Love Story – Highly Commended

Posted: October 28, 2020 in Political musings, Popular Culture et al
Tags: , , , , ,

Close followers of the blog will know that I occasionally enter short story competitions around the globe, ‘subject matter various’. So far I have copped a few finalist guernseys but am yet to win one – but, you know Dear Reader, nothing ventured …

One Finalist award last year was in the excellent Literary Taxidermy competition, where in a wonderfully quirky set up the writers are given the first line and the last line of a famous novel and told to fill in the bit in the middle – last year was Fahrenheit 451. To read that story, buy the anthology here or in any good bookstore.

This year the story prompt was from “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, (incidentally the basis of a great new TV series loosely based on the novel), and the stories had to begin with the words “124 was spiteful.” And they had to end with the word “Beloved.”, and be no more than 2,500 words long.

Although the 36 stories that got an “Honourable Mention” did not make it into the final anthology, they all reached the penultimate round of selection, which the judges said was as a result of “impressing our many readers”. So while it’s nice to win every time, it’s also nice to get recognised in this way.

Interestingly, yhe competition was won by another Melburnian, Amanda le Bas de Plumetot, with her story “Cornucopia”. Congratulations to her!

Here’s my entry. Enjoy.

LOVE STORY

124 was spiteful.

Still spiteful, after all this time.

A well of bile and defiance which never ran dry.

He honestly didn’t know why 124 kept it up. Most of the others had been tamed by the continual threats of sudden violence and the total loss of control over their own lives. They were mainly intellectuals. University types. Some businessmen. And various people of power and authority. Even an ex Government minister who had somehow avoided being shot. But while they inevitably subsided into morose submission, 124 retained his nasty edge.

He was sly. He would communicate welcome signs of acquiescence, then suddenly snarl a carefully considered insult, always designed to cut to the quick.

Usually it was about how a man such as he obviously was – a man of erudition, education and compassion – could square away working as a warden in a place like this.

How had he salved his conscience? What did he tell his children he did during the day? How would he feel if his child or mother or friend hung from these dank walls?

Usually he just ignored the jibe, but the truth in 124’s questions hurt. Stung him. He longed to shout that he was as much a prisoner of circumstance as the prisoner himself, because it was not as if the guards had any choice in their assignment. To refuse to serve in the jail was to risk being added to the list of inmates. Not just him, but his family, too.

So he accepted his lot, and tried to do his job without unnecessary cruelty. Lord knew there were more than enough guards in there who reveled in the excesses that their petty kingdoms granted them. In reality, he and the prisoners he tended to were locked in a ghastly embrace not of their making.

Sometimes 124 would let slip information about his life before. He had been a tailor to the great and mighty, creating suits of the finest weft and weave, and crisp khaki uniforms for the Generals. His store in the old town had been well-known – to shop there was to mark oneself as a man of means, and visiting it proclaimed you as a man who did not fear to rub shoulders with regime insiders.

He adopted an air of injured obsequiousness with his clients, as if no-one could truly appreciate his endless labouring for perfection, the results of which were exquisitely fitting clothing with a finish finer than from anywhere else in the City. He would quietly bemoan his failing eyesight and tortured fingers, clucking like an old hen as he moved around the customer making a chalk mark here, inserting a pin there. He would speak sharply to an endless retinue of young male assistants, berating them if they ever moved at anything less than a brisk trot.

He served his customers honey cakes and sweet tea, as was the custom. And, if they asked for it, a single malt lowland whiskey which was secretly shipped to him inside the bolts of cloth from Scotland, served in innocent china mugs for discretion.

Come the revolution, he had been vacuumed up with anyone who had associated with the previous regime. His store was ransacked, and he was incarcerated without anything resembling a fair trial. One of his many assistants babbled that he had often been seen speaking quietly with a secret policeman or officer or politician, his confidences unheard but his manner furtive. Another mentioned the shoe box of cash secreted under the counter, carefully husbanded against a rainy day. During the Terror, that testimony was more than enough for the tribunal. In less than ten minutes it was agreed that he had been informing, likely as not, and hoarding currency to boot. Either could have seen him tied to a post in some courtyard somewhere, blinking in the dawn sun, but as it was, he was flung into jail and forgotten about.

He became “124”.

The number was written in chalk above his head, where he stood or slumped against the bluestone wall, chained by one wrist. In reality, the metal ring and chain was a needless cruelty, as no one had ever escaped from the dungeon under the citadel in the 1200 years since it had first been built by the Crusaders as a forward post. The guard had counted eleven locked doors between the prisoner and the outside world, every one of which was double manned. And no one could tunnel out from any of the cells, as the walls were fifteen feet thick and plunged deep into the ground below the levels the prisoners were held on, and below that there was solid rock.

Prisoners never left their cells, using a steel bucket for their ablutions, which they emptied into a hole in the floor that was the entrance to a hugely long pipe not wide enough for a man’s shoulders to pass through, and which the guards would hose down weekly.

One baleful lightbulb burned in the centre of the room, night and day.

He had a small metal plate, and a single spoon, which he would present to the guard daily for what passed for food in the prison.

He often mused that he would have altogether preferred to have been shot like the others, rather than endure his prisoner’s life. Get it over and done with. 124 had told him once that he would have preferred that, too. He said he would seriously consider killing himself, except as he wore no clothes he couldn’t twist them and hang himself, nor could he contemplate pushing the spoon’s handle into his eye. “Maybe you could do it for me?” he had asked the guard. “You don’t care whether we live or die, or you wouldn’t be here. Could you help me die? Just make it look like I did it, eh?”

The guard had shaken his head sadly and turned away. “See! You’re a coward!”

124’s cries rang down the corridor after him. “You are not a man. You are a coward!”

Laying in bed that night, listening to his wife and daughter sleeping, he knew it to be true. He was a coward in many ways. He had thought of trying to drive over the border, but knew that to do so without good reason would be to invite a bullet to the head from the militia. He knew some who had tried and made it, and some who had tried and disappeared. He knew he did not have the courage to take the risk.

Except, he thought to himself, in times like these, even just to survive took courage. To get up, eat some bread and fruit, go to work, endure the scenes of degradation and fear, and then return home, forcing a smile to his face as he enquired after the girl’s schoolwork, or whether his wife had seen her mother that day. To simply continue with the daily round took all his strength.

Sometimes he wanted to run into the crowded street with its sellers of trinkets and foodstuffs and threw his head back and simply scream. Suck in deep lungfuls of warm, fetid air and scream out his agony. But he knew that to do so would bring his own arrest, and see him shipped to a re-education camp, or worse.

So he endured. Day after grinding day, he endured.

Then there was a day when he walked into the cell, carefully choosing a time when no other guards would disturb them, away from mealtimes or washing the cell, placed a metal chair inside and closed the door quietly behind him. He waited for 124 to look up and engage him. And when he did, he spoke quietly.

“Why do you attack me with your insults and sneering?” the guard asked. “I have never done anything to hurt you. I did not put you here. You must know I do not want to be here. I am a road worker. I lay asphalt. They make me be here. With any other guard, if you spoke to them the way you speak to me, you would be beaten, or worse. Why do you force your anger on me?”

 124 sat a little more upright, and studied him, then answered politely.

“You are all I see on any day. After the interrogations, they chained me here, and I have seen no-one but you. I have done nothing wrong, yet they leave me here to rot. I am becoming weaker. I will die here, never having seen the sun again. An injustice has been done to me.” He gestured to the wall with his head. “They have even taken my name away. This insult must be answered, or I will go mad. So tell me: who should I be rude to, if not you?”

The guard considered carefully.

“But I am a prisoner here as much as you. Shedding your anger onto me is unjust. I treat you courteously, and do not inflict needless unkindness. Should you not treat me more kindly in return? They broke a man’s leg the other day because he swore at them. And they have not set it. I think he may die from pain and sepsis. I do not behave like this, do I?”

124 looked at him with a blank expression. After a long while, he spoke intently.

“But you are complicit in their wickedness. You are not the worst of the worse, but you are here, are you not? Yes, you treat me with common courtesy, perhaps, but how is that adequate redress for what has been done to me? You are a lackey. You are no different to the Kapos who shovelled the bodies into the crematoriums in the Nazi death camps, in return for the right to live a few weeks longer. Yes, perhaps your guilt is a little less, by degree, but no more. You are a log in the wall of the state they have erected. You are but a cog in the machine, and you allow yourself to be used by that machine. Your very submission to them is endorsement of what they do. This is why I insult you. What else can I do? It is the only way that I can resist. And if I do not resist, then I am complicit, too. Am I not?

He gestured to the man sitting on the chair.

“It is not personal. You are there.” Then he rattled his chain. “And I am here.”

124 shrugged. He left.

That night, he lay very still, pretending to sleep, and thought about what had been said to him. His eyes stared at the ceiling above him, though he saw nothing. Around four in the morning he rose and made himself a cup of tea. His wife found him sitting at the table nursing the cup hours later. She went to him in concern, for it was obvious he had been crying. But no matter how she urged him, he would not tell her what was wrong. Eventually he washed himself in their small bathroom, and left for work. Before leaving he kissed his wife and daughter and looked into their faces tenderly.

Walking to the jail, he made two small purchases. When he arrived, he engaged the front desk sergeant in conversation about the previous evening’s football game, because he knew the sergeant cared for his team more than life itself. He agreed it had been a hard fought battle, but the sergeant’s team had won through with superior fitness and effort. He moved on to his duties still able to feel the sensation of the sergeant’s firm handshake.

124 looked up as he came in. It was cold in the cell in the early morning, and he shivered. Later it would be unbearably hot. That was the way of it.

He spoke firmly.

“I have been considering what you said to me yesterday,” he announced. “And I have decided I must do more to help you. You know you will never be allowed out of here?”

124 looked up, surprised at this development. He shrugged and nodded. He knew it.

“They cannot risk you telling what you have seen here. And they have no interest in you anyway. They may kill you, as they have hung many at the main prison, in groups I am told, or you may simply be left here. Actually, they may have forgotten you.”

He paused, fingering the chalk in his pocket.

“What is your name?”

124 looked down, sadness in his eyes. His voice, when it came, was very different to his usual bitter tone. He almost whispered.

“It is Saleem Muhammed, good sir. Mr Muhammed. Named after my father: he was Saleem too. All the men in my family are called Saleem.”

He walked forward, and with his sleeve he rubbed out the “124” on the wall above the prisoner’s head. Then he carefully wrote Saleem Muhammed on the wall and stepped back.

“Like this?” he enquired, pointing to the wall. 124 turned and looked where he had written.

“Yes,” he said,” in wonderment. “Just like that.”

The guard let the piece of wood secreted in the sleeve of his shirt descend into his hand, and before 124 turned back to him he brought it down on the back of his head with all the strength he could muster. When the prisoner fell, he ignored the blood and brains spattering on his legs and kept hitting him. He kept beating his head until eventually he felt sure the thing was finished.

When he went back to the Sergeant, he explained that 124 had obviously found a piece of chalk from somewhere and engaged in forbidden behaviour by writing his name on the wall. He had then been insulting to the guard, using foul language. He had no alternative but to punish him severely, but he feared he might have killed him.

His superior inspected the scene and accepted without question that a piece of wood had been lying nearby and had conveniently come to hand.

“He deserved it,” he observed sourly, and rubbed out the name that the guard had written there just a little while before. How fleeting had been 124’s dignity, the guard thought.

“We’ll get rid of him. Go clean up. Take the rest of the day off. You did right. Didn’t think you had it in you. Well done.”

He gratefully accepted the offer.

At home, he reassured his wife and child that the blood was not his, and all was well. He offered no further explanation, and they knew he would not. But when he was clean and changed, he held his wife’s face in his hands hand and gently murmured:

 “You are my world. You and the child. My whole world. Please never forget that.”

He paused. This was unlike him, he knew.

“You are …

He struggled to say it just right.

“Beloved.”

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