THE PEN

Melbourne, July 2020

The city shivered in a cold, grey, drizzle as an oncoming bus sped up to catch the lights. A young woman  stepped up to the kerb. Slipping on the wet pavement ....

 

"Watch out!”

Jay screamed and, jumping forward, grabbed the woman by the arm, pulling her back to the footpath. The bus driver, seeing the woman was safe, shifted down a gear and continued on.

 “Are you okay?” Jay asked, still holding the trembling arm.

The woman nodded and gave a faint smile of gratitude. She was about Jay’s age, mid- to late-twenties, jet black hair and smooth golden skin. Her almond-shaped eyes were amber, clear and bright.

“Let’s get you somewhere to sit down. There’s a small café just round the corner. I’ll shout you a coffee, and we can sit there till you feel better.”

Another nod, no words, but the smile broadened a little. She took Jay’s arm and let her lead the way.

Jay sat her down at a table in a quiet corner with a window looking out to the street. “I’m Jay,” she said.

“Ana,” was the reply. “And thank you.” She let out a long sigh. “I guess I am just not used to this traffic.”

“I’m glad I was there. I’ll order. What would you like?”

“Whatever you are having will be fine,” Ana replied.

Jay ordered two lattes at the counter and returned to the table. Ana was staring out the window at the rain. They said nothing for a while. Finally, Jay spoke.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

Ana paused. “I’m a country girl,” she said as the waitress brought the coffee. “I am doing a bit of research for an article for our local newspaper. Perhaps you can help me.”

“If I can,” Jay replied. Talking about her article would probably help her recover from the fright she had experienced. “So, what’s the topic?”

“Well, it is about you -- er - city people and how you are feeling and thinking at this stage now that restrictions are being lifted, and we are told the pandemic is under control.”

Her smile seemed oddly familiar. Jay wondered if they had met before. No, Jay thought, I wouldn’t have forgotten those eyes.

Ana took a notebook and pen from a small shoulder bag and put them on the table.  She picked up the glass and sipped her latte. The pen lay there, its surface sparkling.

Jay couldn’t help remarking, “What a lovely pen. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” Ana put her coffee down and picked up the pen. Jay noted, “I see you’re left-handed. So am I.”

Ana nodded. “Yes, it runs in my family.”

Suddenly businesslike, Jay said, “So, what would you like to know?”

“Now that things are getting back to normal,” Ana began, “What do you think “normal” could or should be?”

Jay paused, unsure. It wasn’t one of the questions she thought Ana would ask. Something more concrete perhaps, less hypothetical. But it could be interesting. She hadn’t thought about it much. Writers and columnists were discussing the positive changes that had occurred. Some were changes that people had urged governments and organisations for years to implement, but the answer was always that it was impossible, too expensive, or would take too long. Then, during the pandemic, things were suddenly changing in a matter of weeks.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, Jay thought. Aloud she said, “That’s quite a big question.”

 “Yes. But I am sure you have an opinion on how you would like the world to look.”

Jay’s hand instinctively cupped her belly. It was only a few hours ago that she had learnt the good news. Yes, she thought, I do have an interest in how the world, or at least my part of it, should look.

Ana continued, “It is an important moment in human history. There is an awareness and a chance to change direction. How do you think future generations will judge the decisions and actions of those in the present time?”

Future generations! The personal world she lived in was being shaken enough already.  And what could she or most ordinary people do to change anything anyway?

Ana was looking at her with concern. “Have I upset you? I am truly sorry.”

Jay reached for her glass. “I’m fine,” she replied, sipping the hot coffee. “You’re right. It is an important time for us all. What did you have in mind – specifically?”

“If we could maintain at least a few positive changes that we have managed during this pandemic, what should they be?”

Jay instantly thought of the clear skies and clean waters that had already begun to replace the planet’s polluted air and water as human activity slowed or stopped.

“Protecting the planet should be a top priority. Where will we live if we destroy it?”

 “Yes. Top priority,” Ana agreed, writing in her notebook. “Anything else?”

Jay smiled a little as she said, “All those chest-thumping male egos running the world seem to be a big part of the problem,” she ventured. “And all this prioritising money-making over people’s health.”

Ana wrote in her notebook again, and the sparkling pen moved rhythmically across the page.

Jay let her mind be drawn into the ocean of possibilities. The ideas were rushing in like the waters of a bursting dam. She hadn’t given much thought to any of this, other than as it affected her specifically. Now there was a flood of ideas.

She had read of the different impact the virus had had on the rich and the poor.

“We need to close this great gap between rich and poor,” she offered.

Their heads drew closer together and the words began to flow. Ana wrote, and Jay thought aloud of things she had only vaguely thought about before.

She spoke of the destruction and decimation of the planet’s life-giving systems, and the loss of species and their habitat. All to provide profit to the already obscenely wealthy.

She spoke of the poor everywhere in the world, their struggles, their pain, and their love for their children. She spoke of the powerful who ran the world for their own comfort and prosperity.

She spoke of mothers watching their babies die of starvation; mothers and fathers waiting for sons and daughters who did not return from endless wars; she spoke of the apparent powerlessness of marginalised people – indigenous, poor, lower class or caste, and  of global violence against women. She spoke of the enormity of prejudice and propaganda, that set nation against nation, tribe against tribe, religion against religion, race against race.

She began to realise that it was human action which had produced the circumstances that developed the virus; human action or inaction, and cultural customs had all aided its growth and the development of human vulnerabilities to it.

The world had always prepared for war. Well-trained men and women in almost every nation stood by, ever ready to attack or defend. A never-ending flow of money supplied the research and development of destructive weaponry. Perhaps the most profitable of all industries.

But no army of medical professionals was waiting, ready for this enemy. Medical supplies were scarce, money to fund medical research had been cut or refused for years, although epidemics had happened before. Perceptive men and women warned it would happen again. The response – Nothing!

Jay noticed then that Ana had stopped writing and was listening intently. She stopped her torrent of words and closed her eyes. Something was happening to her. She began to feel as if she were physically changing, expanding, in every direction. She let go and let it happen.

Further and further, wider and wider, but now there was no “I”, no “she”, just everything, everywhere. Crazier than Alice’s rabbit hole, but more wonderful than Alice’s Wonderland. An awareness that filled all time and space. Ecstasy across an entire universe. Time ceased to exist.

And then - she was aware of her Self again. She opened her eyes. Ana was still facing her, the amber eyes glowing. The café was still there. The remains of her coffee was cold in its glass. She had no idea how much time had passed.

She let out a long breath. “What. On. Earth. Was. That?” she asked Ana, instinctively feeling that Ana knew.

Ana put her chin in her cupped hand, her head tilted slightly to one side. She smiled gently and there was sunshine in her smile.

“I think you’ve just had a major shift in consciousness,” she finally offered.

Jay exhaled again - slowly. “It was wonderful. Amazing. I felt like I was everything, and everything was me. It’s all connected. Do you know what I mean?” Jay leant forward, speaking urgently but softly as though it were a secret that had to be shared. “It’s all connected. We’re all connected.”

“Yes, I know what you mean. You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.”

Jay looked slightly puzzled but, to her own surprise, she replied, “I think we need more people, indigenous people, marginalized people, to be involved. The people who are affected most but never have a say in what happens to their world. And the world needs to listen to women more.”

Ana chuckled with delight at Jay’s enthusiasm. She said, “We need people like you.” She paused as if wondering if she should continue.  Finally, she said, “I am who I am today because of you.” Jay looked at her, not understanding.

Ana stood up, put her notebook in her bag, walked around the table and, bending over, kissed Jay lightly on the cheek. She held out the twinkling pen.

“A gift for my great-grandmother. It’s been in the family for a long time. You’re going to need it. And, bonus: it never runs out.”

Jay took the sparkling pen, unlike any she had seen. Questions raced through her mind as she stared at it. When she looked up, Ana was gone. Through the window, the sun was shining.

Melbourne, September 2045

“Fellow writers, it gives me great pleasure to welcome to the podium Dr Jyoti Khan, or Jay as most of you know her. Jay is an international inspiration. She has clearly shown that the pen is mightier than the sword, that words can win more triumphs than wars.  Her writing has inspired younger generations to stand up for their world, and re-awakened older generations, reminding them of their youthful passions for justice and concern for their planet. As writers, we all stand a little taller because of Jay.”

The crowd cheered its agreement as Jay walked to the podium.

“Thank you all,” she said and paused to look at the crowd, at her daughter sitting in the front row, the countryside beyond the open-air arena, the clear sky above.

“My journey to this moment began 25 years ago when we believed the pandemic was over. We clamoured to be let out of our houses – some more than others. On a wet day, in a coffee shop not far from here, I met a distant relative of mine for the first and only time. From that meeting, I learnt the true meaning of the words "We are all in this together". And everything, yes Every Thing, is connected. That realisation changed my life, and I began to write. To the people who took up my ideas and put them into action, I am deeply grateful. We all have our parts to play.”

She reached into her pocket. “For me, this is the symbol of our art.”

She held up a small pen, twinkling in the sunlight.

“My message to you is simple. Whether you write poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction. Pen or keyboard. Keep writing. Love it. Enjoy it. You could even change the world.”