Freedom and Democracy

Yellow flags and banners, printed in black, with simple, short messages, dripping slightly now with the mizzle that came with the dawn. Many arrived with the early morning street sweepers, the old guard, he knows most of them. There is Polly, with the cropped hair, talking to the media. Safe pair of hands, she’d not say anything daft. There is Vishnu, back from his walk up the Strand to Greggs, clutching bags of sausage rolls, passing them round. He’d pass, sit in his stomach like lead. Most people glance at them and walk on, due south, bound for it, bound to it, until they aren’t. All things change, eventually. It’s hard being on the tip of a breaking wave, you get pummelled under its weight. Forty years ago, they laughed at him for whacky views on climate and nature, and even his day came. The pigeons seem interested, look, they’re landing on the placards, one bird is straining its head, it can read. They flock around Jim, the second world war veteran, ninety-five, lied about his age when he signed up towards the end of the war, motivated by freedom and democracy – same thing as gets me out of bed these days, he says. Jim looks at his sausage roll suspiciously, asks how a sausage can be vegan, then feeds it to the pigeons, chuckling. One’s landed on his hand now, he’s talking to it, like Dolittle. All good humoured, though different to the usual Saturday morning: that odd juxtaposition of it being both quiet and loud at the same time, less traffic but noise from the helicopters above, and more police, far more than expected, did they really need so many? Used to be you’d roll up in the morning, quick cuppa from the flask, unfurl your protest posters, and take turns at the hand-held megaphone. Now it was a job role to oversee it. Picket paperwork, that’s what Janine on phones calls it. She likes the alliteration, though it’s a poor descriptor of legal objection, peaceful campaigning. There she is, sitting in the back of the open doored Transit, changing from her Birkenstocks into walking boots; good idea, going be a long day. He walks towards her, nodding to people taking photographs, mostly tourists as the journalists are all half a mile away. He spots only one with a long lens, might be Press. Maybe the days of anonymity are close to over, more people recognising him in the supermarket, a smile and a nod, the odd thumbs up, and sometimes, to be fair, a lifted nose as if he’s walked in a bad smell on the sole of his boot. The glint of cuffs, a raised voice, a rush of men in black vests. Search the van! Janine stands aside. He hurries forward, says he’s in charge, you know me, names the top brass he’s been working with to agree the day, the choreography, all signed off, no threat. The click around his wrists, Matt too, a feeling of being elsewhere, pernicious places railed about in Parliament, even the pigeons look confused. A snatch of a poem sounds in his head, one learned forty years ago, presumed forgotten, resurrected now as he’s led, without struggle, to a windowless van. “O what are they doing with all that gear? / What are they doing this morning, morning? / Only their usual manoeuvres, dear, / Or perhaps a warning.”

(W.H. Auden, O What is That Sound)

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