First published 'Night Owl Network' vol 2 No 13 (1993)
It had been raining for hours on end. But what in heaven was “it”?
I discovered the man hanging from a large tree. The sodden ballooning of the white parachute trailed above him, punctured here and there by branches. I was near enough to guess that his boots dripped blood as well as rain-water. In the middle of Coulsdon, this was a strange occurrence, to say the least.
I looked to see if anybody else of the human persuasion was in the vicinity. There was no surprise in realizing that the force-ten winds of the earlier storm had cleared most of the suburban streets, their full effect having lasted past most people’s bedtime.
I knew the parachutist was not dead, since he was attempting to pull off his boots: a strenuous activity which sent showers of what must have been icy spray upon him from higher branches and, with each groaning tug, the white fabric began to gape with ferocious snagging noises. He would soon topple to the pavement, a good few yards beneath him, far enough to damage a bone or two.
I wondered whence the blood was seeping until, in the increasing light of the declipsing moon, I discerned a black stain down the length of one of his sides.
He had not noticed me witnessing his progress. After all, soon after encountering the sight, I had camouflaged myself behind another tree. An enemy parachutist had been my first illogical assumption.
But the Second World War had been over for forty-five odd years . . . and the other wars which were still proceeding these days across the surface of the Earth were certainly not anywhere near Coulsdon (or even Purley).
I tried to reconcile my feelings. I knew I was a sane person. I worked for an insurance company, so I must have been. On the other hand, here I was roaming benighted Coulsdon when I should have been in my snug togetherness of a bed. Perhaps this alien parachutist was nothing but me dreaming.
Throwing caution to the receding wind, I came out into the open and called to him:
“Are you OK? Shall I call an ambulance?”
There was no reply. The tree had become bereft of any strange, anachronistic inhabitant whatsoever. The wind resuscitated fitfully. The uncanny rustling of the branches made me shiver.
A jumbo jet droned heavily across the clearing sky like a UFO moving gently above a foreign planet, intent on making landfall at Gatwick. Even at the depth of night, pilots stayed awake, matchsticks propping up the midget chutes of their eyelids like frozen ripcords.
For a reason of which I comprehend no more the cause than I know where we are all going on this strange traveller planet called Earth, I wept uncontrollably. The man was beyond help.
Eventually, I squelched home in my wellingtons. It was already whitening from the direction of Croydon. But what in heaven was “it”?
Penguins At Midnight
Speed-writing exercise at Writer's Group in Clacton
When he talked to himself, he very rarely listened. Being lonely made him feel rather good, inasmuch as silence and lack of company insulated him within a cocoon of self – and the world’s pain couldn’t cross that silence, collecting outside the silence looking in, powerless to touch him through the silence.
Amid the silence, he had his own peculiar and irritating habits as he watched himself in the corner of the room dressing up as all sorts of creatures. He knew he was immune even from his own behaviour, being so utterly lonely – loneliness being the strongest anaesthetic. He watched himself as creatures from the zoo, many animals or reptiles or birds, often all at the same time. Loneliness was a multiplying force as well as a numbing one. There he was in the kitchen dressed in his lion suit and now he watched himself coming down the stairs wagging a trunk from side to side and simultaneously he heard loud noises from the toilet as a swamp creature conducted its ablutions – and as the evening wore on into night, he saw the two thousand wings of a thousand birds – and upon the stroke of midnight waddling penguin suits crossing the moonlit lawn outside the window.
He was immune. Against the disease of mind or body. Perfectly insulated. By the security of silence. By loneliness. By the loneliness of madness screening out the same madness. But one day – following the march of several versions of himself as various wading birds – he suddenly felt decidedly iffy. He tried to warn himself to get a doctor quick but, as ever he wasn’t listening. Or couldn’t listen because of the silence. And so he never knew he was a dicky duck with flu and no quack.