By Dilys Rose
She has been drawn towards the intangibility of darkness like temptation itself, has wrapped it around her like a sorcerer’s cloak, concealed herself in its ubiquitous drift. Invisibility has invigorated her, put a spring in her step, led her up the literal garden path to the stubborn gate, which squealed and grated as she dragged it open. In case a pack of stray dogs might have seized the opportunity to mooch unchecked in the muddy beds of her garden or to defecate on her doorstep, she scraped the gate shut at her back. Streetlamps cast saucers of milky light on the pavement.
If anyone noticed this gaunt, muffled-up woman they would have assumed that she knew where she was going, that she had an assignation, a destination, that somebody at the other end was, without undue anxiety, anticipating her arrival. She has walked and walked at a determined, monotonous pace: not fast enough to have given the impression that she was in flight from anything real or imagined; not slowly enough to have been described as enjoying a nocturnal stravaig.
Due to her lack of haste an observer would have assumed that nothing untoward had befallen her or any nearest and dearest, that she was neither on her way to seek urgent help nor responding to a request for the same; had that been the case, would she not, after all, have taken a taxi or, at the very least, struck out with intent?
Due to the absence of any break in her stride or any observable shilly-shallying as she approached crossroads, roundabouts, junctions and forking paths, an observer would have assumed that this dogged, all but invisible woman knew very well where she was going. Our hypothetical observer would have been wrong.
For several hours now this gaunt, distrait woman who has cast her glance this way and that in a mechanical and unresponsive way, whose crossed forearms have been clamped to her ribcage as if to prevent some incarcerated thing from escaping, has been moving further and further from her garden flat in the city centre.
How long she has been walking she could not say. Where she has come from she could not say either. She has forgotten where she lives, forgotten why she left her flat at such a late hour. Of the route she has taken, she has no recollection. She could not tell you the last thing she noticed, the last sound she heard. Her mind is not empty; it is busy, furiously, dangerously busy but she cannot recall a single thought, a single idea she has had since she shut her door.
Wrapped in darkness and layers of warm, non-reflective clothing, her throbbing feet and the now distant city lights are indications that she has been on the move for several hours but she does not make these connections. She does not make any connection between then and now. A body in motion, she continues.
From the garden gate to the pillar box, past the dense privet hedges which surround the convent, she has walked. Every weekday the convent provides freshly prepared food for a shifting band of homeless folk – the Little Sisters of Mercy would never refer to their guests as shiftless – but at night the convent is deeply still and deeply silent: the nuns are either praying or sleeping the sleep of the charitable.
From the convent past the Sacred Heart Church, from the thumping, blacked-out windows of the lap-dancing joint to the striplit glare of the 24/7 convenience store, and so on and so forth; from here to there, from there to the next place she has only broken her stride to avoid oncoming traffic or to obey the red man’s raised hand. The headlights of passing cars have flared in her face then faded. To night drivers she has registered as little more than a shadow.
It has been a clear, cold night with pelts of frost glittering on railings, lampposts, parked cars. Our gaunt, persistent woman has sniffed the air as if she might ingest some information from the sweet notes and the spicy, the sour and the foul. Some odours, in particular those of hops and coal dust, have transported her instantaneously to a younger version of herself, to a time in her life when roaming the city at night meant independence, a rendezvous, a possible adventure. But these scenes from the past have no sooner presented themselves than they’ve gone; bubbles of memory burst one after the other.
She has slipped through shadowy throngs on city centre thoroughfares, maintaining the same steady pace, her body in continuous motion, her thoughts constantly forming then evaporating except for a single idea: that a solution might flow into the void between one footfall and another. She is unaware of any problem that might require a solution, only that a solution must, somehow, somewhere, sometime be found.
She has left behind the shopfronts of clubs, bars and curry houses, and advanced into the subdued gloom of residential terraces, avenues, courts and crescents, where the streetlamps are dimmer and further apart, where folk keep the darkness at bay with TV or computer screen, the cosy halo of a bedside lamp or the intimate gleam of a nursery night light. Through gaps in curtains she has glimpsed slivers, shards, wedges of the lives of others but has come upon no solution.
She has moved outwards, from city centre tenements to terrace houses, from hunched-shoulder bungalows to flimsy new builds, from blocky council estates to the ragged edges of the city where the darkness is hollow, windblown and hostile.
The further she is from the city, where there are more hills and woods than houses, the deeper the darkness becomes. Only creatures with night vision can observe her now: cats, foxes, owls. She can hear her own footsteps on pavement and muddy path, hear her breath, her pulse, the grinding of her teeth, hear small scrabblings, hoots and howls, dead leaves dropping from trees, branches creaking. She becomes part of the darkness, is absorbed into it, becomes nobody, nothing. No more in time, in no time at all, she is finally, uneasily, beside herself.