I spin the compass, it calibrates indefinitely, the points flickering to and fro, everything is moving too fast…
Sometimes I let the kettle scream. I sit there at the kitchen table, doing what I’m doing, the pitch rises, the volume rises, steam fills the room. I think of the Shift. We’re all on the train, Ballot’s train, Utrecht to Amsterdam and then on to oblivion. A single, calibrated note… and now we know: everything expands; the pitch is on the long descent – the long Doppler descent, the darkness of the coffee in the cafetiere. I drink. It keeps me awake.
Our meeting was delayed, circumstances beyond our control, no apologies or excuses required, the rendezvous an elevated promontory, one of the few platforms still shipping passengers outside the main hubs. We prevaricated, signals jammed, overridden by The_Cloud_, jacket on, jacket off, too hot, too cold, it looks like rain. Could feel a low coming in, the breeze lifting, the wide urban canyons carved up in front of us: bollards, cones, trenches. We walk, corralled through the city centre between hoardings and temporary fences, one foot after the other, seeking our point of departure from the maze. We ascend steel stairways and top out above the locks, the Tower rising sheer above us, humming its ethereal baritone.
We hit the road off Cornbrook, heading towards the oncoming traffic. Underfoot, an enamel badge, red and white, indented into the dusty desire path. Discarded. Best left behind. We don’t want any questions. They have means of detection. Can’t pin it on me.
Flattened leaf forays have been made into the thicket all along the dual carriageway. We peer into the canopied half-light, taking tentative steps to see tunnels twist down the embankment strewn with domestic debris, primitive personal affects and cushions piled together, sodden and stained, sagging with the imprint of absent sleepers in the mouths of these gigantic burrows. None of the short cuts seems viable. We press on.
We descend. We descend. We descend again, dipping into the cool of the shadows. The walls of the canal grow higher around us before sloping towards the paint-still surface. Even in sunshine the Bridgewater Canal admits no light. It is total, a self-contained entity. I scan its viscous veneer but there is no skyline, no city to be seen. We have already set foot upon the Strand. It is the water, this water, the thick dark line of the world’s first industrial canal, that retains the city behind it, that keeps the frenzy at bay. Slowly, in silence, we emerge out onto the buffer zone, exposed, easy pickings.
Megaliths lie recumbent across the abandoned road.
“This is it…” J turns away, reckoning the nebulous expanse as I bend down to examine two of the fallen stones. We have both come prepared, in our own ways. I retrieve the crumpled paper from my jacket pocket and glance at my notes. I know the instructions off by heart but I just want to be sure. I reach out and run my palm against a roughly hewn edge of stone. It is in fact one stone, broken in two. The broken edge reveals six circular holes, ostensibly pipes riven through the enormous rocks and also cut quite cleanly in half where the stone itself is split. My fingertips trace their curves. I look up at J. He’s nodding. He keeps watch. My heart is beating faster. I don’t know whether I’m frightened or excited anymore. It’s been a long time since those emotions were given room to manoeuvre, now they thrash like untamed beasts, I can hear my heart beat in my throat. Momentarily, in the cardiac rhythm, J is silhouetted against the bright, white sky, buddleja arrow heads pointing upwards all around him, the Tower beyond them, imperious in the distance – I don’t want to see it, I blink, the sun breaks from behind the clouds and I take my chance, bringing my face to the orifice of one of the pipes, one of the six points of entry. The slim passageway is now illuminated by the sunlight as I peer inside.
I am moving through the grasses, off the path, everything is silent and there is no sense of friction as I move #glitch the scrubland glides beneath me as though I am detached from the surface of the earth #glitch buddlejas waving, finger wagging, swaying, spilling over the dark blue tarmac #glitch redbrick archways viaduct yawning #glitch near the river’s edge, skidding embankment, canoe speeds past impossibly fast, slow, perspiration on the back of her neck, teeth biting down on bottom lip #glitch canoe speeds up impossibly fast #glitch there you are, walking towards me from the arches, you haven’t seen me yet, you’re listening to piano music, some other string instruments, Peter Broderick/Machinefabriek, you’re articulating moods with moods, you can’t escape, the circuit’s closed, you thought you might try here, your earbuds are in, there are tears in your eyes, only so many hours in a day, less than a day in a week, you haven’t seen me yet #glitch you’ve seen me and you smile, your whole face changes, but you know what it means for you now… you stand still, feel the stem, the leaves and the flower in your hand before you let it spring back, wagging its purple finger and the tears roll down #glitch the canoeists row backwards, the canoe shifts in stilted sudden leaps #glitch a cormorant reverses #glitch the blue river clouds river black… the sun moves behind the carapace of clouds once again… searchlights illuminate a painted ceiling depicting Venus, Mars, Vulcan and Pomona, the paintwork peeling, fragments lost, plaster crumbling, an orchestra plays silently, lost in their own inaudible music, the conductor animated, energised, crescendo, a flicker of light and against a shattered elevation a screen suddenly illuminates the blackened fragments of brickwork, the click and whirr of film being projected, it brightens and fills my field of vision, the train pulls into the station, train pulling into a station, the conductor in the pit raises his arms, hands shaking, red face white dinner jacket, the train fills my field of vision, the train is pulling into the station, train pulling into a station, every note, every chord that was previously silent is now a scream…
I stumble backwards, sitting on the path, rubbing my eyes. We move in tandem, our eyes roving, greedily gathering the horizon: the purple buddleja, the green grasses, the thin strip of the Irwell, a trim of intermittent blue above the undergrowth, far away, the rainbow tangle of tags, an unfinished sentence scrawled along the long wall beyond the river.
Above the blackberries a kestrel climbs to an apex and hovers, trembling above its prey. There are no drones here to deter it, not that we can see. We talk about the rumours, the reports of gamekeepers lying in the softer grass, in the shadows of the viaduct, shooting raptors who “have been known to mob business drones, disorienting and damaging them. In some cases, tech with sensitive public data has been forced down into the waterways […]”. We must not “disrupt or impede the flow of transactions on which the community depends” [Article 5, s3.1]. I imagine the trigger squeezing at the precise moment the bird plummets, acting out its own likely fate, perfecting its death swoon. Within seconds it’s up again, lower this time and then gone, the sun casting its back a soft sandy brown, flown from the earth itself.
The path turns sharply, creating a forecourt overhung with rambling stems and branches. In the centre, a monument has been created with all the hallmarks of the UrbanPrimaNaturalists, typified by an incessant questioning, an indeterminate ontological status – is it intentional or just serendipity? I bring out my notes again: Stripped, gnarled tree emerging from a regular, square hole – manhole possibly, without cover, reinforced breeze-block interior, rusted metal trim; dead wood bleached, naturally? Artificially? Impossible to determine. A frozen hand, a rigid resistance springing like defiant vegetation from the maws of the human infrastructure [UPN Handbook & Field Guide] – there is nothing wild beneath us even here – I find myself, phone raised (all comms off, natch) about to take a picture but J catches my arm.
“It’ll only be used against you. May as well go back and get that badge.”
“Which way is back?” I look around. For such a short, narrow strip of land disorientation would seem impossible, but there is something about the foliage that softens, obscures, renders sightlines oblique.
Pomona – caught between the waves, both long and short: frequency unknown. [UPN Handbook & Field Guide]
J laughs. “Which way is forward?”
I reach into my pocket once more and produce my device. I spin the compass, it calibrates indefinitely, the points flickering to and fro, everything is moving too fast… I think of the Shift. We’re all on the train, Ballot’s train, Utrecht to Amsterdam and then on to oblivion. A single, calibrated note… and now we know: everything expands; the pitch is on the long descent – the long Doppler descent. From here, the city seems impossibly far away. Dwarfed by the viaduct, we trace the Canal once more, stepping over bridges, back and forth, zig zagging tributaries and minor wharfs. The Canal is ravenous. Beneath the gigantic arches it consumes everything and yields nothing in return, not even our reflections. We stamp the wilderness off our boots and into the teeming city streets.