64. The Tourists

WHERE HAVE THEY COME from? They used to be a rare sight in this town. I used to see them from time to time and feel sorry for them. I used to wonder, what in God’s name has brought you here when you could be anywhere else? What could it possibly be that has made you decide to spend your precious holiday time here and not elsewhere? What is it that you can see here that you can’t see a better example of somewhere else? Or have you been everywhere else, and this is all that is left to you? What I used to like about this town was precisely that there was nothing extraordinary about it. You could walk around a city block late on a Sunday afternoon in July and not see a soul. The place would be completely deserted. This was when I was a child, returning home after a day by the river. This was a lonely, desolate place, ideally suited to lonely, desolate souls. We were happy to be left alone in our solitude and desolation, in fact we demanded nothing less. Now the tourists swarm over our streets, cameras and videos strapped around their necks. I pity them. As far as I can tell, they come in two varieties: young and old. I don’t know which is worse. I pass them in the street and hear them talking in their strange languages, pointing in one direction or another, always to something completely innocuous, and strangely I’m reminded of my poor mother, who never was a tourist in her whole life, who landed on these shores with nothing more than a suitcase and the promise of a husband she’d never met. She never really adjusted: she never managed to wrap those ever-thickening northern jowls around this delicate new southern tongue. As for me, despite my promises I never got around to learning more than a few clumsy words and phrases of that laughable language she spoke – in fact she didn’t so much speak it as wield it, like an axe, or a lumberjack, I’m not sure which. So it was that in her later years, as she lost the little she’d learned of the new and I lost the little I’d scraped together of the old, we became strangers to one other. Eventually we gave in to the inevitable and simply soliloquised to each other as if we could understand each other perfectly. It was surprisingly effective. We never got along better than in those last days. Of course back then people came here for refuge. They were troubled times. Now the tourists come here for distraction. Presumably the troubles have ended – I wouldn’t know as I pay no attention to the news. It’s hard enough to live my life without having to worry about the problems of others. I just keep my head down and hope I don’t run into any trouble of my own. There is an art to scraping by, and I have mastered it, even if I do say so myself. Still, I don’t doubt there must be something that brings them here. Time was when the only entertainment in this town was the sky, with its colours and clouds and meagre umbrage. For anyone in love with loneliness and desolation, this was heaven, or its opposite, it depended on your mood and the time of day. We were all in love with such things back then, and it was a fine way to be, even if I do say so myself. Sometimes I just want to approach one of them and take them by the shoulders and shake them and holler at them: what is it? What could it possibly be that you are looking for that you think you might find here of all places? But of course it is forbidden. Which in a way is fortunate, for I mightn’t like the answer, or they mightn’t like the question. I wish them well, at any rate. I wish them happiness and long life. May they find what they are looking for.