Light is a Funny Thing

Light is a funny thing. I’d never thought about it before. I don’t suppose anyone did. Ellen tells me to forget it and be happy for what I’ve got. We are the lucky ones she says. I find that hard to believe, as I struggle to live like she does. To learn and think and survive like she does. It’s hard to learn when you can’t see.

Yes, light is a funny thing. A precious thing. Light, the giver of life. It enveloped us and nurtured us as we went about our little lives. Even in the night it was lurking slowly; a pressing comfort against our sleeping eyelids, creeping up on us through cracks in the curtains from the street lamps outside. Starlight and moonlight smiled on us and in daytime the sun swathed us with its shining cloak of gold. Electricity sped and twisted through every tiny corner of the planet; its sparks fuelling light bulbs and strip lights, neon and spots. Fake daylight in every city and town and village. Fake daylight to fool our nature in every situation. Light of every colour and hue seeping from TVs and screens of every shape and size. Such an ever present phenonmena that we became immune to its presence. Immune to its importance.

Yes, light is a funny thing, because we were so used to it we forgot it was there and I, for one, never questioned what things might be like if it were to ever disappear.

Of course, a few of us knew. A few souls in the world who had lost light, or never knew it in the first place.

The blind.

We used to think of the blind as people with an affliction. Some kind of disability we would perhaps secretly pity, for we were the lucky ones. Or so we thought. The ones who could experience colour and beauty and know the wonder of the world for what it truly was.

How naive we were. Naive to miss their talents.

It happened slowly. At first most just carried on with their lives. Or tried to. Where I lived it happened in the dead of night, so the surprise was to wake up without the certainty of the dawn. I hadn’t met Ellen then. I had a wife and a job and I thought my life would be happy and ordinary, like lives were supposed to be. Perhaps we would have kids soon. Perhaps a nice holiday in the Caribbean. Maybe next year, maybe the year after, if we saved enough pennies. A life of maybes. Now it’s a life of ’if onlys’. Now I’m not so good at looking forward, though Ellen says I should try.

It was back in the days of power that the sun went out. We endeavoured to continue with our pointless lives and pointless jobs in the harsh fake light of electricity, and governments foolishly claimed that life would go on as normal. That there would be a solution if we just trusted them.

Endless scientists appeared on the news and chat shows explaining their latest theory. The sun, they said, was still generating heat, but some strange chemical reaction, perhaps within its core, had switched off the light. The moon, they said, couldn’t be seen because its light was merely reflected sunlight. It must still be there even if they couldn’t detect it.

But that couldn’t explain why there were no stars. Yet more scientists talked of some strange ’Coriolis barrier’ between the Earth and the rest of the universe, blocking out the light, but there was no proof of this. No shimmer of the velvet curtain in space that had come to damn us could be seen with any telescope, let alone the naked eye. Fruitless arguments about the cause with no real explanation and no solution. All those centuries of science and thought came down to empty ideas lost in the void.

People scratching on in the dark, as if to pretend that it couldn’t really be happening; surely someone would turn the lights back on soon? People struggling foolishly on while all around them fell apart.

Religious groups gathered in their millions across the globe, holding up flaming torches to the dead black sky. Praying to appease whichever god or alien race we had displeased. My wife, bless her, went down that path, after only a few months. She left me a note saying she was going to pray; pray for the light at Stonehenge of all places. I couldn’t believe it; thought she was mad. It was the first day I didn’t bother going to the office, just sat in my lonely armchair, clutching her note and crying. What was the point in processing insurance claims when the world was ending? I never saw her again after that. I wonder if she made it.

Slowly the chaos of the dark began to take over. Planes crashing, ships sinking, riots and suicides.

And wars. So many wars in the dark.

Food and water were running out; the most precious of our resources. Money and gold mean nothing if there is no food. People starving is always a recipe for disaster and one by one the governments fell, like dominoes flicked over by the finger of fate.

And then the times got darker still.

With no food in their bellies, soldiers abandoned their posts, police left their beats. Workers deserting their jobs to find other ways to feed their children. Power stations neglected and soon the lights began to go out. Everyone fighting for food.

I’m ashamed to say I fought too, just to fill my belly. You heard of cannibalism and saw the death in the light of a hundred flames. Fist fights, knives and gunfire. Murders over the last few tins of beans in the supermarket.

That’s when I met Ellen. I was lying in the gutter spitting blood outside the supermarket. Lying in the blackness crying, not really knowing if my eyes were open or closed. Bloody mouth and teeth gone; hit in the face with an iron bar for the torch I was carrying. Pointless really because the batteries wouldn’t last forever. Nothing lasts forever.

She heard me coughing and sensed my sobs. I’ve asked her several times since why she bothered to stop for me; to help me. She just laughs and says she liked my eyes and thought I was attractive. She likes a joke. In reality she is the attractive one, even though she’s never seen it; never seen her red hair. If anyone radiates light it is her. She is the best of humanity. She reminded me of it. And that’s why I love her.

I love her because she saved me. I love her because she has the advantage in this world of darkness. And most of all I love her because in the darkest of dark days she still had the optimism to have a plan.

Five years ago she saved me. Five years, not that time means much in an eternity of night.

She saved me. And it’s because of her I have the luxury to write this little history by candlelight. Yes, we have candles and generators and of course there is always fire. But we use these flashes of light sparingly, for the light is dangerous. Light can mean death now too.

The eyes adjust after years of dark. Any tiniest spark is like the brightest beacon attracting anyone with eyes to see, like moths to a flame. Anyone left scrabbling about in the abyss of blackness. And we don’t want to attract anyone. Not until we are sure we can truly defend our hilltop hideout.

Twenty two of us hiding up a hill in the dark.

Twenty two of us, and I am the odd one out. Now I am the afflicted one. Ellen knew the people that would cope the best; she chose them well. People like her, used to feeling their way through life. People with heightened senses; hearing, touch, taste and smell make the world now. For me that’s hard to learn.

At first she led me; baby-steps. Led me by the hand, showed me how to use a stick to gauge my steps, felt my face with her fingers and taught me to measure distance by sound. Led me until I could just about stand on my own two feet. I still constantly bump into things but she says I’m getting better.

We breed goats and cows which seem to be adjusting to the dark and we are experimenting with growing crops, though it’s risky to expose them to light, even if it is only for ten or twenty minutes a day.

We know it’s a precarious existence. We know there are still some roaming gangs, though they are becoming rare. Roaming gangs with vehicles and weapons and big searchlights. Roaming gangs intent on violence as a means of survival; their humanity stripped back by the scouring darkness.

And that’s my job. I am the eyes to spot if they are coming. I sit in my tower for hours scanning the void until it hurts and I feel the oily blackness seeping into my brain. At least I can be useful, but I can’t help but think I’ll be an anachronism soon.

Eventually, we know, they will die out. The gangs and stragglers that are left will slowly perish as the batteries, fuel and food become harder to find. They will starve or kill each other. They will become extinct because the only way to survive is to evolve. They are people like me, and people like me find it hard to evolve. We are the last of our kind.

Ellen and the others are more optimistic. They say the world is for them now. In the land of darkness the blind man is king. Ellen says it will be second nature for our children. The dark will hold no fear for them. I hope I get to see them. For them light will truly be a rare and funny thing…

© 2014 Simon Poore

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The Tree Boy

He used to climb the tree whenever he could. Any excuse to get out of the house and run free through the wood to its fabulously wide base. The knobbly bark was like a friend to him, he knew its grooves and lumps well; better than he knew the back of his hand. It would probably have taken about five or six grown men to spread their arms and reach around its circumference. He loved its solidity and the creaking sway of its branches. It was alive yet felt permanent, reaching its broad fingered leaves to the sky and pushing its fat snaking roots into the earth. Clinging onto the mulch of the earth like a slow spreading limpet. He loved the velvet buds of spring and the golden orange of autumn. Most of all he loved it in the summer holidays. Summer when the leaves were the ripest of greens and the acorns fell and the warm air hummed with the buzz of insects and floating seeds.

It was his tree.

For him climbing it was effortless, even though the lowest branches were easily ten feet above his head. He knew the best footholds at the back and where to grip crevices in the bark. If you were to have watched him move quickly up onto the first wide branch you might have been tempted to think he were a monkey as he moved with such simian grace. Only the grubby shorts, t-shirt and plimsolls gave clues this was actually a small human boy. From the first branch it was easy to twist and turn and fold himself around the trunk; higher and higher into the foliage.

Not far from the top was his favourite place. He sat, legs dangling, on the spread of branch where it connected to the trunk. Breeze in his hair as he surveyed the view and felt the gentle living sway of the tree. It grew on a small rise in the centre of the wood as if it had chosen this kingly position just for him; to command over all. He thought of it as the biggest and most noble of trees and it was certainly the highest.

It was his castle and he was the king.

From the top of his oak he could see across the canopy; mushrooms of green topping all the trees below, the silver birch and ash, the goat willow and yew. The wood breathed and swayed as it spread down into the valley. Beyond was the river, he could hear its trickle above the breeze, and beyond that the slag heaps of the mine, unnatural black hills of another world. Behind him he knew he could see the town with its pavements and brick but he never looked that way, preferring instead the trees and fields of nature.

It was his kingdom and no one else could reach him.

Occasionally, in those long days of no school and sun drenched solitude, he heard the whoops of other boys and girls from the town as they ran through the wood, building dens and playing war with sticks and kiss-chase but he was adept at hiding from them. He knew their names and knew the venom that spat from their tongues on the playground. Here, in his oak, he was free from them, better than them.

And so the summers past, as they inevitably do, and he grew, but not so much that you could describe him as big. As his teenage years came his mother despaired at his lack of sociability and try as she might she couldn’t keep him from disappearing into the wood. If anything he spent more time alone with the trees during all hours of God-given daylight. Only school and meals dragged him back to the human world. In the end she just accepted that it was who he was and there was nothing she could do. He was his father’s son after all. His long lost father; always the loner, unable to commit to the life of a parent. He had long since disappeared into a world of his own making. She hadn’t heard from him in ten years and didn’t suppose she would ever hear from him again. She became resigned that her son would eventually do the same, because, as she came to realise, being a parent is about letting go.

Always letting go.

By the time he was sixteen the girl with the red hair had been watching him for three summers long. Watching him run through the streets past her house and watching him as he raced through the woods and bushes. She watched as he scaled the tree, his arms taut and muscular. She liked the way his back was firm as he pulled himself up. She liked his independence and envied his solitude.

Eventually she plucked up the courage and sat at the base of his tree waiting.

Of course he knew her; knew her name and knew she had been watching him. And he knew she might turn up one day. It was no surprise to him when he saw her sat there beneath his tree in her loose summer dress. The only surprise was to feel the attraction between them in that most unexpected way desire creeps up on the young. A physical flush that is both embarrassing and intriguing.

Not many words passed their lips as they made love on the carpet of moss that lay hidden between two heavy roots extending from the base of the tree. It was brief but fulfilling and he knew it was perfect. And somehow so did she.

He also knew that it would be the only time, because that was the summer the bulldozers came, clearing the woods for the road and new houses. Some of the locals put up a spirited fight but the boy knew his tree was doomed. He had sensed it the year before when the leaves and acorns seemed sparse, as if the oak knew that five hundred years of life were quite enough for anybody to experience the world. It was dying anyway and the chainsaws and bulldozers would only put it out of its misery and give it a new life as furniture or the hull of a fancy sailboat. Its sadness was his sadness but he knew that it was the inevitable spin of nature. Growth, maturity, death, rebirth.

She watched as the buzz of the machines got closer to his tree and the new life grew inside her. She watched as he climbed the tree for the last time and when he came back down to earth she was waiting. She held his hand tenderly on her belly and they kissed one last time.

Of course she never saw him again after that. He was gone just like his tree. Gone like his father before him. Gone, she supposed, to find a new tree to love. A new tree in a deeper forest far from the threat of machines and sawdust. She was never bitter and did her best to love and cherish their boy as he grew. Never bitter for she knew that love is a fleeting thing, forever trapped in the moment. His mother and her family supported her and the boy grew fit and strong and curious, like boys do.

And of course she wasn’t surprised in the slightest when the boy discovered trees. Only five but climbing was in his bones and before long he would run to the small patch of woodland that was left at the edge of the housing estate. There in the centre was the last of the oaks and she watched as he climbed its faded bark with ease.

A smile came to her face as she glimpsed his smile through the branches. His smile in amongst the leaves. She was letting go…

© 2014 Simon Poore

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