Wednesday, 23 September 2020

The Witch

 

by Rosemary Johnson


a large vodka, neat.

 

She’s been wagging her bony finger in his face for twenty minutes, telling him what to do.  She’s still talking when our president – the one I'm sworn to protect with my life - is stepping across the balcony towards the rack of fur-covered microphones fixed to the railings.  They’re all there: BBC, CNN, RTE, even our own national television station.

I await the usual roar of applause.  But none comes.

Sss sss.

He leans forward.  He taps one of the wired furry devices in front of him.  “Al-oo?” 

Sss sss.

I glance at Constantin, two metres in height and almost as broad.  He looks back at me, his dark eyes saying nothing as usual. I feel in my pocket for my revolver and I observe him doing the same. We thought we had the crowd fixed, even though I did have to threaten some workers with the sack if they didn’t get themselves into Palace Square today.  They’re all there, at the front where I told them to be, holding up the banners of him and her which we supplied them with. But even with the darkest threats, I cannot fill the whole Square.

Al-oo?”  I used to find it endearing how the president’s mouth forms into a rectangle as he speaks. 

Sss sss. 

He turns to me.  “What… What are they saying?”

I don’t answer.  Nor does Constantin.  We played our part in putting down the demonstrations in the town which sounds like sss only a few weeks ago

He raises his hand and waves.  “Al-oo.  Al-oo.”  He lifts his hand higher and waves again, a stiff, unnatural movement, like an amateur actor in a role to which he’s unsuited, even after all these years in office. 

Sss… sss.

“Comrades… comrades… stay quiet.”

The noise level swells.

It’s never before occurred to me how slight he is, an ordinary little man in a black coat, a checked scarf tucked around his throat, a Russian bearskin perched upon his thinning grey hair. Or are we all, even the solid bulk that is Constantin, dwarfed and mocked by the classical columns of the palace, ten, fifteen, twenty times his height and mine? 

With the slightest curl of her forefinger, she beckons him back to the doorway where she’s standing.  He goes to her at once, as always.  They say she’s a world-famous chemist, but - puh – she with that thin pointed chin and steel-grey wispy hair, her powers come from no laboratory. 

Constantin steeples his fingers behind his back, into shape of a conical hat.  Our private joke. 

“Talk to them.  Talk to them.”  She pushes him forward.  I take note of her glossy nylon tights, almost certainly purchased from the west.  Puh.  Puh.  My wife, Veronika, has only old, scratchy things, with sewn-up holes.

He talks, leaning forward over the balustrade, gesturing with his hand and clenching his fist.  He promises increases in living standards, in salaries and allowances for children. 

She’s clapping.  Constantin and I are clapping too, on autopilot, but down in the street below, in that groaning, heaving mass of humanity, there is no echo.  Anger and hatred rise from the crowd like stale fart and hang like a dense blanket of smog, the desperate anger of those who cannot fill their bellies, cannot get warm in the depths of our winter and cannot buy even the meanest Christmas presents for their families. Then they do clap, a slow and rhythmic clap weighed down with derision.

“Sir... the helicopter.  On the roof.  Next door.”  Why do I address him as ‘sir’? 

His fist clenched and half-raised, he shakes his head.

The witch comes forward, nudging him aside.  “Comrades… comrades… what's wrong with you?”  She swings around and glares at him.  “The Palace.  Remind these ungrateful…  peasants… that we’re building them the Palace.”

“Er… We’re building you a palace.  A … people’s…palace.”

The mirth of the people ricochets off the hard marble walls and around the Square.

Hunger grinds in my belly.  Every moment of the day, I dream of crispy roast tripe.  “The helicopter,” I say again. I haven’t eaten meat for several weeks.

He nods.

We scuttle off the balcony and back into the Palace, over mosaic floors and along seemingly endless bare-walled corridors, which we will never see again, down wide and curving staircases of veined cream marble.  We dare not trust the lifts.  Then out and up-up-up again, through the many floors of the adjacent Communist Party offices.  He huffs and puffs and clutches his chest, but demonic powers propel her thin spindly legs upwards.    

Vlad has the helicopter engine running on the roof, a noisy beast, whirring and clattering, like our country’s factories used to.  As we scramble aboard, our president says, “Take us away.  We have friends. “

I smirk.  “Who?” 

He doesn’t reply.  

“Perhaps Lech Walesa, now president of Poland?  He’ll be so very pleased to see you.  Or Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia?”

Without turning to face her, I feel her piggy eyes boring into me and her evil washing over me like a glacial wave.  “Remember who you’re talking to.  I can make things very difficult for you… and your wife.  Veronika, isn’t it?”  She calls to Vlad, strapping himself into the cockpit.  “Take us to Baghdad.  To Saddam Hussein.”

“No need to bother Saddam,” I say, “We’ve got everything ready for you.”

*******************************************************************

After we’ve shot them, we show photographs of their bodies on television.  Our fellow countrymen need to know - beyond doubt - that the witch and her familiar are dead.



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