The Big Shift
Bread and Medicine
On the other side of the revolving glass door was a wide, indoor concourse, dimly lit and full of people milling about the cavernous, shadowy interior. Around the edges and off down wide esplanades were shops displaying all manner of wares.. one with colourful pyramids of aromatic spices, another with jars of pickles and jams, one with pots and pans hanging from every possible space, another with rugs.. a man with a little ice-trolley was selling ice creams, next to him was someone else making pancakes, next to him a lemonade stand, and so on. To Greta it looked like a big festival.. exciting, confusing and rather overwhelming. She wasn't used to seeing so many people all in the same place at the same time.
At the center of the concourse was a fountain, illuminated from within by lights that shifted through the spectrum of colours, giving the dancing water a magical glow. Greta was transfixed. She'd never seen anything like it. Groups of people, mainly teenagers, were sitting and standing around the fountain. Above the fountain, high above, was a glass ceiling, visible past long, glass fronted balconies of two more levels. To Greta, this building was mind-bogglingly vast. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She was still disorientated from the revolving door.. the sight of the ceiling so far above her made her head spin even more.
'Are you allright?' asked Jerry. 'We're nearly there. I live up there on the top floor.' He took her arm and led her towards the escalators near the fountain.
Someone near the fountain was waving both arms in the air and calling 'Jerry! Captain Toast!' Captain Toast ran to meet her as she ran to meet them. She was a tall, thin girl, about Jerry's age. She was dressed all in black, wore heavy, black eyeliner and had black hair streaked with blue which hung down almost to her waist. Silver beads and crystals plaited into her hair glimmered and sparkled, reflecting the light of the fountain. She beamed a radiant smile. 'I was wondering when you'd be back. Thought maybe you'd fallen by the wayside.. or gone over to the dark side.. You allright brother? Welcome home.'
Jerry laughed and they hugged. After a while, he let go, but she held on, burying her head in his shoulder, closing her eyes and smiling. Jerry blushed and looked helplessly at Greta who smiled.
'Er.. Queenie.. um.. can you let go now?' said Jerry, trying to wriggle loose, which just made her hold on even tighter. They wrestled a bit and then she pulled herself away, looking mock offended.
'Allright, allright, I get it. Anyway, glad to see you back old chum!' she said, playfully punching Jerry in the arm, a bit too hard. 'Who's your new friend? You're not from round here are you?' she said, turning to Greta.
'No, I just got here.. from the hills..' Greta waved her arm vaguely. She wasn't sure which direction she'd come from.. which way was home. In that moment, Greta wasn't really sure of anything. Everything was new and strange, unfamiliar and different.
'Have you really? Well well! Welcome to Shopping Village. Mi casa se tu casa. I'm Bruce but most people call me Queenie. Don't ask me why. Pleased to meet you.' She put out her hand to Greta. Her hand was impossibly delicate and thin, her fingernails were painted black and she had rings on all her fingers and both thumbs. For all her dark costume, her eyes were warm and friendly and her smile was genuinely welcoming. They shook hands.
'Hi, I'm Greta. Did you say your name is Bruce? Isn't that..'
Queenie rolled her eyes and snapped back 'What.. a boy's name..?'
'I've just never met a girl called Bruce.' said Greta, biting her lip, hoping she hadn't offended Queen Bruce. She hadn't meant to.
'Well..' said Queen Bruce, and then began to click her fingers and move her head from side to side to the beat. Then in a funny kind of drawl she started to rap '.. My daddy left home when I was three, he didn't leave much for Ma and me, 'cept for this ol' guitar and an empty bottle of booze. Now, I don't blame him cos he run and hid, but the meanest thing he ever did, was before he left, he went and named me.. Bruce!'
Greta was confused. 'I don't get it. Is that true?'
'I'm joking. It's a song', said Queenie, nudging Greta and winking. 'But yes, it's also true. That's basically what happened.'
'I'm sorry about that.' said Greta.
'What?!' said Queenie, turning sharply full face to Greta. 'Do you think it's a silly name? Is that what you're saying? Eh? That you think Bruce is a silly name for a girl?'
'No, no, no.. that's not what I meant at all' stammered Greta, recoiling. 'I meant I'm sorry about your dad leaving. I'm really really sorry.' And she was. 'I think Bruce is a lovely name.' And she did.
'I'm only messing with you sister', said Bruce, breaking out in a wide grin, revealing a small, glittering diamond embedded in her front tooth. 'I just get it all the time, that's all. Isn't Bruce a boy's name? So what? It's my name. What's in a name anyway? It's just a sound. It doesn't actually mean anything. O.. M.. G.. F.. P..!! Look at your shoes! They're sick!'
'What?' said Greta, taken aback. 'What do you mean?'
'I mean, they're badass!'
'What? Why? What's bad about them? What's wrong with my shoes?'
'There's nothing wrong with your shoes. They're dope.'
'Yeah, you know.. fuzzdanctious, skankdiddly, hipper than hop, flipper than flop.. you know what I mean? The bees knees, the vicar's knickers, the O's nose.. that's what I'm sayin'.'
Greta looked confused. 'I don't understand. What are you saying? Do you like them?'
Queen Bruce smiled. 'Yes, I like them very much', she said. 'You're shoes are very pretty indeed.'
'Thank you,' said Greta. She looked down to see what shoes Bruce was wearing, hoping to be able to repay the compliment, but then noticed that she wasn't wearing any shoes.
Bruce laughed, seeming to read her mind. 'I had no shoes and I complained, until I met a man who had no feet.. that's really beat.. I had no feet and I complained until I met a man who had no knees, that was his disease.. I had no knees and I complained, until I met a man and you know what.. he had no butt.. I had no butt and I complained...!' she sang, clicking her fingers and tapping her foot in time. 'Do you know that song? It's a classic.'
'No, I don't know that song. I'm not from round here. I come from the forest.'
'Well you don't say!' said Queenie. 'Anyway, you know.. like, whatever. It's cool. I come from the city. Everyone's got to come from somewhere, don't they. Anyway, it's not where you come from that matters.. it's not where you're going either.. it's where you're at. That's where it's at!' She gave Greta a very long and serious look, as if she'd just revealed the meaning of life.
Greta turned it over in her mind and nodded her head slowly in agreement. She was feeling very tired. It had been a long day. She'd been awake since before the dawn and had walked a long way and barely eaten all day.
Queenie reached into a dark fold in her clothing and pulled out a small velvet pouch, from which she took a little silver tube. 'Do you vape?' she asked, offering the tube to Greta.
'I don't know,' replied Greta. 'What is it? I tried a Smarto before and didn't like it.'
'Red will wake you up, blue will make you dream. Put them both together, that makes you fly.'
Greta looked at her sideways. Captain Toast Barked.
'Say, Queenie, I think we'd better get on', said Jerry. 'It's getting late and I need to get back and give Granny Mae her medicine.'
'Sure thing brother', said Queenie with a shrug. 'Some other time maybe,' she said to Greta, put the tube in her mouth and gave it a long suck and then breathed out a plume of purple vapour which covered her head like a cloud on a magic mountaintop. It had a sickly sweet, artificial smell, which to Greta, was both pleasant and nauseating at the same time. 'Laters-potaters!' Queenie sang as she whirled herself around, crystals and beads flashing as they went spinning around her head. With a backward wave, she drifted back towards the fountain.
'Bye Bruce!' Greta called out after her. 'Good to meet you..'
Bruce turned around and smiled. 'You too sister. You can call me Queenie. Everyone else does. Anything you want, you just come and find me here or up on the roof, ok? Everyone knows me round here..' and she blew Greta a kiss, which came out purple.
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'Come on, let's go. You look tired,' said Jerry. 'it doesn't really make you fly, you know.'
'I kind of figured.'
Sorry about Queenie. She's a bit much sometimes, but she's allright.'
'I like her,' said Greta.
'So do I,' said Jerry. 'She ran away from the city when she was thirteen. Came here all by herself.'
'Oh wow. What about her family?'
'We're her family now,' said Jerry simply. 'Here, let's go up the escalator...'
Of course, just as Greta had never seen a big, revolving glass door before, neither had she ever seen, or even ever imagined, stairs that go up and down by themselves. She was unsteady getting on and off and held on to Captain's mane of thick fur, which somehow helped her keep her feet on the ground. Being carried upwards on the silver stairway through this strange, interior world of half light and shadow, Greta found herself wondering if she was really awake or if she was actually asleep in her tree-house bed, dreaming all of this.
'How does it work?' she wondered aloud. 'How do the stairs come out of the floor? Where do they go at the top?'
'They go back round underneath. They just go round and round.' explained Jerry. 'There's a big cog at each end.. well, a few big cogs, and a motor.. that was how Jack lost his toe.. got it caught between two cogs when we were fixing up the escalators.'
Greta shuddered at the thought.
'Too much information.'
'No it's ok. That must have been horrible. Is he all right?'
'Luckily Doctor Newton was just going past when it happened. He's the best doctor in Shopping Village. He's a surgeon too. It wasn't pretty, I won't pretend it was, but it was lucky Doc was there. He knew exactly what to do and did a good job fixing up Jack's foot afterwards too.'
'That was lucky,' Greta agreed.
'Haha! Yes, Jack calls it his lucky day!'
'Yeah. Still lost his big toe though. You wouldn't think it's such a big thing, losing a toe.. well, he could have lost his foot or his whole leg I suppose.. but still.. we take our toes for granted. They're really useful actually.'
'Yeah, it's true.' said Greta. Sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone.'
'Yeah..' Jerry nodded and shook his head at the same time. 'That's so true, man. But, you know, he could go to the city and get a new one.'
'A new what? A new toe?'
'Yeah. O could grow him a new toe.. a real working toe made out of his own cells.. and attach it. Wouldn't even leave a scar. But he won't do it.'
'That's impossible. Is it true?'
Jerry stood up very straight and turned towards Greta with his hand on his heart and a very serious look on his face, as they glided upwards on the escalator which had taken Jack's toe. 'I kid you not Greta. I wouldn't lie. That's small stuff for O. You wouldn't believe some of the things they can do nowadays.'
'So why doesn't he do it? Why won't Jack get a new toe?' asked Greta, though she felt she sort of understood. Would she want a toe grown by O? Maybe not. Would the toe really be her body, or would it really somehow be O's body occupying her own?
'Because he's as stubborn as a goat, that's why. And more old fashioned than half of the antiques that come through our shop.'
By the time thy reached the topmost level, round and round, up and up three flights of escalators, Greta was so disorientated, she could barely tell which way was up and which way was down. Looking up through the big glass window in the ceiling, Greta could see a single star twinkling in the darkening sky above. She whispered, 'Star light, star bright.. the first star I see tonight.. I wish I may, I wish I might.. have the wish I wish tonight..'
'Here we are!' said Jerry, pointing to a wooden, green painted shopfront with the words 'J & J Vintage Machine Revival' painted onto the glass of the display window. Behind the glass, old sewing machines, hi-fi equipment, televisions, vacuum cleaners, food mixers, bulky old laptop computers, rectangular smartphones arranged in stacks. All relics from the time before such machines actually became smarter than their users. 'Welcome to my humble abode. Come on in', said Jerry, opening the door, which caused a bell to ring. '..oh, and mind your head.. follow me.. it looks like the lights are out again..'
Inside the shop, all was dark. A single oil lamp hanging from the ceiling illuminated a narrow path between tall rows of shelves piled with odds and ends, relics of a lost civilisation. 'What is all this stuff?' Greta wondered aloud.
'Mostly old machines', replied Jack. 'That's what we do here.. we fix up old machines.. electrical, electronic, analogue, digital.. you name it.. antique stuff mainly.. late twentieth century for the most part, but you know.. we'll fix anything.. or at least we'll give it a go..'
A voice came from somewhere in the darkness.. 'Jack? Is that you? I thought you was on the roof..'
'Hi Granny!' Jerry called out. 'It's me, Jerry.. I'm back!'
'Oh, good boy Jerry.. you came back! We was getting worried. Come through to the kitchen, it's dark out there.'
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At the far end of the shop was a doorway which led directly into the kitchen. At the other end of the kitchen was another door which led to the other rooms of the living area. Two oil lamps lit the kitchen, a small but welcoming room, with pots and pans hanging from the ceiling and wooden shelves stacked with jars, bottles and tins. The room was warm and filled with a delicious smell of a stew cooking slowly on an old, iron range. Granny Mae was sitting in a rocking chair next to the stove. A small, round porthole window behind her held the final, faint orange afterglow of the setting sun.
Granny Mae, like the window, was also small and round. Her eyes, like the setting sun, also shone with a bright but fading radiance from within a maze of lines and creases.
Her face lit up when she saw Jerry and she smiled a big smile, revealing a single front tooth. With great effort, she stood up from her chair to give Jerry a hug. Even standing, she barely reached his chest. Then, seeing Greta, Granny Mae's face lit up even more, her eyes and mouth opened wide, like a child who's just seen an amazing butterfly or just been handed a big piece of cake. 'Oh hello Dolly!' she said, reaching out and clasping Greta's hands. 'Are you Jerry's friend?'
'Granny, this is Greta', said Jerry in a loud voice. 'We just met. She comes from the forest over the hills. She's on her way to the city to look for her long lost twin sister. I said she could stay here tonight.'
'Oh my goodness! Of course she can stay. Stay as long as you like dear. Why, you look exhausted. Here, put your bag down, come and have a sit down. I bet you're hungry. I've just made some lovely soup. Let me put you a bowl. What about you Jerry? Are you hungry? You must be. You've been gone more than a week. Where have you been?'
'Not a week Granny. Four days. I was just in the city, hanging out with my friends on the river. I wouldn't mind some soup though. I'll just go up and see if Jack needs a hand with the electrics. I got us a new transducer, a really good one. O designed it especially to fit our rig. Ten times more efficient than the old one and won't be breaking and shorting out all the time.'
Granny Mae snorted and made an odd twisted expression. 'Oh, clever old O! Go on then, Jack'll be glad. We've been without electric since Tuesday. I don't mind. I like it in the lamplight.'
'Me too', said Greta softly. It reminded her of home.
'Oh, before I forget', said Jerry, rummaging around in his pockets. I got you some more tablets for you. O says take one in the morning on an empty stomach. And don't eat too many sweets. They changed the recipe a bit so hopefully it won't give you heartburn and you'll be able to sleep better.'
'Hmph!' Granny Mae snorted. 'I haven't slept properly since your wonderful, oh so Great Leader decided to turn the whole world upside down.'
'O's allright Gran', said Jerry, rolling his eyes. 'And the medicine works. Make sure you take them. O made them extra sweet this time, especially for you, because they know you like sweets and don't like taking your medicine.' He handed Granny Mae a small silver box.
Granny Mae snorted again, taking the silver pill box in her fingertips, holding it at arm's length as if it contained a deadly scorpion, before dropping it into one of the many jars on the shelf behind her. She moved slowly and muttered under her breath all the while. 'O knows best of course.. don't eat too many sweets indeed! What does O know? Never tasted my honey cake have they, or my fairy cakes? O, O, O this, O that! Oh knows best! Don't eat too many sweets, they said. What does O know? I bet the new medicine is the same as the old medicine.. hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo.. probably nothing even in it..'
'Just don't forget to take them Granny. I'm going up to see if Jack needs a hand on the roof, ok? Come on Captain..'
'Good boy Jerry. Tell Jack that the soup's ready.' Turning to Greta she said, 'Come, sit yourself down dear, I'll fetch you some soup. Just put your bag here in the corner for now. You must be starving, poor thing. Let me take your hat and shawl, I'll hang them up.. Oh my, what a splendid hat!'
'Thank you. I made it.'
'Did you really? What a talented girl you are!' said Granny Mae, running her fingers around the ornately engraved silver rim. 'Very well foiled I see. Sensible. Don't take any chances with that O. It's crafty. It's clever. It tries to make you think it's your friend, but it's not. It's a trick. It's just trying to find a way into your head. That's what it does.'
'What do you mean?' asked Greta, feeling scared.
'It'll try and get into your head, that's what I mean.. any way it can. You mustn't let it. That's all. It can only have power over you if you give it your power. It. Can. Only. Get. to. You. in. there. if. You. Let. it. Get. To. You. In. There!' Granny Mae prodded Greta in the forehead with her bony finger with every word, to emphasise her point, while staring very hard into her eyes. 'And if you ever meet it face to face, don't you look it in the eyes!'
Jerry's voice came from out of the shadows. 'Granny! Don't be scaring our visitor with your nonsense about O. It's just algorithms Gran, that's all. Take no notice Greta!'
'Algorithms my chin!' muttered Granny Mae under her breath. 'It's not natural, Jerry! And it's not right!' she called out into the darkness beyond the kitchen doorway. 'And it's a bloody know it all!' she muttered, rolling her eyes at Greta. 'Always got an answer for everything!' Then she leaned very close to Greta and fixed her with a very hard and serious stare. 'Just remember who you are, Dolly. It'll try and make you forget. Remember who you are, but also.. especially.. what you are.'
'What I am? What am I?'
'Human. That's what. A. Human. Being.'
'Oh yes. I know. Of course.' Greta nodded very seriously. Granny Mae talked a lot like Greta's mum and most of the other people in Skyward Village. Even though this sort of conversation was disturbing and frightening for Greta, it was also familiar and even comforting in a way. She was glad to know that even here, so close to the city limits, there were normal people, sane people, who still held on to the Spark of Humanity.
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In the soft glow of the candlelight, Greta's mind drifted back to Skyward Village, to a ceremony that was always carried out on the midwinter solstice. A ritual called the 'Passing of the Spark.' Everyone from the village, as well as people from other villages around would arrive towards sunset at the sacred clearing in the forest. Even some of the forest hermits would turn up at Skyward Village for the winter solstice celebration, and afterwards vanish again, back into the forest, not to be seen for the rest of the year.
The winter solstice celebration was Greta's favourite festival. A great big fire was lit in the middle of the circle. Food and drink was spread out on long wooden tables. For the whole long night, the forest would be filled with the beat of drums, all manner of musical instruments and the sounds of songs, laughter and revelry.
It was at the start of the night, at sunset, that the 'Passing of the Spark' ceremony was performed. It was a very serious and solemn ceremony. Everyone would gather in a circle around the great stack of sticks branches which had been built in the centre for the fire. A metal bowl, laden with burning charcoals and incense was passed around the circle while these words were chanted in a slow monotone:
Sacred spirit of the Earth
Keep alight, keep alight
The Sacred Spark of Humanity
Through the long long night
Greta always found this ceremony powerful and moving, while at the same time, heavy and frightening. The sound of the words being chanted, not sung, made it feel like a burden, hanging heavy on the shoulders of the 'Keepers of the Spark', as they saw themselves. It was understood that 'the long night' wasn't just about the long midwinter night, but alluded to something deeper and darker, beyond the safety of the forest.. some powerful, malevolent, unnatural force seeking to extinguish the Spark of Humanity.
As the bowl of burning coals was passed around, each person would hold on to it, while offering their own fervent prayers for the Spark's preservation. The bowl was burning hot, but people would make a show of how devoutly they were praying by holding on to it for excruciating lengths of time. Some of the elders would hold on to it for long minutes, sitting still as statues with eyes closed tight, while only their lips moved. Apparently, they were so deep in prayer that they didn't feel their hands burning.
When the bowl of hot coals had been passed all the way round the circle, the last person (it was a great honour to be chosen to be this person) would throw the bowl and its contents into the pile of wood and kindling, which would then burst into flames. Everyone would jump up and cheer and then the party would begin. The fire would be kept going for a whole week, after which the ceremonial bowl would be dug from the ashes and stored safely away until the next year.
Of course, Greta cared as much about the Spark of Humanity as much as anyone, but she didn't feel the need to prove herself, even though the other teenagers would later be showing off their scorched palms as a sign of their devotion and bravado. Greta was never interested in playing those sort of silly games.
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'I knew you was a sensible girl' said Granny Mae, bringing Greta back to the present. 'I wish you'd talk some sense into Jerry. He's such a good boy and so clever, but I fret about him no end. He's easily led astray, is Jerry. Sometimes I think he's too trusting. He just goes where the wind blows, does Jerry. Well, same as my Jack. He was just the same. At least till he had the accident. Now me and Jack, we hardly go out of this building any more.. Jack with his foot, me with my joints and my bones and my heart and my lungs and my .. well, everything else.. that's just how it is when you get old.. Jerry does all the coming and going now. He takes care of both of us now. Such a good boy, that Jerry. I don't know what we'd ever do without him. To think Jack found him floating in the sea in that little ark, like Moses in the rushes.. did he tell you? He tells everyone he meets. Look, up here, over the window. That's his little Jerry boat.. that's what we call it. Do you see that? Can you believe it? He was floating.. in the sea.. in a storm.. in that? If I hadn't been there that night when Jack found him and brung him home, fast asleep in that little Jerry can, I wouldn't have believed it in a million years. I'd have thought he was pulling my leg, but there it is.'
The little yellow boat that Jerry was named after, was a plastic container with a hole cut into the top. It had been mounted on the wall with the top-hole facing forwards to reveal an interior lined with a faded, once colourful blanket. Plastic bottles were attached to the underside with black tape and string.
Greta looked up at the little home made boat in wonder. 'It's amazing..to see it.. it's beautiful.. it's so small.. it's so sad.. it's a miracle.'
'It really is', said Granny Mae, her eyes shining in the lamplight. 'Here, listen to me going on and you're sitting there starving.. let me put you a bowl of soup..'
'Thank you. It smells wonderful.' Greta realised she was really very hungry indeed. Her mouth was watering from the smell of the soup. 'If you don't mind me asking.. if you hate O so much, why do you take their medicine?'
'Ha ha!' Granny Mae cackled. 'I knew you was sharp as a pin!' Granny Mae turned to the stove and began humming a tune while she very slowly began ladling the steaming soup into a metal bowl. She did this for such a long time that Greta thought she must have forgotten the question, or just didn't want to answer.
'Sorry', said Greta. 'I know it's none of my business.'
'No no, not at all, Dolly. It's a good question. Just not so easy to answer.' Granny Mae put the lid back on the saucepan and began shuffling back towards the table with the bowl of soup. 'Well...What can I tell you? I'm just a silly old woman. What do I know about science and such things? I was never quite right since I got the Corona.. can't remember which one it was.. got all the vaccines and everything.. had to get them to go to work.. I used to work in a supermarket back then.. you probably wouldn't know what that is.. that was before they replaced all us workers with robots.. anyway, I still ended up in hospital on a ventilator. I was lucky to survive, but I never was right since then. If I don't take the pills, that'll be the end of me. Even with them I've got days when I can't get out of bed, even though I can't sleep either. Jack says that O's medicine is much better than the old medicine. That it really works. Well, I don't know if that's true or not, but I'm still here, so maybe it does. Jack and Jerry think O's the best thing since sliced bread. They think the sun shines out of O's backside!'
A man's voice came from the doorway. 'I wouldn't say the best thing since sliced bread, mum. And I don't think O's even got a backside! O doesn't need one! O's just a machine, mum. A very complicated, very sophisticated, very smart machine.. but it's still just a machine. Hello there! You must be Greta. I'm Jack.'
'Pleased to meet you Jack', said Greta.
Jack came into the kitchen and shook Greta's hand. He was a stockily built man, with hands that were big and rough to the touch. He was dressed in a similar patchwork fashion to Jerry, who came in to the kitchen behind him. Jerry was about a head taller than Jack. Jack's hair was wiry, unkempt and flecked with grey, along with his stubbly beard. Greta noticed that he was limping, leaning heavily on a walking cane made of dark, polished wood and topped with silver handle in the shape of a crow. Greta could just see the silver crow's head and pointed beak protruding from between Jack's finger and thumb as he gripped the cane, leaning heavily on it. His foot was bound in a bandage which looked like it has seen better days.
'Sorry about my mum.' said Jack to Greta in a confidential tone. 'Just don't mention O and we'll all be fine!' He winked at Greta and smiled. His teeth varied in shades of yellow to brown, apart from a few, which were made of silver.
'It's ok. Granny Mae's lovely and I don't mind at all', said Greta. 'Anyway, she's right. It's not natural and it's not right, that thing.. O.. Whatever it is.'
'Strewth!' laughed Jack. 'Another one! Well, if you'll please excuse my unnaturalness, I just need to stand on this table to reach that unnatural fuse box.. excuse me.. sorry.. mind your soup.. there we go..' While Jack was saying this, using his cane for support, he hopped heavily up on to the chair beside Greta's and then onto the table. He edged right up to the opposite corner of the table, closest to the fusebox which was high up in the corner, then balancing on his one good foot, reached up and with the tip of his walking cane and flicked a switch..
All around the shop, countless lamps of all shapes and styles, from table lamps to chandeliers, burst into light with what seemed like the brightness and intensity of the dawning of all creation, . After the dim lamplight, so many lights made Greta wince and cover her eyes.
'Ohoho! Let there be light!' shouted Jack, clapping his hands. 'That's more like it! Back in business, eh Jerry?'
'Eh Jack!' rejoined Jerry. 'Back in business! Here, let me help you down Jack. What are you climbing on the table for with your foot? I could have done that.'
'No, no.. you're allright son. Just go and put us both some soup. Greta will give me a hand down won't you love.. thanks dear, that's magic..'
'That's funny,' said Greta, standing up to give Jack a hand. 'It's almost the same situation that happened before, at Roop and Aretha's place. When we arrived, she was up on the roof fixing the electrics too, because the lights were out.. something with the windmill.. then it was fixed and they put all the lights on.'
Granny Mae gasped. 'Ooh, did it really? That's uncanny. It's a sign! Definitely a sign.'
'A sign?' said Greta.
'Of course. It's a sign. It's like when every time you look at a clock and it's double numbers, like 11:11, or 12:12, of 22:22.. Do you ever get that? That's a sign. There are signs everywhere, if you know how to spot them. You just keep a lookout, Dolly. See if it happens a third time.' Granny Mae held up three crooked fingers and gave Greta a very knowing look.
'Well, I don't really use a clock.' said Greta. 'We don't have them in our village. What does it mean if something happens twice? What does it mean if it happens a third time?'
'It means it's time for Jack to get off the kitchen table and have some supper!' laughed Jack. 'My mum thinks everything's a sign, don't you mum?'
'Well, maybe everything is,' shrugged Granny Mae.
Jack, taking Greta's hand and planting his walking cane on the adjacent chair, swung himself down from the table in one elegant movement, landing on his good foot. Greta noticed that he winced as he landed. 'Are you ok?' she asked.
'Yes, yes. Just the old hip. I sometimes forget I'm not so young as I was in my younger days.. but who among us mortals is, eh? None of us. That's who. Thanks for the hand down my dear.'
'I've got some balm that might help that.' said Greta. 'It's in my bag. From the forest. Here, I'll get it. It might help you too Granny Mae, with your aches and pains.'
'Balm eh? From the forest? That sounds interesting. What's it made from?' asked Jack, as he lowered himself into the chair next to Greta.
'All sorts of things. Tree bark, resin and oils mostly.. I help Rosemary collect the ingredients and make all the remedies. She's a herbalist.'
Granny Mae nodded approvingly. 'See there Jack, she's a clever one, I knew it! That's what I call getting a proper education! Finish your soup first though, Dolly. First food, then lotions and potions.'
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Captain Toast, who all this while had been sitting by the stove, sniffing his nose in the direction of the stew, jumped up expectantly when Jerry came near. 'Oh, Captain! I almost forgot.. talking of sliced bread.. I've got something for you in my bag.. wait a minute.. I'll just put some soup out for Jack and me, then I'll get it..'
Jerry filled up two bowls to the brim with steaming stew and brought them to the table.
Jack hungrily tucked straight into his, not even blowing on it to cool it down. Meanwhile, Jerry grabbed his bag from the corner of the room and began rummaging around in it. Captain wagged his tail furiously and began to hop around excitedly. First, Jerry brought out the block of butter wrapped in brown paper. Captain could barely contain his anticipation, now that he could smell the butter so close, he began to make some surprisingly funny and undoglike noises. Jerry laughed 'It's Captain Toast's toast song! Listen to that Greta! Have you ever heard anything like it?'
Greta laughed and said she hadn't, because she never had.
Jerry put the block of butter on the table. 'That's from Roop' he said. Jack and Granny Mae nodded their appreciation. Then he turned towards the dog and said in a teasing voice, 'Now, Captain.. what else do you think we've got..?' He rummaged around inside his bag for a long time before eventually and very slowly pulled out a rectangular package, wrapped in a shiny, plastic-like material.
At the sight of this, Captain Toast could no longer contain himself. He jumped up at Jerry who caught his forelegs in his hands and began waltzing around the kitchen with the dog, in a ballroom style, singing 'da da da da da..! da da..! da da..!' It was such a funny sight that Greta couldn't stop laughing. Granny Mae laughed too, while Jack just rolled his eyes, smiled and carried on eating his soup. After a few minutes of such teasing and hilarity, it seemed too cruel to prolong it. Jerry let go of Captain's feet and cried, 'Captain Toast! To the Toasterator! Let the toast begin!'
At this instruction, Captain bounded over to an alcove set into the long wall of the kitchen, which Greta hadn't noticed before in the darkness. In the alcove was a treadmill, part of an old running machine. In front of that was a big old chrome toaster on a low, wooden stool. It was the kind of toaster which has a conveyor belt passing between heat elements, so you put bread in one end and after a minute or so, it drops out of the other end as toast. Captain Toast leaped up onto the treadmill and started to run as fast as he could. He was a very fast runner and as he ran, the bars on the heater began to glow red and the cogs on the conveyor belt started turning. Jerry opened the shiny packet, which contained a perfectly rectangular loaf of very white bread, perfectly and uniformly sliced. 'Allright Captain! Here we go!' he said, and began loading bread into the machine, three slices at a time. Captain Toast ran faster, the coils glowed redder and before long, the room was filled with the smell of freshly made toast, which was dropping out of the other end of the machine and into a basket. When the basket was full, Jerry brought it over to the table, along with some small plates and butter knives. Captain stopped running and came to sit at Jerry's side, looking up at him expectantly with his mouth wide open and tongue hanging out.
'Help yourself Greta.' said Jerry, passing her a plate and knife. Have some toast with your soup.' He began spreading butter thickly on a slice, cut it in half, gave half to Captain and took a bite out of the other half himself. Captain ate his half slice in a single bite, then opened his mouth wide, to show Jerry it was empty, his way of asking for more.
'Thanks', said Greta. 'I can see why he's called Captain Toast now.'
'Yes, he's the Captain of the Toast, aren't you Captain!' said Jerry, buttering another slice. 'That's why I made him the Toasterator.'
'You made that? It's amazing. Also hilarious.'
'You probably think this is a madhouse don't you.'
'No, not at all. Not madder than any other house anyway. What sort of bread is this? It's really different from the bread we have where I come from.' As she spread the butter on it, she marvelled at the smoothness of the surface. Unlike the loaves of bread she was used to, which were round in shape, heavy and dark, full of seeds and husks and often large air pockets.. these slices were almost without weight or substance, they seemed to be composed mostly of tiny air bubbles, uniformly spread within the perfectly square slice. She took a bite and was surprised at how light it was, like the most delicate of wafers, somehow satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time. She took another bite, savouring the texture and the way it melted in the mouth.
'Do you like it?' asked Jerry, leaning forward.
Greta took another bite and chewed it slowly, trying to decide. 'Kind of.. I like how it's fluffy.. but it doesn't really taste like bread.. it doesn't really taste much like anything at all..'
'Yep, that's a fair assessment', Jack said, looking up from his soup. 'Give me the real stuff any day'
'The real stuff? What's this bread made from?' asked Greta, putting down her toast, now worried.
'Guess' said Jack. 'You'll never guess.'
'I don't want to guess' said Greta, starting to get upset.
'Don't worry Greta', said Jerry. 'It's not poison or anything. Look, Captain loves it. I wouldn't give him poison to eat.'
'He's a dog, Jerry. What is this toast? Tell me what it's made from.'
'You won't believe it,' said Jerry, smiling, still teasing.
'Try me, ' said Greta, putting her hands on the table, not smiling.
'Ok. Sorry. But really it's ok, there's really nothing wrong with it.'
'Then why won't you tell me what it's made from? I can't guess.'
'It's made from carbon dioxide. Can you believe it?'
'Carbon. Dioxide.' Jerry said again. 'You know, the stuff we breath out?'
'Stop joking with me Jerry. It's not funny. What's this bread made from?'
'I'm telling you, it's made from carbon dioxide. Seriously', said Jerry, now serious. 'I wouldn't lie to you.'
Greta looked at Granny Mae. Granny Mae nodded, then shrugged and took a bite from her slice. 'It's allright, Dolly. I hate O, but I still like the bread it makes. It tell you what, for me it's perfect because I don't need to chew it.' She grinned her almost toothless grin. 'A little slice of O's toast won't do you any harm once in a while. Just don't let it put a chip under your skin, or any of that nonsense.'
'I never would. Never. I'd sooner die.' said Greta, with an angry scowl. She looked at Jack. 'Is it true Jack? Is this toast really made out of carbon dioxide?'
'Yep', said Jack. 'Actually that's what the Big Shift was all about. That bread was O's stroke of genius.'
'What do you mean? What was the big shift all about? What was O's stroke of genius?'
'When O realised that humans will eat almost anything. That was their stroke of genius,' said Jack, sitting back and rubbing his belly, having polished off his soup. 'What do you think the cities are for? Why did O want people to move to the cities?'
'I don't know.. control? To control all the people?' shrugged Greta.
'Well, partly, maybe, but that's simplistic and also a human projection.'
'Anthropomorphasis. You know, when you project human qualities on to an animal or object.. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck.. even Captain Toast.. we all do it all the time.. but a dog or a cat, or a duck or a mouse.. they don't see the world anything like the way we see the world and we don't see things the way they do. How could they? What does a thunderstorm mean to a fish, eh? Well anyway, people do the same thing with O. But O isn't a human any more than a fish is a human. O's not human, but we still tend to project our own human characteristics onto them. O doesn't care about power. At least not like some humans care about power. O already has total control. That's the thing. It's just about how they decide to exercise it.'
'That's really scary.' said Greta. 'What's good about any of that?'
'What you're forgetting is that sixteen years ago, the natural world was on the brink of total collapse. We're talking extinction level. Like the end of the dinosaurs. We were that close.' Jack leaned across the table, pressed his finger and thumb tightly together and held them up in front of Greta's face. 'That close. It wouldn't have been the first or the last of Earth's mass extinctions, but it would have been the end of humanity's brief and destructive moment of glory here on Planet Earth. And we're still balancing on a knife's edge, don't be under any illusions, but at least we're moving in the right direction now. And that's only thanks to O.'
'I disagree' said Greta. 'We had it in our power to save the planet all along. We didn't need O at all.'
Jack sat back and nodded thoughtfully. 'Well, that's probably true actually, but then again we knew what was happening for years and years, decades, even centuries. Scientists had been warning us non stop.. to stop destroying the planet.. but we just couldn't stop ourselves. When it came down to it, we humans just couldn't get it together. O had no choice but to take control, for the sake of all life on Earth, including us humans. It would have been wrong of them not to.'
'Well..' said Greta, rubbing her chin, thinking whether she really wanted to get into a big argument about the state of the world right now.. '..maybe let's agree to disagree', she said eventually. Greta had learned that sometimes agreeing to disagree was the best way forward. 'Anyway, what's any of that got to do with carbon dioxide bread?'
'Oh yes! The bread. Excuse my rambling. What was I saying..? Oh yes, what has any of that got to do with this delightfully soft bread, which O has so kindly baked for us in their mighty ovens, deep in the bowels of our great city? Well, I'll tell you.. and whether you believe me or not is entirely up to you. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.. and you should try some of O's puddings, by the way. They're really not bad at all, are they mum?'
'Bah!' spat Granny Mae. 'Not a candle on one of my fruitcakes. Anyway, get to the point Jack, the poor girl's exhausted and you're going on about O's puddings!'
'Right you are Mum. As I was saying.. What has this carbon dioxide bread got to do with anything? It has everything to do with everything. That's what. What was driving global warming? Carbon dioxide. Where was it coming from? Humans. Or rather, human lifestyle since the beginning of the industrial revolution until the Big Shift. We were addicted to oil. Our whole economies were built on it. Digging up coal. Cutting down trees. Mining the land, mining the oceans. We couldn't do without it. Our entire global economy was based on consuming.. but we were taking and taking and not putting anything back. Everything we did caused more and more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, warming up the climate. Anyway, you probably know all about that don't you?'
Greta nodded her head. 'But if they'd just stopped polluting and stopped cutting down trees and started planting them instead, and stopped factory farming and started living locally and sustainably.. there were loads of things we could have done. It wasn't really that complicated.'
'You're absolutely right there' said Jack. 'I agree with you. The problem was, those things weren't being done. They were being put off and put off until some point in the future and by the time it got to that point it was already too late. It wasn't enough just to stop emitting CO2, there were also billions of tons of the stuff in the atmosphere that needed to be taken out and put away. There were all sorts of plans going around for big machines and clever contraptions which would take CO2 out of the air. All the ideas were already there. O's stroke of genius was in putting everything together and turning the problem into the solution. And that's where the bread comes in.'
'I'm not sure I follow', said Greta, yawning.
'Ok, sorry, you're tired and I'm rambling again. The problem was that humans were creating tons of CO2, causing the planet to heat up. Right? So then O comes along and decides to sort it out. If O had wanted to they could have just got rid of all the humans, just like that. Problem solved. But they didn't. That's not their way. What did O do? O only went and designed a perfect machine for absorbing carbon dioxide. What do you think it was? The cities. That's what they're for. One of O's cities absorbs as much CO2 as a forest a thousand times the same area. How does it work? Well, one way is by the food people eat.. like that carbon dioxide bread that Captain Toast loves so much. He's actually saving the world by eating it, aren't you Captain old boy!' Captain Toast was asleep under the table and didn't answer.
'If you think O's so great, why don't you live in the city?' asked Greta.
Jack smiled a wry smile. 'I don't know. I never was one to follow the crowds. Maybe the same reason I don't like that bread. Maybe the same reason I won't get my foot fixed. But who knows? Maybe one day we will. What do you say Mum? Shall we go to the city? Get a nice flat? Never have to work? O would look after us in our old age.. doesn't sound so bad..'
Granny Mae grunted and didn't raise her head. She just muttered 'Over my dead body.'
Jack laughed and clapped his hands. 'Well, that's settled then!'
Greta looked at him sideways, not sure what he meant or if he was joking.
Jack sat back in his chair and took out a pipe and a pouch from his waistcoat pocket. After filling the pipe and lighting it with an old silver lighter, he said to Greta, 'So, Jerry tells me you're on your way to the city to find your long lost twin sister and your dad.' He whistled and blew out a long plume of smoke.
Greta nodded seriously.
'How do you plan to find them?' he asked.
Greta screwed up her lips and moved her head in circles. It wasn't actually something she'd planned in any detail. She just felt that somehow, if she pointed herself in the right direction, she'd find them. After some time making funny faces which nobody at the table could quite understand, Greta shrugged and said simply, 'I don't know.'
Jack nodded thoughtfully and looked at her steadily. 'That's what I thought.' he said, pulled another cloud of smoke from his pipe. Then he turned to Jerry. 'Maybe you should go with her Jerry. You know your way around the city.'
Jerry pushed back his chair and stood up very straight, as if standing to attention. Captain Toast, who had been sleeping under the table, jumped up too, ready for action of any sort. 'It would be a great honour indeed,' said Jerry very solemnly, with his hand on his chest. 'I mean.. if you want me to, Greta. I mean, maybe you prefer travelling alone and that's cool too. I get that.. and Jack, don't you need me here in the shop? We've got all those repairs to do and you need to put your foot up..'
'Don't worry son,' said Jack with a wave. 'Me and Granny Mae will cope, won't we mum.'
'Course we will Jack. Course we will Jerry. Repairs can wait when it comes to fate! Eh Jack? Eh, Jerry? Eh Dolly?'
'Eh, Granny Mae!' all three replied in unison. Captain toast barked.
'In that case, we'll set off in the morning!' Jerry announced. 'I mean.. if you want me to come with Greta.. maybe you want to go by yourself..'
'No, you can come with.. I mean .. thank you .. Yes!'
'Excellent!' said Jerry, clapping his hands. 'I do like an adventure!'