issue 166 - December 1986
Hungry and dispirited, work just a memory,
the Stylists tramp from city to city, soup kitchen to
soup kitchen. A short story by Carol Fewster.
After the collapse of this last city they moved on again, draping around them every layer of damp black clothing to creep into the winter smog hanging over Liverpool. Someone woke Meryl roughly. 'Moving again,' the someone said, unnecessarily. Shivering, Meryl dressed with the others.
Hushing each other into silence, elbows jostling in the crowded room, they listened to the stillness as the leaders picked away the last few shreds of glass from windows open to the night. One by one, they sneaked down the home-made rope to scurry into dew-wet bushes. Still drowsy, Meryl was one of the last to leave. Climbing over the window ledge into feeble moonlight, she glanced back at the debris of old tins and unpaid State rent bills strewn around the bedsit she had shared with almost a dozen other people. They had not paid the State rent bills because the State had not paid them: but still, they listened nervously to the silence.
The Jarrow Crusade of 1936 was the most famous 'right to work' march of the 1930s in the UK. It led from the economically depressed north-east of the country to London.
And as they walked through the rubbish heaped in the streets of Liverpool, through the scavenging rats and past the high barricades surrounding the brightly-lit automated factories, people slipped from alleys to join them until they walked in a great crowd. The faces were very white above the tattered black each one wore. Meryl's blisters, unhealed since the last move, bit into her heels as she trudged along. The coldness of the earth, as they marched over the clods of what had once been fields, struck through thin soles. But as they left Liverpool's silent streets far behind to march east, the city smog began to clear enough for a pale dawn to shine through.
They stopped at a Kitchen for breakfast, queuing for an hour or so to slide each plastic ID card into the slot and receive a cup of watery gruel in return. Meryl's was almost cold and she grumbled aloud. People swivelled gaunt faces towards her as she spoke, staring through their black-ringed eyes. Spikes of hair crackled as each head turned, and then they buried thin faces in their Maxpax cups once more.
After the gruel, they began the grooming. 'For whatever else we have lost.' intoned the leader who began the ceremony, '...we keep our identity. We are the Stylists.' As usual, the grooming took hours. Standing before the wall of mirrors provided in every Kitchen, each one back-combed hair into tousled spikes. Each powdered cheeks to unearthly whiteness, drawing thick black lines around the eyes. The morning passed quite comfortably while they groomed. '.Make us truly grateful.' Tired and cold and still hungry, Meryl moved to protest 'And have you got something better to do with your time?' the leader asked sarcastically. With the rest, Meryl powdered and combed and painted.
After lunch, the leaders took them onwards. Where the motorways joined, the leaders took them along the great roads leading east.'M62,' Meryl spelled out slowly from the ageing sign. 'Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds.' I've been to all those cities, Meryl thought wearily. Same old routine: a few weeks on State housing benefit so we can pay the State its rent, then another city collapses. No money: no food. Smog builds up: sewers overflowing. Another flit to another city. 'M6,' the other great motorway sign said. 'The South.'
And yet Meryl surprised even herself when, instead of following the leader of the great crowd across the fields bordering the motorway, she slipped behind the nearest Kitchen. When the tousled heads of the Stylists had disappeared across the fields again, she stepped onto the M6 and tried to beg a lift South.
Meryl liked motorways, anyway. Her grandfather had been a truck driver, and he reminisced about how, in the days when he had worked, many a young hitch-hiker would catch his eye and scrounge a lift. There were plenty of trucks about as Meryl stepped onto the M6. But every one was automatic: there were no drivers.
So Meryl stepped between the driverless trucks to try the next broad track of the M6. Standing almost in the middle of the vast motorway, the noise was very loud. 'M6 is twice as wide now as in my day,' her grandfather had said proudly. 'Progress, eh?' Standing beyond the trucks, Meryl tried the traffic crowded on the second track.
The Casuals looked frightened as Meryl stood in front of the traffic streaming South. They swerved away, braking so that one or two were almost catapulted over their own handlebars. Angrily they rang their bells, pedalling past her as fast as they could. Meryl waved and smiled. The Casuals' faces were pinched, and most balanced wife and child on the crossbar and a few spare possessions on the back. Meryl smiled again, but the Casuals pedalled past her and disappeared towards the South.
Disgusted, Meryl wondered whether it was worth the risk of dashing to the motorway's third track. The trucks could not pick her up; the Casuals would not. But the Workers ... The Workers zoomed freely up and down the M6, coming North to tend their automated factories and mines and nuke dumps, or for a pleasure trip before heading for their cozy Southern homes again. Peering between the Casuals' cycles, she stared right into the eyes of a Worker who slowed her shiny red limousine to stare right back at Meryl. Unlike a Stylist, the Worker's face was bare of makeup: her hair lay flat. Shrugging away the fur stole, the Worker raised a great lens between fingers glittering with platinum and diamonds. 'Oh look, another Stylist!' she shrieked to the impervious automated chauffeur. Her video camera whirred a few times, and then the Worker made her chauffeur accelerate away.
Illustration: Clive Offley
'Hey!' someone hissed behind Meryl. 'You!' She turned to face a Casual who cycled slowly past. 'Don't be daft. They'll get you on malicious vagrancy if you hang round here,' He looked round nervously at the automatic guards already swivelling weapons towards Meryl, and added, 'Jump on!'
So she did. She clung to the Casual's crossbar, wondering at the bicycle's fantastic speed. The tarmac blurred under her dangling feet and the sensation of movement made her feel a little giddy. 'Have you got work?' she asked chattily.
'Not now,' the Casual said grimly. 'But they say there's some Casual labouring through the next Barrier. I'll drop you there.' He pedalled steadily, but his face was thin and he sweated under Meryl's extra weight.
'What's your name?' she asked then.
'Johnny. Johnny Rotten. After a punk star in the Golden Time.'
'I'm Meryl. Named for an actress in the Golden Time, when all kinds of people Worked.'
'Before the machines,' he agreed. Meryl liked Johnny, and was sorry to see him push his ID into the slot at the Barrier, match the voice imprints and fingerprint ID and so disappear through the Barrier to the South.
Then she tried the Barrier. Of course it was hopeless. She combed her hair down like a Worker would, and wiped her face clean of make-up before she stepped, nervously, up to the Barrier to the South. But her ID set off the klaxons and when she stood stubbornly in place a dozen or so automatic guards turned on her, their recorded voices warning 'Back! Back!' She stood there. The alarms shrieked the louder. Finally a human guard appeared, staring down at Meryl. 'Go away!' he said. 'No beggars here.'
'I want to go South and find Work,' she explained.
'You can't be a Worker,' he said scornfully. 'I've been a Worker all my life, and my father and grandfather were Workers before me. Anyway, there are no Kitchens down South. Without money you'd starve to death, Back!'
She stood there.
'Back!' he yelled again. He pressed a switch, and Meryl heard each automatic weapon click to readiness. 'Last chance,' said the Worker. 'I'm warning you...' Then something behind Meryl caught his eye. The Worker's eyes opened wide in horror. Meryl turned too. The leaders' faces were hard as they led the great mass of people towards the Barrier. Crowded together as they marched towards the automated guards, the Stylists' eyes glittered. The traffic noises died away. The Casuals dropped their cycles, scattering fast; the Workers set their automatic chauffeurs to reverse and veered across the unused fields. The silence was whole as the great crowd of Stylists approached the Barrier.
Recovering, the guard picked up a mike. He set his great square shoulders back and looked down at the tiny figures making up the mob. 'The State will pay you,' he announced to the crowd. 'There will be benefits. social security. prescriptions. housing benefit, even. You can pay your rent.' Louder, he said, 'The Workers' State will look after you.'
Staring at the line of automatic guards whose weapons still pointed straight at her, Meryl screamed back, 'Where?'
'In a city,' the Worker guard said soothingly. Thousands of black-ringed eyes, like lumps of coal in thin white faces, gazed back up at the Worker. 'A nice city. In Jarrow. It's only a couple of hundred miles north-east of here. And there are soup kitchens all the way.
Carol Fewster is a Liverpool-based writer.
If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
Editor: When you initially paint the picture of Liverpool very vividly with words like 'pale dawn' and 'damp, black clothing', couldn't it as easily have been a nice day? Don't you think 'gaunt faces' and 'black rimmed eyes' is just playing the sensationalist game of the tabloid press and is insulting to your readers?
Fewster: By introducing the story slowly and conventionally, I meant to persuade the reader that the futuristic world connects with this one. Describing gloomy weather is an economical way to present setting and define Meryl's mood - but on the literal level, bad weather also suggests something of the physical hardship of the futuristic world. The tabloids seek to pin meaning down by suggesting a single predetermined value to each adjective; but my piece hopes to open up contradictory aspects - dark, gaunt ragged qualities, initially seen as indicating deprivation, turn out to have complimentary positive values created by the black-clad ones themselves.
Editor: You point to a worker with a fur stole, finger glittering with rings on her way from a nuke dump to her cozy home. Aren't you just asking the reader for a knee-jerk reaction to a set of code words?
Fewster: Yes. Given the strange world of the story, I use our values to identify 'elitist'. But it's not quite as cozy as that - the wealth and attitude of this rich Worker is similar, relatively, to that of a Western tourist in the Third World. By asking for an initial knee-jerk, a writer can hope to leave the reader feeling uncomfortable rather than confirmed with his/her prejudices
Editor: Don't you by using the term 'workers' state' to describe the privileged elite simply manipulate conventional anti-Communist sentiment?
Fewster: 'Workers' state' used here, makes one last attempt to jolt the reader into recognition of a world very different from our own. Where everyday 'working class' means an underprivileged class, and 'Workers State' represents an ideal of revolutionary change, in the story 'working' has changed to indicate an elite, privileged in that they alone have work. Using a familiar phrase with such massively different reference is a shorthand was to indicate vast societal change.