He closed his eyes and imagined the sea. The smell was wrong, the dryness, the sootiness of the air, it was all wrong. But if he closed his eyes and just listened, then the sound, the sound was just right.
The sound of the sea.
He stood still underneath the tower block, eyes firmly shut, just listening. If anyone had seen him, they’d have thought he was mad. Someone dangerous, swaying in the half light. Someone it was safer to avoid.
Head back, eyes closed, he smiled at something invisible. Smiled at the thought of all those people, half asleep, unaware that he was there. Those people who would no doubt fear him if they saw him but who lay there safely dreaming, safe from the sight of him.
In the dim grey dawn, he stood alone and dreamed his own dreams.
But the illusion didn’t last long. His clothes were dirty and he could smell them. Feel them clinging to his skin sticky, like a layer of tar.
It was a smell that stayed with him even when he was washed and clean. It never seemed to go away. Instead it just hung there, clinging, reminding him of dirt, reminding him that nothing that was clean. That everything smelled like this eventually.
It was this smell, this dirt, this stickiness that made him crave the sea, that made him dream and sway. He needed to stand around a while and listen, just to be able to get away from it all. From thoughts of dirt.
Opening his eyes, he stared upwards, craning his neck. The gulls were swooping and gliding in circles overhead, white and clean, very graceful.
He liked their whiteness, their cleanliness, their bright yellow beaks. But above all, he liked the sound and the way they made him think of the sea.
He imagined waves as they rippled and crashed. Imagined the salty spray washing over him refreshing his skin until it tingled, really clean. He smelled seaweed and salt, the real freshness of the air, so different from this place with its grainy smog that turned your nostrils black.
He stood there and imagined all this and thought of freedom. He liked the thought of that. Freedom. Space. Freshness.
Those gulls, they were that sound. This sea, this freshness, this freedom and space. They were the sounds of the waves and the smell of vastness.
Head back, he swayed to and fro, the height of the building making him dizzy as he strained to see the top, intoxicated with the movement.
Until it made him feel light headed, and forced him to look down, closing his eyes to steady himself. Like a drunk. But he kept on listening, enjoying the sounds.
Which were too loud really. Too raucous, too wild.
That cawing, that ululating scream, was too rowdy, too raw and without song. Disquieting even.
And yet there was something so wild about it, so joyous, that all he could think of when he listened to it, was freedom.
He’d never been to the sea. The only gulls he came across were in the city, and at the city dump.
He would watch them sometimes and wonder what they were doing there, scuttling around in all that flat marshy space, among the dank moisture of reeds and grasses, everything such a mess and smelling all the time, even the light, dusty and brown somehow.
No space or air or freshness. Just this flat filthy land, the housing estates looming up in the distance, the railway lines running nearby, the river twisting onwards, brown and sad. There was nothing there to enjoy, no space around.
The only good things were the gulls.
They seemed to thrive there, these white, white birds in amongst all that rubbish and stench and brownness. Whooping and circling overhead as if this were the most natural place in the world to them.
Why weren’t they at the sea? Why here of all places? It didn’t seem right.
They would pick through the rubbish. Swoop on it and shake things empty. Squabble among themselves, cawing and arguing all the while as if they didn’t care about any of this, whether this place was right or not.
Their song was lively but it didn’t fit. He imagined they would whoop and holler more by the ocean.
But here the smell subdued their sound. The musty smell of things people didn’t want. The smell of people living in cities and regurgitating pile upon pile of rubbish. Rubbish for birds to feed on, rubbish for him to work with. It muffled their sound, tarnished it somehow.
If he was a bird he would fly away. Fly back to space, back to freedom, to swoop and glide in the crisp air forever.
Why didn’t they?
Why did they stay in city dumps? Why did they swoop through city streets, or hover among tower blocks and pylons and streetlights? What did they have here that made them want to stay?
But confined and dirty, knowing nothing else, they had about as much chance of escape as he did.