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Built Things Times and Places

Unsociable Hours

I want to grasp at the edge of the story, of such large machines and cold, cold people trying to warm themselves in a world of floodlighting and hard edges.  

Once, I had a job that meant I had to stay up all night, in strange spaces.  A converted nineteenth century factory, all beams and echoing voids and three hundred spinning screensavers in each wing.  It was a place without obvious comfort where I felt so at home that I still have urgent dreams about it, in which the sense of loss is so concrete that it actually wakes me, like physical pain.  

This is beyond my understanding; I wasn’t really happy there, though I was there for a long time. I suppose it was the regularity and order of the place, the sense of systems and patterns that helped my autism feel less painful right then, in the face of some hard times.  But not just that, there was a feeling of a heavy history, of different palimpsest layers. It was always there, but at 4am, you could really feel it. Shadows in conference rooms that were the very definition of liminal spaces. The security guards spilling huge scandal over a rollup. Secrets and the baked air of dead meetings, but more, older, deeper, darker, shining like one single light left on in a huge block of still windows.

The recent layer, the surface. Rituals and conventions built over the ten years that the building had served its current use, inheriting some from the mythical Head Office far away, which had generations of this to draw on. Legends of days when people all in brown suits smoked at their desks and the Christmas party was a magic festival of misrule.  And don’t think for a second that I’m mocking this.  It’s a powerful spell, and I sometimes find myself regretting its loss.

Further down, further back, the steel and engineering companies rising from the postblitz years.  Offices and factory floors.  Small lives, spinning round each other, love and fury, coldly bored indifference, craving to be far away and deep warm security.  Small lives, and still bigger than Orion, faint lives, but shining bright as Polaris, and navigating by each other, finding their way home.  Each one, the biggest story in the whole world, and so long ago, and so unrecorded, lost again, but that’s how it should be.  The forgetting of whole lives.  

Back again, and it was the industrial revolution, winding metal round machines and wheels, dirty skies, and who knows what that world was like?  Perhaps it seemed like a frightening and wonderful new world, innovation and social transformation.  Perhaps it was awful, a steel horror story of sparks and slavery.  I wouldn’t know, but I know that every one of them knew that they were the centre of the world and every one of them was quite right.  So much importance, life or death, worries, joys, desire, dreams, love.  The biggest stories that the world has ever known, but suddenly, it’s a big empty hall full of screensavers flashing on, with the original oak beams preserved up above as a memorial to lives so large that they vanished from our sight in totality.

Forgotten, but that’s how it should be.

Before then, always the river.  My little office was on the edge of the river.  Always, the sounds of water, heron’s wings just for a second.  The old river, before it all and probably after as well.  And if you strained your eyes, you would notice that I sat and worked every day with a graveyard looking back at me from just over the water. The river water, from the Peaks, to the heart of the city, twisting turning. Sometimes it turns feral and takes lives, destroys. It has an old name, a goddess name. It doesn’t forget a thing, you just know it. This story is twenty years back in time; the little office is just a storeroom now, and no-one remembers the people who worked there, but I bet the plaster still cracks and shifts with the voice of the river, whispering that one day, even these heavy stones will fall.

Forgotten lives, because that’s how it should be.  Clinging to memory, trying to record and claim every second, perhaps giving in to fear, that’s one craving that I have. And also, allowing myself to just be a memory and allow the possibility that the memory of me will fade and be gone one day.  And I’m happy with that, but that’s the deal; if, in my own way, for the right people, I can be bigger than Orion and bright as Polaris today, I can be happily forgotten tomorrow.

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