18 April 2010

The world brings strange gifts sometimes. Friends or lovers, afternoons of conversation or late nights wandering in some city or books you chance on or songs in foreign language you overheard from an open window. Best of all perhaps, sometimes, if you are very lucky, the world will bring zebras.

You're walking, not alone, down in the no-mans land which follows the ring-road roundabout, on a street of boarded up buildings. That's where the zebra appears. And after it the lion.

It's maybe 9.45am. A spring morning on this abandoned street, the light bright, air sharp crisp and just ahead you see the two mini-cabs parked in the wide curve of the bend, the cars pulled up drivers-window to drivers-window so that the guys inside can talk whist waiting callouts for a job. Opposite from this, outside the boarded up cutlery factory (smashed windows/rusted metalwork/faded signage), there are six or seven guys loitering the pavement, sporting dirty green overalls, all chatting, some smoking, laughing as if on a break, or else maybe waiting for a van to take them off to some distant construction job. Impossible to tell of course, but you notice them anyway. And that's more or less the same moment where you notice the zebra just above them in the air. It's in the form of a tinfoil helium balloon 60-80cm long, and trailing a long grey ribbon from its tail. You and your companion stop to watch this zebra dance softly in the air above these same guys (apprentices? guys on some kind of training?), guys who are also watching it, skeptically, their eyebrows raised as the creature buffets lightly this way and that in the wind, its general direction a kind of awkward but steady upwards. For a moment you wonder if one of the guys might reach for it; try to pull this lighter-than-air-zebra down to the earth as it turns there, head over heels, marking irregular cartwheels just above their heads. But no, instead they just watch as you do, bemused and partly mesmerised. Time slows a little and the zebra turns softly. You  wonder if perhaps one of the guys in the overalls released this zebra/balloon as a prank – but they show no signs of ownership of this event, staring just as puzzled as you. One of them laughs.

That's when the wind takes the animal thoroughly and the sky zebra really rises, its legs fixed stiff in a Muybridge arrested-gallop, turning over itself at leisurely pace but really ascending now, crossing the road and passing directly over your heads, upwards so that you have to crane your necks, the lost creature going up and over the hoardings, still turning, passing twenty feet above you then really going higher, up against the clear sky. You watch the zebra tumble its strange irregular route,  surmising that this trajectory must be caused by its fantastically un-aerodynamic shape – the trotting legs, the tail, the outstretched head, the streamer of ribbon – all counteracting the air in their own different ways as the helium floats the creature into the wind. A zebra is a black and white animal. Certainly. You see its stripes and its shiny metallic balloon flank and it's rising and rising, and you are saying the same words over and over – 'wow' and 'amazing' – as it heads – upwards and inexplicable – high over the wasteground, tracing a jagged graph line on the sky. Amazing you say. And that's when the lion appears – a smaller balloon, also filled with helium, and also rising. The lion – in posture that's more like sleeping than prowling – seems at first to have come from behind the hoardings or from the derelict building beyond them. You can’t be sure though. Maybe these two balloon creatures are from miles away. Or they were launched from a vehicle. Or they were blown here by some freak of the winds. In any case the lion follows the zebra, upwards. It's not a scene you can photograph. You have your camera in your bag but you don't even reach for it, don't hardly even think of it. The lion chases after the zebra like some pursuit on the plains and you wonder for a moment if the lion will catch up with its prey but no of course there is no drama beyond that of the simultaneity. The two of them are rising, getting smaller – the sky is kind of taking them – turning them to small shapes, then just dots, almost nothing, then nothing, against its blue.

That's all it is really. The lads over the street were watching too but now they're leaving. The taxi-cabs are still there and the drivers don’t seem to have been that engaged – their radios are muttering on and only one leans out of his window to watch the last part of the ascent as you and your companion depart. The zebra and the lion its pursuer are vanished now into the sky and it's time to continue your journey. There are times, and this is one of them, when you feel that the world brings you strange gifts, as valuable and as temporary as they are impossible to understand. On a morning like this one – vivid, complex and beautiful in all of its ways –  it's like that for sure.