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Short Story – Protesters
A sharp closing of the door left the two men together yet alone, strangers, introduced merely seconds before. The older, taller of the two seemed to scrutinise the stockier new arrival for a few moments, his penetrating gaze noting the military dress that remained less than a uniform alongside the almost apologetic manner he projected. They had fallen silent after their mutual acknowledgement, the elderly man’s gripped handshake accompanied by a stentorian, lengthened “Hello”, the younger man’s hesitant nod, plus a hand quickly withdrawn. During that same silence, shared at the room’s edge by its only window, they surveyed the protesters below. Quiet filled the room, a quiet left after the noisy departure of the usher who had just led the younger man up from the street, soon began to fade. Sounds of chanting, angry sloganising, hardly rhythmic from this admixture of universally blue-suited, tone-deaf Englishmen, filtered through the draught cracks around the quartered frame. There were no discernible words, the shouted slogans becoming a mere murmur of unrest from their distance.
Almost in unison, their joint gaze lifted from the street below the high window, a side street that they had both needed to lean into the recess to view, so that now they looked across the great square, great not in size, but perhaps in claimed significance. Ahead was the mother of parliaments, a mock-Gothic imitation of the grandiose, a pretender to an assumed aesthetic, re-invented as fashion demanded. Before it, almost insignificant, set down below pavement level, they could both visualize from memory the statue of the great protector, stolid in defiance, solid in his defence of the right to speak within those walls, a right too often challenged by those who lay as corpses in the opulence opposite. For there, to the right of the two observers lay the confessor’s church, the abbey of royalty that a true perpetrator of terror adorned with a fan vault to decorate his own death, a chapel that seemed to thrust threateningly towards the palace of speech it faced, an older palace of speech, long destroyed, long superseded.
“In its present, history is always a lie,” said the older, taller of the two men.
The other maintained his silence for a while. He turned to face his companion, to look him up and down, to note the establishment feel of his blue three-piece suit with its pronounced watch-chain presenting almost a seal of office across the midriff. He was tall, this writer, stately, even dignified, his eighty years now generating a slight stoop when he moved, just a hint of roundness in the spine, whose imagined rigidity suggested the stance of a once proud young man. The smaller man seemed uncomfortable in the writer’s presence, as if he knew what to say, but not where to start. There was a sense of both deference and discomfort, a respect tinged with something less trusting. The older man’s reputation and achievement preceded him and, in later years, he had learned how to inhabit the respected space this inevitably generated.
“I would guess that you have brought no written speech,” said the younger man, the non-sequitur not itself worthy of remark. “But then I would have expected that. After all, you are a writer.”
The old man smiled a little, without averting his gaze, which still apparently concentrated on the beauty of the abbey’s spires, the grandeur of its tower, the power of its glory. “No,” he said, pausing again, as if wishing to perpetuate an ambiguity as to whether he had no speech or whether he was denying that he was ever a writer. For several seconds the older man rocked gently from side to side, transferred his weight from one foot to the other in the manner that a recently consulted nurse had suggested as a means of keeping his aging legs supple. She realised, an hour later, that she had no cause to worry about the state of the old man’s plumbing, which she had experienced in full working order. But still the writer took her advice and hopped, just a little. He then turned to face the younger man, the slight downward attitude of the head inevitably suggesting condescension.
“I have to work to my notes,” said the smaller man, averting his eyes just enough to attain an independent angle. “In my position I cannot ad lib, even if I feel I’m capable of doing it. I always have to make doubly sure that every word plays a calculated part in the whole message. One cannot be too careful. I cannot risk a single word being misinterpreted.” He patted the left breast of his military-style camouflage jacket and then flicked the lapel aside with his right hand so that he could retrieve a folded sheaf of hand-written sheets from the inside pocket. He began to read. “Muchas gracias por su solidaridad…”
“You will speak in Spanish?”
“Yes. And with an interpreter. As I said, we have to ensure that our words are clear, unambiguous, saying precisely what we mean and only what we mean. There is no room for error. There are those waiting to gather ammunition against us.”
“No pasaran!” said the old man as he gave the other’s upper arm a firm squeeze with his out-turned left hand. It was a strange gesture, a reverse, backhand expression of support, firm in its conviction, ambiguous in its sincerity. The younger man smiled, suddenly and obviously more at ease, less in awe of this great name’s perceived distance. “But your English is perfect, fluent”, continued the writer. “Why not speak to us directly in our own tongue?”
The younger man only shrugged, as if to imply that a question with an obvious answer need not be asked. “As a writer,” he said at last, “you know that language must be precise…”
“…and so a problem, should it arise, can always be put down to poor translation?” A silence from the other signified agreement. “And so the politician can retain deniability, even if that was in fact what you meant to say? A side exit from the trap of duplicity?”
“It would never be my intention to deceive…”
“But if the charge arose, you could sidestep it without confronting it? Shall we say that you could find an avenue of convenience?”
The younger man kept his silence for a minute or more, during which time he stared again at the thin but noisy line of blue-suited protesters in the road below. He noted for the first time that they all seemed to be in their early or mid-twenties. They were so similar in appearance they might all have been selected for the role. Wanted: official agitators, he mused. Blue suit, aged twenty to thirty, head shaven to at least a number two.
He then turned back into the room to face the writer. “But then words are your tools, your stock in trade – I think that is the correct English idiom – so you know perfectly well how important it is to have exactly the right word in the right place. You would never make a mistake.”
The writer laughed. “My dear man,” he began, now turning to pace towards the room’s centrally placed, heavy walnut but dull-topped table, “You invest in me credibility, talent and invention beyond my worth. I am but a story teller, a literary fraud whose imaginings occasionally, and for just an hour or two, might light up the dull lives of blighters like those down below. I churn out the literary equivalent of b-movies for residents of suburban semis. Words? I’ve spawned millions of them, drivelled them out like torrents of wanked sperm, onanised only on the stony ground of the popular imagination – an oxymoron for sure.” His pause was pure theatre, calculated to maintain his hold of the flow and, at the same time, to add emphasis to his words and retain control, measured to keep the other silent. With apparent impatience, he retrieved the cigarettes and lighter he had previously tossed carelessly onto the table-top from a hand that had been summoned to shake its greeting with the newly arrived president of the republic. The old writer’s right hand had fiddled a cigarette from the pack, his left hand had lit it and he had already taken a long, deep, settling drag before the instant elapsed. When he spoke again, it was as if there had never been a break in his flow, his words now animated by loose clouds of smoke, particles that clipped the edge off his voice. “These people just do as they are told. They see us as we are sold to them. Today a performing monkey that writes books and an ogre who threatens their freedom. Tomorrow performing monkeys are cast as illiterate and the ogre is a partner in trade. Joe Soap does what Joe Soap is told to do. A whim is less fickle than popular consciousness.”
“So is your support for our cause such a whim? Will you oppose tomorrow what you support today?” The younger man’s voice was harder, more forthright in its continued deference.
“It rather depends on you and your people – your phrase, by the way,” replied the writer. Here the word ‘people’ clearly did not refer to an agglomerated populace, but a clique whose existence the writer was keen to suggest. “We all know whom we oppose. We know what we are against. It’s what we are for that perennially confuses us, especially when we are confronted with the complications of interpreting a reality that we only imagine.”
The younger man now moved away from the window. Stepping slowly, thoughtfully, his face downcast, he began to amble a wide arc around the table, the old writer at its centre, a stalking of sorts. He pressed his fingertips together, forming a cat’s cradle across a stomach that the other judged would fill out in a few years, thus transforming the current stocky athleticism into a portly middle age that would no longer be flattered by the military fatigues he currently wore.
When the younger man stopped and turned, he looked up to see that the old man still faced the window, stood erect, taking staccato drags from his cigarette, each accompanied by an audible suck of the lips. It’s ironic that I should address his back, he thought. “And exactly whom do you oppose? Or should I more precisely ask whom do you currently oppose, since in the past your allegiance to any cause has been – let’s say – variable…?”
“My dear man, Mr President,” said the writer, smiling, as he turned to face his inquisitor, “every man has his price. Take Joe Soap in the street down there, for instance” he said, nodding towards the window, now behind him, “You don’t think that any of those snotty nosed Johns of city clerks actually believe the rhetoric about your regime? Do you think that a twenty-two year old moron who spends all day wheeling trays of punched cards around the bowels of a bank’s computer centre for subsistence pay goes home of an evening to read and analyse Heritage Foundation reports on the communist take-over of Central America? He doesn’t do that any more than he comparatively tests all available brands of soap powder before buying his Omo – except on reflection he probably wouldn’t buy that one on the grounds of being embarrassed by associations with its name. No, he gets led by the nose to the Daz and he buys it. He goes along with the tide, we might say. The trick of manipulating the popular imagination, oxymoronically, of course, is to cover all the options, to back all sides. The trick is to convince Joe Soap that he needs washing powder and then to cartelise the shelves with an agreed and shared presence. Whatever brand decisions he makes are utterly irrelevant because the big guys who run his brain have the market carved up between them. Politically, his brain space, albeit quite small, is fully occupied with propagandistic threats to his lifestyle, threats that might restrict his right to detergent choice, a human right worth fighting for.”
“And it is your view that your books are just more soap powder?”
“Precisely, dear fellow. Precisely.” The writer turned away again, puffing to pursue the production of ash.
The younger man ambled forward again as the writer turned his back. Legally trained, the young president of the republic found himself thrust back into the profession to which he had aspired, but had never practised, his studies having been interrupted by what a respectful obituary might describe as brushes with the authorities. He was stalking his witness, here a writer confined within a dock of his own invention, perhaps imagination. It was to become a cross-examination. “But I’ve read your work – almost all of it, though I admit that most was in Spanish translation. Maybe something was gained in translation, but I always felt that your so-called, self-professed mere stories, entertainments, always had their deeper side, another level no less, where the characters and the situations in which you placed them epitomised moral conflict, ideological questions which they always at least tried to address. Indeed you, the writer, the creator, always seemed to want a moralistic resolution to your characters’ dilemmas.” The president paused to look the writer in the eye, but the taller man’s gaze was fixed ahead, above his level, blankly concentrated on the mechanics of drawing smoke. “So you would deny,” he continued, “that what I read into your work was ever intended? It was a mere figment of my furtive, youthful imagination?”
“Leading question. Counsel should not put words into the mouths of the witness,” said the old man, choosing his words with intricate care whilst fixing a stare at his inquisitor in time with the very end of the phrase.
“Ah”, interrupted the other, uncharacteristically immediate in his interjection. “So not only do you know detail of my education, you want to play judge as well! Is that it? Is that the key? You want to claim the status of inconsequence, the mere story teller, whilst, somewhere in your unwritten estimation, you believe you hold the ultimate truth, the end point, the last word, the judgment?” A smile began to lift the curves of the black moustache that dominated his face, his rimless spectacles lifting a little on flexed cheek muscles.
“Judge?” replied the old writer. “Judgment? You sound like a Christian.”
“Well I’m not.”
“You are a Roman Catholic. You converted. Everyone knows that”.
“Pragmatism, my dear boy. Pure pragmatism. The old girl demanded it. It was the only way I could get my end away with her… a state I yearned for so much I would have topped myself if I hadn’t succeeded. Not that it did me a whole lot of good in the end. She turned out to be stretched frigid with guilt, a guilt I could not penetrate, a need to appease the wrath of a loving God she knew hated her, her alone.”
“And so you looked elsewhere?”
“Well documented. Well known, as you might say.” The old man fumbled for another cigarette, lit it and tossed the pack and lighter carelessly back onto the table. “You don’t smoke, of course.”
It was an intended diversion, a plea for the re-establishment of shallow politeness. The ploy was ignored. “I approach the problem in entirely the opposite sense”, said the other. “I was a Catholic, a devout believer, and I’m happily married to a woman I hope will live for ever. But we are shunned by our church, shunned because of my politics, shunned because of the ideology I have espoused, a philosophy the bishops call godless.”
“In the words of a famous economist,” began the writer, his manner beginning to approach the patronizing as he paused for a moment to signify the unearthing of an aphorism, “in the long term we are all dead. Gods, godlessness, ideology, alienation, they all become as significant as a flake of this”. He tapped his cigarette, causing a tip of ash to fall and disintegrate on the carpet.
“So what motivates you?” asked the former trainee lawyer, pursuing again his original point.
“A quick fuck. A good bottle. Dope. And then another fuck. The here and now is all we have…”
“Even though sometimes you try to bring even that to an end?” The lawyer’s question was fast, calculated and completely disarming, delivered with a politician’s panache for locating a weakness and exploiting it.
“You have done your research well. I suppose one of your ‘people’ read all the sordid biographies just to prepare you for this evening?”
“No. I knew already. As I said, I’ve read much of your work. I have the ultimate respect…”
“Ultimate? A good word for a head of state to use.”
“I have no intention to pull rank, sir,” replied the younger man. “What I say will always be true, always honest.”
“Yes, It’s common knowledge, if any form of knowledge can be described as common.” The old writer took a long noisy drag on his cigarette and ambled back towards the window. “It’s a conundrum the hoi polloi never face. The worker ant stays in line. The experience, therefore, is always one of perceived unimpeded progress, of unblocked pathways to repeat the humdrum of existence and its duties. The fact that the way is cleared in the first place and kept free by the work of the soldiers, those with the duty to explore, to remove the danger, to clear the way, this is never known, let alone understood by the Joe Soap workers. They assume the mundaneness of their lives is a norm, not an achievement created by the efforts of others.”
“Or a conspiracy …..”
“A process of management, let’s call it, to use the vocabulary of the market age. Our protestors chant their slogans; their leaders feed them with more; they learn to regurgitate.”
“And what about our supporters? Those hundreds filling the hall below?”
The old writer turned a little and cocked his head, as if feeling the air for sound. He realised that the chants of “No pasaran! No pasaran!” that filtered along the maze of corridors to their waiting room must be deafening inside the auditorium. “I apologise for the crudity of my sweeping logic. But even you, Mr President, even you would acknowledge that the supporters are a minority, dwarfed by the opposition, a piss in the ocean compared to the torrents that oppose you?”
“Today, maybe. Tomorrow, who knows? That’s why we are both here. We both know what we oppose. And I, at least, know what I support.”
“No. Much longer than that. Just as I know a little about you, then I’m sure that you know something of me. My politics are not the clothes I put on yesterday. I’ve been committed to the work for justice and human rights for over twenty years. I am also a patriot – not a nationalist, a patriot. I want to achieve progress for my people, my country, but not at the expense of suffering for others. You know my history.”
Both men knew they had reached a critical juncture. There was a sense of threat on the edge of these last words, a malice that the professedly libertarian old writer sensed the more keenly. Ill at ease, he tried to divert. “When we’re on the podium, old boy, then we will know the shape of things. I don’t doubt that there are many out there who passionately support your cause. But there are others who are with you only to oppose a shared enemy. And there are others, perhaps many of them, who aren’t members of your audience at all.”
“I don’t understand,” said the other, though he did.
“I’m sorry. I forget that It’s your first time in our green and pleasant land. You will see. Watch them when you speak. There will be many who stand and cheer. But for every three or four doing that, there will be a man – always a man – still in his seat, apparently a spectator, apparently indifferent. Except, of course, he won’t be looking at you. He knows who you are. It’s the identity of those in the audience that interests him. Ostensibly, he is in the audience to protect you. Like the gazelle he probably isn’t, it’s his job to leap onto anyone who looks like they are about to shoot you. After all, you are a head of state.”
“Policeman. Secret Service men.”
“Precisely. The place will be packed with them.”
“It’s a pity,” said the young president, “that there weren’t more of them down there when I arrived. There’s sixty or seventy of those thugs….”
“In Britain they are called Young Conservatives by the way,” said the old writer with a punctuating guffaw.
“…..and there was only a handful of policeman. They were throwing things, tomatoes, bags of flour….. is that the way visiting heads of state are greeted?”
“It depends on who invited you, old bean.”
“Also on what I represent?”
“No, only who invited you.”
“So what do you recommend? That I start my speech by inviting all the spooks to stand up and take a bow? So that I can invite all of our supporters to applaud them in a show of magnanimity and humility? To thank them for protecting my safety and with it the integrity of our revolution?”
“Waste of time. Nice gesture, but it would be taken as a sign of weakness.”
The old writer paused, his tone indicating that he remained in mid-flow, that second thoughts about what was to follow had stayed his tongue.
“And you, of course,” said the younger man, his voice expressing an assumed continuation of the other’s perceived meaning, “ought to know, because you used to be one of them. That was when, presumably, you also knew what you opposed.”
“They paid my bills. It was a job. I was a worker ant.”
“And throughout you were a conscientious and loyal employee. You did what was asked, opposed those who opposed. And, I suppose, you did what you did because of your own patriotism, a noble cause and supreme motivation for an Englishman, I understand.”
“Wherever did you hear that? I merely did what I was told. Patriotism is something the English, in particular, despise amongst themselves. Abroad, or in the company of foreigners – a term that includes everyone who does not think like oneself – the English become fiercely patriotic, but it is always motivated by profit. If the returns aren’t there, the retreat can be swift, indeed.” The tall old man looked his partner in the eye, pausing as if to assess the merit of continuing, as if to assess the impact of the words that might follow before he dare speak them. The young leader thought that this might be the pose that the nation would choose to immortalise the man in bronze after his death. “Your revolution is a privileged state…”
“We are threatened from every side…”
The old man turned away, held up the palm of his right hand to stay the other’s words. “It’s privileged because you know where you stand. And that’s a luxury. You will be defeated, of course, but only temporarily. Your cause will triumph in the long term…”
“…when we are all dead…”
“Indeed. But your cause has integrity. It will be resurrected, maybe many times, and each time it will forge progress towards its goal. In Britain, we still continue to stuff ourselves with the illusion that our total defeat in the war was, in fact, a victory. The fact that we were not invaded convinces people that we won. We were on the winning side, but we lost the war. Ask them why the true victor demanded the complete dismantling of the British Empire, the ceding of our oil-rich territories in the Middle East, the adoption of an independent nuclear deterrent that we never had the right to use, and the requirement that we always send troops, always under the empire command, to any conflict that the empire chooses to pursue, and they will look at you blank-faced in ignorance. Our cause, our patriotism you might say, is corrupt. It’s a false consciousness, as false as people’s conviction that their consumer choices really exist. So when I worked for the services, we did the empire’s job. We had no choice. We knew who our real master was, and we knew we worked to further that interest, which had subsumed anything that we might call our own. Patriotism was not even on the agenda, because we could no longer identify what it was. So we did what we were told.”
“Plus a little more, on occasions.” It was a lawyer’s insistence, coupled with the politician’s opportunism that rendered this statement a question that demanded immediate response.
“I was not born rich,” said the old man, now leaning forward a tad more, his stoop an assertion. “Like any other human being I took a job. It paid the rent. A steelworker doesn’t necessarily believe in the ingot he is forging. A miner does not dig ideologically to supply the furnaces of capitalism.”
“But a man does not join an intelligence service devoted to fighting communism in order to dig coal.”
“It paid the rent. And I did other things on the side – for reasons of ….”
“Integrity? Truth? Conscience?”
“Lord, no! Pragmatism, as ever.”
The younger man held fire for a while. It was the right time to introduce the point, but the language was difficult to find. “So this would explain your current status. Patriotism, that which an outsider might presume you pursued when you worked for your government, was always a purely business arrangement. They paid you and you served them. And now they no longer pay you, so the patriotism evaporates and you become a tax exile. So you have no country apart from the self.”
“e e cummings, I believe?”
The younger man was silent, taken aback. A look of gentle confusion spread across his face. The tack he had planned had been undermined by this unexpected turn.
The older man sensed the other’s vulnerability and laughed. Intellect had once again granted an upper hand that was his to exploit, but he chose not to use his knowledge to control. “An American poet,” he said, calmly, “who broke all the rules, broke them so completely he recast what he did as a new system, a new set of rules. The artist’s only inevitable country is himself. You, Mr President, will never be an artist. You do not have the qualifications. For one, you have integrity, and lack the selfishness required.”
“So for you selfishness is publicly excused as pragmatism?”
“Each of us has a relationship to capitalism and pragmatism pays the rent. In your situation, where you are pushed outside of the ring, you don’t even have the choice to cooperate. For you, for your regime and for your people, pragmatism is not an option.”
“And was it pragmatism that led you to organize the infiltration of the student movements I later joined or the labour movement my friends organized? Was it your pragmatism that successfully placed spies in all the organizations that opposed the cynical old son of a bitch we called a dictator in our country but whom you and your imperial allies befriended because he was your son of a bitch? And is it not true that some of those people you placed, especially the less important ones in the student movement, did not they report to your office? And through that to our enemies? And was it pragmatism that led eventually to the arrest of activists, arrests that led to the imprisonment and exile of many truly honest and committed people? And was it also pragmatism that created the trumped up charges and rigged hearings that convicted them? And was it this pragmatism that led, in my own case, to years in jail and then exile – and eventually to my excommunication from a Church I love, that was my very life? Did you do that? Was all this the consequence of your pragmatism? Did you perpetrate such things to pay your rent?”
“I did what was required of me…”
“The defence of an officer in a death camp. I was acting under orders … … and doing a little on the side, making a small fortune from the market in gold teeth.” The young man’s scorn quickened the words to a tirade, the silence they demanded deep and uncomfortable. A politician who ought to have employed circumspection had lost control. A writer with a command of words had been cornered, rendered speechless and left without defence.
The president stood again at the window. He again retrieved the papers from his inside pocket and began to read. The old man, now looking every one of his eighty years, took the four steps needed to be at the other’s side. Over ignored papers and smouldering cigarette, their joint gaze again fell on the smartly dressed right wing thugs in the street below. “We know what we oppose,” said the president.
“At least today,” said the old writer.
There was a knock on the door, a sharp single perfunctory tap that signalled immediate entry. It was the old writer’s turn to speak to the assembled rally. Again, as he turned, he offered a back-turned left hand, a slight grasp of the other’s upper arm a gesture of solidarity. But this time the words were without passion, without animation and perhaps more sincere for their whisper. “No pasaran. I’m with you.”
“Today,” repeated the other quickly, the slight pause obviously inserted as a prelude to continuation, “and every day I have found your work inspirational.”
The old man smiled a little and gripped again.
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