Darkness arrives quickly here.
I expected to spend all my days watching the sun rising up on one side of me and sinking again to the other. I now regret every day I took it for granted, paying little attention to its stately procession at the top of the sky during summer, its furtive low dash in winter, and all phases in between.
When our last visitor leaves, an attendant checks nothing’s missing and makes sure we’re behaving ourselves. Then they switch off the lights, including the spot which burns into my eyes all day. I wish they’d move it. Just a little, either direction would do. If only I had some means of communicating, I’d ask. But I’m not one for talking.
The nearest we get to any sensation of dusk is the pale gleam of the security lights, tucked away in the corners above the doors. It took me ages to work out they’re sensitive to movement. They go off again after a few minutes, provided no one moves about. It often happens during the day when we’re quiet, as long as the guards keep still. I enjoy watching them, it’s good to have something to do in between counting visitors.
That’s what I do most of the time. Counting them in. When we’re quiet, I count them out again. Usually, I get it right. The temperature remains steady, all day every day, so I try to guess the season from what they’re wearing. I’ve not been here long enough to see their fashions change again. I hope I’ll be out again before then.
Hardly anyone speaks to me anymore, apart from an attendant who sometimes wishes me good morning. He rarely works afternoons, but when he does I get a goodnight as well. I think I must be his favourite. I don’t know what I’ll do when he leaves. Everybody does in the end. It’s what people do.
The man over there spooks me out. He never moves. Just stares at something on the wall behind my elbow. I don’t know whether he can’t speak either, or chooses not to. If I could only move, I’d turn to see what he’s looking at. The poor fellow seems frightened, broken. I wish I could help him.
Until they collected me and brought me here, I gave no thought to fresh air, nor the thrill of standing firm against everything the seasons found in their elemental hearts to throw at me. Whenever the days grew longer, and birds started getting busy with their nests, I looked forward to another summer among friends, seeing how much taller the children had grown.
And what a spot I had, looking out across the water to where the river met the sea.
I had everything I needed, and little escaped my gaze. I studied the skyline as it grew and changed, along with the coming of cars and aeroplanes and electric light.
People liked me. Oh, how they liked me. They sat on the nearby benches, ate picnics on the grass, and read their novels and magazines and newspapers in the shade beside me. I stood tall and proud, and cast a long, dark shadow. I often thought about writing a book. I would too, if I had an education and some way of getting the words down.
Before I made sense of the sounds they made, I studied the weather. In the time it took for a pair of babies to get bigger, bicker at one another all their way through school, change their minds and fall in love and set about having children of their own, I could read the sky with the same ease our visitors read the boards when they come in.
Language took a lot longer. It was half a lifetime before I figured out what was going on there. On one momentous day, I suddenly realised that when children read the words beneath my feet aloud, they came out sounding mostly the same. Generations of mothers, nannies and, occasionally, fathers prompted, corrected and congratulated their charges. Fifteen, twenty, thirty years later, many returned with youngsters of their own and listened while they stumbled over the same words. Philanthropist invariably gave all but the most precocious pause for hesitation, while Caribbean floored them every time.
And then they started with their questions.
“But who was he? What did he do?”
Again and again, I listened to their adults spinning tall tales of exploits on the high seas, adventures in foreign lands, and treasure beyond imagination liberated in the name of His Britannic Majesty. While no foreign prison could hold him, he eventually ran out of ocean. After living the equivalent of three lifetimes, he returned home, vowing to use his wealth for the common good. Even though two hundred years separated his death and my birth, I bathed in the love and respect of everyone who stopped a while to reflect on his - our - legacy. Before them, everyone agreed, stood a very great individual whose life anyone might aspire to emulate.
I found out there were four kinds of people and quickly learned to tell them apart. I doubt it even took more than a couple of decades.
Men and women, boys and girls.
Every so often, they turned up looking entirely different to the ways I was used to, but following their fashions kept me busy and my brain active. Initially, men with hair on the fronts of their faces set me on the road to genus identification and, by default, I eventually surmised it was women who usually wore fancier clothing and hats - those with time to spend in the park during the day, at any rate.
I’d only just got the hang of it when most of the men disappeared.
For an entire summer, I pondered on it. By the time the children came to gather conkers, I even questioned my ability to recognise men between the ages of not going to school anymore and old enough for their hair to lose its colour, and reflected on it for the next three years.
Four summers later, most returned home, although many of those I liked best I never saw again. Some twenty years later, it happened again. By then, I could follow their language better and found out it was because of something they called war. I still don’t understand what it means, but it seems to lack any positive connotations.
There’s a lot I know I don’t know. As long as my education remains purely passive, it’s unlikely to change.
After the men came home for the second time, I changed colour, turning from my stunning deep brown to a powdery pale green. It happened gradually, and I didn’t notice until people started talking about it. Perhaps, I thought, that was how people like me grow old.
I learned to count from children who played hide and seek in the park.
They started at the tree to my right. The little ones who ran to stand behind me were always first to get caught. I longed to call out to them, point them to places neither their friends, nor the shadows of those who went before, ever looked. Even if I could, it was outside the spirit of the game, and not what symbolic representations of great men from history do.
Why is it just men, I wonder?
Perhaps we’re easier to make statues of. Possibly, they put those of women somewhere else, though why they should I can’t imagine, especially in this enlightened modern age.
I don’t know how many summers happened before I learned to count, but I ran out of numbers when I reached a hundred, coming ready or not. I never thought to begin again from one-two-three. A few years after that, two men pulled up in a van and changed the words beneath my feet.
And that, dear reader, was when my troubles began.
The men with the van returned often, complaining every time about having to clean away another lot of paint after groups of young artists arrived in the night to decorate me with words of their own. The men said it would be for the best to just take me away and melt me down. According to them, I was nothing but a nuisance, a magnet for thugs and hooligans. The addition of these categories confused me. They looked like a mixture of men and women with no other distinguishing characteristics I could use for identification. One night, the thugs and hooligans threw a rope around my neck, pulled me down and dragged me to the river.
I don’t know how long I was in the water.
When they pulled me out, the sun was two-thirds of the way over the Hanbroke Building. I knew the names of most of the buildings on the skyline on the other side of the river, but that was my favourite. I never tired of hearing people tell one another that the town named it after me.
I had paint in my eyes and couldn’t see. A voice spoke. “Wow, they made a mess of you. Leave the ropes on, it’ll be easier to move”.
That was the first time anyone referred to me in my hearing as an object.
Four of them carried me to the truck, and I felt the vehicle sink under my weight as they laid me down. Then they took me somewhere that looked like where I came from, though nowhere near as hot. People came to visit and talked about whether to clean me up or leave me as I was. When they realised I was corroding from the chemicals, they started rubbing away at the worst of the paint and grime to slow the process, whereupon I could see again. The alternative was selling me for scrap. Some of them said nobody would miss me, but wiser heads, I’m pleased to say, proved more persuasive. During my second hundred days in the workshop, they turned me brown again, then rubbed me until I shone like I did when I was new. How I longed to return to my place on the river.
I’ve definitely cracked counting.
Today is seventy-four and eleven hundreds. On day nineteen and two hundreds, I heard someone say they were taking me to the museum in what used to be the Hanbroke Building.
I wonder why they changed the name. Perhaps people take it in turns to have fine architecture named after them. It seems only fair.
Ah, there’s the attendant I told you about earlier. I quite forgot about seeing him this morning.
And goodnight to you, sir.
There go the lights. In a couple of minutes, my eyes will adjust from the glare of the bright spot and I’ll be able to see my companion clearly again. If they stood us together, we could be brothers. I wonder if either of us will ever escape from this place.
How I long for the river, and fresh air and freedom. Sometimes I fear they will never be mine again.