Curfew Watcher 

Curfew Watcher

The clouds are churning around the cone of Mount Catanak, with clutches of overlapping lightning sparking continuously within the roiling masses.

Further up from these stretches of the River Mercy that taper towards this dead volcano, huddling along its bank, where an incipient wharf is being constructed, is the township of Parsimony: a strange mixture of different styles of building, blended from the remains of several wars, it shines forth on this stormy night, all its windows lit, to welcome any lonely wayfarer in from the brooding marshes that, with the river, surround its community.

One of the town’s youths, known mostly as Murky Mannion, a bit of a loner since his close pal died at the paws of a grizzly bear in the Fall before last, is lurking in his dripping den on the bank beside the river rapids halfway between Parsimony and Mount Catanak. He prefers it here, whatever the weather for, it has to be admitted, he has made a good job of the intertwining of the plant and tree produce trawled from the countryside around. He feels as snug as anything, looking out of his den at the drenched fronds that shake themselves like dogs fresh from a swim.

He can also survey must of Parsimony itself, its lamps shimmering in the storm, and he wonders why, of all people, he has ended up like this - outside the circle of light, as it were, one, although self-fulfilled at the top of his head, deep down yearning for something he cannot quite define... He often sat in this den reading soggy copies of Superman comics, but Clark Kent was not quite the image, not quite that to which reconciliation was needed...

Had it all started when the other kids mocked him about the boogey-man? It is true, he always had believed in Uncle Hairlip... ever since his parents had told him that, if he didn’t go to sleep, he would see this “charming” gentleman coming to visit him. He did not question how this feat could be accomplished through barred windows and a fully bolted bedroom door, but it was the fear engendered by this very impossibility that frog-marched him into sleep.

He made the bad mistake of telling his close pal (the one who was destined to dance death with a bear come his twelfth birthday) about these visits (none of which, of course, he’d seen because he was fast asleep at the time) and this so-called friend blabbed it to all and sundry, including the school-teacher (the latter forthwith threatening to imprison Murky within the blackness of the classroom chalking-board where it was said Uncle Hairlip spent his days...) and so forth...

And now, here he is today in his den, ostracized even by his parents - they now ridiculed him for actually believing their boogey tales to get him to sleep when he was younger. And despite the craft-work that he once put into his den, it is now allowing drips of cold rainwater to run down the back of his collar. He envies the warmth seeming to emanate from the township...

Suddenly, all the lights go out in Parsimony in one fell swoop of darkness. This followed a particularly bright shaft of lightning that arched from the peak of Mount Catanak to the top-most chimney in the town, as if Heaven and Hell had circuited up on some enormous cosmic grid...

He thinks to himself... abruptly realises that Parsimony has not yet been wired up for electricity; the authorities are gradually working along the river communities starting from the harbour town of Misanthropy-on-the-Naze, illuminating each township along the way like Christmas trees, in great ordinations of currents...

Parsimony is due for this eucharist of electricity coma the Spring - so, in short, how have all the oil lamps and candles, with which they have to eke out until then, gone out in one go? Some Heavenly power cut? Or has some enormous opaque monster, hunched up on haunches of night, settled itself between Murky and the town, thus obliterating its homely beaconing?

He shudders bodily. Shivers in the encroaching damp coldness. Alone in the world, the only flea left alive on the body of Robinson Crusoe. He pops his cheek with a finger to make a comforting sound, for he used to do that in the classroom, much to the hilarity of his school pals (before the trouble with the Uncle Hairlip hauntings and tauntings).

The lightning is now so fierce, playing at the lips of Mount Catanak, that he begins to doubt whether it is lightning at all. He even doubts his own identity.

He sees that the lightning is now so intense it etches the glistening roofs of Parsimony against the sky, so whatever squatted between had moved... But the lamps are still out, not even his little sister’s dim nightlight glimmering in the attic of his home which he fancies he sees silhouetted along with all the other staircases of chimney-stacks that make up the forbidding profile of the town.

However, there is a glimmer, very slight, coming from what he takes to be his own bedroom - as if the occupant is secretly reading a thrilling, gruesome story under the sheets with a candlewick-torch.

So he leaves his dank lair, snorts at a few inquisitive churn-owls surveying his exit with bemused interest and shuffles off towards the town. He is set on punishing any brat who will not sleep. That’s the raison d’?tre of any boogie man worth his salt.

The night wears on. The lightning fizzles out, as if sucked to the Earth’s core by the funnel of the dead volcano. The mighty River Mercy just crashes on like a lumbering beast; and between the sound of the rhythmic grappling with its rapid rocks, one can hear bears lurching to and fro in desperate search for a dry spot to doze off the rest of the long night.

And no lights, not even the eeny-meeniest glimmer comes from the township. For several more hours Parsimony just teeters on the edge of one big awaking. And during this coda of the night, Uncle Hairlip, Curfew Watcher, shambles back to that den so carefully, so conscientiously constructed by the one he has just skinned with fright.

Published 'Auguries' 1989)

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