I had travelled far enough from the centre of the city that the guttering and sealed pavement at the edge of the road had trailed off. There was a narrow strip of gravel and hard earth that blended into grass about a metre back from the street. Beside where I had stopped there was a smoothly worn dirt track cutting through the grassy verge and leading between low wooden posts into a park. It was a vast space in muted green, and at the far edge there was a large rectangular housing development. The front of the building was lined with verandas and sliding doors on each level. It faced slightly away from the street exposing one of its sides - an unbroken panel of raw cement without any windows. Some of the apartments had laundry hanging on lines on the verandas, deck furniture, potted plants, children’s toys. Some of the tenants appeared to have painted the walls dividing their veranda between that of their neighbour. Each block of colour was slightly different from the others, but the overall symmetry of the building remained balanced.
In front of the building there was a concrete courtyard with a compact playground in the middle of it. It was the middle of a work day – the children were in school and the playground was empty. The courtyard opened out onto the grass of the park. There were clusters of trees through which dirt paths weaved. The grass couldn’t grow where people walked frequently. I followed the paths with my eyes. Some led past dark blue plastic garbage bin to the peripheries of the park, to a bus stop, or to somewhere around the back of the building.
The path nearest to me led past a large tree under which someone had leaned their bicycle. Beside the tree was a small concrete table with two block benches - one on either side. There were chequered tiles set into the tabletop – one of those outdoor public chessboards. Two men were seated to a game, and a number of other men were gathered loosely around the board. None of the spectators appeared to be have stakes in the game and no one appeared to be talking the others very much. Most of the men wore hats and some of them were smoking cigarettes. They looked to be a variety of ages, but all were undoubtedly in the latter half of their lives.
I had plenty of time to spare and considered approaching the group, but there was something intimidating about the way they were arranged. It was as if they were bound to one another and unapproachable – I felt sure that I would be a disturbance. A group pigeons were mulling about around the tree, arranged in a similar manner as the men. The sky was a uniform light grey and there was very little wind - the movement of the trees was barely perceptible. Everything had the same peculiar hue. It was as if everything had been still for so long that the colours of the season had fallen and settled like dust – slightly faded, but undisturbed.
Another group of pigeons was moving about the sky in curves. Their motion seemed to relieve the stiffness of late autumn. I stood watching them for a while. As they flew through the sky they left a trail that stirred the various hues of grey into one another above the park. They moved as a group, which expanded and contracted when it changed direction. At certain moments the white feathers on the underside of the birds became visible and it seemed as if they were dissolving into the sky.
I stepped backwards and turned to look across the street, unsure exactly of how long I had been standing there. Across from where I stood there was a gravel driveway leading into a wooden building with an open workshop. It had an unpainted iron roof that seemed to have been replaced recently. To the right side of the building was a porch covered in the same iron roofing, beneath which I could make out a woman and two other men seated behind a railing. There was a wooden sign hanging over the railing with red painted text on it. I couldn’t translate the words, but it didn’t appear that the place was selling anything. I was reasonably sure that this was the building described to me by the embassy in the city.
I crossed the road and began up the gravel driveway. Glancing up at the people on the porch, the woman was looking vaguely in my direction, but nobody seemed to be too interested in my arrival. They were not talking. I greeted them with a wave and was met with two rather cheerful nods. I avoided the steps up onto the porch and chose instead to lean on the railing. So as to avoid confusion - and conceal the fact that I could only speak in English - I looked at the woman and in an enquiring tone stated the name I had been provided with, nothing else. Perhaps she was expecting me, but it was hard to tell. Either way, she understood and gestured towards a smaller building on the left.
It looked to me like a mechanics’ garage but there wasn’t a car in sight- only an old (but well maintained) bicycle leaning against the wall near the entrance. The left side of the room was covered with a high wall of shelves, filled to the utmost with boxes of various sizes. Some had been stacked on the floor in front of the shelves, and even more of them were arranged on top. The floor at the centre of the shop was cleared of boxes and a well-worn fabric groundsheet had been laid out. On a stool at the edge of the cloth an aged man was leaning over a tin box of small metal components. He had his sleeves rolled up and a clipboard in one hand - a pen underneath his thumb, pressed against the sheets of paper. He had grey and white hair covering the most part of his scalp - it was coloured in the same way as the sky outside. His head was bowed slightly as he worked and I couldn’t see his face clearly.
To my right, there was a large square workbench painted in a deep green. The bench looked weathered, but its surface had been worn smooth revealing the grain of the wood beneath. It was cleared apart from a small stack of papers. Behind this on the wall to my right there hung a number of hand-tools and some of what looked like measuring devices. In the right corner at the far end of the workshop was a cluttered desk. A fluorescent tube light was attached to a support beam above - it had little effect in lighting the room but it gave a bluish hue to the area directly beneath it. There was one window behind the desk - through which I could just make out a neighbouring factory. There was a man seated there with his chair turned slightly to the right as he looked through a drawer in a low filing cabinet. I assumed that he was the man I was supposed to meet, so I walked around the groundsheet towards the desk. The other man on the stool didn’t look up from his task as I passed by him.
The man at the desk appeared younger, but he was well overweight and had dense, dark facial hair that made it hard to determine his exact age. As I approached he swivelled in his chair to face me and withdrew a pen from the chest pocket of his shirt. He dragged one hand down over his face and I noticed a smooth curve in the crease of the skin beneath his eyes. He looked up at me without speaking. For some reason the eye contact sent a jolt through me, but I managed to produce a smile and handed him the package. It was a regular sealed envelope of document size, inside a plastic delivery slip. He flipped the package over as I handed it to him and checked the sender’s address. He looked at me for a moment, as if he expected me to say something. Then, in English, he said, “Sign?” His voice was softer than I had anticipated and he had a heavy accent. I had forgotten to ask him for his signature. I replied, “Yes, here, please,” holding out the receipt book and tapping my finger on the receiver’s section. He reached over the desk and signed the book without taking it from me. One hand was pressed firmly over my fingers so as to supported the pen in his other. I was not expecting to be touched. When he had finished it felt like there was a thin film left on my skin where his had been in contact. He slipped the pen back under my thumb and looked back down at his desk. I tore off his part of the receipt and thanked him as I placed it on the desk, then I turned to leave. The old man in the centre of the room had not moved from his position. His back formed a crescent shape, and his head was still turned down as I passed him again.
Emerging outside, I looked up from the paperwork and felt a mild sensation of head-rush . Around that time I had been having them relatively frequently: a series of white flashes just behind my eyes that would pulsate, strongly at first, then gradually weaken like an echo until I could see clearly again. The sky was the same grey as it had been earlier, but having been inside it seemed to be giving off a stronger glare. Standing at the top of the driveway I was slightly above the level of the street, which provided a slight overview of the park and housing development. As my eyes adjusted to the light I looked up in hope of catching sight of the pigeons - but the sky remained undisturbed.
Walking down the driveway I remembered the people seated on the porch behind me. I thought to offer them a parting greeting but couldn’t bring myself to turn around as I departed. Across the street the men were still gathered at the game board. Beside them the pigeons were still scattered about on the grass, barely moving.
andrew de freitas, 2008