Choking from the tree pollen and the blanket of smog that had blown in from across the sea and the dust that had risen from the roads after the fires of the previous week. The atmosphere was unbreathable. Slowly jogging through the drag of streets from west to east was a chore for the chest. The sky was cloudless, but all the towers and cranes in the distance took on a muddy, sepia colour. It was a sense of desaturation, a fading, that was at odds with the coarse, thick reality of the air. The town was suffocating under itself.
I can’t explain it in any other terms, she said, waving her hands in front of her and gesturing at the trees. I can’t read the papers any more. I can’t watch TV. I know what’s coming. It’s like this every time. Whoever wins out, it will be the same. We’ve still a month to go. And then here, this morning, it hit me. The nettles are coming up, those little purple flowers dotted around. And there’s this stench. It’s meant to be spring but something already smells of decay. Breathe in: can’t you smell it? You know what’s coming.
With one small bag and no note he became the next of the disappeared. He was seventeen. They searched for him on maps but the maps were empty and sand covered them. They searched for him across websites but found only redacted rhetoric. He was gone. And he was gone before he was gone. The government said they were liaising with other governments to see if anything could be done. The police said they had monitored him, but he was untraceable. His school said it was a tragedy. His parents said he was a perfect son. He had said nothing.
He stands in the empty doorway of his roofless house. Inside is only landfill.
The storm has passed.
They drive the sheep up to the mountains where they graze through the summer.
The blizzard continues.
They came to the streets to protest about land reforms and were met by police.
The water cannons flattened them to the dirt.
The pelicans land on the wooden platform and wait for the fishermen.
The fish are thrown into the sky, under the razor sun.
He dangles above the craters; a scientist confronted with mystery.
He hangs from a rope above ice and snow.
Dreaming of Cairo, so I thought, and I was on some concrete balcony at the edge of the desert, with the city in the distance, illuminated by explosions – and the death-rattle of guns and screaming missiles echoed across the void between me and… them.
I peered harder and saw that the explosions were fireworks, lighting up the sky with their crackle and kaleidoscope wonder. And the city was maybe Romford, somewhere not quite London.
I woke up. It was still night. Deeply so. A blackbird was singing. It sounded so frail and confused, so beautiful, and so full of dread.
I looked at the silver mud along the banks of the river. A month ago it was filled with birds. You could see them scurrying even at night. Now they have gone. The seasons are changing and the mud is becoming bare. The gulls’ heads are taking on their summer colour. It’s as if the dunlins never happened. But they will be back. All of life succumbs to the gyre. Once we accept it, we can begin to make predictions, begin to understand the pleasures and the horrors that are as yet out of sight.
The guns were silenced yesterday.
Get the fucking stretcher –––– here now! Get it here! Blood is pouring from –––– left of the child’s leg. Med-tent is 200 metres and watch the air – the shrapnel – it is so full. A glance, quickly, buildings at street end are rubble. Patches of street have turned red. Six bodies – rough count – in the road. Where is it? Run! Run! Yes, yes, on her brow, there, there. Go. Breathing –––– breathing –––– breathing –––– breathing –––– Doctors, doctors, off, off the stretcher, now go! Another explosion, nearer explosion and run run for the second. Is she? Is she live? Okay! Your name is? Darja, Darja.
She confirmed that the meeting lasted for more than three hours. At these times pastries and coffee are merely decorative. Neither party stoops to accept a fix of sugar or caffeine. After the smiles and handshakes it is the tiniest details that count. The way one of them tilts their head towards an unnecessary interpreter; the merest upturn of one corner of one mouth. They try not to blink, try not even to avert from their focused stares. Water is refreshed and refreshed again. The summit builds understanding but not trust. Nothing is lost, but there is nowhere to run.
Picks up a coffee, checks her Facebook at her desk and feels angry. Sits through two hour+ meetings. Emails Robin. Looks through the glass at the boys on the floor becoming animated, arms waving, pointing, voices raised. Now, now, they seem to be saying. It is to do with Russia. Before lunch the office empties. The boys go to the gym and then to restaurants and bars. Polly eats salad and watches a comedy. It is the same as pre-crash, she thinks, except everyone is more stressed, more suspicious, more aware that they might need to get away, soon, fast.
Watches the joggers run past the flats as she towels her hair dry. Hums along to the radio and eats toast, drinks orange juice. Waits at the bus stop where all the men cough into the cold wet street. Stares at the passing shops, swaying as the bus jerks. Walks up past the park and hangs her coat in the back of the café and begins work. In her mind, her cousin – blankets across her shoulders, running through the streets and tugging little Darja along and squeezing into the minibus, fleeing from the tanks rumbling on the horizon. It hurts.