The Viaduct

 

David Wheldon

I

 

The viaduct had been constructed by the Eastern Provincial Railway and ran from one green hill to another over eight great arches supported by slender brick piers. It was high; so high that under certain atmospheric conditions the railway it supported was unseen in the rolex replica uk low cloud, the rising piers alone being visible. The city lay beneath the viaduct, and the viaduct dwarfed the city walls and gates, the cathedral with its tapering spires and even the swiss hublot parliament building with its green copper cupolas. Why permission had been given for the building of the railway was a omega replica watches mystery, unless in the last century the city had been so gripped by the vision of commercial and political wealth that it had allowed the Eastern Provincial Railway Company to erect the formidable structure which at all times of day cast its shadow over public and private buildings, churches and houses. Perhaps the citizens, at the conception of the railway, had been unaware of the scale of rolex uk the viaduct which now transected their city.


The railway itself had never been a financial success and its structures and earthworks were now derelict.


The viaduct was completely redundant but it still dominated the city. The permanent way between its parapets had long since been taken over by nature; grasses and small trees had taken root and had, to some extent, made the viaduct a natural part of the landscape, as though it had been made not by man but by some natural erosive force in cutting out the valley.
A man stood on the viaduct. He was equipped for walking, for he wore boots, canvas trousers and jacket, and on his back he carried a pack. He stood silently, ignoring the wind, which, strong at this altitude, buffeted the fretted copings of the viaduct’s parapets. He stood looking ahead of himself, his gaze fixed on the vanishing perspective of the overgrown railway line. He seemed to be unaware of the city below, though this was hardly possible, for the day was a Sunday, the time a quarter to eleven, and the foreshortened spires and towers of the city churches were banging their bells, one building competing with another until the sound that reached the thin air at the top of the viaduct had become a steady but confused metallic clangour. The only bell which stood alone, without compromise, by virtue of its profound sonority, felt rather than heard, was the deepest bourdon of the cathedral tower.
The man on the viaduct was oblivious to the sound, but stood, staring silently ahead of himself. Then, spurred on by an indefinable inner drive he began walking, taking his way amongst the trees and bushes.


Halfway along the viaduct he met a man walking a dog. The dog, a black labrador, little more than an active puppy, strained at its lead.
It was inevitable that the two men would meet. For a moment it seemed that they would pass each other without speaking. They looked at each other without recognition. For a moment it seemed that they did not share the same language. It was only when the man with the dog had passed that the other called to him.


‘Tell me — ’


The man with the dog turned, pulling at the dog’s lead, commanding it to sit. The dog ignored his command. ‘Sit, you beast.’ He smiled at the lone man and gestured towards the dog. ‘Only a few months old. They’re critical in making a dog’s character.’


The other man saw all this with his grave brown eyes. ‘The last time I was in the terminus the railway was working; you could go anywhere. Today I went there and found it in ruins. When did the railway close?’
The man with the dog began to laugh. ‘Where have you been? When indeed did it close! Ten years, I suppose, twelve, perhaps. Look at those trees. Yet you say you aren’t a stranger here.’


‘I’m not a stranger; this is my city, I was born here. I have lived all my life here.’


‘Are you making a fool of me? How can you have lived here and not known about all the changes?’ The man with the dog might have thought that he was talking to a madman to judge by his expression. The man he was talking to saw this also. ‘Where have you been all this time?’


The lone man sat on the edge of the parapet, oblivious to the terrifying drop on the other side. ‘You can work out the answer to that for yourself, I suppose.’


And the man, so prompted, saw the close prison haircut, the thinness, the wariness of the eyes. The man with the dog was disinclined to meet those eyes, as though he himself were guilty of something. He bent down in the other man’s shade and slipped the lead from the dog’s collar. The dog, free, bounded away along the viaduct until he came to a clump of bushes.
‘He can smell the rabbits; there are rabbits up here,’ said the man who owned the dog.


The man who sat on the parapet said nothing. He stood, and looked down at the city beneath him, the plan of its streets open to him. ‘That’s strange,’ he said. The sight of the remote city did not appear to disturb him; another man might have felt an uncontrollable vertigo, his grip freezing on the worn stone. ‘It seems strange to think of nature here, above the city. And the trees, and this overgrown wilderness.’ He turned to the other man. ‘It is a constitutional walk of yours, this viaduct?’


‘No, it isn’t; I followed the dog. I’ve never been up here before. Solid, but I had half-forgotten its presence. Where you don’t see change you take a thing for granted; you fret over little things. I live down there — ’ He pointed to a field of grey slates and serrated roofs, row after row of terraced houses, not far from the spire of a church whose weathercock revolved endlessly in the perturbing eddies of wind which swept through the piers of the viaduct. ‘I’ve never seen my home from any distance.’


‘You have never been up here before, then?’


‘Never. Except as a child, on the train. I took that for granted. This is more difficult. Then I went where I was sent; now I am closer to the day.’ He joined the released prisoner and they both leaned on the coping of the parapet. ‘It does not seem safe up here. I don’t know how much maintenance is done.’


The freed man laughed, briefly and involuntarily. ‘You are as safe up here as down there, I suppose. It would be all the same if the thing fell.’


‘I don’t mean that. It’s the height of it, and the weight: look at the size of these stone blocks! And yet the city beneath is so small. Why, if you threw a stone from here you could hit the roof of any one of a dozen churches.’ He paused. ‘I never knew there were so many churches in the city. How small and enclosed the graveyards are.’


The freed man turned his back on the prospect and resumed his seat on the parapet. ‘I daresay you could see the prison. I never saw its outside, and now I cannot bring myself to look. A few miles and it will be no more. But if I were to look, now, I could point out the very block, and the very window in that block. Fourth row up, look, and ninth along. The window faced the viaduct, here, and that was all that I could see. The way the sun caught the faces of the stone. I used to look out, up here, and I knew that the first thing I would do would be to travel along the viaduct, away from the city. I can’t stay here. I am known too well.’ There was an irresolution in his voice. ‘I’m not sure why you stand there listening to me.’


‘It’s nothing.’ For want of looking at the freed man he followed the movements of the dog with his gaze.


‘The viaduct was the only thing that I could see. When they let me out the first thing I did was to go to the terminus to leave the city. I can’t stay here.’ He felt in his pocket for a pipe, and brought out a small briar. It must have been brought recently, for the bowl was new and the mouthpiece untarnished. ‘I wonder if all families are as proud and as condemnatory. Me? They’d never speak to me now. I must get away and start again. I can’t live here. A vast and echoing place that empty train-shed is.’ He lit his pipe and coughed, looking down at the glowing bowl of the pipe. ‘It will take me some time to get used to it again. Smoking was not allowed.’ He held the pipe lightly. ‘It seems strange that the thing that takes our weight means nothing: those who built it had no idea where they were. I’ll tell you what it meant to me: a place where the orders of the sky and earth were met.’


‘So you are going nowhere in particular.’


‘I’m leaving the city I never thought I’d wish to leave. I‘m halfway there now.’ He laughed, softly, as though at an interior thought. ‘This is clearly the way.’
‘But where are you going?’


The freed man shrugged his shoulders. ‘Where am I going? Where we all go. All the plans lie in the past.’ He was aware that the other man avoided his sight. Oh, you get used to that, he said to himself. ‘I suppose you want to know why I was in there.’


‘I never asked the question.’


‘Oh, don’t protest. You wanted to. It’s natural.’


‘It is nothing to me. I must go.’ He smiled with a forced geniality. ‘That dog of mine. No more than a pup.’ He looked at the clump of bushes. ‘Come out of there!’


‘He’s disobedient,’ said the freed man, smiling.


‘He had better not be.’


The freed man stood up. ‘Where does this track go to?’


The dog’s owner whistled, and the animal bounded out of the bushes, its tongue lolling. The animal’s eyes were mischievous and bright. Its owner rattled the chain of the lead. ‘Come here.’ He glanced at the other man. ‘What did you say?’


‘Where does the track go?’


‘I don’t know, I’m no traveller, I’ve had no reason to take it, not since I was a child, and now I honestly forget the place we went, some generality of town, some generality of country, and we returned at night. Nothing of it stays in the mind. I don’t know.’ He chained the dog, and stopped talking.
‘I shall find out for myself, then.’ The freed man began to walk down the track. He did not look back at the owner of the dog and he did not look down at the city. Down below the noise of the bells had stopped, and the city was silent with a Sunday silence.

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updated 25th August 2010

 

 

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