I was southbound, travelling in the shadow of the TransCity Shuttle Line. It hunched over me, managing somehow to retain the awe and arrogance that had guaranteed its place on so many postcards, as well as the front covers of so many of my publications. And yet, even this, our architectural spinal cord, seemed to wrinkle with self-consciousness; it must have been missing the steady thrill of carriages shuttling back and forth across its length, the silent gratitude of its passengers. It was quite lost without them.
I wanted, so badly, to lift my head and shout something in reassurance. If only it could understand that soon, in no time at all, in a little time, the shuttles would all be back. They would creep, cautiously at first, stopping and retreating at each new frontier, at each newly reopened city, steadily resalvaging its former glory. With each journey, the shuttles would grow in confidence. They would grow faster. If only it could have understood all of this, I might have shouted up.
And perhaps I did, at one point in my travels. Perhaps I threw up a few words of comfort, but no doubt they lost their energy half way, blunted and dissolved in the dead air. Just another moan from the empty landscape. It might have gained some courage from the sight of a passenger-shaped form, wandering the wasteland but, seen from half a kilometre’s height, I more than likely reinforced its loneliness.
What business had I, comforting concrete? You could call it my only business. It is the reason my card is paid off weekly without question, regardless of expense, by those I’ve left behind. I am a senior writer for the Tourist Board, one of the last celebrated and meaningful roles we have left to assign ourselves. That is not said lightly. I am charged with the task of lifting the concrete’s self-esteem. With my words I must transform its unused and weather-soiled bulk into a grand landmark, our towns into objects of outstanding beauty, our gorse prairies into the daintiest of rose gardens. What they once were they shall be again, only this time doubly polished with the spit of nostalgia.
In the long term, we shall rebuild. Years of hiding have crippled the nation’s resources. As time went on, and as our hopes of ever seeing the sun rise again, of breathing fresh air and reclaiming our land, our semi-detached houses and hanging baskets – as these hopes fell, so too did our sense of prudence and moderation, so too did our moral decency. I am not the only one who, during these last twelve months, saw fit to fritter his future away on petty luxuries, spurning the state markets for alternative wares on offer in poorly lit tunnels, burrowed into the rocks by rogue traders – emaciated men who could squeeze themselves further into the mountains and pick the pearl-white, psychedelic mushrooms that grew there. I am not the only one to visit the bored wives of our doctors and politicians, the only ones amongst us with private rooms. In fact, for the past year, only the drug-dealers and the sex-sellers have cared for profit, stashes stashed away for a sunny day. The rest of us have seen little point in saving. We have seen little point in wide-eyed survivalism, with such little hope for survival. How could we have predicted this fortuitous change of circumstances?
We are a poor, unhealthy, but optimistic nation. Our economists predict that within no more than three years we shall be able to afford to replace these tired, clustered buildings with a new, astonishing architecture. There are artists developing this style right now. They are busy sketching landscapes pillared with alien and erotic towers, coiling up towards the clouds in shapes and colours and materials man scarcely imagined possible. We are at the vanguard of a new, radical aesthetic that shall surely attract global acclaim and bring hordes of tourists across our borders, forging a new era of peace in the flashes of their eager photography. The classical concrete formality of the TransCity Line shall find its homage in the nation’s bridges, spanning our rivers’ rebooted ecosystems. We now have genetic engineers experimenting with the cells of our hackneyed fish and bats, reconditioning the blind caveworms we share our hibernation with, determined to create a refreshed wildlife for our re-emergent society.
Until that time, we must make do with what we have. We shall never be able to rebuild our banks and supermarkets and swimming pools with ideals alone. We must have income. And we shall secure this income only by surrounding the corroded banks and rotting supermarkets with velvet ropes and charging an entry fee. It has been so long since we saw our cities, our people shall spend what little they have to see them once again.
There are four of us, carrying out this honourable yet dangerous task. We split the nation into segments. Vaclav and Hunz are, in some respects, the lucky ones. They are to write pieces on the southwest and southeast territories respectively, areas of the nation where nature is already in their favour. There, the gentle waves of the sea fall against clean beaches, ringed by coral and laughing dolphins. The ruins of resorts and shopping complexes will surely require little repair. At any rate, my colleagues will have little to do in the way of convincing the people to settle in the south.
It is Jens, alone in the northwest of the country, who faces the biggest threat. There lie our sole political borders, and though relations with our neighbour states have always been comfortable, who knows what liberties they have dared to take in our absence.
It is my task to staple the whole project together. It is the lonely rail, always above me, that will convey the new pilgrims from their retreat. The TransCity line once directly served all our major urban centres. From these nodes, smaller shuttles moved away at right angles from the line, out into the country. You continued in this way, moving at right angles, a pretty geometric dance from node to node, until you reached your destination. Tediously Romantic foreigners, on hearing these details, regularly accused us of an unnecessarily drawn out and impractical public transport system. The kind of bumbagged visitors who prefer to wile their holidays away in stuffy and illegal taxicabs, shouting at their immigrant drivers in a racist and incomprehensible imitation of our language. No actual passengers on the rail-lines could conceivably have criticised its efficiency.
Memories of this efficiency should be enough to entice the population from their holes. My first memories of the line revolve around my Aunt Sorella. They are memories from the fresh days of my youth, as well as the fresh first days of the line’s existence. What a shame that I cannot claim to have been born on the day of the momentous first railride, on the morning when the first foundation was laid or the idea found its conception in the mind of the visionary Transport Minister (this last claim is the only one I can cherish as plausible, though lament as incalculable). At any rate, I cannot honestly remember a time without the rail, and so this amounts to the same thing.
My mother’s youngest sister was a short, sweet but shy lady. She lived a reclusive life in the mountains with her reclusive husband, some high profile magistrate who had suffered a breakdown, forcing him into seclusion, where he spent his time making short, clay animation films based on his turbulent childhood. I’ve never seen any of them. I have not even seen her, Aunt Sorella, since that day. To see her now, withered and toothless, most probably running her very own boudoir, that would ruin that picture I have of her, the first time I saw her, on the TransCity platform of our hometown. I can hardly recall her face, only its freckles, and those I almost certainly exaggerate – but she was never meant to be a relative to me. I was not interested in our common blood. Her significance was symbolic, a welcome excuse for my mother to dress me in my smartest clothes and take me to the station. Aunt Sorella was coming to stay, she was leaving her chateau for the first time in perhaps five years – it does not matter. What matters is that stark May morning, my feet pushed tight against the yellow line of the platform, only just heeding the yellow-worded warning to step no further. The platform was crowded, all of us with slicked hair, boots and skin. Those were the early days when people would make trips to their nearest stations, with no intentions to board, just simply to stand and wait for the trains to arrive. People came to anticipate, for the unspoken, collective countdown, the checking of watches, the fixation of faces at the end of the line, eyes strained for it; the strain, the cramp, the tension that clasped the muscles in one’s throat, one’s thighs, as the shuttle pulled into the station. The pride we once took in defunct monarchs was resurrected and redirected towards those magnificent machines of chrome and glass that did us the great honour of passing through our towns once an hour. I returned again and again, but the triumph of the line will always remain for me in the squeeze my mother gave to my hand, the waft of kinetic heat slyly lifting my carefully-slicked hair into disarray, I stood so close.
Aunt Sorella could only come as a disappointment. A short, tight-lipped woman with a weak “hello” found us, hugged us both, and I was dragged, reluctantly, from the platform.