The City

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Words by James Harris     
Photographs by Neil Harrison

A young man sits silent and still on a loudly rattling train as it cuts its clumsy, purposeful way through a thick, inky night; a night so deep and fathomless any recollection of the distant memory of daylight seems fanciful and imagined.

The darkness was impenetrable. The passengers could just as likely be heading high into the oblivion of space as much as they were heading anywhere else less strange; the chosen few sent gliding on tracks of night towards a fertile young planet, to claim and colonize an unknown speck of earth floating lost amid a vast and lonely universe. If it were not for the screech and screams of weary tracks slipping angrily by beneath, lulling him in and out of difficult sleep, this could have been an effortless reverie to escape into and remain safely embraced by. But reality always claws him back. Strong, invisible hands grip him to his seat. You cannot run away for long before you are reclaimed by the only existence that there is.


He is a young man, guarding bright, knowing eyes under a head bowed defiantly against the unwanted attention of the world, against this snaking tube of hard artificial light piercing him and judging him without right. Had he left too soon? He thought. Had he left too much behind for this journey to give him back everything he had given up, and more? As if searching for an answer that eluded him, he looked up at the woman sitting opposite – a gentle looking middle-aged African woman, at ease with a journey perhaps made daily for the past twenty years or so of her life. She felt his gaze and shifted her eyes to meet his, and gazed peaceably back, yet not without an initial hint of wariness. Then suddenly she smiled a soft, generous smile, familiar and slightly far off as though in searching his features she had recognised a face she thought long forgotten, caught somewhere safe in her treasured past.

‘We will be arriving soon’ she said, between the fulsome lips of her smile. He nodded gratefully back in reply, then looked politely away, out beyond the reflection of the inner carriage, refusing to acknowledge the troubled expression reflected back at him in the image of his own mirrored face. He gazed for what seemed like days into the distance that he knew must be there, until out of the withholding darkness small dots of light gradually bled into view like a pile of stars laid out, harvested from the empty sky. The city was close. Soon, he would have to answer to the choices he had made to bring himself here, this far away from home; the birthplace and background of all he had ever lived and known.

As the city sped closer and loomed higher, tall, towering and immense shapes began to appear out of the lights, filling his vision with a sprawling spectacle the strangeness and immensity of which he, as yet, knew not how to make sense of or understand. Then suddenly the vision disappeared, replaced with darkness once again as the train was swallowed whole by this colossal concrete beast, entering a tunnel leading into it’s innermost labyrinthine depths.


As trepidation piled upon fear, and fear beat like a drum preparing for war against his chest, they passed further into the pressing darkness, until out of a daydream the train slowed, and slowed, eventually arriving at a grateful standstill into the harsh yet welcome brightness of the platform.

He stood. He breathed slow and deep against his fears until they quieted and dimmed, and, allowing the African woman to walk ahead of him, stepped small tentative steps that belied their courage and strength, on towards the open doors. As people bustled in their private urgency to disembark around him, in the exhilaration of unexpected revelation he realised.

The past is done. What I miss I bring in memory with me and am not unlikely to see again; what I don’t, never even boarded the train.

Smiling reassuringly to himself, he stepped boldly down onto the platform.

James Harris is 27 and currently studying for an English degree whilst also branching out into creative writing. Of his writing, he says, ‘when I have written something that I am proud of, I feel that I have perhaps improved the bit of world around me, a little each time.’

About the author / 


aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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