24 March 2023
AN EVENING WITH EXTREMISTS
By Kevin Burnett
The Mission of the World’s Deadliest After-School Club is Revealed.
David Aaronovitch, author of Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theories have Shaped Modern History, defines a conspiracy as two or more people or agencies getting together to plot an illegal or otherwise immoral action. A conspiracy theory, he explains, is the as-yet unsubstantiated ‘attribution of agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended’, or more specifically, ‘the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another’.
Upon learning that the assassination of a president has been committed, the idea that it may have been carried out by a group of any size seems preposterous. While much can be said for strength in numbers, popular conspiracy theories often suggest the involvement of powerful organizations that would require an ironclad cover-up. Consider the 1969 moon landing; its purpose in establishing American power in the space race was undeniable. If it was a hoax however, performed with aluminium suits and stunt wires on a closed set, the time, money, and thousands of people required to fabricate the event, sell it to the public and cover up the ruse would simply outstrip the effort of actually putting men on the moon. Most conspiracy theories can be stripped away by applying Occam’s razor in this way: all else being equal, the most likely conclusion involves fewer new assumptions. That is, a person is more likely to pull off a murder alone than convince ten others to join them successfully.
It is with this in mind that, when Michael tells me that the assassination would not have occurred without the Knitwear Society, a student-led organization affiliated with the University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union, I don’t believe him.
‘I don’t think you understand the situation I was in,’ he says. ‘It was a rough time for me. When I wasn’t depressed, I was paranoid. Everything looked like a threat to me. I was in the second year of my Law degree at the time, so it wasn’t exactly the best position to be in.’
In October 2017, Michael seemed to have life figured out. Although his family lived nearby, he had been sharing a house with his boyfriend for over a year, a tall third year Law student named Nathanael Doane, whom he called Nate. Having passed his first year with flying colours, he had impressed his lecturers, before the pressure got to him. Something had given way in his head; living terrified him, but so had the thought of death. Lost in direction and losing sleep, for three weeks he couldn’t bring himself to leave the house.
Nate was kind and devoted. He had stood by his side until, one Wednesday evening, he decided enough was enough. “I’m going out to the Students’ Union tonight, for a social. You should come with me.” Michael didn’t want to be outside, but it had already been decided for him. Nate only occasionally made clothing suggestions, but the pink post-it note stuck to the front of a blue Winter-themed jumper read ‘wear this’ and left no room for argument. The social demanded a strict knitwear dress code.
“I look like Tom Cruise in a human disguise,” Michael complained as Nate pulled on a black cardigan, but he held back from saying more; he was pulling it back on his wrists often, but Nate had worn it even in the Spring months. He felt a little bribed, but the gesture meant more.
Arriving at the Students’ Union a little after 7pm, Nate had offered few details. “You’ll like the Knitwear Society. Or, if you don’t, we’ll drink enough at the pub that you’ll think you did.”
“Funny. I thought knitting was something you did to stay sober.”
“We’re not going there to knit.”
“That’s good to know,” Michael said, “but that could mean anything. For all I know, your club’s arranging next month’s celebrity mask orgies.” He was being facetious, but this was the first night Nate had ever mentioned a ‘Knitwear Society’. It concerned him that he waited until now to share it.
“Come on, Mikey. If that’s what we were doing, I would’ve brought more than my bus pass.”
The evasion continued until they reached the society’s official meeting room. It changed yearly based on availability and that year, every Wednesday at 7pm, Gallery room 4 was Knitwear Society headquarters. They let themselves in to a gathering of no more than twenty students, stood around or sat in intimate chair circles as they socialised and drank from paper cups in a warm room. Most of the students wore jumpers or cardigans or sweater vests, but for the daring few, only scarves, hats, or fingerless gloves would suffice. One young man in a baseball cap wore a pair of striped, knitted trousers. The effect was unifying, if eclectic. Every person that saw the couple enter gave warm, welcoming smiles; Michael felt like he was surrounded by all his friends at the same moment he forgot their faces.
‘Maybe it was because they already knew Nate,’ he tells me, ‘but as woollen as it was, it felt like I was exactly where I needed to be. That had never happened before.’ Only later would he identify it as the first red flag, but tonight it was a pleasant surprise, even as the boy in the knitted trousers greeted Nate and handed him a paper cup of Dr Pepper, which he took without question. As they talked, a young woman wearing a knitted deerstalker on her blonde head strode out of the woodwork. She was shorter than Nate by a half-foot, but her grin was dazzling as she guided him back to stand by Michael.
“Nathan! You worry me sometimes,” she said. “I thought you’d run out on me, and you go and bring a new recruit!”
“Do you think that little of me?” Nate said. His tone was off, somehow. “You wouldn’t be where you are if I hadn’t broken that tie vote.”
“With a necktie, I remember,” she said. “I haven’t laughed that hard since that imposter claimed we were all being brainwashed by chem-trails.”
“What a rookie mistake – while world leaders breathe the same air? Everyone knows about the excess fluoride in tap water.”
They tapped paper cups. “Preaching to the choir, my friend. Say, who’s this?”
Nate introduced him as ‘the one I was telling you about’. “Michael,” he said, “this is Blair Wright, the society chair.”
The two shook hands for longer than necessary. He felt acutely vulnerable in her presence. “Nice to meet you, Mike, really. Say, if you need anything, just let me know.” She winked and walked away before he could object to the nickname or truly take her all in.
‘She had a strong personality,’ Michael explains. ‘She had this ability to make you feel cared for, but it’s a little invasive at first. At the time, I blamed the heat. I couldn’t say anything, especially since Nate trusted her. When he told me to get a drink and take a look around, I did.’
They only provided tea, coffee, and an assortment of fizzy drinks, so he circulated the room and listened in to the chatter. It was getting stuffy; the jumper seemed like a bad idea when he returned their friendly waves. One person in a beanie and sweater vest listened to their friends’ energetic debate and transcribed it by hand with a clipboard in their lap. “I’m telling you, those papers were an inside job.”
“Right, and someone was willing to incriminate himself.”
“Maybe he was pushed into participating. Maybe ratting them out was the only way to get off their rope—”
“Or maybe they were planted there.”
“Of course you’d think that.”
He turned to a corkboard hung on a wall, covered in pink post-it notes with no order. Handwritten, they held phrases like ‘poisoned milkshake’, ‘planned doc leak’, ‘golfing accident’, ‘ammonia showers’, ‘Amazon drone strike’, ‘Hamilton tickets’. He thought he recognised at least one hand. He smiled, but he was numb, searching for something that made sense. More than numb, he was outside of himself. He felt the urge to laugh, but he bit it down; it seemed rude, even insane. That made him want to laugh harder.
The group eventually pulled together a long conference table, at which Blair took the head seat. By the time Nate motioned him over, holding a cup of Fanta, the seat beside him was left, and he joined them.
“Thank you, thank you!” Blair said. She stood, her hands raised. “I’m so glad to see all of you here tonight. This month has been a huge success, one of the most successful in fact. I don’t think there are any birthdays to announce, and Operation Sandford has gone perfectly to schedule, so I will begin by saying,” she paused, “I am already so proud of you. We’ve accomplished great things together. The world turns because of each and every one of you. Day by day, we inch closer to creating a global community that every good person deserves, but we are not done. Your work is not yet done. It’s time we continued our discussion from last time.”
“What about the plans for welfare?” the boy in the knitted trousers asked.
Blair laughed until her cheeks were deep dimples. “Patrick, please, that can wait. Now, we know it’s been a bad ten months. The investigation into the firing of the FBI director has gone nowhere, the plan to kill affordable healthcare still looms and the Prime Minister refuses to object. Now more than ever is the time for positive rebellion and rebellious positivity. So, companions, how do we propose to assassinate the President of the United States?”
Michael pauses to put on the kettle. I let him make us more tea before we continue. ‘So this girl, Blair, she just said this?’ I expect that most leaders like Blair Wright would build up to violent missions over years of rhetoric promising prosperity and hope before finally setting a condition the community cannot refuse. By that point, the target’s fate is all but sealed.
‘She did,’ Michael says, ‘and everyone accepted it. I waited for Nate to say something; he was such a kind person, such a pacifist, that I thought he would. The thought of hurting anyone made him ill, but he didn’t bat an eyelid.’
He looked up and down the conference table, saw them speak without hearing. His hands shook. He couldn’t breathe. He stood up from the table without a word. Ignoring the eyes on him, he left. The door opened again behind him and Nate dragged him by the wrist into the next empty room. “Honey, where are you going?”
“Didn’t you hear what she said? Assassinate a president! Tell me I imagined it.”
Nate drew him into a close hug. “You didn’t,” he whispered, “But don’t panic.”
“Don’t—” he stuttered, “if something happens, I’m an accessory to murder.”
“Nothing will happen to you. They’re good people in there, Mikey. They’re making a difference, changing the world.”
“Maybe, but this is too far. What happened to protesting, to, to—”
Nate sighed. “Protests don’t work. We didn’t take what was ours. Every bit of progress, every civil right – we only got it because it suited the big wigs to give it to us.”
“But this is plotting murder. And it’s not even for our country.”
“Exactly! If they had a meeting like ours at Columbia Uni, they’d be up to their necks in CIA operatives. They aren’t safe, but we are. That’s why we have to act. And you’re going to help us.”
Michael pushed out of his arms. “No, no. I’m not helping them do jack-s**t. I won’t tell anyone, I’ll drink to forget, but you leave me out of it.”
As Michael explains, he couldn’t. A current member invited him, he attended while adhering to the dress code. That made him a member and he could never leave. As Nate put it, taking his hands in his, his dark brown eyes bright, “You’re one of us now. Once in Knitwear Club, always in Knitwear Club!” Michael had never seen him so passionate. “This is what you’ve needed, isn’t it? Something to give your life meaning? I know, you’re afraid to want this. You’re a cautious guy, and I adore that about you, but you could be a huge asset. I don’t want to lose you because you lost your head. Hundreds of companions pass through without seeing opportunities like this one, and maybe we bend the rules, but we never get caught. We’re going to right so many wrongs.”
Nate kissed him. When they parted, there was something like that room in his eyes. “Michael, how would you like to usher in the forty-sixth President of the United States?”
The next day, laid in Nate’s arms on the sofa, he watched the news with the worst hangover of his life. As Hoope’s supporters vowed to rid the US of immigrants, he was ready to take control of his life again. Death terrified him, but the life Hoope would give his country terrified him more.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
© 2017 Kevin Burnett, ‘Burnit Write’