Fiction: And Other Valuables

I was on the outskirts of the town centre, still forty minutes from home, when the downpour started.

I cursed my Micro headset. In the golden age of technology, when cars drove themselves and we could print 3D organs off the Network, surely we could achieve more accurate weather forecasting?

I didn’t have an umbrella. The heavy clouds and sheet rain were obscuring my vision, and I didn’t want to risk the walk back to the New Town. I wished at that moment that I could afford to live in the centre; the trams wouldn’t connect us to the city for another year. Deciding to save money on a taxi, I ducked into the nearest shop to wait out the rain.

An old-fashioned bell above the door chimed. I laughed. How ‘quaint’, they would have said in the olden days. It took my headset a good ten seconds to bring up any information, a time that felt interminably long faced with the scene in front of me.

It was an antiques store, the kind of cluttered place that would have made my mother scoff. There were the typical tables topped with stands of jewellery and other valuables. Displays of old machinery screamed ‘nostalgia’ : what looked like the world’s first vacuum cleaner, one of the ones you had to move yourself, with a handle and a compartment that would need emptied; a couple of large televisions that would have gone in family rooms when people had to agree on one programme to watch; various laptops they would never find the parts for; and some early headsets.

I took mine off and quickly dried it on my jumper. I was about to make a quick escape when a little old lady popped her head around the corner from a second room. Again my headset took longer than usual to come up with the information, so there was a ridiculously long five seconds in which I stood like an idiot staring at the woman before her name and record flashed on the little screen by my right eye. As no alarm bells accompanied her file, I relaxed in the knowledge that she was simply a harmless old lady with an irrational love for useless, ancient junk.

‘Hello,’ I said. She wasn’t offended by my hesitation; she simply smiled knowingly. I noticed she wasn’t wearing a headset, but she was of an age where she might not have necessarily grown up with the technology, and some members of the generation still resisted it. I thought I better offer up my identity verbally, but she had already started speaking again.

‘Please have a look around.’ There was no plea in her voice at all, and yet the way her statement was worded gave me little choice but to do so.

I started to wander aimlessly past the technology that had presumably been part of this woman’s youth, which I now only knew from the odd history article. There was an entire table dedicated to mobile phones, which had been so necessary only fifty years ago and were already obsolete thanks to wearable technology. Sometimes progress was so quick and complete that it could still be surprising.

I peered over one of the televisions into the room where the woman was, and my curiosity got the better of me. My mother would have rolled her eyes if she could have seen me, trying to walk nonchalantly towards the items that had caught my attention.

I stopped before the threshold of the room and took in the sight, but my headset started to pour information onto the screens by my eyes. I took it off and stepped into the room.

It was full of artwork – pictures that people had made from paint and other materials just to create. The pictures were hung on every inch of wall, frames touching, one on top of the other up to the ceiling, and – without my headset and lenses – I strained to see them all.

There was an archway at the back into another little room. As I got closer and realised what was there, my breath caught in my throat.

Lining the walls, there were books: books as big as heads, with every colour of cover under the sun, sitting on rows of wooden shelves that dipped towards their centres with the weight. Despite my fascination, it struck me as a little strange that people had ever sat and read information in that format.

‘This is my favourite part of the shop.’

I jumped as I realised the old lady was standing behind me. I wasn’t used to walking around without my headset.

‘I’m sorry,’ she smiled. ‘I didn’t mean to scare you!’

She was a foot shorter than I was, a little stooped and so thin that the wind outside would have blown her over. The idea that she could scare me was almost funny, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit shy when so out of my element.

‘Are you looking for a book?’

I didn’t want to come out and say that the only reason I was inside was because it was chucking it down outside, so I went off on a tangent. ‘I actually have a book at home.’

It was one of the few concessions my mother made when we went through my great-gran’s house after her death. If I had to associate one thing in the world with that woman, it would be books. She had an entire room full of the things, which my mother pretended didn’t even exist so as not to hyperventilate at the poor use of space.

‘You do?’ She sounded pleased.

‘My great-gran used to make them,’ I told her. ‘She worked for the last company that did.’

‘So did I,’ said another voice from behind us.

I turned around and another old woman was standing there, although slightly younger than the first. She still had some dark hair mixed in with the grey and there was an air of authority about her.

‘This is my sister,’ the first lady explained.

‘Nowadays we associate publishing with keeping the Network up to date,’ the second woman said, coming to stand with us in front of the bookshelves, ‘but in the past it could mean to make books. These are some of the books I worked on.’

‘It’s hard to believe that that was a job,’ I said. I didn’t mean to offend her, as I’ve always found the idea of creative jobs fascinating, but luckily she didn’t take it that way.

‘I know. Back then, books, music, entertainment, all of these were considered ‘useful’ in their own way. Being creative wasn’t seen as being self-indulgent. You didn’t have to be able to fix headsets to be providing a ‘useful’ service to society.’ She made quotation marks in the air whenever she said ‘useful’, the big buzzword in this golden age of technology. I couldn’t help but feel quotation marks around that phrase too.

‘It’s strange how much things have changed so quickly,’ I said, because I wasn’t really sure what to say. I couldn’t imagine a world where people were paid money for writing stories or songs.

‘If I think about it, I believe it was actually a long, slow change.’ The first lady had settled herself into an old red armchair; it clearly wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation. ‘Sit down, dear,’ she said, gesturing to a little circular stool, so I did. ‘Who knows what put the nail in the coffin? Some people blame discounted books in supermarkets, back in the days before home delivery. People could pick them up alongside their bread and milk.’

‘That makes them seem like necessities,’ I commented. ‘If people could buy them with their groceries?’

‘Yes and no,’ replied the second woman, who had lowered herself onto a little stool beside another table piled with books. ‘In decreasing the price of something, you can decrease the value people place upon it.’

‘Look at the advent of the Internet, the early version of the Network,’ pointed out the first lady. ‘Electronic files were easily shared, and so the music industry had to face the digital age right away.’

‘Then there were electronic books,’ continued the second woman. ‘And lots of them! Soon nobody had to pay for books or music or any entertainment at all, not if they didn’t want to. For a while, there was still plenty of it made, but eventually it was seen as a waste. Businesses dropped out of the arts industries, taking any power of quality control they might have had left, and – of course – any money.’

I looked at the books on the shelves and tried to imagine the number of people who had put time and energy into each. As a person who had grown up without the arts industries, I still found it odd that these could have been jobs. I felt a twinge of resentment towards the ladies lamenting the loss of industries they were lucky to ever experience.

‘Of course, people create for other reasons, mostly,’ the first lady conceded. ‘The aim was never really to make money.’

‘No,’ her sister agreed. ‘But I think it was to achieve some kind of connection. These days, people are lucky if one of their musings is forwarded to a few hundred people one morning, before the next funny anecdote or video comes along.’

‘I know some people that write,’ I admitted, cautiously. ‘Just for themselves.’

‘Some people will still write for themselves,’ the second lady said, picking up a book from the table and running a hand over the cover. ‘They’ll just never contribute to a language, like Shakespeare, or be quoted for years to come, or have their music hummed by someone as they go about their day.’

Their ideas would never be loved, like the women in this shop loved the stories enclosed in their books.

‘Many will let their creativity go to waste.’

‘It’s a real shame,’ said the first lady.

I agreed.

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