A Field for the British Isles. Nigel Jarrett


When I woke that morning, I could hear loud murmuring in the distance, a hubbub. I thought it was a dream remnant, trespassing beyond the border of sleep, so I pulled the duvet over my head and tried to re-connect with my unconscious.

     A few minutes later, I was disturbed again by what sounded like a small stone striking the bedroom window. Then another. And another. At decent intervals, you understand. The commotion had grown in volume.

    I got up, rubbed my eyes, and drew the curtains.

    And there they were, gathered together on the lawn in front of my apartment building. They were my Twitter Followers, as I later discovered. Upwards of 986. I drew back, knowing that I couldn’t be seen, but my presence as I parted the curtains had been caught by a few score and a cheer went up among them, bolstered by the rest. (Oddly enough, they all seemed at first to be staring up at the apartment next to mine; it was only later I realised that my Twitter contact info – my fault –  had been incorrect: I’m number 23 not 25. When I appeared, all heads turned to me as one.) 

    How did I know who they were? I’d jokingly tweeted a few days before of my disbelief that almost a thousand cyberspatial souls had for months been hanging on my every word. It just wasn’t real, I’d said. Less than 48 hours afterwards, my ‘Likes’ dried up. There was no explanation. I was alone in my sector of Twitterdom.

    But, unknown to me, they had got together on other social ‘meejah’ (as I once coined it; I was the first to do so) and arranged to meet outside my place, much like ravers did to avoid detection, often organising congregations of Ecstasy-fuelled skullshakers in some forest miles from anywhere. I don’t know what the other residents here thought. It was my day off.  Most of them just got into their cars and went to work as normal before my Followers began arriving like rivulets before turning into a river.

   There’s a little stone balcony outside my window, where the previous occupant had grown flowers in pots, geraniums I think. He’d died and the apartment had been empty for six months. Maybe that’s why the flowers had shrivelled – from want of people to admire or water them, because they couldn’t be seen from inside (you had to climb over the window-sill to get to the balcony) and on the second floor they were invisible from below. I thought I might occupy the balcony, squeezing myself into the gap between pots. So I got dressed. 

                             ***

    I suppose it all stemmed from that first tweet, about a year ago. My friend Morton had just arrived in the Central Sulawesi province of Indonesia, and at 10am Indonesian time he texted me a video of his room shaking. Morton is a self-styled ‘adventurer’, always on the move. This time his hotel was also on the move.

     WTF, he messaged. GRAB A LOAD OF THIS!!!!

   Here in Oldham it was 4am and my throbbing mobile at the side of the bed woke me with attendant green flashing.

   As you do, I tweeted:

   Der ‘ll surely be a KWAKE in Indonesia l8a. bleve me

   And, of course, there was. Plus a tsunami.

   At the time I had about two hundred followers. Pretty average really; some might say pathetic. Up till then I’d been tweeting the usual: A.MAY.ZING!! (accompanying a pic of copulating snails; Theez men r a disgrace(above doctored mugshots of Trump, Boris Johnson , and Erdogan); and Ey. tried dis n I wuz sick (alongside an advert for some new superfood).

   But within 24 hours, my KWAKE tweet had been re-tweeted 150 times. After a week I’d gained a further three hundred Followers. I couldn’t work out why. I texted Morton, who’d somehow made his way out of the rubble and was travelling through Cambodia. He couldn’t figure it out either and he had been a manic Tweeter and Messager, albeit in decline.

   I continued tweeting. Having decided a while before to prepare more of my own food, I bought the Comptoir Libanais cook book, trying out its Middle Eastern recipes. My first success was with Daoud basha, basically lamb meatballs with pine nuts and seven-spice mix, with a side dish of vermicelli rice. So I took a pic of the steaming result and tweeted it:

    Chk dis FCOL! Tried making Beh-root mtballs. SuXS. LMAO – I’m no shF!!! 

Within two hours I’d collected 357 ‘Likes’ and several strange comments. Here are a couple:

    A man! Suklnt Sussnce 4 t C-er. FWIW I kook2

    OFC. Brain food! LOL IKR

    Thoracle brAks 4 lunsh 

    My Qasbatt dajaj (sautéed chicken livers, with hummus and pomegranate molasses) attracted multiple Likes and further comments.

    I emailed Morton about C-er. Couldn’t work out that one.

    Seer, he replied. Soothsayer, diviner, clairvoyant. 

    That made sense of thoracle (the oracle) and brain food.

    They obviously think you are a prophet, he wrote. Excuse me while I puke with laughter.

    Morton, despite his TextTalk expertise, was fleeing social meejah, apart from anything else, which included a few demons (nuff sed). He never believed that I was the first to use the term, a phonetic version of the word. But when I used it in a tweet that time, there was a similar gush of responses in Twittersville, though not as many as for my Kwake prediction. Meejah. Gr8. Lurv it. TYVM someone tweeted, and re-tweeted. I should have known. I’d become a digital god.

                       ***

    Once dressed, I approached the window that opened on to my balcony. I rose on tip toe before opening it and looked out. What I saw reminded me of Field, that art work by the sculptor Antony Gormley consisting of thousands of terracotta figures cheek by jowl, about two feet high and with holes poked in their faces to look like eyes and mouths. I clambered on to the balcony, almost stumbling over one of the flower pots.

    I expected a roar of approval but got something different and unexpected: a simultaneous intake of breath by over 900 people, everyone’s mouth an O. It was almost midday. At about that time every morning my neighbour, Clarence, walked the grounds to smoke his daily cigarello. The crowd didn’t faze him: he flicked his lighter, looked at them looking up at me before looking up at me himself, and then followed his daily route as though a multitude in the grounds of that place was nothing remarkable.

   After the breath intake, there was silence. They were waiting for me to speak. As I trawled for a few sentences, I wondered how they’d found out where I lived. But a public forum is, well, public, and with a little digging one can find out anything about anyone – or everything about everyone.

   I thanked them all for coming and said I’d leave them with something to ponder on their way home. This caused little eruptions of excitement, which soon died down.

   Then, summoning my loudest possible voice, I addressed them:

   The thunderbolt that was forecast for tonight will not come. So rest assured with Fatet Batenjan, a toasted pitta bread with fried aubergine, yoghurt, and crispy onions. It’s the perfect example of how mixing opposing flavours and sensations can create something wonderful…

   At first, this caused not a flicker of reaction, as though they were waiting, after the word ‘wonderful’, for the verbal equivalent of emojis, hashtag references, and GIFs taken from home movies of  babies falling asleep by keeling over on settees.

  I then withdrew into the bedroom, wondering if what I’d said, or even their just setting eyes on me, would satisfy them. I wished I were with Morton, thrashing through some Vietnamese jungle or other with no network. Picking up that subdued tumult again, I stationed myself behind one of the drawn curtains and peeped out. They’d begun to disperse. In thirty minutes, they’d all gone, leaving Clarence on his return journey to stop and wonder if what he’d witnessed earlier had been a mirage.

    I slept for most of that day, waking to find Twitter deluged with mobile video clips of me on the balcony and my voice barely audible. Re-tweets and Likes were legion, a proliferating virus, out of control. In the evening, I texted Morton:

   Did U C it

   It was a while before he replied. I imagined the word ‘sending’ on his mobile for ever while that blue circle went round and round. Finally he was on line.

   I f****** 8 ohberjean LOL

   I sometimes wonder if Morton is not in permanent flight from something, possibly the modern world.

                         

About the contributor

Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction and the Templar Shorts award. His first story collection, Funderland, was widely praised in The Times, Guardian, and Independent. His debut poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, was described by Agenda magazine as 'a virtuoso performance'. Jarrett's first novel, Slowly Burning, was published in 2016, as was his second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? Jarrett also writes for Jazz Journal, Acumen poetry magazine, and others. He lives in Monmouthshire. Templar published his story pamphlet A Gloucester Trilogy in September.

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