By Paul Hynes
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 3rd contest was Utopia.
Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov was a party animal.
Lubyanka was abuzz with the latest news coming throughout the world and as the typewriters clattered and admonishing voices screamed over to each other it resembled more of a newspaper. It was a sharp contrast from the usual cold and foreboding atmosphere of State Security but this was not without reason. Yuri Vladimirovich was happy to tolerate it considering the circumstances. Amongst the bitterness and cynicism that lined the formed the vaunted halls of Lubyanka far more than any mere bricks or mortar he was the figure who, more than any of this comrades in State Security, had worked to create the atmosphere that made the KGB the finest in the world at what it did.
And what it officially didn’t do for that matter.
Yuri Vladmirovich had seen for himself in Budapest how quickly a seemingly omnipotent authority could be reduced to whimpering and fear in the face of rabble. The members of the AVH had been desperate to get into the embassy only to be thrown back by the Red Army guards. At night, even twelve years later, he would sometimes hear their little Arrow-Crosser necks snap one by one. That was the fate that awaited any authority that did not bind itself to the people, and that was why it was so crucially important for the Communist party and State Security to be one and the same.
This wasn’t an option for the capitalist countries, of course. The fate of General De Gaulle had made that clear. The workers and students had risen up just as the Russian people had in fifty one years beforehand, but the old imperialist had fled before he could share the fate of the Tsar, his Fifth Republic had failed to outlast the Fourth. Just as in 1848, the revolutionary wave emanating from France was now beginning to spread across Western Europe before joining their brothers and sisters in the East who had seen the light far sooner. State Security had had get their own house in order of course, Yuri Vladimirovich liked to think that he had found a balance between the half measures of some of his predecessors and the outright sociopathy of many of the others. The weakness and incompetence that had infected the Western left for so long was threatening the allies of the Soviet Union at their moment of triumph but the party had already responded with revolutionary zeal. The Czech problem was finally being dealt with, the tanks would have already rolled in even as the eyes of State Security remained focused on France. The Red Army could deal with that little irrelevance on their own now that he had made it clear to Leonid Ilyich and Mikhail Andreyevich that he fully supported cleaning up the rabble of revisionists and social fascists that had made their nest in Prague. It was a trivial matter in comparison to what was unfolding elsewhere.
1968 would be remembered as the year that this ridiculous “Cold War” came to an end, and even as the inevitable paradigm shift of revolution spread across the world, Yuri Vladimirovich would make sure it would be remembered as a Soviet victory and wondered about his own place in history.
“Comrade Chairman?” A hesitant voice brought Yuri Vladimirovich out of his daydream, he spun around to see a young man with his hand up as if he was trying to answer a question in school. . The Chairman raised an eyebrow to make it clear the young man had his attention.
“There are reports coming in of soldier’s mutinies all throughout the capital.”
Yuri Vladimirovich could only shake his head in disappointment, he made a mental note to keep a close eye on the young man. If this mistakes were a common theme then perhaps he might be better suited to an oil refinery in Ufa.
“The French army mutinied a fortnight ago.” Yuri Vladimirovich reminded him, “ I realise everything is in flux but it is incredibly important for all of us to remain abreast of events as quickly as possible. Whatever unfolds in Paris might be shaping the world to come and we must be aware every detail as it happens.”
The young man’s eyes widened, but it wasn’t the sort of expression that signified understanding if anything. If anything it appeared that he was hesitant to remind the Chairman of State Security that he was in the wrong.
“Not Paris, Prague.”
It wasn’t long before Yuri Vladimirovich had a similar look on his face, trying to process how this unforeseen circumstance could it be dealt with before drawing a blank. The “Comrades”, one superior and one inferior continued to stare at each other as Lubyanka’s activity began to quieten.
It wasn't long before their panic spread.
Gregor was down again, said, "Come on, kick me again" Said, "I'm so drunk, I don't mind if you kill me Come on, you gutless Yeah, I'm alive, oh, I'm alive Oh, I'm alive and how I know it Oh, but for chips and for freedom, I could die!"
Gene adjusted the volume downwards slightly as the chorus already, as much as he enjoyed Franz Ferdinand’s send-ups of the old sixties boy bands he also took the concept of “guilty pleasure” too seriously. The fact he might have screwed up his final exam had him anxious enough without getting odd looks on the way to the airport. Most of those on the autotram that connected Manchester city centre with its airport seemed to be pleasant enough. By the look of the various bright colours of clothing and large amounts of baggage most of his fellow passengers were going on holiday rather than meeting their mates. Part of him wished he was going with them, a proper city break in Berlin or Budapest or Leningrad to take this mind off the exam he was pretty sure he had just screwed up. Eugene tried to put his worries aside as and immerse himself in Manchester’s urban greenery instead.
The tram passed parallel to the natural world that spread between the university and textile factories. A joint venture between the university and the textile workers had recently led to the industry that had made Manchester such a global powerhouse finally becoming carbon neutral. Just because the joint plinths of economic democracy and full employment that the Commonwealth of England and Wales were built upon required strong domestic industries, it didn’t mean that they weren’t still part of the world.
It was a world that he felt far more a part of in Manchester than he had in the rural Suffolk lifestyle where he had spent almost the entirety of this life, where a jaunt to Clacton was a weekend to remember. His parents had grown up in a very different time and they had seemed keen that he realised it. When the unconditional offer came through from the University Eugene’s dad had cried a little, before the overly emotional moment was broken by Eugene’s mum reminding her husband that with the bullet shuttle it was probably quicker to get to Manchester now then it had been for him to get to South Essex College back before the days of the revolution.
The revolution. He was back to thinking about the exam again.
To what extent, if any, did England and Wales’ secession from the United Kingdom show a contempt for political and economic inertia?
It had seemed a very easy question to answer at first, despite having not planned for the question. Eugene had outlined how of course the secession could only be seen as a break from the inertia that at the time was being imposed by what was left of Willie Ross’ shaky ministry, for three years the United Kingdom had attempted to retain its old way of doing things despite the rapidly changing world around it. England and Wales leaving had merely been the final nail in the coffin. It was an answer that initially filled him with such confidence that he had subsequently panicked midway through writing, when he had remembered their lecture explaining how much of the establishment had embraced English independence almost overnight in the hope of being better able to manage the unravelling of the global capitalist system from a new state. For all the good it did them, their subterfuge had led to him writing what he was convinced was the worst exam essay in history.
He glanced again at the elderly passengers travelling with happy anticipation and tried to put it in perspective. Here were people who had likely grown up full of anxiety, in a world filled with nuclear weapons, where corporations could cover up research into climate change, a world where the system of competing classes was the dominant factor and aspiration was pointless for those who were not on top. They had gotten through that and here we was fretting about an exam. Eugene lived in a world where you were guaranteed a job, where public transport was free, and where retirement was early and leisurely. He was free from Uni for the semester, he wasn’t due back at the textile factory for a fortnight, and now his mates from back home were coming to visit him. Gene closed his eyes and thought of the day ahead, before observing the greenery end as the airport neared. He began to smile. Wedge and Victor were waiting for him at the station.
The two friends began to cheer as Gene walked off the autotram, he joined in at the bemusement of the passengers keen to make their way to the airport whilst the crowd of three simply switched platforms and waited to head back into the city centre.
“Thanks again for coming to get us mate, but you do know we could have just met you in the city centre.”
“Are you kidding me on? There’s no way you two would have been able to get off at the right stop, I’d have had to spend the whole night finding you anyway!” Victor whooped in a shrill voice at the taunt.
“Well Mr University, I’m so glad you came to help us make sense of a single tram line. Too bad we cavemen don’t understand your modern world.” Wedge produced a unlabelled glass containing a familiar cloudy liquid.
“Do you still barter?”
Gene laughed in amazement, homemade cider from back home. The tram hadn’t arrived in the city centre before the bottle had been emptied.
“The Derry-Lifford line will be just as nice as this when it’s finished,” Victor let out a satisfied sigh as the last of the cider disappeared, “and you get really nice scenery over there mate, no need to import all these trees.” Gene looked out once again to the urban park he had been trying to take solace in beforehand.
“I dunno, I think it’s nice here as well.”
“It’s all go over there,” Wedge continued to his friend’s line of thought. I was reading the other day that an Antonov can land in Prestwick in the morning and be ready for launch in Belfast by the evening,” Victor made another mocking high-pitched noise at the random fact, but it gave Gene greater pause for thought.
“That can’t make the people in Prestwick very happy, weren’t they up for the space bridge site as well?” Wedge only shrugged.
“A lot of the people on the site are Scottish and they seem to be pretty happy with it, becoming the Soyuz delivery boy has kept the airport open or something like that.”
The reason Wedge and Victor had had to travel to Manchester by plane rather than take the maglev to Scotland was due to a large delivery of Soyuz capsules heading on the maglev line between Ireland and Scotland that day. It was a fine excuse for them to meet up once again. Despite their boasting about rockets and railways, Gene felt satisfied at their reaction to seeing Manchester Central for the first time. The old railway station was the largest autotram hub in Lancashire and having just been renovated it was an imposing sight, towering over the several lines that flew in and out of it like a gaping maw, only to reveal a glimmering interior as the golden light bounced off the brass. Several murals in mosaic patterned the towering walls as they alighted from the tram and stepped out into the station, the newest mural had only been finished a few weeks ago, celebrating the fifty years since the revolutions of 1968, the end of the Cold War, the formation of the Fifth Internationale, handshakes and embraces emanating from angry students in Paris and Prague. For a moment, Gene looked up at those heroic, determined faces and wondered whether they had ever got so wound up about exams when they were putting the ideas they had learned and the dreams they had formed into action. He was puzzled, albeit only for a moment, as the far more pressing question of what pub to go to came up.
Manchester city centre was as busy as one could expect on a Friday afternoon, the large industries would not shut for a couple of hours although many of those who had opted to take their half-shift today rather than on Monday were already getting their weekend started. The statue of Friedrich Engels that stood outside Manchester Central seemed to be disapproving, but perhaps he didn’t know that Gene was taking his friends to one of the many ATWU pubs throughout the city. The trio strolled down Deansgate at a leisurely pace towards Gene’s favourite of such places, Frank’s, observing the various stalls that tried to peddle a myriad of different causes to people who were simply trying to enjoy their weekend.You had the religions, of course, and then there were the humanist movements, self-help mantras, and of course, the political idealists.
“What’s that all about?” Wedge motioned to a familiar face and Gene rolled his eyes.
A tall man stood at a vaguely crooked angle in a worn leather jacket holding a red flag that he appeared to grown tired of waving around.. Next to him was a large picture of Joseph Stalin that seemed to have faded due to exposure. Stalin’s greyish head beamed at the passers-by, unlike his adherent who just seemed to be going through the motions of putting his stall out for Marxism-Leninism.
“He goes to my Uni,” Gene explained to the two, “bit of an odd guy, sits by himself in the pub and reads these massive books at the busiest times, waiting for someone to argue with.”
“Looks like he’ll be waiting a while,” Victor observed, “why doesn’t he just fall in with that lot?”
Gene looked ahead and shuddered, “I don’t think he’d fit in somehow.” Up ahead was a far more populated and well presented stall. It had a gazebo and everything. Several people that couldn’t have much older than them were dressed in the same black, vaguely militaristic, uniforms with bandanas around their faces. They would have looked a bit like ninjas if it wasn’t for the red armbands of the Sixth Internationale. Some people were never satisfied.
They were handing out leaflets, and to Gene’s confusion Wedge took one, the same figure tried to hand one to Gene only for him to wave his hand away without saying a world. The figure’s green eyes glared at him for a second, and behind the face covered he had no doubt that there was a perturbed pout. He led his friends on hoping his disinterest in her was mutual.
It wasn’t long before the street stalls began to thin out and the doors of Frank’s appeared, outside hung a Cubist rendition of Chris Sievey’s famous mask indicating that it was finally time for a pint. Gene had become something of a regular and as such he didn’t need to show his ATWU card to get the free pints he was entitled to, he only had to sign Wedge and Victor in so they could get the same benefit. The bouncer stamped his friend’s hands and they went up to the bar that was already getting crowded.
It was about three pints in when Wedge aired his query.
“You seemed a bit weird around that crowd with the gazebo mate, have you had a run in with them before?” Gene shook his head perhaps a little too much.
“Remember the random bloke with the massive picture of Joe Stalin? They’re just as bad, except their end goal isn’t just to sit in a pub and sing Great Patriotic War songs until someone throws them out, they genuinely think they’ve been put on this world to “finish the job”, that they’ll be the ones to usher in Full Communism or die trying.”
“Die trying?” Victor snorted and went back to the bar, put Wedge seemed intent on getting his question answered.
“They wouldn’t say that mate, if you have a read at that leaflet it’s all about building a global community and preventing American corporations from causing any bother then they already have, but they don’t idealise the peaceful revolutions that they say they do, they want a war.”
“They’re soldiers then?”
“Yeah, if you search them on Kombinat or Cybersyn then you’ll get all sorts of pictures showing people like that with automatics and RPGs. There’s even some footage of them driving old Soviet tanks against some corporate militia group in the Sudan or somewhere around there, they actually caused a lot of-”
Wedge had burst out laughing, and produced the leaflet.
“Tank rides, that’s what they should advertise on here, give them an advantage over the paintball crowd given that they’ve stolen their look!” Gene laughed as well and realised that he’d got a bit too in-depth.
It must have been about ten pints in that they departed Frank’s and headed for the club on Turning Street. Victor and Wedge had begun to hold hands, as they occasionally did back in Suffolk when the night had gone on long enough. Gene decided not to ask if their occasional one nighters had developed into anything more serious since they had been in Ireland. The club was Union owned as well, and although all three were rapidly departing sobriety the appearance of three old friends reunited as enough to get them the nod to head in.
The club was called “Veil of tears”, and whilst it wasn’t the sort of place that would blast out Mr Brightside at 3 in the morning, it was a venue where people could indulge in some ice cold pretentiousness with a veneer of credibility. Gene loved it and his mates seemed to have been taken to it as well. Victor point to two girls dancing on one of the many island platforms that chequered the dance floor, and let go of Wedge’s hand.
The large overhanging lights moved from the mellow technicolour to a harsh red glare, illuminating the two figures as they continued to dance almost as one entity on top of the table. Gene began to wonder if the earlier comments about this being life had been too pretentious after all, or whether he had simply gone native like Victor. Wedge nudged him in the stomach before making a silly face. He didn’t seem to get anything out of the scene other than that their mate had probably pulled. The crowd began to fill in amongst Victor and the androgynous figure, and before long they were just two more people on top of platforms. The metallic beat continued to pound away, as a slightly downbeat voice began to whisper about various anxieties that the DJ had likely mixed earlier that day.
Wedge headed off to the bar as Gene continued to sway along with the crowd, trying to wonder what his friends back in Leeds might think if they could see him at this moment. It took him several minutes of melancholic, whispering techno for him to realise that someone was watching him. Wedge was out of sight, but a girl with blue hair was advancing towards him through the crowd. She was no longer wearing her face mask. Gene motioned to let her by, but she halted right in front of him, following his awkward movements. Her eyes suddenly averted his gaze
Gene realised she was taking him towards the smoking area, but before he could protest he noticed that Wedge already had company of his own. A woman several years older than him seemed to be in the midst of some sort of diktat. The beers would likely will a long while in coming.
“Not really,” before Gene could expand she had already taken a dark cigarette from a slightly rusted tin. The French tobacco burned away very quickly, but it left an acrid stench in the air that hung over them even as the nicotine buzz began to wear off.
“What do you think of this club?” The Sixth Internationale recruiter asked, almost as if she were bored of him already.
“I like it, good to have a place to get away from it all I guess.”
She made a affirmative noise before taking another draw.
“Did I see you today, somewhere?” Gene wasn’t sure how to respond but finally decided that it was a Friday night, and she clearly wasn’t all that bad.
“Yeah, you were handing out leaflets I think.”
“And you didn’t take one?”
“Er, no. Not really my sort of thing.” The recruiter laughed at that.
“No wonder, with the get-up you would sometimes wonder whether we took ourselves seriously.” She put her hand out in front of him, and Gene noticed she still had her red armband on.
“Anyways, are we dancing or what?”
The recruiter was at the bar but Gene was still swaying on the platform.
The DJ’s melancholic whispering had transformed into a harsher and techno beat. The dread was on full pelt and instinctively, Gene looked to see if he could find Victor or Wedge in the crowd. It was only when he was about to step out and try to find them that Wedge’s face appeared from out of the crowd, ushering him outside. Gene was quick to rush over, given the look on his friend’s face.
Outside he was expecting to find Victor throwing up or crying about what great mates they all were, the typical end to a Friday night, yet it was just the two of them.
“I’m off mate, but would you mind getting Victor back okay? I’ll meet you in the morning.”
Gene was perplexed.
“You’re meant to be staying in my halls, what are you on about?” Wedge finally gave a slightly nervous grin.
“I’ve pulled, in a manner of sorts.”
“What “manner of sorts”?”
The woman I was talking to at the bar, whilst you were with that other bird, she’s talking a lot of sense about the world mate. I’m going back to hers so we can more of a chat.”
Gene knew the feeling, but he had never seen this in Wedge before. “Look mate, I love trying to solve all the world’s problems when I’m pissed as well, but you can’t just head off with some random girl with a red armband.”
“It’s not that, I’ve just been thinking, that mural at the station today, and that leaflet, yet you took us straight to the pub? And when I asked you about it you just laughed it off.”
“I thought that’s what you wanted to do. That’s what we always do!” Wedge nodded almost in agreement but there was a sadness in his eyes.
“I need to get a better perspective mate, the world still needs changing”
Wedge hopped the fence of the smoking area and Gene peered over as he waved to the woman he’d been talking to amongst other group of slightly drunk idealists. Would they invite him along as well if he wanted to join the party? There was something expectant about them for a moment, before they began to move off towards wherever the nights discussion was being held.
The sun was already beginning to rise, Gene turned around and headed back inside.