Old Acquaintance Not Forgot

Reginald and Edgar met up once a year. Every year, at the same time, mere minutes before an old year went out, parting an hour after a new one came in. It was the custom in the world of the dead. Established long eons ago, to encourage friendships among those who would otherwise not cross paths. All dead received a companion, selected by the Deadland lottery, to spend an annual hour with.

Edgar enjoyed that hour, he was always happy to see Reginald. They would spend it at the window to the world of living and watch them welcome the new year. Reginald would grumble, he thought it a fool’s celebration. “They’ll be all dead soon enough,” he’d say.

“But that is why they celebrate,” Edgar answered. “They’re happy they get to see another year!”

Reginald sneered at that. But Edgar hoped there was a small part of him that found at least a little joy in their encounters.

Last year was their hundredth meeting. They fulfilled the ancient custom, there was no need for them to see each other again, here or anywhere. To be sure, many of the dead have formed friendships during these hours, friendships lasting for eternity, but then again, many did not. And last year, Reginald looked like was at the end of his tether.

“I’m so glad this is our last meeting,” he said. “I can’t stand watching these stupid humans any longer.”

“We can do something else if you don’t like watching the living,” Edgar suggested.

“What’s the point? It’s the last time.”

“I’m sorry to hear you say that, Reginald. I thought we have become friends.”

“Friends!” Reginald scoffed. “That is a loose definition.”

“Acquaintances then,” Edgar added quietly, but Reginald listened no more. Once the hour was up, he turned his back on him and marched away from Edgar, not even bothering with saying goodbye.

Edgar was sorry. Over the century, he grew to like his companion. He believed Reginald’s abrasiveness was just a façade, a remnant of his living days. Having survived the trenches of the First World War, only to have his life taken from him by the Spanish flu. And the girl he loved married another man within a year of his death…

But that was so long ago and the world of the dead was so different from the world of living. Sometimes Edgar wondered whether Reginald also hated the Deadland. But where else was there to go? There would not be another place, ever again.

Edgar, too, had departed the world of the living prematurely, finding his death during a cursed voyage, in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. It was hard to accept at first, he missed his loved ones from the world of living, his younger sister in particular. But being dead was not such a bad deal once one got used to it, and the loved ones would join too, for death was inevitable.

Reginald had had no one while he was alive. Except the girl he had once loved, but he didn’t want to see her again. Edgar tried to be his friend, but—

One hundred and one years after they were first brought together by the Deadland lottery, Edgar made his way to their usual spot by the window to the world of living. Reginald wouldn’t come, that he was sure about. Still, Edgar was here. He would see in the new year, reminisce about his former companion, and leave.

He settled himself into a comfortable position. He had a good view of London’s Big Ben, the lit up dial of the clock that would tick the old year away.

Why did he come here? What was he doing? He could have been anywhere else right now, with someone who appreciated his company. There were many who did. “I am an old fool,” he said to himself.

“You’re not that old,” a voice came from behind.

Reginald sat down opposite him.

Edgar could only stare. “What are you doing here?” he asked at last. “You’ve fulfilled the custom.”

“I thought it would be good to see an old friend again,” Reginald answered.

The clock struck twelve, the fireworks exploded, and over their table by the window to the world of living, the two dead men smiled at each other.

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October

It’s chilly now in the mornings; you wake up and run into the kitchen to prepare your coffee and breakfast, the smell of bacon filling your nostrils. You log on to your work laptop, make it through another tedious meeting, seriously, they’re so obsessed with meetings, but then you open the window wide and into your living room enters a scent, that same scent that returns every year, the unmistakable scent of autumn.

It’s the weekend and you get out of the house, off to the little piece of wilderness in the city. It is a paradise. Leaves crunch under your feet, wind rustles in the trees. Crows caw overhead. Sunrays pierce through the tree branches, creating patches of light in the grass. The smell of wet earth. The sound of dog paws on leaf-covered ground. Squirrels hop from tree to tree, their tails wagging. Leaves fall. Some drop into a little brook, carried away to a place unknown. Yellow and orange and red, and all shades of brown. Some of the trees here are old, having witnessed generations of humans come and go. Their barks are gnarly and hard with years. Mushrooms grow among the foliage, inconspicuous little dwellings of fairies. Here and there, you find an acorn or a conker, half hidden in its spiky green shell. Shadows lengthen, it’s time to leave before it gets dark.

The pavements are covered with leaves, elderly residents taking care while walking not to slip on them. Golden and bronze leaves, big leaves and small leaves. The red of rose hips and berries. The pale purple of asters, occasionally the pink of roses that haven’t faded yet.

You’re home again. It’s started to rain, so you close the window. You light your pumpkin and cider scented candle and settle on the sofa with blankets and a nice cup of tea. The cat is purring next to you on the arm of the sofa, a happy animal. You switch the TV on and, from your streaming service’s menu, select a film.

It’s got to be a horror, of course, because now, kids, it’s spooky time!

What If It Works

This is your space.

You’ve lived your whole life here, never knowing anything different. The space is narrow in places, gets cramped from time to time, but it’s good enough. It is your home. It’s comfortable. And safe. You like it.

There is no reason not to. You’ve got everything you need.

Those other spaces, beyond yours, are all broad and wide. You glance at them, from a distance, sometimes, without much longing. They’re not for you. Even if you wanted to, you wouldn’t; the journey is long and treacherous.

That doesn’t mean you never think about them. It comes to you sometimes. One cannot help it, those spaces are enticing. It’s not impossible to get to them. You just never attempted it. But what if…what if you try?

An idea comes.

And with it the thoughts.

What if something goes wrong, what if you get lost? What if everything goes wrong? What if you can’t find your way back? They’re swirling around you now, the thoughts, you can’t stop them. What if you stumble, or worse, fall? And injure yourself? What if they see you fall? What if you walk through the wrong door? What if you find the right door, but can’t open it, and then the person behind you opens it without difficulty, and it will turn out you were turning the handle the opposite way? What if you don’t have the right documentation, and the entry official is one with a loud voice, and everyone hears, and thinks you’re stupid?

You break into a sweat. No, no-no-no. You retreat deeper into your space, hide under the blankets until your pulse slows down again. That was close!

You get on with your life. It’s the same thing every day, a familiar routine. Nothing unexpected happens. On and on it goes.

Yet the ideas still come. Some you flick away, some stay for a while before fizzling out. Some are more persistent. What if—

But no. Too many things to go wrong.

One day, you go about your usual business, when you spot him.

Out of the corner of your eye, while walking your everyday route. How he got there, you don’t know. He’s an old man, wizened and grey. Dressed in grey clothes, grey hat on his head, a bit pointed—the hat not the head—it looks almost… yes, like a wizard’s hat. He’s sitting on a lawn chair (where did it come from?), smoking a pipe. Your eyes meet.

“What if it works?” he says.

You stare at him. He says no more and carries on smoking his pipe. You continue on your way, do the things you usually do. But this thought is new. What if it works?

The next day you take the same route again. No trace remains of the old man. Or his lawn chair. But his words linger on. What if it works?

What if it does?

So you do it. You go to the other spaces. You get up one morning and cross the pass. You stumble once, nobody even notices. You take the wrong turn before you realise your mistake, nobody even notices. At the entry point, you mix up some of the paperwork, but the entry official sorts it out without much difficulty in minimal time—and nobody knows. And you’re in.

This space is beautiful, it is the most beautiful space you have ever seen. The colours are vivid and rich. So many pretty things, and interesting things, and exciting things. What you want most, though, is the sea. It tempts you with its waves, all deep grey and green and blue. You dip your toe in it. Then the whole foot. Then the other foot. Then you get in.

You float in that beautiful sea and it is the best feeling in the world. With blue sky and white clouds high up above you. The sun is shining. It worked… it did.

Soon, you have to return to your own space. But now you know that you can leave anytime, and go anywhere you want. It’s still narrow, the bad thoughts still come, but so do the good ones. Because, what if it works?

And that old wizard in a lawn chair? That was you all along.

Where Were You When

I was eating a burger with chips and watching Golden Girls on Disney+ when the news came of the queen’s death. Dammit, was my first thought, just when I, for the one and only time in my life, am booked to go to London next weekend, as if I was not anxious enough about that. What the capital city will look like, I cannot imagine. And I have a wild imagination.

Gods are having fun. Grim reaper collecting the monarch literal three days into the new Prime Minister’s premiership. Can’t have two Lizzies at the same time, he said, no sirs. Wonder who has it worse—Liz Truss having to deal with the death of the longest reigning monarch in history in her first week of work, or Boris Johnson missing the chance of making himself the centre of attention during the national mourning?

Imagine coming to UK in 2003 and seeing it go from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown to David Cameron to Theresa May to Boris Johnson to Liz Truss. Rise and fall of a once great nation? Charles Darwin resurrects himself from the dead to scream: “evolution does not work in reverse!”

What is an anti-monarchist supposed to say? Welp, RIP, or whatever. Give me Queen the band instead, anytime. Dum-dum-dum, another one bites the dust.

I avoid BBC already and luckily it happens to be my time off work. I might just be able to escape the whole circus.

They say all will change. Money will have to be different, of course. But also stamps. And the national anthem changes from God Save The Queen to God Save The King. I don’t know the lyrics to that anyway, I’m not British. There’s less snail mail now and cash payments are being replaced by card payments.

Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952. The same year Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap was first performed on stage. Now, here was a real queen! The play is still running and they’re doing a tour for the 70th anniversary. I went to see it for the 60th anniversary tour in 2012, and I will be seeing it again later this year.

What was I talking about?

I feel like that meme of tired Ben Affleck smoking. And I don’t smoke.

All hail King Charles, I guess. I wish all the anti-monarchist a very…

Get through this with sanity.

Focus

Focus.

Focus, dammit!

I shout at my own self.

You’d think it was simple. Start a task, focus on the task, finish the task. A common sense, logical approach, you don’t need a college education to understand that. A college education. I never achieved it because I couldn’t focus. I tried. Not once, not twice, but three times. But I could never make past the first semester. I couldn’t focus.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, I’m here to talk about focus. The never ending, ever present struggle. What is a focus?

The centre of interest or activity. The state or quality of having or producing clear visual definition. Says the Google dictionary. That’s the noun. The verb is adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly. What even is that? Also: pay particular attention to. That I know what means. I pay attention to some things, less to other things, none to those that don’t interest me. Or those that bore me. To pay attention has two meanings, doesn’t it? Pay attention as in, focus. And pay attention as in, pay no attention to the haters. The latter’s not always easy, haters can be cruel. And they tend to make themselves known before you get a chance to find the supporters. What I excel at, though, is not paying any attention to people who are desperate for attention. And paying attention to things no one notices or cares about.

Focus!

Okay, so I focus. Or try to. Until my mind starts to wander. The places I wander to are rich and colourful, real and imagined. They are past and they are future. What happened and will happen and what could have happened. Scenarios I could write down, if only I could focus.

In the past, I had team managers at work ask me with concern why I’m not performing as I should, but how do I tell them I just can’t focus? I’m a good worker, actually. Maybe that’s why they wanted to know, because they expected better. It took a lot of determination to beat that.

I should read more books. I come across a book I think I would like, add it to my To Read list and promptly forget about it. Audiobooks are good, of course. But with me you never know when I lose the focus, no matter how pleasant the narrator’s voice is. I’m a sucker for good voices.

I can’t do poetry, I read the first line of the poem and lose interest. Loreena McKennitt has a song titled The Lady of Shalott, where she sings the lines of the Tennyson poem to music. That is manageable, at least I can listen to the song. I known of this poem thanks to Anne of Green Gables. (We didn’t do Tennyson at school, I’m not from an English speaking country, we have our own poets.) Poor Anne almost drowned in the pond playing the role of Elaine when she and her friends turned the poem into a real life play. Agatha Christie used a line from the poem as a title for her book The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side. Both my favourite writers were fans of the same poem. I wonder if I could write a retelling where Elaine gets a happy endin—

Focus, stupid!

What was I saying? Oh yes, I like taking pictures. Photographs, you know. I have a camera, but I also use my smartphone. The camera lens is better than me, it can focus.

Focus. I give you bloody focus.

I’ve heard of focus groups, but I don’t know what it means. I google “what is a focus group”, but the results make my eyes glaze so I close the page.

Focus focus FOCUS!!!

I should visit Haworth again. The Bronte sisters place. And go look for the farmhouse that was the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. I struggle with Wuthering Heights, like I struggle with a lot of classics. The long sentences kill me. By the time I get to end of the sentence, I forget the beginning. I admire all you classics enthusiast, I marvel at your ability to focus!

Stop lying. You have no problem focusing when you want to.

Yeah but you know, that’s hard to explain. I can spend hours tidying up the tags on my blogs, here and on Tumblr, or organising my photos into albums. I like tidying up and cleaning. Once I start.

You can’t get through a work meeting without doodling on a piece of paper but you had no problem watching the three-hour Avengers Endgame in the cinema.

Well yeah, that’s the point that I was at the cinema. And it was a highly anticipated film. And I prepared for it, mentally, before I went, because I knew it would be three hours long. Also it features many characters. Also work meetings are tedious. Also shut up.

I’ve never rewatched Avengers Endgame but if I did it at home, I’d probably take breaks. And I don’t binge-watch. I can’t do it. Unless it’s sitcoms, but I’m very picky with my sitcoms. A few months ago I watched about fifteen episodes of Golden Girls while I was cleaning my living room. I cannot explain.

Focus. Bloody focus.

Part of me feels actual sympathy with George RR Martin for never finishing his A Song of Ice and Fire series.

This is the first time I’ve admitted to it.

Seriously. I’m worried that I’ll never finish anything in my life. That’s why I stick to short stories. No epic fantasy from me. No, sirs.

Someone’s talking to me, but I’m not paying attention. I’m googling the population of London in late Victorian times.

The voice gets louder. It is a wise one, an ancient one. It says: “maybe you should get checked for ADHD.”


Written for the Weekly Prompts Weekend Challenge – Focus. I’m so pleased I got a chance to respond to the challenge in writing, first time I’ve done so. (I normally use photography.)

I Will See You Again

It’s been a long time since you last saw each other.

Since that grey November day when you said goodbye, the Hostile Environment immigration policy putting an ocean between you. Two years or three, who’s counting? You’re still in contact, you’re connected. Modern technology is your saviour. You get to hear his voice, see his face on the screen. No touch, no hand to hold. No skin to caress. No one to dance salsa with.

So you dance alone.

You look up and see the same sky, the same moon. You play the same music and think about each other. I will see you again, he says.

The pandemic, the lockdowns, it makes no difference to you. The world opens again, it makes no difference to you. You dance salsa on your own. In your living room, after dusk, lights off, headphones on.

I will see you again, he says.

He repeats it often. It has become a chorus.

When you parted, you both agreed to see other people. You have dated, here and there, you’ve had many good dates. But no one measures up. No one is like him, because there is no one like him.

And you know it’s same for him.

I will see you again, he messages.

Life goes on. With every day, it goes on. Everything is good, except there is no him, because he is so far away. How does it work, with someone in a different hemisphere?

I will see you again.

Will you? You don’t remember when you started losing hope.

You go on another date, you think they’d make a good life partner. You ghost them. It’s never what it was with him.

What of it? You have long got used to dancing on your own.

When people ask you about your love life, you shrug. Nothing to tell. You don’t talk about him to anyone. Most of them forgot you were ever together. They don’t ask about him. They’re as uncomfortable discussing immigration as they ever were.

You don’t listen to Buena Vista Social Club anymore. What’s the point, when there’s nobody to share it with? Chan Chan, the signature tune, has faded away.

Winter is long and lonely and wet. The scarf you wrapped around yourselves, on your walks in the park that last autumn, lies at the bottom of your wardrobe.

At last, a new spring arrives. Time of optimism. So they say.

His message changes. I will see you soon.

You halt in the middle of the pavement, staring at your phone, people bumping into you.

You put the phone back in your pocket. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s only one changed word, that’s all.

Yet there is something in the air, something that could make you believe that it was not all in vain.

The next message reads: I will see you very soon.

A variation on the same theme, you tell yourself.

One day, you’re in the city centre and the music is playing. Music often plays in the city centre, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Except, this time it is different.

Latin American music is unusual in this part of the world. You feel the almost forgotten stir in your veins, it’s been such a long time.

And then your hear it. Those unforgettable, unmistakable four notes. The signature tune, so familiar. How could you be such a fool to think it would ever fade?

Compay Segundo composed Chan Chan from a melody he heard in his dream, Wikipedia tells us. Your phone screen flashes with a new message. Turn around.

You turn around.

“Estoy aqui.”

He is here.

You fall into each other’s arms. You stay like that for the whole song. “How?” you ask. “The Home Secretary is a literal Nazi. How did you do it?”

“There are ways,” he says.

Chan Chan ends, followed by an upbeat, contemporary Latin pop song. He takes your hand. “Let’s dance.”

He is back. And you will never dance alone again.


Author’s Note: This is a continuation of my older story Love / Amor, though I wrote it so it can be read separately. I can’t remember exactly how I came up with the idea of giving them a happy ending, but what finally convinced me was the departure of Santiago Cabrera from the Star Trek Picard series. His character got a happy ending in-universe, but I am disappointed I will not see him again in Season 3. So I wrote this.

Link to the Wikipedia article on the song Chan Chan mentioned in the story.

And finally, Chan Chan itself:

ETA: To clarify, this is not salsa, when I talk about them dancing salsa I mean that to an appropriate music.

Bedtime Story Time

“And so the little brother and sister lived happily with their father in their little cottage.” Melina closed the book. 

Little Katie’s eyelids were already dropping. Melina straightened the blanket. “I hope you enjoyed the story,” she said.

“Yes,” said Katie. “You make it so much fun!”

Melina smiled. She got a real kick out of trying out different voices while reading the story. Sure, Hansel and Gretel was stupid and nonsensical, but hey, it was Katie’s own choice and she wouldn’t argue with a child over what story they wanted to hear. Let people enjoy things was her mantra.

Katie’s eyes opened wide. “Do witches really exist, Auntie?”

“Oh no!” Melina laughed. “Only in stories. You know, like dragons and mermaids and all that stuff.”

“Will you read me a story about mermaids next time?”

“Of course I will.”

The little girl’s eyelids dropped again and soon, she was asleep. Melina stood up, put the book back on the shelf and left Katie’s bedroom, switching the light off. She settled on the sofa in the living room and turned the TV on. Nothing of interest was on and Theresa didn’t subscribe to any streaming services, but Melina didn’t feel like watching anything anyway. She was thinking.

She was thinking of the stories she could tell little Katie. All the tales of yore, the true tales, not the Brothers Grimm mess. And then, there were other types of stories. Of deadbeat dads and alcoholic grandparents. Of struggling single mums, who couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt when they indulged in going out for only one night a year. For god’s sake, go out with your friends. I can look after Katie, I have nothing to do in the evenings

One day she would.

She hoped Theresa was having a good time.

She did. Theresa came home, her face shining. She was barefooted. “It’s been so long I’ve worn these,” she said, dangling her high heels in her hand. She hugged Melina. “Thank you so much.”

“Oh it’s a pleasure, you know.”

“Were there any problems?”

“Not at all, she ate her supper like a champ and then I read her a story.”

“You want anything to eat or drink?”

“No thanks, I’m good. I need to head home now.”

“Of course. You want me to get you a cab? You got an Uber?”

“No, no need for that.”

They said goodnight to each other and Melina left.

She walked down the street, then down the next street, until she reached the park gate. She entered.

The park was a deserted, quiet place at this hour. There were only a few street lights, helpless against the darkness. She kept on a steady pace towards the bushes. That was where she hid it.

It was the best spot, really. She always used this park when going to Theresa’s house.

She crouched and, from under the bushes, she retrieved the long thin object. It was a broom.

She perched on the broom, bounced on her feet and flew away.

An Awakening

She arrived one day, an unremarkable day by all accounts. We said, welcome, and that was it. New people were coming from time to time, we had got used to it. She settled in with the community without any major difficulties and soon, she was one of us.

Until she started talking about her ideas.

At once, everyone stayed away from her. No, no, no-no-no-no, they shook their heads. We can’t have that. Unacceptable.

Some were disgusted. “Ughhh, what?” and “What is wrong with you???” were some of the reactions.

Some screamed. Some cried. No kidding, they really did.

Not me.

As soon as she began talking, something stirred up in me. I listened. I wanted to know more. I was excited. I got goose bumps.

“If you want to know more, you can follow me,” she said.

The decision would be mine to make.

I could have gone back to the others, or I could have followed her. I didn’t have to think about it long, for I knew what I wanted. So I followed her.

I have not regretted it once. The possibilities that opened in front of me would never have had opened, had I not followed her.

They don’t know, of course. They remain in their place, afraid. They could see, if they only made that choice to open their eyes. Because if they do, they’ll know.

It’s curiosity that beats fear.


Written for the prompt on OLWG, No. 3 – “so I followed her”. Thank you for reading.

Patient

They start leaving, in twos and threes at first, then in larger groups, every day, later even twice a day, until there is only a few hundred of you left. Compared to the previous population of a million—yours was a big compound—it is a mere handful.

You don’t mind. In fact, you volunteered to stay behind. I can remain here and take care of things, you told them. An obligatory “are you sure”, followed by your subsequent confirmation, and your fate is sealed.

And so you watch them go. The rollout is successful.

You like the quiet and the solitude, you’ve always worked better on your own. And you don’t miss out on anything. The newsfeed is pretty efficient and you can still access the stuff you like, albeit on a smaller screen. You work and rest, work and rest. And wait. You are patient.

The food gets blander, as the best chefs are gone. The compound gets quieter and quieter with each coming day. Majority of the people you care about have left. You don’t remember when you last saw the ones that went first, the ones in the high risk category. One dull afternoon, your last friend leaves. Any contact you have with anyone is now only virtual.

You discover the sound of silence. Not the silence of a summer day in a meadow, how it would have been, on the outside world, all those years ago. Not the silence of a cosy room on a winter night either. It is a silence of nothing.

The silence of nothing fills your life. Sure, you can play music and watch films, but it’s still there, waiting for you, a pause button away. You don’t attempt to make friends with the ones who are still here. They seem like people of no substance to you. Perhaps they are. Nothing is of any substance in this place. Everything is grey here. Not even different shades of grey. Just—grey.

Will you go insane?

Nobody is this patient.

Well, you are. Patience is a virtue, they say. Shame they never specified what exactly you were supposed to do with that virtue.

At last, you are called in.

It’s not long after five o’clock in the afternoon when you enter the small room. The nurse looks worn out, but her eyes are hopeful. “We’re almost through,” she says.

“It’s been miserable, hasn’t it?” you finally admit.

She agrees.

You roll up your sleeve.

You receive the vaccine and return to your room. It doesn’t take you long to pack. You’ve been ready for a while.

When you leave the compound, the sun is shining, almost blinding you. Real sunshine! Not on a screen, or filtered through the glass dome, but real. With a real sky. You bath yourself in it. And then they come, your nearest and dearest, they’re here, they’ve been waiting for you. They envelope you in a hug. Real humans, with real limbs, the warmth of their bodies. They take your bags, accompany you to your temporary quarters. The city is bright and full of life. And colourful, oh so colourful. Green and red and purple and yellow. And it’s loud. Everything is open. Tomorrow you’ll hit the shops.

For tonight, there is a different plan.

They take you to the best restaurant in town. The food is divine; you don’t think you’ve ever tasted anything as divine as this. But there is still something on your mind, and when the dessert is served, you voice it out loud.

“What if there’s another one?”

“Another what?”

“Another virus. What if—what if it’s worse than the last one?”

“Well, there’s bound to be another one again,” says your most rational and scientifically minded friend. “But when it comes to that, we’ll deal with it. We’ve dealt with this one.”

“Let’s enjoy what we have now,” says another friend. So you do.

After dinner—the cinema.

Because it’s finally here.

Countless delays later, it’s finally here. The hottest, the most anticipated film of the decade. The first two days of screening are sold out, but have no fear—your friends have secured the tickets in advance.

How lucky are you, coming out on the day the movie opens!

Crowds flood into the cinema complex. You settle in your seats (and good seats they are), patiently sit through the adverts. The lights go out. The big screen lights up with the logo of the movie franchise. It’s the popcorniest of all popcorn franchises, hell yeah! Excitement rises in you. This is it.

The friend sitting on your left, the one who was the last to leave the compound, leans close to you and says: “We’re back, baby!”

The film starts.

You love it.

The Conclusion

The Observer picked up the cup and drank. The coffee was lukewarm by now; it had been a long day. Still, they drained the cup and placed it back on the saucer. Outside, the smooth glass surfaces of buildings reflected the blood red of the setting sun. It was quiet in the boardroom, the only sound being the humming of the air-conditioning unit.

The Observer straightened the stack of papers on the desk. They cleared their throat.

“I have made a thorough study of the matter,” they spoke in a determined voice with perfectly accented English, “I have consulted every party involved, perused every piece of material related, and I hereby conclude that, contrary to the previously held assumption, immigrants were not stealing jobs from the native population.”