Once upon a time, there was a street called Europe Street. It was a picturesque street, with some lovely old houses and gardens, which had endured a somewhat chequered history, largely because some of its homeowners had indulged in the unfortunate habit of trespassing on and destroying their neighbours’ property in drunken rampages. The damage had been variable – Lord Bumface always used to chortle that apart from a few outhouses, most of his lovely period buildings had emerged unscathed (Lord Bumface was always boasting and chortling about something, to everyone else’s irritation). M. Marcel’s house, however, had had to be practically rebuilt twice, after some very unsavoury street fights, and even Frau Wurst’s property had endured some significant damage; not that many were sympathetic about this, following that dreadful business when all those poor servants had been killed, after being made to work for no wages.
So, after one particularly gruesome episode of rioting, looting and general mayhem, the good citizens of Europe Street had reluctantly decided to let bygones be bygones, and to come together in a new spirit of friendliness and cooperation. Indeed, the avuncular town mayor, ‘Uncle Sam’, who lived round the corner in a rather splendid white house, had told the denizens of Europe Street in no uncertain terms that he was mighty tired of these disagreeable and destructive squabbles; he was only going to invite them round for dinner in future, if they promised solemnly to behave themselves. As chairman of the Wells Fargo bank, he had even threatened to cut off their overdrafts which they desperately needed for all their repairs.
The message was understood. Six of the households decided to band together to form a Neighbourhood Watch and Residents’ Association. Ostensibly, it was to allow them to get to know each other better over a beer or two, and to allow their wives to sell each other some of Uncle Sam’s fancy new Tupperware, but the plan was also to help each other with their various business ventures, which had been ruined in the last big fight. Frau Wurst, who was very well-educated and always sensible about these things, had pointed out that everyone had their strengths and weaknesses. M. Marcel, for instance, made the most delicious pastries and quiches, but was absolutely hopeless at paying his bills on time, and had frequent problems with quarrelsome domestic staff who were prepared to quit working at the drop of a hat. Signor Fettucine was a dab hand at fine suits and dresses, but his enormous family were prone to furious arguments that inevitably led to some spectacular falling-out. Frau Wurst had been forced to fold the family tank-building business and concentrate on designing quality cars instead, although she could never find enough buyers who were prepared to pay her what she wanted.
Even Lord Bumface had his problems, although he was loath to admit them. He had made a small fortune helping Uncle Sam expand his bank, but had then blown most of the profits on a very expensive model railway set. No matter what he tried, no matter how much he spent, it kept breaking down, and he could never get the damn trains to get to the stations on time. M. Marcel and Frau Wurst had tried not to snigger when they had heard about the shortcomings of Lord Bumface’s train set, but they couldn’t help themselves. Frau Wurst even had a word for it.
“Schadenfreude, my dear Marcel,” said Wurst. “I ought to feel sorry for him, sitting there in the pouring rain, trying to fix his trains, but he never listens to my advice.”
“It serves him right,” said Marcel contemptuously. “Have you eaten his food? It is disgraceful. I would not serve it to my dog.”
Anyway, over many years, more and more of the houses on Europe Street joined the Association. Even Lord Bumface got up off the sidelines and joined in the fun. And despite the odd difference here and there, the neighbours of Europe Street had managed to stay friends for nearly 70 years, without any major squabbles. Their businesses had thrived, the language classes for their kids were as popular as ever, and the bad old days were long forgotten. They had even begun an annual musical talent competition. Some of the singing was terrible, and Lord Bumface used to sulk when his songs flopped, but the positive vibe was unmistakable. And everyone loved nothing better than to head down to Stavros’s Hotel and Taverna in summer after several months’ hard work, to enjoy the finest kebabs and tzatziki in town, and generally unwind over beer and cocktails at the sunny end of the street. Even Frau Wurst used to let her hair down on these vacations, although the wild behaviour of Lord Bumface’s teenage kids would make her cringe in disgust.
Then, one day, everything changed. Most of the residents were sitting in Lord Bumface’s living room, enjoying some scones and afternoon tea. Lord Bumface was feeling a little lonely and bewildered after his partner of many years, Lady McLeod, had asked for a trial separation. That their marriage had been rocky for some time was no secret to the other residents, and was the source of much gossip, but publicly they wanted to show some solidarity with their fellow neighbour, even if he could be a little pompous and aloof sometimes.
There was a knock at the door. When a servant ushered the guest in, the residents were taken aback by the sight of an ashen-faced and clearly troubled Uncle Sam.
“I’m worried about Stavros,” said Uncle Sam. “He has missed paying his dues to me for three months straight now. When I tried to call him today, I kept getting an engaged tone. I think he’s left the phone off the hook.”
There was little initial reaction from the gathered throng. Stavros was notorious for his laxity in paying his debts on time. Indeed, no-one much cared in Europe Street because he was just as lax at charging people for his delicious souvlaki, and everyone just figured it would all even out in the end. There was just the teensiest hint of jealousy from Frau Wurst that Stavros and has family and servants always seemed to be enjoying a nice life in the sun, without ever seeming to do much work for it.
“I also have been having concerns about Stavros,” said Frau Wurst. “We were supposed to have a financial planning meeting last week, but I think he’s been avoiding me.”
This also provoked little reaction. People went out of their way to avoid discussing money matters with Frau Wurst. She had this irritating knack of making one feel guilty and incompetent about debt, and she was always grumbling about ‘unnecessary’ expense at their monthly shindigs.
Then the door flew open and a waiter from the Taverna ran in, babbling breathlessly: “Please – come quickly! We’ve got no power, the kitchen’s flooded and Stavros has locked himself in!”
At this, the Europeans and Uncle Sam sprinted out of the house and down the road to the Taverna, where a scene of utter pandemonium confronted them. Most of the staff were outside, hammering angrily on the locked door and demanding a response from within. A few quick questions soon ascertained that they had not been paid for some weeks. Rubbish had been allowed to accumulate, and when Uncle Sam managed to break the door down with the help of one of his burly guards, they found Stavros and his immediate family slumped on the floor, with empty bottles of Ouzo piled around them.
“Get up, Stavros, old chap,” said Lord Bumface. “We’re worried about you and we need to talk.”
Frau Wurst had been staring suspiciously at the driveway. “Where are your cars, Stavros? What happened to the Mercedes I sold you? And the BMW, for that matter?”
Stavros lifted himself groggily to a sitting position. Without looking at Wurst, he mumbled sheepishly, “I had to sell them. No more cash. Things have got pretty bad here.”
Wurst was incredulous. “All of them? And what have you done with the money? Some of your staff have not been paid for weeks, apparently.”
“I, er, spent it. On other stuff,” gulped Stavros, finally daring to cast an apprehensive glance at Wurst’s frosty scowl.
“All of it?” shrieked Wurst. “Well, I think it’s high time you took some responsibility for your actions. You need to face up to your debts, and pronto.”
“If you hadn’t offered such cheap credit to buy them, I wouldn’t be in this mess,” said Stavros sulkily.
“Well, no-one forced you to buy those bloody vehicles,” retorted Wurst.
“Now now,” interjected Lord Bumface in a conciliatory tone, “it’s no good berating poor old Stavros. What’s done is done. After all, I don’t recall you complaining about Stavros’s ability to pay at the time, Frau Wurst.”
Frau Wurst opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it. After a pause, she said more diplomatically, “Well, I suppose you are right. But we still can’t let him get away with this. I mean, look at this place! What’s needed here is a clear-out, a good tidy-up and a sensible budget. If I can manage to live within my means, I don’t see why…”
Uncle Sam cut short Frau Wurst’s homily. “Be that as it may, we mustn’t heap suffering on suffering. We’ll have to find a way for Stavros to repay what he owes everyone without bankrupting him in the process.”
At that moment, a smartly-dressed young man strode purposefully into the room. His blue suit was immaculate, his white shirt crisply ironed. “How do you do?” he said with a grin, introducing himself with a firm handshake to each of his neighbours in turn.
“Who are you?” stammered M. Marcel.
“Call me Alex,” said the newcomer. “There’ve been some changes around here. The servants were so fed up with Stavros not paying them on time, that they had a vote and put me in charge of the house instead.” He turned to Stavros and gave him an unfriendly nudge with his foot. “Come on, Stavros. You can’t stay here any more. You’ve got to move into the outhouse.”
“That’s nice for you, my boy,” interrupted Frau Wurst, “but what are you going to do about the house’s debts? I’m afraid your predecessor has been very sloppy with his finances.”
“Nothing,” replied Alex, with a defiant gleam in his eye. “The servants here have suffered enough. I don’t see why we should have to pay for his incompetence.”
Wurst was outraged. “Fool! How on earth do you expect to get any more loans if this is how you treat your creditors? The Wells Fargo bank is not a money tap for you to turn on and off at will. There must be consequences. Tell him, Uncle Sam,” she implored the mayor.
Uncle Sam nodded silently, keeping his gaze on young Alex. Yet if Alex was supposed to be intimidated by this, he was showing no signs of it.
“Whatever. My first duty is to the people who elected me, and frankly, they’ve had enough of all this doom and debt. Your ‘repayment’ plans would make us paupers for eternity. You can take your restructuring deal and shove it. Anyway, I have other friends to help me with my finances.”
“What other friends?” spluttered Frau Wurst.
“The Count,” declared Alex nonchalantly. “He is quite prepared to offer hard cash and guaranteed electricity at very cheap rates. And he doesn’t chastise me for it like you lot do either.”
At the very mention of this name, there was an audible gasp in the room. The Count was a mysterious figure who lived in a rather grand looking castle at the eastern end of the street. Very few of the neighbours had ever dared to visit his colossal property, although those that had, spoke of how cold and windy it was up there. They also said that his servants looked underfed and miserable, even though there were piles of cash and gold in his impressive main hall.
Some of his closest neighbours on Europe Street were frankly terrified of him. They remembered that previous Counts had forced them to be part of an alternative street committee, the Union of Secure and Social Residents, which had been much less fun and much less prosperous, and the whole unhappy debacle had ended rather abruptly some years ago. Since then they had been desperate to join the more popular Residents’ Association, especially since it had been expanded into an Economic Club too, although many of them didn’t really understand what this meant.
Uncle Sam had been mighty keen on letting these new houses into the Association. This was driven by his hatred of the Count, who often let it be known that he felt he ought to be the town mayor, and had engaged in some very hostile arguments on the matter in the past. Nonetheless, this wish had caused quite a bit of friction with some of the more longstanding Association members. Some of the servants in these houses were less than impressed when servants from the new houses had begun working in their houses, on account of their willingness to work for cheaper wages. Lord Bumface in particular had had to reassure some of his loyal workers that they would not be left high and dry, although he was secretly delighted with his new employees, who were much more hardworking and motivated than some of the whiny, ungrateful local types who dug his allotment potatoes and harvested his orchard.
Alex’s view of the Count, however, had changed radically after meeting him the day before. Staggered by the pile of unpaid bills he had inherited from Stavros, and in sheer desperation, he had made his way up to the Count’s castle. The place was absolutely freezing, but the Count had beckoned him into his huge main hall, where he sat, flanked by two enormous hounds, beside a roaring fire. Alex had stood shivering rather abjectly by the fire, looking down at his feet and unsure how to begin.
“Alex, my boy, what is the matter? You look troubled,” said the Count.
“It’s the other houses on the street. They’re making all these threats if I don’t sort out my debts.”
“Shto? Really, Alex. Don’t vori, my son. You should have come to me sooner. I have everything you need – money, gas, electricity, protection – and without all their stupid rules and regulations. Drink?” He offered Alex a glass of colourless liquid. Alex accepted the glass and took an uncertain swig. The liquid burnt the back of his throat and reduced him to a ferocious bout of coughing. The Count shrugged and drank liberally, without so much as a raised eyebrow.
Eyeing Alex cautiously, he spoke in a warm, genial voice. “I can make you a better offer. You wouldn’t have to do much for me. Go away and have a think about it. Even if you do accept their lousy deal, remember there is always an alternative.” The Count smiled enigmatically at Alex, stroking one of the fierce hounds sat beside him. Alex mumbled his thanks and scuttled off back down the hill, the Count’s words ringing in his ears.
And now Alex was faced with a real dilemma. For Frau Wurst had been coldly adamant in laying down the law: “Alex. With leadership comes great responsibility. You know the Association’s rules, and if you don’t, allow me to spell them out for you. If you reject our offer and throw your lot in with the Count, it will be the end for you as an Association Member. We could not allow it. You would be completely on your own. Is that what you really want?”
Alex stared defiantly at her for a few moments, but then he shrugged and looked down at the floor. The pressure from the rest of the Association was intolerable. He knew, however reluctantly, that he had no choice. His people would never agree to falling out with the Association, and they simply would not trust the Count.
Correctly taking Alex’s silence as assent, Frau Wurst said gently: “You have made the right decision, Herr Alex.”
“Chin up, old bean,” added Lord Bumface. “It’s never too late to turn things around.”
For all his jovial optimism, though, Lord Bumface was privately disquieted by these events. Stavros might well have been a bit too casual with his finances, but that was no reason to inflict such brutal medicine. When the Association had decided to use the same communal bank to finance their repairs and pay their servants, it had seemed like a great idea. Yet lately, there just seemed to be no end of trouble with it. Indeed, Lord Bumface was relieved that he had managed to keep his own estate out of it, preferring to use his own bank instead.
Yet that was not enough for some people, thought Bumface. Things had become very tough at home of late. And it had all started when that awful used car salesman had set up shop on his estate. There was no doubt that he provided a popular service to his staff, but his wretched garage always looked so mean and ugly, and he was always boozing and smoking and chattering away animatedly to the gardener.
His most irritating habit, though, was his utter disdain for Lord Bumface’s management of the estate. “Couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery,” he would say, with his characteristic smug smirk. He had also said some very unkind remarks about Lord Bumface and Lady McLeod, speculating loudly to all and sundry that if His Lordship couldn’t manage to keep his marriage together, what right had he to tell everyone else how the estate should be run. He would call Lord Bumface Dave, disrespectfully, and in retaliation Bumface nicknamed him Garage, on account of his shady profession.
Lord Bumface recalled the episode with a grimace: Lady McLeod had threatened to set up her own farmhouse in the northern part of the estate, and take her personal servants with her. She had nearly got her way, but at the last moment a majority of her staff had opted to keep the estate together. For now. Garage had been winding him up about it ever since. That hadn’t been the worst of it, however. In recent years, the number of people wishing to live and work in Europe Street had grown to staggering proportions. I don’t know why anyone is so surprised, Bumface reflected ruefully, since we’ve made it such a nice place to live. Many of these workers had got into the habit of sneaking across the nearby river at the dead of night and then pleading for whatever work might be available. They had come from awful homes on shanty streets, where the daily grind was a mix of fighting and haggling for money and food.
Bumface shuddered. If he were honest, these people frightened him. Yet he could understand what motivated them. Of course, nothing had caused as much debate and disagreement within the Residents’ Association. In fact, he couldn’t ever remember the arguments being this bad. Frau Wurst was a passionate advocate for letting them stay. Some residents commented unkindly that it was probably due to guilt over how badly some of her servants had been treated 70 years ago. Some people never knew when to let things go, thought Bumface. But others were much less enthusiastic, mainly because their staff were suspicious of anyone who might be prepared to work for less wages. They looked, dressed and spoke differently too. For some reason, thought Bumface with a weary sigh, that always seems to upset people.
And now Garage was giving him grief on this very matter. Honestly, the man was impossible! He had been going around handing out beer and cigarettes to the other staff, trying to cajole them into his barmy plan to hold a vote on membership of the Residents’ Association. This really did get Bumface’s goat. Garage had wangled a job on one of the Association’s special committees. But instead of going along to the meetings and making sensible contributions, he was just too lazy to bother turning up. And when he did, he would merely insult everyone and tell them they were a waste of space. And despite being paid handsomely for his ‘services’, he now had the temerity to say that Bumface Manor would be better off out of the Association altogether. Of all the damn cheek!
Lord Bumface trudged back to his house, stomped into the kitchen, poured himself a stiff whisky and slumped wearily into his favourite chair. What a bloody awful day! At that moment, a familiar face appeared at the window and grinned grotesquely at him. Garage!
“What do you want?” grumbled Bumface.
“I see you had a successful day at the Taverna, Dave,” smirked Garage sarcastically. “That poor boy Alex. What kind of shoddy deal was that? You let that Kraut woman walk all over you.”
“Her name is Wurst. My name is Bumface, or Your Lordship. And I’m quite proud of young Alex actually, facing up to his responsibilities like a man…”
“He’s been duped, hoodwinked – and you know it,” cut in Garage. “You don’t seriously expect him to pay off those debts, do you? His poor staff have put their faith in the Association, and this is the thanks they get – a lifetime of penury. I don’t know how you sleep at night.”
At this, Lord Bumface went puce with fury. “How dare you! You ghastly man! You don’t care about Alex or his staff. You’re just using him to bolster your tawdry ideas. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. You just try and undermine me at every turn.”
“Calm down, dear,” giggled Garage impishly. “You might do yourself an injury. Of course, if you were man enough to put this to a vote…”
“Right!” yelled Bumface. “If that’s what it takes to shut you up, bring it on! I’m not scared of you. You might be popular down the pub, but my staff are far too sensible to go along with your hare-brained schemes. They didn’t desert me over Lacy McLeod, and they won’t now,” said Lord Bumface, standing as tall as he could and trying to sound confident.
Garage called his bluff. “OK, Dave. You’re on. Oh, and by the way, you might want to test the loyalty of some of your devoted staff – you’ll be in for a nasty surprise.”
“If you’re trying to frighten me, Garage, forget it. I know you’ve managed to twist a few arms with your lies and promises, but all my best staff are good friends of mine, and loyal. They’d never consort with a charlatan like you.”
“Oh, wouldn’t they? Brutus! I think it’s time you came out here!”
Suddenly, a man stepped out of the shadows. He had a bumptious look about him and a distinctive mop of rather unkempt blond hair.
“Brutus!” said Bumface after a pause, visibly shaken. “Not you too?” The sense of betrayal was palpable.
“Sorry, old bean,” said Brutus with a smirk. “I know you’re a fan of the old Association, but really this bureaucratic nonsense has to stop.”
Lord Bumface regained his composure. “I take it this is part of your masterplan to take over the estate. You’re a fraud, and a liar. No good will some of this. Even you know that.”
“Well, we’ll just have to let the staff decide, won’t we old bean?” said Brutus. Bumface tried to maintain a dignified defiance, but he was worried. Of that, there was no doubt.
At that moment, Uncle Sam wandered past a nearby hedgerow and stopped to listen. Garage, Bumface and Brutus were arguing furiously and gesticulating wildly. Like a bunch of schoolkids, thought Uncle Sam sadly. He wandered a little further on. There was another commotion outside Frau Wurst’s house. There was a vast crowd of new arrivals sitting on the lawn clutching their possessions uncertainly. Inside, Frau Wurst could be heard yelling at one of her senior staff. A little further on, Uncle Sam came to the Taverna. He wanted to stop for a beer, for it was a warm night, but something about the glum expressions on the waiters’ faces told him that this probably wasn’t the time.
Then, a sudden gust of wind chilled him momentarily. He glanced up and saw the Count’s castle, resplendent in gold and marble. A feeling of revulsion came over him. I bet you’re loving this, you snake, thought Uncle Sam.
And sitting along in his castle, the Count stared down at the street thoughtfully. And he smiled. And he waited…