Placards. Raised fists. A cacophony of shouting.
Peace. Justice. Testing on animals. The homeless.
It all blends into one. There is just the outside air, just his breath misting before him, just the earnestness, and the ragged anger, and the shared outrage. The cause. Any cause. The sea of faces and colours, the long scarves, the long coats, the clotting of so many bodies, all synchronised to one purpose. The smell of doughnuts, the smell of chicken pies. Spice and diesel. Horns honk in support, or impatience – the one inseparable from the other. Who's angry? Who's loyal? The horn can't voice its intent.
He threads his way through the clutter of it, sidesteps protesters, waves a fleeting acknowledgement to a young man he knows he knows, even if he can't put a finger on exactly where from. And did someone call out his name?
Her. He can see her up ahead, always in the thick of it, always with her hair loose – hair lighter than butter, as nearly white as milk – milk-and-honey – like her skin – a red-petal mouth – a smile breathless with passion, a purple scarf looped around her neck. So lovely. Embodiment of everything wonderful and pure and untainted.
She takes a moment to winnow his voice out of all the other noise; and then, in that next moment, her smile is for him. She's beckoning him over.
“Gordy. You made it!”
They're shouting to be heard above it all. A few rows ahead that guy with round glasses is trying to pull together a chant. There's too much hum for him to get it really going – brave voice quickly puttering out. A burst of fire, a dissolution of smoke.
“I didn't see you earlier.”
“Traffic. Sorry. I brought muffins.”
Reaching along his shoulder, pressing her cheek to his; so fleeting, and still, the impression clings there, tingling, reaching in. She could colonise his soul. And he wants it. She's angel dust and pure sunlight – a star born there on earth: on paving stones, standing in front of graffiti, her hair catching droplets of water from the fountain so nearby. Her grin could launch a billion ships – or if they carried live animals for slaughter, or were nuclear powered, or connected to modern slavery: the same grin, the same face, could hold them back.
It's poverty today.
It's all about the numbers. The 95%. The 1%. It's about the cost of living, and falling through cracks. There are people here who haven't fallen through anything: in sleek, expensive coats; in soft leather shoes; the girls with their $200 haircuts. And then others, who seem to have crawled up out of the asphalt, through those same cracks: and they're faded, ragged, so much more muted in their shouting if that can make any sense.
Sophie hands him a placard.
He reads it. 'Living Wage' it says.
“Have you ever tried living on minimum wage?” she asks him.
“Do you think any of those fat-cats who set the minimum wage ever had to live on it?”
And he knows the answer is 'no' and that he doesn't really have to give it, the question is conveniently rhetorical. And while he listens to it with half his mind, the other half plays across her features, luxuriates in them, finds the pixie in her upturned nose, finds the swan in the curve of her neck.
They move up onto the steps in front of the town hall. Some of the more rabid ones are throwing themselves against the windows. Just letting out their inner beast. Some of the more earnest ones have formed a line, and their faces are grim, in tune with a snow-touched wind that's started to blow across the courtyard.
“Liv. Ing. Wage,” a chant picks up.
“Liv. Ing. Wage,” it gets carried and enlarged upon, grows organically. Just three syllables, repeated in unison. And so it packs a punch. A weaving together of voices, all blended into the one sound, all ringing with solidarity.
Her. Sophie. Her voice in time with the others. For him at least, it rings at a different frequency, vibrates a little out of phase – sweeter and higher and deeper and more full of feeling and love. She's wholly enveloped in this conglomerate voice.
Faces in windows. What's it all this about? Should we go outside, or are they likely to harass us? Not afraid of these rabble.
Two women stepping out. Knife sharp heels. Matching jackets.
The crowd shouting their slogans; but they part, let them pass, hand out flyers.
The voice of the people. Not of tyranny.
The police come later. They seem half-hearted. They're milling around, just keeping an eye on things. They don't need to step in.
And still the arms link. The man in the glasses starting it off; and then the girl in the purple jersey; and the woman with beads in her hair; the bearded, rust-worn old man. It turns out they really shall not be moved.
“They're not trying to...” he starts.
“Sssh.” One finger on his lips. “Come on.”
I shouldn't get arrested. It's on the tip of his tongue. It never finds its way out. He runs over with her, links his arm in hers, flops down on the cold ground next to a stranger, in front of another, behind one more. His arms snakes through that of a middle-aged man with green and yellow tattoos. And he wants to ask about them – one of them representing a grasshopper, one of them seeming to be an umbrella - except that its all fluid edges as if its meant to be a living thing. A story -surely. But the moment's wrong. And there's so much noise.
She leans across and kisses him.
“I love you.”
He hardly knows her. Or she him. And she gives that away so lightly, as if it's nothing, as if it came in on the wind and will fly away again. While meantime, he burns all over with the sight of her, the sound, the shape – she's all he'll ever want. He knows it.
There's speeches. There's some guy from the food bank; and a girl who works in social services, and a thin-faced man who volunteers for the city mission. And he thinks, yeah, you've seen it all, because this guy's face is scarred, he has a missing tooth, and he has something so calm about him, so firm in what he believes – in what he knows. He doesn't have to raise his voice – not even against the wind – they're falling silent for him, sinking like felled grass.
“....whole families. Four generations maybe, from babies to old women in their 90s. It might be anyone, and they're not drug addicts, not gamblers. Just people. They've got nowhere to go, and they've got nothing. If a couple of family members can get work, that's great, but look at the average rent on a three bedroom house – now you put a family of ten in that house, you have children sleeping on floors, and still, your minimum wage: there's nothing left once they've paid the rent....”
Four generations, he thinks, if they pooled their resources... But what's in a pool of nothing?
Suddenly he feels guilty and privileged, aware of the shoes on his feet that don't have holes in the bottom, and – shame – a nearly new i-phone in the pocket of medium-priced jeans.
They're gathering onlookers. Good. What she hoped for. And some of the policemen are listening, leaning on lamp-posts, even nodding a little as they hear stories they can corroborate from what they've seen themselves.
Stick around, he thinks, grab a few doughnuts.
He remembers that he still has muffins in his bag.
They're good muffins. He feels oddly relieved at having chosen well.
Lemon and walnut, topped with muesli.
The two of them lounge on the steps and eat with their heads almost touching. He notices that her eyes are almost ridiculously blue, the sky on a midsummer day: the kind of day – the kind of blue – where it blazes and burns, when blue becomes a fire-colour. That's her.
She leans back, resting on elbows: “How many do you think?”
It looks like they're all having a picnic out here. He tries to do a mental count. “A couple of hundred.”
“There must have been double at four.”
“We'll be on the news right?”
“I hope so.”
“I saw cameras.”
“Yeah, I think I did too.”
The protest is fading away around them. It dissolves from the outside in, with its peripheral enthusiasts the first to drift off to their regular lives. Or it seems that way – but too, there are those in the middle, the central figures, centrifugal force: they trickle to the outside and then float off from there. A ball of wool unravelling from it's centre, and the rest of it contracts, pulling close like a swarm of bees. In the middle: just placards, just water bottles, a coat or two, a pair of sneakers – an emptiness – no queen.
Music plays in the background. He can't trace it's origins.
Sophie reaches for his hand. “Where did you park?”
Their destination is by mutual and silent content. Her place. Unoccupied. And the thing that'll happen there is never distilled into words. It just is. She sings to herself as he drives, tapping her fingers on her thighs, on those sexy, faded jeans. Paint It Black. He sings quietly along, his voice pooling in the shadow of hers.
He thinks about the warmth inside, the light left on, the way his hands will get to move across her faultless, silk-soft skin. How warm and delicate and welcoming it'll be.
A voice cuts into that, as she fumbles for a key at the bottom of the staircase.
“Change,” a grizzled old man, a rag-doll. His dirty hand reaches out.
He shakes his head.
Sophie doesn't. She sits down beside him, she has twenty dollars for him, and she talks, she tells him about the shelter, about the mission, and the foodbank, about the place out the back of the supermarket where they stack the expired food. She has time for his story, and she tells her own, and she's full of words of encouragement, for appreciation.
And Gordy sees himself. He sees her. The gulf is huge. But shouldn't that always have been so obvious?
He goes in with her all the same. He's quiet while she talks about that old man – the dirty rags and rank smell that only Sophie has been able to concoct into a person. Sophie's who's seen the person in him, whose passion is as real as the chair Gordy sits in while he listens to it all.
When the the wine is gone, while the night is pitch black, he'll go cheerfully off to her room with her.
Love is love. Whatever brings it about.
He sleeps inside her orbit, in her warmth, with her fairy-pale hair tickling his cheek. Yes, she's everything he thought she'd be: as soft, as silken, as delicate, as absolutely perfect. Energetic and liberated; never, never coy.
He lies awake. He can make out the shadows of leaves against the ceiling. The trees that brush endlessly against the steel of her roof; scraping and rustling; smudged and dappled in reflection against the ceiling. Moving, he thinks, like a colony of ants....
He already knows, with first light, that he'll make his excuses. He'll clatter down the stairs, walk out onto the street, over to the car. And the homeless man will watch him, half snoozing, half dreaming; pulling a ragged collar up around his furred cheeks.