Last one left, even if you aren’t alone. Everyone’s gone. There’s only the lingering sense of emptiness, because this feels unmistakably like an act of transgression. Even if we never leave the houses, even if we never leave our seats, we have begun to explore, to trespass in the fields of night. The sense of dreamers has passed; they’ve gone too deep to listen to now.
Cold dark and a need to talk, to talk so much. If one is alone, insomniac, abandoned, this feels so sharp, so very sharp. Talking to ourselves at 3 am, “fitfully, inarticulately”, half afraid of hearing answers. Ghost houses, alone, exhausted mind screaming for dreams, weaves shapes and patterns right up the wall, spinning faces out of plaster and paint. Turn the lights on, sickly and bare. An analogue land line isn’t your friend right now, but everyone should try this at least once; lift the receiver, look around and listen to the dial tone for as long as you can bear it, convincing yourself that there are voices on the wire.
Or there are real people there, or more obviously real people at least. And you talk, talk, never stopping, all of you knowing that if you let the pace slacken, you’ll begin to lose it and sleep will take hold. Hours and hours. Less frightening, but with a sense of desperation; don’t let go of the night! It’s ours and right now, it feels like the last night ever, and we mustn’t waste a second of it. Talk and despair and fall in love that won’t even last until breakfast, born out of the need for sleep and dreams, a story improvised out of absences and the night. Cut by dawn.
The cruel cuts of first light. The sickened feeling of exhaustion and sour taste of too many words. Guilt, because we went where we shouldn’t and sunrise noticed.
Then you pass into the edges of sleep. Perhaps not your own. Take a moment, and you can feel the shape of the sleeping minds all around you. Something more than the quiet, something in addition to the single motor noise and the nearly muted televisions. Get up and look out of the back window. Lights going out one by one. It’s there, within the range of a sense that doesn’t have a name, the sense of sleeping. Ghost time.
Why shouldn’t it be? Dreams can get out and wander around at this time. Past and future smudging each other like charcoal on clean paper. Fear and longing rattling chains at midnight, as you slowly turn the lights off, make your nightwatch rounds of the house, checking doors and windows perhaps, looking nervously at the stove to be sure that it hasn’t turned traitor on you since dinner. But only perhaps. You might stay awake a while, all night maybe.
Time takes on a taste into the later and later. A thin and lonely flavour, but worth relishing.
Once you’ve closed the curtains, you establish a boundary. Inside and Outside. You could sneak behind the curtain and press your face to the cold glass. And all the car lights passing by outside, the secret other world on the other side of the curtain. Huge and dark and full of mysteries, a fairground of the imagination. But I don’t want to get into personal anecdotes, much, anyway.
Remember, though? You have your own stories. In the Inside world, we have heating, light, rules. In memory, we had TV in there too, now we’d have a thousand different distractions. In the Inside world, we had homework waiting and bedtimes. As I’ve said, if we were lucky and privileged. And not everyone will be.
Noises in the evening, the watershed times. Distant voices, unexpected cars. Train sounds, very very far off. And as you try to grow up, you try and find ways out into the night. Most of us make it upstairs, just a little way out of the lights, into your own world (again, not everyone’s experience). Some of us actually escape, sneak off. Sooner or later, almost all of us make that leap. And then, in the dark, it’s us who make the weird noises, us who are the figures walking past the bright cold window. Going further out. Burnt orange streetlights and bus sounds, fox bark. Smoke taste.
I would like to chart out the path of a night, to describe one possible navigation through from dusk till alarm clock.
So much for the statement of intent. Along the way, I’ll talk about media and memory, but I have one other strong feeling here; it’s one that I’ve mentioned previously, but a repeat never hurt anyone much. Whilst I’ll touch upon nostalgia, I’ve no interest in living for, or in, the past. For example: a few minutes ago, I read some tweets to the effect of “the world was better when Bless This House was on” and my mood went straight to the teethgrit.
The medium these thoughts were being expressed in, the very mechanism that allowed that person space for that debate wasn’t even a dream when the Abbot family were around. For god’s sake, Sid James preferred the film version anyway. As well he might, it’s got Robin Askwith and Peter Butterworth in it.
My ethos has always been set out; this is a collection of writing about haunted futures. Whatever I stir up, must stir up the world as it is, not as you imagine it to have been.
So it gets dark.
Straight away I’m in a fix. I could write forever on this, which is a shame, because there are very few people willing to read me forever. But which version of getting dark? Do I mean winter dark, before work has even finished – When the lights come on at four at the end of another year as Larkin once wrote, probably staring out at the Humber or something, I dunno – or do I mean the weird never-dark of midsummer? Both have their charms.
Early sunset, especially at the weekend, is filled with terror and excitement, a sense of urgency, of getting back home to the warmbright (and I’m going to assume a level of privilege here, that very few humans have ever had access to). Late dusk has a feverish laziness to it, a slight sense that everything has been permanently delayed, yet a comfort and a swathe of safety.
And both kinds of nightfall get redefined by rain or snow or fog! Going to bed in daylight at the age of nine, with golden shadows all around the room, is a very different set of memories to lying listening to silver rain and the enchanted drabness of an evening completely emptied by the weather. In winter, remember that sound, the cold sound, a shifted tonality, crisp chill noises? My house had no real heating that worked. I had blankets and duvets and sleeping bags as armour.
One accepts light evenings and the slow sunsets with an element of reluctance, keeping curtains open as long as possible, drawing out the day. At the other end of the year, we close up as soon as we can, get the lights and the heating on, thick curtains and thick socks most probably.
And I think about all those kinds of lights. Big light*! Lamps, Christmas tree lights, the TV. And not forgetting the scary forbidden light we weren’t allowed to look at, which I’ve just built up impossibly, purely to let you down when I explain that it was the beautiful warm orange from the CRT at the back of a valve based TV set. On no account were we to stuff our faces up close to this. Orange radiation. And, y’know, massive electric shocks and that.
Let’s use winter then, for the moment. More evocative. Easier for me to write about. The summer memories are more abstract, filled with faraway voices and faded longing that’s just an echo of an echo now. Summer belongs to the time when you’re old enough to enjoy it, to run in the streets and grow up unexpectedly one evening, around half nine. Summer really belongs to you when you’re old enough to not remember afterwards.
I will write about summer though. But it’s not about the night, so let’s leave that for later. More next time.
*Big light: UK phrase, often associated with the north. Means the overhead light, as opposed to a standard lamp or uplighter. You put the big light on when you’ve lost the back off an earring, or there’s a spider.