The Map of Antarctica

Fictions for Unseen Spaces

Category: Short Story

Homs and The Chemistry of the Moment – Short Story

Snow laced the edges of the buildings. The gutters and the ledges where the brickwork was jutting, sloping at angles into the deserted street. It was nighttime, Thursday. Tonight there was no gunfire. This meant that the wind and the clattering of a window frame were the only things to make a sound. Outside satellite dishes cluttered the rooftops, slanting upwards to the clamouring dark clouds. Inside a hotel room in the south of the city David Slater was going through the photographs on his digital camera. Images of the moon from a trip out of Homs where the landscape was barren and flat, hundred of miles to the north of the city, nearer Aleppo, where he absorbed a more peaceful and spacious Syria. The moon, larger than a plate, high above mountain ranges. These were photographs that he would have sold to travel magazines were it not for the political quagmire that the country was in. Image after image of dry rubble countryside, far removed from the urban detritus that he was here to actually photograph.

As a photojournalist Slater had travelled much of the world. Central Africa, South America, The Middle East. He had a portfolio of images collated from around the globe that his mind had blurred into cinematic sequences. The Venezuelan protests, armed conflict in The Democratic Republic of Congo, floods in Pakistan. His past was a global montage, fused and radiating energy, propelling him forwards into the here and now, into the icy cold atmosphere that hung around the city.

Homs was dangerous. Largely regime occupied. You had to run from one place to another to avoid sniper bullets, duck behind tyres stacked in the road. In many places buildings were connected through holes in their walls to avoid the need to go outside. Whole rows of abandoned homes connected in long strips where armed men both patrolled and wandered. Geneva was distant and soundless. It was the rebels, the army and the clashes between them that made the noise here. David was here to capture images and not sound. Not the engulfing volumous gunfire and shouting. He was here for photographs. He saw women with children in their arms, hurrying near their homes. He saw Arabic symbols spraypainted on walls. He saw dust climbing into the sky in the distance, grey and towering. He listened intently to the clicking of the shutter, a staccato punctuation amidst a deep symphony of gunfire. It was a risk to get cameras past army check points. Getting equipment out was risky. David might have been there for work but journalists were no safer than civilians. Death was as normal as life here. The streets a childs playground made out of rubble and hunks of brick.

***

In the wreckage of the street, walls were strewn with bulletholes and David’s shutter clicked repeatedly. He directed it towards five people in a group, walking. It was obvious that they were leaving their home, all together, all burdened. The chemistry of the moment somewhere off shot had propelled them to move. To pack their belongings and start their journey. A family, deeply attuned to one anothers needs. David watched them. They all bore their load as they stepped steadily up the street. He had seen countless images of families in need, of the origins of asylum, diaspora and movement. After a minute they stopped by a truck and the father lifted, first the bags and then the children into the back. He climbed up also, after his wife. They all sat and looked at one another, wordless.

Later that night he looked at the photograph of the Syrian family. He picked up on details that he had not seen at the time. A red flower on the girls dress, the sons carefully combed hair. The light from the screen of his camera shone in the dark of the evening. Outside, guns and the occasional explosion still sounded and flashes of light blinked into the dark sky. He thought of home. He thought of the unknowing opulence of London, hopeless and ignorant of the worlds state. London was a city that would never lose its people. The emptiness was the tragedy here. Streets that had loosened their grips on communities and families. Not for lack of caring but torn, wrestled from calm by the violence of terrorism and state corruption.

Slater knew the histories that coalesced beneath the surface of every contemporary war. Beirut, Iraq, Chechnya. None of it mattered here. The people didn’t need another history lesson, they needed food and space, they needed peace. They needed cars to stop being set alight and burning terrifyingly through the night. Neighbourhoods could no longer be called so in the Al-Shammas province, in the Al-Walid suburb. Districts were shadows of their former selves, history indeed.

***

The following morning another reporter was in the hotel bar. A mixture of western reporters and local businessmen milled around the foyer. David talked to the man who had introduced himself as Stewart Dresler.

‘Dialogue is happening,’ said Dresler.

‘Enough?’

‘Never’, he said. ‘Never enough. Look around, there is no sign of change. I have been here four times now. Things only deteriorate.’

‘You think things can change?’

‘Sure.’

‘When?’

‘That is the question. It may take years.’

They paused.

‘There are people at every level working on it, here on the ground, at the United Nations Headquarters, nothing seems to take hold.’

‘It needs to happen here. The transformation,’ said David.

They both sipped on their coffees.

‘If I could get the word ceasefire to go viral here, I would.’ Dresler stood up and nodded at David before walking away towards the lift.

He called his wife, Selina. They talked about the children, about the house, about his forthcoming holiday before drifting into romantic talk. The way distance could be transcended by pushing a few numbers. He shut his eyes. They talked about their first meeting.

‘I like to think about what you thought at the time. I don’t want that to change. Don’t fill in the gaps, please.’

‘I’m not sure if I could. Not accurately’, she said.

He smiled at this.

‘It was instinct, she said.

‘There was a pause as the telephone beeped.

‘Remind me,’ he said.

‘I love you’.

The coins ran out on the payphone and a dial tone hummed in David’s ear.

***

David spoke to some people, Syrians. Every story here was a heroic one. The faces of the people he photographed bore narratives that he could only play a small part in. Grand and serious, candid and true. They had the austere and irremovable imprint of dictatorship shadowing every glance they could make. The people moved about the place with a proficiency, determined that the city was still theirs to use, theirs to function within. They ate frugally. Lemon and vine leaves and olives, all rationed. The regime had long installed road blocks and dug trenches, quelling the memory of uprising in Syria.

Many people were not siding with anybody any more, such was the disillusion. It was frequently a case of convincing whoever asked to keep yourself alive or to make sure your children weren’t kidnapped.  

‘We want the place to be ours again,’ said a woman with a baby in her arms.

He nodded.

A child described how he had seen one of his friends die in a car blast. He said he was a martyr and was now in heaven. His face was impassive and emotionless as he described what he had seen. Normality might never exist again. He understood though, that the horrors of war only exist at a distance. In context people rationalise and adapt, become a part of the scene. When there is no way of resisting, you change. He observed the embattled people, citizens of mother earth, hardened and resilient to anything that could be thrown at them.

David walked on, towards a marketplace where fruit and vegetables were stacked in less abundance then they must have several years earlier. Sellers called out to him as he moved past. His camera hung aslant around his neck. For a short while he managed to block out the distant gunshots and believe he was in a city.

***

Homs was a place that the lens could not capture. It could not be contained. Possibly one of the most covered places on the face of the planet and still he felt it was misrepresented. Neither photography nor footage could translate the experience of being there. This was his job and it was futile. The chaos of factional confrontations, the raw energy spilling everywhere. The shouting and the smell. There was a confidence in the equipment that he used that should not exist here. A consolidation of things, people, movements into an image, disseminating a meaning to the world. He interrogated the role of the photographer. It was not so much a moral confrontation as a psychological conundrum. How could he make it work? The gutted shops, the bullet ridden buildings, the Mosque turned into a hospital. Every aspect seemed a mere component of a sprawling debris of significance.

Everything required attention.

David looked at his camera. A digital SLR that had been a trusty companion on his travels. There were scratches on its body and he had lost the lens cap. He looked and imagined the world being sucked into the camera through its glass.

He clicked the button on his camera and a final distillation of light was compacted into a photograph.

***

Brian Hartland sat back and removed his glasses after looking at the images, emailed to him in the middle of the night. There were enough to use for the lead article. He rang through to Leanne, asked her to come through to his office. She sat opposite him and he turned his screen so that they could both observe the photographs.

‘Strong,’ she said.

He nodded.

‘Some great images here.’

They looked at a Syrian child in the street, sun transparently glinting off the screen.

‘I hope he is safe.’

‘It looks tough.’

‘Demanding, certainly.’

Brian sipped on his coffee.

‘There are some difficult ones. Bloodshed,’ he said.

‘In or out?’

‘Maybe one or two.’

The air conditioning whirred and the two of them looked at one another.

‘I’ll work on them.’

‘Remember we control the message. Nothing too overbearing.’

‘Clean,’ she said.

‘Change. Diplomacy. Possibility.’

Leanne nodded.

‘All in our hands,’ he said.

‘A message to the nation,’ she said and stood up to leave.

Brian turned his computer screen back around and leaned back in his chair, his hand resting on his chin.

***

Homs, the title in large black capital letters. An eight page photo essay with nearly forty images from the city.

How did it read? Amidst the celebrity chatter and the television listings? Did it devolve into filler? Was it lacking punch? Questions that Richard Thacker asked himself as he leafed through the magazine on the Saturday afternoon of its release. He had known David for many years. Worked close by. It was his opinion that would be sought by Slater upon his return. He looked at the pages, slipstreamed into editorial layout. He always felt that glossy pages betrayed the agony of this kind of photography. He would prefer cardboard, or plastic bags. A cheapness that the people in the images would know. He flicked through the other pages. The horoscopes, the sport, before returning to the photography. They were enough to act as an intervention into his Saturday afternoon. An abrupt insertion of real life into his weekend. Richard missed David. He wanted to be there with him in the middle of the wild energies that he had previously known. He wanted to speak to him about the world, about photography, about truth.

***

David had travelled 160 kilometers to Damascus where he was due to fly from. The airport was cool. Large glass windows looked out over a runway. His camera was safely packed into his backpack. He walked, glanced at The New York Times that lay on a newsstand. It was the first Western news he had seen in weeks. Recovering economies and financial prospects between the US and China took the headlines. He went to a coffee bar where he stood and waited for his flight, drank a black coffee and stared out at the desparate cold that vibrated the image of the concrete outside. Syria already a mirage. Once on the plane Homs would begin to diminish in his mind. The details would shrink, the experience mute itself. He was still expecting gunshots to penetrate his sleep, explosions to rupture the flow of his thinking.

The airport buzzed and speakers echoed. As he moved towards the departures board David said goodbye to everything but the memory, everything but the photographs he had taken of the city of Homs.

The Dog’s Eyes – Flash Fiction

In my new apartment the owner keeps a pet. I have been unaccustomed to such circumstances and have had to make some fair and suitable adaptations. For instance I don’t complain if I put my toe in the greasy slop of brown dog food that occupies the kitchen floor next to the sink. I do not say anything if I trip over the dog and nearly break my neck. I do not whinge if I get dog hair all over my clothes to the extent that it is I who looks like the animal. I have to say that these are all concessions on my part. I know. I have let psychological territory go.

I work from home and my flatmate, Terrence, now works in an office. This has given me an intense period of bonding with the pet. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel sits in silience in the corner of the Living Room. It has a cushion. From this mantle it surveys and dictates what happens within its realm. Should I enter, the dog fixes its eyes on me and does not remove them until I have left. Of its power I am convinced.

I finish an article and go to the kitchen and speak to the dog.

‘How are things today?’

‘Look at you.’

‘Would you like a biscuit?’

All comments in a strange subservience to the mutt.

‘Is it time for a walk?’

I wait for the kettle to boil.

Of course, I know the dog will not answer me. The dog is far more controlled than that. The dog does not even move. It watches me. I take my coffee through to the other room and continue with my work. I shut the door to avert the gaze. Some work must get done.

Later I leave to stretch my legs. Again the calm surveillance of the the dogs eyes is there. Like Russian State Police, the gleaming black marbles observe me as I pace in the hallway. Sweat lining my brow I calmly state that I have nothing to declare. The King Charles does not flinch. Gazes on, soundless.

I return to work. This time I lock my room. I knuckle down to some writing, sure that that is what the dog wants. For me to work. I am convinced that there is a power structure in place in the flat. Not quite totalitarian. At the end of the day I print off the results of my toil and show it to the dog. Two measly pages it says with its stare, not moving from its cushion. Unimpressed, it orders me back to my room. I humbly comply.

It is two hours later that Terrence returns from work.

‘Jack? Are you here? Did you feed the dog yet?’

I open the door and crawl out of the bedroom on all fours.

‘I was waiting for him to feed me’, I say.

The Standing Man

‘Taksim Square’.

‘They’re out there now’.

‘Day and night’, he said.

‘Standing’, she said.

He said the place name again.

‘Taksim Square’.

The sound of the words brought the images of men and women gathering, shouting, calling for change.

‘One man started it’, she said.

‘He is there, in the middle of things, immovable’, he said. ‘Unflinching, regardless of what is going on.’

‘Do you think more people will join him?’ She asked.

‘You can never know’, he said.

‘That would be a sight.’

‘Not marching, standing, he said.’

‘People around the world, standing in protest. Looking for recognition.’

‘We could do it now’, he said.

She agreed.

The wind rattled the window in its frame. They sat, both of them, looking at the computer screen, searching for articles and images of the man.

‘What does it mean to us? He asked. As citizens of the United Kingdom, of Europe.’

‘It means the world is changing.’

He nodded.

‘And we can watch it as it changes.’

The laptop buzzed with potential energy. A network to anywhere. News from the other side of the planet, streamed into the living room. The pair of them sat, fixed to the screen, desperate for more worldly information. They eschewed everything out there for Istanbul. For Taksim Square.

 

***

 

She was wearing a red dress. He wore a white shirt and jeans. They were motionless and confined. Complicit in their fixation.

‘Where do they draw the line, these days, between news and sensitive information?

‘It’s a fine line’, he said.

‘Should we even be talking about it?’ She asked.

‘You mean we should just watch’, he said becoming animated. ‘Because I’m fine with that actually. The only problems come with logistics. I’d be concerned for the cameraman. He would deserve acclaim, he is standing there too right?’

‘I mean, should we be watching? Is our presence, here, effecting proceedings?’

‘Of course it is. What do you think I’m doing? We are shifting the route of history.’

‘By viewing’, she said.

He looked at her.

‘I prefer it when you say watching’, he said. ‘We are not privileged. There is privilege in viewing. Like we put ourselves on some kind of platform.’

She laughed.

‘You are funny.’

‘It’s not a laughing matter.’ He smiled. They both smiled.

The trees moved outside the window.

‘Do you think about the cameraman, then? When you are watching?

‘No.’

‘Because he is there too’, she said. ‘He is present. In Istanbul. With a piece of technology on his shoulder. Technology from another country, disseminating to another country.’

‘Just watch’, he said.  ‘You are thinking too much. It ruins the impact. He paused. ‘The world just changed. I was there when it happened.’

They paused and both looked around their furnished room. They were trying to ascertain their position in the unwieldy, uncompromising space they call the universe.

‘The news is a liability’, he said, ‘it always has been’.

‘It’s complex’, she said, smiling.

He laughed.

‘Other countries will see him. They will all be standing soon. There will be no stopping them.’

‘In their droves’, she said.

‘Standing.’

‘But what for, you know, this has to be taken into account. Anyone can stand, but to stand for something, that’s what really counts.’

‘He’s standing for peace’, he said raising his voice, ‘against oppression and misrepresentation’.

‘Oh, peace, great’, she said. ‘We can all do that, right? What actually motivated him? That’s what I want to know.’

‘Peace’, he said, repeating himself. ‘He wants change.’

She looked at him, focussing on the computer, leaning forwards as though if he got closer to the screen the information would reach him quicker. His skin was wrinkled and heavy. Not like it used to be, she thought.

‘I want to know what it was’, she said, ‘what it was that made him get up from his chair in his living room, what it was that made him say this is enough.’

A pause over took the room, the street, swamped the neighbourhood as they considered this. The origin of his thinking. The standing man. What had compelled him to move from his house, to thread through the streets of Istanbul to Taksim Square and stay there? Did he doubt it, did he consider in the time it took to get to the square, backing out of the act? Thank God he didn’t, he thought. In his legacy he would never move.

 

***

 

‘How do you align intelligence internationally? He asked. Because that’s what they need to do. Agreements have to be made.’

‘Does it remain intelligence?’

They both sat there and thought about this issue. The management of censorship in globalised times. Shifting powers and crumbling economies. International relations warping into strained positions.

‘It kind of makes the history of espionage look like people thrashing around in the dark doesn’t it?’

‘Contemporary media, the great leveller.’

‘Governments look fragile.’

‘They always looked fragile,’ he said.

She ignored him.

‘Like they don’t know what they are doing, because now, the people can communicate.’

‘This has changed’, he said.

‘Yes.’

‘This is the great change of our lifetime. That people can communicate.’

They both started to nod their heads in agreement.

 

***

 

‘I can’t stop thinking about him, he said. He is there all the time.’

‘He has gone now’, she said.

‘It doesn’t matter. His image is still with me. A deeply carved afterimage forged on my retina. His figure cuts against the sky, our sky. It was a statement for mankind, not just for the people of the Middle East.’

‘He’s gone, she said again. Come back to bed.’

He raised a glass of water to his lips and took a sip. Outside of the window the moon lay in a crescent casting down yellow and white flashes across the streets of London.

‘Can you see him now?’

‘I can picture him.’

‘He communicates’, he said.

‘He resonates.’

‘Without saying anything, he communicates.’

They were both lying in bed, looking at the ceiling. They had the visuals pressed into their eyes.

‘Governments have to listen.’ He said.

She sighed and rolled her eyes.

‘His skin looked yellow.’

‘It was night time’, she said. ‘The lights were on in Taksim Square.’

‘The geography is important to me. Say it again,’ he said, ‘please.’

‘Why didn’t they call him the silent man?’ She asked.

‘He stood. We have discussed this.’

‘But the silence,’ she said. ‘The silence seems to imply more, to say more about peace.’

They blinked as moonlight beamed between the curtains.

‘I don’t normally like imitators’, he said. ‘I can easily lose interest.’

‘There is power in numbers,’ she said. ‘He is peaceful.’

They agreed on this.

She looked at her husband lying next to her. Her interest was wavering. Doubt was permanently nearby.

 

***

 

‘There’s footage’, she said loudly, so that he could hear.

It was the following day.

‘What happens. Describe it to me.’ He was making tea in the kitchen.

‘He’s stood there. He’s wearing a white shirt.’

‘It’s business, of course he is.’

There was a natural break as she watched and he finished making the drinks.

‘Police arrived at 2am and detained the protesters’, she said

‘Detained!’ He said. ‘Protesters! They’re just standing there for Christ’s sake.’ He stirred in a sugar, furiously clinking the spoon against the ceramic.

‘It’s all about context,’ she said, attempting to see the other side.

He stopped dead in the doorway and looked at her.

‘This isn’t how we talk’, he said.

He sat back down and they watched the footage again and again until she stood up and started performing chores. He stayed there, fixed to the sofa.

 

***

 

She went out and did some shopping, leaving him to the news-stream that had occupied so much of their time on the previous day. She shut her eyes as she heard the lock click and the wind swept against her face in a cold breeze.

She walked to the end of the road, her heels clicking against the paving stones. On the high-street she saw people, weaving and threading along the pavements. She went into the pharmacy and bought some throat tablets from the counter. The fluorescent lights shone down on all of the white boxes behind the till, each of them filled with ways to change the body, to make the body better. Individual answers to worldly problems, made through years of research in enclosed laboratories. Zopiclone, Victoza, Seroquel. Attention to detail, beyond anything the eye can see. The Indian Pharmacist took her money and smiled and she slipped  the purchase into her bag before going back outside. She carried on walking, past shop fronts and cafes. The busyness of the world was confrontational. It was more than information. It was impactful, she thought. She moved through the market, past stacked fruits and vegetables, past greetings cards, past piles of paperback books. She stopped intermittently to purchase things. Out of the hubbub, she heard someone call her name.

‘Linda’. It was a woman’s voice. ‘Linda, hi.’

She turned and looked and saw a face that she recognised. It was Julie.

‘Oh, hi,’ she said, somewhat dazed.

‘I thought it was you.’

They smiled at one another.

‘How are things?’

‘Okay’, she replied.

Julie was holding a bag of plants, red flowers jutting out around the brim of the plastic.

‘For the garden’, she said.

‘They’re lovely’, replied Linda.

People were brushing past either side of them as they talked.

‘Any news?’ Asked Julia.

Linda shrugged.

‘You know’, she said. ‘What we were talking about.’

‘I don’t know’, she said. ‘He’s good to me, you know, most of the time. We get along.’

Julia nodded.

‘We’ve been going through a good spell’, she said. ‘It’s not like there’s anything wrong with him.’

‘Sure.’

They paused and smiled, tilted their heads as an awkward lull in conversation consumed them both.

‘Well, you know. If you want to talk’, said Julia.

Linda nodded and smiled.

‘Maybe you should come around for dinner. The two of you.’

‘Maybe.’

Linda was tired and regretting ever confiding in Julia. She didn’t even know her that well. Julia’s teeth were a little yellow but she had a pretty face, thought Linda.

‘Let me know about dinner’, said Julia, before wandering off, disappearing back into the busy throng of the marketplace.

Linda stood there in her trousers and t-shirt, feeling less engaged and more dowdy than ever. Looking like she did she would never leave the spot, let alone her husband.

 

***

 

She returned to the house. The smell of musty air, motionless space occupied the room. She placed her carrier bags full of food down on the table in the kitchen and they sagged into helpless shapes. She turned the radio on low and started moving things into cupboards. Tins and packets put into familiar places. She put the bags into the recycling. She went back into the living room.

‘The world is in here’, he said. His first words to her.

‘Listen to yourself,’ she said.

‘We are global citizens,’ he said.

‘You don’t even go outside,’ she said.

He glared at her and let out a deep sigh.

She turned her back and moved through to the kitchen.

 

***

 

It was days later that the conversation with Julia recurred in her mind. Today she felt different, active, as though she could change something. As though she could change the world. It was hers for the taking, she thought.

She stood in the doorway and looked at her husband hunched in his usual position. He hadn’t said her name in weeks. They hadn’t made love in longer. She thought of the dinners she had made for him while he had been working on articles. Sometimes they got published, sometimes they didn’t. He acted like he was in charge, but in charge of what? She thought.

Her mood accumulated and nothing changed on his part. She moved and he sat. She cooked and he watched. She rang her mother and he jotted down notes, names, dates. It seemed that their behaviour was stuck.

She knew it was in her power to change things. She looked at him and repeated the word to herself. Power.

 

***

 

The following night he sat, fixated as usual, observing the flickering screen. He watched and shook his head as feeds updated. He dipped his hand into a bag of crisps, lifted a can of lemonade up to his mouth and slurped, gulped down the clear fizzy liquid. He blinked away the scrolls of text that blighted his eyes, blinked them into insignificance.

‘Lives are on the line’, he said, smiling.

He turned a page on the newspaper that lay on the table in front of him.

‘The news is a language everyone speaks. A currency for the connected.’

He laughed loudly to himself and looked up.

‘Linda’, he said.

His voice echoed, reverberating around the white walls of the flat. In wide eyed astonishment, full comprehension of his own small world, he stood up.

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