Here Comes Trouble charts the collapse of a fictitious country, as witnessed by a seventeen-year-old boy, Ellis. In this excerpt, set during the celebrations of a national holiday, the capital city has been without electricity for several days. As law and order crumble, and truth and fiction blur, the fascist sentiments of the white-hatted ‘44 Horsemen’ are gaining voice …
Uniforms and horn blare choked the streets. Pennants of the national red and white hung from the useless streetlights and there were huge painted posters of the President shaking hands with various kindly old men who on closer inspection were their neighbouring dictators: the one who renamed the days of the week, the one who patented breakfast, the one who killed those unarmed people that time (like that narrowed it down). All parties in all pictures in the very best of moods. Also a big painting of the President standing with a gun over a line of twelve dead bears, even the dead bears looking happy, because they had been killed by the President and there could be no higher honour, no better way to go.
Around these statements the revellers lurched and lilted, clutching bottles of fiery brew. Holy mother, the zombie apocalypse was real. Sweating men pawed after the womenfolk or occupied themselves in low alleys where the animal game was played or nostrils whitened with snorts. Customers vomited with the utmost respect outside that illustrious hole known as Chicago Pub. Stray hounds watched the proceedings with sly eyes and talked dog to one another. Children rushed pell-mell. A clown was led away. Vendors of anonymous meats festooned their greasy aprons with garlands of bright plastic and their faces were scowling as they worked the flaming spits and cried encouragements to the drunken appetite.
You wouldn’t get this sort of behaviour in better countries, Ellis felt. In his mind he saw the exquisite civilization of an English city centre on a Saturday night. The calm Tudor pubs, with their motherly barmaids and folded newspapers on the counter, library-quiet save for the occasional clink as halves of ale met. Did such countries ever think about here? What did they see? What did their satellites among the stars report when looking down at this powerless little mess? Was it all just darkness to them?
Here and there amongst the revelry: placards requesting HOMOSEXALS BURN IN HELL or LETS LIVE ARE OWN WAY. Many of these signs terribly spelled, as if written by a foreign hand. Here and there a white hat.
A group of rough-looking boys ran up, hands in their pockets. Ellis inched and braced for trouble. They pulled out little fuzzy apricots which they offered as a gift. He took one and thanked them. They ran on.
In the fourth microdistrict a young man recounted Internet animal videos to a crowd crying out for ‘Cat on office chair’ and ‘Dog dinner party’ and other classics of the genre. The truth was they had never been so big on literature here. In some countries the written word was so advanced that people published books about trying to write books or loved books so much they converted bits of Internet into print. Even some blogs and accounts of people who couldn’t write at all – that was how important books were to those countries. Here they enjoyed no such progress. The citizens preferred the nourishment of screens. They didn’t want to hear the echoes of their imaginations in the silence of a book. Even with the screens dead they would rather not negotiate a novel. Why? Possibly their lives were already literary enough. Possibly they knew or wished to know so little of what was happening that each citizen invented, dreamed, lied, hid in fictions. Looking at it that way it was a nation of writers, writers who didn’t read, writers who never marked a page.
Ellis watched this story-boy a while. Money was demanded up front but seldom earned: frequently the teller forgot the tale halfway through or made excuses about ‘buffering’ or droned on about a different story people had not paid to hear. Even when the right story was told it was often vague or misremembered. When complaints were made the rogue blamed the listeners, saying they were the ones skewing things, wanting it to be as they alone remembered it, taking everything so personal all the time. Refunds were refused. The audience griped and grumbled. These unreliable tellers. There should be a law. They looked about ready to fracture the boy’s narrative.
Folk were edgy. As a solar eclipse made animals act up, this blackout had the people spooked. A pitiful nostalgia gripped them. Soon they would be turning to one another saying, ‘Do you remember emails?’ As if they had grown too attached to these computers and phones appointed mirrors to their nature. As if they had betrayed their hopes and lives and secrets so fully that even in death these machines held these confidences over them.
A little further on, at an upright piano, a bald and sombre man played accompaniment for a girl in bubblegum blue. With a reedy voice that strained to be heard, she sang:
If you lie to me, You know I’ll let it slide
The girl wasted and morose. Is it so very odd That I’m in love with you?
‘My turn!’ A woman pushed the girl away. Her thickly daubed face turned and a fug of cheap perfume descended over the crowd, causing the air to swim as if in great heat, which in turn asked questions of reality, of the soundness of things. Behind her the girl in blue stroppily smoothed the wrinkles from her micro-dress.
‘Evening everyone, enjoying the show? Gents, come see me later if you want another sort of show. I am the best in town. And, special holiday deal for white hats, before midnight it’s fifty per cent off.’
‘Which fifty percent?’ someone shouted.
‘Only two rules,’ she said. ‘No immigrants and no ignorants … Now if you’ll excuse me, I must show these amateurs how this is done.’
A brief conference with the pianist followed. A tune started up.
We’re trapped in the maze
There’s no getting away.
Hidden in that woman was a foghorn. The punters gasped and goggled like fish on dry land.
Why can’t you see?
The words of the old song brought forward through the years without a scratch on them. The whore engaged in faithful reproduction.
Because I love you so much, darling.
Everything was falling apart and no one seemed to care. Sometimes, sometimes, Ellis felt that as a people they did not have an inner core, an identity to hold on to in turbulent times.
Towards Independence Square a soldier grabbed him.
‘Hey! Boy! Where’s your smile?’
Ellis didn’t feel much like smiling and told him so.
‘What’s that got to do with anything?’ A little baggy was produced. ‘Come on, try this white.’
‘No thanks.’ Ellis was too gloomy to even ask what the powder was or how it might turn him inside out.
‘What, you can’t snort with me? You think you’re better than the rest of us? This is a national celebration!’
The soldier tried to grab his collar. Ellis ducked his grasp and ran.
‘Hey!’ he cried. ‘Arrest that boy! He’s a traitor!’
‘Shut up, Bronco,’ someone else shouted. ‘Let’s get chips!’
Ellis let the crowd swallow him. Drums joined the horns and the tattered streets surged. Shoulders shook. Rumps metronomed from side to side. Even the old and lame were moved to dancing, so jovial was the occasion and so mandatory also. Perhaps it does not sound genuine, this dancing. Perhaps it does not sound like it could not be both.
On a float in front a swaying boy with his face painted like the girls outside the barracks dropped his head on to his chest and gasped and stomped and rolled his eyes in their sockets as his body rocked and juddered with insistence, taking him one way and then the other but never so a person could tell what he might do next for he followed his limbs mysteriously like the tune he heard was his and his alone. He looked like no human being but a machine possessed of pistons and automated parts.
He was the one electric thing in this dim and wayzgoose city.
The people and soldiers howled, hooted, clapped like mad.
Now another boy joined him, this one topless, writhing and twisting his body like a rat in a trap. Crude and forceful were his movements, without the mystery of the other boy’s. They danced around each other as the crowd hollered. The first boy paid the second no attention and kept moving in his obscure and electric manner but after a time this seemed to anger or unsettle the second boy for he grabbed his companion roughly and looked ready to abuse him in some way. The watching crowd cried out at this, half of them delighted by the turn of events, the other half displeased the first boy’s dance had been so concluded, and there were scuffles and threats and bodies pulled off bodies, all watched in glee and majesty by the soldiers at the perimeters.
Here is what Ellis thought: All these people were asleep. They were sleepwalking to their doom.
But here was another thought: Perhaps, like him, they were unhappy and chose to say nothing. Perhaps of him too someone was saying, ‘He is sleeping.’