Today is Bongo’s 31st birthday. It’s Friday, but company policy allows birthdays off, so he has a three day weekend which he is going to spend visiting his parents. Despite suspecting he will not enjoy it very much, he is looking forward to it. His parents annoy him and sometimes make him feel uneasy, but he still loves them.
He climbs out of bed with more enthusiasm than most days. The break in his routine has come at a most welcome time. Claudia had been in worse and worse moods each day, and these were only exacerbated by John. To an extent, Bongo felt bad that he would not be around to dissuade John from bugging Claudia, but the situation made him uncomfortable so he was glad to be out of it for a day. Perhaps that makes me a bad friend, he thought, but he didn’t let himself hold the thought too long. This morning was not a time for guilt; his parents would provide him with enough of that later. Instead, he turns his thoughts to a more pressing matter – breakfast.
Bongo subscribes to Nutrimax Quickmeals only for evening meals. There is still some comfort to be found in preparing a nice fried breakfast. John says he shouldn’t waste his time frying sausages when they can be delivered for less cost. His mother says he shouldn’t waste his time frying sausages when kale smoothies are much healthier. Their comments only add to the satisfaction. He smiles as the oil sizzles, and turns to check for messages.
“Can’t wait to see you, Bonbon!” says his smartphone in almost-but-not-quite perfect synthesis of his mother’s voice. He had never been a fan of that nickname. As a child he thought it was too cutesy, as a teen he thought it was too childish, and as an adult it reminds him too much of his youth. He decides a reply can wait until after he has enjoyed his meal. He puts bread in the toaster and beans in the microwave. These old fashioned appliances had been hard to find, but it had been worth the effort. The pop and the ping from them are far more satisfying than any delivery or kale smoothie.
He eats his breakfast at the table without watching the news and without looking at Friendface. He decides not to bother at all with either this morning.
After breakfast Bongo finds himself singing in the shower to a generic pop song on the audiostream. Usually he is too tired or too pessimistic about the upcoming day to even think about singing, but today is not a work day. His shower goes through its programmed phases of different temperatures and spray intensities, and Bongo might even go so far as to say he’s enjoying it. He knows routine and gloomy neutrality are not going to stay away for long, so he might as well make the most of it while he has a break.
His small travel-bag of luggage is already packed, and his hire car should arrive any minute. Vehicles for use on public roads have been exclusively self-driven for decades, so he has packed his Librarian knowing he’ll have a couple of hours to kill on the journey. The Librarian is a device to read books on. However, the purchase of one also includes a license to legally read published material. Without this license, a reader could be subject to all manner of legal consequences. Bongo dislikes that this law exists, but the Librarian has an interface made to realistically resemble paper. It feels good and looks good, and doesn’t hurt the eyes like a bright screen, so he would have bought one with or without the need to do so. Today’s reading list is educational and political. Most of the time, reading for Bongo is escapism, but today his rare motivation has also given a little guilt at his lack of knowledge and awareness.
Bongo heads downstairs to wait, and the car arrives almost right away. He gets in, types his parents address, and lies back. He switches on the Librarian looks at the list he wrote. First up is a book recommended by Claudia, “The Sweden Study: Darkness and the Dawn” by M.M. Brandt. It is a fairly brief analysis of the total overhaul of their government, where it was vowed that every citizen would always have enough food, water, shelter, and all other living essentials. After two decades of economic struggle, the country re-emerged as a large world power having successfully come closer to its goals than anyone imagined possible. The author tries to rally other countries into the same attitude of “human rights for every citizen must always come before financial gain or stability”, but so far only a couple of Latin American countries have achieved the same thing. Most governments simply will not risk the economic repercussions. Bongo sort of agrees with everything that is said, but if he was being honest he would confess he has no idea whether it’s an accurate depiction or, the more likely option, a biased oversimplification of a complex issue.
Overwhelmed by his political ignorance he decides he needs a change of topic, and starts to flick through “The Outward Spread” by Fernando Russo. This is a discussion about the impact of climate change. Instead of focusing on the mass extinctions and rising sea levels, he talks about how climate change is causing places further from the equator to become home to species that previously could not have lived there. In particular he points out that mosquitos carrying drug-resistant viruses can thrive in places they could not have in years past. Bongo wonders briefly why MalariAway have achieved so little, and why disease prevention is done by for-profit businesses. It occurs to him that he had thought about this before once when signing an online petition against another company of a similar nature. He sighs and switches book again.
This time it is “Morbid Obsession: When Reality Becomes a Game” by Erika Diallo. In this book, she expresses disgust at the way real events are retold and packaged for entertainment by the gaming industry. She believes that the time between the Democratic Collapse of America and the release of videogames in that setting was too short, and that people affected by it should not have to see the events that took their homes and friends from them reduced to simple entertainment. Some games are brutally accurate with the history while others twist it, giving players what Erika says is “nothing short of military propaganda that degrades the citizens.” He may feel little pangs of guilt occasionally when playing, but Bongo enjoys the games as much as anyone else and therefore avoids thinking about the reality. When it starts to criticise that mind set, Bongo gets uncomfortable and abandons the book.
Giving up on reading for now, Bongo instructs the car to reduce window opacity. By the road lies a row of fields, but beyond that they give way to hundreds of acres of greenhouses. This is where most food production occurs. Highly intensive megafarms like these are far from the pretty fields shown on food packaging. As the sun catches the glass he has to shield his eyes against the reflection.
Moments later the greenhouses are replaced with a view of residential houses. The motorway passes the outskirts of a city Bongo does not recognise. Suburban districts sprawl on for miles, with no regard for the countryside that was once there. He thinks it looks pretty in a way, but wonders what it must have been like before and imagines that it was probably prettier.
He realises how long it has been and asks the car for an ETA. A smoothly synthesised woman’s voice says, “We have just passed York, and will reach our destination in thirty seven minutes.”
Bongo sighs, and begins to mentally prepare himself for arrival. He expects his parents to be disappointed that he is still working for Motivo and has gotten no further with his book. He laughs sardonically at the thought; the first time his book has crossed his mind in weeks. It was going to be a glorious fantasy tale of dragons and warlords and magic, but of course, it was easier said than done and he never managed more than two chapters. Besides, even if he had finished it, he wondered, would he have seen any of the money or would it all have gone to Librarian Industry? He hopes his parents will have forgotten about it too. He hopes they will not say anything about his love life either. Perhaps he will tell them that not everyone is a hippy who marries at twenty without a care in the world and that it is not for them to decide whether or not he should be looking for someone to love. But then again, he might instead awkwardly smile, fake a laugh, and say he’s trying. That would be the easiest option. He stops the train of thought before he gets any more unwilling to go through with the visit. His thoughts turn instead to the good side of things. As much as he says he does not miss rural life at all, he is looking forward to walking in the forest with his parents’ dog, Francis. When they first got him he had laughed bitterly about how they gave their dog a more human name than they gave their son. Another positive here is that he gets fresh vegetables. Real fresh vegetables, that is. The packaged megafarm produce is advertised as fresh but it is nothing compared to straight-from-the-field food. Such a thing has become a rarity, except for rural folk and the very richest of city-dwellers.
Satisfied with his mood, Bongo listens to some music. A sudden strange nostalgia prompts him to put on the album “Witch Party in the Magic Forest” by Emilia Fairy and the Invisible Dancers. His mother used to play it loudly while cleaning the house. He had always secretly enjoyed it somewhat, though of course he acted like he hated it in his early teens. When he was older, he realised that most of the lyrics were either about drugs, or the nonsensical ramblings of someone who was almost certainly on drugs while writing them. It seemed a strange thing to expose young children to, but given that he has never taken any drugs, Bongo decides that it must have done no harm.
Less than halfway through the album, the car announces that the destination has been reached. Bongo quickly turns off the music and deletes it from his listening history as he looks out to see his mother, Paula, excitedly walking down the driveway. He breathes in deeply and then out again before opening the car door and getting out to meet her.
“Bonbon, my little angel! Happy birthday!” she exclaims, as she runs to embrace him.
He smiles and returns the hug which lasts slightly too long for his comfort. By the time she finally lets go, Bongo’s father, Manny, has reached the bottom of the drive. Bongo extends a hand but is instead met with another slightly too long hug.
“We’ve missed you, son,” Manny says, and then adds “Francis has too!” as the dog comes hobbling down the drive.
“Hello boy!” says Bongo, smiling more openly than he did at his parents. “Look at you, still going strong… how old are you now?”
“Seventeen,” answers Manny on behalf of Francis. “How many dogs can say they’ve reached that age, eh? You can try to walk him round the forest but he won’t go far or fast these days.”
“Later, later,” says Paula hastily, “Let’s get inside and eat! I made pumpkin pie and the best salad you’ll ever see!”
At the dinner table, Bongo cannot disagree that the salad is very good, but “the best” was a bold statement. It contains every ingredient one only hears of on a pretentious health blog, so Bongo almost wants to dislike it out of principle, but he does not. Most of the ingredients were grown right here on his parents’ land.
“How’s work?” asks his mother.
“Same as always: Nothing to celebrate, but not much to complain about.”
“I read an article about Motivo last week. It sounded worrying, but I’m sure my Bonbon wouldn’t work for a horrible company so it must all have been blown out of proportion.”
Bongo knew his mother was trying to make him guilty about his job, and refused to let her get to him.
“Yes mum, it’s not a perfect company, but we do far more good than bad. We’ll get even better if Claudia gets the promotion when Jasper retires next month.”
“Oh, Claudia!” exclaims his mother, suddenly forgetting her dislike of Motivo. “How is she? And how are things between you two?”
“I hardly know how she is. She’s doing well in her career. I’ll be surprised if anyone else is chosen over her, but she’s still torn up a bit over her break-up.”
“Ooh, well perhaps when she’s over that she will fall for you!”
“I don’t want that.”
“But she seemed so nice! She has a good heart and means well… but maybe you’re right. I don’t know if I’d want you to marry someone who goes chasing big corporate promotions.”
“What are you talking about, mum? I don’t know where you’ve got the idea that that would ever be a possibility.”
“He’s got a point, Paula, you met the girl once,” says Manny. “Bongo will find someone one day. No point thinking it’ll be the one girl we met and liked.”
“Okay, I’ll stop,” says Paula with a laugh, “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Thanks,” mumbles Bongo.
As if forgetting entirely what they were just talking about, Paula continues, “Anyway, the important thing is we have a surprise for you, Bonbon. Tomorrow is the Flower Hill Festival! We were going to go anyway and thought it would be nice to get you a ticket too seeing as you’re here!”
“Oh, um, thanks,” says Bongo, “I’m sure it will be good… what is it?”
“A new music festival! It’s only in its second year. Daisybladers are playing! And Jackson Gold, and Love Questors… And Raindance at Sunset!”
“Sooo… Hippy music?”
“Oh, Bongo, don’t dismiss it! You’ll love some of these bands. It’ll be like your youth again!”
“Yeah, that’s great,” says Bongo in a failed effort to fake enthusiasm.
“Now, Paula, don’t forget it’s not just ‘hippy music’,” says Manny. “There’s a rock and punk stage, too. If the hippies remind you too much of your old man, you might like those instead!”
“Maybe,” replies Bongo. He is not convinced but it at least sounds more appealing that reliving the childhood of being dragged around random festivals to watch his weird looking parents dance with ever weirder looking strangers.
After the salad and pie, Bongo clears the table. He washes the plates, only half out of politeness. The other half of the reason is the novelty of using a basin. As much as he likes to say they are out of touch, Bongo cannot deny that at least they did not fake their environmentalism. Not many people could say they actually eat primarily locally grown food and own none of the typical appliances that are oh so hungry for electricity and water. The contrast relaxes Bongo. He finds the act of scrubbing away with a brush in hot water strangely therapeutic after spending so long just tossing things in the eco-smart bin. He would not want to do it every day, but the escape from technology was nice once in a while.
Paula thanks Bongo for helping with yet another hug, which he returns reluctantly. Meanwhile Francis has pulled himself to his feet, knowing that the sound of the plates clattering signifies whatever ritual the humans perform before taking him outside.
“Oh look, Francis is up,” says Manny, “Why don’t you take him out, Bongo?”
Bongo gladly agrees to do so, and heads outside. The old dog is slow, taking nearly a minute to get down the driveway. Bongo smiles sadly at the thought of Francis as an excitable young dog. Running through fields with him was one memory he could not relive, but despite his age and deteriorating health, Francis still seemed to be loving his time here. The forest path is pretty much how Bongo remembered it, though he knows he cannot follow it all the way round today. Francis would only go a short way down, do his business, then be ready for home. In distance, it is a short venture, but at the pace Francis could manage it will take nearly as long as it once took them to do the full circuit.
The sounds of birds and running water reach Bongo’s ears. He grins openly. Plenty of pigeons and other birds dwell in the city, but not enough to make such a vibrant tapestry of sound. Bongo feels a light twinge of regret at the thought. He has been away from nature so long that a simple every day thing like the singing of birds now feels like a magical fairy tale. He makes a mental note he knows he will later disregard saying, “get out of the city more!”
The calm of nature surrounding him lets Bongo free his mind. He finds himself happily thinking of nothing at all, realising only after about a dozen paces that Francis is no longer beside him. He turns to see the dog standing still in the path staring at him. Bongo sighs and says, “okay, we can head back, old boy”
The return journey takes the same time as the journey out, so Bongo has some more time enjoying the solitude of the forest. He would have preferred another half hour alone, but he does not have the heart to keep Francis away from his bed that much longer.
Back at the house, Bongo’s parents are relaxing. He sits down on an armchair and decides to read on his Librarian. He selects a random fantasy novel from the list, opting for escapism rather than trying to continue the ultimately futile political phase of the morning.
Later on, they play scrabble – on a real board! Half the letters have faded down to the bare minimum of legibility, and others have been rewritten in permanent marker, but impressively the correct number of tiles is present. The game is close between Paula and Bongo, while Manny trails behind and grumbles about luck of the draw. In the end, Paula manages to put a “Z” on a triple letter. She laughs and playfully gloats.
“Yeah…” Bongo laughs. “Dad was right. If I’d gotten the Z it’d be me gloating right now. Or maybe I’d be gracious in victory.”
“Yeah, like you were last time you were here?” replies Paula.
On Manny’s suggestion, they play some card games. This is more his speciality than scrabble, and he wins most of the games and never stops grinning. His mother’s gloating in scrabble and his father’s smugness while playing cards had annoyed Bongo when he was younger. Even his last visit had been tense and full of bickering, but today was different. Bongo did not think he had really changed since then, but somehow he unexpectedly found himself enjoying the very things that once infuriated him. Once games grew dull, they went back to their separate reading, and shortly after that it was time for bed. An unfamiliar mattress and the uncertainty about tomorrow’s festival keep Bongo awake for half an hour more than usual, but they are not enough to stop him getting a good night’s sleep.