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Peacock Feather Sundays
• by Esther Loydall

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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