The New Geography

by ob

When Taylor wakes up they’re in afternoon traffic on a ring road somewhere, driving into a late September sun. Taylor is relieved to find he’s in the passenger seat this time. He’s not sure he knows what day it is. They’ve been criss-crossing the continent for weeks now.

“Where are we?” he says.

“Belgium,” says Baumann, at the wheel, hunched over in that big down jacket. He looks like a bear. A bear that hasn’t slept for three days and is on a lot of recreational drugs. “Or possibly Germany. Or the Netherlands. Almost definitely not France.”

He squints into the distance.

“Somewhere in the Low Countries anyway.”

“I thought the Netherlands was the Low Countries?” Taylor says.

“Well, technically,” says Baumann, ‘Nederland’ is the low country. That’s what the Dutch call it. ‘The Low Countries’ is more of a general term for this whole…” he waves his hand toward the window.

Taylor looks out of the window. The same giant supermarkets, car showrooms and retail outlets they’ve been seeing for the last ten thousand miles. They could be anywhere in Northern Europe. On the outer edge of any medium sized town.

“It’s complicated,” says Taylor.

“It’s a fucking mess. Have you got any cigarettes?”

Taylor gets the tobacco out of his back pocket, rolls Baumann a cigarette, makes one for himself.

“What are we looking for?”

“University,” Baumann says. “I’ve been driving round this ring road for the last two hours. Look out for exit Seventeen ‘B’.”

“In two hundred metres,” says the satnav, in the same mysteriously sexy voice voice that has been featuring in Taylor’s fantasies for the last three months, “take the next exit.”

“Ignore that,” says Baumann. “It gets confused this close to so many national borders.”
He lights his cigarette. “The most useful term these days would be ‘Meuse-Rheine Euroregion’. Not without a certain poetry, don’t you think?”

“Seventeen ‘B’,” says Taylor, pointing.

“Oh for Fuck-” Baumann swerves across two lanes of traffic, hits the exit ramp with not more than a couple of metres spare. “Thanks.”

“At the roundabout,” says the satnav, “take the third exit”.

“I’m starting to think,” says Baumann, “that she’s enjoying this.”

The last seven universities have been a bust. Like the last twelve business parks. And the last fifteen industrial estates. Two shopping centres have been promising, as well as three theme parks, a semi-permanent migrant camp, and four out-of-town office developments. So far the only ‘definites’ – or as near as Baumann can get to a definite anyway – have been a couple of golf courses: one in Denmark and one in Germany. Taylor doesn’t need to tell Baumann that this represents a pretty low return on their investment, mileage- and time-wise. Not that either of them has much in the way of anywhere better to be. Since the middle of June they’ve been living out of the car, which is just about the only connection Taylor has left to his old life. He no longer has any idea when or how this is supposed to end.

There’s a plasticky, chemical edge to air when they park up behind the science block, climb out of the Audi, walk around stretching and rubbing their jaws. The car park is surrounded by a set of grey concrete low-rise buildings dominated by huge exterior pipework. The university is built into shallow valley, and on the other side of the maths department they can see the layout of whole, magnificently brutal campus. It looks like the set of a 1970s science fiction TV series.

“Well then,” says Taylor.

The sun has gone in, and there’s a cold wind starting to blow from the east. Autumn has begun to creep across the continent.

“Library,” say Baumann, hefting the bag onto his shoulder.

And so they get to work.

They’ve been doing this so long now that they don’t need to speak. Sports hall and running track. Refectory. Student Accommodation. Union building. Lecture theatres. Physics Labs. Award-winning interfaith centre. The measurements take less than half an hour, maybe another thirty-five minutes for Baumann to find and match all the relevant viewpoints to his records, cross them off. Taylor loses him momentarily while packing away the surveying equipment, finds him again considering a pair of shallow, concrete-lined cooling ponds. Squinting, framing the scene with his hands.

Taylor waits at a respectful distance. When Baumann has finished he walks over and hands Taylor a printed flyer.

“Weekend conference over in the European Cultural Studies department, apparently. Reception is tonight.”

“I don’t know anything about European Cultural Studies,” says Taylor.

“Free drinks though.”

And with that Taylor knows that they’ve failed again.

When Baumann had first asked Taylor to help him he’d been sceptical, of course. They hadn’t seen each other in ten years – not since their disastrous attempt to build a career in the games industry had finally imploded, taking their fledgling company with it. After that Baumann had moved to New York to do something complicated and extremely well paid for an investment bank, and Taylor had got a job in the philosophy department of a digital advertising agency. By the time Baumann had found him in that new Alpine theme bar in Haggerston, Taylor had been making an obscenely good living helping people better connect with the brands they knew and loved – or helping them engage with exciting and sexy new brands that they hadn’t been introduced to yet – for more than five years. Giving it all up to spend six months or more driving around Western Europe looking at hydro electric dams and out-of-season ski resorts and border security buffer zones did not feature in Taylor’s plans.

Then Baumann had told him about the game.

The outside of the European Cultural Studies building is textured to give the concrete the look of dimpled stone. Inside, the dark wood, curved glass panels and geometric carpeting remind Taylor of being at school. In the corner of the entrance hall, below the handwritten sign that says ‘European Landscape Theory Conference 2017’, there’s a table set up with bottles of fizzy wine and beer, a couple of young waiting staff. Academics nervously meeting and greeting each other.

There’s an itinerary for the weekend up on an easel, and Baumann and Taylor study the running order. There are lectures on bunkerology, on the role of the modern flaneur, on burglary as architectural critique, on landscape punk and the radical re-reading of place. All that good stuff.

“Look at this,” says Baumann. “Beyond Subtopia – Adventures in the New Exurban. That sounds like us, right?”

“Don’t waste your time,” says the intense German woman who has just appeared next to Taylor, “The guy doing that talk is a moron.”

She sticks out a hand.

“Katrin Heidegger. Not the Heidegger, obviously…”

Katrin Heidegger is tall and skinny, with very bad skin. She’s wearing a second-hand 1950/60s floral print cocktail dress with, what are those – pineapples? – all over it. Taylor, shaking her hand, has already sort of fallen in love with her, just like that. Consequently can’t think of what he’s supposed to say next.

“That’s a joke, of course,” says Katrin Heidegger, extracting her hand. “He’s dead. And also a man. What’s your specialism?”

Taylor opens and closes his mouth a couple of times.

“Sensitive dependence on initial conditions in fractal-generated artificial landscapes,” says Baumann, and where did that come from? “I’m Professor Baumann” – more shaking of hands – “and this is my colleague, Mr Taylor. He’s a brand ontologist.”

“Freelance,” says Taylor, weakly.

“Intriguing!” says Katrin Heidegger.

“Exactly. And yourself, Katrin?”

“Ah. Fear of landscape: Rediscovering the Post-Industrial Sublime,” Katrin says. “You know: is the way we experience the uncanny in modern place not, actually, dissimilar to seventeenth century notions of the sublime? Landscape as a vehicle for unease, even terror.”

Then, off their confused look: “I go for walks in abandoned factories, power stations, disused chemical works. That sort of thing.”

“Then, Katrin,” says Baumann, swiping her a fresh glass of budget champagne from a passing tray, offering a toast, “we are kindred souls. Have you got any cigarettes?”

In retrospect, Baumann and Taylor’s ambition to invent a new kind of gaming was always going to end in failure. What the pair were good at, it had turned out, was developing modifications for video games that already existed. Patches that would mess with the physics of games at random moments – the recoil of a shotgun sending you flying through a wall, the car you were driving suddenly losing all mass, causing you to bounce off pedestrians and gracefully drift into the air; extra bits of code that would cause castles to fall from the sky in slow motion, or make mountains collapse under their own weight and avalanche away into nothingness. But when they tried to apply the same logic to creating an entire world from scratch – a completely open online world that turned all the linear rules of gaming upside down – the results were disastrous. They, or more correctly their investors, lost millions before they could get anywhere near to a working prototype.

And then, ten years later – as Baumann had explained to Taylor that night in the Alpine bar on the Kingsland Road, while waitresses dressed as Heidi brought them steins of wheat beer – someone, somewhere (a Russian state institution? A research lab in the Philippines? The Chinese secret police?) had actually managed to build the thing.

“But what does brand ontology even mean?” Katrin is asking Taylor as they head into town in the seven-seater taxi. Taylor is sandwiched between Katrin and a statuesque Slovenian theorist whose name is Lucija or Lucia. In the two seats behind them are Peter and Yanick, a pair of Swedish and French situationists who apparently tour the landscape theory lecture circuit as a double act. Baumann is up front smoking the taxi driver’s cigarettes. Everyone is wonderfully drunk.

“Do you really want to know this?” says Taylor. He’s embarrassed to be explaining himself to proper academics instead of his usual audience of desperately hopeful marketing people. Outside the lights of Porsche dealerships and corporate HQs flash by along the motorway.

“I do,” says Katrin solemnly, puts a hand on her chest. “I do.”

“It’s my job,” Taylor says, “it, uh, was my job to think about how brands experience the world. To ask what it might be like to be a brand. To investigate how, ah, a brand might feel.”

“How a brand might feel about being a brand?” asks Katrin.

“That sort of thing. Yes.”

Katrin ponders this for a bit.

“And people actually pay you for this?” she says.

“Remarkably,” says Taylor, “they do, yes.”

“I dated a ‘brand ambassador’ once,” says Lucija or Lucia, who is wearing sunglasses even though it’s dark outside. “She was the most desperately unhappy woman I have ever met.”

“So according to my friend Malik here,” says Baumann, leaning round from the front seat and refilling everyone’s glasses from the champagne bottle, “this town is mostly famous for having overseen the signing of more European treaties than anywhere else on the continent. And also for once being the European capital of syphilis. Guess which one they put on the coat of arms?”

Baumann has already got himself and Taylor invited to stay for the night, invited out to dinner, invited, it seems, to speak at this conference that they know nothing about – because this, somehow, is what he does. It was the same when he convinced Taylor that they should go into business together. The same when he convinced him to come on this ridiculous quest.

“It’s always the way with these border towns,” says Yannick. “The sexual potentiality of liminal space is huge. And this place borders four different countries. During the thirty years’ war the local guilds changed sides more than ten times.”

“But why are there so many historical borders in this particular spot?”

“Geography,” Yannick says, “natural boundaries. The river. Those hills to the south. The marshes. That’s pretty much the history of Europe, right there.”

“Okay,” says Baumann. “So,” (getting out his little notebook) “would you say the geography is, what, encoding future behavior?”

“Also the geology,” says Peter. “Minerals and natural springs means a spa town. Which attracts people looking for a cure for their ailments. Which is how you end up being the capital of syphilis.”

“Which is not to say that landscape is destiny, of course,” says Yannick.

“Of course,” says Baumann, nodding. “But it may be… algorithmic?”

They come off the motorway and drive down cobbled backstreets lined with former working class cottages that are in the process of being transformed into highly-desirable starter homes. The restaurant is in the town’s ancient market square, in the lee of the spectacular seven-hundred-year old cathedral. Groups of tired-looking middle eastern men with suitcases and shopping bags and rucksacks sit on the cathedral steps, smoking and eating. They are lit up by the glow of the giant TV screen set up at the far end of the square. The TV is showing the pre-amble to a football match. On the screen, fifteen-foot tall pundits are explaining tactics and stats with the help of increasingly demented infographics, interrupted every couple of minutes by adverts for beer and razor blades. Every bar on the square has their television tuned to the same show.

“It’s the first time in seventy years they’ve qualified for the Champion’s League,” says Peter. “The last time they played a match this big most of the team were still coal miners.”

Inside the restaurant the blue neon lighting makes everything look like a bad nineteen-eighties action film. The food is similarly eighties themed. The place is full of noisy and excitable landscape theorists – concrete fanciers and new folklorists, parkour enthusiasts and dark tourists, dredge specialists and radical architecture critics. At the nearest table eight or nine academics are loudly arguing about the importance of drift in urban exploration.

“Fucking psychogeographers,” says Yanick.

“Should we go sit with them?” asks Taylor.

“Not unless you want to listen to their fucking terrible poetry all night.”

Nevertheless, one of the group detaches himself and comes over. Handsome, early forties, big hair. Too many buttons undone on his shirt.

“Looking forward to your presentation tomorrow Katrin,” he says. His accent is blandly unidentifiable.

“Charles.”

“And I see you brought some fans.”

“Still taking that corporate deutschmark, Pepin?” says Yannick.

“Right, I’m the bad guy for engaging with business,” says this Charles Pepin. “Live in the real world LaGrande. Who do you think paid for this conference?”

“Go fuck yourself.”

Charles Pepin turns back to Katrin, bows smartly, retreats.

“Who was that?” says Taylor

“That’s the guy who is presenting that seminar you were so excited about,” says Katrin.

“He’s a spy for a bunch of land developers,” says Yannick. “They’ve been trying to infiltrate us for years. Arseholes.”

“Why do they want to infiltrate you?”

“Ideas. Inspiration. Who’s better placed to help them understand how place makes people feel? So they can privatize it all, of course…”

“I can’t believe I used to fuck him,” says Katrin, shaking her head.

Then Bauman comes back from the bar with a round of flaming sambuccas, and everyone is happy again.

When he can stand to be honest with himself, Taylor has to admit that his life was falling apart long before Baumann walked back into it. He was drinking too much, that was obvious, bouncing from one desperate relationship to the next and taking up yoga and meditation and one form of therapy after another. Finding himself moved to tears by branded experiential events – hugging random strangers during promotional flash mobs, gazing into their eyes at silent discos, clutching their hands at secret cinema happenings – but unable to feel anything about the people in his life that he was actually supposed to care about.

All the same, he’d spent the first few weeks of the trip telling himself – as they travelled from site to site, turning up one false trail after another – that this was just a holiday, that he’d go back home, back to his job, his flat, his clothes, his favourite branded experiences, sooner rather than later. He just needed to help Baumann get things out of his system.

Until the morning they’d stood under their golf umbrellas in an unfinished business park outside Brussels, trying to get their bearings while a salesman pointed out the locations of the future picnicking areas, the calming water features, the sound-reducing decorative hedges.

The salesman had been particularly proud of the hedges. When the hedges were finished, he’d assured Baumann and Taylor, they would hardly even notice the distant roar of the six lane motorway. Or the airport. He was confident that men of vision like themselves would be able to see past the dump trucks and earth-moving equipment, the piles of hard-core and mountains of soil, past the concrete and rebar skeletons of half-constructed office buildings rising out of the morning mist, the noise of the airport and the rain, and imagine the glorious future to come.

“And these bus stops–” Baumann had gestured toward a row of three-seater plastic bus shelters that were waiting to be installed at exactly the right spots across the campus.

“Car park shuttles. For employees only. Obviously the park won’t be connected to the–” the Salesman had paused “– to the local public transport system.”

“Obviously”.

Baumann had walked off to investigate the sight-lines between a couple of soon-to-be regional HQs then, and Taylor had lit a cigarette and offered one to the salesman.

“Can I ask about your line of business?” the salesman had said. Over his shoulder Taylor could see a row of aircraft lights in the early morning sky as the incoming commuter flights lined up to make their approach.

“You might say we’re trying to make dreams come true,” Taylor had said.

The salesman had nodded, as if it were obvious. And who knows, maybe it was. Maybe half his clients had the same patter.

Through the rain they’d watched Baumann setting up his range finder, consulting the brochure he’d been given by the salesman in the car on the way over. A quarter of a mile away the lights of the runway increased and decreased in intensity as each aircraft came in to land, each precisely forty-five seconds apart.

“What is he…exactly…?”

And then Baumann had looked over at Taylor and raised his eyebrows. And there was the first potential site identified, just like that.

It’s the eighty-fifth minute and the score in Barcelona is still, fabulously, one-nil to the away side. The square is packed with people watching the game on the giant screen. The migrant group on the cathedral steps are as excited as everyone else.

Baumann is smoking Charles Pepin’s cigarettes and pitching him the theory.

“What if,” Baumann is saying, “you could pick these things from a very simple set of operations. The landscape of a motorway service station car park. The topography of a traffic island. The miniature hills outside a hypermarket. Entire university campuses. What if it was all off the shelf? And all you needed to do was tweak the numbers.”

“Well, potentially–” says Charles Pepin, but you can see he’s already calculating the profit margins, the name he could make for himself…

“No, not potentially,” says Baumann. “We’ve actually seen this. We’ve got the evidence. Somebody, somewhere is generating all these landscapes. Algorithmically, they’re essentially all the same.”

“So we’re talking about a mathematically-defined aesthetics…” muses Charles Pepin.

Taylor is keeping an eye on them both, also on Katrin Heidegger, who he has lately decided is the most fabulous woman he has ever met. She’s sharing a joint with a couple of confused young Syrian men on the steps, explaining to them her take on intersectional politics. She keeps waving her arms around to make her point. Her wonderful skinny German arms.

Lucija or Lucia, sitting next to Taylor, hands him the bottle of wine.

“She likes you too, I think,” she says, as Taylor takes a swig, coughs it up again – “What? Who?” – then smiles, shy, seeing the you’re-not-fooling-anybody-here look she’s giving him.

“Oh. Right.”

“What about him?” She asks, nodding toward Baumann.

“Baumann?” says Taylor. “Baumann is in love with a woman he’s never even met. Who we’ve – so far – travelled ten thousand miles trying to find.”

“That’s impressive. Or stupid.”

“Little bit of both, maybe. The thing is, the longer this goes on the more I’m terrified of what happens if we manage to track her down.”

“Because she might not be who you think she is?”

Taylor takes another swig of the wine, wipes his mouth, hands it back.

“Because then I might have to go home.”

Then the referee blows his whistle and points to the penalty spot.

“You start off in a field under big open skies,” was what Baumann had told Taylor, that night in the bar with the yodeling waiters and the vodka luge in the shape of the Matterhorn, “and you have no idea why you’re there or what you’re supposed to do. There’s a wood in the distance, maybe a road. The sound of the wind. Odd collections of office buildings on the horizon. And nothing at all happens. No matter how long you wait. So eventually you start to walk – and for a long time nothing happens if you do that either. The weather changes. It starts to rain. Sometimes there’s snow or fog. Day turns to night and back again in real time. The sunsets are spectacular. There’s bird song, now and then. But you don’t come across any other animals. You walk through fields or stands of trees or you explore the empty office buildings. At dawn there’s dew on the grass. Sometimes there are small hills or ponds. You can interact with things like gates and doorways – climb fences and move stuff around. There are occasional random objects like cable drums or plastic bus shelters. Office chairs left in the middle of roads. But you never come across anything you can use to do anything. Not anything useful, anyway. I spent two days following a railway track once. Two actual, real days. Just walking along this railway track in the hope that it would lead somewhere or something would happen. Another time I piled up all the office chairs I came across. Every time I found an office chair I would drag it back to the same spot as all the others. Four hundred and thirty-two office chairs. It took me nearly a week. Back and forth. And they kept falling off the fucking pile.”

He’d finished his beer, looked around as if to check no one was listening to them, leaned in to Taylor.

“And that was when I first saw her.”

Taylor and Katrin are kissing in a nightclub, trying to negotiate the right amount of teeth and tongue involved, very drunk. They’re both having a great time. The music is incredibly loud and Taylor is thinking how wonderful it is to be kissing someone new, just standing at the bar like this, somewhere in Northern Europe. Somewhere in the middle of the great arc of high population density and high prosperity that runs from the North West of the England, through Northern France, the Low Countries, Germany, all the way to Northern Italy…

“So what we started wondering,” Taylor shouts over the music, when they stop all the kissing for a moment, “was what if all the landscape elements in the game were actually based on real places?”

“What?” shouts Katrin.

“The landscapes,” shouts Taylor. “The roads. The woodlands. The arrangements of the buildings. As far as we can tell, they’re all clustered in just a few countries. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany. Nothing at all in Southern or Central Europe. No Spain, no Italy, no Poland. We looked.”

“That’s an interestingly non-random distribution,” Katrin shouts back.

“Exactly,” shouts Taylor. “So I’m thinking: maybe they couldn’t get the rights.”

“The rights?”

“Different territories. Maybe they only had the rights to Northern Europe and Scandinavia.”

“But the rights to what?”

“The rights to the actual landscape,” Taylor shouts. “Or, at least, to the algorithm that generates the landscape…”

“But that would mean-”

Which is just when it all kicks off.

The feud between the situationists and the psychogeographers that has been simmering across the lecture circuit all summer finally boils over into open warfare, and Yannick takes a swing at one of Charles Pepin’s gang in the queue for the bar. His punch misses, but connects with one of the local football supporters who has been drowning his sorrows in Jägermeister for the last three hours, leading three of his pals to jump the unfortunate French thinker in response. This is in turn causes Peter and Baumann, standing nearby, to floor two of the football fans, before their team mates get stuck in to both them – and the technically innocent psychogeography crew. Within seconds the whole club is a mess of flying bodies, furniture and glass-ware, as each of the patrons experiences their own radical reinterpretation of physical space. Somebody hits the fire-doors and everyone spills outside into the square again, just in time to blunder into the stand-off between five van-fulls of national police and the now hundred-strong refugee group who they have latterly been trying to clear off the historic cathedral steps…

For a moment, everyone – riot police, football fans, landscape theorists, desperate migrants – stops and stares at each other, wondering what’s supposed to happen next. Then the water cannon comes rumbling up the street and all hell breaks loose.

The way Taylor remembers it – although these days he’s not sure how much he trusts his memory – there was a moment, maybe three weeks in, when they could still have stopped and turned around and gone back to their lives When there was still a chance Baumann could have been wrong, could have invented the whole thing, when this could all still have been a coincidence.

“If you think about it,” Baumann had said, as they stood by the ninth hole on the course somewhere south of Copenhagen, watching the sunset, “what other landscape is more specifically designed to be played than a golf course?”

“And you’re sure?” Taylor had asked.

Baumann unfolded the print-out.

“I took a screenshot. It was a particularly lovely sunset. Our two-month anniversary. I wanted to preserve the moment.”

Taylor looked at the picture. The perspective was a bit skewed on account of the wide angle of view, and the designers had gone overboard on the lens flare, but other than that it was pretty much a perfect match. Bunkers. Water hazard. Parallel stands of cypress trees. Gentle rise to the distant tee-off for the tenth. Even the copper sky.

And there too, in all her polygonal loveliness, backlit, waving at the camera, unknowable, was the girl, was Sophia, was the woman of Baumann’s dreams.

“No email address? No phone number? Nothing at all the identify her in real life?”

“Didn’t need them. We used the chat client in the game. I didn’t know they were going to pull the plug and bury the whole thing six months in.”

“So, theoretically, she could be anyone, anywhere on the planet.”

“Theoretically, yes.”

“Or no one at all.”

“I’ve considered that too.”

“And all we have to go on are a random collection of landscapes, which may or may not have anything to do with each other, from an online game that no longer exists.”

“Exactly. Great, isn’t it?”

They’d stood in silence for a while after that, watching the light fail across the perfectly manufactured scenery, until Baumann had spotted the security guards approaching in the golf cart, and they’d had to pack up their equipment and run for the cover of the trees.

Taylor and Katrin pick Baumann up from the police station just before dawn. Peter and Yannick are still in the hospital. Lucija or Lucia is in the process of being charged for assaulting a police officer and won’t be let out until the afternoon.

They’re still hosing the streets down as Taylor, Katrin and Baumann ride the tram out of town.

“Where are we going?” says Baumann. He’s got a black eye.

The mountain is out in the black country beyond the old steelworks and the new airport, out among the capped-off coal mines. They have to walk for two miles from the end of the tramline on the edge of the suburbs, past the chain link fences, down an oily dirt track. The morning air tastes of coal dust and petrol.

“Near Frankfurt there’s a potash dump that’s even higher,” says Katrin. “They’ve started charging tourists to have their picture taken at the top. Give it a couple of years and they’ll be doing the same here.”

They climb over the rusting metal gate and start their ascent. The black shale keeps sliding out from under their feet as they make their way up, setting off small avalanches that clatter away below them.

“Isn’t this dangerous?” Says Taylor.

“Probably,” says Katrin.

By the time they reach the summit the wind has got up. They sit down to consider the view and Katrin shares round a bottle of water. They’re not alone. Along the ridge a group of refugees sit with sleeping bags and duvets wrapped round their shoulders, looking out across the plain, past the skeletal shaft towers and the crumbling mineworks, back toward the town. A couple of spoil enthusiasts are up there too, armed with cameras and binoculars.

“It’s warm,” says Baumann, putting his hand on the layers of slate.

“Spontaneous subterranean combustion. Technically the whole tip is burning from the inside. That’s why it’s so difficult for any trees or plants to establish themselves. And until they do there’s still the potential for a collapse. Though that hasn’t stopped them turning tips like this into dry ski slopes in a couple of places. Near Genk they’ve turned an entire coalworks into an extreme sports park.”

“How high up are we?”

“Two hundred metres, give or take. It’s the highest point for about fifteen kilometres. The locals call it ‘The Black Alp’. They’re trying to get it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

Baumann rolls a couple of cigarettes with the last of Taylor’s tobacco, hands him one. Katrin takes the remains of a joint from her pocket and smokes that. They watch the sun climb above the haze.

“You know, it’s funny,” says Katrin. “Before the eighteenth century the idea of an, an aesthetically pleasing mountain would have been impossible. Mountains were considered to be mistakes in God’s plan. Either that or they were terrifying abominations that would send people mad if they stared at them for too long. People had to be taught how to appreciate them. The experience had to be mediated, in some way. You want some of this?”

Baumann and Taylor shake their heads.

“So in a sense,” says Katrin, “every landscape is invented. Of course some are more artificial than others. But it’s only a matter of degrees.”

They all consider this for a while.

“Maybe it’s not so funny,” she says.

“Sorry we broke your conference,” says Taylor.

“Hey, it wasn’t your fault. Anyway when everyone hears what happened we’ll get twice as many people signing up for the next one.”

On the other side of town huge barges are loading up at the cement works. Across the river the dusty trees are beginning to turn brown.

“So what happens next?” says Katrin.

Taylor looks at the list on his phone.

“A new tech city development outside Hamburg. Couple of autoroute aires in France. A road tunnel in Switzerland. A bus terminal in Luxembourg. A picnic spot on Rugen Island. A Dutch container port. A Swedish aqua park.”

He puts the list away again.

“Lots of golf courses.”

Along the ring road the morning commuter traffic is already backed up for miles. Out towards the turnpike container lorries are lining up for spot checks. At the central train station, the migrant group from the square are being loaded onto buses to be shipped back east, back anywhere. Everyone is stuck.

Baumann finishes his cigarette, gets up, stands there with his hands in his pockets for a while, measuring the day. Then he shrugs his shoulders.

“Okay,” he says, “let’s go.”

– End –

[Originally published in the amazing gorse No. 7]