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The Prime Minister in a Dark Wood

A fable.

The prime minister of a disunited kingdom was lost in a dense forest. The trees were endless, there were no paths, he stumbled from bramble patch to bramble patch, bog to bog. His smart suit was tattered, his expensive shoes were falling apart, his hair was even more like a haystack attacked by a tornado than it usually was.

At last he sank down exhausted onto the root of an old oak tree and thought he might as well stay there since he was obviously not going to get out before nightfall. Where was his advisor? How had he got here? He had no idea.

He felt offended that nobody seemed to be searching for him as they surely would for a lost child. I’m much more important than any lost child, he thought modestly, why aren’t the SAS combing through the wood? Where are the helicopters and searchlights?

“Doesn’t anybody like me any more?” That thought made him feel quite brave thinking it.

“No,” came the cold answer from the wind in the brambles.

That hurt. It was something he dreaded. Not to be liked, not to be admired. He no longer felt brave.

“Why not?” he asked the brambles.

“They’re bored of your lies,” they said. “If you occasionally told the truth, that would entertain them more. But since you don’t, they’re bored.”

Lies, truth? he wondered in a panic. What are they? He had never got the hang of that. Anyway, what does it matter so long as it’s an exciting story?

He noticed that all the trees had strange spiky fruits hanging from them, looking very like alien invaders. For some reason that made him feel more afraid.

“I don’t believe you!” he shouted at the brambles and they shut up. Their leaves looked amused, their thorns sharp and painful.

After a while he heard footsteps but he was too tired to get up. The footsteps got louder and louder until there stood a tall man quite near to him. The man had clearly been working out. He was wearing a very well-cut definitely Savile Row suit. It fitted him perfectly in a way that the prime minister’s never had. In fact the prime minister had a mysterious talent for making any suit, be it never so well cut and Savile Rowy, look as if he had slept in it. However the man’s suit was an oddly indeterminate colour: sometimes sky blue, sometimes grey, sometimes charcoal tending to the deep purple of thunderstorm clouds. Definitely too showy, thought the prime minister.

The man looked down at him quizzically. The prime minister blinked up at him and recognised him. This was somebody he had loved for decades and had always been able to woo with his clever lies, his entertaining stories.

“I wonder if you could possibly help me,” said the prime minister politely. “You see, I seem to have got lost. Do you know the way to the main road?”

“I do,” said the man who had a New York accent. “And I’ll only charge you a thousand dollars to tell you.”

“What?”

“I know the way out, you don’t,” said the man. “That asymmetry means I can make some money out of you.”

“But that’s outrageous…”

The man shrugged. “Take it or leave it.”

The prime minister was very annoyed but reached for his wallet. It wasn’t there. He had no cards, no cash. He didn’t even have his phone but he managed to hide his panic.

“Well how do I know that you’ll tell me the right way out if I pay you first? Take me to the main road and then I’ll pay you.”

“How do I know that you’ll pay me when we get there?” said the man. “What if your pockets are empty and you’re just trying to cheat me.”

“Of course I’m not trying to cheat you,” said the prime minister indignantly, “I’m just trying to come to some arrangement…”

The man shrugged again and walked on.

The prime minister was too tired to chase after him and hit him or something, so he just sat there on the oaktree’s root.

Along came somebody else with lighter quicker steps. The prime minister looked up hopefully. A young woman was standing there, her head on one side. She was wearing a chic pink angora sweater, pearls and a tweed skirt, her shoes weren’t at all muddy. She had diamond studs in her ears and her bag looked insanely chic and expensive.

Ever the gentleman, the prime minister was on his feet at once. “Well, well, hello there,” he said very charmingly. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

The woman looked at him and rolled her eyes. “God,” she said in a very nice accent, “You’re such an idiot. Don’t you remember me?”

“Er… Christmas party? Conference?”

She rolled her eyes again. “We were lovers for two years and had a child together.”

Oh god, thought the prime minister, another one?

“And then I realised what a compulsive liar you are and left before you could replace me with whatsername.”

“Er…”

He was desperately trying to remember her name or anything about her, but no luck.

“You don’t remember me at all,” she said, “do you?”

“Of course I do…”

“Well it’s not as if I was important.”

“Er… well I’m frightfully sorry and all that, but could you possibly help me to find my way out of this excessively complicated jungle.”

“I’m lost too,” said the woman briskly, “but at least I have a plan.”

And she walked off between the trees.

The prime minister was becoming more and more frightened and upset. How would he ever get out of the endless forest with its spiky fruits that had suddenly grown up around him. One moment it hadn’t been there and he was enjoying the view of the sunny uplands; the next moment he was surrounded by trees. Which was spooky. Trees don’t grow in an instant.

Yes we do, said the trees, if we want.

Well maybe someone else will come along, thought the prime minister and this time I’ll grab him and bally well force him to show me the way home. He dodged behind the oak tree.

The sun went down and the trees grew dark. There was a wind blowing through the leaves, there was a sour smell on the breeze.

The prime minister coughed, drily. He wasn’t feeling very well.

Someone else was coming. Through the leaves he squinted and could make out what looked like an agricultural labourer, carrying something like a cutlass attached to a pole. He seemed quite bony and he had a devil-may-care grin on his face. Well, thought the prime minister, he’s a bit armed, but he’s probably stupid.

“Hello,” said the prime minister, his tone only slightly patronising. “My dear fellow, I’m delighted to see you. I don’t suppose you know the way out of this blasted heath, do you?”

The bony peasant stopped and leaned on his pole.

“Well oi do, zur,” he said.

“Would you show me? I’m afraid I’m lost.”

“Are you now, zur? That’s funny, is that.”

“Oh really. Why?”

“All you need to do is walk straight ahead for a while instead of spiralling, ye’ll zoon zee the service station.”

“I’ve tried that,” said the prime minister sadly, “but I always seem to end up here.”

“Zat a fact? Well, Oi’m a bit busy at the moment, got a lot of people to kill.”

“What?!”

The bony peasant looked at him and laughed. Suddenly the prime minister understood who he was and stood there in terror, frozen to the spot, his lungs tight with fear.

“Please?” he said, “No!”

“A’right,” said Death, “tell me one thing you’ve done that wasn’t self-serving, one time when you could have lied but didn’t.” He took out a notebook and a pencil from behind his non-existent ear and looked expectant.

“Er…” It’s unfair, thought the prime minister, I’m a politician!

“Hurry up, zur.”

“Er… lots of times, I just can’t remember them.”

“Do better.”

“I defended a woman from muggers.”

Death looked at him seriously. “Zat the best ye can do?”

“Well, hang on now, I…”

“Bloody hell,” sighed Death, “Oi’ll have to get it countersigned.”

“Why not just forge the signature,” suggested the prime minister helpfully, “Nobody ever checks.”

Death rolled his eyes like the woman and shrugged like the guy in the nice suit. The prime minister backed away from him, preparatory to turning and running, but his foot dug deeper than he expected into something spongy, his other foot was deeper still, he was falling falling falling backwards into a quicksand which filled up his lungs and choked him. It hurt him terribly. Around him were suddenly loud pumping noises, an alarm going off, and the lights were hurting his eyes.

“Shit, we’re losing him,” said someone close by, “Get that ventilator ready.” There was a rattle of medical polysyllables. “Fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck…”

“I’m sorry,” he shouted, “I’ll try to do better.”

Suddenly the cacophony faded and he was lying on the ground in the wood.

Death was leaning over him. “You owe me,” he said.

“Thanks ever so,” said the prime minister. “I’ll pay you back Tuesday.”

And Death smiled.

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