A very long time ago there lived a rich and powerful king. His name was Ahasuerus, but no-one could pronounce it. Even his friends found it difficult to say. They called him Harry. Everyone outside the capital called him ‘127.’ All his servants called him the PM – standing for Persian Monarch – acronyms were just coming into fashion around then. He ruled over 127 provinces.
Harry lived in Shushan and generally ignored the provinces, except when he wanted something from them. Mostly it was taxes. Occasionally he collected a concubine or two or built a wall, but generally he preferred good solid gold. When he wanted something, he wrote to them directly, on a small clay tablet. “Send much gold,” he’d write. “Now. Otherwise you’re really stupid.”
The reason he ignored the provinces was because he was too busy spending the taxes and his newly-mined gold on feasts. He didn’t attend feasts organised by anyone but his own people, because he was worried someone would call him 127. He spent most of his gold on more gold, but he also bought rights to a house elf called Dobby.
When he’d done all this, he was hungry. He organised some hunger games. That wasn’t enough. Tea-breaks with merry entertainment just weren’t good enough for someone in his line of work, he decided. It was a hard job, ruling. He wrote it on a tablet and sent it to everyone. “This job is tough,” he wrote. “You need to show your love more.”
The PM got rid of the tea-ladies and sacked Mr CMOT Dibbler, whose family had a long pedigree of making Persian sausages. Harry brought in banquet-management and promoted his new-found friend, Dobby, who hadn’t managed to stay bought for very long. Dobby organised the feasts, or delegated them to junior house-elves (for as a free elf, he was unionized and had health care). The unfree elves brought in contractors to do the job. Harry never remembered to invite the contractors and refused to give the unfree elves his spare socks. His best friend told him that unions were evil and that health care was dangerous and that the only way of avoiding them was by creating a permanent underclass. The elves weren’t too happy about this, but there wasn’t much they could do except grumble, or give the job to someone even further down the hierarchy the next time, or, in the case of a young contractor called Katniss Everdeen who had not yet been recruited into the hunger games, to overthrow the establishment – but that’s another story.
Eventually a lowly branch of servants called D.o.P.E. came to exist, standing for Department of Private Entertainment. The head of the DOPE looked remarkably like Gillian’s nephew and was named Conan. Everyone thought he was a barbarian. He answered to Dobby, of course. 127’s best friend hated him, because he was (possibly) Jewish. ‘Possibly’ was enough.
Harry mostly wasn’t worried that he didn’t pay for the feasts himself, or even organise them. After all, he was king and he had dreadful insomnia. He also poisoned lots of enemies. His most recent successful poisoning let him gloating, but didn’t help the headache. A small banquet here and another there was but tiny reward for the dreadful impositions of duty.
Archaeologists were never invited to the feasts either. They weren’t worried by this. For one thing, they were too poor to pay taxes. For another, they had a dreadful habit of waiting till any big event had been over for a thousand years or so and then digging it all up again. Whenever Harry threw a feast, the archaeologists threw a sort of pre-university academic gathering, where they would get drunk and tell everyone else exactly how they would go about the excavation for this particular dig.
They were advised by a strange Englishman, who wasn’t at all worried that he hadn’t been born yet, for he was too busy analysing the not-yet-buried material at the pre-dig party. He predicted very precise futures from this material and swore that when he finally legally existed, he would become a superlatively brilliant detective. He would also be played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
The archaeologists were always writing letters to American universities asking for funding. Marvin the Paranoid Archaeologist (who looked strangely like Gillian’s nephew) said depressingly “This is not going to get anywhere.”
Each of these letters was carefully written on clay tablets and passed from hand to hand until it was so smudged with corrections that they had to start all over again. Each time they started over, Marvin the paranoid Archaeologist would announce how miserable it all was, that his tremendous brain was wasted on such measly matters, and that it would fail miserably. Sometimes someone got sick of all of this and they tried sending a tablet after only five or so drafts. This failed because their supervisor’s job had not actually been approved yet, so there was no-one to send them.
There was never any answer, obviously. Even if the hierarchy had been fully functional, Ancient Persian archaeologists thought too much about the overall picture and forgot local chronology. Except for Marvin the Paranoid Archaeologist, who knew everything. America hadn’t been discovered by Europeans. In fact, Europe had hardly been discovered by Europeans either.
When no-one answered these carefully expressed letters they got huffy and pretended they didn’t really need the funding anyway.
One day Harry decided to throw a drunken orgy along with one of his banquets. Dobby disapproved. The archaeologists used this as an excuse for yet another boring academic gathering. They were discussing the possibility of grants. Marvin complained that there would never be any grants. That no-one appreciated the magnitude of his intellect. And that banquets were boring anyway.
The servants (other than the DoPEs) had a stop-work meeting to discuss work conditions, and ended up giving each other seminars on management technique and how to find catalysts for change. The DoPEs wished they knew how Dobby had obtained his sock – they wanted to join the stop-work meeting.
This feast was to be Harry’s best yet: it made the third page of the pre-Murdoch press. It even beat the Western Australian elections.
Vashti, Harry’s queen, also gave a feast. It was much more sedate. Pottery was used so the archaeologists dismissed the midden-heap as boring. Archaeologists prefer crumpled gold to shards of pottery, even ones who look like Gillian’s nephew, though no-one has ever been able to work out why.
The king got pretty drunk at this feast. He’d killed all his enemies so there was no poison floating around. This meant he could drink lots of wine. Ancient Persian wine was pretty potent. After two glasses he sung a little song he made up for himself. He flattered himself it had a nice little melody, might have made the pop charts if someone had remembered to invent them. He announced to the person who hadn’t invented the pop charts, “You’re fired.” That would sort everything. He knew it.
After everyone had applauded him and he’d had a few more goblets of wine, and he’d been encouraged to sing his shy, lilting melody a few more times, he was very drunk indeed. He looked for his queen and couldn’t find her. He looked under his throne, which was a stupid thing to do, since it was solid. He looked everywhere. He even asked Dobby if he had seen her. Finally he thought she must have gone to sleep after her own banquet. He had forgotten she had a banquet. He wondered who she had invited. He decided to ask her. He sent the chief eunuch to wake her up. After he found out her guest list, he thought, he could get all the gentlemen of his court to tell him how lovely she was and how good he was at choosing a bride.
His chief eunuch, Hege, took about three hours to find the Queen. When he eventually crawled back into the King’s presence, his face was miserable. He grovelled just as hard as he could. He grovelled into the floor, making a hole. “I need to rename you,” the king said. “Fatso. Fatso the Wombat.” The king was, of course, still drunk. No-one in Ancient Persia knew about wombats.
With his head so far into the floor his voice couldn’t be heard, Hege (or Fatso) excused himself as the bringer of bad tidings. The king made him grovel in apology for mumbling. Then he got him to tell the message all over again. The eunuch was terrified and purple splotches began to cover his face. Harry was fascinated by this phenomenon. It didn’t help him find the Queen, though. “She refused to come,” muttered the eunuch, and he grovelled himself out of sight before the king could come to his senses and have him killed. Hege was a survivor.
The next day Vashti did come. She walked up the 953 purple and red plush steps to the gracious throne and had a private interview with the King. The King was livid. Vashti walked gracefully back down those 953 steps, a slight smile on her face. She was the next best thing to a free elf: she was no longer Harry’s wife.
Harry sent out decrees to all parts of his kingdom in all the languages of his realms. They stressed the need for wifely obedience. More than one hundred and seventy-five clay tablets were used for the various drafts. It went up and down the Persian hierarchy no fewer than thirty-one times in its search for perfect wording.
Wherever the decrees were understood, an awful lot of wives walked down the steps of the house with slight grins on their faces. Fortunately, the wording of the decree was obscure, obtuse and largely incomprehensible. Nineteenth century historians were very angry when they discovered this. The Persian Empire would have fallen at least 200 years earlier, Toynbee calculated, if there had been a complete breakdown of all marriages at the time. Mind you, he couldn’t understand the decree. Sherlock predicted all this, of course, but he wouldn’t be born until 6 January 1854, so no-one listened to him.
The king was pretty pleased with himself after this, and he threw a party. The archaeologists waited anxiously in the rubbish dump, ready to examine the tailings. The tailings never arrived.
What had happened was the king had looked around for Vashti and found she wasn’t there. The PM, being a King and no ordinary mortal, got sick of his 861 concubines fairly quickly. Then it dawned on him, he needed a replacement. He set up a Royal Commission to investigate the matter. The Royal Commission acted with extraordinary speed for a Royal Commission due to the king’s uncertain temper. They were too slow. The King issued a tablet. His own. Without anyone’s help. “Too slow,” he wrote. “What an idiot!”
After their untimely demise, the PM was forced to try other measures. He got in touch with his Chief of Protocol, who referred him to the Taxation Branch. The Taxation Branch could not be found. So the PM asked Dobby (who was a free elf, but who now also served as the PM’s personal assistant), who referred him to the advertising manager. The King did not know he had an advertising manager, and felt safe when he discovered it was Lord Breitbart.
His Lordship decided to set up a complete list of all applicants, and then to hold a beauty parade. The PM was to choose his own bride.
The plan was modest. To gather together the largest array of beautiful virgins ever seen, and to sell the leftovers as slaves. The list was entitled Virgins and Maidens of Persian Satrapies, or VAMPS, for short. The advertising manager sent for his favourite consultants, whose normal work was in the Ancient Persian equivalent of King’s Cross. The list of VAMPS was considerably shorter by the time the King discovered that they couldn’t be trusted.
Dobby and Fatso the Wombat between them found a florid young man who had migrated to Persia from the ancient equivalent of California. He had degrees in pre-Keynesian macro-economics, technology transfer and advanced sandwich making, so it was decided that wife-hunting was the perfect thing for him. He was massively enthusiastic about it and set up a huge media-campaign. It worked so well, this campaign, that, over two thousand years later, the Australian Government was to consider using carrier pigeons, runners, and clay tablets to advertise the NBN. Unfortunately carrier pigeons were nearly extinct by then, and the climate wasn’t suitable for clay tablets. The NBN fizzled. However, Lord Breitbart and the florid young man managed to amass a huge number of Ancient Persian virgins for the king to consider.
To cope with the sudden mass of information, the archaeologists set up a research group to keep American academics informed of the King’s affairs. This was known as TIMEWARP, or Transatlantic Information on the Monarchical Eastern Women’s Affairs Research Program. The Americans took 2,500 years to find out about it.
The shyest and most demure girl in Shushan at this time was the niece of a man called Mordechai, who was Minister for Security, or Persio, as it was known. Mordechai had taken care of his timid relative since the death of her parents, many years before. Now that she was adult, he had great plans for her. Hollywood! Either that or YouTube. Lasting fame and glory, and her virtuous modesty untouched.
His first worry had been her taste in clothes. She was demure and quiet, but she dressed, to put it bluntly, like a bogan. She wore trakkydaks with Ugg boots when she went to the theatre, and her midriff was always, always bare. Her hair was teased peroxide blonde and her lipstick matched her handbag and her fingernails with killer precision. Each part was fine, but the complete effect only said one thing.
All Mordechai’s fond dreams were rudely shattered when Esther became a VAMP.
Hege (who really didn’t look nearly as much like Fatso the Wombat as the king thought) rather liked Esther. He had a weakness for bogans. He didn’t know she was related to Mordechai. Mordechai couldn’t tell him of the link, or stop Esther from being rounded up with the other virgins, because he had a dreadful sore throat. It was thought that his secretary had put something in his mid-morning cup of wine. As everyone knows, all Ancient Persians sang at every opportunity. What not many people are aware of is that Mordechai sang rather like a dying chain-saw, and that was on a good day. So the hero of this tale was sulking in his office when Esther was taken to the palace. He couldn’t sing, so he was teaching himself how to mutter. A useful and pleasant past-time.
During the preparations for the parade of beauties, Hege would often stop and chat a little with Esther because she never made jokes about his weight. He gave her good advice, and told her useful things. He persuaded her to leave the Ugg boots at home, for instance, along with the crocs and socks that were her second favourite footwear.
Hege’s most useful piece of advice to Esther was simple: to have a bath before the presentation. It was traditional that the king walked down the line of beauties as quickly as possible, you see, just to get away from the smell. All the beauties spent far too long in the traditional baths of frankincense and myrrh and other incenses and the combined smell was impossibly intense.
On the day of the parade, Esther adorned herself simply, as befits a young maid. When the king stopped in front of her as Hege had predicted, demure little Esther shyly raised her long lashed eyes and Harry was enchanted.
Factionalism was particularly rife in the Persian government. Hege was Centre-Left, and very powerful. Mordechai’s power was mostly personal.
This was a shame, because very few people really got on with him. Though he had an older brother with a great deal of charm, and a young sister who was as sweet as they came, he couldn’t sing, and, when they’d taken care of that, the man insisted on muttering. It was absolutely impossible to like him under these conditions.
But he was clever, and had managed to find out about a plot against the PM’s life. Mordechai and his intrepid band of Persio men foiled it, of course. The matter was written up in a Departmental Minute and it was sent to the King. It unfortunately went to the Taxation Department instead, and was filed under Shushan region 15, section 9501, subsection 33.56392 by mistake. Life went on as usual.
Haman, who was of the extreme right, found great favour with Harry at this time. He was a notable person in many ways. Even before he entered the Megillat Esther, he was responsible for a variety of noxious conditions. They included Twitter addiction, indigestion, job outsourcing, wall-building, mansplaining, and tourists who persist in telling you how to find your way home. He also invented Facebook, Days of our Lives, and paperclips. He was promoted to chief minister.
Haman used his newfound power constructively. First he ground people’s faces into the dust. Then he laughed at them for having dusty faces. Also, he offered people flat rate taxes. When they enthusiastically agreed to it, he raised all taxes to 99% of income.
He liked giving banquets in honour of himself. Only the archaeologists and the DoPEs were pleased. Harry issued a tablet about it. “Best banquets are mine,” he wrote, “Everyone knows! All others fake!!”
Haman made everyone bow to him, including Dobby, but Mordechai wouldn’t. He muttered to himself and claimed that his sore throat and a stiff neck had given him a very rigid spinal column.
Haman didn’t do things by half. When he planned his revenge on Mordechai for his disrespect, he didn’t just plan to unstiffen his neck. First, Mordechai’s mother would die, Haman decided. Then his brother was added to the list. He tried to poison them with a cunningly ethnic food fair. When this didn’t work, his ambitions grew. He added Mordechai’s sisters and his cousins and his aunts and even his mother-in-law to the list for slaughter. Then he went around trying to find a tune for the words, “If sometime it must happen that a victim must be found; I’ve got a little list, I’ve got a little list, of Mordechai’s relations who should all be underground. They never will be missed, no never will be missed…”
Haman looked at this list for a couple of days and decided it was very unsatisfying. Mordechai was Jewish, so Haman decided to kill the whole race. It was much easier to include everyone than to risk offending someone by leaving them off. He invented three useful acronyms to cope with the problem. Both of them later became very popular. The first acronym was YIDs, standing for Yucky and Irreverent Dissidents, the second was MAD, standing for Moslems are Dissidents too” (he didn’t care that Islam was in the future – logic was not his greatest ability) and the third was SDI, or Sudden Death Initiative. This latter was Haman’s name for his special technique of ridding the world of his enemies. It went at the top of every list he made. It used the latest technology – the drawing of lots and the sending of fast couriers – enabling him to co-ordinate his effort in a way previously unheard of. Because the couriers reached every corner of the immense Persian realm, it was also called Far Wars. His advisors wrote SDI on their lists, as Haman told them to, but in their minds it stood for Some Damn Idiocy. At the bottom of every list Haman wrote in the biggest, boldest letters he could get his scribe to muster up, “NB gallows for Mordechai to be particularly high.” Then he went to bed, perfectly happy.
Next day he cast lots, or Purim, and settled on the 13th of Adar as a suitable day. Then he told Ahasuerus that all the Jews were breaking the laws and ought to be punished. Just like refugees. It was necessary, Haman claimed, to make sure the bringer of justice was a disinterested and upright man, such as himself, for example. He brought in a representative from a lobby group founded the day before by himself, to argue the case. It was a very talkative lobby group, and was known as JAWS or, Jewish Abolition: Women’s Society.
The King, deceived, handed over Haman his ring, which meant Haman could do what he liked in the matter.
On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, ran the decrees, all Jews in the realm were to be killed, and their possessions were to be given to Haman. It was a very tidy, simple little decree.
The scribe who worked on it was a Persio agent. Mordechai was not very happy to get the news. He suggested that it would be a good idea for the Jews to stage a protest. The Society Contrary to the Abolition of Residents of Eastern Demesnes, or SCARED, had a meeting to discuss the matter. They contemplated a stop-work, a strike, a street-march, and a sit in, but eventually settled for sackcloth and ashes and wandering through the streets of Shushan, groaning loudly.
Esther was very embarrassed to hear that her uncle was roaming the streets, looking like a fool. It was bad enough that he was a Public Servant, but to wear such stupid clothes! She sent him linen and silk and cloth of gold. He sent back a message saying he’d rather die than wear such things. It took Esther a while to penetrate this deep and meaningful statement. In fact, it took a leak from the Taxation Office, which asked if she wanted any of the loot.
Esther was tempted by the gold, of course, but nobly put her life above such wordly considerations as money. In fact, for the first time in her life, she stopped to think. Her maids were very worried by this aberration, and sent for five psychologists. She had stopped thinking before they arrived. Esther washed herself very clean, and put on a lovely gown. She looked her very best – modest, timid and demure. Harry was so impressed that he granted her a favour. Vashti hadn’t even been able to get him to pay the food bills. Esther knew the PM very well. So did the archaeologists. They held their collective breaths. You guessed it, she invited the King and Haman to a banquet. Conan (who was a barbarian and who looked just like Gillian’s nephew, organised it, of course).
Banquets don’t just happen overnight, even when you are the Queen of Persia and have a whole army of DoPEs to do the work for you.
The weather was hot and sticky. Summer seemed to go on forever. The king’s insomnia was getting worse and worse. He began to get bad headaches from all the filing he had to do. He’d have to invent a new government department to cope with it all, he thought. In the meantime, he spent long, sleepless nights dreaming of filing cabinets. Finally, at three o’clock in the morning, he sent for someone to read to him. Harry was torn between having something read to him that was interesting, or something that was so boring that it would put him to sleep. He compromised. One of his secretaries started reading him the tax returns for Susa region 15, section 9501, subsection 33.56392.
It wasn’t what he thought it would be. When he found out that no-one had bothered to reward Mordechai for saving his life, he waxed exceeding wrath. In fact, he called Haman out of bed. Haman was puzzled, but hopeful.
The PM led into his subject indirectly. The filing cabinets walking beside his bed when he had dozed off three nights before, had inspired him. He commanded Haman to spend 50,000 sheckels of the enormous bribe which had got him the use of the signet ring, to set up a bureau to take care of the filing. He called it the Cabinet Office. Then he tackled the more important issue.
“What would you give someone deserving of the highest honour, if you were the King of Persia?” Harry asked. This looked promising. Haman listened for the sounds of the gallows-builders doing overtime and rubbed his hands with glee. He listed everything he could think of, but the centrepiece of the honour was to have “this worthy individual” astride the king’s mount, adorned with cloth of gold, and wearing a crown.
Haman was not at all pleased to find himself, the next day, leading the King’s horse. On it was Mordechai. On Mordechai’s head was the king’s own crown. To add insult to injury, Mordechai muttered the whole time and Haman had to pretend he was listening. The only good thing in Haman’s whole day was the sight of the gallows, reaching higher and higher. He consoled himself with the thought of a private banquet with their Majesties, that evening.
The banquet wasn’t really worthy of the name. It had only forty courses, and so few guests that Haman was able to monopolise the conversation. However, even the garbage bags were made of cloth of gold. The archaeologist wept tears of joy. Haman, while he was chatting away, managed to put a couple in his pocket to spend later.
Esther was in despair as the evening progressed. She had planned to reveal Haman’s plot and the threat to her own life, and to allow the PM to see the villain’s guilt written all over his face. If only that villain would stop talking long enough to let her get a word in edgewise! Mordechai stood behind the curtain in agony. He was tempted to try to sing a little something, to get the King’s attention, but, after a woeful attempt, his voice faded entirely. Esther dismissed the noise as a male Australian prime minister catching sight of a feminist. The King relaxed again.
Esther slipped quietly over to her lyre and sang a little song bewailing her sad lot. The King’s face paled and he demanded an explanation. Esther told the King that she was Jewish, and that the crimes Haman had accused her people of were pure fabrication. She petitioned her husband for her very life.
Harry was bewildered. He went into the garden to think. What to do? His chief advisor, a murderer? Finally, the King knew what to do. Esther was more interesting than Haman, after all.
While the PM was in the moonlit garden, Haman had tried to get out of his dilemma. He had seen his life was threatened, and had come close to where the Queen was sitting, meaning to throw himself upon her mercy. The King re-entered and didn’t realise that it was upon her mercy that Haman was advancing to throw himself. He vaguely remembered seeing a nice new gallows, fifty cubits high, in the central part of town. Haman was sent to these gallows at once. He said nothing, for he was gagged until he was out of the King’s presence. It was Purim. Haman died bitter, but, being Ancient Persian, he couldn’t resist writing his own funeral dirge. Very original, he thought, as he waited for the hangman.
I was a crooked man
I walked a crooked mile
I made some crooked sixpence
Into a crooked pile
And with my crooked dough
I led my crooked life
Which now must finish
Due to Kingy’s crooked wife.
“What rubbish,” the PM wrote on a tablet.