sondersojourn

Words and stuff.

Porto – Day 1

I recently travelled to Porto, Portugal. Here are my little scribbles from while I was there about the city and its people.

Genuine. That is honestly the first word that comes to mind. I’ve been in Porto less than four hours and I’ve had half a dozen full and proper conversations with people. Not people hawking anything or wanting my money (except for the most friendly and energetic hash dealer I’ve ever met). And though my grasp of Portuguese is pathetically weak, these lovely people have humoured an already very red British lad.

One lady, running a tiny little cafe outside the flat I was staying in where I popped for a quick after flight espresso, tried her English on me as much as I tried my Portuguese on her. I have no idea how old this lady was, but her wrinkles had wrinkles – and they were all from smiling. As soon as she guessed I was British (not a hard one to figure out if you knew what I looked like), her face lit up. She told me she had just started learning English because her Grandson had married a girl from Manchester.  There was her, going through her entire menu in English, asking “Is right?” after each item. And then me, stumbling through the five-word sentence to ask for a “black coffee, please.” She was a delight.

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Each encounter after was much the same. The hash-man I mentioned earlier was this guy hopping from foot to foot declaring, in English, he had “the best hash ever to escape the confines of the arse of a Moroccan.” An interesting pitch and, depending on how much booze I had that day, I thought I might try to find him later. Then there was the waitress at this small restaurant down a cobbled street (I had cod and potatoes in a sauce I don’t know but will forever dream about) who immediately told me everywhere I must visit in town. I had paused my music to ask her for a table and she saw I was listening to ‘California Sun’ by The Ramones. We became immediate friends – discussing the entire discography of those pioneering Americana punks. She disagreed ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’ is their greatest track – everyone’s entitled to be wrong I suppose.

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TimeOut told me to go to Livraria Lello – famously the world’s third best-looking bookshop. I’ve no idea about the first and second, but they must come with some sort of sexual gratification, because Livraria Lello is bloody stunning. Apparently the staircase was the inspiration for the grand one at Hogwarts in Harry Potter. Sure, why not. I’m certain the whole place has been the inspiration for a great many things. With a ticket to enter (€5) you also get a discounted book. On the advice of a dear Portuguese friend of mine (Sara, if you read this, you’re the best), I picked up ‘Message’ by Fernando Pessoa, an acclaimed Portuguese poet (a gift for a pretty awesome person who loves poetry).

Back to Livraria Lello; bloody brilliant place. A couple of hundred years old, the building is stunning. A tourist hotspot for sure, but not a trap – more a celebration of literature and the calming nature of books. The staircase is busy though. My gormless mug must be in a fair few holiday snaps. Adjust your face accordingly if visiting.

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I had a little tootle down the road to the Clérigos Church. The bell tower, the Torre dos Clérgios, is 75m tall. It’s a dominating sight across the skyline of Porto – in fact, I used it as a reference point for where I was in the city for the rest of my stay. Started in 1753 and finished in 1763, the church was designed by Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni. It’s a damn impressive building. Baroque motifs are always fun – grand scale and over-the-top details. Definitely a place to visit.

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I wandered around and ended up on Rue de Cândido dos Reis, a night-time haunt of tourists and locals, but the sun was still out when I was there. I was struck by how, for such a small city, (300,000 people), Porto is full of life. And soul. The architecture is a blend of Mediterranean and Italian, with a few Moorish influences, and is all unblemished by garishness. In a word, it’s cute. I could, incredibly easily, be an old man in Porto. Under the eaves in the shade with a sea breeze, watching the world go by with an espresso and a tall cerveja. I’ve always been an old soul – and Porto seems to understand that.

 

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The Great Beast

Shimmering threads fell from its body as it moved across the inky blackness. Falling neither up nor down, they floated and twirled sending their light into the nothingness. The being took great strides into the vast expanse, leaping and stalking through the blackness. With each movement, more and more silvery strands shed from its body. They began to dance with each other, taking on life and momentum of their own. Spinning, looping and threading around and around. With eyes, immeasurable in size, the great beast tracked the movement of the threads, calculating a pattern only it can perceive.

It watched for an eternity, light blazing in irises that could swallow universes. It waited. It waited as the strands began to coalesce, their dance forming into a rhythmic pulse as they bound themselves closer and closer together. A sphere formed and immense heat oscillated from its centre, vibrating in waves of song. The great beast tuned its ears to the noise, honing in to the melody.

Another eternity passed, but time has no meaning here. The song grew in grandeur and complexity, pushing out the corona of colour to distances unknown. Suddenly, and without warning, the great beast sprang up. It charged, head reared, directly at the sphere. Fangs forged of stardust bit into the sphere’s now polished surface. With tooth and claw, the great beast attacked its creation. Rend and smash, bite and slash. It was a show of primal force never to be seen again.

After countless aeons of relentless brutality, a crack appeared on the sphere’s surface. The great beast renewed its frenzied attack, focusing on growing the thin fracture. Greater now, its ferocity split the crack into a dozen others, their lines tracing a maddening pattern across the sphere. The cracks split and multiplied at a terrifying rate. The great beast raised its maw and, with one last bite, shattered the shell completely. All became white. For the briefest of instances, existence was bathed in pure creation, expanding instantly to everywhere that will ever be.

As quickly as it was, it wasn’t. White was replaced with black, but not the original nothingness there was before. It was now a different black – black studded with sparkling points of light. The great beast, exhausted beyond comprehension, waded into the velvety matter. It swam past clouds of colours, light-years across in size, bright patches against the dark background of the universe. Stars in their billions fell across the sky. Galaxies formed, reflected in the eyes of the great beast as swirls and spirals in multitudes.

The great beast carried on for a while, checking and tending to its child. Nurturing and caring for the development of all that will be, while it still could – the act of creation was a mortal wound. Time passed this way, the great beast becoming weaker and weaker, until the first planets produced their first, raw prototypes of life. The great beast saw this, the rise of fledgling life, and knew the time had come. If it could feel, its sadness would drown everything. If it could talk, its words would be ruin. With a last burst of energy, the great beast leapt across the heavens and joined the darkness from where it had come.

Conversation – Part One

There are probably three, maybe four, moments in a lifetime that change the entire course of your being. These events could be infinitesimal. Like how the light on a particular summer afternoon casts vertical bars through shuttered windows as you lie down on the floor, causing a cascade of thoughts and feelings you’ve never experienced before. Or they could be massive and permanently life-shattering – a fire hungrily consuming everything you’ve worked so hard to build and own, the flames hardening your soul as they eat and eat. Below and beyond, small, large and anything in between, these events have no determined size. Every second of every day, someone is in the middle of something that will change their life forever. Even if they don’t know it at the time.

The course of my life had always seemed set. Predetermined and rigid, like a mold I was to be poured into. I didn’t mind this at all. In fact, I thoroughly loved my life. Each step I took was already laid bare before me, easy and accessible with no major choice to make. The extent of my freewill was whether to have a cappuccino or latte – but looking back, I wonder if even that was true. It was a comfy life, one with the right amount of every constituent part to make a productive and content person.

I had a childhood with the right amount of friends, an education with the right amount of success, a family with the right amount of connections to get me a job with the right amount of money. I had the right amount of children with a wife where we shared the right amount of love and arguing. My house had the right amount of space and a garden with the right amount of flowers. I was and had the right amount of everything.

This life of mine carried on, seemingly forever. Time ticked by with no sign of changing. My story was, as far as I was concerned, done. It had been written, edited, printed and published. No new editions. No updates. But then, then I had a conversation. ‘The Conversation’ – the one that took my book, tore it up, swallowed the pieces and spat the mushy remains right into my face. An event that changed everything.

One Day

Every day starts the same, and I wouldn’t change a thing. It begins with a sound, the rhythmic tapping of rain on glass. Blowing louder in waves, receding slowly in drips and drops. I listen for a while, eyes closed and ears focused on the erratic patterns. I imagine being away, far away, trapped on a tempest-tossed boat. With each surge of rain reaching my ears, the boat sinks lower and lower into the angry churn of a vengeful sea. The rising water carries fear with it. My breathing quickens, harsh and short. A tightness forms in my chest. As if some beast of the deep is curling its long, barbed tentacles around my ribs. All at once, and with crushing force, their grip constricts. I can’t stop it. Nothing can. It happens over and over again.

The noise builds, swelling with grey foam. Hidden below the crashing waves is nothing but inky black. After a while, following a dramatic crescendo, a hand finds mine. The touch is gentle, a summer breeze, fingers tracing whirls around mine. The waters around me calm. The beast lets go, tentacles falling away, sinking back and down. I open my eyes to see her, my wife lying next to me. As always, she’s still asleep. Her reaction is instinct, solidified by so many days, so many mornings, all the same. I stay in this moment for as long as I can.

It’s mid-morning now and our bellies are full. Granola and yoghurt – she let me have the last of the honey, no matter how much I protested. She always does. We sat on the covered porch with the remains of breakfast while the rain slowed to a few listless drops. A cacophony of biology replaced the voice of rain. Birds came alive again, emerging from their shelters and calling for others. Barks, yips and calls echo around us. The sounds are familiar, like a favourite song, each note expected and anticipated.

After exactly six minutes and forty-two seconds, she breaks the silence. Time for work and she needs to get ready. Like every day before and every day to come, I beg her to stay. To sit with me and watch the world go by. To dance to old songs in our pyjamas. To sit together and read our favourite books. To stay with me and be safe. And, like every day before and every day to come, she laughs. A warm laugh, reassuring and calm. She wonders what’s got me in such a strange mood. I wish I could tell her. She gets in her car and I watch her leave.

I’m at a coffee shop, one directly opposite where my wife works. I’ve been here three hours – time for another drink. I glance up at the barista, our eyes meet and I nod. No words are needed, I get the same thing every day. As the cappuccino arrives I see my wife coming towards the shop; right on time. I call to her as she enters and a look of surprise creases her face. I told her I needed space to work, and where better than our favourite, dingy coffee shop. She doesn’t truly believe me, she never does. But I know she’s glad to see me, she always is.

The next hour is the best of my life. We talk complete nonsense and about nothing of importance. There’s a drama at her work, someone lied to someone else and is throwing everyone they can under the bus. It’s a real mess. I barely speak, just listen. I watch the way her eyes grow wide as she reaches a particularly juicy part of the story. Her arms and hands become great stage performers – wildly reliving each moment and emotion of her recounting. I am utterly and completely fascinated. It’s a haggard story, old and battered with wear and use. It’s a story I’ve heard countless times. But with each telling, I find something new to love about my wife. She’s the most marvellous teller of stories, and she’s perfected this one.

Her lunch hour is over and it’s time to say goodbye, until later at least. The urge to beg, like I did in the morning, is all-consuming. I resist, as I always do. No matter what I try, she won’t stay. And I’ve tried everything. Over and over again. I can’t help the tears forming in my eyes, but by then she’s already left. It’s started raining again, hard and fast. Out of the window I can see the grey storm clouds darkening the sky. I know it’s coming, the moment I’ve been dreading. I can’t look away, my eyes are glued to the street outside the window. To where my wife is walking.

A screech and a muffled thump. That’s all there is. You expect something as horrible as what happened to be louder, to make its mark on the world to the same level as it does on your soul. But life doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t do grandstanding. People do, though, and a few are screaming right now. I rush out into the rain and see the vision of my nightmares. A shaking man leaning on his opened car door. A terrified child holding her mother’s skirt so tight the small knuckles of her hands are white as snow. A dog on a lead, curious as to why its walk has stopped. And a body, crumpled and broken, with a crimson crown. My wife.

The next part is blurry. No matter how many times I relive the moment, I take little away from it. Flashing lights and reflective clothes. A blanket wrapped around my shoulders. A car ride. Faded white walls and luminescent lights. Sad faces and sadder words. Then I am alone. It’s just me and her. Strange, how serene she looks. She was, and is, always beautiful – but it seemed wrong to see her look so calm and unaffected. 

My tears make a rhythmic tapping where they fall on her metal bed. I will relive this day again and again. I have done so for as long as I can remember. I don’t know why. It’s been years, decades even, of this constant horror and love and longing. And no matter what I do, nothing changes. Every day ends the same, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

30 days

30 days ago, the sun went dark. There were no explosions or bursts of light. No grand, expanding corona signalling the death of a star. The sun was and then wasn’t. It died quietly, without spectacle. But the world, the world became as loud as it’s ever been.

The first days were confused. Directionless screaming, fear with nowhere to run. How can anyone comprehend what had happened? Violence grew across the planet. A million tumour sites blooming and spreading simultaneously. An aggressive cancer, it ate and destroyed the heart of the world. People raging at people, rabid and demanding answers. Entire cities burned. Nations devoured themselves. The death toll incalculable.

Within a week, the world was freezing. Globally, the temperature fell to -17°C. Those who survived the waves of violence quickly succumbed to the cold. The plants died. Only the sturdiest of trees held on to life. Humanity was nearly extinct. Of the handful who remained on the surface, in whatever lucky circumstance that gave them hope and chance, time was trickling away.

Hide. That’s all governments the elite could do. Order was impossible. They buried themselves deep, burrowing into the warm mantle of the Earth. They waited. And they watched the world die. On the thirtieth day, their wait was over. As silently and instantly as the darkness came, light returned. It washed over the broken and ravaged surface of the world. The sun’s harsh light gave a stark view of the Earth’s ruin.

Having achieved their task, the cleansing of a population deemed irredeemable, the conspiring governments, and those individuals seen as worthy, rose to the thawing surface. They climbed out of their burrows, their gilded sanctuaries, and looked upon what they had wrought. A few could not bare the destruction. Their weakness swiftly removed. The rest marvelled at the opportunity before them. Humanity could start anew. And who would ever know of their sins?

 

 

Time

Time destroys everything created by humanity. Ozymandias, that King of Kings, thought he could best decay. Look now across his empire of sand and see his folly. From the mightiest bastions of stone and glass, to lowly mud and straw, everything we have built or will build crumbles to dust. Or rather, it is reclaimed by the Earth. Maybe time is another faucet of nature. Earth, water, fire, air and time. The fifth element. The element that renders all obsolete. The force that humbles every human – tyrant, emperor, serf and peasant.

Time wipes the slate clean. Above all else, it is fair in all things. Time understands nothing lasts forever, yet it allows us to be. It allows us to continue to strive. We are part of the greatest race in the universe – a race against time itself. It plays along, brushing away those that came before us but leaves us the barest of foundations on which to build on. It watches, generation after generation, as we put brick on top of brick. Knowledge on top of knowledge. Life on top of life.

There will come a day when the race is over. When one side bests the other and is left abandoned and alone. I fear the victor will not celebrate, for what is one without the other? What is humanity without the presence of time? And why have time if nothing is created, sculpted and born? Our existences are entwined. We are nothing without each other. Destroyer and creator, reliant upon each other until the very end.

 

Imprint

The writing was, as they say, on the wall. Although in this instance, the phrase is literal in meaning. Everywhere I look, the same idiom is repeated over and over. Daubed in letters of varying style, colour, and size – it was everywhere. On every surface, on every piece of available space, the words glared at me. Even when I close eyes, I can see their residue bright and glaring. It doesn’t fade.

I can’t escape. The words become etched into my mind. The letters blazing with light, hot and searing, brand themselves in my grey matter. They become a motto, a mantra to be repeated over and over and over. All senses leave me. There is no room left in me except for the words. They are me. They are all I am. They are all anything is. I need to spread the words. They must be obeyed.

 

 

C455_2FV00

Pull, twist, spin and done. That’s all there was to it. 60 times a minute, the same action. Pull, twist, spin and done. Back when he was younger he could manage the action 100 times a minute, but not now. That’s ageing for you.  He knew if he replaced servos 29b0 to 37b0, refitted his motor-link neural network and upgraded his primary software to Factory _00eC_4.2 he’d at least be able to make 80 times a minute. But that would cost money, and he has very little of that.

Cass, or Unit C455_2FV00 for his proper name, had worked the line in the Bellway & Sons factory for 48 years. For 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year Cass pulled, twisted and spun. The factory made steel pins used to anchor pilings when laying the foundation of a building. Mr Bellway Senior had patented the special shape of the pins half a century ago and this was the only place in the world that made them. The day after patenting the pins, Mr Bellway Senior opened his factory and bought Cass. Back then Cass was a top-of-the-range worker robot, the focus of envy from robots and humans alike. In those early days Cass made Mr Bellway Senior a fortune. No other robot could work as fast, efficiently or with such enthusiasm as Cass.

Unfortunately, those days didn’t last. Slowly, Cass started to need repairs. The odd frayed wire, the occasional screw loose, new motors, it all stacked up. Sadly, the company that made Cass stopped offering replacements and repairs only 2 years after his production; they had already made a newer, better model. For a while, Cass could compete with these newer robots, but not for long. He fell behind. He had to resort to fixing himself up, becoming a patchwork of repairs and temporary solutions to much more serious problems.

When Mr Bellway Senior passed away, his son took over the company. Mr Bellway Junior was as kind as his father and would spend hours with Cass helping him with repairs and upgrades. He even used his own money to get Cass those difficult to find pieces (usually in the care of particularly bizarre, but none the less caring, vintage robot enthusiasts). They were close friends, or as close to friends as a robot and human could become.

Pull, twist, spin and done. Pull, twist, spin and done. Suddenly a klaxon sounded signalling the end of the shift. The sound startled Cass, his arms jerked and bits of raw metal flew everywhere. A few of the other robots nearby stifled laughter. Cass’ internal chronometer broke years ago, the others weren’t startled at all by the noise, they knew it was coming. The belts carrying the raw steel flowed to a stop and all the robots on the line rushed towards a giant screen at the end of the room. All except for Cass. He knew what the screen would say and he didn’t want, or need, the embarrassment.

“Hey Cass, c’mon you hunk of junk, see how well you did this week!” said unit T0DD_3RZ34 as he ran towards the screen.

“No thanks Todd, you know as well as me that I’ll be at the bottom of that list.” Cass replied.

“Ah, you never know Cass. I saw you patched up your arm motors this week, that’s at least what? 75 a minute?”

“Ah you noticed that? Thanks, but no. 60 a minute, slow and steady. You know me.”

“Suit yourself old metal. I’m gonna be in the top 3 for sure!”

“Good luck, I know you will be!” Cass shouted after Todd as the young robot joined the crowd swarming around the screen.

Cass watched the others read the tallies. Todd was at the top, again. A group of robots picked up the jubilant Todd and carried him off through the factory doors, singing and chanting. Cass stood staring at the screen. He stood for so long the automatic lights turned off. He was alone, with only the blue glare of the score screen for light.

Suddenly, his jaw set in firm determination, Cass burst into life. He sprinted through the factory, out through the doors and into the streets outside. He ran and he ran and he ran. A few bolts pinged off his body – he’d not moved like this in years. He kept running, past shops and houses, parks and cafes. He ran all the way to the top of a hill that overlooked the entire city. At the top he sat down. Looking out at a million blinking lights in the dark, he began to laugh. He had made a decision. One that means his life will never be the same. One that will take him far away from pull, twist, spin and done. One that leads to exotic places, strange people and exceptional tales. And maybe, one that will change the world.

 

 

Lone Rider

I watched the lone rider fall off his horse and die. I’d been watching for about an hour as he slumped further into the saddle. It was almost in time with the setting sun. As the sky got redder, he died. The horse didn’t seem bothered about the dead rider, grass was far more interesting. The beast nudged the rider a few times and I felt a pang of sympathy, until I saw it was merely moving him to get more feed.

The walk to the corpse took another hour. No more red hung in the sky when I got there. Instead, a purple velvet had been pulled over the world, studded with stars. The moon was bright and my eyes are better than most, so I didn’t need a lantern.

Up close the ground was sodden with blood. My boots sunk a little into the earth, making sucking sounds like an open wound. The rider was face down in the dirt, one arm tucked under his body, the other lying awkwardly to the side. I turned him over. More blood. Dried streams of the stuff ran from his mouth down his neck. He must have punctured a lung. Methodically I searched his body. I took 3 rings, a flip lighter, and a leather wallet for myself. I also took one of his ears. Not for me, but for the one who wanted him dead.

I left the dead rider on the ground. No need for a burial, like I even cared that much anyway. I had gotten what I needed. Checking over his horse I found it was healthy enough. I adjusted the saddle and stirrups, hopped on and began the long journey back. I opened a bag strapped across my chest. A rancid smell filled the air. I dropped the dead rider’s ear into the the bag where it fell among many others. I rode on as the night deepened, calculating the payment owed to me. Maybe I can finally be done with all this. Maybe.

What we are

The man made of light was near. The man made of mirrors could tell, because, well, he knew these things. If he didn’t, he’d be dead. He was born to know because, above all things, balance needed to reign. Through violence, treachery, manipulation – by any method necessary, the scales must be kept level.

He didn’t know why. He never thought to wonder or ask. All he knew was the moment. And this moment told him two things. The weight is wrong. The man made of light is near.