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The Land Is Lighting
by Jai Clare
We weren't from around there; we'd taken a risk, left the clean, white streets. "Bored," they said, "Let's get out of here. Anyone been...?" No one had.
Id told them that it was stupid at night; you couldnt see anything once you left the lights behind. And no one knew what it was like out there anymore. It was a risk, I kept telling them. But they wanted to push on. Gissy wanted to push on. "Get there at dawn," she said, "See what it's really like. See what we can find. Or capture." Josh driving. Gissy in the front laughing, playing tapes and lighting Josh's cigarettes, me lolling out on the back seat. A real road movie.
Once we left the city, the darkness surrounded us like an enemy. Gissy said something inane, like "Who put the lights out?" She laughed. Inside the car, in the sudden darkness we felt closer to each other, as if anything could happen and our weaknesses weren't so stupid. So I laughed. Josh laughed. I guessed he thought in the darkness that Gissys mask would slip and perhaps she would sleep with him. Out there in the darkness, in some desolate field, by a stream, the change of scenery would soften her to him. Alter her.
I knew Josh hadnt thought about Gissy at all. He would consider only the Gissy he contained in his imagination. He had a claim on her I couldnt compete with. Older than me by about three months, he got everything first. He'd been the first to spot her, hanging around our place. Hed been the first to make her laugh with one of his inane jokes.
Mad journey, madness leaving the city. I kept telling them "There's nothing out there. It's bare, nothing to do, nothing to see. Why do you think everyone lives in the city?"
In the clean, hygienic cities we live like millionaires, the few poverty areas are our playgrounds, where we go for a little culture, to loosen ourselves. Our home streets are safe, but tiresome, and really mind numbing.
We profit from the poverty here. We trade on its otherness; we visit the clubs, searching out street characters to sell like zoo specimens. Here our people unwind, relax, stains appearing on their shining street clothes. We are explorers, pioneers like in the old West. No more continents to explore: we discover people.
That night we headed south-east even girl-watching had lost its appeal. We could follow the boys and girls round the streets from place to place, lurking in our white automobile, blending in with the gleam of the streets. On the street we looked like pimps and stared like punters.
Every night Gissy's eyes would search out for a particular girl who never appeared. Gissys resolute face proudly shone under the orange-sodium lights, braving out the stares, the calls, the abuse. Gissy, thin, long arms hanging down her sides like wilted lilies, would move locations in search of this girl, shifting restlessly when she was never found. She never talked about her - nobody really said anything about anything - but I knew the girl had to saturate Gissy's dreams like sweat on a hot summer's day.
Quiet roads heading into the gaining light, creeping up on the dark sky like a girl-stealer, we are heading east, heading south, roads leading straight for the light, gangplanks to God. Behind us, blackness, except for the lights of the city, like a giant wedding cake, layers of light building upwards into the sky. Twenty-four hour lights; the buildings are so tall that the sunlight has to dance between the gaps. Without the hundreds of orange lights, the streets would be nearly black, the day densely grey. The whiteness, the shine of the buildings can't compensate for mere glimpses of sunlight.
We leave our city, our suburbs. Once, years back in my childhood, after the city ate up the countryside, people gradually returned to the glistening concrete streets, leaving the land, leaving their homes for the promise and sparkle of new buildings, new streets, new designs of harmony.
The land is lighting. Now we can able to see the green empty land. Darkness lifting from the ground like fog, retreating like people to the city.
Gissy is quiet, like she's been drugged. Asleep and dreaming. Josh glances at me in the back. Yes, I am still with him. We look at Gissy, her mouth parted slightly, open like an invitation. Josh smiles and turns towards the road.
We can see tumbledown houses, houses in empty fields and everywhere trees, trees, trees. Our eyes are thick with trees, overhanging branches, strangely lit leaves; we drive through trees so dense that it is dark again. The land is reverting to forest. Other patches of ground, near streams, vacant, empty, to no purpose. We turn corners and are confronted by dead houses. Another twist in the road, another house. We feel as if we're travelling through an alien land, or somewhere that has died; but that's obviously wrong, this land is thriving. Gissy wakes and asks. "Where do they grow our food? This is wilderness."
Nothing cultivated. Roses, out of control, in a parody of picturesque, ravaged brickwork, ivy is the new crop, curling, twisting, gripping. Crowds of wild flowers push through what once was lawn.
Josh pulls over suddenly, driving up to a metal gate. "What's going on?" Gissy says, as Josh clambers from the car onto the grass.
"Need a piss," He climbs the gate and disappears. "Coming for an explore?" Gissy asks me. "There's a building over there."
"Sure. Thats what I came for. " I quickly pull on my boots, but Gissy, impatient, has already gone, heading for the desolate cottage.
Half the walls in front have fallen down and the insides are exposed like an unstitched patient. Gissy wanders around, touching this, examining that; a tourist indifferent to the house. I am more interested in her than in the brickwork, than the shattered wooden floor, the holes in the roof, the remnants of someone's life, soaked, washed out by the sun, left in pieces. I watch Gissy; her face unperturbed, hard and expressionless. I have seen this face out stare guys, backed up in a dimly lit room when the evening got tricky.
I have seen her watch people she fancies. It never changes, only when she laughs. Then she loses her hardness, and ten years, reverts to her girlhood in the suburbs, before they demolished the old city piecemeal and rebuilt it clean and virginal. These were dreams of starting again in a world unmarred by mistakes. There had been no catastrophe in our world, just new visions of cities, like in some rich man's fantasy.
"Don't you think it strange that people lived here? Perhaps were born here..."
"And died here."
"Out here, it's so quiet. They must have been so bored..."
"The people that lived here."
Josh reverses the car and we're heading south-east again. Now the darkness has been eliminated completely. Gissy, after moving to the back, stares out of the window. Josh tells me some tale. But I am watching Gissy, turning round to see what she's doing. If only her face could tell. Josh is indifferent, unnoticing while he drives. But this is Josh completely. He moves on automatic like a machine. Mechanical motion. Nothing contradictory crosses his mind at all, while his hands grip that wheel. Not even Gissy.
The ghostly effect of pre-dawn has vanished under the sunlight and there ahead, the road leading directly to it, a pale sun appears. Enormous, spherical, whole. Unbroken by buildings. It is so huge that I have to shield my eyes.
Josh reaches for his glasses. It is silent in the back. I try to guess what is going through Gissy's mind but she is beyond me; this strange, silent, open-mouthed Gissy, her laughter sloughed away like an ornamental facade.
Another house ahead. In the light of day the empty landscape isn't so frightening. People live out here, isolated solitary people who cling to the land with the tenacity of the dying. They haven't left for the suburbs, for jobs, for wealth. The silence in the car is unnerving. I want to shout out laughter, music, jokes!'
"Josh, pull over here." Gissy opens the door as the car stops and jumps out, shouting, "I like this. I like this." I follow her. The house is much like the last one, perhaps a little more roof, a little more dignity; it hasn't given up yet. Beige brick like huge molars, half-formed rooms. I follow Gissy into the back and find her staring at a heap of belongings in the corner. Something dark red and dingy, a boot torn and ashamed, a Primus stove under a green tarpaulin, a scrap of fabric that was once a red paisley pattern.
Some of the items are so feminine. She touches the plastic and jumps backwards as if expecting to see it move, or for someone huge and wild-eyed to emerge and pierce her to the bone. "Do you think someone's been living here?" she asks, turning to me. Her face is excited, and I wonder if she recognises these pathetic belongings. I stand beside her, honoured, wanting to take her hand. The room is so dark. The walls are like baby waterfalls: streaks of green lichen for wallpaper, peepholes to the outside, plasterboard like bone showing through the green skin. The dampness stultifying.
"The Primus has been used recently," she continues, touching it gently, afraid to feel the rusty metal. We both turn round, hearing footsteps, scrunching through the wood and bricks, and for a moment I feel more than just with her; we are partners in adventure.
"I wondered where you'd got to." We relax and Gissy looks back to the pathetic items on the floor. "You know something," Josh says looking around the room, "I'm starving, did anyone bring food?" Gissy squats closer to the tarpaulin, lifts it up, but there is nothing of interest underneath and she moves silently from the room. We follow her out. Josh sits in the other room, open to the sun, and like a cat picks the best position where the sunbeams are most concentrated. He pats his pockets looking for cigarettes but hasn't brought them with him from the car.
Behind the house is a field. Green with stalks of unripened corn. Cultivated. At the brow of the hill I see Gissy, just about to disappear from sight.
Her tracks across the corn are brief, like a breeze has lifted her and blown her through so that only her toes touched the crop. I follow, heavier than her, my footsteps marking my progress with a crude stamp.
In the valley a house; a real house. Full roof, tended garden. A stream to one side. And no Gissy. I almost expect to see smoke rising from the chimney. I wander around the side of the house, sometimes calling her name. Then I see figures over by the stream - Gissy and a man. The water is free and energetic, it hurries toward some hidden end, and its noise drowns out their words.
I walk towards them, and as I get closer she turns and takes my hand as if bringing me in, as if in need of protection and security. "He lives here, this man lives here." I presume he is the grower of crops. He is tall and bony, bearded, hands filthy, as if he had germinated in the earth himself. He says nothing. He doesnt meet my eyes. I smile at him. Gissy is almost dancing. "I didn't believe anyone still lived here. Are you on your own?"
"Some of us are here because there's nowhere else to go." He points to the house. "My family live there but roundabout others live alone." I expected rounded 'r's' in his accent, but his voice is neutral. He is wary like a fox, now staring at us, at Gissy, almost as if he wants to touch, but he backs away if she comes too close. She is excitable, plucking at the thread in her jeans.
"Could we bother you for some food?"
He looks at her and then away, not meeting her gaze. I can sense he is wondering why we didn't bring anything with us. There, in his slight smile, he has taken us for idiots.
" I would love to see your house, talk to you about what its like to live here. I mean everyone lives near the city, why have you stayed. What do you do in all this space? Aren't you frightened? Also, I wonder have there been any other strangers round here? A girl perhaps, small, thin? This is such a strange way of life. Perhaps I could talk to your wife." The words come tumbling out of Gissy's mouth without pause for breath.
Suddenly he takes flight, rushing off towards the cottage, muttering, "It's best not. Its best not." He has disappeared too quickly for us to believe it.
We feel stranded; out here in the open with just the noise from the stream for company. Gissy laughs and moves off, out towards the trees that follow the course of the water. I walk behind her, thinking about Josh.
"We have to get some food." Suddenly I wonder if we have enough petrol to get back to the city. "I know. The man said there were others who lived this way. They might be more hospitable."
We laugh; this seems unlikely. Now we are in the trees, giant conifers that stare down on us like sentinels, the ground crunches beneath our feet - dropped cones, bare twigs. "Come on, let's hurry through here." We start to run, Gissy laughing again. She feels no fear. "Don't you think it's odd?" she asks, "It's so quiet here. No music, no machinery, no sounds of people talking and living. Quiet." The trees soon finish and we are in open country once more. To the right a jutting hill, small like a child's outpost, just made for lying on, basking in the sun and watching the surrounding land like a sentry.
We sit on it, not saying anything; Gissy hugs her knees to her chest. I would like to lie flat on the ground but I feel inhibited by her, so I sit up and look around.
The land is green and exuberant; I feel over-powered by its strength, the way it attacks my senses with greenness, with its reclamation of a once tamed landscape. I look at Gissy, hesitantly, but she barely knows that I'm there. She is so excited, something has excited her - shining eyes, lips curled upwards, pleased, her fingers cant keep still; they tap against her knees constantly. She looks out, faraway, as if looking at a vision. At home her face is solid, when she laughs there it is not real laughter, not real happiness; I can see that now.
Suddenly she looks down at me. "You can feel it, can't you? It's not just me. I can feel as if something has happened." She is so earnest that I have to agree, and she looks away again, back to her vision. I try to figure out what it is she sees out in this landscape; there are trees, there are hills, there are moors.
For the first time, I want to ask her about the girl on the street. Normally when something happens we accept it; we don't talk about it, as if talking would make it less real. Now I want to hear her say 'She is my sister, she is my friend, she is my lover, she is my enemy, she is me.' But her lips do not move, no answers are forthcoming; I ask myself why I am afraid. I am still on the streets of Home. I fear these sun-filled spaces; I am only a tourist here.
Way off, we hear shouting.
"Stay here, Ill go look." She nods as I disappear across the heath; she looks comfortable as if nothing will remove her from her seat.
The ground is suddenly chalky and dry, gorse hinders my route. I remember walking, on my way to see Gissy on a dry cold day in winter, through a large crowd gathered to watch a bargain-seller begin his spiel. It was like trying to push the sea-tide backwards, or trying to stop the rain falling with your hands. They had me trapped Id pushed so far forward I had the same difficulty which ever way I moved so I simply gave up and watched them selling tacky china and bedsheets.
Here I couldnt give up. I hear the noises again, this time in a different direction. And dogs, I can hear dogs. I try to climb the gorse, pulling off vibrant yellow buds as I do, but it scratches me like a cat. I shout, "Gissy. Gissy." But Im drowning beneath the gorse; its branches tear my clothes, graze my face.
To the side a gunshot and something in its lonely sound panics me. I go under the gorse and back to Gissy, my hair snagged and tangled, my face covered with bright lines of blood.
There is no sign of her, no sight nor sound of her. She was never here; the outpost is desolate. I wait. I panic; afraid to call her name. She has gone. She has stood up, maybe dusted down her clothes and taken her of me. I feel her leaving for it is a leaving. I feel she has gone. That she isnt just waiting the other side of this gorse. Gissy has gone.
I retrace my steps back through the woods, back past the cottage, stopping briefly to stare inside, to shout inside, to call her name. Nothing, only bare floors and stark walls, no Primus, no frayed fabric. No Josh.
The car is still there. And there is Josh leaning against the bonnet and smoking.
We continue looking until the sun has gone. We continue shouting, searching the bushes for Gissy but we know she has gone. We hang around the decrepit cottage waiting for the owner of the belongings to return. Josh says he heard gunshots but guessed it was just locals. "There has to be more than one." He laughs, lighting up another cigarette. We see no one. Till after dark.
I keep thinking of Gissy. Nothing could stop her from returning if she wanted. By now it is cold, we are inside the car and silent. We are watching the tumbledown house. A shadow appears on the hill, taller than Gissy and not as tall as the man I met earlier. I am sure for no good reason that it is female - the way it walks, the way it talks to the dogs. I want to go out and talk to her, but I am afraid. But I climb out of the car, move towards this nebulous thing. I shout, "Hey! Have you seen..." She is on the hill for a moment and then gone. We think she is the owner of the belongings, and I know that Gissy is with her.
Sometimes we come back to this spot. Josh and I, though we never leave the car. We just sit and watch the house on the brow of the hill, looking for Gissy. It is a risk leaving the city.
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