Contemplating shifting media landscapes and complacency during times of profound transitions in this short fiction piece.
It was one of those first spring days where the sweet smell of leaves and wet pavement gently floats up with the heat of the morning sun, caressing nostrils and tastebuds, setting a gentle palette. I sat, infused, waiting for my strong coffee to arrive. The tables next to me were empty, which was strange considering this cafe is frequented by locals and is becoming a bustling spot for visitors again.
Usually, fellow cafe-goers are comfortably perched at the adjacent tables, enjoying their morning coffees and their freshly baked pastries, chatting to share their impression of last night’s jazz concert or their plans for the day. That day, it seemed I was to enjoy the silence and the occasional passerby’s glance. I left my house without my device. Recently, I have found it too distracting. My attention is required across many verses and times, so I’m mostly glued to it. So that day I was relieved I left it at home. “I’ll get an hour or so of peace and hopefully catch some sun.” I thought, contented.
My coffee landed on the table, along with a couple of biscuits. I asked the waiter for a newspaper to pass the time. She looked at me bizarrely at first, as if I asked for a telephone, but then remembered I’m one of “those” and rushed inside. About five minutes later, she emerged with a bundle. Smiling at finding the relics, she said, “You’re lucky”, and handed me a stack of unwrapped “NEWSPAPERS”. Her grandpa was an avid newspaper reader and insisted she sign up for a subscription. In his memory, she continued to buy newspapers but never read them. They still have print newspaper subscriptions in Europe, although it’s rare. I said, “Thank you.”, blew a thin layer of dust from the front page, and settled in, excited to get lost in the words.
I scrolled through pages, my eyes frantically trying to lock onto something remotely exciting, but to no avail. Most of the pages were ads: for perfumes, new office spaces, for old office spaces, companies looking for accountants, lawyers, companies still pushing retro goods like textile clothes, plastic soda bottles, and stylish petrol-powered vehicles - a reminder of the days of cheap labour, fast fashion and an insatiable need to trample over the present to get to the future.
The remaining articles were rigid and dreary. The selection of words was robotic, almost sterile, with the objective to deliver information to the reader concisely and efficiently and save enough space on the page for content that “filled the pockets”. I recall hearing this particular phrase when there were heated disputes over space allocation between ads and informative content. The regulations and restrictions on how and what could be said were so strong by then that getting one more line approved in an article sometimes took months.
The writers became disenchanted by the imposed rules, and so did the readers. People still bought newspapers and read the news reluctantly, looking bored and desensitised. All the articles looked the same, felt the same, read the same. The reader would continue to inhale the articles every day, feeling good for a moment for staying informed about the current events, yet would grow more distant and abstracted. These events became routine, and the reader became sedated. Then, the news became normalised. Complacency was brewing right under our noses and spreading like wildfire across the continent, and we didn’t even notice.
The sun beamed, fell onto the page, and lit up memories of the past. I looked up and let out a heavy sigh. After many years of work in the vast space verse, where expression is open and safe, this newspaper brought back vivid images of a time when writers were suffering, creatively and morally. Some vanished. Others were silenced for disobeying the rules or investigating cases at their discretion. When one of my colleagues was sentenced to prison for overstepping his boundaries, I quit after a 10-year tenure at one of the capital’s leading publishing houses.
These thoughts left a bitter taste in my mouth. My full cup of cold coffee spilt over its edge, and the table wobbled on the uneven cobbles as I got up to retrieve my device from my apartment down the road.