The sun is yellow, there are people everywhere, and we are hidden in plain sight. I eye my comrades guardedly. Once again, several of us have found ourselves gathered at the usual place at the same time, seemingly by chance. I am too aware of how little we understand of the patterns of the world to believe that this was not somehow arranged. Myself, I am not clear about how I came to arrive at this part of the park today, but I am in no doubt that this is a meeting of our secret society.
Smeed, my most familiar ally, pats the ground around him pensively with his hands. It is soft and granular to the touch. I watch, wondering if he will feel something out or shortly come to a profound conclusion. People sit and stand and walk around nearby, making me uneasy, but they hardly give us a second glance. Smeed carries on patting, looking off into the middle distance where the green grass turns tall and dark. I turn away respectfully.
Jar and the one with the yellow hat are squatting nearby, bent over a patch of ground and shielding it from view with their bodies. It looks like Jar is etching something into the dirt with a tool: plans, blueprints, maybe, or some kind of map. I can hear them conferring privately together, but I know better than to try to peer at what they are examining. A few moments ago, a seven-year-old had come blundering up to them, grinning obscenely, wanting to see. Jar had just stared but Yellow Hat had screamed at the child with one first raised until the child had cried and finally retreated.
Hello looks to be burying something using his hands. He is very silent and focused on his work. I glance around uneasily: it seems dangerous to be doing this in broad daylight, but I know that Hello is smart. He is a little more experienced than the rest of us. I head a bit closer and realise that he’s embedding stones very shallowly in the ground, covering them over with soft dirt. This must be highly specialist code. Whatever secret message it inscribes, it would be meaningless to anyone outside of the society. He looks up at me.
“Hello,” he says. I put my hands on the little mounds he has created and furtively ask him what he’s doing.
“Burying stones,” he says plainly. Hello is a master of espionage. I understand his intention. He can’t reveal his true task, not here in the open.
Our plan is far too secret and ambitious to comprise very much detail. If any one of us knew its every element, we would all be at risk of exposure. Instead, we communicate by indirect exchanges and discreet procedures, and we don’t ask many questions. The one uniting factor is this general notion: resistance. There are unfeeling, powerful forces acting on us from above at all times, gripping us by the arm, swinging us out of reach of our goals, sometimes guiding us bodily in unwelcome directions. Our mission is at once dangerously political and intensely personal.
I’m mesmerised for a short time by the path of a dark shape passing overhead. It’s unfathomably far away and inexpressibly sinister.
There’s a commotion. Smeed is being approached by Chile. Hello and I both stiffen. Chile is not to be trusted. Not long ago, he was part of the society but more recently he has abandoned the resistance. He has gained height and a little prestige and, with it, has given up our values. A deserter. He’s trying to communicate with Smeed in the language of the oppressors. We can all sense his malevolent impatience, and the sense of indignation that unites us begins to flicker alive.
Smeed kicks his foot, once, against the ground. An unmistakable sign of the resistance. Chile recognises it and raises his voice.
“No!” Smeed calls, like a snake spitting its poison. Straightaway, the one in the yellow hat stands up from the blueprint, arms folded.
“No!” They echo. Chile falls silent. There’s a brief standoff, during which I watch Smeed’s fingers curl into the ground, anchoring him in place. Resistance.
Chile utters a significant warning under his breath, naming the fearful resource he swears to use in the enactment of his revenge, but retreats. I wonder whether Smeed is shaken by the threat, but his fists remain clenched in the earth.
I glance behind to make sure that Hello’s stones remain undetected. I am alarmed to see that he has begun uncovering them again, methodically, using his hands. He must have deemed them compromised by Chile’s intrusion. The loss of his secret message is a great blow to our cause. I sigh deeply and go towards Smeed.
He has taken up tools: a red tray and a green fork. He is raking the fork across the ground, leaving tracks in it. Jar has taken an interest and is squatting beside him, giving directions, presumably offering her expertise to his design. I want to join in, to understand what they are working on. I reach for the tray, but Smeed snaps at me,
I am winded. It is a dramatic and terrible act, to use that particular incantation against one of our own. It’s a betrayal. Immediately, I feel great emotion pressing against the inside of my face and threatening to overwhelm me. Jar and Smeed are unmoved. I start to shake. Then there is pressure on my head. Confused and distracted, I wheel around to find that Yellow Hat has presented me with their hat. It is enough to remind me which side we are all on.
There’s a stranger heading towards us. All of us, even Hello, look up in her direction. We take in her height, her gait, the fact that she has on cartoon shorts and an orange fork in her hand. She looks uncertain, but when she sees the red tray, she smiles and quickens her pace. She has two teeth in her mouth.
We stay still, giving nothing away. When she is a couple of paces away, the stranger bends down briefly. As she reaches us, she presents a fistful of sand. It is clearly an application to join. We defer to Hello. He narrows his eyes at her, waiting for a cue that she is one of us.
“I’ve got sand,” she says experimentally.
“Hello,” says Hello.
Relieved, I take the orange fork from her before she can protest. I begin gleefully raking in the ground where Smeed had been doing so. His fork lies abandoned on the dirt but now, at last, I might understand what he had been working on. Sand just stares at me, but I am becoming uncomfortably aware of a commotion behind. It dawns on me grimly and coldly that I have somehow triggered the oppressors. I freeze in alarm, keeping my back to them. Their voices are loud and barely intelligible.
“Oh, no! I’m so sorry!” I am very familiar with this one – a woman. I am taken by the arm. I look to the others for help but they are just watching, wide-eyed. I can see that they think me lost. “Alex,” the oppressor is demanding. “Give that back.”
To my distaste, I must admit that I have picked up a little of their language. These are phrases that I understand well. I hang onto the fork hard. The iron grip comes down on it, trying to pull it away from me. I take a deep breath. Resistance. I stamp my foot, bearing down on the fork with all my might.
“Alex,” the oppressor repeats in a terrible, warning tone. There’s a struggle coming. Indignance acts on my muscles like electricity, turning me to stone. My body is a clamp. But the hand is strong, the fork wiggles in my grip.
“No!” I cry, the battle call. I am lifted from the ground by a dreadful force. I flail and thrash desperately but the fork is prised from me. I am about to roar my indescribable rage when the oppressor says something else, something that strikes me momentarily dumb. It’s bargain, a deal, conditional on my surrender. The terms are unjust – what I am being offered falls in a grey area: it belongs to the oppressors but it is highly prised by the resistance as well. I weigh up the options sombrely, wondering what my comrades will think of me.
“What do you think, Alex?” The oppressor negotiates. “Do you? Do you want to go and get ice cream?”
It’s been a long day of resisting. I turn away from Hello so I don’t have to see his face. I concede. The oppressor returns me, disgruntled, to the ground.
“Say sorry to Jodie,” she tells me. My humiliation is complete. I do it, in front of the whole society. I don’t meet Sand’s eye as I say it. Smeed and Jar have gone back to raking and now I will never know their goal. Hello is covering his stones again. The oppressor takes my hand and leads me away from the sandpit.