David R Ewens

A Fair Exchange

15th April 2007

The limousine pulled away from the kerb in front of the Padovian Embassy in Mayfair and moved towards Park Lane on its journey to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall. Katerina Simonescu, formerly a ‘migrant worker’ in a small coffee booth at Waterloo Station, stretched her legs out in the back of the car and thought of revenge. She surveyed London on the short journey. How the great English metropolis had changed in the thirty years since she had arrived there in 2007 as a young 18 year old, lonely and confused.

She reflected on her life since that time. She had returned to Padovia three years later, and no one could say that she hadn’t done brilliantly in her career. At university, she had emerged with top honours in English (in which she had gained complete fluency) and European history. Her climb up the political ladder had been dazzling. In the young Padovian democracy following years of oppression and dictatorship, she had been the youngest MP and then the youngest minister in the first democratic government. She was one of the only women in the new parliament.

Her own advance seemed to mirror Padovia’s. The small country bordering the Black Sea had benefited immensely from accession to the European Union. The economy had been transformed in the 30 years since full EU membership. At one time, the British had even fuelled a property boom in her resorts, but of course that had long finished and most of them had long gone, bankrupted by soaring interest rates and rampant consumerism. Now Simonescu was Foreign Minister on a state visit to her counterpart in the British Foreign Office. She had been given full authority by the prime minister and her cabinet colleagues to negotiate the best possible deal for Padovia in the sphere of internal migration from Britain to that prosperous, peaceful country. She looked forward to being brutally uncompromising. What did Padovia owe Britain? She would say ‘No’ to all requests.

London from the tinted side window of the limousine was a dystopian nightmare. Once one of the world’s most prosperous cities, it had been finished by the Great Bear Market of 2009 and the twenty year recession that had followed. It was covered in grime. The money for cleaning buildings and clearing litter had long run out. Potholes dominated the roads in ugly pockmarks. Hyde Park, regular scene of ugly clashes between security forces and dissidents round Speakers’ Corner, had been closed off. Coils of barbed wire loomed threateningly over rusty palings. Pall Mall required a special diplomatic pass for entry. Simonescu looked through sepia light over the parkland which had once given her temporary remission from her misery and unhappiness all those years ago. A knot of people wrangled in a hopeless tug-of-war over a few meagre branches torn off stunted trees. A small figure clad in rags, mouth tipped up to the lowering sky, stood alone in the bleak landscape. Simonescu could hear nothing from within the sound-proofed interior, but the child was clearly wailing. A man lay still in the mud, arm like a shield over his face. Even in the spring weather, flowers seemed to have given up trying to grow in the malodorous atmosphere. Two women shuffled along the pavement next to the limousine as it slowed at a junction. Their headscarves reminded Simonescu of her grandmother’s worn out generation. Their cheeks were hollow and their eyes had the dullness of despair and desperation.

She could feel little sympathy. London in 2007 had been a bright, bustling, confident place. But underneath the surface, she and her fellow migrants had been either maligned or invisible. The landlord in Camberwell had given her a tiny room to share with two other ‘migrants’ in a tenement of fifty, and charged half her meagre wages. She remembered the chants of the thugs around the station on Saturday nights coming back from football matches at Millwall and Charlton – ‘Ethnic scum go home you bums’. Even amongst those in the middle classes who should have known better she remembered the casual cruelty of being ignored, and the impatient rudeness displayed when she had got orders wrong. At family gatherings at her Black Sea retreat, her cousin, Jakob, spoke of picking cauliflowers in the wide fields of Lincolnshire all those years ago.

‘The cold,’ he said. ‘I remember the cold above everything.’

Her sister Elena had waited on tables in Leicester.‘The tips were small,’ she’d said wryly.’

As the car pulled into Whitehall, Simonescu knew that part of Britain’s destiny was in her gift and in the hands of her counterparts in foreign ministries throughout Eastern Europe. The British had a saying for what she was about to do. What was it? Yes, ‘Revenge is a dish best eaten cold’. She had had all that time to let it go cold. It had been a long wait.

*

London might be falling apart outside the gilded cage of Whitehall. Security troops in full body armour might be milling all over the courtyard, but the British still knew how to put on a show, she mused as she and her entourage were swept into the state room. Her resolve did not falter.

‘Foreign minister Simonescu’, said one of the Foreign Secretary’s senior aides, ‘welcome to Whitehall. Lady Wallington will be with us in just a moment. Please do make yourself comfortable.’

Katerina Simonescu noted the man’s sweating palms and obsequious air. Everyone knew what was at stake.

A woman appeared through a side door. Although her hair was white and the burdens of state clearly weighed heavily, Simonescu recognised her instantly. In all those mind-numbing, miserable, endless days on Waterloo station those thirty years ago, here was the one person coming for her coffee without fail at 7 am every Monday morning who said a proper please and thank you, who ordered clearly, who waited patiently, who had the warmest smile and steadiest gaze, who learned and remembered Katerina’s name and asked after her family far away.

Foreign Minister Simonescu’s eyes brimmed suddenly with tears. It had been her compassion that had helped her rise in politics, as well as her talent and determination. Other small acts of kindness from the London of 2007 flooded into her memory. Her friend Kerry, herself the granddaughter of Caribbean migrants, had always invited her to tea on their days off. The elderly ticket collector on the concourse, Jack, had always welcomed her to work with a gleaming smile. Her English teacher, Jeff, had always said ‘Katerina, you learn so quickly. You will have a brilliant career.’

‘We do hope that Padovia will be able to grant entry visas to 10,000 of our people so that they have the chance of a new life in your wonderful country’,Lady Wallington was saying, her face puckered and drawn.

Thoughts of revenge evaporated in the wan afternoon sunlight seeping into the state room.

‘Of course’, Simonescu murmured.

David R Ewens

 

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