Tonight there will be a moon road, you say. This is what locals call it when there’s a double tide and the water comes in from both sides of the lagoon and floods the streets of the city by night. You take me to Santa Warna Steps, where small knots of people are gathering. They talk in low voices, and their occasional laugh or exclamation seems more muted than in the day. In the day the steps are somewhere to eat an ice cream and look out at the distant cranes and breathe the iodine tang of seaweed or, on a late autumn afternoon, a place where young couples come for private conversations when the cold drives everyone else away and waves slap sullenly up the stones. In the day this place is sharp with sunlight or the wind, but tonight everything is softened, as if some giant hand is damping the strings. We can smell honeysuckle. Usually there are ten or more steps leading down to the water, graded in their final degrees with barnacles, tiny sharp mussels, and finally the bladderwrack that lolls in the slop. Tonight the sea has already almost overtopped them.
You were the dark side of the table, in a whirlpool of thought, aware we would forget it all—everything. We laid our hands out; wrapped our conversation in fine paper. Let’s trust we can remember what we need, I said. Let’s build a city in the night, I meant.
Later, we met in the landscape of riven rocks and blasted trees and you described the system that draws in everything, the violences without apparent purpose. This was the place, where the differences were incremental. We planted our memories there, hid them in foundation stones. Gardened the emerald I recognised as yours.
The crowds hush themselves and we hear the sound of dripping, insistent and unlocatable, probably echoing off the faces of the buildings behind us, although it sounds like it’s coming from the stones themselves, from limestone blocks longing for a dimly remembered marine state, the soft ossuaries of their birth. The dripping is joined by gurgling, and then a small, timid wave hushes its way laterally across the top step and runs down the quayside towards us. Stealthily and treacherously, the drains start to cough up saltwater that welcomes the thin streams running to join hands there.
If you show me how you tend what you have sown… show me again. I will keep watching. Show me how your hand turns from left to right in the space of a sentence. We swapped the books and your smudged pencil fogged the print. The words in weather, Greek letters, tired thoughts, dissolvable.
From the misted page a figure appeared, down three steps you placed for her in the old grass; she spoke in low tones and looked at the sky. She came from a line of memory architects, a profession we had never heard of. Maybe we could learn. She interlocked our fingers and placed a hand on the side of your neck.
We looked on as she built the infrastructure for our young city around the smallest parts of what she found—from the shimmering remains of a nearly lost thought, from the soft skeleton of a suspended idea.
You drag me away from the procession that’s starting to form, bands of children with their candles heading to the church, to see something else. We’re at the bottom of the Penrose Steps that somehow connect the old town and the wharfs, three shallow flights which take sudden clockwise turns between the grey houses. We have just escaped the water which is slowly rising up the streets behind us and regained the dry ground, so when I see a trickle of silver running down the gutters towards us, and then a wave cresting the top of the steps and gently cascading in our direction I’m confused, thinking we have somehow turned around in our run through the streets. Then I realise this is the other tide, from the west, and you have brought me to their meeting point. This is where everything is severed.
Much later, when we had a name, she walked us back into the city by hand, by day, by night. To the impossible house and the narrow room inside. To the water’s edge if ever we could find it. To the shoals where memory breaks. And when the scene turned, we watched from behind; she disappeared.
We stayed, and thought of what was carried into the city by the tide, and how for the next few days the streets would be full of small russet crabs, crouching warily in doorways and in between cobblestones, waving their pincers in warning.
Within a few days they too would have disappeared. Perhaps they would have found their way back, if they hadn’t ended up crushed under shoes trying to cross the road, or dying of thirst in public squares, or pulverised by herring gulls in quiet back alleys; their traces quietly hosed away by street cleaners morning after morning.
‘By night, tidal city’ is part of James Wilkes’ and Ella Finer’s ongoing collaborative work. It is a correspondence that begins with the writings of Ithell Colquhoun, and the exchange of their own annotated copies of ‘Medea’s Charms’ (2019), a selection of her shorter prose and poetry written between the 1930s and 1980s.
James Wilkes collaborates across disciplines and artforms to explore ideas and practices from sound art, translation and the life sciences, and the possibilities they open for poetry and short fiction. A book of poems, collages and performance scores, ‘Mille Regretz: Chansons after Josquin des Prez’, is published by Pamenar Press.
Ella Finer’s work in sound and performance spans writing, composing, and curating with a particular interest in how bodies acoustically disrupt, challenge, or change occupations of space. She is currently finishing her first book ‘Acoustic Commons and the Wild Life of Sound’.