for Sunday, 11 September 2011
Voshchev picked the dry leaf up and tucked it away in his bag, in a secret place where he kept all kind of hapless and forgotten objects. “You never had any meaning in life,” Voshchev surmised with meagre sympathy. “Stay lying here – I’ll find out what it was you lived and died for…”
Andrey Platonov :The Foundation Pit.
Near the start of the 'second Canal', as Marlène referred to it, second only in the sense of its distance from the house and without consideration for the direction in which the water flowed, as it later dawned on me, I noticed it, the stone, late around three-thirty in the afternoon having set out from the house at around three o’clock. The house backed on to the first canal close to the point where the water disappeared into a copious pipe which carried it further round the town, which was set in a circle of wooded hills, the end furthest from the start of the second canal and near to where the so-called first began. First and second, it was all the same canal with its source many kilometres to the north. As I reached the point on the first furthest from the house, that is after a walk of some twenty to thirty minutes to where the water bubbled up from the mouth of a submerged pipe, and the path curved down abruptly ending at the side of her petite route, as Marlène had called it while giving me directions, I had no memory of having passed anyone, and it was, I thought the wrong time of day for people to be about. The narrow road which I recalled Marlène mentioning sloped steeply down to somewhere or other through the trees to my right. Across the road the second canal began, or rather, and in hindsight, ended, since I was walking contrary to the direction in which the grey opaque water flowed, at some rate, I might add, though, I have to say, I had not previously made a mental note of the fact, and, as I stepped up to the sluice, I noticed the sunlight on the twisted iron of the broken railing on the right occupied the same surfaces, as in the morning, though to my imagination the intensity was not as great, which I thought, was something of an anomaly considering the heat, and at that moment, there and then registering the direction of the chalky grey water’s flow to be contrary to mine, why only then, I wondered, since, in addition, I realised I was aware of the direction of the flow, it was already known to me, no surprise the direction of the flow, though not yet thought until that moment, a moment that felt to me more than just noticing something, and more like a discovery, that was my thought, first my indisputable knowledge of the direction of the flow of the canal though without a reason to make it of sufficient importance to have, as I said to myself, made the discovery until that moment I experienced it as contrary to the path I was about to take along the second stretch (the second canal, according to Marlène), recalling then the way it had pulled at my bare feet as I bathed them at the sluice in the morning, after pushing down through the thorns and emerging from the steep hillside, recalling its delicious coolth, that and its playful tugging, from which the direction could have been deduced, sitting there at noon in the shade with my back to the railing that had struck me then, at noon, earlier that day, not so forcibly now however, as when earlier it struck me and stopped me in my tracks the way its remaining top rail of rusty tubular steel fifteen millimetres in diameter had been delicately twisted and turned into a smooth knot as by nothing I considered capable but a mighty fist.
A short distance along the toepath at a point on my left where the bank of the second canal, flowing contrariwise to the way I proceeded, gave way in a little indentation, intersecting grooves on a small stone caught my eye, one of thousands of stones embedded in the ground at that point, a small rounded pebble indistinguishable from the parched dust, the faded colour of dried thyme and stopped me in my tracks, as the saying goes. I prised it up to examine it. It’s geological facial scars read IX. Neuf, I said, not thinking, thinking would I take it home with me, but, no, I thought, it doesn’t deserve to gather dust in a London flat, on an impulse taking the stone over to the canal and washing it at the place where the canal bank had given way forming a small basin. then replaced it in its socket and walked on, I noticed how I kept turning to see for how long I could make it out standing out dark and damp amongst all the dryness, before it became indistinguishable once more, although, I thought, for what it was worth, cleaner than all that surrounded it. After a kilometre or so the second canal disappeared underground or rather, considering by then the flow, mysteriously appeared, at a bubbling sluice. The path dwindled out in a thin, to my mind degraded, wood in a manner that made me unwilling to go further. The blunt rusted forms of the sluice gate in that light through the trees, the canal bending back on itself, the insect life. If I could only catch a fly, I was thinking, unpacking the camera, if its flight and the travel of the shutter could be made to coincide.
As I waited for a fly to land on the rusted upright of the sluice the idea of photographing the stone occurred to me, not remove it, I thought, commemorate it, and for some unknown reason, I said to myself that the rules of the game would be that if I failed to spot it on my way back I must not go back and search for it, les règles du jeu, those words coming back to me just then, that was all, you will not search, leave it be, but all right, I thought, as I walked back, you have the weakness in the bank to go by, the fear of missing my one chance, as I had somehow decided it, mounting as the end of the second canal was imminent, a hundred yards, I judged, from the sharp left turn on to the concrete sluice under the trees and la petite route, there it was, uniform with the a thousand other stones, though, only I knew it, cleaner than all the others, although who was to know that from looking at it – neuf . I took it from its socket once again and set it upright, to read IX, a standing stone, it took the position easily, surprised, I could imagine it, by its gratuitous selection, amazed, as I was, by the turn of events, against the odds, to put it mildly, and the momentous black hole of time, as I set my camera on the ground with the lens two feet, by my estimation, imagining, as I sometimes resort to doing, my schoolboy ruler just as, in order to distinguish my right from my left I have to imagine walking, aged six, up a particular road with the river, two miles wide, away on one side, through the trees and the curiously named, musically named, to my mind, Ninewells, which was, that rigmarole of mine, I thought, rather like my need to turn a map upside down to understand the way I should walk, me and the stone and these thoughts of mine, while lying flat on my belly in the dust and taking three photographs, knowing that if anyone were to come walking up behind me they would take me at first for dead, so quickly stood up, replaced the stone neatly in its socket and was ready to move on when I saw approaching at my back a family on bicycles, father, mother and two children, bonjour – bonjour, bonjour – bonjour, standing back, the timing, I thought, fortuitous, to let them go by.
Le Col de la Mort d’Imbert was, Marlène said, to be reached by way of the second canal after which you took the road, she said, through the apple farms. What if, I had been thinking, I had not got the focus exactly right, if the markings turned out blurred on the print what with me with my cheek like that right down against the path so that the grit stuck to my skin, trying to squint with my less good eye, the right, through the lens, and taking account of the wide aperture and the consequent shallow depth of field, and so, with that weighing on my mind, on reaching le chemin de Pimarlet, Marlène’s petit route and starting again along the second canal I was determined to have another stab at it and into the bargain well aware by then that I had omitted to photograph le onze XI.
I lay prostrate across the path, with the sun, I noticed, coming from round a bit from last time, waiting, I thought, in just the way I have waited often enough, I was thinking, for a character to flit across a face, an ephemeral occurrence, just like the way I watched the light, exquisite in one moment when she, I was thinking of her at that moment, of Julia, backlit, sitting between me and the window, and of her from moment to moment, lifting her hand, struck momentarily by a thought, and in that unconscious gesture, reflecting a diffused light off her palm, tilted towards the window at her back, and expressively deployed, perhaps a mite too close to the camera so as to show itself out of proportion to an unthinking lens, not to say out of focus, her hand, imparting a golden glow to her otherwise shadowed rim-lit right cheek, and of me all but despairing of capturing all the relative values of that transforming light, and the fugitive sensitivity of that pretty face, that picture of sorrow and instant joyous survival, all that, just Julia, in one fleeting fraction of a second, then and there, I was thinking, as it had happened in the available light, distilled, I thought to say, in the room in which the pair of us sat talking of lost things that afternoon that had brought a moistening of the eyes, that staring look of held-back tears to Julia’s face and, I supposed, to mine, suddenly thinking of that as I lay flat on the path observing the face of the stone set upright again in its rounded socket, waiting, for what, waiting, I decided, for a fly to land on the top of it, willing a fly to oblige, as before at the sluice, or one of the small white butterflies I saw fluttering along the canal banks out of the corner of my eye, not daring too sudden a movement as might deflect an approaching wing, while sweat dripped into the dust and my neck became stiff and only one single ant hurried across the shallow field of vision, and the bee-line shadow cast of a flying insect in the blink of an eye and then inadvertently, as though by suggestion, I began to contemplate the life of a stone, the perseverance of this pebble, let alone the geological aeons in which these markings were made, such infinite patience, compared with my limited attention span, compared with a butterfly’s single day in the sun or the intense ephemeral life of an insect until, at the end of my patience, then, I pressed the release, stood, turned the stone on its head, took the final shot, impatient to be off to the summit of la Mort d’Imbert
Perhaps, I thought, watching my new boots, dull cuprous in that light, taking in the fine dust of the path, thought not for the first time, this could be my memorial to 9/11, a thought shallow enough to feel to me a sacrilege, for, I was thinking how I had preoccupied myself in face of my stone, all I had waited for was some fly to alight on the stone, to catch on film a haphazard event, not connected to the subject, the stone, so I had thought about it, I thought, it was the stone that drew out of me an uncomfortable sobriety, a mindless dullness which I had thought to trick up, I was thinking then, by the device of a little winged trespasser, to force a trivial meaning and ward of my boredom, oblivious of fate. What came into my mind as the path kept winding and unwinding was the lanky American I had met at a photographic exhibition early in 2007. We found ourselves standing before Armageddon in the form of a large black and white print, a shot taken from across the Hudson River of Lower Manhattan almost engulfed in belching smoke. ‘I was present at the felling of the Twin Towers,’ the tall young man said, not turning, I thought, to look at me, tall, but somehow heavy. He told me he was in the area making footage for an international corporation when it happened. He was, he said, I could not forget, as I kept up my pace along the toe-path, still running towards the Trade Centre as the first of the towers started to collapse. He seemed to say that he had not noticed that everyone was running in the opposite direction and that it was only when he saw police and firemen fleeing for their lives that it occurred to him to turn and run. I thought, though not at the time, not when the lanky American was talking to me, I didn’t think it that time at the exhibition, not then, of how Paul Valéry, the eccentric essayist, said he ran outside during air-raids to try and see if he could catch a glimpse of the bomb that might kill him to see what it looked like, thought of that suddenly and for the first time as I walked by the side of the canal. For my American, so he said, it was all still happening, words to that effect, anyway that was how I recalled it as I kept walking steadily towards the far end of the canal, and he said, I remembered, that every time the ninth of September came around, that would be a very bad day for him. I had an impression of how angry he was, standing there on my left, because of how he wanted me to know, that for you people, as he put it, meaning I thought, British people, recalling the bitterness of the man, for us, he wanted me to admit, it had all blown over or was capitalised on in some shitty way, and there I was, as I was steadily approaching the end of the second stretch of canal, end so-called, in terms of the route I was taking, the point, that is, where the chalky water welled up, made its appearance, the start, not the end, remembering this encounter from a few years ago, walking in the sun, carefree and thinking back to what brought the angry American to mind, the notion of my vigil, my IX-XI stone, while I was distracting myself with a so-called aesthetic notion of catching a fly on film to allow me to end the tedium, ruminating on that, but not being able to make anything further of it, as the path petered out and after a short detour I found myself, as Marlène had put it, when giving me directions, au milieu des pommes.
As I was starting out fresh, the happy wanderer, the air delicious, along the second canal on the morning of the following day to walk to a distant medieval village by way of the summit of Mort d’Imbert, I saw coming towards me a girl in running gear, and prepared myself with the customary passing bonjour. She, however, stopped and addressed me in French I wasn’t able to understand and, seeing this, she pointed to a gold chain at her neck, nodding for my comprehension, and then at her bare ankle. She had lost her ankle bracelet; had I seen it? Alas no, I said and thought to look out for it, but straightway forgot, realising as I turned away that I had passed over the stone moments earlier without thinking. And that evening, on my return along the canal path, I realised later, it had not even entered my mind, the place of the stone. What was all this now? I wondered, about found and lost, beginning to entertain an idea of what persists beyond inveterate trauma, beyond memory and without the support of thought or recognition, this hint of an impersonal indescribable patience, and as I came later to try and write down my inconclusive account of these events, found myself thinking, only then, of a note of Valéry’s: ‘An artist never really finishes his work, he merely abandons it’. And so I went to prepare to add my photos, and having done so, opened another document and mindlessly clicked: Yes to revert to the saved document. The last one third of the text was lost. My careful words, words as it were from a journal, my journalism, were carried away, as if on the fast forgetful waters of the canal. I wanted to kick and scream. I growled at my stupidity in the mirror. I could not cool down. Could it be reproduced? Not if Valéry was to be believed that once a book has been written the author has changed. I tried but was haunted by something irretrievable behind the second draft. And then I thought, unwillingly gave the thought my attention – did this need to happen to give my story a point? My cherished words, indeed! They stand for a greater loss, something unsustainable, for which there feels to be no sufficient compensation, while the attempt to find its meaning is of no avail – a loss as hard as time immemorial. But then, I thought, feeling, as it were a dark cloud come over me, I would only be clutching a sweet figment of meaning from the midst of chaos.