It appeared overnight, a city rooted in the clouds hanging above our own city. People poured from offices to see it, phones pressed against their ears. They shuffled out of shops and supermarkets, basket in hand, unpaid for cans of beans and bunches of bananas squashed against the wire netting.
Photos of it went viral, countless teenagers sharing videos of themselves, the city lined up behind them so it seemed to perch on one shoulder – #floatingcityandme.
My neighbour set up his telescope, zoomed in on the shimmering glass, the pristine marble bridges and piazzas, fountains with water falling in rainbows, white driving pods arcing over terracotta rooves, plunging into banks of cloud like riders on a log flume. ‘It’ll be the Russians,’ he said. ‘Or the Chinese showing off.’
As the days passed I watched my fellow citizens change. Shoulders humped deeper, heads ducking behind upturned collars despite the summer heat. Slurs and curses were muttered under the breath or not voiced at all, a whole city scared of being overheard and watched, a whole city muted.
A TV sweaty evangelist said Jesus had arrived. That he had towed Heaven with him and was waiting patiently amid the clouds for the Chosen to join him. Though the evangelist stayed here, readjusting his polyester wig, hand to the screen, waiting for your call.
Probes were sent, drones with cameras and dials and measuring equipment humming like dragonflies over a pond, and returned with nothing but flattened midges and dirty ice crystals.
One night as I returned from work, my neighbour beckoned me over, pointing to the telescope. Through the lens I saw the floating city’s now smog smeared glass, the fountains clogged with oil and plastic packaging, the driving pods bumper to bumper, a tailback looping round the cloud three times as if congestion and pollution were diseases we had spread, contagious through the atmosphere. My neighbour just shrugged and screwed on the lens cap.
The next day the floating city had vanished, leaving only cloud behind and after a week or so of watching the sky, the city returned to normal, collars turned down, car horns and music and shouting and cussing floating to the gap where the city had shimmered.
And we were alone again.
The painting reminded me of a news story last year, where a city appeared in the clouds above a city in China. Scientists have said it was a mirage but of course, the general public had other, more sci-fi and millenialist interpretations. See here to find out more.