The Circle

Justin Pickard

Technologically-augmented group practice to face and withstand a prolonged winter.

A speculative hyperstition recycling and binding elements of FoAM’s scenarios and prehearsals to explore possible futures and adjacent worlds. See also: Apero and The Naming.

The snow is deeper than I’ve seen in years, difficult to navigate in plimsolls, a wet, white cloak concealing ice-slicked pavements. Leaving the office early, I arrive late, cheeks flushed and out of breath. After all these months, it still feels strange to disrobe inside, peeling off my waterproof trousers beneath the even gaze of a stained-glass Saint Stephen, patron saint of bricklayers and headaches. Kehinde’s cargo bike leans up against the ashlar; I don’t doubt they’re needed, but his drone-dropped winter tyres leave the bike looking grossly misproportioned, like a child’s drawing. The overhead lights flicker and click, passing from macro to microgrid, or back. I note a neat line of shoes on a rack by the door; walking boots, scuffed sneakers, and a pair of women’s flats. To one side, the church font, long unused, its flat wooden cover caked with dust. Above, a Saint Piran’s flag laser-etched on clear Perspex. Locals know this as an emblem marking beneficiaries of Senedh funding, but for most, the lack of colour leaves it indistinguishable from its red-and-white English counterpart.

Within this former church, where once were pews, today stands a stranger, more modest structure; a yurt of quilted mycelium leather, its sturdy, ox-blood membrane softening the angles of the jointed plywood skeleton within. Onion-layers of nested space.

“Hello?” My voice echoes in the apse as I approach, and the yurt-dwellers’ muffled murmurs fall away.

“Sorry I’m late. Is everyone here?” Shedding my own footwear, I stoop to enter the structure.

It’s warm inside; group members having ransacked the space’s collection of community-donated hot water bottles and blankets. The respite from the cold is welcome, but it takes me a moment to adjust to the low light. This mid-week group numbers eight members, but it’s rare that more than six make it to any given session. As my eyes acclimate, I pick out the face of Kehinde the bike tech, a couple of students from the art college’s satellite campus, retired librarian Simon, and Mia, a mother of two. Behind the beanbags, a boxy DIY air purifier emits a low whir, its vertices sealed with shiny scotch tape, which glints in the gloom. Squatting, I unzip my satchel, and spread my equipment across the low central table. A jailbroken pico projector the size and shape of a thermos flask, its plastic carapace battered and dented through use. A glass bottle of pale lozenges, with a child-proof screw-cap.

One of the students shifts uncomfortably in their seat: “What’s with the hat?” they ask. Reaching up to remove the lime-green link worker cap, I quickly change the subject, as trained: “How’s everyone’s week been?”

Mia’s mother has been in and out of hospital, after messing up the dosage of some experimental weight loss treatment. Simon’s struggling with his mood, trying to pull out of an anxiety spiral after a flurry of panicked messages from someone pretending to be his niece. I jot a couple of lines of notes in my ledger, then jab the button on the projector, lining up the music track.

“Everyone ready? Then we’ll begin.”

The capsules soften the fixity of your attention; dampening the highs and lows, they leave the brain more pliable. The researchers say I’m supposed to do the same, to foster trust and a sense of shared experience, as stipulated in my contract. But I’m not always in the mood, and quietly opting out is a good, low-stakes way to reclaim some autonomy, saving me from having to ride out the comedown. That said, the group’s energies are all over place today, so I give in, joining them for the ride.

A slight tingling of the face, as the music’s gossamer vibrations pull our breathing into line. Opening my eyes, I see the projected vision of a now-familiar torus, multiplied some eight times over, on the yurt’s inner surface. The simulated solid ripples and quivers, straining, pulsing, caught on the precipice of a transition between states.“Now hold the breath for four beats.” I keep my words soft. We’re controlling this purple and green doughnut together, now, as a group; slowing and smoothing our jagged thoughts to hold it in place.

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