sunset in sussex, landscape, horizon

Winter Solstice [Short Story]

It’s a long climb up the hill to the spot and he wonders, yet again, why they bother. It’s windy and exposed, and there’s no chance in hell that they’re going to be able to get a fire going. And yet, here they are, once again, same as they are every year, climbing up this wretched hill in the dark to celebrate something and he’s not even sure why anymore.

Between them they seem to have rather a lot of things – picnic blankets, a picnic basket, and sticks for the fire, coats – and more. He doesn’t know why.

He tried to get out of it, to say that he didn’t see the point of this tradition anymore. But of course, it didn’t work. So here he is, slowly slogging up the hill for a stupid reason.

He seems to have ended up with everything again – all the heaviest things. His back is beginning to hurt, his arms are weary, but he doesn’t complain. What would be the point of that?

Finally, they reach the top of the hill. The views, he knows, are spectacular from up there. It’s just a shame it’s now completely pitch dark. He can see flickering lights in houses, scattered across the landscape, and it is a nice comforting sight, seeing all those lights in the distance. There’s a distant roar of cars passing on the road, and in daylight he knows he could see for miles. As it is, the darkness is like a protective, circling blanket around them.

It’s strange to be there after dark. Although they do it every year, it still holds that small spark of wonder. The wind however is roaring around his ears, making them icy cold. He drops his load and stares around.

As his eyes adjust to the gloom, he can make out the shape of the other figures around him. Torches are flashed, occasionally hitting him in the face by accident and making him wince.

He’s been doing this since he was boy, dragged there by his mum, wrapped up in hundreds of layers. It was a thrill to be up at that time, to be doing something that nobody else at school would be doing. But the novelty had worn off now. It had worn off years ago.

And yet, he can’t help but think, although he’d never admit it, that there was still a hint of magic around it.

There seem to be more people there than usual, including people that he doesn’t know. Friends of friends. ‘Jack, come meet everyone,’ Mum calls over to him.

He goes over reluctantly, but glad to be spared the fire starting duties.

He shakes hands, tries to remember names, as the wind whips around them.

But then he catches her eye. A girl – she’s standing just out to the side, clearly reluctant to be engaged in conversation, clearly not wanting to be there, but there all the same. She’s huddled down in her coat, a hat down over her forehead, so he can’t see much of her. Just her eyes and her nose. But she catches his eye and smiles.

His returning smile is uncertain, unsure, and he’s half distracted from the conversation he’s been dragged into. He returns when his mother tugs on his coat sleeve, pulling him back to the present moment, and asks him to get the basket of food he had carried up.

The men are trying to light the fire. The matches keep going out, blown out by the wind that’s whipping around them. He picks up the food basket and leaves them struggling without offering to help.

Next year, he thinks, he won’t come. He’ll say no.

But his mother always gets in the way, persuading him with those eyes. He’d always do anything for her. But this, maybe this had got too much.

He unpacks the basket, looking for the flasks of coffee that they’d assembled only hours ago. His fingers fumble, impossibly cold despite the gloves he’s wearing.

He wants nothing more than to be in bed, and he stifles a yawn, as he pulls the flasks out, already looking forward to the warmth and comfort of the coffee.

He doesn’t notice at first that the girl has approached him and is standing at his shoulder. It’s only when she reaches out to take one of the flasks that he realises that she’s there.

‘Shall I take one?’ she asks, raising her voice above the wind.

‘Thanks,’ he says, holding one up to her and then bundling the rest up. ‘I’m Jack.’

‘I know,’ she replies. After a beat she adds, ‘Gerry,’ she says.

He nods at this piece of information and then holds up the flasks smiling. ‘We better get going with these – I mean, I better, you don’t have to.’

‘I’ll help,’ she says, in that soft voice of hers that has already sent him falling head over heels. His head is spinning and his mouth is dry, but he can’t think why. The two of them take the flasks to the group, who crowd around them, taking cups of the warm silky liquid gratefully. He forgets about her for a moment, as she stands alongside him, dishing out the coffee. And at that moment, it feels completely normal.

It’s only later, when they’re gathered around the fire that he returns his attention to her. She hasn’t moved far from his side, although they don’t talk to one another. He wonders what it is that makes this connection so evident, that makes him want to stick to her like glue, when he’s barely exchanged more than ten words with her.

That’s okay though.

He gets the feeling that there’s more than enough time to get to know one another.

And so, for the first time in years, he begins to appreciate everything about this strange ceremony. He enjoys watching the fire flicker, enjoys huddling there with all those family friends and family. He doesn’t even mind the cold – it feels as if a pillar of warmth has been sent through him and is staying alight despite the wind roaring around them. He barely feels it, even if his ears and nose have gone numb.

Time doesn’t seem to drag in the same way that it has in the past either, and he doesn’t find himself longing for his bed.

He’s perfectly happy.

They stay there like that as they wait for the long hours to pass. The rest of the coffee goes cold and the fire begins to die down, despite all the extra logs that are being added.

‘It’s nearly time,’ someone finally calls out – he doesn’t notice who. He rubs his hands together, and draws closer to the dying fire.

And then finally, there’s a glimmer of light. The sun begins to show its head.

As the sun comes up, he looks at her, searching her eyes, as if trying to look right into her soul. And she returns the favour. Instead of focusing on the sunrise, he looks at her, memorising every detail as if there’ll never be another chance to do so.

And as they turn finally to watch the sunrise, he reaches out, under the comfort of knowing that everyone’s attention is elsewhere, and takes her hand.

The new sun has arrived, just in time.

And they, they watch it come to rest over the earth in a contented silence.

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