The Turntables of Babel
Only four could make it. V, Mike, Gloop and Charlie.
Violet’s death was so tragic as to deserve its own spin off narrative. And so it was to her vile end the first glass of champagne was raised on the top floor of the Hotel Continental Shanghai.
That had been five years ago, almost two decades after the shemozzle when Willy Wonka’s headache-inducing chocolate factory had swallowed them up and spat them back out again, sugar coated and for some, for some years, categorically unwell.
Shanghai — like Beijing, Seoul, Singapore — was mecca to corporate expats. Both V and Mike had transitioned to the city of neon lights with a pulse that was nothing but breathless. Gloop was as always fantastically wealthy, and Charlie just as typically desperate; he felt he had no choice but to schedule their rendezvous in the frantic city. Details were set and tickets purchased. As Charlie boarded the plane, not his first but still fresh enough for him to pray it not be his last, he could just barely comprehend that it was, it was really, actually, very truly, actually happening.
After so many years, the Golden Ticket-holders would be together again, this time without the wonky conman who had bedazzled them all for so long.
Wonka had skipped town after their famous tour that had wrapped up rather controversially in the glass elevator. The FBI shortly after discovered at least five different aliases with varied passports and a number of offshore accounts. They traced him to residences in Italy, Monaco, Turkey and loosely tied him to a few oil interests in central Australia.
Often the subject of civilian sightings, the authorities nonetheless never found him again. The factory was seized by the authorities, then council, and eventually torn down to become the largest Costco in the universe. Nestle and Coca Cola Amatil breathed a huge sigh of relief as their products figuratively danced off the shelves. As everyday, run of the mill confectionary is want to do.
Gloop, Salt and Mike raised all their glasses again and again railing against the sheer injustice of what had been inflicted on them as fat, spoilt, self-absorbed 11 year olds. Charlie kept up with toasts but stayed silent until — when they were all sauced and had come full circle into something resembling a joie-de-vivre — he shot his hand up, gaining all of their surprised attention.
“Hello,” he said.
The other’s roared with laughter. “Hello, Charlie!” they returned the greeting brightly.
“Thank you everyone for coming tonight. Whether too late or totally unnecessary I humbly appreciate you taking the time,” he said breathily. “Throughout the whole FBI investigation I was terrified. I’d never so much as looked a parking officer in the eye and suddenly there they all were, shouting at us like we were…” his voice reduced to a dramatic whisper, “co-conspirators.”
“Absolute pigs!” V yelled in agreement.
“But they weren’t entirely wrong,” Charlie paused. His listeners’ three heads cocked.
“It wasn’t anything about his whereabouts of course, but before the glass elevator shot off into the sky, Wonka gave a final candy to me. He said I should save it for later and shoved it in my pocket.”
“And you never told the police?” Gloop enquired.
“No, I forgot, I was so stunned. And then I was scared. And maybe…”
“Just a little curious,” Mike finished.
Charlie’s nervous grin widened. He gingerly brought out a Snap Lock plastic bag inside of which were a number of coloured balls about the size of a peanut M&M.
“Wonka said only that he thought of calling them Turntables of Babel. From all that stuff after the search — the houses and passports and everything — I did a bit of research. Well a lot…I’ve devoted rather a lot…” he left off. Coughed.
“Turns out Wonka was a real polyglot.”
“According to who, his mother? Wife? Or the several different versions of each spread out across the globe,” Varuca trilled, holding fire on her fury.
“He wasn’t great in a good way, I know. But his creations were second to none. He was in a way — how do I put this? — an almighty figure. Kind of a god. And I think this was a nod to that. Some kind of crowning glory. ”
“You are thinking of the Tower of Babel story,” Gloop said.
“Yeah I…maybe something like that. Anyway, I thought — after all this time — maybe a last hurrah was in order. Share truly the last Wonka wonder in the world. And maybe once and for all leave all this mess behind.”
He gave them a moment to let the idea sink in.
Of the five, death had made its most irrevocable mark upon Violet. Still, Gloop’s adult manifestation beggared belief from his puffy pre-pubescence. During a period of feeble dieting a few years back, he had gone to a new salad joint near the bank his father managed — and he then worked. Across the road, in a new Crossfit ‘box’ has assembled its first living lumps of flesh to sculpt. Gloop almost died during his first training session. He now called it being ‘reborn’. He had been to war with his past, and watched his future swell with a firm, volcanic curvature.
Now on to her fifth billionaire husband, the way Salt did marriage was a lucrative business in and of itself. But she also ran another, designing slim-line, minimal, distinctly Nordic aesthetic clothing label that was all American made using ecologically sourced cotton, silk, wool and vegan leather. The proceeds went to a diverse selection of charitable organisations that changed as frequently as global disasters struck. Or her then husband’s religious faction deemed necessary.
Mike still talked at a million miles an hour, but his sentences were few and far between so as to barely exist. He did something with computers, and with nothing else untoward, they all suspected it was highly illegal.
“What do you say, boys and girl?” Charlie ventured.
“Wonka’s a maniac. This could go very wrong,” said V cautiously, her fingers through her short blonde bob. She shrugged. “But what do we learn from that pretty Violet? We all meet our end one way or another.”
“Let’s do it before we chicken out,” raced Mike. He grabbed one of the candy’s and was halfway to his mouth when Gloop shot a paw out to stop him.
“Together,” he said.
And they did. A marbled blue and turquoise for Mike. Baby pink for Charlie. Augustus a speckled beige colour like a duck egg. And bright red for Varuca.
They refilled their glasses and looked out over the city beyond the river. The view was beautific in a giddy neon way; the bar was almost empty. Most people had gone down to seek the more kinetic pace street markets or night clubs, both pumping at this hour.
“Alors, qu’est-ce-que vous vous sentez?” V asked in a mild voice. Her face turned incredulous, and then very quickly frowning. “Mais je déjà parle français! Ce n’est pas vraimant des miracles…”
Charlie replied with a guttural, flexible tongue, a dialect of the West Indes tribesmen. Mike interrupted in a rally driver’s Greek, jumping up and down on the sofa in glee. He seemed to really want to communicate something — as if he’d finally decided to share all his cyber secrets, until he sat back, exhausted, red in the face and massaging his non-existent belly and calling the waiter for more wine.
“It either didn’t work or speckled beige is ‘English’” Gloop couldn’t help but smile. They all burst out laughing. “Can you still understand me?” They nodded in unison, and chattered away. “So you don’t lose language, and hopefully not too many brain cells either…”
“Ce-ci n’est pas des drogues, c’est de la confiture, Glooooop!”
“Yes well,” he reached for a napkin and spat the ball into it. He gasped.
“Gob-st-par” with a rattle of clicks, Charlie breathed. The ball had turned from boring beige to a bright purple.
“Put it back in!” Mike seemed to be saying.
Gloop rinsed the transforming candy in champagne to remove its papery decoupage, and held it up to scrutiny.
“Over 15 years dieting,” and popped it in his mouth.
Over the next hour they left world geography for rather more uncharted languages; Charlie giggling on the couch with his feet in the air, demonstrating incredible flexibility of hips and a disinclination toward pants, he goo-goo-ga-ga’d at the distressed waiters, unsure whether to turn their final customers out or merely let them run their course — and pick up the ginormous bar tab with a reasonable tip. Gloop resurrected the dead language of Ahmun-Ra, a deep, rasping series of sounds that nearly brought Charlie to tears.
Gloop picked him up by his foot, swung him around the right way and plonked him on the sofa with an fierce admonishment worthy of the devil himself.
Mike and Varuca shared a layer in tandem, silently gesturing to one another in Auslan, Australian sign language. They watched the spectacle between Charlie and Gloop with bemusement, glancing sideways at one another to share in a private joke.
They discovered, fingering every so often their babel ball, a silver thread that ran through each sweet much like a worm in an apple. When a sucker connected with this thread the whole world of strange sounds crystallised. Comprehension was brief — miraculous and blistering — as if one’s head might explode from the magnitude of data it suddenly possessed. V, in one such moment of salience, ran to the balcony and vomited over its edge.
With that finally the bar staff called it a night. Mike wordlessly put his hand out and V slipped her credit card from her purse, barely sobered by the enormous bill it was about to cover. They took the glass elevator down 26 floors to the street, where the heat and smell of the river hit them like a fever.
Gloop rallied them with carrion’s call, and Mike honked a reply. “A dirty drinking hole perhapths?” Varuca miaowed, looking suddenly rather rakishly at the boys. “Beep-beeeeeeeep-beep-beep” Charlie agreed, ‘yes’. He seemed stuck on a rather thick and crusty layer of morse code. Her eyes narrowed in mere slits. Mike began to run, leading the way.
By the time they reached a dive in a section of the city famed for its electronics market, they were all hooting and hollering like zoo escapees. The bouncer would have thrown them out period, but had a long standing respect for Mike, a regular who kept to himself, drank only their worst gin and rolled himself home industriously as a square wheel with each episode. He didn’t much recognise this snorting, snuffling man, but let them in anyway.
Inside it was dark, with a low red light and a few fleshy hackers at the bar sipping Coronas, no lemon. Ambient hard at that volume sounded just like television static. They took up cowboy seats at the back of the room, eyes wary and adjusting to the gloom. Gloop swaggered to the bar, and mustn’t have liked the way the old guy looked at him. He swung his arms back and jumped two feet together to a squat position on the bench, and made a grab for the top shelf tequila. He shoved the bottle in his belt and leapt from the bar, swinging from the shaky bannisters as if they were monkey bars and he the boy Tarzan.
Almost no one batted an eyelid. They poured a round in four shot glasses that materialised from — it could well have been the floor — and slammed them. Charlie threw his glass to the ceiling, and small pieces of glass rained down on them, and they cheered, looking at each other in the eyes, connected for once altogether by a silver thread.
Their bond was similarly incandescent.
Charlie woke on the roof of Mike’s dank apartment, a few clothes thrown here and there-abouts. They’d collapsed in a sweaty pile and must have smelt god-awful. Charlie looked about but Varuca had gone, the indentation of her petite form he found in the sawdust (he hoped, and not asbestos) next to him. It was cold. Gloop had also vanished. He remembered the metal clang that woke, and set eyes on the emergency fire exit door that led to the stairs.
Inside his back pockets he found his wallet, cellphone and sighed in relief. He rolled Mike off him gently, to retrieve his blazer from a few metres away. Inside the lapel he found the snaplock bag of uneaten Turntables of Babel.
“Mike,” he whispered. Mike grumbled. “Lighter.”
Eyes glued shut with sleep and grime, he fished around a moment with his fingers and flung the lighter and a few random filters in Charlie’s direction. Charlie set the three remaining Turntables still encased in the plastic Snap Lock bag on fire.
The smoke disappeared in the brilliant orange light of morning and with it — the final trace of Willy Wonka.
Emilia Batchelor, 2016