At first it was spring, and we prayed to the trees.
We watched the light tremble on their leaves and crowns, we heard them creak in the breeze as they sheltered us from our sullenness.
Days grew long together with our shadows, sound was swallowed by silence, then blossomed into new sound.
We paced our days to the rhythms of the birds and the stars, we forgot each other’s name and became splintered syntax, held together by cobwebs and dew.
Summer came and the air grew sweet.
We stood by the southern sea and we prayed to the waves, to the setting sun and the rising moon. We felt the earth spin, and we sometimes embraced.
We almost forgot, but then autumn lunged for our throats and we recoiled into our solitude.
Now the leaves have started to fall, and we wait for the light to return.
We pray to the broken pieces of glass, strewn over the cobbles or stuck in the cracks, only visible when the sun falls upon them.
We stare at the marks on the walls, and we try to decipher the words from the fragments.
We pace through the semi-deserted galleries and museums, stare into the vacant glass eyes of the taxidermy animals who cannot see us, brush our fingertips across the fossil spines of extinct marine creatures, hold onto the railings while a simulated earthquake tries to shock us out of our numbed senses- somewhere in Japan the earth shook, and all came tumbling down, cracked walls, shattered glass, broken bones.
We pray to the books on the shelves, to the fruit and the vegetables neatly stacked in piles, to the masked faces of the people that hand us our coffee or measure our racing pulses, or the growth of our children.
We pray for sunshine or for rain, while standing apart trying to keep our distance. And the roadworks eat into our spaces until all that is left is a slither of pavement through which to slip sideways and disappear.
We listen to the muffled voices and we cannot hear birdsong any longer; we wonder whether they have left us, or whether we are the ones leaving.
We take short walks, we rarely drift these days.
We pray in languages we never thought we knew: those of the lost and the lonely, those of the fearful and forsaken. We fit in their shoes comfortably, and we know how they feel.
We ask for signs of an imminent return. We sit at a café, we swallow the food that almost chokes us, we rescue a pint of beer from oblivion, we are phantasmic memories of a time we have already forgotten, as if it never was at all.
We pray to the empty glass in our hands, to the unwritten book in our head, to the heavy load that we bear.
The Bulgarian man who sells the Big Issue in Russel Square sleeps with his family in the car park of the children’s hospital, but one rainy morning they are asked to move out again. Now he plays with our children and holds them, trying to bridge the gap between their little soft hands and the empty ones of his own.
We pray to the bright screen that binds us together, this online raft on which we float.
We occupy our square and dance, read, think, cook, write, peek into each other’s backgrounds to extract some context for our loneliness.
We exchange emails that hold the thread of our thoughts across days; we weave it to and fro across invisible distances that shrink on our keyboard to the space between each letter.
We read the news and it gets worse day by day.
We stop reading the news, but it doesn’t get better.
We hear voices that have lost their agency try to scream one another into silence until, deflated, they land on the dirty floors like confetti from an expired celebration; we walk over them absentmindedly, trying to negotiate our trajectories, looking for our own antidote to chaos.
We write letters to our friends, and we wait for their replies.
Like many walled gardens, they exist in secret; they bloom and decay, and grow some more until the weeds begin to reach into the bricks, through to the other side. As the mortar disintegrates, we catch a glimpse of their hands writing furiously, and hear the sound of each other’s voices, like pollen stuck in the messages on our mobile phones.
Derek Jarman had a garden whose boundaries were the horizon; no fences, gates or walls, an uncontainable flare of existence against all odds, rooted in the most unexpected of barren territories. The garden was the far edge of his life: it grew from his illness and it thrived in the cold winds that rattled it. His horizon expanded further the more his body contracted, and from his pain flowers, shrubs and vision sprung, setting his whole world on fire, until his body’s boundaries disintegrated also.
We pray to the pebbles and utensils, his desk and fountain pen and notebook, temporarily removed from the wilderness of Dungeness and exhibited in the Garden Museum, by the banks of the Thames.
When we step out into the city again, we pray to the river and its rising tide.
We stand in a playground with two wooden horses in mid-gallop, half sunk inside the soft tarmac; only their heads and rumps emerge. Next to them a broken ship, and a little further up, Rodin’s sculpture of immigrants with their head in their hands cowers beneath the stark silhouette of the Big Ben.
Beyond it, a garden is still in bloom.
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
In our time of pain, we pray to the tree on which we lean in exhaustion, trying not to touch the trunk with our bare hands. We pray while pinning ourselves to the side of the moving bus with our elbows, trying not to make contact; we press the bell through our coat sleeve, and we only get off when the bus has stopped moving. We count how many people aren’t wearing masks, and we feel angry and scared, but mostly alone.
We pray to the empty streets of the city, ashamed of the silence.
We pray to the laughing children, those who know that what we are seeing is not what is really there. They hold hands and break bread, and rattle gladly in their Eden as the world we can’t let go of lets go of us.
We smile at them, but they can see the holes where our eyes used to be.
We pray to the city to return to its complexity.
The buildings are empty and boarded up, their names have been erased and will soon be forgotten too. We scratch the walls with our fingers to see what’s left behind, the same as we did when we first arrived.
We pray that our favourite bookshop will stay- and the gallery, and that café whose owner we have known since we first set foot in this city.
We pray to the empty halls and venues, the darkened, silent rooms that lie in wait of a beat at the heart of the city. We stand outside on the streets pressing our faces against the dirty windows, and we pray that the grants will help them, that the blood will flow.
We pray that when we reach the far end of this desert crossing there will still be music.
We pray to our instruments tucked in corners, silent. We pray to the songs that we whisper under our breaths, under the blankets, under the cover of night. We imagine the sound of harmony or syncopation, and we summon our heartbeat to keep the time, while our drums sleep in storage in barns outside the city, the only spaces that we can afford.
We pray we’ll have money to see us through, that the ship will hold, that the walls won’t cave in, that the rent won’t be due, that the work will materialise, once again, against all odds.
Meanwhile we watch movies, and learn from the creatures of the sea, from the octopus on our screen, who reminds us how to touch, how to overcome fear, how to be bright and beautiful, how to outwit a shark and survive the entire year of its lifespan with grace, humour and luck.
We look at its 2000 suckers caressing the hand of a man in a snorkelling mask, getting to know him only through touch, letting go of him reluctantly, one sucker at a time.
Oh god of touch, many-limbed creature of the deep, remind us what holding means.
We pray to the octopus, to the scorched earth and all the other gods that don’t exist in this city. We pray to the ones that sleep rough, that queue outside soup-kitchens, that eat raw vegetables and sit under layers of clothes in freezing dark rooms, waiting for tomorrow.
We buy ink online, and paints and paper. We open parcels that come to us from a few streets away, we imagine the hands that wrapped them, the breath that tucked them in. We clean our hands and wipe the surfaces, then we sit and stare at the unopened paints, at our hands and at the blank paper, wondering what it was that we wanted to find.
We wait for the light to change, for the day to turn, for our bodies to shake free and move again of their own accord.
We write messages in bottles, and we take them to the river. But we sense that our words are no longer enough. They glisten for a moment, then dissolve into the strong arms of the murky waters.
We pray to the city we once knew, to its fragrant late October nights, to its misty November mornings. We watch our breath escape just after dawn and run between the naked trees as we walk along the disused railtracks, between brick walls and their secret script, through overgrown grass and frosted leaves to the top of the hill, where a murder of crows sleeps at night on the empty carcasses of fallen trees.
Crows can live longer than 100 years, and they know how to slip from one world to the other.
They cry first for the trees, then for us, and finally for the city, yearning to turn back into earth.
Then they fall silent, and in flight they begin once more to map out bright trails for our safe passage.
We look up into the white sky, and watch them write, in black unison, the last line of our prayer.