by Jason Gibbs
“Why does everyone have a cloud following them around?” she wondered aloud.
“Look, the first rule is don’t look at the clouds… now come in here.”
Sheila followed the man into the shop. She’d just got off the bus and had been checking out her surroundings, and seen the clouds. She hadn’t even asked the man, he’d just told her to shh… suddenly he was back grabbing her arm.
She wasn’t used to being manhandled, but meekly followed him into the shop, it seemed to contain mostly books but there were random pieces of furniture all around it. He looked at her sternly.
“Never, ever mention the clouds.”
“No, look, I will explain later. The problem with you country types is you…”
“We what?” she wasn’t going to take any stick from a city slicker.
“Cause problems. Look, right, sorry, let me start again. I’m the Bookseller, it’s nice to meet you…”
He held out his hand. She stared at it, then stared at him, then grudgingly took it. He had dry hands, not as soft as she’d expected, but they definitely weren’t farm hands.
She was wondering about his name when he said, “And you are…”
“Oh, I’m Sheila. Just here to… well, I don’t really know.”
“Follow your dreams? Build a new life? Dig up the golden streets?”
She was going to respond angrily when she saw his wry smile, and she just said, “Yeah, something like that.”
“Well let me help. No, wait, let me explain, and then you can decide if you would like my help.”
He paused, looked up at the ceiling, and then continued, “I cannot explain it all right now, there are, um, reasons, but for the moment, it is best not to comment on things. Anything. Just nod and smile, ask neutral questions.”
“What? I don’t understand…”
He shot a glance outside, and his face changed, fear washed over it. He took her by the arm, pulled her close and said, “Look, just don’t question the orthodoxy, you will not prosper. Come back at closing time if you want to find out more…”
The door opened with a sprightly tinkle. He then pushed her back and said loudly, “I’m afraid Miss we don’t have a copy of that particular work by Orwell at the moment, but if you come back tomorrow we might be able to order it. We are open from nine to six every day. Thanks…”
He turned to the tall person who’d just entered, “Good afternoon sir, how may I help…”
She stared for a moment, and he turned a fixed grin at her, and she realised he was genuinely afraid. She left the shop, shaking her head. Her father had warned her that there were crazy people in the Big Smoke, but she’d thought he was exaggerating.
She looked around again, and started to cross the road. A sudden beep alerted her to the fact that a car was heading in her direction and she leapt back. The man at the bus stop stared at her, and then pointed at the crossing a few paces along. She smiled thanks, but he didn’t respond.
Over the course of the afternoon she wandered around the city. Everywhere she went the people shuffled along, black clouds hovering behind them. They talked to each other, but it was, well quieter than at home, which surprised her as she’d been told the city was loud. Also, she’d nearly been walked into a few times until she realised there were arrows on the pavement, which seemed to be dictating lanes and directions. Certainly everyone else was following them.
Feeling thirsty Sheila stopped at a coffee shop. Joining the queue she saw that there were seventeen different types of coffee on the board, and she was wondering what to order. The three people in front had each ordered a flat white, and then it was her turn.
“Um, what’s in a Caramel MoccaMachiato?” she asked.
The woman behind the counter just stared. And stared. There was some shuffling in the queue behind her, and the air started to fill with tension. Panicking, Sheila said, “I mean, a flat white please.”
“Card here. Coffee at the end. Thankyouforyourcustomhaveanicedaynextplease.”
Sheila tapped her card, and shuffled along with the rest of the queue. The back of her neck felt hot with embarrassment, but she kept her head down until she’d picked up her coffee.
Sitting down at a table with her flat white, she started looking around the somewhat busy coffee shop. She noted that there were a few people without clouds above them, maybe one in ten. They all looked wary, scared, and wouldn’t meet her eye. The ones with clouds didn’t seem to really see her. That had been the same when she was walking around, unless she had accidentally prevented them from moving along their rails, like before she’d noticed the pavement lanes.
She sipped her coffee.
She’d absolutely decided never to go back to that not-quite-bookshop. But the whole atmosphere was creeping her out. And the clouds. She tried to look at them the out of the corner of her eye. They were dark grey, and had occasional little flashes of light in them. If she looked for too long there seemed to be more flashes, and the person under the cloud looked at her. After the second time it happened she’d felt such menace that she now managed to avoid looking at them entirely. Like everyone else.
At just before six Sheila found herself back at the bus stop, still undecided. As she was about to walk away the Bookseller came out and waved. Well, it would have been rude to ignore him, so she waved back and walked over.
“Hi, did you have a good day?”
“It was um, interesting,” she said.
He smiled without humour and said, “Well come in, and we can run through the ordering process for the book you wanted…”
She paused, and then stepped into the shop. He locked the door, then pulled out a chair for her and sat down at a pad.
Handing the pad and a pencil to her he said, “Please fill in your address at the top, the one you’ve come from as I assume you haven’t got a place to stay here yet. This way if anyone looks in, well, you’ll be ordering a book.”
She wrote her details at the top and said, “Is it really that bad?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. But I want to keep my shop, and I do what is required…”
He shuddered and said, “We don’t mention them. We don’t look at them. Look, let me tell you how it started…”
He took a breath and said, “We didn’t see them at first. But people started to change. Fashions came and went as before, but now almost everyone was part of them. Beards, twinsets, whatever it was, the variety changed. The spread on the distribution, it, tightened.”
She looked a bit blank.
“Sorry, but basically, the way it had been, there was always variety. And now, well there isn’t, not for 95% of people, they are all within the same pattern. The same styles, the same haircuts. Not identical, just, much closer.”
“Sounds a bit freaky, but hardly, well, scary.”
“It wasn’t just fashions, it was thoughts, ideas, everything. The last election was close. Very close, but it was impossible to tell the difference between the candidates. There was no argument, nothing. Everyone follows the orthodoxy.”
“Look, you’ll have seen some people without clouds. How did they look?”
She thought, and said, “Wary? A bit scared maybe.”
“Wary, yes, they are. They’re tracking the changes. They don’t want to step outside the curve. They watch what the majority do, and they copy it.”
“But, what happens if they don’t?”
He shuddered, and said, “I don’t know. I don’t want to know, I just want…”
“But surely you know people who were outside the curve…”
“Of course, I sell books, I’m the Bookseller, in an age of tweets and video. Some of those who didn’t follow the trends are still here, without clouds, wary, watching. Others are also still here, but they have clouds. They don’t buy books any more. Well, unless it becomes the next fashion.”
She was starting to get scared.
“So what do I do? I’m clearly not the first person you’ve helped.”
He smiled again, the first genuine smile she’d seen in a while.
“Yes, I still get to help people. Basically, you have three choices.”
He ticked them off on his fingers.
“Firstly, you can leave, go back to where you came from,” he nodded to the address at the top of the page.
“Secondly, you can pretend to fit in, stay on the edges like we do, keep some of your self for yourself. You’ll never be part of this city, but you’ll be free to make your own decisions. Unless… until you make a mistake.”
“Thirdly, dive into their world. Follow their rules, fill in the forms, follow the fashions, mouth the same platitudes. Soon enough you’ll have your own cloud.”
She said nothing for a moment, and then said, “No other options?”
“Not here, I’d leave if I had anywhere to go, but this is my shop. It’s my town, and they’re my people, even if I don’t recognise them any more.”
She got onto the bus, looked back and waved at the Bookseller, and sat down towards the back. Suddenly she was really looking forward to getting home.
As the bus pulled away, the tall man stepped out of the shop and stood next to the Bookseller.
“What do you think?”
His cloud, which, if anyone had looked, seemed twice the normal size, split, and the new cloud drifted over the Bookseller, before settling.
“I think she is not a candidate.”
A dry smile might have passed over their faces.
“And her town?”
“Yes, I think we should move it up the schedule. Sad for her.”
They both turned and looked down the road. The bus was long gone.