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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

May 19th, 2014 (07:57 pm)
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LJ Idol Week 9
Topic: "Keep Calm and End This Meme"
Trigger warnings: Some gore, reference to sexual violence
NOTE: I have taken some liberty with history here. As many of you will know, the sign KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON was originally designed for display around Britain during World War II, but was never actually posted before the war ended. In my story, the sign has been distributed and is posted during the war. My apologies to history buffs who may be bothered by the change.


Keep Calm and Carry On


“Come on!” Maggie scrambled up the mountain of debris, laughing. Ann was standing at the bottom of the pile, eyeing it hesitantly. "I don't know how to get up,” she called back. “I can't see any footholds.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Can’t you see me up here? It’s easy as wink,” Maggie shouted. Seeing the anxiety in Ann’s eyes, she relented, flying back down the pile and holding out a hand. “Just step there -- no — there. Now there -- you’ve got it. Come on up." With a final tug Ann was perched precariously on the top of the pile. Settling down on an almost-flat board, she braced her feet against a twisted scrap of metal that looked reasonably stable and tried to relax. “Why must you always play on the sites they haven’t cleared out yet?” she asked. “Everyone else is at the site on Garden Avenue. It’s flat there.”

“It’s because I’m a sniper! Maggie yelled, flattening herself against the slope of rubble, head peeking at the top. “You’ve got to snipe from high places! Pow! Pow!” She mimed shooting over the rise, then found herself beginning to slide back down. Ann gasped and held a hand out, but in a moment Maggie had gained purchase again and sprang to the top of the pile, unassisted. “Oh, do stop shaking," she said impatiently. “It's safe as houses up here.”

“It was until the houses were hit,” Ann retorted. “You think everything's safe. Mother says you don't understand the concept of fear.”

“So what if I don’t? They need people like me in the war!” Maggie cried, crouching into her sniper position again. “Come help me shoot the Jerries. They're staging an assault on the hilltop.”

“Not now, Maggie.”

Maggie heard the sigh in Ann’s voice and turned. Abandoning her sniper post, she crawled up the pile of debris, ignoring the bits of rubble that began to slide out from under her feet as she went. “What is it?” she asked, settling in beside Ann. “Something's wrong.”

Ann stared out over the demolished terrain for a moment -- splintered boards and chunks of brick in a 50-foot radius, an irregular pattern of charred ruins of houses still standing at its edges. ”Mother says she’s sending me out to the country next week,” she said finally. “With all the other evacuees.”

“Oh, Ann.” Maggie’s palm stole into Ann's. “What will you do?”

“What can I do? I'll have to go, of course.”

“Do you want to?”

Ann was silent a long moment. “I don't know," she said finally. “I know it’d be safer...”

“Well, you should like that.”

“But what if I’m sent somewhere awful?” Ann burst out. “Jo Lewis went out six months ago, you know, and she just came back. She said the family who took her in were beastly to her. She was half-starved and —”

“Oh, Jo’s always been the dramatic sort," Maggie said impatiently. “Likely it’s rationing she was bothered about. You know she’s always eaten enough for three.”

Ann giggled for a moment, and Maggie flashed her a sideways smile. “But it's no use," she said after a moment, her face settling back into its anxious lines. “I can't help being frightened, Maggie. I’m not like you.”

Maggie stared off into the distance, brow furrowed, and then her face cleared. “Well, then," she said, “I'll have to go with you.”

“Go with me! How in the world would you do that?”

“Oh, Mother’s been thinking for ages of sending me off to the country. She just hasn’t made her mind up to it. I never wanted to go before. But I'll tell her now I’ve changed my mind. We’ll go together.”

“Oh, Maggie! But you know that wouldn't help. We’d never be sent to the same place.”

“We will if we’re sisters.” Maggie said, “They'll send siblings out together, of course. So we'll swear we’re sisters, and we'll have our parents swear it as well.” Maggie turned to Ann earnestly, reaching out to hold both her hands. “And anything that happens to you will happen to me. We’ll be together for all of it. After all, we're nearly sisters already, aren't we?”

Ann's eyes filled, and Maggie waved at her impatiently; she’d never had much tolerance for Ann’s easy tears. “Oh, stop it," she said. “It’ll be perfectly fine. All right? Oh —” Giving in, Maggie reached out to pull Ann into a hug. “Don't --

And just then, as Maggie shifted position, the rubble went out from under her entirely, sending her tumbling down the slope. “Maggie!” Ann screamed, stretching out flat on her stomach and reaching out futilely. A shriek caught in her throat, but just as it was about to burst forth, she registered a new sound: Maggie laughing. Craning her head, she saw that Maggie had managed to grab hold of a broad, flat piece of wood, and she was lying on it like a sled, shouting and laughing as she bumped wildly from one piece of debris to the next. “Ann!” she hollered. “Come on!”

Laughing herself, Ann began to scramble down after Maggie, her balance much surer than before.

*****

That night the air-raid siren blared again. It had been happening so frequently lately that neither Ann nor her mother were much disturbed; they’d taken to sleeping in their Anderson shelter -- little more than a small shed with two bunks that they’d buried five feet underground in their garden, but it had kept them safe enough so far. Ann doubted it would be of much help in the event of a direct hit, but she’d grown accustomed to pushing the thought away. All of Britain, she thought with some pride, was heeding the new signs you saw everywhere: everyone seemed to be keeping calm and carrying on. She listened to the crunch of bombs landing, but they seemed to be some distance away. She tried to calculate their direction, and decided that they were probably hitting a razed-out section of town that had been leveled by bombs a few weeks ago. Still, she found herself holding her body tense, waiting to hear their direction change. Keep calm and carry on, she told herself firmly, liking the measured, definite sound of the words. Keep calm and carry on. She formed her lips around the words silently, repeating them to herself until the sounds of explosions receded and she was able to fall asleep again.

In the morning she clambered out of the shelter, joints stiff and back aching from the hard bed in the shelter. She’d decided not to ask her mother about going to the country with Maggie until Maggie had spoken to her own mother; not much use asking if Maggie's mother said no. “Mother," she called as she ascended the few stairs, “I’m going to —”

Just then she caught sight of the smoke curling out of a newly blackened area of the city, and froze. It wasn’t where she thought, wasn’t in the already-destroyed area where she and Maggie had played the other day. It was farther to the west, and closer than she’d thought.

It was on the block where Maggie lived.

The next thing she knew she was pelting down the street barefoot, hair swinging in her face, heart pounding. Stones and bits of debris cut into her feet, but she didn't feel them. She wasn’t feeling her body at all. She saw a charred piece of paper on the sidewalk as she ran: KEEP CALM AND CAR. The rest had been burned away.

A sob caught in her chest as she rounded the corner and saw Maggie’s house. What had been Maggie’s house. It was rubble now, thick clouds of smoke wafting into a gray sky.

“No, no, no —” Maggie's family had slept in an Anderson shelter at night as well. Ann tore through the debris, skirting the worst of it, and ran to the garden, where the shelter was. She couldn't see anything; part of the house had fallen there. But -- there -- she could see the wink of the metal door set in the ground. It was lying askew, partly blown away, but it was there. She leapt over boards and bricks and pulled the door away. She began to descend the steps, but fell five feet suddenly as the stairs gave way beneath her. She began to dig with her hands, throwing dirt and metal and boards aside. After a moment she could see into the stairwell again. “Maggie? Maggie! Maggie!” She ran down two steps, fell down two more, found herself in the half-caved-in cellar.

She saw the blood and began to scream.

A week later she boarded the train to the country, without Maggie. The memorial service had been the day before. There had been nothing to bury.

******

Sixty years later, she was standing in her daughter’s kitchen in New York, putting the kettle on for tea. She had just pulled the box of Lipton out of the cabinet when she heard something that made her pause. She turned slowly to the television in the corner. She must have misheard, that was all. She grabbed for the remote, skipped the show back a bit. She’d finally gotten the hang of this TiVo remote.

“‘— finds itself embroiled in controversy after the discovery of a shocking item for sale on its site," the reporter said. “‘Keep Calm and Rape a Lot’ is the slogan on this T-shirt, sold through Amazon by a company called Solid Gold Bomb.” Ann sank into a chair, unable to take her eyes from the familiar font and layout, the crown at the top of the logo. 'There has been a mass outcry against the shirt among women's rights advocates calling for the shirt to be removed from the site, but Amazon has yet to comment on the situation.” The video cut to a montage of other items for sale on Amazon, all bearing the same font, the same crown. “This item is just one more in the long line of products bearing variants on the phrase 'Keep Calm and Carry On,' originally a slogan on British posters displayed around London and other cities during World War II. In recent months there has been an explosion of parodies of the phrase, found on items from T-shirts and coffee mugs to nail polish and tanning lotion.” The screen showed an image of a bottle of tanning lotion: KEEP CALM AND TAN ON, the logo said. “There have been endless permutations of the phrase; the most popular range from 'Keep Calm and Eat a Cupcake' to 'Keep Calm and Call Batman' to 'Keep Calm and Kill Zombies...'"

The last logo was almost illegible against a smear of blood. Blood. Ann closed her eyes, seeing the destroyed cellar -- blood sprayed against he wall, pooled in the corner. Maggie's blood.

Eyes still closed, she tried to conjure up the original poster in her mind, tried to find the strength it had given her. The only image she could find was of the charred poster she’d seen on the ground as she ran towards Maggie’s house. KEEP CALM AND CAR.

She took a deep breath, formed her lips around the words as she had as a child. Keep calm and carry on. Keep calm and carry on.

She woke from nightmares three times that night, hearing bombs each time, seeing the smoking remains of Maggie's house. She tried repeating the slogan some more, but it seemed to have lost its power now.

Comments

Posted by: solstice_singer (solstice_singer)
Posted at: May 20th, 2014 02:02 am (UTC)

This was really good. It was sad, but well-written. Great job.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 20th, 2014 02:19 pm (UTC)

Thanks so much! :)

Posted by: Bridget Ilene Delaney (kagomeshuko)
Posted at: May 20th, 2014 03:25 am (UTC)

Interesting take on the topic.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 20th, 2014 02:19 pm (UTC)

Thanks!

Posted by: sohum (icaruslived)
Posted at: May 20th, 2014 07:38 pm (UTC)

Oh, I really loved this one. The character writing was great, and talking about how overuse of a meme - originally used for the power it had to change minds - can lead to it just dying a feeble, whimpering death.

This was great. Thank you!

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 12:15 am (UTC)

Oh, thank you so much! I'm so glad you liked the characters, and it is really sad how something that was meant to be powerfully good could turn into something as inane/offensive as what it wound up being, so I'm glad you felt that worked. :) Thanks for commenting, it made me happy!

Posted by: unmowngrass (unmowngrass)
Posted at: May 21st, 2014 12:35 am (UTC)

Oh, you set the scene perfectly here, I was hooked all the way through this.

Small point of order, though: Although most times you've used the spelling Ann, there's once near the beginning that's Anne - typo?

Love the take on the prompt though!

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 12:16 am (UTC)

Oh, thanks so much! I'm so glad it kept you hooked. And, yes, that's totally a typo. Thanks for calling it to my attention!

Posted by: Teo Says (eternal_ot)
Posted at: May 21st, 2014 01:05 pm (UTC)

Excellent take on the prompt...loved how you blended reality with fiction...A good read and job well done! Kudos!

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 12:17 am (UTC)

Thank you so much for this! I'm really glad that you liked the blending of reality and fiction (and glad the slight twist with the history of the poster was OK by you), and I was worried that it might not be a tight/compelling read, so thanks for that. :)

Posted by: The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors (halfshellvenus)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 12:57 am (UTC)

I think you've mixed up Maggie and Ann in the second part. It starts with Maggie's POV (by label, anyway), but it seems that it should be Ann's instead.

Really great use of dramatic tension here, both on the rubble heap and when Ann rushes, too late, to Maggie's neighborhood.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 01:01 am (UTC)

Oh my GOD, thank you for mentioning that. What a hideous mistake. And thank you for your other comments as well! I'm so glad you felt the suspense worked -- I was trying hard to find a way to keep the suspense going without being obvious. I really appreciate your comment! :)

Posted by: i_17bingo (i_17bingo)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 07:57 am (UTC)

Wow, that was horrifying. Well done.

That meme is kind of invisible to me, through the parodies and appropriation and the use of the original phrase to mean really, really silly, mundane things like a computer crash erasing the long comment you had been leaving on someone's blog. You made ie reflect on the reason for that phrase and the power of words. Thank you.

That T-shirt... I'd be more shocked if it doesn't exist, because there are some terrible, terrible people who think things like that are funny.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 02:22 pm (UTC)

Thank you so much! It is very strange to think about the genesis of the term and what it's turned into, isn't it? I went looking into the history of it about a year ago for independent reasons and was really surprised to learn its origins. I don't think most people know them. I'm really glad you liked that aspect of the story.

As for "Keep Calm and Rape a Lot", it really was a T-shirt (Amazon stopped selling it after the outcry), but it had kind of a bizarre origin too. There was a company (SolidGoldBomb) whose shtick was selling variants on the "Keep Calm and ________" meme. They decided that what they would do, instead of wasting employees' time trying to think of clever takes on it, was to write a computer algorithm that would auto-generate a whole bunch of versions of it. So they set it up to pull words from the dictionary in the format of "Keep Calm and [verb] [object or modifier]." Then they'd put hundreds of shirts featuring all of those slogans on Amazon for sale, and if some of them were clever people would order those and the company would print the shirt on demand, and if the rest of them were stupid people would ignore them and the company would never print those shirts. The problem was that SGB never vetted the list of verbs they weer using in order to take out the offensive ones, which is how they wound up with shirts like "Keep Calm and Rape a Lot", "Keep Calm and Knife Her", and lots of other really horrible crap. They basically disavowed all responsibility for the offensive shirts because no one made them deliberately, but I'm not buying that, personally. I mean, companies are responsible for the products they put out, for heaven's sake. Anyway, Amazon stopped selling the offensive ones that had caused an outcry; I'm not sure if they stopped selling SolidGoldBomb stuff altogether. It took awhile for the computer-algorithm explanation to hit the news and even then it didn't gain much traction, so I didn't include it in the news story that Ann watched.

And there is my very very long explanation to a question you didn't even exactly ask. :) Sorry. I find the whole thing really interesting. The Internet age is so weird.

Posted by: i_17bingo (i_17bingo)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 02:36 pm (UTC)

Even if the computer-generated thing is true, they should still be held accountable. That shit is bonkers and irresponsible.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 02:43 pm (UTC)

Definitely. A lot of the articles I saw were from computer blogs and things which seemed to be implying “you know, it wasn’t THAT bad, it wasn’t like anybody MEANT it or anything...” and I’m like “TAKE 'RAPE' OUT OF YOUR VERB LIST WHAT DO YOU EVEN THINK YOU ARE DOING.” They had to have some sort of list of verbs that they chose -- they can’t have been playing Mad Libs with every word in the dictionary. They chose to put “rape” and “knife” and “beat” and I don’t know what-all else on that list. WTF. Interwebs tell me they did go out of business after that, thank goodness.

Posted by: i_17bingo (i_17bingo)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 02:53 pm (UTC)

Justice--that's refreshing.

Posted by: MamaCheshire (cheshire23)
Posted at: May 23rd, 2014 12:53 am (UTC)

Wow. What the actual hell is wrong with people that they couldn't take "rape" out of an algorithm like that??

Posted by: tonithegreat (tonithegreat)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 03:48 pm (UTC)

Great last line and really great, if sad, entry.

Posted by: Kristeen Hughes (catwomon)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2014 08:35 pm (UTC)

Wow! What a nice and well-written piece! I like it a lot.

Posted by: favoritebean (favoritebean)
Posted at: May 23rd, 2014 01:39 am (UTC)

For some reason, I thought the moment you mentioned New York, you were going to mention 9/11, and it gave me a jump. I remember the Solid Gold Bomb ordeal.

As soon as I saw your mention of the Anderson shelter, I knew things were going to end poorly for someone.

Posted by: Sean (talon)
Posted at: May 25th, 2014 01:00 am (UTC)

This has been the best historical fiction treatment of the prompt that I've seen. Well done, with great pacing and characterization.

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