Sunday, May 21, 2017

  "The first time I saw them hang a foreigner was from that very May-pole," he said, stopping and pointing up at the one we were walking past. "Though they were still called lamp posts back in those days... you probably can't imagine it, but these all used to light up at night before everything fell apart. Some of them still did, then, when we could afford to waste energy..."

He trailed off, lost in thought, but this was no place to hang around.

  "The foreigner?" I prompted, and took a half-step onward. But he didn't follow.

  "She was young… pretty, to start with. A student, anthropology, or some damned thing like that. Came over with one of the commonwealth aid teams, turned out… stayed behind to study us. Such a waste. Such a damned waste."

He sighed.

  "Thought it was going to be a lynching, at first, damned near was - usual fools whipping the crowd up, she didn't even try to run, hell, she didn't even deny being foreign, not that she could have done - she had a tabloid, of course, wouldn't have gotten very far without one, even then" As he spoke his hand reflexively lifted and waved his tabloid at me, I don't think he even knew he was doing it. I returned the gesture with mine, as law required. "But hers turned out to be fake. Some kind of foreign tablet or laptop - oh, of course, you won't have seen one. They're like tabloids, but not government controlled. Hers showed the right headlines, looked real enough, but the block warden noticed the headlines were late, or something. Don't rightly recall what, but he started asking questions and she gave the wrong answers and that was that… she should have run. Might have gotten away if she'd run. Can't have been a particularly good anthropologist, didn't seem to realise how much trouble she was in."

  He looked at me. "But that's the trouble when you're young. You think it can't happen to you. Oh, she knew, she could probably have given them chapter and verse on their motives, described in great detail why they were acting the way they were, how primitive minds worked, but knowing and believing are different. She didn't believe it was really happening until too late."

  "Well, anyway, a crowd gathered, a few party members turned up and wanted to be heroes. Damn near hoisted her up there and then, but the block warden wasn't having any of that - he stopped them. She thanked him, damned fool - he wasn't doing it for her, he just wanted to make sure of his share of the bounty. He held them back until the reporters arrived and made it official, they gave her a fair trial, found her guilty and strung her up… at least it was quick."

  Overhead a circling camera drone paused. We'd been stationary too long. But he seemed to realise and pulled himself back to the present, reached out and touched the pole briefly, then lowered his hand and started walking on.

  "You never forget your first," he said, the words softly spoken and left to hang in the cold air.