The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
“Gramps, what does free speech mean?”
Andrew was startled by such a forthright question coming from his 14 year old grandson. It wasn’t a subject covered in school and he wondered where the boy had heard about such a dangerous topic.
“What makes you ask that Tommy?
“Well, last week when I was staying with my other grandfather, Dad and I were helping him tidy up the wine cellar. There was a lot of junk there and in a smelly box I found some newspapers, all yellow and really ancient,” said Tommy.
“Hey Gramps, look at that lizard!”
Tommy had spotted a small goanna about half a metre in length warming itself on a rocky outcrop by the side of the track, its scaly skin an amazing pattern of black and white spots and stripes. They stopped to admire the reptile, keeping at a safe distance before resuming their walk and Tommy continued with his story.
“The first paper said free speech is dead and another that the government has outlawed free speech. What does that mean?”
“Why didn’t you ask your father or Pops?”
“I didn’t dare,” Tommy replied. “Pops had an angry look on his face, and before I could read any more he grabbed the newspapers. I think he took the bundle outside and burnt it.”
Andrew was silent, unsure how to reply, but grateful the question had been asked during their walk around the lake; their only witness a solitary kookaburra laughing from somewhere in the trees. He had forgotten about the freedom of his youth, the power of the written word and the ability of people to comment for or against government policy. Slowly but surely, those rights had been eroded; finally made illegal by a government desperate for control and eager to create the new order.
“Are you okay Gramps?” Tommy asked, worried by the strange expression on his grandfather’s face.
“Tommy, promise me you will forget you ever saw the old newspapers; and never repeat the words printed on the page. That is something we must never talk about again.”
This wasn’t sufficient for an inquisitive young boy and he persisted with his questions. His grandfather’s unwillingness to talk about the subject made him more determined to seek an answer. Tommy’s constant barrage of questions finally drove Andrew to surrender, and he reluctantly agreed to explain the background to the newspaper story.
“Before I start, it is very important you understand what I said earlier. You are never to repeat our conversation to anyone. If the authorities find out, the secret police will arrest us; they’ll take you from your mother and father, and put me in goal. Is that clear Tommy?”
He nodded his agreement, eager to know what it was that had affected his grandfather in such a dramatic way.
Andrew nervously looked around him. There were no other hikers to overhear, but the listening devices could be in the trees or beneath the rocks; you never knew who was spying on you, or listening to your thoughts. He decided it was better to keep walking than to remain in one spot. The day was perfect; typical of late autumn, a warm sun in a cloudless blue sky and a gentle wind moving the silvery leaves of the eucalypt trees. Perhaps it would be okay just this once. There would never be another occasion, it wasn’t safe.
Free speech was a dangerous subject, discussion was not permitted, but what was he to do. Tommy was an intelligent lad and top of his class at school. He had always been very curious about life in the 1990s and the early years of 21st century, surely he could answer the boy’s questions. It was between himself and his grandson; he wasn’t giving a public lecture, but it was still illegal. He knew his daughter’s father-in-law had been a history professor but never dreamt he had kept forbidden reminders of the past.
Andrew cast his mind back 30 years ago to the day when a piece of legislation changed the lives of every citizen. He recalled his fear as the news of the statute spread like wildfire throughout the university. His words needed to be cautious, carefully chosen; he hoped they would sound like a chronicle from the past, and not his own thoughts which he had kept hidden in the deep recesses of his consciousness.
He told Tommy the government declared free speech illegal in 2020. Citizens could no longer comment on government plans, policies, or another individual for that matter. Even reviewing a work of art could land you in goal. There were bugs everywhere; the new law terrified people. If you heard someone speak out against the government you were required to report them. Even old trusted friends could be agents of the state.
The changes happened so easily; a subtle and clever transformation from a free society to one controlled by the government. Andrew never mentioned his own part in the protests or the secret meetings he organised at the university. Admitting his involvement to Tommy was a risk. He wouldn’t like to think his grandson would say something inadvertently; but children can be so careless, they do it without thinking.
“Gee, is that what happened!” Tommy remarked when his grandfather had finished telling him. “No wonder Pops was angry when I found the papers.”
Andrew again made his grandson promise never to reveal their conversation to anyone, even his parents. This was their secret to be shared with no one.
Their hike had taken them to the northern part of the lake and the highest point of the walking track. Tommy reached for his bottle of water attached to a loop on his belt and asked his grandfather if they could stop. He was thirsty and hungry. With all the questions earlier in the day Andrew had forgotten about food and was glad to be reminded. He found a grassy patch where they could eat the crusty bread rolls, cheese and fruit his daughter had packed for their lunch, and relax before the long walk home.
The afternoon air began to cool but walking at a brisk pace it was hardly noticeable. By the time they reached the farmhouse it was almost 4pm. Andrew was surprised to find two official looking black cars parked in front of the house. As he opened the door, four men in dark suits greeted him.
“Professor, the Inspector wishes to speak with you over a matter of grave concern,” said a big man with huge arms and hands. He poked Andrew in the chest as he added nastily, “I suggest you come with us for a chat.”
“Why should I go with you, I’ve done nothing wrong!”
“That is for the Inspector to decide. It has come to our attention your thoughts are not in line with party policy,” replied the hefty bully, his tone gruff and demanding.
Andrew’s daughter and son-in-law were unable to comprehend what had taken place. They looked on bewildered as he was escorted from the house by two of the security agents. At the same time, 12 kilometres away at the lodge owned by Tommy’s other grandfather, a similar scene was taking place as Pops was arrested.
As Andrew reached the car he looked back at his family waiting on the terrace. He stared helplessly as another agent approached Tommy, who was standing a short distance from his parents. Terrified for his grandson’s safety, he was about to call out when he heard the unimaginable.
“Comrade Master Thomas, you have done well. The party is proud of you. The loyalty you have shown is an admirable quality in someone of your youth. I can assure you, there is a great future for you in the new world order.”
© Margaret Clapham October 2011
See also Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Old Man and the Boy
Jack Marley wiped the small blobs of shaving cream from his face. The image that stared out of the foggy mirror was someone he didn’t want to know