The night the lights wen.., p.1
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       The Night the Lights Went Out, p.1

           John Eider
The Night the Lights Went Out

  The Night the Lights Went Out

  By John Eider

  Copyright 2012 John Eider

  Thanks to Marie, Manuela, Carl and Juliette.

  Chapter 1 – Calais


  ‘You’ll live,’ advised the doctor as he turned to replace the tools of his trade in their leather bag.

  ‘So you’re signing me off?’

  ‘I already have done – I spoke to your commander this morning.’

  ‘So they’re expecting me back at the base?’ I had got down from the kitchen table now, and was retying my shoelaces.

  ‘He told me not to rush you, that you had missed the First Wave and that the Second wasn’t ready yet. He said that even if you came back now you would “only be thrown out on local street patrol,” and that they had no call for – what do you call yourselves – repatriates?’

  ‘Something like that.’

  ‘So you rest a day, perhaps take a stroll. I know, go and buy the newspaper! Learn about our new and crazy world.’

  ‘Reading the paper is all I do.’

  ‘There is a new article by your Union Jack.’

  ‘Oh, I’ve read enough of him.’

  ‘Well, suit yourself; but get some air.’

  I liked the doctor, and had been lucky to find him after being discharged from the infirmary nearly three months before. I’m afraid I’ve since forgotten his name; but then this was all six years ago, when we were growing used to missing people, and learning just how easy it was to lose them.

  He himself had seen his life change, as he told me over the course of our meetings: being brought out of retirement after a lifetime serving his small town near Nantes, his good English had consigned him to a second career caring for those of us washed-up bruised and broken on his nation’s shore. Back then it was hard enough finding even him to treat me, but I was Army and that still stood for something,

  ‘Your country needs its young people when there’s so much for them to do,’ he said as he went to leave, ‘and here I am patching you up on a table in an apartment that…’ His shudder ended the sentence.

  ‘Not the most salubrious I grant you, but…’

  ‘…but when so many have so little.’

  At the conclusion of our business, I showed him to my door and down the stairs. At the foot of them, he turned and said quite formally,

  ‘It is just as well that you are better now, for they’re moving me and we may not see each other again.’

  Upon my enquiring where to, he replied, ‘They want me at the infirmary. We hear such terrible things, and as a doctor it’s my duty to go when I am needed.’

  ‘Of course, I wish you well there,’ I said as I shook his hand.

  The doctor said though, before turning to leave, ‘Your commander, I should warn you: he’s not the only one concerned for your wellbeing.’

  But as I went to ask him who he meant by that, he had turned and gone.

  ‘Our new and crazy world,’ the doctor had called it, and I had no better words. A ‘new and crazy world’ that in just a few months had seen Britain reduced to a Third World nation, its population scattered over Europe or lost contact with at home, its industry and economy and cultural output ended at a stroke…

  Yet had you asked any of the Brits in France or elsewhere back then just what had happened to have them make their way seaward and scramble for a boat, then we could hardly have told you. (For the record, we evacuees had all been relatively coastal. The landlocked were left needing to find their own way to already crowded ports, or else sit it out in static towns.) Now of course everyone’s an expert, could give a Christmas Lecture on ‘the tribulations,’ on sun-spots and atmospheric interference and magnetic storms. Specifically the storm that swept down over Northern Europe that May afternoon, the charged particles it carried accelerating the currents in the pylon wires as it blew over them, burning out those stretches that ran over open country, and frying the transformers that this surging current raced to meet.

  This was the same effect as had hit Quebec in Nineteen Eighty-nine, they would later tell us, knocking out their power grid for nine hours and sending radios haywire – so why had we never been warned that this could happen? And now it had been our turn, and we had had it worse – for this time the power had stayed off. For Sweden and Denmark too of course, the same storm equally affecting them; but they were built for arctic winters, had diesel generators and dry food stores. Half of their rural communities weren’t even on the power grid to begin with. Scandinavia just fired up the stoves and dug in…

  Meanwhile, Britain panicked: with tinned food gone from the shelves in hours, stores looted clean in days; which was all you could do anyway with no cash machines for money or working tills to pay at. And the queues at petrol stations became riots when the attendants with the hand-pumps had emptied the forecourt reserves and the depots could no longer fill their tankers…

  But that all seemed a long way away that hot afternoon as, taking the doctor’s advice, I ventured from the apartment to take some air, my leg easing up as I walked through town. Like any soldier I’d been stationed abroad many times, and I remembered there were things about a foreign country that you began to get used to in a way the regular holidaymaker hadn’t a chance to before being whisked home: the warmth of daytime, and how that heat lingered into evening; the lack of dampness, chills or the need to even consider taking a jacket out with you. I don’t know how Calais had that knack though – look at a map, there’s a whole strip of England geographically south of it.

  Yet there was something else that day, some quality of otherness, abroadness. I can only say that as I moved through the town that early August day, despite the similarity in buildings and in the layout of shops and streets and roundabouts, I couldn’t help noticing just how different this felt from home; and this at a time when we all felt such a pull toward our lost land across the Channel that we might have been expected to have found familiarity anywhere it lay.

  As I walked along roads parallel to the shore but deliberately keeping me from the seafront, I recalled that the town had always been a busy one. This fact I remembered this from a coach trip I had been on with my dad, a booze cruise organised by his local pub. I had been seventeen, our last time together before I joined up. Yet now the traffic even on these minor roads was chronic, while the shops had their goods spilling out onto the pavement, where more people than ever crushed past. There were shouts and calls ringing out in French and English, but only those sentiments familiar to wherever there was trade and commerce and people getting in each other’s way – the nasty stuff was saved for the nighttime, and left as graffiti on the shutters now rolled up and on the awnings over our heads: where intermingled with and overlaid by the union flags and ‘Rule Britannia!’s and worse besides of the incomers, were the local sentiments of ‘Parasites!’, ‘British Go Home!’ and the phrase you saw everywhere these days, ‘Le Batard Anglais!’

  ‘Don’t mind the writing. Some of our young men just need to blow off steam; and anyone can use bad words when they’re angry.’

  I turned to see a woman looking at me looking at the grafitti. She could as easily have chided me for blocking the pavement, lost in thought as I was.

  ‘Here, let me help you,’ I urged upon seeing her bags full of bread, milk and sugar.

  ‘No need, I’m already there,’ she said, nodding toward the cafeteria and soup kitchen next door.

  ‘You prefer the round loaves?’ I noticed from the bags. ‘Not baguettes?’

  ‘These are best for slicing thin – and you British do like your tea and toast!’

  I looked back up at the scrawled words, saying,

  ‘Anyway, Frenc
h feeling’s understandable. We’ve descended on you like a pack of hungry animals. And here you are, making us food.’

  ‘You’d do the same for us.’

  ‘I hope we would.’

  ‘And we know that you appreciate it,’ the woman continued. ‘How did your Union Jack put it? “But we expatriates mustn’t judge our hosts harshly, even when they seem put out by our presence. The French Government are the good guys. They are the ones making probably the largest peacetime effort toward one European nation by another. I doubt, once all is said and done, whether even the Bosnian peacekeeping or German reunification will prove to have been less expensive.”’

  ‘You remembered all that verbatim?’ I asked.

  ‘It’s my student’s training… what, you don’t think an academic should be busy making sandwiches? There is a time to write and a time to do. When it’s all over, then I write about it!’

  She smiled and entered the cafeteria; leaving me with a gratitude so massive, so un-repayable that it felt a kind of guilt.

  Further crowding the street as I walked on were sellers of English language papers and books, their stalls unlicensed but tolerated and filling a genuine need – I would buy my paper further along though. My route also took me past the Prince William, the first – to my knowledge, at least – of what became the familiar sight of English ‘Pubs’; though this one back then was only a converted shop offering what stock remained of British drinks. Even I though as a Briton shirked at the clientele.

  However careful I had been to get where I was going, the last part of my route could not avoid bringing me out onto the seafront; and the sight that, though I knew it was there, I like many others wished to guard myself against by not spending any longer faced with it than necessary. For it was the strip formed by the beaches and beside the harbour walls that showed the most immediate effects of the catastrophe, the tideline of those brought in by the sea.

  I turned the corner by a tobacconists, and right in front of me along the coast road rushed a gate-sided wagon with people holding tight in the back, behind it an ambulance with sirens blaring. Scanning first one way along the beach and then the other I saw at least two more of each type of vehicle. They were there to meet the boats, rafts, barrels that had dodged the coastguard or been allowed to land there, coming in with their crews of the living and the dead and the barely alive. All this took place amongst a disordered cast of recent arrivees, Gendarmeres and helpers, newly-settled locals like myself who couldn’t keep away, and among that latter group a sub-section of men bewildered, drunk and sometimes weeping.

  These were always men. The British-branded cans they clutched were a badge of patriotism, almost the last they had available; yet as the hypermarkets sold out of these and with no new stocks arriving to replace them, so they had begun to take up the Continental brands. It hadn’t been disaster that had undone these men, for they had all managed the journey alone or with families; rather it was the delayed shock, lying back on the beach and catching their breath, of finding themselves there and realising what was happening.

  This was before the Scanlon Report of course, when even those of us who had lived through those chaotic times had only the sketchiest idea of what had actually happened, of how something as simple as the power going off one day could lead to the collapse of all we relied on and took for granted the next. As Scanlon would write (and what a bible his report would become):

  The saddest thing is not that this event has sent us back to Victorian pre-electric days, for as we know the effect is worse even than that; but rather the irony that had this storm happened in the time of the Victorians – or at any time up until the Nineteen-Fifties or even Sixties – then enough of our infrastructure and day-to-day technology would have been free enough of electrical components to have remained operational without a power supply, and unaffected by the storm’s attendant atmospheric interference, so allowing some form of pre-electric culture to have been more-easily returned to.

  …and ‘returned to’ for long enough to get the power back up; for what had harmed us wasn’t the damage done to the National Grid – anyone can spend a couple of nights in the dark – but rather that the maintenance crews then hadn’t been able to get the power supply fixed before they themselves ran out of battery power for tools and petrol for their trucks; in short, before the country’s systems broke down, and before things turned really ugly.

  As Scanlon himself would later put it:

  This was us as a nation not being able to hold the roof down for the duration of a rainstorm; and so for the want of repairing a few tiles in time, the whole house was lost.

  The men who drank cans on the beach were not lost, they wanted for a role was all, some way to get back and help their nation; hence the Repatriate Corps now being formed at the new British bases springing up all along the French North Coast. It had been decided that under military supervision there was much a fit man or woman, without familial responsibility, could do to help – and there were many wanting only to be given that chance. It was the nearest of these new bases that I was determined to present myself at that next morning.

  Standing there, a scream broke my thoughts, and called my attention to an object – you could scarcely have called it a craft – at that moment being pulled from the surf. It seemed a collection of inner-tubes and wooden beams somehow holding itself together, and as I looked I saw it carried a stricken figure.

  At that point I knew why I came by the seafront only when it couldn’t be avoided: because I knew the sight would be too compelling, that it would hold my gaze with each detail it presented, and that I would be drawn to help, to act… when I had known those recent weeks that the slightest pull or knock to my leg could leave me unable to make any larger contribution in uniform for months longer still. Yet I was signed off now, was fit to work again, and so rushed onto the sand in my hopeless deck-shoes, almost falling as I got to the damp edge. There I found a man clearly past saving, laid out cruciform over the contraption now pulled onto land. Beside the raft, not noticed by me earlier in the melee, was a woman soaked from head to toe and moaning to herself. This moan became a wail, as a female medic attempted to take from her the bundle of lifeless rags held tightly to her chest.

  Knowing there was nothing for me to do there I turned, and feeling the strain on muscles previously allowed to go lazy, walked back to the shops along the front, and to the paper stand I had almost reached. Across the wall above where the stall was chained up at night were the usual slogans; and a new one I hadn’t seen before, ‘Rosbeef Maggots!’

  ‘I think calling us Roastbeefs is their answer to us calling them Frog’s Legs all these years,’ chuckled Marty the holder of the stall. ‘I found it there this morning. Very Napoleonic I must say, it did raise a smile I can tell you.’

  ‘Is maggots the same word in French?’

  ‘No, it’s mauche – I looked it up,’ said Marty waving the smart-phone he had somehow wangled connecting to a French network. ‘I think they’re learning a bit of English now though, so we understand the names they’re calling us! But they don’t account for the Bulldog Spirit, do they Mr Crofts?’

  ‘They certainly don’t, Mart.’

  It was the oddest thing, noted in the newspapers even then, how in that time of crisis, of crisis of identity as much as anything else, people were subconsciously adopting the most traditional and reassuring stereotypes. Whoever Marty had been back in Britain, he could only have been a London cabbie or a seller of souvenirs to tourists outside the Tower of London to have carried on in this bantering fashion in his daily life back home.

  Yet there, on this perpetual Dunkirk-in-reverse of a pitch, looking past his paperbacks out across the Channel toward what some already were calling ‘the Old Country’, Marty’s bullish Britishness – the crown and portcullis painted on his awning, the poster behind him of the Queen and Prince Philip waving from a gilded coach – all served to anchor that sense of something continuing; and to answer the question al
l of us scattered along the North Coast were asking, whether we knew it or not: what did it mean to British without Britain?

  He seemed as cheerful as ever though, despite his view across the beach. His collection of English-language wares were pinned to the boards beside him, or strung above his head from bulldog clips – printouts of information pages from the website of Her Majesty’s Government in Exile; homemade ex-pat pamphlets on all manner of topics; imprints of classic British novels by Austen, Hardy, Elliot; and vitally, today’s Le égalitaire.

  The Egalitarian, as its title had been roughly translated to us without French, had been a local paper down on its uppers, before a potential new readership of several tens of thousands had descended on the North Coast. It put out a special issue with the first ten pages printed in English, which soon became the norm; and as its new readership had grown so it had seen its circulation go past half-a-million.

  ‘There’s a piece by Union Jack in it today,’ said Marty as I paid.

  ‘So I believe.’

  ‘He does keep our spirits up so.’

  ‘He does indeed,’ I answered, as one who admired that writer’s intent if not always his rhetoric.

  ‘To Her Majesty,’ Marty called in drinkless toast as I went to leave with my paper.

  ‘Her Majesty,’ I answered, wherever she may be.

  Chapter 2 – A British Visitor

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