As dusk approached, we walked the streets, large in numbers. A fresh breeze came which filled our chests and refreshed minds, reminding us to take it all in.
For one night only, we were city-free. From end to end, a whole neighbourhood had been reclaimed and then laid out for people to dance and eat, prop up their front porch, or to display their true colours any which way they wanted.
Boys in navy blue blazers jostle each other outside the Marriott hotel, looks of uncertainty over what to do with so much privilege.
Metres away, skaters slam their boards into the paving slabs on College Green, while pedestrians march through the middle, determined to exert their right of way.
A small group gather on the grass, watching intently as a man gives a lesson on how to repair a bicycle puncture.
Further on, four men lounge in the shade of the cathedral, waiting for something. Close by is a tent pitched beneath a tree; the council turning a blind eye or quietly piecing together the paperwork to shift it?
I hadn’t been working there long when I first noticed the old man. He was padding round the balcony, glancing about with a look of quiet fascination at the old maps displayed on the walls. He made three circuits, before descending to the ground floor and tipping his hat at the meet and greeter as he left.I quickly learned from my colleagues that he was a regular to the museum and had been for some time. Aside from taking walks around the upper floors, the old man also liked to tell jokes. He would often come over to the information desk and whisper “Have you heard the one about…” to whoever was stationed there that day. The punchlines were terrible, but we would laugh anyway out of courtesy and also because it was a brief spell of cheeriness amongst the drone of weary visitors.From then on, I paid close attention to his habits and saw how he would pause on occasion to pat a handrail or a stone column, like it was a trusted friend. At other times he would suddenly become fixated by an exhibit and beam at it with a knowing smile. This often had the profound effect of drawing other visitors to the object at which point the old man would slip through the bustle and continue on his steady meander.Most of all, he enjoyed looking at the Didier-Pouget that fills the wall outside the wildlife gallery. Nothing seemed to please him more than taking in the sunlit tufts of heather and the sprawling hillside as if it were a view he knew too well or perhaps longed to see in person.The first week he stopped visiting the museum, things began to deteriorate. Chunks of marble began breaking off the staircase in the front hall as visitors passed up and down. Surveyors were brought in to assess the problem, but they were unable to determine a cause and management had no choice but to close them off, indefinitely.The old man appeared a few days later, using the back stairs instead to reach the galleries. Although he still made his rounds, word quickly spread that he didn’t display his usual level of affection towards the exhibits or the building.The following week, the preventative conservator became convinced that there were new cracks appearing in the Assyrian reliefs. At first, no one believed her until she began taking pictures that illustrated the encroaching damage. The curators were bewildered, but those of us who worked on the galleries knew what was happening. You could feel it in the walls and the great oak doorways – everywhere was withering in his absence.The last time I saw the old man, his face was deathly pale. He still wore his broad-brimmed hat, but he’d swapped the tweed for a grey woollen suit jacket. He didn’t tell us any jokes. He barely made it up to the balcony.Over time, things returned to normal; mostly. The steps were able to be repaired and the cracks in the reliefs no longer seem to be increasing.How many have noticed the new addition, I couldn’t say. It’s barely acknowledged, except through the briefest of whispers or in the flick of an eye. But if you care to look, you’ll see that a second figure has appeared amongst the rose-tinted hillside where once there stood a lone female. There’s not much detail to make out apart from a broad-brimmed hat that’s being held aloft as if the person is embracing the scene.No doubt there’ll be others who’ll become a fixture amongst the museum and its collections. It’s what they deserve after contributing so much to the masonry and the treasures within. You might even call it a public service. For those yet to discover their own cherished item, I wish them long and healthy lives.
The car inched forward as rush hour traffic crawled across the junction. A faint rhythm sailed over from the barbershop and Damien picked it up, tapping on the door while he surveyed the street.
“So what about Keisha, man? What’s going on?” asked Jerome.
Damien leaned back in the seat and put on a grin. “Nothing.”
“Nothing? What do you mean? I seen you.”
“It’s nothing, trust me.”
“Look at you. You’re a player, man!”
Damien watched an old lady pick through the veg outside the mini-market while he tried to find the words. But now Jerome was turning on the stereo. Bass shook the car and the line that Damien had been telling himself, reverberated around his head.
Their chanting beat against the morning stillness as Ahmed rolled the tyre along with a steady brush of his hand.
The youngsters grinned like it was a new game, but the others knew better. This was their duty.
Tarek looked back at the pillars of black smoke rising above the buildings. He was used to seeing the streets burn, but this was different. Today, they were the ones making the fires.
At a crossroads, Ahmed lay the tyre on the ground. The other children stood back while Tarek tipped the bottle of kerosene over it. When it was lit, another plume erupted, turning the air a dirty brown.
The children looked at each other, their stained faces fierce and proud while men and women cheered them on. Victory is ours, they cried. We’ve won back the sky.