Why are we waiting in
this queue of visitors? asked Ariel, looking through the
falling snow. He hardly recognized the narrow street between
the high buildings though the city was his own; even now he was
unsure whether he had been in this street before, so narrow that
it was little more than an alley, but with men and women constantly
walking up and down; he looked at their faces, and, as he saw
each, he asked, do I know that man? Do I know that woman? A clock
nearly overhead tolled out the hour. This then is the centre
of it, and the oldest part, he said, for the bells sound
was so familiar to him that it took him straight back to the
years of his childhood, the dusty summers, it is unchanged, he
said to himself, between the strokes of the tolling bell, in
thought he travelled down the years, as swiftly as an arrow,
always I remember this queue of people waiting here, he said,
as the bell tolled overhead, the echoes and the reverberations
gave the impression that it sounded from no real tower but from
the snow-filled sky above his head: we have come at last to a
place I know but by a circuitous and wayward path.
Is that what you think this is, a queue of visitors?
said the first man, banging his hands together for warmth, a
stream of vapour coming from his mouth as he spoke the words.
The pavement was narrow and uneven; they could only stand on
it in single file, and the man behind Ariel held onto Ariels
coat, as much for his own support as to prevent Ariel from following
any action of his own.
This is where we usually stand; the entrance is ahead,
and thats the way we usually go in, said the second,
who was behind the first, and speaking over his shoulder, his
voice louder and more distinct, his manner simple and direct.
We know of no other. If there is a quicker way, you might
tell us; we would be grateful to you.
Ariel thought to himself, this line of people in which we stand,
it is, surely, the visitors queue. Thats my assumption,
but they are certainly surprised by it; so perhaps Im mistaken,
these people who wait are not visitors; but, then, who else might
they be? I cant begin to think. This must be a queue of
would-be visitors; maybe he has never wondered what they were
waiting for, so any suggestion from anyone would be novel to
There are other lines of people in other streets, as you
probably remember, said the first, but well
keep to this, as it is known to us; its snowing but thats
not unpleasant, and, when you reflect upon these days in time
to come, you may well be grateful to us for these last few moments,
he said, and, thank you for taking your time with us.
Everything I do works to a malign advantage, said
And why not? said the first, that is what progress
is all about; in a sense you spend your whole life waiting in
I could do with some food, said the second, in his
He shall share ours, said the third.
The first man was aware of Ariels apprehension. Think
of this as another episode, another days journey.
We live in linear ways, said the second man (his
voice slow and deep; he examined the prints in the snow as he
spoke; you would have put him down as simple), as thought
partakes of light. There is never a place but where you can to
some extent see your way on and back. There is never a place
but where you are aware, no mind how dimly, of the tether to
the past and the tether to the place which is to come. Stretched
or slack, they sound out like a muted string. Believe me if you
wish, or not, so much depends on what you yourself have seen.
Oh, in the end, none of its of much importance, its
all hyperbole. But, yes, at the end of it all well share
our food with you, if you have an appetite.
And then what will happen? asked Ariel, over his
shoulder, aloud, as if they disgusted him, which as it happened
was true; he looked at them as if he would have to spend the
rest of his life with them.
They moved forward a place, the little door at the side of the
great gateway was opened, a visitor was questioned and was allowed
to enter, then the door was closed again. This unending repetition
made Ariel nervous what are we all waiting for?
and he looked at the little door with foreboding: he thought
to himself, allowing the words to come to his mind, from the
day of my birth I was a target for bribery by an hour of liberty.
Now they want to buy me with the promise of freedom; they want
to buy me with the promise of eternal life; in the end they just
want to buy me as they would any other commodity. He looked at
the narrow door as it opened ahead of him, nothing would be great
enough, none of that would buy me. Wait til you are hungry, they
used to say, pausing to stare, standing beneath the downfalling
light, wait til you are hungry: if you are empty enough without
a word youll seize whatevers reached down to you,
whatever is the offer, lest the hand be withdrawn upon your least
hesitation, blink, and it is gone. I didnt even identify
that which was being offered. Even in the intensity of hunger
I felt disgust at all they reached down, I did not even hesitate
before I turned my back.
How many more to go? asked the first, gently tapping
Ariels arm; Ariel was taller than any of them and could
see what was going on at the gate, about five more, he said.
Dont be angry with us, said the second, it
is not our fault, if you were in our position, youd be
doing just the same.
It soon goes, this little time, patient one has been and
patient one must be, said the first, even now we
dont know what youre waiting for, even now thats
not been formed. Maybe thats the case. It has been said,
in so many words. This little time soon goes; count the minutes,
if you wish, thats what children do, sometimes, the first
time a watch comes into their hands, staring at the dial they
count the minutes, open-mouthed, or you neednt count; instead
you could leave your mind blank, if that is how you like it,
make out that it doesnt fall into the realm of time. Possibly
thats true. You dont have to put your apprehensions
into words, as you yourself have said. Think of all the freedoms
The first man looked at Ariel; his manner, which had been somewhat
diffident and even evasive, now resembled that of the second
man, who was further away from Ariel. He spoke more directly,
as though time were running out; they had been here for over
an hour, the quarters had sounded from the clock-tower overhead,
again it seemed that the sound came down from the muffled and
snowy sky. He said, but Id ask you this one small
thing: do you wish us to include you in our conversation, or
shall we leave you out of it, to think about what you have to
think of, and, while disturbing you as little as possible, talk
amongst ourselves? You might as well use the little time that
remains to you in the way which suits you best.
The bell stopped tolling, and the first man waited in silence
for an answer.
Do as you please, said Ariel, speaking quickly, as
if to be done with speech. His unease was evaporating, and was
being replaced by the anger of frustration.
Thats thoughtful of you, said the first.
They waited in silence.
How many more remain? said the first.
Three more, said Ariel. He thought, they dont
speak amongst themselves, which is what he said they would like
to do. In fact, he thought, they speak only to me. Im not
sure what this means. Are they dumb when I am not here?
How many more remain? said the first.
One, said Ariel.
Then it was finished: they stood before the narrow door; as in
passing through the night-door of a church, one would have to
stoop to enter. Ariel put a hand to the centre of a wooden panel,
feeling the place worn down by the constant knocking of knuckles;
he was reminded of the saints tomb, stones long since removed,
its precinct marked only by the hollows worn by kneeling penitents.
Ariel turned back to the three men. Its no use asking them
what should be done, he said, whatever they say will turn out
to my confusion, thats certain. And anything I say is likely
to damage my integrity.
The day grew colder, the sky darker, and the snow began to fall
more thickly. Ariel huddled in the doorway, half stooping, the
three men behind him settling down to wait. They are as mortal
as I, said Ariel, to himself, finding that although the doorway
gave some shelter against the rising wind, the need to stoop
was more uncomfortable with every minute which passed; first
he bent his neck, forward, then to one side, then he straightened
his spine and bent his knees, repeating these actions, as his
discomfort grew, but even the cycle of postures grew to be uncomfortable;
furthermore, even in the deep doorway the wind was beginning
to find a way; he could hear it whistling in the large key-hole
and round the ill-fitting sides and it had begun to howl in the
hollow of the step. They will only grow tired of waiting, and
knock on the door themselves, said Ariel, so I might as well
knock myself, which is in any case what they are waiting for
me to do.
He looked down the alley, past the three men; suddenly it had
grown empty throughout its length; the snow was falling freshly
on the footprints and the tyre-tracks and was drifting at the
corner; a weather-vane creaked above his head: the wind was changing.
How lonely he was! The three figures solid though they were,
seemed to be losing their sentience. He released himself from
the doorway, stretched his limbs, the snow falling on his unbrushed
hair; the three men, one after the other, removed their hats
and knocked off the snow, brushed their shoulders.
Suddenly Ariel thought that they were about to go, for with his
acute sight he saw them passing glances from one to another;
not that this in itself required any acuity of sight; there was
exaggeration in their glances, which, after a moment caused Ariel
to wonder if they had been passed for his benefit.
Are you about to go? he said.
There was a terrible silence; one of profound embarrassment.
We were just about to go, said the first, but
have decided against it.
Why was that? asked Ariel, his voice incredulous.
Put it this way. We thought that you were in the end more
patient than ourselves, and, further, we thought that you had
the nature of this waiting worked out, and that you would never
leave. But all that changed when you asked us if we were about
to go, because it showed that you were waiting here merely for
our departure, and not because you understood the purpose of
your being here. Surely thats one of the first lessons
of childhood: doesnt every mother constrain her child?
Ariel looked at him as if finding his words difficult to believe,
though he might have expected some reasoning of this kind; in
their presence he even found himself undergoing strange torsions
of reasoning himself.
Is what you say true? said Ariel.
Yes, it is quite true, incontrovertibly, said the
first man, and now its all in the open we shall never
leave; we have come down with our decision; until we made it
we did not even know there was a decision to be made. Maybe in
truth it had no form. But now its made material, and now
So I decide whether you stay or whether you go, said
Exactly. You had perfect freedom, said the first
man. And youve made your decision. And your decision
Ariel looked past the three men at the empty street, its thin
and long perspective, dark stone, white sky and street. He turned
back to the door, put his knuckles to the worn panel, knocked.
He heard the three men coming up behind him, oh I suppose their
nature was up in the air until I knocked, I see how this will
all turn out
[Extract from The Viaduct
by David Wheldon]
updated 28th August 2010