Our car was one of a hundred, a thousand perhaps; like a stream of ants going between waypoints, with nothing to do on the way except ensure that the journey is uninterrupted. Back towards the anthill we marched, and if ants can’t plug in a Walkman and sing along to Tom Waits as they drive it’s only a minor discrepancy. I wonder if ants ever look up at the landscape and objects that they pass, and see that the sun – the first proper sun of spring – is casting a receding golden wash over the top storeys of the taller buildings.
A combination of the sunlight and the grainy booze-infused portal to Tom’s world – a world where the carpet needs a haircut and the piano’s been on the sauce – made me say “Let’s get out and walk for a bit.” And so this particular ant swung out of the column and into a side street. I cut Tom off mid-growl and we left the car and took the flight of steps opposite two at a time. Some internal reserve of energy that I didn’t know about seemed to have been activated by the evening’s somewhat expectant calm. The air whispered, waiting for spring’s tendrils to start pushing through the remains of winter.
The city lies in a valley, the old centre spread across the flat of the valley floor, while the hill sides to north and south are arrayed with fine houses and tall trees watching over the spires and towers and little roof-top terraces, looking out across rural urbia to the hill on the other side. From the winding cobbley street below, the layers upon layers of houses that climb the hills glare stoically, sombrely down. Standing guard. Always watching.
Roads wind up the hill sides, but in between and crammed into the gaps between the houses are flights of wooden-edged stairs. I lost track of how many flights we climbed, chasing the sun’s departing rays. They had already left the tallest towers of the lower city. We had to search higher.
When my breath was clawing like nails at my lungs, I stopped to look back at the city. Fairy lights were wound along a balcony rail below me, even though the sky was still light, and the almost-full moon hung in the branches of a bare, knobbly beech tree like a pale grapefruit. The top of the southern hill opposite – my hill – crested with bristly larch and bottle-brush spruce was turning slowly from green to grey.
We followed the streets and stairs still further, to the layer of the city before the top, and came out opposite a wall guarding the muddy garden of a monstrous, square white house that squatted on top of the hill like a Vogon settled defiantly in the garden of Eden. Over the Vogon’s shoulder, however, were tantalising wisps of pink cloud promising something far more spectacular. The view from on-tiptoes, on-the-wall, was still unsatisfying. So we took the last flight of stairs and marched up a gravel path until the sky to north and west was as open as it can be in such hilly country.
We had missed the sun – it couldn’t have been expected to stick around while we climbed 200 or so feet up the hill to see it off – but it had left several thin ribbons of golden fire floating above the hills where it had gone down. The trails of aeroplanes far above shone like little glow-worms. The sky above the hills went from purest gold on the horizon to a greyish winter-blue above us, and fantastic rose and dusky purple clouds crept in from above the lake which lay, unseen, away to our right. The swirls and ripples looked so contrived that in a film it would be mistaken for a lazy CGI job. I said “If we painted this now, exactly as it is, no-one would believe us. They’d say we exaggerated it for effect.”
The strips of gold floated higher and their light began to diffuse. The pink clouds inched closer to the gold. Three teenagers passed behind us, chattering in clipped dialect. Voices high, jeans low. The magic broke. We headed back down the hill.
The street lights had come on now, like more fairy-lights draped along the streets of a toy town. A couple of snowy mountains peered through a gap in the hills. I wanted to push the hills back so that Säntis had a better view. I watched my feet carefully on the stairs. If I tripped and fell, I might knock over the cathedral, or crash through the carefully-placed little streets and houses.
We didn’t follow the same route back, so as the houses grew once again to full size around us, we turned down a back road and into an unlit street. All of the buildings in the row were dark except for one room, from which light, veiled by semi-transparent gauze curtains, spilled. Muffled swing music seeped out of the room too, and I stopped level with one of the curtained windows. Once my eyes had agreed to ignore the gauze and look into the room beyond, I could see the couples dancing, and the sports hall, the mirror on the opposite wall and exercise balls on a rack above it.
“That… looks like Lindy Hop” I said. I’m not an expert, but we were taken to a taster lesson by a friend in the area once, and the movements of the dance were distinctive. He laughed and said “It is Lindy Hop!” and we stared some more. I pointed at a large, slightly brooding figure at the far end of the hall: “And that looks like…” He stepped nearer and peered more closely through the curtain. “Yes! It is!” he said. We looked at each other and laughed at the strange serendipity of the moment. The music stopped and the women all moved one partner anti-clockwise. Now that he was standing still we could see more clearly. “And that girl… she was in the group that I was in the mountains with the other week!”
When the music started again we tried to recall the dance steps, but the dancers, far more advanced than we were, gave few clues to the basic steps that we’d been taught. Eventually he hopped over the fence at the side of the building and ran up the sloping path to a small uncurtained window, floor-level on the outside, but high up in the inner sports hall wall. “You can see better from here.” We crouched down and watched, looking like children that hadn’t been invited to the party. “It’s the same teacher we had!” I’d already seen. He was hard to forget. Pale hair and skin; a t-shirt, trousers and a boater-style hat on his head, even when walking, he moved with grace and purpose.
The music, slightly tinny, came through an air-vent a few metres away on the wall, and we attempted the steps again, trying not to stumble off the narrow path into the damp soil beside it.
Eventually I said “You know, we still have to cook this evening.” We climbed back over the fence and ran the rest of the way along the street, feeling like naughty children who have been spying on their elders. We skipped back to the car. The stream of ants was smaller now. We rejoined it and headed back to our anthill.