The Onlooker


(The following story won 1st Place in Ink Inter-University Writing Competition organised by Middlesex University Dubai)

The city had a history.

Every brick, every crack, every cobblestoned road told a story.

And I’d been there to see it all.

I was there when the city burned. I’d watched when it rose from the ashes. I looked on as lives were rebuilt. I saw them come, I saw them go. I saw them weep, I saw them smile. I stood by silently as the winds blew in change.  The ‘old’ paved way for the ‘new’ which then turned ‘old’ and rolled out for the next batch of ‘new’. Oh, the stories that this city had known. And I, had seen it all.

They built the city around me. Back then, no one cared what they were. Saxons, Mayans, Britons – none of these words meant anything. All I know is that they were silly. Silly for setting up a stone statue before houses and effective plumbing. But they did it anyway. And I witnessed the five little settlements growing into a city around me.

The city had a name.

Well it had names. Names that time forgot. Names that rolled in over years with the people. My favourite was Elvebyen. They called it that once. They called me The Secret-keeper then. Now they call me Ugly. But names are irrelevant. It’s the stories that matter.

The city had been invaded.

Plenty of times. First it was the tribe whose cow the chief’s boy had killed. Generations later, it had been the Romans. Somewhere in between the Huns had stormed through. Different people, different times but to me they were all just invaders.

The Romans had been nice to me. They thought me a gift from Juno and revered me. They’d offer up fruits and flowers while confessing their fears and secrets at my feet. They hadn’t been that nice to the girl who walked by every day singing the same hopeful tune on her way to fetch water from the well. They’d dragged her along roughly as she screamed her melodious voice hoarse. I never saw her again. Neither did her sobbing mother.

Invaders came attacked, plundered, razed, sometimes abandoned and sometimes settled. Each era forgot the previous as they rebuilt over and over and concretised and expanded and dug up to re-concretise and expand. Sometimes the era lasted for centuries. Occasionally just a few decades. But it seems all the same now. Change is constant. Ironic, isn’t it? Over time, the city’s past was lost to its people. They forgot. All of them. This was just another inconsequential little place. Nothing special. The knowledge of its yesteryears could’ve rewritten history as they knew it. But people forgot. And nobody asked me.

The city had known love.

They’re always the best, those love stories. Tinged with melodrama and laced with overwhelming emotions while wrapped up in the underwhelming sense of importance to the rest of the world. And in this city, the secrecy, unintentional histrionics and sneaking around somehow always led the lovesick to me.

It got worse in the middle ages. It was the time of the Romantics and I don’t know if life was imitating art or if art drew its muses from life. The city had grown bigger than ever. The buildings grew taller and I no longer marked the centre of the city. I’d lost my sight to the weather by then and my features were beginning to show signs of my age. But I still saw them come. Them and their tales of love. They’d rendezvous beneath the arches of the chapel wall (the more brazen would meet in the open square) before running away together. There was that doctor who used me as lumbar support when wooing the clergyman’s daughter with his fanciful tales. The two found their happy ending. She married a philosopher and he found someone else to woo, fortunately somewhere else. There were a fair number of nuns who crept away from the monastery and their vows, to the arms of young lads in the pavilion that I overlooked. That’s also where Ayla had cried her heart out after having her heart broken.

I could’ve saved her the heartbreak. I could’ve told her that while Jacques, the man from Venice was whispering sweet nothings in her ear, he was also the painter who was courting the noblewoman living two houses away. I could’ve told her that money was more precious to him than her heart and to guard the same from him. I would’ve warned her about the pitfalls of sacrificing everything in the name of love. I could’ve. And I would’ve. But not once did she turn to me for guidance. For what would stone know about the matters of the heart. And so she let herself be swept along in the promise of her knight and happily ever after. And I watched. I watched as she dried her tears and killed herself.

Ayla wasn’t the first to die in the name of love. But she wasn’t the queen of Egypt. So time forgot her. And now, years later, it is I alone who remembers the aspiring dancer and her unborn child’s deaths.

The city had seen death.

Death knew the city like any other. He was here each time the city burned; for every sickling child and old man. He’d been coming around for as long as I remember. And in these visits, grief was his steady companion.

I remember it like it were yesterday. It was war time. The paper boy called out about battles that raged all around the world. That’s what had happened the first time. The war everybody fought in was happening all over again. The Fatherland was invading. Men were dying. And the same boys who’d hang on to my limbs, playing their games of hide and seek were hanging on for their dear lives while they hid in trenches and ditches in foreign lands, seeking the peace that was promised if they just killed the men on the other side. They came back war heroes or dead. Most didn’t come back at all. And when the bombings started, the dead began outnumbering the living in the city. I lost half my face and a hand in those. But the people of the city lost so much more.

It’s funny how some people live their lives having known nothing but war, and others just the peace. They don’t think it’s possible for life to be any other way. But I know. I’ll always know. I’ve seen their lives pass by, watched them suffer and rejoice and find no escape from the vicious circle over time. I was there when they thrived and when they floundered. I know the city’s past. And millennia later I know the things they never tried to remember. I was there when they rebuilt the city, buried their dead, put back together their broken pieces and trudged on with their lives.

I was also there when the mayor decided to have me destroyed.

For none of your knowledge and none of your wisdom matter when you’re stone. Beauty then and ugly now meant that I had no place in the new world they were building. I was a monstrosity that has to go, they said. It’s a unanimous decision, they said. The demolition date is set for tomorrow, they said.

The city has a future.

But I won’t be there to see it.


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