non-violent resistance, and a pet snake

(Iris has accidentally come away from a demonstration with a pet boa constrictor belonging to Arlo, an activist. At the demo, Arlo threw a cake at the CEO of a large multinational, and as a result is in hiding from the police. Because Iris had baked the cake, which was intended for the post-demo celebration party,
she feels responsible for Arlo’s plight, and has agreed to meet him and hand over the snake, Pepita, at a non-violent resistance training day…)

Iris finally located the non-violent resistance workshop via a grubby piece of paper stuck to the door of a disused dairy, which also housed a disability arts centre and a cross-cultural counselling practice. Mysterious groans and cries issued from several of the doors she passed, but inside the one she pushed open was nothing more menacing than a small group of people, unwinding scarves and unpeeling dayglo cycle vests. Sad blobs of blu-tak stained the walls, and a couple of plants were expiring silently by the window.

‘Right. Let’s all start by sitting in a circle, shall we, and find out who we all are and why we’re here?’ The man speaking had a Hapsburg beard and an oddly bulging bottom, but otherwise seemed fairly sane. No sign of Arlo as yet. He’d phoned again that morning to confirm that he’d be there, but still sounding panicky, and making a great thing about how they’d have to be quick, which suited Iris fine. Meanwhile there was nothing for it but to park Pepita, on whom Parmesan cheese had turned out to have a useful opiate effect, in her backpack on a chair by the wall, and join in.

‘My name is Wayne, and I’m here to make sure that all of you know exactly what you’re getting yourselves into tomorrow.’ Wayne turned his head and smiled encouragingly at the girl next to him, who made careful eye contact with everybody else in the circle before whispering: ‘I’m Liz. I’m here because I’ve been reading prison diaries since I was about fifteen, so it’s sort of, you know, a bit of a long-held dream. Getting arrested. And of course, I thought I might as well do it in a good cause.’
‘Very good. Danny?’
Danny was in a wheelchair, decorated with a novelty number plate, a pair of Y-fronts saying ‘Make Tea not War’ and a clown’s scarlet rubber klaxon. His response to Wayne’s question was to squeeze his klaxon right into Iris’ ear, before slithering, with astonishing speed, out of the seat of his chair, into the tiny cavity between the wheels.

‘I think Danny just showed us his new strategy for resisting arrest. Am I right Danny?’
Two squirts on the klaxon from Danny. His grinning face was now looking up Iris’ skirt, while she tried to formulate an excuse for her presence that wouldn’t involve live snakes and callous fellow-travelling. All eyes were on her. She had to say something. ‘Well, I was at the Zoom International thing the other day and…’
‘Ooh, so was I, what bastards aren’t they?’

‘Strictly speaking, Sonja, that was an interruption. But I think we can all excuse you, given what’s got us here today.’ If you ignored what he said, Wayne had a very nice voice. Comforting, but sure of itself. He looked around the circle.‘What all this new legislation says to me, it says, this government is scared. And what’s scared them? They’ve realised that a few guys, ordinary guy…’ he caught Sonja’s reproachful look, and corrected hmself ‘…er, persons like us here, determined and sticking together, can be a formidable force. Think about all the great advances in civil rights in this country. Who can think of one?’

He looked encouragingly around the circle. Liz ventured: ‘Votes for women?’
‘Very good.’
Other voices chimed in: ‘Abolition of Slavery!’ ‘Universal education?’ ‘Free Speech’ ‘Er, would bus passes count?’

Wayne held up a long, tapered hand, like a saint on an icon. ‘Right on. And you know guys, none of that started with government. Ministers don’t wake up in the morning and think, “I know, we’ll just give the poor and dispossessed a helping hand”. Trade unions, workers rights, freeing the slaves – none of it would have happened if people hadn’t got together and said, “Enough! No more!” And kept on and on saying it, until they won.’

He looked around the circle, charged with calm determination. Iris, in a dawning sense of shame, had almost forgotten about Arlo. Here she was, in a circle of twenty strangers, and only half an hour ago, purely on the frivolous basis of their clothes and personal grooming, she’d dismissed them as pathetic saddos. Yet surely this was what Soren’s message had really been about. Not the trivia of grocery shopping, or switching from one form of personal transportation to another. These people were way above all of that. They were out to change history.

Iris rummaged back to her history GCSEs. How many Tolpuddle Martyrs were there? Not more than the people sitting round her now. Would they have shopped at Abercrombie and Fitch, or spent hours every day tweezing their nose hair? Unlikely. Nor had the Pankhursts worried much about gentility when they were being force-fed in prison.

If it hadn’t been for civil disobedience, she, Iris Richie, wouldn’t be able to vote, to own the half of 26 Hartland Gardens that contained the nice towels and the toasted sandwich-maker, or even to drive the car that had brought her here. What was that quote about ‘all it takes for evil to take over the world is for the good people to do nothing’?

Was she going to be one of those good people, doing nothing? After her vow to Soren, and after getting this far?

* * * *

By one-fifteen, Iris was tightly entwined between Liz and the saintly Sonja in a non-violent circle of support, while Wayne tutored them from the sidelines.
‘Okay. Now we’re going to practise being carried off by the arresting officers. And before you begin, here’s a little tip.’ He turned round, and for one terrible moment Iris thought he was about to take his trousers down. But all he did was reach round and pull two inches of corrugated cardboard out from the waistband of his sweat pants. ‘You might want to consider stuffing something down here, for when you’re being dragged off. Animals at the abattoir get better handling, I can tell you. Now, who wants to be carried off first?’

At the mention of ‘animals’, Iris’ other life suddenly flashed back, with Ted waiting at school for his costume. At the same moment, the door opened and Arlo appeared, looking distinctly jumpy.

Wayne smiled a welcome. ‘Better late than never. You can be our arresting officer. Who wants to be arrested first?’
‘Me! Me!’
Arlo saw Iris, looked relieved and padded over to her. She nodded at the backpack and muttered at him. ‘Quick, we’re being arrested. Arrest me and drag me over there, the snake’s on that chair, see? You can arrest me out of the door, nobody’ll notice.’

To Liz and Sonja’s evident disappointment, Arlo had no difficulty in separating Iris from them. He grabbed the backpack, and they were making for the door when a mighty crash splintered it inwards, and twenty men in black suits and Balaclavas burst in, wearing helmets and riot shields, and strung with about ten tonnes of precision-made annihilation technology.

‘Police! Freeze! Who’s in charge here?’

As any pianist climbing the stage for her first live performance of a Rachmaninov concerto will attest, there is a vast chasm between rehearsal and reality, which only the latter reveals. All the careful groundwork of the last three hours melted into chaos, as Danny tried to dive under his chair backwards, and Liz and Sonja struggled furiously to work out whether their hands were supposed to be crossed in front or behind. Somebody yelled, ‘Is it stiff or floppy that makes you heavier?’ and somebody else yelled, ‘Don’t struggle, you’ll be resisting arrest!’
None of them seemed to have noticed that, with the arsenal of a small African nation on their persons, the police didn’t actually need to do anything but stand around and watch the turmoil around them.

But behind Wayne’s handy flip-chart of do’s and don’ts for successful direct actions, Iris spotted the back door. It didn’t look locked. It wasn’t apparently guarded. It was worth a try. Arlo had picked up the backpack and slung it over her shoulder. Iris grabbed his hand and made a run for it. They wrenched it open. They were out! No, they were almost out, when a hand landed on her shoulder and wheeled her forcefully around.

‘What have we here? Aha! I thought so. We’ve met before haven’t we?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, why on earth would I… and her voice tailed off, as she found herself looking up into the sardonic face of the Special Branch’s own Detective Sergeant Bathurst.

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