Wednesday, 11 December 2019

All the Waiting (2017)

The modern Western world is designed around road traffic; and the humble pedestrian is at a disadvantage in cities and towns. Despite a growing awareness of this disadvantage, and various small urban schemes to restore a proper balance, the pedestrian is still at the bottom of the social heap. He has no power over traffic but must give way before cars and lorries like a second-class citizen. This story first appeared in YULE DO NICELY, a Christmas themed book, though there is little about it that might seem festive and appropriate to the season.

The man is a pedestrian and waiting is a fundamental part of his daily life. He does not drive or ride a bicycle or take giant leaps on spring-loaded legs over rooftops. He walks everywhere and the rain knows his shoulders well. He does not own an umbrella and why should he? The wind that is a typical feature of his city likes to turn them inside out and snatch the fabric canopy off the struts, leaving only a stick sprouting spines. He trudges and waits and crosses the road and the puddles lap over his eroded shoes. Through the holes in these shoes his socks drink the water, quenching their fabric thirst.
If he had the money he would relocate to somewhere warmer, drier, calmer, to a place where waiting is a pleasure and not an imposition. But success is required for money and he has none of that. He is a pedestrian by necessity rather than choice, and for so many years has this been true that he often forgets the fact, forgets that he would exist in a different manner if he could, and when he remembers he stops and frowns, and this pause is an addition to the waiting. He waits for the frown to disperse on his face and then he proceeds to the next kerbside.
The cars hurry past him, metal boxes in which people sit with frowns of their own, velocity grimaces, eyebrows speeding with their attendant faces to some temporary destination. The road is a river of huge bullets that will knock him high or flat with the same result. He must wait. The lights will change, if not this minute then the next, or the next after that, and these minutes slowly accumulate, pile up, add to the pressure of the raindrops on those shoulders of his, hunched a little more every year. The traffic will stop, drivers will scowl as he crosses before them, some will enjoy revving their engines to make him anxious.
Walking in a city is quite a different experience from walking through a rural landscape. The rhythm here is staccato, the ambler must constantly interrupt his flow, his measure, his tempo, because of the numerous and unavoidable streets full of moving traffic that must be crossed. The cars and lorries and motorcycles themselves care not about his cadence, about the pace of a pedestrian, and the drivers and riders and passengers of the vehicles give not the slightest hoot for the dislocations in the joints of the one who must constantly stop moving and start again. City perambulation is not walking in the purest sense. It is striving, not striding, striving for a harmony that never arrives. Its music is dissonant and atonal. It is a pain in the frame, a jerking of souls in their vessels.
Our pedestrian knows all this and resents the waiting at each kerbside. He wonders how many hours, days, weeks, even months, have amassed in this manner over his lifetime, not only in rain but all kinds of weather, and he dearly wishes that he could obtain a refund, have the waiting given back to him, all of it, every moment, perhaps at the end of his life. And he wishes this so fervently that it becomes a prayer that actually works. The pedestrian dies, an old man at last, worn out by his attritional wanderings through the city, demolished by age, alone in his bedroom one night with the beams from the headlights of passing vehicles moving across the wall, for he has forgotten to close the curtains, and an antique clock ticking on the bedside table, no need to give further details.
And his soul passes to the afterlife, which is an unspecified place, and he finds himself arguing with a nebulous authority there, an administrator of some sort, an officious angel, and he requests repayment of the wasted time, the hours and hours used up in waiting to cross streets and roads, in waiting for cars to take their turn first, as if they are superior to him, those metal, glass and rubber aristocrats that he must submit his human flesh to, and the angel negotiates with him, but he finds himself unable to settle for anything less than every single instant of the time wasted, and remarkably this boon is granted to him. Who knows why?
Perhaps he is so favoured because there is supposed to be some sort of lesson for him in the outcome? He decides to be satisfied with his victory no matter what else transpires. The angel has added up all the time wasted on kerbsides waiting and the final sum stands at exactly four months, two weeks, six days, eighteen hours, twelve minutes and thirty-eight seconds. These will now be returned to the pedestrian. The walls of paradise gleam in the distance of the cloudy plain, but with the tip of a wing the strange angel points away from them. “You must go the other way, my friend, for the world and life are back in that direction.”
The pedestrian nods, because this angel has no hands to shake, and he sets off across the featureless landscape and his walking has an unbroken rhythm, the beat he has yearned for, and he is using it to return himself to a second life where he will reclaim the time stolen from him and cheat the traffic that cheated him. His step is joyous. The clouds swirl around him and then they begin to part like shredded drapes and he understands that he is approaching the frontier between the afterlife and the mortal world. He breaks through the final wisps of mist and at last finds himself facing the border and it is not at all what he expected.
It is a road, an immensely wide road, and on the other side is the world but he is stuck on this side and the road is so busy it is fatal to pedestrians and the traffic that speeds down it in both directions is moving so fast that it is a blur, a scream. There is a central reservation but it is so far away he will never reach it. This road has hundreds or even a thousand lanes, each one an awful roar, yet he can see the remote world beckoning to him, the smiles, the spires, the caf├ęs, the flavours and sensations he never properly enjoyed while he was there, and they are all out of reach. With a sigh and a shrug, he resigns himself to waiting at the kerbside until all his refunded time is exhausted. A cross man unable to cross.

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