Evening Star

He woke feeling with a slight ache in his lower spine, not unusual.  Opened his eyes and wriggled his face to erase the sleep from his skin and awaken some feeling into its surface.  Shifting his position slightly he rubbed the back of his hand into the eye sockets, pressing on the closed lids and stretching the skin round in a forlorn effort to remove their sticky itch.    The bracken under his back crackled as he moved, collapsing a little more in its dry, fragile state.  Dust rose invisibly in the dark of the night, creeping up surreptitiously to add the allergic itch in his eyes.

Joe dropped his hands onto his chest, lowered his head the few centimetres back onto the bracken    and exhaled tiredly.  He had slept, maybe a couple of hours.  The purple dusk had moved into a black night.  At least, he considered, he could assume it was very pre- dawn. Had there been some light he might have slept for only a minute or two or all night and into the early dawn, only waiting on time to give him the answer.   Still, he thought on, being obviously the middle of the night there was no other action to be taken except to get back to sleep until the sun was high.

He wriggled carefully again to shift his weight more onto a hip but kept his head turned a little to look at the night sky.  Pitch black. all around.  He yawned. His old army coat seemed to be keeping him warm enough. He could hear the light gusts of wind but where he lay was all stillness.  Cool maybe but he had been in enough colder places in his wanderings for this bed to be considered warm and comfortable.

His fingers fiddled with the brass button poking through the khaki coat’s button-hole on his chest. Thumb moving over the tarnished curve a few times.  Joe exhaled deeply again and tried to empty his mind, relax, close his eyes. Consciously relaxing muscles in his neck and shoulders as he counted his breath in and counting again as he exhaled, relaxing down into his bracken bed.  Closing his eyes, relaxed, tired, he breathed and counted.

The inky blackness of the night, lids closed and heavy, darkness smothering the optic nerves and his body relaxed, seemingly light, almost hovering on the piled bracken mattress.

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Into the emptiness, his personal void, came the streaks and striations of colour.  Like startling cotton-threads of light, lightning, shooting and trailing through his brain to dissipate almost immediately.  Replaced by other threads and colours, like tracer lines randomly appearing and disappearing. The light-show, instantaneous or long seconds was engraved as he opened his eyes.  A slow-motion reflection while his eyes focused back into the dark. Joe inhaled deeply through nose and mouth, the cool air following the lining of his nostrils and throat and lungs.

The soft blackness of the night sky replaced the scattering threads. The weight of his head was noted by the muscles in his neck as he exhaled a sigh.  Joe focused into the distant cloudless sky straight above his head.  Far away, as far as his furthest dream, he saw the glimmer.   A last gentle rise and fall of his chest.  The star, galaxies away, blinked.

It was a voice, his name, an urgent bark, an urgent bark.  He screwed up his eyes, grimaced at the light aching into his lids. Joe raised a grubby hand and pressed the back of it into his eyebrows and opened his eyes, protected from the light by his hand.

“Oi, Joe, you awake?”

“Stupid question”, he muttered then called out, “Yes! Now!”

The dog barked several times and peered over the edge of the hole, it’s paws teetering impatiently on the edge of the pit, it’s head just visible.  Beside it was the head and shoulders of PC Copper.  He was lying on the damp grass peering down through the gap created by Joe as he had fallen.

Walter Copper could only guess at the depth. He could see the topsoil as it graded down into the chalk layer half way down and the white of the roughly hewn chalk-pit at its base roughly fifteen feet down. With just enough light from his prone position Walter could look down into the base of the pit and see Joe lying at the bottom.

“You look comfy.” He risked the comment.

“Yeah. Broke me neck comin’ down, otherwise I’m fine.”

“Neck?” The policeman shouted back down, more concerned.

“Me leck!  Landed on it badly.  Me left leck!”

His leg!

“I will radio the station and call out for some help, hang on!”

Joe shook his head, muttered under his breath and resigned himself to more time stuck down the hole.  The light now filtering down gave the space a glowing atmosphere. The lower half a bit like a small whitewashed cottage kitchen, more likely a miniature lighthouse as it was roughly circular.  A few dark lumps in the wall and assorted dents where flints hid or once were.

Finished on the radio, Walter called down, ” Did you know these chalk-pits are the most northerly we know?  You are probably the first man down there since  thousands of years, since Stone-age man was down there digging them flints out.  With mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers strutting about.  We know of others around here but not this one, there could be more close by, we will have to get the Society out.  There is supposed to be a stone-age settlement up at Longcross hill.”   He was interrupted.

“Shut up or bugger off!” Echoed from the bottom.

……………………………….

Two days later the rescued man, Joe, was sitting on his regular log outside the dilapidated sawmill shed in the plantation.  PC Walter Copper scooted from the path into the clearing on  his bike and dismounted. “HI Joe.”

“Tea?”

Walter was surprised to be offered tea from a large Thermos flask, plastic cup still firmly screwed on.  Joe leaned over and placed it on the ground closer to where Walter had stopped.

“Vicar’s daughter brought it a few minutes ago. And the sandwiches. Cheese and onion.”  Joe pointed down briefly.  At his feet was a brown paper bag flat on the ground, it’s contents now neatly piled on top of it.  Five of the six slices of door-stop sandwiches ready to be dealt with. The sixth a last mouthful for Joe as Walter arrived..

“I heard you stayed there a couple of nights. How’s the leg?”

“Not broken.  Doc said it was only a twisted knee. Vicar insisted I stayed at theirs as the hospital chucked me out.  The one night drove me barmy so I shifted out at first light.  Vicar lent me his walking stick and one or other of ’em keeps bringing me this stuff”. He waved vaguely at the flask.

“Can’t stand the tea but the sarnies are tasty”

Walter decided to trust the tea in the flask more than the alternative he might be offered from the billy-can steaming on its hook over Joe’s fire.  He sat on the nearby log, leaned to grasp the flask and settled back to pour and drink a cup of the steaming, milky, slightly not-quite-right tea.   Thermos tea never tasted like it should but Walter was used to flask tea.  Anyway it would be a shame to waste the Vicar’s good nature, or whoever made it for Joe.

“Just thought I would stop as I was passing. See if you are doing all right.”

Joe raised a sandwich in acknowledgement, hesitated as he put it to his mouth and took out a chunk of the cheese. He held it in Walter’s direction and threw it towards him. It landed just passed the policeman’s boots.  The dog, Rusty, scrabbled out from under the half-toppled platform, sat before the piece of cheese then delicately sniffed, picked up and ate it.  Licking its lips it looked up at Walter, mouth open in a half-smile and toungue lolling.

“Good dog, good Rusty”,  said PC Copper, ruffling the dogs head and ears.  Joe threw a quarter slice of bread that landed  on the policeman’s shiny toecap.   Once again the dog delicately sniffed the food. This time she knocked it off his shoe with her paw then picked up the bread and with head held high chewed it with obvious relish. To return to her half smiling observation of the policeman.

“She came and fetched me, you know.  Barked at me. To’ed and fro’ed in circles. Annoyed me like hell to follow her.  I was down the road here but it was quite a way to where you were.  Your dog must be as good, maybe better than any police dog.”      Walter fondled the dogs head again.

“She’s not my dog. Just tags along.”   Joe threw a slice of onion at Walters feet, it scattered into decreasing circles as it bounced on the compacted soil.   The dog moved to it and scooped them casually up and retreated to its shelter under the platform where it proceeded to sniff and nibble at the onion rings.

“Well, maybe she thinks she is. Or maybe you belong to her and she doesn’t want to lose you.”

Joe grunted through a sandwich at his mouth.

“Best be off,” Walter replaced the empty cup on the flask, replaced the helmet on his head. Stood up and adjusted his radio, ensuring it was still switched on, adjusted his cycle clips.

“Mind that knee. You’re looking better today.  I will try to pop round tomorrow if I am on this beat again, should be  but Winnie is off so I might have to stay at the station.”

“WInnie? WInston Churchill, here?  Met him in ’42, gave him what for.  Tell him he interferes too much!   Good bloke though.”

“Not Churchill, Winnie Maitland, our new WPC”. He shouted behind him as he cycled down the drive and round the corner, back to the police station at Burnthorpe

“Oh.”  Grunted Joe as he threw a piece of crust dogward.

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