Shit, my head is banging. I didn’t think I was that drunk last night, but I feel like someone has come in when I was asleep and replaced my tongue with a sock full of sand. I can’t even remember the election result, let alone getting home and going to bed. Maybe I fell asleep before it was announced. That was going to be embarrassing at work. Thank God I’m on annual leave.
I never really should have agreed to go to the works election night party . I don’t know what Tim, our manager, was thinking of when he organised it. He had seen the divide in the coffee room whenever the conversation came around to the hot political topic of the day. Nick and I have almost come to blows on more than one occasion. The whole team in a confined space with alcohol and the live election results? Great idea Tim.
I tried to make an excuse about previous plans, but Tim pulled me aside when our break was over and strongly suggested I reconsider.
“Craig, mate” he said in that cringey ‘hey, we’re all friends here’ way that makes my skin crawl. “Just come along, eh? Show willing.”
“I’m really not sure it’s a very good-“
“It’s just, I really want to recommend you for promotion.” He looked at me expectantly “but you aren’t really much of a joiner. I mean, Jason runs the football team, and Nick organises the Christmas party. A few extra curricular things might help keep you in the running.”
I sighed, long and loud and pointedly, but I need that promotion. Our pay has been frozen the last three years running, but the rent hasn’t. Here I am, a single man with a steady job, and no kids, struggling to make rent on a bedsit. You can’t tell me that’s right.
The last thing I remember about last night is making what I thought at the time was a passionate and well thought out speech about the dangers of the rhetoric surrounding the election campaign on all sides. I was disheartened, although unsurprised, when Nick burped hugely, hitting me in the face with a rancid puff of stale beer and pork scratchings, before announcing;
“Well yeah, but the problem is, people can’t talk about the real problems in the country without being called racists.”
I sighed irritably- he clearly hadn’t listened to a word I’d said.
“That’s precisely my point.” I said “The real problems you talk about are caused by chronic underfunding by successive governments. It’s deliberate mismanagement, to justify privatisation. Nothing to do with immigration.”
“More people means more pressure on services” he insisted “it stands to reason.”
I snorted decisively. As if Nick had any capacity to reason. He simply regurgitated what he read in the angry tabloids.
“We have an ageing population” I reiterated tiredly “We need immigration. Who looks after your old mum while you’re at work?” I knew the answer of course. Just as I knew what his response would be.
“Mums carers do a grand job of course,” he said “but there’s plenty of British that could do it just as well. And they get the training for it, don’t they? All paid for by us, and then they take the skills we give them and sod off home.”
“Ungrateful, that’s what it is” Carl chimed in. “after all we do for them.”
“Yeah, how dare they” I said sarcastically “Coming over here, looking after our old people and paying taxes. Going back home before they become a burden on our health and social care services. Bloody cheek.” My sarcasm was lost on Carl though, who seemed to think I had had some kind of road to Damascus style conversion to his point of view.
“They only swarm over here because of our welfare system.” Said Carl, nursing the very end of his pint without quite finishing it. He was adept at making sure he was always just finishing his drink just as someone else was heading getting a round in. “We’re too nice for our own good.”
“True that” said Nick, as Carl and Jason nodded vigorously. “They take all this benefit money in and give it away to their families abroad. We give ‘em all too much. No incentive to work, like.”
I despair, I really do.
“What I don’t understand,” Jason announced “is where it all stops? We ain’t got enough jobs for all these people. Locals can’t find no work, because the foreigners accept lower wages. You can live like kings in their countries for pennies, can’t you? So they put up with it and we get the rough end of the stick.”
“How is them getting shafted giving you a rough deal? “ I snarled, trying to keep my temper. “You’re angry at the wrong people Jase. You should be angry with the bosses paying slave wages, not the people so desperate they’ll take them.”
“Well it’s all less jobs for the locals, ain’t It? “ Jason retorted. “More of us scraping by on the dole because they take our jobs. Our Mickey is on the job seekers. It’s barely enough to live on, and that’s a fact.”
I had to get up and go to the bar at that point, in case I lost my temper. How can you even argue with people who think the benefits system is at once too generous and not generous enough, that foreigners take our jobs while living a life of luxury on unemployment benefits.
I roll over in bed, half opening one eye against the stabbing white morning light, groping about on the bedside table for my phone. I can check the election result online , it might jog my memory about last night. I better check I didn’t drunk dial my ex too.
My phone is switched off, which is kinda weird. I never switch it off, the first thing I do when I wake up every morning is look at the news online. I must have let the battery die. I plug it in and hold the power button until the screen lights up, then swing my feet out of bed. Judging by the taste in the back of my throat, last night involved kebabs. I need coffee.
I go for a pee while the kettle is boiling, then stare at myself in the mirror for a minute. No one has shaved off my eyebrows or drawn a cock on my face or anything. Maybe I wasn’t that pissed. I look old today though.
I finish making the coffee, dumping the last of the milk into it before carrying it back to bed. I can’t be bothered to fold the sheets and wrestle with the rusted mechanism to turn the mattress into a sofa yet. I pick up my phone and press the twitter icon.
The loading screen fills my screen for a moment and then a dialogue box pops up. ‘Access denied’. It has never said that before.
I press Facebook icon instead and again get the same message; ‘access denied’. I try both my browsers with the same result. It must be a network problem.
I sit and drink my coffee in the silence. I haven’t really got room for a TV here, not unless I got rid of the bookcase. I really want to see the election results, it’s annoying me that I don’t know. It would almost undoubtedly be the centre right party that used to be the centre left party. The country were too annoyed by the right wing party that used to be the centre right party who had been in charge over the last term, surely. The people had endured cut after cut, to public services, benefits, pensions, schools. They wouldn’t be so blinded by mainstream media as to vote them in for more of the same. I itched to be reading analysis, getting involved on the comment boards, finding out about all the key players in the new cabinet.
I fire off a quick text to my brother asking what the election result was.
“Pride In Britain, of course” he replied. He thinks he’s really funny, my brother. A right little comedian. Pride In Britain are barely a party, really, just a group of angry bigots who shout about “taking the country back” and “putting a halt to the eradication of British culture” and burble like idiots when asked to explain what that actually meant. If they got a single seat I’ll eat my hat.
I pull on jeans and a light jumper and search increasingly frantically for my wallet before finding it in the bedsheets. I even still have a few crumpled notes in there. I thought I’d be skint after last night’s skin full. I grab my sunglasses against the bright May glare and head out to the corner shop.
Our street is fairly quiet, but that’s not unusual for a Friday morning. The old man next door bids me a cheery “good morning” as he hoses his car down and I raise a hand in greeting. My mouth is still feeling a bit too acrid for speaking just now, and I know if I engage him any more than that I will end up standing here for the next half an hour hearing about the state of the potholes in the high street, how long it takes to get a doctors appointment at the local surgery, and the entire minutes of the save the library campaign’s last meeting. Not that I don’t want to save the library of course. But I’d rather do that when my head has stopped pounding and the nausea has passed. I need this hangover to hurry up and clear, I’m meant to be driving up to the coast this afternoon. Nice bit of camping, get away from it all for my annual leave.
A girl in a black niqab comes out of the newsagents just as I’m going in, so I step aside to let her pass.
“Thanks” she says, and I can see her smile in her intricately painted eyes. I see her most days, and most days I tell myself that next time I see her, I’ll ask her name.
“Morning Mr Singh” I call out cheerily, then stop dead.
The news rack is a sea of red, white and blue. Tabloids scream “Britain is Great Again”, “A New Dawn in British Pride” and “Pride In Britain” Broadsheets announce “Unprecedented Landslide Hands Pride In Britain Easy Victory”. Simon Dovesly’s smug grin is plastered over the front of every newspaper.
“You’ve got to be joking” I say out loud.
“Had you not heard?” Mr Singh asks.
“No, problems with my Internet today.” I say. I turn and see he has chosen to wear a union flag turban today. Whether he is nailing his colours to the mast, or quietly poking fun, I can’t tell. “I thought my brother was joking when he said Pride In Britain won the election.”
“Can you believe it?” says Singh “They won every single constituency. “
“That can’t be right.”
“It’s what the papers are saying. And it’s all over the TV.”
He reaches over and turns the volume of his tiny portable TV set up. Dovesly is halfway through his speech, spittle flying back out of the corners of his mouth.
“The establishment were against us from the start! “ he raged on screen “we had to fight the leftist media all the way. But we won every constituency. We showed them what Britain really wants. We’re tired of unchecked migration. We’ve had enough of our free speech being criminalised as racist. We’re sick of so called human rights laws dictating how we treat our prisoners. Britain has voted to take back control.”
“is this a wind up?” I say “are there hidden cameras or something?”
“I wish.” Singh sighs, shutting the sound back off again. “it’s a definite worry.”
“I don’t think you’ve anything to worry about mate.” I say “you’ve lived here what, 30, 35 years?”
“Yeah, I was born not far from here mate. I’m as British as chips in curry sauce.” He smiles “Still. Worrying that so many people voted them in.”
“Every constituency though? Are the electoral commission looking into that?”
“If they are, I’ve not heard anything about it.” He says. “What can I get you?”
“One of every paper you’ve got please” I say, going to grab a can of fizz and a sausage roll, along with the milk I came in for.
“Even That Rag Which Shall Not be Named?” he asks, his eyes twinkling.
“Please. Internet withdrawals. Need to know what the enemy is saying.”
He rings up the papers and drink and asks if I want them tomorrow too.
“No thanks mate. I’m away for a few days. Camping. Hoping when I get back I will find out this has all been a misunderstanding.”
“We can hope.” He says as he gives me my change. “Hope the weather holds out for you.”
I put the coppers in the charity box and head back out into the sunshine.
I check my Internet connection while walking home. It still reads ‘Access denied’. That’s just weird. I’ll have to complain to the network provider.
I fold up the bed when I get in, opening up the space a bit. The fizz has cleared my head a little. I leaf through the papers while eating the sausage roll. Every one of them, even the usually fairly left wing Daily Voice, was framing this as a victory of ‘common sense’ and ‘free speech’ over ‘restrictive human rights legislation’ and ‘political correctness gone too far’. I couldn’t finish my breakfast. How did we get to this stage? Voting in a fascist, nationalist party in this day and age?
I remember, suddenly, sitting with my friend Giles last November, drinking the good cider and putting the world to rights. Good bloke, Giles. Bit posh, but I don’t hold it against him.
“I don’t understand how people like Hitler even get into power.” I had said “how can people be so stupid?”
“Well, fascism doesn’t come in in jack boots, kicking down doors, darling. It comes in wearing a suit, calling you brother” he said sagely.
“That’s a bit deep”
“Ah well, I’m quoting some clever bugger” he said “point is, it never starts out with transportations and labour camps. It starts with dividing people. It starts with blame.”
I pull my phone out of my pocket and try the Internet again. It still says ‘Access denied.’
I write a quick text to Giles. ‘dropping off grid for a week or two. Fancy a drink when I’m back?’
I get one back almost instantly. ‘don’t blame you – world gone mad! Bastards must have cheated election. Drink sounds good. Text me when you’re back. Having some Internet issues so not on emails just now. Speak soon.’
It feels weird, just sitting in the bedsit, not doing much. I leaf through the newspapers again, feeling panic rising in my belly once more. I thought we had said no more to this sort of thing back in the 40s.
I pack a bag and head out to the car, unable to just sit and read the hatred anymore. I’m fairly certain I’m sober enough to drive now. Might as well miss the weekend traffic.
The open road calms me a little. This is modern Britain, not 1930s Germany. We don’t stand for that sort of thing, we never have. There will be an investigation, I’m sure. They must have cheated. Our country is a tolerant nation. There’s no way a fascist party got in in every constituency by playing fair. It’ll all be sorted out. It might even be sorted by the time I get home. Today will fade into obscurity as a weird little blip in British history. We’ll laugh about it.
My history teacher’s voice echoes across the years.
“Where you have economic instability, extremism thrives.”
Things had been bad recently – I mean, we’d had a recession. We are on our way out of it, but everyone is feeling the pinch. Things aren’t that bad though, not yet. It takes more than a bit of belt tightening to turn the people of this country into fascists. Everything would sort itself out.
I relax and switch on the radio. Most channels seem to just be playing static, but the National Broadcast Channel is working. A calm toned female newsreader is talking about the new regime.
“Pride In Britain have vowed to tackle these issues head on, however, unveiling plans to counter non domestic extremism with a firm hand. In a statement, Deputy Leader Sara Polacki confirmed that the party intend to give the police added powers to stop and search those suspected of crimes relating to terrorism. She also confirmed that there will be a general curfew in place, from 7pm until 7am, for the duration of the national emergency. A full list of exempted occupations are available at-“
I turn the tuning nob in disgust, searching for music. Anything to make the world make sense again. The radio searches through fuzz, eventually settling on a talkshow.
“And it’s about time we showed those bully boys in the establishment whose boss!” the caller raged
“So you think that vote is the electorate effectively giving two fingers to traditional politics?”
“I think we’ve just had enough of stuffed shirts telling us what to think.” The caller yelled “Pride In Britain is just what our country needs.”
I hit the off switch in disgust. I can’t listen to that Little Englander crap. I drive the rest of the way to the campsite in a pensive silence.
The next twelve days are good for me. With my phone still not connecting to the Internet, I quickly started to feel like I was the only person on the planet. I went fishing in the cool, clear lake. I sat in the dappled shade and listened to bird song. I drank good bourbon while staring at the fire. I read my favourite books. Somewhere between the rolling green hills and the soaring blue sky, I found peace. If this was the calm before the storm, I would enjoy it.
I fantasised about staying out there, avoiding everyone forever. How easy it could be to just walk out of society, refuse to participate. But real life calls. I’ve only got two days of annual leave left.
I switch my phone on again and text Giles.
‘Are you around for a drink today?’
I reflexively try the Internet again while I wait for an answer, but it says the same message; ‘access denied’. I think I’m slightly relieved. I’m not quite ready to break the silence of this place with full on Internet chatter and noise. My phone chirps.
‘Sure. Come to the house.’ Says Giles’ reply text.
I pack up my few possessions and head to the car. Giles is the ideal person to ease back into being social with. He is measured, thoughtful, a true voice of reason in an increasingly turbulent world. I’ve always looked up to him. He will help me make sense of things.
I don’t listen to the radio on the way home, preferring instead to wear the comfortable silence a little longer.
I park in the familiar drive and knock on Giles’ front door. He opens it quickly, a large, unnatural grin on his face. His left arm and hand are bandaged in a sling.
“So nice to see you, do come in.” He says formally, the strange smile barely moving. “Can I offer you some tea?”
I have known Giles for nearly thirty years. He knows I don’t drink tea.
“You know I drink coffee” I say.
“Oh no!” Giles says “A proper English man drinks tea.”
I’m not sure if Giles is joking or not. This isn’t his usual humour. Why is he pulling that awful rictus grin?
“What did you do to your arm?”
Giles looks down at his splinted arm as if noticing it or the first time.
“Do you know, I’m not sure I recall.” He says, limping toward the kitchen. “How was your holiday?”
“So good. Didn’t see another soul the whole time I was away.” I say. “So what’s been happening? How’s the first fortnight under Pride In Britain gone?”
“Oh it’s been absolutely super” He grins, “We’ve never had it so good. Just what the country needed.”
I burst into uproarious laughter, but Giles doesn’t join in. My guffaws subside to chuckles and peter out to nothing. Giles continues to stare, his eyes blank, that terrible grin fixed to his face like a mask.
“Giles, what are you talking about? Did the result get overturned or something?”
“Of course not, who would dream of such a thing? It’s a real people’s victory!” Giles says with no hint of sarcasm. “We’ve finally triumphed against a system where we weren’t free to voice our concerns about immigration without being labelled racist, we-“
“Giles I know you don’t think this, what’s going on?” I snap. I’m starting to get really scared.
“I’ve woken up I suppose. “ Giles says “Pride In Britain are doing a brilliant job. Inflation has gone up a tiny bit, sure, but it’s short term.”
“You are literally writing a book on countering the rise of fascism. It’s been your life’s work this last decade, Giles.”
“No, no my dear you are quite mistaken.” Says Giles. “My book is on the importance of cultural cohesion, and the civil duty of citizens to obey the law.”
I’m so confused. My head starts to spin. This isn’t Giles. He might look like Giles, but he’s wearing Giles like a mask. This isn’t my friend.
“Giles, would it be okay if I went and used your bathroom for a while? I’ve been camping, I need to freshen up.”
“Of course, of course. You’ll be wanting a shave too I should think. Under the anti terrorism act, all full or partial face coverings are prohibited. Anything more than two day stubble might get you into trouble.” He says it cheerfully, as if that’s no problem at all. “There are disposable razors in the cabinet.”
I run the tap and stare at myself in the mirror for a long time. I should be trying to rationalise this, or be panicking, or something. Instead I am numb. I can’t begin to work out what could possibly have happened to Giles to have changed him so deeply. I owe it to him to at least try to work out what has happened.
When I go back down, my face feeling oddly bare, Giles has set out some tiny cucumber sandwiches, a plate of biscuits, and a pretty porcelain tea set on the coffee table. It’s like an American parody of Englishness. His face is still stuck in that puppet-like grin.
“So what have you been up to these last couple of weeks?” I asked, trying to keep my tone light, conversational. “and how’s Brendan?”
“Brendan…Brendan..” Giles murmured, as if he has no recollection of his fiancée, who he has been living with this last year. “Oh you mean the degenerate boy who I tried to help? Disappeared. You can’t help some people. He was a rubbish lodger, anyway.”
Is this what’s happened to him? Brendan has flounced off after a fight and Giles has had some kind of breakdown?
“Anyway, brilliant news. I met someone.”
“Oh! Already? I…Well, whose the lucky guy?”
“Her name is Cynthia. Beautiful thing. I met her at the education centre.” He takes a sip of his tea. This can’t be happening. Giles has never had an interest in women. “She can trace her lineage back six generations you know. On both sides.”
“I…sorry. where did you say you met her?” I don’t know what to say. Her lineage? This is really scaring me now. Adrenaline is thudding through me. I can’t believe I’m scared of Giles. But I want to run.
“The education centre. I went there to get my Internet license you see. I was allowed to stay a while. Something about my Internet postings. I got the full residential.”
“The full residential?” I think I’m going to be sick.
“Yes, Craig. The full package.” I can’t stop staring at that fixed smile. Has it been done surgically? It shouldn’t be possible to smile like that while speaking.
“I kept getting the access denied message when I tried to log on. Got myself down the education centre quick – if you keep logging on when you’ve been told your access is denied, you can get in trouble. So I went to apply for a license, and got told I was on the VIP list. Stayed for a good week, I think. It was all such a blur. Lots of telly. Relaxing with the tabloids. So many pretty girls there. There were classes I think…and spa treatments? It was so relaxing, I can’t really remember.” He takes another dainty sip of tea.
“Do you know” he says looking at me square in the eye, his fixed grin at once tortured and comedic “I’ve not been able to stop smiling since.”
“I really should be getting on.” I say.
“Of course. You don’t want to have to break curfew. Can’t very well go back to work with broken fingers, can you?” he laughs manically. I try to join in.
“You’re a good patriot, and a good friend, Craig. See you soon.”
I drive away as quick as I can, feeling like I was being chased, even though I know I’m not. Bile rises in my throat. Giles just called me a good patriot. The man who, despite his denials, has spent the last decade working on a book called “Evil and The Nature of Nationalism.”
I pull into my street and idly wonder what has become of the girl with the intricately painted eyes. Out of sheer habit more than anything I pop into Mr Singh for a can of fizz and a sausage roll to take home. I’m going to sleep in my own bed and hope it all makes more sense when I wake up.
“Afternoon Mr – oh. Where’s Mr Singh?” I say to the red haired, plump woman behind the counter. She turns to face me and my blood freezes. Her face is contorted into a fixed, unnatural grin.
“Oh, he relocated” she said dreamily, then dropped her voice to a stage whisper that easily carried as far as her sing song speaking voice. “They’re happier among their own kind.”
I back away a bit, a grab my can of pop. I want to run, but I try to keep calm, avoid spooking her. I put it on the counter with a rumpled ten pound note.
“Would you like the paper?”
“Sure, I’ll grab a Daily Voice if you’ve got one”
“That’s not funny.” She snaps, here voice stern, her face still smiling. “This is a respectable, grateful establishment. We are proud to only stock Britain’s News here. We’d never be caught selling anything else! We know we’ve never had it so good.”
“Sorry. My mistake, I-“
“Good day.” She says pointedly through her smile, her eyes furious. She thrusts 25pence change into my hand. I’m not going to argue. I grab my can and the paper and get out of there, virtually sprinting home.
I fumble with my keys at my front door. It will be good to be back home. I can shut the door on the world. Work out what to do next.
“You there! What’s that book you’ve got there?” An authoritative voice demands. I turn, and see three men, dressed in camouflage, looking serious.
“Sticking out of your bag, there.” The middle one strides forward and grabs at my backpack. My book is indeed sticking out of my bag.
“Isn’t this book on the banned list?” he says, grabbing it out of my bag. “Incitement against the British people”
“It’s Orwell.” I say “He was English-“
“He was a traitor.” The soldier says “Are you a traitor, boy?”
“What? Of course I’m not a-“
But then there was a flash of white light and stabbing pain as someone hit me over the head. The world went suddenly dark as I was hooded. I tried not to panic but they were drawing a string around my throat.
The world went blacker.