The Orphanage of Chance Thoughts

I was eight years old when I announced to my father that I wanted to live in our tenement forever. I’d read about old buildings filled with wonders, with secret passages in the very walls, and I assumed that if we stayed in the tenement for long enough, it would eventually reach the required age by which such wonders would spontaneously emerge. My misapprehension was corrected with considerable violence, but I have since learned that things conceived in haste and built without care can indeed grow in strangeness and beauty, in time. That tenement, though, did not number among them.

I’d read about dens, too, and had the good sense not to tell my father about mine when I discovered it later that evening. It was a sad approximation of the ones in books–nothing more than an empty space between a row of tangled trees and the crumbling wall against which they were planted. But it was a beginning. I didn’t know what praying was, then, but I suppose I prayed there: in that dry summer, when the trees were in leaf, I huddled in their shade among my salvage and practised a kind of idolatry, thinking that if I could fully conceive of the complexity of a single leaf, hold it all in my mind at once, its veins like strange city streets would change course and lead me somewhere new.

I knew my city too well, though, to believe that it was worth going far. I had all the unhappiness needed to run away, but none of the optimism, and my father’s cruelty was, at least, predictable. I slept every night in the den, and only in the mornings when he was gone did I go back to the tenth-floor flat to find food and water.

I became almost wild, and I learned to have only a casual relationship with consciousness. Nothing more than that, nothing special, only a child misaligned with everyday life, but it was enough. The city was not able to keep track of me. That is how it came to answer my prayer.

I awoke early one morning to the chirrup of a blackbird, inches from my ear, and saw a small, neat package at my feet. A white cloth napkin, wrapped around a sandwich of thick dark bread, with crumbling white cheese and sticky russet-brown mustard inside. A squat little apple, irregular in shape and colour, the kind you can’t buy in a shop. And a folded document of heavy paper, the outside edge of which was printed with the words: The City Is Awake.

I scrambled to my feet, clutching the bundle, and clambered out of the den blinking in the sunlight, feeling the heat already rising from the ground despite the early hour. I was mortified at the notion that I’d been taken for a beggar, but a thrill coursed through me nonetheless. The package looked different in the light, its colours more saturated than those of the surroundings: in comparison, my own dirty hands and ragged clothing looked grey and pale. I could see no sign of my benefactor, or indeed of anyone at all. It didn’t occur to me not to trust the food: for the loved, trust is a choice, but for me it was only ever a necessity. So I sank down onto the warm ground, and ate.

I’d never tasted anything quite like it. The bread at the tenement, when we had it, was square, pale, rubbery and oddly sweet; this was rich, savory, almost black in colour and slightly spiced, its densely seeded crust shedding dark crumbs that invited the inquisitive blackbird closer. The mustard was burning and honey-sweet and made my eyes water, but felt clean on my tongue. The only cheese I’d tasted before then had been hard and dry and greasy: this was ripe and soft and tasted of cream and salt and woodsmoke. I swallowed the sandwich down so fast that afterwards I regretted not enjoying it more. I shook out the napkin for the bird, who eagerly pecked up the crumbs, and then used it to wipe my lips. Not from hunger but from a desire still to be hungry, I started on the apple, which looked diseased but tasted sweet, sharp, and shot through with the ghost of the blossom from which it grew.

I unfolded the document and found it to be a map of my city. There was the river, on the west side, and the coastline to the east; my eyes naturally drifted to the relative position of my own neighbourhood, between the two. And I noticed, to my astonishment, a pencilled circle around the precise location of my den.

Heart pounding, I examined the map more closely. With my finger I traced the roads of my neighbourhood and found them twisting where they shouldn’t, leading nowhere, leading elsewhere. The map was losing me: could this really be my city? Drifting into a state of familiar and soothing dissociation, it began to seem that the map was tracing my finger, not the other way around, and I blinked forcefully and refocused my eyes.

A sickening jolt struck my throat as I saw that my finger was no longer pointing at my neighbourhood, but rested beside a pencilled note, pointing to a marked location to the south-east, down by the sea. Meet me here, it read.

Impossible. No-one could want to meet me–no-one even knew me except for my father. I was still just a child, and in my part of the city children were interchangeable, replaceable, a blight to be borne reluctantly and cruelly. I read the words out loud–meet me here–lengthening the first letter so that the hum buzzed warmly in the bones of my nose, my palate and tongue luxuriating in the assonances. Meet me here. Someone had written that for me, and the feeling accompanying that certain knowledge was brand new and bright as the sun.

I knew all about adventures, just like I knew about dens. I salvaged many books in those days; all were torn at the spine and incomplete, but I’d read enough fragments to have a dim sense of the whole. I wasn’t particularly optimistic about this one, but even if it turned out to be broken-backed, bleak, and bitter, it would be better than nothing. I looked at the map again and memorised the relative position of the rendezvous point, ignoring the erroneously winding streets, and set off.

The streets of my city are narrow and deep, such that the precariously tall steam trams seem protected from toppling. I pulled myself onto the back of an eastbound tram and scrambled up the spiral steps to the top deck. From the height of the tram I looked up still further, at the upper floors of grand city buildings and their hanging gardens, reaching for high summer’s fringes of sunlight dipping into the street at the approach of noon. High above, the hot air was limpid, and the blue of the sky seemed too dark for day; it was like gazing up into a deep pool of drowned stars.

When I was close to the marked destination, I slid off the tram as it slowed to round a sharp bend. I could hear, beyond the cacophony of city traffic, the deeper, softer, and more dangerous voice of the sea. Here the streets were wider and shallower, with a wind whipping through them. A storm was rolling in from the east.

I took out the map and quickly refolded it so that the section with my destination faced outward; glancing at it every so often, I walked swiftly in an attempt to appear inconspicuous. But the neighbourhood was like a parody of my own, and just as I could detect an outsider there as readily as a bad smell, the eyes in doorways and behind curtains found out my strangeness in seconds.

The grey shore drew closer and the city began to recede. I dreaded leaving the shelter of the streets. The energy of the morning had worn off: this was no adventure, only a walk through a burned-out neighbourhood in a broken city. I glanced at the map again, and felt sure I’d reached the marked location–upon closer examination, it seemed to indicate a long, narrow bridge, but all I could see was an empty crossroads, dusted over with grey sand, and beyond that nothing but sea.

The wind roared in my ears and blew the sand into my eyes. I forgot all about protecting myself, and stood, dejected, at the rendezvous point on the city’s edge. In my distraction I didn’t hear the footsteps of my assailant, who, with the advantage of surprise and superior strength, had me on the ground in seconds. He gripped my wrists in one hand and emptied my pockets with the other; the wind seized the map and dragged it out to sea. Darkness took me as the map was submerged beneath the waves; in the moments before losing consciousness, I could see pinpricks of light out on the ocean’s shadows, and hear the low, dissonant pounding of phantom cathedral bells ringing out across the storm-touched sea.

The heat of the day had melted into the wind and the sun was low when I came round. My injuries weren’t bad. The usual reflexes: running my tongue around my mouth to check all my teeth were intact, visually assessing my limbs before trying to move them. I lifted a hand to my face and it came back bloody. I’d lost the napkin, so I dabbed at the wounds with a dirty sleeve.

Knowing I couldn’t get away with riding the tram–clean fare-dodger is one thing, bloodied participant in the city’s violence quite another–I walked home. In the den I waited for the throbbing in my head to fade as the sunlight was gradually exchanged for the grimy glaze of a nearby gaslamp. Violence was something I’d learned to tolerate without emotional investment, so I considered the day’s betrayal quite rationally. I concluded that in all likelihood one of the gangs was trying to recruit me, and this was the first day of the typical three-day initiation. Perhaps I’d failed by not fighting back; surely I’d get another chance, though. Once the gangs have scouted you, you have two choices: join, or die. I remembered hearing talk of an initiation only last week, when a boy a little older than me had been drowned in the river after he failed a three-day hazing.

It didn’t quite occur to me, then, that a packed lunch and a map wasn’t exactly their style. That had felt like an act of love, the like of which I had never before experienced.

Eventually, sleep overtook speculation. The den was gradually getting too small for me, but I slept soundly for all that.

All the while, the woken and watchful city waited.

The next morning, there was another package at my feet.

Today’s napkin was pale blue, wrapped around a generous slice of puff pastry pie. Inside I found wild mushrooms layered with onions, potatoes, and that same creamy, smoky cheese I’d had the day before. No apple this time–instead, a cluster of tiny black grapes. A wooden die, weighty and substantial. And an uncanny, familiar map.

It was the same one I’d followed yesterday. I was sure of it. There was a grease spot and a mustard stain in one corner, and though it had since been folded the right way, it showed the marks of where I’d hastily refolded it the day before. I was sure I’d seen it swallowed by the sea, and yet here it was again, in the same condition as it had been just before the wind snatched it from my fingers.

Well, not quite the same. As I ate the pie, I noticed that someone had pencilled an arrow between the words IS and AWAKE, and had added, in block capitals and emphatically underlined, STILL! I unfolded the map, hoping for more markings. I found none, but there was an additional sheet of paper tucked into the folds.

On one side, typed, was a strange set of instructions:

Drift Instructions for Chance Thoughts

1 = left

2 = straight

3 = right

4 = back

5 = up

6 = down

Roll for Each Choice

On the other side, there was a pencilled postscript, in the same hand as the writing on the map:

Follow instructions till you reach me and Do Not Think. If impossible to do as instructed, roll again. Note: do not decide it is impossible. Try, fail, reroll. Purely random path safest. Please: trust me.

As I read the note, I felt as though my often-dissociated mind was coming back into my body and infusing it with a warm light, thick as honey. My limbs felt hot and supple, and a shiver coursed from behind my ears to the ends of my fingers and toes. I could taste that first T of trust on the tip of my tongue and it was cream and salt and woodsmoke, with pencil shavings and paper and the sound of a sweet female voice. Trust flowed in and out of me like breath–it was a guest, an aide, not the physiological imperative that had betrayed me over and over again since birth. I walked out onto the street and crouched to roll. One. I turned left, and headed west.

The adventure was surprisingly straightforward, at the beginning. Even rolling a five or six presented no problems, because each time I did I found a way up or down–steps, ladders, or a climbable wall. Chance was in harmony with the broad truth of the city’s traffic, and so a strange calm came over me. I flowed down the avenues like water. I sank down into deeper streets like a stone. I floated to the heights of the city and found myself unable to recall how I’d done it. It was as though I was caught in a current, my motions irrelevant as I was swept along.

Hours passed this way, drifting along with the calm of unfocused eyes and a dissociated mind. I began to be able to smell the sea over the stink of the streets, and sometimes my intention to reach the bridge sharpened, but every time it did I let it go again, settling back into the aleatory blur of my unchosen path. Eventually, though, the city found a way to stop me.

I reached a strange district I hadn’t visited before, eerily quiet despite possessing some of the tallest buildings I’d ever seen. At a four-way intersection I rolled a five, but I couldn’t find any way up. The doors were locked and the windows boarded up, so I couldn’t get in anywhere to find a staircase. I couldn’t find any footholds in the smooth concrete walls. I thought back to the instructions. Surely this qualified as failing. I crouched down to roll again.

As I did so, the die left my hand and spun to the edge of the pavement, where it teetered above a drain. I reached out to grab it, but I was suddenly slow and clumsy, fumbling and dropping it again. It began to fall, but incredibly slowly; it dipped into the drain, I was certain, but then it reversed course and rolled out again. I tried once more to reach for it, but something like a gust of wind forced me away. As I fell I hit my head hard against stone, and lost consciousness for the second time in as many days.

When I came round, my surroundings had altered completely. I could still smell the sea, but I wasn’t at the intersection. I appeared to be on a long, paved avenue, and at its end all I could see was the sky. Very slowly, I propped myself up on my elbows, and noticed, with sudden horror, that it wasn’t an avenue at all. The ground fell away on either side.

It was a bridge.

I got to my feet, and begin to walk forward, towards the empty sky. With a surge of hope, I decided I’d somehow reached my destination. This had to be it, the long, narrow bridge marked on the map. There were clouds where the horizon was supposed to be, so I couldn’t quite make out where the sea ended and the sky began. Every so often a boarded-up hole appeared in the ground, and I carefully avoided it. Meet me here. Someone was waiting for me at the end.

The first horror came when I got to a hole that wasn’t boarded up. There was darkness underneath, and I crouched down to look through. My eyes were dazzled by the brightness of the sky, but eventually I could make out another floor beneath the bridge. And levitating a few feet above it, a tiny human form, face down, very still. It was a terrible shock, and I must have made a sound, because she turned, then, and her thin, frightened face rushed up towards mine, and she was screaming.

I jumped up and ran until her screams faded, and kept running until I reached the end of the bridge. I could see only sky ahead, and below, and from side to side. The bridge was connected to nothing, and there was nobody here to meet me in the emptiness at its end.

I wondered, then, about the little girl under the bridge; I turned for the first time and looked back towards her.

She’d emerged from the hole up to her shoulders and was facing the wrong way, but her head was twisted around towards me, and she still seemed to be screaming, but then I was screaming too, because I could see that this wasn’t a bridge. It was one of the buildings from the four-way intersection. This sudden realisation surged through my mind and snapped it out of the illusion; I began to fall, but almost immediately the idea of the bridge forcefully reasserted itself. The two versions of the intersection grappled for predominance; gravity surged in multiple directions, slamming me into the side of the building several times as I fell, dividing what would otherwise have been a fatal fall into numerous survivable ones. When I hit the ground, I was less badly hurt than I had been the day before, though the cumulative effect of the bruises was brutally painful.

I didn’t even care about the impossibility of it all, or that I’d lost the map and die during my fall. All I could think of was that I’d been handed an adventure two days running, and I’d somehow bungled it both times, and in all my sad, short life up till that point, I’d never felt such deep disappointment.

I limped back to my den, tears and blood running down my face. I tried to stay awake that night, in case I got another package. I wanted to see who delivered it, and to waste my remaining energy fighting them. But I bungled that too, and fell asleep with my face in the hedge.

The next morning, there were two packages.

Blinking in the morning sunlight, my head throbbing again, I emerged from the den with a package in each hand, and looked around, dazed. And I saw a young woman in a yellow cotton dress, her hair a massy cloud around her pretty face. Her dark skin was dotted with freckles, and her smile was the loveliest thing I’d ever seen. In my shock I dropped the packages and gaped at her.

“There you are,” she said. “Come here, little sister!” And in spite of the previous night’s violent resolutions, I trotted over, like an obedient puppy, and she drew me into an embrace. She smelled wonderful, like violets and briny sea air. And her colours seemed more saturated than those of her surroundings, and in comparison I was dirty and grey and pale.

“You poor thing,” she said, stroking my raggedly cut hair. And then, almost as an afterthought: “It’s so hard to find ones like you now.“

“Ones like me?” The last sound I’d made was my scream as I fell the day before, and my voice was broken and barely audible.

“The in-between ones,” she said. “The chance thoughts. The ones we can still save.“

“I don’t understand,” I stammered. “Which gang are you from? Why do you want me? How did I–” But I broke off into a cough, my voice unable to sustain my questions.

She smiled gently, and lifted me up as though I weighed nothing, and I clung to her like an infant. “My name is Thirza,” she whispered into my ear, “and I’m not from any gang you know. I live in the same city as you, but–not in the same state of the city. Of mind, so to speak. Look, I’ll explain everything, but not yet. We have to get to the river, and strategise where it can’t hear us.”


“The city,” she whispered, lips barely moving. She put me down, and spoke at a normal volume, recovering the packages. “Let’s eat on the way,” she said, and handed one to me.

“Are you a social worker?” I asked, suddenly suspicious. I’d heard of them before. My father always told me they stole children and ate them.

“No, little sister,” she said. “I’m a clinical psychogeographer. That’s a kind of doctor, like a psychiatrist, only the client is the city itself. I’m one of many; the work I’m doing now is finding and helping chance thoughts like you. There’s a point when you’re living half in one world, and half in another, when we can detect you, get you out. You can trust me. Now, eat!”

The napkin was yellow, like her dress, and inside was a buttery, sweet pastry. I bit into it and found a fruit filling, inky purple, and still hot.

“No map this time,” said Thirza, her lips stained with the dark berries. “I wanted to be sure to get you out. I thought the encouragement and the controlled randomisation would be enough, but it’s resisting.” She smiled, and reached over to brush pastry crumbs from my chin. “You got so close, yesterday …“

I kept eating, unsure if I had any voice left, unsure what I’d say even if I did. The sun glared down on us, but I was shivering. I half-walked, half-jogged to keep up; eventually, we reached the river. It looked too angry, too insistent, for a day so hot and close and bright and still.

“I realise that this is out of our way,” Thirza began, her voice battling the sound of rushing water. “But I thought it might be better to figure things out from here. There’s this funny thing about rivers, you see. They’re schemata, to use the language of my profession. They come before cities, you see; cities inherit them, like deep faith hanging on an uneasy premise …”

“I don’t understand,” I said, in barely more than a whisper, but then I thought of my deepest faith, the one I had inherited, the rushing river of hopelessness and sure knowledge that all effort is wasted and life is cruel. And I thought of the remapping I’d done over the years to accommodate that thing that should have given life to my mind, but instead had always to be worked around. And I wondered if it would be better to have built far, far downstream, or even on the ocean itself, where all these things, all faiths, expired.

Thirza gestured towards the river.

“This is it,” she said. “The city’s deepest and most unconscious activity–its dark and dangerous and wild place that came before thought. Close to the river, close to the faith, lots of little thoughts go unquestioned. Including us. They drown in that rush of unthinking belief. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Join, or die. I thought of the boy the gangs had killed at the river, and I reconnected Thirza’s actions into an image not of kindness and rescue but of murderous cruelty. She was crouching by the river now, and its murky waters lapped around her fingertips as she caressed its surface. Like an old man comforting a faithful dog. Like a soldier reaching for a gun.

I stood up unsteadily, and started to run. My head was throbbing and all my muscles ached horribly, and in my terror I began to dissociate. I drifted away, slowly, from the pain and fear of my body. A tiny part of my mind was reserved for the bruised and frightened child who stumbled downstream along the water. But the remainder began to distribute itself as broadly as the city limits, settling like evening fog over the bleak streets, bending its beliefs between the banks of the river.

And my panic eased, and I began to understand what Thirza had really meant.

The previous day’s expansive drift through the city had been only a shadow of this. I could feel the river in my gut, my old den dreamlike in my heart, and the trams and traffic in my head. The ordered motions of the streets soothed my ebbing fear. A meditative state came over me, and I began to drift from consciousness, but an array of vivid and unanticipated thoughts disrupted my calm. I tried to connect them to meaning, to domesticate them in the deep grooves of the streets, but I couldn’t. I turned my attention to them.

I considered the building I’d fallen from the day before; the little girl at the window became the motion that began a conscious thought. Another part of my mind caught itself on a broken-down tram that I must have passed two days before, and three boys sleeping inside it extended the motion into concepts. A pinprick of light like a memory emerged from the hanging gardens of the upper city, and on one of the verdant balconies a teenage girl with black hair and stained lips and bruises on her face trembled the concepts into thoughts.

The thoughts came from dark places that I couldn’t understand, suppressed places, hidden from consciousness, but always growing. I could feel it, and it was unbearable, and as I tried to bend truth to return to calm I heard the girl screaming in pain. And the river grew stronger, and the streets weaker, and I listened to the river’s promises. Why have a city at all, when all this could be sea, and the river no more than a memory?

I felt a stillness come over me, the calm of the drowned, and coldness drifted into me, and a distant voice became clearer.

“Oh please wake up …please wake up …”

I coughed the coldness out of my lungs and found I was in a small boat on the river, with Thirza kneeling over me.

“I thought I’d lost you.” She propped me up and I rested my head in her lap. I was soaked through with river water. “You ran away, straight into the water. I thought you’d drowned.“

“I thought you brought me here to kill me,” I replied, but I was smiling as I sat up slowly. “But the city …” I paused, and rubbed water from my eyes. “I think the city wants to drown.“

“The city wants to go back to sleep,” said Thirza, “and it can’t. We need to teach it to wake up calmly, to accept the inevitability of what it has become, and to …” She broke off, and laughed quietly. “To enjoy itself. To be happy. Strange as that might sound.“

The whole world seemed to expand in that moment, with the notion that wakefulness was more than just the attempt to sleep again. The little boat had run aground, and I saw that we were near the neighbourhood I’d found on the first day. But it was slightly off, slightly different, as though someone had seen it, half-remembered it and described it to someone else, and the someone else had tried to sketch it.

“What are you seeing?” Thirza asked.

“I see a bridge,” I answered. “It–it wasn’t here before, when I first followed the map. And yet I’m sure we’re in the same place.“

“We are, and we aren’t,” she said. “Looks like we’re home, little sister.” And across the bridge we went, between sea and sky.

The weather had cooled suddenly; a glistening compromise between rain and mist hung in the air, slightly inclined downward, but nonetheless resisting the pull of earth. As we walked I realised I couldn’t hear the city any more, only the sea, and I thought only then how strange it was that I’d grown up by the world’s edge and yet never touched the ocean. The sand was grey and so was the water, which balked from the shore with the pull of the tide. As the waves receded, I saw that our bridge continued as a pathway, leading right out into the misty sea.

As I followed Thirza out where the waves had been, I began to see our destination. An island, dotted all over with glittering lights. We drew closer, to the evening darkness of the east and the ocean, and I saw that it was another city, rising out of the sea. Bells clanged out over the sound; I wondered that I’d never heard them before. With dread, I recalled my sensations before losing consciousness on that first day, and wondered if this was another hallucination, the kind that occupies the space between a blow and the realisation of the associated pain. But then Thirza squeezed my hand.

“What do you see?” she said, once more, when we’d followed the tide over the bridge and reached the island itself.

“I see a city on a hill,” I began, and I saw that the streets were full of people, and the windows threw out light into the dim streets, their insides wet with condensation, and the air was hung with briny mist, and a castle crowned the crest of the hill. Tears were on my face. And Thirza’s smile was all kindness.

That castle on the sea became my home. The harder Thirza and her team worked, the more likely it became that all children like me would find there way there. There were already so many–children who had learned how to live between worlds and had found their way to this one. And there I learned one of the greatest secrets of this age of humankind, which is, in its decline, rich and complex in ways that are quite accidental.

Our cities, you see, have become as great minds; mine was only the first of many that became able to think. And we its inhabitants are motes of thought without meaning, in its deep streets becoming its strong beliefs, its guiding passions, its well-rehearsed and unconsidered responses. Following the current of the river, as it blindly expires oceanward, we are its rush of deep faith.

Beyond the city’s legal, lateral traffic, though, beyond authorised motion and ravines carved by the years, there are wretched in-between spaces–a dusty hollow between a crumbling wall and a hedge, for example, or an upper-floor squat in a derelict building, or a broken tram, or a balcony miles up in the air, burning under the noonday sun.

I was being cured as well as the city, losing my dissociation and hypervigilance and ability to blend in and hide. That meant that I couldn’t do what I’d done when I ran away from Thirza. But I retained the precise memory of those others I’d seen. As Thirza’s apprentice psychogeographer, I found them all–the three orphaned boys, the little girl who had been kidnapped, and the teenager who’d been sold to the gardens by her mother. I brought them back to the castle on the sea, and, having lost the ability to blend my mind with the city, learned from Thirza how to find others.

We all still run about the city like children even now, hopping from balcony to balcony in the heights, running up buildings and diving into the deeps of the sky, scouting for hideouts, for chance thoughts in hidden places.

And these thoughts we expand into great ideas, and each time we do, wonders spontaneously emerge from every branching street of the city. It grows in feverish impossibility and beauty, and we cannot know if it will sustain itself or fail and forget, in the end. But the river by which we travel home rushes on, bridged by reason, but in its pure unreason ever giving life.

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