The City’s Heartbeat

The market is a measure of a city’s heartbeat. Usually smell hits you first. Hopefully fresh produce: earthy vegetables, a sweet note of fruit, a tang of leather and maybe a whiff of fish. Freshly-brewed coffee, a sizzle of a fried onions, a smear of strawberries tantalise taste buds. Sounds are a second clue. Do stall holders chatter and joke?  Do they call out to attract passers-by? Do shoppers slow their pace to browse? Textures invite touch: a stiff net, a soft fake fur, the shine on a waxed apple, the silk on a satin orchid or the smoothness of painted wood. Sight reveals a whirl of colour, smiles, space for a breather from a nagging list of errands, a toddler jumping in puddles, laughter from gossips.

In some, the smells are marred by a sour note of decay under disinfectant, the freshly-brewed coffee can’t compete with a stench of rot. Stall holders are silent and hunched with hands in pockets or cupped around a brew. Passers-by speed up: nothing to see here. Children whine and pester, reluctant to stop. Colours fade to neutrals: greys and beiges of institutions. Glares deter touching. Products are displayed under covers or still inside boxes. Pedestrians look at their feet to avoid catching another’s eye and notice the rubbish piling under stalls, the boxes of produce not unpacked and the unswept dirt. Unwelcomed, they turn away.

Today she feels upbeat, her stride confident, heels tapping to a heartbeat. She has a red jacket and ready smile. She buys fresh to cook a healthy dinner, stops to taste a cool smoothie, lingers over hand-crafted souvenirs. Pauses for a bouquet of silk carnations: nothing showy but a splash of colour for her evening table planned to inspire a sensual evening. She frequently stops to chat, share a joke and leaves on a whirl of inspiration.

Tomorrow she might be back. The red jacket swapped for a beige trench coat. Her steps ponderous. Her eyes darting so they never settle on one thing. She looks but her purse stays in her bag. The hand-crafted goods have become cheap bric-a-brac. Her perfume overwhelmed by the stink from uncleared refuse. She has forgotten her smile. Her shoulders sag. When she stops, both hands clasp a cooling coffee, a jumper sleeve is hooked over a thumb but doesn’t quite cover a damson-coloured bruise. Her heart is sluggish.

Tomorrow she might be back. Note whether you can smell perfume, whether she smiles and if it meets her eyes, if her walk skips. Is the city as healthy as it thinks?

Story Cities is available from Arachne Press

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