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Soft shoes in Suburbia

To be heard. To be properly listened to. To believe that our voice matters. Isn’t that something we all want?

But David didn’t want to be heard right now. He looked down at the shoes that had been paid for by his uniform allowance. There had been rules, naturally, about what was permissible. ‘Shoes. Matt black. Unobtrusive. Nothing that could be described as militaristic. Soft soled.’

David walked on. His shoes were felt coasters on old, solid asphalt furniture. On. Off. Silent.

Not being noticed. That was the important thing. To slip through suburbia, drawing no attention to himself. That was his training. And it suited him anyway. In a world where it seemed that everybody strained to make themselves heard, it was a sacred privilege to be content - a silent celebrant in a ritual marked only by his own measured breath and careful footfall.

David turned the corner. There, a van was being noisily emptied by chattering builders.

This was no longer a crime. It had been some time since the virus controls had loosened to allow the trades to continue. Long before the creation of David’s unit, in fact. Builders, electricians and plasterers coming back to work had been one of earliest concessions to the new reality of the virus-ravaged economies. Society had taken its ‘hit’. Governments had taken difficult decisions. But after the initial lockdown, economic mitigation matched enforcement. The golden veins of the capitalist body-politic could not Midas themselves into permanent solidity - life needed to carry on - at least where it was necessary to keep the coffers topped up with tax receipts. The trades had to come back to work. They were notoriously truculent anyway, and tended to vote the right way.

And when it came to the other side of the coin - the nation’s obligations? Well then, the Community Enforcers - David’s branch - had been one of many afterthoughts; late into the pandemic. Part of the measures following the ‘second wave’. Following the nation’s realisation that the Hollywood ending - the vaccine - was always going to be imperfect, and a solution that was just over the next hill.

David padded past the van as the builders crashed their tools to the pavement. Behind him, he heard one of them cough, heedlessly. A drawn-out hack of a cough - drawing cud - spitting it onto the street. This, too, was not David’s concern. It could have been a smoker’s cough. Or the dust - the honest by-product of acceptable labour. Nothing to worry about.

Carry on. The street’s perspective continued to slip past David as he cat-pawed his way to the vanishing point.

A jogger panted towards him.

This, too, was no longer worthy of remark. The virus had forced everyone two metres apart, but keeping your distance was far easier in a supermarket queue than it was when a flailing tracksuit turned the street corner into your narrow territory. Anyway, these risks were now accepted. Keep-fit types were unlikely to be unwell, and the NHS was not set up to deal with the illnesses of prolonged inactivity. Jogging was encouraged.

But David still held his breath as the jogger hoofed past. He imagined the lingering cloud of breath. Last winter’s cold would have substantiated it - turned it into a laden steam cloud, Today, in the summer’s febrility, it faded. He walked through this phantom, his breath held as inconspicuously as possible, then breathed out. Ridiculous, perhaps. An old habit, now. Don’t step on the cracks - the bears will get you.

He was over-writing this. It was an occupational hazard. Nobody to tell David to get on with it. To stop thinking in metaphor.

David’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He lifted it to his face; pulling down his mask.

‘Reports of illegal activity on Tennyson Avenue.’ No need for further niceties.

David’s pace quickened - driven by purpose and indignation.

Tennyson Avenue was only two streets away.

David knew these streets. He knew suburbia. Elsewhere, in the North, the pulse of the city throbbed louder. More dangerously. There, community enforcement would be irrelevant. Policing in the city was done by expedience. Celebrations of closed-door football victories. Protests. Outbreaks of mass partying. All were initially allowed to play out with blind eyes being turned. But in the Southern suburbs, it was different. Community here was tangible and understood. David knew that easy judgements could be made from a glance at a house front. A fly-tipped sofabed. Cardboard roaches heeled into a front path. Nasty stone cladding that hadn’t been torn from the face of an otherwise orderly Victorian terrace. Community signifiers, all useful for Community Enforcement.

At Dickens Road, on a terrace end, a fading piece of graffiti lingered here from the summer before. ‘My Life Matters’. David navigated by the infringements he saw. He knew this one, smiled wryly, and turned right. There were branches of government to deal with this sort of thing too, but David was glad that his unit had no such complicated nuances to deal with. The Tennyson Road disturbance would certainly fall within his remit, but should be a technicality. A knock on the door would be enough. Even the merest hint that they were being observed was generally enough for the meek souls who lingered within; their spirits broken by the feebleness of their cause.

The last turn. Tennyson Avenue. A low sign on the corner, sprouting from dandelion and tarmac - watered by passing dog-walkers, but still with the lingering whiff of fox. Feral.

David stopped. It was now that his skills could come to the fore.

David listened.

Distantly, there was the rush of cars. A police helicopter, but a very long way off. A high shout. Children.

Closer. A busy conversation on a doorstep. Possibly a technical infringement, but not conspicuous enough for comment. Was it a South London peculiarity that these conversations always seemed on the fringe of breaking into a row, David wondered?

Closer still - the gentle, rhythmic soothing of a stereo.

And then, the infringement.

An open window. A net curtain flicking out of it, into a tidy front area. Colourful flower pots trying to mask stubbornly ugly wheelie bins.

And song.


Through the window.

Even from the end of the Avenue, David could hear that this was no casual absent-mindedness. It was considered. Melodious.

David imagined how this would play out. It would likely be a singing teacher. A floral-patterned compliant, who had longed for a whiff of the past. Had let down her hair. Presumably into greying ringlets.

David snorted at his imaginings, and moved towards the house. A knock on the door would do it.

Then he noticed another open window. It, too, was releasing a tuned voice onto the street.

This was surprising. A co-incidence?

The sounds continued.

David listened harder. Could it be true that the voices were tuned together?

The faint melody was punctuated by the cracking open of another window, and from it seemed to come more sound.

David stopped. Before him, windows along the street were pushed out - uPVC snapping like the spines of new books. Windows opening into front yards that were tidy; front yards that were overflowing with  mattresses and car parts; front yards scattered with the faded plastic pots of long-dead geraniums. In the fevered heat of the summer, David could almost see blurred strings of sound, freshening green, tendrilling out into the haze of the street.

The singing had been faint. Almost inaudible. Now, it seemed to be gaining in strength.

The song was new. Unfamiliar. But brave.

This was new. Unfamiliar. Uncontrolled. Unnerving.

Fumbling, David considered calling for assistance, but as he brought his phone out, he realised it was already humming with messages. ‘Infringement in Hardy Close’ ‘Reports of singing in Alma Road’ ‘Mass disobedience in Laburnum Close’.

The singing continued. Streets all around, joining. The tendrils of sound were growing. Swelling. Tangling together. All the Earth, a new song. Small voices building to surging harmonies.

David was dumbfounded. And scared. Scared in a way that he had not felt for a long time. There was no single door that he could approach. This was larger than that. Larger than him. And it was unfamiliar. ‘How shall we sing in a strange land?’ it was asking. Voices from another time.

And then, with the sort of rebellious finality of a meaningless surrender and in one massive cadence, echoing from walls that felt suddenly fragile, the singing stopped.

David sat clumsily, heavily, down on a curbstone. Around him, windows closed. David didn’t look to see who was closing them.

Tomorrow, perhaps, the notices would be posted through doors. He would have to post them, and perhaps make some examples of people. Bring down the van. For two years, singing had been banned. It was the most insidiously dangerous thing of all. A super-spreader. It could destroy communities.

But for now, as the silence returned, and with the ugly river of tarmacadam warm beneath his shoes, David sat on the curb.


And wept.


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