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The wailing of a siren, then between the houses and along the streets. It brought a harsh electricity into William’s stiffness. Was no one else worried?
He leaned toward the man next to him.
—Do you often go out past the curfew?
The man laughed.
—Of course not. I actually have never done it.
Another man, very young, was refilling people’s glasses with a newly uncorked bottle of wine. He had a very thin mustache and wispy hair.
—We stay the night, always, always. There are positively rooms full of beds, wouldn’t you know.
He went off through the room, extending his bottle and giggling.
—Out after curfew indeed. You’d be a madman!
—That’s Salien. He’s a tremendous talent in vaudeville. In secret, of course. But really …
That man touched William’s sleeve.
— … I hope you’re not intending to try to make it home. They’ve been doubling and redoubling. Far too dangerous. Go home in the morning. You’re not a fool.
The woman next to James Goldman spoke up.
—Did you see the fire on the way?
There was a peculiar mood in the room – an enforced jollity. Everything must be tinged with a disdainful humor and accompanied by slight laughter. William disliked the whole thing.
—A fire? said a bald man standing by the window. Did you set it?
—Me? Don’t be ridiculous, Sean.
—Well, you’re introducing the subject. There must be a reason for it.
—They’re always fighting, James explained.
—I saw the fire, said William. I think the building burned to the ground.
—A victory, said the woman in a low voice.
—Shush, Clara. Don’t talk like that, not even here.
Gerard came in.
—Come with me. I have something I want to show you.
James was whispering something to Clara. No one seemed to be paying any attention. William got up.
—All right, then.
At the back of the house, there was a door to an addition. This addition was only the length of a room and unheated. Gerard handed William a coat from a pile. He himself put on a coat. They sat on stools.
—Is everyone here involved? asked William.
—The point is information like that doesn’t exist. Who is, who isn’t involved – it doesn’t matter. We simply spread the method, and people act on their own. They don’t need to tell anyone.
—The method. It’s very simple. Everyone will soon have learned of it, through channels exactly like this. Just one person telling someone else, someone trusted.
—Is it that bad?
—If you’re caught with it in writing, less than a page of text, you’re shot. Interrogated, shot. Most people who get interrogated say the same thing, and it’s true.
—They found a piece of paper. They don’t know anything about it. But in this town, there hasn’t been too much printing yet. That’s the dangerous part, the printing. But it spreads by word, also.
—What is it?
William had been struggling with himself. He wanted to leave, to go home and forget about the whole thing. He could feel it, like a door opening out of sight. This was something he didn’t want to know, or be a part, of. But he was curious, yes he was, and he was lonely too, and here he was sitting with Gerard, a man he had known many years, and they were talking. Also, he was wearing a coat that wasn’t his, a leather coat such as he would never ordinarily wear. There were things in the pockets, but he did not look to see what they were.
—Do you remember the time we went boating, you and Louisa, Ana and I?
—Do you remember when that man asked to take a picture of us, and Louisa didn’t want him to? The man on the pier?
—And then he took the picture anyway, and Louisa got angry, but we were already out in the current, and we didn’t want to turn back. I sometimes think …
Gerard had taken the bottle with him. He took a swig from it.
—I sometimes think if we had gone back, then, everything would have changed, and she wouldn’t have been shot.
William’s mouth was dry. The idea of Louisa was all close spaces, distances, thick smells. It was inaccessible like the inside of a stone.
—What is the method? he asked.
—The method for disgovernance. Other revolutionary movements fail when they are found out. This one just begins when they are found out. It is impossible to stop because there are no ringleaders. It is simple enough to describe in a phrase or two the whole extent of it. Any member of the government, any member of the police, of the secret police, all are targets. You live your life and do nothing out of the ordinary. But if at some moment you find yourself in a position to harm one of the targets, you do. Then you continue on as if nothing has happened. You never go out of your way to make such an opportunity come to pass. Not even one step out of your way. And yet, without exception, the targets must each day place themselves in danger before the citizenry, and cause such opportunities to exist. One doesn’t prepare oneself, except mentally. One never speaks of it, except to spread the idea, and that is better done by sheets of paper left here and there.
Gerard was silent for a minute. He drummed his hand on the table. He took another sip of wine.
—The perfect crime consists of randomness: you happen to be passing a table on which a diamond necklace is lying; everyone has momentarily turned away; you snatch the necklace and continue; you are now the possessor of a diamond necklace. Having randomly arrived there, you had every reason to be in that place at that time, as part of your routine. You only ceased, in the moment of the crime, to be a thing apart from the background, and immediately thereafter, you returned to it. The only thing the New State can do is to clamp down tighter, and that only earns them more hate, activates more of the population. The method is reaching us here only now, but it had been around for two years. And a year ago, do you remember what happened?
—They disbanded the police. Now, only secret police.
—Exactly, and they never said why. But a man I spoke to…
The door opened and a woman stuck her head through.
—Gerard, can you come? I’m trying to convince Leonard that there’s a growing sentiment abroad, but I can’t remember all the figures.
—In a minute.
She shut the door.
—This man said that they moved the police force entirely into plainclothes because in another sector the police were getting mowed down. A policeman couldn’t walk down a street without being hit by a slate tile. First they tried making the police paramilitary, with jeeps, etc. But ultimately, to do the job, they have to get out of the jeeps, and then the same opportunities present themselves. It’s a matter of patience and decisiveness. The point is, we’re winning. It’s only a matter of time.
—But how do you know who the police are?
William thought of his conversations with Oscar. It was virtually impossible to tell.
—You err on the side of false positives. Everyone shifts their behavior to simple routines, and the secret police are forced to become visible, simply to do their work. Then they become available as targets.
The ringing of a bell could be heard in the distance. The room had become very quiet. Gerard was looking at William and William, he was looking at Gerard. Louisa was not there, for she was dead, but in that way she was in fact there.
—Shall I say it? said Gerard.
—Someone I know, who was, well, he was working for the government then, before he came over. He saw what happened to her. I can’t relate it. I don’t want to. But I have everything about the file here.
He produced a folder from behind one of the boxes and handed it to William. It was tied around with string and was quite thick.
—I imagine you’ll want to look at that at home, or somewhere without company.
The door opened again.
—Gerard, will you come?
—All right, here I am. Hold on a moment.
He stood up.
—Well, that’s it, William. I wanted to show you something else, too, but I guess it can wait.
—What is it?
The girl pulled on Gerard’s arm.
—Hold on, he said.
He knelt down and opened a cabinet that was on floor level. Out of it, he removed a flat black leather case. He set it down.
William could feel his pulse in his hands.
Gerard unfastened two buckles and opened the case.
It was a violin.
—Where did you get it?
William looked at the girl.
—Don’t worry about me, she said. I’m the one who got it.
—It’s for you, William, said Gerard. You should probably go home now. Having you here, it’s out of the routine, and a danger for both of us. You have a safe route home? You planned it, no?
William looked away.
—Perhaps it’s best you stay, then. If you don’t have transportation or a clear route. I thought you had, well, don’t worry about it. Just stay. If you don’t want to be among people, you can read upstairs in the bedroom, and leave first thing.
—I have to be home. My daughter, you see.
Jesse Ball is an American poet and novelist. This story is part of his most recent novel, The Curfew.
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