Authors: Paul Grzegorzek
Copyright © 2014 Paul Grzegorzek
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Sunday the 14
of September, 2014, was unseasonably warm. As per usual August had been a bust and delivered little but warm rain out of a steel grey sky, but September was doing its utmost to make up for it.
I was working from home that day, one of the joys of being a freelance journ
alist. For months now I’d been putting together an article about humanity, society and the glue that holds it together, having gathered material from dozens of interviews with people involved in the riots a few years before in London. It was, I knew, the piece that was going to get me international recognition, maybe a permanent job with one of the high end magazines and a salary to match.
Pushing my laptop away, I wiped the sweat from my forehead and crossed to the window, trying vainly to open it further.
My tiny square of a back garden below, so lush in the wet August just gone, was beginning to brown like a pie left too long in the oven. The government had declared a heat wave, unheard of in September, but it seemed that every drop of moisture was being squeezed out of the air by the oppressive heat.
Usually, in England, and especially on the so
uth coast, heat equals humidity. Even on the driest days there’s enough moisture in the air to make you feel like you’re taking a shower at the slightest movement.
Not this time. Already they’d implemented the fastest hosepipe ban I’d ever heard of as worried gardeners pumped gallons of water into their swiftly dying shrubberies and flowerbeds.
Maybe, I mused as I headed downstairs to the fridge and its promise of salvation in the form of the water-chiller, I should do a piece on the weather to get a little money in while I finished off my masterpiece.
I was far from broke, but extra money never hurt and my daughter’s birthday was coming up, see
mingly more expensive each time as she rapidly approached her teenage years.
Last year it had been her first mobile phone. Her mother, Angie, was barely civil when
I called to speak to Melody, so despite the cost it had been a relief to have a direct line of communication with my daughter that didn’t involve the minefield of talking to my ex-wife first.
Nine years of difficult marriage and a messy divorce didn’t make for easy small-talk, but now I could speak to Melody every night without
the usual recriminations and demands first.
Just thinking of Melody brought a smile to my lips. Eleven years old going on thirty, and growing more adult every day. Only last night she’d been telling me about how ‘socially inept’ one of her friends was, and how she had decided to take the girl under her wing so that she didn’t have trouble in middle school.
Some of my
wouldn’t know how to use the phrase socially inept, and I’d had to struggle not to laugh when she’d said it so matter-of-factly.
When the split had finally and inevitably happened, Angie had taken Melody and moved to Manchester, back to her parents and their reinforcement of her view that I was the devil incarnate, while I’d stayed in Hove on the south coast, still living in the small but comfortable house a stone’s throw from the sea.
I fetched myself a glass of water and liberally topped it off with ice cubes from the freezer, then made my way back to the study and sat at the desk once more.
The laptop was surrounded by notepads, random pieces of paper and post-it notes, all covered in my almost illegible scrawl. I’d been working on this piece for the best part of a year, travelling all over the country to interview people on both sides of the riots that had come perilously close to consuming the country after a police shooting in London had inflamed the downtrodden masses.
Interestingly, the rioters themselves had been the easiest to talk to. Using a few of my contacts in the police, I’d been able to track down several people of interest in Croydon and London. After I’d managed to convince them I wasn’t with the police myself, a little bit of respect and a few quid here and there had provided a wealth of information.
They were kids, mostly, disaffected and angry. They’d been looking for any excuse to hit back, to get their voices heard, and once the ball started rolling those too scared to say no had joined in until it got out of control.
My phone vibrated on the desk and I had to dig through reams of paper to find it. The caller ID showed that it was Jerry Cross, an astrophysicist originally from Sussex University, whose wild theories about everything from aliens to other dimensions had earned him the nickname “Crackpot Cross” and had gotten him kicked out of the faculty. He spent most of his time now writing books on UFOs that no one took seriously.
“Jerry”, I answered, leaning forward to peel my wet back away from the sticky leather of my chair.
“Malc. Have you seen the news?” He sounded excited, his voice high and the words tumbling out as if he only had seconds to spare.
“Not today, no, I’ve been working. Can you give me the highlights?”
I tried to keep the impatience out of my voice, but it was a struggle. When I’d been young and keen, a couple of Jerry’s less crazy theories had caught my attention and I’d based stories on them, only to be ridiculed by my peers when they didn’t pan out. It wasn’t an experience I was keen to repeat.
It’s the story about solar flares, they’ve been running it for a couple of days”.
I sighed. “I saw it last night, Jerry, it wasn’t anything special”.
The line crackled slightly and I thought I’d lost him for a second, but then his voice came back on.
“What if I told you they were wrong?”
“What, there won’t be a solar flare?”
“No”, he sounded worried, but then he usually did. To live in a world populated by aliens, spacecraft and world-shaking government conspiracies probably required a great deal of paranoia, not to mention effort. “I mean they’re wrong about how bad it will be”.
“Jerry, look, I’m kinda busy. Are you free next week for coffee maybe?” I genuinely liked the man, for all his craziness, but when he had a bee in his bonnet he was too much and I really needed to get my piece finished and submitted.
“Next week might be too late.
Please Malcolm, this is serious”.
“When isn’t it?” I was starting to lose patience now. The man could spin a conspiracy out of thin air and cotton wool, and I wasn’t going to get drawn in again.
The line was silent for a moment and then Jerry spoke, his voice urgent.
“Fine. I understand why you wouldn’t want to believe me, I know the stories I gave you weren’
t, uh, too well received, but when you realise that I was right I’m going to need your help”.
“Help with what?”
“Telling everyone! I’ve been trying to contact the government for days, but no one is returning my calls. They know, they must do, and there’s only one reason that they aren’t doing anything about it. Please Malcolm, I need…”
The line crackled
and faded again and I pressed the cancel button, taking the chance to end the call while I could. It was low, I knew, but once Jerry got started on the government I could be there all day.
Shaking my head, I turned back to the laptop and a few moments later Jerry and his conspiracies were all but forgotten as I buried myself in my work.
I’m not sure what woke me.
I’ve never been a particularly heavy sleeper, but that night I came awake with the unsettling feeling that something was wrong.
I lay there for a few moments, blinking in the dim light that made it past the curtains, staring dumbly as it flickered from blue to green then back again.
My first thought was that a police car must be in the road outside, but when I crossed to the window and drew back the curtains, my jaw dropped as I saw the sky.
The horizon was alive with colour. Blue, green and red snakes of pale, ethereal light writhed and twisted in the air, dancing in front of the stars as I could only watch in wonder.
Throwing on my dressing gown and slippers, I hurried downstairs and out into the street to look up at the sky. It was so beautiful that I felt a lump in my throat. I’m not sure how long I stood there before I tore my gaze from the sky, but when I did I saw that other people had come out of their houses, all craning their necks to stare in amazement at the light show. A cool wind blew in gently from the sea. I shivered and was about to head in for some warmer clothes when one of my neighbours, an old lady whose name I thought might be Mildred, hobbled over to where I stood. She was wearing an overcoat, neatly buttoned up the front, but I could see the hem of her pink nightie poking out the bottom and large, fluffy slippers were on her feet.
“You see that?” She demanded, pointing her walking stick at the sky.
“How could I miss it? Have you been out here long?”
She nodded. “About an hour. I don’t sleep much nowadays, so I was sitting up listening to the radio when I saw it through the window. What do you think it is?”
I shrugged. “It looks like the northern lights, but they’re usually, well, further north”.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in all my days”, she exclaimed, a trace of wonder in her voice, “do you think it can hurt us?”
“No, I don’t think it can”, I said, but as I spoke I suddenly recalled Jerry’s phone call from earlier in the day. If anything could cause the northern lights to appear this far south, it would be a solar flare, but I’d never heard of it happening in my lifetime.
“Only I saw a film about triffids a few weeks ago”, Mildred continued as if I hadn’t spoken, “and they were looking at lights in the sky and they all went blind”.
I was about to reassure her but I paused before speaking. I was assuming that the lights were benign but what did I really know?
“I’m sure it will all be fine”, I said lamely, “there’s probably nothing to worry about”.
Mildred sniffed and shrugged, almost knocking her glasses from their precarious position on the end of her nose. “Not much point worrying at my age anyway”.
Without another word she turned and headed back to her front garden, leaning against the wall to
continue watching the swirling lights.
Despite my earlier scorn of Jerry’s panicked conspiracy, now I’d seen the sky I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
With a final look at the fantastic colours overhead, I went
back inside and up to my bedroom, checking my alarm clock and seeing that it was a little after midnight. Hoping that he wouldn’t resent the intrusion, particularly after my abrupt end to the call yesterday, I picked up my phone and dialled Jerry’s number.
He answered it after two rings, his voice low and serious.
“I told you, didn’t I?” He said without preamble.
“Yes Jerry, you did. I take it you’ve seen the sky then?” The line faded and crackled again, blanking out completely for a second or two.
“…here all night, waiting for it. I don’t want to be in the city when it hits”.
“Jerry, I lost you. Where are you?”
“I’m up on the downs behind Shoreham”, he said, referring to the ancient chalk hills that surrounded Brighton, “you should get up here”.
“Actually, I was thinking that maybe we could meet in the morning for coffee?” I said hopefully, not wanting to have to drag myself into the countryside in the dark.
“You still don’t get it, do you Malc?” There was anger in his voice now, something I’d rarely heard from him. “Mornings in Hove with coffee while you check the news on your laptop, it’s all fucked!”
I sighed and closed my eyes for a second. I was tired, but as I didn’t have to get up early I supposed that a trip to the downs wouldn’t kill me.
“Ok Jerry, you win. How do I find you?”
He gave me surprisingly straightforward directions to a spot only half a mile or so outside of Shoreham, and I promised him I’d be there as soon as I could.
I was still unsure of the validity of his end of the world rantings, but the photos I’d be able to take of the sky from up on the hill would be worth their weight in gold.
“Oh, and Malc?”
“Yeah?” I replied, already getting dressed.
“Bring a flask of coffee, it’s the one thing I forgot and if the world is going to end I’d like to be awake for it”.