After thirty-six hours of negotiations nothing had changed. The two men sat indoors in heavy blazers, the palm trees woozing by the swimming pool. Gilhoolie, a short red-faced Scottish man, of whom one could see the gaps in his moustache, was the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Tern was the serious Prime Minister of another country.
“I shan’t,” said Gilhoolie.
“You must,” said Tern.
“I shan’t,” said Gilhoolie.
The streets on which Gilhoolie had spent his cobbled boyhood were pasted all over with crisis posters, and his mother didn’t understand why, and there was no explaining to her.
“This is not the way we negotiate,” said Gilhoolie.
“Nor we,” said Tern. “And yet.”
A screaming bird of paradise banged into the glass and flew off wonkily. At a house party when he was fourteen, he’d walked smack into a French door thinking it was open. Before the pain hit, he was aware only of the world bending around him. Oh, he had thought, this is the way everything is. Haw, haw, screamed the bird.
At once Tern banged his fist on the table, as if to prompt him.
“I do not respond to vulgarity, but I was going to concede anyway. I concede to your terms.”
“I was trying to get some water,” said Tern. “I’m glad you concede.”
No one came with any water. They couldn’t see anyone at all.
“How will we judge the fantastic skateboarding competition?” asked Gilhoolie.
It was another day and they sat in Tern’s hotel suite with the windows open, noisy glasses of ice water sweating onto the desk.
“The most fantastic skateboarders.”
“But who will judge that? An impartial judge?”
“Do you feel qualified to judge brilliant skateboarding prowess, Mr. Gilhoolie?” asked Tern, and Gilhoolie admitted he did not. “Indeed,” he said, “there will be indeed impartial judges. Certainly there will be judges.”
A hungry-looking man burst into the room, his shirt smudged.
“Do you need a translator?” he asked.
“No,” said Gilhoolie.
“How did you get here?” said Tern. “Out!”
“I speak fluent Spanish,” said Gilhoolie. “My wife, in fact—”
“Out!” said Tern.
The man stood there, panting. He began to shout desperately in English, but didn’t finish what he was saying before Tern telephoned the people to have him permanently removed.
“The games are today, mother,” Gilhoolie said over the phone. “Are you watching them on television?” He had shaved his moustache. Tern said he looked ten years younger. Fifteen years younger. He was getting a tan.
“I don’t get it,” said his mother. “Any of it. Skateboarding?”
“Fantastic skateboarding done by excellent skateboarders. In negotiation, it’s important to concede—”
“Are we good skateboarders in Scotland? Lately for dinner—”
“Britain. I don’t know. We’re not using national skateboarders. We’re using skateboarders of no nation.”
“Wish us luck, and God Save the Queen.”
“No she doesn’t.”
“I love you,” said Gilhoolie, hanging up. He picked a collarless cheesecloth shirt from the wardrobe and a light, creamy jacket.
The half-pipe that had been built on the beach was of monstrous proportions. The Prime Ministers sat behind the commentary box where two men sat and watched the fantastic skateboarders warm up, flipping and leaping around in a remarkable fashion.
“No expense spared, I see.” said Gilhoolie. Tern said nothing.
The commentator in the loosest shirt said, “The real winner today is going to be just one man: the skateboard! He’s going to get ten out of ten from me every time! Every time.” The other commentator said nothing.
“This will not mark the end of our discussions,” said Tern.
“That’s exactly what I have specified,” said Gilhoolie. “My mother told me on the phone this morning about what they’re doing with tin cans. It’s quite distressing.”
“I appreciate that,” said Tern. “Please do remember, though, that this is no one’s fault. No one is fighting. We are all trying to reach a conclusion. The skateboarding competition was never negotiable, though. It is simply how things are done here.”
“In your home.”
“No, here,” said Tern.
The first skateboarder had clambered the ladders to the top of the half pipe and the commentators were speaking of him eagerly. He kicked off and sped down the ramp, true and determined as rain down a windowpane. Gilhoolie rubbed the sunburn on the back of his neck.
Tern drank the milk from half a coconut. The skateboarder began his ascent.
“Are you aware of the—”
“Of the what?” asked Tern around his bendy straw.
“Of the cans. Of how they’re having to—”
“Do you know who the winner of this fantastic skateboard competition is?”
Gilhoolie looked at him. Tern busily sucked the straw, his lips pumping bolts of coconut milk into the darkness of his mouth.
“Me,” said Tern. “I am the skateboard. I am ten out of ten, baby.”
Gilhoolie sighed and gave the signal. The skateboarder reached the top and kept going. He hung in the air.
Jack Nicholls comes from Cornwall. He co-runs the Manchester live lit cabaret Flim Nite and performs comedy with the sketch group Beach Hunks. His fiction and poetry have been featured in places like the Morning Star, Poems in Which and the Chicago Quarterly Review.