Paradise Remixed

Everything is stopped.

Twilight is settling through the trees as he gazes down to where the street-light flares curve and evaporate and the unsmelt vapours of the River Tiber unsettle upwards and block the air above it.

Time to wait.

Time to lean on his oil-streaked, silent, white box-for-hire, time to hunch for shelter against the feeble drizzle, waiting for the sake of waiting in this part of the wildfire-viral city that is noisy-quiet tonight, noisy-quiet as a snoring snake, where the fares are thinly sown in the streets that always seem as dry as parched fields in the run-off rain. He is first and last in the queue at the taxi-rank, nobody else willing at this particular time to stake out this particular spot that lies out on a discarded limb of a neighbourhood away from the main pickup points, this place where the thick air is resonated by the intermittent comfort of bells and the drizzle is spiced by droplets of sap from the pine-needles.

The light is dusking over.

He inhales, and exhales. (There is always something to do.) No need to smoke: too much smoke trapped in the air. The beer from last night sitting heavy. (His liver invaded.)

He can see someone's phantom, but it is shapeless and unrecognisable, and it is swilling over him like wafts of damp smoke, imposing the crossing of its rhythms on the breeze, fraying and consolidating, but always just about remaining in one piece. Whose it is he may never know.

No matter. Another night; another place; another phantom: the same old story. The lattice of its splitting and rejoining imposes a remembered map onto the air, and that map is of the interlinked complexity of the tousled rush of the inland delta of the
Niger River. But there is something different about this phantom somehow: an unusual insistence; a solid underpinning that is both an antidote and an anchor to its bendy ethereality. There is something about it that suggests it may never go away.

Especially now. Even though the sound system in the cab is switched off, he can still hear the remembered notes, as if the phantom has not only summoned the notes into his head, but has also chosen to portray them visually on the air in front of him, which means that he can now see the pulse of the bass notes as regular splashes of mud and the flurried notes of the tune as raindrops breaking the river-surface-meniscus and the organised unpredictability of the improvised notes as a salvo of iridescent fish, and all these things intermingle in front of him as the sounds coalesce in his head, and together they drag him kicking and breathing back to an image of the past washed by the deceitful currents of the rising waters of the Niger River, and he can see his small child self as others would have seen him then, squatting cross-legged in the well of the boat because there's nowhere else for him to go, building miniature mosques to an ancient design from the sand provided by the endeavours of his father who is constantly disappearing into the depths from the boat with an empty bucket and re-surfacing with one full of sand to fill the boat and feed the burgeoning concrete building programme, then disappearing again into the world of by now hopefully fled hippos, a one-man bucket-chain throughout the long hot day. Down. Up. In. Out. Slop plop drop.

And he can feel two thumbs and two fingers fading away as the music decomposes, and he sees a fare approaching, puffing up the steps, business-greyed, tall, slim, hat pulled down, buttoned-up into his raincoat, laced-up into his uniform of commerce.

The fare nods, but doesn't speak, and holds out a card with a destination.

He takes the card, makes a brief scrutiny, sweeps his arm as if throwing aside a cigarette, and then opens the door for the fare, who gets in without speaking. He goes round the back of the cab, pulling his driving gloves back on.
He climbs in through the driver's door and puts the card in the slot on the dashboard.

He glances into the three segments of the mirror, which show his own eyes, a perfectly formed picture of the fare, and the street behind, at this moment rarely and mercifully empty of the scrawled chaos of traffic. He smells stale smoke from his stubbled hand even through the glove as he brushes it across the sweat of his nose. Urban sweat. Soured.

He turns the key to induce the familiar contralto diva snarl from the engine and floors the pedal, wincing at the clenched cramp in his foot - another fallen arch in a city full of them - and in spite of the gunning noise, they merely trickle away, in a clutch-fighting crawl down the slip road, the tail juddering behind, reluctant to leave, even though the fare is not heavy, choosing their merge-point into the flow of traffic, edging in slowly before finding their level and then they go crashing through the crush of the hook-punch melee blur of the city-at-night that uncurls before them, and a carbon monoxide furl of blaring noise envelops them and to damp it down he flick-punches a key on the dashboard, and the actual, not the remembered, music curls out and flays the taxi's air with the selected rhythms and it's like he has used them to impose his own private independent state in his cab.

He changes up a gear, and the pain clamps in again and invokes a vicarious memory of a sweat-shop treadle rocking beneath a mother's foot and he remembers the contorted muscles in the feet as a result, but he knows the way to go: he knows the streets - he feels their etch and scatter inside his blood vessels, he feels an irritation multiplied, tributaried and capillaried within him in a twisted echo of the polluted sea-delta that the burning petrol comes from, and the irritation causes his fingers to cramp around the wheel and he gives an involuntary shiver as they cruise towards

Piazza Venezia, with the fascist-white giant typewriter of the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument and Palazzo Venezia, with its fog of calm in the traffic

and there is now a presence in the front seat beside him: a presence who does not depress the cloth of the seat, and he realises that the presence is the phantom and he also realises - stupidly, late - that the phantom must be the fare's phantom, coming along for the journey for reasons of its own, and presumably because of its proximity, it seems more solid, albeit still torn, and it accompanies him to

Parco Colle Appio,

where, from a distance, the specked vehicles are like the malted grains of millet strewn out on a sacking bed ready to make the calabashes of beer and throughout the turbulence, the fare remains silent, and the phantom uses its still-frayed hand-shape to waft the air around the air-freshener snagged on the rear-view mirror so that it wobbles, and in its jagged state it looks like the copy made as a child of the first picture in a series of four drawings in a geographical magazine that had a big word at the top, which had been copied because it had the most interesting appearance because it was the most ragged because all the other ones didn't have so many bits on them, but it still merited a slap from a hand more used to guiding cloth beneath a needle than chastising children, and it merited a slap because it was a picture of something that had no business being reproduced in a respectable magazine, no matter what the rights and wrongs were, and therefore was not to be looked at and the shouted threat was "I'll mutilate you, boy, if you do something like that again", and from his peripheral vision it appears that the phantom has picked up the destination card and put it down again and the road widens so it is like they are driving between lips that have stretched apart into a grin to allow them through and he swats a mosquito away, and the air freshener sways once more as he zigs and he zags between cool leather and small kindnesses on the footpaths and every street is a tattered friend, and throughout the honking diagonal slides and the power-curved mass-rushes, the fare sits there oblivious, his forehead beneath the hat broad like the Niger River, and the notes fall out like raindrops, clanging reminding echoes of the rainy season, and the fare shuffles in his seat, but does not speak as they shruggle past

Monte Palatino; the Coliseum like a set of teeth munched away by bad food; the spread-to-the-winds Forum,

his view canalised, straight-ahead, the white hippo cab the warp through the confusion-weft of scooters, together making a crazily crookedly reject garment, contrasting with the discipline of the mopeds in their long thin lines across the long thin bridge over the crocodiled churn of the Niger River but now they get squeezed into an alley as if the lips have just got smaller, and they zoom past the miniaturised incongruity of the

Pyramid of Cestius

that seems to have erected itself at the side of his vision and they plunge in down a slope where the buildings seem so high and the traffic so dense that it is like sliding into a tunnel and the road has narrowed so much now that there is almost literally no space on either side, as he goes threading his way through, as if through a hand-sewn repair, the two sides tied together, and his mind goes back, and the hands were tacking bits of cloth to bits of cloth and the hands were looking older and here he is in his smug white tin can echoing with music and suppressed silence, a memory-store of all the loose words uttered inside, stuttering through the smug white environment as they are skidpanned into a snarl of pollution and he maps out his patch
down – up – in – out – slop-plop-drop
in the maddened city light, fused in a high speed traffic jam, oozing through its thrust and hustle, like a phantom himself, nosing through the night, a whitened stymied blur through the pulsed trickle, like a flow of irrigation, and he skids around the concrete map, in this city of time-munched imperial masonry, and his brain goes wide and clear and sluggish, and he dream-scans the city, pursuing his own demons through the thuggish knotted thrust of the remembered river and there is a curse-missed gear change, a wail of metal scraping metal as unhealthy a sound as bone-against-bone, a marked contrast to a fingernail against a nylon line, as he goes skittering through history like a charnel house butterfly, glancing into the rear-view mirror, and the fare is seemingly asleep with his eyes open, and the music leaks out, and he tunes out, finds a different wave, rides a different river and imagines a place where a musician's hands pluck the silver glistening strings with thumb and index fingers, and the seemingly magic sweat swept from globes erupting on a still-smooth face drips into his glistening palms, with the other fingers tucked away like a lover's threatened present resting on the handles above the calabash and he can see the snake-phantom leaving the musician's fingers that are gnarled well well beyond his years darting across the fishing line strings that are as straight as city tramline grooves, and he comes back and his path is fishnetted by a grid of smiling women on scooters and his companion-phantom seems to have shrunk to a block of compacted ash and the cab seems to have found its stamina, and he feels himself being pulled around the curve as if the destination is no longer of his choosing and every street has a gridlocked end, then down towards the river, down to the sliver of light between the distant towers of

Castel Sant' Angelo,

but he is stopped at the lights, ossified in traffic that is also ossified, feeling the life-spirit slump out of him for a moment, and when he retunes he doesn't know where he's been and the fare glances to left and right, but makes no eye contact with the mirror as they scud past, through the lit-up sights, through the cars with their machismo-burdened drivers and their polygamy of passengers, while the music drifts in spikes through the fug of the cab, dragging its inertia through the streets in a hydro-electric surge and the notes merge to a wail that grips the air and resounds it, supple as a gossip’s tongue, scattered like discarded river pearls, and every street pulls him round the bend to some circular hint of oblivion and the phantom starts to curve around him, drifting his memory back to a wide muscled flow, where the trees are flattened to green silhouettes in the midday sun
down – up – in – out – slop-plop-drop
and the phantom spreads and retracts like a jellyfish and he is vibrated inside his snug white tin metal environment, just like a reverberating calabash hacked cross-wise in the resonance of all the angry conversations of the past, and hesitant tourists on foot try to break across the road and then change their minds and he slides into an impossible gap with the precision of a scalpel-hand, and he looks in the rear-view mirror and sees his own eyes like hate and love fused as they circle seemingly infinitely around a light-bleached road like a ring-collar with no join and no end and the traffic is weaving in the mirror like blown-up images of unknown nostrils cruising the surface of the Niger River and the fare is flicking texts into the ether with his stabbing fingers until they break free and surge across the yellowed bridge-locked Tiber's flow to


with a whisper of slavery still in the air, pulling him back to the ghost-whispers of whip-bitten bravery and a snarl-smile-circle of tusk-white female teeth floats out to hover before him and the fare is still buttoned into his perspiration and his presence in the mirror seems restless at the constant screaming logjams, but now he turns his phone off, puts it away and removes his hat, and in doing so looks familiar, but familiar like a fragment of newspaper picture of someone cut out ragged and pasted into a scrapbook two decades ago.

And stop.

They are at the fare's stated destination. Church. Trees. Almost a mirror-image of their departure point. The rain is the same. The key is flicked and the contralto stalls into a silence and the music fades away with it. Each triptych panel of the rear-view mirror fogs over for no apparent reason then clears again, and nothing, either outside or inside, seems to intrude. He is suddenly unaware of any sensory stimuli at all.

The fare speaks.
"Thank you for bringing me."
"Not at all. It's my job."
"Do you recognise me?"
"Yes. I do now. I didn't know you until you took your hat off, but I know you now. At least, I seem to. But some things are strange."
"I know."
"I don't know what to say."
"You are probably not pleased to see me again."
"But I am pleased to have found you again at last."
"You remember me? When I came to your village?"
"Even though you were just a young boy at the time?"
"Yes. I remember you. But you were the same age then. How is that possible?"
"I wish that I knew. That is why I've sought you out. I seem to have been frozen this way. At least to some people: not many. But not frozen inside. Still ageing."
"So, have you been looking for me deliberately?"
"Yes. I came to this city, because I had heard that you were here. As luck would have it, I speak Italian quite well."
"Luck? Or upbringing?"
"Both, I suppose."
(Sap drops onto the roof of the cab, adding to the drizzle.)
"How did you find me?"
"I wandered around for weeks, covering kilometre after kilometre, until I saw your phantom."
"So you can see my phantom as well?"
"Yes. You can see mine?"
"Yes, but most of the time it has no human shape. Like no other phantom I've seen."
"In a lot of ways, I'm not surprised. However, yours was always recognisably human in form."
"So, what did you do?"
"When I saw it, I followed it, saw you in your taxi, made a note of the hours you normally work, then finally when your phantom was really strong, I had all the details I needed to work out how to trace you to where you hang out when you're not that bothered about whether you get a fare or not."
"So, why did you ask me to bring you here?"
"It's quiet."
"It was quiet where I picked you up. We didn't need to go anywhere."
"Yes we did: I needed to ride around with you for a while – to collect my thoughts. Give you a chance to recognise me, or remember me. Or fail to do so, of course. We're a long way from – from your home."
"Have you been back?"
"Yes, a few times."
"How have things been since I left? Any less chaotic?"
"You haven't returned at all?"
"No. Never. No reason. There's nobody left there now."
"I suppose not. Well, to answer your question, I suppose that the answer's 'no – no less chaotic'. Two many things have happened. People have died and others have inherited – sometimes unwillingly – the responsibility for trying to obliterate the farming poverty that is such a smear on the land, to quote the poet. Also, there's been quite a lot of deforestation. Short term gains – the usual problem."
He gazes into the mirror again.
"Yes, it's easier to cut things down than to grow them again."
"Yes, and it's clearly easier to have a conversation with heavy-handed symbolism than without."
"I think it's you who chose to have a conversation. Or am I wrong? "
"No, you're not wrong."
(The sound of bells.)
"Nice looking church."
"You still associated with all that?"
"Yes. In a way."
"What is this place anyway? Why is it on your card?"
"It's nowhere, really: I've got to know that church since I arrived. I've – attended – quite a few times. This just seems like a place where things could be concluded."
"Well, I'll be the judge about whether anything at all will be concluded, and whether this is the right place."
"Yes, you may well be the judge. And other roles as well. It depends upon what is likely to happen."
"And what do you think is likely to happen?"
"Well, there's what I think and what I hope. Not necessarily the same thing."
"That's not an answer to my question either."
"No. Perhaps not."
"So, what it is you want me to do?"
"Deal with this."
"I think that you know that."
"I don't think I can."
"You can. Nobody else can. Listen, please: I am stuck. I cannot age any further. My life-spirit has been stalled. And there is no way out: it has to leave me."
"There is no other way to expunge the events of the past."
"You mean, what you did to her?"
"I mean a lot of things. Amongst them is what happened to her, yes."
"You don't think you were responsible?"
"I have asked myself that question many times, and I think that the answer is 'partly, yes, but not entirely'."
He didn't turn round. He looked in the mirror. The fare was slapping his own face gently in a triple rhythm.
"She was already damaged when I befriended her. I thought I was trying to save her."
"She was only damaged according to your definition."
"Yes. And I was only trying to save her according to my definition as well. But I know that there are three people including you who hold me in thrall at this particular age even though everybody else sees me as two decades older. You don't know the others, or the circumstances under which they have acquired the same vision as you, and they are also completely inaccessible to me. So you are the only one who can do it."
"And if I choose not to do it?"
"Which you would be tempted to do, to prolong my agony, of course. If you chose not to do it, she would, of course, continue to suffer."
"Can the dead really suffer?"
"You know the answer to that: you know what you've seen since what happened happened."
"Is that why your phantom is so shredded?"
"I didn't realise that it was until you told me. I can't see it, of course. Perhaps it reflects my current state. Perhaps when I have aged correctly, it will adopt a more solid human form."
"How can you believe all this, believe in phantoms and life-spirits, but still believe in – in what you believed then and still seem to believe now?"
"I supposed that I've – not so much compromised as taken bits from different beliefs and put them together."
"Hm. Really? Taken bits and then put them together again. Lucky. Lucky to be able to do that."
The fare sighs.
"Look. No matter how much you snipe at me, we can't undo the past. As you've just indicated."
"You didn't fight it."
"No: nor would you in my circumstances. It wasn't my job to go tramping in there in hob-nailed boots to stop something I didn't understand at all. I was both a foreigner and a man. I was a double-stranger. It was confusing, what everyone seemed to want. Including – including her."
"Women's matters."
"Inflicted by women on women."
"Yes. But I saw you – with a scalpel and that collar."
"Yes, but not doing that. There were only certain things that I did, and that wasn't one of them."
"I see you still wear the collar."
"Yes. I have done all the time."
"Nice colour-contrast with your skin."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. Nice contrast with the illegality of the operation as well."
"It wasn't illegal. That was one of the main problems. Everything – both things – were legal and traditional."
"Really? So, Mr. Double-stranger, what do we do now?"
"I think that you know."
(A flurry of rain hits the side-windows, then just as quickly subsides.)
"I'm still not sure I can."
"Well, I'm not in a position to lecture you, obviously, but it is necessary that somebody does it. And not just for my sake. I have written my permission and signed it. That won't be upheld in a court of law, of course."
"My mother said to remember that literacy could be a curse as well as a blessing."
"She also said that escape can be a trial as well as a bid for freedom."
"How do you know that?"
"We spoke – as you know."
"I didn't."
"I sorry; I didn't realise that."
The fare's hands are like butterflies rinsing out of a river bank like doubled-up streams of ivory-coloured treble notes.
"Let's go."
"Yes, we can't do anything here. We'll go back."
"As you wish."

Drive off. Everything in shorthand. Contralto. Foot pain. Music silent. Back to the beginning.

They cross the river again, the rain heavier now, the wipers in out-of-step syncopation with the remembered notes of the music.

The traffic seems slower now. The roar masses up and around him, like the rising waters of the Niger River.

He feels his own life-spirit start to evaporate from him, threatening to leave him fading slowly, granule by granule, to invisibility, but he hangs on to the steering wheel, and clears the threat away.

They're almost there.

They draw to a halt.

Still nobody else on the rank.

The fare speaks.
"Why did you bring me back here?"
"Because this is the best place to do what needs to be done, assuming that something is going to be done. This is where I feel most comfortable."
"I see."
"And if this is going to happen, then where I feel comfortable is important."

The black driving gloves, smooth as tree snake skin, like two creatures conspiring in a synchronised dance before they share the spoils.

He tickles his index fingers at his own windpipe.

And the air seems to rush, seems to become streaked into black-on-white. And there is a single, oscillating note, bright with plangent treble like a bell tower filling up with broken glass, and a single note measures its length and collapses in a shock-cold icicle splash into the warmth of the Niger River.

And the fare's life-spirit has now joined the phantom, both of them cosily coiled together, jostling for position in the seat beside him. The phantom is no longer ragged, but is recognisably human in form.
And there is no longer a fare on the back seat, but the cab is still back-heavy in its response.

He glances at the phantom and the life-force. There is no reason to look in the rear-view mirror. There are things that he has to arrange, there are matters that he has to dispose of, but he also has to decide what to do with them, his free passengers, as they drive together through the night like rain
moving to the Niger River
night like rain
moving to the Niger River
night like rain
moving to the Niger River

No comments:

Post a Comment