There’s a darkness on the edge of town. Everyone knows of it, yet we never speak of it. How we come to learn of the darkness is inexplicable. No-one tells us, and yet we know. Perhaps the darkness itself whispers in our ears as we sleep. Perhaps we deduce it from the clues scattered like breadcrumbs throughout the silent suburban streets. No-one goes beyond the river – the boundary of its territory – after nightfall. Hardly anyone goes there during the day. The ones who go missing remain missed. Everyone plasters a smile on their face. You never see an unhappy person on our streets. And yet strangers seldom linger.
‘Why don’t we move?’ I asked my father when I was eight. He stared at me, stupid with shock. He did not answer me, then or at any other time. He just hustled me off to play with my despised Barbie.
It wasn’t until many years later that it occurred to me that such a thing had never occurred to my father. The idea was simply alien to him. It was a foreign concept to every other being in town as well. The darkness was as much a part of them as their lawns and their cars and their occasional dinner get-togethers (party being too strong a term). They couldn’t leave it behind.
Besides, I think it gave my father and mother and our neighbours a feeling of consequence. Everything else around here is aggressively ordinary. The streets are distinguished only by the signs proclaiming their names. Off-licence, supermarket and bakery cluster together in the middle of town. A call-centre employs most of the population, although a few work at a lone factory that manufactures duvets and pillows. But the darkness? That was ours and ours alone. We alone knew its dangers, how to survive it, what precautions to take. We were the only ones who could exist here.
Perhaps that’s why so few students in my school year contemplated university, or a job in another town. We could survive the darkness, that had nestled itself on our outskirts, but the world was vast. Unquantifiable. Who knew what horrors lurked beyond our river, down the main road and over the bridge? Better the devil you know and all that.
Not that I didn’t contemplate the idea of leaving. I wasn’t bold enough to just take off for parts unknown, but I fantasised about a gradual withdrawal. Perhaps an evening course at a college in another town, something modest, while I found my bearings. Or a job at the big hospital just over the horizon a few of us had ventured to out of necessity. They were always advertising for porters and catering staff.
But my parents’ disapproval so was absolute that I faltered. Not that they expressly forbade anything, or ranted and raved about their ungrateful, foolish child. Their censure was expressed in pursed lips, blank expressions, and non-committal phrases such as ‘do you think that’s a good idea, Melanie?’ Or ‘why travel all that way when there are jobs in town?’ My mother made a point of throwing out any brochures for colleges if she happened across them and dinner conversation revolved around recruitment at the factory and the call-centre, or the costs of public transport.
I caved in the face of such entrenched resistance. Yes, I was weak, but I didn’t know any better. I had never in my life been further than ten miles from the house I grew up in and freedom was conditional, dependent on my family’s support. I got a job in the call-centre, my parents approved, so I dug in and whiled the days away listening to tantrums or trying to encourage people to pay money when they had no intention of doing so.
A year passed, and then two. I began dating a boy called Liam in desultory fashion. We spent most evenings watching television at his parents’ house or mine. My wage increased by a few pounds each year. The darkness lurked on the fringes. One day a girl I worked with, Marion, failed to turn up at the call-centre one morning.
No-one commented on her absence. But I was sorry to see her go, I’d always enjoyed chatting with her. She had a wicked sense of humour, and a joie de vivre that was rare in our little town.
Perhaps because Marion had gone, rather than acclimatising I became restless and uneasy. Thoughts of what lay beyond our town began to intrude upon my mind with increasing frequency. I smuggled brochures about further education courses and coach holidays into our house. I began to dawdle on the way back from work. Through the park, past the duvet factory.
By the river.
One evening, as the light lingered on the threshold between night and day, I left the call-centre in a foul mood. Every customer – at least, it felt like every single one – had been vile, throwing tantrums, yelling, spouting insults like a burst sewer main. It wouldn’t have been so bad but I just couldn’t see an end to it. It was the only place to work aside from the duvet factory, and the factory paid even less.
And then there was Liam. The past couple of months had been dismal between us. No big bust-ups or screaming matches, just total boredom. On my part, at least. Liam was the worst combination of clingy and sulky. He wanted to come round every single night, but once he had arrived refused to do anything but sit on the sofa and sulk. Last night I’d cracked and thrown him out. Cue reproachful looks from Mum all morning – she was cherishing the hope we’d get married.
‘You’re the love of his life!’ she proclaimed over her cereal. I stared at her stonily until she grew uncomfortable and retreated. It had been mean of me, true, but I was in a rotten mood that morning.
My decision to walk past the river, close to the darkness, was a conscious one. A decision made in a fit of silly contrary recklessness. Whatever the darkness was, surely it couldn’t be worse than this endless dull routine. One more dull little day strung on the string of my life. Sooner or later my metaphorical necklace would snap my neck with its weight, I was sure of it.
I meandered along in the half-light of twilight, rather disappointed that there were no lurking down-and-outers or anyone vaguely threatening standing around. In fact, the road by the river was almost ostentatiously ordinary, like the rest of our town. Tarmac, pavement, streetlights flickering now and then, weeds thrusting themselves up on the riverbank.
I lingered as the daylight faded, the rosy pink of the evening sky giving way to the inky blue of night, though the town lighting blotted out all but the boldest stars. It was a warm evening, and no shivers prickled the hair on my arms or skittered up and down my aback. I didn’t feel scared, or even a little nervous.
I decided to walk a little further. In fact, I decided I would walk further than I had ever been before, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the darkness. I knew just where to go, despite never having been there before. Along the river road, until the river swerved violently away from town. There, on the river bend, only a few metres away from the road, was where the darkness lived.
I stood on the pavement, and looked and looked and looked. But no matter how hard I stared, the neat little caravan remained unchanged. If it had a spell on it, to conceal a cave or tumble-down shack or a chicken-legged hut from prying eyes, then it was a damn good spell. The caravan had wheels, but obviously hadn’t moved for some time, judging by the gravel path leading up to it and the paving stones that formed a little patio outside the door.
And, despite it being the place where darkness dwelled, the windows glowed with gentle light. A friendly light, like candlelight. Not harsh, not glaring, not intended to probe your every crevice and lay bare every flaw. Just enough to see by.
I ought to have gone home. It was true dark now, the starlight blurring into the florescent glare of the streetlamps, while all around lurked the night. I knew the rules. Never wander by the river, especially after nightfall. Never linger outside after dark. If you must go out, go with someone else. Try to have emergencies during daylight hours. Or something would happen to you.
No-one had ever explained what the mysterious something was, of course. And quite suddenly I was sick of not knowing. Sick of town, of the call centre, of Liam, of the rules, and most of all, sick of the darkness.
Made bold by sickness, I stepped forward and rapped smartly on the caravan door. Which opened right away, as though the darkness had been waiting.
And so I confronted the darkness.
It wasn’t quite as I’d imagined it. All right, it was nothing like I’d imagined it. My most lurid visualisations had centred on claws, gnashing jaws, reddened eyes, a slavering tongue and other monstrous features. Grey hair tucked into a neat bun, glasses with leopard-print frames, turquoise blue kaftan and jeans and sandals and coral-coloured nail varnish on the toes had never featured.
‘Hello, love,’ the old lady – or what looked like an old lady – said smilingly.
‘Hello,’ I parroted, somewhat taken aback. Then: ‘are you the darkness?’
It was a stupid thing to say. But she wasn’t offended.
‘I am, love,’ she said. ‘Do you want to come in and have a cup of tea?’
It was, I admit, a trifle anticlimactic.
Regardless, I soon found myself wedged into a corner, a cup of tea resting on the Formica-topped table in front of me. I regarded the darkness curiously as she proffered a plate of chocolate digestives.
‘Thanks,’ I said, taking one. ‘You’re…’
‘Not what you were expecting?’ she sighed, sounding weary. I flushed.
‘Well, yes,’ I confessed. ‘Look, if you don’t mind me asking, what are you?’
‘I’m not sure, love,’ the darkness confessed in turn. ‘I’ve lived here… oh, since before your great-great-great grandparents were born. I’ve been here longer than this little town, and I’ll be here long after it’s gone. I like it round here. It’s peaceful. I don’t bother anyone, and they don’t bother me.’
‘And what’s your name?’ I queried.
‘Don’t have one, love,’ the darkness said cheerily. ‘Never felt the need. What’s yours?’
‘Oh – Melanie,’ I answered, flustered. I took a sip of tea to give myself time to think, failed completely at coming up with a coherent thought and went with my gut. ‘Why did people start being frightened of you, if you don’t bother them?’
‘Just rumours, that got out of hand,’ the darkness sighed. ‘It started not long after the first people built their houses near here. I had a little hut then, not a caravan. A woman living on her own, never ageing… It wasn’t long before I was the town witch. People avoided me, avoided the river. And when people stopped believing in witches I was the darkness. I’ve been called worse things.’
That seemed fair enough. I took another gulp of tea for courage and asked the most important question of all.
‘So what happens now?’
The darkness’s gaze was steady, searching.
‘How do you mean, Melanie love?’
I fumbled with my words, trying to articulate how everything I known for my entire life had fallen apart in the span of two minutes.
‘Well – I spent my life being scared of you. Everyone here does. And that was why I never left this town, in a weird way. And now I’m not frightened of you. So… what should I do now?’
‘Entirely up to you, love,’ the darkness shrugged. ‘You could go back home. But most people who come to visit me don’t. They leave. They cross that bridge across the river and go and find the world.’
‘Is that what Marion did?’ I blurted out. The darkness nodded, gesturing out of the little plastic window. I looked, and saw the bridge, a darker blur against the blues and purples of night-time. I had never seen it before.
I didn’t pretend to consider. I finished my tea and looked the darkness in the eye.
‘Thank you for the cuppa,’ I said. ‘But I must be going now.’
‘No worries, love,’ said the darkness. ‘Say hello to Marion for me.’
I saw myself out. I walked to the bridge, spared a last glance for the little caravan, sitting so homely and inviting at the river’s edge. Then I set foot on the bridge, and suddenly I was running, and I didn’t look back.
I sent my parents a message, to let them know I was okay. They never responded, but I didn’t expect them to. Some habits are too comfortable to let go of. Someday I’ll go and see them again. Perhaps I’ll even visit the darkness.
I found Marion, and said hello. We both said lots besides, but I’ll spare you that. I found quite a few people, actually, that had visited the darkness, and crossed the river. And more than that, I found the world, and I’m happy in it.
But that’s a story for another night.
Carys Crossen has been writing stories since she was nine years old. Her fiction has been published by Mother’s Milk Books, The First Line journal, Dear Damsels, Cauldron Anthology and others. Her first monograph is forthcoming from University of Wales Press, and when she isn’t writing she’s reading/contemplating nature/walking dogs. She lives in Manchester UK with her husband.
© 2019, Carys Crossen