In the bleak midwinter
It was nobody’s fault, really.
Or maybe it was everyone’s.
Certainly there was a sense that someone should have done something, but who or what, nobody could say.
The thing is, when you’re living by inches, the way most people on the Island do, it becomes less a matter of “what do I need” and more one of “what can I do without?” Which in turn becomes “but do I really need to…” and “how long can I put off…”
Which is why when a sudden storm cut off all boats to or from the mainland, a week before the Winter Solstice, there was barely a drop of lamp oil, or a scrap of tallow to be had from one end of the Island to the other, and almost as little firewood.
It’s not as if we hadn’t known we’d need it.
It’s just that things weren’t truly desperate yet, not quite. And it turned out that everyone, on their own, and without consulting their neighbours, had decided that light and fuel were something that would have to wait till next week.
They could always borrow from next door if things got that bad.
Well things did get that bad. But next door didn’t have any either.
Nor did the next door.
Nor the next.
No more the one after that. And so on and so on until there were no doors left and you were hanging from your figurative fingertips on the edge of a damp chilly cliff.
In the dark.
All of which, coming as it did in the coldest, darkest part of the year, was pretty bad as it was.
What made it worse was that the storm didn’t seem to be the normal sort of storm, and the darkness was definitely not the normal sort of dark.
It was darker, to start with.
Look, Island people are used to the dark. The Island is, at its best and brightest, a dark, dingy, miserable mudball.
By midwinter it’s even worse, the night starting so early and ending so late that the edges almost touch, divided only by a brief slash of daylight, sharp and piercing, and so low in the sky that it dazzles you no matter which way you turn.
We see a lot of stubbed toes at midwinter, even in usual years.
This was not a usual year.
It seemed much as usual to begin with, but one morning, after a night of terrible storms in which, as it turned out, every soul on the Island had had strange, disjointed, disturbing dreams, we woke to find the world about us changed, and not for the better.
The sky by day was a strange, pinkish, grey colour, rust-brown at the edges and yet somehow as dark as night, and hanging over everything like a fog.
At night it was darker yet: as black as the inside of a coal cellar — if anyone’d had any coal to put in one.
It was still, too, impossibly still; the storm seeming to have sunk into the waves, which alone still leapt and howled as if whipped up by a gale.
Yet there was no wind.
It was ruddy eldritch is what it was.
Anyone could see there was something wrong with it.
That was all anybody could see, what with not having any lights.
Fortunately Islanders are, for most of the year at least, practical people.
You have to be, living as we do.
So the people of the Island took one look at the unearthly silent sky, and at the waters heaving as though over the back of some gigantic beast, and decided to ignore all of that in favour of the much bigger issue of not being able to see their collective hand in front of their communal face.
It was a bit of a problem.
It is, as has been observed before, not actually darkest before the dawn.
The days before the Winter Solstice though, before the metaphorical sunrise that means that light and warmth are beginning their slow climb back into the world; as days go, those can be pretty damn dark.
They’re damn dark right after, too, but at least then you know it’s going to get better.
It’s all downhill from there.
It was pretty downhill for Davey Mullins right before the Solstice that year, though, as he tripped over his feet coming home in the dark and managed to roll almost the whole length of the Island, head over heels, down the closest thing we had to a high road, before he was stopped by collision with an unexpected sheep.
The sheep wasn’t very happy about it either.
Davey’s wasn’t the only accident: hands were hit with hammers, bushels dropped on toes, and hands put clean through windowpanes, which was something of a feat even in broad daylight, given how small Island windows are
Old Idris Parker was found getting up to goodness knows what with Missus Herring next door and swore blind he’d thought it was his own house and his own good wife besides.
Not that anybody really believed that.
Least of all Missus Parker and Mister Herring.
On top of which, since nobody could really see what they were doing, there were holes left in fences and gates left half mended until there was livestock roaming all over the Island.
Which was just as well for Davey Mullins, mind.
In short, the whole Island was a ruddy chaotic mess.
The Inn at least was able to keep going, more or less, thanks in part to Tom’s tendency to be called urgently out to the woodshed to chop logs whenever the tone inside the Inn took a turn for the rowdy, which, along with an inexplicable overstock of Best White Candles For Guest-Rooms Only, left us pretty well provided with heat and lights, for a little while at least.
We never had many guests.
I’d started work at the Inn only a few months before, but I already knew it wasn’t usually like this.
Usually at this time of year you’d find people rushing through the day to get as much work done as possible before the daylight ran out. Then they’d huddle around their own hearths, more likely than not, rather than head out into the dark and wet.
Oh you’d always get some people going up to the Inn, a good number even, but not like this.
That Solstice the Inn was crammed to the rafters every night as nearly every man, woman and child on the Island came crowding in to share use of the light and fire.
Which sounds lovely until you remember that it’s an inn, and in the business of selling drink, and also that it’s at the top of a rather steep hill.
We had three broken legs and four arms on the first night alone.
By day things were not much better.
The afternoons were as crowded as the evenings, and so for that matter were the mornings, but with the added difficulty that we weren’t actually supposed to open in the mornings, except for guests.
I didn’t feel that I could turn anybody away into the Awful Dark, though, which meant I had to keep running around taking money and handing round mugs, on top of doing all the things I usually got done while the Inn was quiet.
After three hours of trying to peel turnips, clean mugs, draw pints and fill in another entry on Birdlip Southey’s slate while scrubbing the floor underneath him; I gave up and went and rooted Tom out from the brewing shed, installing him behind the bar with firm if apologetic instructions to stay there.
I had no particular faith in his doing so mind. Especially as things were already beginning to get noisy. But it was his Inn, and at least now if things went wrong it wouldn’t be all my fault.
I grabbed my hat and shawl, and ran out to feed the chickens while the coast was clear.
The chickens, as I’d learn, were always frowsty and off-lay in the winter, but now, with nothing but candlelight, they looked worse than ever: ruffled with stress and misery and taking it out on one another.
They kept pulling their own feathers out, too, as if they’d decided they wouldn’t make it through the week and wanted to make things easier on whoever came to pluck them.
One little, barely-fledged birdlet, the only survivor of a disastrously too-late hatching, kept getting trampled underfoot by the larger hens in their distress and the dark.
I scooped the poor chickabiddy up and carried it into the kitchen.
In the light of the stove I could see that the poor, feathery scrap would probably be big and glossy one day, if only it were allowed to grow up.
Right now it was tiny, sad, and bedraggled.
I set it tenderly by the stove to warm.
It promptly tried to climb inside.
Disengaging a weakly insistent beak from the latch of the oven, I carried the fledgling over to the pantry and settled it in a nest of dishcloths, with a hot brick for warmth, there to wreak havoc among the larder shelves.
With that sorted out I cracked open the door to the bar and risked a peep inside.
Tom, as I’d suspected, was nowhere to be seen, but everything seemed remarkably quiet and well behaved.
On second glance I realised that this was because my friend Molly had come over, and was now holding court from behind the bar, with a jug of ale in one hand, and the tapping mallet in the other to help maintain order.
I should probably have gone to rescue her, but if Molly was here in the middle of the day, it was because she was escaping from a very small, very dark cottage containing an unreasonable number of siblings, a commensurate quantity of elbows, and, with all those elbows swinging in the now perpetual darkness, a truly astonishing number of black eyes.
If she’d found an excuse to avoid all that I wasn’t going to take it away from her.
Besides, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
At least Himself had plenty of lamp oil up at the Hall, so she wouldn’t have any of his nonsense to deal with, and most of the customers who were there seemed to be glad just to get a mug and a friendly smile.
Or they did when the smile came from Molly.
I gave her a grin somewhere between support and gratitude, and dodged back into the kitchen.
Once there my hands got on with the business of scrubbing and peeling, while my mind frantically turned over idea after idea.
We needed more light.
That was the main thing. Once people had light to see by most of the other problems: the broken gates and broken arms, the lost sheep and the mistaken identities, would more or less solve themselves.
As for fuel for the fire, there was plenty of that to be found, just as long as you could see the ruddy wood for the trees.
It’d be damp, of course, and need drying out, but it would be something.
I just needed to find us some light.
My Gammer’d always sworn that you could make candles from berries.
Which wasn’t a lot of help, because the right sort of berries didn’t seem to grow on the Island, or anywhere that I’d heard of, and in any case, if anyone had somehow managed to find a handful of berries in the middle of winter they’d have eaten them.
It was one of those fiddly sorts of processes, too, as I recalled, the kind of thing that claims to Make Frugal Use of the Bounties Of Nature then winds up wasting more than it uses and needing a lot of other expensive ingredients into the bargain.
Including, now I came to think of it, beeswax.
If I’d had any beeswax I wouldn’t be wasting my time trying to figure out how to make candles out of non-existent berries.
Or cutting myself on the kitchen knife, I thought, sucking my suddenly smarting finger.
Perhaps letting my hands do all the work while my mind got on with the thinking wasn’t such a brilliant plan after all.
Still, I’d peeled enough now for mashed turnips for two, and it’d stretch to three with a bit of sausage, if Molly planned on sticking around.
I tied a bit of dishrag round my finger and went into the pantry to think.
Gammer, may the God keep her safe in his bony claws, might not have had the best of ideas, but maybe someone out there had.
I pulled down my Mother’s Ladies’ Book Of Household Management and Hints For Hopeful Housewives and began to read.
Well, tried to read.
As soon as I turned the page, the little fledgling chick came running along to sit on it, looking up at me as though he’d done something clever; then sat there, shivering faintly, and pecking hopefully at the worming sepia scrawl of text.
I shifted it to one side.
It shuffled back.
I lifted it gently off and set it down beside the book.
It jumped back and squatted down in the middle of the page.
Helping! Said the proud tilt of its beak.
I sighed and, for want of a better plan, scooped the little bird up and nestled it in my bodice.
It settled there, head poking up out of my cleavage, glowering myopically at the text like a tiny, angry dragon.
The books were about as much use as they generally were, which is to say, not much.
They had plenty to say on the subject of lighting, mind, it’s just that it was mostly about what jewellery to wear to an under-lighted opera house, or the best way to avoid unfortunate incidents with shaky chandeliers. Which wasn’t a lot of help when no one on the Island even owned a chandelier. Or any jewellery. Or would have the least idea what an opera was, even if they had a house to keep it in.
So that wasn’t much help.
I had almost given up in disgust, when, between a recipe for potted herring and an advertisement for coloured nail-wax, I found a small paragraph, tucked away beside an even smaller illustration, and titled “To Make A Button Lamp.”
Fortunately it did not require me to burn buttons.
It did call for a button, to be used in the making of the lamp, and the God knows how I’d have found enough of those to keep the whole of the Island in lights, but the writer added that in the absence of a suitably sized button, a farthing could be used, and I, after a quick rummage in the box behind the bar, decided that if a farthing would do the job, then so would a small pebble, a bit of squashed tin, or any other bit of non-burnable junk small enough to tie a scrap of cloth around.
The method for making a lamp was simple.
“First: obtain your materials.”
These were: a button — I used the one off my apron pocket to test it — a small square of cloth — cut from an old pudding-cloth — a saucer, and some sort of fat.
I went back and forth about the last one for a while. Of course we had fat, in the kitchen, but what fat should I use? I had the feeling that butter wouldn’t do, even if it wasn’t such nasty, watery stuff at this time of year, and the saved-up bacon grease seemed a similarly bad idea.
Eventually I settled for a bit of beef dripping, on the grounds that that was almost the same thing as tallow anyway.
Materials assembled I read on.
“Second: take your cloth and, being sure that it is a cotton cloth” — I looked at the bit of pudding cloth.
Was it cotton? I had no idea. Were pudding cloths usually made from cotton? I decided it would have to do.
“…place within it the button, twisting tightly so that you form a wick.”
It took a couple of goes before I got the idea, but eventually I had a sort of little packet of muslin, with the button in it, and then a wick of twisted cloth doing its level best to untwist again, above it.
“Grease this well with the fat” — that took care of the untwisting. “And place upon the saucer more fat, and the button within the saucer, and so light the button.”
I thought I had all that straight.
I put a few dabs more of the dripping into the saucer, then sat the little bundle on top of that and, with trembling fingers, took a spill from the kitchen stove and lit it.
It burned beautifully.
I somehow hadn’t expected that.
I sat and watched it for some time, waiting for the flame to sputter out, or the saucer to crack, or some other unhelpful thing to happen, but nothing did.
Beneath my chin the little fledgling gave a happy trill, like a small child going “Ooh!” at a bonfire.
We watched together for a while longer, still half-expecting some sort of a calamity, then I got out the scissors and set to work.
Not all the lamps worked as well as the first one.
I took the time to test any new materials as I went along, and learned that not all fats were equal; that butter was, indeed, a foul idea in more ways than one; that burning wool smelled even worse than the butter; that horn buttons didn’t particularly want to burn, but could be convinced, and smelled worse than either wool or butter, once they got going. And that, actually, some saucers would crack, if they got hot enough, especially if they were the little bone china saucers with the rosebud pattern that Tom kept on the high shelf to be safe from accidents.
Still, eventually I had dozens of little boats, each with their twisted mast, covering every surface like a miniature flotilla.
I would tell you that I stood there, basking in the knowledge of a task well done, faint frissons of hope running through me for the first time since the light had been so impossibly stolen away; but I had the washing up still to do, and dinner to get, and half a dozen other tasks to finish before the candlelight ran out, so I had to put off basking for another day. Hopefully a warm, sunny one.
When I finally ran out of things to do, I decided to go and see how Molly was getting on.
Molly was not behind the bar.
Most of our customers seemed to have gone stumbling away at last, presumably in search of whatever dinner could be scraped up in the dark, and Tom was behind the bar again, looking a little anxious but fully in command of the proceedings.
Molly, he informed me, was outside. With the chickens.
I couldn’t think what she could want out there: the birds wouldn’t need feeding again until the morning, and they weren’t nearly as likely to give her tips or compliments as the patrons inside the bar.
It was always possible she was avoiding someone, mind. Or several someones.
Mentally exchanging “getting on” for “getting up to” I headed out to the hen yard to find Molly.
What Molly was getting up to was putting paper collars on all the chickens.
They were more ruffs than collars, really, standing out in little frills and making the hens look uncommonly like a woodcut I’d once seen of Elizabeth Regina ande hir Courte: still mopish and half plucked, but now with a sort of drooping, tragic dignity.
It’s wonderful what a new outfit can do for a body.
I didn’t dare look at the collars too closely, for fear of finding she’d cut up my best dictionary, but admired them from a safe distance and let Molly, looking as proud as any woman standing in a straw-lined, feather filled chicken-house, surrounded by sheaves of paper and holding a lighted candle ever had, explain that “See, Dor’?Now they can’t reach to pull any more feathers out!”
I agreed that this was very clever, forbore to wonder whether they might helpfully start plucking each other, and averted the imminent conflagration by suggesting that Molly come in and have a bit of dinner with me and Tom.
A bit of dinner, it seemed, was exactly what Molly needed.
The suggestion proved even more popular with Tom, who’d been having trouble convincing our last, most loyal patrons to leave.
They weren’t particularly inclined to listen to me, either, or to Molly, but finally I made it clear that if they didn’t leave the Inn when it closed for the afternoon, then they wouldn’t be able to come back to the Inn when we opened up again for the evening. Which is the kind of logic that only makes sense within the pages of certain books, or when you’ve spent most of the day steadily absorbing a frankly staggering amount of ale and spirits.
We watched them wobble out of the door and stumble into the dark, then, as the cries of lost souls, or at least lost footing, drifted into the distance, we pulled a long trestle table in front of the fire and sat down to dinner.
“A bit of dinner” I’d called it, and a bit of dinner, as it turned out, I had.
It wasn’t that there wasn’t enough for the three of us. I was just that it seemed as though I’d miscounted, and instead of just me, Tom and Molly at the table, we had me, Tom, Molly, and the ravenous maw peering out of my bodice.
The chick peeped, piteously, whenever I lifted a spoon to my lips; making such a fuss you’d think it’d never been fed before. I tried to tell it that this was food for humans, and wouldn’t be good for chickens, but it gave me the oldest look I’ve ever seen on a bird; saying, as only a round black eye in a scruffy, down-spattered face can say, that it looked pretty good to this chicken, and who did I think I was fooling anyway, I’d peeled those turnips right in front of it, and it’d seen where I’d put the peelings.
Which was, in point of fact, in the chicken-pail.
Surrendering to the inevitable I released the starving captive.
Who ran straight into my bowl and tried to choke itself on a chunk of sausage.
While Tom and Molly ate and I did my best to unstick a very small beak from a very big lump of gristle, I told them both about the button lamps.
They looked unpersuaded, so I tucked the world’s tiniest gourmand back into my bosom, absently feeding it the last of my turnip as I did so, and went back to the kitchen, to fetch one out.
Extinguishing the remaining candles, I lit the little lamp with a spill from the fire and set it on the table.
It sat there like a tiny star, a little pool of light and safety in the great careworn world.
There was a moment’s perfect silence.
Then the chick fumbled out of my bodice again and hurled itself into the remains of Molly’s dinner plate, and the moment was broken.
Still, they were both very complimentary about the lamps, now they saw one in action; and after I’d explained how they worked again — with them really listening this time — and then demonstrated lighting it again, they agreed that this would go a long way toward lighting our current darkness, or at least to limiting the number of legs broken on the way down the hill.
After a while the compliments got a little too effusive, to the point where it sounded more as if they were trying to convince themselves than anything else, so I turned the conversation to Molly’s brilliant work in the henhouse, and we rained down praises on her head, instead.
This proved to be a mistake as, while Molly’s cheeks turned a gratifying shade of pink in the lantern light, and she flourished under the attention like a sunflower blooming in the light we hadn’t got, she became so emboldened by her success that while I was making a start on the washing up, she barged right into the kitchen, there to sculpt a large candle out of suet.
It burned very well, but it smelled appalling, and I couldn’t make any dumplings or puddings for a fortnight because she’d used up all my remaining supply.
The button lamps, as it turned out, were a wonderful idea in theory, but not quite so effective in practice.
The thing was that what had worked perfectly on a flat table in a large, empty room, attended by three calm, rational, quiet diners — and one hell-spawned chick — didn’t do nearly so well in the wobbling hand of a somewhat excitable, decidedly inebriated person in a space crowded with what felt like three hundred of his nearest and dearest friends.
Coat sleeves were singed. Curls were set alight. So were eyebrows and, after a more than usually vigorous jostling from Old Man Morris trying to get a better look, so was young Matthew Groves’ bumper of best plum brandy.
We replaced the brandy, but there was nothing to be done about the wig.
In the end we settled on handing out the lamps just as people were preparing to leave.
This worked a little better, except that people had a tendency to hang around after their lanterns had been lit, to show their friends, who then wanted to show their friends who, coincidentally, were also the friends of the first friend, and who would want to show their friends, who also knew the initial friendly person, and by the time the lamp had been passed around all of their friends…
Well, either it’d go out, or someone’s sleeve would once again catch fire.
Though not all so impressively as Mattie’s after the second cup of brandy got spilled on his coat.
Look, we’re not a very big island and we only have so many friends to go around. Sooner or later everybody’s going to know everybody else, if only to have a cup of beer with them while I’m trying to close up for the night.
Eventually, though, the last customer was turned out of doors and a little string of lights went winding slowly through the darkness to the silent streets below.
I was left to count up the takings by candlelight, or, more to the point, to tot up the latest batch of IOUs and wonder what in the God’s name had happened to my accounts book.
It was a big book, with good, thick pages, and I never did figure out what had become of it.
Of course we weren’t the only ones fumbling around for a way to light the darkness.
While I was trying to resurrect three months of accounts working only from memory and the faint remains of my scratchings on the ancient slate, people all over the Island were fuelling their fires and those of their neighbours with anything that could be found to burn.
Old furniture was broken down and stripped of its varnish. New furniture was declared old and heartlessly butchered. Straw was twisted, Baskets were burned. Bricks were heated in the fires of those who had fuel and ruthlessly thrust into the beds of those who hadn’t.
Old Mother Menzies invited the Polks and the Harrises to share her little cottage, where she ceremoniously burned the delicate pine cone centrepiece that had been a present from her Lucy on her sixtieth birthday.
This proved to be a mistake, as the centrepiece had been stuck together with a quarter of a pound of Lucy’s best homemade adhesive, and while pine cones may look and smell beautiful when they burn, the same cannot be said for liquefied animal hide, fish bladders, and gum ammoniac.
The stench reached all the way to the bottom of the lane, and all the Polks and Harrises, and Mother Menzies herself had to go and take shelter at Cully Harris’ place, for fear of suffocating in the night.
The next morning a group of land bound fishermen and their families risked combing the beach in hopes of finding a washed up tin of turpentine or perhaps a crate or two of candles.
It sounds silly, now, maybe, but all sorts of things wash up there after a storm.
Once there was even a huge sea-monster, like an octopus or a squid but infinitely larger, it’s tentacles stretching the whole length of the strand.
That one showed up right in the middle of a famine, with no boat safe to bring in supplies, and we all lived on stewed squid and calamari until we were heartily sick of the stuff.
Tom’s Sick Squid Stout was pretty good, too, if pricier than usual; though he’d no chance to test the recipe with a second batch: beached leviathans not being what you might call a frequent occurrence even in these parts.
So you can see why you might live in hope of finding something useful among the washed-up shells and the coconuts and the occasional desiccated pig.
They didn’t have any luck, though, blundering about in the dark, and Biddy Cooper lost her best winter hat and very nearly her life getting a bit too close to those monstrous, thundering waves.
Mercy Wainright and Billy Cooper tried to help the beachcombers by climbing to the top of the tallest hill, where the yearly bonfire was held, and lighting a pyre, in the hope that a passing ship would mistake it for a lighthouse and crash on the rocks.
Nothing happened of course, and the pair of them got into a lot of trouble with Mercy’s Mother, and then with Billy’s dad, for playing with fire, wasting dry wood, going out without their winter vests, and risking undue attention by lighting a ruddy great beacon fire in the exact place that we didn’t want Mainlanders to notice us building fires.
And also, once somebody pointed it out to them, for the attempted wrecking.
Not every idea was a bad one, though.
Rely Shepherd had a word with Missus Mullins, and she had a word with Mister Mullins, and between them they hauled a whole load of nets down from the fishing sheds and hung them — once the livestock were all safe inside — over every wall, gate, and byre.
It sounded daft, but it worked: the nets held firm, snagging on loose boards and wonky patches of stone, closing up the holes.
Of course the odd beast still managed to find a gap in the fence somewhere: they always do, but even then it turned out that a net that rarely held anything bigger than a herring could somehow stop a fully grown sheep in its tracks.
It worked a little less well on Mary Cowen’s ram, admittedly, but it was a particularly bad tempered and stubborn ram, with magnificently curving horns; and the problem wasn’t so much that the nets wouldn’t hold, as that by the time anyone noticed the wretched beast had got three fifths of a nearly new mackerel net cocooned about its head.
They had the devil of a time getting it off again, even working by lamplight.
Tom heard about the nets that night, which made him look thoughtful for a bit. Then he took a couple of candle lanterns and had a word with a few of our quieter, more serious customers, the whole lot of them started bundling on coats and cloaks and heading out into the cold.
I wondered what he was about, besides finding a good reason to be out of the noise and the crowd. But most of that crowd was busily demanding ale, so I couldn’t go and have a look until Molly showed up again, determinedly cheerful and wondering if we’d like a bit more help with the bar.
I said we would, pointed her in the direction of the seething throng, then ducked out of the Inn and went to see what was going on.
What was going on, it seemed, was more nets.
They were going on the road down the hill.
More precisely they were going over the walls along the road down the hill, and strung between them, and all the way down, fastened with nails and string, and anything else that was to hand, to every tree, bush, and crumbling post, all the way down to the lane.
I saw what they were getting at in an instant.
I had to think for a few minutes to get to that instant, admittedly, but once I had done that, I knew immediately what they were doing. They were marking the safe way down.
Not only did the nets provide a guide that could be followed even without so much as a button lamp, but if anyone did happen to slip on the road, with one hand already on the net they’d be able to grab hold and steady their self in the dark.
I did wonder if perhaps the job ought to wait till morning, but Tom pointed out that it would be as dark then as it was now, so why wait?
I began to reply that in the morning everyone would be a lot more sober than they were now, and a lot more sensible with it, but Molly, who had apparently followed me out, said that no, we should let them get on with it now, while they wanted to do it. So I let the argument go, not so much because I agreed with her, as because I had to run back to the Inn, to get back behind the bar before anyone realised that no one was keeping an eye on the ale.
So the nights and days passed, with nothing thing beyond sleeping and waking, hungering and being fed to tell one and the other apart.
Even in the Inn the light was getting low.
What had seemed like a wealth of candles when first I uncovered them was looking decidedly sparse now.
I had to stop lighting every corner, saving the light for those places where it could best fill the space.
The Inn had no shortage of glass bottles at least, so I filled these with water, setting them around each candle to increase what light there was.
Still we had dark corners aplenty, now, and the whole place seemed, shadowy, grimmer and less welcoming.
Naturally then, Himself With All The Apple Trees chose this point to bless us with his bloody presence.
He installed himself in the darkest corner there was, stroking the moustaches he hadn’t got, doing his best to look sinister, and murmuring “I sat with my love, and I drank with my love, and my love she gave me light,” in what was probably meant to be a resonant purr.
I thought about this for a second, then made sure Molly — now, it seemed, a perpetual visitor — was safely behind the bar, with the tapping mallet within reach, and sloped off to the kitchen to get on with the dinner.
I’d rather peel a boatload of turnips than deal with that nonsense
It was all twaddle anyway: the closest Himself ever had to a love was Janey Morris and she was more than seven months gone at that point, confined to her cottage with her feet up, and burning her way through the Hall’s supply of best beeswax tapers.
Still, she didn’t want for visitors that week.
Some even brought their knitting and needlework to show her.
Especially if they had a particularly fiddly stitch to work on. Or their eyesight was going.
Outside of Janey’s cottage, though, the lights were running out.
I had to stop giving out button lamps at the door.
The patrons at the Inn looked aghast when I told them.
I could understand their shock: the lamps hadn’t been a perfect solution, not clutched in tipsy, wobbling hands as they slipped and slithered down our slippery hill, but they had been something all the same.
With those tiny lamps they could hold on, in some small but very real way, to hope.
So I could understand the empty horror as my words sank in and the reality of our situation dawned anew.
I shared their fear, their despair, their helplessness.
I knew that when they stared, wordless and amazed, it was at the end of the last bright, beacon in the darkness that had swallowed us.
Or possibly it was at the chick, who was still in my bodice, with its head poking out at the top, glaring at them.
And who’d just made a mess right down my front.
I swore under my breath, muttered a last, helpless apology, then fumbled my way upstairs to extract the chick, strip off my fouled clothes, and claw my way into a clean set, shivering all the while.
The lamps weren’t all gone yet.
I had some, still, but not enough for everybody, and nothing left to make more.
Instead of handing them out I set a few in pickling jars and, around throwing-out time, set them out along the net-line leading down the hill.
The next day, while Himself was carrying on about Stygian something-or-other, I called Molly over and gave her some of the remaining lamps, asking her to take them down and give a couple to anyone who wasn’t coming out to the Inn lately.
They could use the light as much as anyone, maybe more, and if they put the buttons in the window then they’d still light the way for anyone stumbling outside in the dark.
It wasn’t enough though.
I knew it wouldn’t be enough.
I went back to the Household Management, studying each page with a minute eye, as though in hopes that somehow, while I wasn’t looking, something useful might have appeared.
There wasn’t anything.
Oh there were pages and pages of tips for the frugal housekeeper, but it was all on the lines of “Sunday’s roast may, with the addition of suitable spices, be made to provide Monday’s ragout.” Which wasn’t much help when you couldn’t afford a roast in the first place.
Or a ragout.
Or any of the bloody spices.
I could have given the writer tips worth twelve of hers. Any Islander could. But that wasn’t much use to us now because we were already using them.
We used them every day.
When life has been pared so close to the bone for so long, it is peculiarly galling to be advised to “instruct your dressmaker” to make over last year’s ballgown, and to re-use worn velvets to line new fur cloaks.
If they wanted real hints, help for the truly destitute, they should have asked us.
I wondered, briefly, why nobody had.
Probably because even if they were to print a book of life-saving advice for the desperately poor, no one who needed one could ever afford to buy it.
The next night we burned the last of the candles.
I’d been saving the candle ends, of course, but an end of wax and a shred of wicking, even coddled in a saucer is only light for so long.
I looked at my meagre hoard: at the dumpy ends and puddles of wax, at the fragile twists of greasy cloth that had made me so proud, and I knew we wouldn’t see another week.
I sat up bleakly, all that night, staring into the darkness and wondering what we were to do.
In my lap, the little chick nestled trustingly, his fragile life a tiny warmth beneath my hand.
When I could bear it no more I got up, just as Tom and probably every other body on the Island, tuned to the ticking of some internal clock, rose to greet the absent sun.
The day was Midwinter’s Eve, the day before the solstice. At least I thought it was.
The days and nights had blurred oddly, in the darkness, running into one another like wet ink, like the edges of a dream, until it was hard to be sure when one night gave off and a new day began.
Still, I thought it was Midwinter’s Eve.
I considered my night-long meditations. I rubbed the weariness from my eyes. I got to work.
I worked like a woman possessed.
I scoured every table, scrubbed the floor till it had to have been white under the all-concealing darkness, even washed out the slop bucket with clean-ish water.
I fed the miserable chickens, throwing in a few of the currants that I’d been keeping back for no particular reason.
There was no point in keeping them now.
Back inside I fed the chick, then dipped out porridge for Tom and myself and added a bowl for Molly who was no doubt on her way.
I threw in more of the currants, and a generous dollop of honey, avoiding Molly’s eyes as she enthused over the treat.
I’d barely finished before I was up again and back to work, cleaning, peeling, chopping.
From the back of the pantry I hauled the old pot: not the little copper one we used for porridge, but the great iron thing that looked as though it could feed the whole Island.
Checking it was clean I set it in the fireplace and began to build up the fire.
Tom was avoiding my gaze in a way that said that he was the innkeeper, and perhaps I ought to have asked before starting whatever it was I was doing. He was right, of course, but I couldn’t stop now.
There was no point in stopping now.
The pot was for stew, of course, my Gammer’s method and one of the few things she was truly good at: set to simmer all through the afternoon, and always ready whenever night should fall.
When night should fall.
When it did, or when I thought it did, it was on an inn a-twinkle with a hundred lights.
Button lamps and candle-ends, all I had left, or near enough, were scattered along the mantle, on the bar, on any surface that could safely hold them, with bottles and jars clustered all about, increasing the light and — in accordance with the theory put forward in Newton’s Opticks of which I owned a small, brown, battered copy — scattering it in little rainbows here and there throughout the room.
It was enchantingly lovely.
It should have been.
I’d gone through the rest of our fuel stores, with Tom’s permission this time, bundling up sticks and scraps of wood with sometimes the odd scrap of candle or lopsided button lamp tucked in alongside, until there were bundles enough for everyone.
Small bundles, perhaps, but something at least.
That night we passed out bundles and bowls of stew and kept the drink flowing till long past closing.
It wasn’t a raucous night, or one for rejoicing, but we were warm, and safe, if only for a little while, and as everyone wound the long way home at last, they carried a little of that warmth away with them, in full stomachs, and in bundles of sticks.
They carried warmth, and kindness, and good cheer, and the tiniest fragment of hope.
And they left me the colder for it.
I had no plan. I hadn’t had a plan. I’d had nothing but the cold realisation that there was nothing I could do, no way of spinning warmth and light from empty air, and that, this being so, we might as well enjoy it while it was there.
Now, even that icy understanding, the odd, bleak, determination that had kept me going all day, was gone.
I wondered, in my bitterest, emptiest moments, if perhaps I should have poisoned the stew. Used something kind and gentle, that would send everyone off to sleep, warm and contented in the presence of their friends. Peacefully to sleep and never to awaken.
I hadn’t, of course.
I couldn’t have brought myself to do it, even I’d known anything about poisons which, outside of romantic novels, and the odd, coloured illustrations of exotic plants in some of my Mother’s books, I did not.
I could never have made myself let go of that last, impossible, fragile, terrible shred of hope.
And also making such an extreme life-or-death decision on behalf of a whole group of people without asking them first probably wouldn’t have been the most ethical thing I’d ever done.
Particularly the “death” part.
That night was the strangest of all.
I couldn’t sleep.
Perhaps I had slept a little, in the thin hours after the last smiling guest had made their fumbling way down the rope-path to the band of tiny, button-stars below. But I was awake now, and restless with it, unable to bear another moment of that horrible wave-haunted stillness.
I found my way out of bed by memory and wrapped a shawl around my shoulders, then blew on the last embers of the dying fire, until they flared just enough to kindle the last little, fragile, broken button lamp that I’d kept on my mantle.
On my counterpane the chick, the little, feathery, birdlet scrap, began to shiver.
I scooped him out of his cooling nest, to nestle him in the woollen folds at my bosom, then threw another, thicker shawl over us both, and tucked a hot brick into the folds at my waist.
We’d made it through this awful, unending night so far. Whatever came next, we’d see it through together.
I walked out of the Inn, a fragile wisp of flame guttering under my hand, to look up at the infinite, starless black, and wonder at our fate.
But the impossible darkness was gone.
All was silent.
Even the waves stopped their thunder as the dense impossible blackness seemed to lift for the first time in the week.
What it revealed was stranger yet: a glimmering curtain of green light, twined with ribbons of pink and blue, stretched as far as the eye could see. Like the wings of a firebird, the light spread over the inexplicably mirror-still waters, which doubled and redoubled it, tripled it, and cast it back till the whole world glowed like an opal.
We stood there, the little bird and I, stunned and silent in the iridescent night for who knows how long.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but I must have done, for I woke, stiff with cold and immobility, caught half way between the inn-gate and the first of the line of nets.
I woke, startled, to see the uncanny light was gone, and there, in its place, was something far more wonderful and more welcome.
Sunrise, a thin, pale, unmistakably real sunrise, was beginning at last.
I could have stood there for hours, basking in this wonderful, miraculous gift of light.
I could have done, except that my waking woke the chick in his turn.
And his turn it was, and no mistake, for he took one look at that thin bar of sunlit yellow, then he threw back his head and crowed.
Right in my ruddy ear.
In the circumstances, I could hardly blame him.
Even when he followed this up with a loving peck to my chin and what was clearly a cockerelish demand for breakfast and/or the lavatory and never mind which order they came in.
It was still a beautiful sunrise.
After that everything went back to normal, more or less.
Some people took boats and made it out to the mainland, returning with supplies of oil, tallow, and anything else you could want, which they passed along at only slightly more than they had actually been charged.
Everyone got their nets back, and then spent the next three weeks arguing that this wasn’t my net, my net was newer than this. And it didn’t have as many holes in, what’s that net there? That’s my net it is! And life, for all of us, continued.
The Island was still dark, most of the time, and the hens were still frowsty.
Tom still spent most of his time ducking the customers, cutting wood to make up the supply I’d decimated, or, more and more often, out in his brewing sheds, concocting ales and other beverages that could make an angel weep.
That didn’t matter so much though, as Molly came by again, and kept coming by, and at some point in the proceeding she made the arrangement permanent.
I got on with learning the running of the inn and by the time the cockerel was strutting his way about the hen-yard I had put the whole incident more or less out of mind.
Except for the knowledge that sometimes, when you truly need one, if you work together, and fight, and hold the line and try your absolute best, sometimes, you get a miracle.
Readers of this story may be interested to know that between the seventeenth and nineteenth there were a surprisingly high number of volcanic eruptions worldwide, including near constant eruptions of Vesuvius, several of which — most notably the eruption of sixteen thirty one — were very severe, and any of which might have caused the phenomena experienced by the people of the Island.
The Northern Lights, of course, may be seen from any part of the British Isles, although they are most often visible in the far north.
It probably wasn’t that though.
It was probably something eldritch.
You know how these things go.