The Passenger31 March 2017
In the north, sun-baked roofs burn like kilns against the sky and I finally resolve to go on a pilgrimage to see what this curious city is really about. April’s cruelty lies in the first wink of an evening star. The flaming houses and their autumnal cladding hurl past and melt into bushfires, blazing formlessly against a fading sky.
Things are simpler inside the tram. Reality, for the time being, is segregated neatly: through the window the world swirls like a drunken impressionist, and inside the carriage all seems reassuringly solid.
That doesn’t last, of course. Already sound slips through the open doors as we pass the bars and cafés; people jump aboard to christen the evening. Their chattering sweeps us up and we are taken on the journeys of others. The fires die back and the city lights begin to twinkle like stars on the rocks. The night is tinged with purpose.
I hear that Graeme is dead – Graeme, or Peter, or Ron, or any one of those dying names that smell of soap and tea-cosies; it could be any of those names which has left a hole in time through which his shadows and shades now tumble.
Graeme had a stroke.
I know Graeme had a stroke because that is what the woman beside me whispers into her phone. We have this weird, remote intimacy, she and I, as I’m crushed into this little plastic cubicle with her – her, and the memory of Graeme. I’m invited to brush shoulders with death.
Isn’t it strange? My passage through the flaking city has, for a time, thrown my lot in with this woman’s. And Graeme’s. I met his passing; I know him for the gap he leaves in time, and the little shelf he’s claimed in some person’s mind. My phone shouts something stupid and incoherent at me, and I guess I’m like Graeme too, in a sense. Known by hundreds for my thousand online splinters, my million shards of soul.
Now the window is dark and the night teems with visions. They swirl against the glass as different shades of shadow, impossible to pin down. The tram hurtles down, down and Inanna flings her body across the seat in front of me and grins worryingly. We slip into the yawning nothing and she promises me that things are about to get freaky. I’m tempted to agree, because I can see the chemicals brimming in her eyes.
The light blanches. Everything is so pasty and yellow. This way of thinking is exciting, but sick. Idiot. I chose this; we shape things as we will. The weird light steals the fire from the faces of the commuters. Inanna offers me some slice of abnormality and I take it. The thundering tram screams so loudly that anything must be better.
Further down we roar, and the metal and the plastic wraps around me so tightly that I can barely breathe. Laughing, Inanna suggests that we name our vessel ‘The Nutshell’ and I concede she has a point. Dreams are crawling out of the eyes of passengers. Their spindly black fingers push out of gaping sockets and they pull their thin bodies along after them. The flickering lights cut their movements into fragments.
“Look,” Inanna whispers gleefully, pointing at one the disgusting things. “He’s worried she’s leaving him! Is he scared of the dark, do you think?”
We’re rattling so violently, thundering so violently, that my brain is slamming against my skull. Cold fingers are creeping around my neck. This awful tube, its metallic clinginess, the air shimmering with fantasies, it’s all way too fucking much. I twist this way and that, searching for distraction. The crowded interior casts frightful reflections against the pitch-black windows. Those pills of Inanna’s have weakened the imposed order and I’m worried that the chaos bubbling under the surface might be getting ideas.
The air is flashing sickeningly again, and the noise is pain, and the metal and the plastic and the people and the unhinged wail and the This and the That – those points of reference one tries to cling onto where am I well I’m here I know that much at least, thank God, why am I here back to first principles etcetcetc, well they’re not really working this time etcetcetc think you fool think, I can’t explain it – and Christ Almighty the noise is so loud – it’s all writhing in my head, all of it – and then of course there’s the hideous gaping hole in Inanna’s front from where the hook savaged her breast, rotting, spurting, the sheer great big FACT of it is unavoidable – but here’s the Poet in his robes; burning, burning so bright from the end of the tram – he shines through the din – he switches on the stars – which sparkle from the buildings – and the great shimmering circles hum and flare all around, at last at last at long long last.
Dawn breaks across the bay. It’s cold and clear down by the water, watching the dirty tankers as they sit quietly by the pier. The sky is so pale, so fragile, that for a moment I’m afraid it will shatter and let that terrible night back in. But it doesn’t; it holds, and though the morning seems empty now, I trust that it will flesh itself out as the day grows.
After a few moments it occurs to me to pull myself off the pavement, which is as cold and hard as one can reasonably expect it to be, and stumble over to the edge of the water. The concrete starkness of the bridge cuts the horizon up. The western baths shimmer out there somewhere, I like to think. My passage through the metropolis has left me shivering here and wondering how long it would take me to sail out to where the stars touch the sea. The meaning of this city is splintering too quickly to grasp. It’s natural to seek that bright purity of an idea, to just keep going until everything becomes a little more solid.
The morning cars honk in the distance, fleetingly. Soon the day will grow strong and I’ll have to accept the reality of my situation: that I’m far from home, tired, dirty, and cold, and that I need to journey back – forwards not being an option right now. Until then, however, the city is in that in-between little instant, neither day nor night, where it makes perfect sense to just stand in the chilly air and stare out.
If everything splinters, then I guess that’s just how it is. That cold, bright purity of purpose might not be out there at all. Back is forwards. Why not.
The destination is endlessly vast. And the night?
Well, “All of it is yours and mine.”