A short story inspired by Unrest Song by The Wonder Stuff.
It was warm in the tightly packed underground train. That wasn’t unusual, although it was past the usual rush hour. We’d been stopped between stations for five minutes and I was trying really hard not to have a panic attack. I hated small spaces, I was scared of big crowds and had an almost paralysing fear of being buried underground. The combination of all three of my greatest fears was starting to take its toll. I inhaled slowly and closed my eyes, resting my head against the window behind me.
Finally the train crawled towards the station platform. It was crowded, with a tailback of commuters trying to leave the station. I didn’t have time for this, I had meetings to prepare for, and who knew how many emails to deal with. I tapped my foot impatiently and sighed loudly. Another train arrived with even more people trying to leave the station. We all shuffled slowly towards the escalators like sheep.
Twenty minutes later I finally emerged, breathing in the marginally fresher air of London. The pavement was lined with people, kerb-side crash barriers had been erected, and several police officers were milling about.
“What’s that all about?” I overheard a well-dressed, middle-aged man ask a nearby officer.
“There’s a march taking place later. Protesting all these cuts.”
The man sucked his teeth loudly. “Too much time on their hands. If only they were as committed to doing an honest day’s work…”
I frowned as I walked past. He was so dismissive and insensitive. I hoped I wouldn’t reach a point where I stopped caring about other people. Maybe I already had. I wasn’t even aware there was a march taking place and yet something had motivated a large group of people to take to the wet streets on a grey drizzly afternoon.
I hurried into the office, conscious I was running late. The reception desk was unattended and I signed in quickly and waited for the lift. When I finally stepped into my office I was met with an eerie silence. The room was in darkness. I saw a faint glow towards the end of the corridor and moth-like, made my way towards it.
The door was open. Jack Davis, the youngest of the partners of the law firm I’d joined after graduating, was sat behind a heavy oak desk, scribbling notes in the margin of a thick document.
“Where is everyone?” I asked, resting my head on the door frame of Jack’s office.
“Working from home. I suggest you do the same. That march will get messy, mark my words.” He said, his eyes barely leaving the papers he was reading.
“I have meetings…” I trailed off as he looked up at me.
“Worry about those tomorrow. Trust me. Go home.”
As I neared the tube station I saw a crowd had formed near the entrance. Sighing, I noticed a homeless girl sat in the doorway of an empty building.
“Any idea what that’s all about?” I asked, watching the crowd as I dropped a couple of pound coins into her plastic cup.
“The station is over-crowded because it’s the closest one to the meeting point for the march. No one seems to be able to get in or out.”
I shuddered at the thought. I couldn’t get the bus if the roads were going to be closed off. I thought about turning back to the office and then looked down at the girl. She looked cold and hungry.
“Can I buy you a coffee?” I asked, “maybe something to eat?” She scrambled to her feet.
“Sure. There’s a nice place over there. The owner lets us have the left-overs when she shuts up each day.”
I nodded and followed her over to the diner in the middle of a pedestrianised area.
“I’ll have a cup of tea and whatever she wants.” I looked at the girl, “whatever you want.” I stressed. She ordered a burger and a coffee.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
She shrugged, “A few months.”
“You ask a lot of questions.” She stared at me.
“I’m just curious.” I shrugged, stirring my tea, squeezing the tea bag and placing it on the saucer.
“I couldn’t afford to pay my rent. I lost my job, then my benefits were cut. I came home one day to find all my stuff in the front yard in boxes.”
“That’s awful. Could you not go home?”
She shook her head and concentrated on pouring sugar into her coffee.
“What’s this march all about?” I asked, changing the subject
“There’s a lot of unrest. The government has implemented new measures to deal with debts and finance and it’s those most in need that are suffering.” Her words surprised me. She was well spoken, articulate.
“I suppose the rich get richer while the poor get poorer?” I said, rolling off a cliche that seemed appropriate.
“Well when you have job losses and cuts in benefits, people have less money to spend, which means a drop in profits, which leads to more job losses. Right now we’ve got mums relying on handouts from food banks in order to feed their children.”
“That’s terrible.” I gasped, “I had no idea.”
She looked at my clothes and shook her head. “How have you not noticed all this going on?”
I blushed, shrugging as I thought about it. “I stopped reading newspapers and watching the news a long time ago. It’s all full of crap, most of it. Lies, over sensationalised headlines, scaremongering and pointless celebrities and their sex lives.”
The girl nodded, “fair enough.”
“So what will this march achieve, exactly?” I asked.
“It’ll make people like you, aware that we are suffering.” Her eyes twinkled as I blushed, “It’ll disrupt business for the day, which will get people’s attention. It’ll show the government that they need to listen to us. And I suppose it’ll give people strength, knowing that they’re not in it alone.”
It was dark by the time I left the diner. I could hear shouting and saw the march was passing along the main road. I started moving towards the demonstration, curiosity getting the better of me, when behind me I heard a crash and more shouting, the sound of glass smashing. I was curious but I was afraid of getting caught up in anything dangerous.
A patrol of police officers filed past me in riot gear. Coming away from the march to address the breakaway group of rioters. I saw a brick fly through a shop window and burgler alarms started blaring. It was horrendous. The cacophony of sirens and alarms was deafening.
People from the march started breaking away to join the rioters as they moved into the business district. I started making my way towards the train station but was caught in a sea of protesters out for blood. The long day, the shouting, the strength and courage brought about by their solidarity and mob-rule had turned their frustration into destruction. I was pushed down and fell as hoardes of people trampled across the small pedestrianised square. I felt a hand close around my arm and pull me to my feet.
“Jack,” I gasped, “I mean, Mr Davis.” I stammered as I looked up into the sparkling eyes of my boss, “what are you doing here?”
“I’ve been marching.” He said, laughing at my surprised expression. “I might not be affected by austerity myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care. We all need to stand together. I’m sticking it to the man.” He smiled.
“You realise that in my life, you are the man?” I asked frowning.
Jack Shaw threw his head back and laughed. “Well, there’s a good reason I told everyone – particularly my partners – to stay home today.”
He took my hand and lead me through the crowd, weaving his way towards the main road.
“I guess nobody would expect you to care about this stuff. I’m a little surprised.” I admitted when we finally emerged.
“Well don’t tell anyone!” He grinned. “You know, I hate it sometimes, staring into the eyes of the ignorant.” He said, looking into my eyes as he said it. I blushed, remembering my own ignorance of the situation only a few hours earlier. “Take my partners for instance, they’re cowering at home afraid that rioters will storm our offices. They think these people are a blight on society. They think only people like us, business owners; employers, are worthwhile. It’s simply not true. I think every person has potential, if they’re just given the chance to realise it.”
“Did you inherit your position by any chance?” I grinned.
“Guilty as charged m’lady. I’m the black sheep of the family.”
“Wait, you’re not,” I paused, theatrically, narrowing my eyes, “a leftie are you?”
“Oh it’s worse than that.” He rolled his eyes.
“A liberal democrat?” I asked, wide eyed. He nodded slowly, looking sheepish, “this isn’t what you were voting for.”
He smiled. “No, but there’ll be a payback. The harder you push people down, the higher they spring back up. This is just the start of it.”
I knew I was lucky. Well educated, a good job, a comfortable wage. It would be so easy to turn a blind eye to people less fortunate. I had been afforded opportunities and I’d taken them. But I didn’t deserve my position any more than they deserved theirs.
“This isn’t going to be reported kindly in the papers is it?” I asked, nodding towards the burning bins, people emerging through broken windows carrying anything they’d managed to grab hold of.
“No. But it will be reported. They’re desperate. They’re angry. They’ve been abused, injured, neglected. Whether they politely moan, peacefully march, or lash out, they can’t be ignored anymore.”
I smiled as we reached the station.
“See you tomorrow, Mr Davis.” I said.
He took my hand and squeezed it. “Please, call me Jack.”
I really struggled to decide which Wonder Stuff song to use, as they’re one of my all time favourite bands, selecting one song was difficult. But in the end, Unrest Song – one of my favourite B’ sides – struck a chord with me. In the current economic climate, with a widespread disinterest in politics and a lack of any real opposition to the current government, this song reached out to me and made me think.