In the Crowd
by Gergely Berces
Standing in the rocking, crowded bus, Jason felt as he often did, as if he were in a hall of mirrors. There were people of many different backgrounds around him, of varying ages, genders, skin colours and most of all, beliefs. In spite of all the diversity on display in the bus, Jason could not tell where he ended and began; whether he was contained within the flesh sprouting from his bones or cast into the moulds of the figures around him. But neither could anyone else.
It was a day of school like any other. Jason and his best friend, Fred, were travelling together as they so often did, having been brought up together in the same compound since the age of seven. They even looked alike except for Jason’s deep, brown, brooding eyes, while Fred had lively ones of a colour so ambiguous that people often said it made them think of a rainbow.
“We should play football again after classes,” Fred suggested.
“Are we sure we want to do that?” replied Jason.
“Of course, we all loved it yesterday.”
Jason in fact did not and had hated football all his life, but he failed to find the words to express this. First-person pronouns did not exist in the vocabulary of Freespeak, and it was taboo to express negative emotions towards anyone or anything, while excessive use of derogatory comments could even be deemed Hate Speech, the only capital crime in the legislation of the neo-free world order. For a moment, he felt sullen but then quickly accepted the situation, dutifully understanding the importance of keeping an open mind about all things, just as he had been taught since his induction into the Crowd at the age of seven.
“What did we do after football yesterday anyway?” inquired Fred, referring to Jason’s sudden disappearance after the game finished but lacking the correct words.
“Oh, nothing much,” answered the boy, still reeling from a pang of sullenness. In truth he had run off to be alone, shutting himself in a bathroom for respite. He wanted to express what he felt, what it was like to be alone with oneself as the only companion but, as always, Jason failed to find the words.
Did others ever feel the same way he did, he wondered. Fred and all his classmates never suggested they did, always agreeing with one another on everything, as if their mood was just the derivative of the others’ emotions.
Was he really different from others, Jason asked himself. Of course he was, that was what he had been drilled to believe in school, that all were distinct and special, and that it was the unique features of each and everyone that made the Crowd so uniform a body held together by the ropes of tolerance. More and more frequently however, Jason felt himself to be apart from the Crowd; still in it physically but spiritually segregated, the feeling of being merely a reflection of the surroundings becoming ever more seldom an experience.
All the while Jason was lost in his thoughts, Fred had been speaking about what we had done and how amazing we had felt, but the pensive boy paid no heed.
What did suddenly pull Jason out of his reverie was not the incessant droning of conversation around him, his friends’ words somehow sounding like echoes of others’, but a shrill shriek and the panicked silence that followed.
The scream was duly accompanied by a thud on the bus floor as an elderly woman fell from her seat, beset by terrible convulsions. Franticly beating her lungs in desperation, as if in an effort to force them to function properly, the old woman kept on gasping for air in vain until she finally collapsed, paralysed.
While the poor woman was dying, nobody did anything, feeling as if they themselves were dying alongside her. Even Jason could not help reciprocating the paralysis that engulfed the entire crowd on the bus.
Recovering, somebody suggested in an indecisive voice, hollow from terror, that they use the defibrillators, whereupon everybody made a dash for the life-saving devices, only to halt abruptly in deference to one another, individual responsibility overcome by collective normalcy.
Then, when the woman’s heart had stopped beating, a sigh left the lips of everyone, the crowd breathing a breath of sorrow, but also a breath of relief at still existing despite the demise of one of its members.
A bearded man with dyed hair standing next to Fred, wearing ripped jeans and sandals, was the first to shed tears, which were promptly mimicked by Fred, and eventually all on the bus except for one: Jason.
Arriving at its final destination at a metro station, the passengers unloaded, drenched by tears, begetting more sorrow on nearby pedestrians and traffic operators, who were fittingly shaken by the cries of “Oh, how sad we are” and “imagine the horror that we have witnessed.”
By the time Jason and Fred boarded the metro, the collective anguish was more muted, in accordance with the tendency of social currents to dissipate with increased circulation. Jason was still shaken though, and angry as well. Angry and disappointed for not having been able to take the initiative and act on his own to save a fellow human being and failing to have overcome the trivial sentimentality of the crowd.
Jason also felt the flush of an emotion so far alien to him in its intensity. Loneliness, was the boy’s first thought, but no, not quite. Solitude rather, for loneliness pertained to a lack of something, an emptiness, and that was not what he was feeling. Instead Jason felt something akin to fullness, inflating and lifting him above the crowd, like a hot air balloon, to a place where he stood apart.
Realisation dawned. It was now he felt truly unique. The compulsion to identify with everyone else was gone, having flown past like a black cloud giving way to the sun. Jason had never felt better or freer before, and wished everyone could feel like him. He pitied Fred and the others who were compelled by some force to identify with every race, gender, ideology, opinion and thought. He wanted to scream at them for enslaving themselves to a collective alien as its parts. At the last moment, some primordial wisdom or fear prompted him to think better of it, though.
* * *
After a trip of sullen silence, the two friends reached the stop where they needed to get off. Walking the short distance from the stop to school, Fred wanted to bring up some topic of conversation but, seeing the sombre look on his friend’s face, he took the cue and, remaining silent, assumed a sad expression himself.
The pair arrived just in time to join the rest of the school in the school yard for the customary hoisting of the rainbow stripes and miscellaneous insignias flag to the sound of the anthem that was performed every morning.
As Jason sang the anthem along with the rest of the students and teachers, for the first time in his life, he wondered about its meaning. As his lips formed unintelligible words upon unintelligible words, he concluded that the real question was not its meaning, but whether it had any to start with.
Supposedly, so as not to offend anyone and be as tolerant as possible, the anthem had a word from every single language, dead, vernacular, or synthetic, which were thatched together in a combination of every type of verse ever invented.
Roughly half an hour of singing later, as the rainbow flag with its insignias and motto of “uniform in identity” blew in the wind, the morning ceremony finished, signalling the start of the first lesson of the day.
Jason’s first class was mathematics, his favourite due to its cold, unquestionable logic. Unfortunately for Jason, most of this school year was focused on the so-called theory of natural sciences, revolving mostly around their critique.
The teacher was Schwartz. Titles such as ‘Mr’ had gone out of fashion, being deemed discriminatory against rank, gender and age; instead “Teacher” was used. Teacher Schwartz elaborated on the ideas of last class, calling into question the quantification of everything and explaining how the application of mathematical reasoning and formulas lead to discrimination and marginalization.
“Our fluctuating aptitude toward mathematics aside,” Teacher Schwartz addressed the class, “the subject still remains one of the most discriminative tools and areas of study due to its tendency to call culture, traditional reason and common sense into question. For proof, we need to look no further than the very basic human faculty of communication, and its means; language.
“Several languages, for example those spoken by the native inhabitants of Australia or the Amazon, do not express numbers, retaining only the words for the expression of one, and more than one.”
Hearing teacher Schwartz’s argument, the class was baffled, with many feeling ashamed of themselves for thinking highly of mathematics before, considering its logic infallible before the arbiters of tolerance and discrimination.
“As we have concluded in the fields of psychology and sociology,” continued teacher Schwartz, hammering home his argument, “the value of cultures is immeasurable and always equal when compared to one another. When re-evaluated on this premise, mathematics is revealed to be highly discriminatory, as it fails to acknowledge the uniform value of distinct cultures, hence we apply the term uni-cultural science to mathematics as it favours certain modes of thinking over others.”
This inflamed the classroom, with many resolving to reform mathematics in a way that it did not use numbers, so that it may be as tolerant and unbiased as the global, free society that used it in everyday life. Only one person was perplexed about a world without numbers: Jason, who could hardly believe the mass delusion unfolding before his eyes.
It is not culture that allows the tallest of skyscrapers to rise to the heavens or holds the most modest of roofs firm, but mathematical calculations, products of our reasoning mind, Jason thought and wanted to scream at teacher Schwartz. But he contained his anguished disapproval, knowing that the reasoning of one stood no chance against the hysteria of the many.
When the bell finally rang for the end of class, Jason clambered out of the classroom, as desperate to get out as only a drowning man can be for air. Rushing to the bathroom he locked himself in, finding respite in solitude where he could be away from the crowd, whose influence felt like the icy seas around a shipwrecked sailor, threatening to swallow him up and forever pull him into a deep blue oblivion. There he stayed until the bell rang again, at which Jason walked bitterly to his next lesson, language class.
Copyright © 2017 by Gergely Berces