‘Scratch my back’

by jamesbharris

A meeting room.

A Minister and Helen, a civil servant, are waiting.

Minister. Do you ever feel, you know, absolutely bloody awful?

Helen. Come again Minister?

Minister. Just generally bloody awful, you know.

Helen. I’m taking it you do.

Minister. All the time actually. I mean, I’ve felt completely bloody awful since at least the age of 36.

Helen. And how old are you now Minister?

Minister. 52.

Helen. Oh.

Minister. Is that a long time? It is rather, isn’t it?

Helen. Well, today at least shouldn’t present you any problems. Our teams have already done the hard work – you just need to sign the paper and the first stage of trade negotiations will be officially complete. We’ll then go out and speak to the media – Ah, here they come!

Mr. Bao and his interpreter, Ms. Liu, the Chinese trade delegation, enter. The British delegation rise.

Minister. Ah, Mr Bao! And you must be –

Ms. Liu. Ms. Liu. I’m the interpreter for today.

They sit down quickly; the British follow, trying to look as if they were first to do so.

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao would like you to know that he speaks fluent English, but out of respect for the Chinese people, who he knows are following this broadcast keenly, will be speaking in Chinese today.

Minister. Broadcast?

Helen. I believe this is going out live on Chinese state TV, Minister.

Minister. Of course it is. And about – how many people are watching?

Ms. Liu. No more than a hundred million.

Minister. Then I wish I’d worn a tie. Anyway, this is Helen, my Mandarin-speaking Mandarin. She’ll step in if there are any communication difficulties on our side.

Helen nods.

Mr. Bao speaks in Mandarin and is interpreted.

Mr. Bao. Wǒ hěn qī dài yǔ zhè gè wēi bù zú dào de xiǎo guó hé zuò, yóu qí shì zài nà niǎo bù lā shǐ de wēi ěr shì yùn zuò de feì wù chǔ lǐ chǎng.

(Translation: I anticipate our collaboration with this negligible nation, particularly the operation of the waste-processing plant in Wales, a place where birds don’t bother to shit).

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao is delighted at the cooperation between our two nations, particularly the opening of the waste-processing facility in Aberystwyth.

Minister. Ha, tell Mr. Bao it’s just a shame that he can’t buy Wales entirely!

Ms. Liu interprets it back; Mr. Bao reacts with interest.

Ms. Liu. He asks how much Wales costs.

Helen. No, no –

Minister. It’s just a joke.

Helen. Kāi gè wán xiào.

(It’s just a joke).

The Chinese delegation nods.

Minister. I mean, Wales probably is for sale on some sort of level. I haven’t really thought about it to be honest. Above my pay grade.

Silence from the Chinese delegation.

Helen. Right. Shall we move on to the signing itself?

The Minister takes out a fountain pen.

Minister. My lucky pen! Would you believe this pen belonged to William Gladstone? A great pen to hail a great new liberal age! Where do I sign?

Helen points; the Minister signs.

Helen (pointing). Also there.

The Minister signs.

Minister. Over to you, Middle Kingdom!

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao is very happy to proceed to the signing of the agreement. However, first he has just a little request, or two.

Minister. OK.

Ms. Liu. First of all, he’d like you to do a little twirl.

Minister. A little what?

Ms. Liu checks with Helen.

Ms. Liu. You know, (gestures) spinning –

Helen. Yes, twirl, that’s right.

Minister. And sorry but why does Mr. Bao want me to do a twirl exactly? Weshy-ma?

Ms. Liu. Ah, Minister, you do speak some Mandarin I see.

Mr. Bao. Wǒ xǐ huān kàn zhuàn quān.

(I like watching twirls).

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao likes watching twirls.

Minister. Just let me consult with my mandarin. I mean her – well, her. (as an aside) Helen, what’s the Foreign Office policy on twirls?

Helen. No official policy on that, sir.

The Minister thinks it over.

Minister. Well, I can’t see why it’d hurt. A little twirl from this, particular, British lion to show he is not just a fearsome but a, ah, amicable beast.

The Minister stands up.

He gestures to the delegation, smiles, and gives a little twirl.

The delegation applaud.

Minister. I’m glad you like it. Now, my pen is ready to go…

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao has another request.

Minister. He does.

Ms. Liu. He’d like you to sing his favourite song. It’s the song about the little teapot.
Pause.

Helen (sings). I’m a little teapot, short –

Minister. I know the song, Helen! We all bloody know the song. It’s a children’s favourite.

Ms. Liu. Then you can sing it.

Minister. I don’t want to –

Helen. Minister, I’d remind you of how delicate the negotiations are at this stage.

Pause.

Minister. Oh for goodness sake…

The Minister stands. The Chinese delegation film him, singing.

Minister. I’m a little teapot –

Ms. Liu. And the actions.

Minister. Actions?

The Minister turns to Helen, who demonstrates the actions.

Minister (singing, with actions). I’m a little teapot short and stout

This is my handle, this is my spout

Um – can’t remember the – steam up!

Tip me over and pour me out.

The delegation applauds with polite enthusiasm.

Minister. Alright, listen, that is it! We are now signing that document and I am not putting my finger up my arse or whatever it is that you want from me next, alright!

Mr. Bao (in English). Little teapot!

Everyone excpet the Minister laugh.

Helen. Sorry, Minister.

Ms. Liu. There is one more thing.

Minister. What do I have to do now?

Ms. Liu. Nothing. Just make a short statement about our new trade deal.

Minister. That’s it?

Ms. Liu nods.

Minister. I suppose that doesn’t sound too bad. Sort of thanks to both our nations, best of luck for the Year of the Rat, that sort of thing?

Ms. Liu. We’ve prepared the statement that we’d like to hear.

Ms. Liu pushes a piece of paper towards them.

Helen picks it up and reads it to herself.

Helen. You can’t read this Minister. Nonetheless, you can’t not read it either.

Minister. Remind me what exactly we pay you for.

Helen. Not enough to work under Dominic Cummings.

The Minister stares at the paper again.

Minister. How many did you say are watching?

Ms. Liu. About three hundred million as of now. (checks phone) Oh, four.

Minister looks to camera. He begins to read.

Minister. Great people of China. Today I am speaking on behalf of my tiny little country. Look what happens to small islands which aggressively assert their independence! Now the English lion is humbled, and forced to twirl and sing like a stupid old baby. This serves me right for the opium war and stealing other people’s territory – which is all my personal fault. Yes, I am a large baby, a – what’s that? – oh, shit-eating baboon, right – and my only friend is Yorkshire pudding. I suck. Shay shay.

The Minister sits down, deflated.

Minister. Rather like Yorkshire puddings actually.

Mr. Bao, laughing, gestures for the pen.

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao is now ready to sign.

The delegation huddle around the table signing. Mr. Bao is now quite animated, signing and being demonstratively friendly to the team.

Ms. Liu. Is Wales really for sale?

Helen. Twenty billion ought to do it.

Ms. Liu. Thank you. Before leaving, we would like to offer you a gift.

He hands the Minister an ornamental backscratcher.

Mr.Bao. You scratch our back – you scratch your back!

Laughter from everyone except the Minister.

The Chinese delegation exit.

Helen begins using the backscratcher to scratch the Minister’s back.

Helen. Well done Minister, well done.

Minister. It was absolutely bloody humiliating. Still, I suppose things can only get better from here.

Helen. I wouldn’t be too hasty, Minister. The Indian delegation is due next week.

Pig and scratcher