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Red Sky at Night

By Thomas Chadwick.

Paul arrives in Patras and lights a cigarette. It is four pm and hot. Sweltering in fact. It has been all summer and even though it is now September the heat shows no sign of letting up. From the coach across southern Greece, Paul had seen trees blackened by forest fires and white walls stained with smoke. He crossed rivers that had become beige dried-up banks and he watched a dog limp across a road to beg an old man for water. Everywhere you look there are signs of the damage being done to the land by the heat, but here in Patras no-one seems to care. Paul finds himself stood by a small park. Old men sit in the shade of cypresses to drink cans of beer; a game of football plays out on a stretch of brown grass; a group of teenage girls huddle around an empty fountain to show each other things on their phones. A young couple pick their way through the crowd with a pram. Above the pram is an elaborate awning presumably designed to protect the infant from the heat. There is no indication as to whether it works. Possibly the child is already dead.

Paul has travelled to Patras from Spetses, where he spent the weekend. He was there to attend a wedding, a friend having decided that it made more sense to get married on a small island in Greece as opposed to say London where Paul and most of the other guests lived. “Perhaps the bride is Greek,” Paul’s wife, Helen, had suggested when the invitation arrived. “Or maybe her family?” But no, the bride lived in Camberwell and her family came mostly from Gloucestershire, while the groom and his family were Welsh. Yet instead of getting married in London or Gloucester or even Neath, everyone boarded planes and flew to Greece and made their way to the island in the sweltering heat. No-one at the wedding seemed particularly worried about the high temperatures either, but no-one at the wedding seemed particularly worried about anything at all. Over two days Paul didn’t think he’d lifted a finger except to raise a glass to his lips or a fork to his mouth. Guests were ferried everywhere by taxi. Iced drinks were widely available. The ceremony was on a clifftop above an olive grove and as the couple exchanged their vows the sun slipped down slowly towards the horizon so that shortly after they were declared man and wife it sunk into the docile sea. Paul thought the whole thing was in poor taste. It was hardly a good omen to have the sun looming over a marriage from the off, not when it was in the midst of battering the earth into submission.

In Patras, Paul’s throat rasps. He is painfully dehydrated and, less than twenty-four hours on from the wedding, likely still hungover. He has no interest in the girls and their phones or the football or the old men sat drinking in the shade or even the young couple and their dead child. All he is going to do in Patras is find a taxi that will take him to the port where he has a ferry booked to take him across the Ionian Sea. Paul is due to arrive in Bari early the following morning, giving him time for an espresso and a sandwich before he takes a train north to Milan. In Milan he’ll have a couple of hours to eat dinner before the overnight sleeper leaves for Paris, from where Paul will finally take the Eurostar home. Earlier that morning, as the other guests were ferried to the airport, Paul explained to the taxi driver that no, he didn’t want to go Athens and could he please be dropped off in Corinth. From there he took a train west. At Kiato the train stopped and Paul found he had to get on a coach because the western section of the Peloponnese railway system had been suspended in 2011 thanks to the Greek austerity programme. This meant that rather than trundling into Patras unimpeded the coach sat sweating in traffic on the outskirts of the city, leaving Paul with barely an hour now until his ferry sails. Paul thus does not have time to see Patras even if he wanted to, but that doesn’t matter because the point of the journey home is not sightseeing. No, as Paul explained to the taxi driver, the point of the journey is to experience the distance between things. “The world is very small,” Paul said. “Too small in fact. It took two months for the Pilgrims to cross the Atlantic in the Mayflower now you can be in New York in a matter of hours.” “What’s that got to do with you going to Patras?” the taxi driver asked, mopping his brow with a paper napkin. “My point is that the world is very small,” Paul replied. “I want to remind myself how big it is. Also flying is bad for the environment.” The taxi driver shrugged, said there was nothing to see in Patras, but that if he was desperate to go there he would drop Paul in Corinth for an extra twenty euros. Paul slept on the train, which was air conditioned, but woke up for the coach, which was not. Before they reached Patras they hit gridlock. Bored, Paul flicked on data roaming and read the news. There was a flood in Pakistan and a summit in Brazil. By the time the coach stopped, Paul was reading about Patras on TripAdvisor. There really wasn’t much to see, a few restaurants with poor reviews and some half-ruined castle on a clifftop. No matter. Paul needs to get moving if he is to catch his boat. He stubs out his cigarette and starts to look for a taxi, but before he reaches the roadside, his phone buzzes in his pocket. As he opens the email he reminds himself to switch off data roaming after he’s read the message. The last thing he wants is to get home to find a hefty bill all because he was reading about Patras and its stupid castle. Paul squints in the sunlight, rucksack already clammy against his back, and starts to read.

Dear sir / madam
We regret to inform you that due to the announced PNO National Seman’s strike on 03rd September, the departure 03/09 from Patra – Bari will not operate.
We thank you in advance and we apologize for any inconvenience caused.

“Fuck’s sake,” Paul says. Instinctively he reaches for another cigarette. He hasn’t smoked properly for several years because it kills you and so is bad to do. As a younger man he smoked a lot, but by his thirties he was cutting back. For a long time he only ever smoked at parties and New Year and if he had a really bad day at work. Then three years ago—or was it four?—he stopped altogether. Paul can’t remember precisely when. All he can remember is that as soon as he landed in Greece and felt the heat across his back he marched to a kiosk. He’s been chewing through Camel Blues like toffee ever since. He smoked in the hotel bedroom. He smoked by the pool. He smoked through the wedding. He checked with the driver and smoked in the taxi to Corinth. He was not allowed to smoke on the coach, but when they stopped in Diakopto and the driver jumped out Paul leapt out with him and puffed away in the stifling heat. He’d have to stop of course. He’s known all weekend that this cannot last. You can’t be thirty-six and sit around smoking Camel Blues all day pretending everything will be fine. Paul checks his pack. After the two in the taxi and the one in Diakopto and the one he smoked when he got off the coach and the one Paul lights now there are fifteen left. More than enough to get home if it wasn’t for the fucking ferry strike.

“Fuck’s sake,” Paul says again. This time the young couple look up from the pram. They stare at Paul as if he is some kind of threat. “It’s the heat you want to be worried about,” Paul says, but the couple ignore him and continue to murmur until Paul leaves. Patras is not a pretty city. It seems tired and unkempt. The streets are dusty and dry. The pavement is missing slabs. Dust clings to every doorstep. Cats and dogs and children scurry through alleyways and on the seafront there is a great deal of litter. It couldn’t be more different to Spetses. Paul had arrived on the island in a water taxi that sped across the bay from the mainland. His hotel turned out to be only a short walk through the quiet streets and when Paul was shown to his room he found a view from the window that looked over the town and across the sea to the foothills of the mountains beyond. Paul could see the strange black lines on the mainland, dark streaks stretched out across the hillside that marked the damage done by the fires that had raged across Greece that summer.

When the invitation arrived earlier in the year, Helen had explained that she wouldn’t be able to fly out so late in her pregnancy, but as Paul fumed about the distance and the extravagance and the inconvenience she’d reminded him that the bride and groom were his friends why didn’t he just go alone. When Paul had flippantly suggested a return journey overland, Helen shrugged and said he should do whatever he thought best. “Makes no difference to me,” she said. “I’ll stay with my parents.” Paul booked a flight to Athens then spent several hundred pounds on a ferry and three train tickets. He felt marginally better about the whole thing. By August, as the wedding fast approached, the heat was starting to disturb the fabric of their one-bed flat: window casements creaked in the night, paint began to peel from the walls. “Maybe they’ll have to call the whole thing off,” Paul suggested, “because of all these fires?” Helen nodded. She was cutting a banana, smearing it with peanut butter. “Are you not worried about the fires?” Paul asked. “Of course,” she said. “But you’ll be okay. It’s on an island, isn’t it?” She laughed at her joke and set about devouring her snack. Paul sulked. He waited for the wedding to be called off, but no, the fires never reached the island. The whole thing would have to go ahead.

This is an excerpt from “Red Sky At Night” which appears in Above the Fat.

Thomas Chadwick grew up in Wiltshire and now splits his time between London and Ghent. He was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize in 2017. His short story collection, Above the Fat, is published by Splice. He is is a co-editor of the literary magazine Hotel, described as “a bastion of avant-garde and innovative new writing in the UK”.

This is the latest Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month. The Republic of Consciousness is an organisation that rewards and supports small presses, primarily through its yearly literary prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 10th, 2019.