It was dark outside when I left the Bureau Of Information. It had been a twelve hour shift. One thirty minute break for lunch, two bathroom breaks. The rest of the time I had spent at my listening station, cataloging the enemy’s broadcasts: “The owl is in the roost, the sun is setting at noon”, “The wolf is among the sheep, but the farmer is away”, “The clock tower rings seven to midnight”. I have often thought to myself that there is a certain poetry to these encodings. But I have not shared this thought. Such thoughts are for my comrades in The Department Of Encoding And Decoding, my purpose is to listen and to transcribe. But secretly, no one is as versed in the poetry of our enemy as well as I.
The snowy streets were blue. Long rows of concrete apartment blocks, each the same as the last, each painted the same shade of pale Party blue. Their familiarity and their regularity, put me at ease.
I felt in my pocket for the telegram. A slip of teletype paper: “Gathering. Stop. Tonight. Stop. The Cavern. Stop. Bring Wine. Stop”. Gatherings are what Talek called parties, and The Cavern is what he called his apartment. I think he liked the clandestine whiff of something counter-revolutionary. We knew each other from the Academy, but our careers had taken different paths.
I didn’t want to go to Talek’s party. Not really. I didn’t want to see the Cavern. I never really want to go. There is some stolid part of me, a constitutional constipation, that wants only the sanctuary of my listening station, the strange encoded poetry of the enemy and the pale blue concrete walls of my apartment. But I must go. Going is good for you. It is like eating one’s leafy vegetables. And, as I tell myself, it is like exercise. And The Party extolls the virtues of exercise. All the latest pamphlets have the slogan: “healthy bodies and healthy minds, assure us of victory”. Ivan, our Morale Officer in the Bureau, tells our unit that the more a muscle is trained the more proficient it becomes. So I must go the Cavern, to strain and to struggle in the gymnasium of human intercourse.
In my apartment I gathered together all my pink Recreation tickets. Some I keep in the beside drawer, some I keep in my coat pocket, and some I admit, I hide behind the grate in the bathroom, below the sink. Yes, I know the lines of the Blue Book by heart: “all things belong equally to all men”. But no man is perfect and “revolution is always a work in progress” - which is another Party maxim I have memorised.
I wrapped up warmly in coat and scarf, tickets in my pocket, hurried down the stair well and out into the snow, down the block to the river and then turned towards the Commissary Store.
“Do you have any wine?” I asked the commissary officer, holding out a handful of pink recreation tickets. He paused a moment, then shook his and told me they had no wine. Now, working in the Bureau Of Information, in the Department Of Counter Surveillance, I know that the commissary system has its own language too. Encoded, just like that of the enemy. And that when this man said there was no wine, this was not strictly what he was saying. What he was saying was that, if I were to produce something from my pocket, something one could not ordinarily acquire from the Party’s approved list of manufacturers, a Wilson wrist watch for example, or a carton of Red Stripe cigarettes, then perhaps on second inspection, this commissary officer might see, “ah yes, in fact there is wine still left, I just didn’t notice it there on the bottom shelf”. The commissary officer had of course only misplaced it and it was with a Wilson watch on his wrist, or a pack of Red Stripe cigarettes in his pocket, that he was able to see. But I am monolingual in this way, I speak only the official language of the People. And so there was no wine for me. Sobriety is the badge of good citizenship. That is not in the pamphlets, but it should be. There is some hidden poetry in me I swear it.
It would be a faux pas of course. Arriving at Talek’s Cavern without wine. A man without wine, is by extension of symbols, a man without joy. So I made a noisey scene when I arrived. “I went to every commissary on the East River” I announced “I couldn’t find a single bottle”. I spoke as loudly as I could, so that others might hear. As if to say, shrilly: “I am not the man without joy! The commissaries were dry. It is my circumstances and not my nature.” This last comment, I discovered when the war was over, is what nearly every officer of the enemy side claimed before being hung.
Anna was there. In the corner. I noticed her immediately. And how could you not? Heavy lidded and urbane, a black dress and obsidian earrings. She had the severe beauty of which only the intelligentsia are capable, because only they have made apathy into an art form. Sometimes at night, I picture Anna undressing and discarding her clothes in a pile at her feet. In these imaginings she has no shame. She treats her nakedness as a concept, something to be studied and theorised about. Indeed she was nothing like the Party Academy girls I’ve gone with before. They who ribbon and tie and corset themselves up like Victory Day gifts and desire to be unwrapped with an equally surgical delicacy, and before we lay down together, to dim the lamps just so, to put a Party march on the gramophone, and want to be made love to in that same martial rhythm, rigid and mechanical, penetrated by the Fatherland itself.
Last year the Resources Allocation Committee reclaimed Anna’s building. Her beloved Department Of Aesthetics was turned to the use of The People and became the site of a munitions factory. To mark the first lorry load of shells produced there, a ceremony was held in the courtyard and the old faculty of the Department Of Aesthetics were invited to come and show their support. And while it is beyond doubt that every citizen enjoys total freedom in our revolutionary state, it is not advisable to refuse invitations from the Ministry.
“This place was a den of enemy brainwashing” the chancellor had said from the stage, looking about gravely ”a loud speaker for his traitorous propaganda, but now, now we have turned that inglorious blight into a symbol of our inevitable and total victory”. He shook his fist and the crowd cheered. At the end of the ceremony, when the chancellor held a shell above his head, Anna, alone among the faculty staff did not salute and I saw a Morale Officer making his way towards her. “Comrade”, I caught his arm “you see, poor girl, she has been inside machining shells all day, and in such fervour, she cannot even raise her arm now” and I put a wad of pink Recreation tickets into his hand for good measure. I wonder if she knew how close she came?
Anna did not salute and I don’t imagine she would ask for a Party march on the gramophone when she made love and I don’t imagine any part of her body would be pale blue or porcelain white, but rather ruddy yellow and pink and red. I am mad for her. It’s true.
I crossed the kitchen towards her but Horace blocked my way: “ah fantastic to see you, I was wondering if you would be here tonight”.
I want to say that Horace is a good Party man but that’s almost more insulting. Horace is a good Party man but he is also an idiot and a bore. The former is forgivable but the latter is criminal. To be a bore is to be a waster of time and time is the most precious treasure we have.
“I just came from the chancellory in fact” Horace informed me “and they are putting up a new statue in the hall of heroes, its quite a piece, quite a piece, what a thing”. Whatever art there is to conversation Horace had never learned it. In it’s stead he offered a series of factual statements that led nowhere. His talk reminded me of the munitions production line, stamping out lines of shells, day and night, dull and metallic and heavy.
“O yes” I said, distracted “another statue, really?”. Horace had the barest minimum of my attention. My eyes and ears roamed the room. Geronimo and Talek were talking to one side. They stood below a Party flag which had been hung upside down. Irony was Talek’s form of defacement. He is a personality to be sure, but not an agitator. The Party permits personality but never sedition. Though, it’s true I admit, the rules of which is which, and when exactly one becomes the other, are yet to be committed to print and are defined instead in the precedents set by the trials of the People’s Court.
Gerinomo and Talek were discussing Brickler, a daring young Party composer. Just last week in fact, at the State Orpheum, Brickler had debuted his Sonata for Piano and Timpani, where he had an empty ammunition chest thumped to accompany a piano. “One spent bullet shell to be placed inside” the sheet music said. “A thunderous work” wrote one reviewer “the ammunition chest is indeed the timpani drum of the people, Brickler’s latest work is a triumph of revolution”. But at the Bureau, there was talk on the wire that perhaps the chest and the spent bullet, were intended as a symbol of protest. Defeatism couched in triumph’s clothing. Again: the Party permits personality but not sedition. We would find out which side of the line Brickler’s sonata had fallen soon enough no doubt.
I longed to join Gerinomo and Talek in discussing this question, in dissecting the meaning of it, whether it’s spirit was revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. But Horace was still before me, still blocking my way, still describing the new statue in the hall of heroes and how it was quite a thing, quite a thing. I would have liked to cut him off and walk away but Horace, as well being an unforgivable bore, was also the Chairman of the Manufacturing Materials And Appropriations Committee. It was he after all who had signed the papers to reclaim Anna’s building for the People’s needs. And while the revolution had indeed made all men equal, Chairman Horace was yet more equal than others, and so he was not someone you just walked away from, he was someone you listened to, until it suited him otherwise.
I looked for another means of escape and saw it in the form of Grakil, a colleague from the Bureau. “Grakil!” I called “My friend, come here, come over, good to see you, allow me to introduce Chairman Horace, he was just telling me about a fascinating new statue being installed in the hall of heroes, and it is quite a thing, and if you two gentlemen will please excuse me I’m just going to go refill my glass”. And that was it. Chairman Horace turned his attention to Grakil and I was released. At Grakil’s expense of course, but as they say, the foundation of our great revolution is that each citizen must be willing to die for the comrade beside him. I might have thought of Jesus Christ here, but he too has been outlawed.
I went into the kitchen, poured myself a glass of wine and then went out onto the balcony. There I joined Alfonse and Diedre, his new girlfriend. She was a striking blonde with large blue eyes, who had just crossed the border with nothing in her suitcase but a coat, the Blue Book, of which she had only read the first and last pages, and a well thumbed pamphlet called “Liberty Lives Here”. She looked entirely out of place and yet absolutely at ease. Where does he find them? These perfect creatures? Alfonse was a linguistics professor at the Academy. He was physically awkward, with unusually thick spectacles which magnified his pupils to a great size and was always over excited when he spoke, spluttering his words - and yet, there was always a new girlfriend, every time I saw him, each more alluring than the last.
“I was just explaining to Diedre about the latest on the August Plot” Alfonse said with a smile. “Well yes” I said, eager to take part, finally, in a real conversation of weight and merit “I think if they aren’t spies, if they are not enemy colluders, then they have nothing to fear from due process, they should welcome it, and all the better if they are not, because the trial will prove the fairness and objectivity of the revolutionary court and so I think the whole thing is well in keeping with the national spirit is it not?”. Alfonse’s girlfriend looked at him unsurely. And I realise that perhaps Alfonse had not been serious. That this was a party, and Diedre only recently arrived, and so not the time or place for discussing sedition trials and the character of the national spirit. Alfonse frowned and moved the conversation along to lighter topics.
Too serious. I am always too serious. The intellectuals, the artists, they have a species of apathy that I can never fully decipher or decode. An alternative language, just like that of the commissaries. About some things they care and extoll passionately; about others they are cooly quiet. Somehow, I always seem to land on the wrong side of that fence. Laughing about things they think are serious matters and getting serious about things they think are laughable.
I wonder why I’m ever invited to these parties. And I think, with some bitterness, it for the same reasons that Chairman Horace is invited. A gathering without representation from the Party is naturally suspect. And we are good Party men after all, Chairman Horace and I, men more equal than others, and even the intellectuals, the artists, Anna and Talek and Alfonse, even they need the blessing and the protection of men such as us, in times such as these.
Alfonse entertains us, Deidre and I, with his stories of the early days of the revolution and the Thirty Days Blockade. Inside, through the glass, I watch Anna speaking to Geranimo and I am certain that they stand too close.
I leave the party early. Not so early as to be abrupt. But not so late that I am in danger of overhearing whatever licentious talk and wild ideas come out at the end of these parties. Ideas some might report to the Bureau Of Information as going too far for good taste, ideas some may even call anti-revolutionary.
I walked home with my coat wrapped tightly around myself - but the wind, tipped with an Arctic barb, went straight through to my core. I walked fast. I needed to be back before curfew, and I check my pockets, twice, three times, to ensure I still have my identity papers with me.
My apartment block was dark when I arrived back. The light in the stairwell was not on, so I felt my way up, all twenty five flights of pale blue stairs. I opened my door. It was unlocked. By mandate, all doors are unlocked, for no one has anything that does not belong to his comrade. “Hello” I said to my pale blue concrete apartment. My voice extinguished in the hessian curtains. I put my clothes away, careful to pick the lint from my coat and laid out my uniform for the next morning on the chair.
I turned on my beside lamp and laid down in bed. I heard the click of the radiator turning off soon afterward. My hours of permitted night time heat had finished. There was a particular man I knew of, in the Ministry Of Energy. And for a certain number of Recreation tickets I knew you could have heat the whole night through. But revolution is the responsibility of every citizen and on each of our shoulders the whole structure rests.
It takes only minutes for the cold to creep in from the outside, from the snow falling on the ground, up into the concrete pylons, up and up through the pale blue stairwells, spreading through the grey concrete floors of my apartment, up through the metal frame of the bed, and finally to gather inside my chest. I shivered and pulled my blue blanket tighter around me. The Party has issued me with a double bed and I have not had the courage to requisition a single.
I wonder about what happened after I left The Cavern. After all the good and loyal Party men have gone home. When it’s just that warm core left. I imagine them settling down on Talek’s balcony, draped in bear fur blankets, to smoke marijuana cigarettes, smuggled over the border in tuna cans I hear, and look at the stars and the enemy’s fireworks going off across the patrolled walls of the West River. I long to hear their unafraid and unguarded laughter, their free wheeling discussions, transgressing borders, the shape and content unfettered by directives. And I wonder if, beneath the bear furs, Anna might reach out and brush the hand of Geronimo, or Talek, or even Deidre, maybe she would like that as well? Who knows with these intellectual types.
But the cold interrupts these imaginings. I turn off the bedside lamp. The dark stings me - but only for a moment. Then I can start to dream and there to go, and say, and do whatever I wish. To my knowledge, as yet, there are no Party directives about what one may dream.