I had always believed that the city would never change; that it would remain a constant in life, a place to which I could return again and again, knowing that it would hold the footprint of my life forever. Yet now, as I sat in the coffee shop, itself now merely a child of an international chain which offered identikit refreshment regardless of location, I realised that I knew nothing of my surroundings. Monolithic buildings had risen and now towered above the remnants of a much older city, a city which seemed to hide its face as if in shame. Giant mirrored panes reflected sunlight, cars, buses and pedestrians alike. Leather-clad riders wove their motorbikes deftly through the traffic, their deliveries already cooling in their carriers, their reflections appearing, distorted and twisting in the glass, before vanishing from sight. The facade of the station stared out across the city streets, its advertising hoardings boring holes into passers-by as if they had some life-changing message to impart. I tried to think back, to remember the city of my youth, the city in which I had learned to become a man, the city that would forever be my home, but I could not connect my memories to the vision before me. The street names flooded back, each one triggering a recollection, a remembrance, and, yes, none of them had changed, but none was truly the same. It was as if, during my absence, the entire city had undergone massive cosmetic surgery: the creases and wrinkles that informed my memory had been smoothed out, erased, as if I had never been here before.
I sipped my Americano slowly, its bitter tang already lost to me, and wondered what had happened to plain coffee and the corner cafes which served beverages unencumbered by exotic language. Names began to form themselves in my mind, drifting slowly into my consciousness, begging for recognition, and, for each in turn, I formed an image of what I believed their physical forms had looked like. My accuracy in this task lay somewhere hidden in the depths of a memory which I was beginning more and more to doubt. I was, of course, secure in the knowledge that these people, these characters, had, at some point, come into my life. Some, perhaps, had stayed a while, may even have fallen beneath the blanket term of ‘friendship’, others would have been acquaintances, interlopers who came and went, leaving nothing but the shadow of their name. I had imagined each as being inexorably connected to the city, as if their very existence relied on that of the city. What, I wondered, would have become of them as the city as the city underwent its rejuvenation? Perhaps they had been absorbed into the very essence of the city, become part of its fabric. I imagined their eyes, eyes that I was unable to picture as physical objects, staring at me from the walls that surrounded me, eating their way into the heart of me. I could feel their presence gnawing at me, unearthing more and more names that had lain buried within me for years.
One name seeped forwards to the front of my brain, chalking its outline into my consciousness. It belong to one of those people who had had the distinction of falling into the category universally defined as ‘friend’. I had grown up with this friend throughout the now distant days of our schooling, and our friendship had endured the days of change when school life ended and the threat of adulthood reared its head. It was true that we had followed different pathways – he had plunged headlong into a world of employment and responsibility whilst I had sought to avoid such ties by attending the city university. We continued to drink at our usual haunts and waste our free hours with the same distractions that we had grown up with: it was as if we were children of the city and it, as any dutiful parent would have done, was holding our hands as we grew. And then I completed my years at the university, my now qualified status hanging from me like an anchor rather than wings, and the door opened up on my future career. At the same time another town came calling, your name on its lips, and you were gone.
Eight years. Eight years out of a lifetime. Eight years during which it had seemed unthinkable that we would ever not be friends; not criticise our local teams; not put the political world to rights; not drink away the long summer nights. And yet eight years disappears beneath the days as they pass by building walls behind which we can no longer witness the change that creeps silently all around us. Before I had even realised it, as life guided me along pathways that I could never have predicted, pathways that monopolised my hours, years had passed by and what we had once shared became nothing more than distant memories: memories that I could no longer trust. Memories that, for all I now knew, may be no more than figments of my imagination. Before long the city had shaken me off too and, under the guise of ‘career development’ my life led me to different cities, all of whom welcomed me like a prodigal son. Roots were cut and roads forgotten.
And now, as I drained my second Americano and watched the reflections of passing strangers appear and disappear in the mirrored glass, I wondered how much of my own life existed only as mere reflections in the lives of others. The faces that had drifted through my life had been no different to my own: they had come and gone in a constant state of change and I, who had thought that somethings would never change, had been wrong.
© All original writing copyright Chris Nelson 2000-2019