Ken Edwards

There are rags of flags, hanging limply. Peeling posters denounce the modern world. Nobody in the streets. Everyone's scared, they're indoors, there's no life left. A dog maybe, trotting by, its ribs showing, maybe puts its mouth to the gutters, here, there, looking to what it may find. The electricity's off at the present time. We are awaiting the soldiers, there's little else we can do.

Somebody says the soldiers are a day away. Another that they are but hours from the city. Really, nobody knows. There's a thrill in this.

There used to be music in the city, but it's silent now. The only reminder is the fading posters on the side of the darkened Theatre Royal. All the great ones played there: both traditional singers with traditional instruments, and also electric guitars, bass guitars, keyboards, drums. I remember as a small child clasping my father's hand tightly in the street, hearing from within the buildings the wail of brass and the cries of the singers, holding a note, then dropping away, and coming back up, swooping as though to elude the emotion that followed and would have overwhelmed it. The sound was muffled, until someone opened the door to spit in the gutter, or to beckon to a friend, and then its full force was revealed, as though in three dimensions for the first time, only to be re-muffled when the door closed again. That music used to be forbidden; then we went through a period when it was compulsory; and then it was forbidden once more. The musicians were taken away, some said, or maybe they just went of their own accord, there were no further opportunities to play, or perhaps no-one would pay them. So they would have had to go away, or starve. Perhaps the people who might have paid them became afraid. There would have been consequences. There are always consequences; it's called cause and effect. You can't escape it.

The musicians had names. Some were big names and some only small. The soldiers, when they come, will assuredly have no names. That is the way with soldiers: they don't use names, only numbers. It's better for discipline. Names would only confuse the issue. Anybody can understand that. When giving orders it's more convenient to say, numbers XXX to YYY shall accomplish this task, right, make it so, and thus it's done, and the strategic military objective is achieved. Imagine organising musicians in that way, by name, especially as many of them had more than one name: for instance their given name, and their familiar nickname, and then another nickname by which they were widely known, to signify their particular musical prowess or quality of skill, such as "Honey Boy" or "Silicone Grease" or "The Little Flower" – well, you would never get anything done, you might accomplish an arrangement of a song maybe, but taking a complete city, forget it.

But we do miss the musicians, and what they signified. They were an odd bunch. Often they quarrelled, it wasn't always harmony. Some were your people, and some were our people; the bands had distinct grooves, grooves of a certain genre, you couldn't always define it in words or mathematical symbols, but there were undoubted differences. You only had to hear a bar or two and instantly you would know: that's your kind, or that's our kind. The great singers were on the radio too, we shall never hear their like again, each putting their own interpretation on the same age-old themes. I come from a great nation, yet I'm a poor man. But I'm rich in love. You don't know what love is. I know what love is. I would put out my eyes rather than see you with another man. All that kind of thing. A lot of drinking went on, and that helped to loosen things up and make them jolly, although it also led to fights and unseemly behaviour of all kinds. Some shunned the drink entirely, even cursed it. Some played for the glory of God, others cursed God or never thought about Him, or were enthusiasts for the latest scientific thinking from the West. And there was widespread sexual activity, I know this, though it's not advisable to talk about it too much. There was a lot of light and shade in the city in those days, not like now, when an even greyness, almost whiteness, presides. It seemed that time went by more quickly: day followed night followed day followed night; the morning would fade up with great suddenness, accompanied by an overwhelming clatter of pigeons flocking into the sky, and then would start the hum of traffic, people making their way to work, or if they had no work to do, strolling to the cafés in the great squares to dwell on their strong, fragrant coffees. And tourists would come by, in brightly coloured clothes, looking bemused in the heat of the sun, carrying the latest electronic gadgets; it seems incredible to us now, perhaps we imagined them. Perhaps there never were any tourists, it was all government propaganda. Wishful thinking. What would the tourists have come for, what would they have been seeking? I can't imagine too many of them would have been interested in the music, they wouldn't have understood it. They'd have been no more than "cardboard cutouts" in the audience, as a musician friend of ours once expressed it. So I can only think that, if they ever existed, they'd have been looking for something they had lost, but which they couldn't define; and if so, they were doomed to disappointment, because I think that we have lost it too now, and because it's lost we no longer even know ourselves what it was in the first place. But anyway, whether there were any tourists or not, the sun would wheel around the city, or the city would wheel around the sun, whichever way you chose to imagine it, and then dusk would fall, the delicious aromas of frying meats would waft across and mingle with the heavy scent of diesel and the fainter hints of animal exhalations and shit, and recorded music would flow from the ice cream parlours, with their lime green and pink neon signs flashing incessantly, and there'd be much activity elsewhere, in a garage for example the brilliant, livid flicker of an oxy-acetylene lamp accompanied by the harsh cry of machinery, the scream of metal on metal, and the swift dusk would penetrate into the parts of the city where it wasn't wise to venture, those alleyways where someone would call out from the shadows but where, if you had been around for any period of time at all, you would know enough not to reply and to hurry on as quickly as you could.


There are black flags hanging at the city limits, or so it seems, though on closer inspection they prove to be just rags, or fragments of plastic bin-liners caught on the palings. You could imagine if you like that they were put up to welcome the soldiers, or at any rate to signify their imminent arrival. Were there an appropriate breeze, the fragments would flutter effectively enough to make a statement, it would be a performance of some sort at least, in the absence of any live action; but there has been no wind at all in the city for weeks, months. There's just the level haze, and a smell of mildew. So the black fabric is limp. The torn, blistering posters on the sides of warehouses are badly faded in the sun, their original vibrant colours almost gone, yellows and other warm colours having leached away and the spectrum shifted towards the blue and grey and violet-crimson. The golden age has evidently departed. Some announce concerts that took place many years ago, in the Theatre Royal or elsewhere; others have, or had, a more overtly political message directed at one or more of the factions that have done so much to divide our city. A generation ago, I used to play ball with my cousins on the pieces of waste ground between the warehouses here. The soldiers would have to come through here to enter the city. There isn't any other way, especially now the bridge has been bombed. But nothing is happening now. I think time has slowed down, almost to a standstill. We are looking to the military to wake things up, we are almost praying. Both types of poster, the musical and the political, occur in either of two modes of language. In one mode the writing goes from left to right, in the other from right to left. Since we are not completely sure where the soldiers are coming from, it's unclear which kind they will understand better, though it's more likely they will have little or no understanding of either. It's hard to see how they could. One way of writing is the way of your people; the other sort, with the lettering going the other way, pertains to our people's understanding. As a child, it always seemed puzzling to me, that a book could be written the other way, so that it seemed to start at the end and finish at the beginning. How could that be? You would pick up the book and open it, and immediately you would see that you were at the end, so that you'd have to turn it round and open the back in order to begin it. For the back cover would actually be the front, and vice versa. And even so, you couldn't understand it, you could make out a word or two maybe, and the numbers would be the same or similar, with sometimes a quoted word or a trademark standing out like islands in the alien text. And even as a child, because I was quite intelligent, the idea did come to me, vaguely, that you people must experience the opposite, that the text that was so transparent and normal to us would seem to you, on the other hand, distressingly contrary and inexplicable, and would engender the same disturbing feelings in you, that the world is maybe less familiar than it seems, a place where you could very easily become lost and confused and find no way home.

But what the soldiers are to make of any of it is anybody's question. We can't ask them, because they are yet to arrive, and even when they do I suspect that it will be very difficult to broach the subject. They will see the posters, they will look at the signs, and they will make of it all what they can. I privately don't think they will make very much of it at all, but we can only hope. That they are on their way, of that there is little doubt, at least so we have been told. We can imagine them marching along the dusty roads towards the city, as soldiers do, in columns of three or four abreast, in their fatigues and helmets, left-right, left-right, left-right, left-right, monotonously for hours on end, past burnt-out vehicles and the corpses of animals, left-right, left-right, unless the count flips over, as the brain might make it do after so long, so that it becomes right-left, right-left, right-left, right-left. That's what might happen, the monotony might make the rhythm flip. Everything would go the other way. That happens. As when you look at a photograph of craters on the moon, the stark shadows indicating indentations, and then something happens in your brain and suddenly you perceive the indentations delineated by those shadows as bumps instead, what had been perceived as concave suddenly becoming convex, so that the craters become mounds, and you know this can't be, that they are not mounds, they are craters, but you can't get this flipped image out of your head. That's what the long monotony of a march might do. So when the soldiers finally reach our city, you can't tell which way their brains might have flipped, which way round they will perceive everything.

But, says one of us, that can't be right: this is the 21st century after all, soldiers don't go on long forced marches any more. They will be approaching in vehicles, not on foot, in armoured personnel carriers, that's the modern way. Heavy armoured vehicles, lorries, maybe even tanks. And if they are Americans, as many believe, those vehicles will be Jeeps and Humvees. For the Americans, the brand names are important, as indeed they are already becoming even to us. Or perhaps they will be in helicopters even now, or they will be paratroopers sitting in rows within the dark bellies of vast military aircraft, waiting for the first glimpse of the city to come up on the navigator's screen, waiting their turn to respond to an order and jump one by one into the blue air and float to earth to begin their assignment. Who knows where the soldiers are at this minute? At one time, we were monitoring developments, but we've lost the internet, we've lost the electricity of daily communication. It may be that they haven't even begun their deployment to the theatre of operations yet; that they are relaxing within their compounds, joking among themselves and listening to their mp3 players, throwing darts against the door of their barrack room, or polishing their great heavy boots until they can see their faces in them, safe in the knowledge that once they get their orders it will take them very little time to reach our city and complete the assignment for which they have been briefed. They will get things going. Then the party will begin.

They may be able to see their faces in their great shiny boots, but I find it difficult to imagine those faces. Some have seen them, and they say they are just as we imagined, but as for myself I have never seen them, those American faces, if indeed they are American, so I can only speculate. The young women will line up to greet them as they approach; we love you, Americans, they will say in English, even though some are afraid, because the soldiers have been going flip-flop, flip-flop, and they can't be sure how they will end up, it might be flop-flip. The sweet young things will offer them cigarettes and flowers with a shy smile, and it is hoped the soldiers will be observed to smile back, showing their white teeth under those heavy, net-encrusted helmets, they will give out presents. Are they really Americans? Some have very dark skin, even darker than ours in some cases, but if they all have the same dazzling white teeth, then that would mark them out for certain. They will hand out chewing gum, chocolates, memory sticks, magic markers and other toys. They will hand out comic books in which toy versions of themselves act out simplified scenarios, outlined in incomprehensible speech bubbles. There will be something wonderful or terrifying about them, an arbitrary quality that we have not seen before.

It may be, however, that we won't ever see their faces at all. It has been said that the soldiers may be more frightened than we can imagine. They will fear chemical weapons and therefore they will be heavily armoured, with goggles and face masks, breathing their own private oxygen through tubes. They will resemble insects. No human contact will be feasible. That's a possibility. At the approach of our young women, they will take fright, because they fear suicide attacks; they will suspect the girls have wrapped armaments around themselves; at the first approach they will shout at them to stand back. The girls will see tiny images of themselves in the soldiers' goggles. The soldiers will go rigid. Their manhoods will be aroused by the appearance of the girls, but they won't know what to do. The city will echo with the tense reverberations of barked commands. They will approach and approach, with their hard manhoods and their hard guns and, for all we know, beads of sweat trickling within their face masks. But at least the period of stasis will have come to an end, things will start happening again, days and nights will begin to follow each other once more. History will be on the move. Is that a consolation? I hardly think so, but then, we hardly know what to think in these times.

I have to keep saying that the soldiers will come, believe me. There may be no sign of them yet, but it can't be long now. Something has to resolve. For too long, your people and our people have invoked God – your version and our version – as a final referent for our desires. And yet, God has not shown His hand, and some say never will. Others argue that He's a busted flush. Therefore all we have left to put our trust in is chance. That is: the soldiers may come and we may see their faces and in the fullness of time learn their names, the names that preceded their numbers and that they have almost forgotten themselves, and so they will usher in a new era, of what possibilities we can't yet know. Or they may come, and we will not see their faces; they will be greeted, not by maidens with flowers, but by boys, and even girls, with their own faces covered by masks, with explosive devices and noble hatred, and in turn the soldiers' anger will be cold and terrible and because they are more powerful than us they will destroy the old order forcibly, they will kill us all and rape us, so that new life will arise only from our ashes. Only chance can decide this: left-right, left-right, one-two, right-left.

I can't contemplate the third possibility. This is that the soldiers will not arrive. That we will learn eventually, over the radio, or by a fleeting re-establishment of internet connection, that their generals have studied the maps and the intelligence, and, after long consideration, have decided to by-pass our city, deeming it too insignificant to squander resources on it. So the musicians have gone, the culture has gone, and now the soldiers would not even be coming to take their place. Nothing would have arrived. It would signify the beginning of the reign of Nothing. The black flags made of rubbish sacks would continue to hang limp, the posters would continue to fade until whiteness, yes, absolute silence would reign. What horror! No, it can't be contemplated. Because the stasis that has enveloped our home and its history for so long already would then settle for eternity; and the day we obtained that dreadful news would be the first day of our everlasting death.