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Death in a Newcastle Alley

In 2010 I published a book entitled Notes From 39,000 Feet. In the introduction, “An American Breakfast In Taiwan,” I wrote:

"Each 'Note' begins with a title, location and date. I don’t mean to imply that each piece was written in that place and at that time, but rather it was there and then that thoughts were sparked into being and that some writing did begin. 

The 'Notes' are presented in chronological order, beginning in Reykjavik in 1986, passing through places such as Harare, Varanasi, Gaza City, Seoul, Istanbul, Prague and ending in London in 2010. Some 'Notes' are inscriptions of presentations and lectures given at international gatherings and events, and are thus textualisations of the spoken word…Some 'Notes' are journalistic-like reflections and others are more meditations…

While there is no central theme, there is a background hum that is, I think, hard to miss, a hum that hints at ethical, philosophical, theological points of view that in some way make up a system of meaning—thoughts, feelings, beliefs, observations, understandings, all of which combine to reveal a way of seeing the world and how we choose to live within it…

All these reflections, meditations, and essays are simply what I chose to write about. Others in the same place and time no doubt would have seen the world differently and would have had other things to say. As Clifford Geertz would say, they are 'but reflections, diffuse and refracted, in my own mind of the way of the world...'”[1]

For the next several weeks I will be posting some of the shorter reflections in Café Talk. I hope you enjoy them.

Last week I posted “The Taverna on the Water’s Edge,” a short selection from the chapter “In the Absence of our Desired Hope.”

This week I am offering “Death in a Newcastle Alley,” orginially called “Holy Week Meditations.”

Newcastle upon Tyne, England, April, 2003

It was Holy Week and Newcastle was preparing itself, not so much for the Christian Easter celebrations, but the pagan festivals rejoicing in the coming of spring and renewed fertility. As I sat looking through a café window, I knew the days were lighter and longer and the air was getting warmer, though slowly and reluctantly. By their body language and the clothes, the young people walking by the café window were, it was easy to see, flirting with life and each other.

I left the café, and down an alley between a cinema and a bank I saw a man sitting on the ground holding someone in his arms. As I got closer I saw he was wearing a blue uniform with his name sewn below his left shoulder. He was cradling an old woman; his right arm around her shoulder, his left under her left arm. He was holding her hand. The woman, wearing an old heavy coat, lay with her back against his chest, legs stretched out in front of her.

She was simply staring forward, as if seeing nothing. I stood alongside them and asked the man if he needed help. He said an ambulance had been called. The woman did nothing to indicate she had heard our exchange. I turned toward the cinema and noticed another woman standing inside the glass doors watching. Despite the two of us, there was a solitary intimacy in the alley shared only by the old woman and the man holding her.

I had approached the cinema to visit its small bookshop. Since I could do nothing to help the man and old woman, I decided to browse, but within a few minutes I had to leave. They were still there in the alley. I imagined the man drove a delivery truck and happened to enter the alley at just the right moment. Whether she knew that he had come and found some comfort, or even hope, in his presence, I did not know. But at that moment, cradled in a stranger’s arms, the woman was near death or, as I really thought, dead already. The man, with some tenderness, accompanied her in death as far as he was able.

I walked back up the alley exiting into the open space of a large plaza. I stopped, turned and looked back. They were there, as still as peace, strangers holding and being held, at the very right moment of death. It was an attractive sight.

The sky was blue and filled with white clouds. The sun and the city were warm and alive. The people, all the people, went about their business, which at the heart of things was living. I could see it all at once, as if framed for my benefit: the sun and sky, the brown stone buildings curving down Gray Street, the homeless sitting on benches hoping for a drink before the cold night set in, post-modern yuppies moving quickly through the crowds with mobile phones to their ears, the young feeling the stirrings of sex in their bodies flirting, flashing, and side stepping each other as the age old ritual continued, people working and people buying, cars and trucks annoying each other, theatres and newsstands, cafés and restaurants, trash blowing across the streets, birds flying overhead, a dead old woman cradled in a man's arms inbetween a cinema and a bank. And in the midst of it all, there I was, wanting and able to go about my living. I walked away from her, the dead one, without reluctance, regret, or guilt.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger

[1] Geertz, Clifford. Life Among the Anthros and Other Essays. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Universitsy Press, 2010, p. 187.

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