“What time do you call this?”
Kinnesberg’s eyebrows angrily arch into a ‘V’ as she glares over the top of the takeaway coffee cup I’m offering her. I push the hard plastic cylinder — heavens forbid I should be seen with a non-recyclable cup — closer towards her. She ignores the offering, so I slip back the sleeve of my long jacket to reveal a very sensible watch.
“Eight oh four, to be precise.” She turns from me and bustles further into my new campaign headquarters with an electronic tablet gripped tightly to her frumpy blouse. Truth be told, this space used to be a shop. I can still see the skeletal remnants of the shelving units in one corner, but beggars can’t be choosers, can they? It’s only temporary, I hope.
Dotted around the space is a small army of people, all preoccupied with tasks. A few are sat at makeshift desks, tapping away at laptops. Others are shuffling papers, while two look very concerned as they pour across an oversized map. I could be mistaken, but I think towards the back of the room, someone is moving a large poster with my face on it. There seem to be stacks of badges and bags with my face on them. Everything screams vote.
“What’s going on?” The awe I’m feeling as I take in the operation starts to give way as I wonder how far Kinnesberg has gone without talking to me. Then, as if reading my mind, my Campaign Manager screeches to a halt. She doesn’t even bother to look at me as she forces out her words.
“This is work. This is what we have to do if we are to stand a chance of getting you votes.” She looks back at me so I can see the quiet fury in her eyes. “Which you would know all about if you’d been here until the early hours of this morning. Like I was.”
I open my mouth, ready to placate her with my prepared excuse for last night’s absence, but she doesn’t give me a chance. “You know a lot of people were working hard on your behalf yesterday while you swanned off for a break or whatever it was that you were doing. No,” she holds up her hand as I try again. “I don’t want to hear what you thought was more important than all this.” She gestures around at the many people, some of whom are now turning from their tasks to take us in. “All I need to know is one thing, Darnell. Are you serious about becoming mayor?”
I nod solemnly, taking the chastising on the chin. It’s not like me, but it’s no good arguing the point. She clearly wants to have this out. I’m not going to give her the pleasure. She can have her moment. She has done a hell of a job here. Plus, I really don’t want her focusing on what I was doing last night. She won’t appreciate the company I was keeping.
“Then I suggest we get on with work. It’s going to take a hell of a lot to get you the job of running this city, and it doesn’t get any easier after that.”
Something rises inside me. It’s familiar and aggressive. I stuff it back down. It won’t do to lose my cool. Not like this. In front of all these people. Kinnesberg has clearly missed the little flash in my eyes. The tell-tale sign that she was making me think of my family. Of how they used to behave towards me. She steams on, and it’s all I can do to keep my face expressionless.
“And when I say we start early, I mean before mid-morning, okay?” That gets a reaction. My face twists, but I can’t help it. I am not a morning person, and she isn’t the only one who had a late night. “Do you have a problem?” It’s a very open challenge. She knows she holds the high ground. It’s a well-played move by her. I need her, so there’s very little I can do.
“Does my peace offering help?” I thrust the cup forward again, and she seems to realise how many people are watching us.
“Well, it wasn’t just me who was here late, you understand.”
“Why don’t we send someone out to get coffees for everyone?”
“I’m sure that can be arranged.” She’s all business again. That’s worth me remembering. “After your address.”
“My what?” This time it’s not a carefully constructed question.
“Your speech to the staff. The volunteers. It’s the best way to kick everything off.” Kinnesberg leans close, her breath soft on my neck. “For god’s sake, Darnell. I’ve got all these people here. The least you can do is inspire them with some words. Everyone!” She claps her hands together like she’s the headmistress calling the assembly to order. “Can I have everyone’s attention, please?”
Heads that had rushed to turn away from us now swivel back. I can see they are wondering what’s coming next. I’m trying not to show that I feel the same way. Kinnesberg steers herself into the middle of the room. Somehow she navigates the space, so she’s in the perfect place for her to take in everyone, meeting each and every set of eyes. It’s like she’s suddenly become a different person. There’s a sweetness I haven’t seen before.
“Firstly, thank you so much for being with us. It’s amazing to have so much experience and energy in the room.” She points at the folks on the computers. “We really are hashtag blessed. Am I right?” She arranges her fingers like the social media symbol, and one of the group, an oversized chap with a very distinct squint, whoops. “Now, enough of me.” She waves away a little boo that comes from the back of the room. “Our illustrious leader would like to address you all. Speaking for the first time as your chosen candidate and our soon to be mayor, give it up for Darnell Till.”
She beckons to me, and I step forward before I really process what’s going on. The applause reverberates around me. I’m not sure if it’s for me or my campaign chief, but it’s the only thing saving me from what comes next. I hate it, but will it on.
I’m not used to this. I’m a trickster. I stay in the shadows, manipulating over shoulders with a whisper. I don’t fucking well speak in front of people. My gut twists. This isn’t what I signed up for, but then I remember all these people want something that I’m offering. Hope. I didn’t think I’d have it again, but actually, this town has been good to me so far. Helped me be me again. Now it’s my turn to do something for them, and try to make this place better. It’s the right thing to do. Not just for me, but for everyone.
It starts here, but what the hell do I say? I can’t tell them I got into this to dupe them. I can’t honestly tell them about my experience at the charity shop, where I understood what was wrong with their home. I need something, and now. The clapping has faded, and an expectant silence is falling over the room. They need words, and I’m not sure I’m ready. I gulp, grasping for something.
“How are you all?” I wince. It’s wrong. That is not the way to start, and I feel the heat rise in my cheeks. I can only talk in lies and questions. What do I do? That’s it. I need to ask a question. I have to ask them something.
“What do all of you want?”
“How about that free coffee?” Some loudmouth hollers from the back of the crowd.
I grin, the mocking feeling like it’s feeding me, relaxing me. I’m not going to let it get to me. Just like I didn’t let Kinnesberg.
“Is that what you want?” Puzzled looks are exchanged, a few questions of their own muttered. “Do you want a freebie? For someone to come along and give you something for nothing?” My mind is crafting the words now, and they are starting to come faster. “Or do you want to work for something? Do you want your just rewards for a fair day of work?”
“Hell yes.” It might be the same guy yelling, but it helps as a few others then voice their support.
“Are you fed up with the way that things are?” That really strikes a chord, a chorus of approval issuing from the crowd. “Don’t you want to feel safe at night? Are your politicians not getting on with the job?” I catch Kinnesberg’s eye, and she cocks a brow at me. She clearly can’t decide whether to be impressed by my efforts or annoyed by the little jibe. Either way, it emboldens me. I step forward, and this time I’m louder. “Aren’t you tired of being lied to?” I smile at the roar I get, none of the crowd aware of the little fun I’m having at Kinnesberg’s expense. “Don’t you want someone who will put you at the heart of everything he does?”
“God, yes!” A woman near me screams the words and then shrieks in delight. I can feel the frenzy taking them, and I am loving it as much as they are. “Do you trust the Democrats or the Republicans to do that for you?”
I am met with a chorus of boos, and some very choice language about the other candidates. “So, what are you going to do about it?” I yell at the mob.
“Vote for you!” It’s like a wall of energy coming at me. They are smiling between themselves, hugging, and high-fiving. I did this. And it feels great. I marvel at the reactions and soak in the moment. A shiver runs up my spine. It’s electrifying. Maybe I’ve been hiding my light under a bushel for too long.
Suddenly Kinnesberg is at my side.
“Alright, people!” The clapping again, brusque, business-like. “Everyone has their assignments. Let’s get to them and make sure it’s not just us voting for Darnell.”
I lean close to her.
“Illustrious enough for you?”
Her eyes narrow to slits.
“Not bad at all,” Her face immediately brightens. “It’s probably time we started putting that mouth of yours to good use. I think it’s time we got you out there for your first public engagement. And after this, I think we can go big to start.” She puts her arm around my shoulder, “We can probably skip the meet and greets I had planned and go to something grand. What do you think of a public rally? Get you in front of a few hundred in one go.” I feel every muscle in my face drop.