I woke up this morning at 6, looked out the window, saw a white sheet of cloud across the sky and contemplated going back to bed. I forced myself not too. For a long time I’ve been wanting to get up early and go walking in the city. I had a romantic idea of what it would be like: the morning sun pooling on the old canal houses and in the trees that line the water, steam rising from vents down winding alleyways, shopkeepers lifting shutters and setting out tables, the smell of bread baking in the air, people on balconies with hot mugs of coffee, and a profound sense of peace and calm before the rush of the day begins.
When I eventually stepped out of my front door this morning, after my half-awake attempt at getting ready quickly, I thought the reality might actually line up with my expectations, despite the sun’s refusal to burn through the clouds. The city was as still and near to silent as I have ever encountered it. I could hear a train going along the tracks at the end of my road and a rubbish truck, as well as the birds singing. But other than that, the streets were still and silent.
I passed the rubbish truck and exchanged good mornings with the man operating it. One or two cyclists and cars went by, but the city felt empty. Most of the traffic lights hadn’t been turned on yet and the amber lights flashed in warning. I passed a butchers where an old man and woman were setting out their wares for the day. I smiled at the woman. She didn’t smile back.
The closer to the city centre I got, the busier it became. But cars and people were still few and far between. Despite the fact that I was also out early, wandering the streets, I couldn’t help but wonder what the few other people around were doing up so early. Some seemed, like me, to be out for the sake of it. Others looked like they were going to work. Most looked like tourists, setting out for the day or catching early flights home (with my backpack on I probably looked like I fell under the tourist category too).
Across the harbour the lights were on in the library and I was reminded of another early morning walk, some years ago now. It was in St Andrews, where I studied. I woke up at 5 o’clock one morning in need of a glass of water. When I looked up from the kitchen sink, the world outside the window was white. I went back to the bedroom and woke my boyfriend. It’s snowing! Without any verbal agreement we both started pulling on clothes and shoes.
As we walked towards the centre of the town, we passed a girl on the other side of the street. She was carrying a pile of books and heading for the library. I remember feeling a slight sense of guilt about my own – at least to my mind – lax study habits. We walked through the town and towards the beach, where snow had replaced sand and the town stretched out below in a fog of ice crystals and sodium lamp light. It was one of those rare moments that seems utterly perfect, that lodges in the mind like lightning.
We went home again around 8 o’clock and by the time we woke up again at midday, the snow was still there in patches but it was trodden and melting. It had been a temporary gift, just for us.
Past the library I headed down along a canal towards Dam Square. A man weaved past me, smelling like he’d bathed in alcohol. In fact, the air was thick with the smell of alcohol and it wasn’t hard to see why. The pavement was strewn with crushed paper cups, broken glasses and smashed beer bottles. The bins were overflowing with fast food remnants and burst bin bags spilled their contents, which were being happily enjoyed by crows and jackdaws.
In Dam Square a major cleaning operation was already under way with street cleaners sucking up rubbish and men with hoses spraying the pavements. I couldn’t help but feel angered by all the rubbish everywhere and the lack of respect people seem to have for the city. I love this place and it is literally trashed night after night.
By now I was feeling sleepy and fed up. I was tempted to catch one of the empty trams that kept rattling by, but decided to keep going. I’m glad I did in the end. As I approached the zoo, I heard a loud wailing sound. At first I wasn’t sure if it was coming from an animal – it sounded more like a car alarm – but I figured it must be a bird. The spoonbills in their cage were silent (in the entry for spoonbills in my bird book, under ‘voice’ it simply states ‘generally silent’. I wonder what sound they make when they’re being specifically noisy?). The parrots were cawing but they weren’t making the high-pitched wailing sound I was hearing. It grew louder as I approached the flamingos and I decided it must be them. I stood by the railings and looked in at the pond where they gather on the shore – their numbers are falsely multiplied by a wall of mirrors that tricks them into breeding. But the flamingos were silent too.
I decided I probably wasn’t going to figure out where the sound was coming from and to just listen instead, when a man on a bike with his young daughter on the front pulled up next to me. English? he asked (definitely look like a tourist). Yes, I said, half-laughing in the way that I always do when people ask me that question, as though I have to seem embarrassed by the fact. It’s the gibbons making that noise. You have to stand here. You can see them in the tree behind the red one. There’s a black gibbon and a blonde one.
I stood where the man had instructed and looked at the specified tree. It still took me a few seconds to spot them. I saw the blonde one first, its back to me, and then the black one, hanging off to one side. They call to each other every morning, said the man as he cycled away.
I carried on listening for a while, trying to decide what they sounded like. A car alarm, a human screaming, whales calling through a sea of muggy morning air. Mostly they sounded other-worldly, lost-worldly. Later on, back home, I read the gibbon wikipedia page. Gibbons are, like far too many animals, endangered. Their forest habitats are being cut down. Reading that, I couldn’t help but remember their calling as sad and mournful. Two gibbons, likely a mating pair, calling out their territory in the city, thousands of miles from a home that probably doesn’t exist any more.
Still, I walked home feeling all the lighter for having heard and seen them – despite the heaviness of sleep accumulating in my muscles and eyelids. I’d had a romantic notion of what my morning walk in the city would be like. It had mostly been foiled, but I’d been given something unexpected in return. A surprise; a small joy.
If you want to know what a gibbon sounds like, take a look at this video.