After the Storm
It has been one month since the solar storm and it doesn’t look like the power is coming back on.
This evening, like every other evening, auroras hang in the sky, robbed of their beauty by disaster, writhing green reminders of the unfortunate new realities of life. Below, in a small town on a hill in the Yorkshire Dales, the mottled grey-yellow stone of a pub’s exterior is illuminated a swirling mess. The pub is alive, in the way that a boxer who has not beaten the count is alive, and inside it is cold. The flickering light of candles, a substitute for scorched and broken light fittings, does little to provide warmth. To remedy this, the landlord is patiently lighting a fire in the fireplace, bent over and going through matches at pace as the old newspaper he is using as kindling fails to ignite the wood on top.
The landlord is comfortable with the matches. He has never been particularly technologically adept, and the main difference to his life since the streetlights went out and the TVs exploded is that the drunkenness he has always surrounded himself with has taken on a solemn tone. He considers the fact that now the looting in town has all but finished, life is simply quieter.
As the landlord strikes the umpteenth match, on the other side of the pub and to the side of the bar two young men throw darts at a board that should have been replaced years ago. Will, the one with the dark green beanie hat and yellow pullover jacket, is only slightly better than Mo. Neither is particularly talented, but they have their moments. This is not one of those moments. Will throws twenty-six and sighs.
“Bed ‘n’ breakfast,” mutters Mo, a hundred behind and grateful. At the bar the usual cast of old men talk in fits and starts, occasionally looking to the side to watch the darts but waiting to be served, really. They have mostly paid for their nights in advance using tinned food or bottled water, apart from Fred, who carries a bag-full of coppers from the decades old penny jar he sees as proof of his shrewd and intelligent nature. The others see it as proof that he was always a tight bastard and always will be. The cast of old men is down by one. Mary, the widow, sits in the armchair by the fire nursing a sherry.
“George will you hurry up wi’ that,” she cajoles the landlord, “it’s Baltic in here.”
One of the old men at the bar murmurs in agreement and the others continue to ignore the cold. George replaces the now ashen kindling with more newspaper, lights another match and this time the smallest piece of wood catches a little. The flames are feeble, but they look as though they might spread. George stands up straight, vertebrae thanking him.
“If you so much as move before that’s fully going I’ll be using you as kindling next,” he has the hint of a smile on the corners of his mouth and Mary throws him a look that almost puts the fire out itself. George makes his way back over to the bar, relighting a candle on the wall as he passes it. The boys at the board are both on a double now, and by the looks of things they could be there for a while. George gets behind the bar and nods at Fred.
“What you having?” George knows what he’s having. There’s only been one beer for weeks now.
“Black Sheep I think this time George.”
George pulls the pint in the slow, deliberate movements of an expert, cream coloured foam spilling over the top of the glass and over his hand into the drip tray. He puts the bitter in front of Fred, accepts an indeterminate amount of shrapnel for it and wipes his hand with a rag. As he serves the rest of the old men Mo slots a dart into the double two and wins the leg.
“I was fully two hundred ahead as well,” Will’s exaggeration does nothing to calm his irritation. The fire is finally going strong now and the heat has started to spread. Will takes off his jacket, puts it on the back of a barstool and takes a sip of his pint.
Will steps up to the oche, darts in hand and breathes. He takes his time, and the arrow feels bang on as it flies out of his hand. It sticks in the red of the treble twenty, right in the lipstick, pretty much dead centre. Neither of the boys have hit a hundred yet tonight. Will considers this for a second too long, loses his head, and doesn’t hit one this visit either. The old men at the bar look back at their pints.
“Y’know,” starts Fred.
“Don’t start Fred.”
“Y’know, I started that penny jar when I were only forty odd. Had it years. Never thought it’d come to use.”
“Is that right Fred.”
“You don’t say Fred.”
“Aye, and it were in a right small jar before. I had to move it all, transfer ‘em like. Int’ nineties that I reckon, moving all them coppers out of that small jar.”
“Where are they now Fred?” George’s mouth is hinting at a smile again and he’s not the only one.
“In a big jar now George,” Fred’s explanation, deadpan, goes down a treat and little gusts of mirth puff out of nostrils and into pints as George relights a candle on the bar. Mary looks on over, warmed outside by the fire and inside by the sherry. She imagines her Gordon sat at the bar with his old pals, in the stool currently occupied by Will’s yellow jacket, laughing along with them all at the old fool Fred. She would always scold him, later on in bed, and Gordon had always brushed it off and that had always made her angry. But she still wishes he was sat there at the bar now, pint in hand. She wishes he was looking back over his shoulder willing her to laugh along with them. She wishes that she’d not complained so much about being hungry, and she wishes that he’d not gone off looking for food in the worst of the looting, and, even if he had, she wishes that he would’ve returned. She wishes a lot of things nowadays. The fire is roaring and Mary stares into her sherry glass.
Over at the bar the old men’s attention is shifted to the side. Will has just filled in the evening’s first hundred and allowed himself a minor celebration. The standard of this leg is in remarkable contrast to the previous one, and although Mo has raised himself to keep up he’s still a fair way behind. The old men throw a few nods and murmurs to the youngsters, appreciative of the entertainment no matter how amateur it may be. They had all been sporting men, playing turning to watching as they aged, but there had not been any watching of late; not since the surges in the grid that caused fires in power stations and explosions in kitchens. Barry, sat next to Fred and with cream coloured foam dripping from the edges of his yellow-grey moustache, had been particularly hit by this loss over the past month. In his day he had been a prolific run-scoring batsman, even playing at county level a handful of times. His near double century against Follifoot on a clear still blue day in the June of ‘82 had been one of the best days of his entire life and he replays it in his head, often. When his back had finally given up and he was unable to continue playing he had taken solace in televised sport, his love for competition softening the blow of his ever-increasing fragility. Now Barry is starved of his love and soaked in bitter. He twists his barstool round slightly to get a better view of the darts. Mo has just matched Will’s ton and Barry knows a competition when he sees one.
Will’s next visit is wasted however. He feels the attention from the bar on the back of his neck, and Mo’s sudden discovery of form stiffens his shoulder, and the arrows just don’t come out of his hand right. The first dart is bad and the following two do not improve the situation. He sits on two hundred and twelve, Mo with darts in hand and eyes hard with tungsten.
The bar is quiet now. Mo steps up and weighs the arrows in his hand. He’s enough of a sporting man himself to know that if he wants to win this leg, now is his opportunity. And he really wants to win this leg. In the hush Fred starts up again and Barry nudges him, probably a little too hard but he gets the message and all eyes are fixed on the board apart from Mary’s, which are still fixed on her drink.
Mo breathes, lines up the dart and throws his hand forward. His finger just catches the back end of the stem as it leaves his hand and he is deflated. The dart is swinging in the air but it swings well for him and nestles right in the corner of the treble twenty, up and out of the way, right in the bed. Will, still ahead, looks a beaten man already. George leans over the end of the bar, half washed glass in one hand and rag in the other, still, and Fred sits forward to push him out of the way slightly so they can all see. Mo breathes, takes his time and lines up the second one. It’s a peach, no fluke about it, and it falls flat and straight and just in the right of the treble leaving a huge inviting gap.
“Go on son,” Barry barely whispers the words but they feel like a curse coming out of his mouth and he regrets them instantly. Fred is perfectly still, one hand gripping the bar and the other twisted up in the handle of his bag of coins. Mary looks up from the other side of the bar and sees Gordon, stood now and willing the young man on. Will is shaking his head, and he knows what’s coming.
Mo narrows his eyes, breathes, and raises his arm. He feels the attention of the room beating down on the back of his neck and he relaxes his shoulder. He keeps his head and the dart is perfect, right in the middle of the other two, and his arms are flung in the air and he’s yelling in celebration, Barry is shouting one huuuuuuundred and eight-y! and Fred’s bag is dropped and coins are rolling all over the place, George is banging the table and howling and all of the old men are beside themselves with pure happiness, elation, for the first time in a month or more. Mary looks on over and Gordon is patting Will on the back, consoling him and laughing as the young man continues to shake his head in disbelief at his friend’s achievement.
The rest of that night Mo gets as many pints as he can drink on the house, and conversation is lively. Everyone takes a turn at the board and even Mary stands up and has a little go. The fire roars on ‘til the early hours, and outside the auroras are beautiful again.
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