My short story The Audience was recently published in the Lancashire Evening Post. You can read it in full below.
I was pulled from the bed by a bodiless arm. Through the mesh of white flesh and brown cotton I could just focus on the fingers which pressed painfully around my wrist.
‘Get up!’ A blurred mouth, nose and eyes appeared in place of the arm. As I struggled to escape the bed covers, the fingers grasped at my night gown, ripping it as they pulled me up. He smiled. I trembled. His hand moved towards me.
The slap hit me hard, made my face turn to one side, threw me back onto the bed.
‘I would not touch a dirty rat.’ He leaned over and spat in my face. It dripped down from my cheek to my chin. I didn’t dare to wipe it away as his eyes locked onto mine. I was supposed to look down. It was important to remember that. We are not equal. I got another slap for that insolence.
‘Now, get out!’ He moved to the next bed.
Clutching my nightgown at its torn seam, I saw one of the nurses being punched until she fell against the opposite bed. Her lip burst and blood seeped out; first with great urgency and then slowing to a steadier rate. The ward was filling with men in brown shirts. The sounds of cries, screams and blows building up louder.
‘Here, Ida, quickly!’ A whisper in my ear. Nurse Bauer handed me a pair of shoes which I put on with shaking hands. We hurried towards the door to the ward with everyone else, stumbling along the dark corridors to the main exit. Some of the younger ones cried openly, but I was just old enough to know that tears were simply a waste of salt.
Outside it was not the November night which made our teeth chatter. It was the sight of the mob, people coming to watch, lining the exit to the hospital, holding bricks, stones and pieces of rubble.
Many of the others coming into the freezing outdoors had to use crutches or be helped along by doctors and nurses who fended off blow after blow from the wall of violence which flanked us. I was glad of the shoes as I felt them crunch against the broken glass on the floor. Keeping my head low and holding my position in the middle, where it was relatively safe, I saw specks of blood dotted across the torn skin of those in front of me.
‘Hurry up!’ The angry cries of a brown shirt ahead of us. Some of the mob broke into our huddle with intent to reinforce his instructions. A woman grabbed my arm and yanked me forward. I looked her straight in the eye, despite being sure I would wet myself with fear. Her face changed and she backed off into the crowd, her grip leaving a mark on my bare arm. A street lamp lit us up, ensuring everyone got a good view as we continued on our way.
A wild cheer rose up from the crowd, who had now gathered in a semi-circle around us, as we were positioned in front of a building. I copied the others who were kneeling down with their hands above their head. Stones dug into my skin. An old man next to me was pushed to his knees. The cold whipped around us, our collective breath showed in the air.
‘Please,’ a woman kept saying over and over as flames began to rise in front of us, drawing another wild cheer from the surging crowd. A boy of about fifteen was kicked in the head and fell face first to the ground. Boots continued to rain down on him until a girl in a white nightgown threw herself over his limp body, crying and screaming, in an act of surrender which went unacknowledged.
We were coughing with the smoke, flames licking at our face. I dared to look up and saw a fireman standing, holding a pipe, no water coming from it. He caught my eye and turned away. Next to him a woman in a feathered hat held a young boy above the crowd. His face lit up with delight at the fire. He clapped his hands together.
Objects were thrown to feed the flames. I felt a sharp crack in my skull and then wetness spread across my head. I looked up again at the fireman, noticed a gap to the side of him where no one stood baying for our blood. I made a run for it. He pretended not to notice me. A boy standing behind him did.
The boy stood in front of me, jumping in my way with his thick boots landing in deep puddles when I tried to get past. He must have been around my age but didn’t uphold the ideal model as his height was small, his skin dark and his body thin. But he acted the way they did. The crowd seemed to melt away. It was just the two of us in this dangerous dance.
When I picked that rock up and smashed it over his head, I felt the anger that I’d seen in his eyes. He stumbled back like a weak baby. It was the only blood that I didn’t mind seeing that night.
I ran until my head was bursting, my legs were jelly and my chest was splintering with sharp pains. All the time shouts behind me, in front of me, at the sides of me. A choking, burning stench gridlocked the usual senses of the street.
I stopped by some granite blocks which had been heaped into piles. Then I heard them. Youths, men and women, howling deliriously as they ran towards me. I climbed over a gate, tearing open the skin on my knee and dropped myself into a small park.
Through the gaps in the gate I watched as the crowd hurled the blocks through the windows and at the closed doors of shops. In a few minutes the doors of one store gave way and the mob, shouting and fighting, moved inside and came out clutching boxes and bottles. It was hard to see anyone’s face; many had their coat or jacket collars turned up. And then one of them caught sight of me.
‘Look, there’s one hiding!’ He shouted in excitement. I sprinted to the exit at the other end of the park, my shoes slipping in the wet soil. Behind me, the gates rattled and voices called for me to come back.
‘Face what your people have done to this country!’ A voice carried over the burning air, hitting my lungs harder than anything else I was breathing in.
I didn’t look back. The other gate was harder to scale and I fell into a puddle on the other side, my nightdress spotted black with dirty water, drenched at the bottom. It was becoming harder to breathe. I could not imagine what it would be like for those who had been a lot sicker than me in the hospital. I had been due to go home any day.
This side street was darker than most. I kept my body pressed against the wall, creeping slowly along it, rain dripping off me, hair stuck to my face like rats tails with blood seeping from my head, knees and hands. A rattling sound and a shout made me run.
I slammed into a body. It was a man. He turned and grabbed me. My insides turned to liquid. He spoke in a foreign language, fast snatches of words. Then he took a deep breath and removed his brown coat, putting it around my shoulders. Without it, he looked smaller.
‘How old are you?’ he asked me slowly, choosing words I could grasp, with a flat, solemn tone.
‘Sixteen,’ I replied.
I heard the sounds of steps coming towards us and prepared to flee. But he pushed me into the wall and held me there, his eyes on me, saying things I couldn’t understand.
Another man appeared behind him, short and stumpy, wearing a hat like an extended shadow of his head and shivering in a shirt and tie. Beside him was an old woman, also in a suit jacket with night clothes underneath, white hair tumbling down her face and past her shoulders.
‘Please, come with us – we will help you.’ The new man spoke clearly in my language.
The old woman took my hand. ‘They are journalists.’ This was the most important information she had, spoken in her crackly voice. She didn’t offer her name when I asked.
I let myself be pulled through the streets, limbs heavy, heart beating fast, occasionally pausing to hide from a passing group until we reached an apartment and the men let us in. I paused, wondering why these men were helping us and what they could gain from it. A rough hand on my back pushed me in with a muffled ‘hurry,’ hissed as a warning for my hesitation.
It was a small room. I could make out a chair and tables, a bed and a sink in the corner. They didn’t put the light on.
‘You will stay here,’ the short and stumpy man said. ‘We are going back out there. Stay away from the windows.’
They both left us then, locking the door. We stayed there and stayed silent.
At short intervals we could hear the crunching of glass or the hammering against wood as windows and doors were broken in streets nearby.
‘A great performance from the Nazi party tonight. Now the world will turn against them,’ the old woman spoke suddenly and confidently. ‘They cannot stage something like this and get away with it. Yes, 1938 will be their final year in power.’
I looked away, taking a quick upwards glance through the net curtains from my position on the floor. The city was set with flickers of fire and the dark sky itself was punctuated by heavy clouds of billowing smoke, shooting up like warning signals.