by Martin James Hunter
A city strange and heard through water. Buildings ashen, dusted with fallout. Neighbourhood watch like cold sentinels. Their gaze on my every step. Around me pavements impossibly vast. Gaps between slabs like chasms where depraved stomachs resound. I leap them with haste.
Concrete pushing back with every step. I glance down and am quietly startled. Slabs lit with a dim glow. Sequenced as though encouraging me onward. I follow them without glancing up. From the heavens, a hand.
That feeling again. I brace myself for another wave. A bullet train tearing by its platform without stopping. Spectacles free-falling then shattered. Thousands of tiny diamonds released from their frames then urged forward by the breeze. When I look up there is nothing. Concrete, as far as the eye can see. The sky like clouded glass. On the horizon something almost impossibly minute. Squinting I see a cubic structure. My destination whatever it may be. There is after all nowhere else to go.
The image leaves my head and I return to warped reality. The familiar skin of the city but from an angle difficult to process. Architecture concocted from familiar materials but with unimaginable hands. Tudor flesh drawn over alien bones.
I seem to have ended up in an unfamiliar place and am hardly in the position to be asking for directions. There comes no panic only helplessness. A street name I fail to recognise. People going by like clothed automata. Missing kitten – reward. Poor forsaken creature left to fend for itself. Trembling black shape crossing path after path. To my left the tiki-bar still closed for business. Time is having its way with me. A clock with its minute hand between my legs.
Onto the industrious retail district. People spilling out like liquid and flooding little gaps. Even more apparent, the patterns in their movement. A main channel where the ordinary walk. Expressways for those with a brisker pace. Protocols for overtaking. An empty column for me.
The slabs lead me to familiar thicket. A place I stashed my bedding all those years ago and have somehow reached unscathed. Or is this just a mirage? I glance around to ensure no one is looking. The world is a disorientating soup of signals so I see nothing.
Myrtle dramatically parting and I tumble into a darker world. Uphill on hands and knees to the corner furthest from daylight. Here territorial branches lash out as I pass. My bedding propped up against a trunk at the top of the slope. I clutch it like a child and just sit there. Chest thundering. Someone must have seen me climb in.
Lids drawing together with fatigue. Amid their darkness something darker lies yet – bordering everything I know in a deep, unsettling hue. As I sink in my thoughts grow vague. Words quieter with each second and then I hear nothing. The unspeakable void where all go to rest. A slit of light where my eyelids meet.
The thicket again. I clumsily get to my knees and scan the perimeter. Passing figures shadowed by delayed smears. Traffic rumbling in the distance. An infant’s shrill cries. Sleeping here is out of the question – I could wake up at the bottom of this slope. Police officers rousing me from the pavement with little kicks.
Hoisting my bedding over a shoulder I push through foliage back onto the streets. I am then in an avenue descending towards the park. The world flipped up then allowed to settle. Hundreds of empty figures drifting by like the migrating dead.
I fumble in a hundred pockets for my notebook but quickly give up. Go down on one knee as though drunkenly proposing. Draw looks upon straightening back up. I wipe a sleeve against my forehead and it comes away dark. Harrowed sweaty thing mingling amid the ordinary; if I were in a suit the emergency services would have arrived by now.
Vague place drawing closer like a dream returning to memory. I am then descending its worn stairs through a narrow doorway. Tiles missing from yellowed walls. Familiar room where cracked faces once leered behind smoke. I go to the neglected porcelain and twist an old valve and then there is water.
Back in harsh daylight I squint at the bottle’s contents. A little yellow or perhaps just my imagination. Odd as though rich with oil. I take a swig and taste the impurity on the walls of my mouth. Stomach making a knot in self-defence. I send in more.
I stab at Uma’s buzzer with trembling fingers. A resounding cry of electricity from above. Infrastructure darkened by yesterday’s rain. Sweat meandering over sharp cheekbones in cold brush strokes. So many months on the pill diet. Immune system well out of gas. I buzz again but am kidding no one. Without aim or hope I return to the park.
Against the base of an oak I slump away from the public. Gazing out at a field where the breeze quietly plays with a wire fence. Above me birds sing obscure songs like maimed cassettes. Colours burnt out. Spots of ink impacting like rain then spreading. Then darkness is all there is. You may not wake up. You may not wake up.
Daylight floods my retinas in a painful burst. Then everything settles and I can again focus. Weeds bobbing sadly by grubby trainers. I produce my notepads and fan them out over my lap. Black rectangles indistinguishable from another. Uma’s phone number, somewhere amid them. I single one out and flip through its pages. An infant experiencing a novel for the first time. Taking in nothing just trying to understand its shape.
Legend has it that one fateful night the beggar allowed an ambiguous drug passage into his body. A day later he was found against a tree clutching his notepads, pages containing the story of how such a situation came about. Didn’t take the council long to commission an effigy in his name. An ending written in stone and with taxpayer’s money. Then came public interest when it was no longer of any use to him. Cameras flashing in an epileptic frenzy around the statue’s base. Women high on lust left to imagine his poetry. Children inspired to write and explore. A damn shame.
Awake again. I spring to my feet and almost go over onto my front. Sleeping bag and pads bounding towards the field as though having had enough. I fetch them on hands and knees and then am again leaning on oak. This can go on no longer.
Hurrying over grass past Uma’s flat until between shop fronts. Businesses awake but sluggish – the spirit of competition still to thicken. A man in an apron brushing the pavement with tired strokes. My hand is over his shoulder and I am saying something. His expression at the sight of me.
Policemen quietly watching from their side of the road. Broom against the wall for the time being. And then the engine is there and the paramedics are helping me in. Fastened to a stretcher with them talking business as though we are finalising a contract. I take in their eyes for the first time. Black slashes on pale white. Pythons locked on a target. Door slamming and engine brought to life and then we are cruising up the road towards another chapter.
Next I visit the hospital.