Lunch in Romania, 1989
"Call me Manea, " he said charmingly. As if, I thought, my sweaty hand in his, two not-so-secretly holstered flunkies on either side of me. "I thought we might spend a morning together ... getting to know each other. I like to know who my daughter's friends are."

"Were," I corrected, "I haven't spoken to her for a month and she hasn't returned my calls."

"But first a shave," he said, ignoring me. It was not how I expected the morning to go.

The car took us, through halted traffic and disregarded traffic lights, to the InterContinental Hotel. I was starting to feel that the place was cursed, and I cursed always to return to it. The manager dropped some tourists' luggage with a crash and showed us to the hotel's 'Aesthetic Centre,' where two barbers were waiting on our arrival.

We sat side by side as the hot towels and razors came out. Manea Constantin spoke to me in the mirror. I kept turning to face him, but the barber had my head jammed. Just as well --- the razor was so sharp it would probably not even hurt when it cut, not until I saw the blood. The blade was hot, the steel smooth in its thin, lethal slide on wet skin. My eyes watered as he hitched up a nostril and the blade scraped right up into the cavity. I fought back a sneeze.

"Vlad the Impaler used to slit open the nostrils of his enemies so they flapped like rags in the wind," said Manea, by way of putting me at my ease.

The barber sprinkled some mentholated astringent over our heads and necks and began a Turkish cranial massage. It felt as if my skin was being peeled off, stretched out and tanned across my skull. I felt a high of physical health.

Constantin was practised at mirror talk, and enjoyed the symbolism of it: everything inverted, him talking to me via my reflection and I talking to him via his. He was an intelligent and graceful conversationalist, and I found myself forgetting that he was probably as corrupt as the rest of them, and as ruthless. He was certainly his daughter's father: he had that same detachment from all he was implicated in, that same nonchalance in the midst of responsibility. The difference was that where Cilea could merely distance herself from it all, Manea implemented it.

He settled back and relaxed. We said nothing more until the barbers were brushing the hairs from our collars.

Now you will be my guest at the Politburo restaurant in Snagov.

Forty minutes later we were there. The journey out of town had taken us across some rubble-strewn roads. In Leo's Skoda it would have been a boneshaking nervejangler of a journey. In Manea's ministerial limo it was like a car journey on a fifties film set, the landscape rewinding in the tinted glass.

The Snagov 'SocialistVillage' was a twenty-acre gated compound of villas and facilities for highly placed Party officials: health clubs, gyms, saunas, skin care and anti-ageing treatment centres. There were shops with blacked-out windows selling white goods, luxury food, designer clothes. Politburo wives shopped and dined while their children rode western motorbikes to cinemas showing US action films. Unlike Bucharest itself, the place was orderly and shiny; a cross between Switzerland and the retirement belt of Florida --- an Iron Curtain Costa Geriatrica.

What brought the average age down was a two-abreast file of uniformed boys and girls. "Young Pioneers," the Party's children's corps, were goose-stepping with knapsacks on their backs, compasses and water bottles around their necks. They walked in step and sang heroic songs, a phalanx of communist Tintins marching to the beat of an automated childhood. "Two Planks" sped past on a red Vespa, wearing Ray-Bans and a Lacoste polo shirt. "This is the Central Committee compound," explained Constantin, "though some of us prefer to live in town. I'll be hosting a Foreign Office delegation from your country here in December. I shall send you an invitation."

Thanks, thanks very much, l thought. Come Christmas, that would be all I needed: standing in a suit while Romanian Party bosses mingled with diplomats, sleazy defense contractors and some damp-lipped Tory undersecretary for closet arms sales. "I'll pencil it in," I replied in Romanian, trying for sarcasm, a difficult nuance in a foreign tongue. The worst was that I knew I would probably go.

--- From The Last Hundred Days
Patrick McGuiness
©2011 Seren Books
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