Not After Midnight

I remember the rides in abandoned shopping trolleys and the laughter when we landed in a heap after rolling off the curb into the gutter. Grazed knees, climbing trees, purple bruises, cuts and tears plagued us. We were just kids at the time, and as we grew our friendship grew with us. There wasn’t a particular moment when I began to love him, it was as if I always had. Lingering looks that seemed to last forever and kisses that never quite lasted long enough saw us through our teenage years. Our wedding was an enchanted black and white ceremony with puffy pink bridesmaids and strong handsome groomsmen. On a day where a warm breeze chased away any feelings of doubt, as we recited our vows, I knew he was mine – forever.

Settling in the countryside was like waking mid dream. The dewy landscape and hazy contentment were a distorted euphoria and carefully stitched into the rustic fabric of the land was a warning label. Don’t go out after midnight. I wish we had paid more attention to the ridiculous fables at the time. Laughable enigmatic stories of night-time disappearances and deranged beings were received during elbow bending evenings in the village pub. Serious faces and sincere expressions escorted the tales and although the content was amusing, the villagers shared them as if they were gospel.

The luscious grass around our tiny cottage invited the indigenous wildlife to the tender playground. The view of the small property wasn’t at all enticing but the animals liked it. Within the weathered walls, the stench of poverty waited like an empty Christmas morning. The scant beginnings of newlywed life barely filled the vacant rooms. Slowly the peeling paint and distinct look of distaste disappeared over endless decorating days. The laborious hours were followed by evenings of wine and love-making. My well of senses overflowed as I enjoyed his soft lips, and he gave himself generously. The feeling of his skin against mine overpowered me as I surrendered to the passion that swelled within like a balloon ready to burst. His dark shoulder-length hair caught the light and shone with a burnished lustre. Captive, I would lose myself in his misty grey eyes for hours and wander around not knowing if I would ever find my way out. A soft aroma reminiscent of a secluded orchard on a summer afternoon wafted from the glistening firmness of his carved muscles suggesting endless ecstasy. And he kept me, his willing paramour for his pleasure and mine. There was never an objection.

He spoke with a liquid voice and I floated on the poetic lines of Keats. The work of my artful Romeo gushed affectionately. Leaning forward with my elbows on the table and my chin resting in the cup of my hands, I indulged, but he could have been reading anything. Mesmerised by every flawless facet, I adored him knowing that our love would last as long as we did.

Priceless memories gathered along the way paved our past with richness. Like a ruby in a cluster of diamonds, one shining gem stood out. It was just after we moved into the cottage together, on a rainy afternoon. Tiny droplets bounced in the puddles left in the pits of the mucky track that led from the road to our humble home. As I stood at the window watching them, he wrapped me in his arms and I heard him whisper, “I’ll always love you.” It was almost as if I could see his words ascend, suspended in the air before us, and I had no reason to doubt him.  

We drifted together on our private stream going with the current, but in a careless blue moon moment, something changed. A late-night return with a look of terror triggered a shift. At first, it was just a feeling, a fleeting flash and then all was good. Slowly though, a fissure appeared and widened and soon it grew difficult for me to close the distance. I felt as though he was miles away and the further away he was, the more obscure he became. His mood was almost dangerous at times, and it hurt to look at him. Agony conquered my heart and weakened me. Any fight to hold onto my love faded as our relationship was torn savagely by the vicious talons of resentment.

And I wondered. I wondered about all the smiles and the good times. I wondered about the, ‘I love you,’ I had heard on so many occasions. I wondered if it had all been lies, an act he had invented to make me love him. I thought about the flowers and the gifts, were they false offerings intended to deceive? Treasures we had collected from our travels together, once precious keepsakes were now dark reminders of a better time and it almost felt as though it had been another couple’s life.

If he let me get close enough I could map the sadness on his face, trace the tearful lines with the tip of a finger. His eyes, once so inviting, were now arctic and abandoned and the weighty stare revealed the psychosis within. At times there was nothing and the absence of being stole my energy like a hapless thief.  A crusty pod housed a vacant heart which beat stealthily to keep him going. Evenly, I heard it pounding within the emptiness. It drowned out the whispers of hope I harboured, but a silent voice inside urged me on and although the hurt was almost unbearable, I stood by him without condition.

Slight and ghostly, he crept from day to day. Sometimes barely visible, and I missed him. With anguish, I would sit and search my mind trying to understand the distance created by his insular behaviour. Tender, lusty, flesh-filled enjoyment had turned to forced, unsatisfying, sinful torture. His smile, his touch, the way our life was together, all in the past. My passion slipped away and bitterness took its place. It grew, like fire in a dried field, devouring everything in its path and hatred began to seep into the unfriendly medley adding to my despair.

So, I cried. I cried like I never had before. I cried because love hurts. I couldn’t stop and the sorrow led to misery that flooded my hours threatening to wash away the slightest amount of comfort. I thought of him every moment, and sometimes he ventured into my dreams. Each morning, as the sun warmed the heart of the land, my own grew chilly and the tears would spill. There were times when I thought the sadness would be my downfall. Alone, I ached for him. I craved a smile or just a hint of bliss and I doubted if I would ever be happy again, but the cruelest sting was yet to come.

Locked away for hours, his grating cries came constantly. Where once his voice had been a luxury, now it lashed at my nerves as if my skin had peeled and exposed the rawness, but not after midnight. Never after midnight. After midnight the howling came from a distance. After midnight, faint screams of the innocent seeped into the dwelling as I covered my ears and whispered a desperate prayer.  

Relief arrived on a heartless night. The kind of evening where your breath erupts into minute droplets and hangs for a moment in the air. With familiarity, the terror began just after the sun had set and within the confines of our four-room cottage, only a flimsy wall separated us. The cries and moans penetrated every corner of the small sitting room and filled any void where I might escape. After a troublesome stretch, they stopped. In the distance, the village clock struck twelve. I could hear the shouts and screams of the locals. The devil’s hour brought the sound of a gun exploding into the chaotic darkness. Loud, it echoed through the night and as the solitary shot rang out, I knew he was gone – forever.