The Chain Gang

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

In the distance, a bevy of snare drums beat a harsh and unrelenting tattoo.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

The crowd of onlookers pushed forward against the barrier in front of the pothole-ridden road, each excited breath forming a wisp of water vapour in the crisp, clear winter air.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Two children darted among the forest of legs, trying to get a better view of the spectacle that was to come, their enthusiastic shouts piercing through the cold above the sharp and ever-approaching beat of the drums.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

A dead-eyed soldier watched the crowd carefully, pacing back and forth in heavy boots, her rifle angled towards the ground.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Then the grim procession began to come into view. A stern-faced officer goose-stepped at its head, a row of medals on chest, glinting in the low, pale Sun against the dark-green wool of his dress uniform. The tassels on his epaulettes swung in time to the beats of his brightly-polished boots against the rough tarmac.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

Next came the drummers, in a perfect row, each in an identical, maroon beret. The sticks became a blur, vibrating in that beat that just kept going and going.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

It was only then that I saw the prisoners. Each shaven head, bruised and bloody, staring at the manacled feet of the next. They shuffled steadily forwards, occasionally prodded back into line by a rifle-butt.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

And a murmur spread among the crowd, growing to a roar, and becoming a low, steady boo. An incomprehensible shout pierced the monotone every few seconds. Coherence was soon lost, and the air began to writhe with jeers and shrieks and rotting projectiles, as the pathetic chain-gang passed, headed for the train that would take them away to the far-flung North.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

One of the wretched train glanced up, away from the shabby road surface, before catching the eye of one of the ever-vigilant guards and fixing his eyes sheepishly on the ground once more. But in that moment, that one, fleeting moment, I saw, among his gaunt and emaciated features, his eyes. Startling, bright-green eyes.

I had seen those eyes before. You would never forget eyes like that. I couldn’t quite pin down what it was about them, but there was something extraordinary.

I had seen them before, on a wet April afternoon, just outside the station. He had been muttering something. Nobody caught what it was that he said, but that was beside the point. He had breached Protocol.

Within seconds, he was lying on the shiny-wet flagstones with a black boot on his back and blood pouring out of his nose. As he was dragged away, silent, accepting a terrible fate that he must have known, accepting the prospect of suffering that I could not imagine, that was the moment I noticed the eyes.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

And now he was heading back to the station, back to the place where his life had disappeared forever, then to the wild and distant North.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN!”

The others would have been similar. Maybe they had taken too long to answer questions. Maybe they had admitted to an attraction that had turned out not to be reciprocated. Maybe they had greeted somebody who they had not known well enough. Anyway, they were Enemies of Society and had to be removed.

“taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tararataTANTAN! taraTAN taraTAN tara…”

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