SHORT STORY - The Swans of Shoreditch Part 1

The story was originally written by Jonathan for his book Tales of the Infinitely Possible, but was deemed by the author to not quite fit in with the tone of the rest of the book. This is a Boomerang Press exclusive release.

 

The tension was palpable in Hackney Town Hall, as the candidates awaited the results.

Emily shifted uncomfortably as the journalists waited, silently gawping at her as if she were some exotic animal in a zoo. The only sound came from the hundreds of camera shutters, all of the lenses pointed directly at Emily, catching every inch of her sweeping white feathered outfit complete with the hood, her dark eye make up and her orange lipstick, and the nervous smile that twitched around her heavily powdered cheek.

The judicator entered from the back of the room, a few of the chief vote counters in his wake. He smiled politely at the 6 candidates as he strode up the stairs and on to the stage. He lingered a little longer on Emily. His forced smile faltered a little as he took in her appearance. Liz Magilton, the Liberal Democrat, shot her a dirty look, like she was something indecent. A silence swept over the room, even denser than before. Even the camera shutters seemed to get lost in the tension.

“I am happy to announce the result for the seat of Hackney South and Shoreditch, which have been counted by independent volunteers, and are as follows.” The judicator said in to the microphone. Cybil Tibbs, the Labour incumbent looked terrified. She glanced over at Emily, and quickly back to the floor, she appeared to be on the point of tears. She was right to be worried about Emily, and of her party.

 

The Swans of Shoreditch started out as a fashion movement, or so Emily thought when she was a bright-eyed adolescent. She first became aware of them after a snide newsreader had ended his broadcast with a brief segment about them.

“A new youth trend in East London of dressing up as a swan has captured the imagination of hundreds of women.” he had said, every word dipped in a thick layer of patronisation. Emily thought these young women looked beautiful. They wore long, white, hooded gowns with feathers artfully attached sporadically. The arms were cloaked, so when the women would lift their arms, the gown would hang to look like wings. Their boots were amber, with a fanned toe, and their make up was striking, like Odette from Swan Lake, but with deep orange lipstick.

Emily wasn’t used to these sorts of eccentricities. She lived in a small town in the Derbyshire countryside, where people were branded ‘a little odd’ if they recycled. She would try to talk to her friends about the swans, in the vain hope that they might want to dress like that one day, but they simply weren’t interested. When she broached the subject with her older sister, Juliette, she was even more damning.

“Boys aren’t gonna want to fuck you if you’re dressed as a bleeding swan.” she said, applying the lipstick Emily secretly referred to as ‘call girl red’. “Just where something that pushes your tits up, and you’ll get laid eventually.” Juliette was pregnant by the age of 17, and never left the town. Emily, however, had other ideas, and vowed to move to London as soon as she was old enough.

Over the ensuing years, the media began to take The Swans of Shoreditch more seriously. The fashion statement appeared to be growing legs as a protest movement. The newsroom elite could sniff all they wanted about the hundred or so women who turned up to protest a proposed amendment by the government to cut the timeframe in which women could have abortions by four weeks, as gimmicky clicktavism. But when the MP who tabled the amendment arrived at a charity event later that evening to find the majority of the protestors sitting in amongst the social elite, the media couldn’t just dismiss the group as another faddy protest core. After 35 minutes of polite berating and questioning of his motives by the Swans, the MP lost his cool. He was forced to resign a few days later.

Emily was impressed with this tactic. As a now GCSE student, she was finding herself increasingly drawn to the issues of sexual inequality and social mobility. Her friends pulled away from her as a result, but Emily didn’t mind all that much. They would come around to her way of thinking, eventually. No need to try and force it now.

Emily found herself defending the Swans more and more as she entered her late teens. There had been a spate of incidents involving the women that had escalated into mass rioting. Her Dad had grumbled over a picture on the front of his Daily Telegraph depicting one of the Swans on top of a burning police van. The photo made the woman look like a phoenix rising from the flames.

“Bloody feminists.” He’d muttered to himself after reading the accompanying article.       

“They’re just fighting for fair treatment, Dad.” Emily had argued, taking another spoonful of muesli. Her Dad lowered the paper, he was never very happy in the mornings.

“And fighting inequality requires them to burn down half of London, does it?” he spat. Emily decided against arguing, but she did sneak the front page out of the bin later on and cut out the picture. She carried it with her wherever she went from then on.

Unfortunately for Emily, she was priced out of going to University in London, and instead got a degree in Philosophy from Manchester with a first class degree. By this time, the Swans had become a legitimate political movement. They had around 500 members, with thousands more allegedly wanting to join, all based in East London, and some of their higher members, like Tina Bradshaw, Hattie Pondarosa and Kim Umboola, were frequent guests on political panel shows, and wrote newspaper columns for the New Statesman, among others. The riots were a thing of the past, but their resolve was as strong as ever. Right wing media outlets would sneer about the disproportionate amount of column inches they had, whilst beguilingly giving them more column inches. They were an organisation with momentum, and strong core values. Nothing had changed since she was 13. Emily wanted to be a part of it. 

           

The Swans of Shoreditch, Emily had heard, were notoriously difficult to join. A friend at university had joked that it was probably due to the cost of the costumes.        “I mean, I played once for the hockey team, and I took all the kit home with me and never came back. Imagine someone doing that with one of the swan gowns?” she had chuckled. Once Emily moved down to London and had found herself an extortionate flat share in a hovel near Old Street, she started trawling the Internet forums for information on how to join. Typically, most of the information was clearly bogus. “Go to the roof of the Wool House dressed all in red on the first Tuesday of the month, and they will find you there.” one post had suggested. Emily was tempted to go and find out, until she found a clearly upset woman confessing she had tried it a few pages later. “The only person who found me was an exasperated security guard, you asshole!”

It did seem like fact, however, that some of The Swans frequented a fair trade coffee shop on Boundary Street, so Emily started to show up there, as well, taking her laptop to pretend she was working on the next great English novel, like most of the other people in the shop did. A few weeks went past, with no signs of The Swans, despite Emily going every day. By this point, she was running out of savings, and had started to look for work, whilst sipping a £6 latte as slowly as possible. One morning, after she had lined up several meetings with recruiters for the next day, she finally saw them.

Six of the women entered, talking and laughing amongst themselves as they crossed the threshold, the rest of the customers stopping their pretend writing to stare at them. They were even more impressive in person, Emily thought, taking in the intricate details of their outfits. She recognized the one in the lead from a news bulletin a few months back. She had been on trial for throwing a brick through a bank window several years before, only to be found innocent.

“They accused me of attempting to take human life, when all I wanted to do was save it.” She had said in the press conference. Emily had thought it to be poetic, if a little over-the-top. Her name was Sarah Stansfield.

Sarah ordered the coffees for her companions, before taking a table across the room from Emily. She could not take her eyes off them. She felt like a BBC nature documentary maker who had waited months to see a Snow Leopard. She knew she couldn’t miss her opportunity, and luckily, she had practiced exactly what she was going to say to them.

Emily waited for the Swans’ coffees to be served, and for them to get comfortable, before purposefully striding across the coffee shop, her heart pounding uncomfortably. The women took a few moments to notice her standing right by their table, before Sarah stopped talking and looked up at Emily.

“Can we help you?” Sarah said, haughtily. Emily was taken aback. She had not expected The Swans of Shoreditch she’d seen on the news to be so rude, but she pulled herself together.

“My name is Emily Barrett. Ever since I was 12 years old, I have wanted to be a Swan. Not to look pretty, or to stand out, or to show off, but because I believe in equality. And that means social equality, gender equality, racial equality and monetary equality. I have read the works of Marx, Keynes and a dozen other socialist theorists, and although I do not agree with everything I’ve read, I believe a broad form socialism is the only direction this country can go in. There are no political organisations that represent my ideology as strongly as The Swans of Shoreditch. There are also no parties on my wavelength with as much momentum in the public sphere as the Swans of Shoreditch. I have a first class degree in Philosophy, am an amazing public speaker, and I want to be part of your organization. I don’t care what the process of selection is, for I will do whatever is asked of me. I hope to go down in history as one of the most important of all the Swans.” She finished, keeping eye contact with Sarah the whole time. Sarah looked stern for a moment, before breaking in to a huge grin.

“Nice speech, although all you needed to do was ask politely.” The rest of the women laughed as Sarah pulled a chair over from and adjacent table. “Go grab your coffee, let’s talk.” And with that, Emily was in.

 

Part Two will be published tomorrow (25/9/16)

 

SHORT STORY - The Swans of Shoreditch Part 2

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