The sun-drenched orchestral pit was filled with the noises of instruments being discordantly tuned, and the frantic flipping of sheet music. Musicians murmured in low voices, glancing from time to time at the stage, which rose ominously behind them. The June afternoon was bright, clear, and warm. Walter was First Chair of the violin section. He wiped his sweating brow with a trembling hand. He was sick with nerves, although he was not worried about their set.
The stage was in the middle of an amusement park located in the privileged first-tier zone of the city. The sun shone brightly on colourful children who floated weightlessly, suspended as they tumbled forty feet high in an enormous, transparent anti-gravity tube. At ground level, other gaudily-dressed children ran in happy clumps, or pulled on the hands of tolerantly smiling parents. Drones laden with popcorn and fairy floss circulated the park in plotted meandering circles, hovering within reach of passersby. A Cleansed individual, dressed in a white jumpsuit, shuffled by impassively, sweeping up a discarded candy wrapper.
The scene was amazing to Walter. The rides in amusement parks in his own part of the city were relics from a simpler time: paint peeled on Roller Coasters which looped modestly on old tracks, and merry-go-rounds, which had been haphazardly repaired many times, rotated with shuddering effort to the sound of discordant carnival tunes. Walter -his violin case clutched in a sweating hand- had stolen glances at the immense rides, the decadently dressed people, and the startling cleanness of the whole place, when they were escorted in earlier that afternoon - although he was careful not to seem too interested.
First-tier families, dressed in characteristically bright colours, began to drift in cheerful groups towards the rows of chairs set up in front of the pit and the stage. A sharp scream from a young boy nearby made Walter jump, and he turned to see the boy engaged in a dramatic parody, screaming as he grabbed his head and convulsed in pretend shock and fear. The boy finished his pantomime by hanging his head and arms loosely, his tongue lolling, looking vacant. He became animated again as his sister, clad in a sparkling pink dress for the occasion, laughed happily. The family took their seats in the front row.
Walter felt the hairs along his arms and neck prickle. Sudden awareness gripped him: “I think someone’s watching.” Walter quickly looked away from the family, heart-beating, and focused on his music sheets. The feeling persisted though, and he risked a glance around himself. A gray-suited man standing alongside the orchestral pit watched Walter fixedly. They locked eyes. The gray-suited man’s eyes were astute, alert, and suspicious. The man had been watching Walter watching the boy. Had Walter looked disgusted? Appalled?
Feeling panicked, he schooled his face into calm indifference and turned his mind towards his instrument. The resin and wood smell was soothingly familiar, the violin a familiar ally in a strange land, and he readied himself to become lost in the routine sounds and sensations. At least, he hoped that he could lose himself.
A woman in a power-suit of lime green and red swirls had taken the stage. Her face shone with zeal. She tapped her lapel to activate a sound system, and suddenly her impassioned voice was projected over the orchestral pit and across the rows of brightly adorned observers.
“We come here today to watch the completion of a vital task,” she began in a strident voice which rang with passion.
“To cleanse the minds of the defected,” she continued, “the arrogant, the presumptuous, the intellectuals,” this last word she spat with derision, “is to cleanse our world.”
Her earnest gaze swept the audience as she paused for effect. Her voice rose as she continued: “Today we continue our important work of scrubbing clean from our society those elements who presume they know better,” her voice rose to a pitch of near hysteria, “than the governing body!”
Chuckles emerged from the crowd, adults shook their heads in derision at the foolishness of such individuals. The criminals were brought out, flanked by heavily armed, grey-uniformed soldiers. They were chained in a single-file line. The heavy-set man at the front, who emerged first, was shaking so hard that the heavy chains which bound his hands rattled audibly. A woman, holding a baby to her chest with her manacled hands, sobbed, the tears making rivulets down her dirty face.
“These individuals, these dissidents” the colourful, power-suited woman hissed the last word with an expression of angry disgust, gesturing with a decoratively bangled arm at the emerging chain-gang, “will no longer be burdened with the weight of resentment, with hatred, with unnecessary rebellion.” At this point, she paused for effect, and looked at the individuals filing onto the stage with an expression of maternal disappointment.
“Instead,” she continued, “they will be given the gift of peace, and will positively contribute to our society. They will be Cleansed,” she finished, her voice ringing with passion, wearing an expression of strident and determined conviction. Her declaration was met with a wave of enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Walter saw that the faces of the alleged criminals were pulled into grotesque, open-mouthed grimaces by dirty gags. He could hear their distorted words and cries begin as the machine was wheeled into place. The little girl in the pink sparkling dress was in the front row between her mother and brother, only a few feet from Walter. She watched the chained men and women emerge with interest as she pushed pieces of fairy floss into her mouth.
“Why are they sad, mommy?” The girl in the sparkling pink dress asked her mother.
Her mother, who wore a skirt and jacket of a similar shade of pink, patted her daughter’s knee reassuringly. “They’re sad because they’re wrong, sweetie, but they won’t be for long.”
Walter now kept his eyes carefully forward, away from the stage and towards the conductor in front of him. In his peripheral he could see the excited shuffling of the attentive crowd, and the sun glinting on the enormous rides beyond. He raised his elbow, bow poised, and they began. The amusement park was filled with the grandiose notes of Vivaldi, and then of Bach. The sound system was programmed to ensure that the music was loud.
It happened during the third movement. Walter had a few bars break, where his violin part was silent. He couldn’t resist. He stole a look behind and above him to the stage. The halo-like machine, operated by two men in white lab coats, was being lowered over the head of the woman clutching her baby. The halo was fitted just above the woman’s eyebrows. The weapons of the grey soldiers were fixed upon her, their faces watchful for any sudden movement.
Her eyes met Walter’s, and she let out a guttural scream of desperation. She thrust her baby towards Walter, pleading, her veins on her forehead and neck bulging as she screamed, spittle escaping around the gag and her face streaming with sweat and tears. And then - abruptly- there was a flash of bright light from the halo, and her face cleared. Her expression became one of blank indifference. One of the lab-coated men came to retrieve the baby from her arms, which she surrendered impassively. A thin, stained blanket which the baby had been partially swaddled in fell, forgotten, at the feet of the vacant-faced woman, who fixed her indifferent gaze on a distant point in the crowd. The orchestral music swooped and receded with dramatic vigour as the men wheeled the machine down the line of prisoners; the first half of the line of prisoners now stood with an attitude of disarming and disconnected calm.
Walter turned back around to face his music stand, fighting the vomit that he could feel rising. A rivulet of sweat ran down the centre of his back. He almost missed his cue, and fought to remain focused on the music.
After the forty minute set was completed, Walter packed his violin and his sheet music in quick and practised movements, eager to be escorted back to the security gates and out. His armpits were wet with sweat, and he wanted more than anything to be away from this manicured and evil place. He felt a gradual loosening of his clenched muscles as he exited the heavily policed first-tier border, and was greeted by the familiar dilapidation of boarded up buildings, and litter-strewn streets.
The sun was setting as Walter boarded the heavily graffitied train, unsurprised by the extensive delays. The carriage was almost empty, and Walter gazed out of the darkening, smeared windows as the train clattered by corrugated-iron shanties.
The image of a stained baby’s blanket, sitting abandoned at the feet of a blank-faced mother, rose unbidden in his mind. He clenched his teeth hard as he felt the prickling in the back of his throat, but the tears came anyway. They swelled wetly in his tired eyes and spilled down his sallow face, onto thin dress pants, which had been badly patched with an inexpert hand. He allowed himself only a few moments of silent weeping, and then hurriedly brushed his tears from his face, taking a few deep breaths to regain his composure.
He lifted his face with that sudden prickling awareness of being watched. For the second time that day, Walter’s stomach dropped as he met the astute and watchful eyes of the gray-suited man.