The Red I am now is a very different shade to the Red I was six nights ago.
There’s dirt under my nails and on my skin - even in my mouth - and exhaustion streaks my eyeballs like the wires of explosives. But, still, at least, I feel explosive. I have not been beaten.
I have heard the whispers as I crept South from Epping to Havering, keeping to the invisible Zone Six boundary. People in Epping were murmuring after my first painting, and after the fourth that had the words ‘WE ARE NOT PROUD’ scrawled above a pile of bodies in Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column sticking through the middle lending itself to the vertical line of the T, the news had reached my next pit stop even before I arrived. People are starting to ask questions on street corners: What does this mean? Who is Red? Is this art?
It has helped me push through the weariness that sucks at the marrow in my bones and the cold that fossilises my muscles in the hours I snatch at for sleep. My mother was right - people always react. They are all reacting to my reaction, and their words are filtering down to each other, passed on like the old tradition of fables. I know it won’t be long before it breaks into Zone Five, and then onwards - for once, the people will be informing the ‘powers that be’. This time, they must listen.
I can’t prove it but I think Dagenham was ecstatic to wake up to a painting on one of their own streets on Friday morning. There’s a fizz in the air, like the space just above a champagne glass, and as I move slyly among them I see fierceness in their smiles. Of course, no one takes any notice of me. I look like any other Zero. Probably smell like one, too, although I’m past noticing my own individual scent. My hands are starting to curl into permanent claws due to the cold that sneaks its way through the thick gloves I allow myself at night, but I don’t particularly care about my fingers as long as I can still hold a paint can.
Despite having six fucking days to get here I’m late for the meeting. It’s being held in a small off-licence on Great Collings Street in Dagenham - they obviously don’t expect many people to show up. The slack-jawed expression of the man who raises the blind after I knock only confirms this. He blinks at me for a few seconds, leaning on his wooden stick, before unlocking the shop door and shuffling backwards to let me swing it open. Before he opened the blinds I had the first chance to study my own reflection in a week. I’m not surprised he hesitated.
He is quick to pull the blinds down again after the door crashes shut behind me. I am the only one who flinches. A loud bustling and string of fearsome curses sounds from the back of the shop and then a young girl emerges from the middle aisle carrying a fold up chair. She can’t be older than seventeen but her tongue could make eyes water faster than an aged whisky.
Everyone stares as I drop my bag and lower myself carefully into the chair, wincing. It’s been days since I sat like this and my knees seem to have forgotten how to bend without immediately curling towards my chest. Sitting above ground in the warmth I think maybe I was stupid to have roughed it instead of finding a hostel. What was it Kathy had called me? Martyr.
‘Right. Moving on.’ The gruff voice belongs to the man standing behind the counter who seems to be heading up the meeting of seven. Alongside the disabled man and teenage girl, there’s a tall beautiful Asian woman with her short and fat husband, a painfully thin white woman in her late thirties and a willowy black man scraping the ceiling with his head. He is the only one to have smiled at me when I came in. The man behind the counter is about a decade older than me and broad like an ox with short blond hair. He has the kind of presence that distorts his features - no matter what he looked like I would think him to be the biggest force in the room.
‘We’ll come back to you.’ His cold, blue eyes seem to creep down my spine like ice cubes and there’s something in his movement that dances on my plane of recognition.
He turns to the thin woman. ‘How many people are going on the site, Mags?’
‘Same as ever, Willie. S’just dribbles all the time. Ain’t fuckin’ nuffin’ comin’ in from One-t-Four.’ She talks with the same speed with which she fidgets, rolling from side to side on her arse cheeks with her hands trapped under her thighs. Her ears are ravaged with punched holes and some have split at the edges to make slits in the flesh.
‘What about the scarves? Any more interest in that?’
’They’re just fucking scarves, Will,’ says the fiery teenager. ‘It’s not like we handed out a fucking address to anyone who might’ve been interested. They were fucking stupid.’ She scrapes her thin red hair into a bun. ‘I knew you shouldn’t’ve let that posh bitch in your ear.’
‘Stop, Hunter. Anything and everything is worth trying once.’ The black man’s voice is gentle, like distant thunder at noon. Hunter’s knees buckle under his pacifying smile and she grunts, swinging her chair around to straddle it, crossing her arms over the back.
‘I don’t think anyone will be talking about the scarves what with all these paintings springing up.’ A selection of beautiful bangles slide up and down the Asian woman’s arms that rise and fall with her round, full voice. ‘What do we know about those? Who’s doing them? Our neighbour thinks it’s a gang…’
’A gang of what? Artists?’ squeals the man with the stick.
‘Art used to be dangerous,’ Willie interrupts.
‘Ha! A gun is dangerous - not a bleedin’ painting.’
‘Shut it, Davey. It’s got people chattin’, ain’t it?’
’Not got ‘em here though-’
‘It’s only been a few fucking days, like-’
‘We need to find this person or people.’
’But what if they are dangerous-’
‘My old man finks it’s a loon-’
I feel like I am watching geese fly overhead, their squawking shaking the lines of the horizon. Their formation and direction is a mystery to me but, like geese, these people seem to have an instinct that guides them together. At least, I hope they do. Little spats break out between them and I grow heavier on my seat, watched by the man called Will. Eventually he speaks.
‘I agree with Art,’ he says, nodding to the gentle giant. ‘We need to find whoever is doing this. I think it’s a safe bet they’re on our side.’
‘I’d rather have some fucking guns on side, mate,’ Davey with the stick mutters.
‘Alright, Davey - bugger off and storm parliament and let us know how that works out for you, yeah?’ Will’s voice is level and steady, mostly, but the ‘yeah’ snaps around Davey’s ear like the flap of a bat’s wings and the old man’s head bobs in shame.
‘Will - I get it, I know,’ cuts in Mags, ‘but sumfin’s gotta change - and soon - cos my sister, yeah? She can’t even get new clothes for the kids she ain’t seen all week cos she’s been fuckin’ workin’ cleanin’ the pissers of some shitty fuckin’ bank! Makes me sick!’ A wave of agreement ripples round the room and reaches Will.
‘We’re with you, Mags. But you won’t be any good for your sister sitting in a cell for ten years.’ He turns to the small, dumpy Asian man. ‘Samuel, what about that customer of yours? Any luck recruiting him?’
Samuel puffs out his chest and clasps his hand behind his back. ‘Oh, you know, he’s in here every day and I’m trying, you know, but he really doesn’t want any reminders of the City, you know? I think it broke his soul when he lost his job.’
‘What did he do?’ Hunter pipes up.
‘He was some corporate lawyer and it all went to his head, you know. He got greedy. Started having sex with prostitutes as well as his wife. He got HIV, you know?’ Samuel shakes his head sadly at the sympathetic hisses. ‘He drinks a lot now. He’s only just affording his medication, you know, on the benefits he gets from working as a cabbie. He had to sell everything to buy the car, you know.’
‘Keep working on him,’ Will pushes the conversation on. ‘There’s worse things than having a decent lawyer on board. What’s next?’
’Eh - is anyone gonna find out who the hell she is?’ Hunter’s finger is aimed right between my eyes. Her aggression makes me smile coldly after years of seeing the shadows of wolves bound alongside my colleagues in the Arena.
All eyes are on me now trying to search out my identity in the folds of my black clothes and underneath the dirt on my face. I reach down to my bag and unzip it quickly, rooting around for a can of paint.
‘My name is Red.’ I pull one of the cans out and toss it at Will. His eyes light up when he catches it, although his face remains impassive. He passes it to Art and fixes me with a stare like a warrior’s grip as it makes its way round the group back to me.
‘You’re the artist?’
‘Where are you from?’
‘I used to live in Two. I was a stockbroker. A bloody good one, actually.’ Mags hisses in disgust and a look passes between her and Davey.
‘What happened to you?’
‘Nothing. I chose to leave. I boycotted my DVT and disappeared from the National Pride parade on Saturday.’ I’m assaulted by a collection of frowns as they decide whether or not to believe me. Will’s gaze is now so strong I can almost feel the air parting and buckling around me.
‘There were many reasons to leave and none to stay. I think we share those reasons.’ We. It rolls off my tongue like spittle and, for the first time in my life, isn’t caught somewhere in my larynx. I can feel the exhaustion steaming out of my legs and pooling on the floor as they loosen up. I rasp a palm along the top of my head before leaning forward to rest both my elbows on my knees.
‘I saw your scarves - the yellow one, to be exact, on Brick Lane - on someone I thought was a Zero.’ They gasp collectively when I identify the colour. ‘I suppose it was you,’ I say, looking to Will. He nods. ‘Thought so.’ I pause and take a deep breath, letting my sight land on each of them before continuing.
’The scarf was something of a catalyst for me because, of course, I could see it. I was made to see that scarf because I didn’t receive the injection. So that means not only can I see real colours, I also can’t see the colours in technological projections and transmissions. They don’t affect me - I’m not addicted to any of it, I’m not blinded by it. I can see this system for what it truly is and I hate it.’
‘So you can’t see anything on a screen in colour?’
‘Not just screens - clothes, dyes, gadgets, buildings. Nothing with the transmitters in them because the base colour is always grey. I can’t even see the weather they project every day. Oh, and by the way, it’s never really fucking blue skies.’
‘You’re lying,’ Hunter calls out, but her voice quavers with the accusation.
‘Your hair,’ I say to her, ‘I’m assuming you didn’t know its real colour until you saw a photo of yourself for the first time?’ She nods. ‘Well, I could have told you from day one you’re straight-up ginger.’ Mags guffaws next to Hunter who I can see is grinding her teeth with narrow, slitted eyes. Finally, she turns to Will and nods.
‘Go on,’ he encourages me.
So I tell them my story, and the abridged version of my mother’s that identifies her as the ‘posh bitch’. I don’t mention One just in case his memory still haunts the vessels of hope on these broken streets. I talk solidly for twenty minutes, enjoying the swing in my jaw that connects me to their open ears after almost a week - and a lifetime, in many ways - of silence. I talk about the injection and the two-week window, about doctors’ terrifying legal obligation to abort embryos (‘Babies,’ Mags interrupts.) I talk about my disgust for the city’s aesthetic and the inability to be moved and inspired by its grey tones. I talk about the mania it incites in others and the fear and insecurity that keeps the Inner Zones insular. Sometimes they interrupt and ask me questions about my life, still entranced by the quality they can never hope to receive. I talk about equality. The room crackles.
‘Everyone knows this is wrong, they know it in their bones - that’s why they try and fill that hole in their marrow - in their soul - the DV creates with things and things and more things because they’ve been made to feel they’re not actually valuable just as human beings. But they can’t do anything about it because they’re all crippled by this climate of fear that keeps everyone sweating enough over their own skin let alone other people. The best kind of happiness everyone can afford is sticking their head in the sand in the hope no one ruffles their feathers.’
‘Maybe for you stockbrokers but not for us who get the shitty end of the stick,’ Hunter interrupts. ‘Can’t even afford sand to stick our heads into.’
‘Look how quickly we class ourselves into opposition! We’ve been conditioned to rely on these differences to define ourselves rather than focus on the common ground we share! And if you want people to take their heads out the sand you need to give them something worthwhile to stick their necks on the line for.’
‘You’re saying we should sugar coat it for people who have it easy.’
‘No. What I’m saying is you shouldn’t threaten them. You should think outside of this barbaric system of oppositions and comparisons and human worth on a sliding scale and instead offer them freedom from that. It shouldn’t have to be that one side of the population has to be torn down for the other to rise. That’s equilibrium, not equality.’
‘You sound like a Marxist.’ My head snaps round to face Art, half-frowning, half-smiling.
‘Nope - he had an actual plan…’
‘And you only have an idea?’
‘Not even that. It’s an instinct, a belief,’ I shrug, leaning back in my chair and stretching my arms above my head. ‘I figure that’s the best way to beat anything resembling a machine.’
‘Oh great,’ Davey mutters. ‘That and a spray can and we’re all set to overthrow the government.’
‘It’s got more people talking than you lot have managed,’ I snap, frustrated.
‘And how do you know that, eh?’
‘There’s seven of you!’ I know I shouldn’t, but l laugh. ‘I’m assuming there’s not another hundred absentees from this meeting?’
‘People are tired and scared here, too,’ Will says gruffly. ‘No matter how much people agree with us it’s tough getting them out the woodwork.’
’That’s because you’ve got them thinking it’ll cost them everything they have - their time, their homes, their lives. That website of yours is so bloody aggressive. Actually, scrap that - it’s crap.’
‘Fuck off!’ Mags reacts as if I branded her with a hot iron.
‘I’m sorry,’ I raise my hands in mock defeat, ’but the message you’re sending out is far too intimidating and one-sided. There’s no way you’ll attract anyone from the Inner Zones with it. There’s nothing for them-’
‘They have everything,’ Mags hisses.
‘Not when you have your way, they won’t. At least, that’s what you imply.’ I rub my hands up and down my tired thighs. ‘And it’s too dogmatic for the people out here - it’s like you’re expecting fully-fledged radical bloody anarchists to pitch up, and that’ll frighten those who might be interested but just want more information for now, or don’t even know why they should be angry.’ I yawn loudly. ‘And your web design…’
‘Mags spent a lot of time on that,’ Davey barks at me.
’That’s great - it’s more than most are doing - but it needs work. We need to drive people to the site and then keep them there. You want to look like a more inviting alternative, not just another fucking regime. Please - just let me help you with it.’
‘Tell her to fuck off,’ Mags says to Will angrily, who ignores her.
‘I’ve got five state-of-the-art laptops in my bag loaded with the best blogging and editing software and a bunch of brand new cameras. I want to give one of each to someone in each Zone - maybe some of you - who will document what goes on around them. Document the poverty, the injustice, the disillusionment. Give an honest report about what’s going on out here. I’ll work with you all on editing it and putting it together in the most accessible format i.e. in a way that doesn’t scare the shit out of the reader but invites them to be angry and upset.’
‘I don’t get it, how will that reach more people out here? How will it help in the long-run?’ Samuel tugs nervously on a thumb with his other hand.
‘People like to read about themselves. You make something relevant, pull them in with that and then direct them to the new information once they’re onsite.’
’The injections. We need women to start refusing the injections. Forget storming parliament, this is about changing the people that allow themselves to be locked into this system. And we advertise different meetings for different topics, maybe, ‘recruit’ as you lot say from each and encourage people to come to more, to learn more.’ Will is nodding slowly. Although his narrow eyes rest on my face it’s not me he sees.
‘That makes sense. But parents will be too afraid to refuse the injection after what you just said about the enforced terminations.’ I smile.
’Ah - see they weren’t quite ‘enforced’. They were disguised as some other jab or vaccination. So parents need to refuse all injections and medication – I mean, who’s actually going to force a pregnant woman into something? They can’t. Not beyond tying her down, which is completely illegal. There’s not actually anything they can do about it once you’re educated. Well, apart from fining the shit out of you but we’ll find a way round that.’
‘Why hasn’t this been done before?’ I still haven’t caught the Asian woman’s name.
‘No one knew the loopholes. Westminster’s main weapons of control aren’t concrete, physical things; they’re lies, speculation and fear. It’s more difficult for people to rally if they can’t actually see a common enemy. But, then again, it’s easier to liberate people from ideas than chains.’
‘Let’s cut the philosophy for a minute,’ Will says, holding up a hand. ‘I get it and I’m on board. I think your news section will resonate with the Outer Zones and I think it’s worth a shot, even trying to stop the injections.’ A few of the group start muttering at that but he silences them with a look before turning back to me. ‘But what about the Inner Zones? How do we get them reading?’
I sigh. ‘First of all, stop focussing so much on them and believe in the power to make your own change-’
‘I said no more philosophy,’ he cuts in flatly. I bristle.
‘Fine. Well, you know their personal software or whatever is checked as part of their DVT, right?’
‘Yes, if you work in One to Four.’
‘Exactly. That makes people a little nervous about checking out dodgy sites - culture of fear, again. So you have to give them something worth risking that for, even just once. You have to catch their attention.’ They look at me expectantly as I pause, rolling the sentence over my tongue just as the idea has been rolling around my head every night that I’ve lain in doorways, keeping me awake despite my aching feet. Even now, the guilt and necessity clash around my skull like brawling titans.
‘I have a national exclusive about the Chancellor of the Exchequer marriage. His husband’s a big name in the finance world. They’re minor celebrities. Everyone will want to read it.’ I swallow, thinking of Kathy and her smiling face looking over the crowd at Pride. I swear I can almost feel her warm arms wrapped around my belly now. ‘It’ll be a shit-storm.’
‘How do you know it’s an exclusive?’ Will asks, the only one not smiling.
‘Well, I don’t. Not until we’re the first to publish it. Which is why we need to get on it quickly.’ He eyes me up and down once more, pausing. Then he nods and turns his body to face into the group once more.
‘Right,’ he says, clapping his hands. As he barks instructions and ideas, ironing out the kinks in mine, and the group’s concerns, I melt into my chair and let gravity tug on my lids. Their voices wash over me like the whistle of the breeze above the sea as I sink lower and lower through their chorus.
Then I hear my name being called as someone jabs me roughly on the shoulder. I must have fallen asleep as they talked because I open my eyes to find them all on their feet wearing their coats and scarves.
‘Where are you staying?’ Will squats down on his haunches so our eyes are level. His are so blue they almost throw me back into my dream and I struggle against its comforting pull.
‘Car park.’ His face is like stone as I search it for a reaction.
‘You’re coming with me.’ He grasps a hand around the strap of my bag and stands. ‘Besides, don’t want any of this stuff getting lost.’
I rise slowly, now wincing at the blisters I spent the day wilfully ignoring. As Samuel hurries to put my chair away I hear a squeal from the back of the group.
’I knew I recognised you!’ Hunter pushes past Art way towards me and triumphantly shoves the screen of her cheap phone in my face. ‘That’s you, right?’
I look at the headline: ‘FEARS GROW FOR MISSING BROKER’. I expect it to assault me somewhere in my gut but the words lie flat and blurred above an old photo of me taken just after I graduated. I shrug at Hunter, motioning to Will to hand over my bag. He does so and I sling it into place on my shoulders, turning away from the phone.
‘Used to be.’