Monday, 21 August 2006

Punishment, by Ben Sheth

With what delight could I have walked thee round,
If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange
Of hill, and valley, rivers, woods and plains,
Now land, now sea, and shores with forest crowned,
Rocks, dens, and caves; but I in none of these
Find place or refuge; and the more I see
Pleasures about me, so much more I feel
Torment within me, as from the hateful siege
Of contraries… (PL, IX 114-122)

Karel and Miroslav were excited. They were taking Karel’s new car (not, admittedly, new in the sense of shiny and leather-scented, for it was a venerable Lada, dating back well into the Communist era, but it was the first Karel had possessed in his own name) for its first drive. Out of their sleepy country town in southern Bohemia and into the soporific countryside, leaden and slumbering before the arrival of capitalism would shake off the dust and bring it leaping back to vivid, fecund bucolic splendour.

“This is freedom!” Karel exclaimed as they put-putted rustily round a corner. “We are capitalists now! We’ll drive to Britain, work as plumbers (they’d heard it was easy to make money this way) and find beautiful girlfriends! We’ll be millionaires!” At that moment, with a roaring swoosh, a shiny VW shot past them. They just made out a GB plate on the back before it disappeared round a bend.

“That’ll be us!” They said in unison.

Michael and Paula were tired. They had been sitting in their VW Golf all day, thrashing across the undulating, ordered landscape of central Germany and the surprisingly arid, empty plains of the western Czech Republic. What had seemed like a good idea when the wedding invitation first arrived had become a chore.

“Let’s drive,” Michael had called to Paula in between mouthfuls of organic, Omega-3 enriched muesli at breakfast at 5.30 one morning. “We’ll be able to explore those lovely unspoiled Bohemian villages and really get to know the area.” He slavered a little into his muesli as he thought of exercising the muscular 180 bhp engine of the car which, in truth, he’d bought to impress the neighbours and use up last year’s bonus. “Get those bloody peasants in their tractors off the roads!”

Paula thought of the opera they’d seen last year, in which florally-bedecked country folk quaffed foaming beer and sang folk songs about the togetherness of their village. Perhaps it would be like their own village, Notting Hill. She hoped there’d be a little deli in a tastefully restored where they could get slices of organic quiche and a bottle of organic fruit presse.

In fact, even the 140mph blast down the Autobahn which they had managed just outside Frankfurt had been a disappointment. Although it seemed scarily fast to him, Germans in Porsches and huge Mercedes kept spoiling his fun by coming up close behind him and flashing till he was forced out of the way. And by the time they reached the Bohemian countryside, he was exhausted and thinking fondly of aeroplanes.

As they got further into the countryside, they got more tired, and more bored. The roads were smaller, narrower and bumpier, and above all, less well marked. The countryside bore the vestiges of a genuinely active rural lifestyle which had long since been eradicated in most parts of Britain.

Paula’s map-reading, never her strongest asset, was foxed by this landscape. Their Sat-Nav had long since given up, its space age technology bewildered by the proliferation of green lanes, farm tracks and woodland trails which escaped the definition of modern cartography. They blundered up and down these, in the hope of the magic sign, which never appeared. As they rounded a corner after the last of these, Michael found himself behind an aged tractor.

“Fucking Commie shit!” he yelled. He felt a bit like an American fighter pilot in a Cold War film they’d seen as he pulled out to overtake the tractor. As he did so, he strayed a little too far across the narrow lane and his offside wheel hit a boulder by the edge of the road. There was a bang, and immediately Michael knew as he wrestled with the squirming steering wheel that the tyre was punctured. And an instant later he remembered that they’d forgotten to replace the spare, which they’d already used after a previous accident.

The tractor driver, oblivious to all, continued sedately.

Paula pulled out her mobile, and seeing with relief that she had a signal, called Roger, the best man and their closest friend. He had been stayed at the groom’s house in the region many times and would know what to do. She explained their situation and he promised to come to collect them and their luggage.

“But look out for the gypsies!” He warned.

Gypsies! Paula thought of the scarily swarthy characters of that description who had occasionally stayed near her childhood home, but found it hard to reconcile with the images she saw around her: old men walking small dogs; children playing in the streets (when did that ever happen in Notting Hill these days?); fathers and sons out playing football. But still, Roger must know; he’d been there regularly for years. So they got back in the car, pressed what they knew as the ‘hoody button’ which locked all the doors at once, and made sure that wallets, designer labels and electronic equipment were all well concealed.

Paula managed a quick glance to the back seat of the car, on which the mid-market newspaper they had picked up free on the ferry very early that morning sat dishevelled. “Invasion of Poles!” It screamed above a story explaining that many east-Europeans had come to Britain to do the jobs no one in Britain wanted to do.

Paula scrutinised two characters who’d just got out of a creaking Lada with great suspicion. They certainly didn’t look like the reliable, leather-aproned rustics she’d been expecting from the opera. Michael got out of the car, clutching the spanner, all that was left of their spare wheel kit.

“What do you want?” he said suspiciously, ensuring that his grip on the wheel-nut spanner was tight in case of attack. Paula stayed inside, busily thumbing through their tourist guide book for details of local emergency services.

“But what do you need?” asked Miroslav, turning the question back on Michael in what he thought was a clever twist.

“We have friends here,” Michael asserted aggressively. “They’ll be here soon.” He hadn’t really tried to understand Miroslav’s question.

“Help?” ventured Karel, wondering whether this strange man was perhaps drunk and had strayed into the ditch under the influence. Perhaps that was why he was making so little sense?

“We have spare wheel,” Karel continued in his most conciliatory manner.

But he received no answer. With a roaring and a screeching, Roger’s car (another VW) turned up. “Here’s our friend,” Michael said, swinging the spanner aggressively now he was sure of himself.

Roger jumped out, eying the bewildered Czechs suspiciously. “In you get,” he said to Michael and Paula. “Just take essentials and anything valuable, unless it’s bolted to the floor. The locals have already found you out, by the looks of things. If you’re lucky, you’ll find it on bricks in the morning. If you’re unlucky, someone else will nick the bricks, and it’ll be in the ditch,” he commented sourly.

Michael and Paula scurried about collecting the essentials. Last of all Michael grabbed the insurance policy from the glove compartment. He’d read it carefully that night in preparation for the inevitable claim.

“Alarmed!” Michael shouted at the Czechs, gesticulating violently at the car to indicate (without success) the loudness of the sound. Then he hopped nervously into Roger’s car and they drove off.

Karel and Miroslav got back into their Lada.
“But I have the right size wheel,” Karel mused in bafflement.
“What a lovely car!” sighed Miroslav enviously.
“What strange people,” mused Karel, though Miroslav couldn’t hear him over the grinding of gears, as Karel headed for home. “They were so scared. But I thought the capitalist lifestyle makes you free?”

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