We pulled up in our rented vehicle, dwarfed quite comfortably by the incumbent coaches ferrying tourists from sight to sight, and prepared to disembark once again as travelers in a foreign land. In reality the location reminded us, perhaps more grandly than we remembered, of our own homes and the landscape therein, the coast battered by salt-fused waves whilst brash accents announced a population who had become ingrained into the very land they lived on. Our identities remained the same half the world away and we became a self contained unit, a family of friends.
‘They had plenty of talent and some success, but this was England after all, where no one – least of all a good painter – was really rewarded or punished; in England, whatever your profession, you made your own life.’
Paul Theroux in The Kingdom by the Sea (1983).
I’m currently reading one of Theroux’s travel books that I have not read before, a now rare occurrence. I’m a big fan of travel literature, especially of Theroux’s (why yes, I have read his latest on the American South). Partly I think because it means I can travel in my mind when my body cannot. Reading does this to a person though, regardless of circumstance. It lifts you above what you know and what you think you know, it forces you to don someone else’s view point to discover the world, and the people in it, anew.
I haven’t swam in the sea this year and I haven’t swam in fresh water either. This saddens me as long term readers of this site may remember that I love swimming; I love the feel of the body gliding through the blue, the grey, the swirling torrents of frothing waves. I miss the sun above my head, the all too often grey clouds amassing in the distance as my arms brush against seaweed, a mini chloroform power station floating in the middle of the brine. I miss the shouts and the giggles as the bracing waves slap against puckered skin in early autumn, of two brave and lost souls powering through content in a cold embrace.
The sea, the sea, my soul cries for its limitless horizons and its unknowable depths.
‘…the car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides and a dark wind blows. The government is corrupt and we’re on so many drugs with the radio on and the curtains drawn. We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine and the machine is bleeding to death. The sun has fallen down and the billboards are all leering and the flags are all dead at the top of their poles…’
I saw a triangle between fantasy, religion and law. I saw a watchful man with his hand on his hip and the law on his side, separated from the crowd by the machines speeding past. I saw politics, stories and figureheads of world religions mixed into one neon mixture, spat back out onto the maddening crowd below. I saw the Holy and the damned. The failures of a thousand people wrapped around the hopes of a few who never knew how much they had invested in this dream, this flashing light paranoia of a thousand suggestions and a hundred hooks wriggling with the baited breath of hope. The engine of a city, hot air shouted up into the sky to meet the cold winds blowing in from the Atlantic.
Digital photograph by the author, if reproduced please credit as appropriate.
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.
A small journey begins tomorrow and when I return from it I will also have to return to the world. This is something that I am having difficultly facing as I re-evaluate where my place is.
I carry you in my heart,
I carry you in my memories.
‘Don’t stop, don’t break,
You can delight because you have a place,
Quiet room, I need you now.’
– Majesty Snowbird by Sufjan Stevens
Crooked arms and broken bones,
Upturned stones and random loads,
Hope glitters eternal.
Steel sharp serrated blade,
Magenta hues and confused blues,
Tears flow eternal.
Ignored tomes and silent moans,
Confused howls and incandescent tones,
Lust echoes eternal.
I thought I knew you, thought I loved you, thought I needed you. Hoping it remained true I see that you are thinner, empty now, a cold abyss at the centre where there was once warmth, affection and love. Crocodile friends welcome you home, cry tears over your return but journeys never end, the past is never the same, the future is always open. But still something has gone, a spark has been doused and your actions are muted. In this one room cell of mine I will think of your love always, those warm hands and sacred kisses, the ever-so fleeting sensation of skin on skin.
He thought we would have changed ourselves in his years abroad, but we had not. He had returned to a town that does not change, that does not forget who we once were. In turn I had forgotten the intent beauty that accompanies a person who has changed their life and is willing to help others change theirs.
I am glad he is back.
He is my brother, my kin, my friend.
Too fast, too fast down this midnight lane. He’d tell a story staring straight ahead, dashboard blue lights highlighting half of his wicked face. Eyes dancing, skittering across the road ahead. A story of shame and abuse and that high laugh piercing my ears at unexpected moments. Nerves on edge, orange back lit speedometer bar moving moving moving higher higher higher. Tighter grip and nerves jangling, shrieks and maniacal laughs. Talks about lost old men on old lost highways and routeways, police capturing and returning them like lost wild animals, misbehaving and barn razing. Eyes glazed, the midnight road eggs us on to yonder, to our certain doom.
His laugh is the cruelest joke though, coming as it does in random fits and giggles. Just when I think he is on the verge of admitting shock or horror at inhumane treatment he unleashes it, a cattle prod designed to keep me awake and alert at all times.
His face, tear stained pitted with bitter rain, a figure of discontent, a rum swansong of a love long lost. My bitter state sealed with an awful fate, mangled car crashed ruined city, last stop a black ambulance, body bag deals a silent fate.
I dreamt I flew home along the dusty chemical highway as fast I could go, bypassing the car heavy traffic with tremendous speed and agility| I knew my brother was waiting for me in his room overlooking the driveway| I packed my bag with the essentials once I was home all the while pondering my freedom and escape, thoughts hanging heavy in my head of the freedom to roam once more\ However he would not come with me, sitting sullen and silent against the window-frame, despite all of the talk of the week before between us of just letting go and escaping this two bit town| I bordered the night train with my bag full of essentials and my horizons expanding but I was alone and I knew it, my brotherly half left behind|
He walked along the cobbled pathway, working his way around the historic square in slow motion in the shadow of the Dom. His feet had last graced these stones many years ago, and now, unlike then, it was raining a fine mist of droplets, covering every surface available but barely palpable on the skin itself. His thoughts lingered to the dominating brick and stone built twin-towered Dom that had stood for many centuries overlooking the square, of the individual lives that they had silently watched over, of the city they had seen being built, burned, rebuilt and bombed time and time again. Time herself is a very odd mistress, one that can command an excruciating hour to last a lifetime but wish away a long awaited holiday in the blink of an eye. It was hard for his mind to let go of the thought that he had been waiting many years to be here once more, in the heartland of Europe, to think that he was meant to come back. To once again see the familiar faces aged by the years but to notice the still vibrant smiles lingering on the faces of people that he loved.
The Dom itself had also been born anew in the time that it had taken for him to return. No longer spouting a skeletal frame of metal and canvas around it’s gothic towers, the building gleamed a new vitality as if life itself leached from the very stone of its own integral anatomy. The smell of the refreshed moist earth, of the surrounding shrubbery glinting with water droplets, made him feel glad to be rooted once again to the European continent.