“About the only place you’re going to find a smile in this world,” said Paul. “On the giant, decapitated head of a fucking fairground clown.” He slumped back onto the pile of rubble behind and let out a groan of relief. They’d been walking for days. “Lot I have to break down and explain for you in that sentence, Erin. You were too young at the time to cop what was going on.”
The dark sky rumbled and the clouds overhead opened on cue, dumping down another torrent of rain, the water taking only seconds to begin pouring in through the shattered roof of the arcade.
“Fun. Humour. Comedy. That was the first to go. People, well for the most part anyhow, got afraid to laugh at anyone else’s expense. And the best jokes are always at the expense of someone. You’d supress the laugh until you looked around first and checked the coast was clear for anyone who could have been offended, make sure you weren’t sitting near anyone fat, skinny, wearing glasses, or clothes intended for the opposite sex to the one they were born with, before you let rip. At the very least, you waited until a couple of other people were laughing first. Heaven forbid anyone should be offended.
“But the snowflakes, as they were jokingly referred to in the early days – oh, the irony – were in the ascendancy then, desperate to neuter anything that anyone could take umbrage with. The stand-ups sailing close to the wind, making jokes about race, sexual persuasion, politicians, especially the snowflakes themselves: they were taken out and shot first. Metaphorically… to begin with.
“Then, ultimately, because so many tight-asses have no sense of humour to begin with and find something as frivolous and unimportant as comedy itself offensive in its own right, it became outlawed.”
Paul laughed. A tear welled on his eyelid and rolled down his cheek. “First time I’ve done that in a long time, Erin,” he said. “Laughed. Or cried. I know, for the longest time, all I wanted to do was the latter, as everything went: nothing could be too scary, too intelligent, too fast, too… anything. Everything was being dumbed down, having the sharp edges rounded on an unprecedented, biblical scale. Ha. Me even saying ‘dumbed down’ would have gotten me locked up for a couple of years, back when there were prisons.
“Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Rules. Laws. Given the number of people disposed towards bending and breaking them, they became offensive in their own right.
“Before we knew where we were, ownership was forbidden lest it offend. How could I buy a car and risk hurting the feelings of my neighbour who couldn’t afford one? How could I live in a house, even one I’d been paying a mortgage on for years, when so many others felt marginalised, upset, at not enjoying that privilege?
“The snowflakes took everything from us. Everything. Everything we owned, anything that belonged to us, until we were left with nothing. It was the only way, in their short-sighted eyes, to make everyone the same.
“Only made sense then, I suppose, they started looking at parents and children, and how some had more of them than others, or that some people had no children at all. Impossible to even that out in a way that wouldn’t hurt someone’s feelings.”
Paul looked down at the photograph in his hands, unable to tell the difference between what were rain droplets and what were tears streaking down the now very creased face of the little girl in it.
The picture may have faded over the years, but his memory had not. “Even if everything had stayed the same, I doubt you would have remembered this place. It’s where you had your third birthday party. The last time I remember being happy. All of us.” He wiped away the water from the picture and laid it down at his feet, taking the item he’d been saving for a rainy day from inside his jacket and switching off the safety.
“I hope wherever you are, whoever you’ve become, you’re happy.”