The final leaf of autumn had fallen and Sami was free to leave the asylum. Conditions of release were as follows: rest and medicate. Work was discouraged. The stipulations applied for a minimum of three years. According to a psychiatrist, a healthy and productive life would be impossible without medication. ‘It was summer,’ thought Sami. ‘It was hot.’ He dropped the pills into a bin. Making his way down the street, he reflected on the advice — ‘There’s no rest for the wicked!’ He stopped outside the job centre and rolled a cigarette. Truth be told, Sami was far from a wicked individual. To the dismay of medical professionals, his mood could not be predicted, nor his behaviour brought under control, whatever the cocktail of drugs they administered. The man was not a textbook case. Following weeks of observation and analysis, doctors concluded that he was not a threat to himself or others. He was neither suicidal nor a menace to society. ‘If only someone had read one of my stories,’ he said with a sigh, crunching the cigarette end underfoot among fallen leaves.
A peculiar scent hovered over the waiting room, sterile yet human. Fans hummed and keyboards clicked. A young woman tended to three children. An old man slept in the corner. Sami took a seat and clutched his ticket, number one hundred and eighty. Number one hundred and seventy-seven was called. The young woman was uninterested and the old man snored. Staff flanked the room, though no meetings were taking place. A telephone rang and the call was transferred to another department. Sami took a drink from a water cooler and read a sign on the wall — ‘Please wait for a job seeking professional to call you.’ He had always wondered what happens in these places. Number one hundred and eighty was called. ‘Good morning. I’m Margaret, your job seeking professional. How can I be of assistance?’ He declared himself available to begin working at once. The job did not matter. ‘I’m open-minded,’ he said. Margaret yawned. ‘Let me bring up your file.’ She turned to a computer screen and took a sip of tea. ‘I can see this is your first time at the job centre. I can also see you have received medical advice to refrain from work.’ Sami outlined his travails and Margaret was sympathetic. ‘That is all well and good,’ she said. ‘But we only offer advice here, not jobs.’ ‘What else does it say on my file?’ She clicked and scrolled. ‘It says you may be entitled to financial benefits due to your medical condition.’ Sami groaned. ‘Christmas is coming, dear. We all need a little rest from time to time.’ Spurred into action, he rushed home. His wardrobe was barren. In summer, he had worn out lots of clothes and given away most of the rest. All that remained was a charcoal-grey suit and a white shirt with grass stains. A pair of plimsolls caught his attention. ‘Not sure how these got here, flimsy but unused.’ He got dressed in a flash. Then he packed a holdall with socks and underwear. There was still plenty of room so he filled it out with items that could prove useful on the journey ahead: a notebook, a pencil, a box of matches and his passport.
Sitting at the station, Sami awaited a train that would take him to the continent. ‘Blacklisted,’ he mused. A grin grew over his gaunt face and adrenaline coursed. ‘If I am of no use here, I will travel east till I find my calling.’ His mind wandered to grand boulevards, statues of unknown heroes, the horrors of war and humankind’s capacity to rebuild. Our protagonist was not short on confidence. Especially if we consider that he spent his final penny on a train ticket. It was the attitude that had landed him in the asylum. He dwelled on the events that resulted in his loss of freedom that summer. ‘I was too open before — too trusting. More guarded this time — more pragmatic. Mistakes are fine, just don’t make the same ones twice.’ There was no doubting his spirit, which had survived the ordeal intact. Sami was not a proud person but he believed in himself. To be clear, he did not believe he was capable of doing anything, or even very much at all. Rather, he believed his spirit to be good and strong. Moreover, it was his and his alone. It was responsible for anything of value he experienced. To subdue it was not an option. If society could not accept this, he would try another society. It was with this conviction that he boarded a train to the continent.
Sometime between late afternoon and early evening, the cloudy period neglected by a city slinking into winter, he awoke to the scent of baked goods. ‘I was going to wake you,’ came the voice of an elegantly dressed stranger in the next seat. ‘But I did not need to,’ she said with a shrug. Before he could thank her, the lady had closed her coat, navy-blue, and darted along the aisle, vanishing into the night. Stumbling into the light, Sami was dazzled. Café heaters, cinema signs, candlelit bedrooms and even humble street lamps acknowledged one another and mingled until they grew bored and turned their attention elsewhere, lending clarity or providing privacy in cahoots with the night. Sami had a special relationship with this city. He never visited for long and this is perhaps why the streets felt fresh every time. He did not care to analyse the magic for fear it would dissolve. He trusted this city as young children trust their mothers. He felt safe in the moment and relinquished any desire to control it. Strolling at a brisk pace, he recalled summer and its sunlight that renders our light unnecessary. ‘You do not have a coat?’ came a voice from a café. Turning to the terrace, Sami was met by cigarette smoke and a blast of heat. ‘Maybe in the bag?’ He shook his head. A lady in a navy-blue coat smiled. ‘Only underwear in there?’ He nodded. ‘Take a seat. It is cold tonight.’ He hesitated. ‘Oh, do you have somewhere to be?’ The café buzzed with chatter. Its patrons intoxicated themselves a sip at a time from miniature cups and glasses. A waiter with impeccable posture appeared when required and at no other time. The lady in the navy-blue coat became acquainted with Sami and they smoked together. ‘Good evening. Something for you, madame?’ She took a small glass of white wine and insisted he join her. ‘I spent all my money on the ticket,’ he said and she giggled. ‘I do not believe you!’ The terrace bathed in neon orange light, its heat lifting jackets and unbuttoning shirts as though from the sun itself. ‘Why did you come here?’ she asked. ‘Often, when I don’t know what to do, I come here. The last time was in summer. I experienced an artistic breakthrough at home but there was no one to share it with. So, I came here.’ The lady pouted. ‘What did you do?’
Sami told her the story. He had alighted a train to the scent of baked goods. Then he strolled at a leisurely pace. The sun was high in the sky and one could tell the time according to its position. The city rocked with abandon. Locals and visitors celebrated summer as one, basking in its glory. On a bridge, a street performer had intrigued him. A black and white clad mime was performing a routine of expressions and gestures stitched together by subtle movements invisible to the untrained eye. Sami proceeded to mimic the mime with unerring accuracy and a crowd gathered. ‘Ugh! I hate mimes,’ cried the lady. ‘Most people do, but they are highly skilled.’ ‘Are you a mime?’ she asked. ‘No! I am not.’ Two glasses of wine appeared. ‘Please continue.’ It was all happening — families enjoyed picnics, friends played ball and lovers danced. Sami carved a path through the city of moments. He painted with painters and sang with singers. A fountain of energy, he seldom slept and subsisted on little. ‘Were you on drugs?’ asked the lady. ‘I was not.’ Nevertheless, the effect of the artistic breakthrough was considerable. Our protagonist had managed to write a story with fluency, each sentence imbued with truth, after years without success. Such was the sense of satisfaction, he had been overwhelmed by a cascade of emotions. The waterfall, unblocked by relief, crashed over rivers of joy and euphoria and drained into the ocean of love itself. ‘So you are a writer?’ He shrugged. ‘You were running wild,’ she said. ‘It was hot.’ They gazed out at the street and savoured a pause, punctured by a clap of thunder. Rain flowed over awnings. ‘Why did you come here?’ she asked. ‘You must have an aim.’ ‘I’m looking for work.’ The café came to a standstill. Heaters were off. ‘I have a job for you.’
By now it is clear that our protagonist was not destined to find respectable work in this city. It is, for better or worse, the city of moments. Fortunately, he had low expectations. He also had not a cent to his name and his plimsolls were about to be soaked. Having excused himself, he made for the toilet. He washed his hands and face. Then he admired three framed water-colour paintings hanging in a row. Two were images of the city of moments but the third seemed to be an image of another city. He did not recognise it but he could tell that this city had suffered. He returned to the terrace, where the lady waited under a large umbrella. ‘You can stay at my place tonight but I need to stop by the office first.’ The pair walked arm in arm. Engulfed in a downpour, they went left and right and left. Red and green spilled from traffic lights and streaked across cobblestones. Headlights scattered. He marched to the beat of her drum. He rolled a cigarette but he could not smoke it. He could only feel his feet, cold and wet. His legs were starting to fail him. ‘We’ll be there soon,’ she said. The office was on the top floor of an old building. A narrow stairwell housed a rickety lift, which only travelled up halfway. They would need to climb a spiral staircase of steep stone steps to make it to the very top. Sami was fading. He summoned his last ounce of strength to open a window on the landing. He breathed in the cold night air. He took off his plimsolls and socks and wrung them out into the street below. Then he laid out his things, one by one, on top of a radiator. He left the window ajar. On seeing his feet, cut and bruised, the lady shed a tear. ‘Oh no,’ she whispered. In the office, she removed the navy-blue coat to reveal a white uniform. He stared at her but she did nothing. He collapsed in a heap on the floor. A warm blanket was draped over him and he snuggled into it. Kids lose a ball to the river and he dives in to retrieve it. The sun dries him. A waiter gives him a sandwich and recommends an arch under which he can sleep. Sirens prevent him from sleeping. There is no sun at night. There is no heat. There is only the moon in the sky. It is beautiful but one cannot tell the time according to its position.
A woman introduced herself — ‘No pressure, Sami. I am here to help you.’ She asked him questions about appetite and sleep. He said that he ate adequately and slept sufficiently. She wanted to know what he had been up to and he told her about his writing and the fun he was having. A pair of nurses entered. They asked the same questions and he gave the same answers. A doctor performed a similar ritual. Then he carried out a host of tests to determine whether substance abuse was responsible for the patient’s behaviour. A nurse was delighted when the results came back negative. ‘This will go well for you,’ she said. The doctor noted that the patient’s potassium levels were low. ‘Would you be open to receiving medication for the problem?’ ‘Can’t I just have a banana?’ ‘Of course you can.’ He marked a notepad with a quick flick of the wrist. The nurses returned. ‘How are you feeling, Sami?’ said one. ‘You seem a little irritable,’ said the other. ‘I just need a cigarette.’ ‘Of course, you’ve been in here a while. One more question and you can go for a smoke. Is that all right?’ He nodded. ‘Would you be open to psychiatric care?’ He shook his head. One nurse gulped and the other marked a notepad. ‘How about that cigarette?’ Sami was escorted out of the office by the lady in the navy-blue coat. She watched him put on his socks and shoes. They walked down the stairs arm in arm. Then she pressed a button to call the lift. ‘How are you feeling?’ she said. ‘Great. How about you?’ She hesitated. The lift arrived and she stepped inside. The doors closed. ‘Oh no!’ Two at a time, Sami skipped down the steep stone steps. He revelled in the rhythm of his hips giving way. He relished the tired vibrations of the rickety lift and the lady trapped within. Outside, he looked left and right and chose right. Sirens sounded. He sauntered and rolled a cigarette and then he lit it. The front door to the old building swung open. He jogged and smoked and slid over cobbles. A baker asked for fire and received a matchbox and a single matchstick. ‘Thank you. Good day!’ Sirens grew louder. Turning left, he lengthened his strides. He glided along the street barely touching the ground. He flicked the cigarette into a puddle. A tourist asked for directions to the tower. ‘Follow the river — that way.’ Sirens whined and pedestrians winced. Turning right, he shortened his strides. The café was opening. ‘Good day. Something for you, sir?’ ‘A coffee and the toilet, please.’ ‘OK. The toilet is right ahead.’ Sirens reached fever pitch.
Sometime later, police arrived at the café. Two men were accompanied by a nurse and the lady in the navy-blue coat. An officer questioned the waiter and another searched the premises. The waiter was not much help. ‘Every day people come here. They take coffee. Some smoke,’ he said with a shrug. ‘Was anybody behaving unusually this morning?’ The waiter raised his eyebrows. ‘Unusually?’ he said. ‘What would be unusual to you, Mr Officer?’ Meanwhile, an officer had made his way to the toilet. He washed his hands and face. Then he admired two framed water-colour paintings hanging in a row. They were images of the city of moments. To the side, there was a nail. The area around the nail was less faded than the rest of the wall. He dried his hands and exited.
Not every city is so pleasantly lit as the one we have just visited. But light can deceive. The next destination on our itinerary may lack the charm of the city of moments but it has a mystique all of its own. Cafés exist here too, as do cinemas. However, locales cannot be delineated by a gradient of heat or colour, only cool shades of grey permeate. The city echoes with howling winds and chatter is muffled. This narrator is unsure if intoxication occurs on its avenues. In fact, it is unclear whether anyone is harboured within its walls at all. Well, it is not my role to reconcile these facts! I am certain our protagonist will do his utmost to navigate a significant city — the city of divisions.
Sami was in good spirits. Not one to bear a grudge, he shrugged off recent events. ‘They are just doing their jobs,’ he thought. ‘I need one of those.’ First he had to familiarise himself with a new culture. A café appeared open. Large glasses with handles stood empty. Ash trays held cigarette butts. An old television set played a football match and its flickering black and white image captivated him for a short while. He stepped behind the bar and took his fill of water from a tap. Then he performed his ablutions and left. Strolling down a broad boulevard lined by trees, their branches bare, he wondered where everyone could be. ‘Probably at work.’ He walked up to a newspaper stand and glanced at the headlines. The words were longer than those in his own language but bore some resemblance. They made reference to the Olympic Games, though the edition in focus was one long since passed. He crept up to the kiosk and peeked through the window. ‘No one home.’ Sami wandered in search of locals without success. Eventually, he came to the end of the boulevard where he would find a library. Its reception was unguarded. It was not unusual for our protagonist to frequent libraries. He was a curious individual. Although he appreciated the company of others, he was equally happy to commune with people from the past. Walls of books put him at ease. He noticed an anthology by his favourite author and recognised a couple of titles — The City, The Poet — though he could not understand the stories. Restoring the book to the shelf, he was moved by the mountain of knowledge he had yet to obtain and the universe beyond, which would forever remain unknown. He remembered childhood and a treasured atlas. The countries of the world had fascinated him. First he studied their flags. Then he discovered capital cities. How impressive that some were so large! How silly that others were so small! He indulged in these memories and smiled at how distant they felt. ‘Everywhere is essentially the same,’ he thought. ‘Still, I need to learn about this place.’ So he selected a hefty book titled A History of the City of Divisions, and a dictionary from the language section, and off to work he went.
The story was familiar. An agreement was made. It was broken. Violence and destruction ensued. People suffered. The less they had, the more they lost. But everybody lost. Then it was time to rebuild. However, there is a twist in the tale of this particular city. While other cities were able to rebuild as one, this one would do so as two. A wall was erected and a city within a city came to be. Divided, the city rebuilt and marched towards an uncertain future, its past preserved and its trauma crystallised. Sami translated the book one word at a time until he could resist sleep no longer. He rested his head on its pages. The scent of worn paper soothed him. His childhood atlas is well used. Next to it are children’s encyclopaedias. One is about dinosaurs. Another is about the solar system. A storybook tells of a boy who travels from one planet to the next. Sami sits cross-legged on his bed. He hugs a teddy bear. They met on the day he was born. The teddy is threadbare. There is noise beyond the wall. Someone is struggling. Footsteps approach.
Sami woke up with a hand on his shoulder. A man in a black uniform escorted him out of the library and into a vehicle. They cruised through the city. Sami peered out of a window and glimpsed a pigeon. The wall came into view. ‘Where is everyone?’ he asked. The man glared at his mirror. ‘Such a lifeless city, why?’ The man’s eyes quivered. ‘I’m just curious.’ The vehicle stopped. ‘Do you know who you’re talking to?’ Sami stared blankly. The man began to sweat. ‘I demand respect!’ he shouted. ‘I don’t mean any disrespect, I just have some questions.’ ‘I ask the questions!’ The man seethed and hail stones crashed against the vehicle. Before long, they arrived at a concrete structure. A guard frisked Sami. Then he was led through a series of doors, which opened inwards. Black uniforms shadowed one another. In a small room at the end of a corridor, a woman in a white uniform was waiting. She sat at a table decorated by a cactus plant. It was established that Sami had committed three transgressions. ‘When I arrived, there was no one around. I stepped inside a café hoping to find someone,’ he explained. ‘I drank from the tap and washed my hands.’ ‘Did anyone let you?’ He shook his head. Then he told her about the news stand — ‘I only glanced at the headlines.’ ‘Were you given permission?’ Again, he shook his head. Finally, he recounted the story of the library — ‘I just wanted to learn.’ He protested in vain. ‘Was access granted?’ The man took a seat next to the woman. ‘We want to help you,’ he said. ‘But you must follow the rules.’ ‘What are they?’ The man grew angry. ‘First, no questions!’ he yelled. ‘Second, do not speak unless spoken to. Third, complete and utter silence at all other times.’ He shook violently and his eyes bulged from his face. The woman suggested that it would be best not to touch anything in the building unless absolutely necessary. ‘Why not?’ ‘Remember the first rule,’ she whispered. Sami was shown to a room. A window opened an inch inwards and a single bed had been made up with fresh sheets. He had neighbours on both sides. There was a dining hall with round tables and meals would be served three times a day. The building had an inner courtyard adorned by rose bushes and a patch of turf was in use as a football pitch. ‘If only it were possible to play in silence,’ he thought. Dinner time came and he met a neighbour. He had not taken any food and sat with his eyes closed. When he opened them he greeted Sami with a nod. ‘Mo,’ he mouthed. The man was youthful and blessed with a warm smile. Sami consumed a portion of meat and potatoes and then dessert. He took seconds. Mo sat opposite. He had a bottle of milk that he did not drink from. He spent dinner time reading a small green book. The men used expressions and gestures to agree to meet at nightfall.
Lying on his bed, Sami gazed at a starry sky. ‘Where am I? Why am I here? What is wrong with questions?’ The reverie was interrupted by a knock at the wall. He checked the corridor. The door to his right was ajar. He tiptoed in. Mo was kneeling on a patterned rug. Things were strewn: clothes, tobacco and a football. ‘You play?’ asked Sami. Mo shook his head. ‘My friend gave it to me. It is good to share.’ A generous soul, he provided his neighbour with a supply of tobacco, papers and filters. ‘We can’t smoke here, can we?’ ‘No, but you can walk outside if you obey the rules.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes. It’s nice here.’ ‘Wouldn’t it be nicer if we could ask questions?’ ‘No. It’s peaceful this way.’ The men would get to know each other. Sami learned of Mo’s faith and took to reading the green book as there were no others in the building. ‘My book is banned too,’ confessed Mo. One night, he gifted his friend a rainbow-coloured scarf. ‘Winter is coming,’ he said. The smoking rule soon materialised. For a week of good behaviour, Sami received permission to walk in the community after lunch under the supervision of a guard. He discovered that people existed in the city after all. Each walk revealed a different neighbourhood. One was occupied entirely by men. Another contained only women. There were separate areas for children and the elderly. When Sami returned he would ask Mo about what he had seen. But Mo was no use. He simply said ‘praise be.’ ‘Don’t you want to leave this place some day?’ Sami would ask. ‘I will,’ Mo would say. ‘When it is decided.’
One evening, Mo was not at dinner. Someone else sat in his place. ‘Joe,’ he mouthed. Joe played with his food and sized up Sami. Then he invited him to his room. Night fell and Sami awaited a knock at the wall. He lay on his bed and stared at the stars. ‘I wish I could leave, but where would I go? What about the wall?’ The knock came. He checked the corridor and the coast was clear. He tiptoed into the room to his left. Joe sat on a plastic chair. He wore a raincoat and a cap. ‘What’s your story?’ he asked. So Sami told him everything. ‘I wanted to write but I was blocked. One day, it happened — I could do it! I rode the crest of a wave.’ Joe smiled. ‘I bet they thought you were mad.’ Sami shrugged. ‘That was in summertime. I’ve moved on since then. I’m looking for work.’ Yes, he told him everything — about the café, the news stand and the library. He told him of the man in black and the woman in white. ‘They don’t let you speak. How can you understand something if you can’t question it?’ Joe stood up and removed his cap. ‘You can,’ he said. Over the coming weeks, he spoke about the men in black and the women in white. ‘They curtail our freedom,’ he would say. ‘I used to work as a builder. I put up the wall,’ he confessed. ‘The one that surrounds the city?’ ‘Yes. I didn’t know better. Nowadays, I raise awareness about the group that commissioned it. One legal battle ends and another begins.’ ‘Don’t you miss freedom?’ Sami would ask. ‘No,’ Joe would say. ‘But I understand why you do.’ Indeed, he had heard his story before. It was the story of an artist. In time, Sami would summon the courage to ask about the wall and he learned that it obstructs no one. One night, Joe gifted his friend a pair of heavy black boots. ‘Next time you go for a smoke, just walk away,’ he said. ‘Good luck.’ The following day, Sami walked to the station and boarded a train to the east.
Taking a seat by the window, he rested his weary legs. They were not used to carrying such heavy boots. He took off the rainbow scarf and held it in his lap. A whistle shrieked and steel wheels screeched. The locomotive pulled and the passengers rocked forward. Everyone dressed in white shirts and charcoal-grey suits. Huffing and puffing, the train rolled out of the station. Pistons and valves thumped. The engine wheezed and they breezed along the tracks. It was in this way that our protagonist continued across the continent in search of work. He watched fields fly by. Steam streaked clouds. Sleet fell. How he wished he could see something. Alas, even fields faded from view. Wagons rumbled. The temperature rose. Soot clogged the air. The smell of sausages wafted round the carriage. Heads rattled against window panes. Bombs fall. Cities razed to the ground. A man enters. ‘Curly hair?’ he says. Sami checks his head — shaved. His great-grandfather takes a seat across the aisle. He makes sure no one is looking, then he eats a sausage in three bites. He does not notice Sami. He travels in the opposite direction — west. They hurtle past each other. People push wheelbarrows under blue skies. There is a lot of work to do. A small piece of wall stands. People are indifferent to the piece of wall. It survives.
‘Last stop — all passengers alight.’ Sami wrapped up in his scarf and advanced through a station. Signs were written in an unfamiliar script. ‘I must have been asleep a while,’ he thought. Grand chandeliers swayed from marble ceilings. Fur coats jostled for position. Diamonds gleamed. Sami sensed opportunity. However, he had arrived with nothing. With trepidation, he approached a booth signposted Immigration. As he waits in line and ponders his fate, I will tell you about the city in which our protagonist has ended up. It is without hyperbole that I describe the mother of all cities. Her scale cannot be grasped, she lacks a beginning and is missing an end. To call her eternal would barely raise an eyebrow of a local. Unlike others, she does not advertise herself. Her aura beams in every direction rendering neighbouring settlements irrelevant. The phenomenon occurs along a radius so vast that this narrator does not care to measure it. Even when one escapes her sphere of influence, the majestic impression she leaves stays long in the memory. She lives at the junction of space and time.
‘Passport,’ requested an official. He opened the document and turned to a computer screen. ‘We have been expecting you, mister.’ Sami frowned. ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ ‘Work.’ The official scanned the screen. ‘No work for writers here,’ he said. ‘We have availability in the teaching sector.’ ‘Teaching what?’ ‘Your language.’ ‘I’ve never done that before.’ ‘You will be trained.’ And so it was agreed, Sami would join a company that specialises in language teaching. He thanked the official, who stamped his passport and waved him on his way. Outside the station, a man held up a sign marked SAMI. His nose was red with cold. Sami rolled a cigarette and by the time he was through his fingers had frozen. ‘Not cold — mild,’ said the driver. The men trampled their cigarettes into slush. ‘You — home.’ Sami did not question the seamless nature of the operation. ‘I’m due a break,’ he thought. Spectacular sights kept him entertained on the trip. Great golden domes shone like giant baubles. A labyrinth of monastery walls criss-crossed. A red clock tower revealed itself. Squinting to tell the time, Sami could only see snow. It was the first of winter. In the early hours, the car arrived at its destination. Someone was waiting outside an apartment block. His hat was thick with powdery snow. ‘Sasha — welcome!’ He showed Sami inside. They shook off snow by stamping their feet and brushing their shoulders and it melted on contact with the floor. The new recruit would be stationed in a room behind a heavy-duty door. There was a single bed and a window, which opened outwards. Sasha presented a card. ‘For train — always credit.’
Sami slept soundly. The city of his dreams slumbered under a blanket of snow. When morning came he opened the window and stuck his head outside. Floating flakes fell faster and faster and he watched them until he became dizzy. Then he got ready for work. On the way to the station his boots disappeared with every step. An army of men worked to remove snow from walkways, roads and building tops. Still, snow fell. At least the tracks were clear. Trains sped from one underground palace to the next. Each had its own personality. Magical mosaic. Powerful painting. Sophisticated stonework. Passengers absorbed as much heat as they could. ‘Next stop — alight for the big theatre.’ Sami stepped off the train and an escalator carried him upwards. He exited the station and marched through the city to the central office of his new employer. Above its doors, a sign read LANGCO. Langco was a gargantuan corporation. Its headquarters were housed in a monstrous structure, a maze of skyscrapers interconnected by bridges. Sami spent the day traversing this leviathan. At 10am, he was expected at the recruitment department. An office of women named Anastasia received him. ‘We are so happy to have you at Langco,’ said one Anastasia and her co-workers squealed with laughter. A document was presented. ‘Please sign here.’ Sami did as he was told. At 11am, he was due at the finance department for a meeting with Olga. ‘We are all called Olga,’ she said. ‘Please sign here and here.’ At midday, they broke for lunch. Sami took a coffee from a vending machine. That afternoon, he would complete Teaching 101 led by Tatiana and her team. ‘What now?’ he asked. ‘Now you are certified,’ she said. ‘You need to meet the boss. He has the contract.’ An enormous desk stood in the office of the company head. From it rose a tower of paper. A pen appeared. ‘Before you sign,’ came a voice, ‘you must decide whether you are ready for the cold.’ Sami signed the contract. ‘Leave your passport,’ came the voice. He did as he was told.
Our protagonist did not take to the job like a duck to water. First he was assigned a class of children. He tried to teach them the days of the week but they ran amok. So he was tasked with teenagers instead. A lesson on the animal kingdom and they never showed up again. Then he taught adults. It was with them that he discovered his vocation. The subject matter of textbooks receded into the background and students took centre stage. The teacher tailored classes to individuals and their goals became his. He cherished the work. Not once did his mind drift to fiction. He had neither the time nor the energy. ‘All I want to do is teach,’ he would say. ‘It is honest work.’ His ability and work ethic were such that the hierarchy would maintain a constant supply of students. Soon his schedule was full. Work followed sleep and sleep followed work. Sami did not dream and the cold deepened. He marched through the mother of all cities and gave all of himself to Langco. One class was especially intense. She was a formidable student, a mother of three, who worked full-time as a language teacher. Together, they would hone grammar and refine pronunciation. ‘What did you do before you became a teacher?’ she asked. He told her that he had written stories. ‘Once a writer, always a writer,’ she would say. He suggested suitable homework. Then he would drink at a pub and the final train carried him home.
One afternoon, Sami sat in a square on his break. He watched birds circle the spires of a cathedral and they soiled the sacred building. It was not the first time. An old lady exclaimed and crossed herself. Nearby, a statue of a poet was untouched. ‘The birds respect him,’ thought Sami. He made his way to school for the next class but the students did not show up. The teacher arrived on time to every class on his schedule to no avail. At the end of the day, he drank at the pub and caught the final train. A letter waited at home. It summoned him to the central office. Classes had been cancelled and schools were closed until further notice. Pay could no longer be guaranteed. That night Sami dreamed. He is in the city of moments running wild. He is in the city of divisions walking away. He is in the mother of all cities living his dreams. Morning came and he got ready for work. He put on his boots and wrapped up in his scarf. Into the cold, he marched. The train brought him to the big theatre. Then he headed for the central offices of Langco. It was business as usual in administration. Anastasia believed that everything would soon return to normal. ‘We must be patient,’ she said. Olga was also optimistic — ‘There is no need to worry.’ Tatiana agreed — ‘You are a great teacher, stay!’ Sami was not so sure. ‘I would like to speak to the boss,’ he said. The head of Langco was busy. Teachers had filed complaints. Some thought they could be made redundant. Others feared they could be evicted from their living quarters. It was even speculated that the city itself could shut down. ‘What about the contract?’ called one. ‘The boss says it’s invalid!’ cried another. Sami had heard enough. He knocked on the door. ‘Come in,’ came a voice. He approached the desk. ‘I can’t stay without pay.’ ‘Then you must leave,’ came the voice. ‘May I have my passport?’ ‘Yes, you may. But first you must win a duel.’ A pistol appeared. ‘Isn’t that a bit old-fashioned?’ Laughter echoed. Paper fluttered. Our protagonist took the pistol in his hands. He turned and took three paces towards the door. A shadow moved across the wall. A drawer creaked. He spun on his heels and pulled the trigger. Snowy steppes. Crunchy hay. Running wild. Icy lakes. Sauna steam. Swimming free. Grassy hills. Fragrant fir. Flying home.