The Longest Night
Copyright © Isabella Dalzell 2017. All RIghts Reserved.
The fog bloomed outside the window, a white cloud tinged with yellow smoke, lazily drifting through the street outside. The dim clop of hooves on cobbles had awoken me in the early hours and, restless, I had tossed and turned before giving into sleeplessness and arising from the brass knobbed double bed.
Reaching for my wrap, suspended from the brass rail at the foot of the bed, I took up the candle and lit it with a taper from the glowing embers of the fire. The flickering light from the haloed candle cast dancing shadows on the wall. Mesmerised, I watched the flickering shapes leap and abate like a wave undulating across the wall and as I stood there with my bare feet freezing on the boards, the wave resolved itself into a row of helmeted heads, and again a line of men marching; I shuddered, lit with fear. Looking back at the crumpled, rose patterned counterpane and the warm tumbled sheets with envy, I knew it was useless, I would never sleep now.
Placing the candle holder on the hearth, I stoked the fire vigorously with the gleaming yellow poker, not daring to look over at the wall and as the sparks flew I swung the old-fashioned iron kettle hook over the coals and took down the caddy from the mantle, strewing the teapot with dark, crisp leaves. I stood to stretch and ease my back, enjoying the heat of the fire through my thin nightgown as the wrap fell open. There in front of me, on the lace draped mantle, the silver framed sepia photograph caught my eye. Arrested by the thoughtfulness of his gaze, I peered closer at the callow, youthful figure, smartly presented in dress uniform, and took up the frame in my hand. It was not often I could bear to look; his absence stretched away in the increasing distance of days. I glanced back involuntarily at the wall but all I could see now was a huge, shadowed mound empty of men.
The waft of the soot from the fire acted like smelling salts, Sal Volatile, the acrid tang arousing me from my contemplation and I opened myself up to the sensations of loss and anxiety provoked by the scrutiny of his features and repressed for so long. Like a snake slithering through a crevice, the realisation of the danger he was in reached my consciousness, haunted as I was by the vivid shapes on the wall, sending a sharp alertness of emotion to my senses and a pricking of tears to my eyes. The landscape of his countenance was fine and pale, his high cheekbones sculpting the soft grey eyes looking out at me and balanced by the sensitive mouth. A sudden onslaught of gasping tears overtook me and I could bear it no longer. Putting the photograph face down on the mantle I turned away sobbing.
Crouching by the fire as my tears subsided, I wiped my face and carried on with the business of tea-making and soon held a hot cupful – the flowered porcelain warmed my hands and the drink my throat and stomach. The moisture in my nose still ran in tiny drops and I wiped it with the back of my hand and dried off the corners of my eyes with the edge of my nightgown.
The light through the cream paper blind grew lighter and the traffic upon the road outside took up its early-morning pace, although the sounds were eerily muffled by the blanket of smog settling on the street below my window, and everything seemed to move more slowly, blinded by the gaseous air. A cart rumbled by, its driver calling his wares as the metal milk churns rattled. I went to look out, and pulling back the edge of the blind with my fingers still cradling my teacup, observed the scene. Wisps of fog trailed along the road, entwining the huge, ornate gas lamp to the left of the window which stood sentinel; its glass globe embraced by the black wrought iron claws was empty of light.
I thought I caught a movement, the shadow of someone emerging from the fog darkened as I continued to look out onto the street below. The greeny-brown uniform took on definition and my eyes widened and stomach tightened as I recognised the dear face under the peaked cap. He turned towards my window and as our eyes met he saluted me and smiled his winning smile. Stumbling, nervous, I ran down the stairs to open the front door.
But I was greeted by a vacant, misty space. Looking to left and right down the street I could see no trace of him; he seemed to have melted back into the fog as quickly as he had appeared. I called his name, and getting no answer, ran out into the street in my nightgown, the braid of my abundant hair swinging like a pendulum as I ran. There was no one there at all. I felt the cold seep up through my feet and legs from the icy cobbles.
“You’ll catch your death, Miss, if you continue standing there. What’s the matter? Seen a ghost?”
I started, and looking to the right saw the coalman, bent over carrying his sack, pause as he stood it on the coal bunker.
As I continued to stand and stare he repeated, “Go back into the house, it’ll do you no good standing on the step.”
With that, he poured his load into the coal hole, and the deafening rush and puff of black coal dust awoke me to his shaking head and rueful smile as he turned back to his horse and mounted the cart; at the flick of the reins the cart jolted forward.
I retreated back to my window perch and looked out anxiously, waiting. The clock ticked louder as the minutes and hours went by and then I saw a figure again approach the house, swinging his bag and whistling up the garden path. He rapped mouse sharply at the door. Relief swept through me as I ran down to open it again.
I stood in shock as the boy proffered me the brown envelope and my hand shook as I took it from him and tore it open. When I dropped the envelope, it floated onto the ground like a yellowed leaf. The telegraph boy backed away from me, his eyes politely sorrowing as he bowed forward to lift up the envelope and hand it back to me.