Worse Things
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Worse Things

 Nick Sweeney
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 Nick Sweeney
Worse Things
by Nick Sweeney  FollowFollow
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My various interests include bike racing, Byzantium and Eastern Europe. They all find their way into my fiction at times, but mostly I just make...read more stuff up. My first and only published novel is Laikonik Express - about two American slackers haring round Poland in search of a woman - out with British indie publisher Unthank Books in 2011. Since then, I've been trying to get another one out there, and I have been seeking representation. And cakes. More than any sane person needs to know about me can be found at my website, The Last Thing the Author Said, which lives at the website address shown. I have two fezzes, one green and one red... and one with a Laurel and Hardy Sons of the Desert design on it, which makes three. Since I left the big Balkan band I used to play with, I don't have so many opportunities to wear them. I need to join another band. Or move to Egypt.
Issue 107 · fiction
realism ·  
Worse Things
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The air outside crackled with energy, and the walls and windows felt brittle, and sometimes I couldn’t help the delusion that it wouldn’t take much to strike out and break them. It was January the first, and I sensed the millions of people outside, still full of booze and facing cautious, agitated resolution.

My friend Emmy said, “I made a resolution.” Somewhat absently, I said that was a good idea. I was caught up in my disconnection from the city moving around me, my preoccupations channelled into the vehicles swishing by, streaking light across the wall. Emmy said, “Want to know what it is?” I said I did. “To give up gin,” she said proudly. We laughed sharply. There were a few seconds of silence, broken by the barking of a distant dog. “Want to know why?” Emmy asked, serious now, so I put on a face like hers and said I did, for sure. She said only, “Alcohol gets you into trouble.” I was going to ask what kind, but knew I’d have plenty of time to find out what trouble lay in Emmy’s past.

She had gloomy eyes, a skinflint mouth and a sleepwalker voice. She seemed like a good soul. We were in the right time and place for gloom, which came down like cold rain after Christmas, always with the chance it would stay till May.

Dusk drew light from the room, and I thought of winter out there as we sat stifled in warmth, punished only occasionally by a draught. “There are worse things,” I told Emmy, and she looked up ready to be puzzled, then nodded.

“You’ll have to learn that some things go beyond mere civil disobedience,” some… functionary or other said to me somewhere along the line. I reminded whichever one it was that there were worse things. I was answered with a tight-lipped face; it’s obviously not what functionaries want to hear.

“Ever made a resolution, Maria?” Emmy said. I was glad to hear my first name spoken aloud. “A real one, I mean, that you kept?”

“I suppose so.” I thought about the day I read a leaflet that began, Every year thousands of animals die in painful and degrading conditions. That text was inked into my mind, reciting itself freely. It ended with blackmail, a hearty wishing of bon appetit. I gave up spaghetti Bolognese, and Hungarian goulash, chicken Madras, beef Stroganoff, a whole culinary ethnography. I liked all those things. I probably still do. That was for new year, and for life, so far. I abandoned make up, at first stuff tested on animals, and then any kind. I saw my shoes lying against the wall, mud-spattered leather; nobody’s perfect. I had a leather jacket at home, too, kept for sentimental reasons. Half the people in the animal rights group wore leather biker jackets, although it was frowned-upon.

“I gave up laughing, once,” I said to Emmy. It was a grim joke, and brought only a painful smile. “Do you laugh a lot here?” I ventured, in a bid to cover my embarrassment.

Emmy waved a hand vaguely, and said with some concentration, “Yes, yes. Well, maybe, you know – no, not a lot, as such.”

I’d near enough given up on the group. We’d leafleted punters outside fast food places and chemists, we’d picketed science labs and slaughterhouses.  I’d suffered a punch or two on the snout for my pains – nothing serious, brushed off with those grim jokes. I think the jokes were an attempt to hide the fact that I no longer had the stomach for it, because by the time the group had begun to talk about going on anti-hunt stunts and animal rescues, I’d begun to cry off. I’d also got sick of the dogma, and the incestuous, frosty sexual tensions that arose to plague us.

“You’re leaving because you’re tired of these meetings, this pointless picketing, yeah?” Craig, the group leader, had cornered me in a local pub after the meeting I had decided would be my last. He was a veteran of various causes, a driven, basically unhappy bloke, I thought. He said, “Things are different, now. Direct action’s the only thing people take notice of. So are you with us?”

I’d tried to look worldly over my beer, had ended up looking like all those passing junk foodies, with a job to get on with, a love life to pursue. I’d said, “It’s not as simple as that anymore.”

Craig had just looked at me, had said, “It is. With us? Or not?”

“Not,” I’d told him, and he’d shaken his head over the memory of me, and left me to my corner.

I was never able to work out what it was I was doing, then, a month later, creeping down a private road in Hertfordshire in the dead of a December night, bolt cutters in my hand.

“You knew full well what you were doing,” the judge said in his summing-up a little later that December, when I knew for sure I was going to miss Christmas. Suddenly, that was hard to handle, my year ending without that tacky full stop.

“It’s not so bad,” another remand woman called Melissa, a credit card fraudster, had told me. “I’ve missed a few Christmases, you know, and all through shopping early.” When I told her what I’d done she’d giggled, without spite, and said, “Your liberty literally isn’t worth a dog’s.”

I didn’t think any judge could tell me anything worse. That’s meant to be the world judging you up there, but it isn’t, is just one old fellow in a wig. I wouldn’t know what to say to old fellows in wigs on any day. On this day, to this old fellow, I said, “It was only property.” A policeman smirked, and the tweedy observer from the animal lab made an impatient noise through his teeth. My defence counsel rolled his eyes skywards.

I’d known full well what I was doing, in a literal sense. I’d long known what to do with bolt cutters, known how to read a map by torchlight, to disarm alarms, and all with the distressed barking of dogs in one ear. I’d fumbled once, with a fastening on a cage, and one of Craig’s sycophants had sneered something into my other ear about my not being stood outside burger joints with leaflets anymore; this was lab conditions. I’d felt myself reddening, but had affirmed my guilt in advance, saying, “I know what I’m doing.” We got the dogs out, got them away in the first van, bound for some safe house where they’d be eventually reintegrated into dog society.

What was I doing there, though, really? In the middle of a grimace I was suddenly preoccupied with the question, and then, in a lucid moment, felt it slipping away from me, when the place began to go up in flames; nobody had mentioned flames. I watched a glow light the last of my co-conspirators as they came out in a slapstick tumble. Then there was a white explosion that rattled my eardrums, the gas supply going up, or maybe a store of formaldehyde. It was only property, and I was still telling myself that as we got stopped at a police roadblock, just minutes into a gothic dawn that ambered our faces, even as a huge policeman helped me out of the back of our van with an absurdly delicate touch.

“It was only property.” I said it to the jury, too. I couldn’t think of anything else. I flashed round the faces in the courtroom, saw family, a friend, but found no inspiration. “There are worse things,” I risked, and drew glares, felt them burning into my head.

I heard his honour say, “As there seems to be nothing that will change your view of your actions, I propose to give you a little time to do so, during which you may be able to resolve your obvious commitment with a lawful and correct way of going about it.”

“Nine months,” I told Emmy, not long after we met.

She said, “Result. You’ll be out in four.”

I just sniffed; it still seemed like a long time.

The night went quiet, and the car lights faded from our walls. A lot of things could happen in four months, I reasoned. I lay back listening to the barking of dogs – all those of my past, all those of my future too – and wondered what those things could possibly be.

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