Night fell with the rainstorm that carried across the city. On a hill to the North, Franz Vekaris stared from the second floor window of his flat. The night air filled with the sound of rain and heaviness, a sickly warmth that deadened his spirit. The rain fell vertically, forming perfect geometry in imperfect puddles. Outside, the street reflect the warming glow of the sodium vapour lamps. The recently storm wounded tree lay dormant beneath him. A crooked tear peeled away at the pavement, where the roots lay bare. This aging anchor had stubbornly resisted the gales but caused gas to rupture forth from beneath.
Night workmen had worked deep into the twilight to make the conduits safe. Franz had watched them, toiling in the dark with portable lamps, that aided their careful investigations. The tree could not escape their accusatory enquiry. Once revealed the tree could neither deny its guilt nor had a voice with which to defend itself. Naked, more vunerable now in its maturity than it had ever been in its youth. It could only remain to take whatever punishment that would be meeted out.
Franz empathized, with the tree. The truth, once exposed, would attract public vultures to preen their feathers while casting acid remarks. Justice would be sought, even at the expense of truth. How wretched the tree must feel, he thought to himself. The root that caused the trouble had become its jailer.
What had it done but challenge the wind, exert its presence, to tell of its existence, its majesty, its survival. How could one punish that nature which is life. Franz remembered a time when he refused to punish a dog that had bit his hand. He recognised that it was in the dog’s nature to bite. Nature in all its forms and existences must be acknowledged and accommodated. When the gas company installed the main it had not respected the nature of the tree. Now the workmen had not considered the nature of the tree.
The night had grown quiet and interfered little with his thoughts. They flowed with the water along the street. They scattered before him as he tried to haul them back into some order. The rain tumbled in synchronous symmetry with the rumble of the night trains as the noise echoed in the streets. Blue-white flashes illuminated the low cloud behind the tall chestnuts. The electrical discharges from the railing cuttings cast their shadows into elongated threads over bridge and plaster facades. He had long lived with the sound of night trains. They never seemed too far away. A low guttural rumble echoed all along the empty subterranean corridors finding its way ceaselessly into hollow hearts.
Franz looked again to the gaping wound in the footpath. Like a decaying tooth, it had been left to be ravished further by weather and traffic. As he closed his eyes, he remembered the furious activity which unfolded earlier.
Arriving home from work he had noticed the faint odour of gas, elusively flickering on the wind. The elm which stood for over a century outside of his doorway buckled under the strain of the wind. Caution pushed him to park his car further down the hill. The scent, he noticed was strongest near the tree. Once inside he had telephoned the gas company. How clear the events were inside his head and how much part of the trial he had become. Later still, he had watched the men disembark from the company van to begin their survey. With strange meters and devices they stood, talked, walked up and down, stood and talked about things other than gas. Franz had tried in vain to distinguish the words from the rumble of night trains which had begun their vigil early. Giving up he had returned to the chair in his room where he watched television on mute. It had remained like that for a long time; the televison, the workmen, the trains, all conspiring to form a blanket of static more unintelligible than before. It droned inside his head, stirring lost passages into life.
Tonight was different. The conspiracy began as usual but had retired early. On his single bed, behind him, lay Carmen. He looked back at her prostrate body, half hidden by the heavy covers. He was jealous of her child like fortification secure in a world of dreams while all around him the darkness circled, tearing at the edges of his world.
She had arrived late and skipping dinner they went to bed quietly, their lovemaking softly bringing sleep. For Franz it had been a short respite. Awake now for over an hour he sat watching the rain. Under the blankets a curtain covered and protected them from thoughts distracting and foreign. Out here in the room there was no such protection where his thoughts brought him closer to the outer world. Gathering his things he dressed himself in the small kitchen located off the single room.
The street air cleansed the bedroom warmth from his face. Cool and refreshed he raised his head to the rain. The rain’s salt mixed with the salt of his dried perspiration. Thoughts of the sea flooded his head as he tasted the wetness. As he passed by the stricken tree he reached out to touch it in sympathy. Pulling his sleeve back his watch caught the light from the street lamp; 2.20. He moved uphill away from the tree, away from the flat, away from Carmen.
He liked this time of night when the streets were his alone. Feeling his heart take the strain of the hill he felt alive. His pulse sent shivers through his soul. The sound of night trains rumbled in his ears. The rain began to ease in front of the increasing wind. Echoes of the sea were carried with the sound of crashing waves in the tree tops. Steam issued forth from a gulley in the road, from a subterranean world of rumbling. Pictures of caverns beneath the hill filled his head.
Arriving at the summit Franz looked down at the city writhe among the shadows. At times animalistic and at others mechanistic, the city appeared to growl and change gears simultaneously. While the animal moved with long laborious effort at the edge of existence, the machine ground on, endlessly. Around him gentile facades of brick walls and even paned windows hid a masss of anonymity. Below him, he searched out his flat, in one such a house, amongst the masses of roofs and chimneys. He thought of Carmen. He was disappointed that he depended on her for encouragement. Franz continued on, with the rumble of night trains for company. No further thoughts disturbed him and time soon came to return as dawn approached and Carmen would soon awake. The cleansing was welcome but only slight.
The tree remained steadfast in its resistance, alone. Inside the faint hints of a red sunrise stretched ancient fingers across the covers to where Carmen slept. The light formed tiny impulses beneath her naked skin gently stimulating her to awaken. Franz sat in the chair watching her arrival from the dream state. The first image of her day would be Franz looking down at her. Carmen stretched out her hand to feel the dampness of the coat sleeve.
– “You were out.”
– “Just a walk, couldn’t sleep.”
– “You never sleep these days.”
– “They will probably cut the tree down.”
Carmen thought about the tree before nodding acknowledgement.
– “Come to bed.”
Franz obeyed her gentle order, undressing and letting the clothes directly fall at his feet, joining her as he slipped beneath the warm sheets. She breathed the freshness of morning from his neck and hair as she nuzzled into the nape of the neck, surrendering her warmth to comfort him. Franz was once again enveloped in her security.
– “Let’s go from this place.,” Franz said softly into her ear.
– “Where would we go?”
– “Somewhere quiet.”
– “Because I hurt you being like this.”
– “It won’t be any different,” Carmen asked, opening her eyes.
– “Probably not.”
– “Why move, I’m here, what proof do you need?”
– “There will be no let up, no respite, no rest.”
– “I know.”
With that they closed their eyes in order to sleep. Sleep came to Franz a little easier than usual. She remained awake. Franz did not move, breathing slightly an inch away from her breast. She continued to stroke and caress his back allowing his head to fall onto her breast. She stared at the ceiling grow light as the sun rose higher in the sky. As it progressed her mind grew empty. She had no real answers for her own questions let alone those Franz would ask. Where could they go?
Franz awoke as the rainclouds had returned to the sky above their sanctuary. They found themselves in each other’s arms. When the raindrops hit the window panes he turned to see. Beside him Carmen lay quiet and he kissed her on the forehead, his fingers tracing loops on her arm.
– “Better get up, I suppose.”
– “Mmmmm,” Carmen mumbled.
– “No, no it’s just, it’s. Well, it’s Saturday.”
Franz knew and would have been willing to let the day dwindle into the nothingness of evening but he felt restless. He sensed that it was a restlessness born out of innocence but would bring guilty results. Leaving their bed they dressed silently. Instead of breakfast they decided on an early lunch. The rain spat at them from the clouds inconsistently as they pulled their raincoats tight. Armoured against the whole of the world they stepped out from the porch. There were no workmen because of the rain and the wound had been temporarily mended. Taking the bus into the city centre they browsed bookshops before taking lunch in a small cafe, away from the milling crowds of shoppers. Their togetherness was an oasis and their mood improved as the time passed. They remained in the city as little as possible but stayed for a film walking along the embankment before heading home.
As they turned the corner of their street they found themselves in the midst of boughs and branches shorn from the old elm. Franz halted dead in his stride. All joy evaporated on seeing the large pieces of canopy strewn around the roots. Carmen gently led Franz inside.
As they lay in bed Carmen noticed a tear on his cheek. She let sleep overcome her tiredness but for Franz it was not so easy. The night trains began their vigil, their rumbles cleaving a path through his brain. The sound of the machine crudely masked those of the earth as it swung its continuous arc through space. The silent night remained an elusive place. As he yearned for a silence he feared did not exist, Franz lay awake. Carmen’s breathing belonged to the silence. The great elm in the wind belonged to the silence. The conspiracy did not. The night trains did not; their poignant echoing call bouncing along the empty yards and gullies, voices moving slowly through the still air. There would to be no answer to their call.
Franz lay awake for hours before leaving Carmen again. The night became clearer as the wind rose to greet him. The wind invigorated him, lifting his step. Seeking again the highest place, his favourite place on the hill he saw the city reveal itself again. Lying below, vulnerable he felt an ache for those that lay within as he had for the tree.
Inside the song of life rose up, a grinding melody and deeply resonate mood. Stretching out his limbs he felt the muscles tense, stretching further as if to encapsulate everything and yet nothing.
Across the city, lights appeared in the western sky. Arcing over the city they headed higher towards the hill. Taking delight in this event he watched as a new set joined the others in tight formation. He lay back on the damp grass, eyes heaven bound, watching the aircraft take a position among the stars for a short time. As they neared, one after the other their alignment formed a liaison with the moon. In unison these arrogant sons of technology joined hands with an ancient soul. The night trains dwindled into the distance smothered by the sound of the wind as it coursed its way through the trees around the hill. The wake noise of jet engines overlapped with the wind as it grew ever stronger, ever more alive. Franz closed his eyes and listened. He heard the earth murmur. He heard it breathe. He rode its back into the night-side. He felt the emptiness of space rush past him. He felt his singularity. He touched the horizon. He glimpsed tomorrow. He saw the future as he saw the past. The boundary between had dissolved. He felt no longer the earth as ground but cloud, carrying him onward. Weight and gravity left him. He slept.
As Franz woke he saw the day’s new light touch the highest floors. Leaving the hill he recognised a new silence that had revealed itself at the threshold. He knew this would always be with him. Joining Carmen his heart was coloured with a new sense of understanding.
Later as Sunday opened into their flat she awoke to a smile.
– “You were out again last night.”
– “What sort of day is it.”
– “It is Sunday after all.”
Franz smiled and kissed Carmen’s forehead and her eyes. The night trains would no longer conspire or haunt him. He had found what evaded him, within himself, within Carmen. Nature would find a way.
© 1987 Jon Gregory