The scene: a desolate, barren moonscape. Lightning bolts flash occasionally across a blackened sky. Boiling, bubbling lava pools dot the ground as far as the eye can see, sending plumes of reeking smoke into the gloom. The only sounds are occasional howling of wolves, thunderclaps and, now and then, a long, distant, drawn-out, hideous human scream.
Beyond the River Styx stands a gigantic, ink-black castle of unimaginable size, soaring above the mire to heights that can only be guessed.
Far, far above the plain, near the top of the tallest tower, there is a room. On entering, one finds a long, narrow, eerily silent chamber. The dim but tasteful lighting by the intermittent wall lamps reveals what appears to be a sumptuously-appointed smoking room. The plush carpeting renders silent all footsteps; dark timber-panelled walls punctuated by brocaded velvet curtains, hunting trophy heads, massive oil portraits in gilt frames, and antique bookcases filled with dusty, leather-bound volumes. Scattered across the floor, Chesterfield armchairs upholstered in burgundy and tan, some grouped about well-worn but exquisitely carved coffee tables. It could be a scene from some forgotten gentlemen’s club of the nineteenth century.
It is, in fact, the inner sanctum, the unholy of unholies: the Private Members’ Bar of Hell.
But the room is at present all but empty, and in semi-darkness. The slow tock, tock, tock of an ancient grandfather clock is all that breaks the silence. At one end, a glow gives forth from a light behind the bar, the bartender’s back turned, slowly wiping dry a sherry decanter. The only other inhabitants visible are at the far end, grouped around a low table close by an oversize fireplace: yard-long spruce logs crackle and flicker, illuminating the three gathered faces in sinister relief.
At the centre sat a heavy-set, bull-headed man of indeterminate age; his thick hair, arched eyebrows and moustache setting off his bluff, Slavic features to give an impression of sensuous evil. The son of a Georgian village cobbler, he was christened Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, but in his pomp and pride he had re-named himself in the Russian tongue, Man of Steel. He wore a white Soviet naval officer’s uniform and sported a chestful of medals. Not one of them earned in battle.
Before him sat a shot glass and a quart bottle of Stolychnaya Gold Label. Despite the bottle being nearly empty, his hands and voice were rock-steady.
To his right sat a man of similar age, but slighter build, pale face and sharper, narrower features. An unruly lock of dark hair hung diagonally across his forehead, and above his lip sprouted a narrow toothbrush moustache. His eyes, though tired, blazed with terrifying ferocity. He wore a faded brown uniform, jackboots and a swastika armband. Above his heart was pinned a solitary medal: the Iron Cross, First Class. He never took it off. Regarding his companions’ adopted appellations as pointless vanity, in life he preferred to be known simply as Leader.
He had before him an enormous stein of the finest Bavarian lager. Untouched. But it was all an act, and he wasn’t fooling anyone: the man was teetotal. Next to the stein sat a small glass of milk, half-empty.
He was staring distractedly into the distance, heedless of his two companions. From the MP3 player tucked into his shirt pocket snaked two narrow wires leading to button earpieces, firmly implanted in either side of his head. If one came very close to him and held his breath, he might catch the faint strains of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. His mind, for the moment, was far away, and long ago.
To the left was a rotund man of Chinese appearance. His hair, absent at the top of his head, bulged from the sides in a somewhat ludicrous manner. His hairless, chubby face surmounted a mandarin collar and spartan revolutionary tunic. His face, beaming broadly, was hardly the embodiment of inscrutable. Like the man across the table from him, he had kept the name given to him at birth, but was known far and wide, in life and death, as the Great Helmsman.
In front of him sat a Singapore Sling with a straw and a little umbrella poking out the top, next to an Apple iPad; he was typing slowly and intently. Occasionally he stopped to admire what he had written, and giggled to himself.
These three: the Leader, the Helmsman, and the Man of Steel, had long ago entered into the eternal dark realm; however, defying Dante, they had anything but abandoned hope…
The man at the centre looked about him with a satisfied expression, clapped and rubbed his hands together. He spoke in his thick Georgian accent, as if opening a meeting.
Josef Stalin: Comrades, it appears that our plan works well!
Mao Tse-tung: Indeed, our grorious revorution exceeds our ratest five-year pran. Give me one moment Joe, ret me finish sentence (types furiously, hits Enter, re-reads his sentence slowly, and giggles)
Josef Stalin: Well, OK, I think we’re ready to begin. Dolf, you with us? Dolf? DOLF!!
(the man with the MP3 is oblivious, and continued staring into the distance)
Mao Tse-tung: He no hear you. He always risten to that same stupid opera, over and over. He never hear of Spice Girls?
The man in the centre reached out a beefy hand, and with one movement yanked the earphones from the man’s ears. DOLF!!!
Adolf Hitler: Eh? Vot? Vot?
Stalin: We’re about to begin.
Hitler: Begin vot? Wagner vas just getting to ze best part!
Stalin: Jesus Dolf, don’t you ever read your e-mail? Socialist takeover of the world! Triumph of the State over Man! Demise of the Citizen! End of the Enlightenment!
Mao: (interjecting) And grorious five-year pran!
Stalin: (irritatedly) Yeah, yeah, that too. Today’s our bi-annual strategy meeting.
Hitler: Zen vy isn’t Morrie Strong here?
Stalin: Don’t you ever pay attention to anything besides that fucking opera? Morrie hasn’t arrived yet. Any anyway, today’s meeting is confined to us—the Ten Million Club. That’s what got us membership up here in the first place, remember? (waves credit card-sized piece of plastic with photo ID and smart chip) Massacre any less than that, and you’re limited to a staff job up here.
Mao: Ahh. Then where’s Ghengis?
Stalin: He’s no good for this business. Doesn’t understand socialism at all. Or modern warfare. (sarcastically) Still thinks he can conquer America on horseback. And anyway, his membership’s still being disputed. They didn’t conduct censuses in the thirteenth century.
Anyway: item one. Global Warming. Listen guys, I think we’re in real trouble here.
Hitler: Vell Joe, I told you right at ze start it vas never gonna fly. And you should haf never even let it on ze runvay.
Stalin: That’s not the point. It was the perfect plan. Wreck the Western world’s economy! Concentrate economic power in the hands of the socialist oligarchy! And all the while—and here’s the beautiful part—making us look like we’re on the side of the angels. Caring for the environment! (bellows with laughter).
Hitler: (sneering) Ja, right. Like either of you ever gave a rat’s arse for ze environment. Whose idea vas it, anyvay? Your lick-shpittle agronomist, Lysenko, right? Post-normal science. (snorts) I could haf told you zat vas a house of cards. And anyvay, your vunderful Global Varming plan had vun other little problem.
Hitler: (roaring) Dummkopf! It’s freezing over up there! Europe’s under ten feet of snow! And I thought ze Siege of Leningrad vas cold! Sheesh!
Mao: (dismissively) Western weaklings! Is perfect weather for Rong March.
Hitler: Ach, it sure vas ze wrong march.
Mao: (hissing) Not wrong march—Rong March! You no get anywhere if you afraid of a rittle snowfall.
Stalin: Yeah, well it was the perfect plan. Probably would have succeeded, too, if it wasn’t for the internet. How the hell could we ever have predicted that? We only got cable broadband down here last year.
Mao: No worry about internet, Joe. We have pran to shut internet down. Shut down already in China. And now convince American President to cooperate.
Stalin: Excellent. Keep me posted. In the meantime, I’m running my own counter-insurgency operation. Check this out. (pulls Blackberry from tunic pocket) Look at this. Blog of English capitalist called Delingpole. I’m throwing a spanner in his works. See here, I can comment directly from my phone. (shows his latest post to the others)
Stalin: Well, I could hardly use my real name, could I? Anyway, that was already taken. See how it works? All I have to do is fling a little abuse, cut and paste randomly from Google, and hey presto! Discussion paralysed.
Mao: Ah, so. I also create disruption on brog of running dog Derringpole. Practicing my Engrish, too. Rook. (turns iPad screen around to show the others, and whispers conspiratorially) Not real iPad—Chinese knock-off! (cackles, then reads out slowly and proudly) He-re-um Rady.
Stalin: Now, that’s inscrutable.
Mao: I raise tone of debate. (eyes twinkling) Debate now tonal.
Stalin: Why don’t you join us over there, Dolf?
Hitler: Couldn’t be bothered. Anyvay, I got my own blog zese days. (chuckles) Heh-heh, I’m disguised as a cat. About time you learned to speak properly, Mao, eh? Nearly seventy years I been down here and I still can’t get ze hang of your unmöglich language. (notices book on the table in front of Mao) Vot’s zat, a bit of bedtime reading? (squints at Chinese characters on cover) Underhanded—blackness—tale?
Mao: (fixes Hitler with steely stare) RO—CARBON—PROT! You irriterate or something?(swallows his disgust) Forget it. Not one of my better works.
Stalin: OK, let’s take a break. (notices all drinks, with the exception of Hitler’s stein, are empty. Downs it in one gulp.) I don’t know about you, but I need a top-up. Dolf, it’s your round.
Hitler gathers glasses, rises, grumbling, then walks slowly and with a slight limp to the bar at the opposite end of the room. He beckons to the barman.
Hitler: Hey, Benny! Same again.
The barman turns around. He is middle-aged, barrel-chested, and completely bald. His features are chiselled, with a rounded, Roman nose and granite chin. His shirt and trousers are jet black. On seeing the identity of his customer, he breaks into a broad grin.
Benny the Barman: Hey, Dolf! Why you no drinka your beer? You gotta cold or something? Here, you wanna try something different? I make-a you a grappa knee-high, eh?
Hitler: (tiredly) No thanks Benny, just the usual. It’s been a long day.
Benny: No problem, be right-a with you (places vodka bottle, Singapore Sling and milk on a silver tray) Long live-a da revolution!
Hitler: (turning and shuffling back to his comrades) Ja, ja, sure. (under his breath) Pissant. “Duce”! (rolls his eyes)
Stalin: Right. Now, item two: The Frankfurt School. I think we’re all agreed we’re not going to achieve our aims by actually going to war. Not anytime soon, anyway. You’re only going to get there by destabilization. And that’s where the Frankfurt school comes in.
Hitler: You know I hate Frankfurt, Joe. Remind me again vot zat vas all about.
Stalin: (irritatedly) What’s the damn point of you even attending these meetings if you don’t even read your briefing papers? I e-mailed them to you last week. I think your brain’s been getting soft ever since you started putting National in front of Socialist. (sighs) You can check it all out later here. The Institute for Social Research. Also known as the Frankfurt School. The Fabian Society on steroids. You didn’t seriously think we were relying on just Global Warming, did you? Or that everything you read in the news is just some horrible coincidence? We have agitprop programs in place throughout the West. Biofuel starvation in the Third World. Immigration as an offensive weapon. White-anting Western classical education at all levels. Elevating political correctness to a religion. Poisoning the court system. Hijacking the media. Diluting and discrediting traditional culture everywhere. In other words, making the bourgeois bastards walk permanently on eggshells, and cringe!
You had it almost right the first time. Dolf: Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer. Except this time, it won’t be a national socialist reich, it’ll be a global one. At a level of human population that we determine. One world. One government. One leader. Total subservience of the proletariat: no exceptions. Interdependent. And utterly helpless. The very scale of it dwarfs anything we even dreamt of last century!
Mao: That brings me to my other point. Revorution cannot succeed without strong readers to educate and guide proretarian masses. Now—
Hitler: (interjecting, sneering) Strong readers, eh? Vell, that excludes you, “He-re-um Rady”
Mao: (flustered) Not strong readers—strong Readers! Readers to read masses to grorious socialist utopia! We cannot succeed without strong readers!
Stalin: One strong leader, pal. Two strong leaders equals a shooting war. Right, Dolf? (winks at Hitler)
Hitler: (winks back and grins) Right, Joe!
Mao: So anyway, as I was saying, I have been training potential socialist readers to achieve our goal of subverting decadent Western democracies. I show you example. (plugs iPad into projector) We have been conducting trial experiment in backward farming island of Australia. Decadent lapdog of imperialist America. We believe we are close to achieving goal of creating perfect socialist man. (rises and walks to far wall, pulls on roll-down screen) I show you results. (Barks in the direction of bar) Bar servant! Extinguish rights!
Benny the Barman: (bristles, juts out chin and places left hand on hip. Gesticulates with right hand) Don’ a-you oversteppa da mark, sonny. I was extinguishing rights in the Abruzzo while you were still up to your ankles in-a buffalo shit, lecturing peasants!
Mao: (voice rising to a shriek) Not rights—rights! RIGHTS!!! MAKE DARK!!!
Benny: Oh. Why you not-a say so inna first place? (reaches for switch. Sotto voce, in the darkness, he raises his eyes upward) Marco Polo, you make-a big, big mistake. Madonn’!
Mao: So. Successful experiment can be repricated in all imperialist lands. Within twenty years we will control all capitalist government. No need to fire single shot!
The conversation is broken by a reedy, synthetic fanfare piped through the intercom: The Internationale. All three sprang immediately to their feet and stood stiffly, though uneasily, at attention.
Hitler: (out the side of his mouth) Do we haf to do zis every day?
Stalin: (whispering back) No choice, comrade—he wrote the book.
The double doors at the far end of the room swung silently inwards, and in walked slowly a large man in impeccably cut morning coat and tails. His broad, florid face was adorned by an expansive but carefully-sculpted beard; his long hair was combed straight back from the forehead. Before him he pushed a wheelchair, its occupant’s appearance in shocking contrast to that of his carer. His black suit was crumpled and stained; his wild, grey hair and beard gave the impression he had had neither haircut, shave nor bath in at least twenty years. He was doubled almost over; his pale, rheumy eyes stared ahead vacantly. His open mouth and slack jaw gave the casual observer the distinct suggestion of advanced dementia.
The butler (for so he seemed) wheeled his charge to the bar. On seeing them, Benny’s face gave a gentle smile, tinged with pity. He addressed the man standing.
Benny: ‘Allo, Mistah Freddy. Mistah Charlie keepin’ OK, I ‘ope? The usual?
Freddy: (nods agreement) Line ’em up, Benny.
With the lightning, practised hand of the professional, Benny placed a line of a dozen shot glasses on the bar, siezed a bottle of Beefeaters’ Gin from a shelf above, and in a single, fluid movement, filled each in turn to the brim.
The man in the wheelchair continued to stare straight ahead. While the rest of his body remained statue-still, his left hand slowly moved towards the bar, enveloped the leftmost glass, slowly raised it to his lips and downed it in a single gulp. Though born and raised in Germany, when he spoke it was, incongruously, with a thick London Cockney accent. He let out a tortured, drawn-out groan.
Charlie: Ooooooerrrr. Cor, blimey— me ‘ead! I feel like the wrong end of a bloody train wreck. ‘Nother one, guv.
He took another shot glass and downed it. Shook his head rapidly and noisily, like a dog drying itself. Slowly, with one hand grasping the bar rail for support, he rose from his wheelchair and leaned across the bar.
Charlie: Thanks Benny. Bit ‘o the old snort and snooze, that’s what I need to start the old ticker. Now, where was I? Oh yeah, trade unions. Now Benny old son, you know wot I told you last month about hospitality union representation round ‘ere—
Benny: It was yesterday, Mistah Charlie.
Charlie: Yeah, wot ever. Listen mate, don’t you understand that by providin’ your labour ‘ere you’re bein’ exploited? The capitalist class will go on suckin’ the workers dry, growin’ fat on the sweat o’ the brow of the proletariat!
Benny: Oh, I don’ know, Mistah Charlie. It’s-a not so bad here.
Charlie downed another shot. His back straightened, and he rolled his shoulders. His movements are becoming languid, almost athletic. He is starting to look and sound years younger than when he first entered the room only moments before. The three men at the opposite end of the room remain standing at uneasy attention, watching the spectacle at the bar in growing embarrassment.
Charlie: That’s not the point Benny. Take that bottle o’ gin. Wot’s it worth, then? Ten quid? Twenty? (He begins to stride back and forth, and point at the air) You want to know wot it’s worth? I’ll tell you wot it’s worth, mate. (Loudly) It’s worth the LABOUR THAT WENT INTO MAKIN’ IT, that’s wot it’s worth! (Downs another shot) Any difference in the value of the labour that went into that bottle (points finger aggressively at bottle) and the price charged for it is a measure of the exploitation o’ the workin’ class!
Charlie continues declaiming in this vein for several minutes, downs another shot, and another, belches, sways slightly and grabs the bar rail to steady himself. He is starting to grow rocky.
Charlie: And another fing. Do you fink your capitalist exploiters give a Donald Duck wot ‘appens when you’re too old to work? Do you?
Benny: I don’ think-a he cares too much-a about anyone, to tell you the truth.
Charlie: (not hearing him) The sooner the proletariat rises to reclaim the correctly-assessed value of their labour, the better!
Charlie slumps across bar and pulls Benny towards him by the shoulder. Their faces are inches apart, and Benny nearly chokes from the ethyl fumes on his breath. He is rapidly growing emotional.
Charlie: Why d’you fink I wrote all that bullshit back then, anyhow? It’s ‘cos I love ya Benny. I really love ya, ya know that? (Downs another shot, and sniffles) You’re the only feller who’s ever unnerstood me, y’know vat? You an’ Freddy. Jus’ you an’ Freddy.
Tears are streaming down Charlie’s face now. He downs another shot, and lurches to the right. Benny catches him just in time, and straightens him back across the bar. He can see the end is near.
Charlie: (heedless now of all around him, mumbling wildly) Down wif the capitalist exploiters! Up wif the proles! Fuck the bourgeoisie! Trotsky Botsky, eat yer heart out! An’, an’, an’… (trails off)
Freddy has quietly brought the wheelchair up behind him. Charlie sways backward, then forward, as if unsure of which way to fall. Benny reaches out a hand to his forehead and gently pushes him backwards. He slumps back into the wheelchair, and doubles over, unconscious, his mouth drooling from one corner.
Freddy: (quietly) I’ll be taking him back to his room now, I think. Same time tomorrow then?
Benny: Notta problem, Mistah Freddy. Same-a time.
The Internationale strikes up again on the intercom, and the doors once again swing open. Freddy wheels his charge out of the room, and the doors swing silently shut behind them. Benny’s eyes follow them as they depart. He shakes his head, then begins to clear up the mess.
The three men at the other end of the room sit down, look at one another, shrug their shoulders helplessly and resume their conversation.
Stalin: Look at the time. We can continue this meeting next week. Delingpole’s got a new thread out, and I need to get busy. (starts working his Blackberry)
Hitler: Und I haf some serious music appreciation to catch up on. (sighs) And about seventy-five thousand new YouTube parodies of Downfall. Ven do I start seeing royalties, eh? That’s vot I want to know. Gott in Himmel! (fishes about on the floor for his earphones)
The slow bong, bong, bong of the grandfather clock striking midnight floated across the room.
Benny: Time, gentlemen! Last drinks!
Mao: (Glancing angrily towards bar) Impudent minion. When we get rid of him?
Stalin: (quietly) No sense in hurting his feelings. We’ll let him go next month. Fidel’s due to check in, and I hear he’s keen for the job. (grins) And that he mixes a mean margarita.
Hitler: (also grinning) Even better—word is if he’s appointed he’ll bring Che up here to help him. Zey do a great double act. Like Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown.
A whirring sound interrupts them, and a cleaner appears around the corner. A small, nondescript man of Cambodian features, he is stooped over under the weight of his backpack vacuum cleaner. He gestures to the men to raise their feet.
Stalin: Get a move on Polly, there’s a good fellow. And pay special attention to just in front of the bar. (wrinkles nose in disgust) Could be a bit of a mess there.
Polly the Cleaner: Velly good Mister Stalin. (continues vacuuming)
Stalin: Well, gentlemen, one more day, one step closer. One world control will soon be within our grasp. And you know what they say…
They all knew the drill.
Mao: Kill one man, you a murderer…
Stalin: Kill a thousand, and you are a tyrant…
Hitler: Kill a million, und you are a conqueror…
All three: Kill everyone…
The eyes of the three twinkled, the punchline left hanging, unsaid. They raised their drinks, touched glasses and drank.
Outside upon the plain, the howling of wolves, and the wailing of the souls of the damned continued unchanged. Occasionally, some subterranean clamour shook the ground in a low-frequency rumble. Vultures wheeled slowly above the pits. And the legions of them, betrayers of country and kin, the thieves, falsifiers and sowers of discord, wailed and gnashed their teeth. Some, that they saw the falsity of the path they had trodden in life. And some, gazing upward at the ramparts, that they had not at least been as successful in their wickedness as those whom they now envied, even as they despised them.