Small Town Insurrection
By Mark Burrow
I walked through the maze of streets and alleyways, trying to remember how to reach the town square. Seagulls circled above me, swooping low over my head and crying out like I was a scrap of food to be snaffled in their beaks.
A swarm of grey clouds filled the evening sky. There was nobody around to ask for directions. Somewhere far off, I heard the barking of a black dog. The noise made me feel wistful. I looked at the curtains pulled shut across windows of cobblestone cottages and slanted, two-up, two-down houses. I sensed that the entire town was on the cusp of an immense tragedy. The citizens were going to be gripped by violent urges, refusing to cower in their homes any longer, arming themselves with carving knives, cricket bats, rolling pins and homemade petrol bombs. In a fearsome mob, they would break into cars, shy stones at windows, tip over rubbish bins and set them ablaze. Their fury was directed at the Mayor, the Chief-of-Police, the President of the Rotary Club, the Leader of the Book Club, former car insurance CEOs and the highest echelons of Government. The people couldn’t feed and clothe themselves, let alone their families. They wanted real jobs, affordable homes, decent education, and to be able to take their children to X-on-Sea’s beach without them getting sick from the sewage and filth in the sea due to the shady dealmaking and backhanders of the corrupt executives at the water company. The people were cynical about the grand Art Exposition and what it would do to the town, effectively making it a theme park for wannabe artists and hangers-on, unsavoury individuals who were infamous for their loose morals, alcoholism, drug-taking, scrounging and slovenly work ethic. The deranged citizens would rampage through the streets, beating their chests, bearing their arses, grabbing their crotches and smacking their hands against their mouths and whooping like Apache warriors used to do in politically incorrect cowboy movies, heading in an angry hoard ever closer to the mythical town square. As the scenes of carnage unfolded, desperate phone-calls would be made by the Mayor, Chief-of-Police and the heads of the Rotary and Book Clubs.
“We have to do something,” cried the President of the Rotary Club, a man with a moustache who was proud of his golf handicap and pilot’s licence.
“Call the police,” exclaimed the Leader of the Book Club, a woman who was obsessed with the poetry of Alfred Tennyson.
“You call the police,” said the Rotary Club President.
“Why should I call the police?” replied the Book Club Leader.
“You know why.”
There was a rumour that the Leader of the Book Club was in a long-standing affair with the Chief-of-Police.
As the two of them argued, the Mayor was frantically calling the Chief-of-Police, who was out on his yacht, Lucky Pierre. He was with his wife and two teenage sons, feeling resentful as he wanted to be with the Leader of the Book Club, who he regarded as his first and truest love.
“It’s my day off,” said the Chief-of-Police.
“Rome is burning,” yelled the Mayor.
“Are you calling me Nero?”
“Did I say you’re Nero?”
“What’s Rome burning got to do with me?”
They disliked each other intensely. Both thought the other was an out-an-out narcissist and unfit for their roles of office.
“They’re rioting,” shouted the Mayor.
The Chief-of-Police sighed, looking at his wife laying on a sun lounger, sipping a glass of chardonnay and reading a fashion magazine, wondering how much he would lose if he tried to divorce her as she would undoubtedly try to rinse him of every last penny.
“And what part of ‘it’s-my-day-off’ do you not comprehend’?”
The Mayor wanted to smash the phone against a wall. “What are you talking about? The part where there is a riot going on and there won’t be a town to police if you don’t so something. Stop fannying about on Lucky Pierre – Rome is burning.”
“So, you are calling me Nero?” said the Chief-of-Police, who was smarting because of the budget cuts the Mayor had made, forcing him to reduce the number of staff he had to police the town. It was delusional to think he had the resources to stop the burglaries and spate of dog snatching, let alone a full-scale riot. Not that the Chief-of-Police was going to demean himself by bringing-up that thorny issue again. He wanted to know why the Mayor was calling him a crazed Roman Emperor. “If anyone is Nero in this town, it’s you.”
They stayed on the phone, arguing about ancient Romans with serious mental health issues.
The Leader of Book Club didn’t think it was her place to call the police. “I’m not doing it and that’s final,” she said to the President of the Rotary Club, who she thought was a poser, calling him a big mouth behind his back. “Goodbye,” she said, hanging-up the phone on her landline. The Chief-of-Police was the last person she wanted to speak to, especially when he was out sailing with his family on their yacht. She was doing her utmost not to think about him and what might have been if the two of them had been together and had sons of their own. The sorrow welled-up inside of her at the thought she had squandered her life in the hope that he would keep his promise of leaving his wife. It was never going to happen and she was semi-resigned to living by herself, working during the day for the local Council, processing welfare claims, knowing that her colleagues referred to her as a “dried fruit”, and spending her evenings with a radio on low for the comfort of background noise, her head buried in books of rhyme. When she put the phone down, she heard the whoops of rioters charging through her street. Taking a pocket torch from a drawer in her bedside cabinet, where she kept it with a set of candles due to an increase in power-cuts, she crawled under her single bed and tried to pacify the fears in her brain and her heart by reading about Arthurian legend.
In the charred and smoky aftermath of the riot, the media would focus heavily on the untimely and grisly demise of the President of the Rotary Club, who had made his fortune after taking over his father’s shop, ‘The Fudge Pantry’, and growing it into a national franchise. A confirmed bachelor with a reputation for being a playboy, he had been thinking of emigrating anyway, wanting to spend his retirement by a pool, baking under the heat of the Mediterranean sun, ideally in a country that wasn’t “too foreign”, where he could have a ‘Full English’ breakfast at least a couple of days a week, play a round of golf on a decent course, and watch the matches of his favourite rugby league team in a bar. He was convinced that the rioters had grown into an unstoppable tsunami of hate, that they had been consumed by the type of bloodlust and madness that can only occur in crowds. He put on his brown leather jacket, motorcycle helmet and goggles, kick-starting his Triumph TR6. As he sped along to the local airport where he kept his airplane, he didn’t see the fishing wire that two fishermen had pulled across the road. They had wrapped the wire around sycamore trees on either side and pulled it tight by tying perfect knots, making it precisely neck height for the President of the Rotary Club. The fishermen, hiding behind bushes, gave each other a high five as they heard the rumbling engine of the motorbike, remembering how the President of the Rotary Club had told them, when drunk on expensive whiskey in the pub, that “tourists couldn’t give a toss about fishing anymore”. They watched him on the bike, angling round a bend, going way over the speed limit as per usual, and then turning onto a straight stretch of road and pulling the brakes at the last second after seeing a glint of light on the wire from the setting sun. They briefly feared he might skid underneath and were relieved to see that was he was too late as the wire cut neatly into his neck, slicing his head clean off.
The fishermen watched the strange sight of his head flying through the air like a football and, ever so briefly, his body staying on the seat of the bike, hands on the handlebars, resembling a phantom headless motorcycle rider in a leather jacket on a ghost journey to haunt the airport. Normality resumed when blood fountained from his neck, the body limply tumbling onto the road, and the bike careered into a tree and exploded. They jumped-up and did a second high-five, satisfied by a job well done, hurrying to re-join the rioters to maintain a cover story of sorts for when the police investigated who was responsible for the decapitation, so they could say they had been in town rioting all along. The two fishermen agreed it was better to be prosecuted for civil disobedience and public disorder than for murdering the President of the Rotary Club.
I sensed all of this brewing on my walk through the town. Feeling it in the bricks and the mortar of the slanted houses, in the pinks, blues and greens of the facades. It was in the seashell doorbells and the intricate latticework of the wooden porches.
I knew my art would be what brought an end to the riots.
When the mob reached the town square, they would be in a frenzy. Some were intent on building a guillotine, others were content with no-nonsense lynching. The men and women wanted revenge and payback for the years of exploitation, corruption and neglect. The people were furious at how out of touch the Mayor and his cronies were, how oblivious they were to what it was like for ordinary folk to live in X-on-Sea, how tough it was to get by, and how bleak and depressing it was to bring children into a world without any prospects, with no chance of them ever having a synchronised future. That’s when I would appear, walking onto the plinth in the centre of the square, carrying my easel wrapped in velvet cloth with gold embroidery. They would be whooping in my face, making obscene gestures, spitting and scowling, telling me that I was the Mayor’s stooge and errand boy. I would keep walking, calm and steady, opening my easel and then raising my hands for them to hush. When they had finally quietened to a level I deemed reasonable, I would remove the velvet cloth and allow them to see my painting of two scotch eggs, rendered in the style not of a New Wave Pre-Raphaelite, but a Pointillist.
I’d pick up my easel and swivel slowly, giving every rioter the chance to marvel at my work.
And marvel they would – the crackle of violence falling away from their curled mouths.
Involuntarily, they would cry out, “It’s beautiful” and, “Oh, my goodness.”
The square would be filled with a perfumed mushroom cloud of love and kindness.
“Are you not astonished?” I would say.
“Yes, we are,” they would reply in unison, their voices soft and gooey, like when they spoke to puppies, kittens and new-born babies.
I’d collapse onto the ground, exhausted and drained from my artistic labours and the intensity of my vision. They would take me in and give me a bed, putting a damp cloth on my forehead, tending to me night and day, feeding me homemade broth.
“You’re one of us now,” a woman would say to me, dipping a flannel in cold water and then placing it on me to cool my fever. “This is where you belong. You’re one of us.”
“Where am I?” I’d say, delirious.
“Home, my lovely,” the woman would say. “You’re home.”