The first thing most people ask themselves during a power cut is whether the fate has befallen their house alone or sabotaged the whole street. I must admit that I usually ask myself this question, too. However, during a power cut last week, the first question on my mind was whether or not I was actually still alive. Such was the blackness that enveloped me, I seriously wondered whether I’d slipped into the atheist-approved never-ending sleep. My world had slammed shut. The only thing left was darkness. No shapes. No outlines. No forwards. No backwards. Time had revealed itself to be no more than an illusion, a cheap conjurer’s trick. It was all getting a little too metaphysical for my liking.
In the distance, I spotted a trail of small white lights and wondered whether they might be a celestial path guiding me towards a non-atheist-approved afterlife. They hypnotised me, drawing me towards them through the darkness, like a paternal voice calling me home. After taking a couple of steps closer – and finding my path to salvation blocked off by a window – I could see the celestial trail for what it truly was: a strip of solar-powered exterior fairy lights my neighbours had ordered from the Betterware catalogue last summer.
My trip to heaven had been postponed.
Feeling my way through the dark, I opened the front door to a wall of black. England’s plug had been pulled from the socket. Everything was in lockdown, from the orange streetlights to the flickering blues of television sets behind net curtains. Even the pulsating twenty-four-hour-a-day light-show extravaganza from the nearby Tesco had been put on hold until further notice. A gap in the clouds allowed the moon to momentarily make itself known. It projected a silvery sheen on the rooftops opposite before quickly closing off to darkness again. The year was 2018. The time was half-past-six, a time usually associated with the sounds of bubbling pans and regional TV news. Not anymore. All lines of communication to the 21st Century had been cut. For all our modern marvels – our instant access to warmth and light, hot water and hot food – my street had been rendered as helpless as a wayward, midnight traveller in a Jacobean woodland. The Modern Age had been wiped from memory. (Except for those Betterware fairy lights.)
I traipsed around the flat gloomily, confused. Each footstep was loaded with dread at the prospect of treading on an unseen pin or an unseen plug or of stubbing my little toe against an unseen hard edge. My home was dead. The fridge had no buzz. The television had no little red light. The radiators refused to glug. In the oven, my haddock was treated to its second Rigor mortis in as many weeks. The silence was so pure that it allowed me to hear things I never normally heard: my footsteps, the floorboards creaking, the rattling of tables and bookshelves as I stumbled around. And above these noises, constantly, the sound of the seldom-acknowledged ins and outs of my breath.
I was acutely alone. Egged on by the occasion, the wind picked up. I stopped and listened as it whispered menacingly through the extractor fan in the bathroom. A burst of rain rapped its fingers across the window. An RAF jet thundered overhead, tearing the sky in two. In a flash of panic, I wondered whether something truly terrible was happening. Predictably, my first thought was of Donald Trump and his stupid Shredded Wheat haircut; he’d either triggered a global conflict by offending a nuclear-ready nation with his tactless oratory or by accidentally putting his can of Coke down on the red button whilst checking his Twitter feed.
The darkness was getting to me.
The simple solution to my blackout woes would have been to light a candle. The only problem with that was the fact that I’ve never bought a candle in my life. They’re one of those essential household items I assume I own, on the basis that I’d be crazy not to. I’m the same with fuses, elastic bands and double-plugs. I think I see such items as a given, as though they ought to materialise by themselves or, at the very least, be part of the tenancy agreement, nestled into a Welcome Pack and tucked under the stairs by the landlord on your moving-in day. Not for the first time, my laissez-faire approach to home management had bitten me on the derriere. (I’m trying to use as many European words as possible before Brexit kicks in and we’re ordered to speak proper British words n’ that.) After scavenging blindly around the pantry, I found only a box of matches. A fat lot of good they were without anything to ignite. Merde.
Candleless, I sat in the dark, coldly contemplating the evening ahead. Just what the hell was I going to do? Bed was out of the question. It was twenty-to-seven; I’d be wide awake and eating Frosties by 3am. Also out of the question, although I did momentarily toy with the idea, was to light one match at a time and watch as each burnt excitingly down to its base, until they scorched the tips of my thumb and index finger. Fun, eh? To think that my original plans for the evening involved working on my next book and Skyping a friend in Kansas. Ten minutes into a power cut and I was content with the prospect of staring at flames. The caveman is alive, people. All he needs is an excuse to come and visit.
If you houseshare, or if you’re married, or part of a family, then power cuts can actually serve as charming interludes. You can all huddle together in the glow of purposefully-bought candles and talk. Such camaraderie is good for the (non-atheist approved) soul. When you live on your own, alas, there’s nobody to turn to. It’s just you and your echo. You can’t even post a self-deprecating tweet about the situation because the bloody router isn’t working.
You might think from reading this that my street is prone to power cuts. Not at all. Our last was in 2009. And yet, as my half-cooked dinner regressed back to quarter-cooked in the oven, my grouchiness levels increased to sufficient levels to start saying things like ‘Will these power cuts never end!’ and ‘For God’s sake, it’s like living in the Dark Ages!’ I had a full-blown 21st Century strop. I kept mentioning the year: ‘It’s 2018 and I can’t even stream a movie whilst eating cooked food in a thermostat-controlled room. What’s the world coming to?’ (People often quote the year when they’re let down by technology: ‘God, it’s 1997 and I can’t even set a timer on my video recorder to tape Man O Man!’; ‘God, it’s 1985 and I can’t even play the new Terrence Trent D’arby album in the car!’ I wonder how far back this phenomenon goes: ‘God, it’s 1738 and I can’t even thread warp through the loom!’)
The problem with power cuts is you have no idea when they’re going to end. For all you know, you could be left without power for months, fending for yourself, going out only during daylight hours, scavenging abandoned thoroughfares, loading what precious resources you find into a rusty Morrisons trolley. If we only knew how long blackouts were going to last, we could plan around them. But, instead, we sit shivering in ignorance, hoping for salvation, fantasising about all the appliances we’re going to use as soon as the lights come back on.
For all my grouchiness, I couldn’t help but spare a thought for the poor souls whose job it was to sort the power cut out. How they do it, I don’t know. I’m clueless as to what even causes these seemingly random power outages. The pressure on the people involved must be immense. Whole regions depend on them to save the day. They’re like firefighters without the respect or saucy calendars.
Despite how much it rocked me, I’m ashamed to say that last week’s power cut was over in twenty minutes. The return of the electricity came just as suddenly as its exit. There I was, sitting in darkness, wondering what life was all about, when the lights flashed on, the fridge buzzed and the television flicked into multicoloured action, playing the Sky Intro channel. Normality had returned. All was well with the world. Another plane roared across the sky. So what? The wind, the dark, the chill, the silence had all been vanquished. The caveman crawled back into his hole. On the telly, the Sky Intro channel told about the benefits of upgrading to Sky Q: ‘Watch whatever you want, whenever you want,’ it said. Whatever I want. Whenever I want. That was the world in which I’d been raised. That was the world I clung to.
After a relieved exhalation, I made a mental note to definitely, completely, utterly, without doubt, buy candles next time I was out.
I’m yet to do so.