Last week I finished (as in ‘I’ve corrected and edited enough that it’s ready to hand in’) the final draft of my thesis. Someone asked me if I felt elated, but I think I responded by suggesting that I was tired. I went for a walk to try and clear my head a little, or at least reconsider what I felt in light of how long I’d spent working on this project. I left the University and walked in straight line for what Google Tracks informed me was three hours (though because of some issue with GPS it was unable to map my route). After the first hour, I came across a square flanked by tall white buildings, each one adorned with long elaborately decorated flags. The square appeared to be deserted at least at first glance, but as my eyes adjusted to the new brightness of my surroundings I could see people flitting in and out of doorways, and tiny heads peeping around window frames. It wasn’t too long before the square was filled with people. Girls with deep blue eyes sang along to tunes played on wooden flutes, confused-looking poets recited incantations to a silent, cross-legged water God and jugglers and trapeze artists performed around a central platform of twirling, angry flamenco dancers. I thought that I recognized the faces of some of performers (I briefly ran an unsuccessful online record label and wondered if there was some connection) but before I had a chance to enquire after them, I was encouraged by two large men¹ to exit the square and be on my way. The celebration was in aid of a sacred relic that had recently been returned to the local museum following its ‘liberation’ at the hands of ‘my people’ during a brief spell of fighting fifty years before my birth. I wouldn’t be welcome, they said, and for my own safety I should continue my walk. I was in no position to disagree with their inverted commas.
After an hour and a half the trail I had continued along became less distinct. The tarmac and road markings had turned to a thin brown powder (which still stains my least-favourite pair of Puma trainers). It was still possible to chart a path of sorts though, as what was left of the track was peppered with cattle tracks and the occasional pile of what I took to be animal bones. I could also smell the city, and hear the sounds of far away trade caravans. After two hours I passed under the low wooden gates that marked the western limit of what had once been titled ‘The Amber Borough’. Rather than streets flanked with the yellow sassafras and sweetbay magnolias of my memory, I saw only knotted thickets of diseased rhododendrons, their flowers either browned or the colour of old blood. In my hurry to ‘walk-off’ the thesis, I’d forgotten that it was autumn, and the riotous pulses of spring colour I was familiar with had been literally replaced by the army of horticulturalists who comprise two-thirds of the city’s population. Gone too were the ornately carved swings which lined the main boulevard, where children dangled on the end of silk ropes during the high season, their mothers and fathers sprawled across the road, wine cups spilled, food ignored and subsequently devoured by whatever sewer-dwelling organism had developed legs that particular year. It was always a city of excess, even when apparently fallow. Despite my increasing thirst, I felt no urge to drop in on one of the out-of-season emporia in search of water (or indeed something stronger); they had originally been named after the delicate white snout moth, but the drab, rust-grey frontages I was witness to on this occasion bore no resemblance to their name sake. The place echoed the feeling I had when I visited Great Yarmouth with Zo (winter 2004 I think) and there was snow on the beach.
I departed the city from the eastern-most gate. Soon after leaving, the track wound through the remnants of a deciduous forest – where the tired boughs and hollow trunks seemed keen to mimic the grand institutional structures of their neighbour – to a series of caves cut not by rainfall, glaciation, or an underground river, but by human hands. I had been walking for two and a half hours, and after my nagging recollections in the city, I thought that getting out of the sunshine might help perk me up. Unfortunately, the cave I slid in to offered no darkness, its slick, ancient ceiling coated with purple crystals that emitted a waxy kind of light; now it comes to me, that unnerving subterranean glow is reminiscent of the council-flat bedroom I grew up in, and shared, with my sister. The cave walls, in an identical fashion to the bedroom from my childhood, were crisscrossed with overlapping murals depicting the absent aristocracy I had expected to find during that earlier hour. Thronging those imagined streets – which had been described to me as ‘loosely based on a celestial map of the Epsilon Eridani system’ – were women in gowns made of feathers and, from the look of it, material not dissimilar to a sheep’s stomach, bounding away from men adorned with hats made of tiles, each one inlaid with the eyes of an insect. Some of the men had dogs with them, but their anatomy was all wrong, their legs the texture of a lizard’s back. In another less well-constructed mural, children were cycling on Victorian bikes, playing a type of polo that I assume was adapted for the horseless (isn’t everyone these days?). My favourite of the cave paintings depicted a gang of hominids, a hunting party. In the foreground were the hunters – ageless and sexless; behind them, an array of big cats – arranged in order of size – who had been saddled for some unexpected purpose; the cats were watched over by birds of prey in tiny jackets and, behind them, almost merging in to the background-world of fossils and stone, mountain donkeys laden with enough provisions to the last the party a fortnight.
It was at this point that I pulled out my phone to add a marker to my map in case I wanted to return to inspect the murals at a later date; I figure I’m allowed a bit of down time…perhaps I want to explore a bit. Like I say, the map didn’t work, but seeing that I’d been walking for three hours I decided it was probably worth heading home and getting the dinner on (I cooked a dish that has been christened ‘Korean Clams’). Good exercise I suppose, but I’m slightly annoyed by the fact that I decided, based purely on longevity, that it was time to stop. As if there is some allotted time for these activities. I think I convinced myself I was tired when actually I was doing okay.
¹ Subsequently, a small amount of digging around in the archives has revealed that these men had once been slaves, most likely the property of one of the low island kings (at least according to their facial markings and the scar patterns on their shoulders).