The Sisters Mao

Gavin McCrea


      A firework. A single explosion over the darkened Renault factory building, leaving a puff of grey smoke in the navy sky. The demonstrators, thinking it was the police firing, began to swing about themselves in panic. Álvaro drew straight lines in the air with the camera lens in search of the source. Max took Eva’s hand and squeezed it: Here we go. 
     Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! 
     Four more explosions in quick succession. The workers in the neighbouring factory building came to the windows. More bodies appeared on the roof. The marchers, now understanding that something was about to happen, turned towards the factory gates, peered through the railings, rose onto their toes to see over the heads in front. Around them a deep quiet gathered, one which threatened to last — ten seconds went by, twenty seconds — until it was excised by music coming from a hidden stack of loudspeakers, the volume slowly edging up. 
     Classical music.
     And up.
     And up.
     Sung by boys.
     Up and up: the music played in the darkness for a long minute. 
      The waiting made the students restless, and they began to heckle and jeer. A group of workers sitting on the ground outside the factory building began a football chant. 
     —What’s going on, Max? Eva said.
     —Shut up and watch, said Max.
     At a point when the music rose to a crescendo: light. A pair of projectors came to life.  The screens hanging on the front of the factory building glowed a brilliant white.
     The crowd cheered: something at last.
     The white turned to flashes of grey and brown, four-three-two- one, then two separate films began to play. On the left, images of bombs falling on Vietnam. On the right, a silent instructional video on how to build a Molotov cocktail. The juxtaposition evoked a predictably dual response. There was booing and hissing when an American bomb struck a peasant village, laughter and clapping when the homemade bomb was tested against a city wall.
     When the films simultaneously ended about three minutes later, to the applause of the crowd, the screens went black once more, the music changed to an unvarying mechanical beat, and a spotlight came on, illuminating the top of the building. A wooden structure in conical form, like a megaphone sitting on its lip, had been placed on the roof. Winding around the wall of the cone, from the bottom to its apex and back down, was a flight of steps. 
     A female figure emerged from the darkness to stand at the base of this structure. Her appearance prompted hooting and whistling from the workers, and laughing and booing from the students, for what they saw first, and what momentarily blinded them to the rest of her accoutrement, was the brown sacking she was wearing, which was tied by a rope diagonally between her breasts, leaving one of them uncovered. 
     —As I thought, said Eva.
     —Shh, said Max. Watch.
     As Doris came more fully into the light, the crowd’s focus moved away from her naked breast to the load she was carrying, and their heckles and their boos turned to gasps and shouts of alarm. Across her shoulder lay a metal pole of the kind used to construct scaffolding. Hanging from each end of the pole was a medium-sized car door: one plastered with the face of De Gaulle, the other with the face of Lyndon Johnson. At first Eva thought that the doors were props made of cardboard; the strain on Doris’s face and in the muscles of her limbs she presumed to be an act. But as Doris made her way towards the cone’s first step, her knees bending under the burden, her bare footfalls leaden and deliberate, Eva understood that the doors were real. The towel placed at the base of Doris’s neck was not just for show, it was there to protect her shoulders from the pressing weight of the bar. 
     —Are those doors from one of the factory’s cars? Eva said. 
     —No, said Max, unable to conceal his delight. Look at the rust. The broken windows. They’re from the barricades in town. 
     Doris passed in front of the cone in order to reach the steps on the opposite side. As she did so, the car door on the left end of the pole — De Gaulle — reached out over the edge of the roof. Eva held her breath. Were Doris to lose her grip, the door would plunge to the ground and probably bring her with it. 
     Doris mounted the first three steps quickly, then stopped. Took a breath which, even from this distance, could been seen to expand her belly. Puffing out her cheeks, she released it and took the next two steps. Paused again. The steps got narrower as they went up, so this was as far as she could go with the pole held as it was, perpendicularly in relation to the structure. By degrees, inch by inch, she twisted her body at the waist, anticlockwise towards her audience, until the pole was pointing in her direction of travel. Acting as a central balance, she pulled down on the pole’s left side in order to tilt its right side upwards, so that the forward-facing door was not hitting against the higher steps. Eva watched Doris undertake these manipulations with increasing distress. If she lost her footing, chances were she would tumble down to her death. 
     —She’s out of her fucking mind, she said.
     —Not at all, said Max. She’s the sanest person here.
     In this contorted pose, wincing against the strain, her forehead already wet with sweat, Doris climbed the final steps. The diameter of the platform at the top of the cone was no larger than that of a car wheel. She placed her right foot on it and waited. Only when she was sure she could complete the action did she bring her left foot up to meet the right. Standing on the summit now, she untwisted her body so that she was facing the crowd. The doors, attached by ropes to the pole, rocked slightly, requiring her to plant her feet, squat a little and hold still while they settled. 
     Half of the crowd cheered at Doris thus presented on her plinth. The other half, which by now had turned against her, taunted and jeered. 
     —What the fuck is this? a nearby Maoist cried. Decadence. Pornography. 
     —Art, Max said under his breath. The future of art. 
     Once her load had stabilised, Doris performed the twisting action in reverse in order to go down the steps on the other side of the cone. Descending was even more perilous because she had to resist the downward pull of the front car door. If she were to give in to it, even a little, it would rush to the earth and she would topple forwards after it. As she came down, she touched each step with her toes, as if testing the temperature of water, before trusting her foot to it. 
     In the time it took her to reach the base of the cone, those in the crowd who had not become hostile to her had lost interest in her. All around, people were returning to their little groups and their prior conversations. 
     —Is this all she’s going to do? said Eva, glancing around. 
     —Christ, Eva, said Max. Stop worrying about what other people think. 
     Once down on the roof, Doris paused once more, staring out into the light, her skin bright red and drenched. Eva felt the desire to climb up there and embrace her and sponge her head and say, You can come down now, it’s over. 
     But it was not over. Doris was making for the steps to climb them a second time.
     —Oh God, said Eva, she’s going again. 
     —Ahuhn, said Max.
     —Is she going to keeping going? 
     —For as long as she can, I think. 
     The group of workers who before had given a football chant were now shouting:
     —Get them off or get the fuck off.
     Some students began to throw bottles through the fence.
     Álvaro buzzed around the bottle-throwers, snapping pictures of their angry faces.
     —Why isn’t he shooting Doris? said Max. Doris is the one he should be getting.
     —He’s getting the audience. Aren’t they part of it?
     Max flapped his lips irritably:
     —He shouldn’t be flattering those idiots.
     From the loudspeakers the drumbeat continued to pound. Doris, on her second lap, tried to keep her steps in time with the beat, and mostly succeeded. But on her third lap, and her fourth, exhaustion forced her to let go of any idea of synchronicity and to follow her own disjointed rhythm. Now one foot forward; now, sometimes as long as a minute later, the other foot. 
     Eva looked at Max.
     —What’s she going to do if she loses her strength and can’t go on? Max bit the skin around his thumb:
     —I’ve no idea.
     —There’s no plan? 
     —In her work there’re just two things: the starting point and the performance. No rehearsals. No prescribed endings. 
     —But when will she know to stop?
     —She’ll stop when she’s stopped.
     —By us?
     —Or by her own limits. Whichever comes ff— 
     Shots fired into the air.
     What came, in the event, was the flics.
     They attacked at two points at once: from behind, in order to concentrate the crowd into the area immediately in front of the factory gates; and from the east, in order to scoop the crowd out of the square and into the streets to the west. There, the fleeing students were met by vans, which screeched out of the cross-streets and came to a halt across the road. A trap. 
     A wave passed through the crowd as the flics drove into its extremities. The bodies around Eva lurched forwards. In order not to be separated, she locked arms with Max and Cyril. 
     —Álvy! she screamed. I can’t see Álvy! 
     A violent surge ripped Cyril away. Max let go of Eva in order to push forward and grab him, leaving her alone, facing against the stream. A body slammed against her, sending her careening forward. So as not to fall and be trampled underfoot, she reached out, grabbed the army jacket of the boy in front, and dragged him to the ground. 
     —Don’t get arrested, Eva. They’ll deport you. And don’t go to the hospitals either. They check there too. 
     From behind, someone put her into a stranglehold and screamed senselessly in her ear. To free herself she bit into the bare skin of the forearm. Whirling round, she tried to make sense of what was happening. In a spot where the crowd had thinned out, she could see the flics charging, their capes flaring out behind them. Some of the students were running away, some were holding their ground. 
     Terrified, she fought through the crush laterally towards the fence. She could feel her shoes sink into flesh as she went. Gripping the bars, she looked up at the factory roof. 
     Doris had not stopped her performance. The spotlight was still on, and, as if nothing had changed, she was making her way up the steps of the cone. 
     —Doris! Eva yelled, but her voice was lost in the din.
     She raised herself up by standing on the fence’s low rung: 
     Out of breath — it was pointless — she put her back against the bars and searched the herd for Álvaro but could see him nowhere. The flics, armed with batons and bayonets and rifle-butts, were storming the marchers with a ferocity that she had not fully believed when she had read about it in the bulletins. They were charging indiscriminately into the students. Hurling them through the air. Battering them. As she watched, ten metres from where she stood, two seized a young girl, tore her skirt, and then jumped on her stomach and chest until she vomited blood.     
     —This is what you wanted, isn’t it, you bitch? they shouted as they did so. 
     To her left, a group of about fifteen students had linked arms to make a defensive line. The flics were kicking them and jabbing them in an effort to break the chain. The students appealed to the flics to back off, to join them, to behave as human beings. Enraged, the flics hit them around the head. Those that fell they dragged away to the vans. 
     She jumped off the fence and allowed the current to carry her towards the streets to the west. Ahead of her a small gang broke away, making for a second, quieter exit from the square, and she followed them. The flics, spotting them, launched gas grenades — Vietnam mace — into their path. Rather than double back, which risked their being caught, the gang decided to run through the smoke. She went with them. She covered her face with her jumper and breathed only through her mouth. Coughing and gagging, eyes streaming and mucus gushing across her cheeks, she ran. Hands outstretched, she bumped into people and trees, and was saved from tripping and falling by a boy who held her up by the jacket. 
     —Thank you, she said.
     And then:
     —Oh God sorry, for in righting herself she caused him to stumble. As she hurried on, she rubbed her eyes even though she knew she was not supposed to. The stinging became so intense that all she wanted was to sit down and put her jacket over her head and sob, as some others were doing. But she kept going. As she came out of the gas cloud, stepping over the fainting bodies, she saw through the blur in her eyes a boy waving a red flag, directing her into an open door. She lumbered towards it, under what felt like rain, but which was in fact water being thrown from the windows of the flats to clear the atmosphere. 
     —Go inside! the boy was shouting. Get in before we have to shut the door! 
     At the door, she leaned for a moment against the wall and dared to look around. Where the street met the square, yellow smoke. At the next intersection, a line of vans into which students were being pulled. On the other side of the street, Álvaro, yes, it was him, being beaten. His head was seized, his neck twisted. He was being hit on the head and in the stomach. Blood poured from his mouth and nose. 
     —Shame! she began to scream. Shame! Shame! 
     She pushed herself off the wall and began to run in Álvaro’s direction, but in that moment a line of flics emerged from the smoke, charging up the street, and the boy with the red flag hooked her arm and pulled her inside. 
     —My boyfriend, she yelled. That’s my boyfriend! as she let herself be taken. 

The Sisters Mao Gavin McCrea