On the first day, a gentleman walked his dog in the early morning. They wandered up a dirt track by a patch of abandoned furniture as the sun peeped over the distant council estate.
The man said something he would later regret; something that would keep him awake the whole of that fateful first night. He said, “Distinctly ugly sunrise, old girl.”
As his words spilled out into the open air, they were displayed in black typeface against the dull white clouds.
Distinctly ugly sunrise, old girl hung over his head, teasing, floating, drifting, haunting.
“It’s just an observation,” he whispered at the sky.
The sky replied, It’s just an observation.
The words remained hanging, painted across the air.
Distinctly ugly sunrise, old girl.
It’s just an observation.
As the town awoke, more words appeared, pouring from radio alarm clocks, charging out of windows, beginning as recognisable words and phrases before jumbling together in clouds of letters, obscuring the light as the day wore on.
By the evening of the first day, hacks and intellectuals were already speaking in hushed tones about “language pollution.” Politicians gathered in huddles in darkened corners, but the more they spoke, the more the word-streams swam around their heads, somehow emphasising the ridiculousness of their outmoded rhetoric.
It soon became apparent that there was nothing they could do. The words couldn’t be caught in nets, or shot out of the sky with bullets. Words were free, and violence, which had long been assumed to be the solution to every worst case scenario, was no longer the answer.
The gentleman tried to ignore it as best he could. He went about his normal routine; set his dog down for the night. She slept soundly in her basket, but suffered strange dreams of chasing kites in the park with alphabets for tails.
There were questions in the air, and answers failed to appear on the second day. TV and radio stations were discontinued, and there were no available papers.
People stayed in their homes, silently cursing every time someone spoke, before swatting their words out of the window.
They watched as the sky continued to darken, trying not to add to the mess by talking.
Aside from their regular walks in the morning and afternoon, the gentleman and his dog stayed inside with the curtains drawn.
They kept conversation to a minimum. The gentleman would usually read a book, but chose instead to sit in silence, trying his best not to think in words.
On the third day, by the fountains in the centre of town, a woman ranted, as she’d done many times before. A few days previously, not even the most curious of pedestrians had given her a second glance. Now her audience blocked the traffic, and motorists abandoned their cars to see what all the fuss was about.
“Words!” shouted the woman. “Has anyone ever doubted them? Has it occurred to anyone we might be better off without them? We shall see, brothers and sisters, over the coming days, the true value of language. We shall see with our own eyes how many of the words we use are truly useful, truly informative, truly poetic, and how many are meaningless invaders, twisting our thoughts, diluting our intelligence, making us in every sense of the word, dumber.
“How many of our leaders have we heard bleating, rabbiting and wittering about literacy? How our children should learn to read as soon as possible, and that the average man or woman should expand his or her vocabulary? Why? So they can poison our minds with more meaningless jargon? We only need look at the evidence of more successful species who have no need for words to realise what should already be apparent. Language is no blessing. Language is no uniter of peoples. Language is a disease. We, brothers and sisters – we are the symptoms. This is its death throws!”
With each of these words, the preacher thrust her fingers to the sky, where adjectives were twisting in the bewildered breeze.
There weren’t many people around on the fourth day. Shops were closed. Streets were empty, aside from a handful of half-hearted looters, helping themselves to flat-packed furniture with fixed expressions of apology, as though they wanted the world to understand they didn’t usually do this sort of thing.
On a hilltop, a lone poet sat, quietly pronouncing words, watching them slowly ascend to the heavens like bubbles. “Bubbles” was one of the words.
Squirrel, said the poet.
Behind him, the gentleman and his dog wandered up the unaffected grass.
Jangle, said the poet.
“What are you doing?” said the gentleman.
“Saying goodbye,” said the poet.
“Who are you saying goodbye to?”
“My favourite words.”
“I see,” said the gentleman, bowing his head respectfully.
Mosaic, said the poet.
The word “word” itself.
The poet paused, observing the gentleman’s lowered gaze.
“Don’t be sad,” he said. “Look at the sky.”
“Sorry,” said the gentleman. “It feels like a funeral.”
“It’s not a funeral,” said the poet. “It’s a celebration.”
The gentleman blinked as the word “celebration” drifted past his nose. He smiled.
“Hubbub,” he said softly. “I’ve always liked that one.”
Hubbub, said the poet.
The dog raised her head. She almost barked, then thought better of it.
No one’s quite sure what happened on the fifth day, because no one really did anything.
On the hilltop, the lone poet surveyed the rogue streams of words that were still spilling into the atmosphere. Anagrams were gathering together in patches.
He was so transfixed by the sky that he didn’t notice the gentleman and his dog appear beside him.
“Personally,” said the gentleman, “I can’t look up there.”
The poet pretended not to jump. “I can’t not look,” he said. “It’s beautiful in its own way.”
The gentleman and the poet could barely see each other. The clouds almost blocked out the sun, but individual soundbites still screamed out.
“What exactly are you staring at?” said the gentleman.
“I’m not staring,” said the poet. “I’m reading.”
On the sixth day, the gentleman awoke, dressed, ate breakfast and got ready for his morning walk, whispering a wordless melody. Each morning as he called his dog from her basket, the gentleman had grown used to the sight of his words being graffitied across the air, but this morning it appeared as though the spell had been broken. The air was empty. His words were disposable again.
Then he caught sight of himself in the mirror. Dark liquid dribbled from the corners of his mouth, down his shirt. It dripped onto the carpet in thick black spots. Somehow the gentleman knew that the stains were the least of his worries. Language was melting. Words were just shapeless blotches on his clothes.
Throughout the town, melted letters were scrawled over walls, tattooed on hands and chins. No one could speak without emitting the thick gunky treacle.
Later, the written word contracted the same disease. The gentleman watched as the numbers and notes on his calendar ran down the wall. He checked his books – they were the same. Liquid gushed out as he parted the pages. His shelves were awash with vocabulary trickling through each wooden slat.
To avoid further damage to the floorboards, the gentleman carted the books into the bathroom, and patiently poured the contents of each saturated volume down the drain, shaking them into blank sheets, ready perhaps to be filled in with new words once the illness had passed.
Rivers raged out of library doorways. There were floods outside bookshops. Anyone still able to get an internet connection were blasted back in their seats.
It was lucky that no one drowned. The stuff didn’t seem to want to stick around. It ran down drains, slipped through cracks in the pavement, eased itself gently into the earth, leaving no puddles; no traces of ever having been there.
And then came the rain. The dark clouds that had been brewing all week finally burst. No one would ever know what it looked like. It was night, and black rain blocked out all the street lights. The light from car headlamps only got as far as the glass. It was as though someone had pressed the wrong button, and got black text on a black background.
The gentleman left his dog in her basket and stepped outside. He smiled as liquid language soaked his hair, ran down his face and destroyed his clothes.
On the seventh day, the sun rose nonchalantly, like it had never been away. The words were gone, as though they’d never been there.
On the seventh day, we’d’ve rested if we’d been comfortable enough with the silence and stillness and emptiness and despair and peace.
On the seventh day, among all those old emotions were new ones – feelings we didn’t have names for, or had forgotten the words for.
We stepped outside, away from our blank screens. We could see for miles. We gathered in the streets, overlooked by empty billboards. We’d’ve asked each other how this all happened and what it all meant, but none of us could speak, and anyway, it didn’t matter.
On the hilltop, the lone poet sat watching, whistling and banging on a drum he’d made from a dustbin and a plastic sheet.
The gentleman walked his dog nearby, whistling and tapping his feet in time.