Sunday, 27 December 2009

Sofia's speech

From 'Hotel Illyria', Tobacco Factory, Bristol, 2008
Fifteen years after the end of communism in an unspecified SE European country, Sofia reflects on the mixed fortunes of the hotel in whose grounds she runs a cafe not entirely unlike the one pictured above (which is in the grounds of the Hotel Dajti in Tirana, Albania).


Those summers at the Hotel Illyria... Cars pulling in at the gate. The good comrades down from the city. Ministers, generals, heads of this, directors of that. "Evening, Sofia," they'd say as they came into the foyer. "Welcome to the Illyria, comrade."

And the silver service was laid and the band were playing. And after they'd all gone up to change, they'd all come back down again, down the staircase... that huge, sweeping staircase... and always in order, of course. The most senior, the most favoured, right down to the ones who'd disappear the following year... I never worked out how they did that. How they arranged it so they all came down from their rooms in exactly the right order... Who told them? Who knew? They must have waited, each of them, in all their finery, ears pressed against their bedroom door, listening out for who was going past, listening out for their turn.

And when the Leader was here - the panic! Everyone tripping over everyone else, the maids and the police, the waiters and the bodyguards. And the maitre d' poring over this great list of instructions, looking for clues. Would the Leader be inclined to red or white wine this year? Fish or meat? Gravy or sauce? And he would have to choose and wait and sweat until that first meal was served, the first glass poured, and we'd all take up our stations in the dining room, hardly able to breathe, stomachs like stones, absolute silence... Until, yes, there it was: the first mouthful, the first sip... and that famous face - the one on every banknote, every stamp... there it was, unmistakeably, the Leader's half-smile... And then, when we were sure, the sound would come rushing back into the room like a shower of rain. And conversations would start. And orders be given. And the cutlery clattered and we'd be rushing in and out of the kitchens, fetching bread, fetching wine, fetching plates piled high with food... Of course, that was years ago. Before the Siguritate came here. Before they arrested the maitre d'. Pjeter. My husband.

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