Coffee is most bitter in the evenings. Something to do with the accumulation of taste throughout the day; it has more to surmount. I’d spilled a hefty splosh on the table, covering part of the newspaper that had been left behind by some citizen or other. I allowed myself a glance at the drowned picture beneath. Oh, how he smiles all over all of the the covers. And see how he holds up his benevolent hands in…what? Protest? To show them empty?
As I began to stem the flow of the brown liquid, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, through the partly-steamed glass of the coffee boutique window, a wretched old man hobbling at speed through the snow. He was being hounded by three boys, each of them was, perhaps, seventeen years of age. They threw stones at him and their ferocious jeers were audible even through the thick glass. One of them had a fence post and was swiping at the old man’s limbs.
Why, I wondered, was I not compelled to rise? To go to the door of the coffee boutique and shout, until my lungs were raw, for them to stop? Not for the sake of the feckless old devil. But for them. These boys. Their own young skins. Perhaps this, too, would be considered aggressive. Or perhaps I feared their reaction. Either way, I pretended to be oblivious. I did nothing.
I glanced at the wall. The telepanel was illuminated suddenly and there he stood. Our glorious Minister. Those hands. What is it about them? More messages of joy and of hope. More changes ringing out. His speech overflowing with lightness; his unshakable mood babbling pleasantly over the airwaves. More sanctions for wicked acts. Fines for spitting in the street. Floggings for unkind words to siblings. The panel faded to darkness again; it hummed navy blue.
The Charity Roster was released earlier that same evening and people had been avoiding Non-Givers like they were burdened with plague. Like their absence of generosity might leak out them and implicate the philanthropic-of-heart with their selfishness. I was in the Boutique to hide, for the day had burdened me heavily.
I saw them arrive, outside. In their brilliant red uniforms. They approached the boys. The beggar, now lying on the floor, was trampled. And there was still more red. But! “the greater good for the greatest number”. Their weapons were raised and they rained down blow on the youths before dragging them, half-dead, through the snow; leaving a clotting memory behind them.
“This new rule will spell the end of the dreadful cruelties to which we subject our fellow men. It will insist upon decency and good will in all. Enforced kindness; the obligation to love.”
I’d already seen six of my colleagues carted away, shouting the names of their husbands and wives and children.
The telepanel pinged on again and the Minister’s gentle eyes blazed through me. There was a tap on the window. I drained my coffee, stood, left no tip.