Fields flash by in an undulating serpentine
motion. Mist hangs above them, caressing them to wake in the early morning
sunlight. The glass keeps the two worlds separate. Inside there is coffee,
the rustle of papers, the hum of efficient, businesslike voices, while
the constant motion quells all emotion. Go-Passes at the ready, hastily
scribbled on the frosty platform in Arlon, everything so cold, so bitter.
Three more hours. All vision clouded by the haze of the smokers. They
sit hunched almost double in their desperate attempts to discern the
print in their morning papers through the smog.The heated box rattles
on through Belgium. How small it is - we are. How shiny and worn the
brown plastic seats. How grey and round the chewing gum trodden into
the floor. The skies are a vast expanse out here in this country. Nobody
sees. They are not looking. They are not living. They are existing.
And that is all.The rise and fall of the fields, their curves, the lines,
fissures, fishermen by the pools in the marshland to the right. All
alive. All so far apart. As a traveller one feels this more. A vision
of a new land. Somewhere we can add to the other places we have visited.
Another landscape in our mind which we can tie in with our concept of
the world. A world in which everyone has his own tiny world in proportion
with his own tiny mind. Rooted. Anchored.For many, this commuter train
is a solid, immovable aspect of life. It re- defines their boundaries
with every timetable change, marking out the perimeters of their world,
encasing them in the safety of a familiar routine.
Meanwhile I can observe these people existing within their confines,
restricted by the very experiences which are, at this moment, setting
me free. This train links the peacock feathers to my reality. Because
of our shared destination it even connects me with my travelling companion
who is, as always, curiously separate. He speaks the language. It is
his world. But he prefers silence. This is just his way.Stop after stop.
Dense woodland to the right. Dew glistens on grass until now imprisoned
by the shadow of the trees. Free at last, it sparkles as it dissolves
into air. I can almost smell the forest. What a shame that trains cannot
stop where you choose when you choose it. They could enable you to steal
tiny grains of different lives and worlds and keep them like sand, until
you had a whole beach of secret pleasures. All your own.Brussels now.
Change. Commuters rush. My companion slowly and deliberately retrieves
our luggage from under the seat. A peacock feather floats out of the
compartment as I descend the steps and comes to rest, shimmering, on
the platform. I realise my bag must be open.
The feathers of precious yesterdays clustered together inside are vying
for release. But I am selfish, as I recapture and re-imprison the escapee.Sharing
the hard, green slats of a station bench, we still do not speak as we
watch our connecting train pull in.
Stepping inside, the proximity of the city sets me alight with impatience.
I am there already. The cobbles damp beneath my feet, glistening in
the glow of the lamps as we stumble to the next bar. The tram tracks,
the river, the Damberd, still so Flemish and so full of coffee. Full
to the brim with words and lives I cannot understand through the language
barrier. I would not wish to. I do not come here to be a part. I come
instead to be deliciously apart. It is the anticipation that makes a
journey. The excitement of the prospect of a release from a mundane
existence, even if only for a short while. As my companion rolls his
cigarettes, now immersed in Kafka - before it was Hesse- he triggers
memories of the times we have shared before. Each visit is sweetened
by its predecessors.The day is now fully born, hot yet fresh with a
breeze that causes the leaves of the poplars clustered around the farms
to shudder in unison and become silver. I see the outline of the city.
Familiar houses now, marking the end of our journey. A thin narrow band
of platform, grey and electrifying in its realness, widens and grows
more solid as the blur gives way to the lines of individual slabs.
Once inside, the station with its vaulted ceilings rings hollow with
the familiar sounds of what is to me an incomprehensible yet well-loved
language. In the main hall stands the kiosk with the Śwareme waffltjes'
- warm waffles studded throughout with clusters of sugar. The taste
of escape. Outside, the trams. Beyond them the park, the river, the
spires and the winding streets. Such a striking city. So very Ghent.
Unchanging in its atmosphere, unrelenting in its beauty. Tonight - as
the sun sets and the lamps take over, throwing orange and white light
over the waters of the town, the buildings and the parks - we will drink
white beer until we believe we are conquerors, elated and powerful.
We will listen to live jazz until three. I will watch as my companion
grows talkative, listen as he spins truths out of the candlelit gloom
of the bars and gives life to my freedom by speaking in a tongue I cannot
understand. He and others will talk until dawn. I will listen. A visitor.
A voyeur, drunk with escapism. A tourist looking in from the outside
like a spy.The city will whirl by for another day and night, until the
reason for our visit rises with the sun on the second and final morning.
My companion will wake me gently with a fresh, strong cup of coffee
as his sister sleeps. The time will be 6.45 am. We will dress amidst
the piles of books strewn about her room, tickled by the tendrils of
spider plants, dangling from shelves crammed with jars of honey from
her Mother's bees. A biology student, her flat is best described as
a cross between a conservatory and a library. Her tiny garden is full
of chickens. Peculiar, but very Barbara.We will quietly let ourselves
out of the flat and onto the street. From here we will take a left up
towards the park, through it and down past all the ramshackle music
shops into the centre of the town. Past the Cathedral lies our destination;
the market place. It will be bustling and alive, contrasting with the
Sunday morning peace of the streets along which we have just walked,
marvelling at the din of our own footsteps in the silence. The length
of our shadows in the sun. Here the air will be full of the sounds and
smells of livestock, as rabbits the size of dogs are sold from farmer
to farmer, chickens and cockerels gathered together and sold as families
of twenty. The stallholders will smile and converse with you as best
they can either in French or broken English once they realise you are
a stranger to their native tongue. My silent companion will disappear
in search of one particular stall, leaving me to follow in my own time,
picking my way through the sawdust-strewn avenues of cages and enclosures.
So many beautiful species of bird are sold at this market, kittens too,
and puppies, while over on the far side the plant sellers set up stalls
rich with the blooms of orchids and roses. My friend, however, will
always be easy to find. One particular man is at the market every time
we visit. The pigeons my companion buys from him are Hooded Cappuccinos,
and very beautiful. My companion will contemplate the young birds on
show for a good few minutes, deep in conversation with their breeder
all the while.
Finally, after much deliberation, he will decide on one, or a pair,
and watch as they are bundled unceremoniously into a cardboard box.
As we leave the market, we will pass one last stall. The pigeons in
the box will scuffle as we pause, disturbed by the sudden lack of any
soothing motion. I will bend down and pick up a feather from the ground
by this enclosure. It has become a ritual. Inside the fence, the brash
peacocks strut and screech for the peahens, as my companion and I turn
right out of the marketplace and follow the tram tracks to the station.
It is time for us to return home.
© Esther Loydal
Article Highly Commended by the SKYLINES AND IMAGES COMPETITION 2000
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