Short story: Christmas forever

What happens when global warming causes the shut down of the five natural pumps which drive the ocean currents? A chilly new story by Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 21 December 1997 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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He had been gingerly attempting to unfold a copy of the Independent, but it snapped apart in his hands and shattered into dozens of pieces. Kallie swore as he shovelled the shards into a pile with his boot; the broken edges were razor-sharp. There was nothing else to read in the apartment except his father's books, but there was no way of getting them off the shelves without a blow lamp, which he figured would defeat the object. Someone had given him some old magazines, but these were now stuck fast to the kitchen table, their covers rippled together in an iridescent mosaic.

Kallie wondered how much longer Bennett would be. He had gone to the shops three days ago - or was it four? Perhaps he'd run into friends and gone to stay with them for Christmas. Well, good riddance. Bennett had been camping out on the sofa for over two months. Not bad for a guy who was just passing through. He had supposedly called in to see how his old schoolfriend was faring, but in the last eight weeks all he had done was empty the larder and try to repair the refrigerator. The refrigerator! Why in the name of everything perverse would he want to do that? Kallie had tried to throw it out but it would not fit through the kitchen door that his father had replaced after drunkenly burning the old one two years ago.

He walked over to the window and rubbed away a patch of ice with the back of his glove. Across the street was the bus depot where no buses ever ran. Not too many people passed by, either. Most had learned their lesson the hard way, leaving the comparative warmth of their homes only to become disoriented in the blizzards and stumble into snowdrifts. It didn't take long for a body to cool down in these temperatures. His father had been fond of describing a time when you could see the curving green meadow of Primrose Hill from the bedroom windows. All Kallie had ever seen was a perpetual ice-haze hanging in the air, obscuring a sun as watery as an uncooked egg.

There was little point in trying to lead a normal life now. The solution, his eternally optimistic father had always told him, was to stay busy. Edward had stayed busy right until the end, refusing to acknowledge the fact that he was moving with increasing decrepitude, like a clockwork toy at the end of its winding. Finally he had overestimated his stamina on a trip to town and had failed to make it back to safety before a storm of biblical proportions had set in. The blizzard lasted for over three months. When it subsided, the landscape had changed its proportions entirely, and his father had become part of the great permafrost ridge that separated North London from the city centre.

The problem with Bennett not coming back was that Bennett had taken his wallet to buy food. The reason for deciding to trust a man who had never shown an ounce of reliability was obscure to him now. He looked over at the telephone. It wouldn't ring, of course, even if Bennett had bothered to note the number. The mechanism was encrusted in ice, as was the entire exchange, although he had heard a rumour that MPs could still operate some kind of closed-circuit telecommunication system.

The entire apartment, the entire building, the entire city, the entire country was frozen solid, and had been for 18 years. With each passing year it grew a little colder, a little more still and silent as the national heartbeat slowed to a weak and distanced blip.

Kallie was 20, but held no memory of those fabulous, sunsoaked times before the great freeze. Like a man blind from birth, he had not been granted the pleasure of memories. Bennett was a year older, and swore he could recall lying in long grass with the sun in his eyes, so light and bright it hurt to look into the sky. But almost everything that came out of his mouth was a lie. He said he had once seen Selfridges open. He said he knew people who could take them South, beyond the reach of the ice. He said if they waited inside long enough the government would find a way to make it warmer. All lies. But he was right about one thing; they could not survive without food. That was why Kallie let him go. They had been living on beans and luncheon meat, which was edible if you made a couple of holes in the lid of the can and gently heated it over the stove. But ten days ago the gas ring, his last source of heat, had ceased to work, even though the council had promised to keep the pipes clear.

Perhaps Bennett had found a pub open somewhere and was spending his money with a bunch of his drunken mates. Kallie knew there was nothing for it but to find out for himself. He would die if he stayed here. The electricity still worked intermittently, but there were no electric radiators to be had, not unless you were rich enough to buy one on the black market.

What would happen to him? He no longer cared to know. It would be easy to escape this bitter place; he just had to open all the windows, remove his outer clothing and lie down on the bed for a few minutes. Perhaps that was his only choice. But not before he visited the outside world one last time.

He struggled into his greatcoat, dug out leather gloves with split seams, tucked his jeans into the tops of his battered Caterpillar boots. When he unlatched the front door and looked out, he was surprised to find snow drifting in the hall. It had been nearly two months since his last foray into the streets of what had once recognisably been Camden Town. The tall windows at the end of the floor were broken, and the snow had formed a drift below the sill. If any of his neighbours still lived in the building, they would not answer his knock. Now it was every man for himself. One would have thought this new ice age would draw people together, but it had encouraged the British to increase their insularity. The Blitz spirit was lost to a post-war nation raised on the solitary pleasures of television. People jealously hoarded their heat sources. Who could blame them? Heat was hard to share; if you opened the circle it dissipated.

Down the icy stairwell - the lift had not worked for nine years - to the front door, so frozen shut that Kallie assumed no-one had been in or out since Bennett had left with his wallet. Deadening whiteness glared in through the window panels. He would need to find sunglasses. He had tried to pick up ski equipment from Lillywhites the last time he was in town, but, surprise, surprise, they had sold out. Only a handful of staff still manned the store, maintaining the old conventions. He had worked there himself once, bored out of his mind, waiting to seize upon the odd straggling customer who had made it in through the snow. That was back when the free market was still trying to cope, when the rich warm nations were still exporting to their poor frozen neighbours. Now that those neighbours had ceased to earn wages, there was no point in supplying them with affordable products. The milk of human kindness had been the first thing to freeze.

Throwing his weight against the door, he shifted it wide enough to push his way through. Bayonets of ice divorced themselves from the lintel and fell about him, cutting stencils into the snow that crusted the steps. Kallie raised his face into the wind and looked along the street, in the direction of the city. The air stole his breath. It was far colder than anything he had experienced before.

The scene that greeted him was absurdly picturesque, a postcard snowscape. Snow dunes, sparkling like hills of granulated jewels, swept in great unspoilt arcs across a bleached Sahara of roads and pavements. This was a bad sign; the route had been passable the last time he ventured out. But now even those high-profile charity missions the government was fond of announcing had ceased while everyone sorted out the problems in their own back yards.

On his last trip, Kallie had seen a few heavy-traction vehicles lumbering toward town. No people, though. There were hardly ever any people. It was simply too dangerous to set out on your own. He vaguely recalled a shopping expedition with his parents, and some friends of theirs who owned a car fitted with snowtyres. His mother had bought crazy things, pointless things, high-heeled shoes and summer blouses she would never be warm enough to wear. Anxious to be rid of their stock, the storekeepers had been bargained down to nothing. He would always remember his mother posing in front of the mirror as she held diaphanous chiffon against her. Ironically, her refusal to lose hope had brought her life to a protracted, painful end.

It took 40 minutes to reach the deserted high street, silent but for the wind that moaned between the buildings like a widow at a wake. At Camden Lock, the ice in the canals had expanded and crushed itself upwards into fantastic, twisted geometries. Kallie wound his scarf tighter around his face and concentrated on placing one foot before the other. The secret was to keep moving through the crystalline streets.

There were no shops open at all in the high street. This was a worrying new development. Surely some signs of life still existed? There had been a steady exodus to the southern hemisphere. Some had chosen to stay, determined to continue living in the radically altered climate. And there were the others, the ones who had no money and no way of leaving alive.

As he trudged on, staying wide of the deep drifts, he peered in at the frosted store windows. The warm, bright pigments of their advertising posters were gone now. The sheer white force of snow and ice blotted every other colour from the landscape.

He resolved to walk as far as the giant supermarket at the end of the road. Beyond lay the crusted ridge that had built up in the warring crosswinds of the Euston Road. There were people in the ice, frost-blackened hands and faces staring out like half-uncovered statues. It wasn't right that they had been left there, but what could anyone do? After a few years the ice turned to stone, shifting and rupturing like the tectonic plates of the earth.

The Priceway car park was almost empty. The attendant's barrier was up, and from the lack of tyre tracks it looked like nothing had driven in or out for days. The long glass wall of the supermarket glittered, covered in starburst cracks where the great weight of snow was slowly pushing it in, but at least the lights were still on, and that meant the store was open for business. Kallie had no money, but with luck there would be no staff on the tills. Many people continued to conduct a semblance of normal life, as if determined to prove the British could remain polite in the direst of circumstances, but they were easily turned from their daily tasks. Nothing could be relied upon anymore, beyond the fact that the situation would worsen.

The only advantage of the new cold climate was that food stayed fresher. Just as well; supplies were sporadic and perverse. Trucks would deliver great quantities of razorblades or suntan lotion, but there would be no bread or meat. Sometimes fresh-looking food would prove to have been frozen for years, and was impossible to thaw. Unscrupulous dealers would refreeze thawed meat, spreading illness.

The temperature inside the store was, oddly enough, too high. Because of the value of its vast cold storage capacity, Priceway operated on its own generator, but the thermostats must have become damaged in the recent storms. To be hit by the smell of rotting meat was one final cruel consumerist joke to play on the few half-starved members of the public who still ventured through its doors. "Joy To The World" blared wonkily from the public address system. Kallie unbuttoned his coat and fought the desire to vomit as he tried to ignore the sweet, ripe smell of putrefying vegetables. He would have to stick to tins again.

"Happy Christmas, Kallie." He looked along the aisle to see an old friend of his mother's, Mrs Quintero, waving her bad hand at him. She had lost three fingers to frostbite last winter, and had not had the wounds properly dressed. The black stumps of her distended knuckles suppurated through filthy bandages. He was not surprised to see her; she lived here in the store. Besides, there were only a few people who visited the outside world with any regularity these days, and one tended to see the same faces.

"The heating came back on, Kallie, can you believe it? 76 degrees! Everything's gone off. The one place it needed to be cold."

"Hasn't the professor been able to fix it?"

"He hasn't a practical bone in his body. I wish you would take a look."

"Have there been any shipments lately?" he called back, ignoring her request. If he moved any closer she would come over and hug him, and he wanted to avoid that at all costs. He hated anyone touching him.

"Barbie dolls. Tinned mandarins. Sun-dried tomatoes. No medical supplies." She shoved a wedge of peroxided hair from her dark-rimmed eyes. He wondered why she still bothered to wear make-up. "You heard anything?"

It was the most common question of all. Everyone expected some kind of government-authorised announcement to be made. Crisis over, it's safe to come out, that kind of thing. But it had not happened in his lifetime, and he doubted it could ever happen, or that there was still a government that could make any sort of announcement. How could their former lives ever be restored?

"We've had a few people call in, but nobody with any news. Been ages since we had news. A crowd of rough kids came by this week, stole the coffee vending machine, really noisy types. Of course, you don't remember when the whole world was noisy." She looked around. "It's so quiet now. The snow deadens everything, but oh! it never used to be like this."

"Things change," Kallie shrugged.

"I used to work in an office," she continued, anxious to be understood. "I was good at my job, always busy. And the noise! Telephones, typewriters, and buses out in the street, people calling to each other. Televisions just left on. Singing at Christmas as we left the pub. Sometimes you had to shout to be heard. Now you can almost hear yourself think. Noise was life." She blinked and shook her head.

"I have to go, Mrs Quintero."

"Wait a moment!" She tore open a carton and produced a Christmas cracker. "These just arrived. Make a wish." She held it out with an air of desperation. "Want something, Kallie."

They pulled, but the snap didn't go off. A whistle, a motto and a party hat fell out. The motto was "Make Hay While The Sun Shines".

"The professor's in the stockroom giving a class." She had turned away, unwilling to share her distress. "My two are in there with him."

"I'll look in and say hi," he assured her, even though he did not want to. "There's lychees in syrup on Aisle 6, and pesto sauce in jars," she added listlessly. "Make sure you take some. You need to keep your strength up."

Why? he thought. What the hell for? "Thanks, Mrs Quintero. Take care." He set his metal basket aside and decided to look in on the professor first. He wasn't really a professor; he just looked and sounded like everybody's idea of one. The stockroom had long been cleared of produce, and folding metal chairs had been set in rows. The metal was cold to sit on, but everything wooden had been burned. Anyone could attend the professor's lectures. Kallie was sure he would continue to make them even if no-one showed up at all. Today he was teaching Mrs. Quintero's children, and another boy he had not seen before. He stood at the back and raised his hand in silent gesture. The professor did not take kindly to being interrupted.

"Cores drilled from the centre of the Greenland ice-sheet should have warned us." His dull monotone blunted the most interesting facts. The kids looked bored, and exhibited the distracted mannerisms of the unwell. "They proved that the climate of the earth fluctuates far more than was ever previously realised. The last ice age took very little time to occur, perhaps just a decade or two, and lasted for over 100,000 years. Chance plays a large part in the survival temperature of our planet. In the seas of the world there are five natural pumps that drive the great currents of the oceans. The European Sub-Polar Ocean Programme found that one of these, the Odden Feature, powers a deep cold current that helps to control the circulation of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is caused by a vast tongue of ice in the Greenland Sea."

Kallie quietly helped himself to a tray of sausage rolls Mrs Quintero had defrosted. They tasted like putty.

"Back in February 1993, Greenland's winter ice receded due to global warming, and the tongue of ice failed to form, dissolving into pancake ice." He paused here to write the word PANCAKE on the wall with a blue crayon. One of Mrs Quintero's boys started repeating the word aloud.

"Without a pump to drive it, the Gulf Stream, one of the sea's warmest currents, stopped almost overnight. The Gulf Stream kept Britain and northern Europe warm, and now it's gone. Then, in less than a decade, the other great pumps died, transforming the weather patterns of the world in the wink of an eye. We are in uncharted territory now. The Royal Commission of Environmental Pollution's report into the flooding of Egypt and southern China - "

But the children were all saying "Pancake, pancake," and the professor's lesson, always the same lesson, was wasted. They were too young to understand, anyway. They would learn soon enough.

"You were listening, weren't you, Kallie?" he asked wearily, throwing his crayon away.

"Heard it all before, prof. Nothing we can do, right?"

"Right. A friend of yours was in the other day. Tuesday."

Kallie could not imagine why he still bothered to work out the names of individual days. Nobody else did. "What was his name?" he asked.

"Mr Bennett. Sat in the beverage department all day. He was very drunk when he left. I warned him not to go outside, but he wouldn't be stopped. Wouldn't even take his overcoat. Became very belligerent when challenged." He clicked his tongue disapprovingly.

That was it, then. No chance of getting his wallet back now. It was hard enough staying alive when you were sober, let alone drunk.

"Someone else was looking for you," said the professor, an almost playful tone in his voice. Without asking, Kallie knew who.

"How is she?" he said finally. The professor grinned. "Missing you, naturally. She always asks after you. She still talks about the time - "

"I know." He cut the conversation short, uninterested in hearing an embroidered account of how, a year ago, he had saved Shari's life. "I have to go."

"I understand," the professor answered with mock solemnity. "You're a busy man. I think it's time you considered moving in here with us while the generator still holds out. You get used to the smell, and it's worth it to be warm."

"Thanks for the offer," he mumbled, rebuttoning his coat. "I'll keep it in mind." Moving in meant being a part of the professor's ever-changing extended family, which meant looking after sick kids and hysterical, gangrenous parents. "Shari will be sorry she missed you."

I'll bet, he thought. He was suspicious of Shari since the accident; she was too nice to him now. "Say hi to her for me." He waved to Mrs Quintero as he pushed against the exit door.

Outside, the rising wind drove the temperature still lower. He reached the bottom of the slope below the supermarket and saw what he took to be a pile of brown rags, but closer inspection revealed a rigid hand, its fingers clutching the gelid air as if trying to take hold on life itself. Crystals of ice had formed over the corpse's eyes like luxuriant cataracts. Kallie cracked open its jacket and felt around for his wallet, but found nothing. Bennett had either dropped it in his drunken stupor, or had been robbed.

He knelt and bowed his head for a moment. No prayer, just a few seconds of stillness. They had spent their childhood years together; he owed Bennett something. Then he rose and turned into the wind.

On a suicidal impulse he decided to push further on into the city centre, something he had not done for over four years. He wanted to see the Thames, to prove for himself that this life-channel still existed. It meant he would be trapped there overnight, because it would take him until sunset just to reach Piccadilly Circus, and it was virtually impossible to travel alone after dark. Still, he wanted to see Eros once more. See it, perhaps, one last time.

As he passed the cylindrical ruin of the Telecom Tower, he thought of Shari; how she had been passing him somewhere near here on her way back to the supermarket, and how the Red Cross van had swung wildly around the corner. He remembered the lethal guillotine of ice sliding from its roof in a broad oblong sheet, and how he had thrown himself at her with a shout, slamming her body to the pavement as the ice shattered above their heads. It was the first time he had touched a girl. Up until then, the thought of physical contact with anyone had made him shudder uncontrollably. Shari had hugged him tight, clinging to the life she had nearly lost. Kallie had gently disentangled himself. He had shunned her ever since.

The freezing wind sucked at his greatcoat as he waded knee-deep through the intersection at Charlotte Street. His right foot had gone numb; a dangerous sign, one which suggested he should at least find a warm place to rest up for a while. As he passed shuttered, padlocked stores in Leicester Square, he reached a decision. The river would no longer be a point in his journey, but the point of the journey.

In Rathbone Place he passed a dying dog, a red setter, half buried in an avalanche of dislodged ice. The shards that sparkled in its diamante fur lent it an air of ostentatious glamour.

Oxford Street. Once a cheap-and-cheerful marketplace thronged with shoppers, according to his father. Now a wind-ravaged tunnel of ice, black-spotted in places where the corpses of foolhardy pedestrians poked up through the snowdrifts. Soho was impassable. The narrow streets were blocked with abandoned trucks and crags created by the sheet-ice that slid continuously from the rooftops. The upper floors were skeined with billowing crosshairs of ice that caught the dying light like the wings of giant dragonflies.

Kallie skirted around into Regent Street, the great curve of Nash's terrace pockmarked by the blown-in windows of department stores. Here the wind was at its fiercest. A double- decker bus lay on its side, almost buried by drifts. A diamond shop had lost its panes, the ground floor now extravagantly filled with opalescent icicles, so that it appeared little changed from its window-dressed heyday.

The snow in the circus was sullied by the discharges of overturned trucks and the tracks of pilgrims who had come here in the vain hope that reaching this gaudy apex of civilisation might appease their own spiritual loss. Kallie watched as an elderly woman floundered past with a green plastic Harrods bag on her head. As man descended once more into beast, the manufactured tokens of a forgotten world took on the power of talismen. Earlier he had seen two young men dragging an electronic exercise machine toward a tube station, perhaps planning to install it as an object of veneration.

And here was poor Eros, twisted from his perch so that only a leg and an elegant silvery wing of Gilbert's famous statue could be seen thrusting hopelessly up from the dunes in the centre of the roundabout. Kallie stood before the fallen god and grimaced, heaving in gulps of stinging air as he stared at the upturned calf and ankle, the feathered wingtip almost lost in snow and discarded chunks of scaffolding. He clawed at the statue in an attempt to free it from the desecrated fountain. Uncovering even another inch proved impossible. Others had tried to remove its crystal shroud, in vain.

Kallie stumbled on until he came up against the steel-shuttered doorway of a record store. There was nothing for him here, and nowhere to go. Unable to think or move, he remained completely still. As night fell, the warmth within him slowly faded. At his back, giant cutouts of forgotten rock stars struck poses of defiance, icons of redundant anarchy.

Dying was as easy as he had hoped it would be. You just had to do nothing, and let the insidious numbness colonise your limbs. The cloudbase reflected the whiteness of the city, and finally ceased to move, as if the world could no longer be bothered to turn upon its axis. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the ice-jewelled shutters, allowing life to slip away.

The explosion of noise that followed blasted him to his feet. Somebody was playing loud music inside the building. He could feel the bass tones vibrating the window panes. He stepped back, trying to see beyond the reflections into the rear of the ground floor. Someone - some thing - was gyrating insanely to the music, raging the entire length of the store.

It took him a while to discover the forced door of the delivery bay at the side of the building. He climbed over buckled steel struts to the interior, and was deafened by the surrounding, saturating noise. Someone had used a bright yellow forklift truck to break in.

Piles of cracked and broken CD cases littered the floor. A primitive set of disco lights pulsed red and blue diamonds at the back of the floor near the stairwell. The dancer was a short, slim woman in her late forties. Her body retained the litheness and aggression of a professional performer. She swung and slammed and span, kicking out, punching the chill air with a series of guttural grunts. Her greying red hair was tied back with a green bandanna. She wore a red satin leotard with leggings hacked off above the knee, and a yellow scarf knotted around her waist. She looked ablaze with anger and energy.

Kallie dropped behind a record rack and watched as her music twisted through a dozen different styles. Now that there was no more culture, the abrupt juxtapositions did not shock. When the last song ceased in mid-track she crossed to the DJ booth and flipped the tape - obviously an item she had personally assembled - and continued dancing. The second side began with "We're Havin' a Heatwave", sung by Marilyn Monroe, and Kallie caught himself grinning. Wondering where the power was coming from, he searched the floor and saw that a pair of car batteries had been rigged to the system with jump leads.

Now he was able to observe her properly for the first time, bent over the light in the booth, feeling for the controls. She was unable to see, blinded by time spent lost in the snowy wastes. There were no fingers at all on her swollen right hand, and just two on her left. She had flipped the tape with her thumbs. He tried to catch sight of her feet, knowing that every step she took must be agonising, but she was already off and away, pounding across the floor.

Finally, even the deafening music failed to keep him awake. Comforted by the weight of sound, with his greatcoat pulled about his head, he slept on through the long, loud night.

He awoke soon after dawn to find the store silent, the lights and the sound system turned off to conserve power. The dancer was asleep on a patchwork duvet beside the DJ booth, snoring lightly. Studying her, he was tempted think that the tiny crosshatched lines around her mouth and eyes were caused by laughter, not fear, even though he saw that her feet were little more than stumps. He wanted to ask her how she could dance when the world and her own body were steadily failing her, how it was possible to experience pleasure without hope. But waking her up, he realised, would be a mistake. Better to let her sleep on and rebuild her energy. Gingerly stepping between CD cases, he made his way back to the delivery bay door and left.

The sky had cleared to a sapphire-hard blue and the wind was keen, but at least the snow had stopped. He passed four people on his way to the river, but none were prepared to acknowledge him, or even look up. He began to sense just how completely the cold had closed them all off. The shimmering ebony band ahead drove him forward along the half-buried Embankment, until he was standing in the silent centre of Waterloo Bridge, above the strangled stream that had once been the mighty Thames.

When he looked down into the black water and saw that it still ran, determinedly chugging around the floes and over mounds of industrial debris, on through the heart of the city, he began to cry, but his tears turned to ice.

Something inside him opened, fanning into faint life, growing warmer until his gut was burning. He turned and bellowed from the bridge, out across the city, up into the frozen sky where hardy white gulls still wheeled, yelling until he was hoarse and dizzy from the exertion.

As that first great release subsided, he knew; that hope was false, a misleading hollow nonsense obscuring all that was real and true. The truth was that the world would die and take him with it, today, tomorrow, years from now, in agony, in terror, in unreadiness, and it didn't matter. What mattered was the time left to live.

Kallie looked out across the glittering, foolish river, to the weakling sun climbing in a pointless sky, where a dancing madwoman whirled in scraps of fire on crippled feet, beyond the laws of gravity, the threshold of pain, the bounds of rationality. He removed a glove and wiped his eyes until they were clear and dry. Heavy grey snowclouds were amassing on the estuary horizon. It was time to head North before the temperature fell further.

He wondered what Shari was doing, and whether, in the face of all reason, she too was smiling. It would be Christmas forever, and it was too cold to be alone.

'Personal Demons', Christopher Fowler's new collection of short stories, is published by Serpent's Tail in June.

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