|The river, late at night, is a passageway between worlds. In the distance, on the north bank, fairy lights are strung lattice-like between buildings and steeples, capturing the glamour of ruined dreams. Behind me, the south bank glowers in the darkness, it’s face concealed by concrete and mortar. Its appeal is muted, a monster that lurks in the gloom of each day just gone. The bridge that connects the two is broad and open. Severing the river far below the head. Its shadow falls on the water roaring below my feet. In the sky above, the moon is starting to wane.
This is memory. This is past.
Halfway across, slumped against the parapet, a man is smoking a cigarette. The orange glow illuminates his face as he brings the stick to his lips and draws on it deeply. He is unshaven, his face weathered and his cheeks scratched with old, tiny razor scars. The air is warm, heat rising from the river beneath us, and he is dressed for the weather. I stand where I am and watch him smoke. He shifts between each drag, hissing out smoke as his weight transfers from foot to foot, settling on neither as preferable. Finally he reaches the end of the cigarette and flicks it across the road, sending sparks into the summer night.
'Most people would throw it straight into the river.' I call out.
'The river’s filthy enough without me helping it any.' He replies. 'All that crap about salmon swimming upstream. It’s just talk. The water’s home to monsters. Always has been, and always will be. Monsters, and murder victims,' he looks up at me, his eyes taking me in before speaking further.
'You been standing there long?'
'Not long.' I reply, 'I was getting some air. I didn’t want to disturb you.'
'Then don’t.' he turns to walk away, heading toward the north bank.
I start after him. I don’t know why. I don’t know him, he might be dangerous, and he certainly doesn’t want company, but I recognise something. A desperation, a desire to be elsewhere. I walk a few steps behind, not wishing to impose my presence, each footfall matching his. He crosses the road, and I notice that no cars have passed us. In fact I have seen no one else in the city other than the two of us. There is noise in the distance, ahead of us, but it remains at a steady level. We are getting no closer to its source. He stops suddenly and reaches into his trouser pocket, taking out a packet of cigarettes and a book of matches. He snaps a match against the book and it flares into life, breaking the quiet around us. His cigarette lit, he drops the book to the ground, where it flickers for a moment, the flame consuming the wood and igniting the cardboard. Instantly the remaining eight matches snap alight, phosphorous crackling bright blue flames on the pavement. The whole book is reduced to ash in less than a minute, marking the white paving stones with a dirty black smear. He blows smoke upward into the air and starts to walk again. I crouch down beside the remains of his matchbook and sift through the ash left behind. A single word remains partially visible on a scrap of cardboard, burned away by an orange flare still eating letters, one by one.
'Lime.' The flame burns the i and the L and is gone. I rub the ash into my fingers and mark a symbol onto the pavement. An eye, the lash curving away from the pupil, and a line trailing away from the lower lid. I have seen this image before, somewhere in the present, far from here. Looking after him, I realise I am alone. A warm breeze catches the remains of the matchbook and they fly away from me. I stare ahead, trying to catch sight of him in the distance, but he has vanished. We have only travelled a short distance from the river; the bridge still crouches behind us in the darkness. Ahead of me, the street is wide and empty. Split into two, a walkway runs down its centre punctuated by streetlights glowing faintly above; a trail of fireflies leading into the city.
Sighing softly, I start to follow the trail of lights, and as I walk, the buildings behind me loom closer, closing off the route I have travelled. I look back for a moment, and the bridge has disappeared into the night. The lights are blinking off as I pass them, leaving the path ahead picked out in a yellow cast. Either side of the main road, streets and alleyways are closed off. Coloured tape and crude barriers block any route in. In the distance, past the first intersection, the streetlights are still lit, illuminating alternate roads to travel. Like a maze, it seems the streets are dividing and reorganising themselves into a pattern, but one that holds only a single road into its centre. Steel and stone are forming walls around me, and as I walk further into the labyrinth, the sound I heard earlier is growing louder. An insistent buzzing in my ears, it maintains a steady pitch, a single note that is nonetheless rising in timbre.
There are markings on the walls. Inscriptions and symbols carved into the stone, running from top to bottom, extending as far as I can see. Thin lines of code tracing the story of the world. Some of the forms I recognise. A shape that might represent a boat, or equally a serving cup, sits alongside an arch, which in turn is faced by a series of curved lines. The markings closest to the ground appear partially worn away, as if time has made effort to disguise their meaning. I stop for a moment, and run my hand over the nearest, a collection of lines and marks joined together inside a larger circle. Immediately, the note sounding all around me rises in pitch, falling away again when I break contact. It is almost painful to hear, and so I keep my fingers well away from the surface. In the far distance, I suddenly catch sight of an orange glow, moving away at walking pace. His cigarette. Forgetting about the hieroglyphs, I start after again, quickening my pace to catch up.
In the sky the moon appears to be growing larger.
Abruptly, my quarry turns to the right, ducking between two tall walls embossed with the same symbols that burned me before. His cigarette trail dances in the half-light, beckoning me to follow. I check behind and around me, but we are still alone. Without anyone to confirm my direction, I take the same path. My feet clack time against the pavement, footsteps signalling seconds and minutes. He has discarded his cigarette, and so I follow in the middle of the road, trying to pick his shape out between the forecourts and exposed frontages. After maybe a mile, he stops at the side of the road, hands thrust deep into his pockets.
'The first thing you ever see is the daylight breaking over the banks of the river,' he announces. I slow down, suddenly afraid of what might come next. The wind has become perceptibly cooler, and behind the buildings in front of us, I think I can make out something lurking.
He is leaning against the stone, apparently unaffected by the hieroglyphs, brooding. His face turned to the ground. I can hear only a mumble from his lips now.
'The second thing you know is that you’re here forever,' he rolls his r’s, emphasising their shape in his mouth, 'and that you’re cold and hungry, and that you’ll never be anything else.'
'Who are you?' I ask.
'Whoever you want me to be. Want me to be a martyr? I’ll play the role until you ask me to stop. A saint? Fine. I’ve been everything, and I’ve seen it all. Fire in the streets, dead bodies lined along the Strand, Palaces dying in the dust.'
He raises his head and looks back at me, 'I’m the truth.'
I wish to wake up, and I realise for the first time that I’m dreaming. I wonder why.
'You came looking for an answer. I’m it.'
'Right now? After only a day? It can’t be that simple. There has to be more to this.'
'Sometimes what we want is right under our noses,' he makes a shushing motion with his finger, 'be quiet now, it’s time to wake up.'
'No.' I protest. 'Not before you tell me what you –
His eyes widen, 'You think this is all about you?' he whispers, 'You’re not the only one who’s asleep.'
'Then who else –
He takes his finger away from his mouth and points to the buildings in front of us. Shaking his head, he shrinks back against the wall, trying to melt away into the shadows.
I follow his finger. There is a sudden, low tremor in the air. A ripple. My hands ache. 'There’s something there,' I start, trying to place the movement I can sense in the distance, and then the square in which we’re standing is lit from above. I look up, craning my neck. The sky is illuminated by a disk stretching from horizon to horizon, and it is a moment before I recognise it as the moon. It shines a brilliant white, and is accelerating toward the ground. Toward us. I look for my guide, but he has vanished again, the spot where he stood thrown into chiaroscuro relief by the glowing sphere above. I can see the whole city reflected in its craggy surface; towers, lights, bridges and the river snaking between them. And there is a hollow spot in the centre, a piece missing, maybe an open square, or a plaza, or a crater.
It is my last thought as the lunar orb strikes the city and everything is plunged into darkness.