"So what's happening now? I'm a novice to this sort of thing," John Wade asked in self-deprecating tones of a pleasant looking fresh faced student type whom once he'd have looked down at his nose at. How times had changed and this day spent mixing with compassionate intelligent people set the seal on his transformation. This wasn't lost on the rest of the gang who accepted this
"Nothing to worry about. There's always a bit of a blockage getting into Trafalgar Square. You'd be surprised but there's enough space to fit us all in," he said in friendly tones. Nikki and Helen were a little anxious about Rose who picked up on their mood and wanted to be released from her pushchair to come up to the surface for a little cuddle. Paul Williams caught a glimpse of Nikki's parents and their friend waiting patiently for things to be sorted out. They were of the old school, he reasoned. The demonstration was in good hands so there was nothing to panic about. George found herself chatting in an animated fashion to a young woman who might have been Charlie's younger sister.
"I wonder what Jac Naylor is doing right now," Jane said as the thought hit her right out of the blue as she and Karen were temporarily walking together.
"Bugger Jac Naylor,"Karen retorted with emphatic derision."She's just a sad woman with nothing else left in her life than her job. we know how to live, you and I and so do Jo and Beth and all the rest of the gang. Just take a look all around us and see what she's missing." Those words blasted away all the crap that had threatened to infiltrate Jane's world.
Finally, a slight swirl ahead announced that the blockage had sorted itself out and the growing eddy of moving people sucked them into the huge concourse that comprised Trafalgar Square. There it was, spread before them, the majesty of Nelson's column, the two ornamental fountains lending a pleasing touch of Arcadia in the concrete city and most striking of all, a huge net sack containing a collection of black balloons.
"Why the dark colour?" John asked of his friend.
"Each balloon stands for every soldier pointlessly killed in Iraq," the man replied laconically, giving his throat a rest from his chanting.
The shuffling crowds of humanity occupied the near foreground to the left of which was the imposing grey stonework of the National Portrait Gallery. What amazed the novices to demonstrations was how the square wrapped up the multitudes in its capacious space especially with the feeling of arriving at their destination.
"A nice brisk walk," summarised Mr Wade approvingly in his unmistakeable style.
"We could have been on the South Downs on a nice spring day but here we get to see the metropolis at its best," followed John Wade, grinning at the way he capped his father's remark as his tie fluttered loose in the wind.
"But this is all for a good cause," interposed Mrs Wade in one of her rare utterances whose Home County tones and basic seriousness drew warm appreciative smiles from those nearest them.
"So what happens now?" George politely asked their friend with the megaphone to whom unspoken deference was given.
"We hang around, take in the atmosphere and if you need refreshments, I'd recommend the shop there on the corner of Northumberland Avenue for cheapness. If you're not so bothered and you want comfort, try the café right at the bottom of the flight of steps. You can see where the staircase starts at the gap in the balustrade," he said pointing to the stone railing that peeped through gaps in the crowds. George smiled warmly at their friend who she really liked. He was polite and intelligent and a definite step up from the Hooray Henrys who clustered ineffectively round her in her youth before John Deed appeared to part the crowds. She turned to Alice and they opted for comfort over price and, as they drew nearer, realised that the square had an interesting split level effect. They could see the huge stone lions, the vast concrete base on which stood a speaker's platform with microphones and overhead canopy.
"When do the speeches start?"Jo asked, her arm comfortably linked in Jane's but paying attention to business.
"Three quarters of an hour's time, give or take a bit," came the quiet response. At this, the gang split up in various directions and they meandered round the impromptu festival.
"Can't believe so many people are smiling," murmured Karen to Beth as they strolled around, hand in hand, viewing the proud array of colourful banners and feeling good and comfortable before heading for the café area. Beth had clicked away at regular intervals and had moved into the position of group photographer. A different thought struck Claire and Peter as they temporarily left the throng to get refreshments across the road. It struck them that, as soon as they walked across the hard tarmac, the temperature dropped sharply which cut through their clothing, especially through John Wade's familiar blue suit and white shirt.
"Oh what a lovely baby," a voice called from behind Nikki's back and Helen basked in the rightful attention of being the birth mother. By chance, it was curious how most of the gang had returned from their rambles having spread themselves out from their ad hoc assembly point and they suddenly realised how little Rose mattered in their lives. She had bumped along peacefully in her pushchair with the uninteresting view of backs of legs and bodies turned away from her and only the carnival atmosphere to grab her attention and a quick nappy change and a cuddle along the way. They looked at her as a tiny human being in the making with her innocent smile, glinting wide open green eyes and giggles at being notices at last. Sharp maternal eyes were drawn into the crowd and perceived behind the barely formed features the personality that was already forming.
"She'll break all the boy's hearts one day," observed a Mrs Middle England woman with fresh complexion and a stout green windcheater with all the natural unthinking affection in the world. A number of women blinked their eyes and thought, yes all things are possible. Charlie sidled over a mixed curiosity and reticence slowly drew her in.
"I'm not into babies- never had the time- but she's really charming,"she said in a halting fashion, with a sense of familiarity that she couldn't put her finger on. This was the cue for the other women to murmur assent especially as their presence at Rose's birth had partly felt expected of them. This prompted Trisha's heart to go out to this extraordinary creature, not just as an extension of Nikki and Helen but as a being in her own right. She surprised herself in crouching down to her level to talk baby talk to her. It was at that point that George and Alice returned from their creature comforts and zeroed in on the admiring throng. It was curious how Rose had inadvertently caused the gang who had been spread out around Trafalgar Square and beyond to gather around her. Even George and Alice returned from the comforts of the café and zeroed on the admiring crowd.
It was at this point that the loosely spread out crowds were called to order and the assembly shifted gear as ,for the next hour or so, various speakers from various points of view ranging from sober exposition, to impassioned anger to touches of sparkling humour which struck them all in different ways. All of them could recognise the common thread of "we protest" running through them all as a resonant appeal to the freedom of the human spirit. Nikki recalled standing on an improvised stage consisting of a chair so many years ago in Larkhall Prison as she waxed indignantly over injustice done to Femi, a frightened mother of many children after prison officers had beaten her up and had finally settled accounts with her recent report. John Deed remembered his many clashes with the Lord Chancellor's Department and the strike he'd led against the Home Secretary. Many women remembered either standing up in court giving evidence to seek justice or had supported others doing so and barristers and solicitors witnessed having been the active agents to achieve this. This was what it was all about in the bigger picture, they thought as emotions overflowed...
Finally, a white-haired gentleman of the old school spoke in his patrician accents to an obvious sense of deference from all sides and struck John Deed as a compendium of history in the making. George though she recognised him from long ago newspapers and asked their political guide for clarification.
"That's Tony Benn. He's President of the Stop the War Coalition. Anyone with any principles respects the guy."
"Wasn't he once called Anthony Wedgewood-Benn?" George asked him, wrinkling her forehead."I remember seeing pictures of him in the news with eyes like Catherine wheels. He really looks and sounds a lot like daddy. My father Joseph Channing who is a Court of appeal judge, you know," she elucidated in her charming chatty fashion.
"There's the Sun for you," he said unthinkingly and instantly regretted his words and not because George bridled at his remark about her reading material.
"I happen to read the Times I'll have you know," she retorted.
"She did, you know. I was there as were were once married," interjected John Deed humorously, trying to take the heat out of the situation.
"I don't doubt you. Same photograph, different papers, the man explained diplomatically."
"Quiet please. I want to listen to listen to him," George said, her winning smile and eagerness softening her impatient tones.
"...Never forget that our own history is full of popular victories that have been won in the same way, starting at the bottom and building up and their demands are met and accepted as a a permanent feature in decision making by all future governments. The stop the War Coalition movement that has been built up is one of the most important developments in recent years. It is a long overdue unruly breath of fresh air and we're all part of it," finished Tony Benn, rolling elegantly into his conclusion.
A breathtaking round of applause rippled round the huge crowd in the concourse. John Deed clapped fervently at this man who was wiser than him. George, Jo and Alice looked fondly at him and clapped along with the others. The sounds echoed in the still air till they faded out into a sense of peace and tranquillity.
Next, a woman in black loose-fitting clothes and long, curly hair floating in the breeze struck up the first electrified sonorous notes from her violin. It instantly grabbed everyone's attention as the melodic flow of sounds arched and wheeled in the silent air.
"What on earth is it?" breathed George in mingled puzzlement and dawning fascination. It reminded her of some long forgotten Bach violin sonata she'd bought years ago only minus a tinkling harpsichord and amplified to just short of excruciating and was pleasurable instead. To Charlie's contrastingly modern ears, these amplified sounds were slowed down to an impossibly yet fascinatingly ponderous tempo that made it impossible to dismiss. The layered bedrock of tragic emotion couldn't suppress a yearning desire for hope straining to escape . After all, to the sensitively attuned ears of the multitudes listening in rapture, isn't this duality what life is often about? Struggles in life in its various forms aren't cheerily cotton candy optimism, not when soldiers killed in foreign shores are considered not to mention the nameless, faceless
humanity whose country was invaded for no good reason. As the last wailing notes from the violinist, her body taut with energy, danced its way in a swooping downwards motion, it took everyone's breath away as the final echoing notes faded slowly into the still air. Only after a moment or two was the silence broken.
"Better this than standing for a minute's silence for the glorious dead," John Deed commented acerbically to one and all and Mr Wade and his friend reacted with a knowing grin John Wade reflected in a moment of pure tranquillity how he's enjoyed sporadic conversations with Nicola and her very reassuring partner, Helen and a number of their friends along the trail from Hyde Park to this spot. They'd impressed him as strong-minded, lively women whose conversation pleasantly spurred on his own thinking. While they were all gathered here, he could see their obvious affection for each other and he responded to this from the bottom of his heart as entirely natural. He made a mental note that, in accepting Helen and Nicola as family, he should be Uncle John to their daughter Rose, It made him wonder why on earth he and his parents had ever fallen out with Nicola but he was given the opportunity to make amends for so many wrong choices he'd made in his life. Somehow, he wanted this afternoon to last forever.
"Wait a minute. Some thing's happening," exclaimed Jane who saw a blurred movement to the netting that constrained the mass of black balloons that had remained static during the meeting. All through this demonstration, this sophisticated woman of the world had been taken outside her normal way of dealing with the world and it had been supplanted by a sense of wide-eyed wonder as she clutched onto Jo Mills hand The other woman smiled fondly, turned and gave her a soft, loving kiss that seemed the most natural thing to do in this environment where emotions of human decency were heightened. Out of the corner of her eye, Jo saw what her lover meant as, very slowly, the massed balloons slipped free from their constraints and she called out excitedly to the others in the gang. The sight of the black balloons starting to disperse induced an ominous mood as they weren't the normal happy colours like red, green and yellows of childhood memories but denoted serious business which had drawn the multitudes out onto the street to march and protest. However, as the balloons started to rise free and disperse, they denoted the irresistible spirit of hope and freedom as they floated up into the sky with a sense of childlike excitement.
Meanwhile, John Deed was thinking kindly of Kristine. She was never as close to him as now when she was in her flat and he was on the streets. She'd explained the night before that it was practically impossible for her to be with him on this demonstration but her thoughts would be with him. John had taken this like a man and had resolved to throw himself enthusiastically into the demonstration and enjoy the company of his friends. He knew that her lively imagination and insight would picture the event every step of the way as if she were present herself with Jules of course. Uncharacteristically, tears formed in his eyes as the woman who was the equal of his intelligence and outrageousness and just as uncommitted to long term relationships was with him in spirit and with everyone else who was close to him and gave him the spiritual nurturing that he needed.
"Look Rose," Helen called out excitedly, crouching down to her level and pointing upwards at the sky. Rose picked up on the feeling of happiness and grinned happily, shuffling around in excitement, feeling safe and protected in this crowd.
All this time, the black shapes slowly floated skywards, gradually diminishing in size as they danced around and bumped against each other, spreading out from each other as faint breezes took charge. Not only was the gang amongst whom Mr and Mrs Wade had effortlessly taken their place, we transfixed into staring skywards but the whole demonstration that populated Trafalgar Square. They were the sharpest manifestation of the nation's conscience but they'd stepped back in time in childlike wonder. Far above them, a widely scattered constellation of tiny dots were randomly moving as the wind took them. With their feet on the ground, a judge, a couple of barristers, solicitors, nurses, nightclub owners, prison reform workers, mothers, radical activists and naval officers felt transported into a better place, something they'd never forget. after all, hadn't their various life's experiences been rehearsals for learning to let their spirits fly free and unchained?