Stephen Coates comes from Christchurch but is currently living in Japan. His stories have been published in takahē, Landfall and Headland.
At the End of the Day
The sun stopped moving at 4:26 on a Friday afternoon in summer. I didn’t notice. Whistling the tune to an advertising jingle, I dragged the chair next to the rectangle above the wardrobe. The undercoat disappeared beneath the roller. Sunlight streamed in through the windows and the moist paint glowed. After a few short strokes to get rid of some bubbles where the lines overlapped, I stood in the centre of the room and rotated, searching for yellow dribbles.
Standing first on one leg, then the other, I examined the soles of my feet. Dumped the tray in the laundry tub to soak, washed the brushes and flick-dried them across the back lawn. My arms were spattered with Daffodil Dream but a shower could wait until later. It wasn’t like there was anyone to care.
Last night’s noodles were congealed in their bowl so I chivvied them around with a fork. While they were heating I gazed out the window and thought about broccoli. Picked at flecks of paint around my fingernails, scattered them into the sink. The microwave chinged, breaking my reverie. I hooked back the French doors and carried my dinner onto the deck. On the way I pressed Random on the stereo, turning it up loud. Velvet Underground came sliding out through the speakers.
A booming voice came over the fence, followed by the shaggy face of my neighbour. He swung round the gatepost and jogged up the path. He was cradling a six-pack. I usually spot stuff like that.
“Gidday, Leon,” I said. “You’re looking chipper.”
“And who wouldn’t be, my friend, who wouldn’t be? It’s here!”
“Course it is, mate. What the hell are you talking about?”
“The Big One, the Rapture, the Day of Days, the winnowing and the reaping! And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun, and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. You want a beer?”
“You twisted my arm,” I said. “And you’re still not making any sense.”
He tossed me a can, glanced at this wrist.
“Haven’t you been watching the news? Look at the sun! It hasn’t moved for an hour and forty minutes. It’s just hanging there like a bloody great cosmic pizza. Babylon the great is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.”
He beamed at me like an excited Labrador. I squinted at the sky. Now that he mentioned it the afternoon had seemed kind of long. I shook my head as I opened the drink.
“Nah. You just put your clock back too far for daylight saving.”
“You’re winding me up. But it’s the end of the world, that’s what it is!”
“The end of the world. And that’s a good thing, is it? Death, destruction, thunder and lightning?”
He made himself comfortable on the top step and flipped the tab on his own can.
“Beats working,” he said. “But then, anything beats working. You really didn’t know?”
I looked at the shadow of the conifer stretching across the grass. Sure enough, it didn’t budge.
“Dee around?” he said.
“She moved out. Last year, actually.”
We’d been sprawled on the rug one evening, watching a movie. Some romantic comedy, I forget which one. An ad break started. Two cartoon farmers in black singlets and gumboots were singing about cheese. I reached over to refill her glass. She smiled at me.
“Love me?” she asked.
I smiled back. This was routine.
“Better than chocolate.”
Her eyes narrowed.
I laughed, a bit uncertain. This was a new game. The next moment she was hunched against the wall.
“Have to think about it, do you?”
“No, of course not.”
I sidled towards her for a conciliatory cuddle but she pushed me away, kicking the biscuits to one side.
“A few months ago you wouldn’t have hesitated. Novelty wearing off, is it?”
I stared at her like a stranger as she launched into a monologue about my family, my taste in music, the hair on my back, a whole host of resentments I didn’t know she harboured. She rode right over my feeble attempts to defend myself so in the end I just crouched there, studying the carpet between my knees.
With a final snarl she swept to her feet. I heard her in the bathroom, clattering cosmetics into a bag. A minute later she returned, struggling with an armful of clothes. There were tears on her cheeks but her face was resolute. I opened my mouth to speak but she elbowed the curtains aside and was gone.
A cold draught was blowing in from the veranda. I wandered through the empty rooms, picked up a book that she’d knocked off the bedside table. She left her toothbrush behind. Back in the lounge I collapsed in a puzzled heap on the floor. Apparently I’d paused, just for a fraction of a second, before I’d answered. The wrong fraction, too short for a joke, too long for sincerity. At least that’s what she thought.
I didn’t tell Leon that story. Instead I went inside, punched off the stereo with my toe and switched on the TV to see what was happening. The weatherman was there, looking stressed. His weatherman smile was strained and smears of sweat gleamed on his forehead. Subtitles crawled across the bottom of the screen. People urged not to panic, no civil emergency, official announcement imminent, blah blah blah.
Leon had followed me in. He slumped into the beanbag as I changed the channel. A sombre newsreader in a mauve tie was shuffling papers in front of him.
“… has called for the borders to be sealed to prevent an influx of refugees from the northern hemisphere. He also demanded an immediate increase in military spending. The Prime Minister has …”
Click. More of the same. I channel-surfed, jabbing the button repeatedly, not giving the sound a chance to catch up with the pictures. Stopped at an angry middle-aged mob, all confused shouting and shopping carts. A breathless reporter appeared.
“Three hundred people descended on this hardware store in Levin this afternoon,” she said, “looking for water purifiers, gas stoves and lawn furniture. Fights broke out and the manager decided to close the doors. This only inflamed the situation and several arrests have been made.”
The camera swerved as a plump arm brandished a barbecue fork straight at it. The feed cut off abruptly and the screen went black.
“That’s bad,” I said.
“Tell me about it.”
“Canada, Europe, Mongolia, they’ll be plunged into perpetual darkness. The plants will wither and die, they’ll run out of food, deranged hordes will roam the streets slaughtering everyone.”
Leon drained his beer, smothered a burp.
“And we’re in deep trouble too,” I said. “It might seem like we’re better off because it’s warm and sunny, but the ecological effects will be disastrous.”
“You don’t have to convince me,” he said. “Hey, how do you reckon they know the exact time? Maybe there’s some professor who spends his whole life staring at the sky with a stopwatch, all Einstein hair and sunglasses.”
He did his mad scientist face. I didn’t say anything.
“I’m sorry about Dee,” he said. “What happened?”
I muted the TV and changed the subject.
“Anyway, you love your job.”
“I used to, but a couple of weeks ago I walked into work and realized what an enormous, steaming waste of time it was.”
I nodded. I knew that feeling.
“Sure, they’re fine people, but is that any way for a self-respecting adult to make a living?”
Since I only had the vaguest idea of what he actually did I kept my head down, fiddling with the remote.
“Still,” he said, scratching his stomach, “that’s life. Things start, and then sometimes they stop.”
The picture came back. I recognized the place so I turned the sound up.
“… local news, the Sparks in the Park concert has been cancelled because it is too light to see the fireworks. However, the crowd has refused to disperse. Some viewers may find these scenes disturbing.”
I took refuge in the cartoon channel. Wile E. Coyote, in hot pursuit of the Road Runner, sprinted over a cliff. As it dawned on him that there was no longer solid ground beneath him his eyes met mine. I looked away.
“Do you think we should lay in some emergency supplies”? I asked.
Leon rubbed his chin.
“Hm,” he said. “I guess we could do with more beer.”
“No, I meant water and food and stuff.”
“The mall? Are you crazy? It’s a madhouse out there. You’ll be crushed to death in the stampede to buy the last bottle of tomato sauce. No, if you’ve got any sense you’ll stay right here and wait till it all blows over.”
“But what if it doesn’t?”
“Then that extra sauce won’t do you much good anyway, will it? Hey, I can’t believe that Dee left. What went wrong?”
I raised one shoulder and let it fall, an indeterminate gesture that summed up my understanding of our relationship.
“Who knows?” I said. “But are you really thinking of quitting?”
“I already did. Handed in my notice last week. By using my holidays I can finish up on Wednesday.”
He wiggled his hips in a beanbag victory dance.
“What are you going to do?”
Now it was his turn to give a half-shrug.
“Something will turn up. One cage door closes, another one opens.”
Huge red letters flashed at us from the TV. It took me a second to work out what they said.
SUN RESUMES MOVEMENT AT 9:53 P.M.
The panel of experts were high-fiving and back-slapping as if they’d just won the World Cup. I peered suspiciously at the garden. Nothing was different. Leon rolled sideways and climbed to his feet.
“So,” he said, “it looks like Armageddon’s been postponed. I’ll be off then. You know they got it wrong, don’t you?”
“Got what wrong?”
“The sun doesn’t move. We learned that at school, right? It was the earth that stopped. Smart-arse bunch like that, you think they could have figured that out. See you.”
He headed off down the path, waving to me over his shoulder without looking back. Not big on farewells, was Leon.
I gathered the remains of my tea and piled them on the bench. Then I strolled through to the bedroom to admire my paint job. A bit uneven in patches but nothing the final coat wouldn’t hide. Dee would have approved. She liked yellow.
I ran into her again once, in the supermarket. Turned into an aisle and there she was, a loaded trolley at arm’s length before her protruding belly. I did an about-face and started reading the label on a Jellimeat can. Ducked my chin into my collar.
“I didn’t know you had a cat.”
I spun round, looked astonished. She tilted her head to one side.
“Huh? Oh, hi! Um, yeah, sort of.”
Quickly I put the tin back on the shelf, picked up my basket. Her eyes flicked with amusement to my meagre purchases.
“So, how’ve you been?”
“Yeah, great, fantastic,” I babbled. “Never better. Box of fluffies. Yourself?”
She pointed at a tall man hovering in front of the toilet paper.
“This is Rob.”
He nodded warily. I waggled my breadstick.
I tried pulling the curtains but I wasn’t fooled. It still wasn’t dark. I opened them again, grabbed a chocolate bar from the fridge and sat on the porch. Listened to the car horns and screams coming from the park, told myself I should be happy. Normal service has been restored. All was right with the world. I was safe. Until the next time.