Text commissioned for the exhibition and publication 'For All But Finitely Many' by Iede Reckman at Billytown, The Hague, 2016.
Sitting across the table from Margaret, I am puzzling over what she is trying to tell me. She is so eager, so eloquent, so detailed in her telling of people and faraway places. Still my mind can’t, or refuses, to keep up, to join the dots. I am distracted by the hot night, by the smell of jasmine coming from the thick canopy above, by the other, younger, people tightly pressed around us, by the sips of medicinal liquor that burn the back of my throat. I am distracted by a desire to look. Margaret’s skin is tanned a thick ochre, her short hair stained a dark red. Her eyes still an energetic blue. I wonder whether she has any children now, or a husband. I look for a ring. I wonder at her accent, eroded as it is by many years abroad.
Margaret is exclaiming over the square we are sitting in. “I played here every day as a child”, she says. “But look at it now!” Colonised by two sprawling cafes, a booth selling cigarettes and newspapers, at each corner a CCTV camera set atop a tall pole. The metal slats of the chair are digging into my bare legs and I pull at my shorts to get comfortable. Margaret tells me she is enjoying rediscovering her city. Digging up new treasures and becoming re-acquainted with old ones. She calls me by my full name, Robert, and I enjoy the formality of the address tripping off her tongue. Her top keeps slipping from her right shoulder to reveal close-knit freckles settled over bone and I resist the temptation to lean over and place the top back myself.
A man with an accordion sidles up to our table, singing. He sings for us but his gaze hovers somewhere above our heads, as does his small smile. Margaret digs out a few coins and I follow suit. She has only recently returned to the city, from a long time spent wandering the world. She has met very rich people, been invited into their homes even, she has taught in prestigious schools, she has been part of many important events. She doesn’t tell me why she came home, and I wish I could ask but there isn’t space as she is still talking to me of her experiences and plans, and I am still trying to keep up. “Thank you for being prepared to look with such attention”i she says.
“Thank you for being prepared to look with such attention” I say. Brain throbbing from too much talking. Hot from saying too much. I rest back in my chair. Across the table, out of the pause, Robert begins to tell me about this city I have so recently returned to. How it has been “re-configured”. A strange word, I think to myself. While he speaks I scan his face for judgement or emotion, but he is curiously contained, arms crossed over chest. Not cold, but cool.
“You can look at it from many angles”, he says. “If you were to hover above us, you would see that the city is still puzzled together out of irregular pieces, much like the marble pavement under our feet. If you looked at it sideways you would see what we can see now – trees, taxis, people, dogs. But if you looked at it from underneath, if that was possible, you would see that it is now demarcated into standard, geometrical, sections. What are called ‘zones’”. We are sat within a triangle of taxis and the sound of their running motors adds an urgency to Robert’s voice as he raises it to be heard above them. “The zone in which we are sitting now, for example, is known as the ‘pink zone’. If you ask for directions a person might say – oh, you mean the café in the green zone? If you hear this, you now know what they are referring to.”
“Since the International Organisation for Standardisation arrived”, he explains, “there are many such invisible forms, and permissions, that have seeped into our daily lives. The zone is just one example.” The waiter brings me a small grainy coffee and cold water in a crystal goblet. I eye the beads of condensation jealously. “There are so many dogs in the city now”, I say. “There is so much dog shit everywhere”. The swear word lands awkwardly between us. “I’m just so surprised”, I try to explain, “that people are still buying puppies here, even if, as you tell me, less and less are having children”. “There is still some sense of the time ahead”, he says.
Robert has given me a book. In the front of it he’s written a message in pencil. Perhaps one day I will come across his handwriting with a jolt. He looks at me sideways with a smile and I lean forward.
I lean forward for the small change they offer in upturned palms. I smile a small smile to demonstrate gratitude. While wandering from table to table with the accordion, my eyes draw to the muffled wired horizon. I play a game to occupy myself. Without moving my head I scan all that I can see, every tiny detail, every mark and scratch in the evening vista.
Tonight there is a middle-aged man sitting on a bench at the northeast edge of the square pecking at bread from a red plastic bag. He is enjoying teasing the pigeons that swarm hopefully around his feet, but he never does share the bread with them.
Near to the fountain there is a little blonde dog with dreadlocked fur that is scratching its neck with its back foot. It dreams that one day his owner will take better care of its fleas.
A pubescent girl is posing for her grandparents while straddling an oversized marble statue of a dog. She enjoys the sensation in her crotch as she slides up and down, and hopes her grandparents don’t notice.
At the southern tip of the square is a large squatted hotel, lit up illegally. On its rooftop a forest of satellite dishes and aerials are sucking down stories, lies and dreams from the star-less night sky, to be delivered to each room.
As I walk amidst the young and old enjoying themselves I curse my stiff fingers, the hot night, and all that get to live in it. There is really no difference, I think to myself often, between me and the poor man who walks the streets wearing advertising for a discount sports store slung over his shoulders.
What moon songs
Do you sing your babies?
What sunshine do you bring?
i Quote from a letter written by Marcel Duchamp to the architect Frederick Kiesler, in thanks for his review of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors’ in The Architectural Record, 1937.