The Orator

“I’ve been selected. Tommy. Tommy. Look.”

Alison held out her phone. Tommy saw the distinctive orange lettering on a teal background marching across the screen and displaying one of the most desired messages in the world. Just four words.

You have been selected

“When will it be, and where?”

“It doesn’t say. Check yours.”

Tommy’s Orator app remained a blank teal screen.

“The internet is going wild. Everyone’s saying it will be somewhere in the south of England.”

“Makes sense. He’s performed in Wales and Scotland. About time England got a look in.”

Alison squeaked in excitement. Her phone had changed colour and information started to scroll up the screen.

“Look. Look there’s the zone. Just passed Bristol.”

“Glastonbury’s in that zone. I bet that’s where it is.”

More information appeared. The occurrence would happen the next day at sunset. Alison had to get herself into the zone before 4 pm. If she got there sooner she would get a more central allocation. She also needed to bring two large stones that sat comfortably in her palms and appropriate footwear for walking several miles across the countryside.

Despite her reservations, the car was packed within an hour.

*

Alison sat with the phone on her lap waiting for that magic moment when they entered the zone. It still made her jump.

“What’s it say? Where do I go?”

“Hang on. It’s just asking me questions.”

“Like what?”

“Do I like heights?”

“I’m pulling over. I still think its Glastonbury Tor but there’s no point going on until we get more instructions.”

Tommy wasn’t the only one to suspect that the occurrence would happen at Glastonbury. It was the obvious place and sat almost centrally in the zone that stretched from Bristol to Yeovil.

Over two hundred thousand people were travelling towards it, even though only three thousand had been selected. News teams flocked to the area and helicopters were readied at nearby airports.

Tommy pulled into a lay-by and was surprised to see Alison looking distressed.

“What’s up?”

“I don’t know what to say. It’s asking how far I can walk and how long I can stand? What shall I say? I can’t believe it. It’s not fair.”

“You don’t know that.”

Alison typed her replies. Tommy reached over and took her hand.

“Stop. Just be honest?”

“But what if I can’t go.”

 “If you can’t go just because you can’t walk then it’s not worth going. If you can’t go we’ll do something even better. We’ll go to Weston and eat fish and chips while watching the sun rise over the sea.”

“Idiot. It points the wrong way.”

“We’ll cross the bridge and eat chips in Cardiff. Come on it doesn’t matter. We can still have a good time. Anyway there’s no point lying and then finding the app telling you to walk up Glastonbury Tor, is there?”

Alison deleted her lies. She couldn’t stand. She couldn’t walk. But she was very good at sitting. Unfortunately that wasn’t one of the questions.

It was an uncomfortable night full of mini-sleeps broken by panicked checking of the Orator app. Once an hour they ran the engine to warm the car but even more importantly to make sure Alison’s phoned was fully charged.

The sun had risen when a ping startled them both awake once more. Alison grabbed her phone and frantically searched for a message but nothing had changed.

“Bloody hell,” said Tommy.

Orange text scrolled across the teal background.

“You have not been selected on this occasion. Please refrain from entering further into the zone.”

The message was followed by warnings. Tommy would be banned from the app if he proceeded.

Tommy was still reading when Alison’s phoned pinged with its own set of warnings. Before continuing she was required to switch off her social media feeds and have no communication with anyone until after the occurrence. A countdown appeared. She had three hours to accept the conditions or be deselected.

The two of them sat stunned by the news. Alison couldn’t go on alone and Tommy couldn’t go on without losing any chance of being selected in the future.

“Let’s go home. I knew this was a bad idea.”

“No. I’ll turn my phone off. I’ll take the sim card out and then they’ll never know where I am.”

“But what if they do?”

“Look it doesn’t matter. I mean, what are the chances of me being selected anyway. I’ve more chance of winning the lottery.”

“I got selected so it does happen.”

“You’ve won – so let’s make sure you collect your prize.”

Tommy disabled his phone and Alison pressed the button to accept the terms and conditions.

*

It was surprisingly quiet as they drove on the A38 out of Bristol. The route turned east on the A371 and they stopped for food in the village of Cheddar. Alison was sure that everyone they saw had a smug, secretive look; even the waiter at the pub.

Tommy navigated onto the main road but was then immediately directed back through the village and into Cheddar Gorge. They’d never seen it before and were astonished by the sheer cliffs hunching over the winding road.

Alison’s phone beeped. They had reached their destination.

There was a lay-by with parking for about ten cars. All parking bays were full apart from the disabled one. Unusually none of the cars were empty. Each one held a single person. Some were eating. Some reading.  Some just sitting gazing at the view. All of them waiting in solitude for the occurrence to begin.

“Maybe I should leave you.”

“But then what? I don’t fancy spending the night out here freezing to death in my wheelchair.”

“I’d come and get you.”

“But what if you couldn’t get here?  And anyway. What if we are told to move again? This might not be the final spot.”

*

People were moving. Some were donning walking gear and setting off up the cliff path opposite. Others were walking along the road and then stopping at intervals. Alison also moved. She swung into her chair and wheeled a few feet across to the bench.  She hoped it wouldn’t matter that she stayed in her own comfortable seat rather than going through the hassle of transferring onto the hard wooden one.

Tommy stayed in the car so he wouldn’t disturb Alison’s experience. He did wind all the windows down.

*

Despite the secrecy Alison knew what to expect. The occurrence always began with a poem. Then they’d be music and words from the Orator. She had her part to play. Her phone was part of the performance. Her own voice would be added to the thousands around her.

On the hillside it looked as if a flock of sheep or mountain goats had been transformed into people.

Her phone started a one-minute count down.

*

The light brigade charged down the valley. She heard them come. Horse hoof-beats and cavalry-shouts stampeding from phone to phone.  Moments of stinging silence broken by shots. Cannons exploding from her right, her left, from behind and then shockingly from the phone vibrating in her lap.

Pre-installed smoke bombs fogged the air. A swarm of drones flashed with exploding lights.

Smoke settled and silence set like the sun.

A wolf howled. A pack replied. A solitary voice rose in lament and descended through the valley, its progress marked by the clash of stone on stone. Alison took up her own stones and brought her palms together as the song passed through her.

Another silent pause long enough for the last of the sun’s rays to leave the hillside and reveal a dance of a thousand stars as light flicked in each upraised hand.

The music was plain and would not satisfy if played from a single speaker in the cosiness of home but as Alison followed the directions to grind her stones together she heard the sea. It rose and fell as it crashed against the shore in a storm of increasing fury. There was no embarrassment as she screamed into the darkness.

She felt Tommy’s arm rest on her shoulder. The storm faded and miraculously the sun rose. It broke apart into a million shards that cascaded up in a fountain of light and then scattered to land like seeds alongside every person. Tommy picked up the tiny globe of light and placed it in Alison’s lap.

The Orator’s voice dropped from the drone that hovered above their heads. Alison could never remember the words. She wished she had recorded it but her phone wouldn’t have let her even if she had tried.

She remembered the timbre of the words and the essence of the message. It was so simple. It surprised her that it even needed to be said. She held Tommy’s hand, glad that he was with her, glad that they already knew how to look out for each other.

A piano and violin chased each other across the hillside and up into the sky. In the silence that followed the real stars eased into view.

They sat gazing up hardly noticing the sounds of people returning to their cars. One approached them, passed across two cups of coffee and retreated without saying a word. Slowly the valley emptied and Tommy took them home.

On their doorstep was a teal envelop with Alison’s name in orange. Inside was a badge with a silhouette of a bird.

“Is it a dove?”

“No. It’s a lark. From that last piece of music – Lark Ascending.”

They heard fluttering and looked up to see a drone drop a second envelop. Tommy caught it and saw his name. Inside was another Lark badge.

“What are these for?”

“To show we were there.”

They saw many similar badges in the next few days. Each one was accompanied by secret smiles or open waves of recognition. Several badge wearers stopped to chat. None of them mentioned the occurrence but talked about their lives as if they had been friends for many years.

In a pub they were delivered free drinks by a badge wearer. In a service station a woman gave them a bunch of flowers. As they rejoined the motorway they spotted a hitch-hiker wearing a badge and for the first time in their lives stopped to offer a lift.

Fake badges appeared and badge-fuelled anger started to explode.  It was Alison who inadvertently transformed it.

She was shopping when a television crew stopped her. They asked about her badge and questioned whether she was at the occurrence. Once they had caught her saying she was there they pulled over a man wearing an obviously handmade badge.

“What do you think of that?” asked the interviewer. “A counterfeit badge worn by someone who was nowhere near the occurrence.”

The television crew zoom in on Alison as she wheeled over to the man and removed his badge. They were surprised to see her then remove her own badge and pin it on to the man’s chest. Before they could react, Alison had already wheeled away.

It started the new tradition of badge swapping and soon no one knew who had genuinely been in Cheddar Gorge and who had not. It didn’t matter. Anyone could choose to wear a badge. Everyone could choose to look out for each other.

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