hotel. I-I have to fly home early tomorrow."
His countenance brightened. "Ah! So sorry! You are visitor, of course! From Britain, yes?"
"Ah, good! I am very admiring of great British robert, no? And of seeing on television, of course. Well, I am liking them all - The Swooney, Inspector Morose, even old Doxon Of Dick Green! I am hoping to be as good at catching the biddies as they!"
"I'm sure you're very good at your job already", I said quietly.
"Ah, yes! I have caught many. That is why I am called what I am!"
"And what are you called?", I asked weakly.
He grinned. "They call me 'Catch' Jones! Please to be minding where you go!" He threw a salute and ambled off slowly towards the Square, his hands clasped behind his back and whistling.
As I went in through the front door of the hotel and into the battered old lift, with its faded sign which said:
DO NOT ENTER CABIN UNLESS LIT UP
I hoped that some things would never change.