It was a long, boring train journey, full of stops for no apparent reason at signals miles from anywhere interesting, usually in cuttings, where the view was just of grass and bushes going up out of sight. Johnson Petrarch took his individual fruit pie out of the box and looked at the cellophane-wrapped pastry shape. The big question of his journey was: Would he be able to gain access to his railway apple pie without having to use his teeth on the wrapper?
The carriage with tables next to the buffet car had been filling up steadily as the journey dragged on. Petrarch found himself surrounded suddenly. Three men planted themselves at his table, all speaking with American accents and ignoring him as if he were some sort of inanimate obstacle filling the fourth place.
The two opposite were youngish and had vaguely military haircuts, like an overgrown crewcut. The older man sitting next to Petrarch had the Senatorial air of beneficent omnipotence of a veteran politician with his nose stuck deep into the public trough.
Petrarch tried to close his ears to the alien accents, reminding himself of the parodies created by the immortal Peter Sellers in so many Goon Shows. The Goonish voice of America was an impenetrable, Hern, hern, hern, hern.
Petrarch began to feel quite light-headed and carried away by his own comedic powers. He felt his face creasing into an unstoppable smile. Hern, hern, hern. And then form began to emerge from the monosyllabic chant. One of the Americans, the Senator, was addressing him through a big smile.
"Mr. Petrarch, congratulations! We've just heard you've been elected President of the United States of America."
Petrarch let the smile blossom. "Thank you for the honour," he said with heavy sarcasm, "but I didn't actually stand in the election."
"A minor technicality, Mr. President. We have the power to co-opt a suitable candidate."
"But I'm not even a US citizen."
"That requirement was ruled discriminatory against minority visitors, Mr. President."
"You mean against illegal Mexican migrants? Which is what your last president was."
"Whatever, Mr. President. We have a car waiting at the next station to begin your journey to the White House."
"I don't want the job." Petrarch shuddered inwardly at the thought of spending four years surrounded by American accents.
The Senator's smile remained at a relentless level. "We have the nuclear-armed aircraft carrier Armageddon standing by off your west coast as we speak, Mr. President. Waiting to bomb the fuck out of this country if you insult the United States by rejecting your duty, sir."
"In that case, what choice do I have?" Petrarch said in resignation.
"We were sure you'd see the light, Mr. President, Sir." The Senator directed a glance across the table.
"Allow me, Mr. President." One of the younger men produced a pair of scissors and snipped open the wrapper on the individual fruit pie. His neighbour provided a white plate with a gold rim and a large crest in the centre, and a fork with the same crest on the handle. It was that almost legendary American efficiency in action.
His re-directed journey passed at bewildering speed. Petrarch soon found himself sitting in the trade-mark Oval Office at the White House, wondering which ex-president's wife had chosen the op-art curtains with eye-wrenching stripes. He detected a certain Mexican influence in the décor. The curtains would have to go; and the carpet. But the chair behind the massive desk was very comfortable.
"Mr. President, may I introduce General Dodger of the Air Force." Senator Aardvaarker, leader of his party and the majority in Congress, was back with another visitor.
"Pleased to meet you, General." Petrarch was polite and remote. His right hand was worn out after a full day's flesh-pressing.
"My pleasure, Mr. President, sir!"
The general snapped to attention in front of the desk and peeled off a magnificent salute.
One advantage of military men was that they didn't expect a handshake. Petrarch found himself unable to resist the temptation to have some fun with this starched clown, whose uniform supported an acre of medal ribbons.
"General," he said in a commanding tone, "my first executive order to you is to go forth and bomb the fuck out of the French."
"Yes, sir, Mr. President, sir! My pleasure, Mr. President, sir!" The general turned on his heel and marched toward the door.
"Only joking, General," Petrarch called after him when he had covered about half of the enormous distance to the door at an efficient, ground covering pace.
"Me, too, Mr. President, sir!" barked the general, turning back toward the desk a little regretfully. "So, who do you fancy in the Monday night game, Mr. President? The Giants or the Jets?"
Petrarch felt his eyes start to glaze over. Every American he met started to talk about football at the first opportunity. The big game of that week, he had been told by every one of the hundreds of people on the presidential greeting-list for his first day of office, was the Brownsville Giants versus the Maryland Jets.
Petrarch felt like telling the general to go and bomb the fuck out of Giant Stadium five minutes after the game started; and not calling him off with an Only joking!
Life became even more intolerable when the baseball season began. Petrarch tried to argue that, as an Englishman, he was excused baseball. He had gathered by then that nobody on the planet is excused football. His aides responded with the usual relentless smiles and told him that it was his duty, as the President of the United States, to be a mine of information on the national sport.
Petrarch resigned himself to more American voices whispering names and statistics into his concealed earpiece when he met more of the nation's sporting heroes. Baseball in the United States, he gathered, was ranked above religion which ranked only just above Football, Motherhood and other Worthy Institutions. Baseball could never be the subject of an Only joking!
In time, Petrarch decided that the charade had gone on long enough. The ridiculous Americans had had quite enough of his time. Someone else was due a turn in the most paralysingly boring job on the planet. But when he tried to resign, he soon discovered why the Secret Service men and women in and around the White House were armed. It was only with the aid of a hasty Only joking! that he turned outrage to laughter. Americans had no sense of humour where the high office of president was concerned.
The food was another area of concern. True, there were supposed to be 1,001 ways of serving a hamburger, but Petrarch was reluctant to try every single one of them; especially as some of the variations and accompaniments sounded positively disgusting to an Englishman. And the deserts at the state banquets! It was in connection with the deserts that Petrarch summoned Senator Aardvaarker to his Oval Office one morning for a confrontation.
"How may I be of service, Mr. President," smiled Aardvaarker, sounding as though he really meant it.
"I'd like to issue a Presidential Decree abolishing apple pie," Petrarch said grandly.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. President?"
Begging pardon in that tone was designed to tell the President that he had made an mistake of the magnitude of calling 92-year-old Mrs. Aardvaarker, the Senator's revered mother, a poxy whore. Petrarch ignored the warning.
"I want to abolish apple pie, Senator. I am fed up to the back teeth with getting it at every single, sodding state banquet."
"We don't joke about apple pie, Sir." The senator's tone was positively menacing.
"I mean, in a country that's suppose to have a million different flavours of ice cream, couldn't we have that occasionally as a change?"
"Abolishing apple pie, well, it would be like abolishing Motherhood, Mr. President."
"But every, single, sodding, state banquet!" Petrarch was lost in his complaint. "It's more than human flesh can bear!"
"Well, maybe we can be of assistance to you in that area, Mr. President." Senator Aardvaarker's expression shifted from outrage to its natural, oily helpfulness.
He took out his mobile phone and issued rapid instructions. The guards with the wheelchair arrived with suspicious promptness, as though in response to a prepared script. Petrarch found himself strapped in with a blanket covering his legs before he could think about making a protest. It was not until they reached the transplant clinic that he started to become worried.
"Hey, this is a big joke, right?" he remarked to one of the guards.
The man maintained his distant expression as he checked the immediate vicinity for danger and held himself in readiness to leap into the path of an assassin's bullet.
Petrarch knew an operating theatre when he saw one. He was having trouble working out how anyone could transplant a love of apple pie, however; and exactly what sort of surgery was involved.
"This will make you sleep, Mr. President," said one of his escorts, breaking a glass capsule under his nose. "Please count backwards from ninety-nine."
"You what?" said Petrarch.
"Ninety-nine," said one of the Secret Servicemen as a presidential substitute.
"About the apple pie."
"Ninety-two. I think he's out now, Doctor."
In the end, in a final, lucid moment, Petrarch realized that everything had been just a narcotic dream in the borderland before unconsciousness. A team of transplanters had surrounded an apparently healthy male on a train. They had carried out the usual non-invasive, remote scans and, on receiving satisfactory results, they had drugged him in his seat.
Thoughtfully, they had called an ambulance for a passenger, who seemed to have been taken ill while travelling. At journey's end, Petrarch was about to become a collection of spare parts. The final part of the dream, at least, was all too real. ■