What I see from the window, before it gets dark

The sky assumes an equal portion with the buildings, perhaps a finger more, making the window half empty of sky. At this moment it is a blue – no surprise – that recedes sunwards into striated white gold. The sun is warm, edgeless, but appears more as its own reflection seen in frosted ice. I’ve watched it crest its hill and now it slow-rolls its bend down the other side towards the rooftops, behind which it will sneak, as if too bashful to snuff in full view.

There’s a balloon on Wihelm Strasse, where the Nazi ministries stood. It takes tourists up for a view of the city and I can see it, a straight line from here to there, in the middle of the window. Once, the sun and the balloon, both descending at once, became hemispheres together on the same rooftop, a double sunset. It reads: Die Welt.

The rooftops sprout chimneys, little turrets and glass pyramids and domes. There was a man up there, with three children, roving from rooftop to rooftop as if it was an initiation or there was some creature to be hunted.

The buildings are high with wide, windowless walls of crumbled, Babylonian brick. You could project a film onto them. There are narrow fissures, like arrow slits or indications that another, less durable building was once attached with shallow struts. Birds nest in these slits. I see them quarrelling in and out. The neighbouring wall is covered in flattened globules of plaster, as if a carapace had been ripped away. They’ve suffered wounds that haven’t healed well. One of these wide screens is pure white, another is of dark, grey-red brick until near the top where all the bricks change to a new colour and I imagine the day they ran out and had to find some more, or when the top fell off and a new one hastily-assembled, the foreman complaining, ‘but they won’t match’. The reply, I’m sure: ‘It’s Kreuzberg. No one cares.’ The magpies dive from the top and fall like black raindrops; they fall until you think they’ll smash and then hook upwards into flight. They do it every time, as if playing at what it would be like to be flightless. As if daring one another.

The head of a horse chestnut tree nods into view, close to the glass. Its leaves glow lime with sunlight. It sways and dips and gives a rustling, rush of voice with every stroke of wind. I just noticed a small, new-budded conker. This anchors the summer, predicts a fall. There’s only concrete below. It’ll never grow.

The swallows are beginning. They flit to the present from the gables of my grandmother’s house, where you could watch them dip from the air and squirrel into their tiny nests; they skim here via evenings on Lake Trasimeno, where they clouded above the water, tracing halos and loops. Their elegance was a put on. I imagined them rending and chewing their way through the plankton-thick haze of mosquitoes, just hatched, soon dead, that boiled above the water. Swallows are hunters, ever-feeding black lines, spiralling parentheses, and they’re collecting now, ripping insects from the air, leaping between narrow thermals like plate-spinners from pole to pole, climbing and arcing with such certainty that I think if you traced the lines they scribe on the air and read them back you’d learn something so joyful it would punch you to the floor.

The crows, too. The first animal I saw from the window of the train from the airport was a crow. It wore a grey jacket and I assumed it had some irregularity of pigmentation, but they’re all like that here. And they are numerous; grey-jacketed with clerk-strut and slow wingbeat. Like a livery worn only here, pride of the city watch.

Last night, when it was dark, I saw two bushes, growing from the bi-chrome roof, outlined against the nicotine sky. They dipped towards one another and seemed to be kissing, reeling back, then kissing again. Dancing, perhaps. Or lovers recoiling from an embrace but magnetised once more, over and over. Now I see that these aren’t bushes but the twinned tips of a single tree, five storeys. They taper together to the trunk then to the roots. I want to say it’s a poplar, to hide my ignorance, but I know it isn’t.

When I see a painting, not even a good one, from another time and place, a singly-observed, unoccupied moment in history, I sometimes feel a kind of grieving thrill; at time’s audacity, that I could never, never, see that place as it was seen; that I can never watch the artist’s hand moving from palette to board. And what’s strange is this: watching the swallows, the lime in the horse chestnut leaves switching to deep red-wine-bottle hues, I feel that ache again. Even though these are my hands moving over the keypad and I’ve missed nothing. But the scene is already departing, as will I. It’s glorious, that sensation, and appalling.

Soon it’ll be dark and the apartments will light up their little advent calendar windows and I can watch, blurred and from a distance, the humdrum miracle of human life as it cooks its meals, strolls from room to room or stares out, perhaps at me. Each action will be unrepeatable and instantly lost. It’s the saddest, most awe-inspiring thing.

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35 responses to “What I see from the window, before it gets dark

  1. mishari

    Good piece. I know exactly what you mean when you speak of time’s awsome power to efface the past, even the very recent past.

    One of the reasons that even the crappiest old film never really bores me is that I’m always speculating on the origin and the fate of characters in the background or who only have a couple of lines: who were they? Where did they come from? What were their lives like and what happened to them? All unknowable.

    Old photographs cause that same feeling of…I dunno…helplessness? Melancholy? The sense that time keeps wiping the slate clean and that there’s nothing, absolutely nothing I can do about it except to acknowledge its inevitability.

  2. The violins accompany your enigmatic prose Exit and I love the frosted ice imagery.

    I had a moment like this earlier. But it was a different hour. Dublin brightens up at 3.45am and I went out to sit in the garden to read a novel. It was a poignant moment and I can’t always catch in on time. All the different birds were up and having a ball in the trees. Even an inquisitive gull which had found its way from the nearby Liffy River was lording it over the rest with noisy shrieks, from a chimney top. Time stood still and I was at peace with the world.
    Two hours later, the scene changed, the birds had fled and so too, the virgin sky. The magic may never have happened.

  3. @Mishari

    I have exactly the same respose as you to old films. The clothes, the faces glancing at the camera, imagining lives that ended; the walk or bus ride to the studio, the paper-wrapped food, different ways of fastening trousers…

    I visited the Film museum here at the weekend, reels of silent movies looping away. I think melancholy must be the word and, regarding the previous conversation here, it seems a state one is born with. I have very early memories of nostalgia. But it’s that just-out-of-reach feeling again, isn’t it?

  4. @Suzan

    That is precisely the kind of time and moment I was experiencing. It’s the, ah, liminality (if that’s a word) of evenings and dawns that creates this sense of life fleeting by, I think. Now I really sound like Baron de Charlus.

    Thanks for your kind words. I tend to write, edit, wait, edit again, then – maybe – publish. Last night I just wanted to get it out there, as written (I can already spot my typos!).

    I intend to visit Dublin one day, from the little I know it seems one of the great (little) old cities. I know from Brighton that the gulls keep up a constant, shrieking hubbub that takes some days to get used to. Is it the same there?

  5. Hi Exit,

    The gulls this side of town are loud and domineering especially towards other species of birds. The one that escaped its crowd in the early dawn hours, thought it owned our street. For instance, it refused to shout its declarations anywhere but atop a chimney!
    Hopefully, tomorrow it finds Belfast a more exciting turnaround.
    If you go someday to Melbourne, Australia, and wait for a train at the historic Flinders Railway Station, the gulls from the nearby Yarra River may well attempt to grab any food they spot in your hand or else, gather beseechingly around to make you think they hadn’t eaten for days.
    I also often get the feeling, Exit of excitement or a childlike wonder at the sudden turn of a day for example… a thunderstorm at an unexpected moment, or cold winds lashing in after a string of warm days.

  6. @Suzan

    You know what? If that’s what the gulls do at Flinders, I’m not going.

    I was awoken by a crow the other day. Last night I could here a magpie chattering close to the window. Both sound prehistoric and dry-mouthed close up. More like their dinosaur ancestors than their relatives the songbirds. Both preferable to gulls, imho.

  7. Pingback: As goes blogging, so goes literature … or, … Bruce Chatwin, haut lit-blogging pioneer « acciaccature

  8. XB,

    I know it’s six weeks ago, but this is lovely still, better than any book.

    The final paragraphs cascade down each challenging the one below to match its grandeur; and the grandeur then being matched.

    On the other hand: not bad at all.

    About this:

    “When I see a painting, not even a good one, from another time and place, a singly-observed, unoccupied moment in history, I sometimes feel a kind of grieving thrill; at time’s audacity, that I could never, never, see that place as it was seen; that I can never watch the artist’s hand moving from palette to board. And what’s strange is this: watching the swallows, the lime in the horse chestnut leaves switching to deep red-wine-bottle hues, I feel that ache again. Even though these are my hands moving over the keypad and I’ve missed nothing. But the scene is already departing, as will I. It’s glorious, that sensation, and appalling.

    “Soon it’ll be dark and the apartments will light up their little advent calendar windows and I can watch, blurred and from a distance, the humdrum miracle of human life as it cooks its meals, strolls from room to room or stares out, perhaps at me. Each action will be unrepeatable and instantly lost. It’s the saddest, most awe-inspiring thing.”

    Beautiful.

    A few nights ago I posted on something like that sensation.

    that fleeting sense
    of how the world will
    feel in this place long
    time from now, when
    remembered by no one

    Ancestors

    Cheeringly, one of my commentators came along and said such moments are never really lost.

    (She’s a brain researcher, thus one assumes, or perhaps hopes, she would know whereof she speaks.)

  9. Is this Make Kim Feel Good Day? If so, Tom, job well done. Thanks once again.

    ‘She’s a brain researcher’

    Funny. A great friend of mine is a lecturer in Neuropsychology. I once asked him the same question – are our experiences, even those we can’t remember, stored somewhere within us? His answer was a definite ‘no’. He’d never claim his wisdom as definitive (not before his third drink, anyway) but his knowledge often gives my more romantic assumptions a bucket of cold water (which I often dry off and then ignore, in the name of exciting fiction).

  10. Kim,

    Anything to make you happy…

    Ah, die Welt, that strange luftballoon hanging in the sky of our overly brain researched benightedness. Speaking of “brain research” and “not before his third drink, anyway…”

    Did you know that the county attorney of Jackson Country, Kansas, appointed in 1863, was one C. K. Gilchrist?

    His fate is unknown, but he lasted only a few years in the job before being replaced in 1864. Quite possibly he went off to soldiering.

    An unpleasant year for soldiering that was. I imagine Gilchrist drafted into Grant’s godforsaken Wilderness Campaign.

    How many drinks were in Grant when he attacked the Confederate Army in June at Cold Harbor?? Would brain research help us to understand? Seven thousand of his men died in twenty minutes.

    They called it a victory in disguise for Grant because though suffering fewer casualties, Lee was so torn up by Grant’s continual suicide attacks that he never recovered from this his last apparent clear victory of the War.

    Nothing is ever clear in die Welt. Apparently this problem is permanent. “At death the world does not alter, but comes to an end,” said that bird feeding Viennese brain researcher in disguise.

    Did C.K Gilchrist survive to lawyer another day?

    BARNARDINE
    Friar, not I; I have been drinking hard all night, and
    I will have more time to prepare me, or they shall beat out my
    brains with billets. I will not consent to die this day, that’s
    certain.

    DUKE
    O, Sir, you must; and therefore I beseech you
    Look forward on the journey you shall go.

    BARNARDINE
    I swear I will not die to-day for any man’s persuasion.

    DUKE
    But hear you-

    BARNARDINE
    Not a word; if you have anything to say to me, come to
    my ward; for thence will not I to-day.

    Exit

    DUKE
    Unfit to live or die. O gravel heart!
    After him, fellows; bring him to the block.

    Lovely the way good fictions always leave you hanging…

  11. My mother loaned me the Ken Burns Civil War series which I then singularly failed to put a dent into, I confess. Dylan has observed that America cannot be understood unless one has studied the Civil War. I’m in no position to comment, of course.

    There are probably more Gilchrists in the US than in the UK, in England at least. I’ve never met another outside my family. I think most in the US pronounce it Gil-Christ (as in the son of God). Here, it is Gil-crist.

    Thanks for the Barnadine quotes. He was drawn to my attention by a chapter from Harold Bloom; a pure force of anarchy (Barnadine, not Bloom).

  12. Yes, Ken Burns remains so boyish in appearance it’s plain he has not yet suffered a dent. Why disturb the lad at this point.

    Oh yes there are a myriad American GILchrists, yet ne’er a GilCHRIST to my knowledge.

    Here is perhaps the best known of the American GILchrists:

    Cookie Gilchrist

    I reckon the average English person would be likely to have a better educated guess as to what happened in the US Civil War than the average American person would have as to the English Civil War. I am a notorious glazier but nothing ever worked more effectively upon students than trying to explain how the ghost-battles observed in the sky after Edgehill, when all the sounds of battle were re-enacted for shepherds and passers-by, got into Marvell’s poetry. They got the UFO aspect but as to understanding who was on which side and why, pure glazing.

  13. I recently met a (gifted) Australian painter whose surname is Cheyne. I pronouced it as Chain-y but was corrected, ‘it’s Scottish, pronouced Chain, Chain-y is the English pronouciation’.

    Having never been to Scotland he was as prickly as I can be about my Scottish name; myslef also never-having been to the highlands from whence my ancestor the Rev. Gilchrist apocryphally carried it. Strange, that we connect so strongly to roots to which we have no tangible or cultural claim. I had taken the Cheyne prnouciation from Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where a Gilchrist ancestor of mine once lived. His wife ended up in Philadelphia. I wonder if she was -crist or -christ once there.

    —————————-

    “I reckon the average English person would be likely to have a better educated guess as to what happened in the US Civil War than the average American person would have as to the English Civil War’

    Not sure about that. I have a mild obsession with history (as should be evident from my generally atavistic decalrations) but this is shared with very few others amongst my peers. I think any analysis of either conflict would begin and end thus:

    Americal Civil War: Slavery

    English Civil War (which, if we had the nerve, we’d call the Revolution): Roundheads & Cavaliers

    And that would be it.

  14. Kim Gilchrist? I went to art college with a Kim Gilchrist in the mid 70’s. Not you obviously as you are, I think,a younger more streamlined model than either me or my contemporaries and have far more sense than to indulge in fine art and the creation of said fine art.

  15. Hi, Al

    Are your travels over for now?

    This, uh, pseudo-KG, male or female?

    I’ll also have you know that I was just as likely to blunder into fine art as I was into theatre, fiction, trying to be a rock star or stand-up comedy. But a friend at school was so evidently, reelingly better than me that I stopped trying to make pictures of things. Or even colourful smears.

  16. Still touring – in fact we are outside the National Theatre tomorrow ( doing our new show Brain Wave that is, not standing gawping at the facade ) 1.00 and 6.30. Also on Trafalgar Square on Sunday 23rd August but don’t have the times for that.

    The Kim Gilchrist you-a-like was also male.

  17. ‘The Kim Gilchrist you-a-like was also male’

    I’m not happy about this. At all. Like Highlander, there can be only one.

    Also, your touring schedule is wack. Really sad I’m going to miss you again.

  18. Zephirine

    The real KG: just passed by to say that I’ve properly discovered the rest of your site now, and have read Powder which I liked a lot, and will be working my way through the rest of the Revenants and Rigmaroles when I can. You’re very good, you know.

  19. Shame you can’t make the London dates as I could have expanded my collection of Kim Gilchrists I’ve met to 2 and paved the possible way for a stand-up routine and a tie-in DVD and book.

    The similarity between this idea and Dave Gorman’s idea is purely uncoincidental.

  20. I don’t like you making light of this, Al.

    Could you tell me when it was you met this ‘Kim Gilchrist’? I’ll bet anything he was born with an entirely different name, conveniently heard a much better one in use around, say, 1974 or after, and quietly adopted it for himself little knowing that 35 years later a massive global information-sharing ‘Internet’ would have been developed, creating a network of billions of people, the infintite combinations of which would – with statistical inevitability – allow his identity-theft to be revealed.

    I also suspect he was born in Kenya.

  21. Kim,

    Try Googling up Kim Gilcrist. There are hundreds if not thousands. I compiled a closet list for you (one of the Kim Gilchrist self advertises as closet queen). Blogger discarded my list. First sign of Mercy I’ve yet seen in Blogger.

    Being unique is over-rated.

  22. Not only that, but everybody on the Google list manages to spell Gilchrist with the “h”, yet another task at which I have just failed.

    Also, I’ve accused Blogger of mercy erroneously as here we are on Word Press.

    (If you think you have identity problems, consider that there are over 332,000 Tom Clarks listed online, the most prominent being America’s premier fabricator of garden gnomes.)

  23. KC/EXB Most people who share my name Edward Taylor appear to be right wing Tory MP’s. Indeed as I type this I’m already formulating a plan to pull out of Europe and wreck the UK economy further by relying naively on the market-place to self-regulate.

    I actually went to primary school with a Tom Clark. I must think hard now and remember if I spent my teenage years with Mishari Al Adwani, Des Swords and Anytimefrances.

  24. Thanks for the advice, and the thought of a list, Tom. You should find the gnome guy and ‘persuade’ him of the benefits of a name change.

    I can tolerate female Kim Gilchrists. As a child I was made acutely aware, from many sources, that Kim is more usually a ‘girl’s name’. Kim Wilde was riding high in the charts with Kids in America when i was eight. The possibilty of both a male and female Kim confused my school-mates no end. It was shocking how few of them had read Kipling.

    @Al

    I have this vision of your primary school being a microcosm of everyone you would ever meet online, 30 or so five-year-olds with the personal qualities and mini-features of the GU-fringe collective. Actually, considering some of the sand-pit fights we all get into, the primary school analogy is alarmingly apt.

    Of course, the problem with mini-features is that none of us know what one another looks like (although Al and I have pictures of ourselves online, peacocks that we are).

    When one spends so much time and thought communicating with invisible strangers, this can do weird things to the unconscious, I find. I’ve dreamt of meeting more than one of the (as I will now call it) GUFC; my favourite was a dream with MeltonMowbray. He was smaller than I imagined, with a soft, kind face and nervous, shy manner. I realised that his curmudgeonly persona was merely pretence. The best thing – his username tattooed on his chin.

  25. I note ( you haven’t been concealing the fact so it’s my attention that’s been slow to catch up ) that you are a CK Gilchrist so not even a “real” or “pure” Kim Gilchrist. Of course you may spell Kim Cim where you were brought up in which case I withdraw my comment.

    However if this isn’t the case I’m afraid that to be part of my new “Kim Gilchrist collection” performance your first name must be Kim and any divergence from this cannot be allowed to pass.

    Nothing personal, all in the name of pedantry you understand – explaining how your siblings couldn’t pronounce your first name ( Cholmondely was it? ) so the family resorted to your second name would hold up what I hope will be a fast-moving and punchy show.

  26. I quite understand. I will, of course, boycott your ‘show’ with loud and incoherent protests. You’ll also be hearing from my lawyer/estate agent/dentist (Orly Taitz).

    I didn’t know that I was legally C.K. (the C stands for Corin) until I needed my birth certificate in my twenties. When my bank found out, in the post-11/09/2001 paranoia, they insisted on changing my entire account. Somehow, the extra initial proved I wasn’t a terrorist.

  27. We’ll have no such bother at the show, thanks to

    Alarming UK

  28. I was going to counter with Gilchrist Security and Gilchrist Firearms but it turns out that they exist. A couple more searches down that path and I got scared. Is this what my forebears left the Highlands for?

  29. Tom looking at the Alarming UK website makes me realise how , once again I’ve missed a trick conning the great washed and unwashed out of money. Oh well back to scratching around for a living ( or in my case driving hither and thither ).

    Incidentally I’m really enjoying the US reaction to the looming cloud of evil that is our Health Service. A woman crying out in anguish ” I don’t want my country to be socialised” has been a real highlight.

  30. Al — Oh yes it’s that dread “S” word.

    Having once lived five years in your country and on occasion been allowed to resort to its public health system, I have that backdrop up against which to see the present insanity — historical criminal pharmaceutical, medical and insurance industries colluding with government to create the ultimate entropic irrational unendurable unaffordable privatized “heath care” system on the planet. Here in this house we are old, unemployed, and have for some years been in harm’s way, and in fact harmed — but without a car and with some disabilities, in a dense and territorially fraught urban zone, the remote and labyrinthine “health care” dispensing venues and agencies are at once out of reach and anyway largely useless… unless you find being redundantly tested unto death useful.

  31. Unfortunately here in the UK the politicians, fearful of alienating the press, have become so distanced from the founding principles of the NHS that their opposition is feeble in response to the US attacks and seems to encourage the idea that it’s not unreasonable to debate the idea of free healthcare for all.

  32. @Tom

    There must be so many in your situation and yet the impression I get is that many of them are the very people raging against reform.

    I’ve been getting slightly hooked on the US left-leaning news sites recently. The whole movement of protest and misinformation against healthcare reform seemed at first entertaining but now rather chilling and depressing. Do you think there is anything (apart from the obvious, the recent election) that is driving this wildfire, 2+2=5 craziness?

  33. XB,

    I can’t begin to tell you the state of suppressed tension in which this numbed nation currently exists. Nothing adds up anymore, except the bad arithmetic. I was robbed on the street three nights ago. Some Mexican food service workers I know, standing nearby, merely shrugged semi-sympathetically. Quien sabe?one of them said. That is, not only Who knows who does the little stuff. But nobody knows about the bigger stuff anymore either.

  34. Tom, I’m really sorry to hear that. What a horrible experience.

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