When the power cut came, only the loss of lighting caused any real problem. After all, the central heating was never sufficiently reliable for anyone to rely on it. So there were log fires already burning. Logs were in plentiful supply, unlike most other necessities. And although the nibbles couldn’t be properly heated, that did not add significantly to the normal risk of salmonella from food purchased locally.
The loss of the music wasn’t much of a problem. Embassy diplomatic cocktail parties didn’t normally have stirring martial music in the background, but that’s what the local President liked and the Ambassador’s policy was to give the local President everything he wanted that caused no-one significant harm. She hoped it might encourage him to reciprocate occasionally. As it happened, though, most things which the President liked did cause someone harm. That was why he liked them. Anyway, the Ambassador was finding that the President was not a man who reciprocated thoughtfulness. Quite the reverse. So she was rather relieved as the silence descended.
At many other types of party, the loss of the lights wouldn’t have been a major problem, either. Indeed, in some it would have been a positive boon: a consummation devoutly to be wished, as the Ambassador might have put it, had she been thinking along those lines, as she had a habit of quoting Shakespeare. Darkness at those types of party would have facilitated a variety of other consummations, one might say. However, diplomatic cocktail parties were not of those types (or not normally – parties hosted by Italian embassies and attended by Silvio Berlusconi in his days of power were reputed to be exceptions).
At this party, the first problem was that it drew the guests’ attention to a certain inefficiency within the embassy which the Ambassador (a highly ambitious young woman who liked to think she was at the bottom of an ambassadorial ladder whose top rung rested in Washington) found embarrassing. This was the lack of battery and oil-powered lighting as back-up, which, given the frequency of power cuts, was the normal procedure; the omission being the fault of the newly appointed Assistant Attaché (Trainee), to whom the task had been entrusted.
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) would later defend himself by pointing out that he had been unable to find batteries or paraffin available for either purchase or barter in ‘this god-forsaken country’, as he misguidedly described it under the stress of the interview with the Ambassador. No one had told him that such essential supplies, along with many others, including baked beans, brandy, proper English sausages, aspirin and soft toilet paper were regularly delivered by diplomatic bag and stored in the embassy basement.
The ‘god-forsaken country’ was one of those small states in central Asia which for centuries had been either part of the Mongol or Persian empires, or subject to constant invasion and rule by Gokturks, Uzbeks and a bunch of other peoples with k’s and z’s in their names, later becoming part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. Its current status of independence was a novelty and, frankly, a bit of a burden after a couple of millennia of being told what to do. Its name consisted of eleven consonants followed by ‘stan’ and it was therefore unofficially known in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office as Thingistan.
It measured about two hundred miles by one hundred, half being desert and the other half consisting of mountains and trackless forest. The borders had been fixed in a way which happened to exclude any of the nearby gas or oil fields or, indeed, any other significant natural resources apart from very low grade timber and abundant sand of little practical use. The climate was continental, with temperatures ranging from over forty degrees in the desert summer to under minus forty degrees in the mountain winter.
Responsible for a population of between one and two million and one of the two worst economies within several thousand miles in any direction, government was by a system known to the diplomatic world as Transitional Democracy. This meant in reality (or in Thingistan it did) that the President, a brutal dictator referred to in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as the Thug, was re-elected from time to time by ninety-eight per cent of the adult population, the other two per cent usually disappearing shortly afterwards. For the majority of the population, therefore, the award of independence had been only a move from external oppression to internal oppression. So at least life felt familiar. The only doubt about the President’s complete control was a persistent rumour that his wife had him, domestically at least, under her thumb.
The rival, incidentally, for the title of worst economy was that of Thingistan’s neighbour and twin, a country known in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as Theotheristan. Its President was the Thingistan President’s brother-in-law and the two countries were in a state of perpetual war. This had produced few casualties, mainly because neither country had an army large enough to do anything other than concentrate on repressing internal dissent. It was therefore carried on largely by diplomatic notes and the occasional abusive telephone call or email, whenever the communication systems could be made to work.
The British Ambassador’s job, apart from representing British interests in the country, insofar as there were any, consisted of trying to assist Thingistan to improve relations with its neighbour, to relieve its widespread poverty, to move from its version of Transitional Democracy to something bearing a slight resemblance to genuine democracy, and to improve its record on human rights. As it happens, there was no equivalent to ‘human rights’ in the local language (Thingish, according to the informal Foreign and Commonwealth Office vocabulary), so the English phrase was used instead. But the President, if he ever used the expression, tended to spell it ‘human rites’ which was his little jokey name for torture.
Among the guests at the cocktail party, apart from the President, his wife and several ridiculously be-medalled government ministers, were a number of other ambassadors; in particular that of an influential and more substantial neighbouring country which was rather better at democracy and human rights than Thingistan. The British Ambassador was hoping he might have just a small amount of influence on the Thug. Her problem was that she had also had to invite the ambassadors of a couple of similar nearby countries whose systems of government were not significantly different from Thingistan’s, and whose dictators proved just how filthy rich it was possible for a really determined dictator to become.
Also present, as an afterthought, were some British businessmen who had been persuaded to claim that the only thing which was preventing them from investing liberally in the country was its record on human rights. The unstated issue was that liberal investment would, of course, create wealth which would then be available for the President to get his hands on in some way.
Anyway, the point is that the guest list did provide scope for ambassadorial embarrassment.
When the lights went out the ensuing murmurs were quickly lost behind the crash of shattering glass when a guest who had been reaching to take a drink from a tray offered to him by the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) inadvertently swept his arm across the tray, sending it and a dozen or more glasses to the floor. At the next morning’s interview with the Ambassador the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) found himself being blamed for this incident, too.
Further crashes were caused by people milling around blindly, rather than having the sense to stand still. There was a certain amount of light from the blazing fire, but not sufficient for any practical purposes. The Ambassador raised her voice above the hubbub and called out: ‘I think we should all move next door into the dining room. The curtains are open and the moon is on that side of the embassy, so there should be more light. Michael, I think you’re near the door, aren’t you? Could you open it, please, and guide people through.’
This led to the next problem arising from the failure of the lights. Michael, the Assistant Attaché (Trainee), was flustered by the accident with the drinks and the need to urge people, whose languages he couldn’t speak, to mind where they were treading. He reached out to find the door handle but inadvertently groped the President’s wife’s bottom instead. At the subsequent interview the Ambassador pointed out that while the door handle was over three feet above the floor, the President’s wife’s bottom was not much more than two feet above it.
The Ambassador told him, tersely, ‘If it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to take advantage of the confusion, it was a very good simulation of such an attempt.’
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) blinked and his mouth fell open. He had a vision of the President’s wife who, although not a tall lady, made up for that in lateral bulk.
The Ambassador continued: ‘You are supposed to be training as a diplomat. Where in the codes of diplomacy have you seen anything which indicates that it is ever appropriate to goose the wife of the president of the host nation? Imagine the reaction if it had happened in Washington’…a place which she saw receding from her own potential future.
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) tried to cobble together a response: ‘But it wasn’t like that at all…’
‘Nonsense!’ said the Ambassador. Then, invoking the assistance of Hamlet, she added, “How can you proclaim no shame when the compulsive ardour gives the charge?”
The unfortunate lad could think of no good reply. The diplomatic service momentarily seemed less appealing than before. It occurred to him that perhaps he would have done better to become a journalist, as once urged by a university friend now working for the Daily Mail. He certainly would have done better to remain silent than to blurt out, as he did, ‘But for heaven’s sake, have you seen the Thug’s wife?’
We must return to the party to understand the Ambassador’s anger. When the lights went out, she was talking to the President and so the nearest to him when he heard his wife squeal. He at once knew exactly what had happened to her. He had heard precisely the same squeal at a party which he and his wife had once attended at the Italian embassy, hosted by Mr. Berlusconi. He immediately addressed some very plain comments to the Ambassador, who spoke perfect Thingish, or as near perfect as anyone whose larynx had evolved in Western Europe could hope to achieve. Then without waiting for a reply, he pushed blindly through the crowd towards his wife, sending several ambassadors and other guests sprawling, before finding her and addressing more comments to the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) whom he fortunately couldn’t see.
Meanwhile, the door had been opened and people had started feeling their way into the dining room where there was indeed a little more light, though not much. The crunch of glass being ground into the carpet as they stumbled over the remains of the fallen tray was quite marked.
There were not many people available to sort out the mess, either diplomatic or material. The embassy employed few diplomatic staff, Thingistan not being high on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budgetary priorities. As for non-diplomatic staff, locals were reluctant to take up any form of employment there for fear of being accused by the President of spying. In fact, the one Thingistani employee who did work there was, in truth, a spy. But she was spying for the President, so that was all right.
In any event, there was very little room for staff in the embassy, which was not much larger than a good-sized house. Good-sized in British terms, that is. In Thingistani terms it was huge and, according to unofficial Foreign and Commonwealth Office gossip, was one of the few buildings in the country, other than those used by the President, which were not constructed with mud and goatskins. However, what staff there were were quite resourceful. It was not long before the guests had been moved into the vaguely moonlit dining room, and more drinks together with the barely warmed nibbles were being circulated without too many collisions in the darkness.
Nevertheless, the party had suffered a mortal wound and was not likely to last much longer; though it did not break up soon enough to prevent the Ambassador from further embarrassment. She had forgotten the parrot which lived in a cage in the dining room. It had been a diplomatic gift from the President of the Theotheristan whose sense of humour, like that of his brother-in-law (remember the ‘human rites’ jest), was a little mischievous.
The parrot was a blue and yellow macaw, colours which happened to match the Theotheristani flag. It was unusual in that whilst most parrots go quiet in the dark and can be controlled simply by putting a cloth over the cage, this one tended to sleep in daylight and would only wake up and chatter in the dark. The donor’s sense of humour had urged him to teach the parrot several obscene comments principally concerning his brother-in-law and his brother-in-law’s appearance, habits and country. These were lustily delivered to the party-goers. Most of them were not sufficiently familiar with Thingish to be able to understand that language when spoken by a parrot. But the Ambassador understood and so did the President.
‘Get that bloody bird out of here!’ said the Ambassador to her Assistant Attaché (Trainee), who was later pleased that this was at least one problem for which he was not being blamed. He carried the cage into the kitchen, but not soon enough to avoid a significant diplomatic incident. The President ploughed his way to the Ambassador’s side.
‘How dare you so insult me and my country? It is but five minutes since you ordered someone to assault my dear wife.’
‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t…’
‘Sorry? Sorry is not good enough. Reparation or war!’
‘If your country does not provide ten million dollars in reparations within one week from today, my country will declare war on the United Kingdom!’
‘War? What the hell with?’
The Ambassador, of course, knew at once that she had stepped outside the bounds of the codes of diplomacy with which she was later to reprimand the Assistant Attaché (Trainee). But the President didn’t seem to notice.
‘And have that bird shot!’
Then he gathered up his wife and retinue and, with various of them, in the gloom, bouncing off walls, furniture and other guests, swept out into the night. Naturally, it was not long before the rest of the guests were also making their excuses and, guided by the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) and the spy, fumbling their way to the front door and thence to the pitch black street.
The following morning the Ambassador was in a quandary. The last thing she wanted to do was report the incident to her home base. But she knew she would have to do so sometime. Fortunately it was unlikely that anyone else in the British contingent knew what had been said – either by the parrot or by the President. She decided that the correct procedure was to await official confirmation of the absurd ultimatum in writing. That would give her time to decide how best to present it to her principals. Meanwhile she called in the Assistant Attaché (Trainee), which made her feel better for a while.
It didn’t make the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) feel any better, though. He was already slightly bemused from the events of the previous evening. He had done his best to avoid being seen by the President’s wife in the moonlight or any other light. But in this he had failed, noticing that she had made sure of following him around until she had had a good chance of seeing his face. Indeed, for a short while she had dragged the President with her, before he realised what the parrot was saying and went off to shout at the Ambassador. When he had disappeared, she had come closer to the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) and given him a broad, toothy smile though, unfortunately, not all of her teeth were in the best of condition. She was swept up by the President to assist in his dramatic exit. The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) didn’t mention this to the Ambassador, partly because he didn’t get the chance and partly because he wasn’t sure whether or not it was a positive development.
At the same time the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) was being interviewed by the Ambassador, the embassy spy was being contacted by the President’s wife to ascertain the identity of ‘the beefy young man who was handing round drinks’. Later in the day the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) was surprised to receive a personally addressed invitation to a ‘soirée’ being organised by the President’s wife that evening for a variety of wives and other ancillary individuals in the local international community.
He consulted the Ambassador. She had no idea why the invitation had been issued. She suspected it was not good news for the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) but decided that that, if true, was his problem, since it seemed to be the only route by which a solution to her own problem might be found.
‘Listen,’ she said to him, ‘I don’t know what they’re playing at. But you get on over there and make sure you don’t come back without having fixed things so that ultimatum doesn’t get delivered. War with Thingistan won’t do GB any harm but it sure as hell will put a rocket up me. And, sonny jim, if I go up on a rocket I’ll make damn sure you go with me.’
‘Me? Fix things? How can I do that?’ The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) was flabbergasted. ‘You’re the Ambassador. Surely it’s your job.’
‘Who was it goosed the President’s wife and started the whole problem? Your fault. Your job. “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie”. So for your fault the remedy lies in you. That, incidentally, is from All’s Well That Ends Well. Make sure it does.’
‘But what if I don’t succeed? We don’t know why I’ve been invited. They may want to put one over on me somehow. Get some revenge. You know what he’s like. I don’t see how I can achieve anything. It’s bound to end in failure at best and something highly unpleasant for myself at worst. Anyway, whose parrot was it?’
‘Never mind the parrot. And yes, it’s risky. Take an interpreter with you. They won’t disembowel you in front of a witness. And as for failure – But screw your courage to the sticking place and you’ll not fail. Now get out.’
That evening the Assistant Attaché (Trainee), aided only by that encouraging advice from Lady Macbeth, found himself apprehensively approaching the presidential palace, such as it was. He was alone, no interpreter having been available. The palace was substantially larger than the embassy, but still nothing like those achieved by more imposing dictators.
The President suffered from being unable to reach the filthy rich status achieved by his near neighbours. Extortion, bribery and corruption were all very well, but not of much effect if hardly anyone had any money to be extorted or with which to pay bribes. He ended up merely corrupt which, by itself, was little help. Grossly inflated taxes ran into a similar difficulty. Even potential inward investors or foreign contractors couldn’t be targeted because no foreigners wanted to invest and there was no money to carry out projects for which foreign contractors might want to bid. So his sources of funds were limited. Most of his money came from confiscating and selling the low grade timber. The filthy rich dictators had not been enriched by being better at brutal dictatorship and thuggery than the Thug himself. In such matters he had no rival. They just had the advantage of ruling countries which did include oil and gas fields and so had access to far more money to appropriate and extort.
The Thug was fortunate in only one matter: his wife, unlike some other dictators’ wives, had few material desires, being the daughter of an unambitious peasant, and having been happy in her previous squalid existence. The President, on the other hand – a native of the same village, who, despite having no significant libido, had found the girl sufficiently attractive to become smitten by her – was the son of an ambitious, albeit unsuccessful, peasant. The President had taken his ambition from his father, added to it a streak of ruthless malevolence which was all his own, and cheated, bludgeoned and murdered his way into success and power not long after the wedding.
On entering the presidential palace the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) was shown into a reception room, largely full of women. A bustle amongst them revealed the President’s wife making a beeline for him. As she approached, she gave him a smile which would have been dazzling were it not for her teeth, and a wink.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘You nice boy.’
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee), who had been worrying about the language problem, realised that even had she spoken no English he would have had no problem. The wink was comprehensible in any language. However, his worries took a different direction as she grasped his hand and led him to a table on which unappetising food and a huge number of bottles and glasses were arrayed. Avoiding the risk of providing food which needed to be warm, the caterer had opted for something resembling sushi.
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) picked up the largest, fullest glass he could find, while the President’s wife selected a limp and noisome slimy object and forced it into his hand. Thingistani refrigerated transport tended to be unreliable and Thingistan was far enough away from both the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea for every piece of sushi served there to be guaranteed rancid. He accepted it reluctantly, holding it at arm’s length.
‘I like you,’ said the President’s wife.
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) scrabbled for a reply.
‘I’m sorry about the other night…’
A fat, fishy finger was placed to his lips.
‘Ssh. No apologise. Was most exciting thing for me since marry silly man.’
The Assistant Attaché spilled a little of his drink. ‘Silly man?’
‘Mr. Silly President. He say war.’ She giggled, causing her outer layers to wobble unappealingly. ‘I say silly man.’
‘Oh… But the parrot…’
‘I tell silly man no war. No write note. Not be silly.’
‘No note? You mean he isn’t going to send the ultimatum.’
‘He do as I tell.’
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) felt better than he had felt all day.
‘Anything you want. Tell me. I tell silly man. He do.’
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) felt better than he had felt since he took up his post in Thingistan. Clearly the rumours about the relationship between the President and his wife were not exaggerated. If she was to be believed, they were, in fact, understated.
It was at this point that, inevitably, the lights went out. He took the opportunity to dump his piece of sushi, which was a bonus, but then felt a pudgy but muscular hand grab a fistful of his rump and squeeze, which wasn’t. The hand didn’t let go. Meanwhile another hand grabbed his own, now sushi-free, and dragged it round to the President’s wife’s rump where, after some hesitation, he found himself reciprocating. Indeed, things began to develop in a way which made him think that, surrounding ladies notwithstanding, he would shortly find himself on his back with the President’s wife astride him. Fortunately there was only a short delay before a number of foul-smelling tallow candles were brought in. They were followed by the President. The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) hurriedly brushed away his companion’s hands, which were now exploring adventurously.
‘The President!’ he hissed.
‘Not worry ‘bout him. He happy if I find man play with.’ The hands resumed.
‘Then I not want him play. He not like…I no know word.’
The President’s wife may not have known the word, but she knew the action and mimed it vigorously, so the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) soon knew which word it was she didn’t know.
The President approached them with what the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) found to be an encouraging smile, casting patronising gestures of welcome to left and right as he followed the smoking candles. The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) resisted an urge to retreat from the approaching stench (the candles, not the President) and, surprised, shook the hand which was offered to him.
‘I’m delighted to see you, young man.’ The President had taken trouble to perfect his English. ‘I misunderstood the events of last evening. My wife has explained. So unlike a previous event with Signor Berlusconi. Do come again. Whenever you wish. You make my wife… happy. That pleases me. And tell your ambassador the parrot was… funny.’
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) managed to mumble what he hoped was a suitably diplomatic reply, though shortly afterwards he had no memory of what he had said. But the President was continuing, in a silky tone: ‘Of course, you must understand, I do like my wife to be… happy. You understand?’
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) thought he understood; though he was entirely unclear about the detailed implications. He gulped a little and murmured his agreement, his mind in something of a whirl. Despite having, it seemed, inadvertently done more than succeed in his mission, he was apprehensive about what might now be expected of him. The invitation to return (when? what for?) was both encouraging and disconcerting. He had no chance to explore the issue as the President, preceded by one candle bearer, immediately moved off, while his wife was inundated by a selection of diplomatic ladies. He was given no opportunity for further conversation. Only the native Thingistani ladies could cope with an atmosphere impregnated with smoking candles and the combined stench of tallow and rancid sushi, so the party did not last long. The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) was, in the end, relieved to get away.
Reviewing events later, he concentrated on the positive. He clearly had an opportunity to make something of the situation, even if it might mean a certain amount of fumbling with the President’s wife’s expansive and unappealing behind. Or who knew what else? A few repellent pictures arose in his mind, but he ignored them. An apparently unique ability to influence some of the President’s actions would be a major boost to his reputation and his career; provided he could keep to himself its true basis, which could scarcely be presented as diplomatic skill. As for the mental pictures, he decided that, if necessary, he would explain to the President’s wife the British codes of diplomacy and the possible implications for his remaining in Thingistan, and seek some sort of compromise if she made unreasonable (and distasteful) demands. He was, though, uncertain how to use his new influence. It seemed unlikely that it could extend to fundamental issues such as discouraging the use of mayhem and murder as a form of political debate, but a discussion with the Ambassador should reveal other matters on which he might achieve success.
He reported to her the following morning, carefully indicating that his success was based on merely persuading the President’s wife to like him and adding a certain amount of fiction about having personally convinced the President that his professed policy of reparations or war was an error.
The Ambassador was impressed.
‘So you have the ear of the President?’
‘With the support of Mrs. President, yes.’
‘Hmm. Sounds like an opportunity for both of us. But let’s get one thing clear. I get the credit for anything we achieve. Only me. I shall give your role such weight as I shall determine. But in return I will give you my full support in your future career.’
‘Well…’ the Assistant Attaché (Trainee) felt he couldn’t explain about the risks he was undertaking and the experiences he might have to endure. Also, he wasn’t entirely sure how much value the Ambassador’s support might have.
‘It’s the only way it’ll work for you. You need me. You can’t take any credit without me. Only you and I know about the threat of declaring war. Only I can suggest other issues to raise with the President. It’s the only offer on the table. Take it. There is, as the man said, a tide in the affairs of man which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. Julius Caesar.‘
The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) said that he took her point.
‘Perhaps,’ the Ambassador looked thoughtful, ‘the loss of the lights at that party wasn’t such a bad thing. You’ve had the chance to show some real diplomatic talent. And I have the chance to take advantage of it.’
‘Real diplomatic talent.’ The Assistant Attaché (Trainee) was equally thoughtful. His mind ran through remembered sights and sensations. They seemed suddenly slightly less repellent, as it occurred to him that the Ambassador didn’t necessarily have the amount of control she was suggesting. He thought of what might happen if, in a few weeks’ time, he explained to her the foundation of the credit she was now intending to take upon herself. What might she then find herself having to agree to if he also told her about his friend at the Daily Mail? The phrase ‘Ambassador forces trainee to become diplomatic rent boy’ occurred to him. He smiled.
‘As the man also said,’ he remarked, ‘fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.’
By John Emms