In an unusual move this week, I’ve decided to post a short story of mine. While it is certainly fictional, the piece does attempt to tap into certain political and cultural trends in parts of today’s Britain. I hope you enjoy it.
Everybody called it the “Cage”, but in truth it was a fence. Steel bars, wrapped in barbed wire and charged to inflict electric pain on anybody foolish enough to touch it. An encircling barrier, isolating Oxford from the Outside, the border between enlightened intellect and ignorant stupidity; morality and depravity; civilisation and anarchy. The Cage, so the students were informed, was what kept them safe, Oxford secure, and ensured that the flame of enlightenment would continue to burn brightly.
Sarah walked through the grassy patch of no-man’s land a few metres away from the Cage, following the line of the fence as it skirted the Isis bank. Few people bothered to venture too close to the border, so it was pleasantly quiet. She needed that relative silence sometimes, when the constant bustle and noise of the colleges, bars and common rooms got too much for her. There was no privacy in Oxford, but here the illusion of solitude was strongest.
She stopped for a moment to look out through the fence at the Outside. Across the river, she could see only the same old dilapidated grey buildings, decades old, with the same scarred walls, broken windows and graffiti as always. Weeds grew out of cracks in the concrete, and there was no sound except the rustle of the wind. It was impossible to imagine anyone living in those buildings, though she had been assured that there was a sizeable population of Hois that lived close to the fence.
Hois. Sarah continued to be amazed by the swiftness at which she – a first year scholar – had already picked up the unique cant of Oxford. A few months before she had never even heard the term ‘Hoi’, yet now her use of it was automatic. Like most Oxford slang, it was a contraction. The Dons, in their dry academic way, tended to call the Outsiders the Demos or the Hoi Polloi; some undergrad somewhere had decided it would be cool to cut down the latter to Hoi, and soon the name was second-nature to all. Back in Sarah’s home city of London, within the Great M25 Wall, they had simply called the Outsiders ‘Outies’ or ‘Peripherals’. When the young Sarah had travelled up on the great armoured train from the capital a few months ago, she had never dreamed that Oxford would have changed even her language so quickly.
Sarah was about to continue walking, but then a glimpse of movement in her peripheral position halted her. Looking across the river once again she could see a group of Hois scuttling out of a building towards the water. Her heart started beating faster, but whether with nervousness or excitement she couldn’t tell. These were the first wild Hois she had ever seen! True, London had been full of tamed Hois allowed into the city as migrant workers, but to see actual Outies in their natural habitat was a new experience for her. The Hois looked furtively around them, then dropped onto their knees by the water. Sarah, obscured behind the Cage and a low wall she had been leaning on, remained for the time being unseen.
There were seven Hois – two men, two women and three children, carrying bundles of clothes which they proceeded to start washing in the river. Sarah blinked. She had been expecting ragged savages, more beast than human – not people with the decency to wash clothes. Indeed, she noticed that though the Hois looked a little scruffy, and their clothes were certainly somewhat patched and faded, they were not filthy.
After their initial trepidation, the Hois visibly relaxed, and started talking quietly to one another. Sarah could not make out what was being said, but the slight murmuring she did catch sounded in its cadence rather like English. She had always grown up to believe that the Hois spoke a vulgar dialect that barely resembled her own language, and that part of the ‘taming’ process for indentured servants was to teach them how to speak properly.
Even more surprising perhaps was that she was seeing men and women working together. In ‘Outsider Studies’ classes the children were taught that the Outies lived in barbarous societies, where the men did little but drink and fight and beat their wives and children. But Sarah could see no tension in the little group, no sign of the women’s fear of their menfolk. Rather, one laughed suddenly at something the man next to her said. Sarah gasped a little. The laugh was so unexpected, so human, that it had caught her completely by surprise.
Then, the family – surely it must be a family – of Hois started murmuring a chant together. Sarah’s excitement went up a notch. What was this? Some form of backward religion, a prayer to some God? Everybody knew the Outsiders still believed in idiotic things like Gods and Souls and the like; nonsense that had been crushed in civilised society decades ago during the Great Correcting.
But no. It was a song. The Hois were singing a song together like a choir, the deep voices of the men harmonising perfectly with the higher notes of the women and children. Somehow, Sarah recognised the tune, even if she couldn’t make out the words the family were singing. How would the Hois know a song that Sarah recognised? How could there be any connection between her and the Outies?
Sarah started to edge closer. She wanted to hear the words! She wanted to listen to the voices of the Hois! She stood up and walked determinedly towards the fence.
Suddenly, the air was rent by the sharp crack of a rifle being discharged. A round had been fired directly into the ground next to the Hois, who instantly stopped singing and scattered. Sarah, after her initial shock, realised it had been a warning shot, fired from one of the watchtowers that studded the Cage. She stared at the fleeing backs of the Hois with disappointment. She had been so close!
Sarah’s reverie was cut short by the sound of a deep voice behind her. She turned to see one of the Porters standing there in his heavy black coat, hand lightly resting on his holstered truncheon.
“Time for you to be getting back to class, Miss” he said. The man’s eyes were invisible behind his visor, but his voice was as firm as steel. Sarah stared at him for a moment, then nodded and started to move towards Oxford. She was stopped by the man’s hand on her shoulder. She looked back up at him.
“Shouldn’t come down here too often. Dangerous for a young person like yourself.” The quiet edge of menace in his voice was palpable. Sarah simply nodded again, and started down the road leading to the centre of town.
The Porter watched her go, then glanced over through the Cage. Nobody could be seen on the other side, and no voices could be heard. He paused, spat in the general direction of the fence, and then continued his solitary patrol.