Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Beyond the border

[From an unfinished short story. Images are black and white scans of colour slides taken in Leningrad in 1967.]

He now found himself beyond the border. Here extended a parallel way of life, a very different, more central and centralised Europe. He was in a city in the interior, where frequent trams and trolley buses creaked slowly along heavy wet tarmac. Most men wore hats, and it seemed that state department stores supplied a universal gabardine raincoat in just three colours: dark blue, steel grey or khaki. Outside the tram in which he was standing, numbers of people walked quickly or cycled slowly. Some carried small parcels wrapped in brown paper, and many were smoking cigarettes, even while entering shops or offices. Nearly all were of adult years; no small children were in evidence. The few cars were all of a similar manufacture, rounded and black, with very short sequences on their number plates. Possibly they enjoyed some official status. Occasional passing hoardings appeared as fragile and faded collages in an unrecognisable language, set in redundant fonts with unfamiliar accents over selected letters. A good many shops looked shut, though it seemed to be the height of the day. This he was obliged to judge by the degree of activity in the streets, given that the sun was masked by a regular and continuous ceiling of low dull cloud that removed all sensation of openness. His fellow passengers helpfully ignored him, and his insecurity at his situation was alleviated by the helpful feeling that he was invisible, though he knew that this was not literally so.

They passed what might be a cathedral. He could not tell if it was in use or not. Conceivably, it was not a cathedral but a museum. Or ministerial offices. Or a large hotel, maybe. There was little sign of recent construction. A few buildings carried advertisements – or perhaps official slogans – in exaggeratedly large standing letters erected along the front of their roofs. Odd letters were damaged, toppled or missing, but must have been left in this state for some considerable time. There were very few traffic lights at junctions, and their lamps were small and dull. Occasional roadworks – holes in the ground, ragged and rectangular, deep as graves – were marked off by ropes and unlit tin lanterns, and all appeared to have been abandoned. The smeary glass of the window was thicker than his finger, and no outside noise penetrated to the interior of the tram. The city – resistant to mapping and apparently without clear demarcations – passed by him in silence. He found that he still held a ticket in one pocket of his raincoat. He took it out and studied it. It was surprisingly large, and made of a stout but coarse paper, the colour of sand. It was marked with two columns of lines that held the titles of the principal stops. He could not identify any of the names. The ticket had been punched twice: one hole was circular and one triangular.

The tram had now reached a district whose streets were less congested, except by increasing numbers of sorry pigeons. This area was characterised by low, prefabricated buildings, infrequent street lighting and an excess of overhead cabling. At one corner a cylindrical metal tank mounted on a handcart was dispensing some sort of thin drink from a tap into glass tankards held out by a few unsmiling men in overalls. Though this neighbourhood appeared particularly poor, its overall dirtiness, as generally in this city, was matched by a commendable absence of litter or graffiti. From here the tram passed into an area where the architecture was more substantial, but which was equally deserted. Here the vehicle coughed, slowed, and came to a full stop, its engine whining down to switch-off. This was the end of the line. The few remaining passengers at the far end of the compartment disembarked, and, reluctantly, he followed them.

He set out at a stride along a broad but empty thoroughfare, on the assumption that it would take him somewhere significant. The stained pavement was wet. It was not raining now, but the threat of rain seemed to be a fixed condition. Though the street was impressively wide, he could identify no shops. The elderly buildings might have been residential, or perhaps anonymous offices. Each heavy doorway was reached by a few stone steps, so that the ground floor windows were set above his eye level. Dull blinds or dim net curtains blotted out most. There was no sound or sight of human activity. As his walk lengthened, he busied himself in consideration of his situation. He must still be in current time, certainly, but in a place where any earlier sense of cultural or political progress had lost all value and impetus. This country’s history was no longer owned by its populace, but it had not been replaced by anything else. Technologies appeared to have halted at some previous generation, surviving in use only in a patched and re-wired form. Time continued to pass here, at least on a wristwatch basis, but its passing had become frosted into an impoverished repetition of the endless present moment. 

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