One ink drawing by Laura Morgans, one piece of writing by Tom Spooner, every day in October – part three.
For ten days, the stars had not been seen.
It was not that it was cloudy nor that smog or light pollution obscured them – the stars just weren’t there. Their flames that guttered so prettily, extinguished in one sudden breath.
At first the newspapers printed headlines blaming whoever it was they usually blamed; politicians blamed each other; adults blamed the politicians, and children blamed other children, those that didn’t quite fit in.
There was so much noise that nobody could hear themselves think. Nobody had any quiet time to think of ways to get the stars back.
There was anger and fighting and wars, but never any tears. Not a single tear fell for all those trillions of stars that were no longer where they ought to be.
Teenagers stopped lying on picnic blankets after midnight to count shooting stars and imagine the countless futures they could have. Middle-aged couples no longer drove out of town to hilltops to reconnect with their togetherness in the face of such overwhelming distances. Older couples no longer drank malted drinks in conservatories looking up, listening to each other’s breathing and feeling content.
Nobody felt insignificant any more. Nobody felt that their lives, with all their worries and woes, didn’t matter so much, that in the infinitesimal canvas of the heavens each heartbeat, each smile, each kiss was a miracle as rare as it was possible to imagine. The stars were everything and now they were gone.
Defenders of the Galaxy
For three hours straight they had sat at the same coffee table, veneer 1970s, and snorted two grams of above average cocaine. Their thoughts raced and their minds and mouths struggled to keep up. Thankfully they were comfortable in their own company and were able to hold conversations with themselves at high speed without feeling like they were excluding the other.
In an hour, they were going to go to a party, space-themed, and dress as Men in Black. It was perfect. They would be cool, slick, and sharp as tacks.
They arrived at the party and it was slow. The DJ played slow tunes with no groove, fragmented impressions of songs not designed for earthly feet. The other guests, clad in tinfoil, seemed weighed down by their towering metallic headpieces. Too slow.
It was decided between them that they were the only ones that could increase the tempo. They ran screeching through the crowd, willing with telepathic energy momentum into those tired earthly limbs. They were defenders of the galaxy. She was Will Smith and he was Tommy Lee Jones. It would work, eventually.
Next time will be different, she tells herself. None of this will happen, again.
She sees everything, all at once, always. It is a curse. Parallel lives, self-contained universes, playing out before her eyes in familiar rhythms, over and over. The characters are different but the punctuation always the same, commas between love affairs, semi-colons between friendships and always full stops for death.
It used to make her cry. Not what she saw, but her inability to intervene in the lives she observed. The visions never stopped and the sense of complete powerlessness never abated. Sleep brought no rest.
People revered her, thought her wise and all-seeing. They bestowed upon her great riches but all she really wanted was a moment of stillness, to stop those worlds from spinning. To stop it happening, again.
From the top window of the country manor where he lived, Rupert watched the gardener prune a rosebush. It really was a magnificent thing to watch. Even as an eight-year-old boy he could appreciate the flash of secateurs, the dance of fingers amongst the bright bursts of fuchsia. It was the one hundredth and twenty second time that day that he longed to be outside with every last ounce of his being.
Turning his back to the window, Rupert walked across the room to the door and tried the handle. It was, as he knew it would be, still locked firm. He sighed. It was no use. The punishment was not yet sufficient.
A wooden train set filled the floor, tracks arranged in a giant circle. A small blue engine and a small red engine waited at opposite sides. Rupert picked up the blue train and hurled it with all his might at the window. It shattered dramatically and completely much to Rupert’s satisfaction.
He slowly removed a curved piece of track and used it to knock out the few remaining shards of glass with precise blows. The hot sticky air rushed in and Rupert inhaled deeply. He could smell the roses, sausages sizzling on a barbecue, candyfloss and apple pie. The summer is what he smelt and he held it in his lungs as he picked up the little red train and flung it at the gardener.
It was only when it connected with the man’s skull that he exhaled:
“Stick that up your arse, you ball sack”
The door was going to stay locked for a while longer yet.
The bell tinkled brightly and Alfredo slowly looked up from his bench. His shop rarely received visitors, especially so late in the day. As he expected, it was a stranger, probably lost on their way to some artisan coffee roaster or secret bar.
“We’re closed,” Alfredo ventured, sending the words towards the angular figure that stood in the doorway, apparently examining the bell mechanism.
Despite himself, Alfredo was rather pleased that his contraption was receiving attention. It was a neat idea that worked quite wonderfully – a series of counter-weights, pendulums, pulleys and hidden wires that resulted in just the right amount of tinkle.
Alfredo removed the loupe from his right eye socket and put down his screwdriver. His right eye was slow to adjust to the dusty interior of his shop. The collection of cuckoo clocks, the trio of handsome automatons, a shiny, if it were not for the thick layer of dust, Henri II cipher machine, and several typewriters took a moment or two to come into focus. It wasn’t much of a shop, he thought to himself, but to the right person it was a treasure trove. It certainly deserved more than the one or two customers it received in a month.
“We’re shut for the night. You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” he asserted, as the figure took a few steps forward, tracing a long bony finger along the length of fishing wire that attached the bell to a cable pulley
“I believe sir that you are open. One cannot afford to turn away business in this day and age. I am a potential customer and you should, I would strongly suggest, see to it that you enquire as to my needs.”
Alfredo fussed with his sleeves, rolling and unrolling it, before slowly getting to his feet. His workbench was two metres from the small shop counter but it took him nearly a minute to reach it, the arthritis in his knees causing him to grit his teeth with each step.
“Come on you old crow, hop-along,” the stranger snarled through bared teeth. Alfredo reached for counter to steady himself. The change in the man’s tone was most alarming, but it was the word crow that had made all the blood drain from Alfredo’s face and his heart quicken. The time had come.
“Squawk. Squawk, old man. Squawk,” the stranger spat in Alfredo’s face.
Alfredo turned his head away and stamped his foot down twice, grimacing with the effort. A hatch opened in the ceiling and a key dropped from it and into a small tube. It slid along the tube until it came to rest in Alfredo’s outstretched palm.
Alfredo hobbled over to the till, blew some dust from the keys and punched in the six digits he had forced himself to remember all those years ago. The back of the till dropped away and clattered to the floor. Alfredo reached his hand inside the till and removed a box that was secured by a padlock. With a shaky hand, he unlocked it and pushed it towards the stranger. The man opened it and carefully removed its contents. There on the counter, before the two men, stood the most delicate and supremely engineered mechanical crow.
After a few moments, the stranger arranged three lengths of rail so that they stretched towards Alfredo. He then set the crow on the rails with great care, tucked his index finger under the beak of the crow and lifted it sharply up. The crow whirred into life, tiny cogs spinning and shafts busily turning. The creature started to move slowly forward.
Before the crow reached the end of the tracks, Alfredo’s heart had stopped beating. It had been his time. The stranger removed the crow from the rails and placed it back in the box. He then re-attached the padlock and returned the box to the till. He reassembled the till and then looked down at the numerical keys, forcing himself to remember those six digits.
The snow was falling. It had been getting heavier for the last hour. It had progressed from a flutter to a flurry and now it was falling outside the window.
The figures in the streets below rushed home, nearly choking on the air it was so thick with snow.
It felt good to be inside on such a night.
There would be a cars at a standstill on the motorway, brake lights like a Lichtenstein painting, tiny dots of light in the brief absences of flakes.
Couples with plans would be arguing in porches about whether they should go or stay at home.
Children would be thawing out in warm baths, cheeks rosy, foreheads deathly white.
Dogs and cats would curl at feet or into laps, sharing warmth.
Everyone was feeling that physical tiredness that came from bracing yourself against the cold, that constriction of muscles as one attempts to eek out that last iota of internal warmth.
It had become a blizzard: swirling, impenetrable, indiscriminate.
Jumpers were hastily put on, thermostats cranked up, curtains drawn with sharp dramatic tugs or slow romantic pulls. Mums checked cupboards for tins and freezer drawers for loaves. Dads counted their torches. Kettles were boiled – teas were brewed. Potatoes were peeled and chopped, sausages arranged in baking tins.
It was good to be inside on a night like this.