Read the 3rd Prize Winner - The Curfew by Jane Miles
The debate topic: The curfew should continue indefinitely.
Mr. Argyle underlines his cursive on the whiteboard and then travels between the rows to assign each of us a viewpoint. Some of the girls in the back of the class squeal, others groan. The affirmatives won last month when they argued that genetically modified crops were good for people even if they destroyed the environment. Now, everyone thinks the assenting stance is lucky.
I’m confident as I wait my turn. There’s only one approach I can take, even if Mr. Argyle thinks the opposing view is more creative than the affirmative. Everyone knows that I’m the catalyst and that I’m different.
Mr. Argyle pauses briefly as he nears my desk. His showy pants swish when he stops to fish a scrap of paper from the top-hat used in last year’s play. Solemnly, he drops a ball of paper to me and moves on before I unwrap it.
It matches the same distinctive loops on the whiteboard. My first thought is to ask for another, but I don't. I just stare at the word. The bell for next period sounds, and I scrunch the paper into my pocket. He looks away when I frown at him, and it crosses my mind that he knows what he’s given me. If he does, he must know what he's asking of me. How could he not?
My first chance to speak to Mr. Argyle about the debate is third period English. I ask him if he’s made a mistake while the rest of the class read. His lasered upper lip slinks high under his nose, but he puts his phone away.
“It’s not a mistake.”
I keep my eyes down. “But with everything…” The words hang for a second too long. “I just don’t think I can debate against the curfew. I-It’s not right.”
“Remember, to never state an outcome backed only by an assumption.” He sighs and rubs his eyes. For the first time, he meets my gaze. “Look, I understand your caution, but this is an excellent exercise for everyone. Debating is about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and backing it up with research. It requires heart, and Joan, you have a lot of that. I can’t think of a fifteen-year-old with more experience in the subject. You can bring something new to all the tired arguments.” He nods to himself. “Research alone won't get you far. Search your heart and inject your own beliefs.” He checks the time on his phone.
“That’s your job.” He smiles. “Debates are next week. Go on, get back to your desk.”
I turn away, not sure what else I can say.
It’s in these moments I wish for my parents’ advice, but it’s been two years since their murder and, in that time, I’ve had to learn to be independent. My teachers don’t like to speak to me because they’re afraid they’ll say something wrong. The male teachers are the most careful. I can only guess what they say about me behind my back. When I go to Gran’s house for the holiday’s, she does her best to shield me from the news, the riots and the violence, but it still filters through. It’s my face on the banners and my parents’ names crossed out in red ink.
Mr. Argyle carries on with the lesson as if he hasn’t asked the impossible of me and I wonder if he’s a radical, one of the anti-curfewists who are trying to stop the revolution. Does he think that humiliating me will achieve something? I’m kept at the boarding school for most of the year, but I know there are people out there who worship my commitment to the curfew. I think about that when Mr. Argyle looks at me.
At lunch, I slink back to my dorm because I don’t know how to behave around the other girls, and I’ve given up trying to understand them. When it started, we were all thirteen. The marches began when men were warned to stay home at night. At first, both men and women went to the protests, then after a while, it was just the men. It was hard for people to adjust to the change in roles. The economy suffered for a while until they recruited more women. My classmates didn’t understand either. They questioned why men had to stay home between sundown and sunrise. Some of them had fathers and brothers who were let go from their jobs. Most had never considered their loved ones as dangerous. They’d never worried about the dark until they were told to be scared.
On my bed, I stare at a framed portrait of my parents’. Dressed in white, they look lovingly at one another. The photo doesn’t hint at how they would both die or how the world would use their deaths as the trigger for change. It could’ve been any crime before or after that finally tipped the scales towards the curfew. There were countless shootings, assaults, rapes, stabbings, executions, crimes of passion, fire, acid, and all the other innumerable ways men hurt others. So much pain, until nothing else was left. Even the indifferent couldn’t bear to watch the suffering continue. My parents’ murder was the spark, and the reason given to end all violence. A crime so terrible that it woke people up, and when they heard my speech, they had to face what other generations had ignored. It might not have happened if they hadn’t seen my tears, my distress, and my pain at having to relieve it all over again.
A girl who’s a year younger asks me if I want to talk, and I shake my head. What’s there to say? Life isn’t fair, especially when I should be grateful. I am both safe and the biggest target in the world. It’s a privilege to be in my position. To have a voice when so many others don’t.
From my pocket I take out the scrap of paper with the one word written on it. How can Mr. Argyle ask me to oppose the curfew? I tear it up and sprinkle the pieces on to the floor.
The day of the debate and my hands are sweating. They always do when people stare. My body becomes slick and my throat dries. I’ve spent the weekend practising, but I don’t feel ready. The other girls are working together, and I stick out alongside the two groups of six.
“Who’s speaking in the affirmative?” Mr. Argyle asks.
The group next to me giggle and one girl raises her hand. She’s the leader and although she pretends to be nervous like the others, her eyes are sharp. In a show of solidarity, they all wear a ribbon on their school lapels. Brown, red and yellow. The curfewists wear it to represent the three excretions of the body. Shit, blood, and piss. These are the colours of crime. The reminder stops us from hiding the true nature of violent deaths, or pretending they are anything other than animalistic. The colours come from a description I gave to Parliament on how I found my parents’. How could I know back then that it would become a symbol of a generation?
Mr. Argyle sits at the back of the class. “Go ahead, Violet.”
The girl with the large white teeth smiles. I can tell that she’s finished pretending to be scared. Her body is solid and forward facing. She doesn’t rock or waver and despite my reluctance, I lean in like the others.
“The curfew should continue indefinitely.” She pauses with confidence. “Fact: two years ago, men contributed to ninety percent of all violent crimes. Fact: before the curfew, ninety-nine percent of all stranger crime occurred at night and by men.” She’s passionate when she speaks. Her hands remain on the lectern, but she exaggerates her expressions. Her nose scrunches, she widens her eyes, and her head tilts out at an angle. All of it is perfect.
“I’m going to argue the affirmative view. The curfew will work past the two-year review period because the statistics support the assertion. My first point….” I follow her finger as it scans the width of the room. “The decision to instigate a curfew did not happen overnight but over five thousand years of documented violence by men, where women and children were the predominate victims. Over the subsequent years more men created laws to discriminate against women, people of colour, disabilities, and sexual orientation. The only demographic not prejudiced in any capacity was the cisgendered man. Never have men had to fear going outside at night because the law, their size and their aggression, protected them.”
I watch Mr. Argyle for a reaction. His pen moves quickly over his notes, but he doesn’t look up. I wonder if he’s one of those men who argues not all men are the same and that most are good. He looks the type, dressed in his kitsch clothing.
“… it’s true. There are many shades to men as there are of women.” Her voice rises in a sign of power. “But good men do not outweigh the terrible crimes of the few. The current curfew has seen a drastic reduction in stranger crime to the historic low of one incident per year. This equates to the prevention of three thousand homicides and one hundred and fifty-five thousand assaults.
“Since the curfew, night life venues that catered to young men have embraced family-friendly activities. Children play in the streets and women can venture out unafraid. We’re not talking about banning men.” She shrugs suggestively. “They need us as much as we need them.” Someone laughs beside me. “Let’s not forget that men can still go out at night if they request a permit or if they’re escorted by a woman. Restricting their ability to move freely has decreased crime in the suburbs, the city’s, public transport, and places serving alcohol. In an ideal world, a curfew is the last resort, but we don't live in a perfect world. History has shown us that curfews were typically used to mute the vulnerable. It’s now time we restrict the predators!
“In conclusion, I have shown that the curfew is a meaningful way to reduce crime and should remain for the foreseeable future. Thank you.”
She curtseys and her team claps. I watch as she shrinks back to size when she re-joins her classmates.
“Thank you, Violet.” Mr. Argyle walks to the front of the class. With deft movements, he strokes his chin. “A well-researched and delivered argument. Although, I think we would’ve benefitted from a personal story or how the curfew has affected your own life. Something that didn’t make us think we were watching a re-run of the news.” He scribbles something in his notebook. “Overall, a solid assertion that supports the motion.”
The group hugs again, and the other team congratulates them.
“We’ve got two factions who will speak for the opposition. Who will go next?”
It’s posed as a question, but Mr. Argyle looks at me.
“I’ll go,” I whisper. My voice is wobbly, and I can feel the unease sink into my belly. Eyes burn into me as I pass. My skin is already itching from it.
Someone murmurs sharply. “Man-lover.”
I turn to pick the heckler from the crowd, but the sea of crimson uniforms hides them. I don’t want them to think I’m an anti-curfewist or worse, someone who can’t decide. At the lectern, I reorder my cue cards and avoid looking up. I know what they’re wondering. How did she deliver that speech to Parliament when she can’t even talk at a debate? I told the world about my fear and demanded the Government do something. To end violence once and for all. The speech went viral and changed my life forever. More so, then when my parents’ were killed.
“When you’re ready.” Mr. Argyle eyes me with interest.
I clear my throat. “Ah. T-The curfew should continue indefinitely, and I’ll be arguing the opposing view.” My cards smudge, and I skip to one I can read. “Men are people.”
“I mean, men are violent people. My opponent outlined that fact in her argument. Without men on the streets at night, stranger violence has decreased. But…” My throat feels like it’s closing, and I swallow too loudly. “Violence has increased in the home and in the unrest caused by the rioting. Cyber bullying and trolling has become so widespread that universities are closed to the internet.” I rest my trembling hands on the lectern and discard my notes.
“My parents’ loved me. They were normal people until I found them, dead on our driveway.” I say it quickly before the image can form in my mind. “Since then, my life has changed. I still feel danger every day, but now it feels different. It’s not there because of my age or gender, but because of the curfew movement propelling me forward. I’m a teenager, but I’m also the sum of my parents’ murder.” My hair clings to my face. Pulling it free buys me time to collect my thoughts. “I-I didn’t tell the world to make the curfew. When I gave that speech, I didn’t know what would happen afterwards. Does that make me the right person to spearhead this change?”
I know I’m rambling, but I can’t stop. If I can keep going, something inside me will take over, like it did before, and it will all make sense.
“I don’t hate men, but I fear them. I don’t want them locked away, but I can’t think of a way to keep women safe.”
Mr. Argyle raises his hand and speaks without waiting for me to nod. “I believe you’re arguing the affirmative.” He sounds disappointed. “Your assignment was to form an argument opposing the curfew. Can you—”
“Let me finish.” I like how he withers when I snap at him and how the other girls smile at me. “Where was I? Oh, yes. I’ve tried to research the opposing viewpoint as objectively as possible, but as you rightly informed me, Mr. Argyle, I have to speak from the heart.” My voice is stronger than I thought possible. I can feel the surge start inside me.
“There’s no evidence that men will stop re-offending if we remove the curfew. In fact, men are still harming but instead of in parks or clubs, it’s in the home and online. My opposing view to the debate topic is that a curfew only pushes the problem into the shadows. If we want to ensure most men are never violent, ever again, we need to introduce genetic screening at conception. We need to eradicate strength, aggression and drive.” I pause for dramatic effect. “We need to eliminate the deficiencies of the Y chromosome.”
Mr. Argyle is pale, and his words are lost over the cheers of my classmates.
I urge them to quieten. “If we were talking about a crop of grain with a susceptibility to mites, we would look inside it and increase its tolerance to pests. We would improve its DNA to ensure it remains nutritious, hardy, and plentiful. So must we look at the male species as incomplete and in need of repair.” I am breathing hard and it's then that I notice the red light of a video camera in the back row. Is it live streaming? I think of the billions that watched my first speech. It wasn’t those people I was speaking to, though. It was always the broken and bloodied faces of my parents’.
“In conclusion, violence is a plague. The curfew doesn’t remove the threat. To do that, we need to take the next step. Control. Modification. Eradication.”
Most of the girls cheer. Some look uncomfortable, others are angry. The minority stay quiet.
“You…” Mr. Argyle is sweating, and his hands shake.
I stare up at him with my best impression of innocence. “Was that your camera, Mr. Argyle?”
He looks away, but the red hue on his neck is spreading.
Without being told, I know my speech has left the room. Outside, car horns sound and phones vibrate. My words are travelling around the globe all because of Mr. Argyle’s camera.
“Don’t you understand what you’ve done?” He says to all of us. “You’ve condemned us. We’re not all bad. What do you really know about anything at fifteen?”
I frown when I look up at him. How can he say that? He’s the one who tried to trick me by choosing the debate topic and telling me to speak from the heart. It’s his fault, not mine.
His expression softens when he thinks he’s getting through to me. “It’s not too late.”
I’m surrounded by the other girls when I turn back to him.
“It’s time you went back to your desk, Mr. Argyle.”