sketch: Fingerbone

I met Richard for the first time at the train station of Fingerbone, a town almost completely devoid of permanent human habilitation, and home instead to a rusted family of machines and scaffolds. The lack of domestic occupance and the high level of industrial and purely logistic use was almost completely unique, and the area rose in the morning and died away at night with a silence impossible to replicate in a place cut through with the usual blood rather than oil. The train station was all that most people ever saw of Fingerbone, either as a passenger bottlenecking through the once-elaborate marble arches (now held by what seemed to be the skeletons of steel hands), or idling along the platform in a daily pilgrimage from the orbiting villages.

I say pilgrimage because of the almost religious sequence of events that occurred each morning once the commuters left for the station. First the slow and no doubt unpleasant journey from the comparatively glowing bosom of a home surrounded by other homes; then the distinctly meditative atmosphere of the wandering passengers, walking slowly along that white and grey stone floor in patient anticipation of their train, or any train; and finally the sea of bowed heads, murmuring, like monks or the damned. We wandered to keep warm and awake, but also to house the slow and constant stream of new emigres to that unfortunate space. And much like those wild believers of gods and fear, we all moved through with the sole intention of getting back out.

Richard was a walker, like me, like all of us, and we met by simply falling in step with one another. We added to the murmur with our own conversation. The unreliability of the arrival and departures, and of the oscillating condition of each appearing train or carriage, was constant and unwavering. One could not count on being late or early simply because to leave Fingerbone station was the unbinding of a contract each and every passenger makes when they arrive: we would agree that, as far as our rationality will allow, we were entering into a set of circumstances to which time has relinquished its usual jurisdiction. Most employers in the cities now had time-cards for everyone who came through the station, and they simply registered ‘F-B.S’ when clocking in. Rushing, therefore, was an impossibility, and almost everyone had resigned themselves to the fact that they didn’t know when they would be leaving. Rather than a negativity, however, there was a sense of camaraderie, like we were all in it together, like a war, or an ice age.

Conversation always flowed predictably but freely, dwelling little on the time we would have to wait, and rather on where we were going, where we had come from. It was in these predictable exchanges that you found out whether you were talking to someone with whom you shared an interest or not; in fact it was because of rather then despite the predictability, as it became second nature to pick up on the slight variations of collective habit, improvisations in the script. Richard started off with the usual, that he worked on the office side of a construction firm in the city, building plans out of mathematics and the exact lines of graphite following a ruler. I told him that I was catching the same train – but to a stop further into the city – and offered up my job description. It may have simply been because he spent his days drawing blueprints, but he was the first person I had ever met to comment on the architecture of the structure we were moving around in. During previous conversations with other travelers, I would often switch to autopilot, letting the endlessly practiced words and sentences flow out of me like a receipt machine into the expectant hand of my walking partner, while focusing my attention downwards at the broken puzzle of mosaic that still hid in sections of the floor, or else upwards at the interconnected shadows of pillars and oxbow curves. I wondered if there was ever a time when this place was new and unveiled and built, or whether it just always existed, created by the hive mind of an archaic workforce eager to get from A to B. This was the first time my thoughts had been voiced, coaxed out by Richard’s own brief but untamed admiration, and it felt almost sacrilegious, like swearing in church, to talk about the places we were in here, now, rather than the places we had come from or were going to.

It was at this moment that I chose to light a cigar, I suppose for a variety of reasons; the most obvious to me at the time was for the simple reason of habit, as I had come to enjoy the slow burn and crackle of smoke around the modestly cavernous station, where the smell escaped into the air and where I would imagine the sound of fire reverberating off all remaining thin glass of the ceiling into the tunnel-like ears of pigeons. Another reason was surely to calm my nerves with something familiar after this small and exhilarating tangent from the norm; the third, I realised as Richard also produced a slim cuban from his breast pocket, was as a silent mark of respect and admiration. I was glad Richard had reciprocated. How many births of brothers must those birds see from that temporary misshapen aviary.

We continued to talk and inhale slowly, one lung of smoke and one of air, and we exchanged names before he told me where he had traveled from. Like me, like so many others here, his home was amongst a cluster of houses that could barely be called anything other than a settlement. This last exchange is what I remembered so clearly afterwards – sometimes explaining away, as I said, the interest in the physical architecture of the station as merely a curious byproduct of his working life – and it became clear there was only one understated explanation for him being here at Fingerbone. He told me the name of the settlement, and in a carefully excited response I told him the name of my own modest village, and the smile I caught from the edge of his mouth (as I looked up again at this increasingly magnificent wreck of a building) made me suspect he understood our connection as well as I:

We lived not in the vicinity of one another – nowhere near, in fact. We had not come from opposite directions, but still from far enough apart as to never cross on our way to the station, and I was only familiar with the name of his village rather than the actual location. This was due to a project our company had been involved with, financing a new transport link connecting some of the more prominent villages straight to the cities, bypassing the trains and the stations; bypassing Fingerbone. I, and the people in the department I worked in, were fortunate enough to have a say as to which areas would be selected for the first stage of the project, and so we naturally paid close attention to the shortlist of potentials. Many of our own villages were proposed, and so it was expected, of course, that we would vie for their inclusion, and finally escape the time trap of Fingerbone, finally have 9:04 or 9:08 or even 8:53 stamped on our clock cards instead of the unremitting ‘F-B.S’. I was as focused as any of my colleagues on the list, but I soon began to realise that my fixation was of the opposite emotion to everyone else in the office, and that I was waiting for my house to be inextricably removed from the list due to some budget cut or logistical rework. To my dismay it remained there each day, and I had eventually to split a lie between my family and my employer about not being able to catch this new bus service due to its strict timetable and the necessity of dropping my young child off at school before work. I had no young child, and the lie, if it was ever revealed, would strain – perhaps to breaking point – both my job and my marriage. I never fully understood why I did it. I did know that the answer wasn’t laziness, or that I hated my job. I also knew that somewhere in the explanation was the word ‘Fingerbone’. As you may have gathered, I also knew that Richard’s village was on that list. He would have repeatedly scrolled the list with the same confused, careful study as I, and so now, of course, he knew that a transport came to my village. We were part of each other’s response to an unanswerable question.

We continued to talk, almost openly now, and Richard told me that the station wasn’t, as I had offered, suspended within the consequence of a thousand active imaginations, but was the initial crux of an old, ongoing rivalry between the two big construction families in the city. He belonged to the company which didn’t receive the commission all those years ago, even though – and, he assured me, all this is a concoction of story and myth and propaganda that has been passed down through the still bitter generations since – even though his company supposedly had the more attractive and more utilitarian design for a modern train station. The far reaching consequences of this particular building commission were – again, this is all a mixture of gossip and speculation – were the reason his firm was struggling on the edge of the city, building small bitter offices for small bitter men, and why their rivals were rebuilding the economic centre at the heart of the metropolis over and over, with taller and sleeker towers of business. I asked him if he believed the story, and he said that it could easily be true, but that he admired what the building had become and doubted whether the two companies’ designs were really so different; and that, besides, it didn’t really matter to him because he enjoyed the plans, and the beautiful nets drawn and redrawn with increasing complexity. The final cement for him was when they were transferred onto blue paper with glowing white lines, and not when the final brick was placed in a wall or archway that he had designed. He admired the buildings, as anyone would, but his satisfaction began and ended with the idea of the construction. I started to comment on this interesting arrested development, this almost pure mathematical version of construction but, just as I began, the murmur around us was washed with a different tone – page two of the predefined conversation – and everyone turned towards the whipping sound of air forced through gaps, and wondered aloud if the circular lights approaching were connected, through the fog, to the engine of their train.

The routes were simple, almost morbidly so, and the trains were thus adorned with only the first letter of the city they would roll into and through, before returning on the precipice of darkness. V, said the people, it’s a V, like a strange chorus practicing an imaginary note without a fixed pitch – and here it slowed, plowing the fog from the tracks until a round iron plate emerged from under the light, a crude ‘V’ riveted into the centre.

This was our train. I motioned as much to Richard, and said that we would probably not have time to finish our cigars. We would also probably be separated in the tidal rush towards the valley of railway sleepers – soon to be filled with a smoke stronger than our own, carriages with walls dented like tinfoil and sandpaper – and as we both sensed this impromptu goodbye I passed him my guillotine, asked him to trim his cigar, and light it tomorrow at the station so as I might trace the smoke and carry our conversation on. It was futile really, searching in the flesh and metal maze of Fingerbone, but Richard did as I asked and sliced the ember off, handing back the instrument as the train steamed and slowed and halted in front of us. We were yards away, and yet the distance was slow and uncomfortable to traverse, surging with two crowds moving toward and away from the train – some to escape Fingerbone for that day, some disappointed for a brief moment that this was not a train with ‘S’ or ‘F’ riveted or scorched or nailed onto that plate – before joining the slow current of continuing murmurs behind us. Of course, no one got off the train here, so even though Richard and I were just a single carriage apart when we came through the doors, I had to move through all six connecting gates to the front of the train to find a seat, where there were many, and Richard had moved back, hoping, as everyone would, to find a seat that was not so loud and cold.

Moving from the station, the sleepers cracked like a frail ribcage under the beating heart of the heavy engine. The train’s articulations around the many bends of the mountainside were consequently like those of a nervous child learning to speak, and the driver would decrease the low speed even more around those turns, causing the arthritic links between carriages to crack and moan like the passing of time. It was always at these moments when it became clear that we were not riding a train of the traditional sort, of the sort that pioneered a speed of travel that make the first riders nauseous, so close as it was to time travel and teleportation. Instead, we were sealed within a long shipping container, like those used to carry wheat or rice from one country to another, and rather than actively moving we were merely at one location, and then, after perhaps a sea voyage (or simply after a long period of time) we had arrived somewhere else. Movement, we felt, was negligible to this journey, and it would make no difference to the achingly slow progress even if that container remained static. I have heard others compare it to being inside the belly of a whale, with no notion of when one will get out but an absolute certainty that one will, eventually, leave – either by death or luck.

Just as I began to idly contemplate my preference of these two choices, I felt his hand press on the back of my chair, and as I blinked from my morbid daze he said there had been no room at the back. I didn’t believe him, but I was glad of the sacrifice he had made, his coat noticeably thinner and patched in more places than mine. He sat and huddled into himself and joked that we were lucky to be the only ones in this godforsaken carriage, that the boat across the death river would at least sit high in the water. I carried his black humour along and we talked for a while like old men who had seen enough to talk about any of it, comfortable that mortality was not sacred and that anything was permitted, until neither of us knew quite how far to take the slapstick of the death rattle. We sat within the deafening scrapes and coughs of the engine, unable to comprehend how something so incapable of speed could still be so loud and erratic, before I asked again about the little architectural creed he had begun to outline on the platform. I described how I had always assumed the transformation of an artistic vision into the physical world was the highest goal of any designer of buildings, and he struggled to explain to me how he had surprised himself, in the same way, by not caring about the completion of his first project. He had come to realise that the dreams and ambitions of other men were not his own – I believe they were his very words – said with a wry smile as if emulating some great philosopher. The conductor had come into the carriage while Richard removed some graph paper from his satchel, and he ambled towards us with an exhausted relief, having dealt with that other mass of people who seemed so distant from us, here, now. Richard began drawing, skillfully but stuttered by the pitch and yaw of the train, explaining now with some performative expression of where his enjoyment originated. The conductor, meanwhile, asked us for our tickets, and mentioned that there were more people than usual, due to all the volcanoing, which at the time was utterly incomprehensible to me, and I assumed I had either misheard him or he had confused some words together. I had been told that there was a deep hole in the top of the mountain, caused by no-one knew what – but volcanoing was not a word, and it certainly wasn’t a volcano up there, and I was concentrating on what my increasingly complex acquaintance was producing on this checkered page. He drew what looked to me like a sine wave along an axis, and the conductor evidently thought so too, beginning to talk about spectrums if I remember correctly before his hat was removed from his head by some unexplained force, and the sine wave turned into a violent economic projection – like those red wall charts that were so common around the great depression – and somewhere between these events I realised we had derailed, and that the engine and all its obedient carriages were scraping up rocks and dirt through the few open windows as more cracked and smashed with an irregular rhythm and filled what had previously been the walls of my sealed container with a fissure of the very earth we relied on so much to bear our vertical weight.

Soon we were still. The weight of the engine and the soil we had taken in had weighted us against the mountainside, clinging and magnetic, and as I reconfigured my position in this new upright, my first thought was to the speed of the train – it had never traveled that fast before – and my own morbid joke shook me back into selfish reality as I looked around for Richard and the conductor.

The conductor, his shape twisted to accommodate shards of glass and several split window frames, looked as if he had been dragged into submission along the wrong side of the carriage, and his body had given up. I was intact apart from my legs, which were covered with a dozen or more sheets of paper, which were in turn divided and intersected with hundreds, perhaps thousands of lines depicting fabulous and terrifying machines, explanations covered by more vectors and designs for impossibly thin buildings and skeletons of bridges, all devoid of people; and some ending before they should, graphite lines stretching off to what should be the top of a building, but was instead a mistake of infinity and colourless sky, and I began to feel nauseous for the second time that day as I closed my eyes in the struggle and stood, the plans falling to the dirt below, washed in the wind.

It was then that I saw Richard, who was standing awkwardly but mobile and breathing heavily, relatively unharmed apart from one arm, which he was holding at an impossible angle, and his eyes, which were now other eyes, eyes that for the moment only saw the conductor, the conductor as he was then as much as he had been only a few moments ago. He later told me how he had seen a man’s skin being removed like the zest of a lemon, which was as strange as it was horrific, the way he did not say it was the conductor, and was simply ‘a man’. Perhaps only certain things are preserved in those short moments.

It was clear when we climbed from the wreckage that some of the sounds, almost none of which I remember now, were the involuntary uncoupling of our carriage from the majority of those behind us, and they were now sprawled and moaning with metal and human voice several hundred meters downwards. At the time, I thought that we wouldn’t be able to get down there, but I now think of that moment as the point where I realised I was not a hero. Not realised, as such; in hindsight, I could have acted differently, I suppose. I turned away from the long train, twisted with life, and started towards the top of the mountain. I took it for granted, either rightly or wrongly, that Richard would follow me at this point, and that these events had united us in purpose to a greater degree than a single day would usually allow. It so happens that he did follow me on this occassion, and I was soon helping him up the steeper parts where his broken arm would not allow him to scramble. I tied our scarves together to brace his limb, and if nothing else I suspect he followed me purely so that he would be able to return my scarf when we had leveled the situation.

It took us the larger part of the day to reach the summit, moving further and further away from those hard fought paths the tracks had dug into the angled rock of the mountain. First the rails and sleepers were ribcages; and then, further up, a great collection of spines layed end to end; further still they were empty teeth, and then nothing but the dissection of the human skeleton into one abstract image of a railway, or the other way around, the steady and non-existent ossification unfolding up into the limits of thinner and thinner air.

When we finally arrived at the highest point I was still traipsing forward with my head down when Richard stopped behind me. I realised then that ‘volcanoing’ was exactly what the conductor had meant to say, and that whether it was a word or not it was certainly being practised all around the centre of the cold peak. Although it was not clear to me, then or now, what was happening – it seemed the word existed but was not defined, so that the strange collective we found there at the top were mixing one thing with another and finding a third; if that sounds too cryptic, I apologise, and I will just say that there were people standing and staring, and some were lying down – some looked as if they were praying, even more were laying prone with their ears concentrated on the ground and their hands splayed outwards. A group were walking, as if still at Fingerbone, around in a circle, as if orbiting the nebula of the rock, and murmuring the same murmur of the train station; drawn to the centre but remaining at a distance and walking always at the same pace in an ever decreasing spiral. They were united only by the very fact that they were all there, and in this way I suppose we were with them, joining the various states of ritual. I would describe it as a religion were it not so solid; were it not so obvious that they were all reacting to the centre of what I had previously regarded as a mountain. They were reaching out, but did not want anything in return, and all they wanted was to reach. This, again, is made obscure by its singularity and by that flooded image – each time I recall it, it decays.

It is simple. It is a mountain; it is a mountain, and that is everything. It was obvious at the time – it was no longer a mountain, and with my head lifting my body towards the rest I doubted whether it had ever been. Recalling it now, all I see is what I saw next, and every other sure fact has been eaten from the inside. I don’t know if it was ever without that bellowing centre. I don’t know if the mountain caused the train to derail. I don’t know if it was those people; and, as soon as I became one of them, up there and nothing else, it could have been me. I may have left those people for dead.

Richard held back as I ventured forwards, making my way through the patchy gaps of the outer circles and then the more densely packed inner circles, the murmuring louder here, as if I was approaching a leader or a god. As I walked up to the edge I knew it was larger than I had imagined, and the mouth of this basin was almost perfectly circular whereas I had pictured a clumsy, jagged edge of rock, cracked with ice or dead vegetation. My ideas were no more fantastic than what was over the edge, where I saw not a bomb crater or natural basin or dried out lake but a hole, a funnel, a deep cavern into which fog and air rushed and ricocheted from the walls. I saw the faint glow down there, and it struck me that it was like standing on the edge of a great pupil, all of us dipping into the terrible black iris like fools, surrounded by cumbersome eyelashes and rings of the sleepless. As I turned around Richard was lighting the other half of his cigar, and I concentrated on that cracking orange glow instead, and walked towards him like a child to a mother.


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