It’s bright and on the inside of my sunglasses, the lenses are dappled with droplets of sweat. I am running away from the island I have shared with you, on the straight causeway that connects it to the coast: a brilliant, broiling Atlantic void on my left and the great, grand Strait on my right – that tuna-stuffed Styx, the dazzling blue Rubicon that made this, to the ancients, the ultimate dividing line: the edge of the world, the coast of everything.
Tarifa wobbles in the drops – little playa chica and its No Shitting sign, the tuna sculpture, the ludicrous but likeable outline of Santa Catalina, a derelict mansion. I flick my head to dislodge the drops and get a better view. It’s all still here, in all its glare and glory – the ocean, the hills behind the town, the pink dome of the St Mateo church. The castle and the modern port with its rotating ferries, the tumbling roofs of the old town, the schools and the fish factory and the holiday lets further up the beach. The cargo ships that clutter up the sea lanes and the huge dune at Valdevaqueros where the kite surfers congregate.
I’ve done a couple of kilometres and I’ll give it another couple. Then I’ll go home. I’m running so that I might stay alive a little longer and live a little better while I’m at it. Keep the blood pumping and the pump strong. I’m running so that I can write, running to get endorphins flowing and synapses firing.
It’s July so I pass holiday makers of every stripe – from adolescent revellers to families from the big cities and further afield. It occurs to me that although this place is my home, it still evokes the exotic – the ancients, al-Andaluz and all that jazz. It has taken a long time for that holiday feeling to fade, that constant sense of diversion: so much so that I had become impatient for it, wanting to replace my entertained distraction – my absorption in the minutiae of my surroundings – with a getting down to more serious stuff.
I run with a straighter head now, not so attentive to the world around, eyes on the ground in front of me, mind on my work. Tomorrow morning the wind will whip the water – countless serrations on the surface of a teal sea. It will be my only observation of the run; the rest of the time my head will be down. There won’t be any tourists; they don’t like the wind.
Some weeks later we find ourselves in Franconia, up to our necks in beer, Bamberg and family business. It’s been the bitterest of years for some and we are here to bear witness, to put our arms around a few people, remind them they are not forgotten.
Marrying a young Franconian woman has its bonuses – for example, sometimes they’ll throw an Opa in. We sit with H, my new Opa, and he shows us his army and prisoner-of-war photos. Tiny black and white prints, some with decorative edging, some straight cut. Some of them are sharp and some a cherished blur. Albania, Ismailia, young men in work outfits, swimming in the Suez, in a sweet water lake. Pictures of people who are gone, not so much because they are dead as because even if they were alive, they would be different – that was a different world, so distant from ours even though here H is, sitting at the table with us.
We live simultaneously but he and his generation are from an alien time and place; only these few scraps of documentary evidence – his old Reich identity papers, some architectural plans for a house he would never get to build – offer a glimpse of it. He is tearful at times as he remembers and I might feel bad for requesting to see his treasures, but it seems clear to me that he wants to show us – his nonchalant shrugs fail to conceal the depth of his attachment to these places and people. As much as I want to see them, he wants the things seen.
The artist in me – the unscrupulous writer – wants to make notes. To get some of this down and share it with you. But it wouldn’t be right – both he and you deserve something better than live reporting. Someday it might come out in something I write, honoured by the natural filtering of real reflection, but I’m not going to spit it at you. It wouldn’t be right. People are too precious. He is, and his lost friends are. Our lost friends are. J is. M, who we came here to remember, is. The countless jews and gentiles we grieve for as we step through the grim spaces, the horribly inexorable narrative of the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände are. You are.
We are here once. We pass through, once. A single cry in the valley. It echoes from those who know us, amplified in their love. When we are gone, not even an echo, we are amplified in their echoes, and then in theirs, and then in theirs. If we are loved. If we love. I suppose there is something of the eternal in that. K is blowing her hair dry in the bathroom, and she will go too. And I and my fear of that will go, and everybody we know, and all the good and the bad things.
To live is to watch life appear surprisingly from the blur of distance and – just as it sharpens and we can see it clearly at last – watch again as it eludes our touch and slips away, beyond reach or resolution.
So the best work we can set ourselves to in the here and now is the amplification. Of the cry of the ones we love. To bear witness to them. To know that they are passing and to tell it, sing it, shout it if we don’t have a tune.
This is the work. In the modern vernacular: liking and sharing.
It’s what we must do because it’s all we can do, and if we want to do it well we have to listen, hard, to the echo’s bounce in our hearts – not gazing distractedly around the valley with the open mouths of idiots, maddened by the noise, but shutting our eyes and looking inside, and listening. That is when we hear it. Then we can tell it well.
So, I listen. I don’t find it easy but, more and more, I listen. I run now without looking at Africa, without stopping to compose its description, or to make some playful connection between it and whatever is happening to me today. I’m not looking for adjectives to share with you, or analogies, or anecdotes. I’m not looking to share my day with you, to tell you what I’ve seen and done. I’m not looking and it isn’t because I’m paying less attention; it’s because I’m learning to pay a little more.
It isn’t that I don’t want to share. On the contrary, I want to do a better job of it. I want to make art, for whatever that’s worth. Good art, bad art, a piss artist or a con artist – take your pick, but artist it is. I neither qualify nor apologise for it, and the task of an artist is the task of any human – to look within and listen hard. That is what I’ll be up to for the time being and so you will hear from me less. I am turning away from you but only because I want to make something really good, and having made it, turn again to share it with you.
For now, thanks for reading. Seriously, you know who you are and thank you.