The impossible city

Charlie Baker is an A-level student.

Death on a Damascene street

Navigating your way around the innards of Damascus at dusk is not the easiest of experiences. It is not quite the "plethora of colours and maelstrom of frenetic activity" which my guidebook promised. It is dingy, dark and unwelcoming. Decades of accumulated filth stick to the wide French boulevards. Abstract sculptures stand unloved in ancient squares. The face of the president, the ubiquitous Al-Assad, is inescapable. His corporal poses and brushy moustache are plastered all over the world's oldest city.

My attempts at locating the Baron Hotel, the last remnant of British influence, have fallen flat. My map informs me that I am currently on La Rue Martine, whilst the plaque on the street corner argues that it is now called Al-Fazr Road. According to my guide all maps produced both in and out of Syria are deliberately incorrect, so as to confuse any invading army relying on the Lonely Planet to Syria and Lebanon as an effective communicative tool. I am therefore reduced to that standard mode of interaction for the exasperated tourist: shouting slowly in one's home tongue at the nearest nonplussed local.

"Baron Hotel?"

A shake of the head. Typical. I smile, baring my teeth, and walk on. Cacophonies of laughter accompany my departure. I feel furious, so when I hear a softly spoken "Excuse me" behind my back I swivel around quickly, my features contorted and my temper short.

"The Baron Hotel is at the end of this street."

A pair of doe-eyes look at me sweetly. Green and ovular, they dominate her face. Tall, lithe and lightly toned, she looks almost as alien to this city as I do. Her skinny jeans and floral handbag point not just to Western influences, but a Western upbringing. The legions of pot-bellied fruit sellers behind stare at her unashamed.

"Thank you very much."

"Quite alright."

She turns away, suddenly aloof, and walks down one of the narrow passageways which are dotted all over the old city. I don't know what's at the end of the passage, but I would like to find out.

I continue on my way. The last light of the day has evaporated. The moon has yet to rise over the city. Darkness now envelops the buildings, robbing them of colour and shape. Weak street lamps fight to highlight the patinas of grey on the murky pavement. A coffee house shines ahead, blazing hot light onto the street outside. Inside balding men puff contentedly on sheesha and gesticulate to each other loudly in Arabic. I carry on, and the sudden burst of brightness fades. Back to the dark. My mind is at ease now; I know my destination and how to get there. It's simple. No more questions, no more embarrassment. I like the city now that I'm more relaxed. A motorbike zips past. The engine is thrumming loudly, spilling its obnoxious sounds all over the street. The riders are two boys. They revel in the noise they're making. Their erect poses are an outdated attempt at 1980s machismo. The splitting sound continues past, ascending and then descending.

A yellow tailfin flips carelessly through the air. Perfect in proportion, there is something inherently natural about its graceful movements. My eyes are confused. The morbid sigh of the brakes finally registers. The screeching tyres pierce my eardrums. I'm now awoken from my self-imposed mental slumber. There's been a crash. A real crash. I can feel myself slipping into primal instincts. I jog forwards, eager for blood and knowledge. The long line of parked cars has obscured my view of the accident. I come up to the crossroads. It seems it was a head-on collision. I jog faster now, breaking into a sprint. Voices are gathering. I detect myself in the voices. Concern for the injured is secondary to my concern for mystery.

The motorbike has been hit hard on the side by a bright yellow taxi. The reckless motorcyclists must have been travelling too fast to have noticed the taxi coming up on their right as they sped through. Through my restricted view I saw only the bonnet fly up in the air after the collision. I've arrived now. I'm answering my own questions. I survey the scene, looking for damage, looking for death. The taxi stands smoking on the pavement. Rubber imprints on the road show that the driver swerved, but too slowly. The driver has fled somewhere, leaving the engine running. The pounding bass of the radio still plays. In the centre of the road the motorcycle seems shot. The wheels are up in the air, spinning in some act of defiance. The bodywork is mangled and paint has bled all over the road. Then I see what I'm really looking for. With their bodies crumpled and twisted, and their heads bowed, the two boys betray no sign of life to the gathering crowd. They lie a good five metres from their erstwhile vehicle. The crowd press in. We all want to know exactly the same thing.

I've never seen a dead person before. In Calcutta I saw floating corpses on the Ganges, charred beyond all recognition after the ceremonial pyre. I've been to funerals. I live next to a graveyard in England. I've often imagined the cadavers lurking just outside my bedroom window, but the neatly cut grass and gentle oak trees of the graveyard have always destroyed my morbid imagination's worst fears. This is different. Life and death is being played out for a non-paying audience. Men walk tentatively towards the stricken boys, whilst a growing throng watches from the security of the pavement. Hooting cars add to the tension. The hysteria of the horns penetrates my concentration. A quick shout from an official-looking man silences them. The boy closest to me is fluttering his eyes. He's awake now. Too shocked to scream, he looks around in disbelief. His right foot is dripping blood. The pain will come soon. Bundled into a taxi that has just drawn up, he looks likely to survive. The other man stays still. His body is at right angles, his legs jutting and his arms splayed. Shards of glass are embedded in his jacket. I look back to the motorcycle. The windshield has totally fragmented. A cutting window of glass remains around the perimeter. The burly men who hoisted his accomplice now turn their attention to him. They prod him gently. Nothing. A pail of water is drawn up. When poured over him a slight red trickle oozes onto the tarmac. Four men pick him up, slowly but surely. He is carried horizontally to another waiting taxi. Water drips out of his jacket, but now there is a more definite flow, more of a stream of red. A rough series of bloodstains marks his fall. Laid out on the back seat, his feet push up against the window as the taxi speeds past, the driver's finger constantly on the horn. With the removal of the bodies the crowd shuffles forward to examine the damage. I walk on past. The bloody stream has left me feeling ill. My mind's still shocked as I go. As I leave the taxi driver, missing all this time, emerges from a café. He is assisted by many more men. He is being treated as the innocent. They are holding a towel to his head, supporting him, encouraging his movements. Another yellow taxi is waiting. I feel like an intruder. My inquisitive eyes could attract some hostility. I start to walk quickly.

I feel lonely. I want to talk someone. I have had no witness to my first experience of death. The Baron Hotel suddenly jumps up to the left. Set back in a garden of uncared-for trees and overgrown bushes, it has a presence that stands out from the uniformity of the bleak concrete of its surroundings. Built in the early part of the twentieth century, its red sandstone exterior has dulled with age. I go up the stairs and through the arched entrance. I smell the decay immediately. That lingering odour of unwashed rooms and old leather invades my nostrils. The whitewashed walls show signs of neglect, chips and cracks appearing throughout. A golden chandelier with only half of the bulbs working rises above. Antiquated travel advertisements for Baghdad and Aleppo hang on the walls. A posse of bored waiters loiters by the lobby in front of me. To my left is the bar, with a dusty wooden counter. Deep sofas and wicker chairs are arranged around the walls. I go through the double-fronted glass doors. Travelling Englishmen and suited Arabs engage in animated chatter. Everything seems the same as it must have been when Lawrence of Arabia stayed in 1909. There is no opulent luxury in the room. A bored American sits in the corner. He had obviously hoped for some British country house affair with gilt chairs and attentive staff. I order a beer. The rather cross-looking barman scowls at me. He gives me a glass and a can of a local brew, expecting me to pour it myself. The excitement of my entrance has faded. I feel tired. I take a long sip. The warm hops flood my gullet. I have to talk to someone. I'm uncomfortable now. I fumble in my pockets for a cigarette. Lighting it quickly, I gaze around the room. The assorted geriatrics don't show any interest in me as I perch on the barstool. My brain has switched to exploration. Insecurity will set in soon. I always talk to someone after a seminal event. Those long nocturnal conversations with my friends helped me in my early teenage years as avenues of opportunity and seeds of maturity grew. I miss them now. I imagine I would have been more oblivious to the psychological ramifications of the crash if I had been with someone else. But by myself there are fewer distractions. I need to go. I take another sip, leaving two hundred Syrian pounds, and flee outside.

I walk back up the street. My cigarette keeps me mildly occupied as I approach the site. I come up to the crossroads. The crowd has dispersed. The smoking taxi has been driven off somewhere. The emaciated shell of the motorcycle has been moved, leaving glassy mementoes over the street. Cars drive through as if nothing had happened. Gazing over from the pavement, I see the faint outline of bloodstains near the gutter. No flowers, no police, no teary residents. Fifteen minutes earlier the two boys had been tearing down another street. A café owner looks at me oddly as I stand there in silence contemplating how to get home. The chatter inside his café flows out into the street, the cars buzz by, and the city takes another deep breath and continues.

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