DEREK EDGE DECLARES PEACE
How do you
change the world ? Abolish War?
Prevent Atomic Armageddon and Nuclear Holocaust?
And meet Sexually-Liberated Existential Beat-Girls at the same time?
Surely not this way...?
As rain drifts lazily into the halo of the
streetlamp Derek dismounts from his bicycle carefully. For a moment he stands,
as if undecided, on the kerb, a pool of water dancing with spider’s web ripples
as it grows over the blocked-up grate at his feet. He props the bicycle up
against the lamp-post. Magicing it for a moment with his hand, willing it to
remain at its angle. Then bends deftly to remove the cycle clips, and stow them
deep within anorak pockets.
Furtively he glances down the length of the
narrow back street, in both directions, then hefts the bicycle into the penumbra
of the light, swiftly over the low wall into what had been the garden of the
dead terraced house beyond. No-one is watching, all the windows that are not
boarded up have been smashed. The garden tracked with bare paths where children
run during the hours of daylight, around overgrown privet remnants spiked with
tall grass and nettles.
The bicycle thus concealed he returns to the
light, his moon-face patched with shadows, his greasy hair uncomfortably sodden.
Carefully he produced the pamphlet from his pocket, holds it up into the moist
light for a long moment, then - with a smile of satisfaction, moves off down the
street towards the address in bold print at the foot of the paper. His shoes
‘Not really a very good impression to make,’ he
reflects gloomily. But the meetings only occur once every month. If he allows
the rain to deter him this time, another excuse will present itself next month,
and the month after. So do it, now.
Way over several rooftops and a couple of
streets to his right the river spreads beneath this same steady pall of rain.
Vagrant sounds filtering through unnoticed to his ears, hooting and whipping
from the trawlers and the barges nosing blindly through the night.
At the far cul-de-sac end of the street, over a
high wooden fence daubed with indecipherable slogans, he can see the gaunt
shapes of cranes, shadow on shadow spaced about the dockland’s rim. But more
immediately the aged terraced houses now lie behind him, crumbled - half
embarrassed by daylight, they seem more at ease hidden within these hours of
dusk. Yet already they’ve been replaced, as Derek walks, by slumbering, pre-war
office buildings. He stopped before one particular entrance. His eyes seeking
out the engraved brass plaque. It’s there, half-way up the wall. Just by a
single door that opens directly onto the street. The plaque bears the
gothic-script names of the few small firms that lease the rooms on the ground
floor as offices. It also bears the address that should be contacted by
societies or parties interested in hiring the Function Room on the second floor.
He smiled. This is it.
The door, a dull, dirty green in the light of
the single caged bulb above the entrance, offered no resistance to his shove. He
moved into the sheltered area beyond. Two corridors angle off into blackness to
left and right, between which - directly before him, a flight of wooden stairs
climb upwards. He waits for long minutes listening, hears neither encouraging -
nor discouraging sounds. However, the small reception area is warm, sheltered.
That, at least, is promising.
He attempts to dry his hair with a slightly
soiled handkerchief, then combs it back into shape with his fingers. The benefit
gained is slight. But with the new resolve it gives him he determinedly mounts
the stairs two at a time.
A slightly balding man stands at the crest of
the flight. Probably in his late-fifties. His hands clasped behind him, standing
as erect as his portly figure will allow, as though imitating the stance taken
by Gordon of Khartoum facing his killers in that painting. Proud, defiant unto
the end. There is a button missing from his waist-coat.
Derek stops uncertainly, fumbling in his pocket
for the leaflet which has somehow vanished. “Er... Mr Aitken?”
“That’s me, lad. Ben Aitken.”
He advances a step. “My name is Derek. Derek
Edge - I wrote to you that I would be coming to the meeting. I think Nuclear
Disarmament is a really important thing. I’ve got a badge, see?” Indicating his
“Ah, yes. I remember. Come in, boy.” He stands
back from the door, offering a smile that looks as though it’s an effort to
force. “Rare night out there. Eh?”
“Yes, it’s raining hard.” ‘Do Pacifists say
‘it’s a rare night’?’ He thought only the men in the factory used terms like
“You look pretty wet - we’ve got a fire in here.
Come’n get dried off a bit.”
“Yes, my bikes got a puncture. It’s got a slow
puncture” explains Derek uncertainly, then wished he hadn’t. “Got to stop every
now and then to punch it up again.” He said ‘punch’ instead of ‘pump’. Would he
notice? Or would he consider it sophisticated word-play?
Mr Aitken, area secretary of the Pacifist
Organisation, led the way into the surprisingly small room beyond. Light comes
from a single low-wattage bulb that cloaks the room with dark corners, and a
fence of tall shadows cast by the haphazardly semi-circular arrangement of
unoccupied chairs, and the giant potted plant to the left of the door. An
aspidistra? There were posters on the wall advertising past and forthcoming
events held by the various groups who hire the room on other nights of the week.
There’s also a well-worn dart-board and score-slate with half-obliterated
results in chalk legend.
The room is otherwise empty of occupants. None
of the college Beat-girls with long black bohemian hair and faded jeans drinking
from pint-glasses of bitter that he’d half-expected. Perhaps they will arrive
Mr Aitken indicates seats for them before the
small guttering chipped gas fire. “No - not that chair, if you don’t mind. Mr
Bentley always sits there. That’s his place. Over here will be alright. Are you
at the University, David?”
“Er - that’s Derek. No - no, but I’ve been to
Night Classes,” he appendages hurriedly.
“Ah, You’re local then. Should have known by
your accent. I’ve lived round these parts all me life me-self. Sanitation
Inspector for’t council - that’s me. Some call for us an’ all around the Old
Town, I can tell you.” He sits facing the slightly embarrassed youth, who drips
an expanding pool of rainwater onto the linoleum beneath. Then he continues with
a more friendly, but somewhat contrived intimacy. “You know Alexandra Terrace,
down across from the Albert dock there? You won’t believe me when I tell you.
But every high tide their bloody coal cellars get flooded. And they expect
people to grow up right in conditions like that?”
Derek shows suitable signs of incredulity, while
wondering what the flooded cellars of Alexandra Terrace have got to do with
saving the world from atomic war and thermo-nuclear devastation. “What about the
group?” he ventures.
“Yes. Well - we allow new members to come to
three meetings without paying the fee, just as an introductory period, you
That’s not exactly the information he’d wanted,
but now there’s the sound of voices from the stair-well. “Excuse me for a
moment, David. Someone else has arrived,” said Aitken with relief, already on
his feet and moving towards the door.
Derek was partly relieved. The warmth of the
fire had begun to make an impression. He sat before its flickering warmth almost
happily. A middle-aged couple were being profusely welcomed into the room by
Aitken. They regale each other with apparently humorous tales of mutual
acquaintances. The spontaneous waves of their laughter wash about the youth, but
leave him untouched.
At length he reached out to the low table where
a few back issues of ‘PEACE NEWS’ lie. He thumbs through a copy at random.
There’s an article explaining an idea attributed to Nietzsche that the strength
of the Greek city-state system lay in their lack of political unity.
Their loose inter-related political structure allowing a continual internal
state of rivalry and minor warfare that left the mainstream of culture at once
intact, yet also infused with the vitality and spirit of competition. Derek
didn’t understand it. Particularly when he reached the passage about the
Hellenic federation working well until the cancerous growth of the power of
Athens provoked a polarisation of all of the other states, leading to the
Peloponnesian War. He passed over the rest of the argument, to drift through the
letters column that quibbles over minor, even more obscure side-issues. To
finally settle into a book review of Bertrand Russell’s memoirs.
Behind him, a filter of the same drab people
have swelled the occupancy of the room to about twelve. All of them at least ten
years older than Derek. They stand in small conversing satellite groups about
Aitken whose laugh, every now and then, rises clearly above the general level of
At length there was a half-joking call to order,
and the seats were filled. Aitken stood with his back to the fire, eclipsing its
warmth from Derek who feels suddenly chilled.
“This seems to be everyone,” he summarised.
Derek glanced about incredulously. Where, he
wondered, were the masses of intense long-haired youths, and the
sexually-liberated free-loving girls who earnestly discuss Jean-Paul Sartre and
memorise the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs? those CND hipsters who descend upon
Trafalgar Square at the slightest provocation? Is this all the city can offer?
“A few points before we start. Fred Crowther
sends his apologies for not being able to come tonight, but his car failed its
MoT.” Muted laughter and expressions of sympathy. “I feel we should also record
our regret at the recent death of George Roper, who organised the Leeds branch,
and was well-known to all our members.”
He sat down. His place taken by a rather tall,
well-dressed man who reads the minutes of the last meeting, followed by a
financial statement to the effect that the branch is now over £100 in areas,
largely due to back-rent for leasing this room. He sat down to polite applause,
and was in turn replaced by his hawkish bespectacled wife who began divulging
details of a recent survey on the sales of ‘war toys’. The number of model
soldiers sold in the UK between November 1971 and May 1972. The number of
plastic guns, play-uniforms, ‘sparking’ machine guns, and the like. Derek forced
himself to listen for a while as various points were raised expressing
disappointment and dismay at the figures, then losing interest as the dialogue
drifts still further into side-issues. A TV show. A boy seen playing imitation
war-games. And the expression on his face!
A festering disinterest is already irritating
its urgent impatience deep inside him. So he retracts all signs of life into
himself, and thinks of the girl who had loaned him a bicycle pump at work
earlier today. Dwelling upon the possible outcomes of such a meeting occurring
again, and the implications that such a meeting could have upon his burning
But this pleasing meditative obliteration of his
surroundings was abruptly exploded by an unexpected switch in the conversation.
“As a new recruit, David, what are your opinions? What would you do?”
Aitken’s voice, inviting response. Demanding participation.
Suddenly the thin-faced woman has become
predatory with curiosity about his ideas on the subject of pacifism. While the
eyes of every member of the group are swivelling towards him. Hung in
anticipation of his first word. And the lack of ideas, the immense mental
emptiness that consumes him is terrifying. A vast black hole opens out in front
of him, drawing his every thought in over its voracious brink. His toes curl and
flex within his damp socks uncomfortably. As he fights his way up blindly
against the dead undertow of gravity through a mindless fug towards any chink of
light that promises some form of escape...
Why should he care what they think of him
anyway? Once this meeting is over he’s never likely to return, he’ll never see
them or have to answer to them again. Perhaps he had only been searching
for dark-haired, faded-jeaned girls to converse with intellectually. Or perhaps
he’d come for something else, something deeper. But whatever it was this
pacifist group doesn’t have it. Probably they are sincere. Possibly these
balding slightly portly men are the same despised ‘Conshies’ they talk about at
work, those imprisoned during the last war for their beliefs, the anti-war
activists Derek had found himself secretly admiring. Those who’d stood out
against the collective world-devouring madness, and been submerged in stinking
cess-pits for their pains, the saintly victims of all the other cautionary tales
told by the outraged conscripts who had fought and survived the war. But, for
Derek, this excuse for a social reunion doesn’t represent whatever his formless
aspirations consist of, and it can’t even come close.
Nevertheless, he’s here with them. And they are
waiting for his pronouncements. Still here. Still waiting. The gas fire plocking
and flucking all the oxygen out of the air, leaving it a clammy suffocating
thing, claustrophobic. His throat so dry and congealed with saliva he’s
physically incapable of uttering a sound, never mind coherent speech.
“Derek. It’s... er, Derek, not David,” he
ventures, “and firstly, I don’t really think that pacifist ideas can be put into
practise by denying the existence of violence.” A phrase salvaged from the
letter-column of the magazine still clutched in his hand. But the stolen
eloquence surprised and encouraged him. “Like the question of war-toys you were
talking about earlier, it all goes far beyond anything any of you mentioned.
Children play war-games because it’s fun. Because it’s exciting. Because they
like it.” This is good. Is this what I think? Is this what I really believe?
Even so, it comes more easily now. “They’ve got a latent potential for violence
and destruction that finds an outlet in playing games. If that outlet is denied,
if that force of violence is pent-up, or if it gets... er... bent out of shape
into something else, it will only explode out somewhere else later, and then
it’ll be even more difficult to control or channel. It’s like saying that if you
outlaw all the weapons and all the tools of war, war would cease. It wouldn’t.
They’d just go out and build some new ones.” He fumbled for another phrase that
had caught his eye in the ‘PACIFIST NEWS’ letter column. Or perhaps it was
Neitzsche writing about ancient Greeks? “A way must be found to contain violence
within society, not deny its existence.”
That shook them, thought Derek. They weren’t
expecting hard-hitting stuff like that. A kind of physical silence hung over the
room for a year-long minute. “That’s my opinion anyway,” he muttered to himself.
Someone coughed. Someone began to talk behind
him. More speakers. More dialogue.
Eventually “I don’t think there are any more
issues on the agenda,” summarised Aitken. “Pity more people didn’t turn up. We
can only blame the weather. It’s a blasted rare night out there.”
Groups of people resume their interrupted
conversations about mutual friends that Derek doesn’t know. So he raised the
magazine to eye-level again. Shutting them out. The phrases on the page now
sound familiar. Personalised. And he begins reading with a more determinedly
People begin leaving for late buses. He watches
them over the rim of the page as the possibility of escape with what honour
remains grows inside him. He stuffed the magazine somewhat guiltily into his
anorak pocket, then edged towards the door, hoping no-one would notice his
furtive withdrawal. And if they do, assume that he’s only going to the toilet
along the landing.
“Leaving son?” questioned Aitken, appearing
behind him suddenly.
“No. Just going for a piss” he lied. “But I’ve
got to be home soon. Me Mam. You know how it is?” He wished he’d said ‘My
Mother’ instead of ‘Me Mam’.
“I suppose you found the evening a little
boring. I hope that us... er, older members haven’t damped your enthusiasm? And
that you will be coming again?” Perhaps it’s Derek’s imagination, but there’s
something strange in his eyes, that might be about to say something deeply
profound and significant, or he might be adding parenthetically, ‘when you have
a better understanding of the meaning of pacifism.’
“Oh yes, I’ll be coming to the next meeting,” he
lied. His sense of betrayal undeniable.
Then he’s made it out onto the landing. The
toilets off to the right. He can smell its stale disinfectant smell from here.
He ignores it. Instead, the wooden stairs creak their accusing protest beneath
his all-too-eager feet. Pausing only to position his cycle clips in the
half-light he emerges onto the street. He was free. Despite the drifting drizzle
it was cool, strangely welcoming after the charged atmosphere he was leaving.
The sound of the river traffic reassuring, demanding nothing, no response, no
opinion. No thought.
For a moment he stood in the circle of light
cast by the caged bulb above the door of the building. Just breathing deep
breaths. Then he slouches off briskly through the rain.
His bicycle, when he dips to retrieve it, is
uncomfortably cold to the touch. It was covered with a sheen of moisture. He
shook it erect. The tyre is predictably flat. The slow puncture that had
bothered him all week. But not bothered him enough to repair it. He has no pump.
So Derek sets off down the street, wheeling the
bicycle. From streetlight to streetlight. Past the dead terraced houses. To
where there’s a grimy fish and chip shop on the corner. Its smell approaching
him as he walked is at once tempting, and repelling. The delights of
vinegar-sodden chips wrapped in last week’s newspaper is undeniable. But too
much grease will also cause his brooding acne to reassert itself overnight. So
he passed by.
“Derek?” The voice is feminine. “Thought it was
you. Tyre gone flat again?”
The girl from work who’d loaned him the cycle
pump. Val. And she’s standing slightly uneasily before the glowing door of the
fish shop. Muted conversation drifting about her. She still wore the headscarf
that restricts her long hair, but now it also veils her face attractively with
shadows. “You’ll get soaked like that,” she observed. “Do you want to share my
umbrella? I go as far as Carisbrooke Avenue, you’re welcome to it until then.”
Derek nods dumbly, sending tears of rain
spinning from his hair, and the copy of ‘PEACE NEWS’ falling out of his anorak
pocket. It flops into the gutter, pages fanning, already glistening with rain.
And as he ducks awkwardly in under the rim of the umbrella the ignored magazine
sprawls open at the letters’ page. Its black print, already congealing moistly
unseen, saying ‘A way must be found to contain violence within society, not deny
its existence.’ The letter is signed Ben Aitken. Hull Branch.
Derek sets off under her shelter, trundling his
bicycle along the flooding gutter around the blocked-up grate, walking as close
to her as he dares. As far as the corner of Carisbrooke Avenue