Sunday, April 29, 2007


Something has changed. I am sure of that. Though I cannot put my finger on it. What has changed and how?
I see it in small things. Where I would not have expected to see it. Things I once took for granted. Done without thinking. How they are not the same.

I lie in bed. Through the bedroom window, the moon is full. It comes between the blinds and covers the wall in lines. On my watch, the hands point to nearly three-thirty.

It was in the afternoon it came to me. Late afternoon as I was driving to work. Coming onto the northern relief at Barking.
As I passed Barking park, I was looking at a long line of trees. Their tops were bare where the leaves had been blown away. And they looked as if they had been opened. Not that I can explain how a tree, or the top of a tree can be opened. But that the space between each branch or leaf, the space that marked each long stretch into the rain-clouded sky was somehow open. Somehow the tops of the trees were not so much in the space as the space was in them. That somehow they were better defined not by what they were, but by the space in which they were. The grey branches with their leaves half gone swaying in the breeze. Tall Poplars. Long and lengthening into the sky.

It looked to me that there were two things. The tree and the space around it. And the space around the tree was not an empty thing. Not a lack of tree. But also the tree. Part of the tree too. So the two things were also one thing.

It was a curious thing to think on my way to work. Not unsettling. More that while on my way to work I generally think of different things. Such as what I will eat when I get home. Or if I will have a good night. Will I be busy.

It was just after four when I swung off the Longbridge Road onto the Northern Relief. I had not stopped at the coffee bar in Barking station where I normally stopped. Where I sit and sip a double-espresso and smoke a cigarette. Watch the French couple who run the franchise. The husband with his over-broad shoulders and cropped beard. His wife with her long face and watery eyes. Listening to the sad announcements of arriving or departing trains. To Uxbridge or Fenchurch Street. I was later than I wanted.

Now I think of it again. Lying in the dark and unable to sleep. I look at the moon through the blinds. Full and white. I wonder if it is a harvest moon; but November is too late. And there is frost on the roofs. The sky is indigo. Not like in late autumn but as in early winter. It does not have the closeness of autumn. Instead there is the distance of winter.

The change is there. In the street outside that is quiet. But not silent. I imagine I hear the rustle of old papers on the pavement. Or the swirling of dust in the drains along the roadside. Now the city, my immediate environment has become a reflection. Throws back to me what I am feeling. Where I am.
Lying here, the pillow white in the moonlight I imagine the road that runs to the roundabout at Gants Hill. I see where it passes the library and where it swings around over Eastway onto Cranberry. I imagine the Underground. Its shuttered gates are closed and the escalators still. The long tiled platforms where the trains rush in and out are deserted. A vein into the heart of the city. Now it is only long stretches of parallel steel and empty stations. Dark grimy tunnels and ghostly junctions.
And like the trees defined by the space around them I understand a city is defined by the people inhabiting it. Not just their physical presence. But their dreams.

Each person has a dream and is a dream. A moving dream. Each person is an energy. An energy that creates the city. And when they are at rest another city shows itself. An inanimate thing.

And when cities are deserted, nature comes again and reclaims them. Washes over them. They stagnate and fall apart. Tufts of grass grow up between paving stones. Tendrils wrap around girders and supports. Moss creeps over brickwork.

People breed cities by looking at nature. They look at nature and feel uncertain. Cities are ways of dealing with nature. People cannot simply live with nature. Because nature is too arbitrary a companion. Nature's energies are too indifferent. A city is what happens when people dream of filling in what nature has not given them. It is what happens when people learn to look into nature. Under its skin.

The space that defines a city is not just the space around its buildings. It is the space of its inhabitants dreaming their lives into reality. Dreaming is what brings a city to life.

I think of this as I lie here. In the morning, even before I wake, the city will no longer be at rest. As I sleep the stars, their light having traveled so long, will disappear. Behind my apartment, to the east, over the top of trees, over roofs, our star will climb. Perhaps over a clear day or perhaps hidden behind banks of thick cloud. And the starkness of streets will soften. The whistle of wind through empty buildings will be swallowed by the sound of moving feet, speaking voices.

From out of sleep all those people will bring their dreams back into the world. Will put their dreams into the space of the city. Fill it up and define its buildings, its streets, its shape.

And I will wake too, later in the morning. My dream winding its way through my actions. Pushing me to stand up, to go to the shower.
In the kitchen I will make coffee and look out over the grounds below the apartment window. See where the leaves are turned, the grass strewn with reds and yellows.
Noticing the change. Unable to explain the change. Yet aware that it is there.

Something has changed. The moon still and high. Only the occasional creak from the apartment or the echo of some lone footsteps on the pavement.

Copyright (c) Peter Millington