Saturday, May 05, 2007

the distance between.

As we approach it, coming back into the city, it appears like a giant mouth. A huge mechanical sluice gate. Spanning the top of the Rijnkanal.

The bicycle path is straight, stretches both behind and in front of us, always seeming to define an infinity of distance.
Last time we cycled along here, it was a summer's day. Then the sun felt too heavy on my shoulders and she talked and talked and I felt weak. We had come from Berlin that morning and I was struck by the difference in feeling. Not only the flatness of the land, the planed outlook, the neatly planted trees all in a line, but something else. It was the curious sense of earth being absent.
Here, one did not catch the same grounded smell. The trees seemed fragile, as if growing from water, as if somehow they were pushing up through the water, had not reached air. It was that. The overpowering sense of water, the ever present draw of the sea.

Approaching this spot, now, this afternoon, the sides of the giant sluice gate appear to stand there, lifeless, indifferent.
She is a little way ahead of me and I call out to her to stop. Her feet touch the ground as I dismount. My eyes fix on the gate's size, the way it appears to silence all around it.

Along the dike, the water laps. The swell from a passing barge pushes against the knotted, grassy edge. The trees, straight, their leaves not yet fallen, rustle lightly in the breeze.
It rises into the air and my eyes cannot leave it. As the sun pierces the thin layer of cloud, the thought enters my head. It is the sea that offers the opening.
Its drift catches me and I think of all the distance it suggests. I imagine ships sailing it. Through time. Then I think of the coldness of the north, the far north, the crushing vastness of the Arctic. Into my mind spring names, names I learned at school. The Bering Straits, Archangel, Nova Zembla, Spitsbergen. In these names sounds something of the desolation, the godforsakeness of parts of the world. I cannot imagine people being there, let alone living there. Yet here in the sea, is something of their presence. Here, in the depths of the canal, in the choppy water of the harbour is some tiny part of their struggle to survive.

I turn to her and she is looking at me. Her eyes are curious, questioning. For a moment the space between us, the actual distance, the metres, seem to exaggerate, to become greater than they really are. Where she stands, waiting with her bicycle to where I have stopped to look, appears to elongate. I feel it strike me harshly. It grasps at the pit of my stomach. A sudden panic.
What if that closeness is not in fact a closeness. What if it has never been a closeness? If the connection I feel with her is nothing other than a deceit, a joke, an illusion I have created. What if all there is, is the bareness of our existence; the simple, relentless biology of our lives?
For those moments I feel fixed to the spot, immobile. It is as if I have frozen, as if the great gate of the Zeerburgerdijk is descending and closing me out in judgement.
Then I step forward, pick up my bicycle and find her eyes. She smiles but I am not sure if I can believe. I feel the flow of time, the incessant rushing forward of time and behind that a growing fear of nothingness.
I want then to pull her close, the way I did one night on the metro, feel her arms around me, my head against her, my fingers in her hair, smell her against me, be touched by her warmth, her certainty. When it seemed the night enveloped the train. The stars, the moon, the swirl of nebulae, the spiral of galaxies were just outside the roof of the fluorescent carriage and the tunnel was in fact a long, winding journey we had always been on.
Now I want only to step back inside the city, return to the safety of port.
The path with its line of trees appears suddenly precarious. Perhaps the ground on which it is cut is about to slip away.
Again I look into her eyes, searching for the confirmation, for the assurance. The anxiety increases, rising from within, sticking in my throat. A dizziness comes over me. My head spins.

Then I hear her voice asking if I am all right. I recognise the familiarity, feel her words carry the closeness back. The intimacy of all of our life together returns.
I see the home we share, the bed unmade in the morning, the sunlight falling across her uncovered shoulder. We are in the kitchen together, cooking, the ruby glow of a bottle, the vegetables cut on a wooden board. Above our heads a yellow lamp hangs, its glow detailing our bodies in an unending play of light and shadow.
She looks at me, an expression of puzzlement crossing her face. Her head falls to one side and then she turns. I see her move away. The length of her back is straight in the sunlight.

The mouth of the harbour stands still, as it has remained. To my side the sound of the water rises above the noise of the afternoon, above the constant murmur of the city. It rises and rises and then I am alongside her. My face set against the cool afternoon air and cycling.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington. Amsterdam. October 1998.

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