Beijing, 28 January 2013

This morning, I walked along the opposite side of the canal to go to work. I wanted to see what someone had written into the snow that thinly covers the ice. I took a photo. Readers interested in seeing it are referred to the postscript I have just added to my post “Clear, Pure, Clean, Peaceful”.

It so happens that a path has been cleared in the snow next to the script, which carries to the other side of the canal. Many people take a short cut across the ice to the other side. I hesitated. Crossing across the canal would shorten my walk to the office somewhat. But crossing ice like that always makes me a little nervous. Decades ago, when I was fourteen, I had ventured out onto a frozen lake where the ice got progressively thinner from one side to the other. As I trotted across, the ice began to creak and crack ominously. I beat a hasty retreat and all was well, but sometimes – especially if I venture onto iced-up water bodies – the sound of that creaky-cracking comes back to me; stuff of nightmares. So I hesitated.

I finally decided it was alright and set off across the canal. The cleared ice was very transparent, although the view through it was bent and warped by the unevenness of the ice. As I looked down through the ice, I saw a multitude of bubbles, of all shapes and sizes, ghostly white, trapped in the ice. Perhaps it was the slight trepidation I felt as I walked over the ice, but suddenly it seemed to me that I was seeing the last bubbles of air exhaled by a host of people who had got trapped under the ice. I half expected to suddenly see the ethereal face of some drowned person looking up at me through the ice.

I reached the other side. Silliness … I shook the feeling off. But as I turned around to survey the canal, I remembered a shard of T.S. Eliot’s poem. The Wasteland.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.