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A hand on a suitcase: placing it on the platform. The dull thud as it settles on cement. I look up. I am hungry. There is still sleep in my eyes. The light grasps them. I pull my hand over my unshaven chin. I am thinking about where I can find breakfast and a shower. Trains hiss from platforms. Doors swing open and doors are left open. A porter walks across my field of vision. I put my hand in my pocket. My passport: All necessary information for starting a new life. My age, height, colour of eyes, place of birth, sex and name. What is my name? Is it relevant? What will it tell you about me? What information will it convey about the person standing before you? See the contours of my face, the colour of my hair, the line of my mouth, the angle of my nose. Look into my eyes, into their movement and the changes of light there. See the moods that play in them, moods like the changes in the sea. Those are moods that come from some deeper part of me, some hidden part of me, some part of me that cannot be incised or measured, placed on the sparse details of an official document. Watch my walk. Is it confident or hesitant? Is that a shuffle, a leaning to one side? Perhaps you caught a slight shake in my hand, a tremor in my arm, a tendency to repeat a certain nervous movement? Are you observing? Are you taking notes and interrogating my moves? Do you question each expression? Now I am moving toward you. Can you determine who I really am? Is it possible for one person to define another, to arrive at an answer concerning identity: even in that most protracted of instants, the shortness of a lifetime?
I am crossing the boundary. Slowly my eyes open and grasp at the numbers pulsating in red on the clock. My vision is sluggish and I struggle to keep focused. Through the blind comes a muted, blue sky with patches of cloud. Already it is crossed with aircraft trails. Traffic sounds rise from the street. And I sink back into a half-waking world. I feel the heaviness of my body, the tightness in my stomach and
fight the moment when I must declare myself, when I must again open my eyes on the four walls of the room. It sticks in my throat: a nauseous feeling. There is bitterness and tension. It is as if some dark truth followed me into consciousness. It will not let go. And it strikes like a bolt, like a hammer. It drives unflinchingly into the frame of my body, into the mind and the flesh. A cold hand grips me. I tense, my eyes staring into the empty space around me. My breathing quickens and I sit up. My body strikes the air. It feels frail and vulnerable. At the far end of tousled sheets, my feet stick out strangely. Then I fall back. I let my arms splay; let myself drop into the softness of the bed. My thoughts gather themselves into recognisable patterns. I am awake. Awake on a new day, on a day when I must continue my journey across an unknown landscape. I must negotiate my way around unfamiliar features, a different world. Entering a new life. I am drawing a new map.
A voice addresses a listener in darkness. In the pale moonlight, I search for the shape. Somewhere the body must exist. The body that supports hearing, the body that moves in streets, through crowds, forgetting, or wishing to forget this insistent calling for its attention. I reconstruct the room as I would see it if I were to push the switch and open the light. If I were to cause the darkness to run, to scurry, to fold itself back into corners. My eyes would pick out the floorboards, bare and unvarnished, the bed in the corner, the duvet thrown back. There would be books, some open, some closed, scattered to the side: a pair of glasses, a shirt and a rail timetable. Against the window, would be a plant. Above it, hangs a rectangle of colour. When I walk, I enter another space. I push as if against an unseen membrane. My movements stretch this invisible medium outwards and bend it into arbitrary shapes. My presence, my intent to penetrate another’s life displaces things. I strain to hear the echo, catch the vibrations of the voice. Where is the ear that is the receiver? All I sense is the room with its variety of objects. And I feel empty. My eyes become accustomed to the moonlight. They rest upon a blurred reflection in a long mirror. It is as if they have come across
someone vaguely familiar. Someone I once saw on the street of a city: a body that stayed long after I had departed, long after I had stepped aboard a train. This body was a shape in an archway, a back disappearing around the corner of an alleyway. It was steps echoing off damp cobblestones as fog fell over a river on a November night. On an empty bench are a hat and a letter written on yellowing paper. The turquoise ink is smudged and fading. A streetlight shines on the disappearing words. A tram crosses a bridge. I remain in darkness. I resist the light from the socket. Only shafts of moonlight guide me around this indistinct environment. I hear the voice again. Now I seek it out like a comfort: a landmark to anchor me from drifting too far into this strange room. I count the rise and fall of each breath. My knuckles whiten and a bead of perspiration runs across my forehead. The voice continues its address. It continues, low, unsure, as if it too were struggling against the darkened room. I pick out the barely audible words; like gradually deciphering a new language. Its patterns, its conjunctions of sound become recognisable as I find myself following, find myself slipping into its rhythm. I listen and remember.
I have taken notes. Crossing Spain at night, the train cuts deep through the mountains. I am on my way from Lisbon to Barcelona. Where the dream ends and where it begins, I am no longer sure. There is no footnote, no bibliography to reference. This dream has woven in and out of my life. It has become a thread amongst other threads. I have become real only in the sense that I cannot be unreal. My eyes fall to the hastily arranged notes. They are scribbled carelessly. Is there some underlying sense of clarity to them? Are they a code waiting to be deciphered? Coiling around corners, they fall off pages; spread themselves across the white of paper. The only thing I am certain of is that it is after Madrid and I have not yet reached Zarragoza. The scratches, the marks on the paper burn my eyes; the muscles tense, the focus becomes sharper...
I step into the kitchen. My body is stiff. I have not slept well. The floor is cold beneath my feet. Through the window I see the bridge over the canal. The movement of the water is green and silky. It casts long,
golden shapes against brickwork. Out over the harbours a ship makes its way to sea. My hand grips the edge of the kitchen sink. Again the nausea bites up into my throat. I search for coffee in the cupboard. I fumble with the paper filter and open the tap to fill the kettle. My gaze falls to the street. The trees that line the pavement are sprinkled with green. An old Turkish man is walking with slow, patient steps. In the morning sun, the stone looks bleached and dusty. If I open the window, if the wind is right, I will smell the coast, smell the sea mixing with the particles of dirt and lead. There is nothing to suggest any great change. Things looks like they have always looked since I moved here, since my suitcase and belongings first found their way to this corner of the continent. Yet an anxiety eats into me. Something that was familiar has changed and subtly so. Things that reassured, no longer reassure. A confrontation with something yet unnamed has entered my life. The kettle boils. I make coffee and drink it while standing. Its warmth and its thickness are welcoming. Have I become closed? Have I fallen so deeply into living, that I move as an animal, searching, protecting its home, its refuge among other animals? I take a shower and dress. I go into the living room and turn the television on. For a moment I stand, letting the images play with my eyes. But the anxiety returns. As events, occurrences, anecdotes, flash over the screen I become aware of the uneasiness crossing into my consciousness.
‘I am sitting on the stone steps in the old city... Lisbon... watching the children playing by the water’s edge... watching them catch small fish, small crabs in their homemade nets... ‘they put them in their jars... their bare feet on the wet, slimy stone... ‘I sit listening to their excited voices, thinking of the winding streets, the steep hills, the old trams that labour around corners and over squares... thinking of the heat of the streets at midday... how I will search out the shade of the heavy trees... how I will look onto the courtyard from the window of the room... with the baked stones, the yellow grass...
‘she lies on the bed, her hair loose...her body stretched out... and somewhere, someone is crying... in the afternoon... tears from somewhere... and I stop and feel the warm wind against my face... see the leaves hanging in the heavy air... ‘the tears become just sound... like all other sounds... and mix with the heat, as if the summer were too dense... as if it were turning blue and black under its own force...’ ‘I ask in what way am I here?... where am I in this world?... I know the sea enters the bay... and the river finds the open sea... ‘what distance has been travelled... to the point where land meets sky, where the sea meets sky... over the great, flat rocks to the north of the city... a mouth of fire... from where I watch the ships, rusty, oily against the horizon ...shimmering... moving slowly, through the dark of my glasses...’ ‘thinking of how I am in this space... in this time... in this mixing of all space and time... wishing to realise, to hint... that travel... that journey... are of themselves...’ ‘she gets up from the bed, her bare back warm in afternoon sunlight... her tears are my tears... can she reach the end of sorrow... a lie has been told... if she could escape the earth... she does not want to escape the earth... ‘the way light is bent by gravity... or in and around me... so that it elicits... or alters...’ ‘we are a long way from the cities of the north... of exhausting dreams... this is an unnoticed birth... it is a chance meeting on a busy street... lightening striking a stone wall... it is a change in the flow... a footstep on a new road...’ ‘so each evening after the day has risen to the air in dust and petrol... when the pavement almost falters under the weight of feet, I crave the back streets... the staggered houses... the peeling paint, the coloured washing strung out like ribbons across a seasoned face...’ ‘who returns to the bay?... who is that who climbs the wide, deserted steps and crosses the open square?...’ ‘moving out in the night... who stands there, getting lost in the light, jewel-like, flashing over the ebb of water?...’ ‘I who question... who always question ... doubt...’
‘losing myself, hearing life vibrate about me... hearing its urgency... its onrush... its entering the body like fire... like weight... forcing me to open my hand... to play my cards into the tide... swelling and rising against the parapets, the broken columns...’ ‘I search for that back-room again... to immerse myself in her... to ease the hunger that stays in my stomach... her taste, her naked fruit... to roam across her citrus landscape... the way she cools the body and eases it back into living... the way we leave one life for another...’
I stand in the hallway. The light falls through the green glass of the door. It colours the hallway. Behind, are the stairs, in front, the street. Should I should open the door and step into the city. Already it is busy. Hours have been passed in offices and factories. What are my alternatives? Return to the apartment, sit and do nothing. Watch the television. Go back to bed and sleep away the anxiety? I reach for the handle, turn it and open the door onto the grey, empty pavement. Stepping forward, I hear my shoe crack off some discarded paper. My keys drop into my pocket. I start walking.
I sit in a café and read a newspaper. My eyes see the words, words once foreign but now understandable. Conversations, earlier unintelligible now form a recognisable background: a journey out results in a coming home. Time has passed. I have built up a weave of experience here. I can run my hands over it; feel its texture the way one does with an oftenworn piece of clothing. I have become naked in life. I stand without a mask. It cuts right to the bone. Its intensity catches me, pulls me into the light. My newspaper lies on the table. I lift the cheese-filled bread to my mouth and bite into it. My eyes follow faces as they pass the window. I am at sea, gazing through a porthole. This is something from childhood: the discovery of a strange, new world. Land is in sight. Why does it seem familiar? I am passing an island. In fact, I have just left the island. Now I am sailing away, not arriving. Have I always been sailing away?
It is an island from a storybook. Lines of trees stretch along the waterline. They rise above a white beach. There are mountains covered in forest. There are rocky, grey summits. Yet I have no wish to explore, to trek inward. The movement, the line between a and b may itself be the exploration. It may not even be as simple as a and b, it could be b and x, c times y, or that all combinations between a and z are relevant. Discovery may simply be the motion of the journey. Below deck, from the cabin, I gaze again through the small porthole. There is the sea. The waves surge, they swell and linger with the ship’s movement. The strong, intense current brings with it change. It turns the fixity into flow. I want to make the move. I want to move toward that horizon. It disturbs me, grows, challenging, forcing me to reassess. The new is what I am trying to demarcate. There is no release. There is just the necessity of understanding.
I return to the darkened room. The voice whispers over the bare floorboards. It hangs in moonlight. It brings me back to the long train journey north. It guides me in memory through dry, twisting valleys. I recall cities and towns. I recall stations on flat plains. The previous evening I watched her as she sat in the bath: in our room in a cheap Residencia. I wanted to stay but knew I could not. The light from the window fell onto the pale blue tiles. She sponged herself, rinsing soap from her shoulders. Her face was fresh and bright from the warmth of the water. I left and walked the long corridor. The naked light bulb cast shadows. Muffled voices mixed with the creak of floorboards. I put my hands in my pockets. Action or inaction, decision or indecision, which would it be? Crossing the Avenida, strolling through the stream of traffic, I thought of pathways, footsteps placed firmly upon tiled floors, prints left on gravel tracks. Always there is the sense of body, the sense of its presence. There is always the touch of skin: its scent. Hearts become tangled: and I wonder about being alone. If I had returned that night what would I have said? Would I have looked into her eyes and told her she reminded me of another? Would I
have pulled her hair back and told her there was something about her that spoke of another love? As the sun fell over the city I gazed at the lines of TV aerials. In the station, I stopped in front of the train. I stood as if my choice were more than a choice, aware that once on the train I would be propelled into another shift. I knew I would take the step. I would find myself a seat, sit and wait for the movement away from the platform. The implication of a step being taken that is all steps: an endless step. A step that finds resonance with steps already made, steps not yet made, steps that flow backwards and forward into the one step. Unknown territory, getting to know new country: it pulls me, raw, like a newborn child into something yet identified.
‘I am getting off the tram. The evening light is seeping over the metallic lines, softening the streets, the faces of strangers... ‘standing at a traffic light, waiting to cross...’ ‘on the cooling air, is perfume, sweet, provoking, dragging my attention, half suggesting, half opening my senses to nostalgia, to loss...’ ‘and the face, the long hair, the red lipstick, the eyes full of expectation...’ ‘my attention wanders. I move towards the empty space to my left. I gaze up at the wires dipping over the street, disappearing into a shimmering, magenta light...’ ‘toward the grey cement, seeking the green behind it, the avenue lined with trees... the collision with memory...’ ‘there we were once, our bodies fitting into the spaces left by words. Lying lazily, untidily on a stretch of open grass, the scuffed tennis shoes, her bare ankle...’
New territory. Images found in the corners of dreams. Falling outwards into a life where the contours are altering, where the unknown
comes forward. Change comes upon me like betrayal and ruptures the field of the known. It stirs the heart with a sense of possibility. The red rose in the jar by the window. Spray-paint across a featureless wall: a breath exhaling itself in a long sigh towards countless afternoons.
The voice returns: the bare floorboards are contracting. Through the room, the moon casts light. I enter the space and allow myself another intrusion into its tension. The room alters. I have stretched its fabric; and at once the voice becomes clear. The voice is my voice. I hear it in the darkness. I feel it in my throat. I lie down on the bed and wait.
In my pocket is my passport. Recalling the station, the platform, I leaf through the pages. What is the name written there? The movement of travellers, the public announcements of arrivals and departures, the suitcase still sitting on the platform, return to me. This new life I have come to start, how new is it really? Can I hold this passport up as proof of my existence? What evidence is there that I am all that is printed on the pages of this simple document? Would it be better to say I evade it; I escape it, that I am there in it but never contained by it? Do I not suspect my reality exists only where it cannot be determined? My reality exists only to the extent it is imprecise? If I retreat behind familiar lines, behind old frontiers, what will I have turned from? What will I lose by giving up the risk, by foregoing the pain of each difficult moment?
I walk along the canal. I follow the turn of the green, swelling water. The day is changeable. It is late March. Grey and white clouds drift in the
sky. There is a blur to the edge of the cumulus, a softening, a hint of something mild. I sit on a canal bench. I look down at my feet. My scuffed shoes rest on the ground. They are planted among the remains of rubbish, the papers blowing lightly by. I put my newspaper in my pocket and lean back. A breeze flutters through the leaves of a tree: and the sky changes. Above the gables to my right, the light grows darker. Yet shafts of sunlight remain as if intent on pushing through. It begins to rain lightly. Light and dark are dancing with each other. They are agilely gliding across a polished stage. The rays of sun shine defiantly and the rain falls ever quicker. With every crest comes the ebbing away, with every bright moment, every touching of light, already the shift back to darkness is sensed. Things moves like this shower, like the sun and rain. Standing, I shove my hands in my pocket and begin to run. Finding a porch, I shelter under it. I lean and watch the rain fall. On a church tower a clock shines, a weathervane gleams and trams move past.
New territory: territory that offers change - the topography of familiar and unfamiliar. As I move into it, as I negotiate its challenge, its apprehension, I take some sort of step. I am never quite sure, never quite certain of what that step is. Or whether my step is a step at all. Or what discrepancy of territory that step or that non-step will encounter. I am drawing the map slowly; knowing it will be incomplete, knowing it is only an approximation.
The morning sun falls through the roof of the station and the rails shine. On the air is the smell of coffee and oil, the smell of the city and the sea. Sitting on a row of blue plastic seats, eating a pastry is an old man. Crumbs fall onto his knees and onto the ground. Pigeons swoop across the platform or flutter in circles. They land, making forays towards his feet. He does not wave them away. Against a door an attendant leans lazily and a young woman, her eyes sad, her long legs crossed, reads a magazine.
There is a rattle; a vibration of light and a train uncoils itself from a maze of tracks. With the screech of brakes it comes to a halt. Doors swing open. Sunlight catches in them, shadows run across the ground. And stepping out is a stranger. Stepping out is a stranger who sets down a suitcase.
Copyright © Peter Millington. Amsterdam. May 1994.
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