Art Pact 271 - The Big City

Some facts I have noticed about the big city.

Everything is big! The buildings are big! The train stations are big! The parks are big! The people are big!

Well, almost everything. Not quite everything is big, but most things are. Some things are small. The mice are much smaller in the city than in the country, and the rats too. They're timid things, things that you see out of the corner of your eye as they scurry from one hiding-place to another. You could easily miss them if you're not sure where to look for them, and even then you might not find them. It's not the same as in the country, not the same as opening a barn and going inside to find a tool that you haven't used in years. You might look in the corner of your toolbox and see six little black eyes staring back up at you - nestmates, curious to see what has come to find them while their mother is away. The bit city mice and rats are reared in burrows or nests deep in the underground of the city, in the pipes and tubes and cellars and other spaces that are deep down below the bustling surface. There are cracks and faults that might let a mouse go from one side of the city to the other completely underground, passing through wine cellars, and service hatches, and basements, and veins of opened rock. I sometimes wish that I could travel like a mouse, secret and silent, moving out from the sight of the grey masses that move around at ground level.

More facts. There are (if you only count the official inhabitants and not the mice, rats, cats, pigeons, crows, magpies, ducks, swans, dogs and horses) ten million living beings in the city. These are the official statistics, the number so big that it is not considered worth going into more precision. If there were a million and a half people in the city, that half would be defended. Here, people would say, is a city that is much bigger than those million-person cities, those country-bumpkin pretender cities that house next to no-one. Why, they might be rounding up! A city with a million and a half inhabitants can't be counted along with cities that might only have nine-hundred thousand, anarchy would reign!

But a city of ten million has nothing to prove. Ten million, they say. Might be more, might be less. Probably more, though, and who's going to quibble with a little bit of inflation? Who's going to say that we can't describe ourselves as a city of ten million? You? Are you going to stop us with your pedantry? You and whose army (of ten million and one)? No, a city of ten million is a grown-up city, assured of its own status. It moves in elevated circles, no longer a city so much as a metropolis.

Another fact: for every one person in the city, there are approximately a million ants. For every one person there are five mice. For every one person, three rats. For every person, two point six pigeons. Then beyond that, the ratios reverse. For every cat, twenty people. For every dog, thirty-two people. For every magpie, thirty-six people. For every crow, forty people. For every duck, forty-one people. For every swan, one thousand one hundred people. For every horse, two thousand people. There are two elephants in the city zoo, each responsible for elephant duties to five million people. No-one knows how they divide this duty. Perhaps the female elephant is responsible for the women of the city, the male elephant for the men. Perhaps they divide the people by height, or perhaps they time-share: one doing his elephant duty during the day, one doing her duty during the night. It is too mysterious, no-one knows how elephants think. You can visit them during the day, when the zoo is open, and you can look at them for as long as you like. But you will never be able to determine which one of them is thinking about how he can be the best elephant for your needs, and which one is concentrating on someone else.

Fact: The tallest building in the city is the Tower of Future Lights, which is two hundred and sixty meters (or 0.026 millimetres per inhabitant of the city) tall. But you can't go up to the top of it, because it's owned by a bank and they have very serious security guards at all the entrances. I offered to open an account with them, but it made no difference. The security guard told me I had to go.

The second tallest building in the city is the Tower of Communication, which is only one hundred and eighty-nine meters high (or 0.0189 millimetres per inhabitant), but on Sundays they open to the general public, and there is a restaurant on the top floor and a viewing deck above that. You can see out over the whole city, and you can even see out to the countryside, which reminds you that even the biggest city is only so large. You can walk and walk and walk for hours, for a whole day, and never get to the end of the city, but just go up for less than two hundred meters (it takes about a minute and a half in the tower's huge elevators), and there it is! The end!

Fact: no-one I have spoken to since I've been in the big city has admitted to being from the country like me. No-one will say they've been there. They know about it, because when I say that I came in from the country they nod and look understanding and sympathetic. But they've never been there themselves. Fact: in the big fountain in the centre of Advancement Square there are coins, hundred of coins. You can't take them because it would be bad luck, and also because most of them have been in the fountain so long that they've become stuck to the marble beneath them. Fact: this is something to do with the slight acidity of the water. Theory: I theorise that in the old days people were law-abiding or superstitious, so the early coins stayed there long enough to be partially dissolved, which is what is sticking them to the marble. Fact: people nowadays aren't so law-abiding and certainly aren't so superstitious, so they would happily go into the fountain to scoop out all the coins. But the old coins, the ones that are worth something, are stuck to the marble, and the new ones are worthless. They're pennies and ha'pennies and quarter-pennies, all coins that you'd have to have a bagful of just to buy a sandwich. Rescuing a handful isn't worth a person's dignity (Fact: I didn't make that up, that was something that a man told me while I was standing staring into the bottom of the fountain on the fifth day after I arrived. Theory: I think he thought I was going to dive in, because of my country clothes which made me look like I was homeless, when instead I'd already moved into Aunt Elda's house).

Fact: The city must rely on the countryside for food and drink, because nothing gets made here. Well, not quite nothing, but even something as simple as coffee needs beans to grow and cows to milk. There are no cows in the city, which is to say zero cows for every ten million people.

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