A STRANGER TO MY CITY

 

 

I am a stranger to my city.

 

Shuffling through the pushing and twisting lunchtime crowd, I head for the park across the street. There is an oasis of shrubs and paths where the old hotel used to be - several years ago.  I gaze at the web of colours in the clothes of the people thronging the sunlit pedestrian crossing. As they melt into the shadow they turn into drab, dark purple figures.

 

The wind is as crisp as ever but I catch the warmth of the sun as I step across the boundary between shadow and light. I get a fleeting glimpse of the blue sparkling harbour, before it is abruptly blocked by the glass-and-concrete structure of a new high-rise building. The sun climbs up the black mirrors of the enormous glass panes until it plunges into the cavities left unfinished at the top. Towering above, the long arm of a crane swings gracefully across the blue sky. During my stay overseas they have pulled much of the city down and they are building a new one.

 

Now I am a stranger in this city.

 

I sit down on the low wall retaining the lawn and the patches of shrubs, because all the benches are taken. Others are joining me. They have emerged from their offices and shops, descended from the tall buildings that close ranks to form the chasms in which the traffic drones. The hedge barely hides the flashes of metal and glass on the road, the short distance hardly silences the revving motors, squealing tyres, the odd honks

 

I slip my cardigan off to sit in my light blouse - and close my eyes.  I let the sun bake my face, arms and shoulders, and take in fragments of conversations, strands of the music played by a small band on the rostrum in the middle of the park. The familiar sounds, the idioms of my own language penetrate into my consciousness. After several years overseas I am home again and yet - how strange I feel!

 

Suddenly a shadow covers my face and won't budge. Slightly annoyed I blink. Somebody is standing there, the features of his face drowned in darkness while the sun casts a halo around his hair. He is just standing there, staring at me - standing and staring. As I squint my eyes the face becomes familiar and now he calls my name, first softly, as if asking a question and then loudly, overjoyed. It is Eric who belongs to this city and whom I knew so well! 

 

"I can't believe it's you!" he beams and I am both excited and bewildered at the same time. He says my name again and again, sits down next to me and grasps my hands: "Good to see you again! What have you done with yourself? You look terrific! Wow, what a pretty woman you are. Hey, you've put on some weight - but that's great. What a super figure! I always thought you were a bit too skinny.  Fancy, running into you like this!"

 

His voice seems to echo from the past, his raving words to peel off year after year. I was fond of him then, because of his good looks and his self-assured manner, although I disliked the trace of childish arrogance and the way he accepted the courting of other girls. I was too proud to join them in attracting his attention. So he was tempted to attract mine. He used to tell me about his sailing in summer and his skiing in winter. He said he enjoyed the company of a sportswoman like me, complimented me on my slender body and my shapely muscles, results of weightlifting and tramping.

 

The present dissolves as I stare into the foliage in front of me and drop back into the bygone tramping days when I used to go out almost every weekend on challenging club trips with the label "fitness essential". I enjoyed the life in the wilderness, the earthy scent of the ever-humid ground, the silvery sheen of sunlight on dark green leaves, the calling of the birds. I was keen to test my skills in finding my way and glad about stripping my life of everything but the bare essentials.

 

I invited Eric to join me on one of my trips. We would be together, do things together. He would enjoy it because he liked the outdoors too - so I thought. I was wrong.

 

I can't help smiling. I can still see Eric stuck in the bushes, his pack holding him in a tight grip. Exhausted, he had stumbled and crashed sideways into the thicket. Kicking and tossing about he was trying to come up again - to no avail. It looked very funny and I remember me laughing. It was a bright innocent laughter, sheer enjoyment of the humour of the situation, without any ill will or malice. But Eric was furious. He felt degraded.

 

"What's so funny?" I can suddenly hear him asking surprised. Oh dear, I don't even know what he's been talking about! He has recalled me from my memories.  "Sorry, Eric, about nothing special. I was looking at these boys, jumping about and splashing each other, over there at the fountain."

 

I am not smiling any more, anyway. I remember the change in Eric's behaviour on that tramp. He knew he was slowing down the party and he felt defeated. He did not want to listen to anything I said. He made snide remarks, so hurtful that I wish they had never happened. I wish I could stuff them back into the box of memory wherefrom they have bobbed out. Close the lid. Forget.

 

"And now you are looking a bit down! What is it?" I can hear Eric's voice again. He puts his hand on my arm and looks into my eyes. I see his face like in a mirror of the past, like turning back some pages. He is even better looking than he was, grown more serious, older, still with this slight arrogance in his voice. His strong arms and shoulders still impress me.

 

"Do you remember our tramping trip?" my eyes are asking but my mouth is shut.

"I've been very fond of you, you know", he says as if answering my unspoken question, "I still am." His voice is full of gentleness. A little embarrassed I bend over my crossed legs to brush off an imaginary insect and I sense Eric's gaze burning along my neckline which suddenly feels by far too low.

 

Past and present converge and I am fully aware of myself and my surroundings. The city has shrugged off its strangeness; Eric has become a human bridge to the present. His voice is dark and warm, touching: "Where are you staying? We really must meet again soon! What have you done to get such a stunning figure? Are you still tramping a lot?"

 

These last words sweep into my heart like an icy shadow. I know at once that this shadow has been here all the time, but now it has flooded me and my throat is blocked. "No," I hear myself groaning, "no, not any more! I do some gymnastics, regular physiotherapy.....As long as you are interested in me as a person, Eric, yes, I'd like some company! I've become a bit of a stranger to this place."

"Physiotherapy? What for?"

That shadow makes me shudder.

"Eric, I have badly damaged my knee joints, perhaps for ever. I can hardly

walk for any length of time, do you understand what I mean?"

 

I shan't forget his stare, a stare of total disbelief. It is like darkness falling from the sky, shrouding his face. I stand up and he sees me grasping my walking stick.

"Oh, I'm sorry," he mumbles, "I'm so sorry! How did that happen? How could it? Oh no! Look... I've got to go, but I'm sure I'll see you around." He walks off but I can still hear his words ringing in my ears: "I'm sure I'll see you around!"

 

Here I stand looking at the people and the park, aware of the hum of conversations, strands of music, traffic noise, the sun flares plunging into the gaping top stories of the new building and I feel very heavy as I start walking.

 

I am a stranger to the city.

 

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