Winter was coming. They were going to lock us up again. What shadow would the groundhog cast, we wondered? Was there a long, full-blown lockdown looming ahead of us, or just some temporary tightening of the rules already in place?
That day at school, we were having senior visitors, old enough to remember the first lockdown. Each year, they would sit on the special podium in the auditorium to tell us stories about the pre-pandemic world. Younger kids were always pin-drop quiet, but we’d heard it enough times to grow tired of the predictable narrative. However, the internet at school was always turned off for the duration of the visits, so all we could do on our tablets was filter out old photos or edit previously-downloaded videos. The kid sitting next to me was always prepared; he stashed away so many hours of raw materials he could easily amuse himself over the whole 15-minute lecture.
We listened to him editing more videos. They were always in demand. Ever since it was mandatory for every person living in a tenement or block of flats to own a dog in order to maintain their right to leave the house, dogs had chased cats away into the darkest crevices of social media. The more amusing pets could still be encountered on those old social media platforms, like Facebook and such. That’s where the senior citizens who visited us would talk to each other. Their stories sounded made up at best. It was hard to believe that once upon a time, people would gather in large crowds, jump and rub against strangers out of their own free will. At the arena where our parents would take us climbing, you could watch broadcasts of machine races and take the exam for a drone-driving licence – but once upon a time, tens of thousands of people crammed in there all at once. In some e-lessons, we were told how hundreds of thousands could fit into one stadium at the same time. It must have been extremely dangerous.
But seniors don’t seem particularly brave. They desperately keep their distance, even when trying to show us what those fun crowded events looked like. In our town, the most popular type of entertainment was physical exercise, which, back then, you actually had to do in person. The only avatars my grandad ever saw were at the cinema and in video games; he couldn’t use them to maintain his physical shape or to compete with others.
The man who visited us today was introduced as Brunette. It meant we were having a really old guy talk to us. Immediately, he had my attention. In fact, everyone was intrigued, the dog videos were even paused. It had been a long time since we’d seen a hairy person at school.
All the old video chronicles shown to us in class were very amusing because of the hair. It must have been so unhygienic for people to still have remnants of fur on their bodies. Before the talk began, it was explained that the name Brunette came from the reddish hue of the man’s hair. So not only was he very old, but also seemed to have had been immune to the rains during the first decade of real climate change.
“Good afternoon, girls and boys,” said Brunette. “It’s my pleasure to tell you about the world some of us miss so dearly.”
The purpose of those yearly meetings was not only to prepare us for the winter, also known as the closing time, but also to immunize us against the radical activists from the Real Nature Movement. Over the last decade, they were the only ones left fighting for the right to have families larger than three, attend social gatherings outside of school and work, and enjoy unlimited access to the remaining patches of natural environment.
“I would like to tell you of my first lockdown, which proved to be an extremely lucky event for me,” Brunette continued. “That was when I fell in love. An algorithm picked her out for me. Back then, our professional lives were still managed by the free market, but my life became so peaceful. I stopped leaving town. I appreciated the fact that my work was just a short cycle away, and through the park at that. Which was why I was granted a lifetime going-out permit. It kept working even after my dog died.”
Every lecture had a hidden message. Brunette was here to explain how the first-lockdown generation learned to accept the loss of their jobs and life savings. Back then, not everything was kept in the cloud and regulated by natal control laws.
“Back in my day, children loved Winnie the Pooh. And whenever he looked for honey in his honey jar, the more he looked inside, the less honey was there.”
During the next quarter-hour, we discussed Brunette’s story. During the webinar, everyone had to fill in a questionnaire. One of the questions asked: ‘If you could meet our guest in the times when out-of-capsule, one-to-one contact was still allowed, what would you say to them?’ And we all wrote the same thing:
“Could I stroke your hair, please?”
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
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