The Green Flash
The green flash is one of those strange phenomena that hover on the border between fact and folk legend. Have I see one? I'm not sure. Whether it is fact or fiction it seems to be a rare event, and unexplained, and like other rare and unexplained events has acquired a certain mystical aura, fraught with meaning, portents, warnings. Next time you watch a sunset over the sea watch very carefully, watch and be warned.
The claw like shadows of the five apple trees reached out over the close-cropped lawn towards the house. The trees were old and bent away from the sea like stooping arthritic old men, their backs to the winter gales that would soon boom and thunder from the sea. They gave no fruit now, and few flowers painted their sparse branches in the spring, but they marked the boundary of the garden, and seemed in some mysterious way to keep the black sheer cliffs away.
No breeze stirred their brittle branches, and the strange, unseasonable heat of the September afternoon hung heavily over the house and the garden. The sun, low over the darkening sea, swung huge over a brilliant golden trail across the calm water. There was no sound of waves, no crying of gulls, no buzzing of bees in the flower beds around the lawn, where Colonel Smythe sat silently in a green and white stripped deckchair looking out towards the spot on the horizon where the sun would soon set. He was alone.
‘Yoo hoo! Yoo hoo!’ The call preceded the appearance of an elderly woman at the open French windows that gave onto the terrace. ‘Reginald, do you hear? He’s coming tonight, or this evening. It’s sure now. Do you hear?’
The Colonel made no sign of having heard, still staring out over the sea as if afraid to miss something of importance there.
‘Reginald! There’ll be tea soon, and Victoria sponge if you’re not too late.’
There was a moment of silence before he heard the voice again, quieter this time, muffled as she turned and walked back into the house.
‘He’ll be here before nine, he promised. He always comes before nine.’
As the woman disappeared into the house another appeared and walked stiffly across the lawn to where the Colonel sat. She was tall, thin; her once long blond hair now cropped and grey, an air of faded elegance about her.
‘You can’t keep it all to yourself, you know.’ She said.
The colonel appeared to rouse himself slightly.
‘Eh? What? Keep what?’ He was tempted to be rude to source of the interruption, but he recognised Elizabeth’s voice, and was pleased to hear her.
‘This,’ she replied, ‘This lovely sunset, this evening.’ And she made a sweeping gesture with one arm, indicating the view of the garden, the cliffs, and the sea beyond. ‘It might be the last of the summer, probably a thunder storm tonight, then cold autumn days after that.’
‘I can feel it you know.’ He said after a while. ‘But I always get a bite of the black dog this time of year. End of the summer and all that. Bloody long winters in this country. Wish I’d never come back sometimes.’
‘From India? But you couldn’t have stayed could you? Not after independence.’
‘Maybe, maybe not. Didn’t try really, too much going on at the time. Sorry, will you sit?’ He started to get up but the woman put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
‘Don’t. I’m fine. Not coming in for tea, and the famous Victoria sponge?’
‘Give it a miss I think. Old Gladys is off on her ‘he’s coming’ fantasy, that’s about five times in the last week, sometimes I wonder if she actually has a son, don’t think he’s ever been seen here. Bit of a scoundrel if she has got one, a visit from time to time would make all the difference to the old girl.’
‘It’s what keeps her going I think. She can’t bare the thought that she’s alone, that nobody comes to visit her.’
‘You get used to it.’ he said after a pause. ‘I never expected anything. Better that way.’
‘I love my visits. Just wish the children were still here in this country, once or twice every year or so isn’t much, but I make it last.’
They remained silent for a few minutes, watching the imperceptible descent of the sun towards the sea.
‘How’s Casper?’ He said eventually, ‘Any better today?’ Casper was the old black Labrador that lived with the residents of St. Elphins Retirement Home.
‘Not good. No better I think. He’s just lying there under the table in the kitchen, hasn’t moved all day. Wet himself earlier the poor thing. He looked so ashamed when I went to clean it up. I don’t think he has got much longer, should we call the vet do you think?’
‘If he’s not suffering best leave him alone. He’s in a place he knows, let nature take its course.’
‘Must be all of twelve or thirteen I should think, pre-dates all of us I guess. How long has Mary been here? Ten years?’
‘No idea. Too long, that’s for sure.’
‘Oh! It’s not so bad.’ She said, patting the Colonel gently on the shoulder. ‘Could be worse.’
‘You mean at least we get Victoria sponge every Wednesday afternoon?’ He turned suddenly to face her. ‘Tell me Lizzie, where would you like to be, if you could, where would make you happy?’
‘Who says I’m not happy?’
‘Are you? Really?’
Elizabeth carefully lowered herself to sit on the grass next to his chair before replying.
‘Of course if I could I’d love to be with the family, the children and the grandchildren. But it’s not possible. I make do, make the best of it. And I do like it here sometimes; after Peter died I was terribly lonely, but here I have friends, people to talk to, carers if I’m ill. Like I say, could be worse. What about you, do you dream of another place sometimes?’
Colonel Smythe had resumed his study of the horizon.
‘Dreams. Oh aye, don’t we all have them. Even at this stage, this final scene, we can still dream.’
‘So tell me Reggie, what does Colonel Reginald Smythe dream of? Was there never a woman in your past that you remember? Some exotic temptress in a far off country that took and broke your heart?’
The Colonel smiled a thin-lipped smile.
‘A gentleman never tells you know. But I was not always a wrinkled old prune with hair in my ears and a gammy leg. When I was young there were…well…girls, not many girls; and I’m sure that I loved them all. I can still remember… youth, vigor, the romance of it all, a life full of joy and laughter. God how I miss it, all that, all that life, and how I hate growing old like this.’
Elizabeth laughed silently, her hand modestly covering her mouth in a gesture that seemed strangely girlish.
‘But to answer your question, or rather my own question, I would like to be back in India. I think of it all the the time, it’s not something you ever can never forget.’
‘I’ve never been there…you should take me.’
‘Take you to India! We’d be lucky to make the airport old girl…’
‘Hey, speak for yourself. I was seriously considering visiting Paul and family in Vancouver next Christmas you know.’
‘Are you invited?’
‘Well, not exactly, but they did say I could come anytime.’
Colonel Smythe made a noncommittal grunt.
‘In any case you wouldn’t stand the heat.’
‘Oh! Is it that bad? You put up with it long enough, how long were you out there, years and years wasn’t it?’
‘Thirty-two, only came home once when the sister died. Got used to it I suppose, summers were bad ‘though, couldn’t do much outside. Just visit the club and drink, play billiards, bridge, whatever. Good social life in spite of everything.’
‘Why don’t you organise a bridge thing here? There must be others who can play.’
‘Here? Couldn’t get a decent game of snap here, most of them would forget what game they were playing half way through. Got to have more than a couple of brain cells left to play a decent hand of bridge.’
Elizabeth laughed again. ‘That’s cruel and untrue you know. Just the other day Alfred got a clue in the Times crossword.’
‘Old Freddy doesn’t know the day of the week mostly, him and Gladys should get together, can you imagine the conversation!’
‘Shhh! Here he is. Tea must be finished, we’ve missed the Victoria sponge.’
A frail looking man dressed in a light beige coloured suit that looked several sizes too large was making his way across the terrace down to the lawn where they sat. He helped himself with the aid of a white stick although he was not blind, but the hand that held the stick trembled and shook every time he put his weight on it. A worn straw boater was perched jauntily on his head.
‘Good evening Freddy, coming to join us?’ Elizabeth called to him.
‘Oh Christ!’ muttered the Colonel.
Without a word Freddy came and stood next to Elizabeth, peering about him amiably while leaning insecurely on his stick with both hands.
‘Had your tea Freddy, some cake? Victoria sponge was it?’
Freddy smiled vaguely, nodding. ‘Cake.’ He said after a while.
‘Jesus!’ The Colonel said under his breath.
‘I was just telling Reggie how well you did with the crossword yesterday. Remember?’
Freddy frowned, a look of intense concentration on his face as he stared at Elizabeth.
‘Fourteen across…Gazebo.’ She said.
Freddy closed his eyes and brought one hand up to touch his lips, trying to recall.
‘Cake!’ he said brightly when he open them, ‘Cake.’
‘Hopeless.’ Murmured the Colonel, ‘Wasting your breath. Shoot me if I ever get like that.’
In the house behind them someone turned on the radio, the sound of music drifting across the lawn towards them. Elizabeth hummed quietly to herself. The two men both stared into the distance.
‘I think we should go and sit on the terrace now.’ Said Elizabeth, ‘If I don’t move soon I won’t be able to get up. It’ll start to freshen up soon. Or do you want to stay here on your own Reggie?’
By way of reply the Colonel started to lift himself out of the deckchair, at the same time trying to help Elizabeth off the ground. In the end they both gave up trying to help each other and managed to struggle to their feet. Elizabeth linked her arm through the Colonel’s and they began to walk slowly towards the terrace where a number of chairs and tables were set out.
‘Come along Freddy, we’ll all sit together.’ Elizabeth said, turning to the old man who had remained standing, a wide smile on his face as he peered around him as if looking for something. ‘You never know, there might be some cake left.’
Freddy set off, walking with small rapid steps like an overwound clockwork toy, his stick shaking and trembling as he tried to catch up with them.
‘Did you ever see the green flash Lizzie?’ Said the Colonel suddenly. Elizabeth turned towards him.
‘Green flash? No, I don’t think so, what is it?’
He turned again towards the sea and the setting sun before replying.
‘It’s a brilliant flash of green light that comes just as the sun disappears below the horizon, right when the last little bit of the disc disappears. Some people say it’s a myth, but sailors believe in it. Just lasts a fraction of a second. You can only see it over the sea when the sky is clear.’
‘I never heard of it, did you see it Reggie…before?’
‘I think so. Just once, the day I left India, on the boat leaving Bombay. I think I saw it then.’
‘Will there be one this evening do you think?’
‘I don’t know, I used to look, but I’ve only seen it that once.’
‘Is it supposed to be good luck or something, you know how sailors are superstitious?’
‘No, not really, in fact quite the opposite. Some people believe it presages death, or misfortune, or evil. But others say that anyone who sees it cannot afterwards be deceived.’
‘And can you be deceived Reggie? Did it work for you?’ She said pulling his arm closer to her and inclining her head towards his. ‘You can tell me.’
They reached the four steps up to the terrace and stopped. The colonel turned towards her, slightly out of breath.
‘Well I didn’t die. As for being deceived, I never let myself be put in a position where that could apply.’
‘No lady friends then?’
‘I didn’t mean by others. More by my own self.’ He turned towards the house and together they slowly, step by step, the climbed onto the terrace. They chose a table at the end that afforded the best view and sat down. Freddy, who had stopped at the bottom of the steps as if baffled as to how to surmount this obstacle lent on his stick and smiled. The music from inside the house suddenly faded. Silence rushed back.
‘You deceived yourself then? Surely not. Not you. How?’ Elizabeth lent over the table towards the old man, reaching out to place one hand over his.
‘Oh! You know, we build walls, create dreams, live another life, a life in the past, and we tell ourselves it’s real, like this table, this house, this garden. But it’s not.’
‘But it did happen, it was real, so the memories are real too.’
The Colonel was silent for a while, Elizabeth studied him, the gaunt rather red face with the thin military moustache, the piercing blue eyes that now seemed strangely blank, the straight almost lipless mouth that gave nothing away.
‘I don’t know anymore.’ he said quietly, ‘I just want to go back, because there’s nothing in front any more.’
She squeezed his hand gently, not knowing what to say.
‘Oh! Don’t mind me.’ He said, pulling his hand away as if embarrassed, ‘It’s just the black dog growling, I’m no fit company this evening.’
Freddy, who had somehow managed to negotiate the steps suddenly appeared at their table.
‘Is it dinner time yet?’ He piped, looking amiably from one to the other.
Several other residents drifted onto the terrace and sat singly or in small groups around the tables. They were silent for the most part, only the Singletons, a married couple argued quietly at one table. Miss Frost, the second oldest resident was brought out in her wheelchair, she was asleep and snoring softly. It was the Matron, Judith, a middle aged woman with a permanently worried expression who brought her out, and when she had installed her in a spot shaded from the direct sun, turned to address the others.
‘I thought you should know I have called the vet to take a look at Casper, he’s not getting any better, and the vet might want to take him away. So, if you want to say goodbye, now might be the best time.’
She looked around, nobody moved or spoke, then Mrs. Singleton took out a small embroidered handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.
‘It’s for the best I think we all agree. We don’t want him to suffer needlessly.’ Judith continued, feeling she had to justify the decision.
The Colonel cleared his throat and fidgeted in his chair. Judith raised her eyebrows looking at him.
‘Colonel Smythe? Don’t you agree?’
‘Best to leave him be I think. He’s not in pain, moving him will just make things worse.’
‘But we don’t know that Colonel, only the vet can judge that, that’s why I have called him.’
‘He’s not sick, he’s dying!’ barked the Colonel, ‘And in my experience of death, whether human or animal, you should be left alone to get on with it.’
The Matron sighed, as if dealing with an unreasonable child, ‘The vet will be here shortly; we’ll see what he advises. But Casper is not exactly enjoying life at the moment, anyone can see that, we have a responsibility to take care of him, in everything.’ She turned and walked back into the house.
A few of the ladies were wiping their eyes and there was the odd mutter of ‘poor old thing’, ‘so sad’, ‘best to let him go’. Elizabeth looked at the Colonel.
‘All right Reggie?’ She asked. He turned towards her and shook his head.
‘Should leave the poor old bugger alone. It’ll just upset him now to move him to the vets. All animals hate going there in any case. And he’ll know why he’s going there, he’ll know he’s for the chop…instinct.’
‘Oh! Don’t say that Reggie.’ protested Elizabeth, genuinely shocked.
They sat in silence for a while. One or two people went indoors to see Casper. Gladys came and sat at their table. The sun was now low, shadows long and dark stretched across the lawn, from inside the house came the sounds of the girls laying the table for dinner.
‘I’ll go for a little walk before dinner.’ Said the Colonel, ‘D’you mind helping me a bit.’
The Colonel was nearly blind now; a progressive untreatable degeneration of the optic nerve would mean he would loose his sight totally within a few months.
‘I will, if you promise me something.’ Elizabeth replied. The Colonel was silent. ‘Promise me you’ll cheer up a bit. You know how it upsets me if you’re out of sorts.’
He grunted for a reply and reached out to feel for her hand.
‘Sorry.’ he mumbled, ‘bloody nuisance, black dog, sorry, no right.’
At that moment a car drew up in the car park at the end of the terrace. A young man exited carrying a large black case.
Gladys jumped to her feet. ‘It’s Paul!’ She cried, ‘Paul, my son. He said he’d be here before dinner, or after. It’s him isn’t It.’ and she stared around at the others looking for confirmation.
‘Gladys, it’s the vet I think; it’s not your son. Not Paul. Maybe he’ll come later.’ Said Elizabeth.
Gladys slowly sat down, a look of bitter disappointment on her face. ‘He said he’d come.’ She said quietly.
Five minutes later Matron appeared on the terrace accompanied by the vet.
‘I thought you should all know, Mr. Williams has decided its time to put Casper to sleep. He’s going to take him away with him now, I’m sure you will all miss him terribly, but it’s for the best.’
There was a loud clatter as the Colonel’s chair fell over as he stood up.
‘Leave the poor bugger alone.’ He rasped, ‘What’s the point? It’ll just frighten and upset him.’
Judith and the vet looked at each other, eyebrows raised, before the vet turned towards him. He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
‘I’m very sorry sir. I can’t do anything for him. He’s had a long life and now his time is up. There’s no point in prolonging it, he’s not going to get better…
‘We know that!’ Interrupted the Colonel, shouting now, ‘I’m not stupid. Just leave to poor bugger alone, let him die in his own time, here, at home, with his friends around him.’
There was a shocked silence; tears were streaming down the Colonels face, the face that normally showed no emotion of any sort.
‘I’m so sorry sir.’ Said the vet eventually, ‘The bottom line is that he has no quality of life, it’s my duty, our duty to help him go.’
The matron whispered something to him and together they turned and went back inside the house.
‘No quality of life.’ Said the Colonel, ‘No fucking quality of life.’ And he fumbled behind him trying to upright his chair at the same time wiping his face with the back of his hand.
Shortly after the vet could be seen carrying the limp body of Casper to his car. The doors slammed and the car drove off, the noise of its engine gradually fading into the blue September sky.
Elizabeth and the Colonel were walking arm in arm across the lawn towards the gate that led out of the garden to a footpath that joined the coastal path. Even with his limited vision the Colonel still walked with an upright military stance, giving Elizabeth the impression that he was leading her rather than the opposite.
‘How far do you want to go Reggie?’ She asked, ‘There’s only about half an hour before dinner. Will you get changed?’
‘Not tonight, not tonight.’ He replied, ‘You’ll have to put up with me like this. Can you get me as far as the bench with the view, I’d like to spend a moment or two there if that’s alright.’
‘That’s ten minutes there and ten back, that only leaves us with a few minutes to sit.’
The bench was perched on the highest point of the cliffs with a panoramic view over the sea and coast. They had sat there many times over the past few years, either with each other or sometimes alone. The bench was at the side of the path, and between the path and the edge of the cliff were ten yards of smooth turf. A weather worn wooden sign warned walkers not to approach the edge of the cliff.
Elizabeth kept hold of his arm until he was seated, then stood over him, looking down with affection at the old men who had become her best friend.
‘Do you want to be alone for a while?’ She asked him after a moment, always very receptive to his moods.
‘Would you mind Lizzie? Got a lot on my mind, need a bit of space to think.’
‘You’re upset about Casper aren’t you?’
‘Casper? Well, yes. Not just that though, it’s other stuff too.’
‘Is it to do with what you told me earlier, the green flash thing, deceiving yourself?’
He reached out and took her hand.
‘Tell you the truth I don’t really know. It’s like I’ve reached a strange place, everything is slipping away, eyes going, memories fading, friends disappearing, I don’t know what will be left soon. I don’t want to end up like Freddy.’
‘I know you’re worried about loosing your sight Reggie, but remember I’m going to be there to help, you’ll just have to get used to putting up with me more often. I won’t leave you alone you know.’He squeezed her hand, not trusting his voice to reply.
‘I’ll walk down the path five minutes then come back.’ She said, ‘You’ll feel better when you’ve had time to reflect, think it through.’
She turned away, then stopped, turned back and kissed him gently on the forehead.
‘Won’t be long.’ She said, a catch in her voice.
The Colonel sat and listened to the sound of her steps fading. He could feel the sun on his face, and he could just make out the blurred red disc touching the darkness of the sea. Strange colours spread outwards from the disc, blues and greens, swirling, twisting, and then fading. When the sun was gone it would be all darkness for him he knew, and who could tell if tomorrow there would be a sun, or if the would be any sight left in his eyes.
It kept coming back to him, the sound of the young vets voice, ‘quality of life’. It echoed in his head, mocking, taunting.
He had seen death in many forms, watched as young men fought to stay alive in spite of horrific injuries, and he remember a young Indian Sepoy lying with his legs blown off by a mine, his face burnt to a black mask pleading with him to not let him die. Pleading with the last breath he took as he lay in his arms.
Could he hang on in there, could he still enjoy life he wondered, still sit in the garden with Lizzie, drink his favorite scotch before dinner, listen to the radio, dream?
Dream, he had been dreaming a lot lately. Last night he had dreamt of Siti, his first Bibi, or sleeping dictionary as girls like her were known. His foreman had brought her to him just after he had been made a district officer in Burma. He was twenty-one, his first independent posting, she was maybe fifteen. Her mother accompanied her and had sat cross-legged outside his bungalow until the sahib returned from the field and put the required price in paper money in her brown and wrinkled hand. She had left straight after, and the girl had wondered into his bedroom and was standing waiting for him when he entered.
It had been like a burst of sunlight entering his life. Suddenly there was laughter, someone waiting for him when he returned from a long day at the courthouse or the saw mill or a trip up country to Shan or Karen territory, a fellow creature to share his bed, teach him Shan, and he hadn’t realised until she came how lonely he had been.
She was jealous of all that came between them, whether work or the other servants, whom she soon grew to terrorise, or the occasional English friend who visited them. But her particular and deepest hatred was reserved for any white ladies who might accompany the infrequent visitor. He told her to stay away during these visits but she refused, hiding in the next room and peering through cracks in the rattan screens. He could even hear her furious murmurings if the conversation flagged, and he was for forced to pass her off as a slightly deranged servant girl, a story that fooled no one. After the visitors had left, the memsahib carried by sweating porters on a swaying sedan chair, she would emerge laughing at his anger. She would parade in front of him mimicking the white woman, comparing her own cool young beauty the red faced perspiring Englishwoman, until collapsing on the floor and begging forgiveness, kissing his feet whilst shaking with laughter. He could never stay angry with her for long, and would soon be laughing with her as he lifted her small body easily and carried her to their bed.
She would steal from him shamelessly, and if he remonstrated with her she would weep and plead poverty, or the need for a new longyi, or a piece of jewelry she had seen in the local market that was essential for the woman of a sahib. But above all else she loved gold. She would beg him to buy her a tiny gold ring, or a broach, or chain to hang around her small soft neck. Often she would lie next to him on the bed playing with her latest acquisition. She would stroke it, caress it, place it against her own skin to show how similar were the colours, and invite him to touch to compare the smoothness.
She was with him for more than two years, until one day she disappeared, no one would tell him where or why, but he suspected she was carrying his child. But the memory of her had stayed with him, merging with the memories of the long tropical night, the blinding white days, the scent of her skin and her hair, the touch of her lips. He never lived with another woman again, refusing to believe that she cold be replaced, that such a perfect love could happen twice in a lifetime. He wished he had a photograph, an album even, like Lizzie had, and the others. Full of potted memories, just to look at, to prove to himself that it had existed. For now it lived only in his own head; memories, mixed up with dreams, fading, elusive.
Far away he heard the cry of a gull, it seemed to come from below, at the base of the cliffs. It seemed to be calling him. He squinted his eyes, searching for the sun, a blood red sliver just visible in the multi coloured fog. It was very thin, just a minute from extinction he guessed.
‘Time to go.’ He said aloud.
Colonel Reginald Smythe stood up straight by his bench. He knew that in front of him there were sixteen paces to the edge of the cliff. He had measured it just after his diagnosis had been confirmed. Sixteen regulation slow march paces. He cleared his throat, squared his shoulders, and took sixteen paces forward. When he came to a stop the highly polished toes of his shoes overlapped the edge of the cliff by just a quarter of an inch. He stared ahead, immobile, watching, waiting. Far away, below him in the darkness, as if in another world he heard the calling of the gull. The last thread of light slipped away and he took the regulation thirty inch step into space, and out of the darkness a brilliant green flash filled his world.
Elizabeth had watched him from a little way down the path. When he had taken that final step a little cry escaped the hands she held over her face. Slowly she walked back to the empty bench, as empty as if he had never been there.