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The wind from the Pacific was stronger and cooler than the time of year suggested it might have been. Salt sea wind and hot sun burned pale skins, and caught unhatted heads so that the unwary were struck down. In the evening they collapsed. The next day was spent motionless in the cool of their room. That was how it was for unsuspecting visitors to the ocean.
They had expected warm, white sand and high waves. They had seen themselves in the southern heat, in cotton clothes and shaded glass. They were sitting beneath enormous parasols where iced drinks were served at welcome intervals. The surfers were young and skilled. From the boardwalk came the rhythms of desire and expectation. That was, of course, how it had been in everything they had seen and heard of the coast. Anything less was wrong, like being told a movie star was not as tall as he acted.
There was a picture, a long time in the making, of which they were the stars. It was called “California”. Now it was being ruined by the studio executives out of spite for the undoubted talent they had shown in telling the truth. The truth as it ought to be.
When the wind came in cooler, names were being removed from the credits. This was another picture, a second feature that nobody would want to see. They could hear the popcorn and the derisive snickers of the kids waiting for the main attraction to appear at last.
The following day, early, they were going upstate through the wine country towards the mountains and forests that were natural wonders, not the celluloid that a studio could destroy. Nobody yawned at the sight of bears coming a little too close to the tour bus. Larry, the driver, said calmly, ‘Now, don’t you get scared. These fellas are more scared of the roar of this engine when I start up. Nobody gets hurt.’ And that was true because the bears are scattered by the man-beast’s power. Bears could look in wonder at the iron birds that did no harm. But these land creatures killed anything in their path.
And in the evening they tasted more of the wine. Tonight it was a merlot as fine as the European wines, they felt sure. They talked to a couple of German college girls with excellent English. The Germans spoke clearly, addressing most of their answers to her rather than him, and asking no questions of him. But the young women were amiable behind the perfectly understandable caution. If you were foreign and young and pretty (and female) it was wise to be cautious on vacation. ‘You’re cautious enough yourself now’, later he said to her incautiously.
The howl of what was that? – a coyote? – in the distance served to remind everybody that this was wilderness. This was not a city park. Of course there were rangers. And there were rules: ‘Do not wander. Do not think you are Daniel Boone. The cabins are safe. The only creatures you may see there are lizards, and they will do you no harm, alarming as they may seem when they leap.’
Then there was a city again. It took hours of highways, not all in good repair, before the first glimpse of tall towers of steel and glass flashing in the sunlight. That was the city, but not as they had wanted it to be. You think of wooden-boarded pavilions in rows climbing the steep hills where cable cars act like scary rides at a funfair. That is what they wanted to see. And the sight of the famous bridge, old enough to be much-copied, but looking original even now.
There were many pavilioned streets above the aspiring tedium of the financial district. They were searching for poetry. The city was a poem that you were writing as you walked to the sight of celebrated landmarks. There was the bridge, the tower, the wharf, the church, the prison island long since abandoned.
The sight of the prison island, especially in its abandonment, made you shiver. You could imagine yourself, falsely accused, over there in years of solitary. Now your ghost with vengeful cries haunts the visitors who idly pass by.
Someone screamed when a street performer bursts jack-in-the-box style from a trash can. A prisoner had escaped, a madman was on the loose, rampaging through the city. Then there was laughter when the audience got the joke. A couple with a Midwestern look shrugged indifferently. Well, this is San Francisco. What do you expect?
You expect poetry. It was poetry that attracted them: the ease of living in a community that had nowhere further to go except upward into Parnassus. This was the world’s edge. The ocean is a reminder of the impermanence of things. The constantly changing waters may take this grain of sand to China. Or else it sinks into the undiscovered depths of the Pacific where mountains that dwarf the Andes are submerged. We do not know our world, you say. The city made their thoughts profound and their feelings poignant.
There was a haze in the distance, an uncertainty that would pass over as rain. They hoped to reach Chinatown before the deluge. The darkening heavens forebode bad tidings of the world in flood. In the commercial blocks there was shelter but no hope. Who wants to be marooned in a business colony? There were places to pass through on the way to the living and interesting. It was, they reflected, disturbing the way the financial districts of the world had come to resemble one another. This could be anywhere. It was, they concluded, nowhere.
There was another anonymity in Chinatown where so much life was hurrying noisily on seemingly urgent business of a kind they could not translate into the calm that was their preference. But here was the taste of the far side of the ocean that they had admired so much. These were the people who had flown across the world in search of something they could not find at home. Whatever it was it was not peace. That, like poverty, they would have in the village of a mountain province. Here was a chance that fortune had offered. The gate they had entered was of tarnished gold. They scurried, chattering among themselves, for purposes no stranger could discern. The visitors moved invisibly, spectrally through their lives. An ancient civilization has seen nations and empires come and go. What makes a visitor worth a second look?
The Church of St Francis cast a shadow at the crossroads. The shrine was calmer than the weather that threatened the day. They found shelter, among books, as the rain swept across. Not even the house of God was spared the deluge. The significance seemed almost profound for a moment, only to fade before he or she could speak.
Then there was the poetry itself. This is what they had hoped to find. No, this is what they knew they would find as the heavens fell in fury, and the city lights made sense of premature night.
Across the road they saw two young women with oilskins. Their backpacks looked like the pilgrim’s burden. She noticed them, and tugged at his sleeve. ‘Look, it’s those two we met in the nature reserve.’ But, looking again, she saw she had been mistaken. The truth was she was hoping to see someone familiar, for they knew nobody here. Such coincidences did occur, of course, usually in fiction. It was one of the weaknesses of Dickens. It was a reason, they both agreed, for not reading him, although there were good reasons for forgiving him. ‘Barnaby Rudge’ he said. ‘Isn’t that the one set in America? Or is that Chuzzlewit?’
But this was not a fiction where everything is a network of chances written in complete sentences that furnished a series of paragraphs with a conclusion that made sense of everything that had gone before. They were speaking in phrases and overlapping dialogue. She was not listening as attentively as he hoped. He was not speaking as clearly as she wished.
The rain stilled the traffic. Empty streets so early were an unexpected sight. People were changing their plans. There had been an electrical storm once when they took a bus out in the country. Someone’s dog was desperately barking and squirming frantically. Then there was the time in a hotel when it snowed and flashed with lightning, and they felt secure, watching the world end. This, however, was no more than Californian rain that would soon pass.
In unfamiliar places you think, ‘They have weather just like ours.’ They have many things. The crazy old bearded man at the window, for example. Was he looking for someone? Very likely not. He was looking. He had been looking for so many years he had forgotten what it was he had sought. Anticipation had given way over the years to a bemused expression that asked a question to which there was no answer.
He was searching for a metaphor he could not find. One day, wandering the streets of the city he would stumble upon a few words that would explain everything he needed to know. Perhaps it would be a line of a busker’s song, or a graffito elegantly inscribed by an unknown. Perhaps it was going to be something overheard in some strangers’ conversation. Those two in there, browsing – do they have something to tell me?
They walked back to the hotel when the rain eased a little. They hoped the clouds would part so that the moon would be in view. Tonight was a full moon. He told her of a moon he had seen at midsummer. No longer a pale, luminous eye upon the world, this moon was larger and darker. This was not how it should be. It had felt like a portent, although he could think of nothing unusual happening afterward.
They liked to see a new moon, also. That sliver of lemon in the sky seemed so promising. If it portended anything it was surely something good. ‘There is a moon at home,’ she said. ‘It’s the same moon. But it doesn’t feel the same.’ She did not ask him if he understood. The assumption, naturally, was that he would understand. And if he did not then that was no fault of hers. It was no fault of the moon.
Nobody supposes they will end up crazy and old, peering through windows. The young always will be the stars of their movies. It is later that we see ourselves as passers-by. The old man looking in is the young man reading the book. But that is not a thought we like to think.
They were so far from home. It had taken a long time to come this far. So long a time had passed, it seemed, since they had arrived. Each of them felt a change inside, a quiet, barely perceptible transformation that usually takes some time to work its way through one’s being. Neither of them spoke of this, but it was there.
They had seen more of the world than they had imagined. They imagined further journeys to distant places. As children these places were known while remaining out of reach. They planned that one day they would reach those places, including the Pacific shore. Every journey made a difference. Every homecoming was to somewhere less familiar. Home was half-forgotten. Had the invitation to remain been given, had it been possible to accept, the temptation would have been powerful. Perhaps it was the moon affecting human lives as it affected the motions of the sea. Without the moon people would feel differently, they were sure. Perhaps they would not feel at all.
These were late night thoughts. In the morning there would be ordinary and necessary things to do that would shape their day. Sometimes there was a visible moon in daylight. It was something a bright child observes before telling other children, who are intrigued by this world-shaking discovery.
But in the morning there was no moon. It was a clear, unclouded day. A plane flew over, rising as it turned in a wide arc. There were crazy old men who once thought they could fly. And there were beautiful young women who were dreaming in the sky. That was how life was, and how it would be for ever. Most of the world’s poetry remains unfinished. But occasionally there rises the metaphor that stills all other considerations for a moment. We search for those moments, only to stumble on one unexpectedly, if at all.
In the ocean were turtles and sharks and whales. Their world was the same earth as ours, yet a world seen only in glances. It was out there beyond the rhythms of the surf. The bridge was closed to walkers because people had been known to jump. In the ocean they sought oblivion. What they would find was beyond conjecture. Like the surf, our thoughts cascander in contemplating these things.
The day was fine. The streets were dried by the sun after the rain. That was yesterday. They could not remember everything about yesterday because today was already passing. ‘You folks just sit and relax, and we’ll bring your order,’ said the man in the café. He was Italian-American, an Easterner by his accent. He had come out West for who knows what reason? He seemed to have found it. And that was more than many could say.
Here at the edge of the world it was possible to realize something of one’s hopes because the ocean ebbed and flowed, and the land was moving beneath one’s feet. Everything, they could see now, was given to change. They were not the same as they had been before they came. That was how it was. That was the script they had to learn by heart.
Geoffrey Heptonstall is a poetry reviewer with The London Magazine. Recent creative work includes poetry for Dead Ink, The English Chicago Review, International Literary Quarterly, London Grip, Message in a Bottle, The Passionate Transitory, The Recusant and three anthologies, Connection, In on the Tide and Underground. There is recent fiction for Open Wide, Vintage Script and Writers’ Hub. New essays for Cerise Press and New Linear Perspectives are published this year. Geoffrey’s recent theatre writing includes a play, Providence, published in The Lampeter Review.