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Strangerís return (intro)

The coach was going through the east end late at night, the coach whizzing through. Churches visible at street level, and higher up just a chessboard flurry of lights-on, lights-off, with less detail with each storey. None of the shops are open. The empty rooms look sad. Sleepy espresso machines through the gleaming windows, leaving white strips and rectangles in erratic spaces on the glass. Anything new here? The general outlook is the same as all those years ago: thereís a vibe that gathers currency with time and is chained to the buildings Ė but years have altered the little details since I had a presence here. Itís the evidence of the shifting passage of time and proof that the city has a relentless pace, that the energy itself pushes things forwards and changes all landscapes; at least thatís how it feels in my head. And in my head I have tried to compute the emotions, to see how this sudden impact will affect me. But my own vague notions of where I am and where I think I should be going offer only a brittle insight into the bigger picture. On my first arrival, I left the provinces behind and set down my suitcase here. Then, gradually, I felt an under-skin, weighty pull to flee the place I loved the most and where I once thought I would do the 9-5 under the graphite skies forever. A maturing urge to fall on another star. So I uprooted my hefty foundations and waved goodbye and cried for hours in inconsolable self-indulgence until I realised I ought to have the robust conviction to match my decision. It all led me to dream-pastel outposts, glacial palacelands on the northern peripheries, candle-powered barren villages that were barely on the map, windswept hill-forts on which I tangled with wild animals after dark and frivolous binges with virginal comrades in some of the most debauched lands beyond prying eyes. When I look back at those days, most of them dribble away into sepia muddles, and I retain only smallish emotional elements that have formed into exaggerated colours and hardcore sounds. I learnt so much when I was there that my head is now bursting with info. Stuff like life lessons that are never explicit or written down in a manual for easy reference at points of crisis. And ones that made me sit up and go Ďoh yeah. Cheers!í to whoever had stumbled over the exact diamond of genius for the moment. Overseas the sun was usually a pound-coin furnace that lit up my heart and gave me an unexpected tan, putting a picture frame on each of these instances, separating them from Ďnormalí events of moisture-soaked autumn earliness back in the deadening shadows of our friendly UK structures, the structures that loom even when Iím not giving them my full attention. You know the ones. Those other-country snippets were from a different mould, cut with an alien tint that only exists when circumstances and place have bamboozled the mind and surroundings, and the pace of the trips dictate that familiarity is a finite thing. How long was I gone for? I never remember, and I should have written it down. No diaries remain. Sometimes in the dusty market squares under the heat it felt like my life was reaching its end with my reddened face blistering as I was gravitating towards the latest moment or meet-up where my soul was exposed to enlightenment. Now these ancient rows of towers loom up through the ice-pop blues that Iím staring into, and Iím unable to quite appreciate the definitions or the idea that Iíve returned to a place that was once my desired stomping ground. My life has been uprooted. These roots are flapping around my feet, swotting the past away. Itís not even that Iím certain Iíve lost some of the things I had Ė Iíve got no tangible evidence, more a deep inclination the alliances formed in the past might be consigned to it. Feelings swoop down around here, and nestle in the mist thatís amplified by lights, and those feelings are hard to dislodge. The mist. Iíd forgotten that mist, and not even willingly, it was just one of the things Iíd pushed to some depth in my mind. Now Iím seeing the colours in the clouds and they breathe a dulled joy back into my soul. It softens the impact of my poignant readmittance to the place I bared all to but then walked out on, when I deserted everyone when it was simpler to do that than wait for everything to crumble; maybe when I was at the height of my powers. I owned the city. Or at least I owned my corner of it. I felt safe within it, I felt like a gem. Those colours now place me back at some undetermined time in some strange winter when my heart smiled even though it was tipping the frosty zones, and I couldnít feel my face. My allies felt close in those days, like their nearness got in the way of the brutal forces of wind and rain, and flooded me in a glow that I took everywhere I went. Or at least thatís what I link to them Ė I make a navigable route, mentally, that puts people in the right places, and tangible feelings next to them, in a manageable box. I force a narrative from a pile of meandering episodes that are flawed on their own, and I re-form the moments so that they are clean, context-less almost, and put them in bitesize chunks in my mind, and construct a sanctuary I can always return to when time moves forward, like it has now. And I will need it, as I fear this place has not waited for me. The roads are straight and they lead into the jaw-firm City, and I can see it getting closer for ages, from computer-graphic specks that disturb the treeline, growing until they finally become proper landmarks: the remnants of the Olympic Park, the twisted red metal, the tip of the Shard. Then there are the ones that jump out with no warning, hidden in the roadsides of Liverpool Street. I should have waited here! This rain is so... of the past, with its chunks falling down like fiery ants in the cig-end streetlights. Much like before, as the misty figures dip in and out of sight and then merge into each other. Some of them resemble old friends, or eerie versions of them at least, walking off into their own personal parts of the past. I see them briefly as they disappear into the crack-thin alleyways, before being eaten up in an ambiguous mix of shadows, steam and multi-lights. They go again, until, other versions roam by the tiny drinkersí outposts that change shape and change place, but always never really seem to move. The unfixed city furniture that gives me a headache, a bulging one now as I move through this emotional debris-filled land. There isnít a block without a bar, and there isnít a bar without a crowd. If thereís a single good thing this conjures in me, itís some kind of forgotten chord, the cumulative sounds from everything out here; coach going through, plus heard sounds from the street-people, blink-and-miss clips pounding from student flats, and I havenít heard that for years. That prospect of things to come, of an energy just beginning, on its upward curve. The snippets hijack open coach windows and I am filled with a strange hope-not-hope. I look at my face once more in the coach window, and now I definitely donít know where I am, and donít know how long Iíve been gone. I donít want to keep looking inbetween these buildings for things I lost a long time ago. But I crave this chase, trying to pick up the pieces. Iím going to grab the past no matter what! Iíll try to gather up every little bit, even though it hurts all my limbs, like theyíre being pushed in opposite directions by solid hands of rocks, and Iíll shatter the distance that has been drawn out between the reality of these lands and how I remember them. Iíll creep into all of the alleyways, pulling back the fog and mists, to drag those days back into my landscape. And if I stumble upon anything tangible then my heart just might be placed on a peaceful tack where I might then be able to rest and not be mired in this nowhere land of uncertainty. I deserve this solace. I admit, I was reckless when I lost my bottle, having thought by running away I would be more of a dramatic hero than a spineless non-committer. But I was in love - I think - and I had grown disillusioned with, and passionless towards, other aspects of my life and the city, which was a newer brand than the one that had attracted me just a few years earlier. In all my histrionics I convinced myself that I needed, and was due, a clean break. So I ran like a child at the height of my most powerful friend-filled glory days. I thought I would be missed. Maybe I was, but that level of self-importance would be my downfall. Now I know to have remained, with a steady attitude, I wouldnít have been so near the emotions of sheer loss and fear that I felt and still feel. And at least I wouldnít be the stranger that I am now. But, regrettably, Iím not that sensible Ė who is, apart from those mechanical people who canít even think? And those who sit, and wait, and stay, and stay.. forever. I fled, because deep down I wanted to, and even though I pulled myself out of those boroughs where I was beginning to make my mark and write my name in those glowing ledgers, it was an easy choice in the end, the most meaningful choice. So why do I deserve some solace now? Because I want payback for not being normal, I want payback for being the risk-taking fool when most people would have played it safe. I missed this place, and itís a missing that is deep in the basement of my chest Ė but pityís not going to be handed out, even in small portions. Pity dies in these lands, and why should it be any other way? The survival of the fittest is the marked evolution in these parts, and looking into these lands I know for real that they have evolved without me. Yet I still demand a crumb of solace. I demand that! Because this is the only place I ever felt content. Iíd be lying if I said I felt comfortable; I didnít at all. But somewhere inside me a little shiny, floaty thing boomed and after years of being detached from wherever I happened to be I was ready to invest in my surroundings, to spend whatever time it took to totally make them mine and make it all worthwhile. These were my roads. These were my buses. These were my streetlamps. And to an extent, these were my people too. I stuck to it, and it all stuck back to me. I sensed the spirit in the air - a thing deep there but palpable - and it fizzed in a way Iíd never known. It was dark-deathly, but the life in it too grabbed me, seduced me and crept into an impressionable part of my soul and so I stayed, hugging the seas of beautiful dark-yellow street bulbs in the winter and the persistent orange-ball sun in the summer (suns that made days stretch out more than the regulation 24 hours). What was that sense and where has it gone? I predicted what it would offer, traced a vague sense of it, like the roughest outline of the future. I had an identity Ė it had one too. I swam into the traffic lights, and got lost in these roads because every way seemed to be different, and I couldnít decipher any of them, and I wanted to feel them envelope me and I couldnít wait to be lost and disorientated, and to feel as though I had a challenge in front of me and something that offered a battle and the chance of victory. And it was only when it appeared that I might be losing - that I might lose - did I decide to flee, like that frown-itchy mid-summer night when I couldnít sleep and I got so angry and decided to cut my losses. Just the same as in any love affair the beautiful spark faded and I couldnít handle those irritations the city was great at giving any more. It killed me having to jump. In my mind I still had alleys of puzzles that I wanted to crack, and I was within touching distance of doing that. How easy it would have been too. But my fallibility (stupidity?) meant that, even though the people who might have been able to illuminate my ignorance were at the other end of the phone, I couldnít bring myself to call them and so left huge gaps and created giant uncertainties. And I still want the answers now. The crumb of solace. But if I hadnít left then I never would have. Leaving in the middle of the story - the story unfolding around me - was always how it was going to conclude, at least in my mind. Thatís how it panned out. Even though I like to construct a tapestry of drama around myself, as I think it generates shock, I knew the notion that some unfinished business would stay lingering, that the city held too much for me to never return. Itís not as if I cut my ties Ė I left many of my relationships open, I wasnít rude and didnít tell anyone I was going. A mysterious man has to keep his mysterious ways, right? I wanted people to wake up in the morning and find me gone. No goodbye notes. No extended letting go. Leaving it open was the best, because I always knew then that I could go back, but didnít have to. I was the nice guy. I didnít go around telling people I never wanted to see or hear from them again, probably gave my enemies too much respect by simply staying out of their way, instead of going for the throats. And they probably thought I ran away, which in many ways I did. And now I return, begging for an easy ride from a place that has forgotten who I am Ė if it ever knew at all. I told you my mind was warped, told you I normally ask for too much. I want forgiveness... when I bottled it, and nobody pushed me. I just want that tiny crumb, though, to neutralise the pounding in my head and my throbbing chest. Just that one thing. Letters scanning down the side of the buildings Ė we are still whizzing through the city, late at night, whizzing through, and, a little bit, Iím beginning to feel alive again.

© Copyright 2017 John Maher