I was an activist before you and your peers were born. During the worst of the fight, I told you it meant a lot to work with the younger members who made up most of the opposition. I get why you were so skeptical when I said that, particularly given how things ended up. You were sick of sentimentality, of the moralism, maneuvering and malice that comes with it. But I stand by what I said. It’s no revelation that there’s something irreplaceable about thinking in a collective, but this was the first time I’d done so with a group that was mostly so much younger than I. It was distinct and I valued it.
‘Maybe it would be the same with a group that’s much older,’ you said.
‘It wouldn’t be the same,’ I allowed, ‘but it might be valuable in a different way.’
The first socialist meeting I ever went to, years ago, I was stood outside between sessions and I saw a deep conversation between a Sri Lankan man in a grey Mao cap and shapeless jacket, I think in his eighties at least, and a Goth in her early twenties. She wore everything according to rule. I remember she stood talking to this guy holding the paper she was selling against her gloomy clothes. It wasn’t a one-way conversation either. He held forth but he listened too, intently, when she spoke.
I clocked it only for about five seconds but it was a big thing for me. Despite all. That conversation was something of the best of us. That conversation was key to recruiting me to the tradition that in the end betrayed it.
Yes we’re insolent but even when we fuck up specific judgments as God knows we’ve done, we know the axes on which we should judge, and age has never been one. After that horrible year, that first fight we were bound to lose; the second, so much sadder, against our allies in the first; after waiting for the sluggard stay-behind dissenters, biting our tongues for them to hurry the fuck up; after standing with them despite the disdain of their conservatives for us; after our excitement when they left and our brutal disappointment at their instant machinations; when after all that we still came to their conference to try to find some hope, we wouldn’t be so stupid or disrespectful as to laugh at that man because he was old. We laughed because his hat was so very dusty.
‘Christ,’ you said flatly. ‘That looks unmissable.’ You pointed to the schedule. The evening’s social event was labelled ‘Social Event’.
Still we mooched to the pub indicated, which turned out, unbelievably enough, to be hosting a nostalgic night of Oi! music, not only much too loud but not nearly reconstructed enough for the comfort of a bunch of Reds who had not heard that genre of thumpy chanting, if at all, since it was bellowed by NF boot boys.
‘They actually have,’ I said of our hosts, ‘failed to organise a piss-up in a brewery.’
You went dancing with a bunch of your mates and I meandered alone back up to the university to have supper with T, who lectures in the media studies department there, and is unaffiliated but loves left goss.
And that was the last you heard from me, till now. The last you or A or S or anyone heard from me for a long time. I’m truly sorry. I know you’ve been scared for me. I’ve been trying to work out what to say. Let me tell you everything I can.
I’m worried that when you get to the end, you may not be glad I did.
It was still warm though the light was going. I wasn’t calm and I didn’t know why. I sat on the grass and — steeling myself against the disproportionate foreboding the settling splitting walls raised in me — I looked to see how expensive it would be to try to shore up my house.
It made me think of industrial catastrophes. Something in the old man’s ramblings had put me in mind of them. I looked up relevant keywords. I searched lists of such accidents. I considered my own anxiety, which I did not understand, and then I considered hate.
People were still chatting in the lecture hall, glancing at handouts, drifting away. They came out and smoked while students went past them from library to computer lab. The wind got up.
T texted me, apologising, telling me that he was stuck in a meeting, that he had to cancel. It turned out I wasn’t surprised.
I watched myself not leaving. Reading another short chapter, biding time. I realised I was looking for the man in the hat. I found him.
He was by the bookstall again and the last light was coming right through the glass onto him in his old clothes and dusty hat. He was watching the conversations around him, his grey eyes wide. There was something off about their motions. He would turn his head with a fascinated expression but not according to any flows of talk. He was like a figure in a film running at a different speed from those around him.
He looked through a book. Put it down, picked up another. I saw he was holding this one upside down. When the bookseller eventually packed up the stall the old man went and stood and waited motionless under the stairs while the hall emptied of everyone but cleaners.
It was near dark when he left at last. I was the only person still on the lawn, and I was in shadow. I went after him.
He wasn’t heading for the exit. He went in at the doorway where the History Man had entered. They’d replaced the sign I’d taken down. TENDENCY MEETING ON GREECE, UPSTAIRS, I read. THIS WAY. An arrow.
The old man sped up, despite his odd shuffling motion. We were the only people in the corridor. I hung back while he passed seminar rooms and entered the stairwell. I followed more photocopied signs to a corridor on the second floor. I saw him ahead of me through a fire-door’s reinforced window.
I expected the door to swing quietly open but fire-door or not it was locked and I smacked into it hard enough to rattle it in its frame. The man must have heard me but he didn’t look round. I wondered if he’d locked it behind him. I watched his back through the glass.
His legs moved almost not at all. Steps so tiny that he seemed to be riffled along on vibrating air. He followed the arrows.
The doors were marked. 2J, 2I, 2H. The old man snuck past 2G.
The first note had said 2F. These arrows would take him right past that. And the door to 2F, a stubby crumbling door like the others, with no light behind it, with only darkness beyond its glass, that looked bad to me, would be behind him.
There were countless reasons that the signs and the venue could have been changed. But I was suddenly and aghastly certain that the man was being misled, the signs a decoy.
I hammered on the door.
And he heard me and for a horrible second seemed like he was going to ignore me and I thought I could see the door to 2F tremble but then he did turn to face me as I gesticulated through the glass, frantically pointing at 2F. So he stood ready, was ready when it opened.
When the door creaked and the History Man peeked out.
They looked at each other. I don’t know what the expression was in the History Man’s eyes. He saw me watching.
There was a rush and hammering and a bad wind blew me back. There was a cry, something’s distress.
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