The Long Night

For two evenings the sky had been full of coruscating lights, green yellow purple coming in waves flapping and drifting in the heavens. They sat rugged up in the garden, with a bottle of red wine between them, Chris gazing upwards while Godfrey checked his iPad for news. Tonight the heavens were a stage of vermillion pink and gold festooning the whole sky till it bowed out to the western horizon and faded completely as the night played its occult hand.
She woke sometime in the early hours aware of disquieting dreams of chase and loss, irritating process dreams where nothing resolved, neither falling nor flying. She put out her hand out to Godfrey’s body, warm and smooth, feeling some worm of foreboding feebly writhing in her consciousness. She looked at her watch, it was before seven, not time to get up yet as no light came through the curtains and she thought it must be very overcast, another bitterly cold and grey day with those strange, heavy purple black clouds piling on the horizon. Weather. Yes the weather preoccupied her as if she was a farmer waiting for the promised rain which didn’t fall, unlike the temperatures which did. Ever on the news, the plummeting temperatures, the unseasonal snows down at first to a thousand metres, then six hundred then three hundred. Impossibly it snowed in the Sahara, then drifting ever southwards, the cold tickled the globe touching here with ice, there with snow, here with blizzards there with unending sleet and rain. Yet there were still warm places, even hot, droughts and blights. It became a public obsession to talk about weather and about when the unending winter would give way to spring.
Daffodils. She loved their little green fuses powering from the earth tilting their green gold forehead in salute to the blue windy days that tossed them about, nodding yes yes yes to the life that surged upwards from the warming earth. She’d planted a lot in the garden last autumn and it was possible that they would still manage to pop up in the next weeks but the worm turned in her mind and it drifted, thinking in cameos and parcels pixels and points.
Seven fifty five. No glimmer of light insinuated past the gap in the curtain and she got up and pulled it apart to a still impenetrably dark land. The watch must be wrong and peered as the second hand stepped its way around the face. Seven fifty six. She lay back down and closed her eyes although the darkness was such that apart from the faint illumination on her watch she might have suspected herself as blind and open or shut, her eyes could see virtually nothing.
Street lamps. She sat up again abruptly and looked out through the crack between the curtains trying to see where there should be the lights of the main street like small blooms of orange or white in the distance. Nothing. She checked her watch again. Eight.
“Godfrey.” She sat on the bed and felt for her slippers. “Godfrey. Wake up, something’s wrong.”
He snored faintly from the back of his nose and puffed his lips out in an exhalation. She put her hand on his chest and shook him thinking to herself that there was a simple explanation to the darkness that he would say and she would feel like a fool for her anxiety.
“Godfrey!”
With a start he jerked awake and raised his head.
“What? What’s the matter?”
“Can you see anything?” She asked almost in a whisper.
He groaned. “No. It’s still dark of course I can’t see anything.”
“It’s still dark and it’s a quarter past eight.”
“Your watch must be wrong.”
“That’s what I thought but I can’t even see the lights in town.”
“Come back to bed. It’s too early.”
He pulled her back down a little roughly and with amusing rapidity, he relaxed and snored softly. She fell into the moment warm in the bed accepting his simple explanation, yes her watch must be wrong, it did feel too early and letting her anxiety unfurl, she soon too fell asleep.
“Chris. Chris. Wake up!” He was sitting up straight in the bed. She opened her eyes. It was still dark, blacker than before.
“Where’s your watch?” He asked.
“Here. Why? Where’s yours?”
“Not working.”
She reached under her pillow for the white ceramic Nixon she’d bought herself from her tax return. She preferred mechanical to digital for expensive watches otherwise as she’d said to Godfrey, just buy a Casio, as he did. Now she looked at it she was glad she had, the little glow from the watch faintly illumined her face; eleven fifty five.
“God! It’s almost twelve.”
He grabbed the watch from her hand and read the time for himself giving it a little jiggle peering at it, then sat back.
“What’s happening? Why is it still dark?”
“I don’t know. Are there any lights working?”
“No. None.”
“Did you check the power box?”
If she could see his face she would have seen him roll his eyes.
“Chris. There is no sun.”
“Of course there’s a sun! There must be heavy cloud and fog or something.”
“We should call someone. Call the…are the phones working?”
Chris went into the lounge and brought back her phone left charging the previous evening and opened it to see a message from her sister.
‘I don’t know if you will get this in time. Don’t go outside for any reason, you will die. Tape up the cracks around the doors and windows and cover any glass. Don’t GO OUT! The candles I gave you will work. I love you. Stay inside!’
Trembling she handed it to Godfrey to read when abruptly the phone dimmed and died. Chris got up and went to the window straining her gaze into the distance where she thought she could see a pinprick of yellow light then as soon as she drew in her breath to tell Godfrey, it was gone, snuffed out. She drew back with a start, feeling as if the floor had given way, the blackness was thick and oppressive.
“Godfrey, I have some candles in the dresser drawer that Liz gave me. Have you got your lighter or matches?”
They felt their way to the kitchen like a couple of moles moving through a black tunnel recognising their way by feeling familiar objects and furniture and by the pale glow of the watch. There were three boxes of six wax candles in each in the bottom drawer behind the tea towels. She was holding a candle at an angle to another to light and her hand trembled so that the flame flickered and danced casting strange and macabre shadows on the kitchen wall. She couldn’t put her mind still enough to focus on the abruptly darkened world and talk with it like a parent scolding a defiant child, should it be smacked or reasoned with?
“We shouldn’t burn more than one at a time,” Godfrey said. “Just in case.”
“In case of what? Godfrey, why is it still dark?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe it’s the end of the world. You know, like your sister said, Armageddon.”
“Yeah right, maybe the Americans and the Iranians bombed the shit out of each other.”
“Who knows, could be Yellowstone, they were talking about the geysers and some earthquakes in the last few months. That would generate lots of ash clouds but it’s probably the Russians.”
People in charge were insane, she thought, totally barking mad. They would spend hundreds of billions of dollars killing people more efficiently so that the oil and gas men could play ring a ring a rosy with the military industrial complex and here they all were, a’tishoo a’tishoo, we all fall down.
“I’m scared Godfrey. I hate the dark.” Her voice had dried to a whisper, he knew tears would come next and normally her crying irritated him, it was whiney and childish but now, well he felt very much like joining in.
“Does the gas work?”
He headed to the stove with the matches and turned it on, the flame popped into a blue and yellow flame for ten or fifteen seconds then slowly died out. They gazed at the stove in wonder since the gas didn’t come from the mains as they were out in the country, it was LPG.
“That’s confusing. Maybe the tank is empty, I think it was on order for delivery a week ago or so, what about the camping stove?”
They went through the house systematically checking things that worked or didn’t and in the end it was only the candles that would stay alight.
She found herself feeling deep inner chill like some slithering thing had begun its ascent up her spine. She tried to think which windows weren’t covered by blinds or curtains, where the duct tape or masking tape was and with shaking hands opened the kitchen junk drawer to find them.
“Come on let’s do what she says.”
The candle light softly illuminated Godfrey’s face, the grim set of his mouth partnered his dark eyes, he took the tape and both went into the laundry to start there sealing all the exterior cracks around the windows and doors. She found it a relief to be doing something even though her hands had their own mind, trembling, unsteady and where the windows or doors had only diaphanous fabric over the window or none over the doors, like the glass door from the laundry into the back garden she and Godfrey nailed up sheets or doona covers to cover them. They made it a point not to peer out into the darkness trying to see something, it was too frightening anyway as she could imagine all too easily what the darkness covered.
An hour or so later they discussed food and water.
“We have quite a few bottles of shiraz.” Godfrey smiled weakly.
“Great. May as well be pissed for the apocalypse as not. Anyway what do we need water for? We can’t boil a kettle.”
“Yes we can. I brought wood in last night so I can light the fire and you can cook.”
She shiverered. “Yes! Go light it. I’m freezing, I need a jumper on.”
They each took a candle and went into opposite ends of the house, she to the bedroom and he to the living room and she pulled on the warm Portuguese fisherman’s jumper she’d bought some years ago on a happy holiday there near Sesimbra. In the distance she heard the crushing of paper and splintering of wood as he broke up the smaller pieces and put them into the firebox. He swore.
“What?”
“It won’t light.” He yelled back.
How man made it past the Stone Age she didn’t know since so many men took on the whole hunter gatherer chutzpah yet failed in one of the basics, laying and lighting a fire. She picked up his jumper and took it down to see him on his knees, puffing into the open door of the firebox.
“Here.” She said handing him the jumper. “Let me have a go.”
He was right. It wouldn’t light. A few times it seemed as though it would catch but then inexplicably it was as though a hand came in and snuffed it out, so in the end they sat on the couch with not much appetite for breakfast nor talking, but just stared at the soft lambency of the candles and waited.
The darkness grew heavy, it had force, as if it was a blanket weighted down by a constant silent rain pressing on them making them shrink into themselves. She found herself inside her memories, seeing with great clarity details of events she had thought entirely forgotten. She was about seven years of age at the municipal park, on a slide hurtling down to the bottom, her legs straight in front of her, the white school socks that never stayed up, the black school shoes, scuffed and cracked across the toes, taking off at the end slamming into the back of a little kid at the bottom knocking him for six and winding him. It was an accident but the parents of the child ran up and yelled at her calling her a clumsy little bitch. It wasn’t her fault, it was an accident. He went to her school and was one grade lower than she was but every time she saw him then, her lip curled and once when he was running down the corridor as she came out of her classroom, she put her foot out so that he did a great tumble and came up from the polished concrete floor with a smashed nose, blood everywhere. She felt what he felt, the shock and confusion, the immense pain in his face but worse his fear of her and knowing she hated him without knowing why. She felt her own amusement and a sense of delicious angry power, knew the source of her taste for it, saw the beginning of her trajectory from this into other events all of which she now saw and re-lived as though each and every event was now, was fresh and real.
She opened her eyes to see Godfrey staring into the light of the candle as if this was his one and only link with reality. She too focussed on the wavering wick and not on the shadows it cast and again she found herself drifting to other memories; spying on her sister having sex with her boyfriend in the caravan then spitefully telling their mother, walking past an old guy in a wheelchair in the street singing Country and Western and wishing he would shut the fuck up, pinching twenty dollars from her dad’s wallet to buy dope, finally and most clearly, this time last year lying on a gurney in a hospital waiting for the anaesthetist to come to see her and she was cold. A nurse came in and rubbed her arm. “Y’right?” She said she was freezing and needed a blanket, she couldn’t stop shaking. The young nurse was kind and cheery, put a warm waffle weave blanket over her which felt good and the shaking abated.
The anaesthetist was a young man with a very thin body barely making any contours in his scrubs and he’d looked sceptically at her, well she was in her late forties and should have known better. She explained to the surgeon that the pregnancy had come as a shock since both she and Godfrey rarely had sex, both were older, she’d not long since had a Mirena IUD removed so she never believed she would have to worry about pregnancy again. Yet there they were, the two red lines on the pregnancy test and she was surprisingly conflicted; wanting, not wanting. She’d told no-one except Godfrey who said it was her body and her choice but that he did feel he was now too old to start having kids. Then he said that thing; that she should have been more careful. So then came the cold white tiles, the green walls, the spotlight over the operating table and she barely making it to eight before the blinds shut on her consciousness. Godfrey hadn’t picked her up from the hospital, he was working so she caught a taxi, it didn’t matter much.
On the couch in the candlelight, she began to cry without any restraint, she would normally pull back smothering her sounds as it made Godfrey annoyed to hear her but distantly she heard a wail come from deep inside her and she was confused at all this noise and the maelstrom of feelings. Her mind was busy in the labyrinth of rationalisations, it was her body, it was her choice, she was too old, she had a career, it could have been deformed, what would people say, how would Godfrey cope, women were railroaded into motherhood, no-one had a right to tell her what to do and so forth until all that drained away and she just wept because she’d wanted a baby but didn’t know how to accept it and so rejected it, easily, like giving away a dress to a younger slimmer friend because it had grown too small.
Godfrey had moved to the outer edge of the light almost sitting on the edge of the couch in the shadows although he was still concentrating on the candle. He watched Chris remotely from his peripheral vision knowing that the noise and level of distress signified something important but he was unable to connect with it, it was as though he himself had withdrawn to some deep cavern, an inner locus and existed as a tiny being, an ant, a grasshopper, a moth on a night window. Then all at once he was back there.
It was summer and he’d been with his friends Peter and Brad after school, the three of them were around ten years old and Brad had pinched a packet of cigarettes from his mum. They were at his house sitting in the back of the garden where a few rocks and bits of wood lay about near the fence. On one of the rocks was a small lizard, a skink, which Godfrey deftly caught and they examined its lithe grey body with its copper streak before Brad unexpectedly leaned forward with his cigarette and burned the eyes of the lizard. They laughed as it whipped around in a frenzy, then Godfrey dropped it and it found its way into a crack beneath the fence and the boys went looking for more without success but then Godfrey spotted the young grey tabby from next door and got up calling the cat which came readily forward, her tail in a wavering question mark, she daintily stepped towards him. He picked her up and went into the shed and emerged with a long piece of rope already around the neck of the now struggling cat. Peter got up saying.
“What are y’doin’? Put it down y’dickhead.”
Godfrey had an odd feeling inside him, like a rocket was ignited and throbbing with energy and he stepped into a clear space on the lawn and began to twirl with the cat attached by the rope around and around in circles the cat gaining height and momentum when suddenly it snapped and the cat flew off in a shallow arc at great speed and hit the camphor laurel tree with the sound of wet clay hitting the art table at school. It fell to the ground unmoving. Peter and Brad stood and looked at him open mouthed, Peter stared at him saying huskily.
“What’d you do that for?”
He never knew then nor on other occasions when the fuse was lit, such as when once a girlfriend had refused to let him put his hand down her pants and he felt such an intense irritation with her that her exposed throat seemed a column in his way and the temptation to grab it with both hands and squeeze it was almost irresistible so to defuse the intensity he merely bit her, pretending it was a love bite and that he’d got carried away. She never saw him again after this and he’d off handedly said to a mate that she was a stupid bitch with a fat arse.
They all came in to him, the memories, trotting in nastily, wagging fingers of reproach in his face and he continued to view them remotely as if it was a program on someone else’s TV seen through the window of their lounge room, until the last one. He was very young, he wasn’t sure but thought he was about six or seven and it was Christmas Eve, his father and mother were in the other room fighting. He put his head under his pillow and his fingers in his ears and began to hum loudly which usually worked but this time nothing could block out the sound of his mother screaming at his father to get out, to piss off. He got up and went into the sitting room and stood behind the couch in his pyjamas his hand nervously squeezing his little dick. He saw his father let fly with a backhander across his mother’s face driving her in a rolling motion along the wall then as she slumped to the floor he leaned over her, reached down and drew her up slamming her head again and again against the wall, screaming as if in some other language. Godfrey’s head felt odd, like a balloon on a little string in the wind, he felt as if he could fall down behind the couch but instead ran back to bed in his now wet pyjamas and shook like a dog under his blankets. In the morning his father was gone and his mother was silent for days until the bruises and abrasions faded but he thought to himself over his Cornflakes that his dad had never hurt him, never even smacked him so what was wrong with her that he had to smack her, even too hard? He missed him that Christmas and all the Christmas’ thereafter until he forgot to remember.
Deeply his belly contracted, his diaphragm squeezed down hard, then his chest racked him with sounds he’d never made in his life, waves of pain washed and tossed him, lost him in a rip and battered him onto the rocks, he thought the breath caught in his chest would screw up so tight his heart would fail, he could barely breathe. Oh God, he called, oh God. He cried out loudly in a language unknown to any man, sounds incomprehensible to any except his own small heart and his sorry soul.
He had no idea of time or how long all these things had taken but he became aware of his wife’s hand on his face, caressing him, he was lying on his side on the couch with his head in her lap. He took her hand and pulled it to his lips, kissing the palm.
The candle had burned down to a stub, he got out another and lit it.
“Can we light two?” Chris asked.
He smiled wanly. “Sure. We can have two, why not?”
“Are you hungry?”
He had no appetite at all, he was only thirsty and tired, desperately fatigued, as though he’d run some great race and struggled now to make it over the line.
“Just thirsty.”
She looked out from the little circle of light into the blackness of the kitchen.
“Can we go together?”
He got up, took her hand helped her up and then both of them holding candles, found their way into the kitchen. It seemed not to be their own place. It seemed that the nature of the darkness had changed the quality of their space, their things, their belongings so that he felt like a trespasser and uncomfortable to be there.
“Let’s go. Grab a couple of bottles of water.” She said in a small voice.
They returned to the couch and opened a bottle of water which was extremely cold and he tasted the chemicals in it coming from the plastic very clearly, it was awful and he put it down with disgust. Chris had picked up an orange and an apple for both of them which had come from her parent’s farm and began to peel the orange, first biting it to score through the skin making it easier for peeling but the bitter oil made her pull a face yet she kept peeling it with little spray of oil from the pores in the skin discharging over her hands, the smell was pungent and pleasant.
“Here. Eat some.”
He took the segment and chewed on it as if it was the first time he’d eaten an orange. His tongue explored the texture of the membrane, the tiny droplets of sweetness that ran around his gums, the near muscular resistance of the flesh was rich and full of sunshine.
“This orange is an extraordinary fruit!” He smiled.
They sat holding hands, relaxed against each other and dozed off after some time, not quite dreaming not quite awake. A loud wind startled them, howling and buffeting the windows and doors, rattling and shaking the iron on the roof as if it would peel back as easily as the orange skin at any moment. It ululated and screeched horribly and Chris buried her head in his chest crying out in fear.
Then a sound seemed to come from deep underneath them, it didn’t seem possible for it to have a single source like an explosion, it was a huge deep boom, like a far off percussion rolling under the ground and spilling out through the earth the trees the grass the nearby lake, everywhere manifested this subterranean reverberation. It shook the floor and everything in the house vibrated and things fell and smashed. Their two candles juddered and flickered, they were holding each other tightly, hands and arms gripping, waiting for the fingertip of the earth to lift and flick humanity away like dandruff on God’s shoulders. Eventually the vast rolling grinding rumble died away and they were left panting and staring at each other. Chris burst into tears crying out.
“Oh God! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!”
Godfrey held her tightly saying as much to convince himself as her.
“We won’t die. We’re safe Chris.”
But she sobbed and cried out at every sound that came from without and at one point the air seemed to slip from the room leaving them both gasping.
“What’s happening? Oh God! What’s happening? I can’t breathe.”
He stroked her hair and shushed her, telling her over and over it was going to be over soon, to relax.
“Come on. Breathe in with me for a count of five, hold for five, breathe out for five, hold for five…breathe in…one two three four five…breathe out…”
She concentrated on her breath; the feeling in her nostrils as the cold air passed over them, her lungs expanding as she breathed in, the resistance as she held it in, the relief as she exhaled. Calming, calmer, calm.
Godfrey suddenly stiffened. “Did you hear that?” He asked in a small whisper.
“What?”
“Listen.”
From outside came the voice of a small child crying, Chris raised her head listening intently.
“It’s a child Godfrey! What’s it doing out there?”
“Is it a child? I don’t know.”
“But you heard it! We have to get it, we have to help!”
“No. Don’t go out there.” He gripped her arm.
“Godfrey! It’s a child in the dark alone!”
“Your sister said not to.”
She pulled away, got up with the candle and walked towards the sliding door when without warning without a flicker the candle went out and the tenebrous gloom fell around her like molasses. She could neither move nor think. She thought she felt a hand lightly but forcefully move her back towards Godfrey and the soft light in the other room and gave in to it, turning to see her husband’s stricken face, then dived forward on her knees and held on to him, her head in his lap, weeping in terror while he too covered her, his tears wet on her neck.
Hour followed hour, day followed night and in ever deepening cycles they felt themselves tiny, a floating mote in the vast universe yet still somehow under scrutiny watched by an immense black eye that saw them in every minutiae and in its seeing, made them blind.
There was one candle left and after that, they knew there was only a dark obliteration.
She whispered something, then. “Are you there?”
The flame quivered and the long shadows jumped. She sighed long and slow.
“I’m ready.”
Godfrey’s hand found hers and he gripped it hard.
“No. No Chris. No.”
She turned to him with her eyes soft and gentle and said in a small voice.
“I’m tired Godfrey. I’m tired of all this, it’s too hard.”
He put his head down.
“I know.”
She paused for what seemed a long long time.
“I want to let go Godfrey.”
“Me too my love, me too.”
They lay together on their sides with their backs to the candle as it feebly wavered, melted down to a stump, the wick lay on its side barely alight in the melted wax, then it guttered and died so that the darkness enfolded them with its jet black wings. Yet still they breathed, inhaled the night, each alone, till marooned in a visionless deep, they let go.
A small noise, a metallic tapping, the rustle of fabric, and unmistakably the far off sound of magpies chortling in the pines. She sat up, blinking as small bright rays radiated in through tiny gaps in the curtains, Godfrey was standing by the window and as he pulled the curtains apart, the light swept across him and burst into the room in an incandescent arc where all their things seemed arranged as props on the stage of a nasty play. The garden had changed, the light too, it all seemed washed with a clear almost holy effulgence, she saw in wonder that the daffodils were up, golden commas in the green grass; they pushed open the door and quietly stepped into the first day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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