Wednesday 7 July 2010

The Walls Have Ears

It was a quiet day. As the rain sliced down the road, Simon hurried on keeping his head down to afford at least some protection from the icy chill.

He found himself pressing back into the alcove of a doorway as a military patrol splashed by. A sign of guilt of the thoughts in his head? He knew they could not read them, yet. Words that were spoken could betray the speaker through the Infrascope, but the military junta could not step into the minds of the people and know what they truly thought.

The patrol kept moving, receding into the distance and he hustled on, working to control the paranoia that he felt. The raids were getting more and more frequent as the junta worked to clamp down on the dissidents. They always did that, right before the elections.

‘Free and fair’ they boasted, but they never were.

In his mind he played over the directions he had seen on the leaflet. Frightened that it could be incriminating to him, he had memorised the details and burnt the paper. In his head the directions would be safe. He wanted to be a part of the movement for change, and to make a difference. But it was hard when no one person dared to be the first to publicly step above the parapet and be heard. What if no others followed?

The café was small and tired. From outside the windows were steamed up and try as he might he could only see the suggestion of people inside through the funk. For a brief moment he felt lost and exposed. What if everyone turned to look at him as he went in? What if it was nothing more than a government trap to catch out any hint of rebellion?

He checked his pockets and scraped out the last of his loose change. His quota was not due until Friday, but there would be enough here for one cup of tea. A reason to be here in case of military snoopers. He decided to use that as his cover if anyone were to challenge him.

The humidity hit him like a wall after the cold of the outside street. He was almost disappointed that no-one looked as he entered. Plucking up the courage he pushed his way to the counter and ordered a cup of tea, paying with the handful of change, then took up a seat at an empty table.

Nursing the feeling of having made a wasted journey, he settled back to sip the lukewarm liquid. As he sipped, he began to listen to the conversation around him. Some people talked of work and home. Others were of love and gossip. Slowly he began to sift the human sounds in his head until he could pick them out one by one from the steady drone.

One conversation leapt out to his senses as his mind deciphered it, and he nearly choked on the tea. They were talking of rebellion! Others must have come for the surreptitious meeting listed on the flyer. He heard them talk of open facing of the junta, to stand up against the tyranny of their rule.

They spoke fiery words of things Simon had only dared think about in the privacy of his own head. How strange it was to hear them spoken aloud by a stranger. It seemed to add some kind of special magic to the words. He felt the tingle of excitement in his body, yet he could not bring himself to turn around and introduce himself. What if the military were to do a snooper sweep with an Infrascope?

They had often done such sweeps, unannounced on meeting places such as these. The portable device put fear in the minds of even the most law-abiding citizens as it scanned the walls detecting the faint traces of conversations spoken. In the way that the echo of the Big Bang still resonated in every molecule in the universe, so every sound left its trace too. The Infrascope deciphered them all and turned them back into sound, to be used in evidence to keep the masses under control.

The more he listened the more he felt the excitement rise. They talked as if they did not fear. How he could have listened for hour after hour. The tea in his cup grew cold as it hovered halfway from the table to his lips, forgotten as he listened hard.

Finally with a scrape of tables and chairs he realised all too quickly that the end had come to their meeting. He sensed them moving and gathering up their things. From the corner of his eye he caught sight of one, a pretty girl with a determined face slipping her notebook into a pocket.

“Until next Wednesday,” said their leader in a hushed yet defiant voice and the others nodded their approval.

Then they were gone before Simon could react. But the image of the girl with the book stuck in his mind. How brave to dare to keep written evidence when at any time the military could conduct a sweep. He felt an admiration for her, and wanted to see her again.

Hurriedly he drank the last of the tea. It was cold and tasted bitter, but he was not inclined to waste it after spending the last of his pennies for it. Then he gathered himself up and left the café, back out into the sudden cold of the outside street.

The people from the meeting had already melted away into the crowds and the side streets but it did not matter. They had said next Wednesday, and he decided then and there that he would be there again. He wanted to hear those words of defiance spoken by another mouth again; it filled him with a passion and a hope. Besides, he felt a strange compulsion to see the girl again.

The week passed by in a blur as his thoughts turned to the meeting and the excitement of the next. Would they be there again? At his job he seemed to have a new cheer and vigour to undertake the monotonous tasks. By the time the days had come around he had saved more of his quota than before and had enough that he could justify something more than a cup of tea.

The route to the café seemed shorter than last time and before he knew it, he was there staring from the pavement at the misted out windows.

He strode in with more confidence this time; he knew what to expect. The people from before were already here again and he quickly shuffled to the counter to get his cup of tea and a plate of toast this time. Making his way to the same empty table that he had sat at before he settled down and took out the tired newspaper he had brought with him to pretend to read. He did not feel quite so conspicuous now, and could sit listening with more confidence.

They talked again of revolution and dissatisfaction at the way the country was being run. Simon felt his excitement grow as he heard the words that he had dared not speak spoken aloud. Looking about the café from time to time he saw that there were others too listening with a keen interest. These were popular topics that many sympathised with. Perhaps the revolution against sham democracy would begin here? He knew he wanted to be a part of it.

He paid more attention to the girl this week. She was there too, and occasionally spoke. When she did he heard the fire in her voice and it sent a shudder down his spine. In her he saw a like-minded individual and in that a beauty that was hard for him to describe. Perhaps he had fallen in love?

All too quickly the meeting was drawing to a close.

“Until next time, comrades,” spoke their leader, addressing his group but at the same time playing to the audience that they had gathered of sympathetic listeners.

Tables and chairs scraped and the group began to get up to go.

For the first time Simon plucked the courage to turn in his chair and watch them go. They were a strange assortment, and he realised that they were just ordinary people, finding their voices to speak against the junta.

When the door to the café burst open, it sent a ripple of shock through those inside even before the first military man piled in followed by yet more.

“Nobody move,” he commanded, “This is a listening raid, citizens.”

Yet more military men came in, carrying guns. Then a ripple of nervousness ran through the entire room as the men with Infrascopes appeared.

It was a snooper raid; what everyone always feared. In the same way that the echoes of the big bang still resonated in the very atoms of everything in the world, so the sounds of the spoken words were there too, waiting to be listened to with the right equipment – the Infrascope.

As the military man carrying the slender gun-type device with its bulbous listening detectors probed the room, the walls would literally turn out to have had ears for every conversation ever spoken within this café.

With a sinking feeling, Simon knew the outspoken group was doomed. The Infrascope probed the walls, recording the results. Within minutes all that had ever been said had been recorded by the device.

Another military man moved from person to person in the café taking voice samples. Simon’s heart leapt! Had he said anything, even muttered something here that the Infrascope could have picked up? He felt the prickly sweat as the man moved to him and held the tiny microphone close.

“Speak your name, citizen!”

There was nothing he could do but comply and the man moved on with a grim determination to the next person.

Simon’s fear abated. So he had said nothing that could be taken against him by the junta. The militant groups were not so lucky though, and one by one they were singled out from the crowd and bundled through the door.

The girl who Simon had admired put up a struggle as they came to her.

“I won’t go! Your regime oppresses the people!” she shouted.

She was picked up screaming and shouting and dragged through the door. In the struggle, unnoticed by the guards, a book fell and was lost to the shadows beneath the tables. Simon noticed it, but did nothing in case he drew unwelcome attention to himself.

Finally all the militants were gone, and the military men seemed satisfied that the Infrascope device had done its job.

“Go about your business, citizens!” called the last man to leave.

Simon fancied he said it with a sneer of contempt for the people left. They knew that none would dare follow up on anything they had heard for fear of receiving the same treatment.

For a moment there was no conversation. A few people shuffled uncomfortably towards the door and left. Others sat down, somewhat dazed by the experience.

Simon waited until no-one was looking, then moved to where he had seen the book fall. It took a moment’s searching to find it, but it was there. The military men had missed it.

Making sure no-one had seem him he reached down and scooped it up, slipping it into his jacket pocket without a glance. Then he finished the last of his tea, trying not to spill any as his hands shook in the fear of what had happened and the act he had done.

Leaving the café there were no military people in the street. They and the militants had gone. Nobody would be likely to know what would happen to them. There were stories of the ‘correction camps’ but no-one knew the truth. The junta did not want anyone to know. Fear was power.

At his flat he closed the door and sat shaking on his bed. After a few moments he checked at the window; no-one had followed. Then he pulled out the book and laid it on the table.

It was nothing more than a cheap exercise book of the type bought in an office supplies shop. Inside were hand written scrawls written as diary entries and notes. As he read, he entered the secretive life of the militant girl who he had so briefly learnt to like at a distance. He read of her objectives, feelings and aims. Every word spoke as if written by his own mind; she had said what he wanted to hear.

Hours passed by before he finally reached the end, and he knew so much about her. It felt wrong having read some-one’s personal diary like that, but he shuddered at the thought of seeing her carried off in the raid. HE could still see her features as she fought to the end.

The book’s entries ended abruptly with a few jottings from the last meeting. Then there was nothing. For a moment Simon sat looking at the page, not sure what to do next. Then he found a pen, and wrote in his own painfully messy handwriting at the side of hers an account of those last few moments.

Then he shut the book and slipped it under the edge of the bed where it would be hard for anyone else to find.

The next day at work he was subdued. There seemed no real point, but he did it anyway. For a few weeks afterwards he hoped that he might find a way to find a way to do something with the contents of the diary, to inspire others to rise against the junta as perhaps the girl had intended. But he did not know where to start. He returned to the café a couple of times, but there seemed few there anymore. Once he witnessed another Infrascope raid, and he felt the fear rise again.

He grew older and the book was eventually all but forgotten. He never saw any trace of the girl again.

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