The Event – a short story
Arthur Tillotson squirms trussed and gagged in the centre of a huge circle of red-robed young women. Most of their pretty faces show fear, a few anger, a very few pity; all of them show resolution. They have removed their wide-brimmed bonnets but kept on their little white caps.
A voice announces, “Girls, this man is a convicted felon. The penalty is death. When I give the signal, go for him! What you do to him, how you do it, is up to you.”
Arthur awakes trembling, drenched in sweat. No, he tells himself, I am not in The Handmaid’s Tale. I will be all right. I will survive. And anyway, a TV programme can’t give you post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Event is scheduled for 2.30 p.m. on Monday afternoon. Today, Sunday, he works on his fifteen-minute talk, a sample of what he could do in forty minutes if they invited him. First, he types the whole thing out. Next, he reduces it to prompts on old-fashioned index cards. Then he practises with the oven timer so as to fit their time limit exactly, allowing a couple of thirty-second pauses in case they laugh at the funny bits (oh, how he hopes they will!).
But Arthur’s rehearsals are interrupted again and again by flashbacks to that awful scene. No sooner has he said “I’m going to talk to you about my latest novel “Gone Boy …” than his words are swamped by the terrifying boss-woman’s voice in his head, “What you do to him is up to you.” Red and white blobs swim before his eyes, blocking out the prompts on his little cards, and he hears the swish of dresses coming closer and the yells of murderous females.
And now it is 2.25 p.m. on Monday. They are assembled. Not in a circle, thank heavens, but in rows and rows – the Organiser said there would be over a hundred of them. Unlike the Handmaids, they are not silent – they twitter like a huge flock of starlings and there is the odd scary clink of teacup on saucer. They are not in red – or at least, very few of them are. They are older, mostly plumper, in pleasant church-going-type outfits, and they have kind faces. But in their bare hands they hold sheets of paper with tick-boxes on them. What they put on those papers will decide his fate.
Arthur leans against the table, his little cards piled before him, copies of Gone Boy in a neat line in front. He takes a sip of water, clears his throat, wipes sweaty hands on his new fawn trousers, and smiles insincerely at his audience. The Organiser begins her introduction.
Suddenly the Hall is enveloped in a horrible red fog punctuated with swarms of white blobs.
“… is up to you,” the Organiser concludes. And so begins The Corrsett Federation of Women’s Institutes audition of candidates for their Approved Speakers List. It isn’t looking good for Arthur Tillotson.