Short Fiction by Helen Cryer. Pitmatic was shortlisted for MIR15.
I first met Tom when I moved into the house next to his. We lived on one of those grid-like streets amongst a network of terraced houses. I was busy stacking my kitchen cupboards with the unwanted plates from my previous house, when I heard the Three Lions doorbell for the first time, learning that the previous owners had been avid football fans. When I opened the door Tom was standing there, holding a tin of baked beans. Thin wires of grey poked out from underneath his flat cap.
‘Me names Tom. What’s yer name pet?’ Tom asked.
‘Give us a tin opener?’ Apparently this was a question rather than a command. ‘Mine jus’ broke.’
I invited Tom into the kitchen, telling him to mind the packing boxes that crowded the hallway. Opening the drawer that was now home to corroded silverware, I found the tin opener and passed it to Tom who inspected my unmade face, disheveled hair and my hands. He glanced at my finger now bearing a fresh indentation of where my wedding ring used to be.
Tom’s hands shook like a flag in the wind as he tried to latch the tin opener onto the rim. His fists clenched and thick purple veins protruded over the surface. The tin rocked and fell on its side. I noticed a blue oval pin on the breast of his cardigan that read, North East Miner’s Support Group, and underneath a white badge with black typewriter print say, don’t blame me I voted labour.
‘Allow me,’ I gestured and Tom gave me a nod of approval.
Latching the wedge onto the rim, I turned the handle and we both heard that rip from metal grinding into metal. Tom winced and he scanned the kitchen, paying particular attention to the paint that flaked away from the walls.
‘Needs a fresh coat,’ he said.
On Wednesday evening, I saw Tom at his front door with a pile of shopping bags at his feet, struggling to get the key into the lock.
‘Keys a’ways givin’ me bloody trouble,’ he said as I unlocked his door.
I helped him carry his bags into the kitchen. Tom handed me a cold beer as a thank you and ushered me into the front room. Everything in the room was either red or brown, from the tartan carpet to the coffee-coloured sofas. All the furniture had been made from dark wood, and a tarnished brass lamp sat on an end table.
Assortments of black and white photographs framed inside simple rectangles were propped up on the mahogany dresser. I took a closer look at one photograph and immediately recognised a younger version of Tom. He had the same round cheeks and dimpled smile – just with less wrinkles. He was posing with a group of young men, all wearing the same flat caps and grubby workmen shirts, their faces smeared with black dust.
‘Wor marras,’ Tom said from behind.
‘Marras?’ I asked, the word failing to register within my vocabulary.
‘Workmates. There’s Billy, Peter, Phil, mysell, Tim and Ern. Ern was as soft as clarts, he was. Yer not from around here are yer like?’
‘I just moved back. Lived down south for ten years. Lost my accent.’
‘Aye a hear that happens,’ Tom studied me as he took a seat on the opposite sofa and I sunk into a burgundy chair. ‘Did yer move back because yer lost yer ring?’
‘Sort of. New job.’
‘Yer lucky yer have choices for work these days.’ His gaze went past me and towards the photographs beside where I sat. ‘Nee choice back then. There was nowt else.’
I nodded recalling a similar sentiment my father had used.
‘My father left school at fifteen. He worked in the shipyards.’ I told him.
‘Ahh tha shipyards. Still he could ‘ave been worse off. He could ‘ave been down tha pits.’
There was something in Tom’s expression that reminded me of my father. He had died not long after my wedding. It wasn’t necessarily the broadness of his Geordie but in the matter of fact way he spoke.
‘What was it like down there?’ I asked. My only knowledge of coal pits came from the black and white documentaries they showed us at school.
‘Like nowt yer’ve ever seen. Miles and miles of grid-like streets. Nowt but dirt, strange smells and the rackit from the belts movin’ the coal.’
I unpacked one box and decided that was enough for the rest of the weekend. The TV and internet weren’t yet connected and I could the feel the walls of the room stiffen from the presence of just one person.
Learning to hear silence after years of living with someone was like listening for a ghost in the house. I half expected to hear the clink of a teaspoon against porcelain, the sound of running water from the shower and the deep breathing he made as he slept. The box I kept was sealed with my memories of him – the torn film ticket from our first date, a dragon figurine from our holiday in Beijing, our wedding invitation. I found myself unknowingly in a mode of erasure. What use was it now to know the exact measure of milk he took in his tea, or the brand of fabric softener he was allergic to?
On the wall in the kitchen, I blu-tacked a few cards with paint samples. My friend Michelle said I needed a project to stay busy. My bedtime reading now consisted of interior design magazines and I learned that pastel shades were in right now. Michelle said I shouldn’t leave the walls white, the blankness needed colour so I considered shades with names like sea-foam green and ripe melon. Staring at the paint samples I wondered which one would be best to commit to. I didn’t like the idea of painting the room a colour I may change my opinion of, only to face the decision of having to start over.
At the front of the house, the previous owners had allowed the ivy to grow wild over the brickwork. It had begun to dig into the mortar, finding any crack to grow into. I bought some secateurs and started to trim it back. Dark green stems fell away covering the ground like freshly trimmed hair. I saw Tom hobbling up the street, his scuffed shoes scraped beneath him. His top half was dressed like a person ready for a walk but his bottom half was dressed like he was ready for bed. He always wore his flat cap no matter the time of day.
‘Divvint cut tha ivy on my side,’ he said, looking at the secateurs in my hand.
‘If you don’t cut it back, it’ll grow into the foundations.’
‘Aye but underneath, tha brickwork is an eyesore.’
Tom didn’t use his keys to unlock the front door; he stepped inside returning a few minutes’ later, holding two beers.
‘Wor Becky, get yersel in pet,’ he said to me.
He was the only person I ever allowed to call me Becky – I couldn’t bring myself to correct him. We sat opposite each other in the front room. In the corner, the top of the wallpaper had started to curl. Allowing myself to relax into the chair, I took a sip of beer and listened to his voice fill the room.
‘It was tha darkness that got us. Yer couldn’t see a glint if yer lost yer light. It’s darker in tha pits than tha dark at night.’
‘I always remember being scared of the dark when I was young. Especially during the winter.’
We both swallowed a swig of beer.
‘Was hell in tha winter. Couldn’t tell if it were mornin’, noon or night.’
‘You start work in the dark, and go home in the dark,’ I said.
‘A remember mysell and Ern left home early one day. We were wa’kin ova the hill and a jus’ remember seein’ this flood of light in tha valley turn tha white mist to gold.’
‘I think watching the sun rise is the best part of the day.’
‘Me and Ern just sat on tha grass ‘till the sun was high. We didn’t say nowt. We just watched.’
Taking a paint sample of ripe melon, I painted small patches on the walls in the kitchen, observing throughout the day how they looked in different kinds of light.
I finally paid for the TV subscription and left a channel on in the front room while I worked in the kitchen. Every now and then a conversation paused for audience laughter.
In the evening, the receding sun smudged the sky with pink. I was planting my flowerbeds with tulip bulbs when Tom’s door scratched open. I looked up to see him holding a tin of baked beans, a smile on his face.
‘Thursday is me beans on toast neet.’
I fetched the tin opener for him and opened the tin in his kitchen, emptying the contents into a saucepan. He toasted his bread under the grill while I stirred the sauce until it boiled.
‘Help yersel to a drink,’ he said, pouring his beans over the toast. He pointed his head towards the cupboard where he kept the glasses. I took one from the shelf and noticed a thick layer at the bottom.
‘Aye, it’s a bit hacky in there,’ he said.
I rinsed the glass out before filling it with water and sat with him as he ate. He devoured the contents of the plate without leaving a crumb or a smear of sauce. He licked his fingers once he was done.
‘Shelf dust is just like coal dust. A clean and clean and it jus’ comes back,’ he said. He told me how it would seep into his cuts that would make a tattoo-like effect. ‘Me skin would look like bark.’
‘Did you get many injuries? I know my father came home with a few. He was a welder.’
‘Dangerous workin’ with open flames. Aye, a got a canny few. Never bad. It’s not like a lost a limb,’ he said. As he took a deep breath I heard a distinct rattle in his lungs. He removed a cream handkerchief from his pocket with the initials E.M and coughed into it.
‘Let’s gan sit in comfier chairs.’
I followed Tom into the front room. His feet dragged beneath him.
‘Can you manage?’ I asked.
‘Aye, am fine pet.’ He waved off any doubt. ‘Jus’ every now and then, me knees get ralloused.’
He made a loud groan as he sat down. When I went to sit in my usual chair, he shook his head then asked me to get the photograph of him and his marras. Tom patted the cushion beside him and I sat down. I had never been this close to him before. His cardigan smelt of day-old smoke and his wrinkles were more pronounced curves that I previously thought. We both looked at the photograph.
‘We a’ways carried our dirt home with us,’ Tom said. ‘A lived with me Mam, next to Ern and his wife. A remember Ern’s wife tried to clean his clothes by banging them against tha wall.’ Tom laughed; he appeared to be enjoying the company of his memory.
‘What happened to your marras?’ I asked.
‘Billy and Tim moved away. A think Peter lives in Jarra. We lost touch. Phil was what you would call ‘special needs’ these days,’ Tom stroked his chin. ‘We looked after him. When tha pit closed doon he went to pieces. Ended up beggin’.’
He examined the photograph again and tapped his finger over Ern’s face.
‘A remember we was workin’ at the coal face – wat was called double workin’ – when the roof collapsed on top of tha coal tub. We couldn’t get oot.’ Tom’s voice softened. ‘The timber was crackin’ and breakin around us and a knew our time had come. We were barred in.’
Tom leaned back against the sofa, keeping the photograph propped up between his hands.
‘Some stone got dislodged. Tha supports weren’t good enough. A great big chunk hit Ern on the heed. He never moved again. I sat with him for seven hours.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ I told him, although I thought my words felt redundant. I never knew what to say when people needed comfort. I placed my hand on his arm. His cardigan felt rough and woolly. Perhaps touch was more effective than any words that could be said. When my father died, I had only hugged my mother.
Over the last few months, I had learned how empty words could feel. Advice I had been given from family and friends had never felt reassuring. We had still ended up dividing the kitchenware in the cupboards, had an argument over who now owned the toaster. It had really taken no time at all for everything to fall apart. Despite my best efforts to hold everything together, I soon learned that a marriage could never repair itself if everything was one sided.
Giving up my ground, I bought large packing boxes and moved back home while searching for a lawyer’s number. My time with Tom disrupted the silence. As he talked, I watched his animated face, so deep inside his own recollections that words came out striking and vivid. He held that photograph with a protective grasp of never wanting to let it go.
On Tuesday, after work, I drove to the supermarket. The aisles echoed with shoes as they scraped against the polished floor. My arm ached from the basket I carried, weighed down by a six-pint of milk and a large bag of nectarines. Somewhere between the bakery and household sections I saw Tom standing in the middle of the aisle. He was turned away from me, holding a basket. I watched him for a while, thinking he would turn, but it was odd the way he stood so still, as though the pace of time had slowed to an eventual stop at the half-hour, the minute, the second.
I made my way towards him, placing my arm on his shoulder. I met his face and searched his eyes for recognition but all I was given was a vacant expression. He had the appearance of a man locked away inside a vault of recollections.
‘Tom,’ I said. ‘It’s Becky.’
A second passed and I saw how his eyes brightened, like watching fog disappear from the windscreen.
‘They’ve gone and bloody moved me white bread that a buy,’ he said.
‘Behind you,’ I pointed to the rows of racks filled with white loaves.
‘Every week they gan and bloody move stuff. A mean, what’s tha point if ya gannin’ to stop tha customer from gettin’ what they want,’ he spoke louder with each word.
Tom took two loaves from the shelf and shoved them into his basket. He unfolded a crumpled piece of paper and looked at his list.
‘What else do you need?’ I offered to help, trying to decipher his handwriting. In his basket he had sliced Pork Lorne sausage, three packs of wafer thin ham, a block of Cathedral City and a four-pack of baked beans.
‘A’ll be fine pet. Divvin need to worry yersel,’ he said before disappearing around the corner.
Walking between the aisles I looked out for Tom, scouring the shelves for any decent offers or reduced items but I didn’t see him again. Back home, I went out to water the planters and thought about knocking on his door. I wanted to make sure that his eyes didn’t look like clouds, but I also didn’t want to be one of those neighbours – constantly poking around being a nuisance.
Later that night I couldn’t sleep. The bed sheet was drenched with cold sweat and my forehead burned. It was two in the morning. I went to the kitchen and ran cold water over my wrists, then filled a glass and touched it to the side of my cheeks. On the counter, I caught sight of my car keys, loose change dug out from my pocket and an unopened letter addressed from a lawyer down South.
What struck me about my marriage ending was not so much the division it caused but the way it re-routed my life. I suddenly found myself swept away from everything I had known, the security I had grown comfortable with, and ended up facing an unknowable path I hadn’t expected to wander.
In the front room I stood by the window. The street was blanketed by nighttime stillness and everything was quiet except for the sound of a ticking clock. The ivy I had cut back was already growing and just as I was thinking about tearing it down, I saw something pale move under the street lamp. I stood on my toes leaning closer, my forehead resting on the glass. Whatever it was appeared to be larger than any animal I knew to move around at night.
Standing tall by the parked cars was Tom. His naked skin shone silvery under the light of the waxing gibbous moon. He was standing with his feet pointing out, as though he was figuring out which direction to take.
Placing my glass down, I rushed to the door, grabbing a coat from the hook.
‘Tom,’ I called out.
I threw the coat around his shoulders trying to cover his bare skin that was as cold as damp stone. Tom started to sing. I didn’t know what he was singing. The words sounded old, like no Geordie I had ever heard before. Tom broke off from his song. He looked around, his eyes wide and frantically searching.
‘A cannit find me lamp,’ he shouted.
‘It’ll be in the front room. Remember? You keep it on the table,’ I told him, and his face began to relax.
Tom and I entered the sitting room, he sat on the sofa, immediately grabbed the lamp and held it between his arms, rocking it as though it were a child. His body shivered under the coat.
Taking a saucepan from the cupboard, I boiled some water and wondered if Tom had any other family. He had never mentioned a wife or children during our conversations. His photographs were only of his friends from the pits and of his mother and father. I began to consider that maybe I was all he had as I stirred the tea, taking it through to the front room. Tom was fiddling with a lever on the lamp. The small flame inside glowed blue and I noticed his eyes looked blank.
‘Gan canny ower the greaser,’ he said. ‘Jus’ ti thra a sprag in.’
‘Tom?’ I didn’t understand what he was saying.
Tom turned off the lamp and placed it back on the table. He leaned forward to take the mug from my hand. He cupped it and blew small gusts of air over the surface.
I went back into the kitchen, checking his bin for any empty beer bottles then the sink for glasses that might contain traces of whiskey. There were none. In his hallway, I opened the drawers to the dresser, searching for any clues that might point me in the direction to his next of kin. In the top drawer I found a packet of cigarettes and a card from a private health clinic. There was a number for a Dr. Andrews on the back. I tucked the card into my sleeve and went back to the front room to check on Tom. He was still sitting on the sofa, sipping his tea. When he saw me, his eyes grew wide and his body stiffened.
‘What yer dooin’ in ‘ere?’
In the morning I called in sick to work, complaining about my temperature although I felt fine. I added extra nasal pressure to my voice, giving my excuse a sense of authenticity. The doubt grew in my boss’s voice as she told me to get plenty of bed rest. I got dressed and went next door to check on Tom, only to find his front door wide open.
‘Tom,’ I called out as I stepped inside his house.
He wasn’t in the front room or the kitchen, where a mug of steaming coffee sat on the bench. I called out again but no response. I felt like I was trespassing as I entered his bedroom, crossing over that threshold of privacy. The quilt was half-turned over and the pillows looked flattened. A pyjama top was on the floor and I saw the distinct black and white stripes of an NUFC scarf peer over an opened drawer.
From the bathroom, I heard something drop and rattle against porcelain. The door was already ajar. I pushed it further back and found Tom standing over the sink. His hands shook vigorously.
‘You ok Tom?’ I asked. He did not look as surprised to see me as he had done last night. Instead he appeared reassured.
‘A cannit get the lid off,’ he said.
I stepped towards the sink and picked up a pale brown bottle with a prescription label wrapped around it. Tom hovered close to me. As soon as I uncapped the bottle, he pulled it away from my hands. I didn’t get to see what was written on the label.
‘Do you need water?’ I asked.
‘There’s a glass on tha bedside table.’
Retrieving the glass, I handed it to Tom from outside the bathroom. He pushed the door but it didn’t close. From outside I could hear the shaking of pills followed by a gulp. I thought about the bruised nectarines sitting in the fruit bowl in my kitchen. They were undergoing their own process of deterioration every time I decided not to eat one, their skin crinkled as the flesh inside became drier.
‘Shall a boil us some tea? Bit early for a beer.’ Tom said as he pulled back the door.
I led the way into his kitchen. Tom insisted I take a seat; he said he didn’t need any help. The mug of coffee he had already made went unnoticed.
‘What happened to Ern’s wife?’ I asked.
‘Remarried. She was still young when he deed.’
‘Did you ever marry?’
‘Nah. Never found tha one. Sugar?’
I shook my head. ‘Any brothers, sisters?’
‘Am a anny bairn,’ he said.
Tom brought the mugs over.
‘A need yer help,’ he said reluctantly as he sat down. He removed a piece of paper from his pocket and passed it over the table. I unfolded the paper and found a list of capitalized words; TWO WHITE LOAVES. 4PT MILK. PORK LORNE SAUSAGE. CATHEDRAL CITY. 4-PACK BAKED BEANS. 4-PACK BEER.
‘A sometimes forget where things are. A don’t mean to trouble yer. Divvint gan oot yer way if yer cannit help is.’
‘No, it’s fine. I’ll get these for you.’
‘Aye well. Cheers pet.’
The kitchen walls were still white. I decided against painting my walls ripe melon, the patches of paint when bathed in sunset light changed to a hue that closely resembled sunburn. It reminded me of how quickly his skin turned when we were sunbathing in Nice. The skin on his back bubbled with blisters that oozed a muddy liquid when they burst. I had rubbed cream on his back to make him happy. Sometimes I think that’s all our marriage ever was – me trying to live up to the expectations he had.
I didn’t understand what was so wrong with the colour white. When I talked with Michelle on the phone, she had suggested I go with a bold colour to make a statement. Looking at Emperor’s Silk, Château Grey and Henrietta I found none of them wanted to say anything.
Taking the card for the health clinic that I had found in Tom’s drawer and dialled the number. The tone kept looping. Eventually it cut to an automated voice saying to leave a message.
After work, I went to the supermarket to collect Tom’s shopping. When I opened his front door, I noticed a pair of black brogues and heard two voices coming from the front room.
‘It was a terrible match.’
‘A couldn’t believe that goal like. Pitch was wide open. Where were tha defenders?’
‘What about that foul?’
‘Aye but a divvint think he deserved that red card like.’
I poked my head around the door and saw a man sitting in the burgundy chair.
‘You must be Becky?’ he said. ‘Tom’s been talking about you.’
‘All good words I hope,’ I said looking at Tom.
‘Aye, o’ course. This is Dr. Andrews.’
Dr. Andrews stood up and shook my hand. He was tall and slender with dark stubble on his chin.
‘I hear you’ve been helping Tom open his baked beans,’ he said.
‘Can’t let the man starve.’
Dr. Andrews laughed. ‘You don’t watch footie, do you?’
‘Too bad, Tom. Looks like you’ve just got me to moan about defenders to.’
‘Aye. It divvint bother me son.’ Tom stood up. ‘Yer had yer scran yet Becky? It’s me sausage and mash neet.’
‘I’ve eaten,’ I told him.
‘Suit yersel,’ Tom said. He picked up the shopping bags I had left in the hallway and went to the kitchen. All I could hear was the banging of cupboard doors and the clash of a saucepan as it hit the cooker.
‘Thanks for phoning. I don’t see Tom that often.’ Dr. Andrews said.
‘I was worried about him,’ I kept my voice low. Clicks from the cooker echoed through the rooms.
‘It’s good to know someone’s looking out for him.’ Dr. Andrews looked towards the kitchen as though he could see through the walls. ‘I’m very fond of Tom.’
‘Is it serious?’ I asked, moving closer towards him. His eyes were the colour of pears.
‘Tom is like the tides. He goes away but comes back again.’
‘He sings and says odd phrases I’ve never heard before.’
We could hear Tom moving between the drawers.
‘It’s old talk and songs they used down the pits.’ Dr. Andrews said.
Tom appeared by the door.
‘Yer divvint need to be shy y’kna. She’s single,’ he said then walked back into the kitchen. I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks and Dr. Andrews’s face flushed to the colour of cherries.
Dr. Andrews smiled. ‘You can call me Jake.’
We went through to the kitchen. Tom was on his knees, watching his sausage cook under the grill.
‘A divvint want them to turn black,’ he said.
When Dr. Andrews went, he left behind a hint of bergamot that filled the space where he once stood. I realised it had been a long time since I had thought about a man. It was even more pleasing to think about someone I knew nothing about – I didn’t know how he liked his tea, or what he was allergic to.
Tom retrieved his sausage from the grill and stirred his instant mash before putting it on the plate. We sat together at the table.
‘Yer should come watch tha footie with us,’ Tom said through a full mouth.
‘I think I will. You’ll have to explain the rules though.’
I helped Tom clear his plate, filling the sink until it was a frothy lake. I gave Tom’s grill pan a good scrub. It was covered with slick grease and indiscernible charred specks. I pulled the plug and the sink turned into a gurgling vacuum. Tom started singing.
‘Keep ye lamplit Geordie hinny. Keep ye lamp lit Geordie lad. An’ divvint let it gan oot doon the drift.’
He stared out the window and his expression was milky. He looked at me as I sat down.
‘Aye Ern. We’ll gan watch the sunrise themorra.’
It was like watching someone get lost in a maze and knowing where all the exits are but not being able to direct them out. He started singing again and I longed to learn the words so he might feel less alone as he wanders.
At work, I scanned some pages from a Victorian book about Herbology. After I’d finished, I used the database to search the library for anything they had relating to the language they used down the pits. I noted down some barcodes and searched through the alphabetized stacks where they kept most of the local history titles. Thick volumes about Bede, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland Geography and folklore filled the shelves. The section I was looking for was crammed with pamphlets with detailed local accounts of the pits. I pulled a few out and skipped through their pages, looking for songs or anything about the old talk they used.
Some of the pamphlets were torn, the pages turning brown at the edges. Some had fingerprint smudges and penciled notes in the margins. I sat on the rough carpet and read through firsthand accounts. The words written were similar to what Tom had told me; descriptions of the darkness, how their ears searched for hissing sounds that could foul the air current. One likened carbon monoxide to the smell of sweet flowers. I found a record of songs the miners would have sang and recognised a few lines from one called Keep Your Lamp Lit Geordie Hinny.
One page had listed the disasters and causes of death at Hazlerigg Colliery. As I read them I felt the echo of certain words and phrases:
Found near his post. Run over by a full set. Decapitated. The powder had been ignited. Lost his presence of mind. Fell in front of. Crushed by the tubs. Explosion of firedamp. Run over. Crushed. Found partly buried. Explosion of shot. Caught by carriage. Gassed. Fell down shaft. Fall of stone. Fall of stone. Fall of stone.
I gave the walls in the kitchen a fresh coat of white paint that somehow brightened the room without making a statement. Michelle had been surprised by my choice. She told me that I could always change my mind.
I sat and felt the unopened envelope I had so carefully avoided. Somehow it seemed heavier than what I knew to be inside. I tore open the edges of the envelope that had been staring at me for weeks, scanning through the technical jargon, finding some humour in how ‘until death do us part’ became ‘a division of the assets.’ On the last page I saw the dotted line with my full name typed out beneath it. I picked up my pen and signed. All that was needed was a signature to guarantee a sense of an ending.
The Three Lions doorbell reverberated through the house. It was Tom.
‘Much better,’ he said, surveying the freshly painted walls.
He returned my tin opener and I placed it back in the drawer. He caught sight of the divorce papers on the table.
‘Ya alreet pet?’ Tom asked.
‘I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.’
‘Yer’ve got nowt to cry aboot.’
‘Would you like do to something tomorrow morning?’
‘Come and watch the sunrise with me.’
The alarm went off at 5am and everything was dark and silent. I got dressed and made a flask of coffee. I knocked on Tom’s door and he let me in. He fiddled around in the kitchen, moving between the fridge and the cupboards, making himself a sandwich. He wrapped the ham back in the cling film and put everything back in its correct position in the fridge. We had written labels on the shelves, so he knew where to find the items he needed. I tucked his sandwich into my bag with the coffee flask.
‘Ready,’ he said.
We left his house and walked through the empty streets, passed the parked cars and curtain-drawn windows. The sky was clear. There was no moon and I could only see faint light from the stars, they looked dimmed from the surrounding street lamps.
We made our way down the last row of houses, walking in silence. All I could hear was the sound of our footsteps and our exhaling breath. We cut across the field and started on the steep incline to reach the top of the hill. Tom panted and struggled to steady himself so I gave him my arm.
‘Bloody knees,’ he said.
‘You need to stop sitting on them.’
‘A divvint want me food to burn.’
We reached the top of the hill and Tom sat down on the damp grass. Looking down at the grids of streets with long rows of houses and back yards, we tried to figure out which street was ours and guessed where our houses might be. I unscrewed my flask of coffee and Tom took out two cups. We drank and waited for our prize of waking up early. Tom began to hum and I recognised the tune. We started to sing together.
The sky in the distant brightened and the first rays of light touched the roofs of the houses and glistened off the windows. Wet pavements and roads were coated with a golden shine. On the hill, the grass turned from indigo to red. We watched that first glimpse of the sun’s disk peer above the horizon and pure light scattered, reaching inside every crevice.
We sat in silence, just watched.