The hours between 9 to 5 belong to the working force, the productive percentage of the population. The masons and lawyers, the administrative clerks, teachers, supermarket employees, farmers, small store owners, electricians, graphic designers, journalists, judges, police officers, the casually corrupt politicians, the government employees who always seem to roam about like dead leaves blown by the wind, purposeless.
That world of working hours is their domain, those who run the economy so we may all, in turn, be smoothly run by it. They are society maintaining itself, the cogs that make the clock hands turn so the rest of us may be governed by the all-powerful concept of Time. All day long and even under the unforgiving midday sun, there is no one but them in their casual business attires, taking space, owning the city, circling their rightful orbits.
But when the revered, feared clock in the cathedral square strikes a solemn 5 and the claustrophobic offices of the capital sputter out weary employees, when the city is empty of all herd movements and the atmosphere sweetens, curious little things begin to happen.
I wonder if, one day at the beach, you’ve ever taken a good look at the naked coral reefs, the dramatic, rocky outcrops lining the shore. When the tide recedes, all sorts of strange creatures wiggle and crawl out of tiny openings, cautious yet curious of the wide world that has been left to them. Sand-coloured crabs, inky black, viscous leeches, bright orange mollusks and fascinating little amphibians that swim marvelously in the water and totter curiously on the sand — all manner of unimaginable beings suddenly come into existence, as if conjured from a child’s sleepy summer daydreams. Dreams are, after all, clouds of thoughts: you never know how far they will go, where they will land.
“Is it our turn now?” These little lives ask tentatively, “Is it alright to come out?”
Almost shyly, they go after the remains of the day, chasing the last of the seafoam and the sweetness of fading sunrays, trying to capture all the emotion that had poured overground. At last, it is their turn to observe the world, to live a little, weak and unseen as they otherwise may be.
Something quite similar to this happens in the cities. As golden hour descends on the facades of skyscrapers and light flows in cascades and rivulets, much that is unseen is finally revealed. Tucked away in small houses that are not as lively as they used to be, down roads that lead to nowhere and in anonymous neighbourhoods, the city’s retired and ailing take faltering steps and with a sigh, enter the world.
In the deserted streets, they set up worn, wicket chairs or plastic stools and lean back to observe the world. You will also see them — if you know how to look — on balconies, from behind the barred gates of their homes and around some hole-in-the-wall corner store. Some of them have their evening tea; the men will often gather for a smoke and a round of dominoes played on make-shift stools and rickety chairs. The lone tune of some oldies radio channel will float about in the air, coating the surroundings in light nostalgia and the idea that once, there was something great and beautiful, and now little remains of it. These seasoned people-watchers will observe, without reserve, the last of the working force scrambling to get home, hurrying even during the last part of their day. They will comment on appearances, speculate about these city-dwellers’ lives and often speak of the doom of this age.
It may not seem like it, but their sole purpose in that instant is to drink the moment in before it is gone, unused, unspent. The last hour before sunset, the last of the city life that pulsates so loudly during the day, and perhaps, the last of their time in this world. It is a form of grounded escapism, like wandering without getting lost.
It will happen sometimes that you earmark a neighbourhood with the image of a white-haired woman gazing at the world from her wheelchair or of a weathered man in a hat humming old songs. And then, the next time you come about, they are not there. The week after that, too. And the next one. Until you realise they’re gone. Sometimes they just become too sick to move and are confined to their beds and to the views outside of their windows. Other times, some kind soul, often another people-watcher who knows you from watching you go about, will inform you that the person has been long gone.
And then night falls — slowly, slowly but inexorably. The people retreat into their homes, the tide returns and just like this, a new day is born.