This afternoon is a premonition. It is a vision of the dark, magnificent story about to be told of an evening and a night. I will watch it through this office window.
Slowly inexorably, the furniture of afternoon will loosen to release its grip on me, floating upwards then dropping into the black ocean of evening. Everything before me now, each name each phrase which comprises the afternoon, is also a line in the prologue of the evening.
I hear the age of birds ending. This is my first clue. The music is gone, leaving only a solitary songbird, hidden within the labyrinth of branches and twigs that compose the Conifer outside. He wails out his eulogy for his brothers, who jostle around in the fuss of departing. A brave, final testament to elegance, offered up to the silent sky.
This English summer is hot and short. The short, hot months squash together to make long, hot days draining all the life out of them. My feeling of anticipation all the more intense and vivid. Now there is more time and more light to watch the approaching evening fulfil itself than in winter or autumn or spring. A mature hour like 5 o’clock, for instance, paints its face with the makeup of the afternoon sky to appear much younger than itself. Yet the evening is still being born much the same: the evening actors still play their parts and the afternoon is only dying a little slower…
The sun sinks a little more into the evening when the children finish playing. The afternoon is their theatre, they play across every inch of it. Different scenes form the same drama spread out over streets, gardens, parks and in cars. Each actor is utterly engrossed in the person they are creating. They are ecstatic because every tomorrow is a new costume, and there are more tomorrows than can be counted. The atmosphere of evening rises out of their excitement. The play ends without applause. The sky is almost ready to let down its dark curtain.
The omen in the afternoon bound up inextricably with all of London’s young people. They feel it on their skin; they flirt with it. It is rediscovered every summer by those pub and park creatures who dare to begin celebrating earlier and earlier in the day. One day in June, they tiptoe out into the streets at 3pm. All seems well. So, a few days later, perhaps they try their luck at 1pm. They are perplexed – can life really be this generous? Their perpetual festival is given a new and strange quality as the afternoon levitates higher into the day. Grape and grain and music seem to be enhanced by certain, earlier hours. Some indecipherable expectation swells the souls and organs of these young men and women. They have an eagerness – perhaps even a trust – that unlimited euphoria will be offered them this very day. This city deluged, swollen and ready to burst with anticipation. The cricket green in Ealing is ripe. The riverside pub benches in Hammersmith plump. The high-ceiling drinking houses in Notting Hill brimming, The first spillages of an overflowing summer trickle down the thin cobbled streets of Richmond-upon-Thames.
In London, there is an expression for this anxiousness for joy. They would say: ‘this day is pregnant.’ Perhaps the most alluring hallmark of youth is excitement. The instant connectivity available in our era exacerbates it. Long, dull office hours combat a constant stream of texts anticipates the facile indulgences to come at the hour of liberty. Often, the indulgences themselves irrelevant. Not that these indulgences are not noteworthy. The ease with which these young men and women slip into laughter and sensuality once beyond the office cubicles demonstrates an appetite for happiness worth recording here. But that ‘pregnant’ feeling really represents an excitement about nothing in particular – in other words, about everything. The premonition in the afternoon, embodied by the fluttering hopping impatience of youth, is a metaphor for the enormous desire for all of life’s constant joys.
The evening rises. The sun sinks. It half-paints the faces of trees to make them ruggedly handsome; it grins between the brick chimneys and gilds rooftops in coats of gold. Clouds clasp around it, and it puckers open on the horizon. Soon, the afternoon prophesizes, that bright mouth shall close, the lip of the sky shall meet the lip of the horizon, pressing together firmly, poising to blow breath after breath of darkness across the scene. The trees stand proud undaunted as their lifeblood drains from their faces. All that life-giving light washes out of the sky on the tide of evening to finally circles the drain at the horizon.
The sun reaches the bottom step of the sky, and my mind transforms. I am granted a seat among all the great poets of the past. In that corner of the sky, the sun leaves a furious, burning signature. The afternoon drives off over the horizon and tosses a few memorable photographs out of the window. The images present all the misunderstandings and superstitions of man in his infancy. There is something irrationally frightening in the beauty of nature. Our fascination and horror of it, at once so nourishing and negating, has made us make it human. Man’s own power of perception burns his eyes while convulsing his mind timidly relinquished to unworthy gods.
The turn of the evening is a perfect moment. The belly of the afternoon, fat with the evening, splits and the whole thing collapses and tumbles. London is the same but changed. The darkness changes her as darkness changes everything. The silence bloats at first. Those who only glance at it get the impression of waiting for something to happen. Everything is set. A warm, black rug rolled out from horizon to horizon, the boards of the earth swept clean and bare, their nakedness spotlighted by the silver moon. Children are put to bed with their superstitions: naive eyes see monsters in the dark.
If you don’t think it, you don’t see it. It requires only a single line of thought, and yet without that the entire story is missed. It is happening right now. The evening roared in like a herd of black horses as I watched. Tomorrow I might not even notice. But today, I have watched things change. The sky in its new black sequined dress is luring a new mood out of London. With the curtains drawn, the whole place begins to throb with the ecstasy of freedom in its youth. There is an affair happening. In these narrow streets, beneath these dirty club ceilings, at tables in shiny restaurants and outside old pubs, there is an affair happening between people and their freedom.
Driving the A40 home a huge sky sits on the flat horizon. The buildings and cranes have been rolled up and tucked away. This motorway is a hallway to the sky. On this long, empty spine there is nothing else to fill my eyes. Here, the shade of the evening announces itself as a regal blue and green. Refined and magisterial, this colour fills my vision right up to the very corners. All my eyes are the sky. My mind is the sky. I see something whole. I understand something complete. This enigmatic ceiling in front of me exists now and only now. It will not exist tomorrow morning, and I will never rediscover the feeling it just gave me – that unique texture of feeling. This evening sky will die, buried and inscribed with my naked awe of it. Who will mourn this broad jewel of the evening?
My heart beats against my chest. A great wooden door being rapped on. I feel sick, and I let the hot evening air in through the window. My car is very small, and I am smaller within it. The road turns. The road swings round, and I turn the car my stomach turning with it.
I’m around the bend and here is another canvas of the sky crowning me. My regal evening jewel is gone – a lost artifact somewhere behind the bend, behind now. And yet here is something new and distinct. Just a few short minutes on, one mile further, here is an entirely new pocket of the heavens.
Not the heavens. Heaven – the horrible totality of the idea disgusts me. This is not heaven, but something more beautiful, briefer and less human. The sky is not human. Heavens and nirvana – these are human inventions. Stony eternities of uniform bliss – preferences of the incurious submissive mind.
This sky…this sky which has already shed its evening skin and is now glittering like a black, scaled dragon. This restless sky. Clouds hurrying across, frantically preparing the scene change before lights up at dawn. Not yet black, not yet empty, this sky is a cosmic blueberry.
My laughter surges up through the silence. I nod – absurdly – as if to acknowledge what the sky is showing me. The sky: which has taught me nothing; and I: laughing with tears in my eyes. I am ridiculous and alone. But so too is this beauty ridiculous. Ridiculous and doomed.
There is an abundance of secrets hidden in the night. The night sky should forever be the image of human freedom. The idea that at any place, in any era, anyone can look up and see a star-sprinkled slice of the darkness that covers us all. At any moment, I can reach up and carve something for myself from that infinite banquet of the eyes, and of the mind. Each piece I take is different from the last though someone else may also take on the same night as I, they make something entirely distinct.
In the past, those who came with blunt instruments to carve answers from the night departed still hungry. They looked up and saw monsters and gods; they saw the wrath of Apollo or Helios in the absence of the sun and felt guilty; they gouged out the stars and put eyes in and felt reassured by their own fear. To the moon, they gave the power to corrupt, and they blamed it when things went foul. Most of the people that have lived before now have suffered an irrational amount of fear, guilt, shame, and disgust because of this glimmering ceiling.
I have feared this dark. Even god-slayers fear the dark. Expelling those dictators of the sky leaves a fear vacuum, which the god-slayer sucks up in his mouth. I might not see gods anymore, but I still imagine monsters in the dark. Faceless, shapeless monsters. I breathe my fear into the nothingness and give it life. I make a villain of the darkness – its oppression is silence; its wrath is its ignorance of me. Man makes a monster of his independence. He feels his freedom is something to be feared. Trying to shake himself into action, he gives the imposing trait of boundlessness to his freedom. He makes the freedom of the night a bottomless ocean, and he fears he might fall in.
But my infinite freedom is another fictitious nirvana. Eternal dark, like eternal light, is another spell of man’s petrification. I can indulge myself in notions of my unlimited freedom, and I will never act for fear of wasting it. Others entertain themselves with the idea of eternal bliss in the next life, and they too will never act since they are already promised everything. Man needs his boundaries – big ones, to be sure – to live within.
The calm premonition, the sacrifice of the afternoon, the rise of a powerful and pulsating evening, and black night – all inextricably woven together. It’s the greatest child’s play: unwatched, unsupervised and entirely improvised, the naive actors stomp across the stage, pound their chests and spin in lucid reverie. Behind the curtain, no applause will come, they know this, and they dance on all the more furiously.
Death is bewildered into silence by the defiance of this dance. The beat which London strums out into the night sky is a song of life. Rather like the eulogy of the birds amidst the eroding afternoon; these people, my people, stand in the ruins of the day and screech out an epilogue. They sing together, and they say that tomorrow they shall build it all back up again, just to watch it stand, sway and tumble down once more. The night sky, if it observes this, is unmoved.
Luke Buffini lives in a sleepy, silent suburb called Hillingdon, just outside of London. I am about to enter Masters study in Philosophy, having previously studied Psychology at undergraduate. I have worked as a postman, a football coach, an actor, and a legal recruiter.