So there I was, driving through the worst snow storm I’d ever seen, in a crappy rental Vauxhall Astra, with Abortion in the passenger seat offering useless advice and trying to get the stereo to work and, when he wasn’t doing that, rolling up joint after joint and smogging the car up with skunk fumes. Our rate of progress was roughly ten miles an hour. It was getting dark. We didn’t know exactly where we were going.
At what point, I asked myself, was I going to accept the fact that this was the worst plan in the entire history of mankind?
Knowing me, never. Stubborn, I was. Pigheaded, Gen used to say. “Except,” she would add, “that’s an insult to pigs. Compared to you, they’re quite reasonable animals.”
The snow filled the windscreen like static on an untuned TV. The Astra kept slewing and lurching, its wheels somehow finding every slippery patch on the road, despite my best efforts. Every half mile or so we’d pass another abandoned vehicle whose driver had had the common sense to admit defeat and dump their ride by the roadside and head off for shelter on foot rather than blunder on. This storm wasn’t letting up any time soon. The forecasters predicted it’d last at least another twenty-four hours and maybe longer. Blizzard conditions. Batten down the hatches, Britain. The future’s white. No one with any brains is going anywhere.
“Can’t be much further now,” said Abortion. His eyes were pink and glassy from the weed.
“How can you be so sure, if the place isn’t even on the map and all you’ve got to go on is a bunch of written directions?”
“Dunno, just am. Call it a feeling.” He offered me a pull on the joint he’d just sparked up. Abortion’s joints were unique. To save on Rizlas, he used segments of pages from a Bible he’d been given by a maiden aunt for his confirmation, so each one had little lines of text running round it. He’d started doing this when he left school. The paper was thin and slick and could be sealed with a lick – just right for the job. Now his Bible had about a hundred pages left in it. He was nearly through the New Testament and coming up to the Book of Revelation.
“Bit of herbal mood elevation?” he asked.
“Come on, Gid, one little toke won’t hurt.”
“I’ve got to concentrate. Need a clear head.”
“This clears your head,” Abortion insisted through a blur of exhaled smoke.
I was tempted. But those days were gone. The booze, the spliff, the hazy mornings, the lost nights… They belonged in the past, with the pain. I’d taught myself to live in the present, not to do everything I could to escape it. It had been a hard-learned lesson.
I was probably half high anyway just from breathing in Abortion’s second-hand smoke.
We ploughed on. Literally, almost. Drifts were building up across the road. I could just about make out the tramline indentations where other traffic had gone before us, but they were becoming silted up with snow. The Astra was carving a fresh furrow, as best its underpowered engine and poxy front wheel drive could manage. Not for the first time I found myself wishing we’d sprung for a 4×4, something decent like a Range Rover or a Shogun. But fourbies were at a premium these days, and the rental companies were charging more for them than Abortion and I could hope to afford. With the cash we’d been able to scrape together between us, this fucking heap-of-shit hatchback was the best we could do.
Then the heater packed in.
“Oh fuck me rigid,” I sighed once it became clear that the vents were blowing nothing at us but freezing cold air. “Does this cunt of a car hate me or what?”
Not that it made much difference because the heating hadn’t exactly been doing sterling work beforehand. Abortion and I both had put anoraks, hats and gloves on shortly after setting off, having sussed that the Astra itself wasn’t going to be much help in the keeping warm department.
By now the sky was so dark grey it might as well have been night-time, although it was barely four in the afternoon. I hit the headlights. The snow flurries became a bright swirl of stars, galaxies in fast motion.
Another three miles on, something under the bonnet began to hiccup and whine.
“Ever get the impression someone up there’s got it in for you?” I wondered.
“Nothing in the universe doesn’t happen for a reason,” Abortion replied.
“Sorry, didn’t quite catch that,” I said, cupping my left ear, the one that was genuinely hard of hearing. “Did you just say, ‘Hippy bullshit, blather blather, hey wow man bollocks’?”
“Just don’t stress. We’ll get where we’re going to, if that’s where we’re meant to be.”
“Thank you, Mr Dalai bloody Lama. In the meantime, I’ll be busy making sure we don’t stall and break down in the middle of fucking nowhere in subzero fucking conditions, if that’s all right with you.”
Definitely a problem with the motor. I could feel it through the accelerator pedal, all misfiring and stuttering, struggling like an asthmatic donkey. We were still going forwards, but the power kept sagging. I was no expert, but the car wasn’t going to take us much further unless we stopped and had a look under the bonnet. Stopping, though, was bonkers in a storm like this. Driving in snow, as I knew from doing arctic-weather training in Alberta, you had to keep going, slow and steady. It was the only way. Stop, and you might not be able to regain traction when you started up again, even if you stuck the car in high gear. “You park,” as our instructor so bluntly put it, “you’re screwed.”
So we hobbled on, and I was hoping against hope that the engine trouble would just somehow sort itself, and I was mentally composing the extraordinarily sweary letter of complaint I would be sending the rental company if and when we ever got out of this situation, and of course the engine trouble didn’t sort itself, it just got worse. The periods of power lag became longer and more frequent, and I started scanning around for signs of human habitation, the lights of a distant farmhouse, the glow of a far-off town, something to indicate there was somewhere we could take refuge if need be, but there was nothing, fuck all, just blackening sky and the endless thickly spinning snowflakes and the road that was disappearing, becoming buried, merging into the countourless whiteness all around.
We were out in far-flung hilly countryside, north of most of the cities I knew of, the furthest north I’d ever been without ending up in Och-aye-the-noo-land – where they painted their faces blue and called chips salad – and there was nothing like civilisation any more, not here. We’d left that behind us in this half-arsed venture of ours. Half-arsed venture of Abortion’s, to be precise. It was all his idea, and I’d just gone along with it for lack of anything better to do, any other viable option, and honestly, a bloke whose nickname was Abortion… He’d been christened that by a sergeant major on his very first day of basic (because, apparently, he looked like a foetus – and he did, to some extent, in certain lights, all bulging-eyed and big-foreheaded) and he hadn’t been able to shake it off since, and why the hell had I listened to him, of all people? A man who measured out his life in quarter-ounce wraps. Which of us was the bigger fool for embarking on this journey, this wild goose chase, in the face of the worst bout of weather anyone could remember?
And then, a miracle, hallelujah, out of the blue, a petrol station appeared. A BP garage. Lights on. Open. With a covered forecourt that was more or less free of snow. The sign even promised a café, just above the orange digits displaying the eye-wateringly high prices for a litre of diesel or unleaded.
“See?” said Abortion, stubbing out his J in the ashtray, which could be found just below the This is a No Smoking car sticker. “All that flapping for nothing. The universe is telling us it’s on our side, it wants us to make it.”
I held up two fingers in a peace sign, then flipped them round.
“Make war not love, man,” I said.
* * *
At the BP, I had a squint under the bonnet. The spark plugs were all carbonised. When was the last time someone serviced this fucking banger? I gave the plug heads a clean with some paper towel. Fingers crossed this had been the source of the problem, but for good measure I fiddled with the distributor and wiggled various vacuum hoses, checked the oil, made sure the battery connections were secure. The full extent of my auto mechanic expertise. Just because I watched Top Gear religiously it didn’t make me Jeremy Clarkson. After that I topped up the fuel tank, then joined Abortion indoors. He’d gone in for a slash, and now he was sitting at one of the tables in the tiny café, watching telly in the warm, huddled over a hot drink.
“What’s that? Coffee?”
“And you didn’t get me anything.”
“Didn’t know what you wanted.”
“Tea. Never go anywhere without a brew inside me. How can you not know that? Some friend you are.”
He frowned, distracted. The news was on.
I credit-carded the petrol, then paid cash for a tea and a jam doughnut. I had a dig at the girl behind the café counter about the price. “Three quid for a cuppa? And three ruddy fifty for a doughnut? I know petrol station mark-ups are a rip-off, but…”
She looked blank, like she just didn’t care. She was a scrawny young thing, with her hair scrunched tight back in a Croydon facelift and a jewel stud in the dimple of her nose. Okay-looking, but just not my type.
“It’s the grain shortages, en’t it?” she replied.
“Even so. I can remember a time when doughnuts were, like, thirty pee.”
She looked me up and down. “Yeah, I bet you can.”
Thoroughly put in my place, I handed her the money and moseyed on over to the seat opposite Abortion. The room was empty apart from the two of us, the girl at the counter and another sales clerk, an Asian kid with a sorry excuse for a moustache, working the main till. He looked as stupefied with boredom as she did, and there was a forlorn air about them both as well, the way they kept throwing glances towards the window. They weren’t sure they were getting home tonight and the prospect of kipping down in some backroom here was not an appetising one.
I drank the extortionate tea and savoured every last overpriced morsel of the doughnut. On the TV, the weather was making the headlines. Again. What a surprise. The weather had been making the headlines for months on end. The telly news people never tired of telling us about it, as if we didn’t already know. Three of the coldest years ever, in a row. Three of the longest, fiercest, snowiest winters since they first started keeping records about such things. With cooler than usual seasons in between – chilly springs, lukewarm summers, quick autumns – a brief bloom of green soon turning brown, then over and done, the white returning. And not just in the upper latitudes of the northern hemisphere but everywhere, all over the world. Wintry around the equator. Arctic in Africa. Little black kids chucking snowballs at one another, still enjoying the novelty while the tribal elders, wrapped up in every item of clothing they owned, muttered darkly and stamped their sandalled feet. Snowfall in the rainforests. Frost on the palms in Saudi Arabia. Ice floes on Lake Victoria. The Panama Canal frozen and impassable for half the year. Groves of Caribbean pineapples festooned with icicles. Kangaroos in the Outback letting out huffs of misty breath.
Three years of this, and still the climatologists could only shrug their shoulders and say, “We haven’t a clue what’s happening or why.”
Some blamed global warming, stating that this freak cold snap proved somehow that our carbon footprints had fucked the ecosystem, things would be steaming up again soon but we could expect to see a continual seesawing between extremes, higher hot peaks, deeper cold troughs, the planet not knowing what to do with itself, fiddling with its own thermostat in a desperate effort to balance things out.
Others claimed it was obviously the onset of a new ice age. Ice ages came along every eleven thousand years, and seeing as the last one was eleven thousand years ago, the next was due, even overdue.
Most, though, were pointing the finger at the recent spate of volcanic eruptions worldwide. Etna, Mount St Helens, Stromboli, Kilauea, Piton de la Fournaise on La Réunion, Eyjafjallajökull and its bum-chum Katla – all of them had blown their tops big-time during the past decade, shoving up billions of tons of soot and ash into the atmosphere and increasing the earth’s albedo, whatever that was, creating a haze of cloud that reflected away the sun’s rays. Result: bit of a nip in the air.
Whatever the cause, people were worried, no two ways about it. Not only had the crop harvests had been consistently poor three years running, meaning food shortages, but the old folk were dropping off their perches by the thousand. Most hospitals, you couldn’t move for the sick and dying elderly that were clogging up the corridors, stricken with pneumonia and hypothermia, rattling their last. Everywhere, the wheels of industry were grinding slower and slower. Economies were suffering. Not to mention the infrastructure of certain nations, including our dear own United Kingdom, was falling to pieces.
Prime Minister Clasen had been trying to keep a lid on it all and failing significantly. The more the plummy-voiced, baby-faced buffoon insisted in his cod-statesmanlike way that everything was under control, the less anyone believed him. All those floggings, fagging and buggery at public school hadn’t moulded a man capable of coping with a nation in crisis. Daddy couldn’t open the chequebook and get him out of this one. He was going to have to handle it himself. Or not, as the case may be.
Clasen said how much he was looking forward to putting heads together with America’s President Keener in a few weeks’ time and having a full and frank exchange of ideas about the crisis, and it just so happened that the very next item on the programme featured the luscious Mrs Keener herself. It was coverage of her State of the Union address which she’d given the previous evening and which she claimed was directed not just at Congress or even the American people but at “all the citizens of the world”.
What it boiled down to was some guff about not panicking, digging in and seeing this through. The usual bromides from the First Lady, delivered in that honeydew Deep South accent of hers.
God, though, she could always make it sound good. Plausible. Like there was no reason why you shouldn’t trust every word she said. No reason to doubt her.
Helped that she was so fit, too.
“I’m from the state of Georgia,” Mrs Keener said, “where we normally know it’s winter ’cause I see my grandmother maybe wearing an extra sweater. Before I came to Washington, I had no idea what cold was. But I got used to it once I was here, and learned to bundle up on those days when the Potomac turned white. And if Ican do that, we all can. This ain’t no ice age, that’s just fool talk. No global warming neither. This is just some funny old weather cycle, a little jape the Good Lord has seen fit to play on us, and it’ll pass. Long as we wrap up warm and look out for each other, we’ll be fine.”
“I would,” said Abortion, gesturing at the screen.
“Absolutely. Wouldn’t you?”
I looked again at Keener. Those cheekbones. Those lips. That voice. That figure, which her tailored suit did nothing to disguise and everything to emphasise.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “If she wasn’t a happily married mother of two.”
“Even then,” said Abortion. “Especially then. Happily married mothers of two don’t get any at home. She’d be gagging for it.”
“The first ever PILF,” I said.
“Politician I’d Like to Fuck.”
Abortion chortled. “PILF.” He chortled again. “I’m going to remember that one. For use later.”
* * *
As we headed back out to the car a massive yawn ripped through me like an earth tremor. I was knackered. Been driving all day, without let-up, and on my mettle every inch of the way.
I didn’t want to ask him – it went against every instinct I had – but I couldn’t see a way out of it.
“Abortion, will you drive?”
“No, but I don’t think I can go on without catching some rest.”
“You said you didn’t trust me behind the wheel.”
“Fucked-up as you are, I still don’t. But I need to get my head down, and we need to get back on the road while there’s still a road to get back on. Just be careful, don’t go fast, don’t get fancy. Half an hour’s shuteye, that’s all I want, then we’ll swap back over.”
Abortion snatched the keys from my hand and bounded over to the Astra.
Honestly, it was like being with a kid, not a grown man the wrong side of thirty.
Which reminded me.
As Abortion got the car in motion, I fished out my mobile. Shouldn’t be calling Gen’s but wanted to. Wanted to speak to Cody, just hear his voice, make contact before Abortion and I disappeared into whatever it was we were about to disappear into.
One bar of signal, flickering. I gave it a shot.
“Gen. How you doing?”
“You’re very faint.”
“Reception out here’s being knackered by the snow, like everything else.”
“Out here? Where are you?”
“Fuck knows, frankly. Somewhere way north. Just passed a sign saying ‘Beware – Wild Haggises Ahead.’”
“You’re travelling? Are you mad? Have you not heard the Met Office warnings? It’s going to hit minus twenty in some parts tonight.”
“Since when have I ever paid attention to warnings?”
“Seriously, they’re saying people could die out there.”
“It sounds like you almost care,” I shouldn’t have said but did.
Gen’s voice went rigid. I could imagine her eyebrows puckering, that way they did when she was annoyed. “Would you like me to put Cody on?”
“Go on then.”
Some clattering, feet on stairs, Gen saying “Your father,” and Cody groaning, which broke my heart.
“Hey, boy. What’s up?”
“Did you get outdoors? Make a snowman?”
“No.” Like: Why would I do something so lame? I’m twelve, you know.
“Stayed in with my Xbox. Roz bought me this awesome new game. Bushido Midnight. Roz’s cool. She played it with me for hours. She’s better at being a samurai but I kick her arse when I’m playing as a good vampire.”
“What’s that? Dad, I can hardly hear you.”
“I said don’t… Never mind. It’s great that you had a nice time with Roz. She’s a good bloke.”
“Da-a-ad,” he sighed.
But I’d meant it as a compliment. Sort of. “Anyway, look, Codes, you take –”
“You take care, and –”
“Dad? You there?”
“And do your homework –”
“Mum, I think he’s gone.”
Nothing. Silence. Disconnected.
“And,” I said into the ether, “tell your mum and that butch bitch girlfriend of hers to stop making me out to be some sort of idiot monster you should forget about. Just because I don’t ever see you doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I’m still your dad, for fuck’s sake.”
I slapped the phone shut. Slumped disconsolately into my seat.
“That’s got to suck,” said Abortion, bent over the steering wheel. “Your wife’s turned into a rug muncher and your kid barely knows who you are. Bummer.”
“Just saying, bad enough you put Gen off men for life, but now you don’t even get to visit the child you fathered with her and he’s being brought up in a household of dykes, which is surely going to warp him for life. Can you imagine what it’s like when the pair of them are on the blob? A normal household, the dad’s there to balance things out and take the flak when it’s rag week, but –”
“Abortion,” I growled, “shut the fuck up.”
I folded my arms, leant my head against the side window, and closed my eyes. At least the Astra was chugging along all right now. We had plenty of petrol, and according to the directions Abortion had downloaded we weren’t a million miles from our destination. I felt the vibration of the engine through the cold window glass. The muffled crunch of snow under our tyres was oddly soothing. One thing I knew how to do, one really useful trick I’d picked up in the army, was being able to nod off in any circumstances. In the belly of a roaring Chinook, in the back of a jolting troop transport, in a bivvy bag, basha or bedroll, on bare ground under starry skies, it didn’t matter, I was never bothered by insomnia, never lay awake wishing I was asleep. I could just shut myself down like switching off a computer.
* * *
Abortion, all but screeching.
And then a tremendous bounce, a brief throat-filling sensation of weightlessness, followed by an immense thundering kerrrump that shook the entire car.
My eyes snapped open in time to see landscape veering in the windscreen, then bands of white and black switching places, ground and sky pivoting over each other like tumbling clowns, and glass shattered, shards sprayed, and Abortion was pleading-screaming, and there was a series of awesome concussions as though the Astra was a drum someone kept beating, and then we were upside down, and there was snow coming in through holes, and I was aware of blood trickling from my brow up into my hairline, and white faded to black.
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• Filed under Extracts • 05/01/2011 •