I love that moment of unconscious oblivion just before you wake up, when your brain drags itself out of slumber. That moment when you can't remember who you are, where you are, or what you are. It only lasts for a second, but in that second the possibilities are endless. You could be anything, anywhere, anytime. It’s a fleeting, forgotten moment before consciousness comes crashing home and your daily reality takes shape.
I stretch and check myself. Everything seems to be working. My head is not too sore. Can't have had too many beers last night. That’s good. I look at the clock. Eight o'clock Saturday morning. I immediately start thinking about the game because that's what Saturday's are for. I lie there for a while listening to Kate's sleepy breaths beside me and focus on my many physical failings. Sore back, tight hamstring, bruised toe. Unexplained pain in knee. Nothing unusual and nothing new. Sometimes I injure myself in my sleep. Sometimes I wake up with a twisted ankle or a sore elbow. I don’t know how that can be possible. Is my body trying to send me a message? Is my body sabotaging me to limit the impending physical punishment of a game of football? I ignore the signals. I am still in charge of these rebellious bones.
I roll out of bed and stumble into the kitchen for coffee. The rest of the morning is divided into periods of preparation. Eight to ten - breakfast, television, internet. Ten to twelve - exercises, more for pain mitigation than any actual strengthening or physical benefit. Then the nervous pacing begins. Making sure I've got everything, looking for socks, checking my bag ten times. Wandering in and out of every room in the house for absolutely no reason. Checking the clock over and over. Kate ignores me. She is used to this performance. She asks some questions about the game purely to break the awkward silence. I'm lucky she's so tolerant.
The entire time I'm thinking about my team. How are we going to line up? Who is going to play where? Little fantasies run through my brain. Amazing pieces of skill and speed. Scoring the winning goal in the dying seconds. Fanciful fictions. I shake my head to get rid of them. I think about the opposition, Ormonia United. We have played them many times over the years. We know them well. It's always a tough game against Ormonia. I think about the player I will be marking. He's younger than me, faster than me, and more skillful. But I have experience and significant extra weight on my side. I will have to be at my best to contain him though. Thinking about the game makes me nervous and I have to go to the toilet several times. Finally, I'm ready. I check my bag once more then head off to the game.
It's good to see my team, the Western Wanderers. It’s a stupid name. The Aimless Wanderers or the Pointless Wanderers would be more appropriate. But we are brothers. We all come from different walks of life and football brings us together. The banter is always hilarious, giving each other shit. Some more than others but it's not an environment to be overly sensitive. As kick-off grows closer the laughing subsides. We do our warmup and talk about what we want to achieve on the pitch. This is social but it's also very serious. The game means nothing, but for us it is a ninety-minute examination of our physical and mental fortitude. Football can serve as a form of escapism. It provides a welcome distraction from the grinding reality of nine to five tedium working for the man. For the entire duration you don’t think about anything but chasing a ball around a paddock. All of life's annoying little anxieties just disappear.
As we stand in our positions on the pitch waiting for the referee to sort himself out I study the opposition. Ormonian men are a swarthy bunch. All of them are cut from the same cloth. Tall, dark, stocky, bushy eyebrows. And all of them have a look of steely determination. None of them smile. They are a dour race of people. I have never been to Ormonia, it's not high on my list of holiday destinations but they have a proud footballing history and have produced some great players. We always have a beer after the game with them, but they are not great company. They don't seem to understand our humour in fact they don’t seem to understand humour at all. Even when they win, which is most of the time, they sit around afterwards brooding into their beers. Ormonians don't seem to be able to enjoy life. The only exception is the dude I am supposed to be marking. He is short and blond and skinny. I think his name is Markus. He looks younger and fitter and more skillful than last time godammit. He looks happy to see me, he smiles at me and gives me a wave. I'm going to have to kick him in the legs.
The game begins in typical fashion. Ormonia dominating the ball, passing it around patiently, trying to draw us out of position. The Wanderers run around, chasing them with early enthusiasm. This game of tactics must be so boring for a spectator. There are a few Ormonia supporters on the side-line, wives and girlfriends who look like they would much rather be at the mall. The barren, desolate, windswept, muddy surface doesn't do either team any favours, but it is obvious who is better. Ormonia play with strength and skill. Wanderers chase shadows, then the odd moment of panic when we actually get the ball and don’t know what to do with it. The first half ends with the Wanderers holding on, a combination of desperate defence and blind luck keeping the scores tied.
The second half begins with sweeping showers of rain and billowing gusts of wind. Football in Newfinland winter. I love it. Ormonia change their shape and push more players forward, chasing the goal they deserve. I defend deep. Keeping a close eye on Markus who doesn’t stop running. I can't get close enough to foul him, he's too fast but so far ineffective. Then, totally against the run of play, we score! Our goalkeeper hoofs another clearance down the pitch. It lands fortuitously on our strikers head just as the Ormonia defender slips in a pool of mud. Our winger is through on goal. He's probably the fittest guy in our team but his technical skills are non-existent. He toe pokes the ball straight at the Ormonia goalkeeper. The ball ricochets off the keepers face, flattening him, and sending the ball straight back at our winger. It bounces off his head and dribbles slowly through the mud, into the goal. We all watch in ecstatic disbelief. Then run towards our dazed winger celebrating wildly.
Five minutes to go and the Wanderers are desperately trying to hold on to what would be a famous victory. There is a sense of determination and belief that sweeps through our team. Everyone is back defending, throwing themselves at the endless waves of Ormonia attacks. The ball comes out to Markus who runs at me. I lunge in and try to intercept but it's like the ball is somehow attached to his feet. He performs a bewildering double stepover and goes around me with ease. As I turn my head to see where he's gone he flings an elbow back into my face, cracking my nose and sending bolts of pain through my head. It should be a foul, but we play on. I chase him desperately as he nears our penalty area, trying to kick his legs out from under him but he's too fast. I don’t understand what happens next. Markus dives into the penalty area with an anguished scream. Rolling around in the mud clutching his ankle and the ref blows for a penalty. It takes me a moment to realise what's happened. My hand goes to my face and comes away covered with blood streaming from my nose. I stare at the blood. I stare at Markus writhing in the mud, seemingly in terrible pain. I never touched him. I couldn't get close enough. The red mist descends. "You fucking cheating Ormonian bastards!" I scream.
Everyone stops. The game becomes frozen in time and a deathly silence descends over the pitch. Everyone is looking at me. Markus has stopped his histrionics and is staring at me with a horrified expression. "Dave," one of my team mates quietly says to me. "You can't say that."
The Ormonians are obviously enraged. I can see the fury in their eyes. They look like they want to tear me apart and for a moment I think it's really going to kick off. Then they all slowly leave the pitch together. Markus gets up showing no signs of injury and abandons the game. I stand there in the mud, bleeding and bewildered, watching them leave. They are too angry to fight, too disgusted to keep playing. They didn't even want to take the penalty. What I said was apparently so offensive they didn't even want to finish the game, walking off in protest.
"What the fuck? He dived! What did I say?" I splutter through dripping blood.
"You can't call them bastards," my team mate informs me. "It's the worst insult for them. It's basically saying they are motherless and Ormonians love their mothers above all else."
My team looks at me like I've committed the worst crime imaginable. The referee shakes his head and writes in his notebook. The rain comes in sheets washing my blood down onto my shirt. I still can't believe what has happened. My team leaves me standing there, dripping blood and water onto the muddy grass below.
"Chloe!" A reporter shouts. "How do you feel being Newfinland's youngest ever MP?"
I smile and wave. "I feel great! It's an honour." I have already developed the politicians power walk. Striding across the courtyard so fast the reporters have to run to keep up. I'm not making it up though, I do feel great. I have been flushed with success ever since my election victory. A conclusive winning margin in my electorate giving me the mandate to really work for my people. It's encouraging and heartening in a time of constant bad news. The swing to the left in my central city electorate shows that the people there want change. It’s a small but significant victory indicating that people have had enough of politicians lining their pockets while making empty promises. People have had enough of fat old white men running their country. Something radical needs to happen if we are to save the planet and now I am in a position to really make a difference.
My first day in parliament starts with a Green party meeting where I am congratulated by everyone. It's nice to get the recognition of my peers but parliament has an unsettlingly weird atmosphere. I can already sense the suspicion and hidden agenda's floating in the hallways like bad gas. I am determined to bring some honesty and integrity to this place. I mention this in my opening speech to parliament which is greeted with cheers by my Green party supporters in the coalition Government, and jeers by the few opposition MP's that have turned up. Nothing can dent my mood though. Positive optimism radiates from my winning smile. I know I can make a difference. I know what's best for my electorate and I know what's best for the country. I know it's not going to be easy. My win for the Green party was something of an anomaly as the country generally voted for more conservative politics. I understand. Times are tough. People blame the Government when they can't afford petrol. People vote for the opposition when cheese becomes too expensive. But people need to realise that their lifestyles can't continue like this if future generations are to survive. People might not be able to drive petrol cars and eat cheese. They might not like hearing it but it's the truth.
After the parliament speeches, I have my first meeting of the council of race relations. One of my responsibilities is to represent the Green party on this council as it gathers to hear complaints from the public on issues of racism. It's an impartial council that advises the Human Rights Commission and there seems to be a backlog of complaints ranging from the absurd to deranged and truly offensive. The first item on the agenda is a complaint from the Ormonian community. The complainant is a big hairy man that some idiot apparently called a bastard. The excitement of my first day as an MP has disappeared. I am deflated with the tedium of this ridiculous complaint. The sooner we can dismiss him the better.
"Bastard, is not considered a term of racist abuse," I say to the man.
"He called us Ormonian bastards. This is very racist," he replies.
"And you are offended by this."
"My people are all very offended."
"And what do you think should happen to this person who used this offensive word?"
"He should be beaten with sticks. In public. Then put in jail. And fined a lot of money." The Ormonian man's expression does not change. Apparently he is serious. I put my head in my hands. I did not dream of becoming an MP for this.
My fellow counsellor Wayne Brown jumps in. "Just to clarify the details, a game of social football in a muddy paddock ends with a few swear words exchanged. This must happen every weekend. Surely this could be resolved amongst yourselves and not take up the valuable time of this council that has many more important items on its agenda."
The Ormonian man has a representative with him from the embassy. His English is educated. "The word 'bastard' is extremely offensive to Ormonian men. Implying that their mothers gave birth out of wedlock, suggesting they might not be the most puritanical of women. 'Ormonian bastard' is the most insulting, an affront to the entire nation. Capital punishment in public may be a little extreme but the Ormonian embassy demands an apology and reparation."
I can't help myself. I feel slightly sick. "I find it ironic that Ormonian men defend their mothers' honour with such fervour as their history is a litany of sexism and abuse of downtrodden women who still don't have the right to vote in Ormonia. They are seen as second-class citizens. Rape and sexual abuse often goes unpunished. There are no women in positions of power, and they only recently became able to attain a license to drive. The Ormonian nation wants to keep their women in the kitchen and in the bedroom. This complaint should never have got to this council. I move to dismiss."
Wayne Brown stands up. "I second the move to dismiss. It is not this councils prerogative to solve petty skirmishes on a football field. This is the Government's fault. Their open-door immigration policies letting in undesirables that do not embrace or enhance our culture. They take our jobs and take our land and make no attempt to integrate. They bring no value to our fine nation and have no respect for our proud history. They should all be deported."
I am astonished. I can't quite believe what I've just heard. I swallow the nausea. "Excuse me Mr Brown, what.., how..," I stutter before gathering myself. "Newfinland is nothing but a melting pot of cultures. Our immigration polices make us what we are. We are a young nation that needs immigration, we need to grow and establish ourselves in the global community. We need to welcome the people of the World with open arms and treat them with tolerance and empathy. Learn from them and grow together. Your attitudes are archaic. How did you make it on to this council?"
"I have been on this council since you were a silly little schoolgirl. I have been representing Newfinland's people for decades and I know what's best for this country. You young woke degenerates have no idea how to run a country. The global community doesn't care about us. Their refugees and terrorists will destroy us. We need to protect our borders and look after our own."
I am apoplectic, but I contain myself and sit down, shaking, speechless. I had no idea people like this still existed. All my enthusiasm and excitement, all my hopes and dreams for this job are deflated like a punctured balloon. I had coasted to victory on a majority of like-minded people from my electorate. I had conveniently forgotten that there were still plenty of conservative bigots standing in the way of progress. Wayne Brown is a sour reminder of what I am up against.
"This case is not worthy of our attention," says the chair. "Dismissed."
The Ormonian looks furious. His head oscillates wildly as he glares at us. "I will not be dismissed. You people will pay for this insult."
The man looks like he is going to explode. I think I can see steam coming out his ears. His embassy representative tries to calm him down. "Ormonians are a proud people. We have been allies with Newfinland for many years, but you do not want to make enemies of us. Maybe a simple apology would be a good place to start."
I finish my first day in office disillusioned and depressed. The battle for people's hearts and minds already grinding me down. I should have expected days like this, but I was swept up in the wave of relentless positivity as a newly elected MP. I thought people were evolving, slowly but surely changing their attitudes, changing their lifestyles to be more caring and empathetic. I thought the public out there were beginning to understand what they need to do to survive in this world and make it a better place. Humanity has to evolve to progress, and a green ideology is surely the only way forward. I thought people were realising this, but I was wrong. There are still plenty of greedy, selfish, narrow-minded people that only care about themselves and what they can own.
The Ormonian man never receives his apology, and I try to forget the encounter. The issue does not die though. I notice it bubbling along in the back pages. The Ormonian embassy does not let it go, demanding recognition and reparation. The Government ignores them saying the issue had been dealt with which only further incenses the Ormonian community. They start small protests outside parliament. I pass them every day on my way to work. Twenty or thirty people waving flags and repeating unintelligible chants. They are mostly men protesting, a few scared looking women at the back clutching their children, wishing they were back home in the kitchen. Their chants get louder and more vitriolic as I walk past, chants directed at me but luckily I don't understand Ormonian. I smile and wave at them which only makes them angrier.
The mood of the nation is edgy and irritable. Inflation keeps rising and the price of cheese keeps going up. The media constantly run stories about poor families that can barely afford to feed themselves. This is a global problem but of course people blame the Government. The winds of change are blowing with an ominous smell of right-wing conservatism. Odious people like Wayne Brown are growing in popularity and the population are more interested in who to blame than how to fix the problem. Against this backdrop I notice the Ormonian story getting bigger. The Ormonian Government has started making demands and threats. Our foreign minister is obviously perplexed and eventually apologises profusely for any implied insult. But this is not enough. The statements coming from Ormonia blame the entire country, calling us racist bigots, demanding sanctions and Newfinland's expulsion from various international councils. It has blown way out of proportion, but the Ormonians seem to want to inflame the situation further, upping the rhetoric and expelling Newfinland nationals living in their country. The protesters outside parliament number in the thousands. The Ormonians have been joined by a variety of nutcases protesting about everything from chicken hormones to cell phone mind control. Then one morning I wake up to the news. Ormonia has declared war on Newfinland.
"Get your head down!"
The soldier lands beside me pulling me down below the concrete rubble. I think I was still concussed from a shell that landed too close a few days ago and made my ears bleed. Since then, I have a constant piercing tinnitus ringing in my ears that never gives me any peace. Any peace has been hard to come by since the war started.
The soldier glares at me and does a double take. "It's you! Dave! You're the one that started all this!"
I can't really hear his muffled yelling, but his message is obvious from the look on his face. I have seen that look before.
"You fucking bastard! It's all your fault!"
This has been the reaction from almost everyone I have met in the Newfinland military since I was drafted. I am universally hated. It is not a happy time. The remains of our battalion have camped out in the ruins of an old town hall. It's a solid old concrete building at the centre of a small town out in the country. It's walls still stand but the roof has caved in allowing the light rain to fall on us. The town is empty. The locals have either fled somewhere or have been killed in the relentless shelling. Our battalion has been decimated, out-numbered and out-gunned by the advancing Ormonian troops. They have us cornered in these concrete ruins and have been battering us with mortars all morning. It's only a matter of time before they find their range.
The soldier screams at me again, something about moving out but no-one is moving anywhere. I don't understand. There is a lot I don’t understand. Why the Ormonians have invaded us in the first place, why do they want to reduce our towns and cities to rubble and wipe out the population. Why are we fighting with guns and bullets like an old war movie.
"I don’t understand!" I scream back.
The soldier glares at me. His scathing expression answers all my questions. I had called them bastards. It seemed like an age ago. Another time and place, playing football with my mates. They aren't my mates anymore. Most of them are dead. The entire country blames me for this stupid war. And they are right. They need someone to blame, what's left of them. The Ormonians had declared war on Newfinland and immediately started destroying our cities with missiles. People didn't have time to flee, and the numbers of dead were horrifying. The country was ruined by the missile barrage before the invasion started. Infrastructure destroyed. Millions of people homeless and starving. The bombardment destroyed what meagre defences we had. Newfinland had not been prepared for war. No-one was prepared for war. We had a few frigates and airplanes, but our military had never expected to actually have to fight anyone.
Newfinland's government collapsed, many tried to flee the country they had sworn to protect. Wayne Brown assumed power and ordered every able-bodied man and woman to fight. He tried to be a strong wartime leader, but he only inflamed the situation and alienated our allies with his idiotic racist rhetoric. The Ormonians face international condemnation, but they don't care. They don't want to occupy our country they only want to destroy it. The ground invasion is purely to finish us off. Raze our buildings and wipe out the remaining population. To make sure there is nothing left. We all know this. Everyone has lost loved ones. Everyone has stared death in the face. Everyone knows we are doomed but impending death inspires extreme desperate measures and a few heroic actions. Guerrilla attacks, lone wolf snipers and suicide bombers have slowed the Ormonian invasion, but defeat is inevitable. It's only a matter of time.
I have lost all sense of time. My senses are not to be trusted. I don’t know how long I have lain here, drifting away, waiting to die before I am rudely shaken back to reality. I can't hear the soldier, but his expression is not one I recognise. I have become used to the glaring hate and blame. I have become desensitized, but this soldier looks happy, his face radiates joy and relief. I don't understand.
"I don’t understand!" I yell again, pointing at my bleeding ears.
He pulls out a device. A cracked cell phone, and shows me the message. The Ormonians are retreating. Apparently they are evacuating and leaving Newfinland. I stand up and look over the concrete rubble. The mortars have disappeared, there's no sign of the Ormonians. The dull thuds and booming explosions have stopped. I can't believe it. The soldier runs away towards the remainder of our battalion who are all embracing each other, laughing, and crying. I stagger towards them, the ringing in my ears getting louder all the time. I can’t find any happiness inside me. I have caused all this, and I don't believe it is over. Why would the Ormonians just leave when they are winning the war? It doesn't make sense.
As I lurch towards my battalion I noticed them all look towards the sky. I turn and look up but can't see anything. But I can hear it and feel it. A scream that's even louder than the screaming in my head. Then a huge dull thud that vibrates through the Earth and up into my bones. Everything begins to shake. My vision becomes blurry and there's a sickly-sweet smell in the air. I scan the horizon and immediately spot a giant white dome growing in the distance. The rumbling and shaking increases. The mushroom cloud rises high above Newfinland, punctuated with lightning and flashes of fire. I look around at the faces of my fellow soldiers as they melt in my distorted vision. I can see the bones through their skin. Their expressions are more awe than terror. I look at the horizon again and watch the giant wall of death sweeping towards us. Kilometres high. Black and red. I open my mouth and shout. "Bastards!" But the wave of destruction takes the words from my mouth.