The Viaduct

 

David Wheldon

 

 

The tall man said: ‘there’s a strong feeling against those on the railway amongst some who live here; that’s what I have heard; and there’s a provincial magistrate; he’s said to be hot, you are hardly human, he is said to think, whether he says it or not I do not know, but he acts upon it, that’s what I have heard, look down there, that might well be his house — ’ He pointed down from the embankment to a tall town house, built of stone, four storeys high; from the ground its roof would be hidden by the parapet. ‘ — that’s probably his house, narrow, tall, examines everything; I can see no-one at the windows. That’s where he lives.’


‘Yes,’ said the little man, ‘I’m certain of it.’


‘Why should this be? You have done no harm to anyone,’ said Ariel.


‘I wish that were true,’ said the little man.


‘We’ve done nothing of importance, a few small things, from ignorance, largely,’ said the tall man, ‘I speak for both of us, but you get a name, you take on the identity of everyone who passes through, in their eyes, whom you have never known, whom you have never seen; one small thing happened years ago, don’t ask me what it was, or perhaps the small thing never happened, they think it will happen in the time to come, in the near future, perhaps, they’ll look at you, and say, he’s about to do something which we don’t like, look at the way he goes to it, changes his name with every day that comes, juggles the stance of his past with every hour, and they forget that they are like that, too, we know our past, that’s what they say, you have no past that we acknowledge, you offend by your presence, the magistrate will say, what a waste of time the trial, what a waste, imprisonment at the public expense.’


What strange superstitions, said Ariel to himself.


‘Do you think that they are superstitions? Is that what you think? Do you think we make them up upon the road, sheltering from the rain beneath an arch? Do you think we measure time in days of travel? Have you seen a road more straight than the road of days? If these are superstitions, then all knowledge partakes of superstition. Perhaps that is not far from the truth. You think we shift our stance from day to day, and you are right; but beneath the adaptation to the day we do not change. That which you know you have always seen before. We have seen these things for ourselves. But you’re free, now, you don’t have to believe us.’


The derelict railway cut through the town.


The embankment ran on, straight as a die, across land level once more, making no allowance for the presence of the town. The main road ran through a high Roman arch in the embankment. Ariel, standing on the bridge, looked down at the town, his sight drawn by its complexity. The other two men, seeing him stop, grasped him by his arms. ‘Do not hold me, I will not be constrained, not by you, nor by anyone,’ he said, his voice suddenly loud; you could hear its echoes from the roofs and the walls of the houses below; even these echoes of his voice were filled with authority; one would have said that another had spoken; the men at his sides let go of his arms at once and backed away from him, looking at his face; he looked from one to the other; ‘I will never be constrained by anyone,’ he said, with a final authority.


‘Come on, please come on with us,’ said the small man, but in such a subdued tone, and so muffled with anxiety that you had difficulty understanding him; his eyes did not meet Ariel’s gaze.


‘This is surely no place to stop,’ said the tall man, ‘stop here and it’ll be the end of you, did you not hear him speak of the apparition and its warning?’
Where knowledge has its limit, there superstition waits. I’ve heard something of the kind, sonorous, the chaplain, perhaps, giving what he did not know a dignity it did not need, said Ariel to himself.


Ariel stood in the heat, one boot firmly on the ground, the other resting solidly upon a block of stone. His arms were crossed.


Ariel saw no reason for either anxiety or agitation; the day was a day like any other and the town an unremarkable town, empty in the midmorning heat. No doubt its people were going about their business in the shade. Nothing was moving except for the shadows of the little clouds which flowed across the roofs and fields.


‘We must go on,’ said the tall man, ‘we have been lucky so far.’
‘Luckier than we deserve,’ said the short man.


‘Do you think the future will ever be dissimilar to this?’ asked Ariel, still standing between them.


‘It’s not the time to think of things like that,’ said the tall man.
‘Anywhere else you can speculate and spend your life in thought, but not here, this is the place for quietness and speed,’ said the small man, ‘hands’ edges to temples, so we’ll go on, here it’s best not to think, you’ll be alarmed by what comes to mind: so, as we both say, it’s best to go on without the least consideration of the place through which we go. Blinkered horses trust and do not shy.’


‘What he says is true,’ said the tall man, ‘you are at your most vulnerable here, pause in thought and you’ll lose the best part of your will.’


‘The place is certainly quiet,’ said the short man, making an unthinking matter-of-fact statement. ‘What day of the week is it?’


‘Tuesday,’ said Ariel.


‘You know such things with certainty, do you?’ asked the small man, wanting no answer, nothing questioning in his voice. While he spoke he leaned with his back against the wooden parapet of the bridge; then he paused, as if wondering whether he should continue speaking in the hot forenoon, what he might have said he did not know; none of them spoke, it was difficult to tell what any of them were thinking, all their previous words had vanished and it seemed that they were three men who had met that morning by chance, in hemi-recognition; the tall man’s face was in shade, and as he stooped, his face lowered, it was difficult to tell his expression. The short man looked either way along the railway, back to the bridge over the river where Ariel had dived in the early morning, forward, to the unknown straightness ahead where the track wavered in the heat-haze, you would make out nothing more clearly with a telescope, he thought to himself, all you’d see would be the shimmering, right to the disk of the pale daytime moon, what else one might see I do not know, he asks why we should quit this town as fast as we are able: well I know the answer, but not the words for it, never have I known the words for much, but we can’t stay here, could not stay yesterday in the place we were, one day – and what a day that will be. Shake the sand from my shoes, the dust of the day, the little gravels, the stones.


‘Do you know the town’s name?’ asked Ariel.

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updated 28th August 2010

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