“In the mountains of San Gabriel, overlooking the lowland vines and fruit groves, Mother Nature is most ruggedly, thornily savage.” – John Muir
A failed rock star first made me really think about them. Until then, they’d just been there, a looming wall of jagged green blocking off the skyline to the north. Silent and a little foreboding, preventing the city’s careless sprawl from creeping any further.
You look out over the island from the top of a cypress-scattered hill, surrounded on every side by crystal blue: an expensive diamond moat, cut especially for you. Your dusty feet dangle off the deckchair in the shade of your bell tent, its khaki canvas swaying in the breeze, a twisted rope of healing crystals hanging gracefully in the doorway.
For a few moments, the shop is empty and the street outside falls silent – uncharacteristically so for this hot and hectic, moiling corner of the city. There is no traffic. No parked cars reverberating with the sound of bass from oversized customised speakers.
Empathy: the intangible architecture that supports our deepest connections; the unseen building blocks that help us to understand the needs, perspectives and motives of others; the ticket for a society racked with hate?
‘Soppy’, she said, teasing me about the mother of pearl box filled with baby teeth, the lacy blanket we wrapped her in to bring her home from the hospital, her school reports, her first shoes, her favourite doll – all safe and sound in a trunk in the spare room.
Some years ago, I took a train and somebody jumped in front of it. It was a hot summer morning, a beautiful morning, in the south of England and I was taking a train from London to the coast, rushing through the best kind of countryside: rolling hills and shimmering crops, giant white horses etched in chalk onto hillsides, stone circles rotating through glades of bluebells, gangs of young men growing hot and overexcited, bake offs.
“Are you going to experience Resort Cuba or the Real Cuba?” my friend asked me as I prepared to leave Canada for Havana. “Or the Actual Cuba?” she added, neatly encapsulating the traveller vs tourist debate.
Fallible flew above the wing. Midday direct: JFK to LAX. Leave at noon, fly for six, land round three. To Fallible’s left, two men streamed reality TV as she watched her only fathom-able in-flight entertainment, the sky. Once she too was so spoiled she’d forget. I’m flying, Jack! The wing outside was pigeon grey.
The average 20-year-old checks their phone 90 times a day. But Layla was not average. She posted the video as she waited for the toaster to ping and checked the view-count three times in the two minutes it took her to finish breakfast. The internet replied with silence and that stung a little, as it always did.
The ground is torn up and black with soot and blood. Bodies, male and female, are piled in great heaps. A lone figure stands amongst it all, his aged face flecked with earth. Spools of smoke gather behind him, then unfurl into the wind.