- Pablo Lacalle Castillo
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
The vans travelled alone, materializing in back alleys and underneath streetlamps, when the funeral shroud of night had been drawn over the moon’s alabaster features, as if they had always been there. Gliding with lupine grace and singular purpose, they had acquired a kind of bizarre invisibility, erased from the perception and memories of those who stumbled across them as they stalked their prey.
Perhaps some could recognize these vans, or instantly divine their purpose. Perhaps there are some, unlike me, fortunate enough not to, some foreign mass of blissfully content idiots alien to the instruments of tyranny and fear. Mobile charcoal coffins, they were a quiet, subtle presence made known slowly but surely, in the fashion of a wet rag pressed on the mouth and nose of a sleeping victim. Their arrival was the sort that seemed to herald some terrible calamity that had nevertheless been quietly and begrudgingly accepted as yet another concomitant of the natural order, the iron tang of ozone before a thunderstorm.
It was six in the morning, in a place whose name does not bear mentioning, and one I would have rather not remembered, though my duty to record the slain compels me and forces my hand. It happened on a day like this, with the birds still tentatively waiting to strike up in song and the dew still spreading a slick sheen on the blades of neatly cut grass standing in phalanxes upon the lawns, quivering gently with each brief gust of chill wind.
One such van was parked neatly beside the curb. It had been sitting there for quite some time and would wait for more still. It was a singularly ugly thing, indescribably foul in its blunt simplicity. The vehicle bore no scratches or dents, no markings of any kind, clad instead in a coat of sable paint that eagerly lapped at any mote of dust or speck of dirt that brushed against it, swallowing it whole. Tinted windows of smoky obsidian revealed no signs of life within, giving the van the appearance of some enormous, grotesque bug in a glittering carapace, squatting in wait, and fit to leap at any moment with foaming mandibles and chitinous claws. Framed against the backdrop of white-picket fences, lace curtains and custom brass doorknockers that adorned the surrounding houses, it was an aberration, a despicable stain intruding on the careful isolation afforded only by a Party membership card into this world of well-oiled clockwork models and mowed lawns.
In truth, it could have occurred at any time. It had before, in different scenes, been denied the pleasure of being lit by the pale light of the approaching dawn. In ramshackle Joint Habitation Apartments bursting at the seams with wailing children, their faces a feverish bile yellow under the cheap, flickering lamps that lined their walls. At Centrally-Approved celebrations thick with the miasma of bitter state-provided liquor and the leaden gloom of fun carried out under the prerequisite of compliance. Usually, the stage was set not by an urban cacophony, but some regional farm so distant as to even be out of my reach; its air constantly punctured by the mournful lowing of the few healthy cows still available for distribution and the grating shriek of the rickety junkyard scraps that passed for Ministry-Sanctioned machinery that trundled and juddered torturously over the hard mud, as they belched pungent smoke and sparks.
Yet by chance, or merely the bland, blind luck of a roll of well-worn dice which had apathetically declared the outcome of this self-same process innumerable times, the frozen quiet of the interstice between sleeping and waking had been chosen to be disturbed not in some backwoods cottage or cluttered flat, but the doll-house rows of suburbia.
From within the confines of the van, the first man stretched awkwardly, shifting in his seat, his jaw popping as he let out a death-rattle of a yawn. His name was not important and could never be, another line of type out of millions, locked away in confidential archives in some dusty government basement. Suffice to say he was a faceless blur devoid of colour, endowed with roughly the same agency and vivacity as an axe or a hammer.
Rubbing his poorly shaven jaw with one hand, he blinked, eyes gummed and crusted from a lack of sleep, focusing his bleary sights on the house visible alongside the window, looking for perhaps a sudden twitch of a curtain, or the tell-tale lights that revealed that someone was awake far before the beginning of the dictated productivity timetable. Finding nothing, he let out a breathy sigh, and leaned back as far as his chair would let him, despite the cracked leather’s complaints.
His face, as reflected with a slight distortion in the rear-view mirror, could hardly have been called striking. It was neither excessively ugly or breathtakingly gorgeous, nor was it the portrait of demonic evil and otherworldly terror many would have been led to expect. Instead, it spoke of a more petty, banal malice, not one born of grandiloquent posturing or barbaric savagery, but the simple, unrefined cruelty of the everyday. In his pebble-grey eyes was the look of the kind of man who made sure to sigh just loud enough as he vacated his seat for a pregnant woman, someone who had pulled the legs from beetles just because it was easy and kicked and stamped on the shiny new toys of his childhood neighbour because they had looked nicer than his.
The legions upon legions of passengers in the horde of black vans that traversed the country without fault were built upon the backs of such men, driven endlessly by an engine fed with spite. Scholars well versed in the creed of mediocrity, unaware of any meaningful change that could be achieved without rifle or pistol. Playground bullies stuffed in the poorly fitting cloaks of adults, eager to dish out punishment to those they thought deserved it and content to view themselves as excepted.
His partner was asleep behind the wheel, the dull red light of the dashboard casting what little that could be seen of his features in a cherry sheen that glistened with a sanguine richness as it played on the scarlet dagger insignia embroidered on the lapel of his jacket. The collar had been turned up, jutting upwards from his neck, whilst the state-issued peaked cap that came with their uniform had been pulled down far over his eyes, masking his cheeks in shadowy pools. Faint, rasping snores could be heard emanating from beneath the shield of clothing.
Drumming his fingers on the edge of his dusty armrest, the first man fished inside his jacket pocket for a crumpled packet of cigarettes. Its wrinkled, peeling packaging was the trademarked stamp of a typical shoddy underground import, emblazoned with angular foreign characters in a language he could not understand and would not have been allowed to learn. The drooping cigarette that made its way between his chapped lips may perhaps not have struck any observer as a particular luxury, but he nevertheless savoured the rush of real, genuine tobacco as the tin lighter in his hand flared for a second and lit a minute speck of ember in the semi-darkness of the van. He cranked the window open just a sliver to let the tendrils of smoke worm their way to freedom. At times I wonder if the illegality of his actions enrichened the sensation. Not that it really mattered: the crimson dagger on his uniform all but absolved him from the obligation to uphold most common state-ordered restrictions. Those with no knives, symbolic or otherwise, were in no place to object.
The inside of the van was now thick with a light blue fog, like the inside of an aquarium. Mumbling nothing of note to himself, the first man turned on the radio, the sound lowered so as to be barely audible, and began humming along under his breath whilst his partner slept on. The station he had tuned into was, of course, also banned (the concept of multiple radio stations seems laughably outmoded in the wake of the ‘Entertainment and Togetherness’ Campaign and the creation of the Smiling Faces Broadcasting Group). It played something that the presenter, most certainly speaking from a dingy offshore fishing ship fitted with a battered antenna, called ‘rock and roll’ music. The man had probably only ever heard of it in classrooms during his academy training.
It was one of the innumerable offences he and his partner would have been made to memorize: in this case, Section 457, which penalized the distribution, ownership or performance of any music that threatened to destabilize unity, goodwill and cause disturbance or offense. If the C.D wasn’t stamped with the cherubic, genteel cartoon grin of the Smiling Faces label of approval, if the band did not present a permit of Centrally-Approved entertainment, then in brief a black van would unceremoniously appear one day, and that would be all. I imagine he could not for the life of him have guessed the name of the song, though if pressed to try he would have hazarded “the Rolling Stones” based solely on the words the radio presenter had whispered out before the music started. It was very good, much better than the trite and saccharine sludge pumped out through the speakers in community productivity centres. It had a bouncy, dirty, punchy rhythm to it, rough around the edges and sweating sex and aggression. The man tutted to himself. Small wonder it had been banned, especially as it reached a crescendo amidst thundering guitars, horns, and bluesy crooning (Section 457, subsection c: prohibition of any and all musical pieces that may reinforce or propagate stereotypes). His foot, however, still moved to the beat as he took another drag on his cigarette.
Dispassionately, he wondered what the inhabitants of the house next to them could have done. He attempted to concoct a variety of scenarios, trawling through the endless pages branded behind his skull of felonies and anti-productivity offences, but quickly gave up as boredom set in once more. There really wasn’t much of a point in trying to formulate a grand portrait of sin that could be revealed behind the neat little windows of the house.
They had an address and an order, and nothing much aside from that was needed. Questioning was beyond consideration. If the address had already been pinned up on the corkboard in his cubicle, then whoever it belonged to must have done something to deserve it, even if they themselves were not aware of it. And it they weren’t, well, wasn’t that their fault in the first place? It must have seemed quite self-explanatory to the man, as he sprinkled out a dusting of ash onto the side of the road. Elementary arithmetic was all he required, not pompous moralizing and inner debate: only people considered guilty had their address placed on the board, ergo if they hadn’t done anything wrong, they wouldn’t have ended up there. It didn’t get any easier than that.
Right now, what surely weighed most heavily on his mind was no grand ethical quandary, but the thought of being able to punch out of his shift soon and finally get a good sleep in his barracks instead of curling up like some foetal monstrosity in the seat of the van. A hot meal rather than grainy nutrition bars and dense, lukewarm coffee. The chance to shower, even if hot water was now a thing of the past, and wash the stench of sweat, tobacco, grime, and stuffy, humid air from his pores that had clung to him like a second skin begging to be peeled off.
He tried to imagine what it must be like to live inside one of those houses cradled within the suburbs, but found that he could not, no matter how hard he tried, picture anything of substance. He was devoid of any frame of reference, could not begin to fathom an interior or exterior life outside of the van. He was reduced to visualizing vague, amorphous shapes more the ideas of things than the things themselves: happy, family, together, peace, rest……it was a sphere too large, alien, and unapproachable. An Augean stable to a mind conditioned to the servitude of the benevolent strangers in the hordes of Ministries that dotted the country, that had carefully vivisected, stripped down and engineered the wild, free strands of his fate into a uniform tapestry and set him firmly and purposefully out on his sole, productive path in life.
For an instant he considered shaking his partner awake, even if only for the chance to disturb him from his slumber and force him to stay up alongside him. Then a movement caught his attention from the corner of his eye. The door had been opened slightly, from which emerged a large banded tabby cat that padded across the lawn. The first man watched it move, a collar with a tiny bell hung around its neck. He was more than a little impressed by its appearance: outside of the suburbs no living person had seen a live cat in years.
Watching it now, its existence was maddeningly puzzling, almost frustrating in the calm, indolent way in which it sashayed lazily through the open air. The cat could leave whenever it wanted, bound over the fences, and crest the horizon if it so wished. Yet here it was, bloated and fat from over-feeding, its glossy bulbous folds deaf to the call of the wild. Perhaps the first man began to wonder what compelled it to return. Was it the promise of four walls, food and treats passed under the table that made it give in to those strange, benign overlords that tracked it, stuck microchips with tracking signals beneath its flesh, castrated it? Did their promise of security suffice, for it to suffer the indignities of being stamped with a foreign name and bear it on a plate around its throat?
For a second, did he see himself reflected in those slitted, feline eyes?
Thankfully, he was snapped back to his senses before his thoughts could become too dangerous. His partner had come to life, woken by even the slight sound of the cat’s bell, or he may have simply been awake long before he had realized. He turned off the radio, and adjusted his cap. His head gave a slight nod in the direction of the house. The van doors swung open.
Six in the morning. Three knocks on the front door. On the threshold, two men in raven-black coats. Red daggers on their caps. Gray guns in their holsters, the strap unbuckled.
The first man was still smoking his cigarette, his foot tapping to the beat of a phantom drum. The other man pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and tacked it lazily above the house number. In the pink and gold tones of the encroaching sunrise rows of black text bunched together spelled out: “Guilty of Deviant Expression: Anti-Utopian Conspirators.”
No answer from within.
Then, muffled footsteps. The door creaked open.
Dressed in undersized pyjamas, a little girl rubbed her face and blinked up at the dark shadows looming over her. She was up far too early, wanting to let the cat back inside. She was confused, addled by tiredness. She saw adults but did not understand.
The first man let out a hiss of blue smoke. It hung in the air like a thought.
His knees bent slightly. He was face to face with the child.
The black rim of his cap was a crescent over his brow. He asked, slowly in clear, precise tones, as to not alarm her, if her mummy and daddy were still upstairs.
Still puzzled, apprehensive now, the girl scratched her head. She gave a curt nod.
The first man smiled. His partner drew his pistol and shot her through the head.
A spray of blood speckled the entrance. The first man wiped a ruby bead from the lapel of his uniform. A jackboot crushed the wilted bud of his cigarette.
The girl was holding a teddy-bear. Its fur was sprayed claret. It was missing an eye. The other stared emptily at the ceiling, a black marble.
Upstairs, a scream. A light came on.
His partner took the stairs first. Stepping over the little girl, he followed.
Two more gunshots. Crickets chirped absentmindedly outside. One final crack: the mother was trying to crawl away.
They left in single file. The van waited at the side of the curb.
His partner got in first. In the glove-compartment, a box of sanitary wipes was passed around. They were tossed to the back of the van, wrinkled and stained rust brown.
A slight splutter, and the van started, rocking to life. The house lights were still on.
The first man lit another cigarette and felt a growl from his stomach. His partner began to drive, the clicking of the turn signal counting away the minutes before the morning as the van pulled out, to an underscore of his tuneless whistling. The first man turned towards his partner, looking at his watch as he did, scratching at a fleck of clotted gore that had dried on its surface. The next words he spoke were recorded, as everything they did and said until then had been, by the devices embedded in their uniforms by the Ministry for the purpose of a full and accurate report that, if it were not for my efforts, would have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
“So, what are you thinking for breakfast?”
Pablo Lacalle Castillo (he/him) is a twenty year old, third-year student of English Literature (MA HONS) at the University of Edinburgh. He is from Madrid, Spain.