Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2014 Results




The Rules of the Game

Copyright © Sue Braint 2014


The one point we’re all agreed on in the aftermath of our spectacular fall from grace is that we didn’t set out with malice aforethought. The trouble was caused by there being nothing much in the way of forethought at all. Leila, in her flippant way, might well refer to it as our Brush with Bush but we all know how lucky we are not to have finished up in a high risk security compound.

We don’t shy away from responsibility. We freely acknowledge we should have foreseen the consequences. Where we failed, right at the start, was in disregarding the first rule in the book: Leila’s Law of Reverse Returns. Even to this day it remains a mystery how it could have slipped our minds, the gist of it being if you set your sights on one result, it’s a fair bet you’ll score just the opposite.

Leila’s home-grown wisdoms constantly irritated her partner Ramon. He insisted the universe was not anthropocentric. Quite the opposite. It was totally indifferent to humanity. He warned us that in actual fact (he still has a bent for tautology) people who believed otherwise were suffering from a particular kind of egomania. Apparently there’s a psychoanalytic term for it. One of those impenetrable names I try not to remember.

‘The short term effects of human activity,’ he informed us more than once in his pedantic monotone, ‘have no significant influence on long term patterns. Everything is caught up in the universal dance of molecular redistribution which forms and reforms …’ (‘Randomly,’ our four voices chorus) ‘…irrespective of the intention of any one individual or nation.’ Infatuated with the idea of mutual moral obligations, he would counsel us that everyone must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

He talked like this all the time. Even in bed, Leila confided, and getting him off the words and on the job wasn’t easy. Then as soon as he’d shot his bolt, he picked up where he left off, without so much as a pause to redistribute himself and let her enjoy the post coital cig.

There was unanimity amongst us that size really did matter and that Ramon was handicapped. ‘Walnut brain,’ said Sophie. ‘Apple pip,’ said Kezzie. There was no way we could take any of his pronouncements seriously. And that, we all agreed, was where we took a wrong turn, to finish up knee deep in manure, in the guise of the Department’s Investigation and Misconduct Appraisal Board.

*

For the record, let me stress: we had no malicious intent. Even now I place the blame on the old enemy. When the four of us were handed a new project to research, with recommendations to be plucked from the air and deadlines to be ignored at our peril, after the enthusiasm of the first forty eight hours boredom set in high on the Richter Scale. Bang. Crashing tedium.

One minute we’d be beavering away at our screens, frowning in concentration as we juggled graphs, pie-charts, apricot crumble and God knows what. Arranging consultations with experts, and seminars with Keynote Speakers - the Songbirds, as we called them. Drafting out communiqués, shunting off Ministerials (in triplicate) to the Head of Department for approval, so she could shunt them back (in triplicate) for us to rewrite. Releasing press statements cunningly worded to deflect rising panic about the impending crisis. Crisis? What crisis? There is no …etc.

Anyway, the next minute we’d be yawning and looking at the clock, wishing we could jump into a passing white limo with four spunky guys and head off to the airport for a weekend of sun, surf and sex on the Gold Coast. We were so desperate, we’d even forego the sun and surf.

So this was the scene as we recalled it. Four thirty on a Friday afternoon. We’re bleary eyed and limp haired from trying to get everything under control, although it looks as though we’ll be working through till midnight, unless a miracle occurs. An outbreak of rabies or mad cow disease would do the trick.

Then Kezzie says in a casual sort of way, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if we phoned the White House and spoke to George W regarding the current state of world unrest? You know, tell him we’re just a little bit concerned about the haste of his pre-emptive strike, because it’s not being a good team player, as Management keeps exhorting us to be.’

We all found Kezzie endearing, one of those innocents who believed in words like ‘negotiation’ and ‘mediation’. She was a sucker for attending any workshop that had ‘relationships’ as part of its brief.

We look at her and laugh.

Then Leila leaps to her feet. ‘Hold on there. Thizzisit, girls. The Famous Four versus The Rest of the World. Game, set and match. Out of the mouths of …’ She gives Kezzie a whirl. ‘It’s brilliant. In fact, if we didn’t make the call we’d be guilty of dereliction of duty.’

She looks across at Sophie, who has upended a waste paper basket on her head in denial. ‘OK, so it’s not sticking to the rules. It could upset the applecart, not to mention lemons and limes. But don’t you reckon the world’s so stuffed up it’s time for drastic action? Let’s take the initiative and be provocatively pro-active.’ She hitches her skirt and gyrates her hips.

Galvanised out of her inertia, Sophie slings the headgear across the room and slides effortlessly from her chair into a lotus position on the floor. ‘If you think about the state of the world, everything hanging in the balance, so to speak, like an unexploded bomb, it’s our responsibility to phone the man in the Oval Office.’

She’s getting her metaphors in a twist, but we get the general drift. ‘I think we should tell George about the Buddha’s wisdom: This is connected to that, is connected to the other. And so on and so forth. You know, interconnectedness. Interrelatedness.’

She pauses and looks around hopefully as though Enlightenment will be found squatting under the photo-copier. Then she smiles her sweet womanly smile, which we know from experience has the qualities of a scimitar slicing through water melon.

Sophie, incidentally, was the one who organised the briefing note for the Minister to be typed out in 12 point, when he had expressly commanded 16 point because he was too vain to appear in Parliament in his reading glasses. As a result, he read out ‘the compulsory tit check for all personnel’, instead of ‘the compulsory kit check’, and had to be reprimanded by the Speaker.

*

I make sure the others take note that I, Angie Dimitrios, behaved like the only rational member of the team. My reputation at work was for being the cautious and sensible one (the Mediterranean heritage being reserved for after hours). I told them it really was time we all packed up and went home. Clearly there was nothing more productive to be squeezed out of us. I suggested an early morning meeting on Monday to try to get our project on course again. Refresh our stale minds over the weekend with a spa bath and a few bottles of French champagne.

I was talking to myself. The other three had gone into a huddle and were checking out time zones. Leila was saying how she knew someone who had a friend who knew someone who knew this guy whose girlfriend did a year as an intern (shades of Monica) at the White House and she was bound to know someone who knew the number we could call if we had urgent business with George W.

‘Come off it, you guys,’ I told them. ‘There’s no way …’

But Leila was already on the phone saying, ‘Thanks for that … sure thing.’ Then another call and she was talking to the guy whose …

We arranged a rendezvous at Leila’s place on Saturday morning and at my insistence she called Ramon over, to get another perspective. He listened to the proposal in silence for once. His reply was blunt. ‘Bloody hare-brained women,’ he said, getting up to go as though he wanted to distance himself from us as fast as he could. ‘For Chrissake, don’t do it.’

Dear reader, we did.

On Monday we met in Leila’s office, since she was the only one who still had a cupboard space to call her own, the rest of us having been rationalised into open-plan. At this point in our reminiscences we didn’t like to dwell too much on what followed. Our hoots of joy when we got a dialling tone; our stunned silence when a crisp male voice said, ‘The President’s office …’; our stuttered request to speak to President Bush on a matter of some urgency.

And then the Mega Bloop. The blunder of blunders.

Sophie was our spokesperson, a mistake in hindsight, as she’s prone to getting her knickers twisted. The crisp male voice asked crisply what our business was and Sophie panicked, because in our enthusiasm we had failed to sketch out even a summary Plan of Action. We had the Vision, but lacked the Strategic Planning Skills. Basic first year stuff. We all have degrees and diplomas in Leadership and Managing Change, Corporate Planning and whatnot. We really should have known better.

Sophie flushed and faltered. Grabbed handfuls of air for inspiration. Shot looks of desperation towards her aides, who sat bug-eyed around her.

‘Well, it’s like, kind of, you know, it’s kind of related to the international situation. You know, Iraq and all that?’ Which, if not exactly crisp, might be considered a reasonable start under the circumstances. Then she got flustered.

In the ensuing days of interrogation she kept repeating she meant to say, ‘There’s a group of us here concerned about the President’s handling of terrorist organisations.’ It came out as, ‘There’s a concerned group of us here and we’re a terrorist organisation about to get a handle on the President.’

And that was it.

*

We worked out afterwards there must have been an Emergency Button - bright as a red berry and perky as a nymphet’s nipple - especially fashioned for a calamity such as this. George W probably had half a dozen henchmen on his payroll whose only job was to stand guard twenty four hours a day, scrubbed up and fully focussed, finger at the ready, waiting to depress the target. Trained to orgasm on contact.

We could hear the sirens and alarms. We could hear the confusion of voices. ‘Red Alert. Red Alert. Terrorist threat. Get the President outa here. Goddammit, I said get the President out. Scramble the lines. Get the FBI. What a helluva cockup. Don’t ask questions, shoot on sight. Call the marines. Evacuate the building. Everyone out. Out, out, out!’

That’s exactly what we did. We banged the phone down and scooted out so fast we jammed in the doorway for a few precious minutes, untangled ourselves, picked Sophie out of the shredder bin and spent the next hour sobering up at the pub around the corner with triple G and Ts.

We should have listened to Ramon. We can see that now, but you can’t break an ingrained habit and ignoring Ramon was all too addictive. Leila said she couldn’t stop shaking and needed a whiff of male pheromones to calm her down. So she got on the phone again, demanding TLC and a Strategic Plan.

There’s a general consensus that he wasn’t particularly helpful. He spent the first twenty minutes with his head in his hands intoning ‘Goddam idiot women,’ like a priest performing funeral rites. I had to stuff his mouth with cocktail cherries and order him to come up with an idea to get us out of the mess. We were in no shape to formulate a laundry list, never mind a rescue plan.

He looked at us, tears in his eyes (no joke), and said there really wasn’t much we could do. Which was about as attractive a proposition as a dead man’s dick. We wanted EXONERATION. A PRESIDENTIAL PARDON. A PAPAL BLESSING. Instead of which we got caught in the firing line. Four direct hits.

*

It could have been worse. Sophie disappeared into the Tibetan hinterlands to become a Buddhist nun. Leila frostily informed Ramon he was last year’s man. She made daily inroads into her stock of homemade peach wine and reclined in a bubble bath singing the Pheasant Plucker’s Song. Kezzie, the eternal optimist, spent weeks reconstructing her CV, negotiating a fine balance between fact and fiction. She’s good at that sort of thing.

‘How does this sound to you: Demonstrates lateral thinking skills, initiative and an aptitude for decisive action?’ she asked me, an undercurrent of wistfulness in her voice. I inquired about the position she was applying for, Topless Go Go Dancer or Campaign Manager for the Democrats in the next election?

‘Come off it, Ange,’ she said, squashing her baseball cap down. ‘Don’t be a radical loser. I’m applying for a vacancy in the Prime Minister’s new Task Force.’

She read from an internal memo sent to us by some worm in the department with a HA HA scrawled across the bottom: Expressions of interest are invited for the position of PA to the Emergency Planning, Strategy and Defence Forces Co-ordinator.

She snapped her fingers and smiled modestly. ‘I’ve got the skills base and the relevant experience. I reckon I can talk my way back into the system. I’m really really good at doing the penance thing. D’y reckon it’s a goer?’

I knew all about Kezzie and her expertise in wriggling her way through, around and out of all the rules and regulations and gave a half-hearted fist of solidarity.

So we went our separate ways.

*

Before she sent in her application, I felt obliged to warn her that if she got the position she couldn’t expect to last more than a week at best. She was a ticking bomb, for heaven’s sake. Not a great asset for the Department of Defence. I suggested a Plan B might be a good idea. However, if by some quirk of fate she made the grade, I added, I planned to book a flight to a secluded South Pacific island where I could eke out my remaining days romping in a grass skirt and dining on paw paw and coconuts.

Which is why I’ve spent the best part of a year soaking up the sun and listening to Ramon (generously offloaded by Leila) mouthing off about random patterns of molecular distribution and our need to be cognisant of the Big Picture.

I look at the three of them sprawled on their sun lounges and let them know I’m still waiting for Kezzie’s mega catastrophe to explode on the world scene at any moment.