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  • Writer's pictureDavid Mathews

At the end of the day, it’s all about dusk

My story, Flick'ring Shadows, is part of this year's Solstice Shorts festival.

Some subjects for stories are riper than others. I haven’t got very far, for instance, with the ’Baltic Dry Index’, and nor have A L Kennedy or Donna Tartt or Ian McEwan, as far as I know. But if ‘chainsaws’ was the theme, most people could come up with something, particularly if they were comfortable with gushing blood or interested in the problem of lubricating fast moving metal teeth.

Dusk, the focus of this year’s Solstice Shorts, the winter solstice short story, poetry and music fest organised by Arachne Press, must surely be in the richer category. What writer could fail to find some possibilities in the process of day turning to night magically/furtively/ mysteriously/sadly/sinisterly/promisingly?

A scientific approach, to start with, rather than an intuitive one. What phenomena can unequivocally be attributed to dusk? Less light (duh), shadows soften, colour tones change/go grey, shapes blur, fairies and ghosts replace what vanishes, dew falls, frost forms, bats go a-hunting, we mistake objects and people – and misjudge speed, footing, distance, presence and absence. We see things that are not there. We listen harder, sniff the air, feel our way. There’s a PhD in dusk.

But that’s not a story. I needed character, location, human interest, progression from here to there, sadness, hope, tragedy, decline, dancing bears.

In my mind I wandered the streets of somewhere like Rye in the late twilight, when you can see what’s happening in the lit rooms before the curtains are drawn. If you work for the local estate agent, you know these houses, the people and their stories.

Here is an old rogue, here a sweet young couple, here Miss Gloria Short-Harland the once famous opera singer, now faded to turns at charity concerts.

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low; And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go. Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long, Still to us at twilight comes love's old song, Comes love's old sweet song.

But Gloria’s old song is not that simple, and the flick'ring shadows of her past come out to play at dusk

Before Gloria had time to divulge her secrets, however, along came a man, down on his luck. He inclines towards investigation and felony detection. He wonders about others’ motives, about covering-up, about conspiracy theories. Very dusk-esque. Bound to be an unreliable witness, so I would need a well-known event in the recent past for him to mis-remember, something about the trustworthiness of B Johnson, MP maybe. I do have a Tony, a retired detective. It could be him. He lacks the social graces well enough to create embarrassment.

Sitting on a bench, by a bend in a river, Tony(?) greets a young woman who has paused on her way home from work.

‘It’s alright, love, people only die here on Thursdays.’

The young woman fled into the deepening shadows. ‘You’re weird,’ she said.

As reassurance that she was welcome to join him, Tony’s statement had lacked a certain something. It was Wednesday, however, and, fair play, Tony was right. Along the towpath where the river left the town a sign encouraged caution with the words SIX DEATHS IN FOUR YEARS, but did not let on that Tom, Magnus, Winston, Theresa, Alex and Grace had each leapt or fallen into the river on a Thursday evening.

A chance of 1 in 117,649 suggested to Tony that someone should be examining the business of Thursdays in the town, but the extreme improbability seemed to have occurred to no-one important.

The bench that the young woman had visited so fleetingly was dedicated to a ‘much missed’ Freddie who was ‘fond of this spot’. The brass plaque did not say whether Freddie cared to fish or feed the ducks, nor whether he was partial to Thursday evenings on the riverbank.

I returned to my quasi-scientific approach, and asked myself who dusk effects technically speaking, professionally you might say. Might my dusk-hampered character be or have been a sailor, politician, violinist, portraitist, tea taster, photographer, lumberjack, surveyor, wildlife filmer, tree surgeon, ferryman (woman?), shepherd, scaffolder, steel erector, road sweeper, train driver, security guard?

Names suggested themselves: du Bois, Richards, Williams, Grey, Thompson, Jackson, Smith, Providence, Baptiste, Huggins. Why only surnames? At this point I hadn’t decided whether my protagonist would be man or woman. I did toy with the first name Everton. I was thinking of Everton Weekes, the cricketer, but maybe most Brits would think of the football team, and were they still nicknamed the Toffees. (Sir Everton is 92 and still going, I was pleased to learn.)

To enhance the mood, I turned the light off and dimmed the screen. Didn’t help. I tried to catch that ‘dusk’ moment, but something always came up and I missed it. No miracle inspiration, apart from noticing someone lighting a cigarette, very retro.

I made a mind map, a kind of duskography. I sketched Tony’s bench and the bend in the river, trying to get the angles right so that the spot was not lit by the street lights of the town I vaguely imagined.

Could an object be involved with people’s mis-seeing at dusk – as a kind of witness to people’s foolishness or error? Why a tractor came into my head, I am not sure. Maybe having come across old abandoned ones on country walks, neglected and somehow sad, they appealed to me.

In his day he (he?) might have been called Big Blue, but now he is tiny compared to the monsters that patrol the fields with their blazing lights and GPS controls. The kids call him Rusty.

The tractor was a dead end. Except in children’s stories, tractors tend not to have much of an inner life, and you would expect dusk to allow us pretty readily into a character’s thoughts and feelings, being an intimate time of day. Would a reader attribute thoughts to an object or a place? It would need the actions of people towards the object to elicit, say, sympathy in the reader.

I pictured a picture – a photograph taken in half light. The idea of a photographer grew on me. In what ways can a photograph go wrong (or go somewhere unexpected) at dusk. He/she might be commissioned to go somewhere. By a river? Who’s he/she photographing? Is what happens to do with the photography or something alongside, incidental to which he/she is witness? An animal, boat, rowers, a swimmer, a jumper off a bridge? Does he/she mistake identity, not see what’s there, see what’s not there?

OR, not a single event, but a succession of dusk memories that explain the character or importance of dusk. Remembering dusk as in, as a child, playing cricket in the near dark because you haven’t yet been called in for tea.

It’s the time he feels at ease? He likes the ‘sweet light’, the ‘blue hour’.

Smith seems to stick as a name. Just Smith. Like Bailey or Duffy. He not she. From Trinidad, where dusk is brisker than here. Why Trini? Probably because of my liking for the writing of C L R James, linking with a fondness for cricket as a child (me, that is, and thus Smith). And maybe W Eugene Smith and his photograph of south Wales colliers.

How can we learn about Smith, my Smith? A shoot? Several shoots? Why not a show? Smith’s dusk photos.

And along came a girl to have her picture taken, and a man in the doorway, a dying woman, a woman smoking by a kiosk in the park, women playing bowls, the river (still the damn river) and Smith himself. Order the book to learn more.

‘… Welcome to the gallery and to pictures by one of our favourite photographers. Smith is sorry that he can’t be here himself, but he has asked me, as the show’s curator, to introduce you to a few of these ‘low lights’, portraits and scenes he has shot after sunset, mostly outdoors, all without flash.’

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