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

Looking for Comrade Stalin - Part III


Richard Jurgens - 2010-09-22

Click here to read Part I.
Click here to read Part II.

III

“Tell the guys it’s time,” said Janos. “There’s work to do.“

The civil conflict was raging all around the city hall now, and the squatter squads had been waiting. At Janos’s signal they donned their helmets like racing drivers about to go into action and formed into groups. Then they charged into the crowd, against the stream, in the opposite direction to the fleeing protesters.

Hilton turned to Janos with a desperate appeal to reason on his lips – something about living to fight another day – but it died unspoken. The squatter commander was surveying the battle with the serenity of a man in his element. He noticed Hilton looking at him, and raised a thumb.

Hilton’s next thought was to jettison the camera. This wouldn’t be difficult in the incredible melee; he’d say it had been knocked out of his hands and crushed in the stampede.

Janos noticed his hesitation and came up close. His whole existence was proof of the fact that it wasn’t size that counted, but what you did with it. He looked at Hilton, and at that moment he understood why Castro had abandoned the field to Nemesis the cat on that faraway green lawn in Houghton long ago.

“Riots, camera, action!” shouted Janos. “Let’s go!“

Hilton turned in time to see some long-haired student receiving an empirical demonstration of the inherent violence of the state apparatus: the man ran straight into a baton that had been stuck in front of him like a traffic boom. It was as if he’d hit a rope at neck height. His complexion changed instantly from red to white; suddenly he was as gaunt as a pilot in a Life/Time picture of g-force experiments and his sharp-toed boots were flying in the air.

“What are you doing?” Janos yelled. “Get the picture, man! It’s perfect!“

Hilton had worked with cameras in the days when he’d owned things, but none of the knobs on the old Leica was familiar. To mollify Janos he pointed it and clicked the button that fell under his finger. The student was out cold. He lay on the rough sand of that building site while the battle raged around him as if he was sleeping in bed at home.

“More!” Janos urged, steering Hilton through the running, hitting, swearing, yelling crowd. “There!”

With Janos next to him, Hilton began to feel untouchable. And caught up by all the excitement, he forgot entirely that the camera was only a prop and snapped away like a pro. He got images of SWAT goons beat running protesters, of helmeted squatter units cornering a policeman and kicking the shit out of him, of swathes of people being swept off their feet by the circling water cannon, of a helicopter clattering in a pale sky, of a man raising the black banner of revolt in the midst of the swirling smoke.

“That’ll make a great shot!” he yelled, caught up now despite himself. And it would have, too. The atmosphere of confrontation was now at its most intense.

At that moment the world went topsy-turvy. Suddenly he was looking at thousands of pairs of legs, which seemed to be running around on crazy missions of their own all over the desolate building site. Then, just as suddenly, he was upright again and standing in the middle of a group of black-clad punk rockers with swastikas and SS lightning signs tattooed on their arms and necks.

Their leader, who would have made Keith Richards look friendly and accommodating, shoved his face into Hilton’s, waved the camera, and wanted to know what it was. The situation was so absurd that Hilton wanted to giggle. Ce n’est pas une caméra. Although at the same time he was struggling to retain control over his quivering sphincter.

The man’s interest was rhetorical. The old device went sailing into the air and landed in a ditch somewhere.

“You a journalist?” the punk said, getting a grip on Hilton’s denim jacket. He noticed the rainbow peace sign button that Hilton had attached that morning to its lapel. “You’re a fucking hippy!”

Hilton caught a brief glimpse of Janos staring at him from beyond the circle of spiked wolves. He flashed an all-channel priority SOS, but Janos turned away and vanished into the milling crowd.

“No, I was just looking for someone,” Hilton said, his knees quaking.

“Who?” said the punk captain.

Hilton searched for a diplomatic response, but a macho imp in his mind rebelled at the claustrophobia of being surrounded by this group of large, hostile tattooed men. The imp had a heart that burned red and delighted in sowing hot little seeds of mayhem.

“I was looking for Comrade Stalin,” Hilton heard himself saying.

Briefly he noted the tattooed black swastika approaching his face at high speed before the lights went out.

                                                          *

The streets were quiet the following morning. Shop fronts along the Rokin were still boarded up. Most of the debris of the conflict had been cleared, but at points in the street the litter of black ash, pieces of broken furniture and odd items of clothing still showed where the barricades had been. The bits of abandoned clothing had an odd poignancy – a torn leather jacket, a lone shoe, a trampled black cap: part of someone’s life left behind.

Hilton had been taken to hospital while still unconscious. The wounded were treated in a separate ward. There were cases of concussion, several broken limbs, and lots of black eyes, scratches, cuts and bruises. The beds had radios – TVs even, if you paid extra; so they’d learned that a number of “ringleaders” had been arrested. The police had shown no interest in Hilton’s group. The general view was that they’d received appropriate doses of their own medicine.

Still, the hospital had been a nightmare. Calvinist medicine frowned on the use of painkillers under normal circumstances, and the nurses had not liked treating squatters whose injuries had been incurred through participation in civil disorder. Hilton had tried sending signals that he was just a civilian who’d got caught up in the riots, but the ladies weren’t having any of it. On the tram home his broken nose still throbbed sharply, and made his eyes water.

It was a relief to see the circle of anarchy carved in the peeling front door of his house. His room was on the second floor of the villa, at the back, with a poet’s view of an overgrown garden.

But for some reason the key to the front door wouldn’t work. He debated ringing the bell. This was strictly forbidden – only Janos’s buddies were allowed to disturb the master of the house. Hilton’s dilemma was resolved when Janos himself opened the door. He was in his boxer shorts, and displaying his ribbed six-pack. He had a beer in one hand and a large black-and-white photograph in the other.

“Jesus!” he said, looking with a connoisseur’s appreciation at Hilton’s face. “Welcome to the underground.”

“Thanks,” said Hilton.

“I found your camera, by the way,” Janos continued, getting straight down to his own business as usual. “There was only one picture that was worth anything. I’ve just been looking at it.”

He looked at the photograph in his hand. It was a very sharp, fine-grained close-up of Hilton a split-second before the Nazi punk’s tattooed forehead collided with his. The look on his own face, Hilton saw to his surprise, had been surprisingly belligerent.

“You must have taken this picture!” he said, after a moment.

“Like I said, I found your camera,” Janos said.

Hilton reminded himself that he wasn’t afraid of this man anymore. The day before, he’d decided that he was tired of living in fear. He’d been on his way to the Great Emperor to see the squatter leaders’ faces for himself, so that he’d know who to report Janos’s shady slumlord practices to. You weren’t supposed to tell tales, but fuck the rules, even in the underground. If the comrades learned that a liberated house was being exploited for personal gain other than their own, he’d thought, they might feel motivated to ensure that some kind of justice prevailed.

Some day the squatter slumlord would run into his bad karma. All Hilton wanted to do now was sleep. It would take a hundred years to sleep off the days that he had just been through.

“Whatever,” he said. He stepped past Janos and headed up the stairs.

“Dude, where are you going?“

“My room, of course.“

They arrived at Hilton’s door. He spotted the unfamiliar padlock in the reinforced steel hoop immediately. Then he saw the pile of his things at the end of the corridor: the crumpled tent, the tousled sleeping bag, the headgear, the clothes, the overcoat and boots, the collection of cheap sunglasses, the Walkman.

“You didn’t pay your dues, man,” Janos said with the regretful tone of an insurance man explaining that the rules didn’t allow him to pay out.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Looks like you’re moving on,” Janos said, his professional bouncer’s face firmly in place, as if the decision had been taken by higher powers, as if he was merely enforcing an instruction received from management.

                                                          *

In the waiting room at court, Hilton looked again at the damning picture of himself on the front page of the newspaper. It told him one useful thing, anyway: it told him that Janos had sold out. For obviously he’d sold the picture to the capitalist pig-dogs. Who knew, that knowledge might come in useful one day.

“I certainly hope you can explain this picture to the people in there,” the lawyer said. She said it in an experimental way, to pep herself up, really; she looked very sceptical.

He could see her point. Here they were, about to argue his case for asylum, for refuge, among these people, in this city that was centuries older than the country he’d come from, and which had seen all kinds of riots and disturbances come and go. (Rembrandt, in his window, had had a message after all.) The picture in the newspaper would scream “thug”, “scum”, “disturber of the peace”, no question. And yet the circumstances that had produced it had, almost miraculously, also presented Hilton with the antidote he needed. He’d been relieved of all pretence now, and had no choice now but to go on stage entirely as himself.

“Are you sure you want to go in looking like that?” the lawyer said. “This is the highest court in our land, you know. And this is your last chance.’

He was wearing the scuffed and dusty black Doc Martins, of course. But above the ankles he was all shape and colour: camouflage trousers from the military dump store, a T-shirt with a bright children’s rainbow on it, a large rock crystal pendant, a trench coat with psychedelic spirals that he’d painted during a vivid acid trip on a beach in Rhodes, and a khaki pith helmet. These were all the clean clothes Janos had left him.

“At least the sunglasses, then,” said the lawyer.

Hilton revealed the two impressive black shiners on either side of the conspicuous white plaster cast. He’d seen himself briefly in the mirror of a toilet at a branch of McDonald’s earlier, and he’d looked like Rocky Raccoon in a nose splint. Bizarrely, the diamante-winged Dame Edna sunglasses actually looked less strange.

The young lawyer’s startled expression told him that she got the point. At that moment the long hand on the minimalist clock above the courtroom door reached the hour.