Slugs

 

Slugs

It was routine, the kind of routine that develops slowly as days grow into
weeks, weeks into months and months inaudibly into years. The kind of routine that sets its routes deep, deep down below the surface and establishes itself from sapling habit to budding ritual. Regardless of the season I tended my routine. Spring grew to summer, summer to autumn, autumn to winter and winter relentlessly back to spring, and my evening routine remained. Even the unpredictability of the weather did not prove to be a deterrent to me, weather that could change without prediction or recourse to the general climate of the country. Fronts would sweep in, bringing unexpected cold air from the north, and then collide with warmer air as it drifted slowly in land from the west, playing out a strange and surreal battle in the skies above me. Some evenings the air would remain warm, the remnants of a humid summer’s day, making my clothes tug at my skin. Other nights brought icy chills into the suburban landscape form the distant countryside. Frost began to creep its way across field and bushes, clawing itself a foothold in the city outskirts. It would appear relentless in its move towards the towering bustle of the city, but already its frailty could be seen beneath the shelter of bushes and trees. Here it failed in its attempt to attached itself to the world of humanity and technological progress, and began to slip soundlessly away to shelter in more exposed areas. At other times the night would be cut by driving winds, slicing the streets with the precision of a freshly sharpened blade and pounding like a madman at doors and windows as houses huddled together against the invading force. These winds, however, did not seek shelter; they were angry, furious with a ferocity that could not be quelled. Their one aim was to tear down the fabric of life, and to conquer; to be the dominant force they felt that nature had intended for them. Other evenings, still, brought rain. Some nights the rain would pour and pour, like a ceaseless torrent of tears trying to wash away a memory which was too painful to be revisited. On different evenings the rain would form a subtle, cloak-like mist, miniscule droplets that would appear to fall all around me, without ever actually touching me. It was only when I returned home that I would realise that the moisture had crept unnoticed between my clothes, beneath my skin, and I was
soaked, as drenched as I would have been if I had lay for too long in a deep, hot

bath.

At 11:25 each night I would take a perfunctory glance through my window and judge the mood of the evening. On summer nights I might leave my house in simply my jeans and shirt-sleeves, hoping to feel the still warm air caress my skin. In the Winter I may decide to haul a thick woollen sweater over my head, or perhaps even slip myself into my thick, leather jacket, pulling it tightly around my shirt to keep the cold from biting into me. A glance at the skies above was also a factor in my decision regarding the clothes that I would don for the night. It was true that I had been caught out by a freak rainstorm or even unexpected warmth, but by now my routine was so ingrained into my being that I could, at this point in my life, almost automatically select the most appropriate clothing for my evening walk. And so, by 11:30 I was always ready and prepared to leave my home for my late evening walk, and each and every night began in
exactly the same fashion. I would leave the house, walk to the intersection of the streets which lay some fifty metres from my door, and stop. Then I would make the evenings most important and essential decision – whether to turn left or to turn right. In truth it really made no difference which direction I chose to take. I had walked each street, footpath and alley way. Each open field, towpath and gully, so many times that I knew each one as if it were etched upon my memory; as if it were a part of my actual make up, and to this end I knew that I cover any given route regardless of my initial decision. Still it was a decision that I had to make, and, on this particular night, I chose to begin my walk by turning left.

The day had been a precipitous one. Huge swathes of rain had swept the area, depositing deluges which had swamped gardens and left plants, so lovingly positioned and tended by their households, struggling to swim for air. By now, however, the sky had grown clear; clouds had finally departed from our skies, making their way to the coast and then beyond that to the open sea to collect more and more water vapour to condense and then heap upon someone else. The sky now was clear and dry, but the roads and pavements still glistened with the rainfall of the day; it had never grown warm enough form any serious evaporation to take place. As I walked I was aware of the multitude of snails and slugs that were making the most of the still visible moisture to move steadily from one patch of vegetation to the next. Their movements were almost imperceptible, but I could almost sense their concentration of effort, and read their one recurrent thought – Would they make their destination under the cover and protection of darkness, or would they fail, become trapped in the open, as prey for birds who had been disturbed and had woken early, or, what may be even worse, find themselves drying and shriveling in a harsh sun that had risen before they had time to realise it? My feet moved cautiously amongst these strange creatures, treading carefully to avoid them. This was not because I held any particular reverence for either slugs or snails, or held any particular religious belief in the sacred nature of life. No, in fact I had always considered these specific creatures to be rather bizarre – One carrying its home and all of its possessions with it, rather like a vagrant unable to persuade anyone to allow it to settle. The other always reminded me of thick globules of fat, such as might accumulate at the bottom a grill pan, sliding from one side to the other as the pan is heated in order to clean it: Ugly, congealed lumps of grease clinging to one another in the desperate that one might hold a lifeline for the other. No, my precision in walking was not a deliberately conscious act on my part, it was rather that my feet seemed to know instinctively where to place themselves, as if they had some prior knowledge as to where the myriad snails and slugs would be. Of course there would be the occasional rogue snail that had refused to give notification of his movements. Then there would come the brittle cracking sound as my foot fought to readjust itself. I could only feel a pang of apology as I realised what had happened, and remembered why I had never enjoyed the process of eating a chocolate cracknel sweet.

I knew each street and footpath as well as a cartographer, and my evening walk always lasted precisely one hour. I did not rush, but neither did I loiter aimlessly . I took my walk to enjoy the silence and solitude due to me following an exhausting day at work as much as for any other reason; it was certainly not an exercise designed to maintain my well being or improve my health. As I walked along the damp streets I looked at the variety of houses I passed on my chosen route. Each one was quiet now. Most has shut themselves away from the bustle of everyday life and were protecting their occupants behind their hard exterior and I couldn’t help but be reminded how much this made me think of a snail ensconced inside its shell. Looking at them I wondered if their occupants actually existed within them, or had, in their slumber, been absorbed into the very fabric, the very being of the house, silent and motionless. Occasionally I would pass a house from which there came light. Almost invariably this light would emanate from a room in the upper part of the house. A dull yellowish-white light, almost hypnotic in its lullaby; I could imagine its demeanour urging the people contained within the room to sleep, to give themselves up to dreams and in doing so allow the light itself to extinguish its glow, and submit to rest. Sometimes the glow I saw flickered first blue, now green and now red. The soundless flashes from television screens pierced the gap in blinds or curtains. As I passed along the streets I wondered whether each television was showing the same programme or if, in our world of multiple channels, whether, in fact each show really was different. Either way it was impossible to tell from the tiny coloured flares which escaped into the night.

From time to time I glanced upwards towards the purple-cloaked sky. The evening was clear, but occasionally a grey cloud would appear and scuttle across the darkness in embarrassment. These clouds looked as if they belonged to a group of sightseers and had suddenly found themselves abandoned as the remainder of their party had continued its tour. They didn’t want to miss the next stop on their itinerary and were now desperate to rejoin their companions. I looked up at the maze of stars that made up my half of the universe. In my younger days I had studied, albeit briefly, astronomy, and later, and in more detail, astrology. Now as I looked into the endless blackness I tried to recall the shapes and names of constellations. The more I looked, however, the less obvious any single one seemed; it appeared that the harder my eyes worked to identify patterns that I might recognise, the more confused they became by the millions of light specks that kept coming into view. Now I recognised nothing. I thought about how astrologers had looked into these fragmented groups of stars and given them names. Even now I was unable to fathom how any of these calling cards had been arrived at. This, in turn, made it even harder to remember any of the constellations that I had learned as a youth. I decided to give up star-gazing.

Now my eyes were distracted by tiny, flashing lights which moved slowly and deliberately across the sky. Although I did not live particularly close to an airport, planes regularly used my visible airspace as flight paths, and, unless the cloud cover was especially thick, I could generally count on seeing around half a dozen planes wink at me before either their distance or orientation took them out of my sight. The planes were usually silent in their movements, too far into the atmosphere for any sound to penetrate as far as me, but I did not mind this – I enjoyed their silence. As I followed one distance jet, my thoughts open to its destination and the routines of its passengers, a new and different light caught my eye. This light was brighter than any jet, or indeed any star – and besides it was as white as chalk. I stared more and more intently realising at last that this peculiar light was not alone. In fact there appeared to be not one, not even two, but three similar lights, all equally bright, and of apparently the same size. I began to concentrate harder and harder on these luminescent pinpoints in the darkness. No, I was not imagining it, they were there, and yes, they were forming a perfect, equilateral triangle. What was more, I know noticed, was that they were not, in fact, stationary, but were moving, steadily and purposefully. They remained equidistant, but were definitely moving, seemingly slowly, but moving none the less, in my direction. Part of me wanted to look away, to avert my gaze; not through any trepidation or fear on my part, but rather to see whether there was anybody else around. I knew that this was not all that likely as, even without having to check my watch, I knew that it had gone midnight: But still I felt that I needed to confirm, to know, that I was alone. I found, however, that I felt compelled to look as the lights moved seamlessly through the night sky. Without signal they stopped. A shaft of pale light appeared to finger out from each, combining with one another in the dead centre of the triangle. As they merged they began to glow like a neon bulb reaching its full fluorescence. There was still no sound, no notice to break the silence that blanketed me. As I watched, the convergence released a light not unlike that of a helicopter’s searchlight, radiating its glow outwards and towards the surface of the earth. My ears told me, however, that this was no helicopter conducting a search; no this was not a creature of the sky that was recognisable or nameable by words. And yet I watched, transfixed. The light seemed to move regularly across the roads and pavements beneath it. It swept over footpaths, alleyways, trees and bushes, subtly illuminating its pathway. Noting stirred in its wake, and if the light were searching for something, it appeared to be engaged in a fruitless task. I momentarily thought about childhood stories of abduction and alien visitation – but dismissed them quickly, before they had the chance to root themselves in my brain. I watched the light slowly move from left to right and the back again. Tiny particles of dust floated aimlessly within the beam, then found themselves being sucked upwards towards its source. The light began to move closer to me, but I remained still. The particles of dust seemed larger then I had first thought: To my eyes they looked rather like grotesque globules of fat being absorbed into the light.

                                                           *

For the following weeks I religiously scanned the local media, but there was never a single, solitary mention of the event that I had witnessed; not in the newspapers, on radio or on television. I never spoke to anybody about the things that I had seen that evening, and never again has my routine been disturbed by lights that I had not previously seen. But, for now, my feet find fewer errors of judgement on damp evenings.

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