Short Story: The Cage
Saturday, 18 November 2017 09:58

Short Story: The Cage

Published in Fiction

When the man awoke he was surprised to find himself in a small cage. It was about eight feet square and had four walls and a roof all made of metal bars about four inches apart. There was a wooden floor and a full height gate made of the same bars. The man tried the gate but it seemed to be locked. He looked down and saw that he was wearing primitive leather slippers and a pair of sackcloth pyjamas. Puzzled he looked around him. On one side of the cage there was a bed, chamber pot, washing bowl, blankets and various utensils. On the other side was a strange machine that he would soon discover was a treadmill. In between the bed and the treadmill was a wooden chute opening out onto a small table below.

Outside the bars he could see nothing. There were no other cages, no landmarks just a strange mist that inexplicably frightened him. He couldn't for the life of him remember what had led him to this sorry state or indeed, anything of his life before he had awoken a few minutes before. He only knew he didn't like being in the cage and couldn't imagine what on earth he had done to be imprisoned in this way. "Help", he called out. "Is anyone there? Help!"

Out of the white mist a short and portly guard appeared wearing a well-worn, navy-blue uniform and a small peaked cap. "Can I help you?" The Guard asked politely.

"What am I doing in here? The man asked. "How do you mean?" The Guard replied. "Well, I'm locked in this cage." Said the man. "How did I get in here? Why is the gate locked?"

It's the natural order of things." Said the Guard, in a kindly, reassuring, sort of way. "People like you always live in the cages."

"People like me?" Asked the Man. "Yes." Said the Guard. "The people like you who always live in the cages."

"But why do we live in the cages?" Said the Man. "Because you always have." Replied the Guard, who was clearly getting a bit irritated.

"So the people who live in cages, live in them because they always have?" Said the Man. The Guard smiled. "You're getting it now." He said. "The King lives in his castle, you live in your cage, I'm your Guard and everything is exactly as it is meant to be."

The Man just looked at the Guard not quite believing what hewas hearing.

"If you want anything to eat or drink all you have to do is work the treadmill. Everything you need will come down the chute once you've done enough work." Concluded the Guard.

"Oh, right." Said the Man a bit nonplussed by the prospect. "Right I'm off." Said the Guard. "I'll be back in the morning to empty the chamber pot. Sleep tight; don't let the bed bugs bite." And he disappeared back into the mist surrounding the cage.

Alone once more, the Man looked around at the cage, not quite believing he was actually expected to live in it. He tried the gate again. It was definitely locked. He sat on the bed and pondered what was to be done. "There's nothing to be done." He said to himself. "Just got to make the most of it."

He realised he was hungry and decided to give the treadmill a go. He climbed into the sort of wooden cockpit thing and it forced his feet to rest on some steps below. As he put his weight onto the steps the cockpit closed behind him and clicked shut, held in position by his weight. The steps were actually on the rim of a wheel, and his weight was forcing the step he stood on down and as the wheel turned another step replaced it. He didn't move quickly enough and the second step bore down and painfully scraped the skin from his shin. He cried out in pain but there wasn't time for panic or self-pity because once the wheel was moving he had to keep stepping the steps or his shins would be scraped raw by the spinning steps. After a faltering start he managed to get the rhythm of the constant stepping and settled down to 'walk the treadmill' as he would later learn to call it.

The wheel moved slightly too fast for his natural rhythm and the effort of relentlessly climbing a never-ending staircase quickly made him breathless. Before long he was sweating and starting to panic as he couldn't see how he could get off the wheel but realised that if he stopped stepping his legs would be scraped and mangled to the bone. His breath got shorter and shorter and the pain in his calf and thigh muscles was intense. He started to whimper and his eyes filled with tears as the pain and the fear took hold of him.

But then just as he thought he could take no more, there was a rushing sound from the chute above him and the wheel started to slow down. A bottle of liquid and a bowl of food were dropped onto the table and after a few moments the treadmill cockpit opened and he was able to jump off.

He sat on the bed exhausted and relieved. That had been very scary and a lot of hard work. He looked at the food and drink on the table and smiled, realising he was rather proud of himself. "I certainly earned those." He said to himself.

When he had recovered his breath, he took the lid off the food bowl and inside was a pleasant smelling and inoffensive tasting gruel. But to the Man the gruel tasted like the finest gourmet meal money could buy, because he had 'worked so hard' to get it. As he slurped the gruel and drank the cold tea in the flask, the Man smiled to himself, maybe living in the cage wasn't going to be so bad after all.

And indeed for several days it wasn't so bad. The Guard would visit twice every day to empty the chamber pot, check that the treadmill and the chute were working and that the Man was alive and healthy. Otherwise the Man was left to his own devices. He could work when he wanted, eat when he wanted and sleep when he wanted. Much to his surprise and despite being locked in the cage, he felt sort of free.

He also soon discovered that by putting in a few extra hours on the treadmill he could earn some luxuries like toilet paper, soap, salt, books and even paper & ink. Thus when he wasn't working the treadmill, he could keep himself amused by reading, writing and drawing. He started to think life in the Cage really was pretty good.

____________________ ____________________

But as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, it began to dawn on the Man that although the Guard had a pleasant manner and was not unkind, he was also an incompetent idiot. More than once the Guard spilt the contents of the chamber pot; more than once he had jammed the key in the lock of the cell, once he had even dropped the keys and the Man had to rescue them from falling through a crack in the floor. The Guard hadn't even thanked him for that!

The Man started to wonder why he was in the cage and the Guard outside. But whenever he asked the Guard he always got the same answer, "It's just the way it's always been."

"But what have I done to deserve to be in this cage?" Cried the Man. "You haven't done anything." Replied the Guard. "People like you are just born to the cage."

"People like me? How many of us are there?" Asked the Man. "Oh, hundreds of thousands." Replied the Guard. The Man was startled. "Hundreds of thousands! Where are they all?"

"In their own cages." Replied the Guard. "The world is full of cages. Each man has his own cage."

"Even you?" Asked the Man.

"Yes." Replied the Guard.

The Man was shocked. "You live in a cage?"

"Yes." Replied the Guard. "It's bigger than your cage of course, and more comfortable and I don't have to walk the treadmill."

"Why don't you have to work the treadmill?" Asked the Man.

"Because you do it for me." Replied the Guard. "I do?" Said the Man. "Yes. I'm the Guard and you work the treadmill for both of us. That's how it works."

The Man was a little put out. "So you don't have to do any work?" He said. "If only!" The Guard snorted. "I have to look after you."

"Well that's not difficult!" The Man snorted back.

"And all the other cages I'm assigned to look after." Exclaimed the Guard. "And I've got to fill in all the audit reports for the King's Comptroller of the treadmills."

"Really." Said the Man, not very sympathetically. "And how did you get to be a Guard?"

"I was born to it." Replied the Guard proudly. "My father was a Guard. My grandfather. As far back as you care to go."

"Could I be a Guard?" Asked the Man. "No." Replied the Guard firmly. "You have to be born to it."

"But that hardly seems fair!" Protested the Man. 'I'm locked in this cage and you've got the key, just because we were both born to it? Why shouldn't it be the other way round?" The Guards face clouded with anger, "You might as well ask why is the King, the King? He said,

"Well, exactly! Why is he?" Asked the man provocatively.

"Okay, that's enough of that." Said the Guard. "You've got everything you need and I'm not unkind to you, and yet you all you do is spout this insurgent nonsense. I can see I'm going to have to watch you. No bonuses for three days." And the Guard confiscated the Man's books, paper and ink and stomped off.

The Man was outraged. How dare the Guard talk to him like that? He had only asked a simple question. He shook the bars in frustration. "Give me back those books!" he shouted. "I earned those. You've no right to take them from me!" He took up his knife and fork and tried to pick the lock to the cage but only succeeded in snapping them. This enraged him further and he threw his chamber pot at the bars and it shattered all over the inside of the cage. He was furious by now and with a huge roar he picked up his bed and threw it at the bars. It splintered and broke and this seemed to give the Man some temporary relief from his impotent rage, and so in a frenzy, he threw the table and everything else in the cage at the bars. "You can't keep me in here!" He cried. "It's not fair!" And finally he threw his own body against the bars. It hurt and felt good at the same time, so he did it again. "I will not stay in this cage another minute!" He screamed as he flung himself at the bars. Again and again he threw himself at the bars until he was red-raw and the blood poured down his arms. But it was hopeless; the iron bars would not be moved and eventually he collapsed on the floor exhausted. He wept with frustration as he sat in the debris of what had until a few moments ago been his small but comfortable cage.

____________________ ____________________

The next day the Guard was primly smug. "You'll have to work for days and days to earn enough to replace all that lot." He crowed. The Man didn't reply, he was already on the treadmill, already working hard to get things back to how they had been. And the Guard was wrong, it didn't take days, it took weeks before the Man had earned enough to replace his bed, and the table and everything else he had smashed. But eventually he was done and everything was back to normal.

Yet this didn't make the Man happy. The whole business had made the Man sullen and resentful; angry at his own powerlessness, angry at the power the Guard had over him. And in turn the Guard wasn't so friendly or kind anymore either. They both seemed to realise that somehow the incident had revealed that they weren't on the same side and that in some subtle, unstated way, the situation pitted them against each other and that if things remained as the same, then it always would.

But as far as the Man was concerned the Guard was still a bumbling idiot and the Man decided to bide his time until the day came when the Guard would once again dropped his keys. And when it inevitably did, this time the Man didn't help the Guard. In fact, unseen by the Guard, the Man pushed the keys with his foot until they fell through a gap in the floorboards. Hearing them fall the Guard spun around and dropped to his knees to try and rescue the keys but no avail. The Guard cursed himself, what an idiot he was. "Right you." He said to the Man. "Stay exactly where you are. I'm going to have to get the hook stick to get the keys back." And he stomped off leaving the Cage door unlocked.

As soon as the Guard had disappeared into the mist, the Man leapt to his feet and headed for the exit of his cage. He swung the gate open and ran as fast as he could in the opposite direction to the Guard. As he reached the edge of the mist he realised it wasn't mist but smoke, and it was coming from a pit of burning fire that seemed to surround his cage on all sides. Whatever direction he ran in, the pit of burning fire blocked his escape. He wondered if he could jump to the other side of the pit and make his escape but the thick smoke meant he couldn't see how far away the other side of the pit was.

"I told you to stay in your cage." Said the Guard who had returned with the key hook stick.

"You left the gate unlocked." Replied the Man. "I'm not going to stay in there if I don't have to."

"But you do have to." Insisted the Guard. "There is no where else for you to go."

"So why lock the cage then?" Asked the Man. "For your own protection." Said the Guard. "These fire pits are very dangerous."

"I'm not an idiot!" Shouted the Man. "I'm not going to fall in there am I?"

"You might." Said the Guard. "Plenty have before you."

"Well they must have been idiots." Said the Man.

"Or just not able to live outside the cage." Suggested the Guard.

"Rubbish!" Said the Man. "You can get across the fire pits, so anyone could."

"I know where the bridges are." Said the Guard. "Well, show me where they are," demanded the Man, "or I'll throw you into the fire pits." And he began to advance menacingly on the now nervous Guard.

"Look, I'm just doing my job." Said the Guard. "There's no point having a go at me!"

"Then tell me where I can find the bridge over the pits?" Demanded the Man. "There's no point." Said the Guard. "Beyond the pits is the Dark forest and people like you don't have the skills to survive in the Dark Forest."

The Man stopped in his tracks. "Dark forest? What kind of Dark Forest? He asked.

"A wild Dark Forest." Replied the Guard. "Full of man-eating wolves, and quick sand, and snakes and all manner of things that want to eat you."

"So how do you survive out there?" Sneered the Man. "I don't." Replied the Guard. "The River of Discontent is between my cage and the Dark Forest, and I have a key to lock myself in; to keep the animal's of the Dark Forest out."

"Well, I could do that." Said the Man. "Why do I have to be locked in?"

"Because people like you don't know what's good for you and keep trying to escape from the cage." Replied the Guard. "We have to lock you in to protect you from yourself." The Man wasn't convinced. "I'd like to see this Dark Forest for myself." He said. "I can handle any man-eating wolves and I'm not afraid of snakes."

"You see this is the problem." Sighed the Guard. "If I let you go even up to the edge of the Dark Forest you will die. You just don't have the skills to deal with the dangers of the Dark Forest. Just wait here. I'll show you." And the Guard walked back into the mist. The Man waited expectantly. What now?

The Guard returned with a trolley containing the bloody remains of a man. The head was crushed and the legs and arms had been torn off. The Man recoiled at the sight of the bloody mess. "This is all that was left of the last one of your lot who made it to the Dark Forest." Said the Guard. "He just had no idea how dangerous the Dark Forest was and the wolves ate him."

"How long had he been out there?" Asked the Man. "An hour." Replied the Guard matter-of-factly. The Man was shocked and backed away from the trolley towards the safety of his cage. "You see this is what I mean." Said the Guard. "One false move out there and you are a dead man."

"Yes, I see." Said the Man starting to realise for the first time the seriousness of his predicament. "We know it can be difficult for people like you in the cage. You want to get out. You can't help it. We understand that." Said the Guard reassuringly. "So we lock the cages to make sure you don't hurt yourselves. Understand?"

"Yes, I do understand." Said the Man, who had unconsciously walked backwards into his cage. The Guard had cannily kept pace with him and once the man was safely inside the cage the Guard closed the gate behind him.

"Are you going to be okay now?" Said The Guard. "Yes, yes." Replied the man. "I understand now. Thank you."

The Guard smiled. "Good. I'm just trying to protect you. Life will be much easier if you stop fighting the system." The Man nodded, he understood now. The Guard smiled and turned to leave. "See you tomorrow." He said.

"But aren't you going to lock the gate?" Asked the Man. The Guard laughed. "Silly me." He said. "I've forgot to get the keys out from under the floor!"

"Here, let me do it." Said the Man eagerly. The Guard passed him the hook stick and the Man fished around under the floorboards until he found the keys. He hooked them out and returned them with the stick to the Guard.

"Well done." Said the Guard. "You won't regret this." And he locked the gate. "Don't worry I'll keep you safe." And he disappeared jauntily into the mist.

The Man settled onto his bed, feeling overwhelming by relief and gratitude. There were tears in his eyes as he realised what a fool he had been, what a lucky escape he had had and that his own headstrong, arrogance and ignorance had nearly cost him his life. He realised that he no longer felt trapped in the cage, now he actually felt safe within the security of the cage. "However, bad it is in here," he said to himself, "It's better than out there!"

____________________ ____________________

For a few weeks the Man's new understanding of his situation made life in the cage pleasant enough. But as the weeks turned into the months, the routine of life in the cage again started to weary the Man. The Guard started irritating him as much as he ever had and the Man became bored of the books and diversions the chute delivered to him. His dissatisfaction was compound by the fact that he now knew that there was no alternative to this life in the Cage, that there was no way out, that even if he could get out of the cage, there was nowhere to escape to.

This didn't stop him dreaming of a life outside the cage though. He dreamt of living the Guard's life, of locking the gate of his own cage, rather than being locked in this one by the Guard. He dreamt of being free to leave the cage whenever he wished. He dreamt of leaping over the fire pit and escaping into the Dark Forest. He dreamt of fighting and defeating the man-eating wolves and making a free life for himself out in the Dark Forest. But these dreams didn't make the Man happy because the more he thought of escaping the cage the more he was reminded that he couldn't. The Man started to slump into a deep depression.

"This is the problem with hope." Explained the Guard. "It's very destructive. There is no alternative to this life in the cage and hoping there is will drive you mad. You have to accept reality for what it is and learn to live with it; learn to love it if you can."

"But how?" Asked the Man.

"You need to think positively about your life in the cage." Replied the Guard. "You need to be grateful for what you have, not regret what you don't have. I mean, at least you have a cage." He said. "At least you're not on your own out in the Dark Forest being eaten alive by wolves! At least all you have to do is walk the treadmill to get everything you need. Think of the poor souls who don't even have that."

"Are there people who don't even have that?" Said the Man. "Oh, yes." Replied the Guard. "They are every where."

"I've never seen any." Said the Man.

"Okay, hang on a minute. I'll show you." The Guard turned and disappeared into the mist. The Man waited expectantly. As he stared intently from between the bars into the mist, he heard a cry and then a filthy child ran into view being herded by the Guard like a lone sheep lost from the herd.

The Man was horrified at the state of the poor child. It wore no clothes except for some rags tied hastily round its waist. It was so thin it made the man flinch away. Every rib could be seen and the sunken cheeks, bulging eyes and skin stretched taught over the skull, gave the child a nightmarish, otherworldly appearance that frightened and appalled the Man in equal measure.

"Offer it some bread." Said the Guard.

As the Man went to his table, the child started to salivate and threw itself at the bars of the cage. The Man was momentarily paralysed as the whimpering child hung on the outside of the bars like a half-dead Gollum, staring eagerly at the loaf of bread on the Man's table. The Man regained his composure and tore off a piece of bread from his loaf and tentatively held it out to the child. The poor creature snatched it from him and like a dog scuttled away to eat it, constantly on the watch for any one, or any thing, that might try to take the food from it.

"Where did it come from?" Asked the Man. "They live on the banks of the River Of Discontent." Replied the Guard. "Where's that?" Asked the Man. "On the edge of the Dark Forest." Said the Guard.

Suddenly the child was back in the Man's face hanging on the outside of the bars of his cage. "More!" Cried the child desperately. "More!" Desperate tears of starvation ran down the child's cheeks. The Man quickly reached for the loaf to give the child some more.

"No. That's enough." Shouted the Guard. "You can't give them too much or they become dependent." He advanced towards the child. "Be off with you! You theieving ragamuffin." And he chased the poor creature away.

"How many of them are?" Asked the Man when the Guard returned. "Millions." Said the Guard.

The Man was shocked." Millions? And there is no one to look after them?"

The Guard laughed. "Why should anyone look after them?" He said. "They are the children of the River of Discontent, they have always been there, and they always will be. It's not our responsibility to look after them, they must look after themselves."

"I see." Said the Man although secretly he felt this was very harsh. "Anyway," Said the Guard. " You and I just have to thank the lucky stars that it is them and not us who have no shelter and no way of earning of a living."

The Man nodded; he certainly didn't envy the life of that child.

"And that's the best we could hope for outside of the cage." Continued the Guard. "Even if we didn't fall into the fire pits, even if the Wolves of the Dark Forest didn't eat us, without the cage we would have to live like the children of the river. Forever fearful and forever hungry."

After the Guard had gone the Man was left alone with his thoughs. He could see now that the alternatives to living in the cage were far worse than life in the cage. He realised that yet again it was his was warped thinking that was causing the problem. And so with renewed vigour he vowed to himself that he would knuckle down once more to try and live happily in the cage.

____________________ ____________________

As the days and weeks went by he really did try desperately hard to be 'grateful for what he had', and to think positively about his situation. But in his heart of hearts he knew he was lying to himself, and so after montha and months of trying to 'think positively', he realised the only way out for him was to stop thinking completely. So he closed his mind down. He stopped wondering why he was in the cage, and why the Guard was not. He stopped thinking of escape and stopped dreaming of better lives he might lead outside the cage.

And to be honest, he felt much better for it, or, more accurately, he felt nothing at all; he no longer experienced anything, good or bad, he just was. He found it was much less painful that way and in time he ceased to worry about anything, because he had ceased to think about anything.

Then one day he was staring blankly into space while walking the treadmill, when suddenly six men dressed like him in the slippers and sackcloth pyjamas but they carrying weapons, came running out of the mist towards to him. They ran up to the cage and the leader of the group took out a bunch of keys and started to try them one by one in the lock of the gate.

"What are you doing?" Asked the Man. "We're letting you out." Said the Leader.

"Where did you get those keys?" Asked the Man.

"We took them from the Guard." Answered the Leader.

"Are you allowed to do that?" Said the Man.

The six men all laughed. "It's not up to them." Said the Leader. "Got it." He said as he turned the key and opened the gate of the Man's cage. "Right. Let's go."

The six men started to move away expecting the Man to follow but the terrified Man stayed firmly rooted to the floor of his cage. "Where are we going to go?" He asked.

The Leader came back to the gate. "Anywhere but here!" He said. "Don't you want to be free?"

'But what about the fire pit?" Said the Man. "Don't worry. We know where the bridges are." Said the Leader. "But what about the Dark Forest?" Pressed the Man. "The wolves, the snakes, the quick sand?"

The six men laughed again. "There isn't a Dark Forest." Said the Leader. "Rubbish!" Exclaimed the Man. "I saw the body of a man eaten by wolves!"

"There wouldn't have been a body left if wolves had eaten it." Said the Leader. And instantly the Man knew the Leader was right. Why hadn't he thought of that at the time? The Man was shaken. "So what was the body I saw?" Asked the Man. "It was probably a mutineer killed by the Guards." Answered one of the other men.

"Killed by the Guards!?" The Man was astounded. "My Guard wouldn't kill anyone." He said.

Again the men laughed. "You really are gullible aren't you?" Said the Leader.

"Okay, how will we feed ourselves if we are free?" Said the Man defiantly. "Have you never seen the starving children of River of Discontent?"

"Beyond the River Of Discontent is a land of milk & honey." Replied the Leader patiently. "The land of the King and his courtiers. They have enough food for all of us and all the children of the River."

"I know." Said the Man. "But he's the King and all that belongs to him, not to us. We can't just take it. That wouldn't be fair!"

"And is it fair that he lives in a luxurious palace and you live in a cage just because he was born a King and you were born to live in a cage?" Asked the Leader, who was now very irritated by the Man's timidity in the face of freedom.

"Come on the Guards will be here in a minute." Said one of the other men. "We have to go."

"But you've just told me that if we go the Guards might kill us." Said the Man incredulously. "Yes and if you stay, they'll keep you in your cage forever." Said the Leader. "Come on!"

The Man didn't know what to do. For months before he had dreamt of escaping from the cage but now he had found a way of coping with life in the cage and now faced with a real chance of escaping he was frightened. Could he trust the Leader when he said there was no Dark Forest? Why would the Guard lie to him about the Dark Forest? Did the Leader really know where the bridges over the fire pits were? What if the Guards caught them trying to escape? He hadn't been thinking at all for months and now all at once there was just too much to think about!

"Come on!" Shouted the Leader. "It's now or never!" The Man realised the Leader was right and he may never get another chance to escape the cage. "Okay." He said. And started to move towards the gate of his cage. "About time!" Said the Leader and turned and ran towards the rest of his men.

But as the Man reached the gate of his cage, a squadron of Guards armed with swords, pikes and axes appeared out of the mist from all directions and surrounded the Leader and his men. The Man's Guard was amongst them. "You stay where you are!" He shouted to the Man. The Man nodded, took a step back into his cage and pulled the gate closed behind him, locking himself in.

Then a cry went up "Charge!" And the Guards descended onto the small group of mutineers and started to hack them to pieces. The Man turned away at the sight of the butchery and tried to shield his ears from the screams of the dying men and the sounds of crunching bones and slashing flesh.

Eventually the slaughter was over and the Man's Guard approached the cage. "You okay?" He asked. The Man nodded. "I wasn't trying to escape..." He started to explain but the Guard cut him off. "It's okay. I understand." The Guard said. "These mutineers can be very persuasive. But you did the right thing going back into the cage and closing the door. Well done."

"I know." Said the Man. "Thank you. You saved my life." The Guard smiled. "I told you. I'm only here to protect you."

"How did the mutineers get out of their cages?" Asked the Man.

"The Leader knocked his own Guard unconscious, stole his bridge map and the master keys, and then set out to free the others. I don't know where they thought they were escaping to though."

"He told me there wasn't any Dark Forest." Said the Man. "That the King's palace is beyond the River Of Discontent. The Guard smiled. "Well he would say that wouldn't he."

"Have you ever been to the Dark Forest? Asked the Man. "Ha! You must be joking!" The Guard snorted with laughter. "I told you. It's too dangerous for any of us to go anywhere near it."

"So you've never seen it?" Asked the Man. "No. Thank goodness." Replied the Guard. "I don't need to stick my hand in the fire pit to know it will hurt do I?" He said. "I'm quite happy to stay right away from the Dark Forest, thank you very much."

"What will happen now?" Asked the Man. "Nothing." Replied the Guard. "We'll just go back to normal."

____________________ ____________________

And now the Man knew there really was no hope of a life outside the cage and he became very angry indeed with the mutineers and especially that bloody Leader. He thought the Leader's plan to steal all the food and property of the King was outrageous and just plain wrong. "Things must be the way they are for a reason." He said to himself. "And it is not for people like me or that bloody mutineer, to question why things are the way they are. I mean, who did those bloody mutineers think they were?"

He was also angry because the Leader had nearly got him killed. "How irresponsible", he thought, "the Guard had told him there was no way out of a life in the cage, and the Guard is a good man and yet the Leader thought he knew better. Unbelievable."

But what upset the Man the most was that the Leader had got the Man's hopes up again. The Man had just managed to find a way to survive by not thinking about anything at all, and then along came the mutineers and woke him up from his self-imposed torpor. Now his head was yet again full of all sorts of thoughts, all sorts of hopes and dreams and he couldn't stand it because he knew they could never be fulfilled.

Over the coming weeks he came to hate the Leader with an intense ferocity. And much to his surprise and delight he discovered that this ferocious hatred of the Leader and all the mutineers, eventually pushed all the thoughts and ridiculous hopes and dreams out of his head. In time it was this hatred of the Leader that gave him the energy to get up in the morning; it was his hatred of the Leader that drove him on the treadmill; it was as if each step on the treadmill was an opportunity to stamp on the Leader's head.

His luxuries accumulated as the hatred of the Leader spurred him on to earn, a four-poster bed, an armchair, silk sheets, a flushing toilet...

"You live like a King in here!" Said the Guard, who was also benefitting from the Man's anger fuelled energy. Indeed, what the Man didn't know was that his work on the treadmill was earning the Guard enough to turn his cage into a four-roomed house with a bath and a walled Garden.

But it was probably just as well the Man didn't know, because in fact the Guard and the Man were getting on very well. No one could describe the Man as 'happy' because his head was so full of resentment and anger at the Leader, but he had at least stopped fighting the system and thus there was at least no longer any tension between him and the Guard. The Guard looked after the Man and in return the Man worked hard on the treadmill to provide them with the luxuries they both deserved. In fact the Man was almost learning to love his life in the cage, as the Guard had once advised him to try and do.

____________________ ____________________

Then one day as he was furiously stepping away on the treadmill pretending he was stepping on the bloody Leader's bloody head, another small group of mutineers appeared out of the mist. The Man knew immediately what they were and angrily stepped off his treadmill and went to the gate of his cage.

"We've got the keys." Said the Leader of the mutineers as he tried a key in the lock. "We're going to let you out."

"Are you, indeed?" Said the Man. "And then you're going to the King's Castle I suppose, to steal all his property?" The new Leader stopped in his tracks. "Yes." He said. "It's the only way for us all to be free."

"It's the only way for you all to die." Said the Man. He turned to the other mutineers. "This irresponsible, anarchist is going to get you all killed." He said.

"No. He's setting us free." Replied one of the others. "Don't you want to be free?"

"I'm not meant to be free." Said the Man. " Neither are you. It's not how the world is arranged."

"But we can change the world." Said the New Leader as he found the right key and opened the gate of the Man's cage. "No you can't!" Replied the Man. "And even worse in trying to change a world that can't be changed you are going to get a lot of people killed!"

"I'd rather be dead than live in a cage like this." Said one of the other mutineers. "That can be arranged." Said the Man and slammed his gate shut and screamed at the top of his lungs, "Guard! Help! Mutineers. Guards! Escaping mutineers!"

"Traitor!" The New Leader cried out as the mutineers turned and ran into the mist.

A moment later the Man heard the sounds of the inevitable battle between the mutineers and the Guards. This time he relished the screams of the dying men and the sounds of crushing bones and the slashing of flesh. "Teach those bastards to come round here with their talk of freedom!" He thought to himself.

____________________ ____________________

After the mutineers had been crushed the Guard had come to the Man and was full of praise. He said he had mentioned the Man's actions in his report on the incident and promised that the Man would be rewarded for his courage and his loyalty. The Man was pleased but said he had already earned his reward by hearing the screams of the New Leader as the Guards had hacked him to pieces. Secretly the Guard felt this was a bit harsh and he wasn't sure he really liked who the Man was becoming, but his was not reason why.

One morning about a week after the battle with the mutineers, the Man heard through the mist the sound of a trumpet and was astounded to see his very own Guard leading The King and a coterie of ministers and generals, out of the mist and making their way to his cage.

The Man quickly tidied up his cage as best he could, licked his hand and flattened his hair and pulled his sackcloth pyjamas into shape. As the King arrived the Man bowed deeply and then stood to attention. The Guard was grinning proudly from ear to ear and was wearing an elaborate medal on his chest.

The King approached the cage and the Guard indicated to the Man to step up to the gate. The King barely looked at the Man but took a medal from a cushion held out to him by a servant, and stepped forward and reached through the bar's of the cage to pin the medal to the Man's chest.

"I hereby award you the King's Medal for loyalty and valour in the face of mutiny." The King pinned the medal onto the Man's jacket and then held out his hand to the Man. Startled the Man took the King's hand and shook it. "Congratulations." Said the King without even making eye contact. "Thank you, Sir." Said the Man bowing deeply but the King and his coterie had already gone.

The Man looked down at his hand. "That hand has shaken the hand of a King!" He thought to himself proudly. Then he took off his medal to get a better look at it. It was smaller and less colourful than the Guards medal of course, but it was still pretty impressive and it was his and his alone. He was so proud he could have burst.

The Guard came back. "What about that then?" He said, beaming with pride and delight.

"I know." Said the Man. "And thank you so much for mentioning me in your dispatches."

"Least I could do." Said the Guard. "And to cap it all, you've been given the day off."

"The day off?" Said the Man. "Yes." Replied the Guard. "The King himself will feed you today, so for 24 hours you don't have to work the treadmill at all."

The Man couldn't believe the generosity of the King and tears of gratitude filled his eyes. "Now, now." Said the Guard. "Don't cry. You deserve it. You just enjoy yourself. I'll see you in in the morning." And the Guard left.

The Man was alone again in his cage. He had the rest of the day off and was assured of the gratitude and respect not only of his Guard but of the King himself. He knew that tomorrow he would have to walk the treadmill again, and that he could never, ever escape his life in the cage, but he didn't mind anymore because his existence had been acknowledged, he had a medal and he had shaken the hand of the King, and surely that must better than being free.

This story is the full version of the piece of flash fiction embedded in Chris Jury's Counter Culture, Propaganda And Political Consciousness, on the culture hub.