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That Right to be There (an extract)

By Comma Press

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Speeches came after the music and when they were finished, the crowd pushed out of the park like overflow. No-one said it would happen, or told him what direction to go in. People seemed driven by instinct, or prior information Chris hadn’t been told. They found themselves pressed intimately against strangers as they were forced out of park gates onto the main road, waving placards, careful not to bash anyone, chanting at pale blue sky. The crowd was solemn, focused. A group of drummers pounded instruments, mouths taut, cigarettes protruding, puffing blue smoke. More frantic dancing took place in front of them, men and women resembling the squatters he’d seen around Rushcroft Road as a child. Marchers stepped around their convulsing bodies, trying not to smile.

The tarmac felt hot underfoot. Maxi and Chris dolly stepped, stopping when the crowd stopped, responding to calls to lift their voices, walking again. It felt strange to march where cars normally took precedence, to make this part of the road their own. It made him anxious, fully aware of the police shadowing them on both sides. They seemed amiable enough though, pausing to listen to a protester once in a while, nod, or point, or make suggestions. Many more walked in step with the marchers, ignoring them. He studied their eyes to see some recognition of their presence and what they were doing together, but after a while he gave up.

On occasion, Maxi accidentally bumped him. She’d smile, or place an arm around his waist, placard thrust upwards, both of them walking like three-legged racers until it got awkward. She’d let him go to bound along the wide road with even more rigour, fist pumping, loud enough to make other marchers turn, wondering who she was and what the hell was going on. He gave her that joy, Chris felt it. He wasn’t sure if she knew that, although it was obvious to him, the instant surge of energy, a continuation. Seeing her push herself into the air on tiptoes and bounce high, stride amongst people or bend so she could talk to a protester’s kid, reminded Chris of what had changed between them, making him smile and momentarily stop mouthing voiceless chants he had no feel for, lowering his placard until a whistle jolted him back to where he was, why he was supposed to be there.

Small and compact she was. Strong. A glowing brown that put him in mind of rich, damp earth. Vital. Not fat, not skinny either. Curvaceous, that was more like it. A wide mouth, teeth that refused collective definition, demanding individuality; canines, incisors, molars. Important in their own right. Lips that brought to mind licking, before he closed his eyes and banished raw carnality too base for the likes of her. Shallow dimples. A perfect smile that won over everyone, and of course she was smart in class, creative, even making her own clothes. Best of all, she was fun. Before the blue hours of early morning, whenever he’d seen her enter the uni cafeteria she’d made him tense as silent flashing lights, a sharp whisper of radios, firm hands on his elbow. Not fear exactly, although close. Hesitance. Expectation. She made him think of moments that hadn’t arrived, lay waiting. Perhaps around the corner, maybe never, present like a build of pressure in the air. Even though she’d only nodded or smiled when she saw him sitting alone, ignoring his uneaten lunch, after all those weeks the close, solid feel of their mutual atmosphere was impossible to deny.

She came back, slipping a hand into his. So natural, like an action they’d performed forever. Without knowing, Chris succumbed. Over Lambeth Bridge, along Millbank and Abingdon Street, onto Westminster in a marching trance, revived only when the chants of Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, and Out, Out, Out fell into temporary, muttered silence, then evolved into something newer, louder. And they were under again, blinded by a continuous swell of bobbing heads behind, in front and on all sides, no trace of the road beneath them, nothing but everyone. Men wore plastic smiling Maggie masks, waggling their fingers in a pantomime wave. Tambourines shivered close in his ear. Nurses beat empty tin cans or upturned plastic buckets alongside pristine suited pensioners, medals at their chests. A family of tourists stood outside the Houses of Parliament as they passed, all-weather windcheaters bulging swollen sails, father snapping photos with concentrated determination, mother pointing, motioning to her son, blonde daughter off to one side, eyes darting. Photographers wove in and about, never still, Chris turning whenever they came near. The tendons in Maxi’s neck stretched taut as she raised her chin, a small fist pounding air with every Out, Out, Out, so hard he heard the strain of her voice, saw the red flush of her cheeks. Chris felt proud, knew it was foolish. One night, that was all. One special night. Yet he couldn’t find a way to dispel those foreign emotions. He needed to have a word with himself. His mates would laugh, Mum would shake her head. Of course she’d never approve of Maxi, it would all be in her eyes.

Past the tube station, up Whitehall. Police behind metal barricades on one side, protesters roaring, chanting, dancing, beating instruments on the other. Faces pressed against stranger’s backs, strides shorter, stopping more often. At Downing Street the marchers gathered outside tall gates and sat. Whooping, placards raised, immobile. Yellow high-vis jackets were a field of bright flowers before them, at least two hundred or more. Police clutched the barricades with both hands, blankly staring into the crowd, or wandered, oblivious to the thousands of them yards away. Something in their demeanour made Chris cold. He’d seen it before, years ago, so he motioned his placard towards a patch of grass over by the M.o.D., where groups ate sandwiches, cling film dangling like loose, transparent skin. They went and sat amongst them.

‘Look at that,’ Maxi said with infant delight. An unseen protester with a giant Mekon head on broad shoulders wandered by, nodding at police and marchers alike, touching people’s hair with what looked like genuine affection.

‘You’re loving this, innit?’

‘It’s so good. Like white people’s carnival.’ Her eyes wandered, she clutched his hand in hers. ‘Thanks for comin, Chris.’

‘That’s alright. I’m enjoying it.’

‘Sure?’

‘Yeah, course. I am.’

‘I’m not like, weirdin you out?

‘Nah. Not at all.’

She leaned closer. Her hair was gloss black, so dark it shone. He placed her smell, cinnamon. Wondered how that was possible.

‘You got the nicest eyes.’

Sweat prickled on his forehead, miniature needles of pain. He wished for a breeze and turned towards the people.

‘You do, honest.’

‘They’re just black.’

‘But deep black. And I like the shape, so nice.’

He turned back. She was staring again, only he couldn’t hold her gaze.

‘You have very kissable eyes you know.’

They laughed, Chris forced to take her all in. The chestnut round cheeks, bright teeth, the thick smears of eyebrows.

‘You are weird. It’s a north London thing, I swear,’ Chris said.

‘Shut up you. I said so anyway. An you’re shy.’

‘True,’ he said, watching a lone ant scurry across a blade of grass, falling when it couldn’t take her weight, continuing. A short, dark-haired steward close to their age, thin voice amplified by a megaphone and handheld mic with a pig’s tail black wire, started asking people to vacate the area. Those on the grass swapped looks.

‘It’s different,’ she said.

‘That makes us similar.’

‘Doesn’t it?’ She leant back, tilting her head. Gave a big sigh. ‘I told Tariq an them we’d meet at Traf Square.’

‘We?’

He tried not to deflate the word, considered his attempt a failure.

‘I, really. There was no “we” yesterday.’ She kept her head tilted so he couldn’t read her. ‘There is now.’

He didn’t get it, or any of this. Much as she was there before him, talking that way, it all seemed as unreal as being on the march, a placard at rest by his feet. For two whole years he’d watched her traverse campus knowing he’d never make a move. So painful; she invaded all his thoughts. In the past they’d talked a little, though nothing like the last three weeks. Class work, dissertation deadlines, all studies. Then she suggested they go and see a film at Prince Charles, the new Batman. A steaming pile of shit, but it was funny. He smiled again, facing the crowd in case Maxi thought he was laughing at her. A shrivelled old man in a wheelchair, placard slotted by his side, wheeled by a young woman in a black tracksuit jacket and leggings. Chris tried to read his sign, couldn’t catch it. A tidy group of eight nuns drifted past, black swans floating upstream to Trafalgar Square.

‘Unbelievable. Real solidarity that is.’

‘Yeah. I can’t believe how many people are out here.’

‘Nuts innit?’

‘Proper nuts.’

He squinted as the sun emerged, tugging a handful of grass.

‘D’you know Tariq an them?’

‘Not really.’ Chris threw the grass to one side, reaching for more. ‘I keep to myself at uni, mostly.’

‘Yeah,’ she said, jiggling her red Converse. ‘Best way.’

He studied his own sensible shoes, scuffed and nondescript as himself. He searched the grass for the ant. It was gone.

‘Huh?’

‘Best way. To get work done. You’re sensible.’

‘Not great with people more like.’

‘An honest.’ Maxi tore her own wad of grass, extracting a blade and pointing it at him. ‘Not many honest men, trust.’

She grinned again, eyes sparkling. Heat rose. She bit her bottom lip, edging over to him until they touched.

‘We don’t have to meet Tariq you know.’

‘I was hoping you’d say that.’

Maxi frowned into the distance. Others on the grass looked that way. A few police were arguing with some tall blokes by the barricade. The blokes were pulling the fencing towards them, a big officer was tugging it back. They looked like oversized toddlers fighting over a toy. Three officers joined the tug of war. People peeled off from the march to help. The police ducked, letting go as empty soft drink cans and a placard or two fell from the sky like the sporadic first spots of rain. The tall blokes wrenched the barricade away.

On the grass, a heavy man with the circular, balding head of a friar gathered his thin wife and two knobble-kneed boys. When Chris looked again, they’d disappeared.

‘That’s not good,’ he muttered. Maxi didn’t hear him.

The short, dark-haired steward came back, repeating his request for people to leave. His cheeks were flushed. Some families and couples packed up, the majority stayed. Maxi turned behind them to speak with a wiry young guy in rainbow-coloured McDonald’s sunglasses and a floppy white sun hat. He’d just come from the top end of Whitehall, where the police had blocked all access to Trafalgar Square. You had to go along Embankment. The guy spoke in a drawl, and kept dragging his sibilants. He seemed high on something. It wasn’t life.

‘Cheers, mate,’ Maxi said. Her expression flattened and she kept frowning, trying not to. Seated protesters began to stand. The knot of marchers opposite Downing Street was bigger, surging to and from the gates like lapping water. They couldn’t see any police. There were too many people.

‘What d’you reckon?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Maybe we should move. Those police aren’t gonna stand around forever.’

‘Yeah,’ she said, getting up, brushing grass from her legs and bottom. Chris had an insane urge to help, unable to stop feeling that if they moved from their place there’d be no going back. And yet the mounting tension across the road worried him. He was anxious by nature, but this time it seemed justified. Drums emanating from the thick of the knot grew more intense. There was shouting, not unified and orderly like their chants, but firecracker bursts exploding from unseen places, swearing, name-calling, wordless, raw anger. Maxi peered on her tiptoes, arms wrapped around her own body even though springtime heat brightened the sky. Someone sang, ‘We shall not be moved,’ but it petered out when a handful of earnest stewards arrived and implored they do exactly that. He was thankful Maxi hadn’t gone over to where the cans were raining more heavily, and the shouting erupted with greater violence. He tried to see what was happening, unsure what to do or say. She seemed quiet. Chris worried she might be afraid. 

© Copyright Comma Press, 2017. All rights reserved.