A short story by Meaghan Delahunt
After draining the bottle of tequila, John Reed says: I am very fond of Mexico. I like Mexicans too. And I like sotol, aguardiente, mezcal, tequila, pulque, and other Mexican customs. He then bows low to the ground, in front of us, expecting applause. He looks gaunt and unshaven, a little wild-eyed – nothing like his author photo – which surprises me, but I’m not surprised to see him.
Who is that? asks an older man stacking leaflets at the stall.
It’s John Reed, I say.
Oh, he says, unfazed. American?
American, I confirm. A writer. From way back, I say. I don’t tell him how far back. I keep that to myself.
John Reed bows once more. Please, he says. Call me Jack. He holds up the empty bottle, turning it to the light, disappointed.
The older man keeps stacking leaflets. He’s walked the length of Edinburgh for two years, urging people to vote. And he’s seen a big change. He’s hopeful, he tells us. People think it can happen. This makes me hopeful, too. People are fed up with Westminster, he says … and of course, not forgetting Iraq …Afghanistan…the War on Terror…
At the mention of war, John Reed puts the bottle down, and throws his arms wide: War means an ugly mob-madness, crucifying the truth tellers, choking the artists, side-tracking reforms, revolutions, and the working of social forces…
A woman pushing a buggy with a small child stops to listen. Bravo, she says. Who wrote that?
John Reed looks sheepish. I did.
He’s a writer, I say. You name it, he’s been there – strikes in America, revolution in Mexico… not to mention Russia…
Ah, Russia. John Reed goes misty-eyed. Adventure it was, and one of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked upon, sweeping into history…staking everything on their vast and simple desires…
Is he pished? The woman leans in and whispers. He seems to speak in quotes.
He may well be, I say. And you’re right about the quotes.
The woman smiles indulgently at John Reed. Have you tried whisky? I got this at the airport, she says, rummaging in her bag. But I don’t drink whisky. She holds the miniature out to him.
I like whisky, he says, Very much. He thanks her and puts it in his suit pocket.
She eyes his empty bottle of tequila. And we have Mexican here, if that’s what you’d like. A Tacqueria, in fact. She gestures up Leith Walk. They’ll have tequila, for sure…
Thank you, John Reed scratches his head, gestures around the stall at the street, at the people. But, hey, someone, anyone – where the hell am I? He’s just spent three months at his typewriter, his head full of revolution, surrounded by papers and pamphlets and a Russian-English dictionary. He’d closed in on the final chapter of his book when he decided to have a break. He’d wandered out for coffee and ended up with tequila. That’s the last thing he remembers.
Where am I? he repeats.
Scotland, I say.
No. I feel bad for him. Not Petrograd.
What the? At this, he takes the whisky miniature out of his pocket, unscrews the cap and gulps it back. He looks at the stall. Picks up a GreenYes sticker, puts a balloon in his pocket. Asks for a badge.
We’ve had a run on the badges, says a man called Jens. He’s over from Amsterdam and has come to help. But you can have one of these. He hands John Reed a postcard and some NHYES posters.
John Reed looks rough. Like he’s slept face down for weeks and hasn’t changed his clothes, which is pretty close to the truth. His hair is thick and curly and uncombed. There are dark circles under his eyes. Just then, someone walks past wearing a Pancho Villa t-shirt. John Reed stops and stares.
But…hang on a minute… Pancho Villa?…he points after the man in the t-shirt. We rode four months together…everywhere he was known as the Friend of the Poor, the Mexican Robin Hood…taught himself to read and write…he never seemed to sleep…
The Mexican Revolution? I try to be helpful.
I tell you…an impressive sonofabitch…
He was, I say, although I’d never read Insurgent Mexico and knew little about Pancho Villa. It occurs to me that John Reed sounds just like Hemingway. Not that I’ve ever met Hemingway, but who knows, the way things are going. Some strange people have come to visit and these are unsettled times.
A number 14 bus pulls up just as the rain starts. Nearly everyone who gets off the bus smiles when they see the stall and stops to talk or to give a thumbs up. From the bus, a few old men grump silently at the windows. One shakes a fist and screws up his face as if he might explode.
What is this, exactly? John Reed asks, looking around the stall.
A great people’s movement, I tell him. For self-determination. That’s why you’re here. At least, I think that’s why you’re here…
Listen, he says, interrupting me, putting his hands on my shoulders. I don’t know why the hell I’m here. I don’t know anything just now. Where I am. What’s going on. I’ve got all the placards and papers up there in a little room and a Russian dictionary and I’m working all day and all night … I’ve gotta go get some coffee…
I can get you coffee.
Good. He gives me a haggard look: I haven’t slept for thirty-six hours. I’m writing the Russian Revolution in a book, goddamit! I’ll finish the whole thing in two weeks. He pauses, takes his hands from my shoulders. Don’t tell anyone where I am.
I won’t. I say. Promise.
I just came out for a break, he says.
The fact is, like I said, I was not all surprised to see John Reed. It was September and the weather had been unnaturally good. It was the time of the Referendum and in those days, anything seemed possible. All sorts of people had slipped through the net or the time-space continuum, or whatever you wanted to call it. There’d been Gogs Brown, a former Prime Minister, sent up to rally the undecided and to scare folk.
A train load of Labour politicians’d love-bombed Glasgow. That old peacenik Henry Kissenger had risen again, urging a NO. Then there’d been Rupert Murdoch and the People’s Republic of China, even a late sighting of Margaret Thatcher and Ronnie Reagan at the Better Together stall. After all this, it was about time a 20th century revolutionary showed up. We needed all the help we could get.
Why wouldn’t John Reed ride the slipstream and come to see for himself?
Look, John… I say.
Please, he holds up a hand. It’s Jack.
OK. Listen, Jack. We’ll sort the coffee. Then suddenly I get a little light-headed, realise who I’m talking to. I’m talking to John Reed! Anything is possible! For some reason the film of his book comes to mind and I feel the need to tell him: OK. But listen, Jack. First up, I must apologise for Warren Beatty….
He was in Reds.
It was a film. I pause for a moment. Technically, it was the film of your book…
Uh-huh? He narrows his eyes. Which book?
The one about Russia…
Uh-huh. He tries to absorb this information. But I haveta tell you…it’s not done yet…
Well, it was made into a film. Y’know how great books often make lousy films…
Can’t say that I do. He tugs a hand through his hair, trying to recall the last film he saw, it was certainly some time after the Tzar: …The city was nervous, starting at every sharp sound…we went to a moving picture show near Kazan cathedral – an Italian film of passion and intrigue…down front were some soldiers and sailors, staring at the screen in childlike wonder…
Lucky John Reed, I thought. He died before talkies were invented. He’d never see the film of his life starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton and their time in Russia. It wasn’t a bad film, but it wasn’t great either. As if reading my thoughts, he starts up: We arrived in the middle of the Revolution … I had to see it for myself…he says, looking round at the damp streets, the rain now teeming and drenching the stall, the GreenYes t-shirts wet through. I saw the Winter Palace fall… and behind us, great Smolny, bright with lights hummed like a gigantic hive…
I knew he was quoting from the book he had yet to finish – the one which had been made into a film. And I marvelled that he’d actually landed in Russia before the Revolution. If I’d conjured him up as a charm, if that’s what this was all about, I hoped it would work.
What a time, I say.
Russia, he goes on, a dreamy cast to his face. Petrograd, on the eve of the revolution…he looks around. Winter was coming on – the terrible Russian winter. I heard businessmen speak of it so: “Winter was always Russia’s best friend. Perhaps it will rid us of Revolution…”
I clear my throat. But this isn’t Russia…
It’s Scotland, I repeat, opening a GreenYes umbrella.
But the weather… he insists. Rain is lashing his face and his frayed wool suit is starting to sag.
And in the rain, the bitter chill, the great throbbing city under grey skies rushing faster and faster toward – what?
Let’s get you inside, I say as I urge him under the umbrella. Grab a coffee ? How about Area C? Check the news on my iPad?
John Reed gives me a blank look. Hell, I didn’t get a word of that, he says. Not one word.
A guy with no teeth comes up to the stall, full of the joys of life. He has two bottles of Irn Bru under his arm. He’d got them from the NO stall, he said. Labour are giving them away. He claps John Reed on his wet shoulder: Gaun yersel wee man! He urges him to vote Yes
I don’t think I’m eligible, John Reed says.
No. Unfortunately not, I say.
But you could help out, says Jens, the guy from Amsterdam.
Well…I am a reporter.
Then maybe not, says Jens.
John Reed says, a little cross: I covered the Russian Revolution…
Ah, says Jens. The Berlin Wall, Gorby, the Hoff …then, his voice lowers…Are you BBC?
Am I what?
Jens mistakes the tone for sarcasm. No? Good. Then you can help.
Gaun yersel wee man, the guy with the Irn Bru offers a bottle to John Reed who takes a slug. A grateful smile spreads across his face. Holy Smoke, this stuff is good! he says.
Good for hangovers, says the man with no teeth.
Get me a crate, says John Reed.
A young girl twirls a green Yes umbrella at the passing buses. A truck with a Saltire flag goes past, horn tooting. A group of schoolkids from Leith Academy crowd the stall, wanting stickers. Everyone is rain-slicked and happy.
A French journo turns up at the stall, followed by a Japanese camera crew needing directions. At this point, John Reed takes a pencil and a small damp notepad out of his suit pocket. He puts down his bottle of Irn Bru.
So, he asks the French journalist. What’s your name? What brings you here?
My name is Pierre, from L’Humanite, says the journo. I came to see for myself. In France, we are not sure, what is going on. For the Left it’s nationalism for the Right it’s anarchy. He steps back a little, wary. Are you BBC?
Good. I’ve just come from Gaza, Pierre says. Don’t talk to me of objective. Don’t talk to me of BBC…
Just then two guys from ‘Business for Yes’ come down the Walk handing out leaflets. John Reed takes one, quickly scans it, sipping his Irn Bru as the rain eases off and damp people flow around the stall. He asks a woman with a Bairns not Bombs badge to tell him what she thinks. And she tells him, in a Morningside accent: It’s like this. Five hundred people own most of our land. We have nuclear weapons in the Clyde. Westminster makes all the decisions. But we want to control our own lives… basically, she says, drawing herself up. It’s about dignity and social justice…
He nods. So. Something like…lemme get this straight… Land, Peace, Freedom?
Something like that, she says.
I see, says John Reed. … in the relations of a weak government and a rebellious people there comes a time when every act of the authorities exasperates the masses and every refusal excites their contempt…
More or less. says the Morningside woman, a little taken aback. You could put it like that.
He looks over at me then and his eyes glitter strangely and in his eyes I see campesinos massed outside a hacienda; an uprising against the Tzar; garment workers downing tools; I see men crawling from trenches; Empires rising and falling; a mushroom cloud searing the sky and I realize that John Reed has been here before. Many times. He’s borne witness to struggle and change and gets what’s going on. He turns to the stall, takes a fistful of leaflets and starts handing them out. He says: …All Russia was learning to read, and reading –politics, economics, history – because the people wanted to know…
John Reed stayed for three days. He stayed with me, in my one bedroom flat. He slept on the sofa bed and didn’t seem to mind. He’d slept in worse places, he said: Russian trains and prisons; flatbed trucks; railway sidings in Texas; under a thorny blanket in the Sierra Madre. This was luxury, he assured me. We decided in advance there’d be no funny business; he was married after all. We got along as compadres. He wanted to know everything about everything. He had a habit of looking away when he was talking to you, not looking in any particular direction, but everywhere, afraid he might miss something. Out on the streets, he understood what he was seeing: For months, in Russia and all over Petrograd, and all over Russia, every street corner was a public tribune. In railway trains, street cars, always the spurting up of impromptu debate, everywhere…
I was living by myself then, feeling lonely, and I admit I enjoyed his company- even his habit of quoting himself. On the night before the Referendum we walked back from a concert up on the Mound. I love beauty and chance and change he told me. John Reed had a great capacity for joy – everyone he met felt this and felt good. As we walked back, he enthused about literature and solidarity – those poets from Quebec – those two guys who read tonight – he kept saying – they were incredible!
On Princes St we stopped outside the Registry Building. John Reed stood transfixed by the rolling images on the walls: ‘Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s hands.’ The haar came down and everything blurred at the edges. He said: In Petrograd, night came swiftly down, the wide-spaced streetlights flickered on, the tides of people flowed endlessly…it is always like that in Petrograd before trouble…
At the London Rd roundabout, the stalls had packed up for the night. The posters in tenement windows silently watched us walk down towards Leith. John Reed grew quiet. At the Foot of the Walk we gazed up at the statue of Queen Victoria staring over her dominions; a Saltire flag hung damp at her back. A red flag fluttered from the statue of Catherine the Great… John Reed quoted himself once more, looking up at the statue and we were both melancholy.
That night, he slept again on the sofa and in the morning, he was gone. The blanket was neatly folded, as if he had never been. There was an empty tequila bottle on the side table. On top of the blanket, he’d left a note:
In the struggle my sympathies were not neutral. But in telling the story of those great days I have tried to see events with the eye of a conscientious reporter, interested in setting down the truth.
I called out his name a few times, but in my heart, I knew John Reed was gone. I opened the curtains. The haar had lifted. There was no sunshine but there was no rain, either. I looked for signs and portents. After the carnival of the previous weeks, the streets seemed unnaturally quiet. I stood at the window with his note in my hand and felt good because I, too, loved beauty and chance and change and knew that I wasn’t alone.
I watched people make their way to the polling station, their faces intent, their faces unreadable, although I did try to read them. It felt like the beginning of something. Everyone wanting to know the future, what it would mean, as they took up the pencil, the sheet of paper, put it in the box. Everyone wanting to know what it would be like, how it would feel afterwards, here, in this place, so familiar, but changed. How it would feel then, walking into the future; the September light hard at our backs.
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