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The Museum of Things Left Behind Seni Glaister Escape into this hugely enjoyable, big-hearted and beautifully written novel, set in Vallerosa, a European country you’ve never heard of before.FIND YOURSELF IN VALLEROSA, A PLACE LOST IN TIMEVallerosa is every tourist’s dream – a tiny, picturesque country surrounded by lush valleys and verdant mountains; a place sheltered from modern life and the rampant march of capitalism. But in isolation, the locals have grown cranky, unfulfilled and disaffected. In the Presidential Palace hostile Americans, wise to the country’s financial potential, are circling like sharks …Can the town be fixed? Can the local bar owners be reconciled? Can an unlikely visitor be the agent of change and rejuvenation this broken idyll is crying out for?Full of wisdom, humour and light, THE MUSEUM OF THINGS LEFT BEHIND is a heart-warming fable for our times that asks us to consider what we have lost and what we have gained in modern life. A book about bureaucracy, religion and the people that really get things done, it is above all else a hymn to the inconstancy of time and the pivotal importance of a good cup of tea. (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) Copyright (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) Fourth Estate An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.4thestate.co.uk (http://www.4thestate.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by Fourth Estate 2015 Copyright © Seni Glaister 2015 Seni Glaister asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library. Cover images © Shutterstock.com All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. Source ISBN: 9780008118952 Ebook Edition © May 2015 ISBN: 9780008118969 Version: 2016-05-11 Dedication (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) For my brave and brilliant father Prof. David Glaister Contents Cover (#u14a9dd57-899a-5d52-85bc-6301fa4030c6) Title Page (#ulink_5eea1263-e0ed-580b-a95a-875da9669af3) Copyright (#ulink_072ad3cd-847b-5922-b5fe-253c31a9d96d) Dedication (#ulink_4896e001-769d-56b0-95c3-1070d118b181) The Characters (#ulink_6236b6fe-09c9-57f5-9f15-c1f8d5b264b8) Epigraph (#ulink_7340f4a9-00b0-5f53-a00c-170aa2c514fa) 1 In Which a Letter Stands Out (#ulink_b400fe37-20fb-585f-bbfc-2c4320c4ed43) 2 In Which Treason Is Narrowly Avoided (#ulink_8ad05124-753a-53a4-91c1-32389310ac4a) 3 In Which a Formal Communication From a Foreign Entity Is Delivered (#ulink_023f86bd-1b84-5529-bfff-95b1ec8fcd0b) 4 In Which News Travels Fast (#ulink_21650b73-5c76-54aa-a35f-88d9e25463db) 5 In Which a President Addresses His Nation (#ulink_55198b74-1216-5ff9-981a-51cd1e9a7cc1) 6 In Which Enough Tea Is Grown (#ulink_af6be4af-9fd0-5039-a44c-972ccd47ea7c) 7 In Which the President Has Doubt (#ulink_297d3ac9-45ff-54a5-bb9e-126be893ccb3) 8 In Which a Protestation Is Made (#ulink_7efe668f-571e-5041-be5a-bed90d524255) 9 In Which PEGASUS Has Her Wings Clipped (#ulink_e62ccd2b-a975-5767-80fd-1a7390d4088a) 10 In Which a Royal Visitor Arrives (#ulink_48ed5eb1-4a85-5ca4-aab3-b738f151a25b) 11 In Which Plan B Might Work (#litres_trial_promo) 12 In Which the British Visitor Is Made to Feel at Home (#litres_trial_promo) 13 In Which the Visitor Goes Exploring (#litres_trial_promo) 14 In Which Tourism and Recreation Go into Battle (#litres_trial_promo) 15 In Which the President Loses His Cool (#litres_trial_promo) 16 In Which the Dancing Begins (#litres_trial_promo) 17 In Which the Visitor Gets a Lesson in Timekeeping (#litres_trial_promo) 18 In Which Lizzie Makes a Bedside Visit (#litres_trial_promo) 19 In Which the Curiosities Are Examined (#litres_trial_promo) 20 In Which Lizzie Exerts Some Power (#litres_trial_promo) 21 In Which the Americans Play Ball (#litres_trial_promo) 22 In Which the Visitor Gets Down to Business (#litres_trial_promo) 23 In Which the Purpose of Education Is Questioned (#litres_trial_promo) 24 In Which Lizzie Beats the System (#litres_trial_promo) 25 In Which Love Is the Answer (#litres_trial_promo) 26 In Which a Deal Is Done (#litres_trial_promo) 27 In Which the Piece Fits (#litres_trial_promo) 28 In Which There’s Education in Moderation (#litres_trial_promo) 29 In Which the Chief of Staff Plots (#litres_trial_promo) 30 In Which the Troubles Escalate (#litres_trial_promo) 31 In Which Lizzie Shares a Secret (#litres_trial_promo) 32 In Which the Ministers Measure Up (#litres_trial_promo) 33 In Which Tourism Is Boosted (#litres_trial_promo) 34 In Which Laughter Spells Trouble (#litres_trial_promo) 35 In Which Lizzie Supposes (#litres_trial_promo) 36 In Which Lizzie Dines Out (#litres_trial_promo) 37 In Which Tea Is Taken (#litres_trial_promo) 38 In Which Dancing Spells Doom (#litres_trial_promo) 39 In Which a Walk Is Planned (#litres_trial_promo) 40 In Which Lizzie Begins to Understand (#litres_trial_promo) 41 In Which a Meeting Is Tabled (#litres_trial_promo) 42 In Which Sergio Faces the Music (#litres_trial_promo) 43 In Which Lizzie Explains the Birds and the Bees (#litres_trial_promo) 44 In Which the Bell Tolls (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) The Characters (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) The Cabinet The President – Sergio Scorpioni Minister for Defence – Alixandria Heliopolis Visparelli Minister for the Exterior – Mario Lucaccia Minister for the Interior – Rolando Posti Minister of Finance – Roberto Feraguzzi Minister for Health – Dottore Decio Rossini Minister for Agricultural Development – Enzo Civicchioni Minister for Education – Professore Giuseppe Scota Minister for Recreation – Marcello Pompili Minister for Leisure – Tersilio Cellini Minister for Tourism – Settimio Mosconi Minister for Employment – Vlad Lubicic Chief of Staff to the President – Angelo Bianconi The Proletariat The Postman – Remi The Stationmaster – Vinsent Gabboni Patron of Il Gallo Giallo – Dario Mariani Patron of Il Toro Rosso – Piper The Clockmaker – Pavel The Potter – Elio The Visitors British VIP – Lizzie Holmesworth American Consultant 1 – Chuck Whylie American Consultant 2 – Paul Fields Epigraph (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) Alieni theam faciunt optimam. (Strangers make the best tea.) CHAPTER 1 In Which a Letter Stands Out (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) High above the city, in the dustiest, windiest, sparsest corner of the north-west quadrant, Remi was sorting the mail. He had arrived out of breath at the sorting office. He glanced at his stopwatch and noted, with a flicker of irritation, that he was at the upper end of the time he allowed himself for this short journey. The early-morning rain had added an element of risk to some of the sharper corners, and on several occasions he’d had to slow almost to a stop to avoid injury to himself or damage to his bicycle. Happily, though, he lived on the same level as his workplace, and his commute was generally a straightforward three-kilometre cycle ride on the slippery paths that snaked through the tea plantations from the small home he shared with his mother. In a month or two, with the onset of the harsh summer sun, these paths would quickly mould into dusty, deeply grooved channels. In turn the channels would soon evolve into narrow ruts, which would hug his bicycle tyres so snugly that he could ride much of the way with his eyes closed – a feat he had often attempted with considerable, albeit unrecorded, success. Even in the wet spring months his journey to work was not strenuous; his bicycle could probably still find its own way through sheer habit, and this was certainly the easiest section of his day’s circuit. That morning, however, his journey had been interrupted not once but twice, on the first occasion by a neighbour, who needed help with a stuck pig, then shortly afterwards by a second neighbour, who held the firm belief that a problem shared was a problem halved. Remi had wondered, as he pedalled furiously to make up for the lost seconds, whether the sharing of a problem exactly doubled it, providing it with two minds instead of one in which to fester, and he further worried that the problem, like the simplest of organisms, was simultaneously dividing and subdividing in his brain and that of his neighbour. As always, however, Remi’s most pressing concern had been his prompt arrival at the office for, despite the absence of a supervisor’s watchful eye or any sort of mechanism to monitor his comings and goings, Remi’s deep commitment to the state had engendered within him a work ethic unlikely to be rivalled within the whole of Vallerosa. In his decade of postal duties he had never been late for work, notching up instead some two hundred hours of unpaid overtime through his systematic early arrival. This uninterrupted record of excellence counted for little, however, and the banked hours bore no currency other than within his own conscience. Had he been pushed to verbalize the seriousness with which he approached timekeeping, he would probably admit that if he were to stray from his self-governed schedule on more than one or two occasions, he would not hesitate to sack himself. The sorting office – a basic construction with lofty eaves and a trill of natural light that flitted down from windows too high to provide a view in or out – served multitudinous roles and could, just by a change of the swinging sign outside, transform itself from postal hub to the country’s only ticketing office to the bureau of the registrar and back again. With the ticket sign hoisted, citizens would come here from far and wide to receive their allocated quota for state-organized events, including the busy annual season of festa, dances and sporting competitions. Not long ago these duties would have been fulfilled far below in the official city buildings surrounding Piazza Rosa but the president (who had pledged his life to the rigorous execution of his responsibilities but occasionally had difficulty separating valid solutions from denial) had taken exception to opening his curtains in the morning and looking down upon slowly shuffling queues of people. Queues, the president was quite sure, were a symbol of need, the physical manifestation of demand outweighing supply and, most worryingly, a queue might suggest, to any rational man peering from his balcony above, a failure on the part of the president accurately to judge and cater for the requirements of his people. So the issue of tickets had been moved as far from the palace windows as possible. Now occasions such as the Annual Blindfolded Hog Chasing Finals or the Spousal Waltz would cause an unobtrusive and unobserved queue to snake as far as the eye could see. On the first Monday of each month the sorting office sign would be lowered and replaced with the Owl and Viper insignia representing the city’s official registrar. On those mornings the office was commandeered by Benito, the notaio, who issued, in painstaking brown-inked calligraphy, the hand-drafted certificates of birth, death and marriage. The queues for these services were inoffensively short, but the same president who had been insulted by queues forming in Piazza Rosa had been equally upset by the notion of grieving widows and widowers sharing a small reception room with eager soon-to-be-weds or, even worse, the smug and self-satisfied contentment of new parents. As it had been impossible to allocate a separate reception area to each distinct need, he had relocated the office in its entirety to the new postal sorting office at the top of the hill. While this did not negate the possibility of a newly bereft widow sitting beside a recently endowed mother, it successfully removed the possibility of the incumbent president being troubled by this notion. As it happened, there appeared to be less and less likelihood of such offence being caused as, in recent years, it had come to the attention of several officials, whose role did not specify a requirement to notice such things, that the registration of deaths was using considerably more ink than the issue of marriage certificates, and the issue of marriage certificates seemed to be using considerably more ink than the registration of births. But it would be a little while yet before anyone felt concerned enough to raise the matter through the ranks of government and bring it to the notice of somebody with enough seniority to act upon it. On ticketing days, and on the Mondays that fell to the service of the notaio, there was no mail service. Furthermore, much longer-lasting interruptions to the important job of postal delivery took place every five years. In the summer of years ending with 0 or 5, red and black bunting would be nailed to the front of the sorting office, and for a whole two-week period, the building would become the balloting headquarters from which the city’s volunteers mounted and executed their political campaign. This period was fast approaching and Remi’s underarms were already tingling with anxiety at the thought of the disruption his beloved postal service would suffer if – as had been rumoured recently – the campaign were to become one of above average complexity. But on most mornings, such as this, the office was Remi’s domain, a sanctuary in which correspondence could be allowed to negotiate the most delicate part of its journey, the transition from letter sent to letter received. The brass name plates were Remi’s to polish; the visiting cats were his to spoil with saucers of milk and scratches behind the ears; the single teacup, saucer, plate, fork and knife were his to wash up; the kettle was his to – meticulously, according to a detailed list of tasks – descale every other month. Remi’s routine had varied very little since he had perfected it nearly a decade ago but the diligence with which he approached every last detail suggested that the job was as exciting and agreeable as if he were performing it for the very first time. The mail awaiting him was about average for the time of year, a smallish bundle at the bottom of a large grain sack. Having prepared his morning cup of tea, Remi set about the preliminary stage of his role. Removing his shoes, he set them neatly by the door. After clicking each of his knuckles, he took the sack and spilled the contents onto the polished linoleum floor, spreading the mail out as he went and occasionally separating small clusters with the aid of a socked toe. Then, with the deftness of a croupier, he began to shuffle each of the assorted envelopes into one of the eight quadrants. Armed with the basic topography represented by the eight meagre piles of mail on the floor of the sorting office, any transient traveller would find himself very quickly able to navigate the dark and otherwise confusing labyrinth of alleys, moss-covered steps and steep gullies that interlinked each proud district. The four principal quadrants, north-west, south-west, north-east and south-east, further subdivided into a top and a bottom region, belonging either to the altos or to the bassos. Vallerosa’s landmass, as any number of bleary-eyed and disoriented travellers can confirm, is made up in its entirety of a steep and craggy gorge, to which the medieval city has tenuously and surprisingly adhered since its founding fathers built their first hovels on a small plateau halfway up the side of the ravine; they had made their dangerous escape across Europe pursued by fervent Catholics who, luckily for the escapees, had had no fortitude when it came to mountain climbing, despite their very close relationship to God. Here, legend will tell you, on the far side of the mountains – mountains considered insurmountable by the weaker-spirited – the nimble pioneers believed they had at last found sanctuary. Settling in this heaven on earth at the centre-most point of the world, they gave thanks for this safe haven. Finally harboured from the wrath of an all-powerful regime, they collapsed in exhaustion, hidden from view in all directions by the mountains that cut them off completely from the rest of the world for more than half of the year, yet blessed them with a plentiful supply of clean water from below and verdant pasture above. Through the middle of this unlikely outpost, half a mile below the shed in which Remi now toiled, the beautiful river Florin rages from west to east, thundering its pale blues, greys and greens through the centre of the country, carving an ever-deepening crease through the nation’s belly. The river’s source, the bright winter snows and cool spring rains from the slopes of Italy’s high mountains to the west contribute generously to both velocity and volume; within the last hundred years, three generations of formidable engineers have built a trio of impressive dams to harness the energy of this plentiful resource. First Hydras, then Gorgons and, most recently, Chimeras have been built, each more ingenious than the dam before; between them these masterful behemoths turn the great turbines that feed the country’s modest electrical needs. With its excess energy stripped and redirected to boil kettles, to flicker and hum in light bulbs and refrigerators, the Florin continues its journey more sedately, though always with the capacity to surprise, towards a series of inhospitable bends between sheer granite cliffs, that mark the end of its journey through Vallerosa, where it passes quietly into Austria. The four lower quadrants, each nudging the river’s craggy banks, combine to form the bassos. From here, where the lowest homes dip their toes into the spring floodwaters, the city, carved from a solid seam of red granite, rises chaotically upwards towards the magnificent Piazza Rosa to the north and the slighter, quieter, humbler Piazza Verde in the south. Despite their difference in grandeur, each has claimed the largest, flattest areas on either side of the river to house the country’s municipal buildings. From these piazzas the city continues to clamber upwards, on either side of the river, meandering through the altos, the higher houses scrabbling and clawing their way ever more precariously; the foundations of many appear to rest on the roofs of the tier beneath them. At the highest point of the gorge the anxiety of the buildings to take a foothold lessens and the dwellings dwindle in density, petering out as the steep gorge softens to join the plateau above. Despite the distance from the river beneath them, even the uppermost homes have chosen to turn their backs on the green expanse of the mesa and instead crane their necks to look down upon layer after layer of houses beneath them, and these houses scrabble for a view of the river below. On a still day the rush of water as it crashes from Hydras, then again from Gorgons and Chimeras, can be heard from every corner of the country: the natural acoustics provided by the land’s topography, the giant loudhailer that forms its mouth at the lowest point, will allow a man snoozing in his chair after lunch high in the altos to set his watch to the bells chiming in Piazza Rosa way beneath him. That is, if the bells were allowed to chime. These geographic distinctions – the bassos, the altos, from the north and west to the south and east – entirely satisfy the needs of all the country’s citizens, even though from time to time the government has attempted to issue new labels to describe the eight regions more accurately. Indeed, on one occasion a bill that introduced a complex postal code system that could pinpoint an address to its very street had been drafted but it had subsequently been mislaid and no replacement scheme had – so far – been adopted. Without the impetus and intervention of Remi it is doubtful that one ever will and so, for the time being, the eight quadrants remain. And now, high above in the sorting office, with a neat pile of letters to represent each quadrant, it was Remi’s job to shuffle the post into the order of his delivery route. His fastidious nature and eye for detail insisted that he should hand-deliver each letter to the correct address. But he knew, too, that this must be balanced with the knowledge that it was his duty to be efficient with time, the currency by which he was paid and the yardstick by which he was measured; if a letter happened to appear in the pile after its designated drop-off point, he would simply post it through the first available door, trusting that the resident would pass it on to the correct recipient at his earliest convenience. In the summer, when homeowners leave their doors and windows open to encourage safe onward passage of any air current, Remi would take the letters into the homes and stand them against a vase or milk jug so that they would not be missed. The people of Vallerosa were neighbourly by nature and were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. The arrival of a letter to any citizen was always noteworthy, and any intermediary handler who redirected a missive to its correct address would probably be invited to share the news so all were happy to play their part in the safe forwarding of mail. On a normal day (which this was not), with his mailbag adequately ordered, Remi would carefully attire himself in his uniform. To the Velcro strip above his left breast pocket he would stick the smart insignia of the post office and, to complete his transformation, don the navy blue peaked cap of the postman. Standing in front of the mirror, he would tweak and tug his uniform into its neatest possible configuration, polishing his teeth with his tongue and peering closely at his reflection for unruly nasal hair or other signs of personal weakness. It was undeniable: he was a good-looking, clean-smelling man with decent prospects. That he was still single was as mysterious to Remi as it was to his mother. There was nothing in the reflection that stared back at him that indicated why this should be so. Despite his bachelor status, he was comfortable with the man who eyed him squarely in the mirror. Proud to be an upstanding citizen with purpose, he saluted himself and received the returned salute with a grateful smile. At the threshold he would bend to attach his bicycle clips to his trouser hems and step into his shoes, which, with their rugged crêpe soles, were ideally suited to the long cycle ride ahead of him. Today, however, as already noted, was turning out to be far from routine. Having emptied out the post and spread it with his toe, as usual, one letter had immediately jumped out at him, his attention seized by its unusual colours. Remi could not have noticed its significance sooner had it been accompanied by a vision of blazing angels and a heavenly choir. Indeed, a well-aimed shaft of light from the window high above was now pointing it out to him. He dropped to his knees and crept forward on all fours. Fishing out his prize, he remained on his knees, barely able to contemplate this trembling fissure in a sea of the prosaic. He scrutinized the envelope with a curious, then greedy eye, scanning every detail. As the full significance of the letter began to sink in, the colour drained from Remi’s face and re-formed as two pink spots high on his cheeks. He held the envelope in both hands, holding it up to the light and then to his nose, inhaling deeply and picking out the exotic scents absorbed on its long journey. Among the dirty whites, greys and browns of the everyday post, the pale blue of the aerogramme was distinct enough to mark it out as unique, but the almost weightless paper and those two neatly affixed stamps, one gold, the other blue, each bearing the foiled outline of the profile of Her Majesty the Queen of England, were enough to make Remi’s hands shake. Never had he held such a precious delivery. The address revealed its intention. With ‘Vallerosa’ neatly printed as its closing directive and a double wavy line beneath it, drawing it to the attention of the postmen of many nationalities who had ensured its safe onward passage, the address insisted, politely but firmly, that it be directed without delay to the country’s Parliament Hall, the home of the government. Breathless, he bundled the mail into his satchel, barely cognizant of the order as he stuffed it in. He dressed hurriedly, buttoning his shirt with one hand while smoothing his hair with the other. He slapped the Velcro badge to his chest, at an inappropriately jaunty angle. He jammed his feet into his shoes, and only slowed to stow the precious letter between his string vest and chest, then tucked his shirt tightly into his trousers. Off he went into the fresh morning air, heart soaring and palms tingling with excitement and anticipation. Remi pedalled furiously for the last twenty yards of the steep hill, which allowed him to freewheel, at pace, along a dark alley, then diagonally across Piazza Rosa. He bumped over the cobbles, his bell ringing clearly in the quiet of the morning square, and leaped off, the bicycle continuing without him until it came to a clattering halt against the railings of Parliament Hall. ‘I have a letter! A letter for our president! I must deliver it at once! Look, it has, it has … a foreign stamp!’ The two guards knew Remi well, drank with him frequently and would probably be joining him for their regular light lunch of cold boar and bread later that day, but nevertheless each reached for his gun holster as the postman ripped at his shirt, buttons flying. They took turns to scrutinize the letter, looking closely at the address, the stamps and back again at the trembling postman. Undeniably, the seal of international airfreight was a persuasive argument and one that, upon lengthy reflection, neither felt able to resist. On the understanding that both men would accompany him until responsibility had been passed to a senior minister, Remi was allowed to enter Parliament Hall. As they pushed the double doors to enter, all three experienced a prickle of excitement as the building swallowed them. CHAPTER 2 In Which Treason Is Narrowly Avoided (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) The office of the minister for the exterior was an efficient one, run by the extremely busy Mario Lucaccia, whose intense industriousness manifested itself in an empty desk with just a notepad and a careful alignment of recently sharpened pencils, ordered by size and poised for action. The interruption to his morning was regrettable as he was on the verge of implementing a groundbreaking directive, the nature of which had eluded him for some years. He tutted audibly. With barely a pause and a brusque wave of the hand, the young minister swiftly passed Remi on, through an internal door that was partly shrouded by a heavy brocade curtain. It led to the larger and more cluttered office of Signor Rolando Posti, the minister for the interior. ‘What have we here, Remi-Post?’ the world-weary minister enquired, peering up at the visitor from beneath his once-impressive eyebrows. ‘I am here, with your kind permission, to deliver a letter from the United Kingdom of England, sir.’ Remi shuffled a little but took comfort from the presence of two palace guards and one minister for the exterior. ‘A letter you say. And how can you be so sure?’ The minister reached for the aerogramme and studied it carefully. ‘Oh, I know a letter when I see one, sir. It is my job to know these things.’ On safe ground now, Remi shuffled a little less. ‘It is, is it? And at what point, Remi-Post, does your job end and my job commence? For is it not within the remit of my job to recognize the difference between a letter and a formal application from a foreign entity?’ The minister for the interior let the possibility hang in the air. ‘A formal what, sir?’ Remi knew immediately that this was outside the realm of his training and fell silent, his mouth agape. The minister continued, ‘And as such, if it is determined to be the latter rather than the former, it requires an altogether different procedure. And here is a conundrum that immediately becomes apparent, Remi-Post, a quandary that a postman such as your good self needn’t ordinarily concern himself with, but I shall enlighten you because it is the wish of our president that wisdom is shared for the collective understanding of our entire nation and for the evolutionary betterment of future generations.’ He paused. ‘If it is just a letter, we needn’t worry our president with it. He is a busy man with an election to prepare for, and it is our job, as ministers, to act as filters and remove all that is trifling or troublesome from his immediate concern. If I were to go now to his chambers and interrupt his work with just-a-letter I cannot begin to second guess the consequences, but they would be grave.’ Signor Posti sighed heavily for dramatic effect. ‘If, however, it transpires that this is indeed a formal application from a foreign entity, and I were to hesitate before presenting it to our president, or to presume I had the resource or acumen to deal with it independently, then he would be quite correct to consider my action, or my non-action, as an act of gross treason.’ He glowered at the men in the room. The palace guards were almost imperceptibly retreating, a backwards half-step at a time, in a silent bid to put distance between themselves and these treasonous associations. Signor Lucaccia, meanwhile, who had been listening intently to the exchange, was now eyeing the older minister. The younger minister’s scrutiny sported a glint of nervousness and he was chewing his lip anxiously, but he knew, too, that there was much he could learn from studying the older man’s handling of the situation. All the power was in the interior, everybody knew that, and progressing from his own inferior ministerial duties would be easier if he took his lead from this sagacious elder statesman. Signor Posti drew himself up in his chair and looked coolly at his audience. Now was a time for decisiveness and clear thinking. A letter would be quicker to deal with, but there was no precedent for receiving one at Parliament Hall and the stamps upon this communication certainly appeared to bear the mark of the United Kingdom’s most senior stateswoman. The minister was a cautious man, and his caution was one of the virtues that had earned him high office. It would be safer – both for the sake of his career and for the sanctity of his country – to assume this was not just-a-letter but an official communiqué. In this instance, hasty action would mitigate any potential risk to the president. With the first part of the decision already made, it was now simply a case of determining the correct protocol. Swivelling his chair, Signor Posti turned slowly and deliberately to the shelves behind him and heaved one of the tomes back to his desk. He wetted his finger and flicked through the pages, conscious of four pairs of eyes upon him as he scanned the headings and sub-sections, many of which he had authored over the years. After several tense moments he found the right page and, smiling knowingly to himself, began the laborious task of form filling. This required the dispatching of the hovering minister for the exterior for two fresh sheets of carbon paper to allow the execution of the paperwork in triplicate. Glad once more to have volunteered interest, the less-experienced man hurried off importantly. Remi jigged from foot to foot, anxious to learn his fate and, if protocol decreed it, to take hold once more of the important document. A lifetime of training had prepared him for this very scenario and, while the minister before him had an evolved understanding of the machinations of Parliament, he alone understood that the royal blue of the par avion sticker, fixed jauntily to the left-hand corner, insisted upon the most urgent of handling at all times. But, as anxious as he was, his strict sense of hierarchy ensured that he must do nothing to interrupt the process of government. As patiently as possible, he observed the complex ritual, quietly respectful of the enormous amount of bureaucracy his not just-a-letter had already generated. At last, the postman’s conscientious approach was rewarded. After a brief discussion between the two ministers, who huddled forehead to forehead in a corner while they decided on the best course of action, Remi was invited to hand-deliver the not just-a-letter to its final destination, proceeding further into the echelons of Parliament Hall, using another, narrower, flight of stairs. Shaking with excitement and accompanied now by two guardsmen, one short, eager minister for the exterior and one tall, craggy, breathless minister for the interior, he hesitated, then politely rapped on the carved wooden door of his president’s private chambers. Upon hearing the call from within, he was barely able to still the knocking of his knees. CHAPTER 3 In Which a Formal Communication From a Foreign Entity Is Delivered (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) Until twenty-two minutes past ten, when Remi’s bicycle had bounced its way, riderless, to a halt in front of the railings, President Sergio Scorpioni had been contemplating life and the complex paradigms it dealt him. Each new dawn seemed to reveal to him another bewildering puzzle to solve, and nightfall brought disappointment and impotence in place of the sense of completion and resolution he craved. Today his own dissatisfaction was the source of his troubles. ‘To what do all men aspire?’ he asked himself. ‘Great wealth? Good looks? A beautiful wife with generous hips?’ Pausing for effect, even though the conversation was playing out in the confines of his own mind, he answered, ‘No, the ultimate status symbol comes in the shape of a position of power.’ And there he was, appointed to the highest office in the land, with all its associated amenities and privileges. At his disposal he had catering staff and cleaning staff, he had a dozen vice-presidents, who were the clearest thinkers and his dearest friends in the land, yet he remained unfulfilled. He shook his head and chewed his lip as he surveyed the material manifestation of his power. As a centrepiece, his sumptuous private chambers boasted an intricately carved mahogany four-poster bed, with a firm but forgiving mattress on which to rest at night, several goose-down pillows on which to lay his head, cool cotton sheets and warm angora blankets, surrounded by the finest bombazine hangings. Throughout his chambers the floor was covered with layer upon layer of hand-woven carpets, each overlapping the next and telling its own elaborate tales. Their rich and complex threads wove the stories of many lifetimes, winding together the narratives of peasant childhoods with high holidays, of marriages made in Heaven and useful lives reflected upon from the comfort of an old age well accounted-for. Carpets owned by his mother, stitched by his grandmother, trodden on by his father and forefathers before him. His desk, carved, like his bed, of the very finest hardwood, was solid, vast, and shone with decades of polish. With inset inkwells and a large blotter that was regularly refilled with a clean sheet, that desk had been the seat of power for his father, and his father’s father. And look! It was all his! As he paced from bed, to desk, to window and back again, in a circle that showed, after four and a half years of office, a faint trace of a path in the carpets, he tried to count his blessings on his fingers. ‘One, I have my health. Two, I have the tools for change. Three, I don’t have to make my own bed in the morning …’ It was no good, his face crumpled and his fingers balled into fists as the full weight of the responsibility that was attendant upon his comfortable life came crashing back upon his shoulders. As he continued to pace, his lips formed silent pledges but the acid that rose from his stomach, giving him almost constant pain in his lower chest, came from a dark, dismal place that countered those promises and told him that he would never, ever, be as successful as his father. He stopped at the window, resting his forehead against the damp glass and allowing a little pool of condensation to gather there. Below him, Piazza Rosa was gloomy. Puddles from the previous night’s rain had gathered between the cobbles, and wastepaper clung miserably to the rims of gutters, refusing to be swept away out of sight but lingering to add to the forlorn landscape. Plastic webbed chairs were tilted forward against moulded white tables, and metal shutters were drawn at the majority of shop windows, giving the country’s finest meeting point an air of neglect and dejection. Sergio looked at his watch, which showed twenty-five past ten, and then up at the landmark clock opposite him. It remained stubbornly, accusingly, at ten to seven and the painted clay figurines, crafted to represent the finest attributes of Vallerosa, who should have been lining up to announce the next fifteen-minute interval, had long been stilled. Today was the beginning of spring, a time of festivity, traditionally used to commence courtship and slaughter the last of the winter pigs, but no one was celebrating. Even Franco, the town’s alcoholic, would have been a welcome sight, but not even he was prepared to liven up the square with his clumsy lurching and unintelligible mutterings. Sergio scanned the piazza, his eyes sweeping across the left edge, with its arched walkway, along the grand façade of the town hall and clock tower and back down the right edge, but all was damply silent. Inside, the electrics hummed, the ancient heating system clicked and sighed, and the building itself creaked under the oppressive atmosphere of a period of celebration when the public had chosen – unanimously – not to celebrate. The winter months were dismal, as for any city that thrived on its long, hot summers, whose very livelihood depended on clear blue skies by day and clement nights. Each year, work in the tea plantations remained at a standstill until the sun heaved itself over the mountaintop to awaken the first shoots in April, when labour could once again resume. A sluggishness of pace that was forgivable in the unrelenting summer sun took on a less condonable tenor, tinged with apathy and inertia, when the days shortened and the thermometer seldom rose above twelve degrees. The red façade of the city’s main square that, under the kind light of the summer months, shone with every tone from a pale, dusty rose to a deep, bottomless burgundy, looked tired in the winter, shrinking in fear from each day’s onslaught. The flaking plaster and crumbling stone glared accusingly at the president, reminding him of the enormous cost involved in maintaining the piazza in its present state, let alone restoring it to its pre-1900s glory. He returned to his desk and took up his pen. After allowing it to drink thirstily from the ink, he resumed writing. His current train of thought was complex and the recent round of pacing had done little to unlock his dilemma. He reread the last passage he had written. Choice exists to liberate your electorate. But, what a responsible leader must ask is, does his constituent really hanker after choice? No, of course they don’t. What the constituent demands – nay, deserves – is flawless leadership. And providing that flawlessness is evident throughout government, elected or otherwise, if perfection has already been attained, then how can further choice ever equate to liberation? That choice, that freedom, which the democratic world so craves, is redundant if the only choice the state can proffer is that between perfection and mediocrity. What, then, are you offering your people? Your people are the backbone of the society, yes; they are the bedrock of the country, the foundation on which any great nation is built. They are the flour, the eggs and milk, but without the wooden spoon, they cannot be the pancake. They are the proletariat, not the elected, and as such they cannot possibly begin to interpret the discourse of politicians. Nor are they equipped to decipher the devious ruses that politicians will utilize, the depths to which they’ll sink, in pursuit of a vote. And why are they unable to enter the twisted mind of a power-crazed despot, hell-bent on seizing control of a country? Because the state has governed in such a way that its people only understand fairness, citizenship, fellowship, a society working together for the benefit of society. This country’s people have not been educated in the art of insidiousness. You give your people a vote without giving them the warped mind needed to make an educated decision and they are in danger of choosing to exercise their vote for change just because they can. You, through the so called tools of liberation, have given them the very rope with which they will unwittingly hoist themselves from the petard. Sergio flexed his writing hand and leaned back in his chair, which groaned beneath him. He rested his eyes and immediately, uninvited, the image of his father sprang before his closed lids. He rubbed them with the back of his hands and opened them again, preferring the look of his writing to the ever-wagging finger of Sergio Senior. He sighed deeply, wiped away the small beads of sweat gathering on his upper lip, and continued. Give an honest man the choice between good and evil and he might inadvertently choose evil, because he has no experience from which to recognize the traits of the perfidious. As Sergio came decisively to this conclusion, a resounding thud in his heart seemed to echo his thinking. He took up his pen to begin writing once more when, startled, he realized the noise came not from inside his head but from somebody knocking repeatedly at the door. Glancing around the room to assure himself that there were no visible traces of his inner turmoil, Sergio barked permission to enter. Expecting a butler with a tray of tea, as was customary at this time, he was surprised to find he was giving audience to a posse of visitors. Their sheer numbers as they filed through the door gave him a moment’s anxiety that, as foretold in any one of his recent nightmares, a coup might be unfolding before his eyes. But quickly he recognized them all as friends, the young postman, whom he himself had promoted, his trusted minister for the interior, the younger, ambitious minister for the exterior, for whom he had high hopes, and two palace guards, who were hanging about in the background, onlookers, it appeared, rather than active protectors of the realm. After an awkward silence, Remi stepped forward and, unsure whether he was presenting a letter, a not just-a-letter, or an official communication from a foreign entity, simply held out the blue envelope to his president. He was not quite far enough forward for Sergio to reach it without standing up, and even when the president had pushed himself up from his chair and leaned across his desk, there was still an unmet gap of some inches. It seemed that the stalemate might never be broken. Sergio stretched further but Remi, clearly terrified by the proximity of the president, dared not look at him and affixed his eyes instead to the intricate pattern in the carpet. Sergio relented, and came around his desk to pluck the letter from the postman’s hands. At this moment, perhaps unsure that he wanted his adventure to end, Remi clung to a corner and Sergio had to use surprising force to tug the envelope away. Flustered, he retreated to the safe haven behind his desk and took a long-handled letter-opener from beside the blotter. One of the ministers, either interior or exterior, made a murmur as if to excuse the party but Sergio silenced the onlookers with a wave of his hand. He removed the elegant letter-opener slowly from its leather sheath, inserted the tip into the top seal and, with unhurried decorum, used the blade to separate the three gummed sides. The letter tumbled out to its full length and the president read its contents from top to bottom, taking in the London address, the velvety quality of the flimsy yet luxurious paper, the superb penmanship, with its loops and curves, unlike any he had seen before, and the evenly applied ink of the signature. Some of it was almost impossible to decipher but he peered at the English words, identifying several as his eyes flicked from one line to the next. ‘Please … visit … research … success … Duke of Edinburgh … 5 June … for one month.’ A slow smile spread across Sergio’s face, softening his features and letting the careworn frown disappear. His only regret, which passed through his mind at lightning speed, was that his father (who had made it quite clear that his son would probably amount to nothing) was no longer alive to witness this triumph. For a triumph it most certainly was, and that it had fallen during Sergio’s tenure allowed the president to take this success as a personal one. His country had finally been recognized beyond its borders and, as clear as the blue ink with which the signature had sealed its intent, a visit from British royalty, of those distant but hallowed islands in the North Sea, was imminent and had been humbly begged by, presumably, the personal secretary of the Duke of Edinburgh, to whom the letter referred on a number of occasions. He put the letter down. Placing a hand firmly on either side of it, he leaned forward and looked thoughtfully at each man before him. ‘Gentlemen,’ he announced grandly. ‘It seems we are to expect a royal visit later this year. Sound the fanfare. I shall be making an address to the people on this matter of national importance at …’ he glanced at his watch, then calculated the time he would need to write a short speech and change into his formal attire ‘… noon. I shall speak to them from the balcony. That will be all. Carry on.’ The five men hastily backed out of the room, leaving the president to the solitude of his chambers. As soon as he was sure he was alone, he punched the air and danced a little jig on the spot. Meanwhile, the minister for the exterior headed directly to the press office, the minister for the interior went to the army’s control centre while the postman made for Il Gallo Giallo to ensure that word quickly spread. Within the hour, those at home, or in either of the city’s two bars, downed tools, drinks, laundry or children and headed out into Piazza Rosa to hear the president’s news. CHAPTER 4 In Which News Travels Fast (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) The opposite end of Piazza Rosa from Parliament Hall, the north-west corner, was home to both of the city’s bars, whose perpendicular proximity was separated at the narrowest point by a mere five feet or so. That their walls didn’t touch was thanks to the narrow cobbled path that carried most of the pedestrian traffic from the piazza to the residential area and on, through a slow ascent of zigzags, to the tea plantations above. The bars each occupied approximately the same square footage. Il Gallo Giallo benefited from the generous arched frontage afforded by the walkway that spanned the west face of the piazza; in this shaded area patrons could enjoy their tea or beer without being drained by the full force of the sun. On the other hand, Il Toro Rosso, while only ninety degrees away, offered a very different climate: it enjoyed full afternoon sunshine on its apron, offering clients a distinct advantage in the winter months and early evening, when a drinker might enjoy the last of the sun as it reached over the mountains and into the valley. A free man, in a different city, in a different country, but faced with the same choice, might choose to spend his lunchtime at Il Gallo Giallo and his evenings at Il Toro Rosso. Or his winters at Il Toro Rosso and his summers at Il Gallo Giallo. But this wasn’t a different city, or a different country, and where you chose to drink wasn’t a simple matter of ergonomics or personal comfort. Inside, the bars barely differed. An equal number of bar stools had popped their red vinyl seat covers to reveal tired yellowing foam. The twelve or so tables in each were topped with thin slabs of a similar red stone, probably quarried from the same pit in the nearby foothills. During the summer months the cool stone offered respite, and it was said that by leaving your bottled beer atop any of the tables for just a few minutes, the beer’s temperature would actually drop by a degree or two. During the winter months the stone was a curse but the patrons of both bars knew better than to lean their exposed wrists or hands on the inhospitable surface. Both bars were decorated in a similar fashion – that is to say, minimally. A few sparse mirrors shouting the copy lines of long-forgotten tobaccos and liquors hung on nails, and similar drab once-white curtains, never closed, were suspended at the window of each bar, sharing the view of the dark alley between them. The ninety-degree angle at which the establishments sat ensured that the drinkers in one bar couldn’t view those in the other, although when the outside tables were occupied in both, it would be easy to imagine that the occupants were all patronizing the same place: the chairs often spilled over the boundaries and met across the alley. Most residents of the city rarely referred to the bars as either Il Gallo Giallo or Il Toro Rosso, knowing the first as ‘Gallo’ or the Old Bar, and the second as ‘Rosso’ or the New Bar. There was little to choose between them as far as age went either: although Il Gallo Giallo was older by a full five years, they had both opened to custom in the mid-1800s, which meant that their shared history had them as close siblings, rather than relatives separated by a generation. Il Gallo Giallo, the Old Bar, was run by a taciturn landlord, whose job it was, he felt, to slam beers down in front of his customers, allowing the top centimetre to slop onto the table below, and to leave teas cooling on the counter before delivering them at a less than satisfactory temperature. The tea was never strained, but drunk so dark and bitter that to the uninitiated it would be completely unpalatable. Those drinking in the Old Bar, however, had earned their right to consume their tea there, and to issue one word of complaint either about the manners of Dario Mariani, their landlord, or the temperature of the tea was unheard of. By contrast, a young man, with traces of naïve optimism still visible on his face, ran the New Bar. He had inherited his position from his father, who had taught his son everything he knew before retiring, and then dying, both gracefully and considerately. His son, Piper, had been an attentive student and had learned the lessons of beer, tea, and of the illegal but much practised habit of fortifying the local wine into something that would chase the cold away from your kidneys in the winter. But he had aspirations above and beyond those he had acquired from his beloved father. Piper had a secret ambition to beat his rival. How he could judge his success in a battle that the other showed no interest in entering, he had not yet ascertained – perhaps by a gradual migration of loyal customers from the Old Bar to his, or through some as yet unimagined innovation … He lay awake at night, considering it. In truth, though, a truth that Dario took for granted and Piper refused to acknowledge, there was no competition between the bars. A century and more of tradition was so firmly rooted that it was unlikely that anything would shake the unwritten rule that, come lunchtime, the men of government, heads of state, the police and the army – anyone who donned a uniform – made their way to Il Gallo Giallo. Within its yellowing walls you would find, too, those who aspired to a life in government and who were considered – either by themselves or others – as on the up. Il Toro Rosso, on the other hand, was home to the labourers and farmhands, the teachers and health-workers, the artisans and musicians, and the students who lacked political ambition. There was no edict that suggested this was where you belonged, and those whose instinct drew them to one or the other were probably unaware, at the time, of the partisan statement they were making when they went, at any age, for the first time to order a drink. But the distinction was inherent and abided by comfortably without the prejudice that similar apartheid might afford in other European countries. That is not to say that one could not choose to drink with a man from the other bar, but habitual practice suggested they were probably more likely to meet on the three or four tables that inhabited no man’s land between the two establishments. As such, these were often the most prized positions to occupy. Today Remi entered Il Gallo Giallo, breathing in the scent of hops and tea while looking around to see who might be there to hear his news. He hung up his hat next to those of Mario Lucaccia and Giuseppe Scota and sauntered slowly, luxuriously, to the bar with affected patience and the quiet smile of a man who knows he has a story to share with a willing audience. He told his tale in the smallest detail, with only the tiniest embellishment, describing the onion-skin quality of the perfumed paper and the gold-leaf emblem of the royal stamps, his immediate ascent through Parliament Hall and his private audience with the president, who had read to him, word for word, in the flawless hissing articulation of the English language as if he himself had been raised among the British nobility. ‘Oh, yes, the president’s English is word-perfect. Not a thotthage in thite for the president.’ The postman mimicked a peasant’s pronunciation of the country’s second or third language, depending on the number of years they had been immersed in pursuit of a full and useful education. Remi continued to regale his audience with the contents of the letter, that none other than the royal Duke of Edinburgh, brother, he thought to the King himself or uncle to the Queen. One of the two. Anyway, a senior royal, certainly, who had set his sights on visiting their country, for he had heard such fine stories about it around the globe. Draining his cup of tea, and pushing it back across the bar, he waited for a refill. Immediately speculation was rife, and the topic of conversation bubbled across the bar and out onto the adjoining pavement, trickling to those standing at the mouth of the alley and across into the New Bar. It was as if Remi himself were being carried above the heads of the drinkers, a victorious matador at the annual Bull Fling. His words seeped through the New Bar, gathering a momentum and meaning all of their own as they were taken, doubled and passed on. By the time the president greeted his audience from the balcony there were very few who hadn’t heard one of the many unofficial versions of the extraordinary news. CHAPTER 5 In Which a President Addresses His Nation (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) Angelo, Sergio’s chief of staff, had masterfully managed to intercede just in time to pull the president back from the potential error of donning full military uniform. However, Sergio’s smart black suit was decorated with a scattering of medals to add a sense of sobriety to the occasion. As the president slid open the long windows of his sitting room and stepped onto his balcony, he felt his mood lifted by the formality of the occasion and the splendour of pageantry. Behind him filed Angelo, Mario Lucaccia, the minister for the exterior, and his ten other senior ministers who now fanned out at either side of him. They stood to attention, their arms straight at their sides, their feet shoulder-width apart, as was the custom when the president made any public address. Despite the dull spring day and the ceaseless drizzle, a curious crowd had assembled in Piazza Rosa, propelled by the contagious enthusiasm of Remi the postman. By the time the president had taken his position, at least fifteen hundred people were gathered in the piazza. As he approached the front of the balcony, the onlookers allowed their conversation to peter out and turned instead to fix their eyes on him. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, serfs and servants,’ Sergio began, using the protocol that had been introduced by his father. ‘Today is a day that has been much anticipated but always expected. A day when, finally, the rest of the world has decided to look kindly upon our statedom.’ Here, Sergio looked up from his notes and, with all the confidence of a gifted orator, spoke from his heart. ‘A day that marks a turning point in our history and is, perhaps, the end of the beginning of our history and the start of the middle.’ Losing his drift, he returned quickly to the notes. ‘A day when I have had pressed into my hand by our very humble servant Remi, the postman, a letter that bears the royal insignia of the British Isles and Her Majesty’s Great Britain.’ Here, he held up the letter, as if, from one storey below, the audience might be able to read for themselves the contents. With one arm raised high, he thrust his chest forward, allowing his deep baritone to ricochet off the piazza buildings, which provided natural amplification to the row of basic microphones in front of him. He drew a breath, then announced grandly, ‘It is my very great privilege to inform you that we shall be receiving a noble visitation from Britain’s far shores. No less than the royal Duke of Edinburgh himself shall begin a month-long tour of our humble state on June the fifth of this year. I therefore declare that the four days preceding the visit, from June the first to June the fourth, will be devoted to preparation. I ask that you all join me and my government to ensure that we come together to use this opportunity to showcase our country not just to Britain and Europe but to the rest of the world.’ Sergio paused, then continued, ‘June the fifth, when our royal visitor will arrive, will be marked by a day of celebration. We shall have just enough time to fortify some wine and fatten some pigs.’ At this, the susurrus of assent could be heard. General calls to celebration were open to misinterpretation, but specific detail – permission, they gathered, to turn a goodly portion of their wine reserves into something a little stronger – they could interpret very clearly. As the men turned to each other to discuss the specifics, Sergio became aware that he had lost their attention. ‘Carry on!’ he bellowed into the microphones, then retreated to his rooms. Inside, he brushed the raindrops off his jacket and started to address his men. Angelo dropped into a chair to take notes and began scribbling. ‘Right, men. This is an opportunity for you to shine. First, we must form a committee. It will meet once a week until our preparations are well under way, then daily, of course, for the first crucial days of June. Agreed. Now, we’ll need you, Roberto, to look after the budget for the event. Perhaps we’ll form a separate working group to deal with the finer details.’ Roberto Feraguzzi nodded. ‘And you, Enzo, I’ll need you to ensure the first-flush tea is harvested and ready for consumption.’ Enzo Civicchioni grinned enthusiastically, patting his pockets for a non-existent pen with which to take notes that he’d only later mislay. ‘And you, Alix, you have a crucial role to play – that of national security. I cannot stress heavily enough the gravity of the situation. I suggest we are on Code Red between now and our visitor’s safe departure. Agreed?’ Alixandria Heliopolis Visparelli saluted smartly. ‘Mario Lucaccia, you are, of course, essential to proceedings, as minister for the exterior. What finer opportunity than this to showcase our country to the outside world? You, likewise, Settimio. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you to realize some of your goals, touristically speaking. Giuseppe Scota, you may not think there is much of a part for an education minister to play but I see you as vital in bringing the students to the occasion. Exclude them at your peril.’ ‘Of course,’ agreed Scota, already dreaming of the opportunities this might afford some of his older students. Sergio continued, ‘Decio, there are many aspects of your role that will come into play. I want you in from the start. We’ve got health and safety to consider, not to mention the ongoing physical health of our visitor. I want absolutely no illness lurking to sabotage proceedings. You must see to it that everyone is well, understood?’ Dottore Decio Rossini smiled and agreed. ‘Vlad, I want you to work with Giuseppe Scota. Education and employment go hand in hand, as always.’ He scanned the room full of expectant faces. ‘Pompili and Cellini. This is your moment. This will be the best festa in the history of Vallerosa. You understand? That is a command.’ The two men nodded gravely. ‘And I’ll need you, Rolando, on board too. Detail, detail, detail. Proper planning will prevent a poor performance, yes?’ ‘Yes, sir. Of course, always, sir.’ ‘I think that group should just about cover it. Those mentioned will be required to satisfy a quorum. I apologize to those of you who cannot be part of the committee on this auspicious occasion, but I’m sure your expertise will be called upon in time. Sometimes it’s better to keep an operation a little leaner, just to ensure that we’re working as efficiently as possible. The rest of you, consider yourselves back-up of the very finest order.’ Sergio smiled at his men. They looked at each other, trying to find a common expression that fell neatly between congratulations and commiseration. ‘That will be all, then. Those of you not directly involved in the proceedings are dismissed. The rest of you, let’s gather for the first ever meeting of the Committee to Ensure the Safe Arrival, Visit and Return of our VIP. That will be the …’ ‘CESAVROV?’ interjected Angelo from the corner. Sergio considered this. ‘Hmm, that’s not going to run. Work on it, will you, Angelo? Table it for the first meeting. OK, men, on with your day, please. I know it’s a disappointment but only committee members are now required.’ ‘Sir?’ said Angelo, from the corner. ‘According to my minutes, everyone here has been appointed to the committee.’ ‘Have they?’ The president frowned the most fleeting of frowns. ‘Of course they have. You will find that is because they are indispensable. There is not a man among them who could be spared from a visit of such national importance.’ Sergio used the moment to appraise them slowly, his gaze sweeping over the assembled group. Drawing himself tall, he dismissed them with a curt nod that interrupted any possibility of his eyes misting with tears. ‘Well, carry on, then. What are you standing around for?’ He ran a finger around his collar to loosen it a little. The twelve men filed out to take their places at the boardroom table and begin the serious business of planning. Several hours later, whoops and hollers could be heard from the assembled group and Sergio flushed with pleasure. A breathless Angelo came flying in. ‘It was tough, sir, but I do believe we’ve cracked it. The project will be named the Planning for English Guest and the Safe Undertaking of Security …’ Sergio thought for a moment, then a slow smile spread across his face, revealing itself eventually as a triumphant grin. ‘PEGASUS,’ he murmured, rolling the word around on his tongue and trying it from every angle. ‘Yes, excellent work. That, Angelo, will most certainly fly.’ CHAPTER 6 In Which Enough Tea Is Grown (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) Shortly afterwards, in the opulent surroundings of the Upper House, the Special Furthering of Agricultural Development Committee was gathering for its monthly appraisal. Eleven of the twelve quorum were assembled around the vast cherry-wood boardroom table, six positions marked out to each side of the president. Each member sat straight-backed, awaiting the moment at which the discussion would be initiated by the president, but no deliberation could begin until the tea had been poured. In front of each committee member sat two bone china teacups, a pair of identical silver tea strainers and a small, lidded china pot. Angelo, the president’s chief of staff, the cabinet member responsible for the care of Parliament Hall but also for the day-to-day care of the president, discreetly opened the proceedings by preparing Sergio’s tea. With minimal fuss, he poured it from pot to cup, then from cup to cup, through a fine-meshed strainer. Expertly, with a trained eye and an accomplished hand, he filtered it back and forth. With each passing, the dark green liquid took on a lighter tone until, with an almost imperceptible nod, Angelo indicated that it had achieved the requisite tint of amber and, as such, was ready for drinking. Then each committee member began to strain their own tea, with less precision and a lot more haste, catching up with their leader in time to join him as he leaned forward to take his first slurp. Oh, the first taste of afternoon tea! It didn’t matter how many times the ritual was performed, the first sip always delivered a powerful shock to the system. Sergio slurped the liquid noisily through his teeth, allowing the bitter flavour to coat the inside of his mouth and marvelling as the aftershocks ricocheted through his upper jaw and settled somewhere beneath his eye-sockets. He grimaced and sucked in both cheeks to lessen the impact. After an involuntary shake of his head his entire upper body shuddered, allowing the effect of the tea to cascade through his frame, working its magic on every area that called for special attention, from his stiff knee and ankle joints to his cramping toes. As the president savoured the moment, the committee members joined in with the noisy ceremony, adding their own facial tics, scowls, lip smackings and flinches to the ritual. ‘Aaaah,’ pronounced the president. ‘That’s better. Shall we begin?’ He glanced around the room, taking a mental register of his staff, beginning on his left with Dottore Decio Rossini, minister for health (mental, physical and metaphysical). The doctor’s pallid, doughy face sported heavy brown bags under the eyes. His shirt, slightly fraying at the collar, bore the unmistakable yellowing stains of fatherhood on both shoulders – he had seven small boys. While Sergio eyed him, the weary doctor stifled a yawn and wondered where he would find the energy to keep trying to produce a daughter for his wife. The president noted his physician’s exhaustion but appreciated the reasons behind it and allowed his eyes to travel beyond him to Signor Vlad Lubicic, minister for employment and personal development. Vlad had telltale purple bags but his eyes today were dreamy, preoccupied, and he’d barely touched his tea. There had to be a significant new woman in his life, of that Sergio was certain. Excellent. The president made a mental note to find out who she was and, if appropriate, to hurry proceedings to their proper conclusion. It would be more efficient and a better use of ministerial time to bring the pining phase to an end as quickly as possible. And an official wedding was always good for the nation’s morale. Third on his left sat Signor Marcello Pompili, minister for recreation. Hair slicked back, rosy cheeks pumiced to a shine, keen, bright eyes glinting with vigour, Signor Pompili sat forward in his seat with a youthful ardour that radiated gusto. Yes, an excellent advertisement for the role, an outlook to be encouraged and replicated. Sergio’s appraisal continued to Signor Cellini, minister for leisure. What he observed here was far less encouraging. Where his colleague Signor Pompili shone, Cellini drooped. His shoulders slumped; his body language told of dissatisfaction or worry. His Adam’s apple leaped feverishly up and down his throat, sending out little signals of anxiety, and his eyes darted around the room, stealing glances at his colleagues and at the president but managing to avoid contact with either. Signor Cellini was brother-in-law, of course, to Signor Roberto Feraguzzi, minister of finance, seated now to Sergio’s right. Feraguzzi was a cool customer and, apart from the almost imperceptible tic that tugged occasionally at his upper left cheek, there was barely an anxious bone in his body. He chewed his inner cheek from time to time, in a subtle bid to disguise the tic, but Sergio knew that this meant nothing. His face had twitched for as long as the president had known him. Of much more concern was the remote but entirely plausible explanation that Feraguzzi had knowledge of a pending financial crisis and had chosen to share it with brother-in-law Cellini, whose face was less able to smother his emotion. Between Feraguzzi and Angelo there was an empty chair, the usual seat of the minister for agricultural development. That they were assembled to hear from him made his lack of punctuality doubly irritating. Sergio’s eyes rested on the empty chair and glared accusingly, prompting Angelo to speak out. ‘Mr President, Signor Civicchioni sends his apologies. He will be joining us a few minutes late today, but he will bring with him a special report from the American consultant, who is available to meet with the committee today, should you wish it. I understand that the report was late being prepared because the typist was late for work due to problems of a feminine nature. I understand, however, that a second typist was subsequently drafted in and the completed report will be available for inspection at any moment.’ Sergio nodded and allowed his eyes to travel further on to Commandant Alixandria Heliopolis Visparelli, minister for defence. Alix had no interest in the Special Furthering of Agricultural Development; he cared nothing for the difference between an output and a yield, and he had not initially been invited to sit on this committee. He had, however, persuaded Sergio that he should be recruited to it, and of all members, he paid the closest attention at each of these gatherings. While he had no interest in crops or herds, he had a very grave interest in the comings and goings of the American consultant, and this assembly was an excellent one for studying a potential enemy at close quarters without allowing him to know he had been identified as a possible threat. Since these meetings had first convened, Alix had been known to throw in trick questions to flush out any ulterior motive on the part of the American consultant, but these cunning ploys were normally met with a frown from his president, who insisted, somewhat naïvely, Alix thought, on assuming everyone was a friend to their nation until proved otherwise. That Alix seemed to be uniquely suspicious made him more determined to be vigilant; he always double-checked the firing mechanism on his handgun before appearing at the committee table. Even now, as Sergio appraised his team, Alix’s eyes roamed in the other direction. He was preparing an escape route, should he have to rescue the president from an attempt on his life. To the right of Alix sat Signor Lucaccia, minister for the exterior. That they were seated next to each other was the unhappy accident of the very first meeting. Since then, the men had assumed the same positions. If Alix and Mario had been able to choose, they would each have sat on the same side of the table (in order not to have to look at each other) and as far apart as possible (in order not to have to sense each other). Instead, they were destined to sit shoulder to shoulder for at least an hour each month and both men visibly bristled with discomfort. Alix was doing his best to lean into some of the vacant space allowed by the missing minister for agricultural development while Mario leaned heavily to his right, rubbing thighs with his neighbour, the minister for education, Professore Giuseppe Scota. Sergio glanced sympathetically at the professor, who looked as if he resented the intrusion into his personal space by the young exterior minister, but Scota returned the kind look with an almost imperceptible shrug. Both the professor and his president understood the rift between the two men. It was said that there were only two things worth fighting about in Vallerosa, pigs and women, and the two men had fought over both. Nothing could be done to heal the rift. As Sergio shared his quiet moment of understanding with Scota, Civicchioni, the errant minister for agricultural development, entered, trailing a flurry of flying shirt tails and the flapping ends of a loosely knotted tie, while clutching armfuls of unstapled loose-leaf papers that drifted from him as he rushed to take his seat. Sergio nodded permission to him to join them and added a cursory study of the late arrival to his mental register. Today Civicchioni was agitated, partially undressed and harried. The big lock of curly brown hair that obscured his right eye added a moderately incompetent and slightly insane look. Sergio noted with satisfaction that this promising young man was behaving true to form. ‘Mr President. May I?’ As he patted and prodded his paperwork into some sort of order, he grabbed a gulp of unstrained tea, wincing while swilling it around as though it were mouthwash. With an appreciative smack of his lips, he used the palm of his hand to push the escaped lock of hair to the top of his head as he launched into the purpose of the gathering that afternoon. ‘You will all be fully aware that under section four, article five, sub-section twelve, particle b of last Tuesday’s emergency agricultural meeting, I have been asked by our esteemed president to meet with our American consultant, the expert who has been contracted to this government to review and enhance our agricultural policy.’ At the mention of the visiting American, Alix allowed an audible hiss to escape from his lips. With one enemy practically sitting in his lap and another central to this discussion, he bristled with an urgent need to kill somebody. Sergio was quick to sense his defence minister’s simmering displeasure and managed to catch his eye, silently holding up four fingers in admonishment. Alix hung his head in shame, and muttered quietly to himself the mantra, ‘Restraint is a powerful weapon.’ He looked his president in the eye and half smiled an apology. The president empathized, as he himself had suffered from moments of weakness in which he occasionally struggled to live consistently within the strict teachings of their shared military guru, General Isaak von Bunyan. (Restraint Is a Powerful Weapon is the fourth book in von Bunyan’s six-volume military compendium; its title loosely but not absolutely translates as ‘Avoiding Military Conflict Through Ingenuity and Psychological Camouflage’, a thesis studied in depth and adhered to by both Alix and his president. This masterpiece of warfare avoidance had for some decades been widely credited with the shared success of Vallerosa and Switzerland in their unblemished records of peace. If asked to compare the success of each country, it could probably be argued that Vallerosa’s interpretation of the Eight Rules of Camouflage is perhaps even more successful than that of Switzerland: not only has it successfully blended with all its surrounding countries to avoid conflict, it has done such an effective job that half of its neighbours think of Vallerosa as a poor and undesirable province of their own state, while the other half have failed to notice it exists at all. And, while on the subject of comparing success in this area, any one of the assembled men, whether followers of General Isaak von Bunyan or not, could have pointed out that Vallerosa had never knowingly harboured a war criminal or condoned the laundering of money.) Enzo Civicchioni continued with his briefing: ‘You will all remember that our American consultant was initially contracted to us for six months. His contract has subsequently been reviewed and renewed on a number of occasions, and he has now been helping us to shape our agricultural policy for, let me see …’ he glanced down at the handwritten notes scribbled in the margin of his document ‘… Yes, here we are. Our temporary contractor has now been engaged by this government for two full governmental terms. ‘Further to this, it is my understanding from various discussions with our esteemed president and ongoing discussions with our finance and employment ministers, that it is still our government’s belief that the American consultant is best equipped to find an export market for this great nation’s produce. Now that we have followed his advice and altered the methods by which we farm our lands, and having done everything asked of us to assist our American consultant, we are confident that we might soon be in a position whereby our very desirable produce should be paired with an appropriate overseas customer.’ After another gulp of tea, he continued, ‘You must understand that while I had no dealings with our American consultant in the earlier years of our relationship, this being my first term of office, it is my understanding from those who have championed these discussions,’ here he nodded towards Feraguzzi, ‘particularly Signor Feraguzzi – who has been able to combine the expertise garnered in his previous role as minister for agricultural development with his current role as minister of finance – that by continuing with the policy set out under the aforementioned section four, article five, sub-section twelve, particles a, b and c, we should soon find that the many years of hardship and sacrifice endured as we implemented the changes should bear fruit. I do believe, in fact, that Signor Feraguzzi may be able to add a little flesh to that fruit, if he would elaborate a little.’ Civicchioni took the opportunity to regulate his breathing as he passed the baton to the minister of finance. He also used the moment’s pause to wink at Vlad, who blushed in response, indicating that he had understood the message conveyed in the wink. Now Vlad suppressed a shy smile and concentrated fiercely on the blank piece of paper in front of him while Signor Feraguzzi cleared his throat to speak. ‘Esteemed president, gentlemen, colleagues. For the last twelve fiscal reporting periods, our export portfolio has remained constant at zero. When you take into consideration the marked depreciation of our currency and unprecedented inflation of almost all other economic measures, which is unsurprising given the consistently volatile backdrop against which we must compete, managing to hold our exports constant has been a sizeable challenge. However, we have set our sights on more aggressive growth and, in the grand tradition of our forefathers, we have our eye on the bigger prize. With this in mind, following detailed discourse with our American consultant and much high-level analysis, it is my estimation that, with a successful export contract in place, we should be able to realize an export income in excess of twenty million American dollars.’ Feraguzzi paused to allow a ripple of applause to complete its circuit. ‘There’s more,’ he continued. ‘Against a backdrop of considerable financial instability, our import portfolio has similarly remained constant at zero. However, it is our intention to continue with our policy of zero imports while simultaneously increasing our share of the export market, allowing us quickly to establish ourselves as a nation in control of one of the most impressive GDPs in the world!’ Feraguzzi stopped briefly to allow this ambitious statement to sink in. ‘But the good news does not stop here. I would now like to invite our American consultant into our meeting, with the permission of our esteemed president, to present to you his most recent findings.’ With that, Angelo jumped up and threw open the double doors to allow the American consultant to enter. The American’s readiness at the door suggested he had long been prepared to be called for. He strode in alone, yet managed to convey the air of a man with an entourage in his wake. Exuding calm and confidence in his pressed chinos and neatly ironed, monogrammed shirt, he brushed past the seated ministers. Without waiting for an invitation to join them, he took the position recently vacated by Angelo, forcing the chief of staff to retire to a chair in the corner to continue with his note-taking. Before speaking Chuck Whylie swept a cool hand across his hair, in an unnecessary move to correct any stray locks. With a polite cough into a closed fist, to indicate that he was going to speak, he began his address. ‘Mr President, it is indeed an honour to join you once more. You know, sir, I have been coming to this fine country of yours for many years now and I do believe this is the twenty-fourth occasion on which I have addressed your government. Before I begin today I would like to reiterate that I am profoundly proud of our association and acutely proud of the work that we have been able to undertake together.’ Whylie nodded encouragingly while he allowed his message to sink in, a mannerism he deployed habitually to allow the foreigners an opportunity to assimilate his words. This impersonated – pleasingly, he thought – the rhythm and flow of a speech to the United Nations, with built-in delays for multilingual dissemination. In the small, tea-scented boardroom, the attendant audience were unsure of their collective purpose during these pauses, so allowed their minds to wander far enough afield to be returned to the room shocked and confused by the next burst of speech, thus reinforcing Whylie’s misapprehension that his interludes were necessary for the assembled company. ‘Of course I do not act alone. My partners back at Client Opted Inc., together with the not inconsiderable team of expert advisers that have taken your country on as a special project, are truly honoured that we have been able to work so closely with you. We think of this relationship not as one between two distinct nations on opposite sides of a great ocean, or as one between buyer and seller, contractee and contracted, employer and employee, biller and billed. No, indeed, we think of ourselves as partners, as equals, and we take our shared responsibility for the economic future of your country very seriously indeed.’ Another generous pause allowed enough time for Alix to imagine exposing the interloper as an assassin but not before he himself had taken a non-fatal bullet intended for his president. ‘You are, in fact, one of our top ten clients on a global basis.’ Chuck nodded, smiled, and took the small round of applause graciously. ‘And it is not without some sadness that I see this project beginning to draw to a close. But we understand, as you understand, that this separation is only possible because of our success. We never intended to leave until the job was well done, and I have an impressive set of figures in front of me that suggests the job is nearly done well.’ Nine expectant faces stared at their American consultant. Trained on his ruddy cheeks and suspiciously immaculate manicure were the tiredly interested eyes of Dottore Rossini, the smiling, aloof eyes of Vlad Lubicic, the ebullient, excited, shining orbs of Signor Pompili, the cautious, defensive slump of Signor Cellini, the alert businesslike scrutiny of Signor Feraguzzi and the barely concealed suspicion of Alix. Civicchioni was too personally involved in the project to maintain any impartiality and held himself back from interjecting. Instead, having borrowed a pen from Angelo, he focused on scribbling notes into his margins. ‘Partners! Top Ten!’ he scrawled, emphatically ticking and underlining the praise as it was dealt. Signor Lubicic and Professore Scota were now not looking intently at the American but instead stared jealously at the laptop that Whylie now prodded to life with a few stabs of his index finger. ‘I would like, if I may, to give a brief résumé to contextualize our progress. More than a decade ago, when I first joined you, we were asked by the dear departed Sergio Senior to analyse your strengths and set forward a proposal that would allow you to compete in a global market. What foresight that man had! He understood immediately when Client Opted Inc. set out to explain that not only had you picked the low-hanging fruit but eaten it and forgotten to replant the pips! What we found here was, I’m going to have to admit now to you, disheartening at best.’ Vlad used this latest pause not to be disheartened but to revisit a walk he had taken the previous night with a young woman upon his arm. He sighed and smiled to himself, already imagining the next and the many walks beyond it. Whylie resumed talking and Vlad tumbled back to earth. ‘Even the untrained eye could recognize that your output was simply too negligible to take to the market, and what you did have was cut so fine between your various crops that we had to wonder whether there was anything worth saving. I, of course, was much too young to express it – hey, I was practically in short trousers – but, let’s face it, my boss and your previous president, they spoke the same language. You were nothing more than bit players. A bit of this and a bit of that.’ He stopped to allow his audience to catch up. Dottore Rossini used the break to do a mental walk-through of his hospital, wondering whether he might be able to call in for a quick ward-round between this meeting and his siesta. If the American consultant could just talk a little faster, with a touch more fluency, they would all get out of the Special Furthering of Agricultural Development Committee meeting sooner and achieve more in all of their respective roles, not just those of an agricultural nature. But the doctor had long worried about the American consultant’s mental health and knew he should set an example by being as patient and generous with him as he could. Chuck Whylie, having punctuated one of his uncomfortably long silences with a round of nodding, returned to his soliloquy, having sufficiently damaged any momentum his talk might have gained. He took to his feet and banged his fist on the table to emphasize his point and elicit greater engagement from those whose eyes were politely trained on him. ‘The thing is, gentlemen, you simply had nothing substantial to take to the world stage with any credibility at all. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to stand here in front of you and knock the great effort you made. You had a …’ he sought the right word ‘… an interesting assortment of produce, some of which might have found a niche market, if anyone else had known what on earth it was!’ He laughed alone, so quickly continued: ‘It was then that we set about maximizing your potential. Together, our goal was to plant three thousand hectares of a single crop with commercial prospects. At that time, with a total landmass of 3672 hectares, you had just fourteen hundred given to tea plantation, yet that was the crop you recognized as your core strength, a national symbol no less! But your output was here,’ he stretched out his left hand, ‘and if we could establish a market with a USP that was going to really give us something to work with, the demand was going to be here.’ His right hand reached considerably higher. ‘And, boy, were those two numbers a long way apart.’ The American consultant rested the heels of both hands on the table in front of him and leaned forward, deliberately making eye contact with each of the assembled group. ‘I left you a challenge, if you remember, to set about converting the high land that was at that time little more than waste. And I know, for the sentimental among you, that that was a tough call. People get emotionally attached to the strangest things, a little bit of pasture here, an orchard or two there. But what was it really good for? Nothing!’ He shook his head sadly at the memory. ‘But, hey, guys, I’ve got to hand it to you! You know how to rise to a challenge. By the time I had next returned, not only had you substantially increased the size of your plantation, but had doubled the number of plants you were growing per hectare. What a great achievement that was! And I think, as we take this little jog around Memory Park, we should applaud that achievement.’ The assembled group were in collective mourning for the loss of their orchards so the American consultant clapped alone. ‘But none of us will ever forget that terrible realization when we analysed the results of the first significant year. We just had to face up to the facts. Your best, our best, just wasn’t good enough. With the greatest will in the world, we needed more. We knew there was a market for it, but we weren’t even going to get a nibble without a bulletproof strategy behind us. ‘So, phase two of the review saw more tough decisions as you set about converting the smallholdings of your nation and reclaiming land that was, frankly, in the wrong hands if you wanted to make your country count. ‘As they say, every little bit helps.’ Up on the screen popped a series of statistics, represented by a complex Argand diagram. Most of the assembled group were impressed, both by the clarity of the PowerPoint presentation and to see their work – their nation – featured so positively in a chart. The professor alone understood the methodology behind the diagram and tilted his head to try to interpret the mathematics. The numbers were seemingly nonsensical, expressed as they were by a vertical line of conjecture, but he nodded approval to hide what must surely be his own misinterpretation. The American consultant, having built up his audience’s confidence with praise, dashed it with a slow shake of his head. ‘But you will recall that even those great efforts weren’t enough.’ One by one, the assembled men hung their heads in shame, including the president, whose eyes filled at the memory of his nation’s shortcomings. The consultant broke his silence with a bark: ‘But did we give up? Did we give up on you and turn our backs on a floundering client? No way, siree. When our clients are struggling, we’re struggling. That’s in the small print, remember! That was when our very brightest guys got together and strategized you out of your predicament. You had the benefit of some of the best thinkers in our organization. Blue sky? Forget it. We’re talking about stratospheric thinkers. It was the best of the best, our alpha team, that came up with the final phase of Operation Acorn. It was then that we asked you to gather your men and prepare for the final assault.’ Alix’s sharp intake of breath could be heard around the table. The word ‘assault’ hung painfully in the air and the American consultant grasped it with both hands. Conscious of the power it had granted him, he wrestled metaphor from it with unbridled enthusiasm. ‘From general to foot soldier, you rallied the troops, assembled at the front line and formed the ranks to make the final push. That great effort, the final full-scale attack, allowed momentum to gather. The conversion of gardens and domestic curtilage to full-scale crop production allowed us to break through that final frontier. Together, the effort made on behalf of your people has provided the additional land we needed and I am now delighted to announce that you have met your quota and, with some eighty-eight million tea plants now producing the finest Vallerosan tea, we have enough to sustain a viable export market.’ The most indiscernible of pauses was followed by hearty spontaneous applause and Sergio breathed a huge sigh of relief, as he mopped the sweat from his brow. Throughout the preamble he had been dreading a further postponement of good news and the timing of this delivery was perfect for the week’s campaign plans. Without a note to rely upon, he leaped to his feet and delivered a heartfelt oration. ‘Gentlemen, ministers, advisers, our American consultant. It is on occasions like this that I am able to remind myself of our duty as governors. We are here not simply to uphold law and order but to mould the country for the future. This is a living example of the beauty of Elective Dictatorship – Continuity for Sustainability! – and a perfect instance of the practicality of a government with longevity. We are not merely parliamentary officials, we are custodians! Caretakers of a land that, properly nurtured, we can pass on to our successors with pride. We are responsible not just for creating a legend but delivering that legend, and actually harvesting its crops! My predecessor, my father, instituted a change in policy and that was a brave, bold move, one that has taken more than a decade to implement. It has been implemented now, not without considerable sacrifice and hardship. A weaker leadership might have abandoned the policy much sooner, but because we have been entrusted with the safekeeping of this nation for such a long time, we are able to see through these changes for a much brighter future. A government that is not hampered by the ever-changing direction of new leaders and the policy U-turns that are inevitable as adversaries take to the stage, pulling the country’s people from left to right and back again. We are able to stick to our guns and make a real difference. I’m proud to be part of that change, proud to be part of such a defining moment of our history. ‘Now, honoured guest, would you care to join us in a cup of our finest?’ He raised an empty cup in mock salute. In a synchronized movement, the assembled group swirled the dregs in theirs and brought them to their lips, showing their respect not just to their leader but to the many men and women who had sacrificed their own small plots to meet the targets set by their visitor. The American consultant smiled blankly until he realized he was supposed to join them in their tea-sipping ceremony. He shrugged and twiddled a pencil. The men around him were expecting something more. He shrugged once more, by way of an apology. ‘Guys, guys. I’m from the United States of America, don’t forget that! Tea might be the most popular drink in most nations, and it’s that global potential we’re tapping into here, but I’ve got to tell you, in the great US of A, tea is just not that important. In fact, it trails behind soft drinks, milk, beer and coffee.’ He let this fact sink in and, noting the assembled ministers’ look of disbelief, added for emphasis, ‘Actually, eighty per cent of the tea drunk in the US of A is served cold. I can’t imagine that tea as you know it would feature in any ranking of preferred beverages.’ Enzo Civicchioni visibly paled and there was a low growl of disgust from the commandant. The rest of the men were trying to redefine that strange country, which appeared to be devoid of any good taste or culture. ‘I’ll drink your health at the bar later. Don’t take it personally, guys. I’m just not a tea man.’ With that, he closed his laptop decisively and shuffled his belongings into a neat pile. CHAPTER 7 In Which the President Has Doubt (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) Sergio was meeting in his private chambers with the man formally known as Signor Angelo Bianconi, chief of staff to the president, but more comfortably known by Sergio as Angelo, good friend and occasional drinking partner. A decade the president’s senior, he could easily be mistaken for the younger of the two. Lean, lanky and with an unruly fringe that refused to conform, his habitual lack of tie and jacket, and his blatant disregard for the hierarchical procedures that governed both Parliament and the country, Angelo’s languid nature belied his seniority within the cabinet. He had known Sergio all his life and had been there to share the milestones, from the woefully early death of Sergio’s mother, to the first breathtaking bicycle ride down the north-west run, from his ascendancy to president upon the sudden death of Sergio Senior, to his first non-elective election. As such, Angelo was the only cabinet member who really had the president’s ear. He was confidant, special adviser, chess adversary, bridge partner and, in all but name, the president’s deputy. He leaned forward, paper and pen at the ready, as Sergio paced backwards and forwards. ‘A few thoughts from that session, Angelo. Vlad – find out whom he’s fallen for. If she’s remotely suitable, let’s make sure her father finds out. That will hasten a marriage. And Cellini. He’s making me nervous. Check his bank account, and make sure there’s nothing to worry us. Too much or too little, either way I want to know. If we can rule out bad debt or blackmail, we can begin to work out what’s making him sweat. A speech. I need a good speech on this agricultural policy. I felt I was really on to something earlier. Was there anything there we can work on?’ Angelo consulted his notes. ‘Continuity for sustainability, I liked. And the legend bit, definitely something there. But this is a good-news speech, sir. Good news always takes at least seventy per cent fewer words to deliver than bad. I’ll get going on something straight away.’ The president stood with his back to the room, looking beyond the balcony to the Piazza Rosa. ‘Angelo. Something’s troubling me. I’m relatively new to this game and I understand that Feraguzzi has been running the economy well for a long time, against considerable difficulties, many of which were not of his own making. And I understand, too, that in comparison to our neighbouring countries we have probably fared better than most. But I’m wondering, Angelo, if it all stacks up.’ ‘Stacks up how, sir?’ Angelo came to stand by Sergio and joined him in his appraisal of the view below, understanding that the trickier conversations were always much easier to broach without eye contact. ‘The numbers. Do they add up? If we’re not importing anything, and we’re going to sell everything we’ve got, and all we’ve got now is tea, what are our people actually going to live on?’ Angelo rifled through his mental store of justifications and rationale, supplied with such ease by their American consultant. ‘I suppose, Sergio, it comes down to ambition and desire, whether those things exceed or fall short of our needs and expectations.’ Sergio wanted answers not conjecture: ‘Our needs? But we’ve never needed anything. We’ve always had enough.’ ‘Enough?’ probed Angelo. ‘Yes – enough food, enough tea, enough of everything. We’ve always been able to satisfy our needs without help from anyone.’ Angelo thought about this and tried to remember the consultant’s arguments, which had seemed so compelling, so urgent, at the time. ‘It’s not very fashionable, I mean on a global level, to simply sustain yourself. It seems that by trading and entering into import and export contracts with our neighbours our world standing might improve.’ ‘But do we need our world standing to improve? Our neighbours don’t think ill of us – they don’t think of us at all. And that’s always been fine, hasn’t it? Being ignored by the rest of the world has actually served us quite satisfactorily. And, anyway, why do we need more? Whom do we offend if we’re satisfied with enough?’ ‘I don’t know the answer to that, Sergio. I think we feel a duty to our people to aim higher, to be more ambitious for them.’ Sergio hesitated. Then: ‘I’ve always been interested in the notion of trade, of commerce, Angelo. It seems that the obsession the world has is whether we can ever have enough money to spend. And if we haven’t, how to get our hands on more. But it’s surely no coincidence that the English verb “to spend” can only be applied to the using up of two resources. Money and time. And we can choose how to spend both of these, can’t we? My concern, if I’m honest, is that we could find ourselves in pursuit of money to spend while finding that time is diminishing at an equal rate. We’ll all be working so hard that we won’t any longer have time to do anything else. We’ll have spent it all on the acquisition of money. And as we know that money can buy you pretty much anything but time, is that what we want for our nation?’ Sergio thought quietly for a moment, the puzzle clear in his eyes. ‘And I’m still left wondering, Angelo, what we’re going to live on, if all we’re growing is tea and we sell that to another country. What will we eat?’ Angelo paused. He had a fairly good idea, as he was no different from many of the people who lived in the valley. He had a mother and a brother under his one roof and a table to fill each evening and morning. But supposition in this scenario was not remotely appropriate. ‘I’ll make some enquiries, sir.’ Sergio nodded, giving the outward appearance of a man who had been appeased. CHAPTER 8 In Which a Protestation Is Made (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) Sergio was in his private chambers, writing quietly while the rest of Parliament Hall slumped in May’s debilitating afternoon sun. With the hours of siesta well under way, all was quiet both inside and out and, apart from the rattles, creaks and groans provided by the state apartment, Sergio was able to enjoy something very close to silence. His breathing had begun to steady and he was forcing his mind to concentrate on the speech he was preparing for his State of the Nation address. This speech, as Angelo had indicated, should have been easy. He had good news to deliver, the country had met the challenge made to it by the American consultant and, though he knew that many of the men, particularly those of the land, had always doubted the outcome, he felt that on the whole he had taken them with him, that this had been a cohesive effort of which the whole country could feel proud. But concentrating on writing a positive speech was hard when your subconscious mind was gripped by grim dread. Whichever technique he employed, nothing could shake the feeling that he was teetering on the brink of unmitigated disaster. There was something amiss in the angle at which his minister of finance sat now at assembly meetings. The silence had continued too long after siesta when it should have been broken by children’s laughter or the impromptu playing of music in the Piazza Rosa. Even the weather conspired to unsettle him. Vicious electrical storms and relentless rain showers were followed by the hottest, angriest sun that melted the mettle of everyone in the country. It was shining once again, and its long rays were making inroads into his chambers, picking out the faults and highlighting the dust at play in the air and the loose threads that threatened to unravel the carpet. Sergio’s large, mahogany desk reflected his mood. Sometimes it glowed, proud of the part it played in the presidency, and at others it was a tired piece of timber wearing the many scratches and scuffs that Sergio’s own face bore as thanks for the responsibility he carried. Now, his pen lid replaced with a deafening click, Sergio’s head sank into his hands as the dark knot took hold deep in his belly. He could actually visualize it when he closed his eyes: something black and tumorous, always on the move. Growing and spreading to tighten its grasp on the arteries and veins that fought valiantly against its slippery, superior force. He sighed deeply, knowing that the words would never flow when he was fighting this kernel of anxiety, and rose to retrace the most worn path in the carpet to his favoured position at the window. Today he was looking for something definitive out there, a positive sign that hinted at even the tiniest glimmer of hope. Instead, he had to blink a couple of times to try to banish the image below him. When the mirage persisted, he rubbed his eyes and even backed away from the window, then approached it again in the hope that what was, surely, a sunspot caused by the extremes of light and dark would have vanished. When it stubbornly remained beneath him, he edged shakily to the curtain to peer out at the apparition more closely. Beneath him, not twenty feet from the Parliament Hall railings, and in full sight of the entire Piazza Rosa, should any of its sleepy occupants choose to glance out, stood a protester: a sole man clasping a placard in both hands. He wore charcoal grey flannel trousers with the white shirt and black tie of the educated. And while his sleeves were rolled up and his tie loosened to combat the heat of the early-afternoon sun, he had an air of respectability. Something about the tilt of his head, his proud stature, the shine of his shoes suggested a man of quality. Sergio, palms sweating, his breath caught tightly in his throat, leaned forward as far as he dared to read the words on the placard. ‘Negotii indigeo. Quaeso.’ The use of Latin confirmed Sergio’s immediate assumption. The language of education amplified by the manners of a gentleman. Perhaps this was worse than any of the nightmares he had hitherto imagined, one in which the civilized should revolt. He could understand the country’s few peasants and layabouts taking issue with recent policy, but should the educated decide to rise up, then the nation’s stability was over and it would be his fault. During his jurisdiction, chaos would reign. While acting as caretaker he would be responsible for the country’s first ever conflict and it would be this for which history would remember him. Sergio checked his watch. It would be a while before the city awoke, which was a good thing, but the timing was poor in that most of his ministers, including Angelo, would have wandered home for a bite to eat and a sleep. There was absolutely nobody around that he could call upon. So, wiping his sweating palms on his dressing-gown and licking his dry lips, he braced himself for confrontation, something he feared more – if possible – than the humiliation that the alternative offered. He slid the windows open and moved quietly onto the balcony. Obscuring himself in part behind one of the columns he signalled to the protester with as loud a hiss as he dared. The young man continued to look straight ahead, placard held aloft for the world to read and laugh at. Sergio stood out a little from the shadows and hissed again. This time the noise registered and the protester cocked his head, squinting towards the balcony. On a third signal he took the bait properly, moving one or two tentative steps forward to ensure that the shadowy man on the balcony was actually addressing him. ‘Come, come closer – quickly, quickly!’ Sergio beckoned with one hand while using the other to ensure that his dressing-gown stayed firmly closed. The protester looked left and right to ensure that the soporific palace guards weren’t going to stir themselves into action and came as far as he could, still holding the placard while straining to look up through the railings to the balcony above him. ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’ hissed Sergio from the shadows. ‘I’m making a peaceful protest.’ The agitator stood firm, still sure of his actions. ‘Against what are you protesting?’ said Sergio, still in stage whisper. ‘Against the governm—’ At that moment the young man recognized the robed man on the balcony above him. ‘Against you. Sir.’ ‘Well, that’s no way to go about it. Make an appointment to see somebody. What about Signor Lubicic? Have you spoken to him about it?’ ‘Of course not,’ the protester shouted. Sergio silenced him with a finger to his mouth. The young man dropped his voice once more. ‘Of course not,’ he repeated, in a hoarse whisper. ‘Signor Lubicic is a government official. I am just a student.’ ‘Just a student? Just a student? Do you know how privileged you are to receive an education, provided by your government? What about the minister for education? Have you spoken to Professore Scota? He deals with all matters pertaining to education, satisfactory or otherwise. Make an appointment to see him if you’re not satisfied with just being a student!’ ‘That is not an option that is open to me,’ the student protester retorted. ‘You don’t just make appointments to speak to government officials. That’s why I’m protesting.’ ‘Well,’ said Sergio, sternly, ‘quite frankly, I’d rather you didn’t.’ The student protester became a little more agitated. ‘But I want my voice to be heard. I have serious issues to raise and I need an audience – an audience equipped to listen and take action.’ ‘Well, speak now. You have an audience. I am your president and, as such, I am equipped both to listen and to take action. Get on with it – there’s no time like the present. Speak to me now.’ With this, Sergio thumped his hand on the balcony balustrade allowing his dressing-gown to fall open. He clasped it to him, now furious at the protester and his own less than professional attire. ‘Well, sir, with all due respect, the points I have to make are worthy of a more formal recourse. Apart from anything else, I’m not sure I can keep this whisper up for very much longer.’ With a stamp of his foot, Sergio whispered, ‘Oh, very well,’ and disappeared back inside, sliding the doors behind him. Below, in the square, the minutes ticked slowly by and the student was unsure whether to flee before imminent arrest and possible detention, or to wait obediently and possibly indefinitely. But soon the president reappeared at a small door almost immediately below the balcony. He opened it just a few inches and beckoned the student to join him. ‘How do I get through the railings?’ asked the student. ‘Through the gate,’ came the exasperated reply. ‘The palace guards are at the gate. Will they let me in?’ ‘Not that gate.’ Sergio was enraged at the suggestion that this wanton dissenter might drag his protest any more publicly through Piazza Rosa. ‘Through this gate – my gate.’ He pointed to a small gate that broke the otherwise continuous fence line. With nothing but the smallest catch to differentiate it, it was no wonder that the student had missed it on his first cursory inspection. The young man laid his placard at his feet. ‘Don’t leave that there. Anyone could see it. Bring it with you.’ The student picked it up and tucked it under one arm. He tiptoed through the gate, closing it quietly behind him, and up the path to join the president, who was now wearing a casual pair of trousers and a shirt, his braces hanging down in loops at either side. In silence, the two men traipsed upstairs, the president leading, too hot and bothered to consider any potential security threat, the student following, with the barest trace of a smile, born of his own audacity in taking on the government and finding himself in this most unlikely of pairings. They entered Sergio’s private chambers where the president ushered his visitor to one of the lion’s-claw-footed chairs in front of the desk. The young man lowered himself, politely tweaking his trousers at the knees, a habit he had adopted to avoid creasing while at his studies. ‘Name?’ said Sergio, wresting authority out of the so-far-unsatisfactory exchange. He pulled a clean notepad towards him and dipped his pen into the ink with a flourish. ‘Woolf.’ ‘Son of Renzo Woolf?’ ‘Nephew.’ ‘Hmm. Yes, yes, I think I know those Woolfs. Occupation? Yes, yes, of course. Student.’ Sergio pushed the notepad away from him and leaned back in his chair, shaking his head slowly as though addressing a small child. ‘And, young Mr Woolf, do you not think that before your rebellious and potentially inciteful protest, you might have found another less confrontational means to express your dissatisfaction with me?’ Sergio felt in control again. Perhaps he might not be the most skilled negotiator when dealing with dissidents but this was a Woolf and Woolfs he could deal with. He raised his eyes to meet the pale green pair gazing fearlessly back at him. ‘I wrote to you first.’ Sergio shrugged to indicate that he had never received any correspondence. ‘Perhaps it got lost in the post,’ he countered. ‘No. I delivered it myself. I handed it to the palace guards. And before writing to you I wrote to the ministers for employment and education. And before writing to them I wrote to the head of the university, and before writing to him I requested a meeting with my tutor, who felt he was not in a position to take up my cause. When all my letters went unanswered, I chose to demonstrate my disquiet with a peaceful protest.’ ‘And to whom, exactly, have you spoken about your so-called peaceful protest? Am I dealing with a lone Woolf, or are there more protesters out there, waiting to attack the very fabric with which this society is woven?’ ‘Well, actually, I have spoken to nobody. It was – it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. It wasn’t really until this afternoon that I decided to protest.’ Sergio leaned further forward, looking deeply into Woolf’s eyes. ‘And you’re quite sure of this? There’s no underground movement that I should know about, spreading malaise and unease among my people?’ Woolf shook his head. ‘No secret late-night meetings, fuelled by unlicensed drink and Western song lyrics?’ ‘No, sir, none that I know of.’ Still, Woolf continued to meet Sergio’s gaze. ‘And your dissatisfaction, Woolf, is with what exactly?’ Once again, Sergio dipped his pen, ready to take notes. ‘It’s quite simple. As my placard says, I need a job. I’m looking for employment, sir.’ Sergio was partly disgusted, partly relieved. ‘But you’re a student! Surely you’ll follow the course of all students and when you’ve finished your education you’ll use the skills you have gained to find an appropriate position in the employment market.’ ‘But, sir,’ Woolf cried, ‘I’m thirty-two years old! I’ve been in full-time education since I was five! That’s twenty-seven years! And for most of those years I’ve been continually promised an appropriate position once I’ve completed my studies.’ Genuinely baffled, Sergio probed deeper: ‘But until you’ve graduated, you’re still officially a student and therefore not available for employment.’ ‘Exactly,’ said Woolf, in frustration. ‘But when will that be? I’ve a master’s. I’ve a PhD. I can speak Italian, French, English, Latin and Russian fluently. I’m ready to take a step into adult life but I have absolutely no prospects whatsoever. When I think I’m ready to graduate, I’m press-ganged into yet another few years of full-time education. When is it going to end?’ Sergio let out a low chuckle with what he hoped was a combination of contempt and ridicule. ‘Well, really, as president you’d think I’d have heard it all. But of all the ungrateful whining adolescents I’ve ever heard … Do you know what a privilege it is to be so educated? There are people around the world for whom access to even the most basic levels of literacy and numeracy would be considered a luxury yet you have the nerve to sit here and blame me for giving you too much free education? You should be grateful that your tutors consider you worthy of such great investment.’ Sergio scribbled wildly on his notepad while he contemplated his next move. Woolf was unable to decipher the notes upside-down, and when Sergio got a sense that he was trying to read them, he put a protective arm between them and his onlooker. Finally he stopped writing and carefully turned over the paper, away from prying eyes. ‘So, you want a job,’ he began. ‘What sort of job? What do you want to achieve? Where do you live?’ ‘With my parents, of course, and my brothers.’ ‘Good, good. So you have no cause for complaint. You have a roof over your head and food on your table when you get home. Good food and a decent roof, if I remember the Woolfs correctly. Yes?’ ‘Yes, of course. I have a nice home and good food.’ ‘And you are intellectually stimulated every day. Your tutors continue to challenge you?’ ‘Yes, indeed. I have excellent tutors – they have much to offer.’ ‘And you think, with the wonderful arrogance of youth, that you have learned everything you can, that you know as much as those entrusted with your edification?’ Woolf lowered his eyes for the first time since the line of questioning began. ‘No, no, of course not. There is much still for me to learn.’ ‘So, remind me. You have a comfortable home, food on the table, and are challenged every day intellectually. You protest against what, exactly? Which element of your human rights have I abused, would you suggest?’ ‘I – I have no complaints now to speak of. It’s the future I’m most concerned about, my prospects. I’ve lost sight of where I’m going.’ Sergio threw back his head and laughed, while Woolf fiddled nervously with his fingers in his lap. ‘Now I really have heard it all. I am the president of a great nation and my time is best spent offering counsel to young students. You have lost sight of where you’re going? Well, my young friend, I suggest you do one of two things. You acquire a compass or you do what the wise have been doing for many thousands of years.’ Sergio leaned forward to whisper this nugget of advice: ‘You live for the moment! Enjoy your student years because, trust me, when you’re an old man, worn small through hard toil, you will look back on them as the best of your life.’ He leaned back in his chair. ‘Chess? I always find it clears the air.’ Woolf nodded and sat looking around the fine room while Sergio set up the board. The president glanced at his watch. ‘Tea will arrive soon. Shall we?’ They played, barely exchanging a word as tea arrived, was strained and poured. The game continued briskly, silently, and, despite Woolf’s very best undertaking, it called upon almost none of the many strategic outcomes Sergio had at his disposal. As Sergio removed Woolf’s queen with a flourish, he bowed his head in recognition of a battle nobly fought, but lost nevertheless. ‘Your education, young man, will be complete when you can beat me at chess. And when that time arrives, come and see me and I will employ you myself.’ Woolf stood up, under no illusion that the meeting had drawn to a close. ‘See yourself out, will you?’ Sergio gave a dismissive wave. With that, he turned his attention back to the notes he had been working on earlier. Before Woolf had quietly left the room he was brandishing his pen, continuing his line of thinking with renewed fervour. Sergio pushed the disputation to the furthest reaches of his mind as he worked late into the night. Though he was confident that he had effectively dealt with the infringement and banished the memory, his sleep was restless and interrupted by the relentless imagery of attack. When he awoke suddenly the next morning, exhausted as if he had not slept at all, he sat bolt upright, the sweat running freely, gluing his pyjamas to his skin. He experienced a flood of relief as he became aware of his surroundings – his bed, his bedside table, his fireplace, his pile of books – but this was quickly replaced by a renewed and exaggerated sense of panic. He had not dreamed the noises after all. There was another bang and then another. Gunshots, some quite close, were filling the valley. He gripped the bedcovers tightly and, acutely aware that he had no intention of being overthrown in his pyjamas, swung his legs out of bed, his mind set upon dressing as quickly as possible. In those mid-air moments, when his feet had freed themselves from the twisted, clammy sheets but had not yet hit the floor, he became aware of other noises – dogs barking and the low, indecipherable shouts of men. The animals’ excitable squeals and their range, from faint yaps that suggested they were far up in the hills to the louder barks that intimated they were just above the town, sent slow signals to Sergio’s sleep-fuddled brain. He lowered his feet to the carpet and listened intently. The leisurely ‘Peee-eww’ of a buzzard punctuated the frenzied cacophony on the ground, and this final contribution to Nature’s orchestra allowed Sergio to place what had been the noises of a siege on Parliament Hall. Saturday morning. An automatic lifting of the hunting ban. The men were out in full force, combing the hillsides and rooting out the wily wild boar that were now leading them and their dogs on a merry dance through woodland scrub and tea plantation. The desperate baying of the dogs closest to the town did not necessarily signal a sighting but that they had picked up the scent of other dogs belonging to another hunting party. In this way the men and their beasts could happily lose the first few hours of the weekend hot on the trail of each other. When guns were fired they were most likely being fired into the air to warn other hunting parties that the sound of crashing through scrubland was caused by them, not by a swine giving chase. Occasionally, through the clash of a boar’s misfortune and a man’s serendipity, contact between bullet and pig hide would be made and the happy hunters would return home with a tusked trophy on which to feast. Almost as often, though, it would be the shooter’s foot that warranted attention. It was not unusual for the tired, dispirited men to return home with a wounded stalker slung between them on a makeshift stretcher. As Sergio flopped back onto his bed, trying to decipher the different cries that echoed back and forth from either side of the valley, he put his hand to his heart and felt the beat gradually settle to a steadier pace. His panic had subsided, but the sleep that claimed him now was uneasy and his dreams provided him with no respite from the impending sense of doom that increasingly dominated his waking hours. CHAPTER 9 In Which PEGASUS Has Her Wings Clipped (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) The PEGASUS steering group met with increased frequency as the early June deadline drew closer. Sergio now oscillated between great optimism and unalloyed dread, and his men, guided by the lightest touch from Angelo, did their best to anticipate, interpret and respond appropriately to the increasingly frenetic swings in his mood. The solitary protester’s stand had unsettled the president more than he had at first realized, and the impact on his behaviour was immense. Where he had experienced moments of self-doubt before, he now lived almost perpetually in fear of imminent failure. And though Sergio Senior had been dead for some years, it was his father he most feared failing. When Woolf had appeared on that sultry afternoon, Sergio had been momentarily proud to have dealt with the matter singlehandedly. But the ramifications of acting alone now ran deep: the memory rattled around in his brain only, haunting him day and night. There was nobody with whom to share the burden so the protester’s significance was greatly magnified by memory. It was hard to say who bore the brunt of his vacillations. There were moments when Feraguzzi’s economic strategies seemed the root cause of Sergio’s dissatisfaction. At other times, Alixandria Heliopolis Visparelli was to blame for either his lackadaisical border controls or his over-zealous military presence, which was clearly the underlying reason for the distinctly dour disposition of the citizens. Scota was simply confused when an accusatory finger pointed towards him, while Cellini, Mosconi and Pompili took turns to cower in the background, shuffling their colleagues into the limelight in an unlikely imitation of chivalry. The one person who remained untouched by the preparations was Chuck Whylie: he kept to his own quarters, only venturing out to the university to catch up with his email, the purpose of which seemed to be to make snide and inappropriate comments at his hosts’ expense. If the consultant had picked up on the increasing tensions in the city and among the ministers, he failed to show it. If anything, he appeared more self-satisfied than ever. At the penultimate meeting of the PEGASUS steering group, as the days stretched out to show their true potential, Sergio assembled the quorum and made an unexpected announcement. ‘I cannot risk a Big Celebration on the night of the arrival of our royal visitor. There is simply too much at stake.’ Twelve pairs of eyebrows shot up simultaneously. For the previous two and a half months the men’s collective focus had been almost exclusively upon the impending Big Celebration. The food, the drink, the security, the protocol, the music, the dancing, each detail had been prescribed. Angelo, the least cowed by his president’s moods, spoke first. ‘Sir, with respect, our main focus has been on the Big Celebration. Will it not be a considerable disappointment to the people if there is to be no party?’ ‘I did not suggest that there would be no party,’ snapped Sergio, imperiously. ‘What I cannot risk is a Big Celebration, planned by the government. If the party is not well attended, if the crowd attendance falls below expectation, if the music is sub-standard, if the atmosphere is dull, if the wine does not flow, if the food is not the tastiest that has ever been served, then the political ramifications will be enormous.’ Sergio accompanied each scenario with a thump of his fist on the table and followed his inventory of potential pitfalls with a slow and deliberate appraisal of the assembled men, glaring at each in turn, sparing none. ‘I don’t think any of you has grasped the importance of this period in my political career. The date for my re-election is set for just after midsummer. There is absolutely no time for any political recovery between the Big Celebration and election day.’ Signor Posti piped up – somebody was clearly expected to respond to this challenge. ‘With respect, sir, we’re not anticipating any difficulty at re-election. The mood of the nation is good, we have positive news to report, we’re expecting less than a handful of negative option returns, and I can probably tell you who will be responsible for those …’ ‘Well,’ countered Sergio slowly, fathomless contempt dripping from every syllable, ‘I keep my ear a little closer to the political ground than you do, Signor Posti, and I think you overestimate the mood of the electorate.’ Rolando Posti examined his fingernails and waited for another voice to fill the considerable chasm the president’s words had left in the air. ‘So,’ ventured Rossini, after a prolonged and painful silence, ‘what are you suggesting? That we cancel the Big Celebration?’ ‘Cancel the—’ spluttered Sergio. ‘Are you mad? I hope you’re substantially more skilled at healing the sick than you are at managing political unrest. No, I’m suggesting that we replace the Big Celebration with a spontaneous outpouring of jubilation.’ ‘Spontaneous?’ echoed at least half of the gathered men. ‘Yes, I want a party organized by the people, for the people, on the spur of the moment.’ Sergio looked around him, as if this was the most obvious idea he had yet put forward. It was clear from a dozen blank stares, however, that he needed to enlighten them further. ‘That way, if the party is a disaster, it will be the fault of the electorate. If it is a success, it will be our triumph for providing an atmosphere conducive to the flourishing of such impulsive festivity. I want our visitor to witness a nation that can literally burst into merrymaking.’ The men kept their eyes firmly on the president for fear that a shared glance between one and another might constitute betrayal. ‘And,’ ventured Civicchioni, tentatively, ‘who would you like to, er, spearhead the spontaneity?’ Impatient at the stupidity of the question, Sergio responded, enunciating each word as if addressing a particularly stupid child, ‘The committee, of course. Do you think I’d leave something as important as this to chance?’ He snapped shut his notebook, pushed his chair back and, with exaggerated irascibility, flounced from the room. Angelo turned to a clean page in his notebook. ‘Right, gentlemen, you heard the boss. A spontaneous outpouring of jubilation it is.’ ‘And don’t forget to schedule some merrymaking,’ quipped Scota, but Angelo silenced him with a look, reminding them that merrymaking was no joking matter. The men continued to sit and talk, each individually wishing to honour his president’s demands and to take the instruction seriously, but each also knowing that what had been asked of them was both illogical and impossible. CHAPTER 10 In Which a Royal Visitor Arrives (#u3c792d31-806d-5bdc-a81f-be19d4816de8) The VIP was due to arrive on the 05.05 freight train, the only one to stop in Vallerosa. The track actually serviced a major network that began in the French Alps to the south-west and ended in Austria to the north-east and managed, through the judicial placing of a mountainous outcrop, to carve a narrow route through the uppermost corner of the country. This meander across Vallerosan soil lasted less than three kilometres, but the government of the time, led by Sergio’s canny grandfather, had been quick to recognize the opportunity: it had granted permission to the rail company to lay the track across a corner of its land. In return the rail company would provide, at their cost, a station and a generous annual stipend with which to manage it. At the time, the deal had been heralded as an international negotiation of unparalleled success, and many days of celebration and festivity had followed. Sergio’s grandfather had earned himself the nickname ‘the Deal Maker’, and had justly garnered the praise of his fellow citizens, who now had access to and from other countries. The Deal Maker, however, was not blessed with the wisest of financial counsel, and while the fee paid by the rail company had seemed a grand gift from the heavens, the incumbent minister of finance had failed to negotiate an annual increase in line with inflation or any other monetary index. Over the intervening decades the annual income had been eroded by the ravages of economics, and today the stipend barely covered the wage of the part-time ticket collector. Whether it was a reflection on the retrospective change of circumstances, or the genuine linguistic trickery that often takes place when a name is translated from one language to another, via Latin, and back again, Sergio’s grandfather was remembered now in the history books as ‘the Big Deal’; the ambiguity of the moniker suited those with a fond, ever-patriotic nostalgia for the previous regimes as well as those who remembered less kindly the deals with which the country was now lumbered in perpetuity. Three times a day the diesel would roar through Vallerosa, accelerating as it drew towards the station. Curving dangerously as it sped past, the passengers on board might just glimpse the short platform and the black and red flag snapping in the train’s draught. Since the mid-1940s, the passenger trains had no longer stopped in Vallerosa, and this arrangement suited the current administration. While civilization had mercifully ignored or forgotten the small country during two world wars, today’s increasingly unstable climate would have required the opening up of rigorous border patrols, including a full-time Customs and Immigration Service. Demand for travel to the country was negligible and as no one in the world had yet come up with any particular reason to visit Vallerosa, the current traffic was restricted to a single freight train stopping once a day. Upon this service, the occasional visitor might have negotiated a fare and, depending on the amount of currency that changed hands, take their chances with a seat among the parcels and packages in the mail carriages or secure a much comfier ride in the driver’s cabin, where there were two springy fold-down chairs and copious amounts of tea from the seemingly bottomless urn. From there visitors would alight, crumpled, disoriented and in desperate need of the washrooms that waited, spotlessly clean, to service them. The current stationmaster, Gabboni, relished his dual role as ticket and passport inspector. Indeed, he had one of the most enviable roles in the country. Admittedly he must be up early to greet the train each morning, but for most of the time he lived a relaxed and solitary life, tasked with keeping the station platform swept, the toilets and washrooms stocked with paper and towels, and ensuring there was always a glorious display of hanging baskets and window boxes to guarantee that one’s very first sighting of Vallerosa was a positive experience. Each year several intrepid travellers would deliberately set out to discover this most elusive of countries for themselves and Gabboni dedicated himself to welcoming them. On the whole, this group was made up of hikers and mountaineers, historians and students of General Isaak von Bunyan, explorers, cartographers and tea connoisseurs, who had heard talk of rare flavours and properties of the local brew. But there were many more whose visit was entirely accidental. Typically, these weary travellers would have embarked on a night train somewhere in the pretty hills of the north-east of Italy, or as far back as the south-eastern tip of France, and would have awoken suddenly, confused, to the screech of the diesel brakes and a neck-jerking deceleration. They would shake themselves awake to the incomprehensible realization that they were pulling into a station, although they had been told, in many multilingual announcements, that there were no further stops along the way. Leaping to their feet, hastily grabbing their luggage from the rack above their head, they would hurl themselves and their cases from the train on the false assumption that either they had slept through the country they were intending to visit or they had arrived at their destination slightly ahead of schedule. While the statistics would almost certainly be excluded from the annual report issued by the minister for tourism, it is fair to guess that the majority of visitors to Vallerosa would have begun their unintentional visit with a glance at their watch, a quick but futile calculation of any number of time zones they might have crossed during their eastward journey, and a hurried exit from the train, tumbling to the platform alongside the mailbag, in the pre-dawn darkness. Internal panic rising, they would turn to see Vinsent Gabboni emerging from the shadows, smiling the knowing smile of a stationmaster who has seen it all before, many times. Gabboni, so keen to protect that most coveted of positions, ensured that he did every aspect of his job with absolute diligence. And so, on the rare occasions when a visitor chose to stop at that crease of a country, he would draw himself up to his full five foot seven inches and guarantee that the visitor, American or otherwise, was treated with the unabridged Vallerosan welcome. Having allowed his visitor to alight, he would walk purposefully towards them to greet them. First he would place a friendly hand on each shoulder, and then, staring into the eyes of the often startled traveller, he would pronounce, syllable by syllable (always respectful of most foreigners’ lack of learning), ‘Your weary feet can find comfort here, your wandering soul can find answers, your heavy heart can find solace and your parched mouth can be quenched.’ Then, before the visitor had had time to recover, he would draw them firmly to his chest, laying his head briefly on their right shoulder. With a slap on the back, they would be ushered into the waiting room to meet him in his official capacity as junior minister in charge of Customs and Immigration. While the visitor would reorient himself in the small, tidy waiting room, wondering if, perhaps, he had been mistaken for somebody else, Gabboni’s head and shoulders would reappear alarmingly through the hitherto unnoticed hatch in the wall. This very special morning, which had begun more than an hour before with the unruly clanging of the church bells, it had been decreed that Gabboni’s special welcome alone was not enough for the expected VIP. There had been much debate, both in Il Gallo Giallo, and in Parliament itself, as to who, or what, would be most appropriate to form a welcoming party. At the peak of the debate, it had been suggested that Sergio himself might be there to greet the visitor but Angelo had spelled out the danger of allowing the visitor to think that too much significance had been attached to the occasion. In the end, it was felt by all that Sergio must retain a healthy detachment and act with the standoffish dignity of a leader who was accustomed to (perhaps even bored by) state visits. Eventually, through a rigorous process of elimination, three ministers had been duly elected to form the welcoming party. Settimio Mosconi, the minister for tourism, was an obvious choice, and with the addition of the ministers for recreation and leisure, it was felt that just the right level of gravitas without obsequiousness had been attained. It was agreed by all that Vinsent Gabboni had excelled himself. The station gleamed, while the scents of geranium and rose made all three ministers proud to be Vallerosan. Mosconi’s shoulders heaved and he was seen brushing the back of his hand across each eye, but whether this was because the moment was charged with emotion or because the air carried a little dust that dry morning was open to speculation. Gabboni had unrolled the red linoleum, reserved for just this type of occasion but which had only been called upon once before. On that occasion, Sergio had left the country for a week’s visit to his neighbouring countries but returned just two days later, apparently because his work had been accomplished with unrivalled efficiency; those closer to him wondered if he had been homesick. With a full ten minutes to go before the scheduled arrival of the train, the three men took their place. Initially they ordered themselves tourism, recreation, leisure, but the gradually descending height differential added a comic dimension that was neither dignified nor intended and they quickly regrouped with tourism, the tallest, flanked on either side by recreation and leisure. On this solemn occasion, Gabboni had been relegated to the ticket office but he was proud and excited to be included and had, without either the knowledge or permission of Mosconi, agreed to head afterwards for Il Toro Rosso where he would hand an exclusive scoop to Edo Cannoni, a post-graduate English student who aspired to run the country’s only independent newspaper, the Vallerosan Reporter. As this newspaper was still an idle dream, young Edo was resigned – apparently indefinitely – to running the student newspaper and it would be to the thundering photocopying machine in the basement of the university that he would turn once his copy was filed. The sound of the diesel engine cut through the clear morning air and could be heard for some minutes before it eventually slowed to a screeching halt at the small station. A few moments later, two heads poked out of the driver’s cabin door, which swung back fully on itself. A smallish sports bag, with a tennis racquet strapped to its spine, was thrown to the platform. This was soon followed by the unceremonious dumping of a large rucksack, which hit the ground heavily, raising a cloud of dust. Moments later, two tired visitors stepped down from the train and looked, first, at the line-up of smartly saluting men to their right, then to their left, where the end of the platform and the tracks curving into the distance offered no alternative exit route. The middle-aged man stepped forward, casually slinging his jacket over one shoulder and picking up the sports bag in his other hand. The three ministers held their breath. There was, they admitted to themselves later, a degree of disappointment that this man, clearly a man in charge, had not thought to dress in official uniform and hadn’t even deigned to sport a necktie. But, of course, they quickly rationalized, for security reasons it must be safer to travel incognito and, with no security men to accompany him, this precaution was probably very wise. They shared, too, their simultaneous reaction to the second visitor, previously partly shielded by the man. Lagging behind, having taken a few seconds to heave her heavy rucksack to her back, she hurried forward to catch up with her travelling companion, falling into step silently beside him. The three ministers, in unison, dropped their saluting hands to their sides and stared, unprofessionally, unabashed and unashamed, at the tallest and most beautiful woman they had ever set eyes on. Not even the sum of their combined dreams had yielded anything quite as mouth-wateringly, tear-jerkingly heavenly as the vision that now walked towards them. Perhaps the equestrian habits of their forebears were behind their unanimous thoughts as they sized up (with the open admiration of stockmen at market with a full purse to spend) her powerful legs, her wide but graceful shoulders, her magnificent neck and incredibly strong, shiny white teeth. The sun had not yet risen and still her pale hair glowed in a luminescent halo, as if illuminated from within. The few short seconds, as she strolled towards them, spiralled recklessly into cinematic-quality slow-motion as each man harboured unsolicited images, set to the music of harpsichords and tumultuous cymbals, of tumbling naked limbs, of the strong hindquarters of Arabian stud horses, of Amazonian hunters, of peach-skinned necks, of open mouths revealing rows and rows of pearlescent teeth, of whips and jodhpurs and the palest, smoothest, roundest buttocks. The tall blonde woman approached the welcoming party, first with a little trepidation and then with confidence, as she realized that these three uniformed gentlemen, each resplendent with shiny ribbons and glinting medals, were there to meet her and her fellow traveller. She towered over the man beside her as her generous mouth spread into a wide smile and she stepped forward, her right hand held out. The male visitor shuffled forward, hand extended, with a puzzled smile. The two weary travellers were greeted with a moment’s confusion followed by three stiff salutes. Mosconi was the first to gain control of his senses. He wrestled the sports bag from the gentleman, falling smartly into step beside him and only dropping back when it was apparent that they could not both fit through the turnstile at once. In an embarrassing moment of previously undefined protocol, the tall blonde woman was left alone behind the men. With her sunglasses now pushing her silky hair off her face, she waited to have her paperwork examined. Gabboni’s moment had arrived, but the agreed-upon procedure had disintegrated. On receipt of the required documents, he looked for leadership from Mosconi, who met his eye with a stern shake of the head. He grasped both lots of paperwork tightly to his chest, bowed low and returned it to the owners. With a small scuffle, the dignitaries and visitors shuffled themselves into order, passing through the turnstile one by one and stepping out to meet the rising sun. The blonde had been delighted by the sweet-smelling station, enthralled by the formal greeting and enchanted by the warmth of Gabboni’s cursory ticket inspection. But nothing had prepared her for the view that met her as she passed through the ticket office to the station forecourt. The sun was poking its head above the far valley wall, and its gentle light was starting to penetrate the vast crevasse below. The landscape of Vallerosa was unique, for virtually its entire landmass was dominated by the steep walls that rose dramatically from either side of the powerful river Florin. The country tilted, too, from north to south, which lent drama to the water, which tumbled and frothed as it made its way through the mountainous region. The only land that could properly be considered horizontal was the plain at the top of the valley, on which the passengers now stood. For as far as the eye could see, the land there was host to hundreds of hectares of tea plantations. To anyone visiting Vallerosa for the first time, this view was quite literally breathtaking. The elaborately whorled tea plants at the top of the valley, resembling acres and acres of tightly quilted velvet, gave way to the city, which clung precariously to the valley walls. Houses, built from a uniform red rock, seemed hewn from the cliffs. And now, as the sun began to play on the rapids below, the river Florin began to reveal its many hues. ‘Oh, my gosh!’ the tall blonde squealed, clapping her hands together in delight. ‘It’s absolutely gorgeous. I had no idea!’ Despite her height, she skipped daintily forward, breathing deeply, then turned to face the ministers. ‘It’s really, really lovely! I can’t believe I’m here at last!’ She gambolled forward and ran her hands across the closest of the tea plants. The densely packed leaves gave under her touch and bounced back into place obediently as she marvelled at the plantation. A goat lifted its narrow head from beneath the leaves and stared unblinkingly at her. It bleated half-heartedly and disappeared again. Around the animal, the shrubs panned out, filling every spare inch between the station and the start of the city. The combination of dark, glossy leaf and the red town below stirred something in the visitor and she stared, open-mouthed, into the distance. Remembering herself at last, she returned to her small audience. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/seni-glaister/the-museum-of-things-left-behind/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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