After overwhelming Scotland, the glacier gouged its unstoppable way south. Only a few people remained in the desolate, frozen streets of the cities of Northern England. As the daily blizzards blew stronger and the icebergs on the River Mersey grew larger, Norman and Chrissy Leonard prepared to flee their Liverpool home. When Norman heard — The Roar — he knew the time for preparation had passed. An unspeakable dread twisted inside him at that primordial sound. The glacier was pushing more than just snow and ice ahead of it. A nightmare was coming, one Norman would not be able to wake from.
Hard Winter: The Novel (published by Omnium Gatherum, 15th February 2013) started life as the short story, Hard Winter, published by Eternal Press in August 2009. The short story began the tale but deliberately left the conclusion hanging, up to the reader to decide what might happen next. To my surprise, people wanted to read more about Norman Leonard and the dangers he faced in this icy future and so Hard Winter: The Novel was born. The early pages are a revised and extended version of the short story, but where the short story stopped, the novel continues with increasing peril, adventure and emotion. I hope you enjoy it.
My name is Norman Leonard and at one time I lived in Liverpool, North West England, with my wife Chrissy. We were among the stubborn few that stayed. The speed of the advancing ice had taken everyone by surprise and the edge of the glacier had already reached the ruins of the Forth Road Bridge, the old one, not the narrow one-lane nightmare they threw up some years back when a heavy ice storm finally snapped the suspension cables. Before long, the glacier would rumble its ponderous path down into England and pretty soon Cumbria would become as uninhabitable as Scotland had been for the last five years.
On the morning of the 18th December 2118, however, I thought we still had time to talk, to plan for our future. I was wrong. Funny how that date is forever burned into my memory. 18 December, Eighteen-Twelve, like the Overture. The year Two-One-One-Eight. Sounds more dramatic that way don’t you think? More apocalyptic. That’s a good word for it. Apocalyptic.
I wasn’t the first to be proved wrong by the ice. Way back in 2062 the nuclear winter after the oil trouble had hurried things along, forcing governments and scientists worldwide to alter their forecasts, their strategies. They’ve been getting it wrong ever since. Even now, more than fifty years later, I’ve heard the snowfall in the Sahara is still radioactive.
Chrissy and I had made a nest near the River Mersey out of bits of garbage scavenged from looted buildings, close to the Liver Building. The massive Liver Birds hung off their rooftop perch, precariously dangling over the street below. For a brief time we lived in the building itself but then the gangs moved in, selling drugs in return for possessions. Cash was worthless in our post-exodus city.
Our nest, a deserted, below pavement level coffee shop called, if I read the broken sign correctly, Café Parisienne, was not as warm or secure as our deserted office in the Liver Building had been, but we were neither strong enough nor stupid enough to argue when the gangs moved in.
8:30 in the morning. Wrapped in layers of split and damaged jackets rescued from clothes shops that hadn’t been stripped bare by looters, I dragged my legs through knee-high snow.
We’d been lucky to find enough clothing to keep us both reasonably protected from the bitter weather. When most of the population of the North of England began their migration south, back in 2110, they took whatever they could with them, whether it was theirs or not. That’s the nature of the beast, the nature of man, selfish and self-serving. I believed it to be a strength, not a weakness, a necessary trait to survive in the new, icy world.
I stood on the old ferry dock and watched the icy sludge slide by. Patches of white ice slipped through, but mostly it was grey slush, sluggish and heavy looking. The air was sharp and clear, one of the few benefits of the evacuation and reducing temperature, the centuries-old odour of industry and modern life frozen and discarded, leaving a crispness previously only found among the peaks of mountain ranges. On the far bank stood the ruins of Birkenhead, where the riots had been particularly bad and the fires that followed were allowed to rage out of control. It had taken weeks for the conflagration to finally die, leaving behind soot-blackened husks of buildings, grotesque sculptures of melted glass and metal and more dead than anyone ever cared to count.
I was still looking at the skeletal silhouette on the opposite bank when I heard a sound, a roar. It was distant, barely audible above the daily blizzard that was building around me, lifting the snow from the ground, stinging my face, but it turned something in my stomach. There was a rawness to it, a primitive power that stripped away my sophisticated modern façade and stirred deep race memories. It scared me. Perhaps it was nothing, just the wind finding a gap to squeeze through, falling ice from the edge of the not so distant glacier? But somehow I knew these were poor rationalisations and I found that, unwittingly, I now thought of it as a Roar, capitalised, giving it an importance I did not understand but that, nevertheless, felt right.
For a short while I stood there, straining to hear through the growing howl of the wind, the hiss of the snow building into higher and higher drifts against the nearby buildings, the dull rumble of the heavy water in the river. I didn’t hear the sound again and I tried to convince myself that it had, after all, been nothing unusual or unnatural. It was just the over-active imagination of a middle-aged man who’d lived too long with sharp fear and dull resignation.
I dragged myself back up Water Street, where there was no longer any distinction between pavement and road. Not that it mattered. The only cars left were those abandoned and frozen beneath the snow, burial mounds of human engineering undulating between rapidly decaying buildings.
The clumsy exit of an addict from the Liver Building as he slipped on snow packed into ice by hundreds of his fellow users startled me. I edged nervously into the deep doorway of the Cunard Building, hoping he hadn’t seen me. While I didn’t blame people for turning to drugs, that didn’t mean I liked or trusted them.
I waited until he rounded the corner and disappeared out of sight before moving. I’m sure that addicts, like the few others who had stayed in the city, were far too involved in their own problems, their own survival, to worry about anyone else but, nevertheless, they worried me. I knew it didn’t make sense. After all, there were much worse things in the world than someone high on drugs.
Chrissy was boiling snow in a pan when I got back to our nest. The fire of scavenged wood blazed brightly, ironically in an emptied-out central heating boiler we’d found in the back room of the café. The crackling wood, the drifting sparks, the smell of wood-smoke was comforting, welcoming and warm. Well, never truly warm, but it seemed that way to me. The draughts rolling down the steps and through more holes and gaps than I cared to count ensured it was always on the edge of freezing, although they did also provide ventilation for the smoke. Every cloud, as they say.
I’d cleared the steps before heading to the river that morning, but already they were covered with snow and I trod cautiously as I descended. Out of habit I flicked the light switch on and, even after so long without electricity, was momentarily surprised when the café remained dark.
In reality the cutting of the power hadn’t really made that much of a difference. There had been no TV or radio for some time. The streetlamps had broken long before, and once the bulb in your own light blew where would you get a replacement? Any that hadn’t been looted had been crushed under foot in the rush to leave. If I’d known more about electricity, about DIY, about anything really, I might have been able to do something, make something, but I worked as a clerk in a solicitor’s office and paid other people to do my manual work. I preferred to be ignorant rather than make an effort. I have a lot of regrets about my life before the freeze. I guess we all do.
“Any more ice in the river this morning?”
Chrissy looked up and smiled as she spoke and, as always, I felt immensely grateful that she was with me. In so many ways she was my opposite, seeing the good in people where I only saw the bad, always finding something to smile about. Her cheerfulness lifted my natural scowl and eased the worry lines on my forehead. Sometimes I felt that Chrissy was all that kept me from becoming one of the many suicides we had seen as the cold tightened its grip on the city.
“Maybe a little more, but nothing to worry about. There’s still time before we have to move. What’s for breakfast?”
Chrissy lifted the stick she used for stirring from the pan. Limp, unidentified leaves dripped from the end, dug out from the snow further along the river. Trial and error, and several days of stomach cramps and sickness, meant we were good at recognising edible from poisonous but neither of us could give a name to the plants we ate.
“Last night’s soup.”
“At least it’s hot.”
I walked to her and put my arm briefly around her waist, barely able to reach though she had never been fat. The reason was simple and practical. We both dressed in several layers of clothes, some our own, most left behind by others. Chrissy’s outer coat, a big fur-lined monstrosity (morals be damned, it was too cold), I’d stripped off the frozen body of an old woman I found while digging through a drift looking for wood. I never told Chrissy that, of course. She thought I’d found it in an abandoned shop and I wasn’t about to tell her otherwise.
With all those layers of clothes we looked like two sumo wrestlers, but I still thought Chrissy was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. It took more than shapeless clothes to hide that. Not that there’d been any sex since the cold really settled in. We’d had a healthy enough sex life before, but freezing temperatures, constant fear and a reluctance to allow any skin beyond the bare essentials to feel the sting of the icy air were very effective anaphrodisiacs. We loved each other. Sex just wasn’t an issue anymore.
We hadn’t thrown off everything from our life before the freeze began. After all, we weren’t savages. It was true that we had no bath or shower, but we scrubbed our hands and faces as best we could with hot melted snow each morning and night. No doubt we smelled, both we and our unchanging clothes, but I can’t say we noticed it.
“I was looking over at Birkenhead,” I said, easing myself down onto an old rug we’d dragged from the remains of a market stall. “It’s sad to see so little left of the place.”
“They should never have rioted. If only they hadn’t been so impatient.”
I sighed. This was one of the few subjects where Chrissy and I disagreed. Most of the major towns and cities had riots, not just Birkenhead, but Chrissy, true to her nature, believed people had been too hasty, that they should have trusted our government more.
“They would have sent help if people had waited. They wouldn’t have left people stranded.”
“But Chrissy, they sent army units to evacuate the people they deemed important: local politicians, judges, policemen, scientists. The rest of us were left to face the cold.”
“They advised people to leave. Of course, they took the people they needed to keep the government going, otherwise there’d be anarchy.”
“There is anarchy! They abandoned us, cut off the power a week after the evacuation was announced, stopped supply trucks getting through because they considered it a waste of resources. They left people to die.”
“The government wouldn’t just leave us…”
“We don’t have a government anymore, at least not any kind of democratic one. All we’ve got is a small group of people hiding away somewhere who are determined to survive and flourish while the rest of us freeze and starve. No wonder people rioted.”
“I’m sorry Norman but I just don’t believe that. The government is doing the best it can and, as soon as it’s possible, they’ll send help for us. People were being unreasonable. Expecting more than was possible. There should never have been any riots.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” I conceded, unwilling to prolong the argument. It was something we would never agree on. Chrissy was far too nice and generous a person to believe the worst of others. “Maybe they’ll send help as soon as it’s possible.”
“Of course they will. Everyone just needs to be patient.”
I smiled. There wasn’t much else I could do in the face of such optimistic faith in others.
Fortunately, and despite her trusting nature, Chrissy was not naive. When the riots had hit Liverpool we hid ourselves away, avoiding the mobs, the looters as best we could, delaying our own evacuation to avoid the crush of the crowds. We heard by word of mouth how thousands died during that time, so I believe we made the right choice.
I decided not to tell Chrissy about The Roar. I was probably making more out of it than necessary anyway. It was just my imagination and I didn’t want her worrying about something that was probably nothing. What difference would it make if I told her?
“How long are we going to stay here?” she asked, moving the conversation deftly away from unpleasant memories.
“We’re safe, we have food,” I glanced at the boiling pot, “sort of. We don’t freeze. I don’t think we should risk travelling just yet.”
“But sooner or later the glacier will reach us. We can’t stay then.”
“It’s a big risk going out there, not knowing where our next shelter or food will come from.”
“We’ve seen groups of people heading out the city before now. We could join with one of them. It’d be safer with a few of us.”
“No. Chrissy, you know my feelings on that. How could we trust them? How do we know they wouldn’t kill us in the night? I’ve heard rumours that people have turned to cannibalism.”
“Not everyone’s evil, Norman. We’re not the only good people left.”
I said nothing, not willing to risk our lives on the goodness or otherwise of strangers. If I was honest with myself, I wasn’t so sure I wouldn’t do exactly the same to any strangers that joined us. ‘Dog eat dog’ was probably more literally true now than it had ever been.
I couldn’t help wishing Chrissy was more realistic about the likely nature of other survivors.
We heard the sound first, a great roaring, thundering express train of a sound, deafening and painful.
“What the hell is that?” Chrissy called, an edge of panic creeping into her soft voice.
I’d been shovelling the freshly fallen snow away from our doorway and stood, shovel poised above the thick drift, staring towards the river.
“I don’t know.” I had to shout to hear myself above the noise, growing louder and deeper with each second. I felt panic clench in my chest.
Dropping the shovel, I grabbed Chrissy’s hand.
“Oh my God!”
A great rising, rushing wall of slush and ice poured over the banks of the Mersey, rising above the tops of all but the highest buildings. It seemed unreal, the creation of a CGI artist in an office somewhere in Hollywood, too solid to be made of the same stuff I watched moving past me every morning, too tall to be the flat, lazy water that filled the river.
We stared, open mouthed, as it hit the Liver Building, the impact shaking the ground beneath our feet. Above the roar of the water, we heard windows smash, the wood of the great doors cracking, torn from the brick surrounding them. Crashing over the rooftop, the wave lifted the Liver Birds from their perch and tossed them on the angry, spitting surface of the water. We stood, unable to move, our feet frozen by fear as the river emptied into the surrounding streets, crossing The Strand in seconds, blocks of ice gouging a path, sludge and debris and water rumbling between buildings that shook and splintered in its wake.
By the time we ran, both of us shouting, screaming, still holding hands, we were already splashing through the edge of the approaching disaster. Within seconds the swirling waters snatched our feet from under us, and Chrissy’s fingers were dragged from mine.
I clawed against the flow of rushing water, desperately trying to drag myself forward, spitting out mouthfuls of the river, swallowing more, reaching in hope for the hand that was no longer there. Through stinging, blurred eyes I watched the bundle of clothes bouncing away from me, impossibly distant, ruthlessly tossed and battered by the fury of the flood. It barely seemed possible. That couldn’t be my Chrissy, lost among the littering of wreckage from the waterfront. She was my life. We were meant to be together forever, not ripped apart by an impossible wave. Any minute now she would grab my hand and we’d swim to safety. She had to!
I cried out, screaming my despair, my loss, into the smothering roar of the water still flooding the city. In that moment, that outpouring of anger and grief, I accepted the impossible, that Chrissy had truly gone, torn out of my life by the uncaring, brutal power of the river. I felt my will to live drain from me. There no longer seemed any reason to fight.
The wall loomed ahead of me. I knew the current was driving me towards it, intent on destroying me as it had Chrissy. I closed my eyes, accepting the approach of death because I had nothing left to live for. The constant roar of the river grew muffled, fading behind the sound of my own blood rushing through my body. Time seemed irrelevant, an inconvenience that carried me forward with casual malice. I expected no white light, no tunnel, no loved ones waiting for me. Death was the end, and without Chrissy that was all I desired. An end.
There was crushing impact, intense pain, then nothing.
I guess I was lucky I didn’t drown, or smother in the thick, black, icy mud that the river left behind in its slow withdrawal back within its banks.
I didn’t feel lucky.
When I regained consciousness, my head and ribs winning the battle with the rest of my body for sharp, almost unbearable pain, my first thought was Chrissy. Chrissy, pulled away from me by the merciless power of the water. Chrissy, lost somewhere, maybe injured, calling for me and I wasn’t there for her. Chrissy, beautiful, wonderful Chrissy, quite probably lying in the mud, dead!
My scream of anguish, of pain and loss, echoed through the empty Liverpool streets. There was no shame or embarrassment in that shout, that bellow of emotion. I had lost the woman I loved. Nothing I’d ever felt compared to the agony, the gut-wrenching loss of that moment.
I cried. I sat there in the middle of a street I didn’t recognise, not knowing how far the wave had carried me, and cried.
How could I go on? Why should I go on?
Knowing that Chrissy would be there alongside me when I woke was often the only thought that made the black, freezing nights bearable. When I stood on the ferry dock seemingly alone I always knew she was waiting for me back at the café. Now, for the first time in my life, I was truly alone. What could possibly make such loneliness worth suffering? What was my life worth without Chrissy?
I feared the answer was ‘nothing’.
I’ve no idea what time it was, nor do I know how long I was helpless with grief, racked with sobbing, but darkness had fallen, when I finally regained enough control to start thinking with some semblance of clarity.
I said earlier that I guess I was lucky. I didn’t realise at the time just how lucky I was. The floodwater, despite its power, had left me more or less fully clothed. I’d lost a layer or two, perhaps, both gloves and my woolly hat, but the majority of my body was relatively warm, if wet. Nevertheless, I had problems.
As I lay unconscious in the mud, and for most of the time I’d sat there awake and crying, my right hand had remained buried, covered with thick, icy sludge. I couldn’t feel my fingers. I felt physically sick when I looked and saw the ends had turned black, the skin beginning to peel, hard slivers curling away from the pink pulp beneath.
I didn’t know a lot about frostbite, but the little I knew knotted my stomach. If I hadn’t been so worn out, so exhausted, I think I would have panicked, but that required energy I just did not have.
I needed to find somewhere to rest, to sleep if possible. Sharp stabbing pains from my ribs dragged an involuntary shout from me as I pushed myself to my feet. I staggered, dizzy, my head pounding, and struggled towards the nearest buildings, holding my frostbitten hand at the wrist as if that would somehow stop the condition from spreading.
A McDonalds finally gave me the shelter I needed. The interior of the fast-food restaurant was little more than wreckage, thick with mud, looking and smelling evil enough to keep me out. But the broken glass of the doorway and the cracked frame provided some cover from the night wind that grew stronger as the last light of the sun bled into the cold, wet, shining sludge of the streets.
I gave little thought to what might have caused the wave. Perhaps parts of the glacier cracked and fell into the water, causing an effect like throwing a pebble into a pond? Perhaps it was an accumulation of factors, of weather and freeze and god knows what else. Perhaps there was no natural cause at all. It didn’t really seem important. What was important was the devastation it had brought to the city and to my life.
Sleep was fitful and unsatisfying as I tried to find some warmth, some comfort, curled up inside what remained of the restaurant entrance. At some point in the middle of the bitter night my right arm began to ache, dull at first then growing sharp and all but unbearable. I was sweating, despite the wind-blown snow rising in drifts at my back. My face burned. My lips were dry and cracking as I opened my mouth, a low moan pushing past my swollen tongue. Although my arm stabbed pain through me, my whole body ached, every muscle, every joint. Only the years of surviving the freeze and a now instinctive fear of hypothermia stopped me from ripping my coats off, desperate to cool my boiling skin. I had enough sense left to know I was sick, very sick.
The frostbite. It had to be. What else could cause this pain, this illness? I had no doubt. My frostbitten fingers were spreading their blackness through my body. It was almost tangible, a solid ball of dark decay rolling up my arm, across my shoulders. Eventually it would reach my heart, and I would die.
Unless I stopped it first.
Driven by panic, by pain and fever, I pushed at the interior door, trying to force it against the mud that was quickly solidifying behind it. I had to get inside. Inside, I would find what I needed. I heaved my whole weight against the glass. A crack snapped and lengthened. The door edged slightly inwards. Eyes blurred with sweat, right arm and shoulder throbbing, chest labouring, I threw myself once more against the door. Pain shot through me, panicking me even further.
The frame shifted, but not enough. Then the crack in the glass spread, grew, multiplied. The pane of glass shattered.
I fell inwards, crying out as shards of glass, jutting teeth-like from the frame, ripped at my layers of clothing. One less layer and the glass would have cut me. The icy mud, although hardening, gave enough under my weight to cushion the fall, saving me from adding broken arms and legs to my catalogue of injuries. Nevertheless, the agony that shot from my ribs, my chest, tore a growl of pain from me quite unlike anything I had heard from my lips before. The sound was animal, desperate, pitiful. I had almost certainly broken some ribs when the flood had slammed me into the wall, but for now they would have to look after themselves.
Dragging myself to my feet with the help of tipped-over tables, I staggered into the dark mess, tripping over chair legs that projected at all angles from the mud. The foul mix of swamp and decaying food made me gag. I barely held back the vomit that rose in my throat. . At least with the extreme cold there were no flies buzzing about.
I tried to dig my way around the counter, but too much mud had piled against the walls, and I wasn’t about to attempt to climb over. The broken remains of drink dispensers and cash registers looked to be painful obstacles. Fortunately, the passage of the flood through the main restaurant area had punched large holes into the wood panelling at the front of the counter. Gouging more wounds into my outer layer of clothing, I was able to slowly, painfully crawl through.
Feeling light-headed and curiously detached, I ransacked the kitchen, racing against what I was certain was approaching unconsciousness and death. I found what I needed half buried in the mud coating the sink bowl. A knife. Long, sharp, serrated. I’ve no idea what it would originally have been used to cut, but it was perfect for my needs.
There are moments when you can’t give yourself time to think, to reconsider or question your actions. I had known what I needed to do when I broke in. If I hesitated now, I would probably chicken out.
I slammed my right hand down onto the kitchen counter, blackened fingers splayed, the knife clutched tightly in my left fist. Both the counter and the blade were thick with mud.
I lay the serrated blade across the base of my fingers, closed my eyes, and began to saw.
Perhaps I was too cold, too numb, too in shock to truly feel it, but the pain, sharp and burning as it was, was not as strong as I’d feared. It was barely more intense than the ache it was trying to remove.
Blood spurted, spluttered from the ragged wounds as I pulled and pushed, too afraid to stop. I cried. I screamed. As the metal teeth scratched across the bone I almost lost my conviction, but I gripped the knife tighter, pulled and pushed harder and the teeth dug into the bone and then through it.
The blade reached the kitchen counter with an oddly satisfying chunk, reminding me of Chrissy chopping carrots in our own kitchen before the freeze.
Sobbing from memories more than pain, I stared down at the black, dead things that had once been my fingers, floating in the dark, swirling mixture of blood and mud. I saw my thumb, black and decaying, and lifted the knife once more.
Just one more to do.
I retained enough common sense to make unhygienic but effective use of the icy mud to help stop the bleeding and then bandaged my hand with towel from a roll high enough on the wall to have avoided the floodwater.
A heavy food preparation unit remained upright and, despite being half buried, was only slightly cracked and a little unstable. Quickly I swept the debris off the surface and climbed up. At least I was out of the mud. I might be able to sleep without waking up face down and unable to breathe.
Lying on my side, curled up into an infantile, foetal ball, I closed heavy eyelids and tried to imagine the pain in my body receding. I slept or perhaps passed out would be a more accurate description.
At some point in the night I heard, or dreamed I heard, The Roar. It sounded closer.