Earth Day Short Fiction: Harold
After I sold my intelligent robot company to a Silicon Valley firm back in 2010, I had time to read again. To my dismay, I found nothing but dystopian novels, stories, and scenarios. Here we stood, on the brink of overcoming disease, feeding everyone, and supplying education to all. Yet people foresaw nothing but devastation and despair. Robots were going to cause massive unemployment. Dinosaur fossil fuel industries were wrestling climate science in order to survive.
After studying the problem, I concluded that the disruptions of technological and environmental change were surmountable. The problem was our short-sightedness. We were not dreaming big enough to deploy the vast powers of our technologies and to collaborate to solve the problems. I wrote a blog on the topic and eventually founded Sapiens Plurum as a way to influence ordinary people’s perspectives on their roles in creating the future.
Sapiens Plurum News now has 160,000 followers around the world, mostly people under 40. And for each of the past three years we have held a short fiction contest. Hopefully, as a result, readers feel more empowered and are dreaming bigger dreams for their, and our, future.
This year’s Sapiens Plurum Earth Day Short Fiction Contest was themed “Big Enough Dreams.” Our winner, Jennifer Clark of Calgary, Canada, wrote “Harold,” the story of a man who is quite ordinary except in one respect: he dares to follow his dreams. I hope you enjoy the story, and that it inspires you to dream bigger dreams for yourself, and for humankind.
— Jeanne Dietsch, Director, Sapiens Plurum
By Jennifer Clark, Winner, Sapiens Plurum Earth-Day Short-Fiction Contest
It started with one man. A man named Harold.
He was not a spectacularly clever man, nor a profoundly good one, nor even a particularly courageous one, but he was reputably level-headed, clean-shaven, and punctual. He had a modest apartment, a non-shedding cat, and a desk job with City Transit that paid a respectable wage and offered regular hours. His mother would have argued that he was a man of extraordinary talent and disposition, but to everyone else he was ordinary.
Harold had a dream. There were variations of it, as often happens, at times incorporating an attractive female counterpart or some heroic stunt that catapulted him into international renown, but most times it was elementary and straightforward: he wanted to ride his bicycle.
Not here, of course, not in this congested city, competing with the belching buses and impatient cars and harried pedestrians crossing in the middle of the street, not once lifting their eyes from their perpetually exigent mobile devices. He dreamed of somewhere inspired. Somewhere grand. Somewhere with winding roads and stirring sunlit vistas and romantic allure. He wasn’t certain, but he thought it might be France.
He pictured himself pedalling happily past fields of lavender and tiny village patisseries, his skin warm and brown from the sun, his legs strong, his demeanor relaxed and open. He quickly deduced that a new bicycle would be required. And some new clothes.
Harold took a chance. It came not from cleverness, nor goodness, nor courage, but from the idea that even an ordinary man can follow a dream. It is a well-known fact that there is no prerequisite for dream-following, which made Harold supremely well-qualified.
He took leave from his job. When the moment came to say it out loud — in his boss’s cluttered office with the small windows and grey rubber baseboards — it sounded flimsy and noncommittal. He changed his mind and quit outright. Bolstered by this unexpected spontaneity, he sublet his apartment to a pink-haired I.T. student with a Hello Kitty backpack and left detailed instructions on how to groom his cat.
He arrived at the airport punctually. His suitcase was small and his passport was empty but his heart was full. He slept through his in-flight meal and dreamed of an attractive female counterpart who spoke French and kissed exceptionally well. He landed feeling refreshed and only somewhat out of his league.
He spent one night in a conservative hotel and the next morning purchased the following: a bike with watertight panniers, a padded seat and a bell; two BPA-free one-litre water bottles; a pair of lightweight trousers (with trouser clips); two breathable-cotton shirts (white); one gentleman’s jacket (for the patisseries) and one rain-jacket with cinch-able hood and Velcro cuffs (for inclement weather). With very little persuasion he added one red cravat and a jaunty cap. Upon further persuasion, he purchased a pump and a small repair kit. He changed his clothes, tightened his panniers, and accepted a complimentary map. Harold was no longer dreaming. He was pedalling.
In France, he discovered, not all the roads were free from obnoxious vehicles and texting pedestrians, and not all the vistas were lit with sun, but the lavender never failed to astonish. He often ate his noon baguette lying on his back in the purple fields and relishing the feel of his new beard.
It was on a Friday that he met Pascale. She was walking through the field that he was laying in. She stumbled over his outstretched legs and greeted him politely, graciously overlooking the crumbs on his red cravat.
Being not spectacularly clever, this was the extent of Harold’s conversation en français. Being reputably levelheaded, he switched to English and Pascale courteously obliged.
“I hope I have not disturbed your lunch, monsieur.”
“I am not disturbed, mademoiselle.”
“It is a beautiful day, monsieur.”
“It is beautiful, mademoiselle.”
“How did you come to this field, monsieur?”
“A dream, mademoiselle. A dream.”
And Harold told Pascale about his dream, which was now his life. She listened with wide-open eyes, and she believed him to be an extraordinary man. He corrected her: he was just an ordinary man, but, as is well known, even an ordinary man can follow a dream. There is no prerequisite. She left the field drenched in the scent of sun-warmed lavender and aroused to the idea of a liveable dream.
Harold pedalled in France for the extent of his visa, which was ninety days. He called his apartment from the airport on a Sunday, extended the sublet, and flew to Morocco. His bike accompanied him. He shaved his beard somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea.
Pascale stayed in France. She opened a patisserie. This was her dream. She had been slow to pursue it, thinking herself not the type. But perhaps she was. She was, after all, just as ordinary as Harold. She bought fresh organic eggs and cream from the French farmers, right out of their third-generation barns. She picked her own fruit from the orchards, when it was round and ripe. She harvested golden French honey from what she could only assume were local French bees feasting on French wildflowers. She hummed as she folded cream into the apricots. To watch her work, and to taste her oranais, you would have said she was a woman of extraordinary talent and disposition. She would have argued she was not.
The farmers cheerfully proffered their eggs and cream, honey and fruit, and they ate her apricot oranais sitting at small round tables in the cobbled courtyard. They dreamed. They dreamed of their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren inhabiting a bright future, selling fresh eggs and cream from their own barns, sitting in warm and breezy courtyards, eating sweet apricot pastries and dreaming their own dreams. They were not extraordinary farmers, but they formed an extraordinary collective and raised an army of glorious white wind turbines against the robust French sky. France, they discovered, was windy. They shared their surplus energy with the surrounding villages. The villagers smiled. And they dreamed.
“The wind is beautiful,” they mused. “But what of the sun?” They looked at the mighty sun and their dream lit up like a beacon. It could not go unnoticed by their leaders, bright as it was. The leaders clicked their tongues and nodded their heads and dreamed also.
“Pure energy,” they mused. “And fresh water. And clean air.” It was a good dream. They understood by now that there was no prerequisite for following a dream. They followed it.They were, in turn, followed by other leaders in other countries, leaders with their own big dreams. It did not take long. The clean air left a tantalizingly clear path. It could be seen clear across the continent, and even beyond. Harold saw it from Taiwan, where he lay in the fragrant mangroves eating his noon tàiyáng bǐng . He and his bicycle had arrived here last Tuesday, after traversing the whole of the African continent, much of the Middle East, and huge swaths of Asia. They were older now, and battered by dust and time, but his dream was still alive and the panniers on his bike were still watertight.
Harold lay on his back and looked up at the clear blue sky. He thought of Pascale, her wide-open eyes, and the way the afternoon light had painted her cheeks with a pink glow. He could almost smell the lavender, even now, even here. He finished his lunch. There were crumbs on his worn red cravat and in his long beard, which had grown back several times over. It betrayed his extraordinary age. But he was still an ordinary man. He had done a very ordinary thing and he had come from a very ordinary place. He thought about that place. He wondered if was still congested.
Harold flew home with his bicycle. His passport was full, his suitcase not seen for years. His cat, his apartment, and his tenant were long gone. So was his beloved mother. But the congestion remained. The buses still belched, the cars pressed forward impatiently, and the pedestrians, absorbed in their minute digital world, looked more harried than ever. The path forward, in this place, was not yet clear.
Harold rode his rickety French bicycle through the congestion. He tried not to breathe too deeply. He kept his eyes on the road. But his demeanour was relaxed and open. His legs were strong. His face was brown from the sun and his beard was pure white, his cap set at a jaunty angle. He was, in this place, an extraordinary sight. The pedestrians and cars and buses slowed down to let him pass. They wondered.
He rattled to a stop on a busy corner. He settled down on the pavement next to a tall cement building and ate his sandwich looking up at the sticky brown smog. It was here that he met Clare. She was walking over the curb that he was lying on. She stumbled over his outstretched legs and greeted him politely, graciously overlooking the crumbs on his worn red cravat.
“I hope I have not disturbed your lunch.”
“I am not disturbed.”
“It is a beautiful day.”
“Somewhere, yes, it is a beautiful day.”
“How did you come to this curb, grandfather?”
“A dream, mademoiselle. A dream.”
And Harold told Clare about his dream, which had become his entire life. She listened to him with wide-open eyes, and she believed him to be an extraordinary man. He corrected her: he was just an ordinary man. But, as is well known, even an ordinary man can follow his dream. And so, in this city, could she.