Cities in the rain

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By David Lewis:

Once, in Amsterdam, it rained forever.  Rain spattered the aeroplane window and the strange and beautiful journey to Centraal Station, rain shrouded the Hotel Botel’s solid presence on the swollen Ij river, rain seemed to drain the flat sky of the last of the light.  For three days we woke to the rain outside the cabin, felt a cool rain-wind in our faces on the deck, watched a coot’s nest bobbing in the wake of a passing barge. Rain on the red-brick façade of the railway station, darkening the old walls, rain on the cobbles, rain in the canals, falling softly, unceasingly.  Our days were dominated by water.

We were guided by the memories – not the ghost, for he is still mooching through the rain, still causing trouble - of writer Jeff Young, fresh with Amsterdam stories when I first met him thirty years ago.  From his Amsterdam days I inherited a brown leather jacket and a heavy Dutch butcher’s bicycle, and in my mind’s eye he limps along Herrengracht in his junk shop overcoat, turns a corner, disappears. We drank in his bars, smoked Dutch roll-ups, had coffee in the windows of his brown cafés.  I remember young leaves on the trees along the canals, the endless silver curtain of the rain, soft, gentle, almost apologetic. In the flea market on Waaterloplein I found a battered book, sepia images of the vulnerable doorways and ornate windows that we passed daily, generating a sense of déjà vu, of having known the city in the past.  It gave a watery depth to our walks: we never seemed to be dry. From the Rijksmuseum the old painters reached out to us through the rain, washing the tall counting houses along the great canals in clouds and bright skies, illuminating street conversations with a sunshine we never saw. I remember the Frans Hals canvases in Haarlem, scrubbed puritan faces in blacks and greys, explosive white lace flashes at throat or cuff: outside, the rain-crunch of gravel, the green shine of leaves in a clipped garden, the screaming of swifts falling on us like an unseen cloudburst.

Amsterdam was a sea city on the edge of Europe.  At night we walked home through Centraal station, beneath the great trains silently leaving for Antwerp, Rome, Vienna.  It was city of wet golden distances and black waters, a city of brick streets, cyclists, walkers.  On the evening of our last day we drank in the little hotel bar, a glass box on the deck, the golden lights and blue flags outside smeared by the streams of water.

If we choose, if we are fortunate, places do not leave us.  Liverpool too is a sea city on the edge of Europe and, cycling along old brick streets to city parks and smoky bohemian cafes, I allowed Amsterdam to tint the whole city.  Eventually all Jeff’s gifts continued their journeys without me – the butcher’s bicycle was given to the elderly American in the flat downstairs; beyond repair, the leather jacket was artfully displayed on a dustbin and walked off on its own.  And it was not hard to imagine the city as a water-city, as had once been dreamed; canals and huge industrial channels opening from the Mersey, seeing Liverpool’s old streets as a criss-cross of narrow waterways. Gradually this feeling slipped away, and the old streets felt less watery.  But even today, if I am lucky enough to walk the city in the rain, the belief that Liverpool is a city of ghost canals rises to the surface once again.

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David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Hiraeth

Photo: jessica sealey

Photo: jessica sealey

By Aoife Inman:

It’s late but the evening light lingers at the peripheries of the ocean making the day stretch long into the night. Time seems to stretch here, the minutes distorted by the quiet swell of the ocean.

The air is full of mist; it pads out the twilight zone between the last dregs of evening and the soft beginnings of the morning. I’ve always thought this is an almost mythical piece of the day, when it’s neither light nor dark and the sky is damp and thick with salt, brushed in off the incoming tide. You can hold the mist between your teeth, wads of it pressed against the insides of your cheeks like cotton.

There aren’t many who bother to come down to the sea front at this hour, with the weather, as it is, temperamental and unforgiving. The wind bites and scratches at any scrap of skin left bare to the element and my thighs are lined with small red welts and scratches – the claws of the ocean have dug their way into me, right to the bone. Today, however, there are a few faces who peer palely over in my direction as I trail down the hill – van dwellers, keen surfers and fishermen, who are all, themselves, half brine and barely human, at least in the city sense of the word.

This was always the place I felt most at home, not here specifically but this ocean, this crack of coastline that juts out obstinately, defiant and secluded. It feels a million mile away from the industrial powerhouse cities I’ve made my home now.

Home. It’s a strange word whose weight has always felt uncomfortable in my mouth, hard and bitter. I was born on the road, moving between a collection of cardboard houses, each one like the last and yet lacking something. I resided in houses, habitats, a series of rooms, plaster, mortar and board – safe and comfortable but never permanent. To belong to just one place strikes me as an exhausting concept.

I thought when I had grown up that I’d settle somewhere; that I’d stop moving and plant some roots, or whatever the metaphor is, but I’ve realised that those moments, those years spent on the road, they get into your bones over time. Slowly, you barely feel it at first, but I can’t stay still now. I’ve tried, time and time again, found a place I love and settled there with a job and a plan and a circle of friends and then I feel that itch, again, against the soles of my feet. It’s like a disease, that itch, that want for change, it’s exhausting sometimes.

I walk along the cliff path, away from the cove, to the world’s edge where the grassy slope seems to fall away into the deafening blue. It’s a steep rocky path carved right into the grit and soil of the cliff, the sort that has been etched by many pairs of feet, worn over many years. When the tide eventually comes in it will cut off this path completely, a void of cold, blue Atlantic filling the space where my feet have trod. Nothing about the breadth or surface of this terrain is easily digestible. It’s a wholegrain, bran and fibre sort of landscape – some find it lonely, harsh, and unforgiving – I find myself falling in love with the rough corners of it every time I return.

When I was a child we were taught to spot currents on cliffs like this, our hands tracing the motions of the sea, trailing the lines of white foam that spread across the ocean like a film. I reach out my hand to lay it on the horizon, palm obscuring the bulb of the grey sun.

If you follow the cliff path round the curling edge of the peninsula you reach a town, a knot of tangled streets that overlap one another like old strings, every one gnarled with potholes and cobbles. I follow it now, zigzagging through kissing gates and through fields of thick grass. Everything is further apart here, houses and gardens stretch along the street, sand banks drag the beaches way out into the bay and the years seem to trickle by – I do not have to measure time so carefully here, there are months to spare.

The town is simple, a harbour filled with thin fishing boats and crab pots, a lifeboat house, a shop selling spades and 99 cones. It’s fixed in another time, another era where people worked with their hands, in the earth and the water.

This place is filled with mysticism, steeped in folklore, luck bound in rhymes and patterns of three. It’s everywhere you look, tucked in corners of woodland and thin waterfalls where faerie stacks topple. Down in the town the boats that jut out into the cove are named after mythical lands and magical creatures, suspicion has wormed its way amongst the men who tend the land and drag the sea.

“Look down there.” The mother leans into the clove of her son’s ear as she speaks. “Look down at that boat there, see the lions on its side?”

Sure enough, on its flanks are painted two yellow lions, their manes dipping and rising out of the green waters.

“They’re named after the legend of Lyonnesse…legend says there used to be a beautiful isle just set above Seven Stones reef that is halfway out to the Scillies. The city of lions and the land of Lyonesse, built with 140 churches atop it and a castle they say, all swallowed up in a single night by the ocean.”

The boy’s eyes widens as he listens, his hands gripping the handrails with his chubby palms.

His mother crouches down by his side, “look now do you see the top of the steeple there, just jutting out of the waves?”

He nods, eyes fixed on the grey sea.

The light is fading now, obscuring the edges of the day. Home, it’s a strange thing I think again, I wrap my tongue around it, a lump in the hollow of my mouth. It’s everywhere here and yet it feels distant. It’s in the lilt of the mother’s curling accent, the one I have lost over so many years spent away. It’s in each vowel, full bodied and warm, the crackle of pebbles under rubber boots in the evening tide, the low thud of water turning cliff to rubble.

I collect them in my palms as I count them, feel the weight of the love I hold for this place, and close my eyes as the day melts.

About the author:
Aoife Inman is a writer and historian based between Cornwall and Manchester. Her short stories have been published in Electric Reads’ Young Writers Anthology 2017 and New Binary Press’ 2018 Autonomy collection, as well as being long-listed for the 2016 Royal Academy Short Story Award. 

Letter to a Stranger

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By Shawna Bethell:

The thing I didn’t tell you was that I met your brother on the ferry. He was looking for you. Your father wanted you home. To this moment, I’ve never told anyone that I met either of you. I felt it would be a betrayal of sorts, though I didn’t even know your names. But I knew your stories, two parts of a whole, none of us expecting I would cross both your paths. Yet I did, within a half-dozen hours or so. Harris is a small island, after all.

I was sitting alone on deck watching grey waters when your brother approached and asked to sit. Together we watched sleek arch-backed porpoises rise and fall as they swam alongside the ferry. We watched a low sweep of rock appear in the distance, growing until it became an island large enough for a port, a village and a road up the coast that would cross a narrow isthmus to another stretch of gneiss known as the Isle of Lewis.

Eventually, he started talking. Told me more than he probably should have about your family, but he spoke with earnestness, and I couldn’t help but listen. He had tracked you to that slab of stone sprawling in the distance and hoped you were still there. In time, we disembarked and as I walked away, he asked me to dinner. I declined and wound my way up the hill, unknowingly, to you.

It was later that evening, in a hostel full of travelers, when our paths crossed. I was rummaging in the kitchen when you came in and I asked you where to find a knife for my vegetables. You were a large man, with long blonde hair bound back by a leather cord and gold wire-rimmed glasses that framed blue eyes. From the leather sheath on your hip you pulled that gracefully thin filet blade with a round wooden handle and passed it to me. I still remember how caught I was by its elegance. Casually, you also opened the cupboard and offered spices from your cache saying I’d likely not find anything but salt and pepper in the communal kitchen. Then you quietly paced the cramped space, crowded with washer and dryer and Formica table, while I sliced in silence. When I returned the knife, you left.

That night, as a woman from Skye cranked open the window above our bunk and slept comforted by familiar cold air blowing in from the sea, I was left sleepless by the same damp chill, so I took my laundry back to the warm kitchen, made a cup of tea and sat down with my journal.

I hadn’t realized any one else was around when you walked in from the TV room and spoke. As before, you paced the perimeter of the room past the washer and dryer, along the counter and back before pulling out the chair across from me to sit.

You said you were from Finland and had worked a lucrative desk job as expected by your father until a few months before. Then, with no word to anyone, you left. You landed on the island and hired on at a fish cannery off the rocky shore. You said you liked the physical labor, liked the men you worked with. You said you weren’t planning to stay on the island, but had no plans to go back either. 

We talked a lot about family and expectations. I told you about the Midwestern United States, where people were rooted by generations of family loyalty, a pull so strong that I felt my choices in life were abdicated before I was old enough to know I had choices to make. I loved my family, but when I finally left the Midwest, it was with a sense of escape. I landed in a mountain town in the western U.S. populated with out-of-work miners, scientists, artists and travelers. It was a place where people accepted you as the person you presented yourself to be, and it was where I gained the freedom to be the writer I wanted to become.

In the dark early hours of morning, you put on your jacket and went outside, cigarette in hand, and through the window I watched the orange tip burn as you paced the walk out front. Shortly you returned, explaining you had to catch the ferry for work in only a few hours and needed to get some sleep. I don’t remember that we even shared a ‘good-bye.’ You just walked away through the drafty, concrete-block hallway, and I was left to pull my clothes from the dryer and stuff them into my pack. Then I followed the hallway to my own side of the dorm where I fell easily and unexpectedly to sleep.

By daylight you were gone and I caught a ride north, jotting a quick ‘thank you’ and tucking it into your spice cache before I left. We never did exchange names. It didn’t seem necessary, I guess. But I still think of you, and I wonder if your brother ever found you. I wonder if you ever went home. I did, eventually. For better or for worse. Sometimes, I’m still not certain. But that strange triumvirate of love, loyalty and obligation will call even the most wayward of us back.

Wherever you ended up, I hope you went there by choice and without regret. I hope you found the life you wanted. I wonder, though, if you ever knew, if either of you ever knew, if you ever talked about that woman you both happened upon, who carried two men’s stories back out to sea.

Shawna Bethell lives in the central Midwest of the US. Her work has appeared in the Denver Post, The Mountain Gazette, High Desert Journal, and This Land Magazine among other publications.

End of the Line

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By Catherine Marshall:

This is a story of a rather unusual bus journey to the end of the line in Edinburgh, a discovery of an industrial museum witness to centuries of change and my own transition in moving to a new city and country.

I have always been drawn to the theme of transition both in my private life – often moving flats, cities, countries – and in my photography – which often features urban spaces undergoing change. When I first moved to Edinburgh from Germany, I had a reverse culture shock. I had to relearn a British culture that I had left behind fifteen years ago. To be honest I was happy that I had washed up in Edinburgh and not South of the border. It felt closer to Europe, the tenement-style buildings also reminded me of Berlin. As an English person, it was also nice to still feel foreign, to learn Scots phrases, hear poems read in Gaelic and learn about Scottish culture through my sons' school education. 

When it came to taking photographs and negotiating the city I was less comfortable. I almost felt that as an English person I didn't have the authority to go out there and reframe the landscape through my camera. Apart from that, I had no idea of the geography of the city and didn't know where to start. Then I came across came across (g)Host City, a kind of sound-map of Edinburgh to download where you can hear a story or a poem set in a particular location of the city. I decided to take an 'unreliable bus tour' by Japan-dwelling Scot, artist and musician, Momus. It gave me the framework (and courage) to set off to those mysterious sounding destinations on the front of buses I had seen in town: Wallyford, Ocean Terminal, Hyvot's Bank and Bonally. I cannot really describe the surreal, dark and funny tours he gave, as that is something to discover for yourself.

On one journey I wasn't sure if the bus had actually reached the end of the line. It seemed to circle back so I just decided to get off. The audio tour had ended, my google maps app was not working and suddenly I found myself off map. Two bus stops stood baldly on opposite sides of the country road, the only punctuation marks in an otherwise unreadable flat landscape. Should I go left or right or take the bus back? I decided to follow my nose. Walking down a winding B-road I saw another marker in the landscape, an exclamation mark of an industrial chimney stack. I was alone, not having seen another pedestrian since I had left the bus, and was glad to see some sign of civilisation. A pit head winding-gear came into view. As I walked closer I saw a bricked wall with tiles with illustrations of former industries; fishing, pottery, coal, and brickworks. Through serendipity I had found the Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum located on the north-east coast of East Lothian. For centuries this area was the centre of intense industrial activity, with a busy harbour, Morrison's Haven. Now you can just see where the harbour used to be, a rectangular outline on the grassy bank, marked with a sign on the ‘bygone years’, the sign itself nearly faded away through the erosion from the sea air. 

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At the museum I found myself donning my headphones again, this time to listen to an audio-tour of the outdoor exhibits narrated by the late artist John Bellany who grew up nearby, conjuring up, not so different from Momus, an alternative world to the one you see with your own eyes. From Bellany’s stories of Prestonpans you visualise a lost industry; the smoke billowing from the Beehive Kilns that once produced bricks for the buildings of the New Town. Or you find yourself at its mid-eighteenth century heyday with ships loaded with salt, oysters, ceramics, sulphuric acid and coal, or bringing silk, furs from Canada, whalebone and French brandy in return. In the nineteenth century, Irish workers, who first arrived in the West of Scotland, are brought with their families and their traditions to the East by new investors, Summerlee. These new owners also improved workers' conditions, installing indoor plumbing to the mining workers’ housing. Electric generators replaced the steam engines in the powerhouse and electric street lighting was brought to the area. Today the powerhouse houses art exhibitions. I was so taken with the museum, and the fact that I was free to wander with my camera making my own discoveries of an overgrown railway bridge and train tracks in the surrounding forest, that when I returned to the visitor centre the assistant said that she had been thinking of sending out a search party. 

As I left Prestonpans, walking west along the coastal path towards Musselburgh, I came across a quite alien landscape. This was not the Edinburgh that I could have imagined existed when I had set out on my 'unreliable bus tour' that morning. I had found, however, something equally strange. A vast cracked grey landscape stretched out before me towards the sea, made infinite by the fog that was closing in. These are called 'lagoons', a salubrious name for a place where Scottish Power deposited waste ash from the now closed Cockenzie power station. 

In these coastal areas, the delicate balance of man and nature is most apparent. The oysters that the Edinburgh population once enjoyed with their French Claret disappeared towards the end of the nineteenth century overfishing, new dredging methods and pollution from sewage and industrial waste. As industry disappears, nature reclaims, and also in this case offered opportunity for recreation. Bellany recounts several generations of Prestonpans children using the disused harbour as their own swimming pool after the 1930s, conveniently heated by the water dispersed from the pit boilers. Now this coastal area is a destination for walkers and bike enthusiasts. There are also plans to create a nature reserve on the site of the lagoons. Although the lagoons in themselves are dead, they have provided a sanctuary for both sea and wading birds and there are three hides for birdwatchers in the area. In the photographs I took that day, I was drawn to the themes of transition and change, nature reclaiming land itself. But I also wondered about the transitions that families had to go through in the passage of time when industries that had sustained them for so long, came to an end.  

About the author:

Catherine Marshall is an artist and writer based in Edinburgh. She studied photography at the London College of Communication and Glasgow School of Art. She has lived in different countries and cities including Berlin, which she made her home for a decade.

www.catherine-marshall.com

Poetry: Zenith, by Shirley Jones-Luke

Image: Katrin Schönig

Image: Katrin Schönig

Ancient mariners were guided by a celestial sphere
they revered it like worshipers of a false idol
that's why many ships were swallowed by angry seas
sailors' cries of help silenced by waves of torment
wreckage of their lost lives scavenged by the villagers

A mast holds up the roof of my cottage on a neighboring beach
like a sundial its shadow moves with the passing sun
I use fabric from the sails of old ships to block the rays
splotchy patterns decorate the sundial's form
at night, silhouettes of palm trees are shadow puppets

Morning brings more storm-battered treasures
a ship's wheel entangled in seaweed, a broken
rudder wedged between two alabaster boulders,
a cannon torn in half floats in the water, 
I see the wealth in the sand

Hurricanes are common in the area, when
clouds turn black, destruction is on the horizon,
the villagers hunker down in caves on the
side of the mountain, I pack up my few
possessions - clothing, my journal and a picture of you

There are no ships at sea, the sailors
have learned the ocean's lesson, gulls glide
on electrified air, squawking their disapproval,
I make a note in my journal to collect feathers
once the storm has passed

The sky cracks open, rain comes down
like a butcher's knife, cutting into the island
the gulls are gone, nestled in their own
shelters, the villagers pray, casting wide eyes
at the sky, I think about you

In the morning, the sun brightens the damage
huts have lost their roofs, my cottage was knocked
off its foundation and leans to the side, the gulls
feast on dead crabs washed ashore, the villagers search
for what remains and I search for remnants of you

Shirley Jones-Luke is a poet and a writer.  Ms. Luke lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts. She has an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing.  Shirley was a 2016 Watering Hole Poetry Fellow. Her work has been published by Adelaide, Damfino, Deluge and ENUF.