They sat on the doorstep at the back of the flats. They came every evening, as summer elapsed, to smoke and trade hushed nothings and somethings and to wait for the pipistrelle bat. They sat with their knees drawn and sometimes she stretched and he admired her legs and he rolled tobacco, licking the paper and picking errant strands from the cigarettes’ ends.
And when it came, it circled the square, to forage, to feed on insects on the dim garden air.
The bat fluttered, erratic, over the shadowed, soft shapes of the buildings, the bed linen and laundry on the line, the rolling blue clouds, the slim limbs of the pear tree and the bins by the boundary wall… in and out of the yellow boxes of light that fell from the windows above, playing over and over like an old silent movie.
Their whispers were in deference to the bat, to the neighbours, the night, and possibly, with a residual reverence for the dead. The flats had once been a chapel, then a mission for seamen. Then a bar, then this.
Their pauses were absorbed by the garden, their words barely bouncing from the brickwork.
If anyone were eavesdropping (perhaps from one of the windows above, cracked an inch or two – to allow the evening air, the muted sounds from the river, or conversely to let pan steam or unwanted odours out from within), they would have been unable to follow the thread of their vespers.
Their eyes are busy in the darkness, seeking the bat’s movement. The silence is heavy again, muted.
He likens it to magic.
He wonders if he should make a sound, say a word? Perhaps he could string a line together? If he did, if he dared break the silence, then, perhaps, she’d take up that string and pass it back to him, to and fro, and between the two of them they could construct some kind of unseen cats’ cradle.
But their quiet clumsiness is no doubt well mapped already.
They are part of the bat’s geography, dim witness to its hunt. Before he can decide whether to speak out or not, she says, “It’s gone.”
He knows that she means the bat and so he peers toward the pear tree and the darkening sky beyond but only sees Venus sliding behind the cloud.
A minute passes and, it’s true, the bat has gone.
“It’s a misconception,” she says into the dark.
“About bats. Bats and blindness.”
They sit in the silence awhile. Quite blind. She spends some time struggling with the lighter. He thinks about saying something about white sticks but there isn’t much for him to share on that matter.
She gives up with the lighter.
Eventually, she says “Venus?”
He touches her wrist with the back of his hand, en route to pointing to the sky, but the cloud has become blanket and the planet has disappeared.
“It’s gone,” he says. “Here, let me light that.”
“I hate these things. They hurt my thumb.”
She hands him the lighter, picks up the cigarette and leans into the flame.
She looks beautiful within the brief cupped glow and it’s as if he can see for the first time.