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As he climbed the fence he looked down the street again and it was still empty. Some stray dogs were on the corner, and one had detached itself from the group and followed him. It now sat regarding him curiously. Reaching the top of the fence, he swung himself over and then dropped awkwardly. He lay still, catching his breath, and watched the orange light from the street lamps filter through the mesh of the wire fence and the branches of the trees that hung down over him.
He looked at his watch. It was well past midnight.
It should be cooler now, he thought. But if anything it felt closer than it had earlier. His t-shirt stuck to him, and even in the darkness the air seemed to ripple with the heat.
He had been wandering the streets after drinking with new friends. It was a new city.
Somehow the excitement of arrival had overtaken him, and he’d drunk too much. There had been endless toasts with a harsh spirit that tasted of liquorice and which numbed his tongue. After, to clear his head, he had walked and allowed himself to become lost. But even as he wandered, he found he could always orient himself by the huge and ancient structure towering over the city, lit by spotlights. It was always there, glimpsed between alleys and high above the squares. He planned to visit tomorrow, or maybe the next day. But in his heightened state it somehow drew him to it, and after a while he found himself on a road that skirted the hill. A wire fence ran along the boundary and was overlooked by dark trees. And through the woods he could see it, the rocky ground rising steeply up towards the sky and the great temple like a beacon. Then the idea had formed that he must visit now. How wonderful it would be to explore the ruins alone, without crowds, he thought. And it was very unlikely anyone would notice. What harm could come of it?
He got to his feet and started to push his way up through the undergrowth.
He had seen the ruin for the first time that morning.
He was in a café, and the morning sun was already hot. It was a new city. It had been dark when his train had arrived the evening before. When the waiter brought him his coffee, they chatted. He asked him about the city, keen to learn, as always. The waiter explained how to say please and thank you, rolling the consonants. They both laughed at his efforts to copy the sounds. The language was unfamiliar and awkward to him. He couldn’t get his mouth around it.
On the table before him was a notebook, pressed open, pages empty. When he did lean over it to write, it was only to note his expenditure and make the daily calculation. How long could he keep on like this? The coffee was bitter. His thoughts wandered, but he found that his gaze was drawn always to the great stone ruin on the hill that dominated the city.
He chatted also to an old couple who sat at the next table. At first they were wary, eyeing his shaved head and the bracelets on his wrists. He had been travelling for months and it showed, on his skin and clothes and in the way he moved. But he was polite, and they quickly saw that he was gentle and open. He reminded them of their own son somehow, a little lost, searching for something, and they told him so. They insisted on paying his bill, and for the first time in weeks he had a pang of homesickness, which he quickly swallowed.
At first it was difficult to force a way uphill through the bushes and over the rocks. Several times he slipped and fell in the darkness. But then he found himself on a wide pathway, roughly paved, that climbed gently across the hillside. Here he stopped and looked back at the city spread below him. It was like an enormous jigsaw puzzle, he thought, lit by embers and flames. It went on for as far as he could see and the glow of it cast a gentle fire on the sky.
He followed the path and found himself beside a broken amphitheatre that reminded him of a vast and ancient seashell. Like all the other structures on the hill, it was illuminated with sodium lamps that cast a strange orange brightness like unwavering candlelight and seemed to distort scale and render the whole hillside unreal.
The temple was now directly above him, its many columns lit up and its interior filled with shadow. He followed the path and soon found himself on the top of the hill. Around the temple were a number of low flat-roofed structures which, he thought, might have been small dwellings, storage chambers, or perhaps even tombs. He climbed up onto one of them and lay down. The stone was warm.
Above him the fiery glow of the city spread across the sky.
He lay back on the stone and closed his eyes.
When he woke he did not know, for a moment, where he was. Lying back and looking up into the night sky, he remembered the encounter with Smith earlier that day. It had been like seeing his own ghost. And now he felt that Smith was haunting him.
It had been early in the afternoon. He was eating in a small place renowned not only for its food but also for its cheapness. He was seated in a small courtyard shaded by vines. The clientele was mainly young Europeans. A tall man in an old t-shirt and cargo shorts brought his bowl of food over and asked if he could sit with him. He was gaunt, and his skin was like leather. His head was shaved. His face was deeply creased, and he could have been anything between thirty and sixty. Around his wrists were leather bands and faded friendship bracelets, but no watch. On his upper arm a tattoo of a compass. A moment of recognition passed between them. He nodded and the man introduced himself, smiling: Smith, just Smith. They talked, comparing notes on their journeys and, having finished his food, he bought himself a beer and settled into the conversation.
“Have you been to the temple yet?” Smith asked, and he shook his head.
“It’s amazing,” Smith enthused, his eyes glowing. “Mind blowing, really. There’s a definite power up there.”
He nodded. He intended to go tomorrow, and said so.
“I might go too,” said Smith.
And he thought to himself, I don’t want to go with him. I want to go alone.
Tourist or traveller, Smith had asked him. Traveller, he had replied without hesitation. He understood the distinction. For a long time, intoxicated by Chatwin, Durrell, Laurie Lee, Malcolm Lowry and even Kerouac, he had believed travelling was an end in itself, a way of life, a philosophy even, by which one might attain self-knowledge. That it was not so much the things seen and the sites visited that were important, but the process of going from one to another. Time and space. Objects, people, and places could only teach so much. In travelling, passing through, moving on, giving oneself over, a different kind of insight could be gained.
Smith laughed and explained that he had been on the road for years. He called it wandering. In a hierarchy of the road, Smith was clearly a venerable master (even if self-appointed), while he was just a novice. Smith was scornful of guidebooks (and he was suddenly grateful that his own battered Lonely Planet was safely hidden in his rucksack). No one tells me what to do, Smith said vehemently. Sometimes he found work and stayed put for a few months. Mostly he wandered. He had been on the move for years. He was looking for something but didn’t know what it was. He had a vague idea he’d get to Constantinople and then keep going, try to get as far east as he could. Into the unknown. All that.
He watched Smith as he talked, drawn in by his intensity. The older man was scathing about what he called normal life and said fervently that he was encouraged by the violent protests against capitalism unfolding at home even as they were speaking. “Change is coming,” he said. “You watch.” He was even more damning of what he called touristic tendencies. Fucking cattle. Morons. He gestured around him. What started out as a kind of comedy rant quickly became a real one. Fucking morons. But then he laughed, and the anger had passed as quickly as it had come, which in itself was unnerving.
As they talked, he saw that Smith had the air of a kind of fanatic. “I won’t be tied down,” he said. “No way. No one tells me what to do. Never.” His commitment to non-commitment was absolute.
Smith’s eyes were bright but seemed to be always seeking out something far away, somewhere beyond. As they talked, he had the sense that Smith looked right through him and was instead focussed on some abstract place far down the road.
Somehow, this strange conversation put him off balance. The vision of the endless road east, which once would have been so intoxicating, had become terrifying. The sense of having no goal, no destination, was vertiginous. He thought to himself, I’ve lost my nerve.
There was a silence as Smith unzipped the leather pouch that hung from his belt and, extracting a small plastic bag and papers, quickly rolled a short joint. No thanks, he said, when Smith offered it. Too early for me.
Smith puffed and leaned back into the cushions, contented.
He watched him and thought, is it possible that I have never really done what I want, never really been true to myself? That I have always tried to act out a role? That, in essence, I’ve been lying to myself all this time?
His thoughts spiralled around and back upon themselves and, to distract himself, he questioned Smith, who was sitting in a haze of blue smoke. How do you keep going, he asked. Seasonal work, fruit picking, building sites, Smith explained. Of course, you have to be very careful with money. Sometimes you get lucky. He nodded, thinking of the kindly couple paying for his breakfast. And sometimes you have to make your own luck, Smith whispered, winking grotesquely, and made a gesture as of dipping his fingers into a pot.
In a way Smith was good company – he had many stories to tell and was happy to tell them to whoever would listen – but there was something maniacal about him that he found deeply unsettling. He had been out too far and for too long. It was as if all those days and months and years of travelling, of living hand-to-mouth, had honed him to a fine point or stretched him out too thinly. Normally he would have been fascinated by this, would have wanted to know Smith’s story. He might even have written it down in his notebook, thinking perhaps it pertained to his own journey. But something seemed to have cracked in him, and instead he was appalled. I’ve lost my nerve, he thought again. Don’t let me end up like him, he said to himself. That road is endless.
“You know,” said Smith, with a smile, “there comes a time after which it is impossible to turn back. After that, you have no choice but to keep going.”
He nodded and smiled, but the concept filled him with dread.
An acquaintance of Smith joined them, and then the drinking began in earnest. Suddenly there was a group of them, and he found himself buying many drinks, recklessly burning through his limited funds. The conversation had undone him, and he felt the need of strong drink to steady himself. Then at some point Smith was gone, and he felt a curious relief. He could not escape the feeling that the older man was an auger, that he somehow represented one of many possible futures. But by then the moment, his chance to address the problem, whatever it might have been, had passed, and he gave himself over to the night.
But now perhaps he has another chance. He has been asleep. When he wakes he does not know, for a moment, where he is. And that feeling of being lost is truly terrifying. It is like swimming out to sea and then looking down and being unable to see the bottom, only a deep and dark void. He seems to have come adrift in some way. He is far from home, and it is the only thing he is certain of. But then it comes back. The journey and everything else. And Smith, the ghost.
It is deep in the night and everything is quiet and still and the city is holding its breath. The lights stretch for as far as he can see and twinkle and ripple like tiny fires.
Could he still make it right? Even to start again? Is there time to sort it all out, or has he gone too far?
Slowly the fear passes. As he watches the flickering lights far below he begins to feel an extraordinary sense of relief. A weight has lifted. He has escaped. He cannot help but think that somehow he has avoided a catastrophe. Somehow, by climbing up here above the city, he has cheated fate. He has cheated Smith, even.
He thinks of the blank pages in the notebook and knows it is over. It is not defeat; it is acceptance. He finally knows now, after months, he has been chasing the wrong dream. He must get to his hotel and sleep. Tomorrow he will need to start again.
He thought he was, but he is not of Smith’s kind.
Wearily, he picks himself up and climbs down from the stone slab.
A pale line of light appears on the horizon. It is just a slit, an opening in the veil of the darkness, but the day is coming.
He begins to carefully make his way back down the mountainside.