F3: This Urban Aesthetic
I may be running out of small conversational gambits with which to open my F3 posts. I suppose I could just launch straight into the story, but then I’d have to think of a new place to put the More tag. Hmm, this is a tricky one and no mistake. Fortunately I’ve gotten four sentences out of it, so I can get on with the story now.
Oh, this one is a few words over 1,000, so I suppose that technically it’s not flash fiction. On the other hand – it’s my blog. Like Prince Adam, I have the power.
This Urban Aesthetic
The portal unfolds like dissembling origami. Light erupts or sidles shyly from seams and around folds. Of a sudden the dimensions make sense, and the eye and mind process the shapes and lines into a doorway. Through the door: grey concrete and refuse.
Raul steps through, taking care to lift his feet over the shimmering lines that, suspended in space, mark the bridge between these times and places. He is not worried overly much about the threat of total cellular annihilation, although this is a statistically improbable risk. He is more concerned that his imitation Oxford-style shoes will be scuffed by the abrasive surfaces of space-time.
He savours the first sound of leather soles grinding against dirty tarmac, the sensation of grit sliding underfoot as he shifts his weight. He inhales, drawing in the smells of city: internal combustion engines, most obviously, but also the subtler odours of food and plastic and decay, and here in this alleyway, the sharp smell of urine. He hears a rumpling sound as something sifts through a heap of black bin bags; the culprit miaows softly.
‘Remember,’ a voice says, behind him. ‘Just a brief visit.’
Raul doesn’t look around, but nods. The hairs on the back of his neck raise momentarily as the portal folds itself back away, reassembling itself into a tightly-bound nugget of probability.
He slides his thumbs beneath the breast of his suit and smooths out the lines. A glance overhead reveals an overcast sky through which diffuse sunlight glows. Contrails from low-flying jets criss-cross the sky like chalk lines. Raul smiles, his eyes moistening at the sight of it.
He strolls from the alley, enjoying the feel of a solid surface underfoot and the way his clothes hang from his willowy frame. The side street he steps out onto is not busy, but on the adjoining corner is a small café he knows well. It is a tiny establishment and, Raul has established over the last few weeks, run by a friendly family of second-generation Bengali immigrants. Raul has never been to Bengal and what the cafe’s owners have told him of it fascinates him.
He exchanges niceties as he steps inside, ordering his usual black coffee, the bitter and artificial taste of which appeals to him. He also plucks a postcard from a rack by the counter, examines both sides, and pays for it alongside his coffee.
Raul sits outside, shifting uncomfortably on one of the three wrought iron chairs the family have placed there. The chairs are chained to nearby railings to prevent theft, and there is little space on the pavement, so every so often Raul must draw in his feet to allow a pedestrian to pass. Most ignore him, but occasionally someone smiles or thanks him. Raul likes to watch their eyes as they do so, guessing which are sincere and which are merely going through the motions of civility.
When he tires of watching passers-by – about halfway through his lip-curling beverage – Raul turns his attention to the inanimate faces of the city. At first he had found himself shocked by the prevalence of advertising. Walls and spaces were concealed by vast billboards advertising bras, lager, cars, mortgages at reasonable rates, and insincere-looking political candidates. The latter posters often outlived the aspirations of the candidates themselves, a shaven-headed man had once laughingly informed Raul as they stood and talked. Raul had smiled politely and listened.
The buildings themselves towered up, hiding the sky and the neighbouring streets from sight. They were dirty and bland, browns and greys stained in darker shades, or by the thick parabolic black of decades of neglect. The occasional birds could be seen fluttering between crumbling nooks and crannies high overhead; small flocks of pigeons descended periodically, hungrily pecking at whatever discarded rubbish they could find. It was in such small glimpses of life that Raul had begun to understand the city. Like the birds, people fluttered through its narrow streets, pecking impulsively where something caught their eye: a shop, a restaurant, a bar, a familiar face.
Raul’s coffee is finished and so he takes the mug back into the café. ‘I may not be back for some time, perhaps never,’ he says. ‘May I take the teaspoon as a souvenir?’
The teenage girl behind the counter giggles and hides her face behind her fringe. Her mother tuts at her and tells Raul yes, of course he may take the spoon, and good fortune on his travels. He thanks her and bids them farewell.
Minutes later, as he steps back through the portal, he removes the postcard from his suit jacket and hands it to the women who sits on the side of the closest hillock. ‘Anna,’ he says. ‘This is for you.’
Anna stands, the loose strands of her hair dancing as a breeze toys with her. She takes the postcard from his hand and runs her thumb over the plain surface of the reverse, frowning.
‘So smooth,’ she says. ‘So artificial.’ She flips the postcard over, and her frown deepens.
‘Grass,’ she says, the word grown heavy after a pause. ‘Trees. Antique sheep. A river. Rocks.’
She lets the hand holding the postcard fall back to her side as she scans her surroundings. Hills roll for as far as the eye can see, with drystone walls marking what few boundaries exist, and the odd copse dotted between and on the rises. Some herd animals roam freely; here and there humans and other sophonts walk or lounge in small groups.
‘It was a recall of the past,’ says Raul. ‘Resenting the flaws of their contemporary lives, the people of the time looked back to what they thought of as a simpler time, a golden era. To this desire they linked an aesthetic which they associated with their golden age.’
‘And now you do the same.’
‘I have no illusions,’ says Raul, and crosses his arms. Anna sighs.
‘You can’t go back again, Raul. Not without a research proposal.’
Anna turns and begins walking away. The postcard is still in her hand. ‘Stick to your poetry, Raul,’ she tells him, and then fades from sight as she transitions away.
Raul smiles sadly after her. He takes the teaspoon from his pocket and examines it, feeling the simple engraving along its stainless steel handle. Then he returns the spoon to his pocket and turns away from disappeared Anna. He waves his hand through the air where the portal hung, and thinks of concrete.