Liberty, Day One
Immediately after they overthrew the government, the people gathered outside the Tower. Within, filed and cross-referenced, were recordings of all the telephone calls made and received in the nation over the last twenty-three years.
Many were there to hear the voices of the dead. The ones in suits were after proof of insider trading and industrial espionage. Their confidence contrasted with those uncertain if long-ago entreaties of love had ever really been spoken to them, or merely imagined. Some worked for gossip columns, others were respected journalists. The gossip columnists had more expensive pens. One of the men was searching for his voice – he had lost it halfway through a phone call to his hairstylist. A woman was hoping to find her grandmother’s recipe for pickled bananas, the only cure for a lisp. A surprising number of the deaf turned up, as did freshly-shaved hermits from the mountain-tops. Thousands wanted to hear those final heartbreaking calls from the sailors stranded on the melting ice floe. There were thieves and speculators, too, of course. And seven inmates from the psychiatric hospital who swore raspy-voiced angels had phoned them in their youth.
Who should enter the tower first? Arguments broke out. Then, physical fights.
A woman dressed entirely in black said, ‘Seconds before he died, my fiancé called me to say, ‘You know you’re beautiful.’ Or perhaps he said, ‘You know, you’re beautiful.’’
Twenty-three years of tyranny had taught everyone there the price exacted when words separate from meaning. The crowds parted in silence as though they were two clauses of a sentence and the woman was a comma dividing them, turning their nature from accusatory to devoted.
Really, she was there to destroy an incriminating recording. There’s very little that twenty-three years of tyranny won’t teach you.
Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, including ‘Burnt Shadows’ which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into over 20 languages. She has also written a work of non-fiction, ‘Offence: The Muslim Case’. A trustee of Free Word and English Pen, she grew up in Karachi and now lives in London.