Thursday, 26 February 2009


I’ve a bad memory for faces. When an old friend adopts a new hairstyle, I’m puzzled. I walk past colleagues in the street, not recognizing a familiar person in an unfamiliar place.

My visual memory is poor. I don’t remember clothes or decorative schemes. I’m better at typefaces and handwriting – or knowing where books lurk. At films and art galleries I concentrate hard – I want to recall everything so that I can relive the intense pleasure.

It’s like that with places too. I’m more responsive to atmosphere than detail. But every so often a glimpse seals itself into my memory. Three glimpses haunt me. I saw them within twenty-four hours in the same Midlands city. They seem freighted with meaning, filled with history, but to make them more than I saw would be a kind of theft. I saw moments and gestures that weren’t staged for me to make into a story. They were tiny details of strangers’ complex lives.

It was morning. Nine o-clock, The shops and offices were open. People hurrying. I glimpsed a man –comfortable jumper stretched over belly, jacket open. He moved fast, knew where he was heading. Turning off the gravel path, he took the step which led to the Job Centre. Without pausing, he crossed himself in large, sweeping gestures. He went in.

I was heading home after dark. I took the short-cut by the tall, plain Dominican church. Its windows were dark and its doors shut. There’s a side door, leading to a vestry perhaps. I caught sight of a figure facing the door – a dark-haired young man. He was kneeling, intense, his hands clasped in prayer.

The next morning I came early to the station. Daylight again. Crowds swarmed to board the train. And I saw a dark-eyed young woman, face framed in white and dressed in dark, loose cloth. A nun, I thought. She was dressed like the nuns of my childhood. Then I saw the scuffed trainers beneath the robe. Was she a nun? Or was that a hijab? Whatever the answer, she looked up questioningly, tilting her head to one side with the stance or expression of one of Zurbaran’s saints. Perhaps, I reflected as I walked up the stairs, she was looking at the indicator boards to check her destination.

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