City of Dreams
It’s past midday and the heat wraps itself around me like a serpent, pressing life out of the moving masses.
My hands hurt from the cold. The kind of cold that snaps at bones, as I stand among bright orange ropes and cones crisscrossing a muddy football field, tasting ash in my mouth. The mist around me lifts, revealing a scene that slowly washes into my consciousness.
Children of about ten, gathered in groups are whispering to each other or to adults. Others are running, weaving between bags and clothes scattered in piles on the frost covered grass. Wearing nothing but shorts and numbered bibs over thin singlets, their exhales manifest as whisps of breath in the air.
I make my way through the scene, not recognising anyone, not being recognised. I’m aware of coins bouncing in the pocket of my dress, a dress made for me by my mother. But I don’t recall who I am, or why I’m here, among the smell of crispy potato-cakes rattling at the bottom of paper cups, dims sims dissolving in vinegar, lingering mildew of the nearby change rooms. Happy to leave the tension behind, I head for the city, past a concrete colosseum over which giant lights stoop like mythical eagles.
I love its natural rush. The crowds braiding between the buildings, a human mass so intimately close, yet so completely apart. I want to rub myself against it, against its thoughts, incidental cigarette smoke. But at this early hour the city is deserted. Empty of what usually conceals its beauty. Right now, its salmon-pink offices and glass department stores blind with reflecting sun rays. The footpaths drown in opaque darkness, cut into geometric shadows, interrupted only by a forest of metal lollipops guarding unoccupied car spaces.
The rhythm of my breath matches the boisterous chorus of birds that makes the trees tremble. The air quivers with early heat, as I jump into an old tram. It crawls along metal tracks like a beetle along a vine, unperturbed by the townhall and libraries that tower over it like titans. I delight in the sunshine that pours over my skin when the tram cuts intersections and let it cling to me like melted sugar. Eyes closed, I breath in the cool air, wallowing in its freshness, wanting to hold it in my lungs and never let it go.
Just before the street splits in two and the tram veers off to the right, I press the button for the next stop. Mesmerised by the clean, wide streets framed by elegant terrace homes with cast-iron balustrades that lead to glossy doors. I enter one of the buildings, stepping into a long room with parqueted floors. Paintings hang on the walls. Some are suspended by wires, but all are lit up by the sunlight streaming through large windows.
‘Hello?’ I call out into space and soon hear footsteps approaching.
‘Welcome’ says a man in dark jeans and a blue linen shirt. He takes a moment to recognise me. ‘Oh! It’s you!’ His voice vibrates with surprise, but he comes closer and hugs me. ‘Please come in!’
I see his wife, my mother’s childhood friend, emerge at the top of a staircase that spirals up to the gallery from a level below. Her eyes narrow, as I crystalise in her memory. She comes over and embraces me too. I relax my body into hers, soaking up the affection. Her husband waits patiently while she holds me tight. I melt into her bright blue and red top and a long skirt, both made of thin, softly layered fabric. Colourful bangles jingle on her wrists and large earrings dance among loosely pinned into a bun hair. She appears slightly brittle, her skin and hair fragile, but she beams with serenity and warmth. She reminds me of a rose, whose scent and bloom are at its ripest just before the petals faint onto the ground. I think about my mother’s pale skin and how it would contrast right now against her friend’s deep tan. My mother’s friend has always looked stylish while my mother seemed always unfinished.
As if life kept catching her off guard.
‘So good to see you!’ My mother’s friend says startling me out of my thoughts. Her soft hand takes mine and leads me to the top of the stairs, from where I can see a sunlit room below. In the corner, around a large timber table, two kids are playing a board game. They sit on benches scattered with yellow and lime-green cushions and wave at us.
‘We’re having breakfast. Please join us.’ She puts her hand on my shoulder, outside of my mind, my body recoils, as I pull myself from the scene.
‘No, thank you. Maybe next time.’ I hug her and leave without looking back.
It’s past midday and the heat wraps itself around me like a serpent. It presses life out of the moving human masses, which miraculously negotiate each other without colliding. I walk between marble pots and water features adorning a shopping arcade. Watch hunched men contemplate cream and brown checkers on wooden boards balanced on milk trays. Old women carefully spoon spices from large sacks into paper bags, murmuring details of recipes out loud. Among the crowd stands a dusty man, dressed in black. He reminds me of an old fortune teller from a fairy-tale my mother used to read to me. The man’s modest stature stands out in the empty space around him.
‘If you can’t spare money or time,’ he asks people who peel away from him like a flock of prey peels away from a predator, ‘maybe you can buy greeting cards we make in our workshop or the magazine that supports us?’ He says, fanning out a selection of colourful prints that display resilient faces with pride.
‘Maybe you can tell me why these people are heartless?’ he zeros in on me, ‘so caught up in their own existence. Uncaring, unloving! All we ask for is a little money or time to volunteer time to help the less fortunate?’ He follows me out of the arcade onto a street. ‘Why won’t they help. Why? Look at them!’ He gestures at crowd rushing past us. ‘None of them want to spare a coin to help the sick, the homeless, the addicted.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe it’s because you come across as needy. People don’t want to be dragged into despair and sadness. Maybe if you act with more confidence, dress a little better, maybe then they’ll see you as less of a liability.’ I don’t know why I said this.
‘Liability?’ His voice dims. Despite an aging body and the hard life chiselled on his face, an intensity burns inside him. I lower my eyes to avoid his gaze.
‘Some of us were dealt rough luck but we work hard and are decent. We help each other unselfishly, lovingly. We don’t pretend to be something we’re not to please the superficial.’ He stops as we approach the curb and makes the sign of a cross over his forehead, lips, and chest. ‘Fool’s paradise won’t save you my dear! I hope you stop living behind a wall of smoke.’
The café is narrow and long, with a corridor leading out to a back garden. I look around to find a place to sit and shake off the eeriness crawling under my skin and inhale the aroma of freshly ground coffee weaving itself up towards the high ceilings. I try to forget the man’s words that cut into me like hot blades.
The walls here are covered in a rich velvety wallpaper, decorated in delicate white flowers and bright green leaves. Along the walls hang shelves crowded with cups, pots, and bags of coffee beans. A girl with dark hair pulled into a ponytail asks for my order, when four middle-aged people walk in and take a table I hoped to sit at by the window. They are talking animatedly, filling the space with sound and presence.
‘Coffee and a sandwich please.’ I retrieve the gold coins with jiggling in my dress, sighing loudly at the lost chance to enjoy in peace the sunshine radiating through the windows.
‘It’s the quick or the standing.’ Says a young man behind me, looking straight at me.
‘I tried to be quick, seems I wasn’t quick enough.’ I say, lowering my eyes, feeling my cheeks flush. The girl comes back with my sandwich and coffee.
‘Coffee here is worth the inconvenience of a crowded space.’ He says leaning forward on the counter, smiling. ‘But there’s a shaded area at the back, a good escape for a quiet lunch.’
He’s tanned, with wavy hair the colour of dark sand. There is a softness about him that diffuses the haughtiness of the denim cap on his head. Barely visible against his tanned face, is a thin moustache and a hint of hair just under his lower lip. He’s holding money in his hand. A hand of an artist. Smooth, sculptured, with light brown hair snaking from the beginning of his wrist to disappear under the sleeve of a denim shirt. Everything about him seems blue.
‘Come then.’ He takes his coffee and starts towards the back door. He doesn’t look to see if I’ll follow, and I don’t look for a reason not to.
It’s mid-afternoon and the heat of the day is at its peak. The hot air assaults my face, eyes, and lungs as we step outside. We sit under a wooden pergola weighed down by dense vines that shelter the space from the scorching sun.
I note a small gap between his two top front teeth when he smiles.
‘You’re not eating?’
‘No, I wasn’t inspired by anything on offer.’
‘You should try this sandwich.’ I slide half of my lunch to him.
‘What’s in it?’
‘Chicken, mayo and lettuce.’ He accepts and we eat quietly. I close my eyes and absorb the smells mingling in the hot air. The heavy flowering heads of the wisteria remain plump in the heat, wafting sweet scents that infuse into my hair and mingle in my nostrils with the smell of coffee.
‘Do you live nearby?’ He asks.
‘No. I live in a yellow brick house by the train tracks near the station.’
‘Have you been there long?’
‘Ever since I was born.’
‘The yellow brick house next to the morgue?’
‘Yes. How did you know?’
‘The family who live there is a famous rags-to-riches story. I studied it in a business course my father insisted I do.’
‘I don’t have a passion for business.’
‘What do you have a passion for?’
‘Objects of beauty and dreams.’
We are silent for a while. I let his warmth wash over me.
‘My father is a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.’ I say suddenly flooded by recollections of my family. ‘The weight of me, of the people working for him, of those he buries. The funeral business is his life’s purpose.’ I continue, unable to stop the words from pouring out. ‘People think of death as something profound. But putting bodies to rest is an unromantic act. There are practicalities people don’t know about. My father works hard to keep it that way. To make dealing with death easy for those still alive and grieving. It has become his life’s mission … especially since we lost my mother.’ I feel myself delve into the things I know no one wants to talk about. ‘A few years ago, a fire broke out in one of the work sheds, where funeral trucks are kept. Not the fancy casket-carrying ones, but the refrigerated sort that transport bodies from the morgue to the funeral parlour. Trucks caught fire in the garage, while my mother was inside … on her own.’
Silence settles around us like falling ash. I go back to eating my sandwich, but I can’t taste it.
‘I’m sorry. What are you doing here on your own?’
‘I’m on my way home.’
‘May I walk you?’
The afternoon descends around us with warm oranges and pinks. The air is dry and dusty, filled with the ambience of the end of summer. A time when nature explodes with colours and scents of life, erupting for the last time. As we walk, wild pepper trees growing alongside unruly footpaths shade us from the sun with green canopies of long, thin, finger-like leaves. I rip peppercorns off a low hanging branch and squeeze them between my fingers releasing their pungent spirits. It makes me sneeze and him laugh.
We make our way through narrow streets and alleys that cut across parks, disused army barracks, forgotten chapels. We hold hands. He buys paper and a pencil from a market stall and asks me to sit down so that he can draw me. I watch the pencil make black marks on the white paper as it glides, scarring its surface with charcoal lines that show me bathed in the moment.
Then the landscape changes from the civility of the city to the smell and sound of industry. It’s where things are made, cleaned, sprayed, repaired, sold. We catch sight of the train tracks, the bloodline that pumps life in and out of the city. The houses here belong to the people who work in nearby factories, car yards, workshops, warehouses, fish and chip shops. We sit down at an outside table next to a rowdy group of workers, eating roasted bits of meat rolled in flat breads. They are arguing noisily over greyhound race results streaming from a wireless box. Rolling cigarettes in cheap papers between callused fingers, they blow blue smoke out of hooked noses that remind me of rich histories and ancient cultures.
From here at the top of the hill we can see my house. It is a simple, yellow brick building with a row of uneven sparse bushes serving as a front fence. It’s where I grew up with the sounds of heavy trains passing by day and night. When I was little, my friends came over to play hide-and-seek in what seemed an endless cavernous maze of corridors and unused rooms. My mother would wander in and out of them enveloped in a dream-like daze.
Work yards sprawl next to the house, separated by wire fences and clumps of spindly dry grass. The sun is setting in a soft purple haze over the train tracks. My house appears still, but there’s activity in the yards. The funeral business never stops because people keep dying.
‘There are no dead bodies here.’ I say to my friend unprompted. ‘People like knowing that. These are working yards. The dead are either at the morgue next door or the funeral parlour in the better part of town. They are moved from the morgue to the parlour by the refrigerated trucks, then the fancy wagons take them to the chapel, then the cemetery.’ I explain. ‘The black smoulder marks you can see over there are from the fire that claimed my mother’s life. My father won’t paint over them.’ I can feel my friend watching me intently as I observe the yard in action, feeling dizzy from the mixed fumes of fuel and solvents. ‘I don’t think it was an accident. I think my mother set the trucks on fire.’ I’m looking straight into my new friend’s eyes. ‘Don’t leave me.’ I feel a need for him that is great and uncomfortable. He puts his arms around me, and we stand there letting the calm of the night fall around us.
It’s late when we arrive at my house. My father opens the door and leads us into the kitchen. I realise it’s been a long time since he and I have spent time together. Ever since my mother died, I feel my father looks at me, but doesn’t see me. Tonight, for a moment I catch a glimpse of recognition in his eyes.
‘My wife was beautiful, creative, free spirited. We were young when I asked her to marry me. I loved her, but I was poor.’ He explains to my friend. ‘She gave up her world for me. I wanted to prove that I could look after her and our daughter. I made money but lost sight of what was important and so I lost her.’ For the first time I see tears roll down from my father’s eyes. We never spoke about the loss until now. We hadn’t had the time.
‘Go to sleep Dad. You need to rest.’ I say but I’m not sure he can hear me.
My friend and I walk up the stairs to my bedroom. There’s no need to turn on the lights, the streetlamp throws a soft glow through the half-closed curtains. We lie down on my bed, on top of a brown blanket. I close my eyes and feel the blanket’s smokiness envelope me. My friend lies down and puts his arm around me, breathing gently into my neck and hair.
‘Will you be here when I wake up?’ I ask, but only silence settles around me like memories, flashes of letting go. I’m painfully aware of my mother’s sadness now. I feel her hopes, her ambitions, the streets she walked, the passions she felt, the people who came and went, the husband and daughter she loved. I feel silver moonlight bend and slither, petrol and burning plastic sneak up my nostrils. I feel the bright orange flames sneak in through the gap beneath the door. Their brightness climbs over my arms and legs. The world smells of shrubs and mud and children and people. I let it flicker and dim into the kind of heat that melts bones. Crumbling them into ash that falls like a soft blanket, over the city I love.