City of Reclamation

(from Nostalgia for Unknown Cities)

Ken Edwards

About 3am I awoke from a dream of the city in which I was born; and I recalled that I had actually revisited the city, though not for many years after I had first exiled myself from it; but the dream seemed more real than the visit. Above the space created by the dream, a mediaeval tower loomed, overlooking the prison yard, where occasionally you could see prisoners performing sweeping-up chores, and volumes of white sheets on a washing line. A cock began to crow in that early hour. All afternoon, my parents would lean side by side, arms folded and touching each other at the window, gazing down through the slanting shutters at teeming street life below: tradespeople following the dictates of commerce, families promenading, soldiers and sailors, cars, vans and bicycles, stray dogs and idlers – an unwitting precursor of reality television, perhaps. An irrevocable event occurred around that time, which meant that I could never return to the city; or to put it another way, if I were to return I would be so changed that it would not be the same I; or alternatively, had I remained I, then the city would have turned out to be a different city entirely. And so back up the hill, leaving the town area, I passed the house in which we once lived, the one we moved to later, now shuttered (but the same yellow stucco, and riotous bougainvillea overtumbling the wall from the mysterious garden next door where a hierarchy of cats would play out their opera in the depth of the night). Animals, eroticism, food and artefacts all played a role in my dream of the city. As I review these sentences, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the dream accounts from “real memories”.

As land had been reclaimed from the sea within the port area in recent years, the urban zone had spread westwards (much later, I was to write, addressing the evanescent self: “But you my beauty who find yourself in a place / vastly crammed with incident and resource, and see / no way out of it, you do not know it. / You venture onto ‘reclaimed land’ but it’s dark to you: // ahead, huge buildings with screens on which luminous text / scrolls & forever transforms, yet seems hardly to change.”). As we were conducting the argument, at a street corner, a man passed by with a lion cub on a lead (but this may have happened in a different city entirely). At night, the hills across the bay were dotted with faint electric glows, but the dark sea barely returned the starlight. At the yacht club, people sat talking, reminiscing for hours, drinking and eating kebabs until it was dark. At this point, I had been absent from the city for some thirty years; and so I was astonished at the number of people who appeared still to know me. At weekends, the city was almost deserted as people took to their cars and drove out to picnic in the hinterland that had once been wild, either fishing coast or oak forest, but now, with its endless golf courses and hotels, increasingly resembled the environment they may have wished, consciously or not, to escape. Bastions remained proud. Bathing took place in a familiar atmosphere; cheap goods were available. (Before long, we shall be back on the aircraft and all of this will be forgotten.) Below ground, however, it was said an anti-city existed of paved tunnels, circuses, embrasures, vaults, futuristic hospitals for avant-garde surgery, endless kitchens, tubular structures, ducts of all kinds, locked cabinets, vast and echoing garages, all long since abandoned to the night, its reality denied by day-to-day pedestrians. Beside the swimming-pool, the ghost of an iguana. Beyond these intervals, lemon and olive groves might cover summer-browned slopes, out of present vision. Big buildings – some gargoyled. Bless me father, for I have seen. Border controls were unusually relaxed, so that we were allowed to proceed through the narrow streets to the fair, where people dressed up in “national costume” and the usual strange rituals were played out and strange aromas lingered in the air. Both sides of the street were lined with attractive colonial style buildings with beautiful forged iron balconies on which families might assemble to greet the parade. Breakfast was exceedingly colourful. Bright sunshine and warmth all day, I could weep with relief. But in any case there wasn’t a single I: for the city contained, as well as an I that was the standard referent for the self, a fictionalised I who could be made to do anything necessary for the purpose of the narrative, and a transcendent I who could only be inferred. By day, trees shaded green benches; by night, the lamps were lit and the fountain played. By the lighthouse on a Sunday afternoon, the wind blew and men were playing cricket on the hot clay in front of the new white mosque that had been built with “oil money”. Climbing the hill once again, making quite good sense of all the bits, we hoped that eventually all would come together and make some kind of a picture. Coloured lights, projections of the neon signage above the ice-cream parlour on the opposite side of the street, played on the bedroom ceiling, while the early hits of Del Shannon, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers made their flourishes as they slowly entered the mythic dimension. Daily encounters with buildings, which hour by hour became invisible, buildings that erased themselves even as they dizzied us with the glint of their windows. Derricks on the wharf, corroded, not in use. Dogs roamed free. Dolphins in schools and small family groups, both common and bottle-nosed, would skip through the waters way beyond the harbour, unheeding our merely human life. Elegant, wide boulevards were scarcely a feature; rather, public spaces were compressed in such a way as to give comfort to the citizens. Engines were blanketed by cloud. Esoteric musics from another continent, featuring plucked, bowed and blown instruments and the persistent, spine-chilling wail of humans, hung on the short-wave band, drifting periodically. Even now, the bay was dense with shipping. Every time I stayed over, my grandfather would offer to take me for a walk down to the wharf, and sometimes, my hand in his, he would detour through the old market, where turkeys gobbled in a makeshift pen and hens and ducks lay listlessly in stacked cages, and one of the stallholders, taking a shine to me, might offer me an orange or a banana, before, finally, the water-light flooded in, and there before us would be the two ancient tenders, rusting and bobbing gently at their moorings. Everybody had grown portly in the intervening years. Everybody loves you here, they said, except those that don’t. Everyone tried to avoid a tiresome Englishman in the bar. Exotic variants of familiar games were played. Flags hung from every window and embrasure. For nearly an hour, we stared over the runway at the frontier, the newly built sports stadium and the distant mountains. Free association was discouraged. From the east, the wind blew, striking the edge from a clear sky to form a great dark cloud that streamed away and blotted out the sun. Ghost workers had once been lodged in the now deserted army barracks. Great commotion one morning, as one of the monkeys, a large male, had come down into the city, scattering sparrows, and now sat on a parapet, glaring balefully at passers by while picking at a piece of tinfoil. He showed us where a balcony had been abandoned to the seagulls, which were now a protected species, the wrought iron-work encrusted with guano. Here, we’re all first person plural, he said, or intimated as much. Hi, we are your friends, they all said, and sometimes your relations, and we will do anything for you if you will only understand us, and this gave me great comfort and longing, though the feelings later changed, I don’t know why. Horror at the sight of a one-legged man coming up the street below, observed by me and my mother from the window of the flat; my first intimation of mortality. I felt a sense of melancholy, not just because the warmth and light had been left behind, but at the thought of not belonging, of floating free. I had attributed this to the explosion, while I was still a baby, of a barge laden with ammunition in the harbour, which had caused glass to fly, woodwork to splinter, ceilings to fall and buildings to shudder, while the sky was temporarily darkened by a great mushroom cloud of smoke. Iron and steel clanged throughout the working day, cranes shuddered, men cried warnings, coaling stages loomed overhead, great vessels were removed from the sea, buoys rang out, mud was exposed, a dirty submarine leaked at the end of a detached mole, businesses flourished and expired as the years elapsed. I stumbled through the strangely familiar streets, wanting an exit, fearing that I would come face to face with myself in a different guise. In the botanical gardens, among the old cannons, we strolled in peace. In the cathedral yard, the same blue and white picture tiles, the same palm tree, now several years older and several metres taller. In the museum were fragments of neolithic and bronze age pots, Greek pots (one with a fat hairy man doing an ungainly dance on it), sarcophagi, the cargo of wrecked ships, models and miniature masks of theatrical characters. In the triumphal last room of the museum, a complete scale model of the city in which we actually stood, plus its environs and borders (the paradoxes entailed by this). In the remote distance a railway, of broad gauge, the rusted iron rails reaching beyond the distance, trembling in anticipation of a freight train from the forest. In this city, there were endless possibilities of bad faith, and to select none of them was to push one’s luck. In those days a horse racing course occupied the central area of flat ground. It had once been a small, fan-shaped city completely enclosed by thick stone walls and built on three distinct levels, following natural contours. It was the end of voyaging, some said, and the entrance to Hades. It was the forlorn hope that I could bring the lost part of my life into renewed focus that kept me following the narrative whichever way it might lead. It was to be my father’s final resting place. Keys played a crucial if obscure role in this narrative. Language was the only subject that was never spoken about by the citizens. Many of them were Genoese traders escaping from Napoleon, British soldiers and sailors, Jews whose ancestors had been driven from their homeland, Maltese merchants, Minorcans and French royalists. Men from the electricity station were playing dominoes in the bar. Military aircraft flew overhead. My father’s ashes in a plastic box, carried as hand luggage. My grandmother used to lower a basket on a string from her apartment window, to be loaded with bread or other goods by an itinerant tradesman. My mother fell off her bicycle at the racecourse, injured her leg, and was punished for this. My uncle conducted the orchestra in a great, gloomy cave illuminated by coloured lights. Narrow passages with steps cut their way between buildings, and I recalled narrow streets where geraniums were beginning to wilt and the scent of horse droppings still lingered; a mule waiting patiently, tethered to its cart, but with an enormous erection; shops shuttered for the holy days and feast days; the novelty and excitement of football on television in blizzardy monochrome; longing for the beach white-out. On Sundays, after we’d walked in the gardens among the tall pines and dragon trees, we would meet my uncle for lunch down by the marina – he was slow and distant as he stopped by our table. On the beach, only the encroaching shadow of the great rock towards the waning of the afternoon gave any clue that time would not continue to stand still. Once, a magnificent ur-city had been built within the confines of the present city, containing mosques and palaces; and elaborate water channels had been constructed to provide a natural water supply for the habitations and the numerous gardens below. Origin this is not; for discontinuity is a feature. Overlooking the lagoon was the “jungle”, about which the less said the better. People talked freely in the streets about what was happening. Persistent, damp mist hid the family names that my father was destined to join. Portliness was a quality shared by the school chums who turned up to the afternoon event. Reclaimed land provided the location, the sea having given up its mystery to quotidian human affairs. Resemble nobody, I had tried to tell myself; but that wouldn’t work here. Resisting the imperative to use the city as metaphor, an opportunity offering too perfect a fit between “proper” and “figurative” meaning, leaving no space to wander, sailors, arm in arm, wove a complex path up the main street as they returned to their ships, roaring in rough harmony. Salt was removed from the sea. Seas were frightening to all city folk when they asserted their terrible dignity. Shaping took place inside as well as outside. Shining and sweet smelling in the bright, warm sunlight lay our most lovely decoration: thousands upon thousands of white narcissi. Six great piers, standing in their own solid shadow, framed the sluice-gates. Slow, rhythmic sound of breathing of thirty thousand inhabitants. So we bought rolls, sat by the pool, swam, slept. Soldiers marched, stood at attention, men came in on bicycles, cultures jigsawed, languages melted, fused or self-destructed, women came in on foot and left by bus, economies mutated, flags fluttered or went down. Some nervous folk dived into their cars and drove at full speed to the border. Somehow, and for no reason that I can easily explain, I had left this city many years ago, and now came back as a ghost (guest). Streets and passageways became an “archipelagic zigzag”. Surfaces were plastered over with a smooth layer of mortar and finished with a thin wash of exceedingly hard but finer plaster. Terrible presence dwelt in these streets, never to be recognised.

The building had been undergoing recent refurbishment, as evidenced by ladders and neat piles of aggregate and brick, but in other respects was still the building in my dream. The entrance was exactly as gloomy, the tiling intact, as I remembered it from my dream and from my memory. The faces of the tower were scarred with the wounds of many bombardments. The narrow main street began to fill with excited people, and then distantly we heard the first faint strains of the approaching military band. The nearby beach resort, which had been the cause of much eager anticipation, proved to be sadly run-down and depressing. The resemblance became apparent to a great human corpse laid out on its back and covered with a winding sheet, its head to the north, its feet pointing at Africa. The sun began to shine fiercely. The town drunk marched solemnly in front of the band master, using a rolled-up newspaper, or perhaps a stick, to mimic his complicated twirls and thrusts, until he was led away gently by police. The town tramp, often observed squatting with a beer bottle in various locations throughout my childhood, was known by a single nickname, which I associated with “shit”, because other children had made me look at the occasional deposit he left; but when many years later he was finally taken into hospital and died, the local newspaper report, which gave his hitherto unknown full name, seemed to be about someone else entirely. The weather was perfect for the cable car. There was no hinterland to speak of. They crept down the wall from the garden next door, clinging on suckered feet, and I now believe they were geckos, but my father used to call them salamanders. They took refuge in the cliffs above the city.

This is pre-linguistic, unrepresentable memory. This narrator isn’t and is in the story, or it could be my mother, I don’t know, I’m tired and I want to go to sleep. This, the steepling alleyway with the centre railing, midway on my journey to school, was the place where I first heard Lorca’s voice; and where a girl from the high school, whom I’d observed with longing for days, stopped me to ask me my name, and I was unable to answer. To reinvent this space would pose a terrifying problem. Traders would arrive every day, it was recalled, crossing the frontier (the point at which cobbles gave way to tarmac); one wore a flat hat, on which he balanced his comestibles as he slow-marched proudly around the city, proclaiming; another hauled a wagon laden with water-barrels; and a herd of goats preceded a third, who would stop as required to milk one for the convenience of a customer, unless I have this wrong. Two tribes inhabited the city, each of a separate persuasion; but chance alone determined which of the two any individual citizen might fall under, and so it was impossible to be certain of avoiding offence. “Uncle Arthur” was a common name for a single man living in the apartment upstairs, possibly homosexual or possibly not, though this was not a subject for debate, who might have a room dedicated entirely to an aviary of finches, or else would possess a gramophone capable of putting out stereophonic sound, years before such a novelty became commonplace. Unsure of what I was doing, I carried the casket to its resting place. Unwittingly, we were stepping on an ancient sea-bed. Up by the long abandoned military battery, swirling in cloud, the gulls screamed in panic as a griffon vulture glided past, the bolder among them harrying the big dark bird from their skies. Voices were placed at precise locations, and, to our amazement, a military band marched slowly and purposefully from the left-hand speaker to the right. Walking back to the Continental Hotel, we talked about what had been lost and gained. We heard about the bombs. We heard, but did not see, the fireworks. We used to play in the ruins of what had once been the Grand Stores, bombed during “the war”. We went to a gate in the side of the rock, which when unlocked revealed a long, narrow passage, at the end of which was a trapdoor let into the floor, and one by one we descended a flight of wooden steps about twelve feet long, at the bottom of which we saw a large hall or cave that resembled somewhat a huge rabbit warren; its floor appeared to be very wet and the light illuminating it made it look very dangerous to walk on, but to my surprise it was quite easy to move about and not near so dangerous as it first seemed; and so after passing through this cave we descended slightly, rounding a bend in so doing, where we were told that here it would be necessary for us to slide down a knotted rope about eight feet long, which required effort but which we managed quite well; and once again gaining a foothold we found we were standing in another cave or hall, the walls of which looked as if they had been carved by some primitive sculptor, some of the carvings resembling faces, some flowers and foliage, and I looked round for a second exit but there seemed to be none. We were led by an Irish Christian Brother round another bend, necessitating a crawl on our hands and knees through a small gap between two rocks, coming out on a high rock and between this and a rock on the other side where it was necessary for us to cross, some kind engineer had fixed and fastened a rope, so in single file we passed hand over hand along this rope to the other side, taking a foothold whenever and wherever possible, till we reached another large cave, the most beautiful we had so far seen, with objects like pipes and icicles in white, cream, grey and brownish-red, and there were other objects that resembled elephants’ ears, and clusters of pipe-like objects close together which when tapped gave all different sounds; and there were other creations of nature that resembled very closely a pulpit, spears and knives and many other weird instruments, but there were also occasional pools of water which were said to be very deep and dangerous if one had the ill luck to fall into one, and in every dark spot everything seemed so deathly quiet that it seemed there was no coming back from this. When television was first introduced, I became frightened at the first strains of the music for “The Invisible Man”, even though (or especially because) a storm of interference scarcely permitted any clear view of the protagonist as he removed his bandages to reveal his nothingness. When the plane landed at the airport late Thursday afternoon I felt an unexpected welling of emotion. Why I left in the first place is because I wanted to blur the distinction between objects that were situated in space and those that were not. Wild birds passed this way. With regard to my return, it appears to be a case of denying my presence in the act of affirming it. Years later, I was to write a poem called “El Hombre Invisible”, which tried to locate that fear. You could say I’m trying to get to the point where I’m able to begin.