So, this is my 200th post. In between pulling my hair out at the mind-numbingly boring selection of TV programs on offer, I thought I’d post this – something different.
The War Cabinet – Part 1
In the rather dim and musty Cabinet Room of the city of Phestring, the capital of the Phestring Democratic Republic, a group of seven Phestringers sat around a rather ornate wooden table that was decorated with intricate carvings and inset with different coloured woods. They all sat in high-backed chairs with fine leather upholstery. They all wore ornate, if slightly conservative, robes.
The room sat on people with the weight of history – decisions had been made in here for centuries. There was blood splattered all over the place…figuratively speaking, and ghosts hovering over everything, watching and judging. Not that the current occupants had much interest in the past or the supernatural. The one known as the Treasurer was speaking.
‘The city population have been asking questions.’
‘Questions? What sort of questions?’
The Treasurer looked uncomfortable and pointed to the newspaper. The Prime Minister looked at the article. ‘Hmm. Expenses.’
‘Quite so, Prime Minister.’
‘They elected us did they not?’
‘Yes they did.’
‘They even knew our characters before they voted us in?’
‘Yes, that too.’
‘And now they are complaining about our expenses?’
‘Among other things,’ the Treasurer told him. ‘They are also calling us liars, crooks and sexual perverts, but there’s nothing new in that, is there.’
‘But they elected us to run the city. We’re doing that. I fail to see what business it is of theirs how we do our job,’ said the Arts Minister.
‘Apparently, Arts, they are rather upset about the Member for Frotting’s rather large and ornate guinea-pig run.’ the Treasurer replied.
‘It is rather impressive, palatial even,’ admitted the Prime Minister. ‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘Well, it has come to my attention and, unfortunately, that of the press, that he paid for it using taxpayers’ money, and has been known to billet his mother-in-law in the currently unused wing when she comes to stay.’
The Prime Minister pursed his lips as the other cabinet members sniggered. They were not people that he would ordinarily choose to associate with, but in this job one could not be too fussy. ‘It’s a good job that all of you are without reproach,’ he told them.
They stopped sniggering.
‘If I’m not mistaken, Arts, you have recently had some rather lush extensions added to your country retreat. I trust that you have the appropriate records for the auditors.’
The Arts Minister scowled at him.
‘And you, Defence, have, by all accounts, being paying for, how shall I put it, discrete young ladies to accompany you on your state business trips. I wonder how you are paying for them…and whether your good wife knows?’
‘I can assure you that everything is totally above board.’ There was bluster in that voice. And fear.
‘Whatever you say,’ replied the Prime Minister.
‘And you, Mr Prime Minister, are you without sin?’ asked the Treasurer.
The Prime Minister, as was his way, ignored the question and thought for a moment. The people were getting restless; this was the second article in the press within a week. It wouldn’t be long before the climate was ripe for another election. When it came he wanted to be able to ride to victory on a wave of support, not chew his nails to the bone wondering whether he’d done enough. The expenses were an irritation, as were the mutterings about the elected members’ infidelity, but if the press kept digging, which they would, they’d undoubtedly hear far more juicy gossip. And he could trust his cabinet about as far as he could throw them. A scandal would see them desert him like rats from a sinking ship. And a couple of them knew too much about his background. Way too much. Those younger years spent appropriating his current fortune for a start. But they were the bad years. Necessary, but bad. He was respectable now, so there was no need to dredge up the past with all its evil-smelling debris. No, it was best to get them all distracted for a while, during which time he could do a thorough cleansing of all the records he could find.
‘What do you suggest we do about this expenses issue?’ he asked the people sitting around the table. ‘I am open to suggestions. The letters to the editor quite clearly show that our population are concerned. And perhaps their concern is justified.’
‘More likely it’s Bartwald printing only the letters he wants to,’ muttered Arts.
‘Even so,’ the Prime Minster carried on, ‘there is clearly a story here that will not quickly go away.’
‘Can’t we just drag him off to the dungeons like we used to?’ asked Defence.
‘Like you used to, you mean.’ quipped the Treasurer. ‘We don’t do that anymore. We are a democracy. You remember what one of those is?’
‘It worked back then,’ muttered Defence. ‘The papers were a lot easier to manage. You know that he thinks he can print what he likes now.’
‘He is merely a man with a nose for the big story,’ said the Prime Minister. ‘Where’s the crime in that?’
‘I’m sure I could find one if I looked hard enough,’ Defence scowled.
‘Last time, if I recall,’ said the Prime Minister, ‘you insisted that the police lock up Bartwald’s cartoonist for drawing a satirical cartoon about you. You said, if I remember our conversation correctly, that he’d committed a wilful misrepresentation of you by portraying you as an ape with a vocabulary of about six words, dragging its knuckles along the ground. You then assaulted him, causing some significant physical harm. I think we agreed after that, if my memory serves me correctly, that there was no crime in taking the piss out of people. Even members of the government.’
‘There should be,’ grumbled Defence.
The Prime Minister sighed. ‘Well there isn’t!’
He sometimes wondered how these people got elected to positions of power. They lacked imagination and were almost always only interested in themselves. They would use a hammer where a velvet glove was far more appropriate. He would, yet again, have to solve a problem for them.
‘I think we need to distract the public.’
The Treasurer nodded his head. The rest just looked dumb; they could be led wherever the Prime Minister wanted.
‘What we need,’ he told them, ‘is a big distraction. Something that will capture the imagination of the public. Something that will get them positively brimming with pride in Phestring.’
There was silence.
Surely one of them would come up with something like what he wanted. Apparently not, so he decided that they needed a little more prompting.
‘Perhaps something that casts their minds to foreign lands rather than thinking about what is happening here in Phestring?’
There was more silence, so much so that the Prime Minister could swear that he heard cogs turning inside their heads. The Treasurer was giving him an odd look. And the Minister for Planning had fallen asleep.
Eventually Foreign Affairs said, ‘I suppose that we could send some delegations out to drum up more trade.’
‘Yeah,’ agreed Arts. ‘Or we could get some cultural dancers in from the Northern Kingdoms. That would stimulate the public’s imagination.’
‘Why don’t we just invade somebody,’ Education said with a laugh. ‘At least that would keep our army busy and off the city streets.’
Hallelujah, thought the Prime Minister.
Defence appeared to take the thought seriously. ‘I suppose we could invade somebody. The army is in need of some practical exercises. They haven’t had a good fight for a while.’
‘Really? A war?’ asked the Prime Minister. ‘Isn’t that a bit extreme?’
‘Not really,’ said Defence. ‘We can conduct a limited engagement that would keep the attention of the Press for a while. It shouldn’t be too hard.’
The Prime Minister looked around the table. Nobody was complaining. ‘Does anybody have any other suggestions?’
There was yet more silence.
‘Ok then, if there are no objections I shall record that the Cabinet voted that Phestring go to war.’
He was disappointed in the reaction. They merely nodded their heads and there was the odd mutter of yeah, ok. He’d been expecting something like, No, not a war, or, How could you do that, think about the casualties. But there were no complaints. They really were very easy to lead, provided you massaged their egos. A few dead soldiers weren’t going to worry them as long as they kept their power. He despised them.
‘Defence, how soon can you get your troops ready?’
‘They will be battle ready within two days. I always keep them battle ready, with training exercises every day. The last thing I need is an army with nothing to do.’
‘You’ll be taking members of the Press with you.’
‘Will I hell.’
‘Yes, you will. That way we can control what they see. I’ve seen your goman soldiers in action and the last thing I want are uncontrolled journalists wandering all over the place watching them slaughter innocent civilians.’
‘They’re very professional, and well trained,’ Defence protested. ‘They wouldn’t do that!’
‘Yes,’ agreed the Treasurer, ‘They’re fine, until somebody insults them, and then they just go berserk. Remember what happened when you tried to use them at that music festival. How many casualties were there?’
‘They almost destroyed the arts end of the city,’ the Arts Minister noted. ‘They’re less of an army and more of a biological weapon. Are you sure that crossing goblins with humans was a wise thing to do? They seem to lack restraint.’
‘They’re an army…I don’t want them to be restrained. Besides, that part of the city looks better now that it’s been rebuilt,’ said Defence.
‘And it is still the arts end of the city,’ chuckled Education.
‘That’s not a funny joke,’ Arts responded. ‘It’s so old.’
‘‘Personally, I’d call them a weapon of mass destruction judging by how efficiently they flattened everything and everybody who got in their way. Nevertheless, I am sure that you all agree that the public will be overjoyed when the gomans are out of the country,’ the Prime Minister noted. ‘So, there is only one question to be resolved, don’t you agree?’
‘What’s that then?’ asked Arts.
The rest looked expectantly at the head of government, with the exception of the Treasurer, who had his head in his hands. He was the smart one, the one the Prime Minister would have to watch.
The silence stretched.
The Prime Minister sighed; he always had to do their thinking for them.
‘Well, if we are going to go to war, I suggest that convention requires that we need somebody with whom we can fight. Of course, we could simply chase shadows, but that would make us look very foolish indeed.’
The silence stretched out once again as they scoured their limited brains.
Just when the Prime Minister thought that he’d have to start dropping hints, one of them came up with the right answer.
‘There’s always Barmia,’ suggested Education. ‘They have no standing army, have a feudal system, and a very small population. They are so disorganised that I doubt they’d put up much of a fight.’
‘It’s currently covered in snow. The gomans will hate it.’ Defence remarked. ‘But a bit of hardship will be good for them. It will keep them on their toes.’
‘And out of Phestring,’ added the Treasurer
Foreign Affairs nodded his head vigorously. ‘The Vice Queen has been steadfastly refusing all our offers of help to manage their forests or help them develop infrastructure. It seems they would rather remain backward. Do you know how many trees they have in their forest? And nobody has ever explored the country for gold or silver, as far as I know,’ he said. ‘If we leave an occupying force we could really clean up.’
Nobody else had anything to say.
‘Barmia it is then. We’ll meet again tomorrow to discuss this further.’ the Prime Minister told them. ‘Now, I suggest you all go and start thinking of reasons why we should invade our southern neighbour. We’ll need the public behind us, so they need to be scared and looking for protection. We do not want the public thinking that we’re wasting their money…again.’
As he spoke he looked down the other end of the table. The Minister for Planning had woken up. She had not said a word throughout this whole meeting. She seldom spoke at any meeting and the Prime Minister was starting to wonder about her. Why did she never speak? But that was a matter for later. Right now he had to go and talk to the directors of a certain metallurgical company, Armour and Arrowheads, with whom he had no official connection whatsoever. They would soon undoubtedly have many orders for suits of armour and arrows. And then he’d have to catch up with the commander of his covert goman ‘diplomatic’ unit to hear the latest news on Barmia. Meanwhile, he would have to go and check his office, where he expected to find a carrier pigeon, to see if Goshel and his unit in Barmia had anything further to report.