How Glenn managed to breathe through that collar, I don’t know. He seemed to live in it and like it, but the grey-white skin of his bull neck hung over the top in a fold. Especially when he got worked up, like now. He was yelling through the megaphone with force that brought a tiny bit of colour to his cheeks, but most stayed grey. Years down the mine and eating chips, probably. Mind you, I was no oil painting myself, and I didn’t have any excuse but bad genes.
The rather thin patter of his words reached some kind of a crescendo and everyone around me roared, waving placards and fists in the air. I was too late to join in properly so I just put my fist half-up and joined in lowering it again, closing my mouth like I’d just said something.
‘Haway Johnny, try and show some enthusiasm like!’ Gaz nudged me. Being six foot odd and built like the proverbial, this made me sway a bit. If I’d been all fired up like everyone else seemed to be, that wouldn’t have mattered
‘Penny for your thoughts, like.’
‘Glenn doesn’t look too well. A bit like one of them.’
‘He’s putting everything into helping us, man. Besides, I’d take him over one of those plastic bourgeoisie any day. All that soft living, schools with playing fields, organic food and facey-cures. Gimme a mush that’s lived in.’ He grinned hugely. He hadn’t shaved that morning.
I picked up another crescendo in time to roar. This time I grabbed the shaft of Gaz’s placard and attempted to shake it with him. I don’t think I budged it a millimetre. ‘You say bourgeoisie, Gaz? Bolshiness coming back in?’
‘Never went out mate. Just had to keep quiet about it while that gobshite Blair was selling us down the river.’
Glenn got carried away enough to wave his megaphone in the air, then remembered to put it back to his lips. ‘So are we going to let them get away with it? We going to walk away and let these… well I don’t even have any words for who are going to be taking our jobs. We going to stand for it?’
‘NO!’ roared everyone back. My throat was getting a bit sore already. ‘Do you really think we’re going to win?’ I whispered to Gaz, before I thought better.
‘Doesn’t matter. We gotta stand up for ourselves,’ he said back. It could have been a lot worse.
‘Hold your flags high and come with me!’ screeched Glenn, making the speaker whine and feed back for a moment. He came down off the podium and pushed through the crowd. He was as short as I was and I only saw the backs of macs, fleeces and high-vis vests as we started moving. We should have put some other shortarses at the front followed by people like Gaz, but then, we didn’t have spin doctors arranging us for the cameras.
There were press and police waiting as we got to the warehouse gates. The coppers were glaring at us. There were some in riot gear, and dog handlers. The dogs were glaring as well. Barriers were set up on either side of the road in.
‘You got to let us on both sides of the street, it’s a public thoroughfare, it’s a free country! Besides when are they going to get rid of your jobs, brothers?’ Glenn was using the megaphone again. Up ahead was jostling and arguing, and then a barrier was pulled back and half of us were invited to take up position on the other side.
‘Come on!’ Gaz grabbed my hand, and a moment later, I had been pulled into the middle of the road. Where, of course, we stopped. The police argued and spoke into radios. They hadn’t reckoned on the size of this demo.
‘Filth wanting the go-ahead to baton-charge us. Fascists!’ snapped Gaz, then raised his voice. ‘I got your numbers, pals! There’s cameras out there linked to Youtube! I dare youse!’
I shrank back. Then I heard the engines. Not a moment too soon; they had been trying to bus them in early.
‘Don’t be shy brothers! These are your jobs they’re taking and we’re not going to stand for it!’ yelled Glenn, marching across in front. ‘They aren’t like us. They aren’t unionised. They don’t care. They will put up with treatment we won’t. And we won’t let them in!’
The buses came in convoy. For a moment I thought they weren’t going to stop, and sidled behind Gaz, who set his placard like it was a spear. The driver was avoiding our eyes, but what I didn’t want to look at was the passengers in the bus.
They must have been given instructions to disembark when the bus stopped, and they didn’t care about the demonstration. The doors opened and out they trooped. I shrank back from their faces, the eyes, the skin, the rank hair.
Gaz had the opposite reaction. It was like his hair stood on end, and his eyes bulged. ‘Bloody Zombies!’ he screamed. It was a primal reaction; enemy sighted, ready to kill or be killed.
‘Steady! Steady!’ yelled Glenn. He was running now, and starting to sweat in a way the zombies never would. ‘We don’t start fights, we finish them! Wait and stand your ground!’
The dead lined up shoulder to shoulder. They weren’t rotten, of course; they need all their skin and muscles to move, and then there are hygiene regs. But you wouldn’t mistake them for being alive. Eyes and skin from a fishmonger’s counter, animation from a shop window dummy. But they’re petrifying. They say they don’t have the animation or initiative to hurt people but every fibre of you screams otherwise when you meet them.
‘Scabs! Scabs!’ someone was shrieking next to me. Which wasn’t quite fair. The zombies did what their owners told them. But then again, they could hardly feel insulted.
‘Throw this.’ Gaz palmed something to me. It was a piece of rubble. ‘They’re all getting ready to go apocalypse, everyone knows it. We make these show their colours first, we do everyone a favour.’
‘Why? Why me?’
‘I’m too tall. They’ll see if I throw it.’
I weighed the piece of rubble. I’d come along because it was expected, I hadn’t signed up for this.
Then someone else started it. Some suit had got off the second bus. He hid behind the first group of zombies, and waved their control stick. It had colourful voodoo feathers on it, not something you’d expect an exec to carry.
The zombies started marching. The constable in charge was yelling, but nobody took any notice. Someone else threw a rock. I threw mine. Gaz leaped and knocked a zombie down with his placard. The dead kept marching. I found my own inner animal, I roared and tried to shove back, but they kept coming. Their flesh was cold under my hands. I punched but they didn’t feel it. I kicked but they only wobbled and kept walking. I pushed but they were stronger. I fell, and two by two, feet trod over me.
It was the police who saved us, much to the embarrassment of many. When the zombies drew back, as I uncurled and managed to open one eye, I saw the main constable holding the control rod, and a lieutenant pinning the protesting exec.
Others were picking themselves up. Gaz was being dragged away by two cops, still roaring. His placard was now a splintered spear, stained with blood. Some of the zombies had caved-in heads, broken arms dangling, broken legs dragging. They still weren’t worried. Many also had dog bites, and the dogs were pulling faces and gagging with the taste.
Glenn lay on the ground, motionless. Two paramedics were tending to him, but I could tell from their faces it wasn’t good. I went over. His body wasn’t marked; must have been a heart attack.
‘Poor Glenn,’ I said. ‘I hope the lads are out of jail in time to see the ashes scattered.’
‘Oh, I doubt that.’ There was a policeman behind me. ‘He will have his community service to do first.’
It was a week later that I saw him. Those of us who were left were back on the picket line, behind the barriers, this time. The police outnumbered us.
They stopped the buses outside and marched the zombies past us, to make a point. Glenn was at the front. His face was as grey as ever but he had a loose collar, now.