Choose Love

Chris O’Dowd, star of Bridesmaids and the IT Crowd, walked along the South Bank in his ‘Choose Love’ t-shirt.  The letters on the t-shirt were big, blocky, capital black letters.  He had been wearing this t-shirt for the last three months, washing it in the evenings, and hanging it to dry on the balcony of his apartment.  He glanced up at the fresh blue sky, and down at the brown Thames.  No boats sailed today.  He stopped by a bench and felt in his back pocket for tobacco that he didn’t have.

He instinctively put his hand to his phone. It was there, but it was sterile, impotent – connected only to the switchboard or whatever it was called nowadays.  No internet whatsoever.  

‘Jesus,’ he muttered.  

For all that there were new challenges every day, in this, the third month of whatever this was, the overwhelming feeling was undeniably one of boredom.  The first few weeks had been halcyon: parties in basements; plays in attics; pop up bands by the river.  But now everything felt ropey, inert.  

On the other side of the path, David Bowie’s son was passing, going the other way.  Chris tipped an imaginary hat to him.  David Bowie’s son was also wearing a ‘Choose Love’ T-shirt.  

‘A drink,’ thought Chris.  ‘That’s what I’ll do.  I’ll have a drink.’

There weren’t enough staff to go round all of the cafes and restaurants, so a lot of them were closed.  Grilles that Chris didn’t know that these establishments had were pulled down, smothered with pieces of A4 paper flapping in the breeze, scrawled with messages: ‘Closed until further notice’, ‘Fuck you USA, we are closed today’, ‘Live Well’.

Chris nodded to Lindsay Lohan who was sitting outside one of the few open restaurants.  She had got caught here on a press trip. It would have looked bad to have left before the lockdown, and she couldn’t get out now. She was wearing a ‘Choose Love’ T-shirt.  They all were.  Every single person on the South Bank on this Monday afternoon was wearing a ‘Choose Love’ t-shirt. Choose Love. Choose Love. Choose Love.

A small cafe he had never noticed before was full.  Chris grabbed a seat at a table with the only person he could see with a newspaper. 

He contemplated ordering a coffee.  I’ll have a tea, he thought.  The coffee will start to run out soon, I would think.  

Chris skimmed the front page of the newspaper.  There was nothing now, no mention of them.  The first ten weeks had been solid front-page splashes – in every paper.  The very first front page was framed on his wall at home:

LONDON SHUTDOWN BEGINS:

CELEBS HOLD TIGHT AS LONDON BECOMES REFUGEE ZONE FOR THE WEST

There hadn’t been a picture of him – some of the bigger stars had been chosen. Pictures of Derek Jacobi on the famous call to Trump.  And Maxine Peake with a sombre look of defiance, pictured standing by as they locked the enormous gate. 

Four weeks in, Chris had been featured, giving a thumbs up and grinning to the camera – a shot taken not too far from where he sat now. 

O’DOWD DEFIANT AS STORIES OF INFIGHTING IN RULING COMMITTEE ABOUND 

But today’s front page story was about Russia, and the inset was a picture of a key lime pie with the promise of a recipe inside.

Fuck. Fuck them he thought. They’ve forgotten us.  He knew it shouldn’t matter.  They were wrong.  We were right.  We had Chosen Love.  He ordered a tea.  In a mug.

He had run out of things to think about during this walk.  The dog would have provided some entertainment, but dogs weren’t allowed anymore, not here, not in the… For fuck’s sake!  Why hadn’t the naming thing worked out?  The meeting had been a disaster.  The Committee had debated for five and a half hours.  It had been agonising.  Initially, the meeting had been planned to take place in Caitlin Moran’s loft space.  But a pigeon had got in through a skylight and was out of control.  Then the meeting had moved to Mark Gatiss’ basement complex.  But he had had a plumbing emergency while everyone was on their way across town.  So in the end, they had to meet in a pub in Soho.  The landlord had been very accommodating and agreed to close up for the afternoon.  

By the time they all arrived, everyone was worn out and crotchety.  Lily Allen had a face on her like a furious badger.  And Ellie Goulding scowled for the full five hours. Only Dara O’Briain had managed to stay in good spirits.  

‘How about the T-Zone?’ he had lisped, gamely, after the first hour of the meeting.  ‘You know, like the bit where all the nasty blackheads gather when you’re a teenager.  You know what I’m talking about, don’t you Ed?’

Ed Sheeran was sitting meekly at a different table and had for some reason brought his guitar along with him to the committee meeting.

There were of course those who had decided not to stay.  Daniel Radcliffe was in Manhattan – he posted on his Instagram that he had tickets lined up to be with family in Northern Ireland if things got rough, but he didn’t feel London was the place for him at this point in his career.  And everyone was really shocked when Thom Yorke left Oxford for Fort Severn, Ontario, with no explanation.  All people knew was that he had taken his kids and that his house was still full of stuff.

There were also those who everyone knew were just there by accident.  Benedict, everyone knew, had been trapped there while attending the funeral of a family friend.  He came to all the meetings and pretended to be into it, but everyone could see how uncomfortable and unwilling he was beneath it all.  

And of course, there were a few that everyone wished hadn’t stayed.  Jimmy Carr had been ostentatiously ignored by all at the committee meeting, and they had kept the whole thing secret from Allan Davies, even though he had had ‘Choose Love’ tattooed onto his knuckles.

 Chris walked again and looped across the river.  Near St Paul’s he could hear a loud hailer, and the sound of a crowd.  He sloped down by the side of the Cathedral, until, on the front steps, he could see Mark Thomas standing and addressing a small, enraptured crowd.  

‘We stand in defiance.  We speak with, not for, the refugees.  We serve them with our defiance.  We are liberated! And we will keep using our skills, our voices, to show that we are forging a new world!’

At that moment, heads turned as Gillian Anderson jogged past, lifting small weights up and down in time to her run.  

Good God, Mark didn’t learn anything from the last meeting thought Chris.  Two months after the committee failed to pick a name for whatever this was, they had met again, this time to discuss the Benefit Concert.  

‘We really would need to involve agents, I think’ said Ellie Goulding.  ‘It could be tough for us to figure out just as a committee.’

They were at Rhys Ifans’ place in Notting Hill.  Everyone was a little edgy as his cleaner had chosen to leave a few weeks before and there was no clean crockery, and no clean glasses.  The only thing that was safe to drink was beer from the bottle, which was in abundance, so everyone was becoming tipsy.  Sadie Frost pouted and fingered the sobriety coin that hung from a platinum chain round her neck.  

Sandi Toksvig huffed.

‘What is it Sandy? If you’ve got something to say, we’d rather you just said it,’ Katherine Ryan barked out.

‘Well, it’s just, I mean, it’s obvious.  Who are we going to be doing the benefit for?  I mean, it’s not on the top ten list of things that the Refugee Steering Group is asking for, is it?’

Silence sparked between them all.  

‘I’m not sure if there are enough sound guys around, to be honest,’ said Alex James.

The meeting broke up soon after, with many other sensible, technical reasons having been given for not having a benefit concert.

He was getting tired.  He reached in his pocket for his tobacco.  Still nothing.  A song was in his head:

Oh sad was the day when I went far away

to work amongst timber and concrete…

He turned his back on Mark Thomas and slunk back along the river towards home, the song still going:

…as I made me a plan for to follow life’s span

I forsook the dear place of my homeland

If God grants me grace I’ll return to the place

when the twilight of life has come o’er me

as I stand on your shores like a bird my heart soars

as I gaze on the beauty around me.

‘Choose Love’, read at Stroud Short Stories
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