Hi, it’s Juneha Chowdhury, your Showcase editor for March. Last week was poetry galore, so I thought I’d start this week off with some prose. And what a treat I have for you! My first submission comes from avid reader, writer and regular contributor to Showcase, James Marshall. It’s a cracking story. I love the idea of a backward mall and, as much of a nuisance as it might sound in theory, in practice I think it could teach us a lot about how to navigate the world around us, or should I say behind us!
There’s a mall in Oklahoma, not too far from Tulsa, that looks like a thousand other malls. The three-storey building is the tallest structure for miles around. Trees stretch endlessly across the flat skyline, punctuated only by water towers that rise up at half-mile intervals, their octagonal or cuboid shapes painted in the colours of gas companies or steakhouses. The licence plates in the parking lot are embossed with ‘Native America’ or the battle shield graphic of Oklahoma.
Muzak pumps through the mall’s stores, kiosks, eateries, toilets, elevators and across the escalators; the only stairs are hidden behind the fire exits. The three-screen cinema has plush seats that feel too wide for the visiting Europeans but just right for half of the locals: as if Goldilocks had been eating burgers, tacos and pizzas instead of stolen porridge.
Announcements break the banality: “Could Mr and Mrs Haskins come to the security booth on the second floor, please?” Whilst little D’Wayne is resting on Randy the mall cop’s well-padded hip, the beige uniform wet with tears and snot.
It’s only when you look at a live feed from the CCTV that you know which mall this is. At first, you think the tape is playing the wrong way. But then the cent drops and you realise, ‘All the people are walking backwards.’
The ‘Walking-Backwards’ experiment was part of a research study conducted by The University Of Tulsa several years ago. The researchers were trying to identify risk factors for knee injuries in obese populations. The hypothesis was that walking backwards reduced the degree of knee flexion and a corresponding amount of force on the patella and its supporting ligaments and tendons. The mall was chosen because of its discreet but manageable real-life environment.
Discount vouchers were given to those customers who took part in the week of the experiment at the end of January. The researchers had hoped to recruit 150 subjects, figuring that only 100 would be usable for their data. KTUL News got wind of the experiment and sent down a reporter to discuss the latest crazy idea from academics. It was a slow news week, the Super Bowl didn’t figure large in the Sooners’ minds, and the network needed to fill airtime. The reporter was bemused when the shoppers were enthused about the project.
“It don’t seem like exercise when you go backwards.”
“It’s worth it for the vouchers.”
“Heck, I’m doing science.”
Word spread. The Moose Lodge, the Women’s Institute and the Rotary Club all encouraged their members to take part. The vouchers were snapped up by lunchtime on day one. Two high school marching bands started to practise backwards on the Mall’s car park, entertaining the queues of backwards-facing shoppers while they waited. Selfie-sticks sold out as the shoppers attached mirrors to them to help see where they were going.
The researchers found it hard to observe the subjects because the Mall was so busy. They recruited undergraduates to help monitor the traffic and ensure rule compliance. The students embraced the fad and encouraged their friends to come and see what was happening. The results of the six-week study was never published, because the data did not match the hypothesis: there was no difference in knee injuries. But there were fewer falls than expected, because the subjects took more care of how they were walking: they couldn’t look at their phones and bimble along ignoring all hazards.
Once the researchers packed up and left, the shopkeepers expected a reduction in trade before the Easter peak. The backwards-walking signs were gone and so was talk of rearranging the cinema seats so that people would sit back to front.
But visitors from around the state made the mall a weekend destination after it made the national news. The morning shows all had features with their glamorous anchors trying to navigate their way in high heels or slick-soled loafers across the highly polished floors. The camera crews had to learn how to film and walk backwards because the locals jeered them if they tried to walk forwards.
Easter came and bucket lists were updated. Holiday traffic came off I-44 and the old route-66 following the newly painted brown signs to ‘The Backwards Mall’ that sat below signs for ‘The Praying Hands’ or ‘The Outsiders House.’ Traffic marshals wearing luminous green vests were recruited to help the tourists drive safely around the car park. Orange lollipop signs read ‘Reverse’ or ‘Look behind you.’ There was talk of constructing a turning circle to help the traffic move from forwards to reverse, but there was enough confusion already.
Stores hired extra staff and reported record profits. Other malls saw a downturn in revenue and complained to Tulsa City Council. The TCC liked the extra tax dollars that flowed in from out of state and told the other malls to come up with their own schemes. Soon there was a sideways mall, a hopping mall, and even a crawling mall. None lasted and the only places that got busier were the hospital ERs.
The other malls reverted to TV advertising before the holiday season,
“See the bargains in front of you.”
“Save time, save money, walk forwards.”
Profits reversed in The Backwards Mall. Grim, silent faces avoided each other’s eyes in the mall committee meeting. No one wanted to suggest going back to normal.
“If we make it to the holiday season, we’ll be fine.”
“But that’s a month away and we have two wage bills to pay before then.”
“We need something to help us this month!”
The cinema manager suggested the idea that kept the mall moving backwards: Back To The Future Day, on October 21st.
Stores displayed items from 1985, 2015, 1955 and even 1885 for the week before. The movies were shown continuously on all three screens. The news reporters returned, as did the nostalgic parents and grandparents of children who had never seen the movies. Tills rang, staff were kept on.
The clocks fell back at the end of October. Halloween came and went. The mall committee prepared for ‘Back Friday’ and the start of the holiday season.
The mall made it through the whole year walking backwards. They have done it ever since. If you have time, take a detour and spend an afternoon in the Backwards Mall. Tread carefully and look behind you: ‘Hindsight’, the locals call it.
© James Marshall, 2022
Connect with James on Twitter: @CoachExcelsior
My next piece is a beautiful poem in language and form by June Gowland. She really does paint a picture with words.
Rumbles of Spring echo below your feet,
Waking snowdrops from their winter sleep.
The heron drives its ample wings
Urgently along the water.
A sugar-pink sunset
Warms the frozen sky.
The icy air clings to your head, your face
And shows you your breath.
From branch to branch
Birds, already fixing dates,
Plotting an ideal tree-home.
The burn, bursting with melting snows,
Twinkles its downhill run.
The cruel light of winter slowly lengthens
As I follow your footprints
© June Gowland, 2022
Here’s another delightful poem, by Jo Renton. All I can say is: “Pigeons, don’t you just love to hate them?!”
Dreaming Of Pigeon Pie
I think I quite like pigeons,
But when they’re far away
Chirping in the treetops
While in the woods they stay
Where they just coo and fluff their feathers,
I know pigeons can be useful
They carried messages and news
Sent in the heat of battle
While over hostile guns they flew.
They flew with streamlined feathers
But today I have a problem
and I think of pigeon pie
as I look upwards from my yard
and a whole row of them espy.
Cooing and fluffing feathers
As they settle for the night
On high gutters sills and pipes
They bill and coo and fluff their tails
And then they say goodnight.
Still cooing and fluffing feathers
I know this all sounds very sweet
And why should I be cross
Because there is white guano everywhere
And they don’t care a toss.
They just poo and fluff their feathers
First of all, I scraped it up
And put it on my plants
I’d heard from many gardeners
How growth is much enhanced
But it’s a smelly nasty job
My interest soon did wane
And now I was more intent
On seeing off these pains.
Who still cooed and fluffed their feathers
My first idea was bird spikes
it cost a hundred pounds
for someone to climb a ladder tall
And fix them all around.
But they still cooed quite unconcerned
They either sat behind the spikes,
Or perched on gutter high
And even on a sloping pipe
I watched them with a sigh
As they cooed and pooed and fluffed their feathers
I had the hosepipe in my hand
And I adjusted it to squirt
But all that happened that time round
I got rained on with liquid dirt.
They enjoyed their shower as they fluffed their feathers
Their beauty sleep it did disturb
They were surprised and flapped their wings
but then they all went back to sleep
Did they even softly sing?
As they cooed and fluffed their feathers.
Soon I had a cunning plan
I would get a long, light pole
and scrape them off their cheeky perch
during night patrol.
And then I thought a lovely kite
Would be a good idea
With a bird of prey, so big and black
That would fill them all with fear.
But who would fix it up for me
up two storeys high
Perhaps that plan was not so good
I decided with a sigh
They just cooed and fluffed their feathers
They weren’t worried – ever.
© Jo Renton, 2021
And finally, a lovely piece of flash fiction written by our Deputy Editor, Claire Buss. Great twist, and I must say I’ve been there!
“And breathe. Everything is going to be all right.” Louise’s husband gently massaged her shoulders, trying to work out the intense stress that was turning them to stone. “Have a drink of water; try and relax.”
Louise tried to take a deep inhale, but it ended up being a shudder. “I don’t think I can do it. They’re just so… so…”
“I know, I know. Do you want me to go in?” he reluctantly offered.
Louise wanted to say yes, with every fibre of her being, but she couldn’t give up. Not now. Not when it was five minutes to bedtime.
© Claire Buss, 2020
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! Showcase, please submit your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to: pentoprint.org/get-involved/submit-to-write-on/