After many years I had excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo. Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind, and unsure where the cut-out might end up next, I lived a provisional existence. I did so in a place where I knew none of my neighbours, where the street names, views, smells and faces were all unfamiliar to me, in a cheaply appointed flat where I would be able to lay my life aside for a while. My furniture and packing cases stood about in the cold rooms in a random jumble, apparently committed to oblivion, just as undecided as I was, and uncertain whether a serviceable domestic order of any kind could ever be re-established. We, the objects and I, had left our old house one blue and early morning, with the August moon still visible against the bright haze of a late summer’s sky, and we were now loafing about in East London, all our prospects wintery. Tirelessly, we played out the farewell scenes we hadn’t had. With a slowness that seemed like eternity, imaginary cheeks and hands brushed, teardrops welled in the corners of eyes. Interminable trembling of every book’s, picture’s or piece of furniture’s lower lip, throats choking on speech at every turn; a slow-motion valediction, turning to a scar before the ending had even come, every second of it as long as a day, and all movement heavy-going, an unspeakable crunching as through frozen snow.
When I slept I dreamed of the dead: my father, my grandparents, people I had known. In a small room accessed by several steps from the main flat, and just long enough for me to stretch out and sleep on the floor when I felt like it, I spent hours trying to memorise every detail I saw in the yard, the garden, and the section of the street that was visible between two houses. I got to know the light too. From April until August I read what the big sycamore wrote on the one-windowed brick wall of a neighbouring house at the bottom of the garden. It was late summer, it was autumn, then it was winter. Spring came, a west wind, shadows of leaves scribbling notes to the station, where a few metres beyond the garden on the tracks below a train came to a halt every quarter-hour. Or, more seldom, a north wind, with the last leaves flickering unquietly across the whole wall in the sharp light; by midday the shadow of the treetop was as clearly defined on the wall as the map of some unknown town. Winter, after a stormy autumn, was unusually windless, and the bare tree appeared on the wall as a barely perceptible shadow in the uniformly milky light; it wrote messages that were hard to decipher, as if sent from far away, but which, because of the peaceful justice shown by this light towards all things that lacked shadows, were not sad.
I lay awake at night, listening to the new noises around me. The trains beyond the garden stopped with a long-grinding groan and a sigh. In time, I learned that the groaning sounds came from the trains on their way from the city centre, which, shooting out of a tunnel just before the station, seemed taken aback by the proximity of the platform and ground to a halt, whereas the commuter trains bound for the centre sighed and softly squeaked. Somebody on crutches that creaked like old bedsprings hobbled about on the narrow path between the garden and the railway embankment, which fell away to the platforms and tracks. The man on crutches sometimes sang, a sound that was quiet and dark; the contours of his head could be made out in the lamplight, looming above the fence. He was doing business, and his customers came and went, the wind bringing scraps of their conversation. Sometimes he was forced to make a run for it, and the metallic panting of his spring-borne crutches would recede amid the flurry of thumping feet of those who had taken flight with him.
Foxes were mating on the flat gravel-strewn roof of an annex. They let out yearning barks and cries, and the chippings scattered in all directions under their darting, scrabbling paws, some flying against the window of my room. Once I went to the window to look. Motionless in the lamplight, the foxes stared right at me. From that moment onwards I thought of the man on crutches as fox-like.
I spent my days walking in the area, enjoying the sight of the pale Hasidic children in their islands of sheltered piety, on their way to school, or running messages to the shops, and remembered the little girl in West End Lane whom I had often encountered on afternoons years before, with her calf-length, dark-blue skirt usually askew, her thick glasses and fine hair. She was always alone, pushing her small but forceful determination in front of her fearful, short-sighted eyes like a wedge before which the pedestrians approaching on the pavement would part to let her pass. Here, the children went in groups, white-skinned and fearful of strangers, keenly devoted to their own world; maybe this was a good life, secluded from the things that were going on outside their streets. Shortly after arriving in the area I happened upon Springfield Park. It was a cloudy day, and not many people were about. A group of gaily dressed African women were toing and froing between the viewing-bench niches along the cropped hedge, apparently looking for something. They called aloud to one another, glancing here and there, staring down at the ground as if attempting to rediscover a track they had followed into the park and subsequently lost. A flock of crows rose into the air, their beating wings creating a commotion; after a semi-circle over the grass, they settled again on the other side of the lawn, watchful of the rose bushes, the African women, me.