F3: ‘Patterns in Traffic’

PATTERNS IN TRAFFIC

Hair swept back in a tight bun, Gutchluk was polyester and permafrost. Her devotees claimed she could restore life to the recently dead, saw the future in the city’s traffic patterns, and used her cell to speak to the mountains. When asked, she avoided eye contact, taking a lengthy swig of her pale, milk tea. But I still had a job to do. Painfully aware that conversation abhors a vacuum, I was happy to use silence as a weapon. Like so many before her, she was quick to snap.

“Sometimes, yes.” she said, quietly, “But why would I use a cellphone?”

I gave a look of polite incomprehension. She simply shrugged.

“It’s rare enough for them to reply, as it is,” she said, with a distant smile, “They are, after all-”

“Mountains.” We finished the sentence together. Layers of my stomach dropping away, I closed my eyes and fell back into my seat. To them, she was both Gutchluk and Ulaanbaatar – woman and city, united as one. To me, it was quickly becoming clear that she was newscaster, and nothing more.

“So, is there any truth to the rumours?” I asked, screwing my eyes tighter. A final barrier against harsh disappointment. I hoped the language barrier would mask my frustration but, along with my question, any misgivings were swallowed by the gaping, hungry silence.

along with my question, it was swallowed by the gaping, hungry silence. Eventually, I relaxed my eyes, opening them to slits. Perhaps I was expecting her to have melted into the room’s heavy fabrics, or transformed herself into a mountain or herd of yak. My over-active imagination had failed to prepare me for tears. Heavy with sorrow, her face collapsed into a fine, damp mist.

“You have to get me out.”

Not a plea, or even a request, but a statement. Deep, tight, and angular, this voice belonged to someone else entirely.

“It’s too much.”

I hesitated. Fumbling with my wallet, and staring at my feet. Then, seizing me by the arm, she thrust my open hand against a forehead of blue flame.

“Don’t think I can .. hold on for much longer.”

I babbled an incomprehensible apology, scooped my rucksack out from behind the armchair, and fled – my feet clattering down the corridor and out, into the city streets.

I waited in the taxi rank for an eternity, flagging down vehicles only to change my mind. I already knew curiosity would win out. It was no use running away; this entire affair had a momentum of its own. Light fading, I left the rank, and began the trek back across town.

The station’s receptionist let me in. That was a success, of sorts. Initially, my request to see Gutchcluk fell on silence. I took a seat, and once it became clear I was unwilling to leave, his nervous smile was accompanied by an anxious phone call in a foreign tongue. Muscle, clothed in burgundy. I gave up, letting the momentum carry me back to vodka, soap, and the cool side of the pillow.

For the morning broadcast, Gutchcluk had gone. The vapid stare of a copper-haired newcomer, smiling and nodding in the right places; effortlessly slotted into the rendered glass of the hyperreal. No explanation from the station. Where Gutchluk had been a source of warmth and authenticity, this imposter was stiff and artificial – born of the void.

Standing to top up my drink, I shuddered. My arm hair stood to attention. ‘Imposter’? Now, I was speaking in the voice of someone who used the word ‘imposter’ with caution and forgiveness. The same tone I used when chastising my brother’s toddler. Returning my breakfast tray to the trolley, I knew what I needed to do next.

Twenty minutes later, I was on the hotel’s roof terrace, armed with consumer electronics, thermal underwear, and a dark green puffa jacket lifted from a mid-90s music video. I wandered over to the edge, and peered down into the traffic-lined streets below. My heart was racing. Inhale. Exhale. The city air tasted of iron. The honking and yells of a distant, ephemeral gridlock afforded me no insight into that which was yet to come. But why did I need to see the future in traffic, when I could speak to the mountains?

A moment of clarity. I called up the airline interface on my wearable, and smiled. Two … no, one ticket to LHR. And freedom, for one of us at least.

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