Prahahaha

The city, oh the city lights are shining. The people-noise of life is through-the-looking-glass inverted here compared to home; in Britain we’re composed, moderate throughout the day, librarian hushed, people are trying to work. Then at night we uncork the bottles, release the spitting, spewing pressure valves and whistle shrilly like hobtop kettles boiling. We spill over the sides. But here they live during the day, morning’s unsticking of both their eyelids and their eyes, not buttoning anything down, touching cawing chewing their way through the sunlight hours. They flee before the moon, modest in the dark. In Prague all blackness is funeral solemn.

I followed the tram tracks for hours, hours, the routes spiralling, retracing sometimes, but moving away from the starting point. Which was a hostel, fourteen to a room, choices being cereal or toast in the morning, fruit tea or coffee in the afternoon, window open ice box or window closed skin breath sweat at night. Fourteen to a room.

You can’t follow tram routes, as it turns out. The lines diverge, converge, duck and weave. Anachronistic in the ankle-breaker cobbled roadways of the old city, a place of horse shoes and hay carts. More like tram roots, breaking through the ground, feeding an ancient iron tree somewhere in the middle, keep following and you’ll get there, you’ll get there eventually. But someone dropped breadcrumbs on your breadcrumbs.

prague foot

Should have ridden a tram, that’s the system, the system works. Get on at a, get off at b, people do it every day but now it’s too late; missed the opportunity, they’re all turned in for the night, all back in storage, turned into pumpkins to save space. Could have hopped on hours ago, hours, but the language, oh the language. Coming through Europe, Spain Italy France Germany Netherlands, a smooth transition, gradient speech, only ever slightly changed, the same friend in a lot of different pictures, always possible to pick up just enough, to recognise just enough words on a sign. Then, Welcome to the Czech Republic, or Vítejte v České republice and what is that? Not the Europe I know, practically a foreign country.

Will I ever get out? Is the maze fair or are the walls moving behind me? I crossed three bridges that all looked the same, same tarry river beneath, the slick fat slug that runs the city. Same beggar on either side, lying fully prostrate, face down, hands cupped before him. All you see are hands and coins, the rest is rags and fiction. He looked to be praying and now I’m praying too, a stranger in the house of god, a fairweather friend, let me out.

I’m looking everywhere for a word, letiste, meaning ‘freedom’, or ‘escape’ or ‘home’ or ‘airport’. It’s my way out but there are no people around to speak it, no light by which to see it written. I think I’ll die here, or no, I’ll rest, sit, stretch out, knees tucked in beneath me, face to the earth, hands out palms cupped skyward, and I’ll feel the tarmac grip me, clench, as I’m consumed, dissolved, claimed, until I’m just hands, a pair of hands overflowing with coins, a bundle of ragged clothes and an unused airline ticket.

hands

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Organised

Whenever I book an overseas trip these days there are more services thrown in with the flight. This time they included the plane, the hotel and the taxi, as well as some restaurant and activity discounts that basically mean I’m allowing an airline to plan my entire vacation. Then they sold me a phrasebook, through their partnership with Amazon, and once Amazon saw I was buying a foreign language phrasebook it started to offer me ‘poolside novels’, which I bought, and inflatable lilo’s, which I didn’t. I once met a woman on vacation with whom I had a brief holiday romance. We didn’t stay in touch but I saw her again the following year in a different hotel. We laughed when we eventually realised that we’re subscribed to the same frequent flyer scheme, but it made me realise that, on top of everything else, the airline has some say in who I sleep with.

I scanned the arrival gate for a driver standing about with my name on a card but there was nobody there, and I eventually found him waiting outside, parked illegally and smoking a thin cigar.  He watched blankly as I lumbered my case in the boot of his car.

He already knew my destination so I didn’t need to get out my phrase book, and we drove in silence, him tapping his hands against the wheel in time to the radio, me looking out of the window at the flat, heat-pressed haze beyond. There was a prevailing earthy quality to the colour palette of the scenery which I recognised from television, but fewer crooked old men leading goats than I would have liked.

We pulled up after a half hour of repetitive scenery and I glanced about. There was a grey, low-slung building to our left and nothing else around in any direction.

‘Why are we stopping?’ I asked.

He frowned, shaking his head and pointing to his ear.

‘Right.’ I dug out the hard rectangle from my back pocket and opened at the first page, sweat prickling my scalp. I opened my mouth to bluster through whatever useful phrase I might come across, and stopped. There were no useful phrases in the book. Instead I was looking down at a page that said  Personal Notes: name. address. private phone. carphone. fax number. driving licence. passport. In case of accident please inform_________.

I blinked and, as is often the case, understood my mistake instantly, though I refused to accept it. The front cover of the book said ‘Pocket Diary, 1994’, and I could clearly picture, as though it were a still from a famous movie, the image of my phrase book on the corner of the dresser hundreds of miles away.

The driver watched me dispassionately and relit his cigar as I ransacked my travel case, laying out every item in my lap, refusing the sure knowledge that it wasn’t in there. When I started to turn out my pockets he began clucking his tongue irritably.

‘Carangua,’ he said, pointing out the window.

I pressed my face against the glass and squinted to see if there was something beyond the ugly little building beside us.

‘Hotel Carangua?’

He nodded. ‘Hotel Carangua.’ He pointed again and I realised that there was no other building.

I looked at the pocket diary.

‘When was the last time I used a fax machine?’ I thought idly. ‘Did I ever use a carphone? I think they passed me by.’

He opened the boot for me to get my case and then puttered steadily away into the distance, my belongings scattered in the dirt, me clutching the diary. Beneath Personal Notes it said Donor Form: I_________request that after my death my kidneys, corneas, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas be used for transplantation. I have informed my next of kin of my wishes. Signed_________.

I put the diary back in my pocket, wondering where I had got it. Presumably it hadn’t been in my trousers since 1994. It occurred to me that, just like the obsolete fax and carphone information, the next generation’s science might give us lab-grown organs that would make the process of transplantation redundant.

‘You used to keep the organs?’ My future-grandkids will say, wide-eyed with horror at future-Christmas. ‘To put them in other people?’

‘Oh sure,’ I’ll say, leaning further back in my future-chair, ‘sometimes a good item would be handed down through the family. Why, your kneecaps are seventh generation.’

At the desk I exchanged a combative series of gestures with the clerk who took my passport and examined it closely while I glanced slyly around the foyer. There was an overhead fan barely stirring the air and a dehydrated ficus withering in its pot. A coin operated drinks fridge with a shocked motor rocked gently back and forwards. Two young, hollow eyed boys sat on the ground, their backs against the wall, jaws slack. I opened the pocket diary, flicking past the directory, the London tube map, and the list of international holidays. The desk clerk was holding a clipboard and shaking her head slowly as she turned page after page. I found the organ donor form again, and signed it.