First Meeting

(from For Laika)

.


“Are we late?” Julia looked around with agitation – first at the people behind who seemed to be following them and then ahead towards the approaching spires of Westminster Abbey.

Maggie glanced at her watch between purposeful steps. “No. Early.”

Julia changed from her small, quick paces to match Maggie’s longer strides. “Are all these people going … to this meeting, do you think?”

Maggie looked back. “There could be something else happening nearby. It does seem an awful lot for a first meeting.”

They rounded the corner and Maggie gestured to the main entrance of Central Hall. “It’s in here.”

“Here?” Julia stopped in the middle of the pavement. “But this is huge! We’ve been walking beside this building for the last couple of minutes!”

Maggie grinned. “I told you there might be a big meeting coming up. … This is it.” She looked at Julia’s face. “You don’t have to go in if you’ve changed your mind. You haven’t had much tim  e to think things through the way I have. If you want to go, I’ll let you know what happens … there’ll be other meetings.”

Julia looked up. She couldn’t see the top of the Methodist Central Hall and she was standing just near its front door. Above the lower section with its various steps, doors and displays, the curved frontage created a commanding face as the columns, carvings and a tall central window peered out onto the world. Above that main portion, another tier – set back a little – disappeared into the sky.

It wasn’t the tallest building Julia had seen – in fact, Westminster Abbey opposite appeared to stretch perhaps a little higher – but, from where she stood, the Central Hall felt like a majestic giant towering over some tiny mice scurrying at its feet. But Julia wasn’t daunted. She was so engrossed that she forgot to respond to Maggie.

“Julia … really … you don’t have to go in,” Maggie repeated.

Julia brought her face away from the building. Her eyes were bright and her mouth was firm with the hint of a smile lifting her cheeks. “I know,” she said, “but I want to.” She took the first step towards the doorway and Maggie followed.

Inside, hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people were filling the hall. There didn’t seem to be much room left but Julia inched her way along to two seats still unoccupied at the back. Behind them more people flooded in.

“Don’t let anyone take my seat,” Maggie said and went back out into the corridor.

Julia looked around. The room was huge – a gallery loomed over the ground floor seating at the back and reached its substantial arms along the left and right walls. Only the stage was exempt from its own roof topped with rows of eager people. The plasterwork and carved wooden doorways were elegant – not overly adorned with detail but enough to indicate substance and style. And the ceiling was hypnotic with its grand circle kissing the four arches that spanned the trio of windows replicated in three walls of the room and the rising organ pipes extending upwards from the stage. Inside the circle, rows of segments drew eyes to its centre but urged them to look back again on its entirety – a spectacular whole, crowning the hall with refinement and significance.

Maggie dropped onto her seat, slightly out of breath. “You won’t believe it – we’re overflowing. There are so many people that they’re being channelled into other rooms. Someone said that the speakers are going to move from room to room. … they might have to turn people away!”

Julia looked around. Too many for the hall that made her feel like a speck. Too many for the building that seemed to soar to the sky. She swallowed. She was frightened and excited – not swaying from one to the other but the constant feeling of both merged together.

It had only been two days since she’d read the article from The New Statesman in her bathroom in the middle of the night … and now she was here. The only step in between had been to telephone Maggie and tell her that she wanted to be part of it. She couldn’t have imagined that that would have brought her to this bubbling mass of possibilities.

Julia looked around. There were so many people – young, old, well-dressed, casual and scruffy. She grinned self-consciously at Maggie. Then a thought struck her. “We don’t have to talk, do we?”

Maggie chuckled. “I think there are quite a few here who like the sound of their own voice more than you do … you don’t have to worry. You can be quiet as mouse and no one’ll mind at all … perhaps some applause occasionally, but you won’t have to go any further than that.”

When the speeches began, it wasn’t specific words or phrases that struck Julia – it was the tone and passion of each speaker. And the reflected emotion of the audience. Those on the stage were determined, adamant, rousing. And those watching were more than ready to be roused. At one point in the proceedings, a small group not too far from where Julia and Maggie were sitting shouted out, heckling one of the speakers.

“League of Empire Loyalists,” Maggie whispered, which meant nothing to Julia. But she nodded knowingly and tried to match Maggie’s scornful frown.

The volume of the crowd rose with every sentence uttered from the stage. Conviction and commitment buoyed the speakers and flowed across the audience who needed little to ignite their fervor. The hecklers had clearly been in the minority as the tone of the masses was overwhelmingly supportive. And so the spirit grew as consensus and conviction flowed back and forth. The words rang out from the orators. Uncompromising. Articulate. Emotive. Each statement giving the devoted gathering permission to discard another layer of their British reserve. Julia felt as if years of enforced decorum were dropping away as she applauded with more and more abandon. She wasn’t concerned about ‘what people would think’, about appropriate expression of appreciation in a public place. She wanted to allow the depth of her emotion out, to not just think about something but sound her feelings to the world.

And abruptly, for just a moment, she was back in a field at twelve. A girl running and running and running. Filled with tears that wouldn’t flow. A mass of fear and loss and emptiness and pain. And all the running wouldn’t stop the dread inside her. The pall that hung over her, reminding her that she had years to go on. Without her. A life to live. With an empty space where her mother should have been.

Her body had ached with emotion. Not just her mind, her chest, but every part of her held the agony that couldn’t escape.

And in the hall, she clapped her hands and set the feelings free. Because positive emotion seemed able to be shared but pain could stay menacingly inside. Away from those who had their own torment to negotiate.

Julia blinked and brought herself back to the hall – to a man speaking with eloquence and tenacity. To a time that Julia knew would be important. The past was something that she couldn’t change but the next minute – the next second – was in her grasp. She could feel the way she wanted. She could show the way she felt.

She turned to Maggie and raised her eyebrows in awe and exhilaration. Maggie smiled and put her hand on her friend’s left arm, squeezing it firmly. Julia suddenly felt as real as she had ever felt. Jangling with life. She looked back to the stage but she could feel the people all around her stretching out like tentacles, connected to her like a blanket of energy.

The final speaker made his way to the centre of the stage. He began with confrontational aggression, as if he was expecting the taunts that had come earlier in the evening. His words were powerful, descriptive – a depiction of the devastation caused by nuclear bombs on human beings. It was all the horror that Julia had allowed herself to contemplate but more. The atrocities that she had sheltered from. The words painted, in garish tones, the reason that a heaviness had sat inside her since she had found the newspaper in her father’s storage cupboard.

“Stand up whoever will press the button,” the speaker cried.

No one stood.

And then he called for action. He urged those opposing nuclear weapons to take their cue from the suffragettes and disrupt Ministerial meetings, hold the politicians accountable for their action and inaction. “We should chant ‘Murderers!’ at them!”

The powerful words resonated through the room. Julia felt infused with purpose. As if she had finally been given permission to air a voice that had been eternally silent. When the audience realised that the formal speeches had concluded, they rose from their seats. Julia stood and looked at Maggie.

“What shall we do?” she shouted over the applause and clatter of thousands of feet and voices.

“Go home!” Maggie shouted back, with a wide grin as she picked up her handbag and turned towards the exit. “Ready to fight another day!”

“But I’m ready now!” Julia heard her voice whine like a petulant child.

Maggie laughed. “That’s good. I’m glad you felt involved. But there are ways of doing these things. This was just the first official meeting …”

The two pushed their way along with the crowds of people surging out into the corridor and then again through the doorways out onto the street. The people surged and jostled, some shouting “Murderers!”, others muttering to those packed tightly alongside them. When Julia looked to her right as she found the stairs out onto the pavement, Maggie had disappeared. She looked around. Every face, every profile, every back or shoulder was unfamiliar.

She stood while people flowed past her and scoured the sea of coats and heads but Maggie didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. Julia looked back over the oncoming crowd, craned her neck and called out, “Maggie!” in a louder voice than she had thought herself capable. But even with the unexpected volume, she knew that there was little chance that the right person would ever hear her. Not above the exuberance of the perpetual throng.

“Come on!” someone nearby shouted with admirable intensity, “Downing Street!” Julia turned her back to the Methodist Central Hall and looked out at the streams dispersing across London. She knew that Maggie would be making her way towards the tube station. But, as the fingers of crowd flowing from the exits grew longer, Julia realised that she had no desire to go back along the gloomy corridors of streets and down to the dank Underground to wait for a tube train. To go rushing back to her normal life. She wasn’t ready yet.

A person just behind her said, “Are you going … to Downing Street?” Julia turned to see another woman nod and then two ladies – who looked not unlike her mother-in-law – bustled off in a direction that was almost opposite to that of St James’ Park station – where Maggie would be heading.

And suddenly Julia was walking. Following the clusters striding with intent towards Parliament Square and then through – closer and closer to the home of the Prime Minister. Julia could hear her breath as it became thicker and more audible. But she kept pace with the others. When she looked up, Big Ben was standing just ahead of her. Then the tide turned and the eager wave surged along Parliament Street, gathering pace as it went.  As the crowd approached Downing Street, some people surged ahead – past the dawdlers – with shouts of “Murderers!” fueling their acceleration. Julia peered ahead and saw the group becoming more dense, less scattered. Then those around her slowed suddenly and, after only a few more steps, they had gone as far as they could go.

Julia came to a stop along with everyone around her. And she breathed. She shouldn’t remember taking a breath since the moment she’d felt the gaze of Big Ben. And now they were coming thick and fast. As she looked around, through the dark shades of wool and felt and hair that surrounded her, she saw the flash of a blue uniform and knew that those who’d made their way from the meeting weren’t the only ones prepared for confrontation on Downing Street that night.

Suddenly, a dog barked and someone shouted, “Get it away! We’re doing nothing wrong!”

Just then Julia realised that her exhilaration had been left back inside the Central Hall, that following the group from there was just another version of doing what was expected. Being one of the crowd.

As voices began to add themselves to an angry chant, Julia turned and walked. She couldn’t revert to being one of the masses again. She had to find what she really thought and then act on that. And she needed just a little time. A little space from the crowd to be certain what that really was.

There was a tube station close by but Julia made her way back through Parliament Square and to the building opposite Westminster Abbey. There were only a few stragglers dawdling outside the entrance of the hall.

Julia stopped. And looked up. She was close enough to place her hand on the wall. And suddenly she had to. She was empty of breath. Drained of energy. Tiredness would have been welcome because Julia was beyond that. She stood, exhausted, leaning on the building until she could right herself. She didn’t know how much time passed as she waited for her body to revive, but when she felt that her legs could hold her, she stepped away from her solid scaffold and glanced around. Surrounding her and in the distance were only shadowy empty streets – the kind that instantly inflamed a hankering for home. Julia turned and made her way towards the tube station.

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