I don’t think I’ve told you about the version of Earth that has the Island of Plobble in it. Plobble lies marginally southwest of Ireland and due to a history of invasions and failed colonisation has an English speaking population and a culture not a thousand culture-metres away from our own.
Now in the mid-twentieth century, Plobble first suffered a civil war, which was followed by a revolution, then a coup-de-tat, another revolution and finally an internal party struggle between the competing radical-traditionalist wing and the extremist-conventionalist faction, the inevitable outcome of which was the rise of single supreme leader: Joseph Brigsworthy.
Cruel and authoritarian though he was, Brigsworthy was extraordinarily popular at first. His iron discipline, ruthless suppression of dissent and capacity to take decisive action was a welcome change for the people of Plobble, after years of political violence and chaos. Brigsworthy’s ideology was officially known as “allism” and held that all political ideologies were equally correct once understood by a mind of sufficient intelligence and wisdom. Plobble was renamed as The People’s Democratic Republican Empire of the New Atlantis – a name that with uncanny accuracy described everything that Plobble wasn’t.
Allism is hard work on the poor brain. Despite its name, nearly everybody is wrong under Allism. The communists are wrong for not agreeing with capitalism, the capitalist wrong for not agreeing with communism and the fascists are wrong for disagreeing with both of them. The People’s Democratic Republican Empire of the New Atlantis privatised its railways but having nationalised its stock exchange the only companies that could buy the stock were other government departments. The government nationalised all the bakeries but then subcontracted the actual work to private equity firm in the Cayman Islands. Nobody knew what the right thing to do might be and everybody was too scared to ask.
You might believe that the one freedom nobody can take away from you is the freedom to think what you like in the privacy of your own head. You would be wrong. Negotiating the half truths and confused principles of Allism was mentally taxing – so much so that nobody really had much time to think about anything else. Everybody lived in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty.
“I am afraid and uncertain,” said Gladys Halfshuttle quietly to her self. A baker by trade, she had been re-assigned from her communal district bakery to the capital city by a human resource officer in Atlanta Georgia who worked for logistic services company based in New York that was had been contracted by a business consultancy company in London that had been sub-contracted by the private equity firm in the Cayman Islands that ran the nationalised baking industry of The People’s Democratic Republican Empire of the New Atlantis. Torn away from her friends and familiar routine she now sat in a bleak apartment in a concrete housing estate surprisingly close to the heart of the capital city. She had no way of making sense of recent events because truly there was no sense to be made out of them. She could only find comfort by grasping tightly to the two certainties in her life. Firstly that the Joseph Brigsworthy the People’s Democratic Emperor was the wisest and healthiest man to have ever lived and that he would forever guide the nation with his wisdom (a mantra every citizen was obliged to say four times a day). Secondly that she loved her one and only true companion: her beagle, Chuckles.
Astute readers will note that only one of Gladys’s certainties was true. Astute readers may also guess at this juncture that Chuckles will find herself appointed Emperor at some point. Let me explain how that occurred.
There are many myths about beagles. Some say a beagle cannot be trained – this is not true it just requires more patience than normal. Some say a beagle’s nose can never be fooled – this is also false although the circumstances are rare. However, it is true that the intelligence of a beagle cannot be determined. They are all simultaneously some of the smartest and daftest dogs that there are.
Consider Chuckles. It took great intelligence for Chuckles to realise that she could move a small box by pushing it with her head, which would give her enough height to climb onto the kitchen bench and from there make a small jump onto a taller cupboard and from there reach a window through which she could squeeze through to gain access to a set of fire-escape stairs. However, only the less intellectually gifted of the dog community would then proceed to follow a random trail of scents deeper and deeper into a strange city, taking Chuckles further and further away from food, safety and the unconditional love of Gladys Halfshuttle.
The more lost Chuckles became, the more confused by false trails and distracting scents she became. A looming sense of panic began to overtake Chuckles as she slowly began to realise that she had no route back to safety and regular meal times.
Now, some people believe that beagles are great judges of character. Whether this is true or not I cannot say. Chuckles had been wise her whole life to put her trust in Gladys but now without Gladys, she needed to seek the help of some other human. For reasons I cannot fathom, Chuckles chose Doctor Peter Carlton.
Carlton was English and unlike nearly everybody else in the capital city, was wearing a well-tailored suit and exuded a scent of pressed and laundered wool rather than the scent of tepid cabbage water. He had just stepped out of the front door of his hotel – The Grand Diplomatic Hotel, which genuinely did frequently house diplomats and other high-ranking foreigner visitors to Plobble.
Perhaps it was his scent or perhaps Chuckles sensed a commonality between herself and Carlton. Like Chuckles, Carlton was both manifestly very intelligent and yet noticeably not very intelligent at all. In the domain of medicine, his mental prowess was manifest – his grasp of the medicinal arts was both broad and deep. Yet, it was if his mental faculties were exhausted by his expertise and consequently his decision making, both practical and ethical was singularly deficient. He wasn’t a bad man as such but his moral reasoning was essentially incompetent and aside from a basic sense of self-preservation he seemed to lack a capacity to fully grasp the long term consequence of his decisions. Which is how he now found himself walking out of his hotel in an impoverished and authoritarian nation and heading towards the most dangerous place in that nation: the People’s Imperial Palace home of the People’s Democratic Emperor himself: Joseph Brigsworthy.
It had long been noted outside of Plobble that The People’s Democratic Republican Empire of the New Atlantis was one heart attack away from imminent collapse. While Brigsworthy lived, somehow Plobble would continue in its present state by a mix of constant fear and blind faith. However, Brigsworthy had no children or heirs and no successor. Nobody in the inner circles of the Allism Party dared become too powerful. Anyone who began to show signs of building their own power base was ruthlessly executed before they became a danger to Brigsworthy. Clever and competent people avoided high office and put their energies into being as unnoteworthy as possible. So there was no leader in waiting, nor was there any nascent opposition waiting to sweep to power.
Added to this issue was Brigsworthy’s general intolerance towards doctors. Convinced of his own superhuman health, he assumed any minor ailments were signs of poisoning or biological warfare. This made him a difficult man to treat, along with his more general unwillingness to listen to advice. Further, the sheer mental stress of living with the confusing and pervasive Allism made it difficult for doctors to practice medicine at all.
So it was that a minor cut on Brigsworthy’s arm had gone untreated. That cut had led to a secondary infection which in turn had led to the People’s Democratic Emperor falling seriously ill. This, in turn, had thrown the staff of the People’s Imperial Palace into mass cognitive dissonance – torn by the need to believe in the Emperor’s invulnerability and by the need to find him adequate medical care in a city where doctors were both scarce and scared.
As it happened, Doctor Peter Carlton was looking for an escape route. An unholy combination of malpractice claims and a fraud investigation appeared to be combining together to ruin him. Hearing rumours of a medical crisis in Plobble, he had presented himself to the People’s Democratic Republican Empire of the New Atlantis Embassy (in a parade of shops in Woolwich South London) and offered his services in exchange for a passport and a significant sum of money. The Plobble Ambassador was a woman with a greater than normal capacity for independent thought by virtue of living outside of the confines of the island and she readily saw that Carlton could save Brigsworthy from himself.
A short but uncomfortable plane ride later, Carlton found himself checking into the Grand Diplomatic Hotel, changing into his best suit and then heading out to walk the short distance to the People’s Imperial Palace. It was at this point that he was spotted by Chuckles.
Carlton had a strong feeling that he was being followed but he had naturally assumed he would be accompanied by members of the feared secret police known as PCDA (People’s Committee for the Defence of Allism). In truth, Brigsworthy’s illness was so politically sensitive that the PCDA agents had been essentially incapacitated by indecision. The only person following Carlton was Chuckles.
Carlton strode purposefully towards the Palace and Chuckle trotted purposefully after him, tail held high.
Carlton strode through the gates, unhindered by the guards, who also made no move to stop Chuckles who they assumed was the dog of the eccentric English doctor.
Still unaware of Chuckles’s presence Carlton continued into the palace and was escorted to the bedroom of the great man himself. Chuckles, once again, followed. Once inside the various ministers, officials and flunkies departed rapidly – none wanted to risk staying too long in the presence of the Emperor when he was in such a volatile state. The last one out pulled the heavy oak doors closed, leaving only the Emperor, Doctor Carlton and Chuckles in the room.
We have no way of knowing the exact sequence of events that occurred next. Doctor Carlton never revealed them, Chuckles is incapable of speech and Joseph Brigsworthy is, of course, presumed dead. Whether Carlton killed Brigsworthy or whether he simply panicked when Brigsworthy died of natural causes, I cannot say. Where did he hide the body? That I do not know. Perhaps Chuckles startled Brigsworthy with a cheery bark and caused a cardiac arrest in the dictator? Perhaps Carlton hid the body in one of the antique wardrobes? Perhaps Carlton had formed a halfway sensible plan? I can’t say. I can only say what occurred exactly one hour later.
A flunky entered the room with a single rollmop herring – Brigsworthy would eat exactly one of these each day at the same exact time. When he did so he found Carlton half dressed and with and a frantic look to his eyes. Turning to look at the Emperor’s bed he could see only a dog sitting on the blankets. The flunky dropped the herring in shock and the dog ran over to the herring and ate it in one fearsome bite.
Confused, the flunky turned to the wild-eyed doctor and asked “Where is the Emperor?” and Carlton, apparently now incapable of stringing a sensible thought together simply pointed at Chuckles the beagle and said, “There he is!”
What saved Carlton’s life in those precarious first ten minutes of Chuckles’s reign as emperor was that the idea of Brigsworthy being dead was simply unthinkable. You might imagine the idea of his death would have been a relief, as if a sudden burden had been removed, but no. Brigsworthy had surrounded himself with people incapable of imagining the world without him and so it was axiomatic that he was alive.
You might then think that even these fundamentally loyal people would not willingly believe that Chuckles was the Emperor but you underestimate the flexibility of belief. Initially, I assume they believed this was some sort of test – that Brigsworthy had decided to challenge their faith in him. So they dutifully asserted that Chuckles was Brigsworthy. Having taken this first step, the rest was easy.
Not immediately but steadily and as time passed they simply came to accept that Brigsworthy was Chuckles and Chuckles was Brigsworthy and that THIS HAD ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE. Who would dare ask the notoriously dangerous Emperor why he had changed not only in size but in species? No one would. And life suddenly got easier. Brigsworthy was much less demanding than he had been previously and aside from occasional night time howling, the Palace was much quieter. With his health apparently, much better, officials began rescheduling his official engagements.
Carlton had fled back to England as soon as he could, unaware that he was now safer than he had ever been.
Chuckles initially enjoyed her new life impersonating Brigsworthy. There was plenty of food and the Palace was a playground of scents offering a substantial capacity to explore. Yet she knew there was a hole in her life.
Official engagements were tiresome as she was forced to walk through grey, soulless factories or inspect the same semi-dilapidated missile carrier over and over. A beagle craves novelty and companionship above all.
Six months into her reign as Emperor, Chuckles once more left the Palace accompanied by her PCDA body guards. Her health was not what it had been – despite the exercise, the ready supply of food had led to the inevitable beagle weight gain. Chuckles would be hard pressed to chase down a rabbit, not that she would get the opportunity to try.
Another day, another factory. This one at least had some better smells. A strong barmy smell of yeasty dough and hot ovens. A smell familiar but not one she had smelt before with such intensity. Chuckles felt suddenly and almost incapacitatingly homesick.
She turned towards the shout. In the crowd of patriotic workers, a single woman was waving and shouting. Alarmed, the PCDA bodyguards drew their weapons and moved menacingly towards the woman. Astute readers will have already guessed that this was Gladys Halfshuttle.
It was Gladys Halfshuttle, realised Chuckles. Chuckles gave two commanding barks and the bodyguards stood down.
Gladys and Chuckles embraced – well Chuckle just sat there really as Gladys fussed over her.
The story ends happily of course, as any story with a beagle in it should. Gladys moved into the Palace as the wife of Joseph Brigsworthy and everybody continued to ignore that the Emperor was now a beagle called Chuckles. Gladys discovered a talent for economic management and political reform and gradually the island of Plobble became a happier place. The ingrained superstition from the darker times still lingered, so the people chose not to question too closely their recent history.
Chuckles lived a long life for a beagle. Brigsworthy’s body was never found – some readers may assume that surely Chuckles must have known where it was hidden but if she did she never led anybody to its hiding place.