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Chapter 20

21

Chapter 22

 

 

hysically, Beta and I were much more refreshed after our good night sleep in a bed, but the benefits of that slowly dissipated as we stood for over an hour at the slip road to the busy motorway junction not far from the embassies. Our thumbs hopefully gestured at the cars and lorries as they sped by, but none showed us any sympathy.

“How much longer must we wait?” sighed Beta plaintively. “Surely one of these hundreds of cars must stop!”

A car trundled by slowly, looking likely to stop, but it drove by loaded down by the luggage piled high on its roof. A van covered with Illicit Party slogans shot by, its occupants sticking their heads out of the window to jeer and gesture rudely at us. Beyond the slip road was a vast junction of roads where cars and trucks hurtled along totally oblivious to our presence.

Then, just as hope was diminishing to its lowest ebb, an extremely long stretch limousine, which had just sped by, suddenly stopped and parked on the hard shoulder a furlong ahead of us. It was driven by an alsatian with a peaked cap and uniform. The door opened slowly and the monstrous form of Hubert emerged rearwards, still in his enormous overcoat. He urgently beckoned us, and we obediently ran towards him.

“I thought it might have been you!” he remarked. “I had just about time to tell the chauffeur to stop. Where are you heading?”

“The Suburbs!” I said breathlessly.

“Back home again. And with your young ladyfriend. So you’ve been persuaded by that Rupert chap that that’s where you’ll find the Truth! My friends aren’t quite going that far, but I think we’ll be able to take you some of the way. Get in the car!”

We needed little prompting, and followed Hubert into the limousine. However large it had appeared from the outside, it seemed even larger inside. Large enough indeed to accommodate a rhinoceros, a hippopotamus and a rather fat man in addition to Hubert and ourselves. The chauffeur turned his muzzle round to look at us, and seeing that the door was closed, he manoeuvred back on to the slip road.

“These are friends of mine I met in the City,” Hubert announced to the company. “They’re both good friends of Tudor, the chap I told you about.”

The hippopotamus wore a tee-shirt that just about managed to cover most of her belly sporting the cryptic message The Balance of Justice, and a pair of floral shorts. The rhinoceros wore an open denim shirt, studded with buttons, and checked trousers. The City was written above the crown of the broad brimmed hat he wore. The man rested a camcorder on his bare hairy knees, and wore a striped shirt, shorts and a very similar hat sporting the words I © Her Maphrodite. He examined me steadily.

“Hey, don’t I know you!” he announced. “The Suburbs ain’t it? You gave me directions to the Centaur Hotel? Just a few days ago. You remember?”

I nodded, although it was difficult to recognise someone I’d met so briefly in the dark. “Yes, that was me.”

The fat man grinned triumphantly: “This is the guy who gave us that map. We never stayed in the Centaur after all. A real tacky dive it was. We stayed in the Horse and Hounds, a real traditional place. My name’s White and these are my pals Wayne and Wilma.” The two pachyderms nodded their heads.

“The Suburbs?” Wayne, the rhinoceros, asked. “A real dead joint, that. We ain’t never going there again. But you’re heading there, ain’t you?”

“That’s right,” Beta replied. “We’re hoping to get there before this evening.”

“You look real weird for a gal from the Suburbs, honey,” Wilma, the hippopotamus, remarked. “The gals there dressed real dull. I mean, real dull! But you gotta come from somewhere, ain’t you!”

The limousine was now accelerating smoothly into the rush of motorway traffic. Lorries rumbled by, and we were overtaken by fast cars driven by sales representatives in shirt sleeves with their jackets hung ostentatiously from a coat-hanger by the rear passenger door. Beta and I were squeezed next to each other against the rhinoceros and opposite the others. Our companions truly dwarfed us.

“My friends are from Phaedra. They’re on holiday here,” Hubert explained. “They’re all great enthusiasts for the works of the Great Poet.”

“Well, not just him, Hubert hon!” the hippopotamus elaborated. “We’re real enthusiastic about all the history and tradition in this land of yours. There ain’t none of that in Phaedra. Very nearly doodly squat. We ain’t been around for as long as you guys. You got everything here. I’ve gotten real impressed by it. How can there be so much history in one country? That’s what I’d like to know!”

“Not everything’s so goddamn fine here, though!” the rhinoceros interjected. “I ain’t seen so many peasants and proles in my entire life! Ain’t you guys got any civic pride? Your City’s a goddamn cess pit in some places. Every few metres you stumble over a beggar or tramp. There ain’t nothing like that back home.”

“Your country doesn’t have the social problems we have here,” Hubert remarked. “You’re all much better off.”

“You’re goddamn right!” agreed White. “Wayne’s right, too. You should clear those bums right off the street, so’s decent people ain’t pestered. And what a shambles your General Election was. I ain’t ever seen such an amateurish affair. Those riots and demonstrations! That ain’t democracy. That ain’t what I’d call democracy anyhows. We had a real bad time in all that hoohah.”

“Yeah, honey,” agreed Wilma. “There was this pack of dogs campaigning for your Red Party...”

“I thought they were Black...” White interjected.

“Well, whatever! Goddamn bunch of extremists. Real nasty they were. This goddamn aggressive collie looked like it’d really go for me, didn’t it? There ain’t nothing civilized in them people. Not in any one of them. There ain’t no extremists in Phaedra. There ain’t no place for them. And that’s ’cause we got a real democracy. A democracy based on a bedrock constitution of justice and fairness for all.”

“I really can’t agree with you, Wilma,” remarked Hubert diplomatically. “We have a true democracy here. Our problems are not with the electoral system alone. It’s because central government is so undecided it has lost control, and everything is governed locally. That’s why the Coition government dissolved itself in favour of whichever party gained the most votes in the General Election...”

“And what do you get!” snorted the rhinoceros. “The goddamn Reds! You’ve gotten yourselves a Commie government now, ain’t you! It’d be better for you guys if your Blue Party took over. Even them Blacks would be a better bunch.”

“You’ve gotten the worst you could get!” agreed White. “I liked the bunch that run your Suburbs. There mayn’t be no life there at all, but at least things run well. That’s what you guys need. A good sensible practical government. Not a bunch of Commies. You guys are gonna be digging for salt in gulags before you know it. It’s gonna be one perpetual revolution after another as the different Commie factions fight each other. It ain’t gonna be no goddamn picnic. You’d never get Commies in power in Phaedra. We got it better sussed. The longer I’ve been here the more I’m glad we live in Phaedra however much history and tradition you guys got.”

“Your constitution is quite different,” Hubert argued. “In this country, institutions and practices have evolved over time. There’s never been a master plan. It’s just changed gradually from a feudal to a modern society. Phaedra’s never been anything but modern. Your constitution was consciously and meticulously planned. It has so many checks and balances it could never fall into the chaos that’s happened here.”

“You’re goddamn right!” agreed the rhinoceros. “There ain’t no chance of that. Our constitution is Phaedra’s pride and joy. Like a pair of scales, it is. Balancing all the possible extremes and gravitating towards the centre. We got two political parties, not like your six or twenty or whatever it is. Two parties is all you need. After all, you don’t want more than one lot in power at any one time. And the way our constitution is set up, one lot can’t expect to be in power for very long before the other guys come in. And when the Fat party hold the presidency, you can be goddamn sure the Thins have got the Senate or Congress. There ain’t no way that one lot can have it all their way.”

“They do say,” argued Hubert, “that there really isn’t much difference between your two main parties. That they hold pretty much the same opinions and the real difference is which businesses pay money into which party funds. In fact, people from one party cross over to the other bewilderingly often.”

The rhinoceros snorted, while White smiled superciliously. “There ain’t no goddamn truth in that, Hubert, old chap. There ain’t no truth at all. We been Thins all our lives. We wouldn’t dream of giving the other guys any support at all...”

“Though we did support President Elvis in the last Presidential election, didn’t we, honey?” objected Wilma.

“That’s different. Elvis is a Thin at heart, even though he did stand as a Fat. No, Hubert. We welcome disillusioned Fats into our fold with open arms. The more the better. And we ain’t gonna close our door for nobody. If any of those Fat guys see the light, then that’s okay by me. And just as there are Fats who go one way, there’s the odd renegade Thin who goes the other. I was real disgusted when Senator John-boy defected to the Fats. And mid-office too. We ain’t had no chance to elect him out, when we’d just gotten him elected. That was real goddamn sneaky!”

“What are the differences between the two political parties?” wondered Beta.

“All the difference in the goddamn world...” snorted Wayne.

“...Except when there’s bipartisan support.” elaborated White. “But there’s a heck of a lot of policy differences. The Fats put taxes up and increase government spending, while the Thins cut taxes and reduce government spending, except on defence which the Fats increase and the Thins cut, and adjust revenue collection accordingly...”

“...So it all amounts to much the same thing,” said Wilma. “Which demonstrates how well our system of checks and balances works. That’s why the symbol of Phaedra is a pair of scales held by the Hound of Liberty. As long as everything is balanced and nothing extreme get the upper hand, then you’ve got stability, progress and prosperity.”

“It could be said,” Hubert continued to argue, “that it’s because of your prosperity that you have such a stable and balanced system of government.”

“Yeah, sure!” Wayne agreed. “But it takes a good strong system of government to keep that prosperity. Okay, in Phaedra we got more of everything than you got in your country. We got more oil, uranium, steel, silicon, chemicals and all than you got, and we got the businesses that make up for anything we’re short in operating in other countries. There’s a heck of a lot of Phaedran businesses trading in the financial sector of the City, for instance. And when I look at the guys here who can’t get nothing for thousands of guineas in the City, but are as rich as heck in the Country, and all your beggars... Well, there ain’t no comparison. You need a strong currency like the Phaedran riyal, not a mickey mouse currency like you got.”

The car abruptly slowed, and the hippopotamus and Hubert very nearly fell on top of us, which would have been severely injurious. Wilma and Wayne must have each weighed at least a ton. The rhinoceros peered out of the window: we were no longer on a wide motorway, but on a single hedge-lined carriageway.

“And that’s another thing. The difference between your Country and your City. We ain’t gone hardly a hundred kilometres and it’s like you’ve gone back a century in time. This ain’t no way to run a modern road system. I reckon it ain’t gonna be many more kilometres till this road’s just a goddamn dirt track.”

“The Country can’t afford the expense of motorway construction,” Hubert explained.

“There’s always some goddamn reason or other, ain’t there!” snorted Wayne. “It’s gonna be a real crawl from now on, ain’t it!”

Indeed, he was right as the car stopped periodically at traffic lights, railway crossings, and at one point to allow by a herd of ground sloths and water buffalo being guided across the road by border collies. However, Beta and Hubert looked more relaxed than they had in the frantic activity of the City. Beta took my hand in hers, and pointed out to me such things as windmills and farm cottages.

The conversation paused for several leagues, picking up speed between towns and villages, and then slowing down as we passed through them. Occasionally, we passed sign posts pointing behind us towards the City, and, less frequently, ones indicating the Suburbs. At long last I was returning home.

In one town, the limousine stopped for rather longer than normal. We peered through the windscreen at the shops and houses of a fairly ordinary looking town, flags flying from windows and very ordinary people wandering by.

“What the goddamn heck’s happening!” White exclaimed. “Why’ve we stopped?” He leaned over to the chauffeur. “What’s the goddamn delay?”

The alsatian apologetically turned his head round. “I don’t know, sir. There appears to be some sort of demonstration or march ahead. All the traffic’s stopped. There are plenty of police!”

A long stationery queue of traffic stretched ahead of us and a police officer, a tall mastiff in a peaked helmet, walked towards our car and bent over to talk to the chauffeur who wound down his window.

“There’s trouble ahead, I’m afraid, sir. We’re advising everyone to turn round and leave the town. We’d be much obliged if you did so too.”

“What goddamn trouble is that?” demanded the rhinoceros.

“We’re not absolutely certain, sir. Some trouble makers we think. Hooligans. Shops are being broken into and smashed up. Innocent people are being beaten up. We don’t wish to alarm you, though, sir. We have it all in hand.”

He then righted himself and continued walking along the line of traffic behind us. Several cars had already turned around a full semi-circle and were driving back past us.

“I just can’t believe your goddamn country!” cursed White. “There ain’t nothing but chaos and anarchy.” He leaned over to the chauffeur. “Well, what are you waiting for, man? Ain’t you gonna be turning round too?”

“I fully intend to, sir,” the alsatian replied. “But this car is very long and I need a very wide turning circle. I shall manoeuvre just as soon as it’s physically possible.”

“Pah!” snorted Wayne. “In Phaedra, cars like this ain’t considered long at all. You just ain’t got the road space in your country for decent sized cars at all. Most of your cars are less than four metres long. That ain’t nothing!”

The hippopotamus looked alarmed. “I don’t like what I can see up ahead. Do you see that smoke? And those youths. They don’t look too friendly!”

“Youths?” wondered Wayne. “What youths? Oh my god! There’s hundreds of them! They must be the hooligans that cop was telling us about.”

The street ahead of us was swollen with a massed and very ragged band of young people who were marching in our direction. They were throwing stones and garbage at shop windows. The Police officers confronting them were hopelessly outnumbered and ill-prepared. Several banners were raised in the air illustrated by President Chairman Rupert’s face and sporting words like TRUTH and JUSTICE.

“It’s the Illicit Party again!” exclaimed Beta. “Wherever we go they cause trouble and smash things up!”

“What’s that?” demanded Wilma. “Who are these louts?”

“They’re from the Illicit Party. We saw them marching and causing riots in the City. We didn’t think they’d do the same here, so many miles away. They started a fight in a night club we were in. And one in the theatre district as well!”

“Oh yeah! The theatre district!” remarked White. “We heard there was trouble there. It was a goddamn shame. We’d bought these tickets to see a musical in Lambdeth Square or Unity Avenue or someplace. It was gonna be a setting of the Great Poet’s poems on metaphysical longing and the justice of God, with people dressed up as poodles and roaches. We were really looking forward to it we were...”

“There’s some mighty fine songs in that musical.” Wilma interjected. “We got the CD in the old country. A Rose Would Be Finer Far it was called. Real catchy tunes. I’d been humming them for weeks. I was thinking it’d really perk me up!”

“Yeah, real good night out it was gonna be. We’d been looking forward to seeing it for ages, and Hubert was gonna be there as well. But it was cancelled, and so too was very nearly every goddamn show in town. The whole area was ringed off with plastic tape, and there were goddamn police everywhere. There’d been an explosion or something, as well as some kind of riot. You guys really ought to do something about this Illicit Party. In Phaedra, they’d not even be allowed to put candidates forward in an election. Goddamn thugs!”

“They’re getting closer!” shrieked Wilma. “Those police ain’t gonna stop them, are they! Hey, driver, ain’t you able to move yet?”

The chauffeur turned his head round, looking quite alarmed himself. “Just a moment, madam. I’m just waiting for the car ahead of me to move.”

“That ain’t good enough!” Wayne ordered. “We don’t care whether you scratch the paintwork. You turn this goddamn car round now! Those goddamn maniacs look like they’re gonna do a heck of a sight more damage than you’re likely to do.”

“Yes sir. I will,” assented the chauffeur, obediently starting manoeuvres which almost immediately caused obstructions to everyone else. In the process, the car soon obstructed both carriage ways, had risen onto two sets of pavements and very nearly crashed into a lamp-post. It then stopped very awkwardly in the middle of the road, unable to turn further because of the positioning of other vehicles both ahead of us and behind. On one side was the road leading out of the town and on the other was the sound of violent commotion, the sight of angry protestors and a row of police edging steadily back towards us, increasingly overwhelmed by the demonstration.

An empty beer can collided on the car’s bonnet and clattered down onto the pavement. The cars who had also turned round were hooting at us to move out of the way so that they could also follow police advice and exit. As we sat there, helpless in the traffic, the police officers turned tail and fled in our direction. One, a dalmation, had lost his helmet and had blood running down his muzzle onto the deep blue of his uniform. The hoot and cacophony became ever louder.

The chauffeur reversed further, crunching the rear head lights against a door to a house and very nearly pushing it in. Then with an agonising turn of the steering wheel, the car span round, a headlamp shattering into the base of a lamp post, before breaking free and pulling off. As it did so, police officers scrambled over the cars ahead of us while aggressive youths leapt over the same cars after them, terrorising the passengers. The town receded behind us while the cars we had been obstructing became wholly overwhelmed by rioters. A plume of smoke rose from behind them.

When the town was completely out of sight, the chauffeur drove down a road which within only a few miles lost its metalled base and crumbled into rough cobbles. Despite the limousine’s excellent suspension, we were thrown roughly from one side to another. We were quite definitely in the Country.

“Hey, driver!” commanded Wayne. “You stop this goddamn car now. We ain’t gonna take no more of this. We’ve gotten battered about enough. We don’t want the car to be totally bust.”

“But this is the only other way to get where we want, sir.”

“We don’t goddamn care!” chimed in White. “We’ll go somewhere else. Anywhere. There are plenty other historic sites in this goddamn country.”

“But what about your guest, Hubert, sir? He specifically desired to visit the historic tomb stones of Philately.”

Hubert leaned forward to the driver. “I can walk there, driver. Please do what my friends say and stop the car.”

The car abruptly drew to a halt at the entrance to a field, and we all disembarked, including the driver, Wilma, White and Wayne. The driver examined the damage caused to the car, while Hubert and his Phaedran friends chatted with us by a hedge delimiting a field of mastodon grazing on tall luxuriant grass. There was quite extensive damage to the car’s headlamps, a nasty dent on the bumper and dents on the roof which must have resulted from the projectiles that had cluttered onto the car as it drew off.

“Well, Hubert,” said White apologetically. “It’s a goddamn shame we gotta drop you and your friends out here in the Country, but there ain’t nothing we can do about it!”

“Any more kilometres of this goddamn dirt track, and I’m gonna be black and blue for the rest of my goddamn days, Hubert honey!” exclaimed Wilma. “I ain’t never seen nothing in my life like those hooligans. What do they think they’re gonna goddamn achieve? Nothing like that could ever happen in Phaedra. We got asylums for guys like them!”

Hubert sighed. “I am indeed very sorry that your visit has been so badly marred. I have never before seen such violence and insurrection. I can but hope that your visit from hereon is not going to be further troubled.”

“Illicit Party, ain’t they?” mused Wayne. “I ain’t heard of them before, and I sure hope I ain’t gonna hear about them again. We’re gonna head back to the firm where we hired the automobile and just hope our insurance covers disasters like this. Look at the goddamn state of it! I’m sure that driver could have done a better job in getting us out.”

“He was only doing the best he could,” Hubert said in his defence.

“Sometimes the best ain’t good enough!” sniffed White. “Well it’s been mighty swell seeing you again, Hubert. I just hope you get to see this grave or whatever you’re looking for. Me? I think I might be quite glad to get out of your goddamn country alive.”

White and his pachyderm friends squeezed back into the limousine when the chauffeur had finally reversed it, and they trundled off over the cobbled road, leaving Hubert with Beta and me. Hubert waved farewell, using a lace handkerchief he’d somehow retrieved from his pocket, holding his tri-cornered hat to his chest. When the car had turned the corner beyond a hedge and out of sight, he replaced his hat firmly on his head and sighed.

“Your journey and mine coincide for several leagues more. You will do me an honour should you accompany me.”

“The honour is surely ours,” Beta replied, graciously. “You’ve been more than generous to us. And anyway we don’t even know the way to the Suburbs from here.”

“In that I can be of assistance. My quest for relics of the Great Poet has provided me with a nearly unsurpassed acquaintance with all corners of the Country. There are few who know its contours and permutations better than I.”

 

 

Chapter 20

Chapter 22