DEREK EDGE DECLARES PEACE
How do you
change the world ? Abolish War?
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 squelch uncomfortably.
‘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 lapel.
“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 that.
“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 later?
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 understand.”
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 talk.
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 virginity...
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 assumed interest.
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