“Don’t you realize that you’re living a lie? The world you live in is a fiction! This rainbow road leads nowhere! It is a dead end! And we all know it,” William Godwin started his speech, shattering the serenity of Dogberry Park. He stood on the basin of the fountain base of the revolving statue and the eyes of several canoodling couples peppered about the park turned on him. “But we hide it from each other! We conspire in our own fantasy. We wake up to Uncle Jack, and we go to sleep with Uncle Jack, and we nod our heads, and only in our dreams do we dare confront the truth!
“And the truth is,” he said, encouraged by their now undivided attention, “that the rich are robbing us blind! The tiny minority living in the Parade District has taken all the bread and all the butter. And those who live in that Emerald City say, ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!’ It’s time to pull aside that curtain and see that our lords and masters are rubbish wizards and aren’t any better men than we are!”
The couples were getting up now and coming to surround him, and they looked mad! Rightfully so, William thought. He was getting through to them!
“Why do you think we’re all so hungry? They’re eating our bread! They’re eating our butter!” he said, pounding his fist in his hand. “And they’ve locked us out so we won’t see. Why there are gates on the bridges? Why do you need a Letter of Transit to enter the Parade District? Because they’re banqueting in there, and laughing themselves silly at how foolish we are. Lovely day for it indeed. You know what will be a lovely day? When we wake up.”
Someone in the back shouted for him to shut up, sure, but they were listening!
“Stop dreaming of better times. Take them back! Come on! Chant with me! Take them back!” His audience stared up at him with angry eyes and compulsory smiles, but did not join in his chanting. Finally, one of the men stepped forward.
“Take them back! Take them back,” William persisted, now speaking directly to this young man so bold as to break from the pack, trying to get him to show just a smidge more courage and join him in his chant. William looked down at him, willing him to lend his voice to the cause. And for a moment, the man raised his hands up and it looked like he was going to pump his fists along with William’s battle cry.
Instead, the man pushed him into the fountain. William fell back into the water and the rest of the crowd hopped backwards to avoid getting splashed. The girl who had come with the man who pushed him darted forward to grab on to her date’s arm and coo over the hero of Dogberry Park. Interloper silenced, the crowd dispersed back to their benches and picnic blankets. One woman, who had been standing in the back of the crowd, remained. She jotted down some notes on a small notepad as she waited for William to collect himself.
“Well, anyway, thank you for listening,” William sputtered, half-way submerged in the fountain and wiping water out of his eyes. “God bless you. God bless the King. And God bless Wellington Wells.” He stepped out of the basin, a large puddle forming where he stood, and let out a dejected sigh.
“Tough crowd,” the woman commented.
“I’ll say,” William agreed. He took his sopping wet hat from his head and wrung it out. “I, um… I didn’t come here with you. I know it’s hard to tell everyone apart now, with the masks and all. Your date is probably looking for you.”
The woman snorted at that. “I’m not waiting for a date. I’m a reporter.” She slid her pencil into the spiral of her notebook and held out a hand. “Gemma Olsen, “O” Courant.”
William looked at her out-stretched hand with suspicion and did not move to shake it.
“The “O” Courant isn’t going to print anything about this,” he said. “Unless it’s a call to have me hung for sedition. It’s a propaganda arm for the very same people shutting us out of the Parade.”
“No, the paper won’t print an article about your demonstration,” Gemma concurred, flashing him a devious look and letting her hand fall to her side, “but I didn’t come to do a piece on it.”
“Then why are you taking notes?” William asked, glancing down at her notepad.
“Because you never know when you might accidentally drink some spiked water or get gassed,” Gemma said.
William stared, open-mouthed.
“If I wasn’t, I’d be fawning over the guy who pushed you in the fountain too.”
Considering that, William accepted that she may be more of an ally than her occupation might suggest.
“What did you want then?” he asked.
“Had you ever ridden the Number 4 bus to Kite Hill?”
Whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t that. William blinked in confusion at the question. There hadn’t been buses in Wellington Wells in years. “Maybe? I’d have been too young to really remember. It would have been before the requisitions,” he answered. “And I’ve not been in the Parade for so long, I can hardly remember what the streets were named. It may not even have been that route.”
Gemma looked disappointed, but it was as honest and thorough an answer as he could give her.
“You haven’t happened to have noticed anything strange since you… you know?” she prodded.
“Besides how everyone is so skinny but no one notices they’re starving? Or how we’re not allowed to move freely in the town anymore?” William asked, his voice pitching up as he outlined the severity of the situation. “Just to go to the chemist on St. George, you have to play through the Simon Says test on the bridge. There’s even Detectors on the streets now!” He gesticulated as he detailed these problems, flinging dots of water onto Gemma’s dress.
“Shh, shh!” Gemma waved her own hands up and down to placate him. “Don’t make a scene.”
“Sorry, it’s just, well,” William apologized. “If someone doesn’t make a scene about it, we’re all going to starve to death.”
“Maybe, but you’re never going to win these people over with that rhetoric,” Gemma said. “No one wants to hear the hard truth. They especially don’t want it shouted to them when they’re trying to whisper sweet nothing’s in their girlfriend’s ear.”
He wanted to argue with her, to ask how she could criticize his efforts to wake the people up when she worked for The “O” Courant. The paper’s very purpose was to say that everything was fine, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Then again, as one of their reporters, Gemma had no problem convincing people that what she said was the truth. They were happy to believe her even. Much as he didn’t want to admit it, she might have some underhanded propagandist insight he could benefit from.
“What would you suggest then?” he conceded.
“You could have picked a better venue for one thing,” Gemma supposed. “If you want these people to rise up and fight back against the tyranny of the Parade, why not do your soapboxing in Eric Blair Park instead? A statue of soldiers who fought for our freedom behind you is going to sell your call to arms better than a pair of lovebirds twirling around without a care in the world. There’s nothing like the mortal sacrifice of one’s forebearers to guilt people into action. And that statue doesn’t have a water feature either.”
“That… is a really good point,” William admitted. If he moved his speeches to Eric Blair Park, he’d have the implied endorsement of the soldiers who fought to tear down the gates on the bridges that the Germans had built there, the gates that the Executive Committee saw fit to rebuild. It would embolden his audience, let them know that they too could be the heroes Wellington Wells needs. “I bet you use sneaky symbolism like that all the time when you’re writing for the paper, don’t you?” he asked, dazed and impressed.
“And don’t lead with an indictment of their entire way of life,” Gemma went on, grumping a bit as she ignored his question about her professional tricks. “You’re going to lose them right from the start if they think you’re attacking them by saying that they know all of this is a lie. You have to at least sound like you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt. Try to place more of the blame on external forces than your audience. Make out that it’s the world that’s gone crazy, not them.”
“I’m just trying to make them see, but… one does catch more flies with honey,” William had to agree. “If I just focus on what they were missing out on, what they could have if they only demand it… Yes, I’ll revise my speech a bit. Make it more pleasant.”
“It will probably make it shorter too, which couldn’t hurt,” Gemma pointed out. “You won’t get anyone chanting with you and ganging up to storm the gates either so you should let that bit go. No one wants to cause a fuss. Fusses are more or less illegal now.”
“They don’t seem to have any trouble causing a fuss if they think someone might be Downer,” William grumbled. “They’re happy to get… rumbustious then.”
“Yes, but that’s acceptable within polite society,” Gemma said. Her eyes took a cynical sparkle to that statement. “What you’re telling them is contrary to what they’ve been told is true for as long as they can remember. You’re not just fighting misinformation, but complacency in it. They think they’re happy the way things are and you’re rocking the boat. You have to give them time to think this over.”
She was right. He was not dealing with existing civil unrest. He was trying to instigate it. The Joy made everyone’s attention span so short though.
“Do you think they’ll remember long enough to think it over?” William asked, his gaze darting about to all the rail-thin couples doting on each other beyond Gemma. “If it takes much longer to get through to them, no one is going to be in any shape to siege anything.”
“One almost never wins an argument in the moment,” she said, shrugging. “Minds are only really open to change when you’re not there to say you told them so.” William wasn’t very encouraged by that. He’d always been an optimist though and the thought that an entire town would just let itself starve to death when there was food to be had just beyond a bridge gate was yet still absurd enough to give him hope.
Gemma’s eyes narrowed on him then and it made him feel like he was being judged, but for what he couldn’t guess. Standing before her, dripping wet, he felt very inadequate. Finally, though, she seemed to decide in his favor and gave him one last suggestion.
“You should make an appointment at Sally’s Interplanetary Travel Agency too,” she told him. “Have her give you a consultation.”
“Why?” William asked. He wasn’t exactly keen to talk to anyone about his medicinal needs these days. It invited too much scrutiny.
“She might be able to help, that’s all” Gemma said. “But don’t tell her I sent you.”
“All right,” William said. He was skeptical of this cryptic advice – it didn’t seem wise to be asking a pharmacist to look too closely at you when you were a Downer – but Gemma was a Downer too so maybe she knew something he didn’t. It wouldn’t be the first time today.
“I’d best be off. I’ve got other leads to follow and you probably want to go home and dry off,” Gemma said, tucking her notepad into her purse. “Good luck with your revolution.”
“Thank you, Miss Olsen. If I just make a few adjustments, I’m sure I’ll be winning them over in no time!” William said.
asymptotally generously gave us another illustration for this chapter.