Ruth Barker

Places of Belonging.




The First Place

A long time ago, we did not see the world as we do now. The seas and rivers that we know as barriers and divisions were once the points that joined us. We travelled quickly over water, but slowly over land. The map was inverted. Stepping into our boats we connected one place to another, sewing the land that is now Scotland to that which has become Norway with maritime ease. Over the seas we plunged with wooden certitude, trading, talking, making war, so sure that things would never change. Blue or grey or white or green or black; the sea, always changing, never changes.


The Second Place

I had been walking through the city. Now, as I stop, I feel a kind of peace. I don’t know where I am. The sun is hot and high and the buildings are unfamiliar to me. The streetnames are printed in a language that I don’t know. Nothing means anything to me. I have no history here, and no expectations. As I walk on, I have no reason to choose one direction over another, and so the decisions I make are arbitrary. Every so often I take a photograph of something that I don’t understand – a wire rack with a photograph of a man tied to the top of it; a flight of small stairs that lead into a wall with no door; a sign in which a smiley face appears; a cat that doesn’t look like other cats I have seen. ‘Perhaps later’, I think, ‘Perhaps later I will ask someone to explain what I have seen.’ But even as I think it, I know that I will not. I will keep my unknowing-ness safe, like a small stone preserved from understanding. I will show my photograph only to my friends at home, who will laugh, and who will not know the answers.


The Third Place

At night, in the restaurant, there are no tables set for one. To the waiter who greets me, I say: ‘I don’t have a booking, but can you do a table for one?’ ‘Sure,’ he says, and he shows me to a place in the corner, pulling out a chair opposite a window that looks out onto the street. The table is laid for two. ‘It’s just a small table anyway,’ he says, unnecessarily, and he clears away one glass, one knife, one fork, and one red napkin. He asks me some small questions and I answer them. He goes away, comes back, and fills my glass with wine. He goes away again.

I have a book in my bag, but I don’t take it out. Instead I look out of the window. Outside it is dark, and I can watch men and women walking past me. Some of them walk on this side of the street, and some of them walk on the other. Some walk right to left, which I think of as down. Some walk left to right, which I think of as up. Directly opposite me on the other side of the road, which isn’t busy with traffic, is a streetlamp dropping white light onto the pavement. The lamp has been designed to imitate a gaslight, with a black-capped glass rhombus framing a single clear bulb on top of an embellished black post. On my side of the road yellow light from the restaurant lies across the pavement in certain blocks. The dual effect of these separate points of illumination is that anyone walking up or down the street, on either side, appears at the edge of my frame in darkness. They then pass into a defined light (either white or yellow depending on which side of the road they are on), and then pass back into darkness as they leave my area of sight. Dark, light dark; they are illuminated as though their passage were something significant.

Dark, light, dark. Dark, light, dark.  I’m looking out onto a main city street. It’s not a city I know. And I wanted to eat before I returned to my small hotel so I came here, to the restaurant, which has no tables set for one. I am aware that I am a small curiosity here. The waiter is curious. Will anyone be joining me later? I tell him No. He inclines his head and moves away. He passes me the menu, and he stands while I read it. He expects me to choose quickly (because I am alone?). I choose quickly (because I am alone). The waiter goes away again. He has a grey apron, with understated red piping. I look out of the window. Dark, light, dark. Dark, light dark. If I change the focus of my eyes, I can watch the reflection in the glass, rather than the view. Everywhere are twos and fours and behind me a six, of diners. The six speak loudly, happily, warmly in one another’s company. They are four women and two men. They swap stories, saying, ‘No, no, that was Francis!’ And, ‘Can you believe it?!’ To my right there is a table of four; two men and two women. All four are discrete, and quiet. The conversation is caged and circumspect. Perhaps these four people do not know each other well. Perhaps they know each other so well that they do not need to say much. Further to my right, two tables away, is a couple. They talk quickly. They are low and animated. They make loving gestures with their hands, and they move their feet as they speak. Sometimes they laugh, but privately, and only for each other. My food arrives. Dark, light, dark.

As I eat, the table of four takes turns to look at me. The man and woman with their backs to me, each in turn, turn their heads to see me. The man and woman who are already facing me duck their gaze past their own companions to take a look. I watch them in their glass reflections. I do not think that they see me watching them watching me. I wonder why they are so curious. I suppose it must be because I am alone in a city that I don’t know. (How do they know that I am a nomad in this night-time city? Perhaps it is the way I am dressed, or the colour of my skin). They look. I watch. We are mildly interested in each other.

I often travel alone, and so (because one must eat, after all) I often eat alone. I am happy in my own company. I am rarely lonely. I have learnt that there are some places where it is acceptable, expected even, to be alone in public. There are other places, such as this restaurant, in this city, on this night, where it is not expected. There are no tables set for one in the restaurant. I feel a little as though I am taking up space. The restaurant is busy now, and there are people (twos, fours, sixes) waiting to be seated. I have finished eating. My wine glass is empty. I ask the waiter for a mint tea. He says, ‘Fresh mint or peppermint?’ I think about it for a moment. ‘Fresh mint please,’ I tell him. He brings my tea in a glass and I wait for it to cool, looking out of the window. Dark, light dark. I realise that I did not notice the taste of my food as much as I would have if my husband were here. The meal, also, did not last as long, because I could not accompany it with conversation. I wonder if the taste of food is partly conjured through conversation, since it seems to disappear to me when conversation is absent. I wonder if the looking / watching exchange might be a kind of conversation in lieu. Perhaps. I wonder absently, if this lack on conversation turns the restaurant, for me, into a space rather than a place. I feel an exile at my small table. Separate from the rest, and placeless.

My tea is almost finished, and the fresh mint leaves are at the bottom of the glass. The waiter is serving the table of four, and I catch his eye to say Can I get the bill please? I say it silently because he is with the other customers, even though he is looking at me. But he nods and goes away, returning with the bill and a card machine. I wonder, How did he knew I would pay with a card? As we wait for the payment to go through the waiter says, ‘Is it business, or could you not be bothered cooking?’ ‘Business,’ I say, smiling. And then, ‘I’m not that lazy.’ And I smile again so that he knows that I’m joking. He says, ‘I would be [too lazy to cook] if I didn’t get meals here every night.’ There’s nothing I can think to say to this, so I notice that the machine says Payment Approved Please Remove Your Card, and I do. I put on my coat and I leave the restaurant. I walk up the street, past the restaurant’s windows, looking at the table of four as I pass and thinking dark, light, dark. Tomorrow I will go home.


The Fourth Place

The importance of place is as rooted to our minds as it is tied to our tongues. We say ‘in the first place’, to establish the prescience of an idea. We feel out of place, and it is unpleasant. We put someone in their place when we feel that they have transgressed it. ‘I just can’t place it’ we say, and it frustrates us; out of reach yet tangible.


The Fifth Place

Place and space, as we know, are different. And yet how can we tell one from the other?

Spaces are physical; places are emotional.

Spaces have contours; places have associations.

Spaces are wholly outside us; places are partly inside us.

Spaces have an implied abandonment; places have an implied investment.

Spaces are meaningless; places are meaningful.

Spaces are anonymous, places are distinctive.

Is this true? But then why do I like so much to walk in a city that I don’t know, for the first time?


The Last Place.

Here and now, I love you. Where are you? I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.

I keep moving, and so do you. We are nomads, but located, wrapping up the language of the unfamiliar.

Goodbye, I wave. Goodbye.