The Moon Doth Shine As Bright As Day

The Moon Doth Shine As Bright As Day
Illustration by Dustin Jacobus

Joseph had never liked being called the school Premises Manager. He knew the title was meant to confer a certain authority on him, but he much preferred the old word – caretaker. He took care. He’d pay attention to that odd plaintive whistle from a radiator, a sign that a bleed that was due. He’d see the blotch of mould in the corner of the boys’ toilets, note the chipped hand basin with a sharp edge.

Sometimes, Joseph would have to go to the school building at night. He wasn’t supposed to take his son Noah with him. No children allowed after hours. But he was a single dad.

So Noah would come and hunker down on the plush cushions of the principal’s office, the dinosaur fleece over his legs and a big cup of hot chocolate, while Joseph did the usual checks around the school.

Once he’d finished, if Noah was still awake, he’d train his flashlight on the office wall, turn off the lights and do a little shadow show for Noah. His son was a great fan of bugs. His favourite was the stag beetle. That was a bit of a stretch, but with some practice, Joseph managed to do a fairly passable butterfly.

Often, fingers weren’t enough, and he had to improvise with the stationery available in the office. They once made an grasshopper out of paper clips and blu tak. They left it there on the desk, just to bemuse the principal. Joseph could never have a detailed model like that, but Noah had seen one in a book and his memory was a marvel of retention.

His son’s academic prowess was a surprise, as Joseph himself had never been much cop at school.

He didn’t begrudge the kids their learning, though. And he loved to watch them in the playground, with all its shiny new equipment.

Now that playground was nothing more than a source of contention amongst his fellow elders.

Every meeting, they rolled out the map of the school and its grounds. The old assembly hall with its glass windows was now a plant nursery. Other parts had been converted to a refugee shelter for those fleeing the coasts.

The playground was in front of the school.

It had once been the perfect site – an enclave surrounded by railings, in a place that would bathe children in morning sunlight as they smacked wooden batons against gleaming tubular bells. In the afternoon, trees provided patches of shade in just the right places, over the swings and the slide, so the chains and the metal did not get too hot.

Now the trees had mostly succumbed to heat and disease, leaving the playground exposed. The metal was hot enough to burn at midday.

Reynash tapped a pen on its spot on the map. “The soil beneath that concrete will be poor and contaminated. But there is plenty of space – a good place to build.”

“No.” Ella protested. “The need for reliable food sources is pressing. All we get from the Central Assembly is endless bags of corn. Have you seen the malnutrition amongst some of the children?” Ella was the chair of the elders’ council. Having once been an environmental activist, her word carried a lot of weight. “The focus needs to be on insects, pollinators. That’s the best use of that land. So, wild flowers, rotting wood in the shadier spots.”

Reynash leaned back in his seat and shook his head. “Rotting wood? Where’s that coming from? Are we going to cut down the trees that have managed to make it through all of this?”

“Obviously not, but we do need to leave the dead wood to decompose. And absolutely all the concrete must be pulled up. Every last slab.”

“No.” Joseph said suddenly. “We should at least leave the playground as it is.”

Everyone looked at him in surprise.

“The children deserve a place to play,” he insisted. “Where else have they got? It’s important.”

“As important as them having food to eat?” Ella demanded.

Of course, she got her way. Most of the play equipment was removed.

The tubular bells remained in place, though, to sing their sad, dissonant songs to the breeze. They also left the frame for the swing up, as it might be a good place for runner beans to be trained in the future.

Everything else was torn out, leaving pot-holes.

It took a year for the plants began to start colonizing the cracks. Only the toughest weeds could break through ground like that and survive the heat of the midday sun: dandelions, bindweed and brambles.

The clandestine allure drew teenagers in, especially couples. Soon, larger groups were sneaking in too. One time, one of the boys managed to sneak out some of his parents’ mead. A mate of his got so drunk on the stuff, they found him passed out the next morning with a pretty serious case of hypothermia. A couple more hours there and he could have been dead.

At the next meeting of elders, Ella folded her hands on the table. “Look, isn’t it clear by now? We have to raze that playground. Or at least cordon it off. Otherwise we will have a maimed or dead child on our hands.”

Joseph coughed. “We can wrap that place up with chains, and barbed wire. The kids will still come. They love a place they can hide away from adults.”

Reynash nodded slowly. “How about this? We open up the gate, clear away some of the foliage. We tell the kids they can make the space their own. If they prove they’re doing something worthwhile and useful, we let them do what they want with that playground.”

Ella shrugged. “All right. But if it goes pear-shaped again, that’s it. I don’t want any more arguments.”

Reynash and Joseph spent a day clearing the around the gate, so there was a clear path through to the playground. There was a little patch of ephemeral wetness that Joseph had been topping up in a little shady area, just outside the gates. He found a few hoverflies and a wasp that had fallen in.

Reynash tsked. “Great pity. You need to make some slopes on one side so the poor critters can crawl out of the water. We’ll try and get some pebbles for you.”

Joseph kneeled next to the water, gently lifted the wasp up onto a bit of card. Its legs were still moving.

He was old enough to remember a time when people would swat at wasps as they alighted on ice creams and food at picnics.

As Reynash was laying some wood chipping, he gently laid the little creature on the ruined bench under one of the trees.

The sun had nearly set now. Soon, Reynash and Joseph were trying to usher in the couples and little gangs of kids gathering beyond the gate. Before, they had been so eager to find a way in, but now they were shy in the face of this welcome.

As they were milling about at the entrance, Joseph went back to check on the wasp. Its wings seemed to be dry now, but it was not moving. He dropped a little sugar water right next to it, hoping it might have a drink.

Just afterwards, one of the kids stumbled through the entrance, tripping over on something. The laughter shocked Joseph and he put a hand a little too close to the wasp. With a loud buzzing, it shot right up, darting between the tree branches.

On the first few nights, the kids and teenagers mostly just milled around, lurking on the edges. Joseph and Reynash encouraged them to discuss the ideas they had for the space, but to little avail until a girl called Ebony came along with some kindling and a wheelbarrow full of old wood.

“It would be fun to make a fire.”

Despite his reservations about burning anything, Reynash happily helped her out.

He got the kids to go round and find dry twigs and leaves. He did have some matches, but decided instead to let them have a go at striking fire with flints. It took a bit of time for them to get exactly the right angle and pressure. But there were gasps worthy of fireworks once they managed to get it going.

They laid potatoes, all wrapped up in grease paper, to bake at the centre of the blaze. Some of the older kids took turns to use the old swing frame as monkey bars.

“There’s got to be a better use for them than that, don’t you reckon?” Reynash said softly, as the kids were all licking their fingers after eating the potatoes.

The fire had started to die out now, embers glinting under a sky in the final stages of its dark blue descent into night.

Ebony pointed at the craters left behind from the climbing frame. “I’ve got an idea. That line of holes in the ground looks exactly like the Big Dipper.”

“The what?” a boy asked.

“The Big Dipper. It’s a constellation. We could turn the playground into a star map. I mean, that’s useful, isn’t it? Teaching us about astronomy and all that.”

Aziz, one of the younger boys, said his dad had a pile of old cat’s eyes from the abandoned motorway he was helping to demolish. The following night he turned up with them in a big backpack. They took turns to push the cats’ eyes in, and Reynash helped fix them into the ground with lots of little pebbles all crammed into the edges.

In the early morning light, everyone could sit down to admire it: the Big Dipper. A little wobbly perhaps, but definitely recognisable.

Ebony brought along a star wheel next, a really big one. The kids decided they’d try to create as many constellations as they could. Ella got some trowels from the communal gardening shed, and they all began to make little holes in the tarmac. Since it had been melted by the day time heat so many times, and broken apart in places by persistent dandelions and bindweed, it had been weakened. Still, it was hard and hot work, even in the relative cool of evening.

Soon, they had created Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, and Orion, and the cat’s eyes gleamed under a huge, pink moon.

Ebony’s next idea was to make lanterns – great spheres for planets, and long tubes for glow worms.

Joseph remembered the materials needed from a school Lunar New Year celebration, so many years ago.

“You need bamboo.”

“Well that should be easy enough!”

“And that sort of crinkly parchment, too.”

Joseph took Ebony and her dad down to the collective depot one afternoon. They found crepe paper in shades Joseph would describe as anaemic – overcooked beansprout and faded pastels.

But Ebony was excited. “When these are glowing, they’ll look like bioluminescent creatures in the sea.”

“I thought it was planets we were going for.”

“Why not both? As far as we know, that is the way aliens look.”

And truly, those animals might as well have been extraterrestrial, because most no longer inhabited Earth, alas.

So Ebony and about a dozen other kids and adults fashioned the planets out of bamboo and crepe in the early evenings while the light was still pretty good. The kids made some sea creatures as well, to float amongst the planets – an octopus, jellyfish and a ray.

Ebony lit the first lantern.

It was dark enough now that the people wearing nothing but black were hard to see. So the planets genuinely did seem to be floating in space, and the sea creatures the depths of the ocean. The ribbon tentacles of the jelly fish flickered around it. The glow worms had been strung up across the old swing framework and swung gently, emitting a soft, golden halo of light on the concrete beneath.

Some of the kids were playing their impenetrable hopscotch games on the constellations. They’d even got rhymes to go with them now. “Over Orion and through the Plough, whizz through the Belt and fly through Gemini…”

Several of them had flopped on one of the old benches.

Joseph sat down quietly beside them. “How do you fancy a shadow show?”

Just twenty years ago, kids would have laughed at such a poor replacement for screens. But these kids were only seven or eight years old, and the only screens they’d ever seen were the cracked ones that people now used as wind chimes or Christmas decorations.

Joseph got one of them to hold the torch so it cast its halo of light on the back of the bench, a stretch of freshly painted white timber. It was as clean-edged and sharp as the moon above them.

He surprised himself by how easily he remembered the way to curl his fist and extend the finger, to make a snail. The kids all shrieked in delight as he showed them a dragon fly, a butterfly…

“Kids – maybe time to play constellation hopscotch? Joseph’s been playing with you a long time. He looks tired.”

It was Ella.

“You’re good at that shadow puppetry,” she said, settling down on the bench next to him once the kids had ambled away.

“Thanks. I used to do it for my son.”

“I didn’t know you had children.”

“I don’t now.”

Ella took a deep breath in.

“Most people who lived through the Withering lost someone,” he said eventually.

“Yes,” said Ella. “But a child… that is different.”

Joseph’s vision blurred. He turned his head as he blinked the tears away.

Ella sighed and put a hand on his back. “I thought you were just an old man, set in his ways. I’m sorry.”

“Why sorry? I am an old man set in his ways.”

They both laughed.

The lantern show was over now. Kids flopped down on grass verges. Adults laid blankets over them gently, propped up their heads with pillows. On a hot night like tonight, it was best to sleep under the stars.

Joseph had long relished the different flavours of quiet.

There was the thrumming, heavy quiet of the old school corridors at night, when the strobe lighting was on. Then there was the comfort of a quiet disturbed by muffled activity nearby – cricket or snooker heard from the TV in another room. He still missed that cut glass clink, the odd, cathartic sighs of the crowds.

He didn’t think that sort of peace was accessible any longer.

But as Ella’s hand covered his, warm and callused, he remembered a stolen moment at the periphery of a fun fair long ago, the carousel music a distant tingle in the ears to match that of the lips lightly touching his.