THEY NEVER LISTEN
“People never listen,” the old man at the bridge said, as if it was something he had said a thousand times before, but it never ceased to surprise him. “Up to you, but they never listen!”
He was manning a little tollbooth. I couldn’t quite decide if it looked more like a miniature log cabin or a very primitive public toilet, though the cash till inside was surprisingly modern; its digital display bright in the gloom of an impending summer storm. “No refunds, you know.”
The sign, too, was an odd amalgam. The fact that it looked a little like the sign outside the Bates Motel both intrigued and disconcerted me. In some kind of fluorescent paint on it proclaimed, “Take the Road to the Future. £10 a century. Nothing guaranteed.”
I’m a sucker, I thought. I’m a sucker and I know it and that’s the worst kind of sucker. But there undeniably was a very scenic looking route ahead, and there were toll roads that were more expensive. If I were lucky it might at least include a halfway decent theme park.
“Okay, I’ll carry on,” I said.
“How many centuries?” he asked, as if about to complain that “People Never Listen” again, but he contented himself with a sigh. He looked exactly how devious but lovable (not that I was entirely convinced about the lovable) old men are supposed to look, though perhaps his eyes were a little too dull to count as roguish, and there was a weary tone to his voice.
“Minimum of one – we used to do halves, but stopped, it wasn’t worth it – and maximum of nine. We can’t work in millenniums. Plays havoc with the – well, I’m not quite sure, but it does.”
“Like the Millennium bug,” I mused.
I decided to settle for 3 centuries. I wasn’t sure why, I just like the number 3. “Cash only,” he snarled (no, that’s unfair, but his tones weren’t exactly dulcet and obliging).
“That’s not very futuristic,” I retorted. His expression made it clear this was, to put it mildly, not the first time he had heard that remark. I gave him three tenners, resisting the temptation to copper up with small change, not least because I might spill it all over the car floor and that would spoil the dramatic gesture somewhat. He attached a very large circular sticker to my window with what looked like a representation of the bridge. It’ll be murder to get off, I thought. There will be a vaguely sticky stain with the imprint of it for years and people will remark on it if I ever want to sell the car. If I tell them it was because my passport to a trip 300 years into the future was there, I’ll get some very funny looks.
There was a barrier across the road like the kind you see sometimes at the entry to car-parks, and that the average car could probably crash through doing more harm to the barrier than itself. It would also have been perfectly easy to walk round it, if one chose to make the journey on foot, though I suppose few did. The old man in the booth presumably pressed a switch of some kind, and the single rusted metal bar of the barrier rose, not exactly reluctantly, but with none of the flourish that may have seemed apposite to a trip into the future. Nor did my trusty VW Golf transform into a DeLorean.
Apart from it being devoid of other vehicles, there was nothing, for a few minutes, to distinguish that stretch of the road from the one that had preceded it. It did not become wider or narrower, the surface did not become rougher or smoother, and it was neither straighter nor more circuitous. I have been had, I thought, resignedly. I doubt there’s even going to be a halfway decent theme park.
There’s that curious paradox, isn’t there, when things happen gradually and yet seem to have happened all at once? I did notice that the road was undulating more, which in itself wasn’t remotely surprising as I’d known we were heading for the hills. That was the first time I had ever consciously used the phrase “heading for the hills” and it had a satisfactory ring to it.
The inclines and slopes were fairly gentle, and there appeared to be no precipitous drops, but it was still – I finally had to acknowledge it – strange. I was reminded of those Robert Gonsalves paintings where dimensions and directions play tricks with your eyes, and make you look twice, and see the same thing again, and wonder how to interpret it. True, there were no floorboards transforming to trees or clouds to sailing ships, and the child’s painting book primary colours were muted and dampened, but there was that sense of not knowing what was up, and what was down, and of a path sloping down to the valley leading up to the hills, and an ascent bringing me back down to the valley. I told myself (it was the kind of thing you know you’ve heard on a TV show sometime) that there are logical and scientific explanations for such things, like the stream that appeared to run upwards, and they did not exist wholly in the minds and eyes of artists of the surreal.
It wasn’t exactly frightening. I certainly didn’t feel in any immediate danger. It was more like the kind of thing I was glad to have the opportunity to experience once, but would not be in any massive hurry to experience again. Which was a nuisance as (I told myself) as I might (no, would, I hurriedly amended) have to experience it coming back. Oh well. The first time was the hardest and all that.
Apart from the capricious quirks of directions and dimensions, the landscape had remained relatively normal for a while on the other side of the barrier. It had not transformed into the delightful or dramatic scenery I had hoped for.
There were two changes I noticed, or could no longer pretend I hadn’t at more or less the same time. It had turned perceptibly cooler, even though the storm had never materialised, and the trees were thinning. No, that wasn’t right. The trees, or most of them, were still there. But they were stunted, bleached, jabbing like an old man’s fingers in a futile gesture of lost authority, and there were no leaves. It was summer, so there should have been leaves, but these were not even winter trees resting and seeking nourishment beneath the ground, and biding their time. They looked like trees that had never known leaves. It would have been impossible to say what kind of tree they were, or had been, even if they were deciduous or evergreens. They were dead. There was no more life in them than fenceposts, or stakes of metal.
I drew in a deep breath and tried to collect my thoughts. Perhaps this really was a trip to the future, if only on a small scale. There would be different vegetation in the future. If I accepted the premise that the impossible had become possible (and that was surprisingly easy to do) then it was entirely natural, and I had no more cause to be distressed than if I had found fossils. Then again, I bet the old man in the booth was wily, and I wouldn’t have put it past him to “plant” his own dead forest for the benefit of the people he had duped.
The thing was, that was almost as hard to believe. One little clearing – yes. But this was turning into a whole forest. I doubted an army of lumberjacks and tree-planters could have achieved it, let alone one little old man in a ramshackle tollbooth.
The sensation of confusing left and right and up and down seemed to have abated, or maybe I had just got used to it. But the road surface had most definitely deteriorated, and I wasn’t used to off-road driving. I feared for my suspension, but wished that were the limits of it. Every so often it widened out, just for a few metres, into wide expanses that were most definitely metallic. I was intrigued, but already beginning to think I would give a great deal, and willingly have wasted my thirty quid, to be on a regular road with other traffic, and prosaic buildings and normal trees.
Well, at least it seemed there might be a theme park. Through the mist I saw a tall structure towering in the distance. It crossed my mind to wonder if it were a mirage, but it was genuine enough. But if it were a theme park, there was just one ride. I got out of the car – the old man hadn’t said I couldn’t, but I still felt uneasy and involuntarily put the paisley scarf that had seemed too warm for the summer day around my face, telling myself it was just to keep warm.
It was not, and had never been, a helter-skelter or a remnant of a switchback ride. Even I, with as good as no knowledge of the subject, could tell it was, or had once been, a rocket launchpad. Not a theme park ride pretending to be one, but the genuine article. It wasn’t the only way my eyes had deceived me. It was far, far taller than I had thought. Of course I had nothing to actually measure it against, but I suspected it was taller than the platform that had launched the mighty Saturn 5 on its way to take humans to the moon. One thing I did know was that not so much as a low earth orbit communications satellite had been launched in the vicinity. So if they just let such a magnificent structure rot in a wasteland – well, what must they have achieved since?
Awestruck as I was by the rocket launcher, I still wanted to head onwards – and yes, I also felt a bit dizzy looking at it and wasn’t sure I didn’t trust it not to pick precisely the moment I was nearby to collapse in a crashing and lethal mangle of metal spreading for miles around. There was barely even the pretence of a normal road now, but the wide, metallic intermissions were more frequent – and subtly different. They were not quite as smooth. For the first time since crossing the barrier, I had to swerve to avoid an obstacle, though luckily, as I was on one of the metal bits, there was plenty of room to swerve. Somebody had left a pile of something on the surface. Well, they might have mastered advance rocketry, but they don’t seem to have improved much on notions of caring for the environment, I thought, virtue-signalling to myself.
I hesitated to touch the pile, though I got out of the car to have a look at it. It might be radioactive or – well, or something! But it didn’t look especially radioactive, though I knew that the absence of a glow didn’t necessarily signify. In fact it looked like a pile of broken spears and arrowheads. It was a pile of broken spears and arrowheads. Some were metallic; of some base metal I couldn’t identify, and instinct told me the red stain on them was not rust, but more were stone.
A wind blew across the road, it did not scatter the pile of weapons but whistled in and out of the broken glory of the launchpad. Almost simultaneously, a different roar rent the grey, sickly sky. I thought at first it was some kind of aircraft, but though it had wings, it was not a plane, and though it was a bird, it was like no bird I had seen before. It was large, as large as an eagle, but did not swoop, it flew hungrily, harshly cutting the thickness of the air. Its call was piercing and plaintive, but I knew it was predatory too – and its prey was carrion, but it could see no carrion on which to feed.
Two thoughts refused to cross my mind, and lodged there instead. One was a quote I had read, and thought one of those clever quotes that are too clever, and are too full of artifice to be truly meaningful. It was meaningful now. The next world war will be fought with nuclear weapons. The one after that will be fought with bows and arrows. The other thought, and tears were running down my cheeks was, I want to go home! I want to go home! But I had no ruby slippers and no benign companions and no magical friend to come to my aid.
I craved and feared nothing more than seeing another human – or creature with vaguely human form. I doubted I would speak its language. No – his or her language! Yet the “it” had come unbidden.
I did hear speech, and speech I understood, but it came from no human or humanoid. The great grey bird had landed beside me! I suppose if any creature other than a human were to speak, then a bird would be the most likely, but not, at least not in any world I had known, to speak as that bird did. “How … get …. here?” Its wingtips brushed against me. Its talons pressed into my shoulder. Its beak was close to my ear.
“The tollbooth,” I whispered, “The old man. The barrier.”
“First one – for – ten years ….” It appeared to be rediscovering speech, becoming more fluent, yet still as if speech were an alien art. “I came that way. Twenty years now.”
“You were human? Or a bird?”
“Not sure …. Think human … not sure. Air here, bad air. It makes you change. Go back.”
“Can I?” I asked, not daring to believe it.
“Not sure. Try. Must try. Be quick. Evening fall coming. Poison sky. Go to your – forget the word.”
“Car,” I muttered.
“Close window. Quickly. Quickly as you can.”
I stumbled into the car, banging my head on the roof, trembling and hamfisted. I felt a mighty wingbeat above it and realised I was being helped on my way.
I may as well have driven with my eyes closed for all the care or attention I paid. Some animal instinct propelled me. I passed through the dead wood and along the metal road, and past the place where up and down and left and right were confused, and I crashed through the barrier into a blaze and then into blackness.
They’ve been very good to me here at the clinic, and say my physical wounds will heal soon enough, and my mental ones too, in time. That it will be fine.
But they don’t listen. They never listen. I want to get out of here, or at least I think I do, so I have stopped trying to make them listen and go along with what they say. But I know what happened and nobody is going to convince me otherwise!
They can say what they like, but no car crash caused that mark on my shoulder.