The city was larger than Alan remembered. He had wandered its old, European streets for three days and still felt he had only grazed the surface. It had been so different when he and Marion had come here on their honeymoon. They had only stayed for a week (that was all the time he could take off from work) but they knew almost every side street and alleyway by the time they left.
Of course, it had been seven years since the honeymoon and it was understandable that the city would have changed since then. All the cities were growing nowadays. After his two years in New York he had returned to Ireland to discover his hometown had doubled in size. Every field was being filled in with concrete. And he was as much responsible as anyone.
On his way back to the hotel he stopped by the building site again. The soft earth sank beneath his feet, small pools of water gathering around his boots and making a sucking sound as he made his way past the foreman’s hut. The strong smell of mud and cement hit him and he sucked it in, savouring it.
It was the smell of beginnings.
As he stared at the unmanned earthmovers hovering impatiently above the virgin ground, he could picture the plans in his head. He could see the office block rising sixty stories into the sky, casting its shadow over the people below.
He could see its whole outline – right through the walls – its pipes and ducts, its denizens moving from room to room. It was a gift he had, the ability to see everything at once as it would be. Someone had told him once that Mozart could do the same, could hear a whole symphony in his head as he composed it, and he liked the comparison.
Marion had never understood his gift. It was one of the many things she had never understood about him and probably one of the many reasons why she had left. He had, some time before, stopped trying to figure those reasons out.
He allowed himself a few more minutes of surveying the scene, knowing that when construction began the next morning, the best part of the next six months’ work would be over.
After dinner, Alan left the hotel and took a walk around the old part of the city. He never tired of looking at the architecture there. Another thing Marion never understood. A busman’s holiday, she would say: an architect walking around looking at architecture.
As he stood outside the town’s grand library, its old façade lit up by the spotlights below, he felt a sudden tinge of guilt as he thought of the half acre of waste ground lying a couple of miles away, waiting for its new occupant. Its bright, gleaming veneer would never equal this old granite monument. His earlier enthusiasm had been dulled by sadness and a small measure of shame.
As he stared up at the library, he felt something brush against him. He heard a man’s voice behind him and turned to see a dark figure move slowly away from him. Though his feet took large strides, he seemed to be moving in slow motion, as though everything else around the man was speeded up. Alan called to him to ask him what he had said and the man turned his head with such sudden force that Alan took a step backwards. He saw the man’s mouth open, but the words when he heard them seemed to come from behind.
“The city has armies,” the voice said.
Alan looked behind but there was no one there. When he turned back again, the man had covered a distance disproportionate to his slow pace. Alan began to walk after him, eventually breaking into a run, as the shape of the dark figure grew ever more faint. Finally, he was gone, and Alan was left looking aimlessly up and down the deserted street.
He slept fitfully that night. Finally, after what seemed like hours of contortions, he gave up and got dressed. It was close to sunrise as he made his way out into the city again. The early risers and the few who hadn’t gone to sleep moved like zombies around him. The streets seemed even more alien in the strange pre-dawn half-light.
He found himself walking back in the direction of the library, but he recognised nothing on the way. As he turned the corner and looked up, expecting to see the old building, there was a crash. Where the library had been there were now a row of stalls selling rugs and hookah pipes, meats and spices. The men tending the stalls were Middle Eastern and they called out in a language he faintly recognised as Egyptian. He looked at his watch, which read 4.56 AM, but there was a hot, noonday sun in the sky above the bright marketplace.
Looking around him, he could see throngs of people on either side in similar dress and speaking the same language. He tried to look behind to see where he had come from but he couldn’t see past the crowds and finally the surging of the numbers became too much and he began to move with it.
As the crowd carried him past the stalls, the vendors all seemed to be calling out to him, offering him their wares. Before he knew it, he was turning a corner again and the heat of the marketplace was replaced by a cutting breeze that carried on it the strong smell of exhaust fumes and hot dogs. He looked around and realised he was in Times Square. The rushing armies of people were still there but they were no longer Egyptian, now they were a multitude of races.
He edged his way slowly forward, his right hand finding the wall as he went, like a blind man. The noise now was even more deafening than before, as yellow cab horns picked out musical notes above the pounding beat of the African drummers on the sidewalk. A cacophony of different languages floated above the music; it was a discordant symphony but he was drawn to it.
As he felt his way to the next corner, his feet seemed to take the turn without him even thinking about it. By now, he realised, there was little point in trying to fight it.
And then the noise and the daylight were gone. Instead, it was night again and the street was deserted. But he still wasn’t back where he had come from – he knew that; this was somewhere else. As he walked, he began to recognise it: it was the Rue Pigalle. He had been here before: as a sixteen year old on a school trip to Paris, when he had slipped away with two other boys for an hour of awkward fumbling, as he lost his virginity on an old, worn mattress to a girl who looked no older than him, his friend’s moans of pleasure seeping through the adjoining walls; and years later, after the divorce, when he had spent two weeks working his way through the entire roster of the same whorehouse.
He could see the doorway up ahead, the outline of a figure visible, shaped by the soft light behind. As he got closer, he could see it was a woman, naked and shaven from head to toe. Her shaven head accentuated the features of her face: deep, blazing eyes and full lips. Her hand was outstretched, beckoning him to enter as she turned and walked inside. He watched her slender frame disappear inside the doorway and felt a stirring in the pit of his stomach.
As he entered, he remembered the dark hallway leading to the stairs. He could smell the musky odour of perfume and sex that hung in the air. When he had climbed the stairs, he knew – without hesitation – which room to enter.
She was on the bed, the same old bed on which he had tasted a woman for the first time. She was motionless; her arms and legs together, her pale skin luminous in the dark room. If it wasn’t for her soft breathing that cut through the humid air, he might have thought she was dead.
He waited for her to say something but she simply laid there, her eyes never moving from him. Eventually, he muttered the only words he could think of.
“I don’t know what’s going on here …”
He trailed off; as if there was something else he wanted to add but could think of nothing. For the first time, she smiled.
“Yes you do, Alan, you’ve always known. Don’t start to doubt it now.”
“Is this real?” He gestured to the street outside. She was still smiling.
“You’re blessed, Alan.” The way she said his name was like a prayer. “You and the few others…you’re blessed. You’ve been given the ability to see what others can’t. You’re at the heart of it now … deus ex machina. You’re the gods in the machine.”
The words were passing over him like water, barely registering. All he could think to do was to put what he had witnessed into some coherent form.
“These cities … it’s like they’re talking to me … like they’re alive …”
“Did you ever think they weren’t?”
She had gotten up off the bed and was walking towards him. It was all he could do not to rush over and grab her, feel every smooth inch of her body, the arch of her back and taste the salt between her breasts.
“When you walked the Rue de Montmartre or Broadway, didn’t you feel the blood pumping beneath the surface, the warm breath of the city in your face? That’s what brought you to us. You’ve always loved us…we are your mistress.”
She was in front of him, her hands moving up to his face. She smelt of brick and mortar.
“When you fucked that boring little girl you called your wife, you thought of us.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper, her lips moving closer to his. “We made you and then you made us. You and all the others who dream at night of towers of glass and motorways in the sky. You are part of our armies and you must be proud of that.”
And then her lips were on his and their fullness enveloped him and he felt the softness of every woman he’d ever touched and the thrill of every tower he’d ever built and the warmth and the cold and the familiarity and the strangeness of every city he’d ever seen or imagined or had never seen, and it all hit him at once with a rush no drug or sex would ever equal.
When he woke, he felt the soft mud beneath him. He looked up at the rising sun and realised he was back at the building site. Checking his watch he saw that just an hour had passed since he had left the hotel. In another couple of hours the workmen would start their shift and the digging would begin.
He sat up, cross-kneed, staring at the vacant site. He could see the building again with its pipes and its ducts, but beyond that he could see the glass towers – even bigger now – and the motorways in the sky that stretched on past the horizon …
He could see them all now. And he smiled.
Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician with a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. Derek’s short story “The Healer” was recently featured in Surge, an anthology of the best new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press. He is also a regular contributor to http://www.writing.ie where he writes his “Songbook” column. And because he obviously has a lot of time on his hands, he is currently working on his latest solo album.
Like most writers, he is fuelled solely by caffeine and self-doubt.