Updated: Sep 13, 2021
Jade had stayed up all day again.
She watched the small sliver of sky from her shuttered window go from pigeon-grey to tar-like indigo.
She felt more familiar with the moon than she ever did with the sun. She saw the bleached, blinding sun as a cruel stranger. It sucked all the life out of any living thing beneath its touch. She knew deep down the sun was just an innocent, dying star, the giver of life, yet she could not bring herself to love it. She grew up with the moon as the light in her sky. The lonely pearl in the bleached coral reef that she called home.
Jade had decided to write a letter. She was sitting below the window at the desk that she and her brother shared. Kei was sleeping so soundly that it sounded like he was purring away. She fiddled with the pen that she had found in one of Ma’s old trousers. The idea of using the hard, plastic thing to write with was as alien to her as using a single chopstick to eat. She tried first with her left hand, then her right. She gripped the pen awkwardly, too tightly, and the words came slowly. The ink was a streaky blue and the tip of the pen dragged reluctantly across the back of an old flyer for air purifiers.
When Jade was finished, she folded the piece of paper up, slid it into a makeshift envelope that she made from more flyers and sealed the lip of it with some leftover rice.
The door emitted a soft whoosh.
Jade jerked awake. She had fallen asleep at the desk. Kei was gone, his bed unmade.
‘Come and have some lunch. I made some noodles with soy sauce. You can have tea eggs too if you’d like.’
Jade pushed herself up with her elbows. ‘Okay, Ma.’
She heard the door close again, though Ma never shut the door properly. She listened to the quiet shuffling of Ma’s slippers as she went back into the living room. The TV was switched on soon after. The same po-faced news anchor was relating the news of the day. America was still on fire and their dictator was still trying to cover it up. Almost half the population was convinced that it was a hoax. The other half was planning an armed revolution. More places going underwater. Ireland was getting smaller as they spoke. China still denied that they knew anything about the bio-terrorist that was caught last week. Hottest day on record in the UK when they slept—a whopping 43 degrees Celsius.
She strained her head to look out the window. The sky was black like burnt toast.
She reluctantly pushed herself out of the chair.
Kei stared motionlessly at the ceiling, slack on the brown sofa like a dirty sock. Popo and Gonggong, Ma’s parents, were watching the TV next to Kei. Popo and Gonggong both had rollers in their hair. Gonggong was slowly painting his nails a reflective red. Ma and Ba chewed and slurped noisily at their food. They sat around a peeling imitation-wood table worn from years of use. Ugly grey plastic surfaced in large spots on the table. Through the window, Jade could see people in the other building doing the same thing as they were, fifty floors above the ground. Their faces were animated in lurid light. Although the Chans were familiar with their neighbours' daily routines, and Jade believed that they were aware of theirs too, they did not know each other’s names, nor had they ever crossed paths. They were not acquaintances, merely familiar strangers. All she knew about her neighbours was that they were climate immigrants like them. Everyone living in these buildings was.
‘Morning Popo. Morning Gonggong,’ Jade mumbled drowsily. ‘Morning everyone.’
‘You’re finally up.’ Ba turned over to glance at her. He was in a loose white tank-top and in blue shorts with palm trees that his Ba owned. Ma looked over and smiled at Jade. She was dressed to go out. She was in a sleeveless purple top with small white flowers dotted all over it.
‘Oh? You’ve got work today?’
‘Last minute tutoring session,’ Ma said matter-of-factly.
‘You look nice, Ma.’
Jade’s parents worked as tutors for wealthy families that could afford it and for those who still found value in higher education. Popo, Ma’s mother, had a university degree in Physics. She tutored Ma herself and Ma ended up with a scholarship which got her into school with the privileged kids. Ba had a similar experience in life. He did exceptionally well in school, but neither of them ended up going to university. He tutored, and he was a part-time technician. Sometimes he would get called into companies to fix their machines. However, the difficult reality was that there were simply not many jobs going around anymore, not even when Jade’s parents were her age. AI ran the city. People resorted to trading their personal possessions, food, bodies, drugs or knowledge. True wealth was incestuous. Nepotism became synonymous with common sense.
‘What’s Kei doing?’
Kei was now sitting upright with one arm extended. His eyes were focused solemnly on the vintage plants on the windowsill. He wiggled his fingers slowly before grabbing something in the air. He missed. He grabbed again with both hands. The dusty plant shuddered and teetered on the edge of the window.
‘Hey!’ Ba shouted.
‘What is he doing?’ Jade repeated loudly.
Kei turned over to look at them, blinking slowly. The implant on the back of his neck glowed a deep blue. It was the size of a pea.
‘Ma, what is he doing?’ Irritation began to take root in her.
Ma’s eyes attempted to meet Ba’s furtively.
‘I got him VR contacts as a surprise,’ Ba said finally. ‘He’s been doing well in school, and, well, it’s something for him to do.’
Gonggong coughed, raising his hand to look at his painted nails.
‘So you got him time-burners.’ Jade watched as Kei took the contacts off. He struggled briefly.
Gonggong and Popo sighed collectively and looked pointedly at Ma.
‘That’s enough, Jade. Sit down. You two, take your vitamins,’ said Ba. He placed two translucent tablets on their plates. They were a delicate yellow, as if sunshine was trapped in the tablets themselves.
Ma was silent as she moved to the kitchen. Jade watched as she rinsed the dishes.
‘Hei, you don’t need to wash up, you know,’ said Ba.
Ma ignored him. He sighed and began peeling a tea egg. ‘I don’t know why she bothers when I’ve just fixed the cupboard,’ he muttered.
‘Our Hei’s just not lazy.’ Gonggong replied.
‘What are time-burners?’ Kei said, sitting down at the table. His implant had stopped glowing.
Jade couldn’t help herself. ‘Those stupid VR contacts.’
Ba glared at her. ‘Eat. Both of you. Now be quiet. When I was your age, I had respect for my parents. It was very tough back then—’
‘—Ba. When you were my age, you could still go out in the sun—’
Kei’s eyes travelled anxiously from Jade’s to Ba’s. He opened his mouth meekly, then closed it again.
In the unsavoury silence, the Chan family stubbornly directed their attention to the TV:
—yet another drunken scuffle between the locals and the tourists in Piccadilly Gardens. PC Uma Kane said—
Ba tutted and the channel switched.
‘These people are ridiculous. Don’t ever get yourself involved in this, okay, Jade? Stay away from these people.’
‘How am I going to stay away from the pofs if they look like us?’
Gonggong muttered inaudibly. Popo picked up a book and started reading it. Jade saw that it was a book on the history of space travel.
Ba ignored them.
A message from the UN: remember to take each day as it comes. Reach out to loved ones if you are feeling low.
Jade rolled her eyes. She decided to ignore the TV and focus instead on the noodles before her. They were all empty words. Ma was still in the kitchen.
‘I’m going to meet up with Honey and the others later,’ Jade announced, wiping her mouth with a scrap piece of cloth that was on the table.
‘Honey?’ Ba looked her sternly in the face.
Jade tried to exhale gently through her nose. ‘Yes, Ba.’
‘They’re bad news,’ said Ba with a shake of his head. ‘They have no regard for their future.’
Jade held her tongue.
‘I don’t like you hanging around with kids like Honey, Jade,’ said Ma in a low but firm voice. She had appeared suddenly in the doorway of the kitchen with crossed arms. ‘You know this.’
‘You need to look after yourself, little Jade,’ Popo said softly.
‘Honey’s not a bad person.’ Jade said quietly, though her exasperation gave her words a sharp edge. ‘I’ll come back and cook with you, Popo.’
Kei fiddled with his VR contacts case. They were yellow, his favourite colour. Ba sighed loudly. Ma turned away and started washing the dishes again in silence.
Jade sectioned her naturally black hair into four tied sections and looped pink ribbons over each of them. They fell just past her shoulders and swung weightlessly on the back of her head as she moved. She applied purple eyeshadow around her eyes and drew three long thin isosceles triangles on the centre of her eyelids and below her lower lash line. A delicate smattering of pink glitter was dabbed over her nose to mimic freckles. She had always been jealous of Ma’s freckles. Ma had an abundance of freckles from being out in the sun in her youth. Unfortunately, neither moonbathing nor standing beneath the harsh light from street lamps had the same effect.
She put on a blue silky summer dress with faint butterflies patterned over the fabric. It used to be Ma’s. Ma said that she used to wear this dress in Macau before they became nocturnal. She said butterflies were scarce but not rare then. That was just around the time that Jade was born. She pulled on some worn black leather boots that she had found at the Scrap. She had found them with white cartoon-y daisies painted on and she often wondered about their past life.
Jade didn’t remember much of Macau. She relied on her parents’ memories. When she was a child, she watched her Ma’s memories in Macau with near-religious fervour. As she grew older, however, disillusionment and futile envy cemented themselves in her mind and she stopped revisiting the memories of a place that was denied from her by the negligence of generations past.
Jade left an hour after Ma left for work. Popo had gone downstairs to the market. Gonggong and Ba were having their midnight nap and Kei was playing video games with his friends online. They all had their own predictable routines.
She headed towards the city park which was fifteen minutes away from where she lived. It was built where a square used to be twenty years ago to accommodate the increasing population. Two shopping centres used to overlook the square, and from photos that Jade had seen before, they used to be packed with sun-lovers and reckless shoppers when the days were warm and the sky could be a luminous pale blue. Before that, it used to be a corn exchange. Now, only small shops selling essentials and a trampled park lit by flickering lights were left in its place.
The streets were never empty here in Manchester. Imposing street lamps blanched the city they towered over. The government claimed that this was light therapy, a solution for the people's lack of natural light exposure. In most of Manchester, darkness was never able to fully permeate down to the ground despite the evergrey forest made of concrete that had taken root in its place. It was horribly clinical.
A graffitied bus came rolling up right before Jade was about to cross. The once-sleek black bus was adorned with mysterious scars and sprayed with fluorescents that changed colours as the bus swept past. There was no one inside. She saw a vague reflection of herself in an ad on the side of the bus. She was momentarily suspended in all-silver attire and her hair was white like tissue paper. After the bus and white-haired Jade were gone, the road was clear and would be until the next bus came by in half an hour.
As Jade crossed the uneven road with exposed brick, she tried to picture a time when the sounds of horses' hooves were a crucial part of the city's fabric. Although she knew what horses looked like through photos on the internet, she could not imagine one standing beside her. They seemed huge compared to humans.
She thought of a time when factories changed the colours of the sky from a gentle grey to a murky dark and blackened the teeth and lungs of Manchester’s inhabitants. She wondered what the Mancunians of the past would think of her. She wondered what they would think of this.
In the distance, a group of people were shouting and swaying on the streets. They were men clumped together in desperate ecstasy, muttering and grasping at people or things that only they could see. As they got nearer, Jade noticed that they had taken their tops off and bunched them into balls in their restless fists. Their voices were a fascinating fusion of accents but sometimes a word pronounced with a distinctive Manchester accent would hang in the air before dissolving in the little ruckus. Jade avoided them.
A woman in an excessively wide cream hat walked behind them in conversation with a hologram of a nodding man’s head beside her. An elderly Southeast-Asian couple with hunched backs passed by her with trolleys piled high with clothes. They each had a bionic arm that made the otherwise strenuous task effortless. As Jade passed, they nodded at her. Recognising them, Jade nodded and smiled back.
As she made her way nearer the heart of the city, she saw more and more signs for mod shops flashing and buzzing in ill-fitted fluorescent lights. They were haloed by an assortment of fluorescent holograms demonstrating what services they provided. Dubious animations of needles, drills and hammer-like objects near pixelated skin hovered in the air. A queue had begun to form at one of them. A beautiful pregnant woman with curly pink hair and pink feathery lashes caught Jade’s eye. The woman was giggling and pointing at nothing in particular. ‘You’ve got such hairy wings!’ she exclaimed. In a dimmer alleyway, Jade saw several young women with shaved heads huddled together. Each had a band of blinking metal wrapped around their foreheads and looped around their ears. They did not notice her as she passed.
Jade thought those who were obsessed with welcoming technology into their bodies always had an eerie aura around them. Most of the people outside the shop leaned against the wall and seemed to stare right through her. They always seemed to be living elsewhere rather than in the now.
Jade turned off into a quieter street towards the square where the park was and became more alert. Although she was familiar with the area, she could not forget the horrific hate crimes that frequently occurred when she was a child. There used to be scuffles almost every night in the city. There were clashes between the racists, the bitterly unemployed, the drunks, the virtual addicts, the homeless and the disillusioned youth. But in recent years, some of them formed an unlikely and unspoken solidarity against the pofs—the people of the future. Besides, there was surveillance almost everywhere now in the city.
‘Hello! How are you doing?’
Jade jumped, though she did not scream. A hologram had materialised in front of her. She had been so preoccupied with her thoughts that she had forgotten about the sneaky ads that peppered the streets. It was a Chinese woman her age standing in front of tall, dark blinds. ‘Are you sick of being kept awake by blinding sunlight?’
‘No,’ she said, walking through it.
‘Have a good day!’ it chirped before being abducted abruptly by the street lamp that it was cast from.
The grass in the park was crunchy and shaggy. It looked more like hay than grass, but nonetheless, it was alive. It lazily encroached on the once clear paths that denoted its territory. The benches were engulfed by the corpses of tall weeds. Jade trudged through the grass with the hem of her dress lifted, careful not to let it snag on anything.
The park was usually quite empty, though she could already hear the clatter of wheels from skaters in the near distance. She tried to savour her proximity to true silence and took her time to walk around the park. Although her habitual restlessness began to insinuate itself in her thoughts, she pressed on and tried her hardest to think of nothing at all. She wanted to experience this moment as it was—a rare moment of solitude.
She thought of Kei’s VR contacts.
Poignance rippled through her. She wished she hadn’t been so curt with her family. They didn’t understand, after all, why Jade had become so averse to technology. Time-burners. None of them lived in the present anymore. It depressed her and everyone around her. But what could they do? What was there to enjoy in the present?
Jade forced herself to focus on the crunch of grass beneath her shoes and pushed further into the park.
Through the years, the layers and layers of graffiti bestowed by the artistic and the angry people of the city had reduced most of the artwork to mere colourful squiggles. The ramp was christened yet again with neon pink and orange words:
NOT UR TIME ZOO
WE ARE NOT PEOPLE OF THE PAST