From the sky, the man was only a small, dark coin moving through the landscape. He trailed a long piece of string behind him, the same greyish brown colour as the bare soil. His pace was steady, but languid, and he looked straight ahead. No onlooker would have been able to tell whether he had any sense of a destination.
The light was not good, and he didnt see the small hill until he stumbled up it. On the other side, several people were perched on rocks. They ignored him.
A man wearing a bulky hearing aid spoke. ‘I grew up under a flight path, he said. ‘When I was twenty, twenty-one, I found a job in another city. A few weeks into my new life I was drinking with some people from work and this woman said to me, ‘You keep disappearing. She said, ‘Youre with us for five minutes, then you look down at your drink and go all quiet.
‘Nothing more was made of it. But a while after that, three mates from home came up for the weekend. What she said, that woman, mustve been on my mind, because I noticed we all did it. Wed be talking, reminiscing, having a good laugh, but every so often wed fall silent and stare at the floor.
‘Some might say our social skills were deficient, but I know it was the planes. When that roar goes over, you cant hear each other speak. Sometimes you gesture your way through a conversation, but thats hard work. You get used to the pauses.
He lowered his head to stare at the rocks by his feet. Then he jerked, and spoke again. ‘Oh— he gestured at the hearing aid—‘this isnt ... this is from my boxing days. Ear drum.
There was a short silence.
A woman began to talk in official, practised tones. ‘Market research in large cities has shown that two sweet shops on diagonally opposite corners of an intersection have very different sales patterns. In one shop, customers buy expensive toffees and organic chocolate. The otherll stock cheap mints and lollies. Its hunting and gathering—a modern variation.
She looked around with determined didacticism.
‘The first shops on the track of professionals walking to the CBD, you know, from exclusive inner-city apartments. The seconds on the way from the railway station. Used by thousands of workers who live in outlying suburbs.
She had hardly finished when a young man said in a monotone: ‘In Thailand, an elephant walked over an unexpected cliff. Twenty-seven more followed, in single file. They all died. Their customary path had been intersected by a motorway cutting.
The man who had been walking sat on a rock, curled the string into his palm and closed his eyes. Another voice began.
‘The last six months, Ive been away mountain climbing. During that time, any rock in my peripheral vision has been a sign—an indication that there could be a snow-covered chasm cutting in front of me. Now, when Im walking in the city and get to the end of a block, Im not thinking about it, right, but my eyes trace an invisible line— she extended her arm and swept her hand across the horizon—‘from the corner of the nearest building across my path.
No one said anything for several minutes, and the man who had been walking opened his eyes.
An older man with sad jowls cleared his throat. ‘My cousin and his family, they lived on the ground floor of a block of flats. One night the walls began to squeal and groan. They were scared, ran outside. Gathered across the street. My cousin, though, he returned to the main doors and pounded on his neighbours buzzers. His family shouted—he looked up, saw the top stories imploding, and stumbled backwards. He narrowly escaped being buried alive. His efforts ... his efforts ran up against the end of time in that place. Thats how I see it.
The man who had been walking looked down at the string in his palm, and spoke before another story could begin. ‘Im trying to—
They turned their faces away from him. ‘No, they said. ‘Definitely not.