Wednesday, May 23, 2007

a night. (extract)

I bend over my bicycle, struggle to focus on the lock, struggles to get the key to turn.
The water below the bridge, is slow, dark. It washes indolently against the stone canal side. The warm air moves against my skin, over my neck. Pulling my light raincoat over my shoulders, I get up onto the seat. I grip the handlebars and begin to cycle, begin to cross the deserted main street.

The buildings around me are impassive, the shop fronts darkened. Slowly pushing the pedals, I move along the bicycle lane.
A police car drives lazily past, its white and blue keeping to the raised centre of street where the tram-tracks are.

My eyes gaze up into the sky. It is a clear night. I do not yet feel like going home. In a way I do not want the night to end, the morning to come.
To my left, where the old palace stands, is a three-quarter moon.
Sometimes the moon seems cold, to be made of chalk, to be just a still, white disc hanging. In the winter, it can make the city seem colder and closer, its pale rays catching faces as if suggesting some time past, some memory not quite forgotten.
Now it is the middle of June. It is florid and creamy. In the warm Spring night, it blends with the city air, with perfume, the remaining aromas from now closed restaurants, the faint smell of car fumes, pollen.
I turn left and pass the Nieuwekerk. The yellow traffic lights flash on and off. Cutting to my right, I cross onto one of the main canals. Following it, I take in its rise and fall, whistling to myself.
The trees are heavy, their leaves full under the arc of the streetlamps. The vibration of the bicycle as it moves over the surface of the canal side passes up into my arms through the handlebars.
I am about to cross the bridge near the station, to go to my left when I realise this will bring me home quicker. For a moment I stop, putting my foot down on the hard ground, steadying myself and thinking. My head still feels a little light.
I decide to go straight on, to cross behind the station, to cycle along the old unused harbour area.
Coasting under the rail bridge, there is a hiss as a solitary post-train rattles above.
The open space with its water appears in front of me. The wooden piers, the rise of the pass behind the station and the moon shining on the silky surface hold my vision.
This way I can still get home, this way I can get around to where I live by another route.


Their footsteps echo in the empty street. He carries her guitar. Leaning against him, she links her arm tightly through his and yawns.
"Sleepy, eh?" he says.
"Yes," she replies.
They come to the door. It seems small, old. Putting the guitar down, he searches in his pocket for the key. She folds her arms across her chest, yawns again. There is the sound of the metal turning in the lock, the rasp of the hinges as the wooden door swings open.
"Come on," he whispers, "we're home."
They climb the stairs. There is that familiar smell, that dry, musty odour in the air. She hears the creak, hears him knock her guitar off the wall.
"Who would have thought you could build something so narrow," she says.
He opens the door of their flat. His arm stretches into the darkness, his hand fumbles for the switch, and suddenly there is a glow and light like an orange sphere hangs over the centre of the living room. Something brushes against her ear, buzzes past her.
"Dammed mosquitoes," she murmurs.
"Nothing, it was just a mosquito I think."
He walks to the window. The curtains are blowing gently against the back of the sofa. Pulling them over, he turns as she falls into a chair.
"I'm going to get a glass of water. Do you want one?" he asks.
"Yes please. I'm feeling a little dried out."
The bright fluorescent floods the tiny kitchen. The tap opens, echoes in the steel sink and the water gushes around and into the cylindrical glass.


I have left my bicycle lying somewhere behind me. Carefully stepping over the rough ground, I go down to where the grass falls away into a broken wall, to where it disappears into the water.
Muttering that my coat will probably get dirty, that tomorrow I will probably look at it and wonder how it got like that, but that now I do not care, I come to a stop.
The water breaks against the old pier. My eyes fall on the dim wooden shapes, the rotting supports that once must have been a docking area.
To my right, in the distance, are lights, the lights of buildings, the lights of the harbours, the lights of ships.
It seems I can hear a hum, hear the low, almost soothing murmur of distant activity.
I imagine being inside one of those ships, the oily smell, the narrow passageways, the metal railings, the thin steel steps, the excitement of a journey about to be made.

It fills my mind. The sea and how it is, how it knows no boundaries, how it has fed this city, how it is what this city is built around. The tides coming in, swelling, rising and then ebbing, falling away.
For a moment I am there, I am standing on a deck, watching the ropes being cast off, the rusty scrape of a side as it leaves the quay, the surge of an engine, the water churning at stern.
I imagine the next port of call, some faraway place, somewhere where I have never been. The journey, the roll and the sway, the change in appearance, the skin weathering as the ship navigates the ocean's curve.
I gaze up at the sky, at the moon.
It is higher and paler. To my right, to the east, the sky is a lightening, as if the night is beginning to melt away. Dawn is creeping up over the city.
Suddenly I feel tired, realises it must be nearly five or after.
Letting go, dropping to the ground, I lie back on the coarse grass. It is damp. It is cool against the back of my head.
I pull a near empty pack of cigarettes from my pocket. I take out the matches she gave me and light one. The smoke rises in grey and blue clouds.
I do not want to think about it, do not want to think tomorrow is nearly here, soon it will be the day after, then she will be back, then the tension will increase, and there will still have to be an answer.
`Choices', I murmur to myself, `and if I were coming back from a voyage, if I were sailing up past these harbours, into this city, would I see my own life as if it did not belong to me, but to someone else? Would I see the choices I have made, and see that there were choices I should have made, choices I should not have made? Would I see my life any clearer, or would I be caught in another life, held by its current, driven by its needs?'
I put the cigarette to my mouth and watch the end glow.
Tomorrow I will remember this, will wonder what made me do it, will feel tired, my head will ache, and I will be irritated for being foolish, for acting out of character.
Yet as I lie there, I hear the pull of her songs, see her in front of the crowd, her fingers finding the chords, the supple switch from one to the other. The bass strings counterpoint the melody, the soft tap of her foot keeps rhythm on the simple, wooden stage, and her voice gently caresses the ears of those who are listening.

Maybe it was not such a strange thing to do. Perhaps she will be playing there again sometime, and I will be passing, and then I will stop and listen to her sing, listen to her songs as she pitches them to that spot somewhere just above the centre of the audience, listen to her find the blues run, the sweet, jazzy sound like the pull of the sea, the sound that kept me standing there.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington 2007

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