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Short Story 2011 First Prize
 

The Longest Night

By Rajat Chaudhuri

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It was still early evening when I had sat down to write. The sun had just set, and the gas-lights on the street below had been lit by the lamplighter. The glow from their orange flames caught on the metal-bodywork of a landau, as it rolled past our house. I could hear the carriage for a while – the clip-clop of the horses on the cobbled street and the rattle of its wheels – till it took the turn near the Army and Navy store. Then it was quiet again.

The story was about a young girl travelling with her blind mother in a city. It was a big city, and there were soldiers in the city. Hundreds of them. They were in Brodie helmets or peaked caps and they rode handsome horses. Some of them would be in uniform; riding wide carriages. There was a war in the east and everyday new faces would be seen on the streets, in the bars and the theatres. 

The story was revealing itself, and I had to take little care of it. Near the beginning; when the girl –  her name was Carol  –  had taken her mother’s hand and walked into the shop to meet the seamstress, I had been distracted by my mother.

She was in the next room labouring away at the sewing machine. I hated this. Her eyes were bad, and I had told her she need not trouble herself making all those dresses for the rich. I knew she enjoyed it and that there were stiff-necked ladies with houses around the park, who drooled over her designs. What I didn't say was that the noise of the Singer machine was spoiling my story.

She was a dear old woman just like Carol’s mother in the story. Father had been in the army and didn’t return from the war. So it was with Carol and her mother but in a different sort of way. Carol was much younger to me; she was only fifteen. My mother turned sixty this April.
           
Carol had arrived with her mother in this eastern city looking for an uncle who, someone had told them, was a businessman. That was why they were there right in the middle of the war. Their home, back in the garrison town, had been flattened by a squadron of Nakajima bombers that haunted the skies of the east.

I was not sure what sort of business her uncle was in, when the war reached this country, but soon I discovered. He had been fleecing the soldiers of their pay. He had bet on the fighting man’s thirst for fun, and had leased all the theatre halls in town – where his raunchy shows ran to full houses. Then he had graduated to the striptease and peep boxes. 

Mother and daughter were in trouble. Carol's uncle was not the kind of person they had expected him to be. He was sneaky and wicked, but he was their only hope. The money was running out, and the lodging house would not give them any more credit.

I couldn't yet see what was going to happen to them. Then the seamstress, who lived next door to the lodging house, took kindly to the poor lady and the girl – sweet as honey, with her ponytail and stars in her eyes. She gave them tea and cakes and wondered what she could do to help them. They hadn’t told her about the uncle yet.

I wrote with my head low over my desk, and the hiss of the pen filled the room. Far away, beyond a yawning chasm, the Singer machine was clattering away. My back was bent double, my legs in the maw of some hungry beast. I laboured; slowly at times, sometimes going faster than the train of thoughts could handle. I was in a death embrace with my desk, and the only signs of life were the blue veins on my wrist – jiving and twisting away like Satan's tail. The world was slipping into a frost-glass fade.  

The seamstress had a spare room and put them up in that room. Till they could manage on their own. Till someone, she knew that they were expecting someone, came with an offer to help.

He did come one day. He had a thick-set face with dull grey eyes and big hairy hands. He looked greedily at Carol, licked his fat lips and made a proposal that was wicked as he was. The blind lady threw him out, and the seamstress bolted the door with trembling hands.

It must have been late evening, when I was thus far with the tale. But there was something odd happening. Now that I flounder in these shadows, breathless, it gets even harder for me to retell what was so unusual about that evening. Horse-buggies rattled down the gas lit street, church bells rang; but they all seemed to be in another world. They could have been noises inside my head. The brain makes a lot of noises when you write. The sewing machine had fallen silent.

The sheet of paper was my only doorway to this world. It was the only slice of now that mattered. Between it and myself, a wonderful game was on. Going on for who knows how long, carrying me over great distances. I floated, I sailed, I dreamt, I tumbled – I thought.  I heard mother speaking to me. I waved her off. She came back again. I didn’t bother to answer. She went away. I heard other voices.

There were voices down there on the street below. Someone called out for another inside the house. There was laughter, screams, cheering and wails. There was the sound of men marching and drumrolls. The noises snagged in the random cobwebs of time, for unsure moments, before fading away. The pen danced on the vellum sheets. All the energy of the universe throbbing in that little instrument as it told the story of Carol and her mother.  

Once I felt I was in a different part of town, but then looked up and saw the familiar window with the white roses in the window boxes. Yet, the flowers were not as white as they should have been. They were in fact dry, shriveled and rotting. A shriek rang out in the street below, a sputtering noise followed and then the monotonous roar of an unknown machine. Through slivers of consciousness I heard the roar of the machine rise, up to a crescendo and then it slowly died. Then there were more of them.

I was inside a funnel of light; at the centre of an orb of bright white energy. The light enveloped me and my desk, but it did not touch me. It was all around me, but it could not find me. Only I could see it and feel it though I could no more peer and see what was beyond it. My pen sprinted along the ruled lines.

Carol was learning needlework. She quickly picked up the tacked herringbone and the coral, the Chinese knot and the Lazy Daisy and many a more trick of needle and string. She learnt to use the tipsy dance of the feather stitch to create eye-catching embroidery and the use of buttonhole stitching in the Broderie Anglaise. She was a good apprentice no doubt, and the lady liked her work. Her mother had begun giving lessons to blind children at the school run by Carmelite nuns. It seemed that peace had found them again. The wicked uncle was all but forgotten.

Carol had taken the delivery box of embroidered pieces and stepped out of the house in the early evening. The gas lights had been lit a while ago, and they looked like trembling stars waiting to fall from the sky. She walked straight, past the Army and Navy store, and into the wider street where all the auction-houses were. The lights here looked suddenly bright and different, and they were fixed to taller posts. They did not flicker like gas lamps but shone cold like the heartless stare of time.

Inside the shop windows; the mannequins stood wearing clothes of a cut and fashion, she couldn’t recognise. Did she take a wrong turn? Where had all the horse carriages at the corner of Bristol Hotel gone? She looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of the friendly coachman who would always wave at her when she passed by. She hurried on towards the mansion-house of Lady Impey their longtime patron.

A bulging, noisy carriage packed with strangers roared past, belching smoke into the night. She had never seen such a monster machine. Twisted tubes of light glowed over doorways, and oddly dressed people brushed past without taking notice. Carol shivered under her coat and pressed the cardboard box of embroidered dresses close to her bosom ...

I finished the story and rose, pushing my chair back. It fell to pieces. The candle stands were buried under mounds of yellow wax, and the floors creaked as I moved. Odd horse-less carriages sped along the road, lined with buildings I had never seen before. A musty smell hung in the air.

I surveyed the room, my heart thumping. Everywhere the walls were crumbling. The ceiling was a forest of cobwebs, termites gnawed away at the doors. There were pigeon droppings all over the frayed carpets, and the skeleton of some bird was perched on the edge of the window box; where the roses had been when I had begun to write.

I walked into the dark corridor and was greeted by the stillness of a catacomb; the silence of far away lives turned to stone by something that lurked in the shadows of the enormous rooms; something that had till then dared not touch me. Through the broken skylight, pale sunbeams had let themselves in, pushing back the walls of darkness. By that light I saw – the chimney had caved in, and the sofas buried in the dust of many decades. Their exposed springs mocked me with a grim laughter. Somehow the warmth of the living was missing from this house where summer evenings had been full of friendly banter, a neighbour played the piano upstairs, and mother in her room worked away on her sewing machine. Where had all those folks gone?

I rushed into mother's room. Perhaps she could tell me what had happened? There was no candle on her table so I scrambled up to the windows and threw them open with a mighty push. As if it had been waiting, sunlight found her immediately; lighting up the corner where she was. The rusted sewing machine on the table in front of her was a skeleton of its former self with no more grease in its decaying bones. It need not stitch any more dresses for anyone ever again. I could see her clearly now: hunched in her wicker chair, a pretty knitted muffler around her bony head, mother had been waiting for me to finish my story and join her for dinner. For how long? Strangely her clothes still looked fresh, and in fifty years time the chair hadn’t sagged with the icy burden of death.