Time Traveller

by Diane Fahey

Diane Fahey

Through time changes, moon changes, body changes,
we have followed the weather to find a double summer.
Along with the struggle of luggage, arms aching
in midnight airports, we carry the years of unhappiness
inside this mutually woven web: so hard to undo,
or walk away from, finally. Staying true to you, I've lost
myself, walled up between strictured youth
and childless middle age.
An almost buried voice
says firmly, though not without compassion,
Around the legs of strollers,
weavings of leaves and air.
In terraced gardens, Vienna's
agèd wait to reinherit
what they cannot bequeathe:
joyful or placid, they live out
summer's end.
By the balcony rail,
I sit on into twilight.
Trees leafily present again,
and the soft silhouettes
of the old at their windows,
sprinkling geraniums.
the hidden, present life,
the wind like a hand resting
on my sleeve… And, as always,
I look for birds carrying
sparks of the sunset upwards,
then dark against day's
last glimmer.
I am one shadow,
one of a thousand, watching
those human shapes moving
behind drawn blinds. Vanished
suns still burn in gold
ceilings of cloud.
mysteries of light and spirit.
Presences, listeners, do not
need belief to come alive.
The night is leaved
with darknesses sentient
as myself — turning,
opening lives; colours,
whisperings, flowers.
unseen winds, breath-notes,
my thoughts arrest; evening
cools on freshened eyes
and skin — a moment
to be accepted as a grace.
In the Stephanstrasse,
somewhere, the scream
of metal or fingernail
on glass. Almost soundless.
Ventriloquist of emotion,
you remain poker-faced,
staring at trivia to distract
from tightened, moving lips.
Beside the photobooth,
a salesman hectors
the crowd, chops wildly
as the vegetables pile
around him, useless,
with his plastic device
of infinite variety.
You reach to take the photo
from the machine, accepting
it simply: a pulpy mask
not to be looked away from,
as if a mirror. Stunned
and duplicated by a daze
of light: the machine's truth.
Then the travel bureau
where the clerk with
white metal face chops
the photo almost in half:
"Your visa, madame.'
Snap. Snip. Slap.
Faces brittle as dead leaves
in Vienna's perpetual autumn.
Red mouths, sculptured bodies,
of women elegant and skeletal
as Schiele perceived them,
despairing unto madness…
They still walk
the Stephanstrasse with their
shaved, fluffed out dogs.
Yet it is an ordinary day,
the street filled with faces
I cannot know or read.
(My own, young and old,
plain and well-favoured,
hovering transfixed
in a displaced present.)
In this French village we are unwelcome,
live in a house where a marriage has just ended.
Escaping from dead spaces, echo-memories,
I make frequent trips into Switzerland,
rehearse crossing, recrossing the border.
About-face in Basel.
Drifting invulnerable through window-gazing crowds
(shoe-palaces for the well-heeled,
fine clothes to keep one's neighbour
at cuff's length)
until he accosts me:
brazen, intractably solid…
Feeling almost impolite, I melt back
into the throng,
weave myself inside another stream.
In a café, I write manic notes
as if to keep intruders at bay
by force of concentration,
twirl my wedding ring like some magic relic.
Out on the street again, I watch
eyes, warm or sad, haunted by
absences, longings,
burdened with some more public kind of fulfilment.
The cost: a small, hardly noticeable pain,
like a canary's bell in a cage.
A culture of fragile certainties. Under mountain roads,
steel posts to keep invaders out. Inside mountains,
duplicate worlds.
In the concrete basement, a honeycomb of wooden cages…
My friend explains: "In case of nuclear war. We've all got one.
We use them to store our junk. The cat keeps getting
locked in.'
Security: a hard-won, high-priced calm. In bright zoot suits,
young figures rollerskate the cobbles, en route for
a similar world.
At Zurich Gallery, the plate glass walls of social control
punctured by rifle shots — huge radial cracks bandaged with
squares of thin glass — quite beautiful: I thought they were
part of the exhibition.
In the Barfüsserplatz, the Sunday toddlers stumbled,
chasing the pigeons, tripping on the edge of flight:
happy in failure, the chase all their delight,
plump hands opening, closing, like wings: — the intoxicated
strength of children!
At an older phase of life,
pigeons strut over worn stones, act out
mating dramas. "So ridiculous,' I think, "at least
we don't wobble our necks!' In waves,
they flock to the gaunt tree shadowing the square,
populate its branches in late summer air.
On that day, I am unable to go back.
I haunt the station, imagine leaving
for Paris or Munich… But I can
no longer read signs, negotiate money,
am too possessed by fear to take a taxi.
On the wrong tram, with the wrong ticket.
Guiding me off, a man and woman
walk with me through fading streets
to where a bus leaves for the border.
They move, respond, with one spirit,
for forty years, companions. We share
no common language, offer smiles and nods
in parting.
In near-darkness, I walk
from the terminus to where I live.
Spring's first warm day.
Through Regent's Park I walk
with the slowness of an invalid.
You measure your steps against mine,
say, "You will be better soon' —
both of us enmeshed in platitudes
spun out by fear and wishful thinking:
"There must be a way'
(back? through? out?)
"It can't get worse than this'
(it can)
"Whatever happens, I must go on'
(how? where to? why?).
I see the gravelled path,
the children's feet running
across new grass, strollers
circling bright flower beds.
Too early yet for families
on picnics, lovers under the trees.
Light air, crocus and daffodil.
Faces turning towards the sun,
each other.
All the tests
give me a clean bill of health.
It seems there is nothing wrong
with me but years of misery.
I concentrate, unable to feel
the sun upon my face.
Weeks or months later,
stepping off a curb
in Gower Street,
I say this to myself:
"I am going to fly'.
In the space between
paving stone and asphalt,
those words are there:
the small act of freedom
that makes the difference.
I know that I never can,
but the wish is there,
and it has wings.
In the West End,
walking down one more street,
the words and silences between us
as grey as all the stones of London.
At last I say that it is finished,
and the weight I have been carrying
grows heavier and heavier,
I am a stone plummeting towards
earth at the bottom of a well.
Later, there is no wish to avenge
the abandonments, subtle and flagrant,
of years, the draining of my small strength.
I just want to keep on walking
slowly away from all those years.
I am learning how to break promises,
how to honour the gift that is my life.
I sit through the afternoon
in my room with its long mirror
holding my image
inside that of the window
behind me. I watch
the summer trees' foliage
swaying, growing,
silvery and ashen
in the dusk, each leaf
a glimmering point.
Now the street lamps are on;
the ceiling is etched
with different shadows.
The light coming in
through the half-opened door
grows stronger,
pervading the room
like the presence of a stranger
waiting on its threshold.
The air, the space, so still.
I remember to breathe,
my eyes trace the movements
of light and darkness
in the room.
London, 1981; Adelaide, 1988

Turning the hourglass

Last updated April 01, 2023