← Philament 3: Offbeat

The Push

Chris Harris


She is awake again tonight, but this time she is packed. On this night she is prepared to go, to move on. Prepared to give up her memories and become like everyone else. She takes one last thoughtful turn around the house, touching objects, studying their outline as if making moulds in her mind. The tiny terrace house shakes with every hurried step of to and fro, but steadies as she gently lifts her bundle, her joy into the waiting pram. She closes the curtains as though putting the house to sleep, tugs at the front door, and puts her bag of possessions on her back. The lady with the pram is not afraid yet, for she knows the night, can sense its eyes upon her.

From the path she looks for the last time at the house. She remembers why she took hold of the little house. It was so she could pursue her passion, night, and the deep thoughts and memories only it could inspire. For it is true she loved the night so much that she never slept. It had its effects. Her skin is white where others is deep brown and she wears the disappointed grin of the weary. Now she sighs and the corners of her mouth descend slightly as she turns her gaze away from the house towards the world. This world affronts her so.

Along Military Road the last of the giant lights, the so-called helios-lights shuts off. The release of energy sounds like a colossal groan, a final jeer at the night. Instinctively, she covers the baby’s ears with her hands. It is the lights which affronts her the most. Hell’s Lights she calls them. They stand thirty-storeys tall and for twenty hours daily they mimic the sun.

From the flicking of the first switch she despised them, those giant intrusions. This new land would be one of leisure with only four hours of night, or so the slogans went. Promises of hedonism, of relaxation and the new day rang out. For many of the people new to this land these promises were important, she could see that now. Such people had much sadness to forget. They filled their bellies with wine, sedated their memories and burned themselves so dry under the lights that no tears could prosper.

She had had a boyfriend, her only ever boyfriend. He was among the new people but was brave enough that he shared nights with her. That was until the final night when love came to them and he fled for fear of his parents. His parents had allowed him all forms of happiness but love. They were against love, so he left her. Eventually everyone she knew succumbed to that way of life. Now she has no one to share her own memories with, no one to share the night with. Loneliness. That is why she must leave, to spare her baby from a lonely life.

All night long she pushes the pram down Military Road. The bundle sleeps soundly, never once crying, in spite of the many deterrents. Not only is there the westerly tumbling along the width of the main road, there are the taxi-drivers, sleep-deprived and barking at drunk passengers. Then there is the woman herself. She leans down regularly to tuck the bundle further into its blankets and handmade cushions. It is one action and she maintains her step throughout. She mutters as well, chatters like a sleep-talker. It is in tongues or something like it, ancient and new with a rhythm not of this night or any other. A rhythm like ritual or ceremony, an arcane nursery-rhyme. A memory.

The woman and her pram pass The Society Photo Gallery. Photographs survive as the only form of art now and are replaced daily by the Gallery workers to avoid their subjects becoming memories for the people. As it is night she can only imagine what is inside. If it was day and she could feel the urge to visit as she once did, she would enter The Society and count the number of teeth in the smiles that line the pictured walls.

She passes number five-hundred-and-sixty Military Road, a building she thinks is now trying too hard to avoid the word block being attached to it. She lived here once when it was just a block and she was just a girl at the local girls’ school. Her friends would visit to listen to the sounds of those who lived all around her apartment. Sounds of life not heard in their leafy hideaways one street away, in all four directions, evenly-spaced and equally silent. Her neighbours were given names at school based on their various acoustic attributes – The Grunter, Soprano Steve, Jitterbug and The Bassoon. A thought hits her; her neighbours were all men. All the sounds of her childhood were sounds of men. Perhaps that is why men filled her thoughts often and at this moment.

At this very moment and on this very night. She feels eyes upon her, a man’s eyes. A pulse punches at the palms of her hands.

A man is standing across the road staring straight at her. He does not blink. He looks burnt like everyone else, but his face is sad. He should be sleeping, she thinks. The man holds his hand up for her to stop. There is something familiar in the strength of the gesture. She stops. He comes towards her purposefully but is covering his face with the collar of his jacket as he does. Only his eyes are naked. Piercing eyes. His head is stooped. He is looking towards the baby inside the pram. She grows nervous and pushes off, leaving him standing at the kerb-side. He begins to groan and wail and falls to his knees. Drunk, she thinks.

She is pushing fast now, looking over her shoulder every so often. The window of the Café Orlando throws off her reflection but not that of the pram. She contemplates the artifice only briefly then regrips the pram forcefully, in defiance of the apparition.

Her knuckles whiten as she passes Surfection, the shop for lovers of the ocean. What was it her only boyfriend had said about surfing, or the ocean? Yes, that’s it. The ocean has no memory. That is why every wave is different. Just like everyday in this land. You see, the ocean realises memory is futile, so it does not try. It throws up all kinds of variations of waves, but none is ever like another. All the surfer can do is look forward to the next wave, and the next, and the next…

In many ways she lost him that night years ago, somewhere in the middle of his convoluted philosophy, at one of the cafes he had chosen for his auditorium. Well, it was never about her, or them. Despite his brilliance he, like everyone else, had chosen to live for today and tomorrow; to forget. He only said her name one in all the time, once in a million words, and she remembers where.

Down on Prince Street in her favourite house, the forsaken antique shop she took him to after she objected to going to yet another café. The antique shop. That gorgeous, dilapidated monument to memory inspired his, and it was the he said her name. He said her name and she tore his shirt in surprise, tore chunks from his back and for a brief time she became a noise like those in her apartment block. A noise that stifled his muttered philosophy. A noise that found him making actions, the very nature of which he would struggle a life-time to translate into words. She cried out to the stale ceiling, as he trembled above her in release, for once in silence. His piercing eyes shot fireworks at her, but she did not see.

He guessed it was love and wondered what his parents were so fearful of.

She, well, she was pregnant and knew it instantly.

She pushes past Mercedes Benz and notes the lack of baby seats in the show room stock. A few of those old school-friends drive Mercedes now and would be gently starting them up on Saturday morning, gliding down the speckled canopy of fig and oak to their children’s various leisure tournaments, their silence assured. She remembers when some of their children were young, how noisy they were. Her baby is so good. Such a quiet bundle.

Her pram creaks along, tack-tacking with the regular clack of the intended pavement cracks. On one occasion she had counted the other cracks, the unintended cracks, to relieve some pubescent boredom and reassert her skills in arithmetic. She loved those cracks, their sheer audacity and rebellion, the way they resembled streams in the wilderness where no rivers thrived. On the entire stretch of Military Road she only counted ninety-nine cracks. Now she couldn’t begin to count, hell’s lights have cracked the path to oblivion. So much so she doesn’t recognise a single crack. Her memory is stifled. She stops dead.

She is stolen from her thoughts by the footsteps of a man. It is the man with the jacket and as she turns to see him, he stops. This happens several times. It is as though he does not want to catch up to her or is too scared to. As though his previous sighting of the bundle made him shy, less brave. He follows her and she tries to forget he is even there. Drunk, she thinks. She starts to doubt. She wants to put the man’s eyes out of her memory, but her memory is strong. Out of sheer habit, she is collecting the memory of this man’s eyes. Such familiar eyes, she thinks. They stay at the front of her memory. She cannot shake the thought of them and just trying to only gives her a headache.

She no longer wants to remember anything. The man has triggered something in her. He is familiar, too familiar but as she cannot place him, she wishes to be rid of the thought of him. She pushes the pram along hastily but now her smell is aroused by lingering aromas of meals not complete and foreign smells, all unfinished business, the stench of the incomplete. Ghosts of meals prematurely abandoned are coming at her though the flimsy glass of the cafes of Military Road. Damn cafes, she thinks. In streams of heat the ghosts twist and bend through her as she cuts through them in anguish quickening. Now they are chatting, getting out what should have been said with mouths full of ginger and coriander. It is like her memories are emerging all at once.

The lady is frantic. She is a vessel for all these lost moments and feels full to the brim. She is chanting loudly now, trying to repel the noise with her own, but is inevitably drowned out. It is only when the lady stops fighting the voices that they depart, all except for two. Two voices in conversation, one man and one woman. The conversation is familiar enough to gain her attention, the voices compel her to listen.

He says: I am not ready for this.

She says: No one ever is.

He says: But I can’t even imagine it.

She says: Just concentrate on memories. Remember how it was for you.

He says: Remember! Are you mad?

She says: Try, you must try.

He says: Memories are a waste of time, time best spent living.

She says: And what is life, if not a series of memories?

He slaps her: You’re talking nonsense. I won’t do it because I won’t remember.

She pleads: Try, please try. The two of us can do this, we can…

He is defiant: No.

Into the night the conversation stays with her, scolding her memory like the westerly. It is not how she remembered hearing it the first time around, whenever that was. It is changed. How confused her memory of the conversation is. She is doubting the reliability of her recollection and it is causing her pain. Memories of sad things engulf her: the sound of her friends’ noisy children; the smell of damp in her terrace house; the feeling of loneliness when she was first realised she would be a single-mother; the sounds of apartment five-hundred-and-sixty, and the cracks in the pavement. It is a sorrowful mess. Is this what is meant by the nonsense of memory.

She feels ridiculous all of a sudden. The lady has failed to notice that the pram is breaking before her and she feels ridiculous. She pushes on for it is too far to go back. There is no choice but to push on. The lady pushes the injured pram towards dawn.

His eyes are still upon her but, avoiding temptation, she stares straight ahead into the whistling wind. The wind is summoning dawn.

She stops the pram outside the optometrist where there is no wind. The moon sings its warmth through deeper, dark tones of night. She unsticks her hands from the pram and holds them up to the beam. How beautiful night, she thinks. The moon brings no stars with it on this night, as with most nights lately. Stars are memories and the society doesn’t want memories. Instead the moon blankets the night so that when she closes her eyes, each blink is a moon. She stares for long enough that the images won’t desert her. Down Military Road just before dawn, she blinks in moons.

Just as in the desert, the sun emerges quickly and the lady with the pram is sweating from the mere trickle of the first rays dripping the top of her head. A the sun begins to emerge and hell’s lights fire up, the sound of the people rising hums about her. Their voices are drumming, beating an off-beat prelude to the trumpeting blue skies that band about her. She is awe-struck by the promises of this day. She is leaning right back from the pram, dipping her head into the well of golden sunshine. It is warm honey.

Everything becomes hot. The path feels sticky, the vegetation is shrivelled, dead or dying. Her skin stings, like the slaps of a thousand hands. She is burning. Behind her, Military Road is deserted, an abyss of swirling heat. Only the man in the jacket, still following her, reminds her she was even there. She remembers the pram and pushes it, somehow out of instinct. She does not notice that the pram has only three wheels, the amputated steel limb slices through the molten tar.

Something unusual happens. A shadow is drawing up close to her, bobbing about her feet. She does not like shadows. It is the fear of the unknown, for she seldom saw shadows at night. She pushes on, hurried and nervous. The shadow is catching hers and she runs. The lady and the pram are running on the burning road.

The shadow falls behind her or disappears but she does not stop. She hears a faint shouting and run towards it, seeking harbour. From what, she is beginning to forget. The noise builds and she realises it must be a raging choir of a thousand people or more.

An open hand thumps her chest and her legs swing and kick the back of the pram with their momentum. The hand belongs to a large man wearing a cloak. He has burnt skin he is trying to hide and piercing eyes. He is looking deep in her eyes, trying to stare out a response, a recognition, but her vision is hazy and her memory fading.

“Buying or selling?” He bellows.

She looks into the teeming market place and back at the man.

“Buying or selling?” He is agitated.

“Selling,” she says for the sake of a response only.

With that, he hands her a ticket with a number on the back and asks her to fall in at the end of the selling queue.

The selling queue is over five-hundred people strong. The lady and the pram walk it slowly on their way to the back. She notices the sellers are holding their possessions close to their person. They all look hot and bothered, her fellow-sellers, and she leans down to relieve her baby of a few blankets and cushions. Looking at all this nostalgia has her awash with memories, but they are incoherent and seemingly random. The recollections do alleviate the drudgery and soon she is taking up her position at the end line. The queue crawls along, passing all the flotsam and jetsam of the Memory Market. None of the items for sale appeal to the lady with the pram and she is glad she chose to sell and not buy.

The bundle remains silent as usual, he never cries nor smiles for that matter. Never even asks for milk or food. A perfect baby. Probably because mother is with him always. A mother that never sleeps, never has to wake to a crying baby, she remembers hearing once.

Just as she nears the front of the burning line of faces, a rusty sign attracts her eye:

PRINCE STREET ANTIQUES.

She leaves her bag of possessions to mark her spot in the queue and pushes the pram towards the front door.

The tiles droop downwards on the roof and she bolts to avoid the odd one that drops. The house is weathered but it is that grey dirty colour that attracts her, if only for its contrast to the bright, molten market. She likes that this house is unfinished and precarious too inhabit. She enters. She files the palm of her hand on a splintery beam and scratches her back on a malleable door knob. An orchestra of dripping taps are a pacifying rhythm and she only wishes she had time to bed down on the bended kitchen benches , between the various members of the water section, at some hour of the night. She would even beat her head in time during more energetic rests. Such houses as these are not lived in, but lived on, she thinks. The floorboards belch like cunje on ocean rock, rugs sway back and forth as does the tide, when she dances the dance of listless youth.

The thing that spoils the moment and sends her bolting form the house is that she looks up at the ceiling. The stale ceiling. She looks up at it and feels giddy with repulsion. How tired and stale and sanitary-white it is, dead or dying, or both. She lifts the pram with the baby inside and sprints back to the selling queue.

Back at the front of the line is the man with the cloak. He calls her number, five-hundred-and-sixty. She does not budge, but number five sixty one soon elbows her and she stumbles forward.

“What are you selling?” the man with the cloak asks, the masses looking on.

She looks about her. She has forgotten where she is. Lying on the charred ground in front of her is a tattered bag, its possessions ransacked. It will have to do, she thinks, the eyes of the crowd above her. She is about to present the bag for sale when a young man springs from the crowd and pilfers it, runs into the swarming crowd and disappears as though he was never there.

“What are you selling?” the man with the cloak bellows again.

She is lost, stuck for ideas, The crowd is screaming. She feels overwhelmed. SELL, SELL, SELL, the crowd chants. Her sunburned head now droops towards the ground. It is then she notices she is gripping something. It is a pram. There is a bundle sleeping inside it.

“Say now what you are selling,” the cloaked man demands.

“A pram”, she says, “and contents”.

The man with the cloak is holding up a hand to the crowd surging forward to view the contents of the pram. He commands them to stop; he is a powerful man this man with piercing eyes. He moves towards this lady, his footsteps should be so familiar but her capacity to remember went almost at the appearance of day. He looks at her once more, deep into her eyes, trying to elicit something, a wink or some acknowledgement of their shared past. Nothing. He takes of his cloak to reveal a jacket underneath. Still she does not respond. She turns away. Her memory now forsaken, she forgets everything. She is like everyone else. He begins to speak, to her only.

” I will buy your baby. The baby will be safe with me,” he says, longing fills the sound.

She holds out her hand and he pays her. He takes hold of the pram as she disappears into the crowd. She is thirsty for wine. With another wave of his hand, the market is over for the day.

Retiring to a place out of the sun, the man in the jacket parks the pram. In an instant his mind fills with glorious memories and thoughts of a depth he is nearly overwhelmed by. He thinks of his childhood and a boat trip to a new land. In one glorious second, he lives his life again. He is full to the brim. Bending down now he slowly picks up his son, with the loving caution of a new father. He beams now as he unwraps the boy from his blankets. Then, nothing. The sight makes his blood small. The baby is dead. Days dead.

There is a woman walking the slow, sun-drenched walk to an ocean somewhere. She has no worldly possessions apart from a few dollars. She does not know where she is. She has seventeen hours of sunshine left. Blackened faces on the roadside off her wine and celebration.

She does not remember much. What she does know, footprints on the road and sunburn, she will thankfully forget, for tonight she sleeps.