By Ellen Maslin
There was a streetlamp, and the light falling underneath it would blind you into thinking the time was now. But the time was not now. No, this time was more than now, further than now and encompassing all of the yesterdays. If you were to arrive in this time abruptly, having not aged a minute from now, you would likely struggle to breathe, fall over quite a lot and most definitely walk into things. The floor is slippery with newness and there is no real ground at all. It is polished to the upmost transparency, or reflection (depending on the region), and perfected into smooth lines that only curve a little, only when they absolutely must. The floor in this time is slick and efficient. What use would curves be when everybody here only goes one way? Sometimes a person might turn back on themselves, but this is a rarity. Things happen fast and things happen forward.
There was however, one corner on a street rarely walked down for obvious reasons. Corners slow you down. Corners force you to change your direction. People “wait” on street corners, and that verb was removed from the dictionary here many years ago. The council had of course planned to straighten it out, like all the other long forgotten places of pause and ponder, but two women fought the case, and won. Benji and Jaz, a couple proud to be in their mid-sixties, were even prouder of their victorious battle 16 years ago. They could not bear the increasing destruction of the natural world around them, and when they got wind that the last standing Great Oak was to be uprooted, they devised a plan. The only valued value of this time was financial growth; the growth of plants and trees just got in the way, and of course any consideration for human development was secondary to their worth in income. So, Benji and Jaz proposed that this street corner, where the Great Oak clung tightly to its roots, would be the home of their new business venture. “The Radio Bar”, they said, would rake in tourists seeking a slice of nostalgia, especially beings from other worlds who preferred things the way they used to be. It was true, only people from this time and place were hypnotised by the accelerating pace of life. Benji and Jaz had long been drinking an elixir that prevented the addiction to ‘More’. The Radio Bar stood for ‘Enough’. Which is why the group of youngsters, who stumbled across it accidentally, were stunned into silence when the first pure hit of oxygen reached their lungs.
What use would curves be when everybody here only goes one way?
These kids had been on their way to a concert and following a mobile device for directions. In a swift turn of events, each one of them was separated from their treasured piece of technology. One lost signal and, in a rage, threw the digital extension of themselves into the gust of roaring traffic. Trying to stop them, their friend reached out their hand, from which their phone slipped and met the same shattering fate. In an attempt to capture this moment, for a sure-to-go-viral video, another friend whipped out their device and had it robbed was by a sprinting creature whose shrieking laugh was all it left behind. The final friend had a moment longer to digest this before realising that they too were a victim. Their phone had run out of battery over an hour ago and, as they were the first to purchase the update, none of their pals had a charger that would fit!
The group were beside themselves. They were a mixture of ages, between not-quite-teenage and should-be-nearly-but-most-definitely-aren’t-adult, and all completely useless without tech. They did not know where they were, where they were heading or how to communicate with each other. They could not follow instinct or memory for direction, of this they had none. Instinct had become unused, grown lazy and bitter, and no one had to remember anything these days. The only content special enough to be granted entry into Long Term Memory, was that which would otherwise be missed. Mostly everything was snapped, tweaked and flaunted so, Long Term Memory was barren and mournful for many. They spun in panicked circles, looking downwards for a source of inspiration but were only met with spinning panicked feet. By chance, one glimpsed upwards, to where they were told birds used to fly, and noticed a slightly bent pole of medium height. It appeared there had once been two arrows positioned at the top; one pointed to the road ahead, and the other must have been removed amid street straightening efficiencies. Like a grandfather waking up from an afternoon nap, Instinct coughed, nudging the young person to follow the only hint provided. Something felt right about following the arrow, but odd about the road that lay before them.
Hipcampia Crescent had unpolished floors, barely any vehicles driving down it and a rarely sighted bend in the road. Upon that bend sat a marvellously wonky and undeniably charming building, surrounded by patches of real soil. Ebony led the way, as she had felt the nudge, whilst Nika, Ivo and Tali trailed behind.
“The Radio Bar”, Ebony mouthed as she read the engraved wooden sign that hung coddled in Wisteria. At first their eyes were met with the rich brown wood that twisted over the roof and around the doorway. Then their nostrils were intruded by a comforting scent of uncleanliness, like the musty freshness of an old book. Beams, of what could only be supposed as sunlight, shone out of the windows, casting the first naturally lit shadows these young people had ever seen. Gentle notes of music danced down the beams of light, calling them closer. The unfamiliarity of this building was inviting.
Entering was also the best chance of getting to where they needed to be. Surely this place would have connection, at least someone inside would have a charger that fit Nika’s phone, and they could be electronically directed again in no time! They still had an hour or so to spare. The oak tree was the first thing they all saw, the second was the unity of Benji and Jaz. After simultaneously absorbing these splendours, their attention was divided. The Great Oak formed the foundations of The Radio Bar. Its branches spanned the walls of the entire ground floor and wound up the open staircase to tickle customers with its leaves. Some branches burst through windows, while others remained at a perfect height to rest glasses, purses or little peachy bottoms. A ladder was propped up against the tree with a bucket attached at the top. Piercing rays of light escaped through small cracks in the bucket and, after just a few seconds of gawking at it, the kids understood why Jaz wore thick cat eye sunglasses as she ascended the ladder. Benji supported the frame at the bottom, gazing up at her partner as though she was the sun herself.
“We’ll be with you in a minute folk!”, called Jaz as she poured the luminous golden liquid over the Great Oak. “Just gotta feed the tree. Photosynthesis isn’t gonna happen on its own now is it?”. The two women laughed. “We’ve got a really great deal with a phoenix that comes here.”
“A week’s worth of sunlight for us, and a week’s worth of Rootland whiskey for him!”. Benji finished the sentence that Jaz started as they came to greet their new customers. Their faces were worn with wisdom and their eyes held the beauty that society would suggest they had let fade.
“Why haven’t you fixed that?”, blurted Ivo, whose skill with filters did not surpass the digital realm.
Benji touched a crease in her cheek, knowing that this was the flaw seen by the child. “We choose not to deny the cycle of life. We let rose petals shrink and curl and have their death be witnessed. The death of our youth releases the skin’s elasticity and frees us from the pressures to conform”.
“The beauty of another is never anyone’s to behold. It exists as a concept to be shared and experienced, and its depths can only be reached once we unlearn how we were taught to swim”.
“Can we get you a drink?”.
There were no words uttered in response. Ebony felt a flutter leap from her stomach and into her chest. Benji and Jaz spoke to a place within her that she did not understand. She knew their message was true even though truth was not something well practiced. With no way to express empty ideographic responses, all the group could do was listen. This pleased the older couple because the art of conversation was at the heart of their project. They knew the sacredness of silence, but it fell over the group like an old itchy blanket. Nika scanned the room for potential customers with their required charger. Ivo darted his eyes away from the two women and landed on the musician, recognising the sounds he had heard outside. Tali became increasingly irritated by the ticking clock, that they were sure was getting louder, and Ebony’s eyes stayed fixed on Benji and Jaz.
Doubt filled Nika almost immediately when they realised there were only a handful of other beings in this bar. They ruled out the drunk fairy, that was levitating and falling and levitating and falling as their tired wings worked to prevent them from passing out. The demographic was old (the long-haired long-bearded type with flutes), mythical or drunk. On the floor above, Nika spotted a head buried in one of the hundreds of books that scattered the walls from head to-toe. Nika had heard about books but never opened one themselves, they read everything online.
“Hey, do you have a charger?”, their urgency overtaking politeness. The buried head was so engrossed that Nika’s question fell on deaf ears. Relieved at the chance for a better introduction, Nika knelt down opposite the reader and pushed the book down with their nose so the pair locked eyes. The reader blinked, stunned to have been so oddly interrupted but charmed by Nika’s discernible ignorance. They pulled out their flat mobile, slid it between the open pages of the stranger’s book, tapped the lifeless screen and said, “Charger. Please. It’s the new one.”
“That is not the new one. Not where I’m from.”, chuckled the reader, her laugh sweet and curious. “I’m from the future but don’t get too excited, I’m not allowed to travel back far. My parents worry that I’d never leave if I visited the past before it got too straight. So, I come here, the closest place to authenticity in a time still unappealing enough to make me want to go home.”
“Well, what’s life like in your time then?”, scoffed Nika.
“Oh, much worse! Sundays don’t exist and dogs are extinct, but that’s where my family are so, better to suffer together than suffer alone, no?”. She had a good point and although she was no help to Nika’s mission, they wanted to learn more from her. She placed her favourite book in Nika’s hands and told them to focus on sensation. The world around Nika began to slow down and their fingers stroked the pages, creating the sound of ocean waves, which stroked them back. They rode the words like a seasoned equestrian. At the same time, Ivo happened upon a similar encounter. He travelled across the bar towards the musician cautiously. Not just because one had to mind their step for protruding roots, ponds with stone bridges and sunbathing hedgehogs; but because the velvety acoustic guitar had oozed through his pores and was plucking at his organs, which frightened him. When he got closer, the overwhelm sent him into a frenzy. He flapped for his phone to capture the magic for the crowd of invisible people in his back pocket, before remembering that his connection to this crowd had been obliterated by a lorry in his tantrum. They could not watch this performance from behind their screens because neither could he. And although they were gone, he did not miss them. He did, however, mourn the sounds he had just ignored. He felt like this musician knew him more than anyone and he slipped back into the lullaby, becoming drunk on the timbres that wrapped him in liquor.
We let rose petals shrink and curl and have their death be witnessed.
Tali had grown furious by this point. The relentless ticking was drilling into their brain like a mosquito that had swivelled inside their earhole. Their frustration appeared to increase the volume, and they stormed towards the giant clock-face that hung offensively in the centre of the room. Just as they were about to leap up and tear off one of the arms, a deep whisper landed at the back of their neck.
“Just listen”, it rumbled. Tali knew where the voice had come from. As the words reached them, so did the freshest air, which could only have been sent by the Great Oak.
“It does not tick for time-telling and it does not tock for tea. It only ticks for rhythm and tocks for breath, you see.”
The Great Oak taught Tali how to breathe into every inch of their body and attend to every sound around. The ticking clock became an anchor point, drawing them back to each moment with all that was. At first, Tali’s thoughts were loud and intrusive but soon began to settle as they felt seen and accepted; some even formed an orderly queue, while others left the vicinity entirely. Tali leant in softly to the external and internal pulse of life and, in their willingness to be affected, noticed a heartbeat that was not their own. They sensed Ebony’s aching and acknowledged that they felt this too.
Ebony sobbed as she let the words of the wise women wash over her. She wept for the ruins of her society who were surely heading into a vacant abyss, towards the same fate as dogs from the future. Like seamstresses working in reverse, Benji and Jaz had unwoven the normative confines of Ebony’s mind. Her tears a crystal vision of clarity, which is rarely accompanied by peace. She spiralled rapidly into the truth, temporarily leaving her body behind. She zoomed in to the intricacies of a butterfly’s wing, whilst witnessing the numinosity of space and illusion of time. What was she to do with these reckonings? Was she destined to awaken the world?
“Your destiny is simply to be, child.” soothed Jaz.
“Trust that your stillness will reflect the currents that seek attending.” Benji spoke as she tenderly applied pressure to Ebony’s forehead, stroking down her face and draining the anxious congestion. Ebony came back to her body with touch and saw that her friends were sat patiently waiting for her arrival. They appeared to be ready to leave, although by no means in a rush. They had missed the concert, but it was unspoken knowledge between them all that this was grossly unimportant. They understood that time was a construct but, as four now affirmingly-teenage and much-closer-to-adults, they still had to be home for dinner.
They each hugged Benji and Jaz, and the bookworm snuck a kiss onto Nika’s cheek. Synchronously drinking in a deep breath of The Great Oak’s oxygen, the gang prepared to step outside. Ebony was resistant. She was convinced that this feeling would be stolen by pollution, but Benji and Jaz promised that she could find it in anything because she knew how to look. When the bar door closed behind them, they noticed the buzz of traffic and the sharp scent of street polish from distant roads. But the sweet smoky shot of Rootland whiskey defiantly held on. This taste would not be the only memory from that day. If they had not truly been there, everything that they experienced would have been missed, forgotten in complacency. But they were there, and they would forever hold the memory of their slice of life inside The Radio. Life outside The Radio would never look the same again.