In a power cut all we can do is wait like babies for a grown up to sort it out
Laura Kennedy: The darkness reminds us of our own vulnerability and our entitlements
“We sat in the candlelit gloom the whole evening, realising how vulnerable the functioning of our lives really is”. Photograph istock
A relationship is a tender thing, even when established. A bit of healthy stress is good for it. It should be capable of climbing a hill vigorously, and of running on its own momentum for a while. Regular mild stress to its skeleton and sinew will strengthen it, making it better able to cope in an emergency, when it might need to summon strength from unknown depths in order to save itself.
There are certain strains which will break it, however, or expose the areas in which it is unfit already. There are also small stresses which do more harm than good.
One evening this week, I was boiling water for tea when the power went in our apartment. We live in a busy London neighbourhood, and Jules, a native Londoner accustomed to things working the way they are supposed to, was baffled by the sudden darkness.
After it had persisted more than a few seconds, we instantly began to bicker. He claimed that my action of making tea was somehow linked to the power cut. Scandalised by the unreason of this correlation, and wearing my Tyrannosaurus rex pyjamas, I mounted a vigorous defence, but a heated exchange ensued, both of us looking like utter eejits; me slightly more so because of the pyjamas.
Sharing some very minor and temporary adversity with us was a great enough draw to overcome the great London tradition of pretended solipsism
After an hour or so of arguing and research, conducted more or less simultaneously, we discovered that the power cut was due to a fault that affected about a hundred homes and businesses in our area, even though some of the flats in our building still had light blazing merrily inside.
A neighbour knocked on our door. Naturally, the setting being London, where nobody ever communicates with their neighbours except to beat on their walls when the music is too loud, I presumed it was someone fully intent on murdering us. In fact, it was the woman down the hall asking if we needed candles. Sharing some very minor and temporary adversity with us was a great enough draw to overcome the great London tradition of pretended solipsism.
Jules went out to get water – the taps were dry, since water is pumped up to our floor. On the way, he passed a neighbour out on her balcony, shouting her grievances about the darkness rather pointlessly into that darkness. “It’s shocking,” she intoned, “totally unacceptable.” Jules asked if she’d like him to get her a bottle of water – “I’m not paying for water! I’ve a right to it!” she roared.
We have to wait for someone else to fulfil their duty to provide it. If they don’t, then we live in the dark
That’s the funny thing about a power cut. It reminds you how reliant we are on things we can’t understand and on people with more specialised skills than us. While we wait for six hours in our T-rex pyjamas, rocked by the realisation that we don’t actually – not really, not fully – understand how electricity works, we can assure ourselves all we like that we have a right to water or electricity. We have to wait for someone else to fulfil their duty to provide it. If they don’t, then we live in the dark.
We sat in the candlelit gloom the whole evening, realising how vulnerable the functioning of our lives really is. Without access to electronic devices, there was little to do but read or argue about the darkness. It did not bring out the best in us.
I could not stop thinking about the lady on the balcony, and her expectation that her electricity should never shut off, as though she feels utterly entitled to be shielded from human error, acts of nature, and bad mannered rats chewing where they should not. When the lights went out, she had nothing to do but bellow that entitlement from the balcony like a baby bird with its maw wide open in anticipation of its mother flying home.
The lights came back on several hours later, and everything looked less lurid and malevolently slanted than it had in the dark.
For a while, though, the darkness reminded us of our own vulnerability, of how the world as we know it runs by collective agreement and how, when the lights go out, all we can do is wait like huffy children or baby birds for a grown up to come and fix it.