Flash story

They Told My Friend

This flash story was originally published by Bandit Fiction on 05 September, 2021.

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They told my friend: “Stop washing your face.”

Daniel kept the cleanest face at school – before our mums pulled us out to work. He’d been a good student; he was saddened. Then he laughed and fell to fieldwork. 

Daniel did nothing half-heartedly. That was the problem.

I mended Daniel’s only pair of shorts which he tore climbing pines – so his mum wouldn’t scold. Daniel washed my second-best shirt which I blackened playing Redbeard – so my dad wouldn’t belt me.

Daniel kept the whitest linen at the factory – where we laboured together, one Christmas to next Michaelmas. Then MacArthur made Daniel supervisor.

Encouraged, Daniel began saving to go back to school.

When she turned 25, my sister came home. Martha had been a lady’s maid.

Daniel asked leave to court Martha. “Yes!” I said.

They became betrothed. Daniel earmarked his savings for a cottage. Two little rooms, but looking out across the river.

“And school?” I teased.

“First the cottage, Adam,” replied Daniel. “The wedding. A bairn or two. Then school!”

As he’d laboured at school, at plough, at furnace – Daniel laboured now as supervisor. MacArthur made Daniel foreman.

Every evening Daniel washed the metal-dust, gear-grease, coal-soot off his face. Twice a week he came calling on Martha. Linen white. Hat in hand. A hat old and well-brushed. 

Sundays we attended church. 

Martha, serving with fine city-folk, had ceased to believe. 

We had all ceased to believe. But we agreed never to cease to hope.

The union-leaders sauntered into the factories. Men with unshaved chins and unwashed smells. Odd, I thought. Razors are cheap now. The public bathhouse has hot water now. 

Voices rasping, eyebrows beetling, they declared: “This is it. Your lives shall be ever foul. You think yourselves valuable. Cogs in the machine. But when one of you falls, ten spring from the dirt in your place. What They owe you, They shall never give you.”

“God sustains the meek!” sang Daniel.

We workers laughed. The union-leaders stayed stony-faced.

“There is no God,” they declared. “You sustain yourselves. There is no Providence, to whom you’re paying your dues, who shall repay you with interest.”

“Some men rise,” objected Daniel, “from rags to riches.”

“But,” they declared, “for one such, a hundred thousand live short, grey lives. They parade before you these rags-to-riches puppet-men. So that you masses will toil on, in false hope.”

“You can’t call us the unwashed masses!” laughed Daniel.

“True. We don’t wash. We pretend before our fellow-sufferers no pride. No hope that tomorrow we shall be free. Our unwashed faces we hold high. Looking the world bleakly in the eye.”

“There’s no hope,” they declared. “So stop washing your faces… And come attend our meetings. We’re planning The Revolution. There lies our one hope.”

We jeered. They left. We laughed. 

Daniel laughed, too. Later, Daniel was thoughtful.

As a child, after a fit of laughing, Daniel would wipe his eyes, sit and think. After an argument – which he’d won – he’d sit and think.

That was the problem.

Daniel attended their meetings. “Fun, is it?” I teased.

“Brother, they speak harshly. But they speak truth,” they declare. “Your owners starve you.”

“Owners! Employers, you mean. We’re no serfs.”

“You call yourselves free men. Are you? Your owners feed you just enough to work tomorrow. Your owners give you, every evening, one hour of leisure. Even that you find unbearable. For one endless hour you struggle to forget yourselves. Then you sink into a sleep like death,” they declare. 

“Brother, do they say wrong?”

“Perdition to them. Come, that’s church-bells.”

“No, brother. I have another union-meeting.”

Martha was pleased when Daniel stopped attending church. 

Martha wasn’t pleased when, on their rambles over the heath, Daniel fell quiet. “Why so hang-headed?” she teased. “Nothing to say?”

“Nothing,” he replied, courteous as ever. “That would interest you, sister.”

“Sister!” she mocked. “And I your betrothed!”

At work, too, Daniel fell quiet. But he worked punctiliously still. MacArthur offered to send Daniel to night-school, to polish his arithmetic. Then MacArthur said he’d make Daniel clerk.

“I want no charity,” Daniel replied, courteously still. “Not when you withhold from us all the due value of our labour.”

“As you please,” said MacArthur. “Resume your post – and wash your face.”

“No,” said Daniel, gently, as to a baby. “It’s the dust from your sheet-metal, the grease from your gears, the soot from your furnaces, that dirties my face. I wear on my face the truth of my work. To wash my face is to deny my life.”

“Get away!” snapped MacArthur. “Perdition to you.”

Daniel kept his job. Our fellows teased him about his unwashed face, his gloomy rhetoric. Then they avoided him.

Martha begged off her betrothal. I was relieved.

But Daniel had been my playfellow. He was my brother-in-God’s-eyes. Or, as he put it: “My comrade-under-the-red-flag.”

“When is your Revolution?” I asked.

“Never, brother. They only talk. They hold themselves apart from the face-washing masses. They fancy this frees them from The System.”

“Still, you attend meetings?”

‘My last is today.’

“Good! They told you to stop washing your face. There’s no hope. Now you tell ‘em, Stop talking out your backsides. There’s no hope.”

“No,” said Daniel. “I shan’t tell them that.” A smile illuminated his face, made him briefly young again. “Let them have hope.”

“You go back to school,” I encouraged. “You’ve saved enough.”

Martha came home from nannying. Daniel rose. I wanted to bid him stay. Martha didn’t mind Daniel. She’d got engaged again.

Next afternoon we found Daniel hanging in his little room. Slowly spinning. His floor he’d kept washing.

They told my friend: “Stop washing your face.” He did. 

They told my friend: “There’ll be a revolution.” He saw they were lying. Why didn’t he go back to washing his face?

We buried Daniel. We married Martha.

Daniel would’ve been happy with Martha. 

Martha knows how to face today, with hope, and laugh gently. Martha knows how to face tomorrow, with false hope, and laugh harshly.


By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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