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A Magazine for Sheffield

The Imaginary Crane

Did I imagine a huge mechanical beast in the city centre? Did it just come out at night – or was it still beavering away in a parallel city I couldn’t normally see?

Imaginary crane
Andrew Wood

Leavygreave Road on an evening in winter. It was dark, not just because the sun was elsewhere but because this normally busy thoroughfare was surprisingly poorly lit.

I wasn’t sure at first what I was seeing. With hindsight, it was the floodlighting inside the temporary fencing, throwing everything into a hypnotic contrast that robbed me of my familiarity with the place.

Inside the cordon, a bulky vehicle with huge wheels was noisily wielding some sort of bucket. But I was running late to meet friends in the Bath Hotel, so I stifled my curiosity and pressed on.

Later, on the way home, the mechanical beast had grown phenomenally tall. No mistaking – it was a crane, but why was it here? It was now casting its bucket around at least 60 metres into the sky, but not with any clear purpose. None of the buildings around bore the signs of construction projects. It was just… there. Engine rumbling, light emanating, bucket swaying. I waited and watched for a few minutes. No-one else passed me, no-one to corroborate the scene.

The following morning was bright, chilly and quiet, and I walked that way again. It was no more than nine hours later, and the crane had vanished without trace. No sign it had ever been there. No buildings had even flinched. John’s Van was in its usual spot, broadcasting the smells of breakfast.

Had I imagined the whole episode? Did it just come out at night, to play, to forage like the badger I sometimes glimpse in my street after dark? Or was it still beavering away in a parallel city I couldn’t normally see, on a grand project I knew nothing of, like something from a Philip Pullman story?

What’s happening in that city now? New skyscrapers? A tram extension? And if that was the explanation, how did I accidentally wander into that city last night, only to find my portal vanished this morning?

Perhaps the temporary fencing was the key. If you draw a door, you could walk through it. Put up a fence in the middle of a space and what is on the other side of it suddenly becomes somewhere else, a space you can see into but can’t reach. When we create a boundary, it’s either to defend us from what lies beyond it, or to protect something from our encroachment upon it.

A solid boundary – a wall or wooden hoarding – implies there is something to hide. The castle on the mountain is threatening, but we yearn to see inside. A man once built a whole mansion behind a stack of hay bales. Pink Floyd’s misanthropic protagonist made the psychological gulf between famous band and expectant audience into a real wall. In each case, when the solid divide breaks there is a heart-stopping shock to the big reveal. We are not prepared.

But a transparent boundary – a wire fence or a glass screen – is altogether more shocking. We can stare in at the work of art, at the construction site, or at the poor people in detention at the border. We can ogle, mock, pass comment from our position of safety. The prisoners can bay at us and claw at the fence. The emerging building defies exploration. The art may be there but it can’t really speak to us. As with Stonehenge’s transition from a place of the spirit to one of the spectator, we can’t be trusted to behave. What havoc might we bring if we transgressed a boundary which we have ourselves created and which didn’t previously exist?

I paused again to gaze briefly at the space where I knew the crane had been, that only I had seen, and then I turned and walked away.

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