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.
There was a pledge stage that she needed to negotiate before she could join the organization proper. This, as Sarah explained at that very first meeting was to make sure that people were serious.
There was a lot of animosity towards the Swans by certain members of the public, let alone in politics, and it was important to wean out the ones who could not handle it. Emily was teamed with five other women, all aged between 21 and 25. They were what was known as a ‘cygnet pod’, though most of the fully fledged members inevitably nicknamed them ‘the ugly ducklings’.
The uniform was very basic, a grey faux fur jacket with the hood up, and black lipstick, and their tasks were similar to that of an ordinary political party volunteer; leafleting, canvassing and petitioning the public. The pod all moved in to the same house together. It almost felt like an American University sorority house, if the sorority house was a tiny, damp-stained box near Stoke Newington, and the pledges were all very poor.
Luckily, Sarah had taken a shine to Emily. She sorted out a job at the very coffee shop where they had met, and made sure she was always able to pay rent and buy food. When she wasn’t working or doing cygnet work, Sarah used to invite her out to meet other Swans and socialise with young men who were sympathetic to the cause, in trendy basement dive bars or warehouse parties. Emily was impressed with Sarah’s stamina for someone who was pushing 40. It was usually Emily ducking out of the bar early, whilst Sarah danced with some handsome bearded man or other, making sure she shoved £20 in to Emily’s hand for a taxi.
The cygnet work was usually pretty dull, but Emily threw herself into it. Some of the other girls weren’t so keen, and two of them moved out after only a couple of weeks.
“I’m starting to think that these people are worse than the politicians,” one of them, Carol, told Emily when asked why she was leaving. “They just exploit people for their own means.” Emily understood Carol’s frustration, but couldn’t help but chastise her to the other remaining cygnets for not seeing the bigger picture.
Sarah wasn't lying about the abuse, though. Emily was not expecting it. She always thought that the grievances people had with the Swans would be localized to places like her home town, or to the rants of some idiot rugby player from the university, but some of the bile directed at her and the other cygnets was sometimes upsetting.
On the most part it would just be idiot men, calling her a “feminist bitch” or a “ugly dyke” as she tried to stop them in the street, but she was even more surprised to find that a lot of women despised them as well.
“I don’t need your fucking help. Maybe if you got fucked a bit more, than you’d give up this bullshit, you fucking do-gooder.” a women had told her one grey afternoon, before throwing a bottle of orange juice all over her. This reminded Emily of her sister’s attitude so much, it almost made her homesick.
The worst instance had come when she was petitioning door-to-door to stop a proposed scrapping of the curb on bonuses in the financial sector. In a leafy street, where she soon realised she shouldn’t have gone in the first place; a very drunk man had assaulted her on the doorstep of his huge town house. When she had told him about the cause, he had suddenly grabbed her by the shoulders and thrown her down the stairs, before picking up a vase from the hallway and hurling it at her. It smashed on her knees, causing her to howl with pain. He just laughed and slammed the door.
It transpired that the man had just lost his job at HSBC for overcharging clients in order, in his own words, to “claw back my bonus”. Of all the places for Emily to canvas, that street was never going to garner much success, she thought to herself that night in the hospital. The man was cleared of assault after insisting Emily had been harassing him. Emily, dressed in regular clothes, said this wasn’t at all the truth, but inevitably the man got away without even paying Emily compensation for the three weeks of work she had to miss.
Happily, Sarah was a rock throughout the whole ordeal, and once Emily had been a cygnet for a year, Sarah invited Emily to live with her and a few others, and formally offered her a role in the Swans of Shoreditch organisation.
Emily would always remember how it felt to first put on the uniform. They were in her new living room, and Sarah had bought it home with her. It felt like she had finally arrived. She loved the way the fabric hugged her body and was so comfortable. Yet she didn’t feel sexy, she felt elegant. Powerful. Foreboding. She shakily did her make up for the first time, under Sarah’s instruction, and stood admiring herself, slowly raising her arms like the Swan on the front page of the Telegraph all those years ago. She still had the copy in her purse.
Her first job was as Sarah’s assistant, which only seemed natural considering she had pretty much been Sarah’s assistant for a year anyway. Sarah’s official title was Ally Liaison, which was a fancy way of saying she met with people sympathetic to the cause. Politicians, councilors and charity workers would meet with Sarah to discuss a piece of legislation being proposed or a social injustice and Sarah would decide whether it was right for The Swans to take it on.
There was one particular ally that Sarah would meet with at least once a fortnight, and usually not just to discuss mutual causes. Luke Berringer was one of the main voices in Blank movement. This organization, like many others, had adopted the Guy Fawkes mask used in the film V for Vendetta. Emily had always found it funny that so many people would use that mask, despite the movie being distributed by Warner Bros. There was just a whiff of hypocrisy that she would never bring up in front of Luke, as he took himself incredibly seriously.
Blank, like Occupy before it, were mostly about ending greed in the government and in the private sector, and had staged many low profile sit-ins over the years, to little effect, and this annoyed Luke, but he was determined to make a name for the organization. He liked being associated with the Swans, as they were at the level of notoriety that he wanted to be at. Plus, he was Sarah’s occasional lover.
Emily would sit in and make notes on their meetings, but would usually abandon the task after a few minutes when the two of them would just start flirting. A night out would then ensue, where the two of them would insist on dragging Emily with them, until they would disappear in to the bathroom, usually leaving Emily alone with one of Luke’s wheezy, self-righteous friends shouting over the music about how the Swans were selling out by appearing on television. This would usually be the point Emily would politely tell the guy to go fuck himself and head outside for a taxi.
As the months went by, Luke became increasingly warmer towards Emily. He would start flirting with both of them at the table, and would occasionally grab Emily’s knee, before guffawing, and saying he had meant to touch Sarah’s. One night, when Luke and Emily were at the bar he had grabbed her ass and leaned in to her ear,
“Do you want it as bad as me?” he’d asked, his breath stinking of gin. Emily pulled away and walked off, heading for the nearest exit.
Later that night, Sarah had stumbled in to her room, clearly drunk, and very angry.
“What the fuck is going on between you and Luke?” she’d asked, pointing an accusatory finger at Emily, who lay innocently in bed.
“Nothing, Sarah. Why what’s he said?” Emily asked, surprised.
“I can see the way you look at him. You stay the fuck away from him, you hear?” and she stumbled out the room. Emily was shocked. So much for sisterhood, she thought.
Things came to a head after living with Sarah for 16 months. Once again, Emily had ducked out early from an unbearably dull night with Luke and Sarah, and had gone to bed. She was awoken by her door creaking open.
“Sarah, I’m asleep. Can it wait till morning?” she said groggily. There was no answer. She lifted her head to try and see who had come in, but it was too dark. The person was breathing heavily, and all of a sudden a pillow was pushed violently over her face. She struggled, aiming blows at the culprit. A mouth whispered in her ear.
“If you try to scream, I will fucking kill you.” The figure yanked at her pyjama bottoms, ripping them off. Emily continued to struggle, she could barely breath. The pillow was removed, and there was Luke, looming over her, naked. Before she could catch her breath to scream, he covered her mouth. The whole ordeal seemed to last a lifetime, as Emily desperately tried to get away. She wanted to be swallowed up, right there and then, into her mattress and disappear forever, as Luke pinned her to the bed, and did what he thought he was allowed to do, was his given right to do as a powerful man.
“Thank you for that.” He whispered when he’d finally finished, a look of sadistic pleasure on his bearded face. And he left, like it wasn't anything. Like he hadn't just robbed her of all her dignity and self-respect. She started to cry.
The next day, Emily got out of bed early having not slept a wink, dressed in a hoody and jeans, snuck out of the house and headed for the police station. Around halfway there, she remembered how the police had treated the swans in the past; the kettling, the pepper spray, the rubber bullets. Were they likely to believe her story? She decided against it, and, not knowing where to turn, she headed to the Swans of Shoreditch head office, which was above a newsagent on Shoreditch high street, and was only known to members.
The receptionist had only just got in when Emily arrived.
“Christ, you’re keen.” She said, removing her jacket. Emily said nothing. She hadn’t slept since the incident, she had mostly been crying. She felt the onslaught of tears coming back. “Are you okay?” the receptionist asked. Emily tried to gather herself.
“I’m Emily Barrett, I’m a member. I really need to talk to Tina, Hattie or Kim. Are any of them in?” she managed to get out. It was costing her everything not to cry. The receptionist looked at her for a while, wondering whether she should pry further.
“I’m sorry Emily, Tina, Hattie and Kim are away just at the moment. You can talk to Bettie if you like? She’s relatively new, but she’s lovely, and is in charge while the other three are away?” she said, sympathetically.
“That would be fine.” Emily said, mechanically. The receptionist got on the intercom, keeping a concerned eye on Emily as she did.
“Bettie, Emily Barrett is here to see you. She’s. . . Well, it seems urgent.” After a moment, she put the phone down. “Go right in.” Emily nodded, and walked through the door behind the desk. There was only one light on in any of the rooms off the corridor, so she walked towards it, and in to a drab office that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1980’s comprehensive. The walls were egg yolk yellow, and the furniture was chipped and old. Behind one of the desks sat a lady in her mid-sixties wearing a Swan outfit. She looked up as Emily came in.
“Emily, I’ve heard a lot about you, it’s a pleasure to. . . What’s wrong, Emily?” When she would look back on it in future years, Emily figured it was the general kindliness and motherly attributes that Bettie encompassed that made her run towards her and hug her. She told her everything that had happened, sparing no detail, and Bettie sat there, hugging her, reassuring her, making sure she was okay. After Emily had told the story she sat there crying for a full hour, with Bettie just there, like she would be there from that moment forward. When Emily was ready, Bettie spoke.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that we shouldn’t have anything to do with Luke Berringer. I have pleaded with Sarah to stop, but she hasn’t listened. If you consent, I will go to the police on your behalf.” Emily nodded, whipping her nose with her hand. “Good. I believe it is time Miss Stansfield was moved on from this organization. She has shown poor judgment too often. As for you, I’ll instruct one of the cygnets to go and collect your stuff from that house. You can move in to my quarters. Please know, Emily, that I am not just doing this out of sympathy. Though I do want to make sure you get better, we have long felt that you should be, how shall I put this. . .Fast-tracked.”
Emily looked up at Bettie, at her caring smile. 48 hours later, Emily was living in Bettie’s flat, Sarah Stansfield was out of the organisation, Luke Berringer was in custody, and a plan was being formulated for Emily to run for a seat in the House of Commons in four years time.
Part Three of The Swans of Shoreditch will be published tomorrow (26/9/16)