a small diversion
Inside the taxi the air is thick with the smell of a man I’ve never met, the sense of him lingering, a kind of affront. The back of my hand rests lightly on the faded upholstery, a thin buckled fabric in stain resistant nylon, Royal Blue, laddered.
From my place in the back, I examine the driver, the soft downy hair around the thinning on the crown of his head, the set of his jaw, the gentle pull of suit across his shoulders, his hands as they clasp the wheel. The familiarity of the journey is soothing and irritating all at the same time and I’m alienated by the intimacy of the situation, the sharing of the same air, the fullness of the smell. I realize he’s not going the way I would have gone and there’s traffic and I think that my way would have avoided it.
I imagine that the car is leased, is part of a fleet, its interior cleaned at the end of every long shift with a hand-held vacuum cleaner, high pitched and shrill in the small hours of the morning, and there’s a piece of cardboard cut into the shape of a fir tree hanging rigidly from the mirror, not moving in time with the car.
The car pulls to a halt though the engine stays running and my skin brushes his as I hand him the cash, a crumpled note, a tight fist of change. His upper body twists back towards me as he hands me the receipt, his shoulders hunched, his neck strained.
The car door slams, and I’m on the other side of the road, and there’s a queue at the cash point and the usual crowds at the crossing. It’s the end of the day and we are all being impatient.
I make my way past the post office, the bike racks, the newsagent I’ve been in a few times, for water, chewing gum.
And then I see you.
I assume that you will see me too, and I look straight at you, preparing myself for the force of the encounter. We are close, but your face stays blank, no flicker of recognition. I keep my face turned towards you in readiness, but your body language doesn’t change and I keep on going, looking at you as I pass into the ticket hall, past the signs, the posters, the queues I don’t need to join and through the barriers.
On the escalator, the sense of you being there lingers, and I picture our paths crossing at the end of the evening, and the fun of telling you how I’d seen you earlier that night. But at some point on my journey, the sense of all that evaporates, and I forget.
And when I think about it later, all I am left with is the memory of you standing there, and a flicker of regret at the smallness of my diversion away from you.
I WAS TAKING PICTURES AT NIGHT at an open air sports ground on the outskirts of Rome. There were about eight football pitches and outdoor tennis courts surrounded by a running track that formed a perimeter to the whole complex. Oblong in shape, the track was raised up about twenty feet and there were steps up, or you could climb up its steep grassy slope. It was slippery and cold, and as I climbed, I used my tripod for balance. Standing there, I felt high up, a little exposed, with this panoramic view of the sports pitches stretching out below me. Light spilt outwards, skimming the surface of the track, so that each individual blade of grass and dip in the surface of the concrete had its own shadow, sharp and distinct. On the other side of this perimeter mound was darkness – a huge gaping expanse of shadow – the shadow of the mound itself. The land fell down into a kind of gully before it levelled out again, probably 70 metres from the track into fields and a small wood. I could see my own shadow, all that distance away, dark and small and strangely well defined against the green of the fields. Planes were landing in the distance. I could see their flashing lights in the sky, too close and too mechanical to be stars and I could hear the sounds of the games below, players calling to each other, cheering, encouraging, celebrating, commiserating. And there were the lights of Rome itself; a sort of Doppler effect in light, a chemical orange stain in the clouds. I was there by myself, high up on this perimeter track, with the lights and people below me on one side and the black shadowy gulf on the other. I was looking mainly in one direction, thinking about the scene and I heard something behind me, almost imperceptibly - a twitch, or a shuffle and I turned. There were two dogs, medium sized. I thought they looked wild. One was brown the other paler and they were standing straight on, directly towards me, shoulders touching. It was cold and they were panting and their breath seemed hot in the damp air, and they were looking at me. They were standing still, their bodies motionless, but they seemed really really alive, fiercely alive. I was struck by how alien they were to me, how they had appeared out of the darkness, that I was me and they were them – and how silent and how speechless they were, how animal they were. I looked at them and they looked at me, and none of us moved; the briefest of encounters. I thought about the absolute and complete unknowingness of the gaze of one species upon another. And then they lurched silently into a trot; shoulders locked, and swerved and disappeared into the darkness. Minutes later I saw them in the far off field, at first where I’d seen my own shadow and then further away, and then by the trees, diminished by the distance, the white dog and the brown dog, still running, still shoulder to shoulder. And they didn’t look round once.