The park was surrounded by silos and gleaming metal pylons, with puffs of electric-blue smoke escaping from the enormous silver canisters which floated in the metal-grey sky.

“Didn’t you know I was coming?”

“If I did, I would not be here, would I?”

“I don’t know how to take you, Parket.”

“Take me how you like, Sprake, but do not read any meaning into my words, because I guess I am not even talking to the likes of you.”

Sprake squinted quizzically at his companion on the park bench. The opening gambits were expected to be tentative, feeling their way towards less insubstantial statements fitting for a Summit Meeting between dossers.

Parket wielded an empty whisky bottle, at which he looked wistfully from time to time. His dowdy clothes, which had not even seen better days in the best of times, belied his well-spoken, rounded-out articulations of speech. His brief had been merely to test the ground, since the man called Sprake may have been shrewder than given credit for. When the world teetered on the balance, not even half chances could be taken.

Sprake carried a brief-case, evidently brand new, in real calf leather, with his own embossed initials. Taking a gold key which was tied to the string around his waist, he inserted it into the lock and, after hiding his fumbling with the combination numbers, he opened it with the sound of falling domino trip-tumblers and the crack of fresh-cured leather.

Parket noticed that Sprake’s garb was an army greatcoat, stinking of mothballs even out here in the cold air and veritably green with well-seasoned mould. His tie seemed as if it had not been unloosed for at least fifty year or more and his shoes, if they had once reflected the beaming faces of children in the polished uppers, were now hidey-holes for scuffed demons...

“If you’re not talking to me, what’s all this bother then in actually moving your lips and letting noises out?” weasled Sprake.

“Good heavens, man, do not take what I say personally,” laughed a perky Parket.

“I cannot hold with such high-faluting talk. I’m a man of means.” Sprake moved his oily hair from in front of his eyes as if he were shutting back the cover of a book.

“I do not doubt it, Sprake.”

Sprake had never considered Parket doubting it, so he wondered why the other dosser was making such a song and dance about not doing so. He rummaged in the briefcase and, after a period of heavy tutting, produced from it a scroll done up with red sealing-wax and a ridiculously large bow of blue ribbon.

“You know wot I have here?”

“I do not doubt it, Sprake.”

Sprake appreciated the non-sequitur: “Well, supposing there may be some doubt, Parket, I’ll put it on the record...”

“No need, no need.”

Unknown to the two dossers, several other faces were dodging in and out of the old park rides nearby: grimy, unsmiling, pointy faces which leant forward to tease out at least some clue as to the words passing as a real conversation. A lot seemed to hang on this meeting, more than the individual importance of the two participants added together.

“This here is a charter.” Sprake pronounced the word “charter” with care and some pride. “A charter for world peace". He elongated the vowel in such a way as to give a further meaning to the word “peace” which it really could not support unless he mistook it for a different word altogether.

Parket was not to be out-done by surprise props (even though his own prop was already out in the open). “And do you know what this is?” He pointed to the empty whisky bottle which did not bear any label or sign of identification other than its glass and characteristic shape.

“A bo.. .ttttel.” Sprake accentuated the consonant to show he had breeding (and no favouritism towards vowels).

“Not just a simple bottle, Sprake. It is an *empty* bottle - and you do not regularly find many of these about, do you? You will have to go a long way to find an *empty* bottle. Full ones are two a penny.” Parket pointed at the surrounding electric pylons hung with what appeared to be bottles of fizzy lemonade.

“An emptttty bo...ttttel, then.”

“Yes, Sprake, this is the emptiest bottle you will ever see. Never has there been an emptier bottle.”

The prying faces had now been joined by the broomstick bodies they owned and were grouping nearer to the park bench, many of them straining to hear the fateful, if haphazard, words.

Parket continued: “Give me that charter and I will put it inside the bottle for safe-keeping.”

“Let me see your Kree-Denshalls...”

“In the beginning there was the Word. At the end, there were merely Credentials.” It was almost as if Parket were making it up as he went along.

“You reeeelly are him, then? I didn’t believe it, but you are him, no mistaking.” Sprake had not wanted to appear ignorant of any passwords or codes and handed the charter to Parket who forthwith threaded it into the narrow neck of the bottle, surreptitiously leaving just a tab of ribbon poking out. The pointy faces were now so close they lurched like puppet-heads on poles between the co-conspirators.

After shaking hands, Parket walked back along the path which wound between the pylons and silos towards the park gates. Sprake remained sitting and, with a further crack of new leather, snapped his brief-case shut with a flourish. He lay down on the bench using the brief-case as a pillow and snored himself to sleep. It had been a hard day. Working towards world peace was very tiring.

Even Sprake had forgotten that the *real* charter was still in his brief-case and the cleverly crafted duplicate was now in Parket’s empty bottle. If Parket discovered this trick, which he must when the future dictated, there would be Hell to pay. But it was all worthwhile: for the sake of just a little quiet, a little peace to snooze and forget the troubles of the world about him.

Even in his sleep, he was sure he had taken out the right charter from the briefcase. How could *anyone* doubt it?

The faces on broomsticks spoke, each with a line from a conversation yet to be held, or never to be held, or was held once in a different past to this future.

“Do not doubt it, Sprake, do not doubt anything.”

“Each of the two charters was a replica of the other one except perhaps for the words inside.”

“You know what was written on the charter, Sprake.”

“Mere figures of speech but I forget exactly what.” Sprake often spoke to himself when asleep.

“But we thought you were a man of means, Sprake.”

“Right on, I always mean what I *do* say, even if I wonder sometimes whether I meant what I *did* say.”

“You’re a man of impeccable credentials, Sprake.”

The snoring grew louder as the parkland darkened. The scarecrow shapes, now fat with shadow, shambled off to see if they could find Parket.

In anger, Parket threw the empty bottle at the nuclear power station complex into which the land had long since grown, hoping for a lucky (or, better still, unlucky) strike.

He had time, however, to fold the blank charter into a ship shape and launch it upon the viscous meniscus of radioactive slurry which the park’s paddling pool had already become. He did not notice the lolly-stick children launching toy tanker-boats from its margins, amid pointed laughter.

Parket had been wrong since at the last the world lacked credentials.

(Published 'Alternaties' 1993)

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