"I'm so very glad you could make it, Mr. More," I said, reaching out to shake his hand as he stepped through the sliding door leading from the runway into the spacious lobby of the small Green Island airport; "It's certainly a pleasure to meet such a distinguished gentleman as yourself!"
"Oh, come, now," he replied, laughing a little self-consciously as he took my hand, "I'm not all that distinguished in this day and age! Why, my books are hardly selling at all anymore, you know!"
As our hands met briefly and I looked into his slightly squinting grey eyes, I felt an immediate liking for the smallish, white-haired More. We turned together and I led him across the grey marbled floor to the nearby luggage carousel to await his bags. His garb was that of an English gentleman of the 16th century, and he looked quite elegant in his burgundy frock coat over a white ruffled shirt, striped trousers and black tricorner, and black buckled shoes, leaning only slightly on his oaken walking stick. We stood amidst the clutter of passengers and chatted as we watched the carousel begin to lazily spin, various items of luggage spitting from the curtained opening in the wall and falling to the worn black rubber. He received the odd curious look, I suppose at his apparel, but he was not that out of place in the now eclectic land of Green Island, formerly the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, which even before the Revolution (or Revelation, as some preferred) had for decades been a haven for many beyond-the-fringers who were uncomfortable in the modern urban areas of Canada, with its malls and freeways and increasingly Americanised ratrace lifestyle.
"An enjoyable flight, was it?" I inquired, smiling.
"Oh, marvelous, just marvelous," he replied, chuckling appreciatively and looking up at me (looking up since his height of perhaps five feet and three or four inches was considerably less than my own six feet two inches); "Quite a new experience, I assure you. If beginnings are anything to go by, it looks as if I shall be most happy at my unanticipated resurrection, however brief it may turn out to be."
"I certainly hope we don't disappoint you, then," I said; "but I don’t think we shall - I do believe you'll find the experience interesting, at the very least -- and you should also find it no less interesting to meet the other guests who should be around this week."
"Oh?" he said, looking at me with a raised eyebrow, "I'm not to be the only Utopian then?"
"Not at all," I answered, with a small smile, "Although you were the first “modern” one, I have managed to arrange for a number of other writers and philosophers and thinkers of a like bent to visit with us this week - some of who I expect you know, others you might not have had a chance to encounter."
"Ah, I see, I see," he said, nodding his head, "This sounds interesting, to be sure; most interesting. And might I inquire of their names?"
"Well, I have do doubt you're familiar with Monsieur Rousseau;" I turned to look at him, "Are you familiar with Thoreau the American, or Bellamy, a fellow countryman of yours, I believe; or Thomas Jefferson, or Adam Smith, or Tom Paine?"
His other eyebrow began to creep upward as I spoke.
"Rousseau and Jefferson?" he queried; "How amazing! And Thoreau and Bellamy, you say? Marvellous! How marvellous! And who else -- oh, I say! There's my bag -" and he gestured and thumped the black rubber of the revolving carrier with his cane.
I looked where he pointed, and reached over and plucked a large, dark green carpetbag from the carousel. The well worn green brocade had gold trim and a polished wooden grip, and although it bulged at the seams did not weigh a great deal.
"Good then!" I said, turning to my companion, "Is that all?" He nodded. "Let us be off, then, shall we? We might as well get you settled, and continue our talk as we can, eh?"
He nodded, then took my arm in a companionable way as we turned to leave, in the manner of older folk everywhere. I led More through the door to the airport GRIS-RT platform - the Green Island Rapid Transit rail line, which crisscrossed the Island. It was one of those lovely Island summer afternoons that contributed so heavily to the former tourist advertising of the place, with bright blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, and a slight breeze from the north shore keeping the temperature at a reasonable level, even though temperatures all around the world, including here, had been rising rather alarmingly the last few years.
"The transit should be along shortly," I said as we settled ourselves on a handy bench, "On a busy route like this, there's usually one every fifteen minutes or so."
"Oh, no hurry," he said, making himself comfortable with his cane between his spread legs and hands resting atop, "No hurry at all! Why, in my time we'd be flagging a coach-and-four, and trying to avoid soiling our shoes! This seems much more civilised -- quite unbelievable, actually," he finished, turning to look back over the terminal where another commuter jet was floating in over the runway just before landing - our new Green Island society had certainly picked up the international tourist trade the last couple of years, with people coming from all over the world to study what we had done in only a few short years, and how we had managed to do it, "Quite unbelievable indeed!"
"Yes, I suppose it must seem so to you, of course," I said, as the jet touched down, "To have just completed a trip in a matter of hours which would have taken weeks or months in your day. What thoughts have you on it all?"
"Thoughts on it all?" he repeated, looking first at me and then off into the distance, over the golden fields of yellow daisies and other early summer wildflowers, and green hedgerows, down to the blue Northumberland Straight just visible in the distance, leaning forward over his cane and nodding his head for several seconds; "Thoughts on it all? Well, I suppose I must admit that I never thought for a minute that my little works of satire and fantasy would be remembered so long after my own time - they were, after all, written simply to try to knock some sense into the fossils of my own day!"
He looked over to me and, with a little grin and wink and chuckle that I would soon recognize as habitual, said, "I suppose that's not what you mean, however, eh? You wonder what I think of all this -" gesturing with a broad sweep of his arm to the airport to our side and the rail track in front, "Passing strange, I'll give you! Passing strange indeed! But when you've spent your life in the company of philosophers and their thoughts, and writing of unworldly affairs, and in service to God, I guess by the time you reach my age you realise that all things are possible, and a few short years on this small planet do not encompass but a small portion of the wonders of the universe. So - strange indeed, and wondrous - but my thoughts are much the same as they were yesterday, or last week - sometimes on the metaphysics, and sometimes on the tiny ache in my shinbone or the hunger pangs in my belly - or even - “ and he turned to me with a grin and a wink, gesturing with his chin to where a rather lovely young lady was passing by - “to the pleasures I once knew but alas know no longer!"
I laughed aloud with St. Thomas More as he finished speaking, and could see that I was going to enjoy our week together.
He settled his frame a little more comfortably into the platform bench and reached for a newspaper that some earlier traveller had left. I checked my watch, and looked up and down the train tracks for a sign of our ride.
To my right, the GRIS-RT line stretched off into the distance, eventually passing near Greenways, the farm where I lived with my wife Brittany, whose farm it actually was, and on to Souris, some 60 miles away at the northeast end of the somewhat crescent-shaped Island. On my left, the track began a long slow turn into Charlottetown, historically the capital city of the Island, only 4 miles or so away; passing through Athenia University about 2 miles the same way. As I looked the red and black engine of the Airport Express come around the bend, and the passengers along the platform around us began to gather along the trackside.
I looked over to More, and he was frowning in concentration as he looked over the paper. I leaned over to see the nameplate, and saw it to be the Prince Edward Island Colonial - the paper was, as it had always been, the organ of the old Island gentry, and among many other things they were not willingly accepting the new name of the province, regardless of the overwhelming popular approval of the changes that we had made over the last few years - popular approval again being something that had never been much of a factor in the decisions of the gentry here, there or anywhere else for that matter. I could well imagine what More was reading. He looked up at me even as the thought crossed my mind.
With the frown still on his face, he spoke.
"I say, old chap," he queried, in a neutral sort of voice, "can this be you that they're referring to in here?"
I smiled with rather grim humour back at him.
"I expect so," I replied; "The Colonial and I aren't exactly the best of friends these days. I don't believe I've seen today's issue yet -- I came here straight from the farm -- what is it they're saying now?"
More looked at me with his mouth turned slightly down, and shifted away from me on the bench.
"Hhrrmpphh," he snorted, looking from me to the paper he held, then rolling his eyes up so they peered at me over his round spectacles. He finally looked back down to the paper he held and read.
“'Bigelow Vows End To Democracy' reads the headline," More began, looking once again up to me to see if I was listening, or perhaps to gauge my reaction. I smiled and nodded to him.
"Yes, I've heard this before," I said; "Please do continue....."
“ 'In a meeting yesterday on the steps of the Prince Edward Island legislature,' " More read on, " 'Stephen Bigelow, the revolutionary Marxist communist...' “
“Ha ha ha ha.....” I couldn’t help myself, I laughed out loud - the writers of the Colonial rarely ceased to amuse me with their lack of imagination. More frowned a bit as he stopped reading at my interruption; “No no, please go on,” I said, controlling my mirth, “ we can talk about it all later. “
“Hmmmmph,” snorted More, turning back to the paper, “..... whose small band of followers has taken over the Island government these last few years, by means widely suspected to be illegal and currently under court challenge, vowed once again that he will put an end to the rights of all Island citizens to own their own land.
“In a speech as full of anti-democratic propaganda as anything this writer ever wishes to be subjected to again, Mr. Bigelow also promised that many other Island traditions would be thrust into the trash can of history -- our schools, churches, legal system, market-driven economy -- these and much else would go the way of the dinosaur should he and his ‘comrades’ have their way.
“It is no secret that the staff of the Colonial, along with many other highly respected citizens of Prince Edward Island, are very much opposed to these measures, which will effectively bring an end to a way of life cherished by all of us for, it is not an exaggeration to say, hundreds of years. Please see the special supplement in this issue of the Colonial for a full exposé of Mr. Bigelow and his 'comrades', and in-depth explanations from our leading citizens as to why his proposals in this week's so-called 'People's Referendum' must be soundly defeated if we are to return to our cherished way of life, and put Mr. Bigelow and his kind to pasture once and for all!'"
As More finished reading and looked up for my reaction, the GRIS-RT commuter train glided into the station. It was one of the newer trains, powered by electricity so relatively quiet, and the whooshing of the air brakes was the loudest thing about it. As the large doors slid back, a dozen or so passengers stepped down, and those around us started to board.
I looked at More, who was regarding me with a slight frown. "I can assure you that the picture is nowhere near as bleak as the Colonial likes to paint it," I said, smiling; "Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact - as with all modern media, the truth has never been a particular consideration in what they print. But one of the reasons I have invited you here is so that you can have a good look around and judge the situation for yourself. Please," I finished, reaching to him as I stood, "withhold your judgement for a few days until you have seen what others say about what we are doing. And now we really should board the train."
"Yes, yes, of course, Bigelow," replied More, folding the paper and sticking it in his pocket as he leaned forward to get to his feet, taking my offered hand, "I really should not let myself be unduly influenced by a few comments in the press. Lord knows I've had my share of slanderously unfair, biased comments directed at me! And what I have seen so far of you certainly has not led me to thinking you are a bad person!"
More found his feet, and we walked the few steps over to the train. I waved him up the steps ahead of me, and, with his bag in hand, followed him into the car.
I heaved More's bag into the luggage rack over our seat and pulled the compartment door shut before settling down across from him - luckily it was the middle of the day, and the train was not crowded.
"So where are we to start, then?" he began as I sat; "I hope there is not a lot on for today, as I am rather tired after the journey, and would like to get settled in first?"
"I had thought that you might like a quiet first day," I answered, "so we are just going to take you to your rooms at the university, and perhaps show you around there a bit. The real examination of our little province will get under way tomorrow, when we are off to a lovely little seaside town called Rustico for the day."
"Rustico!" he said, smiling, "What an interesting word -- I look forward to it."
The train began to pull away from the airport station, and More turned his attention outside the window. The Charlottetown airport was built on a large hill a few miles to the north and east of the city, and as the train began to roll we could see the Hillsborough River off in the distance as we rolled through East Royalty. At one time, when PEI was a colony of England, the Royalties, East and West, were land surrounding population centres such as Charlottetown which were set aside for the purpose of providing food for the city; in modern times, of course, when food could readily be transported longer distances, most of the Royalty lands had been taken over by residential and commercial interests.
More watched with interest the outskirts of Charlottetown rolling by as we slowly descended from the airport - the old, well-treed Sherwood Cemetery; building and construction firms; the Community Garden; a large shopping mall with its parking lot still half-full of cars - a dying breed, these malls, with our support for small business and the increased understanding of people that large malls owned by investors thousands of miles away were not good for local people, but still hanging on in places.
"Ah -- this is a lovely spot," More said after a few minutes; turning to me with a smile. We were just entering the university grounds, and I nodded with pleasure at the compliment.
"It is indeed," I replied; "Some of us are very proud of what we've accomplished the last few years."
The GRIS-RT tracks passed through a hedgerow of spruce and wild apple trees, which separated the shopping mall from the university grounds. Just inside the hedgerow, a low, rectangular reddish sandstone monument - the bedrock of the Island - surrounded a marble stone in which was imprinted the name of the university -- ATHENIA. As always, the sight of it brought back a host of memories, generally pleasant, as when one recollects the lengthy struggles leading to an achieved goal.
The grounds of Athenia -- originally the University of Prince Edward Island -- now covered several hundred acres. The well-kept lawns which surrounded the buildings and walkways were liberally shaded by a wide variety of trees, and a small pond nestled in the valley which lay between the mall and the older part of the campus. Where we now entered the grounds was the newer section of Athenia, all built within the preceding few years. The centrepiece of this section was the College of Social Economics, a four-story, semi-circular building made of Island sandstone, set partially into the valley slope and fronting on the pond. Its appearance was somewhat of the classical Greek style, but more subdued; its many classrooms and halls were well lit and open, yet there was a sturdiness about it which foretold the long Island winters.
The train was slowing for the Athenia stop, so we had a minute or so to watch as the CSE slowly passed before us. There were several dozen people around the grounds, sitting in small groups or strolling along the pond or purposefully striding between buildings. On the far side of the campus, which was bordered by University Avenue, the main road connecting Charlottetown to the western part of the Island, a few automobiles could be seen, although traffic had much diminished everywhere since the inception of GRIS-RT. The train slid gently to a stop, and the doors hissed open. Over the PA system a soft, pleasant androgynous voice announced, "Athenia Station; Athenia; the time is eleven twenty-two am; Athenia Station; this train will leave in two minutes; next stop will be Charlottetown Centre."
I stood, snapped open the overhead compartment and pulled down More's bag, then held out my free hand companionably to assist my guest from his seat.
He grunted as he pulled himself upright, and balanced with his stick. "Too many hours in a cold and wet prison cell," he said, looking at me with a rueful smile, "Now these old bones are a little stiff. Still, it doesn't stop me - just slows me down a mite! Onward, then, Stephen, I'll be right behind you!"
The few others who had been disembarking at Athenia had already left the car, so there was no-one to jostle us as we made our way down the shallow steps from the train to the station. Hardly a station, actually, more of a shelter where travellers could wait for the train out of the frequent summer rain or snow in the winter. The wide doors at the back opened into the main hall of the university Service Center - gathered under the one large roof were such things as the bookstore and news stand, the main campus dining hall, bread-and-basics market, drug store and health centre. Small tables were scattered throughout where people could meet for coffee and conversation. At the far end of the concourse wide doors opened into the campus, with the smaller doors to the side which led to the sheltered walkways which connected the major Athenia centres with protected paths for stormy days.
We stepped to the side as More had a look around.
"My, my," he said, "So many people, so young and healthy, so alive and happy looking! It must be a very good place you have here!"
I grinned back at him; "We certainly like to think so!" I answered; "Shall we be off then?"
"Yes, of course," he replied, "only ..." I looked over at him, wondering at the hesitation in his voice.
"Is there something you'd like?" I asked; "Do you need to use the washroom? Would you like a drink ...?"
"Well," he said, "Do you suppose we could sit for a minute at one of these tables here? It is so full of life - I would just like to take it in for a minute."
"Why, of course we can," I replied, "That is what we're here for, after all!"
I led him over to an empty table near the middle of the hall, where he lowered himself somewhat carefully into one of the chairs. As he settled himself, I went over to the beverage bar and got us both a hot cup of fresh coffee. As I set the cups down on the table upon my return, More was in the act of waving over a young student. She was soon standing beside him.
"Good morning," she said, looking at the old gentleman with a smile, "Is there something you'd like, Sir?"
I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, sitting back and lighting one to have with my coffee while More spoke to the young lady.
"Yes," he said, looking from her to me, "There is, dear, there is. First I'd like to know your name, and then I'd like to hear what you think of young Bigelow here and the article I just read from this morning's paper calling him all sorts of nasty things."
His comments took me a little by surprise, as he pulled the paper from his pocket and showed it to the girl, whose name, she soon informed us, was Sharon. As she looked from the paper to me, and recognised me, her eyes widened a bit.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, "It is you, Mr. Bigelow! I - I -"
She seemed a bit flustered, but I smiled at her in a friendly way, encouraging her.
She looked at me, then spoke to More. "Well, Mr. - ah -"
"More is my name, Thomas More," More said to her, realising what she was looking for; "Please call me Tom - I don't believe in too much formality."
She frowned, as if she'd heard his name before, when he mentioned it, but she quickly carried on.
"Well, Mr. More, or Tom," she said, "I saw the Colonial this morning, and it's the same sort of bullsh - that is, ah, garbage - they've been saying about Mr. Bigelow for years. You shouldn't believe a word of what they say! Why, if it wasn't for Mr. Bigelow and the people around him, Prince Edward Island would still be the backwater of Canada and North America, whose main industry was unemployment and poverty, with a government whose main interest was kowtowing to the powerful and getting itself reelected! Why, just look around you! Without Mr. Bigelow, there'd be no Athenia, no GRIS-RT, no dream ...."
As Sharon spoke, looking over towards me occasionally from the sides of her eyes, I could feel my face flushing a bit. It wasn't long before I held up my hands and interrupted.
"That's all very nice of you to say," I finally said quietly, as Sharon stopped speaking, "but there are an awful lot more people than me involved with all of this, and don't forget that in the final analysis we're only instituting what the entire populace of the province has supported. We .."
"Oh, I'm so very sorry to interrupt, but I have to be going!" said Sharon, rising from her seat while looking at her wristwatch, "I have a class in five minutes and I'm leading the discussion on 'Economies in Transition'. But here, Mr. More, or Tom," she finished, as she reached into her collection of books and papers and pulled out a newspaper of her own, "I think you should read some of this before you make any judgements about Mr. Bigelow. It's the real Green Island newspaper, and is much more indicative of how the majority of people feel around here. It's been so nice meeting you too, Mr. Bigelow - and I'm very much looking forward to your seminars next semester!"
So saying, she dropped the paper on the table, and, with a final smile to both of us, turned and quickly walked back through the hall towards the main doors. As More looked down in front of him, I saw that Sharon had left this morning's copy of the Island Voice, the Island's other major daily newspaper - which had been originally funded by the government but was now pretty close to self-sufficient to give space to the many interests which were not represented by the major newspaper chains in the country, one of which owned the Colonial.
More picked up the 'Voice', and looked over his spectacles at the front page. I had seen the headlines while waiting for him at the airport, and recalled that they dealt primarily with the upcoming referendum. The Colonial and the Voice were very different papers, in philosophy, style and content which, in my opinion at least, was good for everyone. The people of our community got strong arguments on each side of the controversies of the day, which gave them most of the information they required to make decisions on the issues they encountered in their lives. They also got differing coverage of the 'news' of the country and world, and with differing emphasis.
More finished his scan, and put the paper in his pocket with the copy of the Colonial he already carried there.
"So sorry, Bigelow," he said, looking over to me, "Quite rude of me to read while you're sitting there. Just curious, though - I'll be certain to read both of these papers carefully when I have a little free time - I presume they will be pertinent to our discussions throughout the week. Quite a nice young lady, I say - she seemed to have quite a different view of you and your work than the Colonial, hmmm?"
"Well, yes, of course," I replied, following his glance to where Sharon was just going through the doors at the far end of the concourse; "The Colonial for years was the main paper of the Island, and it was run essentially by the ruling classes - oh, yes, I know, it's not supposed to be a 'class' society, but the facts indicated otherwise, as I'm sure you are aware. In any event, the Colonial had - and has - a certain world view which it supports, and I and the present government do not fit that worldview, so it is quite outraged and has been trying for years to undermine us. Frankly, I'm glad it is doing this - it keeps us honest and on our toes."
"Yes, but should it be allowed to publish what are evidently gross exaggerations bordering on outright lies?"
"Yes, I think so. Freedom of speech has to be one of the paramount freedoms in any truly democratic society, and with an educated citizenry, obvious nonsense or lies will do more damage to the reputation of those who propagate them than to those they are attempting to discredit through such things - as long, of course, as there is another paper or media outlet which publishes, with the same frequency and coverage, the opposing point of view- which, for many years, has not been the case here or in most of the western world, for that matter, although since about 1990 a rather strong alternative media was made possible by the internet, and has contributed quite significantly to our accomplishments through educating the people. I think a well-educated people can distinguish for themselves which point of view holds more credibility. The real danger, I think, is when there is only one point of view constantly placed before the public, as was the case when the Colonial was the only daily paper here. However, Mr. More," I finished, looking up at the large clock on the north wall of the hall, "I am afraid I do not have the time for a long talk now, much as I am looking forward to many of them in the near future. I have promised my wife I will meet her this afternoon, and the appointed time is quickly approaching. I would like to get you settled in without a big rush, so perhaps we could be on our way?"
"Oh, certainly," More replied, lifting his cup and drinking the last of his coffee, "Quite a delicious coffee! I did not mean to detain you, but I am the kind of person who likes to take action as required, and I did want to get a second opinion on the piece I read in the Colonial at the earliest possible time - and that has been accomplished! With the added bonus of the sound and sight of a lovely young woman speaking to me! I am content -- and yours to command, Bigelow!" he finished, rising from his chair.
I was smiling once again with him as I crushed out my cigarette in the ashtray on the table, then rose and picked up his bag from beside the chair.
I am sure we made an odd couple as we strolled down the hall -- the short, aged More with walking stick and tricorner, with his hand holding the arm of a tall, slim younger man, chatting and laughing companionably together as they slowly passed the length of the hall and exited the doors into the bright sunlight. Perhaps not, however -- Athenia had students from all over the world, and there were many colourful individuals busy with their own affairs around us.
As we stepped through the large glass doors, More stopped at the edge of the cement walkway and took a deep breath.
"Ah, such beautiful, clean, fresh air," he sighed happily; "I don't think it will be a problem spending a few days in this atmosphere."