A MAN AND A WOMAN IN A CITY

Meet Me In My Dreams
He walked quickly off the station platform, out through the turnstile on the north side, pausing only to glimpse at an unnecessarily provocative poster beside the ticket office. He was tired, already, which frustrated him mildly having kept himself awake on the train for fear of missing the stop. The time of her arrival was foreseen and he kept checking both the temperature and prevailing traffic conditions, anxious that circumstances would remain favourable and he would, at last, be able to spend some time with her and say some of the things on his mind. For years, they had lived unknowingly parallel lives, drifting across one another’s timeline. He knew she was always somewhere in the city, had caught glimpses and read reports, but only on the odd occasion had he seen her, crossing a street or sitting in a cafe as he went past on the bus. On the rare chance they should meet, their conversations were always too fragile and brief. There was that time in the gallery in Tottenham Street, by the fireplace. And he smiled recollecting how they had physically bumped into another browsing in a box of old books at the Market. Music and more recently art brought them together, a magnetic attraction that pulled all with common interest out of their individual, disconnected situations. Through these media he felt a means to establish a more purposeful connection.
Looking around now slowly, from the seat he chose in the rundown shelter overlooking the carpark, he could see the remains of the priory opposite, where he and Josh had played cricket as children. He wondered if the stoats were still there, or the countless balls they had lost when Josh carved his too-short, too slow bowling to shreds with six after six. Poor Josh. The memory of his brother both saddened and affirmed him… He loved to go there alone too and had done so many times in his youth after the accident, sitting among the ruins, watching the wildlife and seeking comfort in the silence. Imagining that he could glimpse the shapes of the Franciscan monks that used to inhabit the stone chapel.
Someone called his name. He was sure of it, and spun around. Miles away.
There she was, clear as real, waving, holding her hat onto her head with her free hand. He smiled, and raised his own hat in greeting, standing taller than he otherwise might, brushing dust and a cobweb from his trousers. In doing so, he noticed how worn his shoes were. She would notice too, but would say nothing. She never did. At her car, they embraced. Polite, reserved and awkward. After an exchange of pleasantries, she showed him scarves. Intricate things of simple beauty about which he knew little, but appreciated the intensity with which she told him of their journeys into her possession and how obviously important to her it was that he took his part in the choice she had to make.
They walked, and as they did so, anxiety, nerves and stress fell from him like shedding skin, blown to nothing but dust in the gentle breeze. It was a beautiful day, the last of that particular April, and the sky played blue above. He told her of his own history with the Priory and she laughed at how silly he was playing such ridiculous games. They looked carelessly for a moment after ancient cricket balls in the nettles that grew thick along what remained of the east wall, but then her insistence took hold, keen to see everything he had asked for all at once.
Moments later, through trees sloping down to a wide field, they came upon a bridge, just inches above the surface at one end of a long Shimmering Lake. In the distance, to the left, he could make out the roof of an ancient building. Tudor at least, by the chimneys. Interesting, he nodded, and immediately tripped. She was kneeling down, out of his line of vision, giggling joyfully at a brood of week-old ducklings. Charming, and utterly delightful. He steadied himself on her shoulder, and bent to appreciate them beside her. A flicker of static passed between them. It was as he feared. A reminder of her temporary form, the instability of the situation and the proximity of circumstance. How pale she was! How fragile. She was there of course, but it was easy to see how she may not be, just like that. The scene refracted in the surface of the water. Jolted into some other kind of focus.
The house stood at the end of a typical English driveway, edged by the kind of post and rail fencing that advised the grazing sheep to stay off certain areas of grass. The geese took little notice and the Jackdaws even less. An impertinent Robin showed no respect whatever for the privacy of couples at the tables around the tearoom, relying on his charm and ubiquitous familiarity to steal crumbs off plates, courting affectionate laughs as he did so. There was a door round the back, heavy and dark, that she knew they could open with ease and slip inside the silent hallway. Intricate balustrades lined the wide stairway, carpeted in the softest colour, matching exactly in his mind’s eye the bluebells that lined the woodland on the other side of the lake, that he had glanced and admired from the train window. Opposite him, looking up from a magazine, a woman had smiled at the same scene an hour earlier. “Beautiful, aren’t they? The bluebells.” He nodded.
They walked through what seemed like countless oak panelled rooms, carved in the linenfold style of 16th-century artisans. One particular drawing room was lined with the most hideous embroidered silk. Old, and therefore impressive and mysterious. But, he thought, that is not enough to make it actually ‘nice’. He felt the same about the busts and cameos that lined the Great Hall. Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell, Milton. Superb craftsmanship, but of little interest. One room led into another directly, a chapel, a smaller drawing room, a dining room – all with views out over the lake. Some geese landed noisily outside and distracted him for a moment. “Pink-footed Geese” said an elderly female guide authoritatively, to three tourists he hadn’t noticed in the building before. “I’ve seen lots of them in Norfolk, especially in winter. They are unusual here. Marvellous birds. The picture on the left here is of…” He smiled inwardly, and felt the urge to correct the woman, but resisted causing embarrassment at the last moment. They were Greylag Geese, common as muck, no doubt nesting in the reeds opposite where he had already seen two other pairs. Still, she no doubt knew an awful lot more than he did about picture framing and medieval textiles…
It was while looking disdainfully at an ebony casket inlaid with shells (displayed behind glass, though why anyone would want to steal such a thing he could not imagine) that he realised she was gone. He felt no alarm, but more than a little surprise and frustration. Was it really to be so short? Had he got some of the elements wrong? A error perhaps, in the mathematics of his plan? Neither of them knew how long they had (Josh reminded him of that), or what would occur to break the spell. Or how soon they would awaken from the dream.
And whose dream was it anyway? Her city, or his? They both had history there, mental maps. Memories and aspirations. Yet it was a different place to each of them. And never the same when ever they each returned to what they thought might be familiar places.
He nodded a short ‘Thank you and goodbye’ to whoever it was that was telling him the history of the casket (he had not listened to a single word) and headed for the staircase marked by an arrowed signpost and defined by the omnipresent braided rope suspended between two white posts. He knew where she would be, and made for the Kings’ Chamber at the back of the house. The door was open, and he entered rather too brusquely. One of the curtains on the four-poster bed stirred and rippled. Looking down at the bed, he could see the shapely indentation where her body had lay, leaving an imprint on the quilt and pillow. He could not help but curse mildly, under his breath, and leaned heavily against a corner pillar: Why was it ever thus? Damn and blast it!
Gathering himself reluctantly, and surveying the room from this corner, he realised the walls were almost entirely covered with the most intricate woodcut prints. Portraits, country scenes. Birds, animals. Reproductions of well-known paintings. He walked over and admired them closely. Fasinating skill. There was a piano opposite too, a Broadwood, he guessed around two-hundred years old. Irrestible, and he played for a hour, filling the chamber with music that rose and fell in delicate, complex cascades.
She clapped, and he spun around. Smiling aloud. “Bravo!” she gleamed. “Come, let me show you something else.” He took her outstretched hand, as thin and old as parchment. Lined with stories he longed to read. She was urgent again now, purposeful, and lead him down endless stairways to the basement. Her footsteps clipped lightly on the flagstones, but he could barely see anything in the dim light of the passageway. They stopped abruptly, pressing their backs to the wall as the burly figures of three men shuffled past, carrying a piece of heavy furniture into one of the unlit rooms off to their left. In the half-light cast by one of the men’s torches, she saw books and her eyes lit up. She made as if to follow them, but was roughly discouraged with a grunt, a push and a slamming of the door.
“No matter.” She shrugged imperceptibly. “Look at this.”
Reaching into a wicker basket on the floor she picked up a lamp and flicked on the blue light, holding it up to the wall on her right. It revealed a map. One of the oldest maps he had ever seen of the city he had known all his life. Looking at it now in the glow of an electric torch, it was clear he did not really know it at all. ‘1677’ read the figurative text in the heading, and he traced his finger gently over the words “River Of Thameth” that ran across the centre of the huge image.
Some parts of the city were unchanged since that time, but it did not extend even as far as he had walked. There was a wasteland east of the Tower that bore no symbols or linework, just the single word “Marfh”. He breathed inwards deeply. By profession a cartographer, this was Manna to him and he marvelled at the details, the darkness, the skill of the calligraphy and just the presence of this remarkable artefact. As his pulse quickened and he leaned closer to the document, she raised her arm in order that he might see more clearly. He took her hand, purposefully, gently, guiding the light according to his will. She moved freely, allowing him to move her fingers as he might and neither of them spoke for the longest time. Drawing in herself, she traced her left hand to the east as well, seeking out the city’s oldest music hall off Ensign Street between the areas of Wapping and Whitechapel. What was she trying to say? Was this her origin? Bluegate Fields?
He was reminded of the story of The Labyrinth of Limehouse, wherein, it is said, there lives a Minotaur…
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