The moon was trained like a searchlight on the windows at the back of the house. Outside it was cold and hundreds of creatures scampered for cover and food. Inside there was a dining table, set with plates and dishes. The woman served.
"Could you get the mustard?" she said, as she brought in the potatoes. "And the ketchup. If you want it."
The man had his hands clasped as if in prayer. He laid his head against them for a moment and closed his eyes. Then he got up slowly and went out of the room.
Rain began to beat on the window. The clouds had come over the Pennines from the north-west coast and had been cursed all the way. People had pointed and shaken their heads and predicted the rain just minutes before it arrived. This was before dinner, before the hours of tension and the constriction of darkness, before the serving and eating. The weather hit the man and woman at their weakest.
"Did you close the garage door?" called the woman. Now she was sitting, helping herself to vegetables.
"Yes," said the man from the kitchen. "The security light was off again."
The woman continued with the vegetables.
"You shouldn't turn it off when you turn the other one off," said the man, coming back into the room.
"How can I remember which one's which?"
"The one furthest away is for inside the garage. The one nearest is the security light."
He sat down and pulled a dish of carrots towards him.
"Is there no spoon for these?"
She raised her eyebrows and said nothing. He got up, slowly again, and went out.
The rain covered the neighbourhood. It had brought the people hurrying home. They remarked on the weather, they looked at each other, they put their ears to the air and listened for prevailing emotions. They judged by single phrases or the tune of a voice. They sat down and ate together or alone.
A cat wandered around the back of the garden in the long grass. The man had complained about always having to mow the lawn, so the woman had done it over the last few months, but she left a strip at the back. He said that he didn't know why she would just leave it like that, but she said what did it matter and anyway it was hard getting close to the fence. He thought that if they left it long then the grass would die at the roots and it would look yellow when they—when he—cut it next Spring.
The cat liked the long grass. She had discovered a nest of mice and had killed one every day for the past week. When she brought one in, the man would follow the cat through the house with a broom and sweep the mouse away each time it broke free. The woman said it was the wrong thing to do.
"She's meant to hunt. When she brings something in she's offering it to us. She wants to be praised."
"I thought you were the animal lover. Don't mice count?"
"It's exhausted anyway. If you let it outside again it'll just die. It's kinder to let her kill it. It's nature's way."
But the man would keep trying to save the mice.
Tonight the cat stayed out in the rain. She crouched on the wet grass and the breeze rifled her fur. She was motionless apart from the slow heaving of her chest and the movement of her ears which responded rapidly to any sound.
The man had laden his plate. The couple ate on opposite sides of the table, taking it in turns to talk and take food from the dishes. The man ate more potatoes and the woman more spinach. This was the way things were. When a dish was nearly empty they checked with each other before they took the last helping.
The man carried out the plates. The woman fetched dessert. They each served themselves.
The rain continued and the evening was fresh. People went out of their back doors briefly to put rubbish in the bin or fetch an item from the car. They savoured the cold damp air on the back of their throats for a moment, then they shivered and rushed back in. Inside they couldn't see for more than a few yards; everything was blocked by walls or darkness. Pieces of conversations which didn't properly connect filled the downstairs of their houses. There was a rising noise which found no escape, with the windows pulled to and the doors locked. Every space was filled until the buildings vibrated with talk and complaint. Everywhere was busy with repetition.
The man and the woman cleared the table together. The man washed up. He would stack the dishes to dry by themselves and the woman would put them into cupboards the next morning.
"Another bloody day over with," said the woman.
She didn't know if she was just talking to herself. The man didn't quite hear, but he knew she had said something. He would have understood, but she didn't repeat it and he didn't ask. He washed up. She went through to the living room to watch TV. Later they might watch something together. Evening in the neighbourhood had begun.
Most people were more or less safe. They were fed and they were inside, protected from the cold. Everyone had an equal chance of happiness. These were the benefits of democracy.
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