Below my kitchen, there’s a cellar. In the cellar, there are shelves. On the third shelf down, on the right, there’s a jar. If you take that jar and look closely, you’ll see a light inside. Faint. Not much more than a candle that’s guttering and dying.
I try not to think about the jar too often.
I visit Aunt Martha through the window. Her white hand against the pane of glass, mine against it on the outside. She has the top section of her window just ajar, so that she can talk to me.
“It wasn’t like this during the war,” she says. “At least then, we could be together.”
“I know.” She tells me each time I come. “Do you need any groceries?”
“We used to sing.” She starts humming. Land of Hope and Glory, I think, but I could be wrong. Singing isn’t what our family’s good at. “To get us through.”
“Now we clap,” I say. Every Thursday, on our doorsteps. Martha claps to the TV, watching from her chair. She phones me after and asks who in my street came out and did they clap, and did that awful man at number 23 come out at all? It gives us something to talk about that isn’t death, and numbers, and the economy.
We don’t talk about the jar. Even if I did, she’d just talk about the war and the bombs, and the people dying, and her not much more than a girl.
The supermarket trip is a special kind of crazy. We’re supposed to stay distant but people can’t seem to understand how to do that. They whizz past me, as if hoping their speed makes up for their closeness. As if, by being quick, they can’t catch anything or give it to me.
No one smiles at another. No one stops and chats.
There are no children. And no elderly. Just this sandwich generation, in our thirties and forties and fifties, shopping for everyone. We see ourselves in each other’s hesitation, wondering just what type of cream the person we’re shopping for takes, or what card they’d choose, in our placing markers across the till-belt asking for subtotal after subtotal so we can work out the bills later.
All the while, death creeps around us. People, helpless in the places that should be safe. In hospitals, in care settings, in their homes. Often not with their families.
I think of Aunt Martha. How they used to sing in the war, together. I decide that’s the worst thing of all. The loneliness. It’s why we spark against each other when we shouldn’t. Why, when I go back today, after I’ve showered and changed and washed the dirt of the shops off me, I’ll hug Tim and stand silently and we’ll take each other’s strength.
Meanwhile, I’ll leave my aunt’s shopping on her doorstep and let her deal with it herself. I’ll wave from the car, at the end of the drive, and we’ll blow a kiss to one another, wrap our arms around ourselves and not the other and say it’s okay. We’re haven’t got sick, and this is okay, and we shouldn’t complain. It will pass. It’s for the best. All the things we say.
Later, I go down to the cellar. Tim doesn’t know what the jar is, only that it’s my business and he trusts me. My breath catches. He trusts me. And Aunt Martha trusts me. And Kim, trapped in Switzerland, trusts me. He calls each second day to check we’re all right, Tim and I, and says he’s a rotten son, stuck where he can’t help. And I tell him we’re fine, we’ll see you when it’s over, and I hate myself for the tears that well and spill.
Down the steps in the stark light of a single bulb. Cobwebs hang around me, their occupants wary in the light. I make it to the bottom step and stop. Am I actually going to do this?
What decides me is the thought of a white hand on a window, of hugs that can’t reach each other, of my son at the end of the phone wanting to get home when all the world has stopped. It’s the numbers in the newspapers and the thought of people alone as they die. It’s the nurses and doctors, so scared but still working. The taxi drivers, the workers, afraid to get ill. The dull people in the supermarket, apart and yet together.
I step into the cellar. I make my way to the shelves and find the third shelf down. Fumble to the back, brushing spiders to the side. Silent sentinels, they wait, too, standing guard. I lift the jar out.
The light is so thin. It’s barely there. Once opened, this might be the last of the light. That’s what Martha thought, in 1945. That’s what stopped my mother, and then me, on other occasions when things were bad. That light, being used up. It’s what my family does, what we’re entrusted to. Looking after the light. Knowing when it’s the time to keep it safe or let it out, even if it’s the last time.
They trust me to know the right time. I just need to trust myself, too.
My fingers tingle as I unscrew the cap. Rust drops onto my hand, flakes of brown, aged and dry. I lift the lid, expecting a smell of age but there’s nothing but the light escaping in one long, thin strand.
I count three and slam the jar closed. Light rises, caught in the dust, through our house and into the world beyond, bringing an end to the death and fear. Bringing people together once more.
I peer at the jar, sure I’ve used it up. But, no, there’s still a faint light. I place it back on the shelf and return upstairs. Spiders entwine around it. It will wait for Kit or his children, or whoever comes next. I close the cellar door and know that the news will break soon, the illness will be cured and we can live again.
My work is done. In the darkness there is light, as there always has been, and I have set it free.
Jo is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Northern Ireland. More about her can be found at http://www.jozebedee.com