With the arrival of night, the autumn light had faded away as normal but there had been no noticeable respite in the suffocating heat. Although past their bright best, I was determined to take advantage of what remained of the conditions and so settled down on the patio in a deckchair to relax and to listen to the radio for a while. I had brought home plenty of work from the office which needed to be done but, as the pressures of the day had now reduced to an almost bearable level, I decided to leave it all locked safely away in my briefcase until morning. The company got more than enough out of me between nine and five o'clock each day - this was my time and my time alone.
The patio was dark and quiet with the gloom only broken by the soft yellow electric light which spilled out of the house from the kitchen window. Although not brilliant by any means, the light provided just enough illumination to help me locate the cans of beer on the ground at the side of the chair.
The metal frame and thin cloth covering of the deckchair proved to be deceptively comfortable and it did not take long for me to begin to slide away into a light sleep. The heat and drink combined to deadly effect to help me lose consciousness with the minimum of fuss. Occasionally a soft breeze drifted across the garden, but it was never strong enough to wake me for more than a couple of seconds.
At around nine-thirty, an unexpected crackle of static from the radio woke me with a start. It had been playing quiet, tinny music all evening without interruption but had now begun to scream and hiss with distortion. Still half asleep, I struggled in the gloom to find the set with one outstretched arm. With fingers flailing, I grabbed the wire aerial and swung it around to try and relocate the station's elusive signal. When the music was replaced totally by static and white noise, I sat up and picked the radio angrily off the ground. As I toyed with the controls, a heavy and hot wind blew across my face. The wind was gentle and somehow directionless and it seemed to fall onto me rather than be blown. I looked up into the night sky to try and find the source of the breeze and was amazed when the whole panorama of darkness above me began to change colour.
At first deep black and punctuated only by the brilliance of individual, isolated stars, the sky changed initially to a ruddy brown before lightening and working its way from a deep red to a dull orange, almost as bright as the last glowing embers in a dying fire. I watched and rubbed my tired eyes, unsure if what I was seeing was really there or if it was just a trick of the night. Slowly, the colours reversed and the sky worked its way back to its original dull blackness. The radio in my hands crackled back into life and, as the warm wind subsided, the music began to blast out of the speakers once again.
I put the machine back on the ground and relaxed again in the deckchair. I looked up at the heavens above and wondered about what I had just seen. Half of my mind seemed intent on finding a link between the hot conditions and the light and wind I had just experienced whilst the other half of me wanted nothing more than to ignore it and go back to sleep. The latter part of my brain was starting to win its battle with the other until, just as I was beginning to lose consciousness again, the telephone rang inside the house. Angry, tired and irritated. I jumped up out of my chair and knocked a half-finished can of beer over onto the patio. For a moment I watched as the liquid fizzed and frothed away in the pale light, before going into the house to answer the call.
Still not quite awake, I picked up the telephone receiver and held it to my ear.
'All right, Steve! Did you see that?' asked an annoyingly cheerful voice at the other end of the line. I recognised its owner immediately as Mark Evans, an old close friend.
'If you've just phoned me up to ask that, Mark, then our friendship could well be on its last legs,' I said as I tried to stifle a tired yawn. He ignored my idle threats.
'Did you see it?' he asked again. 'Wasn't it incredible?'
'Mark,' I said abruptly, becoming more and more irritated with each passing moment, 'yes, I did see the sky change and yes, to be honest, it was very unusual and very impressive. If you don't mind though, I was just about to go to sleep.'
'Boring bastard!' he snapped. 'Anyway, I didn't just call to ask about that, I wanted to know if you're still going out for a drink on Monday.'
At the mention of drinking and of going out, my tone changed and I actually managed to feign interest in the conversation.
'Fine, mate. Shall I pick you up about eight?'
'Okay,' Mark replied. 'But only if you're in a better mood. You've got to lighten up if you're going out with me.'
'I will,' I promised. 'I've just had a bad day, that's all.' I was keen not to talk about work and swiftly switched the conversation to another topic. 'Is Stuart still coming with us?' I asked.
Stuart was another close friend of Mark's and of mine. We had known each other since our school days together and our Monday-night outings to the pub had become something of a tradition.
'He can't come,' Mark said. 'Says he's too busy at work, but I doubt if that's the real reason.'
Stuart's attendance at our evenings out had become more erratic and irregular recently. Although we never dared say anything to him, we both presumed that it had more to do with his wife than with pressure of work.
'It's Susan,' I commented. 'Our Stuart's becoming a bit hen-pecked these days.'
Mark agreed. For a moment I pictured Stuart trapped at home and could not help but feel jealous of the fact that he at least had someone to be trapped at home with. All that I had was a fat old tabby cat who, almost on cue, bounded heavily down the stairs and ran past me.
'How are things at work?' Mark asked, disturbing my train of thought.
'Shit,' I replied, bluntly and honestly. I knew my friend well enough not to waste any time in beating around the bush with him.
'No change there then,' he offered. Mark had heard me complain about the office on many occasions in the past. In fact, he had probably listened to me moan about the place every time that we'd spoken since I had started there. 'You need to get yourself a real job!' he joked.
'What, like the one you've got?' I replied, sarcastically. Mark was a lecturer at the city's university and my sarcasm was really nothing more than thinly veiled jealousy. As well as earning a much better salary than me, he lectured in sports science and seemed to spend most of his time playing games and generally enjoying himself.
'I have to work for my money,' I added with a semi-intended bitterness in my voice.
'I know you do,' he replied. 'But who's having the best time?'
'All right, all right' I wailed, admitting defeat. 'How are things at your place, anyway?'
'Not too bad. There's quite a buzz around the campus about the weather at the moment. The meteorological department are having a field day.'
'I bet they are. Has anybody got any idea what's going on though?' I asked.
'Not really. They managed to predict that what happened tonight was going to happen. Some of them are saying that something similar will happen again before long.'
'All well and good but what exactly was it?'
'I don't know All that I've heard is that it could have something to do with the sun.' He paused for a moment. 'And if you think about it that's bloody obvious.'
'It's typical though,' I said, 'the rest of us are slogging our guts out to earn a living and you lot are just sitting around and talking about how hot it is outside.'
'Steve, you really have got to lighten up a little You're getting far too bitter in your old age.' Mark knew that I was joking and ignored my jealous jibes. 'Anyway,' he continued, 'I bet that everything will be back to normal in a couple of days. You wait, we'll go out next Monday and it'll be wet, miserable and...'
'...you'll be complaining about how cold it is, I know you. Anyway, I'll see you next week.'
'Yes, I've got to go I've got a lot to get ready for tomorrow.'
'I'm sure you have, mate,' I said laughing. 'Got to blow up your balls and clean your boots. Christ, it must be tough.'
Mark sighed loudly.
'There's just no point talking to you when you're in this kind of mood. I'll see you on Monday.'
'Okay. Pick you up about eight. Have a good week.'
I listened as Mark put the phone down. I yawned, stretched and then replaced the receiver of my own set. The idea of heading back out onto the warm patio to the deckchair and to my remaining cans of beer was appealing and I walked towards the back door, tired and thirsty. No sooner than I had taken a couple of steps away from the phone, it began to ring again. Annoyed, I picked it up.
'Hello,' I snapped.
'Steven, it's your mother here.'
My heart sank as Mom began to speak. Although I enjoyed talking to her I knew that my beer would be flat by the time that she had finished gossiping.
'How are you, Mom?' I asked.
'Oh, not too bad, love. I can't get over this weather though.'
'I know what you mean, it's a bit much, isn't it?'
'Are you all right dear?' she enquired in her gentle, high-pitched tone. 'I tried calling a little earlier.'
'I was probably asleep. I had a bad day today.'
Although we had only been speaking for a matter of minutes and had done little but exchange pleasantries, I could already sense that all was not well with Mom. She habitually telephoned me with an irritating regularity to make sure that I was all right (she seemed to find it difficult to comprehend the fact that I was twenty-six and perfectly able to look after myself) and her calls usually took a familiar pattern. Mom would ask how I was, I would tell her and then ask the same question back. Nine times out of ten, she would reply by telling me exactly where she had been recently, who she had seen and what they'd been doing when she'd seen them. This vital information could take Mom anything up to half an hour to impart and, on the rare occasion when it was not forthcoming, I knew that something was wrong and that she had called me for another reason.
'Is everything all right. Mom?'
She paused for a moment before speaking again.
'It's your father, Steven. He's not too well.'
'What's wrong?' I asked, concerned. Dad was a strong old man and was rarely ill. If he complained you knew that there was something seriously wrong with him.
'I think it must be the heat,' Mom replied. 'He just can't seem to settle.'
Although he was in his early sixties, it was difficult to accept that Dad was growing old. In the same way that they both thought of me as their little boy, my parents still seemed the same to me today as they had done when I was younger. 'Is there anything I can do?'
'I don't know. Would you come over one night soon? We'd both love to see you.'
'Of course I will. Mom. It'll probably have to be next week, but I'll definitely come across.'
My parents lived on the other side of town and it took a while for me to get over to see them. I knew that I would be busy for the rest of the coming week and for the weekend after that. I hoped that Mom wouldn't mind if I left it that long to visit.
'That's fine, love. Your dad'll be pleased to see you.'
Unusually, she did not seem in the mood to chat and I felt sure that she would have been happier had I made arrangements to visit them a little sooner. I apologised for not being able to and then said goodbye. I wished with all my heart that I could just abandon the office and go and see them first thing in the morning, but I knew that was impossible. Disappointed with myself and worried about my father, I walked away from the phone in the hall and into the living-room.
I flicked on the television set just in time to catch the beginning of a news bulletin. There was nothing of any real interest in the main headlines, but it was becoming noticeable that the weather conditions had begun to work their way gradually up the programme's running order. A few days ago they had been little more than a tacked-on postscript but now that it looked as if the heat would last for a while longer yet, they were fast becoming headline news. I switched off the set again and walked out through the open French windows into the garden. The air had become perfectly still again and the heat was dry, close and heavy.
As the seconds ticked away towards ten-thirty, I drifted off and away into a sound, undisturbed sleep. Undisturbed, that was, until four o'clock the next morning when I woke in my deckchair and stumbled back into the house.
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