O’Brien focused his dead, soulless eyes at Winston. “You’re lying,” he stated in a cold, even voice.
Winston fidgeted in his chair, trying not to sweat. He closed his eyes briefly, then summoned all the courage he could muster and met his inquisitor’s gaze. “Actually, no, sir, I wasn’t. I’ve become quite the expert at doublethink since I started my tenure at the Ministry of Truth. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned at my post rewriting historical records, it is that no truth is absolute. Therefore, lying is impossible.”
O’Brien lifted his hand as if to slap Winston, then lowered it and glowered at his suspect instead. He breathed heavily, waiting for Winston to apologize, but after the awkward silence had stretched to a full minute, he stormed to the corner of Room 101 and grabbed a copy of yesterday’s Times off a bare wooden table. “Did you write this dribble?” He shoved the newspaper into Winston’s hands.
Winston skimmed the proffered page and shrugged. “Which bit of dribble are you referring to, sir?”
O’Brien tore the paper out of Winston’s hands and started reciting the text aloud: “Commenting on the escalating tensions in Paris on behalf of Big Brother, Inner Party Official Ted Heathen stated, ‘Semolina Pilchard climbing up the Eifel Tower? Elementary penguins singing Hare Krishna!’ Outer Party Chief Harrods Goodwillstore issued the following reply, ‘Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe!’ The Proletariat response remains inconclusive; half of the representatives assembled inside the holes of the Albert Hall chanted in unison, ‘I am the Eggman!’, whilst the other half cried in syncopated chorus, ‘I am the Walrus!’”
O’Brien threw the paper at Winston’s face. “What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?”
Winston managed a weak smile. “It’s Newspeak. You know, sir, a Party-approved journalistic device whereby unpleasant facts are evaded and replaced with vague or misleading descriptions that defy explanation. We mean to keep the unwashed masses in a state of perpetual confusion, so they won’t know what Big Brother is doing and will therefore have no cause to disagree with him.”
O’Brien breathed heavily as he locked eyes with Winston. “You mean to tell me this nonsensical rhetoric is official Party line now?” He grabbed the paper back and recited another passage: “Expert texpert choking smokers, don’t you think the joker laughs at you?”
“I culled that line directly from a Ministry of Plenty handbook,” Winston insisted. “Though the rest of the paragraph I cut and pasted from various Ministry of Love press releases.” He looked up at O’Brien with a complacent expression, held out his hand and asked, “May I?”
O’Brien reluctantly handed him back the newspaper.
Winston cleared his throat and read the rest of the article aloud: “Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye. Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess. Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.”
“Stop right there!” O’Brien shouted, grabbing the paper out of Winston’s hands and throwing it on the floor. “I don’t believe a word you’re saying.”
“Well, that’s the entire point, sir,” Winston replied. “The aim of my department is to obfuscate, not to clarify. We are historical revisionists, not reporters. Didn’t you realize that, sir?”
O’Brien took a step towards Winston, grabbed the handles of his chair and leaned forward until his face was within an inch of his prisoner’s. “You are not here to ask questions, you worthless wanker. You are here to answer them.”
Winston squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, but managed to maintain his composure.
O’Brien took a few steps backwards and leaned against the wall.
“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” O’Brien challenged.
“I wouldn’t know, sir,” Winston replied. “I don’t laugh at my own jokes, so I suspect I’m not.”
“The Party knows what you get up to when you leave your office every evening,” O’Brien continued. “We have reliable sources who have witnessed you meeting a group of three other young men on a regular basis in a disreputable public house. They have heard you singing.”
“Is singing a crime?” Winston asked.
“Singing songs that challenge the Party line is a crime,” O’Brien replied, curling his lips into a repugnant sneer. “And our informants have heard you singing a song about revolution.”
“Yes, sir, that’s the title of the song, sir,” Winston agreed. “Revolution. But it’s not a tune that encourages people to revolt. The lyrics are deliberately ambiguous. At one point, I sing, ‘You can count me out, in,’ just to leave the listener confused as to my intention.”
“I know your intention, you pillock!” O’Brien insisted. “You’re trying to tear down our government from within. But the Party has ways of dealing with the likes of you.”
Winston shivered unconsciously and licked his lips. “I suspect you do, sir,” he replied, struggling to maintain his ingratiating politeness.
O’Brien stretched out his arm towards a double light switch beside the door. He rested his hand on the plate, then toggled one of the switches, casting the room into darkness. Then he flicked the second switch. Three bright spotlights shone directly into Winston’s face.
“How many lights do you see?” O’Brien asked.
Winston squinted to shield his eyes from the bright lights. “Three, sir?” he replied.
“You don’t seem very sure of your response,” O’Brien derided him. “Count the lights and tell me exactly how many there are.”
“One and one and one is three,” Winston replied slowly.
“No!” O’Brien shouted. “There are four!”
“Are you sure, sir?” Winston asked.
“You doubt me?” O’Brien answered.
Winston sighed. “My apologies, sir. I’m short-sighted, so I tend to misunderstand everything I see. But if you say that there are four lights, I’m certain you must be correct.”
“Count the lights again!” O’Brien commanded.
Winston counted silently in his head, then smiled. “Well, I see three bright lights, and they all shine on. Like the moon, and the stars, and the sun. But I’d forgotten that there is always an inner light present, which shines from within. So yes, sir, you’re right, sir. There are indeed four lights shining in this room.”
“You’re playing games with me, Smith,” O’Brien stated.
“No, sir, I’m not,” Winston insisted. “Games are supposed to be fun. And this conversation is most decidedly unpleasant. I don’t consider it a game by anyone’s standards. Certainly not by mine.”
O’Brien started pacing the floor, then returned to the light switch, turned off the spotlights and switched the overhead light back on. “Do you know what day today is, Smith?”
“Actually, sir, if you don’t mind, I prefer to be called Lennon now,” Winston replied. “Smith was the name of my uncle who raised me. He was called George Toogood Smith, to be precise. But my father’s name was Lennon, and after deliberating a great deal on the matter of late, I have decided that it would be more fitting if I used my proper patronym. Don’t you agree, sir?”
“I don’t give a rat’s arse about your father’s name!” O’Brien screamed. “I asked you a bloody question! Answer it!”
Winston nodded. “Today is the 25th of June, 1967.”
“And do you know what is going to happen today?” O’Brien continued.
“Yes, sir,” Winston replied. “Big Brother will be speaking to the entire world in the first global satellite link in recorded history. It’s been quite the talk of the newsroom these past few days, I’ll have you know.”
“It will be a momentous day for the entire planet!” O’Brien exclaimed.
“Indeed,” Winston agreed. “We’re all quite curious what he looks like. I’ve never seen Big Brother, sir. Have you? Some of the blokes in the newsroom suspect he has some sort of deformity which keeps him from showing his face in public. One fellow even started a pool, taking bets on what type of defect Big Brother has. A cleft lip. A glass eye. Buck teeth perhaps, or maybe no teeth at all! Though personally, I think he must be good looking, ’cause he’s so hard to see.”
O’Brien slapped Winston hard across the face, then smiled in perverse satisfaction. “I’ll have no more of your disrespect, Smith! Or Lennon! Or whatever the hell you want to call yourself!” he shouted. He shook while he spoke. His face flushed red and the veins in his neck bulged and throbbed. He paced the floor again while he gathered his wits, then turned and faced Winston with a wicked sneer. “So your father’s name was Lennon?” he asked in a condescending voice.
“Yes,” Winston replied. “I’ve already told you so.”
“And your mother’s name was…?”
“Stanley,” Winston said. “Julia Stanley. Though she changed it to Julia Lennon when she married Dad, of course. Then she switched it to Julia Dykins, after she left Dad and took up with a bloke named Bobby. Though my stepfather’s Christian name was actually John, just like mine. My full name is John Winston, but I’ve always gone by my middle moniker. Queer coincidence, don’t you think?”
O’Brien ignored his question. “What happened to your mother, John Winston?” he asked, his eyes glowing with hate.
Winston looked away. “She died, sir,” he mumbled. “In a car crash. Killed by an off-duty cop who was in his cups. The bastard.”
“You’re sure about that?” O’Brien challenged.
Winston looked up at him. “Yes. I attended her funeral.”
“You saw her body?”
Winston started to shake. “No. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her corpse.”
“What if I told you she was still alive?” O’Brien said with a sneer.
Winston said nothing for several seconds, then mumbled quietly. “Then I wouldn’t believe you.”
“But you told me earlier that there is no such thing as lying,” O’Brien challenged.
Winston’s face flushed. “I meant that…hell, you know what I meant. I was talking about newspapers.”
“The newspapers tow the Party line,” O’Brien said. “So do you. So do I. But the people who don’t follow the rules have been known to disappear, as you are, no doubt, aware. Persons become unpersons, though they are not necessarily dead.”
Winston eyed his interrogator suspiciously. “Go on,” he said, his voice growing stronger.
“What if I told you your mother was still alive?” O’Brien repeated.
Winston hesitated for a long moment, then replied, “Then I would ask you to explain yourself.”
“Your mother was quick with a laugh, John Winston Smith Lennon,” O’Brien said. “She didn’t take life very seriously. She didn’t take the Party very seriously either. She didn’t even take Big Brother seriously. So she ceased to exist, in the eyes of the state. A constable took care of that for us.”
Winston breathed rapidly through his nose, but said nothing.
“Would you like to see her?” O’Brien asked.
Winston eyed him suspiciously and considered his words before he spoke. “Where might she be?” he asked at length.
“I could take you to her,” O’Brien answered with a leer.
Winston pondered his meaning. Was his tormentor offering to take him to a jail where Julia was trapped? Or was he euphemistically suggesting a state-sponsored murder that would result in a posthumous reunion between mother and son? Winston closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them and stared at O’Brien with what he hoped was an inscrutable expression.
“What time is it?” Winston asked.
O’Brien laughed awkwardly, startled by Winston’s question. “What a thing to ask.”
“I would like to see my mum very much,” Winston explained. “At the earliest possible convenience, if you could arrange that. But I don’t want to miss Big Brother’s speech. I am an historian, as you know. Or a keeper of recorded history, in any case. And this global satellite link is certain to be a monumental event.”
Winston’s reply threw O’Brien for a loop. His allegiance to Big Brother got the better of his sadistic streak, and he smiled sincerely for the first time since he had stepped into Room 101 with his prisoner. He checked his watch. “He will be speaking in five minutes. My, how the time has flown.”
“Is the telescreen in this room on?” Winston asked.
“That’s a stupid question,” O’Brien said, sneering. “You of all people should know that the telescreens are always on. Big Brother is always watching.”
“But now we will be watching him,” Winston pointed out.
O’Brien mumbled a nonsensical reply, then turned to face the telescreen. He allowed Winston to reposition his chair so that he could watch as well. They stared at the blank screen in silence for a few minutes, then both gasped when the screen lit up and the image of a man’s face appeared before them.
“Hell, is that bloke Big Brother?” Winston asked. “He looks so common.”
“Shut up!” O’Brien ordered him. “That’s just Parson, a Party wonk. He’s going to introduce Big Brother.”
“Right, he looks familiar, now that I think about it,” Winston replied. “I think he lives near me. He has a dull wife and several obnoxious children.”
O’Brien turned briefly and scowled at Winston, then looked back at the screen.
“Greetings, citizens of Oceana, Eurasia and Eastasia,” proclaimed Parson. His hands shook visibly, causing the piece of paper he was holding to make loud crinkly noises.
“Pity the Party couldn’t afford a better sound system for this monumental event,” Winston said off-handedly. “Why, I know a bloke who’s a regular wizard with microphones and amplifiers. He could have wired up a fool-proof A/V system for this broadcast. Though I think he’s actually rather busy today…”
“Shut up!” O’Brien shouted. “Watch the telly!”
Winston fell silent as Parsons recited the speech on his paper, then smiled. “Fantastic bit of Newspeak, that. I’m going to guess Syme wrote it. I work with him in the Ministry of Truth, you know.”
“I said shut up!” O’Brien repeated. He raised his hand as if to slap Winston again, then froze in horror. Parson’s image on the telescreen dissolved, and was replaced by a projection of three young men, holding instruments and standing in front of a small orchestra.
“We’re waiting on you, Winston,” one of them spoke into the camera.
“Right, that’s my cue,” Winston said. He stood up from his chair and started walking to the door.
“What the hell…what the goddamn hell!” O’Brien cursed. He ran after Winston and grabbed his arm in a fierce grip.
A stranger appeared in the door of Room 101, holding a fistful of flowers and a helium balloon. “You’d better let Winston go, Mr. O’Brien,” the visitor said. “He’s got a gig just now.”
“He’s not going anywhere!” O’Brien shouted. He tightened his grip on Winston.
“Mr. Charrington said to let him go,” said a large man standing behind the first stranger. He punched O’Brien hard across the face, knocking him to the floor.
“Thanks, Mal,” Winston laughed.
O’Brien shouted for the guards.
“Too late,” said Mal Evans, flexing his muscles. “We’ve already taken care of them.”
“Offered them choco-biscuits, laced with a very delicate extract of cannabis,” the first man laughed. “In celebration of the global satellite link, of course. They’re all in a very good mood just now. A large group of Mal’s bouncer friends have taken their place, and are presently protecting the front door of this building.”
Winston started walking out of the room.
“You can’t leave!” O’Brien shouted after him.
“You’ll have a hard time stopping me,” Winston called back to him. “This is a peaceful revolution. A bloodless coup. The plebes who work the electrical systems in this building have switched their allegiance away from the Party. And so have all the sound engineers and technicians running the boards and cameras for the global satellite link. They won’t do Big Brother’s bidding anymore.”
“I always said, if there’s hope, it lies in the proles,” Mr. Charington laughed.
Winston jogged out of the room, ran up the stairs and left the building by way of a door that led to the roof. He greeted his bandmates with brief hugs, then took his place behind a microphone and faced the camera beaming his image to the entire world by way of a global satellite hookup.
“My mates and I are gonna sing a song for everyone now,” he stated by way of an introduction. “It’s about finding a way out of impossible situations, and doing the things we were meant to do, as human custodians of this planet, not as slaves to a totalitarian state. But before I start, I want to make a shout out to someone very dear to me. I don’t know if you can hear this or not, or if you’re even capable of hearing anymore, but I just wanted to tell you that half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia.”
He looked over his shoulder at his bandmates and counted in the song they had been rehearsing for the past several weeks.
“Love, love, love,” they sang in chorus three times. A woman sitting to the side played a few notes on her cello, then Winston started singing into the microphone:
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game.
All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.
* * *
Inspired by the novel “1984” by George Orwell (1949)