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Dark Sun

I dreamed of that apartment because yesterday I found myself there: strange how a place hides itself. How you live in a citys tangle and yet a particular place remains hidden. Why would I walk there? What prompted me to take that turn? Yesterday I crossed the river. I was coming up from the Oosterpark and heading south. The building on the corner, on the east side of the river, with its fine architecture, its small spines, inland sun and curved windows was still there. It was an autumn day, the leaves turning on the trees and trembling and the sun streaming down on everything. Now when you come over the river, follow the tramline off the Ruycshstraat, there are new apartments. Everywhere there are new apartments: the city changes. There is a restlessness beneath its surface. So a building is torn down and a new one started. Yet nothing ever really changes because change, that shifting of impressions and sensations, is so much part of this city it is expected and if it does not occur then there is a sudden lurch. People find themselves wondering why things are as they are. The first time I saw that apartment was a January night: you were there. The canals further back in the city, were thawing and temperatures rising after a period of freezing fog and rain: fog that clung and rain that fell like hail or struck like splinters of glass. We came from the other side of the river and it was dark. In the corner of the bridge was a barge. It rocked against the quay and the lights from the buildings glowed in the brown night. Something inside of me felt I was crossing not only a bridge that night but also a line and when we found the apartment something new would be starting. Like the river that fed the sea there was something moving. The tide was taking me somewhere. Not that I put it in those words, only it was there and as we bumped against each other I knew this was for us and no one else. We came along the river that night and in your pocket was the piece of paper with directions. We did not know our way so had to keep looking at the map we had bought in a newsagent near the rail station. Behind us was the hotel, along the quay, out past the rail tracks. The small room we were staying in, its blankets strewn untidily over the floor and our half packed cases and cassette tapes and books lying around. I think we stopped for something to eat. One of those rolls dusted with a
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flour that comes off on your fingers and gets over your clothes so you spend half your time brushing it away. Then those rolls with cheese or pickle or liver sausage tasted good. It was a while before they began to taste like more of the same and we would go looking for something different. Perhaps you know you live somewhere, you know you are no longer visiting or passing through when the food has such a familiarity. I mean you understand you belong when you are traveling and suddenly long to be sitting in the corner of a certain caf. You long to have a coffee that tastes only like it tastes in that caf, long to have a sandwich or pastry the way only there it can be. There you look out the window and see a tram come up over a junction, sway on the tracks and the hiss or blue flash where it crosses cables, where they meet or swing off somewhere else. The ring of the tram bell as a cyclist cuts over its path and the face of a stranger who does not look strange because of a look that is unique to where you are and the way only the light can fall in that place: over the gables and spires, against the windows or sift through the trees in long lines. That night we crossed the bridge and went along the riverside and turned right onto the street we were looking for. It was a narrow street with a peculiar raised path to one side and lamps hanging across on wires. It was dark and a little lost and I smelt the river in it. As if the river were there in its foundations, had somehow seeped up after so many years into the stones and cement, the rafters and beams that framed the buildings. So there was a dampness that even on a summers day would be there: a dampness that was brown and green and intrinsic. You dream and it is strange. The ability of dream to penetrate your life is curious. It comes like a voice from outside. Dream is a part of you and everything you need to live is somehow already within you. I do not mean in some mysterious way, though perhaps that is how it is. Like animals, we have our instincts; we have our needs and so know what to look for. We need a place to live and food to eat and it is that simple. Yet unlike animals we need to love and be loved and that adds complication. Not only that, somehow we have to know why we love and understand love. And sometimes, though love is what gives us meaning, we turn away; we prefer the shadows and then say love cannot exist because there is no ground for believing. Even when life gets so controlled it is flat and we are fading away, we say it has little to do with loving or not loving. We say we are beyond needing and that everything can be understood, and maybe it can. Yet we spend all our time focusing on a small moment ahead of us and forget there was ever anything else. Dreams come from within us and tell us where the pain is: where the hope is.

I stood at the street entrance: the one we found all those years ago. It was still crooked and set into the wall in that strange way. I opened the door and looked into the darkness. Along the wall, ran the cord, the cord that enabled the door to be unlatched from above. The stairs were dusty. So I climbed them and found myself at the apartment door. How many times did we open and close that door all those years ago? How many times did we cross that line between private and public? One of the small and large steps of life. I had the feeling it was night: a night when it rains and the streets darken and yet shine. A night when there are not many people about and you sit somewhere and watch the drops run down the window pane, making their way nowhere until they are gone and others come and the streets get emptier. Perhaps someone hurries by, holding a newspaper over their head and a taxi pulls in while the lights of traffic fragment and disperse and everything goes by in split patterns. The rain is coming up from the south and sometimes it seems you can smell that too: fields and forest where the land rises and takes you above the sea, up into the air. And even further south where the food is strong and the wine sweet. Where the sun falls and flashes off the sea, animating all it touches. I pushed the door open and it was light in the apartment. The living room was empty. Beneath my feet was a bare floor with polished wooden beams. When I walked they creaked and I had the feeling of something very old and also new. At the far end of the room, the window was open. A close light shimmered in. I stood and looked about me. There were no chairs or tables. Only an old chest of drawers, some presses and a wardrobe stood against a wall. Pulling drawers out and opening doors I found nothing. Nothing seemed to remain of our life there. I turned to find myself facing the bedroom. The light switch still marked the wall: the way in which the wiring was encased in a solid metal piping. How that used to make me think of an earlier time: a time when electricity was something new and strange and maybe a little dangerous: a time when love was personal and intimate: a time when people said goodbye on crowded station platforms never to see each other again: an airman returning to duty, a young woman making him promise to write, a mother standing by a kitchen window on a grey, summer morning, tears running down her cheeks. I remembered the times we spent there. How on spring nights we would lie with the window open and the noise of the city coming in. You made a shade for the lamp, a large sun stretched over a frame in orange
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and red and yellow with rays coming out at different lengths and direction. In the corner of the room would have been the small palm tree I worked to make grow but only collected dust and looked lost. And those bamboo shades over the windows that in summer sometimes worked and let air in while keeping the mosquitoes out. Light flowed around me, seemed to engulf the room with a luminescence. It fired off the walls and hung in the air: formed rays like there was dust. Only there was no dust because everything appeared clean and bright, as if a summer breeze had suddenly blown everything clear. There were the days we spent in that living room. I recalled the table and the tattered armchair. I used to sit at that table checking my contact sheets, looking for a good photograph, my navy turtleneck on or maybe only a t-shirt and shorts and unshaven. You would read, curled up in the armchair and sometimes look impatiently toward me and then talk. One Sunday afternoon you read a story you had picked from a book of childrens stories about a stainless steel spoon that thought it was silver and though the other spoons told it otherwise, it refused to believe. Even when it was discarded and lying with the rubbish or fallen between the gratings of a drain and was being rained on and was down with the dead leaves and dirt, it maintained it was silver. Listening, I wondered if that was maybe like us. Maybe the odds were stacked against us even then. Too many things hung on a thread. Or maybe the spoon felt silver and so was silver. Is what you feel you and what you are the same thing? If you feel you are something and maintain that to the bitter end even though everything around you is falling apart, then are you that or are you just foolish? And who can tell in the final say what you are and what you are not? At what point do you judge yourself, confirm yourself by the values imposed on you by others or those experienced by you yourself? I mean, where does the freedom to be what you want to be, become an un-ease, an illusion? Yet you keep believing because to admit you are only stainless steel would be to admit you are wrong. Deceiving yourself is worse than being deceived by others. Self deception means you have gone to war with yourself. Still those winter Sundays were often sad and grey. Often times we sat in the apartment and lounged around and I would think of how I had spent Sundays as a child: the school blazer and tie and the gospel hall with its rows of plastic and steel seats. In the pulpit some plump-faced car salesman and the bibles being dusted down for another week. And the man who told us he could see angels: his wife in her department store dresses, marshalling the young girls for a life of cucumber sandwiches and sales-of-work and simple acts of charity.

It was from that living room we would cycle out along the river when summer came. Sitting on a green wooden bench sometimes for hours, just watching the sun go down. Or the time we went to the coast and nearly got stranded: the waves pounding the sand: the dunes with their long reed-like grass and deserted pathways. We watched the sea run up the beach in foamy fingers and the sun burst through a bank of cloud in long rays and touched the surface far out from the tidemark. Then came back in on the train, sleepy, with the city appearing like a picture burnt in light and electricity, stark and naked on the horizon. That night the moon was full and hung over the river and the gables in a close dreaminess. Through the open windows and across the warm roof moths flew in and around the light bulb. Later I woke to find there was a storm. The lamps hanging over the streets swayed. Their light moved over the wall, creating shadows and strange shapes and the wind and thunder rattled the window. Next morning when I got up and walked through the park things were wet and sharp and there were branches strewn across the pavements. Sometimes you would sit before the mirror in that living room and make up your face. I could never quite figure out why you did it but you would. As if you were putting on a different face and so could, for a short time at least, be someone else. There were the nights we took the bicycle to the Leidseplein. We loved to walk up and down the paved alleys with their restaurants and bars and antique shops. Occasionally we came home after having a beer or two too many, a little drunk and the bicycle wobbled and I would steer and have to be careful not to catch the wheels in the tram tracks. The streets and the canals might be empty, just the odd person walking along, footsteps echoing into a spring night. You could be wearing your suede jacket and those silk pants you made, the ones a sort of copper colour and with a Persian print pattern. Climbing those stairs was always strange then. Late at night they seemed dustier and darker and I would wonder what secrets they held. Who had lived there before us and how long ago? What acts of kindness they had seen or sorrow or maybe even violence. My senses told me they held secrets. There were many lives woven into their dust and wood and walls. And then the river would seem to rise up and flow through me. It would run and I would feel its story, its endlessness and that it had been there longer than any building, than the city itself, than all the generations that had passed along its banks. Like all rivers it went on and on adjusting to the land around it, being built along, being bridged but always bringing those who sought it out, back, back to the simplest of things: water, land, human survival. It was in that living room I took a photograph of you. In it you look like Vermeers Girl Reading a Letter, though you are turned the other
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way and not reading a letter but looking out the window with your hair is tied back. The light is falling on your face, making it pale and catching the highlights of your hair against that forest green sweater you often wore. Beside you is a Fig plant, its leaves leaning toward you and the rest of the room fades into darkness. That was a March day and I remember the tulips were just beginning to bloom near the Museumplein, coming out in red bunches, covering the grass and under the Linden trees. When I saw them from the tram I thought of how when I was a boy I would wait for them in the park I passed each morning on my way to school. How they appeared in the dark beds and behind paint-flaked railings: their reds and yellows bright under grey heavy clouds on a damp spring morning: and the cranes of the shipyards and the red-bricked houses and another river running through mud flats and to the sea. Who were we then? An apartment forms a spot on a map. Airlines shrink the world. And war has become subtle and pervasive. What prompted me to walk along that street yesterday? Was it that as time moves relentlessly on I feel the falling away of things: or that I look at a world in which so much as been turned upside down. Then we were young and thought the answer to every question was simple. In that dream I crossed the living room to the kitchen. On the wall, beside the green painted press, there should have been a postcard. Pinned to the wall with two brass tacks, it would have been of Modiglianis Seated Nude. If I had not been dreaming, on the counter, there might have been a white enamel pot with a red stripe. On a wooden cutting board would be freshly chopped ingredients for a soup: carrots, potatoes, and fresh oregano, garlic. Perhaps a bottle of wine would stand there, just opened. If it had not been a dream I might have leaned out the window and looked to the patio below. Perhaps the two women would have been there, the two women we often wondered about. It could be a summer day and they would be sitting on plastic chairs and drinking white beer while cats padded around their feet. And if it was not a dream, laughter might suddenly break open the afternoon and one of the cats would run at another and I would smell the oil heating from the pan and the first of the potatoes and oregano going in, releasing their aromas. So I leaned on the sill and looked out the window. The air was concentrated and humid but there were no cats running below, no laughter broke the afternoon open. No smell of cooking hung in the air and the counter was empty.

Time has passed and we are no longer together. Yet things do not simply finish with a signature on a piece of paper, a document passed before a court clerk. A relationship leaves marks on you, leaves its traces in your blood. No human contact just ends in a moment. We get hurt when disappointed, hurt when our dreams do not materialise, when they go awry. The pain gets twisted around and moves down into the bones of a life, gets deep rooted and holds onto you until it seems to be holding you where you are. Then one day you are angry. You are not angry at anything in particular. You are just angry at how they are. The apartment was empty and while its emptiness, the empty drawers, the empty kitchen, the empty bedroom, held nothing more than memories, it also shone. It shone like everything was clean again. The anger that was a dark shadow over the sun was gone. So I kept looking from the window, thought of the river, its presence so much part of everything. Then I stepped out of the dream and crossed back over the bridge.

Copyright Peter Millington.

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