Short Story - A Night in the Dark

Another tale that supposes there are characters to be found in London that might rely on our imaginations, and what happens when they meet a truly open mind ...

A Night in the Dark

Henry Lewis had the kind of infectious curiosity for the world that only a child can possess.

He liked learning, and hadn't yet reached that awkward age where that was uncool.

The world fascinated him. If you were to only hear his voice, as opposed to seeing him speak, you would almost certainly have mistaken him for being far older than his almost twelve years.

He had been playing with his dad’s iPad when he heard the rain. A storm usually meant there might be some lightning. Henry was fascinated by lightning and as soon as he had heard the first clap of thunder he had made his way towards the roof. The game was on in the lounge downstairs and his Dad would be busy working the bar. He would be too busy to realize that Henry had sneaked upstairs.

Henry knew that he wasn’t supposed to go up on the roof, but he would be careful … besides … he really wanted to see the lightning.

Henry carefully avoided the creaking floorboard at the bottom of the stairs, just in case his Dad was in the stock room. Then he scampered up the rest of the stairs. Just before he turned the corner that lead to the roof, the access stair was plunged into darkness. It must have been a power cut.

It must be a good storm Henry thought to himself.

He figured he may as well take a quick peek on the roof, maybe catch some of the lightning before his Dad came looking for him. He was there now, no point in wasting the journey up the stairs. If he was going to get in trouble for leaving his room, he may as well try and catch some of the storm.

He carefully opened the large blue door that barred access to the roof.

What he hadn't expected to find was two strangers standing on the edge of the roof, but there they were. The one on the left was a tall young man, in what looked like one of those suits the city types wore. That was what his father called them. Henry wasn’t quite sure whether ‘city type’ was a good thing to be or not, his father seemed to have some kind of a problem with them, yet welcomed them in his pub. If he did dislike them, it wasn’t in the same way that he disliked the drunks, or the Millwall fans. The other man was much older, from this distance he almost had a Santa Claus quality to him Henry thought, but that might just have been the beard.

“What are you doing up here!” Henry shouted in the direction of the two men.

They seemed surprised.

"He can see us"? The younger man sighed, seemingly unhappy to have been discovered. Henry imagined they would be in trouble if he had his Dad call the police on these intruders. The older man however, beamed a smile as bright as Henry could ever remember having seen.

"My word, he is a genuine open mind,' the old man exclaimed, 'the most wondrous of things. Come here my lad, what is your name?'

'Firstly,' Henry replied, trying to sound brave, 'my dad says I shouldn't talk to strangers. So I am not sure you should get my name.'

'… and secondly?' asked the old man, trying to repress his smile and look serious.

'Secondly, my dad also says it is dangerous up here on the roof. You shouldn't be up here." Henry was proud of himself for standing up to these two trespassing strangers, "and it is raining, you are going to get wet, and dad says I get colds when I go out in the wet.'

'Your father sounds like a wise man. Fathers generally are wise, you would do well to listen to them.' The old man agreed, throwing a smile in the direction of the younger man, who just raised an eyebrow and went back to typing into his phone. 'I think it is fine if you tell me your name though. You see, in a roundabout kind of way, we own this building. My name is Mr Lambeth and this surly fellow goes by the name of Tom Christian, he prefers you call him TC, and isn't as nearly as gruff as he likes to make himself appear. So see, now we aren't strangers, so what is your name young man?'

Henry considered this for a moment, and it didn't seem unreasonable. The only way off the roof was back down through the bar, where his Dad was, so he figured that they wouldn't be abducting him or anything like that.

“My name is Henry. We own this pub, well, my Dad does, but I live here too.”

“A good sturdy name Henry. A fine name, and belonging to an open mind. Nice to meet you Henry.

“Thank you Mr Lambeth, but you didn’t answer my question!”

“We didn’t?” The old man laughed, “How remiss of us. What was the question again?”

“What are you doing up here?”

“Ahh yes, you did ask that didn’t you,” Mr Lambeth smiled, “well, we were just keeping an eye on things, watching the city while the power is out.”

“My handy work.” Tom Christian nodded smugly

"You caused it to go dark?"

"Yes, we see to that." Tom Christian answered with just a glint of possibly the whitest teeth Henry could recall having ever seen.

"My Dad says that breaking stuff isn't nice, and it would seem to me that it is more dangerous for people in the dark! I bumped my knee trying to find the door last time the light bulb in my room blew out." Henry protested.

"More wisdom from your father, I would very much like to meet him one day. Sounds like a very sage fellow." Mr Lambeth smiled, "You are right. It can be a little dangerous, but a night in the dark won't do any of them any harm. You needn't worry little man. You see there is a point to all of this that more than makes up for a few minor bruises and knocks."

"What could be worth that?" Henry asked, remembering how unpleasant hurting his knee had been, "it seems like a really mean trick to play on people."

"Ahh, but it isn't a trick my young man. You see, we, my friends and I, are tasked with looking after the city. Caretakers if you will. It isn't just about the bricks and mortar, streets and rivers, walls and fences, a city is oh so much more than that. A city like this one, a fine and venerable old city, a city like this has spirit. It has community, people, children, parents and family. It has relationships, loves, marriages and divorces, the full spectrum of the human experience."

"You are wasting your breath," Tom Christian interrupted, "he is a six year old, and you are going all pathos and deep meaning on him. It is hardly going to mean much to him is it?"

"I am eight!" Henry objected, "and just because I am not nine yet doesn't mean I can't understand complicated things."

"because it will all make so much sense at nine." Tom Christian sneered, shaking his head.

"besides I think I can understand it already," Henry protested, "you are saying that the city itself is like a living thing."

"See! He does get it," Mr Lambeth smiled, "Never underestimate an open mind Tom. Never underestimate it. Yes, my boy, it is kind of like a living thing, but it is more that it is made up of all those living things."

Tom Christian sighed, clearly tired at his older friend's indulgence of the boy's presence, and returned again to his phone.

"Think of it is this way," Mr Lambeth continued, "if all the people moved out of the city what would be left? Would they leave anything behind? Or would it all be just dead brick, wood and plastic?"

"We would probably leave a lot of rubbish behind," Henry answered quickly. Then, seeing from the look on Mr Lambeth's face, that it probably wasn't the right answer, he thought harder. "We would you know! People are terrible at littering, my Dad always complains about it."

"People are bad at that, it is true," Mr Lambeth nodded, "but what else might we leave behind?"

Henry really wanted to find a smart answer. He didn't like the way that the younger man seemed to think he was stupid. Grown-ups had a really annoying habit of doing that.

"I guess," he said finally, "I guess that we leave memories behind. The things around us and the places, we remember those, and when we see them again we remember, so we would leave behind those memories." He wasn't sure it was the right answer, but he thought it sounded like a very smart answer.

Mr Lambeth just smiled broadly, "We would indeed, that is a good answer young man. A city is not a city without its buildings, spires and steeples, but it is also nothing without its people, their memories, and their relationships."

"It still doesn't explain why you broke all the lights!"

"Well Henry, you see life gets very fast sometimes. I bet you have heard the grown-ups talk about this thing called 'stress' haven't you?"

"Oh yes," Henry nodded, "my Dad says I cause him to have more of that all time. So does his job, the punters and even, when he things I am not listening, my Mum."

"Life is very fast these days you see," the old man continued, "people lose track of each other, of their community, and of those around them. The more stress they experience with each generation the more they seem to retreat into themselves. Hide away. Do you understand?"

"I guess so, my Dad always says that the people living next door cause him stress too, they play their music too loud on Friday's and they never put the recycles in the right bin."

"Do you know your neighbours names?"

Henry shook his head, "not allowed to speak to strangers remember?"

Mr Lambeth smiled, "exactly, yet still, those around us are still our community. These days we have to be a little more direct in getting people to realise that."

"How does switching the lights off do that?"

"That is a good question young Henry, but let me turn it back into another question. What do you imagine is happening downstairs now the power is off?"

"People are probably angry they can't watch the football."

"Ok, that is probably true, and what do you think they are doing about it? Are they angry at your Dad?"

Henry thought about that for a moment, "No, probably not, it isn't his fault. Even the drunk ones would understand that."

"So what will they be doing then?"

"I'm not sure...drinking?"

"Do you think they are drinking in silence?"

"Probably not, they are probably talking to each other."

"No one likes uncomfortable silence now do they?"
"No," Henry had to agree with that, "no-one likes that. Apart from when we are watching TV, I hate it when my sister talks over the telly."

"Do you think more people are talking downstairs, right now, then they would usually?"

"They will doing less swearing at the TV I guess. They do that when their team is losing, that is why dad makes me play upstairs. So if the game isn't on then they won't be doing that. They are probably talking to each other, complaining about the power being out, and asking each other what might be going on and such."

"Exactly!" Mr Lambeth exclaimed, suddenly enthused again, "that is exactly it! You see my boy, sometimes it takes a slightly out of the ordinary event or happening to get people talking. In these modern times it is not always natural for people to share their experiences. So we do things like this to create a shared experience. It will make people talk! It will make them talk at work tomorrow, it will them talk on the streets, it will make tube passengers ask strangers for alternate routes home. Events like these bind people, remind people that they are indeed part of a greater whole, part of a city that is stronger than a million separate homesteads. Sometimes people just need reminding that they are part of a communal experience."

"So switching out the lights is the best you could do?" Henry asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Well," he explained, "if you want people to talk, wouldn't it be more effective to have a meteor or something fly over the city. no-one will forget that! Or have a UFO appear?" Henry could suddenly imagine a hundred things more interesting than a power cut, “you could have had a dinosaur come alive in the museum!”

Mr Lambeth chuckled, "Yes young man, I imagine those would indeed be unforgettable events, but unfortunately those are a little harder to organise."

"You could make West Ham win the cup!" Henry shouted a little too excitedly, the thought popping into his head, "now THAT would be cool. Dad says I shouldn't hold my breath for it to happen in my lifetime. That would get people talking."

"We are not magicians," Tom Christian laughed, the first time Henry had seen him smile, “that might be harder than the UFO idea."

Henry thought about all the potential events that people could talk about for another minute, before looking back at Mr Lambeth. "So you make things happen to get people to talk about them, so that they remember each other? You kind of make memories!"

"You could look at it that way. I knew you had an open mind when you saw us, I have not been disappointed young Henry. People also look out for each other in times of need. You would be amazed how much more helpful people are during a power cut than they are on a normal day. It is sad, but it is true. Events, in particular those that present some degree of adversity, often bring out the best in people. They remind people of their community."

"What about all the alarm systems? Doesn't a power cut make it easy for people to steal or rob?"

"That's the cool part about modern technology," Mr Lambeth winked,

"these days you can cut the power and if it is short enough all those kind of things have batteries. Any fool stupid enough to think an alarm doesn't work will soon be a fool on the wrong side of the law."

Henry was now thinking of all the mean parts to cutting the power, "Hey! What about the poor people in hospital!"

"No worry there young Henry," Mr Lambeth smiled, "you are a kind soul as well as an open mind. Your father should be proud. Here, come over here with me and look out across the city." Mr Lambeth beckoned him over to the edge of the roof, looking out east towards the river. "Tell me young Henry, what do you see?"

"The lights must be off for miles!"

"Do you see the hospital though?"

Henry looked out towards where he thought the hospital should be, and noticed it brightly lit, shining like a northern star amongst the dull shadows of the rest of the now dark city. "You keep the power on at the hospital?"

"..and the fire stations, and police stations." Mr Lambeth finished, patting Henry on the shoulder.

"Which gets damn expensive over the years," Tom Christian added, "gets more complicated the older the city gets."

"Why don't you do it all the time then?" Henry asked, "if it is so good for people, why do you let them forget about each other in the first place?"

"Another good question young Henry. You see, an event isn't unusual if it happens all the time, now is it? To be effective it has to be the exception to your everyday life. Besides, we are kind of like parents. Let me ask you this - Does your Dad watch you every second of every day?"

"No, he doesn't."

"Just like your Dad gives you good advice, we try and bestow what wisdom we can on the city, and just like your Dad has rules by which he asks you to live, so too do we make sure the city has it's own sort of rules. We don't lead the city by the hand every day, we just try and make sure that people do not forget that they are part of something larger than their own experiences. Like I said to you earlier, consider us as caretakers. We did not build the city, neither do we expand it, but we repair it and we care for it as is necessary. We do not decide who comes to live and settle here, but we welcome them, and see that they properly become part of the tapestry of the city."

"I am amazed my Dad hasn't mentioned you before. He is always complaining about the people who are in charge."

"Well, most people don't know we exist. We are kind of secret caretakers."

"Do I have to keep your secret?"

"It would be better if you did young Henry. Not everyone has an open mind like you do."

"So Mr Lambeth, if you didn't build the city who did? Who put you in charge?"

"That my young friend is a tale for another time. It is a long one, and one best not told in the rain. My friend and I have to be going anyway. Your father will be coming to look for you in a few minutes. He must be worried by now."

Henry looked around at the blue door, no sign of his father yet, but when he turned around the two men were gone.

He carefully approached the edge of the roof and looked over, but they didn’t appear to be down there either. He figured he could keep a secret easily enough, it was better his Dad didn’t know he was up here anyway.

“I bet they could have managed the Dinosaur if they tried.” He sighed to himself as he trudged through the rain back to the door.