Some kind of proximity
There was a bomb in the street.
I was not like it had not been anticipated – not after all that had happened – half-detonated homemade masses of metal had been cropping up for a long time, the sound of gunshots growing in regularity – as if necessary to puncture the swollen summer air.
It was 12.03 pm and the street was a turbulent mass of hot bodies, gaping and glistening like a swollen artery. I licked my lips.
‘Evacuate,’ the loudspeakers sounded in a northern drawl perhaps emphasized to be reassuring ‘Everyone clear from the street as quickly and orderly as possible, I repeat, everyone clear from the street.’
There were several desperate individuals in coloured jackets attempting to physically re-enforce the message – gesticulating widely towards the side-alleys which led to somewhere else in the exhausted organ of the city. I watched a man dart down one, dragging two tiny, clamouring children.
‘Who ARE you?!’ One of them protested, voice crackling.
Clinging to the street was that strange metallic smell so-similar to blood, though I could just about convince myself it was the metal of the benches and railings slowly searing in the midday heat. Many people just stood where they were, as if stunned. In an alleyway to my left – an alleyway which appeared artificially widened, leaking bricks like a broken mouth – a man cradled a woman evidently in the midst of a panic attack. Her tongue hung thick against her lips, saliva dribbled down her chin.
‘You’re smudging all your make up when you do that,’’ The man said.
‘Kiss me!’ She whimpered.
It was the noise of the street which was so greater than movement; high-heeled shoes scoring along cobbles, the mumble of the loudspeakers mixed with the nasal cries of parents to their children, pigeons banging their wings in an attempt to gain floor space.
An elderly couple shuffled in front of me.
‘This better not spoil the soaps,’ she remarked emphatically to her husband, her lips lingering over the single syllable of ‘spoil’, like it was a word she said often – like ‘Don’t spoil the children’, or ‘that fruit has been spoiled.’ Yes, the type of elderly woman I anticipated took great pride in her preserved ceramics, her cutlery, her fine cut-glass fruit bowl – a fruit bowl filled with those fat apples with an almost bloody varnished sheen, with glitter in their skins but which collapse in the mouth. That seemed to be the case for many people that day. Many young women were sporting the navy neckties of one travel firm or another, rubbing rouge hastily on their cheeks and lips – yet those lips quivering nervously, the skin daring to mottle where the concealer was wearing thin.
The elderly lady turned to me suddenly, motioning towards her husband.
‘He’s seen bombs go off you know,’ Her eyes glittered at this apparently confidential information ‘Just off Normandy, the war, you know. Horrible big things.’ She appeared to grin over a line of poorly fitting false teeth, her liver-spotted hands clenching and unclenching wildly. ‘But, you know, when it was all over, they’d grow vegetables in the bomb craters and all sorts.’
I nodded to her, as if in thanks for this confession, and felt the sweating flesh fold under my neck. I grimaced weakly, grimaced at the slow trickle of hands and feet, people pouring from shops with bags and bags, hands crammed with goods…
‘Do you know the quickest way out of here?!’ A voice shrilled – intoxicating in its hysteria – perhaps only centimetres from my ear. The source was a young woman, barely an adult, clutching desperately at my hands, my wrists, with her little white shaking fingers. Her face, when it froze to look up at me, was distinctly doll-like, so much so, that that stillness of jaw, that glassiness of eye, seemed almost be the craft of porcelain. For some reason, quite unbeknown to myself, I put one hand against that perfect face.
I couldn’t say anything. The street was like the chiming of an old clock – composed with wave after wave of uncertain sound.
‘Fire! Fire! Fire!’ Gasped the elderly man in front of me, as if there was sudden crushing pressure upon the paper-bags of old lungs. He became a scarp of beige amidst the general bustle, a mere scrap of a man which screamed and screamed. His saliva dropped hot onto the cobbles, the colour of beer.
‘Come on, come on…’ His wife mumbled to him coaxingly. She turned to me apologetically, still smiling ‘Ah, he’s just tired you see, we’re tired, we’re all tired.’
Her exhausted hair shimmered in the sun. It reminded me of iron wool, but immersed in a thick, white paint. My clothes crumpled. I felt the young woman’s arms around me, one hand roving against my spine in concentric circles, the other still fast to my wrist, her lips moving like moth-wings against my shirt in a kind of prayer. My hands were somehow stationed, full of her long brown hair. She started to cry.
Another siren sounded. People scuttled – she dived and ran, like steam from the kettle becoming water, rushing to escape the heat. I barely noticed. I craved tea, the regularity it provided, the solace when slinking home on a Saturday afternoon. I checked my wrist. She had taken my watch.
A man stayed sitting on a bench as I kept in with the clot of the crowd towards a junction leading away from the street, his leather brogues snapping together in an expression of impatience. I cast him a deliberately interrogative stare.
‘The pictures!’ He laughed numbly ‘Just think how much they’ll pay for the pictures!!’
His hands rested against his bulky camera, hands like hams slick with nervous sweat – one hand at each side, like two innocent bodies flanking the long dark coffin. His eyes were drained, but determined. I felt sick. Pigeons screamed in the gutters.
They say the bomb went off about 1 pm. I wouldn’t know, I wasn’t there.
Some 11 people died – sometimes I wonder if amongst the dead were the elderly couple. They displayed the names of those unfortunates on a memorial they built where a bench had once stood – I eat my lunch there most days, sometimes paring the names together, sometimes not. In the crater, there grows a shopping centre and little else; some artificial rockery, a clock tower. It saves on buying a new watch.