Amphitheatre

We were backpacking. Always backpacking – or often. We had no bags with us but were in transit; I know this. Sometimes I wake up remembering how we were, him sitting behind me in a bus, not quite there, not quite not there; me unwinding earphones. This time, we were moving through some station or other, bagless again, not noticeably so, just factually so; except the station wasn’t making much sense – there were trains, I was certain, but also planes and buses and, perhaps, boats. And the central part of it was sunken like the centre of an amphitheatre, its low, vast base a stage, covered with bright green lawn and families picnic-ing. It was some kind of open-air stadium; some foreign, metropolitan quirk; amusing to us that that a station would be so multi-purpose like this; so shaped like a giant amphitheatre; like some great festival we were swinging our way around in this country I don’t know what. We were in the thick of the space, wandering, moving, winding between, wasting time in the midst of dotted groups and families. He was behind me, dawdling, pointing things out and I turned to smile, to say something, or to hear him say something, perhaps wondering if we should find which train or a boat or a plane to catch; perhaps about to suggest we go up the steps to the real part of the station, when, 100 metres behind his shoulders I saw a thing (some temporary thing; maybe a food van) explode. Bang, and the world was a heady, cosmic mess. An entire time and space alive with gold; sparks shot like fingertips, grazing us, and flew to the perimeters of the green grass, which waved and rolled like the sea. Crowds fell over themselves, rolling and scattered; screaming people righted themselves and raced toward the safe surface of the station platforms above. They ran up zig-zagging ramps like cars going up levels in carparks, right then left, to and fro; uphill snakes. I ran, and he did, I thought, too. But the entire world was shifting, dark then bright, rolling and dipping, one shape then another, and when I shouted his name, nothing. I kept running; I had to. I ran up ramp after ramp to greater safety, and only when I paused to breathe, to look around again to find him, I saw a woman sitting with a baby on her lap. ‘It still feels like we’re moving,’ I said to her, so sure I’d stopped running. ‘Yes,’ she said, bouncing the child and smiling. She was Indian. ‘I should think we are moving. We are in an aeroplane.’ I looked around and saw the concrete paths sink below us like dropping clouds. I’d run so far the land itself had taken off. We were seated, this small plane-ful; two aisles, each two seats wide. She waited for me to understand. I tried: ‘The world can’t be the same now,’ I said, ‘can it?’ It had all shifted, out-kiltered itself; nothing left traceable. Won’t he be looking for me? I wondered. Where was I going? How will he know where to find me, if I’m not even connected to the ground; when the plane doesn’t have footsteps he can track and follow? A white woman a few seats behind us unfurled a large, fading map she’d hand drawn. Her long, grey hair graced its papery surface. It was a record of the continents and their weather patterns – a plan for them. She’d drawn rain all around its edges in soft grey haze; she described this with authority; was explaining her thought process to a man beside her. ‘I thought if I brought the rain in from the outside’ (she gestured to the edges of the enormous, square map), ‘it might bring everyone together.’ It made sense to her. It was nothing serious, the explosion, the rain, the separation of many things; just an experiment. I tried to understand. I pictured him alone in some marketplace, saw how he would immediately find himself upright and fine, finding new things to buy and new shirts to wear, getting on easily, choosing red cotton and blue sandals, teasing vendors and shaking their hands with his charming, filmstar smile on; the one that got him jobs. I looked at the Indian woman again, still hoping for answers – where were we flying to, where to go, what to do next, how to make myself find-able. The Indian woman bounced her child and smiled; it’s OK, her gentle blink told me. And I knew it and felt relief; the sort of relief that is loss, disguised, and wonder, at the quick movements of another. It was OK. He won’t be looking. There are many bright countries and he was only backpacking, all along.

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