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Are You Awake in the Dark?

by Stef Pixner

After the door clicks shut they are in the black room and there is nothing but black darkness until She comes back and opens the door a yellow crack and hisses words that come out in a thick shrivelling spray which nothing can withstand, I don’t want to hear a squeak out of you. Either of you! I’ll be back in half an hour and you’d better be asleep. The door clicks shut again and the black darkness is blacker than before. Half an hour is a very short time. Or else it is a very long one. In any case she’s got to be asleep in it. She is going to have to try hard. How do you? He probably is already. He has this way of dropping off as soon as he shuts his eyes or it looks like he does unlike her, awake but pretending, screwing her eyes up tight. Can people tell? When She comes back in half an hour will She know?

Night time is so long and so strange and dark. It belongs to other people it belongs to grownups you aren’t allowed in it it is a far away country like Moscow-or-Glasgow or the north pole. Darkness fizzes all around. There are things dancing in it too giant mice huge hamsters also whirling seed-o’s and rathers. Across the black room he is fast asleep like she hopes the seed-o is: little brown seed-o, little brown rather, are you awake in the dark? Such a sad song with the little brown rather buried in the cold winter dark earth. And wet. Buried in the dark but awake. Maybe. She hears a voice wavering and wandering, up-and-down, loudly, singing about the seed-o and the rather. Ouch. She knows it must be her own because there is a mocking high-pitched cackle from over there in the black dark. So he is awake. Brother, he says. Not rather. And he is hers. Brother. Another snort-y aren’t-you-stupid boy’s laugh. You can’t sing, he says. And you’ve got the words wrong. It’s Little brown seed, O little brown… She puts her fingers in her ears.

Silence.

A point of light begins to dance in the black.

A point of light begins to circle on the wall above his bed.

He has a low creaky bed with a blanket on top made of wool squares and she has an eiderdown on her cot with cows jumping over the moon also some little Miss Muffets on tuffets with dingly-dangly spiders hanging down beside them and feathers poking out that she pulls. None of this can she see because it is dark she just hopes the wool squares cows moons and spiders are still there. You can’t be sure what happens in the night. If they are there anymore or not.

The room is black velvet black tar black taxi-cabs. She can still see the light though, a small circle dancing and knows what it is because when it was daytime he bought a torch for half a crown from the paper shop and a little penknife with a pearl handle and she bought striped mint humbugs for tuppence. The light, weak yellowish with shadows and white bits has stopped circling. It is jigging and jumping now. Beginning to bob towards her finding slivers of the room and losing them again. She pulls herself up holding the cot rail waiting. Slices of light brighten his feet and shine into her eyes and up the wall behind. Now he is undoing the catches both ends and sliding the cot side down.

Under his covers the torch makes a lighted up tent. That is exciting. He shines the light up his nose. That is funny. His warm brother-smell. Then he does writing on the ceiling and the walls with the torch light. Swish swish swish goes the light. Coming down from the ceiling it shows up spider web cracks in the wall, a wall with coloured words and scribble on it. A little piece of whitish paint has come off one of the cracks. More flakes come off when they begin to rub. Wall a bit wobbly in that place. He kneels she stands four hands on the wall rub wobble wobble. Fun. His penknife and her small fingers and they began to prise and pick. Pick pick pick. A piece of plaster falls. A dent. More plaster. Powdery. This is easy. Bits falling onto the bed. Busy scritch-scratch scrabbling sound, like giant hamsters, giant mice. Now there are strips of wood going cross-ways, stopping them. Dig at the plaster in between the strips, then pick some more. Chip at it. Sore fingers. Never mind. The wall wobbling. The hole getting bigger. A bit and then another bit.

Sounds through the wall faint getting clearer. Louder. Talking. Laughing. Wireless on as well. Lonely voice in a box talking about the Post-War talking about the Labour Party talking about Spring. This is the nine-o-clock news. How did the voice get in there? Doesn’t it want to get out? And what is Spring? Her voice is outside her again. How she knows this is when he puts his finger to her lips and cuts her throat with his hand. You’re so loud. I’m not loud. You are.

More scritch-scratch-scrabble poke pick. On and on and then a chink, a tiny twinkle of light from the next room. Not big enough to see anything, but. He puts the knife blade in and wiggles it around until there is a hole the size of a two shilling piece, big enough for an eye and he puts his eye there. What can you see? Somebody’s knees. Is there a Witch in there? Course not, it’s the Kissling-Kautskys. Can you see them? No. There might be a Witch there then. Don’t be silly. Superior you-are-so-silly brother-laugh. I think there’s a Big Witch. Or a Bogey Man. Is there a Bogey Man in there? You don’t even know what a bogey man is. She knows what a Bogey Man is it’s a man with a lot of green bogeys coming out of his nose that steals children when they’ve Been Bad. Shhhhh! He pulls her down. The knees have got up and gone somewhere. Did they hear them whispering? Will they tell Her?

Under the covers again. Comfort-thumb in her mouth. Thump thump in her chest. He is busy straightaway. As usual. He has his torch and a pencil and is playing noughts and crosses with himself. He knows everything. Today he taught her what one and one is. It’s two! One and one is two two and two is three three and three is four. He is very clever. He has won all his noughts and crosses games and puts his hands into fists and puts them up high making a tall ceiling in their under-the-covers nest-tent. A word sounding in her head turns into a question. What is Spring? He frowns to think. Spring comes when the seeds that have been in the ground all winter grow into green shoots and the bulb we buried in a pot and put in the cupboard to keep dark has flowers like yellow trumpets. When can we see the trumpets? Months of time away. That’s very long. I can’t wait that long. And what if it doesn’t even happen? It happens every year. What if it doesn’t happen this year? It will. What if a Witch steals the spring and it doesn’t come again? What if a Witch steals the morning and morning never comes?

He puts his head out of the covers and listens. All clear. I’m going to see if the knees have come back. But we have to be very quiet this time. OK? OK. She puts her finger on her lips. Shhhh.

He puts his eye in the wall-hole. No knees he whispers. Can I have a turn? She puts her eye there. Coal smoke up her nose. A deep red fire and a cup and saucer in front of it. Sails across the water like a cup and saucer… Shhhh. Don’t sing won’t sing mustn’t sing. Now the middle part of a Kissling-Kautsky hides the fire, bottom of a jumper with patterns on it and top of a green skirt. All clear again now. Fire gone again. Back again. Wireless talking. A new health service for all. People laughing. People talking. Will you go back to Vienna now the war is over? Vielleicht. I think so. Exile is very hard. But also in this post-war period is there much rebuilding to do. We’ll see. In the spring, perhaps.

The spring! She knows what that is. When the seed-o’s will escape from the dark and the cold! A loud voice wanders up-and-down outside her, little brown seed-o little brown rather are you awake in the dark?

Shock. Suddenly eye to eye with another eye. Sounds of shouting, moving, falling over things, shouting. The children! Die Kinder! Door flung open and violent flood of bare-light-bulb light. In this light-flash she sees her empty cot and the eiderdown where cats are running away with spoons, she sees brown and grey blanket squares, dark brown lino, a black electric fire on legs, the toast she left on a plate, her scruffy dog who is a pyjama case with a zip in his tummy and a string round his neck, blackout curtains with coloured tapes sewn on at the bottoms, faded blue, straw-colour, pinky-rust and pale green. And quicker than you can say Her they are two lumps under the covers, his creaky bed still bouncing, a brother-arm round her, back in the dark. Some things she knows. There is something called Spring. There is something called morning. There is something called a spanking.

About the author

Stef Pixner is a Londoner born and bred, with Central and Eastern European roots. She has published a poetry collection (Virago) with her own line drawings. Her stories have come third in both the Bridport and Fish Prize competitions, and have been, variously, runner up, short-listed and long-listed, for the V S Pritchett Memorial Prize, the Fish Prize, Real Writers and the Ian St James Award. She was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship, and also the Kate Betts Memorial Prize for the best work on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester 2016.