Prelude to a Novel

Prelude to a NovelA boat. Two figures on the stern, standing together as the sun dips below the horizon. A ship, solid iron, white gloss, rust stains running down the walls. The scent of diesel mingling with the smell of the open sea. Waves lap against the metal hull. A tentative embrace as the sun slips from sight, leaving behind it a wan, castrated light. The two extinguishing their cigarettes and making their way inside, up into the snug of the bar.

That day they had met for the first time. Earlier in the afternoon, quite by chance, they had made each other’s acquaintance down by the shore. Waiting for the boat to set sail, they had sat eating fish and chips on a bench, looking out across at the old lighthouse and beyond, the weight of the city bearing down on them from behind in the afternoon sun.

It is to be a long journey, overnight in fact, and although they do not yet know it, later on, when the bar has closed for the night and the shutters come down, when most of the passengers have retired to their cabins for the evening, alone in intimate silence, he will lift his hand, and, with a twitch of uncertainty, will flick a lock of her hair from where it covers her face to tuck it gently behind her ear; her hand will raise to touch his cheek, feeling at once the bristly stubble and the soft skin that lies beneath. Looking into each other’s eyes, she will note that his are sharp and inquisitive, sincere and honest, and he that hers are warm and tender, with a sparkle of elfin intelligence. Their lips will meet briefly, and for the first time, they will kiss.

Neither will sleep that night: instead they will doze peacefully in each other’s arms, engrossed in their somnolent game, each opening their eyes intermittently to sneak a glance at the other. They will not feel the coldness of the night outside, the icy expanse of sea that lies beyond the window behind them. They will remain in ignorance of its tenebrous depths from which, in days gone by, strange men would appear unannounced at coarse ports, bringing with them a foreign smell and an alien presence, something that would with time go on to be assimilated into the fabric of the city. For now though, they order their drinks and take a seat together by the window, happy to have discovered each other’s company.

 

Dawn finds them awake on the open sea. They go up onto the deck and gaze around them: there is no land to be seen. The wind cuts through their jackets until finally they decide to return downstairs for a hearty breakfast of white coffee, croissants, cheese and cold meats. At noon they make land, the boat churning the grimy waters of the port as it manoeuvres in the dock. Setting foot on that foreign shore, each knows the night’s magic has come to an end, that the time has come for them to part ways. Yet instead, she tells her friends that she will meet them at the hostel at dinner time and they agree to go on with her bag. Arriving in the centre of town, the city takes them by surprise: its sights and smells, the accents of the locals going about their daily routines. The afternoon is sunny and fresh; they take in a museum and wander round the narrow backstreets of the old town; finding a canal, they stop for food at a café down by the water. They talk leisurely, at ease in each other’s presence. They ask questions, covering common ground—both have similar tastes in music and literature, both share a concern for the extent to which technology has encroached upon the most fundamental aspects of their lives—and differences—her outlook is defined by something pure and natural, she has an ability to see matters simply, like a child almost, without the need for unnecessary complications, whereas he on the other hand, has been scarred by years of resistance, a lifetime spent working against the grain. But the latter seem to matter far less than the former, and perhaps, they think, might even go so far as to balance each other out. The important thing though, is that they have found each other.

Yet they know they must eventually part, and when at last they find the evening upon them, neither wants to go their separate way. Her friends though, will be waiting and he must check into his hotel. They swap numbers and bid each other goodbye, promising to phone later in the evening. He walks her to the door of the hostel where she is staying with her friends and makes his way back to his hotel to check in. As he walks alone through the streets, he feels alive, rejuvenated by the time they have spent together, cocooned in the intimacy of the world they have created from each other’s company, a world impenetrable to all that goes on around it. He thinks of the night they spent on the ship, the hours taking in the city; it is hard to believe that only yesterday they were sitting eating fish and chips together on the shore, leisurely making each other’s acquaintance in the afternoon sun.

 

He agrees to meet her and her friends in a bar in the old town later on that night. He doesn’t know the area and takes a taxi to be sure. The vehicle rumbles stealthily through backstreets lit only by the murky pools of light cast by the streetlamps. Strange streets in a strange city. Looking up at the meter, he watches the numbers tick up. He glances at the driver: stocky, pure muscle, neck like a bulldog; a small gold hoop hangs from his right ear. He begins to feel uneasy in his presence. From time to time, their eyes meet in the rear-view mirror: intimidated by the driver’s shaved head, glistening with small beads of sweat, he reverts his gaze nervously back out onto the streets. They turn left past the stone façades of crumbling buildings, their walls daubed with graffiti. A gang of urchins lurks on the corner; it is becoming clear the area is not a good one. Broken windows. Shouts. Ladies of the night. He twitches. He doesn’t know the streets; the driver could be taking him anywhere. All he has is a map with the address of the bar where they have arranged to meet. He checks his back pocket to make sure it is still there.

Eventually the taxi pulls up on a corner by a large square. He pays the driver and gets out, relieved to be free from his ominous presence. Inside, the bar is dimly lit. Stone walls and chattering voices. An affluent, alternative sort of crowd; bohemian chic. As his eyes scan the room, he feels moderately out of place, but tries not to let it show. Finally he spots them, a group of five, sat over by the corner. It looks like they have picked up a few stragglers from the hostel. He introduces himself and takes a seat. Noticing the half-empty bottles of red wine on the table, he orders a beer from the waiter.

The night passes slowly, the conversation dominated by the tall tales of the two newcomers. For a while he listens politely, doing his best to feign interest. He remains silent as they indulge themselves, trying to outdo each other with boastful accounts of things they have done, places they have been, people they have met. Yet there is something in their stories that doesn’t quite ring true: they seem to ooze a sort of faux earnesty; at times, he thinks, it’s as if they have succeeded in reducing entire countries—their peoples and cultures, their geographies and landscapes—to commodities to be consumed at their whim. He recalls something he once read about the passion for experience being a criticism of the sincere: histrionic, he thinks, it’s a good word. He repeats it in his head and smiles wryly.

“What about you, have you travelled much?”

The question catches him off guard; it takes him a while to realise it is directed at him.

“Not really,” he replies, “been around a bit, nothing special.”

Part of him would like to join in the conversation, to reach out to the group and share some of his own adventures, for all things considered, he regards himself as reasonably well travelled. Experience, however, has taught him that his accounts always come out too flat, too firmly grounded in reality to compete with the bombast of the others’. Besides, he thinks, why bother? Listening to one’s interlocutor is no longer à la mode: the new black, he observes, is not to notice, but to be noticed.

After a while, the group begins to break up and the two suddenly find themselves sitting next to each other. She excuses the presence of the travellers: the pair had arrived late at the hostel and she and her friends had invited them along out of courtesy. She eyes him curiously, recalling part of their conversation from the day before.

“You lied just now when you said you hadn’t travelled much. Just yesterday we were discussing the places we’ve been to, the countries we’ve visited, and now here we are sharing a drink together on the continent.”

“I’ve always preferred to keep myself to myself when it comes to that sort of thing,” he replies. “Besides, it was bad enough listening to that pair playing travellers trumps, making out like they were modern-day Shackletons or Columbuses. How many people these days can claim to be explorers in the true sense of the word?” He pauses and takes a sip of beer before going on: “we’ve discovered the world: the vanity of our desires has led us to define its surface, to map its lands and chart its seas; and most recently, as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve set to work on its cultures and peoples as well.”

Enya pauses briefly before making her reply.

“That may be true, but behind all that, the world is as intractable as ever: its people, cultures and lands remain as immense and multifarious as they have always been. Despite the fact that vanity and modern science would have us believe otherwise, the world is still out there, ripe for discovery. Don’t you think?”

“Less and less so. Instead of constructing our maps based on our experiences of the world, we are increasingly reliant on maps to construct our experience. Everywhere we go, cartographers precede us: reality is sidelined by its representations. We seek the illusion of escape, the intoxicating whiff of a new discovery, an experience beyond the confines of our own world; yet the very idea grows steadily less plausible.”

“Surely then, the challenge then should be to explore and discover anew, to show others how to do likewise. You need to try and create something new, not get locked in some kind of bitter struggle.”

“That has never been my intention. I’m happy doing my own thing. If others wish to follow they are free to do so. It is for them to decide; these sorts of things must come from within.”

“You’re awfully stubborn. If you think you can see further, or at least something others cannot, it’s your duty to show this to them, to inspire them to follow you.”

“I leave my trails. The rest is up to them. Stubborn you say?”

“Something of that,” she replies smiling.

 

They try to make the most of each other’s company. He knows he has work to do and that he must return home in a few days time, leaving her with her friends to continue their travels. He observes her features in the dim light of the bar: she is beautiful, there’s no doubt about it; there is a vitality in her face, a purity that strikes him as rare; her lips come together in a sort of natural pout; her hair is black, like a raven’s. He feels a pang of sadness at the thought of leaving her behind.

The bar closes and her friends decide to go on to a nightclub with the two backpackers. The group stands together on the street corner, a cool breeze ruffling the air. Impulsive yet hesitant, he asks her if she would like to go somewhere for another drink instead, just the two of them. To his surprise, she accepts. Her friends giggle a little and make fun of them, but eventually the two bid goodbye to the group, leaving them waiting for a taxi and making their way off down the street to look for another bar, somewhere to share one last drink, and with it, the chance to rekindle the intimacy they had created the previous day.

 

Dawn finds them examining each other’s face in the half-light entering through a chink in the curtains. Neither remembers having felt quite so relaxed, and as the room gradually begins to fill with a grey, colourless light, each vows silently never to let the other go.

 

Illustration © 2014 Studio Monik

 

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