Chapter Nine

As I had planned earlier, I arrived at my parents' house washed, refreshed and feeling a little more relaxed than I had done earlier in the day. I parked the car and walked towards the little house which had been my home for many years. There were thousands of memories locked up in the tiny building and, as I approached, I prayed that the people close to me who still lived within its walls were safe and well. All the talk of energy waves and all of the confusion that I had witnessed over the last couple of days made me long to return to the security of the past and of my childhood. As I stood on the doorstep and opened the front door, a wave of tender sentimentality washed over me.

One of the most unusual and unexpected aspects of the heat and of the recent bizarre conditions was the distorting effect that they had on my body clock. Although it felt like summer, it was dark by five o'clock and it stayed that way until late in the morning. It was difficult sometimes to convince myself that it really was late October and, although the darkness made it feel as if it should be much later, by the time I went into the house it had only just turned seven-thirty.

Inside the building was dark and the living-room was illuminated only by the flickering blue light of the television set in the corner of the room and by a dull, yellow glow from the open kitchen doorway. When she heard the front door open. Mom came into the living-room and she smiled when she saw me.

'Hello, love. How are you?' she asked in her soothing, peaceful voice.

'I'm fine, Mom,' I replied as I walked across the room and followed her into the kitchen. 'Tired, but fine.'

Finally hearing Mom speak again helped me to calm down and to forget the troubles of the day. She had a relaxing, gentle quality to her voice which immediately took me back to my childhood days. When we were younger, Mom's incredible ability to remain restrained and rational had usually resulted in both my sister and myself ignoring her when she had needed to reprimand us (authority was always maintained by my father who, in such instances, always told us off with a well-aimed slap with the back of his hand). Today, however, Mom's tone lifted me and managed to restore a little piece of normality to the increasingly crazy and hectic world that I found myself living in.

'Where's Dad?' I asked as Mom filled the kettle from the tap.

'He's outside,' she replied, nodding her head through the window and towards a barely discernible shape sitting out on the back lawn. 'Poor thing,' she continued. 'This heat's really knocked him for six.'

I walked quietly towards the back door and peered through the glass to look at my dad who sat bathed in the low yellow light which spilled out across the lawn from the kitchen window. When I had been living at home, my parents had never seemed to age. In my mind, they had looked the same on the day I left home as they had done in my earliest memories. It was only now that I was not seeing them on a daily basis that they seemed to be getting any older and today, sadly, Dad looked desperately frail, tired and ancient.

As I watched my father sleeping in an old deckchair, a light wind blew across the garden and he shuffled uncomfortably. The breeze ruffled the delicate strands of white hair which lay across his head and the light from the house combined with the sparse silver rays of the moon to cast ghastly haggard shadows across his face. Dad's glasses were perched precariously on the end of his wrinkled nose and the only movement he made was as his chin slowly shifted up and down as it rested on his heaving chest.

'He doesn't look too bad,' I said to Mom. I was quite worried by Dad's appearance but I did my best to try and allay any of the fears that my mother might have had.

'He might look all right,' she said, 'but he's not himself. You know your father, he's not one to make a fuss when he's under the weather but I can tell. I've been with him for long enough.'

I looked into Mom's face as she toiled over the hot pots and pans on top of the kitchen stove. She looked tired and worn out and I could see the strain and worry that Dad's condition was obviously causing her to feel. Although there was the best part of a ten-year age gap between my parents and she didn't look anywhere near as aged as Dad did, Mom still seemed to be growing old at an alarming rate.

'Steven,' Mom said (she was the only person who called me that and not Steve). 'We're going to go up and visit your Uncle George for a little while.'

I was relieved to hear that. Uncle George lived on the Scottish coast and, when I was younger, whenever we had visited there as a family, Dad had spent most of our time there complaining that the North was far too cold for him.

'That's good news,' I told Mom. 'That should really do Dad a lot of good. It's about time you had a rest as well.'

Mom nodded and smiled. She seemed pleased that I approved of their plans.  

'What about Michelle?' I asked, wondering what my younger sister was going to do.

'She's coming with us. The poor love's been having a rough time at college recently. I think it'll do her as much good to get away for a while as it will your father.'

'When are you thinking of going?'

'Tomorrow. We're going up by train. We leave at half past nine.'

The immediacy of their leaving shocked me. Dad was notoriously slow at making plans and decisions and Mom could see that I was genuinely surprised.

'It'll be for the best,' she said, reassuringly. 'We'll stay up there for a while and come home when things get back to normal.'

Michelle came bounding down the stairs and burst energetically into the kitchen.

'I thought I could smell something!' she joked, cheekily. 'Stevie's here!'

I laughed sarcastically and walked over to greet her. We hugged for a moment and, once more, I realised just how much my conceptions of my family had changed since I had moved out. Before I had left, there had been days when Michelle and I could hardly bear to be in the same room as each other and yet we now hugged one another as if we had been apart for years.

'How's things?' she asked.

'Not too bad,' I replied, giving little away. 'What about you? Are you all right?'

Strangely subdued, she nodded her head slowly and sat down at the table.  

'Can you go and get your father for me?' Mom asked, looking in my direction. 'I'm about to serve up dinner.'

I went outside to fetch Dad and was surprised by the brittle crunching of the moisture-starved grass beneath my feet. I stood at Dad's side and gently shook his shoulder. He began to come around.

'Hello, son,' he said in a voice that sounded tired, feeble and weak. 'How are you?'

'I'm all right. Dad,' I replied. 'I've had enough of this heat though. It's a bit hot, isn't it?'

'Too bloody hot,' he snapped bluntly as he pushed his aching frame up and out of the chair. I held his arm to help him but he brushed my hand away. 'I'm all right,' he grumbled. 'Just a bit stiff, that's all.'

Dad moved away from the support of the deckchair, turned and shuffled towards the open back door. I watched him sadly as he moved. Dad had always been such a fit and active man that to see him like this was heartbreaking. I knew that Mom was right and, although she hadn't said as much, I could see that the incredible conditions were killing him.

We sat around the kitchen table to eat our meal and, for a while, things were just like they had been before I had left home. Mom sat opposite Dad and I had the pleasure of sitting directly across the table from my little sister. Although Mom had struggled in the kitchen for a long time to prepare our meal, none of us seemed able to eat much. I toyed with the food on my plate while I thought of Samantha and I chewed a couple of hot, filling mouthfuls. I looked up to see that Michelle was staring at me and I was sure that she wanted to ask something. Her intuition seemed to have told her that I had begun seeing someone and then, with her usual disregard for tact and decorum, she began to pursue the issue with unavoidable and embarrassing questions.

'So, Steve,' she began, 'am I imagining things or are you happier than usual tonight? Have you finally managed to find yourself a decent girlfriend?'

I almost choked on the mouthful of food that I was eating.

'What makes you think that?' I asked, keen not to give anything away without a struggle.

'I know you too well,' she replied. 'You're being nice to me and that's a sure sign that something's up.' Michelle smiled sweetly, desperate for information and gossip.

'That doesn't mean that I'm going out with anyone, does it?' I said with deliberate ambiguity. 'Does anybody want another drink?' I asked, trying unsuccessfully to change the subject. My love life was not something that I wanted to discuss in front of Mom and Dad.

'I bet you are,' she said, putting down her knife and fork.

'Well, as a matter of fact, I am,' I said, shoving more food into my mouth. That was all that I wanted to say but Michelle, typically, had other ideas.

'I knew, I could tell!' she shouted. 'What's her name? Where did you meet her? Come on, I want to know everything.'

'Her name's Samantha, and that's all you're going to get,' I said with my mouth still half full of food.

'Leave your brother alone,' Mom interrupted. 'He's come over here for his tea, not to be questioned by you.' She turned to face me. 'I'm sure she's a lovely girl and you'll tell us all about her when you're ready to.'

'It's too bloody hot in here,' Dad suddenly shouted angrily.

The rest of the family around the table became silent as he threw down his knife and fork and stood up. After waiting for a couple of seconds to get his balance, Dad shuffled away from the table and disappeared into the dark living-room. Mom watched him go and I saw that her eyes had filled with tears.

Michelle became quiet, fearing guiltily that she had angered our father with her excited behaviour. I pushed my plate away from me, unable to eat any more and watched as Mom stood silently and went into another room.

Later that night, I sat in the living-room with Dad. The windows were all fully open and a gentle breeze fluttered into the room which gently lifted the lace nets and light curtains which hung around them. The only light came from a dull table lamp at Dad's side and the only sound from Mom and Michelle talking in the kitchen.

'How are you feeling now, Dad?' I asked.

'Oh, not too bad, son,' he replied, calmly. 'I'll be glad when this heat finally eases off though.'

'Mom was telling me that you don't like it. It'll be better when you get up to Uncle George's though, won't it?'

'It won't be the heat getting to me then, it'll be that bloody wife of his,' he snapped. 'Still, your mother seems to think that it'll do us all good to get away for a while.'

'She's right you know They say it's going to get worse before it gets any better.'

'And you'd know, would you?' Dad snapped, uncharacteristically. He grumbled and took a large swig from a tumbler of whisky which he held in his tired hand. 'It'd all be a lot simpler if they hadn't been buggering around with the planet in the first place.'

'But, Dad,' I protested foolishly, trying to explain what was actually happening, 'it's the sun that's causing all of this. It's got nothing to do with pollution, the ozone layer or anything else.'

Dad hauled himself upright in his seat and leant towards me until his face was only inches from mine.

'Son, you can tell me that it's the sun doing this. You can even tell me that it's men from Mars. The truth is that none of it would be happening if it wasn't for those bloody idiots who are supposed to be in charge of this planet.'

There was no point in arguing with Dad. I was sure that it was the heat and stress which were causing him to become irrational and I couldn't see that there was anything to be gained from prolonging the conversation any further. As I watched him, he picked up the remote control unit that operated the television, switched on the set and flicked through the channels. When he could find nothing that interested him (I didn't even get asked if I wanted to watch anything) he pushed down the red button in the corner of the controller which made the set die again, plunging the room back into a gloomy semi-darkness. I got up and went to talk to Mom and Michelle in the kitchen.

'It's getting late,' I said, looking up at the clock on the wall. 'I'll have to be going soon.'

Mom sat at the table and looked up at me sadly.

'Can't you stay for a little longer?' she asked hopefully. 'We might not see you again for a while.'

'Of course you will.' I said without thinking. 'I'll see if I can't get a couple of days off work and I'll come up to Uncle George's and see you all.' I held out little hope of managing to get time off, but the idea did at least seem to cheer Mom up for a moment.

'I hope you can, love. That'd be wonderful,' she said with a sad, distant look in her eyes. I put my hand on top of hers and smiled.

'Everything's going to be all right. Mom,' I said. 'You just take Dad up to the seaside and he'll be fine. I promise you, in a week we'll all be back to normal and you'll be wishing that the sun had never gone in.'

Mom nodded her head, got up and went into the living-room to check on Dad. I was left alone with Michelle.

'Look after them both, won't you?' I said. I expected my sister to retort with some half-baked and ill-considered witticism but she surprised me with her seriousness.

'I will,' she said quietly. 'And you make sure that you're all right.'

'You know I will. Always looking after number one, that's me.'

'Good, keep it that way.'

I looked into Michelle's eyes and saw the same doubt and fear which had been so painfully evident in Mom's expression. Although I tried to disguise my own fears and worries, I could not help but wonder when I would see my family again. I didn't want Michelle to see just how worried I was. but I told her that I wished that I could go with them to Scotland in the morning. All the talk of the possibility of impending doom and destruction had affected me more than I had originally thought and it was with a great reluctance that I accepted the fact it was time to go home.

'I've got to go, Michelle,' I said quietly. She got up from her seat and hugged me tightly. Inexplicably, tears began to well up in my eyes and I tried to brush them away as discreetly and nonchalantly as was possible.

'I'll call you when we get to Uncle George's,' she said. 'And don't worry about those two, they'll be all right.'

I nodded and kissed my sister lightly on the forehead. We hugged again as Mom returned from the living-room.

'Have you really got to go now, love?' she asked.

'I'm afraid so,' I replied and I moved across the room to hold Mom tightly. 'Don't worry,' I whispered, 'everything's going to be all right.'

Although I had no way of knowing if what I said was true, settling my family's nerves seemed to compensate to an extent the guilt I felt from not travelling with them to Scotland.

I said goodbye to my father and, as usual, his reply took the form of a couple of grunts aimed in my direction from the armchair in which he remained firmly seated.

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