The lonely path

The Botanical Gardens were a charm.  Sure, Belfast itself was charming, but any green space in a bustling urban area was always very much appreciated.

Very much appreciated indeed, especially if one noted the contrast.

 

Stepping into the gardens, one would be more inclined to take the well-constructed paths, joining the mass of people who had elected to spend their Sunday evening taking a stroll through the park.

Or like me, to cycle.

As is always when confronted with a diminished choice of stimuli, the mind tends to be more aware of the various sights.  Gone is the background roar of the traffic, and cometh is the song of the birds.  But the day was retreating, and the ground wet from a whole day of gentle rain.

 

The birds were not the only ones to take half a day off, I see.

 

But so often is the human mind curious, and curiosity must be satisfied.  I had cycled through the entirety of the park, growing accustomed to the hum of tyre against tar, when to my right I noticed a very peculiar path.

 

Peculiar, indeed, for it was unpaved unlike the well-used ones, and instead cleared for usage.  I was unable to contain my curiosity, and so I set off down the path on my bike.

The crunch of a dirt path against the rubber tyres was a jarring and very welcome change, for it afforded my imagination a vision of cycling through the European woods, which are very clearly lacking back in that far flung land which I had come from.  The narrow path was winding and I navigated the curves proficiently, for I had much experience in navigating the curves of Lisburn Road and Malone Road.  However, I was all too aware of my increasing proximity to the greenery all around me.  It seemed as if the trees and shrubs had gone all out to reclaim the space wrenched from them, and to say I felt at ease would be dishonest of me.

 

Was this then, how our early ancestors had felt when entering the great forests of a time long past?

 

All too soon, the path led to an open area.  This was a spot where the greenery to my right had retreated, and on my left there was an open space.  A quick look at my left told me that I had not gone far from the main path after all, and that the short gap between the greenery in fact provided a very nice frame to admire the big tree in the distance, and a lone bird hopping around on the field beneath it.

A short rustle to my right startled me.  Turning, I spotted a grey squirrel, evidently the source of the disturbance.  Moving my bike to steady myself, the crunch of the tyre against the dirt startled the well fed animal enough that it leapt behind the bushes.

 

I frowned.  Was it me who was the disturbance instead?

 

At this sudden realisation the air around me suddenly felt a lot heavier, and the greens seemed to me to be sharpening their twigs.  The atmosphere was no longer pleasant:  It was hostile, hostile to me for I had disturbed the calm of the area, no matter how small it was.

I then made up my mind to leave, the tyres very noticeably crunching against the dirt road.  Yet no matter how fast I was cycling, I could not quite shake the feeling that all around me the shrubs and trees were leering at me, for I had dared to invade their own space.  The surrounding greens grew closer and closer until it felt as if they were close to reclaiming the space, and possibly me.

But like a sudden flash of lightning, I was back on the main path.  Wide open spaces with fellow humans strolling on a well-tarred road.  This was where I had come from, there was no doubt about it.  Looking back to the path I had come from, however, made me feel a little bit empty on the inside.  We, the urban residents, had come to the Gardens to enjoy that little bit of nature, yet we had to build tarred roads so we might actually come ourselves.  But the nature in this form of enjoyment was distant.  The trees were big, sure, but there was nary a shrub in close proximity along the main paths save for some areas.

The lonely path that I had visited, on the other hand, was personal.  In there, the birds were at peace, the squirrels were content.

And so was I, content, in that tiny little space located just right off the main path, yet distant enough in atmosphere to be completely different from what walking on the main paths were like.

 

I cycled home in silence, having understood much of what I had learnt during those short 5 minutes.

 

Danny Boy

 

O Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling

 

The rain fell softly against the window, its tapping gently drummed throughout the empty house.

Her sobs echoed quietly in the room she once shared.  The pictures were still new, the dresses and gowns still hung in the cupboard, unused.

And the rings still shone bright.

 

The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling

 

The local weather had never been one to cheer her up.  She never did enjoy it even as a child: They were boring and cold, though a few of her more dreamy friends revelled in it.

 

Those were distant memories from a time long past.

 

She was dreamy once, too.  She dreamt of a Prince Charming that would sweep her off her feet, one that she would swoon against.  It was a lot to ask for, but everyone did too.  The wishes were the same from glen to glen, and down the mountainsides.

So it did surprise her more than a wee bit that she did meet her Prince Charming, though it involved less swooning and more blushing.  He was tall and kind, a lovely contrast to her petite figure, but a welcome accompaniment to her sweet, sweet smile.

The whole town did love her, as did everyone who met her.  Her innocence was infectious and it spread like wildfire whenever she showed up.  So it disappointed many a boy when she proudly displayed the small gold band.

It was simple and unmarked, just like how she liked her jewellery.

‘Tis you, ‘tis you must go and I must bide

 

But it wasn’t to last, just like many good things in the country.  A slow evening stroll through the streets of Belfast was their usual bonding time, but during one such stroll that innocence she had was rudely wrangled away.

 

The blast was deafening.

 

And then there was silence.

 

 

She didn’t walk with him anymore.  She couldn’t.

How could she when all that remained of him were a few specks of blood?

Many had similar stories to tell that day, of appreciating and then losing the next moment.  The conflict was cruel, robbed many of their love and lives.

And so like many, she lost both her Prince and her innocence.

 

 

And if you come when all the flowers are dying

 

The rain had stopped tapping.  All was quiet

Her sobs still heaved in the empty room.  The memories were too much to bear.

Slowly, they ceased.  She stood.

Gliding out the door and down the steps, her footsteps gently swished the silent air.

 

 

And I am dead, as dead I well may be

 

She emerged into the young sunlight, just peeking out of the clouds.  Right among the green fields, there was a speck of stone grey.  For the first time since the rain had begun and left, she smiled.

 

You’ll come and find the place where I am lying

 

She ran her cold fingers over the stone.  The bumps told how long it had been since he was reunited with the earth.

The sunlight fully matured, bathing the gravestones in a lush golden light.

 

And kneel and say an Ave there for me

 

 

She left.

The house looked decrepit as ever.  It had stood for 50 years without care.

The rooms she had grieved in were mouldy and crumbling, the stairs had given way.

 

Yet through the windows, if one were to look towards the grey specks on the horizon, they would have gotten the chills.

 

For there were two graves lying in silence together.

 

 

O Danny Boy, O Danny Boy, I love you so.

How Car-Centric Urban Planning Impacts Our Cities

Cities are perhaps the most visible and emblematic mark of human civilisation.

Throughout the entire history of the human race, there has been virtually nothing quite as prominent as the cities we have built.  Cities throughout history have represented the best of their period of time, whether it may be aesthetics or just simply how we lived at that very point in time.  Our cities represent the best of human ingenuity, and most of all, the constant evolution of the human race.  Looking down on our planet at night from the loneliness of space, the bright spots of lights with outstretched arms like a nerve centre—Our Cities, are the surest indication to any intelligent lifeform that intelligent life does exist on this pale blue dot.

Yet today, cities are often identified with common negative characteristics such as traffic congestions, and increasing greenhouse emissions.

Most of the common issues faced by cities can be traced to a prominent root: the automobile, or the Car as we know it.  Since the end of the Second World War as the world economy recovered from devastation, automobiles were seen as a catalyst to aid in increasing economic mobility, reducing travel times, as well as generally being seen as the future of transportation.  Thus, entire cities and countries were built to accommodate cars, with cars being inseparable from the popular image of a major, modern city.  In the United States, the role of road transportation was considered so important that President Eisenhower authorised the construction of the Interstate Highway System across the entire country.  While it is true that the development of road networks have undoubtedly served as an important economic catalyst in many places, the toll that car-centric urban planning takes on cities are heavy.

This article will thus briefly explore the various aspects in which cities are negatively impacted by the implementation of car-centric urban planning.

 

Urban Sprawl

The most visible impact of car centric planning of a city are the sprawling suburban areas around a city core.  The phrase “Urban Sprawl” provides the most literal explanation of this phenomenon: Urban sprawls are large, sprawling urban areas developed outside the city proper, usually with no sense of geometry.

The main issue with suburban areas are its relatively low density and heavy reliance on road networks.  The provision of low density residential/commercial buildings over a large physical area leads to a highly inefficient use of land, as less people are housed per housing plot.  For example, the amount of people housed in 500 single floor houses can be accommodated within an apartment block that probably takes up the combined plot space of 10 houses.

 

urban-sprawl

Figure 1: The total number of people housed in all these homes could probably fit into an apartment complex around the size of less than half of the entire area.

The sprawl caused by these low density developments in turn leads to an increase in distance between residential areas and services.  This is because to support the sprawling mass of low rise houses, planners of suburban towns tend to prefer long main roads with smaller roads branching off it to serve individual residential plots.  Given that these road networks are not only developed without any geometrical order in mind, it is not surprising that the long stretches of main roads have very low walkability due to its length, and the non-geometrical layout often sacrifices pedestrian convenience for the sake of preserving the exclusive aura of suburban homes.  As the picture below shows, a more circuitous route is needed to access Point B from Point A in a typical non-geometrical suburban layout than in a grid.  Thus, the burden of transportation is inevitably placed on cars or other form of private transportation.

 

suburban-grid comparison

Figure 2: Both points are 292m apart from each other, whereas the green line denotes the walking path one would have to take

Public transport, on the other hand, is forced to operate at sub-optimum levels of efficiency as compared with operations in denser urban areas.  Again, this is due to the low density sprawl.  Buses would have to travel greater distances to achieve a decent passenger count, whereas the catchment area of a train/Metro station is either relatively small (depending on the road layout) or forced to settle for low passenger numbers due to the low walkability and low density.  Oftentimes, major transit stations are forced to be sited at the fringe of suburban towns as there is no longer any space in car-centric town centres to accommodate the infrastructure.

 

Picture-13

Figure 3: Shows walkability difference between the 2 types of urban layouts, presuming the red star is the transit station.  The suburban layout has a noticeability smaller catchment area due to the poor connectivity between individual roads.  Map courtesy of Lawrence Frank & Co. and the Sightline Institute.

 

The Road Paradox

With the automobile serving as the primary mover of urban mobility, traffic congestion is inevitable.  We are not talking about localised congestion in the city core caused by narrow roads, but rather long and stressful congestions on major highways leading to and from the city centres.  This seems rather confusing at first, because major highways are designed to accommodate a large number of cars at speed.  What then, would cause these highways to suffer from congestion?

The answer is simple: there is simply too many cars.  While it is easy for one to suggest tough anti-car policies to force a reduction in car usage, the crux of the issue is not that simple.  The huge reliance on cars is usually due to a lack of alternative transport, and in turn causes the inefficient usage of road space: More road space is required to ferry 50 people in their own cars than the amount of space needed to accommodate a bus carrying up to double that amount.

 

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Figure 4: All of the people in the cars on the left could probably fit into around 5 of the buses on the right.  Image taken from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria

In short, less space is needed to accommodate a single bus which in turn can accommodate the equivalent passenger count of 50 cars, and neither does everyone driving do any good for the environment either.  With everyone driving their own vehicle, there is more carbon monoxide gas emitted (every single car) compared to if everyone simply utilised the bus or train.

Not to forget that the frequency of buses are often delayed thanks to these congestions.

This is where town planning comes in.  If the focus of the planning has been on building more roads and widening existing one to accommodate more cars, then it is inevitable that more people will drive simply because it is too convenient to do so.  Building more roads to relieve existing ones does not, in fact, relieve them.  Those reliever roads will soon be filled with cars again, necessitating the construction of yet more reliever roads.

Or does it?

Induced demand is very much alive when it comes to urban planning.  Contrary to what conventional road planning dictates, building more roads simply induces more people to drive.  From a pedestrian and public transit user’s point of view, driving has been made the only viable form of transportation as the space that could have been used to improve walkability or to improve public transit access have been taken up by new roads.

This in turn leads us to what this author terms the Road Paradox: Space is required to expand roads, yet the expansion of roads will lead to a point in time where road expansion have used up all available space, yet more space is needed to expand the roads to meet demand.  In essence, the expansion of roads negates the ability to expand the same road in the future; where in this case space is the finite resource, with traffic being the unfortunate constant.

 

The Personality of the City

Within the city centre itself, car centric urban planning has been known to reduce walkability as road space is maximised at the expense of pedestrian facilities.  Pedestrian sidewalks, for example, are usually the main victims of lane widening, though admittedly there are many cities that feature sufficiently wide sidewalks with wide roadways as well.  The focus is thus on how wide and expansive roads impact the city’s character.  Wide, multi-lane roads are simply painful for pedestrians, as not only are they too big to cross conveniently, the high traffic flow also makes it more dangerous and frightening for pedestrians, much like crossing a rapidly flowing river.  Conventional wisdom in many cities dictates building elevated pedestrian bridges to allow pedestrians to avoid having to deal with traffic at street-level crossings.  But their usage is frequently low, simply because pedestrians do not like climbing stairs, and thus jaywalking is the only viable albeit dangerous alternative.

With walkability limited in a city, the city and its aesthetics can no longer be appreciated by its citizens, and since neither can its citizens walk comfortably within the city, there goes the character of the city.  A city is ultimately defined by the people who live in it and their various activities.  Thus, the city is made less lively with a lack of pedestrian activity: There is a lack of human interaction, and people would be risking their lives every time they attempt to cross a street.  As is often inevitable, road centric developments often result in a loss of public spaces as well.  This makes the city less attractive and interesting to its own citizens, prompting them to seek to live elsewhere outside the city, usually suburban areas and thus completing the cycle of car-centric planning.  As a result, the city ends up serving as a focal point of activity only during the day, and as night falls with the citizens heading to their suburban homes, the city becomes deserted minus a few dwellers.  From a capitalist point of view, this loss of activity contributes to a decrease in profits for commercial owners in the city, which may prompt them to move their business elsewhere, thus causing a further loss of activity in the city; In urban planning speak, this is known as Urban Decay, and is a highly depressing reality when it does happen to a city.  Of course, in reality a city will not be completely devoid of residents, but in most cities with a suburban metropolitan area surrounding it, the population of those suburban areas often greatly outnumbers the population of the city, and most people living in the suburban areas often work in the city and leave after work.  Also, the usually high cost of living in the city means that few are able to afford a home in the city itself and thus are driven to the suburban areas, though this is another matter altogether.

The point here is that, roads are not necessary at connecting various places in a city.  It is much better to build compact cities with a focus on walkability and pedestrianism, than to build a city that fully relies on roads.  In many instances, walking may actually be faster and less stressful than driving, not to mention that it greatly reduces traffic congestion.  Instead of roads leading to commercial and residential plots, we can rely on pedestrianised paths to do the job equally as well or even better.  Such paths have been implemented in various cities around the world.  Belfast’s city centre, for example, features a highly pedestrianised shopping district, with a few roads reserved only for buses.  Dublin on the other hand, has a fully pedestrianised shopping district near the Trinity College.  Meanwhile in Kuala Lumpur which is a highly car centric city, the pedestrianisation of Medan Pasar (Market Square) in the historical area of Chinatown has provided the city with, firstly, a much needed public space, and secondly, a very good way to appreciate the heritage buildings fronting the square, which had previously been an inefficient bus hub with narrow pedestrian sidewalks.  In all of these places, pedestrian activity has increased as a result of a friendlier, pedestrian-centric environment, and it also happens to be a charm to walk in.  In Kuala Lumpur which this author is familiar with, however, pedestrian centric conversions are still a distant dream, as the stark contrast between a pedestrian friendly environment and a car friendly one is still painfully felt when one steps out of the Square.

 

Medan Pasar

Figure 5: Showing the Market Square in Kuala Lumpur before and after the pedestrianisation.  The improvements are very noticeable.  Image credit: skyscrapercity.org and Google Maps

 

Reflections

Our cities are our home:  How we plan and build our cities will impact how we live, and more importantly, how we evolve.  While it is undeniable that the automobile has had a huge impact on much of modern economic development, it is time to rethink the way we approach city planning.  We are entering an age where supplies of fossil fuels are dwindling, and having a sustainable urban development that relies less on cars and more on alternate transit is thus more important than ever.  But solely increasing investment in public transit is not the solution either, as the existing infrastructure must be heavily reconfigured in order to discourage driving, enhance the accessibility of public transit and most of all, to encourage walking again.  These measures may be hard to swallow, but are a necessary step in improving the liveability of our cities, and will hopefully repel the spectre of urban decay, under which some cities are languishing.

Ultimately, the power is in our hands.  None of the necessary improvements can be made if public appreciation for this issue is low, and neither will there be political will to rectify the situation.  Thus, the first step in saving our cities will be for all of us to be aware of the importance of sustainable urban and transit planning.

 

Remembering Rhodesia

Cautionary note:  The author neither endorses the policies of the Rhodesian Government, the South African Government pre-Mandela, nor does he agree with Mugabe either.

——————

For decades, the country of Zimbabwe has been synonymous with corruption, political oppression and chronic mismanagement.  Yet as little as over 50 years ago, the country now known as Zimbabwe was the Breadbasket of Africa.  Back then, her name was Rhodesia, and she wasn’t exactly likable on the international arena.  Rhodesia was governed by a white minority government led by PM Ian Smith, one that denied the black majority political representation and ensured they remained lower than whites in the social strata.  But for all her racism, Rhodesia still represents a time where peace and stability reigned in a country on a continent so beset by strife and war – a time when the Green and White flag waved in the blue Rhodesian skies.

Rhodesia certainly stood out among the various nations of Africa.  Throughout her existence she had largely stayed clear of the violence, civil wars and economic failures endured by a number of her fellow African states.  Life in the capital Salisbury (now Harare), was relatively affluent and pleasant.  Rhodesia was quite an economic powerhouse despite having sanctions imposed on her, with a very well developed manufacturing sector that prior to Independence exported goods worldwide.  When sanctions were imposed, the loss of foreign markets was predicted to cripple the Rhodesian economy; instead, it was a relatively simple task to direct the output to the domestic market.  Factor in the abundance of natural resources and a high performing agricultural sector, the Rhodesian economy eventually proved to be quite stable and prosperous.  In fact, government financials were also kept at healthy levels with a surplus always achieved until the civil war hit, and the Rhodesian Dollar was on-par with the British Pound.

Of course, good economic management wasn’t the only reason for Rhodesia’s economic wellbeing.  Quite a number of Rhodesian products were actually exported to other countries which disregarded the sanctions in favour of good Rhodesian quality, and these goods were usually exported from ports in South Africa and Portuguese Mozambique, which were both Rhodesian allies and (white) Partners in Crime.

When praising Rhodesia’s economic success, however, it is important to always remember who actually benefitted from the Rhodesian gold pot.  Rhodesia was denounced worldwide not for her renegade independence from Great Britain, but for the discriminative nature of Rhodesian society.  While not to the extreme which South Africa enforced, Rhodesian society was very much separated between the White English descended population and the Black natives.  The whites formed the Middle to Upper class strata of the society, while the blacks formed the lower class.  Segregation wasn’t law, but it certainly did exist in Rhodesian society.  Rather than physical separation, the population was segregated economically and socially.  Most natives usually worked in the agricultural sector on white-owned farms; in lower wage jobs in Salisbury; and as servants to white families.  In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to see a black native pushing a shopping cart for a white woman or clearing out the weeds by the roadside.  This segregation was actually a remnant of the British colonial era (as Southern Rhodesia), where the British South Africa Company (BSAC) that founded the first settlements allocated land and all resources to white settlers at the expense of the natives.  While reserve lands were granted to the native tribes in the rural hinterland of the country, virtually all economic capital was still concentrated in Salisbury, or more accurately, in white hands.  It was estimated that native workers earned ten times less than a white worker.  Also, while natives were not denied the vote outright, the requirements to be met to even be listed on the electoral roll meant that many natives could not vote, as one of the requirements to be able to do so was ownership of property.

Such a social situation is rather interesting as it gives a glimpse behind the mentality of a white Rhodesian.  Compared to South Africa, whose policy of Apartheid and independence from Britain was driven primarily by Afrikaner nationalism, white Rhodesians had a very different mentality altogether, as they were predominantly English descended.  The Afrikaners were Dutch settlers from the 1500s, who originally settled in what is now Cape Town, and over the centuries of hard life developed their own culture and language solely in South Africa.  This led to the rise of Afrikaner nationalism, which was essentially the desire to create an Afrikaner dominated state free from the constant meddling of the British.  Rhodesians, however, cannot identify with the tough life of the Afrikaners, since the English settlers practically strolled in with the backing of BSAC firepower and secured the resources by which they prospered.  It is thus clear that the Rhodesian drive for Independence was very much motivated by the want to preserve their status quo—one of luxurious villa lifestyles, with expensive dinners and a conservative English outlook.  They did not call the natives “kaffirs” like the ultra-nationalist Afrikaners next door, but they did have a condescending mentality about the natives that was exemplary of the British Colonial mentality.  This was eminent in many of Britain’s dominions and protectorates, whereby the English saw themselves as Men of Civilisation maintaining the peace in an “uncivilised nation”.  And so they saw providing amenities of civilisation to these uncivilised natives as a duty of theirs.  The spirit was clearly not lost among Rhodesians, since their drive for Independence was also a struggle against a “Liberal” dominated English government whose views had changed since the colonial era.  To quote Ian Smith verbatim:

“The mantle of the pioneers has fallen on our shoulders to sustain civilisation in a primitive country”

While a Rhodesian’s mentality was a remnant of the British Colonial past, his character differed from the average Englishman in England, thanks to the harsher life in the hostile African environment that awaited him once he arrived in Rhodesia.  The climate was hotter and more humid, and the insects more numerous.  Much like Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, Rhodesians developed their own local culture.  They were tougher in physical strength than the average Englishmen back home, and also developed their own accent.  According to a blog post written by a former Rhodesian, the cucumber sandwiches which were a staple of English diet were ditched in Rhodesia, and the new Rhodesian diet involved a lot of meat.  Copious amounts of meat were so ingrained into Rhodesian lifestyle that anyone who ordered a lesser amount of meat in a restaurant would receive very curious looks from other local patrons.  Still, Rhodesians were considered by the English to be kin, which was the primary reason why Britain chose not to prevent Rhodesia’s independence with military force.

The notions of civilisation ultimately could not withstand the fire of nationalism.  Throughout Independence, the minority regime had to face a resistance movement that increasingly resorted to violence to bring about majority rule.  The situation eventually degenerated into the Rhodesian Bush War that lasted for 15 years (1964-1979), fought between the Rhodesian Government and ZANU & ZAPU (nationalist guerrilla parties), with only the second phase being more disastrous due to the loss of Portuguese Mozambique as an ally and the waning of South African support.  Smith’s government eventually realised its unsustainable position and attempted an Internal Settlement with moderate black parties.  This led to multiracial elections in 1979, and the country’s name was changed to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.  In practice, however, it was a power sharing system between the whites and blacks, as the security forces and the civil service still remained in white hands.  This meant that both ZANU and ZAPU refused to recognise the new government as they considered it a white puppet.  International recognition and the lifting of sanctions were also not forthcoming.  Despite the elections being considered free and fair by most parties, the main contention was the still ongoing suspension of ZANU and ZAPU from the political arena, leading many to consider the results of the elections not representative of the population, and so a UN resolution was passed declaring the election results null and void.

The British mediated Lancaster House Agreement was eventually accepted by all parties in late 1979.  Rhodesia was reverted temporarily to British rule, and eventually multi-party elections were held in 1980 (won by ZANU), leading to the ascension of Robert Mugabe as Prime Minister, now President.

Today, Zimbabwe is synonymous with corrupt and authoritarian governance, and considered a pariah state by many.  While Zimbabwe has better standards of living than the likes of Somalia, the economy suffers from hyperinflation that caused the abandonment of the Zimbabwean Dollar; deteriorating service delivery in essential public sectors; and a crumbling infrastructure.  Indeed, it is especially ironic that all this is happening in a country that was once the Breadbasket of Africa, and still had one of Africa’s fastest growing economies in the initial years of majority rule.  All that has changed now, as violent reprisals against white farmers led to their flight from Zimbabwe, causing a collapse of the once successful agricultural sectors with the land being divided up among Mugabe cronies, with harassment and detention of Mugabe’s political rivals being a common occurrence.  Perhaps more shamefully, Mugabe is still viewed by many on the continent as a symbol of anti-colonialism.

The political leadership of Zimbabwe may pride itself with overthrowing Ian Smith’s regime.  But for all the nationalist propaganda and rhetoric, the irony is that the roads and buildings Zimbabweans utilise are all Rhodesian.

 

Water in the fog

His feet crunched on the dark sand as he walked, slowly.

 

Lemony Beach was never really known for its scenery.  In fact, it didn’t even lead out to open sea as it was a lagoon.  The sands were dark, the waters murky and the trees were half dead.  Needless to say, it was not a popular spot with many.

 

But he liked it.  In fact, he enjoyed the cool air, and the relative quiet in the surroundings.

 

Well, mostly quiet.

 

Since the creatures in the water feel compelled to make their presence known with long mournful sounds from time to time.

 

It didn’t bother him anyway.  He was here to think, and to soak up the environment.  The relative calm of the surroundings certainly helped his thoughts.

 

If one would just ignore the fog that surrounded the place.

 

The fog was all-pervading.  It even got into the car if you were driving on the motorways nearby.  But the fog was thickest out in the middle of the water, and there was also a little bit of an oddity.  There seemed to be a gap between the fog out in the middle of the lagoon and the fog from land.  A bit like a doughnut, if you may.

 

He knew all this.  He even knew that this area used to be owned by a certain Mr Snickets, who apparently named the beach after himself, and who also mysteriously disappeared 10 years ago.

 

Just about the same time his daughter did as well.

 

He heard of the stories of course.  The stories about something in the fog that made the people walk into the water, never to return.  It was scary enough, but the eyewitness account also told of the complete silence that enveloped the area.  Nobody let out so much of a cry for help as they walked into the water.

 

It didn’t help that the “eyewitnesses” usually died mysteriously a few days after the people walked into the water.

 

Intrigued, he started researching the area.  Oddly enough the local library only had a passing mention of the lagoon in an antiquated land register, dated 1789, showing nothing of use except informing that the entire area was owned by a certain Mr. Alexander Snickets.

 

So he tried to interview the older locals who might know a bit more about the place.  The only responses he got were a weird stare, a knock on the head, and a look of horror.  The more chatty ones on the other hand mentioned something about a “monster beneath the depths”, although he suspected they might be confusing it with the famous monster way up North.

 

Which is why he decided to visit the place itself, since nobody would tell him anything.

 

His daughter had gone on a school trip to the nearby farms, and had wandered off on her own.  When she didn’t show up as the students were boarding the bus, the teachers got worried and looked for her frantically.  To their horror, some villagers told them that they had seen a little girl with features matching their description, walk into the lake.

 

And never surfaced again.

 

His wife fell into deep depression after that and soon hung herself from the rafters.  Not being able to cope with two losses at once, he resolved to investigate the lagoon itself.

 

Surprisingly enough, he felt at ease the first time he stepped on the sand, with all his troubles forgotten.  His dead daughter and wife no longer mattered, and he could live as if they never existed.

 

Staying here was the only thing that mattered.

 

So he came here regularly just to feel normal again, and this time was no different.

 

Or it seemed.

 

Then he heard it—something that never happened the previous times he was here.  It was a beautiful song.  Its melody rang out around him and filled his ears.  He saw such wonderful images, such a beautiful light.  He was convinced it was heaven, and he could even feel the song.

 

Then at the corner of his eye, he saw her.

 

A tall feminine figure covered in black clothing with her face obscured by a shawl.

 

The song stopped just like that, and the warmth that the song brought rushed out of his mind.  The remaining vacuum was filled with an overwhelming fear.  He couldn’t quite explain it, neither could he think.  He felt like a child lost in the forest with the monsters lurking just beyond the mist.

 

“Walk into the water”.  The voice was calm.

 

He hesitated.  Did he really want to feel colder?

 

“The water is warm, and it’s safe”.  The voice was soothing.

 

He felt this overwhelming need to feel the water; to let it envelop him and cover him.  Soon enough he felt his legs moving, bringing him closer and closer to the water.

 

He no longer feared anything.  The water was warm and the voice inviting.  Even the lady in black wasn’t terrifying after all!  He felt joy beyond what he could ever have imagined as he walked deeper still into the water.

 

At last, the voice came yet again.

 

“Breathe normally”

 

He obliged.  There was clearly nothing to fear, and it was more pleasant being surrounded by the water anyway.

 

As the cold water rushed through his lungs, he felt ice spikes stabbing him at every corner inside his body.  Yet he was contend, because there was clearly nothing to worry about.

 

All was well.

 

Nymph of a kind

The fall wasn’t hard, but it was abrupt.

 

Whoever knew that commenting on somebody’s toga could land you a suspension eh?

 

Besides, the Emperor’s toga was a very nasty shade of orange.

 

And I hated it.

 

So there I was, falling through the sky, wings gone and basically hurtling through the clouds at more than twice the speed of sound.

 

Alright, I made that figure up.

 

It’s funny though. Most people would be screaming their lungs out as they fall towards that hard, hard ground, and probably get their oh-so-angelic hair messed up.  But my hair is already messy enough so I didn’t care at all.

 

Not one single bit.

 

Because I hit the ground then.

 

The first thing I saw were leaves, lots of them.  Grey, brown, green, red.  It was like somebody added Smarties to nature’s biological mix.

 

Okay that was me, but I was 8 months old then.

 

The second thing I realised?

 

There are no grey Smarties.

 

Not me then.

 

Third thing?

 

I was lying on the ground.

 

It took me approximately 5 seconds to realise that the leaves were on the ground, and not attached to a branch, which was where they were supposed to be.

 

So I stood up and dusted myself a bit.  The place sounded a little quiet, but keeping oneself tidy wouldn’t hurt right?

 

The place sounded quiet, but what was this place?

 

I took a good look at my surroundings while swivelling on my heel.  It was bright, which was good.  Always nice to see sunlight streaming down from above.

 

At that thought I looked straight up.  High above me was an artist’s canvas.  It was complete, or perhaps, it never will be.  It was composed predominantly of the most vivid shade of green, with streaks of brown holding the greens up and the white of the sun streaking in between the greens.

 

And it was absolutely beautiful.

 

I looked back to the horizon level, and realised that I was in a forest of some sort.  Rows after rows of ancient trees stood tall with gnarled trunks at the base.  As I was standing in a bit of a depression in the ground, the trees seemed to tower over me, more so than ever.

 

“Are you an angel?”

 

I swivelled round at the sound of the voice.  It was female, and sounded rather innocent: Like the smell of the air after the rain.

 

Or maybe like the twinkle of delicate chimes in the wind.

 

But I saw nobody.

 

“You definitely are an angel.  I heard angels are tall”

 

I looked straight down.  There at around the height of my knee, stood a blond haired young girl in a vivid red dress.  She had on her face an expression of utmost curiosity.

 

“Why hello there, what are you?”

 

“Are you an angel?”

 

“Why would you ask that?”

 

“I saw you fall through the trees.  Did it hurt?”

 

“Not at all,” I had a rather confused expression on my face.

 

“What’s wrong with your face?  Do you not like it?” she squinted at my face curiously.

 

“No, no, I do quite like it actually” I was beginning to be baffled by this person.

 

“You must be a model then.  I heard they like their faces very much,” she concluded happily, albeit it was quite untrue.

 

Oh, okay.

 

She seemed about the age of 5, but her command of speech was too exceptional for a person her age.

 

Besides, there wasn’t any human homes as far as my eye could see, and I only remember a huge carpet of Green shortly before I plunged through the treetops.

 

And whoever said height corresponded to age?

 

This must be one of the forest nymphs then, I mused.

 

And so I enquired of her identity.

 

“Oh no, no, I am not a nymph, they are way smaller than me and I don’t really like them much,” she shook her head.

 

“And I am just a simple living creature!” she added, doing a cheerful skip, a bit like a butterfly dancing amongst the flowers.

 

This got me baffled.  She was about the height of an average forest nymph, and cheerful enough to be one too.  This meant that she probably lived in one of the farms in the valley.

 

“Do you come from the valley?”

 

“The farmers?  They’re too far away, and I don’t quite like the valley either, it’s too boring.”

 

“Are you human?”

 

Upon hearing my words she burst into cheerful laughter, and must have been in such glee as tears streamed from her eyes in her laughter.

 

“Oh no, no you silly!  I am not human.  They’re fun people but way too noisy for me,”

 

Forest nymph, then.

 

But her eyes suddenly clouded up with such sorrow that my heart instantly took pity on her.  The feeling must have been so overwhelming that she had to sit herself on a rock.

 

I rushed to her side instantly.

 

“Oh bother, bother,” she mumbled over and over again.

 

She wiped her eyes on a huge handkerchief that she produced out of nowhere, and when she looked at me, her eyes were neither sorrowful, neither cheerful as before, but grey.

 

“You must forgive me.  I do get quite emotional sometimes, mostly when I think of the humans,” she sniffed.

 

She stood up suddenly.

 

“But otherwise I am perfectly fine,” she insisted.

 

Hmm…the humans aren’t exactly very well behaved aren’t they?

 

“Oh look! The stars are here!” she suddenly exclaimed.

 

Instinctively I looked up.  I had always loved looking at the stars from the ground since when viewed from my realm they were nothing but burning balls of gas that had to be taken care of all the time.

 

I should know.  I was a Starkeeper (First Class in fact!) for about a year and a half when I was 20.

 

It took me awhile to realise that I was looking at a big black field full of stars, where there previously was that lusciously beautiful canopy that I so admired earlier.

 

“Where is the canopy?”  I asked her.

 

“Oh it’s still there, but not us” she replied somewhat cheerfully.

 

The sound of flowing water nearby told me that we were in a different place.  We were now next to a flowing stream in an open plain, and the full moon in all its radiance was reflected perfectly in the water.

 

How did she even move us?

 

“The forest is mine.  It obeys me!” she happily informed me as if she just read my thoughts.

 

“Can you read my mind now?”

 

“Of course not, silly!  It’s what people would usually wonder wouldn’t they?” she said with a wink.

 

“So you get other visitors as well?”

 

“Not really.  I just thought that anyone would be confused over what just happened,”

 

“I see…”

 

“And you’re the first visitor I’ve had!” she did that odd butterfly skip again, as if she took great pride in that fact and expected me to.

 

“Oh you’re quite the sombre kind aren’t you? What goes on in your head?  I wonder…” she mused quietly.

 

There was a sudden explosion of colours in front of me.  From it, a multi-coloured ribbon streamed out and up into the air.

 

“Tell me, what do you see in the rainbow?” she waited for my reply with wide eyes.

 

I was growing more confused by the minute, but I couldn’t resist that wide puppy-like eyes.

 

“Rainbow poop?”

 

She burst into such a laughter that I was reminded of my early days, where there were no worries, and I could run around with my friends in the fields all day until Mother demanded that I return home for dinner.

 

I had to laugh with her at that.  It was a long time since I heard a laugh as beautiful as that.

 

But the beauty of the stars were way too seductive, and so I lay on the grass and gazed at them.  The twinkling reminded me of all the pressure tweaking I had to do in the ferocious heat during my time as Starkeeper, all so that millions of people living in the star’s system could live to see another day.

 

“Here come the Springboks!”

 

Not too far in the distance we could see a herd sprinting across the landscape.  Occasionally they leaped, and when they did, they seemed to land further than ever.

 

Magnificent creatures, they were.

 

Not so far away from us we could see the fire of a Voortrekker camp, with the faint outline of several people peering at our direction quite visible.

 

Must have been our light show then.

 

“Don’t you think we should have a change of scenery?  Don’t want the Boers to think we are a Zulu party or something,”

 

“Don’t worry, ek kan nie praat Afrikaans”

 

That bit was quite unexpected.

 

“Wouldn’t that make our situation worst?”

 

“Oh don’t worry so much!  When they approach us we shall disappear into the night!”

 

“If you say so then,”

 

“But you’re no fun at all!  A shame…”

 

A snap of the finger, and we were in woods of some sort.  The stars were still there, and so was a bright dot in the sky.

 

I pointed at it and asked: “Venus?”

 

She merely looked stared up at the sky and replied:

 

“Mars is bright tonight”

 

“What?”

 

“Mars is bright tonight”

 

If you say so then.

 

I walked further up a faint trail.  Around me were rows and rows of slender trees.  The scene was replicated for miles, but it was hauntingly beautiful with the white glow of the moonlight streaming down from above.

 

Faint gallops in the distance perked my eyes up.  I could see the faint outline of a horse-like creature moving away from us, until it finally disappeared.

 

“Centaurs”

 

I whipped around.  “What?” I asked.

 

“Minions are good”

 

“I’m sorry?”

 

“Centaurs live in this part of the world.  This is their natural habitat.”

 

I see.

 

“I had no idea centaurs existed, I’ll be honest” I admitted.

 

She gasped loudly, with her hand over her mouth.

 

“But you are from the stars!  You must see everything!”

 

“Not exactly, most of the time we only see the continental shelves and the lives of random humans,”

 

“Oh must you be so dull?” she sounded very disappointed.

 

We sat in silence among the trees for a while, bathed in the ethereal light of the Moon, listening for the gallops of other centaurs.

 

“I guess it was a horse then,”

 

“No, no, no!  They must be sleeping.  It’s late at night you know, and everyone sleeps at night!” she insisted firmly.

 

If you say so then.

 

A fast gallop suddenly appeared out of the vast silence.  At its zenith, I saw the most unexpected thing.

 

A human with the body of a horse, galloping majestically through the night.

 

“Ooh!  I told you they did exist!” she applauded happily as if she scored a major victory over me.

 

The scene changed, and we were back in the forest where she found me.  The first of the sun’s rays were already starting to diffuse into the grey of the night sky.

 

Day was fast approaching.

 

“Here comes the sun, I guess that’s my cue.  It was really nice meeting you!” came her cheery but now rather distant voice.

 

On hearing those words I intended to ask for an explanation.  But I found no one when I turned.

 

Coming and going just like she was never there.

 

*************************

Many a millennia later as I sat deep in thought by my fireplace on a planet so far away from Earth, I often found myself wondering who she actually was.

 

Perhaps she was just a forest nymph, but nymphs can’t teleport from place to place.

 

Or maybe, MAYBE, she was the force of Nature herself, who just grew bored and wanted to show a fallen celestial being the beauties of her realm.

 

That was a long, long time ago, and throughout my travels of duty I have met many souls who had many a tale to tell, that were more exciting than the Springboks sprinting through the plains, and the Centaurs galloping away in the distance.

 

But on quiet days like this, I find myself thinking back to the girl in a vivid red dress, who teared up at the mention of humans, and who proved to me that centaurs do exist.

 

I wonder if she still gazes up at Mars every time it brightens in the sky, or whether she pets the Springboks in the fields as they stop to rest.

 

And most of all, does she ever befriend the centaurs?  She sounded really lonely.

 

 

I will never know.

A Parting In Time

Your assistance is very much appreciated.

A simple thank you would have been enough, but you’re welcome nevertheless.

Unfortunately, we simply cannot allow you to continue running around like this.

What? What are you talking about?

You have a TARDIS, think about it. You can have a huge impact on the timeline of this Universe, and we cannot allow you the chance.

Look at me! I have saved this Universe so many times over! Have I ever harmed it once?

The voice was silent.

Fair enough, but we simply cannot take the risk.

WHAT? After all I’ve done? Is this how you repay those who assist you?

Again, the voice fell silent.

We admit we may have been too brash in deciding on a punishment for you. Now that you have mentioned it, this really isn’t the way to repay you.

Well, good to know that you finally realise—

So we have decided on a lighter punishment for you. You may have helped us now, but you have harmed us before, and we cannot let that slide.

Is this what it is now? Revenge?

Oh no, Doctor, this is not revenge. We are simply doing the Universe a favour, as well as certain people.

Certain people? Who are they?

Your companions.

Jane? But she didn’t do anything! Why are you doing this to her?

It’s interesting how out of your companions, you only remember her. No, Doctor, we are not doing this to her, but to you.

What have I ever done to her to deserve any punishment?

You disrupted her life. Because of you, she would never earn her place in human society. By showing her all that has, and will happen, you have scarred her. Did you know, Doctor, that she cries herself to sleep at night? That she still remembers the deaths that are yet to come so far into the future?

She came along voluntarily! I didn’t force her to!

Oh, but you did not ask her to leave either.

The Doctor fell silent.

Alright then, since I have no other options, I will have to submit to your “punishment”. But I have a request to make of you.

What is it?

That you allow me to say goodbye.

Silence.

Your emotional attachment to these tiny humans are uncomprehend able, but we will allow it. You have 24 hours.
—————————
24 hours. At least it was better than nothing.

He was extremely mad at himself. He felt that he should have seen this coming. The Conscience wasn’t exactly known to keep their end of the bargain, or even let a co-operator go just like that.

No, they usually wanted something in return. Despite their name, they had not a single shred of conscience in their hearts, if they ever had one.

But what’s done is done. There was no changing anything. If he tried to prevent his past self from stopping the Conscience, he would fail. The Conscience were smart enough to have placed a temporal barrier around those events, and there was only forward to look forward to.

He could visit his past companions and tell them about what had transpired, but they had parted ways for quite some time now, and had perfectly normal lives, and he really did not want to interrupt that.

So he went to Jane instead. Despite his title, he never was an old man, at least in this final regeneration. He looked young, charming, earnest, and had quite the joviality.

Jane took it badly. She was never the kind to turn down any offers of adventure and was looking forward to spend the rest of her life with this mysterious Time Lord. She broke down and begged him to tell her that he was lying, that it wasn’t true, and that it was merely a dream.

But her dreams never contained the Doctor, at least not for a while. She dreamt about the turn of Time itself, of the countless who would be born, and would die both horrifically and in glory so many years after she would leave this world. It made her nights sleepless, but yet she wanted more.
He loved her deeply, and so did she. She shared his every tastes, read just like him, and was quite the fun loving kind. She always said how much she envied his longevity, but as he told her now, his longevity would be the very first thing he would give up.

A light appeared in the corner of the house. It glowed brightly, illuminating every single corner and dispelling every shadow. A distinctive and familiar whirrr emanated from the centre of the light, filling their ears.

“It’s my TARDIS! But it’s an hour early, damn the Conscience! Damn you all to the depths of hell!”

Your words are strong, Doctor, but alas, the time has come.

“But you haven’t even told me what you are going to do!”

Simple, we are going to bar you from her timestream.

“Why would you do that? Why not just lock me in a Pocket Universe?”

Because you wouldn’t feel Time bringing the loneliness to you.

“So you want me to die from loneliness?”

Yes Doctor. Our research suggests that she is the only person in this Universe you will be happy with, so we shall take that happiness away from you.

“But this is insane! You can’t do this to me—“

Oh I think we have already started. Step into the TARDIS, Doctor.

“Jane, listen. This is the last time I will ever speak to you. Promise me that you will move on? Please?”

She tearfully nodded her head, and he had to use up all of his self-control just to stop his tears from flowing.

“I wish we could part in better circumstances, and remember this. I WILL say my goodbyes to you properly, and when I do, you will remember it all your life—“

Doctor! Time’s up!

“No! Wait!—“

The white light enveloped him in a bright flash, and a strong gust of wind blew around the house as the TARDIS took off with that distinctive sound.

And at the end, all that was left was a sobbing Jane, who for the many years to come, would dream of this very day.

The day that the Doctor was taken from her.