The women, in their beautifully, laundered suits, with well-groomed hair, and modulated voices came out through the glass doors, ignoring the university porters. They walked towards the protesters. Doctors at the convention, they sensed that these University Students were not going to hurt them. They must have read the placards on their way in to hear the illustrious guest. Talented professionals, the women had the confidence of people used to dealing with others and coming out on top.
One of them, a willowy forty-year-old, with a purple shawl draped carelessly over her shoulder, approached the group where Suzy was standing. Two older companions with leather handbags over arms, and tweedy suits had followed her across the Concourse like escorts. The porter, sensing confrontation, tried to usher them back inside, but the willowy doctor gestured him away.
‘You must be very cold out here,’ she said with a smile. ‘He spoke for a long time.’
‘Such a great man,’ Tweed number one murmured, ‘Can’t you see that?’
Willow was more languid. ‘His medical skill has advanced medicine which will benefit us all. He will transform the future and make a break-through which will save lives.’
Suzy’s party of friends were silent as if tongue-tied by these gracious and clever women. She felt a little intimidated by the stately women herself. She was secretly impressed that they had bothered to come out and speak to them. Coming from a matriarchal family, she was by design and inclination ready to accept the authority of older women.
At last she found some words to say, ‘He has done great things.’ She began confidently but trailed off uncertainly, and the women in tweed nodded their agreement. ‘However,’ she continued, finding her voice, ‘he does work in a hospital which has notices up saying TREAT WHITES FIRST. Apartheid is a wicked thing and we have to speak out against it.’ The women in tweed looked pained but Willow just adjusted her drapes around her and looked at them the way all patients would like their doctor to look when diagnosing an illness.
‘You are right,’ she said, ‘It is a dilemma. I am sympathetic.’ Her companions looked surprised but she continued. ‘However, what he has done is astonishing. We can applaud the deeds and hold back reservations about other things.’
‘Yes,’ interrupted Tweed 2 who had been simply pacing, uncertain whether to speak, ‘I don’t think you realise what he has achieved. You don’t know the full story. People can’t always say what they really think.’
‘I expect you believe that it only takes good men to stay silent for evil to thrive,’ Willow said giving them a quick, professional smile, which was not completely dismissive.
‘Or women.’ Suzy said.
‘Or women’, she repeated with an acknowledgement of a nod.
‘You would feel differently if someone in your family needed a transplant in the future,’ Tweed One asserted.
‘Well, they are idealists,’ Willow asserted, ‘The world needs idealists. What will you do now?’
‘Wait for him to come out.’
‘Well I hope he is not too long. You are very respectful protesters.’
She went to walk away but then turned back and added, ‘Good things can be done in the world, you know, by very flawed people.’ Then she turned away and the three of them returned to the foyer.
They all looked at each other for a moment and then Suzy shouted after the doctors, ‘We appreciate you coming out to speak to us.’
‘Why did you say that?’ Janice enquired. She looked slightly annoyed.
‘They didn’t have to come and they were sympathetic.’
‘I am not sure about that,’ Tom spluttered. ‘They were just curious.’
‘No,’ Suzy said, disappointed in her friends’ cynicism. ‘She was sincere.’
Suzy always preferred rational debate to shouting. Not so long ago, she had been on a demonstration against a right wing darling, Simon Powell. The crowd had been chanting ‘Disembowel Simon Powell’
‘No, no,’ she had shouted. ‘Don’t shout that.’ There had only been a handful of demonstrating students there, so they had heard her remonstrance, but chose to ignore her words. Dave Roberts, from the student’s union had come over and asked with amusement, ‘What should we shout?’
‘Change Powell’s agenda,’ Suzy suggested hesitantly. Dave Roberts was a large, rotund young man and he had thrown back his head and laughed good-naturedly. ‘It doesn’t have the same ring,’ he suggested. Suzy had to agree.
Powell had been ushered into a meeting and the shouting had continued.
‘I am sure he has heard worse,’ Janice had whispered.
Ten minutes after the doctors had returned to their convention, one of the waiters came out with red wine in three plastic cups and handed them to Suzy and her two friends.
‘One of the lady doctors inside asked me to bring you these. She thought you looked cold.’
They were cold and the protesters were starting to drift away.
‘Do you think we should drink it?’ Janice asked viewing the cups with a suspicious frown.
‘Why not?’ Tom drank his back quickly.
‘It feels as if we are supping with the devil,’ Janice asserted.
Suzy did not know what to think and held her cup uncertainly.
A chill wind was coming up the College Drive from the sea and stars twinkled like frost particles in the black dome of the sky.
‘We have to phone Marcus and arrange where we are meeting him,’ Janice said and added, ‘Can we leave our stuff here with you. We will be back soon.’
They wandered off, leaving Suzy to mind the placards and bags.
Guests who had come to hear the great man speak were swarming out of the building, outnumbering the scattered protestors who were disappearing into the night. The air was full of chat and laughter. It was very cold now and Suzy wondered why the phone call was taking so long. She wanted to leave but needed her friends to return for their bags. Placards could now be discarded.
Suzy was wondering if she could dump the placards in the bin and carry all the bags so as to go in search of her companions. It was then that a student, who was working as a steward for the night popped his head out and shouted, ‘He is going to leave around the back.’ Suzy looked around to see who had heard but his voice had been lost in the din of sociability caused by the exit of crowds from the building.
Without thinking and still clutching the wine in one hand and a placard in the other, Suzy sprinted to the back of the building, wondering if the message had been a true one. She ran with no thought of the bags, including her own, which she had left strewn on the ground. She ran as if pursued by the furies, and with her mind fixed on nothing but getting there on time to see the man exit.
It was a dark and lonely spot at the back of the building. She looked behind her and absolutely no one had paid attention to the shout. She was definitely on her own. She stood there on the steps, down which anyone leaving the building would need to tread. Cold and disheartened, she was about to return to the others when a car screeched to a halt and the doors opened. At the top of the steps a door of the building opened, letting out a ray of light, and a buzz of sound. The great man came down the steps flanked by a man and a woman. Even in that dark spot Suzy could see that the woman was Willow. She was confused and silent for a moment but Willow nodded to her as if to say yes that’s your job. She was aware of the great man’s well-cut suit and his eyes on her and then moving to her placard. She could tell that he was reading it but his face was impassive. She shouted something ineffectual like ‘Down with Racism’ but the door slammed and they were gone.
Suzy stood rooted for a moment. Her friends ran up just as the car sped away. They had picked up her bag and their own.
‘Why the hell did you run like that?’ Tom demanded. ‘We just saw you running. What happened?’
‘We followed your trail,’ Janice interrupted. ‘We thought you were sick or bleeding.’
Suzy looked at the empty cup in her hand and looked back seeing her tipped wine leaving dark spots on the walkway.
‘Did you see something?’ Tom asked scrutinising her.
Suzy moved her feet and started walking back.
‘What happened?’ Janice demanded.
‘Nothing,’ Suzy said quietly. Then she rounded on her friends, ‘What took you so long?’
‘What were you doing?’ Tom asked, unabashed.
‘Nothing,’ she answered. ‘Just standing here admonishing the night.’
Her friends looked as if they did not know whether to laugh or not. Janice took one arm and Tom the other. They started back with a cold wind off the sea in their faces and the sky a dark dome where even the stars had disappeared.
Jude Brigley is Welsh. She has been a teacher, an editor, a coach and a performance poet. She is now writing more for the page.