For something a little different this week I thought I’d post a short story I wrote a while ago. With current world events, it’s no longer as improbable as it was when I wrote it. A romantic comedy set during the decline of industrial civilisation, the story is a little longer than the usual post. It’ll take about half an hour to read.
Pete bought the engagement ring on his lunch break at a pawn shop next to the payday loan company a couple of streets over from the factory where he worked. He’d avoided the loan business successfully during the last six months, though there were times when its dirty neon lights tempted him inside with the promise of easy money. But he’d blocked out that siren song and managed to pay for the ring in cash that he’d saved up from some overtime he worked shortly after getting the job. There hadn’t been any overtime recently, though. There hadn’t been any work at all and at three o’clock he was called into the manager’s office and fired.
A range of emotions flooded through his body, primarily anger. It wasn’t just that they’d fired him, he’d been fired plenty of times. But they knew he was buying the engagement ring that day. Everybody at work knew. Keeping secrets was not Pete’s strong point, especially when it came to Suzy. He talked about her all the time. In the middle of a conversation about a completely different topic, he’d find a way to throw in a story about her or remark what Suzy thought about the issue. It was charming for a while and then became mildly annoying. But Pete was so earnest in his effervescence that you couldn’t help forgive him, especially after you’d seen a photograph of Suzy which he was all too willing to remove from his wallet and hold up for you to see. She was a year younger than Pete, twenty-one years old with chocolate brown hair that fell down in natural curls on either side of the flawless milky white skin of her face that seemed to set her green eyes sparkling and gave her red lips a vibrant hue. Most would joke that Pete was punching above his weight but he was a handsome young man too with a wiry, athletic physique and an outgoing personality that made it easy for him to make friends. He was an open book which made the job of letting him go that much harder for his boss, Mr Harmison, who in fairness didn’t know about the engagement ring and wouldn’t have remembered even if Pete had told him. He had bigger problems, like how to keep his business afloat. Although Pete was a good worker, he was the newest hire and therefore the one with the least experience. Harmison apologised, promised to give him a good reference and handed Pete his last pay packet.
“A good reference,” Pete muttered to himself as he walked back to the apartment where he and Suzy lived which was about fifteen minutes away by foot. Pete might have been naïve, but he wasn’t dumb. He’d seen the writing on the wall and had been checking the positions vacant in the preceding weeks. There weren’t any. And a good reference wasn’t much use if there were no jobs to apply for. He opened the envelope containing his last pay and looked at the half week’s wages inside. After the purchase of the engagement ring, the contents of the envelope constituted all the money he had in the world. For a brief moment he entertained the idea of walking back to the shop and pawning the ring. He imagined the sarcastic smile on the face of the cashier – “That was quick. She turn you down, mate?” He pictured having to haggle just to get half his money back. The thought made him sick and yet the electricity bill was sitting on the fridge at the apartment and the rent was due next week. He thought of having to tell Suzy that he’d lost another job; that it really wasn’t his fault; he’d worked hard and did all that was expected of him and more. That’s what he’d told her last time and the time before that. He knew the look he would see in her eyes. It wasn’t anger and it wasn’t disappointment. It was worse. It was pity. That was the one thing he couldn’t bear.
As he turned the corner into the street where they lived, Pete paused, reached his hand into his pocket and pulled out the case which held the ring. He flicked it open and held the ring up. The tiny diamond sparkled in the mid-afternoon sun. As often happened to Pete, an idea lodged itself in his head and wouldn’t budge. It was a bold, audacious and ridiculous idea. He knew it. And yet he felt in his stomach that it was the right idea. He would ask Suzy to marry him that evening. He already had it mapped out – the time, the place, the setting. But rather than it do it in two weeks like he planned, he would do it tonight. He flicked shut the case holding the ring and practically ran the remaining distance to the apartment to make the preparations.
When Suzy came home from work a couple of hours later she was greeted by the sight of Pete in a suit and tie, clean shaven and with his blonde-brown hair slicked back. She looked tired and, although the sight of Pete brought a flicker of happiness to her face, it was quickly snuffed out by a look of world-weariness.
“What’s all this?” she said putting her bag and keys down on the kitchen bench and nodding towards Pete’s suit.
“I’m taking you out for dinner,” said Pete walking up behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.
He closed his eyes and let the scent of her hair envelop him. It contained the familiar hint of cigarette smoke from the café where Suzy worked whose customers were known for their conspicuous disregard for things like anti-smoking laws.
“On a Wednesday?” she asked turning around with a querulous look on her face.
“Best day of the week,” said Pete.
Pete was not a skilled liar and Suzy could tell that he was hiding something but she didn’t have the energy to find out what it was. She pushed off him and walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water.
“Let’s do it tomorrow. We need to talk.”
A talk? The very word sent a shiver down Pete’s spine. Whenever Suzy wanted to talk it was always about something Pete would rather not talk about. Last time it was about how the car registration hadn’t been paid and she’d been pulled over by the police and embarrassed in front of her mother as they were driving to lunch. A talk was the last thing Pete wanted right now. Nothing could be less romantic and less conducive to a marriage proposal than a talk. He had to avoid it at all costs.
“Let’s do the talk tomorrow,” he said following her into the kitchen. “I’ve made reservations at that French restaurant you like out in the mountains.”
“Mon cheri?” said Suzy furrowing her brow.
“That’s the one.”
“How are we affording this?”
“I got some money today from work.”
“What? A bonus?”
“Something like that.”
Suzy had disbelief written all over her face but Pete gave her one of his mischievous smiles. He walked over and put his hands around her waist again.
“C’mon. Go and put something nice on and let’s have an evening away from all this,” he said gesturing to the apartment with its cracked painted concrete walls, stained carpet and lightbulbs flickering away beneath dingy lightshades. “After dinner, I’ve got something extra special planned.”
“It’s a secret,” said Pete grinning.
Suzy looked like she was about to argue but Pete got in first.
“How long have we been going out now?” he asked.
“Two years, eight months and five days,” answered Suzy.
“The best two years, eight months and five days of my life,” said Pete.
This time Pete was neither lying nor hiding something. Suzy looked into his deep blue eyes and her heart melted just a little.
“Mine too,” she said quietly as Pete leaned in and kissed her.
“Good. Well, that settles it then,” he said stepping back and playfully pushing Suzy out of the kitchen and towards the bedroom. “You’ve got half an hour to get ready. The reservations are for seven.”
Suzy allowed Pete to push her into the bedroom and close the door behind her. She hadn’t bought any new clothes in over a year. As she flicked through the contents of her wardrobe to find something to wear, her fingertips fell on the soft fabric of a little black dress she’d only worn a couple of times. She draped it over her body, looked at herself in the cracked mirror that hung from the back of the wardrobe door and realised that she had a big smile on her face. She resolved to block out all the questions that had been crowding her mind and enjoy an evening out for once. Her troubles could wait until tomorrow.
The electricity went out in the middle of dessert. Pete was having the Pears Belle Helene while Suzy was indulging in a chocolate mousse. Although it was a Wednesday night, the Mon Cheri was almost full. The sudden darkness was quickly broken by small beams of weak white light emanating from mobile phones at each table. The waiter had retrieved a torch from behind the front counter and could be seen scanning about through the glass in the swinging doors that led to the kitchen area.
“Just a minute, ladies and gentleman,” he’d announced a moment earlier but Pete, Suzy and the other people in the restaurant knew the drill by now.
The blackouts had become more and more common in recent years and all households and businesses now kept a ready supply of backup lighting on hand. Fittingly for the ambience of the Mon Cheri, management had decided on candles as their alternative light source and in no short time the wait staff were placing black candelabras holding large white candles on each table.
“Well, this is romantic, isn’t it?” said Pete grinning at Suzy as the waiter placed the candelabra between them.
He held up his wine glass.
“Cheers,” smiled Suzy as she clinked her glass against his and took a sip of red wine.
The colour of the wine accentuated her already full red lips while the warm light from the candles flickered over her face. The green of her eyes seemed to shine brighter in the soft red light.
“You look even more beautiful than normal in candlelight. Maybe we should get some candles for home,” said Pete.
“So we can save on electricity?” answered Suzy.
“So you can look even more beautiful all the time.”
“I’m not beautiful enough?”
Pete smiled and finished the last of his dessert then washed it down with the rest of the white wine from his glass. The waiter noticed and made a beeline for the table.
“More wine, Monsieur?”
“No, thank you. I’m driving,” said Pete, although truth be told he was more concerned about the size of the bill than his blood alcohol reading.
Another drink might have helped calm his nerves. He checked his pocket for the umpteenth time to make sure the ring was still there. It was. Things had gone perfectly so far. He’d managed to steer the conversation clear of any real world problems that he and Suzy had and keep the conversation light and playful. The next step in his plan was to take the short drive up the mountain to the lookout where he and Suzy had first kissed almost three years ago. It was there that he would pull out the ring and ask for her hand in marriage.
“Was this the surprise you had planned?” said Suzy licking some chocolate mousse off the back of her dessert spoon.
“What? Making the lights go out? No. I’m not that good. Besides, they don’t need me to help kill the power. They do a good job all by themselves.”
“I know. This is – what? – the fourth blackout this week. I think that’s a new record.”
“Maybe we should leave,” said Pete.
“What? The restaurant?”
“No. The city.”
Suzy took a moment to understand what Pete was saying and her initial look of confusion turned to mild astonishment.
“We could go somewhere new,” added Pete.
“I have a few ideas we can talk about.”
Suzy put her spoon down. The look on her face was not promising.
“So, this is the surprise you had planned? You’re trying to butter me up to get me to move?”
“No…” started Pete but Suzy talked over him angrily.
“Honestly, Pete. You didn’t need to bring me here for that. We don’t have the money to waste on this kind of thing.”
“No, no, no,” said Pete leaning forward and clasping both of Suzy’s hands. “That’s not the surprise and it’s not why I brought you here. It’s just an idea. Forget I mentioned it. Okay? Forget it.”
Pete looked imploringly into Suzy’s eyes and gave her hands a squeeze before sitting back in his chair. She looked unconvinced and Pete knew he had to act quickly to get things back on track.
“Alright, I’ll give you a clue about what the surprise is and you can try and guess. It’s something you and I did when we first started going out.”
Suzy gave Pete an I-don’t-wanna-play-your-silly-game kind of look and Pete responded with one of his extra cheesy smiles which he saved for exactly such occasions when he needed to get Suzy to lighten up.
Suzy shook her head half out of annoyance that Pete could so easily cut through her concern with a boyish grin. She leaned forward, picked up her dessert spoon and scooped a small amount of the chocolate mousse into her mouth, taking a second to savour the taste.
“Well, I’m guessing it’s not the barn of your parent’s farm. That would be a bit far away.”
“No, it’s not,” Pete smiled, partly happy that Suzy was playing along and partly from memories of the barn.
“And I guess it’s not watching the sunrise at Cape Cameron, unless you’re planning to keep me up all night.”
“No, it’s not. Although, I might find a way to keep you up all night.”
Suzy smiled and placed another morsel of mousse on her tongue.
“Well,” she said in a deliberately slow voice to indicate that she already knew the answer. “If I was to go on proximity alone, I would have to deduce that it’s Brewster’s Lookout.”
“Well done. You could get a job as a detective.”
“Maybe I’ll start a new career when we move somewhere new,” said Suzy but this time in a playful fashion.
Pete decided to avoid that subject and make his move while things were looking good. He clapped his hands together as if bringing the dinner to a close.
“Now, mademoiselle, if you’ll finish that off, we can get to the surprise.”
“It’s not really a surprise anymore, is it?” said Suzy taking the last sip of wine.
“We’ll see,” said Pete giving her a wink as he got out of his chair.
They walked over to the front counter where Pete asked for the bill which the waiter dutifully placed on a small silver tray. Pete glanced at the amount which was thankfully a little less than he had anticipated. He pulled out the envelope containing his last pay which, in his nervousness and excitement earlier on, he had stuffed into his pocket rather than remove the money and put it in his wallet. He pulled the notes out and dropped the envelope on the counter as he counted out the amount for the bill.
Suzy casually picked up the envelope and turned it over. On the back there was pre-printed text in the usual format for a pay packet. It showed the days of the week and their corresponding date, hours worked and amount earned. Suzy could see that the Wednesday on the envelope had today’s date and that lines had been put through the remaining days of the week. At the bottom was a handwritten note which read “Good luck, Pete!”
It was at just that moment that the lights came back on in the restaurant. A sardonic cheer went up from the other patrons. The waiter handed Pete his change which he placed in his wallet then picked up the two after-dinner mints that the waiter had placed on the tray for him and Suzy.
“Excellent timing. This will make the view from the top of the mountain worthwhile,” he said turning to Suzy and holding out the mint for her to take.
He knew immediately from Suzy’s body language and facial expression that he was in trouble. Suzy held up the pay envelope with the reverse side showing.
“So, this was your bonus?” she said in a tone of voice that could have cut glass.
Pete snatched the envelope from her hand and tried to replace it with a mint which fell to the ground after Suzy refused to grasp it. He bent down and picked it up.
“Don’t worry about that now. We can talk about it later,” he said trying to stuff the mint into Suzy’s hand as she ignored it and looked firmly at him with her green eyes which had turned cold and demanding under the artificial light that newly illuminated the room.
Pete cast a nervous glance at the waiter who was trying to be discreet but couldn’t help overhear the conversation.
“C’mon,” said Pete putting his hand on Suzy’s lower back and ushering her towards the door.
“Thank you,” he said to the waiter in as upbeat a tone as he could muster as he led Suzy out the door and towards the car until she pushed him away and waited in silence for him to unlock the doors.
The fifteen minute drive from the restaurant to the lookout was conducted in a deathly quiet driven by a combination of Suzy’s simmering anger, Pete’s inability to think of anything to say that would appease her and his need to focus on the sharp bends in the road as the car wound its way up the mountain. The longer the silence went on for the worse the situation seemed to Pete and with each corner that climbed the mountain he felt as if his stomach was sinking. A flawless evening spoiled by a sloppy mistake. He cursed his carelessness at having brought the pay packet with him and then leaving it right there for Suzy to find. Finally, he realised there was nothing else for it. The only thing he could do was face the issue head on. As they hit the top of the mountain and the road straightened out for the last stretch leading to the lookout, he took a deep breath and readied himself.
“I got sacked today. That’s why they wrote good luck on my pay packet. I guess they thought I’d need it.”
He glanced over at Suzy to see her reaction which was initially the same stone cold façade she had been showing since the restaurant but, like the first few bubbles in a pot of boiling water, emotions started welling up til eventually she threw up her hands and swung around to face him.
“So, why in God’s name did you spend it on an expensive French restaurant?”
Suzy waited half a second for an answer but other questions came blurting out.
“And why are we going to a lookout on a freezing cold night? And how are we going to pay the bills this week? And why are you talking about leaving town? And what’s this stupid surprise all about? Haven’t we got more pressing problems?”
Pete didn’t reply immediately figuring it was better to let her get it all out. In any case, they’d arrived at the lookout. He pulled into the carpark which was darker than he remembered it. The several lights which normally lit the area were all extinguished except a single one which was right near the walking track that led from the carpark to the lookout proper. He brought the car to a halt right in front of it but, as if on cue, it went out just as he turned off the headlights of the car leaving them sitting in near total darkness. He would have assumed this was another blackout but over the tops of the trees and along the pathway directly in front of them he could see the glow of the city lights which seemed to turn the sky into a big white dome.
Pete looked at Suzy. He reached over and placed his hand in hers.
“I can’t remember the order of those questions. But the answers are, I took you to an expensive French restaurant to make you happy. As for the bills, we’ll figure something out like we always do. And as for the surprise, come with me to the lookout and I’ll show you.”
Pete undid his seatbelt and went to open the door when Suzy pulled her hand from his.
“I don’t want to go to the lookout, Pete. We need to talk. I told you before that we needed to talk and instead you brought us up here to waste the last of our money on fancy French food. I can’t do this anymore, Pete. Every time we start to get somewhere we end up back at zero like some sick game of snakes and ladders. And we’re not going to work something out this time. You just spent the last of your wages on a meal and I spent the last of my money on a doctor’s appointment today. So, how are we going to pay the bills this time?”
“Why did you go to the doctor?”
Pete looked at Suzy who turned away and pretended to look out the window.
“Do you have medical problem? Are you sick?” he asked putting his hand on her upper arm.
“No, I’m not sick,” said Suzy pushing his hand away. “Alright, I am sick. I’m sick of this. This way of living.”
“Then let’s leave,” said Pete imploringly. “I told you earlier I have a plan. A fresh start. Somewhere that I can find work. And you can find work. And we can get away from all this.”
Pete gestured towards the city.
“And when were you gonna tell me this great plan? Tonight? Is that why we’re sitting here?”
“Then why are we sitting here, Pete? What are we doing at the top of a mountain?”
Pete allowed his hand to brush over the case holding the engagement ring in his pocket. He thought for a second about pulling it out and asking the question right there in the car but everything was wrong. He hadn’t even considered the possibility that Suzy might say no. Suddenly it seemed a real possibility and it set off a feeling of revulsion in his abdomen that was so strong that he had to turn away to hide it from her.
After what felt like minutes of silence, Suzy spoke quietly.
“I don’t think I can do this anymore, Pete. I don’t see any future for us.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means what I said.”
Pete felt like he was going to throw up. He opened the door and got out of the car. The cold mountain air seemed to slap him in the face. It was dead quiet with not even a breath of wind to rustle the nearby trees of the forest. And it was dark. To the rear of the car on the other side of the road was the mountain range that ran parallel to the city. With the carpark lights out of action, the only source of light was from the city and it threw a diffuse and weak illumination on the trees. On the other side of the mountains, a long way away, was the farm where he grew up. It was over those mountains that he’d come looking for something better.
He turned to face the city and saw the light over the treetops along the path. He used to find those lights intoxicating. They represented excitement, music, pubs, girls, theatre and nightlife; all the things he never had access to in the towns near his father’s farm. They also represented Suzy and that day in late summer when he had brought her here to watch the sunset. Their first kiss had been in front of those lights which seemed to hold so much promise but now seemed to Pete to be fake and gaudy just like the neon lights out the front of the payday loan shop. He looked at the lights now with a mild hatred. And then, just like that, they went out.
Pete blinked to make sure he wasn’t imagining it. The white glow, the dome that the lights threw against the sky above the city, disappeared. And as the city lights rose up and dissipated into space they were replaced by a different set of lights coming from the other direction. Starlight. It was as if a curtain had been pulled away from the sky and the stars stepped forward and began to shine. Pete hadn’t even noticed it before, but an almost full moon sat low on the horizon on the other side of the city just above the tree tops. It was now the main source of light and it seemed to light the pathway that led from the carpark to the lookout.
Suzy got out of the car.
“Looks like it,” said Pete.
Pete brushed his hand one more time against the ring in his pocket, looked up at the moon and knew what he had to do. He walked around and took Suzy by the hand.
“Where are we going?”
“To the lookout.”
They walked down the track with the yellow moonlight beaming down through the break in the forest and reflecting off the pebbles and dirt beneath their feet. The stars above seemed to get brighter by the second as the light pollution from the city disappeared. Finally, they came to the small clearing where the lookout was. There was a steel railing that followed the line of the mountain marking out a semi-circular area that denoted a small cliff face. There were several wooden benches around and a couple of coin-operated telescopes for tourists to look through. Suzy looked up to the night sky.
“I’ve never seen so many stars before.”
Pete looked up too.
“When I was growing up, I used to lie on the grass with my brothers and watch them. My father used to teach us the constellations,” he said.
“Show me one.”
“I don’t know. Any one.”
Pete thought about it for a second.
“You and I are both Aquarians, so let’s see if I can remember how to find Aquarius.”
Pete took his bearings and tried to remember back to his childhood when he had last looked to the sky. The knowledge came back quickly and Aquarius popped out at him. He put his arm around Suzy’s shoulder and leaned in so he could guide her eyes.
“Ok, first we find Capricorn,” he said and then proceeded to take her through the steps that his father had taught him as a boy.
“Do you see it?” he asked.
“Not really,” said Suzy.
“It takes practice. Aquarius is one of the hardest constellations to find.”
“Maybe we should come up here every blackout so I can get better.”
“So, there is still a we?” said Pete taking his gaze off the sky and back towards the woman by his side.
Suzy let out a sigh.
“Yes, there’s still a we. I didn’t mean it that way. I meant I don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re broke. You don’t have a job. And I…., well, I still need to tell you about my trip to the doctor.”
“You wanted to know what my plan was,” said Pete turning to face Suzy. “I called my uncle this afternoon. He says there’s work for me on the farm if I want it. We could move into a cottage on the property rent free. He thinks he might be able to get you a job with this woman he knows in town which is only ten minutes away. I’m not saying it’s the perfect plan and I don’t know if it’s gonna work. But it is a plan. What do you think?”
“I’ve never lived anywhere else except here,” said Suzy looking down towards the city where the dark shadows of the skyscrapers seemed to hang in the air like giants in suspended animation.
Pete took Suzy by the hand again and they walked up the small set of stairs that led onto the concrete platform that formed the central vantage point that overlooked the city.
“Do you want me to tell you what my surprise was?” he asked.
“Which one? There’s been a lot of surprises tonight.”
“The surprise I originally had planned for after dinner.”
Pete turned to face Suzy.
“I was going to ask you to marry me.”
Suzy’s face scrunched up ever so slightly and tears welled up making her green eyes shine in moonlight.
“But now I know that it’s not the right time because marriage isn’t just about love but about paying the bills and having a roof over your head and all those other unromantic things.”
Suzy broke down crying. Pete put his arm around her shoulder and held her to him.
“It’s not that bad, is it?” he said finally as Suzy stood back and wiped the tears from her eyes.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“Do you want me to tell you my news,” she said quietly.
“About the doctor?”
Suzy nodded and looked up at Pete.
A kaleidoscope of emotions swirled in Pete’s chest as he processed the news; surprise, confusion, fear, pride, excitement. He and Suzy had talked about children but never seriously. Parenthood seemed like a different world; a world for grown-ups.
“I think we need to sit down,” he said and they took a seat on the wooden bench nearby.
They sat for some time in silence. Suzy shivered in the cold and Pete put his arm around her and drew her close. Together they looked over the dark city below. The moon had risen further and now sat directly above the city like a celestial light bulb providing the luminescence that the city could no longer provide itself.
“This might be the longest blackout yet,” said Suzy. “I wonder if the power will even come back.”
Pete didn’t answer. He looked up at the moon and then retraced the outline of Aquarius in the sky. A strange feeling of assurance welled up from deep within. All his problems suddenly seemed petty and insignificant like he had left them behind down in the darkened streets below. Buried.
After a time, Suzy looked over at him.
“What do you think we should do?”
“I have a proposal,” said Pete.
“Not a marriage proposal?”
“No. Another proposal.”
“If the power doesn’t come back on within the next ten minutes, we get in the car and drive over the mountains to my uncle’s farm and never look back. What do you think?”
“Alright. But I have one request.”
“We stop at the apartment first so I can get my clothes.”
“Deal,” smiled Pete as he pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket.
He set the timer to ten minutes and showed it to Suzy as if seeking her approval before pushing the start button. The clock which would decide their fate began counting down.
Pete wrapped his arm back around Suzy and she rested her head on his shoulder and looked up to the stars.
“While we’re waiting, why don’t you show me how to find Aquarius again.”