Eclipsed (short story)

Below is the entire text of the short story, Eclipsed. It will remain free to read and download through this blog for March and April 2017. If you liked it, or have anything to say about it, please leave a comment below, thanks. If you prefer MOBI or PDF formats, you can download them for free during this time, too. Amazon store version coming soon…

The noise was ferocious, high-pitched and incessant. Venturing my arm out from beneath the warm duvet, I groped around the bedside table, trying to find my mobile. I succeeded in knocking my glasses onto the floor and almost spilling the glass of water I must have heroically brought to bed with me. That reminded me: I was due a hangover. My mouth was painfully dry.

Eventually, I managed to fumble my way to turning off the ear-splitting shriek emanating from my phone. Through foggy morning consciousness I realised that the horrific sound had not, in fact, been my usual alarm, but actually my incoming call ringtone. ‘Who the hell…?’ I said, opening one eye.

My pupil felt like a camera lens desperately searching for focus. Meanwhile, my unbrushed teeth felt fuzzy and awful breath tasted like cigars. My stomach felt heavy. I was probably going to be sick, so grabbed my phone and headed on through to the bathroom. There was a half-eaten kebab sitting in its wrapper, unfathomably positioned in front of the bathroom door, like some kind of votive offering to the porcelain god I was about to be worshipping.

A few minutes later, feeling much better, I emerged from the bathroom, and sat down in the hallway. It was cool here, and I did not dare to go to the living room in case, as usual, the heating was on.

I looked at the phone, and thumbed around to see who had called. ‘Shite,’ I said, seeing the name. It was Dave Jenkins, fat bastard, editor of The East Coast Gazette, and, probably most importantly given that he had phoned at 06:52 on a Friday morning, my boss. He had kindly left me a voicemail.

‘Get yer arse down to Kirkton Bay by nine, son. Kenny’s sick. There’s an unveiling of a plaque about some artists. There’s a local dignitary, some councillor or MSP or something, and a loony old bat who wants interviewed because she claims she gets the ghosts of the artists floating about her garden. Pick up the snapper, Reg, from his house in Dunbar on the way. He’s a bit of an old hippy, but he’s the best we’ve got available, and I’m not sanctioning expenses for some tattooed, floppy fringed graduate from Newcastle to come up . I’ll text you his address. Don’t be late.’

By Dave’s standards, that was over the top polite. I listened a second time to clarify what was going on, and could almost feel the spittle spurting forth from his over caffeinated gob. The first time the voice seemed to just bounce off my throbbing eardrums and disappear into the ether. A bit like my career, really.

Sure, I had been picked up by the BBC straight out of uni, but it did not exactly work out. Writing website copy for science, health and ‘Did you know…?’ sections bored me to tears. I dreamt of being plucked from such obscurity and being given the assignment of a lifetime; Chechnya, South Sudan, or the White House, even. Anything but ‘Scientists have discovered the square root of nothing,’ or ‘Eating so many grammes of something makes something else happen,’ or ’10 extraordinary facts about the Beatles.’ I felt physically sick as I wrote such fluff.

Working in London had also completely done over both my bank account and my liver. Yes, there was camaraderie, but it was more like the gallows humour that kept alive the old refrain about the band playing on aboard the Titanic. The reality was that we were no longer even referred to as journalists. No, we were content writers. I would have resigned if I had not been fired for consistently sourcing rare facts that, in reality, I had made up myself for shits and giggles.

So as not to make out that my degree had been totally worthless, I came back up the road to Edinburgh and applied for work at every weekly rag still just about being put to print in the central belt. Dave Jenkins, who looked like he had just dropped in from Fleet Street in its heyday, with unkempt hair, red cheeks, Alex Ferguson nose, nicotine stains on every visible pore, sweat stains all over his shirt, and a penchant for expletives that would make Malcolm Tucker blush, offered me six months on less money than I would have needed to rent a box – no, not a box room – back down in London. I jumped at his offer. Here was my chance to make a name for myself.

Three months in, and of course, the reality was somewhat different. There are only so many times you can take being told to go out to some tiny East Lothian or Borders village to report on a new notice board being put up, or that a local company had sold some unimaginably boring thing to some unimaginably boring nonentity, without questioning your past decisions in life. So, ever the pro, I had given myself a deadline of one more month. I wanted to find the story of a lifetime, or uncover some scandalous deception from high ranking politicians, or, at the very least, not be heading down to a village, nay, a hamlet, while very likely being over the drink drive limit, accompanied by a freelance photographer who would more than likely share with me some really ‘meaningful’ photos he had taken at temples in Tibet or somewhere equally worthy on the drive down.

I still had the not inconsiderable task of turning myself into a functioning human being. After a blast of ice cold water from the shower I was halfway there. Two burn-your-mouth hot espressos later, and I was at peak fitness. Or, as peak as it was possible to be five hours after finishing a session with a couple of old school friends, knocking back peaty malts and over-priced pints on a city centre pub crawl. Thankfully, it was March, so I did not need to iron a shirt. A quick rummage brought me a presentable black sweater, which I pulled on over a blue shirt. Chucking my good suit on top, I caught sight of myself in the bedroom mirror. Pro. A quick once over with the electric shaver to stave off the hipster look, a dab of wax in the hair, and I was good to go. Ready for action. At this point I was trying not to remind myself that the action was likely to involve a terrifyingly boring encounter with people who would probably show disdain for being interviewed by someone in his late-twenties. Well, stuff them.

The espressos kicked in as I worked my way through the early morning traffic and onto the A1. My lovely new Picanto was tiny, but it had a bit of zip, and so I undertook a couple of outside lane sixty-ers, and got back in front. I felt edgy, like the coffee knew it was only masking what condition my body was actually in. So, I settled into a steadier pace, and made good time to Dunbar.

As I was on the slip road off the A1, my phone buzzed. I hit the hands free button, and got an unfamiliar voice.

‘Chris? It’s Reg, your picture man,’ the voice came through crackly. There was a hint of English accent in there, probably south-western, maybe Bristol.

‘Oh, hi, I’m just…’ indicating to come off a roundabout, was what I wanted to say.

‘Look, I know Jenkins sent you my address in Dunbar,’ he incorrectly stressed the first syllable, ‘but I’m not there. I’m out here.’

‘What?’

‘Out on the beach. Listen, I’ll Whatsapp you my coordinates, stick them in your GPS and you’ll get me. I’m just a couple of miles down the road, you’ll spot me easy enough. We’re nearing totality, and I wanted to start getting the images early. Get a feel for the light on such a momentous occasion.’

‘Totality?’

‘The eclipse, man. See you soon.’

And with that, he was gone. His mention of the eclipse stirred something distant within me. Through the hazy coffee and booze fug in my mind something started to crystalise, something about an email from a friend who had gone off to film a piece to camera in the Faroe Islands to do with an eclipse. As usual, I had ignored such mass hysteria and public worthiness, deciding that two celestial blobs passing each other was not much to get excited about. I pulled in at a lay by, next to a lorry, and copied and pasted the coordinates Reg had sent me into Google maps. He was right about being close. I headed down the coast, and found him snapping away in another lay by.

‘I’m Reg, but on a day like this, I don’t think earthly given names are important anymore. I came here at seven this morning. Couldn’t sleep with the excitement of it all. We’re all one, like a mass consciousness drifting around the sun, and today that reawakens.’ He shook my hand, but also stared into my eyes like some kind of drugged up loon you would meet at a music festival that you could not quite believe lived in the real world the rest of the year.

He had said all this before he had even folded himself, along with his camera kit and loose-fitting, ‘ethnic’ clothes into the passenger seat of the car.

‘Well, I’m Chris. Today and every day,’ I said, meaning it as a joke but realising that it had come out as a cynical snap. I was too hungover to bother apologising, and so we pulled away in silence, and rejoined the A1.

‘Mind if I roll one?’ Reg asked. His floppy blonde fringe was hanging over the packet of Golden Virginia he had fished out of one of the dozen or so pockets he had in his patchwork body-warmer.

‘Well, sorry, but, yeah, I do. Not in the car. It’s new.’

‘Ah, sorry mate,’ he said, as we hit a little pothole, causing some of the tobacco to fall into the little pocket of fake leather around the gear stick. ‘I’ll sort that out,’ and he tried reaching down to clear it up at the same time as I did. he knocked my hand onto the gear stick, causing it to pop out of gear. We lost power, and I hit the clutch, finding the gear. The white BMW behind us flashed his headlights as I lost about twenty miles per hour with no warning. I took a deep breath, when what I wanted to do was tell this idiot to take a jump, and might have given some kind of grumble under my breath. ‘No harm done, eh?’ Reg said, packing his tobacco away.

‘I guess not,’ I said, trying to sound cool and calm, but probably sounding pretty pissed off, which I was. Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at our destination.

Kirkton Bay is not much of a place, truth be told. There is a row of new-build houses that runs down a single track road. They all have massive brick driveways that contain at least three cars, expansive shrubberies, and basketball hoops with no one ever playing. Strangely, this row of houses runs perpendicular to the coastal cliffs that make this area a popular tourist spot. Instead, most of them look out over fields of broad beans and potatoes. Around the corner, however, adjacent to the cliff, there is a row of older houses; whitewashed and small windowed, like a cross between fishermen’s cottages and farm houses. There are stories that artists have found the place idyllic; something to do with the light. Groups of them used to go there in the late-nineteenth century and paint pictures of fishwives and their children. Or at least, that is what Reg was banging on about as I switched off the engine in the cliff top car park.

‘This place has strong vibes, man, historic stuff, y’know,’ he said.

‘Right, sure, great. Look,’ I said, about to come clean about my hangover and lack of interest in whatever it was he was trying to tell me about.

He interrupted, ‘On a day like this, with everything aligned and the spirituality of this place, you need to breathe it all in.’ I tried to make the rolling of my eyes as obvious as I could, but he was distracted by the vibrating alarm of his iPhone, which, thanks to his attempts to verbalise every thought, cosmic or otherwise, that came into his fluffy blonde head, I discovered meant that we were now only five minutes away from the eclipse. I sighed, and wished that I had brought some Lucozade. As it was, the best I could hope for was a cup of tea from the dotty looking old woman standing next to the besuited man at the other side of the car park, who I guessed was the councillor I was here to interview. I allowed the back of my head to hit the headrest, closed my eyes, and breathed deeply.

‘That’s it, man, breath it all in,’ Reg said. I did not bother to tell him what I thought.

I may have drifted off, but perhaps just for a few seconds. Sadly and suddenly, I was awoken by the rat-a-tat-tat of someone knocking on my window. It felt uncomfortably loud and close.

‘You must be from The Courier? I’m Councillor Pillar, and this is Rose Inglis,’ said the muffled voice that came through the window. With my eyes still closed, I lowered the window.

‘Aye, that’s us,’ I said, opening my eyes, feeling the flood of light. It was raining lightly, and the two of them, the councillor and the old resident, both had big umbrellas. He was clearly wearing his best suit and was bald. I would have put him at mid-fifties, and but his glasses probably aged him a bit. Rose, meanwhile, was clearly well into her pensionable years, and a strong gust of wind would very likely carry her over the high cliffs just a few yards from where we stood.

After the briefest of walks around the tiny car park to stretch our legs, I decided that it was time to get down to business. A few relevant questions popped into my head, and I grabbed my notepad, pen and recorder.

Having something to focus on actually helped clear my head, and I felt like I was getting into the rhythm of things when Reg tapped me on the shoulder. ‘It’s time,’ he said.

‘Time for what?’ Councillor Pillar asked, puzzled and slightly angry to have been interrupted just as he was extolling the virtues of the artists who had come to Kirkton Bay over a century ago and how this shiny new plaque would somehow bring more tourists, and therefore money, into the local area.

‘That,’ said Reg, reverently. We followed his finger, which pointed at the sky. It was overcast, but the sun was just about visible through the wispy grey clouds.

‘Oh yes,’ said Rose, the first words I had heard her speak. ‘My daughter told me something about the eclipse on the phone last night. Said I needed special glasses or something.’

‘Don’t worry about that, just feel it. Experience it,’ Reg said, moving his hands in a circular motion as if to enhance the cut-rate mysticism he seemed to be peddling.

‘Well, if you say so. It’s all very exciting,’ she replied.

I caught the Councillor’s eye, and lowered my voice, ‘Look, it’s raining, are you fussed about this eclipse thing or would you rather just get on with things here, back on planet Earth?’

‘Oh, no, I’ve got plenty of time until lunch. Let’s do as Reg says and enjoy the spectacle,’ he replied, turning his fat head to the sky and smiling. Meanwhile, I just rolled my eyes and headed back to the car to escape the persistent drizzle. The dusk-like light that had come with the eclipse actually helped my headache, and so I settled back in my seat and waited for it all to be over.

Except it did not quite happen as quickly as I had expected.

After a few minutes, Reg came and opened the passenger door. ‘Man, you’ve got to see this!’ he shouted.

His urgency shook me awake, and so I opened the car door, half-expecting to see Rose on the rocks below. It took a moment, but I realised that something was wrong. It was still dusky.

‘How long is this bloody eclipse meant to last, Reg?’ I asked.

‘That’s just it! It was meant to be over by now. This is…’ and for the first time, this pseudo-hippy was lost for words.

‘It’s a wee bit spooky,’ Rose said, still staring skywards. ‘The birds don’t know what to do.’ She was right, they had gone silent. Just a few minutes prior, the seagulls had been squawking.

‘So, what now?’ Councillor Pillar asked.

‘This is unprecedented,’ Reg murmured, suddenly finding his voice again. He started furiously tapping and swiping at his phone. ‘And, this is only happening here.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘It’s here. Look, live webcam in Edinburgh. It’s passed,’ he held the phone up to our eyes, then pulled it away again, ‘Newcastle, too. London,’ he was tapping and swiping like a mad-man. ‘It’s passed everywhere. Look up the coast. This eclipse is, is…’

‘Ours?’ suggested Rose.

We stood in a kind of stupefied disbelief, silent. Questions that you would expect four relative strangers to come out with in such a situation just remained unasked. The simple fact was, we did not know what to do. A few other villagers came out of their houses to join us. A couple of other old folk, around Rose’s age, a housewife with her toddler, and a work-from-home banker. We exchanged looks and a few greetings, and confirmed the situation with one another, but that was about it. What else was there to say?

The banker, George, kept checking his tablet computer. He was desperately looking for some kind of confirmation of what was going on.

‘But, there’s nothing on the BBC, or anywhere else,’ he said. Reg joined him in the hunt for information, as if tracking down a few bytes of binary code would somehow prove what was going on. That was when I realised that I had a chance. I took out my own phone and called the desk.

‘Mr Jenkins, it’s me… Yes, I’m in Kirkton Bay… No, the interview about the plaque isn’t done, there’s something much bigger going on… I don’t think you should be speaking to me like that… The eclipse… No, Reg hasn’t done anything… Can you see if there’s anything going on around here? I don’t know, live satellite tracking or something. We’ve only got phones and tablets here, the 3G isn’t great… No, I haven’t flipped out…’

The others had gathered around me like followers of some religious maniac. I had established an outside connection with someone who could tell us what was going on, an oracle of sorts.

‘Yes, Mr Jenkins… What do you mean all roads shut off? Wait I can see it for myself now, there’s a roadblock up at the roundabout on the A1. There’s a police car coming this way. Hold on… Rose?’

‘Yes, dear,’

‘I need to use your house, is that okay?’

‘Well, what for, dear?’

‘Listen, all of you, I’m off inside Rose’s place. Don’t tell them,’ I said, indicating the police car that coming down to us, ‘that I’m here. Please.’

Reg winked, ‘I think I know what you’re up to. I’m coming with. Councillor, if you want this place to truly get on the map, you’ll do what this man says.’

So, Reg and I, from the relative safety of Rose’s en-suite, sat out the next ten minutes as two officers approached the group of residents and their Councillor, gesticulating and pointing to the sun. We were using a tiny swivel mirror pointed outside to watch what was going on. When everyone, including the Councillor and George, handed over their phones, Reg elbowed me in the ribs, ‘Man, you ain’t so hungover after all.’ By now, my heart was racing, and my hangover was the last thing on my mind. This was a chance for me to make a name for myself. Something in the heavens was very wrong, and the authorities were enacting a clearly pre-arranged plan of action. Well, I told myself, this was probably the best chance I had to establish some journalist credentials.

The police disappeared, and Rose came up the stairs. ‘Funny things going on with this eclipse business,’ she said, opening the door. ‘Oh, come on you two, get up from there.’ We did as we were told. She explained that the police had told the group their devices were at risk due to electro-magnetic energy given off as a result of this unexplained phenomenon. ‘And that they wanted to take them for safe-keeping, in case of some discharge, or something like that.’

‘Bull,’ exclaimed Reg, ‘er, sorry, Rose, I mean rubbish.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I think they’re a load of bloody liars, too.’ We headed into Rose’s back garden, through her conservatory. ‘Good luck,’ she said, as she watched us jump over the fence and into a recently ploughed field.

‘So, have you got a plan?’ Reg asked.

‘I think so,’ I said. ‘I need a connection, with lots of data. I’ve only got a few megs left on my plan this month.’

‘Have no fear, I’m on all you can eat data. Just in case. For days like this.’

We set up a Skype call to Jenkins.

‘From what I hear, the entire area has been cordoned off. This is unprecedented. Sorry to have doubted you, son,’ he said, sounding midway between genuine and patronising. It was a start. ‘Listen lads, this is a scoop for all of us. I’ve had all the major news outlets on screen for the last five minutes, and there hasn’t been a whiff of what’s going on. It seems that most correspondents went to the bloody Faroe Islands, or down to Cornwall for some hippy festival. Surprised you aren’t there yourself, Reg.’ He opened his mouth to say something, but Jenkins carried on and cut him off. ‘As far as media goes, it’s pretty much just you two in the whole affected area. So, before we make absolute fools of ourselves, are you absolutely, one hundred percent sure that the eclipse has paused itself above a small patch of East Lothian and the borders?’

‘Look for yourself,’ Reg said, holding his iPhone up, ‘and just think, they must have known something like this could happen. You see how fast the response was? That was military-style planning and execution. This is huge. Huge!’

‘Keep a level head on it, son,’ Jenkins said, the audio connection crackling slightly, turning this sweaty, chain-smoking, obese newspaperman into the vocal equivalent of a dalek. ‘Look, if this is what’s going on then I’ve got a couple of old muckers I reckon I can leak this to at the Beeb and in New York. Well, we don’t need to be in the middle of the ocean to get the best view of what’s going on, do we now? The only question is, can you two handle it?’

‘You mean, live broadcast?’ I asked.

‘No, a triathlon followed by a drinking session with Oliver Reed. Of course I mean a live broadcast. Your name, our newspaper, global audience. I’ve waited forty years for an opportunity like this. You bastards are getting it before you’ve even started shaving.’

‘Hardly, boss, I’m forty five earth years old, for a start,’ protested Reg.

‘Whatever. Give me a few minutes, I’ll Skype you back.’ And with that, the despondent, echoey sound of a terminated Skype call emanated from Reg’s iPhone. It was swiftly followed by another, even more depressing sound; the low-battery warning.

‘We’ve got to get back to Rose’s. I’ve got a charger in me bag. Wait there,’ he said, indicating the conservatory.

I sat there, using the vague reflection offered by the window to check my hair. If I was going to be presenting the news to the world, I wanted to make sure I looked my best. It was then I realised I was sweating. The sky blue shirt had been a bad choice. I could feel the patches under my arms growing by the second. My big chance, the comeback kid, derailed by the kind of look sported only by South American football managers. I dashed into the kitchen to find some absorbent paper. Rose came back in. ‘Oh, you look nervous,’ she said. ‘I hope you and that blonde laddie aren’t up to anything you shouldn’t be.’ She winked, and pulled a bottle down from a shelf. ‘Here, have one of these,’ she smiled.

If I had been offered whisky an hour before, I probably would have thrown up on the spot. As it was, the dram she had poured me was probably preventing me from vomiting, such were my nerves. I knocked it back, savouring the burn.

Reg came flying back through the front door, charger in hand. ‘Let’s get this started. I was about to follow him back to the conservatory when I saw Councillor Pillar also coming in through the door, followed by George and the others.

‘What’s going on, Reg?’ I asked.

‘Interviewees, man. Human interest angle,’ he said, smiling. I was warming to him.

We set up in the doorway to Rose’s back garden. The light was low, of course, and we wanted it to feel that way, so despite Rose’s protestations, the lamps remained switched off.

Reg held the phone in landscape mode, and I stood three feet back. We waited for Jenkins’ call. It felt like an age, but eventually, the familiar beep-beep beep beep-beep of a Skype call came through.

‘Right, no mucking about now. You’re going to be connected up in five minutes. Live on BBC and CNN. You’re not going to go to pieces, are you? Not like that article you stuck online to get fired in London?’

‘Thanks for reminding me,’ I said. ‘I can do this.’ It was odd, as though the act of saying it actually made it true. Either that, or the dram was working, and taking the edge off of my nerves.

‘The paper’s name is going to be used alongside yours, so I hope that’s true. Do me proud.’

‘Right, here’s what’s going to happen,’ I said, as if powered up by some invisible force. ‘I’m going to explain what’s happened, with both the eclipse and the shut down. Reg, you’re going to pan round to show who’s all here with us. Then, I’m going to start with you, Councillor. Keep it brief, no one wants lengthy interviews. I studied this stuff. I’ll ask you two, three questions max. Keep it snappy, and I may do four. You’ll be getting visitors here for years as a result.’

‘Oi! Good stuff, you’re on in three minutes,’ Jenkins’s voice came through tinny, but clear.

‘Rose, you’re next,’ I said, growing into my take-charge of the situation voice. I felt the flow. ‘I just want stuff like, oh, I’ve never seen anything like this before. Is it the end of the world? All that kind of stuff. Can you do that for me?’

‘You mean act the panicky old wifie?’

‘Well, I didn’t mean…’

‘Don’t worry about it. I do that show most of the time anyway. I’ll happily play the fool.’

‘Two minutes,’ said Jenkins, breaking the silence. ‘This is going out live on their twenty four hour news channels, and may get picked up by BBC1. It’s all down to you two now, I’m signing off. Keep this call active, and they’ll automatically patch in. Good luck. I mean it.’

I stared at Reg, out of camera shot. I nodded slowly, and smiled, as did he. I still could not believe that I had this opportunity, the simple piece to camera and interviews that would propel me into media stardom. The chance to get back into the big league, leapfrogging all those idiots, like me, who were driving around the country interviewing councillors about plaques. I smiled, feeling sure I was going to do myself justice. Reg, too, was smiling. He looked serene, as if he were some kind of angel sent to help me out on today of all days. He still had his digital SLR slung around his neck.

‘Good to go, man,’ he said.

‘Yep, just…’

I did not have the energy to say it. My eyes could see it, my brain was processing it, but I could not verbalise it. The words got stuck in my throat. I spluttered. Everyone got up. Reg stood there, still holding the phone, but looking beyond me, up at the sky. I did not turn round. I did not need to. Nope, the reflection of the light in the lens of Reg’s camera told me all I needed to know. Sunlight flooded the conservatory. The earth’s movement, its insistent spinning and whirring, had started up again, leaving all of us to wonder whether or not the last half hour had actually happened at all. To this day, Reg maintains it did. I do, too, but only to those who will listen.

‘Oh well, that was exciting while it lasted,’ Councillor Pillar said. ‘Can we finish the interview about the plaque, now?’