The town had lately curled into a ball, as all things do when they are cold. The intervals when the electricity grid was disengaged had stretched from days to whole weeks to finally, it had seemed, years. The farmhouses and villas on the town’s fringes now stood colourless and boarded up like rows of dead trees. A small family of buildings in the centre of the town remained huddled around a steam-powered generator. There was the old community centre, a former curry house, and a building moulded mostly from acrylic glass that had once been a deli supermarket. The townspeople slept on bunks inside these three buildings. A great fire was lit nightly in the supermarket’s cobbled forecourt.
What water that ran from the town’s taps was today speckled and silty. It was sometimes inhabited by tiny wriggling white worms. Several years ago the townsmen had sunk shafts in the forest until they had found water that was sweet and plentiful. The town had goats, hens, and a kitchen garden for food. The children foraged.
Nothing on the internet had been updated for over a decade, not that anybody still bothered to check up on it. The townspeople would nowadays rather put from their minds the world of dazzling, fantastical abundance that was preserved on the internet. In any case, computers had become impossibly slow; screens took minutes to load and keyboards were usually numb in most of their keys.
Nobody turned the televisions on even out of curiosity these days. One by one the channels had died. For a while, BBC1 had continued to broadcast practical information – recipes for casseroles and tips about the medicinal properties of wildflowers. One day, however, it looked like pranksters had overrun the studio. Smirking men read out nonsensical news reports in fake, suave upper-class accents and blew raspberries. Later, the townspeople had been shocked to see these men tittering uncontrollably as they kicked what looked like a blackened head around a studio floor.
The elder men were generally in charge of the town and they occasionally put their decisions to a vote. The young people and most of the women did not concern themselves with this voting. The word “democracy” was now like a fine claret that was only ever savoured at the tables of the old men.
There was a beautiful palace that stood three or so miles from this town, through the skirts of the forest and a series of muddy meadows. This building was always boarded up and it was a very deeply felt wisdom around the town that there would be trouble if anybody approached it. The children and young people had been told to keep a goodly distance from the palace. A flogging from the butcher, the town’s penalty for its contrary youngsters, meant that any command from the elders was stringently followed.
Nonetheless, it was hardly likely that such a palace could be truly forgotten and left to itself. When walking in the forest, the townspeople would sometimes stray from their normal paths and wade through briars and brambles to take a peep at the palace. Although it looked as dead as the moon, the palace was bigger and vaster with promise than anything in their own lives.
Gradually, and despite its own self-denying ordinances, the community came under the thrall of a kind of compensatory superstition. This superstition held that every ten years a visitation or apparitions would appear in front of the palace. There was a genuine layer of rock beneath this belief. Nearly ten years ago, two sweethearts had been walking in the forest at night and they had seen the palace blazing with electric light. Coloured lights had drenched the landscape and shadows had flickered busily. The lovers had crept up and monitored the scene from behind a tree. It had looked just like an old picture on the internet. There had even been a flying machine, dipping over the rooftops of the palace, that one of the lovers had remembered seeing in online footage, when all the film clips had still worked.
The townspeople still followed their calendars. They still celebrated Christmas and Halloween and Easter Sunday. So it had been possible for it to stick in the community’s consciousness that the visitation had been witnessed on June 23rd.
On several consequent June 23rds some of the townsmen had undertaken an informal reconnaissance of the palace, but on each visit the building had been silent and boarded up. It had been since agreed that the next June 23rd would return on a significant anniversary. In the old folk tales, ghosts of the murdered and fairy castles had characteristically forged a contract with the world that stipulated that they had to appear every ten or twenty or one hundred years. It was the high hope of the town that the palace apparitions were scheduled to come every ten years. And now that it was almost a decade since the first sighting, every human heart in the town would quicken at the mention of the visitations.
It was felt that if they all went back to the palace and nobody was there, the sorrow and disappointment would be too keen to bear. On the other hand, if there were machines and lights and people, how should the townspeople responsibly respond? Would it be dangerous to try to make contact with the visitants?
When the fateful night came, a rabble streamed out of the town with hungry eyes and they plunged into the forest. No individual was leading or directing them but they picked their way through the forest making surprisingly little noise, pausing from time to time to confer. As last, when the forest had thinned away, a shiver of ecstatic amazement ran through the crowd. The palace was lit up. Indeed, it corresponded almost too exactly with how the townspeople had dreamt of it, so that the ordinariness of the scene seemed to blind them.
For this rabble to emerge out of the forest in front of the house would be like little mice showing themselves before the great face of a watching cat. Fortunately, there was a screen of evenly spaced trees marking the border between the forestland and the property. Here, the townspeople tarried, not knowing how to continue.
The wide plate of grass in front of the palace was always mown. This grass was as unnaturally luscious and smooth as the green on a snooker table. There were odd, limp flags planted forlornly around it.
Although the night was very fine, banks of mist prowled over the grass. Suddenly two figures had walked straight through one of these banks. Quiet words darted quickly amongst the townspeople. Everybody had frozen. Even the trees had stopped whispering.
They were two men in black suits and they had apparently stepped out of their palace to admire the night. One of the men had hair as silvery as moonlight and the other was spotlessly bald. Whereas the townspeople’s clothes were worn or crudely patched around the creases – and so old that the original colours were long lost – the fabric of these men’s suits was as fresh as the grass under their feet. The men wore blue ties and they had little blue flags in their lapels.
Both were swirling whisky or brandy in tulip-shaped glasses and looking very pleased with them, as though they were the newest toys. The eyes of the town watched the first of the men take an exploratory sip. His tongue carefully cleaned the taste from his lizardlike lips and he exclaimed with satisfaction, but in a language unknown to the townspeople. The second replied in the same language.
When the lamentations broke from amongst the townspeople, they were spontaneous and horrible to hear. “Help us!” they called piteously. “Please, do something for us!”
Then one of the town’s women had thought of something and she was desperate to locate the word for it. It was a lovely memory of caring and goodness, of good men who were like kindly fathers and people who were like devoted children. Finally, the word was hanging in her mind, as huge and fixed as the palace before her, though she was uncertain what the word meant or whether it was indeed the correct word. She tried it, hesitantly shouting it aloud, and it sounded convincing and natural on the air. She began shouting it more fervently, as if the word was itself a source of power. “Europe! Europe! Please help us, Europe!”
Soon her chant had become a chorus. The word spread like a fire over the town. “Europe! Do something for us! Europe!”
But the ghosts looked around and they admired the night and they sipped their drinks and they could not seem to somehow hear the townspeople. The howling grew more piteous. At one point a fat old townsman roared “Europe!” so deafeningly that his cry had instantly wiped out those of everybody around him. The two men might have blinked nervously and some of the townspeople thought that they saw a slight frown cross the face of the bald one. Next, as if on a silently agreed signal, like two actors at the final curtain, the two men stepped promptly back behind a rolling bank of mist and they were gone.