An artist's impression of the blackout.

I was planning to have a quiet Saturday night. It had been a short week but I was still feeling tired from the non-stop celebrations in honor of Chile’s national holiday the previous weekend and I just wanted to rest. Leonel and Katty were out of town and I had the house to myself. There were no plans and nothing that needed to be done. Stretched out on the couch, I was watching a badly dubbed movie on the TV while I ate a lazy supper. It was nice.

But just before 8.30, my modest plans were interrupted. The TV screen flickered, there was a faint click and the lights went out. Feeling my way around in the dark I reached for the fuse switch on the lounge room wall and flicked it off and back on again. Nothing. I drew the curtains to look outside. The streetlights had gone out and it was black. Very black. Apart from a few stars and the moon, there was no light. After a while my eyes adjusted a little and I could make out the silhouette of the rooftops across the street but that was it.

Inside it was even darker. Turning away from the window I felt a sudden urge to go the toilet. Edging along the bookshelf, I made my way towards the staircase. After fumbling around for at least half a minute, my hands made contact with the smooth, wooden railing and I began to climb, one creaky step at a time. When I reached the top, I rushed into the bathroom and, out of habit, I closed the door and flicked on the light switch. Again, nothing happened.

Hunting in the dark, I found the the toilet, lifted the lid and took aim. Thankfully I was on target. Even better, when I pushed the flush button, the toilet responded with its usual gurgling sound. At least the water was still running.

Back downstairs I returned to the window and poked my head out from behind the curtain like a prying old lady on a British TV drama. There was nothing new to see but there was plenty to hear. A siren wailed, car horns honked and the neighbourhood dogs barked. The noise of the siren grew louder and the red and blue lights of the local council’s security team flashed past, interrupting the blackness for just a moment. And then everything was dark again. The noise from the siren faded away and an old diesel bus spluttered and clunked its way down the main street.

Sitting alone in the dark, I started to feel a little uneasy. A quarter of an hour had passed now and I still didn’t know what was happening. What if something serious had happened? I remembered hearing that it had taken days to restore the power after the 2010 earthquake and, faced with food shortages, many people had resorted to looting. What if something similar had happened? What if I was stuck here without Leonel and Katty and I had to fend for myself? I pushed the thoughts to the back of my mind. Well I tried to, anyway.

Pulling the mobile phone out of my pocket, I dialled Leonel. The phone rang twice and then cut out. I tried again but the same thing happened. I wasn’t sure if it was because the signal was down or because I had no credit. Either way, it wasn’t very reassuring. Groping around in the dark, I found the landline phone and picked it up. There was no signal.

The blackout was definitely scary but at the same time, it was boring. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t go onto the internet and without street lights, I didn’t really want to go out. There was nothing to do. But then I remembered I could listen to music. Feeling my way back to the stairs I made the slow ascent one more time, now in search of the MP3 player that I knew was hidden somewhere in my bedroom.

Touching the objects on top of my chest of drawers, I eventually came across the prized device. Turning back to the stairs, I paused as a noise caught my attention. Through the open window, I could hear the sounds of a transistor radio that seemed to be coming from an adjoining house. I raced back down the stairs and into the backyard. Crouching against the back fence I strained to hear what the voices were saying. The radio wasn’t very clear but I was determined to find out what was going on.

“…telephone lines…if you need to get in touch with your relatives, the best way to do that at the moment is via text message…”

The radio started to crackle and I couldn’t make out anything else that was being said. But now I had a plan. Turning to my mobile for a second time, I sent an SMS to Leonel.

“Is everything OK where u are? We have lost all power. Hope ur well.”

I checked to see if the message had been sent. It hadn’t. I put the phone back in my pocket and pulled it out again almost immediately to see if the situation had changed. It hadn’t. After a couple of minutes, I checked again but this time the situation as better. The message was sitting in the sent folder. Success.

I went back inside and sat on a couch, listening to my music in the dark. The phone vibrated in my pocket. It was Leonel.

“We are OK buddy. No power over here either but enjoying nature.”

It was a relief to make contact. I no longer felt quite so scared but now the boredom really started to kick in. I went back to the front window and looked out into the street. A small group of people with a torch had gathered in the middle of the road where they stood talking to each other. A car drove past, its headlights casting long shadows in the darkness. In the distance I could hear the crack of gunshots. At least I hoped it was the distance. More sirens wailed by.

With nothing else to do, I decided to go to bed, hoping that things would return to normal before I woke up. Again I searched for the stairs in the dark before making the creaky journey up to my bedroom.

Sleep was hard to come by. It was a warm spring evening and I was feeling restless but I must have dozed off because some time later, I was woken by the sound of a ringing phone. It was the landline. Downstairs. Hurrying back down the creaky staircase in bare feet I glanced at my glow-in-the-dark watch. It was after 10.30.

“Alo,” I said, picking up the receiver.

“Alo,” replied the man on the other end of the line. “Is Leo there?”

“No, he’s not. He’s away this weekend.”

I gave him a mobile number without stopping to ask who it was and hung up. And then it dawned on me. The phone lines were working now. I rushed over to the window to check the streetlights but they were still off. Another brainwave: maybe the internet was working now. I hurried up to the bedroom room to fetch my laptop and, after lugging it back downstairs, I switched it on and plugged in the modem cable. Clicking on the Google Chrome shortcut I waited. And waited. There was no signal.

It was discouraging. But now I was up I didn’t feel like going to bed so just I sat there in the dark. Waiting. I could hear helicopters hovering loudly overhead so I went back to the window. There were two of them, circling very low, with their searchlights piercing the dark sky. I went back to the couch and resumed the waiting game.

Around ten to eleven, there was a click and the light switched back on. At last. I must have forgotten to switch it off after the blackout but that didn’t really matter now. Eager for news, I turned on the TV.

“…close to 9 million people throughout the country’s central zone have been left without power for over two hours…” the newsreader said.

An item about Quilicura flashed up on the screen. I listened carefully. The Ekono supermarket in the Parinacota neighbourhood, just 10 minutes away from my house, had been looted by 200 people. All the stock had either been stolen or destroyed. Turning up after the damage had been done, the riot police had managed to arrest one man who had been injured in the stampede and was left to fend for himself. It was estimated that the damage bill was in excess of $240,000.

No wonder there had been so many sirens. I switched off the TV. It was nice to know things were back to normal.

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