We’ve been standing outside the ambulance station since six o’clock. The sky is lightening now, but heavy grey clouds keep appearing overhead and soaking us. We cradle our mugs to keep warm, shuffle from foot to foot, wave at the cars that hoot as they pass. Three hours already. The march through town is next. It’ll be good to move.
It was fraught at first. Despite the friendly tone, there was still a discernible charge of something between the crews that were reporting for duty in uniform, and those that had decided to strike.
‘It’s a question of conscience, mate. You can only do what you think is right.’
Everyone knows it. But this business of being in uniform, or out of it – the difference is more than just clothing.
People have been passing all morning, and we’ve chatted to some. About how the public sector is being throttled, the cost of living going up, the pay freeze, the pension hike. A cameraman arrives in a blacked-out van. He waits until the current shower passes, then wanders over to take mood shots of our flags. We wonder when the interviewer will come over to ask us some questions, but nothing happens. The cameraman gets back in his van. They drive off.
The march from a nearby hospital is due to pass by soon and we’re getting ready to tag along, when a shabby looking guy in a hunting cap and combat trousers, a black bin liner over his shoulder, pauses by the entrance, and makes a show of reading the signs. Then as if something he read there has interested him, he walks up and sets his bin liner on the wet tarmac in front of us.
‘Have you heard of *** (a minor celebrity)?’ he says. ‘Yeah? We used to hang out together. He was a mate of mine. Twenty years ago he was up on a murder charge. Did you read about it? It was in all the papers. I gave him his alibi. I lied for him so he didn’t go to jail. Then a few years later I was in trouble myself and I asked him for a loan. Ten thousand pounds. That’s all it was. Ten thousand pounds to set me straight. And him a millionaire and everything. But he was like he didn’t know me. Couldn’t care less. Set his monkeys on me. And now I haven’t got nothing. What do you think about that, eh?’
Frank folds his arms.
‘Mate – I’m sorry, but this is a picket line. We’re striking about our pensions and jobs. I don’t think this is really the time or the place for all that other stuff.’
The man shrugs his shoulders.
‘Okay. Fair enough.’
He picks up his bin liner and walks off.
I finish my tea and tip the dregs out onto the grass verge.
The hospital crowd is coming down the hill, whistling and hooting. We pick up our flags and join them.
The man with the bin liner watches from the other side of the road.
In the middle of town. The protest has swollen now, the tributaries of the smaller marches converging into an impressive river of banners, whistles, drums and chants. People hang out of office windows, wave from doorways, the pavements and shop doorways. The atmosphere is good-natured, accommodating.
A man with unlaced boots, a woollen cap tweaked up into a cone on the back of his head, a rucksack on his back, appears next to me.
‘Smash Macdonald’s windows!’ he shouts. ‘Corporate fascism! Batter the police!’
Then he turns to another protestor and says: ‘I’m an anarchist, me. This is all a bit tame, isn’t it?’
His influence is so unsettling it’s hard to think what to do other than blank him out and pretend he wasn’t there. But before we change our mind and summon the courage to confront him, he scuttles on ahead, lacing through the crowd in a curious, loping kind of crouch.
When the march reaches the common I listen to a couple of speeches, then hand my flag to a young kid - ‘Cool! Thanks. That’ll go with my collection! - and make my way back to the car. I sit behind the wheel for a minute or two. Another shower of rain rattles across the roof and windscreen. I let my mind drift across the day, trawling for something definite, some article of faith I could hold on to that was as light and clear and tangible as that flag.
It’s just before one.
I put the news on to hear how things went across the country, and turn the engine over.