“Jake! Aren’t you ready yet? We’re going!”
Jake called down from his room: “In a moment!”
Jake did not really want to go on the demonstration. Fourteen years of age, he had better things to do with his time on a Saturday morning. However, he knew he ought to show willing. After all, as Jake’s mum said, “You want to be able to say you were part of the resistance.”
“Do I?” said Jake, but only to himself.
Before they left the house, Jake was able to slip a bottle of hand sanitiser into a coat pocket and a battered copy of Young Men in Spats into another.
He got in the car. He had to hunch himself in the corner of the back seat to leave room for the placards.
“Where are we going?” he asked once they had set off.
“Jake!” said Jake’s dad. “We’ve told you a thousand times.”
It turned out that the demonstration was in Eckersdyke Market Square, twenty miles away. The demonstration had been announced on Facebook last night by a Dark Resistance group. Jake’s dad had been all over it at once. “This is our chance to make a difference!” he had said.
It was a sunny but blustery morning. Jake watched the empty streets as they rolled by.
“That’s one good thing about the Fake Virus,” Jake’s dad said. “No traffic to speak of. We should have a clear run all the way there.”
Jake’s dad drove on a little while, then he said: “Sheep.”
“Where?” said Jake’s mum.
“I mean people,” said Jake’s dad. “Locking themselves up in their homes on a lovely day like this, just because they’ve been told to. Sheep.”
“Oh, yes,” said Jake’s mum.
Jake watched the clouds as they sped across the blueness above. The trees were full and shaking. A bird, he did not know its name, swept across his line of sight in an impossible arc.
“Oh,” said Jake’s mum. “There’s a mast over there.”
“Yes,” said Jake’s dad.
“Be careful,” said Jake’s mum.
“Poor bastards, mind my French,” said Jake’s dad. “I mean the folks who have to live round here, with that thing stuck up their nose without a by-your-leave. Everyone knows what masts do to your electrons, but no one will stand up and say it. But don’t worry, we’ll be fine. It’s only a few seconds. There, we’re past it already.”
“Are you sure?” said Jake’s mum.
“We’re fine,” said Jake’s dad.
They arrived in Eckersdyke shortly before the demonstration. They found a parking space a little way from the market square.
Jake’s dad unloaded the placards from the back of the car, and they took one each. Jake’s dad had “DON’T LIE! WE WON’T DIE!” which was a reference to the Fake Virus, and Jake’s mum was reusing an old one saying “GIVE US A SOVEREIGN!”, an allusion to national sovereignty which no one, as far as Jake could tell, had ever understood without it being explained to them in some detail. Jake’s sign said “I WANT A FUTURE” without an exclamation mark. His parents considered it rather a vague request in comparison to their own and lacking in punch, but perhaps for that reason they passed it for his use.
They put on their masks before walking to the square. There was some debate about this. Jake’s dad said they shouldn’t wear masks, because masks were a symbol of the Deep State Conspiracy to suppress the People. Jake’s mum said, yes, that was true, but on the other hand wearing a mask would make it more difficult for the Deep State Conspiracy to track them down if they happened to be watching. There followed a number of statements, all starting with “Yes, but.” In the end, it was Jake’s mum’s view that prevailed, to Jake’s relief.
Others joined them as they walked down the street. Some were wearing masks, some not. No one took any great care to keep socially distant. These people seemed to conform to a definite type: the same type as Jake’s parents. First they were few; then they numbered dozens, and more appeared from side streets as they went, walking close. Jake felt himself tensing. It had been a long time since he had stood alongside so many people.
And then they were standing at the mouth of a short street leading down an incline into the square. The square was a sea of pink faces. The air was filled with the low growl of their talk.
The moment hit Jake like a blow. He had intended to maintain a detached attitude throughout but now he saw he could not. He stopped in his tracks and he could not move. His parents not noticing him walked straight into the sea. The alarms in his head which he had shut out and ignored rang loud and brazen and beat him down. His mouth was dry and he could not swallow and he forgot to breathe and his heart raced and he felt both flushed and pale and he wondered if he was going to vomit and he shut his eyes and the sounds roared and he wanted to turn and run and he was afraid the crowd would trample him over and he staggered to the side of the street and no one could see him and he gasped for breath as the world buzzed.
Slowly, he returned to himself.
His parents had disappeared. That made his next move easier. He turned back and walked away from the square. There were more pouring down the street, but he almost pressed himself against the wall and he was able to maintain a distance.
Without making any decision, he was heading back to the car. He found himself observing his own actions with a kind of unconcerned curiosity. The world around him was remote but vivid: the buildings seemed harder and solider than before, the breeze breezier, the trees more treelike.
He was back at the car now. It was locked, of course. He saw a green bench a short way further down the street, and he made his way towards it. He was about to sit down when a thought occurred to him and he paused. Was it safe? He hesitated, but he felt strangely tired and the bench did not seem to be much used, and he sat carefully, not touching it with his hands. He propped his placard against the side of the bench. It was a quiet spot a little way from the square. There was a tree just behind him which leant out over the railing of a small park and extended a shivering canopy of leaves over him.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. He ignored it.
After a while, he stopped staring across the street at an empty shop, which was what he discovered he was doing. He used the bottle of gel to sanitise his hands, then he reached into his pocket and took out his book. Soon he was reading.
His phone buzzed again, but it stopped after a while.
He did not know how long it was before his parents came back. It may have been an hour.
Jake looked up.
“Hello,” he said.
“Where have you been!” Jake’s mum said. Jake did not think this required an answer, and she continued: “We’ve been worried sick! We rang you!”
“You missed a treat,” said Jake’s dad. “Timmy Tomkins was there and he gave a speech. It was very inspiring. He made everything clear.”
They got in the car.
On the way back, his parents told him all about the demonstration. They had been able to trade ideas with like-minded fellows about phone masts, Fake News, biased journalism, metropolitan elites, the Woke Brigade, Remoaners, Lib Dems, Guardian readers, Muslims, Illegals, the BBC, Channel 4, the NHS, and so on and so forth. They had had such a good time that they even forgave Jake for sneaking off.
“It’s your loss,” said Jake’s dad. “When you look back, you’ll see. You could have made a difference. You can’t be a sheep all your life, Jake. You’ve got to seize the moment. You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in.”
“Yes, dad,” said Jake.