The storm began lightly enough, but its flakes soon fattened as the night came down, falling thicker and faster, until the air was an endlessly shifting fabric of black and white, and every edge and surface rounded with snow. It was a soundless coup. Within the hour, cars were struggling to find traction on the town’s steep roads; within two, buses were abandoned by the side of the road, and lines of traffic fumed in spinning, herring-bone jams through the city centre, drivers out and arguing the angle, as animated by the storm as the ragged bands of pedestrians shrieking and picking their way home.
As the night went on the storm increased its grip. The cars at the side of the road were gradually subsumed, every motionless object merging with its neighbour beneath the steady white mantle. The smallest detail was transformed – the spokes of a bicycle wheel, railing points, a spider’s web, the upper edge of a handle – the leading edge of every line delicately picked out in white; whilst above us, reaching up like monstrous filter feeders, the branches of the trees, heavy and ragged with snow.
An exhausting night. Even the simplest job almost impossible. At one point the ambulance slid to a halt on a road with a difficult camber; it took half an hour to get moving again, and that was only because the people from the houses either side came out with brooms and shovels to help.
‘I got these clip-on spikes for my boots,’ said one of the men, snugly wrapped in a quilted jacket and bearskin hat. The ambulance spun forward and I fell over. He helped me up. ‘I expect they’ve sold out now, though,’ he added as I brushed the snow off my trousers.
Seven jobs in twelve hours – falls in the street, falls at home, a user smacked out on heroin collapsed at a bus stop, a man hit by a sliding car – each one perilously close to our last. We approached the end of the shift cold and wet and dispirited.
We were both wondering how we would make it home.
‘Good luck, Spence,’ said Frank as he threw his bags into his car. I was still pushing the snow off the roof of my battered old Peugeot 205. His house was just the other side of town; mine was fifteen miles away, up country.
‘Thanks mate. I’m going to need it.’
But earlier in the year I’d made it through. I was confident I’d be okay.
Just a mile from the station, the temperature warning and stop light came on.
I pushed my hat further up on my head and glared at the dashboard. No, come on, not now. I decided to drive on and see if the lights would go out. They stayed on. I drove further. I could pull over at this service station and let it cool down. But then it might not start again. I passed the station. This was a clear stretch of road; the further I went, the further I had to walk back to any of my friends who lived in town, and the nearer I got to the next service station along the route. I gripped the steering wheel tighter and peered through the windscreen. I tried to fool the dashboard into thinking I wasn’t bothered. I glanced down without moving my head. The lights were still on. Stop. But I had to get home. I had to sleep. I decided to press on as far as I could. There was a truck in front and behind; I was in a slow moving convoy of vehicles struggling north along the main route; if I stopped now it would be a long, cold wait in the drifts at the side of the road, or a dangerous walk back to safety. I drove on, shouting encouragement at the car. The lights stayed on. Stop. I was almost at the next service station now. But I was so desperate with lack of sleep, as whacked out as the man we’d dragged out of the snow at the bus stop earlier. Something like madness came over me. I didn’t care if the car exploded. I didn’t care if the whole thing went up in flames. I pictured myself, lit up like a sparkler, spitting and hissing through the snow storm. I drove on. The lights stayed on. Stop. But I was in open country. If I pulled over now I really would be in danger. I gripped the wheel and drove on, sliding from side to side through the rutted ice pathways of the road. I needed to make up some time. I needed to take a shortcut. I came to a lane that I knew would be difficult but insanity had dropped before my eyes like the blades of a plough; by force of will I would make it up this lane, make it home. I turned left into an ice tunnel, the ceiling a frozen wave, surfing through the tube, swearing and slapping the wheel, skipping across the runnels of ice and skittering through the lying snow like a rapid fox in the wilderness. I made it to the end of the lane. The car was filling with smoke, a smell of burning rubber and oil; it was probably coming from me, the vapours of my madness. I didn’t care if the car exploded around me, so long as it left me with four wheels and something to steer them by - I had to get home. I skidded out onto a clearer road and carried on. There were no other cars. No one was that crazy. If I piled into the side or swerved into a ditch that would be it for me. But I had to get home and I had to sleep. I had to. This shift had to end in whatever way was left to me. A mile to go. The car was poisonous and I opened a window. I tore off my hat and threw it behind me. Half a mile. The engine was stalling. I skipped down the high street like a meteor coming to earth. Five hundred yards. A hundred. The house. The house. The engine burbled like a neglected kettle and suddenly cut out; I had just enough momentum to coast the last fifty yards and stuff the smoking bonnet into a heap of snow. I grabbed my bags and rolled out in a cloud of blue grey smoke, taking down great lungfuls of the beautiful, beautiful, crystalline air.
A Viking burial for the poor little pug.
I was home.