While I was winding up at work on Tuesday night someone veiled the city. All the buildings and trees sat at a remove from me as I was walking to the car, behind a soft and pale film. Mosquito nets? No, the effect was too gentle to be associated with something even trivially threatening. Bridal veils? Dustcovers? I liked the idea of a city, quiet and still lit, but empty and covered in diaphanous white sheets against age and dust, as if it had been roofed over into a forgotten attic where nobody ever looked any more.
Or perhaps this: something had changed the stuff of the city, weakened it, and now in the wet air it was dissolving like an aspirin dropped into a big, clear glass of water. All the edges were burring and blurring and becoming feathered and flaky, every object more than a few paces away seemed to acquire a little halo as though it were shedding outer layers of itself. I imagined everything dissolving and combining, leaving a comet-tail of my own substance behind me through the whiteness, what was left of me becoming coated and mixing with the surface of the shopping mall (it would feel gritty and pallid, with a sub-texture of exhaust grime), the steel of the lamp-poles (my breath and saliva would take on a bright, metallic taste as this new stuff merged into me), the thick dark mulch of dead leaves on the little path beyond the carparks (perhaps the colour would seep into my bones, turn them the shade of old tea). Normally I see myself as something apart from streetscapes and thinking about dissolution and merging like this is a little distasteful – it makes me think of dying, rotting and fermenting. On a winter’s night in the chill and near-quiet it seemed more elegant, though, more serene.
Canberra has what’s usually a fairly short fog season in winter, and this was the first real one of the year, but it was a wonderful one. I’m used to seeing fogs as a morning thing, steadily brightening as the sun thins them out, hardness and colour gradually seeping into the day until the air is clear again. (There’s a beautiful photo I took, if I say it myself, of a dam on Mugga Lane, surrounded by long grass and overhung by a gum tree that’s reflected in the water, all gently feathered and dusted by the fog; I wish I still had the negative.) The best mornings were when I lived on the farm and would come into town for school in the mornings, seeing the fog from the outside too: we’d come down through the hills in that lovely, chilly winter morning sunlight underneath a great blue sky, and the valleys would all be clogged up with rumpled whiteness that shone brightly enough to be uncomfortable to look at on sunny mornings. Then we’d dip down toward the river like a plane dipping into cloud as it comes into an airport and there would be wisps, then a pale wash over the landscape, and then we’d be down in the quiet and the grey again.
I’ve been in fogs at night before, of course, but I can’t easily remember one so thick or that came on so fast, or through which I walked instead of driving (the most fog-prone place around here is the airport, which I’ve only ever gone past on foot the once). And I was in the middle of town, too, not the countryside or driving. And so that night was exhilarating. Every streetlamp sat on top of a pyramid of orange light, and over toward Donaldson Street the big lights for the football field were diffused into a great white space-filling glow, making the clubhouse into a short blocky silhouette and the trees into tall latticed ones, all the outlines immediately softened back down by the fog between then and me. The leafless imported trees around the Catholic centre had white parking-lot lights immediately beyond them which turned their shadows into three-dimensional things, a ball of dark filigree extending slender rays of shadow out in every direction. All I could think of was one of those giant chandelier-like Christmas balls hung over shopping-mall courts in December, but with all the colour gone and light and shade reversed. Bunda Street is built up on both sides now and the North Quarter building has bright-coloured lights under its eaves, so the whole of that space was saturated with bright purple light, then green. The video arcade sign above Gus’ was a red-and-blue starburst. Cars passed by with hard bars of white light held out in front of them as though they were going to joust with them. A pedestrian trotting across Cooyong Street became a quick, abbreviated shadow, a hint in an impressionist sketch, a quick stroke of charcoal against the thumb-rubbed orange haze. Driving past the airport, the tight ranks of landing lights were all lit, standing shoulder to shoulder with their backs to the road, sending their light up and out as though they were standing sentry.
And then, coming up over the hill past the airport, it stopped. Driving through a lit town where those lights make shapes clear, hard and shiny was suddenly disorienting. I think I actually felt on edge, as though my senses had sharpened in response to some kind of threat. By the time I’d got where I was going the feeling had settled down.
Fogs are wonderful – in the most literal way – for the senses, but for the imagination too. They take the landscape or townscape you’re in and leave you with something familiar – the trees, hills, cars, buildings nearest to you – but take away the broader, deeper picture and leave a space that you can fill with anything you like. I can look out at the whiteness that begins a couple of streets away and wonder what it would be like if that fog lifted to reveal a simple, empty plain instead of town and mountains? What if it lifted and there were a vast, looming city there? Or a mountain that scraped the sky? Or something stranger? What would it be like to suddenly see that there? What would it be like to always have lived with that different land? How would it have changed me? How would it have changed my town?
Writing this post made me realise how much I miss the regular winter fogs. I hope we have another one soon.