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Fiction Historical Fiction Drama

                                PROTEST

               It might have been because I was escaping the misery of a disintegrating home, my father's drunken anger, mother's unpredictable and reversible moods, my brother's exasperating intellect. Or it might have been because at the age of eighteen I was impressionable and sensitive to contentious issues, just because they existed.

               Whatever, I latched on to the "Ban the Bomb" campaign and sought to become something of a specialist. I listened to the news, read the papers and examined the evidence, not much escaped my scrutiny. I was industrious enough to research the dreadful truth of the world and I documented my findings with dedication and passion. Nothing in my life until now had ever surprised me with such an intensity. I believed that my near encyclopaedic knowledge of the atomic weapons industry demonstrated that my place should be with those displaying traits similar to mine.

               I wanted to share the remarkable experience with my mum and I suspected that she would have felt obliged to tell my dad, which would have saved me the trouble. I remember trying to explain to her the basics of atomic physics and how that knowledge had lead to research into the atomic power industry and then, in turn the development of weapons so devastating that our world could one day, become a radioactive wasteland incapable of supporting life. But I only recall her telling me how half the blame must have been hers and how she regretted not spending enough time with me when I was young. And then she explained how really talented boys such as my brother were meant for study, while peculiar boys like me were meant to go out to work. It was God's way.

                And so I made the decision to join the CND protestors that marched from Aldermaston to London. It was April, 1963 and we felt powerful, capable and clever. There was nothing that could stop us, we were invincible and fierce, and mighty in number. I soaked it all up, the camaraderie, the solidarity and the sheer sense of harmony that we shared. I felt, at last that I belonged, I was in the right place and what a difference that made to my confidence. No longer the threat of academic failure, no more the misery of my father's booze-fuelled tirades, and no more the sly, taunting comments from my gifted brother. We were never the normal family and it was nothing like the way mother and father had pretended it to be. To say it had been a living hell was, to myself at least, not an understatement. And, looking back, it was a wonder that I'd managed to survive long enough to make it to eighteen at all.

               I had the look of an accountant, as my brother told me. Greasy, side-parted hair, heavy black-framed glasses, quite often a tie, usually with a pen in my jacket pocket, (always a jacket.) My trousers were pencil thin, my shirts crisp and my shoes polished to a shine worthy of a sergeant major. I had no understanding of fashion, not that I didn't appreciate the flamboyant trends that were to come. The tie-dyed kaftans, flared trousers and brightly coloured blouses would be of no concern to someone that had long ago lost all sense of self awareness. I wore the uniform of a previous generation and it mattered little to me because it felt safe.

               We lived in a small, semi-detached house near Reading. The town was a halfway point between Aldermaston and Hyde Park in London, where the march was to end. I remember vividly the day I left the house, nothing in particular had happened but the air had been thick with threat and I anticipated the row to come. I told my brother to tell mother that I was going to spend a couple of days with a friend.

               There were thousands of people in the main street, many more than I'd imagined, proof to me that the system was corruptible and that I could, by joining them, add my own little ripple to the surge of dissent. I walked on the outer edges of the throng, demonstrating to myself that I still had a lifeline to opt out if I changed my mind. A step left to commit, a step right to remain among the academic bystanders. But the further I walked, the more the fervour of the crowd infected me and by the time we'd reached the suburban limits of the town the rhythmic chants and songs of the masses had infected me to my core.

                I can't remember if it was a subconscious decision or whether it came from some spontaneous resolve to rid myself of my home ties. But I was sure my future success depended on something like this. I remember how the sea of smiling, singing faces drew me towards the core of the procession like some human magnetic force. As I walked with the crowd I watched more and more people join, each acknowledged with a nod of a head or a smile.

The protesters carried banners, signs and placards scrawled with handwritten slogans...

               'C.N.D.'  'Ban the Bomb,'  'Hiroshima Peace Pilgrims.'

 A few had written the name of their home town on banners strung between two people...      'Marlborough C.N.D.' and 'Blackburn C.N.D. Group'

               Some carried flimsy paper boards showing the CND logo and a picture of a bomb or a mushroom-shaped cloud. But most just walked along displaying a clear intention to make their objection as public as society would allow.

               A few dressed according to a fashion that simmered below the surface of convention. The next few years would see the loose, gaudy shirts, wide flared trousers and long hair as progressive attempts at individualism. But now, in 1963, the jackets had slightly wider collars, the sweaters displayed muted colours in diamonds and stripes and just a few guys allowed their hair to grow much below the collars of their shirts. Plenty of men sported beards and wore long, heavy coats over high-neck sweaters. It felt as if fashion was breaking free of some undefined barricade, but sharing the wave of expression by pushing outward into its own uncharted territory. Skirts, I'd noticed, were now rising inexorably upward to reveal tantalising glimpses of pallid skin. To me, excitement unleashed.

               We walked, and walked more. The crowds increased in number until there were many thousands of us. A sign by the road displayed "East Only" and another further along "All Roads East"

written in black capitals on a white backdrop. I remember thinking about the finality of the message. I imagined the road winding its way towards some other country, a biblical land beyond our shores where kerbstones were buried under blowing desert sand and the hot sun burned our pale faces and parched our weary bodies.

               I started to join in, I talked with them, sang with them and yelled with their chants. I felt free, untamed. A hunger for life had rekindled itself within me. Here I was, with my friends, all of us with the same destination, all with the same boundless enthusiasm for a common cause and all with a steadfast belief that we were making a difference to the world. I was bold and shameless and my journey and purpose felt like perfect happiness.

               By the afternoon on the following day we walked through London and into Hyde Park. By now I had become indoctrinated completely and utterly into a world that offered me more hope than I'd ever imagined I could experience. I'd spoken with people that had substantiated my knowledge and offered me a way to voice my concerns. I tried to see the protest in historical terms, unprecedented masses rising up to oppose the science, to actually challenge its credibility. Ordinary people objecting to the misuse of knowledge, disputing policy, and shamelessly enjoying it.

               Our numbers filled the London park, tens of thousands chanting and singing in small groups, the noise rising and falling in rhythm with the mood. Hundreds of police cars and vans lined the streets leading to the park's gates. Perhaps a dozen or so small coaches had parked in lines on both side of the wide path that led between the vast lawns, around a lake and on to the gates at the far end of the park. Someone had written 'ban the bomb' in the dust on the side of one of the vehicles. One of the policemen was stretched out on the front seats of his coach with his hat pulled down over his eyes.

                The atmosphere was palpable and I was held gripped. I sang louder and shouted harder, tripping over my words, shifting my weight from one foot to another and waving my arms wildly about my head. I threw myself further into the cacophony and began to punch my fists into the air, over and over, until my mind overflowed with a jumble of everything that had happened since I'd left home. I was wildly energised, almost manic, and it felt peculiarly exciting, darkly attractive in a way I could never have imagined. I closed my eyes and spun around and around as I screamed at the sky. Nothing had ever felt so good, I had never been so complete and the power of it all was like a drug. I felt free.

               I watched as my friends shouted and gestured to the police, the chanting rose to a deafening roar and the atmosphere turned from its focused, good-natured tone into something more hostile. Some protesters resisted arrest by allowing themselves to become limp to make it difficult for the police to carry them to the vans and buses that waited to take them away. I looked on in amazement. I felt scared but excited, though I worried that I didn't possess the courage to be so reckless.

               I heard sudden cries from a street outside the park, a woman's voice splintered into an outburst of shouting that triggered a clamour of abuse from the people around her. The voices became louder as more protesters joined in until the air was thick and loud with name-calling and foul language. I noticed something different about the people involved with the skirmish that had erupted here. The small group of mostly men, wore shabby clothes, scruffy jackets and grubby, badly fitting trousers. Generally I would probably guessed their age as being somewhat younger than most of the crowd I'd walked with from Reading. I didn't recognise any of their faces, and it was quite apparent that their behaviour was less focused. Despite the boisterous singing and chanting that characterised our protest we still managed to maintain a rough sense of discipline. This group, it seemed to me were less restrained, more chaotic. And the chanting was different, less specific in its focus and certainly more animated.

                A group of policemen formed a line by linking arms, and by moving forwards in slow, single steps they fronted the baying crowd. But instead of dispersing the group they seemed to antagonise the situation and the chanting turned further into an anarchistic, vicious rage. Somebody threw a stone and I watched as it arched through the air and landed squarely on a policeman's unprotected head. The whole scene descended in to a mad, frenetic mass of punching, screaming bodies. Police helmets were knocked off with wild blows and the protesters ran at the officers that had by now waded into the middle of the mayhem.

               I ran towards the turmoil determined to help my friends but tumbled to the ground as I reeled from a heavy blow from one of the young protesters. I crawled on to all fours and grabbed at a truncheon that had been knocked from one of the officers hands. I stood upright in the middle of the fighting, drew back my arm and with all the force I could muster beat the man around his head. His whole body shuddered and flopped like a rag doll, but I didn't stop my attack. I punched, kicked and pummelled him until he fell to the ground and then I ripped at his coat flipping him over on to his face. I grabbed his hair and hit his head over and over again until blood poured from his mouth. I felt a dozen hands pulling me away but I thrashed and twisted until I was close enough to kick him as hard as I could in his stomach.

               Again I fell to the ground with exhaustion but staggered to my feet as soon as I felt hands trying to hold me down. My legs were already trying to run before I was balanced and as a result I fell on to my face again. The wind blew from my lungs and as I fought for breath I felt the grip of strong hands around my legs. Despite being held by at least four people I almost managed to stand again but a swift kick to my arm forced me to roll over and I collapsed back into the ground. I clapped my hands over my eyes and let my mind drift away. I remember feeling weightless with no sensation in my limbs as if I had no physical substance at all. I felt a sharp stab of pain behind my eyes before I passed out.

               And so, forty six years on, I sit here watching a small black and white television in the corner of my prison cell. I watch images from a country I don't recognise. Hundreds of thousands of people gathering somewhere, protesting against something I know nothing, and care little about.

               I often tell myself that everything that happened was a horrible mistake and that my life should never have been written like this. And that if only I could retrace my steps then my story would have made more sense and been written as a different book. But I don't delude myself, what I did was borne of a broken mind, as the prison therapist decided. I never managed to convince him of my regret simply because I don't remember. And then, again I feel that surge of anger rise within me. Little shards of broken memories sometimes glint at me from a deep place, but I'm never able to rebuild them into anything.

               I have my final parole hearing tomorrow, the last of many I've had over the years. but I doubt the board will be lenient given the viciousness of my murderous crime.

                I suspect I have many more years to serve.

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February 11, 2021 10:30

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2 comments

I love this story Gerald. :)

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Gerald Daniels
20:02 Feb 12, 2021

Thank you very much

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