The shouting and gunfire was getting closer to the hotel. Martin pressed himself against the carpet as though he was trying to burrow through it. Lynne wriggled in the direction of the window.
“Stay down!” whispered Martin. “It’s a bloodbath out there! They’ll have snipers, grenades…”
Whispering, as though the mob might overhear him. Not for the first time, Lynne thought of Nick. Nick wouldn’t be skulking away out of sight, despite his broken dreams. Had he tried to negotiate with the rebels? Had he realized there was no point, and decided to go down fighting?
“This is all your fault!” whispered Martin. “We should have gone to Scarborough.”
They might be about to be executed in the middle of a foreign revolution, thought Lynne, but at least they hadn’t gone to bloody Scarborough. At least she had had some excitement before she died.
It was the sapphire-blue bottle that first caught her eye in the supermarket, with its distinctive black K.
Then the special introductory price for Kristalskaya Vodka, whose smooth taste was thanks to the clear crystal waters from Volkistan’s towering Zakladka mountains.
Then the competition to win a luxury holiday for two in Volkistan with a twelve-word slogan for Kristalskaya Vodka.
She had never heard of Volkistan but it had to be better than Scarborough. And a luxury holiday for two had to be better than a B&B with Martin and Martin’s sister and brother-in-law and their three screaming kids.
Lynne had never had any luck in any competition but this time, she won.
Martin was appalled by the prospect of visiting a former Soviet republic, no matter how good its vodka was, and complained all the way there. As they came in to land at its international airport, he said: “It’s a shed in a field!”
He had a point, but he wasn’t taking in the bigger picture: quaint wooden houses and shining onion-top domes in glorious meadowland surrounded by spectacular peaks, the Zakladka mountains themselves.
The plane touched down and the flight attendant approached them. “Mr., Mrs., Watkins? Please to leave first.”
They emerged from the plane to find a red carpet at the foot of the steps, with a welcoming committee, press and television reporters, and a brass band. The band struck up a jaunty tune as Lynne and Martin descended. A tall, broad-shouldered man came to greet them, slightly overweight, his dark hair slightly too long, but it suited him, Lynne thought.
“Mr., Mrs., Watkins, welcome to Volkistan!” he said, one of his teeth flashing gold. “We are honored to have such distinguished guests. I am minister for tourism, Nikolai Yakovlevitch Akhmanov. Please to call me Nick.”
A young woman with long fair plaits, wearing traditional costume, came forward, carrying a tray with a Kristalskaya bottle and three glasses. Nick poured out the vodka and handed out the glasses. The camera crew crowded forward.
“Mrs. Watkins, congratulations on your award-winning slogan. Please to tell it to us.”
Lynne raised her glass to the battery of cameras. “It’s crystal clear that Kristalskaya puts you on top of the world,” she said.
Everyone applauded. Nick drained his glass and smashed it on the ground. Lynne drained her glass and smashed it on the ground. Martin took a sip, grimaced, and put his glass back on the tray.
And then they were in a roomy limousine, heading for Volkistan’s capital, Volkograd, Lynne sitting between Martin and Nick. She exclaimed in delight at everything they passed: the mountain waterfalls; the white storks feeding in a field; a multi-coloured, multi-domed edifice which turned out to be the Sepulchre of St. Vasily, the Double-Jointed.
“Your country is so beautiful,” she said.
“This makes my heart very happy,” said Nick, his tooth flashing. “I have many ideas as minister for tourism. I have MBA from Laramie University, Wyoming. My dream is for Volkistan to be in top ten of world destinations.”
Martin snorted and Lynne jabbed her elbow in his ribs. She admired a man with the capacity to dream.
When they reached Volkograd, Nick apologized for the grim concrete blocks of flats. “Symbol of unfortunate past,” he said. “Now we go to modern building, Volkistan’s first five star hotel. And you, Mr., Mrs., Watkins, are first guests!”
The staff were lined up outside waiting for them and applauded as they got out of the limousine.
“Bloody hell,” muttered Martin, “this was supposed to be a free break – what if they all want tipping?”
Lynne managed to kick his ankle.
Nick escorted them into the palatial reception area. “You are tired after long journey from UK. You have small dinner with specialities of region, you sleep, tomorrow holiday starts!”
He grabbed Martin in a hug and kissed him on both cheeks. Then he shook hands with Lynne who felt rather snubbed.
The small dinner turned out to be seven courses accompanied by a bottle of Kristalskaya and a string quartet.
“What is this?” Martin kept asking as each course arrived, and the waitresses would beam proudly and say: “Is specialty of region.” Lynne thought it all tasted wonderful.
The next morning, they came down for breakfast, Martin complaining about indigestion, which Lynne suspected was a hangover. But the dining room was deserted.
A teenage girl appeared. “Mr., Mrs., Watkins? Most sorry for inconvenience. No staff today. Today is revolution.”
“What?” said Martin.
“Revolution,” she repeated. She mimed firing a machine gun and then mimed getting shot. “Today please to stay in room. Tomorrow everything good, trip to Land of a Hundred Lakes, very nice.”
“Now look here—” said Martin.
There was the sound of distant gunfire.
“Please to hurry to room,” said the girl, handing them a plastic bag and disappearing out of the front door.
In their room, they found the bag contained food and drink, but Martin said he felt sick. He refused to get off the floor, and by the time the rioting reached the hotel, he was curled in the fetal position, sobbing.
There was a knock on their door. “Mr., Mrs., Watkins?” A young man’s voice.
“Don’t let them know we’re here!” wailed Martin.
“Please to repeat?” said the voice.
Lynne opened the door and a soldier came in.
“Mr., Mrs., Watkins, you are ghosts,” he said.
Martin flung his arms round the soldier’s boots. “Don’t kill me! I’m begging you, don’t kill me!”
Shouldn’t that be don’t kill us? thought Lynne.
“No kill!” said the soldier, looking perplexed. “You are ghosts. New president invites you to dinner.”
“Please tell the new president,” said Lynne, “that we are very honoured to be his guests.”
A limousine whisked them to the presidential palace. Perhaps Nick was still alive, thought Lynne. Perhaps the former ministers had only been imprisoned. And she could use this evening to plead for him, to explain that he had ideas for the country’s future…
They walked into the state banqueting hall, which was packed with dignitaries.
“Mr., Mrs., Watkins! It is pleasure to see you again! Please to take seat beside me.”
Nick, wearing a scarlet presidential sash across his dinner jacket, was at the head of the table.
After the national anthem had been sung and they were eating gherkin soup with carp dumplings, Lynne asked if many people had died in the revolution.
“No, thanks goodness, everyone is very well apart from boy who fell off skateboard and broke arm.”
“But – all the shooting – ”
“We shoot in air to celebrate, we do not shoot one another! We are Volkistani, all brothers!”
“What about the former president?”
Nick shrugged. “My older brother. No good. No MBA from Laramie University, Wyoming. I tell him, go home to farm, look after pigs, I look after country. He is little bit mad with me right now, but will be okay.”
All round the room, people were shouting something and downing glasses of Kristalskaya.
“What are they saying?” asked Lynne.
“Traditional toast, pod stolom,” said Nick.
“What does that mean?”
“Under the table,” said Nick.
Lynne downed a glass of Kristalskaya in one. “Pod stolom,” she said.
“Very fine,” said Nick. “And tomorrow, we go to Land of a Hundred Lakes.”
“What, you too?” said Lynne. “Don’t you have to run the country?”
Nick called to a man in military uniform who laughed and replied.
“Colonel says he will keep eye on things until I get back.”
Lynne was feeling warm. Her thigh was feeling particularly warm, because under the table, someone was stroking it.
She downed another Kristalskaya. “Pod stolom,” she said. She was feeling on top of the world.
About the Author
Olga Wojtas is a journalist and writer in Edinburgh, where she attended the school which inspired Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” She has had a number of short stories published in literary magazines and anthologies in the UK and US, and has just won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award.