Walking along a dusty road. Trouser legs flap in the wind. Beaten up trainers ready to retire. Face pocked with red submission to the relentless beam of the sticky sun. Glasses sweating. Hat a tight container of fire and hair. Mouth parched, dry and open as a plain. Shirt drenched from the back downwards and along the wiry spine. Torso stretched. Knees screaming. Lips an unnatural combination of pale tan and dusty white. Nose a desperate life force, searching the unforgiving surroundings for a morsel of clean air.
The trail is overwrought with dirt and dust and sand but no life. The ground is a continuous dry well, a disappointment of lost riches. Its once magnificent and celebrated landscape has been cursed into an indifferent barren wasteland of nothing's choosing. Meagre stones, untouched for an age, lie still in the orange dirt, aching from a previous life. The odd discarded piece of litter, from the times when this place was bustling, is the only point of interest to spy. The dust on the ground wearily builds, then decays, as the path keeps endlessly winding towards the stern sun. The pain that has been felt by this place is unfathomable.
With no warning, I stumble across the mark. There it sits, decades forgotten but as the real as the hair on my heavy, wet head. Though it has a generous amount of orange wisp atop, the mark is unmistakable. Two fat black lines converging to make an off-centre 'x'. At least once it must have been black. Now even grey would be a generous description. It looked bleak, ancient, smudged. Destitute. Off-brand. What I am sure was once an imposing, vengeful symbol of brutality and cruel order, was now an aged relic; a bleak, tiny reminder of another world, another time, another dictator. This stale stamp in the ground was, in living memory, the symbolic manifestation of the callous and devastating adventures of man. Given what this abominable mark was ultimately responsible for, the reckless hate and repression it represented, it only seemed fitting to me it should now occupy a barely breathing cesspit of civilisation.
Only the morbidly curious and the obsessively fascinated would bother to find this wretched beast. And yet even today, when the extent of the crimes and depravity of the regime is public record and mandatory reading for our youngest, there are those that will defend the alleged honour and sacrifice of such a symbol until they, too, are as abandoned and forgotten as this wretched x in the dirt.
I stood on the x with all the effort of a blink of the eye. When I stood on the x, I stood on the shoulders of giants, of tyrants, of rabid ideologues with no death count limitations, no fear of the slumped carcass of man. I felt the power of a rush of good intentions and bad consequences to the head. Blood and triumph and villainy. I felt the heady imagination of a figure playing God, with the force of thousands of people at my disposal: manpower, brains, cannon fodder. I stood atop a platform of top-down chaos and organised catastrophe; I stood with brutal men that believed they held the profound ingenuity to change a mass of lives, even make people footnotes in some terrible human-management disaster for a future history lesson. It was unyielding.
But for all its past glory and abomination, it was now just a faded x, overtaken by the harsh progression of nature, the absence of man, now doomed as merely a slice of obscurity, a cut from a far-away constellation in the modern-day human psyche.
I stepped off the mark.
With one last look at the sullen tattoo on the ground, I kept walking. Back to the oppressive heat, the brief excursion into the past's eye made me temporarily escape this open-air coffin. According to the short man at the grove, after the x is revealed, the best bet is to keep going forward. I considered turning right back around when I observed the never-ending nothingness ahead, but I think the existentially of that return journey would render my soul stunted. No, progress was the only vehicle for this journey. The short man was quite specific about the journey after the x being two-thirds the time of the journey to reach it. That should be a good thing, but remembering the hellish, torturous torment of even getting to that point, it made me grimace and growl. My insides were erupting.
Still, I kept on. To Mars! And to never see that x or any of its political reincarnations beating down on the people again. And to never forget the sacrifice of those who died, nameless and penniless. Those who made a stand but whom we will never know. They are the most unfulfilled, yet beautiful ghosts. For them, I pushed through the thick air to reach a better place.
I spied her on one my lonely walks in the depths of South London. She walked like she had something to lose, but I couldn't tell what. She didn't glance in a straight line, but rather rapidly darted her glare across different spectrums. Her eyes were squinty, looking for a reason to remain alone. Her nose crinkled at an alarming rate, as did the unruly pace of her steps. Her hair was a rather jaded shade of auburn, which flowed messily with the wisp of the October wind. It was deceptively thin and smoky. Her mouth was small like a toddler's. Her chin was non-existent. She had faint lines on her forehead and inner cheeks-they cried out for a stress-free commute. Her neck was slender and featureless, as was her waist. Her chest was understated, a recycled labyrinth of dissatisfaction and indifference to intimacy. She wore a mild yellow jumper, that wanted to be a turtleneck but instead squandered the look. It was not ironically unfashionable, nor chic in any sense. Her hips moved with distrust and a brusque London stiffness that gave her a savage ora of defensiveness. Her jeans looked old and worn, like they should have been discarded circa 2007. They only loosely gripped her lower figure, giving her a paradoxical leg length and height. The legs themselves were straight-edge and relentless. The jeans abruptly cut off near the ankle, in an awkward spot known for nothing in particular. A tiny glimpse of her off-grey socks gave away nothing. She sported black, chunky boots with blocky heels. Her skin was notably pale, with the blessing of dozens of freckles, but not hundreds. They splattered her fair complexion with indiscriminate care. There were clusters, like constellations of the soul, and lone wolves that guarded the heart. I wanted to paint every single one.
The sky was grey, yet the atmosphere was cheery. People ducked in and out of each other's way with accidental precision. Dogs lapped up muddy water, content as can be. People could see their own breath evaporate into the fog. The clock tower solemnly watched the scene before itself, grim, still and majestic.
A woman walked alone along the beaten path, her boots positively caked. Her bag swung back and forth as she wordlessly trundled along the seemingly unlimited space. Her mind was on the moment.
As she neared the taxi rank, the rain began. The clouds ravaged their lovers, and drenched their victims. Situational pandemonium. People rushed towards oak trees, pubs, black cabs and archways.
But the woman remained in the ever-growing downpour, aimlessly wondering.
A taxi-man lowered his window, perhaps out of concern or out of survival instinct.
"Don't you want to go home?," he asked innocuously.
The woman turned slowly to him, face and hair completely drenched. Then she beamed the biggest grin you'd ever seen. It stretched across her face like mating cheekbones.
"I am home."
Two friends walk up to the wreckage.
“What a waste” one says.
The other agrees.
They survey the rubble, looking for anything and nothing all at once. They find burnt out books, busted memories, unknown keepsakes.
Nothing of obvious substance.
“Hey, look over here.”
The larger one has spied something, after some substantial time has passed.
A golden locket, in a perfect oval shape. It has several scratches, but only like it had just been through the tumble dryer. Not like what had actually happened. The chain attached to the small piece looks worn, tired and confused.
“Well, this will have to do. Still, what a waste.”
The other grunts.
They begin to walk away, as the larger one cracks open the locket with a snapping of his crooked fingers.
“Huh. Would you look at that?”
A distinct and womanly face looks back at him. Gaunt and sunken, yet endearingly tough and pretty. Her wrinkles suggested years of hardship, but there was a glint marginally brighter than the worn gold in her black and white eyes.
The friend only glances, whilst the other, looking over his shoulder, truly stares.
In a second, it’s over. The grubby fingers have closed the portal.
They keep trudging on.
“I think you took the last one” the larger one announces loudly, “Is that fair?”
The other bites his lip but nods in watered-down submission.
As they nearly go their separate ways, the larger one actually looks at the other. For the first time, he truly notices him. He almost feels emotion.
“Ah heck, you can take it. I know you’ve got a family to feed” he beams, his good deed done for the day.
The other catches the locket in his mouse hands and squeaks a muted noise of gratitude.
The two depart to their assigned agency centres.
The other walks until there’s nobody in sight. Nothing but repetitive front lawns and ambient destruction around him, he briefly feels the forgotten concept of privacy.
He takes a deep breath and opens up the locket, this gem into another’s life.
He sees the face of his worst fears, the realisation that she is now just a faded memory. Her only remains lie in the hands of the bottom-feeders of life. Her eyes pierce into his, but he knows he will never hear her sweet, hoarse whisper in his undeserving ear ever again.
He holds back a tear, as his face shapeshifts back into the mandated emotionless mould it is paid to be.
He closes the locket and places what was once his heart into the partially sewn shut pocket on the front of his overalls, the only place they will not search back at the agency.
He just lost the love of his life, and can never tell a soul in this petty world.
She was real, she chose to make a stand. That is what made her forbidden.
Now it's just grey.
She knew. She fucking knew.
I said "Yes I really want to."
I said "Let's do it, let's get really drunk, let's have a good time"
She said "I don't believe you."
She could see it in my eyes. It didn't matter the scope of the lie or its delivery. Sometimes your face can betray your mask.
She was simple, I had just met her. In that way, perhaps she knew me better than these distant friends, who have seen me in the same light since we were all seventeen.
I brush off her assertions.
"Sorry, maybe it's just my ora. Perhaps I come off as awkward!"
That's right, brush it off. Shift the blame. Alter the spotlight. Distance. Always distancing yourself.
She laughs nervously, and apologies profusely. She didn't mean to offend. Of course she didn't mean to offend. The problem is, she didn't offend but told the truth.
Some people never tell the truth. You could be hinting at depression, and they'd only see their crazy friend being wacky. They could turn a monologue into a tale about them. I find it hard to trust.
By the time the other two returned with the drinks, I felt more than embarrassed. I felt like an unborn egg in the hands of my destroyers.
They got me two sugary drinks filled with additives. I could practically feel my dentist's disappointment. Still, one mustn't complain.
We chit chatted, as they say. The awkwardness never arose again. Never again did the seeds of truth seep through. It was super superficial.
I had a good time. One of the most common misconceptions of this condition is we are never happy. I find it near impossible to be miserable all of the time. It sneaks up on you, when you're alone mostly. Even in groups it can infiltrate your brain. But I do like getting drunk.
Drink can ease the pain. That doesn't make me an alcoholic. I swear. I don't drink everyday, I don't drink as relief. All I'm saying, is I like to go out and drink while I'm at it. And I drink to get drunk, otherwise I'm oblivious to the point.