Lit up by the dashboard of every passing car, down every litterblown street illuminated by blinking lamps, in every queue, on the top deck of every bus, they stare back at me. The haunted faces, sketched in shadow like artists’ prints, pinched with panic, grey and drawn with stress, they stare back at me like spectres in purgatory.
We are in the midst of our darkest days. Summers long gone can’t be called to mind and those to come are too distant to reach out and touch. Our futures seem like a grim mockery of the joys we once held; the simple pleasures we took for granted and let slip through our fingers now spent and turned to ashes. We are cursed to live through the Great Lettuce Shortage.
What will future generations say of us? Will they look back on our fortitude and stoicism and say that we were the ones who stood firm when it was needed, who took hold of our rising panic and conquered it, who never allowed the thought of succumbing to the demons of the lettuce-drought enter our heads? Or will we be the ones who squandered their futures by giving in to our weaker selves, turning feral and running screaming through the streets?
Each evening when I return from my post at the Ministry, after eating my lettuceless repast, I change into comfortable slacks, take off my tie, put on my old, brown, smoke-infused cardigan, light up my pipe and head to the little space under my stairs where my secret wireless-set is kept. Keeping the volume as low as possible I tune it into certain frequencies, feeling my way around the bandwidths with the assuredness of a bat navigating the darkness, until I hear the voices I’ve been searching for.
Through the ether come the voices from Spain. Heavily accented tones, seemingly so different from my own voice and yet bringing comfort as soon as I hear them. “Tonight the butterfly will make ice cream for the Archbishop in the turf accountants.” Code. I quickly decipher it in my head – “Lettuce parachute drop, behind Spar, 3am.”
This is how we live now. Those of us who are in the know. We operate in small cells of just three or four people and discipline is paramount. Hard times call for hard decisions to be made. It was the saddest day of my life when I had to shoot my Grandma for blurting out the word “Romaine” in front of her oldest friend, during a particularly testy Countdown conundrum. Having to shoot her oldest friend was less of a trial as she had peculiarly distressing dentures. Still, as I wielded the shovel to inter them both, muttering a few guilty epithets of how she had been a proud woman and a fine bingo-player, I paused and wondered “Is this the man I am now?” And I knew – yes, yes it is. I am a man driven to extremes but under extreme circumstances this could be any one of you.
After nightfall a few of us brave the curfew to venture out, ferrying the precious leaves to other members of the Underground. Here and there we pause to daub our symbol on the walls, a reminder to all not to give up hope – the giant green “L”. One day maybe those who come after us will look upon these walls, if they still stand, and see that we did what we had to for the sake of all free lettuce-loving peoples. We were the ones who drew the line in the sand and said, “Let the rocket and iceberg flow so my brothers may gorge themselves.”
Throughout this dark night of the soul I cling to the words of one man more than any other. Emil Zatopek. He said that it was at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys. Furthermore, my favourite quote of his speaks of the broad, sunlit uplands we may one day inhabit if we can just hold our nerve in the meantime. I have it hidden under a map in my cellar. “After all those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing, the starvation…suddenly there were no more frontiers, no more barriers. Just the people meeting together. It was wonderfully warm. Men and women who had lost five years of life were back again.”
People of South Leeds, I can see past your thousand-yard-stares, your furrowed brows, your lettuce-deficient eyes, and look into your hearts. I know that one day we will be “just people meeting together” and eating iceberg and cos and telling our grandchildren of the wondrous things we did during the Great Lettuce Shortage of 2017. And we will kiss them and with a faraway wistful look, perhaps with the suggestion of a tear forming in the corner of our eyes, we will tell them that we did it for them.