By Charles EP Murphy
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 51st contest was Republican Day.
Prif Weinidog Claire Williams had decided to have the meeting right where the St David Line was being built, turning the story from “Prif Weinidog in Trouble Again” to “Look at The Fancy Railway I’m Building”. The construction workers were still working, having had their pay rises agreed last month (their third), so the gaggle of domestic and British journalists would get a lot of photos of her, clad in her finest I’m-a-regular-Cardiff-girl clothes, right next to the workers of Wales building the future. Excellent stuff. Good headlines.
Then the head of the electricians’ union, ‘Sparky’ Llewelyn, showed up in overalls stained with dirt and honest toil. Bastard.
She shook his hand and smiled for the cameras, all the while wishing Heddlu Arbennig y Bobl were still around after all and she could give Sparky an ‘accident’. She’d been wishing that a lot since she’d become Prif Weinidog and she’d helped shut the buggers down after the ’56 Uprising in the first place. “There’ll be no more Arbennigs,” she’d said in the radio debate for the first election, oh-so-subtly implying My Comrade Opponent Will Bring Them Back. But during the decade of tyranny, when even government officials like her had to watch their words if they didn’t have the right friends, she’d not realised the nuance of the Arbennigs, i.e. you could sort gits like Sparky out.
New Decade, New Cymru, her arse. Whose stupid slogan was that again? Right, hers. Bugger.
“So, Sparky, your boys are feeling pressured by the timeframe, eh?” she said once they were out of camera-shot.
“Not really. We just think we’re entitled to a bit more money, seeing as how you can’t have an electric railway without electricians.”
There went her plan to do a clever little workaround on the working hours. She’d spent an hour going through it and figuring out the best way to change things and still have the railway complete in time for Republic Day, and she might as well have picked her nose the whole time. Well, if at first you don’t succeed, bribe, bribe, and bribe again.
“Well, I’ll tell you something I’ll do, as well as a pay bump, we’ll name one of the new trains after one of your union’s founders—”
“I know you’ve promised that to more people than there are trains.”
Oh bugger, they were catching on.
“Five percent rise across the board and that’s the only offer,” he continued.
“C’mon, Sparkly, we helped topple the Boss together back in ’56, if we hadn’t held together then he’d have flown us out to his mates in Siberia,” she said, knowing he’d just say, ‘what are you doing for me now’.
“What are you doing for me now?”
“But there’s no bloody money!”
Dai had said this in response to every word she uttered for the last five minutes. It was annoying. Worse, it was correct.
“We’ll… we’ll find something. The electricians won’t electrify without more money.”
“But there’s no bloody money!” he said again.
“I thought the point of communism was capital and finance and all that were a thing of the past.”
“Well, you thought wrong, Gwen! You thought wrong!”
Dai had been made Canghellor y Trysorlys and director of the economy because, and nobody would admit to this in their political memoirs, he’d literally drawn a short straw. He hadn’t been sober since 1959. For the whole meeting, he’d been pacing around the office with his left hand shaking.
Now, that shaking hand pointed at a framed photo of Cardiff Bay because he’d apparently forgotten it wasn’t a window:
“Look out there! We’ve only just finished rebuilding everything the Nazis blew up in the bloody Siege! And now we have to knock some of that down because it was slumlord crap, and we have to put in all the phones and plumbing you promised, we have the Saint David Railway, the hospitals, the bloody trials of the Boss’s few cronies who didn’t flee, why did you promise all this in one election, Gwen?”
“To win,” she sighed, running her hands through her hair. “If we can at least get the choo-choo’s done for Republic Day in ’64—”
“And everyone knowing you need to do that is why every union involved is bleeding us like leeches, Gwen! We can’t say it but everyone knows it!”
“Yes, yes, but the thing is, the thing is, Dai, that we need to find some way to pull this off or we lose the next election, and then one of two things happens. The nice option is the Democratiaid Anglicanaidd win and dismantle communism and then the last six years don’t matter, after all the struggle to boot out the Stalinists and get a proper worker’s paradise going, Wales becomes another Tory nation after all, the CIA get stiffies and claim they did it. The terrible option is the Plaid Gwir Gomiwnydd get in, going ‘look how democratic communism failed’ and then they dismantle democracy and then the last six years don’t matter, we’re back in the Warsaw Pact and we’re being dragged into a basement to get the Romanov treatment.
“And if the first democratic government in Welsh history fails, Dai, then we’re going to look like prats. We will live forever as idiots.”
Dai had nodded along for the whole speech, smiling, and now said: “But there’s no bloody money.”
“You sure there’s nothing more we can cut to raise the money?”
“We could scrap the defence procurement plans.”
“Oh god, no. The Llu Hunan Amddiffyn have Bulgaria’s hand-me-downs, never mind Russia’s. If we can’t replace any of their kit, we might as well scrap the whole thing.”
She really should’ve dialled her election promises down. For every improvement to Wales the Plaid Bobl Gomiwnydd had pulled off, there was one big failure and one big embarrassing half-arse. The half-arsing preyed on her more. Her office in Parc Cathays was a depressing case in point. Another country may have been able to demolish the hated former regime’s edifices and built something new. Parc Cathays was still a fortress of brutalist structures and she’d merely put some nice paint over it; the newly-free satirists wouldn’t stop calling it a metaphor.
God, she didn’t want to go down in history as a prat.
“I think the Ddraig Goch is looking at me,” muttered Dai, staring back at the red dragon outlined in gold on the red flag. “He’s judging me.”
“There has to be a way to find money,” Claire said, ignoring him. “I don’t care where and how. A fellow communist country willing to give aid to piss off Moscow. A way to convince Douglas-Home to up Britain’s loans; ‘hey Al, if we go down Wales might rejoin the union and you’ll have to pay everything’. High seas piracy. The White Welsh who came back after the election, can we prove any of the really rich ones is really a CIA spy and seize their assets? We know there’s some, let’s bust one of them.”
“Gweinidogaeth y Gyfraith said they reckon Dirty Dave can be done.”
Oh, that could work. Busting Cardiff’s biggest strip club and brothel owner would get them some nice press coverage and win some of the church-goer vote. On the other hand, half of the Senedd went to those very clubs and brothels. She couldn’t really deal with all the potential blackmail right now.
“I was manning a flak gun when I heard the Siege was over,” she said with a sigh. “I remember it. The cheering and the church bells as people all over the place heard the news. Tuning in the radio to hear what the Resistance Committee were broadcasting from the hills. The relief that fourteen months of hell was over, the dream of what was next. Yeah, fine, the rest of Britain had driven the Nazis back to the sea, but we’d survived on our own, we’d earned our independence and they knew it – anything could happen. And now—”
“I don’t remember that at all because I was on the Hafren Line,” he said, pointing to the stump where his right arm wasn’t.
“Well, think of whatever gave you hope for the future and pretend I said that then, Dai, Christ’s sake.”
Her mind caught on the word ‘pretend’. Out of nowhere, there came a big shattering mushroom cloud of an idea. It was so stupid it went around to brilliant. Or maybe she was just really tired.
Could it work? Dare she try?
“Dai, I have an idea and let me finish before telling me it’s stupid.”
“I can’t promise that.”
When the Arbennigs were shut down and its main figures arrested or allowed to flee abroad (she heard they were having a nice time in East Berlin), a few completely innocent members set up the new Llu Troseddau Cyfundrefnol to handled serious organised crime and ‘unusual’ cases. Luckily, that happened before Claire took power so she could reap the benefits without having the dirt, and now a pleasant looking man in plainclothes was showing her a grainy video recording of two men meeting in a field.
“We’re recording the sound separately,” he said. “Still, you can see the briefcase there, being handed over by the American embassy’s cultural man and – ah, yes, your man is opening it up to check the contents and holding it where the camera can see. I’ll be honest, I thought the CIA would be more subtle about this”
“The Yanks think we’re country bumpkins. They think it’s funny to call me ‘the Weiner-Dog’ when I’m in earshot at the UN. What could Wales be good at, right?”
One of the figures on the film deliberately moved a step so the other’s face would be extra visible.
The thing about the CIA was the only proper party they could fund was the Democratiaid Anglicanaidd and the Anglicanaidd leadership wouldn’t take it. In fact, ‘the Vicar’ had called Claire up and said, “stop having that fake CIA agent try to bait us into a sting, we’re not falling for it”, which is how she knew the CIA were failing at it. Any potential new right-wing party had eager Yanks sneaking around it and throwing money, and each time it came to tears because all those potential new right-wing parties were five arseholes who were sorry the Siege ended.
So, if a few people who’d gone to the gulags opposing Stalinism and were publicly not fans of continuing communism got together under a noted war hero and started to talk about a new direction for Wales, and that direction was structured to sound very, very American with talks of a New Deal and markets and highways…
(She was quite proud of the name “Plaid Gweriniaethwr Democrataidd” – “Democratic Republican Party”)
Of course, if you looked further into the background of the party leaders, you might notice all of them had either been in the same units as the Canghellor or were married to people who’d served with the Prif Weinidog. It wouldn’t take long, and it would suggest something was up. But why would you do that for some country bumpkins?
She had worried the CIA had caught on when she’d heard how much they were offering the “Democratic Republicans” in dodgy cash. They had not. They really were willing to splash that much around for Wales.
And just for the hell of it, she’d got the “Democratic Republicans” reaching out to Dirty Dave. He was willing to get involved in “the cause”, as he put it, and knew a bunch of other “forward-thinking patriots”. Oho.
“How long do you need this operation going on for?” asked the man.
“Ohhh, I think we’ll reveal we’ve been running a sting operation and caught a load of spies the week before the election.” Which would be one month after Republic Day and the successful St David Railway opening. “Oh, see if you can get the ambassador himself on tape doing something.”
“Will do, ma’am.”
Claire smiled. “I think I’ll name a train after you, boyo.”
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen and Comics of Infinite Earths both published by SLP.