TWO coppers are looking at us, one old and heavy and the other like a character from an American teen soap. He’s got a slim neck and baby-soft skin, and he looks nervous. He flexes his shoulders and stares hard, but it’s obviously an act. He’s just a boy; this is probably his first time. I suddenly feel an invisible surge from the back, that unprompted wash of electricity, and my stomach responds – a spark, a spinal quiver of sympathy. This is the purest moment of all: the anticipation, the apprehension, my heels off the ground and a gathering frenzy in my brain. Synapses shutting down in preparation, switching to automatic. Instinct aroused, analysing data, assessing physical evidence. Readying the mechanism for action. I breathe quickly, three, four times; I shudder deliberately and clench my fists and feel ready.
Jacko has a theory, that wars are only ever fought for money. They’re the manipulation of crowd energy by a ruling elite. He says that violence is natural to the individual human being – the first man died because the second man probably bludgeoned him with a dinosaur bone – but war is the organised expression. War is cynical, unnecessary. War, he says, is the corporatisation of innate instincts. It’s artificial, an affront to whatever god made us. Jacko has theories on a lot of things. He reveres the dynamism, the possibility of the collective. We all trust Jacko. We believe him when he says we are reclaiming the collective divinity.
A shout comes from the back, carried over heads like a rock-star on a stage-dive. It floats, it bobs along, it reaches our position, just behind the men with placards. Some of the content is lost to the ether by the time we hear it, interference in the transmission. ‘On their way…pinks and greens…give them a good game…’ I strain my neck and look off toward the right, behind the phalanx of coppers in discreet riot gear, country heads and big meaty hands grasping batons. They don’t look threatening enough, the coppers; their faces are too ruddy, too friendly. Their jackets are bright yellow and none of them are wearing headgear. That’s how a riot copper should dress: World War I gas masks, those terrifying bug-eyes, dark fatigues, shiny black clubs, pistols snapped against their legs with strong Velcro. These jokers look like a bunch of farmers in a fancy dress parade.
Jacko is on the phone to one of his lads, one of the covert group who’ve infiltrated the enemy. They’re talking in code – the guy must be marching with them, right now, in our direction: ‘How much money did you get from the machine?’ ‘Was Mum at home when you called?’ ‘I’ll see you at the pool-hall later on.’ Banal, weighted words. Jacko now knows how many of them are approaching, whether they’re tooled up, how many men and how many women, if there are any television cameras accompanying them, what sort of mood they seem in. Angry, dumb enough to start a fight; restrained and self-righteous; a stoic sort of determination, maybe. They won’t be drunk or toked up, almost certainly, but neither are we; Jacko insists all of us are in our right minds when we gather.
A senior-looking copper has arrived; he confers with two or three of the plods. Pursed whispers, stern expressions. The transparent mannerisms of people who don’t want to be noticed. The senior copper takes a step towards us; he hesitates, ponders, takes another step, then stops. He sees that a flag has been unfurled, heavy canvas on a steel support, a grave twirl round the maypole. The canvas makes that whup-whup-whup sound as the wind hits it. The senior copper’s face reddens; he’s angry now. A second, unbidden charge runs through the group – happiness at his anger, a swelling anticipation. The euphoria of predictable outcomes. A few people laugh loudly. One shouts, ‘Go home, pig. You’ve no place here.’ The copper retreats, speaks into a mobile phone, confers some more.
Jacko fixes his glasses squarely on the bridge of his nose, spits on the ground, in the coppers’ general direction. He likes to wear his glasses in the rain, he says; he doesn’t dry them off until he reaches home. Walking with water on your spectacles, Jacko says, is like moving through a constantly changing prism. Light refracting on itself as you advance, blurs and bright curves. It’s a contortion of the world. He beckons me towards him, and I get nervous. Jacko has told me before that I’m too small to be here, too young at eighteen. ‘You’re puny,’ he said, ‘you have puny arms. Stay at home or you’ll get hurt.’ I want to prove my strength to everyone. They know I have courage, I want to show them I am strong. Jacko says quietly to me, ‘Go round the group. Tell everyone get ready. And be subtle.’
I nod, relieved, and make my way around the back of the gathering, my sneakers skimming the tarmac. I feel light in my feet, effervescent. Skinny jeans, tight at the ankles. I could leap the nearest building; my body’s energy glows at my fingertips. I move through the crowd, leaning in to various people, reliable people. Whispers and head gestures, equivocal commands, puzzles with predetermined answers. They nod and whisper back. They pass the message along, a hushed domino. They tense, their bodies stretching, making ready. I can feel the charge building and shifting, that crystalline rumble from somewhere in the world’s centre, deep in the belly of the animal.
I return to my place at Jacko’s side. He scratches his thin beard and sighs, impatient. The senior copper is taking on a pall of desperation. He swallows and strides towards Jacko. He looks disdainfully at all of us – I have to admire his balls – and addresses Jacko directly, man to man, that forced intimacy of control. ‘Are you the ringleader here?’ Jacko looks away from him. ‘We have a right to be here. I’m not talking to you.’ The copper flushes, fever-red rising through his face like thermometer mercury. He leans in and says, ‘If you’re looking for trouble today you’ll get it. Look at me. Do you want trouble?’ Jacko smiles at the ground.
Such assurance, such purity of faith in his own creation. I think I’m in love with Jacko, though I know he doesn’t like my type. He’s pale and self-contained, a ferocious angel born in the flaming heart of his own fall, and he is beautiful. Jacko reveals to us what the world would keep hidden. He tells us the truth and leaves us with it, solitary, to be fortified or devoured. Jacko makes us greater than what we are.
The copper walks backwards, slowly, rejoining his men. He and his lieutenant shake their heads, sadly. They close their eyes and open them with a fresh resolve. I nod like a toy dog and smile to myself: we will play today. The guy next to me starts grinding his teeth; his breath, frantic, through enlarged nostrils. Random shouts throughout the group, senseless, disordered. These are expressions of a deeper yearning. The coppers form a line in front, hard plastic shields touching, gazes determinedly above our heads. They stare out to the hope of a happy resolution, to the future, to relieved pints and exaggerated war stories later this evening. They are physically bigger than us but look disorganised, green, somehow amateurish. Their expressions betray fear and a sense of duty, a fatalistic loyalty to command. They will not move aside.
People at the rear push forward, a wave of propulsion and organic heat, chants tentatively begun and encouraged. Jacko steadies his feet against the pressure, reaches into his knapsack and pulls out an extendable steel baton. He brought this from Holland. It’s thin and economical, a brutal sheen to the handle’s curve. He says, almost to himself, ‘Alright, alright. This is it.’ The teethgrinder next to me says, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ his jawbone nearly resting on my shoulder. Then they appear, around the corner to the right, tired-looking and ill-prepared, dowdy clothes, large banners proclaiming ‘Down with Fascism,’ ‘Anti-Nazi League,’ ‘Bash the Fash!’ They’re chanting something, one of their slogans, a fairly high pitch to the accumulated voice.
They stop when they see us. The chant fades. I fix on one – a tall guy, bearded, sincerity and weakness seeping from his pores – and pull the hammer from my bag. I run my thumb along the head, that sharp-edged curve, smooth, traces of moistness. The lefties stop, stumbling on one another, a delayed ripple of surprise through their assembly. I see Jacko smile, follow the course of it, see his man on the other side, faintly returning the smile. I smile myself in understanding: they weren’t expecting us. Jacko turns to two very big guys behind him, twirls his fingers. They hoist a huge placard, the cross in the red circle, our initials underneath. Jacko snaps his feet together, makes the salute, towards the coppers and the lefties. A declaration, a provocation, righteousness and inevitability.
Jacko turns to the group, shouts, ‘Now! Yes!’ The coppers brace themselves; flexed thigh muscles, a pre-willingness to feel pain. I respect their bravery, and vow to avoid inflicting unnecessary hurt on them. I feel boundless, almighty; the goddess renewed in me. I am more than one girl now. The lefties begin to retreat, singly, clumsily, paralysed in dread. Their eyes admit what their minds will not: it is too late. There is no escape today. We are too powerful, too united; we are the devil’s breath of a brushfire sweeping at speed through a narrow valley. Jacko leads us and we become he: we become the ferocious angel sending fallen stars. Jacko starts to run, and we run with him.
Previously published at Eunoia Review