We arrived promptly. It was the day we were due to take our seats in this new parliament we had helped create. We filed slowly into the chamber we’d seen so many times on TV screens, in photographs. I felt overwhelmed by the sense of occasion and a feeling of finally, after so long, being somewhere we could build the sort of society we wanted to live in. A tear threatened the corner of my eye as I realised that by being here, we could still lose. As everyone took their seat, I was left standing, the lump in my throat sticking my tongue to the roof of my mouth. I looked down for a while and stared at the creases I was making on the paper containing my speech. I saw myself screwing it up into a ball and throwing it to the floor, looking around me and, with a wink to a knowing face, launching into the most eloquent speech this country’s oldest political institution had ever heard. I didn’t. I stepped forward and smoothed the paper’s creases against the cool metal lectern. The white noise of excited hushed conversation slipped slowly away. Someone coughed. I looked up and unstuck my tongue. I coughed.
Ladies and gentlemen, I started, reading clearly from the paper before me, just as I had practised, sounding exactly as I had expected myself to, and trying not to shake. The Chilean writer and politician Pablo Neruda once said that you can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming. Today, in this venerated hall that witnessed the birth of modern democracy, I see new life blooming. We have taken back our society. Now it is time to stand boldly and fulfil the pledges we have made. Spring has come. I paused for breath, and the walls closed in about me. As one, the men and women with whom I had stood, in rain and muck, ducking hailstorms of bullets in the midst of our own dead and dying, rose to their feet and applauded. It wasn’t a raucous applause – there was no cheering. Nor was it a polite applause – their eyes were focused and determined, or glistened with a suggestion of emotion. They clapped, and clapped. The sound bunched my shoulders and hummed on my ear drums and still they applauded. One or two were wiping their cheeks now. I coughed again, but it was lost amid the slowing ovation. One by one they sat back into their seats.
We fought here, I started again. On the steps of this palace, we fought and we died. I could see the blood running down, flowing into puddles and rippling as the rain fell. Everyone here could remember that, it didn’t need saying. Those who aren’t here to sit among us bought this victory with their sacrifice, and it is for us now to ensure that sacrifice doesn’t go untended.
That sacrifice was why I was giving this speech. I wasn’t their leader. Not really anyway. I stood here because of a sense of duty, and of owing more than just my life. They had all accepted me readily as their tears and applause showed only too well, but there wasn’t a person in this hall that thought any different from me. She had led us, and she had fallen. I wouldn’t, I shouldn’t mention her name today. Not today. Today wasn’t about that.
For years we all watched. Some of us engaged, some of us didn’t. We all watched and shuffled paper and our feet as a political class did things in the name of our culture and society that represented neither, contravened the most basic idea of right and rights, and corrupted the most intrinsic principles of popular, democratic representation. Then one day, we all fought back. I mustn’t mention her. I mustn’t. We all stood and we all followed, first into protest, and then into battle, a single person. Damn. A person, who I might add, would be furious at any mention of her name on this day. I’d stopped reading and had started crumpling the paper again. I looked around and saw more tears, bowed heads and solemn faces. The very reason she shouldn’t be what today is about, is the reason that it is. What she wanted was for the cause of releasing society from the hegemony of personal and profitable interest to mean more than a name, a figurehead, a single person. I, for one, couldn’t have articulated that vision in the way that she did, in the way that led us out of our homes, our offices and our comfortable chairs, and onto the streets to suffer the slings and arrows, as we so truly did. No-one here could have served as such a rallying point for millions upon millions of disenchanted, disenfranchised and disgusted citizens of all backgrounds, faiths and belief, in the way that she did. And no single death could have galvanised our revolution, as did hers.
I smoothed the paper out again. I placed my palm flat on top of it, feeling the cool metal lectern again through the creases. What I had written had paid homage to her in a different way, less explicit perhaps. It was about the cause, I started to read again. We were called communists, terrorists, criminals. We were shot at, beaten, killed. But with every body counted, without realising it, they empowered us. We are here because we represent the injustice of the previous system. We are here because we represent the choice not to simply settle for received information. We stand here, ready to lead a nation, to set an example to a world, because of the one thing that our predecessors and enemies forgot. We stand here, because of the true will of the people.
I stared at the paper, unable to hear myself over the words of a politician streaming forth from my mouth. The paper looked back, the words which seemed so accurate and representative of our collective belief last night, jumbling into the same jargon we had rejected with blood for these past years. This was my battle now; this, the pinnacle of my war. I screwed up the paper and threw it to the floor. Puzzled looks followed its flight, including my own.
This is our battle my friends. We stand here because of the will of the people, is an accurate enough statement. The sort of statement any incoming prime minister would issue upon taking office. And that is the biggest battle of them all. We are not what has come before, and we must make sure we do not become that. I want the things we have wanted and strived and died for. I want to cherish the person next to me. I want them to look after and before me. I want us all to feel joy, wonder and happiness, but never again at the expense of others. Ours will be a different kind of society. It has to be. We have known that for a long time and it will be the difference between our success, and a quiet retreat over decades as our old adversaries find their way back in. And they will. Make no mistake in thinking they will not try. Look what they took from us to cling to their power. Look how we took it away from them. They will seek revenge. We must make this a land so free, so pure and so good, that the terrain becomes too hostile for them to tread.
The words were falling from me, and I had forgotten the lump in my throat, until now. I swallowed, and coughed. Unsure of what I’d been saying, I looked down at the screwed up piece of paper with my words from last night on it. It looked so far from me now. I lifted my chin and focused my eyes on the people I had been addressing moments before. Every eye was turned on me. No more tears glistened. Fearsome determination, grit and fortitude stared back at me. I had encountered the same eyes as we walked forward, gunned down protesting in the streets. I had been among them, and now I looked into them and knew how we had won.
I look at you now, and the eyes I see staring back at me tell me that I have alongside me the best companions for this journey. We owe it to the dead, of course, but we owe more to the living, to keep each other true and honest. We stopped settling for ambivalent acceptance of the way that we were governed, and now we are to govern we must no more accept ourselves being corrupted, than we did our foes. We are the people, let us never forget. I flinched with surprise as my fist pounded the lectern in front of me. It felt colder without the paper between my skin and the cold metal.
They stood again, and penned me in on all sides. This time was different. They were talking excitedly and clapping again. Someone cheered. I had to raise a hand to quiet them so I could continue. There was one last thing I wanted to say, but I think they thought I’d finished. Slowly the silence returned and they sat back in their seats. I breathed in long and deep, and exhaled, slowly, quietly. I looked around again and for the first time today I think, I smiled. I bent down and picked up the screwed up paper, unfurled it and smoothed it on the lectern once again.
Winter, I started reading again for the final time, is dead. It was long and dark and cold, but it is over. Now is the time to enjoy our blossoming freedom, to taste the joy of victory and savour the scent of the trust placed in us. Our Spring has come. Let it last for all seasons. I folded the paper carefully in the silence, placed it inside my jacket pocket and turned and walked from the chamber. They all slowly filed after me, as we walked through hallways and out into the cool sunlight. A light breeze accompanied us, as I walked over to the lush green park outside, bent down and put my hand into the slightly damp grass. I stood, turned and there they all were waiting for me. One by one they shook my hand. Then we all looked out at the crowds gathered there. Millions upon millions of us had arrived to celebrate our victory. We walked into the crowd and disappeared among them.