BEFORE AFTER SUNRISE
So I’d been following a runaway train of thought across Europe, trying to see where its twists and turns would lead me, only to get the feeling that I was somehow going backwards, covering ground that had already been covered, as if it was bearing down on me instead of the other way around. I guess it didn’t matter which came first in the end; Europe was only an idea after all.
One morning it took the form of an old man, sharing the sleeper compartment of the 23:59 from the Hauptbahnhof. I didn’t notice him when I first boarded the carriage, tired as all hell and aware in some distant way that we were headed East, meaning the dawn was being hauled even faster towards the horizon. The rattling of the train lulled me into the incoherence of dreams that I would never remember so long as they remained somewhere out there, blown into faint wisps across the darkened stretch of land between Munich and Vienna, the clouded amnesia of airports and continental drift.
When I woke up he was already performing his ablutions, emerging from the ensuite toilet module in boxers and suspenders. I watched him move about the compressed space, muttering to himself in German while tucking his flabby waist away into his clothes, as I slowly regathered the pieces of my journey and squinted hard at them. My phone sounded but there were no new messages, only news headlines, and I lay there in the wake of this bad joke. The train had already moved on.
Then the old man spoke up from his bed opposite.
“You don’t mind if I open the window do you?”
I shook my head and tried to figure out what had just happened. It took me a while to realise that he’d addressed me in English, in a perfectly funny accent that could almost have been from almost anywhere.
We cruised past town stations and mottled expanses of farmland, visible through the faintly misted glass, and he donned a black suit jacket and told me that he was a professional movie extra. He said that he had been doing it all his life. I might even have seen him in something. But work was slow these days, and he had been forced to take on other jobs to compensate.
“Funerals in fact,” he said. "In fact I am off to one right now. Mourner number forty nine, at your service.”
He took a hip-flask out of his jacket and started taking sips, small ones at first, and then a few that let me smell the whiskey and the metal and the heat of his breath.
“I rather figured my character would turn up rather drunk and distraught,” he went on, refilling the flask from a bottle in his suitcase and then tracing his finger along the window, drawing something in the mist. Part of his shirt had already become untucked.
“It’s a funny thing though,” he repeated. “A funny thing.”
He said that he actually knew the man who had died. They were once young men studying at the same acting academy. Their lives had quickly gone in different directions after graduation, but he always remembered working together as soldiers in the background of some war epic, taking on the same kind of camaraderie that men at arms would have shared. He credited this guy as someone who had imparted a great deal of the passion for acting that would carry him through all the years working in small roles, someone who himself had gone on to become a successful performer of the stage and screen.
“So why,” he began to slur, “if he made it in this life, does he need to hire people to fill seats at his fucking funeral.”
By the time he got to ‘fucking funeral’ the German pronunciation had spilled back out, and I had stopped caring about who he was meant to be. He hiccuped and got silent, as the landscape raced by and the outskirts of some greater body began to take shape. The train-tracks clattered and hissed with peals of metal, and I saw that he had outlined the shape of a rifle on the glass.
The city seemed to arrive in a hail of gunfire.
A week later I was walking past the edge of the Prater, as the horizon faded into glowing coals and the fairground stalls closed up for the night, heading towards the Old Town in search of a bar I had stumbled upon a few evenings before. I seemed to remember having set off from this direction at around this hour, and was planning on retracing the ebb of light through the anonymous alleyways in order to find it again. I tried extending this programme to the people that walked past me, struck by vague impressions that failed to resolve into any kind of recognition. All these German conversations were as alike as footsteps, tapping out their cobbled meanings, when all of a sudden a pair of voices broke through the dusk.
“But she just confessed to me that she spent her whole life dreaming about another man she was always in love with. She just—”.
It was a young woman’s voice, severed by the crowd until it picked up a few moments later.
“In the same time, I love the idea that she had all those emotions and feelings I never thought she would have had.”
“I guarantee you, it was better that way,” a man replied. “If she ever got to know him, I’m sure he would have disappointed her eventually.”
At this point I started noticing something about the words they were saying. It was like they were coming from somewhere very far away. They strolled past me, a young couple like any other, moving ahead and almost out of earshot.
“People have these romantic projections they put on everything, you know, that’s not based on any kind of reality,” the guy was saying, before they both disappeared off into the sunset.
I spent the rest of the evening trying to rediscover the bar with no luck. The city, dark blue beneath the streetlamps, was keeping its secrets, silent except for the sound of a piano playing from one of the apartments up above. I returned to my room, which was slightly below ground and decorated with several paintings of what looked like the same section of the Danube at different times of day.
I lay on the bed and flicked through channels on the TV, skimming past several news bulletins silhouetted against the Vienna skyline, when all of a sudden I sat up in disbelief and watched the broadcast play without taking in a single word. My realisation was so implausible that it seemed to cancel itself out immediately, leaving me in that strange, unscripted place between logic and reality without much clue about what I was meant to do.
It was from Before Sunrise, earlier that evening by the Prater. The 1990s movie about two young people who meet on the train and spend the whole night walking around Vienna. I had heard that couple speaking the exact lines from the scene that was set there, the part just after they kiss for the first time in the ferris wheel. It was such an obscure connection, from a film that was almost entirely conversation and contained no obviously quotable lines, that I was mostly confused by the fact that I’d recognised it in the first place. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved that movie. I’d seen it three or four times and it had always made a big impression on me. But before tonight I hadn’t even connected it with my arrival in Vienna. And now it was walking the streets like a bad celebrity impersonator.
Jesus Christ, I thought, yawning.
I fell asleep watching a spy flick from the 50s, something with a plot based in one of the wars. Darkness fell over the city, returning it to itself, disturbed only by the reports of explosions somewhere in the distant outskirts. I slept long and hard and when I woke up I was like a new person.
Later that day I was in line at the bank, when I saw the girl I’d just swiped right on. She was standing at the front of the queue, swaying to some silent melody, and I recalled from her profile that she was a fan of Latin pop and MDMA. Both tellers had been occupied for the past five minutes, and everyone waiting was on their phone. She looked just like she did in her pictures. Soon enough I heard a chime from across the room, the notification that the app made when a match was confirmed, and then the same note pulsating on my device. She looked up and we made eye contact for a second before one of the tellers pressed a button to call the next customer.
I had convinced myself that she would be waiting for me outside once I left, but there was no one there except for a bored-looking businessman standing next to an empty phone-booth. The advert on the booth’s exterior proudly declared Vienna to be one of the top-ranked cities in the world for living. I let this guide my imagination for a few blocks, picturing what it would be like to remain here, filling in the gaps that each unexplored street opened up with a vivid fantasy of working new jobs, listening to new music genres, learning to like new drugs.
After a few hours she sent me a message, asking me if I wanted to meet for drinks at a café she knew. I got there early and had a grenadine while swiping through the rest of the singles in my area. There was no one around me this time, except for a few men sipping beers and an old lady reading a newspaper through a large, blue-rimmed magnifying glass. The café was outside, in a small square that was pleasantly removed from any real roads, surrounded only by alleyways and shuttered windows. The light was fading fast, and by the time she arrived it had retreated into the soft yellow glow of the café interior, and I had completely forgotten her name. Thinking back to the dating app, all I could come up with this:
Anyway, we drank and smoked and talked about her job as a writer for a website called City of Dreams. She wrote about modern life, that old scene, describing its trajectory in the air with the low-flying motions of her cigarette.
“You could say that Freud invented night life,” she was saying, “what more perfect a term could there be for the unconscious?”
She blew smoke in the shape of a thought bubble.
“Of course he was living in the era where reality could still be distinguished from everything else. He lived here in Vienna, did you know that?”
“No," I replied, gesturing to the waiter for another drink.
“Exactly,” she said, “who cares.”
She went on for a while about the father of modern psychology’s blow habit.
“I think the self-medicating doctor is an important archetype for cultural criticism, you know? The cokehead analyst might have since fallen out of fashion, but I see it as a precursor to the gonzo journalist or the method actor. Someone who’s aim is to uncensor the self, become the thing they are describing, take society’s pulse while tricking the lie detector, all without losing their mind…”
I nodded my head slowly as my drink arrived. She continued to speak while typing something else on her phone.
“But that was all pre-1995. I have a theory about social media and this kind of a thing, you know, the tension between documenting life and living it. I wrote an article about it last week.”
She trailed off. We stopped talking for a while after that. I found her website on my phone, skimmed some items about famous underground clubs and the latest ecstasy strains blowing in from Amsterdam. And then I took the bait.
“Why 1995?” I asked.
She smiled and withdrew a notebook from her bag.
“When Fantasy took over,” she said.
“The Mariah Carey song?”
As she spoke I noticed two priests walking by in their dour robes, past a fountain that I hadn’t paid any attention to earlier, but now couldn’t help recognising.
The café had filled with couples. The light was purple and burlesque. Already I could see what was happening, the scales of plausibility were being tipped in another inexplicable direction and I felt the vibration of the train somewhere in the night. Because it was Before Sunrise again. We were in the same café from the movie, where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy end up after their walk along the Prater. I felt a kind of lame dread mixed with elation as I considered the coincidence and stared at my date as she slowly withdrew a cigarette from a red packet bearing warning labels and the image of a tracheotomy.
I woke up the next morning in a white bedroom. My phone screen blurred with the time. It was 5:05. I lay where I was, gradually following the cracks in the wallpaper up towards the ceiling, where a skylight bloomed like a portal into someone else’s memory of waking up in this bed. For a moment I pictured that person laying there where I was, who they were, what their first impressions of this room at dawn might have been. I could sense a mirror somewhere near the door to my right. A desk with a typewriter stood opposite the bed, in a small nook.
As my surroundings started to take shape, so did a dull fog in my head. Blurry images began adhering to my vision, only to disappear in the brightness as soon as I tried to see them in full. There was a grey film inside my mouth. I closed my eyes and went back into the sheets.
I could remember sitting outside that café, going through the motions, ordering more drinks. Eventually something between us became explicit and we left to go to her place. As always, I felt like I was missing something, that there were gaps in my story, details that had been stolen from me by the streetlamps. Only this time, as I thought back to the evening, the empty spaces were all there almost from the beginning. Our conversation was riddled with silences, as we each took turns trying to think of something to say, waiting for the chemicals to kick in.
She kept looking down at her lap where she had her notebook, probably jotting down ideas for articles about subcultures or dating apps or something, while I was distracted by the conversations from the other tables, wondering if I’d hear something from Before Sunrise. The moment I realised we were in the café from the film, that’s when it had all turned inside out, stranded in between empty quotation marks. I couldn’t tear myself away from the hallucinatory feeling that everyone around us, even in French or German, was having some kind of real, authentic conversation that I could only imagine the contents of.
Eventually the spaces all coalesced into one long tunnel, and it was somebody else that was lead through the dimly lit halls of the city into this snow-white room.
After a while I slid out from under the covers and got dressed. Before leaving I took a closer look at the typewriter, which had no papers in its sheath and seemed completely ornamental. Next to it was the notebook she had been writing in last night. I opened it up, only to see that it wasn’t a notebook at all. It was a diary— filled to the brim with dated entries that were all in German and totally illegible to me. But in the neat paragraphs, occasionally lapsing into scrawled lists and notes, I felt like I could make out the outlines of her life in this city. There were crossed-out words everywhere, entire sentences that had been redacted by thick strokes of the pen, a whole alternative text interspersed between the finalised entries. At the same time most of these words were still legible, as if she had left them as clues to how she really felt. But clues for who? Herself? As I flicked through the airbrushed pages, I saw one name that kept repeating, often appearing right at the beginning of her entires. It was Sigmund. Maybe this was her therapist, I thought. Or her father. Later on I would figure that it was somebody she secretly loved and was somehow writing this diary for, that he was the intended audience even if it was never actually meant to be read by him.
I skimmed through the diary some more until my suspicions started reflecting badly against me, even though I couldn’t translate any of her writing, and so I turned to the latest entry to look for any clues to what else had happened last night. As it turned out, it might as well have been written in German. The page was blank. I rubbed my nose and headed for the door.
I walked to a tram stop, keeping my eyes to the ground. I felt sick of the city, and I wanted to go indoors until the pale daylight had gone back to wherever it had come from. I boarded the next tram and took a seat, staring at the directions on my phone. The people around me were ghosts, outlines, even less real than the streets going past outside. I didn’t look at them, but from the objects that they held by their legs I couldn’t help filling in the details of their past lives.
A briefcase belonged to a man who worked in drab, soviet-style offices, censoring state secrets. It held important papers, or a ticking bomb. A walking stick propped up a wounded soldier. I pictured him all young and faded, like in an old photograph. Next there was a pair of high heels, adorning the legs of a cocktail waitress who carried drugs between the tables of some war-torn square, who smuggled love letters from opposing sides of the occupied city, who still pined for someone that she met for only a single day many years ago in enemy territory—
I bent over to make it all stop. My headache was an aperture somewhere inside my skull, letting in the brightness. These uninvited fantasies were only making it worse. I clutched my temples and looked down at my phone. The contacts app was still open from last night. A new number had been added, saved under the name Vienna. I scrolled through the rest of my contacts with the idea of deleting all the unnecessary numbers, taking comfort in the knowledge that I probably wouldn’t bother. The world was on silent mode, voices were pounding against the glass.
“Well this is my thought. Fifty thousand years ago there were not even a million people on the planet. Ten thousand years ago there’s like 2 million people on the planet. Now there’s between five and six billion people on the planet right?”
The girl had been talking before him, and now he was saying something about the fragmentation of the human soul. I didn’t bother turning back to look at them. I knew where the dialogue was from, but it had caught me at the worst possible time. I wasn’t interested in strange coincidences, old movies replaying across the white noise of the city. I just wanted to get back to my room. At the same time I knew that later, tomorrow maybe, I would want to have had paid attention to their behaviour, so I forced myself to keep listening until they left the tram a few moments later. I didn’t recognise them. They were two people I’d never seen before in my life. I loaded up the map on my phone to see how many more stops I had left. The tram blustered onwards, until it braked suddenly and the man holding the briefcase dropped it to the floor with a sickening thump.
I found myself unable to fall asleep that night. I tossed and turned. Somewhere, something was happening in this city, but I couldn’t tell where I was in relation to any of it. If there was a reason to keep staying here, I knew it had yet to reveal itself. I tried to remember where I was only weeks ago, but it was as if the bed was attached to a set of invisible tracks, carrying me forwards in the gloom, getting me closer to whatever it was that I was looking for, or sliding me further away. Only one thing was clear, but it was something that could not be spoken or else it would all be lost, like a dream on daylight’s border. I waited for sleep with my eyes open, eventually drowsing into un-wakefulness, anti-consciousness.
At some point in the night, I saw my phone light up on the bedside table. I stared at it without blinking. There was a number displayed across the screen.
I held it to my ear and waited. There was a hush of static on the line. A breath crackling into life.
“Hello,” whispered a female voice from the darkness.
A few days later I was on my way back from the Stadtpark, when I stopped in an alleyway and took out a cigarette. I was watching someone, as they slid along the wall and searched their pockets for something. He looked about my age, with dark blonde hair and wrecked leather shoes that needed a good polish. His shirt was untucked and he was pressed up against the concrete with a cold, veiny intensity. I turned away from him and took a few steps towards the main street before turning back again. He hadn’t moved. I thought I recognised withdrawal symptoms, the scrawled outline of a body up against the streets. Anyway he looked like a junkie of some kind. But what did I know. Up until now I had thought he had been following me. I held my lighter to my lips and went on.
Back on the street, I caught the final rays of sunlight as they chose the form of a small clocktower to fade out against. I smoked and walked and felt alive and vivid. I had started waking up much later in the day in order to begin my investigations at the proper time. Most of the film took place after the sun had set, and although I hadn’t seen it in a while, I had begun to map out the scene locations based on what I could remember of it. The whole movie was just the two of them, Ethan and Julie, walking around and encountering things while talking about love and life. It was this absence of plot that gave the whole thing the air of unpredictability that drew me to it, feeding the narrow compulsion I now had with tracking it all down.
There was definitely a scene set in a bar. There was a record store too, as well as a scene with a poet. I wasn’t sure where to start, and beyond the gathering darkness of the night there was no way of tracing the outlines of whatever this thing was. I figured that the café was probably my best shot at getting another glimpse, so I began heading there each evening, waiting for some kind of clue. I would sit there with a drink, watching my surroundings out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t have a newspaper or a magnifying glass, so instead I would look at my phone and take mental screen-shots of the other tables.
The clientele seemed to age backwards each night. To begin with the café would be full of groups of old men with signet rings and e-cigarettes, or trios of women in headscarves taking selfies on their iPhones. Then, as it got dark, the young people would take their seats, producing rolling paper and tobacco from their pockets and ordering bottles of red wine. They had short-sleeves and their faces blushed brightly in the gloom.
I watched for young couples with etherial expressions to appear, waiting for them to say something I had heard before. I would sit there until closing, drinking little and smoking more than I ever had in my life. Blond-Sauvages. I had bought many cartons of them back in France. They kept me awake and kept the blur away. After only a few nights like this, I could feel my concentration steadily growing. A lack of food or sleep only made the process easier. It felt like I was in exactly the right place and my body seemed to be changing within the intensity of this sensation. As I gazed at the windswept clumps of ash from my cigarette, scurrying around in the ashtray like ants, I thought about religion and solitude and purity. Sometimes I entertained the thought of calling Vienna but I was usually able to distract myself with my phone and my near-constant vigilance. Picturing myself from a distance, I felt monastic and unapproachable.
People would come up and talk to me anyway. I wasn’t sure how to deal with this. The distraction was unwelcome, but there was always a chance that they knew something I didn’t.
A lady with a botox-stretched smile showed me photos on her phone, seemingly in order to tell me something to tell me about her communist cat.
“Mao. Mao. Maaaao.”
A middle-aged man with a buzzcut reminisced bitterly about being my age, when he spent a summer waiting for something bad to happen. He was understudying for Romeo in the student theatre production of his final year at theatre school.
“She was so beautiful. I spent two or three months hoping that the lead would fall ill. But he was sprightly. Or perhaps a car crash.”
Another man wore a tweed jacket and Louis Vuitton trainers. He sidled over after a long while spent staring at me from across the café. Up close I could see laughter wilting behind his thin smile. He ran a finger over his nostrils and spoke in a soft, infant tone.
“Such little things they are. No bigger than an agate stone on the forefinger of an alderman, drawn with a team of little atomi over men’s noses as they lie asleep.”
I blew smoke and asked him what he wanted. He furrowed his brow and he replied, “the night is young, and so are you my friend. But a candle burned at both ends is no use to tinker, tailor, soldier nor spy. Word to the unwise.”
He tapped his nose again and spun around to go back to his table, where he sat quietly by himself and read a book while drinking single vodkas dissolved in tap water. After that I resolved to avoid all further unnecessary interactions. The nights sped by and I didn’t recognise a single soul.
On one of the subsequent evenings I was at my usual table, facing towards the café and the nearest corner of the cobbled square. The shadows had receded into the dusk and I was aware of everything around me. The soft glow at the end of my cigarette fixed the cool air into place. I didn’t need my future told by the woman in the red headdress, who was making her way between the seated customers, offering to read palms. Somehow I already knew that this evening would be the one, that I would see the alignment of the stars. She didn’t even look at me as she went by.
And then it all started to go wrong.
A young couple, a man and a woman, had suddenly materialised at the table furthest away from me. The fortune teller was flowing over to them in her robes. It felt like I was watching a gap open up in the night. The man was grimacing with a smile as the fortune teller took the woman’s hand and spoke words I couldn’t hear. It all was all happening as quickly as the realisation that there had been a fortune teller in the café scene from Before Sunrise.
I was stuck to my seat. The couple was already paying for the reading. They were staring lovingly at each other beneath awkward smiles. And just like that they were getting up to leave. I was furious at this woman for appearing out of nowhere and stubbing out my control over the night. Glaring daggers at her, I quickly found myself caught between rage and curiosity, trying to place her within this turn of events and its implications for the investigation. I desperately wanted to see what she would do next, but there was no time to wait around.
I stood up and glanced back at the man and woman. They were strolling away into the city, holding hands, glancing hesitantly at each other as if they could hardly believe something, turning their faces to mask the surprise. Feigning disbelief in their fortune.
My heart was thudding. I watched their body language, watched them vanish into the night. I didn't even try to follow. A feeling of powerlessness had taken hold of me. The empty space had closed up. All I could do was spin around to try and intercept the fortune teller before she disappeared as well— only to see her winding her way through the tables, headed straight for me.
She approached with an absent-minded smile.
I nodded. She took my hand, and I kept my eyes fixed on her face. I knew who she was, and this gave me a sense of calm despite the urgency that had come and gone so quickly. Her eyes were dark punchbowls, spiked with something I couldn’t make out. As she ran her fingers across my palm and spoke in a sultry voice, I felt the café grow woozy around me.
“You are a sleepwalker, on a magic travel, yes?” she said. “I think you must be a lover of the city. But the street-lamps are not your friend. You must remember that all stars are light that has already happened.”
She nodded and traced one area of my palm with the tip of her fingernail.
“These lines are never touching any more. You must leave them alone. Forget them. Stop chasing them. They are part of you, but you are not part of them. The city is always alone.”
She stopped abruptly. I had almost forgotten the role I was meant to be playing, but it returned to me as I raced to think of my next move.
“Money,” she pouted.
I paid her with the last few euros in my pocket, but as I handed the cash over I grabbed hold of her hand.
“I know about the movie,” I said, trying to communicate my need to her with my eyes. “I know what you’re doing with those people.”
The bell tolled in the clocktower, and she yanked her hand away.
“Who are they?” I cried, but she was already pushing past tables and hurrying away from the square, checking her watch and hoisting her skirts up above her boots. I swept my phone into my pocket and sped out into the night to follow her. The streets rushed from side to side, as my vision clung to the trailing red streamers of her headdress, hurrying after her in between pools of darkness. I clung to my tiptoes, treading over the echoes that might have given me away. After only a minute or two she slowed down in front of a church and paused, before taking a seat on a bench beneath a circlet of white flowers. She crossed her legs and lit a cigarette, while I pressed myself into the wall, feeling my cheek against the old stone as I kept myself out of the light.
The fortune teller remained there for a while, checking her watch and sighing with boredom in between puffs of smoke. I thought back to what she said about giving up my chase. I knew she was just repeating lines, reciting her usual fortune-telling shtick, but I couldn’t help seeing it as some kind of message. I realised in that moment that it wasn’t really her that had disrupted me this evening, but the sight of the couple together in the café. They had looked so quietly ecstatic to be in each other’s presence, walking away beside each other without any self-consciousness or affectation, that something essential about my assumptions up until now seemed to have been disproven. And now I was back where I started, waiting for a sign.
And then I looked up and saw one.
There was a poster in a metal frame affixed to the church stonework, bearing two faces that I hadn’t noticed until now but with names I would recognise anywhere. It was an advert for a production of Romeo and Juliet being staged later this month. The image showed a man and a woman looking at each other rapturously. Something about their gazes seemed remote, and yet it was this detachment that gave the whole thing its otherworldly intensity. They knew that they weren’t staring at another person, but at roles that had been inhabited so many times that they had ceased to become mere characters and become something more, something almost divine, bearing the weight of their every incarnation in each immortal line. His stare was particularly intense, as if he was searching for his own reflection in her irises.
It was all at the tip of my tongue, and then I spoke it to myself, repeating it to make sure I could believe what I felt I now knew.
It was some secret performance of Before Sunrise, taking place in the city without anyone knowing. The actors were indistinguishable from the audience, if there even was one. The extras were the everyday citizens of Vienna itself.
It was thrilling, electric, a kind of blood-bitten realisation that carried with it a call to silence and secrecy. People were carrying the lines of a movie out into the city and releasing them into the air, recapturing the essence of the film itself— a chance, ephemeral encounter playing out against the buried tracks of drifting continents, of fantasy fading into reality, night turning into day.
As I headed back to my apartment, leaving the fortune teller to her cigarette break, I thought to myself that all romance was like that— a repetition of the same lines, the same gestures from films and books; centuries of jaded lovers. But at the same time this was something else. There was a realness to it, a truth, fading into the dusk and ending up indecipherable at dawn. It was like the whole city was a diary, continually crossing itself out but still legible for those that paid attention, an unfolding secret there for anyone to see.
When I got back to my apartment it was late and I was shivering. The night was almost was over but it felt like I had just woken up. I left the lights off, trying to dampen this flickering behind my eyes. I thought about texting her, but I had made such progress with my investigations and I didn’t want to disrupt the tenuous continuity that had carried me through the past week. At the same time, my phone lay in reach. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next.
For a while I just sat there on the edge of my bed, watching the curtains slowly take shape, revealing their worn contours as faint pills of light began to spill through. The walls clung together without the darkness to hold them in place. My mind was pulling on a faint thread, unravelling the final hours of the night until I began to feel my control slipping. I was closer than ever to whatever this was. But something was wrong.
I took out my phone and felt my face light up. It sounded softly. I raised it to my ear, and as the first static breeze whispered out of it, I felt a terrible coldness crawling down my arms and neck.
“Who is this?”
And then the voice started laughing.
I woke up into a febrile darkness. My heart was alive in my chest. I didn’t know what time it was. I didn’t know where I was. I could hardly make out a thing in between the thick folds of night, but every silent vein in my body was screaming that there was someone else inside the room with me. I sat up, tensing my body, trying not to alert them to my presence.
There was a movement; a thick patch of darkness shifting beside me and I froze— my throat filling with black water, my lungs struggling to breathe. The covers slid away from me as this presence took shape, rising into a silhouette that— in the cold light of adrenaline— resembled a man in a trench-coat. I blinked and shook, pushing myself back against the pillows as my eyes gathered flashes of a body moving around the room, rifling through drawers, looking for something in the furniture.
Everything was underwater, my arms had become thick and there was a face breathing white bubbles.
Somehow I had fallen off the mattress into a heap before I could even think to turn on the dangling bedside-light switch. All I could do was keep my eyes open, fixed on the silhouetted space in front of me, as the lamplight flicked on and immediately squeezed all my fears into a cold sweat across my forehead.
There was nobody there. The window was wide open.
I went slowly over to it, trying not to look back at the mess I had made. The breeze was soft against my naked body, and the moon seemed to be waiting for me, glowing with its waxy light. I gazed down at the streets below, picturing a figure running across the city, hiding somewhere in its deserted corridors, watching me from afar. The image remained there as long as I did, trembling and tensed up, stroking my shivering flesh. My heartbeat was still somewhere between my chest and my throat. I wasn’t sure what had happened. Everything was a shot in the dark.
I slid back into the bed as quietly as I could. I found my phone and swiped through some different dating apps for a while; fiddling the specifications, the geographic range. The bedside light slowly burned the edges of the past few months until they were ashes in front of my drooping eyelids. Before I fell back to sleep I remembered the quote that I had heard that first evening by the Prater. Something along the lines of you can live your whole life dreaming about somebody else.
A few hours later I was in the pawn shop, in the queue. The fat layer of glass between the shop owner and the customers was stained with fingerprints. The place smelled like paracetamol dust.
I was thinking about the investigation. It had been a few days since I had witnessed the fortune teller speaking with the latest couple and I hadn’t seen anything since. But I wasn’t bothered by this. I was getting close. And after last night I could no longer tell where the trail ended and I began. It was as if I was at the centre of things now. If there were going to be more developments, I wasn’t going to have to track them down. I just needed to make it through the day and reach the point in the night where they would reveal themselves to me— they being the as-yet unexplained forces behind this orchestration, this hidden re-staging of the city from the film.
As I edged forwards towards the counter, I noticed a brass typewriter for sale on a shelf above the salesman’s head. My mind wandered back into the fantasy of staying here, maybe becoming a real writer, letting Vienna become part of my life. It was just then that I felt a hot, wet sensation in my nostrils. I wiped them with my hand and came away with blood. I blushed with excitement, and then irritation. Every time I got a nosebleed I always felt so sorry for myself. I stuffed a tissue against the bleeding and stepped forwards in the queue, making calculations. The rest of the day was wide open. I had hours to kill. I started to draw a long line through them, a line that lagged and looped before eventually winding up inside a bar that I had uncovered the other night.
It was one of the ones from the movie. I wasn’t sure which exactly, but at this point it didn’t matter. It was a dark, concrete space with stools along one long wall covered in lurid graffiti. A festival of jangling pinball machines at the centre of the room produced a popcorn light that lit up clouds of smoke and beer wherever I looked. The place was packed with bodies.
I sat on one of the stools, listening to an increasingly bitter couple in matching camo-jackets arguing over which actor played the lead in some film I’d never heard of, slurring Stathams and Stallones in two misremembered accounts of what sounded like a terrible Rom-Com and an increasingly tragic first-date. I could practically hear myself yelling at them to shut up. Drowning peals of reverb soaked up the rest of the chatter, resulting in a cacophony of crossed-wires that I could barely keep track of.
“— how long have you been following me —”
“— you’re a hard man to keep track of, ever—”
“— since the second time you deleted your account. Did you—”
“— see the news about the Northern supply lines? It was such—”
“— a graveyard, old faces from the past that I—”
“— can’t believe you fucking said that! That’s my future ex-wife we’re talking—”
“— about time that Europe saw a new power, secretly controlled by our—”
“— matching tattoos of Jean-Claude Junker didn’t turn out—”
“— like a trailer for the main offensive y’know, I can’t wait to see—”
“— a nice girl like you in a place like this. War is a man’s game, see? Our—”
“— product is clean, the others—"
“— split it up into four different parts, each occupied by Britain, France, Russia and America—”
Then the line broke, and I found myself looking through my pockets, staring at a bill. I felt inside my wallet while keeping an eye on my surroundings, searching for an opening. When it came, I stood up and headed towards the bathroom. As I had hoped, there was a window in one of the stalls. I clambered out of it, lowering myself down to the damp pavement. The street was misty and the gutters were running with streams of cold, clear water. I hurried away, past deserted plots of land and up cobbled slopes, back towards the centre of the city, trying to figure out what had happened, searching my pockets for answers, and then leaving it all behind me in the fog. Those stupid jackets.
Soon enough the early commuters were livening up the streets and the sun was beginning its tall tale across the horizon. I felt older than the day was, already somewhere high up above it. From here I could take it all in, walking down the wide avenues with a giddy vertigo, looking down at the specks of people, the cars rolling along like toys. I was restless for the next phase, the next break in the case, so instead of heading back to my room to catch up on my sleep, I decided to follow the blonde man that I had recognised a few blocks back.
It was the same person from the alley two or three weeks ago, except he no longer looked strung-out and bedraggled. From his crisp outfit to his measured stride, the difference was like night and day. I wasn’t sure what he had to do with anything, but by now I knew better than to question these instincts that I’d been honing, so I kept on his tail. His handsome profile turned off into a side-street. I followed suit.
It took a while to get where he was going. The darkening streets grew steadily thinner, trapping cold breezes and brief patches of sunlight, as the mid-morning crowds disappeared behind us. I lit a cigarette, leaving an invisible trail of smoke behind me in case I needed to find my way back. Eventually he arrived at a small office and let himself in without a key.
I had reached a crossroads within myself. I could continue to toe the line of spectatorship, or I could start looking for a way backstage. In the end I compromised, heading towards the door while preparing to give up pursuit at the first sign of resistance. I waited outside for a few moments before flicking my cigarette onto the ground, turning the handle and stepping in.
The antechamber was unlit. While my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I felt my guard lowering. There was no one there waiting for me. I walked across a chequered stone floor into a small lobby, which contained nothing but strewn chairs and an unattended desk. None of the lights were on. At the other end of the room was a closed door next to an open one. I sped up my observations in case he came back this way.
The first thing I noticed was how dusty everything was. It was hard to tell without light, but I could see it across the different surfaces by the dull outlines of where objects used to be. A single vase of plastic flowers remained on the desk, beneath a plaque on the wall that bore the establishment’s name in bold:
BEFORE / AFTER.
The lobby's abandoned air left me cold, until it stirred with the realisation that I could explore deeper into the building. I went over to the closed door. It lead into a short corridor with three more doors, each with a glass port that allowed a darkened view into the room on the other side. The first two were mostly bare. They looked like interrogation chambers more than anything else, containing just two seats and a metal filing cabinet between them, everything coated with a thick layer of dust.
The final door remained. A throbbing light guided my eyes into a dim, spacious room. I saw myself appear within the threshold. A mirror leaned against a shelf lined with typewriters. I stepped inside.
There were people all around me.
I blinked and they froze.
The walls were covered with faces. Headshots. Peeling portraits of men and women, set against white backgrounds. All together they appeared more like landscapes, an undulating field of shifting expressions with distant looks in their eyes. There were hundreds of them. I moved forwards, struck by their uniformity. Inspecting them closer I could see names, dates, some kind of text scrawled along their lower borders. There was a faintly recognisable operation to it all, something almost military. I wondered what the transformation was meant to be. The faces offered no reply.
Before leaving, I went over to the typewriters. They were all broken, it seemed. The cylinders had been removed, exposing a cavity in each of their bodies. Their black, polished surfaces gleamed like new.
My reflection spun towards me in the mirror and then back to the photos once more. Alarm bells were going off in my head, although I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was because some of the faces seemed vaguely familiar, but at this point I was probably connecting random dots scattered by my mounting desire to get out of there as fast as possible. A trick of the light, a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep, or the keening realisation that I had followed someone and no longer knew where they were.
I hurried back to the lobby. The other door was now closed. I fought the urge to turn around and leave. I was trying to remember why I had even come here. A cold fatigue was spreading through my body. I poured adrenaline into my veins and headed through the second door.
I found myself in another long corridor. There was a faint glow up ahead. I pushed through the darkness, trying to outrun my footsteps. A breeze picked up by my side. For a moment I was convinced that it had been a trick, that I was heading for a dead end, but the glow quickly materialised into an office, lit up with a powdery light.
I exhaled with relief, but the antifreeze was still in my bloodstream, pooling in the liquid chambers of my heart. My vision blurred. I was standing next to a desk. Behind it was a pair of drawn curtains. Two small bookshelves. A coat on a hook. The white walls swam around me. Dust, more dust, lay over everything. It felt like a leftover bunker from some long-forgotten era. I noticed a picture of Vienna inside a glass case.
What was that doing there?
The desk next to me was wooden. It was covered in patches of dust. There was space to hide underneath it. My brain was whirring, relaying belated signals from my worn-out senses. Who would want to work in a place like this? Why were the lights still on? Whose footsteps were those, getting steadily closer?
I lunged towards the desk, crouching down into the hollow space beneath it, bringing my knees up to my chin and holding my breath. I could hear my heartbeat crashing like cymbals in my chest.
Someone had entered the room. They moved around, breathing heavily, before a shadow fell over the desk and a pair of black shoes settled onto the floor in from of me. They were scuffed and faded, almost torn in some places, as if they had been dragged across every cobblestone in the city. I held myself there, clenched in silence, waiting to be discovered. The seconds scraped past one another. But nothing happened.
Until I heard the pinched sound of a nose, sniffing at the air.
That’s it— I thought— they’ve found me out.
The noise repeated a few times, even louder. And then he swore. A coat flapped at the sides of his chair, as he pounded the desk and did one more line of whatever it was that he was snorting. My tongue grew thick in my mouth. He was jittery after that, standing up and pacing around, humming a high tune. I stayed stock still, pressing my nose up against the wood, when I heard something.
It was a girl’s voice.
She was the one in the room. My insides squirmed.
Who had I been chasing after?
But then he spoke, and a hiss whispered over the female voice’s reply. It was a phone call, that was all.
They spoke in hushed tones, exchanging scattered details about numbers and meeting places. I heard one of them mention the typewriters, and then mutter something about bodies and extras.
I froze— not that I could become any more still. This was it.
Except all I heard after that was a click and the sound of footsteps disappearing back down the corridor.
It was over.
Once he was gone I didn't waste any time. The window was barely big enough, but I squeezed through it like a maniac. I hit the street and kept running until I had lost count of the blocks that had gone by. The sunset was falling through the cracks of the city. I followed what was left of the day until I found myself stumbling past the same deserted streets and fenced-off yards that I’d gone past that very morning. Somehow I had completed a full circle and found myself headed back towards the bar from last night. I was immensely relieved. Everything within that circle could be set aside for another day.
A picture was forming. Things were starting to make sense. But I was exhausted. Fatigue and hunger clung to my body like sweat. All I wanted was a drink. I was pretty sure I even had a few Blond-Sauvages left. The last few glints of the day’s possibilities were still flecked across the horizon. I smoothened myself and went on.
It was dark by the time I found the bar. I don’t remember how long it took me to notice the bathroom window that I had climbed out of that morning, but I could immediately tell why I hadn’t recognised it sooner.
All that was left of it was a wooden frame, suspended in a brief section of concrete, standing alone like an abstract sculpture. Beyond it lay a flattened section of earth, littered with bricks and solitary arches. It was like a bomb had hit the building, reducing it to rubble, sending it back in time or far ahead into the future.
I wandered into the centre of the wreckage, waiting for it all to make sense, my feet clinking against the slates. A cold wind picked up between the few pillars still standing. For a long while I just stood there, in between images of a world that I no longer recognised. The night had become so quiet, so still, it was as if I had found some hidden vantage on the empty fields of the entire continent. The moonlight spilled over the stones, turning everything a soft black and white; the set of a silent film.
I thought about that quarrelling couple in their jackets, wherever they were now. It seemed to me that people used to get into relationships in the same way that soldiers were conscripted into war. It wasn’t always love. It was survival. These days most of us had choices. We could meet people and watch rom-coms and argue over the specifics.
But what a lonely place peacetime can be. So many actors to keep track of, so many bodies to clamber over, so many ghosts. There wasn’t even the consolation of a romantic death.
My next thought came to me on the heels of something I could only describe as a kind of shuffling, an approaching sense of danger that had something to do with the fact that gunshots didn’t sound like gunshots when you heard them for real. My body was already ducking down to the closest pile of bricks before I could process where it had all come from. I was staring hard at the dust embedded in the coral, the frozen chunks of cement, the unblinking realisation that I had been followed.
A figure, a silhouette, disappeared behind a ruined wall.
I saw myself crouched low to the ground, rushing to the perimeter of what I thought had been one of the bars from the movie known as Before Sunrise. Another explosion went off somewhere, impossibly loud, tearing a hole in my vision— a ragged dark moon up in the night sky. A quick glance backwards revealed the same shape moving towards me. A shifting hat and coat, skulking fast across the wreckage.
I cleared the last few meters of terrain, only to find myself at the top of a crumbling staircase of bricks. Broken walls loomed around me as I hurried down into the dark. A gap in the ruins appeared. I slid down a pile of broken rocks, staring into the black crags at my feet. I found myself moving through an alleyway with no clear exits. I swore, and soon enough I was looking at the silent archways sliding up above me, threading an obscure passageway in between the stonework and the sand, the blood thrumming in my ears.
I emerged into a cobbled square that looked like an empty fairground. At the centre of it was a rectangular booth, some kind of closed stall, covered in torn posters. I stumbled over to it and managed to open its flimsy door. Inside was a spiral staircase, disappearing into the earth. I fumbled for my phone, heaving cold air into my lungs, before pacing down the steps.
For what felt like hours I fled through the sewers of the city. I pictured the direction of the river and chased the beam of my phone-torch beneath the strange light coming in from the street. The walls grew into wide domes, chanting with low, rushing echoes. Every now and then I turned back and searched for a shadow still loping after me. My clothes had become soaked. My mind was split down the middle, caught between the splash of the water and the thick curve of the tunnels. My stomach growled.
Something ahead of me flickered.
I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a faint light coming from the next sewer chamber. I waited another moment and then crept forwards, hoping for an exit. What I saw sent chills running down my spine.
There was a man on the wall.
I froze. A hat and a coat. I felt my mouth curl downwards, the walls thickening all around me. There was no explosion, no icy gun barrel peering at me through the darkness. The sewer had disappeared. I was caught in a tunnel of light, unable to make sense of what I was seeing— there was a hat and a pair of eyes, a girl’s voice laughing, a sly smile that belonged to them both, endless shifting adversaries flickering across my fevered gaze. The hallucination would not let up; it remained suspended in the air like dust. As I passed through it, waiting for these figures to carry me away, I noticed a whirring coming from behind me, a mechanical breeze sweeping me into the mouth of the tunnel.
As soon as I made it to the other side, I could see him clearly.
The face was nothing more than a projection, a black-and-white image beamed onto the bricks. The understanding that he wasn’t real only sharpened his crooked grin. Above him was a raised walkway, where a sign announced the start of the official sewer tour of the chase sequence from the Orson Welles film The Third Man. The apparition laughed silently behind me as I made my way back up towards the streets.
I emerged next to the Danube in ruined clothes, squinting at the dawn, feeling totally awake, or else in the grip of some ghostly dream. I was now sure I had invented the whole thing— the gunshots, the derelict bar, the pictures on the wall. All I had were my clothes to prove me wrong, and so I slid those off after coming across an alley lined with short brick walls and jutting clotheslines, slipping nude into the shadows. Someone had left out a shirt, a pair of trousers and a coat with a hat stuffed in one of the pockets. I wrapped myself up, following the low-battery light of my phone back to my room, squelching in my old shoes. The streets were quiet. Chimney pots looked like crouched figures up above me. I almost expected to see one of them slink away across the rooftops. At some point I realised that I was shivering uncontrollably.
I got back to my door, wondering if I would be able to fall asleep. I didn’t want to wake up to any of this.
When I searched my pockets for the key, I found myself grasping dust, stroking the fabric until it frayed. My hands quivered over the handle. I must have left the key in my old trousers.
There was nothing to do but find a way in through the window. My body moved of its own accord, driven by a dull, unrecognisable energy.
I clambered inside. A shadow fell on the bare floor.
The mattress was no longer there. It was nothing but an outline on the ground. All the furniture had been removed. Even the paintings were gone. There were faint patches on the walls where they had been.
My mind was blank, as I stood there shaking beside the shattered glass. I took my phone out, but there was nothing.
Vienna was completely silent. The night wasn’t over yet.
The night wasn’t over yet.
I don’t remember when the trembling stopped, or when the grip on my phone grew numb. The plot had become a circle, a straight line whose curvature I could only fumble for in the dark. I had been shown a dead end. As far as I could tell, everyone was in on it. I could feel them out there in the darkness, rearranging the set before the city woke up, distracting me with gunshots and cheap special effects before retreating into the gloom. But this could only mean I was getting close enough to grasp it. There was nothing left but to get to the bottom of the night, to scrape the truth from the shadows, right up against the brick.
I wasn’t going to start all over again.
The night wasn’t over yet.
And so I continued the chase.
By now most of the details had become extraneous. I remember eating from plates left in the blind spots of restaurants’ outdoor seating, by people who had only half-finished their meals. I went into bars that I could not remember going into, counting down all those that remained to be investigated. I made my way into dimly-lit rooms where bodies had just been, where all that was left was the pale residue of heat and sensation. I followed every clue until it disappeared over the windowsill. There was a plot to overthrow Europe; a permanent night had fallen across the city.
I don’t know how long it went on like this. The only thing I could say for certain was a truth that could be said to touch us all. For the fact was that I do not remember falling asleep.
It all had something to do Vienna. That was about as far as my theories had taken me. I had started to write them down on scraps of paper, less out of a need to explain them to myself than from some faint conviction that I would eventually need to share my findings were any of this to have been worth it. There was something someone had said about waitresses and soldiers and actors that had been underlined several times. I was starting to understand the double lives that were being lived all around me, the matters of life and death disguised beneath the cobbled streets.
The play was just a façade at this point. The couples merely a distraction. Bodies were being circulated around the city, through bars and offices; secret passageways and empty rooms. Evidence of a Black Market, offering pale imitations, illicit materials, was everywhere. Searching my memory, I continued to uncover clues, brushing the dark patches until the dust fell away.
They were storing it in the typewriters, or perhaps somewhere in themselves. Whoever they were. It could be anyone. Waiters and businessmen, mules and users. Conscripts. Extras. Victims of a war that was still going on beneath the surface of the city. I saw their shellshocked faces in the half-light, grimacing with the memory of truths that had been crushed, cut up, diluted and sold back to them. There were names and faces, bodies and limbs— a blur of individual features lost within an explosion of darkness that had settled over everything.
As I walked through the city, retracing my steps, the hours and minutes seemed to outnumber the seconds. It was only moments like the synchronised illumination of the streetlamps that returned me to the moment in which the present really existed. The city lights blotted out the stars. The stars were all aeroplanes full of people. The darkened pavements were lit up by the flash of photographs that would never see the light of day.
The bar floor was covered in streamers of confetti. A jukebox in the corner was unwinding a slow but shining trumpet. The men crowded around the tables in their uniforms, bursting into sudden fits of incandescent laughter like the fireworks that were being uncorked into the sky above the city outside. The war was over. A maraschino glow varnished the night. My phone had almost run out of battery.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
It was the girl I’d noticed earlier. She had dark hair and a mysterious way about her. Or maybe I just couldn’t see past all the blurred outlines of the bar interior. Anyway, she seemed to know who I was before I could introduce myself, moving around the place with a glamorous ease, like it was all some kind of game. They couldn’t take their eyes off her. I kept my own gaze trained on the bartender, who she seemed to know as well, watching for any false moves. After all, I was still on the look out. I had to be ready to move at any moment.
In the end I decided to accept the drink, as well as her offer to get my phone charged behind the bar. The bartender was silent, and we continued to size each other up as these transactions were arranged.
My drink disappeared, and at some point so did the two of them. I looked around at the rest of the joint, which had entered into the grieving stage of these celebrations. Toasts were muttered, curses spat out into ashtrays, a war over and what had it all been for?
Their buttons were polished. I needed something to focus on while they spoke and this was it. They were all talking about the city, how it wasn’t the same as before. It had become unknown, they said. It had lost that pure, recognisable quality they would know again once they had seen it, most likely once the whole city had been run through by the Danube. It was better back in wartime, they continued. Everyone knew which side they were on.
I thought about my free drink and my charged phone as they said this, mulling over the possibilities of these gestures, as the trumpets slowed into silence.
The wall above the liquors and cordials was adorned with grainy photos of different people, each marked with an X next to their face. They were subtitled with names and dates and things like Florian, 2001, dealing, Johan, 2019, fist-fighting, Ethan, 1995, stole a bottle of wine. One of them was partially obscured by a bottle of grenadine. The edge was curling next to the silver cap.
I needed to wait for the bartender to return so that he could give me back my phone, but there was no sign of him, so I went around and unplugged it from the charging cable. Somebody coughed behind me. He asked for a Shirley Temple. I glanced around before surveying the shelves and mini-fridges, and made him what he asked for. As I did so, I started to form a plan in which I would get a part-time job, something to fund the investigation and get me through the long days. In a bar maybe, or an office. I could be a tour guide, showing people locations from films. It might even be a good way of working undercover, on the other side of things for a change, getting more material for my writing.
I dropped a cherry into the glass and placed it on the bar, full of a renewed clarity that would last as long as I could find somewhere else to go tonight.
“On the house,” I told him.
“You are damaged,” he replied, in a stilted voice.
I turned away from him and started putting the bottles back, trying to suppress the grinning mask of unease creeping over my face. The trumpets had returned, sickly and triumphant. I realised what he had meant as soon as I put the grenadine back on the shelf and caught a glimpse of the photo behind it, but by then it was already too late. There was red all over the cap, flowing from my fingers and my bleeding nose.
My face stared back at me.
The bathroom mirror was already stained with different fleshy hues. After I finished cleaning myself up, I wiped it with a handful of hot water, watching the gaps form in the liquid as it ran down the darkened glass. My phone lay beside the sink, blinking with a long, curving white line.
A single bulb flickered overhead, and yet for some other reason I hadn’t noticed her arrival in the mirror.
“This is the mens,” I said, as she put a hand on my shoulder.
“Is that so,” she said, fading back into the reflective surface. All was still for another moment. And then I heard it.
The sound of someone sniffing inside one the stalls.
My chest clenched. It was as if each heartbeat was being slowly prised out of my chest.
The sound grew thicker, until the door opened and the bartender slowly emerged, rubbing his lean, unstaring face, wearing my coat. I was starting to lose control of my body.
What had they put in my drink?
“Your profile said you were new in town,” came her voice from somewhere, “but I’ve seen you around. Always in bars and alleys, and all the other places you shouldn’t be.”
It was them. A man and a woman. Their faces didn’t fool me. I could see right through them. I kept my eyes fixed on their counterparts in the mirror.
“You’re not going to last long if you keep this up.”
The threats had begun. I clung to the sink, swaying my head, watching them out of the corner of my eye.
“At first we thought you were one of those businessmen going crazy on a work trip. Some people just can’t handle being by themselves in a strange city. But it doesn’t matter where you came from. Here you can start all over.”
I had become faintly aware that they were getting closer to me. The exits were blurring in my mind. The room flickered in and out of the fluorescent lighting. She was smiling, I could hear it in her voice.
“I’m not exactly a creature of the night, but I do know people. I can help you score. Need a tour guide? I’m a local. I can show you the real Vienna.”
My mind was racing. I couldn’t tell what their game was, what it was that they wanted from me.
“You know, he stays with me also. And he came here fleeing a war.”
He was blinking his eyes, frowning faintly like he was trying to block out the memory of something, smiling at the results. He was next to me in the mirror now. I was having trouble telling them apart. I didn’t know whose voice it was, the one that came whispering into my ear.
They were offering me the chance to join them. The outlines were clear but the details were muddy. We could figure something out; I could be with them; I wouldn’t have to find another place to lay my head. I could sense money somewhere, an exchange of power, a dark prism of needs and desires, although I wasn’t sure who’s. I didn’t understand how it could all sound so simple.
No strings. That was it.
My eyes were trapped in the mirror. I wanted to expose the lies beneath their words, but it was like staring down both barrels of a fully-immersive fantasy, unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t, which memories were fake and which ones belonged to me. And in that moment I no longer cared. I was sick of the daylight, of not knowing what I’d done the night before, of piecing it all together out increasingly scrappy particles; dreams that weren’t dreams; writing that wasn’t writing.
I could feel all the rooms and corridors of the city colliding into one single chamber, loaded with every bed, every unknown body, face, all soft and hard, placed up against my head. I wanted to indulge each and every one of my desires. Every deed and fantasy. All of them. Unknown even to myself. There was no way of bringing any of it with me, back into the light, without falsifying the record about who I was and what it all meant— in denial of the ultimate truth, one that I now knew for certain.
Because I wasn’t anyone. None of us were. In the mirror, we were all the same— no strings being pulled, no secret script to follow. None of it meant anything. We were all just acting in the background of the stars, following cues that were a million miles too late.
I turned away from the mirror, into their eyes glazed with fireworks. They weren’t real. None of this was. At the bottom of the discoloured crystal, in a glistening pool, I saw what was reflected back at me and I knew it was all over. There was nothing there. Their love was fake. There was just a hole.
The trumpet flared. I jerked up and looked around at the men and women on the walls, the guns bulging in different pockets, the city rearranging itself into a million possibilities, and I wanted to taste death, only taste it. I grabbed a bottle from the still-deserted bar and scrambled out into the street, forming part of the same crumbling background as everyone else.
I made my way to the river, lowering myself to the ground next to the stone barrier. I could smell my own breath and feel the blood drying across my shirt.
A couple eventually walked by. I wanted them. Wanted what they had. For him to look at me like that, like how I was looking at her. It could still all be real. I would just have to play my part.
“I want a line,” I told them. “Gimme a line.”
“A line of… what?” he asked, backing off a little when he saw the blood.
“Anything. And I’ll come up with a poem in return. It will be original. And you can even pay me for it.”
I was lying, because I’d already written most of it down by now. But they didn’t know that.
“I can’t come up with one for you. That’s cheating. It doesn’t matter.”
The Danube was flowing fast.
They looked at each other again, before he put an arm around her and they both moved along without replying to me. I was prepared for this. I got up and followed them for a few meters, feeling faint and increasingly concerned that their relationship wasn’t going to last. When I made to grab his shoulder, I found him batting me away, and so we fell against each other, grasping for the space to lash out, panting savagely. My nose was hot and wet. I blinked away the orange light smeared across my vision.
The last thing I remember is the look on her face the last time we saw each other.
The river’s reflection played against the underside of the bridge. Glowing cursive against the untouched stonework. I watched the swaying patterns until the angle of the sunlight broke. A wet pain in my shoulder spread out into my arm as I raised it numbly from underneath my head. The shade was holding everything at bay. My phone was dead, I knew that much. The limited range of my gestures left me semi-solid, translucent.
Eventually I stretched myself out into the evening sunlight, wandering away from the riverbank and onto the concourse. I think I made my way from bench to bench, sitting beneath trees that grew within metal circles on the ground.
At its core it was a film about two people trying to decide whether they were meeting each other inside of a dream. At first they go along with the idea that they will only remember each other this way, as bright shades in each others’ pasts, free to be together for one night that will last them the rest of their lives. But, as daylight slowly creeps in, they can no longer believe that they will never see each other again. All they can do is promise to return to Vienna, turning the dream inside out, scattering reality across the distance between two continents, like dandelion seeds strewn over the ocean, planting themselves in the blue.
I washed my face in the station bathrooms. My open return ticket was preserved inside my phone case, and I held onto it tightly as I navigated my way to the departure bulletins.
Once I was on the train and had settled into my seat, I was tempted to let myself fall back to sleep. But first I asked the girl opposite me if I could borrow her phone charger. She smiled and passed it to me. Our fingers briefly touched.
The few messages I had were to be expected. Weather alerts and news headlines. There was a war in Europe.
Automatically, but entirely aware of what I was doing, I went to my contacts app. I found the old number and pressed it, lifting the phone to my ear.
Who is this?
(She starts laughing)
It isn’t real
It’s just a recording
If you’re still listening I clearly can’t come to the phone right now so just leave a message after the beep thing would you?
As the train disappeared off into the blue, I gradually began to unwind a theory that could explain everything that had happened to me. I pictured a new dating app, still in its early stages, which would allow people to fall in love by entering a world scripted along the exact lines of the 1995 film Before Sunrise. They would arrive in Vienna with their lines memorised, meeting their scene partner for the first time on the train that brought them here, sharing cues and responding to prompts from the many members of the supporting cast staged across the city.
I looked around the compartment at the other travellers. I couldn’t bear to imagine the reverse, so I pictured us all on our way to Vienna, heading back to reality after a long trip somewhere far away. I wondered who was heading there for the first time. The girl opposite me was reading a book. A German couple was arguing nearby. I eyed it all suspiciously.