We pushed through on the dawn, ragged banners tilting skyward as the sun’s dust punched holes in our eyes and set our clothes ablaze in gold. At that moment we could go no further, feet tangled in long grass taking root as our minds set out branches with fat, flat leaves to catch the light. Were we rescued now, as the heavy sky rolled without thunder and the last of the wind from the battlefield carried the last of the screams over the long horizon. We were haunted now only by the ghosts we brought with us; slumped on our shoulders, arms hooked around our ankles as they crawled to safety too. May we never find it – the last words of the dying, hissed out of empty lungs. Never safety, never peace. We watched the sun rise and there in the cold its warmth passed over us; the distant heat of violence, an unending explosion in the silence of space whispering to a stop on our skin. We sat, and peace flowed from us. We would turn to stone, our stations presenting a riddle to future generations passing by this spot. We would watch the sky and guard the Earth beneath.
I remember my Grandmother’s cabinet. Glass-fronted, each panel etched with a complex pattern of flowers and leaves that never quite seemed to match your memory. I had favourite knot-whorls in the surface of my Grandmother’s table, I had the grain of the brushstrokes in the paint on the walls of her bathroom memorised, but I could never quite get the patterns on the cabinet fixed. I should have had a favourite flower, or known a leaf that looked like a dog. But it went through my head, like trying to catch sunlight in a sieve.
The day had been short, lit by a mocking sunlight that refused to admit Christmas cheer into its long black shadows. People now churn through the streets of the City, pushing home, diving here and there from the crowd to chance a last-minute bit of gift shopping. The dark evening barely intrudes in the continuous stream of headlights, streetlights and the bobbing rectangles of phone screens, frantically being consulted for opening times, stock levels, last trains.
“Oh sir, please don’t be alarmed by my face. Happened a few years back now, hardly think of it myself, the pox took a big chunk of it, hardly think of it at all. Yes, it worries people at first, sir, but pay it no mind. What’s inside that counts, isn’t it?
“They say I died, sir, yes, that’s what I’ve heard. Dead as a doornail on the doctor’s table, just for a minute. Just a minute, and then the doctor brought me back, right as rain. Fit as a flea. But for that minute sir…
“I don’t like to talk about it, sir, no I really don’t. But I’ll tell you what I’ve told the Master and almost no one else, I remember that minute. Clear as day. Like it happened just now. It didn’t happen just now, it was years ago as I say, but I remember it clear as a bell. And do you know what I remember?
“Nothing. Quiet as the grave it was, sir. Black as pitch. No angels singing, no souls burning in torment. No Heaven, sir, and no Hell. There was nothing, and I was in that nothing, alone, for a whole minute. Toiling in black for 60 seconds, that’s what I was. You’d think it was peaceful, wouldn’t you, sir? You’d think it was rest? I didn’t feel any peace. No rest there, sir.
“Now we come to it, sir. Down here, please. Yes. I’m not asking you, sir. I’m telling you what the Master told me to do. Take you down here, sir. Quick as a flash, sir, down the stairs. Don’t make me push you, sir. Wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.
“Why bother talking to you at all, sir? Why, I could have just wrapped you in a blanket and carried you down here! But the master has his ways, funny way some of them. Wanted you to hear my little story, he did, sir. Wanted you to know about that minute. Told me to tell you, sir, that you have a lot of minutes ahead of you.”
The person opposite looks nervous. It’s not a ram-packed Tube carriage, but there are plenty of people here. That should mean it’s safe, but no. I am wearing a “Tube Chat?” badge, and in so doing have become the physical manifestation of urban ennui. Talk to me, stranger. Chat. Come out of your self-imposed bubble of personal space and let’s yak it up.
They shuffled out of the gates and over to the edges of the frozen lake. One or two of them found the cold air too sharp even for their smoke-toughened lungs and would burst the air at intervals with fits of coughing. Other than that, a drumming quiet lay across the crowd.
Waiting rooms are always the worst, she thought. This one was at least nice. Nice. And clean. Tidy, airy, bright with big windows letting in the sunshine reflected from the cars that sat waiting for owners who will have changed. Small changes, changes that the lolloping, dozy cars would never notice. Some of the changes would be in the mind, anyway. Knowledge, certainty, fear.