by Ale Malick

In a land, where everyone feared loneliness, no one stood, walked, worked or slept without grazing, pushing or hanging on to a neighbour.  No one moved unless in couples, packs, clusters, clumps.  In cars drivers were hugged from the back seat, with two people sat on their knees.  In the café, the shower, the operating room, dozens of bodies filtered across and around in close association.  The land of contiguity.  People in continuous connection.

But that is very silly I hear you cry.  You protest that no place could ever work like that!  Everyone needs their privacy.  We like to be on our own.  I am on my own now reading this book you tell me.  Everyone is out and I’m curled up by the fire.  And later, even if you are sat on a park bench in a busy part of town, if someone looked over your shoulder, to try and read these words, you would get very angry.  You would stop reading.  You would move away.  You might glare at them.  Perhaps you would even make a scene and a carry on, demanding some justice for this insult.  Only lovers, family, friends are allowed that close.  And strangers yes, but only when you are forced to on public transport.  You would add this caveat, to make sure I didn’t catch you out. 

But take a leap, a risk.  You are reading; but in a library this time.  You drop a book and three people lower themselves with you to pick it up.  Accidentally one of your close companions kicks your book further under the shelf than is comfortable to reach.  Lie down and stretch your arm out.  Three others lie on top of you.  The book can only be grasped by nudging and shuffling a couple of fingernails under the hard plastic cover and flipping it on to your slightly hooked fingers.  With careful, controlled balance you force it into the light again.  But it is not your book.  And it is very dusty.

The mass you are with moves on to fiction.  You cannot control them, so accept the new book. 

There is no space to read it until you are all perched or pressed into a family sized chair. (You see there are adaptations to make this world work.) It is not like any of the other books in the library.  It is an old, old picture book, titled Heroes of Our Age, and every page has men, sometimes women, posing in moments of glory.  A person standing by a flag on the Moon, a woman sitting in an ancient aeroplane, a man blocking a line of tanks.  Imagine you have never seen these pictures before.  You have never seen anything like them. 

Who they are is not important.  You do not bother to read the captions because all you can see is that they are on their own.  No one else in the picture. 

What a discovery!  What a revolution!  You stretch over the woman squashed to your right to put down the book on the reading table.  You gently move the man fastened to your left hand side so you can stand.  They all stand with you, taking their books; and they keep up with you as you head for the tiny balconies that overlook the town square.  You open the glass door and with a deep breath of satisfaction you step out on to one of them.  There is no room for them to follow you here; and you shrug off the woman’s hand on your shoulder, as she tries vainly to make sure you stay connected.  You stand alone.

One person in a group crossing the square points and the dozen he walks with stop and stare at the apparition on the balcony.  Everyone halts to look.  The children are the first to copy you and run from their parents as if fleeing ghosts.  Adults try to stop them but packs don’t move that fast and individuals are forced to break free to pounce on their wayward sons and daughters.  But once they have lost that bodily contact, they no longer feel the need to berate their children, because they understand them.

In hours people are walking and eating and swimming on their own all over the city, by nightfall, the whole world.

You have watched all this unfolding from your balcony, all day and all evening.  You are a hero.  You have made all life free.

But night has brought a chill and you miss your companions dreadfully.

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