Sunday, May 20, 2007

Except For Stone and Smoke

How can these pistols protect us? They are just illustrations.

At the bottom of the case, two sheets of dry, yellowing paper, each bearing a drawing of a pistol crudely rendered in charcoal. How, as they reasonably asked, could these daubs be anywhere close to the hope that was, just two minutes ago, promised to them?

By, of course, magic. Or faith. No, not faith. Escape?

Here’s a story: it was summer and the two girls were tired of death. Their parents were gone, carried off, as the saying goes, in the middle of the night by men with hidden faces. They were surprisingly gentle with the girls, these men, speaking softly when they told them they could be raped, killed or burnt if they breathed a word of this to anyone. Where are your parents? they were asked. Gone, they replied, gone. It was, of course, well understood.

What can’t they have, these girls? They can’t have everything.

It is now coming to the end of the summer and, what, there are leaves falling from trees, the days are getting shorter, it is colder at night. The usual. These two girls are doing the best they can. They have a younger brother to take care of, not much more than a baby who has neither a mother nor a father but, perhaps in his sisters, both. They are his only hope. The death that surrounds them is just another part of it. They don’t fear it any more but sense how to avoid it. Get through this and what, for what? Neighbours, friends and relatives – all disappearing, presumably to death. There are the rumours, of course, but these girls know better than to waste their time with rumours. Unlike the older women, the older girls, for whom rumours, stories and hearsays are all part of the getting through it. More power to them.

In Berkeley, CA, legions of brave and principled cyclists block the roads.

And in the north of England, or the midlands, there are eighteen thousand or so single mothers who cannot afford nice bicycles. Nor can they afford the time and patience required to sail the streets on billowing clouds of self-righteousness. If only they could, maybe one day they could. For the time being these young women wallow expertly in their ignorance, love their children against all the odds, rail incoherently at the threats and dangers they don’t quite understand but know are there. To be sentimental for a moment: they sometimes do this with tears in their eyes. They sometimes do it, also, at the wrong end of a bottle. Or at the wrong end of a man, any man. More power to them.

Another setting: it was three o’clock on the morning of the coldest day of the year and the two girls were huddled together beneath a blanket of sorts, their brother between them at last asleep, still shaking from the cold. It would have been perfectly understandable were it just the cold that was keeping them awake, or just the stench, or just the scraping of the rats, or just the barking of the hundreds of stray dogs on the streets. But it was the sound of the guns, of the screaming, of the heavy footsteps on stairs, the kicking down of doors, the pelting of the streets. Beneath that blanket, though it was much too dark to see, these girls had tears in their eyes.

How many young black men have been killed on the streets of London, Birmingham, Nottingham or Manchester? Is it enough or not enough? Would one be one too many, as the saying goes? Or would a hundred be a hundred too many? How do they compare to, say, the issue of SUVs and their apparent dominance of our roads? Could bicycles save them, these young black men? Which is the bigger problem and oh, which do we tackle first? Or is that not the point? Whenever else do you hear of young black men? To be sentimental for a moment: you never hear of young black men. Except maybe after they’re dead.

Or when do you hear of these two girls, far away from Berkeley and bicycles, who have decided, foolishly maybe, to make an escape? They are, whatever else they are, young enough and daft enough to want to make mistakes. Good for them. No pistols in the case, no help from the men who had promised them help, who had taken from them and used them with their filthy, empty promises. They are, of course, devastated but not surprised. Yet there he is, picture it, their gorgeous little brother stuffed deep inside his makeshift pram, surrounded by old clothes, by battered tins of food, by all manner of useless old shit whose utter meaningless betrays its absolute meaning. To be sentimental for a moment: try to take it away from them and see what happens.

Never mind bikes and streets. It’s your marbles you need to reclaim.

Behind them, long behind them, ashes. Where once they sang and danced for food is now just blackened remains, burnt glass and wood, bent metal. The incineration of entire buildings, of cobbled streets, the rubble strewn alleyways. Bodies, of course, just on the edge, on the outside, in mass graves or tossed down wells. Mostly, somehow unbelievably – unexpectedly, as they later said, over and over - women and children. The girls did well to leave, as foolish as they were.

And now forensics, tents, computers, generators, armoured vehicles, small weapons, new people. Americans, the British: soldiers much too late and heavily burdened and broken by this failure. If they knew, our girls, they might go back, bury their dead, say goodbye to their parents. But they’re not going back. They are lost and free. How is it better to die at home? It isn’t better to die at home. To be sentimental for a moment: the girls skip, lightly, singing to their brother who gurgles, happily, from somewhere deep within his makeshift pram. More power to him.

2 Comments:

Blogger Gorilla Bananas said...

Profound stuff, I'm sure, but a little cryptic for a gorilla.

11:23 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

I can feel myself falling into the middle-class trap that you have set me, romanticising the spirit of the girls, wanting to be them despite the squalor and struggle. Very moving this.

2:10 PM  

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