Sunday, July 22, 2007


It was the time we lived in a small 3rd floor apartment about a kilometre from the rail station. We were close to the centre of the city though out along the waterfront near where the harbours were. Sometimes in the night I would wake and hear a train hissing and rattling over the bridge that crossed the canal and in a curious way it reminded me of running water, sounded more like running water than the water that ran under the criss-cross of steel girders, under the bridge that took the tracks southward out of the city. There were times I would think that sound was like water emptying from a sink, the way it swirls and murmurs and runs down into the nothingness of the drain. A drain that looks only like a black hole but about which there is something sad because in lots of other apartments there are the same drains and people not even noticing them. Just pulling the plug and letting the water empty away and maybe shouting at each other as they do.

In the darkness of the morning and because I was sleepy everything was soft and there was only this sound and then the sound of my wife sleeping beside me, her breathing and sometimes the sound of our son turning in the cot from his bedroom.

I remember this time and that it was very cold. The cold starting about the middle of December and going on well into March. Even before it got cold I knew it was going to be cold. One Sunday we were walking along a street and over the dark grey pavement the lights from a cinema shone and glowed against a needle-sharp sky. In that sky, blue like the blue of oceans from space, the clouds were thin and drawn out. I was wearing a purple sweatshirt, a black denim jacket and my wife had on an olive suede jacket. On my shoulders, I carried my son. He was wrapped in a down-coat with the hood pulled down over his face and a yellow scarf around his neck. As we came around the corner onto an open square the darkness was building in the east, the blue turned to indigo. Then it was sharp and cut through us. The wind kicked up dust and bits of paper, kicked up the leaves of autumn, too dry and withered to lie heavy in piles. My wife said she wished she was home with something hot to drink and the light turned down low in the room so that everything would be close and warm. We hurried across the square and along the street under the first part of the bridge that crossed the canal and then onto the canal itself before we were home and climbing the stairs to our apartment. After that it got colder and soon the canal was freezing every night and in the morning there would just be the silence and the ice.

At that time I got up early. I had a morning shift. In fact I did not like getting up so early but neither did my manager so he took advantage of the fact I was a father and sometimes had to pick my son up from school in the afternoons.

I would walk as quietly as I could around the apartment, trying not to make too much noise, only switching on the lights I needed. Generally I spent a couple of minutes in the kitchen, blinking my eyes open, looking down onto the street. The bridge that took the road over the canal would be quiet apart from a solitary motorcyclist or early morning taxi. In the office where the harbour-service worked there would be light escaping from under the blinds and the railings on the steps up to the door would shine and the red and white of the barrier they raised to stop traffic when the bridge was open would also shine and be standing tall and stretched into a sky broken with stars. Sometimes I would think about the men and women sitting there watching out for boats or barges coming in from the harbours. They would be sleepy after working all night and on the table in front of them would be half drunk cups of black coffee and newspapers and they would lean back, their feet on the desk, their shirt sleeves rolled up because the heating was on full. The water in the canal would be white and a little less white through the centre where the patrol boats broke it open every morning so that when it froze again at night it was thinner and did not have that opacity that the thicker ice at the edges had. It would freeze in strange vein-like patterns.

Before I stepped under the shower, I often looked in the mirror over the wash basin into my face and examined it, wondering if it really was my face and realising in fact it was though it was not how people saw it. It was only how I saw it because it was reversed in the mirror. I wondered if it really looked all that different to other people but concluded it must because where one ear always stuck out for me it stuck out the opposite for everyone else. Then I got under the shower, letting the hot water wake me, feeling it run down over my eyes and my face and glad it was hot because it was so early and I knew that outside, that below on the street the temperature was well below zero. I dressed quickly and drank a glass of orange juice. Then I put on a ski jacket I had, fleeced-lined and with a high collar. It was old but I liked it anyhow. My fingers pulled the zip up sharp and I wrapped a scarf around my neck making sure it covered as much of my ears as possible. Then I put on a woolen hat, doubling it over my forehead so that most of my head was covered.

The light in the hallway flicked out quietly and often I stood in the doorway and sensed the quite in the apartment, felt the warmth and thought of my wife and my son sleeping there and wished I could go back. Always I closed the door quietly but firmly and went down the stairs, out onto the street holding my gloves in one hand so I could get the lock on my bicycle open. If it looked really icy I would have to think about walking. That added time and meant I would be late and have to work a little faster and maybe not have time for coffee. Only if I thought it was really dangerous did I do this. Mostly I took the bicycle and cycled down the canal and then around the corner before crossing the square and heading for work. As I cycled I would only be thinking of the coffee machine and setting some coffee on when I got in. If I was early I liked to roll the shutters up and look out onto the street, smoking a cigarette and watching the city come alive.
Around was the darkness of the street and sometimes the smell of bread baking from a bakery. If I was late, I would hear the first trams, hear the rattle and the screech of their metal wheels against the rails. The trees on the squares and along the water were black and shadowed. Occasionally I saw an airplane coming in over the city, heading for the airport, its lights all on, its movement seeming slow, looking in a way like a ship about to reach port. Sometimes I thought of it full of people, people who had no idea I was on my way to work, of all the individual days about to begin below them, their thoughts just fixed on their comfort as the cabin crew readied them for landing. All journeys are like sea voyages even if through air and not over water. It is as if the air is in fact an invisible sea. We make our journeys in some part with deference to those who made the first voyages of discovery. Only in reverse and with one part of us fixed on the simple idea of mobility. We make a journey without a goal. We do it because it is what other people do and motion makes the circle of our lives a little less tight.

As my gloves gripped the handle bars and the bicycle rose over a bridge, the cold would whip against me and my body would tense and with some irony I would wish to be at work.

It was the time we were living in that 3rd floor apartment. I can still see it, the odd way it stood on the corner, the area in front of it where there were bushes and where all the bicycles were parked in a bicycle lock. And the café beside it with its plastic tables. Its overweight owner, his hard face relieved with a large nicotine-stained moustache. A man, it was rumoured who had spent time in prison for running girls on a boat somewhere in the north part of the city.
There are times when I still smell it all. The entrance to the building when in autumn the dry scent of linden leaves blown in at the foot of the stairs whispered of change and death. Or in summer when heat brought the smell of yeast up from the containers of beer in the cellar, making me think of short nights and music and the canals silky at dawn. Then spring with the wind a certain way and rain just passed, the sea drifting over with the oily smell of the ships from the harbours, reminding me of the return of life.
It was that winter I came out of work one day and it was snowing. It was snowing so heavy that the city seemed buried and though the trams were moving, they moved silently. I walked all the way to my son’s kindergarten wheeling my bicycle beside me, my feet and ankles crunching into the soft layers of snow and getting wet. When I got there the door to the playroom was open and most of the other children gone. The room was bright as if there was a light shining somewhere within it and I heard the muffled laugh of a teacher from somewhere and could smell freshly made coffee and opened oranges.
Out on the street, my son walked alongside me, looking with wonder around him. When we got to the apartment, it was nearly dark though it was only about three in the afternoon. I did not turn on the light but instead the TV. There were cartoons and then reports about how it was with the railways, or the city, or about the state of the traffic out on the motorways. The sky was steely-grey and the snow just kept coming down. Outside the world seemed to be coming to a standstill. The world was getting smaller and now was just a speck, a flake drifting through a distant universe. I sat on the couch and did not take my coat off, just opened it and unwrapped my scarf then got a glass of water and drank it slowly. In the living room it was quiet with only the sound of the TV and my son running around. He went to the window and looked out, his small body standing against the low sill, his face pale in the white light coming through the glass. And I wondered where my wife was and thought she was probably in a department store buying some clothes, some new woolen stockings or a hat or maybe drinking coffee with a friend. With the snow falling, the quiteness, the long weeks of coldness, the voice of the TV and then the thought of all those cars on the motorways, their lights yellow and in long lines, I suddenly felt lonely. The way I sometimes felt when I was a child and lying in my bed on a winter’s night with the moon coming through the space where the curtains had not been fully pulled. I felt a loneliness it is difficult to describe. As if it had always been like that and snowing and there had always been the station and the apartment and the ski jacket I was wearing. There had always been this snow and those winter nights. Here was a world enveloped in quietness and I could hear my heart beating, hear my breathing, in it. A dreaminess that was tender and like falling into a bed of deep cotton. Before my eyes there were frozen lakes and white plains and coniferous trees and also a spring day when I was running though a forest. Then, between each fall, each flake coming down was my wife and us sleeping in our bed, the duvet pulled around us, the paleness of her skin and her brown eyes. An early morning and our son coming in, waking us up, his blond hair shining in the first light, his face curious. And the snow fell and fell and I wondered why I did it. Why anyone did it. Continued. Why there were these moments when it seemed I touched some deep sense of aloneness. When the only thing was a naked fire, a spark somewhere way within that kept me going. Out there on the motorways were all those people in their cars now slowed down, their normal speed and mobility suddenly compacted into visible lines. Perhaps the radio was on, or they were sleepy and they were alone behind their wheels. Maybe they were thinking of partners, loved ones or the straight edges of their buildings, the parking lot or grassway in front of those buildings and how it looked each morning. Going through their minds was something small and maybe not obviously significant. A picture that needed fixing, a new hairstyle or the fact that a footstep, a voice calling out ‘I’m home’ was all that was needed. In front of them was only the length of motorway, the motorway signs and the cities on the horizon. And here I was in this room thinking of plains and forests, of bedrooms and the moon. Here I was thinking of my wife and of the warmth of those secret places only a couple know, of the look in a child’s face when it woke in the morning. I was here with this loneliness I could not explain.

The room was quiet. It was white, bleached out and the images from the TV flickered and moved over the wall. Outside the snow fell. It fell on the ice on the canal, on the pavement, on the bridge, on the handlebars of my bicycle. It fell all over the city. I stood and walked to where my son was standing. He looked out, his eyes following the flakes, his face intent and concentrated.

Then I put my hand gently on his head.

Copyright © Peter Millington.

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