316 – The After Hours

Think back to the last time you stayed the night at someone else’s house.

It has to be a house, not a flat. Flats are too small, too easily circumnavigated–though I have heard tell of drunkards at the home of a one night stand waking in the night to use their host’s wardrobe as a latrine.

Maybe it’s been a while. Maybe you were still a child staying over at a friend’s house, sleeping in a guest room only not sleeping at all. The room’s too noisy, the lights are too bright or dark. The clock on the wall ticks, a sound so consistently repetitive it’s become barely noticed underscore to the rest of the family, who sleep soundly even as you struggle to close your eyes. Rafters creek overhead, floorboards creek below. A humming–the heating boiler maybe, or the refrigerator in the kitchen–comes to an abrupt stop and where there was once sound there’s now silence, louder than any midnight sound could ever be.

Peeking from under strange and scratching blankets, a thousand eyes regard you: the unblinking lights of a numerous electronic devices–stereos, irons, dust eradicators, gizmos for which you have no name–and in a waking nightmare you realise the room is alive and waiting for you to fall asleep.

When trying to find the bathroom the house–smelling oddly of garlic and oregano but otherwise friendly by daylight–becomes a labyrinth full of tricks and traps tripping you at every turn. Doors creak too loudly. Flush handles refuse to cooperate. The carpet on the staircase shifts like a Fun House walkway; the stairs themselves aim too soon or too late, making you trip as you step onto empty air, or fall as you try to walk through the staircase itself.

In one panicked moment you forget which door leads to the guest room; not wanting to walk in on your friend’s parents you listen at bedroom doors for telltale snores, trying to find the silent voice of the room that watches,

A springing step, a leap back under those heavy, unfamiliar covers and you’re safe again, as safe as anyone can be when somewhere strange in the after hours.

Two weeks into my American Adventure and I’m starting to get used to my surroundings. I’ve been here a few times before but there are still doors which lead to unknown places, still cupboards with unfathomable contents. Yesterday I was asked to help pick out that day’s outfit for my fashion-conscious niece; while she changed I was shoved into the kids’ wardrobe, which had once belonged to my younger sister-in-law and was still filled with her stickers, her photographs, her old collections of Jones Soda and her Easy Bake Oven. I was intruding on a secret shrine hidden behind dayglo flip-flops and Transformer t-shirts. I fervently wished I’d been allowed to wait outside the bedroom door, as I’d wanted to.

I’m still not sure where the garden begins and ends. Fences line the house’s property, but at the end it becomes woodland full of ticks and snakes and other American oddities. When leaving the estate we sometimes drive past roadkill; this is where the critters live, and they, too, watch when it’s dark.

It’s dark right now, just gone midnight in New Jersey. I should be in bed; instead I’m typing while my wife lays twisted in blankets beside me, sleeping off an arduous day. At right angles to her, on the other part of the couch, our dog sleeps, paws paired togrther as if tied, face in a cushion, dreaming of bacon.

It’s very still. Outside the moon and stars are bright and clear, but only a peppering of them shine through whatever cloud lies between us and them, leaving the rest of sky black and ominous. The road’s usually a quiet place, quieter than even my old road back home, the one I might never see again. There is distant traffic, however, as I imagine there would be at almost any location in Jersey. The people of New Jersey are born drivers. Walk a few hundred metres in this neighbourhood and you’ll soon run out of pavement,

The lights are odd, activated as often by switches as by brass stems poking out of the fixure, which you must twiddle to light the room. This room–the family room–has no lights overhead, only a square of plaster like a filled in hatch, and a free standing lamp hemmed into the corner of the room–twiddle activated, of course.

The dog stirs in her dreams, paws twitching, legs wobbling, her body turned to jelly before calming, relaxing into deeper slumber.

Left on my own like this I don’t know what to do, so I write about the place I am, that watches me as I watch it back. Banks of LEDs flicker high on a shelf–are those the WiFi modem? Something to do with the cable? Something else, surely–hopefully–innocuous.

How long will I sit here, the last man awake in the kingdom of the dreaming?

It’s been a long day, the kind that seems overstuffed with hours, where late afternoon arrives at midday and night time stretches too far, too long. It’s at least three, I think, but the computer clock proclaims it to be only twenty-past midnight,

My eyelids droop. Not long to go now. Only words to be written, recorded, completed, posted.

Then the water cooler glub-glubs and startles the crap out of me: another trap in another strange house.

These are the after hours, where howling winds blend into car drones, and the night steals up to the window, begging to be let in. The more I listen, the more I hear. The more I look, the less I see. The artifacts placed with care on the book shelves illustrate a family history I’m not part of Senior high pictures, cheer team swuads–I’m an intruder once more, and in my own home, the house in which I now live.

What else should I do but give in and join the American dream? It’s far past my bedroom, so I will leave you to your familiar homes, your familiar lives, and sleep envious that you’ll wake knowing what the future will hold while here, in the after hours, anything is possible, and the future is anything but predictable.

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