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Emerald Street Stories runner-up: Thaw

By Mark Hill

It’s a scorching summer’s day – breaking all kinds of records, so they say – and the train carriage is hot and stuffy. Heat pounds at the sealed windows, baking the compartment. Jackets are flung off and collars loosened.

But bundled up in layers of clothing, Ben may as well be travelling through the Siberian tundra.

A woman, wearily fanning herself with a newspaper, gives him an odd glance. He must look a sight, wrapped from head to foot in shirts, jumpers and coats. A woolen hat is pulled down over his ears – everybody knows you lose most of your body heat through your head – and he thrusts his hands deep into his pockets, burrows his chin into his scarf. The tip of his nose is pink.

He’s freezing cold.
It’s the same on this day every year, just this one day.
Because that’s what’s inexplicable. If he felt cold all the time, if his

body temperature was low all year round, he could do something about it. Get some treatment. Iron tablets, injections to boost his immune system, whatever it takes. But specialists have done a battery of tests and can’t find anything wrong. He’s not anaemic, his blood pressure and circulation are normal.

It’s just that every July 31st his body temperature plummets. Every July 31st.
Just this one day.
On the anniversary.

The train terminates at Euston. Ben sluggishly climbs off, the chill soaking into his marrow. His feet drag across the concourse like blocks of ice. Commuters veer away from him, this stumbling man swaddled up in the unbearable midday heat, thinking him a lunatic.

‘Kensington Gardens, please,’ he tells a cab driver, pulling his overcoat around him. The electric blanket he usually wraps around himself for the day is at home, hundreds of miles away. What he should have done was stay inside, feeding logs onto the roaring fire, and wait for the day to end, for midnight to come, when he can fling open the windows and let in the air.

At the hotel, he asks the receptionist: ‘Is it possible to have the heating on?’

She eyes him guardedly, says there’s a thermostat he can turn up. When she asks if he has any luggage he points to the holdall over his shoulder. What he doesn’t tell her is that it’s empty. At the stroke of midnight he’ll pull off the layers of clothes he’s wearing and stuff them in the bag.

It’s strange being back in this place after so many years. It’s the last place he wants to be. Memories of Tilda flash unbidden in his mind. He imagines he sees the red shimmer of her dress, with its elaborate pattern of roses, disappearing down the corridor to the left.

What would you say to her, Ben?

The forehead of the boy who shows him to his room is slick with sweat beneath a mop of unruly hair. His collar is grimy. He lets Ben inside, and doesn’t loiter for a tip. As soon as the door is closed, Ben cranks up the thermostat.

It’s crazy that he’s out and about, but the last thing his therapist said to him struck a chord, and he knows he’s got to do something. At their final appointment, she told him that his condition is psychosomatic – a manifestation of his guilt.

‘Guilt?’ said Ben, sharply.

‘You were the last person to see your sister alive. It’s bound to have a profound and disturbing effect on a child.’

‘I’m not going to be able to come again,’ he blurted out.

She nodded. They both knew this had been coming. She wasn’t his first therapist and, in all likelihood, wouldn’t be his last.

‘Can you tell me why?’
‘It’s not working.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s not you, it’s just…’ ‘Obviously I can’t make you come here.’ She leaned forward. ‘But I want you to ask yourself a question. What would you say to her, Ben? What would you say to Tilda?’

He swallowed. ‘I don’t know what I –’

‘You don’t have to tell me. But all that suppressed stress and anxiety clearly affects you in an extraordinary way on this single day of the year. It’s known as a somatoform disorder, in which mental distress exhibits physically. In your case, the body suffers a drastic drop in temperature.’ She clasped one of her knees towards her. ‘Your sister’s death has affected you in ways that you can’t, or won’t, address. I don’t believe you have ever forgiven yourself.’

For one panicky moment he believed that she somehow knew the truth of Tilda’s death. He’d told her the very basic facts, as if somehow that would help him find peace, but there were details he couldn’t – he wouldn’t – say out loud.

‘If you can’t speak to me, then talk to Tilda. But remember, it isn’t about her. It’s about you and whatever it is you need to say to her.’ She glanced at the clock on the wall and stood. ‘I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it there. Good luck, Ben.’

He couldn’t get out of there fast enough, felt relieved to be free of her. Those expensive sessions, like all the others before them, were doomed to fail, but she’d planted a seed in his mind. The truth is, he’s bottled up his feelings for so long, and he needs to let them all out. Because every year at the stroke of midnight on July 31st, like clockwork, the cold sets in for twenty-four hours… and every year it gets worse.

It began when he was a kid, a year to the day after Tilda’s death, when he found himself rubbing the goosebumps on the back of his hands. As the years have passed, the cold has soaked ever deeper into his muscle and bone.

Ben knows that he’s got to do something, anything, because the fact is, the condition is accelerating. Every year he has to pile on more clothing and huddle closer to the fire. These days, he can barely feel his fingers or toes. His muscles are cramped. Veins glow brightly beneath his translucent blue skin.

The plan is to stay bundled in bed till eleven at night, when there will be less people around. He remembers the route into the bowels of the hotel clearly – those corridors will remain forever imprinted on his memory – and when he has done what he has come to do, he’ll go home in the morning.

The evening sky is a glorious red. Street noise burbles up from below. Tourists in shorts and tee shirts crowd the pavements. It feels strange to be back here again after all these years. When they came to this hotel with their parents, Ben and Tilda couldn’t believe how crowded and frantic and exciting the city was. The hotel was a vast playground, a maze of floors and rooms, and they loved to race along the corridors and down the curving sweep of the stairs. Into the dining room, the empty bar stacked with tables and chairs, windows flung open to let out the clinging smell of stale smoke, and into the kitchen…

The hum and throb of the kitchen has stayed with him since childhood. It’s where he’s going say sorry to his sister. He’s going to go to the place where she died, to do what he should have done years ago, to ask for her forgiveness. And if it chips away at some of the ice that has encased his heart all these years, maybe he’ll be able to forgive himself. He’ll be able to get close to people and even form relationships. He can finally learn to love himself a little bit.

Someone runs down the corridor outside his room. ‘Slow down!’ shouts a voice. A fire door slams. He can barely find his watch underneath the layers of clothing. It’s eleven o’clock. The kitchen will be empty.

The whole thing happened because she’d gotten an ice cream and he hadn’t. Ben had been too busy hiding in the empty bar to know she’d abandoned their game of hide-and-seek to go and find their parents. When he’d finally got bored of waiting for her to come find him, he emerged to discover Tilda sitting on the stairs, ice cream smeared across her mouth.

‘Where’s mine?’ he asked.
Tilda’s tiny shoulders lifted. ‘I didn’t get you one.’
‘Why not?’
‘Because I didn’t.’ She crunched into the cone. A blob of cream melted onto her sleeve, staining one of the red roses on her dress.
It was thoughtlessness on her part, no more than that, but he felt rage, a tsunami of self-pity, swell inside him. His nagging fear was always that he was second best to his sister in the eyes of his parents. When the tip of the cone disappeared into her mouth she told him to count to fifty and ran off. But he was in no mood to search fruitlessly around the hotel, and shadowed her down into the basement kitchen. Peeking round a corner, he saw his sister open the heavy door of the walk-in freezer. Saw the room’s cold breath envelop her as she stepped inside, and the heavy steel door close.

He walked to the door, his heart pounding.

Stood outside it.

When he got back to their room, his parents asked where Tilda was. He hadn’t seen her, he said, still annoyed about the ice cream. If they wanted to find her, he told himself, they could look themselves. And, besides, she’d be back soon to moan that he’d abandoned their game.

But by evening, when she still hadn’t come back and the whole of the hotel had been alerted to her disappearance, his anger turned to fear. If he admitted now that she’d gone into the freezer, his parents would be mad with him – and so he kept his mouth shut. He sat on his bed and listened to their sobs next door.

Tilda’s body was found the following morning. Curled up in the corner of the freezer, covered by a brittle skin of frost.

What would you say to her, Ben?

Ben takes the stairs to the empty reception. He stumbles along a softly lit corridor and down a final flight of stairs, his teeth chattering in his head. His thoughts are sluggish and weary. He doesn’t know how he knows the way, it’s been thirty years since he was here, he just does.

In a few short minutes he stands outside the freezer in the narrow corridor beyond the kitchen. The last time he was here he saw the red roses on Tilda’s dress fade as she vanished into the cloud of cold air. Watched the door close behind her.

When her body was taken away, his parents sat ashen-faced in the lobby, while a policewoman stayed with Ben in the dining room. He was allowed to eat as much ice cream as he wanted.

Nothing was ever the same after that. How could it be? His parents could never understand how a door could lock by itself. Tilda couldn’t even reach the light switch. She died in the dark, her little body’s warmth ebbing away, ice crystals glittering in the cold blackness around her.

With a shaking hand, Ben wrenches down the handle. The big door swings open – and a blast of freezing air billows out.

Inside, the light doesn’t work. He can just about make out the solid walls pressing in on him, steel shelves, and empty meat hooks hanging from the ceiling, but little more than that beyond the breath spiralling in front of his face.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says, to the empty space.

But there’s nothing, no response. He’d been hoping to experience a cathartic moment that would miraculously unfreeze his life and rid him of this one arctic day a year. But all he feels is that familiar chill gnawing at his bones.

A lump hardens in his throat. He says again: ‘I’m sorry.’

What Ben wants to tell her, what he so badly needs her to know, is that he was a kid and didn’t mean her any harm. He loved her more than anybody on earth. What he did was vicious and cruel, and he’s regretted it every day of his life, every single day.

The words erupt from him like hot lava from the depths of the earth. ‘I’m sorry I locked you in.’

He’s told no one, he’s kept it from everyone – not least himself. The truth of what he did has flickered like a black moth at the edge of his consciousness, and in his nightmares. He’s always felt the flutter of its ugly wings against the back of his neck.

‘I was a child, Tilda,’ he cries. ‘I beg your forgiveness.’

Quick, panicked breaths come from the darkness. A stream of vapour billows towards him.

His sluggish heart begins to pound.
He realizes, with shock, that he’s not alone.
‘I loved you, I still love you, and I’m so, so sorry. I miss you so much.’

Tears blaze a hot trail down his cheeks. He realises his own frozen breath has disappeared. Feeling pricks at his fingers and toes. He doesn’t feel so cold, dares to hope it’s over. That finally he’ll be able to live a normal life, and feel the warmth of a proper relationship. Ben holds his head in his hands and sobs. He feels so grateful, so blessed, to be given a chance to put things right.

The stream of vapour tumbles at the back of the freezer.

What would you say to her, Ben?

‘But imagine what it’s like for me.’ His voice cracks at the unfairness of it. ‘You’re gone, and I’m still here! How am I expected to live my life like this? You are gone, and I’m sorry, but I must live. Consider how I suffer!’

All those old feelings of anger and resentment, all the things he’s wanted to get off his chest for so long, rise up inside of him. He’s always been prone to tantrums, they’ve been the bane of his life, but Tilda doesn’t know what it’s like to have to live with the guilt and anxiety and isolation.

‘Let me get on with my life!’ He roars into the darkness. ‘Just let me go!’

The temperature drops sharply. The tears freeze on his cheeks. He experiences a shocking blast of cold through the layers of his clothes, and he knows she’s angry. He came here to apologise, but all he’s done is spew out his bitterness to his dear, dead sister. He realizes with a sense of panic that he is lost, and must get out of the freezer quickly.

He stumbles against the door, gropes for the handle. It won’t turn. Ben bites down on the finger of a glove and pulls it off, fumbles his phone from his pocket. The weak blue light of the screen shows the handle is frozen solid.

The phone falls from his stiff grasp. Its light winks off as it hits the floor and skitters into the darkness. Ben drops to his knees to feel for it, burning his bare palm on the icy floor, but the phone is gone, it’s gone.

He cradles his throbbing fist in the folds of his clothes. When he tries to clench it, his fingers won’t move. After a few moments, he can’t even feel it. The pain has gone, it’s just a dead weight below his wrist. His legs give way beneath him. He lays down, exhausted. All he wants to do is go to sleep.

Words slur from his blue lips. ‘I’m… sorry.’

But he knows it’s too late, the damage is done. A tear sizzles on the frozen tile and he knows that his cheek will be gnawed away by the cold once it touches the ground. He will never get up again. Shapes swim in his vision. He’s weak, giddy. His ragged breath rasps – ice coats his windpipe. Blood pumps ever more listlessly in his skull.

Squinting into the darkness, he sees the stream of vapour pumping nearer. Footsteps tap towards him on the tile. He wants to keep his eyes open, but the lids are so very heavy, he feels so very tired.

There’s a faint disturbance in the gloom as his eyes close, as if the black threads of darkness are re-arranging in front of him. With one last effort, he lifts his head and his vision is filled with a sea of red roses.

And after a lifetime, Ben finally begins to thaw.

The following day is not quite as hot, the temperature isn’t breaking any records. But it’s still a warm, fine day and the narrow corridor behind the kitchen is stifling when police arrive to interview the caretaker who discovered the body curled up on the floor inside the freezer.

‘That’s the thing,’ says the man, wiping his brow. ‘It’s not a freezer anymore, hasn’t been for years, since a little girl died in there. It’s just a storage room, these days. We use it to store paint and decorating materials.’

The dead man is wheeled out on a gurney. Beneath the layers of clothing the body is still warm to the touch, clammy with sweat, after catastrophically overheating in the hot, airless room.

 

Author’s biography:
A former radio entertainment producer — I produced Alan Carr’s Saturday night show on Radio 2 among other things — I’m now taking a bash at writing full-time. I write every day — short stories and scripts, and suchlike — because I love what I do. I’ve just completed a crime novel, and a feature film script about a heist has recently been optioned. You’ll find me on Twitter at @crimthrillfella.