Blackness and swirling drunk dreams of conversations with people I’ve not seen or even thought about in ten years.
I woke up with a dry mouth and lay still in the heat, eyes closed. Christ, I must have left the radiator on overnight again, it was like a sauna. Rolled onto my side trying to get comfortable, failed, and sighed. Memories of the nights drifted back – holy shit. I tried to kiss Amy in Wetherspoons. Her boyfriend swung for me outside McDonalds. Threw up in the taxi. Oh Jesus, Monday at the office was going to be fun. Why do I always do this?
Fuck, it was hot. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, blinked them open and shrieked, scrambled backwards. Dust, everywhere. Blue sky.
Everything so bright – I tried to stand but fell back again and realised I was on no bed, but sand. White sand. It burned my fingers as they pawed through it. I twisted 360 degrees, limbs carving miniature dunes into the sand around me, entrenching me in my haste to figure out what the hell had happened.
I felt panic bubbling in my throat, and in the silence I could hear the ventricles of my heart hurling emergency blood around my chest, my instincts telling me to punch something or run away screaming. I did neither, just sat in my sandy crater, silent and thirsty. The sky above was flat, harsh blue, and the sand sprawled out from me to the horizon whichever way I looked. Well, shit.
This couldn’t be England. There are no deserts in the UK, at least not that I’ve heard of. I stood up, shivering despite the immense heat, and for some reason I felt the need to remain silent. The quiet of the desert was absolute; so incredibly still and vacant and poignant that it felt almost spiritual. It would be a sin to break this silence with anything as mundane and self-absorbed as human language. I patted myself down, and found my phone missing but my wallet still present.
Opening it, I found a twenty pound note, and despite the fact that I was lost and in shock and death was probably quite imminent, I still felt that old familiar pang of jubilation that comes from finding spare change after a night out. There were two receipts – one for a round of tequilas, one for three double cheeseburgers and fifteen chicken nuggets, which I had no recollection of drinking or eating. My driving license, my bank card, rail card; all present. Only thing missing was the loyalty card for my local Greggs. And I was only two coffees away from a free one. Shame.
My parents didn’t raise a defeatist. I pride myself on that – there’s always hope. I remember falling off my skateboard at the age of eight and chipping my front tooth. My dad crouched beside me in the street as I wailed and moaned and, holding my sobbing face in two hands, he muttered the immortal words, “I know it hurts, but we’ll all be dead some day, and that’ll be really boring. Get up, dust yourself off, and crack on, lad.” I learned to ollie later that day.
I picked a direction and started walking.
I started singing to myself after maybe an hour. Can’t be too sure because my watch was going haywire. The hour hand had stopped completely, the minute hand was doing laps like it’d necked a pot of coffee and two fat lines of speed, and the second hand had slithered off to the edge of the watch face, where it was lounging in the shade. No such respite for me. I’ve never felt envious of a second hand before.
I started out with Otis Redding, Dock of the Bay, Try a Little Tenderness, then mixed it up with a liberal dose of The Beatles, of course, and then I realised that I could sing anything I wanted as loud as I felt, and so guilt-free I rolled out the Meatloaf classics. Bat out of Hell, All Revved Up, et cetera.
After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, I saw something small and black on the horizon. Looked like a burned up tree from afar, wavy in the heat. I trudged towards it for maybe an hour. Thought I heard sitar music at one point on the breeze, but I couldn’t be sure. It was very hot.
It was a traffic light.
Just one, still, tall, metal, black traffic light, doing nothing at all, just existing quietly, it’s bulb glowing red. I sat down before it. Perhaps I was hallucinating all of this. Maybe somebody spiked my drink and I was still in Wetherspoons, slumped at a table as greasy English breakfasts are served around me to students and away fans and bulbous-nosed alcoholics. But then, I felt really rather bored, and I’ve never heard of anyone complaining from boredom in the middle of a peyote trip.
I stayed with the traffic light until dark, sheltering from the sun by sitting in the shadow’s pole, shifting every few minutes as it rotated and grew longer. When night came, I lay on my back bathed in the steady rouge ambience. I fell asleep.
An infuriatingly upbeat electrical song woke me, along with the smell of petroleum and a glugging engine. I sat up, rubbing my arms to warm them, and looked around. Idling a metre away was an ice cream truck. A fat couple with rosy cheeks poked their heads out of the windows.
“You hungry?” the woman enquired gaily. “We sell ice cream in every flavor! We have vanilla, chocolate, mint, Neapolitan, banana, toffee, cookie, blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, rhubarb, lemon, tutti frutti, elderberry, peppermint, grape, gravy-
“No honey, we’re all out of that one,” her partner interrupted.
“Oh damn. Well, we still got mango, tango, grim fandango, thornbush, Afghan kush, get out and push, singed hair, creaking stair, extract of bear, this ain’t fair, long forefingers, smell that lingers, old bellringers, opera singers-“
“I’m lactose intolerant,” I sighed.
“Oh man, that’s too bad.”
“I know, bane of my life.”
“Well… see you around!”
“Yeah, see you later,” I shrugged, and lay back down as the van rumbled away across the sandy planes, their chirpy song ringing out across the night sky. As they disappeared, I thought about how nothing seems to mean much until you wake up in a strange desert and time stops working. I mused aloud to myself, and the desert offered no response. The traffic light stared at me, gormless and content. Red, Yellow, Green. Stop, Get Ready, Crack On.
I was woken up again later by the rain pattering my face, and a distant roar. A storm loomed on the horizon; magnificent black clouds tumbling over one another in their haste, splashes of sheet lightning crowning the clouds with halos, offering flirtatious glimpses of the heavens. The air grew close, prickling with excitement, like it always does before a celestial battering. I paced twenty steps from the traffic light, just to be safe, and sat, waiting.
As the storm rolled towards me, a frantic droning sound drew my eyes. I squinted into the approaching fury and spotted a small biplane speeding away out of the chaos, dodging lashing rain and pitchfork lightning. The plane swooped low and outpaced the clouds, spiraling as it careened towards the ground, pulling up at the last second. I watched as it cruised to a stop beside me.
It was adorned with a dusty RAF roundel. As the propellers slowed, a tall man climbed out of the cockpit and swung his legs over the side. He reached into the back seat and checked the pulse of slumped wingman, apparently found none, and unceremoniously heaved him out of the plane. The deceased wingman dropped to the sand with an audible flump. The tall man strode over to me, hand outstretched.
“Hello chap, how are we today?”
He crushed my hand in a vigorous shake. I couldn’t see his eyes, hidden behind thick, dusty goggles. His hair was obscured by an aviator hat, and his body wrapped in a fur lined leather jacket, collar turned up. Knee high jackboots and tan jodhpurs. I suddenly felt underdressed in my ironic floral shirt and converse. I told him I was not too bad.
“Jolly good. Well now, as you can see, my copilot has had a bit of a bad turn. I don’t suppose you’ve any flying experience, have you?”
Several return trips to Spain with Ryanair didn’t seem adequate to mention.
“Ah, no. Sorry,” I replied.
“Come on now man, are you absolutely sure? Man the gun, pass me the whiskey when I ask, light my cigar when we land. It’ll be one hell of an adventure, old boy.”
I shrugged and peered around him at the recumbent body in the sand.
“What happened to him?”
“To be perfectly honest I’m not entirely sure. He was alive and well the last time I turned around. Could be enemy fire, could be whiplash, hailstones, you name it. They’re the size of billiard balls up there.” He nodded at the churning sky.
“Enemy fire? Who’s the enemy?” I asked, scratching my nose.
“Isn’t that just the question! I’m afraid I really must be off now, sport. Those clouds get any nearer and I’ll be grounded for the night. Shall we?”
“I really don’t know how to fly. I’m sorry”
He shrugged, shook my hand again, clambered back into the cockpit and fired up the engine. The biplane bounced over the sand, caught the breeze up into the air, and within moments was lost to the night. The storm would be arriving soon. I lay back down; nothing else to do. The other pilot was spread eagled some distance away. I left him there. He was doing no harm to anyone.
When I awoke the storm was nowhere to be seen, and my clothes were dry as old bones. The traffic light was still red. The pilot was still dead. The sky was empty again, naked and vast like an overweight stripper. I sat in the shade of my traffic light for a couple of hours about how there’s no wonder the world is all backwards when the three wise men brought gold and aftershave and stress-relieving oils as a present for a baby; maybe we wouldn’t all be so fixated on wealth and war if the Bible described how those three wise men brought some nappies and a pacifier instead of the shiniest objects they could get their gilded mitts on.
A large cloud of dust rose on the horizon; something was approaching, fast. I sat and idly bit at my nails. Before long, I could make out the horses and riders that were kicking up the cloud, fast approaching, with two dozen foxhounds galloping before them, ears and jowls flapping everywhere. The dogs reached me first and circled, sniffing at me and the dead pilot. The riders caught up, clad in red hunting coats and white breeches and stock ties fastened with golden safety pins. The leader was a green eyed woman with cascading red hair in elegant ringlets.
“I say, have you seen a fox around here?”
I looked around me at the gaping expanse of nothing I had inhabited for the past day and night, with absolutely no sign anywhere of anything resembling plant, lizard, fish or mammal.
A lazy breeze was picking up molecules of sand and redistributing them liberally, like a diligent chef peppering his signature broth. The assembled hunt stood before me, the only sounds the creaking of leather and the occasional gentleman’s cough into a white glove. The morning was wearing on, and the heat was picking up.
“Well,” said the green eyed woman, “have you any experience foxing? We’ve a spare horse, and we could use another pair of eyes.”
“I quite like foxes, though. They’ve done me no harm.”
“Oh no, you’re not one of those, are you? Oh dear. How disappointing.” Laughter rolled through the assembled hunt.
I shrugged and sat back down.
“You’re going to stay here, then?” she enquired.
I didn’t bother to answer. They hunt chortled once more, and with a blast of their horns they galloped around me, kicking up sand in my eyes and mouth. Several of the foxhounds had decided to stake their claim on the pilot, and dragged him away with them. Their charging hoofsteps receded into the distance, and I sighed. The wind caressed my face.
The traffic light still shone red. Perhaps it wasn’t broken after all; perhaps it was functioning exactly as intended. I stood up, dusted myself off, and beat on into the desert.
You wanted to know if I die at the end of this story? Don’t worry about that, we all do eventually.