The New Revolution’, Dylan Fox

Illustrations © 2014 Erik Lasse

 [ Starling, © 2014 Erik Lasse ] I held the handbill as my fingers trembled with the wet, the cold, the shock: in one month’s time, the army will be here. We’re fucked.

I looked up. Father Goddard stood on his soapbox, and his choir repeated every word so the whole camp could hear: we’re not going down without a fight. Dig out your rifles, clean them, load them.

“We will stay,” he said, and his choir echoed. The rain ricocheted off his face and out-stretched arms. “We will fight. God is with us. Jesus turned the moneychangers out of the temple. And we, like him, are fighting to turn the moneychangers out of our souls. Money talks, but God inspires. And we will inspire. The company will not triumph! We are the angels of a new dawn, heralding the day when man has the right to choose his own destiny!”

How had I ended up the angel of a new dawn? I looked at the dripping, determined faces of my fellow colonisers. They looked at Goddard like this had always been their destiny; he clenched his fist and punched the air—solidarity. His choir echoed him, and the crowd echoed them.

I’d never had a destiny, just choices I’d refused to make. All I’d wanted was a quiet life.

I screwed the handbill into a thick, wet ball and dropped it into the mud with all the others the balloons had dropped last night. I had too much on my mind already and I really didn’t need this.

When night had fallen and I wouldn’t be missed, I sneaked away. I made my way to the company’s little encampment by the farmhouse, and forced the door of their canvas and wood prefabricated office. I found the desk of Amelia Decker, and left a sealed envelope next to her inkwell.

“Ms. Decker

When I was in infant school, my best friend was a girl named Amy. She taught me to do cartwheels on the playing fields and one day we found a dead starling by the fence. When we were five, her father moved her and her family to Australia. She said they were going for three years. I never saw her again.”

I sneaked out and started the long, wet walk back.

Two days later, Tom found me. He gave me a letter with my name written by the careful hand of a copyist. “It was stuck under one of the altar candles,” he said with a shrug.

As I took the letter, I saw the crude scar of George IV’s profile on the back of his hand. He didn’t have anything else worth hearing—cavs never did.

Washing potatoes could wait. I went to the cone of canvas that I shared with six other women, and opened my letter:

“Ms. Rodriguez

When I was in infant school, my best friend was a girl called Alyssa. She taught me to sit cross-legged and, one day, cried for over an hour because she couldn’t make a paper boat which floated in the school’s pond. I gave her my desert at lunch, even though I was terrified of getting birched for it.

There’s a tea shop in Broughton called Motley’s. I often go there, at about three in the afternoon. I’ve always wanted to try their Afternoon Tea for Two Persons, but have never had someone to share it with.”

I held the letter and stared at the wooden pole in the centre of my home.

I screwed my fists up in my hair and twisted. Water drizzled onto my shoulders. My clothes stuck to my skin and now I was finally out of the rain, I could feel the sodden cloth clinging like a leech. It was early September and the summer sun lingered, but cold winds came from the north. I let go of my hair and let it dangle over my face.

Motley’s was a small place with tables set out on the street, the kind of continental place that was still fashionable outside the cities. The wooden window frames which fronted the building were white, paint peeling in places. The cobbles of the courtyard hurt my feet in my ruined boots.

I took a sugar cube from the pot on the table and gnawed on it.

If someone recognised me, I would be arrested and thrown in jail. I was a terrorist, a traitor. If I didn’t recognise Amy, I would have betrayed my comrades for nothing. How could I hope to recognise someone I had last seen almost a quarter-of-a-century ago? I hunched my shoulders, made myself smaller, hid behind my hair.

Business was slow in market town of Broughton, and I knew it was our fault. The newspapers had been camped outside Manor Farm for the last month, each edition providing more horrific details of our exploits. Socialists! they shouted. Communists! Anarchists!


They were only a hare’s breath from calling us Royalists.

We were outlaws, guilty of every crime an outlaw can commit. In the ink of the newspaper, there were only two types of people: Good Citizens; and everyone else. We were everyone else. We were guilty of everything a Good Citizen feared.

I finished the sugar cube and used my incisor to dig the granules from under my nails. I got a mouthful of mud.

Amy could be anyone. I looked around at the tables, saw women my age who sipped carefully at china cups. We hadn’t arranged any kind secret signal. I picked another sugar cube out the bowel.

Any of the women at the tables could be police.

In the grey sky, a company weather balloon lit up for a moment as its brazier fired, and it disappeared into the cloud. Had they seen me? Had they been looking for me?

“Alyssa?” a voice said. “Alyssa Rodriguez?”

I didn’t respond for a few moments. The voice belonged to a woman with a thick, foreign accent. I was waiting for a little girl.

“I’m sorry,” the voice said.

I looked up. She was wearing a plain black single-breasted jacket, collarless white blouse and ankle-length skirt. She had dark brown hair and deep brown eyes. Her skin was white but tanned, her fingers long and clean.

Was that really…?

“Amelia?” I asked.

Her face almost split in half with a smile and she lent down to hug me. She smelt of jasmine.

“You’re…” I said, reluctant to put my arm around her. I would stain her suit.

I was expecting someone with uncomfortable black hair, a chubby round face, teeth at awkward angles, a red-and-white dress. The woman hugging me could have been any of the women I used to watch pass the stained and sooty window in my room, the carefully de-sexed professionals who carried cases full of ledger books and spoke a language of business I didn’t understand. I wasn’t expecting someone with adult shoulders and an adult face.

“I’m what?” she said as she took the seat opposite me.

“I just didn’t expect someone so…” I couldn’t bring myself to say, ‘grown up’. It sounded stupid. I was twenty-nine years old. We were in the same class at school. Of course she was an adult.

“And you look like a drowned rat!” she said. She leaned forwards and whispered, “a drowned rat trying to hide from a cat when they’re sitting bang in the middle of a cattery.”

The pressure of my wet clothes against my skin and the realisation I hadn’t washed in sixty days struck me dumb. She was an adult, a woman in a smart suit who smelt of jasmine, a professional. I was a mud-caked drowned rat who stank of sweat and rotting barley.

“Straighten up,” she said. “Sit like you deserve to be here and people might believe you.”

I looked up at her through my hair. Her voice was professional and confident and I was so used to obeying professional and confident voices that I found myself un-hunching my shoulders and straightening my back.

“I didn’t expect I’d see you again,” she said quietly. She folded her hands on the table.

“You said you were only going for three years,” I said. In my effort to sound reasonable, I sounded disinterested. It had been an open wound for almost a quarter-of-a-century and poking it hurt like hell. Three years is a long time to wait for your friend to come back when you’re a child, especially when it’s twenty-four years.

“My dad didn’t find gold in Ophir, so he moved us to Melbourne in fifty-three. He got a job working steam cranes on the docks, and I guess the plan to prospect for three years and come home went out the window.”

We sat in silence, watching each other. Her eyes took in each part of me like I was an exotic meal to be enjoyed ingredient by ingredient. Maybe I did the same to her.

“What’s brought you back here?” I asked.

“I’m not here forever,” she said. “V&A shipped me over to deal with the colonisation. Your colonisation. I spent the last few months in Suez. V&A do a lot of sub-contract work for the canal company.”

“I haven’t had a job in three years,” I said. “I spent five years getting a fifth grade Apprenticeship Bond from V&A and can’t even get work cutting corn. They’ve got machines to do that now.”

“Fifth grade, huh? That’s no mean feat. You know, they say knowledge is its own reward.”

“I have almost a thousand pounds of debt,” I said. “V&A don’t take knowledge in payment. I’ve spent the last two years a hare’s breath from the workhouses.”

“Hare’s breath?” she said. “You mean hair’s breadth?”

“No,” I said. I preferred my expression. It had an animal in it.

“So,” Amy said. “What was your Bond in?”

I looked up at her and bit my tongue. I didn’t want to talk about this. This was all I’d talked about for three years. She was doing a far better job of making small talk than I was.

“You got family over here?” I asked. “A husband?”

She laughed. “Would I get away with dressing like this if I had a husband?”

She had a point. And if she had a husband, she wouldn’t have a job. She didn’t return the question because if I had a husband, I wouldn’t be a coloniser. Houses don’t keep themselves.

Over her shoulder, three pigeons beat their wings as they escaped to the eaves of the café.

Hot air pushed me out my seat. I twisted around and tried to grab hold of something; my hands flailed in instinctual reaction. The September sun caught on the edges of the shattered glass as it flew through the air and I screamed as I felt the skin on my face burn. Something dull dug into my ribs and crushed my lungs. I smelt burning, and heard screams.

A volley of weather rockets pierced the heavens above us as Father Goddard handed me the evening’s paper. The rain rapped the roof of the infirmary tent and would keep on coming. I looked down at the paper.

Anarchistic Café Bomb Kills Six occupied half the page above the fold.

“I was just—” I started, but Goddard silenced me with a wave of his hand.

“Leaving camp is not a crime, Alyssa,” he said, but his eyes said something different.

My undignified crawl back to camp yesterday was already well-known. Father Goddard sat on the bed beside me. The explosion had left me shaken in body and mind, and I’d asked for time off from my duties to recover. I’d been told that cooking and washing were soft labours—not the hard labours of collecting supplies or trying to rekindle the steam-driven farm machinery—and there was no need for me to abstain from them. So this morning I’d stood with the other women as we laboured (softly) in the Sisyphean task of cleaning the mud out people’s clothes until I’d passed out and fallen into the mire the washing tub had become.

“It could have been sympathisers,” Goddard said, his voice rich. The lines of his face creased as he frowned. “It could have been agent provocateurs. It could even have been the company. I don’t know.”

I’d been an atheist since my fourteenth birthday, but there was something about Father Goddard that comforted me. When you stood next to him, when he talked to you, it was as if all the problems in the world were tiny things that you could watch like actors on a stage.

“The bomb detonated behind a structural pillar,” Goddard said. “The pillar absorbed most of the blast and just left a lot of smoke and fury. You could call yourself lucky, Alyssa.”

I touched the tight skin of my face self-consciously. I’d been burned like I’d spent a day in the fields under August sun. All six fatalities had been sitting inside. I’d been pushed to the floor by the force of the blast. Amy fell on top of me, and the table fell on top of her. We’d helped each other to our feet and disappeared before police arrived. Neither of us wanted to be found there—a brush with the police would be enough for her to lose her job, the company more concerned with image than fact.

I was grateful that Father Goddard didn’t tell me God saved me. It was just… just random chance and physics.

Outside the infirmary, our shanty town of tents was an undefined smudge in a haze of rain which swept across the camp like an artist’s paintbrush. People moved along the duckboards, their shoulders hunched and faces to the ground.

A hundred years ago, this had been a swamp. It was drained, crops were planted, and money grew. Then the company brought in heavy, steam-driven equipment to replace the human labourers. As it trampled through the fields, all those tons of iron and steel had cracked the drainage pipes. The huge run-off trenches, like the one to the west of the ridge we’d made camp on, were clogged with broken bricks, birds nests and dead foxes. We called the trench the Slough of Despond—it would swallow any man or woman stupid enough to step foot near it, guilt-racked sinner or not.

The company had been sending up rain rockets for the past forty days. What was once good farmland was now pig wallow. Skin was beginning to fall off our feet in clumps.

“We’re going to need to—” Goddard broke off and looked over my shoulder.

“Thomas,” he said.

I turned and looked. Tom looked back as us with one eye bloodshot and the other swollen closed. He leaned on his walking stick. In a camp of pent-up frustration, it’s no surprise he’d taken a beating. Cavs are good for something.

“What can we do for you?” Goddard asked.

“I’m fine,” Tom said. He took a few uncomfortable steps inside. “I need to talk to you, Father.”

“You need to speak to the General Assembly,” Goddard said. “There’s no backroom deals here, Thomas.”

“I’ve got better things to do with my life than waste my breath on that bunch of privileged dickheads.”

Everything goes through the Assembly,” Goddard said. “Everything is decided by direct democracy. No one gets special treatment here, Thomas. No one.”

“Sure,” Tom said. “Sure. I’ll stand there, waiting patiently for you to close the meeting before it’s my turn to talk.”

Goddard drew a breath in through his nose, and then let it out.

“I’ve warned you before about your constant attempts to derail and hijack this movement,” Goddard said. “We colonised this land because we’ve nourished the soil with our hearts and hands for generations, and in the sphere of fundamental moral quintessence—far, far above the petty temporal spheres of money and trading floors and bureaucracy—this is our land. We came together because we’re not resources to be consumed by the monied elites before they discard our husks like forgotten oyster shells. We’re here because we create the wealth and never see a penny of it, while they hoard it like medieval dragons. And when V&A’s pet government send in their army, we’ll be here, united, standing against them. We’re not here to settle your personal vendettas.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. “Personal vendettas. ’Cause the only time I want to say anything is to make trouble.”

I carefully dropped the newspaper and lay down again. If I closed my eyes, maybe I could ignore the argument Tom was about to have with Goddard.

I heard Goddard’s footsteps along the duckboard on the tent’s floor, and then his hand on Tom’s shoulder.

“This isn’t about you, Thomas,” I heard him say quietly. His greatcoat brushed against the tent as he left.

I was asleep. I was in pain. I had just been bombed, and I was an invalid. I wasn’t any part of this.

“Hey,” Tom said. He moved to my bedside and leaned on his walking stick. “Hey. What is it? Alice?”

I rolled onto my side and onto a bed of pins which dug into the tight, burnt skin of my abdomen.

“Listen, Alice,” Tom said. “Goddard feels guilty about you. He’ll listen to you. I need you to tell him something. Just listen.”

Never trust a Royalist. There’s always something in it for them, and that means there’s always something you’ve got to give up. I clung so tightly to everything I still had.

I moaned. Tom didn’t move.

“I have orders,” Tom said. “Signed, official orders. They’re moving their invasion of our camp up to next Tuesday. There’s no way I’m going to be allowed to speak at the Assembly, so you have to tell him. You have to tell him, Alice.”

A spike of something sickening shot up from my stomach and into my brain. We’d first heard the army was being called in over a week ago, but until now it had been something vague, an uneasy feeling I could push around and ignore. Suddenly it was something real, something I had to deal with.

“Bugger off,” I said.

I just wanted to sleep. I didn’t have to worry about anything while I was asleep.

“Listen, Alice, they’re using the bombing as an excuse to—”

“No,” I said. “Listen to me. Just go away and leave me alone. I’m sick, I’m tired, and I don’t want to be part of whatever bullshit you’re stirring up with your little Cavalier friends.”

I leaned over the edge of my cot and retched. There were rats in my stomach, their claws in my intestines and throat as they looked for a way out. Tom talked to them, agitated them.

He said something under his breath, and left.

It was night time when I woke up. We couldn’t spare the oil to light the infirmary, so the sound of rain and vague shapes loomed into my barely-sentient mind.

Someone was throwing up. I heard the bile and gruel splash against the floor to a background of defeated sobs. I needed to leave before it started coming out their other end, too.

I dragged myself along the duckboard and outside, and the wind slapped me across the face with rain like a duelling glove. I wanted to look up and see the stars, see the moon, but I knew all I’d see was an eyeful of rain. I’d seen that enough.

An aura of lamplight lit up the Assembly. Angry shouts and accusations consumed the normal polite and slightly smug speeches.

A tight ball of colonisers pushed against each other as they tried to get to the centre. I walked around as best I could, picked my way through across the boards and tried not to slip. Goddard and his choir barely maintained order. Someone shouted something about gallows. About firing squads. About swift justice. Traitors and The Cause.

“No,” Goddard’s choir said. I saw his hand briefly through the press of bodies. “We have a process. We will have a tribunal, and an investigation. We will have justice.”

The crowd mumbled something not-quite acquiescence.

As I sidled around the knot of people, I looked up at the sky. Something distant, just below the clouds, flashed for a moment. Weather balloon. Spy balloon with telescopes pointed down at us, experts in the basket peering down at people’s lips to see what we were saying. The company watched us, always.

“No one worries about how you get your information,” I heard Tom shout. The crowd hissed with menace.

“Look at the seals, the orders are genuine!” he said.

Goddard said something. His choir didn’t repeat it, and I didn’t catch it.

“We will convene a tribunal,” the choir said. “Thomas will explain himself, and we will vote on his fate.”

“Hang him!” someone in the crowd shouted. The cheer was deafening. Rhythmic clapping started and quickly consumed the crowd. It drowned anything Tom said in his defence.

Tom could have got those orders two ways: he stole them; or he was taking them. Never trust a Royalist.

Slowly, the noise of the crowd abated. As it did, I could hear why: shod hooves on wood. I looked to the south and saw the halo of a lamp slowly advancing.

Something grabbed my arm and twisted me around. Cold, wet flesh smothered my face and stopped my scream. I was too tired to fight, to thrash like a fish on a hook.

“Listen Alice,” Tom hissed at me. “Listen to me. If you say something for me, I could at least get a trial first. If you don’t do something, they’re going to kill me. I mean, this is bloody typical. I tell them the British army is going to be here in four days, and they don’t worry about getting ready. Oh, no. Far more important to find a scapegoat for the inconvenience of their plans being ruined.”

Tom’s good eye was wide and bloodshot. His hair stuck to his face, his clothes filthy and stinking. He took his hand off my face.

“Leave me alone,” I said. I shivered, and not with the cold.

“They’re going to kill me.”

“Leave me alone,” I said again, loud enough for him to hear me but not to be over-heard. If I was seen talking to him like this, it wouldn’t just be him on the gallows. “Take your filthy cav hands off me.”

“Oh great,” Tom said. His face filled with creases and hatred. “Yeah. You think that’s me, that’s what I am? Listen, you little tart: yes, my parents fought for King George. And you know why? Because they had no choice. Redcoats beat down your door, put muskets to your face and say you’re either going to enlist or we shoot you, what do you think you’d do?”

I didn’t answer. I knew what I’d do. What it’d be easier to do.

The hoof beats stopped with a snort and a whinny. Tack rang with a shake of the horse’s head. The gathered Assembly fell back and waited.

“I had a third grade Apprenticeship Bond with Trevithick’s Steam Company, before V&A gutted them,” Tom said. “And then, someone found out who my parents were. Then there were ten guys holding me down and an eleventh guy pushing a red hot Georgian coin into the back of my hand. Before that, Alice, before that, I was a normal person. People listened to me.”

“It’s a genuine V&A seal.” The words came across the Assembly to us. A confident, matter-of-fact voice. Tom glanced at it, and then back at me.

“And they call me a Cavalier,” he said quietly. “The Victoria and Albert Engineering Company. As in Victoria and Albert Hanover. As in the niece of George the Forth. The most powerful company in the Empire, run by the House of Hanover. Fucking revolution might as well have never happened.”

His words wrapped around a thought I had refused to articulate for years. It was just a change of name, Queen Victoria for Chief Executive Officer Victoria. For a moment it seemed as if I’d spent the last three years furious at the mountains. Huge, immortal, unchanging, dwarfing the tiny human civilisation laying tribute at their roots. I was punching at fog, furious at the light of the sun. How do you fight that?

“And they sent you alone?” I heard Goddard say. “Sent a woman, by herself, in the middle of the night?”

“I’ve delivered the eviction notice,” the woman said. “That’s all they need. They’ve fulfilled their legal obligation to remove you peacefully from their land.”

“Alyssa?” Goddard, then his choir, said. The edges of my vision went white. Tom shoved me forwards, into the eyes of the crowd. They passed me towards Goddard. My feet refused to leave the ground. I couldn’t do this, couldn’t do any of this.

“You know our pale rider?” Goddard said.

I looked at her. Amy watched me carefully, her cheek covered in a bandage, hair hidden under a bicorne and body under a great coat which now carried its own weight in rain water.

“I’d like you to escort her back to the farm house,” Goddard said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to believe we treated our guests inhospitably.”

I glanced back over my shoulder, but Tom had disappeared into the night and the rain. Goddard watched me. Amy watched me. The choir watched me. The crowd watched me.

I took hold of the horse’s reins.

It was difficult to make out her features in the dark, difficult to see the expression she wore. She sat on the horse’s back, feet hidden under her riding skirt. We walked through fields ploughed for barley but empty of seed, the mud sucking at my feet and the horse’s hooves. We followed the lines of dry stone walls, the pale rock like a line of moonlight.

“How are you doing?” I asked. “After the café, I mean.”

“Still alive,” she said. “It would really help if I could have some time off to recover my nerves, but the company won’t let me. You?”

“I’m okay,” I said with a shrug. “Got more important things to worry about, I guess.”

The wind blew between us and chilled me. Summer was leaving.

I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t know if the bomb had driven us closer together or further apart. I waited for Amy to say something, walked quietly beside her as she rode. She watched the ground ahead of us, mouth closed apart from the hint of steam in the cold air around her lips.

I escaped into a fantasy land where I stood before Victoria Hanover and made her understand just how unfair the system she had created was. When she spoke, she told me of her childhood locked in a house in Kensington, of the isolation and constant fear that had been her only playmates. She blamed me, she said. Me and all my ilk. We had made her a prisoner, had constructed a jail in her mind that she could never escape from. It was a jail built so we could view her like a lunatic in Bethlehem. I tried to hold my nerve, to not apologise and feel guilty.

“I had to deliver the notice,” Amy said. Her words shoved me back into the real world and my fantasy evaporated. It left me frustratingly unsatisfied, like rushed sex. “It’s my job. I’m just doing my job, Lyss. You anarchists are bad for business. You saw what things were like in town. And it’s past planting now, so we’ve lost hundreds of tons of barley. That’s going to cost us a lot of money.”

“We’re not anarchists,” I said. “We just want what we’re owed.”

Amy leaned back, took the bicorn off and pushed the hair out her face. The rain had diffused into a mist that clung to me. I looked up at Amy, and the lantern above her head gave her a halo in the fog as if she was the moon on a cloudy night. She put the bicorn back on, and the lantern disappeared behind it.

Perhaps I could catch a glance of the real moon. I looked over Amy’s shoulder, and then my own. The company’s balloon still hovered above us, envelope lit up by the brazier beneath it.

“You’re not owed anything,” Amy said.

“That’s the company talking,” I said. “I thought you were a human being.”

“I am,” she said. “And I’m talking for myself. Listen Lyss, don’t blame anyone else for your stupidity. Don’t do it. I’ll lose my temper.”

“My stupidity?” I almost choked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Listen. Before your Glorious Revolution kicked George’s backside out his palace, ninety percent of people in plush jobs were Lords with Apprenticeship Bonds, right? So the government takes over the Royal Industries and says, ‘Hey, now everyone can have an Apprenticeship Bond! You don’t have to be a Lord any more, any peasant can have one! You don’t have any money to buy one? Well fine, our mates the bankers will lend it to you!’ So you greedy bastards snap it up. No one stopped and thought, ‘Well hey, the number of people with Bonds is going up but the number of jobs isn’t…’ You got scammed and now you’re sour.”

“They took our money!” I said. “They’ve got millions, and that wasn’t enough. And they didn’t just take what we had, they took our futures. I’m going to be paying my debts off for the rest of my life. My uncle died for that future, and I earned it!”

“And you know what they’re doing with it, Lyss? All these rockets they’re shooting up, all these steam threshers you hate so much for taking your jobs, they’re all being built in Egypt and India—”

“They’re only being built in India because the wages are so low,” I said. “When people start demanding a living wage there, they’ll just move again.”

She watched me from the saddle, her skin smothered in shadows cast by the bicorn, her hair, the lapels of her coat. Her hands gripped the reins, the bandage across her left check an alien growth of grey skin.

“You’re next,” I said. “This isn’t about countries. This is about money. About wealth. About those who have it stealing it from those who don’t. Once they’ve drained us dry they’ll move on to you. It’s not country verses country, it’s peasantry verses bourgeoisies—and you’re betraying your own side.”

Amy threw the reins at me and I caught them out of instinct, a loyal worker whose muscles had been trained to serve. She dismounted, stood breast-to-breast with me, gripped my shoulders with the talons of a bird of prey. She pulled me forward until I could feel the warmth of her breath on my chin.

“You know why I’m not married?” she snarled. “No. You know what I was thinking about when I had my first orgasm, Lyss? Let me tell you: my governess. If I want to keep my job—if I want to walk down the street without getting the shit kicked out of me—I have to betray myself. I betray myself every day when I get up and pretend to be normal. I betray myself whenever I speak to someone. I betray myself whenever I flirt with a man to keep up appearances, when I pretend to be flattered by his advances. I betray myself whenever I see a woman I find attractive and act like nothing has happened. And you know what? When you spend your whole life stabbing yourself in the back, stabbing someone else in the back really doesn’t matter all that much.”

She held onto my shoulders and onto my gaze, refusing to let me look away. I felt her warm breath against my lips, the wind pushed her hair against my cheeks. I tried to pull back, to push away without touching her. She held onto me. She watched me, and I saw light catching on her eyelashes as she blinked.

She looked over my shoulder, and I turned around.

A streak of yellow flame fell in-front of the clouds. A man-shaped silhouette fell from the snake’s head and turned end-over-end. A scream reached us over the sound of burning.

The reins pulled in my hand, and I held them tighter.

Beneath the flames, I saw the shape of a basket. I saw panic, people screamed and fled and they had no where to flee to. The heat from the fire burned my still-sensitive skin and over-whelmed my eyes. I couldn’t see anything else.

The reins pulled again, and I held tighter. The dying balloon streaked to the ground, the noise and heat destroying the cold and wet of the night.

 [ Horse, © 2014 Erik Lasse ] A snap of pain in my shoulder and fingers and I lost my footing and hot, wet horse breath filled my face. Two huge, white eyes stared straight at me. My hand gripped the reins and I saw my feet crash against the beast’s flank. My shoulder sent a tight ball of pain to my fingers, and the world twisted around me. I let go.

I lay on the ground, and the heat of the burning balloon smothered me like waves on a beach. The world spun, snapped back, spun, snapped back. I could see the outline of Amy’s face, her hair falling around it.

“Oh, shit…” she said. “Shit, shit, shit…”

I tried to form words, in my mouth or even in my head. All I could manage was a low, long groan.

“It’s going to be okay, Lyss,” she told me.

I groaned again.

I felt Amy take hold of my chin and turn my face towards hers. She leaned in, her lips so close to mine I could feel her words.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said again.

The last thing I would swear to was her lips against mine, soft and warm and wet.

I woke up with a bitter taste gummed to the inside of my mouth. I prised my lips apart and forced my finger beyond my teeth. I poked my tongue. I dug my nail into it. I felt pain, but it didn’t happen to me. It happened to someone else who told me what it felt like. I tried to roll onto my side, but my body was heavy and had ideas of its own. So, I lay on my back and waited.

The thick, musty smell of canvass slowly found its way into my brain. Sounds of people moving, of people moaning. The sound of people dropping duckboards into the mud and shuffling along them. I closed my eyes.

I opened them again. Heat from a near-by oil lamp touched me, its musty smoke drifting over my face. I opened my mouth and inserted my finger again. My tongue was thick and squirmed, refused to be pinned down. I closed my eyes.


The voice was familiar, comforting. Rockets shot into the heavens. Their noise faded, drew back to reveal the voice again.

“Can you hear me, Alyssa?”

I opened my eyes. Thick daylight filled the tent.

“Just nod, if you can’t speak,” the voice said. I nodded.

“You’re going to be okay,” it said. I made a noise. “The horse panicked. You sprained your shoulder, and your left calf was stamped on. You’ve just got some severe bruising on your calf, but we don’t think it’s broken. Your friend carried you back here. You need some rest.”

I made another noise.

The rain. A great emptiness swallowed me in the fraction of a second it took for my mind to form those two syllables. I grasped for purchase in it, but found none.

“Father Goddard?” I said.

“Get some rest,” Goddard said.

His footsteps retreated. I closed my eyes.

My mouth opened, and someone put something cold and wet into it. I gagged at the bitter taste and swallowed involuntarily.

When I opened my eyes again, it was daylight, and cold. The air was damp like early morning. My head pounded and rocks filled my intestines.

The air was still thick with the smell of canvass and trapped air and death. I could feel that there was something wrong, but my brain refused to put it into words for me.

I put my hands on the edges of the bed, and pushed until I was sitting. The world swam for a moment, reality sloshing around and refusing to settle. I swivelled myself around and let my feet rest on the ground. My left calf ached like insects were burrowing through it.

Tom’s walking stick was by my bedside. The fingers of my right hand refused to move. I took the stick with my left and pulled myself to my feet.

Outside, the sun was low and not yet clear of the horizon. I blinked it into focus and reality still refused to settle. I shuffled a few feet along a duckboard.

A sparrow called.

It filled me with a dread I’d not known since I was six years old and my parents had told me to say my prayers or else Satan would take me while I slept. I wanted to get back into my sick bed and slip out of consciousness again. I wanted to wake up and find normality. I closed my eyes and when I opened them the world had refused to change. I shuffled a few feet further.

I couldn’t lay helpless in bed while Satan stalked abroad. It had been impossible for me when I was six and it was impossible for me now. I couldn’t simply wait.

I followed the board through our camp, passing the open flaps of the tents. I came to the ridge, and looked west as the thin lip of the sun watched the back of my head.

Everyone I had come to know as brothers-in-arms over the last two months were lined on the edge of the ridge, staring down the sights of their rifles.

The rain had stopped. I could see the sun and hear the birds for the first time in more than a month. I turned my head and vomited.

The farm machines sat on the edge of the ridge, their tracked tyres already sinking into the mud. As big as banker’s houses, they shook with the pipes that choked their black iron bodies. Smoke flowed out their chimneys like water over a fall. Piles of burning wood were jammed into crevices and shelves made by the pipes. They filled the camp with an orchestra of noise felt rather than heard, a battering ram to the gut. The morning mist which still clung to the ground drifted away from the watch fires in tendrils of steam.

From the other side of the Slough of Despond, I heard a bugle call. The men and women on the machines waited. The bugle echoed through the fabric of the tents, against the wood of the machinery sheds and over the acres of mud.

Hoof beats squelched. Someone fired a shot. Another followed. But then there was only the sound of horses stampeding their way through the mire and the gut-punch of the machinery.

As I watched the shifting fabric of fog, I saw the dawn sun catch on the metal of body armour. Heavy sheets of steel covering the chests and legs of man and horse. One hand held reins, the other a sabre, ready to sweep down and cut flesh. Shots came from the thresher, the plough, the tractor. The charge swept down the slope and one, two riders fell.

As they charged, one horse twisted around, fell on its side as its legs snapped and its rider tumbled into the mud. Another horse stopped far too quickly, its front legs locked in the mud and its tail whipped its head as it cartwheeled.

Three riders made it to the disintegrating drainage ditch before sinking quickly up to their thighs. They thrashed, horse and man, but made easy targets. More cavalry bucked and fell, trapped and sinking in the mud of the Slough, sinking under the weight of their armour, their sin. The men cried, the horses cried, and the shots kept coming. I watched a man thrown from his horse try to crawl up to us, and I saw a rider catapulted from his mount drown him in the mud as he landed.

Another bugle call came from across the Slough, and after a few moments there was another wave of squelching hooves. The air smelt of burning coal, of wet wood smoke, of blood and shit and death. I fell to my knees.

The second charge hit the first like a wave against a cliff face. Caught in the confusion of mud and bodies, they twisted and fell and screamed.

I turned away and watched the sky.

The morning mist evaporated, the fingers pulling back to reveal a charge of angels. They swept without sound from the sky, they plucked the soldiers off the ground, and they carried them away. They vanished as if they’d never existed.

I woke to voices and rain. My guts full of shale. My legs were dozens of feet away from me, attached by thin wires to my hips. My head rang, trying to fight its way back to the real world, to somewhere that made sense. Someone moaned and shuffled on the wet beds of the infirmary.

“I should have come across sooner,” I heard a voice say. “I’ve always wanted a chance to stand at the Eureka Stockade and spit in the eye of the English oppressors. How many people get the chance to live out their dreams?”

“This isn’t a game,” another voice said after a pause.

“I know that,” the first voice said. “And I know a V&A turncoat isn’t going to get an easy time. But Hell, you’re telling me you couldn’t do with the extra help?”

A wet gurgle came from the bed beside me, then hacking coughs.

“What about the company?”

“You said yourself that they didn’t expect me to come back after delivering the notice,” the first voice said. A pause. “V&A had a monopoly on the Melbourne docks—they owned the wharfs, the cranes, the ships, the warehouses… My father worked for them, fourteen hours a day, six days a week. In fifty-nine, he joined the Traders Hall and rallied the other stevedores to join the labour union. He was dead within three months. We lived in a V&A worker’s house and we would have been kicked out, but my fourteen-year-old brother got a job with them. The docks made V&A rich and we were in slums and dying of cholera. Lyss was right: it’ll be some other poor bastard next.”

“The situation hasn’t changed,” the second voice. “Why has your mind changed?”

A heavy sigh.

“Because I kissed her,” the first voice. “I kissed her, and nothing happened. The world didn’t open up and swallow me. Satan didn’t appear and drag me to Hell. Fuck, no one cared. I’m a homosexual, Father. I don’t find men sexually attractive, but I there’s some women out there who make me swoon.”

Another pause.

“I’m happy you can tell me that,” the second voice. “But don’t tell anyone else. There’s already enough tension in the camp.”

“Amy?” I said.

“Yeah,” first voice. “Yeah. I won’t go throwing it in people’s faces. I’ll just be quietly homosexual.”

“Amy?” I said again.

Footsteps came towards me. A soft, cool hand ran down my cheek and gently cupped my chin.

“What did you say, sweetheart?”

“Is that you, Amy?” I asked.

“Amy?” the first voice said. “Is that what you said? Yeah, it’s Amy. You’re going to be okay, Lyss. You just need some rest.”

“Did you come here for me?”

“Did I what? Come here for you?”

The fingers stroked the line of my jaw.

“Don’t flatter yourself. It wasn’t that great a kiss.”

“I want to go home,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “We’re both a long way from home.”

I said it again.

“What, Lyss? You want to go home? Now? Jeez, how did someone as spineless as you end up on this side of this fight?”

Water dripped outside my tent. Feet scuffed over the wooden boards. Quick laughter, arguments about looting the bodies of the soldiers: it’s a waste of good equipment; let them sink and rot; it’s a waste of good food; it’s a death sentence to go down there. Far away, the General Assembly gathered. The infirmary was filled with shit and death. The air was cold.

How did I end up on this side of this fight? I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t want to think about the men and women outside, or about the man I could hear dying in the bed next to mine. I didn’t want to think about the next wave of cavalry they’d send.

I didn’t want to think about the five years I studied with V&A. I didn’t want to think about crying before my exams and how each of those tears had meant nothing. About how the Bond I’d earned was no better than toilet paper.

I didn’t want to think about Amy kissing me. About the warmth, the softness, the tenderness of her touch. About how, in that moment, I would have given anything for more. About how starved, how empty of human empathy I was. How her epiphany was sparked by an empty, spineless husk like me and how it should have been someone great and good and worthwhile.

My parents. I hadn’t spoken to them in months. My mother used to write to me every week, and I’d write back. A long, tortuous grind that took me hours to complete. If she missed a week, I’d sit and wait. I’d wait for her to write. I’d never write first.

The revolution killed my uncle. Fighting so his niece could have a life worth living. And I made ends meet by begging charity and digging through bins, and my mother had to pay for the letters I sent back to her. My uncle died for nothing. I saw it in my father’s eyes every time he looked at me. I saw it in every curve of my mother’s ink.

I didn’t want to think about it.

I didn’t want to think about any of it.

But the laudanum, Father Goddard’s distant voice, the cool touch of fingers I let myself believe were Amy’s, the smell of the mud, the taste of wet canvass… They wouldn’t give me a choice.

How had someone as spineless as me ended up on this side of this fight?

I’d heard a march was happening in town. I’d joined so I could tell myself I was doing something, and didn’t think about what I was doing or how I thought it would help one God-damned bit. We’d ended up here. I hadn’t left. It was just… easier. Easier to stay with the crowd. To follow. To not wonder why.

Easier to get an Apprenticeship Bond, because that’s what my uncle died for. Because the revolution was glorious and set us all free.

Easier to ignore my parents.

It was always… always just easier.

So why had I left a note on Amy’s desk?

I rolled onto my side, heard the bed creak, had my nose shot full of fungal spores which had been growing in the fabric. Coal smoke and steam drifted into the infirmary.

I had printed the note, scared of my handwriting giving me away. I sneaked into the machine shed and worked the letterpress alone, because I was scared to ask for permission to use it. It was easier not to ask.

We had found the starling dead and cold against the kitchen wall. Amy’s father was sick, and she wanted to be a surgeon when she grew up. So I wanted to be a surgeon, too. We knew it was a serious job, and we took it seriously. We didn’t worry about what was easier, we just worried about what we wanted.

Rain. Gunpowder. Rotten flesh. Distant voices. I rolled onto my back, the rain dripped through the canvass and onto my face.

What was I doing here?

I pushed myself onto my hips, and stopped for a few moments while the world swam. I prodded the flesh of my legs. It felt cold and wet. A timpani of rain hit the tent. I swung my legs onto the floor, took hold of Tom’s stick and pulled myself to my feet. Slowly, I shuffled out into the twilight.

The air was cold and stark. And wet. It clung to my skin like I could offer it salvation. The smell of rot clung to the mud. I shuffled along the duckboards, blinking the rain and light out of my eyes.

The flap of the chapel was open, and I let myself in. A duckboard lay down the aisle, and smaller boards branched off for pews. The two candles on the altar were lit, burning slowly.

“Well, if someone just showed me how to clean the guns—” I heard Amy say.

“There’s a whole camp of people that need feeding,” Goddard said. They both stood with their back to me, engrossed in their argument. Tom paced for four steps behind them, turned, and then paced back. He stared down at the floor.

“I’ve been peeling potatoes for three days!” Amy said. “Let me do something else, won’t you?”

“The Assembly—” Goddard said.

“Fuck the fucking Assembly,” Tom spat.

“Now that’s—” Goddard said.

“We’re leaving,” I told them. I shuffled down the aisle.

All three of them stopped and looked at me.

“You shouldn’t be out of bed,” Amy said.

“Tomorrow night,” I said. “We’ll leave the tents set up, but take everything else. They won’t realise we’re gone for a few days. That’ll buy us enough time.”

“We’re not leaving,” Goddard said. “The army attacked us, Alyssa, and we won. We beat them. There’s no sense in us leaving now.”

“You really think we won?” I said. “Before we were just a nuisance. Now we’re murderers. We mercilessly killed the brave soldiers of Parliament’s army, the sons of the heroic revolutionaries who won our freedom, the thin red line that keeps us free.”

“We didn’t start this colonisation just to give up,” Goddard said.

Amy and Tom watched us, spectators at a play.

I pulled myself to within a couple of feet of Goddard and refused to look away.

“I didn’t start this colonisation to die,” I told him. “I came here to change the world. You can’t change the world if you’re a corpse. V&A fooled me once. I won’t get fooled again.”

“I don’t think—”

“I used to be like that,” I said. “I was very good at it. But then I stopped, and I started to think. If we stay here, we’re all going to die. How long do you think before they bring in artillery? How long do you think our suppliers will keep giving us food and ammo? Long enough for us to defeat the entire fucking army? There’s what—a hundred of us? There’s over a hundred thousand in the army. You think we can kill them all?”

I waited for Goddard to answer. He licked his lips.

“We leave,” I said. “We go back to the city. How is anyone going to know who we are? We go back to our shitty homes and our shitty lives. We go back to being nothing more than the poor sod cleaning out their privy. We wait. And, when we find another battlefield, we appear from nowhere. An army of shit shovellers, of gin waitresses, of invisible unemployed. We appear from nowhere, we fight that battle, and we win. And then we vanish like we never existed. We’ll be an army of shadows.”

“Like the Spanish guerillas?” Tom said. “In the Peninsula War? They’d attack camps or French supplies, and then disappear into the hills.”

“We won’t wear uniforms,” I said. “We won’t hide in the hills. We’ll go back to being the invisible people we’ve always been. Sitting in this farm isn’t going to win the war. This war’s far too big for that. Sitting here is just going to get us killed. So we’re leaving. Tomorrow night.”

“More like the Luddites…” Amy said.

I turned around, and shuffled back down the board.

“You can’t just decide like that,” Goddard said. “You need to put a motion before the Assembly.”

“Even if you let an irrational and emotional woman speak at the Assembly, and even if people listened to me, and even if all the cavs and all the women voted with me, I’d still only have thirty-percent of the vote,” I said. “That’s the same as not being able to speak at all. For me, for Tom, for Amy. For anyone in that thirty percent.”

I didn’t turn around.

Goddard sighed.

“Alyssa,” he said patiently. “You just need to calm down and think about this rationally. We can’t—”

“Fuck the Assembly,” I said. I caught the movement of my hand in the periphery of my vision, gesticulating wildly. There was spittle on my lips. I turned around so Goddard could see. “I’m angry, and I have every right to be angry, and you can just fucking deal with it. V&A have fucked up my life and since I’ve been here all I’ve been allowed to do about it is wash your socks and cook your food. And you know what? I’m better than that. I can fix machinery, I can clean guns, I can deal with suppliers. I’m not married to the Assembly, and I’m not going to be its housewife any more.”

Goddard spoke again, but I didn’t hear what he said. The words fell off me, water off a duck’s back. I turned and shuffled away.

Amy’s hand wrapped around my waist and took my weight. I let her.

“You need a hand?” she asked.

I didn’t refuse.

We left the chapel, and she started to guide me back to the infirmary.

“Hey,” I heard Tom say. I heard his feet against the wet wood.

“Hey, Alyssa.” His hand was on my shoulder. I stopped, and Amy helped me turn around.

“I’m going to spread the word around,” Tom said. “About your shadow army. The Assembly is going to hang me for stealing those orders, and I came here to take the fight to V&A. I came here to bloody their nose, not sit around and wait for my neck to be stretched. And I’m not the only one tired of sitting on his arse.”

He looked at me. Watched me. I wanted to run. I wanted to be someone else.

But I wasn’t someone else. I was me, and I was here, and this is what I had to deal with.

“Tell them to meet by the thresher shed, about midnight,” I said.

Tom nodded and with it swore an unspoken oath to me. Then he turned, and walked away.

“What are you going to do?” Amy asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. I hoped Tom couldn’t hear me. “I was hoping… it would, you know. Something would happen.”

“Every army needs a general, Lyss,” Amy said. “Even a shadow army.”

I sighed. My feet moved. I felt the weight of my body against the heel, the arch, my toes. All I had to do right now was walk.

“Every general needs a second-in-command,” I said. I didn’t look at Amy, just kept looking at the ground, at my feet.

Amy didn’t say anything. She helped me through the tent flaps of the infirmary, and guided me back down to my bed. I let out a long, hard sigh.

She pulled the dead man’s bed closer to mine, and sat on the edge of it. She watched me.

“You remember that starling we found?” I said. “I didn’t have a clue what to do with it. Just that you wanted to help your dad and we needed to do something…”

Amy reached forwards, and wiped a tear off each of my cheeks. “We sold it to that taxidermist, remember? Got a couple of coppers and brought my dad a new blanket. Don’t worry Lyss, we’ll work this out, too.”

© 2014 Dylan Fox

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