Sunday 13 August 2023

Sunday Serial: The Story Weaver and other tales by Sally Zigmond, tonic water, Unreal City,



“Give me your passport. You’ll only lose it. Gate Twenty. Come along.”

            I follow your orders as well as your woollen hat along the crowded concourse. You stop for a moment, crouch, turn, and take a picture of me. The first on the film. In case it doesn’t come out. You take hostages with your camera, you know. Once you have captured someone on film, you think she is yours to develop as you will.

            We arrive and go through the usual formalities. You are totally at ease. My spirit failed to keep up with the aeroplane and has been left behind on Gatwick’s tarmac. The wheels of the airport bus taking us into the city hiss over the frozen slush. You take the seat in front of me. You begin your ritual. You spread out your equipment. Counting. Arranging. Lenses. Rolls of film. Three cameras. Filters. Other things I can’t put a name to. You are absorbed.

            I look out of the window. I am absorbent, drawing the outside in to my inside, to fit myself into this space that has no boundaries. The flat fields of dead snow a laid out corpse, the low roofed houses thickening to salt-white blocks of flats. We pass a football stadium. At least I think it’s a stadium because its outer skin is encrusted with what look like match fixture lists, torn and flapping in the dank air. But through the open gates it is a busy market. People with canvas bags are scuttling past stalls of muddy carrots and fat round cabbages. They finger racks of clothing. A father hoists a child onto his shoulders and point down to our bus. The bus moves on and they fade into memory, then lost in the mist. “There’s no substance here,” I say to you. “Nothing to catch hold of.”

            “Off you go again,” you sneer, squinting through a closed lens. “Airy-fairy.” You put the camera down. “I’ll wait. There’s not enough contrast.”

            “That’s what I mean.”

            “Then why the Holy Moses didn’t you say so?”

            “I did.”

            “Not in a way normal people might understand.”

            I sulk.

            We see the same. We use a different language. There is another difference. You never try to get close to things. You are happy with the second-hand. I demand the real thing. The breast versus the bottle. All or nothing for me, rooting for the elusive nipple, never latching on for a good suck. To hell with that you say. Milk is milk wherever it comes from. Guess which one of us is fat on truth and who is lean and hungry?

            We pass a hoarding from which the Marlborough cowboy with his white tombstone teeth and prairie-ripe hair grins down at us. What the hell is he doing in Eastern Europe? You jump up squeaking, flashing away on auto-shutter. “That’s more like it. I’m getting an angle. Colour, contrast, conflict. Great!”

            The road is straight and fast. Beyond a lighted window a man in a string vest is pumping chest-expanders. In another a child plays a violin. A woman opens a cupboard and takes out a pan. They are this city. They make this city. I know nothing of it and never can. I am no more than a fly I see crawling up the inside of the bus’s window. There is a barrier I can see through, but not penetrate. Unreal City.

            The bus lurches over a tangle of tram-points and bounces over a cobbled square coming to a halt by the sluggish brown Vltava. Two gulls catch the sun and flash like brief beads of mercury and are gone.

            I have seen plenty of summer shots of Prague of glowing green domes topping sunlit towers of baroque extravagance. Today they are sadly muted. Unreal City. Even the wind is frozen. Like a photograph. People walk by but they make no sound in their soft boots on the sanded snow. No clouds of vapour rise from their mouths. Their breath has been stolen.

            You leap down the steps of the bus and land on the snow with a thud. Trust you to spoil the silence. ‘Better get some shots in before the light goes completely,’ you say, running ahead like a child let out of school.

            A muffled bell somewhere in the twilight rings out twelve noon.

            Immediately you are snapping away. Windows, gables, getting in peoples way, dodging the traffic. “Wow!” you say when you spot a swan, bear or peacock carved above a door. “Wow!” to every pastel wall or rococo roof tile. “This is something else.”

            My fingers dig into my palms. I shuffle my feet. I hate you for being direct, for not pretending to belong, for not trying to assimilate, for not caring how you appear to others. You crack open your crisp new map on every corner, grab the nearest person by the arm and shout, “Do you speak English? Great. Can you tell me the way to Charles Bridge?”

            You want to rush, to see everything in the guide book. But you miss things. You don’t see the rolling pin arms of the woman making pastry through an open kitchen door. Two police officers bristling with firearms, their cheeks so smooth and young, who are really Hansel and Gretel, following the trail of breadcrumbs through the forest.

            I have to run to keep up with you and your map. I don’t want to run. I want to preserve this immobility that surrounds me. Through a bubble-glass door I see a girl. She is standing in front of a mirror drawing a comb through long, black hair. Music burbles somewhere in the background and she throws back her head and sings.

            Trinket sellers jostle for space on the ancient bridge despite the intense cold. frost. Some burn tiny braziers of glowing coals. Others wear gloves as thick as boxers’. Or jump up and down.

            “Plenty of colour here,” you say and again you’re clicking away as happy as a hippie in a field of poppies. Not thinking about what you see. That comes later when you’re in your dark-room, leaning over white dishes waiting for the pale images to emerge, ghostly at first and then square edged and substantial, something you can slice into bite-size images.

            You pile your bags against the stone wall. “Keep your eye on them while I wander about a bit,” you say and off you march, stuffing spare film into your pocket. You ignore the hawkers. You ignore everyone, except those you want to photograph and then it’s “Would you mind? A bit to the left. Look this way.” And they do it for you.

            Damned if I would.

            I kick my heels, looking about me. The heads and shoulders of the statues that line the bridge are hooded and caped with snow. It makes them look cute and Christmassy. Closer too, the effect is different. The black shapes are soft and sooty. Their noses are crumbling like medieval cocaine sniffers. I like the imagery. Coke and snow. It’s pollution from nearby steel works that has done the damage. I stand at the foot of a black Christ crucified in a snowfield, choking on sulphur dioxide. The grieving women at his leprous toes sob into disintegrating gas-masks. I laugh at my own fancy. The cold has obviously got to my brain. I run my fingers along the black form expecting a roughness. It’s smooth black ice. A moment of eternity frozen in time.

            Is it possible, I muse, as I stroke the ice, to be anything but banal in this city that is steadily rubbing me out? I lean over the parapet and let myself slide along the oily blade of the river and be carried towards the grim renaissance palace that surrounds the spiky towers of St Vitus’s cathedral. Christ; it’s cold. Too cold to stand dreaming.

            I can hear music. I disobey your orders and set off to find its source, only to find you’ve got there first, damn you. On a tiny canvas camping stools, like a gnome on a toadstool, sits an old man playing a series of sunny tunes on his accordion. He has a white walrus moustache and a tartan blanket tucked about his legs. He is wearing a sheepskin jacket. Old, but good. On his hands are fingerless gloves, striped like wasps. Coins rattle into a biscuit tin at his feet.

            And what a smile beneath that white moustache. He is bathed in summer sunshine. He is king of the bridge, holding court on his canvas throne, guarding his biscuit tin treasury. The faces of the people passing him melt in his warmth. He knows you are taking shot after shot of him, but for once, you are not his captor. He is free. It is you who sit at his feet.

            I have to break the mood. “I hope you’re going to pay him.”

            “Sure I am. Oh for Christ’s sake, Dee. You’ve gone and left five thousand dollars’ worth of equipment at the other end of the bridge.”


            “Is that all you can say? How can you be so stupid?”

You stomp off, muttering, to collect your gear, leaving me with the musician. He is now playing, “I love Paris in the Springtime.” Perfect. The silky Seine flows beneath my feet. Chestnuts are in blossom along the bank.

            I fumble in my bag for a coin. I take three and place them carefully in the biscuit tin. I can’t tell from his face whether I’ve just given him enough to live on for a month or something not worth more than a button. When I straighten up you are pointing your camera the other way, at a brown barge chugging downstream.

            There is a blind man on the other side of the bridge. I haven’t seen him before although I must have walked past him at least twice. Unseen as well as unseeing. He stands like a black post, like the giant statues that dwarf him. He takes up little space. His presence is neither apologetic nor proud. He is here. He might be anywhere. But, he is here and that is all one can say about him.

            Taking obscene advantage of his disability I stand in front of him. I look him over to try and make something of him. His pale white cheeks are smooth and unstubbled. An inch of frayed cord trousers hang below a long belted coat. His shoes are suede, smoothed at the toes to shiny puddles of baldness. He wears no gloves. His hands are as raw as red meat, the fingertips as white as candle-wax.

            I watch him for some time. He doesn’t dance a jig to keep warm like the others. He does not blow on his hands nor keep them in his pockets. He does not beg. He does not speak. He does not smile. He does not frown.

            But he wants money. Oh yes and desperately. I can sense that. There is an upturned cap at his feet. It should be keeping his head warm for all the good it’s doing there. He must sense its emptiness, but his face betrays no disappointment, no anger at the silent crowds passing by. His soul is as blind as his eyes. Why is no-one giving money to this poor blind man? He is more deserving than the accordion player.

            I picture him rising from his bed in the corner of a basement, the green ripples of the river flowing across the damp-stained ceiling. There is no light but the thin smoke of dawn, but what need has he of light? He dresses. He eats but doesn’t taste the bitter coffee and chunks of yesterday’s bread. His mother, for surely he is too young to have a wife, prepares a thin soup. He walks over the old brown snow to Charles Bridge. He takes off his cap his mother so lovingly placed on his head and puts it down where he put it down yesterday and the day before that...

            I wrap myself in my unravelling skeins of narrative and go and join you. It is only when I reach you at the other end of the bridge that I remember I haven’t give him any money.

            “I’ve found someone for you,” I say. The barge rounds a curve in the river and is gone. I drag you by the arm and show you the blind man. “Look at that face.”


            “That’s the whole point,” I argue.

            “I can’t take a picture of nothing.”

            “Why not? I could write a novel about nothing.”

            “That I can believe.”

            We are still striking sparks off each other over coffee and pastries in a cafe at the end of the bridge. Your idea. On the walls bright wooden puppets rattle on strings like hanged men. Clowns, fiddle-players with red cheeks and orange hair, brown and white dogs with big red tongues leer at me. The coffee is too hot to taste.

            I talk about the blind man. I know I am irritating you. Red blotches appear on both your cheeks. I know them well. “But,’ I persist, “he must be cold and hungry and tired but no-one, and I mean no-one, gives him any money. I need to know why.’

            You break off a piece of cake, lick each finger in turn. “I’ll tell you why.”

            “Go on. Tell me.”

            “He’s boring.”

            “Too glib. You can do better than that.”

            “Okay. We all want something in return. Everybody hates short-changers. He is bad value for money. He’s got ‘loser’ written all over his face. Now that old guy with the squeeze-box. He’s a star.”

            I don’t answer. Without asking whether you want any more coffee I take a third cup and drain the pot. You begin your ritual again using the two empty chairs at the table to spread out your equipment. Displacement activity. So you don’t have to think that the conversation isn’t about the blind man at all.

            “Do you have to do that here?” I hiss through my teeth.

            You don’t look up. I’d rather you yell at me, strike me across the face, anything to tell me I exist.

            “I’m going back to the bridge.”

            Your head remains down. “Okay.”

            It is darker. Colder. The trinket sellers are packing up. The accordion player is now playing, “La Vie en Rose.” The caffeine euphoria is gone. I am dispirited and dull as mud. The blind man is still there. His face is a face, his nose a nose, his eyes blank dead spaces. He is a blind man on a bridge. Prague is a tired old city under tired old snow. The surface of the river shines green like a fading bruise. One by one the lamps strung along the bridge snap on and glow like pearls. Does the blind man know that the sun has gone, the lamps lit? Can he feel the Vltava flowing eternally beneath his feet?

            Suddenly the bridge is full of people, more than ever before, as if switched into being with the lights. Children. Families. They chatter like the starlings flying in to roost above them. The air crackles. A collective gasp catches the air. It rises and floats off across the green glass of the river. The floodlights of the Old City across the river burst like fireworks into the sky. The great pale castle hangs above the opposite bank; a heavenly host of angels spanning the black sky.

            Madness grabs me. I run to the blind man. Pull his hand. Stroke his stone face. “Can’t you see?” I cry. “This is beauty. You must see it! Look at it, damn you! Feel something for once in your life.”

            He stares through my lunacy. He shouts something very loud and very long, which, of course, I can’t understand. Except I can. His lips twist into cruel wires of anger. He spits and bubbling saliva freezes on my cheek. For a second the crowd about us jumps, looks, decides it is nothing, shrugs and moves on, pointing at the lights.

            The blind man is a blind man. He stands as he always stands. I am a tourist, like all the other tourists. The crowd tosses glittering coins into the air. They spin and flash in the necklace of lights before falling into the biscuit tin of the accordion player.

            And you are there at the end of the bridge. And I remember why you are always there at the end of the bridge. You are waiting for me. You will always wait for me to come back. You will wait until I am no longer blind.

About the author

Sally Zigmond's dream always was to read and write.When her sons were occupied during the day with full-time dedication, she attended various adult education classes run by the local government.She eventually stumbled on "Creative Writing for Pleasure and Profit" and she was hooked.  Her commercial fiction has been published by The People’s Friend, My Weekly, The Lady and Woman's Weekly. Her more literary fiction and has won prizes and competitions and much has been published in QWF - Quality  Women's Fiction.  
Hope Against Hope a Victorian novel was published in 2011 and Chasing Angels, a novella in 2019


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