We chugged and rattled, warehouses and factories slid by for hours on end until the water widened and the boat slowed down, the city's spires and cranes loomed into view and I realised that whatever limit A20 had must have crept up and glided past us long ago, as immaterial and transient as a wake.
The harbour was dazzling. It was early summer. Dinghies and catamarans were cutting geometric figures through the water, lines and triangles of white. Low-lying Golf Super-Duty tankers let off bellows that were taken up by dredgers and cargo carriers, transposed into new octaves and repeated. A tug was spurting vertical jets of water, fanned-out columns joined by spray-membranes that broke the sunlight into primary colours, a peacock's tail. Off to the side, by Java Island, a tea-clipper was moored: a huge four-master strung with webs of rigging. Behind it, on land, giant pylons straddled the horizon. I remember squinting as I looked at them - squinting and smiling with exhilaration. They were like gods, ringing the city in; or maybe guardians; or maybe simply an affirmation of what A20, for me, embodied, and the reason I'd been so keen to take the brief on in the first place: a promise of connection.
The tea-clipper turned out to belong to the City of Anachronists. It was one of their more overstated rallying-points, a kind of monumental touchstone for that city's smaller, less obvious manifestations: the old, horse-drawn Heineken carriages you would sometimes see trundling along their delivery circuits beside the canals, the clogs whose wooden clipclop you would hear from time to time down some unremade cobbled street, the old Dutch language shopkeepers and cleaners sometimes spoke. I'd seen that city's name among the documents I'd studied back in Italy, but hadn't understood how a City of Anachronists might actually work - or, for that matter, how any of the civic system known as A20 might play itself out, function, regulate itself. Amsterdam 2.0 had become a buzzword among urban planning circles the world over even prior to its emergence. It had become a buzzword among sociologists, a buzzword among economists, political theorists, artists and all manner of vague utopians. Its constitution was championed as a paragon of new-way thinking, a document as central to the age of post-industrial networks as the American Constitution had been to the ages of Enlightenment and Revolution. Within three years of A20's establishment within and around the metropolitan area of Amsterdam proper, other cities and regions started to consider taking the model on - my own, the Turin Basin Area, included. And yet nobody, it seemed, actually understood it. How could four hundred 'cities' co-inhabit the same territory? What might being 'in' one entail? What were the economic advantages? The disadvantages? Beyond all that, what would it actually be like to live there?
Now that Turin was seriously considering becoming, in part at least, an A20 franchise, it was this last question that most needed an answer. PR documents were one thing; so were journalists' accounts or urban theorists' analyses. What Turin's planners needed was for one of their own to give them a perspective on it all. Not an administrative perspective but a psychological one, an emotional one. I was unattached, in my thirties, and had worked for the Turin Planning Department for six years. It was agreed that I would spend a year in A20 - partly on-site researching, but more importantly just living: immersing myself in the place, experiencing it. It was agreed that I would not file a report or make any contact until the year was over. In order to fulfil my brief I would, to a large extent, forget my brief - forget I even had one in the first place.
I was provided with a contact to liase with on arrival. One Arjen Tuithof. He worked in the Administration Building near the Centraal Station. I went there as soon as I had disembarked. It turned out to be quite small, no more than two floors high, a drab seventies office block. It had linoleum floors and cheap Formica tables behind which scruffily-dressed men and women sat shunting papers around coffee mugs and ashtrays. They looked bored. I wandered over to the only table I could see that had a chair on the non-operator's side and asked the man behind it where I could find this Arjen Tuithof.
Who? he asked me.
Arjen Tuithof, I said. He's expecting me.
The man popped a biscuit into his mouth and pulled a sheet of paper from beneath some other papers. While he ran one finger down this sheet his other hand lifted and shunted other biscuits. They were some kind of salty biscuit and he had laid five or six of them in rows across his desk; while he scanned the paper his hand reordered the rows. The biscuits were identical, but his hand rearranged them as though following some logic, moving one aside to make place for another, swapping the displaced one with a third. He continued doing this while he copied a code from the sheet into a computer and waited for the staff list to come up. He didn’t look at me or ask me to sit down.
No Arjen Tuithof here, he said eventually.
He worked here, I said.
People move on, he replied, still looking at his screen.
I'm from the Turin Delegation, I told him. I mean, I am the Turin Delegation.
His hand stopped shunting biscuits and he looked up at me.
What does that mean? he asked.
Arjen Tuithof was my contact, I said. Into Amsterdam 2.0.
Contact? he replied. What do you need?
I need to connect, I told him.
Connect? he asked.
To Amsterdam 2.0.
Go to the Central Subscription Office, he said. Subscribe to one of the cities and you're in. He fished out another piece of paper and handed it to me. His eyes returned to the screen, and his free hand resumed reordering the biscuits.
The Central Subscription Office was across town. I took a cab, which wasn’t easy. Whole segments of the city were being ripped up and relaid. Streets regularly gave way to giant holes from which diggers were scooping mounds of light brown earth, cranes tearing up intricate root-systems of pipes and cables. On one of the many detours we were forced to make, we nearly ran over a pedestrian. The funny thing was, he seemed to almost invite it: he had clearly seen us coming, but he positioned himself firmly on the tarmac sideways on to us and let us come at him, arching his body backwards at the final moment as we reached him so that his knees bent away from the car but his shoulders leant back in towards it. At another point, we were held up by a group of people crouching in the road. I thought at first they were surveyors, but they weren't taking readings in the way surveyors do. They seemed to be poring over the glitches in the tarmac's surface - cracks, stains, the amoeba-like shapes of introd chewing gum - scouring them in an almost votive manner. I wanted to ask my taxi driver what was going on, but he had the most enormous boil on his face - a fresh, raw, red one of a type I'd never seen outside of high school medical textbooks - and the sight was so unpleasant that I avoided any conversation with him so as not to have to look at it.
The Central Subscriptions Office was smarter and more modern that the Administration Building. It had carpets and plants and a much fresher smell to it. The staff were dressed smart-casual, and were busy but friendly. The one who dealt with me smiled and introduced himself as Dirk This or That as he invited me to sit down. I started explaining that I needed to join Amsterdam 2.0 but he interrupted me.
You have to understand, he said, that we cannot simply process you into A20 like it was a single organisation.
No? I asked.
He sighed. It is complicated. We have many compatibility problems. There are problems of compatibility between the cities of A20, and between A20 and the non-A20 Amsterdam. And anyway, there is no member's card, no passport. If you want to, you can subscribe to a city. You can do that in this building or by phone.
Which city should I subscribe to? I asked.
There are four hundred cities, he replied. The choice is yours. Choice, and choice: we have all choice, but no compatibility. Me, I would advise you subscribe to Convergence City. This is what is needed most right now.
I followed his advice. Convergence City was city number 78. I ran through the well-designed online subscription procedure, entered my credit and address details and got a pre-generated screen informing me that a representative of Convergence City would come to find me at my hotel that same evening. He arrived at the appointed hour and we ate together in the hotel restaurant. His name was Colin; he was about my age and slightly overweight. Convergence City, he explained over a steak and fries, was in his opinion the most important of all the cities in Amsterdam 2.0, as it allowed the other cities to cohabit.
It all has to merge, you see? he said enthusiastically. Currency, law, custom, you name it. No convergence, no ball game. A20 is Convergence City.
Where are you from? I asked him.
California, he said. Napa Valley. But that doesn’t matter: I could be from anywhere. That has to converge too. What skills have you got?
I told him I had worked in population monitoring and traffic-flow analysis.
That's awesome, he said. We need that kind of shit real bad. I'll pick you up tomorrow and we'll get you working in the simulation department. I know the head.
Colin was good to his word. Over the next weeks I found myself running a programme that simulated different types of processes and networks in need of convergence. A20's currency situation was a mess, with several cities issuing their own money and the City of Four Hundred Currencies speculating on it all; my software would run permutating three-year economic cycle-scenarios to see how long we could go before devaluation and hyperinflation set in. Refuse collection hadn't been successfully rationalised either; my software would run 'filth scenarios' in order to ascertain how soon the situation would lead to an infestation of rats or outbreak of disease if unresolved. During the month or so I spent in Convergence City's office I was, effectively, conducting research of the type that back in Turin was known as 'Disaster Forecasting'.
Colin found me a flat in the same building as his, in the Jordaan. We would eat takeaways together and he would talk enthusiastically about convergence.
Think, he'd tell me with noodles in his mouth, how Amsterdam came about in the first place. They didn't have jack shit: no goods, no military power, not even any land. So they look around and say: "Hey, everyone else is at war with each other, and they can't trade in their own places, so we'll grab some land back from the sea and make a trading zone where everyone else can come and mix with one another. And we'll tax the hell out of it." That, my friend, is convergence thinking.
Colin was working on acronyms and abbreviations. Every city needed an acronym for sorting and referral purposes, just like airports do, but often two or more cities laid claim to the same acronymic sequence. Colin was arbitrating in a long and bitter dispute between the City of Animists and the City of Altruists over this very issue. You'd think the Altruists would back down, he'd complain over dinner, but oh Jesus no! He was also a member of Convergence City's Constitutional Revision Council, which had been set up to iron out inconsistencies that arose within the terms of A20's constitution when two cities' interests overlapped. This happened a lot: Fascist City and The (Ultra) Democratic City were a case in point. Amendments and Provisos were being drafted within Convergence City's offices, and Colin talked about these with real zeal. Nonetheless I began to sense that there was something else beneath his passion for convergence, some other, more intimate agenda all these drafts and deliberations served to cover up. It was a kind of longing, though for what I couldn’t tell. He seemed very attached to me, and insisted that we eat together every night. Sometimes, while he talked, I'd stop listening and watch the way his hands clenched at the table, or the pattern of food-stains on his T-shirt. In these moments he looked like a child, messy and vulnerable.
Working in Convergence City, I got to know the make-up and credos (could I call them that? Or would beliefs be better? Beliefs or desires?) of most of A20's other cities. Most had a kind of mission statement on their homepage. Orchestral City's talked of reconfiguring urban transit along corridors of sound, of buildings starting and ending not with walls and doors but at the limit of their audibility. Fire stations, metalworks and music conservatories should be strategically located so as to maximise symphonic range; the ubiquitous drills and piledrivers should be both conducted and recorded, together with the thousand other instruments daily life made sound for our delight. The City of Alphabets seemed to consist of people who liked big letters, and wanted streets, sectors and buildings to be designated by these rather than by names. The City of Bullfights urged its subscribers to consider every urban interaction as a moment in a tauromachic contest, a set of manoeuvres in which skill and technique pirouetted around danger. I wondered if the man I'd almost run down on my first day there had been a COB subscriber, drawing a passado from our car before turning to receive applause from some invisible audience of dark-haired ladies with carnations in their hair. Cargo Cult City's homepage, which was in both English and some kind of pidgin, talked of a messiah called Jack Frumm, perhaps but by no means certainly named after an American G.I. who'd worked on military bases in the South Pacific during World War Two. Frumm was worshipped by tribes throughout Melanesia, who had cleared landing strips in the jungle and built imitation radio masts out of bamboo, then sat around waiting for planes full of tinned food and electric fridges to descend from the sky. Cargo Cult City's subscribers were paying for docking bays to be built by the Frieshuis in the harbour: diagrams for their construction formed a large part of their webpage. Constructing these was Phase One of CCC's long-term plan. Phase Two was communicated by a single word: Wait.
I worked in Convergence City for over a month. Why did I leave? I just got antsy, I suppose. Restless. Well, to cut to the chase: I got horny. Sitting in an office full of men throughout a hot and muggy summer, eating fast food every night and listening to Colin's convergence talk, I started fantasising about other kinds of merging, physical kinds. Surfing through the cities' pages on my monitor at work, I'd read about the City of Sex. In early August I decided to join it. Back at home one evening, I phoned the Central Subscription Switchboard and ran through the transferral procedure. This took quite a while. They had an automated menu: If you know the number of the city you wish to subscribe to, press One on your keypad now. I didn’t know the number. To hear a list of all the cities, the voice continued, press Two now. City of Sex was number 320. To subscribe to this city, I was told after an eternity, press Three now. I pressed Three. Sorry, said the voice, you must first unsubscribe from your current city. To do this, press One now. The switchboard had a background hum that resonated in the earpiece as I waited. It was like the hum of countless operators at work, switching, plugging in, connecting - and, beyond them, the electric pulsing of the circuits they plugged into; then, beyond even that, invisible loops and circuits forging connections beyond the physical, sub-strata of connections that made tangible connections possible. The hum was like the murmur of all these circuits blended together into a long, slow, languid sound with no beginning and no end.
On subscribing to the City of Sex, I was given a password to type into their homepage. This brought up a pre-generated screen which informed me that a representative of COS would meet me in the Vondelpark the following afternoon. I got there early. At the park's entrance more diggers were tearing up the streets, removing pipes, cables and earth. I wondered what they did with all the ballast they were getting rid of. It had to go somewhere. Inside, cyclists and skaters glided on a counter-clockwise loop along the park's main path. I'd been told to meet the representative, a woman (I'd pressed Four for female as opposed to Five for male), near the Café Vertigo. On the path outside the café was an Italian ice cream stand. I knew it was Italian because it had a little Italian flag flapping above it. The man serving up the scoops inside it spoke with an Italian accent: I could hear this as he chatted with his customers. I thought of going up to him and asking him what part of Italy he came from, but the COS representative turned up before I could do this. She arrived on rollerskates. She was fairly pretty, about my age, with longish, light-brown hair. Her name was Frieda. She took me straight back to her place and we had sex. It was pretty good. We ran through the gamut of positions; she made noises, came and so on. But her eyes seemed glazed, her gaze off somewhere else, as though fixated on some other encounter taking place in an invisible location to which I hadn't been given the password.
I had sex with Frieda quite a lot that summer. I had sex with other COS subscribers too. It got so that I could pick them out in a bar or supermarket pretty easily, cast them a certain look which they'd send back and - hey presto! - we were off to mine or theirs and banging within minutes. Frieda was my favourite, though - although perhaps favourite isn't the right word. What drew me to her was not what she gave me but rather what she withheld, that other place her eyes always seemed to be looking at. I wanted to connect, through her, to that. The more time I spent with her the more this desire grew. Our sex became more agitated, more violent: I would claw at her and clasp her face right up to mine - but still her eyes would glaze and go straight through me. When she changed cities I changed with her, graduating from the City of Sex to the City of Perverts. We would attend orgies together, frantic sessions in which twelve or more people raged, tossed and contorted, tearing at each other's bodies like the diggers tearing at the earth before collapsing, at the end of every session, in a heap around which contracted cleaners moved efficiently and dispassionately, spraying disinfectant and picking detritus from the spaces between torsos, legs and faces.
I found out why Frieda had been only half present through our sex sessions: she'd been two-timing. Two-timing the City of Sex, that is. It turned out that loads of people did this: subscribe to two cities at the same time, using different names or credit and address references. Some people were even subscribed to five or six. I don’t think Convergence City's people knew about this. I would have brought the matter up with Colin, but I didn’t talk with him any more. I would still pass him in the lobby, but he'd never greet me. I didn’t sense any coldness or resentment on his part - simply indifference.
Frieda had been two-timing the City of Sex by subscribing to the City of Agents. I think this city was closely affiliated with the City of Code, or Hermeneutica, but this was hard to ascertain due to the level of secrecy its protocols demanded. I found Frieda's subscription form when I was going through her stuff one afternoon when she'd popped out to get provisions. I confronted her with it as soon as she got back, and her eyes instantly unglazed, halfway at least, affording me if not a full view of that other place, that invisible location onto which they'd always seemed to focus, then at least a reflection - perhaps not even a reflection, but at least an overspill of light.
Why don’t you subscribe too? she said.
I kissed her passionately, then did this straight away, from her phone. Again I listened to that plugged-in hum, that murmur of endless connection. Again I went through the keypad menu. I was given a password to type into the City of Agents' homepage. This brought up a pre-generated screen which informed me that a representative of COAG would meet me the following morning in a building in the East, just off Saphartistraat. I arrived at the appointed hour. The building turned out to be an abandoned workshop. It had raised windows whose distance from the floor was made even greater by the fact that the main floor was sunken. The windows were caked with old industrial grime. I called out Hello! several times, but got no answer. I waited, but no one came. After a while, my eyes became accustomed to the darkness and I managed to discern, in the middle of the sunken floor, a small work table. It seemed to have been placed there for a purpose: there were no other tables, no other objects at all - just this table, set exactly in the middle of the space. I descended some old iron steps and walked across the floor until I came to it. On its surface lay an envelope. My password was written on it. I picked it up and left.
This turned out to contain a tape cassette. I didn’t have a cassette player and had to make a trip to a retail outlet run by the City of Anachronists to find one. Back at my flat, I played the tape. It started with a sequence of white noise - crackle and hissing, abrasive bursts of static - but after a while there emerged from these a human voice which read out lines of text. They said things like:
Listen: the world is a sign of restless visibility greater than six miles. CDT 00Z.
Ovid 253. Ice forming on spinner. Current data not available.
Flying over parts of Dover from the UK or Ireland towards Cambodia, Apache Attack Helicopter shot down the biggest mission of our lives, standing on the earth's far rim. Marginal outlook: good.
The lines would appear and then fade out into static. They didn’t make much sense, needless to say. There seemed to be a constant theme of flight. I assumed they were some kind of code, but wasn’t sure what I should do with them. I got to know them pretty well, though. They were quite addictive; I'd listen to them each night as I fell asleep. Then, after perhaps two weeks, when I was buying milk in my local Alberthein, I found a note with one of the phrases written on it. They must have known that I had only gone for milk, and when I would arrive: the note was slipped under the foremost carton on the shelf. I picked it up and read a line I instantly recognised:
Ovid 253. Ice forming on spinner. Current data not available.
I pocketed it, paid for the milk and left the store. Back home, I perused the note more closely. There was a yellow patch, a kind of grease-stain, underneath the text. When I held it up to the light I could discern another line of text watermark-set within the stain. It read:
Nieuwmarkt dot-dash benches 17:25. Occasional light snow. I think we really should make something go.
Nieuwmarkt was a square on the edge of the red light district. There were benches in one of its corners interset with short round stools. I assumed these were what they meant. The benches and stools did kind of form dots and dashes, or at least would have done if viewed from the air. I turned up there at exactly twenty-five past five that evening and sat down on one of the dashes. Within seconds I felt the presence of another body sitting on the same bench, facing the other way.
Don't turn around, a man's voice said. Just give me the message.
Occasional light snow, I said. I think we really should make something go.
The man was silent for a few seconds. Then he replied: Listen: Between cities, countries or continents we are going to crash. H26. Repeat the line to me.
Between cities, countries or continents we are going to crash. H26, I said.
Take this message to the Natural History Museum. Dodo exhibit, 13:25 tomorrow. And one more instruction for you: look to surfaces. Infiltrate other cities if necessary.
I went to the Natural History Museum the next day. The attendant who punched my ticket had a boil on his face similar to my first taxi driver's boil: a huge, raw one, horribly unpleasant. In front of the stuffed Dodo case at twenty-five past one I delivered my cities-countries-continents-crashing message to a person - whether male or female I couldn’t tell because their voice was deep but soft - whose reflection I only half-caught in the glass as they stood behind me. They gave me a further message, with instructions on where to deliver it.
I spent the next few weeks ferrying messages. I also infiltrated other cities: the City of Aesthetics, the better to be able to listen to the strangely poetic lines of code I was being given; the City of Stigmata, to be able to spend time scouring surfaces. This second was a revelation. I started noticing messages left in the street, disguised as workmen's markings. I started noticing patterns in oil-slicks and the minute quirks of parking restriction lines that to the casual eye seemed perfectly straight, the regular or irregular distribution of confetti outside churches. I would crouch down in a strip of street for hours on end, oblivious to the cars that wound around me. I compiled maps and lists of markings. Why? I did it to impress my superiors within the City of Agents. I wanted to be let into its inner circle, connected to whatever great conspiracy lay at its core. I felt the need for this with a burning passion: that some pantheon of elders would approve me, grasp me to their breast. This being taken up and grasped, clasped, taken in, became the only thing that mattered to me.
It was the Nieuwmarkt agent who could best help me achieve this, I felt: I'd exchanged messages with him several times, always on the same dot-dash bench. Although I'd never seen his face, his voice carried the most authority; other agents seemed to listen to the messages that came from him with more intentness, and to style their own according to the formers' content. In the City of Aesthetics I'd learnt to pick up modulations by studying verse structures. I could tell the difference between iambic and anapaestic lines, and discern free-verse variations on these even when they'd been unconsciously produced; as a result I'd started to pick up the frequency of modulation of COAG's messages, and to understand that the Nieuwmarkt agent was a node, a central hook-point. Sequences would kick off and resolve themselves with him.
I decided after a month to ask him to admit me further in. I did this at the end of one of our meetings. He had listened to my message, sat in silence for a few seconds, then given me a new one of his own. He started to rise from the bench, but I reached out behind me and pulled him back down by his shirt.
What are you doing? his voice asked.
I want further in, I said.
Into what? he asked.
The City. The circuit. I've done well, you must admit. I should be let into the loop.
What loop? he asked.
The cell, I said. The cells. You must know how it works. You've got it all mapped. Circles, then circles within circles. I'm on the outside. I don't even know what we're plotting.
Why should there be a plot? he said. He stood up again.
No! I told him. Wait!
But he had plucked his shirt loose from my grasp. I turned around and jumped up from the bench. It was a Saturday; there was a market in the square. Lots of people were milling around. How could I tell which one he was? I never received any more messages, any more instructions. When I tried to access COAG through their webpage I kept running into page-no-longer-active messages. I tried to reconnect by phone using another name, but this didn’t work either: the automated menu cut me out each time just as I pressed Three to subscribe. Then, after a few weeks, I lost interest in COAG altogether. I still wondered, though, for months to come, whether the people I saw muttering as they walked were COAG subscribers - or the people picking cigarette butts from the streets, or pressing their faces against bus shelters, or moving along the pavement in short, jerky patterns that looped and mutated, or sitting in doorways with their track-scarred arms flopped forwards, palms turned upwards to the sky, their eyes glazed like Frieda's as they stared into some middle-distance intrigue only they could see.
By autumn I had started to feel homesick. I thought of Turin each time I passed the Italian ice cream stand in the Vondelpark. One day I went up to the owner and greeted him in Italian.
What? he replied in English. I was certain that his accent was Italian.
I'm Italian, I told him. What part of Italy are you from?
He shrugged. I repeated the question in English.
You want an ice cream? he asked. There were people waiting behind me.
No, I told him.
I returned there often, just to watch the looping cyclists and skaters, the Italian scooping out ice cream. The spot probably held a sentimental value for me: it was where I'd first met Frieda. I never saw her anymore and, since they never met each other face to face, necessarily hadn't seen her since subscribing to the City of Agents. One day an altercation broke out by the stand. A dog had crapped beside it, which made the Italian angry. He was demanding loudly to know who its owner was. No one came forward to claim this title. Then a man of Far-Eastern origin who'd been waiting for ice cream announced that he was from the City of Dog Eaters and that, since the dog was unclaimed, under Section Such, Paragraph Such-Such of A20's constitution he was rightfully entitled to take it home and cook it. This assertion drew gasps from other bystanders. Another man stepped between the Korean and the dog and, proclaiming himself a subscriber to the City of Dogs and Cats, cited Section Other-Such, Paragraph Other-Such-Such which guaranteed the rights of animals within A20's borders. A woman from the City of Bureaucrats waded in at this point, finding fault with both men's understanding of the constitution's application in this instance. Within two minutes the dog had become a rallying point for half the park. Scuffles started breaking out as the City of Justice's subscribers jostled with denizens of Laissez Faire City who in turn jostled with Mongrel City's people who in turn tried to hold off those from the cities of Parks, of Predators, of Property or Public Space - the confused dog barking all the while at Animists who wanted to make friends with it, Deviants who wanted to fuck it.
Not far from the ice cream stand there was an area where old people would sit playing guitars and smoking dope. I couldn’t work out if they were part of the City of Orchestras or of Anachronists. I tried to listen to their song's lyrics. It was some kind of protest song decrying a situation that not longer pertained, at least not in A20. City of Memory. How did the ice cream man remember Italy? Had he even been there? Or was it just the colours of a flag, a set of tastes? City of Sensualists. Maybe the Anachronists were Sensualists too, tongues flickering after melting scoops of texture - places, objects, times, who knows. Maybe all of them, A to Z, 1 to 400 - Agents, Bullfighters, Cargo Cults to Yoga, Yeast and Zanzibar - were Perverts.
The Vondelpark ran on a loop and life ran on a loop. Every few weeks I'd change cities; by the winter I was doing it every few days. The automated menu looped as I pressed Three to subscribe to the City of Birds, of Antiquity, Entrepreneurs, Ghosts, Giants, Glass and Ghettos, City of Ideas, of Interaction, of Models and of Myths and Legends. Sometimes I phoned up the Central Subscription Switchboard not to subscribe or unsubscribe but just to listen to the background hum, the endless blended pulse of loops and circuits; sometimes I'd even fall asleep with the receiver cradled to my ear.
I still hadn't entirely given up hope of making a connection - to the heart of A20, its raison d'être, its source. Every city has a founding stone: some actual, some abstract. A wellspring. Perhaps, like the Cargo Cult people, I simply had to wait for this to descend and manifest itself to me at a time of its own choosing. Then, I reasoned, everything would make sense; I would be uplifted and redeemed into an understanding beyond words, a state of grace. At the same time, I felt a fervent urge to make contact with Turin. The isolation was becoming unbearable. Around Christmas time, I cracked and made the call. As I dialled, I listened to the switches clicking their way through the networks and in my mind saw Turin opening up: its colonnades, its paving stones, its squares, all unfolding from the Central Telecomms Depot through which my call was being directed. But this vision was soon interrupted by a pre-recorded voice that said:
I'm sorry, we are unable to connect your call. For more information, press One on your keypad now.
I hung up and tried again. The same message greeted me. I pressed One, and got another pre-recorded message:
If you know the number of the city you wish to subscribe to, press One on your keypad now.
I slammed the phone down, threw a coat on and ran out to a public phone box to call Italy from there. The same thing happened. I tried a second phone box, then a third. The same each time. I came back home and redialled again and again. I must have done it fifty times, right through the night. The same result each time. I'm sorry, we are unable to connect… If you know the number of the city you wish to subscribe to… I'm sorry, we are… If you know… unable to connect… press One… Eventually I fell asleep with the receiver in my hand again, still pouring out its endless testament to circles within circles, to webs.
I decided to leave A20 the next day. I packed my bags and took a taxi to the Centraal Station. The forecourt outside had been so ripped up by now that there wasn’t any pavement left - just a giant crater out of which diggers were still scooping sand and earth. Beside the crater lengths of wire and cable waited to be laid down. They were clean and new, but didn't seem compatible with one another: they were all different colours, different lengths, different sizes; none of them seemed long enough to go anywhere, do anything, connect to anywhere else. I didn’t care anymore - didn’t care where all the hollowed-out earth went, all the voided ballast, didn’t care about the loops and circuits, their convergence. I entered the station and went over to the International Departures board. It was blank. I sauntered over to a ticket window and asked for a train to Turin.
Turin? the man asked. He pulled a stack of timetable cards from his desk. While one hand ran its way down one of them, the list of destinations, his other hand slid the other cards around, fanning them out into a spread across his desktop, picking one out of its position before reinserting it into the fan, then doing the same thing with a second card, a third. I thought of peacocks for some reason, then of salt.
That's not a destination, he told me after a while.
Well, give me a ticket to the border, I said.
What border? he asked.
I felt a kind of flush go to my head.
Yes, I said, slowly. Fine. Of course.
I left the ticket window and headed straight for the platforms. Escalators led from the concourse tunnel up to these. At the bottom of each were automated signs with letters on them - strings of letters, none of which spelt out whole words. City of Alphabets, City of Code or of Acrostics. The letters were flipping over, reordering themselves into new sequences. I stood in the tunnel watching the signs until I saw, on one of them, an aeroplane symbol come up. I stepped onto the escalator leading to its platform. At the top of it two policemen stood checking people's papers. I slipped my Italian passport from my jacket pocket and handed it to one of them.
No longer valid, he said.
What do you mean? I asked.
Not recognised for exit purposes. You need an exit visa.
Exit visa? I repeated. 'That's ridiculous. I don't even know where I'm -'
But his colleague was already escorting me back to the down escalator. Exit visa, he said as he released me back into the tunnel. Central Office.
As I left the station I saw Frieda. We walked right past each other but she didn’t recognise me. She looked old, and had a fresh red boil beside her mouth.
The Central Subscriptions Office was much harder to get into than it had been when I first arrived. You had to queue outside, then queue again inside, then, when your number was read out by an automated voice, proceed towards a window.
Exit visa, I said to the man behind the window after half a day of waiting.
Exit visa? he repeated.
I need to leave Amsterdam 2.0, I told him.
Amsterdam 2.0 has no border, he said wearily. How can you leave a place that has no border?
The police wouldn’t let me leave without an exit visa, I said, raising my voice. They told me to come here.
The Central Subscriptions Office is not responsible for the decisions of other civic bodies, he replied. And if you shout then you will have to leave. He pointed to a large sign beside the window which outlined CSO employees' right under Section Such-and-Such of A20's constitution to work in an aggression-free environment.
I still had the key to my flat. Back home, I picked the phone up, waded through that odious hum again, and took out a subscription to the one city I thought could help me in this situation: the City of Escapologists. I was given a password to type into its homepage. This brought up a pre-generated screen which informed me that a representative of COESC would meet me the following afternoon in a building on Prinseneiland. I arrived at the appointed hour. The building turned out to be a former gym. Much of the gym's equipment was still there: running belts, bars, weights and ropes - plus other contraptions I'd not seen at gyms in Italy, such as glass cases full of water, boxes with chains around them, hanging suits with straps protruding from their sleeves. The representative was trussed up inside one of these last devices - upside down, like a bat. He writhed and wriggled as we talked.
You want to leave A20? he said. How can you - ugh! - leave a place that has no border?
That's what they told me at the Central Subscriptions Office, I replied.
The Central Sub - ugh! - Central Subscriptions Office isn't where the big - yes! One hand free! -- the big decisions get made anymore.
Where is, then? I asked.
There's another place. I've heard it called "The Chamber" and I've heard it - second hand! - heard it called "HQ".
That's where they issue papers? I asked.
There are endless papers there, apparently, he said. I had it described to me once. There are so many pi - ugh! - piled up that they form long walls and corridors. And sometimes they - foot's coming loose - they cascade over in big paper landslides.
Where is this place? I asked.
Where? Who knows? The person who described it to me was from the City of - ugh! Come on! - from the City of Believers. Between you and me, those people are a little gu - Jesus! - a little gullible.
But it must exist! I said. Who issues all the PR documents for A20?
City of Propagandists, he replied. All they do is issue pro - I've nearly got it! - issue propaganda. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
But who franchises A20? I said. When I was back in Italy we had a contact, there were people who, who…
People who what? And anyway, when were you - ugh! - when were you 'back in Italy'? Sounds to me like you could have been subscribing to the City of False Memory.
There is no City of False Memory, I told him. I know the whole list by heart.
Who's to say they're all listed? Oh yes! Here it comes! His second foot came loose and he slid from his suit onto a crash matt on the floor. He stood up, grabbed a stopwatch from a little table and announced:
Eight minutes seventeen seconds. That's my best yet. Phieuw!
He took a swig of water, threw the rest of the bottle over his face and neck, then, shaking off the excess, rubbed his hands.
Here, help me get back into the suit, he said.
I helped him strap himself back in, then left. My visit hadn't been a waste of time, though. Who's to say the cities are all listed? he had asked. The hours of hanging upside down, the excess blood irrigating his head, the reverse angle on the world - something had given him a vital insight. Who was to say they were all listed? Was there a rim, a vantage point from which the whole non-territory could be viewed? How could we even conceive of such a location? A location? Where? Within the networks? Some sub-strata of the hum? Within the office of cascading papers that probably didn’t exist? And even - even - if there were a vantage point, then how could it command a view of every cranny, overhear every last whisper? What was to stop me and my neighbour What's-his-name, the fatty from the City of Convergence, starting our own city? Or even if they had bugs everywhere, still how could they prevent me from forming my very own city and subscribing to it secretly, myself, by running through the automated sequence silently inside my head - pressing my own imaginary Three, being greeted by my own imaginary pre-generated screen informing me that a representative of the City of One - me - would meet me here, now, and whisper in my ear some silent password only I would understand?
Over the next few weeks, I unearthed hidden cities. I found them in gaps, holes and dead zones: in the static between stations on the radio, the seemingly chance arrangement of words produced by ripped, overlaid posters. I picked them up in the banter between flower sellers and their customers, the nods exchanged between lock-operators and the pilots of the boats that floated through them. There was the City of Erasure, the City of Crypts, of Mutes, of Melancholia, of Sighs, Whispers and Whines, of Sleep. And there were others, countless others, that didn’t have names. I sniffed them out. I tracked them like a bat-detector tracking bats at night. Why? To find, somewhere among or beyond these, a way out. I knew there must be one - and that I had to track it actively. One day I went back to the Anachronists' shop, bought an old Dictaphone and carried it around the city with me, recording locations then cutting them into other locations, so the sounds - snatches of conversation, fire engines and drills, those instruments - would fold together to produce new sounds - and, trailing behind these, new images that would unfold inside my head. I recorded the sequences across onto the cassette player I'd bought earlier, cut in the mixed-up sounds once more and re-transferred the resulting sequences back to the large one yet again. From that day onwards I made myself stay up - a day and night, then one more day, then one more night and yet another day without a second's sleep - to lower my defences, put me in the state of receptivity in which I'd really hear what I was listening to, be irrigated, see the reverse angle and, released, slip free.
By the second day I was getting images of boats, sailing boats. They were smaller than the tea-clipper I'd seen on my arrival, but old nonetheless. These images would come to me repeatedly as I listened to the tapes. They weren't logically implied by the tapes' content, but that didn’t matter: I was getting images of boats, strong images, and that meant something to me. By the third day I was also seeing the harbour - but not as I'd seen it when I first arrived: I was seeing it from the other side, the land side, facing out towards the North. In terms of sound, I was picking up a strong set of quasi-repetitions around several words and phrases. One of these was Aries: I would see it each day in the piled up newspapers I'd go through, on the horoscope pages, and my eye would travel straight towards it past the Geminis and Cancers: Aries, always Aries. Another was Be near us. The City of Ghosts had launched a large recruitment drive and put up posters everywhere whose strapline read: Be near us. On the fourth day I forayed out for food. I went to Alberthein and bought bananas. The checkout clerk didn't know the price, and had to ask his supervisor how much bananas cost: as he did this, he mispronounced them as banaras.
Aries, Be near us, Banaras. By the fifth day I knew that I was hot. I sensed that my escape route lurked behind this word-grouping: Aries, Be near us, Banaras. Then, on the sixth day, I heard a rustle and a drift beside my door, then footsteps dying away along the corridor outside. I stumbled over to inspect, and found, lying on the floor, a post card. Somebody had delivered it by hand. I opened the door, but whoever it was had disappeared. I picked the post card up; it had a picture of a boat on it, a sailing boat, just like the ones I'd seen inside my mind, and from the background I could tell that it was moored in Amsterdam North. On its side, just above the waterline, was painted a name: Benares. I turned it over: the other side was blank - white, clean, unmarked, erased. And yet I understood it perfectly.
I was convinced: a boat - Benares - in Amsterdam North: that was my salvation, my escape. I dressed as casually as possible and, taking no luggage, left my flat for the final time. I walked to the Centraal Station, walked past the giant hollow crater, past the empty departures board, along the concourse tunnel, out the other side. There was the harbour again, full of yellow buoys and flags and tugs and dredgers. There were floating cranes ripping wooden poles out of the water, plucking them like teeth. There, behind rows of locked up bicycles, was the quayside and, shuttling between the North and the main island, the two relay ferries. I waited a few minutes until the near one docked, then walked on with a gaggle of cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. A horn sounded, the gantry was raised and the ferry headed off again.
The sky was silvery and flat, like a biscuit tin's lid. The ferry wrinkled the water in front of it, swirling it into whirlpools from which gaseous bubbles erupted. City of Strata, City of the Drowned. I didn’t care: I had a date with the Benares. On the far shore were large letters: Z, P, Z again. The ferry shuddered as it docked by one of these. Its front tongue panted down onto the jetty and the bromfietsers and bikes rolled off, dragging the pedestrians in their wake. I stepped onto the land and looked around. The air was quieter here: no orchestras, no drills, just air and quietness. I was standing on a tree-lined road. On one side were a row of bungalows; on the other was an inlet of water. Beyond this I could see sailing boats' masts: it was a little harbour inset from the larger harbour.
I found the Benares here, at the end of a domino sequence of walkways and pontoons. It was just as it was depicted in the post card - that is to say, just as I had seen it in my mind. As I approached it I heard voices inside - men's voices, murmuring intermittently across stretches of silence. I stepped onto the deck, then through a door and down some wooden stairs into a cabin.
Inside, three men were sitting round a table, playing cards. They had glasses of some kind of alcohol in front of them and they smoked cigarettes. A large knife was lying between them, in the middle of the table. They were quite old men, maybe sixty, sixty-five. Two of them casually glanced in my direction as I stood at the bottom of the staircase; then they returned their attention to their cards. All I could think to say to them was:
The game paused, and all three men looked at me. One of them asked:
Do you have an appointment?
I received a post card, I said.
Where is it? the man asked.
I fumbled in my pocket but I couldn’t find it. I must have left it in my flat.
Where are we going? I asked them.
Going? the man answered. Going? He smiled. One of the other men smiled, then the third smiled too. The second broke into a chuckle, which was taken up and ran around the table in a ripple.
What's funny? I asked.
Look outside, the first man said.
I walked back up the staircase and stepped out onto the deck. I'd been so eager to arrive at the boat on my way in that I hadn't noticed that it was dry-docked. All the boats were. A wall of corrugated iron polders ran around the harbour; lolling over this, on one side, was a pump whose base sucked at the last remaining puddle. They were taking the water away, just like the land. I went back inside.
Who are you? I asked them.
The first man picked a card from the pile and inserted it into his hand. His hand was fanned out.
Benares, he said. City of Death. You can subscribe if you want. Most subscribers are older than you, though. He slipped a card from his fanned hand and laid it on the table. Four, he said.
I sunk onto the floor. I started crying. Nobody came to pick me up or comfort me. They weren't unkind, though. They continued playing their game while I sat crumpled, crying. I don’t know how long I cried for. I cried myself out - or rather, cried myself into a state of clarity. City of Death: it made sense. Death at these men's hands was the one active option left me. In submitting as a willing sacrificial victim to their knife, I'd take control, connect to a world beyond the loops and webs of A20, to an infinity of which Turin, the past, the future - all pasts, all futures, all cities - were part. I jumped up, tore my jumper off, ripped open my shirt and shouted:
The game stopped while the three men looked at me. Eventually one of them picked up the knife. He reached a salami from the sideboard behind him, carved a slice then placed the knife down on the table again.
Do what? the first man asked.
Death! I told him. I want it!
The three men looked at me again. Then they looked back at their cards. The second man's were laid out in rows across the table top; they were face down, but he'd reorganise them, moving one aside to make place for another, swapping the displaced one with a third. Occasionally he'd lick his finger. He picked a card up and, looking at it, said to me:
'You've come to the wrong city. You'd better go and read our statement on the internet thing.' Then, laying his card down, he said: 'Seven.'
I looked back in disbelief. But you're the Death people! I wailed at them.
It was the first one who replied this time:
Death cannot be commanded, he said. It cannot be rendered meaningful or slotted into a present or past. It comes without arriving in the patience of the unrecountable era.
What? I asked him. I don’t understand.
Paragraph Two, he said. You want more?' "Dying is patience: the passivity in which an I that is no longer I answers to a limitlessness which no presence remembers." Paragraph Three. He was reciting his city's mission statement, some dubious wisdom clobbered together from a mish-mash of cod-philosophy and old religion.
If you don’t kill, what do you do? I asked.
It was the third man, the one who hadn't spoken up to now, who answered this time. Looking at the card he'd picked up, he said:
Wait? I replied. Wait? What for wait? Wait for what? For whom?
The third man sighed, then laid down the same card he'd just picked up.
Jack, he said.
Jack? I repeated. Jack Frumm? The Cargo Cult G.I. guy? You people worship him?
This question went ignored. The first man picked a card up, slotted it into his fan, plucked another card out and laid it down.
King, he said.
The second picked up, re-organised his rows, then laid down:
I left the cabin, stood on the Benares' deck and looked around. My tiredness broke the daylight into patches, flecks of dusty light. The corrugated fencing cut out my view of the harbour - but rising above this, dwarfing it, I could see the pylons striding out to the horizon and beyond, extending the city's circuits to all corners of the earth, its hum through all of space.