An excerpt from the work in progress.
Henry slipped his hands into the womb like pockets of his biker jacket, despite having gotten the shuttle bus to campus. It was thick and heavy, like armour and he drew a measure of comfort from it, like the beard he’d grown in over the last few years. He grimaced as he heard the ragged chants which hung in the air like soiled sheets.
There were ragged knots of people, some of them holding up hand-painted signs. They laughed and joked like wedding guests but there were those who affected hard pained expressions. Henry recalled such expressions,during the days on patrol and nights listening for the roar of mortars. He saw the lecture theatre, but noted with dismay, how it was where the majority of protestors had gathered. Barricades had been set up, and Henry turned to one side as he made his way through the crowd. People glanced at him, and as he continued through, the weight of their stares scratched at his perceptions. The whiff of unwashed flesh made his nostrils flare, layers of dried sweat, patchouli, pot and cigarette smoke all cohering into a slick bolt which was wedged into his sinuses.
‘Sexist. Fascist. Em. Arr. Ay. Nazi Punks Go Away.’
His heart sank, but he closed his eyes and powered through before anyone noticed he was walking towards, and then into the theatre. Henry’s temples pounded in time with his heartbeat, as he scratched the back of his neck before he realised he hadn’t taken a breath on his walk through the crowd.
When he looked back, he saw a lake of contorted faces. Phones and cameras were held up alongside the signs and placards. Everyone filmed everyone else, until it became a panopticon, a few hundred monologues playing out, with anyone attending cast as the villain.
A fluttering irritation beat inside his chest and as he scanned the crowd, his gaze fell on one woman. She stopped chanting and they stared at one another, as she raised her eyebrows and let her mouth fall open before a heavy set woman with a knitted cap to her right touched her arm, as though rousing her from a disturbed sleep and she turned away. Henry swallowed and watched her, struck by the artful beauty of her face as much as the hateful crowd.
Henry turned and walked inside.
Her hair fell either side of her face in silvered wings and when she looked up from her notes, she smiled and looked at the audience. Henry had sat at the back, dismayed by the lack of people here but not surprised.
No one wanted to hear about how men were victims of anything, unless it was women. Even other men, Henry thought, or at least the men who were on television and writing the newspapers. He leaned forwards in his seat to diffuse the tension which was pooling in his chest and stomach.
As she spoke, part of his attention drifted inwards and then backwards.
When Henry had signed up, Simon had written to him, sent care packages and made videos for him, telling him over and over, to hang in there, to look after himself until Henry carried his voice out with him on patrol. Simon wrote about the small details of life back home, and he revelled in the warm memories which they prompted.
Simon told him he needed to live and come home so he could be his best man. Or, he’d joked, his maid of honour. Henry, thousands of miles away, had laughed loud enough to make some of the guys look at him and he couldn’t explain how funny and comforting he had found the joke. His service prompted an idealisation which he never felt he deserved. Simon’s gift had been to puncture it at every opportunity.
The first night home, Simon introduced him to Keeley and her friend, Lori. Henry took full advantage of the idealisation then, but he was sweet to Lori, who understood what he needed and left in the same spirit. That summer, Henry kept himself under control, but when the recollections grew too heavy to bear, Simon listened and let him purge without judgement. Henry knew Simon and Keeley were wrapped up in one another but their friendship bore absences without complaint. They were in the same part of the world, after all, but Henry left them to it.
When he was in country, Henry handled prisoners of war, jihadis who came into custody with a compliance which made him uncomfortable, they had dull, glazed eyes and slumped shoulders. Their smiles would be artificial, as though issued to them by circumstance and would be slipped on whenever they encountered Henry or one of the other soldiers.
One night, he saw Simon had the same expression. They had gone for a beer, and once they’d covered television and last night’s game, Simon had sighed and looked into his beer. Henry had been about to ask him, but one of the waitresses winked at him and the flattering gesture had gone to his head faster than the alcohol. By the time he looked back at Simon, the smile was back on and they changed the subject to the waitresses’ backside.
Henry had just finished breakfast with her when Simon’s mother rang him. He remembered being sat at the kitchen counter, a fresh cup of coffee and a soft pack of American Spirits when she gave him the news.
Henry wondered if people were disappointed that it wasn’t him who took a shotgun to his skull. Veterans with PTSD died in droves, but Simon was a deputy manager at a hardware warehouse, engaged to be married and looking forward to all of it.
It made no sense, everyone said. When he found the videos online, previous lectures talking about male suicide statistics and reasons, her voice slipped between his ribs and squeezed his heart like a piece of ripe fruit. Henry was not looking for answers but he listened and when she announced on her website about the talk at the university, he paid for a ticket and took a bus over.
Henry wanted to understand why his friend killed himself. He didn’t hate anyone, group or individual but judging by the crowd outside, he had been judged and found wanting. She was talking about the amount of deaths in the workplace and how men were the majority of victims. Henry listened to her, discomforted by the facts of his circumstances. The chair he sat in made his lower back and thighs ache but otherwise he was focused on the woman’s words.
The fire alarm rang out, followed by a ragged burst of cheers from the corridor.
A thwarted anger wrenched him from his seat. He had been open, vulnerable and it had been snatched from him. People looked around as the university staff directed everyone towards the fire exits. Henry was saddened by how few of them were there, as they drifted towards the exits whilst outside came ribald cheers of victory. The frustration and sadness lodged in his chest like a stubborn root as he followed, taking deep breaths to assuage the feelings as he prepared to face the crowd.
He caught the eye of a young man, with straw blonde hair hung over his face, shaved at the sides, laughing and pointing at them as they filed out.
‘Nazi fuckers.’ he said.
Henry’s hand clenched into fists, but duty had lent him a degree of control which allowed him to keep walking. He had taken the measure of the man, knowing he outweighed him by a good thirty pounds and a foot in height. Yet, as he examined the man’s face, feminine despite the golden stubble, he knew hitting him would give the man everything he wanted.
The wisdom was comforting, but he still struggled to walk on without reacting. The women looked angrier than the men did, and were heavier, beneath layers of clothes and the same pear shaped build. Henry wondered if there was a man’s name tattooed on them, skin or soul, it didn’t matter. Everyone was here because of an individual who had hurt them, and he fought a shame so acute it made his eyes water. He had been shot at, eaten shit from lesser men than him, but it took the disparagement of his friend’s memory which covered him in shame.
He wiped away a tear, and heard hoots of derision. Henry’s pain was recreational to them as their outrage was to him.
It was not a good trade.
He wanted a beer and a cigarette, somewhere dark and cool. All which stood between him and gaining some distance from his thwarted evening was the crowd. A young police officer, about his age, told the attendees they would be escorted through the crowd.
An elderly man glowered beneath the brim of his baseball cap.
‘Why? What did we do wrong?’ the man said.
Henry looked straight ahead at the crowd.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ he said.
His eyes fell on the woman’s face again. She had scraped her damp hair back from her face, as she chanted with gusto, pumping her fist in the air as she chanted with the others. She looked up and stopped. Henry felt a gloved hand at the small of his back, and he walked down the steps. It was somewhere between a rock concert and a court martial, he thought, which made him smirk.
‘I suppose you think this is funny?’
He couldn’t place the voice. The woman was making her way to the barricade but the amusement was torn away as the crowd’s focus fell on the attendees. He could not make out individual voices now, the air shook with the hateful, pained roar of everyone vomitting their hatred until he was soaked in it like blood. His heart thumped in his ears, and his palms were wet as he kept walking.
The woman gestured to him, jabbing towards him with her index finger.
‘Why would you listen to a rape apologist? Because you’re a fucking rape apologist.’ she said.
She continued. Swearing didn’t come easy to him, but he had found a comfort in the warm vulgarity of the language used by the other marines in private. He was appalled someone would manage to turn rape into a form of punctuation and as she barked at him, eyes blazing, he smiled and shook his head.
‘I just wanted to listen to her talk.’ he said.
It was like screaming into a pillow for the both of them. Henry wondered if it was a war of attrition, where they would shout themselves raw and which of them gave up first. Perhaps it was therapeutic for her, but he’d been denied the chance to learn something, or at least, to understand.
Henry stood there and took it, letting her exhaust herself against him. The policeman was at his shoulder, telling him to go be a martyr somewhere else. The woman’s friend had lost her hat, and her tobacco brown hair was damp and flat against her scalp as she started pointing at the police officer and swore at him.
The officer shook his head, like a parent dealing with a disappointing child as he patted Henry on the shoulder and told him to go. Henry looked at her and smiled.
She smiled back.
The officer was moving him on, and he started to push past him when the shots rang out and the roar of the crowd broke apart, and reformed from the scattered pieces into screams.