Friday, 26 November 2010

Cold Front

Part of the British caricature is that we’re obsessed by the weather. Perhaps it’s because we simply can’t cope with it. As the long months of grinding disruption and endless panic-mongering news coverage proved at the beginning of the year, reinforced by the announcement I heard at London Bridge station on a freakishly oppressive May evening that the trains were delayed due to “today’s extreme heat”, unless it’s grey sludge filled skies occasionally breaking to form resignedly sardonic sunlight which just can’t manage. We fall apart.

I fit the stereotype of British and like many a German newspaper cartoon (probably). I watch the weather forecast with intense interest. I wasn’t always like this. In years gone by, I wouldn’t have cared what each new day brought, but recently I am watching out for one thing in particular: the temperature. Or, to be more precise, how cold it’s going to get.

September 2008:

I arrived outside the converted Edwardian house with some trepidation. The whole exercise of flat hunting was proving to be demoralising. Already functioning in some sort of squewed daze where my surface activity seemed smooth enough yet underneath there was a scorched soul, I was becoming increasingly dismayed that the crashing property buying market had sent the rental market into orbit. I was reduced to scrounging around at the bottom of the studio/bedsit flat price-range where friendly rats were seen as a bonus. I paused before ringing the doorbell trying to bury my preconceptions that it would be as bad as all the others I’d seen; the ones where the mould in the kitchen smirked at you; where the toilet slumped seedily away from the wall; where if I stood in the centre, stretched my arms out and rotated gently my fingers would brush all four damp walls; where missing floorboards had scratched at my ankles.

I went upstairs.

It was… surprisingly nice. In fact, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. It was clean, relatively spacious and had kitchen appliances.

I took it.

November 2010:

The heat caught at the back of my throat and teased the moisture out of me. It weighed heavy on my neck. Sweat prickled my neck. A solitary blob of – what? Sweat, snot or tear I wasn’t sure which? – slide across the rim of my nose, paused for a second at the tip, dangling into the dragging space before spiralling into the air. It never hit the tiles at my feet; instead it disappears into nothing. The tiles baked. They were too hot for anything other than the cracked backs on my heels. I felt a mess compared to the Hungarians I shared the sauna with. Their bodies glistened whilst mine was matted in thick wiry hair. My feet left deposits of grated white dead skin, their steps left only the faintest damp impression.

I slumped forwards; my forearms creased my thighs; my shoulders hunched. It was the sort of heat that breaks you. My jaw slipped and hung open. My eyes rolled in their sockets. The man next to me slapped his breast like his heart fluttered.

The air warped. It was unstable, incapable of balance. I could barely make out the clock on the wall, it blured with the thermometer. The red mercury nudged at seventy Celsius. I had only been in there seven minutes. It felt like forever.

November 2008:

I sat in my new, mildly cramped flat and let the six o’clock news wash over me. The television was on, but I wasn’t watching it. I ate my reheated dinner from days before and tried not think about having a drink. Something felt wrong. I felt… cold?

‘An unseasonable coating of the white stuff,’ said the BBC London weather man. You know, the irritatingly smug one whom most sane people could cheerily drown.

I looked out of the back window into the small garden. A shallow layer of snow settled and the air was filled with flaked chill. It looked like an unwritten memory of a CS Lewis’ story. Pretty, delicate, sinister. It felt cold.
Here’s the thing: I don’t typically get cold. Often, I’m too hot. I seem to maintain an internal furnace that pumps out surplus coal fired heat to keep me warm, to such a point that in late November I hadn’t even investigated my new home’s central heating system.

Which, as it turned out, it didn’t have. Instead, it was equipped with a single wall mounted heated with no thermostat and a single on/off switch.

I turned it on. A pale red light flipped up in the corner. I wandered away and when, thirty minutes, later I still shivered came back and put my hand on the cool plastic cover. I held my hands above it the open grill at the top and felt the gentle waft of heat flump out of the system with all the force of a dying puppy’s breath.

It felt like the world was ending. Surprisingly, it appeared that the apocalypse would not bring fire, brimstone, the scattering of machine gun fire nor the white exhaust of uncontrolled rockets, but icy tendrils that refused to let go, the vacuum of the disappearing banking system, Sarah Palin’s very existence, Haitian floods dragging 500 to the depths, gunmen trawling through Mumbai, and the breaking of waves off the coast of Somalia towards the oil tankers. I was cold and I didn’t understand why.

Unfortunately, the heater turned out to not be broken just crap and the temperature dive proved to the start of a cold snap.

December 2008:

I put a second jumper on and began to think about it logically. When the boiler had broken the Christmas before I hadn’t been so cold, so consistently. But that had been a terraced house sucking in warmth off the neighbours. I was in a studio flat within a converted house; a single room that jutted out the back of the building to be exposed on three walls, the fourth leading to the communal, unheated, staircase. Above me there wasn’t a loft cavity, but the roof triangulated with the shape of the old tiles. Below me, the back room of the ground floor flat was rarely used. I was totally exposed to the weather.

I borrowed a thermometer off my parents. A marble block of a paperweight with a heat sensitive strip across it. Not the most sophisticated piece of equipment, but it would do. It had a minimum temperature of 10 degrees. When I placed it on my desk it showed nothing.

I switched the heater on.

Three hours later it had crept up to 11 Celsius.

January 2009:

I borrowed one of my folk’s old hot water bottles and started to wear hiking socks in bed. I had never, even under canvass, worn more than boxers and a t-shirt before but I considered wearing combats and a jumper. Eventually, I decided that the restrictive cling of the extra clothes would make me lose sleep. Besides, it might get even colder.

And then the weather broke.

By February the sun returned if only to add a fuzzled hue to the room, a smattering of hope for what might come. By April, I knew I would again be claustrophobically hot in the cattle cart morning trains, my cheek pressed roughly against the vibrating glass enroute to the city centre.

March 2009:

The world hadn’t ended, so instead I started to write a story. A story about all the shittiest things I could think of. A story set in an endless thumping summer heat; a story where the cold I’d just escaped was a distant loss mourned for.

April 2009:

Ian Tomlinson died of still undetermined causes and a police officer without identity flashes bashed the face off a woman protestor during the G20 protests. In true twenty-first century style both events were caught on camera and played again and again on Channel 4 until the snarl of the copper as his open fist whipped across her face became embedded in my brain. His fury and disdain were inescapable.

I started rewriting early notes of late scenes for what would become my novel. I took out the parts that had already happened. If it was on the news, it wasn’t bad enough.

In July, whilst I went to Derbyshire for a week, the person I shared an office with arranged for the air conditioning to be switched off so that by midday of the day I returned droplets of sweat ran down my stomach and I felt mildly sick. In August torrential summer showers highlighted a different problem – namely that my bathroom window had a tendency to leak in particularly angled heavy rain which meant more than one evening swabbing out.

And yet, I liked my flat. It was compact, but it was starting to resemble something almost homely. I rearranged the furniture and it felt calmer. It had been a particularly cold winter, I reasoned. The relentless biting cold had been partially self-induced: I’d been unwell, an exhausted husk whose insides had been brittle like fine glass approaching sonic testing. I still couldn’t rescue all my books from my Dad’s storage facility, so they were left behind the coded security gates a West Midlands field, but, you know, it was okay. Besides, where else would I go?

November 2010:

The icy pitch almost stopped my heart. It shivered across my skin like a Flanders’ gas from 1917. My head broke the surface with a gasp for stolen air and the baroque marbled tiles of Budapest’s Turkish baths looked like angel’s clouds. This cold bit, but then, as I pulled myself out of the pool, it was gone and the fugged warm air like a towel caressed my shoulders once again.

I padded outside, where the late November sky was pitch black like my swimming trunks. All around yellowing walls, more akin to those of a palace, enveloped a sequence of pools. The air scratched with chill, but above the waters lingered steam like a haunted morning mist with nowhere to go. In the pools heads bobbed, their bodies safely secured deep in the 40 degree waters. The cold was dismissed by the warmest bath. The perfect calm floating bliss enforced tranquillity.

There are two sorts of cold. There is the short, sharp snap. The sort that makes your spine curl but only for a moment because then it passes. Then there is Russian cold. The sort of cold that gets inside your bones and rots you from within. The relentless crushing chill that doesn't give up.

December 2009:

It got fucking cold and stayed that way.

That second winter was the coldest for over thirty years; temperatures plummeted as the snow packed down and refused to bugger off. Grit shortages, transport network collapse, men trapped in remote Scottish lighthouses contemplating eating their dogs for Christmas lunch dominated the news and in one small, south-east London flat the air inside turned that pale grey it does when there’s ice in it.

In no particular order, I winced getting into bed when the frozen sheets touched my skin; I ran boiling hot water to do the washing up because my hands could take the scald; the flannel left on the side of the basin never dried; my olive oil froze, forming lumpy dispirited lumps like in a lava lamp; I lay in bed and watched my steamed breath snake up to the roof; when I switched my computer on it grumbled grouchily as it ground the gathered chill off its fans; my mirror steamed up whenever I boiled the kettle; I had to squat above the toilet, the icy porcelain being too much to bear; I wore fingerless gloves to type and the nubs of my digits went numb as they pounded the keyboard as I deliberately bashed it hard to try and keep the blood pounding.

This time, it definitely wasn’t me. I’d stopped drinking quadruple whiskies as standard. I’d started a regime of sit ups, press up and weights every evening. Although it didn’t last, I felt fitter and healthier than in years. Just cold. And winter lasted a long time.

Imagine waking up to feel the duvet like a child’s corpse hugging your shoulders; coffee from the filter poured out cold yet the hot plate still burning your fingers; an endless flush of goose-pimples snaking around your breast once the shower warmth had faded. That was my winter.

May 2010:

Dave slipped his tongue inside Cleggy’s mouth in the gardens of Downing Street for the waiting media’s delight whilst good ol’Gordie Brown’s lifeless husk hung from a coiled light fitting.

Sort of. It made me shiver anyway.

November 2010:

The cold is coming. VAT rises, benefits cuts, teachers reduced to mere weeks of training, university fees to cripple future generations forever, a fucking happiness indicator to see how seriously we’re pissed off, McDonalds and Pepsi writing obesity guidelines, forests being sold to the cheekiest developer to add to their land-bank for a decade until it becomes worth something again, fucking bastard big arsed society replacing gainful employment, aircraft carriers no-one wants without planes to land on them, Ireland imploding and sucking everyone else in just for the craig of it, the dream of a green economy just another broken lie, the country’s infrastructure built up on fragile legs of straw isn’t having concrete supports cast but rather the big bad Gideon shaped wolf huffs and puffs and the whole lot comes caving down on our penniless heads.

I sympathise with the students who’re cold in their kettle and so burn their placards and a bus shelters, beat the crap out of a police van and Milbank house to keep their circulation going. The country is getting angry again which may be good, but it’s too late. School children march against police riot vans, small girls in blazers and ties face up to plastic masked body armoured hard men and “I made it all up, but it came true anyway,” rings in my head. I can’t remember who wrote that, but it spooks me.

The cold is coming. There is nowhere else to stay for the winter.

And it will be long and hard.

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