Bob went up close to the screen, scowling as if this would change the weatherwoman’s mind and improve the forecast. The blue-green pixelated blot representing the Vortex remained clearly visible over the North Atlantic, edging its way coastwards as the woman talked her viewers through the next twenty-four hours. By the time she reached midnight the shapeless icon was pulsating over the city, venting weather warnings, stylized snowflakes and numbers representing wind speeds of up to one hundred and fifteen miles an hour. Bob continued to scowl, convinced as usual that it was her personal malice that had brought on the unprecedented storms of the last few months. ‘I’d better fetch in more wood,’ he muttered, flexing his shoulders. Instead he stayed put, toying with his glass and jigging one of his legs up and down to ease off cramp.
Anne was setting out candles in all available holders: church candles, household candles, tea lights, hurricane lamps, a paper lantern. ‘Quit bustling around,’ Bob snarled. ‘You’re giving me a headache.’ Anne shot him one of her looks. ‘You know very well, Bob Carlin,’ she snapped, ‘that every time the Vortex comes round we get power cuts all over the city. They sometimes last for days. You’d best get in that wood before it hits us.’
‘I’ll fetch it in when I’m good and ready,’ Bob muttered, and took another sip of his whisky. The slug went down the wrong way and he started to cough, lungs and gullet burning. The truth was he felt a deep reluctance to leave the flat. The storm hadn’t even struck and the wind was howling along the street like a CG bomb blast, tossing the branches of the trees so that they cast enormous shadows across the fronts of the tenements opposite. A year or two back they would have called this a storm; but the recent worsening of global weather conditions had changed the definition of a storm to something much more drastic. ‘When I’m good and ready,’ he repeated, glancing at the window. A spatter of raindrops rattled the glass as if in answer. You’ll never be ready, it seemed to say, not for the likes of this. He shuddered and shuffled off in his worn-down slippers to pour himself another dram at the kitchen sideboard.
The odd thing was that he usually loved the job of getting in wood. It gave him the feeling of being the provider, direct descendant of the Neolithic hunter-gatherers of Ice Age Europe, snotty-nosed mammoth-wranglers who would have sneered through their cavernous nostrils at the thought of cowering indoors on account of a bout of inclement weather. His actual resemblance to such a hunter-gatherer was of course minimal; it was mainly based on the fact that he had chopped the wood himself, then stacked it in the first and only woodpile he had ever built from scratch. Well, to be exact, he and Jurek had built it – and Jurek was a better stacker of logs than Bob. But it was Bob, not Jurek, who had watched as the huge Leylandia tree next door was dismantled piece by piece by chainsaw-wielding contractors. It was Bob who had seen the pieces carried out one by one into the weed-choked lane that ran between the high brick walls that separated the back yards of the tenements; and it was Bob who had kept an eye on them month by month as nettles and dock leaves sprang up between the chunks like a miniature forest. It was Bob, too, who had finally decided that they’d been forgotten, and that the time had come when he could reasonably claim the wood as fuel. He had planned to drag the pieces home alone, but the first chunk was such a weight that it jarred his shoulder when he tried to lift it. So he’d called in Jurek to help; Jurek, who could carry a washing machine up the stairs on his own without breaking a sweat; Jurek, who cycled thirty miles to work each morning on a bike like a sleek metal greyhound. But it was Bob, again, who supplied the axe: a logging axe nearly four foot long with a wedge-shaped head freshly sharpened by his close-mouthed brother-in-law, from whom he’d borrowed it. By the time he and Jurek had split all the logs the axe was blunt, and he’d had to ask Jurek to sharpen it again with his Belgian whetstone. As a consequence the wood from the huge Leylandia had to be shared between Bob’s family and Jurek’s; but you couldn’t resent the man his portion, not after he’d worked so hard for it. And Jurek’s wife had brought out beers as they’d chopped and sweated in the summer sun. Winter had seemed far off in those days of comradeship, when all the kids in the street had scampered up and down the lane to each other’s houses and a cold beer had been as pleasant pressed to the forehead as poured down the throat. Hard to imagine days like that in winter, after all the storms that had intervened since August.
He’d had plenty of occasions to be thankful for his foresight in the months that followed. The stack of wood, built up against the back wall of the close and covered with an old tarpaulin, had provided him and Jurek with all the fuel they needed to last them through the days and weeks when the power failed and the radiators cooled into lifeless slabs of moulded metal. Both men had been wise enough to keep the Victorian fireplaces in their front rooms, and though the cast iron inserts were really meant for coal you could get a good wood fire going with a bit of patience and some twists of newspaper. That was Anne’s job, of course; patience wasn’t one of the virtues Bob claimed to have mastered.
When he got back from the kitchen, glass refreshed, the weatherwoman had vanished from the TV screen. In her place, worried-looking cops were stalking down a corridor clutching handguns, casting suspicious glances left and right as if expecting the weatherwoman to spring out at them from behind a door. Bob settled in his chair to see what would happen next, nursing the tumbler in his hand to release the fragrance. But the tension on screen was mounting, and after a while he put the glass down on the coal box and leaned forward, running his fingers across the ten-o-clock stubble on his chin. Anne mentioned the wood again and he snorted, studying the cops like a private detective searching for clues.
Bob’s phone buzzed in his pocket and he swore as he struggled to pull it free before he missed the call. He didn’t recognize the number and almost put it away again, but something made him tap the green icon and raise it to his ear. An accented voice, Polish or Rumanian: ‘Bob? It’s Jurek. Have you heard wind? It sounds bad, doesn’t it? Worse than usual, I think – much worse. Listen, can I ask a favour? Do you mind if we come upstairs and sit in your flat, just till storm is over? We ran out of fuel, and Magda – well, she gets nervous. She don’t want me going outside to fetch in more wood. She says… well, she don’t want me to, that’s all. What you say, man? Can we come up?’
Bob swore again silently, placing his palm across the receiver in case the force of his feelings should somehow communicate itself to Jurek without the help of sound. Just what he could do without – a bunch of lousy Polacks jabbering away in his front room while he was trying to chill. They’d probably want some whisky, and there wasn’t much left. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he said with a dry mouth. ‘We’re out of wood too. I was just heading out the back to fetch another load. You want me to get you a couple of logs?’
‘No no, it don’t matter. We’ll just come up and bring duvets. We’ll all be warmer if we sit in same room, don’t you agree?’
Bob was casting about in his mind for a good excuse to say no and hang up when Anne butted in. For her, phonecalls weren’t a private matter: anyone could take part in them from any part of the flat, with often chaotic consequences. ‘Who’s that?’ she asked. ‘Is it Jurek? Magda’s been texting me all evening. They’d like to come up till the storm’s gone by. Says she saw something in the back court – really put her out, she’s a bag of nerves. Tell them to bring their duvets and some nice warm clothes and I’ll make a few hot water bottles while the kettle’s still working. The Vortex never lasts long, and it’ll be nice to have some company to keep our minds off it.’
Bob gritted his teeth and gave what he hoped was a convincing smile. ‘No problem, hon,’ he said. ‘Jurek, come on up. It’ll be good to see you. I’ll fetch in the wood and we’ll make ourselves comfortable.’
‘No need for wood.’ There was an urgency now to Jurek’s voice, as if he really meant what he was saying. ‘You stay put, Bob. We’ll be up in a minute. We bring duvets. We’ll be fine.’
Why, I do believe the man’s afraid, Bob thought in surprise. Magda’s got nothing to do with it; Jurek’s afraid to go outside. Who would have thought it? Big strong Jurek, put off by a bit of wind and sleet. Maybe they don’t get this sort of weather in Rumania. He smiled to himself and flexed his muscles unconsciously, testing his strength before he stood up and went into action. He relished the thought that he’d pass Jurek on the stairs. He would nod kindly, he decided, as he stumped past him, with his refuse-collector’s gloves and his sleeves rolled back to expose his impressive forearms. Bob’s forearms were his best feature, and he liked to expose them on every opportunity; he fancied he had caught even Jurek casting glances at them last summer as they sipped beer sitting at the table on the unkempt lawn. When body parts were handed out, Jurek got the biceps and Bob the forearms. Unfortunately he also got the belly, but he could lose that in two or three weeks if he put his mind to it…
The lights went out. The TV went blank. Darkness overwhelmed them.
Anne let out a small involuntary noise, a sort of gasp from where she lay stretched out on the sofa. Even Bob made a noise of some kind, though he covered it up a moment later by scuffing his slippers on the polished parquet. ‘Christ, not again,’ he swore as he heaved himself to his feet. ‘That’s the third time this week. We’re claiming compensation, I don’t care how long it lasts. I’m paying for power, not a string of blackouts.’
A battery of blows at the double front doors made him swear again. ‘Christ, Jurek, do you have to try and smash it down? Keep your hair on, will you? I’m on my way.’ As he pulled open the inner door and reached for the bolt that fastened the double doors – the portcullis, so to speak, which sealed off the flat from the communal staircase – he heard a high-pitched whimper from the other side and cursed for a third time under his breath. The Polack kids were awake, then. That was the end of any dreams he might have had of a pleasant evening in adult company. Kids never slept in a storm, in his experience. And Anne would insist he make up a bed for them in the second bedroom. He hated making up beds.
Jurek, Magda and the kids blew in through the doors, bringing with them a gust of cold air and a babble of voices. Light spilled in too: the phosphorescent glow Bob had earlier seen from the living room window turning the sky behind the streetlamps into a pallid screen. He contrived to twist his face into what he hoped was a welcoming grin.
‘Go on through, folks,’ he urged them heartily, waving his arm towards the sitting room. ‘Get yourselves warm. Anne’ll make some tea.’
Jurek hovered in the hallway, arms full of duvet, as Bob slipped his feet into his boots. Perhaps the big man wanted to urge him once more to stay inside, keep safe and warm till the storm blew over. But Jurek said nothing. No doubt he could see the resolution in Bob’s face, the determination to provide for his wife and neighbours whatever the weather, whatever the time. Bob shrugged on his coat and reached for the work-gloves, relishing the scrape of untreated canvas against his forearms as he tugged them on.
‘Back in a sec,’ he said with studied casualness, and walked out of the door.
A moment later he walked back in. Jurek was still standing in the hallway, looking lost. ‘Forgot the keys,’ Bob explained brusquely, and unhooked them from inside the little cupboard beside the door. His second exit was quieter, though no less resolute.
There was a peculiar atmosphere on the communal staircase. The wan light leaked in through the windows, illuminating the anatomically dubious birds painted on the panes whose mournful eyes stared down at him on every landing. Unexpected draughts kept buffeting his body, making him sway as he descended the stairs. By the time he reached the bottom he felt a little lightheaded, and had to pause to gather strength before approaching the back door. The key turned easily, the handle too, but when he tried to tug it open the door wouldn’t budge, held shut, he supposed, by the force of the gale outside – though surely the wind should be pushing it open, not keeping it shut. He tugged again, harder, to no avail. It’s an omen, his mind informed him, drawing on the lore from all those movies he liked to watch when Anne was in bed. It’s telling me I shouldn’t go out. Magda warned me, and so did Jurek. That’s three omens so far, if you don’t count the weird light in the close, or me forgetting the keys, or the nasty feeling in the pit of my belly. If I open this door I’m doomed – all the movies say so. I better go back upstairs and say I couldn’t get out. No one would blame me –
The door flew open, as if some prankster on the other side had let go of the handle. It banged against the wall of the close and a shower of dust rained down from the dent where the inside handle always hit the plaster. Bob stood in the doorframe with his jaw hanging open.
He looked out into the storm – or rather, into the void where the storm should have been.
The yard was eerily still, bathed in the greenish glow that wasn’t quite moonlight. Every blade of grass in the lawn had its clearcut shadow. The hedge that ran down the left hand side of the lawn stood rigid as sculpture, branch and twig and thorn immobile in the eerie light, deep darkness behind them. Even the washing lines didn’t stir, their nylon cords stretched out stiff and stark between the iron poles planted in the lawn. The garden furniture looked implacable, a set of standing stones on the spiky grass. Only the hectic flight of the clouds gave any indication that a storm was raging somewhere above this moonlit bubble of perfect silence.
The whole thing looked like one of those wee glass snowstorms you hold in your hand and shake till the blizzard whirls – only here the blizzard lay outside, and the globe held a tiny world cut off from motion.
It was painfully cold. Bob’s coat didn’t touch it; the cold cut through the triple fabric and lanced his flesh with surgical precision. His hands beneath the work gloves began to burn. His eyes went watery. He shuddered once, a titanic shudder, and stepped across the threshold into the night.
Not another sound, not another movement in the empty garden: just the crunch of his boots as they sank through the perished rubber of the doormat. He had never seen it so still. This is a bit of luck, he told himself firmly as he turned to his right, towards the woodpile. This must be a lull in the storm: a brief break in the relentless pounding that’s being meted out by the Arctic wind and the polar rain. If I hurry I might get the wood inside before it starts again.
The wood was piled under the green tarpaulin against the back wall of the tenement, beside the door. Like the garden furniture the logs looked stony, and Bob half expected them to resist his strength, cementing themselves to one another in solidarity with the frozen landscape of the yard. Instead, the first log lifted up so easily he almost lost his balance, staggering a little on the crunchy grass as he fought to stay upright. Once safely stable, Bob settled the recalcitrant log in the crook of his arm where it nestled like a changeling baby, prematurely aged and stiffened by long exposure to the winter nights. He stooped for a second log, then a third, working swiftly to pick out the best wood for the fireplace: small, dense pieces that would fit in the narrow Victorian grate. He had to turn his back on the lawn to lift them. He didn’t want to, but there was no other way, despite the nagging sensation between his shoulders which told him against all reason that someone was standing close behind him as he worked.
Absurd, of course. There had been no noise in the yard – in the city as a whole, for all he could hear – since he stepped through the door, apart from the puffing of his whisky-tainted breath and the creaking of his knees. Still, there it was: that sensation of being watched by an unseen stranger – and he couldn’t shake it off no matter how he puffed and creaked and stamped in an effort to fill the void with movement, stave off the oppressive silence till the job was done. Instead of retreating, the sensation grew and spread cold fingers across his skin. Only one way to get rid of it, he knew: stand up, turn round, take a long slow look at the empty lawn. But not before he had lifted as many logs as his arms would carry. He refused to be spooked by a draught of wind. There were people depending on him tonight – women, children, friends – and he wouldn’t go letting them down on account of a feeling.
Then the voices began.
They started out as what could best be described as a kind of muttering: a stream of consonants linked together by a faint semi-musical hum, coming at him from several directions, and closer than he would have liked – no more than a yard or two from where he was leaning over the woodpile. Under any other circumstances he’d have assumed he was hearing a radio, but how likely was it that there’d be three or four radios close behind him at the dead of night? He straightened slowly, clutching the logs, and stood there listening, one hand rested on the topmost log, fingertips slowly tracing the grain as if for anchorage. The voices got louder; he began to hear words. The tone of the voices wasn’t threatening, but there was an urgency about them, a quiet desperation that raised the hairs on the back of his neck like an uneasy army getting to its feet.
He didn’t turn round slowly. He turned in a rush of impatience, almost letting the logs spill out of his arms – he had to clutch at them to prevent them scattering across the lawn. The impatience came from his sense that this was all too childish; he hadn’t felt this way since he’d been a nipper of ten, and he didn’t like it, wouldn’t let the sensation last a second longer. The lawn, he knew, was empty, and he was much too old to let a trick of acoustics set his heart racing and fill his palms with sweat in the middle of winter.
There were people standing on the lawn.
Five of them altogether. A man dressed in some sort of tight rubber suit and an orange life vest. A woman in shorts, clutching a mobile phone against her chest. A couple standing side by side in climbing gear, helmeted and harnessed, hands tightly linked. A child. They were none of them looking at him, though all of them faced in his direction. No, not quite in his direction – they faced west, which meant they were angled slightly away from him, unseeing eyes directed a little to his right. The effect was that of looking at a flock of turbines on a level pasture, all positioned at the optimum angle to take advantage of the prevailing wind. The difference, of course, was that flocks of turbines look identical – clean and white with elegant blades – while these figures were a motley crew, all of different body shapes and colours and with different clothes. The child was wearing pyjamas, pink with some sort of grinning cartoon creature printed all over. Her brownish hair was plastered flat across her cheeks and forehead. Her face, like those of the adults, were unsettlingly colourful: bluish lips, a bluish tinge to the cheeks, wide open bloodshot eyes set in hollow recesses and staring sightlessly towards the place where the sun had set not long before.
All five of the figures were talking, a steady noise like a running brook. His ears weren’t what they used to be, and he had to tilt his head at exactly the right angle to catch the words as they trickled by.
His left ear was the best, and he found himself turning it towards the man in the rubber suit. The man stood bolt upright, hands hanging at his hips, fingers twitching from time to time with involuntary convulsions. ‘Okay,’ he was saying to himself in an urgent whisper. ‘In a minute I’ll have got my legs out, Jim’ll help me, current’s not so strong. I been in worse, Christ it’s cold but not so bad really, I’m pretty much numb, almost warm in fact, just need to hold out a few more seconds, just a few seconds and I’ll be okay. My lungs are bursting, my chest hurts, my head hurts, I can’t see anything in this water, things have been worse, can’t get hold of the catch, I know it’s here somewhere, things have been worse, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’
Bob’s head moved away from the man and towards the young woman, whose shorts and T-shirt were obviously sodden, clinging to her skin in icy folds. Her eyes were wide open – they looked as if the lids had been stretched apart with clamps – and her hair lay in weedy strands along her jawline. ‘No signal,’ she was saying. ‘So dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I thought that only happened in books, didn’t think it could get that dark once your eyes adjusted, not so dark you couldn’t see your hands right in front of your eyes. Tread carefully, don’t go too fast, there are cliffs nearby, I saw them when I was running through the glen, shouldn’t go too slow though, it’s much too cold, I could freeze to death. Someone knows where I am, I must have said where I was going, I never told them, why didn’t I tell them, why did I change direction and head up the mountain, what an idiot, what an idiot, still can’t get a signal, I’ll get one in a minute, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’
Relentlessly Bob’s head kept turning, though he already had a premonition of what he would hear from the climbers, whose hands were locked together so fiercely they must have been crushing one another’s joints. ‘I’ve got you, honey,’ the man was saying. ‘Thank God, thank God I got hold of you when you slipped, just need to get a better grip on the rock with my other hand, sliding a bit but I won’t let go, nothing on earth would make me let go, we’ve done this before, we’re prepared for this, I’m strong, you’re strong, we’ve both got the training. The weather turned so suddenly but we’ve got the gear, my shoulder hurts, my elbow hurts, my hands are slipping, I won’t let go, this isn’t how it ends, this isn’t how it ends…’
The woman was speaking too, but he couldn’t hear her; and the child, when his ear was turned in her direction, was speaking nonsense, a rhyme repeated over and over: ‘Christopher Robin went hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity hop. Whenever I ask him politely to stop it he says he can’t possibly stop. Christopher Robin went hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity, hoppity hoppity hop.’ She had some furry creature in her hands, clutched against her chest exactly as the older girl was clutching her mobile. There was a stain in her hair, and now he looked he could see a gash, well, more like a hole, and he looked away rather than peer any closer to see how deep it was, how obviously fatal. He wondered what had made it – then steered his mind away from the subject with another huge shudder.
He was shuddering all over now, legs, arms and belly. The wind was getting up, puffs of it driving across the yard and disrupting the unnatural stillness, shaking the thorny branches of the hedge, bending the frosty grass stems. The cold cut through his body, parting fat and muscle and bone, making his legs and shoulders leap with the pain of it. One of the shudders sent the logs flying across the lawn, and a piece of wood struck the boot of the woman climber with a hollow thunk. Bob crouched and stretched out his hand to pick it up again, keeping his face down to avoid another glimpse of her vacant stare. But the wind was driving fiercely at him now, burning his face, burning his hands inside their canvas gloves, burning the bones inside his face, his hands, his feet. He remained crouched and locked his arms around his chest in an effort to get some warmth before he tried again. He wouldn’t go inside without that wood. He was the hunter gatherer, the father provider, and nothing could blow him into submission, not even the Vortex.
The wind buffeted him where he crouched, but the figures on the lawn seemed unaffected. Their bluish lips were moving still, but he could no longer hear any sound from them – the howling in his ears was too intense. A metal dustbin lid rolled away from the bin area, clashing as it bounced. The wind howled louder, and the lid was lifted into the air, spinning high up over the hedge and away to join other spinning objects in the yard next door. A plastic crate crashed against the tenement wall, scattering chunks of dust and stone into the rising storm. Flowerpots, branches, polythene bags whirled around in a kind of dance just above the heads of the murmuring figures. A piece of cardboard struck the canoeist’s helmet, but the man didn’t move; all his attention was focused on the stream of desperate words spilling out of his mouth.
And now Bob was swaying in a kind of dance beneath the mauling fingers of the puppeteer wind. Like a marionette he staggered to and fro across the grass, all balance lost. He bumped against the older girl and gasped a kind of apology before staggering on. He straightened in an effort to gain control, spreading his arms and fingers wide, lifting his chin. His feet left the ground for a moment, then landed again in a scuffling dance on the concrete slabs of the garden path. Another gust took him, and this time he was lifted into the air like the metal lid. His legs struck the hedge and he felt the cuffs of his trousers tear on the thorns. He spun head over heels, head over heels, whirling always upwards, hurtling with terrible speed towards a slanting frost-covered roof. Dimly he could see more figures beneath him in other yards, all facing westwards, all standing stiff and upright like ivory chessmen, all muttering still, no doubt, if he could have heard them. But the wind plucked him up and away, and his eyes grew dimmer, and he gritted his teeth in a furious effort to stop the words from spilling out.
Squeezing his lids together he could see the lights of the city spread out below him in a kind of cobweb. He was hundreds of feet above them and rising swiftly. His stomach lurched in terror, but he kept his eyes open, staring down, just to prove to himself he was still alive. So high, so cold, his body on fire, his lungs expanding to fill his chest in a last-ditch effort to catch enough air to feed his blood…
The words pounded through his skull in a driving rhythm, and after a while he knew he was saying them over and over. He couldn’t breathe, his chest was bursting, sight almost gone – but still his lips moved as he flew towards the clouds, and he heard the words, though not with his ears, a steady noise like a running brook in the upper air: it can’t end like this, it can’t end like this, it can’t end like this…