I was wondering what R. could be doing up there, up on the second floor of the town’s only French café. She was leaning against the marble balcony, eyes blank against the sky. Downstairs, a revolution was happening, and she was doing nothing, all alone.
Now, it wasn’t any of my business. People could behave as they liked, is what my Ma always said. Still, something about the way R. stood in stillness made me stop on the roadside and put down my box of supplies. I stopped, and I scrutinized her.
Her clothes were cleanly and untouched: the white of a buttoned blouse, a pencil skirt, starchy-stiff and dark that cut off at her scabless knees. Just yesterday there’d been reports of more assaults in this very town of ours. We’d spent the whole night tweeting our support to the victims and their families. A thought whispered: what had she been doing? I had to test her. I had to test her to know.
When I waved up at the balcony, she did not wave back. She must’ve thought I was a joke. Consequently, she must have thought our protest was a joke, a nonsense millennial thing with no historical consequence. I had to prove her wrong. I shouted to her: hey! She needed to come down, I could see the black wristband that signified she was working with the PA team and they needed her now, stat. Really. I was going red, which was just as well, because we needed someone to rally the marchers and I had a loud enough voice when flustered.
Through all this, R. just stood. The blue stripe on my wrist itched against my skin, and I had to fiddle with it. I never saw her deign to look at hers once. Was she even human?
No, no – I decided she couldn’t be. Behind us, people were already gathering at the mouth of the street, protestors geared up for the demonstration. I had to hurry. With only a grimace in her general direction, I hugged my box tight and turned to leave.
It was heavy, but I managed. Just a few hours ago I’d been the one to pack this very shipping crate. Now it was stuffed full of planks and nails and a hammer, rattling slightly with each step, but that was alright. Things were going to be different, this time. I could smell it.
I smelt it in the silver of the sky, so broad so vast above us; I smelt it in the wet warm earthiness rising from the cracks in the tarmac pavement. (Most of all, I think, I smelt it in the exhausted eye bags I had from a year's worth of preparation, from resolutions made and lost and waiting to be found again, but I digress.) By the time I’d sunk into the wave of the crowd, I’d flushed R. from memory.
“What do you mean we’re just going to leave it be? Look at this mess! . . . No, no, I don’t get it. Weren’t we going to clean up after this? And build the prototype, the one we’ve been planning for literally months? Well – what did you think I brought all these tools for, for show? It is important, it’s a commemoration, and we promised. We promised them! No, don’t hang up on me, you – you – “
Things always seemed clearer once you breached the new year.
A moon, shimmering in silence. An answering rush of wind in the empty square. The faint sting of tear gas, long gone now. Everyone else had already left the area, but I stood there, was still standing there, with my toolbox.
Over the wall of office buildings, a lone firework shot upwards, and exploded into a million glassy pieces of trash.
An odd, tangy sensation played on my chest. I looked around. Out of the cobblestone, we had carved a crater; out of the earth we had pulled the dust. We’d fought the battle; we’d gutted the town – a sallow highlight picked out a bakery sign that’d been snapped off its post and stomped into the ground – and? And what? The radio broadcast was still playing through my earphones: negotiations, negotiations, negotiations. There was something thick about the air, something unsettled.
I was about to sit down on the pavement to ruminate over it some more when a voice spoke:
It was R. She’d come down at last, apparently to apologise for ignoring me on the balcony. For the first time since evening, I put down the tools. I narrowed my eyes at her, looking down at the top of her bob cut. What had she been doing?
R. smiled. “I was counting my breaths – how many I could do before midnight, see? It’s a habit I’m working on – for concentration.”
Later, they would tell me R. had never been with the PA team. She’d never been with the protest at all. But at that moment I did at least notice that the black band around her wrist was actually a watch with a worn rubber strap.
“And I was focusing on the sky, K. I was focusing on the sky because it was so empty and dark and peaceful. And I thought: nothing could distract me there. I had a goal, see? That I would count my breaths for half an hour every day until I conquered my anxiety disorder.”
“And? Now that you’ve done it? Now that you’ve done it are you still afraid?”
R. shrugged. “I don’t know, K,” she said. “But anyway, Happy New Year.”
For a long time, we watched the moon edge away into a bed of clouds, a slow trek, almost discreet. Then went the remaining lights in each house, each seat of unpaid overtime in the offices. I told her about the purpose-built benches we’d planned, and the bus stops, the ones that would make it more difficult for people to hide in and jump out of to rob, assault, kill.
She said it was a lovely idea.
Then we walked into the square, and we decided to build just one bench, right there under a flickering streetlight, a bench that would later be named invention of the year and patented by the corporation owning that office building. Together it took us fifteen minutes.