Tom's head felt almost too heavy to lift. He wondered where he was and if he'd been drugged. He reached out, as he lay, face-down on the bed, groaning. His hand brushed against the phone sending it crashing to the floor. He reached down, picked the phone up and listened. There was a buzzing noise, with a faint voice somewhere in the background.
"Hello? Hello?" Tom shouted. But there was no discernible reply.
He stood up, stretched, and walked to the bathroom. There was a trickle of orange-coloured water from the noisy, shuddering shower: barely enough to rinse off the soap. Tom brushed his teeth. He opened the wardrobe, dressed in a blue pinstripe suit, crumpled white shirt and polka dot tie, then headed, with some trepidation, along the corridor and downstairs to the hotel restaurant.
It reminded Tom of a school assembly hall. There was such a high ceiling that the place had a slight echo. Tables were laid with grubby white tablecloths for more than one hundred people. That morning there were two other diners: a young Russian couple. At one end of this vast hall there was a stage, at the centre of which stood the biggest juke box that Tom had ever seen. The young Russian man walked up to it, fed it a coin, then, admiring the palm of his hand, returned to his companion. The selector ground noisily into action. It was a Russian song. All that Tom knew was that it sounded sad.
After about ten minutes he started to grow a little restless. There was no sign of any food and the tinny echo of the jukebox was becoming increasingly irritating. He toyed with the cruets and even contemplated eating their contents. "Ahaa". The gloom was temporarily lifted. The younger of the two women from last night emerged from the kitchen, in a dark blue uniform and frilly white apron. She had a cheeky face. The waitress took the Russian couple's order. The "clip, clip, clip" of her black patent leather shoes echoed around the hall as she returned to the kitchen. Ten more minutes passed before the waitress re-emerged from the kitchen.
Tom raised his right hand and gave an attention-seeking cough. She turned her eyes upwards to examine the spot on the ceiling directly above his head, before serving the young couple with, what appeared to be, at that distance, glasses of yoghurt and the ubiquitous slices of stale bread; and then returned to the kitchen, without giving Tom a further glance. He jumped up out of his chair, followed her and swung open the kitchen door. Her blood-spattered workmate was standing there, with a cigarette hanging out of her half-open mouth. This time they didn't argue: they both shooed Tom away. He returned to his seat.
A familiar voice startled him: "Good eat?"
Tom swung around to see Mr. Batbold standing behind him.
"There seems to be some problem," Tom said.
He tried to explain his difficulties. Mr Batbold walked toward the kitchen door and soon emerged with his arm around the shoulders of the pretty young waitress.
"You wrong place sit. You must there sit." He indicated the end of the hall, where the young Russian couple were sitting, enjoying their glasses of yoghurt and slices of stale bread. They waved to him and smiled.
Batbold nodded his head towards them and said, "Here Mongolian. There foreign guest. Tomorrow you know. Then no make problem, OK?"
"What about now?" Tom asked.
"Breakfast finish now."
Mr Batbold pointed at a sign at the entrance. Although it was in Mongolian and Russian,"7.00 - 8.30" was clear enough.
"Sorry," Tom muttered.
The black limousine and driver were waiting outside. It was another potentially brain damaging day.
The car swept around the statue of Lenin and turned into
Tom muttered, "What the hell am I doing here?" Mr. Batbold swung round and looked at him fixedly. Was there a hint of menace in his eyes?
It had all started one morning with a phone call to his office...
"Hello, Tom. How are you keeping?" He recognised that voice. It was Peter Hargrime from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"Oh, not so bad. How are you, Peter? I haven't heard from you for ages."
"Can’t complain. You know my job . And how about you, Tom?"
“Well, to be honest, things have been better. Business has dropped off a bit lately.”
"Then I've got some very good news for you. Something rather unusual has come up that should be right up your street. We've had this request from the Mongolian government. They want someone to go out there and help them with a bit of PR. The sort of thing you did for us, when we had that very embarrassing situation with you know who. Seems they’ve found some money from somewhere. In fact, I think it’s fair to say, there would be a lot of money in it for the right person; a lot of money. And as you're the only person I know who's ever been to the place..."
"Yes it is a bad line, isn't it? Can you still hear me all right?"
"Oh, that's all right then. I thought I'd have to repeat the whole thing again. Well, as I was saying, you're the only person I know who's ever been to
"But, that was Mo..."
"What? Hello Tom? What was that?”
Tom held the phone away from his ear and, for brief a moment, wrestled with his conscience, then he smiled like he hadn’t smiled in months: an almost, but not quite, wicked grin. Maybe this would solve all of his problems. It was fate, destiny….
"Oh, nothing. What did you say? £100,000 for six months’ work?"
It's his own bloody fault, he thought, if he doesn't know the difference between
"Yes, that's right. I knew you'd be interested. You're just the man for the job, Tom. What with the way you handled the press for us, and your previous Mongolian experience. Do you think you could get away for that long?"
I’d like to get away forever, Tom thought, from a failed marriage, a failed business, a failed everything. Even his car had failed to start that morning,
“Yes, I think I could just manage it. Let me check my diary.” He put down the phone and noisily shuffled some papers next to it. Afterwards he reflected, that wouldn’t have sounded much like a diary. And a long time after that, he wondered, Why me? Peter Hargrime never even liked me. But as he was to slowly discover, personal likes, honesty, integrity and things of that nature really didn’t have much relevance in all that was to follow.
"Here is we arrive, Mr Tom: the House of Friendly Relations." It was just another grey, three-storey, utilitarian block on
They brushed the ice and snow off their feet and deposited their coats with a stout cleaning lady who doubled up as a cloakroom attendant. Tom noticed that she had a gold medal pinned, with a rainbow-coloured ribbon, to the front of her old cardigan. When he asked Mr Batbold if she had fought in the war against the Japanese, he replied, "No. It because she five boys have. Government give medal.” Mrs Jargal, the Heroine of the State, smiled benignly at the slightly younger Mr Batbold, if not at the suspicious foreigner. She turned her back on him and walked into a dark recess, with their coats still draped over her arm.
Tom was whisked into a meeting, in a cavernous room, with a long mahogany dining table running the length of it, at the head of which sat the sinister looking, old man, who had been waiting in the limousine for him outside the airport. His name was Mr Enkhbold, and he was Mr Batbold's boss: the Director of the Committee for Relations with Capitalist Countries and U.N. Organisations. He spoke through an interpreter. They were something of a mismatch vocally: Mr Enkhbold droned on monotonously while the interpreter, a woman of faded elegance, in her late thirties, dressed in an old-fashioned business suit, said just a few words of English in a bright, almost chirpy voice. She stopped interpereting Mr Enkhbold's words momentarily, when there was a thud from the room above. He could see that she was making an effort not to turn her face upward to the source of the disturbance, and it was then that he first looked really closely at her and noticed the beginnings of the dark rings under her sad eyes.