[Braille Face flash fiction no. 11. I think this story really wants to be longer: this is the skeleton of it. It’s based on Moiety and especially the track ‘Political Monsters’.]
He first met Jenny at the protest against the Criminal Justice Bill in June 1994. He was eighteen years old, about to go to university (Warwick, History), and he and some mates went up to London because they’d heard The Manic Street Preachers would be playing and also, secretly, because they were hoping to witness a riot. They didn’t witness a riot. They almost missed the protest altogether because they didn’t know London and weren’t sure where to go. It was Jenny who set them right as they walked in the wrong direction with their droopy cardboard KILL THE BILL sign. She wore purple doc martins and a tie-dye dress. He got talking to her as she guided them to Trafalgar Square, or, rather, she got talking to him. She must have liked him because he went home with her address on a slip of paper in his pocket.
They exchanged letters and, when they got to university, emails. She educated him. The world weighed on her: Tibet, the rainforests, Bosnia, underprivileged youth. She was reading Law and Anthropology at LSE. He had always been a kings and battles kind of person, but he grew interested in social history. He joined Young Labour. He and Jenny became a couple: he visited her in London and made love to her nervously in her student room, wanting to please her and unsure how to do so. After a while they split up.
In 2003 he was writing a PhD on social mobility in fifteenth-century Warwickshire and he got an email from Jenny: she was organizing a big group to join the march against war in Iraq. He’d been uncertain of his views on the issue, but he wanted to see her again. On a chilly February day he walked beside her in the largest crowd he had ever known. She wore a black coat and red lipstick. She had a training contract with a big legal firm, but planned to go into charity law. He felt provincial and addled with libraries. She was alight with anger at the arrogance of Bush and Blair. He rode the wonderful wave of her conviction all the way to Hyde Park. Afterwards he went back to Warwick and his manor court rolls, and wanted to email her, and didn’t think she would be interested.
In the years that followed he thought of her often. Teaching, he imagined her as an observer in the corner, and tried to show her why history was important, or at least how it was humane. He reminded himself sometimes that he was charged with the shaping of young minds, though they didn’t always seem that malleable. He was teaching about contingency, about the complexity of causes, about the mattering of minor lives; he was trying to get his students to pay proper attention. He did admin. He made submissions to the Research Assessment Exercise. He had girlfriends but did not marry.
In 2015 he went on a march entirely by himself. It was the anti-austerity march of 20th June. He had made a cardboard sign, which he carried self-consciously: CUTS KILL. He was thin-skinned to the crowd, a little emotional. It was unlike him to do this, but he finally felt that he had to; everything he’d once taken for granted had eroded so far.
And by chance he saw Jenny. Somehow in the mass of people they encountered each other. She looked tired and plump now, but so, he knew, did he. They fell into step and exchanged the summaries of their lives. Hers was not as he expected: a daughter, a divorce, an illness, and now she was running a community centre, struggling for funding.
“It’s wonderful to see you again,” she said. “Remember the Criminal Justice Bill march? They passed that bill, of course. Sometimes I think we only march so we’ll feel better when the government goes ahead and ignores us.”
“Ah, but think of the chartists,” he said. “They didn’t get what they wanted in the short term, but it came good in the end. Think of the suffragettes.” He couldn’t help also thinking of the Luddites, the Britons petitioning Rome for protection against the Picts and Scots, and the Pilgrimage of Grace. Sometimes terms were very long.
“You must come and see me,” she said, “for old times’ sake. And maybe some new times too.” And he went home that day with her number in his phone.