She never regretted moving to this flat. It was her bolt hole in this fast paced city, a place where she could flutter and eventually fly free of her parents, beloved though they were. In fact, they were the reason why she had moved to the city. She couldn’t quite face looking into their eyes once Robert had been to visit her at her parent’s house. If they had known of all of the positions that they had made love in then her cheeks would be forever burnished, matching only those of rosy fresh apples. No, much better that she had moved away to a swanky new flat with him instead, free to both explore their love and to allow their careers to take a foothold upon the employment ladder in their chosen fields.
The flat wasn’t really swanky in all honesty. Sometimes, especially after a heated remark or two, it could feel like a shoe box and one that she yearned to escape. It was at times like those that she felt she could happily return to her parent’s house, to become engulfed once again in their loving embrace. But she realized that this would never happen again, she had flown the coop and would not return to live there in this lifetime. She visited, from time to time, and had hosted her mother and father in her adopted city, but they would not meaningfully live side by side again.
Robert was her immediate family now, her lover and confidant, her romancer and family man. Her father wrote often though, kept the familial bonds strong and she wrote back as often as she could, though writing was not her forte and clearly her path in life was not to follow her father. She loved his letters though, decorated as they were with doodles on each page. The notes on his latest writing project filled her with hope for her father and his health, as she often mistakenly equated the health of his imagination with the health of his ailing body. Her mother sometimes added a page or two of notes as well, updated her on school crushes and old boyfriends. It was these tidbits from her mother that she really enjoyed, that kept her in the loop of small town life and let her feel guilt-free pangs of happiness. In this raging city of 24/7 access, it was grounding to know that life continued as much as it ever had in other parts of the country, parts that the creeping suburbia of the city hadn’t yet reached.
The illness unhinged her for a while though, the images of her father spraying droplets of blood was not something that she wanted to think about, neither was the fact that her parents were indeed mortal and not immortal, as a childish version of her thought still. Her foundation of independence had just become solidified, yet it felt like even as she started to make her mark on the world, the world instead turned and had started to shake the rock that she built her life upon.
In all honesty she tried not to think about the condition slowly taking over her father’s life. To put death at a distance and to keep love close. That was her motto, though she could never think of the words to articulate it; it was how she lived her life in the shadow of her parent’s slow, earthly demise. Her father would probably be writing a poem at this very moment and she could just picture it, his pen gliding across the paper in what would seem to be a well-rehearsed manner. The words would flow, the inconvertible truth that this man was born to give a voice to his generation would be undeniable.
In her darkest moments, sometimes the ones that followed the passionate lovemaking sessions with Robert where she lay in quiet repose, the thoughts would intrude into her mind like unbidden shards of shattered glass. He would be remembered by the many, not by the few.
It would not be long now.
Sometimes I read novels and often think that they hit the spot a bit too close to home. This was the case recently as I came to the concluding pages of On the Beach, which was written by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway in the decades following World War Two. The scene includes two of the main characters discussing the context for the apocalyptic situation that they face and openly lament the global use of nuclear weapons during an escalation of an international war:
“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”
“I don’t know… Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop”, he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”
“But how could you have done that, Peter? I mean, they’d all left school.”
“Newspapers”, he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”
Quoted from the novel One the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute Norway.
It is a wonderful novel and a book that I highly recommend. For me one of the most moving aspects of the characters portrayed throughout the text was their attitude and civility in the manner in which they led their lives, and how this civility influenced their actions throughout the novel despite the fact that they knew what was to come.
Next up on my reading list is a newly published novel that I have started reading earlier today entitled Here I Am, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer has previously released a clutch of interesting and diverse novels over the past decade and a half that have really captured my attention, especially his first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was published in 2002. Perhaps unwittingly I noticed that the Here I Am novel continues the theme of international and national destruction set in On the Beach. Perhaps it is somewhat fitting considering the way 2016 has so far developed…
The city was huge, dauntingly huge. Densely packed, the people but ants compared to the towering skyscrapers above and the labyrinthine subway below. It was exhilarating, confusing, suffocating. It was beautiful. It was freedom in anonymity, in wave after wave of people crossing block after block: all with a story to tell, all with their own individual lives. I heard every language in the world, I saw every skin tone a human can have. I lived a thousand lives. I lived my own life, with tensions brought bubbling to the surface and safety sought in solitude. Love resided, not passionate romantic love but familial bonds broken by petty remarks and re-made by breaking bread and sharing food. A mother’s tears in the taxi rank. Discussions never had were evaporated at the thought stage, vibrated free by the hum of the stop-start vehicles choking the roads. Directions not sought were instead shouted at by uniformed staff, hushed into lines, finger printed and bags searched. Made to feel guilt by association. You are an individual, you are the American dream. You are the foundations turned into a crystalline memorial. You are the kind individual who helped me to the front of the queue. You are the tramp dying of heart failure, the homeless that hang around the port authority building looking for a break. You are the actor on Broadway who signs autographs on the sidewalk after the show and then anonymously melts into the night. You are in the queue at Shake Shack, awaiting your turn, your accent rebounding into the heat of the September sun. You are the man who stands and pounds the tarmac, shouting ‘Jesus saves!’ whilst waving your homemade sign aloft in a salute to the holy. You are the cab driver who never talked, the policeman who joked on the corner. You are the band leader who was nervous to speak on the Radio City stage but held the audience in the palm of your hand. You are the deli counter assistant who cannot understand my British accent. You are the ant that makes this city run. You are the love that lingers in my heart.
Photograph by the author using a cheap digital camera, if re-used please credit as appropriate.
I tried to capture this awesome band, The Sand People, with a cheap digital camera at a bar in San Francisco – a beautiful city I was fortunate enough to visit recently whilst on holiday. Trying, and failing I think, to capture it in a black and white Charles Peterson style, a style reminiscent of the punk rock/alternative/grunge era of the 80’s and early 90’s, predominately in the north western United States of America. It is period of music of which I am very fond of – probably no surprise to readers of this site!
The photographs definitely have the swirls of movement, indicating the music and the activity of producing music itself, but lack the clarity and the outline detail of the musicians themselves. Still, it is interesting to try different techniques, even if it is with a cheap digital camera as opposed to my slightly cheaper film camera!
If the photographs are reproduced, please credit the author of this blog as the photographer.
“In my wanderings from agency to agency, imagining myself working in the various businesses, I had also gained an insight into the country’s wonderful freedom. No one asked about my nationality, my religion, my origin, and what was more – an amazing thing to imagine in our modern world of fingerprints, visas and police permits – I had travelled without a passport. But there was work waiting for people to do it, and that was all that counted.”
Stefan Zweig on America in the early 20th century. From his memoir The World of Yesterday (page 212, Pushkin Press), originally published in 1942.
H was getting hungry but he would not abandon his post. Wherever F moved H would not be far behind him, whether it was to go to the super-market to pick up some groceries, to the hairdressers for a quick trim or to the dry-cleaners to drop off some shirts that badly needed washing and ironing. The objective was clear: watch F at all times and keep a detailed document on his movements and whereabouts throughout the city. That city, New York of course, was in her pride and joy phase having survived the constricted and suffocating 80’s to flourish in the brand new and glistening 90’s, full of brash arrogance and misplaced confidence. It was as if she had shrugged off her coat of decadence and thrown on a new glitzy number ready to dance again with the world, to show it who was number one in the super city stakes. The murder and robbery rate had plummeted, the streets were safe to walk again and the city had never been cleaner then it was now. In short she was a beauty, one in which H was slowly falling in love with the more time he spent with her.
H had moved from up-state New York to take this job, had moved from a countryside full of blossoming flowers and healthy trees, had moved to a city where the fields were blocks of concrete sown with silver tall buildings that touched the very roots of the sky. Of course he had hated it at first, as all country-grown men do, feeling lost, belittled and dis-empowered in the city of sleaze but over the past few months he had grown to love the anonymity of the big city, to love to be able to mingle freely in a crowd which would not be the same the next minute never-mind the next day. It was in this intoxicating mix of freedom that he was to slowly lose himself.
H had left behind a wife and two sons. He had thought that mixing with the urban population of the city would slowly kill him, each sight of a loving mother cuddling her children a stab in his very heart. This was not the case however as each sight of a loving family re-enforced in him a growing and steeled will to complete the case to the best of his ability and to fly back to his family as fast as humanely possible. He could not contact them whilst he was on active service and he remembered now and then, most often as he watched a lonely F wash his plates in the kitchenette window, of the last kiss that he had bestowed upon his wife’s lips, of the last hug he had given his two young sons, as he departed that small safety net of a nuclear family.
Regardless he was settled now, safe in his cocoon of a flat in this buzzing city, keeping guard and watching every action that F carried out. He would leave the flat only when F moved out of his, a hidden doppelganger mimicking his target’s every move, safe in the shadows and never risking to be seen.
There was no doubt that H was good at his job. Indeed it was said in the department that he was the best, that the city wide force had never known better, but H did not let such talk inflate his ego. He had a job and he did to the best of his capabilities. Being a detective was coded in his genes but it was not his passion. Being undercover as often as he had, he had refined several techniques that would enable him to become his target’s shadow, his very body double. He would not risk lapsing into his own peace time conventions of relaxing but kept straight as a die, willing to stay in character throughout the length of the assessment. This was his strength, but it was also his downfall.
That F kept a weekly ordered routine did not lessen H’s keen eye for detail. Every Wednesday lunch time F popped to the local shop, bought a different magazine and took it to his flat to study. It seemed to be the only divergent action that F took part in, his other activities could be timed to the minute, each one played to the same solemn ritual. The magazines varied in tone and style each week, some were current affairs or satire others music reviews or national geographics. F read each magazine with the same attention to detail, the same rigorous approach, and he could be seen jotting note down with a pencil onto paper. How H longed to view those notes!
Irregardless it was out of the question, they remained locked and sealed in a safe that H could just see through the F’s flat window. Clearly this was the crux of the mission where both the heart and the detail lay. Long after F had retired to sleep H kept awake into the earlier hours, fostering wild notions of how he could break into the flat and open the safe. As each week passed more and more notes appeared in F’s spartan bedroom, liberally covering his wall with detailed and wild notions of how to access this information that H was coveting. He saw them both as in a duel to the death where the prize was the information of the ages, meticulously gathered from many sources, notes that laid bare H’s diabolical scheme.
The city that had held H’s imagination in such tight tandem, of the countless millions marching together under a metal carapace, slowly fell apart as his mind gripped the idea of breaking into F’s safe with such wild abandon that it pushed violently to the forefront of his mind and slowly worked deep into his memory, overtaking such small pleasures as the original bewilderment of his new home that had once nestled there. Days and nights passed as if in deep sleep, comatose to the outside world. H’s nails and hair grew without being tamed, his voice went unused and his eyes went without seeing. What sustenance that he survived on cannot be said with much much certainty, nor what liquids he drank can be guessed.
The single light-bulb that supplied the light for his main room at night gave out one evening.
This was the catalyst for the fracture of H’s body and mind.
F had long since been left undisturbed, free to amble as he wished with no shadow chasing him, no doppelganger taking his last step in turn as his own.
The city had swallowed H fully. He became a lost and vacant cause for hope. The ancient Bakelite telephone rang unanswered long into the night, a nervous wife on the other end no longer participating in this game of silence. The door to H’s flat hung limp and open. A stack of notes left unfinished on the wooden table. The window was left slightly ajar and through which, if one looked carefully, F could be seen carrying on with his routine as per normal. H was never found, not even after an extensive search. It was a given that he had vanished deep into the city, never to resurface, lost in the miasma of the crowds.