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Nuwe skryfwerk | New writing > Fiksie | Fiction > English > Published authors

Looking for Comrade Stalin – Part I


Richard Jurgens - 2010-09-08

I

Lord, give me a normal life, thought Hilton Ellis, but not yet.

He’d suddenly noticed his Doc Martins. The boots were creased and caked in fine grey dust. They looked like they’d survived a war – and they had, too. And he in them.

“Where were you?” his lawyer hissed. Beside her on the waiting room bench were several large box files full of documents.

Where hadn’t he been? During the past two days there’d been a near revolution in the city and he’d been unwillingly in the thick of it, but there wasn’t time to explain any of this now. The civil servants who were to hear his case for asylum, serious expressions on their faces, were already filing into the meeting room. They had bulging briefcases with them, and dossiers in their hands.

The lawyer noticed the white plaster cast on his nose. “Are you all right?”

Well, he’d slept in the park. The police hadn’t found him, at least, and ejected him like angels escorting Adam out of paradise.

“We were supposed to do some final preparation,” the young lawyer said, her cheeks flushed.

She’d done a lot of pro bono work on his case. She was relying on him to be worth representing, to be someone who deserved the state’s assistance and protection. Hilton felt a stab of sympathy. But she had her job to do, which was to cite the appropriate clauses and subsections at the appropriate times and so on, and he had his.

A picture of the new queen was hanging on the wall of the waiting room. They’d been quick to get it up so soon after the coronation. She looked dignified in her formal gown, but approachable. She looked like the kind of wealthy lady who’d make a great Dutch aunt if she liked you.

“I am afraid we have a problem,” said the lawyer. “Mr Ellis, can you explain this?”

She held up a newspaper. It was that morning’s edition of De Telegraaf. The front page featured an article about raids at a number of squats around the city. Next to it was a large photograph.

“‘Scenes of disgraceful behaviour reigned in the city as rival groups of thugs attempted to disrupt Her Majesty’s coronation earlier this week’,” the lawyer translated the caption. “‘A number of ringleaders have since been arrested.’”

“I know,” Hilton said. “I was there. Well, sort of.”

“I see,” said the lawyer. “The problem is that the rest of the world will know too.”

She tapped the newspaper impatiently. Looking more closely, Hilton saw that it was a picture of himself surrounded by a group of neo-Nazi thugs during the riots that had greeted the coronation two days before. Maybe it was the rough grain of the newsprint, but he appeared to be snarling, and on the point of initiating an energetic head butt.

                                                          *

Could he explain the photograph?

Sure. The full explanation would go back to the mysterious birth of Hilton Ellis, Esq, a quarter of a century before, in a distant city. Or it might go back even further than that. Many strange accidents and unexpected twists in the road of life had brought him to where he was today. And yet the crucial turn in his life had occurred only a few days ago.

It was the day of the coronation. The palace had been renovated, and it shone like a newly finished doll’s house in the pale sunlight. In the New Church, the solemn occasion was being celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance the nation could muster. And over the city there was a sense that something significant was about to occur.

An unofficial HQ had been established at the Great Emperor, the squatted newspaper building around the corner from the palace. They’d been directing events, and their line was that young people would celebrate the occasion in their own way. Now the streets were packed all the way to the barricades around the square. Groups of folk in orange-dyed dreads and dark clothing were sitting in circles among the tramlines and passing joints or bottles. Some were talking, laughing and playing cards. Others were selling beads, magical stones, pancakes and music cassettes. Someone was playing a bitter-sweet melody on an accordion under that benign late spring sky.

Hilton was wearing an old pair of jeans and a worn denim jacket that he’d picked up at the market. Wearing these items, he hoped to be taken for an ordinary tourist. A camera swung on his chest to complete the effect. It was an old Leica M2, an odd item that he’d picked up as a prop at a flea market. The bored policemen manning the barricade barely glanced at him.

Someone was walking around with a placard that said “THE QUEEN FOR PRESIDENT”. Hilton noticed several people in T-shirts with a crude kid’s drawing of a house, crossed out, and a picture of a Barbie doll’s crown, also crossed out. A cloud of black balloons had been released into the air. They bobbed over the heads of the people in the square like eerie imps. An updraft took them over the roof of the palace.

There, high above the crowd, and above the banners and flags of red, white and blue and the orange streamers, the weary figure of Atlas stood, bowed under the weight of the world.

                                                          *

Hilton had plotted a course in the direction of the Great Emperor. He wasn’t here to change the world; he was here to change his world.

The squatters’ demands were to be announced from the steps of the building, and half the world’s press would be there. Hilton had reasoned that the entire squatter leadership would also be there to grab their share of limelight. And he wanted to know what they looked like. He’d been trying to see someone, anyone, who was high up in the invisible hierarchy for weeks. Organising a squatter revolution required a lot of meetings, and no one had been available.

He pushed against the swelling crowd, but it was hard going. The square had become packed within a few minutes. Hilton had never been part of any large crowd before. He felt a sense of panic as bodies closed round him. Denims. Leather jackets. Clouds of ripe ganja. Tobacco breath. Toe jam. Foot rot.

A sense of urgency had gripped the crowd, but it was difficult to tell where it was coming from. He was held captive by the sheer mass of people around him and found himself pressed against the window of Madame Tussaud’s. Rembrandt was doing service in the window display today. His wise, pudgy face stared fatalistically back at Hilton from under a large artist’s beret. They’d seen things back in his day; oh yes. People had been executed on that very square, and others had played football with their heads. He had no advice today.

Hilton pushed again into the tide of people washing into the square. This time he used his feet and elbows freely and succeeded in opening a swathe along the street. The Irish pub on the corner had retreated into its testudo of metal awnings. The street was a river of young people, many of them in black.

Black wasn’t trendy because it looked existential and cool – though that was definitely a side benefit. No, black was trendy because you didn’t have to wash it, and because it was socially flexible. You could wear it to a nightclub, or a riot.

The intentness of all these black-clad people made Hilton nervous. He pressed harder in the other direction. After a few minutes he reached the steps of the Great Emperor, which were guarded by a determined-looking group of hardliners. They were wearing old leather jackets as stiff as body armour. They looked ready for war. There was no sign of the squatter leaders who were shortly to make their statement to the world.

“What are you doing here?” a voice called. Hilton searched the flurry. It was Janos – the last person he’d hoped to see.

“Hey,” Hilton said lamely.

“This isn’t the place to be!” Janos called. “The action’s all near city hall.”

He extracted himself from the crowd and headed toward Hilton. He was stocky and powerful, and today he was wearing boots, camouflage trousers and a T-shirt with the words “STREET HASSLE” on it.

“If it’s about the dues –’’    

But Janos was interested in the camera on Hilton’s chest.

“Come with me,” he said. “You could be useful. We might need pictures of the action.”

“Action?” Hilton temporised. “This was supposed to be a peaceful protest.” He didn’t know if the camera contained film, or indeed if it worked.

“Yeah, right,” said Janos. “Fuck flower power. Why do you think all these people are here? They’re angry, man. This is a new generation. You should be part of it.”

“About the money,” Hilton said. “I’ll pay you soon.”

“You better, or you’re out,” said Janos. “That’s how it works, you know that. Now, are you with us or against us?”

                                                          *

Reluctantly Hilton followed Janos through the crowd to the city hall. The atmosphere down there was a lot tenser than it had been near the New Church.

SWAT squads in full gear were facing off a huge crowd of people who were attempting to cross the elegant nineteenth-century bridge that led in the direction of the square. There the crowd had come to a halt. An instruction that had blared from a megaphone was whipped away by the wind. Silence stretched over the bridge between the protestors and the line of riot squad goons in their helmets and black uniforms.

The protesters only wanted houses, places to live. And to get them they were prepared to go as lambs to the slaughter, or Christians to the Coliseum. Hilton experienced a tremendous sense of belonging. His interests were the same as those of the people all around him, and theirs were his.

On the other hand, he realised, it might be dangerous to get caught up in such a huge crowd. More groups of people were appearing, with banners. He suddenly felt strongly that he hadn’t signed up for confrontation. In fact, he’d come six thousand miles to avoid it. He started dragging, but Janos applied a scientific dose of pressure to his elbow that turned his knees to marshmallow. It was all he could do to stay upright.

“Like I said, we may need you,” the squatter said as he pushed Hilton through the press.

They were closer to the front of the crowd now, like storm chasers approaching a hurricane. Groups of squatters had assembled in units behind the lines of students and hippies thronging at the front. They were togging up in frighteningly efficient-looking battle gear: zipping stiff leather jackets, testing the flex in stout military boots, knocking on motorcycle helmets to test their resistance. They’d trained for a day. And that day had come.

With a sudden chill Hilton noted that weapons were being brought into view. He saw baseball bats being hefted, and someone else holding a Molotov cocktail, its rag dangling ready for the flame. The squads had piled stones and bits of loose paving, ready for use as missiles. Leather, buckles, chains, boots, banners: it was like some sort of horrific time warp to the year 1381.

A couple of the squatter militia detached themselves and came to greet Janos. They glanced sceptically at Hilton. Janos gave a brief explanation of his presence, and the men draped heavy arms around his shoulder.

“Can you shoot anything with that?” said one of them, pointing at the old camera on Hilton’s chest.

Janos looked at Hilton, but he didn’t have say to anything. In his day job he was a bouncer at the Paradiso. He’d been doing it for years, apparently – deciding who got into heaven and who didn’t. All that power hadn’t been good for his personality. Once, when everyone in the house was straining under the yoke, Hilton had painted a message in thick white letters on his door: “J.ANUS”. The squatter slumlord had laughed and pretended to appreciate the joke. But the joke had raised Hilton’s profile in the house, and a few weeks later Janos had raised everyone’s “dues”. Hilton hadn’t been too popular since then.

“As good as I am with this?” the squatter lieutenant continued.

He brought out a shiny metal catapult. It was like a giant silver wishbone. He snapped its elastic bands, which were as thick as strips of fine leather.

But there was no time for further pleasantries; in the distance the SWAT guys were laying into the crowd left and right. The water cannon had moved up the line and was now busy cutting a swathe through another part of the crowd. A police megaphone was blaring orders over the spires of teargas rising on the bridge. Protesters were yelling at the soldiers, calling for help, shouting warnings, screaming as batons rose and fell.

They were surrounded by people running and bodies falling, by soldiers swearing as they worked on the protestors like lumberjacks, by students cursing them as they threw stones, and by clouds of tear gas.