Wardays Sunrise

for J, because sometimes we have to take responsibility

The sky is jagged with the false hope of dawn. A pastel birth of candy-bright cotton shining benignly on a halcyon river. I stagger forlornly until noon carrying broken planks to mend the railing on the old mill. Inexpertly. With second hand nails and a bandaged mallet, and muscles which protest at the lies the bright sun tells. Despite the cerulean expanse above – or perhaps because of it – there is a distinct chill in the air. Winter will come earlier this year. Autumn has been shorter than summer. All our seasons dispelled; nature confounded: I thought I heard a starling the other day coming from the copse. When I was a boy the whole demesne would be filled with their discordant orchestra of alarums and whistles. Now my time is taken up with more practical handiwork before the days descend into snow and the landscape  becomes rimmed with ice. A single birdsong becomes an aria of exquisite joy.

It will never see industry again, my adopted home. The canvas on the sails has long since succumbed to fierceness of the gales and its mechanical heart seized solid with the cracks and splinters of ancient damp. Nevertheless it is my hearth and my haven. Inside the bleak stone I keep the worst of the world at bay. A rudimentary generator provides a source of energy for the radio and for the electric lights too if chance finds me in a stranger’s path. Most nights I am content just to sit and watch the sun sink on the water and awake with its reappearance.  If I miss anything tucked away in my folly it is reading. Such fuel as I have stored is too precious a commodity to squander on the luxury of a book and my sight is too poor to stake against the dim flicker of tallow and wick. I promise myself that when the repairs are done I will take to the bench and sit and fish and read my library once more.

But nature is less forgiving in these elder days. The wind strips the roof of tiles. Dead branches from the coppice are hurled nightly at my shuttered windows threatening my remaining glass. In anger it rips my fields and their meagre crops. Two summers ago I bartered some petrol for a milk cow surmising that even I could learn to churn butter and press cheese. In my arrogance I left the beast to wander the far meadow during the day and led it unprotesting by nightfall into the shelter of the barn. A week later it was dead. Perhaps it was sick when I bought it or perhaps it had found something appetising but virulent in the long grass. It lingered mournfully for a few days on the flagstones until a storm brought the roof down upon it and ended both our hopes.

In the long light of the afternoon I reconnoitre my tiny kingdom for signs of change: a broken fence, perhaps a line of tracks leading over the curve of the hill into unknown territory. Once I saw a car chugging along the far bank. I waved at the driver but either he did not see me or he had more pressing affairs in mind than small talk and he drove solidly on. Perhaps it was fortuitous. Conversations are hard now. We seem to have lost the will to speak as if any discussion that takes place is merely an act designed to stave off the inevitable for a few minutes more.

It was not always this way. I remember two nights locked in fierce debate with the Minister from the Icelandic Alliance over our response to Australian aggression in Jakarta. The more the streets ran with Chinese blood the more we argued in our oak panelled prison. Like the storm clouds over Europe must have seemed to the Americans during the last great war so even in that modern age when the length of continents were reckoned in hours not miles the islands of Indonesia were still perceived as half a world away. The old guard kept their distance hoping the distant squabble of younger neighbours would soon fade away into quietude. Not in our back yard. Not yet…

So the oil burned (burned for so, so long) and the heavens ran black with smoke and the stench of iron. But still we waited in the wings and wrung our hands in despair and sympathy. Still we argued in our chambers for restraint and understanding. The rhetoric of the appeaser, the culpable and the capitulating. And when it was finished and there were no more resources to fight over we stood back and massaged our guilt with regret. Yet the dark clouds continued to chase over the globe, and the rain when it fell was bitter and acrid and stained our roads and roofs.

But we weren’t to know the crops would fail, were we? The grain fields of Asia were grey, ashen. Then the sickness started. It wasn’t a disease merely the cumulative effects of dust, bad air, toxic rain. People abandoned the cities to scrape a living in the countryside though they were far from any aptitude in fieldwork. Slowly, inexorably we fell to silence, solitude. When the dust cleared finally, as we were told it must, the sun smiled down on an empty landscape cleared of brushwood and the detritus of suburbia by the new prevailing storm winds. My land of hope, my field of dreams, my island legacy.

I will end my days here in the remnants of my old family estate. The house itself was burned to the ground during the first of the riots. Retaliation I expect but the police were too busy in the cities to care about such domestic matters. I couldn’t blame them. Then my cabinet scattered like billiards. I was a pariah among pariahs, first among equals. In their munificence I was allowed by the interim authorities to slink quietly back to the shire. I surmise my colleagues were allowed to do likewise.

A gurgle of water brings me out of my reverie. A fish has been caught in the grill by the weir and it is thrashing its tail in terror. I free the beast then take a closer look fancying it for an easy dinner. On first inspection it appears healthy but the skin on the left side of its face is smooth where an eye ought to be and its gills have a strange bluish tinge to them. Disgusted I throw it back into the river. With a splash and a defiant wiggle it disappears quickly below the surface. Signs and wonders. At least it seems happy with its lot in life. I cross fishing of my list of remaining pleasures.

The sky darkens perceptibly as the clouds race the sun to the horizon. I fasten the shutters on the windows and brace myself for another ordinary evening.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: The title of the piece comes from a Tangerine Dream track from The Keep. References to the Icelandic Alliance and the war come courtesty of the Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng Chiang, although with gross liberties taken on my part.