Always in the distance.

The man woke early from a wonderful dream convinced that he could speak German. And, to some extent this was true. Ausgezeichnet! he said quietly. His wife arched her comma shape into him. Ein wundershön traum, he said into her hair, but his voice was sticky and thick in his throat, full of cold, as they said in that part of the world. He lay still for some time, listening to her breathe and listening for the blue town beyond the curtain. But there was no sound out there, so he knew that it was not yet dawn.

He had dreamt of Berlin, but it had been a long time since he’d been to that city. He looked at their familiar room through the nest of her hair and fancied the soft shadows and shapes – of the clothes hanging on the rail and the blurred furniture – to be representative of the distant European skyline. But, as he listened to her sleep, her breast in his palm, her heart pumping beneath his fingers like the rhythm of the untergrundbahn that had taken him through dim tunnels, bursting suddenly into the colourfully tiled stations of – he tried to remember the names – Wilhelm Kaiserstrasse… Merringdamm… Potsdamer Platz… the dream started to slip somewhere back into the night and her hair began to smell not so much of almonds and oranges as it might have done on Crellestrasse, but more so of the bottled cider and cigarettes that they had taken earlier that night in The Eight Kings. The dream melted further into the dark curtain folds. He closed his eyes and tried to retain it but thoughts of the day ahead floated into his mind and Kreuzberg became Penn Beacon and the flashes of bicycles, passing like silent films, started to bend and bow into harder shapes, shapes of things that needed to be achieved when the pale winter sun inevitably rose up over the sea. He squeezed his eyelids tighter to try and trap the vision there, but the dream became thin and started to wash away. After some time all he could remember were the words Ein wundershön traum, and then he began to doubt if even they were quite right.

The waves drew back from the beach taking with them great swathes of jumbled pebbles and sand and glassy grit back out into the black sea. And now he couldn’t sleep at all and the dream was gone.

He unwrapped himself from her body and stood quietly in the dark room – the clothes on the rail becoming, piece by piece, their clothes again and the furniture no longer the shape of a foreign city, but the same old pieces of dull and heavily varnished wood that they always were.

He stood now at the kitchen window and looked out into the thin dawn and the shapes out there started to line up – the cold town, and beyond that, the dark fields of brown, and the pear tree in the orchard and the great slump of hill in the distance that they called the Golden Cap because of the knuckle of yellow sand at its sea face – and the sun began to rise up over the horizon casting a brass hand over the blue bay. The kettle boiled and he made some tea and while he blew into the cup, trying to remember the german word for dream, he allowed his eyes to wander over the landscape until they fell upon the unusual structure that stood, always in the distance, at the top of Golden Cap. He had asked her about it but no clear answer was forthcoming. A folly built long ago by some local Victorian landowner, she had said, but she had heard this from her father and he was now long dead. His throat was sore and his head was quite definitely full of cold and he decided all at once that he would take the day off work and ride a bus out through the countryside as close as he could get to Golden Cap and walk it up to the mysterious structure at its summit. He would take a camera with him so that he could capture the monument and the moment and he would see it for himself. So this is what he did.

The dirty air shuddered with engine thrum in the station hangar and the blue buses came and went, carrying the faces pressed at their window out into the town and the outskirts of the town and the towns beyond. He took his place at the window of  the number 12 and slyly watched as those around him came and went. Everyone and everything moved slowly in the misty morning. He cleared the glass with an elbowed sleeve so that he could see the shop fronts and the passing of the streets and he allowed the bodies to slide across his eyes like clouds. After some time, perhaps he had been sleeping, he found that the bus was almost empty. He watched the driver’s eyes in the mirror. He wiped the glass again of condensation and peered out onto a blear of frosted and hardened fields that he didn’t recognise. The mist tumbled like wet sheets and all of a sudden the driver called out, Penshaw, and the vehicle slowed and came to a halt with a sigh.

He found himself alone on a quiet and shrouded country road where the mist hung less so like plastic bags but more as white shirts and sheets on a clothesline. The bus pulled away and he watched the red lights until they disappeared and then he stood at the roadside and listened, but no other traffic passed him.

Behind him was an open field and in the distance he could see a white sided farmhouse and a red tractor caressed the purple field.

On the other side of the road was a wood, so he crossed over, but midway he was tempted to kick at the cats’ eyes. As a boy he had crouched on a similar road, or not at all similar, and had prised the clear glass spheres out from their black sockets. He kept them, treasured like diamonds, in an old tobacco tin that contained also a collection of screws of various lengths, forgotten keys and strange coins. Back then it was not unusual for a boy to carry a penknife. It had several attachments that could be opened from the casing. A stubby blade that could be accessed by slotting a fingernail into a little metallic mouth, a smaller blade – the same – a tiny pair of scissors that he enjoyed playing back and forth, but that he had never found a use for and an implement for digging stones from horseshoes. The penknife had a simple white cross embossed on the red casing. The blade, the larger blade, was quite tricky for his childish fingernail and he rarely opened it in fear that he would tear the nail from its bed, but the horseshoe tool, a kind and reliable tooth of steel, was, he discovered, quite useful for digging the eyes from quiet country roads. He wondered what had become of that knife, and as he passed over the centre of the road he tapped once or twice at the cats’ eye with the tip of his shoe, but his heart wasn’t in it.

A tiny dog came trotting along out of the trees and they stood for a while with each other. He spoke briefly with the dog, “hello, hound,” he said. It sniffed at his feet, circled him several times and, suddenly hearing something that was undetectable to the man, wandered off into the trees. Shortly, two women appeared. They were dressed in waxed jackets and wellington boots. Their trousers tucked into the tops of the green and muddy boots at the calf. One held a dog lead. They were chatting like birds as they approached, but when they saw him they became silent. Good morning, he said. And they both said the same and so he asked them if he was on the right path for the monument. The rain dripped through the trees. The one with the dog lead took up the question and smiled and said to follow the path up the hill to the top and that there was the monument. She looked at his shoes. “It’s quite muddy up there. Your shoes’ll be ruined,” she said and they carried on down the path.

He had seen the shoes in a shop window many years ago when he lived in another part of the country. It was love at first sight. They were what is often described as oxblood in colour. Four eyed brogues. At the time the price of them astounded him – it had been something akin to a week’s wage – something ridiculous anyway, but, after walking around the tiny shop for almost a minute, watched over by the cheery salesman who said, nice choice, nice choice, he decided at once to buy them. “They’ll outlive you,” said the cheery salesman, and whenever he thought of the shoes, as he did now, he remembered these words and he smiled because so far neither had outlived the other – him or the shoes – and he thought it a rather neat thing to say to people if ever the shoes were mentioned, which to his delight, even as they grew older and more and more comfortable, and he in them, they did. But he didn’t mention it to the woman with the dog lead and now he was way up high in the woods and they were way down and probably back on the road by now with the little dog on the lead and plopping along at her feet, its little scruffy chest all tangled and wet.

The path rose up through the woods and it grew muddier underfoot and the trees prettied as the raindrops collected like cats’ eyes at their fingertips above and all around him. His breath misted briefly before him and his neck was warm beneath his grey woollen scarf and he grew quite lonely. He decided at once that he needed to piss, so he looked behind him and he looked around him and he stepped from the path and stood at the leg of a birch and he pissed a warm puddle at its wet foot. Scratch throated jackdaws cackled and somewhere, just beyond this wet world, somewhere behind the cold curtain, witches, or spirits of witches, moved almost in silence between the raindrops as he buttoned and belted his trousers and he noticed, quite out of place and on its own, a small transistor radio set on a wet log. It was the size of a house brick, but much lighter, and encased in a rain stained tan leatherette jacket that allowed not only a little dark dial, but also a screen of clear plastic behind which lay spread a length printed numbers and names of stations, waiting. He turned it on, surprised that it lived, and he played the dial like a safecracker as he walked. The screen lit up and a thin needle passed along the stations but all that he could magic from the radio was a petty crackle of static, so he pretended for a while as the mud caked the oxblood that the noise was instead a tiny heat, or a sort of life, beneath his fingers.

As with any journey he found himself quite alone and suddenly at a destination. The path levelled out, opened up, and he was stood before the quiet monument and it was pretty much as she said it would be. He placed the transistor on the stone floor and wandered around, counting the pillars and pointing the camera this way and that at the blue shadows and the early morning light that played in and out of the columns. He would later attribute the small radio set’s sudden and clear rebirth to his being so high up on the hillside or possibly to some kind of magic. “…unconfirmed reports suggest that David Bowie has died in New York, aged sixty nine…”

 

16 thoughts on “Always in the distance.

  1. I guess no details about the mysterious structure are forthcoming from you, either, Nick?! Don’t you think that’s a little mean? I know, I know, you didn’t make any promises, and if I had payed closer attention to your title, I would have known that the answer would remain elusive. 🙂

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    1. Teehee! What a great reader you are, Tanja! Yes, somewhat remiss of me – now that you point it out. However, having the photo of the monument lets me off the hook a little(?) – But I think you’re correct.
      Thank you for your time as ever. x

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Liz. ‘…real world playing in and around the edges.’ I like that!

      The photo is Penshaw monument out near Sunderland, Tyne & Wear. I took a series of snapshots on the morning mentioned in the story. The rest? Oh, I just made that shit up! xo

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “…the noise was instead a tiny heat, or a sort of life, beneath his fingers” (always in the distance).

    Very good Nick!

    Just when I want to walk away and find something new to torture myself with, I read this and chain myself back to the keyboard. I’m not sure I should thank you for that, but thanks for the great story.

    Ken

    Liked by 1 person

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