“Paradise Etc” by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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One day I walked out of paradise. It was something that I did on a hot July day when the horizon shimmered as if the earth were burning. Then there was a sudden change.  

It was noon beneath a cloudless sky when I felt the unexpected, unaccountable chill of a wind blow across my face so that I shivered even in the sunlight. I can feel that tremor now.

I was walking in a public garden, botanical with unusual trees, and I reached a high wall with a gate that opened by the sudden wind. What could I do but walk through the gate? My curiosity overtook my caution. I thought I’d nothing to fear. Looking back, I could see the gate. I carefully marked the exact location, expecting to return.

There was a feeling in the air. It was about something I had yet to discover. Now came the clouds that darkened the sky. The gust of chill wind had been the first sign. Something was happening very fast. Time was accelerating. It had been noon a moment ago, now it was three. A moment later it was dusk. There was a bright moon and a panorama of bright stars across the sky.

A clock struck midnight in the deep resonance of its bell. I could see no clock tower, but the chimes were clear to my ears. As each chime of the hour sounded the earth shook. I heard the sound of crockery breaking, of stones falling. I heard screams and sirens.

Someone gestured to me to run for cover. There were searchlights casting their beams over the area. Sporadic gunfire could be heard. ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ the helmeted warden asked of me angrily. Someone offered me a cigarette in the bomb shelter. ‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘That’s all right, son,’ the sergeant said. ‘These trenches can be a frightening place at times.’ I looked down at the others in khaki uniform. ‘Which war is this?’ I asked. ‘Why, it’s the war to end wars, of course,’ the sergeant said.

Then the firing stopped as the snow fell. And we all played football to the background hum of Silent Night. The music faded as I made my way through the mist, looking for the others. There were fallen comrades. There was smoke blending with the mist so that I choked my stumbling way entirely alone in the desolate place at sunrise.

There was no-one else to be seen. There was nothing except miles of sand as far as the horizon that seemed to be the end of the earth. Another hot July had risen suddenly.

I woke about nine, remembering my dream. I had dreamed of peace and of war. ‘It wasn’t a dream, was it, Sarge?’ I said. ‘And you’re dead, aren’t you? But I’m not.’ That was my one certainty, that I was alive. Whatever was happening, I was alive. If I held on to that certainty I knew that I could survive.

I looked round, but the sergeant had gone. I was alone in an empty room. There was no window. There was no door. With neither entrance nor exit I was entombed. So I was not alive. But I knew I was, no matter what they were trying to make me believe.

There was a window, after all. It was a very small and in a corner by the ceiling I couldn’t reach. There was a door of sorts, barely perceptible, no more than a hole through which one could crawl. But the hole was blocked with a heavy stone I could not move.

The room was cold, very cold. I began to shiver. And as I shivered the walls began to shake. I put my hand to the stone, only to discover it was not stone at all. It was mist again, as before when the battle raged.

The battle had not ceased. The redcoats were charging past, bayonets before them. Someone pushed me down so that I would not be seen. There was a glow of fire in the distance. The redcoats were burning everything in sight. There was so much brutal noise and the confusion of violence and panic. I feared for my life.

Yet I found I was able to walk through the chaos unnoticed and unharmed. I was not here. It was as if I were a ghost. I saw people I knew well who were passing by without a hint of recognition. And when I spoke they looked away. Here we were on the street of my home town in daylight on a summer’s day. And nobody knew who I was. Nobody saw me.

Nobody saw me because I was the only living presence on that street. When I reached out to touch my hand passed through. And yet they believed it was I who was dead even though I was flesh and blood while everything else was insubstantial and subject to sudden change.

And who was making these changes? I was the one responsible for all that I saw and heard and felt. It was happening to me. It was happening because of me. Once I understood that I saw how I could change things. Everything could go back to the way it was.

It was a hot July day when the horizon shimmered as if the earth were alight. I looked at my watch. It was noon. The clock struck the hour. But it failed to stop at twelve. It did not stop. I could not make it do what I wished. I was no longer in control. Perhaps I was no longer alive?

Was that why the mourners passed in their sombre expressions and dark clothing? They were singing a psalm in plain chant. Tears flowed from everyone’s eyes. They watered the flowers which were scattered on the floor of the vault where the body was laid to rest.

No, that was not how it was to be. The body was to be burned. They were preparing a pyre. Nothing less than a sacrifice would do to appease the anger within the hearts of the mourners. They sought vengeance and retribution. They sought to dismember me limb from limb and feed me to the rats that scurried across the floor of the vault.

They were not rats. They were people, but not people as you and I know people. They were speaking in a strange language that was akin to animal sounds, like the chatter of chimpanzees, like the cawing of ravens, like the growling of tigers, like the swish of trees in the wind.

 

 

‘Tempting isn’t it?’ a voice says. Looking round I see someone uniformed. He has been watching me, observing everything I do. ‘The botanical gardens,’ he says as if to explain. ‘There’s a back way if you know about it. Tempting to go in that way and not have to pay.’

There is laughter as he speaks. The laughter is in the air. The uniformed official has disappeared. The laughter is fading. Dust falls on the stone floor at my feet. Looking upward I see darkness where there is stars. It is a moonless night when the only light is the candle that flickers and splutters, throwing shadows on the wall.

The shadows are not shadows. They are spaces in the wall. I can walk in so easily now. But the other side of the wall is not a garden.  There is only an empty space, an arid land of cracked earth and withered grass. I walk on shards of glass among the scattered concrete blocks. This is not what I expected of paradise. That left me no choice but to walk away.

One day I walked out of paradise.

 

Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of a novel, Heaven’s invention [Black Wolf 2017]. Recent publications include fiction for Adelaide Literary Magazine, Between the Lines and Black Dandy.

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