For Letting Go
The lantern shutter stuck. It always did. If only I had some oil left, Werner thought, everything would run a lot easier. If only any of us had some oil left. The shutter finally budged, and candle light forced its way out and onto the concrete wall of the Biology block. The yellow glow of the lantern highlighted the pocked and cratered surface of the deserted building, like the surface of the moon stretched out on a canvas. But it was their canvas – not Werner's. Those vandals and rascals. Strange, how they kept it blank.
Werner’s torch had long given up the fight. Batteries never made it this far; that is if batteries were made anywhere these days. The sliding button used to stick on that too. It always gave them a second – not that they needed it, if Werner was honest. A second to escape back into the shadows, back to whatever part of the campus they hid on. In the ten years that followed the abandonment of the university, Werner had never managed to find where the vandals lived. He had to content himself with shooing them away whenever he could. He was a security guard after all, not a detective.
Swinging the lantern left and right, Werner checked the rest of the wall. Biology was fine. He had a number of routes, switching them every so often to catch the sprayers unaware. Tonight started with the sciences; wander through the covered walk to the humanities block; loop round past the wooded hillside to the English rooms; and finally back across the field to the gymnasium. A few circuits of that would take him to just before dawn, as long as his shoes didn’t play up. There were holes, more holes than shoe, where gravel would burrow and bite and nibble. Luckily the stitching on his shirt was holding. He hated sewing.
The great husk of the Biology department stared down as Werner wandered under the covered walkway. The atmosphere of campus at night was unique. He revelled in the sense of anticipation that remained in the empty seat of learning – though he had never understood that phrase, as if anyone could sit on learning. The buildings were asleep, like those who should be occupying them come morning; resting to be ready for the rush of passing knowledge. That feeling alone kept him here. When the life he was used to had dried up along with the oil, he clung to something greater than himself.
For the same reasons Werner hated the campus in the early morning. It echoed of disappointment.
The humanities block reared out from behind the trees, its large glass upper walls still slick in the moon light. Out of habit he pushed hard against the lecture theatre’s fire escape door, checking it was locked. Not for the sake of security, but in case one of the vandals had grown clumsy and left an open door; a clue to where they stayed. He had almost caught one here, as he came round the corner; one of the nights he had changed his route and it had paid off. The youngster had fled like a creature possessed, hurling itself through bushes and over walls. Chasing the boy – it had looked male – would have been futile, though it stung Werner's pride to admit it.
Oddly, the vandal was wearing sunglasses. At night. It had caused Werner many evenings of contemplation, that little riddle. Perhaps that’s why the boy had run headlong through the undergrowth, maybe he could barely see? There seemed little logic to it. Even when the halls had sung with the noise of eager youngsters, little about them made sense to him.
There was another riddle that waited for Werner, as he inspected the humanities building wall where the vandal had been about his deed. A spray can had been dropped. Werner carefully knelt down, his knees protesting, and rolled the can a little. It was plain, no markings or brand labels. As always, the wall was still blank.
“Caught him just in time, I reckon,” Werner muttered. He looked at the press-down nozzle. Curiosity pulled at him, so he stood and walked across the grass. There, after a moment scrabbling around on the ground, he found a suitable rock. Holding his breath, he aimed the can and pressed down on the nozzle. Nothing. He gave it a shake. Nothing. “Must be an empty. No wonder the kid dropped it.”
Cool and rich in his worn hands, Werner smiled at the soil. His root vegetables were doing well this year, and he would have the other varieties ticking over nicely soon. With an initial pang of guilt, he had sequestered a corner of the old football field for his vegetable patch. He had no love for the long dead game but it was difficult for him to alter the campus. Small steps to begin with, borrowed tools and seeds from Biology. Hunger overrides many emotions, Werner had decided.
The late summer sun drifted down, covering him in warm satisfaction. Even the obvious signs of intrusion at the carrot row couldn’t dent Werner’s contentment. He had given up worrying over stolen vegetables; it was never enough to trouble his food supplies. It was beyond him to deny another human being the chance to survive. Too much had gone wrong with people and how they treated each other.
“What I would do for some garlic,” he mumbled as he knelt. “Oh, no you don’t.” A weed had tentatively dipped its toe into the vegetable patch and, for its curiosity, was ripped from the earth.
Werner decided to work on the patch until sunset. Make the most of the afternoon, then build up the fire for a broth, and begin the rounds.
Before the oil, the coal and all the other stuff ran out, he had had so many worries. Mortgage. Insurance. Wife and kids. He grinned, shaking his head ruefully. All those important things, he thought. Not any more. In hindsight his past life could have felt like wasted time.
Werner was hungry already. He guessed it was close to midnight, but time didn’t mean much to the redundant security guard. It was either night or day, and only the sun decided the difference. Werner knew – if he would let himself think too long on the subject – that he only stayed on campus out of habit. There was nothing left for him out there, in the big world grown small and then big again. The dead university kept him secure, and he tried to respond in kind. But they were so quick, and so dark, and so quiet.
Letting the lantern cover slip down, Werner stopped to allow his eyes to adjust to the night. Ahead was the corridor of steps that ran beside the Humanities block. It was once lit by fluorescent lights; amber shading that coloured buildings and people into different shapes. Werner never used to dream, he would joke to his wife, he went to work instead. Now the lights weren’t needed. Werner knew the steps too well.
He also knew someone was there. Sounds of cotton and breath, and both against concrete, so quiet they screamed. The stairway was altered, Werner could be anywhere: the cities, a different campus, a separate civilisation. It could be anywhere; it wasn’t his stairway.
There was a little scrubber spraying something important enough to share and then erase. Something worth risking being caught, something worth changing the face of a building for. The nagging of the unknown pulled Werner's truncheon forcibly from its holster. The void in his understanding was the real reason he hated the youngsters.
Light steps. Until just close enough.
The can dropped, clanging against step after step. Werner felt tired. Tired of chasing these shadows that threatened his walls. He clipped the boy or girl’s leg, tripping them onto the stairs. Dark glasses and a small mouth gaped up. Werner gripped the child’s arm, and raised his stick. Just a child, not knowing. He let go.
“Could be turnips there next year,” Werner said to no one. He brushed the earth from his knees, and stretched his back. “You’re getting old,” he told himself. Strange, it felt reassuring.
Picking up the carrots and potatoes he’d singled out for his meal, he began the walk back to the cabin. Summer was drying up and the evening air felt wet with autumn. Werner took a long breath, and whistled as he walked. The fading sunlight was orange, which was unusual now with no layer of pollution, like the old electric lights. The campus looked heartened by the revival of old colours.
He hadn’t seen another vandal since the stairs, but he had thought about them every evening; no longer sure what he would do if he found another.
His green wooden cabin peeked over a row of bushes as he made his way up the path linking the football field, the car park his cabin was in, and the back of the Chemistry building where he began his rounds. He could see patches of his own handy-work; repairs and minor improvements to his little home. A note of pride chimed as Werner thought of the window ledge he had made, and the flowers he now kept there.
He was still smiling, when he reached for the door handle. He stopped. There, hanging from a twine cord, was a pair of sunglasses. Werner looked around, but saw the same empty white lines that greeted him every day. Picking up the glasses, he noticed they were not the kind fashionable people used to wear. These had three roughly cut and moveable layers. Red, green, and blue.
He put them on. The university came to life.
A piece of paper hung on the cord just above the glasses. In jagged and scribbled writing, it said: ‘For Letting Go’.